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Strictly Ballroom Blu-ray Review

Strictly Ballroom (1993) movie poster Strictly Ballroom

US Theatrical Release: February 12, 1993 / Running Time: 95 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Baz Luhrmann / Writers: Baz Luhrmann (original idea, screenplay & earlier screenplay), Craig Pearce (screenplay), Andrew Bovell (earlier screenplay)

Cast: Paul Mercurio (Scott Hastings), Tara Morice (Fran), Bill Hunter (Barry Fife), Pat Thomson (Shirley Hastings), Gia Carides (Liz Holt), Peter Whitford (Les Kendall), Barry Otto (Doug Hastings), John Hannan (Ken Railings), Sonia Kruger (Tina Sparkle), Kris McQuade (Charm Leachman), Pip Mushin (Wayne Burns), Leonie Page (Vanessa Cronin), Antonio Vargas (Rico), Armonia Benedito (Ya Ya), Jack Webster (Terry), Lauren Hewett (Kylie Hastings), Steve Grace (Luke), Paul Bertram (J. J. Silvers)

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Strictly Ballroom, the first film written and directed by Baz Luhrmann, makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday. The timing is opportune for a number of reasons. Dance enthusiasts who have taken to the Oscar-winning romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook might be intrigued to find this thematically kindred movie hitting store shelves the same day.
Luhrmann, who went on to gain notice for the colorful dramas William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), is back in the act with the upcoming opening of The Great Gatsby. In addition, this year marks the twentieth anniversary of Strictly Ballroom's US theatrical release.

Strictly Ballroom was strictly under the radar in its North American engagements, climbing up to a few hundred theaters and lurking just outside the top ten, but managing to accrue nearly $12 million in the region, a sum respectable for a limited release then and even more so now, when ticket inflation adjusts it to $22.5 M. Ballroom got more attention after Luhrmann became known for opulent dramas featuring American movie stars and pop music, which made a big enough impression for many to track down this debut. That explains why this esteemed little Australian film went with the more commercially relevant part of the Miramax library to Lionsgate, which has treated many of its acquisitions to easy to find, inexpensive, and satisfactory Blu-ray Discs.

With frizzy hair, large glasses, poor fashion sense, and acne, Fran (Tara Morice) is all set for a standard movie makeover. Bewigged, video-shilling Dance Federation official Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) objects to Scott's moves and disqualifies him on unclear grounds.

The film centers on Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a professional dancer who likes to perform his own improvised, original steps instead of relying on traditional, Federation-approved moves. That distinctive style makes Scott a favorite of those who watch him, but keeps him short of winning honors. Scott's attention is fixed on the Pan Pacific Grand Prix Championships, an elite competition he's dreamed of winning since age 6. Unfortunately for him, his dance partner has just left him for a more promising opportunity.

That leaves Scott to hedge his bets on Fran (Tara Morice), a clumsy amateur who has been dancing for two years without a partner. Fran has all the ingredients for a standard movie makeover. She has frizzy hair, wears thick glasses, suffers from acne, and dresses in unflattering oversized T-shirts. All of that changes very soon, while Fran trains with Scott and blossoms into a capable partner. Their hopes for Pan Pacific are challenged, however, by the maneuvering of officials and Scott's mother (Pat Thomson), who feels better about his chances with a more seasoned dancer.

Strictly Ballroom is by far Luhrmann's most down to earth and ordinary film. Other than a few bits early on resembling documentary interviews, the director keeps his signature style to a minimum. His substance, however, isn't particularly original or substantial. The characters have little to define them. Beyond Fran being an ugly duckling turned swan, no one really does or say anything to make them human. There are some family concerns to pad this to feature length, as the parents of both leads have backstories in dance, the more compelling one belonging to Scott's henpecked, secretive father (Barry Otto). Such subplots don't stand up well to scrutiny, though, like Fran's gypsy family's demands of her instantly vanishing.

In Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom", Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) and the now-glamorous Fran (Tara Morice) give their all in the Pan Pacific Grand Prix Championships.

Luhrmann's screenplay, which he and his usual co-writer Craig Pearce adapt from an earlier script by Luhrmann and Andrew Bovell is full of familiar devices (e.g. an authority figure's overheard conspiracy, a climactic slow clap that builds to an inspirational crescendo) and void of distinctive touches. Luhrmann is clearly not yet thinking big and shows little interest in being influenced or paying homage.
He doesn't yet feel like a confident artist but a guy who thinks he can make a light comedy that entertains for an hour and a half. At that, he succeeds, although it takes a while to warm to the film after its initial impressions establish it as broad, distant, and confused. Ballroom sheds those labels before too long, but acquires ones that may be equally damning: familiar and forgettable.

