Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed June 8, 2007, by James Dawson)

Really enjoyable new movie version of the Broadway musical that was adapted from the 1988 John Waters flick, with one of the best opening numbers ever. Good morning, Baltimore!

Nikki Blonsky plays Tracy Turnblad, a short-'n'-chubby early-1960s high schooler who dreams of being a dancer on the local "American Bandstand"-esque "Corny Collins Show." Blonsky is so exuberantly optimistic and genuinely sweet that even the school stud (Zac Efron) ends up falling for her -- despite her lack of, how you say, "conventional good looks." That puts his position as one of the main "Corny Collins" dancers in jeopardy, because he is dating the bitchy and manipulative station manager's daughter.

Amanda Bynes is Blonsky's wide-eyed airhead of a best friend, constantly sucking a red lollipop. When the two girls visit an all-black record shop in those race-conscious times, Bynes tells the proprietor (Queen Latifah), "I'm pleased and scared to be here."

The girls are determined to, as Blonsky puts it, "Make every day negro day" by integrating the dance show on a permanent basis. That sounds preachy, but it definitely plays funny here.

John Travolta -- in heavy and very unconvincing makeup, a fat suit and drag -- is an odd choice for the role of Blonsky's mother (played by the transvestite Divine in the original 1988 movie). He doesn't exactly disappear into the role; in fact, he's the most unconvincing cast member here, because he seems to be acting every scene with a wink. Still, he delivers one line that made me laugh out loud, which is quite a feat. Making excuses to leave the black record shop, he says, "I left my arn on" (that's "arn" as in "iron"). Okay, maybe you had to be there.

Michelle Pfeiffer is excellently bitchy as the TV station manager, and Elijah Kelley is great as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the best dancer in the all-black-except-Blonsky detention hall.

I never saw the play, but director Adam Shankman has done a terrific job of bringing "Hairspray" back to the screen. He may be more sweet than subversive -- but then again, there's only one John Waters. (Speaking of whom, look for Waters doing a cameo as a flasher during "Good Morning Baltimore.")

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Hamlet 2
(Reviewed June 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

About-to-be-fired high school teacher Steve Coogan, doing a flailing, not-nearly-good-enough Martin Short impersonation here, rallies his drama class to mount a production of his very lousy original play "Hamlet 2."

There's the kind of tension between two whitey-whitebreads and their badass Latino fellow students that always ends up in a lusty liplock between a Mormonesque miss and a gangsta guy. Coogan's kvetching wife (Catherine Keener) very predictably leaves him for a very predictable suitor. And the play ends up being a sold-out sensation that wins over even its fiercest critics.

I only mention these things to keep anyone from thinking that there is anything original going on here. Only some really clever writing could have saved a plot this old and tired, and there isn't any -- with the exception of the songs within the play itself, which actually are pretty funny.

Oddly, the movie's best song ("You're Gay as the Day Is Long") only appears as audio over the closing credits, which says all you need to know about the cluelessnes of this movie's producers. It should have been a production number as big as "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus."

If you end up renting this one, just fast forward to the play and spare yourself the misery of watching Coogan "act." Funny, him not.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed June 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

"Hancock"'s misleading TV ads imply that it is a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted comedy about a surly-but-superpowered drunk (Will Smith) who cleans up his act and becomes heroic. What parents with kids in tow won't be expecting is the movie's bloody, hyperviolent, big fat downer of a final act, which is devoted to the annoyingly overused "hero beatdown" cliche.

Injecting that kind of brutality into what otherwise is a goofy, occasionally outright stupid comedy makes no sense. It's as if the producers suddenly wanted to inject real-world drama into a plot that otherwise plays like an acceptance-and-redemption kiddie movie (albeit one with a gag involving a character literally having his head shoved up another guy's ass).

Also, Hancock's background story is so lamely idiotic that I would have preferred having his origin remain a complete mystery. It's not played for laughs, either, so the "it's supposed to be silly" excuse doesn't apply.

There's an unfortunate twist about halfway in that simply doesn't work at all, and which disastrously changes the tone of the humor, but I won't reveal it here.

"Hancock" is a real missed opportunity that tries to be two different movies and succeeds at being neither. It's not the worst thing in the theaters, but you'll wish it had lived up to its ad campaign.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Hannah Montana: The Movie
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

I also wrote a feature article about the movie, which you can read by clicking this link:
"Hannah Montana" Feature Article

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed February 7, 2001, by James Dawson)

It's pretty damned sad when the best thing you can say about a horror movie is that it has lovely cinematography. "Hannibal" is dull, dull, dull -- and agonizingly LONG. (Jesus, the Florence-cop subplot goes on FOREVER.) Worst of all, it's just plain not scary. Ray Liotta is flat-out awful. Julianne Moore looks pretty good, but that accent's just gotta go. And Anthony Hopkins is playing...well, the same cartoon character he played in "Silence of the Lambs," to be honest. And I didn't like that movie, either.

This time around, we have a plot that's like a bad episode of "The X-Files." Clarice loses badge! Clarice uncovers conspiracy! Clarice...oh, why go on.

Nice face makeup on Gary Oldman. And a nice special effect at the end, when Mojo Jojo makes a surprise cameo. But you'll be more frightened fighting traffic on the way home from the theater. And, with any luck, you will be more wide-awake.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Happily N'Ever After
(Reviewed December 19, 2006)

The designs are better than the animation, and the inherent logic problem with the plot won't bother the kids who are its main target audience. Also, this "hip CGI fairy tale" is not as big a "Shrek" ripoff as you might think, which counts for something.

When the head wizard of Fairytale Land goes on vacation, his assistants literally tip the scales of good and evil to mess with various characters' stories. The logic problem is that this seems to assume that the tales of characters such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood -- even though they are real people in that land -- are on some kind of permanent loop, occurring over and over again forever instead of having already happened. Mommy, my head hurts.

Although the characters look good, their movements aren't as smooth as top-dollar Pixar flicks. (Props to the design team for giving Cinderella a very nice butt and her Jessica-Rabbit-proportioned Wicked Stepmother enormous cleavage, though.) Also, lead voice actors Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze Jr. didn't thrill me, and everyone's volume level stays at 11 throughout. Prinze's narration goes on far too long. And this is one of those scripts that goes through the motions of comedy -- think "typical present-day sitcoms" -- without actually being funny, or even very amusing. I know I'm a sour, bitter old wretch, but I felt as if even I should have laughed at least once during a movie like this. I didn't.

Still, it's basically inoffensive. Well, except for a fart joke of the type that seems to be a requirement for kid movies these days, and a reference to peeing in a glass. Ahem.

Cinderella is drawn Winona-cute, though, so I'll give this one a passing grade. (My, what high standards I have!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Happy Accidents
(Reviewed October 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

In order for this movie to work, it is essential to believe that Vincent D'Onofrio's character would be found charming and attractive by Marisa Tomei. I didn't buy that for a second. D'Onofrio plays an incredibly annoying halfwit dope who claims to be from the future, and who has returned to save Marisa from her fate. She spends the movie wondering if he is completely off his rocker--or if maybe, just maybe, he might be telling the truth.

Their relationship is supposed to be passionately quirky and stereotypically New York-ish (lots of eccentric friends and sidewalk scenes; you know the drill). But throughout the film, Marisa seems to have so much more on the ball than D'Onofrio does that it is impossible to believe they ever could end up sharing an apartment, much less being soulmates.

The script is simply not very smart, and the ending is weaker than a bad "Twilight Zone." Frankly, I wish *I* could go back in time--and get back the two hours I spent watching this timewaster.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Happy Endings
(Reviewed June 24, 2005, by James Dawson)

Very watchable multi-plotline soap opera stuff, despite too many wild implausibilities (Lisa Kudrow developing affection for her scruffy, scuzzy, stupid blackmailer? I don't think so) and dopey coincidences (although thankfully not as many as in the screamingly lousy "Crash").

Kudrow's character gave up a baby as a teenager. She is approached by a wannabe filmmaker who says he will tell her the kid's present whereabouts in exchange for letting him do a touchy-feely documentary about their reunion. Instead, after being caught trying to steal the information from his hotel room, Kudrow convinces him to let her help him make a documentary about her masseur/gigolo boyfriend, who turns out to have secrets of his own.

Other plotlines include Maggie Gyllenhaal as a punky slut who develops real feelings for her gay boyfriend's (don't ask) rich father (Tom Arnold, who is surprisingly not bad in the role); and two gay couples (one male and one female) with questions about a baby's paternity.

The tone of "Happy Endings" seesaws between mild tongue-in-cheek humor and sometimes effective melodrama, never really settling on whether it wants to be taken seriously or regarded as a not-too-guilty pleasure.

Its main flaw is an overreliance on cutesy title cards that describe various setups and characters alongside the action, a device that gets tiresome surprisingly quickly.

On the bright side, "Happy Endings" contains a jaw-droppingly powerful car-accident stunt that's so well done it belongs on "Maximum Exposure."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Happy Feet Two
(Reviewed November 18, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Hard Candy
(Reviewed March 23, 2006, by James Dawson)

If Andrea Dworkin rose from her grave and had a hankering to see a cheap teen horror flick, she probably would love this one.

A psycho teenage girl who looks more like a boy (which is a real problem, frankly) flirts her way into a suspected pedophile's home. She then tortures him for roughly 90 minutes while relating an excruciatingly endless screed of info and insights into the habits and tactics of perverts. It comes off like a monotonous high-school assembly lecture from a blank-eyed one-note Ritalin kid, interspersed with occasional sprays of bleach in the mouth, extended taserings and extremely graphic threats of castration.

I'm giving this remarkably unpleasant movie a "D" instead of an "F" because scenes like the most sick-making section of the movie (guy roped to a table screaming for someone to keep the lil' avenging angel from slicing his nuts off) are undeniably...engrossing.

I have to wonder, though, who would pay money to see this utterly unamusing nastiness. The only way I can imagine this movie making any money will be if the studio deceptively tries to sell the "jailbait seductress" angle in hopes of enticing the world's Humbert Humberts. Imagine their fury when they discover that the flick offers not a single second of anything as inappropriately enticing as, say, Natalie Portman dressed as a moppet nymphet in "V for Vendetta."

I guess that would fall under the category of "ironic justice," actually.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
(Reviewed November 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

Even better than "Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone" (which made my "10 Best of 2001" list), this second installment in the series has a lot more plot and a slightly darker tone. I love the Harry Potter books, and so far I've loved both of the Harry Potter movies.

