In this column we will feature thumbnail reviews by Wayne Case, a veteran of Hollywood's Big Machine who currently works for an independent film company in Los Angeles. Wayne ranks the films on a scale of 1 (bad) to 10 (good). The following are Wayne’s rankings of films for 2004.
50 FIRST DATES Rated: 6
Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore make an effective couple, but were better served by the script of their previous coupling in The Wedding Singer (1998). The problem here is the script and unworkable/annoying concept. In short, Drew’s character, Lucy, has no short term memory due to an accident. She wakes up each morning without any memory of what happened before she had the accident. She meets Adam and falls in love with him. To continue the relationship, he must reintroduce himself to her every morning and make her fall in love with him all over again. I hated the so-called humor which includes projectile vomiting by a walrus, but found the romantic parts enjoyable.
THE ALAMO Rated: 7
This is competent but not thrilling and I was disappointed. Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa—2003) gives the best performance and Patrick Wilson, from Broadway musicals and HBO’s Angeles In America (2003) shows big screen promise. Jason Patric (Geronimo—1993) lacks energy which is becoming an unfortunate habit for him. Director John Lee Hancock and Dennis Quaid were much more successful in their outstanding previous collaboration, The Rookie (2002).
ALONG CAME POLLY Rated: 5
Forgettable comedy that unsuccessfully apes the outstanding There’s Something About Mary (1998). Ben Stiller and Jennifer Anniston have been better, much better before. I didn’t even like the way she was photographed/made-up.
THE AVIATOR Rated: 9
The Aviator is deserving of and likely to receive multiple Oscar nominations including, but not limited to, (1) best picture (2) best director Martin Scorsese (3) best actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, (4) best supporting actress Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, (5) best cinematographer Robert Richardson & (6) best production designer Dante Ferretti. Although I have admired the work of Scorsese and DiCaprio in the past, I have rarely enjoyed them as much as I did here. This is outstanding entertainment.
BAD EDUCATION (LA MALA EDUCACION) Rated: 9
This is the latest from famed/gifted/successful Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and it’s my favorite of his films. In my opinion, it is easily the best foreign language film released in the United States in 2004.
Although there is no frontal nudity and the sex is simulated, the situations and depictions make the NC-17 rating understandable if not really justified.
The plot is far too complicated to even attempt to summarize but I had no trouble following along while watching it although paying careful attention is required.
At times, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
The initial setting is a Franco-era Catholic boys’ school in rural Spain where Juan and Erique establish a close/long term relationship. Understandibly, the Catholic Church is less than thrilled with this film since abuse by priests drives the story.The cast is headed by Mexican born Gael García Bernal in a triple role as Ángel/Juan/Zahara and Spanish native Fele Martínez as Enrique Goded. They are both wonderful. What a year Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien—2001) is having with The Motorcycle Diaries being released in the USA in earlier 2004! Daniel Giménez Cacho as Father Manolo is excellent in a supporting role.
Be aware that there is considerable gay content.
THE BIG BOUNCE Rated: 4 1/2
This one if for Owen Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums—2001) fans, only. Starlet wannabe, Sara Foster makes one of the least effective debuts in recent memory. Director George Armitage who delivered two effective earlier films, Miami Blues -1990, & Grosse Point Blank—1997, cuts to random shots of the rolling Hawaiian surf often and those interludes are among the most effective in the film. I suggest you pass this one by.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT Rated: 4 1/2
I like Ashton Kutcher (Dude, Where’s My Car?, 2000). He is adequate here in the part of a young man who travels through time to change his past…if you can believe that. I didn’t. I howled at one line of dialogue where Amy Smart as Kayleigh is required to ask: “Is there any point to all of this?” I think not.
CELLULAR Rated: 8
Cellular was made on a reasonable budget and is not intended to be a blockbuster. Nevertheless, it’s efficient, effective and entertaining. I’ve seen it twice and enjoyed it as much the second time as I did the first. If you go in with reasonable expectations, I believe you’ll be pleased.
For reasons she doesn’t understand, wife/mother/science teacher Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is kidnapped and held captive in the attic of an isolated house. She doesn’t know where the house is located. After she manages to repair a smashed telephone, she connects with a random phone number. It turns out to be the cell phone belonging to a young man, Ryan (Chris Evans). She is in grave danger and pleads for his help; he complies resulting in lots of excitement and some laughs.
Oscar winner Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential—1997, The Door In The Floor—2004) gives a solid, easy performance here while being very likeable and looking great. After several disappointing outings since L.A. Confidential, it’s really nice that she gets to return to the screen at full strength in both this and The Door In The Floor. Although Chris Evans was in the perfectly awful early 2004 release called The Perfect Score, plus a few other small television and theatrical parts, this is his breakthrough. I predict big things for him and am happy to learn that he was recently cast as a lead super hero in the big budgeted Fantastic Four—2005). William H. Macy (Boogie Nights—1997) is even better than usual as a cop and Jason Statham (The Italian Job 2003) continues to impress as a villain. Stratham reminds me of an early Die Hard vintage Bruce Willis and he’d be great as that type action hero. Director David R. Ellis has directed two previous theatrical films and has a very impressive list of outstanding second unit and stunt director credits. I’m convinced he’ll be delivering more impressive work soon. Script credit goes to Chris Morgan and is based on a story by Larry Cohen who wrote Phone Booth (2002). I far prefer the writing of Cellular to that of Phone Booth.
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN Rated: 3
Although a big 2003 Christmas season commercial hit, I think this Steve Martin family comedy is rotten to the core. If you find obnoxious, out-of-control kids being “cute” while causing chaos, you’ll probably be entertained. I wasn’t. In fact, I barely resisted the urge to walk out several times.
I like both Steve Martin (Parenthood—1989) and Bonnie Hunt (television’s Life With Bonnie), and think there could be a good comedy with them as parents of a large family, but this isn’t that. Further, I think the point made by this film is that parents shouldn’t have there own lives if they have a family. Maybe it’s just me, but I have the old fashioned notion that, within reason, kids should adapt to their parents’ life choices rather than the other way around.
The supporting cast was attractive and probably talented. I enjoyed Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly—2000) as the oldest daughter, Nora, the uncredited Ashton Kutcher (Dude, Where’s My Car?—2000) as Nora’s boyfriend Hank, and Tom Welling (television’s Smallville) as the oldest son.
I was a lot less impressed with current teen favorite Hilary Duff (The Lizzie Mcguire Movie—2003) but suspect she’ll be successful, regardless. The other kids were fine.
One last complaint: It’s far too loud & noisy for no good reason.
CLOSER Rated: 9
Caustic, clever, hard, quick, and sharp, this is a love story for adults. I’m reminded of the classic love song “You Always Hurt The One You Love.” The four principles here do plenty of hurting in their intertwined relationships. Writer Patrick Marber adapted his play for the screen and I love the dialogue which is graphic at times.
Only four actors have significant speaking parts and each is fantastic. Julia Roberts has never been better. This is my favorite Jude Law performance. Clive Owen and Natalie Portman give breakout performances and establish themselves as stars.
With Closer, Director Mike Nichols delivers a perfect bookend for his first film Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Award consideration is deserved and likely.
Be warned that this is anything but a “feel good” film and none of the characters is especially likeable. Critics and audiences have been/will be sharply divided in the opinions. Put me way over in the positive column.
THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR Rated: 9
The Door In The Floor is one of the best films of 2004. It deals with complicated relationships and is intended for adults. To be enjoyed, the viewer must pay attention and think. No wonder it’s doing little business. The acting is exceptional and the three lead actors deserve Oscar nominations. Four-time nominee, but non-winning, Jeff Bridges (The Last Picture Show—1971; Against All Odds—1984: The Mirror Has Two Faces—1996) is as effective here as he’s ever been. Oscar winning Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential—1997, Batman—1989) continues to be as talented as she is beautiful. Young and handsome Jon Foster is impressive as the teenager whose life is forever changed during the summer he spends in the home of troubled married couple Bridges and Basinger. Also, six-year-old Elle Fanning is amazing as the couple’s daughter. Talent is abundant in Miss Fanning’s family as she is the younger sister of ten-year-old Dakota Fanning (Man On Fire—2004).
This is the second film for writer/director Tod Williams. I haven’t seen his first, The Adventures Of Sebastian Coe -1998, but plan to now. Mr. Williams is an amazing emerging talent. His script here is based on the first third of John Irving’s novel “A Widow For One Year.”
THE DREAMERS Rated: 8
This is a sexy, interesting new film from director Bernardo Bertolucci that I recommend for adults. (more about it later)
EUROTRIP Rated: 4
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS Rated: 9
I grew up in the South and in my youth attended many, many Friday night high school football games in Natchez, Mississippi. Further, I love college football, especially as played by and at the University of Southern California’s home stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. These facts surely contributed to my enjoyment of this film which is based on H.G. Bissinger’s outstanding book about the true story of Odessa Texas’ high school football team, The Permian High School Panthers of 1988 and their quest for the state championship that year.
