Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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102 Dalmatians
(Not Reviewed November 29, 2000, by James Dawson)

Sorry, but this looked too shamelessly calculated and loud and stupid for me to see even if I had gotten free screening tickets to it. Which I didn't.

Back Row Reviews Grade: None

Daltry Calhoun
(Reviewed September 22, 2005, by James Dawson)

Johnny Knoxville's bitchy ex-girlfriend and his never-seen-'til-she's-a-teen daughter show up in town just when he's going broke because the brand of grass seed that bears his name produces ugly mutations on lawns.

Now, maybe I'm just being elitist, but who in God's name would greenlight that pitch?

"Daltry Calhoun" tries for a folksy, small-town, happy redneck vibe, but the whole affair is amateurish, rambling and not much fun. Juliette Lewis is mildly appealing as Knoxville's horny, good-hearted girlfriend.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Damned United
(Reviewed November 15, 2009, by James Dawson)

(When I began thinking about what to choose for my top 10 movies of 2009, I realized that I somehow never got around to reviewing this excellent based-on-true-events tale -- even though it is very likely to end up on the list. Herewith, I rectify that egregious error.)

Michael Sheen portrays Brian Clough, a pro football (soccer to us yanks) coach in 1970s England. Clough's unbridled ambition and selfish arrogance, coupled with an undeniable charisma, make him a fascinating love-him-and-hate-him character.

When Clough joins Leeds United, he assumes the team will continue its winning ways, even after he insults the players by criticizing their unsportsmanlike and dishonorable conduct. To his surprise, those dishonorable and dirty players don't turn out to take criticism very well.

You don't have to be a sports fan (God knows I'm not) to appreciate the drama of Clough's rises and falls, or the effects they have on his family and his long-suffering assistant coach Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall).

Clough and Taylor's on-and-off partnership, which includes both shared successes and resentful recriminations, makes for one of the year's most well-rounded onscreen relationships. Sheen is completely convincing as a sometimes obnoxious but secretly insecure upstart who finds that respect can't be demanded but must be earned. Spall is equally impressive as the sad Sancho Panza who puts up with Clough's quixotic quest to triumph through denial and sheer willpower, until even he is betrayed.

Also excellent are Colm Meaney as dismissive rival coach Don Revie, and Jim Broadbent as resentful Leeds United chairman Sam Longson.

The movie also doesn't skimp on grey skies and English rain, giving it a drearily realistic ambience not seen in most sports flicks.

Directed by Tom Hooper from a screenplay by Peter ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon") Morgan, based on the book by David Peace, "The Damned United" is a damned good movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Damsels in Distress
(Reviewed April 4, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

A Dangerous Method
(Reviewed November 23, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Dan in Real Life
(Reviewed October 26, 2007)

Not a bad premise, but a really disappointing movie.

Steve Carell is Dan, a widowed advice columnist with three minor daughters: a little cute one, a horny middle one and a bossy oldest one. All go to one of those only-in-the-movies extended family gatherings , this time at the Rhode Island vacation home of Dan's parents. When Dan goes to town alone, he meets and falls in love with a stranger named Marie (Juliette Binoche), who finds herself equally smitten with Dan.

Unfortunately, Marie turns out to be Dan's brother's new girlfriend, who is on her way to the same family gathering. Awkwardness ensues.

The movie's main problem is that Dan is such a prickly, unamusing sad-sack that it's impossible to believe the sexy, vibrant and very cosmopolitan Marie would want anything to do with him.

It is even more difficult to believe that Marie would have any interest whatsoever in Dan's brother, an annoyingly stupid, loud and crude asshole played by Dane Cook. It's about time that Cook was cast in a role like this, which seems tailor-made for his personality skill set, instead of as the would-be charming romantic lead he's been playing in other movies lately. He's still no fun whatsoever to watch, however.

Dan smolders with miserable resentment when he's not trying (and failing) to be subtle about flirting with Marie. In one painfully contrived scene, he stands hiding in the bathtub from his bossy daughter when Bossy insists on coming into the bathroom while Marie is in there. Naturally, the shower gets turned on. This episode as played here is so dumb it doesn't even work as low comedy. (A) Bossy would see Dan through the shower curtain, especially considering there is a window on the other side of the shower and it's daytime. (B) Dan keeps looking at Bossy's face in a mirror, yet Bossy never seems able to see Dan in the same mirror. (C) Bossy sure as hell would hear Dan when he makes his escape through the aforementioned window and tumbles loudly off the roof to the ground.

Also, this is one of those movies where the extended family does things like put on a full-scale talent show in the living room, complete with costumes, props and set design. In my family, the main entertainment consisted of wondering if the old man's toothpick would fall out of his open mouth while he slept in the recliner.

Juliette Binoche is good-looking and sexy in that "older French broad who still knows she's a woman" way, but she should be embarrassed to be in a movie this unsophisticated, unconvincing and -- worst of all-- unfunny.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed February 2, 2003, by James Dawson)

BETTER THAN "SPIDER-MAN!" Then again, that's not saying much, considering I was not a big fan of Spidey's disappointing (although amazingly lucrative) movie.

Here is a more meaningful rave: The "Daredevil" movie actually manages to be an improvement on the original Frank Miller comics from which most of the screen story is adapted. With only a few missteps, the movie version gets almost everything that was good about Miller's story right, while eliminating the nutty ninja nonsense and bad plotting that ultimately made Miller's story seem frustratingly silly.

The issues that made up Miller's Elektra arc, during his run as writer/artist on the "Daredevil" comics series in the early 1980s, are very fondly remembered by those of us who bought the comics when they were new and groundbreaking. Sadly, they do not hold up very well at all upon rereading--try it and see, comics fans. (Let's put it this way: Nobody is going to be unhappy that characters such as the blind pool-hustler-cum-ninja-master mentor figure named Stick, and an unkillable giant ninja warrior named Kirigi, and the Kingpin's missing bag-lady wife are nowhere to be found in the movie version.)

Without giving away any surprises or twists, the film's missteps include a minorly annoying and unnecessary tweak to Daredevil's origin, a very cliche (although thematically faithful to the source) wrapup, some glaringly unrealistic CGI shots, and the fact that Jennifer Garner looks about as Greek (in the role of Elektra) as Britney Spears.

On the plus side, fake-looking CGI is nowhere near as omnipresent as the thoroughly cheesy character animations throughout "Spider-Man." There are far more examples here of genuinely cool stunts and well-done wirework, although "guy-jumping-30-feet-in-the-air" scenes do pop up. And even if Garner is not the right nationality for the character she plays, she does a pretty good job in the role. An early "let's-see-what-you've-got" face-off with Daredevil's alter ego Matt Murdock in a playground, just after the characters first meet, is beautifully choreographed. Hey, it's even sexy!

Ben Affleck assays the role of Murdock/Daredevil with a kind of low-key detachment that I liked. At the other end of the scale, Colin Farrell (as the assassin known as Bullseye) is entertainingly, fascinatingly out of his gourd. (He's also newly Irish for this version.) Michael Clarke Duncan somehow manages to be flat-out perfect as the mob boss known as the Kingpin, even though the comics version of the character is white and Duncan is black (purists be damned!). Also, the boy who plays young Matt Murdock is terrific in a role that would have been ruined by a "Hollywood kid." (He saves Daredevil creator Stan Lee's life, too--another great cameo by the father of Marvel Comics!)

Daredevil's "radar sense" that allows him to "see" is very creatively rendered with special effects. The costumes of both Elektra and (especially) DD have been well modified for the movie, looking more like outfits that actual human beings might wear. (In DD's case, a tough, red leather get-up is one heck of a lot more believable than the stretchy red leotard he runs around in in print.) And among the great stunts is one involving DD, Bullseye and a big-ass Triumph motorcycle that is beauty in motion!

This kind of movie is never going to be completely convincing, but "Daredevil" gets high marks for not taking the easy route by playing things tongue-in-cheek or overly campy. Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson takes a premise this is damned hard to swallow--a blind guy with heightened senses kicking ass in a costume--and plays things so straight you'll willingly suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Darjeeling Limited
(Reviewed September 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

I was about to start this review by writing that either you like Wes Anderson's quirky, tongue-in-cheek, strangely endearing movies or you don't. Then I realized that I disliked "The Royal Tenenbaums" as much as I liked "Rushmore" and "The Life Aquatic," so who knows? You just might enjoy a ride on "The Darjeeling Limited" even if Anderson's quirky characters and deadpan irony have left you cold in the past.

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman are three brothers sharing an Indian train compartment. Wilson, his head bandaged after a motorcycle accident, has arranged the would-be spiritual trip in an attempt to reconnect with the others following the death of their father. That's made a little tougher by the fact that none of the brothers trusts the other two, they readily betray confidences at the earliest opportunity, and they just plain don't seem to like each other much.

Somehow, all of this simmering resentment, brotherly backstabbing and frequent frustration is incredibly entertaining. Wilson is excellent at portraying a kind of hippie control freak, one who visits Indian temples on a schedule dictated by a laminated daily agenda. Brody is the kind of guy who buys a poisonous snake at a market on a whim, wears his dead father's prescription sunglasses all the time, and has abandoned his wife at a rather crucial juncture. Schwartzman is the hangdog but earnest romantic who manages to hook up with an Indian tea-server and thinks he's found true love.

The movie takes what could have been a maudlin turn more than halfway through, but the tragedy succeeds in showing that even brothers as shallow as these aren't completely irredeemable.

I liked this movie a lot, because it was so interesting, different, funny and thoughtful. With laughs.

Highly recommended!

Also, be sure to check out the internet-only short "Hotel Chevalier" before seeing "The Darjeeling Limited." It's a brief prequel to the movie, in which Schwartzman's character and his girlfriend (played by Natalie Portman) rendezvous at a Paris hotel. If you need an extra incentive to watch it, the short features full dorsal nudity from Miss P.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Dark Angel
(Reviewed October 4, 2000, by James Dawson)

This was a made-for-TV movie, so technically it does not belong on this page. But it was co-created and co-written by king of the world SF director supreme James Cameron, it was hyped as if it might actually be worthwhile, and I just wasted two hours watching the stupid thing. So what the hell.

The "Dark Angel" premiere was boring, ludicrous, badly acted, cheap and just plain dumb. Absolutely the only thing it had going for it was barely legal bombshell Jessica Alba's looks. The girl's thespian abilities are nonexistent, her monotone narration could put a speed freak to sleep, and you won't believe for one second that she has any strength, fighting ability or natural agility. But good God, is she hot. Those lips, those eyes, those enticingly slender hips, that remarkably compact butt, that heavenly chest. It doesn't matter that every time she opens her pretty mouth she reminds you of those terrible actresses on really awful soap operas, the ones who try their damnedest to emote but just can't cut it. It also doesn't matter that when Jessica goes into simpering-pout mode (which happens about every two minutes) you don't know whether to vomit, roll your eyes or unzip. Whatever "it" is, Jessica's got it.

Which was why, about halfway through this insomnia aid, I started wondering exactly how long it would take the producers to put her in something slinky. Then, bingo, she finds herself in a situation where she impersonates a hooker in a slit-sided red dress (which should have been way too big for her, considering she took it from a woman a foot taller and considerably more voluptuous, but why quibble?). Okay, I would have preferred to see her in a pair of microdot-size pasties and a millimeter-wide thong, but let's not be greedy. There's always next time.

Or at least, there would be a next time, if I had any intention of ever tuning into this cheesy "Relic-Hunter" quality snoozefest again. Proving that even a drooling pig like me has his limits, however, I think I'll be finding better things to do with my Tuesday nights. Like anything other than watching this pandering, brain-dead show.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (escaping an F simply because I happen to have testosterone and can't resist a pretty...well, you know)

Dark Blue
(Reviewed January 22, 2003, by James Dawson)

Okay, maybe I'm being unfair, but this dreadfully directed bad-cops melodrama is the reason I never watch TV shows such as "Law and Order." I always expect those series to be exactly as intensely dopey as this movie, full of perps being roughly rousted and soap-operatic personal relationships and The Man somehow being responsible for everything that's wrong with the world.

