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Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

The re-imagining Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights probably gained as much at it lost by taking its title from the 1987 sleeper hit that preceded it. Gained, in that a sequel of any sorts to a film that has remained popular on home video for nearly two decades will certainly sell movie tickets on that basis and little else — the marketing folks don't have to worry nearly as much about having an A-lister on the marquee, and even if it fizzles in theaters, it's practically guaranteed a long life on video for nothing more than curiosity value. But perhaps the harm was greater. Havana Nights didn't have the same box-office results of Dirty Dancing, but one could argue that it's actually the superior film of the two… or at least that the pleasures one can derive from it don't leave behind the familiar aftertaste of cheese and guilt. Romola Garai stars as Katey Miller, a teenage girl whose family has abruptly moved from the U.S. to Cuba in 1958 after her father (John Slattery) has taken a promotion with the Ford Motor Company. Outside of the carefully protected hotels and clubs preserved for foreigners and those loyal to the Batista regime, Fidel Castro's doctrine of revolution is spreading through the streets of Havana and beyond, but it's barely noticed by Katey. The bookish girl is far too concerned about getting into Radcliffe the following year, making her seem an outsider to even her own, including her sister Susie (Mika Boorem) and fellow Ford transplants James (Jonathan Jackson) and Eve (January Jones). But a chance encounter with hotel waiter Javier Suarez (Diego Luna) leads to an unlikely friendship. Lost in the streets of Havana, Katey is led home by Javier, saving her from a Batista brigade in the process. A later encounter at the Cuban cantina La Rosa Negra piques Katey's curiosity when she's exposed for the first time to passionate Latin dance. But after Javier is dismissed from his job for socializing with Katey, she comes up with a plan — they both will enter a Latin ballroom dance competition, which offers a grand prize of $5,000 and a trip to America.

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Havana Nights has very little to do with the film that "inspired" it, save for its genre plotting that features a young girl's sexual awakening and entrance into independent womanhood through dance and forbidden love. That alone would guarantee it a built-in audience for many years to come. But after acknowledging (and it's no small point) that Havana Nights is little more than a modest 85-minute romance for the under-30 set — complete with sun-dappled rehearsal montages featuring the two winsome leads — one is tempted to point out ways that it's actually better than its ascendant. The two leads are working well below their talents' threshold, with Mexican actor Diego Luna (Open Range, Y Tu Mamá También) already on the rise, while British actress Romola Garai is bound to appear in more substantial projects down the road. The supporting cast likewise is filled out with genre players (Sela Ward, January Jones, Mika Boreem) rather than central-casting fill-ins. As opposed to the Catskills-based class warfare between a Jewish physician's family and the blue-collar tough who wins his daughter's heart, Havana Nights is willing to take things one step further with an intercultural, interracial romance set against the backdrop of revolution and street-level violence. It's a matter of taste, but many viewers will appreciate the rich Latin rhythms of this picture compared to early '60s lo-fi pop. The final dance competition — set on that fateful New Year's Eve when Batista abandoned the country (and immortalized in The Godfather Part II) — has more dramatic impact than the goofy, slapdash "let's put on a show" number at the end of Dirty Dancing. And while it never rises above the level of modest entertainment, there are no horribly clunky lines delivered with sincere earnestness — Javier doesn't say anything remotely like "Nobody puts Katey in a corner." But then, perhaps that's the essential appeal of Dirty Dancing. It's not a great film, but it's a sincere one, whereas Havana Nights is a carefully crafted studio project from beginning to end, with more quality on its surface but not as much heart. Fans who can't decide at least will appreciate getting another look at Patrick Swayze, who makes a cameo as a dance instructor — he's aged, to be sure, but he's still got the bod and the moves he did way back then. Lions Gate's DVD release of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with rich Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that effectively delivers the film's soundtrack. Supplements include a commentary from co-producer/choreographer JoAnn Jansen and producer Sarah Green, the "making-of" featurette "Inside Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" (23 min.), the dance featurette "Baila! A Dance Piece" (11 min.), two multi-angle dance sequences, 10 deleted scenes, a music video, and trailers for Lions Gate titles. Keep-case.

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