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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Cuba


Cuba
MGM Home Entertainment
1979 / Color / 1:85 letterbox flat / 122 min.
Starring Sean Connery, Brooke Adams, Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Danny De La Paz, Lonette McKee
Cinematography David Watkin
Production Designers Philip Harrison, Gil Parrondo
Film Editor John Victor-Smith
Original Music Patrick Williams
Writing credits Charles Wood
Produced by Denis O'Dell, Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky
Directed by Richard Lester

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Cuba is not without its good points, in particular Richard Lester's fine direction, but it labors under a script that tries to cover too many bases, and some truly terrible casting. Sean Connery is his usual solid self, but never gets the chance to break out. And the obvious turns in character and story aren't helped by an English production shot in Spain that never creates a convincing Carribean feeling or Latin atmosphere.

Synopsis:

Mercenary commander Major Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) arrives in Havana to train Batista's army at a very bad time, just before the Castro revolution in late 1959. Other foreigners blindly seek new business in the 'sinking ship', including crass American Larry Gutman (Jack Weston). Renegade pilot Don Skinner (Denholm Elliot) sees through the official denial of trouble, but he hangs around too long, hoping to profit from the panic of people needing fast transport for their ill-gotten loot. Escorted by Captain Ramirez (Hector Elizondo), Dapes finds Batista's army in pitiful shape, and the spirit of the people already allied with the revolutionaries. He also runs into Alexandra Lopez de Pulido (Brooke Adams), a beauty he once wooed in North Africa. She resists him at first, but has little incentive to remain faithful to her wastrel husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), who flaunts his girlfriends before her. One of these, Therese Mederos (Lonette McKee) is a principled firebrand whose student brother Julio (Danny De La Paz) seeks to avenge his jailed father by assassinating any target he can find - Alexandra, Juan, or Major Dapes.

It has romance, glamour, action, and the sure-fire starpower of Sean Connery, but Cuba never becomes more than an interesting fizzle. It starts off very interestingly, showing the crumbling Batista regime from the point of view of Connnery's imported mercenary. Batista is glimpsed watching Horror Of Dracula in 16mm in his living room, a cute but obvious comparison of despot to vampire. The storyline is clear and the picture of Cuba fairly broad. We see the rich owners of a cigar factory and a rum bottling concern. We get inside the plush digs of a generalissimo who's more concerned with skimming the parking meters than military matters. The revolutionaries who shoot up his dinner party are everywhere, hiding arms in the tabaquería and skulking through the sugar cane fields. The poor live in depressing shacks and rundown apartment buildings, and their women often end up as whores to the marauding Americans who pour in to make shady deals.

So far so good. Cuba even has a nice story arc that brings mystery woman Brooke Adams into the picture, although her involvement in the battle action near the end is strained. The resolution of her romance isn't all that memorable, but Brooke Adams is almost the only Anglo actor in the cast who can imitate a Latin, and she aquits herself well. Adams is one of the many exceedingly good American actresses to come out of the late '70s for whom there were never enough good parts.

And there's the rub - most of the actors are poorly cast, for no fault of their own. Having a pro like Martin Balsam play the corrupt general is fine, except the role is so small, a star isn't needed, and Balsam's highly recognizable face works against any feeling of realism. Jack Weston is so obvious an ugly American, that he's also totally uninteresting. The Brit production even names him Gutman - how chivalrous. Chris Sarandon is embarassingly poor as the playboy Cuban, and although they look their parts, neither he nor Lonette McKee have a Latin bone in their bodies. Couple that with green-uniformed revolucionarios speaking mid-Atlantic accents, and Americans of genuine Latin descent like Hector Elizondo and Danny De La Paz start looking like they are the ones who are out of place.

A fairly big-scale British production lensed in Spain, Cuba does everything but look or feel Cuban. Good evidence of this can be seen in the still on the package-back: it shows Brooke Adams wearing her low-cut scarlet gown, but with a never-seen-in-the-movie sweater over the top. It was obviously bitter cold on the Spanish location, and Adams was doing her best to look comfortable while shivering between takes.  1

Production values are not bad at all, but the crowd scenes are thin and the picture falls back on newsfilm to depict Castro's entrance into the city. The battle business injected into the story as a dodgy climax doesn't mean much, and is too tidy and unlikely. Everyone escapes; Connery and Weston hijack a tank. Charles Wood's screenplay inserts this derring-do as best it can, but his downbeat ending leaves the picture emotionally numb. Commercially, showing Sean Connery meekly creeping away to safety on the last jet outta town didn't help word of mouth either. Only Brooke Adams really comes out of this show in one piece.

Through all of this, Richard Lester directs with a steady hand, proving as he did in the superior Juggernaut that he can do more than jokey hand-held comedies. He does a fine job keeping all the characters on the margin visible and active - like the stripper and her agent drumming up business in the hotel, or the manager of the tobacco factory (lamentably acted by Stefan Kalipha) who no longer needs to hide his revolutionary activities. There's the nice Lester touch of David Rappaport (Randall in Time Bandits) as a revolutionary spokesman, a small but dead-serious role for a man usually cast as 'the midget'. Other details, like crooked pilot Denholm Elliot last being seen in a cropdusting (? ..??) B-25, are total head-scratchers.


MGM's DVD of Cuba is nothing to write home about in the transfer category. A pre-existing flat letterboxed master was used. MGM's technical department has a policy of doing a 16:9 transfer on anything wider than 1:66. The DVD department doesn't carry that policy to the discs it releases, as seen in the previously-discussed Planet of the Vampires). Other criteria - what masters are already available without having to order a new transfer, even luck of the draw, play a role in how individual Leo shows end up on DVD.

That said, the flat master used is pretty good-looking, and far better than the grungy earlier video from '92 or '93. The show also has a Spanish dub track, which would possibly help out the Cuban characters but of course would rob us of Connery's burr. The only extra is an excitingly constructed trailer, a beaut that makes the movie look twice as good as it is.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cuba rates:
Movie: Fair++, Good--, tough call
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 19, 2002


Footnotes:

1. For the record, let's say that Sidney Pollack's glitzy Havana reminds mostly of Hollywood's Casablanca, and so far only Godfather II manages to express the breezy, tropical feel of Cuba - and it was shot in the Dominican Republic. The very best image of Cuba immediately pre-Castro can be seen in Columbia's black & white and CinemaScope Our Man in Havana, made the summer of '59 in Havana itself.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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