Kurt Russell is a corrupt cop who is under the thumb of a much more corrupt supervisor. He is busily corrupting his wet-behind-the-ears new partner during the days before the Rodney King verdict came down. The movie ends during the riots that ensued after the cops who beat King were acquitted, which comes off as a pretty tacky plot device, sort of like ending a domestic drama with the collapse of the Twin Towers.

"Dark Blue" director Ron Shelton's 1999 debacle "Play It to the Bone" was much, much worse than this, but that's not much of a recommendation. The story is by James Ellroy, probably best known for writing the ridiculously overrated "L.A. Confidential."

Save your eight bucks and watch TV instead of shelling out for this made-for-cable-looking dud. There's probably some version of "Law and Order" playing right now. The damned thing seems to be on every night of the week, insidiously keeping people too scared to leave their houses and guaranteeing they will watch more TV. Insidious, no?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Dark Knight

(Reviewed June 28, 2008, by James Dawson)

Let's get the "speaking ill of the dead" part out of the way right upfront. I can't believe the degree to which some shameless quote-whore critics are overpraising Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. The truth is that Ledger phones in a bad impersonation of Paul Giamatti doing Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. Except, you know, more homicidally crazy -- in a weirdly unentertaining and unconvincing fashion.

There, I said it. Now I'm sure to rot in hell. Oh, well.

The best thing about "The Dark Knight" is Aaron Eckhart as crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent, who experiences a rather dramatic change in attitude for reasons best left unsaid (in case there is anyone left on earth who doesn't know that character's strange and tragic destiny).

Unfortunately, Eckhart deserved to be in a better movie. Most of "The Dark Knight" is so passionless, coldly clinical and deadly dull that it seems to have been produced by people whose main watchword was "tasteful."

Parts of it also feel, shall we say, "overly familiar." One of its big action scenes is a retread of a very similar section of "Mission Impossible 3"; both scenes even take place in Asia. A skyhook rescue bit has an even more distant precedent: James Bond and Domino getting "airlifted" from a life raft at the end of "Thunderball." And "The Dark Knight" opens with a bank heist, the same way "Batman Forever" did -- although the robbery here is considerably less "comic-bookish."

That's not to say "The Dark Knight" isn't better than "Batman Begins," which wasted its entire first hour on the most boring setup in superhero history. It's just not better enough.

I came out of both movies thinking the same thing: "I can't believe that I have no desire ever to see that again." Technically, Christian Bale has a decent look for Bruce Wayne, and director Christopher Nolan directed one movie that I absolutely loved ("Memento"), and I have nothing against Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman, and Heath Ledger was magnificent in "Brokeback Mountain."

But put them all together, and the result somehow is one big disappointment. Bale looks ridiculous as Batman, mainly because the costume's cowl now bulges out at the sides in a "squirrel storing nuts in his cheeks" fashion. Nolan seems to think he's directing a lifeless "Masterpiece Theater" drawing-room drama, with no interesting camera moves whatsoever. An unmemorable score runs under nearly every scene.

There also are logic problems aplenty. Two of the biggest, without ruining any plot points: There is no reason for anyone to believe that the Joker would stop a killing-a-day spree if Batman unmasked himself, as the Joker promises he would do. And when Batman and the police are told that two of the Joker's about-to-die victims are in different locations, couldn't Commissioner Gordon simply get dispatch to send patrol cops who probably would be in the vicinity to those addresses? It's not as if Batman and the cops who are with him at police headquarters when they get the word are the only people in town, after all.

"The Dark Knight" is well over two hours long, and man does it feel like it. In the "everything old is new again" category, it's kind of funny that the difference between DC movies and Marvel movies today is like the difference between the two companies' comic-book lines back in the early 1960s. DC had the older, stodgier, considerably less hip Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, while Marvel had the cooler and more interesting Spider-Man, X-Men and such. These days, the most recent Superman movie was a colossal bore and the Batman franchise seems to be striving for some kind of unmerited artistic legitimacy, while Marvel movies like the Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, "Iron Man" and even "The Incredible Hulk" retain a more tongue-in-cheek sense of their less-than-lofty origins.

Also, this movie's version of Gotham City is sterile, shiny-modern and utterly generic, which is exactly the opposite of what the place looks like in the best Batman comics. The famous description of production designer Anton Furst's conception of the place for the first Tim Burton "Batman" movie (which had its own problems, of course, not the least of which was one called "Michael Keaton") was that Gotham should look like Hell had burst through the streets and kept right on growing. The Gotham City of "The Dark Knight," on the other hand, looks about as menacing as a gleaming Dubai metropolis after a neutron bomb left the streets empty.

Even the cinematography here is lacking. Many scenes have an icily offputting bluish color scheme that's like what Mister Freeze's pad looked like in the Batman TV series. In at least two shots of people on balconies, the foreground figures are far too dark, as if somebody thought it was more important to get the lighting right on the background than on the people who are talking. Isn't this kind of thing pretty basic stuff on a big-budget movie, people?

Maybe somebody should ring up Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller to see if they're available to write and direct the next Batman movie. This franchise is in serious need of some blood, some guts and some serious messing-with.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

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

"Batman Begins" (2005)
"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises

(Reviewed July 18, 2012, by James Dawson)

Bloated, boring and obsolete on arrival, "The Dark Knight Rises" is the least fun you'll have at a superhero movie all year. This final chapter in director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is so relentlessly dull that its sparse action scenes play like obligatory afterthoughts. Compared to the joy-ride thrills of "The Avengers" and the sweet sentimentality of "The Amazing Spider-Man," this stodgy slog looks positively constipated.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been living as a detached recluse for eight years since taking the blame for crimes he didn't commit at the end of 2008's "The Dark Knight." He is enticed back into action after his dead mother's pearls are stolen by Selina Kyle (an adequate if unexciting Anne Hathaway), who ominously warns him that "a storm is coming." Although Kyle plainly is Catwoman and later shows up in costume, she never is referred to by that name, which sums up the movie's misguided sense of dignified decorum.

Plot-wise, Nolan seems to be delivering an uninspired admonition for the Occupy era that boils down to "be careful what you wish for." Tom Hardy, his face half covered by a muzzle-like mask in all but one scene, is the musclebound but mellifluously articulate villain Bane. An economics, explosives and ass-kicking expert with a link to Batman's past, Bane and his henchmen bankrupt Bruce Wayne and lay siege to Gotham City, cutting it off from the rest of the country with a threat of nuclear annihilation.

Bane also delivers a brutal beatdown to Batman that is nearly as sadistic as Hardy's mixed martial arts cage matches in 2011's "Warrior." Despite the movie's PG-13 rating, that excruciating scene is no more kid-friendly than Batman's savagely bloody interrogation of the Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Speaking of the Joker, absolutely nobody in this movie does, despite the fact that every other living-or-dead major character from Nolan's first two Batman movies makes an appearance. That lapse makes no narrative sense, considering that part of Bane's terror campaign involves releasing criminals (including Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow from 2005's "Batman Begins") to sit in judgment of Gotham's citizenry.

Making even less sense is the fact that Batman is offstage so much he's almost a cameo player in his own movie, not appearing in costume until 40 minutes have passed. The most unbearably endless Batman-free stretch puts a battered and broken Bruce Wayne literally at the bottom of a hole, imprisoned underground until he can manage to climb his way out. Scenes like that make sitting through this two-hour and 44-minute ordeal occasionally feel like watching bat guano dry.

Gary Oldman returns as police commissioner Jim Gordon, who spends too much time flat on his back. Morgan Freeman twinkles as Wayne's weapons-inventing equivalent of James Bond's Q, presenting Batman this time with a lobster-looking jet known simply as the "Bat." As Wayne's butler and father figure Alfred, Michael Caine is saddled with soap-operatically earnest scenes such as one in which he explains something preposterous he did in the last movie. New cast members include Marion Cotillard as Wayne's business-savvy love interest Miranda Tate and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as idealistic straight-arrow cop John Blake.

Almost half of the film was shot in the IMAX format, which is a mixed blessing. While IMAX cityscapes and action scenes are stunningly sharp, the way the movie switches between the gigantic full-frame IMAX shots and narrower widescreen ones can be distracting.

Interestingly, the movie's nuclear-bomb-related climax is similar to that of "The Avengers," making the big moment a little too familiar. Also, funny-book fans may resent a deviation from the Batman comics canon that is necessary to make a final twist come as a surprise.

Now that Nolan's bleakly grim take on Batman has run its course, it's hard not to hope for a quick reboot of the franchise that won't take itself so seriously. Joss Whedon, call your agent.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

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

"Batman Begins" (2005)
"The Dark Knight" (2007)

Dark Shadows
(Reviewed May 8, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Dark Water
(Reviewed July 8, 2005, by James Dawson)

Jennifer Connelly does a great job portraying a harried, newly separated, nearly broke mom who moves into a cheap, run-down apartment on New York's Roosevelt Island with her young daughter (Ariel Gade). The film's atmosphere is as dreary and bleak as Connelly's edge-of-desperation financial situation. The look of the movie is stark, grainy and color-bleached. The apartment -- and the building's lobby, hallways, laundry room and exterior -- are both creepy and completely "next stop the poor house" convincing, as opposed to haunted-house hokey.

The only problem with "Dark Water" is the "horror" element, which is neither especially scary nor even terribly interesting. Even worse, the reason why Connelly is being tormented by water problems and a wandering spirit is incredibly easy to figure out very early in the movie, making the "big reveal" at the end positively redundant. It's as if the filmmakers were embarrassed at having to include the spooky stuff, because what they really wanted to do was tell the more human story at its core.

It's a shame they didn't junk the supernatural element altogether. Connelly, her antagonistic husband (Dougray Scott), her likeable low-key liar of a lawyer (Tim Roth) and the gruff super of her building (Pete Postlewaithe) do such a good job portraying the misery of life for a struggling single mom in the big city that the ghost story seems like a vulgar appendage. It's sort of like seeing a belly dance in the middle of "Vanity Fair." (Paging Reese Witherspoon: Zing!)

Gade is refreshingly "un-Hollywood" as Connelly's daughter Cecilia, especially in a sweet scene where she introduces herself to new classmates at her school after rehearsing what she wanted to say the night before.

The only performer who spoils the mood is the usually excellent John C. Reilly. His portrayal of Connelly's slimey, do-nothing building manager is supposed to function as comic relief, but ends up undercutting the dead-serious tone of the rest of the movie.

I haven't been a fan of any of the recent American remakes of Japanese horror flicks I've seen ("The Ring," "The Ring 2," "The Grudge"), which are becoming a "nasty little ghost girls" genre unto themselves. While "Dark Water" -- itself a remake from the writer of "The Ring" -- rises above the rest thanks to believable characters, it ultimately doesn't make any more sense than the others. Without spoiling the ending, I'll only say that -- given what we know by that point -- there is no reason why a certain character could not simply hang around the living a la "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" indefinitely, even taking on physical form. That undercuts some of the poignancy of what should have been a much more wrenching finale.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Darling Companion
(Reviewed April 19, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Date Night
(Reviewed March 27, 2010, by James Dawson)

This inoffensive but kinda flat comedy probably was more fun to read as a screenplay than to watch on the screen. That's because Tina Fey and Steve Carell, playing "just another boring married couple from New Jersey" who get caught up in big-city crime-caper hijinks, are wrong for their roles in different ways.

Fey comes off as too smart to be convincingly ditzy. She's a real estate agent we're supposed to believe is surprised to learn that the device she refers to as a "computer sticky thing" is actually called a flash drive. (Actually, that kind of cluelessness might explain the current housing meltdown.)

Carell, on the other hand, never is believable as a dullsville schlub. That means his later manic behavior doesn't feel like much of a transformation, because he's been sort of "off" from the get-go.

The plot subjects these "Out-of-Towners" to an "After Hours" series of mistaken-identity misadventures involving blackmail, bad cops and a bada-bing nightclub. Mark Wahlberg has an amusing supporting role as a perpetually shirtless security-expert stud, but "Gossip Girl"'s Leighton Meester is wasted in a tiny role as a conniving babysitter.

While most of the on-the-run stuff is played sitcom broadly, that's infinitely preferable to when the movie stops dead for Fey and Carell to have a serious discussion about their marriage. Thankfully, this would-be sensitive scene is immediately followed by a crazy car chase through Manhattan featuring a sportscar and a taxi locked nose-to-nose. J.B. Smoove (Leon from "Curb Your Enthusiasm") is hilarious as the bug-eyed, frustrated cabbie.

A few of the story's cleverly dark morsels -- such as a running gag about a tearjerker book featuring an Afghan girl getting her first period under Taliban rule, or Fey telling Carell at a seedy club to work a stripper pole "like a runaway" -- hint at how much better the screenplay could have been if it had gone more for edgy than silly. Also, the big ending is so predictable that you practically can count down the seconds to what you know will happen.

Not a bad movie, just one that could have been a little smarter for its own good.

(Also, stick around through the credits for some funny screwups and a capper at the end of the crawl.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The Da Vinci Code
(Reviewed May 19, 2006, by James Dawson)

Jesus Christ, is this movie dull.

I never read the book, so maybe this talky, by-the-numbers junk played better on the printed page. What's onscreen, though, is nearly as boring and useless as church.

Characters prattle endlessly about a lot of religious and historical hooey while hitting every mystery-for-morons mark in the "Suspense Flicks for Dummies" handbook: falsely accused "wrong man," insultingly preposterous escape, Swiss bank account, car chase, superhumanly unstoppable hitman, preposterous doublecrosses...what is this, television? Even with all of the running around, shooting and self-flagellation, it's amazingly ho-hum. The only thing surprising about the literally God-awful ending is that something so idiotic, laughable and utterly predictable is supposed to come as a shocking revelation.

The plot: A secret society within the Catholic church has been protecting the descendants of Jesus (who was secretly married to Mary Magdalene) from another secret society determined to eliminate all evidence that 2000 years of church history has been a lie. Tom Hanks is a professor of symbology summoned to translate the coded message a murder victim wrote in his own blood before expiring. (No matter how many times the "dying secret message" cliche appears in movies, it somehow never seems possible that anyone actually would do such a thing.)

That scene means the movie makes no sense right from the get-go. The deceased had arranged to meet Hanks for dinner that night. The deceased knew he was the likely target of a killer. Which means it's damned hard to believe that he wouldn't already have told Hanks something along the lines of, "BY THE WAY, THERE'S A KILL-CRAZY ALBINO AFTER ME. SO JUST IN CASE I END UP A BIT DEAD BEFORE OUR DINNER DATE, HERE ARE A FEW RATHER IMPORTANT THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW..."

Tom Hanks is his usual genial, mildly detached self, which means he is somewhat out of place doing both the endless exposition and the by-the-numbers action scenes here. Since this "Left Behind"-level movie has nothing else to offer, that leaves him pretty much adrift.

Audrey Tautou, as a French policewoman who goes on the run with Hanks, seems bored. Ian McKellan, as an expert on the Holy Grail, is twinkly and crotchety and wholly unbelievable. The usually excellent Jean Reno doesn't have much to do as a flatly relentless French cop on Hanks' trail.

The conspiracy evidence found in Da Vinci's paintings is a neat device, even if many of what the book's author claims are supporting real-world "facts" actually aren't. And it's always nice to see the leaders of any organized religion presented as manipulative, evil, power-mad hypocrites.

That's not enough to recommend this movie, though.

(Note: If you want to read a truly great, completely over-the-top, utterly irreverent, outrageously violent and yet frequently hilarious take on the whole "secret society within the church protecting Christ's descendants" story -- which came out years before "The Da Vinci Code" was published -- check out the highly recommended "Preacher" series of graphic novels by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. End of free plug.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Dawn of the Dead
(Reviewed March 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

I liked this a lot. Don't leave before the credits are over.

I'll write more later, but hey, "America's Next Top Model" is on right now. A guy's got to have his priorities.

(Post Script added 7/7/09: Oops, I never did get around to adding more to the above review...but it almost doesn't matter. By now everyone knows who then-new director Zach Snyder is, because he has gone on to direct "300" and "Watchmen.")

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008 version)
(Reviewed December 12, 2008, by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" review

I also wrote a feature article about the movie, which you can read by clicking this link:
"The Day the Earth Stood Still" feature article

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed June 5, 2007, by James Dawson)

Remarkably stupid Russian fantasy/adventure flick, but it has some really cool special effects.

I'm not even going to bother summarizing the complex but crack-brained plot. The story wants to be a kind of multilayered "Moscow Matrix," but it's more of a disjointed "Buckaroo Banzai on Borscht."

Still, scene like the one where the car drives across the face of a building, and especially the citywide blow-up at the end, are worth sitting through all of the tongue-in-cheek attempts at hip irony.

Fair warning: Take an extended bathroom break during the birthday party scene, because it is butt-numbingly endless. So long as you get back before the building-smashing yo-yos start flying, you'll be fine.

(It's that kind of movie...)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Death at a Funeral
(Reviewed August 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

Very predictable Brit comedy that has its moments, but not many of them.

Is the old "unknowingly dosed straight guy acting weird on drugs" plot device one that anyone wants to see again? Alan Tudyk spends nearly the entire movie in that state, acting inappropriately at a well-off relative's funeral that goes on for most of a day. Naturally, he ends up taking his clothes off.

A gross-out scene featuring a hypochondriac mourner trying to get an elderly wheelchair-bound curmudgeon to a toilet before his bowels let loose -- "Hurry! It's touch and go!" -- feels hammered in for the sake of livening up the otherwise inoffensive proceedings.

This isn't an awful movie, but it feels so familiar and by the numbers that it never really takes off. That's partially due to the directing job by Frank Oz, which starts off stodgy and never picks up any speed, even when things should become more manic toward the end.

Trivia: Jane Asher, best known stateside as Paul McCartney's pre-Linda girlfriend in the 1960s, plays the bereaved widow -- and doesn't look at all bad for her age.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Death Defying Acts
(Reviewed July 17, 2008)

This is a well-made movie with plotting problems that don't thoroughly ruin it. (Jesus, could I possibly have put less effort into this review? Honestly, I must apologize for my apparent sloth.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Death of a President
(Reviewed October 26, 2006, by James Dawson)

This fictional documentary-from-the-future about the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush should have been grippingly dramatic and thought-provoking, considering that the filmmakers got to make everything up and craft the story any way they wanted. Instead, it is dull, lamely acted, utterly unconvincing and sometimes unintentionally comical. (When Cheney delivers Bush's eulogy -- the real footage apparently having been lifted from Ronald Reagan's funeral -- there is no cutaway from Cheney's face when his lips very obviously are not saying the words "George W. Bush" that we hear.)

One problem is that the movie's talking-head interviews with a fictional Bush speechwriter, FBI and Secret Service agents, shooting suspects and others go on forever. Also, their less-than-believable performances don't ring true. The woman playing the speechwriter shows none of the smarts, savvy or cynicism that one assumes must come with the job; she seems more like the kind of gullible small-town churchgoer who stands clapping like a grinning zombie on the rope-line in Smalltown USA when W comes to town. The head Secret Service agent, for all that he tries to dredge up some emotion about his failure to keep our War-Criminal-in-Chief safe, doesn't try hard enough. The Muslim wife of a suspect who has travelled to one too many countries ending in "stan" is all big-eyed, pathetic earnestness.

When compelling evidence arises that the shooter may not be the guy who is tried for the crime, we're suddenly in a universe without media, considering that the info apparently gets no widespread attention on TV, in newspapers or on the blogosphere. In our world, reporters and pundits would be all over the story, and the guy making the charges would be on "Oprah," "60 Minutes" and the cover of People magazine.

With any luck, one part of the movie will be an anachronism in less than two weeks. A scene that is supposed to occur next year shows Denny Hastert as Speaker of the House of Representatives -- a title he is likely to lose this November 7, when Democrats are expected to become a majority there.

In a perfect world, there would be another more important anachronism: Bush would be impeached, convicted and imprisoned before October 2007, when this movie shows him catching bullets in Chicago. Unfortunately, likely future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi already has made an insanely stupid public pledge not put W on trial for his many high crimes and misdemeanors, so that ain't gonna happen. As always, the "opposition party" prefers to endlessly whine and bitch in self-righteous indignation while doing nothing to rectify anything or punish the guilty.

That means we'll have to settle for dining on lame duck for the next two years, while the war goes on forever and things in general continue sucking harder by the day.

God bless America!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Death Race
(Reviewed August 21, 2008, by James Dawson)

Silly me. I foolishly hoped that this movie would be another "The Road Warrior" -- one of only two movies in my life that I've watched three times in a single day at a theater. (If you must know, the other was "Alien.")

Boy, was I wrong. Unlike "Road Warrior" director George Miller, who knew exactly where to put the cameras and how to cut for maximum you-are-there impact, "Death Race" director Paul W.S. Anderson and his editor don't have a goddamned clue. Shots alternate between being too close and too far away -- usually too close, as if we are watching the flick from the first row. The race scenes are confusing to the point of incomprehensibility. Essentially, "Death Race" looks like it was assembled in a blender.

Jason Statham does what he can with his usual tough-guy glare. But the story is irredeemably stupid, about hardcore prison inmates driving in to-the-death races on pay-per-view. As in the "Rollerball" remake a few years back, characters in charge of the broadcast mention that their TV ratings are going up when unexpected things happen in real time. Think about that. On second thought, don't bother -- it makes no sense whatsoever.

There were only three things I liked about "Death Race," all of them on the shallow side. Statham's in-car "navigator" Natalie Martinez looks like Rose McGowan's Latina big sister. There's a terrific tractor-trailer wreck that beats the pants off a similar big-rig flip in "The Dark Knight."

And I'm childish enough to be extremely amused by the following choice bit of dialog, spoken by the prison's hardass ice-queen warden Joan Allen: "Okay, cocksucker, fuck with me and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk."

I think I smell a Best Supporting Actress nomination. No, wait, what I smell is shit on the sidewalk.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Death Sentence
(Reviewed August 11, 2007, by James Dawson)

If ever a movie should have gone direct-to-video -- or maybe direct-to-Dumpster -- it's this abominally awful revenge fantasy starring Kevin Bacon as a suburban, suit-wearing office drone who transforms into an unstoppable, ultra-badass one-man SWAT team after gang members attack his family.

The only way this bomb may have worked would have been as a complete parody, with someone like Rowan Atkinson (in Mr. Bean mode) as the distraught-and-deathly-dangerous dad. The plot is so hysterically stupid that audience members were sniggering when Bacon went all Travis Bickle by shaving his head and suiting up for battle.

Also, Bacon does such a bad acting job that he doesn't even eat a sandwich convincingly.

One of the flat-out worst movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Death to Smoochy
(Reviewed March 16, 2002, by James Dawson)

It stars the egregious, vomit-inducing Robin Williams. Do you really need to know more?

How about this: It also stars the great Ed Norton and the wonderful Catherine Keener, whose considerable talents are wholly wasted in this bad, bad, baaaaaaaaaad movie that goes on FOREVER.

I hated this movie so much I don't even feel like wasting my time criticizing it. Go ahead, revoke my license.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Debt
(Reviewed August 30, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The December Boys
(Reviewed August 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

Embarrassingly sappy tale of Australian orphans spending time at an isolated beach community in the 1960s, with one of the worst endings in cinematic history. Then there's a coda that's even dumber.

Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) is the oldest of the boys. The only worthwhile scene in the movie consists of him losing his virginity to a blond Aussie cave slut, which isn't nearly as stimulating as it sounds.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Deck the Halls
(Reviewed November 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

Absolutely worthless in every way.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

The Deep Blue Sea
(Reviewed March 22, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed February 27, 2010, by James Dawson)

Call me crazy (you won't be the first), but I enjoyed this darkly comic little movie more than I liked "The Dark Knight." It has more heart, it's more interesting and I cared a lot more about the characters. More importantly, its take on how costumed heroes would think and fare in the real world (namely, not very well) is a lot more believable than the mega-budget nonsense of Batman movies that take themselves too seriously.

(More of this review to come, but for now, just go see it!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Deja Vu
(Reviewed November 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

This movie is so damned dumb that audience members sniggered aloud not once but twice when characters were explaining the idiotic "science" of what's happening onscreen.

Denzel Washington is investigating the explosion of a New Orleans ferry full of people. He is recruited by a team with a super-secret tool that will make the job somewhat easier: a look-back device that shows things unfolding in real time from the recent past.

