Movies of Summer: Dirty Dancing

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It’s the last week of my look back at essential summer movies. For my final selection, I have chosen an essential summer romance movie. It’s Dirty Dancing from 1987. Starring Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze, it’s a story of forbidden romance set during the course of one memorable summer. It was released nearly 25 years ago, but there’s a reason it continues to be a film favorite generation after generation.

Dirty Dancing takes place in the summer of 1963. 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) goes vacationing with her family in the Catskills at the Kellerman resort. Baby’s father, Jake (Jerry Orbach), is friends with the owner of the resort the family is staying at. During the family vacation, Baby develops a crush on resort dance instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze). It turns out the resort staff have after-hours parties. Baby is stunned and intrigued by the “dirty dancing” taking place at the parties. She receives a short, impromptu dance lesson from Johnny. And the sparks of a summer romance start to fly.

But no romance is without obstacles, especially in the movies. Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant by a philandering club waiter. Making maters worse is that the philandering waiter is cheating on Baby’s older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker). Baby manages to get the money from her father for Penny to have an abortion (of course she doesn’t tell him that’s what the money she’s borrowing is for). But having the procedure means that Penny will miss her weekly dance performances, forefiting the salary of both herself and Johnny for the summer. Eventually Baby is brought on as Penny’s substitute. After all, Johnny can teach anybody to dance, right? Their first few days as dance partners are rough. But eventually they work the kinks out.

As their dace lessons progress, Baby and Johnny enter into a secretive affair. Their clandestine romance is discovered when Johnny is framed for being a thief. Baby’s parents and other resort guests are furious. But after Baby starts to smooth things over with her family, especially her father, she and Johnny reunite for the end-of-season talent show. It is here where the film’s iconic dance sequence happens (done to I’ve Had the Time of My Life). The rest of the resort guests join in afterwards and credits roll.

I left out some of how the melodrama plays out. But that’s because it’s not the point of the movie. The real reason to see Dirty Dancing is, of course, the dancing itself. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze have wonderful screen chemistry together. And it’s a joy to watch their love blossom as the plot unfolds. The film has a soundtrack full of great songs, and it adds to the film’s charm. If Dirty Dancing has a weakness, it’s that at times it feels a little too much like a family soap opera. I would like to have seen some of the characters developed better, especially her father. I mean, you have Jerry Orbach, one of the best actors of his generation. Give him more to do than be a stereotypical protective father figure. Orbach’s performance manages to redeem the thin material he was given. That’s a testament to his gifts as an actor.

Dirty Dancing is not a perfect movie. And that’s okay. Not every movie has to be Casablanca. But it’s a very enjoyable piece of summer entertainment. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze shine together. Looking at it again recently, I was struck  by the depths of Swayze’s performance. Sad that he died so young. But his talents won’t be forgotten as long as Dirty Dancing continues to be discovered and embraced by generations of film lovers.

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Movies of Summer: American Graffiti

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Greetings, readers! It’s time for another look back at a quintessential summer movie. While director George Lucas is best known for Star Wars, he made a great film before his epic science fiction classic. Four years before Lucas made it big by taking audiences to a galaxy far, far away, he invited us to share in a great movie about teens getting ready to make the jump from school to the real world. I’m speaking of course of 1973’s American Graffiti.

American Graffiti tells not just one story but several. A group of kids who just finished high school and are enjoying one last night of summer vacation before transitioning into adulthood and making decisions about life in the real world. But before they go their separate ways into the turbulent world of the early 60s, they enjoy one last night of fun in the world of teen culture, cruising around in classic cars, getting dates, and enjoying rock and roll music.

The plot is told a series of vignettes and each is fascinating in its own way. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) meet up with John (Paul Le Mat), the town’s king of drag racing. Also along for the ride is Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith). All of them meet at the favorite hangout of the local teens: Mel’s Dinner. Curt and Steve are getting ready to head off to college the next day. Curt isn’t so sure about the decision, despite having a college scholarship. He doesn’t want to leave Modesto, CA. Steve entrusts Toad with his 1958 Chevrolet Impala when he heads to college. Toad will return it to him when he comes home for Christmas. Steve is also at a crossroads in his relationship with girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams). Laurie is sad about Steve leaving for college. Making matters worse, Steve suggests they see other people while he is away to strengthen their relationship.

But American Graffiti is great because it doesn’t get bogged down in teenage melodrama. It follows all of its characters on one crazy night as they each have their own adventure. Curt ends up desperately pursuing an elusive blonde he sees at a stoplight when they’re out cruising the streets. In one of my favorite developments of Curt’s story line, be ends up at a radio station getting a message to her over the airwaves with the help of DJ Wolfman Jack, making a cameo as himself. Socially awkward Toad finds new confidence while driving around in Steve’s car. He even manages to pick of a spunky girl named Debbie (Candy Clark). Finally, drag racer Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) is out looking for John to challenge him to a race.

Each of these stories manages to overlap seamlessly. The film is smart, funny, and heartbreaking. We really get intimate portraits of these kids and the struggles they are taking to become adults. Part of the reason American Graffiti was such a hit with audiences as well as critics I think is because everyone found a character to connect with and struggles to relate to. It’s a film set in 1962, but is relatable to just about every generation. That’s why decades later we’re still talking about it.

So many films about or marketed to teens today are either filled with mindless action or gross out humor. American Graffiti treated its characters like absolutely believable, flawed people. This works because of its large and talented ensemble cast and its script by George Lucas, Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck. And the film has one of the best classic rock soundtracks ever put together for a movie.

