Prayer Focus
Movie Review

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

MPAA Rating: PG-13-Rating (MPAA) for sensuality

Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teens Adults
Romance, Drama and Musical/Performing Arts
1 hr. 26 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Copyright, Lions Gate Films Copyright, Lions Gate Films Copyright, Lions Gate Films Copyright, Lions Gate Films Copyright, Lions Gate Films
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Featuring: Rene Lavan, January Jones (American Wedding, Anger Management, Love Actually), John Slattery (Mona Lisa Smile, Bad Company), Mya (Chicago), Romola Garai (Nicholas Nickleby)
Director: Guy Ferland (Bang Bang You’re Dead)
Producer: JoAnn Jansen, Sarah Green, Lawrence Bender, Herbert Ross, Gary Lucchesi
Distributor: Lions Gate Films

Plot: Katey Miller (Romola Garai), finds herself in Havana, 1958, for her senior year of high school when her family moves because of her father’s job. She gradually finds herself drawn into the world of Javier Suarez (Diego Luna), a Cuban national who works as a waiter by day and dances at the local club by night. They try to keep their burgeoning interest in one another a secret long enough to win a local dance contest. Rated PG-13 for sensuality and (implied) sex.

The dancing is a metaphor for sex. We all got that the first time, right?

In 1987, “Dirty Dancing” hit the jackpot by being just risqué enough to get adolescent hearts beating, while being just PG-13 enough to convince the old fuddy-duddies that sexual smoke doesn’t always have to mean fire. It’s been seventeen years, and our culture has gotten risqué enough that getting sweaty palms over sensuous dancing, even dancing set in 1958, seems just a little behind the curve. Earlier this year, the independent film Thirteen in effect called the mother character naive in the final scene for thinking her daughter was too young to have begun to have experienced pressure to experiment with sex and drugs.

Even the original Dirty Dancing had to ratchet up the taboo factor by stretching the age limit between Jennifer Grey’s character (oh, so subtly named “Baby”) and Patrick Swayze’s dance instructor in order to add a hint of Lolita to an otherwise mundane “opposite side of the tracks” love-story. Havana Nights has no such secondary taboo, and its substitute—a backdrop of the Cuban revolution—fails to add any real sense of consequence to what we are seeing. Katey’s friends call Javier a “spic.”

Javier’s family accuse him of literally and figuratively kissing up to the Americans. Part of what makes the film’s social consciousness so lacking in drama is that it is so confused. We sense that changes are precipitated more by the plot needing something to happen than by any rational development of character. Katey’s mother (a wasted Sela Ward) slaps her for dancing with a Cuban, then expresses pride at her daughter’s dancing ability, then rediscovers her own sensuality through dance.

Javier first says he wishes to leave Cuba because of Batista, then says he will stay and fight for a free Cuba if this new guy, Castro, turns out to not be such a good idea after all. His father fought (and died) you see, for the idea of a free Cuba, so to leave it after the revolution would be to abandon his father’s dream. To have left it before the revolution would have been different because… because… well, never mind that, right now, let’s dance.

Both Luna and Garai do competent jobs with paper-thin roles. Garai, especially in early scenes, is able to convey a girl who is in search of her confidence, not just her sexuality. I actually found her character to be more interesting before she started dancing, because once she did, symbolism took over for character development. She lets her hair down, she dresses less square, and, finally, she takes a lesson from Yoda and admits that if fear is bad, doing whatever you are afraid of (like sleeping with your Cuban waiter) must be good. The sex is all silhouettes and a quick fade to black, and it is hard to tell which is the film’s bigger lie: that Katey “knows” when she leaves that she will see Javier again (I’m assuming that 44 years later she is now middle-aged and checking CNN daily for Castro’s obituary), or that in 1958 or 2008 it is possible to have have your first sexual encounter and for it to have less emotional affect on you than a really, really good mambo.

