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!

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel’s Wedding – 1994

Director – P.J. Hogan

Starring – Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, and Bill Hunter

When facing down a list as formidable as this one is, I find myself assuming that each film on it means something.  Whether it’s historically important, the swan song of a particular star or director, or maybe it simply broke all the records at the box office.  Apparently that isn’t always the case.  Muriel’s Wedding, while rather fun, and charming enough, manages to be none of these things and still it’s here.

The film tells the story of the wedding obsessed Muriel (a young Toni Collette, in her pre-Hollywood days), and her exodus from the family, friends, and town that seem to be working over time in order to keep her down.  Muriel lives in Porpoise Spit, a diaper-rash of a little town filled with the shallow, ignorant, and self obsessed people who exist (in one form or another) in all small towns.  Leading the charge of the obnoxious brigade is Muriel’s family, including her shiftless, unemployed siblings, the empty and ineffectual mother who barely exists, and the overbearing, loud-mouth of a father who worked so hard to drive and inspire these character flaws in his own family.

The most important thing in Muriel’s life is the bright, shining, future she imagines for herself (specifically the wedding part), never-mind the lack of any real interpersonal connection or the absence of any semblance of self-appreciation she may have for herself.  She simply wants this ideal so badly that she doesn’t care just how she gets there, by hook or by crook.

The story is fun, the acting is pretty good, and I really did want the best for Muriel (not to mention, her loud mouthed friend Rhonda, AKA: Brenda on Six Feet Under, AKA: Rachel Griffiths), but even given all that, it still wasn’t worthy of its placement on this list.  When you have a rather simple romantic comedy with a slight empowering wink at the end, that doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside films with the emotional weight and importance of films like Z, or the historical significance of a film like, Children of Paradise, or even the cleverness, and humor managed by the still rather thin, Meet the Parents

Perhaps it’s just one of those movies that doesn’t speak to me, or the place from which I came, or the time in which that place might have existed.  At the very least, I remember the film coming out in theaters, however I don’t really recall it making all that much of a splash even then.  The Australian revolution of film had a brief rekindling with the advent of the Crocodile Dundee franchise, but I’m afraid by the time Young Einstein came out in 1988, Mel Gibson had moved to the United States full-time, and everyone in the states stopped paying attention to what was happening down under.

There was the occasional gem that came out of Australia from those backwards years also known as the 90’s, but for every Peter Weir, Guy Pierce film, there were two Paul Hogan films (Yes I liked Crocodile Dundee when I was a kid, but give me a break, I was a kid, I thought Battleship was a fun board game too). I realize that 1000 movies is a lot to come up with, but I could rattle off a dozen or so just off the top of my head that didn’t make the cut, but were world’s better. Next thing you know, they’ll be letting a Transformers movie onto this list…Nice try, but better luck next time.  Instead how about trying Les Cage Aux Folles (a film I accidentally watched thinking that it was on this list), what would later be remade into The Birdcage.  Both that film and it’s remake are more deserving of recognition to be sure.