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9/10
Wonderful Music
25 September 2005
When I rented Buena Vista Social Club I didn't have any appreciation for the type of music played by the Club; I still don't know what it's called. I rented the movie because I'm a Ry Cooder fan, and have seen some Wim Wenders' movies I liked. I wasn't expecting much, but the result is that I've just seen one of the best documentaries in my life. The premise is very simple, it's all about the old musicians and the wonderful music they make. You get to visit their modest homes, hang out in their neighborhoods, and listen to their music. Nothing more than that, but done so well, so effortlessly, you wish you could step through the screen and join them. I would recommend this film to anyone.
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7/10
Junior High is Hell
27 July 2005
Junior High must be the tenth circle of Hell. How do any of us scrawny, not-cool geeks survive it? Perhaps we don't, and all our adult neurosis trace back to 7th grade homeroom and not Mom after all.

Not convinced? Watch Welcome to the Dollhouse and relive Hell.

Dawn Wiener is the protagonist, an awkward 7th grader who is put-upon by everyone from her family to schoolmates. She suffers a multitude of insults, all too small to register with adults who could help, but which inflict a thousand darts to her soul. The movie made me cringe, unearthing long suppressed memories of adolescent cruelties and torment at the hands of bullies. Is this entertainment? Absolutely, Todd Solondz did an admirable job in his freshman movie.
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6/10
Too Little Material for a Movie
6 July 2005
I'm not hip anymore, if I ever was. But in my teens I sure was a dopey, foul-mouthed, slacker and relying on the memories of that experience I can understand the appeal of JSBSB. That squirrelly demographic surely has to be Ken Smith's target audience, he's sure not shooting for the Merchant/Ivory crowd. That said then, does he hit his intended targets?

Yes, but not nearly enough of the time. What is essentially sketch comedy is forced into a (dumb) linear plot and stretched out far too long. Jay and Silent Bob could thrive within the confines of a 30-minute TV program, albeit it would have to be on cable. But trying to tell a movie-length story? Nope. There are some very funny bits, but plenty more time is spent on trying to establish a narrative arc that just isn't there. It didn't work.
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4/10
Sandler Lays (Another) Egg
12 June 2005
My problem with Anger Management is not that it's another comedic misfire by Adam Sandler, but that he takes Jack Nicholson down with him. Mr. Nicholson has done excellent work in comedy in the past. But they were roles with substance; good direction, script, and supporting actors. And even his most dramatic roles seem tinged with a sardonic humor such as Jake Gittes, or the whacked-out 'Heeeres Johnny!'. Anger Management is just a piece of fluff with nothing behind it, particularly a decent script. The script seems solely designed as a series setups for Sandler and Nicholson to bask in the limelight and overact. It's unseemly.

Sandler playing Sandler was not very funny when it was fresh, but now it's getting tiresome. I can see why Sandler needed Nicholson, but I don't understand why Nicholson accepted.
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4/10
Sandler Lays (Another) Egg
27 June 2004
My problem with Anger Management is not that it's another comedic misfire by Adam Sandler, but that he takes Jack Nicholson down with him. Jack has done some excellent work in comedy in the past. But they were roles with substance; good direction, script, supporting actors. Anger Management is a piece of fluff with nothing behind it, particularly a decent script. The script seems solely designed as a series setups for Sandler and Nicholson to bask in the limelight and overact. It's unseemly.

Sandler playing Sandler was not very funny when it was fresh, him newly minted from his hysterical stint on SNL. But now it's getting tiresome. I can see why Sandler needed Nicholson, but I don't understand why Nicholson accepted.
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8/10
Good Movie, Great Soundtrack
25 March 2004
F. Gary Gray has created a very effective high-speed caper flick. Nothing too deep, just the basic elements delivered with style and flash. These elements include the members of the gang; the sage leader, his number one, the tactician, geek, and explosives guy. Then there's the initial big heist, betrayal and death, another theft that is bigger than the first, while not forgetting the obligatory chase scenes, other cliffhangers, and romance. The characters are portrayed by a well-rounded ensemble cast who usually resist chewing the scenery. The directing is competent and abetted by a great soundtrack. No overreaching by Mr. Gray, he delivers a straight, just-for-entertainment story, and does it very well.
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7/10
Clooney Plays a Weird Story Straight Up
4 March 2004
What if the creator and host of two of the 1970s biggest and lamest television game shows was also a part-time CIA hitman? That he used The Dating Game and The Gong Show as a cover to stage assassinations in the netherworld of Cold War espionage. Ridiculous you'd say. But that's what exactly what Chuck Barris claims in his autobiography, and Charlie Kaufman accepts carte blanche as the premise for his screenplay. The film plays it straight up as if Barris were telling the truth.

Can Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, and George Clooney, the director pull it off? Mostly. It is competently acted by Sam Rockwell as Barris, Julia Roberts as a fellow spy, Drew Barrymore as his love interest, and director George Clooney as his CIA recruiter and handler. The bizarre landscape, a marriage of television and espionage, is presented without a smirk or wink. If Barris is telling the truth, this is what it must have been like. It's an interesting idea, and Clooney and Kaufman have taken it and crafted an enjoyable film.
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6/10
Dated but a Tad Amusing
29 February 2004
Loosely based on a Jules Verne novel, The Mysterious Island is set in a mythical kingdom by the sea where one of its leading royalty (Lionel Barrymore) doubles as cutting-edge scientist who invents the submarine and diving suit. In the course of exploring he and his buds discover a civilization of sea creatures that look like walking frogs and have the sensibilities of a pack of hyenas. There are also above-surface issues of betrayal, palace coups, wars, and young love.

Made on the cusp between silent and sound films, The Mysterious Island is caught somewhere in between; it is part talkie and part silent. Oddly there doesn't seem to be a dramatic or thematic rationale for deciding which scenes have sound and which don't. And why didn't the producers choose one format over the other for the entire movie? But they didn't, and this alone makes the film a novelty. Another reason to watch The Mysterious Island is the 1929-era special effects. They're a hoot. But even when these factors are taken in to account there is not much reason to invest the time in this movie.
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7/10
Dark Tod Browning-Lon Chaney Collaboration
15 February 2004
Crippled during a confrontation with his wife's lover, Phroso, a famous English magician (Lon Chaney, Sr), vows to exact terrible revenge on wife and lover. A couple of year's later when the wife, fatally ill, returns to London with a young child, Phroso's plans are put into action. After she succumbs to her illness, Phroso emigrates to Africa with her child, where the wife's lover is an ivory trader, a vocation also undertaken by Phroso.

Now known as Dead-Legs he becomes the most feared and degenerate backcountry ivory trader west of Zanzibar. He raises his daughter, who he presumes is not his own, to be a drug-addicted prostitute. With his wife's child debased, he waits like a spider in his web for the man who cuckolded and then paralyzed him. Dark stuff, this.

It's a morbid although entertaining little tale, and Lon Chaney gives his usual top-notch performance, transitioning from the big-hearted Phroso to the crippled (in both body and sole) Dead-Legs. The movie is worth watching just for his performance. Tod Browning is in his element and delivers up a dark, creepy tale. So what that the plot twists are telegraphed from a mile away, and the portrayal of Africans is negatively stereotyped. If these shortcomings can be overlooked, this is a good example of the Browning-Chaney collaborations. Not bad for a silent film, which has a recorded soundtrack, coming as it did on the cusp of the transition to sound.
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The Divorce (2003)
7/10
Clever Culture Clash
11 February 2004
A young American woman arrives in France to visit her married and pregnant sister. Instead of a happy visit she stumbles into a trauma-stricken scene as the sister learns that her husband is leaving her for her another. Is the man's family sympathetic and supportive of the betrayed wife? Of course not, they're only disturbed by the timing of the departure…it looks in bad form to leave a pregnant wife. The American Mom, Dad, and Brother show up to help, especially to retrieve a valuable family painting that is in France with Sis, but a piece of property that the French family also covets. Complicating matters, the visiting sister begins an affair with the husband's married uncle, as a multitude of other characters begin to pop up.