There are hints to the taller ambitions of Bazmark productions yet to come. Luhrmann reveals his taste for putting new twists on pop songs, although the seemingly low budget arranges for only two such reconfigurations (of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and the disco tune "Love Is in the Air"). There's also a tinge of theatricality, from a red curtain featuring at the beginning and end to a scene in which Scott and Fran dance in front of a large, sparkly Coca-Cola billboard (which the commentary explains isn't the shameless product placement you might suspect). There are a lot of dance scenes and though the untrained eye will accept them as competent, they are not even arranged in a way for us to appreciate the art form or notice what is going on. Even the romance that should be obvious in the design feels underdeveloped.

Strictly Ballroom Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: April 30, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25) / Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($14.98 SRP; April 26, 2011) and Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as standalone DVD (March 19, 2002), in Baz Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy (September 10, 2002), and as Special Edition DVD (November 23, 2010)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though Strictly Ballroom doesn't seem like an old movie, it does show its age on Blu-ray, resembling a 1980s production and not a splendidly restored one. The 1.78:1 print is mostly clean (close inspection exposes only minor blemishes), but kind of soft. It's also lacking in detail, contrast and vibrancy, with colors looking slightly faded throughout. As this is my first viewing of the film, I can only speculate that the appearance is true to how this film has always looked and spot comparisons to the old Buena Vista DVD confirmed by suspicions. Still, it may very well disappoint those expecting dazzling Luhrmann imagery.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio raises no such concerns. The mix features consistent levels, excellent clarity, and a decent amount of life in its distribution of music and effects. Dialogue stays crisp and Lionsgate nicely provides two sets of English subtitles plus one Spanish translation as well.

Baz Luhrmann uses a French accent and some telephone pantomime to recall a distribution offer he got in "Strictly Ballroom: From Stage to Screen." Wayne (Pip Mushin) tries to convince Scott (Paul Mercurio) to switch partners in this lone deleted scene.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's all-recycled extras begin with an audio commentary by Baz Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, and choreographer John "Cha Cha" O'Connell recorded back shortly before 2002.
Luhrmann leads the way and displays plenty of passion for the film, stories behind its creation, and justification for its choices. This screen-specific chat has more to it than most of today's commentaries.

Video extras, all of which remain in standard definition, begin with the 2010 featurette "Strictly Ballroom: From Stage to Screen" (23:22). Relying heavily on a then-new interview with the director, it explains how this 1980s play was adapted into Luhrmann's first film and how that film managed to secure distribution. There is good behind-the-scenes footage spanning from the play to the film's premieres.

A beat-up single deleted scene (1:57) finds Wayne (Pip Mushin) try to set Scott up with a different partner on a visit to Fran's grocery store.

Baz Luhrmann declares himself unashamed of his past experiences in competitive ballroom dance by sharing this childhood photo of himself in the Baz' Family Album gallery. A dance family profiled in the 1986 documentary "Samba to Slow Fox" have all the makings of an awkward family photo.

"Design Gallery" was billed as a 3D gallery on DVD; that aspect of moving around a CG room has been dropped along with side bars, but apart from those cut introductory pans, the material is unchanged. It's actually a series of five short slideshow videos, most of which Lurhmann (and, briefly, Catherine Martin) speaks over.
The stills are divided into the following clips, each given a more creative title as well: Backstage Snapshots (2:20), Production Design (0:18), Promotional & Various (1:36), Baz' Family Album (0:46), and Scott and Fran (1:11).

"Samba to Slow Fox" (30:17) is a 1986 Australian television documentary celebrating competitive ballroom dance. It has obvious influence on the documentary-style portions of Strictly, as an assortment of dancers of all ages discuss their interest and history in addition to being shown performing and preparing for it.

Finally, "Trailers" simply repeats the HD ads which automatically play at disc insertion, promoting Lionsgate's Blu-rays of Chicago, Shakespeare in Love, and Velvet Goldmine as well as Epix HD. Sadly, Strictly's own trailer is not included here.

After raising a red curtain, the menu plays blue-tinted clips from the film while a remix of Georges Bizet's Carmen is played. The Blu-ray does support bookmarks, but does not resume playback.

No slipcover, insert, or reverse side artwork spruce up the plain eco-friendly keepcase.

The connection between Scott (Paul Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice) isn't exclusive to the dance floor, but it isn't strongest there.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Those entering Strictly Ballroom expecting bold artistic expression on the order of Baz Luhrmann's subsequent films may be disappointed. On the other hand, some will certainly prefer this light comedy to the director's busier works. It's worth a viewing, but I can't guarantee that you'll be compelled to give it more than that with any regularity unless you love dance.

Lionsgate's reasonably priced Blu-ray retains all of the bonus features the film has ever had on DVD while sporting great sound and okay picture. That seems to make it a slight upgrade over the DVD that carries the same SRP, giving it obvious value to Blu-ray collectors who consider this film a personal favorite.

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Reviewed April 29, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1992-1993 Miramax Films, M&A Productions, Granada International, Rank Film Distributors, Beyond Films Limited and 2013 Lionsgate.
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