Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Review #237: Never Let Me Go
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Carrie Mulligan, Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield

Having enthusiastically lent my own copy of Kasuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go to a friend after finishing it, I don’t have it here to check the exact page where the Japanese-born British writer actually uses the word “clones” for the first time. I did circle the word when I came upon it, and I’m betting it’s within the last 25 pages out of just over 300. As novels go, this is something of a triumph, because of course you “know” well before that moment, but not having seen the word itself for so much of the story creates a kind of tension.

The last time I recall reading a novel that I so could not put down, it was Caleb Carr’s historical murder and detective mystery The Alienist. That was in 1994. I read The Alienist all the way to Vancouver on a plane and was, I’m afraid, fairly anti-social for the first day or so between sessions of the conference I was attending until I finished it. As NPR and Washington Post book reviewer Maureen Corrigan reminds us, such novels are really about thinking – about how we know what we think we know – and The Alienist combines a cracking good serial murder yarn, set vividly in New York City at one of its most fascinating moments, with the very roots and early invention of detective work.

But Ishiguro’s novel, which has a huge following of fierce partisans – among them the remarkable English actress Carrie Mulligan, who plays Kathy H., the narrator, and has said she “could not bear” to think of anyone else getting the part – is not really about thinking, except on the surface as something to occupy us and the characters alike, even though there are a number if plot lines that seem to be about finding something out. In fact the 28-year-old Kathy H. is clearly not honest and searching with herself much of the time.

Instead, it’s really a story about being. As such, given its meditative style, it’s extremely hard to consider adapting this novel for the screen. Though it’s been called “sci-fi” that label seems odd somehow, because it completely lacks the action-blockbuster arc of its cousins in most contemporary re-tellings of the Pinocchio tale. Such close relatives would be films with characters like Wesley Snipes in the Blade movies, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley who takes that ontologically tantalizing swerve in the last installment of the Alien films, for example. But even on a grand scale, movies about being that are not made in the action-blockbuster mold have a hard time connecting – witness Spielberg’s criminally under-rated A.I., Artificial Intelligence.

Mark Romanek’s screen version, which released in mid-September, has been eagerly anticipated because the novel itself is so well-regarded, but also because this film has some of the best casting in memory. If you’re old enough to remember the 1982 screen version of John Irving’s 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, you’ll recall it was inconceivable that anyone but Robin Williams could play Garp. Just so here: no one but Mulligan could play Kathy H., Keira Knightly is brilliant as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield – plastered all over American multiplexes in The Social Connection, but first coming to my attention last year in Red Riding Trilogy – embodies Tommy. Moreover, I’ve never seen such good casting of younger versions of movie characters. Isabel Meikle-Small as young Kathy looks like Mulligan – and has her facial expressions and movements down cold. Ella Purnell is immediately recognizable as the child who becomes Keira Knightly’s Ruth. And Charlie Rowe makes Tommy actually clearer than he is in the novel – just as Sally Hawkins does for Miss Lucy, the teacher who abruptly fired for explaining to the students at Hailsham what their lives will be and what they are for.

Hailsham is a secluded boarding school in the British countryside where, in the 1970s, we meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy in what I presume to be the fifth or sixth grade. Charlotte Rampling is headmistress Miss Emily, presiding over the school’s regimen of keeping the children in serene isolation and optimally healthy while engaging them in an education that emphasizes the arts and sports. The arts, as they figure out years later, somehow comprise “verifiable proof” of their true natures. Kathy and Tommy decide that artistic production might be evidence they can truly love – they track down Miss Emily to seek deferrals of their own “donations” of body parts – whereas Miss Emily refines that stab in the dark to mean more precisely that they have souls. A teacher of mine once talked as hauntingly about the ancient cave paintings at Lescaux in this way: that at the moment those prehistoric cave dwellers picked up their charcoal and made images, they became human.

Word of mouth and a great deal of buzz have surely informed you that this is a love triangle of sorts: first it’s Tommy and the not-very-admirable Ruth, and then Kathy and Tommy, with the soon-deceased Ruth’s blessing. This occurs over three chapters roughly each a decade apart, in school, leaving the school to be stashed in some backwater cottages and imagine finding their “originals,” separate and some years later reunite briefly as one by one they “complete.” It is Kathy who’s left in the end, gazing into a field on a scrubby back road, her last voice-over an additional piece of dialogue not in the novel, in which she wonders – somewhat jarringly and redundantly, the very opposite of what Ishiguro accomplishes by withholding the word “clone” for so long – if she and the rest of us are not so different after all.

These performances are just superb and I will likely see this movie again. But the film has some flaws that explain complaints that it “fails to connect” and arise, ironically, from some effort to make this more “cinematic.” First, there is Rachel Portman’s overbearing and melodramatic score, so intrusive that it becomes distracting. We do not need a note of it, much less the Douglas Sirk-like deluge we get, to feel anguish in the presence of this story and these performances. Second, so much is pared away from the novel in order to emerge with a lean and action-laden, a less “interior,” plot, that I’m left wondering – as I wondered after “Garp” – whether I would like the movie if I had not read the book. That is, perfect casting or not, would the film be as rich, as emotionally intelligible, without already knowing the novel?

That is too late for me to answer. Ishiguro himself doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s long met regularly with his neighbor, Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay, to talk over their work, and besides serving as the film’s executive producer, pronounced himself pleased with the script.

So Never Let Me Go is, I suppose, a murder mystery after all.

A shorter version of this review appears in the October 21, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “Never Let Me Go” screens for the second week at Manlius Art Cinema.
SYRFILM Round-up: 7th Annual Syracuse International Film Festival

First, the Winners!

Last week I told you in my column "Make it Snappy" that Marek Najbrt's film Protektor (also the Czech official Oscar entry) was the best film in the festival. And on Sunday night, the SYRFILM judges agreed. Protektor took Best Fiction Feature Film, Best Actress (Jana Plodkova), Best Editor, Best Music, Best Screenplay. Syracuse native Mary Angiolillo, who now lives in Prague and teaches at the national film school there, FAMU, sent Protektor to SYRFILM.

Other award recipients were:
Best Experimental Film: Homewrecka by Joey Huertas (USA). Huertas has had a film entered in SYRFILM each of the festival’s seven years, and this documentary about domestic violence was the third win for him in this category.
Best Animation: Ariadne’s Thread by Bertóti Attila (Romania).
Special Judges Citation in Animation: Chameleon by Anna Rettberg (USA).
Best Central New York Film: Thicker Than Water by Bradley Rappa (USA), documentary.
Best Short Documentary: One Day Will be Once by Anca Miruna Lazarescu (Germany).
Director’s Special Citation for Short Documentary: Kayatsum by Grigor Harutyunyan (Armenia).
Best Short Fiction: Rosenhill by Johan Lundborg and Johan Storm (Sweden).
Special Judges’ Citation for Short Fiction: Pile-Up/Koccanás by Ferenc Török (Hungary).
Director’s Special Citation for Short Fiction: Requiem for Kosovo by Dhimiter Ismailaj (Albania).
Best Feature Documentary was awarded to two films: Long Distance by Amikam Goldberg (Israel) and The Two Escobars by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist (Colombia/USA).
Judges’ Special Citation for Artistic Achievement in Feature Documentary: Queen of the Sun by Taggart Siegel (USA).
Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature: Larry Smith for Bronson (UK) Best Actor: Tom Hardy in Bronson
Best Director: Nicholas Wending Refn for Bronson
Judges’ Special Citations: Sand by Rob Nilsson (USA) and To Catch a Billionaire by Tomas Vorel (Czech Republic).
Director’s Special Citations: Pizza with Bullets by Robert Rothbard (USA) and Touching Home by Logan and Noah Miller (USA).

SYRFILM occupied a new spot on the calendar this year, moving from late April to mid-October. Students, who have usually been scarce at a festival that ran during final exam week, were much more in evidence this year. SYRFILM also shortened its run to four and a half days, down from the previous gargantuan nine, and reduced local screening venues to four (The Palace in Eastwood, Redhouse Arts Center in Armory Square, Watson Theater on Syracuse University’s campus and Grewen Auditorium at LeMoyne College). But the festival also added four “satellite” venues in the out-lying communities of Hamilton, Rome, Geneva and Oswego. By Friday evening it was apparent that festival-goers liked this more relaxed schedule with fewer films, less rushing around the city and more chance to interact with one another. This year festival judges also escaped spending their days locked in a room watching one film after another until they were hollow-eyed; provided with screeners of the films in competition two months before the festival, they also relaxed, networked, and caught other films they usually wouldn’t have time for.

As one of those local arts organizations that saw its county budget totally cut the same week it opened for the seventh year, SYRFILM is used to reinventing itself and remains determined to make a go of it. Christine Fawcett Shapiro remains an integral part of the festival, but she’s retired as managing director and now focuses on outreach and development. Until the fate of managing director is determined – Syracuse University funds that position – KC Duggan has been interim managing director for this year’s fest. Duggan, a filmmaker herself who returned to Syracuse to do this job of nuts and bolts madness, is worth at least her weight in gold. If SYRFILM can’t find a way to keep her, she’ll be somebody else’s Genuine Find.

Both SYRFILM’s opening night (the screening of Pizza with Bullets and the presence of its star, Vincent Pastore, and director, Richard Rothbart) and closing night (besides the awards ceremony, the screening of two Ed Harris films, Touching Home and the still-lustrous Pollack, plus Harris himself) have had attention. Some of what happened in between – and whom – well, not so much. Here are just several thumbnails.

Javon Jackson Channels Alfred Hitchcock for The Lodger

Every year since its inception, SYRFILM has shown a classic silent film accompanied by a live jazz performance. While this has become increasingly popular nationwide in the last several years, it’s been a SYRFILM signature event that usually sells out. This year’s event was packed too, despite a freezing downpour and whipping, icy wind. But after all, such weather was appropriate to the 1927 tale of a serial murderer who preyed on young blondes in London’s foggy night streets. Lemoyne College and the Society for New Music co-sponsored this event, the latter finding some local musicians to fill in some of the seats for Los Angeles-based saxophonist Javon Jackson, who brought just the rhythm section – the drum, the bass and the piano players – of his octet.

Society for New Music also located local singer Bridget Moriarty, who got Jackson’s score a month before the screening and made do with a marathon rehearsal of four or five hours the day before. Jackson said after the performance that Moriarty “came in so meek and got behind the mic and turned into a maniac.”

That was Christine Fawcett Shapiro’s idea, the singing. As far as they know, the current crop of live jazz-silent classic screenings hasn’t included any choral component until now. Jackson, who calls her “my surrogate sister,” met Christine Fawcett Shapiro at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester during an event where he was a presenter. Both say they “immediately clicked.”

SYRFILM chose Hitchcock’s early thriller - the English master director director was in his 20s when he made it - as part of a focus on Hitchcock in collaboration with Syracuse Stage, which opens The 39 Steps this week, a comedy based on the Hitchcock film of the same name. The Lodger is available for instant streaming at Netflix, and that’s how Javon Jackson first watched it himself. He says it was a difficult commission.

“There are a lot of abrupt tempo changes in the score,” he said last Friday night after the screening and performance. “Unlike live performance, if we were recording, we’d just splice the pieces.”

Jackson said he started the score last February with a goal of finishing the score by July 15th and he made his deadline. “I’d go through and watch about ten minutes at a time and work on that. I went on two European tours while I was writing the score. The themes would just come as I watched and I actually saw a lot of humor in some parts. We’ve had a lot more diabolical characters since that time – Jason, for example. I wanted a balance between the music of Tin Pan Alley in the 1930s and 40s and jazz now. That great stride piano stuff at the end, that’s from the period of Tatum and Fats Waller.”

Jackson, who also talked with two Lemoyne classes during his visit here, will be back in Central New York on Tuesday, December 7th at SUNY Oswego, where he’ll do a musician’s clinic and a concert. His next tour takes him to New York City, Pittsburgh, points in California and Kansas City, and sometime in there a date in Albany at “the Egg” in the State Capital.

Haim Bouzaglou’s Session Premieres; Hotel Syracuse in the Works

On Friday eve the fest buzzed with more than Javon Jackson’s sizzling jazz performance. This year’s weird election doings even penetrated the fest; that day a State Assembly candidate’s mailer accused his opponent of enormous payoffs to the “special interests” of “Hollywood” while at the same time excessively taxing New Yorkers. This refers to tax incentives to attract film production to New York State, which has the second largest film and television industry in the nation. Most often such productions have very little to do with “Hollywood” studios but everything to do with indie productions and in the case of SYRFILM, a particular focus on attracting foreign filmmakers who wish to make their first American feature. SYRFILM has been at the forefront of efforts to attract such film productions upstate, where local talent and facilities and permit fees are all less expensive than those in New York City. Jerry Stoeffhaas of the Governor’s Office on Motion Picture and Television attended the entire conference. According to one recent study, in 2008 such productions paid $3.3 billion in wages directly to New Yorkers, before even mentioning other revenues generated by rents, purchases and use of New York-owned facilities. While such film production has long been centered in New York City, in recent years upstate cities and regions have actively developed packages to attract filmmakers. Visit to learn more about upstate’s regional film offices.