The acting is mostly journeyman (although there are a few standouts like Stockard Channing as the American Mom), but is adequate for the material. Okay so it's also over plotted, overpopulated, and over done. I still enjoyed it, and would recommend it, although not heartily.
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4/10
Why'd It Make So Much Money?
9 February 2004
I remember The Santa Clause from 1994 and the good vibe it generated and the money it made. But at the time I gave it a pass; my children were teenagers and didn't have much interest in kids movies. Nor did I. But this holiday season I felt like feel-good movie. Something akin to A Christmas Story, one of my all-time favorites, but one I've seen too many times. I needed a new Christmas movie and The Santa Claus seemed like a promising candidate. Wrong.

Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin, a workaholic divorced parent who cannot connect with his young son. And he desperately wants to, both for his son and to offset the influence of Mom's new boyfriend. But Scott can't do anything right. Then on Christmas Eve Scott accidentally kills Santa Clause. Funny, huh? The clause in the title is not a misspelling, but refers to the legal clause that requires anyone who offs Santa to take his place. This is cleverly done, although it is a bit maudlin. Well guess what happens? Scott learns the (non-religious) meaning of Christmas, bonds with his son, discovers himself…make that a lot maudlin.

In 1994 Tim Allen was riding high with his hit TV show, Home Improvement, and in The Santa Clause he plays Tim Allen playing Tim Allen playing Santa Clause. No stretch here. And the rest of the cast is just there as a foil for Tim. And the plot, however clever, just wasn't very entertaining to this reviewer. Actually, this minority commentator didn't like The Santa Clause very much at all, and certainly can't recommend it to anyone.
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7/10
Reloaded with Blanks
3 February 2004
The initial Matrix is one of the most innovative science fiction movies I've seen. When I first saw it, it took me by complete surprise (c'mon, it's a Keanu Reeves movie), and it provided one of my more enjoyable movie-going experiences in 1999. Like all great science fiction, it brought a new, terrifying, and wildly believable world to life. All I could say was "wow". When I heard that this was only the first of a trilogy of Matrix movies, I had more than a little trepidation. How could the Wachowskis jump-start the second while improving upon the original?

Well, the answer is, they couldn't. The second installment, The Matrix Reloaded, doesn't hold a candle to the original. But all of the principals from the first are present; what went wrong?

Well it's the Star Wars Syndrome. But at least George Lucas gave us three great movies before stumbling, the Wachowski's mustered only one. But the mistakes committed by Lucas and the Wachowskis are very similar; infusions of moralizing, diminuation and sanitizing of the drama and tragedy, dumbing down the characters, etc, etc.

The Matrix Reloaded is not a bad movie, just a disappointing one.
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5/10
It Deserved It's Disappointing Box Office
24 January 2004
Many reviewers and critics have bemoaned the fact that this film did not achieve the box-office success it deserved. I am more in agreement with the theater-going public; this misfire deserved its disappointing take. Not that it didn't try, and in my opinion, should have succeeded.

Two of the greatest directors in the history of film were associated with the project, and apparently cared deeply about it. They are, of course, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. It was Spielberg that finally directed A.I. and perhaps it was his desire to adhere to Kubrick's vision (or his perception of it) that threw the film off balance. That, or perhaps Spielberg is getting sappy. Nonetheless, the movie tries to cover too much philosophical ground, and instead of telling a good story, we're stuck with an odd polemic on the nature of love, life, and lots of other deep subjects. There was a great, dark, story to tell and a fine cast assembled to assist in the telling. But Spielberg decided to get preachy, ditched the inherit drama (and horror) of the story, and subjected the paying public to a sermon. I don't find that so entertaining, and apparently neither did many others.
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About Schmidt (2002)
9/10
One of Jack's Best
21 December 2003
Some of my friends were very disappointed with About Schmidt. It went against their perception of Jack Nicholson's recent comedic typecast; a wicked Jack who embraces his roles with gusto. But even though the film claims it, About Schmidt is no comedy. It's a downer. Jack looks like the same old Jack, but Warren Schmidt is not a funny man, he's a shell of a human. A recently retired life insurance underwriter in Omaha, his wife abruptly dies leaving him alone and with nothing do to. His wife and his job were his whole universe, and now they're both gone. To make matters worse, while going through his wife's affects, he finds love letters from a long ago adulterous affair with their best friend. In late middle age, what little life Warren has remaining comes crashing down around him.

