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Review: Malcolm Clarke’s wayward documentary ‘Better Angels’ suggests path for U.S.-China relations

Li Mianjun teaching children with a learning technique called abacus in a scene from the movie “Bett
Li Mianjun in the documentary “Better Angels.”
(Better Angels)

Current tariff war aside, the relationship between the U.S. and China has always been turbulent at best, but a mutually beneficial way forward is proposed by “Better Angels,” a timely if frustratingly scattershot documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke.

Kicking off with a warning from now 95-year-old Henry Kissinger looking directly into the camera and declaring, “If we are to clash, it would be a disaster for the whole world,” the film suggests the two superpowers could learn a thing or two about bi-lateral alliances from a number of its cross-cultural case studies spanning four continents.

Unfortunately, like the international co-production itself, they go all over the map and not in a good way.

While some of the profiles — including those of Wanda founder Wang Jianlin and Li Mianjun, whose Shenmo Education Group has been introducing the world to abacus-based mental arithmetic make sense; others, especially a prolonged look at 2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which partly took place in Hong Kong, feel like promotional studio featurettes.

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Equally questionable is the decision to allot extensive talking-head screen time to the likes of American Apparel founder and former CEO Dov Charney at the expense of blink-and-you-miss-them Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and James Baker.

Factoring in the flat narration by Clarke and some awfully hokey visual effects, “Better Angels” would have benefited from better angles.

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‘Better Angels’

In English and Chinese with English subtitles

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Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 2, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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