MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Mao’s Last Dancer, Heartbeats, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Crack in the World


 “Mao‘s Last Dancer“ (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U. S.; Bruce Beresford, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

Ballet, that grand art of music and the body married together, is a natural subject for the movies — a potential wonder, as The Red Shoes is there to prove again and again. Director Bruce Beresford‘s fact-based drama Mao’s Last Dancer is an exhilarating contemporary ballet film, fusing dance and drama, art and politics, body and soul: a real-life story, scripted by writer Jan Sardi (of Shine) from the experiences, and the autobiographical book, by Chinese star ballet dancer Li Cunxin.

It’s not a musical movie where the dance dominates. The movie works less from the music than from the ways Beresford and Sardi reveal the world around the dancers. But that’s not a drawback. It’s a fascinating world, and a fascinating story, about a complex person who also happens to be a dancer — and who was able to escape into a new world because of it.

Li was a sensitive country boy from the mountains of China, who grew up with a poor but loving family (the great Joan Chen plays his mother, Niang) during the period of the Red Guards, the Cultural revolution, The Gang of Four, and Mao’s last roar. Amid this turbulence, a schoolteacher spotted Li’s natural gifts and got him picked to go to Beijing for study in ballet — at a time when furious political opinions raged in China about everything, including what kind of ballet to perform.

Supple and poetic, the boy Li (played by Chengwu Cuo and later by Wen Bin Huang) was a natural for the graceful, classical, Russian ballet matinee idol style of the Baryshnikovs and the Nureyevs. In the contentious and violent Vietnam and post-Vietnam era, however, everything became political, even a pas de deux. The aggressively radicalized “new dance” and “new art” proponents saw those Russian defectors as traitors, and art as a tool of the state.

But the boy Li has a heart of oak and a firebird in his soul, as well as legs of spring and steel. He perseveres, practices and exercises obsessively, builds himself up. And when an American ballet impresario and director, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) of the Houston Ballet, travels to China, on a cultural exchange program, Ben spots Li’s rare gift — just as that mountain village schoolteacher could and did. He invites the now 18-year-old Li (played by Chi Cao for the rest of the movie) to come to America. Li comes, is won over by America. Eventually, he defects.

It is that story — of a poor boy, his spectacular rise, and the political storm he inspires — that dominates the movie, rather than the dance scenes, however spectacularly well they’re choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon of the Sydney (Australia) Ballet, and however well danced by Chi. This isn’t a Red Shoes-like backstage musical fable. It’s a hard-edged story about how ideology and politics affect art, and of how art may triumph over ideology. (When Chi defects, his peasant parents suffer for it, become targets of the hard-liners.) The movie, which is as unsentimental and real as Shine was, feels free to avoid “hero-izing” or romanticizing Chi, and to reveal his less attractive, more opportunistic sides.

I can’t promise your heart will soar after watching “Mao‘s Last Dancer.” Mine certainly didn’t. But I think this movie, at its best, will help you appreciate how important are good teachers and brave good parents, smart lawyers, and cultural bridges. And how indispensable to us all are art and true freedom: not those bellicose Tea Party clichés, but the genuine article.

“Heartbeats” (Two and a Half Stars)Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan, the multi-talented 21-year-old writer-director-producer-star of Heartbeats, gives us a fairly unusual romantic triangle drama, one that‘s both realistic and ultra-romantic, in a pseudo-Godardian sort of way. Acerbic Quebecois Francis (Dolan) falls for angel-faced blonde Nordic hunk Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and so does Francis’ equally hip and tart best friend Marie (Monica Chokri). Hunk conquers hip, but can hip win the heart of hunk? Heartbeats is well done and it’s strong both visually and dramatically. But it’s the kind of smart, yet cry-baby youth romance that meant something to me in my 20s, and now seems thin and self-indulgent. That said, Dolan, who won multiple prizes at Cannes for his first film, I Killed My Mother, is someone to watch — and it’s better to have a smart cry-baby youth movie than a dopey schlocky one. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Canada: Xavier Dolan, 2010 (MPI)


“Sweeney Todd”/”Sleepy Hollow” (Also Blu-ray) (Two Discs) (Three Stars)Two of the many, and mostly imaginative and entertaining collaborations between director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp.

