Monday, May 11, 2009
Even A Blind Eye Can Be Poked Out
I can’t help but wonder, did Steven Soderbergh have Richard Lester’s CUBA in mind at all when he was making CHE? His book of interviews with Lester doesn’t spend too much time on this particular film but Soderbergh does seem willing to defend it even if only on the basis that it willingly tries to go against the grain of what you’d expect. I can see where he’s coming from, but Lester himself seems to indicate that the project, released in 1979, lost a sense of direction by a certain point. There's validity to both opinions, but my gut reaction is to side with Lester. While watching it I found myself sitting there, waiting for the plot and tone of the movie to kick in much like you do for the first ten minutes of every movie. This continued until I realized that I was nearly an hour into the thing and I was petty much still waiting for it to begin. There are good things in there, but for the most part it’s a dry, dour film and combined with some distracting casting choices it was difficult for me to fully engage with it on any real level. I wasn’t bored which seemed a little strange since it’s really not a particularly compelling movie, but the few things it does have in its favor aren’t quite enough.
Set in Havana in 1959, just before the Cuban Revolution (so shouldn’t that make it late 1958?) CUBA stars Sean Connery (who had just made ROBIN AND MARIAN for Lester) as British mercenary Robert Dapes, who has been brought in by the Batistas to help go against the Communist rebels. Once there he encounters the beautiful Alexandra Pulido (Brooke Adams) who he has not seen since the two had an affair when she was just a girl in North Africa. Though she gives him the brush-off at first, her growing awareness of the affair her wealthy husband Juan (Chris Sarandon) is having and her growing memories of her time with Robert causes him to seek him out, but not quite for the reasons he is expecting. Others who are in a state of denial over how much their world is on the brink of total change include her husband’s father (Walter Gotell, General Gogol in the James Bond films), her husband’s mistress (Lonette McKee), boorish American businessman Larry Gutman (Jack Weston), a Batista General (Martin Balsam), a pilot maintaining his cool amidst the chaos (Denholm Elliott) and various others caught up in the revolution in one form or another.
Even considering my limited knowledge of the history of Cuba, it’s a difficult time period to cover cinematically not least it’s hard not to think of the pertinent section in THE GODFATHER PART II, the gold standard for this sort of thing. The amazing I AM CUBA (which is essential) belongs in a different category due to its quasi-documentary nature, but it’s worth a mention as well. The plot of CUBA probably sounds like an aping of CASABLANCA from the description and for all I know that’s how the project, written by Charles Wood (THE KNACK and HELP!, also for Lester) originated. It’s also possible that it was designed to go against these expectations from the get go (is Sydney Pollack’s HAVANA the CASABLANCA knock-off I imagine it is? I’ve never seen it). It’s too bad then, that so much of CUBA comes off as a little blah, with no real wit or energy to most of it. There is good dialogue throughout, like during Connery’s big scene with Martin Balsam, but it’s all played on such a muted level that at times I barely noticed. Everybody also speaks only English, which is problematic. The movie certainly has a consistently dense, lived-in look and feel, with very good work by D.P. David Watkin, making viewing the whole thing strangely compelling even when the story isn’t.
The production filmed in Spain, an odd choice, and I’m the wrong person to say it doesn’t look like Cuba (Spain subbed for Cuba all right in DIE ANOTHER DAY, though) but throughout I couldn’t help but continually think that the setting didn’t feel particularly tropical in any real way, even with palm trees visible throughout. It apparently rained through the shoot and it almost feels like this weather affected the moods of everyone involved, making for a very cold, detached viewing experience (As Lester told Soderbergh, “…we spent so much energy trying to turn a cold and rainy mid-winter Spain into hot Havana that we forgot about everything else that you are supposed to be doing, like saying ‘What is this scene for?’”). This could almost be read as the point, to represent the lack of real passion any of the characters feel, including where the Connery-Adams romance goes. The big confrontation between the two is well-written and played enough that it almost gets by but instead of us aware of the disconnect between the characters, it’s as if the actors are the ones who aren’t connecting, neither one fully aware of what the big picture is supposed to be. It’s potentially a compelling moment--he can’t imagine how she could be anything other than a damsel in distress waiting to be swept away by him and her response to him indicates the exact opposite. Her motives are a surprise, but they’re not insidious and a potentially interesting comment on the standard past lovers-reunited plotline that never has as much effect as it should. The undermining of Connery’s screen authority is a fascinating idea that unfortunately comes off as half-baked. Ultimately that was my response to a number of the plot threads and the degree to which all theses characters are connected with each other made me imagine how Robert Altman would have handled this milieu. Back to Soderbergh, the anti-CASABLANCA nature approach to the whole thing may have been an influence on THE GOOD GERMAN, but even though CUBA has more on its mind than just being a commentary on the bogusness of old Hollywood clichés, it still left me wanting. There are moments where the imagery comes through—the montage of activity under the opening credits or just Connery and Adams walking through a Havana slum in the early morning light. But they’re just moments, leading to a climax featuring gunplay and explosions, none of it very memorable. Because of history, we can see where a lot of this is leading, so as a result there’s not very much drama to any of it. Right after the end credits rolled I took a look at the trailer on the DVD which makes it look more like an action film, featuring a few scenes which I realized I could barely remember. They were in the movie, but I had already begun to forget them.
Connery, who Lester claims never spoke to him again after this, has his moments, but it’s Brooke Adams who is one of the best things here, bringing an enormous amount of gravitas to her role as someone who no one seems to think of as anything more than an object (that said, she looks pretty great as well). She’s good enough that she’s just about the only successful element of the unfortunate casting of actors in key roles who are definitely not Cuban or Latino, including Sarandon, Balsam, McKee, Gotell and a pre-TIME BANDITS David Rappaport, all good actors, all people I enjoy seeing in things, but having them here makes it difficult to take much of it seriously. Fortunately, Hector Elizondo plays a police captain who assists Connery and kept I hoping their scenes would develop into an interesting back-and-forth, but it never quite happens (I kept imagining Elizondo as a Claude Rains/Capt. Renault equivalent, but the direction the movie takes never allows for this). Jack Weston does bring some needed liveliness to his comic-relief role and the sly Denholm Elliott shares the screen with Connery a decade before INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE.
There are far worse things I can imagine than a movie made in the 70s by a director I admire and featuring somebody like Sean Connery, even one that doesn’t really work. It is a reminder of the movies made then which featured adults, were Rated R and featured a lot of drinking done by its characters. The adult nature of it makes me think that there might be more to CUBA on repeated viewings than I may realize right now. Subtlety does tend to grow over time. Then again, I may still just think that it’s a missed opportunity. If I ever find myself in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, maybe I’ll bring it up to give him the chance to try and convince me.