Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien

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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Michelle Yeoh finds that checking out books at the Ancient China branch of the library can be problematical at best.

(2008) Action Adventure Horror (Universal) Brenan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, John Hannah, Isabella Leong, Chau Sang Anthony Wong, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham, David Calder, Jessey Meng, Tian Liang.  Directed by Rob Cohen

Movie monsters may come and movie monsters may go, but you can’t keep them down for too long. That, at least in my estimation, is the lesson generated by the first two movies of the Universal Mummy reboot.

The third installment of the series starts off very promising. Evil Chinese emperor (Li) plans to take over the world, but falls in love with sorceress Zi Yuan (Yeoh) who only has eyes for the emperor’s right hand General Ming (R. Wong), which cheeses off the emperor enough to kill his best field general. The emperor apparently never learned not to piss off a sorceress, so on the pretense of making the emperor immortal she instead curses him and his soldiers to turn into clay, and as such they are entombed for four thousand years.

That is, until Alex O’Connell (Ford) comes along. A young, promising archaeologist excavating in China stumbles upon the tomb, one of the most important finds of the 20th century, but in doing so accidentally awakens the emperor who has plans to resume his world domination scheme after a slight delay. Those darn Chinese emperors!

Alex’s parents, Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz who chose not to return to the role) have been living in wedded bliss for more than a decade since the events of The Mummy Returns. However, they are both unspeakably bored and who wouldn’t be? Anything after a life of danger, adventure, exotic places and of course the undead would seem a bit dull by comparison.

Given the opportunity to return a rare gem to the Chinese people as a gift from the British government, the O’Connell’s head to China to reunite with their son, choosing a bar in Shanghai owned by Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (Hannah), which is a mistake in itself. There they are attacked and helped out by Lin (Leong), who turns out to be the daughter of the sorceress and General Ming who inherited her mom’s immortality. Thanks mom!

After witnessing the truly evil nature of the mummy and his human henchman General Yang (C.S.A. Wong), the O’Connell’s realize that they are the only people equipped to deal with yet another outbreak of mummy-ism. They are in turn aided by the sorceress and her yeti pals. This all leads to a big battle by the Great Wall in which the emperor’s soldiers are opposed by the slaves they murdered to build the wall (brought back to life conveniently by the sorceress) and the emperor, who morphs himself into a formidable fire-breathing three-headed dragon. The odds are against the O’Connells and their allies but if you know mummies like they know mummies, you won’t be worried about the whole day-saving thing.

Cohen takes over from Stephen Sommers who helmed the first two movies and does adequately. Cohen is no stranger to big movies, having directed xXx and the original The Fast and the Furious among other things but he doesn’t get to use Vin Diesel here.

Instead, he gets Brendan Fraser and the actor utilizes his considerable charm to make Rick likable despite being a bit of a whiner here. The chemistry between Fraser and Weisz is sorely missed and although Bello is a terrific actress in her own right, she really isn’t right for the role. Quite frankly, her English accent is a bit too upper class for Evelyn, and she comes off as a bit phony. She does look good in the fight scenes at least.

Alex O’Connell has gone from an annoying child in The Mummy Returns to an annoying adult here, so the less said the better. Hannah provides comic relief nicely, but for me the real attraction here is Li and Yeoh. Li is one of the greatest martial artists ever in movies and while he doesn’t get as much time demonstrating his prowess (he’s much too busy being a CGI mummy or dragon), he shines when he does. Yeoh is in my opinion an incredibly gifted actress who is shamefully underrated here in the States. She is, as always, one of the best reasons to see this movie.

There is plenty of eye candy to go around and the action sequences make the movie at least palatable. However, a lot of the sparkle and gee-whiz fun is missing from this movie where it was present in the first two. You get the impression this was just a paycheck for most of the people involved, who are sufficiently talented enough to make this entertaining, but without the spark that would have made this amazing. It’s one of those things where you have good talent, a great concept and skilled filmmakers but it doesn’t add up to the great movie it should have been. Instead, it’s merely adequate.

It’s not good form to compare a movie to the one that you think should have been made, but the movie disappointed me so here you have it. It’s certainly worth a look if you haven’t already seen it, but don’t expect to have your socks blown off. Your footwear is quite safe this time.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular effects and some amazing fight scenes. Any chance to see Li and Yeoh is worth taking. Fraser is as charming as ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bello is miscast somewhat. The story is a bit weak compared to the first two movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action movie-type violence and a few disturbing monster images that might be a bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tomb and the terra cotta warriors are based on the actual tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in Xi’an, China. The excavations have been going slowly for decades, partially because of traps left by the builders of the tomb, some similar to the ones depicted in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual terra cotta warriors, as well as a trivia track and a U-Control feature called “Know Your Mummy” that compares this movie with the previous two Mummy flicks, the latter two being only on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $401.1M on a $145M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beginners