A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 345 – Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School – February 8th, 2011

I had no idea what to expect from this movie. I mean, I expected that there would be a charm school, but other than that, it was a big mystery. We bought it because of a preview, but the content of said preview is lost to me. I’m pretty sure, however, that it did not accurately represent this movie. Because this movie is not simply about a charm school or dancing. It has comedy sure, but it’s got a far more serious note than I thought it would have. And you know it will right from the start, when the main character, Frank Keane, stops on the highway to help a stranger who’s been in an accident. This is not just a cute little story about a dance class. It is a story about where life takes you and the past and the present and the future.

Early on in the movie I thought two of the characters bore a striking resemblance to each other, so I looked up the cast list, fully expecting to find that they were brothers. And no, it turns out they’re the same person, playing two roles in two films, made 15 years apart. The original Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School was made in 1990. It’s a short film, about half an hour long, about a boy and his best friend and how their mothers made them go to charm school in 1962. And while they started off hating it, they soon grew to like it and eventually even started to not hate girls. In fact, they end up liking girls too. Fifteen years later, writer/director Randall Miller expanded upon his short, writing an entirely new present day story around it. And Elden Henson was cast in a minor role as a friend and coworker of Frank Keane. Pretty cool.

The original short is broken up into pieces and peppered throughout the movie as flashbacks. Frank comes across a car accident one day and stops to help. There he meets Steve, who was on his way to meet Lisa, the girl he loved when he was twelve. They promised each other they’d return to Marilyn Hotchkiss’ school on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium, no matter what. Frank promises he’ll go in Steve’s place and tell Lisa what happened. Of course it’s not as simple as that. Frank gets there and is utterly at a loss for what to do. Lisa isn’t there and he ends up staying and learning the Lindy Hop and catching the eye of a young woman, Meredith. And he goes back. Again and again. And as the movie goes we learn about Frank. He’s a baker whose wife committed suicide. He’s lonely and lost and goes to a support group for widowers. But little by little, with the help of the class, he starts to move forward.

The movie is told back and forth. The bulk of the movie is Frank’s story, showing him going to support group meetings, baking, at dance class. But then there are scenes with Steve in the ambulance. And that moment is probably an hour of movie world time, tops, but it’s shown in little bits and pieces. A minute here, two there. And Frank entreats Steve to tell him more about Lisa and the charm school to keep Steve conscious while the EMTs work to save him. And those scenes take us back to 1962 and the short. And every time we go back we learn more about Steve, but we also learn more about the power of this dance class and how it helped people come together and relate to one another. So when we go back to the present day, it’s no surprise that Frank is coming out of his shell. He tells his support group – including a demonstration, which is a fantastic scene where he rehashes the Lindy Hop lesson for the group leader and teaches him how to dance – and soon they’re coming to dance too, one by one.

The present day plot has more going on than can really fit in the confines of the movie. Meredith’s step-brother is a controlling jackass who hits her and slashes Frank’s tires. Marilyn’s daughter has taken over the class but has some sort of long term lack of acceptance that her mother is gone. We only catch fleeting moments about Frank’s wife. And yet, I never really felt that the movie was lacking. It was that those parts weren’t things we were meant to see more of. Because we’re mostly meant to see the dance class. What’s outside the class is in the past, or the future, and we only get to know it in moments, not in swaths. And I like that. Sure, dance seems to fix a lot of problems automatically – the whole plot with Meredith’s brother ties up very neatly and quickly indeed – but other problems are slow in fixing.

I would have to say my only real criticism of the movie is that after the climax, when Frank and Meredith get together and the whole support group has joined the dance class and Meredith’s brother is welcomed back into the fold after punching Frank, the movie goes on a little long. And this is to wrap up Steve’s plot. Because Steve was the impetus for all of this. Frank does indeed find Lisa, but then after he finds her we go back to a different point in time. We go back to just prior to the accident, where we learn what Steve was up to and why he was in such a hurry. And well, I get the point of it. It was an interesting direction to take the character. But I don’t know that it was entirely necessary. Or rather, if it was necessary at that point. It slows things down and hurts the impact of the scene with Lisa, which made me cry, I admit. Which is too bad, really, because the rest of the movie is paced beautifully and has some really wonderful parallels between the short and the new material. The last bit with Steve just sticks out.

