Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed October 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

This would-be "serious" flick about how a single bullet affects the lives of people in four countries left me with a lot of questions. Unfortunately, they are not the political or philosophical ones that director Alejandro González Iñárritu or screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga probably intended.

Would a germphobic, bitchy and slightly neurotic upper-middle-class San Diego mother (Cate Blanchett) really go to filthy, sweaty, one-step-from-the-stone-age parts of Morocco on vacation, leaving her precious kids at home with an illegal immigrant nanny? Fastidious as I am, even I don't bring my own utensils to restaurants, as Cate does -- and I get nervous simply driving south of Wilshire Boulevard. The mere notion of bumping through northern Africa in a crowded tour bus makes me twitch and break out in hives.

Would an illegal immigrant nanny in upscale San Diego have any trouble whatsoever finding a babysitter for two angelic, upper-middle-class white kids? And if she somehow couldn't find another nanny, a teenager, or another neighborhood parent, would she really be so ridiculously clueless as to take those tykes across the border with her to a rowdy Mexican wedding without their parents' permission?

If you were stranded with two kids in a desert, but were within sight of a road that appeared to be no more than a 10-minute walk away, wouldn't all three of you go there instead of separating?

Are deaf Japanese schoolgirls really panty-free, obsessively horny nymphomaniacs?

In other words, every storyline in this movie is so contrived and melodramatic that it almost plays like a no-irony version of a Todd Solondz film. Unfortunately, playing things straight means lots of long, dull patches and very skimpy plotting.

Brad Pitt technically does an excellent acting job as the kids' frustrated-with-the-third-world father, but 98% of his role consists of comforting Cate and talking on the phone. Gael Garcia Bernal is the nanny's hyper, gun-toting, chicken-strangling nephew, whose car-chase scene is unbelievable in at least three different ways. The Moroccan kids are unconvincing. And the bit with the morose Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) who flashes strangers and pops pills is just silly smut disguised as insightful psychodrama.

(Also, two parts of the Tokyo section of "Babel" seem to have been appropriated from better movies: the "teen walks naked into room" bit from "Broken Flowers," and "Lost in Translation"'s "not letting the audience in on a final bit of communication.")

Both the Moroccan police and the US Border Patrol are preposterously efficient in this movie's universe. Southern California, Arizona and Texas audiences are likely to convulse in howls of derisive laughter when a Border Patrol agent announces that a longtime US resident suddenly is subject to immediate deportation. In the real world, she would be released on her own recognizance, become the heroic subject of a glowing five-part series in the Los Angeles Times, and brazenly lead a million-Mexican march down the Miracle Mile shouting "Si Se Puede!"

And how is it that the Moroccan authorities are simultaneously able to needle-in-a-haystack some rifle cartridges on a mountaintop and race around in a convoy of police SUVs hunting down a shooter, but simultaneously are unable to get the gravely wounded Cate out of a nearby village for days?

"Babel" is a diverting film that looks well-made and tries to take itself seriously, but it's a real letdown from the director and writer who gave us the much better "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams." It's more sullen soap opera than searing social treatise.

It's also nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and feels like it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Baby Mama
(Reviewed April 16, 2008, by James Dawson)

I'm not even going to bother reviewing this dud, which has absolutely none of the cleverness or style of star Tina Fey's excellent "30 Rock" TV series. Fey didn't script "Baby Mama," but she's a good enough writer that she had to have known this movie was a real step down in quality from her TV show.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Back-Up Plan
(Reviewed March 31, 2010, by James Dawson)

A single image from this ill-conceived alleged comedy about an artificially inseminated idiot should be enough to keep audiences away. Unless the sight of blood on a vaginal ultrasound probe tickles your funnybone, stay home.

Jennifer Lopez plays Zoe, a cheerful dumbbell whose airheaded immaturity hasn't stopped her from buying and managing a pet store...with stock options from when she "used to work in the corporate world." I haven't seen career miscasting this ridiculous since Meg Ryan played a surgeon in "City of Angels."

Zoe's annoyingly sunny voiceover narration makes her sound more 14 than 40. She's the kind of childish rom-com ditz who sleeps with her city apartment's unscreened window all the way up, drives into a tree when distracted by a shirtless male and bites her thumbnail when she wants to look cute. Considering that Lopez can't even put food in her mouth and eat believably, watching her do anything more dramatically challenging is almost painful. It's only March, but I'm not going out on a limb when I predict that she has a lock on next year's Worst Actress Razzie award.

Apparently unable to hook a man despite looking exactly like Jennifer Lopez, Zoe gets knocked up with donor sperm mere minutes before her "meet cute" with a lunkhead (Alex O'Loughlin) who is so rude and dismissive that he obviously is destined to be her soulmate. Turns out the frequently unshaven stud owns his own preposterously picturesque farm where he makes his own cheese, which he sells at a farmers market.

Consumer alert: In the movie, Zoe eats raw cheese while pregnant, which even a childless curmudgeon like yours truly knows is a health no-no in the real world. A quick Google search turned up this, from "dairy products made from unpasteurized milk (also called raw milk) can carry disease-causing organisms, including a potentially deadly bacterium called listeria monocytogenes." End of public service announcement.

Zoe delays telling the man-o'-her-dreams that she's preggers until she climaxes during a dry hump in his barn and then pukes in a sink. Ah, romance!

The rest of the movie plays out in utterly predictable "will he stick around or split" fashion, complete with the requisite temporary break-up and perfectly timed public reunion. Along the way, we are treated to scenes featuring an embarrassingly dated new-age support group of hippie-dippy single mothers, a dad whose son picks up a sandbox turd of unknown origin, a screechingly grotesque wading-pool birth, and a couple of really bad "song-overs" with lyrics like "take a moment to get in touch with your heart."

The only unawful moments in Kate Angelo's abysmal screenplay feature ex-"Saturday Night Live" cast member Michaela Watkins as Zoe's cynically direct friend Mona, a mother with no illusions about motherhood. "Have you seen my vagina?" she asks. "I'll show it to you, and prove you don't want to have kids!"

And in what comes off like a winking reference to the real-life Jenny from the block's finest attribute, the ballooning Zoe conveniently has old photos on hand to prove she once had "a great ass." That's about the extent of anything here that could be called clever.

Guaranteed to be on my 10 worst list of 2010. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Bad Company
(Reviewed May 19, 2002, by James Dawson)

"Bad Company?" The title should have been just plain "Bad."

Chris Rock once again thoroughly embarrasses himself in another pointless waste of time (although God knows no movie he makes is ever likely to be as embarrassing and pointless as his "Down to Earth"). This time he plays the "street homeboy" twin brother of a murdered CIA agent. In a matter of days, Rock has to acquire sufficient social graces, spy skills and antique-appraising abilities (don't ask) to pass for that brother and avert nuclear catastrophe. Incredibly, this is not played as out-and-out slapstick nonsense. Sir Anthony Hopkins, slumming as Rock's CIA boss, acts as if he thinks he is in a tasteful espionage drama.

As in "Down to Earth" (in which Rock was reincarnated as a wealthy white man), we are treated to a somewhat disturbing scene in which an unsophisticated black man does the bug-eyed, loudmouthed, "fish out of water" bit in an elegant apartment, as if no poor person of color ever possibly could fit into such surroundings without lapsing into clueless vulgarity. He may as well have chicken-walked across the terrazzo floor with a watermelon in one hand and a 40-ounce malt liquor in the other.

The lines that are supposed to be funny aren't, the drama isn't dramatic, and the whole thing feels very tired and "seen-it-before." Don't bother.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
(Reviewed November 3, 2009, by James Dawson)

Operatically over-the-top and often black-humor hilarious, Nicolas Cage gives one of the most wildly out-there performances of his career as Lt. Terence McDonagh, a corrupt crackhead cop in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The word "bad" doesn't do this deliriously drug-addled lieutenant justice. He shakes down a clubgoing couple for drugs in an outdoor parking lot, accepts the girl's unexpected offer to share a rock and some stand-up sex, and forces her disgusted boyfriend to watch the ensuing nasty-talk knee-trembler. McDonagh's own girlfriend is a high-priced hooker (Eva Mendes) whose career choice doesn't give him any cause for concern until a john gets rough and won't pay. And the lieutenant's creative but undeniably effective interrogation methods include cutting off an elderly nursing home patient's oxygen supply while holding her horrified hairdresser at gunpoint.

Director Werner Herzog's "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is not a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 "Bad Lieutenant," although both title characters share a shockingly self-destructive fondness for illegal substances and irresponsible gambling. But where Harvey Keitel's nameless "Bad Lieutenant" descended into a depraved debilitation that was painfully pathetic (who can forget his high-pitched keening as he danced drunk and stark naked?) and aggravated by religious guilt, Cage's McDonagh seems oddly invigorated by each new step he takes down the road to his more secular hell.

McDonagh goes from being a more-or-less by-the-book public servant -- albeit one with a secret addiction instigated by constant back pain -- to the kind of flailing, frustrated fuck-up who snorts drugs even while driving an underage witness out of town. He sees imaginary iguanas while on stakeout, fires up a blunt while questioning a suspect, and is so far in debt to his bookie that he blackmails a college football player into throwing a game. He's also cool with turning a blind eye when some underworld driving companions want to stop on a bridge and dump a body.

The screenplay by William Finkelstein does a good job of transitioning from what at first looks like a cynical but conventional police procedural to something much, much stranger. The underlying plot about the search for killers of a drug dealer and his family becomes secondary to the spectacle of watching McDonagh spiral out of control. The first time he says something that sounds a little "off," you'll wonder if laughter is appropriate. After a few more lines like "what are those fuckin' iguanas doing on my coffee table," you won't be able to stop yourself.

Cage also shambles rather distinctively through the movie with one shoulder constantly higher than the other, like a wild-eyed cross between Columbo and the hunchback of Notre Dame. The huge .44 Magnum he keeps shoved down the front of his pants instead of in a holster completes the "this guy ain't right" effect.

The plot bounces around as crazily as McDonagh's mood swings, leading to a final act with a pair of comically convenient coincidences. There's also an escalatingly unlikely series of fortunate events that are as subtle as slapstick. (In fact, audiences could be forgiven for wondering if everything past a certain point in the movie is a McDonagh drug fantasy.)

Director Herzog has one Lynch-like moment that feels more silly than inspired, when he lingers for a painfully long time on those imaginary iguanas while "Release Me" plays on the soundtrack. On the other hand, images like a snake swimming in and out of the bars of a flooded jail cell, or a traffic-accident scene featuring an almost-dead alligator lying on its side with one leg twitching, are effectively disturbing.

This is Cage's movie all the way, though. His manic energy, insanely off-the-wall attitude and furious fits of frustration are irresistibly entertaining.

Don't go expecting any of the agonized religious-redemption allegory or existential dread found in Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant," which was about as fun as a funeral. But for those with a very dark sense of humor and an appreciation for the outrageous, this gleefully absurd extravaganza is a must-see.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Bad Santa
(Reviewed November 13, 2003, by James Dawson)

This is one that I should have liked a lot more than I did: a blacker-than-black comedy about a nasty department-store Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) who drinks, chainsmokes, fornicates and hates kids almost as much as he hates his own miserable self. But what may have made a good 15-minute comedy sketch gets really old when stretched out to an hour and a half. I mean, there's only so much verbal child abuse and self-destructive self-loathing a guy can stand.

"Bad Santa" is a real misstep for director Terry Zwigoff, who previously did the excellent "Crumb" documentary and the great "Ghost World." I get what he was going for here -- a comedy so rude, mean and cruel it rejects nearly any semblance of sentimentality. But most of the movie is so relentlessly depressing that the irony becomes hard to appreciate (and the ending seems to sabotage those nihilistic intentions, anyway).

If I want to see somebody act like a hates-everything, bitter, mean-spirited asshole for 90 minutes, I'll save eight bucks and look in a mirror.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Bad Teacher
(Reviewed June 20, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Bad Teacher" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Legend of Bagger Vance
(Reviewed October 31, 2000, by James Dawson)
In this achingly overstretched metaphor that thinks it's a movie, spiritually adrift golfer Matt Damon is guided to his duffer destiny by all-wise caddie Will Smith. Unfortunately, Smith's Zen Buckwheat character might have been a better fit over in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" minstrel show. So would the stereotypical blacks that Damon consorts with when he hits bottom and turns to the evils of cards and demon liquor in a shack behind his plantation-style mansion. Aside from a few shanty-town extras, those are the only people of color to be found in the movie.

Now, I'm no bleeding-heart liberal, but there's something a little strange going on here. Tiger Woods gave blacks an emotional investment in this sport that "Bagger Vance" almost seems to go out of its way to snatch back on behalf of the white (and in this case Southern) aristocracy. The movie tries to have it both ways, however, by never letting a single character utter the word "nigger," even though the era and setting (and certain events) almost require it. Very odd.

There is exactly one convincing character in this entire film. Is it Jack Lemmon, who bookends the film in his usual twinkly old codger role, and whose sickeningly sweet narration seeks to elevate the game of golf to metaphysical importance? Nope. Is it the lovely Charlize Theron, who shows no acting ability whatsoever in her embarrassingly unconvincing role as Damon's Depression-era squeeze? Nope. Is it Matt Damon, who was so perfect last year as "The Talented Mr. Ripley," but who pouts his way through this waste of time like a guy who would rather be just about anywhere else? Nope. Is it Will Smith, who shucks, jives and mugs as if he thinks he is in "The Fresh Prince of the Bel-Air Golf Course?" Good god, no.

The only cast member who was entirely believable was Joel Gretsch, who plays golfer Bobby Jones. He looks like the Arrow Shirt man, he actually appears to know how to play golf, and there always seems to be something more going on in his head than wondering when director Robert Redford will say "cut." He gets exactly one "spotlight" scene, talking to Damon in the locker room, but it's a low-key hole-in-one.

Everything else about this film is as boring as watching, well, a PGA match. And where movies such as "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams" did a good job of using baseball as an allegory for the American condition, golf just doesn't have the same cultural relevance to most people's lives. (And I say this as someone who couldn't give a fig about either sport, so it's not as if I am biased.) "The Legend of Bagger Vance" might tug the heartstrings of some upper-crust fatcats who like to imagine that they are communing with God whenever they wake up early to get in 18 holes. But for the rest of us, it's hard to relate to the trials and tribulations of a guy who has given up on life because he "lost his swing."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Ballad of Jack and Rose
(Reviewed March 2, 2005, by James Dawson)

This strange little low-key drama plays like a summer project by a rich hippie-throwback film school student who doesn't know much about the Real World. But that doesn't mean it's not watchable.

"The Ballad of Jack and Rose" actually was written and directed by Rebecca (daughter of Arthur) Miller. Her real-life husband Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Jack, the only remaining original member of an abandoned peace-and-love '60s commune, circa 1986. Camilla Belle is well cast as his overly codependent teenage daughter Rose, who veers between naive flower-child innocence and casual cruelty. Her blank-faced, peasant-blouse-wearing look is perfect; she could have just wandered in from the Woodstock nation.

Jack thinks his heart trouble is about to send him to an early grave, and he doesn't want Rose to be left all alone when he goes to that big ashram in the sky. So he asks poor-but-good-hearted townie Catherine Keener and her two teenage sons to move in with him.

