Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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

Please excuse the brief delay.

Eagle Eye
(Reviewed September 24, 2008, by James Dawson)

One of the benefits of writing these reviews for my own amusement is that I don't have to waste time detailing why an abysmally lousy movie like this one is so utterly shitty. I mean, honestly, life's too short.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Easy A
(Reviewed September 11, 2010, by James Dawson)

Worthless, utterly unfunny junk, with a premise that feels like a moronic anachronism. Aggravatingly verbose and pretty-but-sexless tomboy Emma Stone gets a bad high-school rep as a great big slut after pretending to screw a gay classmate who wants everyone to think he's straight.

Think about that, people. The movie takes place in what apparently is the present. It is set in hippie-dippy Ojai, California. not some religious-fundamentalist flyover-country backwater populated by puritanical inbreds. And yet we're supposed to believe that the concept of a female high-school senior getting laid is so incredibly unusual and morally shocking that the entire student body becomes obsessed with condemning (or trying to hook up with) her. Having just read "The Scarlet Letter," the shameless perpetrator decides to wear their scorn like a badge of honor, sporting a Hester Prynne-style scarlet A on her clothes.

The movie doesn't rationalize the populace's preposterous prudishness by pretending the town is some bizarre '50s-flashback Pleasantville, or by adopting a sniggeringly sarcastic John Waters tone, either. As a result, the premise feels not only neutered-sitcom phony but hopelessly square, as if Ned Flanders wrote a screenplay about the odd quirkiness of someone missing church.

The movie features absolutely everything audiences have come to loathe about teen comedies: the deadpan-snarky first-person narrator who won't shut up, the out-of-control standing-room-only house party, the blond-bitch who gets her comeuppance, the boy-friend-who's-not-a-boyfriend until suddenly he is, and the fact that everyone in high school looks too old to be there. Even allowing for the fact that the movie may have been shot in summer 2009, that means Stone was 20, co-star Penn Badgley was 22 and designated mean girl Amanda Bynes was 23. (Actually, I was amazed to read on that Bynes is that YOUNG; judging by her looks, she would have been more believable playing the MOTHER of a teenager.)

Sadder still is the fact that Stone's sickeningly cheerful, one-liner spouting parents are played by otherwise respectable actors Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, her hip-for-a-grownup guidance counselor is Thomas Haden Church, and her school principal is Malcolm McDowell. I guess times must be as hard for actors as they are for everyone else in this economy.

I absolutely hated this movie, which gets a very easy "F."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Edge of Darkness
(Reviewed January 24, 2010, by James Dawson)

Mel Gibson still can't act, and the violent quest-for-vengeance screenplay is moronic. The only thing this movie has going for it is a very dark cynicism about the corrupt American government and the sort of sociopathic corporations that own it. Then again, anyone living in this country's current Decade of Disgrace -- eight years under a war criminal, and one so far under a do-nothing con artist who refuses to hold his predecessor to account -- already is painfully aware of that sorry situation.

Gibson's daughter gets killed for Knowing Too Much about a defense contractor's nefarious plans. But the murderous men in black who shotgunned her turn into clueless and clumsy Keystone Kops when it comes to dealing with Gibson himself. JUST SHOOT THE GUY! HE'S RIGHT THERE IN HIS HOUSE, WITH A GLASS FRONT DOOR, FOR CRIPE'S SAKE!

A mysterious free agent killer-with-a-conscience (Ray Winstone) is the most interesting character here, and a movie based on him very obviously would have been more interesting than this one.

The last act is laugh-out-loud stupid, unless you happen to believe that a half-dead guy with radiation poisoning would have a chance in hell against three armed and unimpaired opponents who desperately want him dead. And then, incredibly, things get even more preposterous, with a final scene that manages to be sappier than anything in "The Lovely Bones."


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Edge of Love
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"The Edge of Love" review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Eight Women (8 Femmes)
(Reviewed September 1, 2002, by James Dawson)

Sort of a guilty pleasure, in that I know some people will see this movie and wonder why I like it so much, so "caveat emptor." As for me, I was completely won over by this stylish, stage-y, retro-Technicolor 1960s period-piece mystery. It takes place entirely at a snowed-in French mansion, where eight women all suspect each other of murdering the master of the house. Each of them sooner or later breaks out in songs that range from kitschy-cool to entertainingly bad, as the plot veers wildly from over-the-top melodramatics to bedroom-farce comedy.

