Mike at the Movies

“Mao’s Last Dancer” (PG) *****

An absolute gem of a film. It is based on a true story of a Chinese dancer who defected in the ‘80s while a student with the Houston Ballet. The director of the ballet at the time was Ben Stevenson, who served four remarkable years here in Washington as co-director of the National Ballet in the middle ‘70s. He is the secondary hero of the story of Li Cunxin, the dancer of the title.

We may have forgotten how Chinese artists were selected in the days of Mao, but this film makes it clear. It is still frustrating and appalling. Cunxin made it to Houston thanks to the trust the Chinese had for Stevenson, but a combination of romance with a dancer and the appeal of open repertory in Houston made Cunxin decide to defect. Two famous Russians had preceded him in defecting — Rudolf Nureyev in 1971 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974 — but this was the ‘80s and China felt safe. The story is a chilling one, forcing Cunxin to leave his family and his citizenship but rewarding him with a career here and in Australia as well as Birmingham, England.

Bruce Beresford, the Australian director, keeps the story balanced between the monumental personal challenges of Cunxin and some of the most radiant ballet footage I have ever seen. This film actually opened in 2009 and has played art houses but deserves the wider distribution it is now getting. Even if you don’t know a pas de deux from a jeté, see this absorbing, wrenching film. And take the kids so they understand what Communist art used to mean.

“Red” (PG-13) ***

One of the most perfectly cast movies we’ve seen recently. Every lead fits his or her role like the writers scripted it just for them. This is particularly true of John Malkovich, who even in interviews seems a bit paranoid and warped. Here he is definitely both as Marvin. Bruce Willis is just long enough in the tooth to bring off Frank Moses perfectly, and Mary-Louise Parker, one of those actors who makes me laugh just by standing still, is wonderful as the awestruck Social Security operator, Sarah, far out of her depth running with the big old dogs. (“RED” is a CIA acronym for “Retired Extremely Dangerous.”) Her wide-eyed “Wows!” say volumes.

Add Morgan Freeman as the 80-year-old Joe, add tons of weapons (including a surprise in a pink toy pig that appears to be Marvin’s sleep toy), top it all off with the always-elegant Helen Mirren as Victoria, and you’ve got the recipe for a great, though satirical and totally implausible action thriller.

The film is produced by DC Comics. The characters are thus known to a younger audience, but the senior crowd that was in the theatre during the showing we saw was laughing vigorously. Typical of the great lines in the movie is this exchange between Marvin and Sarah. He: “People get shot.” She: “No, they get paper cuts.” He, whimsically: “I get shot.” Or Victoria’s confession: “I take the odd contract on the side.” And my favorite after a wild day in which Sarah has been bound, duct-taped mute, shot at and tossed around: “Not my best first date.” Pause. “Not my worst, either.”

By the way, Victoria’s assassination ensemble of fur coat and hat could be the fashion hit of the season if it was made available. Great fun for the whole family as the violence is comic book overstatement all the way.

“Life As We Know It” (PG-13) **

Sometimes movies cry out for editing, and this is a prime example. The story is relatively simple: Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Messer (Josh Duhamel) are picked by their best friends as surrogate parents in case they die together. They die together. Sophie (played at various ages by three sisters) becomes their charge, but we have to wait until the last reel to realize what was promised when the two singles met and fought in the very first scene: they have to get together. With that story arc, imaginative editing could have made this a fine rom-com. Instead, we get long, soppy scenes between gays, neighbors and stock characters that delay the action and blur the focus of the story.

Josh Lucas, as the pediatrician, Sam, and a potential love interest for Holly, is enough distraction. Too, the good lines in the script: “It’s not a bra I’m taking off a chick, it’s a diaper off a baby,” and “Sex in this situation is like termites in the home,” are diluted by so many that aren’t that good in the wasted scenes.

Heigl remains one of the most physically radiant beauties in Hollywood, even if she can’t stop smoking. Duhamel is Hunkdom personified. Still, it takes a lot of work to get a sparkle out of them that doesn’t seem directed. I think Heigl needs to make a more serious movie to break her string of easily forgettable roles as a giggling knockout that can’t seem to find men to take her seriously. That this woman would go three years without a date is impossible!

The saving grace of the film is a sympathetic portrayal of a social worker by Sarah Burns. A good editor would have expanded her part as well as made this a really good film.

For more of Mike’s movie reviews, go to www.towncourier.com.