They expose all. They show nothing.
I suppose reviewing DVDs can indeed be a bit like a box of chocolates. Case in point: Dancing at the Iguana. After reviewing a couple of stinkers in the form of US Seals 2 and Sexual Predator, I was prepared to have to work my through a film about one week in a strip club and the people who work there. What I didn't know was that I was getting into a film that quite literally was built from the ground up by the actors participating in it. I also did not know that the respected Michael Radford (Il Postino, 1984) directed the movie. So color me surprised. The film may not be a masterpiece and there are definite problems with the non-anamorphic transfer, but the package is redeemed by being one of the better special editions I have seen of late.
Facts of the Case
Come spend a week at the Blue Iguana where the fantasy onstage is beauty and desire, while backstage happiness is a foreign word and all that matters is getting through the night.
I can't recall ever seeing anything quite like Dancing at the Blue Iguana. Certainly there have been tons of experimental films done before, as well as films that have been improvised, but few I would wager to guess have been built so completely like this one. The cast spent months researching and improvising the movie that they would later shoot. After all the work-shopping and research, director Radford, along with David Linter went back and formed all of this extemporaneous work into a working screenplay.
As such, all of the cast members truly inhabit their roles. There are no false notes anywhere and the film does have the feel of authenticity. I will admit to a period of my life where I was very good friends with several girls who stripped as well as being friends with a couple of bartenders, cocktail servers, and a bouncer. I understand what goes on in a club and the world they have captured in Dancing at the Blue Iguana is the real deal. Yet, it is in this sense of achieving true reality that I think the movie falters. I'm of the belief that perhaps everyone involved got too close to their characters and to their mission. So close, that what is real in an actual strip club setting becomes, in cinematic terms, overwrought and melodramatic. The movie juggles several subplots, only some of which are interesting, while failing to bring closure. Again, in real world terms that is the way things are but in film terms, Dancing at the Blue Iguana finds itself not so much reaching a conclusion as it does simply coming to a stop. It is why, after the first viewing, I found the movie to be an interesting failure. Yes, the characters cut close to the bone. It's true, most of dancers I have known really are chain smoking, self-absorbed women who have destructive tastes in men and at some point in their childhood were probably sexually abused. That is truth, and it's uncomfortable.
So why then does Dancing at the Blue Iguana fail to involve and engage? I think one key reason is the movie tried to fit in too many stories rather than focusing in on the strongest one or two. The multi-character dramas of Robert Altman or P.T. Anderson may be sprawling, but in the end there is a convergence that pulls everything together. It also helps that in the films of those directors there is always a sense of black humor acting as an undercurrent though-out the proceedings. In both cases, Dancing at the Blue Iguana fails to deliver. What you are left with in the end is a well meaning, well acted, yet overly earnest mess of a movie.
Taken on its own terms, strictly as a stand alone film, Dancing at the Blue Iguana is not something I would recommend to the casual viewer. However, presented as it is on DVD, I find it to be a whole other story. I will be the first person to concede that supplemental material is never going to turn an okay movie into a good one. Still, what you will find in the extra content included on Dancing at the Blue Iguana is a window into the production that will hopefully give most people a whole new respect for what went on behind the scenes and how that translated into the finished product.
First up is an original documentary called Strip Notes directed by Daryl Hannah. I think it is one of the best production documentaries that I have ever seen. It may not carry the weight of a Hearts of Darkness or Burden of Dreams, but in this age of slickly produced electronic press kits, this documentary shows the guts of making a film like this. The girls may be pretty, but the lifestyle rarely is and Strip Notes is not afraid of showing things the way they are. In many ways this making of documentary is more interesting that the actual film. Running about an hour, it shows the research Hannah and several of her costars did at various Los Angeles strip clubs, in particular a club called Crazy Girls. Managed by a Tony Curtis look-alike named Gino, here you find a great deal of what happens in the movie proper as well as the model for Hannah's character in the film, the sweet, if dim Angel. It is amazing to see the work that the various actresses put into their roles. It really is a refreshing change of pace and I would almost recommend watching the documentary before viewing the film.
There are two commentary tracks on this disc and the first is the one to listen to. Recorded solo, director Michael Radford gives one of the better and more informative commentaries I have heard of late. Personally, I'm a fan of the Criterion-style commentary or a group affair edited together for clarity and lack of silences; still, in this case Radford is prepared and hits all the bases. I will also say that there are few pauses in Radford's audio track. The man has a lot of ground to cover and cover it he does. It bookends nicely with Hannah's documentary offering a fuller picture of the work and processes that went into Dancing at the Blue Iguana. Of the other extras, there is a second audio track with cast members Sheila Kelley (Soapdish), Sandra Oh (Permanent Midnight), and Robert Wisdom (Storytelling). Ironic isn't it that while I generally think group tracks are better, in this case it is the solo number that is easily the superior listen. Well, it is. Stick with the Radford track.
Then there are alternate and deleted scenes. Usually, I love these parts but in this case it's pretty easy to see why these bits did not make the final cut. Nice to have, but only to view once. The disc is finished up with the trailer.
On the tech end, Trimark offers up a surprisingly aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital track. This is a good mix that engulfs the room without feeling ponderous. There's plenty of bass, while there are numerous panning effects from the surrounds. Everything is well mixed with music, Foley effects, and dialogue clearly audible to good effect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All right, I have a question. Trimark spent the time and the money to put together a nice little special edition with a top notch sound mix, but they could not cough up the cash to give the disc an anamorphic transfer? How much sense does that make? I know, that is two questions. The image is letterboxed to 1.85:1 on this single sided, single layered disc. The transfer could have definitely used the extra resolution for the film's numerous darkly lighted and shadowy sequences. As it stands, detail is fair to average. Colors look about right, contrast is fairly strong and I noticed little in the way of edge enhancement. If the image had any real noticeable problem, it's the wear and tear on the source material. There were quite a few nicks, scratches, and dirt visible. Considering this movie is barely a couple of years old this is quite surprising and another disappointment in the video category of this disc.
The movie is hardly perfect. It lacks focus at times, but features some outstanding performances. Daryl Hannah has already been mentioned. Sandra Oh is another standout, while Robert Wisdom is also worth noting. Yet, if one performance stands out for me it is Charlotte Ayanna (Jawbreaker) as the young dancer, Jessie. Ayanna hits every note. Too stoned, too drunk and too trusting—she is, unfortunately, like quite a few girls I have known. She is a major talent and one that should be kept an eye on.
This movie is not for everyone. There is quite a lot of nudity but little in the way of eroticism. Which is kind of the point. If you go in looking for a lot of tease, well, you are bound to be let down. What you do get is a view of stripping as the job that it is for these women. It's not the glamorous profession many might think it is. I have always thought of strip clubs as sexual Disneyland. They are bright and pretty, on the outside but hollow and empty beneath the surface. Dancing at the Blue Iguana does a great job of showing both sides of the fantasy.
I would not really call Dancing at the Blue Iguana a keeper. There are too many flaws in its storytelling for that. I do think it's a pretty strong rental though. Just watch the documentary first and get a better feeling for what Michael Radford and his excellent cast were after.
While the structure of Dancing at the Blue Iguana could have used some tightening, it's hard to fault the effort that went into the project. There are several standout performances here and all connected are given a pass. Trimark is thanked for some excellent supplemental material but is given six months probation for the lack of anamorphic enhancement. That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Strip Notes: An Original Documentary Directed by Daryl Hannah
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