Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom – 1992

Director – Baz Luhrmann

Starring – Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, and Bill Hunter

I hadn’t realized before sitting down and watching it, but seeing Strictly Ballroom pointed out just how I’d been missing Australia, not to mention Australian film.  There is a certain quality of the acting, the tone and the intonation.  The characters are at once relate-able and larger than life, and the initial cartoonish impression I had of Australian cinema turned out, I realized, to simply be a vehicle for a more universal set of truths.  In an effort to be funny, and make for a more compelling read, I have had the tendency to make jokes at the expense of, and be rather hard on some of the films that I’ve seen.  The caricatures of the people in those films seemed unrealistic or even laughable on a first viewing, but ultimately, once the stories were done and the reviews written, I continued to think about films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Muriel’s Wedding.   Each stayed with me longer than I would have thought.  I have come to rather like Muriel’s Wedding, despite feeling a little indifferent to it when I wrote the initial review. Like each of those other films, Strictly Ballroom, is completely an Australian film, and just as before, it’s got me thinking.  Thinking about the film itself, and about going back to Australia.  Hopefully soon!

My wife in particular was excited about this film, thanks in no small part to the fact that it centers around dance.  Though, the film isn’t really what I would call a dance film in the same way that something like Singing In The Rain is a dance film, it is instead to dance as Rocky was to boxing, an important plot point, but not necessarily the focus.

The story centers around Scott, the promising dancer who yearns to break out of the rigid formula required by the Pan-Pacific Ballroom Dance competition, and dance his own movies, from the heart.  Everyone from his partner, to the judges, to his family all try to warn him that he is being reckless with his chances of winning the competition and making something of himself.  It’s only, Fran, the mousy, seemingly inexperienced dancer in his class that sees otherwise, and encourages him to break free from the rules, and from everyone else’s expectations.

Scott and Fran both are both good enough characters, played well by actors Paul Mercurio, and Tara Morice respectively, filling out the roles nicely with likable, engaging characters that the audience wants to root for, but it’s really the supporting characters that populate the world around them that make this movie such a joy.  Take Fran’s parents for example…at first her father seems like an angry, possibly abusive guy trying to commandeer his daughter’s future, but it turns out that he is a passionate dancer who truly doesn’t want to see his little girl waste her time with someone who doesn’t treat her as she deserves.  Her mother, likewise, is a rich breathing person who deeply loves her family.  You can tell at once that each of them, outside of the reality that this film covers, has lived a full life, each with their own experiences and trials.  This is a testament not only to the filmmakers, but to the actors as well.

Likewise, Scott’s parents harbor their own desires and regrets, as they strive and scrabble trying desperately to reach for past glories.  Scott’s dance coach, Les, as well as his rival Doug, are both great fun to watch as they blunder through the narrative, successfully wresting my attention away from our two leads.  Good as each of these secondary and tertiary characters might be, certainly the most watchable performance was turned in by Bill Hunter, as the detestable, corrupt, Ballroom Federation president, Barry Fife.  Chewing each bit of scenery that he’s given, Fife is sooooooooooo much fun to watch, that I almost wish the film were about him.

At first watch, this film, as well as a lot of other films that come out from down under, seem a little simple, a little cartoonish, or even more than a little over the top, but each film that I have had the good fortune of seeing, is saying more than what is on the surface.  Priscilla, as well as Muriel’s Wedding, have strong messages of acceptance, and Muriel in particular has more than a little to say about forgiveness (of yourself just as much as of anyone else.).

Similarly, Strictly Ballroom is more than what is evident on the surface.  It preaches passion for what you love, and acceptance of others, not despite, but because of what they are.  I really enjoyed this film, more even than watching it, I enjoyed thinking about it afterwards, which is really a sort of first for me.  I am looking forward to giving this film another viewing to see if I can glean anything further from it.  More than anything, though, this film makes me miss Australia.  It brought back memories of traveling along the coast of New South Wales, from Kiama back to Sydney (although I’m not sure I could tell you why it made me think of that…), and for that I loved it!

