As the old saying goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," and perhaps nowhere is this more true than with bad cinema -- all points for nobility aside, good intentions just can't make a bad movie a good one. Alas, such is the fate that befalls 'The Lost City.'
A passion project for Andy Garcia (who both stars and directs), 'The Lost City' has been described as Garcia's love letter to the paradise he fled as a boy. Having grown up in Havana during the fifties, the actor left Cuba in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro seized power. But 'The Lost City' is not an autobiographical tale, per se -- instead, it's probably best described as a reimagining of a well-documented historical period as seen through the blinding glare of wistful nostalgia.
Working off of a screenplay by famed Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabera Infante, Garcia's Havana of 1958 is a place of pleasure for many, but not everyone is happy under the rule of dictator Fulgencio Batista. As the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro and Ernesta "Che" Guevara prepare to move on the city, Fico Fellove (Garcia), owner of the city's classiest music nightclub, struggles to hold his family together, while also wooing the heartbroken Aurora (Ines Sastre). Observing all of this is the nameless comedy writer (Bill Murray), an American expatriate who sees his friend Fico being drawn into events as the revolution changes everything. Though Fico watches a culture vanish and a people transformed, it is his love of Cuban music that keeps his memories alive.
Andy Garcia has apparently been fighting for years to bring to 'The Lost City' to the big screen, and after watching the film, I'm sorry to say it doesn't seem like it was worth all the effort. Talky and overlong at 144-minutes, what's most surprising about this film is how many grand opportunities it manages to squander. The most obvious disappointments are Murray and Dustin Hoffman (as fellow ex-pat Meyer Lansky), who are utterly wasted in underwritten roles, and seem to return the favor by delivering by phoned-in, actor-ly performances -- it almost seems as if Garcia was only able to film their rehearsals. Even more detrimental is Fellove's romance with Aurora, which, like much of the movie's drama, is inert and passionless.
To be fair, at least Havana's picturesque locations are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh, and Garcia himself hints at some potentially bravura moments in his directorial debut (such as intercutting music and dance sequences into the build-up to two key scenes of violence). Overall, however, Garcia's directorial approach is far too timid to generate anywhere near the showmanship and/or suspense of a classic like 'The Godfather' (or even second-rate Brian De Palma).
While it's clear from watching this disc's supplements that the actor feels a "profound" personal longing for the vibrant music and culture of the Havana of his past, unfortunately little of the magic he describes comes through in the finished product. 'The Lost City' may have enough good intentions for ten other movies, but that doesn't make it good.
'The Lost City' quietly arrived on both HD DVD and Blu-ray back in early May, about nine months after the film's standard-def premiere. Both next-gen versions come from the same master, and are presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. However, Magnolia continues to use different codecs for the two different formats, so the HD DVD is encoded in VC-1, while the Blu-ray is MPEG-2. The differences between the two are relatively minor, but still noticeable enough that it supports the argument that codec can indeed influence presentation.
The source is fairly good. There are a few bits of dirt and speckles, which is surprising for a new release, but the film was low budget, and has an overall natural grainy appearance, so such imperfections aren't terribly obvious. Blacks are solid on both transfers, although contrast is slightly harsher on the Blu-ray. I also felt the Blu-ray's MPEG-2 encoding had a harder-edge to sharpness, which improved detail ever-so-slightly on close-ups, but the trade-off is that imperfections can be a bit more obvious. Conversely, the smoother VC-1 presentation, tends to lack grit and ultra-fine texture. Colors have a tad more depth on the MPEG-2, though in both encodes colors are very pleasing, with rich primaries and excellent fleshtones. To be sure, these differences between the two encodes (while intriguing) are really quite minor, and as such both earn a strong four-star video rating.
Not only do the HD DVD and the Blu-ray get different video encodes, but the audio specs are all over the place, too. You could pick up both next-gen versions of 'The Lost City' and get a sampling of just about every high-resolution audio format out there. The HD DVD boasts a Dolby TrueHD (48kHz/16-bit) 5.1 track, while the Blu-ray includes uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mpbs) and DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio 5.1 surround (also 48kHz/16-bit). Both also include a Dolby Digital 5.1 option (at 640kbps).
Doing multiple comparisons between the tracks, I give the slightest edge to the Blu-ray's PCM mix, but again the differences are so minimal that neither the HD DVD nor the Blu-ray could possibly come up a loser. Quite frankly, the biggest problem with all of these tracks really down to the film's limited budget and weak sound design. The mix just is not particularly aggressive in terms of surround use. Even on sequences that should soar -- such as the infrequent uses of dance and music -- the rears sound flat and bland. The score, too, has a slightly hollow feel to the high-end. Low bass is fine, though even gunshots don't have great punch. On the plus side, dialogue sounds fine and is always clear, though it does still have an inorganic quality to the rest of the soundtrack. If nothing else, 'The Lost City' may prove that even multiple tracks of high-resolution audio can't rescue weak source material.
'The Lost City' on HD DVD carries over all of the supplements originally included in the standard-def DVD released in August of 2006. While it wasn't a very extensive package, both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions also include a number of additional supplements. But more on that below in our "High-Def Exclusives" section...
The highlight of the standard-def supplements package is the screen-specific audio commentary with Andy Garcia, production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and actor Nestor Cabonell. Garcia, of course, is the ringmaster. Though I don't agree with his assessment that the film is a "Casablanca/Dr. Zhivago" kind of epic, it's still heartwarming to hear Garcia so obviously happy to see his dream project finally reach fruition. Though there are some production stories by way of Cabonell and Kalinowski, most fascinating are Garcia's own real-life recollections of his childhood in Havana. Personally, I wish Garcia had created a film about that, as it probably would have been more successful.
Also carried over from the DVD are 10 Deleted Scenes. With the movie already lengthy at 144 minutes, it's no surprise Garcia cut these out for time. Most of these scenes are really just extensions, which add a little bit of extra dialogue or small moments of character-building. There are no major sequences of interest, unfortunately, and nothing that would really cause anyone to reconsider their opinion of 'The Lost City.' Optional commentary is also available on the scenes, which are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
How ever well-meaning and ambitious it may be, 'The Lost City' is just not a particularly good movie. Despite a strong cast, an exciting backdrop and enough violence for a whole season's worth of 'The Sopranos,' it flounders due to a overly-talky script and precious little in the way of genuine drama. This is a very fine HD DVD release, however, with strong video and audio, plus a wealth of exclusive high-def extras. Alas, this is another case of a bad movie that's gotten a better disc.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.