Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Annie (1982)

Huh. Well, I really don’t know what to think of Annie. On the one hand, it’s really long, and as some reviewers point out, it doesn’t really go anywhere or mean anything, but on the other hand, I’m super nostalgic about the songs! I had fun watching it, but I have no idea whether a child or adult who has never seen it before would enjoy it.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Also below: Some things about the movie that surprised me, and the history of the character as she has appeared in a wide range of media from 1885 to 2014.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/annie/id281680630

Continue reading Annie (1982)

Looper (2012)

Looper has a time-travel premise, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was better.

I was perhaps expecting something like Edge of Tomorrow, if only because I read a reference to this movie when reading an article about that one a year and a half ago. But no, there is hardly any Groundhog-Day style repetition, just two simultaneous versions of one guy: a younger one (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an older one (played by Bruce Willis).

As I was watching it, I started to think maybe Looper would be like Paycheck, a sci-fi movie in which a hunted, mind-wiped character has to figure out some mysterious clues he gave himself, or Predestination, a time-travel movie in which there are some really strange relationships between the characters. But although it’s just as flawed as any time-travel movie, Looper isn’t really that complicated.

Looper has some dystopian futuristic stuff and some magical sci-fi stuff (mostly done with practical effects and not overbearing CGI), but the heart of the movie is not sci-fi, it’s drama. The themes include justice, redemption—and motherhood, of all things! The resolution of the conflict doesn’t hit you hard because it’s a clever gimmick, it hits you hard because it’s a deeply felt moral choice.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/looper/id575490887

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Looper (2012)

Doctor Strange (2016)

I dare you to find a review of Doctor Strange that does not contain a variant of the word “kaleidoscope”. The special effects are indeed special.

As for the rest, you’ve got a gifted, wealthy, arrogant neurosurgeon, recently come down in the world; he gets his comeuppance from an ancient mystic who he hoped could give him back the use of his hands but who instead involves him in the struggle to protect Earth from some kind of evil purple chaos. Will he learn to suppress his ego, to conquer by submitting, or will he be seduced by raw power and the promise of immortality?

I loved the laugh-out-loud magic-meets-mundane humor as well as the special effects, but if you’re not a fan of fantasy, this Marvel Studios production will probably stretch your patience too far. There’s a bit of that same “the real world isn’t real” stuff that’s in the Matrix, which is fine as long as you don’t apply such fictional logic to the real real world. It’s not very tempting to do so, though, since the movie itself barely even takes the magic seriously.

What it does take seriously is the message. The movie wants us to remember that mental, physical, and mystical talents are all ultimately meaningless—or catastrophically destructive—if not wielded humbly.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/doctor-strange-2016/id1164294784

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Doctor Strange (2016)

Robin Hood (1973)

Disney’s Cinderella has more cat-and-mouse antics in it than us grown-ups tend to remember it having; Disney’s Robin Hood, similarly, seems to have more marching in it than I would have thought possible. It’s a charming story, though, possibly in part because of all that celebratory marching!

I love the despicable babyishness of Prince John, the adorable aspirations of the rabbit kid who wants to be just like Robin Hood, Marion’s demure wistfulness about her childhood sweetheart… and the way the snake somehow has eloquent body language despite not having a body. (Snakes are so awesome!)

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/robin-hood/id656527876

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat as well as a few other thoughts on the movie.

This post is part of a series on versions of the Robin Hood legend.

Continue reading Robin Hood (1973)

Inferno (2016)

In Inferno (2016), Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) and some woman follow a trail of clues that are tied to European religious art and history, as in The Da Vinci Code, only this time the focus is Dante, and Langdon doesn’t know how he got to Italy or why there are people chasing him. The movie doesn’t seem to be popular with viewers or reviewers, but it was plenty entertaining, if you ask me.

What makes the complicated puzzle plot work for me? Partly, it was Langdon’s initial puzzlement about what’s going on, which puts the audience right in the thick of things—we’re not looking over the shoulder of a pompous art expert, we’re looking over the shoulder of a confused victim. We catch glimpses of memories or dreams but, like Langdon, we can’t quite catch hold of them, and whether or not we know where we’re going, we have to keep moving.

Partly it was the amazing Italian settings. I mean, hiring Tom Hanks is expensive, but the filmmakers also apparently rented every major tourist attraction in Florence, and one or two in Istanbul as well, stopping in Venice along the way. Or they just recreated a bunch of famous places in a studio in Budapest, one or the other. (Actually, some of both.)

Partly it was the freakishly believable terrorist, an extremely rich but extremely delusional white guy who gave a bunch of TED talks about how humanity cannot allow the world’s population to double again and who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem by developing a virus that, when released, would cause immense amounts of pain and suffering but also ensure the survival of the race… by cutting the world’s population in half—decimating it, one might even say—like the Black Death did when it made way for the Renaissance.

Partly it was that I particularly liked one of the secondary characters. While I found the villain’s death cult genuinely threatening, I found his pragmatic mercenary quite amusing. (In this much at least, reviewers seem to agree with me.)

Why wasn’t the movie liked?

Maybe it was too cerebral and not actiony enough. Thrillers have to have Bond gadgets in them, not Renaissance paintings.

Maybe, as more than one reviewer says, it’s the related problem that Tom Hanks’ talent is “wasted on the role of Dr Robert Langdon, an academic who is sort of a brainier, duller Indiana Jones.”