The acting is also beautiful. Robert Carlyle as Frank, in particular, is amazing. There are many scenes for him where he says almost nothing. He’s a quiet man. Reserved. Definitely pent up. And he is grieving. And oh, the grief is a cold and palpable thing from him. Carlyle does a wonderful job with Frank and I loved every moment he was on screen. John Goodman has a difficult role as the dying Steve, gasping out his story, but he does a nice job with it. Marisa Tomei is lovely as Meredith, who is just as awkward as Frank and who has a sad story herself, but who is also charming and shy and interesting. They open up to each other, and it’s the sort of romantic story I appreciate. The rest of the cast is peppered with familiar faces. Ernie Hudson, Camryn Manheim, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin and Donnie Wahlburg, to name a few. It’s amazing, really, seeing these actors show up in large and small parts, and they all just slip right in, making the movie what it is. Full of humor and tragedy and romance and dance and charm.

When I was in middle school some well-meaning parent of one of my classmates told my mother about “junior cotillion”, which was a dance and manners class that ran every other week or so up at one of the other local private schools. She asked if I wanted to do it and I said sure, why not. I had no idea what it was. But there I learned to do a variety of basic formal dance steps (the box step is all I’ve retained). I wore frilly dresses and white gloves and tried to maneuver myself into the right spot so I could dance with a cute boy, though I later learned that cute wasn’t what mattered. Dancing with a boy who wouldn’t snap my bra strap was more important (I smacked the first one who tried it). Ah, cotillion. Watching this movie tonight, with its flashbacks to a childhood charm school class, I found myself right back there, hands clammy in those stupid gloves, awkward and shy and wondering what the hell I was doing. And yet, regardless of the awkwardness and oddity of it all, I still have fond memories of it. It’s hard to explain the sort of mood that such a class has, but this movie captures it, both in the flashbacks and the modern day. I wasn’t expecting this movie. I wasn’t expecting it at all and I’m really rather glad of that.


February 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dance & Charm School

February 8, 2011

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dance & Charm School

I can’t remember what movie I saw the preview for this on, but it looked like a touching and moving film. It looked like it had some humor and fell into that category with The Full Monty (another Robert Carlyle movie) of movies where dance solves all problems. The preview depicts a movie about a widower who ends up going to a dance class and finds some solace there. While this is an accurate short plot summary of this movie it doesn’t even begin to encompass the film we watched tonight.

Writer director Randall Miller has done something extremely odd here. He’s taken a 1990 nostalgic short film about young boys in the sixties and expanded it into a feature film with a completely different tone. The short (which is featured on the DVD as well) is preserved almost in its entirety, but cut up and sprinkled throughout the movie as background for a character who isn’t even featured in the A plot, really, except as some kind of guiding force. William Hurt’s narration is replaced by John Goodman, who plays an adult version of one of the boys in the short, Steve Mills. The way that Steve fits into the plot of the feature film is that he was on his way to attend a dance class, in hopes of re-connecting with a girl he knew when he was twelve, when his car crashes. The only person on the scene of the crash is a bereaved baker named Frank Keane. Frank is the main character in the feature – and Steve’s story is framed as a sort of inspiration for him. Frank attends the dance class in Steve’s place and discovers something there that he wasn’t expecting.

So there are three movies going on here. The original short, the story of adult Steve with his quest to get to the Marilyn Hotchkiss school, and the story of Frank going to the school in Steve’s place. The result is an odd blend of different tones. It’s a movie about recovering from crippling loss, about trying to find a way to turn back the clock and make better choices in one’s life, and about ballroom dancing. With a sprinkling of romance and humor. To call the movie quirky would be an understatement.

It works though. That’s the strangest thing. It’s a touching and charming movie. And the key to its success is the absolutely astonishing cast that Miller has collected here. Robert Carlyle is fantastic of course. He so deftly captures the quiet desperation of Frank, and it’s a thrill to see him finding a way out of the hole he’s in at the start of the movie. John Goodman’s character Steve is an interesting one, and he provides a lot of power to drive the film. There’s a great cast of supporting characters and oddballs played by big name actors. Marisa Tomei as a mysterious and sad woman Frank meets at the dance class. Donnie Wahlberg as an angry but desperate ladies man in the school. Ernie Hudson and Sean Astin as a couple of other bereaved widowers in Frank’s support group. And a fantastically eccentric performance by Mary Steenburgen as Marienne Hotchkiss, who is teaching the dance class in memory of her mother who founded it back in the sixties. Her performance is so strange, shrill and brittle. She takes a few lines and creates an entire character from them. Not to forget the spectacular dual performance of Elden Henson who stars in the short from the nineties as young Steve and is in the feature film as Frank’s friend and employee Samson. Elden has an effortless charm to him – it makes me wonder why I haven’t seen him in larger roles.

How to possibly describe this peculiar film? Think of it as a combination of A Christmas Story with Up and Strictly Ballroom. All blended together to create something otherworldly and magical. It’s not at all the movie I was expecting from the preview, but I’m extremely glad nonetheless that it is in our collection.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment