Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Harefooted Halloween 2015

Since I thought last year’s Harefooted Halloween went so well I’m gonna do it again this year.  Same format and everything.  The goal is to do as many quick reviews as possible saying briefly what I liked, didn’t like and overall thoughts.

Alright, let’s saddle up and give it another ride.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Dirty Dancing

Image result for dirty dancingYou bet your ass I know what you’re thinking: “what the fuck could there be to say about this?  It’s some cheesy ass 80’s chick flick starring the guy from Road House and Ferris Bueller’s hateful sister.  I’ve seen the part where the girl jumps into the air while Swayze holds her up and I’ve heard the famous Baby in the corner line.  There’s nothing to it, right?”  Well brothers and sisters I’m here to tell you that Dirty Dancing is fucking awesome.  And that’s legit, not some tongue in cheek comment.  I know this is gonna be a tough sell but if you bear with me for a minute I’ll try my best to explain why.

Before I begin, huge shout out to the buddy of mine that turned me on to this picture.  It would’ve been a really long time before I ever got around to checking this one out.  Thanks, you know who you are.

It’s 1963 and Baby (Jennifer Grey (Red Dawn)) is on summer vacation with her family.  They drive to Kellerman’s, a resort in upstate New York, where you’re supposed to do all sorts of outdoorsy shit during the day and attend rigid soirees in the evening.  I guess this is what you did back then when you wanted to take your family someplace not too far away and have all your activities planned for you too.  The idea of the local resort vacation has been dead for a fairly long time, probably since the late 70’s or 80’s, so this is a nostalgic look back.  If you’re gonna take your family to a resort today there needs to be something more substantial attached like a beach, skiing or an amusement park.  And one of the many things I like about this film is not only the throwback to local vacationing, but also having a beautiful quaint getaway as the backdrop for what is also a beautiful intimate love story.

Let’s round out the rest of the family before we get too deep into this.  There’s the father (Jerry Orbach (Out for Justice)) who’s a doctor and somewhat progressive.  He mentions that using police dogs in Birmingham is a tragedy, referring to the police sicking dogs as well as spraying fire hoses on black people during a nonviolent demonstration in Alabama in 1963.  Baby thinks she’ll never find a greater man than her father.

The mother (Kelly Bishop (Gilmore Girls) is practically nonexistent in this movie so that’s all there is to say about her.

And there’s Lisa (Jane Brucker (Bloodhounds of Broadway)), Baby’s dorky sister.  She’s self-centered and into all of the lame activities that the resort puts on.  That’s about it for her.

Image result for dirty dancing kellerman'sOk, so after the family arrives and they attend a rather torturous group dance merengue lesson Baby decides to go exploring for a while before dinner.  This is when we get our first real taste of the gorgeous cinematography.  Jeff Jur doesn’t have the most impressive list of credits to his name (Joy Ride, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and this was early in his career but he shot one helluva picture.  The couple of dusk shots of Baby walking to the main resort building and strolling on the balcony are kinda breathtaking.  And the excellent camera work and lighting continue for the duration.

While Baby’s snooping around she eavesdrops on the manager of the resort giving the waitstaff an opening season run down of what’s expected of them.  The speech is to show you mainly how uptight these folks are but they also throw in these disgusting lines: “Show the goddamn daughters a good time.  All the daughters.  Even the dogs”.  It wasn’t necessary to go that far.  They really wanted you to dislike this guy but the rest of the speech about keeping your hair out of the soup and your fingers out of the water would’ve been plenty to give off an icky feeling about the place.

Anyway this is where Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze (Youngblood)) barges in and gets a curt talkin’ to by the manager.  Johnny thinks he’s so cool with his leather jacket, shades, greaser haircut and bad boy attitude.  Ok, maybe he is kinda cool.  Alright, he’s definitely fuckin’ cool, especially compared to everyone else we’ve seen so far (Baby notwithstanding).  Johnny and his crew are hired to teach dance lessons to the guests and, of course, there’s a double standard.  While the main staff is encouraged to get involved with the women staying there (how much involved is questionable at best), JC and co must remain hands off.  The fuckin’ man is always keepin’ him down.

Then Baby and family have dinner, join in the easy listening dance party and Baby somehow gets roped into being sawed in half for the magic act.  For her participation she gets awarded a live chicken (what the fuck?).  But also that evening we get our first big dance scene with Johnny and Penny (Cynthia Rhodes (Staying Alive)) doing a stunning mambo routine.  This is a good time to mention that the choreography was done by Kenny Ortega.  The man has worked with Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson and even choreographed and directed Newsies.  This fuckin’ guy knows what he’s doing and the shit he cooked up for this film is incredible.