Director Peter Berg gets it all just right and deserves award consideration. As a director, this is his third theatrical film and easily his best film so far. In my book, he’s now 2 for 3 since I liked The Rundown (2003) but found Very Bad Things (1998) to be a very bad thing. Berg co-wrote this excellent adapted screenplay which maintains the essence of the complicated source material while allowing audiences to identify and understand the characters.
The casting is exceptional and the actors are all wonderful. As Coach Gaines, Billy Bob Thornton deserves award consideration. He is as effective here as he was in Bad Santa (2003) and continues to surprise me with his range. Lucas Black is vivid as team member Mike Winchell. Lucas and Thornton co-starred before in Sling Blade (1996) and continue to work well together. As teammate Don Billingsley, Garrett Hedlung (TROY- 2004) impresses. Even more impressive is country music super star Tim McGraw as his father, Charles Billingsley. McGraw deserves a supporting actor Oscar nomination.
Friday Night Lights is one of the best sports movies ever made. I’ve seen it twice and may return again. It’s rare for me to find any film too short, but I was left wanting more this time. I hope the DVD will include additional scenes/footage.
THE GRUDGE Rated: 2 1/2
The Grudge, an alleged thriller, is garbage. Stars Sarah Michelle Gellar & Jason Behr deserve better…much better. So do paying customers. Skip it.
HIDALGO Rated: 8
Hidalgo is an old fashioned action-adventure dramatic western set in 1890 Saudi Arabia. The story told is of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang named “Hilgado.” They enter a grueling horse race that takes them across 3000 miles of desert. All involved do excellent work here but especially noteworthy are James Newton Howard’s original music and Shelly Johnson’s cinematography. I found it a little too long at about 2-1/2 hours, but if you enjoy this type film, I suspect that you’re in for a treat.
KINSEY Rated: 9
This is a riveting biography of famed fifties sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Highest praise for writer/director Bill Condom, Liam Neeson as Kinsey, Laura Linney as his co-researcher/wife Clara McMillen Kinsey, & Peter Sarsgaard as interviewer/researcher/friend Clyde Martin. The subject matter is as timely today as it was in the fifties. As a line of dialogue in the film states: “The forces of chastity are amassing again.” I recommend this one for mature adults only. There is some nudity and adult dialogue and situations abound.
LATTER DAYS Rated: 8
A sweet natured love story about a good time West Hollywood guy and a male Mormon missionary who meet and fall in love despite their many differences. Hokey and scattered, but also irresistible and funny, recommended for most adults. WARNING: This is NOT for bigoted, anti-gay conservatives.
MEAN GIRLS Rated: 8 1/2
Vicious and delicious. Highly recommended. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed this often and this loudly. Tina Fey of television’s Saturday Night Live wrote the terrific screenplay and has a good supporting part also. Director Mark S. Waters makes all the right choices. He works here for the second time with rising teen star Lindsay Lohan and I think this is a much better than their previous big success, Freaky Friday (2003). Rachel McAdams, soon to be seen in The Notebook (2004), is perfect as the leader of the group appropriately named “the plastics”. While the entire cast is very effective, Jonathan Bennett from television’s All My Children is especially noteworthy.
THE NOTEBOOK Rated: 9 1/2
I loved it! It even managed to snap me out of the funk I was in when I entered the theatre. Sure, it’s emotional, sentimental, and totally romantic. (When did those become bad things in the minds of many critics?!) I found it moving, special, passionate and beautiful. Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls—2004) is nothing short of sensational…”a star is born”. Ryan Gosling (Murder By Numbers—2002) is terrific and may well be “the new” Sean Penn. I take back all the nasty things I’ve said in the past about director Nick Cassavetes (She’s So Lovely—1997 & John Q—2002). I plan to revisit The Notebook soon.
OCEAN’S TWELVE Rated: 6 1/2
At an excessive running time of two hours, they could have named it Ocean’s 12 ¼, since it’s at least twenty minutes too long. There is a serious lack of tension and no suspense. I found it confusing and far too complicated for the lark it’s clearly intended to be. I won’t be the only one to point out the obvious but will say it here anyway: The cast probably had a better time making the film than many viewers will have viewing it. Nevertheless, anyone that liked Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and the millions that are big fans of one or more of the highly popular cast, should check it out. My expectations were probably too high. Speaking of the cast, nobody’s career is going to be hurt by their work here but I doubt that any additional offers are going to come there way because of this either. Specifically, my favorites were the following: (1) Julia Roberts is outstanding and her section of the film is terrific. (2) George Clooney looks good and is appropriately low key. (3) Brad Pitt looks good and is as effective as the material allows. (4) Matt Damon looks good and gets some nice laughs. (4) Catherine Zeta-Jones looks good in almost all of her scenes, but the cameramen and makeup artists didn’t do her any favors is one particular close-up.
