Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lambada / ** (1990)

The obscure Lambada craze was never as big as its creators probably would have desired, but imagine telling that to the impulsive minds of Hollywood. In the early months of 1990 and amid impending wonder of what new trend would sweep pop culture, movie studios greenlit not one but two films about said dance – a combination of salsa and dirty dancing that depended on hips swinging seductively to Latin-fueled rhythms – and eagerly awaited their opportunistic conviction to pan out into something of a financial success. Their gamble, much like the notion of Lambada itself, puttered out too quickly to garner much notice, and both pictures were rush-released on the exact same weekend in order to avoid prolonged post-production losses. Thirty years later, their footnote of an existence is notable in the sense that they are among some of the most dumbfounding bad movies of their time, often held up as the most absurd examples of how knee-jerk the movie system can be when it comes to anticipating trends. Seeing them so many years after they barely registered a blip on theatrical radar, one marvels that our cinema is so capable of housing just as many silly agendas as they do the thoughtful sensibilities of more talented artists.

“Lambada,” the most noted of the two, is distinguishable in other regards. Most dance movies rush right into the choreography as a way of playing up character chemistry and executing mere romantic interludes; this film takes the distinction of using dance as a front for social responsibility, in which a high school math teacher leads a double life at night in order to – get this! – teach underprivileged kids in the city math skills so that they can get their diplomas. The Lambada, which he is also skilled at, is simply an entry point; when he engages in it with prospective students, it is a subtle way of him gaining their trust and confidence, and hopefully enough to also keep his motives quiet in a world where the school system that employs him would probably frown on his extracurricular activities. Unfortunately for him, his antics also come to the attention of one of his own high school students, who mistakes this facet of his life as her own channel for seducing the teacher she finds very attractive.

Teachers who give it their all by being leading examples of inspiration for kids led astray is one of the oldest and most cliché staples of school-oriented movies, and nearly every element of the conviction comes down to one fundamental narrative acknowledgment: the fact that some just don’t have the same opportunities as others. But what on Earth possessed Joel Silberg, this film’s director, to bury such thoughts underneath an elaborate veneer often used to entice different sorts of observers? His choices incur certain mystery and suspicion, particularly in relation to the film’s core values. Was his intention always to tell a story about kids in need of a guiding educational force, and was the dance itself simply his chosen presentation? Or did it all begin as a full-fledged Lambada picture that changed scope when it became clear that no one in the general public cared about the fad? History tells us that the latter is generally the more widely accepted sensibility, and awareness of this conviction leads us into a viewing experience that has to be seen to be believed. Some bad movies are simply bad because of incompetence or miscalculation; here is one that begins with the distinction of confusion and follows through with it until the last befuddling frame.

The movie begins with a scene that shields the deeper motives. At an outdoor party filled with scantily clad but well-to-do high-school kids gyrating wildly to rhythmic beats (the probably setting is Beverly Hills), an isolated group of friends engage one another in formulaic interactions. Sandy (Melora Hardin) is in love with dancing, but not so in love with her on/off boyfriend Dean (Ricky Paul Goldin), who carries on flings with other girls behind her back but is utterly transparent in his attempts to fib about them. Meanwhile, she and her closest girlfriend fawn over the mature but youthful math instructor Mr. Laird (J. Eddie Peck), who challenges them intellectually while remaining kind and dedicated to the cause of their education. That he does all of this while smiling sharply as his eyes sparkle under his wavy hair certainly intensify her crush, and when she is invited out one night to a dance club, her eye spots him in a thick of sweaty bodies and sends her hormones into a raging (and rather unhealthy) fit of sexual desire. The movie uses their awkward interactions as a device to frame his loftier ambitions, but unfortunately no one bothered to tell the actors; as an example, there is an awkward scene on a motorcycle in which the film encourages Sandy to fawn over her teacher’s body while romantic music plays over the soundtrack, as if to suggest that there is some kind of sexual chemistry developing (this despite her being under-aged, and him being totally disinterested in the flirtatious nature of a horny teenager who refuses to take no for an answer).

There are so many stunning lapses in judgment going on in “Lambada” that all we can do is look on with some level of amusement. Consider that the movie’s very infrequent dance scenes, for example, are so badly shot; the camera only shoots characters from the waist up, and usually in scenes so sparsely lit that there is barely any way to tell who we are observing, much less how their hips are moving. A baffling moment later in the film even attempts to neutralize these inadequacies, but winds up being even more ridiculous: in it, a group of students sitting in a computer lab manipulate a program to play music, and in unison they all get up and dance to it like figures in a stage musical. And if those moments are not bad enough, consider the movie’s dubious climax, which takes place in a school auditorium where the rich kids face-off in a math contest with Mr. Laird’s inner-city students. The fact that it exists at all in a picture with mixed motives is audacious in some regard, but what does anyone find exciting about such a resolution? For a film energetic enough to mix up all its messages in such zany framework, it’s almost astonishing to watch it all putter out in a final moment of such deadening silliness.

The movie is not constructed on any discernible value of basic entertainment. There are messages here muddled beneath ruses of inexplicable dissonance, and nearly every moment of the undertaking is driven by a conceit of money-hungry stubbornness, and not to any purpose of art, skill, energy, escapism or consistency in tone. But if we are to judge pictures like this in relation to those existing within the same context, “Lambada” is a harmless distraction when compared to its cousin, the godawful “The Forbidden Dance,” and certainly a lot more amusing from a pitch of ridiculous ambition. Both movies came out in the same week and garnered their own brief notoriety: this film for its brainless mix of motives, the other for its more shameless (and borderline exploitative) treatment of women. Neither was straightforward, either; an underlying current of more political purposes permeated from the screenplays as if to imply dancing was a mere mechanism used to dress up elaborated after-school specials, and none of the actors involved seemed to take stock in the material with enthusiasm beyond skillful pelvic thrusting. Does either film deserve notice? Not really, especially when you realize that they coexist in a genre that has an ample supply of more energetic (and cohesive) endeavors. But we chuckle, however half-heartedly, with more shock of audacity than discomfort here, and for some a good laugh at the stupidity may be all that is necessary to pass the time.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Dance/Drama (US); 1990; Rated PG-13 for suggestive themes and some language/sensuality; Running Time: 104 Minutes

J. Eddie Peck: Kevin “Blade” Laird
Melora Hardin: Sandy Thomas
Adolfo Quinones: Ramone
Dennis Burkley: Uncle Big
Ricky Paul Goldin: Dean
Gina Ravera: Funk Queen

Produced by Peter Shepherd; Directed by Joel Silberg; Written by Joel Silberg and Sheldon Renan

No comments: