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!

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story – 1940

Director – George Cukor

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, and Cary Grant

A successful film often has more than one thing going for it.  A charismatic star, on their own, isn’t enough to hold up a mediocre story (as much as they might have you believe otherwise).  Likewise, a good story can’t endure under the weight of poor acting, and fantastic cinematography can easily translate to a beautiful yet forgettably boring film.  In order to succeed, the stars have to align, talented people who share a vision have to work together, and put aside their differences to create something that transcends each of, and all of them…or it’ll fall flat anyway despite all their best efforts.

The Philadelphia Story is one such film that, for me anyway, really fell flat fast.  If one were to take the film and separate it into its crucial elements, talent, crew, story, director, etc., the film looks undeniably strong on paper.  Unfortunately, again in my own humble opinion, it comes off as self-important, and more than a little trite not to mention, straight up boring. Rather than Cary Grant charming me with witty repartee and Jimmy Stewart making me feel as though justice has been done, I felt annoyed at each of their rather lack-luster and incomplete characters.  Both are caricatures of jealous sad-sacks that are found on sitcoms.

I’m afraid the jury is still out when it comes to Katharine Hepburn too.  I started out this project with a healthy, natural dislike of her, stemming mostly from the film Bringing Up Baby.  Then I was caught off guard by her lovely, feisty and moving turn in the film The African Queen.  Now I’m afraid I’m going back to square one with my impressions of her thanks to this film.  She starts off as a character that I rather enjoyed watching.  I liked her and agreed with her motivations, then she was transformed into a watered down milquetoast-ish, doormat type of woman who gets on my nerves almost immediately.

This criticisms are, of course, to say nothing of the fact that this film has been built up so highly from the outset.  So many people consider this film a classic and treat it as such.  All forms of criticism for it are too harsh, with the love story and the characters themselves being too dear to the hearts of those who enjoy it.  To be fair, I am not immune to such blind loyalty.  I would be utterly aghast at any criticism, and recklessly jump to the defense of a film such as, say, Total Recall.  But, I mean come on…it’s Total Recall.

So…the story.  As the film opens, we are dropped into the tumultuous marriage of Cary Grant’s, C.K. Dexter Haven, and his fire-brand of a wife Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.  The first thing we see is Dexter getting kicked out of his house by Tracy for reasons we will come to understand later.  Dexter leaves, but not until getting in one last bit of domestic violence.  Flash forward a bunch of (Years? Months? Days?) time and we find that Tracy is set to marry again, this time to a rather wealthy man whose new money status makes him a target for the local paper’s gossip section.

A photographer and reporter team (Stewart and Hussey as Macaulay Connor and Elizabeth Imbrie respectively) are put on the job of getting the exclusive story of the impending nuptials.  Put up to it by their boss, in cahoots with Dexter, it looks as though it is a smear job engineered by Dexter to get revenge on his ex-wife.

More than anything the failure of this film rests with the lack of chemistry amongst its actors.  Jimmy Stewart, generally seen as a man who could get along with just about anyone, plays a man so filled with melancholy and disdain for the intended subjects of his writing, that he literally makes the worst newspaper reporter ever.  His girlfriend, frankly the most engaging character of the piece, Imbrie is stuck watching her albatross of a boyfriend drunkenly stagger through life and falling in love with another woman on a whim.  Grant, one of my normal favorite actors of the golden age of cinema, is surprisingly absent from this film, especially given that he is one of the headliners, but what I bristled most at was the transformation of the strong confident woman who was Hepburn’s Tracy Lord, reduced by guilt and criticism to just the sort of brainless weak-willed woman that she worked her entire career to rally against.

How dare she want a divorce from a husband who is a un-repentant alcoholic, or be angry at a father who cheats on her mother.  How dare she find a respectful, caring, man of considerable means despite the fact that he is not considered “old money”.  No wonder she is looked down upon by every other single character in this film, until she is brow-beaten into submission.  Each review I’ve read describes her as “snooty”, or “uppity”, and describes her treatment as her having “had it coming”.  How refreshing and unique a view. Yuck.

I found that I had checked out of this film pretty quickly and found little in the way of redeeming characteristics from that point forward.  At most, I can say that I saw this “classic”, and at least I can say that I’d rather have watched something else.  I’m a little surprised that George Cukor had so much to do with a film about a bunch of men putting an “uppity” woman in her place, seeing as how he has had a long history of working on films with capable women characters (A Star is Born, Wizard of Oz, and he’s worked with Katharine Hepburn before on Adam’s Rib which I assume falls into that demographic although I haven’t seen it myself).  This film was a rather large disappointment to me, and as such is not nearly recommendable, either for me or by me.