Nothing in the movie makes a damned bit of sense. We are expected to believe that this device, which uses a network of spy satellites and closed circuit security cameras, can "see" anything within a certain radius from any angle whatsoever. Somehow, this also means that the spy satellites can see through the walls of houses to reveal not just detailed, movie-quality images of people and things, but even writing on notepads. Wow, that's some sophisticated infrared, huh?

It just gets stupider from there, to the point where audiences are guaranteed to have hours of fun pointing out one boneheaded aspect after another. After another.

The only reason I'm giving this a "D-" instead of an "F" is because director Tony Scott does execute some good chase and explosion scenes. Everything else about the movie -- the annoyingly stock characters, their sarcastic deadpan tone of voice, the sappy love story, the way characters who are in a desperate hurry one minute suddenly are in no hurry whatsoever the next -- is just abysmally lousy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Deliberate Intent
(Reviewed August 2, 2000, by James Dawson)

Okay, technically this film should not be reviewed here, because it did not get a theatrical release (it is an FX cable network original). But this movie is so despicable, so disgusting, so absolutely contemptible that I am making a special exception and including it on this page anyway.

"Deliberate Intent" is based on the true story of a lawsuit that was brought against the publisher of a how-to book titled "Hitman." The suit claimed that the publisher should be held responsible for a triple homicide committed by a man who had read the book. AND THE LOATHESOME, FREE-SPEECH HATING PRODUCERS OF THIS MOVIE TAKE THE PLAINTIFF'S SIDE!!! The members of the legal team that sues the publisher are portrayed as saintly men of conscience, fighting the good fight. Using logic that is maddeningly Orwellian, the lead attorney simultaneously professes to revere the 1st Amendment and yet to believe that a publisher should be held guilty of homicide and pay millions in civil damages because he printed a book that describes how to commit murder.

If there were any justice in this sorry world, the producers of this book-burners' wet dream would be sued themselves by the very same legal team, for quoting extensive passages from "Hitman" during the course of this film.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I hated this movie and its misguided message with a searing, white-hot passion. Anyone who believes in the sanctity of a free press should hate it, too. Honest to God, watching it made me so mad I could have squashed a grape.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A BIG, FAT ZERO

(Reviewed June 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

Cole Porter fans will be rightfully appalled by the mostly unlistenable renditions of Porter's songs herein by contemporary singers and actors-trying-to-sing. (Alanis Morissette's version of "Let's Do It [Let's Fall in Love]" is so remarkably bad that Porter should rise from his grave just to shoot himself over it.) And I can't imagine any youthful fans of those contemporary singers shelling out the bucks to see this flick, which gives off an unmistakable (and accurate) aroma of who-cares old-fogeyness.

Or, to come straight to the point: This movie isn't going to make anybody happy. Incidentally, it also happens to be just plain awful.

Kevin Kline is dreadfully (or is that "de-readfully?") cast as Porter. I've never liked Kline in any non-comedic roles (and haven't cared much for him even in comedies, actually). Like Robin Williams, he always seems to be trying desperately to remain in character without winking at the camera. Another drawback here is that Kline, in old-Cole bald wig, looks disturbingly like Carl Reiner.

Screenwriter Jay Cocks steals "De-Lovely"'s structure from the vastly superior "All That Jazz," providing Jonathan Pryce as a stage manager who lets Kline-as-Porter view his life as scenes played on a stage (which become scenes enacted on actual locations). Ashley Judd is Porter's amazingly understanding wife Linda, who finds his homosexuality unconvincingly easy to tolerate until he starts spending too many nights out "with the boys."

The movie follows Porter's life from the night he met long-suffering Linda until his death, with many awkward musical interludes that are mostly teeth-gratingly terrible (Kline's unspeakably cringeworthy version of "Be a Clown," Elvis Costello croaking "Let's Misbehave," I could go on and on). The only two performances I enjoyed were Vivian Green's excellent rendition of "Love for Sale" and Sheryl Crow's interesting-in-a-good-way take on "Begin the Beguine."

Porter's life story is fascinating enough to be the basis of a good movie someday. This one sure isn't it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Departed
(Reviewed September 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

Jack Nicholson is so fascinatingly badass crazy in "The Departed" that he steals the show from stars Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. Hell, he's basically playing the Joker without makeup -- mugging and shouting and arching that eyebrow for all he's worth.

And yes, that's a good thing.

Nicholson plays seedy, disheveled Boston gangster Frank Costello. His character is like a father to Damon, who ends up on the police force, feeding Nicholson info and tipoffs. DiCaprio is a fellow cop who doesn't know Damon, but who goes deep undercover to infiltrate Costello's gang.

In other words, the plot itself is nothing special. Parts of it don't even make sense. Mark Wahlberg, as one of two people on the police force who know that DiCaprio is one of the good guys, is so ridiculously well-informed that he rattles off nearly every personal detail of DiCaprio's entire life before giving him the undercover assignment. At the same time, we're supposed to believe that Wahlberg's character is so stupidly oblivious he can't figure out who the rat on the force is, even though gangster Costello showed up in a black limo for his protege's police-academy graduation ceremony.

Also, Scorsese once again shows that Cameron Crowe has nothing on him when it comes to jukeboxing a movie soundtrack to death. Playing songs like the Rolling Stones' "Gimmie Shelter" or John Lennon's "Well Well Well" during scenes is sort of like having a topless girl run in front of the camera for no good reason other than making whatever's going on seem a lot more interesting.

I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed "The Departed" more than I've liked any Scorsese movie in years, maybe because the director has stopped trying so damned hard to be respectable. "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator" came off like obvious pleas for the Oscar that has eluded Scorsese all his life, but "The Departed" feels more like a fun-to-watch movie that was fun to make. It's two-and-a-half hours long, but leaves you wanting even more.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Descendants
(Reviewed November 16, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Despicable Me

(Reviewed June 22, 2010, by James Dawson)

This good looking but just-good-enough movie's most obvious inspiration apparently was Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Both feature a vaudevillianly nasty villain who adopts three orphans for nefarious purposes. But the movie's "homages" don't end there. "Despicable Me"'s Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) looks like Charles Addams' Uncle Fester, has an oompa-loompa-like army of little yellow creatures, acts like a cross between the Grinch and Austin Powers nemesis Dr. Evil, and engages in wildly exaggerated CGI superheroics that wouldn't be out of place in The Incredibles.

Although the Pixar-pretty (but not Pixar) computer animation is terrific, the story takes a while to get going and always feels slightly off. For the first 15 minutes, I seriously considered walking out early, something I never do. Stylishly cartoonish characters, retro-cool technology and imaginative architecture aside, this seemed like just another loud, pointless piece of colorful eye-candy like last year's similarly beautiful-but-dumb Planet 51.

Even when the plot finally manages to get in gear (underappreciated evil genius with mother issues and a younger rival plans to make big splash by stealing the moon), it's still hard not to wish that a few members of Pixar's story team could have taken a crack at the screenplay to give it more wit, menace and thrills. It may be unfair to keep judging this movie by the Pixar standard, but any CGI movie going up against Toy Story 3 this summer can't help inviting the comparison.

On the positive side, the story takes an unexpectedly effective sentimental turn about halfway through that's sickeningly sweet, but sweet nonetheless. (If the filmmakers don't publish a real-world book duplicating the movie's "Three Little Kittens," they're nuts. That "Pat the Bunny"-style little-kids storybook would be a bestseller!)

Carell doesn't do a great job bringing Gru to life, never quite getting sufficiently grandiose, grumpy or gooey to do the character justice. A much better voice choice would have been Jim Carrey...two of whose previous roles happened to be Gru forerunners the Grinch and Lemony Snicket's Count Olaf.

I was lucky enough to see "Despicable Me" in 2-D, not 3-D, which made it easier to appreciate how sharp, bright and colorful the movie is. I can't stand wearing 3-D glasses, 3-D movies nearly always are too dark, and even in the best-looking 3-D flicks (such as How to Train Your Dragon and Avatar) the effect never is worth the (sometimes literal) headaches.

Having said that, however, it should be noted that several segments in "Despicable Me" are staged specifically to take advantage of 3-D's "things coming right at your face" and "woah, I'm falling and I think I'll throw up" attributes. The very pointy end of Gru's strange air/land vehicle threatens to impale the audience, an approaching rocket may send the impressionable diving under their seats, and a ridiculously scary roller-coaster ride is like "Star Tours" without the jiggly chairs. Also, an end credits scene makes no sense at all in 2-D, because it only consists of Gru's little yellow helpers reaching for the audience and walking out from the screen.

One other thing: Somebody should have turned the omnipresent and often annoying score either down or off every now and then. Overused classic rock songs and constant music cues really aren't necessary for every single movie moment.

Definitely not a despicable movie, but one that should have gone through a few more drafts before ending up on screen.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed March 20, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
(Reviewed August 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

This cheerfully dumb comedy is surprisingly likeable for something so cheap, ineptly directed and offhandedly acted. A lot of it is more "miss" than "hit," but there are enough laughs to make it worth at least a rental.

Rob Schneider reprises the title role as a "man-whore" schlub helping pimp Eddie Griffin uncover who is murdering the great he-bitches of Europe. Hanna Verboom (now there's a name that deserves to be on marquees everywhere) plays the sweet-and-sexy obsessive-compulsive love interest. And a big-busted blond goddess named Katie Downes plays a wet-T-shirted window-washer for a few seconds of heavenly hooter exploitation that will make you glad your DVD player has a "pause" button.

You could do a lot worse for your movie-comedy dollar. (Worse as in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which makes this movie look like a towering masterpiece of comedic genius.) (Now watch that phrase get used in the print ads: "A towering masterpiece of comedic genius!")

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Deuces Wild
(Reviewed May 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

This 1950s teen-gang "West Side Story" ripoff is so hilariously awful that it has to be seen to be believed. Cheap, unprofessional on nearly every level, horribly written, atrociously acted -- honest to God, you simply will not believe that something this bad could be released onto an unsuspecting public, even by the scum who run Hollywood!

I almost am tempted to recommend this movie as a "so bad it's good" experience. Just wait until you see Fairuza Balk deliver the line, "There's a Santa Claus, ma -- he just don't stop in Brooklyn no more." Holy Jesus!

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

The Devil's Double
(Reviewed July 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
(Not Reviewed March 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

This is what the great gone-but-not-forgotten TV series "Malcolm in the Middle" would have been like if the show were a lot less funny, nowhere near as clever, lifelessly directed and unappealing to anyone over six years old.

Like Malcolm, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"'s Greg (Zachary Gordon) is a smart social outcast who thinks he is superior to his classmates, talks directly to the camera, has a bunglingly childlike dad (Steve Zahn), has a bitchy asexual mom (Rachael Harris), and has an older brother (Devon Bostick) who is an abusive know-nothing bully. But where "Malcolm in the Middle" was consistently edgy, offbeat, unpredictable and even insightful, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is obsessed with toilet humor and witless silliness that will have parents checking their watches and looking longingly at theater exits.

Also, although Greg is supposed to be in middle school, he comes off like the kind of fidgety first-grader who still thinks girls are gross. Ditching gym class by hiding under the bleachers, he meets a smart blond cutie (Chloe Grace Moretz) who makes the sort of friendly overtures that would thrill any heterosexual seventh-grader. Greg reacts by fleeing in near panic with his chubby and even more childish male friend Rowley (Robert Capron). Anybody who thinks that's an age-appropriate reaction must not have a very good memory. To this day, I still remember being ga-ga over a Thoreau Middle School classmate named Gwen, whose best outfit was a purple princess-style minidress. And a bespectacled brunette named Patty who looked like a future beatnik librarian. And...well, you get the idea.

If your kids like the "Wimpy Kid" books (which I haven't read) and throw tantrums to see this movie, drop them off by themselves at the multiplex while you go to a bar or hit the dog track or pick up some seen-better-days tramp in a purple minidress for a quick one in the family SUV. Believe me, though, you don't want to see it with them.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Diary of the Dead
(Reviewed April 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

Okay, this is really embarrassing. I didn't get around to reviewing nine movies that I saw at advance screenings earlier this year until after they were released, and this was one of them. (None of the neglected nine could be mistaken for cinematic classics, which partially explains my regrettable lapse.) But in the time-honored slacker spirit of "better late than never," I have written one-paragraph reviews of each.