American Graffiti is rich in its characters, imagination, and is more ambitious film making than you might expect from its plot description. It’s fun, funny, has heart, and is enjoyable no matter which generation you’re in when you watch it.

Movies of Summer: The Endless Summer

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We’re halfway through July. This week I’ll be continuing my spotlight on essential summer movies. My selection this week is a documentary. If you love catching waves, then you must see the documentary The Endless Summer. It’s a great look at surfing and surfing culture.

The Endless Summer was directed by Bruce Brown. He also serves as the film’s narrator. The documentary follows two surfers: Mike Hynson and Robert August as the embark on a surfing trip around the world. What makes the film so compelling isn’t just seeing the surfing footage. It’s the way we really get to know the two main characters, including their personalities and get involved in their world.

The film starts off in California, where Mike and Robert enjoying surfing in the balmy temperatures. But once they embark on their international trek, things get really interesting. They get challenged by the elements, especially when they hit cold ocean currents. The cooler currents make the beaches inhospitable during the winter months. It’s interesting seeing how these Californian’s react in the cooler climates.

Another reason to see The Endless Summer is the exotic locations. Mike and Robert travel to a great range of places: New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii, Ghana, and South Africa, to name a few. The location photography of all the locations is absolutely stunning to look at. And we also get to see the protagonists surf while experiencing new cultures. As a bonus, the film has cameos by other important surfers of the time: Mike Dora and Phil Edwards.

Most documentaries are very formal. But The Endless Summer mixes formal interviews with more casual ones as we get immersed in the world of the surfers. And the film wisely lets the wry humor of its characters come through. You come for surfing footage, but end up getting complete portraits of the surfers themselves.

The Endless Summer also benefits from a fun soundtrack by The Sandals. And it’s worth mentioning that when it was released, it helped birth the surf and travel culture, encouraging people to surf while meeting new people and finding perfect waves the world over.

I have to confess I have never gone surfing or had any desire to try it. But I was absolutely enthralled by The Endless Summer. I enjoyed seeing all the great locations and getting to understand what it is that draws people to the sport. Even if you’ve never picked up a surf board in your life, you should still see The Endless Summer. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it.

Movies of Summer: The Sandlot

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Greetings readers! We’re deep into the summer months. So I thought for July I would take a look at some quintessential summer movies. I’m going to start with a movie that just turned 25 this year and has become a cult classic since its release. While it was marketed to kids, there’s plenty in it for adults to. That movie is The Sandlot.

The Sandlot revolves around a group of boys and their adventures playing baseball. But it’s much more complicated than the plot description suggests. While the bulk of the action takes place on a baseball diamond in the summer of 1962, this is very much a coming-of-age film. It starts with Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), moving to the San Fernando Valley. He’s having trouble adjusting to his new home and desperate to fit in. Smalls could join the local sandlot baseball time, especially since they only have 8 players. Alas, he does not play baseball. His debut on the field does not go well. A fly ball bounces off his glove, causing the other boys on the team to cackle with laughter. But team leader Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) sees something in Scotty Smalls.

Scotty asks his stepfather to teach him how to play baseball with mixed results. Eventually Benny takes him under his wing and helps him earn a spot on the team. During one of the team’s baseball games, their last ball goes over the wall at the end of the sandlot. Scotty tries to retrieve it, but the rest of the team stops him. It is here that we learn about the legend of the Beast. The Beast is an English Mastiff that has become a neighborhood legend. The dog was bought by Mr. Mertle (James Earl Jones) when thieves were raiding his junkyard. Over the years the Beast grew large and aggressive. Local lore claims the Beast ate the thieves, bones and all. To this day balls go over the fence where the beast lives and never come back.

The Beast becomes a crucial plot point during another one of the boys’ games. Benny destroys their baseball and the team is desperate for another one. Scotty steals a baseball belonging to his stepfather so they can play. The ball ends up going over the fence into the lair of the Beast. But Scotty discovers it was no ordinary baseball. It was autographed by Babe Ruth. Scotty’s stepfather is gone for a week on business and the boys set out on a desperate quest to retrieve the baseball.

Eventually the boys do get their ball back, after the Beast gets loose and chases Benny all over town. The ball is sadly destroyed. But in the aftermath of the chase, the fence comes down and the boys meet Mr. Mertle. Merte turns out to be an ex-MLB player that helps them resolve the situation in a way I will not reveal. It’s a great plot twist.

The Sandlot, as I mentioned earlier, has developed a cult following since it came out in 1993. Part of its magic comes from the great characters and their relatable struggles. Scotty Smalls struggling to fit in, socially awkward Squints (Chauncey Leopardi) romancing his crush who works as a lifeguard at the local pool, Benny dreaming of a career in professional baseball, etc.

All of this works because the cast of mostly young actors have a very natural rapport and they go through growing pains in a way that is very believable. The Sandlot does not fall into two traps that a lot of modern kids movies do: going for gross out humor or relying on mindless action. Like another great coming-of-age drama Stand By MeThe Sandlot is a delicately handled character study. In addition to the baseball players, the film has another rarity in family movies these days: adults who are not one-dimensional. My favorite is Mr. Mertle. James Earl Jones is great in the supporting part, and I also love how the boys eventually adopt the feared Beast as their team mascot.

The Sandlot has humor, heart, and a lot of charm. It’s no surprise that it struck a chord with audiences and become a staple of summer movie viewing. In the film we get the pleasure of watching a group of boys grow into men. Seeing their ups and downs through the years no doubt brings back childhood memories for many viewers. For that reason, and many others, The Sandlot is a must watch during the days of summer.