Israeli filmmaker Haim Bouzaglou’s feature film Session, which premiered on Thursday night at the Palace Theatre, is one result of such efforts. With a score by Oscar-winning composer Jeff Beale – a result of the two meeting at last year’s festival – Bouzaglou’s film is now set to screen in Los Angeles, with a number of European festivals in the offing. Bouzaglou has been here before, both as a festival entrant and as a visiting professor at Syracuse University. Session, which he developed with SYRFILM’s Owen Shapiro, is part of a two-film project. The second film, Hotel Syracuse, has signed John Malkovich as the lead actor.

“We are aiming to shoot next summer at this point,” Bouzaglou told me Friday night. “While John’s schedule is hard to work around, he has also invested in this film and led me to others who support it.”

This includes the lead actress whom Bouzaglou said they would not reveal publicly until she had actually signed. Bouzaglou shoots his next film in France, which he says he’ll enjoy because, “I have a baby – well, four – and another child, and I can take them all with me to France.”

From Israeli Consulate to SYRFILM Judge

Herself from an Israeli family of filmmakers, Shani Hashnaviah‘s relationship with SYRFILM dates back several years. From early 2006 until late 2008 she worked with the Israeli Consulate in New York City as director of film promotion and outreach for the US and Canada. In this capacity she managed distribution of Israeli films in North America, Oscar campaigns, and interactions with film festivals and touring filmmakers. A documentary filmmaker herself, Hashnaviah left the Consulate to work full-time in her own new company, Phantasia Films, in film production, filmmaker event production, and lectures on Israeli cinema. Her talks include the history of Israeli cinema from the 1950s and teaching peace through Israeli documentaries. She returned to the festival this year as a judge in the categories of short fiction and feature documentary.

“Now I can see Syracuse!” she exclaimed, chatting on Saturday morning in her hotel lobby. “It was a great change - this year we got the competition films two months in advance. I could go back and watch one again and take my time. It’s a huge responsibility – I’m a filmmaker myself and the way a film is received early in your career can really affect you.”

The night before, Owen Shapiro had noted, “This festival is really a family. We have filmmakers and judges who come back a second and third time. Each year it expands a little and they bring someone else in. Our lifetime achievement winner from last year, Rob Nilsson, sent us another film this year called Sand, which I know you've seen. It's briiant, and he would be here himself except that he’s being honored this weekend at what’s really his home festival in Mill Valley, California. Last year Tom Bower and Robert Knott were here with the film Appaloosa and now each of them is back here – Tom’s chair of the honorary board, he had a role in Haim’s film Session, and he’s brought us Robert Young, this year’s lifetime achievement winner. Rob Edwards is one of the rising young Black screenwriters. He did Disney’s The Princess and the Frog . His son is at Cornell and he says he’s good to come back the next three years too. The three of them have done a three-day screen-writing seminar with SU film students – one of the students emailed us that those three days have been more useful to him than all his years of study. And filmmakers meet each other here – they create projects, they network, they stay in touch with each other and with us.”

Hashnaviah echoed that sentiment, saying that she considers many of the filmmkaers she worked with friends now. And as the festival wound to a close, she’d signed on with the West Coast folks to bring Robert M. Young’s film Human Error back to the screen. A FaceBook page has already followed and the “gang,” as Tom Bower calls them, is off and running.

Robert M. Young Awarded SYRFILM’s First Sophia for Lifetime Achievement

He’ll be 86 next month and he hadn’t eaten since lunchtime, but at twenty past midnight in the Palace lobby, with a reception still expecting him, director Robert M. Young was patiently gracious with one festival-goer who wanted to register his opinion about whether the ending of Caught was the best one. Young had just received the first Sophia that SYRFILM awarded that evening. The new inscribed crystal sculpture uses the festival logo designed several years ago by the Italian master poster-maker Compaggi from his own painting of Sophia Loren, masked with a strip of celluloid. (Actually Young gets the second one; earlier Owen Shapiro had surprised his wife with her own Sophia for her service to the festival, though he’s still claiming that Christine “hoodwinked” him into starting SYRFILM in the first place).