Director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves once again are extremely faithful to J.K. Rowling's original novel, managing to include nearly every important scene from the book. (The only exception worth noting: Near the beginning of the film, when Harry arrives in a seedy Nocturn Alley shop instead of in Diagon Alley, we don't see Lucius Malfoy disposing of Voldemort-related wizarding contraband there. Although we certainly don't need that scene to figure out that Lucius is less than upstanding...)

Kenneth Branagh is preeningly perfect as the new Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor Gilderoy Lockhart. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are as wonderful as last time around in their roles as the Harry, Ron and Hermione (although it's sometimes possible to see their ages change from one not-shot-in-sequence scene to another). Dobby, the computer-generated House Elf, looks and sounds better than I had imagined when reading the book; I was afraid he might end up sounding like the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks (GOD FORBID!).

Some scenes in the movie actually may be "too intense for young children," as they say, but this is entirely in keeping with the book. In fact, I can't wait to see these movies get even darker and creepier with books three and (especially) four.

And here's a tip: Be sure to stick around until the end of the credits for a surprise treat: a short bonus scene that everyone who has rushed to leave the theater will have missed!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
(Reviewed November 18, 2010, by James Dawson)

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" will be nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read the Potter books, and frustrating for those who have.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) spend the seventh movie in the franchise on the run from the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers. They're also looking for horcruxes, magical items that contain parts of Voldemort's soul.

Much of the movie will make absolutely no sense to anyone who is not very familiar with The Saga So Far, because explanations regarding characters' identities, relationships and the mechanics of the magic they use are brief or nonexistent. The decision not to accommodate newcomers may have been intended to keep an already slow-moving tale from dawdling even more for explanations. But the irony is that a more viewer-friendly approach that made the story more involving could have kept the movie from seeming not only confusing but often downright dull.

Unfortunately, the fact that the movie is inaccessible to the uninitiated doesn't conversely mean that it will delight longtime devotees. Fans of the J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" novel will be disappointed by several baffling changes screenwriter Steve Kloves made in adapting the book. None of these are major -- like all Potter screenplays, the major plot points hew closely to those in the novels -- but all of the changes are unnecessary. A few non-spoiler examples: In the book, the fugitive Harry is disguised as a fictional Weasley cousin at a wedding, so his presence won't be revealed to everyone in attendance. In the movie, he simply strolls about the affair as himself, even though he is the most wanted man on the planet. Harry and Hermione's on-the-run relationship is consistently platonic in print, but the movie adds an intimate dance between the two that stops just sort of what looks like an all-but-inevitable kiss. Hedwig the owl's encounter with destiny is handled differently in book and movie. Dobby the house elf pops up earlier in the movie than in the book, in a scene that played much better without him. And where the book's Harry and several duplicates fought off airborne enemies in the sky, the movie adds a wrong-way motorway chase that includes a traffic-tunnel action swipe from "Men in Black."

Not all of the movie's problems can be blamed on liberties taken with the source material. Rowling's novels nearly always contain elements that are illogical or inconsistent, in that their existence presents not-fully-thought-out implications. The most egregious was the "time turner" Hermione used in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"; once it's established that going back in time and changing events is possible, nothing becomes impossible. In "Deathly Hallows," we learn that house elves -- and any number of humans they take with them -- can transport between any point A and point B, even to locations protected by spells that keep humans alone from gaining access. It's impossible to believe this is a new discovery, so why wouldn't everyone in the wizarding world -- good or bad -- simply travel by elf to thwart all protective spells everywhere?

Director Peter Yates has absolutely no facility for action scenes, such as the confusing opening airborne battle between Our Heroes and the Voldemort's forces. A later scene in which Harry, Ron and Hermione are chased through a forest is similarly hard to follow.

Even at two-and-a-half hours, the movie feels badly edited, in that crucial bits are missing. Everything on every page of the massive novel obviously couldn't make it to the screen, but elements directly related to other elements should have survived the cut. In the book, Harry, Ron and Hermione figure out that their presence was detected at a coffee shop because one of them said the word "Voldemort." Knowing that Harry is one of very few people who calls the dark lord by his actual name, instead of referring to him as "you know who," the bad guys have cast a locater spell that alerts them when anyone speaks the word. In the movie, even though we don't see Harry and company discover that this is what gave them away, Harry nevertheless begins referring to Voldemort as "you know who."

On the positive side, the movie uses some very stylish animation to relate the fairy-tale story of the deathly hallows, three gifts that a trio of brothers won from Death himself. The movie's location shots are stunning, as Harry and friends transport themselves across the United Kingdom to make camp everywhere from the seaside to mountains to forests. A glimpse of an evil (and discreetly nude) Harry and Hermione that Ron sees emanate from an enchanted locket is unexpected enough to be unforgettable; the irresistible oddball Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) appears in two brief cameos; and a scene in which Harry, Ron and Hermione infiltrate the Ministry of Magic disguised as older adults has the silly charm found in some of the first Potter movies.

Also, Harry, Ron and Hermione are as likable as ever, even if they spend an awful lot of this movie moping and staring.

Read the first 501 pages of the novel (that's exactly how much the movie covers) before buying a ticket, and you won't be completely lost -- but you still might be more than a little bored.

(Historical note: I wrote this review exactly nine years to the day after writing my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first movie in the series. Time flies, huh?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
(Reviewed July 15, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
(Reviewed November 17, 2005, by James Dawson)

"Goblet of Fire" is the longest (by more than 300 pages) of the four Harry Potter books adapted to film so far. That probably made it inevitable that this installment would feel very condensed, often seeming more like a "greatest bits" highlight reel than a cohesive whole. Also, one of the book's major subplots (Hermione's campaign for the civil rights of house elves) is missing entirely.

This is the first of the Harry Potter movies that is not better than its immediate predecessor. Scenes don't flow very well, and too much of what makes the characters interesting and believable is missing. Ron's resentment of Harry for getting into the Triwizard Tournament is too abrupt and unconvincing in the film, as is Hermione's emotional outburst at Ron later. We get absolutely none of the tension that threatened Hagrid's relationship with Madame Maxime in the book. Journalist Rita Skeeter's scoop-gathering secret, its discovery, and her ultimate comeuppance is nowhere to be found in the movie. And the visiting students from two other magical schools are treated as no more than extras.

Readers of the book who already know the full story can fill in the gaps, but an awful lot of this film may seem like a skimpy synopsis to everyone else.

The highlight of the movie is a great action segment of Harry being pursued by a flying dragon to the upper reaches of Hogwarts. Other really impressive special effects include the incredibly huge stadium in which the Quidditch World Cup competition is held, and a genuinely creepy race through a living hedge maze.

This chapter's Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor is "Mad-Eye" Moody, well played by Brendan Gleeson. We also get our first look at Harry's crush Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and Robert Pattinson is good as Harry's rival Cedric Diggory.

As always, the storyline doesn't make a lick of sense. (Without spoiling the ending, let's just say that there had to have been a simpler and less time-consuming way for Voldemort and Company to get Harry from point A to point B, if any object can be converted into a transportation device.) That shortcoming never has mattered much before now; the charm of the Harry Potter series always has had more to do with characters and imaginative settings than plot contrivances. (The excellent "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," for example, relies on a device that turns back time -- ignoring the drama-subverting fact that such a device would make virtually anything possible.)

That is why letting plot take precedence here was a bad idea. For example, we see Harry pull off a difficult underwater rescue as one of his challenges. What we don't see is Harry finding out afterward that he was mistaken about the need to risk his life, because the prisoners would not have been allowed to die if he had failed. It's a little thing, but it gave the print version of Harry something to think about.

"Goblet of Fire" seems more like a souvenir picture-book of the novel, rather than a work that could be enjoyed on its own. It's not a bad movie, by any means. But it should have been a whole lot better.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(Reviewed August 9, 2009, by James Dawson)

The sixth installment in the Harry Potter series actually improves in translation from book to screen. While the novel was basically a placeholder with a (literally) killer ending, director David Yates turns the movie version into an ominously dark adventure comprised of segments that often zip by like chapters of an old-time serial. And, as usual, it looks amazing.

Daniel Radcliffe continues to prove he was the perfect choice all those years ago to play Harry, the young wizard who matures from wide-eyed waif to wised-up warrior over the course of J.K. Rowling's seven novels. Although Radcliffe the actor is a bit older than his character's age at this point (because the movies have been made at intervals longer than the time that passes between books), Radcliffe still conveys a convincing adolescent mixture of awkwardness and assurance. He also can be genuinely funny, such as when he becomes amusingly addled by a good-luck potion.

He receives that reward from new Hogwarts potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, the most recent wonderful cast addition from the cream of the British acting community). Harry aces every assignment in Slughorn's class thanks to an old textbook filled with helpful tips from a previous student identified only as the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. When Harry seriously injures another student with a defensive spell from the book, however, he begins to wonder if keeping it is such a good idea.

Like any school, Hogwarts has its share of teenage crushes -- and crushing disappointments. Harry's bookish friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) realizes she has come to love the goofy but good-hearted Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), but Ron is too busy being adored by the ridiculously attentive Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) to notice. Hermione's peeved frustration and eventual tears over the situation ring touchingly true.

Harry, meanwhile, has developed what are becoming undeniable feelings for Ron's younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Regrettably, Wright is the series' one longtime cast member who has not grown into a role that is increasingly important to the big picture. She was fine as the little-girl Ginny who needed to be rescued from the chamber of secrets in the second "Harry Potter" movie. As an older teenager, though, she doesn't show enough personality, warmth or depth to make her the believably irresistible object of Harry's affection.

Michael Gambon, on the other hand, gives his best performance yet as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Gambon took over the role from the note-perfect Richard Harris following Harris' death after the second "Harry Potter" movie. But Gambon, who said this year that he has not read any of the Potter books, previously was too gruff, businesslike and unsympathetic in the role. His worst outing was in the fourth film, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which included scenes of Dumbledore acting uncharacteristically furious and outright hostile toward Harry. Wrong!

This time, though, Gambon finally gets Dumbledore right. He conveys the perfect combination of wisdom, empathy and authority, tempered by a dignified acceptance of his destiny.

Alan Rickman delivers his usual entertainingly menacing take on Professor Severus Snape, whose allegiance to Dumbledore comes into question when he makes an unbreakable vow that seems to seal his fate. Rickman's reptilian manner and mesmerizingly oily voice have made it impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. And platinum-haired Tom Felton does his best work yet as Hogwarts student and increasingly conflicted bad seed Draco Malfoy.

Another welcome return is Evanna Lynch as the beguiling and appropriately moony Hogwarts student Luna Lovegood. Luna's cynicism-free sweetness and endearingly odd personality make it hard to understand why Harry wouldn't be completely smitten with her instead of with Ginny. What a doll.

Like all of the "Harry Potter" movies, this one has its share of logic and plot problems. The easiest example logic-wise: If even Harry "the chosen one" Potter doesn't feel responsible enough to possess the Half-Blood Prince's textbook, why would he simply hide it where someone even less upstanding might find it later, instead of turning it over to someone such as Dumbledore? Plot-wise, if the evil minions of the villain Voldemort can do things like destroy London's Millennium Bridge and infiltrate Hogwarts, why do they need to enlist an indecisive student to commit a murder instead of simply doing it themselves? (Potterheads probably can give a reason from the novel, but we see none that makes sense in the movie.) Also, shouldn't a group of teenage and grownup wizards be able to put out a house fire, instead of standing by and resignedly watching a home burn?

(Of course, the biggest question-mark in every "Harry Potter" plot is why the "Time Turner" from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" would not be used to undo every unfortunate event that occurs. Once a time-travel device like that is introduced, every setback should instigate at least an attempted do-over.)

Those quibbles seem like sheerest nitpickery in a series as enjoyable as this, however. Watching the way the characters interact and develop as they grow up always has been at least as entertaining as watching them make magic and fling spells.

Yates, who directed the previous "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and who will be back for the final two-part "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," gives many parts of the movie a stylishly gritty look. The first shot, in fact, is the most dramatic and interesting of that seen in any movie of the series. It's battered Harry and consoling Dumbledore, standing together in silent shock after the battle that ended the last movie. They are being photographed against a stone wall by a group of reporters using old-fashioned flashbulb cameras. The slow-motion image is simultaneously simple, artistic and jarring, making it obvious that this will be something more serious than your typical children's story.

A flashback of Dumbledore visiting Voldemort's younger self at an orphanage is shot in a cocked angle, high-contrast style that looks both beautiful and dangerous -- and far cooler than it had to be. Likewise, many scenes (such as in Dumbledore's elabore office) have fascinating special effects going on in the background. These often seem like the kinds of things most producers would strike from the budget as unnecessary expenses, but that generous level of detail is one of the things that makes "Harry Potter" movies so fascinatingly watchable.

The sophisticated score by Nicholas Hooper deserves singling out for special praise. Mostly avoiding the familiar John Williams themes from earlier movies, Hooper's score feels more subtle and less manipulative that Williams' work.

It's hard to believe that there is only one book left to adapt from this wonderful series before Harry's adventures come to an end. While it is possible that the final book is being split into two movies for commercial instead of artistic reasons, it's hard to object to the idea after seeing "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

In this case, at least, there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(Reviewed July 10, 2007)

Last time out, the best of the first six Harry Potter books ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") somehow became the worst of the first four Harry Potter movies.

This time, the worst of the first six Harry Potter books ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") has somehow become one of the best of the first five Harry Potter movies.

It's a magical world, innit?

The book version of "Phoenix" was disappointing mainly because it served as little more than a potboiler -- something to tide fans over until author J.K. Rowling came up with ideas that actually would advance the storyline of the overall series. Aside from the death of a major character in "Phoenix," the situation at the end of that book essentially leaves readers at the same point they already had reached at the end of "Goblet of Fire": Voldemort the evil wizard is back, very bad times are ahead, and everyone has to pick sides for the coming battle.

Also, "Phoenix" the novel has major plot problems. The opening section, in which the anti-Voldemort conspirators known as the Order of the Phoenix are holed up in Sirius Black's home, goes on for more than 100 tediously claustrophobic pages. Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore avoids Harry for most of the book, refusing to give him information that would clear things up and generally make Harry's life easier, for a reason that makes no sense -- and which, in fact, makes Harry more Voldemort-vulnerable than he would have been if he knew the score. Despite ample evidence in the first four books that prove Harry is noble, honest and true, and that Voldemort has returned, we are expected to believe that a disinformation campaign from the Ministry of Magic would convince everyone that Harry is a liar and Voldemort poses no danger. And a final prophecy that Voldemort seeks, which the Order of the Phoenix desperately wants to keep him from getting, turns out to reveal something that everyone pretty much knew or assumed all along.

(All of the dramatic buildup about what that nothing-special prophecy will involve reminded me of the Monty Python "Miss Anne Elk" sketch, in which an interview subject dawdles endlessly before revealing that her theory is nothing more significant than "all brontosauruses are thin at one end; much, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end.")

Director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, both new to the Harry Potter movie series, have managed to make that so-so, ho-hum source material interesting, intense and exciting. The stay at Sirius Black's home is cut mercifully short, the overall mood is dark but never dull, and a final showdown that was confusingly written in the book becomes a forthright and downright scary action sequence. Even the score of the movie (by newcomer Nicholas Hooper) is better this time around, losing most of the original John Williams themes except the main one.

Imelda Staunton is excellently evil as new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Dolores Umbridge, a sadistic authoritarian with a fondness for cruelty and torture to maintain order. Evanna Lynch, as a dreamily detached new Hogwarts student named Luna Lovegood, is sweetly otherworldly. In fact, it's hard not to wish that Harry had hit it off romantically with her, considering how poorly developed a character his actual girlfriend (Cho Chang, played by Katie Leung) is.

Two aspects of the novel that did not make it to the screenplay may rile purists. The movie contains no quidditch whatsoever, and no mention is made of the fact that Harry's friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) have become prefects at Hogwarts. Then again, the book is 870 pages long, so something had to go.

Director Yates and composer Hooper are slated to return for the next movie in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Muggles rejoice!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
(Reviewed May 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

Before he ever shot a single frame of this movie, director Alfonso Cuaron was guaranteed to receive a free pass from certain clueless critics whose snobbish, intellectually insecure prejudice against director Chris Columbus prevented them from granting the first two "Harry Potter" movies the praise they deserved. Sure, it was hard to admit that the guy who gave the world "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Nine Months" and "Bicentennial Man" did a good job for a change--twice in a row, in fact. (Okay, it was EXTREMELY hard to admit.) But "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" really were fine, faithful adaptations of both books.

So every twittish, dishonest tool who wrongly ragged on those two movies would feel duty-bound to sing hosannas to this first non-Columbus installment of the series even if they slept through the thing. They already will have their "Azkaban" reviews written before they enter the theater, and every one of those notices is absolutely guaranteed to include the term "edgier." They will claim that this movie is far better than the first two "Harry Potter" flicks, with more style and depth and drama and storytelling skill.

And you know what? Even if those annoying, smug, self-satisfied fools will be saying all of those wonderful things for exactly the wrong reasons, it so happens that THEY WILL BE EXACTLY RIGHT!

As much as I liked the first two movies, this one is the best of the three by far. The acting is better (although that may partially be due to the fact that the kids are older and more experienced); the story is more involving; the pacing is more appropriate in both quiet and action scenes; and the settings are more convincing and visually interesting (Hogwarts and its surrounding environs never looked better).

Even the overall look of the film is "new and improved," with a slightly grainier quality and almost "patinaed" color that gives it a fittingly out-of-the-ordinary appearance. Director of Photography Michael Seresin was not the DP on either of the earlier "Potter" movies. His contribution here is the most visible evidence that the series has moved beyond the relatively more whitebread "children's-fairy-taleness" of books one and two into what will be the progressively darker territory of the series' later volumes.

That "darker" aspect includes scenes here that are genuinely creepy, such as every appearance of the soul-sucking, grim-reaperish Dementors. But it also includes things such as a Quidditch match played in monsoon-level rain, a vicious Whomping Willow that has even more of a nasty "personality" than last time around, and the fact that the weather in general is often downright bleak.

That's not to say that there are not a few laughs and a lot of charm along the way.

Daniel Radcliffe is perfect as the now 13-year-old Harry, the still slightly-perplexed-by-it-all boy wizard who learns that Azkaban Prison inmate Sirius Black has escaped and is after him. Emma Watson's Hermione Granger, ever studious and intense, has a lot more to do here than in the two previous movies. She is so good as Harry's spunky, brainy friend that she almost steals the show. (She also has the movie's funniest line--a line that isn't even in the book!) Rupert Grint is ideal as their pal Ron Weasley, the wide-eyed, likeable and amusingly less mature member of the trio.

David Thewlis is excellent as new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin, who brings a kind of world-weary gravitas to his scenes. Michael Gambon offers a slightly different take on Hogwarts head honcho Albus Dumbledore than did the late Richard Harris, but his interpretation of the character is actually more in line with author J.K. Rowling's description ("Professor Dumbledore, though very old, always gave the impression of great energy.") And Alan Rickman, as always, is flawlessly cast as the dour and genuinely menacing Professor Severus Snape.

As for the movie's computer-generated creatures, the Hippogriff--half horse, half eagle--is completely convincing and a joy to behold. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film's odd-looking werewolf, which looks as if it could have done with a few hundred more hours of rendering time. The Dementors are fittingly creepy, their appearances accompanied by a simple but effective "smeared film" effect.

The script somehow manages to take numerous liberties with the novel while still seeming amazingly faithful. Most are insignificant bits of "tightening," to fit the nearly-500-page novel into two hours and 20 minutes (things such as condensing Aunt Marge's visit to the Dursley's house from a week to a single lunch, and shortening Harry's pre-Hogwarts stay at the Leaky Cauldron from two weeks to a single night).

Two changes that I did question:

(1) The movie's first scene is Harry in bed at the Dursley house, using his wand as a reading light. He uses a flashlight in the book, which makes more sense, considering that Harry knows he is not to use magic during his summer breaks. His later use of magic on Aunt Marge, in fact, is exactly what Harry believes has gotten him in trouble with the Ministry of Magic, trouble sufficient to lead to his expulsion from Hogwarts. So while Harry's "lumos" spell makes for a good visual to start the movie, his use of magic for something so trivial makes no logical sense within the story's own rules.

(2) The book's "sneakascope"--a birthday gift from Ron to Harry that permits the bearer to see if anyone untrustworthy is near--does not appear in the movie. Although it is not strictly necessary to the plot, it did provide some good "misdirection" opportunities in the book that are missing from the film.

Nearly every other change that scriptwriter Steve Kloves made, however, is for the better. (And yes, I realize that sounds like sheerest heresy to Rowling devotees. But I include myself among their ranks, so trust me on this.) These alterations include a couple of plot incidents that are shifted chronologically within the story. More significantly, including Hermione in one of the movie's final scenes (a scene in which she did not appear in the book) was a stroke of genius.

The first two Potter movies made my top 10 in their respective years. This one is guaranteed to make it a hat trick, by appearing even higher on my "best of 2004" list. (Or maybe I should say a "sorting hat trick." Except for the fact that the sorting hat does not appear in this movie. Oh, never mind.)

One last thing: Viewers who stick around until the end of the (extremely long) credits will not get a bonus scene (as in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"), but will hear a voiceover of Harry saying exactly three words. Whether you want to get out of the parking lot faster so you can hurry home and return to your boring, mundanely muggle existence or wait around long enough to hear them is entirely up to you!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
(Reviewed November 18, 2001, by James Dawson)

A classic. Fans of Harry Potter (and I'm definitely one of them) cannot help but be delighted by this amazingly faithful screen adaptation of the first book in the series. Perfect casting, beautiful production design, and more pure, enchanting charm than any other movie for years. Every now and then, something that is overwhelmingly popular actually is worthwhile, and this is one of those rare occasions. Don't be put off by the wall-to-wall hype and jaw-dropping financial success of all things Harry Potter related, as I was until I actually bothered to read the first book. This time, the masses are right!

Incredibly, some reviewers have faulted the movie for its worshipful fidelity to the print version, a complaint that boggles my mind. If those churlish scrooges had seen this film without knowing that a book version existed, and reviewed it with honesty and integrity, they would have fallen all over themselves (quite rightly) in praising its warmth, humor, sweetness, beauty and originality.

My only two criticisms are so minor as to be insignificant. The Quidditch match, with elements that look great in still shots and during the set-up, is too rushed and hard to follow during the actual play-action. The chess scene toward the end is truncated to several shots of pieces being destroyed, instead of being paced by showing the drama of the actual game unfolding.

But the movie's wonders more than outweigh those quibbles. Emma Watson, who plays Harry's bossy but lonely friend Hermione Granger, manages to be perfectly cast even though she is far cuter than the buck-toothed book version of her character; she gets the girl's spirit down pat. Rupert Grint as Harry's pal Ron Weasley is similarly ideal, full of wide-eyed wonder and good humor. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry has the perfect mixture of unflappability, innocence, loyalty and decency that one would want in the most famous boy wizard in the world.

A wonderful movie!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed January 16, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Head in the Clouds
(Reviewed July 30, 2004, by James Dawson)

Lovely British scenery, and it's always nice to see Charlize Theron's nipples (now that Ms. T is back to her fighting weight, having lost her "Monster" mass). But otherwise this 1920s-to-WW2 period-piece soap opera is a real disappointment: deadly dull, badly acted and utterly predictable.

Theron is a rich and breezily promiscuous party-girl who catches the eye of idealistic Irishman Stuart Townsend at Cambridge. When they hook up again after graduation, Townsend is a struggling schoolteacher in London. Theron entices him to join her in devil-may-care debauchery in Paris, where she has settled as an artist and photographer. She is living with her favorite model and lover Penelope Cruz, a one-time ballerina wannabe whose dreams were shattered when fascists in Spain left her with a limp. But Cruz has enough of a conscience that she wants to go back to Spain as a nurse, and Townsend likewise wants to join her and fight the fascists. Life-loving, live-for-today Theron thinks they're both nuts, stays behind, and is still in the City of Light when the Nazis take Paris. If you can't see where this plot is going, then I guess you must be five years old, so I hope kindergarten is going well for you.

After Theron's Oscar-winning performance in "Monster," it's baffling how she can do such an unconvincing acting job here. The whole production screams "high school play." Even the "hot parts" between Theron and Townsend are blah, which once again drives home the point that real-life lovers for some reason seldom make good on-screen lovers.

Speaking of which, one specific scene in this movie intrigued me. Theron and Townsend have sex on a billiards table, then fall asleep. The owner of the mansion in which said billiards table resides surprises them the next morning. How I dearly wish we had seen the lovers dismount from the table, then notice with horrified chagrin that their dried-and-crustified bodily fluids have rather ruined the green felt. For some reason, however, things like that never seem to happen in movies. More's the pity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Head Over Heels
Not Reviewed January 25, 2001, by James Dawson)

I had a free pass to see an advance screening of this. But the mere thought of spending even a single minute watching that repulsive dork Freddie Prinze, Jr., on a movie screen made me realize that sitting home and staring at a wall was preferable. Sorry.

Back Row Reviews Grade: n/a

(Reviewed March 23, 2001, by James Dawson)

Jennifer Love Hewitt. That's the only reason you need to rush out and see this movie. Jennifer walks. Jennifer talks. Jennifer wears outfits so amazingly brief and clingy that you (almost) don't even mind that she never actually "nudies up." She's sweet, charming, sexy, beautiful, and good God can she ever wear a minidress and a pair of high heels.

The plot itself is amusing in a "not great but what the hell, it's good enough" fashion. Sigourney Weaver and JLH are a mother-daughter con team who hit Palm Beach looking to make One Last Score by marrying Sigourney off to tobacco billionaire Gene Hackman (who really is quite funny as a wheezing nicotine fiend). Ray Liotta also is great as one of Sigourney's exes, who still carries a torch for her and tracks her down in Florida.

But who cares about the plot, the other actors, or the fact that the score is ripped off cold from the music in "American Beauty?" All that matters here is that you get to spend two hours catching long, lingering looks at the heavenly body known as Jennifer Love Hewitt. What the hell are you waiting for? Get the car keys and go!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Heartbreak Kid
(Reviewed September 25, 2007, by James Dawson)

The Farrelly Brothers finally come up with a worthy successor to "There's Something About Mary," and it's a remake of a 35-year-old Neil Simon movie? Whoda thunkit?

I never saw the original 1972 "Heartbreak Kid." For all I know, it may have been as chock full of queefing, donkey-sex and peeing gags as this version -- but I kind of doubt it.

Ben Stiller plays an unmarried 40-year-old nice guy who finally meets the sweet-and-lovely girl of his dreams (Malin Akerman)...or so he thinks. Shortly after putting a wedding ring on her finger, he finds out that she is not quite the perfect mate he imagined.

Making things worse, he meets another girl (Michelle Monaghan) who actually is perfect while he and his new bride are on their honeymoon. Most of the movie consists of Stiller keeping the two women from finding out about each other, until a huge misunderstanding manages to make everything even more amusingly awkward.

Stiller does his usual fine deadpan job of portraying a frustrated, desperately-trying-to-remain-calm victim of circumstance. Akerman is hilarious as his cute, clueless and charmingly crude wife. (The things this girl says in bed are enough to make a porn star blush...or crack up...or both!) And Monaghan is adorable as the tomboyish object of his extramarital affection.

Some of the movie's funniest bits are its most absurd. Comedian Carlos Mencia plays hotel employee Tito, who surreptitiously puts his penis in Akerman's hand and then seems honestly baffled as to why this would upset Stiller. Stiller and Monaghan pay for tickets to an attraction billed as "Traditional Mexican Folkloric Dancing," which turns out to be a donkey-human sex show.

Okay, we're not talking about sophisticated, intellectual wit -- but this stuff definitely is funny. The third act goes a little long, but Stiller is likable enough that you won't mind.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed August 19, 2002, by James Dawson)

Well-made but kind of slow; it's almost as if "Run Lola Run" director Tom Tykwer has been overcompensating for the frantic pace of that film with both movies he has made since ("The Princess and the Warrior" being the other). Not to give too much away, Italian cop Giovanni Ribisi falls for jailed Cate Blanchett and takes her side against The Man. The entire (very slight) plot could be summarized in a single sentence only slightly longer than that last one, but I don't wanna ruin the thing. Basically, this is a very somber but consistently engrossing film--not the kind of thing that would make a good second-choice if "Spy Kids 2" is sold out, but worth a look if you're in a melancholy-'n'-mellow movie-going mood.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
(Reviewed June 5, 2001, by James Dawson)

Halfway through 2001, this is only the second "A" rating I've given to any movie this year. (The first went to "Memento.") This funny, strange, trashy, bizarre and sometimes even honest-to-God moving version of director/star/screenwriter John Cameron Mitchell's play is a one-of-a-kind tour de force. The humor is often very black, and many of the songs (by Stephen Trask) are so true to 1970s glam rock that they could have been plucked from a great lost Bowie album. Expect to see quote-whore critics saying things like: "What you would get if John Waters and Andy Warhol had made `Spinal Tap.'"

Basically, what we're talking about here is your basic story of a frustrated, resentful, transexual East German would-be pop star on a tour circuit of Sizzler-type restaurants, shadowing the mega-selling superstar who may or may not have stolen Hedwig's songs. There's animation, audience participation, great over-the-top acting that stays just on the good side of ultra-camp, and terrific music. Most important, the script and lyrics are so damned well-written and clever that you get the rare, wonderful sensation that the writers actually cared about their work. (Try to find another movie that gives you the same feeling this year besides "Memento." Rotsa ruck!)

I'll be going back to see "Hedwig" again, and actually SPENDING MONEY the next time for the privilege. Is there any higher praise that a cheapskate, cheap-shots-flinging critic such as Yours Truly could give? I think not!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A (GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!)

(Reviewed March 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

I hate giving this movie such a bad grade. I absolutely love the Hellboy comic-book series by creator/writer/artist Mike Mignola. He personally approved this movie adaptation, which was made by a director (Guillermo del Toro) who says he sincerely wanted to do right by the original.

Unfortunately, the road to "Hellboy" should have been paved with more than good intentions. Just because a moviemaker is a fan of the comic does not necessarily mean he is the best guy to bring that comic to life on the screen.

Where the Hellboy comics stories are colorfully weird and sometimes deadpan funny, with a real camaraderie among the characters, the movie is bleak and tastes more than a little bitter. The former is due to the fact that del Toro says he did not want anything red onscreen other than the title character...which means too many scenes are sickening shades of pale blues and greens and greys. The bitterness is due to the fact that the movie version of Hellboy is a virtual prisoner within the secret government bureau that fights "things that go bump in the night." He not only gets no respect, he seems to be despised, resented and feared by many of his coworkers in general and by his main superior in particular. (The comic-book version of the character, on the other hand, is pretty much a free operative whose occasional complaints are more of the "here we go again" type than the "my life sucks" variety.)

Ron Perlman looks okay as Hellboy, except for the fact that he's constantly scowling. I guess that's my main problem with the movie: There's no real joy in his version of the Hellboy character. Not that the guy is a laugh-a-minute chucklehead in the comics, but at least he isn't a one-note sad sack.

John Hurt is the perfect embodiment of Professor Broom. Selma Blair would not have been my first pick for firestarter Liz Sherman, and her makeup does her no favors here -- she looks like a haunted, bedraggled junkie. The guy in the suit looks fine as Abe Sapien, whose voice is supplied by David Hyde Pierce.

The CGI monsters are okay, especially the big Cthulhu type toward the end. Storywise, the movie cherry-picks several scenes and moments from various of the comic-book tales, but the assemblage here feels very "off." Things are not helped by the fact that the "audience viewpoint" character is one who has been created specifically for the movie and does not appear in the comics, a rookie agent assigned to work with Hellboy.

It's not a terrible movie, but it sure should have been a hell of a lot better.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
(Reviewed June 15, 2008, by James Dawson)

The same thing that bugged me about the first Hellboy movie is one of the things that made me dislike this sequel: The movie-character version of Hellboy is kind of an asshole.

I like the comic-book version of Mike Mignola's Hellboy a lot, because he comes off like a sardonically exasperated but deadpan-amusing guy's guy. In the movies, though, he's an annoyingly pugnacious jerk whose crudeness is supposed to be endearing. Movie scenes in which he is supposed to appear sensitive feel unconvincing and dumb, like watching some mook from a bad sitcom try to make nice with his wife after an argument.

The other thing wrong with "Hellboy II" is its lousy script. The movie is full of great sets, amazingly imaginative fantasy creatures and terrific special effects. But the screenplay is so bad that it's hard to believe this is the first thing Guillermo del Toro has written and directed since the sublimely wonderful "Pan's Labyrinth."

A sword-happy Elric-lookalike albino dude has to get the pieces of a magic crown back together to wake up a mechanical army and destroy humanity. Hellboy and company have to stop him. Along the way, Hellboy is having romance troubles with Liz Sherman, the girl who can set herself on fire. Fish-man Abe Sapien falls for the albino's twin sister, and gets drunkenly mawkish with Hellboy as they bond over Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You." (Note: This is a lot less amusing than it may sound.)

The movie's tone feels very "off," somewhere between campy and corny. That's why it is so frustrating that the creatures are magnificently well done, from a towering earth elemental to a stone giant to a guy with a cathedral on top of his head to a "Troll Bazaar" full of bizarre oddities. The last movie that wasted so much incredible visual beauty on such an unworthy script was "Mirrormask."

"Hellboy II" is worth seeing just to marvel at all of the onscreen wonders....but if you're looking for a story instead of an impressive CGI demo reel, look elsewhere.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Herbie: Fully Loaded
(Reviewed June 6, 2005, by James Dawson)

Dumb but inoffensive kiddie fare starring the deliciously yummy Lindsay Lohan, from when she still was a redhead and before she got frighteningly thin.

The main problem with the movie, in fact, is that it suffers from DLB syndrome: "Distractingly Large Boobs." Will the little girls who are the movie's target demographic relate to someone who looks like Playmate of the Year material? Maybe Disney included so many tight T-shirt shots of the top-heavy teenager as a gift to dutiful dads who get roped into taking their daughters to the flick. Next up: Pam Anderson in a remake of "Mary Poppins!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Reviewed October 12, 2010, by James Dawson)

"Hereafter"'s only huge special-effects action scene, a massive tsunami devastating an entire Indonesian resort town, occurs within the movie's first 10 minutes. The spectacular segment is more characteristic of "Hereafter" producers Steven Spielberg and his frequent collaborators Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy than director Clint Eastwood, who probably should have argued to eliminate such an overwhelming (if admittedly stunning) extravagance. That's because the rest of the film is so much more sedate and solemn it's like following a stripper with an elegy.

The supernatural twist of the screenplay by Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon") is that one of its three central characters can communicate with the deceased. Fortunately, Morgan's talent for making every member of the cast interesting keeps this "Ghost Whisperer" gimmick, and the movie's self-sabotaging story structure, from being fatal flaws. Once you get past the basic preposterousness of the plot, "Hereafter" has several well-acted human moments that actually are quite moving.

Morose and friendless George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is so disturbed each time he establishes a bond to the afterworld that he has given up making money from his special talent, opting for a less metaphysically draining warehouse job. That doesn't stop his hustling brother Billy (Jay Mohr) from trying to get George back in the psychic saddle. When Billy badgers him into doing a reading, we see George's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"-style vision of blurry figures in limbo. George gets those creepy glimpses of the dead whenever he comes in even glancing physical contact with anyone, which has put a real crimp in his interpersonal relationships. "It's not a gift, it's a curse," he explains. "It ruins any chance I have at a normal life."

Enter the all-around adorable Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is randomly partnered with George at a nighttime cooking class. George tries keeping his distance, refusing even to shake her hand when they meet. His resistance melts after a playful but undeniably erotic classroom-kitchen scene in which each of them is spoon fed by the other while blindfolded. Howard is excellent at conveying both the giddy hopefulness and unexpected despair of a character with considerably more depth than the usual rom-com ditz.

On the other side of the world, gorgeous but haunted French TV journalist Marie Lelay (Cécile de France) has had a case of the hundred-yard-stares since nearly drowning in the movie's opening tidal wave. Her boss suggests she take more time off to recover. Marie thinks she will spend her leave of absence writing a book about politics, but instead becomes obsessed with the "conspiracy of silence" about life-after-death research.

In the movie's third storyline, a lower-class London boy named Marcus, sent to live with foster parents because his mother is a junkie, searches for a way to contact his recently killed twin Jason. Both twins are played by real-life identical twins George and Frankie McLaren. Shocked into blank-faced depression by his brother's death, Marcus hopelessly makes the rounds of various charlatans and internet frauds.

Each of the plots is so different from the others -- aside from their shared sense of mournful malaise -- that they don't quite mesh when they finally contrive to converge. George is so melancholy and stone-faced with resignation that the possibility of a romance with Melanie is almost excruciatingly suspenseful for both him and the audience. Sophisticated Marie's upper-class alienation feels very existential and European, and not just because nearly all of her segment is in French. Marcus' story is the most overtly sentimental. Frustrated by everyone in a position of authority, he wanders the streets like a forlorn waif, always wearing his dead brother's hat.

Aside from a funeral service and a quick peek at an online preacher, the concept of religion is notable for its absence here. Churchgoing ticketbuyers expecting any depictions of faith-rewarding rapture may regard this as a curious omission, considering the movie's title.

Eastwood's direction treats the low-suds-but-still-soapy screenplay with more respectful reverence than it deserves, keeping most scenes cool as a corpse. If Spielberg had been behind the camera instead of behind the scenes, he could have taken this classed-up "Touched By an Angel" tale into truly torrential tearjerker territory.

As it is, "Hereafter" is a rather grim guilty pleasure.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Here Is What Is
(Reviewed April 16, 2008)

This documentary about musician and producer Daniel Lanois features some of the dreamiest and lushest music you'll ever hear. And the fascinating Brian Eno. And a hot go-go dancer. What more could anyone want?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

He's Just Not That Into You
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"He's Just Not That Into You" review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed May 11, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

"Hidalgo" gets off on the wrong hoof, with boring opening scenes that echo the beginning of "The Last Samurau" (which echoed the beginning of "Dances With Wolves"): Viggo Mortenson is a demons-haunted drunken veteran of one too many Indian slaughters. As soon as he arrives in Arabia with his horse Hidalgo for an endurance race, though, things get really enjoyable.

"Hidalgo" is sentimental and corny, and at times can't decide whether it's an eloquent elegy to the old west or a "The Mummy"-style adventure goof. The whole affair is likeable enough, though. It's also "big-screen beautiful," meaning you really should see its picturesque panoramas on an actual movie screen instead of at home on the idiot box. Great ending, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Hide and Seek
(Reviewed January 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

Robert De Niro is Dakota Fanning's dad, who takes her to live in the country after her mother dies. Dakota is menaced by some unseen entity she calls Charley, and spends most of the movie alternating between catatonia and hysteria. Elisabeth Shue has a completely inexplicable romantic attraction to the far older De Niro (and wears lots of ridiculously inappropriate low-cut blouses to show off her cleavage).

Look, all you really need to know about this nicely shot but entirely unsatisfying bore is that the ending is a total cheat. I can't tell you why without spoiling the "surprise," but I'll be happy to provide details by e-mail if you can't figure out the reason on your own.

A thoroughly unnecessary movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

High Crimes
(Reviewed April 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

Look, I'm sorry, I know I should have enough dedication to my calling as "world's best and most honest movie critic" to give you a few hundred words on why this movie is thoroughly, aggravatingly worthless. But life is too short. Suffice it to say that the plot is moronic, the ending is insultingly stupid, and Ashley Judd never gets even partially naked. What else do you need to know?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Higher Ground
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

This review will appear on the website on the movie's August 26 release date. If I forget to come back here to add a link to that review, click this link instead and look for the movie's title:
Index of All James Dawson Reviews
On the Website

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

High Heels and Low Lifes
(Reviewed October 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

Lightweight, extremely dumb crime-caper chick-flick buddy movie. Minnie Driver and that annoying actress who played Howard Stern's wife in the egregious "Private Parts" spend two hours trying to blackmail some London hoods into sharing the spoils of a big heist. This is the kind of stupid, cable-ready fluff the Olsen Twins probably will be doing five years from now, when they can get away with shooting guns and cussing.

Speaking of cussing: This movie is being released by Disney's Touchstone division. It includes exactly one scene--and only one scene--in which the two actresses use the "F" word, and they use it several times within that brief scene. The scene is not important at all to the plot, and could be excised without affecting the movie in the least. Gosh, is getting a PG-13 rating that desirable these days? Very odd.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The History Boys
(Reviewed November 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

Being the product of an American education, I have no idea how accurate this portrait of studious mid-1980s British school chums and the closeted-queen instructors who loved them may be.

Perhaps England's equivalent of advanced college-placement classes really were a gay pedophile's garden of potential delights. Perhaps schoolboys in all-male classes truly did sing yearning torch songs to each other on school time, engage in flamboyantly persnickety rapid-fire banter, and generally behave like less macho versions of Frasier and Niles Crane.

And maybe even the most macho of such lads -- the one with an actual girlfriend -- really would be broadminded enough to offer a gay teacher oral access to his meat and two veg after class.

For me, though, this adaptation of the award-winning play seemed like some kind of sappy gay wish-fantasy that takes place not in another country but in another world. If that kind of thing floats your boat, enjoy.

Personally, though, I wish it had been titled "The History Girls," with an all-female cast of brainy young lovelies singing piano ballads to each other, towelling off together in the locker room and making lascivious offers to older lesbians. And wearing school uniforms, to boot.

See? I can be broadminded, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

A History of Violence
(Reviewed September 22, 2005, by James Dawson)

At the risk of sounding like a senile old fool endlessly repeating himself in the humid dayroom of an assisted-living center, allow me to trot out an analogy I've used before which once again seems unavoidably appropriate:

A letter in an advice column many years ago was from a woman who had not yet seen a friend's child. "I was told that her son was exceptional, so I went to her house thinking this meant the child was some sort of gifted prodigy. Imagine my shock when I discovered that he was hopelessly retarded! Is this what `exceptional' now means?"

"A History of Violence" is an exceptional movie.

I kept hearing that it was supposed to be really great, like a David Cronenberg riff on Peckinpah's little-guy-fights-back classic "Straw Dogs," but it turned out to be badly acted, horrendously directed, cornball and silly.

Small-town diner owner Viggo Mortenson is hailed as a hero after defending his place of business from would-be thieves. Soon thereafter, the mob comes calling in a big black Chrysler, and they ain't happy.

The movie's flat, minimalist tone is reminiscent of "Road to Perdition" by way of the WB network, juxtaposing Mortenson's encounters with scarfaced mobster Ed Harris and remarkably cheesy high-school interludes featuring Mortenson's bullied son. The resolutions of both climaxes are as oft-seen as they are unlikely, with Mortenson's climax skidding off into the territory known as "just plain ridiculous." Adapted from a graphic novel (as in "comic book with pretensions"), "A History of Violence" may as well have ended with Mortenson raising his fist and flying away a la Superman.

Don't believe the hype.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed January 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

Insultingly, infuriatingly, abysmally awful. This is the kind of painfully unfunny would-be romantic comedy that makes you want to mail a steaming dog turd to the movie studio in reciprocation. "An eye for an eye..."

I've never been a fan of Will Smith, but even he deserves better than this. The script is so relentlessly laugh-free and crack-brained, not to mention outright stupid, that it literally gave me a headache. (Yes, I do mean "literally," damn it!)

Smith is a "date doctor" who provides "how to hook up with hotties" advice to guys no sane woman would want. We are supposed to be amused by this, but it's just plain creepy. Case in point: His main client is that disgustingly fat charm-free fuckhead from "The King of Queens," Kevin James, otherwise known as "the best reason never to watch CBS."

Look, I don't mean to be harsh, but I want to projectile vomit whenever I see that bloated, testosterone-free, manchild freak slobbering over yummy Leah Remini in promos for that TV show. It's like watching a bestiality film, only infinitely more sick-making. Kevin James is so far down the comedy ladder that even Tom Arnold is funnier. Hell, even Jim Belushi! (Okay, now maybe I've gone too far...)

Although Smith's character wants to stay undercover and anonymous, we are supposed to believe that his career is ruined when he suddenly is outed as the guy who got Kevin James hooked up with a super-rich blond. What the hell? In the real world, his phone would be ringing off the hook with new business! "You got that asshole laid? Sign me up!"

Eva Mendes is the "out-er," a tabloid gossip reporter with whom Smith's character wants to "get busy," as the young folks say. The movie's gimmick is that Smith the expert tail-master keeps screwing up on his dates with Mendes, in far less than hilarious ways. God, it's just so lame. I'm sorry, I can't write more about this feces-fest without actually remembering it, and that's too painful.

Absolutely the only thing I liked about this waste of time (and a lot of time, too -- incredibly, it's about two hours long) was an actress named Julie Ann Emery. She has a minor role as one of Mendes' co-workers, and she's really cute, not to mention sexy.

Not cute and sexy enough to keep me from awarding this bomb with a big, fat "F-minus," though.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

The Hitcher
(Reviewed January 22, 2007, by James Dawson)

I saw the original 1980s-era "Hitcher" when it was released, and I remember enjoying it a lot more than I liked this okay-but-nothing-special remake. Then again, memory can play tricks on a guy.

Case in point: I always thought that one of my favorite episodes of the original "Twilight Zone" was "The Bewitchin' Pool." I only had seen it once, as a kid. But I guess something about the "swimming pool portal to a perfect Huck Finn world" plot resonated with me, as a miserable little loner.

Last year, a local station began airing reruns of the series, and I got a chance to see "The Bewitchin' Pool" again. And it was AWFUL! Not just bad, but embarrassingly bad. The plot was just as I had remembered, but the acting was roughly on a par with that found in "Santa Claus vs. The Martians."

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the original "Hitcher" may have been no better than this new version. But finding out would involve paying to rent the old one, and all of my spare cash these days is going toward paying for a goddamned $191 speeding ticket and traffic school. Curse you, LAPD!

Sophia Bush is the sex lure in the new version, outfitted in a denim miniskirt and tight top that shows off her ripe, firm charms. Acting-wise, she would fit right in with the cast of "The Bewitchin' Pool" -- but she looks pretty good in camouflage-pattern panties.

Sean Bean is the title character, a motivation-free miscreant who apparently is bad simply because he was written that way.

And some guy plays sexy Sophia's boyfriend, but who cares about the boyfriend characters in these kinds of movies?

The most famous scene from the original -- somebody cue the soothing strains of "Torn Between Two Tractors" -- is recreated here with a gender switch. Ouchie!

If you like your horror movies "old school" style, without the kind of lingering, explicitly graphic torture scenes that make even medical students throw up, you could do worse than this. It's kind of stupid, but nobody has to dig out his own eyeball to escape from a death trap or anything.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
(Reviewed April 26, 2005, by James Dawson)

Mostly charmless.

Look, I'm not one of those nitpicking nerds who automatically regards remakes or adaptations of beloved favorites as acts of indefensible sacrilege. Although it may seem shockingly un-cynical for a critic to confess, I was hoping -- even expecting -- to love this movie.

I've been a fan of every previous incarnation of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" with the exception of the stage version, which I never saw. That means I liked the BBC Radio serial, the differently dramatized record albums, the British TV miniseries and all five of the novels. (Granted, most of the recorded versions featured the same actors, which helped.) Adams was very involved with getting "Hitchhiker's" to the big screen for decades before his death; he even moved from England to California to stay hands-on during its development. In addition, the producers, director and co-screenwriter say they had enormous respect and affection for Adams and his work. What possibly could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out. The movie version of "Hitchhiker's" manages to come up short in nearly every Hollywood-cliche way imaginable.

First: mind-bogglingly bad casting. A lot of dialog and many scenes are nearly identical to what was in previous versions. But Martin Freeman, playing the suddenly planetless Arthur Dent, gives us none of the alternately skeptical and astonished sense of down-the-rabbit-hole displacement he should convey. Instead of grounding the movie as its viewpoint sense-of-wonder character, the one with whom we can relate, Freeman all but disappears into the background as a non-entity. He spends most of the movie looking as if he just got out of bed -- and that's not just because he is in pajamas.

Similarly, Mos Def is bland and dull as Ford Prefect, an alien researcher for the Guide who helps Arthur leave Earth before it is demolished. Ford is supposed to be a genial, somewhat detached pragmatist who generally keeps his cool in even the most outrageously bad circumstances. That shouldn't translate to "monotone-mumbling zombie."

Zooey Deschanel, doing her usual "studiously uninterested in anything" act, looks utterly bored as Trillian, the object of Arthur's affection. And Sam Rockwell's portrayal of Zaphod Beeblebrox, the wild-and-crazy two-headed president of the galaxy, sometimes comes off as more psychotic-creepy than absurdly zany. (One of his heads flips back like a Pez dispenser when the other pushes up out of his body to make its presence known.) Ditto John Malkovich, as an alien cult leader who is more grotesquely nightmarish than entertainingly intimidating.

Worst of all, Marvin the depressed android looks like a widdle-and-cute refugee from Teletubbies land. Maybe the idea was to make him kid-friendly to sell plush toys to toddlers. What makes this design decision even sadder is that the very retro-clunky, squared-off version of Marvin from the old TV series has a cameo in the background of one scene. Now THAT's how a depressed android should look!

I did enjoy Stephen Fry as the narrating voice of the Guide and Bill Nighy as planet designer Slartibartfast. Both seem to be doing close impersonations of their counterparts from the TV series, which falls in the category of "why fix it if it ain't broke?"

Second, the movie is not much fun. The effect of emphasizing and expanding the love triangle between Arthur, Trillian and Zaphod replaces the previous versions' simmering low-key comic resentment with annoyingly soapy sentimentality. The hideous-bureaucratic-alien Vogons, shambling around in big monster suits, get so much screen time that the movie begins to resemble a Sid and Marty Krofft production. The movie's score gratingly jabs home every would-be comic moment. And every change to the original plot felt wrong. Zaphod having a head ripped off and held hostage? Not finding out what the ultimate question is? Our heroes agreeing to go off in search of a gun? Maybe it's unfair to blame the movie's shortcomings on the other credited writer who came onboard to do whatever he did after Adams died, since I don't know who wrote what, but large parts of the script feel very "off."

Part of the reason is because the direction is so slack and lifeless that many scenes feel like no-rehearsal first takes. I constantly imagined director Garth Jennings watching the actors go through their paces, realizing he should tell them to put more "zing" into a much-needed second attempt, but shrugging and moving on to the next setup instead. As the only actor who constantly amps things up and brings some life to the proceedings, Sam Rockwell looks stranded an awful lot of the time.

Most of the special effects are nice, especially when Slartibartfast takes Arthur on a tour of his planet-making "factory floor." And the movie's version of the computer named Deep Thought is truly impressive.

What's strange, though, is that the incredibly cheap production values of the TV series somehow served the material better than this deluxe, big-budget treatment. It's amazingly cool to see hundreds of realistic Vogon columns poised in menacing formation above Earth before vaporizing it in the movie. But does making a scene like that more realistic make it more effective as comedy? Likewise, Zaphod's second head in the TV series was so outrageously cheesy and fake it was laughable, but that was a good thing. The movie version of Zaphod's bonus head is so convincing it could be in a horror movie. Even the falling-whale scene suffers, for the same reason. A hokey whale dropping through the air in the TV version gave us some distance to laugh. The more realistic one on the big screen, flipping its tail before meeting its doom, makes for a darker kind of black humor.

Pass up a ride with this movie and pick up the TV series DVD instead.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed April 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

"Magic realism" from Disney--whoda thunkit?

I knew absolutely nothing about "Holes" before attending a screening of the movie. Going by the title, I expected it to be a cheapo horror movie, something along the lines of "Tremors." Wrong!

Apparently, "Holes" is a fabulously popular book with the teenage set. The screenplay was written by the book's author, Louis Sachar, but I have no idea how faithful it is to the novel. (What, you expect me to do research?) Going strictly by what is onscreen, however, "Holes" is an interesting, offbeat and charming modern-American fairy tale, full of distinctive characters, engaging flashbacks and wild coincidences.

A teenage boy is sentenced to serve 18 months in a relentlessly barren, middle-of-nowhere work farm after being accused of stealing. For "character building," each boy there has to dig a hole every day that is as deep and wide as a shovel. But what you think is going to be a grim, Dickensian tale of a blameless kid overcoming cruel adversity takes so many weird left turns that it ends up having more in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez than "Nicholas Nickleby." And it's funny, to boot!