Rose spends the rest of the movie being sullen, resentful, potentially murderous -- and manipulatively seductive. A scene in which she calmly strips down and offers her nubile body to one of her housemates in the kitchen is about as convincing as a PENTHOUSE FORUM letter. I also didn't buy that Rose would consider actually killing her new "stepmother stand-in." Other hard-to-believe scenes include one in which Jack gets away with shooting at construction workers without receiving a visit from the sheriff; a scene implying that the front doors of model homes are left unlocked so they can serve as crash pads for runaways; and the scene where crusty, bad-tempered, self-righteous Jack is welcomed into the home of his tract-house developer nemesis (Beau Bridges) as if he is a favorite uncle.

Moreover, what passes for trouble-in-Eden symbolism in the movie is about as subtle as a snake in a house. In fact, it's exactly that subtle.

Still, it's interesting to watch this moody, overly earnest downer unfold, mainly because Jack and Rose have such a quietly creepy, borderline incestuous relationship.

One thing I did wonder was why Miller chose the names of the lovers from "Titanic" for her title characters, as if people wouldn't automatically associate the names Jack and Rose with the biggest movie of all time. That's like calling a non-"Star Wars" movie "The Ballad of Luke and Leia."

But I digress.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Balls of Fury
(Reviewed August 28, 2007, by James Dawson)

This is one of those completely silly comedies that's so cheerfully unpretentious, unsmutty, slightly cheesy and amusingly dumb that it seems like a throwback to a more innocent age. Or like an okay Will Ferrell comedy without Will Ferrell.

Dan Fogler stars as Randy Daytona, a 30-something slob who never has lived down his humiliating ping-pong defeat at the 1988 Olympics. The FBI recruits him to take down the crime boss Feng (Christopher Walken), who was responsible for Daytona's father's death all those years ago -- but that means Daytona must work his way back to ping-pong prominence, in order to qualify for Feng's invitation-only underground tournament.

That naturally means training with a cantankerous Chinese ping-pong master (James Hong), who happens to be blind.

Although it seems like an odd thing to praise, the ping-pong special effects are pretty amazing, even if "Forrest Gump" was doing the same thing more than 10 years ago.

Also amazing is Asian A-cup angel Maggie Q, as Master Wong's spicy-hot granddaughter. Forget the fact that her character would have been imminently more qualified than Daytona to qualify for Feng's tournament (she is soundly defeating no less than four ping-pong players at once when we first see her). Just enjoy feasting your eyes on her in outfits ranging from sports-bra and super-short skirt to red silk slit-side dress. Ga-ga-ga-going!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed September 30, 2001, by James Dawson)

"A Knight's Tale" was absolutely awful. "Tomcats" was titanically terrible. But "Bandits" is so sub-moronically stupid and overwhelmingly unentertaining that it may be worse than even those two bombs. It easily joins their cellar-dwelling ranks as one of The Three Very, Very Worst Movies of 2001.

Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton are two escaped inmates whose pairing is mind-bogglingly unconvincing. While Willis does his usual tough-guy-with-a-wink schtick (although occasionally and inconsistently dumber when the situation here demands), Billy Bob seems to be channeling some unholy and remarkably unfunny hybrid of Tom Arnold and Woody Allen. It is impossible to believe that Willis would have anything whatsoever to do with Thornton's twitchy, hypochondriac, sad-sack, effeminate motormouth. It is equally impossible to believe that Cate Blanchett, who drops into the picture about halfway through as a stereotypically neglected and flakey housewife, would develop a romantic attraction to Thornton. Then again, not a damned thing else in this endlessly overlong (two-hours-plus! Good God!) dud makes a lick of sense, either, so at least it can't be called inconsistent.

The writing is excruciatingly bad. Director Barry Levinson wallows tediously in scene after scene long after you have finished praying he would yell "cut!" We even are blessed with one of those ultra-cliche "character lip-syncing to classic rock song" scenes, when Cate Blanchett vamps it up solo in her gourmet kitchen while miming some horrible old Bonnie Tyler tune. See her throw flour in the air for atmosphere! Watch her use her pots and pans for percussion and her sink's spray nozzle for a microphone! Jesus Christ, was this kind of thing ever amusing?

Just when you think this turkey can't possible get any worse, you will be treated to an ending that is so stupendously, insultingly dumb that it could have been replaced with a simple placard saying, "If you have stayed this long without leaving, you are a complete idiot, and we don't mind treating you like one."

With any luck, this dreck will slither into the sewer with all dispatch without making a dime at the box office. (If only life were so just.) And then director Levinson can get in a petty snit and blame its failure on a poor marketing effort by studio MGM, the same way he saddled Dreamworks with the blame for last year's wholly warranted failure of his thoroughly lousy "An Everlasting Piece."

Note to Mr. L: Sometimes, the problem isn't the ad campaign.

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

The Bank Job
(Reviewed February 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

Not-bad Brit 1970s period-piece crime caper, allegedly based on a true story.

Slim and sexy Saffron Burrows lets working-class friend Jason Statham know about a once-in-a-lifetime get-rich opportunity involving an easy-pickings bank. He is rightly suspicious of her motives, but the chance is too good to pass up.

Statham and his band of nervous, not too clever criminals rent a storefront beside the bank so they can tunnel into the vault over the weekend. At times, the movie veers dangerously close to resembling the Woody Allen farce "Small Time Crooks." Until the killing starts, that is.

The crosses and double-crosses extend all the way into the Houses of Parliament, eventually involving everyone from the royal family to a drug-dealing black-power guru to undercover operatives to the very nasty owner of a nefarious knocking shop.

Director Roger Donaldson ("No Way Out") ratchets the tension up nicely, especially when certain on-the-lam members of the cast find themselves hunted by both the long arm of the law and the scourge of the underworld.

The facts of the case supposedly were kept secret for three decades because of something called a "D" notice that put a gag on the press...but one has to wonder how certain unknowable elements of the story now can be revealed.

This quibble doesn't really detract much from the movie, though. It's still a good, gritty caper, and one that actually has the look of the era it portrays. Even if it's not worth running to the multiplex to see, it definitely will be worth checking out when it shows up on cable or DVD.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed March 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

The ending of "Basic" is so "hoo-boy" ridiculous that you will want to shout "oh, BROTHER" and throw your empty popcorn box at the screen. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever in the context of What Has Gone Before. Was this a nefarious scheme by the producers, who are hoping to get people to see the movie twice in order to confirm their suspicions that "Basic" has more inherent contradictions than George W. Bush's foreign policy? One has to wonder.

Stars John Travolta and Connie Nielsen engage in flirty high-school banter that does not jibe well at all with the drugs-'n'-murder military investigation in which they are involved. Harry Connick Jr. is remarkably bad as a military doctor who coughs up a Shocking Revelation with astoundingly little convincing. Samuel L. Jackson comes off the best, as a hard-as-nails military man who is such a completely convincing bastard that he makes you actually enjoy seeing that old stereotype again.

"Basic" is one of those movies that piles frustration upon frustration because if Just Won't End. Movies like this always remind me of the Dashiell Hammett novel "The Glass Key." Every time you think everything has been satisfyingly wrapped up in that book, someone suggests another possibility, and another, and another, to the point where you just plain don't give a damn.

Basically, everybody in "Basic" says and does things that don't end up making a lick of sense. And did I mention that I hated the ending?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Batman Begins
(Pre-review feature written May 10, 2005 by James Dawson; my review of the movie follows this short article)

I am so sick and tired of hearing a certain erroneous bit of "Batman Begins" pre-publicity nonsense that has been repeated endlessly in the media that I had to set the record straight.

Despite what frequently has been said in interviews with the creators of "Batman Begins," the movie absolutely will NOT mark the first time that anyone has covered the period between the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents and Wayne's first adventure as the costumed crimefighter.

Understand first of all that I don't claim to be any sort of fanatic expert on the character. I have bought Batman comics on-and-off during my four decades as a comics geek, but there have been hundreds (possibly thousands) of Batman yarns I've missed. For all I know, dozens of "lost years" stories may have appeared in Batman's 66-year history -- but one example is enough to make the point:

A three-issue storyline called "Blind Justice" appears in issues 598-600 of Detective Comics, published way back in 1989. Bruce Wayne is framed as a traitor. Government agents who have looked deep into his background say, "We're going to need a convincing explanation of what you were doing all those years you spent overseas." It turns out that Wayne was training with a martial-arts master named Chu Chin Li for part of that time, which Wayne explains by saying, "You know how it is. College kids, eastern mysticism...people go through silly phases." The pre-Batman Wayne then traveled to Korea, Thailand and the Philippines before training with a badass Yakuza named Tsunetomo. Later, he trained in Paris and elsewhere for six weeks as an apprentice detective to an Interpol-associated troubleshooter named Henri Ducard. All before he put on the cape and cowl.

It's bad enough that Warner Bros., a sister company of "Batman" publisher DC Comics, lets media writers continue believing that "Batman Begins" will chronicle a time period that no writer has touched.

Know what's even worse? The writer of those comics I mentioned is one Sam Hamm...who is perhaps best known as the co-screenwriter of (you're gonna love this, folks) Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" movie, where he also got a "story by" credit. And whaddaya know? Hamm got a co-story credit on Burton's "Batman Returns" sequel, too.

People sure have short memories in Hollywood, huh?

...and here is the movie review:

Batman Begins

(Reviewed June 2, 2005, by James Dawson)

Like the new "Star Wars" episode, the fact that this "Batman" is better than its two most recent predecessors doesn't mean that it is good. It only means it's not total crap.

Two-thirds crap, maybe. But not total.

The first hour (of nearly two-and-a-half) is infuriatingly, tediously unnecessary, not to mention inappropriate. This is the "how Bruce Wayne became Batman" bit that is intended to reboot the franchise, clearing away all of the tongue-in-cheek Tim Burton weirdness and the flamboyant Joel Schumacher camp with what is supposed to be more real-world grit.

Unfortunately, the Bat-backstory supplied here is a misbegotten mess of martial-arts mumbo-jumbo mysticism that seems very much at odds with the concept of a vigilante detective who was motivated to hate crime for the simple reason that a criminal killed his parents.

Instead, what we get in "Batman Begins" is a scruffy, disillusioned, college-age Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who goes underground as a thieving (!) bum, ends up in an Asian prison where he pummels fellow inmates as therapy, and later learns chop-socky and sword-clangy at a mountaintop finishing school for ninjas. This goes on so endlessly long that even the most patient and genteel moviegoer will be motivated to yell at the screen, "Put on the damned costume, already!"

When Wayne finally returns to Gotham City, he acquires the Bat-outfit and Bat-goodies to make a stab at cleaning up that corrupt and crime-ridden urban hellhole. His support team consists of his butler Alfred (well played by Michael Caine) and Wayne Enterprises armaments specialist Lucius Fox (the always enjoyable Morgan Freeman). Batman's only ally on the police force is Sgt. (not yet Commissioner) Gordon, played with surprising restraint by Gary Oldman. Rachel Dawes, Wayne's childhood friend who is now on the city prosecutor's staff, is the horrendously miscast Katie Holmes. She simply doesn't have the chops to hang with the other members of this crowd -- who may be slumming, but who are considerably better at pretending they don't know it.

Christian Bale is adequate as Bruce Wayne/Batman, which is more than could be said for Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or George Clooney. He's certainly the best actor of that lot, which helps him do a better job of pulling off the darkly troubled stud persona. His exposed jaw doesn't look very menacing when he's in the suit -- it looks oddly flabby, actually -- but just about anyone would have trouble looking cool in a cowl.

Cillian Murphy is the surprising standout, acting-wise, as a criminal psychiatrist in both senses of the term. He manages to look like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, yet one who seems very coldly creepy. Not that those are mutually exclusive qualities.

Even with all of that casting firepower, "Batman Begins" has a very hard time overcoming a leaden script (by director Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer) that is so fundamentally uninteresting its action beats seem grafted on from a different movie. Yes, there is a great car chase involving the very bizarre-looking, Humvee-from-another-dimension new Batmobile. (Don't bother wondering how this monstrosity made it into the city without anybody taking note, in order to be there at the right time for Batman to make a hasty getaway.) And there's a speeding monorail scene that looks very derivative but much cheesier than a runaway subway car scene in "Spider-Man 2." And some of the hallucinogenic-fear effects look good when the villain known as the Scarecrow is scaring the bejesus out of his victims.

But when your basic subject matter is inherently ridiculous -- a vigilante billionaire in a batsuit who refuses to use guns that would end every conflict much, much sooner -- your movie either has to be a lot more violently psychotic, a lot more intriguingly stylish or a lot more enjoyably goofy.

But one thing it can't be is boring.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

To see my reviews of Christopher Nolan's
other two Batman movies, use the links below:

"The Dark Knight" (2008)
"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

Battle for Terra
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Battle for Terra" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Battle in Seattle
(Reviewed September 25, 2008, by James Dawson)

This fictional, overly earnest melodrama about the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle has its heart in the right place (people good, multinational corporations bad), but its shallow characters and soap operatics ultimately overwhelm its attributes.

Woody Harrelson is a cop. Charlize Theron is his pregnant wife. The protest melee in which Charlize gets caught turns into a police-beat-down riot. You probably can figure out what happens to her.

As for the ridiculously saintly protestors, Andre Benjamin plays the movie's wise, asexual, always-optimistic "magic negro." Martin Henderson is the nobly non-violent leader, still mourning the loss of a brother killed in some unspecified former forest protest. Jennifer Carpenter is the nervously hesitant newbie who transforms from street marcher to armband-wearing medic to mayor-baiting legal counsel, depending on the needs of the scene. Michelle Rodriguez is the feisty Latina spitfire.

The masked troublemakers who turn things ugly by throwing things through store windows are portrayed as thuggish, one-dimensional outsiders opposed by the majority of the civil disobedients...who never have the integrity, of course, to turn those vibe-harshing assholes in to the police.

Still, director/writer Stuart Townsend gets props for bringing such non-commercial political subject matter to the screen. Fight the power!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Battle: Los Angeles (aka Battle: LA)
(Reviewed March 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

Aaron Eckhart is okay as a tough but troubled Marine-on-a-mission in this gritty run-and-gun alien invasion flick. The problem is that the movie gets off to a good start by throwing us right into the helicopter-over-hellish-destruction action, but then wastes the rest of the first half hour on an aggravating flashback to the previous day. The audience twiddles its thumbs in resentment while impatiently sitting through introductions to the uniformly stereotypical grunts who will end up under Eckhart's command, every one of them a tiresome war-movie cliche.

After that's out of the way, "Battle: Los Angeles" (as it is called in the opening titles, even though it is being advertised as "Battle: LA") turns into a surprisingly low-tech police-action movie for the most part. Sure, the enemy forces that the Marines are fighting are humanoid aliens with high-tech gadgets. But the logistics here are more "Fort Apache: The Bronx" than "War of the Worlds." For example, Eckhart and company spend a long time hunkered down defending a police station that's under siege, protecting the usual complement of noble young and old civilians.

The aliens have the traditional bad aim that's customary in movies like this, despite their vastly advanced firepower, which makes them considerably less intimidating than they should be. Just once, I would love to hear a character in one of these flicks say something like, "We sure are lucky that those creepy sons of bitches can't hit the broad side of a goddamned barn!")

The movie's clumsy attempts at characterization make it hard to care much about anyone in the cast besides Eckhart, whose grim determination is more can-do competent than action-movie showy.

This isn't a great SF movie, or even a very good one. But it's not completely worthless, which these days can be good enough for two hours of staring at a screen.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed May 16, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Battleship" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Beastly" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed September 3, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is a mostly dumb but sometimes sweet movie that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be "To Die For" or a sappy Disney TV movie. Maybe first-time director Sally Field was confused. The movie's first mistake was making the young actresses (Colleen Rennison and Jacqueline Steiger) who (too briefly) play the teenage versions of the main characters more appealing than their grown-up counterparts (Minnie Driver and the annoyingly Betty-Boop-voiced Joey Lauren Adams). Its second mistake was expecting audiences to suspend their disbelief to a ridiculous degree in order for the plot to work. (Best example: We are expected to believe that no news organization would ferret out and instantly report the incredibly obvious information that a Miss Illinois heading to a Miss America-type pageant has an illegitimate daughter. Moreover, we are expected to believe that no one would discover this information even though more-than-normal media attention already is focused on contestant and kid because the woman impersonating the little girl's mother is involved in a high-profile "mercy killing" murder case!) Its third mistake was letting Minnie Driver mug and goof her way through the film as if it were a broad farce, even though the rest of the characters and situations could have come from any movie-of-the-week melodrama.

Note: There is a nice cameo by former "Beverly Hills 90210" star Kathleen Robertson (who played Claire on that series), looking really great as Miss Tennessee. She looks somewhat undignified in a dressing-room scene tugging on a pair of pantyhose, but then again, who wouldn't?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Beautiful Creatures
(Reviewed March 16, 2001, by James Dawson)

Even the delicious Rachel Weisz (best known as the eye-candy babe in "The Mummy") in a platinum wig playing a foxy, dim-witted mistress can't save this dull, dull, dull movie, which aspires to be "Blood Simple" but comes off as "Bloody Stupid." A pair of Scottish lassies attempt to clever their way out of a murder or two, but spend way too long staring into space and talking on the phone. This movie wants very badly to be one of those black-humor, clockwork-plotted film noirs of the type that the Coen Brothers and Guy Ritchie do so very well. It fails.

The most alarming thing about this movie isn't the gunplay and such. It's the credit at the end that says the film was partly financed by proceeds from Scotland's lottery...which goes to show that the American government isn't the only one that knows how to throw away money.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Beautiful Mind
(Reviewed December 9, 2001, by James Dawson)

If you have seen its TV ad or theatrical trailer, you will think you know exactly where this movie is headed. Well, you do--and you don't. For once, this is a movie that veers off in an unexpected direction that ends up making perfect, satisfying sense.

"A Beautiful Mind" gets off to a slow start. You will worry that Russell Crowe is pulling a "Rain Man" act, because his mushmouth line readings and air of general oddness threaten to lapse into caricature, but he manages to walk that tightrope without falling off. (Unlike Kevin Spacey, whose look-at-me-being-stupid performance in the abominable "The Shipping News" is embarrassingly unconvincing.) Crowe plays mathematician John Nash, a social misfit who wrestles with his personal demons while knowing he has brilliance locked inside his head. The jaw-droppingly beautiful Jennifer Connelly plays his wife Alicia with restraint, subtlety and strength.

Director Ron Howard has made a movie for grown-ups, which is a cause for celebration in itself these days. Parts of Nash's true story have been altered for dramatic effect and others have been made up entirely, which is unfortunately common whenever Hollywood makes a biography. But this time the end result works so well that those sins are forgivable...or at least easy to overlook.

Mature, thoughtful and very moving, "A Beautiful Mind" easily ranks as one of the best movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Beauty Shop
(Reviewed March 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

Ever wonder if the Klan secretly bankrolls all of the cheap, stereotype-mining black sitcoms on UPN (or, as some call it, the United Plantation Network), in order to reinforce the fears and prejudices of bigots?

"Beauty Shop" is like a feature-length version of one of those shows, full of degrading characters and insulting situations that wouldn't be out of place on "Amos 'n' Andy 2005." All that's missing is a live audience going "wooooooooo!" every 15 seconds.

This movie wasn't made for snobbish middle-aged white guys, so maybe I'm not the right person to comment. There may be ticketbuyers who want to see Queen Latifah supervising a bunch of sneering, stupid, in-yo'-face arrogant black hairdressers (and Alicia Silverstone as the single white one that they deride). There could be people who enjoy watching a pint-sized (or is that "forty-sized?") gangsta-soundalike creep shoot video of women's posteriors from his bike when he's not making sexually suggestive remarks to adults. And maybe some people get off on seeing uptight white ladies get fatter asses after eating bean pies, catfish and something called "monkey bread" dispensed by a motormouthed Stepina Fetchit from a pushcart.

Yes, there are a few "Beauty Shop" characters who manage to be both black and at least moderately intelligent. Queen Latifah mostly stays above the prevailing "ho in the hood" mentality...that is, until she decides to deal with what would have been an open-and-shut police case by having a pack of homeboys assault somebody instead of simply notifying the authorities. Her tween-age daughter is a blissfully ebonics-free private-school music student. And Djimon Hounsou is suavely dignified as the electrician/pianist who lives above the shop (sort of a calmer, healthier cousin to his "In America" role).

Most of the white characters are villains: Kevin Bacon as a vindictive Eurotrash-swishy salon owner, Mena Suvari as a backstabbing Latifah client, and some other honky who plays a nasty building inspector. White devils all!

I'm no bleeding-heart liberal, but I felt profoundly uncomfortable sitting next to several black women during the screening I attended. I don't know if they were embarrassed by what they were watching, but I was sure embarrassed for them. It must be rough being black and smart in a culture that endlessly promotes the image of blacks as bling-hungry whores, booty-shaking bitches, uneducated thugs and criminal rappers.

Then again, the most powerful white man in the world is a lying, stupid, hypocritical, chickenhawk war criminal. So I guess the caucasion race could use an image makeover, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Becoming Jane
(Reviewed July 3, 2007)

Anne Hathaway stars as Jane Austen in what looks more like a nothing-special knock-off of one of the author's books than a worthwhile biography.

Most of the movie's main points are based on fact, but that doesn't make them believable as presented here. Every stock character goes predictably through his one-dimensional paces: the snooty lout (James McAvoy) who ends up going all gooey for Our Heroine, the determined and independent-before-it-was-accepted female lead, the class-conscious rich bitch, the practical-minded mother who is perfectly willing to pimp her daughter into a loveless marriage if the price is right, and so on.

Tediously long ballroom dances, endless bowing and curtsying, utterly constipated human interactions, maudlin melodrama...feh. Doesn't Jane Austen deserve to be portrayed as something a little more human than a turn-of-the-19th-century soap opera character?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Be Cool
(Reviewed February 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

"Be Cool" falls so flat it made me wonder if "Get Shorty" really was as enjoyable as I remembered. This must be how "Star Wars" fans felt when they saw "The Phantom Menace." Except, of course, that "Star Wars" wasn't any damned good in the first place.

John Travolta is back as smooth-talking sharp-dressed ex-hood Chili Palmer, now bored with the movie biz and getting into the music industry. He is the best thing about this unfortunate and unnecessary sequel. If ever a character cried out for "wait until the script is right" (or at least "wait until somebody other than the director of `A Man Apart' is available"), it's Palmer. The guy is tongue in cheek, wry and amusingly cool, but seems very out of place when nearly everyone else in the cast is playing things slapstick-broad when they aren't being boring.

What made "Get Shorty" special was the way it mostly played with a wink to the audience, not with a hard elbow to the ribs. Also, "Get Shorty" director Barry Sonnenfeld made that movie light, quirky and snappy, with an easy-breezy style. "Be Cool" director F. Gary Gray opts for plodding and dull, allowing what should be "spice" characters to spend far too long onscreen and generally letting scenes drag on forever. (Do we really need to hear every damned note of Aerosmith's in-concert duet, or of singer Christina Milian's deadly dull audition number? And Travolta and Uma Thurman's interminable "Pulp Fiction"-redux dance lasts long enough for you to skip out to the restroom for a nice, long whiz, if you are so inclined.)

Vince Vaughn is gratingly over-the-top hammy as a pimp-costumed wigger. The humor of seeing a middle-aged white guy speak in ebonics and use spastic-gangsta body language is about as amusing and groundbreaking as watching Mr. Roper disco dance.

The Rock plays his chauffeur as an embarrassingly stereotypical gay musclebrain. Cedric the Entertainer plays a super-rich pistol-whipping thug music producer. He fronts for the "Dub MDs," a Hummer-driving posse of huge, stupid and well-armed homies in basketball jerseys. (These guys probably are not going to win any NAACP image awards this year for uplifting the race.) And Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, badly playing himself, seems as hammered into the movie as a case of human product-placement.

Speaking of which, the goddamned T-Mobile Sidekick shows up so often it should have gotten above-the-title billing. In what has to be the most egregious example of product placement ever, the camera actually tilts down in one scene to focus specifically on that piece of technology, lovingly lingering over the brand name. What next? Ushers roaming the aisles offering friends-and-family contracts?

The plot of "Be Cool" involves Palmer trying to save Uma Thurman's record label with a singer he steals from Vaughn and Harvey Kietel's management company. I wasn't sure if Uma was supposed to be channelling Courtney Love, or if she was simply bored, but she sure doesn't bring much to the table. The singer (Milian) is lauded throughout the flick as if she is the next Aretha Franklin, which makes it unfortunate that she sounds more like any generic "American Idol" version of Beyonce Knowles.

"Be Cool" feels fake, rushed and obvious. Although adapted from "Get Shorty" writer Elmore Leonard's own sequel novel, it feels more like a TV-movie ripoff pastiche hacked out by somebody who didn't understand what made the original work. (The screenplay is credited to Peter "Analyze That" Steinfeld.) All of the Hollywood and movie-biz references are about as clever, witty and "inside" as a Jay Leno monolog.

There was exactly one thing in this uncomfortably unsubtle would-be comedy that made me smile: a billboard in the very last scene.

Not cool.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed October 18, 2000, by James Dawson)

Very early on in this surprisingly bad movie, I wished that Brendan Fraser only had been given two or three wishes instead of seven, so I could escape this hell a little sooner. I never have been able to understand Fraser's appeal. Maybe he is living proof that girls like dumb, good-looking guys as much as guys like dumb, good-looking girls. (What a revelation!) He played a befuddled innocent dope in "Blast From the Past," then did "The Mummy" as if he were Indiana Jones with Down Syndrome, and then he ratcheted things down to the sub-basement in the abysmally awful "Dudley Do-Right." What next -- playing a buff-color rock?

The various comic setups that Fraser mugs his way through in "Bedazzled" are flat, predictable and just plain boring. Devil Elizabeth Hurley appears in lots of hot outfits (my favorite being the red plaid miniskirt, tight red sweater, white Peter-Pan collar and black kneesocks -- Satan looks damned good as a Catholic schoolgirl, lemme tell ya). But her attitude throughout is more bitchy dominatrix than sexy seductress. So don't go expecting to slobber and stiffen, unless you are the sort who gets turned on by looking at really nicely built refrigerators.

Another thing: This kind of story only works if it has a decent payoff. In this case, Fraser has made a deal with the devil: his soul for seven wishes. So the one thing you wonder throughout is how he will manage to get out of the contract. What ends up happening feels unlikely and unsatisfying. (Why didn't he merely wish he never had signed the deal in the first place?) And the movie's coda is just plain stupid.

Bottom line: Hell no, don't go.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Bedtime Stories
(Reviewed December 25, 2008, by James Dawson)

The adorable Keri Russell and the amusing Russell Brand are utterly wasted in this altogether awful would-be comedy. And Guy Pearce should call and fire his agent immediately.

Adam Sandler is the divorced dad of two kids whose additions to the bedtime stories he tells them -- no matter how strange -- eerily predict things that will happen in the real world. That's not a bad premise, but the execution is hampered by the relentlessly bad writing here.

There's also the fact that Sandler's character is an unpleasant douchebag with a nasty streak and simply isn't funny. He acts like a prick toward the perfectly sweet schoolteacher who babysits his kids (Russell) and around his only friend at work (Brand), apparently only so he can be nice to them in the last 10 minutes for a stupidly sappy happy ending.

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Bee Movie
(Reviewed October 28, 2007)

"Bee Movie" is amusing if surprisingly low-key, but worth seeing if only because it's a kiddie flick that manages to be simple without turning into the kind of witless, insultingly condescending garbage that passes for children's programming on PBS. I swear to God, every time I flip past lobotomizingly gentle junk like that wussy "Arthur" or that goddamned "Caillou," it makes me wish somebody would slip "Fight Club" or "The Road Warrior" onto the daytime airwaves in order to keep American youth from turning into a bunch of pussified, pablum-puking pantywaists.

But I digress.

Jerry Seinfeld cowrote the screenplay and voices lead character Barry B. Benson, a bee who finds the prospect of working all his life at one job in the hive less than appealing. In the outside world, he befriends a florist (Renee Zellweger), then sets out to sue humanity for all those years that people have been stealing bees' honey.

The scenes in the hive are kind of flat, although elaborately animated, such as when we see the workings of the Rube Goldberg-esque honey production machinery. Things pick up once Barry gets outside, however, starting with a terrific flight-of-the-honeybee sequence from Barry's point of view.

"Bee Movie" doesn't have the kind of depth found in this year's earlier "Ratatouille," either script-wise or animation-wise, but that's because it's not trying to be one of those Pixarish "grown-up cartoons disguised as kiddie fare." It's just a silly movie that's not stupid. And it's one that doesn't result to vulgarity or dirty double-entendres, which also is a relief.

My god, a movie for the under-12 set that doesn't include farting! A miracle!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Behind Enemy Lines
(Reviewed November 17, 2001, by James Dawson)

Jet fighter pilot Owen Wilson is shot down behind enemy lines in Bosnia and has to sneak his way to safety. Okay, so anybody with half of half a brain can figure out how this one is going to end. What's kind of nice, though, is that the director and cinematographer used some visual style when shooting this strictly by-the-numbers (and kind of dumbheaded) affair. There are color-bleached scenes and other tricks that jazz up what could have been (should have been?) a made-for-TV war movie. Also, there's a great "landmines blowin' up real good" scene that is as thrilling as it is preposterous.

The only other redeeming factor of "Behind Enemy Lines" is commanding officer Gene Hackman's utter contempt for his United Nations overseers. Now there is a message that needs sending.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Being Flynn
(Reviewed February 24, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Being Flynn" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Be Kind Rewind
(Reviewed January 8, 2008, by James Dawson)

Director/writer Michel Gondry's 2007 movie "The Science of Sleep" was so quirky, creative and just plain charming that I had really high hopes for "Be Kind Rewind." Maybe too high.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about Gondry's latest comedy, which makes ridiculously cheap-and-cheesy low-class realism look like a cinematic virtue. The dilapidated video rental store where Mos Def works as a clerk, and especially the cluttered junkyard where his buddy Jack Black lives in a truck camper, are so incredibly crappy they reminded me of my house.