Image result for dirty dancing 1987 mamboThe mambo scene is the most well balanced routine in the movie.  It’s not too aggressive, very polished and professionally executed and has only a touch of dirty in it, I’m talking about that crazy high leg drag move they do (that’s what it’s called right?).  The dancers are always well framed so you can see what they’re doing with their entire bodies and the camera moves just enough to add some extra kinetic energy.  And so I don’t have to keep saying it, that last sentence goes for every dance scene in the film.

Oh, just in case you were wondering, Swayze and Grey do all of their own dancing here.  If you thought all Swayze knew was how to rob banks and rip motherfuckers throats out then you gotta check out this sonuvabitch dance.  Damn is he good.  It’s no surprise that Baby falls in love with Johnny right there.  She thought he was only a hot young stud but he’s a hot young stud that can dance his ass off. 

Now what happens next I’m a little unclear on.  Baby wanders into the backstage area where the staff live (including Johnny) but I don’t know if she was actively looking for him or was continuing with her exploring from earlier and happened to see Johnny walk toward a house on a hill.  Either way she decides to investigate.  Her way into the house (it’s off limits to resort guests and uncool kids) is through Johnny’s cousin who happens to be heading there with some watermelons.  In exchange for helping to carry the things (he’s trying to carry three all by his lonesome) he gets her into the party.

The doors bust open and we’re immediately hit in the face with lots of red lighting, The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and dirty ass dancing.  Couples are grinding on each other, bending over backwards and wrapping their legs around their partner.  It’s not shockingly dirty though in my opinion.  It’s certainly enough to get the point across but not so much that you start to feel gross.  They ain’t twerkin’, that’s for sure.

I love how when Johnny arrives he’s already gotten rid of his bowtie, his hair is messed and someone hands him a beer straightaway.  Fuckin’ a, Johnny’s here.  Let’s get down.

And boy, do they.  Johnny and Penny dance again but this time it’s way more aggressive and way dirtier than the mambo.  They show off their best moves and try to outdo each other the whole time.  The rest of the people keep on doing their own thing but have one eye on Johnny and Penny ‘cause they don’t want to miss too much.  These two are definitely the main attraction.

Image result for dirty dancing love manWhen the next song kicks in, “Love Man” by Otis Redding, Johnny only pauses for a quick headshake before getting back to fiercely groovin’.  He moves through the dance floor going from one chick to the next, gyrating his way to Baby.  When they finally meet he’s standoffish about an outsider crashing the festivities.  She replies with the really great awkward line “I carried a watermelon”, which she quietly repeats to herself in total mortification.  It doesn’t bother Johnny though ‘cause he gets to rockin’ her world.  He shows her how to thrust her pelvis and rock her shoulders.  Then just when she gets ahold of it Johnny throws her arms around him and sways her back and forth almost like a ragdoll rhythmically to the beat at the climax of the song.  When it ends Johnny spins away but Baby continues to dance by herself for a moment in reverie.  She’s buzzin’ like crazy and probably didn’t sleep very much that night.

This is my favorite scene in the movie (and is now one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema).  The two of them are in essence having sex on the dance floor.  The whole thing, from when the doors swing open to the ending of “Love Man”, it’s all constructed so well.  Baby’s taken aback at first by what she sees (and possibly hears), but can’t help but get sucked into the room and take Johnny’s hand when he offers it.  The filmmakers show you what dirty dancing is by giving you crude variations and then what it looks like with two pros doing it.  After you’ve gotten the hang of things they advance the story by having Johnny and Baby dance for the first time.  We’re also seeing how good of an instructor Johnny is because he can teach a non-dancer who’s never seen this style of dancing before how to move in no time.  And lastly, as “Love Man” builds so does the dancing chemistry between the two until they’re totally in tune with each other and they orgasm together (metaphorically) as the song does (metaphorically).

The first twenty minutes of Dirty Dancing is one of the best things I’ve ever seen, no joke.  I love the setup of a teenager going on kind of a lame vacation with her parents.  It’s a great way to understand where the main character’s head is without having a lot of contrived exposition dialogue.  Just that situation, at least when you’re a teenager, is completely unideal and even embarrassing.  Sure you love your family but to spend three weeks with them taking dance lessons, going to stuffy dinner parties and being forced to hang out with other kids you don’t like very much is gonna get you kinda down.  We’ve all felt awkward or self-conscious to be hanging out with our family at one time or another in our lives.  And this film captures that emotion and uses it as a framework for the story pretty perfectly.

Before we move on let’s just hash out the rest of the plot.  I guess there are some spoilers but it’s not a thriller or anything with any twists.  Plus I think you know where everything is headed anyway (the final scene is the most famous) so don’t worry about it.

