Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



If you can see these words,
the review may take a few seconds to appear.

Please excuse the brief delay.

(Reviewed October 14, 2002, by James Dawson)

Katie Holmes of TV's "Dawson's Creek" is a finance-major MBA candidate (anybody not laughing?) whose boyfriend is missing-without-a-trace. Benjamin Bratt is an alcoholic but tranquilly studly detective who, like any man, can't resist Katie's kaptivating kuteness. Mix. Simmer on very low heat. Serves the easily diverted.

Fans of Ms. Holmes' brief topless scene in "The Gift" will be quite disappointed to hear that she doesn't whip 'em out this time around (although the movie does include a brief and hilariously gratuitous shot of her in bra and panties as she gets dressed in her dorm room). Now that I've taken away any reason whatsoever for any male to buy a ticket, the rest of this review is for any wimmens who might be reading.

This movie is just plain bad on every level, with dopey stock characters; a boring and unwarranted "serious" veneer; and an ending that is easy to see comin' pretty early on. Zooey Deschanel once again assays her deadpan flakey-friend role, some black-plastic-rims-wearing wiseass is the sitcommy putdown artist, and the missing boyfriend is the wholly unbelievable "charming asshole" movie stereotype of the kind of guy who can seduce a skittish virgin by tossing her Dayrunner out of an upper-story window. Also, this movie's portrayal of college life is nearly as ridiculous as that seen in "The Rules of Attraction." (Then again, maybe I just didn't get invited to those igloo-motif parties where people wear white fur hats and down shots of vodka while playing chess.)

The most shocking thing about "Abandon" is that it was written and directed by the screenwriter of "Traffic." What a waste of "afterglow goodwill."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Abduction" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

About Adam
(Reviewed March 16, 2001, by James Dawson)

This is basically a (very) slight British sex farce involving a trio of trendy upper-class-twit sisters and the duplicitous Don Juan who beds all three. What nearly sinks the souffle is the presence of the remarkably overrated Kate Hudson as one of the siblings. For the life of me, I simply cannot fathom why some critics are so besotted with this talent-free doofus. An Oscar nomination for her entirely forgettable performance in the egregrously awful "Almost Famous?" Has the Academy gone mad?

Virtually every time Kate glides onscreen, spouting a grade-school-play English accent and not letting a single thought trouble her brow, this movie becomes unwatchable. Without her, it may have approached "charming." With her, it is more akin to sporadic torture.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

About Schmidt
(Reviewed December 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

Nice low-key start, absolutely awful middle-to-near-the-end, and a killer finale that is one of the best "movie moments" of 2002. Talk about a mixed bag!

Jack Nicholson plays a retired insurance man who takes a road trip to be with his daughter before she weds a mullet-headed moron. The script and Nicholson are refreshingly low-key at the start, making for a good character study that is sentimental but without too much sap. When Nicholson meets his future son-in-law's family, however, things go straight to sitcomishly-eccentric-character hell. As soon as Kathy Bates opens the front door of her house, you'll wish you could tune out for the next half-hour or so.

It's the last two minutes of this movie that could get Nicholson an Oscar nomination, in a scene that is so perfectly realized it is a work of art.

Not a great movie, and nowhere near as good as director/co-writer Alexander Payne's great "Election" of a few years back, but worth a look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed August 3, 2006, by James Dawson)

Here is what's truly puzzling about this shameless, witless and soulless ripoff of "Animal House":

On the one hand, the movie seems like the kind of uncreative, obvious, no-surprises junk you'd expect from 20-something, Prozaced-since-kindergarten dopes who were weaned on blandly stupid would-be comedies like "That 70s Show" and "Family Guy."

On the other hand, some of the movie's references are so embarrassingly old-fart anachronistic that you wonder if the movie was made by residents of a retirement home. I'm not just talking about the utterly illogical presence of 40-year-old songs on the soundtrack, which is a cinematic device that never makes sense in movies about "today's young people." (And how depressing is it that Michael Jackson and Sony licensed remake rights to "Eleanor Rigby" so it could be used as background music?) The problem goes a little deeper.

Consider this: We are supposed to believe that the movie's main character is a no-prospects slacker who can't get into college, even though he is every bit as articulate as Jon Stewart. (Less funny than Stewart, though, hard as that is to believe). You know the type: Imagine a charmless and no-fun version of Ferris Bueller who has more in common with David Schwimmer, and who seems more like 30 than 18. He's played by Justin Long, who pretty much played the same guy in last year's abominally awful "Waiting..."

So, okay, he's supposed to be 18. He is his family's oldest child. Assume that his parents had him when they were 25. That means they are in their mid-forties. And yet the script has the father asking if the son has been "huffing grass" (as if anyone who was a teenager in the 1970s wouldn't be familiar with marijuana) and confusing Bono with Sonny Bono (as if anyone who was in their 20s in the 1980s would be more familiar with Sonny & Cher than with U2). What the hell?

Also, the movie's depiction of uptight, blazer-wearing, WASPy frat boys seems so off-base it doesn't even work as post-modern parody (and doesn't seem intended as such). "Animal House" was able to pull off that kind of portrayal in the mid-1970s, when the times were still a-changin', but what was funny then is now a very dated cliche.

Everything about the movie seems to have been created by people who got all of their information about teenagers and college from better movies and their endless retreads. The entire project feels so inauthentic and brain-dead it's as if the Disney Channel was involved. Well, except for the endless use of variations of the word "shit," that is.

That word comes up so often because Long and some fellow college-admission rejects create their own fake college, the South Harmon Institute of Technology (SHIT). We are supposed to believe that the four of them do such a good job refurbishing a delapidated and horrendously filthy vacant mental hospital that it passes, inside and out, as a working college. Even for a comedy, this requires quite a large amount of belief-suspension.

What's even harder to believe is that 300 other would-be students would show up with $10,000 tuition checks because the school's fake website sends automatic acceptance letters. Not to mention having to believe that Long would be able to cash those checks (which is implied, considering all of the later improvements to the "school").

You don't need a degree to see where all of this is going. A real college nearby (the one with the 1950s-throwback frat) takes legal action, Long has to defend himself and his free-thinking institution, you figure it out.

The only bright spot in all of this very familiar tripe is comedian Lewis Black, who plays a burned-out former faculty member from the other college who is hired as the "dean" at SHIT. Black is like a hybrid of Gilbert Gottfried and Rip Torn, ranting against society in general and the educational system in particular, and seems more like a genuine actor than a "cameo comedian."

Maria Thayer is a cute porcelain-skinned redhead member of SHIT's inner circle. She really should play Delerium, if Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comic ever gets turned into a movie...but I nerdishly digress.

Blond and boobiful Blake Lively, from the egregious "Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants," is the standard-issue "rich hot chick who must be won over by what are supposed to pass for the loser's irresistible charms."

Maybe it's because I didn't like Justin Long's boring, sanctimonious, made-for-TV character, but I actually felt sorry for Lively the actress when she had to make out with him in his dorm room. I was reminded of watching cover-girl lovely porn star Anna Malle having bathtub sex with the grotesque Ron Jeremy in Kaitlyn Ashley's immortal 2002 classic "Natural Born Thriller."

And here's one final digression: The fake college's curriculum basically consists of students studying what they want to study. In the distant, bygone era when I was in high school, a day was set aside for students to teach classes on whatever subject they chose. It was basically a "Learning Annex" kind of deal, where anyone who wanted could be an instructor. A guy whose name I really wish I could remember (he wasn't anyone I knew) held a class on progressive rock music. That was where I first heard King Crimson's "Islands" (on vinyl, no less), which has been one of my favorite albums ever since.

I don't remember jack about Algebra II, but I'll never forget hearing the song "Sailor's Tale" from that album on that bright spring day.

Wow, I managed to reference "Sandman," hardcore porn and King Crimson in a review of a stupid teen movie. Top that, Entertainment Weekly!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Across the Universe
(Reviewed August 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

Leaving a screening of "Across the Universe," a musical employing more than 30 Beatles songs in service of a sentimental '60s-centric plot, I wondered if frantic Fab Four fanatics will regard it as a sappy, insulting travesty or a fascinating guilty pleasure.

Then I realized that I'm the biggest Beatles fan I've ever known, and I liked the movie enough to want to see it again. Which pretty much answered my question.

Director Julie Taymor strings together performances by both actors and musicians to create a slick "American Dreams"-ish soap opera about the Vietnam war, the peace movement, drugs, thinly veiled Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix stand-ins, communal Greenwich village squalor and love, love, love. Nearly every song is shot in a different style, ranging from Broadway-style mass choreography to animation to kaleidoscopic visual freakout. That visual variety is one of the things that makes the movie more than a mophead version of "Mamma Mia!" -- even if the "creating a plot out of unrelated songs" gimmick is the same.

"Across the Universe" also brings to mind three previous movies -- and what's strange is that I disliked two of them, even though I'm recommending this one.

Like the screamingly annoying "Moulin Rouge," "Across the Universe"'s re-interpretations of classic songs range from irreverently tongue-in-cheek (Eddie Izzard's vampy "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," complete with ad libbed asides) to audaciously outrageous ("Happiness Is a Warm Gun" performed by naughty nurses -- multiple Salma Hayeks! -- with oversized hypodermic needles in a ward full of Vietnam vets).

A few of the songs have been so cleverly re-contextualized as to make them work in entirely new ways. The innocently innocuous "I Want to Hold Your Hand" becomes a heartbreakingly earnest declaration of unrequited love by a cheerleader (T.V. Carpio) to the unknowing, unexpected object of her affection. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is sung by menacing Uncle Sams glaring down from huge "I Want You" recruiting posters.

At its worst, "Across the Universe" can be regrettably reminiscent of the god-awful "Rent," another movie about a bunch of beautiful, talented, self-absorbed idealists with more passion than depth. When Liverpool ex-pat Jude (Jim Sturgess) angrily confronts a peace-movement leader he thinks might be putting the moves on his girlfriend Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) to the strains of "Revolution," the histrionics are about as believably dramatic as a telenovela. An onstage pissed-off performance of "Oh Darling" by an ambitious singer and her resentful guitarist is similarly strident but silly.

The third movie "Across the Universe" recalls is the musical "Hair," thanks to a subplot about a character getting drafted and leaving his happy hippie friends behind.

"Across the Universe" somehow puts elements from all of those movies into a Beatles blender and manages to create a magical mischievous tour de force. (Let's see Gene Shalit come up with a better pun than that! Ha!)

One thing about "Across the Universe" that sounds sickening in print but comes across as almost charming onscreen is that every major character is named after someone in a Beatles song (Jude, Lucy, Prudence, Max, Dr. Robert, Sadie, etc.). Very cute.

The movie's biggest revelation is that actress Evan Rachel Wood is such a good singer she should consider a second career as a vocalist. Her heartfelt performance of "If I Fell" is so sweetly pure and achingly sincere that it's one of the movie's real highlights.

Other songs range from Jim Sturgess' a capella version of "Girl" to Wood's girl-group version of "It Won't Be Long" to a moving gospel version of "Let It Be" by Carol Woods and Timothy T. Mitchum. The movie also features Joe Cocker in three different roles doing an amazing powerful "Come Together" with guitarist Martin Luther, and Bono doing both "I Am the Walrus" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."

I would ask one question of anyone claiming they didn't like this movie: "Weren't you always curious to see what Taymor would do with the next song?" Even though the movie is more than two hours long, I wanted more when it was over, especially considering that several Beatles hits (such as "Help," "Michelle" and "Get Back") are not included. What makes "Get Back"'s omission strange is that one of the movie's main characters is named JoJo. We don't hear "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," either, despite the presence of a Max. And how could a scene introduce a girl named "Rita" without segueing into a performance of "Lovely Rita?" For shame!

I've read that the movie's running time was cut from its original length, so with any luck a few bonus songs will show up on the DVD.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed November 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

The last time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze collaborated, the result was the wonderful, one-of-a-kind masterpiece "Being John Malkovich." "Adaptation" is equally amazing, a movie that is funny, sad, strange and incredibly entertaining. It is without a doubt one of the best movies of 2002.

In "Adaptation," Kaufman is plagued with doubts about how to adapt a non-fiction book titled "The Orchid Thief" into a screenplay. One of the options he comes up with is retelling the entire history of life on earth. Realizing he may have bitten off more than he can chew, he eventually writes himself into the script, in which he is writing the script with his identical-twin brother...who, by the way, doesn't exist in reality. And you thought "Malkovich" was complex!

It's a lot more fun than it sounds, but also a lot more moving and just plain more interesting than just about any other movie released this year. Nicolas Cage gives one of his best performances since "Raising Arizona" as both of the Kaufman brothers, one a mass of insecurities and the other a cheerfully clueless wannabe. Meryl Streep is great as the writer of the book Kaufman is supposed to be adapting, and Chris Cooper is flat-out perfect as the orchid thief.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

(Reviewed April 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website Click this link to read about how stupendously awful the movie is: "Adventureland" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Adjustment Bureau
(Reviewed March 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

This junk-food happy meal may be 90% "Hollywood Helper" filler and only 10% Philip K. Dick meat (wow, does that ever sound dirty), but it somehow manages to fulfill the minimum nutritional requirements for a light-romance fantasy.

The basic manipulated-reality theme of Dick's short story "Adjustment Team" is intact, featuring mysterious non-human agents of a higher power who nudge destiny in desired directions. But the movie's characters, their motivations, their jobs and the screenplay's love-on-the-run plot have nothing whatsoever in common with the source material.

Dick's original was about a married man whose unfortunately timed trip to work one day results in a genuinely creepy discovery about who really is in charge of life, the universe and everything. His glimpse of "adjustment team" members constructing a new reality in a world where his office building and coworkers have been reduced to crumbling gray husks is so horrific that I couldn't wait to see it brought to life with big-screen CGI special effects.

I'm still waiting. The equivalent scene in the movie simply shows us normal people frozen in place in a typical office setting.

Another example of how Dick's short story is far weirder than the movie: In "Adjustment Team," the agent who falls asleep instead of preventing the story's main character from going to work is a talking dog. In the movie, the agent looks like a normal man. The story's married office drone who works in a real estate office has been converted into a charismatic politician on the make (Matt Damon) who is obsessed with a quirky-charming dancer (Emily Blunt).

All of those changes might make you think that a devoted Dick fan (as it were) would be outraged and disapproving of this shamelessly unfaithful adaptation. But for this Dick lover (what? what?), Damon and Blunt are so pleasant to watch in this energetic bit of fluff that indignation seems like overkill. Also, the original story had a silly ending that the movie improves, which helps make the rest of the meddling easier to forgive.

"The Adjustment Bureau" is being advertised as if it's another mind-bending Inception-style head trip, but it is nowhere near that intellectually complex (or relentlessly downbeat). It's basically a love-conquers-all date movie that's more amusing than eerie, like a supernatural "Synchronicity."

"The Adjustment Bureau" may be the SF equivalent of a silly love song, but it's one that even a Dick-head can appreciate.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D
(Reviewed June 8, 2005, by James Dawson)

Amazing digital sets and CGI effects as always from Robert ("Spy Kids") Rodriguez, but the astoundingly awful script is roughly on a par with "Santa Claus vs. the Martians." Think criticizing a kids movie for being too silly and juvenile is wrong? Try sitting through this one!

Making things worse, the retro red/blue 3-D glasses that must be worn during most of the movie make everything too damned dark. Half of the time, I simply looked through the red lens with one eye while leaving my other eye uncovered, just to brighten up the dull grey image. Why Rodriguez would sabotage the look of this movie's incredible designs and fantastic backgrounds by presenting them in "Dismalvision" is beyond me.

Aside from those obscured but still impressive SFX, everything else about the movie is depressingly cheesy and amateurish. The young actors are unconvincing to the point of seeming distracted. George Lopez, doubling as both a schoolteacher and otherworldly villain, hams things up with a very loud lack of ability. David Arquette and Kristin Davis, as Max's parents, are boring.

And then there's the plot. Max is a 10-year-old, pushed-around pussy who literally has dreamed up Sharkboy, Lavagirl and the fantasy planet known as Drool. He journeys there with them to confront an evil overlord, the classmate bully who stole Max's dream book back on Earth. This should have been an opportunity to grip the audience with "Wizard of Oz"-like emotion during the quest's life-and-death perils. Instead we get a lot of bad puns, a monumentally terrible song-and-dance, and an excruciatingly sappy moral.

I saw this movie a day after seeing the excellent "Howl's Moving Castle." What they have in common is a wealth of imagination. Unfortunately, comparing the two reveals that prolific creativity -- despite the cornball "dream, dream, dream" message of "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" -- simply is not enough to make an interesting story.