U.S.: Tim Burton, 1999-2007 (Warner)

Includes: Sweeney Todd (U.S.: Tim Burton, 2007) Three and a Half Stars.

From Stephen Sondheim’s scintillating Broadway noir show: A horror musical par excellence. Based on the 19th century penny dreadful saga of the evil London barber Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) — who kills customers with a straight razor and a murderous revolving chair, and has his lover-cohort-cook, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) bake them into meat pies — it sometimes hits you like a combination of a Vincente Minnelli and a Mario Bava shocker.

Flaws? The singing could be better . With director Burton, in all but a few cases, hiring top-notch actors rather than high-quality voices — including ex-rocker Depp, first-time singer Carter, Alan Rickman as a fiendish judge, Timothy Spall as his rat-faced minion and Sacha Baron Cohen as a mountebank Italianate barber — it sometimes seems like a cast full of Rex Harrisons and no Julie Andrews. But mostly, the beautiful, horrific images and stellar performances do their own singing. This Sweeney Todd is delicious and terrifying — and sometimes sweetly sad as well.


Sleepy Hollow(U.S.: Burton, 1999) Three Stars. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp tackle Washington Irving and the Headless Horseman. Fumble. Recovered. It‘s no gem, but it sometimes sparkles. With Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Walken and Christopher Lee.

By the way, if you’d like to sample an earlier film version of Todd’s tonsorial antics, there’s an oddball version available: the likeably cheesy Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (U.K.; George King, 1936) (Two Stars), starring that leering, cackling British Boris Karloff wannabe, Tod Slaughter. (He giggles a lot, maniacally.) It’s available on the micro-budget Double Feature label, and I got it for a buck. The more serious recent non-musical British TV version, directed by David Moore, with Ray Winstone cutting hair and throats, is on Acorn. (Two and a Half Stars) 

“Four Weddings and a Funeral” (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)A witty Richard Curtis script and a terrific cast (Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow) help pitch memorable woo and sling saucy bon mots in this urbane, delightful, much imitated wedding ensemble comedy. A marvelous confection, wonderfully iced and served. Pass the cake.

U.K.; Mike Newell, 1994 (MGM)


“Crack in the World“ (Blu-ray) (One Star)Andrew Marton’s zenith as a filmmaker was undoubtedly his brilliant action direction of the chariot race in the William Wyler-Charlton Heston Ben-Hur of 1959. Here is what I hope is his nadir: a completely idiotic disaster movie, with passable effects and a ludicrous script, in which the mortally ill and furiously obsessed scientist Dana Andrews (who takes his marching orders, bizarrely, from Alexander Knox in a conference room in London) fires a missile at the earth’s core so that we can pipe out the magma for fuel. Bad idea. Unfortunately, our rash scientist opens up a huge crack that travels fast around the world, leaving earthquakes, volcanoes and other catastrophes in its wake — but not too fast for Andrews‘ fleet-of-foot scientific colleague and romantic rival Kieron Moore, who keeps chasing the crack, and trying to fix things.

U.S.; Andrew Marton, 1965 (Olive)

With Janette Scott, as Andrews‘s steadfast wife, who stands by her man even as the world seems on the verge of ending because of his stupidity. SPOILER ALERT The movie’s ending features the requisite couple shot, lots of red magma and a cute little squirrel poking his head up to catch a glimpse of blue sky. END OF ALERT The only possible reason for watching this catastrophe is if you have designs on making an Airplane-style spoof on disaster movies, and want to use or consider the most ridiculous premise possible. The ad tagline for Crack in the World, by the way, was “Thank God it’s only a motion picture!” Amen. No Extras.

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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest: Mao’s Last Dancer, Heartbeats, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Crack in the World”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon