Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Movie Review: A Trio of Films Offer Inspiration, but Only Two Deliver

By Brad Balfour

Two of last weekend's movies served up satisfying, feel-good fare without the pretense of the weighty message that Eat Pray Love promised but failed to deliver. Despite expectations for this big Hollywood production with megastar Julia Roberts as author Elizabeth Gilbert on her journey of self-enlightenment, the film neither gives much sense of the author's inner odyssey nor elucidates. Mostly we learn that Gilbert was so restless that a cure for her ennui -- sex with a younger man (even one as tousle-haired as James Franco) -- didn't do it for her. 

Viewed through Sex-and-the-City-colored glasses, the film by Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy comes off more as a tony travel brochure for Italy, Indian ashrams and Bali than as a source of transcendent insights. The only real journey provided takes us up Robert's ski slope nose, down mounds of spaghetti and into Javier Bardem's soulful eyes, which has its momentary pleasures, but also risks disappointing fans of Gilbert's book. 

That this antidote to testosterone failed to perform elevated the other pair of films by comparison -- both satisfied for very different reasons.

While Nanny McPhee Returns cannot stir great philosophical expectations, it oddly has something of a subversive nature, one far less contrived and conniving than Eat Pray Love. And when it comes to entertaining, Emma Thompson and her energetic film do that for both kids and adults. As directed by Susanna White -- herself a parent -- Nanny McPhee Returns doesn't look down on kids or parents but reminds us that kids can rise to the occasion, especially when it seems that the adults are overwhelmed and nonplussed.

Summoned through the ether, Nanny McPhee appears to straighten out the little brats and put everything right in the world while taking the piss out of those too full of themselves to see beyond their -- or her hugely bulbous -- nose. She means business, but she's not above having fun. As she explains, "Once they want her but no longer need her," she moves on to bring her message elsewhere.

Even more fulfilling with all its sentimentality snuggly in place is Mao's Last Dancer, a film couched full of larger issues but in the end, a plain and simple tale of redemption and personal growth.

The film has to accomplish a huge amount in scant time: it must create a sense of Mao's China without seeming ideological; it must show the life of Chinese ballet student Li Cunxin (played as an adult by dancer Chi Cao) in an entertaining fashion without becoming overly technical; and when the narrative shifts from China to the US, it has to show with some depth the conundrums Cunxin faces while trying to making it in a drastically different society.

Thanks to the sure hand of Oscar-winning director Bruce Beresford, Mao's Last Dancer succeeds as a cross-cultural drama and finally as an epic of triumph when Cunxin breaks away from both his Chinese and American patrons in Houston. 

Taking into account all that this film has to cover, the moments when it falls back on easy emotion and tearful melodrama are more than acceptable given the complex elements in the true-story narrative. In any case, I'd rather see the interesting faults of an ambitious film rather than the dull perfections of a cookie-cutter toss-off.

The scenes in China were the most compelling, both because they offered a look into a once-closed world and because they presented a sense of what people were like without falling back on cartoonish caricatures seen in other films about the China of this era.

Then there's the essential message of the film -- not that Cunxin found love in America or chose our system over Communist China's (though that was the case), but that he negotiated his psychic survival between being a star and subsuming his ego as part of a troupe. Having had it thrummed into his head that he should have no bourgeois aspirations of fame and money, he struggled with his needs as an individual artist vs. his needs as a member of his beloved Chinese family vs his needs as a grateful guest (and later solo performer) of the Houston Ballet. Finding his way to his ego without losing his sense of balance is his, and the film's, great leap forward.

For viewers pirouetting down to their local theater, all three films hold out messages of inspiration and aspiration, some more cogently than others.

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