Virginie Ledoyen is absolutely, irresistibly beautiful as Suzon, the daughter who is back from college. Imagine if Natalie Portman had an incredibly cute French cousin with those classically European too-short bangs and a pink-plaid Audrey Hepburn outfit. If your French is as lousy as mine, you'll hate the fact that you have to read the English subtitles when she is on screen--because you will want to spend all of your time staring at her jaw-dropping loveliness.

Other stars include Catherine Deneuve as the Wife With a Secret and smolderingly sexy blond Emmanuaelle Beart as the very archetype of a saucy French maid.

If you start watching this on cable one night, you might tune out fast, thinking it is not quite your cup of cabernet. Stick with it, though, and you just might come to agree that this bubbly French treat is ingratiatingly, enchantingly effervescent!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed August 2, 2008, by James Dawson)

Keeping the lights mortuary-low and tossing about references to Goya, Kafka and Roland Barthes, "Elegy" attempts to dignify what's basically nothing more dignified and refined than every horny old snob's most basic sex fantasy: attracting a beautiful "30-odd years younger" lover with perfect breasts who never complains, never raises her voice and never seems to have an independent thought in her Penelope-Cruz-pretty little head.

For most of this movie's running time, I honestly wondered if Cruz was supposed to be a figment of dour old literature professor Ben Kingsley's imagination. Considering that he never introduces her to anyone, and that she acts like a perfectly adorable and adoring fembot who seems to have no other friends and no visible means of support, I kept waiting for a "Sixth Sense"-ish scene wherein we would realize that Kingsley actually was talking to himself at that charming little bistro and walking alone on the sand.

No such luck.

Kingsley and Cruz give good performances here, but the material is aggravatingly unconvincing -- somehow made moreso by the fact that the entire production takes itself so grimly seriously. A pair of tragedies in the final act come across as desperate attempts to turn a vulgar story about a dirty old man who didn't realize how good he had it into a poignant life lesson.

I have no idea if Philip Roth's novel "The Dying Animal," on which "Elegy" is based, makes this stuff work any better in print that it does on the screen. At least the movie version features Cruz topless, though, which counts for something.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
(Reviewed November 9, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
(Reviewed September 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

An often good-looking but badly directed bore.

And that's too bad, because England's Queen Elizabeth -- the first one, that is, played here by Cate Blanchett -- certainly lived in interesting times. The problem is that the virgin queen's unconsummated love affair with Sir Walter Raleigh (a dreamily studly Clive Owen), her stalwart defense of England against the Spanish Armada and the execution of her conniving cousin Mary all come off more like unconvincing soap opera subplots that the rich, heady stuff of history.

The histrionics, hype and hoopla got so bad that when a distraught Elizabeth stands on a picturesque cliff after Raleigh is temporarily lost overboard during a sea battle, you half expect a hundred-foot wave to sweep him up into her arms amid an angelic chorus.

I never saw the first "Elizabeth," which also featured Blanchett in the title role, so I can't compare the two. Brief scenes from that movie are used in flashback at one point, nicely contrasting Elizabeth past and present, however.

One interesting aspect of the movie itself is its disdain for the Catholic faith of the Spaniards, who seek to restore Catholicism to protestant England. Catholics in this movie come off like evil, vicious, Borg-like bastards. Okay, granted, we're talking about the era of the Spanish Inquisition -- but when one of the Spanish ships is sunk, the camera lingers triumphantly on a sinking gold cross and rosary beads in a way that should make infuriated nuns want to torch theaters and riot in theater lobbies.

I did dig the action-figure armor that ER wears on horseback as she rallies the troops, and her horny lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) is hot in a voluptuously milkfed fashion.

Taken as a whole, though, this is like one of those merely adequate PBS flicks that manages to take a lot of fascinating fun facts and make them as dull as school.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed September 29, 2005, by James Dawson)

Insultingly stupid, simplemindedly sappy slop that goes from bad to worse to cringe-inducingly awful. With each passing year, it becomes more obvious that aliens abducted writer/director Cameron Crowe after he made the pleasantly sweet-natured "Jerry Maguire," replacing him with the soulless clone who has tainted our planet with the egregiously phony "Almost Famous," the loopily moronic "Vanilla Sky," and this new romance-for-retards bomb.

With "Elizabethtown," Crowe seems to be going out of his way to make himself look like the kind of fantastically wealthy, condescendingly clueless Hollywood fraud who does not have the slightest idea of what small-town "just plain folks" are really like. Or what human beings in general are like, for that matter.