As a welcome addition in this sequel, she is certainly up to the standards set by the returning cast members from Ocean’s Eleven. Everyone else is fine but not special as far as I’m concerned. Oscar winning director Steven Soderbergh has done better, Erin Brockovich (2000) & Traffic (2000) as two examples and he has done much worse, Full Frontal (2002). I hated the musical score by David Holmes but suspect he did as he was instructed. Regardless, it is far too loud and constantly calls attention to itself. I predict huge early grosses and that slightly more will ticket buyers and critics will like it than won’t.
THE PERFECT SCORE Rated: 3
I can’t think of one single thing about this mess that could possibly be considered perfect. Actually, nothing here is even adequate starting with the ugly cinematography. The story tells about six high school students that band together to steal answers to their upcoming SAT tests. SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading this now if you have any intention of ever seeing this one , and I strongly suggest you avoid it. Unbelievably, they do succeed in getting the answers. Then, in a bullshit, cop-out ending, all six decide against using the answers. Although I seem to stand alone in my dislike of Scarlett Johnasson (Lost In Translation—2003), I found her less objectionable here than usual. Thanks, I assume to the tobacco lobby, as in her other films, she does smoke on camera here although her romantic interest, Chris Evans, mentions that it makes kissing her less enjoyable!
RAY Rated: 8 1/2
As I write this near the end of October 2004, Jamie Fox is already the favorite to receive the best actor Oscar for his performance as Ray Charles. He’ll be hard to beat since his performance here is absolutely amazing. I grew up loving Ray Charles’ music and this film does the music and the man justice. I’m a fan of director/co-writer Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman—1982, Against All Odds—1984, Delores Claiborne—1995) and like his take on this material.
SIDEWAYS Rated: 9
This is one of the best films of 2004. It’s sure to make many top ten of 2004 lists, including mine. Expect richly deserved serious award consideration especially for director and co-writer Alexander Payne (Election—1999, About Schmidt—2003) and all four of the lead actors, namely Paul Giamatti (American Splendor—2003), Thomas Haden Church (television’s Wings- 1990-95), Virginia Madsen (Electric Dreams—1984 and many bad “B” movies) & Sandra Oh (Under The Tuscan Sun—2003).
SPIDER-MAN 2 Rated: 9
This is the best super hero movie I’ve ever seen. Simply put, it’s super! Exceptional special effects, an intelligent script, thoughtful direction, and sensitive performances make this a must see event for all audiences.
SURVIVING CHRISTMAS Rated: 4
Surviving Christmas, an alleged comedy, is lame and limp. It’s a humor free zone. Nevertheless, I like star Ben Affleck…still. Skip it.
STARSKY & HUTCH Rated: 8 1/2
As a big fan of the hit television show from the mid-seventies, I expected very little from this one. Boy, was I ever pleasantly surprised! While possibly better classified as a guilty pleasure, I got pleanty of personal pleasure seeing it and will leave it up to the “serious” film critics to find fault. Coming off his recent hits, Roadtrip (2000) & Old School (2003) director Todd Phillips proves that he’s a major new director. I share his sense of humor and eagerly anticipate his future work. The casting here is perfect. Owen Wilson has never been better and Ben Stiller gets it exactly right this time. Also deserving special mention: Vince Vaughn, Juliette Lewis, Jason Bateman, Amy Smart, & Carmen Electra.
TAKING LIVES Rated: 9
Reviews on this one have been decidedly mixed, but I loved it. Go figure! It is similar to, but less intense than, The Silence Of The Lambs (1991).
My compliments to those individuals that selected the talented, appealing and attractive cast. This is easily the best work Angelina Jolie has done since her Oscar winning performance in Girl Interrupted (1999). Not only did I believe her, I actually liked her here, and I usually don’t. I usually do like Ethan Hawke and this is no exception. This work is equal to his Oscar nominated turn in Training Day (2001) and it’s nice to see him take a part this casts him against type. Paris born Olivier Martinez is a major new favorite of mine. He continues to show the promise on display in television’s The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone (2003) & Unfaithful (2002). Two time best actress Oscar nominee Gena Rowlands (Gloria—1980) is outstanding is a flashy small part and reminds just how talented she really is. She seems to be having a good time with the part and so did I.
I hated director D.J. Caruso’s previous film, The Salton Sea (2002) but think he got it just right this time. Cinematography by Iran born Amir M. Morki (Coyote Ugly—2000) deserves an Oscar nomination. Philip Glass’ music is impressive.
