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(2004) (Romola Garai, Diego Luna) (PG-13)

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Drama: An American high school senior learns about life, love and a new way of dancing when she moves to Cuba before the onset of Castro's military coup.
It's November 1958 and Katey Miller (ROMOLA GARAI) isn't particularly happy. That's because the high school senior has moved away from America and all of her friends to Havana, Cuba with her parents, Bert (JOHN SLATTERY) and Jeannie (SELA WARD), and younger sister, Susie (MIKA BOOREM).

Katey does meet other American kids her same age including James Phelps (JONATHAN JACKSON), whose father is boss to hers, and snobby Eve (JANUARY JONES), who looks down on the local help, including waiter Javier Suarez (DIEGO LUNA).

Katey apologizes to him about Eve's attitude and the two become fast friends, with him introducing her to the sensual style of Cuban dancing. His brother Carlos (RENÉ LAVAN), who's involved in the political unrest sweeping the country, isn't happy that Javier is seeing her.

Nor are the Americans, with Eve and Susie turning him in for seeing a guest and thus getting him fired. Feeling bad for what occurred, Katey then tries to convince him to join her in a Latin ballroom dance contest where the winners receive $5,000.

With the country in growing turmoil, Katey and Javier become more than just dance partners as they practice for the big competition and must deal with keeping their love secret from everyone else, including her parents.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
If there's one point where viewers and movie critics regularly disagree, it's over the subject of sequels. While the former often enjoy the return of familiar characters and plotlines, the latter - with a few exceptions - usually see through them as just a moneymaking rather than artistic endeavor.

When such films don't include the same performers or even characters, that greedy nature becomes all the more apparent. All one has to do is think of films like "Grease 2" to know what I'm talking about. You can now add "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" to that illustrious grouping.

While technically a prequel - as it takes place in 1958 whereas the original occurred in 1963 - it has very little to do with the first film in terms of related characters or story. That said, it's basically the same film in terms of structure and plot. Set in Havana rather than the Catskills, it features a teen who discovers the joy of the titular activity along with people in another social class that help liberate her from her uptight and socially stuffy parents and environment.

Considering that the underlying "break free" plot is nearly identical in theme to that in the first film, it's somewhat surprising to hear that screenwriters Victoria Arch (making her feature debut) and Boaz Yakin ("Uptown Girls," "Remember the Titans") based it on the experiences of co-producer and choreographer JoAnn Jansen. Accordingly, it has a bit more of a substantive background/subplot story than the original, but that's not saying a great deal. Beyond getting the look of pre-Castro Cuba pretty much right, however, director Guy Ferland ("Telling Lies in America," "After the Storm") doesn't manage to do much else with that material.

The rest of the film and its main gist reek of stale leftovers as they lack the infectious fun and energy of the original. That's particularly true when it comes to the dancing. Beyond one number that plays well before the finale, the rest aren't terribly entertaining despite the Cuban or Cuban-inspired music.

Speaking of which, the film also - but not surprisingly - emulates the original in including contemporary tunes in a period setting (along with slight musical allusions to the original's "The Time of My Life" song). While I understand that's to help sell the soundtrack, the inclusion is just as odd and distracting here as it was the first time around.

And I'm sorry, but Diego Luna ("Open Range," "Y Tu Mama Tambien") and Romola Garai ("I Capture the Castle," "Nicholas Nickleby") are no Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, particularly when it comes to the dancing. It doesn't help that Garai is a little rough around the edges at time when it comes to her acting. Luna has a natural screen presence and is decent in the role, but the chemistry between them feels as stiff as their dancing.

John Slattery ("Mona Lisa Smile," "Bad Company") and especially Sela Ward ("54," "The Fugitive") can't avoid all of the melodrama that accompanies their characters, Jonathan Jackson ("Tuck Everlasting," "Insomnia") and January Jones ("Love Actually," "American Wedding") play standard-issue stereotypes of the era and René Lavan ("Bitter Sugar," TV's One Life to Live") is underdeveloped as the protagonist's rebellious brother.

The only time the film really takes off is when Swayze occasionally shows up playing a hotel's ballroom instructor and dance "yoda" of sorts for Garai's character. Of course, much of that has to do with his obvious association with the first film, but he doesn't seem to have missed a step in the intervening years and is still the best thing the film has to offer.

Which, it turns out, ends up amounting to little. While not without its sporadic and slight charms, this is a dance you'll probably want to sit out. "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 13, 2004 / Posted February 27, 2004

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