Advertisements

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock – 1975

Director – Peter Weir

Starring – Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, and Jacki Weaver

I’ve only seen a handful of films that have come out of Australia, and those that I have seen are not necessarily the cream of the crop. Firstly, there was Crocodile Dundee, the seminal fish out of water story that played itself out over the backdrop of the mid 1980’s, this was followed up by the outstanding, Crocodile Dundee 2, which simultaneously raising the stakes while staying consistent on the laughs and heart. Next, came “Pricilla, Queen of the Desert”. Actually this is a good movie, but it remains a movie that I only very vaguely remember. As such It also remains a movie that I will have to return to one day when I have more time (not sure when that day will come…), but as it stands I remember it being pretty good. And finally, I round out my Australian film education with the first two classic art-house films in the Mad Max series (by the way, the sequel, The Road Warrior, is SO much better than the long drawn out original Mad Max).

So there you have it. I walked into Picnic at Hanging Rock with considerably less than full knowledge of the Australian film experience. My introduction to Peter Weir the director was the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show and the Russell Crowe flick Master and Commander, neither of which I loved, but both of which I appreciated. Before watching it, Picnic seemed to be a dry period piece concerning itself with noble ideals such as manners, class, wealth and some big notions along the lines of justice and righteousness. I was surprised how well it dealt with its actual topic, guilt, and the inescapable despair that it rode in on.

The picnic in question refers to an outing for the students at an all girl school in the early 1900s, out in the beautiful but harsh Australian outback. As the poster states, a party of girls heads out, but a fair number of them are never heard from again, after they get lost at (where else) Hanging Rock.

Search and rescue missions are formulated, mounted and failed. Testimony is taken from the one surviving (? I leave this question mark because we never truly find out about what happens to the girls, so technically they all might have survived.) member of the group, yet still there are no leads. The fact that no bodies ever-present themselves is enough to keep the hope of finding them alive, but the lack of any real evidence one way or another forces the police, the community, and the school to face the unpleasant fact that they may be dead, or worse, dying.

It is this unknowing that allows the commonly felt guilt to take hold and fester. Despite the fact that no one is directly to blame, each character is wracked with crushing guilt, from the school’s strict headmistress, to the poor girl who was not allowed to go on the field trip, to the young boys who were the last people to see the group of girls alive. Everyone is affected.  Everyone is wounded so deeply by this invisible stain, that  it corrupts them all and throws their lives into disarray.

One of the film’s major strengths is the fact that there are different messages to be gleaned depending on just what you bring to the experience. Is this simply a factual yet dramatic telling of a true story? Is it an exploration of reliability of one’s narrator? Does Picnic at Hanging Rock speak, and offer commentary to the dark past of Australia’s birth and colonization? Yes, yes, and more yes.

As with most films of the seventies, the look and pacing of the film are as big a part as the acting, story, or direction. The slow methodical pace of the story serves to draw out and enhance the tension and accentuate the anguish. The color palette only helps the depiction of the tawny reds and desert browns and yellows of the harsh australian climate, and the softer look to the film stock helps the dream-like quality of the story. Since many films in the seventies had these qualities, it’s hard to tell which simply worked with what they had, a which used the film stock as a means to an end. If I had to bet, I would guess Peter Weir was one f the latter.

As with each of the characters presented in the movie, the story of what happened that St. Valentines Day in the outback leaves a mark on the viewer as well. I watched the movie nearly a year ago, and I still find myself thinking about it. Maybe not everyday like I might something like Die Hard, or JFK, but it certainly finds its way into my consciousness. Definitely a film worth seeing, although maybe not right before or after some of the aforementioned films from Australia.

***Of Special Note***

It has been quite a while since I’ve written in this blog.  A little more than a year if my calculations are correct.  A lot has changed in my life and I haven’t had the time to devote to regularly updating a project of this magnitude (pop POP!).  Needless to say, I’m not interested in giving up writing about movies although I can’t promise that I won’t need to take a break from them now and again.  That being said…I’m glad to be back at it.

Secondly, this is officially my 100th post!  So for those of you keeping score (I think it might just be me), I’ve seen and written about 100 new movies since I started this project, and since I entered into it having seen 300 of the 1001, I am at about 40% completion.  Hooray!  Only 601 more to go!