And the amusingly absurd plotline, in which two lower-class losers set out to re-create several movies after all of the store's videotapes are erased, is goofy enough for some real laughs. There's even a kinda touching David-vs.-Goliath angle, because the store is in a condemned building that's about to be torn down for a condo development.

Somehow, though, the movie as a whole is never quite as good as you keep hoping it will be. Parts of it felt like a John Waters effort: slapdash and almost amateurish, but in a likably home-made, utterly unpretentious fashion. Still, it's impossible to keep from wishing the movie had just a little more polish (a lot of scenes look like first-takes), not to mention a few more laughs.

Melonie Diaz is good as Alma, a neighborhood girl enlisted to help re-create the erased movies. Danny Glover is the owner of the video rental store, who brings a kind of befuddled poignancy to the proceedings.

The most impressive thing about "Be Kind Rewind" is that its message -- do-it-yourself no-budget re-creations of Hollywood movies have more heart, soul and humanity than the real versions -- is presented in a major-studio release. Irony, anyone?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Bel Ami
(Reviewed June 7, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Bel Ami" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed August 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed October 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

Directed by the David Twohy ("Pitch Black") and cowritten by Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), "Below" should have been a lot more than a middling, nothing-special, haunted-submarine movie. Not really a bad flick, but just kind of "there," with no plot or stylistic surprises of any kind. Rather pointless, really.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Beneath the Darkness
(Reviewed January 4, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Beneath the Darkness" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed November 3, 2007)

Full disclosure: I saw this in 3-D IMAX, which automatically predisposed me to dislike it, although I'll try to be objective.

I absolutely can't stand trying to watch movies while wearing those stupid 3-D glasses that press right against the lenses of my regular glasses, probably scratching the damned things. Plus there's the fact that the 3-D effect only works intermittently; it's great during the titles, and when somebody is doing something like shoving the business end of a pointy pike at your face. But most of the time there are annoying ghost images, and there's no appreciable added "depth" to the image. Also, there's the constant, irritating anxiety of wondering what lice-ridden, filthy slob last had that pair of glasses' plastic earpieces pressed against the cracked, pus-oozing flesh at the tops of his grimy, eczema-inflamed ears. Honestly, it's enough to make a guy rush home and take five showers.

As for the actual movie, maybe you have to be a fan of computer video games to appreciate the almost-there-but-not-quite-realistic look of the animation. Shouldn't this technique have improved at least a little since 2001's "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within?" Like that movie, "Beowulf" is an impressive technical feat -- with some parts that are incredibly detailed and pretty -- but it always feels a tad "off."

I never saw "Beowulf" director Robert Zemeckis' "The Polar Express," which used the same real-actors-rendered-as-CGI-characters technique. In "Beowulf," all of the main players (Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie) are instantly recognizable, yet seem to have had their humanity sucked away in the transition from people to pixels. Dramatic scenes often come across as corny or unintentionally funny. Action scenes are too frantic and hard to follow. Most unforgivable, the movie is a yawn-inducing bore whenever mad monsters or Angelina's magnificent mammaries aren't on the screen.

More about those mouth-watering melons and their owner: AJ plays Grendel's mother, whom the movie has decided should look like a naked, gold-dipped Playmate of the Year, instead of like a horrible monster who gave birth to another horrible monster. Why? So the thousand-year-old legend's plot can be altered to include some sword-and-sorcery soap opera elements that are found nowhere in the original, of course. Plus everybody likes big tits, right? (Another major plot change has to do with the identity of the dragon in the third act. In the original epic, the dragon has nothing to do with Beowulf's earlier encounters with Grendel or his mother.)

Jolie looks so good as a naked computer-animated hottie that even the pickiest schlong-possessing Scandinavian scholar is unlikely to object to the liberties taken with her appearance. Aside from a couple of very brief appearances elsewhere, she graces only one five-minute scene in the middle of the movie, rising naked from a cave lake to seduce Our Hero. But that's long enough to burn her image forever on the brains of every male in the audience. The camera lovingly encircles her entire glistening body, which is as beautifully bare as a girl with a world-class ass, barely obscured nipples and a cleftless crotch can get. In the words of the poet Ovid, "yumma yumma yumma."

As for Grendel, he's a 20-foot Gollum with a really nasty skin condition, remarkably bad teeth and a speech impediment. Also, he has no genitals, which seems to run in his family.

Neil Gaiman, who cowrote the screenplay with Roger Avary, is best known for scripting the excellent comic-book series "Sandman" during the 1990s. Unfortunately, his movie work (which also includes writing "Mirrormask" and "Stardust") has not been as interesting, thoughtful or clever as his comics work. "Beowulf," in fact, is so flat and nothing-special that nothing about it seems "Gaimanesque" -- except perhaps some awkward attempts at humor, which never was Gaiman's strength.

If some scofflaw uploads the Angelina Jolie segment to YouTube, go watch it there and don't bother with the rest of the movie.

Have tissues handy. And not because you'll be crying.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed April 25, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Bernie" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(Reviewed May 3, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed June 6, 2005, by James Dawson)

In this surprisingly not-awful "backstage Hollywood" comedy, the ethereally sweet Nicole Kidman is a naive, real-life witch who is cast as Samantha in a new version of the '60s sitcom. The intended star of the show is a washed-up movie star played by Will Ferrell, with his usual goofy charm. Michael Caine is excellent as Kidman's twinkly Lothario of a father, who forbade her from watching the original "Bewitched" because it was an insult to "our people."

Not that logic matters much in this sort of project, but something the movie has in common with the sitcom is a suspension-of-disbelief problem. No, I'm not talking about a lack of credibility regarding magic, spells or broomstick-flying. What's harder to fathom is why any boyfriend or husband would freak out in fear, resentment and anger upon finding out that the lady in his life can make absolutely anything happen. If my better half told me that we could live like kings, go back in time to correct mistakes, smite our enemies in cruelly creative ways and fly without airplanes, the last thing I would do is scream in horror and shoo her away with a tree branch.

"Bewitched" runs a little too long (a montage set to the TV show's theme music -- with lyrics -- is one of many moments that should have been cut), with editing that should have been a lot less leisurely to pick up the pace. And the movie deconstructively doubles back on itself at least one too many times. (Kidman's character coincidentally has an Aunt Clara who shares more than a name with the original Samantha's Aunt Clara.) And the plot depends on that hoariest of devices, an unlikely stating-the-obvious conversation that the speakers do not realize has been overheard.

On the other hand, the movie wins integrity points for not casting a couple of teenagers as the new Darren and Samantha, which must have been a hard temptation for the studio to resist. It's not difficult to imagine some clueless studio exec wish-listing Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Simpson for the roles, "to bring in the kids."

Also, in a world where race-switched versions of "Guess Who" and "The Honeymooners" already have been released this year alone, a "Carbon Copy Films" version of "Bewitched" undoubtedly is in development somewhere. Imagine the pitch: "Okay, so it's the whole `Bewitched' setup, except Darren is Deion, Samantha is Syreeta, they call their nosy neighbor `Gladys the Crabby Bitch,' and Syreeta does that snake-head thing instead of twitching her nose to make stuff happen. The movie's title: `Black Magic!' We're talking gold, baby -- gold!"

See? Could be worse!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Beyond Borders
(Reviewed October 25, 2003, by James Dawson)

Possibly the most well-meaning unintentionally silly movie of the year.

Angelina Jolie is a rich society babe who is enlightened to the world's suffering by a smoldering-eyed stud (Clive Owen) who doctors the downtrodden. Jolie leaves her amazingly understanding husband behind for a brief flit to Africa, so she can personally escort a convoy of food and medicine (which she has bankrolled) to a refugee camp where her love god has set up a struggling practice. The convoy is stopped briefly along the way by badass bandits with big guns, but apparently all of them either are quite gay or remarkably sensitive, because the pneumatically breasted Jolie is left preposterously unmolested after the ugly encounter. We're supposed to believe that none of these trigger-happy desert outlaws would avail himself of an easy opportunity to jump Lara Croft's bones? Please!

Back in the lap of London luxury later, Jolie can't stop thinking about Mr. Wonderful. She later jets to join the Fiercely Dedicated But Fatefully Compromised Physician in Cambodia and then in Chechnya. It's all good looking and technically well made stuff (with some genuinely edge-of-the-seat scary bits, such as when a psychotically pissed-off Cambodian rebel leader and his nasty band give a baby a live grenade to play with), but ultimately everything here is rather empty-headed and preposterous. Also, the ending is straight from the canned corn section of your local sloppy, sentimental supermarket.

Jolie probably had her heart in the right place when she made the movie, considering that she now actually holds some sort of UN ambassador position. And the movie honestly does not come across as a cynical exercise. If anything, the opposite is true: everyone involved may have been convinced that good intentions would a good movie make.

Still, my advice is to send your eight bucks directly to UNICEF, if you really give a damn about this movie's subject matter.

Resist the urge to go along in one of the relief trucks, though. You may not meet up with bandits who are as chaste and thoughtful as the ones who stopped Jolie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Beyond the Sea
(Reviewed November 19, 2004, by
James Dawson)

When this wholly misguided and woefully miscast mistake of a movie finally ended, one name came to mind: Ed Wood. That's because "Beyond the Sea" director/star Kevin Spacey seems as cheerfully oblivious as that long-ago schlockmeister to the fact that his labor of love is thoroughly, ridiculously, howlingly lousy, despite all of his good intentions and creative ambition. I actually kind of admire Spacey for having the deluded tenacity to get the thing made, but that doesn't mean it's worth seeing.

First off, Spacey is too old (and more important, too old looking) to play Bobby Darin. His scenes opposite sweet young thing Kate Bosworth (as Darin's wife Sandra Dee) give the false impression that Darin was a dirty old lech trying to score some barely legal trim, a la Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. Spacey's courtship of Bosworth is positively creepy, more like an age-inappropriate stalking than like a couple of kooky kids falling in wuv. Let's put it this way: If Spacey had taken himself out of the running, and a Spacey clone had shown up to audition for the part, the guy would have been chased off the stage with a broom.

Spacey also does all of his own singing in the movie, which falls in the "damned if you do" category. He doesn't have a bad voice, but it wasn't Kevin Spacey who became a singin' sensation. Lip-synching may not be as aesthetically pure ("damned if you don't"), but at least in "Ray" we got to hear the actual Ray Charles vocals on the songs, and had a better idea of why those songs made the guy a star.

And then there are the production numbers, with people dancing in the remarkably fake backlot streets of New York, among other more colorful locales. A few years back, Frankie Muniz had the misfortune to be in a god-awful '50s-era gang movie called "Deuces Wild." Darin's childhood tenement scenes are almost as realistic as the dramatic moments in that cheesy, embarrassing bomb. I didn't like the kid who played the young Darin; Bob Hoskins seemed wildly out of place as Darin's uncle; and I honestly wondered if the woman who raised Darin was being played by a guy doing a way-over-the-top drag act.

Parts of "Beyond the Sea" -- lots of parts, in fact -- made me wonder if the thing actually was supposed to be a parody of other bad biopics. When Darin turns his back on the music industry, throws away his toupees and goes off to live in a trailer, I think we're supposed to empathize with his misery, then feel uplifted when he grows a moustache and writes a protest song. But the "poor little rich guy" act, and the fact that the cheesy song is so utterly terrible, only manage to elicit a "boo-friggin'-hoo" response.

"Beyond the Sea" is so bad that it could become a cult camp classic, which may be the producers' only hope of making a few bucks off the thing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Big Bounce
(Reviewed February 5, 2004, by James Dawson)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this movie just plain blows.

The double-triple-cross robberty plot, allegedly adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, makes absolutely no sense. That makes it hard to critique leads Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman. I mean, honestly, could ANYONE have done a good job with this lifelessly dumb material? And the supporting players are completely wasted, from Bebe Neuwirth to Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton. (The latter two appear in exactly one pointless scene, playing dominoes with Freeman.)

Female-lead-wise, the blond bimbo who runs around in a bikini a lot is so unmemorable that I already have forgotten her name, and I won't do her the questionable honor of looking it up.

The production is so relentlessly second-rate that cutaway shots of surfers are on film stock that very obviously doesn't match the rest of the movie. Yikes.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Big Fish
(Reviewed November 13, 2003, by
James Dawson)

This collection of a dying father's tall tales might have been served up all warm and wonderful if it had been directed by Robert Zemeckis (to whose "Forrest Gump" this movie will be compared by every reviewer on Earth) or Steven Spielberg. In the hands of Tim Burton, however, the whole thing comes off as overly calculated and a bit cold, with the kind of forced whimsy that sunk "Secondhand Lions" earlier this year. It's not a bad movie so much as one that might have been a whole lot better if it had a little more heart.

Albert Finney is good as the father, a cheerful longwinded dreamer. But Billy Crudup is completely miscast as the grown son who is tired of hearing the old man's fabulous yarns. Crudup comes off like a rude, smartass, insensitive prick in a role that requires at least a little vulnerability (if not common decency).

Ewan Macgregor is okay as the young version of Finney's character, but the fact that he is two-dimensionally noble and heroic in every fantasy-filled flashback doesn't give the guy a lot to work with. He is as unfailingly good as Gump as he strides from one unlikely story to the next, but his character lacks the poignancy and depth necessary to keep him from being more than a cartoon.

"Big Fish" is a hard movie to dislike too much, but it never makes the jump from "amusing" to "affecting."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Big Trouble
(Reviewed March 16, 2002, by James Dawson)

I literally groaned the words "oh my God" as soon as I saw the first frame of this movie, because the very first person seen onscreen is the abominably bad actor Jason Lee. This guy...I tell ya, he's right down there with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg on my list of "People I Never, Ever Want To See In Movies Again."

Also in "Big Trouble" are TV's Tim Allen, who proves he should stick to doing bad TV sitcom sludge for the monkey-minded masses; Rene Russo, who manages to be in TWO terrible would-be comedies released at the same time (the other being the Eddie Murphy bomb "Showtime"); Janeane Garafalo, doing her same old bored-ironic-chick schtick; Partick Warburton, still doing Puddy; and former Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter, who gets off the only funny line in the entire movie.

I'll even save you the pain and agony of sitting through the thing, and go ahead and tell you what it is. Richter plays a security cop at a sidewalk mall. He shows a fellow security cop a gun tucked in his belt. The other guy says, "You're not supposed to carry a gun on the job." To which Andy pulls out a flask and says, "I'm not supposed to drink on the job, either," prior to taking a swig. Well, I thought it was funny, anyhow.

One thing I will give this bad movie credit for: Despite being a Disney Touchstone movie, a scene in it that shows airport security personnel displaying total incompetence remains intact. (This movie was supposed to have been released last year, but the studio decided that a movie featuring a bomb on a plane might not be a very commercial prospect right after September 11.) Disney-owned ABC just this month made Drew Carey change an episode of his dumb sitcom in which airport security were portrayed negatively. Maybe at Disney ABC, one hand doesn't know who the other is screwing...

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Biker Boyz
(Reviewed January 22, 2003, by James Dawson)

There's definitely a strong "B-movie" cheapo vibe to this one. You won't believe the cheesy "in-the-zone" camera effect that shows how the road ahead looks to hyper-focused motorcycle racer Laurence Fishburne, and any movie that features 7-Up shill Orlando Jones automatically screams "avoid." But "Biker Boyz" is unexpectedly watchable, mainly thanks to great stunts and the presence of superfine, super-foxy Meagan Good.