See "Howl's Moving Castle" instead.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Affair of the Necklace
(Reviewed November 17, 2001, by James Dawson)

I hate to be callow, but the main thing that sinks this French-Revolution-era period piece is the fact that Hilary Swank is disastrously cast as a woman who is supposed to be seductively attractive to several men. Yeah, sure, there's such a thing as inner beauty, and wouldn't it be swell if people could look beyond skin deep, but let's get real: Hilary Swank is no potential Playmate of the Month.

The movie's two other crucial faults are its "have it both ways" tone, which attempts to be dramatic most of the time but lapses into embarrassing wink-wink nudge-nudge sex farce at others; and the fact that its central plot is so poorly explained that the movie's climax is bewildering. (Why is the Queen the object of scandal because a lying thief duped the Cardinal of France?)

Nice cinematography, but everything else about this movie is second-rate Hallmark Hall of Fame TV stuff.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

After the Sunset
(Reviewed November 8, 2004, by James Dawson)

This is one of those thoroughly unnecessary and instantly forgettable heist movies that looks like it was more fun for the cast to make than for the audience to watch. (Can you say "Oceans 11?")

There are exactly two good things about it: Salma Hayek's big, round, firm, beautiful, nicely tanned breasts. Director Brett Ratner provides a wealth of down-blouse and low-neckline shots of those magnificent mammaries. No nip, but nice nonetheless. The rest of her body is equally amazing. When she opens a robe to reveal a skimpy bikini, and then lies back seductively on a bed, I knew it would be impossible for me to give this flick an "F."

But boy, did I ever want to. Caper movies, even slightly tongue-in-cheek ones like "After the Sunset," work best when they are based in something that at least vaguely resembles a little thing known as "reality." As opposed to a world where diamond thief Pierce Brosnan can assume remote control of an FBI van by getting its VIN number, that is.

Woody Harrelson is an FBI man who shows up at Brosnan's home in the Bahamas, determined to apprehend him if he tries to steal a trophy gem that's aboard a docked cruise ship. Harrelson strikes up a laughably unbelievable relationship with a local model-gorgeous cop. Hayek is Brosnan's live-in paramour and partner in crime, whose entire reason for living seems to be a desperate desire to get Brosnan to write his wedding vows.

There are lots of dumb scenes of wildly improbable events, such as Brosnan and Harrelson rubbing each other down with sunscreen, or Hayek using a power saw to build a deck at her luxuriously expensive gated estate. The "big reveal" at the end is as predictable as it is dumb.

And what's with that lousy title, anyway? If you have any idea why this thing is called "After the Sunset," please let me know.

Except for the leeringly peeping-Tommish shots of Hayek's heavenly hooters, this is just about as complete a waste of time as you'll spend in a theater all year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Agent Cody Banks
(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

Everyone who buys a ticket to this flimsy family flick will expect it to be as quick-paced, hip and charming as star Frankie Muniz's excellent TV show "Malcolm in the Middle." It isn't. In a world where audiences already have seen the innovative, flashy and clever "Spy Kids" and "Spy Kids 2," "Agent Cody Banks" is not even state-of-the-art for its genre.

Muniz is likable, but the direction is dull, the story is dumb, the special effects are lousy and the whole project smacks of "bad cable movie." Angie Harmon, playing the bitchy-hot CIA agent in charge of high-schooler Muniz's junior James Bond character, looks amazingly sexy...but that's Just Not Enough. Sorry. And Hilary Duff, as the girl Muniz has to "get with," is just plain boring.

For what it would cost to take your kids to this dud and fill them up with overpriced concessions, you could buy the box set of "Malcolm in the Middle"'s entire first season at (with which I have no financial connection, oh ye of suspicious mind). $28.76 as of 2/28/03, with no tax and FREE shipping. I absolutely love that place. End of free plug.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London
(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

The first "Agent Cody Banks" movie was pretty flat, but this sequel is worse. Frankie ("Malcolm in the Middle") Muniz is the titular hero, a teenage secret agent sent to London to get the goods on some baddies who are into mind control. The plot makes zero sense. (As soon as Cody eavesdrops on two No-Goodniks and hears that they definitely are in cahoots, why don't the police immediately move in to arrest them? Because then the movie would end too soon, that's why.)

The teenage blond chick this time around is some Brit babe (Hannah Spearritt of the pop group S Club 7) instead of the thickly asexual Hilary Duff, which is an improvement, but Spearritt has very little to do. And any movie that includes a food-fight scene automatically gets a thumbs-down from this critic. Sorry, but I have my standards.

Also, I'm not exactly the most PC guy in the world, but even I was bothered by two examples of racial stereotyping: Cody's "handler" in England is Anthony Anderson, who -- because he is fat and black -- naturally serves up a "soul food" menu to an international gathering when he is pretending to be a chef. When he is asked what's for dessert, I honestly thought he would roll out a watermelon. Also, one of Cody's bandmates (Cody is undercover as a child-prodigy clarinet player) is an Indian girl with a ridiculously insulting accent that makes Apu on "The Simpsons" sound like John Gielgud.

A must-miss!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
(Reviewed June 15, 2001, by James Dawson)

Maybe it’s appropriate that this movie about a "mecha" artificial boy seems as cobbled together and ungainly as Frankenstein’s monster. It’s not just that original "A.I." instigator Stanley Kubrick and his posthumous collaborator Steven Spielberg possess diametrically opposed artistic sensibilities (although this certainly doesn’t help matters any). It’s more that all of the movie’s various parts never meld into a believable ("organic," if you will) whole. "A.I." tries to be both icy and clinical (as were the works of the celebrated Mr. K) and shamelessly, desperately heart-tugging (little Steven’s specialty), intentions that don’t exactly complement each other. There are a few nice visuals of futuristic cityscapes, underwater scenes and computer-generated robots, and definitely some plot surprises along the way, but the story comes across a tad half-baked and more than a tad silly.

Studio publicity materials point out that Kubrick apparently corresponded at length with Spielberg about "A.I.," and that Kubrick even suggested at one point that he would produce the movie if Spielberg would direct it. This info obviously is meant to imply that Spielberg’s version comes to us with the beyond-the-grave blessing of Kubrick. The problem with that assertion is that Spielberg claims to have written the screenplay for this version of "A.I." all by his lonesome "from a screen story by Ian Watson." In other words, the Watson screenplay that Kubrick developed over all those years and years of honing and obsessing got tossed…which makes it hard to believe that what we now see onscreen could possibly be anything close to what Kubrick would have given us. (Also, it is not exactly confidence-inspiring to read that Spielberg, who has not had a screenwriting credit since 1977’s "Close Encounters," wrote his version of the "A.I." screenplay in "a mere two months.")

Said screenplay is rambling and sometimes ridiculous. "A.I." contains recycled bits and pieces from other works as wildly diverse as "Pinocchio," "2001," "Close Encounters," "Our Town," "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" and, God help us, even "Zardoz."

On the other hand, the movie’s "positives" include a wonderful supporting character named Teddy and some truly memorable dream-like visuals. Even with its many flaws, "A.I." still has enough good points for a "thumbs up." If nothing else, it is nothing like any other movie you are likely to see this year.

I don’t want to kill the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about things that happen. One thing the movie definitely has going for it is that it veers off onto totally unexpected tangents at least twice, so you may want to go into the theater "cold" and let the surprises be surprises.

So STOP READING RIGHT NOW, and come back after you see the movie. This review will be here.

Okay, so now I’m assuming you’re back, and you’ve seen the film. Here goes:

The first third of the movie is like one of those flat, dull episodes of the disappointing 1990s syndicated version of the "Outer Limits" TV show. It has that cheap, overly earnest, "made in Canada on a shoestring" feel. Mecha boy David’s (Haley Joel Osment) world is restricted almost entirely to a single house set, which gets rather yawnsome. Act one ends with an action that is entirely unlikely and outright preposterous. (Also, wouldn’t you think that, in a future where perfect replicas of humans can be manufactured, somebody would think to put a Lojack on the things? Or that police helicopters would be a little harder to steal? Or that rock music might have progressed beyond completely contemporary headbanger–style tunes that would be as anachronistic to those audiences as a harpsichord stadium concert would be to us? Or that sex robots wouldn’t play tinny, 1930s-era would-be "romantic" songs from bad speakers in their heads? Plot holes and inanities abound.)

Spielberg tries to give teenage boys with ADD something to look at in act two, which includes a noisy "Flesh Fair" where robots are cruelly tortured and graphically destroyed for WWF-style crowds. This section of the movie seemed remarkably cheesy, and also seemed to take place in a different universe from the events in the rest of the film. I didn’t buy that this kind of "Mad Max Lite" stuff was going on just down the road from David’s family’s tastefully elegant woodland home.

Later, David and his new friend "Gigolo Joe" (Jude Law) journey to the hedonistic Rouge City. This is where the plot went completely loopy and off the rails. Through an elaborate set of unlikely coincidences, David and Joe discover where to go to find the "Blue Fairy" who will make David a real boy. That location, and who David meets there, and what happens are all just plain weird, and not in a good way. Also, I did not believe for a second that David would be able to do what he does at the end of that scene, or that nothing would be done about it by the person who should be most interested in rectifying the situation.

The movie pulls a real shocker by not ending after that scene. But I’m not going to risk blowing the hugest surprise of all by giving away details of what happens next…because I just know that some people will have ignored my "see the movie first" advice. The two major (and I do mean MAJOR) developments that happen next are pretty "out there," and the very last scene is a sappy cheat because it contradicts what we know about a certain character from earlier in the movie. But hey…go see the thing to find out, because I ain’t tellin’.

Several things in the screenplay are not very well thought-out, or are left dangling, or seem to have been overlooked. The main shortcoming is in David’s relationship with Teddy. All the while that David is running around trying to become a "real" boy who can be loved, he seems unaware that he is not showing any love or compassion to Teddy (who, in many ways, deserves to be loved even more than David does). David whines and cries and seems to want love primarily because he feels entitled to it, not because he seems willing to sacrifice anything for anyone else. But Teddy is the character who "walks the walk" by showing what real love will make someone do for someone else, with no thought of receiving any love or even appreciation in return. Since the capacity for humans and for mechas to love is at the very heart of the movie, treating Teddy as a background scenery toy who never is regarded as anything else was a real missed opportunity.

In the same way, my main frustration with "A.I." is that it tries so artlessly to jerk tears over David’s predicament that the repeated (and very redundant) attempts become insulting. Maybe it’s because the Kubrickian-looking remnants that are left intact are so at odds with big dewy-eyed Spielberg close-ups. Or maybe I’m just a heartless bastard. Either way, I didn’t tear up even once.

So go see it for the visuals and as a change-of-pace. But don’t go expecting a masterpiece synthesis of "E.T." and "Clockwork Orange" (as I have to admit I was), or you will be very disappointed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Air I Breathe
(Reviewed February 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

I guess this movie deserves points for trying to pull off one of those dark, everybody's-interconnected plotlines that worked pretty well in "Amores Perros" and not quite as well in "Babel." Unfortunately, none of the four segments here are convincing or even very interesting.

Forest Whitaker is a paper-pushing desk jockey who overhears a hot tip on a racehorse and decides to take a chance on striking it rich. This vignette ends with a chase scene that is just plain preposterous, made worse by the fact that its overdramatic conclusion is supposed to be some kind of transcendent, operatic climax but only looks pretentiously silly.

Brendan Fraser is miscast as a world-weary enforcer for a crime boss (Andy Garcia, hamming up his "look at me" bad-assedness). Fraser's job is made easier by the fact that he has the magical ability to foresee the outcomes of situations...until one day when he can't. And that's the same day Fraser is showing the boss's hyper, loud and stupid nephew (Emile Hirsch) the ropes. Ouch. Fraser's special talent is the only element of the fantastic in the film, which otherwise is set in a sort of bad-TV version of the real world.

Sarah Michelle Gellar is a pop singer whose manager is told to take a hike by Andy Garcia, who wants a piece of the action. Gellar is laughably awful delivering outraged histrionics. (Then again, I never was a "Buffy" fan, so her devotees may differ with my assessment of her talents.)

Nobody would disagree, however, that Kevin Bacon deserves a Golden Turkey award for his monumentally bad performance here, as a manic doctor who is desperate to acquire some transfusion blood of a rare type that will save his true love's life. Next time, Kev, try dialing it back about a hundred notches.

The movie's final outrage is the fact that its timeline simply does not work. We see parts of the story out of chronological sequence. A few seconds of thought during the closing credits reveals that the parts don't fit together.

Also, the title makes no sense whatsoever, if that kind of thing bothers you.

The only reason I'm not giving this an "F" is because it is kind of cheaply stylish, which keeps it from being completely useless. (File under "damning with faint praise," I guess.)


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Albert Nobbs
(Reviewed December 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Albert Nobbs" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Alex & Emma
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

A serious contender for worst movie of 2003. The premise is idiotic, the pacing is horrendous, the script is stupid, and Kate Hudson is Kate Hudson. Look, I'm sorry, I know that some people persist in thinking Goldie Jr. is cute, but I can't stand her. It's bad enough that she can't act, but she seems aggressively smug about not caring that she can't act. "Look at me, I'm flighty and blissfully dumb and a blank-faced cheerful idiot. Life is good, tra-la, tra-la."

The airheaded blond moron plays a stenographer hired to transcribe a book dictated by Luke Wilson in 30 days so he can pay off a $100,000 gambling debt. The guy must get a hell of a per-word rate, considering that said "novel" ends up sounding more like a very short short-story, but that is the least of the movie's problems. Hudson and Wilson's romance has absolutely zero chemistry, their dialog is beyond awful, and...ah, fuck it, I just can't go on. This movie is so bad it is not even worth wasting the time to slam.

I hated this movie more than I hate evil, cruelty, and uncaring injustice in a savage world gone mad. That's how bad it is.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus, minus, minus...

(Reviewed November 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

"A Gay Mama's Boy Uses His Sword a Lot!" (Gee, I wonder why nobody hires me to write movie-poster slogans?)

It's a damned shame that a movie this well designed, beautifully photographed (for the most part) and seemingly sincere really is not very good. Colin Farrell tries his best as Alexander, but the guy is tragically miscast. (The only bigger Farrell-related casting blunder will be if he gets tapped as the next James Bond, as has been rumored. I just can't picture CF pulling off "debonair" and "suave." But I digress.) Expecting a pug-faced Irishman to pass for a Greek (okay, Macedonian) hero is either (a) bizarre stunt casting, (b) insulting to every Greek actor alive, or (c) all of the above. More importantly, he is not very convincing as a most-of-the-known-world-conquering military leader. In scenes such as one in which he trots back and forth in front of his massed army, he seems more petulant than inspiring.

"Alexander" feels like several different movies grafted together. The segments with Angelina Jolie as Alexander's witchy, snake-handling, deliciously sensuous mother are like something out of a softcore S&M flick. (The fact that she almost never leaves her bordello-like bedroom only adds to this impression.) The low-key "Masterpiece Theater" sequences with Anthony Hopkins as elderly Ptolemy recounting Alexander's accomplishments long after the conqueror's death are well acted but awkwardly hammered into the narrative. The battle sequences are generally well done, with amazing vistas of completely convincing CGI armies that number in the tens of thousands, and very reminiscent of this year's earlier "Troy."

And then there's the sappy gay soap-opera stuff. Apparently Alexander preferred snails to oysters, so we are treated to numerous scenes of Colin Farrell looking lovingly into Jared Leto's eyes as they profess their undying affection for each other. Audiences are used to dialog as corny as this coming from hetero cinematic couples. But when dudes talk this way to each other, it drives home how silly those cliche lines have become. (Also, I'm sure this element of the movie will go over really well in America's retarded, "family values" red states. "Two men kissin'! Ain't there a constitutional amendment agin that yet? Somebody call up Dubya, right quick!")

Alexander does marry, however, in hopes of producing an heir. His wedding-night scene with the enormously huge-busted Rosario Dawson is easily the most embarrassing in the movie. Yes, it is nice to see this nubian princess naked and swingin'. (DAMN nice, in fact.) But having Alexander overcome her savage she-cat resistance to his lust in a manner similar to the way he tamed his fiesty horse was like something out of a bad romance novel. Not that I've read any, that is.

The action scenes are generally well done, with the exception of a battle in India that goes all day-glo and psychedelic, like something from "2001"'s voyage beyond the infinite. Why director Oliver Stone thought this POV weirdness was a good idea within a movie that otherwise is art-directed out the wazoo to look period-authentic is a real mystery. Similarly, the synthesizer score by Vangelis is incredibly cheesy. And as in nearly every historic epic, certain dates and events have been fudged. For example, two climactic events appear to take place within days or possibly even hours of each other, implying that one led immediately to the next. In reality, the two events occurred more than six months apart.

Still, "Alexander" gets most of the history right, even if the actors playing the characters can be a bit "off." Val Kilmer, as Alexander's domineering and hard-drinking father King Philip II, seems to be channeling Will Farrell. Most of the cast have British accents, which is always silly in movies like this--then a soldier near the end of the movie speaks up with a heavy Scottish burr that sounds even more ridiculous.

The thing that bugged me most about "Alexander," though, is a storytelling sin that is inexcusable: what happens at the end is incomprehensibly confusing. After the screening, I asked several media writers if any of them could figure out what exactly Oliver Stone was implying had happened to Alexander and to another character. Not one of them was sure, although everyone was certain that at least one and possibly two conspiracies were involved.

Ain't that just like Oliver Stone?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Alfie (2004 Version)
(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

Jude Law does his best in this otherwise charmless remake, giving a decent performance that is completely subverted by a stupefyingly lousy script, terrible direction, and awful casting.

While Law is fine as a cheerful womanizer who spends most of the movie talking to the camera about his conquests, all four of the film's females are shockingly wrong for their roles. Let's count them off:

(1) Marisa Tomei gives an utterly blank impersonation of the single mom Law treats like a booty call. Her reactions typically are no more animated than expressionless, big-eyed stares.

(2) It is impossible to believe (although we are expected to) that a young cocksman who can get any girl he wants would have any romantic or sexual interest whatsoever in the unattractively aging Susan Sarandon. A much better choice for Sarandon's part would have been Jane Krakowski, who appears in a too-small role as a cheating married woman. This is not because the real-life Krakowski actually qualifies as an "older woman," but because she would be easier to accept playing an older woman who emphatically does not look her age, and therefore would still merit attention from a shallow, looks-obsessed horndog like Law. Instead, when Law goes all gooey and lovestruck over Sarandon, it made me wonder if Alfie has a collection of "Grandma Does Dallas" porn flicks at home. A long Law/Sarandon love scene accompanied by a remarkably bad version of "The Beat Goes On" is positively excruciating, like seeing a bloodless vampire plying a hypnotized, helpless youth.

(3) The "showstopper" girlfriend Law allows to become his live-in (Sienna Miller) is such an obvious party-girl flake that we cannot believe a smooth operator like Law could possibly think she might be his one-true-love, this-is-it soulmate. Everything about her screams "half-night-stand" -- as in "kick her out before the sun comes up, then change your phone number."

(4) Law's coworker's girlfriend (whose name I'm too lazy to look up on IMDB) does something that seems utterly out of character simply to provide a mawkish moment later. Her acting ability is vaguely akin to what I see in those ads for abysmal UPN sitcoms that I never would be caught dead watching.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the annoyingly silly, angry Japanese guy who runs the limo company where Alfie works. I think he's the same dude who was in "Sixteen Candles" all those years ago ("No, he's not retarded!"), but I could be wrong. (See above note re: laziness, IMDB.)

Worst of all, the entire production has the calculatedly fake feel of junk like the "Father of the Bride" movies and (especially) the egregious "What Women Want." Which is no surprise, because "Alfie" was rewritten and directed by Charles Shyer (who directed the "Bride" movies, and whose similar-sensibilities-sharing ex-wife was responsible for "What Women Want"). Ick.

While I haven't seen the 1966 Michael Caine version of "Alfie" (Spend money renting a DVD? What am I, Donald Trump?), I have my doubts that the original featured stultifyingly unnecessary diversions such as Alfie getting a dick-cancer biopsy, or watching an old guy try to coax piss from his prick in a doctor's office men's room. Man, talk about scenes that stop the entire movie cold; it was like witnessing a gang rape in "Finding Nemo."

The soundtrack includes several songs by Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart that are nothing special, although it is interesting to hear Jagger's distinctive croon over some of the film's silly Hallmark moments. (Law stands in the rain and out in the New York winter cold an awful lot for a guy who has a nice, warm limo in which he could be sitting.)

One bone I will throw to the new "Alfie" is that it does retain the tone of the original's ending--which I think everyone knows even if they haven't seen the Michael Caine version, but which I won't ruin "just in case."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Alice in Wonderland
(Reviewed February 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

Director Tim Burton's wonder-filled Wonderland is a mash-up masterpiece of bits and characters from both of Lewis Carroll's Alice books ("Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass"), repurposed into an everything-old-is-new-again tale that sends a 19-year-old Alice back down a certain rabbit hole. The result is a genuine joy to behold.

Thirteen years have passed since Alice made her first two very trippy trips, which she remembered afterward as dreams. Now her father is dead, her older sister has married a cad, and her mother is eager to see Alice engaged. But when a less than ideal suitor asks for her hand before a gathering of garden-party guests, Alice can't resist running off to follow a strange yet familiar rabbit back to you-know-where.

Or do you? Much of Wonderland not only has been laid waste, it turns out the place never was Wonderland to begin with. It's really Underland, where things have taken a definite turn for the worse in Alice's absence.

She repeats but doesn't recall many experiences she had there as a child -- "Drink Me" shrinking, "Eat Me" growing and attending a rather unorthodox tea party -- causing some residents to think she may be "the wrong Alice." The return of the right one is prophesied in a scroll that says she will slay the monstrous Jabberwocky dragon, thereby defeating the dictatorial Red Queen. While wrong-or-right Alice keeps trying to convince herself she is asleep, she can't seem to wake up -- and things like a clawing she receives from the massive Bandersnatch feel alarmingly real.

The beauty of the screenplay (by Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" screenwriter Linda Woolverton) is the way it rearranges and expands upon characters and other elements from Carroll's books without seeming disrespectful to the source material. It was a nameless boy who fought the Jabberwock in a "Through the Looking-Glass" poem, for example, but bringing the monster into Alice's own story seems clever and fair. The same poem featured Carroll's only mention of the undescribed Bandersnatch, recast in the movie as the Red Queen's monstrous attack dog. We even get a backstory for the Hatter, one that is violently tragic enough to make anyone quite mad -- in both senses of the word.

Better still, the movie has a "heroic journey" structure that works better story-wise than Carroll's less cohesive series of incidents and oddities. Purists who wonder if putting Alice into a more traditionally told tale might detract from the dream-logic absurdity of the originals needn't worry, however. This is a Tim Burton movie, after all, so there's plenty of wild and occasionally wicked weirdness to go around.

There's also an intermittent edginess that makes the movie unexpectedly dark for Disney. Would Unca Walt have approved of a character having an eye plucked out of its socket with a needle? Another scene that's more "Sweeney Todd" than "Sleeping Beauty" involves a moat full of severed heads that Alice uses as stepping stones.

If it all weren't so amazingly beautiful, it would be downright creepy.

Blond and milk-pale Mia Wasikowska is simply perfect as the unflappably level-headed Alice, who often reacts to the incredible with disarmingly deadpan detachment. Reminiscent of an "Emma"-era Gwyneth Paltrow, Wasikowska also is like a mellower and less impulsive Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) from 2007's The Golden Compass; the two girls could be sisters. When Alice ends up riding the bear-like Bandersnatch, in fact, it's impossible not to be reminded of Lyra riding the polar bear Iorek Byrnison in The Golden Compass.

Also, every sword-and-sorcery fantasy fanboy (reader, meet author) is likely to swoon when this angelically alluring Alice arrays herself in armor. Not since Leelee Sobieski suited up in silver and black satin to swing a sword in In the Name of the King has a character been more deserving of immortalization as an action figure.

Johnny Depp injects both menace and pathos into his performance as the Mad Hatter, who turns out to be quite an interesting dancer. But it's Helena Bonham Carter who steals the supporting-character show. Carter is hilariously hammy as the imperious and clueless Red Queen, whose favorite expression is "off with his head!"

Stephen Fry voices the insinuatingly oily Cheshire Cat, a CGI character given to lazily feline spins in the air. Alan Rickman is the unctuous and indolent hookah-smoking caterpillar (here given the name Absolem), and Christopher Lee is the pretty damned scary Jabberwocky dragon.

The animation is stunning, the costumes are as colorful as candy wrappers and the production as a whole is just plain gorgeous.

The movie's only shortcoming is a technical one: Apparently it will be screened only in 3-D (or IMAX 3-D) at theaters. I would have preferred seeing the movie without wearing those annoying glasses that darken the picture, which is a bigger "minus" than any "plus" that studios may think 3-D offers.

Fortunately, the non-3-D DVD version is scheduled to go on sale a mere 90 days after the movie is released. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Alien: The Director's Cut
(Reviewed September 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

It's been years since I first saw this masterpiece of SF horror, but I honestly did not notice anything in the new "director's cut" that I don't remember seeing before. Which is fine with me, considering that this movie is a friggin' masterpiece!

If you haven't seen it...well, first of all, where have you been the past 20-odd years? The crew members of a mining ship in space are awakened from suspended-animation sleep to check out a signal that is coming from a planetoid. They pick up a very unwelcome visitor, a killer alien with telescoping teeth and blood that eats right through the ship's metal floors. YIKES!

James Cameron totally ruined the point of this movie in the sequel, by using bunches and bunches of the aliens and making them as easy to pick off and kill as whooping Injuns in a cornball western. In this original, though, there is only one alien -- and the damn thing is just about unstoppable. Yaphet Kotto is terrific as crew member Parker, especially in the scene following his first glimpse of the creature. The big, musclebound tough guy is so rattled he looks like he might wig out, start crying in terror, or both. And Sigourney Weaver is great in the role that launched her career, as the generally unflappable Ripley. (What's up with her underwear, though? Did she borrow those way-too-small panties from an undersized child?)

When this movie first was released, I sat through it three times in a row the first day I saw it. I've only done that with one other movie in my life ("The Road Warrior," if you must know).

Why? Because it's a goddamn masterpiece! (Sheesh, pay attention already!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

Aliens of the Deep
(Reviewed January 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

"Titanic" director James Cameron once again puts off making another "real" movie by giving us a second boring 3-D IMAX 45-minute undersea documentary. (His first was "Ghosts of the Abyss," about the wreckage of the Titanic.)

I hated the 3-D, as always, because it just plain doesn't work very well. (I kept closing one eye, to see it in 2-D, but wearing the glasses is still a bitch for anyone who already wears glasses. And that's not even mentioning the fact that God only knows who wore the glasses before you, or what "aliens" may have crawled from their filthy heads onto said glasses before you put them against your presumably lice-free scalp.)

The movie has way, way too many shots of scientists looking awed at the things they are seeing. Some of those things actually are pretty impressive, especially the "chimneys" of superheated water spewing up from the ocean floor and some of the odd creatures that are encountered. But the filmmakers would have done better by keeping the cameras pointed on the cool stuff, not on people saying how "awesome" those things are.

The movie veers off into speculation about how the undersea research methods may be applied one day to exploring the moons of other planets. Frankly, though, one such scenario -- about a nuclear-powered rocket with a hot tip boring through the ice to a hidden ocean on one of Jupiter's moons -- left me less than enthusiastic. Somehow, I can only envision that mission entirely screwing up the ecosystem of a place as yet untouched by the careless, clumsy, destructive hand of man. To put it another way: Do we really want an agency of our moron-led government fucking up places even beyond our troubled sphere?

Also, the last shot of the movie -- an imagining of what our first contact with aliens on such a moon might resemble -- was hopelessly cornball.

I can't imagine anyone hiring a babysitter, driving to an IMAX theater, paying the ridiculously high ticket prices there, and then being satisfied seeing a flick that's less than an hour long.

Especially if it's this one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Alien Trespass
(Reviewed April 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website Click this link to read the review: "Alien Trespass" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

All the King's Men
(Reviewed September 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

I haven't read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (by Robert Penn Warren) or seen the 1949 Best Picture-winning film adaptation (which got Broderick Crawford a Best Actor Oscar) of "All the King's Men."

That means I went to this new adaptation with no prejudices or expectations. It also meant that I had no way of mentally "filling in the gaps" plotwise or character-wise.

Maybe that's why this movie had a kind of "Cliff's Notes" feel to it for me. There's enough of a story to make sense, but an awful lot of details that would have fleshed things out seem to be missing.

The biggest problem is with the development of Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a meek Louisiana "hick" politician in the early 1950s who becomes the state's swaggeringly arrogant governor. Ideally, we would see Stark gradually and believably transform from idealistic, teetotaller wonk to philandering, liquor-loving loudmouth. Unfortunately, the change in him occurs literally overnight in the film. One day Penn is awkwardly using pie-charts as visual aids and sputtering through stump speeches. The next day he is rabidly rousing the rubes like a fire-breathing, wild-eyed evangelist. There's a reason for his attitude adjustment, but people's entire personalities don't change overnight.

Similarly, we hear about Stark being in bed with crooks once he is in office. But we never see him making any backroom deals or gladhanding sleazeballs or living the high life, aside from visiting a pretty tame burlesque show. (In fact, we never see Stark at home in the governor's mansion -- or wherever he lived -- at all.)

In fact, the basic details of Stark's personal life are so poorly drawn that we do not even know he has a teenage son until more than halfway through the film. (Up until then, he seems to be in a childless marriage with a mousey librarian.)

Strangest of all, Stark as governor is practically joined at the hip to a lieutenant governor (James Gandolfini) whom Stark rightly described as a "Judas" during the gubernatorial campaign. There's a line of dialog that boils down to the "keep your enemies close" cliche, but it rings very false. I simply did not believe that any politician would welcome to his inner circle someone who not only wanted him to lose, but who was publicly humiliated by Stark and hounded backward off a stage by him to fall in a muddy pig pen. To put the situation in modern terms, I doubt that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hangs out all day with Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante.

Penn portrays the Huey-Longish governor as a kind of mush-mouthed, half-crocked Joe Cocker, spasming his way through speeches and conversations that occasionally would benefit from subtitles. He's entertaining to watch, but he seems to be acting for audiences in the next county. Or maybe the next state.

Jude Law is the movie's laid-back-to-the-point-of-catatonia viewpoint character, a born-to-privilege reporter who follows Stark from his humble beginnings to his tumultuous reign as governor. Sadly, the script (by Steve Zaillian, who also directed) forces Law to act as voiceover narrator throughout the movie, instead of simply letting us watch the story unfold. (Another boneheaded script mistake: This is yet another movie with an opening scene that is followed by an hour of flashbacks until that first scene is repeated.)

Law is in love with a childhood friend played by Kate Winslet. She and Mark Ruffalo play the grown children of a respected former governor. Their functions in the story may have made sense in the book, but not in this movie. For example, we see no reason why Penn would hold any attraction for Winslet on any level. Ruffalo, who apparently is supposed to serve as the noble-and-good conscience of the movie, comes off as mopey, spoiled and a little bit nuts.

Most of the film, shot entirely in New Orleans and other Louisiana locations before Hurricane Katrina hit, looks bleak and depressing. The whole thing seems a tad too "serious" and "cod liver oilish" -- like one of those high-minded but dull PBS dramas that you know you're supposed to like, even though you'd really rather be watching "The Simpsons."

When Stark makes nighttime speeches from the massive grey steps of the state capitol building, standing alone behind a single microphone with no one else nearby, the spooky effect is like a weird jolt of German expressionism in the middle of all this dreary, deep-South dissolution. Maybe this is meant to be symbolic, showing the man of the people in utter isolation. Unfortunately, we never see any evidence of Stark's popularity slipping, because we never see any scenes of him among "the people" after he wins election. That's yet another "something's missing" storytelling lapse. Everything seems detached from reality and lifeless.

This isn't a terrible movie, but you can't help feeling that it should have been a lot better.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

All the Pretty Horses

(Reviewed December 23, 2000, by James Dawson)

Beautifully photographed but frustratingly dull. There's nothing offensively bad about this movie, it just stays stuck in idle for two hours and never takes off. Matt Damon, excellent in last year's "Talented Mr. Ripley," plays his off-to-Mexico 1949 cowboy character with such bland flatness that it is hard to care about his south-of-the-border troubles. And while Penelope Cruz gets away with merely being achingly beautiful in airy nothings like "Woman on Top," she is completely out of her depth in a movie requiring any, well, depth.