Orlando Bloom stars as a sports-shoe designer whose product is somehow (we never learn specifics) so faulty that it will cause his employer to lose close to a billion dollars. Starting with that wildly unlikely premise -- for a shoe to result in financial losses of that magnitude, it probably would have to cause wearers to catch fire and develop AIDS -- the movie then subjects viewers to so much bad dialog, so many unconvincing characters, and such blatantly careless storytelling mistakes that not a minute of it rings true.

The most obvious of the plot's many, many boners: Even though the movie opens with shots of tractor-trailers full of cartons marked "RECALLED" bringing the defective shoes back to the manufacturer, we are supposed to believe that nobody in the outside world will know that the product is a global-corporation-crippling failure until a magazine story appears on newsstands the following week. What the hell? In this movie's universe, there apparently are no daily newspaper business sections, no Internet, no TV or radio news updates, no Jay Leno monologs, no shoe-store-manager grumbling or gossip...all so that Bloom's character can get a few "free days" of screen time before anybody realizes he's a washed-up fuckup.

This is about as idiotic as pretending that a character can map out an insanely detailed backroads cross-country journey; create a thick collage-style scrapbook full of driving instructions, photos and cornball life-lessons; and burn 42 hours worth of driving music onto CD-Rs in what appears to be her virtually nonexistent spare time. Which also happens in this movie.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On his way from his big-city digs to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to arrange his father's funeral arrangements, Bloom catches the fancy of Southern-cracker flight attendant Kirsten Dunst, who acts like a gratingly hyperactive nine-year-old. Elizabethtown turns out to be full of the kind of eccentric, colorful, obnoxious boobs with which Tinseltown always populates any flyover locale. There's a place for kind of stock characters who are this shallow, this stereotypical and this unfunny. That place is on bad TV sitcoms.

Bloom's mother, aggravatingly overplayed as usual by the never enjoyable Susan Sarandon, is back home engaging is such hilarities as getting caught under the hood of her car while attempting to make a repair. Naturally, she continues lying across the engine, legs kicking, after the hood has come down on her. Laughin' yet?

Meanwhile, Bloom spends an unfathomably long amount of time -- as in days and days and days -- "making preparations" for dead old dad's sendoff. Bloom stays in a hotel filled with guests who are staying an equally unlikely long time for an upcoming wedding. The mugging groom-to-be is featured in an interminable hallway male-bonding scene.

Bloom and Dunst spend Bloom's first night in town -- as in "all night, non-stop" -- on their respective cell-phones to each other, falling in wuv over what must be at least 480 anytime minutes each. Men will feel their testicles retreating so far into their bodies during this scene that they may end up with a man-gina down there.

As bad as the romantic would-be comedy parts are, things take a turn for the much worse during the memorial service. Is there anything as painfully unfunny as watching a room full of people laugh uproariously at material that is not in the least bit amusing? That's what happens when Sarandon starts making with the wisecracks onstage. She notes that, since her husband's death, she has taken classes in stand-up comedy, cooking, car-repair, tap-dancing and probably a few other things that I've forgotten. Again, even in the context of a comedy, the nagging issue of chronology raises its head. It seems impossible that anyone could have enough time to do all of those things between a death and a funeral.

The memorial service also includes an element that is in remarkably bad taste. Not that I usually care about anything resembling decency or propriety, but when a band ends up causing a room-evacuating fire, is there anyone anywhere who won't be reminded of all the poor bastards who burned to death at a Great White concert? Maybe Crowe's next movie will feature a couple of amiable goofballs who accidentally knock down a pair of Manhattan skyscrapers with planes.

Crowe saves the abysmally worst for last. As Bloom embarks on a mapped-out road trip montage, Dunst provides instructions via voiceover that include such tips as "dance by yourself with one arm waving over your head." And we see Bloom doing this, like some tripped-out acid-test casualty who gives new meaning to the term "cuntstruck douchebag."

Bloom's stops also include a look-at-me-being-somber trip to the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. This attempt to lend his Volkswagen-commercial-corny odyssey some emotional weight is about as inappropriate as putting Mother Teresa in a "Girls Gone Wild" video.

There's one last howlingly inept script screw-up waiting at the very end. Bloom, delivering a final bit of feel-good hokum narration, says that the motto of a British S.A.S. regiment was "who risks wins." I'm no West Point grad, but even a W-despising peacenik like Yours Truly knew that sounded wrong, so I did some Googling. It turns out that the actual motto of the elite British Special Air Services 22 Regiment is "who dares wins." "Who Dares Wins" even was the title of a 1982 movie. It's not exactly an obscure fun fact.

Avoid this movie in honor of the brave fighting men of the SAS, dozens of dead Great White fans, Martin Luther King, and men without man-ginas everywhere.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Ella Enchanted
(Reviewed February 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

If this premise had been played straight, instead of "stupided up" with dopey contemporary-reference humor, bad condescending-to-the-kids overacting and annoying baby-boomer "classic rock" tunes, it could have been something special. Instead, "Ella Enchanted" comes off like a less funny live-action variation on "Shrek" that is tainted with annoying reminders of the egregiously awful "A Knight's Tale."

Anne ("The Princess Diaries") Hathaway is a beautiful, distractingly large-busted Cinderella-type who was fairy-gifted as a baby with the curse of obedience; she can't stop herself from doing exactly what she is told. And when I say "distractingly large-busted," I mean it; this ain't no "little princess," folks. Her wow-inducing womanly attributes become even more prominent each time she obediently throws her shoulders back when someone gives her a command and her "curse" kicks in. Hathaway has the face of an innocent, big-eyed angel and the body of a centerfold.

Ella's nasty stepsisters take cruel advantage of her, she runs away from home, she falls in love with a prince one of her stepsisters has the hots for, and trouble predictably ensues.

The locations, sets and cinematography here are eye-poppingly colorful and gorgeous, looking much better and costlier than would be expected for a project like this. (I mean, we're basically talking about a movie whose only conceivable ticket-buyers will be girls aged six to 10 and their parents.) So why did the producers think they had to junk things up with things like a fart joke, a groaningly dated reference to the O.J. trial ("If the gauntlet doesn't fit, you must acquit"), and songs that were musty decades before the potential audience members were born?

Even the very worst bad-comedy cliche makes an unfortunate appearance, when baby Ella pees in the face of someone who is holding her at arm's length. (Wondering exactly how a baby GIRL manages that feat? So was everyone in the theater. Maybe Ella is secretly a Fella!)

There's a treat for daddies who stick around to the bitter end: Ella whips off her ankle-length skirt to dance around in a hot miniskirt and boots during the closing musical number. Now that's what I call "enchanting."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Emperor's Club
(Reviewed November 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

Misguided, cynically sentimental slop that actually may be WORSE than "Dead Poet's Society."

Kevin Kline, continuing his "Life As a House"-like descent into the "smiling ruefully through life's sorrows" bog in which Robin Williams so regularly wallows, is a prep school teacher with a class full of ridiculously idealistic and well-mannered students...until an obnoxious little unloved douchebag Senator's son shows up. Kline cuts this creepy little supposed-to-be-charming sociopath a break by improperly allowing him to be one of three contestants in a competition known as "Mister Julius Caesar." (Kline thereby screws a more deserving student out of said opportunity...but hey, that kind of unfair leg-up is what bleeding-heart liberal affirmative-action is all about, even if in this case all involved are white, so it is easy to allow Kline's character this ethical lapse.)

Cut to 25 years later, when Kline is invited out of retirement to referee a rematch of said competition among former students who now have become captains of industry and the like. Will all of the things he taught about the importance of integrity, honor and character have borne fruit in his formerly fresh-faced charges?

I have to admit that the one good thing about this movie is its incredibly satisfying ending, which I won't ruin. Getting there, though, is not worth wasting two hours of your sweet, precious life. Go play a game of Dark Tower instead. I just found a copy of that 1981 electronic game at a yard sale, for a DOLLAR, and it's great! What does this have to do with reviewing "The Emperor's Club?" Hey, don't shave my buzz, man.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Emperor's New Groove
(Reviewed December 10, 2000, by James Dawson)

Miracle! Miracle! A new Disney animated movie that does NOT fall back on the tired old 1990s Disney formula of insipid-songs-'n'-sickening-sidekicks! What's too bad is that this Christmas treat is saddled with a thoroughly misleading title that implies the movie will be about music (it isn't--heck, it's not even a musical!) and an ad campaign that does absolutely nothing to convey what the movie actually IS about (a smirkingly egomaniacal teenage emperor, voiced by David Spade, who goes through a series of wacky misadventures trying to regain his throne after being transformed into a llama and exiled).

I went to this movie with low expectations (thanks to Disney's bad marketing job), but I ended up liking it more than any Disney animated movie I've seen since the studio's classic "Little Mermaid." That's right, that means I liked it more than "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," "Hercules" or "Mulan" (just to name six that come immediately to mind, and not counting the computer-animated "Toy Story" movies, which are in a category by themselves). This is kind of a "small" movie (not many characters, basically simple story), but I liked David Spade's snarky humor as the emperor/llama, John Goodman is fine as the peasant he befriends, Eartha Kitt is A-OK as the emperor's nemesis, and Patrick Warburton ("Seinfeld"'s Puddy) is great as her IQ-challenged hunk of a henchman. Spade's narration is funny, as are the occasions when he steps "outside the frame" (literally, at one point).