In what passes for the plot, young biker Derek Luke wants "King of Cali" racing crown, endures hardships and overcomes disrespect, blah-blah-blah. This ain't exactly a complex existential psychodrama. Who cares? Just wait until you get a look at Kid Rock's badass bike with pipes galore, or the synchronized "reverse wheelies" where three riders on rice rockets simultaneously come down the road on only their front tires, or Meagan nearly falling out of her skimpy halter tops. THAT's entertainment!

It's a strange comparison, but "Biker Boyz" is kind of like this year's "Blue Crush." A big-studio movie about mainly-black biker clubs is as unusual as one about girl surfers, and automatically gets points for being different, even if the plots of both are creaky cliches.

Also, you might experience the thrill of running into a different sort of crowd at the theater. Sitting in front of me at the screening I attended were a young leather dude and a huge-breasted blond who could have stepped off of a Vivid Video box cover. Honest to God, I really expected her to lean over at any minute and siphon the guy's fuel line (as it were).

Meanwhile, there I sat, idly dreaming of trading in my piece-of-shit '87 Honda CRX for the Harley hog that was so cruelly denied me when I blew a $100,000 question on the game show "Greed." Life's a bitch, ain't it?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed October 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Nicole Kidman, widowed for 10 years, is confronted by a dour 10-year-old who claims he is her reincarnated husband. This idea may have worked if it had been played for laughs, or maybe even as a tragic tearjerker. Instead, director Jonathan Glazer seems to be channeling his inner Bergman, with excruciatingly long takes, icy-cold performances and an air of suffocatingly oppressive seriousness that the silly material does not merit.

There are major plot problems. When Kidman and the kid meet at the place where her husband died, she asks him to prove he is who he says he is. Instead of asking him to tell her things that only she and her hubbie would know, she accepts the kid's offer to have the dead husband's brother-in-law interrogate him. What the...? I don't know about most husbands, but none of my brothers-in-law know me better than my wife does.

Also, the kid is so blank-faced and robotic throughout that Kidman at some point should have asked, "Jeez, if I mean so damned much to you, could you maybe look a little happier to see me?"

A lot of the press about "Birth" has mentioned the creepy moments where Kidman and the boy share a bathtub and, later, a kiss. Yes, they are creepy. But I couldn't help thinking how much more outrage there would be over those scenes if the sexes had been reversed. Imagine a naked Tom Cruise (for example) sharing a tub with a naked 10-year-old girl who says she is his reincarnated wife. Now stop imagining it, before John Ashcroft shows up at your door with a warrant. Pervert!

The ending of "Birth" is remarkably contrived, a real let-down that is completely unsatisfying.

The only reason this gets a "D" and not an "F" is because the movie does have a certain style...even if that chilly-chilly style could best be described as "contemporary morgue."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Black Book
(Reviewed April 18, 2007, by James Dawson)

I was suckered by the critical hype for this WW2 drama directed by Paul Verhoeven ("Robocop," "Total Recall," "Starship Troopers"), which turned out to be much more simplistic and melodramatic than I expected.

The premise certainly seems meaty enough: a Jewish woman (the excellent Carice Van Houten, who does the best she can with weak material) joins the Dutch resistance after her family is slaughtered, eventually making her way into Gestapo headquarters itself as the concubine of the head Nazi in charge. The problem is that the story doesn't have nearly enough depth or credibility for what is supposed to be a serious period piece. In fact, the movie it most resembles is the Jack Benny and Carole Lombard comedy "To Be or Not to Be," in which Polish resistance member Lombard infiltrates Warsaw's Gestapo headquarters by playing a similarly slinky seductress.

The black book of the title, which figures in an unsatisfying twist ending, almost seems like an element that was clumsily grafted onto whatever parts of this story have a basis in fact.

Also, this is yet another movie that commits the sin of employing a framing sequence that eliminates any element of suspense from the screenplay. When the first thing we see is the main character teaching at a kibbutz in Israel after the war has ended, it's pretty obvious that she's not going to die in any of the perilous circumstances she faces in flashback.

Not a completely worthless movie, but one that ultimately has more in common with "Hogan's Heroes" than "Schindler's List."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Black Dahlia
(Reviewed September 9, 2006, by James Dawson)

I think that most of director Brian De Palma's movies are worthless, cheesy junk. James Ellroy, who perpetrated the novel on which "The Black Dahlia" is based, has a rambling and ridiculously rococo writing style that repels me. I thought that "L.A. Confidential," director Curtis Hanson's adaptation of a different Ellroy novel, was the recipient of more wholly undeserved critical praise than nearly any other movie of the past 10 years. (Until the absolutely abysmal but Best-Picture-Oscar-winning "Crash" came along, that is.)

Which is my way of saying that if you like De Palma, Ellroy, or movies that are so flagrantly bad they play like unintentional parody, "The Black Dahlia" may be for you. As for me, I have to agree with the succinct summation offered by a fellow casualty of a recent screening: "That was a MESS!"

There are so many things wrong with this bomb that I don't know where to begin, but here is its strangest flaw: Josh Hartnett, playing a cop whose partner (Aaron Eckhart) draws him into helping investigate the murder of an aspiring actress, develops a lustful obsession with a rich mystery woman partly because of her resemblance to the dead girl. For that to work, the two actresses have to resemble each other at least a little bit, right? Well, the actress is played by Mia Kirshner, the mystery woman is Hilary Swank, and Mr. De Palma may want to have his eyeglass prescription checked.

Scarlett Johansson plays Eckhart's girlfriend in what apparently is a celibate relationship, even though she is a former hooker (one whose pimp is coming up for parole, natch). I'm normally a big Scar-Jo fan, but she seems so bored, uninvolved and unconvincing here that I expected to see her checking her watch during scenes. Keeping a black cigarette holder aimed sideways from her mouth is about the extent of her attempt at characterization.

(And speaking of smoking, this flick has so much of it that R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris should have gotten producing credits. Yes, people smoked more during the 1940s than they do now. But the habit is so preposterously omnipresent here that it's like seeing a movie set in the 1920s with people doing the Charleston in the grocery store, at church and on the subway to work.)

Other problems: An underground stag film figures into the plot. We see it being shown to a room full of cops. Instead of lingering on the naughty bits of the women during the hot onscreen lesbo action, the film-within-a-film shifts to things like the women's hands (!!!), gives only very fleeting glimpses of their ta-tas, and completely ignores a somewhat more important area known as "Crotch City." The perfect porno for a Ned Flanders bachelor party, maybe, but not very convincing as a look at the dark side of the business known as "show."

Also, tough-guy cop Eckhart's reaction to this softcore footage -- pop-eyed facial contortions, followed by storming Hulk-like from the room -- is so hammy it's laughable.

The movie's boxing-subplot opening is a bore, and its convoluted ending is flat-out stupid. Knuckleheaded noirish narration is so overused you'll think you're hearing a descriptive soundtrack for the blind. It's also too damned long -- not in the sense that it would be more artistically worthwhile if shortened, but in the same way that hitting your nuts with a hammer for two hours is worse than hitting them for 90 minutes.

The fact that the production design (by Dante Ferretti) and photography (Vilmos Zsigmond) are actually pretty good is damned frustrating. It's a shame that a movie that looks this great is undercut by an embarrassingly dumb script (by Josh Friedman), horrendous direction, and acting that veers from boring to off-the-rails awful. (Fiona Shaw, as Swank's mother, is a screeching, cackling cartoon.)

One of the worst movies of 2006.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Black Hawk Down
(Reviewed January 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie is a very impressive technical feat, in that it recreates a Somalia battlezone with amazing "you are there" believability. The problem is that there is no real "story" here. It is a minute-by-minute recreation of a Clinton-era military boondoggle that should have taught us to stay the hell out of other countries' internal affairs (that'll be the day), and it plays like CNN live news coverage as photographed by Hollywood cinematographers...but so what?

I guess the point here is simply that war is hell, and it doesn't matter that we can't tell who is who for most of the movie, because conflict is so dehumanizing, and blah, blah, blah. Tell us something we don't know.

Personally, I think the movie should have kept switching back to scenes of cowardly, craven, national-disgrace Clinton masturbating into the Oval Office's bathroom sink and humming "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" while sending our nation's finest off to die for absolutely nothing. But God forbid that a Hollywood movie should place national events in any sort of realistic historical context...

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Black Sheep
(Reviewed June 21, 2007)

Very tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly low-key horror spoof about a New Zealand sheep farm with a secret. Seems a genetic experiment has gone wrong, and now the little woolie beasties have a taste for humans.

Tone-wise, "Black Sheep" is of the "Shaun of the Dead" school of offbeat and almost gentle frightfests. Sure, there are a few guts-and-gore scenes, but nothing that will make you wet your pants, throw up on yourself, or wallow in your own shame. (What a recommendation!)

What I liked best about the movie is a cute blond animal-rights activist named Experience (Danielle Mason), who is charmingly earnest and funny. Also, she has very nice boobs, but no, you don't see her shirtless. Sorry.

"Black Sheep" is written and directed by Jonathan King, apparently a first-timer, but one who should have a great career ahead of him.

This actually would make a decent date movie, if you know a girl who doesn't mind being a scared a bit but who doesn't want to watch people tortured to bloody death by perverted, psychopathic sadists.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Black Snake Moan
(Reviewed March 2, 2007, by James Dawson)

Throughout this steamy, trashy, politically incorrect and bizarrely enjoyable piece of southern-fried melodrama, one thought kept running through my mind: "Man, would Quentin Tarantino ever have fucked this up."

That's because director/writer Craig Brewer ("Hustle and Flow") manages to keep everything slightly tongue-in-cheek without falling into campy self-consciousness. That's a neat trick, considering that the plot involves a badass black ex-bluesman (Samuel L. Jackson) whose method of rehabilitating a white rural slut (Christina Ricci) involves chaining her to a radiator so she can't escape his remote farmhouse.

Despite the, um, "provocativeness" of that set-up, Jackson has only Ricci's best interests at heart. The girl's obviously a mess, doing things like cheating on purehearted boyfriend Justin Timberlake with a pimpin' crack dealer within hours of Timberlake's departure for a National Guard tour of duty. Even Ricci's mother accuses her of "giving her snatch to every waggin' dick in town." Oh, snap!

Predictably, but somehow no less outrageously, Jackson and Ricci develop an odd father/daughter relationship, despite some rough patches on Ricci's road to rehabilitation. There even are a few laughs along the way, mainly involving Jackson's "what the hell have I gotten myself into" facial expressions.

"Black Snake Moan" ends up being more morality tale than exploitation flick, despite some sex, violence and sexual violence. Also, deceased blues legend Son House appears in framing clips talking about deceitful lovers, which is a nice touch.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Blade 2
(Reviewed March 11, 2002, by James Dawson)

The first "Blade" movie was not bad, and certainly better than anyone might have expected it to be. Wesley Snipes was the icy cool badass half-vampire/half-human with a definite dislike for the fanged side of his family tree, Kris Kristofferson was his crusty mentor, and the whole affair was pulled off with a lot of noirish style. The movie's only weakness was an interminable final fight scene; you know, the kind you see in almost every violent movie these days, in which Our Hero gets the crap decisively and brutally kicked out of him for 10 minutes before finally marshalling some untapped reserve of hidden strength and emerging victorious.

"Blade 2," unfortunately, is an entire movie's worth of those kind of fight scenes. As Itchy and Scratchy might say, "They fight, and bite, and fight and bite and fight." It is hard to believe that this installment was written by the same guy who wrote the first "Blade" (David Goyer, who also scripted the excellent "Dark City"). The plot this time is repetitious and dumb. Put it this way: You are hunting mutant vampires. You know that absolutely none of your weapons has any effect on them EXCEPT ONE: a souped-up flashlight that mimics the sun's rays. So is it very damned likely that you and your team would bother expending thousands upon thousands of ammo shells that you know will not get the job done, or would you simply wave your all-powerful flashlight around? The latter, right? Not these guys.

Still, Snipes manages to be so likable that he almost pulls off the movie on charm alone. Even though he never cracks a smile, he always seems to be on the verge of turning to the camera, saying "Do you believe this stuff?", and winking. Plus the chick vampire he teams up with is incredibly hot, even though she is covered head to toe in black leather for the duration. And the production design is terrific, set in boarded-up cathedrals, creepy sewers and the high-tech headquarters of what looks like Vampires Incorporated.

If you are into loud, constant, video-game-style violence, you could do worse--but a little more plotting and thinking would have been nice for those of us who are older than 14.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Blades of Glory
(Reviewed March 29, 2007, by James Dawson)

Dumb but funny -- or at least as funny as it has to be.

Will Ferrell, playing his standard likable-idiot, and Jon ("Napoleon Dynamite") Heder are champion figure skaters banned for life after coming to blows during a medals ceremony. They discover a loophole in the regulations that allows them to return to competition in pairs events, which leads to lots of awkward "ambiguously gay duo"-type moments, even though both are straight.

Jenna Fischer (from the US version of "The Office") is the sweet-and-innocent sister of rival skaters who is forced to spy on their behalf, but ends up falling in love with Heder.

Not a great comedy, but there are some genuine laughs here, if you're up for a little cinematic junk-food.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Bless the Child
(Reviewed July 16, 2000, by James Dawson)

Call me a wuss, but two hours of watching a cute little girl get tormented by a Satan-worshipping cult leader 'cuz she happens to be the new Jesus just ain't my cup of tea.

This dud is a really cheesy cross between "The Exorcist" and "Touched by an Angel." God himself makes three appearances that will leave you slack-jawed with disbelief that anyone in the year 2000 could put scenes that are so outright silly in what is supposed to be a Major Motion Picture. How star Kim Basinger ever won her Oscar two years ago is sure as hell beyond me, because the woman simply cannot act. (For further proof, see her other tedious bomb released this summer, "I Dreamed of Africa.") Rufus Sewell, great in "Cold Comfort Farm" and the VERY underappreciated-by-the-monkey-minded-masses "Dark City," is wasted in this dud. Dismal, folks.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Blind Side
(Reviewed October 30, 2009)

Maybe at-risk black teenager Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) really was the childlike gentle giant portrayed in the based-on-a-true-story "The Blind Side." Maybe he really did hit the lucky-break lifestyle lottery when he was taken in by a wealthy white Memphis family, then private tutored into qualifying for college admission and NCAA football glory.

But many of the smaller plot points here come off as feel-good phony or frustratingly insufficient. Michael's tight-skirted superwoman surrogate mother Leigh Anne Tuohy (a drawling Sandra Bullock) faces down a pistol-packing crack dealer and his posse in a 'hood known as Hurt Village without breaking a sweat. Her sitcommishly savvy young son SJ (Jae Head) puts a host of college football coaches who come courting Michael through Danny Partridge style demands. And you can just guess what's going to happen when Michael gets distracted behind the wheel during a head-rolling "Bust a Move" duet with SJ in the passenger seat.

One story lapse is so painful that it's hard not to wonder if something important was left on the cutting-room floor, even though the movie is well over two hours long. After dinner at a ritzy restaurant, Leigh Anne asks Michael who the busboy was that Michael went back inside to embrace. Michael says it was his long-lost brother, but we never see that character again. It's hard enough to believe that sweet-natured Michael wouldn't maintain contact with the guy, but it's impossible not to wonder why his new family wouldn't at least try to make his acquaintance. If they ever dined at that particular eatery again, what did they do, avoid eye contact?

