About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mao's Last Dancer

But then you have pleasant surprises like the forthcoming release Mao's Last Dancer, which Moving Image presented on August 3 at Scandinavia House's Victor Borge hall.

Mao's Last Dancer is an actual true story unlike the very loosely true Get Low. In the early 1980s, the Chinese government lets a promising ballet dancer study with the Houston Ballet. He falls in love. When it's time for him to return home, he decides to marry instead and defect to the US, which of course the Chinese government is not very happy about. There's a stand-off at the consulate...

Can we say I don't rush to see movies about ballet?

Li Cunxin eventually ends up in Australia as a dancer for the Melbourne ballet. This might explain why his story came to the attention of semi-noted Australian director Bruce Beresford.

Beresford was part of a wave of Australian directors circa 1980 who made a big splash on the international film scene when the Australian government started financing movies, thus giving these directors calling cards to present to the world. In Beresford's case, his calling card was a film called Breaker Morant, about the Boer Wars. Not bad, not bad at all. The success of this movie led to the US release of a movie called Don's Party, 90 minutes of people getting drunk at a party that I saw in my college years and which has to rank among the most miserable experiences I've ever had in a movie theatre. And back then, I wouldn't so easily doze off during a bad movie, like I do now. And like so many of these Australian directors (Peter Weir, The Year of Living Dangerously and Dead Poets Society, is certainly my favorite of them, though Fred Schepisi for Roxanne alone deserves recognition) Beresford went Hollywood. Three of his movies, Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart and most of all Driving Miss Daisy achieved fame. In the twenty years since Driving Miss Daisy I don't think Beresford has been involved in a single movie I've seen. That I've wanted to see. That has flitted on to my radar to maybe think about seeing. And I'd say overall the reputation of even his best 80s movies hasn't always held up.

Can we say I don't rush to see movies directed by Bruce Beresford?

And yet Mao's Last Dancer ended up being a surprisingly wonderful way to pass two hours.

I don't want to oversell it. For one, it's a very old-fashioned movie, though I think that very old-fashionedness is also part of why the movie succeeds as much as it does. It's full of breathtaking vistas of China, beautiful ballet numbers, evil Chinese, good Americans, it's just very very old-fashioned. But it does pass the time, smoothly and nicely. Because old-fashioned as it might be, you don't have to like opera to like Amadeus and you don't have to like ballet to like this.

But to give some great credit where due, good acting never goes out of style and Bruce Beresford directs some very good actors here. The actor and dancer who plays Chi Cao isn't a great actor, really, but he's definitely a dancer. And since his role is that of a young Chinese man thrown onto Houston shores as a student, some of his awkwardness can be passed off as that of the character instead of that of the actor, enough so that when we give credit for the quality of the dancing we have to say that the performance is a fully realized success. Kyle MacLachlan is years off of his youthful role in the David Lynch "Dune" and does a nice turn as the Houston immigration attorney. Joan Chen is on hand.

But for me it's Bruce Greenwood who gives a performance which I think has to be given consideration for the Supporting Actor Oscar this year. Greenwood's been around for years as a character actor, the kind of actor you never notice. Most of you might best know him from being the Starfleet officer who recruits the young Kirk in the reboot of Star Trek last summer. But he's been in dozens of movies, a couple of Atom Egoyan, lots of TV, just all over the place. Here he plays the artistic director of the Houston Ballet who takes the young dancer under his thumb and who supports him over the years that follow. He does the entire performance with the strangest accent that's kind of gay if you're entitled to say there's a gay accent but isn't entirely that, either. I'm curious how much it's like any accent the character has in real life. He's completely submerged in the role to where you know it is Bruce Greenwood but can never quite believe it's actually him. Skirts with but never becomes charicature. It's a compulsively watchable performance.

This movie was a pleasant surprise. It opens in New York on August 20, and in the way of these things will broaden out from there. Keep your eyes open for when it plays near you.

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