God gives shoes to those who cannot dance.
If I could make a firm science out of what attracts me to a particular movie then would I be happier? Or would I actually want to take some of the mystery out of Life?
I'm sort of speaking metaphorically here, pumpkins, so I'm not really fishing for an answer.
I also think I had this discussion before, but I sometimes reflect on what draws me to movies that I ordinarily presume I'd avoid. For instance: not being a gambler (he says with a straight face), what is it that draws me to Norman Jewison's "The Cincinnati Kid"? If I consider Ayn Rand to be something of an overrated old fraud then why do I care about King Vidor's adaptation of "The Fountainhead"?
(Yeah, I'll catch it for that last statement. Ah well . . .)
(And you're thinking: "I don't know, Uncle Mikey, but I bet you're gonna try and explain it to all of us.")
Wow . . . you guys are good.
A generalized answer to the above question would be that I'm drawn to good acting and directing and such. Or at least what I tend to believe as such (I'm going out on the well-traveled ledge and guess that "Strictly Ballroom" isn't going to tickle everyone's fancy. Well . . . as Mick Jagger remarked before they hanged him in "Ned Kelly": "Such is life"). If a film presents something to attract my particular interests then I find I could care less if the subject is of overall interest.
So what have I found in "Strictly Ballroom"?
Most of you out there are perhaps familiar with 1996's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" and 2001's "Moulin Rouge". Or if not, at least you should be. These were the second and third parts of what has been called the "Red Curtain Trilogy" of films directed by Baz Luhrmann: the award-winning Australian director who also brought us 2008's "Australia" and the soon to be released "The Great Gatsby".
"Strictly Ballroom" (1992) was Luhrmann's first film, the first part of the Red Curtain Trilogy and the least known of his work. Pity. Understandably the lack of recognizable "American" faces probably made the film a difficult sell here, but for me that would be the only reason for its lack of appreciation.
The story involves the cutthroat world of professional ballroom dancing in Australia. Yes, let's all repeat that: "cutthroat world of professional ballroom dancing in Australia". We are meant to believe that competitive dancing can result in some rather brutal moves and behind-the-scene machinations. I might've had trouble with this but I've known people involved in things such as dog shows . . . and you haven't seen viciously competitive until you've seen a "dog person" travel one hundred and eighty miles for the sake of a chance at a simple blue ribbon. Why should competitive dancing be any different?
Scott Hastings is a young ballroom dancer whose star is rapidly rising. He's a clear shoo-in for taking all the honors at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship (yeah, I know. Just nod your head and take it for granted that, for ballroom dancers, it's a Big Thing!). But Scott possesses a Dark Side. Instead of sticking to the "accepted" dance steps, Scott desires to experiment with developing new and dazzling moves. This alienates him from his dance partner Liz, upsets his parents (especially his overwrought dance instructor mother Shirley) and draws the rather heavy ire of those who rule the world of competitive dancing.
(Apparently in Luhrmann's worldview, competitive ballroom dancing is a metaphor for the motion picture industry. But that's just my theory.)
In danger of being forced out of the competition Scott finds an unexpected ally in the form of Fran: a rather frumpy dance student from the Spanish community in Australia. Taking inspiration from the rhythms and moves demonstrated by Fran's family, Scott's ability begins to blossom (as do matters between him and Fran), everything climaxing at the Championship.
Okay, first up "Strictly Ballroom" follows the usual Luhrmann formula of mixing drama, comedy and music. The comedic bits in fact tend to put me in occasional mind of Richard Lester's "Help!". Lots of goonish bits which only needed four Liverpool lads running about to complete the illusion. The timing is what makes even the silliest items work. In one particular favorite scene Liz is screeching at Scott, saying that what she wants is for Ken Railings (a rival dancer) to come in and tell her that Pam Short (another rival) has broken both her legs and Ken now wants Liz to be his partner. Cut to scene of Pam Short screaming in a car which is rapidly going out of control. Cut to Ken entering the studio, going up to Liz and telling her Pam's broken both her legs and he wants Liz to be her partner.
"That was unexpected," one dance student remarks to another. Okay, it's a cheap giggle. But, as I mentioned, Luhrmann's sense of timing makes it work.
I mentioned the lack of "recognizable" faces. But that doesn't mean they're not worth watching. Scott is played by Paul Mercurio: a smooth-moving young man. Think of John Travolta minus the smarminess. Mercurio's character is driven to succeed as a dancer, but his will to excel is in need of occasional booster shots.
The shots come from Tara Morice as Fran. If there is any fascination to be had in "Strictly Ballroom" it's in watching Morice undertake one of the most thorough Ugly Duckling transformations ever made in a live-action film. In the beginning Fran is a shy and insecure little shadow flitting about the Kendall Dance Studio . . . all knees and elbows and wide eyes. One of those girls who looks as if she's wearing braces even when she isn't. But Morice gives the character genuine fire. When Scott deigns to practice some steps with her he tells her that the rumba is the "dance of love" and so she must look at him as if she's in love. The hungry look Fran gives him is a clear clue to the audience that the score is one-zero in favor of the little winged boy with the bow and arrow. By the time the film ends Fran has blossomed into a princess worthy of a Disney classic.
(The transformation is certainly not lost on Antonio Vargas who plays Rico: Fran's father. Initially disdainful of his daughter's activities with the definitely non-Spanish Scott, he nonetheless takes on the task of teaching the couple the art of the "pasodoble". At the beginning he fails to see Fran's capabilities until the moment arrives when she not only demonstrates her natural talent, but hits her father hard with the realization that his little girl has grown into a Young Lady. It's a quick but telling scene which has doubtless been felt by fathers the world over since time immemorial.)
As for the other characters, they exist more as caricatures than actual humans. Pat Thomson's Shirley Hastings is a thoroughly wired cartoon, going through the movie in a state of continual sobbing panic (tragically, Thormson would die before the premier of the film). Possessing a somewhat firmer grasp on reality is Barry Otto as Scott's father Doug. Mostly a broken male mouseburger throughout the story, it is soon revealed that, as with Scott, Doug was also possessed of a rebellious spirit in dance (as exhibited in a rather stylized flashback). In the course of the film it'll be Scott's work with Fran (as well as some tightly held memories) that will give Doug the strength to finally redeem himself. All this in the face of Bill Hunter and Peter Whitford as members of the hidebound ballroom dancing authority which tries to quash all thoughts and suspicions of "new steps". All this while Scott and Fran undergo intensive training at the hands of Armonia Bendito (playing Fran's sprightly grandmother) and Antonio Vargas (who, among other things, was one of the genuine dancers hired to play a part in the film. Even if you're not a dance fan . . . similar to Your Humble Narrator . . . Vargas' moves aren't easy to ignore. His work in choreographing the dancing for "Strictly Ballroom" succeeds in keeping the action smooth, neatly weaving the various steps into the plot.
Some of the secondary characters are cartoons and two-dimensional, but this is part of Luhrmann's overall plan with the film. "Strictly Ballroom" is a 94 minute collection of stereotypes and cliches, with Luhrmann (assisted by writers Andrew Bovell and Craig Pearce) doing their best to cultivate some charm from the mix. So much could've obviously gone wrong. But the strength of Mercurio and Morice's performances . . . raised on a steady diet of Vargas' choreography and a soundtrack by Dennis Hirschfelder . . . manage to overcome expectations. It's all there: in the warm smile on Morice's face, a forcefully vibrant dance climax, and a look of love that easily supports the story (and the interest of the audience).
I rather Enjoyed the Movie!