Michael himself never is given enough depth to seem like a fully rounded person instead of an abused puppy rescued from the streets. A life of deprivation has rendered him hopeless, introverted and almost catatonically sad before he is swept up into the lap of luxury. Yet even after he starts making jaws drop with the kind of high-school gridiron prowess that would translate into off-the-scale BMOC popularity, we still never see him having good times with anyone but members of his white family. With the exception of a single line of dialog addressed to him by his quarterback in a huddle, there is not a single scene of anyone but teachers, his coach and his new white brother and sister talking to him at his private school. Also, he's apparently the only 17-year-old on the planet without a sex drive; Michael never seems to notice girls even exist while he is in high school.

The movie may have its heart in the right place, but it can't escape a whiff of "white man's burden" righteousness. Michael's birth mother, a dope addict with possibly as many as a dozen kids that have been taken away by the state, offers a visiting Leigh Anne wine to drink. The crowded crack-den crib Michael visits on a solo sojourn to Hurt Village is scary enough to make even the most liberal audience member pray that Michael won't return to the figurative and literal dark side.

It's jarring to see footage and still shots of the real-life Michael at the end of the movie. Without saying a word, the genuine article seems more believably human than the movie's teddy bear storybook version.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, "The Blind Side" also suffers from a dreadful and potentially misleading title. Not having seen a trailer for the movie, I assumed that Sandra Bullock plus "The Blind Side" equalled a story about Bullock losing her sight. Wrong. Seeing the poster image of her leaning against the massive Michael, I wondered if maybe Michael would be the one who goes blind, possibly after some playing-field mishap. Also wrong.

Instead, Bullock's voiceover refers to the need for a good player at left tackle to keep the quarterback from getting sacked. I guess that means Leann is Michael's left tackle, keeping him protected the same way Michael protects his QB on the field. It's probably also a clumsy metaphor for the wrongness of racism.

But the producers probably should have gone with "Bust a Move" instead.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed April 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

What bugged me about this film, which documents the attempt by a group of blind Tibetan teenagers climb Mount Everest, was its overriding aroma of exploitation.

Yeah, yeah, I get the point that the project was designed to boost the kids' self-esteem, and to bring attention to the fact that the blind are rejected as despised pariahs in their home country. Also, it's interesting that two of the expedition's leaders are a blind man who previously made the climb and a blind woman who heads an international organization devoted to the blind.

But I couldn't help being reminded of the news story from a few years back about a pre-teen girl who was trying to get into the record books by flying solo across America, but who died in a crash. Some dangerous stunts are just plain stupid, and ultimately are not worth the publicity value.

It would have been one thing if these Tibetan kids had to cross a mountain range to escape their oppressive and genocidal Chinese overlords. (Boycott the Beijing Olympics!) But subjecting them to oxygen deprivation, frostbite and possible death as an empowerment exercise seemed a little...extreme.

The best parts of the movie focus on the kids and members of their families, some of whom are contemptibly cruel. There definitely are some heartstring-tugging moments here, as well as scenes that will make you want to laugh or even cheer.

If these kids had to suffer in order for a documentary about them to be "spectacular" enough to garner interest about their plight, maybe their ordeal was worth it. It's just too bad that the basic human-interest aspect of their story couldn't have been seen as a good-enough hook all by itself.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Blood Diamond
(Reviewed November 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

Leonardo DiCaprio is miscast as a badass ex-soldier smuggling "conflict diamonds," African stones sold on the black market to finance the continent's seemingly endless wars. Djimon Hounsou is a village family man kidnapped by brutally murderous rebels and separated from his wife and kids, one of whom has been conscripted by the fighters. Hounsou escapes his slave labors at a mining camp after finding and hiding a valuable pink diamond. When DiCaprio gets wind of this discovery, through some rather serendipitous circumstances, he hooks up with Hounsou in hopes of using the stone to settle a debt with a corrupt colonel.

Oh, and Jennifer Connelly is along as the world's most impossibly beautiful reporter, to raise everyone's consciousness and appeal to their consciences.

Not a terrible movie, even with Leo using some weird accent that sounds somewhere between Crocodile Dundee and the Uncola Man, but it's one that never bothers to do anything unexpected. Director Edward Zwick ("The Last Samurai") provides a good urban-war-zone scene with lots of firepower about midway through, but the characters and plot are pretty standard stuff. There are two "endings," one that's unbelievably cornball and the other that's ridiculously heavy-handed.

The whole project has the feel of a "spoonful of sugar" endeavor to publicize the evils of the conflict diamond trade, aimed at members of the public who don't read newspapers and who wouldn't watch a documentary on the subject.

Somehow, though, I don't see many guys getting themselves off the "three months' salary" hook by saying, "Sorry, honey, but if I give you an engagement ring, the terrorists have won!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Blood Work
(Reviewed July 30, 2002, by James Dawson)

About a half-hour into this movie (at most), you will quietly muse to yourself, "I know exactly how this is going to end, but only if the wrap-up is absolutely, completely stupid." That's because the lousy ending you will be imagining is so bad, so completely predictable, so flat-out moronic and wholly illogical that you won't believe the filmmakers could possibly foist it upon the viewing public.

Well, guess what? They foisted.

There's another thing that bugged the hell out of me about this movie (beyond the bad direction, the bad 1970s-TV-cop-show atmosphere, and the jaw-droppingly bad performance from cop-with-requisite-chip-on-shoulder Paul Rodriguez): For about three-quarters of the movie, you will be thinking that finally--FINALLY--this is a movie in which the senior-citizen-superstar leading man (Clint Eastwood, in this case) won't end up banging a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. And then, sure enough, a 30-something Latina eases up to shirtless septaugenarian Clint, lustfully runs her hands over his aged upper body, and we get the quick fade to black that means they are making Ye Olde Beast With Two Backs.

That scene provided the only enjoyment I got out of the entire movie, but not because of what was onscreen. In the audience, reacting to the fact that Clint has the transplanted heart of said Latina's dead sibling beating in his manly chest, an audience member responded to their pre-coitus clutch by yelling, "SHE'S HIS SISTER!"

Ho ho, it is to laugh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed March 10, 2001, by James Dawson)

This is one of those "based on a true story" movies that makes you think 90 percent of what transpires onscreen actually was made up, because Hollywood has such a HUGE credibility problem on that score. For example, when Johnny Depp's dope-king character travels all by his lonesome to a Caribbean island for a face-off with a backstabbing rival who has armed guards aplenty on hand...who for some reason do not bother to search Johnny D. to see if he is carrying a weapon as soon as he arrives onshore...well, let's just say I'm not buyin' it.

The odd thing about this movie is that it almost manages to be terrific. Depp is damned good, Penelope Cruz does her best work to date (okay, that's not saying much) as his Colombian squeeze, and things move in an entertainingly melodramatic fashion. But every now and then the movie lapses into "Boogie Nights" territory (shallow 1970s-novelty-costumed two-dimensional cliche characters), with a touch of "Goodfellas" thrown in (Depp at times seems to be playing Ray Liotta's "in too deep" character from that movie, which is funny, considering that Liotta plays Depp's father in this one).

Still, "Blow" is remarkably watchable, and it has a terrific ending, so you could do a whole lot worse. Plus any movie that kicks off with the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" gets extra points right from the git-go. (Man, I love that song. I had to play it twice today, in fact; first the classic version, then a live Mick Taylor version from 1995. And right now, right this very second, I'm playing it again. Good God, can Bobby Keyes ever play that sax! If you don't have a copy of "Sticky Fingers," brother, you just ain't livin'.)

Also, lest I forget (and how could I?): There is a fine, fine, superfine yellow AMC Gremlin in the background of a Miami parking lot in one scene of "Blow," which made me go all misty-eyed and sloppy. Gremlins were the most beautiful damned cars ever made by the hand of man! Why did I sell mine? Why? Why??? WHY????

Excuse me, I've gotta go learn how to drink. Heavily.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Blue Crush
(Reviewed July 27, 2002, by James Dawson)

Kind of a dopey chick movie, but it gets points for having a surprisingly dark undertone and some really great surf shots. A blond Barbie babe who works as a maid in a Hawaiian hotel wants to be a surfing champion, if she can get over the memory of bangin' her head real good on a rock during a previous competition. She lives with a couple of other close-to-poverty-level maids and her own young sister, who has started hanging with a Bad Crowd. Fortunately, blondie catches the eye of a visiting pro football player who tosses her some bones, as well as his bone, and everything pretty much works out in the end. Just like in real life.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Blue Valentine
(Reviewed December 3, 2010, by James Dawson)

What a dreadfully depressing slog this is. Ryan Gosling is a chainsmoking high-school dropout married to a fed-up-with-his-bullshit nurse played by Michelle Williams. He's immature and obnoxious, she's catatonic with disinterest, and a drunken stayover at a chillingly dismal theme-rooms motel doesn't exactly rekindle their romance. Oh, and there's also a disturbingly sad flashback trip to an abortionist.

Gosling and Williams are good at impersonating miserable, beat-down proletariats, but so what? In today's America, acting like a hopeless, no-future zombie isn't acting, it's the new status quo. If you want to see someone looking sad, frustrated and pathetic, stare in a mirror and save yourself 10 bucks.

I pity any couple that sees this movie on date night, because their only after-theater activity is likely to involve running in opposite directions and vowing lifelong celibacy. Or maybe committing mutual suicide.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed November 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

If I bother at some point in the future to waste the time to write a longer review of this waste of time, I will go into detail about how shockingly amateurish, cloyingly earnest and generally god-awful this movie is. But right now, suffice it to say that "Bobby" would be my pick for worst flick of 2006 if not for the existence of an even more abysmal waste of celluloid by the name of "Clerks 2."

I thought about putting a line in here about wishing somebody would shoot me in the head to put me out of my misery while I was suffering through this Kennedy-worshiping second-rate ripoff of "Grand Hotel," but then I realized that such a comment might be considered tasteless.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Body of Lies
(Reviewed October 12, 2008, by James Dawson)

Who's more unconvincing: Leonardo DiCaprio as a badass undercover agent who still looks 12 years old, or Russell Crowe as DiCaprio's beer-bellied dimwit good ol' boy American supervisor who spends most of the movie on a hands-free cell phone?

Although technically well-made, everything here feels very generic and nothing-special. It's too bad that screenwriter William Monahan chose this adaptation (of David Ignatius' novel) as his follow-up to "The Departed."

The only thing I really liked about this otherwise unnecessary would-be thriller was Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani's portrayal of the exotically beautiful but sweetly modest nurse who wins DiCaprio's heart. Amazingly, director Ridley Scott resists what must have been a strong temptation to put her in a run-and-gun or love scene (there's not even so much as an onscreen kiss).

Otherwise, the last thing this country needs is a movie that includes graphic torture, dishonorable US government agents and bloody Mideast mayhem. We can watch that sort of unpleasantness on the news every night without leaving home.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Book of Eli
(Reviewed December 21, 2009, by James Dawson)

Even the always enjoyable Tom Waits, who appears here in a tiny cameo, can't save this outrageously stupid embarrassment from getting a big, fat "F."

Denzel Washington is a badass loner in a barren post-nuclear America that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the wasteland of the infinitely better "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior." Also, part of "The Book of Eli"'s ending is so blatantly stolen from one of the world's best-known SF novels that identifying its title would constitute a major spoiler.

Headed west on foot, Washington ends up in a crappy town run by that nasty Gary Oldman. When Oldman finds out that Washington is in possession of a of the few still in existence...he raises murderously violent hell to get his hands on the thing. That's not because Oldman wants to turn his life around, but because he knows how easily the Bible can be used to justify and legitimize doing evil.

Any points the screenplay gets for sticking it to religion, however, are negated by a twist ending that is head-shakingly idiotic. The surprise is so howlingly awful that it feels like a shameless ploy by the filmmakers to force viewers to see the movie again, just to confirm how many incidents in the story make the ending impossible.

Mila Kunis plays a dumb piece of ass, and Jennifer Beals has the thankless role of Oldman's significant other. Waits, as the unruffled just-tryin'-to-get-by operator of a general store, is the only truly likable or believable character in the cast. He's onscreen for about a minute. Oh, well.

Even though this is the first 2010 movie I've reviewed, I can just about guarantee it will be on my 10 worst of the year list.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Sacha Baron Cohen ("Da Ali G Show") is funny and sometimes almost touching in this very offbeat road-trip movie about a Kazakhstani TV host named Borat taking a bizarre trip across America with his bloated producer and, at least briefly, a bear.

Like comedian Tom Green before him, Cohen has a real gift for saying outrageously offensive or unashamedly annoying things to normal-looking people and getting priceless responses. Parts of "Borat" play like actual documentary footage, as opposed to scripted bits. The ultimate compliment may be to say that it's often hard to see where reality ends and the staged stuff begins.

Example: When Borat is at a dinner party with middle-aged southerners to learn about etiquette, he announces that the men of his village would go wild for two of the women present. Then he looks at a third woman and casually remarks, "You, not so much." There's something so innocently cruel about the remark that it's hilarious.

"Borat" also includes what has to be the funniest nude scene of the year, a laugh-and-groan-out-loud bit that's on a par with the zipper scene in "There's Something About Mary."

If you like your humor weird, occasionally absurd and very politically incorrect -- and who doesn't? -- GO!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Bourne Supremacy
(Reviewed July 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

I wasn't crazy about the first Bourne installment ("The Bourne Identity"), mainly because I had a hard time accepting Boy-Scout-faced Matt Damon as a ruthlessly efficient killing machine (albeit one with memory problems). Also, the ending of that movie was something out of a bad romance novel. The whole thing seemed well-intentioned, and not totally without merit, but without anything really special to recommend it.

Ditto this sequel, which picks up later. There are too many scenes of Keystone Kops unable to apprehend Our Hero, and too much bad editing that makes fights-and-flights unconvincing, and a plot that tries way too hard to twist and turn.

Plus the ending of "Supremacy" is much, much stupider than the ending of "Identity." Without spoiling who is who, this is another of those brain-dead movies in which the bad guy very conveniently relates all details of his connivances while talking to a conspirator who already would know every single thing he is being told, thereby enabling the protagonist to catch every incriminating word on a hidden tape recorder.

As Charlie Brown would say, "Aaaarghhh!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Bourne Ultimatum
(Reviewed July 24, 2007)

Gee, two horribly directed and badly acted hours of people following each other around and fighting. That's entertainment?

Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne, the CIA agent who has forgotten everything about his past except how to kick ass. Julia Stiles is back as the expressionless wax dummy who helps Bourne in his quest to find out who he is and how he got so messed up in the head.

Shakey-cam director Paul Greengrass ("United 93") seems to think that action scenes should be directed as impressionistic montages, as opposed to being comprehensible. Car chases are big screech-and-bang messes that are impossible to follow. A foot chase through Morocco seems to have occurred on a day when everyone was out of the country, considering how few people are encountered in buildings and on rooftops. And everything is shot so close-up that you'll feel as if you got stuck in the front row no matter where you are in the theater.