While the first act could be a self-contained short by itself there’s plenty of good stuff to come.  In act two Baby discovers that Penny is pregnant but wants to have an abortion.  Now abortion at that time was still illegal so Penny’s only chance is some back alley job.  However, the one day that the willing doctor will be passing through town is the same day as a dance showcase that Penny and Johnny need to do if they want to keep their jobs (as well as ensure gigs for next year).  Naturally Baby is the one to fill in for Penny because…ok this part doesn’t really make any sense but just go with it.

Image result for dirty dancing practiceJohnny only has about a week to whip Baby into shape which is kinda insane.  They’re attempting to do a regular mambo act by the way and not dirty dancing.  So they get to it and along the way Johnny ends up falling for Baby as hard as she fell for him.  This whole thing is kept secret from Baby’s family too because she knows they wouldn’t approve of her helping some chick she barely knows who got knocked up out of wedlock, spending all of her time with a hood like Johnny and, of course, dancing dirty.

This is where things get messy so I’ll cut to the chase.  They pull off the performance, Baby’s father finds out what she’s been up to, Baby and Johnny continue to see each other anyway, there’s some weird ass subplot about an elderly couple stealing guests wallets and the manager assumes Johnny’s to blame, Baby sticks up for Johnny letting her family know she’s into him, it’s discovered that Johnny didn’t steal shit, and let’s see…oh right, Johnny and Baby dance to “The Time of My Life” and the father finally approves of their relationship.  Phew.

As you can see the story gets overly complicated.  The filmmakers totally could’ve slimmed this down and it probably would’ve worked a little better.  It’s unfortunate that the plot becomes cheesier and, honestly, less significant as the movie goes.  You’ve already either totally embraced these characters and the mood that’s been setup or not.  The first two thirds, and especially those golden twenty minutes, is so strong that you can coast through the rest of the movie and still come away with a fantastic viewing experience. 

Image result for dirty dancing babyThere are a few more things I want to touch on.  Baby as a character.  The movie would like you to believe that she’s timid and withdrawn but she keeps doing shit that takes guts and that’ll rock the relationship with her family.  She dances in a recital that she had almost no time to prepare for, she asks her father for help when Penny’s abortion goes awry (remember he’s a doctor), she goes for the outcast Johnny even though he seems way out of her league, and she dances the last dance of the summer (with Johnny) without any rehearsal at all.  The theme with Baby that carries through is that she is a very good person.  All she wants to do is offer help to whoever needs it.  She helps Penny, Johnny and her sister Lisa all throughout the film.  She wants to join the Peace Corps and with all the helping she does that makes sense with the character.  But the remarkable thing is somehow she’s not an annoying goody two shoes that you wanna sock right in the kisser.  She’s kinda progressive like her father (her example of a tragedy is “monks burning themselves in protest” referring to a particular Vietnamese monk that set himself on fire in 1963 to show opposition to anti-Buddhist government policies) and has an open mind to new things like, well, unsavory types of dancing.  And the name Baby (real name Frances, named after the first woman in a US cabinet, Frances Perkins) is great because you don’t know if everyone in the movie really knows her name of if they’re using it as a nickname like slick or chief.  It’s cool either way.  And because much of the soundtrack uses the word “baby” in the lyrics there’s a built in benefit with the main character’s namesake.  It’s as if the songs are speaking directly to her.  With all of these qualities this character works bafflingly well.

Songs, songs, songs.  So many fuckin’ incredible 60’s tunes are packed in here and the selection of which ditty to go with which scene is spot on perfect.  I don’t think I’ve seen a better example of matching songs with scenes, not including scores made for a particular picture or musicals, than this film.  When Baby first enters the dirty dancing party “Do You Love Me” is playing and she finds out that she really does love Johnny and dancing.  The next song, “Love Man”, is about Johnny.  The song’s lyrics show what Johnny’s thinking: “which one of you girls want me to hold you, which one of you girls want me to kiss you, which one of you girls want me to take you out”  Hey, I know which girl.  When Baby and Johnny are practicing their act Baby messes up and The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” kicks in.  Baby’s father forbids her to see Johnny again so when she goes to Johnny to get consoled they dance to Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” (coincidentally, Swayze would have a very similar scene in Road House two years later except “These Arms of Mine” is playing, actually that song plays right before “Cry to Me” here, weird).  When Baby and Johnny go into the woods to practice dancing on a log (it’s about balance) Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” starts to play with lyrics of “hey baby, I wanna know if you’ll be my girl”.  And it’s so fitting because this is the first time that they let loose with their rigorous relentless training and just dance for fun.  Again, it’s like the song is speaking for both of them which happens over and over.  It’s so beautiful how the filmmakers were able to have the music be part of the story and let you feel the characters emotions in a non-visual way, but at the same time it also blends with the visual exquisitely.

