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Home Movies: ‘Hunger,’ Steven Soderbergh's ‘Che’ Get Criterion Makeovers

Hunger is a study in cinematic minimalism, and that, finally, is what lends it such blunt force. It follows the final six weeks in the life of Irish Republican Army militant Bobby Sands, who helped organize the seven-month hunger strike that would claim his life in 1981, after 66 days. But this is not a hagiography of Sands, or a shot at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose reaction to his passing was at best unfeeling. First-time filmmaker Steve McQueen’s quietly devastating drama is a meditation on the depths of degradation men will endure in pursuit of the respect they think they deserve.

For Sands (Michael Fassbender), who was considered a martyr by some and an irresponsible troublemaker by others, the capacity to endure had reached its limit. Or had it? Here, he argues that suicide by starvation is not surrender but a means to an end – in this case, that IRA prisoners be recognized by Parliament as political detainees. (Thatcher dismissed the hunger strike as a publicity stunt, though publicity and politics are hardly mutually exclusive.) Ultimately, Sands got what he wanted: The British government, however tacitly, gave the prisoners the rights they demanded, and today there is peace in Northern Ireland. Sands just didn’t live to see it.

If that takes anything away from his sacrifice, McQueen and co-author Enda Walsh are loath to suggest it. Yet the possibility isn’t ignored. During the movie’s most dialogue-heavy sequence, Sands debates the wisdom of his strike with a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham, of The Wind That Shakes the Barley) who objects to the futility of his protest. Change requires action, he argues, and dead men can’t act. If Sands had lived long enough to be freed – he was 27 when the hunger strike began – one wonders what he might have accomplished.

Elsewhere, McQueen eschews dialogue altogether, preferring to depict, in excruciating detail, the treatment of IRA prisoners at Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, the formal name concealing a cesspool. It was there that inmates were coupled together in glorified closets, without clothing, beds or toilets. They lived, and sometimes died, in puddles of their own refuse, as the director amply illustrates in scenes that are not for the squeamish. Men are beaten, forcibly cleaned up and then tossed back into their cells, some of which are literally caked with feces.

Do not pity them, Thatcher tells us in two archived radio dispatches, for they are criminals. It’s easy to see her point – the IRA did not shrink from murder – but not as justification for the torture condoned at the Maze. To witness the punishment that Sands and others endured is agonizing, and on this point alone, Hunger seems to choose sides. McQueen’s camera merely observes, but it lingers tellingly on the most gut-wrenching spectacles, daring us not to be moved. The silence is deafening.

As Sands, Fassbender (Fish Tank) was required to lose an astonishing 40 pounds off his already gaunt frame. He captures well the righteous rage of a man married to his convictions, one who believes a life without dignity is no life at all. The performance is blistering, but watching a man disintegrate before our eyes – McQueen includes a passage graphically explaining the ravaging effects of starvation – is perhaps the movie’s most harrowing contribution.

McQueen is a visual artist, and it shows. For all the savagery on screen, his images are masterfully conceived and endowed, in some cases, with a sort of poetry. It is during Sands’ final days, as he drifts in and out of consciousness, that the director finally breaks with reality, with the kind of grace Julian Schnabel exhibited in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Hunger is a very different film, but in its depiction of a life given up in the name of idealism, however naïve or wrongheaded, it resonates with as much passion and force.

EXTRAS: Released first at Cannes in 2008, Hunger required little restoration, but Criterion's high-definition digital transfer remains a work of beautiful precision. The supplemental materials, including interviews with McQueen and Fassbender and a BBC program about the political fallout from the hunger strikes, are illuminating if less than overwhelming.

***

Che
Yes, it's long – four-and-a-half hours long, to be exact. Perhaps director Steven Soderbergh felt compelled to go the extra mile in documenting Che Guevara's remarkable run as a Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader, or in capturing an overlooked, career-best performance by Benicio del Toro in the title role. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Che, presented here in Criterion's generous two-part, three-disc collection, could have benefitted from a little more time in the editing room. As is, Part One, which chronicles Che's role in toppling the corrupt Batista regime in Cuba, provides the most insight into the enigmatic political warrior who began as a doctor. Part Two, in which he attempts a failed coup in Bolivia, is informative but ultimately redundant. Soderbergh seems to be repeating himself – the movie's reverence, however justified, grows tiresome – though it draws power from del Toro's sustained brilliance. Joining him as the biggest star of Criterion's impressive package are the EXTRAS: deleted scenes, revealing commentaries, interviews with cast, crew and historians, and End of a Revolution, an engrossing documentary shot in Bolivia shortly after Che's execution in 1967.

***



Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Overlooked in the rush to proclaim Coraline and Up last year's most exhilirating animated adventures, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is every bit as handsome and smart, and raises an obvious question: Why hasn't Mr. T done more big-screen voice work? Joined here by an exuberant cast featuring Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris and Bruce Campbell, the onetime A-Team star helps bring Phil Lord and Chris Miller's inventive take on the classic children's book to life in style. EXTRAS: The single-disc DVD is woefully skimpy, offering only a commentary track from Lord, Miller and Hader, but the "super-sized" two-DVD and Blu-ray editions are an embarrassment of riches, with extended scenes, interactive behind-the-scenes featurettes and even a food-fight game raucous enough for kids and playful adults.

***

Gamer
The world's most unstoppable killer (Gerard Butler) aims to take down its most powerful man (Michael C. Hall, of Showtime's Dexter) in Gamer, the latest tribute to carnal excess from Crank masterminds Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. The movie, which essentially updates Stephen King's Running Man for the virtual-reality age, has interesting (if not always fresh) ideas about a future dominated by unchecked savagery and vicarious living through technology, and it's neither boring nor pretty. Hall, as the mind-controlling megalomaniac who surpasses Bill Gates as the richest techno geek alive, is amusingly flamboyant – a far cry from the emotionally muted characters he plays in Dexter and HBO's now-defunct Six Feet Under – and, armed with a quirky Southern accent, steals more than a couple scenes from reliable strongman Butler. EXTRAS include a commentary track and two making-of featurettes, during which Neveldine and Taylor explain their unorthodox filming techniques (including cameramen on rollerblades) and reveal that Butler, not Jason Statham, almost starred in the Crank franchise.

***

Saw VI
After the successive disappointments of IV and V, I didn’t rush to an opening-night screening of the newest Saw, but I remained curious enough to give it a chance. Did I expect a gory slice of wish fulfillment in which famed killer Jigsaw’s disciples borrow a page from Michael Moore’s playbook by targeting health-insurance profiteers and predatory lenders? In a word, no. That Saw VI surprises on this count hardly makes for sophisticated satire, but director Kevin Greutert’s stab at social relevance breathes new life into a series that has lately lost its raison d’être. The movie is shot in the drabbest of tones, and Costas Mandylor’s colorless detective once again returns to carry out Jigsaw’s dirty work. But the tension missing from recent installments is back, thanks to an inventive narrative that manages to tie up the ever-evolving saga’s loose ends. EXTRAS include an explanation of the movie's deadliest traps, two audio commentaries and, somewhat surprisingly, a bonus copy of the 2004 original, loaded with special features all its own.