Dancing at the Blue Iguana
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Dancing at the Blue Iguana

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There is something special about a film that presents the story by means of the ensemble cast. The focus needs to shift between a larger than normal pool of central characters. Robert Altman elevated this type of production to an art form with films like Nashville, more recently; Paul T. Anderson has taken up the mantle with Magnolia. Michael Radford has thrown his hat into this genre with the release of ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’. The film uses a number of main characters that all work in a somewhat upscale strip club in California. At the start we slowly get to know the various archetypes represented by the young women that dance at the club and the men that work or patronize the club. Angel (Daryl Hannah) is an innocent girl in the sultry body of a woman. She is a staple at the club, working there for ten years. She also wants desperately wants to be a mother. She hopes to be able to foster a child. She finds a pregnancy test in the ladies room and hopes that since she ‘dribbled’ on it the test would show she was expecting. Sandra Oh plays Jasmine, the brainy stripper. She spends her off hours writing poetry and attending local readings. She fails in love with the organizer of a poetry group (Chris Hogan) who helps her finally gain a sense of self worth. Storm (Shelia Kelley) is the dark and sullen woman. She doesn’t even bother to fake enthusiasm when she is on stage. Worried about her past catching up with her because her brother (Elias Koteas) has tracked her down. Then there is the new comer, Jessie (Charlotte Ayanna) who tries to get through life by flirting and complimenting everyone. She wants to get what she can while her body can still attract others. It seems that everyone in this club is at the crossroads of a personal dilemma. If there was a soap opera about a strip joint, this film could serve as a prototype. Lastly, there is Jo (Jennifer Tilly), harden, leather clad steamroller of the stripers. She makes extra money selling the drugs given to her by customers and works part time as a dominatrix. She discovers that she is pregnant and goes out of control.

The actors on this film do a good job of bringing this world into the homes. Wives and girlfriends may not find the same familiarity as some of the male viewers. Little hint guys, do not exclaim ‘The got that exactly right’ while watching this film. Hannah has had an eclectic career focusing mostly on comedy. For some reason her performance here reminded me of her work in Steel Magnolias. She is the innocent in the midst of more worldly women. She tries to mother the other girls but fails since she needs mothering more than the rest of the group. Hannah provides is able to combine pathos and comedy in a well-played role. Sandra Oh demonstrates excellent range and ability in her portrayal of Jasmine. As the intelligent woman she is the one the others naturally gravitate to. In her scenes with Hogan there is a sensitivity that draws the audience into to the blossoming romance. Kelly is not only an actress here but also one the film’s many producers. Many may remember her from LA Law, the David E. Kelly series. She is vastly different from that or the many other up beat roles she has made a career out of. Storm is a perfect name for her character. There is something brewing in her that is about to burst to the surface. Bedecked by large tattoos, never cracking a smile, Kelley plays Storm not as a sullen woman of mystery but rather as one kicked around by life, numbed by the anesthesia provided by her existence. She is the female Proofrock, lost and alone in a crowd. Jennifer Tilly has made a career as an unintelligent but beautiful woman. This film helps to show that in order to play such a role there has to be wit and intelligence behind the portrait. Her depiction of Jo provides the much-needed contrast to the sweetness of Angel and the sensitivity of Jasmine.

Director Michael Radford is perhaps best known for Il Postino, which got him an Oscar nomination. Where that film demonstrated control and precision Blue Iguana takes the opposite track. Radford gathered his cast together for a five-month workshop to develop their characters with him and co-writer David Linter. The actors were encouraged to improvise much of the dialogue in the film. The day players were culled from such improvisational comedy troupes as Second City and Groundhogs. This enriched the cast with people used to thinking on their feet and able to really get into character quickly. The result is the film is far better than the theme would suggest. While bordering on the melodramatic and almost unrealistic juxtaposition of life changing events, the improvisation gives an almost documentary nature to the film. While the film is set in a strip club Radford does not focus on the act of stripping. Parents be warned, there is a good measure of nudity present but it is secondary to the stories presented. Like Anderson’s work in Boogie Nights the setting provides a commonality for the characters, it doesn’t drive them. While the film may have benefited from some streamlining of the many interlacing stories the whole does pull together in the end. A tighter editing could have added some to the film. Radford uses light in an incredible fashion. There is one scene where Jamine and her poet are on the beach about to kiss. The sun is played off her hair to provide an almost golden red glow to Ms Oh’s hair. Talk about setting a mood, Radford nails most every shot.

One note about the making of feature here, it is a bit different than most I have seen. Narrated by Hannah it chronicles how she and other cast members researched and created their roles. Since the film was improvisational it was up to the actors to create their own characters including the arc of their characters and their back-stories. The feature goes behind the scenes at the actual strip club used for research and for training the actors in how to dance. Also included is the various meetings and workshops used to create the scenes of the film. Since there was really only an outline of a script most of what made it to the screen was created in these forums.

The disc is very well done, typical for Trimark. The Dolby 5.1 audio enfolds the room. In the club scenes you will hear the patrons all around you. The music pounds out at you. Dialogue is a bit difficult to make out at some points. The widescreen 1.85:1 video is not anamorphic but it holds together without defect or artifacts even in the scenes that rapidly change from dark to light. The extras are interesting. There are two commentaries, one with the director the other with the actors. An hour long making of documentary covers the workshop and how the film was pieced together. There are eight deleted or alternate scenes that help demonstrate how the improvisational technique was utilized. This is an above average film that shows the diversity of the cast and crew. Sure there are flaws but the powerful performances make it worth while.

Posted 1/5/02

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