Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School

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Review #92 of 365
Film: Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School [PG-13] 100 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $12.50
When 1st Seen: 12 April 2006
Where Viewed: Landmark Egyptian Theatre, Seattle, WA
Review Dedicated to: Vicki A. of Chicago, IL

Mark Adler - Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School (Music from the Motion Picture)

Imagine trying to explain to your friend that you cannot come over to watch the vote off show for this week’s American Idol® on Fox® because you are going to go see Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School at 7:00 p.m. “You are going where to see whom about ballroom dancing and charm? Kid, are you kidding me, Kid? We might be losing Ace Young or Bucky Covington tonight! You’re going to miss that for some movie that’s title is too long to even remember twenty seconds later?” Well, yes, and I did, and I am sorry for Bucky but a movie like this only comes along once in a very great while. Once you get past the title which, while apropos, breaks the previous record for longest title of a movie for this year which previously was held by Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World by some 11 characters including spaces (and that’s using an ampersand instead of spelling out the ‘and’ which would have added two more), and you get past the stuffy sounds of ballroom dancing and charm school, trust me, you have one incredibly wonderful film. I loved that fact that I really had no idea what to expect when I first sat down in Seattle’s huge, Landmark Theatre’s Egyptian. Again, I mean, the title? What would you expect? A movie about a charm school? Do they even still have charm schools? How did they ever get away with the concept of a charm school in the first place? Well, nonetheless, let me walk you through this and see what I can do about convincing you to see this film, if in fact, it is your cup of tea (keep that pinky extended).

The film, based on Randall Miller’s musical short of 1990, is not really about Marilyn Hotchkiss or her school though the school does play two crucial roles in the film--one in the past and one in the present. Rather the film is about the lives of two men, Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle) and Steve Mills (John Goodman), that suddenly and inexplicably intersect on the 5th day of the 5th month of the 5th year of the new millennium when Mills races past Keane’s bread truck speeding up a mountain road in southern California on the way to Pasadena. Events that happened subsequently which I shall not spoil, thrust the recent widower Keane to seek out Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School held each Thursday night at the South Pasadena Armory in search of the mysterious Lisa Gobar and object of a pact made some fifty or so odd years ago by Steve to meet back up at the Charm School and see how their lives turned out. Believe it or not, Frank finds the school, dresses up, and attends the class. And this is where the film sort of splits into two worlds for Frank Keane. As it happens, Frank Keane has just endured a tragedy of his own. His wife has died; and, to help him grieve, he has done what so many Americans do--join a support group of other widowers. So, on the one hand, he has this support group of men of various ages and stages of grieving made up of some marquee character actors of our times including: Miguel Sandoval as Matthew Smith, Ernie Hudson as Blake Rische, Adam Arkin as Gabe DiFranco, Sean Astin as Joe Buco, and David Payer as the group therapist, Rafael Horowitz, which he attends weekly; and, on the other hand, he now has the weekly charm school class taught by Ms. Hotchkiss (Mary Steenburgen) and attended also by Meredith Morrison (Marisa Tomei), Tina (Sonia Braga), Randall Ipswitch (Donnie Wahlberg), Evrin Sezgin (Ian Abercrombie), Sally Ann (Dawn Balkin), and others. What he discovers, much to the surprise of the men in his support group, he is making more progress in dealing with his emotions in the dance class than in the support group. In fact, he is also meeting new, interesting, and exciting people like Meredith with whom he might just find the connection he needs to move on. Indeed, Ms. Hotchkiss herself says that dance will allow him to reach deep-seeded emotions and to “…see shades of magenta he never knew existed.” Now, I have intentionally written this such that it does not spoil several other little gems that are best for you to discover when you see it. Come back and re-read after you see it to note that I only cheated with careful diction. Now, all the while, that this is going on, Steve Mills is telling Frank Keane the story behind his mad dash across the country to find Lisa on the 5th day of the 5th month of the 5th year of the new millennium, and that story takes us back in time to when Steve was a little kid, the game of British Bulldog, and, of course, Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School. If you don’t know this game British Bulldog, well, it is similar to Red Rover only instead of teams lining up and sending a person to crash through the opposing line, one kid starts out in the middle of a field and the rest of the kids have to run from one side to the other. Anyone tackled or tagged as they run across is now stuck in the middle to try to tag the next batch. The last untagged kid wins. It is during a game of British Bulldog, and by the way, kudos to director/writer Randall Miller for his inventive technique of first showing the past as it might have looked filmed on equipment of the day and interspersing the real footage with the kids’ imagination footage with real war battle scenes etc. which was both fascinating and fun; that Steve first meets Lisa Gobar as she challenges the boys into lettin her and her best friend play too. During the game, poor Steven inadvertently conks her in the eye with his elbow giving her an awful looking shiner but, also, the makings of a beautiful friendship. Shortly thereafter, Marilyn Hotchkiss herself comes to town to pitch her school to the local mothers as a way of bestowing the gift of refinement on their sons and daughters. Sure enough, Steve’s mom signs him up; or, rather, she forces Steve to sign himself up. The outcome being, that Lisa’s mom also sends her, and Steve’s 120 something consecutive Friday class attendance—surely a record for any 11 year-oldish boy. With that, you have the essence of what makes the rest of the story possible, for what happens when these two worlds collide is as elegant and fun, forthright and frank, charming and spunky as the Lindy Hop.

Every cast member, and some have pretty small parts, turns his or her screen charm on full throttle. The result is a magnificent ensemble film that warms the heart and soothes the soul with many shades of magenta you never even knew existed. Robert Carlyle and John Goodman are fantastic. Donnie Wahlberg should be getting his call for the next season of “Dancing with the Stars” any moment for the brilliant turn he took as the Charm School’s own Michael Flatley. Mary Steenburgen hasn’t looked this hot since Time After Time, and Marisa Tomei hasn’t been this spunky since My Cousin Vinnie. There is simply no reason not to see this film if what you are seeking is bona fide, upscale, entertainment that looks and feels like people really put everything they had into their job of making this film enjoyable.

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