3 Movies: Mao’s Last Dancer, Tillman Story, Charlie St. Cloud

This summer, I saw three pictures about youths cut down in the prime of life, a fitting theme on the eve of the date of the worst attack (so far) in American history. Disney’s Charlie St. Cloud, starring Zac Efron, is a middling fantasy depicting one young man’s grief recovery. Though not a complete waste of time, this ponderous, poorly directed film, based on a book, is stuffed with sudden close-ups, gaping plot holes, and a lot of cheesy scenes and inside jokes. Efron’s character never sustains enough interest, Kim Basinger as his mom is pointlessly sidelined early in the movie, and, with fragmentary similarities to Ordinary People and The Sixth Sense, Charlie St. Cloud comes up short of something to say.

Pat Tillman (November 6, 1976 – April 22, 2004) was the professional football player who enlisted with his brother in the Army Rangers (they were assigned to the same unit) following the Moslem attack in 2001 and the Weinstein Company’s The Tillman Story retraces the brutal details of his death in Afghanistan by friendly fire, not the combat death by Taliban as the Bush administration erroneously reported and subsequently covered up. This gripping documentary was made with the participation of Pat Tillman’s family and it demonstrates that the man who was possibly the nation’s most famous soldier was a hero, though not because he sacrificed himself. Atheist Tillman trained to be his best because he loved life. Once deployed, he expressed his disappointment with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a freethinker who suspected that the Army might use his celebrity and, according to this convincing account of his 2004 death, he was right. That he was an excellent Ranger whose skills were wasted in a non-war that America refused to fight, let alone win, is not the focus of The Tillman Story, which raises questions and leaves one with the impression that Pat Tillman may have been the victim of envy by some of his fellow soldiers. That the Army and administration covered up his death with an American flag, to paraphrase someone in the film, reflects the profound injustice of America’s response to 9/11. In nine years, we have done nothing serious to defeat the enemy that seeks to destroy us. The Tillman Story shows that what little we have done is worse than you think.

While I do not consider director Bruce Beresford’s (Driving Miss Daisy) Mao’s Last Dancer a masterpiece (as my favorite film critic, Rex Reed, proclaims in his review), the reality-based story of a communist Chinese defector is one of the summer’s most entertaining pictures. Beginning with the young male ballet dancer Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) being chauffered around Houston, Texas, in a Volkswagen Rabbit in 1981, the dance drama is told in layered flashbacks, from his poor but happy family with his smiling mother (Joan Chen) to his rise through Mao Tse-tung’s communist indoctrination and the lucky break to travel to America for a season with a flamboyant director’s company on cultural exchange just as communist China may be trying to impress the West. With a father who is an intellectual, a teacher who is an individualist, and a ballerina who is smart and beautiful, Li has plenty of counterpoints to Mao’s little red book and its anti-American ideals. But Li chooses his own version of freedom, lifting Mao’s Last Dancer into the spotlight. With exciting music and the dazzling pirouettes to match, Li’s escape to the West, aided by a Houston lawyer (Chen’s Twin Peaks‘ co-star, Kyle MacLachlan) is an incredible story. The narrative progression (“don’t look back”) is stronger than its central character, the elusive Li (played at different ages by three excellent actors), and Mao’s Last Dancer lacks the emotional power of The Lives of Others, which also used history as a dramatic hook, and Li’s defection is not as thrilling as Kolya’s (Mikhail Baryshnikov) escape from communism in White Nights. But the true story of a fiercely determined dancer, and those who attend to his success, is an inspiration. Now that China seems to be moving further from Mao’s communist ideas, and America is disintegrating into an anti-capitalist state, it is depressing to realize that Li might have danced himself into more of the same.

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