Image result for dirty dancingTo take that a step further I would say that this movie is as close to being a musical without actually being one.  There aren’t scenes where everyone stops and does a flawlessly choreographed routine with dancing and singing.  Although there is a scene where Baby and Johnny mime Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” to each other which starts to blur the line.  But even though there’s so much music and a ton of dancing it never really ends up feeling like a musical.

The last thing I want to say about the music is I don’t agree with the use of the handful of 80’s songs they threw in here.  It was completely unnecessary, particularly when they were doing so damn well with the period tracks.  I understand they did that to appease audiences of the day but that was a bad move in my opinion.  Fortunately I don’t think they take you out of the movie too much.  “Hungary Eyes” by Eric Carmen is the most obtrusive (not a terrible piece on its own though) because it plays earlier in the film when Baby and Johnny are trying to get their routine down.  And then there’s the grand finale number, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “The Time of My Life”.  Really this is the song that sticks out the most and is pure 80’s, but the thing is the movie’s practically over by this point and the story has fallen off a good deal so I just don’t care as much.  If you only saw the last seven minutes of the picture (which is probably a lot of people) you wouldn’t even know this is supposed to be 1963, it could be 1983 and you wouldn’t have to alter it a bit.  “The Time of My Life” is a catchy and alright song but totally wrong for the ending to this movie.  But hey, the song was a huge hit and the film grossed big bucks so what do I know?

The 80’s-ness also permeates with three montages, some of the hairdos and clothing (goddamn spandex man).  Like the music selection it’s not so bad that it ruins the movie but it’s noticeable and I wish they had been a little more disciplined with that.  

Ok, one more final music thing for real I swear.  I absolutely love Hula Hana, not only the song but the way Lisa performs it:

As for the “nobody puts Baby in the corner” line, I honestly don’t get it.  It’s not like people have been keeping her down her whole life (as far as we know anyway) and now the time has come for her to rise up out of the shadows.  Why this line is so well known I’ll never understand.  Why it’s in the movie at all is even stranger.  All Johnny needed to say there was something like “let’s dance”.  I think that would’ve worked ok.  No?  Alright, fine.  Go to hell.

Lastly, there are two things the filmmakers were clever about that I think makes this a more interesting and enjoyable watch over a similar movie.  The first is that neither Baby nor Johnny have a boyfriend/girlfriend before they meet each other or cheat on each other during their time together.  That’s right, Penny may dance with Johnny like they’re an item but they’re ex’s that remained friends, nothing more.  And that’s significant because you don’t have to wade through the usual bullshit of having characters explain why they’re in love and who they wanna be with and the whole bungled love triangle thing.  It’s a lot cleaner the way they did it here and to great effect. 

The second is that Baby doesn’t become some unbelievable dancer overnight.  She’s only passable at best when it comes to show time, but that’s all she needed to be to save Johnny and Penny’s jobs. If she had all of a sudden started dancing like the seasoned Penny then the picture overall wouldn’t have worked nearly as well in my opinion.  If you show that Baby made a marked improvement, even if that means she’s still not a great dancer, then the audience will be with you all the way.  The same thing was done in Rhinestone by the way which also worked well.  Sly Stallone doesn’t sing like fuckin’ Elvis at the end but makes respectable progress from where he started.  And that’s so goddamn admirable and charming.

Image result for dirty dancing
Holy shit, this got long.  Here’s the deal, this is a total women’s fantasy picture (it was written by a woman, Eleanor Bergstein (It’s My Turn), and is supposed to be semi-autobiographical).  A teenaged girl bags the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks and they have a wonderful romantic time together.  I think the reason why this cliché isn’t throat-slit inducing here is because Johnny has depth and he’s a good person like Baby.  He’s not some fuckin’ personality-less meathead that makes you wonder why a Peace Corps bound high school grad would be interested in him.  This is a key reason why this film is a cut above.  The filmmakers worked some magic to bring the lovers-from-opposite-ends-of-town trope to a smarter and very entertaining level.  The balance is right.  There’s enough angst and edge, a la the dirty dancing, to tamp down the sappiness but at the same time enough sweetness left that you care for the characters and want to see them get together.

On the surface this seems like a title movie like Hobo with a Shotgun or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.  You know, ones where they probably came up with the title first and then tried to make a film around it.  And even though there certainly is a fair amount of dirty dancing in Dirty Dancing that’s not nearly what it’s all about.  Most of this thing is really fuckin’ good.  Check it out.  You might even have the time of your life.  I did.

Side thought: Does anyone else think that Baby and Johnny didn’t last past the summer, a year tops?  I can’t see them sticking together forever.  I mean Baby was supposed to join the Peace Corps ‘n shit.  Oh well, better luck next summer.