Please, don't thank me. No, honestly, it's the least I could do. The very least. Wait, I mean...


DIARY OF THE DEAD: George Romero returns to the zombie well one too many times with this cheerfully cheesy horror flick, which does not take place in the same universe as his "Night of the Living Dead" trilogy. The gimmick here, which is thoroughly unconvincing, is that the entire movie is a film student's video diary documenting the you-are-there horrors of a world where the deceased are coming back to life and feasting on human flesh. It's not a total waste -- a scene with a deaf-mute Amish farmer helping fend off zombies with a pitchfork is priceless -- but it's really not very good.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Die Another Day
(Reviewed November 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

This is the first of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies I've liked at all. Having damned it with faint praise, however, I should add that this might well be the best Bond film since Sean Connery ejected from the series.

Unlike every other actor besides Connery who has played 007, Brosnan is improving with age, as his "pretty-boy" puss matures into a more masculine appearance. This installment in the franchise also has fewer supposed-to-be-snappy groaners (the corny lines Bond says after a baddie meets his end), and its complicated-as-always plot is more coherent than usual.

Here's what else is good about "Die Another Day": Judi Dench, Samantha Bond and John Cleese are terrific as always as M, Moneypenny and Q (as Cleese's character is now known, apparently no longer "R" now that his predecessor is deceased). Newcomer Rosamund Pike is absolutely delicious as the icy blond Miranda Frost. I liked the gritty feel of the movie's opening, which takes place near the DMZ between the Koreas, and subsequent quite unexpected events that range from the brutal to the brutally funny.

What's not so great: Halle Berry has a terrific body but her performance is (believe it or not) far too casual and uncommitted; I just didn't buy her as an NSA agent, even in the James Bond universe. Some of the movie's nods to other Bond films will be appreciated by fans (such as the presence of the jet-pack from "Thunderball" in Q's store room), but the plot's main gimmick is far too similar to that of "Diamonds Are Forever." A few of the special effects are non-state-of-the-art cheesy. Many scenes are framed too closely, when the camera should have been pulled back not only to give a better view of the proceedings but to keep things from getting confusing (such as in the ice-palace car chase). Finally, what's with these painfully generic titles? First "Tomorrow Never Dies," and now "Die Another Day?" The perfect title for this one would have been "Diamondhead," for reasons that will be obvious when you see it.

All in all, this is a Bond flick that's better than it had to be. I'm still hoping Jude Law will take over as Bond eventually, but this Brosnan guy is finally starting to win me over.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Dirty Girl
(Reviewed October 2, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Dirty Pretty Things
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Great characters, great dialog, great performances, great direction, great cinematography and great production design make this one of the best movies of the year. The only thing wrong with it is its absolutely terrible plot, which veers between cliche and ridiculous. I know that sounds like a crazy love/hate assessment, but think about it: As charming and interesting and moving as the characters in "Dirty Pretty Things" are, the basic storyline here is nothing more than a moldy urban legend dressed up with illegal-immigrant, underground-economy, social-commentary gravitas.

The plotline lacks even basic storytelling logic. Best example: Why was there a heart in the toilet in the first place (aside from being a plot device to set the rest of the movie's events in motion)? There is no reason that makes any sense for the heart to have been there. I also didn't like the hoary cliche that found Okwe the night porter standing undetected in a bathroom tub behind a shower curtain eavesdropping on a conversation. Honestly, can you imagine this ever happening in real life? (I am reminded of a great comment that a friend once made about a "Spider-man" comics scene in which Spidey was suspended from a ceiling eavesdropping on mobsters below him in the same room, who somehow remained completely unaware of his presence. "Just picture that happening in real life," he said. "You're in a room, and a guy is hanging by fingers and toes from the ceiling, but you don't know he is there. I don't think so!" But I digress...) And what happens in the final scene at the hotel is utterly preposterous.

So how can a movie with a plot that plays like a bad TV cop show still rate an A-? Because Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Okwe) gives such a quietly convincing performance he should be a lock for an Oscar nomination. Because Audrey Tautou ("Amelie") is so remarkably good as an illegal Turkish immigrant who is confused, desperate and determined. And because every other character in this virtual underground United Nations cast is equally interesting, from the hotel's Russian doorman to the Chinese morgue attendant to the VD-prone cab dispatcher. Okay, the hooker with the heart of gold was straight from central casting, but even she was likeable.

You will wish that all of these wonderful characters were in a better movie, but they're not, so go see this one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

A Dirty Shame
(Reviewed August 25, 2004, by James Dawson)

A lot of the humor falls very flat, it goes on way too long, and nobody here is going to be up for any acting awards. On the other hand, some of the lines are literally laugh-out-loud funny, and part of the movie's charm is its slapdash, brazen cheesiness -- the hallmarks of any John Waters film.

Tracey Ullman plays a convenience store clerk who turns into a lascivious sex addict after suffering a concussion. Doesn't everyone? She is inducted into a cult of similarly affected Baltimoreans run by Johnny Knoxville, who is in search of the ultimate orgasm. (Although there is little nudity and no graphic sex, the movie is rated NC-17.)

Everything is moderately amusing for the first half-hour. The word "funch," whose definition gets the biggest laugh, is guaranteed to enter the general lexicon (a la "milf") within nanoseconds of the flick's first public screening. Selma Blair is swell -- and swelled -- as Ullman's massively overendowed daughter, a strip-club dancer who goes by the name Ursula Udders. Chris Isaak, playing Ullman's relentlessly level-headed husband, is also good. David Hasselhoff is flat-out hilarious in a very brief cameo that proves the guy has a sense of humor that goes above and beyond the call of "duty."

Ultimately, though, "A Dirty Shame" starts to resemble nothing more than an old porno with the hot parts missing, back from the days when producers actually bothered to include (frequently jokey) plots. It's not hard to imagine Ron Jeremy and Nina Hartley spouting the clunky dialog and groaner gags.

It would be a "dirty shame" to shell out for tickets to see "A Dirty Shame" at a theater, but it'll be worth a look on home video.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Dish
(Reviewed March 10, 2001, by James Dawson)

This is a gently inoffensive little movie that claims to be based on a true story, but is mostly a great big pack of flat-out fictions. (Too much of the plot and way too many of the characters are so phony-baloney that they seem to be straight out of an episode of "The Wonderful World of Disney.")

The dish of the title is an Australian dish antenna employed by NASA to transmit pictures from the Apollo 11 moon landing to TV sets worldwide. An amiable bunch of earnest but occasionally hapless Aussies (along with Patrick Warburton--Puddy of TV's "Seinfeld"--as a NASA adjunct) overcome computer problems and natural calamities to keep the feed online, so everyone can witness the most colossal waste of US taxpayer money in history. Sorry to get political, but the American space program always has struck me as a thoroughly egregious waste of gigantic mountains worth of cash, the biggest money sinkhole of any US government program (and that's saying a lot). These days, every time the shuttle takes off is like setting fire to about 20 billion dollars, all for the sake of providing "welfare for engineers." Vote Libertarian, folks. Vote Libertarian.

And now, back to the review in progress...

Being rather shallow, my favorite parts of the movie were those too-brief interludes involving the pert blonde local girl Janine, on whom one of the dish technicians has a quite understandable crush. Pleated miniskirts and kneesocks get me every time. Yum. Yum.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

"Disney's The Kid
(Reviewed November 29, 2000, by James Dawson)
Thank God I didn't shell out for this dog when it was in the theaters, when I was enticed by the knowledge that "Star Trek: Voyager"'s Jeri (Seven of Nine) Ryan had a bit part. It turns out she is seen on screen for approximately two seconds, max. She is seen on a television set that Bruce Willis is watching while talking on the phone. And that's it! One of the most beautiful women on earth (or in space, for that matter), and that's all the screen time she gets! Were the producers crazy enough to think that anything ELSE in this terrible, stupid movie was more deserving of celluloid than statuesque, sultry, sexy, super-stacked Seven of Nine? ARE THEY INSANE?

Then again, maybe I am being unfair. I fast-forwarded through most of this dog, because I just couldn't take it. One of its most grating annoyances is a goofy soundtrack that goes out of its way to make viewers say, "Enough! Enough! This is worse than the music in those God-awful Tiny Toons on television!"

In a word: Miss it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

District 9
(Reviewed July 28, 2009, by James Dawson)

Don't believe the hype.

Although "District 9" has an interesting premise -- the first aliens to arrive on earth are cruelly subjugated and forced to live in refugee-camp squalor -- the movie is full of annoyingly obvious plotting and logic problems. Also, inappropriately goofy lead actor Sharlto Copley plays his role as if he is Steve Carell in "The Office," giving the film an inconsistent tone that varies between tongue-in-cheek spoof and grimly depressing social metaphor.

It makes no sense that creatures who are bigger, stronger and faster than humans would put up with utter domination and abuse for 20 years, especially considering that they somehow have managed to hold onto some vastly superior weapons for all that time. It's not as if the humans in charge who have confiscated any of the weapons can use them to even the score, either, because only alien DNA can make them work.

It makes no sense that the refugee camp of 1.5 million (big ship, huh?) scary aliens who resemble eight-foot prawns is located right next to Johannesburg, South Africa. Even if that is the city over which the aliens' disabled but somehow still hover-worthy mothership came to rest, it's damned unlikely that the ship's occupants would not be sequestered in some remote equivalent of Area 51 right from the start.

Instead, a corporate resettlement plan is devised two decades after first contact to force District 9 residents to move 200 miles away. Heading the effort is wide-eyed Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley) the dithering, sillyass son-in-law of the evil multinational's president. Naturally, you just know that something is going to force him to develop compassion for the prawns, and he ends up having a pretty good reason to throw in his lot with them.

Still, I couldn't help thinking how much better the movie would have been if things had been played straight instead of with a smirk. If Wikus had been a more believable character, or if he had been played by an actor with less of a tendency to overdo every line and reaction, the film could have been more than a misbegotten mismatch of "Robocop," "Alien" and "E.T."

Also, the ending is insultingly unsatisfying -- the kind of keeps-you-hanging cheat that could cause cynical audience members to regard it as a cheap setup for a sequel.

Although "District 9" is directed and cowritten by Neill Blomkamp, producer Peter ("Lord of the Rings") Jackson's name probably will be more prominent than Blomkamp's in the ads. Jackson's WETA special-effects house does a good job with the CGI, making the aliens look good and interact believably with the actors.

Aside from having an unfortunate tendency to overdo the "blood splattering the lens" cinematic cliche, Blomkamp does an adequate job of showing guns shooting and people running. The emotional stuff, not so much. Instead of being touched and moved by Wikus' plight, I honestly began wondering if the movie might have worked better as a flat-out comedy, with someone like Jim Carrey running around trying to hide his mutating arm while being accused in the media of having sex with aliens.

Not a terrible movie, but one that definitely needed a rewrite or three.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed March 30, 2007, by James Dawson)

The rotted corpses of Alfred Hitchcock, author Cornell Woolrich and screenwriter John Michael Hayes should rise from their graves, seek out those responsible for this regurgitated rip-off of "Rear Window," and hungrily devour their living flesh.

So much of "Disturbia"'s plot is stolen from Hitchcock's 1954 masterpiece that this movie sets a new standard of shamelessness. The main difference is that "Disturbia" dumbs everything down with flashy, vulgar stupidity designed to appeal to Today's Ticket-Buying Teenage 'Tards.

In "Rear Window," Jimmy Stewart is a wheelchair-bound photographer confined to his apartment by a broken leg. He watches his neighbors all day, thereby discovering quite a bit about their personal lives. In "Disturbia," Shia LaBeouf is an immature teenage douchebag confined to home-detention by a monitoring device on his ankle after he punches a schoolteacher in the face. He watches his neighbors all day, thereby discovering quite a bit about their personal lives.

In "Rear Window," Grace Kelly is Stewart's amazingly beautiful girlfriend, whom he enlists to help him prove that one of his neighbors is a murderer. In "Disturbia," Sarah Roemer is LaBeouf's amazingly beautiful friend-becoming-girlfriend, whom he enlists to help him prove that one of his neighbors is a murderer. (Also, the only reason I'm giving this movie an "F" grade instead of an "F-" is because Roemer looks so good in a bikini. I'm shallow that way.)

