Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Fahrenheit 9/11
(Reviewed June 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

I'll be the one critic on the planet to freely admit that it is impossible to be objective about this movie. Before I walked into the theater (long before, in fact), I already despised everything about George W. Bush's regime. I resent his administration's fanatical desire to steer America relentlessly down the wrong path toward imperialism, religious fundamentalism, censorship, moral and financial bankruptcy, and oppressive fascism. I hate the fact that Bush has made our country the target of justified scorn, resentment and outrage from nearly every civilized nation on Earth (with the shameful exception of bootlicking toady Tony Blair's UK). I completely oppose everything about the senseless, brutal, ridiculously expensive war in Iraq and the farce "Where's Waldo?" conflict in Afghanistan.

Although I never have been much of a Michael Moore fan, I figured that "my enemy's enemy is my friend." Which means I was predisposed to support nearly anything that pointed out W's multitude of egregious shortcomings.

So, with that kind of willingness to join the cheering section for just about anything anti-Bush, how come I'm only giving this movie a "B?" Because it loses focus halfway through, and also should have been tightened considerably. That's not saying it is a bad film, only that it should have stayed "on message" and been more concise in its arguments.

The documentary opens with Moore lamenting the 2000 election debacle that put Bush in office even though he lost the popular vote, thanks to a Supreme Court decision awarding Florida (rightly or wrongly) to Bush. Footage of Bush's inaugural motorcade being hit by eggs as crowds of protesters wave signs and shout are truly warming to the heart from this vantage point of history. Moore mentions that Bush's plan to get out of his limo and walk the final stretch of the inauguration route was scrapped, and that his driver hit the gas instead.

Know what's sad? Although I voted Libertarian in that election (oh, if only Harry Browne had won...sniff), I preferred Bush over Gore at the time. Bush struck me as a stupid, ineffectual doofus who would bumble through four years without accomplishing much of anything, while Gore seemed like a liberal idiot who would raise taxes to waste on everything from increased foreign aid to slavery reparations. But looking back from the present-day Republican nightmare we inhabit, I can't imagine that even a fatuous, condescending, disgracefully misguided demagogue such as Tipper Gore's husband possibly could have done a worse job than W has done. Bush's anti-intellectual mentality, far from rendering him harmless, left him as malleable as mindless clay in the hands of some of the worst political, military and religious elements ever to disgrace American history.


Ahem. Getting back to Mr. Moore's little movie:

"Fahrenheit 9/11" gets more interesting as soon as the twin towers fall. That's when we see the jaw-droppingly appalling footage of W sitting in an elementary school classroom for SEVEN MINUTES after being told that two planes have hit the World Trade Center. As Moore says in voiceover, it is as if Bush has no clue that he should do anything, because no one has told him what to do.

Bush was informed about the first plane immediately before he walked into that classroom, at which point anyone vaguely "presidential" might have decided it would be prudent to postpone the photo op. But when Bush is told about the second plane and continues to sit there, reading a children's book aloud and listening to the teacher read aloud, for SEVEN FRIGGIN' MINUTES, it's enough to make you wonder whether to laugh or scream.

Moore then presents info about Osama's relatives hastily being flown out of this country before any of them could be questioned extensively by the FBI; Bush and company's many ties to the Bin-Ladens and to the Saudi royal family that kept Saudi Arabia above official suspicion, even though most of the hijackers were from that country and financed by Saudis; and the Bush administration's obscene eagerness to institute Orwellian domestic policies under the ruse of fighting a never-ending "war on terror." We also see the faces of the kind of smug corporate scumbags who have profited handsomely from our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

You don't have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to find this stuff chilling, folks. The worst we used to suspect of craven political opportunists like Bush is that they were intent on belligerently crushing other peoples and other countries for America's benefit. Turns out it's not for America's benefit after all--it's for the enrichment of Bush's corrupt cronies, both here and abroad. Let's put it this way: We've now spent a couple hundred billion dollars and over 800 soldiers' lives in Iraq for what most of us thought was nothing more noble than oil...and we didn't even get the oil! Companies like Halliburton, however, appear to be doing remarkably well these days.

The movie loses focus (sort of like this review keeps doing) when it shifts to the war in Iraq. That is when it abandons the details of Bush's many levels of corporate and governmental sliminess and morphs into a "you are there" war-is-hell polemic. It's almost as if "Fahrenheit 9/11" is two documentaries spliced together, one cerebral (Bush improperly using the 9/11 attacks as a mandate for the next best thing to totalitarianism) and the other visceral (some pretty graphic footage of mutilated and burned bodies, lots of cruise missile explosions). I haven't seen a movie this split-brained since "Full Metal Jacket."

In addition to footage shot in Iraq of our soldiers displaying various degrees of inhumanly amoral bloodlust (hey, I calls 'em as I sees 'em), Moore shows us a soldier's mother back home who goes from pro-military to peace activist after her son is killed. When she travels to Washington and breaks down in tears across the street from the White House, I don't think even right-wing chickenhawk monsters like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh could help being moved.

(Moore seems to anticipate a potential criticism--selective editing--that his detractors might be prepared to fling during this segment. When the mother reads a letter from her soldier son, Moore keeps her on-camera reading what appears to be the whole thing, instead of cutting out everything but the "war is bad" section. While this prevents the Bill O'Reillys of the world from accusing Moore of leaving out anything that may have contradicted that part, it also uses up an awful lot of the audience's time and patience.)

Moore makes an excellent point about the military being composed mostly of minorities and the poor. After reporting that only one Congressman has a child in the military, Moore is seen attempting to get some of our other esteemed elected representatives to sign their kids up for the fighting...with depressingly predictable results.

He also follows a pair of Marine recruiters as they troll for gullible 18-year-olds who can be convinced that today's military is a good career option. What makes that footage sickening is knowing that any naive suckers who might be crazy enough to sign on the dotted line won't be defending their country under a commander-in-chief who values them and sees war as a last option. They will be serving as cannon-fodder pawns of a draft-dodging deserter who has shown no hesitation about throwing our soldiers' lives away for nothing.

One obvious marketing hurdle for "Fahrenheit 9/11" is that the only people I can imagine buying tickets will be Bush-haters whose minds already are firmly made up. Frankly, it's too bad the thing won't be shown on PBS before the election, so that Bush supporters might have a slim chance of exposing themselves to what they should know about their utterly worthless candidate.

(Not that Kerry is much better. As far as I can tell, the only good thing about Kerry is that he isn't Bush. I dearly wish that "Fahrenheit 9/11" had pointed out that Kerry voted in favor of virtually everything Bush wanted regarding Iraq. Also, Kerry supports the FCC's crackdown on "indecency," which puts him completely beyond the realm of serious consideration, in my book. But that's a diatribe for another day.)

What's good about the movie, though, is that it manages to put together a lot of bits of info that add up to an undeniably damning portrait of W and everyone around him. Things such as pre-9/11 clips of Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell saying that Saddam Hussein has no weapons of mass destruction, nor any likelihood of obtaining them, are priceless. When the three stooges contradict themselves later, you almost expect to see flickering forked tongues snaking from between their lying lips. And probably the only truthful words to emerge from Bush's mouth in the movie are those we hear when he refers to a crowd of his super-rich supporters as the "haves and the have mores," and as his base.

Scary stuff. Very scary stuff.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Failure to Launch
(Reviewed February 8, 2006, by James Dawson)

Look, I'm sorry, but sometimes a critic just can't be polite. The idea that a studly, drawling, six-pack-abbed, "Sexiest Man Alive" himbo like Matthew McConaughey could be tempted by the supposedly seductive charms of horsefaced, emaciated, wart-chinned, middle-aged Sarah Jessica Parker is just plain unbelievable.

That criticism might sound shallow ("might?") if we were talking about an onscreen relationship that went any deeper than a wholly predictable "adults acting like idiotic teenagers" would-be comedy. But it's not as if anything vaguely resembling a realistic love affair is taking place here -- one in which personalities and feelings might take precedence over a partner's physical appearance.

In fact, the movie doesn't even acknowledge the light-years-wide disparity between its two stars' looks; it's not as if McConaughey has to overcome any initial reluctance to date a woman who looks like the Wicked Witch of the Wasted, in other words. He's hot for SJP on first sight, in a pathetic "meet cute" scene at a store that sells recliners.

The premise: SJP is a professional pretend-girlfriend cocktease. She earns her living by making still-living-at-home grown men fall in love with her, at which point they become so wrapped around her little finger that she can convince them to get places of their own. She is surreptitiously hired by McConaughey's parents to inspire him to move out of their house.

Mom is Kathy Bates, trying not to embarrass herself. Dad is Terry Bradshaw, whose acting ability is virtually undetectable. We're also treated to not one but two shots of full-dorsal Bradshaw nudity that are scary enough to turn all of West Hollywood straight.

The only character I kind of liked was Zooey Deschanel, doing her usual detached-monotone, utterly unexcitable "deadpan-girl" bit as SJP's roommate. Her subplot duties are strictly below-par sitcommery, however, involving an annoying mockingbird that keeps her from sleeping.

It's only February 8 as I write this, but "Failure to Launch" is a big enough failure that it probably will have a slot on my "worst of 2006" list.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Fall
(Reviewed April 16, 2008, by James Dawson)

Intoxicatingly imaginative, deliriously beautiful, sweetly sentimental yet sometimes unsparingly cruel, "The Fall" is both a storybook-style fantasy and a very adult allegory about the power of despair, devotion and dreams.

In 1915 Los Angeles, Roy (Lee Pace) is a hospitalized silent-movie stuntman whose lovestruck attempt to impress a beautiful actress had disastrous results. Into his room wanders five-year-old fellow patient Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who matter-of-factly recounts how her poor family's house was burned by angry men who stole their horse. She is hampered by a bulky cast that keeps her left arm raised at a 90-degree angle, giving her a broken-bird awkwardness that she never bothers to acknowledge -- except when she's absent-mindedly chewing on the plaster.

Untaru is utterly charming, the antithesis of every wise-beyond-her-years Hollywood-kid stereotype. She is frequently distracted, well-meaningly deceptive, often quite convincingly confused and sometimes deadpan hilarious.

When Roy tells an improvised, wildly disjointed story about an exotic band of adventurers on a quest for revenge, what we see is Alexandria's gloriously colorful interpretation of the tale. While director Tarsem's decadently stylish serial-killer feature "The Cell" was a triumph of outlandish art direction over substance, "The Fall" offers a more appropriate forum for his elegant, other-worldly visuals.

The location shots, from 18 countries around the world, are breathtaking. Ornately elegant palaces, a tiny white-sand island, an Escher-pattern building, a face that transforms Dali-like into a lookalike desert landscape; nearly every frame could be blown up and hung on a wall. The costumes are equally elaborate.

Based on the 1981 Bulgarian movie "Yo Ho Ho," "The Fall" is a dizzying amalgam of elements from a festival's worth of classic filmworld fairy tales. It features everything from "Wizard of Oz"-style double-role characters to outrageous "Baron Munchausen"-ish predicaments. It successfully manages to incorporate both the sadly yearning poignancy of "The Little Princess" and the tongue-in-cheek bedtime-story heroics of "The Princess Bride."

Be warned, however, that "The Fall" often displays the detached and sometimes brutally dark sensibility of Guillermo del Toro's similarly not-for-little-kids "Pan's Labyrinth." Don't expect "cuddly and safe," in other words. Instead, expect a masterpiece.

