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Being a movie reviewer isn't always about seeing the films you necessarily want to see. It's about seeing an ever changing array of films covering all the various genres and starring both big name Hollywood stars and little known actors and actresses. It's about seeing just about everything under the sun regardless of past experiences. There are actors that I dislike and their are the ones I like. The same goes for directors, producers and writers and just about everyone else who has a major role in the production of a motion picture. My first experience with director Baz Luhrmann was his 1996 adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" a film which I thought failed in capturing the classic Shakespearean tale. The pure over the top direction and quick cutting visuals nearly made me ill and I had to turn off the film before it's conclusion. Over the years to follow, I heard about a musical "Moulin Rouge" which had gone through numerous production problems including a bad knee injury to principal actress Nicole Kidman. This peaked my interest because deep down in my soul lies a boy who loves a musical and the idea of using modern songs in a period piece seemed like an interesting concept. Flash forward to the summer of 2001 and the film's debut. I wasn't sure what to expect when I went into this film nor was my best friend who hesitantly accompanied me due to the presence of Miss Kidman. Roughly 2 hours later, it was evident that I had seen one of the best films of the year as well as a new director for my must see list. Forgetting for a minute that this was from the same director whose other film I hated so much just a few years earlier. After seeing "Moulin Rouge" five times during it's theatrical release and sampling the exquisite DVD. I knew that it was time to give another Bazmark production a chance. A few months later, I found myself sitting down to view "Strictly Ballroom" the first part of the magical "Red Curtain Trilogy" and a series that I had been up to this point split down the middle.

At the dance studio.
Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) and Liz (Gia Carides) are two of the best ballroom dancers in all of Australia. They have been dancing together for a number of years and they are finally the odds on favorites to win the Pan Pacific Grand Prix, the most revered competition in the ballroom dancing world. However Scott has gotten tired of dancing the standard steps and begins to experiment with more "crowd pleasing" type moves. This is frowned upon in the very classical oriented world and Scott's mother Shirley (Pat Thompson) is very upset with her son as is Liz who just wants to win and receive recognition for her efforts. Liz decides that it's best to break off their partnership. Unsure of what to do the dance studio led by instructor Les Kendall (Peter Whitford) begins to audition replacements for Scott as the championships are just three weeks away.  Luck isn't on their side though many girls want to win the championship none of them are at the same skill level as Scott.  At the same time that these auditions are happening the studio's least experienced klutz of a dancer Fran (Tara Morice) tries to convince Scott to give her a chance. He reluctantly accepts and although her technical skill is quite lacking, she has a creative flare similar to Scott's. After a number of practices, Scott asks Fran to dance with him at the next event. At the event things don't go exactly as planned as Federation President Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) has a dubious plan to set Scott up with Tina Sparkle the partner of the current champion who is set to announce his retirement that evening. Barry hopes that by setting up Scott, he can curb the mischievous nature of Scott's moves and regain order within the world of dance. No one can believe that Scott would rather dance with Fran, then the gorgeous accomplished Tina who is he almost guaranteed a win. So as the Pan Pacific approaches Scott and Fran begin to come together as a team and as a couple despite everyone's objections.

The story of "Strictly Ballroom" is very generic and is one of the most used story conventions in both modern and historic cinema. Boy meets Girl, Boy and Girl fall in love, Boy and Girl get pulled apart and then as a audience we wait for their inevitable reunion. The story progresses through the logical and required steps until it reaches the ending that was known to the viewers since the beginning. However where this film breaks away from that convention is in the fresh and modern approach it takes to unleash the comedy, drama and romance set amidst the most unlikely background.

"Strictly Ballroom" is the first film in a three part "Red Curtain" trilogy from the mastermind of theatrical cinema Baz Luhrmann an Australian native who got his start with Opera and Stage productions in his home country. He is one of the most versatile and innovative directors I've come across with each of his film's focusing on taking the most basic  story elements and turning them into a vibrant extravaganza that's a marvel for the senses. His camera techniques are fast and furious sucking the viewer into the world of the picture. The colors used and the constantly engaging visuals are out of this world prove that there's nothing to extreme for a Baz Luhrmann film. He employs break neck camera panning and is the master of the quick cut editing technique that's so popular nowadays. In a way this Australian is the father of the MTV editing style. In this his directorial debut he takes a very personal story and one that's been told numerous times before and through the uniqueness of his visuals and direction causes this film to transcend the very basic concept it's about. A relationship that goes through more then it's fair share of hardships set in the world of dance..