His grown daughter is getting married in Colorado (to a man Warren believes beneath her), so Warren embarks on a road trip to see her and meet her family. A family headed by Roberta, played by Kathy Bates, who embraces life. Will she be Warren's salvation?

Warren Schmidt is a very difficult character, but Jack Nicholson nails it with a very understated and gutsy performance. He is supported by a great and believable supporting cast, and the on-site Midwestern winter locales add truthfulness to the tale. And then there's Jack in one of his best roles. About Schmidt is highly recommended.
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7/10
Satisfying, But Not Great Altman
20 December 2003
Robert Altman appreciates women. It shows in his movies; women are often the main characters, and his films offer up a variety of interesting roles for actresses. Dr. T and the Women is almost entirely about women, modern day wealthy Texas women. Richard Gere plays Dr. Sully Travis a very successful and popular Dallas gynecologist. Not only is he surrounded by women all day at work, but his family consists entirely of women. Only a couple of male buddies enter into his closed, female dominated life. And like all good Altman movies there are plenty of quirky characters and intersecting plotlines.

The problem is that the plotlines aren't that interesting or original. Dr. T's wife develops a rare mental disorder that affects only the wealthy, and must be institutionalized. The new female golf pro comes on to Dr. T, as does his nurse. His soon-to-be-married daughter is slowly realizing that she may be a lesbian. And so on.

For Altman fans, Dr. T and the Women is not a bad rental. The director has done better, but it's still Altman. Others, less interested, might want to give this a pass.
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4/10
What a Mess
29 November 2003
This Indie film pushes the envelope with its odious subject matter; mother-son incest. Now, I don't mind when a film tackles a difficult topic, but this movie appears to embrace its subject matter not because it has a story to tell or a point to make, but only to be out there on the edge.

It's intuitively obvious that the relationship between the mother and her son has to be a product of a very dysfunctional family, and the subject family is a case of middle-class dysfunction en extremis. So much so, the characters are rendered unbelievable. The director and screenwriter push way too hard to make the movie ‘edgy', and end up with a mess.
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Ready to Wear (1994)
4/10
Threadbare Altman
14 September 2003
I missed Ready to Wear when it was released in 1994, and finally rented the film. I had great anticipation. The fashion industry was the next to squirm under Mr. Altman's cinematic scalpel. Altman assembled a large, talented ensemble cast as usual. The locale is the annual prêt-à-porter fashion show in Paris, as a multitude of characters descend on hotels, fashion houses, restaurants, and runways; their stories intertwining and crisscrossing across a pastiche of interlocking plotlines. It'll be just like Nashville, in other words, another Altman tour de force.

Oddly and sadly, it's nothing of the sort. Ready to Wear loses its way early, and drifts aimlessly along for its lengthy 133 minute runtime. The characters lack the depth of his other films; they're poorly defined and you never really feel you get to know them. The dialogue is shallow and lacks bite. Even the little things tend to annoy; why use sidewalk dog poop as a unifying symbol? What's the point to that?

All in all I found Ready to Wear disappointing and probably my least favorite of Altman's films.
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4/10
Old Time Religion, Modern Hollywood ***Spoilers***
8 September 2003
Warning: Spoilers
This is an odd movie; its values are strictly social conservative, but the story takes place against the backdrop of a large city television newsroom. Seem a little incongruous? Its even more so when you realize the primary actors are Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Anniston. And the films style is essentially a slapstick comedy accentuating Carrey's patented rubber-faced, self-effacing schtick. Strange, yes, but a winning combination scoring an $80M opening weekend.

Big money maker or not, I found the movie unfunny and boring. The premise that God would select a failed TV newsman to replace Him while He took a vacation is just too absurd. Someone like the Marx Brothers could have had a field day with this premise, but you sure wouldn't have found them developing a maudlin, sappy conclusion like the one that Bruce Almighty serves up. After an hour and a half of mostly unfunny Jim Carrey pratfalls, the movie presents its "come to Jesus" revelatory moment and Bruce is saved (in the religious sense). After all the damage he'd done playing God, you'd have thought him more deserving of a one way ticket to Hell.
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The Contender (2000)
3/10
Propaganda Pap
3 September 2003
The Contender is stealth propaganda, and laughably bad propaganda at that. Through the first half of the movie the viewer believes they're watching a political thriller. Joan Allen stars as Senator Laine Hanson, nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President by President Jackson Evans played by Jeff Bridges. Republican Rep. Shelly Runyon, played by Gary Oldman, is a rival to President Evans and wants another politician nominated, a Southern Democratic. Rep. Runyon is going to fight Senator Hanson's nomination by any means at his disposal. This includes pictures of a 19-year old Hanson participating in a sex orgy at a college frat. The battle lines are drawn, and the gloves are off as both camps prepare for battle. It's good against evil.