This bittersweetly romantic, dreamily fantastic movie is a wonder to behold, and is sure to be on my top 10 of 2008 list.

Very highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Family Man
(Reviewed November 21, 2000, by James Dawson)

Insultingly condescending "It's a Wonderful Life" ripoff, made by a bunch of people who probably are quite happy to be wealthy and carefree, even though their movie is one long paean of praise for the pathetic, penniless, pack-up-the-preschoolers-in-the-minivan proletariat. This movie is so dishonest and insincere that the suburbanites across America's heartland who pay good money to see it would be forgiven for storming Hollywood, kicking all of the moguls out of their mansions, and turning the Beverly Center into a new Bastille.

Nicolas Cage plays a fabulously rich single guy with a Ferrari, a blond, a Manhattan penthouse co-op and (sniff, please pass the tissues) no wife and kids. Don Cheadle steps in to play guardian angel Clarence to Cage's George Bailey by giving him a glimpse of what life would have been like if Cage had stuck with his college sweetheart 13 years earlier, instead of jetting off to London to take a job. Cage wakes up on Christmas morning to find himself in a New Jersey house with a wife, a little girl, a baby, and a job as a tire salesman.

The unconvincing admiration that this story purports to have for the Joe and Joelene Six-Packs of the world is severely undercut by the obvious contempt in which the filmmakers hold those very same have-nots. On the one hand, Cage's family and neighbors are supposed to exemplify the simple joys of middle-class family life. On the other hand, the filmmakers go out of their way to make everyone who is not rich look vulgar, tasteless, strange and stupid. Oh, boy, more jokes about jerks in Jersey. How original!

I know I say this a lot about movies I dislike, but I did not believe a second of this story. I didn't believe that Cage and his alternate-life wife (played by the stunning Tea Leoni, about whom more later) would turn into contented, ambition-free, blue-collar bumpkins just because they got married and "settled down." I didn't believe that Cage's character would be a guy who would take up bowling, or settle for working in a tire store, or that Tea Leoni would make next to no money as a pro-bono lawyer even though they had two kids to feed. I didn't believe that Leoni would object to Cage suggesting that they move to NYC when he gets an offer for a great job there that actually has a future. (When she goes into a sappy spiel about how she had hoped they would live out the rest of their lives in their New Jersey house, it is easy to imagine the oily, 20-something rewrite guys down at the studio elbowing each other and guffawing, "Man, the rubes will really go for this schmaltz!")

But the dishonesty of this movie goes much deeper than that. Imagine how much different, creepier and better this movie would have been if Cage's alternate-life wife, instead of being played by foxy, frisky, Playmate-pretty Tea Leoni, had been portrayed by someone who looked more like the "drab, sloppy mommies" that sex-deprived husbands are always writing in to Ann Landers to complain about. You want ridiculous? Huge-busted, blue-eyed Leoni is more beautiful by far than the hot, slinky mistress that Cage had in his top-of-the-world, rich-guy life! And she is miles better looking than a cheap-looking neighbor who tries to strike up an affair with Cage. (That subplot is left dangling with no resolution, making viewers wonder if a later scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.)

Now, I'm not saying that every woman in the world falls apart after dropping a couple of kids. But could we at least see some stretch marks, maybe a droopy ass, some crow's feet, anything to indicate that she has a few miles on her? If you're stacking up a moneyless mother of two against the kind of tail that a Manhattan millionaire can score, and if your point is supposed to be that "true wuv" is what really matters, then...oh, never mind.

Also, I hated the way this movie jumped from scene to scene over the course of several WEEKS in Cage's "alternate life" without Tea Leoni catching on that he was not the guy she married. (Even Cage's preschool-age daughter knew something was up, but God forbid that his law-school-educated wife should detect anything amiss.)

Here is what I would rather have seen in "Family Man": Lots of dead-of-night shots of Cage nursing a bottle of whiskey, weeping and praying and shouting for God to give him back his former high-flying lifestyle, yelling like a madman and breaking things when the kids get out of hand (which they never do, unless you count a "gosh, how funny" diaper-changing scene that expects everyone to laugh uproariously at a baby boy's fountain of whizz). Maybe he would get violent with Leoni after another grinding day down at the tire store. He throws a few punches, then goes out looking for a ten-dollar whore behind the bowling alley. That's where the cops find him. Later, as Cage is being gang raped in a jail cell, his guardian angel reappears, takes a look at the situation, and says, "Jesus, buddy, you really did have a wonderful life!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: D- (saved from an "F" by the "D"-cup "D"-lights of "D"-licious Tea Leoni)

The Family Stone
(Reviewed October 6, 2005, by James Dawson)

My God, where do I begin?

This would-be "dramedy" is so unfunny and sickeningly cloying that it actually made me angry. Only a few minutes into this horrible hybrid of "Monster-in-Law" and "Surviving Christmas," I was seething with rage at the idea that two more hours of my life were being snatched from me for no good purpose. Not that I would have been doing anything productive with them, but still.

Humorless, no-nonsense career woman Sarah Jessica Parker, looking more pinch-faced and witchy than ever, is being brought home to meet dull but impeccably dressed Dermot Mulroney's large family for the holidays. This is no "Meet the Fockers" romp, however, because fun is in alarmingly short supply.

Apparently trying to cover every conceivable Air America target demographic, but playing things far too respectfully, writer/director Thomas Bezucha gives Mulroney a deaf, gay brother who wants to adopt a baby with his black boyfriend; a hugely knocked-up sister with marital problems; another sister who drives a beat-up Volvo and carries an NPR book bag; a pothead slacker brother (Luke Wilson); a feisty, smirking mother (Diane Keaton); and the kind of passive, pussywhipped father who only raises his voice when he thinks his gay son has been insulted.

The main problem with the screenplay it that it doesn't have the courage or creativity to offer any humor at the expense of Mulroney's blue-state-approved, preposterously "diverse" family members. Maybe I'm insensitive, but when the gay son and his boyfriend appear, and the son starts talking in that weird Helen Keller voice, and when everybody in the entire Stone household begins using sign language to accompany every line of dialog, I kept thinking how great it would be if the script had been brave enough to throw a few politically incorrect zingers the guy's way. Similarly, when the movie makes a shamelessly tacky attempt to tug heartstrings by revealing that mother Stone's breast cancer has spread, the only laughs to be found are the audience's eye-rolling "you've got to be kidding" type. What next, a diabetic puppy tied to the railroad tracks?

Instead, all of the script's jokes are at the expense of Parker the outsider, who is forced by the screenplay to become more of a blithering idiot with every scene. For example, this the second movie this year ("Green Street Hooligans" being the other) in which we are expected to believe that an otherwise intelligent woman can become so flustered that she apparently forgets how to drive. And, yes, there is the now obligatory "watch the icy bitch unclench and cut loose after she gets a few drinks in her" scene.

Before a drunken Parker lets her hair down and starts dancing at a bar, though, she's sufficiently bummed out by the way she's being treated that she invites her arts-grant-approving sister (Claire Danes) to join her at the Stone family home for the holidays. Oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I know that if I were at the home of my future in-laws, and things were going badly, I would invite a sibling with whom I have absolutely nothing in common to join me.

Danes is the most likeable member of the cast, but the script forces her to be unrealistically clueless. She doesn't realize that Mulroney is developing the hots for her until long after he has done everything but unzip his pants and say, "Would you like to meet my little friend?"

Absolutely one of the worst movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus-minus-minus to infinity

(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Fantastic Four
(Reviewed July 8, 2005, by James Dawson)

This adaptation of the most long-running Marvel comic book series is shockingly cheesy, carelessly written and without much story, although it does make an effort to be good-natured. Still, Jessica Alba looks so delicious in her tight costume that it's almost enough to make up for the movie's flaws.

(It's a real shame the now-blond Alba can't act, because she bears enough of a facial resemblance to Scarlett Johansson that she could play S-Jo's kid sister. Preferably in some shockingly explicit portrayal of lesbian incest on a tropical island. But I digress.)

I haven't read the FF comic in decades, so God only knows what sort of retroactive-continuity nonsense may have occurred during that time. From the silver-age series I remember, though, it looks as if this movie is a classic case of a bunch of Hollywood hacks getting together to gang-rape the source material and call the brain-dead bastard that emerges an act of inspired creation.

Admittedly, the super-team's comic-book origin wasn't what anyone would mistake for searing realism. Four characters hijack a rocket, get bombarded with cosmic rays, land in a remote locale, immediately discover their powers and pledge to use them for good. Simple.

The screenwriters totally bugger the naive simplicity of that concept by making Victor von Doom (who does not even appear in the FF's comic book origin story) into some sort of evil corporate titan who bankrolls Our Heroes' trip to his personal orbiting space station. He also is along for the ride, getting super-powers of his own along with everyone else when a cosmic storm shows up earlier than expected.

The movie incarnation of Sue Storm is his ultra-foxy assistant and would-be wife, creating a romantic triangle with Reed Richards that did not exist in the comic. Instead of manifesting their powers immediately upon landing, the team discover them later, while recuperating from their ordeal in Doom's private hospital. Dr. Doom, whose powers in the comic were limited to the mechanical abilities of his armored suit, is some kind of master of electricity in the film. Ben Grimm is given a fiancee who, in a howlingly unbelievable scene, dumps him by taking off her engagement ring and putting it on the ground in front of him at the same instant the four are receiving acclaim for their first public display of heroics. Ben then is befriended by blind Alicia Masters from the comic book, who gets a race-change from white to black for the movie.

The script introduces a character that Johnny Storm -- aka the Human Torch -- takes on a ski trip and declares is the girl he's going to marry ("Entertainment Tonight"'s Maria Menounos), but then she disappears from the rest of the movie. Reed Richards (the super-stretchy "Mr. Fantastic") damages himself quite dramatically when he tries using a machine to reverse the effects of the cosmic rays, but he appears perfectly fine the next time we see him onscreen. Sue "Invisible Girl/Woman" Storm is told to strip off all of her clothes in order to get to the front of a crowd, as if not being seen would make such a thing easier, even though she still has to push her way through the throng the same way the other characters do.

Also, the monstrous Thing that Ben Grimm becomes looks too much like a guy in a soft rubber suit, as opposed to a guy made out of orange rocks. (A friend once speculated that when the Thing masturbates, the sound must be like two bricks rubbing together. Which I must confess I found endlessly amusing.)

Also, with the exception of an offhand reference to Johnny and Sue's unseen "mom," this is one of those dumb movies in which characters don't seem to have any relatives. Wouldn't a mom, a dad, a sister, a brother, or maybe even a funny uncle try getting in contact with four people who are laid up in a recovery room after a trip to space, or after they go home?

FF co-creator Stan Lee makes a brief cameo appearance as mailman Willy Lumpkin at the FF's Baxter Building headquarters. And the amazingly beautiful Lauren Sanchez, co-anchor of UPN 13 news in Los Angeles, appears briefly as a reporter. (Somebody should sign that raven-haired amazon goddess to play Wonder Woman.)

The never-released Roger Corman "Fantastic Four" film from the early 1990s was made purely as a placeholder, ennabling a producer to hold onto the rights to the characters even without putting the movie into theaters. Considering how slapped-together and schlocky this new version feels, maybe it should have met the same fate.