In "Rear Window," suspect Raymond Burr kills a dog that digs in his garden. Burr has a suspicious trunk in his apartment that may contain a dead body. In "Disturbia," suspect David Morse captures a rabbit that digs in his garden. Morse has a suspicious blue package in his garage that may contain a dead body.

Both movies feature break-ins at the suspects' homes, tense confrontations between the suspects and the female leads, disbelieving cops who are summoned to the scene more than once, and final mano-a-mano confrontations.

"Disturbia" adds a dopey Korean schoolmate and an only-around-when-the-plot-requires-it mother to the mix. And the interior architecture of the suspect's house is so ridiculously elaborate that it appears to have been designed by the architects of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.

Also, this is yet another movie that feels like it was made by stuck-in-the-past baby-boomers who think that a 21st-century teen would decorate his bedroom with Clash and Doors posters, wear a Ramones T-shirt, and have Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You" on his iPod.

Director D.J. Caruso (whose last film was the abominable sports-betting bomb "Two for the Money") and screenwriters Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth should be put in stocks on Hollywood Boulevard, flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails, and pelted with moldy fruit.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Divide
(Reviewed January 14, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
(Reviewed May 19, 2002, by James Dawson)

Do you really think I got off my ass, got in my car and actually drove somewhere to see this movie? Or that I ever would watch even a minute of this thing if I end up flipping past it on TV at some point in the future? What are you, high? Last time I looked, I didn't possess ovaries and a uterus.

Back Row Reviews Grade: None

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
(Reviewed December 12, 2007, by James Dawson)

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" opens with an incredibly annoying point-of-view sequence that goes on far, far, FAR too long, showing us what the world now looks like to the newly paralyzed, mentally fuzzy, fading-in-and-out-of-consciousness Jean-Dominique Bauby. Eventually, Bauby finds a way to communicate with the outside world by blinking. An incredibly dedicated and sexy nurse (the setting is a hospital in France, after all) eventually helps Bauby "write" a book about himself through the aggravatingly redundant process of reciting the alphabet to him over and over and over, stopping when he blinks to indicate the next letter of the word he wants.

In other words, this ain't no fun night at the flicks, folks.

On the one hand, the use of so much "you are there" POV is an effective way of making audiences experience the horrible subjective reality of a guy who is trapped in the "diving bell" of mute paralysis. On the other hand, if I were watching a movie about a blind dude, I wouldn't want to see a black screen for extended sections of the movie.

Max von Sydow is excellent as Bauby's elderly father, seen in flashbacks and on the phone to his hospitalized son. Mathieu Amalric has the unenviable task of playing Amalric, whose constantly contorted stroke-victim facial expression often looks (God forgive me) almost comically goofy. Marie-Josee Croze is the alphabet-reciting hot nurse. Emmanuelle Seigner plays Bauby's wife, who at one point acts as interpreter between Bauby and the mistress who has phoned Bauby's hospital room. (I mentioned these people are French, right?)

Directed by Julian Schnabel, from a Ronald Harwood screenplay based on Bauby's autobiography, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" will leave you moved in two different ways. Audiences can't help feeling empathy for the poor blinking bastard who ends up spending the rest of his life in the hospital after a stroke, obviously.

At the same time, it will be impossible for any American viewer not to wonder how much a similar medical situation would cost here in the United States, the only "civilized" country that lacks universal single-payer health coverage. "Blink your bedridden ass out of here, buddy -- you're bankrupt!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: B- br>

(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

I went into this movie with very low expectations. It is nearly three hours long. Its only "set" is a huge, flat floor with painted outlines indicating houses and streets. And someone who had seen an earlier screening angrily summed up his reaction by saying, "Dogville? They should have called it Dog SHIT!"

Which is why I am a little amazed to report that this movie is great! I don't give many "A" ratings, but this one absolutely deserves the grade -- it is sure to be one of the best movies of the year.

Obviously, "Dogville" will be a tough marketing sell to most members of the moviegoing public, who might think they will be in for an endless, dour, hard-slog, "good-for-you," no-fun flick for pointy-headed intellectuals. That's too bad, because it is actually so fascinating, well-written and engrossing that I wanted to see it again as soon as it was over!

"Dogville" is what you might get if Kafka rewrote "Our Town" as a twisted Biblical allegory. Writer/director/cameraman Lars Von Trier has created a masterpiece of a modern morality play. Without giving away too much of the plot, Nicole Kidman arrives in the town of Dogville seeking sanctuary. And that's all I'll say. Sorry, but I'm not going to ruin even one moment of a movie I like this much.

Kidman and the rest of the cast -- which includes Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson and most notably Paul Bettany -- are uniformly excellent, and John Hurt's narration is flawlessly subdued. Because "Dogville" is basically a filmed play, it is a real "actors showcase," in the best sense of the word.

It's too bad that most reviews probably will give too much away about this movie, because it's wonderful to see something this good without knowing anything whatsoever about what is going to happen.

Just go! Go, damn you! GO!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Dolphin Tale
(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed September 22, 2005, by James Dawson)

Here we have another beautiful, awful movie from director Tony Scott, this time about a female bounty hunter (Keira Knightley) who gets caught up in a confusingly stupid scam involving $10 million of mob money.

Unfortunately, all of the dazzling high-contrast color, gritty texture and edgy cutting in the world can't make up for a bad script. "Domino" is what you might get if Quentin Tarantino directed "Ocean's 11." (What's really sad is that some people will think that sounds like a compliment.)

Knightley is not believable at all as Domino Harvey, who looked a lot more like Gary Busey than Winona Ryder in real life. Mickey Rourke is okay as Ed, the boss of the bounty-hunting team. But even he is saddled with bad dialog about things like shooting off his own toe to get over the pain of losing a girlfriend.

Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering of "Beverly Hills 90210" appear as themselves, hosting a reality show based on the team. The show's producer is Christopher Walken, with Mena Suvari as his primly WASPy assistant. Obvious Hollywood and reality-show jokes abound.

Mo'Nique, of all people, has the best scene in the movie. Unfortunately, the scene has almost nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, and feels dropped in from nowhere. She appears on an episode of the Jerry Springer Show to explain what various mixed-race people should be called, referring to herself as a "Blacktina" (black and Latina), and saying that those with Chinese and black parents are "Chinegroes."

A nice-looking movie, but not a very good one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Donnie Darko
(Reviewed October 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

Semi-interesting offbeat disaffected-teen story about a high school student communicating with a very odd "imaginary friend" who may not be so imaginary after all. A great opening and intriguing middle lead to a very frustrating ending, which falls very flat. You will know what the director/writer is trying to do for a conclusion, but he botches the execution so thoroughly that what is supposed to be dramatic and poignant just seems confused and slapdash. Still, "Donnie Darko" does get points for at least trying to be original.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Don't Move
(Reviewed February 26, 2005, by James Dawson)

Director/co-writer Sergio Castellitto stars as a surgeon whose 15-year-old daughter spends most of this Italian movie in surgery following a motorcycle accident. While other doctors try to save the girl's life, dad waits outside the operating room, reminiscing about events dating back to before she was born.

Unfortunately, his sordid little scrapbook includes the time his car broke down on the proverbial "wrong side of the tracks." That's where he asked to borrow skanky waitress Penelope Cruz's phone...and then thanked her by RAPING HER. Yikes! Talk about "no good deed goes unpunished!" Then things get even loopier, when the doc comes back later to apologize...and the two begin having a sordid, ongoing affair! (When looking for this movie at Blockbuster later this year, check in the "Misogynistic Wish Fantasies" section.)

Cruz actually is pretty good as the exploited, hopeless waitress who eventually begins believing that there might be a happy ending in store for her. Castellitto is good, too, as a very Jean-Reno-like moper who is torn between his impoverished, uneducated paramour and his intelligent career-woman wife. And Claudia Gerini is good as that unaware wife, who has no desire to be a mother, but who does so because hubby decides he wants a kid.

The problem is that these interesting characters are stuck in an unbelievably melodramatic and semi-smutty plot. I mean, sure, it's fascinating to see the doc furiously boning his wife doggy-style while she's leaning over a coffee table covered in loose sea shells, and then banging his forehead into her back, if you're into offbeat soft-core porn. Or when he takes his sleazy, overly made-up mistress along to a medical conference. Or when he asks a fellow doctor if the guy ever goes "whoring," and receives a reply that is roughly equivalent to, "Who doesn't?" Italian medical practitioners apparently are livin' large, I guess.

And does anyone in real life have spur-of-the-moment, stand-up sex in a garbage-filled alley in the pouring rain? (Maybe I'm just missing out on life's finer things.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed October 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

The Rock, as the leader of a bunch of Marines dispatched to Mars to secure a besieged research station, doesn't have the (ahem) gravitas to be a credible hard-as-nails badass. And while it's easy to have low expectations for a movie based on a videogame, it's too bad this project wasn't treated with a little more respect. That's because, believe it or not, "Doom" has the basic elements of what could have been a decent "Alien"-type horror thriller.

Basically, what we have here is your basic "genetic research gone wrong" scenario. When the remains of long-dead Martians turn out to have an extra chromosome, certain white-coats get the bright idea to inject that little something extra into humans. Oops!

The Rock and his band of one-dimensional Marines (a rookie, an iceman, a horndog, a Jesus freak, a paragon of virtue and a creep) spend most of the movie searching annoyingly dark corridors for the resulting barely glimpsed monsters.

Former James Bond blond bombshell Rosamund Pike (currently appearing in "Pride and Prejudice" -- this girl definitely has range) is a scientist at the Mars outpost and a sister of one of the Marines. Isn't it great how nearly every female scientist in the movies happens to be a knockout? I especially liked a scene in which one can imagine the director saying, "Okay, Rosie, let your unbuttoned shirt flap open far enough so we can see your beautiful left nipple protruding enticingly through the thin material of your white undershirt. And...action!"

Very late in the proceedings, there's a genuinely crowd-pleasing scene that is filmed in the "first-person shooter" style of the game itself. Also, there is at least one real surprise in the plot.

Overall, though, this is more of a missed opportunity than a must-see.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

The Door in the Floor
(Reviewed May 14, 2004, by James Dawson)

Adapted from the first third of the John Irving novel "A Widow for One Year," this split-brained movie starts out as a draggy and depressing melodrama and turns into a draggy and depressing sex farce. But it has its moments.

Jeff Bridges is a wealthy, successful children's book author/illustrator whose mopey wife Kim Basinger can't get over the deaths of the couple's two sons. Bridges hires a teenage boy (Jon Foster, who seems more like a 1950s Pat Boone fan than a 21st century dude; I mean, what's with that sweater vest, anyway?) as his assistant, a job that mainly entails chauffeur duties.

In a plot development even less believable than the script of "Summer of '42" (and that's saying a lot), Basinger catches the lad masturbating with her underwear. Instead of being disgusted and/or horrified, she supplies him with more of her clothes to use as jerk-off aids, then spends the rest of the summer making ye olde "beast with two backs" with the guy at every available opportunity. Ah, if only life were more like the movies.

Meanwhile, Bridges is enjoying the nasty pleasures of fornication and degradation with "woman of a certain age" neighbor Mimi Rogers, his latest artist's model (read: "duped conquest").

Note for Mr. Skin fans: Rogers is full-length front-and-back nude in one scene, unfortunately looking every day of her 48 years. I hate to say this, but the scene is cruelly inappropriate within the context of the movie. Why? Because Basinger, who is in several bedroom sex scenes with Foster, never shows so much as a nipple, let alone her backside or (God forbid) pubic delta. We see side views of Basinger's nude body, but this is one of those movies where the bigger star gets to (for example) have sex while wearing a bra (!!!), while the lowly supporting actress is exploited for the Full Monty.

Another annoying aspect of the movie is that the main characters often act like eccentric, blatantly unrealistic cartoons --especially Bridges, who comes off here as a selfish and blithely childish buffoon. I remember this being a hallmark of Irving's early novels, a technique that sometimes worked magnificently ("The World According to Garp") and sometimes failed just as remarkably ("The Hotel New Hampshire"). Fittingly, considering how nigh-unreadable Irving's first three novels were ("The Water-Method Man," "The 158-Pound Marriage," "Setting Free the Bears"), Bridges' character disparages his own early novels more than once in the movie.

