Short Takes: 'Animal Kingdom,' 'You Again,' 'Mao's Last Dancer'

James Frecheville (from left) as Joshua 'J' Cody, Jacki Weaver as Janine 'Smurf' Cody and Dan Wyllie as Ezra White star  in 'Animal Kingdom,' a must-see indie crime-film from Australia.

James Frecheville (from left) as Joshua "J" Cody, Jacki Weaver as Janine "Smurf" Cody and Dan Wyllie as Ezra White star in 'Animal Kingdom," a must-see indie crime-film from Australia.

'Animal Kingdom'

Rated R for profanity, violence and the depiction of drug use.

Arriving in Memphis a week after "The Town," "Animal Kingdom" functions almost as an indie Aussie response to the Ben Affleck hit: This, too, is a tale about a brotherhood of increasingly reckless criminal low-lifes and the law officer on its trail, but told with low-budget realism and poetic starkness instead of glamour, star power and stuntwork.

James Frecheville (from left) as Joshua 'J' Cody, Jacki Weaver as Janine 'Smurf' Cody and Dan Wyllie as Ezra White star  in 'Animal Kingdom,' a must-see indie crime-film from Australia.

James Frecheville (from left) as Joshua "J" Cody, Jacki Weaver as Janine "Smurf" Cody and Dan Wyllie as Ezra White star in 'Animal Kingdom," a must-see indie crime-film from Australia.

High-school grudges rear their ugly heads  in  the appealing, if formulaic, comedy 'You Again,' starring Jamie Lee Curtis (from left), Kristen Bell and  Betty White.

Mark Fellman/Disney

High-school grudges rear their ugly heads in the appealing, if formulaic, comedy "You Again," starring Jamie Lee Curtis (from left), Kristen Bell and Betty White.

Chi Cao and Camilla Vergotis star in Australian director Bruce Beresford's 'Mao's Last Dancer.'

Simon Cardwell/Samuel Goldwyn Films/ATO Pictures

Chi Cao and Camilla Vergotis star in Australian director Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer."

Newcomer James Frecheville stars as not-yet-18 "J," a guarded youth who goes to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) after the heroin overdose of his mother. A sort of Melbourne Ma Barker, grandma presides over a household of thugs, most of whom are J's uncles, the Codys (a Wild West name perhaps borrowed from Cody Jarrett, the unforgettable psycho gangster played by James Cagney in "White Heat'). Guy Pearce is the honest police detective who wants to arrest rather than assassinate the crooks, whose increasing, drug-fueled paranoia becomes as much a threat to the group's safety as the rogue police death squads.

With "Animal Kingdom," writer-director David Michôd has crafted a must-see for crime-film fans and a movie that compares favorably to this year's earlier Down Under noir, "The Square," also a product of Australia's Blue-Tongue Films collective.

The movie is exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

'You Again'

Rated PG for mild profanity and some crude humor.

Former pimply geek Kristen Bell confronts her old high-school nemesis, ex-super-cool cheerleader Odette Yustman, in this surprisingly agreeable formula "women's comedy," elevated by the parallel rivalry of Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver, also cast as rivals who date their years-long grudge to high school.

Curtis (as a housewife who shows off some cheerleader moves of her own) and Weaver (as a glamorous hotel entrepreneur) clamp onto these late-career showcase roles with the eagerness of pit bulls.

Their supporting cast includes the suddenly ubiquitous Betty White (as "Grandma Bunny"), the even more ubiquitous character actor Victor Garber (as Kristen's father) and several surprises.

Director Andy Fickman, a Disney/Touchstone veteran, stages the action with the bright innocuousness that qualifies almost as a house style, while Moe Jelline's script generously guides the characters toward reconciliation rather than vengeance.

If the trailers and ads make you think you'll like "You Again," you probably will.

'Mao's Last Dancer'

Rated PG for brief violence and some suggestive content.

Australian director Bruce Beresford -- whose almost 40-year career includes such notable films as "Breaker Morant," "Tender Mercies" and "Driving Miss Daisy" -- brings an admirable but unexciting humanist perspective to this dramatization of the inspirational real-life tale of Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer who caused a minor international incident in 1981 when he refused to return to his homeland after coming to Texas as an exchange student with the Houston Ballet.

Portrayed by debuting actor Chi Cao, principal dancer with Britain's Birmingham Royal Ballet, Li explains that his surname refers to his "innocent heart." In fact, the character is so innocent and just plain nice he's not very interesting, except when he's onstage; Chi's athleticism is the movie's most striking element.

Perhaps because Houston is presented as a city with some culture but little character, the movie is most compelling during the flashbacks to Li's childhood in China when he was plucked from rural poverty by Communist Party officials who recognized the potential for stardom in the boy's supple physique. The youngest of seven brothers, Li was pulled from his family (mom is played by Joan Chen) and raised at the Beijing Dance Academy, where students trained for up to 16 hours a day. No wonder he tells his American hosts, in imperfect English: "I dance better here, because feel more free."

Chinese officialdom worries that Li is too young to hold fast to his nation's "revolutionary" principles and to resist the lure of capitalism, but in the film's climactic performance of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," Li demonstrates he's an artist, not an ideologue. The Communists may have had a point, however: In real life, Li eventually gave up dancing to take a job as a stock broker.

"Mao's Last Dancer" is exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

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