One of the main things I enjoyed about the movie is that it looks and plays more like a wacky 1950s Warner Bros. cartoon than like a safe-as-milk Disney movie, especially during the antic action scenes at the climax.

I get the feeling that "Emperor's New Groove" won't attract much of an audience, thanks to its terrible title and advertising campaign. But if you go, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed October 13, 2007, by James Dawson)

What a waste of a great premise.

Just before the sweet-as-Snow-White Giselle can marry dashingly handsome Prince Edward in a Disneyesque animated movie, she is dispatched to real-life New York by an evil queen who wants her out of the picture (so to speak). The flesh-and-blood Giselle (Amy Adams) is thoroughly confused by a world where her pet chipmunk can't talk, most people are jerks, and women are expected to maybe go on a few dates before deciding to get hitched to the first guy on horseback who rescues them from a nasty giant.

She is befriended by single-dad Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his still-believes-in-princesses daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). Oops, Robert has a no-nonsense fiancee who can't compare in Morgan's eyes with twinkly, always-a-song-in-her-heart Giselle. Things are further complicated when a likewise-converted-to-human Prince Edward (James Marsden) arrives in New York to spirit the newly enlightened Giselle back to the land of happily ever after, where Giselle is no longer sure she wants to go.

That plot could have made an amazing movie if the filmmakers had played things straight, but nearly everything here is campy and slapstick and juvenile. The only exception comes near the end, when a ballroom dancing-and-romancing scene briefly substitutes sappy for silly. All of the humor is obvious and sitcommish. Just about the only thing I liked were the songs (by Disney hands Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz), which are so dead-on perfect that I'm not even sure they could be called parodies.

Amy Adams is miscast as Giselle because she is not ingenue-flawless enough for her role; frankly, she looks a little haggard and bag-lady crazy. That may have worked if the movie had gone the brutal-realism route, but not in a broad romp in which Prince Edward is the matinee-idol-manly Marsden.

Because "Enchanted" is still a Disney movie, even though it pokes fun at Disney movies, I guess there was no way we would see the kind of movie I wanted: a gritty, mean-streets drama about a girl who doubts her own sanity, is taken advantage of by creeps and ends up turning tricks for drug money so she can escape in dreams to her nearly forgotten fantasyland. I wanted something as shocking, transgressive and heartbreaking as "Was," the Geoff Ryman novel that featured a tragic real-world version of Dorothy from the Oz books. (Seek it out, it's worth the read.)

But what the hell. Little girls probably will like "Enchanted" just fine, and bitter old misanthropes like Yours Truly can just go muttering and cursing into the unforgiving night.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Enemy at the Gates
(Reviewed March 3, 2001, by James Dawson)

The human-interaction scenes in this movie are kind of weak, Jude Law's character is never given any depth whatsoever, and the love story just is not a good fit at all. But the war scenes, sniper stalkings, and shots of citywide devastation in this film are incredibly well done. "Enemy at the Gates" is like two movies in one; as if an amateurish and schmaltzy director handled all the dialog scenes, while a seasoned master shot the action-and-suspense stuff.

The setting is Stalingrad during the World War II German siege. Jude Law is a naive Russian draftee who just happens to be mighty damned handy with a rifle--so handy, in fact, that the Germans dispatch their own master sniper to eliminate him. The German marksman is incredibly well played by Ed Harris, who manages to be coolly deliberate without ever seeming inhuman.

Here is the best way to describe how great the settings are in this movie. Remember how cheesy the final scenes in "Saving Private Ryan" looked--as if everything had been shot on a single backlot cul-de-sac? In "Enemy at the Gates," it honestly looks as if an entire city has been laid waste for the production. In one amazing scene, Law and Harris stalk each other in a bombed-out multi-level department store with one of its sides missing. That would be eye-opening enough, but when they see German bombers flying toward the building's open side, you'll feel like "ducking and covering."

A powerful movie with stark images of man's good old inhumanity to man that will stick in your mind long after the sticky taste of schmaltz has faded from your mouth.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed April 8, 2002, by James Dawson)

Ridiculously overcomplicated, crushingly dull but nicely photographed World War II drama about attempts to break a German submarine code. Kate Winslet is a frumpy, can-do bureaucrat who helps zombie-like, moping Dougray Scott dig through files and motor around the English countryside. If you have been missing sleep lately but are reluctant to rely on over-the-counter medications, sitting through this yawner should take care of your problem quite nicely.

Also, the coincidental timing of an event at the conclusion of this movie is so jaw-droppingly preposterous that I was reminded of the Monty Python "hide-and-seek championship" sketch, in which the hider could go anywhere in the world, but nevertheless is discovered by the seeker with mere seconds to go in the game. It's that dumb.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed December 15, 2006, by James Dawson)

The bestselling "Eragon" novel was written by a teenager -- an accomplishment that becomes a lot less impressive if this remarkably dumb movie is a faithful adaptation of the source material.

Granted, every magic-based heroic fantasy is inherently nonsensical, no matter how elegantly presented. (And I say this as a lifelong fan of sword-and-sorcery authors Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard, so it's not as if I'm predisposed to dislike the genre.) The good stories, however, manage to create internally consistent worlds, engrossing situations and convincing characters that allow audiences to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride without feeling stupid.

"Eragon" never manages that trick. It's a clunky, predictable and very derivative-of-better-movies exercise with all of the typical tropes (orphaned naively rustic hero, worldly-wise mentor, captured princess, one-dimensionally evil villain), a preposterously skillful-though-inexperienced protagonist, and even sillier than usual people-and-place names (King Galbatorix, Durza, Roran, Alagaesia).

Eragon (Ed Speleers) is a farmboy with a telepathic bond to the female dragon Saphira (voice-overed by Rachel Weisz). Their mind-to-mind chats are just plain dopey, to the point where the mook sitting beside me in the theater was rightly sniggering to his fellow mook during most of them. The CGI dragon is some washed-out, inorganic shade of blue that keeps the thing from ever seeming to be part of the scenes in which it appears.

Jeremy Irons is okay as a former dragon-rider doing the whole "training the young Jedi" bit, far outclassing his material. John Malkovich appears briefly in several "hammy evil king lurking in his lair" scenes. Robert Carlyle is a wicked sorceror with amazingly stupendous powers who nevertheless can't manage to kill Eragon with them, because the script won't let him.

Also, Sienna Guillory is a total fox of a redhead rebel whose fetchingly form-fitting clothes mysteriously remain on her body even when she is the vile and villainous Carlyle's captive. But more on that later.

This is the kind of by-the-numbers junk that makes the mind wander to questions such as, "Wouldn't a king, no matter how nefarious and nasty, want to live in a nicer looking crib?" King Galbatorix's castle is a dismal, massive, no-windows cell block, and we only see him hanging out in a depressing black-pit hellhole of a throne room. Where are the trappings of wealth, the spacious views of prime real estate, the bevies of beauteous harem girls? He's the friggin' king, for Pete's sake!

But I digress.

"Eragon" might be okay for little kids who aren't very smart. The dragon and swordplay violence is bloodless. The movie includes nothing that could be considered challenging subtext. And there's absolutely zero sexual content -- although the complete lack of any male-character interest in girls ends up giving the movie a by-default homoerotic feel.

Eragon, even though he is 17 years old and should be horny as a hoot owl, doesn't seem to regard the ravishing redhead as anything other than a companion. (Whether or not she turns out to be his mom or his sister in a later installment is immaterial, considering that he has no reason to suspect either of those time-worn devices yet.) Eragon also doesn't go the slightest bit drooly over a chieftain's slinky ebony daughter. His middle-aged mentor never mentions any past or current love interests outside of his departed dragon. We see no women or girls whatsoever at the king's place. And Eragon's dragon sounds more like a mother (or maybe a free-spirited spinster aunt) than a young girl, even though the movie seems to span less than a year after she hatches from an egg.

For novelty's sake, if nothing else, it would have been interesting to see the filmmakers go full-out "Brokeback" with the story by making Eragon gay.

Maybe he comes out in the sequel.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Escapist
(Reviewed April 24, 2009, by James Dawson)

This is one of the best movies of 2009, a grippingly suspenseful and interestingly structured prison-escape drama that has style to spare. Brian Cox is an aging inmate who wants to see his junkie daughter again before she ends up killing herself with drugs. Joseph Fiennes is convincingly badass as one of the group he gets to help him bust out.

The accents in the British prison can get a little hard to understand at times, but that doesn't matter. What we see onscreen is so easily understood, thanks to co-screenwriter Rupert Wyatt's excellent direction, that the movie would work even as a silent feature.

Very highly recommended!

NOTE: There are other movies out there with the same title as this one. So be sure when renting/buying that you get the one starring Brian Cox (go here to see the cover: The Escapist).