The story is pretty stupid, as typified by a scene in which Bourne is watching a CIA building from across the street just in time to see a corrupt official -- through a curtainless window -- coincidentally hold up a super-top-secret document just in time for Our Hero to read its title off its cover. Jesus H. Christ.

An early pursuit scene in London's Waterloo tube station is the best thing here, in which Matt Damon talks investigative reporter Paddy Considine through numerous spies and security cameras so he can avoid detection. It doesn't really make any sense -- Bourne would have to possess nearly God-like omnipotence to know some of the things he has to know about where everyone is and where they are looking -- but it is suspenseful.

The final payoff about Bourne's background isn't so much a revelation as a confirmation of what viewers pretty much have assumed all along. It was such a non-surprise, in fact, that I initially thought the same info had been revealed in the previous Bourne movie.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed June 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Brave" review
Brave Grade: A

(Reviewed February 2, 2007, by James Dawson)

Remember when the concept of a traitor working for the FBI seemed like a big deal, back before the American president and vice president themselves felt free to commit treason by outing a CIA agent as a form of sick, criminal vengeance? Remember when things like that had consequences, and people actually seemed to care about issues like national security? Putting covert operatives and all of their contacts at risk by blowing their cover is supposed to be a capital crime. These days, perpetrators in high places don't even have to worry about impeachment by the craven cowards who are supposed to comprise the opposition party. God bless America!

I'm sorry, but this movie feels obsolete on arrival in a country that has suffered more than six years of a lying, hypocritical War-Criminal-in-Chief -- and an Attorney General who believes in torture, considers the Geneva Conventions "quaint," and thinks that the Constitution includes no right of habeas corpus.

In other words, asking present-day American audiences to care about some FBI bureaucrat selling secrets to the Russkies is about as silly as expecting some poor bombed-out bastard in Baghdad to give a shit about Boston commuters being inconvenienced by some goddamned Lite-Brites advertising a fucking cartoon. These days, the US Congress doesn't even bother holding hearings about the outing of Valerie Plame; a lazy-ass special prosecutor pretends that indicting a flunky from the Vice President's office fulfills his mandate; and who knows how many of Plame's former associates have been tortured or killed.

Anyway, getting back to the movie at hand: "Breach"'s other main problem is that the screenwriter uses an FBI wannabe-agent-in-training Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) as the viewpoint character. This is presumably to give the proceedings a more youthful spin, instead of focusing on crusty about-to-retire FBI guy and secrets-seller Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). This is a mistake for two reasons: We never get inside Hanssen's head, and instead we get way too much of O'Neill's trivial "young marrieds" domestic life.

Also, I just plain don't buy the movie's premise that the FBI would let a years-long case against a man they regard as the most dangerous spy in American history rest on the shoulders of a novice who is so damned stupid he can't figure out that maybe he should put his pager on silent mode...even after it rouses Hanssen's suspicions more than once.

Those supposed-to-be-secret pages come from Laura Linney, playing O'Neill's cliche asexual hardass superior, who expects O'Neill to get the goods on Hanssen. Her odd way of keeping him undercover involves meeting him in spaciously empty courtyards of government buildings and driving him around in her SUV. What the...?

Kathleen Quinlan plays Hanssen's sexy and ridiculously religious wife, which makes her the perfect mate for the obsessively observant Catholic Hanssen. As a nasty old atheist, I regard all religions as ridiculous -- but this movie goes out of its way to make devout Catholics look like Taliban-level fanatics.

Another "Hollywood liberal" touch: At one point, O'Neill grouses about an assignment he regards as being as trivial as "hunting for the blue dress." Note to La-La-Land: There actually was a blue dress, it actually was stained with chubby-chaser Bill Clinton's semen splatter, and therefore it proved exactly what it was supposed to prove: Clinton had lied under oath in a sexual-harrassment lawsuit. This led to Clinton's impeachment, and should have resulted in his expulsion from office, if things like honesty and not committing perjury were things that we had any right to expect from the head of the branch of government that is supposed to enforce our laws. (Some joke, right?)

Isn't it funny -- as in "sad" -- to think that if Clinton had been expelled from office...or if he'd had the integrity to resign...Al Gore would have become president? And that an incumbent President Gore would have had a better shot at beating George W. Bush in 2000, and then being reelected in 2004? Stupidly sticking by Clinton ended up being the worst thing that Democrats could have done to their party and to the nation. Thanks a lot, idiots!

One aspect of Hanssen's story that is glossed over is how many agents and secrets were put in danger during the time that the FBI was trying to catch him in the act of "making a drop" -- which would be worth a potential death sentence -- instead of arresting him as soon as they knew he was a traitor. This becomes ironic considering Hanssen's eventual fate. (Let's put it this way: He ain't dead.)

I enjoyed and wanted to see a lot more of the always-excellent Chris Cooper, but the rest of this movie is what I imagine that TV cop shows I don't watch are like.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Breaking and Entering
(Reviewed January 22, 2007, by James Dawson)

I'm probably giving this movie too high a grade. The characters are thoroughly unconvincing. The plot alternates between ridiculous and utterly unbelievable. And the cutesy double-meaning title is too precious by half, relating both to a series of robberies and the breaking down of barriers between people for a look "inside" their lives.

Still, I have to admit that the thing is very watchable, in that indefinable way that keeps you wanting to see what happens next -- even though you have a pretty good idea of what that will be.

Jude Law and Martin Freeman are architect partners who have just relocated their firm to a spacious building in a dodgy section of London, apparently to show how progressive and politically correct they are. Those good intentions don't waste any time biting them in the ass. A couple of teenagers, part of a well-organized gang run by a Serbian thug, break into the place after hours. One of the items they steal is Law's laptop, which figures very prominently in the plot. (The Apple-friendly product placement in this movie is so pervasive that the producers could have called it "Mac and Me 2.")

Back home in their ritzy but austere townhouse, Law's cold and distant wife (Robin Wright Penn) is neurotic about her young teenage daughter from a previous (and unexplained) relationship. The kid doesn't talk much, never sleeps, practices gymnastics all the time, and has some kind of obsessive-compulsive thing about hoarding and hiding batteries. In other words, the kid is "movie crazy," as opposed to credibly mentally ill.

After his company is robbed a second time, Law and Freeman decide to stake out the place, in hopes of catching the elusive thieves in the act. Instead of, you know, simply hiring a couple of security guards or something. If the artfully angsty family melodramatics already weren't enough to make you wonder what planet these people are from, this amateur-detectives development will.

It gets worse. Law ends up befriending a scary-assertive hooker -- they're "just friends," mind you -- who keeps him company in his Range Rover. That's where he sits, night after night, staring at the front door of his building, instead of using the infinitely more sensible but cinematically less colorful method of simply waiting inside the joint for potential artful dodgers to show up.

This movie is a virtual checklist of cliches. There's the hooker with the heart of gold. The thief with a conscience. The frigid wife who remains relentlessly one-dimensional until an unnecessary and histrionic last-minute soliloquy that probably was a contract-negotiation requirement. A legal system and an insurance industry that apparently have no problem with perjury and fraud. The ham-handed metaphor of a constantly barking fox outside Law's house, to keep reminding him that not all of the city is tame and civilized. I could go on and on.

Juliette Binoche, as the mother of a teenage thief, somehow makes being a downtrodden Bosnian refugee kinda sexy. Hers is the movie's most interesting role, but Law's relationship with her essentially is one of those "waiting for realization to dawn and the shit to hit the fan" plot gimmicks. Given that the two of them develop an obvious closeness, I didn't buy that he would keep her in the dark so long. Doesn't that just drive you nuts, when movie characters keep their mouths shut about stuff that any rational adult would have sense enough to mention, apologize for, and move on? Or how about when movie critics ask rhetorical questions in reviews? Isn't that dumb?

"Breaking and Entering" has a lot of problems, but what the hell. At least nobody gets tortured or raped in it. (Isn't it sad that this is what moviegoing comes down to these days?) (Oh, no -- another question!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Bride Wars
(Reviewed December 11, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Bride Wars" Review

All I will say here is that Kate Hudson looks puffy, Anne Hathaway is annoying, and the movie isn't funny.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Bridget Jones's Diary
(Reviewed March 23, 2001, by James Dawson)

At first, you will be lamenting what a damned shame it was that the always-appealing Renee Zellweger gained weight for her role as the verging-on-chubby, persevering, unlucky-at-love title character. Then you will be wincing at the strange sound of all-American Renee speaking with a British accent. And for the first 15 minutes or so, you also will be dreading that this movie is going to be a dreary "Lifetime Network"-type litany of single-girl woes.

But things pick up pretty quickly, Renee wins your heart as usual, and all becomes right with the world. Make no mistake, this is a lightweight little romantic movie with not many surprises. But it is pleasant and likeable and breezy, and you won't feel as if you've thrown away your money. And sometimes, that's enough.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
(Bridget Jones's Diary 2)
(Reviewed October 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

A female contestant on "Jeopardy!" last week was at least 10 pounds overweight, but still managed to be good looking, feminine and actually kind of sexy. (In other words, she was not one of those cringe-inducing slobs who adopt a loud, arrogant "fat and sassy" attitude and annoy everyone with their appallingly inappropriate pride...but she also was not one of those bitter, resentful, overweight introverts who simmer in self-loathing frustration as they stuff their pudgy faces.) I haven't read the books on which the Bridget Jones movies are based, but I kept thinking that this Ken Jennings victim would have been a better choice for the title role than Renee Zellweger is.

Don't get me wrong, I like Zellweger just fine in roles that don't involve her inhaling a Hostess Twinkie factory and losing 100 IQ points before appearing in front of the camera. It's just that she seems both too unattractive and too dumb here to appeal to the men who are supposed to find her irresistible (Hugh Grant and Colin Firth) in "BJD2." Also, even though I know this should not be a consideration, I always was conscious of the fact that button-cute, slim-and-trim Zellweger had willfully packed on a lot of ugly pounds that all but ruin her good looks for this role. In other words, a little voice in the back of my head kept saying, "God, what a tragic desecration." Robert De Niro and Charlize Theron may have done exactly the same thing, but at least they bloated themselves into hideousness for projects a little more respectable than this dopey chick flick. Bad enough that Zellweger ballooned herself for the first "BJD" movie...but to strap on the feedbag again, after shedding all of that excess weight in the interval, is a return to the scene of a crime against nature.

But forget all of that. What's important is that even if the doughy, badly coiffed actress we see onscreen always looked that bad offscreen as well, the movie still would not work. Only in the most deluded daydreams of plus-size porkers would hotties such as Grant or Firth give them a second look, especially if those lardish ladies possessed Bridget Jones's village-idiot brain power.

Jones is a TV personality who does first-person feature stories about things like skydiving when she is not swooning over her human-rights-lawyer boyfriend (Firth) like an obsessed six-year-old stalker. Grant's character is the sleazy-suave narrator of a travel program that enlists Jones as cohost. Thinking that her boyfriend is banging his incredibly sexy assistant (and no guy in the audience could blame him if he were), Zellweger flies off to Thailand to do a show with Grant, who does his best to get back into her "granny panties."

The movie takes a bizarre wrong turn shortly thereafter by trying to make light of something that's about as funny as losing a limb, and the big wrapup is as insultingly unbelievable as it is utterly predictable.

Grant's performance as a despicable yet strangely likeable horndog keeps this one from getting an "F." Otherwise, this is one diary that...oh, forget it. I'm too lazy even to think of a bad pun.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Bridge to Terabithia
(Reviewed January 31, 2007, by James Dawson)

Everyone who buys a ticket to this movie based on its shamefully deceptive ad campaign should file a class-action lawsuit against Disney for a refund.

The TV ad implies that "Bridge to Terabithia" is a wall-to-wall fantasy in which a boy and girl have exciting magical-world adventures with a host of bizarre creatures. The TV spot ends with the portentous pronouncement that "only they can solve the mystery that will reveal their destiny."

What a load of crap. There is no mystery for them to unlock, they have no implied destiny based on that nonexistent mystery, and the TV ad contains almost the entirety of the fantasy scenes that are in the movie itself.

"Bridge to Terabithia" actually is the story of two unconvincing outcasts (Annasophia Robb as Leslie and Josh Hutcherson as Jess) who are bullied and shunned by their classmates. They form a you-and-me-against-the-world friendship, in one of those "only in a Disney movie" schools. They spend their afternoons in a forest that they pretend is inhabited by fantasy creatures.

The filmmakers never make up their minds whether those creatures are entirely imaginary or if they occasionally become real, which is a big problem. Most of the time, the two kids obviously are only shooting the breeze and making stuff up to amuse each other. So how come there is a tangible giant footprint in the mud? And how does Jess manage to get saved after falling from a tree, and then lifted up to its top branches, if the giant who rescues him is nothing more than a figment?

On the other hand, if that giant and other creatures who help or attack Our Heroes are real, why aren't those characters given more to do? The seconds-long snippets of fantasy stuff that are in the TV ad constitute almost the entirety of the non-real-world scenes. Jess and Leslie don't go on a quest, don't have conversations with any creatures and -- strangest of all -- don't seem to have any desire to explore that world, despite the fact that their lives in the "real" one are so crummy.

The school-and-home scenes don't make any sense, either.

The school is one where Jess says he can't confront an eighth-grade girl who is a bully because he would get kicked out of school...and yet neither he nor any of the bully's other victims bother going to the principal to point out that the bully is charging kids a dollar to use the rest room. So, does the damned school have authority figures, or doesn't it?

Also, this movie takes place in some strange universe where a cute female schoolteacher (Zooey Deschanel) sees nothing wrong with showing up on a Saturday morning to take a 13-year-old boy on a field trip to the city without any sort of permission slip. Just the two of them. I don't think so.

Back home, this is the kind of movie where painting a room is an occasion for an all-family music montage complete with dancing. Gaak.

Annasophia Robb is remarkably cute in stylishly bohemian outfits and a punky haircut. Too cute, really. It's impossible to believe that any 13-year-old boy who was alone with her in the woods day after day after day wouldn't at least try locking lips with her, especially considering that the two are always hanging out in a homey treehouse together. But even though Jess and Leslie are sitting in a tree, they never end up k-i-s-s-i-n-g. (This may be due to the fact that the characters in the original book were 10 years old, not 13.)

The main thing I disliked about "Bridge to Terabithia," though, has nothing to do with marketing deception or unrealistically innocent characters. The third act of the movie makes a jarring detour into tragedy that is insultingly inappropriate. Up to that point, things are basically sappy and sentimental, taking place in a world where even the biggest bully can end up bonding tearfully with one of her former victims. Then something happens that will make every mommy who takes her little angels to the theater wish to hell that she had kept them home.

No exaggeration, it's as if an episode of "Saved by the Bell" ended with Skreech shooting himself in the mouth with a shotgun. (Actually, I would pay money to see that, but this is beside the point.)

Maybe that ending worked better in the book. In the movie, though, it comes off as a very cheap ploy to lend the proceedings some unearned dignity and gravitas.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Brighton Rock
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

For reasons too complicated to explain, click the link below to go to the review of this movie:
"Brighton Rock" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Bringing Down the House
(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

The studio should have simply called this stupid, TV-sitcom-level unfunny, cheerfully racist film "Negro in the House."

