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!

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!

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Seconds (1966)

Seconds

Seconds – 1966

Director – John Frankenheimer

Starring – Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, and John Randolph

With a twist that I saw coming from a mile away, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a film that suffers because of my knowledge of modern movie making.  Simply because of the fact that I’ve seen movies such as The Usual Suspects, Saw, and anything directed by M. Night Shyamalan, I, and others like me, are far more likely to spot an ending like this coming.

While the general plot of the movie was an intriguing one (a man gives up the trappings of his old life, and assumes a new identity in an effort to start over), the ending wasn’t alone in being rather sub-par and un-fulfilling.  Our main character, Tony/Arthur, has been receiving disturbing telephone calls from his old friend.  The problem is that is friend has been dead for a while.  It turns out his friend has enlisted the services of the “organization”.  For a cost, the organization will fake your death, and then provide you with extensive plastic surgery, dental reconstruction,  a new home, new friends, and a new job.  All this is provided for by the insurance policies that “the organization” takes out in your former name, and then collects on your behalf.

The problem comes in when the services rendered aren’t necessarily asked for or sought out.  Arthur (our main character’s name before his faked death) was told to go to a secret location by a friend who he thought was dead.  When he gets there, he is sereptitiously brought to a hidden office somewhere, drugged and then blackmailed.  It is only then, after all the hullaballoo, that he is told what the proceedure entails.  Not only this, but we are never given any real reason to believe that this is something that he would have wanted, let alone gone through with. 

Once Arthur becomes Tony (post death name), our main character becomes rightfully confused and upset by his circumstances, and begins to act out a bit.  He tries going back to see his former wife only to find that she’s moved on with her life after his death.  Understandably Tony is troubled by this, but for seemingly no reason at all he decides that the best course of action is to ask for another new life from the organization.  Now maybe it’s just my good old 2000’s common sense talking, but I wouldn’t assume you could just go demanding favors from a group of people that extort money from you by forcibly faking your death (complete with a real corpse mind you), and steering you into a new life where you are constantly monitored and confused.  I guess that’s just me.

One thing I can give this movie credit for, is the camera work.  The stark black and white photography combined with the claustrophobic positioning of the camera, provides for a very paranoid tone.  We the audience, are thrust into this situation the same way the main character is, and as a result we are very discombobulated, and off balance.  These feelings are intensified by the extreme wide angles that the film is shot in.   Close up’s of our actors faces become uncomfortable, distended, and distorted, it’s just too bad that the story doesn’t live up to the set up.