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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 26, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Mao's Last Dancer, Owls, Taste

Director Bruce Beresford has such a delicate touch that his films don't look as if they were directed -- things just happen. Such naturalness takes far more skill (not to mention modesty and good taste) than you'll ever see in showy directors who make sure to upstage both actors and script.

Over the years Beresford has made some beautiful movies that live on in my heart. Driving Miss Daisy was his, as was Tender Mercies. Of course, his record also includes King David and Her Alibi, but nobody's perfect.

The problem with being a director of subtlety, modesty, and taste is that some reviewers have to be hit over the head by bad art in order to know what to say about a movie. The result is that Beresford's latest film has been slugged with some really stupid reviews.

I'm going to give you the truth.

Mao's Last Dancer has the perfect title -- after you've seen the film. But before you've seen it, what does it make you think of? A movie about Communist China -- and, given the way Hollywood works these days, probably a favorable view.

Well, think again. It's the story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, based on his autobiography. Li's story is a powerful one. Snatched from his home in a remote Chinese village by Communist officials determined to compete on the world stage with dancers, Li doesn't even like to dance ... until he has a teacher who believes in him.

This movie was made with the cooperation of today's China -- but it pulls no punches about the way the Communist government worked in the days of Mao. The story is fair to the Communist true believers, but it also shows the terror of ordinary citizens. I've never seen a depiction of life in Communist China that felt more truthful.

This part of the story is told with the use of subtitles. So yes, it feels like a foreign film. But only in bits and snatches, because the story cuts back and forth between Li's Chinese upbringing and training and his visit to America as an exchange student.

Once he reaches Houston and begins to work with Ben Stevenson's dance company, he quickly emerges as a star of the first order. Yet he is only scheduled to remain in Houston for the summer, and then return to China.

He knows what will happen. He will have to go back to dancing sterile Revolutionary Ballet, while the great choreography and music of the Western world passes him by.

He has also fallen in love with an American girl, a dancer with dreams of her own -- though she simply doesn't have the skill to take part in ballet at the same level as Li. Nevertheless, they marry, and under American law at the time that gives him the right to stay.

The movie comes to its first climax when he is kidnapped inside the Chinese consulate in Houston, where every reasonable effort, including deception (but no torture), is used to try to get him to change his mind and return to China.

Even choreographer Ben Stevenson (perfectly portrayed by Bruce Greenwood) wants him to return to China. After all, Stevenson is thinking of future visits to China by his dance company, which will certainly be put in jeopardy by Li's defection.

With the help of immigration attorney Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan in his best performance), he is able to stay. But he is cut off from his family and can only imagine the worst -- that his selfish decision to stay in America to dance has cost them terribly. Meanwhile, his new wife finds that she has to choose between her own dancing and the skyrocketing career of her husband.

Let's get one thing straight right from the start: I don't like classical ballet. To me, it seems mechanical, even though many performers have great flair. It often seems like a series of rote maneuvers, as in figure skating.

But this movie showed me why the true stars of dance can make it come to life, especially when they're working with great choreographers. Much of the reason I enjoyed every moment of the dancing is because we are shown how much it cost Li to acquire his strength; but mostly I loved it because it is flat-out brilliant and even a philistine like me can't help but be moved by it.

The miracle of this film is the actor who plays Li Cunxin as an adult: Chi Cao, who really is a brilliant ballet soloist in the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He won the gold medal in 1998 at Varna, and we see very clearly that every dance move is his own.

There is no hint that he has ever had the slightest training as an actor -- but he brings off the acting aspects of this role well enough to hold the screen with powerful actors. In fact, we can clearly see that part of his appeal as a dancer is that he can truly put his whole soul into a performance. This movie would be worth seeing for Chi Cao's performance alone. (For more information, see http://www.brb.org.uk/masque/index.htm?act=person&urn=162)

Chi Cao is greatly helped by the two younger actors who play Li to perfection as a child and as a teenager. There are no false notes from any of the actors.

But it's the story, ultimately, that moved me to tears over and over. Obviously Li Cinxun was scrupulously honest and fair with other people in his autobiography, and writer Jan Sardi (who wrote Shine and adapted The Notebook) created a powerful screen presentation of the tale.

Creating a film that spans decades and goes back and forth between nations and languages is an enormous challenge. Watching it requires that you be patient enough to let the story emerge. This is no slam-bang action film. Nothing explodes.