In any film that deals with a principal character or characters having a special talent the director is faced with the added responsibility of finding someone who is able to convey through their performance that they actually can do the activity they are portraying. In some films this is singing, archery or even kung fu. In the case of "Strictly Ballroom" it's the art of ballroom dancing. For the male lead role of Scott Hastings, Baz decided to cast professional dancer Paul Mercurio who at the time was in the top of the rankings in the modern dance community. While he was a trained dancer he had very limited experience with ballroom. Luckily he is able to pull it off quite nicely and this is probably due to the improvised more showoff type moves the character of Scott uses in his routines.  As for acting he manages to portray the complicated Scott quite well and if I had not know this was his acting debut then I probably wouldn't have guessed it. In the female lead Fran we have Tara Morice who is quite the opposite to her male counterpart having very limited dance experience prior to the film. Morice is reprising her role from the stage production and apparently had to really fight for this role. Her transformation from ugly duckling to stunning beauty isn't all that surprising but the emotions she carries forth seem real and genuine. Her dancing while not as technically perfect as Mercurio is eye catching and pleasing and probably better then most non dancers could do.  Along the same lines as "Moulin Rouge" and "Romeo and Juliet" the supporting cast is full of colorful performances from Dance Federation President Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) to Scott's mother Shirley (Pat Thompson) and Scott's ex partner Liz Holt played by Gia Carides. Carides is probably best known to American audiences for her small role in the Austin Powers sequel "The Spy Who Shagged Me".  Also worth noting is an excellent cameo type role from legendary Flamenco dancer Antonio Vargas who plays Fran's father.

I'll be the first one to admit that a film about ballroom dancing wouldn't normally be high up on my list of things to see. I'm a male and just like figure skating or any sort dance oriented activity the subject matter just doesn't interest me. However this film managed to captivate me with it's high energy, extremely visual and over the top amount of heart. Fans of Luhrmann's later films will find all the trademark aspects they've come to know and love though one has to remember that this was his first motion picture and as such remains much smaller in scale. The combination of music, dance, comedy and drama makes "Strictly Ballroom" a highly enjoyable film for people of all ages.

An unlikely partnership
"Strictly Ballroom" is a Baz Luhrmann film and as such the quality of the transfer automatically has to be that much better to convey his complex and ultra-stylistic visuals. Miramax is up to the task presenting "Strictly Ballroom" in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Released in 1992 this film looks as good or better then it must have back then. Aside from a few minor concerns this is a refreshing delight of a transfer. Colors are deeply detailed and the extravagant hues that bring the world of Australian dance  to life. The reds and yellows especially are lush and vibrant providing a stunning visual experience. The transfer has adequate sharpness with a nice amount of detail however there are a few shot focus shots sprinkled throughout the film that I believe were the directors intention. The print used is quite clean considering it's age and aside from some minor dust specks and the occasional grainy shot there is nothing really problematic about the print. Happily there are no problems created in the digital domain as the print is free of annoying enhancement and shimmering. Although this isn't close to the near perfect transfer on Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" DVD it still far exceeds the expectations of this reviewer. A strong visual effort from Miramax nonetheless with components that'll make you go Wow.

As is the case with the visuals, the audio also plays a heightened role in director Baz Luhrmann's films. From the pop rock musical soundtrack to "Romeo and Juliet" to the full on musical assault of "Moulin Rouge" Luhrmann's film's just scream out to be listened to  in digital sound. Miramax goes all out here with their brand new 5.1 remix for "Strictly Ballroom". which provides a lot more punch then I was expecting given the age and budget limitations of the film. This is Luhrmann's smallest film in terms of scope and as such doesn't present quite the workout of his later work. For the most part it's a dialogue driven mix but during the competition and practice scenes the mix opens up to all the speakers to present a rich and warm musical experience. The music is crystal clear and mixed to perfection throughout the picture. Dialogue is easily heard above the chaos of the music. Surround usage is fairly limited as the majority of the film takes place indoors and with only a handful of characters on screen at anytime there isn't much room for ambience. Some of the sound effects sounded pretty sharp especially the sound of the shoes hitting the hard wood floors during the dance scenes. Although this doesn't approach upon reference quality material it's proof that the sound mixes of low budget pictures don't need to suffer due to lack of money.