What is the worst possible thing that could happen to an uptight white lawyer? Why, coming home to find a "Negro in the House," of course! She's rude, she's lewd, she's crude--and she's gonna invite over all of her scary black friends to par-tay in your mansion while you're away! Then she'll show up at your country club, and deliver some black-mama ghetto-style whoop-ass on a skinny white bitch!

Eventually, of course, whitey Steve Martin will realize that big, black Queen Latifah is actually a blessing in disguise...and a real help with the kids, too! And you can be sure that Martin will get down and funky in homeboy mufti before the credits roll, in a scene that is roughly as hilarious as Al Jolson eating watermelon and fried chicken while tap-dancing in blackface. Which he probably never did, but I'm just making a point, otay? Sheesh!

(NOTE: It turns out that Mr. Jolson actually DID do a scene like that; go here. I was stunned when I received this info from A Loyal Reader Who Probably Prefers Anonymity.)

"Bringing Down the House" is shiznit, pure and simple. Word!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Bring It On
(Reviewed August 11, 2000, by James Dawson)

This mindless, TV-quality teen comedy about a cheerleading competition would have been, oh, about a thousand percent better without its heavy-handed and offensive overriding theme of White Liberal Guilt. There is something very creepy and divisive about this movie, in which the captain of a (nearly) all-white San Diego cheerleading squad discovers that the only reason her team has been winning national championships is because the previous captain stole routines from a (nearly) all-black East Compton squad. The implication is that pampered white girls have no soul or creativity, and that underprivileged black girls inherently have more rhythm, which seems just a tad racist and simplistic to This Reviewer. Make that more than a tad.

Head rah-rah girl Kirsten Dunst was excellent in last year's "Dick," but is pretty much wasted in a generic role here that could have been played by any perky teen. The real standout is her team's "bad-girl-who-is-just-misunderstood" member, played by Eliza Dushku of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The actress seems as embarrassed about being in this brainless "white bad, black good" movie as her character felt about being on a cheerleading squad, which somehow worked for me.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (Just because it is impossible to give a failing grade to any movie that has this many cute teenage girls bouncing around in cheerleader costumes.) (Note: Am I shallow?)

Brokeback Mountain
(Reviewed November 31, 2005, by James Dawson)

I went into the theater fearing that "Brokeback Mountain" might be an embarrassingly earnest, politically correct after-school special, after hearing that it was about a pair of cowboys who come to realize that they are, ahem, "more than friends." (Its incredibly tacky marketing slogan -- "Love is a force of nature" -- reinforces that impression.) Even worse, maybe the movie would turn out to be a campy, shrieking, over-the-top novelty, considering that its title sounds about as subtle as "Shootout at the KY Corral."

Boy, was I wrong. This is absolutely one of the best dramatic pictures of the year, and star Heath Ledger gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

Far from being a political screed or a screaming parody, "Brokeback Mountain" succeeds because it plays things, well, straight. There's no winking at the camera or awkward attempts at funny "flamboyance." More important, it doesn't play like a preachy treatise on sexual-orientation tolerance (although that message certainly gets delivered).

Instead, this movie succeeds because it is about realistic characters who are interesting, flawed, conflicted and convincing. The screenplay, cowritten by "Lonesome Dove" writer Larry McMurtry and adapted from a story by Annie Proulx, unfolds like a novel over more than 20 years. And the God's-country locations are as stunningly beautiful as those of director Ang Lee's earlier "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal start out as a pair of broke, no-expectations cowboys in the early 1960s. They meet when they take jobs guarding illegally-grazing sheep on Wyoming's isolated Brokeback Mountain.

Their first clench scene is the movie's "make or break" moment, where we either will buy or reject the idea that Ledger and Gyllenhaal could be lovers. What helps audiences make that leap is the fact that the characters themselves often are in denial about who they are, as if even they have trouble understanding the urges that set them apart. Knowing that being honest about how they feel toward each other could get them shunned, despised or worse, both hide the truth and try to lead heterosexual lives, eventually marrying and having children.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Ledger's simple, long-suffering spouse Alma. Anne Hathaway, best known for the lightweight "Princess Diaries" movies, shows that she can handle heavier fare as Gyllenhaal's pampered "daddy's-girl" of a wife.

Ledger gives the best performance of his career as a desperately lonely, quiet and frustrated man who can't envision living any other way. Except for stolen moments of too-brief contentment, he is angry, self-hating, adrift and heartbroken, living by the motto that "if you can't fix it, you gotta stand it."

The movie's only plot point that rings false comes when Ledger and Gyllenhaal show an inconsistent lack of discretion upon first seeing each other after four years apart. Dude, if you want to keep things on the downlow, don't go making out with another guy where your wife might see you! Also, a low-angle shot of Ledger with fireworks going off behind him after a fight seemed a bit much. But stacked up against everything good about this movie, nitpicks such as these are all but insignificant.

It's too bad that the gay subject matter will make "Brokeback Mountain" a tough sell at the box office to people who might feel funny buying tickets to "that there queer cowpoke movie." That's because everyone who sees it later on cable or DVD in the nonjudgmental anonymity of their living rooms will have missed the chance to see a truly great movie in all of its big sky, big country, big screen splendor.

Highly recommended.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed October 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

This would-be "serious" flick about how a single bullet affects the lives of people in four countries left me with a lot of questions. Unfortunately, they are not the political or philosophical ones that director Alejandro González Iñárritu or screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga probably intended.

Would a germphobic, bitchy and slightly neurotic upper-middle-class San Diego mother (Cate Blanchett) really go to filthy, sweaty, one-step-from-the-stone-age parts of Morocco on vacation, leaving her precious kids at home with an illegal immigrant nanny? Fastidious as I am, even I don't bring my own utensils to restaurants, as Cate does -- and I get nervous simply driving south of Wilshire Boulevard. The mere notion of bumping through northern Africa in a crowded tour bus makes me twitch and break out in hives.

Would an illegal immigrant nanny in upscale San Diego have any trouble whatsoever finding a babysitter for two angelic, upper-middle-class white kids? And if she somehow couldn't find another nanny, a teenager, or another neighborhood parent, would she really be so ridiculously clueless as to take those tykes across the border with her to a rowdy Mexican wedding without their parents' permission?

If you were stranded with two kids in a desert, but were within sight of a road that appeared to be no more than a 10-minute walk away, wouldn't all three of you go there instead of separating?

Are deaf Japanese schoolgirls really panty-free, obsessively horny nymphomaniacs?

In other words, every storyline in this movie is so contrived and melodramatic that it almost plays like a no-irony version of a Todd Solondz film. Unfortunately, playing things straight means lots of long, dull patches and very skimpy plotting.

Brad Pitt technically does an excellent acting job as the kids' frustrated-with-the-third-world father, but 98% of his role consists of comforting Cate and talking on the phone. Gael Garcia Bernal is the nanny's hyper, gun-toting, chicken-strangling nephew, whose car-chase scene is unbelievable in at least three different ways. The Moroccan kids are unconvincing. And the bit with the morose Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) who flashes strangers and pops pills is just silly smut disguised as insightful psychodrama.

(Also, two parts of the Tokyo section of "Babel" seem to have been appropriated from better movies: the "teen walks naked into room" bit from "Broken Flowers," and "Lost in Translation"'s "not letting the audience in on a final bit of communication.")

Both the Moroccan police and the US Border Patrol are preposterously efficient in this movie's universe. Southern California, Arizona and Texas audiences are likely to convulse in howls of derisive laughter when a Border Patrol agent announces that a longtime US resident suddenly is subject to immediate deportation. In the real world, she would be released on her own recognizance, become the heroic subject of a glowing five-part series in the Los Angeles Times, and brazenly lead a million-Mexican march down the Miracle Mile shouting "Si Se Puede!"

And how is it that the Moroccan authorities are simultaneously able to needle-in-a-haystack some rifle cartridges on a mountaintop and race around in a convoy of police SUVs hunting down a shooter, but simultaneously are unable to get the gravely wounded Cate out of a nearby village for days?

"Babel" is a diverting film that looks well-made and tries to take itself seriously, but it's a real letdown from the director and writer who gave us the much better "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams." It's more sullen soap opera than searing social treatise.

It's also nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and feels like it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Broken Embraces
(Reviewed November 19, 2009, by James Dawson)

Director/writer Pedro Almodovar's latest opportunity to ogle the wonders of Penelope Cruz features her as a rich man's secretary who becomes his mistress but wants to be an actress. She gets the oportunity from a director (Lluis Homar) who, like any man alive, can't resist her on-camera or off-camera charms. We see his relationship with Cruz and her manipulative, rightly suspicious husband in flashback.

That's because the director now has gone blind and lives alone. When we first see him, he has convinced a busty blond stranger to come back to his apartment to read him the newspaper. This naturally leads to frenzied sex on the couch, but he dismisses her immediately afterward. Could he still be pining for Cruz, whose photo his assistant finds in his desk?

Complicating matters in both the past and the present is the rich man's swishily gay son (Rubén Ochandiano), who constantly videotaped Homar and Cruz during the making of their movie-within-the-movie. What the heck is he up to now? Blackmail? Murder?

"Broken Embraces" isn't great, and its plot is unlikely at best, but it's always watchable. Cruz has one wordless reaction shot that's subtle but hilarious, when she reluctantly returns to the bed of her lusty, disgusting and apparently dead husband. The rest of her performance is a whole lotta melodrama, though.

And yes, she does do a topless scene. If you must know. And somehow, I know you must.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Broken Flowers
(Reviewed July 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

Bill Murray, back in extremely low-key "Lost in Translation" mode, takes a road trip quest to find out which of his long-ago lovers might have sent him an anonymous note about secretly having his baby way back when.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, the operative term here is "low-budget quirky." Murray's past conquests, now two decades older, range from a married real estate agent whose suburban tract house is so immaculate it looks positively sterile to a white-trash bitch living in a rural shack with a pair of "Deliverance"-reject rednecks. There's also a new-age animal-talker (Jessica Lange) whose leggy secretary is the coldly businesslike yet indescribably hot Chloe Sevigny, and Sharon Stone as a stock-car widow with a teenage daughter (Alexis Dziena) who more than lives up to her "Lolita" name.

(Attention perverts: Don't go for popcorn when Murray arrives at Stone's house and finds only Lolita home. After telling him to wait in the living room while she takes a call, Lolita casually walks back in a minute later, completely nude and talking on the phone. At the screening I attended, a woman in the audience actually gasped in shock at that eye-popping full-frontal display.)

The locations in the movie are great, looking like honest-to-God middle America more than what Hollywood normally tries to pass off as "anytown USA."

And the movie actually is interesting, not to mention unpredictable. Part of this is because it is often quietly tongue-in-cheek strange. For example, despite the fact that Murray's character is wealthy, his next-door neighbor (and apparently his only friend) is a lower-middle-class Ethiopian family man (Jeffrey Wright) who plots Murray's itinerary and makes mix CDs for him.

Good as this movie is, it won't lose much if you wait to see it on DVD at home -- except that you won't get to see that slutty, jaw-droppingly naked chick on a great big movie screen, that is. Your call!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Brothers Grimm
(Reviewed August 7, 2005, by James Dawson)

Why, why, why didn't Terry Gilliam play this movie "straight," instead of nearly ruining it with an overly broad and achingly unfunny comedy tone? The tongue-in-cheekiness that worked so well for him way back when in "Time Bandits" (which it most resembles) falls completely flat here.

Which is too bad, because this movie literally looks fantastic.

The Brothers Grimm -- one a dreamer who compiles folk tales (Heath Ledger), the other a pragmatist with no use for "magic beans" fantasies (Matt Damon) -- are a couple of 19th-century con men. Their village-to-village ghostbusters scam is going pretty well, until they encounter a genuinely nasty enchanted forest cursed by an evil queen (the stunningly beautiful Monica Bellucci).

The production design (especially the look of the sepia-toned dreamlike forest) and most of the SFX (such as some genuinely creepy walking trees) are as dazzling as those seen Gilliam's best efforts ("Brazil," "Baron Munchausen"). Okay, the werewolf looks almost as howlingly bad as the one in "Harry Potter and the Wizard of Azkaban," but that's the exception amid the wonders here. (Get it? "Howlingly?" Man, I crack myself up.)

Nice camera moves, too, such as when we spiral up and around the outside of the queen's tower to see Ledger surveying the view from its roof.

Unfortunately, this story either needed to be played much funnier or dead seriously. Instead, it lands with an embarrassing thud somewhere between "dull" and "dumb." It also lacks any of the heart that the often wry-and-detached Gilliam showed in "12 Monkeys."

Worth seeing for Gilliam fans, but definitely not his best work.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Bruce Almighty
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Really lousy, cheap comedy, but I can't get enough of JAG star Catherine Bell, so I'll give this waste of time a "D" instead of an "F." My favorite thing about the movie, in fact, is the humorously insulting way she over-rolls the "R" in her news-anchor character's name ("Ortega") whenever she introduces herself at the beginning of a newscast. It's an obvious dig at some of the anchors here in Los Angeles, who pronounce their last names (Alvarez and Gonzales come to mind) as if they just jumped off a northbound produce truck from Tijuana.

The rest of the movie is so lame it doesn't do much of anything with its premise (Jim Carrey getting God's powers). Also, apparently all of the budget money went to Mr. C, because this is about the shoddiest-looking "major motion picture" I've seen this year. (You won't believe how fake a scene of Carrey and Morgan Freeman on top of Mt. Everest looks, for example.)

This is the kind of lowbrow crowdpleaser that gets yucks from dog-taking-a-piss scenes. (The only thing lower is baby-pissing-in-face scenes, which are so overused they seem to have become a disturbing Hollywood sex fetish.)

Not even worth a rental.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

Oh, great. Ashley Judd finally does a scene featuring full nudity, but it's in a movie where she doesn't wear any makeup, has gone a bit flabby, and generally looks like hell. Thanks a lot, God!

"Bug" originally was a play by Tracy Letts, who wrote the screenplay directed here by William Friedkin. Unfortunately, the film feels too much like a play -- and a cheap, sophomoric and very talky one at that.

Ninety-nine percent of it takes place in Judd's motel room. She's a hopelessly downbeat waitress who dreads the return of her abusive parolee husband (Harry Connick Jr., surprisingly buff and badass). Judd has hooked up with a quiet, painfully shy one-night-stand (Michael Shannon), who turns out to have some pretty substantial mental problems. For one thing, he is convinced that the government is spying on him with insects he calls aphids, which he thinks are everywhere.

Judd's and Shannon's descent into self-destructive paranoia is supposed to be disturbing and horrific, but the most frightening thing here is the amount of "let's out-psycho each other" overacting. Also, it's hard to believe that Judd would buy into Shannon's delusions as thoroughly as she does, no matter how crappily life has treated her. (Is "crappily" even a word? Well, by God, it should be!)

With any luck, Judd will do some toning, get her hair done and put on some Cover Girl the next time she nudies up for a flick. Also, the bed she's in won't have any bugs, imaginary or otherwise. Is that too much to ask?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed September 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Bunraku" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Burn After Reading
(Reviewed September 10, 2008, by James Dawson)

This Coen brothers comedy isn't up to their "Raising Arizona" best, but still has lots of laughs -- mainly thanks to Brad Pitt, who is endearingly hilarious as a dumb fitness-center worker out to blackmail a CIA agent.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B