That's okay. Moviemakers can make political pictures, take sides, and argue positions. I don't mind as long as they do it in the context of an honest and entertaining movie. The problem is that The Contender is neither honest nor entertaining; it's insulting.

During the first third of the movie it appears that it's point will be a condemnation of the personal attacks that mar and degrade our political system. But during the middle third the story line takes a sharp turn. Its focus narrows from the original good vs evil themes, and becomes distinctly partisan. By the final third, the message is reduced to a diatribe against all things conservative and Republican. During the movie's final scenes there are two breathless liberal soliloquies where heroic music builds to crescendo as the speakers stake noble positions. It's almost religious. Released just three weeks before the 2000 American elections I can see why Mr. Oldman wanted to disassociate himself from the movie. Personally I feel as I should have been paid to watch it, not vice versa.
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Whale Rider (2002)
9/10
The Best Acting by a Child in Decades
2 September 2003
Pai is a 12-year old Maori girl living in a rural town on the coast of New Zealand. Her family has traditionally supplied the leaders for the local Maori, and her grandfather, Koro, has the responsibility of selecting and training the next one. The town is spiritually and physically deteriorating, the young men becoming lazy and hedonistic, forgetting the ancient and honorable Maori ways. Pai's mother and twin brother both died in childbirth, and Pai's father left shortly thereafter for Europe. Pai has no siblings. In desperation Koro widens his search to all the Maori village boys hoping to find the next leader. But Pai knows that it is she who has actually been chosen to lead the village back to the righteous path. But how can she convince her Grandfather of this? He firmly believes that teaching girls Maori leadership skills is taboo.

The casting is nothing short of perfect. Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Pai, and has an acting range rarely seen in children. In one scene she's acting the role of average kid, in another incredible nobility as she stands up for her convictions, and in another deep, tortured grief. I fervently hope she gets an Oscar nomination. Rawiri Paratene and Vicky Haughton as Koro and his wife also give excellent performances. Niki Caro's screenplay and direction infuse the story with the reality of small-town life, but also with the deep mysteries of the Maori people. In my opinion this is one of the best movies of 2003.
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7/10
Love Conquers All
28 August 2003
Buddy's repressed. A young Italian-American man living in Staten Island in 1956, he sees opportunity all around him. It's laying there waiting for him to pick it up and run with. Except for one major obstacle, his wife Estelle. She wants only for Buddy to find his narrow niche in the local community, with its dead-end job and familiar surroundings, and exist quietly in her idea of the American dream.

But it's not Buddy's vision. So Buddy perseveres, undercut at every turn by Estelle. He finally manages to buy a two-family house to turn into his dream; a bar on the first floor, his home on the second. The current occupants are a foul-mouthed white trash Irish immigrant family, the very young wife in a very pregnant way. When she gives birth to a child whose father is obviously black, the older husband abandons her. And from this point Buddy's life journey takes a remarkable turn.

Two Family House is a prototypical Indie film in all its positive aspects. It does very well with little budget, maximizing the contributions of cast and crew. The uplifting story is told without pandering or exploitation. The movie's not great, but it is effective, and most importantly, very enjoyable.
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7/10
A Downer French Romance ***Spoilers***
22 August 2003
Warning: Spoilers
When we first meet Martin, he's the 12 year old illegitimate son sent to live with his father at the family estate. In the film's second scene, the now 19 year old Martin is fleeing the same estate. Literally. Running blindly into the countryside, we follow as he hides from imagined pursuers, subsisting (barely) on what he can scrounge, completely exposed to the elements. In a few days he's arrested while pilfering from a farmer, but his family bails him out. He doesn't return home, but makes his way to Paris where he asks to live with his older half-brother, Benjamin, and his roommate, Alice, a musician. They reluctantly agree to take him in.