Except then we wouldn't get the chance to see Jessica Alba in that cleavage-baring, body-hugging costume. Fantastic, indeed!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Fantastic Mr. Fox
(Reviewed November 10, 2009, by James Dawson)

Fantastic it is!

Director/co-screenwriter Wes Anderson uses old school stop-motion animation to bring Roald Dahl's 1970 children's novel to life, giving it a lovingly hand-crafted and charmingly low-tech look.

The characters essentially are bendable dolls photographed one pose at a time, repositioned slightly between each frame of film to simulate motion. Yet the fact that they move with an intentional, amusingly awkward stiffness here somehow makes them seem more convincingly "real" than characters in films featuring flawless state-of-the-art CGI or soulless motion-capture technology. Go figure.

While the look is totally throwback retro, the movie's attitude comes from a thoroughly postmodern milieu. Debonair and dissembling Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has a quick wit that is hilariously deadpan dry. He's the sort of impeccably proper fellow whose method of swearing involves using nothing stronger than the word "cuss" itself, as in "what the cuss?" or "this is a real cluster-cuss."

He and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) find themselves caught in a jail-cell style trap at the beginning of the movie while attempting to steal squabs. "If we're still alive tomorrow morning," she informs him, "I want you to find another line of work." Mr. Fox duly becomes a newspaper columnist for several off-screen years, but eventually can't resist the call of the wild to stage another hen-related heist.

Jason Schwartzman voices Mr. Fox's bitter, sulky but endearing son Ash, who resents the praise lavished on his better-at-everything cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson). Bill Murray is Mr. Fox's level-headed lawyer, who happens to be a badger. Owen Wilson has a small role coaching an elaborately silly game called whack-bat, which involves a flaming pine cone and a lot of elaborate running around. Michael Gambon is deliciously menacing as Franklin Bean, one of three big-time farmers whose operations Mr. Fox targets.

In an odd cameo that manages to be fittingly appropriate in such a strange little world, Jarvis Cocker of the British band Pulp voices a guitar-playing Bean henchman named Petey. When he improvises a goofy folk song about Mr. Fox, his disapproving boss chides him by sonorously intoning, "That's just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey."

Describing Dahl's prose version, Wes Anderson has said that "not enough happens to make a feature-length movie, so we knew we had to invent a lot." The additions included freshly created characters and entirely new scenes.

I haven't read the book (when I was a kid, the only children's stories available were crude pictograms scratched into cave walls), but everything here feels of a piece. I have a feeling that the whimsically detached tone of the movie is more Anderson than Dahl, which may bother some purists. (I doubt that the line "he's just a dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant" is from the original, for example, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.) Still, anyone who appreciates the cool brand of offbeat irony Anderson has perfected from "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore" through "The Darjeeling Limited" will be amazed at how effectively that approach works when animal puppets are doing the talking.

The movie's use of music also is reminiscent of Anderson's live-action films, giving an eclectically quirky flavor to the proceedings. When we first see Mr. Fox, he's listening to "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" -- of all things -- on a "Walk-Sonic" transistor radio clipped to his corduroy pants. The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" works strangely well as accompaniment to Mr. Fox's exploits, and Art Tatum's piano version of "Night and Day" turns up played by a mole. The only thing on the soundtrack that should have been sent back for regrooving (so to speak) is a limerick-style ditty about Boggis, Bunce and Bean, the three vengeance-seeking farmers. The song's instantly recognizable melody is uncomfortably similar to the "yo ho, yo ho" theme of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Oops.

It's a real joy to see a comedy of any sort these days that manages to be both satisfyingly witty and laugh-out-loud funny, with humor that doesn't feel grindingly formulaic or predictable. Anderson and cowriter Noah Baumbach's screenplay is a genuine treasure, managing to be absurd, exciting and even unsickeningly touching. It's just plain delightful from start to finish. Even some of the characters' rigidly silent reaction shots are hilarious, such as when the unblinking animals have swirls, asterisks or "x"s instead of pupils.

This not only is one of the best children's movies of the year, it is one of the best movies, period.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Far From Heaven
(Reviewed August 26, 2002, by James Dawson)

Director/writer Todd Haynes set out to faithfully mimic all of the very worst traits of a mediocre Eisenhower-era melodrama in this 1950s period piece: obliviously wooden acting, ineptly earnest dialogue, a cornball "socially relevant" plot, a garish Technicolor palette, and even a sickeningly swelling string-heavy score. It's as if he set out to prove that it is indeed possible to make a bad movie that looks and sounds just like a bad movie that could have been made 50 years ago, without adding any kind of contemporary reflection, irony or humor to give the project a reason for existing.

As a technical exercise, I suppose that means he succeeded...because this movie is convincingly dated, woefully irrelevant and wholly pointless. It arrives obsolete on arrival.

As much as I disliked "Pleasantville," at least that movie tried to twist the way that bygone era was portrayed by the media of the day. All that "Far From Heaven" does is reproduce the very cliches and conventions that were weaknesses then and are nothing better or more ennobling than "camp" now.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid are an upper-middle-class suburban couple with two "Father Knows Best" kids and marital problems. Spilling the specifics would spoil the soap-opera plot, which probably already has been ruined for you elsewhere. Haynes' main directing talent consists of aping the "POV through branches with leaves" shots of the day, and the cinematography is almost intoxicatingly lush.

The worst thing about seeing a movie like this in a theater is that you are guaranteed to be subjected to the fake, forced guffaws of "watch-me-laugh" would-be hipsters in the audience. Think of annoying doofuses like Richard Roeper (or, as I like to think of him, "Roger Ebert's Dan Quayle"): the kind of insecure fools who think they must loudly acknowledge every painfully obvious reference to the past to prove they "get it." The fact that there is nothing in any way subtle to "get" in this movie won't stop them from horse-laughing at the color-schemes, giggling over the costumes, and chortling every time someone says the word "negro."

In the hands of a John Waters, this movie could have been a real kick, with all of its sappiness and garishness amped up to the point where it became funny instead of relentlessly boring.

If Todd Haynes wants to continues in this vein, maybe next time he will do a beach party movie on an indoor soundstage, or make a monster movie with a guy in a rubber suit, or simply sit at home executing Elvis-on-velvet paintings. Let's hope he chooses the third option.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed February 11, 2005, by
James Dawson)

Cheesy made-for-basic-cable quality "mystery," complete with the requisite laughably gratuitous softcore sex scene and a remarkably silly ending. I'm amazed that this cheap, utterly generic effort got a theatrical release instead of going straight to video.

Jacqueline Bisset is a widow who hooks up with a guy who seems a tad shady. Meanwhile, the guy's daughter is banging Bisset's character's son. Trouble ensues.

There are some nice tropical locations, but everything else here is instantly forgettable.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Fast & Furious
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Fast and the Furious
(Reviewed June 9, 2001, by James Dawson)

Everything about this movie except the car stuff--the unconvincing romance, the incredibly lame "cop undercover" plot, the laughably melodramatic backstory for lead tough guy Vin Diesel--is incredibly weak. But who cares? If you buy a ticket to this flick, it's for the car stuff, and on that score it doesn't disappoint.

It's kind of a surprise that there are not more actual racing scenes, since you will go into the theater thinking that illegal street competitions are the movie's reason for existing. But the "Road-Warrioresque" highway scene near the end more than makes up for the change-of-focus. And when Vin Diesel finallly takes his super-badass Charger out for a spin...let's just say the scene ended with wild applause at the screening I attended.

One note: STAY UNTIL THE END OF THE CREDITS, because a nice little kicker to the story appears at the very, very end of all those endless names. Everyone who walks out early will be missing out on the movie's real ending!

Another note: Sorry, guys, but the dark-'n'-wholesomely-sultry Jordana Brewster does not follow up her topless scene in "The Invisible Circus" with another one in this movie. All we get is a quick bare-back shot when she changes a shirt. Life is cruel.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+ for the car stuff, D- for everything else.

Fast Food Nation
(Reviewed October 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

It always happens. Whenever I see two screenings in one day, the movie that I'm expecting to like turns out to be a dud, and the one that I thought had a good chance of sucking turns out to be a winner.

In this case, I thought that the Dixie Chicks documentary "Shut Up and Sing" would be boring, obvious and pointless. It turned out to be none of those things -- but "Fast Food Nation" was all three.

It doesn't help that this was the second movie I saw in two days that harped on the "nobly suffering illegal immigrants" theme ("Babel" being the other). As a southern California resident, I have a very hard time sympathizing with the unchecked hordes whose demands on social services are bankrupting my state, raising my taxes and causing overrun emergency rooms to shut down. But I digress.

In "Fast Food Nation," an immigrant smuggler brings a bunch of 'em across the border from Mexico, they go to work for a meatpacking company that has shoddy health and safety standards, and bad things happen. Meanwhile, corporation man Greg Kinnear is sent from the Mickey's (how subtle!) home office to find out why his fast-food company's burgers are literally shitty. Also, an Anglo cashier at Mickey's is having her consciousness raised at school about what a vile business the meatpacking industry is, and decides to take action.

As someone who hasn't eaten red meat in more than 20 years, I guess I should embrace even a dismally dull and ploddingly preachy movie like this one if it helps spread the word that meat not only is murder but also is bad business, bad for the environment, and bad for human health.

So what the hell, I'll give it a gentleman's "D."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Fearless (Jet Li's Fearless)
(Reviewed August 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

I'm sorry, but I just don't dig badly acted, cornball martial arts movies that take themselves this seriously. No matter how much you try to dress this stuff up with nonsense about tradition and honor and history, it's all Smackdown to me.

Like "Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Dragon," "Fearless" has gorgeous cinematography, lush locations and impressively expensive-looking sets. Also like that movie, it has several chop-socky set pieces that manage to be both frenetic and yet boring, like the fast-paced but senses-dulling tedium of a videogame played by a stranger. Despite all of the planning and choreography that undoubtedly went into staging each of these violently destructive beat-downs, I couldn't help wishing that each of them would end with a bystander quickly conking one of the combatants on the head with a wok.

Li stars as real-life martial-arts master Huo Yuanjia, who founded China's Jingwu Sports Federation in 1909. Unfortunately, much of the movie is fictional melodramatic hogwash. For example, one of the major fight scenes in "Fearless" is between Huo and a British fighter named O'Brien, who is roughly the size of the Incredible Hulk. In reality, O'Brien left Shanghai before Huo could fight him.

There's also the matter of a long section of the movie that is unpleasantly reminiscent of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai." Ashamed of himself for mistakenly committing a dishonorable act, Huo wanders off into the wilderness...where he is adopted by peaceful villagers, cared for by a beautiful blind girl, and basically gets his shitake together.

If only life were that simple. The next time I'm feeling dismal and dejected, maybe I'll just stumble off in the direction of Ojai, let the members of a really together commune take me under their wing, and gratefully share a yurt with an adoring and sweetly undemanding hippie chick for a few years.

("Just kidding, honey. Put down that wok!")

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Fear X
(Reviewed December 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

Writer Hubert Selby, Jr. cowrote the minimalist, nearly dialog-free screenplay for this lightweight-Lynchian suspense piece. Mall security guard John Turturro obsessively but quietly (no car chases or foot races) tries to find the person responsible for his wife's apparently random murder. His dead wife seems to be telling him something in his confused but possibly prophetic dreams.