Jon Voight is flat-out wonderful as the bullying, sadistic, but strangely amusing "Mr. Sir." (No exaggeration, I busted out laughing when he related the story about the "magical place where it never rained.") Voight is the right-hand man of tough-as-nails (literally) camp warden Sigourney Weaver. Shia LaBeouf (what a name!) is great, in a "non-Hollywood-kid" way, as the hapless narrator Stanley Yelnats; in fact, all of the boys at the camp are good. And Patricia Arquette is just plain great as a frontier-days schoolmarm with her own role to play in the history of Camp Green Lake. (My only minor quibble with the casting concerns Henry Winkler as Stanley's father. Winkler still gives off too much of a TV-actor, "Fonzie" vibe for this reviewer's tastes.)

Look, I know it's tough to get motivated to see what looks like a Disney "kid" film if you happen to be over 16, but trust me: This one is a real gem.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Hollow Man
(Reviewed July 31, 2000, by James Dawson)

Two words sum up this botched, unsatisfying mess: "MISSED OPPORTUNITY." You go in expecting an actual MOVIE-scale entertainment, one in which the Invisible Man will go out in the world and interact with lots of people and cause mayhem or mischief among the masses in lots of interesting locations. Instead, you get a cheesy, set-bound "Alien" rip-off.

All of the budget money obviously was spent on the special effects (which are, admittedly, amazing). Ninety-five percent of the action, however, takes place in an underground lab compound, with a handful of dummies trying to find Kevin Bacon as he runs around causing trouble in those claustrophic confines. Why do I say these people are dummies? Because they do such stupid, cliched horror-movie things that they may as well be in a lame-brained parody of these kinds of films (see "Scary Movie"). "There's an invisible psycho running around? Okay, then let's make it a point NOT to stick together, or always to wear our special glasses that let us see him. And God forbid that we should remember there is an elevator shaft escape route until the last minute!"

Also, there is a major plot mistake in this empty-headed exercise. Early on, we are shown Kevin Bacon entering the compound's elevator by pressing a thumb against a scanner for identification. Yet later he is able to enter and leave while invisible...with no explanation given as to how he manages to do this WITHOUT A VISIBLE THUMB.

Elisabeth Shue's breasts are quite impressive, but she is about as believable in her scientific-researcher role as Meg Ryan was as a surgeon ("City of Angels") or Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist ("Tomorrow Never Dies"). She is so languid and sexy and half-stupid that she seems to have wandered in from a porno movie during a lunch break. Not that she bares any flesh, of course. This movie boasts three exposed breasts, but none of them happens to belong to the voluptuous Ms. Shue. Curse the luck!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-, and I only rate it that highly because the SFX are so good.

Hollywood Ending
(Reviewed May 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

In a new TV documentary, Woody Allen says his early role model was Bob Hope. Like Hope at the end of his career, Allen is now at the point where he seems to slide by on goodwill alone. The only difference is that Woody never gets caught looking off-camera to read his bad jokes from cue-cards.

This movie is dull, unfunny and obvious. We also are treated once again to the disturbing spectacle of the Woodman in romantic relationships with women young enough to be his granddaughters (in this case, the ditzy Debra Messing and the flawlessly perfect, mouthwateringly lovely goddess-of-all-women Tea Leoni). Enough, already.

Go rent one of his "early funny ones" instead.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (Saved from an "F" by tantalizing Tea)

Hollywood Homicide
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Running neck-and-neck with the egregious "Alex & Emma" for the title of Worst of 2003, this painfully unamusing buddy-cop "comedy" tries desperately hard to come off as "hip," but ends up being as embarrassingly flaccid as a tired, spent, useless old cock.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

(Reviewed August 7, 2006, by James Dawson)

Although it definitely is worth a look, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie about the career and suspicious death of original "Superman" TV actor George Reeves (played here by Ben Affleck). The main problem is that it doesn't focus enough on Reeves.

"Hollywoodland" is mostly told in flashback. Our viewpoint character is a private eye (Adrien Brody) hired by Reeves' mother to investigate whether Reeves killed himself, as the police believe, or was murdered. The suspects include Reeves' young mistress; the wife (Diane Lane) of a studio head who has been using Reeves as her boy-toy; and the studio head himself (Bob Hoskins).

The movie should have delved more into the nuances of Reeves' journey from "Gone With the Wind" bit player to megapopular TV icon to a guy who couldn't get decent acting jobs because he was typecast as the Man of Steel. There was plenty of drama to be found there, and tragedy, too. We see his highlights and lowlights, but only in bits and pieces that feel annoyingly disconnected. It's hard to identify with or have much empathy for Reeves, because he always seems less interesting than he probably was.

Too much of the movie is devoted to the private eye, his busted marriage, his disillusioned kid, his frustrated ex-wife, and his sometimes sleazy methods. It's as if "Hollywoodland" is two competing movies: a pastiche of "Chinatown" (right down to the title), and a shallow Tinseltown soap opera.

Another problem is that Ben Affleck, no matter what his real age may be, looks too boyish to play Reeves. On the "Superman" TV show, Reeves looked more like a respectable dad than like a cool uncle. I'm not one of those critics who automatically dislikes Affleck, but the guy doesn't pull off "bitter" and "broken down" very convincingly. There's a scene near the end of the movie -- film footage of Reeves that Brody is watching -- that should have choked up everyone in the theater. It doesn't.

"Hollywoodland" also tries too hard to be film-noirish at times, with dialog that approaches parody. Reeves' mistress calls Brody one night to say she is "lonely, a little bit drunk and kinda horny," which sounds about as realistic as "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way."

Let's recount: The movie should have been told in linear fashion, the private eye stuff should have been junked, an actor with more gravitas should have played the main character, and the pseudo-Sam Spade dialog should have sounded more like the way people actually talk.

So how come I'm still giving "Hollywoodland" such a (relatively) good grade? Because the movie looks great, and the story that's buried within it really is intriguing. And maybe because "Hollywoodland" at least makes an effort to be something better than worthless junk for dumb teenagers.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Home on the Range
(Reviewed March 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

Not-bad but not great Disney animated flick that starts off kinda "kiddy," but gets better. (Translation: If you take your little darlings, you won't want to kill yourself.)

Three cows (voiced by Roseanne, Jennifer Tilly and Judi Dench) search for a cattle rustler (Randy Quaid) in order to collect the bounty on his head and save their farm from foreclosure. The movie becomes much more likeable as soon as they find the dastardly varmint, who hypnotizes cattle by yodeling them into elaborate "pink elephants on parade" trances.

The only thing parents might find mildly objectionable is some of the cartoonish violence. Maybe it's just me, but characters seem to get punched and kicked and hit with things a little more than necessary, especially during an instance when teeth actually fly from a guy's mouth. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about splattered blood and guts -- but this isn't exactly the kind of behavior that you will want your toddlers imitating later at home. ("Mommy, my gums won't stop bleeding...")

Except for occasional moments of computer animation that don't mesh very well with the rest of the flick, this is a 2-D affair, so don't go expecting "Finding Nemo" graphics. Like the old west characters it portrays, this kind of "cartoon movie" might be a vanishing breed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Horrible Bosses
(Reviewed July 4, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Horton Hears a Who
(Reviewed February 29, 2008, by James Dawson)

Beautiful computer animation by Blue Sky, the studio that produced "Ice Age," almost makes up for the fact that the thin plot of "Horton Hears a Who" feels very dragged out. The look of the movie, especially in the wildly bizarre city of Who-ville, definitely does justice to the unique style of "Horton" creator Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel.

Jim Carrey is the voice of Horton, a gentle and amiably dumb elephant who hears a voice on a drifting speck that ends up attached to a clover. (I always thought of clovers as the little plants with three and occasionally -- if you're lucky -- four leaves. But the ones in this movie are round, hairy, fuschia things on long stems. Then again, I'm not an expert on horticulture. Or should that be "Hortonculture?")

It seems there is a whole world of tiny humanoid creatures called Whos on that speck, and their survival depends on Horton taking them to a place where the speck won't be in danger. This is complicated by the fact that nearly every other creature in the jungle thinks Horton is bananas. Because they don't have Horton's big ears, they can't hear anything that proves the speck is anything other than a speck.

As the voice of the frantic, frustrated and funny mayor of Who-ville, Steve Carell steals the show. The scenes on his tiny planet are the most enjoyable in the movie, because the place is so perfectly Seussian: weird architecture, all manner of silly mechanical contrivances, and those distinctively odd-looking Dr. Seuss "people."

Stangely enough, my favorite bit of animation wasn't any of the wild-and-crazy instances of antic action on display. It's a wordless bit in which the mayor's silently surly son Jo-Jo sneaks out of the house and makes his way to a mountaintop observatory. At one point, he launches himself skyward using an oversized rubber band, going just high enough to enable him to step quite casually onto a stairway that trails into thin air. Very cool.

Carol Burnett is the voice of a nasty and nosy kangaroo who is bent on making Horton admit that he didn't really hear anything on the speck. In a surprisingly dark scene for a children's movie, she seeks help from a villainous vulture named Vlad (Will Arnett), who proceeds to hunt and terrify Our Hero. The crafty kangaroo eventually incites an angry mob to chase and capture Horton, with plans to confiscate his clover and drop it into a cauldron of boiling oil. Ouchie!

Not a bad movie, especially in the looks department, but definitely not up to the storytelling standards of "Ice Age" or most Pixar movies (or even the live-action "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which also starred Carrey).

And I really could have done without the "Shrek"-like classic-rock singalong at the end, to the REO Speedwagon song "I Can't Fight This Feeling," which seemed glaringly inappropriate and unnecessary.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The Hostage
(Reviewed February 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

Bruce Willis, as a former hostage negotiator who moves away from the big city to run a small-town police department after blowing a big case, does a decent acting job that really belongs in a better movie. That's because the goofy plot of "The Hostage" is pretty weak, characters act in wholly unbelievable ways, and the movie's fiery climax-before-another-bad-climax is so silly it's literally laughable. Then the next climax is even sillier, an impossible-odds shootout scene where nobody but Our Hero seems able to hit the broad side of a barn.

One example will suffice to show what is wrong character-wise with the timid, boneheaded screenplay. Although one of the three home invaders who take a family hostage is a dangerously kill-crazy psycho...and although the busty teenage daughter of said family is dressed like a slut...and although the psycho totally has the hots for her...the girl's clothes mysteriously remain on her ripe young body throughout the siege. I mean, come on. For this movie to have any credibility, she should have been stripped naked and violated about a nanosecond after the rest of the family was subdued.