Bijou Phillips has brief scenes as a knockout young nanny, and Dakota Fanning's younger sister Elle Fanning plays the neglected daughter obsessed with photos of her dead brothers.

"The Door in the Floor" is as watchable as a slightly off-kilter soap opera. But just like a soap opera, very little of it rings true. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Who ARE these people?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Double
(Reviewed October 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed December 11, 2008, by James Dawson)

Overpraised adaptation of the did-he-or-didn't-he play about a priest suspected of giving more than communion to an altar boy. Philip Seymour Hoffman is good, as always, but Meryl Streep seems to be playing this one loud enough to reach the cheap seats, and Any Adams is in over her head.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Downloading Nancy
(Reviewed May 2009 by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Down to Earth
(Reviewed February 7, 2001, by James Dawson)

Here is exactly what is wrong with this movie, in which hip, young Chris Rock is reincarnated in the body of an old white rich guy:

The ONLY funny moments are when we see him AS the old white guy, acting like a young black guy. In other words, during those fleetingly brief moments when we DON'T see Chris Rock, the movie is funny. But when we see Chris Rock walking around, and other characters are reacting to him as if they are seeing an old white guy, things fall totally flat.

This movie also looks very, very cheap, and the writing is on the level of a dumb sitcom. A real waste of time. Don't bother.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Downton Abbey
(Reviewed January 11, 2011, by James Dawson)

Okay, this technically isn't a movie. But I loved the first episode of this PBS "Masterpiece" miniseries so much that I had to write about it.

I wrote this review for the website, but as of September 2011 that website no longer seems to exist -- so I have uploaded the entire text below.

"Downton Abbey" Is a New PBS "Masterpiece" Classic

If the next three parts of this delicious new British import are as thoroughly enjoyable as the first, "Downton Abbey" could rank among the best miniseries ever aired under the PBS "Masterpiece" banner. Neither stuffy nor too fluffy, the tone of the series is a just-right blend of smart period piece and instantly addictive family saga. This is the kind of TV treat that proves high-pedigree programming can inspire enthusiastic "you have to watch this" word-of-mouth from episode one.

(If you missed that first installment, it can be viewed online at Also, the DVD set of the entire six-hour series will be released today, if you're in a rush to see how everything turns out. Call me old-fashioned, but waiting for each Sunday night installment seems like a more appropriate way to savor its unhurried, bygone-era pleasures. Also, it's free!)

Created and written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park," "The Young Victoria"), the story's setting is a huge English estate that's home to the dignified but refreshingly non-tyrannical Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville); his charmingly assertive American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern); and their three marriage-age daughters Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael). Maggie Smith is perfectly persnickety as Robert's rigidly proper mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

The year is 1912, and a rather monumental tragedy has left the Crawleys without a male heir who is close to the family. Thanks to antiquated inheritance laws, this means when Robert dies the entire estate must pass to a distant third cousin who is all but a stranger. The situation is made even more awkward by the fact that most of the Downton estate's current wealth came from Cora. Robert married her for her money when he was seeking a way out of dire financial straits as a young man, but he genuinely has come to love her since that time.

The Crawleys are attended by a small army of servants who range from stalwart to sweet to scheming. The brilliance of the script is the way it gives all of Downton's "downstairs" characters distinctively individual personalities. Sophie McShera is the naively ditzy Daisy, a scatterbrained scullery maid who narrowly avoids poisoning her employers. She pines for Thomas (Rob James-Collier), a fiendishly ambitious footman. Jim Carter is the demanding butler Carson, Siobhan Finneran is the reptilian lady's maid O'Brien, and Joanne Froggatt is the compassionately humane head housemaid Anna.

The most endearing of the servants is Brendan Coyle as the quietly faithful John Bates, Lord Grantham's newly hired valet. A lame former soldier who served with Robert during the Boer War, he is unprepared for the backstabbing resentment he receives from some of the other staff members. He steadfastly does his best to keep a stiff upper lip, even when things look heartbreakingly hopeless.

In addition to the dozen characters mentioned, numerous others also are part of the manor's wonderfully rich tapestry. The PBS website for the series includes a helpful guide, with biographical information about most of the primary players, at But don't worry, each character is so believably well drawn that you should have no trouble remembering who's who.

The story's pre-World War I time period is equally fascinating, with its glimpses of the era's eccentricities and customs. The morning newspaper is ironed to dry the ink (can't have his lordship soiling his fingers!), urgent telegrams are delivered by bicycle messenger, and the elderly dowager worries about harmful "vapors" emanating from the recent innovation of electricity in the home.

"Downton Abbey" received such high ratings during its run in the UK that a second season, moving the characters into the first World War, will air there this fall. Creator Fellowes has said that a possible third season would take the Crawleys and their household help into the Roaring Twenties.

If upcoming episodes of season one are even half as good as the wonderful series premiere, watching the Crawleys and their staff persevere through the early 20th century should be fascinating.

ADDENDUM: Waiting to catch each weekly episode on PBS turned out to require more willpower than this critic possesses, so I now have seen the entire series on DVD. I'm pleased to report that "Downton Abbey" not only holds up over the full six hours, but becomes richer and more satisfying as its nearly two dozen characters persevere, connive and sometimes transform within their many individual subplots.

Among the Crawleys, the Scarlett Johansson-like Lady Sybil becomes as progressive in suffragette politics as she is in fashion. Increasingly exasperated about being set up with potential husbands, Lady Mary asks, "How many times might I be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner?" (Her practical-minded mother's reply: "As many times as it takes.") And overlooked middle sister Lady Edith commits an act of family betrayal that proves turnabout is not always fair play.

On the servants' side, stoic John Bates endures the pains of a barbarous "limp corrector" and the shame of a secret past, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) must decide between remaining at Downton or rekindling an old romance, and housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) covertly learns secretarial skills on the then-modern marvel known as a typewriter.

There's melodrama, tragedy, the humor of offended dignity, the pathos of desperation, and even a bit of gothic suspense involving a death at the manor. Best of all, smart editing and short scenes keep the series moving at a brisk pace, avoiding the stately lethargy that can be the downfall of period pieces.

The final installment ends on an excruciating cliffhanger for the family's plight, at the cusp of historical events that literally will change the world. Series two begins filming next month for broadcast this fall in the UK. For the sake of every other impatient Yank, here's hoping it arrives on American airwaves very soon thereafter.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed February 25, 2002, by James Dawson)

A relentlessly stupid and unconvincing "Touched by an Angel"-style sentimental slop-fest. This is the kind of insultingly dumb movie that has characters spouting dialog such as, "As a professor of law, you would think I'd be more careful with my language." Sweet Jesus!

Much of the plot (dead guy's wife trying to contact him through creepy means) has a lot in common with the far better "Mothman Prophecies" that came out earlier this year. "Mothman" was no classic, but compared to this garbage it was friggin' "Citizen Kane."

One final example of how "Dragonfly" is idiotic in extremis: Kevin Costner's dead missus apparently can make things fly through the air. Big things, and lots of them, like the entire contents of a wardrobe. BUT THOSE THINGS ONLY HAPPEN WHEN COSTNER IS NOT LOOKING, even though if he (and especially others) were to see them happening, everyone would be convinced that (a) there actually is a spirit world, and (b) Costner is not losing his marbles. Good God, this movie is bad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Dr. Dolittle 2
(Reviewed June 19, 2001, by James Dawson)

This condescendingly stupid movie is every bit as unfunny and embarrassingly "buppie" as any of those dreadful WB and UPN "comedies" you never would be caught dead watching. Eddie Murphy is loud and annoying and neutered, his wife is a "Cosby"-show-type asexual scold, one of his daughters is an unpleasant would-be homegirl with a repulsive permanent sneer, her scarf-headed boyfriend is a drawlingly off-putting would-be gangsta...and not a damned one of them is amusing in the least. They live in one of those "what planet is this?" realities where Murphy can abruptly decide that the whole family is going on a European vacation the very next day, and where his daughter would think that being able to talk to animals is a bad thing because it makes dad a freak, and where Murphy (who is a DOCTOR, remember?) would not think to prove the crucial fact that a bear has been illegally drugged BY SIMPLY ORDERING A BLOOD TEST.

In what passes for the plot, animals enlist Murphy to save a forest from loggers. Eventually, the animals decide that the best way to achieve this end is by calling a general "strike" among all of their fellow creatures: cows somehow begin refusing to give milk (gosh, I never knew producing milk was a voluntary biological process..), thoroughbreds refuse to race, Sea World whales refuse to jump through hoops. One would think the animals might want to strike over something more important...such as, oh, GETTING SLAUGHTERED AND EATEN BY THE MILLIONS EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE YEAR. Christ, this movie is dumb.

The movie's only redeeming feature: Rhythm & Hues, the special-effects folks that did the pioneering talking-animal effects in "Babe," once again prove they are sheer geniuses at that kind of thing, giving realistic "mouth motions" to creatures here ranging from bears to weasels to raccoons. Their work is absolutely amazing.

Too bad the animals (and the people) didn't have better lines to say.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed March 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

How can a movie whose screenplay was cowritten by William Goldman, and which was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, be so stupendously, thoroughly, unbelievably lousy? Can you say, "Based on a book by Stephen King?"

Look, I know a lot of people worship at the altar of the celebrated Mr. K, even if I've never been able to fathom why. But I honestly think that even the most slavish King devotee would feel cheated, insulted and robbed by this flagrantly moronic movie. The plot is simply idiotic, unless you really think that an alien race capable of reaching earth, taking over bodies and clouding men's minds would truly be incapable of dropping a worm in a goddamned reservoir. All of "Dreamcatcher"'s other plot inanities--and there are plenty--pale beside that one.

"Dreamcatcher"'s main characters are four skin-crawlingly annoying tools who endlessly utter excruciatingly forced would-be catch phrases during beer-commercial-level male-bonding episodes in an isolated cabin. (If there are any moviegoers left who do not already despise the weasel-faced Jason Lee, they are guaranteed to do so along about the fifth time he says, "Fuck me Freddy.") There's not even a single chick to break up the all-male-cast monotony, unless you count a briefly seen bit player in search of her car keys. If you're smart, you will be searching for yours long before this bomb is over.

Before the screening I attended, a journalist said he had high hopes for "Dreamcatcher" because "some of the best movies in the world have been made from Stephen King books." In my own charmingly diplomatic fashion, I replied, "Which world is that, because it sure isn't this one!" The King movie that "Dreamcatcher" most resembles probably is "Stand By Me," for which a lot of people have an incomprehensible fondness. Both movies include flashback scenes that show the adult males as the kind of boys that don't exist in any childhood ever experienced by actual human beings on this planet. Jason Lee's young counterpart is like some off-putting youthful hybrid of Tina Fey and Harlan Ellison, one who inexplicably doesn't get his ass kicked by older boys in a scene where the "big kids" would have nothing to lose by pounding the smug little snot into the dirt. He and his posse befriend a retard who is More Than He Seems so they can have Hallmark moments that would make even "Touched by an Angel" watchers puke.

The worst thing about "Dreamcatcher" is that it may have been possible to create a halfway decent '50s-style SF-monster movie out of the basic bones of the story--but it is brazenly obvious from the outset that the filmmakers have no respect whatsoever for the audience, and therefore felt no need to try making anything here even remotely believable. There is an ironic, detached, "we know it's crap and we don't care" feel to the entire enterprise, which can't decide whether it is creepy, cosmic or comic. There are elements of "Men in Black," "Independence Day," and John Carpenter's version of "The Thing"--none of which were masterpieces themselves, but all of which were better than "Dreamcatcher."

The more I think about this movie, the more things I remember hating. There's a remarkably dumb subplot about a guy watching things happen from within his own "memory warehouse." A scene with Jason Lee sitting on a toilet where an alien has been trapped could have been genuinely suspenseful, but its tension is unforgivably undermined by his implausible desire to grab a toothpick off the floor when he should be sitting tight. And on, and on, and on.

So, how's come I am so generously giving this movie an "F+" instead of a plain old "F?" Because the creatures look great, in a very "vagina dentata" fashion. Seriously, the computer-animated beasties look damned good. See? I can be nice. So there.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F+

The Dreamers
(Reviewed February 5, 2004, by James Dawson)

This movie is an absolute masterpiece -- and I'm not just saying that because one of the stars is staggeringly beautiful and naked a lot.