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(Reviewed February 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

How can a movie by the brilliant music-video director Michel Gondry (whose first feature was last year's excellent "Human Nature")...and which is written by the brilliant screenwriter Charlie ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") Kaufman...and which stars the usually-at-least-amusing Jim so goddamned oppressingly ugly and relentlessly dull?

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is not as big a disappointment as the last Kaufman-penned flick (the George Clooney-directed screen version of Chuck Barris' "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"). But it's still a huge letdown.

Here is the best way to describe the unpleasant overall look of "Eternal Sunshine": It resembles a '70s porn flick, back when smut was shot on film but never seemed to be lit or processed right. Even worse, it's like one of those movies that was shot in winter in New York, with exterior shots that always looked cold and miserable and way too grittily cheap. Maybe someday "Eternal Sunshine" will play in double-feature repertory theaters with a visual soulmate like "The Taking of Christina."

Carrey low-keys his performance to the point of catatonia. Bill Murray was able to ratchet back believably in "Lost in Translation," but Carrey's idea of acting human looks more like acting lobotomized.

Costar Kate Winslet plays one of those movie-cliche wacky, impulsive, free-spirit bigmouths that no sane man would want to spend more than five minutes around. (Well, after screwing them, anyway.) I never will fathom why Hollywood thinks that zany, manic-depressive idiots like this are believable love interests.

The script's basic idea -- what would happen if people could erase all memories of past lovers they want to forget? -- is interesting, but the execution sure isn't. That's mainly because the movie can't decide whether it is a really depressing "Twilight Zone" or a dumb tongue-in-cheek comedy. One minute Carrey is moping around like he's doing Ibsen on horse tranquilizers. The next minute, drunken memory-erase workers are jumping up and down in their underwear beside his unconscious body on his bed. Granted, it's always a treat to see braless Kirsten Dunst in a thin cotton top and panties (see "Crazy/Beautiful"), know, on second thought, I withdraw all complaints about the impropriety of that scene. What the hell was I thinking?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed July 7, 2007)

This botched impersonation of a worthwhile "woman's picture," starring a gaggle of actresses who should have known better (Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Toni Collette, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close), is an absolute disaster in every way.

From her deathbed, Redgrave flashes back to the weekend of a friend's wedding at a shoreside New England mansion. Her younger self (portrayed by Claire Danes, who can never settle on what to do with her overly expressive face) falls in love with the grown son of one of the mansion's household staff (Patrick Wilson). Unfortunately, the bride-to-be (Mamie Gummer) is carrying a torch for Wilson herself, which means much weeping and agonizing from her before the ceremony.

And then there's the possibly bisexual alcoholic brother of the bride, who seems just a little too overprotective and in love with sis. Somehow, you just know that guy doesn't have a bright future ahead of him.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Redgrave's two grown daughters (Richardson and Toni Collette) are on deathwatch at mom's house, spending most of their time sniping at each other.

Even worse than the sappy stupidity of it all is the idea that this tedious and unconvincing junk apparently is supposed to pass for class.

The most interesting thing about the screening I attended had nothing to do with what was onscreen. A respectable looking couple in their 30s decided to ignore the "Reserved for Press" signs on two seats. Movie studio employees who were running the screening, the theater manager and a security guard all told them they would have to vacate those seats, but Mr. and Mrs. Douchebag refused to budge.

I joined in with those who began chanting "out, out, out" at those obnoxious, self-important squatters while Mr. Douchebag was telling the theater manager that she couldn't legally evict him. He broke off this dubious argument to turn around and yell at a woman in my row, "Shut up, you nazi bitch!"

That was my cue to shout, "Assault! Assault! Hate speech! Hate speech!"

I like to think that the thought of being slapped with a civil-rights lawsuit by little old non-lawyer me was what convinced the asshole and his mate to give up the fight and exit the auditorium.

Here's the best part: The journalists for whom those two seats were being held never showed up. That meant a different pair of "regular folks" got to sit in them after Lord and Lady Douchebag left.

Every now and then, there actually is some justice in this sorry world.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Every Little Step
(Reviewed February 13, 2009, by James Dawson)

This excellent documentary about the heartbreaking audition process for a recent Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line" is my second favorite movie of 2009 so far (my favorite is Paris 36). Here's my review that originally appeared on the website, before that site purged all of its reviews and changed format.

This fascinating documentary by directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo chronicles the origins of Broadway's 1970s megahit "A Chorus Line," as well as auditions for a 21st-century revival of the play. Besides offering vintage and recent interviews with many of the show's creators, the film includes behind-the-scenes casting highlights distilled from more than 400 hours of footage shot in 2005 and 2006.

