Strictly Ballroom (DVD)

Strictly Ballroom (DVD)

A few months after the release of the magnificent two-disc set of his Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge, Australian director Baz Luhrmann revisits the first installments of his "red curtain trilogy" on DVD. Both the zany romantic comedy of Strictly Ballroom and the aggressive MTV-informed reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet show the over-the-top theatrical style and egalitarian artistic ethos that have made Luhrmann so distinctive, and yet so aggravating. His 1992 debut film Strictly Ballroom remains the most simple and crowd-pleasing of the trilogy. Paul Mercurio plays a promising ballroom dancer who can't catch a break in competition because he favors inventive steps over the established styles laid down by fuddy-duddy judges. But once he partners up with mousy novice Tara Morice, he learns to dance for the thrill of movement alone, and in the process, romance blooms. Luhrmann works aggressively for laughs early in the picture, playing up the gaudiness and piggishness of the old-guard dancers in camera angles as extreme and unflattering as a mid-'80s David Lee Roth video. Later, Luhrmann softens as he reveals the motivations of his quasi-villains, and as the delirium of the dance takes over in the film's exuberant, climactic championship sequence. Strictly Ballroom's theme of wresting art from the stifling environs of hidebound tradition has become Luhrmann's guiding theory, one that he tests heavily in 1996's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. The filmmaker keeps the original language of the tale of star-crossed lovers, but updates the setting to a sweltering contemporary coastal metropolis, where the players drive cars instead of riding horses, and draw guns instead of swords. Luhrmann imposes an often-maddening MTV editing style, creating a hectic swirl around Leonardo DiCaprio's hormone-addled Romeo and Claire Danes' giddy Juliet. For all the hubbub, the film succeeds in relating Shakespeare to modern times, thanks mainly to the use of energetic pop music and the gameness of the performers. DiCaprio, Danes, and company may be afflicted with the youthful notion that shouting equals great acting, but they still hypnotize with their charisma more often than they induce cringing. Though Luhrmann's first two films are being released to DVD by two different companies, they're remarkably uniform regarding the special features (though,in keeping with Miramax's general indifference to the technology, Strictly Ballroom is both skimpier and more expensive). Both contain stylishly assembled behind-the-scenes footage—the Romeo + Juliet material is so copious that it could have almost been edited into a feature-length making-of documentary—and commentaries by Luhrmann and his key collaborators, including wife and production designer Catherine Martin, choreographer John O'Connell, and co-writer Craig Pearce, all of whom have worked on all three of Luhrmann's films. Their commentary tracks deflate some of the apparent haughtiness behind the trilogy, with its overt staginess and leveling of high and low culture. Luhrmann finds a transcendent commonality among poetry, rock 'n' roll, Hollywood stardom, the musical theater, and the turbulent emotions of rebellious youth. When he compares DiCaprio's Romeo to "James Dean, Byron, and Kurt Cobain," his enthusiasm is difficult to dismiss.

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