Young’s debut feature was the 1964 Nothing But a Man with Ivan Dixon and Abby Lincoln. Netflix has a handful of his films and there are more online if you look. The festival screened four of Young’s films: the noirish 1996 Caught, based on Edward Pomerantz’ novel, a key episode of Battlestar Gallactica (both starring Edward James Olmos, often a lead in Young’s films and here to present the award to him as well as spend an afternoon with Latino youth on the West Side), the 2004 Human Error with Tom Bower and Robert Knott and – for the screenwriting seminar students – a 43-minute documentary made in Italy that is otherwise unavailable.

Said Olmos in presenting the award, “In one hundred years, people will be watching Robert Young’s films for their psychological truth, which is his trademark. In one hundred years people will still be watching Dominick and Eugene – they will not still be watching another film released the same year, also about two brothers, one of them autistic, Rain Man. And this is one of the most important film festivals that we have. I’ve been trying to get here for two or three years now. This is one of the few places you can see this kind of film.”

“I think Eddie loves me and that is why he’s so generous,” said Young in accepting the award. “I also want to mention my wife Lily and my brother Irwin, who are in teh audience, because both of them have lost a lot of money on me. And Tom Bower and Ursula, and Bobby Knott. How can you fail if you are surrounded with people who love you and are very talented and also very honest? I have tried to follow my heart.”

Young said the last time he’d seen Caught was several ago at another festival screening. “I never see a film I’ve made unless it’s at a screening like this,” he said. “I go back to the place I was when I made it and it can be very emotional for me if it doesn’t ring true now.”

Human Error, the story of a futuristic (or perhaps not so much) industrial plant producing toxic materials deep in a jungle and the toxic relationships that develop among the three white supervisors at the plant, premiered at Sundance in 2004 and had a short theatrical release in New York at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in the fall of 2005. But the film was quickly tied up in probate after that and just turned loose in time to screen it here. Tom Bower and Robert Knott and Xander Berkeley – the three stars – have in mind touring it again, to college campuses and galleries and museums.

“Distributors told us young people wouldn’t like this film,” said Bower. “But the students who came to the campus screening the other night got it! They were very receptive, and they understood it just fine. So we want it to get out there again.”

And as a post-script, my annual plea to the festival’s tee-shirt designers: please put the logo on the chest.

A shorter version of this article appears in the October 21, 2010 print edition of The Eagle, a Syracuse weekly, where Make it Snappy is a regular column.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Film Review #236: Mao’s Last Dancer
Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Cao Chi, Joan Chen, Bruce Greenwood

In his weekly email bulletin to patrons of Manlius Art Cinema on the eastern outskirts of Syracuse, Nat Tobin announced on Monday that Get Low had done so well he was holding it over for a third week. Since Nat has stuck to a firm opening date of Friday the 15th for Never Let Me Go, that meant that the single week’s run he had scheduled for Australian director Bruce Berseford’s Mao’s Last Dancer just got squeezed out of the queue. Good news if you haven’t got around to Get Low yet – not so much if you put off a drive to see Mao’s Last Dancer so you could catch it here. That film ends today at Rochester’s Little Theatre, but it’s being held over again in Ithaca at Cinemapolis.

Furthermore, this Sunday the theatre hosts Cornell University Law School’s own nationally recognized immigration attorney, Steve Yale-Loehr, who leads a discussion after the 4:25 PM screening. As it happens, Yale-Loehr is old friends with Houston attorney Charles Foster, who won asylum for Li Cunxin in 1981 after the 19-year-old Chinese dancer, on a summer exchange program with the Houston Ballet from the Beijing Dance Academy, decided to defect so he could remain in the US.

Filmed in China, Australia and Houston, Bruce Beresford’s film is based on Li Cunxin’s best-selling 2003 autobiography of the same title. Portraying Li is Chi Cao, principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the north of England, who was himself trained first at Beijing Dance Academy and whose parents, both dorm directors there when Li was a student, remember the 11-year-old poor farm boy plucked from a remote Chinese peasant village’s freezing one-room school for dance training.