It seems there's two distinct types of directors, those who embrace the DVD format and are eager to share the movie magic with their audience and those who either dislike the format or don't wish to share as much information about their work. Luckily Baz Luhrmann is in the former category rather then that latter as he released what I feel was the DVD of the year "Moulin Rouge" which was jammed packed with just about everything a fan could want. His single disc  "Special Edition" release of "Romeo and Juliet" also contains a fair bit of bonus material. So I was looking forward to seeing what he would offer on this release.

In typical Bazmark fashion.  Baz has agreed to sit down and discuss the film that is "Strictly Ballroom". This time around he's joined by production designer Catherine Martin (Moulin Rouge), and choreographer John "Cha Cha" O'Connell. Luhrmann appears to be a big fan of DVD format and the opportunities the audio commentary gives film makers as this is his 4th commentary and he's only directed three movies.  This is also the third time Catherine Martin has sat down to record commentary. By this point in the review, it should be fairly clear that I really respect the work Baz and crew are doing and so it was with great anticipation that I sat down to listen to this track.  The discussion here really divides itself nicely between interesting production notes and just plain fun as they look back at the start of a revolutionary form of cinema. All the participants have loads of information to share about the struggle to get the film off the ground, the limitations caused by the film's $3 million Australian dollar budget (approx $1 million US) and the casting problems. I found the track quite lively and to be more of a discussion between friends then a simple narration. Lurhmann and Co point out a number of extras who have gone on to appear in other motion pictures including "Moulin Rouge".  It's the perfect mix of fun and frolic and informative chatter and I hope that Luhrmann continues to comment on his films in the future.

"Samba to Slow Fox" is a documentary on Australian dance competitions in the mid 1980s. It is said that this film is what inspired  "Strictly Ballroom" but to be completely honest with you it's a rather repetitive and dry piece of film making.  It's not that the subject matter isn't interesting as the feature film proves that even the most simplistic activity can make for a riveting film it's that it's rather boring. It moves entirely to slow for it's own good and contains far too many interview clips and not enough dancing. In one segment there's an interview with some kids and their family and while the segment only lasts a little over 2 minutes, it seems like 30. The beginning is similar to the end and it just feels as if nothing has been accomplished. The short is missing it's purpose. Still It's nice to have a non promotional type documentary which is somewhat of a rarity outside of New Line's "Infinifilm Series" discs but this one just lacks the kick it needs to make it interesting. At 30 minutes, this documentary truly overstays it's welcome.

It seems as though it was just the other day when I last talked about how still galleries are presented on DVD and how studios should try new and inventive multimedia approaches to the otherwise static content. It appears as though Miramax was reading my mind with the animated presentation in the "Design Gallery". Split into 5 sections (backstage snapshots, production design, promotional,  Baz's Family Album,  and Scott and Fran) this is the one of only a handful of discs taking this approach. Add to this the fact that 4 of the 5 galleries feature narration by Director Baz Luhrmann and you have yourself a winning group of still images. I only wish this had been longer.

Rounding out the disc we have a Sneak Peek gallery which features trailers for other Miramax films including "Chocolat", "Purple Noon", "Artemisia", "Young Girls of Rochefort", "Blow Dry", "Basquait". Sadly there is no trailer for "Strictly Ballroom".

It should also be noted that's there an easter egg on the disc that when selected unlocks a deleted scene.

Director Baz Luhrmann has described this film as his smallest and most personal and therefore this disc has considerably less in the extra section then his more over the top cinematic projects. However this is still a Baz Luhrmann disc and whatever he contributes is fine by me as he manages to achieve a high level of quality without sacrificing quantity. There's no better example of that then his 2 disc SE of "Moulin Rouge".

Strictly Ballroom


"Moulin Rouge" opened my eyes to this director who I had previously shut out after "Romeo and Juliet" and "Strictly Ballroom" opened them all that much wider. Lurhmann's ability to draw the viewer into even the most simplistic story through unconventional techniques is truly remarkable. This film shows hints of what's to come and takes a subject matter I would normally dismiss and really makes me care about the characters. Miramax's DVD offers surprisngly good audio/video quality as well as a strong audio commentary track and some other decent extras. As a DVD it's no match for "Moulin Rouge" but the film is a winner as is the DVD in it's own ways. Highly Recommended for fans of "Moulin Rouge" or inventive cinema at it's finest.

Note : This disc along with Fox's SE's of "Moulin Rouge" and "Romeo and Juliet" will all eventually become part of a "Red Curtain Trilogy" Box Set. Although no release date or any additional features is known, all three discs can be bought separately.