" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Baz Luhrmann is on the verge of winning an Oscar for Moulin Rouge. He may not win Best Picture and he wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, but he certainly deserves both.

What’s surprising is that Moulin Rouge is only his third feature film. Before Moulin there was Romeo + Juliet, and before that, Strictly Ballroom.

Although he’s only made three films, his first one is already ten years old. Miramax is celebrating with a new DVD featuring a widescreen transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, and a new commentary track with Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, and choreographer John O’Connell.

Fight the Power

Miramax DVD celebrates 10th anniversaryWatching Strictly Ballroom again, it’s clear that Luhrmann didn’t have the resources he had for Moulin Rouge. Strictly Ballroom has a less developed sense of lighting, and sets that aren’t nearly as elaborate as its counterpart. But Luhrmann’s trademark style, which made Moulin the best film of 2001, is there in its infancy. Exotic use of color, stylized acting and photography, and the unstoppable energy of youth, are all captured — or rather, set free — on film.

Strictly Ballroom tells the story of Scott (Paul Mercurio), a dancer who can please the crowds with his unorthodox steps, but who can’t convince the judges that he’s the best. The word “Strictly” refers to a set of rules for ballroom dancing that must be closely followed. But our hero has his own ideas about what’s right and wrong in ballroom dance.

His radical ideas stretch beyond mere dance steps and into dance partners as well. Fran (Tara Morice) is a pimply beginning dance student who insinuates herself into Scott’s company. She is determined to become Scott’s partner and dance his steps at the Pan-Pacific championships. Once with Scott, Fran changes from ugly duckling into beautiful swan. Her intent, green-eyed stare under her exotic black Spanish hair is irresistibly beautiful.

The central conflict, then, comes from our talented and handsome young couple bucking the system Frankly, audiences could probably not care less whether our couple actually win a trophy. We just want to see them dance well at the grand finale.

A contrived plot development or two throws some token conflict into the storyline, but ultimately we know from the beginning that Strictly Ballroom won’t let us down. Our heroes have too much charisma, energy and enthusiasm for that to happen.

Menus

I haven’t seen good DVD menus for a long time. Interface designers need to go back to school. Like most problematic interfaces, Strictly Ballroom’s is too cutesy. The animations between menu items are clever and I don’t mind watching them once, but if you want to find something quickly you’re out of luck. You’ll wait ten seconds between pressing ENTER on your remote and finding out if you chose the right option. And in this case, you may not guess correctly the first time. Most of the extras are hidden in a submenu obscurely labeled as “Kendall’s Dance Studio.”

DVD Extras

The most impressive and informative feature is the audio commentary track. Luhrmann tries to pack a lot of information onto it, but it’s not very well organized. At one point he suddenly asks choreographer John O’Connell to talk about a scene on the screen. O’Connell is taken by surprise and all he can come up with is: “look how they swirl.”

Baz seems to know when the commentary is not interesting and he tries to help it along. But he also has trouble knowing when to stop. Once he gets on a pet subject, he talks on and on. I wouldn’t want to have him over to dinner.

Nevertheless, Luhrmann’s story is interesting. He himself was a child ballroom dancer, and his mother was a teacher of ballroom dance. While in drama school, Luhrmann developed a play on which this film is based. The parents in the movie are, he confesses, based on his own parents.

Luhrmann is also open to talking about his technique. He has no prima donna coyness about him. He explains that he likes to use camp — if not camp, then silliness — to disarm the audience just before serious emotion is needed. Disarm us with an easy laugh, and then cram the emotion down our craw. (And even knowing this dirty secret, I’m still moved by Luhrmann’s films; that’s his genius.)

The disc also includes photos from the production, a documentary on real ballroom dance, a feature on production design, and some unrelated promos for other Miramax releases.

Picture and Sound

The DVD picture is pretty good, but compared to the digi-crisp DVD of Moulin Rouge, it shows its age: a speck here, a scratch there. And although the colors are rich and vibrant, I can’t help but think that somehow the color timing is a little off. I don’t think the fault lies in the DVD transfer, but rather in the original source material. On a first film with a relatively small budget, Luhrmann was more constrained than he was with Moulin Rouge, so holding them to the same standard may not be quite fair.

Conclusion

Ten years ago, Luhrmann made a quirky film version of a play based on his childhood experiences. Who would have guessed that it would launch a brilliant career that, two films later, may turn into Oscar gold?

  • Craig B: "Ballroom dance is not as gloriously depicted on Dancing With The Stars. It’s dirty little secret is that men do ballroom dance for sex and money and women do it to get a husband." That is from a Joan W, in her story in the San Francisco BrooWaha http://reno.broowaha.com/article.php?id=2840 September 16, 2008 reply