Of course, none of this would matter, if the dancing scenes delivered the goods. After all, it’s not like anyone I know watches “High Society” or “Royal Wedding” for the plot. Remember the first time you saw Michael Jackson moon-walk in the “Billie Jean” video? The dancing was electrifying precisely because you could see it. He studied Astaire and Gene Kelly and saw the importance, even in the video age, of letting the camera show the whole body so that the viewer could see the steps, the line, and the posture. “White Nights” had a laughable plot, but the giggles stopped when Hines and Baryshnokov fused ballet and tap.

Unfortunately, while we get several montages of dance snippets in Havana Nights, we only get one sustained dance sequence, and it is much more a triumph of editing than of dancing. The dance scenes here rarely show more than two or three moves or three or four seconds of full dancing before cutting to the band or the audience. The style here is closer to “Flashdance” or “Footloose” than “Chicago,” and while the film doesn’t have (or does a better job of hiding) the body-doubles that stood in for Kevin Bacon and Jennifer Beals in the former films, neither does it have Fred, Ginger, or even Catherine Zeta-Jones.

There is nothing wrong with a formula genre piece: a sports flick that ends in a big game, or a court thriller that ends with a surprise admission on the stand. If, however, you are going to make a formula film, you better bring it when you hit your set pieces. Havana Nights’ biggest failure is a failure to convince us that the king and queen of the dance floor can actually do more than three steps in a row without needing a second or third take.

My Grade: C-

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive—Seeing “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” at the cinema brought back my memories of going to see the original “Dirty Dancing” at the cinema back in 1987. There is some risque dancing, some scenes of cleavage, references to sensuality, but nothing to the extreme. Other than that, this movie is your predictable love story. If you get offended by the risque references, this movie is not for you. “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” ranks no where near the 1987 original classic, but is still enjoyable.
My Ratings: [Better than Average/3]
TCB, age 21
Positive—I think the reviewer was too hard on this film. I had an absolute blast watching the movie, and particularly seeing Romola Garai break away from her traditional costume drama pieces to do a more contemporary film. The pace was rapid, the storyline believable, and I loved some of the strife the two dancers from separate backgrounds came through. The dancing was only “dirty” on two occasions (Latino couples in a sleazy bar atmosphere early on) and where Javier runs his hand down Katie’s chest in the competition. I was pleased how clean it actually was. It’s a lot of fun, and yes… makes you want to dance!
My Ratings: [Better than Average/4½]
Positive—I went to see this movie with two of my friends, and when we left all we wanted to do was dance. The music is wonderful and the dancing leaves you wishing you could take the next plane to Cuba. Both the main actor and actress in the movie were very adorable and made a cute couple on the screen. I do wish that some of the dancing, such as in the club, had been left out. There were a few other scenes that were not necessary (when it implies that they sleep together or a few of the dance moves) but overall it was very good.
My Ratings: [Average/3½]
Heidi, age 19
Negative—This movie was awful! …It was by far the worst movie that I have ever seen. I actually was going to leave during the movie that is how bad it was…
My Ratings: [Extremely Offensive/1]
Nikki Johnson, age 33
Comments from young people
Positive—My 18 year old cousin went with me to see this movie, and we really enjoyed it. The dancing was “sensual” which is probably why its PG-13, but there weren’t any sex scenes, the dancing was the only problem. Overall, though it was entertaining…
My Ratings: [Average/3½]
Amy, age 16
Neutral—I agree that the dancing scenes could have been much more enjoyable had the camera shown their bodies from head to toe for longer periods of time. With such quick camera movements, one does not have time to enjoy the dance. Overall, the movie was only “alright,” and I was disappointed in the dancing.
My Ratings: [Average/2½]
Christine, age 16
Movie Critics
…nobody needs to put this baby on their to-see list… lame plot and inane dialogue.
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
…The dancing is well done, the music will sell a lot of soundtracks…
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
…it’s disappointing the film is so sketchy and underdeveloped… fritters away its dramatic punch with unrealized characters and a lackluster ending…
Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter
…sensual and steamy “dirty dancing”…
…Nothing in Havana Nights will shock anyone already familiar with 1987’s Dirty Dancing…
Steven Isaac, Plugged In