"Strictly Ballroom" has a plot that is, essentially, not very original. Parts and pieces of it have been seen in other pictures and have been done in slightly more interesting fashion since ("Shall We Dance?"). Yet, the movie is directed by none other than Baz Lhurmann, who recently gained further fame from the popular "Moulin Rouge". The first scene in the film, taking place at a ballroom dancing contest, is pure Lhurmann; rapid editing (courtesy of "Rouge" editor Jill Babcock), vivid colors and an almost hyper-real feeling.
That opening sequence introduces us to Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), one of Australia's very best ballroom dancers. All signs point to his winning the local championships, but when he strays from the tranditional routines that have been put forth by the Dance Federation, his career on the dance floor falls apart. His partner, Liz (Gia Carides), leaves him and just when he's about out of options, he's approached by a plain Jane amateur named Fran (Tara Morice) who wants to dance with him. He's initially against her plan, but as the two dance further and really begin to practice, Scott thinks that the two of them actually have potential as a dance team.
The story does provide stereotypical plot devices and an obvious resolution, but Lhurmann makes the journey fun and vibrant. There's something about all of Lhurmann's visual style and approach in general that's unlike just about any other filmmaker. Odd and interesting compositions combine with fluid, sharp editing and bright, vibrant colors. Even minor scenes are alive and energetic in a way that's hard not to get caught up in. His sense of comedy is also wonderful and unusual; his almost comic-book cartoony style pushes the comedy almost over-the-top, but blends it with a bit of weight. The result is something that could easily be labeled as "light comedy", but pushes forward into something more substancial and enjoyable than that.
The acting from the two leads (who also do their own dancing) is quite good. The only character that hits a wrong note is Scott's mother, played by Pat Thomson. While this character is a bit evil and funny during the first half, she starts to get a little shrill in the second half. Other than that "Strictly Ballroom" is a fun and enjoyable film, with good performances and some very funny moments.
VIDEO: "Strictly Ballroom" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Miramax films (speaking of dance, when will Miramax release another foreign import, "Shall We Dance?"). Anyways, "Strictly Ballroom" has recieved a very enjoyable presentation, showing Lhurmann's high-energy visuals quite wonderfully; a few minor flaws here and there will likely not prove that bothersome. Sharpness and detail are both quite good; a few slight instances of softness are seen, but the picture otherwise appears film-like and well-defined.
The print used for this DVD edition seems fresh and suprisingly clean. A speck or two appeared, as did some minor-to-mild grain, but I didn't find that either of these problems were that intrusive. Pleasantly, no edge enhancement or pixelation were seen during the movie, which added to the crisp, smooth appearance of the picture. Colors were the most impressive element of the visuals, as they appeared wonderfully well-saturated, vivid, bright and bold without any instances of smearing or other flaws. Miramax's effort is not entirely free of flaws, but this edition really did exceed my expectations.
SOUND: Given that this film is now around 9-years-old, it came as a bit of a suprise that not only is "Strictly Ballroom" presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but that the soundtrack is occasionally agressive and provides high energy during crucial scenes. Although there are several stretches that are simply dialogue-driven, when the music comes in, the front speakers offer the tunes and score with a full, rich sound that was very pleasing. Surrounds also come in to provide reinforcement for the score and a few light sound effects at a couple of points. Dialogue remained clear and crisp, as well. While this isn't something that anyone will likely use as a demo, I really found it more enveloping than I'd expected.
MENUS: Miramax has prepared fun animated menus that use film-themed images and music quite well. There's also nice "red curtain" transitions between menus.
Commentary: The main extra on the DVD is a commentary from director Baz Lhurmann, production designer/co-costumer Catherine Martin and choreographer John O'Connell. This is the third commentary from Lhurmann, who also recorded a track for "Moulin Rouge" and also one for the "Romeo and Juliet" laserdisc (which might be the same track as the one on the upcoming Special Edition DVD of that film). This track is a particularly good commentary, mixing some funny general chatter about the production and other work along with a bit more in-depth detail about how some of the sequences were produced.
From Samba to Slow Fox: This is an older 30-minute documentary about Australia's dancing competitions. It's a rather odd piece that moves slowly and didn't really keep my interest. Some may want to check it out, but I only found it occasionally engaging.
Design Gallery: I think many will likely skip over this area thinking that it's another basic gallery of basic stills to click through. Instead, this section provides several animated galleries, a couple of which actually include narration from Lhurmann. The sections are: backstage snapshots, production design, promotional and various, Baz's family album and Scott and Fran.
Sneak Peeks: Sneak Peek trailers for "Chocolat", "Young Girls of Rochefort", "Artemisia", "Purple Noon", "Blow Dry" and "Basquiat".
Final Thoughts: "Strictly Ballroom" shows Lhurmann taking concepts that have been used elsewhere and presenting them in a fresh, lively way that's winning, fun and highly entertaining. Miramax's DVD offers very good audio/video quality and a few extras - I would have liked more supplements, but the commentary is very good. Definitely recommended.
Note: This disc will eventually be included in an upcoming "Red Curtain Trilogy" box set, with "Moulin Rouge" and the upcoming Special Edition of Lhurmann's "Romeo and Juliet". All 3 will also be available on their own.