The tone of "Fear X" is often "Twin Peaks" deadpan strange, but without Lynch's ironic black humor. Or any humor whatsoever, for that matter. Turturro barely changes his blankly stunned expression during the entire movie, which plays things straight even when they begin getting weird.

The plot proceeds in a languid, creepy and finally Kafka-esque fashion. A nearly silent scene inside Turturro's neighbor's house is deliciously unnerving in its tension. The ambience of low-key menace is enhanced throughout by the Brian Eno/Peter Schwalm score and the movie's excellent overall sound design, which is very reminiscent of Lynch's atmospherics.

The ending is disappointing, and not solely because of its ambiguity. This is yet another movie that does not know when to quit. If the closing credits had rolled five minutes earlier, things would have been much more satisfying.

Still, "Fear X" is definitely worth a look, if only because it is Selby's swan song. The writer, whose masterworks include "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Requiem for a Dream," died in 2004.

An aside: "Fear X" inexplicably is saddled with the year's goofiest and most inappropriate title. Or maybe it's 2002's goofiest and most inappropriate title, considering the movie's copyright date. (Apparently this flick has been on the shelf for awhile.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Femme Fatale
(Reviewed August 19, 2002, by James Dawson)

A monumentally bad Brian DePalma movie (oops, that's redundant) with an ending that is so staggeringly stupid I am tempted to blow it in this review, but I'll try to resist the urge. And you won't even get to hear the great Lou Reed song anywhere in the whole mess. Bastard!

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is laughably bad as a leggy badass on the run from fellow conspirators in a Paris jewel robbery. The only watchable part of the entire movie is the long, mostly no-dialog heist scene near the beginning of the movie, which also features lots of soft-core and patently ridiculous lesbo make-out action in a ladies restroom. Score composer Ryuichi Sakamoto ("The Last Emperor," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence") contributes a terrific takeoff on "Bolero" that accompanies this "Mission: Impossible"-style set piece.

Later, Antonio Banderas surfaces as the world's most unlikely (and unbelievable) freelance photographer-cum-stalker, allowing the Hitchcock-corpse-defiling DePalma to clumsily rip off both "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" in the same film.

If the makers of the not-so-hot-itself "La Femme Nikita" had back-room lobotomies, they still could come up with a better movie than "Femme Fatale." If you are desperate for nipple shots and sapphic smooching, go rent a "Where the Boys Aren't" porn tape instead of shelling out for a ticket to this bomb. That way, at least you won't have to suffer through any "acting" scenes.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed September 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"50/50" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Fighter
(Reviewed December 3, 2010, by James Dawson)

Director David O. Russell waits six years to follow up his brilliant and brainy I (Heart) Huckabees -- my favorite film of 2004 -- with a friggin' boxing movie? Yeah, sure, it's an okay boxing movie as far as they go, but come on. We're not exactly talking heavy intellectual stimulation here.

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale are brothers and boxers, one an up-and-comer who never seems to get his shot and the other a bigmouth has-been. Wahlberg is kinda wooden, but Bale is convincingly crack-addict crazy. Bale also has starved himself to the point of malnutrition for a role again, which is getting to be a habit with the guy (see "The Machinist" and Rescue Dawn for other examples). Amy Adams is great as Wahlberg's no-nonsense bartender girlfriend, who takes no shit from his bitchy white-trash sisters.

This isn't a bad movie, but what's disappointing is that it isn't at all transgressive or even especially interesting. Where Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler was able to make a story about another low-class fighter transcendant and heartrending, and where Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" was operatically tragic, "The Fighter" isn't much of a contender.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Fever Pitch
(Reviewed March 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

I have zero interest in baseball. Drew Barrymore's baby-talking ditz act leaves me cold. Jimmy Fallon has no discernible acting ability whatsoever. Finally, I'm bored senseless by dumb romantic comedies featuring protagonists who act like socially maladjusted seven-year-olds badly pretending to be adults.

In other words, I'm obviously not part of "Fever Pitch"s target audience. But I'll lob an opinion over the plate anyhow.

Here's the deal: Some so-called critics will call this a pleasant little date movie. It's harmless, reassuringly predictable, and not likely to make anyone swear oaths at the screen.

Quote-whores therefore will condescend to reinforce the indiscriminate taste of the dull-witted masses by saying unclever things like, "Take someone out to this ball game!"

But would those reviewers recommend this movie to personal friends, or to anyone they actually respect? No way. In my case, I know a guy from New England who is single, teaches high school and loves baseball. Jimmy Fallon plays an obsessed Boston Red Sox fan who is a single high school teacher in "Fever Pitch."

So what did I tell my esteemed acquaintance? "This movie is about a guy like you, but it blows."

There is exactly one good scene in the movie, when Barrymore explains why Fallon should take no pride in the fact that he still likes something he has enjoyed since age seven (namely, baseball). Other than that, this is completely uninteresting stuff.

Granted, it's a step up for the Farrelly brothers from the last thing they directed ("Stuck on You"), but that's not saying much. What's really disheartening is that this pap was written by "Splash" scribes Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, most recently associated with this year's "Robots." It gets worse. Their script was adapted from a novel by Nick "About a Boy" Fornby that apparently was turned into a pretty good British movie in 1997 about football (soccer, that is). Sad.

Very early on, I found myself hoping that "Fever Pitch" would shake up the boy-gets-loses-gets-girl formula by showing Fallon gleefully beating Barrymore to death with an autographed baseball bat while eating a bowl of baked beans, then throwing her lifeless body over the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

No such luck.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Fierce People
(Reviewed August 6, 2007, by James Dawson)

In this smart and offbeat coming-of-age tale, Diane Lane decides that the best way to kick her drug habit and clean up her act is by moving with her teenage son (Anton Yelchin) to the New Jersey country estate of the seventh richest man in America (Donald Sutherland). It seems that Lane and Sutherland have a history from a few years back -- a medical history, that is, and maybe more -- which qualifies her to work as his personal masseur.

The main focus of the story is on Yelchin, the "poor boy at the party" among the privileged. He was supposed to spend the summer with his seldom-seen father, an anthropologist studying a primitive rain-forest tribe called the "fierce people." Yelchin soon comes to realize that the rich constitute a tribe not that different from the one he has seen in his dad's documentaries.

Directed by Griffin Dunne and scripted by Dirk Wittenborn, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, "Fierce People" manages to be more than the typical "quirky melodrama full of eccentric characters." It's a kind of heightened-reality, slightly off-kilter soap opera that you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying.

Amazingly, this movie has been finished and on the shelf since 2005, without an American release date until this year. It's a shame that a quality film like this has to languish in obscurity, while the multiplexes are full of junk like "Transformers" and "Knocked Up."


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Filth and Wisdom
(Reviewed October 12, 2008, by James Dawson)

Look, I'll try to be fair about his. If you liked the aggravating, supremely annoying, supposed-to-be-colorfully-charming Ukrainian cab driver in "Everything Is Illuminated" (Eugene Hutz), who frankly made me want to tear my own head off, you may be able to tolerate this awful, awful movie.

Hutz is the narrator and main character here, lead singer of his real-life "gypsy punk" group Gogol Bordello by night and sex-fantasy facilitator by day. He dresses like a woman, a school teacher and a horseman for men who come to his flat to get off through role-playing, although the film includes no nudity (male or female) whatsoever.

Hutz's roommates are a pair of vacantly beautiful blonds, one a pharmacy clerk (Vicky McClure) who dreams of being an aid worker in Africa, the other a ballerina student (Holly Weston) who ends up stripping for a living.

This would-be comedy is directed in boringly restrained fashion by Madonna, as if she purposely resisted including any of hubbie Guy Ritchie's trademark flash and style. Most of it is seedy, silly and stupid without being at all interesting.

Two low points:

(1) The groaningly unfunny punchline of a subplot about one of Hutz's "clients" who is into schoolboy domination plays like a bad segment of the '70s TV show "Love, American Style."

(2) Weston, still dressed in the schoolgirl uniform she wore to help Hutz stage that fantasy, then shows up at the strip club where she works. A spotlight hits her, the DJ starts playing Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby, One More Time," Weston gyrates to the stage...and the scene shifts elsewhere, never to return to that stimulating scene. Ouch.

In other words, "Filth and Wisdom" doesn't include nearly enough filth, and the director displays no wisdom whatsoever.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
(Reviewed June 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

Absolutely amazing computer animation makes up for some incomprehensible plot elements and slow pacing in this surprisingly dark and adult SF tale. Earth has been overrun with genuinely creepy aliens known as "Phantoms," which the military and a team of research scientists are trying to vanquish using diametrically opposed methods. The military wants to keep blasting and bombing, which has not worked so far. The research team is on a loopy new-age quest to tap into the spirit of the Earth itself for protection by going on a bio scavenger hunt. It doesn't make much sense, but there's so much terrific stuff to see that you won't care.

For example, the head researcher's field agent is a stunningly beautiful brunette-Bridget-Fonda lookalike named Aki. You won't be able to take your eyes off of her. Although the animation techniques that bring her and the movie's other "human" characters to life are not yet perfect, it's still fascinating to see how good the technology really is. Aki's hair is composed of individual strands. The cloth of her form-fitting jumpsuit has realistic texture. She has a fantastic body, but it's a fantastic body of believably realistic proportions. (For example, she has soft-looking B-cup breasts, instead of Lara Croft's bizarre, medicine-ball-sized Double-D's. And Lara wasn't even animated!).

The action scenes of ethereal aliens attacking and killing are the stuff of nightmares. (This definitely is NOT a movie for small kids, unless you want them to wet the bed for weeks to come.) There may be a lot of silly story elements, but the movie's tone is dead serious throughout; none of the (many) deaths are played for laughs, and some of them are almost moving.

All in all, a really admirable effort because, even with the dull patches, it's one heck of a lot better than I expected it would be--and lots better than it had to be. And compared to something like last year's perfectly dreadful "Titan A.E.," which was "Final Fantasy"'s most recent predecessor in the animated-SF category, it's a friggin' masterpiece.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Final Cut
(Reviewed October 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Robin Williams makes another "One-Hour Photo"-type foray into tightlipped, nearly catatonic creepy-guy mode (as opposed to would-be "funny" characters who end up giving audiences unintended creeps). As with that previous portrayal, Williams doesn't quite pull it off, mainly because he always seems noticeably deliberate about keeping his "nanoo, nanoo" tendencies in check. He seems more hypnotized than agonized; more self-restrained than subdued. He's not "stunt casting" bad, it's just that a more reflective actor who would not be playing against type would have been a better choice for his role.

In a society where people's memory implants can be removed after death to serve as source material for memorials of their lives, Williams is a "cutter" who assembles the raw material into no-bad-parts "rememory" movies. (Whenever I heard that term, I kept thinking of the so-awful-it's-good comic "The Family Circus," where the sickeningly cutesy kids sometimes share what they call their "rememberies." But I digress...) Williams' character (not very subtly named "Hakman") has a particularly bad memory in his own past.

As for his present, his latest assignment is to make a memory-movie glorifying the life of a deceased executive of the memory implant corporation. A disillusioned colleague of Williams (Jim Caviezel) who is part of a protest movement that opposes the use of memory implants wants to get his hands on the guy's uncensored memories, for some not clearly explained reason that presumably involves embarrassing the executive and the corporation.

