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Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and Twisted (review)

Cinematic Crimes

How many movies have I seen in my whole life? Thousands, surely. And I can’t recall a single one of them that crashed and burned as badly as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights does in its last 15 minutes.

Which isn’t to say that DDHN was heading for masterpiece territory in the previous 75 minutes. It wasn’t. It’s apparently a retread of the original Dirty Dancing, but I’ve never seen that film, actually, so I got pretty caught up in the adolescent passion, which isn’t just of the sexual variety but also redolent with the rebellious itch of the almost grownup to really do something with this life thing. American Katey Miller (Romola Garai: I Capture the Castle, Nicholas Nickleby), a high-school senior, lands in the Cuban capital in the fall of 1958 — her dad (John Slattery: The Station Agent, Bad Company) has a cushy new executive job with Ford there. And while her mom (Sela Ward) would love to see Katey with slicked-back James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson: Tuck Everlasting, Insomnia), a scion of the preppie country-club ex-pat set, Katey is more intrigued by Javier Suarez (Diego Luna: Open Range, Frida), a local and mere poolboy at the posh hotel that’s the HQ for the Americans. And frankly, who wouldn’t prefer Diego Luna over Jonathan Jackson?
There’s some tedious business about the racism of the ex-pats getting Javier into trouble at work, but it’s just an excuse to get him together with Katey, who has it in her head to enter a ballroom-dance competition set for Christmas Eve — her parents were competitive dancers and she inherited their talent — and wants Javier’s help, as a dance partner and to spice up their routine. Shockingly original or startlingly different it ain’t, but Garai and Luna are terrific together — their tentative relationship is sweetly explored and warmly realized. There are some roadbumps along the way, those first 75 minutes, the most bizarre one being the inexplicable cameo by Patrick Swayze (Donnie Darko) as a dance instructor who barges his way into the film without introduction and offers Katey some words of dancerly advice. It’s like the filmmakers felt they needed Swayze’s benediction on Katey and on the movie itself: Go, my child, and dirty dance. It’s downright weird.

But even that could be forgiven if DDHN didn’t veer into a movie no-man’s-land, like the writers — the IMDB lists eight of them — didn’t know how to end the story, or as if they wrote it in round-robin fashion and the least talented of them was stuck with the task of wrapping things up. Just as Katey and Javier are about to step into their big moment, their dance that will either win them the tournament or crush their little hearts but impart some great lesson about life, the Cuban revolution literally breaks out. And they never dance again. So instead of the comfortable, obvious clichés we were expecting about growing up we were expecting, we get clichés about political revolution apparently imported from another film, as well as the sappiest, most inane resolution possible to Javier and Katey’s previously prickly and wary romance.

When Katey and Javier dance, they’re sexy and fun and make you wish you could move like them. To get gypped out of their big finale, which you just know in this kind of movie would have been a heartstoppingly stunning slap in the face to everyone who doubted them, is simply a filmic crime.

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is but a misdemeanor, though, when held up next to Twisted, which is criminally bad from its opening moments. As an attempt at expanding the Judd in Jeopardy minigenre — see also High Crimes and Double Jeopardy, which named the beast — it fails miserably. But if seen as an attempt at cop comedy, sending up the conventions of police stories, it’s a smashing success.

We’ve run the full gamut of possible hard-boiled cops, right? Not so. Here Ashley Judd (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) gives us Jessica Shepard, San Francisco homicide detective, the girly-soft and model-pretty hard-boiled cop — all that two-fisted consumption of hard liquor and seething rage at the meanness of the world and picking up of strangers in seedy bars for violent, anonymous sex is good for the complexion, it seems. Poor Judd: she just doesn’t have it within her narrow range of charms to pull this off, but it sure is funny watching her pout angrily and try to make us think she’s all tough and callused and bitter.

Oh, and also possibly crazy. See, she’s having these disturbing blackouts — which seem to come from her excessive drinking and so you’d think she’d stop the drinking if she was so bothered by blacking out — and during each of these blackouts it’s entirely possible that she has killed a man she recently had anonymous, violent sex with. And these are men whose murders she’s been investigating. Not consequently, when she reveals this juicy tidbit to her partner — Mike Delmarco (Andy Garcia: Confidence, Ocean’s Eleven), who of course loves her passionately in spite of her anger-management issues — she is not removed from the case. As drama, that’s ludicrous. But as a satire on absurd police procedures in the movies, it’s brilliant: Why should a cop, the lead investigator on the case no less, be forbidden exclusive access to crime scenes, to lab reports, to the theories of her fellow officers, just because she’s the prime suspect? It’d be discrimination, I tell you.

Plus there’s a sendup of the noirish fixation on cigarette smoking. The killer, whoever he or she may be, brands his or her victims with a cigarette burn to the hand, and because of course the killer must come only from within the circle of people around Judd, every time someone lights up, it’s like a big arrow has dropped out of the ceiling above, labeled “Could THIS be the killer?!” Is it Garcia? Is it Samuel L. Jackson (S.W.A.T., XXX), as Judd’s mentor/daddy figure? Is it Russell Wong, as another cop that I don’t even know what purpose his character is meant to serve except as possible killer? Is it David Strathairn (Harrison’s Flowers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), whose shrink serves not only as potential bad guy but also as straight man to Judd in her “anguished” psychiatric sessions? Or is it Judd herself, even though we know a soft, girly creature like her could never be a murderer, despite her proclivities — she’s just playing at being the bad cop, right?

Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful. She’ll take a swing at you and then go drown her misery — why o why did the world make her so beautiful and tormented? — in a gallon of cheap wine. And you wouldn’t want to be responsible for that, would you?

[reader comments on this review]

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for sensuality
official site | IMDB

Twisted
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for violence, language and sexuality
official site | IMDB


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