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Case Number 03459

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The Forbidden Dance

Sony // 1990 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // October 30th, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

The forbidden dance is Lambada. (Lambada: from the Portuguese lambar, "to beat or lash." As one might, say, a dead horse. This pitiful movie being one.)

Opening Statement

Course Syllabus: Film Appreciation 101
Lesson 28: How to Tell from the Opening Credits that a Movie Stinks:

• The first name listed is producer Menahem Golan, a man who's overseen more junk than Fred Sanford.
• The male lead's résumé consists of titles usually carried from the video store in a plain brown paper sack, including such filmic landmarks as Butts Motel, Young Buns 2, and Grandma Does Dallas.
• A song by dance band Kid Creole and the Coconuts receives more prominent billing than several members of the cast.
• Co-stars include Richard Lynch and Sid Haig, two stalwart veterans of the schlock cinema circuit.
• The leading lady is named after seafood.

Facts of the Case

Something is rotten in the Amazon rain forest (which suspiciously resembles the L.A. County Botanical Gardens). That something is big, bad Petramco Corporation, whose head thug Benjamin Maxwell (perennial villain Richard Lynch) arrives in a Brazilian aboriginal village packing double-barreled heat to chase the locals out on five minutes' notice, all so mean old Petramco can turn the lush greenery into a tinderbox. Fortunately, the tribal chieftain's daughter Nisa (Laura Elena Harring of Mulholland Dr. is billed as Laura Herring here, as if presaging the scent of this film) speaks fluent English—thanks to her education by the requisite friendly missionaries—so she and resident shaman Joa (Sid Haig, House Of 1000 Corpses, Jackie Brown, and B-flicks too numerous to mention) venture to Los Angeles, U.S.A. in a futile attempt to persuade the evil corporate raiders to cut the homefolks and their jungle a little slack.

Bounced unceremoniously from Petramco HQ, her witch doctor henchman remanded to police custody, Nisa finds work as a domestic engineer for a snooty Beverly Hills family. There, our comely Amazonian princess catches the eye of clan scion Jason (adult film star Jeff James, looking confused by all the dialogue called for in the script), who, within five minutes of first seeing Nisa, takes her dancing at his favorite nightspot. (Hey, life moves pretty fast in ZIP code 90210.) Conflict erupts, as Jason's spoiled, rich, white-bread crowd turns out to be what one might call sociologically unenlightened, as evidenced by such comments as, "When did he start dating wetbacks?" and, "When did they start letting 'your kind' in here?" Not to mention the ever-popular, "They're different from us. You can see that."

When Ma and Pa Rockefeller object to young Jason miscegenating with the hired help, Nisa flees the mansion, taking a new job as a taxi dancer in a Hollywood sex club. (Sure. That makes sense.) Soon, Nisa and Joa the voodoo-maven bodyguard have enlisted Jason in their moral battle against the corrupters of the rain forest. Jason's unsympathetic parents advise their fair-and-thinning-haired boy that if he insists on culture-mixing with "barbarians," he'll be on the bricks without a cent, and can count on not being invited to the reading of the will.

Much sultry dancing, of both the vertical and horizontal varieties, ensues, accompanied by more pseudo-philosophical save-the-world Earth Day claptrap than a stack of menus from Rainforest Café. By the time Kid Creole and his crew show up to jumpstart the proceedings with funky (if maddeningly truncated) renditions of Automatic, It's a Horror, and Lambada a la Creole, most sane viewers will be on their fifty-seventh re-reading of the promotional blurb on the back of the keep case, and itching to check out the latest offerings on cable.

The Evidence

The only thing worse than a bad movie is a bad movie shot through with a trumped-up "message," with which it hammers the audience like Thor wielding Mjolnir against Loki's skull. The Forbidden Dance is just such a bad movie. It wants us to believe it's a deep, impassioned plea for environmental responsibility, preserving the Amazon jungle, saving the ozone layer, and combating global warming. In reality, it isn't anything but a cheap excuse for nubile, barely-clad young women and hunky, loose-limbed young men to insinuate their pelvises (pelvii?) against each other to the rhythm of loud, tuneless, impossibly annoying salsa-flavored disco music.

Even those inclined to support the basic principle that gutting the South American rain forests is ill-advised will quickly tire of the ham-handed fashion in which that worthy sentiment is plowed home. Still worse, it's clear that the filmmakers have nothing original, or even mildly thought-provoking, to say on the subject—it's merely a device to make the movie look like other than the exercise in PG-13 super-softcore that it is. One suspects that screenwriting partners Roy Langsdon and John Platt were dating a couple of hot babes from the Sierra Club at the time this script was concocted, and were hoping this display of moral outrage would show the hippie chicks that these guys were down for the cause. (In truth, Langsdon and Platt cooked up this turkey as Columbia Pictures' counter-programming to the identically inspired Lambada—produced by Menahem Golan's cousin and ex-partner Yoram Globus—produced at the same time as, and premiering in theaters on the same day as, The Forbidden Dance.)