Supposedly, director Billy Bob Thornton's original cut of this movie ran four hours but was whacked down to two. But if this is the faster, zippier cut, I can't imagine seeing a version twice as long without sinking into a catatonic state.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Almost Famous
(Reviewed August 13, 2000, by James Dawson)

After you make a hugely popular, money-making hit like "Jerry Maguire," you will be able to get a studio to let you make just about anything your little heart may desire. Unfortunately, what "Jerry Maguire" writer/director Cameron Crowe's little heart desired was to make this shockingly bad "personal" film loosely based on his own precocious beginnings as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. There is almost nothing to like about this unconvincing, badly acted, phony-from-the-get-go fiasco. Kate Hudson is bland as a groupie. Jason Lee is flat-out awful as a fake rock group's lead singer. (Once more I wonder, "How the hell does this guy keep getting work?" Did a casting agent really see Lee's headshot and say, "Now THERE is a guy who looks like he could play a convincing rock-and-roll star?") The kid who plays the young Cameron Crowe belongs on a bad TV show. Only Billy Crudup, as the rock group's guitarist, has the right look for his badly written character. Okay, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is kind of amusing as Lester Bangs -- but not amusing enough.

Not to mince words, this is the kind of shallow, unsubstantial entertainment you would expect to see if the Disney Channel produced a nice little made-for-TV movie about a spunky kid reporter covering the groovy rock music scene. I was reminded of this year's absolutely horrible movie about Jacqueline Susann called "Isn't She Great" as I watched "Almost Famous." Both movies left me wishing that their characters had been treated as if the filmmakers actually wanted audiences to care about them as real people.

There are two scenes in "Almost Famous" that deserve special mention in the "Making Me Want To Shout `This Sucks' At The Screen" category. First, the "let's all sing along to `Tiny Dancer' on the bus" scene, which is jarringly stupid. Second, the "this plane's about to crash, so let's all reveal our secret inner feelings to each other and then end with a sit-commy joke" scene. Didn't we all see this once on a bad episode of "Cheers"?

Final warning: This movie ain't no "Jerry Maguire," folks, not by a loooooong shot. Trust me. You have been warned.

POSTSCRIPT (added October 6, 2000): Have you noticed how many no-taste movie critics have wet themselves over this abominably lousy movie? One by one, they have lined up to proclaim, "Hey, wow, this is my life story, too! I was just like Cameron Crowe! I liked reading Lester Bangs, and I was misunderstood, but I kept on writing, and look at me now! That means this movie just has to be the best movie of the year!" Jesus Christ, do these ass-sniffing suck-ups have no shame? In the past three days alone, I have read an Entertainment Weekly writer and a Premiere writer both trying to pass themselves off as Cameron Clones that way.

Take a look in the mirror, guys. Just because you may have listened to Led Zeppelin and picked up an issue of Creem magazine in between your teenage yank sessions does not make you Cameron Crowe's spiritual twin. How about judging movies on the basis of their quality (or lack of it, in this case), instead of based on your delusional attempts to convince us that you have something in common with the lead character? Grow up, already. And get over yourselves.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Along Came a Spider
(Reviewed March 23, 2001, by James Dawson)
Morgan Freeman reprises his role as Detective Alex Cross, a character he played earlier in "Kiss the Girls." I never bothered seeing that one, even though Freeman's co-star was the scrumptiously delicious Ashley Judd, because I didn't get a free ticket. So I don't know if that movie was any good--but by all that is holy, I can't imagine that it possibly could have been anywhere near as abominably awful as "Along Came a Spider."

This movie is relentlessly, insultingly stupid. The plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The first hour or so is devoted to a kidnapping that is flat-out nonsensical. Considering that the kidnapper actually intends all along to kidnap a different child from the very same location, even a brain-dead idiot would have to wonder why the hell he didn't simply snatch the other kid in the first place.

The kidnapper also is one of those "only in awful movies" criminals who treats the cops-and-robbers situation as if it is an intellectual contest between himself and his detective of choice, planting clues and making taunts. Ugh. The most elaborate of these ridiculous gambits involves a computer link to a live camera, a plot device that is so goofy it boggles the mind. Later, we are treated to the ultimate computer cliche, when Detective Cross manages to guess a suspect's computer password ON HIS VERY FIRST TRY.

The whole misbegotten mess flounders to an ending that is jaw-droppingly moronic. I'm talking "so stupid it makes you shake your head in disbelief" bad, folks.

If watching a terribly plotted, worse-than-TV crime thriller with frequent scenes of child abuse is your idea of a good time, please, do yourself a favor and seek professional help.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Along Came Polly
(Reviewed January 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as a former child star with delusions about his athletic and acting abilities, stealing every scene in which he appears. (His character's term "sharted" really deserves a place in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language.)

Hoffman is the improbable best friend of Ben Stiller, a risk-aversive anal-retentive who hooks up with wacky free spirit Jennifer Aniston after being cuckolded on his honeymoon. Aniston is slightly miscast but likeable enough, and a subplot about a daredevil Aussie billionaire is sort of dumb, but there are enough genuine laughs here to make this worth at least a rental.

Let it rain!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Alpha Dog
(Reviewed January 22, 2007, by James Dawson)

I'm more of a lazy dog than an alpha dog, which explains why I didn't get around to writing this review until the movie already was in theaters. Oops.

Thanks to that delay, however, I was able to watch the dumbest guest critic ever to disgrace Roger Ebert's chair give her thoughts on "Alpha Dog" before I penned my own.

I never had heard of the bitchily beautiful amazon known as Govindini Murty before beholding her in an enticingly low-cut blouse on "Ebert & Roeper" yesterday. Roeper called her an actress who had founded something called the Liberty Film Festival. I assumed that must mean she was a spirited, free-thinking, amorously adventurous libertine.

That long, silky, luscious raven hair. Those succulent, glossy red lips. Those dark, snapping eyes. Call me shallow, but my first reaction upon seeing the mouthwatering Ms. Murty was, "If Ebert ain't coming back, I sure wouldn't mind staring at this babe every week."

Then she made the unforgivable mistake of using that impossibly sensual mouth to form words.

Really stupid words.

I've been told that there's a token Republican bimbo on "The View," so any red-state retards who might tune in can identify with a fellow boneheaded Bush supporter. (Having a penis and two testicles, I've never actually watched the program to confirm this.) The "Ebert & Roeper" producer who invited Murty must have had a similar desire to attract the right-wing dumbass demographic.

That's because it turns out that the name of her "Liberty Film Festival" is an example of dastardly deceptive doublespeak. It is described on its website as "Hollywood’s first conservative film festival." The page also notes that Murty "co-writes and edits LIBERTAS, the premier weblog for conservative thought on film."

Somebody get me a paper bag to be sick in.

Here is part of what Murty said about "Alpha Dog": It's a cautionary tale, but why is the movie made up of some lowlife drug-dealer pimp? Why not make a movie about maybe some young heroic guy who goes to Iraq and gives his life to protect his country? Why don't we have that story? Nobody ever shows that.

Oh. My. God.

The idea that this delicious dunce apparently thinks Hollywood should make nothing but shiny, happy propaganda for an illegal, immoral and unnecessary war almost made me forget about wanting to see her do a pole dance.

Lady, the damned movie is about a real-life kidnapping case. What critic in his/her right mind would fault a movie because it's not about something else? That would be like me bitching because "The Queen" didn't feature a teenage nymphomaniac and her lesbian cheerleader friends.

Listen, "Alpha Dog" isn't a great movie, by any means. Justin Timberlake gives a surprisingly okay performance. He plays a tattooed suck-up to a drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) who is, shall we say, not too good at strategic thinking. Hirsch and his gang impulsively kidnap the younger brother of a guy who owes him money, planning to hold the kid until the deadbeat pays up. Then they realize what they've done could land them in prison for life. That means it's time for a "new way forward," as it were.

Anton Yelchin is really good as the victim, a guy so desperate for camaraderie that he lets himself believe his kidnappers are his pals. Unfortunately, the movie's dramatic tone is undercut by several scenes that seem to be straight out of a teen sex comedy. A three-way with two hot blonds in a Palm Springs backyard pool? Once they see this, teenage boys everywhere will be praying to be taken hostage.

Other segments are a little too action-oriented to fit comfortably in what's supposed to be an "only the names and places were changed" docudrama. A few too many people crash through sliding-glass doors, for example.

Bruce Willis is the drug-dealer's dad, who tries too late to knock some sense into his wayward son. Sharon Stone chews her share of scenery as the distraught mother of the hostage, never moreso than in an after-the-event "interview" where she's wearing laughably hideous fat-chick makeup.

The examples of America's youth in this movie paint a sad picture, to be sure. Nearly everyone sports multiple tattoos, they all talk like yo-yo-yo gangstas, and nobody has anything resembling a plan for the future. Although a better movie could be made with characters like these, it's ridiculous to say that they are inherently unfit subjects for drama.

Which brings me back to one more thing about the divinely hot but depressingly dunderheaded Govindini Murty. On the same "Ebert & Roeper" episode, she had this to say about the children's movie "Arthur and the Invisibles": I was really enjoying this film, until the villain shows up looking like a horrible caricature of George Bush Sr. and saying lines like, "Read my lips." It really took me out of the film, and I wish that filmmakers today would just stick to entertaining people, and leave out the gratuitous political jabs.

Oh, you moralizing little minx!

What's funny is that, even though I regard both Bush presidents as disgraces to our nation, I didn't think either the "Arthur and the Invisibles" villain or his son in that movie were supposed to represent Poppy or W. The villain is voiced by David Bowie, for Christ's sake, and he sure as hell isn't doing an impersonation of Bush 41!

Methinks Ms. Murty is a tad too sensitive about having her grotesque, right-wing gods gored.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Alvin and the Chipmunks
(Reviewed December 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

One gag in this aggravatingly unfunny and thoroughly annoying movie involves chipmunk Simon knowingly eating one of chipmunk Theodore's turds.

Any questions?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
(Reviewed December 16, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

A Man Apart
(Reviewed March 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

Wow, does this movie ever suck. Vin Diesel, leader of a badass bunch of ex-gangbangers turned DEA agents (are we laughing yet?), is out for vengeance against an up-and-coming Mexican drug lord who aims to fill the shoes of one who was captured by Diesel. Mayhem ensues.

"A Man Apart" is so cheesy looking and dumb, it's like one of those cheap, direct-to-video shoot-'em-ups that surface on fourth-rate TV stations that run things like "Adrenaline Theater" during prime time. It's just plain bad, that's what it is.

Also, and God forbid I should get political here, I am sick to death of movies about the Noble Struggle of cops busting people for drugs, which always seems more like an utterly pointless "make work" assignment than like actual crimefighting. Putting people in jail because they manufacture, sell, or put in their bodies things that are not government-sanctioned is flabbergastingly stupid, not to mention a colossal waste of money and manpower. Drug prohibition today is as futile as alcohol prohibition was nearly a century ago, and a hell of a lot more expensive.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: VOTE LIBERTARIAN, PEOPLE!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F
(Reviewed October 26, 2009, by James Dawson)

Hilary Swank bears an impressive physical resemblance to pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, with exactly the right asexually cropped hair, pale chapped lips and freckled, wind-chafed kisser, but almost nothing else about this stodgy biopic looks convincing or real. To use a painfully obvious metaphor, director Mira Nair's reverent re-telling of Earhart's airborne years never takes flight.

That's mostly because the plot is underpinned by what is supposed to be an unconventional but durable romance between Earhart and her publisher-then-husband George Putnam (Richard Gere). Unfortunately, Swank and Gere have no romantic chemistry onscreen.

This is a problem even if the film's intent may have been to portray the union as a marriage of convenience between a jaded high-class huckster and his passionate-only-for-piloting protegé. Although that angle could have given the film a bittersweet and more sophisticated tone, writers Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan don't give Earhart or Putnam enough depth to appear either that calculating or that conflicted. The characters mainly seem bored with each other, like casually congenial coworkers who never would think of seeing each other after hours.

Likewise, when Ewan MacGregor shows up as future airline magnate Gene (father of Gore) Vidal, Swank's extramarital attraction to him feels more cursory than carnal.

And could the real Amelia Earhart have been this tentative, mousy and malleable? Swank portrays her for the most part with no real fire, grit or joie de vivre. She never seems particularly upset about having her already impressive exploits enhanced or even partially fabricated by Putnam, such as when he guilts the non-smoker into signing a Lucky Strike endorsement deal with the justification that a pack of the cigarettes technically was on board one of the planes she flew. On her history-making flights, she comes off more like a slightly annoyed civil servant making a frustrating business trip than a brave, fate-tempting daredevil.

The screenplay also includes some frustrating red herrings. Before an air race, Putnam pulls one talented young female pilot aside to demand that she let Earhart win. Yet that pilot never reappears to inform Earhart about the incident, exact any restitution from Putnam, or tell her story to the world and thereby tarnish Earhart's image. (What's even worse about her failure to reappear is that the younger pilot, played by Mia Wasikowka, shows more spunk, guile and charm in her few minutes onscreen than Swank does over nearly two hours.)

There's some genuine tension during the last leg of Earhart's doomed final flight, when she is paired with the excellent Christopher Eccleston as redemption-seeking alcoholic navigator Fred Noonan. The script apparently plays fair with the dialog in that scene, relying on actual transcripts between Earhart and frustrated radiomen on the ground.

Also, many of the aerial shots in the movie are travelogue lovely, and the planes themselves are like retro works of art. The production used one of only a dozen surviving Electra planes identical to Earhart's for footage of the round-the-world voyage. It's hard to imagine any future versions of Earhart's story using anything but CGI effects for those kinds of scenes.

It's too bad that the planes in "Amelia" are more real than the performances.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed January 22, 2002, by James Dawson)

Completely wonderful French romantic fable, the kind of charmingly sweet movie that Hollywood never, ever manages to get right. (Just imagine how retchingly unwatchable this would be with Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts in the lead, directed by some tasteless, vulgar hack, with its script "adapted" for the American monkeyminded masses by seven or eight unclever asswipes who wouldn't know an honest human emotion if it punched them right in their smug, overpaid faces.)

I was lucky enough to see "Amelie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's earlier "Delicatessan" and "City of Lost Children" on a double bill in early January. The visual style of those films has been rightly compared to Terry Gilliam's work, but Jeunet's movies also have a quirky sentimentality that is very, well, *French*.

"Amelie" is even more endearing than those movies. Star Audrey Tatou is perfect as a shy mademoiselle who schemes to change the lives of several people around her, but is reluctant to risk meeting the man of her dreams face to face.

Jeunet is an amazingly clever director, with lots of intricate camera moves and setups that belong in a picture book, but his technical prowess never overwhelms what is at its heart a movie with a lot of heart.

One of my 10 favorite films of 2001--need I say more?

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

American Dreamz
(Reviewed April 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

In this unexpectedly not-bad parody of "American Idol," Hugh Grant is the Simon-Cowellian on-air bastard and all-powerful producer of the TV talent show "American Dreamz." Mandy Moore is a calculating white-trash Britney Spears clone who is so shamelessly cynical that Grant reluctantly comes to regard her as his soulmate.

When a bumbling Al Qaeda member who has been sent to live with his American cousins in the O.C. gets tapped as another contestant, and when his superiors learn that the President of the United States (Dennis Quaid) will be a guest judge on the show, an assassination plot is hatched. Lightweight black-humor merriment ensues.

Quaid does a kind and gentle impersonation of War-Criminal-in-Chief George W. Bush (although the character has a different name) that could have used a lot more sting. Bush is portrayed as the dim-witted but amiable stooge that people thought he was before the 2000 election, not as the lying, belligerent, murderous, Constitution-shredding psychopath we now know him to be. Likewise, Willem Dafoe does an impersonation of Dick Cheney that is amusingly nasty but not nearly evil enough. Okay, fine, this movie is a comedy and not a documentary -- but chuckling at Bush and Cheney stand-ins while America continues losing more soldiers and billions of dollars every damned week in an utterly meaningless war is kinda tough.

Worst. President. Ever.

Impeach. Convict. Imprison.

Please. Excuse. This tangent.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

American Gangster
(Reviewed October 11, 2007, by James Dawson)

Pretty good cops-'n'-drugs NYC 1970s crimebusting flick that's like a Martin Scorcese movie without any flash, and without as good a jukebox on the soundtrack.

Denzel Washington is a street-smart drug lord who makes the mistake of putting too many family members from backwoods North Carolina on the payroll. Russell Crowe is an honest cop out to nail Denzel's ass. Both actors are okay, but neither seems fully committed to his role, or even entirely sure of who his character is. Washington is smooth as butter one minute and shooting a guy in the forehead or bashing his brother's head through a car window the next, yet never seems credibly badass enough to be that psychotic. Crowe is so fumbling and earnest and hesitant that it's hard to believe he's also supposed to be irresistible to a sexy stewardess, a ridiculously hot-to-trot lawyer, and apparently a host of other hotties.

Still, the story is interesting, and director Ridley Scott does a good job of recreating the Vietnam-era vibe.

And be sure to stay until all of the credits finish rolling, because they end with a bang.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

American Outlaws
(Reviewed August 5, 2001, by James Dawson)

Cheap, insincere, jokey, made-for-TV-movie-quality junk. Imagine a Keanu-esque dummy version of Jesse James, played by an actor who scowls with all the menace of a punk doofus who just found out that somebody filled in his favorite skateboarding pool while he was out behind the Taco Bell doing bong hits. Older brother Frank resembles a grinnin', blond, twinkly eyed Ben Affleck, which sort of says it all. Former James Bond Timothy Dalton grimaces throughout as the pursuin' Mr. Pinkerton, dead set on bringin' the gang to justice. Kathy Bates disgraces herself as Mama James (whose dying line "I see the lord, and he's a little shorter than I thought he would be" has to be the howler of the year). Some blond bim California-girl clone plays Jesse's true love. You have to wonder where she found the 19th-century dentist who gave her such purty snow-white caps.

There is not a single second of this ultra-lightweight timewaster that is convincing or entertaining. At one point, Jesse and the gang nearly destroy an entire town in so preposterous a manner that one wonders why they did not simply leap from the ground and fly away under their own magical powers instead.

All of this wouldn't be quite so offensive if the tale had been about fictional characters. But attributing the goofy exploits herein to real people who really lived seems wrong, lazy and stupid. Selling crap like this by tacking on character names that have a high audience-recognition factor is just plain lowdown and despicable, even if we are talking about common criminal curs. (Hey, I don't even like this practice when a good movie does it, such as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Orson Welles had the right idea, by using real people as templates for a fictional story and MAKING UP NEW NAMES.)

Going to see this movie will give you a genuine feeling of audience participation, because you're for-sure gonna feel like you wuz robbed when it's over.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

American Pie 2
(Reviewed July 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

I may not be the smartest guy in the world. I thought that buying a car with no air conditioning in Los Angeles was a perfectly reasonable idea. I purchased a 50-year-old house that any sane human being would have turned away from with a shudder. And I missed the whole 1990s stock bubble by never investing a single penny in the market. (Wait a minute, that may have been a smart thing after all.)

But I'm definitely too smart to enjoy a piece of submoronic garbage such as this stupid, pandering, time-wasting tripe.

Here is how to determine if you lack a sufficient number of brain cells to have a good time at this excruciatingly awful movie: Do you think that lamebrained TV sitcoms such as "That '70s Show" are witty? Do you wish that supposed-to-be-funny porn movies were missing all of their sex parts, so you could savor more of the bad acting and worse direction in them? Do you giggle uncontrollably when you do a number one? Are you just plain retarded?

I swear to God, I did not laugh once during this movie. Even what are supposed to be its huge big-yucks set pieces are obvious, contrived and tiresome. Hearing some of the open-mouthed dullards at a recent screening laughing out loud at this movie was enough to make one worry about the future of humanity. Many people apparently have become conditioned by bad television writing to guffaw at anything that apes even the vaguest semblance of a joke.

There's one thing that makes attending this sort of movie even worse than merely watching it flop onscreen. That's when the easily stimulated chucklehead sitting next to you keeps turning his head and looking at your face during the movie, as if expecting you to be braying along with him at stuff that Just Ain't Funny.

Give me strength!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

American Reunion
(Reviewed April 6, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"American Reunion" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

American Splendor
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

The hosannas of praise that some critics are lavishing on "American Splendor" may be due to the fact that most of this year's other movies have been so remarkably lousy. Don't get me wrong, "American Splendor" is okay, but it's no "Ghost World" and it definitely is no "Crumb." All three movies were about non-mainstream comics and/or their creators, but "American Splendor"--about the life and work of underground comics writer Harvey Pekar--is the weakest of the trio.

The movie gets off to a bad start in its very first scene, featuring a group of trick-or-treaters that includes Harvey Pekar as a kid; it's short, but its self-consciousness will make you wince. Paul Giamatti plays the adult Pekar, a sad-sack loser who had the good luck to be a friend of then up-and-coming comics genius Robert Crumb when Crumb was a fellow Cleveland resident. Crumb agrees to illustrate Pekar's first everyday-events-are-boring-but-fascinating comic script, and the thing is an underground hit. Pekar goes on to script more installments of his anti-action strips in his comic-book "American Splendor," illustrated by various artists, for the next three decades. The twist to the story is that instead of striking it filthy rich and going Hollywood, Pekar keeps on living in a house that is a bit of a dump, and keeps his job as a file clerk at a Cleveland veterans hospital his entire working life. He shuttles back and forth to New York for appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman" while looking like a sickly, wild-eyed bum.

One interesting device the movie uses is switching between Giamatti as Pekar and Pekar himself, sitting in a limbo stage commenting on events. Interestingly, although actual clips of some Pekar appearances on Letterman's show are incorporated into the film, such is not the case with the appearance that got Pekar banned briefly from the show. (Pekar essentially wises up to the fact that Letterman is laughing at him, not with him, and tells him off. Personally, I only wish more of Letterman's guests would do so; I can't stand that smug, unfunny, repetitive prick. But maybe that's just me...)

The main thing the movie has going against it is that Pekar is, well, not exactly charming. More to the point, he comes off as the kind of moping, bitter crank that you would go out of your way to avoid. Crumb, in "Crumb," is an eccentric, opinionated misanthrope throwback who is so weird that he is compelling. Pekar is Crumb-lite: he's similarly cantankerous, he holds a similar disdain for modern music, he has carved out a similar if smaller cult-hero niche among comics fans...but based on what we see in this movie, he also is unpleasant and boring and, it's gotta be said, downright dull.

"American Splendor" is an offbeat biography about a unique artist, but the main thing you'll be happy about when it's over is that you don't live in Cleveland.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

American Wedding (American Pie 3)
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

One of the absolute worst movies of the year. I didn't like either of the first two "American Pie" flicks, but this one is hands-down the lousiest of the three.

I've said it before about witless would-be comedies like this one, and I know it sounds as if I am exaggerating, but I swear it's the truth: I not only did not laugh a single time, I didn't even smile once during the entire movie. It's that bad.

The main thing wrong here is that the set-ups for all of the "gags" (I use the term very loosely) are so lame that the easily predictable payoffs fall completely flat. There also is an interminably unfunny "dance-off" scene at a gay bar that goes on so long it will make you want to tear off your arm and hit yourself in the face with it. It just goes on and on and on, sort of like an inoperable cancer that eats your brain.

One very strange thing about the direction of the movie is that several scenes end with no resolution whatsoever. It's as if the actors just got bored and stopped doing their thing, or the camera ran out of film, and nobody cared enough to worry about it. The result is so inept it's insulting. (Best example: When Stiffler wakes up a florist at her home, watch how the scene just limps to no conclusion whatsoever before the movie cuts to the next scene. Seriously, I couldn't help thinking that maybe the final line of the scene is some blooper that will show up on the DVD, and that nobody gave a crap about getting the scene right on a second take.)

Still, I can't help hoping that this movie makes a ton of money, because the executive producers are the guys who just purchased the rights to Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery character Elric. If they make a great big pile of dough on this piece of irredeemable garbage, maybe the world will get to see a lavish, "Lord-of-the-Rings"-budget fantasy flick in which Elric will shave his pubes with his trusty sword Stormbringer while his faithful companion Moonglum eats a dog turd. Yeah, that'll be just great, huh?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

America's Sweethearts
(Reviewed July 17, 2001, by James Dawson)

More worthless junk from crapmeister Joe Roth's despicable Revolution studio, the manure factory that spewed forth the egregious "Tomcats" earlier this year.

Roth himself directed this shockingly unfunny wallow, in which Julia Roberts (who makes my skin crawl), Catherine Zeta-Jones (who simply cannot act), John Cusack (who really should know better, considering that the guy was in the masterpiece "Being John Malkovich" not that long ago), Billy Crystal (whose name on a marquee guarantees THIS WILL SUCK) and Hank Azaria (why, lord, why?) mug and ape their way through a worse-than-television script that is like what a Neil Simon wannabe would produce after a couple of lobotomies. Christ, I hated this movie.

Don't follow the shuffling, muttering, dull-eyed herds to this wheezing "Love American Style" retread. Go see "Ghost World" or "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" instead, two comedies that actually manage to be funny and smart at the same time.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

An Affair of Love (Une Liaison Pornographique)
(Reviewed August 2, 2000, by James Dawson)

A woman of a certain age (Nathalie Baye) and a blank-faced European Kevin Kline lookalike (Sergi Lopez) hook up for a series of lethargic, soft-core and often overly earnest booty call sessions at a very red hotel. The original French title of this stale pastry is "Une Liaison Pornographique," but "pornographique" apparently means something a whole lot tamer across the Atlantic than what Americans think of as porn these days. Don't expect "Buttman Does Paris," in other words.

Most of this movie reminded me of the kind of boringly serious "erotica" that seems to be written by bitter women who don't get laid very often. The characters have no names, neither seems to have an actual life, and their desperate encounters are invested with way too much Meaning-with-capital-M.

But the fetchingly French Baye is topless a couple of times, an off-tangent scene featuring an elderly man midway through the movie makes for an intriguing diversion, and the ending is kinda touching, so it's not a complete loss.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

An American Rhapsody
(Reviewed July 27, 2001, by James Dawson)

The first half of this drama about a Hungarian family's escape to America in the 1950s is excellently acted and quite touching. This is thanks primarily to the truly charming little girl (Kelly Endresz Banlaki) who plays Suzanne, a daughter who is left behind and raised by loving foster parents in the Hungarian countryside. The movie shifts gears dramatically when that sweet little girl grows up to be a rebellious, defiant and very conflicted teenager (played by Scarlett Johansson of "Ghost World").

"An American Rhapsody" is based on the life of the movie's writer/director Eva Gardos. The score, by Cliff Eidelman, deserves special note for being so subtle and restrained (as opposed to weepy and schmaltzy).

Best of all, the movie seems to be about real people, acted with integrity by real actors...unlike useless dreck such as "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," which will probably gross about 100 times more box office. Welcome to America, folks!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

An Education
(Reviewed October 2, 2009, by James Dawson)

"Wet bus stop, she's waiting, his car is warm and dry." An early 1960s British schoolgirl (Carey Mulligan) on the edge of 17 falls for a seemingly sophisticated older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who is more -- or is it less? -- than he seems.

Mulligan is excellent as a combination of precocious star pupil and self-deluding dreamer, letting herself believe she has found a shortcut to the good life despite some pretty obvious warning signs. Although her parents sometimes come off as laughably gullible, the script offers an interesting mix of menace and very bittersweet romance.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

An Everlasting Piece
(Reviewed November 17, 2000, by James Dawson)
Barry Levinson isn't the first director who would come to mind if someone asked me to pick a guy to helm what is supposed to be one of those amusing little Irish comedies about working-class characters and their troubles during the Troubles. In fact, he wouldn't be the one-hundred-and-first, and this movie proves why. Everyone goes through the motions of "endearing eccentricity," but I honestly did not crack a single smile during this entire movie. It just lies there, as lifeless as a toupee in a gutter. The shame of it is that the film's star, one Barry McEvoy, really isn't bad. And the script (which he wrote) isn't completely worthless. But Levinson seems to be having no fun whatsoever with the material, and does not allow anyone involved to get out of "deadpan" mode. Begorrah, 'tis a shame.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

A year and a half after it was released in France, this remarkably stupid, gangstered-up ripoff of "It's a Wonderful Life" arrives in America as unwelcome as an addled old Parisian whore trying to pass herself off as an impertinent schoolgirl.

Luc Besson wrote and directed this tiresome failure of a modern-day fable. Jamel Debbouze plays Andre, an incredibly annoying Algerian hustler who owes so much money to various mobsters that he decides to end it all by jumping off a bridge. Rie Rasmussen is an angel in human form named Clarence...I mean Angel-A...sent to convince Andre that life is worth living.

One of the ways she attempts to accomplish this is by giving Andre enough money to pay his debts. This being a French movie, she earns those funds by charging a series of men 1,000 francs each to join her in the bathroom of a nightclub. That's right, the movie's Jimmy Stewart character essentially becomes a pimp. This is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek amusing, but comes off as depressing and a tad disgusting.

There's also a lot of simplistic "love yourself" advice, a completely unconvincing romance, and an ending that's just embarrassingly silly.

The one good thing about the movie is its very nice black-and-white cinematography, presumably employed here to make this nonsense look more noirish. It's an affectation, sure, but there are some nice images of Paris, not to mention the leggy, blond Rasmussen in her up-to-there miniskirt.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Angel Eyes
(Reviewed May 13, 2001, by James Dawson)

Awful movie with stupefyingly deceptive tag line ("You Won't Believe Your Eyes") which implies a supernatural element that does not exist. Absolutely ZERO chemistry between Jennifer Lopez and that dull, zombified guy who played the homeless garage-dwelling bum in the egregious "Pay It Forward." A must-miss!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Anger Management
(Reviewed April 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

All you need to know: THERE IS NOT A SINGLE LAUGH IN THIS ENTIRE MISBEGOTTEN MOVIE. NOT ONE. NONE. YOU WON'T EVEN CRACK A SMILE. In fact, the anger you will have to manage by the time this bomb is over will be your own, as you desperately try not to punch out the ticket-seller and the theater manager in bitter, enraged frustration.

Look, I'm not one of those elitist a-holes who automatically despises anything Adam-Sandler related. Sure, I loathed last year's "Punch-Drunk Love" (my choice for Worst Film of 2002). And I didn't even bother to see "Mr. Deeds" or "Eight Crazy Nights." But I still fondly recall "The Wedding Singer" from way back when, and I own more than one of the guy's comedy CDs, which are pretty dang funny. ("Sex or Weightlifting," from "What the Hell Happened to Me," is a personal favorite.)

Having said that, "Anger Management" is so relentlessly unfunny as to defy belief. One of its problems is that its plot makes no sense, even within "alternate comedic universe" terms, with an ending that is so dumb it truly boggles the mind.

Jack Nicholson is an anger management consultant who moves in with Sandler by court order, after Sandler is hit with false assault charges. Nicholson proceeds to be very annoying. Sandler becomes increasingly annoyed. That's pretty much it. There is not an iota of cleverness, wit or style, just two hours of a schlub getting ticked off by a prick until he wigs out. What fun.

Two other things bothered me about this heaping pile:

(1) Brazenly blatant product placement, including (a) a huge company logo atop the Brooklyn Bridge (or one of those NY bridges, anyway; hey, I'm from LA, they all look the same to me) that I somehow doubt is really there; (b) frequent shots of an "Army of One" billboard, reminding me of the "Simpsons" episode featuring the sublimal "Yvan eht Nioj"/"Join the Navy" music video; and (c) a single ridiculously huge and prominent logo inside Yankee Stadium during the movie's supposed-to-be-stirring climax. Jesus Christ, Hollywood, at least try to be more subtle with your shameless whoring.

(2) It was regarded as kind of a coup when the Rolling Stones allowed their original version of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" (the best song they ever did, in my opinion) to be used in the pretty-decent Johnny Depp movie "Blow." Which makes it kind of sad that their "19th Nervous Breakdown" appears in all its glory--TWICE--within this horrible, horrible movie. Please, Mick-'n'-Keef, use a little more discretion in the future.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Animal Factory
(Reviewed October 6, 2000, by James Dawson)

It turns out that actor Willem Dafoe got double-duty out of shaving his head this year. His bald pate made him look mucho creepy as Nosferatu in "Shadow of the Vampire," and the chrome-dome look turns him into a believably grade-A badass here. This is a surprisingly low-key story about a longtime convict's relationship with a young casualty of the insane War on Drugs. Directed by actor Steve Buscemi and based on the book by Edward Bunker (whose novel "No Beast So Fierce" became the Dustin Hoffman movie "Straight Time"), "Animal Factory" is not exactly the feel-good movie of the month. (Don't expect a sappy-'n'-sentimental "Shawshank Redemption," in other words.) The movie is at its best when it conveys the monotony, degradation and sudden violence inherent in prison life. That takes up the first 90 percent of the film. The final tenth is given over to a contrivance that is almost insulting, as if the filmmakers could not resist the temptation to throw a little "plot" into the proceedings to jazz things up.

Edward Furlong is good as the young drug trafficker who gets the book thrown at him, and who adapts a little too well to prison existence. Mickey Rourke disappears so completely into the character of Furlong's transvestite cellmate that I didn't even know he was the guy behind those false eyelashes until I saw the end credits. The only bad casting decision was hiring Tom Arnold to play a rapist con who has eyes for Furlong's character. Audience members could be heard slapping their heads and going, "Holy crap, what the heck is no-talent TOM ARNOLD doing in a movie with this many good actors?" Or maybe that was just me.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Animatrix: Final Flight of the Osiris
(Reviewed March 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

This is one of several animated "Matrix"-related "shorts" (nine minutes short, in this case) that are being attached to Warner Bros. releases in the hopes of getting "Matrix" fanatics to part with as much money as humanly possible before the actual sequels are released. (In this case, the short is attached to the stupendously lousy "Dreamcatcher.")

