Dancing at the Blue Iguana: DVD review
|REVIEWS - DVD REVIEWS|
This is why they don't do pole dancing on Whose Line Is It Anyway ...
Directed by Michael Radford, Dancing at the Blue Iguana tells the stories of five women who work as pole dancers at the ‘Blue Iguana’ club in Los Angeles. Played by Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly, Sheila Kelley, Charlotte Ayanna and Sandra Oh, the women all have complex, issue-ridden lives beyond their status as exotic dancers. The two-hour long film was developed from a series of improvisation workshops and it is the reliance on improvisation, rather than a strong script and firm sense of direction, that is the crux of the problems with this film.
The use of improvisation is not new, with the British director Mike Leigh as perhaps the best known for its use. Leigh’s use of improvisation, however, works because he uses it sparingly and at the rehearsal stage in order to allow his cast to develop their characters. Leigh says, “That last scene in Secrets and Lies, the big barbecue, was a massive improv. Then we rehearsed it and fixed it and pinned it down, so what you finally arrive at—by the time I shoot it or put in on stage—is very precise." Radford’s experiment with improvisation was to let his cast develop their own characters and story which the director then assembled into a story. The result is as though Radford assembled his cast and crew, grabbed a camera and yelled, ‘Let’s make the movie right here!’
Radford justified his approach of striving to use footage from the first take by claiming that if the scene became too polished then it lost its realism, and there is certainly mileage in this argument and the conversations do have a natural feel to them, but what should have been one of the film’s greatest strengths is, for me, actually its greatest weakness. Realism is good up to a point as, yes, in real life, conversations can be slow with long pauses and thoughtful silences - but they are not particularly entertaining to an observer and at its fundamental core, cinema is there to entertain. A whole lot of direction and editing would have clipped the best from the improvisation and upped the pace beyond the plodding offering that it is.
Handed the responsibility to work out their own characters, what the cast have largely done is to create characters that are a parallel version of themselves – Hannah (Angel) is a ditsy woman-child, former Miss Teen USA Ayanna (Jesse) is the cutie newbie and Tilly (Jo) is a shrieking screwball. Tilly’s voice has just two notes, baby voiced gurgle or ranting banshee, and I could not help but notice the similarity to the character Lina Lamont from Singing in the Rain. Her performance becomes more manic as the story develops as over-acting is substituted for acting. Hannah (Angel) is the same sweet air-head that she was always cast as (thank God for the later Kill Bill that proved that she could do more). Obsessed with her drive to adopt a child, Hannah’s performance does produce some moments of real emotion and depth and there are glimpses of how good she could be, but sadly like much of the film, any potential is replaced by the over-acting and is lost in the chaos. Kelley (Stormy) simply looks bored, with the same expression on her beautiful yet blank face, regardless of what the scene calls for.
The faces of most of the actors register little emotion, as though they are concentrating so hard on the improvisation that they forget to act (or were botoxed to oblivion – but that’s a whole different can of worms). Frequently, what should have been endearing or dramatic translates as creepy or annoying. I don’t know whether Radford was so much in awe of his cast that he could not bring himself to rein them in, but there are multiple occasions when a director’s intervening hand was needed but not applied. A case in point is the scene when Ayanna’s character, having suffered a beating from her boyfriend and drunk herself silly, descends on the home of Tilly, who is in the midst of a dominatrix session with a bewildered client. What ensues is some elongated business with Ayanna pleading to stay but getting in the way and Tilly’s frustration at her presence that descends into a ludicrously silly, indulgent screeching and larking around match that is so contrived and awkward that it is toe-curling to watch. The two women, and Tilly in particular, seem so uncomfortable that the expectation was that she might turn to the camera at any moment and shout ‘please say ‘cut’!!’.
Characters are generally underwritten, inconsistent and clichéd. Oh’s character is at times the sensitive, fragile poet (the somewhat patronizing tart-with-a-heart cliché) and at others scrapping on the dressing room floor with another dancer.
Conversations are frequently filmed from one angle only, leaving the audience to watch the back of someone’s head; that actor could have been acting their socks off but if they were it remains unseen. Perhaps this technique could have been excused as the creation of realism, had it been used consistently - but disappointingly, the scenes that appear to have been afforded the greatest attention, the most attentively shot and edited, are those of the women performing their pole-dancing routines. The club itself is a strange place, populated by a sparse ‘crowd’ that, apart from a few at the front, stand around looking bored in the over-lit background. Like the film, this club lacks any atmosphere.
Plot ideas are under-developed or simply abandoned. Perhaps the most bizarre plot line is the introduction of a mysterious Russian hit man. Holed up in a hotel, he spies on and falls for one of the women before meeting her once and disappearing. Popping up intermittently, his story is jarringly out of place in the narrative and serves no purpose whatsoever. None of the characters, except with the exception of Jasmine (Oh), is afforded any depth. Her story is granted more attention that that of the other women – perhaps Radford seized upon the fact that of the entire ensemble, it is Oh alone who stands out. Always utterly watchable, her performance is an example of beautifully understated acting.
Given that the film is now eleven years old and such a limp lettuce of a tale, it is surprising that it is up for re-release – perhaps the hope is that it will reach new audiences who are unaware the film’s shortcomings . If Dancing at the Blue Iguana had been an early offering from a rooky film-maker then the deeply disappointing result may have been understandable. However, the fact that this is the same Michael Radford who directed the fabulous Il Postino is baffling.
With a pace so slow, characters so poorly developed and performances that edge close to bonkers, Dancing at the Blue Iguana does something that millions of dollars couldn’t – it makes Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls look like a cinematic tour de force. It would be all too easy to completely write this film off but to do so would be a little unfair as, to its credit, although the end result is a disappointment, the film should be applauded for what it was attempting to do. To make a film with such reliance on improvisation and to venture beyond the conventional Hollywood formulaic method of storytelling was a bold move. Stepping outside the comfort zone of having directed such a successful film as Il Postino and creating something so different was perhaps with hindsight foolhardy – yet still a courageous undertaking. After all, cinema cannot evolve without some risk taking.
My biggest problem with Dancing at the Blue Iguana is that from the director of a pervious work of such high caliber and with the potentially fascinating subject matter of the lives of the women behind the exotic façade, this well-intentioned film should and could have been so much better.
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