Soon, due to luck and his good looks, Martin is a world-class male model earning tons of money. He's also successful at courting the older Alice, which causes conflicts with Benjamin. Not romantic conflict, Benjamin is gay, but professional. Martin is the family bastard, his father's child by his mistress. Benjamin and the other siblings are children by the legal mother. Martin is the outcaste, but now he's a great success, more so than any of the siblings, especially Benjamin.

But Martin is harboring a great secret, the reason that caused him to flee, and it's tearing him apart. The family refuses help; they don't air their dirty laundry in public, and they don't like Martin. Martin begins to go mad. Alice, now in deeply love with Martin, begins a quest to unlock Martin's hidden demons and exorcize them.

Enough said about the plot, I've spoiled about half the movie. Is this movie any good? It's not bad. The film is French, so, except for Juliette Binoche as Alice, none of the actors are recognizable to this American; but they are all very good. The direction by André Téchiné is also quite good. The story? It's an odd little downer of a story that I suspect doesn't resonate well with the middle classes. But anything with Juliette Binoche in it is worth a rental.
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The Good Girl (2002)
Not a Bad Effort for Anniston
17 August 2003
Justine, ten-years married to her high school sweetheart, is stuck in a rut. She lives with her housepainter, stoner husband in their small hometown in Texas where she works as a clerk at the Retail Rodeo (a stand-in for Wal-Mart). Husband Phil is just fine with his life (who spends non-working hours stoned) but it's suffocating Justine. Her reaction to the situation is to begin a relationship with an 18-year old co-worker. She's initially attracted to him because he too is depressed about his hopeless existence. What she doesn't know is that he is also a deeply troubled young man. She finds that out soon enough as his part of the relationship becomes overly possessive, and the secret relationship begins to become public.

Jennifer Anniston plays Justine and proves that she possesses greater acting depth than we've seen in Friends. John C. Reilly as her husband and Tim Blake Nelson as his best friend really nail their characters. The weak link acting-wise is Jake Gyllenhaal as the troubled love interest whose performance seems one-dimensional. As his is a key character, this drags on the movie, but the others keep it afloat.

The Good Girl is a pretty-good movie. It was not good enough to garner award scrutiny, but is worth the price of a rental. It'll be interesting to see if Ms. Anniston continues to take non-comedic roles in movies such as this. I hope so.
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8/10
A Chinese Feast
17 August 2003
Chu is the number one chef in Taipei, a master with no equal. Widowed, he lives comfortably with his three young-adult daughters. Each is a very independent woman, and each is very different from the other. And all three are on the verge of stretching their wings and going out in the world on their own. This poses dilemmas for all, and these personal trials are the focus of Ang Lee's movie; they're his story. Nothing overly dramatic, just modern urban people, successful people, coping and getting along.

The only difficulty I had with the film is that I'm not familiar with the actors; especially those playing the three daughters. Obviously they're all Chinese and speak Mandarin. The film is heavy into conversation so the viewer reads lots of sub-titles. I frequently lost the point of a conversation because I didn't realize who was talking; I was too busy reading.

It's a small complaint. On the plus side the movie delivers an ending. Often these 'slice of life' movies just end, there are no real plot elements to resolve and life goes on. Not here, Mr. Lee delivers an ending that will have you smiling after the Home Theater is darkened.
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10/10
Incredible and Powerful Film
15 August 2003
Initially, this story about the marriage of young Scottish woman and a Scandinavian oil rig worker had my eyes glazing over. I was ready to hit the eject button about 20 minutes into the movie. But I held in there and slowly was drawn in to their lives, their environment, and the ghastly tragedy that confronts them.

Lars von Trier is a very patient storyteller, as well as being an eccentric movie maker. In Breaking the Waves, he slowly, very slowly unfolds his drama. The problem is; you have to pay careful attention, and this can be difficult. Von Trier's style, with its hand-held camera, lack of artificial lighting, grainy photography, and lingering close-ups can try the patience. The movie is also long, clocking in at about 2½ hours. But if you see it through, the final half hour will blow your mind, and you will have seen one of the best (and most emotionally powerful) movies of 1996, maybe even the whole decade.
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