The film's true social consciousness, however, is reflected in its casting of the improbably fair-complected Laura Elena Harring as an Indian princess from the heart of the Amazon. Every other member of the tribe checks in at a good three shades darker on the Coppertone scale, including Sid Haig, who appears to been triple-dunked in a vat of Hawaiian Tropic's instant tanning product. Is it coincidental that of the tribe only the light-skinned girl speaks the language of "civilization," while her melanin-laden kinfolk are portrayed as mute "noble savages"? By contrast, the Beverly Hills Anglo kids are universally blond and look like poster children for the Aryan Nation. (And yes, the Judge knows that Laura Harring is Latina. But do you really believe she resembles the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin? If one wanted to make an authentic statement on behalf of these downtrodden folks, why not cast an actress who looks the part, rather than Miss USA 1985?)

Harring's later films prove that she possesses some acting ability, but you'd never guess it from her wide-eyed turn in this, her first starring role. She's an accomplished dancer, though, and carries the lambada scenes with seductive flair. That's more than can be said for her rhythm-challenged co-star Jeff James, who's accustomed to doing his on-camera gyrating in either a prone or supine position. Richard Lynch, a quality actor sadly typecast as a heavy due to his burn-scarred features, looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here, though he, too, briefly flashes some deft dance-floor moves.

Director Greydon Clark, also the auteur behind the camp classic Satan's Cheerleaders, has no clue how to make any of this limp material exciting. This is especially true during the dance numbers, which Clark and cinematographer R. Michael Stringer approach as though under orders to drain as much energy from the sequence as possible while keeping the principals mostly in the frame and more or less in focus. (The concert numbers featuring Kid Creole and the Coconuts are abysmal—even American Bandstand presented performers more attractively than this.) The film's overall production values reveal the minuscule budget and rushed shooting schedule the project no doubt faced.

There's no suspense to be found in The Forbidden Dance anywhere. The conflicts between Jason and his parents and friends over his relationship with a non-WASP are silly, hackneyed, and ineptly acted. The dance competition (for a spot on a Kid Creole TV special) that's supposed to drive the action of the film feels like a tacked-on afterthought. For huge stretches of the picture, the script forgets that the ostensible reason Nisa came to America was to do battle with the corporate conglomerate destroying her homeland, not to shake her groove thing in sleazy, two-bit dives. At this rate, by the time Nisa gets around to slapping Petramco into submission, she won't have a jungle to go home to. And the audience will be ready to start a forest fire themselves—using this DVD as kindling.

Masked by some of the most off-putting cover art imaginable, the Columbia TriStar DVD of The Forbidden Dance gives this masterwork about what it's worth—which is to say, not much at all. The print shows its age—dirt and minor damage artifacts abound—and the transfer, though anamorphic widescreen, gives the picture the indistinct, gauzy appearance of a made-for-television production. Sharpness ranges from acceptable to downright nasty, the latter mostly in darker indoor scenes, and color balance is inconsistent, with brighter reds especially subject to bleed. Edge halos run rampant throughout the film, as does a fair bit of digital breakup. On the audio side, the basic Dolby Digital surround mix feels flabby and dull, with little depth or resonance. The musical numbers veer toward the shrill and trebly. Dialogue, to sound one positive note, is well mixed for the most part.

Extras are limited to full screen trailers for two other dance-themed movies—Center Stage and Dance With Me—that don't show much more promise than The Forbidden Dance, plus a widescreen preview for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, which, while not specifically dance-focused, shares with the main feature a certain, shall we say, hormonal aesthetic. We get no trailer for The Forbidden Dance, an omission that will spell sweet relief for all but the most masochistic renter (please tell me you're not still considering a purchase after the foregoing review).

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The early favorite for the DVD Verdict 2003 Golden Gavel Award for Ugliest Keep Case Artwork. Imagine an out-of-focus screen capture passed through a low-resolution scanner, then manhandled by your Luddite Aunt Petunia sweating her way through a Photoshop tutorial. Even an abominable movie deserves more professional marketing treatment than this.

Closing Statement

Saturday Night Fever, assuming that fever turned out to be a symptom of Ebola virus. For hardcore dance-movie freaks and Laura Elena Harring gawkers only. Harring is indeed gorgeous, but she's insufficient reason to waste 97 minutes of oxygen on this cheapjack bomb. Environmentalists will be insulted at the co-opting of their precious issues by the Menahem Golan schlock machine. This film may actually be endangering the ozone layer by virtue of its existence.

The Verdict

The Forbidden Dance is found guilty of exploiting an overnight fad for dubious gain, and in embarrassing fashion for all concerned. The Judge sentences producer Golan and director Clark to five years in the Amazon basin, doing some actual constructive good for the people who inhabit the endangered rain forests. They can start by not showing them this movie.

We're adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 68
Audio: 72
Extras: 5
Acting: 54
Story: 49
Judgment: 51

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• Romance

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailers

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