How good is "The Dreamers?" Let me put it this way: The first place I saw it was a pristine screening room on the Fox studio lot, with only about 20 other people in attendance. Conditions were absolutely ideal: quiet audience, perfect picture, excellent sound.

I liked the movie so much that I went to another screening two days before the movie opened, this time at a regular theater. This was for non-journalist "civilians," meaning every rube and bumpkin who won a radio station contest or downloaded an e-mail pass and showed up to stand in a "please arrive very, very early" line for free admission. Would-be attendees at those kind of screenings are turned away after every seat in the theater is filled. In other words, we're talking "miserable mob scene featuring retirees, students, the unemployed, and other loser cheapskates with too much time on their hands."

I waited outside in the cold (yes, it does sometimes get cold at night in L.A. in February) for nearly an hour. When I finally made it inside, the senior-citizen pervert-without-a-date at the end of my row kept telling every stranger who passed within the sound of his creepy voice, "I hear this movie has lots of SECKKKSSSSSS!" Sitting between this vile specimen and me were two horrible fat women, one of whom had a persistent and very productive cough, who talked to each other throughout the film. Even worse, every glimpse of an unclothed body onscreen elicited flesh-crawling, high-pitched titters of nervous laughter from these asexual cows (think Michael Jackson's "hee-hee" sound, over and over again), alternating with shockingly unsophisticated nasal snorts. These were the kind of reactions one might expect from either (a) a six-year-old, or (b) a neurotic, mid-30s spinster who never has seen a penis in "real life," and whose own grotesque body is so dissimilar from that of an attractive woman that even the nude female form appears alien and strange to them.

And yet even in that setting...even when odd creaking sounds from the end of my row made me wonder if the pervert in the baseball cap was playing with himself...even when the two bloated morons between me and the weirdo were silent long enough that I wondered if they knew what the guy was doing but were too horrified to leave...I still loved every minute of the movie and was glad I had come. (So was the perv, probably.)

Actually, despite its NC-17 rating, there is no actual ( as opposed to simulated) sex in the movie. There is lots of nudity (male as well as female), and bodies lying atop and astride and in the bathtub with other bodies, but the Raincoat Brigade should be aware that there are no insertion shots, no erections, and no (for lack of a better term) "split beavers." In other words, don't buy a ticket because your VCR broke and you need a substitute yank-fix for "Ass Slammers Volume 69."

Incredible as it may sound to the "seckkkssssss!"-obsessed, "The Dreamers" is a nostalgic art-house fantasy targeted at Francophiles and cinema lovers, full of references to films and filmmakers from Keaton to Godard. It's as elegant and beautiful as you'd expect a Bernardo Bertolucci movie to be, which is saying a lot. ("The Last Emperor," anyone?) And its plot is like a strange fairy tale, the off-kilter European kind with occasional dark patches and no guarantee of a happy ending.

Don't get me wrong, parts of "The Dreamers" definitely are erotic. When Eva Green undoes her blouse and displays her magnificent breasts for the first time, the moment is as impressively gasp-worthy as Uma Thurman's similar unveiling in "Dangerous Liaisons." (Translation: Even the most reserved viewer will be thinking, "HOLY FRIJOLES!") But there's so much more to like about the movie than the "hot parts" that it's almost a shame "The Dreamers" will be pigeon-holed as a "classy dirty movie."

Matthew (Michael Pitt of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") is an American student and film buff who is studying in 1968 Paris. He meets French kindred spirits Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) at a demonstration against the closing of the Cinematheque Francais, with which they are so obsessed that they regard it almost as a church.

The three spend most of the rest of the movie discussing cinema, revolution, music and love in the apartment they share, all the while remaining safely cloistered from messier riots and general upheaval right outside their window. Even when Matthew and Isabelle venture outside the apartment (to attend a movie, appropriately), they only become aware of a mountain of garbage behind them on the opposite sidewalk after seeing a news report about the strike on a shop-window TV. Arguments, experiences, accusations of hypocrisy, and a shocking intrusion gradually awaken the trio from their secluded world.

Most of the movie essentially is a highly improbable (but no less alluring) fantasy for the "Frasier" set: French free love and flowing fine wine among the articulately opinionated, featuring parents who are ridiculously lenient and tolerant even for the City of Lights. But that's the whole point; Michael has entered the lives of metaphorical dreamers who have no desire to wake, symbolic children who don't want to grow up. He becomes not only their conscience but a catalyst.

There's also a lot of humor in the movie, such as Isabelle's disastrous attempt to cook. (Regarding the burnt-black mess she puts on the table, she tells Michael to "pretend you are a visitor in a strange country, and this is the national dish." As Michael gamely puts a forkful of the stuff in his mouth, Theo says it's like watching "vomiting in reverse.")

The soundtrack includes lots of period rock (Doors, Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin) that sounds just perfect (although it's a damned shame that the Beatles' "Revolution" is not present, since it was inspired by the Paris riots depicted in the movie). "The Dreamers" also is peppered with clips from old movies both famous and obscure, including a wonderfully intercut scene of a foot-race through the Louvre.

It's only February, but I am sure that "The Dreamers" will be on my 10 Best List for 2004. It's that good.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

(Reviewed December 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

Strictly mediocre rags-to-riches cinematic roman a clef about a Supremes-like singing group with a Mariah-Careyish lead singer (Beyonce), and the domineering Phil-Spectorish manager/producer (Jamie Foxx) that she marries.

Former "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson is getting a lot of raves as the fat-and-sassy, big-lunged member of the group. She's okay if you like sustained yelling, I guess, but her songs (like all of the others here) are so forgettably generic that it's hard to be impressed. If her agent is smart, he will get her into an Aretha Franklin bio with all due speed, so she can use her talents to belt out songs that deserve belting out.

Eddie Murphy is excellent as a Little Richard/James Brown/Marvin Gaye hybrid, in one of his best roles in years -- if not decades. (Case in point: I just saw "Pluto Nash" on tape last month. Holy Jesus, is that one of the worst movies ever made, or what?)

An L.A. Times article in today's paper described "Dreamgirls" as being in pole position for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, which genuinely shocked me. This is no "Chicago," folks. Hell, it's not even a "Moulin Rouge" (which I didn't like, but at least it had style). As far as simplistic story, uninteresting performances and less-than-lavish production values go, "Dreamgirls" has more in common with "That Thing You Do" than with quality big-budget movie musicals.

In fact, the unearned praise the movie is receiving from some quarters smacks slightly of patronizing racism, constantly making a point of the fact that "Dreamgirls" has an all-black cast. Folks, if this were an all-white movie with Avril Lavigne as the singer, Matt Damon as the manager and Carnie Wilson as the plus-size shouter, nobody in his right mind would be mentioning the word "Oscar." (Although the movie probably would be a real guilty-pleasure hoot.)

Aside from Murphy's performance, the only things I really enjoyed about "Dreamgirls" were the clever fake album covers for the Dreams singing group. They look great!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed September 14, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed September 14, 2000, by James Dawson)

"Duets" has a great trailer that shows the irresistibly appealing Gwyneth Paltrow singing Smokey Robinson's "Cruising" with Huey Lewis--and singing it so sweetly that I want to grab the tune off of Napster ASAP. We all have our weaknesses, and for several years one of mine has been golden-girl Gwyneth. She has the most genuinely sunny smile in Hollywood, a leggy and lithely luscious body, and, lest I forget, actual acting talent.

Okay, maybe I didn't go see "Shakespeare in Love" (because I didn't get free screening passes, and couldn't get up any enthusiasm for laying out actual cashola for an ostensibly witty movie about the bard). And maybe I never saw "Hard Eight" (because director Paul Thomas Anderson's criminally overrated "Boogie Nights" set me dead against ever seeing another film by that talent-free "genius"). And I never saw "Flesh and Bone" (because it disappeared from theaters so quickly, and I am the only person in the Western Hemisphere who literally never, ever rents movies).

Also, I managed to miss "Hush" and "The Pallbearer" (again, no screening passes--what am I, made of money?), something called "Moonlight and Valentino" (which apparently came and went without registering on my radar, but whose title I found at whilst researching Gwyneth's oeuvre), "Jefferson in Paris" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" (did anyone with even a milligram of testosterone in his body see either of those?), "Malice" (damn, I wish I had seen that one, because the book is primo trash deluxe; maybe I'll catch it at a Jeremy Irons retrospective), "Shout" (another stealth release, apparently) or "Hook" (because I have a hard and fast rule against never, ever attending Robin Williams movies; life is too short, people).

So, what does that leave? In reverse chronological order, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "A Perfect Murder," "Sliding Doors," "Great Expectations," "Emma" and "Seven." And where does "Duets" rank on that list? Right above the absolutely awful "Great Expectations," it is my sad duty to report. (Ethan Hawke's presence in "Great Expectations" makes it a shoe-in for last place. Yikes, what a bomb.)

In a nutshell, "Duets" should have been edited down to a three-minute video of the "Cruising" karaoke performance. But here is a slightly longer list of what is wrong with the movie:

NOT ENOUGH GWYNETH. The trailer leads one to believe that she is the star. And she should have been. But The Divine Miss P is onscreen for under 20 minutes (at a guess). Oh, the humanity! "Duets" is one of those "rotating character ensemble pieces," following the would-be wacky exploits of three different pairs of characters (Gwyneth and Huey; a cabbie and a slut; a salesman and a hitchhiker). Inexplicably, Gwyneth's segment is the smallest of the three.

TOO MUCH PAUL GIAMATTI. As the sad-sack salesman whose life is transformed by karaoke into what is supposed to be a madcap whirl of Hunter Thompson-esque debauchery, Giamatti is as painfully over-the-top as Jon Lovitz in one of those annoying "Saturday Night Live" sketches that would go on and on and on until you would shout "Enough, already" and throw a boot at your TV's "off" switch.

TERRIBLE DIRECTION. Gwyneth's dad Bruce Paltrow did a flat-out awful job. It's a weird thing; I could tell that some of the dialog actually was kind of clever. And that if I had been reading "Duets" as a novel, some of the scenes that fell flat might have worked on the page. But man, do they ever not work on the screen. Although "Duets" is supposed to be a comedy, I literally did not laugh a single time. Pater Paltrow even gets the basics wrong. The movie drags for extended stretches that should have had screwball-comedy timing. We never see Gwyneth and Huey reach the kind of "connection" that would make their (one and only) singing duet possible. (Was this scene ever shot? Did it get mistakenly deleted?) The "singing slut" character is so thoroughly unappealing that I did not believe the cabbie would give her a free ride to the next block, much less the next state. Also, Bruce Paltrow lets Giamatti not only chew the scenery, but swallow it whole and regurgitate it.

So, what is there to like about "Duets?" Hey, a little Gwyneth is better than no Gwyneth at all. She looks great, she sings great, she is great. And Andre Braugher as the hitchhiker is great, too. See, nothing completely sucks. Well, except Robin Williams movies.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C (which I know is being too kind, but Gwyneth Paltrow really floats my boat)

Dukes of Hazzard
(Reviewed August 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

There's exactly one interesting thing about this awful, awful movie:

At one point, a character insults another by saying, "You're so dumb, you couldn't get elected if your brother was governor." Considering that the majority of ticketbuyers to this turd are probably going to be red-state Republicans and their ilk, one has to wonder how such an obviously anti-W line will go over.

Will the glazed-eyed morons in the audience furrow their sweaty brows, look stupidly at each other, then stand up and holler something akin to, "Hey! This gol-durn talkin' picture done jest insulted mah President! Somebody go fetch up a rope right quick now, and let's go all Abu Ghraib on the projectionist! Yee-haw!"

Speaking of life in fucked-up Fortress America these days, imagine if this movie had been updated to reflect present-day reality. Uncle Jesse would be cooking up crystal meth instead of making moonshine. Bo and Luke would be dealing the stuff in Iraq from a souped-up Humvee with a Confederate flag painted on top, until an improvised explosive device blew their legs off. Daisy would have six little bastards by different fathers, because the only local doc who performed abortions got killed when his clinic was firebombed. And the most corrupt, hypocritical, mean-spirited, redneck, intelligent-design-believing, drunk-driving, draft-dodging alcoholic cokehead in the South would be President.

Calgon, take me away!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+