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The Lost City (3/10)

by Tony Medley

If there was ever a poster child for actors not directing their own films, this is it. A good story by Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who became one of the most important voices of opposition against the Castro regime, the film follows the bittersweet tale of one family, three brothers and a beautiful woman whose fates are dramatically intertwined with that of a nation caught up in revolutionary turmoil in the late 1950s. Who could ask for a better tale to tell?

Actually, a wonderful movie was made about the exact same subject, Havana in 1958, by Director Sydney Pollack in 1990, the Robert Redford “Havana.” Remembering how much I enjoyed that film, I was really looking forward to this one. I didn’t take into consideration the ability of Andy Garcia to take a great, action-packed story and turn it into a slow, boring dirge.

Fico Fellove (Garcia), the owner of Havana’s classiest music nightclub, El Tropico, struggles to hold together his family and his club as his nation is descending into the turmoil of Castro’s takeover of Cuba. Garcia appears as a pale imitation of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in “Casablanca” (1942). Like Rick, he is the owner of a popular night club. He dresses in a white dinner jacket. He walks around being hospitable to all his guests, who include political powers in the city. However, that’s where Garcia’s Fico and Bogey’s Rick part company. Although Rick looked disinterested in politics and phlegmatic, he wasn’t. Garcia’s Fico looks so disinterested it’s amazing he remains awake.

What I found amazing is that even though lots of people die, and we see some of them being executed with shots to the head, there is absolutely no emotion created in the viewing audience. Garcia has presented his characters in such a way that nobody cares about anybody, even Fico. Some of the characters die the way they used to die in inexpert Hollywood B films of the ‘30s, but just falling down. Maybe there was just too much for Garcia to think about to get people to die in a way that would indicate, well, violent death.

I didn’t know Batista, the dictator overthrown by Castro, but the way Garcia portrays him is ludicrous. This guy couldn’t run a kindergarten, much less a country. Poor Dustin Hoffman makes another ineffectual cameo as Myer Lansky. Worse, Bill Murray appears as an unnamed gag writer. Bill has more of a personality than he has in his last couple of films, but he’s still singularly unfunny.

It’s generally a mistake for a writer to also direct because the result is that virtually nothing that’s shot is cut. How can a director cut a scene he wrote? Obviously he generally can’t. Apparently the same is true for an actor because Garcia tells this story in 143 excruciatingly slow minutes. To make a movie this dull out of a revolution, of all things, takes a certain type of talent.

The only thing I liked about the film was Waldemar Kalinowski’s production design, which takes full advantage of the color, texture, and natural elements of the Caribbean including the crisp, clear light; the palm trees; the brilliant azure ocean with its breathtaking beaches; and the alternately romantic, violent nature of the moon.  The filmmakers also showcase the architectural styles that were prevalent in 1950s Havana, from Spanish Colonial and Neo-Classical, to Streamline Deco and Moderne.  The rich botanical splendor in the city interiors and exteriors is also abundantly evident as are the open majestic countryside, tobacco farms, cane fields and sierras.  Costume designer Deborah Scott brings the music, dance, and people to vibrant life through the characters’ elegant, colorful, and sophisticated attire.

If you want to see a good, entertaining movie about Havana, circa 1958, better to rent “Havana,” than waste your money on this turkey.

April 14, 2006