In 1981 Li Cunxin went to Houston as one of the first two visiting Chinese students finagled by the British dancer, choreographer and ballet director Ben Stevenson. Formerly a dancer with the British Royal Ballet, Stevenson directed the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2004 (he now directs the Texas Ballet Theatre in Forth Worth). Also in 1976, China’s Mao Zedong died and his wife, the eccentric, doctrinairely literal and brutal Jiang Qing – aka “Madame Mao” – was denounced and imprisoned, creating an opening for some change. In 1978 Stevenson first went to China as part of a cultural exchange program and long returned almost annually to teach at the Beijing Dance Academy. Stevenson brought teachers of modern dance and jazz to China – for example, Gwen Verdon, and in the film Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) brings Gershwin’s music – and in 1985 helped create the Beijing Academy’s Choreography Department. Stevenson is the only foreigner to be named “honorary faculty” at that school.

We see only the tip of this lengthy and deeply significant relationship with the infrastructure of Chinese dance in Mao’s Last Dancer, though perhaps enough to account for Stevenson’s fury when Li Cunxin first admits he’s secretly married the young American dancer Elizabeth Mackey (played by the San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull) and plans to defect, aided by several defiantly sympathetic Houston Ballet board members. “How could you be so selfish!” Stevenson demands at first of the young man whose name means “keep my innocent heart,” perhaps stung that all Li’s evenings at Kung Fu movies must’ve been something else, and adding that Li’s defection would “ruin all I have worked for.”

That moment occurs on-screen inside China’s Houston consulate, which briefly held Li Cunxin prisoner after the young man agreed to go inside to state his case, and quickly catches the attention of the international press, not to mention the drawling judge awakened from his night’s sleep by attorney Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan), the FBI and one Texan vice-president who negotiated Li’s release from Washington. In fact Stevenson got over his angst at Li’s defection, forged ahead and that relationship with Beijing dance endured, his long-range plans only briefly deflected. In July 1995 – in the film this is compressed to a short text scroll before the final credits that highlights Li Cunxin alone – Stevenson took the Houston Ballet on a two-week tour of China with performances in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The Houston Ballet was the first full American ballet company invited by the Chinese government to tour the country. The opening night performance of Stevenson’s production of Romeo and Juliet – Li Cunxin danced the lead – was broadcast live on television to over 500 million Chinese.

Li Cunxin danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years. Elizabeth Mackey left him to pursue her own dancing – though the credits thank her especially for her cooperation on the film – and in 1987 Li married Australian ballerina Mary McKendry (Australian Camilla Vergotis, who dances with the Hong Kong Ballet). Later in 1995 – after the China trip – they moved to Melbourne, where Li became principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Now 49, Li makes his living as a stockbroker. The 2003 autobiography this film is based on stayed on that country’s best-seller list for a year and a half. So Li is a much appreciated figure is his adopted land. And despite the international cast and location shooting, this is very much an Australian film – director Beresford, screenwriter Jan Sardi and principal producer Jane Scott are all Australian, as are many in the production company and the film’s choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

Hence perhaps the unusually detailed sequences about how dancers learn their profession – I found myself so wanting to watch this film with a dance teacher to check out my intuitions there – and the undercurrent, since Australia has had its own racial tensions, of quiet pride in both this adopted son’s odyssey and success and Australia’s own growth. Hence also the patient affection with which Beresford draws Li’s village and family and his Chinese teachers. The great Chinese-born Joan Chen plays Li’s mother – coincidentally she too landed in the US in 1981 to begin an American career. Zhang Su is the gentle, non-doctrinaire teacher Chan, who reveres Russian ballet and, spotting young Li’s talent, gives the boy a VHS tape of Baryshnikov soaring across a stage after his defection. Thus when the performance scenes occur – Li’s sudden elevation in Houston, when the lead dancer strains a muscle, in Strauss’ Don Quixote, then later Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s fiery Rite of Spring – they are both magnificent and coherent because they come out of a discernible process. And I defy you to come away from Li’s surprise reunion with his parents dry-eyed. For such moments was the word “unabashed” devised.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Octber 7, 2010 issue of The Eagle weekly in Syracuse. “Mao’s Last Dancer” is held over another week at Cinemapolis, 120 Green St., Ithaca, 607.277.6115. Following this Sunday’s 4:25 PM screening, a discussion with Cornell University Law School professor Steve Yale-Loehr. Go to their website at for directions and screening schedule. Cinemapolis is located at the edge of Ithaca Commons, with tickets and popcorn both cheap enough to offset your gas from Syracuse.