Or maybe it’s just that Dan Brown’s novels aren’t very different from each other (or particularly deep), and it hasn’t been long enough since the last installment for people to find his offering very, well, novel.

Anyway, upshot: if you don’t go in expecting the art-historical conspiracy-theory trail-of-clues plot to resemble what spy movie heroes and real-life detectives typically do to prevent catastrophes and solve crimes, respectively, then you may, like me, be entertained. The plot of Inferno is needlessly complicated and fundamentally illogical, but (unlike that of Point Break) it’s still coherent.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/inferno/id463979057

Keep reading for a detailed summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Inferno (2016)

The Infiltrator (2016)

I expected The Infiltrator to have more tension, violence, and fear than it actually did. At the heart of the movie is (the real-life story of) a friendship betrayed; the core of this movie is not danger, or even justice or remorse, but sadness. I wasn’t expecting that.

They picked the perfect actor for the role; here you have Bryan Cranston again transforming (albeit temporarily) from a mild-mannered husband to an absolutely driven liar, imposter, and corrupt kind of dude (you know, like he did in Breaking Bad).

The deadly game that the character Robert Mazur plays is reminiscent of the antics seen in Catch Me If You Can (2002), only the consequences of exposure aren’t jail, they’re much, much worse. Bob is in the car when a contact he was meeting with is shot dead and the car flips over. So it’s not as if there’s no fear, no tension, and no violence at all.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-infiltrator/id1133650155

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading The Infiltrator (2016)

Total Recall (1990)

Despite my distaste for the sleaze, cursing, and blood in the Schwarzenegger version of Total Recall, I have to say that overall it’s a much better movie than the 2012 remake!

Viewers’ overall preference for the original seems to be widely attributed to nostalgia or fondness for Arnold’s acting, but in fact what makes the old movie better is that the characters’ actions and relationships just make so much more sense.

Arnold is an ordinary manual laborer of the future who’s so obsessed with going to Mars that not even his seductive wife can distract him from his dream of going there. He visits a business called Rekall that sells memories of perfect adventures and vacations that people can’t have in real life, but something goes wrong during the memory-implantation procedure and suddenly Arnold is being hunted. He goes to Mars, gets the girl and saves the planet. Or does he?

Feminism accounts for some of the differences between the original and the remake. The 1990 version has a feisty female rebel and a feisty female secret agent, but the rebel is a prostitute and the secret agent is also more or less hired out. Those roles had some ground-breaking elements but didn’t totally suit the sensibilities of two decades later. Also, the alien and psychic elements were dropped and obviously the setting was changed.

Interestingly, the original movie, I’m told, isn’t much like the story it was inspired by, Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/total-recall-mind-bending/id539413297

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (2012)

This remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger sci-fi movie Total Recall (1990) is flashy but far from amazing. I didn’t buy the sci-fi, I didn’t buy the romance, I didn’t buy the political cause. I heard clear echoes of Paycheck (2003), Upside Down (2013) and The Matrix (1999) but nothing really gripped me. Paycheck and sold the romance better. Upside Down sold the political cause and the romance better. Say what you want about Keanu, The Matrix sold the romance, the cause and the sci-fi better!

The premise of the movie, loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, is that when some average Joe in the future can’t shake the feeling that he isn’t average, and one day goes to try out a recreational technology that can implant memories, and asks to live out a spy fantasy, he discovers that he is, supposedly, already a spy! Things spiral out of control from there. There’s lots of chasing, holograms, hovercars a la Minority Report (2002), sideways elevators, and explosions. In the end he saves the world and gets the girl, as per usual. In many ways, it’s a passable sci-fi/action/romance movie, but I can see why it’s been panned—it’s hard to care what happens to this guy.

Also, the hovercars aren’t the only things in the movie that are lifted (ha ha).

Watching the Total Recall remake proves about as inspiring as a trip to Costco. Every now and then something shiny and new catches your eye, but mostly you’re just eyeballing stuff you’ve seen a hundred times before.
http://www.wired.com/2012/08/review-total-recall-remake/

One could also draw parallels with Vanilla Sky (2001) and Inception (2010). Or even the bizarre novel Sophie’s World.

The main actor, Colin Farrell, in this movie looked like a less boyish version of Brett Dalton, the actor who plays Grant Ward in Marvel’s Agents of Shield. (In a later and very, very strange movie I saw recently, The Lobster (2015), Colin Farrell looks more like Ned Flanders than Grant Ward.)

I think it was a nice touch that protagonist and factory worker Douglas Quaid is shown reading an Ian Fleming (James Bond) novel during his commute through the Earth. The internet says it was The Spy Who Loved Me.

The special features on the DVD weren’t so special. There’s a gag reel, which is okay but kind of unexpected since this isn’t a kids’ movie or a comedy. There’s a thing called “Science Fact or Science Fiction”, which is basically an interview with a guy who believes anything and everything will be possible eventually, if it isn’t already—an attitude I find unrealistic and somewhat poisonous. Finally, there’s a bit about how The Fall was designed which doesn’t shed much light on the thing at all, given how unintuitive and in fact highly implausible the technology is.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/total-recall-directors-cut/id559737629

Lots more thoughts below, including a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Total Recall (2012)

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War overall. The major theme is choice, taking responsibility for one’s own actions and their consequences.

Some people seem to be reading implications about the role of America in international politics and policing into it, but I mostly think they’re missing the point.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/captain-america-civil-war/id1104040170

SPOILERS below, including a detailed plot summary in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Captain America: Civil War (2016)