"A Chorus Line" got its start in January 1974, when director/choreographer Michael Bennett invited 22 dancers to discuss their lives and careers in an all-night bull session that he recorded. Clips from those tapes are heard throughout "Every Little Step," revealing how the dancers' anecdotes, confessions, biographies and bravado became parts of the play.

Open call auditions in 2005 for the Broadway revival attracted hordes of hopefuls. A lucky 3,000 auditioned for revival director Robert Avian, Bennett's former partner. (Tony-winner Bennett died in 1987.) Revival choreographer Baayork Lee played Connie in the original show, a character based on herself. "Do I get a chance to say who I want to play my life?" she jokingly asks.

Footage of the dancing and singing tryouts is alternately entertaining and emotionally wrenching. That's because we get to know several of the earnestly desperate hopefuls before seeing their ecstatic triumphs or crushing rejections -- and at least one of the cuts comes as a genuine shock.

Among the most likeable and talented of the wannabes: The adorably sweet Chryssie Whitehead, trying out for the role of Kristine, manages to bump a microphone twice and clumsily drop a folder of papers on camera. Jason Tam's audition as Paul, the character who breaks down in shame over his parents seeing him in drag, makes Avila himself weep. ("Sign him up!" Avila says through tears afterward.) And Yuka Takara is so exuberantly enthusiastic about playing the petite spitfire Connie that you'll be crossing your fingers hoping she gets the role.

We also see glimpses of the hopefuls' home lives. The most moving is a visit with Charlotte D'Amboise's crippled father Jacques, who was a Balanchine dancer before needing to have both knees replaced. "The hardest thing is when you can't dance," he says, but his enduring pride and lack of bitterness is inspiring.

The filmmakers cleverly montage many of the auditions, splicing lyrics sung by different singers into a cohesive whole. Special attention is paid to the big crescendo of "At the Ballet," as successive singers try to hit and hold the song's soaringly long last note.

Seeing the fortunate few who finally make the grade performing "One" in gold top hats and tails onstage is the perfect finale for the film. It's the thrilling culmination of what we know everyone in that high-kicking chorus line did for love.

Even macho guys who dread watching this flick with their womenfolk may end up enjoying it. Sure, it's not a monster truck rally, but you're not likely to see this many beautiful women in skimpy leotards anywhere else this year. Well, unless you're irresistibly inspired to join a dance class immediately after the credits -- which is a distinct possibility.

Very highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Everything Is Illuminated
(Reviewed August 25, 2005, by James Dawson)

Cloying, annoying and all-around "oy!"-ing.

Elijah Wood, looking creepier than he did as a serial killer in "Sin City," is a bug-eyed wax-museum mannequin who goes to Ukraine to research his dead Jewish grandfather's backstory. Meeting lots of "eccentric" (echhh) characters along the way, including a translator who is like Yakov Smirnoff gone hip-hop, Wood eventually makes the startling discovery that Nazis were bad in WW2. Very, very bad.

Some wuss behind me was sniffling by the end of this quirky wallow, but it didn't do anything for me. Every wacky-yet-would-be-profound character seems to have limped from the pages of a silly, self-obsessed sophomore's creative writing project. (The fact that the novel from which it derives was a bestseller is somewhat frightening, but maybe this silly/sappy stuff worked better in book form than in screenwriter/director Liev Schreiber's version.) Wood spends the movie putting mementoes of absolutely everything in plastic Zip-loc bags. A dog is named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (sic). The translator's "blind" grandfather only agrees to drive if the dog (wearing a misspelled "Seeing Eye Bitch" T-shirt) can ride along. Enough, already!

Considering that the movie is so much about the beauty, historic resonance and alien strangeness of Ukraine, it's both flabbergasting and sad that the movie actually was shot in and around Prague. The locations are interesting nonetheless, but it's too bad that the substitution of fake for real affects the movie's exteriors as well as its emotional interiors.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed June 3, 2001, by James Dawson)

"Evolution" is kind of cheesy and cheap-looking in every aspect except the special effects, the pacing is terrible, and everyone involved seems to be wondering how they ended up in this very "B" movie. But the creatures are kind of neat, David Duchovny is likable as always, and Julianne Moore is strangely appealing in a lab coat. Not a good movie by any stretch, but one that isn't so bad it's worth hating, either. (Now there's high praise...) Plus I laughed out loud at the reference to a "cheek-spreader" (every home should have one), which was worth extra points.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Ex
(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

They should have called it "The Excrement."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
(Reviewed December 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: F