Up until now, my favorite line of rude, sex laden dialogue was delivered by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) when she informed Antonio Bandaras: “You don’t have to kiss my ass, just f**k me.” Topping that, referring to their steamy sexual encounter, Ethan Hawke notifies Angelina Jolie that: “C*mming inside you was the greatest moment of my life.”
TROY Rated: 8 1/2
Reactions and reviews have been very divided on this one. Put me clearly in the favorable column. I suspect reaction is largely dependent on anticipation/expectations. I was concerned that it would be too pompous and stuffy; it isn’t. I was concerned that I’d be distracted by the CGI effects; I wasn’t. Mainly, I was afraid that the plot would be too complicated to follow. Instead, the story is told clearly and directly. Hooray! Some of the dialogue approaches camp, but seems appropriate here considering the familiar material. I was reminded of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, and that’s a good thing.
This cast has to be one of the most attractive ever assembled. Women and gay men are going to be especially thrilled. As Achilles, Brad Pitt (Legends Of The Fall—1994) gives the best performance of his career and is in great shape. He is photographed with the care once lavished on Rita Hayworth and his accent is agreeable. As the heroic Hector, Australia’s Eric Bana (Hulk—2003) is definitely up to the task. Hot right off the super successful Lord Of The Rings trilogy, British born Orlando Bloom is Paris. While unlikely to become an action hero, his fan base is sure to continue to grow based on his work and appearance here. Garrett Hedlund impresses as Achilles’ cousin, Patroclus, and looks enough like Brad Pitt to make it believable. Hedlund impressed enough to be cast in the upcoming Friday Night Lights (2004 OR 2005). German born Diane Kruger as Helen is beautiful enough to launch those thousand ships. Also beautiful and effective are Saffron Burrows as Andromache and Rose Byrne as Briseis. Peter O’Toole (Lawrence Of Arabia—1963) is outstanding in support as Priam. He has been nominated for best actor Oscars seven times without winning. He deserves serious consideration for the nod as best supporting actor for this job. Screenplay is credited to David Benioff and is based on the classic poem, The Iliad by Homer. Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot—1981 and The Perfect Storm—2000) does an effective job without being flashy. Cinematographer Roger Pratt deserves award consideration, but Oscar winning composer James Horner’s score here is largely disappointing. I did like his music for the song “Remember Me.” Cynthia Weil wrote the appropriate lyrics and Josh Groban does a great job singing it over the end credits.
VERA DRAKE Rated: 6
Vera Drake’s British director Mike Lee is a favorite of many critics. Exclude me from that list although I did really like his 1998 hit, Secrets & Lies. I find Vera Drake dull, drab and depressing. However, Imelda Staunton as Vera gives an amazing performance and is sure to receive deserved Oscar consideration. Set in 1950s England, it tells the story of a warm-hearted older woman who “helps young women in trouble” when nobody else will. To say that her efforts bring her only grief is an understatement. While I agree with the intent of the film, I found sitting through it very difficult.
WIMBLEDON Rated: 8
While breaking no new ground, Wimbledon is a nice little reworking of a formula that I like every time it’s resurrected in such an appealing manner. This time the subject is attractive young tennis stars whose love fable is told against the background of Wimbledon. Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind—2001, A Knight’s Tale—2001, Master & Commander—2003) is British Peter Colt who is nearing the end of his career in professional tennis due to lack of motivation and focus. Kirsten Dunst (Interview With The Vampire—1994, Bring It On—2000, Spider-Man 2—2004) is Lizzy Bradbury, a very intense & cocky young American whose career is starting to soar. They meet, fall in love and improve each other’s lives just like things should be. New-to-me, Danish Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is notable here as Peter’s friend and is now filming Ridley Scott’s upcoming Kingdom Of Heaven (2005). Also contributing to my enjoyment is Eleanor Bron as Peter’s mother. In a supporting part, Ms. Bron was vivid in one of my all time favorite films, Two For The Road (1967). Director Richard Loncraine has strong recent television credits and does an effective & seamless job here. The tennis footage is exciting and the matching of Paul Bettany’s game with the work of doubles is especially impressive. Court and off court scenes all look great thanks to Iranian born cinematographer Darius Khondji’s luminous work.
WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON Rated: 8 1/2
Call it a guilty pleasure, but I loved this one. It’s sweet, romantic, clever, silly, funny and NICE. The cast is as talented as it is attractive. Josh Duhamel (current hit television Las Vegas), Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush, 2002), and Topher Grace (television’s That ’70s Show & Traffic) shine brightly and have real star potential. Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, 2001) is one of my favorite new directors and should be in the running to direct some of the upcoming new musicals such as the remakes of Damn Yankees & Guys And Dolls.
…more to come.
...more to come!
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