"Final Flight of the Osiris" is done in a pretty-close-to-realistic computer-animation style similar to that used in 2001's feature-length "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." The technology still isn't flawless--you always know you are seeing pixels, not people--but that very artificial quality gives the animation a hyper-real sort of style. (Translation: Purty pikchurs!) Also, you realize early on that lots of "outside the ship" scenes here look indistinguishable from the same sort of scenes in the actual "Matrix" movie...because those SFX scenes WERE animated in the original movie.

"Final Flight of the Osiris" begins with a hot Asian beauty and a studly black guy engaged in an erotic, clothes-slicing fencing match, then leaves that virtual-reality to show them and other crew members on a ship identical to the one Neo and Co. used in "Matrix." Nastiness ensues with flying mechanical squid, and the chick has to jump into Matrix-space to get word to the citizens of an imperiled city that Things Don't Look Good.

As with "The Matrix," everything is so eye-candy beautiful, fast moving, and just plain cool that you end up not caring about the lack of logic or sense in the story itself. For example, when people mentally journey into the Matrix, why can't they pop in wherever they want to be, instead of having to run and jump around to avoid detection? More important: Why would the "computer overlords" that created and run the cyberspace "universe" of the Matrix restrict themselves to kung fu and handguns, when they could simply write some code that would drop large nukes on interlopers such as Neo as soon as they set their virtual feet within that artificial world? (Maybe I'm overthinking all this...)

Having said that: Who cares? Not everything good-looking has to make sense. When you see the Hot Asian Chick twisting and posing as she falls through the air, or when a swarm of those creepy squid come after the ship, just detach your logic centers and enjoy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed January 13, 2006, by James Dawson)

Consumer Alert: The TV ads for this movie include scenes of fighter jets and a fireball explosion on a battleship. I don't know what movie those shots are from, but it's not this one. In the "Annapolis" I saw, there is no battle action whatsoever. None. Zero. Anyone who buys a ticket expecting to see stuff blowing up probably would be able to make a good case for getting his ticket-money refunded.

This is a movie about a moody blue-collar welder (James Franco) who gets into the Annapolis Naval Academy, faces the usual military-is-hell rigors, and simultaneously trains to box in a Navy competition called the Brigades. His coach is a slim and sexy superior officer played by Jordana Brewster. They have the bigtime hots for each other, but -- in a wholly unbelievable display of restraint -- hold off on even so much as kissing for far, far longer than humanly possible.

The movie has the usual stereotypes found in these kinds of movies: The hardass black drill instructor (menacingly played by Tyrese Gibson), the fat guy who can't manage the obstacle course, the distant father who comes around in the end. And Franco, of course, as a slight variation on Richard "I got noplace else to go" Gere's role in the vastly superior "An Officer and a Gentleman."

Like last year's "Jarhead," this is basically an unnecessary movie -- not only because we've seen this stuff before, but because the places we've seen it before ("Full Metal Jacket," "An Officer and a Gentleman") were better movies.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed October 26, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Anonymous" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

(Reviewed September 25, 2009, by James Dawson)

Director/writer Lars von Trier's two-character psychological suspenser "Antichrist" may be the most disturbing art-porn horrorshow since Gaspar Noé's "Irreversible," with images that alternate between otherworldly dream-like beauty and the stuff of wake-up-screaming nightmares.

After the death of their young son, therapist Willem Dafoe and his grief-shaken wife Charlotte Gainsbourg -- whose characters' names are never revealed -- retreat to an isolated cabin. That's where they hope to heal the lingering damage from Gainsbourg's mental breakdown. Although Dafoe is able to handle the loss of their son with stoic impassivity, Gainsbourg is a barely functioning basket case of crying jags, catatonia and recriminations.

A lot of what are supposed to be dead-serious get-well exercises and learnedly pithy conclusions from Dafoe seem simplistic and/or silly. When he makes Gainsbourg walk from one rock to another through tall grass to conquer her fear of nature, which he explains is actually her fear of internal human nature, it's easy to see why the psychiatric profession has its skeptics. The first three-quarters of the movie are a slow dirge punctuated by some damned creepy things Dafoe spots in the woods, to the tune of sustained chords and ominously swaying foliage that are straight outta David Lynch-land.

Things never get boring, though, thanks to the convincing air of general unease and the certain knowledge that things are guaranteed to get worse. The acorns that keep falling on the cabin's metal roof are like water torture. Dafoe wakes one morning to find his hand covered in swollen ticks. Gainsbourg, looking like a strung out Patti Smith, bites Dafoe hard enough to draw blood during angry sex.

Whether Gainsbourg's last-reel transformation to brutally violent psychosis is dramatically inevitable, sensationally misogynistic, or a cheap descent into torture porn is debatable, but the best answer may be "all of the above." What happens onscreen is so shockingly sex-and-violence graphic that some viewers may want to throw up, weep or pass out. Consider yourself warned.

And yet the same movie includes moments that are so ethereally lovely you will be glad they are shot in lingering slow motion. Blue-tinged scenes of Dafoe and Gainsbourg having opera-scored sex, Gainsbourg strolling over a wooden bridge above a stream and Dafoe walking through the woods are as unforgettable as the sickeningly explicit mutilations that make you want to look away.

Even given that Gainsbourg has a "full retard" part that involves more long stares and screaming than subtlety, she still deserves a lot of credit for her amazingly ego-free performance in an utterly unglamorous role. Dafoe does a good job of stone-facing his role as the endlessly tolerant husband who always is on the verge of know-it-all smugness.

Some of the symbolism in "Antichrist" is as obvious as the fact that the forest is named Eden, and Gainsbourg simultaneously fears Satan and yet seems drawn to evil. Allusions to mysteries involving a nonexistent constellation and its three animal incarnations are more fable-like and strange.

Opinions on "Antichrist" are sure to differ wildly, but its weird mix of sex, horror and a very grim mythology make it one of the most interesting and fascinating movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Postscript added February 17, 2010: As of today, the only DVD of this movie available in America is an edited R-rated version from IFC. (The unrated theatrical version would have been an NC-17, because of graphic sex and shockingly explicit violence.) Pathetic, no?

An Unreasonable Man
(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)

In a perfect world, this interesting but overlong biography/documentary about Ralph Nader would shut up every crybaby Democrat who blames Nader for costing Al Gore the presidential election in 2000. Ditto for those who thought the possibility of that outcome should have kept Nader out of the race in the first place.

But it won't, of course. Dems always need somebody to blame other than their worthless, spineless, unappealing and dishonest candidates. (To anyone who thinks that assessment is too harsh, and who voted for Democrats in November 2006 expecting them to end the war and impeach Bush & Cheney, good luck getting even something as meaningless as a "non-binding resolution" for your efforts.)

In lots of talking-head interviews and video clips, many present-day Nader critics essentially argue that American politics is supposed to be a choice between the lesser of two major-party evils, and ONLY those two evils. The most sickening example of a former Nader supporter turned present-day Judas is Michael Moore. At a Madison Square Garden Nader rally in 2000, Moore fervently exhorts the attendees -- with "if not now, then when?" passion -- to vote their consciences by voting for Nader. Four years later, Moore discourages voters from supporting Nader by saying that feeling good about themselves for five minutes in the voting booth is something for which they will end up paying afterward.

Way to stick it to the system, Michael. With rebel iconoclasts like you, we may as well elect Big Brother himself and be done with it.

The movie also includes vitriol-dripping clips of prissily whiney Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman damning Nader for being a "spoiler" in the 2000 race. Thanks to the juxtaposition of facts and research proving that everything Alterman bitches about is bullshit, Alterman ends up coming off like such a hateful, nasty prick that viewers literally started hissing his on-screen appearances at the screening I attended.

The movie's most interesting fun fact about that "spoiler" label: Every individual third-party presidential candidate on the Florida ballot in 2000 -- and there were nearly a dozen of them -- received a higher number of votes than the number that separated Gore and George W. Bush in the final official tally. But do any other candidates catch flak for not abandoning their principles and throwing their support behind Gore? Nooooooooo!

It may be difficult to recall at this juncture, with Gore's star on the rise again thanks to his global-warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," how uninspiring and unimpressive a candidate he was in 2000. He didn't seem to stand for much of anything. His attempts to show a little humanity -- that Frankenstein-awkward smooch with his pro-censorship wife Tipper at the Democratic convention, his sudden preference for plaid shirts -- were embarrassing. And his choice of the thoroughly contemptible Joe Lieberman as his running mate was a disgrace. Lieberman's main claim to fame at the time was his threat that if the movie industry didn't clean up its act, the government would do it for them. (He has gone on to further shame himself, of course, by sucking up to W as a sociopathic cheerleader for the Iraq war.)

As for the John Kerry candidacy in 2004, the less said the better. Was there anyone in America who actually liked that guy?

The documentary also covers Nader's early years, as a workaholic consumer crusader whose efforts led to legislation on everything from auto safety to the environment. His tragedy is that all of the good he did in his life prior to running for president was enough to make him a genuinely great American with a lasting legacy -- but many people now unfairly regard him as the "egomaniac" who handed the country to Bush by having the audacity to believe he was entitled to run for president.

An even bigger tragedy is looming right over the horizon, when Democrats are likely to anoint another utterly worthless candidate by making Hillary Clinton their 2008 presidential nominee.

If that race comes down to Hillary versus John McCain, anyone who despises dishonesty and hypocrisy may as well jump in the nearest Corvair, find a very twisty road, and hope for a mercifully quick death.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Anvil: The Story of Anvil
(Reviewed April 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website Click this link to read the review: "Anvil" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed September 10, 2008)

Decent-enough western, notable mainly for featuring a truly unusual female character (Renee Zellweger) who proves that appearances can be very deceiving.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed November 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

Director/writer Atom Egoyan, whose "Exotica" was my far-and-away favorite movie of 1994, risks being too clever by half in this multilayered film about the Armenian genocide of 1915 by the Turks. Instead of simply telling the story of that atrocity (which to this day is denied by Turkey), Egoyan frames it through the device of a movie-within-the-movie that is being made about an Armenian artist whose family members were victims. That would have been okay...but there also are subplots about the Armenian author of a book about that artist, and about her stepdaughter who thinks the author killed her dad, and about the son who is sleeping with that stepsister, and about the gay security guard at the museum where the artist's work is on display, and about his father who just happens to be a customs officer on duty when the stepsister-screwing son comes back from Turkey with some suspicious film canisters, and the guard's gay Turkish lover who happens to play the role of the Turkish military commander in the movie that's being made, for which the stepsister-schtupping son is working as a production assistant.

In other words, there are way too many not-at-all credible coincidences colliding here, to the point where the complications of the plot overshadow the importance of the historical material. All of it leads to an unsatisfying and quite unbelievable "feel-good" ending.

The heart of this film--the murder of a million people, in an incident the world largely has forgotten or never knew about--did not need to be tricked up for easy consumption by art hounds.

"Ararat" is not a terrible movie. It's always interesting and watchable, with a haunting score and some excellent performances. At the same time, it tries far too hard to be flashy...and thereby comes dangerously close to looking exploitative instead of respectful to victims of one of history's greatest crimes against humanity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Aristocrats
(Reviewed May 12, 2005, by James Dawson)

This comedian-packed documentary devoted to what is billed as the world's filthiest joke is a real treat. Sure, parts of it go on too long, and the production values are strictly home-video, and it's extremely frustrating that the often-unplaceable interviewees are not identified until the closing credits. But everyone involved is having such a clubby-and-congenial time that the atmosphere of "good dirty fun" is irresistible.

The movie's title refers to a joke that's like a secret handshake among professional comics. You've probably never heard it, but all of them know it, and each has his own way of telling it. It's not a great joke; heck, it's not even the dirtiest joke I've ever heard. (That honor would go to one I think of as "The Boilsucker," the details of which are best left to one's imagination.)

The basic framework of the "Aristocrats" joke goes like this: A man goes to a talent manager's office to pitch a family vaudeville act. The manager says he doesn't handle family acts, but the man insists that this one is special. He then describes a family that does everything onstage from incest to bestiality to feasting on all manner of bodily fluids and solids. "That sounds like a hell of an act!" the shocked and appalled manager says. "What's it called?" "The Aristocrats!"

What makes the joke special is that its midsection can be adlibbed with an infinite variety of disgustingly offensive detail, the more lengthy and elaborate the better. It's comedy as free-form jazz, ripe for ribald riffing. As more than one comedian explains, what puts the joke across is "the singer, not the song."

Gilbert Gottfried's version is different from Jason Alexander's, Drew Carey's and George Carlin's. Bob Saget (yes, the "Full House" sitcom dad) cracks himself up as he spins his incredibly nasty version. We even see the joke rendered with amazing card-magic accompaniment by Eric Mead, and enacted physically by the hilariously uninhibited Billy the Mime on a public sidewalk.

Some comics change the set-up, some change the punchline, some add a topper at the end, and others flip the joke on its head. It works every time. It's even funny on a "meta" level, such as when Jake Johannsen analyzes the joke itself and wonders, "Why would the agent ask what the act is called?"

The movie's nearly nonstop, way-over-the-top profanity, and the criminally vile sexual scenarios that tumble gleefully from the lips of nearly everyone involved, may keep this from being a good date-night choice for decent, respectable churchgoers.

For the rest of us, though, it's pretty fucking funny.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Around the Bend
(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

Flabbergastingly saccharine and stupid, "Around the Bend" is so irredeemably awful that you will watch it in bored disgust.

Michael Caine is one of those sickeningly eccentric old farts found only in movies like this. Knowing he is about to croak, he puts together a scavenger map of places where he wants his son, grandson and great-grandson to scatter his ashes across the southwestern United States. Most of those stops are at Kentucky Fried Chicken joints.

No exaggeration, KFC is in this movie so much that you will wonder if Colonel Sanders bankrolled the goddamned production.

Even sadder than Michael Caine's appearance in this mile-high mountain of shit is the presence of Christopher Walken, who should have been able to run from the money faster.

One of the very, very worst movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Around the World in 80 Days
(Reviewed June 12, 2004, by James Dawson)

Ever notice how the worst thing about Jackie Chan movies is almost always...Jackie Chan?

I mean, don't get me wrong, this remake of "Around the World in 80 Days" would not exactly have been a modern classic even without Chan's involvement. It's basically one of those expensive-but-feels-cheap kids' movies where everyone involved mugs it up to the point where not one second is involving or convincing, even on a comedic level. But every time Chan appears on screen and has to do something not involving a stunt (such as, for instance, ACT), things get just about unwatchable.

It all feels very amateurish and pointless and dumb. Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing a horny Arabian-nights-type prince who lusts after the female member of the movie's travelling trio, looks just plain bizarre in a weird fright wig and too-much-orange toner. His performance is equally silly.

If you have to take a kid to the movies, take him/her to "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" again, instead of to this colorful waste of time.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Arthur (2011)
(Reviewed April 6, 2011, by James Dawson)

Waiter, this champagne is flat.

Russell Brand should have been the perfect choice to reinterpret the childlike and perpetually inebriated title character, and casting Helen Mirren as Arthur's bossy minder seemed equally inspired. The badly rewritten script and lifeless direction undercut them at every turn, however.

Incredibly, the most enjoyable character to watch turns out to be Arthur's irresistibly sweet working-class love interest, played to short-skirted perfection by the very girly Greta Gerwig. What a doll.

This movie seemed like a can't-miss proposition when it was announced. Just goes to show that in Hollywood there's no such thing as a sure thing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Arthur and the Invisibles
(Reviewed December 29, 2006, by James Dawson)

This is the first animated feature by French director Luc Besson ("The Professional," "The Fifth Element," "The Transporter"), and it's a real winner.

There's something off-kilter and slightly exotic (as in European) about the movie that makes it a refreshing departure from typical American CGI movies. The pace is quick without being manic, the character designs are charming (and in one case downright sexy) instead of merely "cute," and the corny tongue-in-cheek aspects (such as the homestead-saving plot) come across with a wink instead of an elbow to the ribs.

Half live-action and half CGI, the movie stars Freddie Highmore as Arthur, the grandson of an explorer who has gone missing without leaving Freddie or his grandmother with enough money to stave off foreclosure on the family's Connecticut farmhouse. Freddie discovers that granddad hid a cache of rubies somewhere on the property, though -- a treasure obtained during his travels among African tribes that included the teenie-tiny Minimoys.

