Friday, July 13, 2018

TV’s Dirty Dancing: Putting Baby in a Corner

No one pretends that the original Dirty Dancing is a masterpiece. Its  story beats are obvious; some of its casting doesn’t work (e.g. an older sister who resembles 17-year-old Baby not at all) and there’s woefully little discussion of the pitfalls of teen sex. But the 1987 film also has some unmistakable assets: a great score, an ending that appeals to the romantic in all of us, and (especially) a dance duo who make our hearts go pitter-pat. As bad-boy dance instructor Johnny Castle, Patrick Swayze is thrillingly sexy, while still managing to convince us of his tender side. Lithe Jennifer Grey (age 27), is credible as a sheltered teen learning how to spread her wings. When, late in the film, she leaps into Swayze’s arms for a triumphant “angel lift,” the moment is sheer terpsichorean perfection. Vicariously we too have the time of our lives, watching these born dancers go through their paces. Truly, they make ME feel like dancing.

Which is why I was curious to see the 2017 TV remake. The original, a modestly budgeted flick from Vestron that was expected to go pretty much unnoticed, made such an impact on young people everywhere that it wasn’t too surprising to see it re-tooled as a TV movie. This, after all, is an era in which the TV versions of several Broadway musical hits (The Sound of Music, The Wiz, Grease) have attracted big audiences. Those shows were all broadcast live, enjoying the energy as well as the challenge of in-the-moment performance. Dirty Dancing was not filmed in the same throw-caution-to-the-winds way. In order to replicate the atmosphere of Kellerman’s, the fictionalized Catskill resort of the movies, it was filmed on location, amid the lakes and piney woods of North Carolina. Still, this new Dirty Dancing is intended to come off as a genuine musical entertainment, which has helped contribute to one of the odder aspects of the storytelling.

The makers of this re-make brag about how they’ve improved upon the original by fleshing out such featured characters as Baby’s sister, mother, father, and the hot-to-trot divorcee who complicates life for Johnny. This turns out to mean that each of them gets a spotlighted musical number. You see, Baby’s mom (Debra Messing) is feeling neglected by her workaholic spouse, so she threatens divorce . . . but when she croons “The Way You Look Tonight” in front of a rapt Kellerman’s audience, her husband (Bruce Greenwood) realizes how much he loves her. Which leads, in turn, to him seated at the piano in the hotel’s rehearsal hall, playing and singing the very same tune. And Baby’s sister (Sarah Hyland of Modern Family) ventures a ukulele duet with the camp’s African-American piano player, Because the story is still set in 1963, the filmmakers are clearly trying to convey a brave social message.

My biggest problem, though, is with this film’s Baby, played by Abigail Breslin. She’s an appealing actress, whom I fondly remember from Little Miss Sunshine, but (alas) a dancer she is not. With her chunky, busty figure and physical awkwardness, she is convincing as the Ugly Duckling Baby of the early scenes. But her transformation into a skillful dance partner (as well as sexual partner) for Johnny is not to be believed for a moment. When they performed the famous “Angel Lift,” I was relieved that poor Colt Prattes, playing Johnny, remained upright. See below to compare the two versions.

One key plot point in Dirty Dancing remains an illegal abortion that comes close to ending in tragedy. It’s alarming, frankly, that in 2018 this seems like Dirty Dancing’s most timely detail.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Half Widow: A Whole New World . . .

More years ago than I care to count, I spent an unforgettable few days in Kashmir, Indian’s northernmost state. Based in Srinagar, I visited fabled gardens, stayed on a romantic houseboat docked on the local river, and gazed upward at towering mountain peaks. But the beauty of the region was offset by a sense of military wariness: Kashmir was and is disputed territory, claimed by both India and Pakistan. Both the beauty and the political tension of Kashmir are well displayed in a film directed and co-written by one of my former students, Danish Renzu.

Teaching Advanced Screenwriting workshops through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program has introduced me to a fascinating range of would-be writers. I teach online, so there’s an international flavor to many of my course rosters. I’ve had students from Australia, Greece, and Malaysia. I’ve read a sex scene set in Africa that bubbled up from  the imagination of a Jesuit priest who (after years of missionary work) now calls Dublin home.  I’ve encountered far-off places like Nepal from the perspective of aspiring writers who’ve lived and worked there. Through my students I’ve explored the world from many angles, and I feel enriched by what I’ve learned.