Unfortunately, this is one of the movie's plot points that is not very well thought out. There is no big, evil secret to what the corporation is doing; it seems to be common knowledge that the implants record every second of an implantee's life. And there is no way the protestors would know about the executive's secret daughter-diddling proclivities. So it seems that the real focus of their anger should be at cutters such as Williams, who clean up the nasty bits of people's lives and get to view encounters that some might want kept private. Or maybe at the people who have the implants, because those people know they are recording even the most intimate moments with strangers who may not want to be viewed later in compromising positions. But getting angry at the implant corporation makes about as much sense as Paris Hilton suing whatever company manufactured the video camera her ex used during their bedroom romp.

Among the other plot lapses: Would Williams, who is supposed to be one of the top men in the cutting game, really not make a backup or a "work" copy of something as important as the dead exec's memory file? If protestors can block an implant's recording ability with special tattoos, is it credible that a presumably tech-savvy executive of the implant company would not bother to take any such precaution before doing something as incriminating as committing incest with his pre-teen daughter? And is it likely that any spouse who is not a porn star would freely grant a stranger the right to view every single second of her deceased beloved's memories, knowing that would mean the cutter sees every bump and grind of the dearly departed's sex life?

Maybe the only way this gimmick could work would be in a plot where the government forced everyone to get the implants and monitored them for criminal or anti-government activity. Or maybe not. The point is that "The Final Cut" is a pretty unsatisfying story based around a kind of interesting central idea.

The movie costars a wildly miscast Mira Sorvino as Williams' sometime girlfriend. Gee, how come real-world sexy blonds don't go for antisocial sad-sack creeps who are old enough to be their dads? Life is so unfair.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Final Destination 5
(Reviewed August 12, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Final Destination 5" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Finding Forrester
(Reviewed November 13, 2000, by James Dawson)

Sean Connery is an eccentric, reclusive, wealthy and friendless witticism-spouting writer who discovers the simple pleasures of interacting with "real" people when he strikes up an extremely unlikely friendship with one of them. Gosh, didn't Jack Nicholson already play this guy in "As Good As It Gets?" This time around, Helen Hunt is replaced by a young, gifted and black teenage boy, there is no cute little dog, and the road trip to Baltimore becomes a night out at Madison Square Garden. But while "As Good As It Gets" was mostly entertaining and fresh, "Finding Forrester" is overly earnest, preachy and dull.

I did not believe in either Connery's character or the young writer he mentors for a single second of this movie. Here we have a J.D. Salinger type whose genius apparently does not extend to knowing that wearing sunglasses at night indoors will draw attention, not deflect it. And who apparently can be led into Yankee Stadium--which he professes to have visited nearly every summer day of his youth--without having any idea where he is.

Meanwhile, his protege is the type of all-wise teen who knows the answer to absolutely every question he is asked at the prep school into which he is thrust on a basketball scholarship. Please. Director Gus Van Sant even jabs a knowing elbow in the audience's side by slipping Matt Damon (the blue-collar know-it-all student from Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting") into the movie in a last-minute cameo.

The plot is achingly predictable. (As soon as Connery tells his charge that nothing the two of them write is ever to leave Connery's apartment...well, take a guess.) Supporting actor F. Murray Abraham essentially reprises his role as the nasty, genius-crushing Salieri from "Amadeus," except devoid of any humility or humanity this time around. Anna Paquin wanders around looking completely uninvolved in her role as the headmaster's daughter.

Basically, though, I simply did not believe that Connery's character would make a 180-degree personality flip virtually overnight from decades-long hermit to chat-happy tutor. Actually, I never believed in him as a recluse in the first place. Nicholson played a shuttered misanthrope a whole lot better than twinkly, booming, forceful Connery does here. In other words, Connery never seems to find his inner Forrester.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Finding Joe
(Reviewed September 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Finding Nemo
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Easily the worst of the Pixar/Disney movies, but still a beautiful thing to behold for the most part, with absolutely amazing computer animation.

Albert Brooks is a one-note whining fish in search of his lost son. Ellen DeGeneres is his off-the-scale annoying memory-challenged companion. The whole thing is very much geared to the "younger set," and by that I mean the under-10 set, with very little of the cleverness found in the "Toy Story" movies that appealed to older viewers. (Sadly, one holdover element from those movies is the "sadistic little monster human kid" archetype. This time, that character is manifested in the vicious, pet-killing daughter of the dentist in whose aquarium Nemo finds himself. She's not as repulsive as the toy-torturing neighbor boy from "Toy Story," but do audiences really need to be exposed to a kid who is known for shaking fish to death in plastic bags? Maybe some of Pixar's creative types could use a little therapy...)

Also, as always, the human characters look incredibly cheesy and fake in these movies. I can't figure out why the animators lavish so much attention on making everything but the humans look convincingly realistic in Pixar productions.

Oddly enough, the best thing about "Finding Nemo" is the short feature called "Knick Knack" that runs before it. Made by Pixar many years ago, this no-dialog gem about a snow-globe snowman who wants to join the fun his fellow shelf trinkets are having is clever, concise and has a lot of heart.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C for "Finding Nemo," "A" for "Knick Knack"

Finding Neverland
(Reviewed October 13, 2004, by James Dawson)

A thorough disappointment.

Anyone who buys a ticket expecting this to be Miramax's classy end-of-year Oscar contender is in for a rude shock. Although it stars Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, and is directed by "Monster's Ball" director Marc Forster, "Finding Neverland" is shoddy, unconvincing, stupid and unbelievably saccharine.

Also, even those who are willing to allow movies some license to play fast and loose with facts should be appalled by "Finding Neverland"'s abuse of the privilege. It is one thing to shade the truth a bit for dramatic purposes. It is quite another thing to lie as wildly and idiotically as "Finding Neverland" does, misrepresenting real events in ways that serve to make "Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie's life seem like a moronic soap opera.

I kept thinking during the movie that certain sappy situations and ridiculous coincidences must have been based on the truth. The alternative -- that any writer could be dumb enough to think that he could get away with making up such cornball contrivances and passing them off as history -- seemed preposterous. Silly me. As it turns out, nearly everything in "Finding Neverland" that seems a tad too "Hallmark Channel" is fake, fake, fake.

A few examples: In the movie, Barrie serves as a father figure to a widow's sons, who inspire him to write his 1904 masterpiece. In reality, the boys' father was very much alive, and did not die until 1907. Barrie even was friends with the guy, going on holidays with the entire family and spending days at the man's bedside before his death. What is much more egregious is that , in "Finding Neverland," the "widow" can't make it to the premiere of "Peter Pan" because her bout with cancer has taken a mortal turn. In reality, this woman outlived her husband by three years, dying SIX YEARS after the play's premiere. And Barrie's wife, who leaves him for another man before the "Peter Pan" premiere in the movie? In reality, she did not divorce Barrie until five years afterward.

In other words: What a colossal load of incredible bullshit. Screenwriter David Magee and Allan Knee, who wrote the play upon which "Finding Neverland" is based, should be ashamed of themselves for foisting this misbegotten, insulting fraud on a viewing public that won't realize it is a pack of schmaltzy lies.

A factual account of Barrie's life that presents him and his contemporaries as actual human beings would be fascinating. This is definitely not that movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed January 30, 2006, by
James Dawson)

The first 90 percent of this wholly generic blackmail-suspense pic operates pretty smoothly on dumb autopilot, predictably navigating the usual home-invasion, family-in-peril, dad's-gotta-save-the-day conventions. One of those conventions, as seen in last year's Bruce Willis flick "Hostage," prevents even the most ruthless, gun-wielding thugs from having their wicked way with helpless teenage girls (plus, in this case, said daughter's MILF mom Virginia Madsen). If only real-world criminals were so gallantly chivalrous!

Paul Bettany is an icy badass who wants banking web-security guru Harrison Ford to shift $100 million into Bettany's offshore account. Meanwhile, Bettany's black-clad cohorts hold Ford's family prisoner in their spacious shoreside digs.

Rather preposterously, the hi-tech hoods install video cameras throughout Ford's house and tap all of the phones to keep tabs on mom, blond jailbait daughter, and wimpy peanut-allergic son. I can't imagine even the federal government throwing money away so needlessly. Instead of blowing several thousand bucks on all of those electronics, what the hell is wrong with simply throwing the hostages in a closet and blocking the damned door?

But since the bad guys went the closed-circuit-TV route, know what would have been great? Imagine seeing the creeps crowded around a monitor and drooling every time a hostage went to the bathroom. I mean, seriously, are we expected to believe they WOULDN'T? They're criminals, for Christ's sake!

The real ridiculousness, though, comes at the movie's end. I can't blow what happens, because I'm not one of those idiots at the Los Angeles Times who enjoys ruining last-act plot twists. But suffice it to say that the crooks do something that makes absolutely everyone in the audience wonder, "Why in the hell would they do something so dumb? Is this a comedy?"

Also, we are treated to an extended fight scene between Bettany and 60-something Ford that's mainly painful to watch because it looks like elder abuse, despite the fact that it's supposed to be a believable brawl. What next, Andy Rooney as a kick-ass action star?

Maybe boning Ally McBeal on a regular basis gives a guy super powers.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

First Daughter
(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

There is only one good thing about this otherwise abysmally awful movie: the purple, split-front ball gown that Katie Holmes wears during the final scene. The dress is not only lovely, it also affords the audience some nice peekaboo glimpses of Katie's cupcakes.

How can that scene be sexier than one in which cute Katie runs around in a teeny-weeny bikini? Simple. In that earlier pool-party scene, she all but oozes tired disgust over being so cynically exploited by the movie's producers. We can almost hear her thinking, "Here, look at my body, everyone. Something for the guys. Christ, where did my career go? What's my next move, soft-core porn?" Maybe I'm being too sensitive, but when Katie is whisked from the pool party against her will by secret-service agents, and then petulantly parades through her father's campaign office without bothering to put anything over her swimsuit, "First Daughter" felt more like an idiotic teen-sex comedy than an idiotic tween-empowerment flick.

Sure, I know Holmes whipped out her whoppers in "The Gift," but that was different. She was playing a slutty bitch in that one. Also, the R-rated "Gift" was not aimed at girls who still play with Barbies.

Another thing that really bugged me is that Katie and all of her college contemporaries looked too old for their roles. I didn't buy Katie as a college freshman, and I didn't buy the idea that her love interest was supposed to be believably college-age, either. Also, the "sheltered white who learns to loosen up and get real after meeting loudmouthed black" plot point is getting to be almost as old, tired and racist as "Birth of a Nation."

As for the rest of the movie, the plot looked pretty much identical to this year's earlier "Chasing Liberty." Then again, I never saw that one, so maybe there are enough differences that fifth-graders won't mind the redundancy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

First Descent
(Reviewed November 30, 2005, by James Dawson)

I parked at an after-hours (as in "no quarter necessary") meter on Hollywood Boulevard to attend a screening of this movie, because God knows I don't like paying two bucks for the underground lot at Hollywood & Highland. Unfortunately, the only open space I found was in front of a filthy sidewalk resident who looked like Taj Mahal's scary twin.

I waited to get out of my vehicle until a crowd of pedestrians was walking past this unkempt unfortunate. I was hoping the bedraggled bum would be too busy soliciting them for donations to accost me. Call me uncharitable, but I have a natural and deep-seated aversion to people who might ask me for money.