Turns out that he brought a tribe of those little "invisibles" back with him and hid them in the back yard, and that they are the key to finding the loot. Freddie shrinks down and goes on adventures in their wildly imaginative world with Selenia, a spunky teenage girl who happens to be several hundred years old, and a funny sidekick who is like a cross between Conan O'Brien and a Russ Troll (Jimmy Fallon). The badder-than-bad villain Maltazard, wonderfully voiced by David Bowie, manages to be oily and outrageously evil but still remarkably refined.

You'll notice that I haven't said who does the voice of Selenia, the king's foxy daughter. That's because I was completely surprised at the end of the movie to see the identity of that actress in the credits. Granted, most people paying to see this movie already will have been exposed to a list of the voice actors on its poster. But if you manage to remain as blissfully ignorant as I was, you won't bring any preconceptions with you to the theater. (The name of the actress in question is not one that will inspire confidence, but she honestly does a great job!)

There's so much creativity and energy to this movie that it's a shame the studio seems to be dumping it without much marketing in a January no-man's-land. For those who manage to find it, though, it's a genuine treat.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Artist
(Reviewed November 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"The Artist" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

The Art of War
(Reviewed August 22, 2000, by James Dawson)

Wesley Snipes really deserves better material. The guy is just so darn likeable, and has a great "look," but he keeps getting stuck in really dumb movies. This is another preposterous, pointless, at times achingly stupid "good guy on the run" waste of time, in which trained undercover agents can't manage to shoot each other from point blank range, standing three feet from each other in a hallway. Need I say more? Skip this junk and wait for "Blade 2."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Art School Confidential
(Reviewed February 16, 2006, by James Dawson)

Look, I know you're not going to believe me.

You're going to think I'm completely nuts when I tell you that director Terry Zwigoff and writer Dan Clowes, the same team responsible for the brilliant and sublime "Ghost World," have managed to make a movie that is so generic and unfunny it should have been called "National Lampoon's Art School Confidential."

The script is so stupid and carelessly plotted it doesn't even work as "we know it's bad, but that's what makes it good" irony. An unappreciated and misunderstood art-school freshman who can't get a break or his dream girl finds himself involved in a serial-killer investigation thanks to impossible-to-believe yet entirely uninteresting circumstances.

The characters are so stereotypical -- shy yet thoughtful loser, misogynistic slacker, loudmouth Belushi wannabe, tough beauty with heart o' gold -- that this joyless slog plays like a late-period John Hughes flick on downers with a really bad soundtrack.

Maybe this story played better in comics form. Maybe a John Waters could have breathed life into it by making everything that's dull and mopey loud and campy. Maybe my Toyota Corolla would go 200 miles an hour if it had a Ferrari engine, and maybe I would be starring in TV spots for Eternity cologne if I had better teeth.

What a disappointment.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(Reviewed September 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

"Slow" doesn't begin to describe the lethargic pace of this 160-minute movie, which aspires to Terence Malick-like transcendent minimalism but more closely resembles the lifelessly low-key dirge "Road to Perdition." (Writer-director Andrew Dominik was a second-unit director on Malick's "The New World.") Nearly every shot in the movie -- that's "shot," not "scene" -- could have been substantially shortened without losing any plot points.

Brad Pitt plays the outlaw Jesse James, who veers between zen-like calm and paranoia-inspired violence during his final days. He's as likely to shoot a gang member dead as he is to present him with a nickel-plated revolver as a gift, which tends to make everyone in his social circle a tad skittish.

Casey Affleck is James gang member Robert Ford, who comes off like an eager-to-please and more than slightly deranged obsessed fan. Maybe henchmen were tough to come by back then, but still, it's obvious from frame one that this isn't a guy you'd want to be near when he's in possession of a handgun.

In other words, this movie is like a weird hybrid of the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" -- in which everyone is terrified of a super-powered little kid who can banish them with a thought -- and "Selena."

Writer-director Andrew Dominik undoubtedly had loftier ambitions for the movie, which very obviously wants to be taken very seriously. And the underlying story, derived from the novel "Jesse James" by Ron Hansen, is undeniably interesting, especially the information about what happened to Ford and his brother after James' death. But the execution is so flat and tedious that it's like listening to a boring lecture about a fascinating event.

I haven't read the book, so I can't say whether it's more engrossing than this frustratingly lifeless and "stagey" slog. If you're willing to look up at the screen every few minutes, you probably could read it DURING the flick without missing much of what's happening onscreen.

It beats checking your watch every five minutes, glancing idly around the theater, and trying to remember if you left the gas on at home.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Assassination of Richard Nixon
(Reviewed November 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

The similarities between this movie and "Taxi Driver" include the lead characters' names (Sam Byck, Travis Bickle), their stations in life (loner furniture salesman who hopelessly wants his uncaring wife back, loner cabbie who hopelessly wants his dream girl to forget their disastrous first date), their criminal plans (to assassinate a Senator, to assassinate a president) and their desire to get some kind of redemption from an act of self-righteous vengeance. The difference is that "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is based on real events, plays things more low-key for the most part, and ultimately is more sad and moving than sensational.

Although Sean Penn is very good as Nixon's would-be assassin, he could have dialled-back and internalized a little more. He is playing a meek, unassertive loser, but always seems to be acting the part, in the same way that Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" came off too much like a guy who was nuts from the get-go as opposed to one who gradually was going insane. Things don't get as bad as when Penn vigorously chewed the scenery during his "Mytic River" crying-and-shouting jag. (Then again, he won an Oscar for those howling histrionics, so apparently "more" actually is "more" for some people.) Still, when he screws up his face and starts bawling with theatrical gusto, one wonders if the guy ever actually has seen an adult cry. Hey, Sean, come over to my house the next time I'm thinking about my future.

Don Cheadle also is good, as a laid-back auto mechanic who is Penn's would-be business partner. Naomi Watts is great as Penn's dismissive wife, who has moved on and wants nothing to do with her ex. And Jack Thompson, who plays Penn's obnoxiously smarmy boss, is flat-out excellent as the kind of duplicitous asshole who personifies the term "successful businessman."

The script isn't too strident about equating Nixon's 1970s America and the current ongoing Bush nightmare in this country. Then again, it doesn't have to be. Parallels between the Vietnam quagmire and the Iraq debacle, for example, are so obvious they don't have to be hammered home. And anyone who hears Penn's boss praising Nixon as the world's best salesman, for getting elected twice on a promise he didn't fulfill the first time, can't help but think of W, who convinced a majority of red-state morons that he is a good steward of national security even though 9/11 happened on his watch.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Astronaut Farmer
(Reviewed February 26, 2007, by James Dawson)

Billy Bob Thornton is okay in this folksy but kind of flat fable. He's a farmer named Farmer, who has built his own rocket in the barn out back, in hopes of orbiting the earth without benefit of NASA. The bad ole' gummint tries to shut down his dreams, but he's too can-do and cantankerous to let things like logic or sanity stand in his way.

Call me cynical, but I couldn't make the suspension-of-disbelief leap that would permit me to buy into this story. Sure, it's meant to be Disneyesque (even though it's from Warner Bros.), with things like colorfully goofy townsfolk and a seemingly endless line of credit that allows Thornton to keep doing things like renting $500-a-month carnival rides even when the bank is supposed to be foreclosing on his property. But the likelihood that anyone could assemble a rocketship, orbiting capsule and mission-control set-up from junkyard parts seems, how you say, extremely slim.

The movie obviously is going for a Robert Heinlein-style golden age of science fiction feel, with an anti-authority individualist going up against the system by taking matters into his own hands. A lot of time has passed since the days of slide-rule jockeys blasting off for the great black yonder, though.

Even if you allow the filmmakers a pass on the whole credibility thang, there's also an odd tonal problem with the movie. If Thornton were a full-on crackpot, his aspirations might work on a broad-comedy level. But what's supposed to pass for real-world realism raises its head a lot -- domestic strife, the death of a character, a hospital stay. Also, events are supposed to take place in our version of reality. When bigwigs question whether Thornton might actually be making a weapon of mass destruction, he zings back by telling them they wouldn't be able to find it if he were.

Virginia Madsen plays Thornton's long-sufferin'-but-hangin'-in-there wife. Bruce Willis has a cameo that goes from warm and fuzzy to disturbingly menacing. Bruce Dern, looking like he has both feet in the grave and is waiting for somebody to throw dirt on him, is kindly ol' grampaw.

"The Astronaut Farmer" is written by Michael Polish (who also directed) and his brother Mark. The Polish brothers' last movie was the interestingly strange 2003 film "Northfork," which had a kind of surreal poetry to it that this latest venture completely lacks.

"The Astronaut Farmer" probably will make a lot more money than "Northfork," because it doesn't aim as high or seem as daring. Which is kind of ironic, when you think about it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The A-Team
(Reviewed June 6, 2010, by James Dawson)

After enduring last month's lousy The Losers, which played as if it had been made from a rejected "A-Team" spec script, I almost didn't bother seeing the real thing. Fortunately, my desire to get out of my hotter-than-hell house in the valley and spend an evening in air-conditioned theater comfort won out, because "The A-Team" is much better than the "L" team.

In both movies, Our Heroes -- a colorful band of ridiculously combat-proficient misfits -- are betrayed and disgraced by a rogue CIA agent, then spend the rest of the movie trying to get their reputations back. Mayhem ensues.

Unlike its L-word predecessor, "The A-Team" includes a how-they-got-together origin story, which is helpful for those of us who somehow never felt compelled to watch the 1980s TV series. Devilishly charming Lt. Templeton "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper) is about to be killed by corrupt Mexican officials, his boss Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) van-jacks the sweet ride of B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) to save him, then the three spring daredevil pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley) from a hospital to fly them to safety. In a scene that couldn't possibly be more timely, the quartet rejoices when their helicopter's navigation screen shows they have entered Arizona airspace -- at which point two American jets destroy a pursuing chopper full of, ahem, undocumented border crossers. (What part of "illegal" didn't those guys understand?)

Cut to several years later, when the group is stationed in Iraq and about to be sent home -- but not before undertaking a final covert mission to get back some currency-counterfeiting printing plates. Things don't exactly go as planned, and all four end up stripped of rank and imprisoned. That doesn't mean they should be counted out, of course.

Director/co-screenwriter Joe Carnahan keeps things moving well enough, even if many of his fight and action scenes are visually incomprehensible because he likes shooting things just a little too close-up for comfort. Cooper is likable and boyish as Face, and Neeson is sufficiently grounded but ingenious as Hannibal. Jackson is a little flat as Baracus; even someone who never watched the TV series (me! me!) has to imagine that the outrageously over-the-top Mr. T must have brought a little more zest to the character. Patrick Wilson is excellent as the cheerfully smug CIA agent Lynch, and so is the very Ray-Liotta-like Brian Bloom as a very-baddie named Pike. Jessica Biel is adequate in a not-much-to-do role as Face's ex, who also happens to be on the hunt for the team as a Defense Department investigator. The only cast member who put me off was District 9's Copley as Murdock, a character so annoyingly and aggravatingly nutso it's impossible to believe anyone could stand to be in the same room with him for longer than it would take to leave.

The most creative action sequence in the movie involves a flying tank, which gets big points for crazy creativity (even if Carnahan cheats the audience out of what should have been a pretty dramatic money-shot landing). Like The Losers, both movies climax at a Los Angeles harbor, but "The A-Team" definitely outdoes its predecessor on a mass-destruction scale.

It's not a great movie, but a pleasant enough night out for anyone who likes seeing people get hit repeatedly in the face without needing reconstructive surgery, heavy automatic weapons fire in urban settings, and the occasional gigantic fireball of destruction.

(Also, be sure to stay until all of the text credits are over to see a bonus scene that includes a cameo by a member of the original TV show's cast.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed June 1, 2001, by James Dawson)
The only okay part of this very bad Disney animated movie is a very brief section toward the end that might remind you of the Warner Bros. animated classic "The Iron Giant." When large, robot-like figures rise from the sea to deal with impending disaster, everything looks and sounds pretty good--but that's because there is absolutely no dialog in the scene, and none of the movie's main characters are involved in the action.

The primary problem with "Atlantis" is that no human being should be forced to listen to Michael J. Fox's voice for any extended period of time, because the guy is just so damned whiny and annoying. Here he plays a very irritating would-be adventurer in the early 1900s who is rescued from a boring office job to lead an expedition searching for Atlantis. The expedition seems to have been put together by some Rainbow-Coalition minded diversity committee intent upon including nearly every minority known to man. Oddly, this works at cross purposes with the group's Puerto-Rican (I assume) mechanic, a girl who is drawn with such exaggerated Latina features that she looks bizarrely cartoonish (although, of course, with a heart o' gold). Then again, there's also a French fellow who digs holes in the ground Tazmanian-Devil style and collects dirt. Don't ask.

The movie makes no internal sense whatsoever, with way too many people and far too much equipment managing to make it to Atlantis even though we have seen all but a handful of the cast and virtually all of their stuff destroyed in earlier scenes. Also, the "white figures of authority bad, indigenous peoples good" theme is so heavy handed as to be offensive. Oh, wait a minute, white people aren't allowed to be offended. (I keep forgetting.)

Speaking of bad white people, blond Aryan goddess Helga is drawn quite fetchingly, for those of you into Aeon-Flux-type heroines. And what's-her-name, the Atlantean swimsuit model, also has a pretty good bod. (I saw this movie only two days ago, but I honestly have no idea what the main female's name was...which should tell you something about how well her character was written.)

And the story...yeesh! It's like some really boring Saturday-morning "action" cartoon padded out to an hour and a half. It is so uninvolving and flat, despite a lot of pointless noise, that it brings to mind the dreadful Fox animated bomb "Titan A.E.," a movie so bad that its release led to the demise of that studio's entire animation division.

One last carp: On a few occasions in "Atlantis," computer animation and line-animation are used together. This is a real mistake, because it invariably makes the audience wish the entire scene had been done one way or the other. The drawn animation (which isn't all that hot to begin with) looks very unfinished and sketchy next to fully-rendered computer figures.

Go see "Shrek" instead of this one, folks. "Atlantis" sinks...I mean, "stinks."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Attack the Block
(Reviewed July 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Attack the Block" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

August Rush
(Reviewed November 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

Thoroughly stupid, vomitously sappy and aggravatingly endless. As of November 24, this is my pick for the second-worst movie of 2007 -- right behind "License to Wed," which also featured Robin Williams. Anybody detect a pattern here?

Freddie Highmore is bullied by other boys at an orphanage-like facility for foster kids because he's got weird notions about detecting music in everything, and says he hears his long-lost parents "talking" to him that way. He runs away to Manhattan, where Williams -- looking like a benevolent Bono but acting like a fiendish Fagin -- adds Highmore to his stable of street-musician kids living in a condemned theater. It turns out that Highmore is a musical prodigy who masters the guitar in a single night, making dollar signs flash in the busker-pimp Williams' eyes.

Meanwhile, we learn that Highmore was the product of a one-night fling between cellist Keri Russell and rocker Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The reason why Russell doesn't know Highmore exists is as hard to swallow as the idea that Russell and Meyers wouldn't bother trying to contact each other at all during the 11 years since they met, despite that initial night of wonderstruck, soulmatish passion.

I could go on and on -- it's one of those kinds of movies. The plot of this bomb is so utterly preposterous, relying on so many eye-rollingly unbelievable coincidences and so much suspension of disbelief, that there is only one way the movie could have had a chance of redeeming itself. Right after the fairy-tale phony climax in Central Park, there should have been a dissolve taking us back to the opening-scene orphanage. There we see that a just-beaten-in-his-bed-by-bullies Highmore has lost complete touch with reality, and has taken mental refuge in the ridiculous extended fantasy we've just witnessed. He doesn't even react as more blows begin raining down on him from the other foster kids' fists...but hears each of those punches as an echoing drumbeat in his personal, perpetual symphony of pain.

No such luck.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Austin Powers in Goldmember
(Reviewed July 15, 2002, by James Dawson)

This will be the only review you read anywhere that does NOT ruin any of the great cameo surprises and plot twists awaiting you in this return-to-form Austin Powers movie, which is almost up there with the first in the series for big, dumb laughs. If you don't want to have some of the movie's biggest treats spoiled, manfully resist reading any of those idiot critics (such as Rolling Stone's moronic Peter Travers) whose idea of criticism is summarizing entire plots and revealing every surprise in a script.

The first five minutes of "Austin Powers in Goldmember" will make your jaw drop in delight, but I won't tell you why. Put it this way: DO NOT SHOW UP LATE, or you will miss the best part of the movie!