“I can not and will not endorse any work whose agenda it is to propagate the idea that anyone should stay in an abusive situation.  That is not love, nor is it amusing to dress it up as such.  A truly disgusting film.”  –  Ashley

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen – 1951

Director – John Huston

Starring – Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn

When I was in junior high, I got my first computer.  Along with a 14.4 kbps dial-up modem, floppy disk drive, and the home-edition of Microsoft Works (not Word, mind you, works.) that machine of the future came with a copy of the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-Rom.  That laughably slow and instantly outmoded program, had a whole glossary of movies, a few with accompanying video clips, only the best ones mind you.  Now since only the most renowned films came with video clips, it goes without saying that it was a point of pride for me that I had seen all but two of those select few films.  The first one was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second…was The African Queen.  Take that Encarta!  It took me till 2012, but I finally beat you!

The African Queen is at its heart a love story, though it’s a love story that’s wrapped up in a war, adventure, thriller, and at times a comedy.  It’s the early days of World War 1, and we start at a british-run mission in the heart of an African colony of Germany.  Reverend Sayer and his sister Rose (Hepburn) staff the mission, attempting to spread the gospel to the un-enlightened natives, when they receive word of the start of the war.  They are advised that German soldiers are on their way to oust any enemies to the interests of Germany, and have to leave behind their life’s work if they want to escape with their lives.  This news pushes the reverend too far and, unable to cope, he falls ill and eventually dies leaving his sister to fend for herself.

As the arrival of the German soldiers looms close at hand, supply ship captain Charlie Alnut (a particularly grizzled Bogart) arrives just in time to offer Rose a mode of escape.  Though he is course in his manners and seems generally uncouth to the prim and proper English upbringing that Rose is used to, Charlie is a welcome sight.  The two make their way down river toward friendly territory, all the while avoiding Germans, Alligators, mosquitos, leeches, harsh weather, white water rapids, and each other along the way.

So I’ve made it fairly plain that I haven’t ever really been a fan of Katherine Hepburn.  This has been a point of contention between my wife and I, as she simply adores Hepburn (despite the fact that she has seen Bringing Up Baby, which is one of Hepburn’s most terribly annoying roles).  My dislike is ingrained in me so deeply, that I’ve actually avoided The African Queen because of its star.  Upon having actually seen it, I am disappointed to say that maybe I was being a bit harsh with my immediate dismissal of Hepburn.  It’s a good film.  More than that, it’s a great film!

To classify this film is not as easy as it can be with some other films.  With so many genres mashed up together in the story, it really fits into so many different categories.   Perhaps the best fit for my purposes here is to call it a romance.  We really get to see a pair of people go from not really liking the other, through friendship, courting, and eventually we see them emerge as true companions and best friends.  While the going is tough, the nagging and pestering they inflict upon each other actually strengthens the bond they have, and raises the stakes of the film in direct relation to the danger level.

When Rose demands that they try to strike a blow on behalf of the british navy against the Germans, Charlie is initially against it.  He stands to lose his boat, his lively hood, and potentially his life.  It is plain to the audience that without someone to share his life with, a friend, a purpose, he really has nothing to live for anyway.  The companionship with Rose illustrates this fact to him, and as they draw closer to their target, the thing he fears most is losing the woman he loves and respects.

Rose, too, gains from this relationship.  She learns to soften her rather stuffy and stuck up exterior.  Charlie shows her that there is a romance, and beauty to the world that she was here-to-for un-aware of, and that it can’t necessarily be attained through scripture and strict adherence to manners.  Ultimately, they learn that they need one another.  The off-hand relationship they have at the beginning of the film becomes all-consuming, dwarfing the danger, uncertainty, and even the beauty that lies ahead of them.  Each becomes the other’s reason for moving forward, and the pair becomes the reason and the reward for the audience’s continued attention.

As far as the performances, I don’t think Humphrey Bogart has ever been bad.  He makes everything I see him in at least a little bit better, and more than likely, he is the reason that it was excellent.  There are a select few actors who are capable of doing what other actors accomplish in half the time and with a quarter of the exertion.  Bogart is one of them, and is most deserving of all of the praise that is lumped upon him.  Hepburn on the other hand is equally matched to Bogart…in this movie.  I remain skeptical as far as her other roles go, but I am at the very least excited to find out if my initial impression of her holds true, or if I had her wrong the whole time.  I’m not quite sure what to wish for…to be right from the start, or to be wrong but with a fresh new body of films to look forward to.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by the African Queen.  For a film that I had such an adverse reaction to before watching, it was certainly a treat to be proven wrong about it.  The plot, pacing, cinematography (gorgeously filmed in Technicolor, by the way), and yes, even the acting, really do make this one of the best films ever made.  A deserving addition to this list, and definitely something worthy of your time and attention.

“Told ya so!” – Ashley