Friday, July 28, 2006

Film Review #51: THE LOST CITY ******** (2006) *** Director: Andy Garcia *** Cast: Andy Garcia, Inés Sastre, Nestor Carbonell, Bill Murray *** Who can blame Andy Garcia if he got the bends? When it all finally came together, his window for location shooting of The Lost City in the Dominican Republic was just 35 days and his budget under $10 million. Garcia’s passionate elegy to mid-century Havana’s cultural, political and musical upheaval, The Lost City, was an idea he’d nursed since 1985 – the same year he says he started making his living as an actor and could afford epic movie dreams. For the last 16 years he collaborated with expatriate Cuban writer G. Cabrera Infante on the script. Also star and director, Garcia produced the film score’s nearly 40 songs and nightclub production numbers, wrote five of them and then performed some of the music on-screen. *** Despite anticipatory feature profiles of Garcia last spring, reviews of the film were luke-warm. Complaints were sundry. These ranged from the film’s perhaps self-indulgent length (143 minutes), to Garcia’s own acting, to whether Bill Murray’s tart role belonged there at all, to the film’s eye-wideningly irreverent portrait of Che Guevara. The soundtrack alone drew raves and was scheduled for CD release well before the film itself. *** Now The Lost City’s DVD release is announced for August 8th. And you know what? The Lost City has been moseying along, holding its own for all its flaws. In pretty much its last week of commercial release after a three-month run, The Lost City is on-screen in 24 cities across the US. *** It will be worth catching on DVD for reasons beyond its obvious visual loveliness and soundtrack. These would include Infante and Garcia’s gauntlet-provoking take on Che Guevara, the film’s use of women, and Garcia’s highly physical acting and directing, all of which support The Lost City as a film as much about memory as history. *** The Lost City covers the years 1958-61, during which several factions waged resistance against military dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had run Cuba since 1933 and reportedly murdered some 20,000 people. Fidel Castro’s guerillas entered Havana in January 1959 after 25 months of fighting. Andy Garcia was six years old when he and his family left for Miami in 1961, apparently getting very little out past Castro’s airport guards. The film portrays this time via the fictional Fellove family saga, which centers on three brothers and their differing paths. *** Eldest brother Fico (Garcia) presides over the nightclub La Tropico, echoing both Casablanca’s Rick and last year’s The White Countess. Oddly, memory tempts me to recall The Lost City starting with an elaborate dance number at Fico’s club (with the fastest hip shimmy this side of David Lachapelle’s dance doc Rize). Actually the film’s opening titles first overlay a Batista security officer’s abrupt execution, performed in the name of the shadowy resistance fighter “Pelligra.” This turns out to be middle brother Luis (Nestor Carbonell). Luis is later assassinated in a breath-stopping scene on a windy roof-top amid bright white sheets on a clothes-line. *** Luis is pivotal to the story’s arc and resonance, a lost brother of such haunting stature that Castro and company always fall short. Fico engages a vivid but short-lived romance with Luis’ widow Aurore (Inés Sastre), eventually leaving her for New York City at his parents’ insistence as Castro’s reforms accelerate. Aurore joins the regime. The youngest Fellove, gullible, surly Ricardo (Enrique Murciano of Without a Trace), simply rides into the hills one day, correctly trusting Fidel’s men to find him. Fico tangles with US gangster Myer Lansky (Dustin Hoffman), loses his nightclub, and enjoys an enduring friendship with an unnamed oddball writer played by Bill Murray. *** Historical events often anchor The Lost City’s abundant plot. Luis’ participation in a doomed effort to storm Batista’s palace parallels that of March 1958. Castro’s land reforms did nationalize the large plantations; here, Ricardo blithely informs his uncle of the confiscation of land that is clearly the source of the Fellove’s wealth, causing the uncle’s collapse. Fidel and a large contingent did visit the United Nations in 1960, making plausible Aurore’s midnight visit to Fico in a New York City diner. *** But The Lost City’s striking treatment of revered lefty icon Ernesto Che Guevara stands out. At least Garcia and Infante – a disillusioned former cultural attaché for Fidel – are even-handed; their Batista is a chilling sadist. We meet beautiful Che (Jsu Garcia) casually shooting wounded Batista foot soldiers where they lay in the dirt as he passes. The film presents Che’s role at La Cabana prison where he supervised executions of Batista’s police. One is a boyhood friend of Fico’s. Che lets Fico to beg for his friend’s life, then enjoys telling him the man’s already dead. *** This has been a banner year for Che’s memory, given Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, the retrospective exhibit of Che images at Manhattan’s International Center for Photography, and on-going gallery screenings of Leandro Katz’s remarkable 1997 short video about photographer Freddy Alborta, whose pictures documented Che’s body on display following his murder in Bolivia. Reconsideration of Che to this degree recalls the rocky fate of Jonathan Demme’s 2003 documentary The Agronomist, about Jean Dominique, assassinated founder of Radio Haiti. Soured on Aristide, the journalist confronts him on-camera and on-air about corruption within his party, Lavalas. This unflattering scene has gone largely unappreciated among what might have been a natural audience. *** That Garcia personifies Cuba as a woman – to be wooed, seduced, fought over, cherished, lost – makes his movie’s Che more disturbing. Che aggressively, intimately kisses Aurora at the garden party when Fico wants her to leave. And Fico, an avid photographer, is so mad to get Aurore’s close-up image on film that he follows her waist-deep into the surf at the beach – a microcosm of Garcia’s own abiding need to capture this receding era on celluloid, and of Fico’s “home movies” when he’s alone in snowy New York City. An especially magnificent sequence cross-cuts Luis’s dance-like assault on Batista’s palace – leaps up and down staircases – with Fico filming dancing women at his club. For brief flashes, Fico appears to be present at Batista’s palace, filming his brother’s head-long dash. As for Aurore, she finally prefers Che’s honorific title for her, Widow of the Revolution, to feeling decorative though prized – “useless.” (So might a country’s people.) *** Well, who can really blame her? Except for those who entertain on-stage, The Lost City’s women have little to do except cluster down the hall while their men discuss and decide. One female character at the Fellove household – perhaps a baby sister, perhaps Ricardo’s wife – never speaks at all. The most thick-headed aspects of Fidel’s regime appear in the person of a soldier (the fine actor Elizabeth Pena is an incongruous role) who tells Fico which musical instruments his club’s band may use. With revolutionary logic, she reviles the saxophone, based on what its inventors, the Belgians, did in the Congo. *** We should remember that this is a film emotionally based on memory and what a six-year-old lost. The Lost City relies heavily on the physical expression of emotion in, for many, a non-familiar culture. Greatly admired stage performers at Fico’s club include the old and the pot-bellied as well as the young and trim. The Fellove men are extravagantly affectionate with each other, hugging, cradling heads, stroking, embracing, kissing often. Ricardo shambles and lurches, mirroring the ill fit of the regime’s demands. Particularly in Fico, moments of great physical restraint and stillness offset great, fluid physicality. These extremes, derided by some as Garcia’s “wooden” acting, match other stretches of the film’s dilated perception, part of recollecting what’s lost – over-long, over-ripe, hazy scenes of Fico and Aurore strolling on a beach in fashionable hats, for example. Though not the final word on Cuba, who can blame him? ********** [1,285 words] *** This review was written for & published there 7/28/2006.