I'm almost to the intersection when I hear society's castoff shouting behind me, "Sir! Sir!" I walk faster. The crosswalk light is red. He catches up, damn it to Hell.

"Sir, I wanted to tell you that the back end of your car is in the red zone on the curb. They'll ticket you for that. I've seen 'em do it. I've seen it."

I know goddamned well the car is parked legally, but what can I do? If I ignore this pain-in-the-ass panhandler, my little red Corolla might have a fresh coating of scratches, grafitti, piss or worse by the time the movie's over. The David Bowie CD singles in my glove compartment, all three from Ziggy's "Black Tie White Noise" album, might be cruelly stolen. Or the whole damned car may have been spirited away by one of this altruistic Aqualung's associates.

I head back to the car, hoping the chattering alcoholic won't touch me. Sure enough, the car is squarely within the painted lines of its parking space. There's red paint on the curb behind it, not beside it.

Without a word, I get in the driver's seat and turn the ignition. If I pull forward an inch or two, purely for show, just to pretend that I'm going along with this fucker's advice, he is going to expect a tip for his "help." If that gratuity isn't what he considers big enough, he still might pull a sharpened screwdriver on me, call me something foul, or puke on my windshield after I'm gone.

So I do what any self-respecting property owner would do. I quickly pull into traffic, go around the block, and find a different parking space that's not within sight of any members of our nation's homeless community.

That's about the most exciting thing that's happened to me lately.

If you want to see an okay little documentary featuring people who do things that are even more thrilling and life-endangering, "First Descent" is about a bunch of folks taking helicopters to remote Alaskan mountain peaks, off of which they snowboard. These aren't your typical ski slopes, but jagged monstrosities that are guaranteed to make at least one member of the audience say, "JESUS CHRIST" at the prospect of anyone making it to the bottom alive.

Some of the footage is amazing, such as when an avalanche starts right under one snowboarder who manages to ride it out. There's also a lot about the history of snowboarding, from its ridiculed and disrespected origins to its 1998 status as an Olympic sport. If anything, there may be too much of this background information, with various talking heads redundantly noting the sport's importance as a "genre" (as one interviewee puts it).

The "first descenders" here are professional big-names to devotees of snowboarding, apparently. But seeing the bucks they make from endorsement deals and full-stadium exhibitions only reminded me of how much money some people manage to make from stuff that seems pretty obscure. Don't get me wrong, these guys (and one girl) obviously are great at what they do. What I don't get is how even a sport like this can attract major corporate sponsors.

If any major soft drink bottler, pharmaceutical manufacturer or cell phone company wants to back a guy who's great at writing snide, off-topic reviews and bitching about life in general, I'll be glad to wear your logo on a hat while I putter aimlessly around the house and eat Triscuits all day.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

5 Days of War
(Reviewed August 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"5 Days of War" review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Five-Year Engagement
(Reviewed April 26, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"The Five-Year Engagement" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Flags of Our Fathers
(Reviewed October 10, 2006, by James Dawson)

This dismal, badly structured, washed-out dirge has one thing going for it: With any luck, all of the war-loving, chickenhawk Republican assholes who buy tickets expecting a feel-good wallow in patriotic sentimentality will be so gasket-blowingly infuriated by its cynical tone that every one of them will experience a fatal brain aneurysm -- preferably before election day.

That's because the ironic thing about "Flags of Our Fathers" is that it is anything but a flag-waving salute to some nonsensical myth of "greatest generation" heroism. The Iwo Jima battle action, shot in a dreary desaturated-color style identical to similar scenes in "Saving Private Ryan," is gritty and brutally dehumanizing. But most of the movie is about how three of the flag-raisers were flown home and shamelessly pimped by the United States government in order to sell war bonds to a nation that was sick of fighting. The famous photo -- actually of a second flag raising -- is callously regarded by Those In Power as an effective propaganda tool for convincing Americans to open their wallets and stay the course. Then as now, average Americans apparently had to be lied to, suckered and robbed to finance war profiteers who never seemed to shed any blood or miss any meals.

(A few fun facts, courtesy of Wikipedia: "The Allied forces suffered 26,000 casualties, with nearly 7,000 dead. Over a quarter of the Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in World War II were given for conduct in the invasion of Iwo Jima -- 27 in total, the most ever given in a single battle to date. The only large engagement of WWII in which the Marines suffered more casualties than their Japanese opponents." In other words, the battle basically was another case of piss-poor prior planning by commanders who never would put their own overfed asses on the front lines in such a dangerous fight. 'Twas ever thus.)

The most interesting of the men ordered to shill for Uncle Sam was native American Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach), who reacted by descending into alcoholism, rage and hopelessness. The movie loses focus by jumping back and forth between the 1940s and decades later, when the grown son of another soldier is interviewing survivors to hear their stories. That device undercuts the emotional resonance of what happened by chopping things up documentary style, instead of simply letting the story unfold.

Director Clint Eastwood deserves credit for not taking the easy way out by making a gung-ho recruitment poster of a movie. Unfortunately, it's also not a very compelling one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed October 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

The condescending question everyone asks about movies like this is, "Even if you hated it, would kids like it?" How the heck would I know?

All I can say is that I wouldn't recommend this movie to anyone of any age, regardless of how low their critical standards might be. It is soullessly fake, the kind of cornball movie that has achingly bad acoustic-chick laments and bad country music punctuating what are supposed to be emotional moments.

Also, call me Mr. Sensitive, but I don't like the idea of kids seeing movies that have rodeo scenes, especially ones involving flagrant animal abuse (bucking straps).

I'll go even further than that: When headstrong ranch girl Katie (Alison Lohman) finally manages to slip a hackamore over Flicka the wild mustang's head, it's supposed to come off as a touching moment -- but all I could think was, "If you really like and respect this wild creature so damned much, why don't you let it go free instead of harnessing it?"

I'm no PETA member or animal expert -- hey, I didn't even know the thing was called a "hackamore" without being told -- but more and more I'm beginning to agree with the sentiment that "animals are not entertainment." According to, two trained horses accidentally were KILLED during the production of this movie. That is why the usual "no animals were harmed" line does not appear in the closing credits. The imdb website reports that these were deemed "unpreventable accidents," and that no negligence was found by L.A. Animal Services or the American Humane Association. PETA has denounced those findings, saying the level of animal monitoring was unacceptable. What an ugly mess.

Getting back to the plot: Lohman -- in her mid-20s in "real life" -- is too old to be playing a girl who is supposed to be 17 at the oldest. Maria Bello, as her mother, is overactingly awful, the kind of plastic-smile mom you expect to see being obnoxiously cheerful in commercials for Sunny Delite. Lohman's character's relationship with her teenage brother seems somehow more incestuous than familial. And country singer Tim McGraw, as their father, is just plain boring.

I've never read the book, or seen the decades-earlier version of this movie called "My Friend Flicka," so I can't make any comparisons or say how faithful this adaptation is to the source material.

The only thing that feels honest about it, though, are the real photos of anonymous real girls and their horses that are shown slideshow-style over the closing credits.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Flight of the Phoenix
(Reviewed December 22, 2004, by James Dawson)

Really not a bad "B" movie, although I could have done without a howlingly inappropriate "fixing the plane" music-montage that is accompanied by Outkast's already dated song "Hey Ya" about midway through the picture.

Dennis Quaid stars as the rough and cynical pilot of a cargo plane sent to pick up the workers and equipment from a dry-hole oil rig. Miranda Otto is the sexy manager of the place, although none of the rest of the all-male cast seems to be aware of her charms, even when the plane goes down and one would think they might appreciate the momentary pleasures of female company. Giovanni Ribisi is a Truman Capote-like know-it-all who may be the key to everyone's salvation, or he may just be a psychotic and dictatorial pain in the ass.

In this movie and in "In Good Company" this season, Quaid comes off more and more like a younger, handsomer and less prickish Harrison Ford. A real "man's man" opposed to the usual "man-child" we get in movies these days.

The plane crash at the beginning of "Flight of the Phoenix" is a genuine edge-of-your-seat thriller.

If you're looking for a good "popcorn movie," you could do a lot worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed July 22, 2010, by James Dawson)

Madeline Carroll is endearingly adorable as Juli, a mature-beyond-her-years JFK-era teen who has had a crush on boy-next-door Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) since elementary school.

Only trouble is, gee whiz, she may be dreaming her life away. That's because Bryce is one of those bizarre Hollywood coming-of-age adolescents who has no interest in girls, unless it's to use one as a beard to throw Juli off his scent. Then, just when the audience may be starting to wonder if Bryce is secretly the "don't ask, don't tell" type...well, you can probably figure out what happens.

Structurally, it's unfortunate that "Flipped" repeatedly flips back and forth between Bryce's and Juli's POV. That means we see several sections of the movie twice, with each character relating his/her side of what's happening, which gets old very fast. Also, "Flipped" has so much wall-to-wall voiceover narration it's like buying a ticket to a big-screen audiobook.

Director/co-screenwriter Rob Reiner changed the setting of Wendelin Van Draanen's novel to the Sputnik era, apparently so the overriding air of interrelationship innocence would seem a little less unbelievable. After all, everyone knows that teens back then didn't reach puberty until they were draft age.

Somehow, Carroll manages to redeem what plays like a pretty flat "Wonder Years" retread by being consistently funny, sad, determined, perplexed and just plain likable as Juli. She is completely convincing as a girl who knows what she wants but isn't sure she knows why she wants it. Watching her come to terms with the fact that Bryce just might be a jerk is refreshing, and so is seeing her realize that he's trying to improve himself because of her.

John Mahoney is Bryce's widowed grandfather, who befriends Juli and serves as Bryce's character-building conscience. Rebecca De Mornay has done the unforgivable by aging enough since her "Risky Business" heyday that she now can play a suburban mother of teenagers. Curse you, tempus fugit!

Anthony Edwards is bizarrely miscast as Bryce's snobbish and petty father, who looks down on Juli's family for not being on his rung of the socio-economic ladder. Edwards shamelessly overacts the part without showing any humanity beneath the character's hammy obnoxiousness.

The most embarrassing performance, however, is that of Kevin Weisman as Juli's institutionalized uncle Daniel. Weisman goes 110% full-retard to play the mentally handicapped Daniel, who totally wigs out in an ice-cream in knocking over tables and being wrestled to the floor while chasing a runaway scoop of vanilla. Yipe!

Still, the movie contains a few good old-fashioned morals about the importance of honesty, loyalty and forgiveness, even if the vehicle delivering them is sometimes as ungainly as an Edsel.

And you'd have to be colder than Khrushchev not to fall in love with Juli.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Flushed Away
(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Terrible screenplay, but great animation. There's so much going on in the backgrounds that it's mind-boggling to think of all the work that went into each scene.

Although entirely computer-generated, this movie from the producers of the Wallace and Grommit flicks features characters who look similarly "claymation" textured. Unfortunately, the character designs here are so unappealingly drab that there's more life in the supporting characters than in the leads.

The storyline -- about a pet rat who gets flushed down the toilet and ends up in a sewer equivalent of London's Picadilly Circus populated by rats and slugs -- is boringly typical. Boy rat meets girl rat, loses girl rat, gets girl rat. Also, everything is very loud and coarse and stupid. This is the kind of movie in which characters spit on their palms before shaking hands. How uncivilized, even for rats.

Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet are the voices of the pet rat and the spunky female rat he meets down below. What a waste of talent. Ian McKellen is the most entertaining part of the movie, as the voice of a theatrically evil toad.

I wouldn't even recommend this movie as a rental to use as a pacifier for your little brats. It probably would only make them run around screaming like hyperactive retards and knocking lamps off tables.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed August 17, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed October 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

In this embarrassingly simplistic mess, William H. Macy and Laura Dern play WW2-era Goyim who are mistaken for Jews by the citizens of what must be an alternate-universe New York City where such a thing would count against a person. Meat Loaf (yes, Meat Loaf) plays Macy's shifty-eyed neighbor, who is starting a hate-group franchise in his basement. Even when Macy and Dern try to get out of town for the weekend, they are turned away from resorts because everyone simply refuses to believe they are not of The Tribe. Believe it or not, all of this is not played for laughs.

Incredibly, "Focus" is adapted from a novel by "Death of a Salesman" author Arthur Miller. Maybe something fell on Miller's head the weekend he wrote it. How else to explain the fact that we are expected to believe it is Macy's new glasses--with what are inexplicably the only frames available--transform his appearance to such a degree that his employer of more than 20 years suddenly thinks Macy looks too Jewish to sit in the front office, where he would scare away business clients. What is this, Superman-in-Reverse Syndrome?

Also straining credulity was the scene in which Macy attends a hate-group rally, but apparently thinks he will draw no negative attention by sitting and pointedly not applauding while the rest of the audience members are on their feet, stomping and shouting and frothing with passion. Way to blend in, guy.

Most ridiculous of all is that we are expected to believe Laura Dern, who dresses like a hooker and apparently loves the night life, would give Macy's character so much as a second look--much less marry the guy and move into the house he shares with his mother. Oy!

Unintentionally hilarious, laughably earnest, and a complete crock.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Fool's Gold
(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...


FOOL'S GOLD: Truly dreadful romantic-adventure-comedy in which Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson display zero chemistry as Caribbean treasure hunters with a love/hate thang going on. Your eyes will glaze over as McConaughey goes into a boringly endless expository-narration scene about a bygone sunken ship, and there are a couple of places where the movie should end before it does. By the time the credits finally roll, you'll wish you had walked the plank instead of sticking around. Flat but fabulous Kate looks good in a swimsuit, but not good enough to keep this flatulent piece of flotsam from getting an "F."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Foot Fist Way
(Reviewed June 4, 2008, by James Dawson)

This low-budget comedy is sort of like what the Ricky Gervais TV series "The Office" would have been like if it had been set in a strip-mall Tae Kwon Do center and wasn't very funny. Like Gervais' unlikable, full of himself office manager, "Foot Fist Way" star Danny R. McBride is an overbearing jerk who makes nearly everyone around him annoyed and uncomfortable. The difference is that Gervais did a better job of making his character seem vulnerably pathetic beneath the bravado. And was much funnier. (Oh, I mentioned that?)

Mary Jane Bostic is appealing as McBride's slutty wife, who gets to deliver the movie's best line (about what she did to her boss at an office party).

After failing to find a distributor at Sundance, this movie was bought by Will Ferrell and his production-company partner -- who didn't realize they should have remade it with Ferrell in the lead instead of releasing it "as is." Alas.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed October 11, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
(Reviewed April 16, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for ULTIMATE DVD magazine, but that magazine seems to have a problem with the concept of paying writers, so I have put the entire review below. Workers of the world, unite!

Synopsis: A pudgy schlub (Jason Segel) gets understandably dumped by his sexy TV-star girlfriend (Kristen Bell). After a montage of one-night stands, he decides he needs a solo getaway to Hawaii -- but unknowingly chooses the same resort where his ex and her new rock-star beau (Russell Brand) are staying. Awkwardness ensues.

Review: Producer Judd Apatow's factory churns out two kinds of movies: Enjoyably silly goofs ("Walk Hard," "Talladega Nights," "Anchorman," and crasser stuff that tries to temper adolescent vulgarity with disingenuous sensitivity ("Superbad," "Knocked Up," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"). Unfortunately, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" leans toward the latter category.

The biggest mystery here is why screenwriter Segel was cast as the lead. He's dull, consistently unfunny and nowhere near attractive enough to believably bag a girlfriend as sexy as the artist formerly known as Veronica Mars, even in a would-be comedy. We're also supposed to believe that Segel proves similarly appealing to "That '70s Show" babe Mila Kunis, seen here as a foxy front-desk clerk.

In other words, we're back in that weird wish-fantasy Apatow universe where Seth Rogens hump Katherine Heigls and McLovins get lucky. The sight of an impatiently horny Bell in bed, eagerly asking Segel "do you want my mouth," is more disturbing than amusing.

The supporting characters are more fun to watch than the stars. Paul Rudd is an extremely hang-loose surf instructor with memory problems. Brand is perfect as the casually self-obsessed rock-god, and Jonah Hill is charmingly pathetic as a resort employee who idolizes him.

Still, the movie could have used considerable trimming. Segel's reference to a Dracula musical he's writing for puppets is weak even as a throwaway joke. Having to sit through a long scene from the actual staged version later is positively painful.

Basically, even though Bell may look fantastic in a bikini, but this movie is no day at the beach.

Verdict: Worth forgetting.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

For Your Consideration
(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

"For Your Consideration" is not as good as director/cowriter Christopher Guest's best work ("Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show"), but it still has a lot of laughs.

Guest has a small role as the director of a would-be heart-tugging movie called "Home for Purim." Although "For Your Consideration" is set in the present, the movie-within-a-movie is more 1940s than 21st century, a cornball melodrama about a holiday family reunion and a terminally ill mother. Rumor has it that some members of the cast are likely Oscar nominees, which leads to dreams of fame, glory and no more side gigs doing commercials dressed up as weiners.

Fred Willard, as a smarmy "Entertainment Tonight"-style TV host, steals the show -- especially when things turn hilariously vicious at the end. Willard's interviews with stars who thought they would get nominations but end up with nothing are the best part of the movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Fountain
(Reviewed November 17, 2006, by James Dawson)

Man, I hate giving this one a bad grade, considering how much I liked director/writer Darren Aronofsky's last movie ("Requiem for a Dream").

There's also the fact that this apparently is a real labor of love for Aronofsky, who spent years trying to get it made, and who lost would-be star Brad Pitt along the way. When I heard that Pitt had left Aronofsky high-and-dry by departing, and thereby temporarily scuttling the project, my first thought was, "Sheesh, what a jerk."

As it turns out, Pitt had the right idea.

"The Fountain" is a dreary stew of spiritual slop that plays like some hippie dipshit's stoned dissertation on metaphysics, mixed with one of those repulsively cloying romances between a flakey dying woman-child (Rachel Weisz) and an overintense workaholic doctor (Hugh Jackman), mixed with a conquistador's Inquisition-era quest for the immortality-granting Biblical "tree of life."

In other words, it's a big fucking mess.

Throughout the movie, you'll wonder what the bald version of Jackman is doing inside a space-voyaging snowglobe having an intense personal relationship with a hairy tree. You'll get a sort-of answer by the end, but it's one that falls in the category of, "Wow, that was stupid."

Some of the snowglobe-in-space effects look good, but lab scenes featuring monkey-brain experiments may put off viewers who aren't huge fans of vivisection.

The only thing I really enjoyed about this movie was its score by Clint Mansell.

Otherwise, it's basically a fountain of crap.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Four Brothers
(Reviewed August 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

This blaxploitation-ish flick about four low-level badasses (two white, two black) avenging their foster mother's murder is not that great, even with a swell suburban-street shootout scene (bullets through a brick wall -- sweet!).

Unfortunately, the movie veers between howlingly sappy sentimentality (a dinner scene in which the sons take turns envisioning their dead foster mom sitting at the head of the table is just plain embarrassing) and ridiculously over-the-top gangsta behavior (eat that pasta off the floor, and get your bee-yotch down there with you!).

It's too bad that Mark Wahlberg, who was so excellent is last year's "I Heart Huckabees," is back to making this kind of thuggish, dumb junk.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Four Feathers
(Reviewed September 24, 2002, by James Dawson)

Whatever it is that makes a big, melodramatic period piece impressive and unforgettable is definitely missing from this bland, unconvincing effort. The easy scapegoat is Kate Hudson, who is laughably miscast as the British fiancee of a cowardly soldier who goes to fairly elaborate lengths to redeem himself. The bigger failure, though, is that nothing in "The Four Feathers" manages to be moving or memorable, mainly because its whole premise is hard to swallow. Sorry, but I just don't buy Heath Ledger surviving more than, oh, 20 seconds if he actually tried to pass among rebellious Africans without getting his head handed to him.

Also, an extended prison sequence near the end pads the movie to ridiculous lengths and should have been eliminated to keep audience asses from falling asleep.

There is a decent desert gun-battle scene, however, if you're into that kind of thing. If you want to save some money, just stay home and wait for Bush the Younger to start blowing things up in Iraq. That pitiful attempt to redeem his father's legacy of shame, and to divert the American public's attention from an economy that is sliding straight into the shitter, should provide some invigorating images of needless death and destruction to give every mindless Joe Six-Pack a free chubby courtesy of CNN.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Freaky Friday
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Cute-as-a-button Lindsay Lohan does an absolutely uncanny (if not disturbing) job of channeling Frankie "Malcolm in the Middle" Muniz in this disappointingly stupid remake of the old Disney flick of the same name. Lohan, who was so great playing both twins in the remake of "The Parent Trap" a few years back, plays a sloppy Lavigne-teen who switches bodies with tight-assed mom Jamie Lee Curtis after they eat weird fortune cookies. (Just go with it.) Unfortunately, instead of smartening up the story this time around to give it some edge (or at least to put it in something vaguely resembling the real world), the script is only slightly above the intellectual level of a bad "Saved by the Bell" episode.

One other thing thing about the script: For all I know (and I'm certainly not going to waste the time to find out), this retread may have been typed by a 19-year-old Hollywood prodigy snot...but it is so relentlessly unhip it feels as if it were written by a clueless old fart who hasn't talked to a teen in decades. A piece of dialog about how two characters don't like the White Stripes because the group should "get a bass player, already" falls so flat it was like hearing Sinatra knock the Beatles. Your first reaction will be, "Are these people supposed to be idiots?"

The most basic thing wrong with this "Freaky Friday," however, is the fact that Lindsay Lohan is very, um, mature for her age. Translation: This girl looks enough like a woman that Mark Harmon (who plays Jamie Lee Curtis's fiancee here--man, talk about getting the bad end of that matrimonial deal!) could quite believably want to hook up with her when Jamie moves into her ripe teenage body. Since this is a Disney flick, of course, there's no chance of that happening--even though the reverse does occur (namely, Lindsay in her mom's middle-aged body goes on a flirtaciously romantic date with a teenage boy). There's a brief shot of Lindsay's impressive cleavage at the end of the movie, when she is in a slinky, body-hugging gown at the reception, that only drives the point home: This girl is an absolute knockout.

