Scintillating 'Mambo Kings' deserves a wider audience


Mambo Kings

Warner Bros. (1992)

"Mambo Kings" has a lot of what it takes to make a great movie -- scintillating performances, sizzling music, a hot, stylish look, a grand story that is both melancholy and as filled with life as the Latin music it features. I was shocked, then, to find out that despite rave reviews, it only made $7 million in its release last spring.

Whatever it is that left it begging at the box office (too smart, too dumb, too little, too late?), the marketing powers-that-be aren't telling, they're just wrapping up the project and releasing it on video.

"Mambo Kings" is a film that deserves to be seen. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Oscar Hijuelos, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," the movie is the story of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor, who high-tail it out of Cuba in the early 1950s to make it as musicians in New York City.

Cesar (Armand Assante) is a passionate, voracious party animal who is incandescent onstage. Nestor (Antonio Banderas) is his soulful younger sibling; he writes the songs that make him want to cry. Particularly the one about the fiance he left behind in Havana and who betrayed him by marrying another man (though Nestor doesn't know it was to save his life). This, even though he meets and marries the beautiful Delores (Maruschka Detmers). Mr. Banderas, the star of Pedro Almovodar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" is again a smoldering screen presence in this, his American film debut.

Meanwhile, Cesar thinks God created women for his pleasure (and with Armand Assante in the role, few women would complain if he did). He takes up, more or less, with the wonderfully trashy nightclub cigarette girl, Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty). The young musicians at first find themselves working a day job at a meat-packing plant with other mambo wanna-bes, but soon are performing in a band, seemingly on their way to the big time.

Cesar's refusal to bow to the godfather of the nightclub bookings gets them cast adrift on the dreary bar-mitzvah-and-anniversary-party circuit. That is, until one night while playing in a club they are discovered by their soul brother, Desi Arnaz (played here in a cameo role by Desi Arnaz Jr.). He invites them to perform on the "I Love Lucy" show. In a bit of technical wizardry, the brothers actually appear in black-and-white opposite the real Lucy.

So they have made it in America, but problems still lie ahead. In many ways, "The Mambo Kings" is a metaphor for the immigrant experience. People come here searching for love and success, but there is something left behind and without which they can never be complete.


Fox Lorber Video (1991)

French filmmaker Jerome Boivin, here in his directorial debut, has been compared with David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar, and that's fair enough. He does have an unusual, darkly humorous point of view. But I think his story of a dog in search of the perfect master is more readily accessible and entertaining than some of the cinematic efforts of Mr. Lynch or Mr. Almodovar.

The New York Times apparently counted "Baxter" as one of the 10 best films of 1991, and I believe it. I found it original, amusing, a not-too shaggy-dog story that even has something profound to say.

Baxter is a bull terrier who has been raised in a kennel, a place, he tells us in an intense, moody voice supplied by Maxime Leroux, where he was surrounded by unsettling smells and urges, a place he is grateful to have escaped. Mr. Leroux's interpretation of Baxter's inner thoughts is one of the film's true delights, a canine Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Baxter is given to an elderly woman looking for an excuse to cut herself off completely from the world. At first Baxter is thrilled for the occasional trip to the back yard where he can dig into the earth and revel in its smells. But when the old lady gets weird on him, it's time to assert his animal rights.

It is his good fortune, he thinks, to find himself living next with the next-door neighbors. The pretty young woman plays with him in the back yard, her touch is enough to make him happy, and he seems to have at last found a purpose in life -- running from the house to the yard and back again to see what the man and the woman are up to. He has a hard time adjusting to the fact of a new baby ("It was so helpless and hairless, I thought they were ashamed of it") and is given to the young boy down the street.

Charles (Francois Driancourt) has an obsession with Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun to the extent he has even built a replica of their bunker in a nearby junk yard. He is the perfect master for Baxter, or so Baxter thinks, because he neither loves nor fears him. Instead, he beats him and trains him to do his bidding. Baxter finds out too late that the blind compliance he so readily offers comes at a tragically high price.

Baxter is thought provoking, clever and a whole lot more than that '90s buzzword "quirky." One thing it is not, however, is appropriate for children, though parents may find it suitable, and even worthwhile, for teens. Especially anyone with an adolescent who spends most of their time in their version of a World War II

Nazi bunker.

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