Danish Renzu comes from India. A native Kashmiri, he’s so determined to make his mark as a filmmaker that he has crossed land and sea to settle in Southern California. By the time I got to know him, he had acquired a full repertoire of cinematic skills. But he wanted to tune up one of his screenwriting projects, and I enjoyed giving my input on what was working and what was not. (That very timely project, called Illegal, deals with an immigrant from India who’s forced to live below the radar in California once his educational plans fall through. Danish plans to shoot this script in the near future.)

Meanwhile, after making several prize-winning short films, Danish has put forth his first feature, Half Widow. (It’s only fair to mention his producer and co-screenwriter Gaya Bhola, who like Danish has dedicated herself for years to this labor of love.)  Half Widow, apparently the first feature to be shot in Kashmir by Kashmiris, looks closely at the life of a young woman named Neela who suffers from a grim fate that was not uncommon at the time of Kashmir’s 1999 Kargil War. Neela is happily married and expecting her first child when the local militia swoop down and arrest her husband on no particular charges. From what we’ve seen of him, he’s apolitical and totally innocent, but Neela’s desperate efforts to find and free him are all in vain. Matters go from bad to worse: she loses her baby, her devoted younger brother is also jeopardized, and she can find no value in her own life. But when an international delegation of female journalists approaches her for an interview about what it’s like to be categorized as a half-widow, Neela realizes it’s up to her to resurrect her life and tell her husband’s story. So a film that deals in anguish ends with a genuine sense of hope, showing how someone can survive the unthinkable and move on.

Half Widow, shot in increments during several trips to Kashmir, has inspired a fan base that turned out in force at a recent Santa Monica screening. It has been featured at festivals both in India and the U.S., winning such prizes as the Audience Choice Award at the Seattle International Film Festival. I feel great pride that a former student of mine is turning into a filmmaker to reckon with.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Angels in America on Independence Day

I spent part of the July 4 holiday watching the 2003 HBO production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols. I’d seen the play (which is really two full-length plays) in Los Angeles prior to its triumphant Broadway debut in 1993. Then the 2018 revival starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, one which earned more Tony nominations than any other in Broadway history, piqued my interest. So I turned to the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries to relive Kushner’s vision.

Angels in America is subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. It begins in October 1985, as the AIDS crisis is ramping up in New York City. The plot weaves together several realistic stories: that of a newly diagnosed gay man (Prior Walter) and his fearful partner (Louis); that of a closeted Mormon lawyer (Joe) and his neurotic young wife (Harper). There’s also a male nurse nicknamed Belize -- a flamboyant “queen” who’s seen his share of young gay men dying -- as well as the Mormon lawyer’s down-to-earth Salt Lake City mother, Hannah, who’s far more complex than she at first seems. The story is enhanced by the presence of a genuine historical figure, attorney and right-wing power-broker Roy Cohn. As the play begins, Cohn is trying to maneuver the clean-cut Joe into a position in the U.S. Department of Justice, so that his own name can be cleared of wrong-doing. Once the action gets underway, it’s revealed Cohn’s dying of AIDS. An angry, vindictive little man, he admits to sleeping regularly with males, but hotly denies being gay. And so it goes.

What lifts Angels in America beyond the realm of kitchen-sink drama or soap opera is Kushner’s inventive language and mythical bent. He’s got a gift, first of all, for witty remarks, like “You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag.” And he moves far beyond the concerns of the gay community by seeing his characters in historical context, somewhat paralleling the immigrants and other outcasts who have not been entirely welcomed into the fabric of American life. Through the character of Ethel Rosenberg, whose visitations to Roy Cohn in his hospital bed are a spooky reminder of his personal role in the execution of the Rosenbergs on espionage charges, we’re reminded of the more questionable moments in the history of American jurisprudence.

Ethel is a realistic sort of ghost, but what to make of the avenging angel who descends through the ceiling to violently confront Prior Walter? In these sections of the drama, Kushner’s language goes a bit bonkers, and the audience has to hold on for dear life. I have a feeling that such phantasmagoria may work better on the stage, an environment in which we expect to see the unreal without having to make literal sense of it. That being said, I can’t praise highly enough the cast Mike Nichols assembled for the HBO version. He followed the stage play in having several of the featured actors taking on more than one role  I won’t soon forget Meryl Streep as both a coyly vindictive Ethel Rosenberg and a plain-jane Mormon mom. Given how often she’s cast as grand figures—like Margaret Thatcher, Miranda Priestly, and even Florence Foster Jenkins—it’s wonderful to see what Streep can do in a humbler role. I was also much taken with Jeffrey Wright, as both Belize and a hallucinatory travel agent. An unrecognizable Al Pacino is both hideous and poignant as Roy Cohn, and the younger actors are memorable too. All left me with a lot to think about on July 5.