Imagine how much wilder a movie this would have been if Lindsay's soon-to-be-stepdad had started making creepy moves on her; and if Jamie Lee had given it up to the teenage biker at a rave orgy; and if grandpa had kidnapped one of Lindsay's friends, dragged her home, and forced her and grandma to eat a couple more of those far-out fortune cookies so he could get his tired old rocks off. Freaky, indeed!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Fright Night (2011)
(Reviewed August 17, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Friday Night Lights
(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in sports of any kind, but I really enjoyed "Friday Night Lights." That has to say something about this movie's wide-ranging appeal. (Then again, maybe it means the movie only appeals to pointy-headed intellectuals whose playing fields are restricted to those of the mind. Kind of a tricky call, huh?)

Billy Bob Thornton is excellent as a Texas high school football coach who knows his job depends on getting numbers on the scoreboard. The young team members also are good, never coming off as phony "Hollywood kids." Another thing that makes the movie consistently believable and convincing is its documentary-style look, with a grainy texture and handheld camera work throughout.

The only weak link in the entire picture is a subplot about one player's abusive, alcoholic father. Even if the character really existed (the movie is based on fact), those segments come off as a tad too "daytime drama."

That's a minor quibble, though. Overall, this movie feels like the real deal.

Not that I would know, being a pointy-headed intellectual and all.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Friends With Kids
(Reviewed March 6, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Friends With Kids" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: F

From Hell
(Reviewed October 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

Johnny Depp sleepwalks through his role as an opium-addicted police inspector on the trail of Jack the Ripper. Heather Graham is a pale, Whitechapel district whore with an unconvincing accent. Ian Holm is excellent as a doctor to the royal family, except when he is required by the script to completely subvert that performance by acting completely and unbelievably out of character. It all adds up to...not much.

Writer Alan Moore was behind the original "From Hell" comic book series from which this movie was adapted. He offered an intriguing theory about "Jack"'s identity, one which he apparently took great pains to ensure did not contradict known facts about the case or its principals. But this poorly directed movie version offers a ridiculous "Hollywood" ending that is at odds with known facts of the case. Stupid.

One of the most incredibly annoying and amateurish flaws in the movie is the near-constant background score. I would be surprised if there are 15 continuous seconds anywhere in the film that are not fouled by that omnipresent music.

The movie is directed as if by a third-rate reject for a Nine Inch Nails video assignment.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

From Paris With Love
(Reviewed February 3, 2010, by James Dawson)


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed November 22, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Frost/Nixon" review

I also wrote a feature about the movie, which you can read by clicking this link:
"Frost/Nixon" article

All I will say here is that this is one of the best movies of the year, and that Frank Langella gives a breathtakingly Oscar-worthy performance. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

(Hey, isn't this the same thing I said about "The Wrestler," except with Langella's name substituted here for Mickey Rourke's? Why yes, yes it is.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Funny Games
(Reviewed September 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

"Honey, I've got a great idea."

"What is it, darling?"

"Let's go see the new Naomi Watts movie 'Funny Games.'"

"That's a funny title, sweetheart. 'Funny,' get it?"

"You silly angel, you're such a cut-up. Actually, it's an English-language remake of an Austrian movie the same director made 10 years ago."

"Wow, it must be good then, huh, pumpkin?"

"Actually, I've heard that it's just about the most annoying, tedious, brutal and stupid thriller we're likely to see all year. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth spend almost the entire movie being terrorized by a couple of effeminate but vicious home invaders wearing tennis whites. That's probably a real problem in the Hamptons these days: persnickety white boys from prep schools shotgunning members of wealthy families at their summer homes for kicks."

"But, shmoopie, why would you want to take me to see a movie like that?"

"Are you kidding, cupcake? What couple wouldn't want to hire a babysitter, drive downtown, pay for parking and buy tickets to a film in which Naomi Watts is ordered to strip in front of her husband and young son? I've heard that her snowy-white panties are a sight to behold, even if we don't get a look at her goodies."

"Darling, you're not making any sense."

"If you think I'm not making any sense, wait until you see naughty boy Michael Pitt break character and talk to the camera a few times, or use a TV remote control to reverse time. That stuff's crazy, baby!"

"Sweetheart, you have a funny look on your face."

"Funny? Funny? I'll show you funny! I may not be a big film director like Michael Haneke, but I know what people like! And what you're going to like is a golf club to the shin!"

"Get away from me with that nine-iron! Help! Help!"

"Oh, precious, don't be afraid. You know I'd never hurt you. Now hurry up and get ready."

"Oh, you!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Funny People
(Reviewed July 30, 2009, by James Dawson)

Even fans of director/writer Judd Apatow's preposterously overpraised "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" will have a hard time sitting through this nearly two-and-a-half hour death march. "Funny People" may be Apatow's attempt to shift from witless comedy to more wised-up dramedy, but the result is an embarrassingly unfocused mess that doesn't work as tragedy, farce or anything in between.

Adam Sandler is George Simmons, who got his start doing stand-up but got rich from acting in brainless movie comedies. Diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness, he regrets screwing up his personal life and tries making changes and amends. How very...Hallmark.

Sandler proves once again that he doesn't have the acting chops for a role requiring any kind of emotional range. As in previous adult-oriented Sandler duds like the offputtingly unamusing "Spanglish" or the relentlessly unwatchable "Punch-Drunk Love," Sandler has two go-to performance choices for any scene that doesn't involve cracking jokes or talking in a weird voice: blank-faced passivity and bored hostility. Even bipolar characters need a core of humanity that makes us believe or care about them. Unfortunately, Sandler is no more successful than Jim Carrey at impersonating a convincing three-dimensional human being on film.

Seth Rogen plays Ira, a deli-counter worker and would-be comic who becomes George's assistant and helps him write some new material. Starstruck at first, he eventually becomes close enough to George to offer him some needed but unwanted advice. Rogen is his usual schlubby self as Ira, a walking embodiment of casual self-deprecation and frustrated ambition.

Ira's roommates are Leo (Jonah Hill), another would-be comedy writer who hasn't caught a break, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), whose starring role on a network sitcom makes it extremely unlikely that he still would share low-rent living quarters with a couple of dudes. A movie centered on Schwartzman's self-deluding Mark, who knows his TV show "Yo, Teach" is crap but defends it as an affirmation of his own self-worth, could have been interesting. Schwartzman's deadpan-ironic attitude doesn't mesh at all with the rest of the "Funny People" cast's broadly unsubtle flailings, making his small role the only interesting thing about the movie.

When George gets out of L.A. to visit his now married ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann, aka Mrs. Judd Apatow) and her two daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow, aka Judd's real-life kids), the plot goes from bad to much, much worse. Like Ira, who is along for the trip, we are forced to witness George woo Laura from her out-of-town-on-business husband (Eric Bana). The segment plays like the fulfillment of every deservedly dumped male's wish-fantasy, with a stinger that somehow manages to be as unbelievable as everything that has gone before.

Possibly the most annoying thing about "Funny People" is that the would-be funny parts...aren't. The crude stand-up segments concentrate on genitals and Judaism, two staples of what Apatow regards as surefire humor. Sophisticated it ain't.

Like Cameron Crowe, the undisputed master of the technique, Apatow loads the movie with pop songs that make for a great soundtrack CD. (Even Sandler's played-straight performance of John Lennon's "Real Love" actually isn't bad.) I could have done without the inclusion of a piercing-on-purpose version of "Memory" by one of Apatow's daughters on the disc, though.

A terrible movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Fun With Dick and Jane
(Reviewed December 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

Enjoyable lightweight comedy about a middle-class couple's turn to crime after hubby's corporate employer goes bankrupt. Jim Carrey is his usual amusingly goofy self, and Tea Leoni is both sexy and funny as his always supportive wife. One of the nicest things about the movie, in fact, is that the two characters actually seem to like each other, without any insult hurling or eye rolling.

The movie takes place in 2000, when the internet bubble was starting to implode at the end of the Clinton era. Personally, I can thank that lying, perjuring, justice-obstructing sack of shit for causing one of my former employers to go bankrupt. Thanks to that chubby-chasing paragon of virtue's "Military Honor and Decency Act," military PXs stopped selling any of the Penthouse group of magazines. Sales predictably plummeted. Eventually Bob Guccione threw in the towel, owing Yours Truly enough money to buy a decent used car.

About 10 years before that, while I was in the process of trying to get a loan for a house, a different employer went bankrupt. This was at a newsletter that condensed newspaper stories into "daily briefing" bits, and was faxed to a small number of overseas clients. Or so we thought. Suspicions later arose that the entire enterprise was bankrolled by a single Saudi prince. Maybe the guy discovered CNN, and realized he didn't need no stinkin' newsletter.

Believe me, there's no frustration like having the rug pulled out from under you that way. Then again, there's one thing that's a hell of a lot worse: Being so desperate for work that you join the military and have your ass shipped to Iraq to die for a psychotic chickenhawk moron's idiocy.

But I digress.

Alec Baldwin plays his second CEO role of the year (the other being in "Elizabethtown") as Carrey's corrupt, blame-deflecting boss. He's a composite of various "let them eat nothing" real-life corporate crooks who manage to survive pension-and-stock-destroying business flameouts with their personal millions and billions intact.

His character also has a touch of George W. Bush's utter insincerity and callousness. Echoing Bush's "now watch this shot" and golf swing immediately after Bush's unconvincing attempt to look concerned about the war, Baldwin delivers the same line while sympathizing with the plight of his former workers, just before firing a hunting rifle.

In an "if you don't laugh, you'll cry" move, the credits give thanks to a long list of real-world corporate criminals from Enron and other fine, upstanding examples of American prosperity.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed October 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

I really respect Nicole Kidman for having the courage to make the occasional weird, way-out-of-the-mainstream career choice. That doesn't mean all of those decisions are good ones, though.

Case in point: This good-looking but flagrantly stupid "imaginary portrait" of real-life photographer Diane Arbus is one of the worst movies of the year.

Director/writer Steven Shainberg puts a character who has Arbus' name and who shares some details of her life in a completely fictional, utterly inane script about her affair with a remarkably hairy upstairs neighbor (Robert Downey Jr.). That's "remarkably hairy" as in "long, flowing tresses springing from every square inch of his wolfman-as-Breck-Girl body."

The first half-hour, in which Arbus is merely the quietly frustrated stylist for her commercial-photographer husband, is interestingly suspenseful. But as soon as her curiosity about the mystery man who has moved in upstairs leads her to try meeting him, the movie goes straight to hell in a hairnet.

As always, Downey monotones his way through another performance with prissy condescension. His attempt to assay this "circus freak as intelligent and sensitive artiste" character somehow ends up being both laughably dumb and deadly dull.

Kidman inexplicably falls in love with this creepy Cousin It, stepping out on her husband and two daughters to join Downey at a party for People-Who-Don't-Look-Like-You-and-Me, and for a late-night excursion to the morgue. Hubby (played by Ty Burrell) and the girls eventually try befriending Downey and his extremely odd friends, but it's all a bit too much for her better half. In what may be this dismal movie's only funny line, Burrell says something like, "One day I'm in a normal marriage, and the next day there are freaks coming through a hole in my ceiling!"

Watching this misbegotten mess, I couldn't help thinking that David Lynch really is a genius. Lynch can take would-be surrealistic and bizarre stuff like this and make it seem dreamlike, terrifying and fascinating.

In Shainberg's hands, though, it's just plain idiotic.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Future
(Reviewed July 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A