The middle gets kind of hit-and-miss; there definitely are some flat, laughless stretches here. But compared to the deadly unfunny "The Spy Who Shagged Me," this installment in the series is a comedic masterpiece. (Then again, compared to "The Spy Who Shagged Me," the Oxford English Dictionary is a comedic masterpiece.)

Mike Myers actually looks younger and more energetic (in all of his various roles) in this movie than he did in "Spy Who Shagged Me"--maybe he's revitalized by having written better material this time around. Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child is excellent (and incredibly sexy, baby...YEAH!) as Austin's new partner Foxy Cleopatra, a time-displaced '70s disco diva. And Michael Caine is suitably Michael Caine-ish (translation: perfectly cast) as Austin's dad.

More than one scene in this movie made me laugh out loud, and I'm a crotchety snob with a bad attitude and a permanent curled-lip sneer. So just imagine how much a happy, well-adjusted person such as yourself will enjoy it!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed November 26, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website Click this link to read about how stupendously awful the movie is: "Australia" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed August 26, 2002, by James Dawson)

This hateful, cheesy, badly acted bio of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane plays like a cheap made-for-cable throwaway. The most despicable thing about it (aside from the shameless way it slanders the dead, that is) is the way it censors itself, presumably to get an "R" rating here in the alleged "land of the free."

The "hide the hide-the-salami" scenes in "Autofocus" are not finessed with any attempt at subtlety, the way Stanley Kubrick (unfortunately) inserted digital characters in "Eyes Wide Shut" to block the racy parts. In "Autofocus," a TV playback of a homemade sex video actually is "cubed out" on the screen, the way people's faces sometimes are replaced by stacks of blurry blocks on news programs. Later, a video playback is blurred out of focus on another TV screen that the characters in a room are watching, making nonsense of the entire scene (in which Crane and a friend are commenting on the sexual prowess of the girl in said video).

Greg Kinnear plays Crane with a detached carelessness that is thoroughly unconvincing. Also, Crane is portrayed as too ridiculously wide-eyed and innocent at the beginning of the movie, considering he already had been in show business for 15 years at that point (he had an L.A.-radio morning show). The on-set "Hogan's Heroes" making-of scenes don't seem to be taking place in this universe, and the Cranes-at-home scenes (with wife Rita Wilson) are as emotionally fake as...well, as a sixties sitcom. When Crane becomes desperate for work in his later years, it becomes hard to differentiate between what is supposed to be his slipshod performances on dinner theater stages and Kinnear's shallow portrayal of the actor in the rest of the movie.

The movie's entire reason for existence is the fact that Crane apparently became a wildly self-indulgent sex addict during the making of his TV series, and developed a fondness for videotaping himself doing the nasty with hundreds of Hogan-humping honeys. The problem is that Kinnear displays none of Crane's twinkly, gently sarcastic charm; he seems more like a farmboy on the make. Colonel Klink had more savvy.

Considering that "Autofocus" was directed by Paul Schrader (writer of "Taxi Driver," director/writer of "Hardcore") and costars Willem Dafoe as Crane's partner-in-perversion, the movie should have been a hell of a lot better than this disappointing, dippy, semi-dirty dirge. Damn!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D- (instead of an "F" because, what the hell, it does have some nudity--and it mentions "Gent" magazine, which warmed my heart)

(Reviewed December 21, 2009, by James Dawson)

I wrote a "sneak preview" about this movie a month before its release date, based on about 40 minutes of footage I saw at the Fox studio lot. You can read it by scrolling down to the next entry after this review.

Without repeating any of the things I wrote then, I have to add that this movie has to be considered essential viewing for its technical aspects alone. The story is predictable, in a very "B" adventure movie fashion, but the special-effects visuals are imaginative and often flat-out gorgeous. If you go in expecting nothing more high-falutin' than a fantastically expensive videogame ride, you won't be disappointed.

Two points about the screenplay that bear mentioning: The movie could be seen as outright subversive, if its lessons are applied to the wars of occupation that America currently is waging against Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine if James Cameron had given us a movie in which an American soldier switches religions to join Taliban fighters intent on opposing foreign invaders who are seeking to overthrow the indigenous culture.

Also, the ending of "Avatar" (SPOILER ALERT, stop reading now if you can't guess what happens) is ridiculously naive and unsatisfying. Can anyone possibly believe that the evil corporation and the bloodthirsty military won't return with more and bigger weapons very soon after being "evicted" from Pandora? At the very least, Sully should have turned to the natives and muttered something like, "They'll be back. And we are gonna be so screwed when they do." The entire movie is very unsubtle about its analogies to America's cavalry-and-Indians, with vastly superior firepower up against low-tech natives. But it treats the climactic battle on Pandora as if Custer's last stand was the end of the matter in the United States; as if native Americans were left in peace thereafter simply because they managed to kick ass in a single battle.

Or maybe I'm the one who is being naive, and Cameron plans to put the next round in "Avatar 2." Then, somewhere around "Avatar 5," any blue natives who haven't been slaughtered will be running casinos and getting rich off the paychecks of unobtainium miners.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

"Avatar" Partial Sneak Peak: November 18, 2009
by James Dawson

About 40 minutes of director/writer James Cameron's anxiously awaited "Avatar" were screened for journalists on November 18 at the Fox studio's Darryl F. Zanuck Theater in Los Angeles. The movie is scheduled for release December 18 in 3-D, IMAX 3-D and standard 2-D. Producer Jon Landau introduced the screened 3-D footage (requiring the usual annoying glasses), which consisted of several complete scenes and two trailer-like montages.

"Avatar"'s protagonist is paralyzed-from-the-waist-down soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). His consciousness is shifted into a laboratory-grown human/alien hybrid body resembling the 10-foot blue residents of the distant planet Pandora. With his mind controlling that alien "avatar," Sully is able to pass among the natives -- but his motives are more "mercantile mercenary" than "Margaret Mead." It seems that Pandora's natural resources include a certain ridiculously rare resource (which producer Landau referred to as "unobtainium"), and Earth's malevolent military-industrial complex means to get some by any means necessary.

Analogies to our own world's exploitation of indigenous peoples, history of environmental crimes and brutish gunboat diplomacy are as unsubtle as most episodes of "Star Trek." Then again, it's unlikely human nature ever will change, so it's hard to fault the film for saying future governments and corporations will be as nasty as their present-day counterparts.

The wildly exotic environments on Pandora offer Cameron a world of opportunities to show off some truly fantastic flora and fauna. Basically, this movie looks ga-ga-ga gorgeous. The scenes previewed included glimpses of an impossibly lush jungle, utterly bizarre creatures (such as a tree-toppling hammerhead dinosaur), and massive, vine-covered islands floating high above the planet's surface. Some quick-cut action scenes suffer from the typical "things happening way too fast to follow" problem of many effects-heavy movies ("Transformers," I'm looking at you), but the eye-candy otherwise is pretty amazing (and amazingly pretty).

It's those speaking-part blue aliens that matter most, however. "Avatar" has been hyped by Cameron and others as a great leap forward in the art of creating believable computer-generated characters. Motion-capture technology, in which performances by real actors are used as guides to construct their digital counterparts, has been associated primarily with director Robert Zemeckis over the past several years. Zemeckis employed it in "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and this year's "A Christmas Carol," with varying degrees of success. All three movies looked like lushly elaborate videogames, with digital casts that tended to appear just "off" enough to seem unsatisfying (if not downright creepy).

Some critics lay the blame for that shortcoming on "dead eye" syndrome, meaning that motion-capture versions of actors can't convey the subtle nuances that make a real face expressive.

In "Avatar," Cameron starts out with the advantage that his computer-generated characters aren't human. The aliens' big-eyed, flat-nosed humanoid faces look fine, but not noticeably better than Jim Carrey's code-crunched appearance as Scrooge.

Still, the fact that no one truly knows what a 10-foot blue alien is supposed to look like definitely works in Cameron's favor. While "Avatar"'s aliens may not appear "real" enough to make anyone wonder if they might have been played by actors filmed in makeup and rubber suits, that inherent artificiality somehow makes the aliens easier to accept than pixel-produced people. Instead of being bothered by the vaguely unsettling artificiality of a computer-generated human face, audiences may focus on what a good job the animators did of making an obviously fake alien look so good. The half-empty glass becomes half-full.

Whether the finished film will succeed story-wise is hard to predict. With its "outsider goes native, learns empathy, hooks up and switches sides" plot, and considering how Native-American-like the aliens are, "Avatar" looks a lot like an eye-candy SF version of "Dances With Wolves." With any luck, what it won't end up resembling is the similarly themed "The Last Samurai." It doesn't seem ambitious enough to be shooting for "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Spartacus" territory, which may have been a bit much to expect from Cameron.

Getting back to the plot: Viewpoint character Sully is reckless, immature and a bit of a jarhead-variety jerk until he hooks up with the foxy she-alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and gets his consciousness raised. Next-to-naked Neytiri uses a bow and arrows, and speaks in the kind of short, declarative clauses normally associated with Native American stereotypes ("You're like a baby, making noise, don't know what to do!"). Her opinion of Sully changes when a school of glowing jellyfish-like "seeds of the sacred tree" land all over his body, apparently indicating that he is blessed, chosen or somehow otherwise destined for great things.

In two very similar parts of the movie that were screened, Sully must bond telepathically with an unnaturally strange horse and later a flying dragon. Both segments are fantasyland versions of the hero breaking a bronco, earning its trust and climbing on its back, a manly task as old as the dustiest western. That doesn't mean the scenes aren't fun to watch, though. The wildly colorful dragons could have flown right off one of Roger Dean's 1970s album covers, and the aerial action is thrilling.

"Avatar" may not end up being a computer-effects game-changer. It's ecological message may turn out to be sanctimoniously sappy. And its simultaneous condemnation and fetishization of military might-makes-right firepower may seem Hollywood hypocritical.

But even if the movie flops -- which seems unlikely -- it definitely will leave a good looking corpse.

The Avengers
(Reviewed April 30, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"The Avengers" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Aviator
(Reviewed February 17, 2005, by James Dawson)

I saw "The Aviator" several weeks after it was released, so I went in knowing that most critics thought it was great. I also knew that it had received a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations, including noms for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director.

What were these people thinking?

I didn't hate the thing, but I sure didn't love it. That's mainly because Leonardo DiCaprio is as preposterously miscast here as he was in "Catch Me If You Can" -- and for exactly the same reason. In "Catch Me If You Can," he was playing a guy who was supposed to look sufficiently older than his years that he could pass for an adult even though he was high-school age. The problem, of course, is that Leo's babyface actually makes him look YOUNGER than his real age, subverting the entire point of the movie.

Similarly, he not only looks nothing like the real Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," he looks insufficiently "mature" to be credible as a Hughes-like character. Even though he may be the right chronological age to play the director/innovator/entrepreneur/wacko, DiCaprio can't help looking more like an ambitiously stubborn child prodigy than a "man's man."

The best supporting actress nomination for Cate Blanchett, who plays onetime Hughes paramour Kate Hepburn, is even more mind-boggling. Blanchett's showy impersonation looks more like Martin Short doing Hepburn than like Hepburn.

Alan Alda's nom for best supporting actor isn't as ridiculous, although he wouldn't have made my short list. I'll bet most Academy voters who picked him did so simply because he was cleverly cast as the opposite of his "liberal nice guy" image.

Nominating Martin Scorsese for Best Director is the definition of a "legacy nod." Yes, it's a shame he never won for "Taxi Driver" way back when...but playing catch-up now based on material this unexceptional is kind of embarrassing. "The Aviator" seems more like a stunt than a story, made up of nuggets that don't mesh very well narratively or chronologically.

Then there's the fact that certain events from Hughes' life are falsified to the point of offensiveness. Best example: It wasn't a fictional weatherman who co-piloted the Spruce Goose, it was the guy who designed the plane's hydraulics! And, according to the record, the plane lifted easily into the air with even less effort than Hughes expected, as opposed to the violently vibrating white-knuckle struggle to get aloft that we see onscreen.

There always are those who argue, "It's a movie, they had to take some dramatic license." Nonsense. If they wanted to outright lie about things that really happened, the filmmakers should have made up a name to go with the rest of their make-believe fantasy. Orson Welles got that right by making "Citizen Kane" instead of "Citizen Hearst." And yet, every year, people go on using real names on unreal accounts. ("Finding Neverland" remains 2004's worst offender in this regard, of course.)

Then there are the parts of "The Aviator" that are so goofy and self-consciously arty they look ridiculous, such as the very first scene in the movie (Hughes as a boy, getting a stand-up bath in a living room that looks like a David Lynch whorehouse).

Parts of "The Aviator" are nice looking, and there's a pretty good plane crash. But no matter what the Academy ends up saying, there is no way this is "Best Picture" material.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

A Walk to Remember
(Reviewed January 30, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie is so thoroughly lamebrained, preposterously devout, and shamelessly targeted at the white-trash yahoo Christian demographic that you just know the fatcat Hollywood producers who brought us this swill had to be sniggering up their expensive, custom-tailored sleeves. Mandy Moore plays the "pretty ugly girl" character, a tasty Britney-esque jailbait knockout who is supposed to come across as unattractive here simply because she wears frumpy ankle-length dresses and a granny sweater. She also is a faraway-eyed, smugly superior, preacher's-daughter, Jesus-freak goody-two-shoes in the "Seventh Heaven" vein. (Translation: She is not portrayed as a superstitious idiot with an imaginary all-powerful friend, as she rightly should be, but as someone with a meaningful faith that everyone should admire.) (Hey, can you tell I'm a lousy, stinking atheist? Can ya? Huh?)

Naturally, St. Mandy's wholesome Bible-toting icky goodness wins over her high school's sullen, misunderstood bad boy...just in time for Mandy to announce that she IS DYING OF LEUKEMIA! That's right, even though she has shown absolutely no symptoms of illness whatsoever...even though she announces that her death is imminent because all treatments have stopped working, despite the fact that we have seen zero evidence of any chemo side-effects or the like...this born-again MTV ass-shaker will be leaving our vale of tears to appear on "Total Request Dead!" Oh, the humanity!

Mandy's set-squarely-on-the-right-path boyfriend is no dummy. As soon as he finds out Mandy is Not Long For This World, he PROPOSES MARRIAGE! Oh, how I dearly wish that the movie had included him saying, in a muttered aside to the audience, "No way am I letting this little nugget croak without tearing off a piece first!"

I hated this idiotic piece of evangelical pap so much that I wanted to go worship Satan after leaving the theater.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Away We Go
(Reviewed May 2008 by James Dawson)

With Away We Go, director Sam Mendes takes a hiatus from the well-crafted bores he's been making since his impressive American Beauty debut -- 2002's Road to Perdition, 2005's Jarhead and last year's Revolutionary Road -- to slum his way through a deadpan road-trip dramedy. This is progress?

The first time we see expectant father Burt (John Krasinski), he's going down on wife Verona (Maya Rudolph). That's appropriate, considering he spends the rest of the movie acting like a douche. Burt is the kind of bearded, sensitive, new-millennium wuss who wants to be "that dad who knows how to make things." Verona draws anatomical illustrations for a living, and is so big with child at the six-month mark that she's not allowed to get on airplanes. In addition to what look like thrift store clothes, both wear an attitude of amused self-satisfaction that isn't quite charming.

Deciding they need to find the best possible place to put down roots before delivery day, they take an extended trip to visit friends and family in several cities. Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) are the kind of well-heeled eccentrics who have a $12,000 statue of a Choctaw princess and address dinner-table grace to "the almighty food gatherer." In Phoenix, Verona's former co-worker Lily (Allison Janney) and Lily's husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) are loud, vulgar and lousy child-rearing role models. "If this country's shit," Lowell declares, "everyone else is just the flies on our shit." In Wisconsin, Burt's childhood friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- now known as "LN" -- has grown up to be the kind of pop-psychology flake who refuses to use a stroller because she would be pushing her baby away. In Montreal, a pair of seemingly happy old pals (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) with several kids turn out to have genuinely depressing underlying problems. These are communicated during a sad, slow pole dance at a bar's amateur night, a plot device that works exactly as badly as might be imagined. In Miami, Burt's brother's wife has taken off for parts unknown, abandoning the brother (Paul Schneider) and their young daughter.

The screenplay, by novelist Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, comes off like an ironic exercise that knows it is more cloying than clever. Burt's proclamation that "you're my light, Verona, my sky" is more retch-worthy than romantic, and his repeated attempts to quicken his unborn baby's heartbeat by screaming at Verona are anything but endearing. Worst of all, the place where Burt and Verona finally settle is an unsatisfying out-of-nowhere choice that's the result of a misbegotten rewrite. (The plot originally ended with them giving up on North America entirely and settling in Costa Rica.)

"Away We Go" should just go away.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-