Nor can you count on it to be either a dance movie or a cold-war movie. It's both, equally and simultaneously. It's also a love story and a coming of age film. In short, it's about life; about one extraordinary life, but also about all the lives that touched him importantly.

There is one moment, when Li's mother first learns of his "defection," that is absolutely priceless. At one of the screenings I attended, people cheered and clapped.

That's right, I've seen it twice, and loved it even more on the second viewing.

Mao's Last Dancer opens this weekend at the Carousel, as part of its program of bringing us small independent films that people in a town the size of Greensboro usually have no chance to see. I have no idea how long it will be there. So don't waste a moment -- take the chance and go see it. You'll thank me for telling you about it.

*

When I saw the previews of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, I just shook my head. It looked like your standard fantasy-quest, with your standard young protagonist who has to save the world. (I know, my career is built on precisely that premise, but that doesn't mean I don't get tired of seeing it over and over again.)

And why owls? Talking animals. I mean really.

Then our sixteen-year-old was assigned to see it so she could join in discussions of it in her film class at Weaver.

Here I thought that when she entered her teens, our days of being dragged to kids' movies were over.

Do you get the idea that I was a hostile audience member for this movie?

So it should be all the more impressive that I actually enjoyed it from beginning to end. Literally, there was never a dull moment.

It began with the animation. The owls were created with extraordinary realism. There were tiny elements of anthropomorphism, but by and large the owls looked like, well, owls. (The backgrounds were not up to the same level as the character animation, unfortunately.)

Then the writing (by John Orloff, who also wrote episodes of Band of Brothers, and Emil Stern) was charming and intelligent. I'm not sure which bits came from them and which from the writer of the series of books this movie was based on (by Kathryn Lasky); what matters is that all the bits worked.

Of course owls can't actually do ironmongery or write books (or, for that matter, talk), but the writers and animators did an excellent job of making it all semi-believable. The owls acted like owls -- including coughing up pellets and eating smaller creatures. By the end of the movie I felt as if I was just the tiniest bit smarter about owls than I was at the beginning.

The realism does cause a slight problem with telling some of the characters apart. It helps that the different owl species can be so different in size and coloration. But now and then it was possible to become quite confused about which owl we were seeing; the confusion wasn't resolved until they talked. Such moments were rare, however, and by the end everything is clear.

Is it a great movie? Not really -- but it's a good one. And if all the fantasy tropes were familiar, what of it? They're made fresh by the new twists in this story, or fresh enough to remain enjoyable.

If you get dragged to the movie because you're attached by kinship to young children, cheer up -- you'll enjoy it way more than usual. And if you keep your expectations reasonable, you can enjoy it even without having children in tow.

But see Mao's Last Dancer first, if you possibly can.

*

Make sure you also stop by Taste Yogurt Bar, which has its grand opening this Friday. They've actually been serving for a week or so, and I think they'll succeed.

Since you pay by weight and dispense the frozen yogurt yourself, there's no waiting for scoops to be dipped. First, you can use tiny cups to sample each flavor. The trouble is that the dispenser nozzles are like firehoses. Nothing happens, and then suddenly you've got too much yogurt to fit in the tiny tasting cup and it's all over your fingers.

Not that it's anything but a pleasure to lick them off, because the flavors are very, very good. They change every couple of days, though I imagine (or at least I hope!) that they always have their excellent vanilla and rich deep chocolate.

Once you've decided on your flavors, you grab a bigger cup and pump in as much of each flavor as you want. Then you go to the toppings bar and start putting on whatever stuff you want (though the yogurt is good enough to eat naked). (That is, the yogurt would be naked.)

Toppings include tiny chocolate caramel cups like mini-Rolos that I'd like to be able to find by themselves. They also have superb mini-non-pareils. While M&Ms on ice cream or frozen yogurt freeze too solid to enjoy eating, the caramel cups and non-pareils remain perfectly chewable.

But there's a large variety of other toppings -- and, since you put them on yourself, you aren't waiting for a handful of employees to serve all the people ahead of you.

The only logjam is at the point of payment, but since they sell by weight, it's simple and quick. And there are lots of little tables, so your chances of finding a place to sit and enjoy the treat are pretty good.

Taste Yogurt Bar is at 2417-D Lawndale Drive. That puts it near Target and such restaurants as Positano, Steak and Shake, Panera -- and at the other end of the same building as the new location of Southern Lights.

In fact, with Loco for Coco on the way between Southern Lights and Taste Yogurt Bar, that building is pretty much Mecca for me, with Positano as Medina across the way.


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