It is frustrating to have a Caribbean soul yearning for time on the beach while being stuck at home during this pandemic. And while I can’t make the virus go away, a Margarita Road Film Festival in your own home might help ease the pain.
The Margarita Road is what I call the highway of heart and mind that lets us dream about running away to a new life in the tropics. And since we can’t follow that dream right now, why not sit back and watch pretty people pretend to do that exact thing in the movies?
Here are ten of the films I love for their ability to transport the viewer to paradise, plus a fun bonus. So fill a bowl with popcorn and a glass with rum and settle in for some virtual adventures.
- Captain Ron – One of my favorite “escape the rat-race” movies. Martin Short plays an overachieving, over-stressed businessman who inherits a broken-down sailboat in the Caribbean. Kurt Russell plays the one-eyed, incompetent, oversexed, and totally charming Captain Ron who agrees to take Short, his family, and the boat back to Miami (despite having no clue in what direction it lies.) Along the way they get lost and meet pirates, the kids get tattoos, Ron seduces the local women, and hilarity ensues. Short initially despises the irresponsible, freedom-loving Ron then accepts him and eventually sees the beauty of life traveling the world. Just like Captain Ron.
- Running Scared -This is a cop-buddy movie set in Chicago during the winter. So why is it on a list of films about running away to the tropics? Because midway through the film, our heroes (played by a very young Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines) are ordered out of town by the police chief after they are targeted for death by the bad guys. The boys end up in Key West where beautiful women roller skating in bikinis, the blue-green water, and those spectacular sunsets almost seduce them into giving up their old lives. Almost. If you don’t want to watch the whole movie, check out the Michael McDonald music video Sweet Freedom on YouTube. It has the whole Key West sequence.
- The Deep – A Hollywood-style adventure movie with big-name stars of the day. Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset play a couple on a scuba diving vacation in the Bahamas when they discover sunken treasure that will change their lives. It’s not just gold they find, but bottles of liquid morphine. Robert Shaw is the local tough guy who helps out when drug dealer Louis Gossett Jr. wants the dope for his own. Aside from beautiful shots under the water and around the island, the movie is also famous for scenes of the lovely Ms. Bisset diving in a tight, white t-shirt instead of a bikini top. That sold a lot of tickets.
- To Have and Have Not – A book about smugglers in the Caribbean by Hemingway becomes a movie script by Faulkner, which is directed by Howard Hawks and stars Humphrey Bogart. What more can you ask for? How about Hoagy Carmichael (of “Stardust” fame) as the local island saloon’s piano player and a 19-year-old Lauren Bacall as the wandering soiled dove? Forget the nonsensical plot about Nazis and free French. Instead, stay focused on Bogie and Bacall as they fall in love with each other both on-screen and off. And don’t forget to whistle.
- The Big Easy – No less an authority than Jimmy Buffett has declared New Orleans to be the northernmost part of the Caribbean, and this movie gives you an idea why. Dennis Quaid is a young, carefree New Orleans police detective (with the worst Cajun accent you have ever heard) trying to romance the newly arrived pretty district attorney Investigator played by Ellen Barkin. The only problem is that while Quaid is showing her the sights of New Orleans, she is investigating him for being on the take! The back and forth repartee is reminiscent of Hepburn-Tracy films, and the unique and exotic nature of the Big Easy (which I love) is on full display.
- Havana – Not many critics or moviegoers liked this Casablanca-inspired film very much. Personally, I think it is great. There is a love triangle, of course. The tough American gambler looking for a big score is played by Robert Redford. Raul Julia is the brave intellectual fighting against a corrupt government. Lena Olin is the woman who loves them both. A cliché plot is made more interesting by setting it in Cuba during the days leading up to New Years Eve 1959 when Castro and Che finally won their revolution. Politics are underplayed while the movie focuses on the moral dilemmas of the three main characters. Beautifully filmed in the Dominican Republic.
- Romancing the Stone – This one is just plain fun. Michael Douglas is an expat hustler living on the coast of Columbia who agrees to help a traveling New York novelist (Kathleen Turner) when she gets lost in the jungle while running from some nasty people. The plot about treasure maps and giant emeralds takes a back seat to the romance and the laughs (did I mention Danny DeVito?). Turner is the real star as she breaks out of her frightened shell to become a badass woman fighting crooked cops and vicious crocodiles.
- Captain Blood – You can’t dream about the Caribbean without having an adventure with pirates! Forget that Disney, overly-produced, overly-marketed CGI crap. Go back to the Errol Flynn sword and sailing ship classic flicks of the 30s and 40s. Captain Blood is his first and best swashbuckling role. Flynn plays the innocent man forced into the life of a pirate with a grin and a wink who still keeps a child-like enthusiasm for the role. The recently deceased Olivia de Havilland is his love interest. Shiver me timbers!
- Night of the Iguana – A depressing movie about a drunk ex-priest (a brilliant Richard Burton) leading tours in 1960’s Puerto Vallarta. He ends up collapsing at a jungle hotel where he becomes the object of desire for a teenage seductress; an English spinster; and a booze-swilling, bawdy, take no prisoners dame—the latter played by the irrepressible Ava Gardner. It’s a Tennessee Williams piece, so there is a lot of sexual tension and nobody really ever finds happiness…but it is a great realistic portrayal of life as an expat. (It ain’t all margaritas and beaches, you know.)
- The Shawshank Redemption – Yes, it is a prison movie set in New England. But for me it is the penultimate “escape to the tropics” movie. Ninety percent of the film takes place within the gray, oppressive walls of a prison. Andy Dufresne is serving a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. We hope for his release and identify with his plight because we all have prisons of our own we would like to run away from. In the last few minutes on the screen, we watch and cheer as we finally see our hero find the freedom to live on a white sand beach near a calm, blue ocean. If he can do it, maybe we can too.
Binge viewing bonus…
- Miami Vice – The colors are pink and turquoise. The cars are fast. The suits are linen. And the de rigueur accessory for everyone is a sliver coke spoon hung about the neck. This must be Miami in the 1980’s. For five seasons, Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Rico Tubbs (Phillip Michael Thomas) work as the coolest undercover narcotics cops in Miami. Pretending to be bad boys while actually being good guys lets them work both sides of the street. Add in Edward James Olmos as the mysterious ex-CIA assassin who is now a police captain (!?) and you have some great television. And, of course, it was one of the first TV shows to use contemporary rock/pop/R&B as theme music. They also get credit for loving Caribbean Soul. In the very first show, Crockett’s tape collection is revealed to include…Jimmy Buffett!
That’s it. I hope these shows and movies help stoke the fires of everyone still dreaming about tropical climates and distant beaches, even now in the middle of a pandemic. Hang in there. It won’t last forever.
For more adventures about traveling south to find paradise,
check out my award-winning debut novel,
Driftwood: Stories from the Margarita Road.
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Oh my! Thank you for this! 🍔🦩🧉