The best thing about the movie, and this isn't a joke, is the opening credits sequence. The words-on-buildings film-noir look of the credits made me think, "Hey, this looks like it's going to be pretty cool." Wrong!

Willis, though, is so deadpan tough-guy good that his performance reinforces my high hopes for "Sin City," coming out later this year and also starring big bad Bruce. That movie's trailer looks just plain excellent. How can it miss, based on a Frank Miller comic-book series and directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez? (Wow, am I ever setting myself up for disappointment!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

The Hot Chick
(Reviewed April 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

I caught this on video after missing it at the theaters, and you know what? It's actually not terrible! Most critics regarded "The Hot Chick" as pretty much worthless, but at least there are a few laughs in it--which automatically puts it head-and-shoulders above the abysmally unfunny and much more high-profile "Anger Management" (to pick another 2003 Happy Madison production).

Plus "The Hot Chick" features some really cute actresses, including the adorable Anna Faris, who looks like she could be the teenage daughter of Courtney Thorne-Smith. Speaking of whom, doesn't it make you bilious to see Thorne-Smith paired with that loud, talentless sack of guts Jim Belushi in "According to Jim?" Yeah, as if pairings like that ever happen in this universe. Even more egregious is seeing total-piece-of-trashy-ass Leah Remini hooked up with whoever that lumpy douchebag is in "The King of Queens."

But I digress.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Hotel for Dogs
(Reviewed December 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this one for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Hotel for Dogs" review
I also wrote a feature article about the movie, which you can read by clicking this link:
"Hotel for Dogs" article

All I will say here is than this movie is much better that its advertising would lead you to believe -- a really enjoyable film for kids, but one that adults also will like.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Hot Fuzz
(Reviewed March 29, 2007, by James Dawson)

The best movie so far this year -- even if it does have a terrible title.

Director/co-writer Edgar Wright reteams with star/co-writer Simon Pegg three years after the duo's "Shaun of the Dead" for a very funny and very British comedy about a London police officer who is too good at his job. His efficiency makes his fellow officers and even his superiors look so bad that he is transferred to a remote rural village where nothing ever happens. Until people start turning up dead, that is.

Wright keeps the proceedings perfectly balanced between Pegg's deadpan by-the-book seriousness and the colorful eccentricities of various village idiots. The script is not only consistently clever but perfectly structured, with a plot that starts out quite low-key but builds to successive levels of outrageousness.

Timothy Dalton, as the oily owner of a local supermarket, manages to be both funny and brazenly villainous. Jim Broadbent is the village's top cop, a relentlessly pleasant twit whose dumb-but-good-natured son (Nick Frost) becomes Pegg's partner.

If you're a fan of Guy Ritchie's caper movies, Monty Python's Flying Circus or even (believe it or not) the British TV series "Life on Mars," you will love this movie.

Highly recommended!

POSTSCRIPT ADDED APRIL 18, 2007: I originally gave this movie an "A-" grade, but after seeing it again I've knocked off the minus sign to give it a full "A." There's so much going on in this movie that it's actually more enjoyable the second time around, when you'll be able to pick up lots of clever bits of foreshadowing and character detail you may have missed the first time. So go, already -- and then go again!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Hot Rod
(Reviewed July 27, 2007)

Basically stupid attempt to duplicate the loser-nerd-antihero style of "Napoleon Dynamite," but with enough laughs to keep it from being a total waste.

In fact, one line of this movie had me giggling like a retard on nitrous oxide. Would-be stuntman Andy Samberg's romantic rival for the hand of the lovely Isla Fisher jumps out of his Corvette and informs her that he "might buy some dong bags, so we can knock boots later." That, my friends, is sophisticated wit.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Hottie and the Nottie
(Reviewed January 30, 2008)


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Hot Tub Time Machine
(Reviewed March 24, 1010, by James Dawson)

A lot of trailers and TV ads for movies ruin every plot point and give away endings, but a spot for "Hot Tub Time Machine" takes that unfortunate technique to a new low. (Putting a "spoiler ahead" warning here probably is unnecessary, in fact -- but in the unlikely event that you haven't watched TV in the past month, stop reading now.) It would have been bad enough that a TV ad featured a shot of one of the time-traveling main characters aboard a huge yacht, revealing that he obviously managed to alter past events to make himself rich when he returns to the present. Even worse, though, is that he shouts a subplot-ruining, paternity-revealing "spoiler" line of dialog -- "Who's your daddy now?" -- THAT IS NOT EVEN IN THE MOVIE! That's right, it's as if the studio marketing department went out of its way to make sure that even the stupidest moviegoer would not be subjected to any potential surprises during the actual viewing experience.

As for the movie itself, "Hot Tub Time Machine" commits the same huge mistake made by the 2001 debacle Down to Earth, a "Heaven Can Wait" retread that put a reincarnated Chris Rock in the body of an old white guy. In that movie, the character appeared to every other character as the old white guy, not as a young black one. But whatever humor might have been derived from seeing him do things that old white guys wouldn't do was lost on the audience, because (with only a few exceptions) it was Chris Rock that theatergoers saw onscreen.

Similarly, when three of the four characters in "Hot Tub Time Machine" are thrown back to 1986 from 2010 and look at themselves in a mirror, they see that they have reverted to the young turks they were back then. But the audience almost never sees any of them as those younger versions of themselves again. Even though most of the movie's humor is supposed to come from watching young on-the-make males acting like reluctantly responsible middle-aged ones, what the audience sees are middle-aged men acting like middle-aged men.

The screenplay is coarse, moronic and, most importantly, not very funny. It's also derivative of better movies ranging from star John Cusack's own "Serendipity" to "Back to the Future," which is shamelessly ripped off with both a "this is from the future" musical performance and a character fading from existence when it looks as if he may never be conceived.

Rob Corddry plays Lou, the movie-mook stereotype of the bunch. He's basically the kind of obnoxious asshole that lame comedies would have us believe is found in every group of guys. Unfortunately, Corddry doesn't possess the kind of goofball charm that allows Jack Black (for example) to make this kind of self-centered jerk endearing.

The plot, such as it is, makes no sense whatsoever. I'm not talking about the fact that the group goes back in time thanks to a short-circuited hot tub, which actually is kind of a crazy-ass clever conceit. I mean that even though none of the main characters are happy with their lives in 2010, they agree to do everything in 1986 exactly the same way they did it the first time they lived through the same ski-resort weekend, in order not to alter the future. Do these guys honestly think that anything they might do could make the future any worse than it is -- not just for themselves, but for the world in general? Our country's bankrupt, we're fighting two endless and pointless wars, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It's not as if we're living in some perfect utopian paradise.

The movie also has a mean-spirited subplot about Lou's frustration each time a bellhop in 1986 manages to avoid having one of his arms torn off. It's not worth explaining.

If I weren't such a brilliant, original and erudite critic, I would end this review by remarking that I wish I could go back in time to avoid seeing this movie.

But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The House Bunny
(Reviewed June 30, 2008, by James Dawson)

They should have called it "The Hottie and the Nottie 2."

In this appallingly unfunny, insultingly misogynistic cinematic cocktease, Playboy Mansion resident Anna Faris is informed that she must vacate the premises immediately after her 27th birthday. This depresses her, because she has lived at the place since she was 18 and thinks of everyone there -- the other Barbie-perfect girls, the staff members and 80-something overlord Hugh Hefner himself -- as one big happy family. She's also sad that she never attained her dream of becoming a Playboy centerfold, having only appeared in less prestigious pictorials.

The movie's version of the mansion is 100% nudity free, and the subject of sex there never is mentioned. We apparently are supposed to assume that Faris showed up on Hef's doorstep immediately after turning legal and was welcomed to enjoy free room and board for nine years as nothing more than a flakey foster child -- without being expected to parade around naked, blow any strangers, put on the occasional living-room lesbian show or get passed around at nightly gangbangs. Not that any of those things necessarily happen at the real mansion, of course...but that image seems a lot more credible than the idea of a pornographer's lair as a family-friendly screw-free zone.

When Hef appears onscreen with his three real-life, frighteningly bimbonic blond "girlfriends," the uninformed could not be faulted for assuming that he is nothing more threatening than the trio's kindly great-grandpa. (That bottle of Johnson's Baby Oil we see on a shelf can't be for anything other than relieving his bursitis, right?) Later, when we see a centerfold being photographed, the girl in question is wearing a bikini so modest it easily would pass muster as a Good Housekeeping cover.

Look, I'm not saying the producers should have made Faris a nudist, herpes-sored slut who gets evicted because the mansion's Viagra-popping, middle-aged D-list guests have been complaining about the looseness of her high-mileage, overstretched vagina. But the makers of this misbegotten movie at least could have acknowledged that the Playboy Mansion is a little edgier than the treehouse of "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl."

After Faris gets the boot from Playboy paradise, it is damned hard to believe that she would not have a black book full of names of men who gladly would give her another place to live, a new Porsche to replace her piece-of-crapmobile, and a limit-free credit card. But the newly homeless hottie seems to know absolutely no one -- no friends, no boyfriends, no potential sugar daddies, no extended family members, nobody. She ends up at a dilapidated sorority house occupied by a bunch of socially retarded, seriously-in-need-of-makeover coeds who have the mental capacity of eight-year-olds. She tarts them up, they get popular, oh what a surprise.

In a bafflingly idiotic subplot, Faris falls for nerdish Colin Hanks, who is so good and noble that he works at an old age home. It's bad enough that any desperate-for-T&A teen who buys a ticket to this lousy movie is destined to remain limp for its duration, but it's adding insult to injury to make that poor guy sit through scenes of wrinkled, disgusting old farts in a goddamned nursing home.

Look, let me save all of you horny guys who might be tempted to see this bomb 10 bucks: You won't see a single nipple in this movie. None. Not even one. You won't see any bush whatsoever. You won't even see any cameltoe. The only nudity in the entire movie is a brief shot of Faris' (or a body double's) bare ass. Two cheeks. That's it.

Stay home and beat off to free internet porn instead.

End of public service announcement.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

House of D
(Reviewed April 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

I can't guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow or that one plus one will continue to equal two. But I can guarantee that this flabbergastingly awful movie will make my "10 Worst of 2005" list. As of April 10, it's right at the top! (Or is that the bottom?)

Poorly acted, insultingly stupid, shamelessly sappy, "House of D" is so monumentally bad it's perversely fascinating. Honestly, it's hard to believe that any movie could go so wrong in so many ways.

Former "X-Files" star David Duchovny wrote, directed and is a member of the cast. Wow, talk about "three strikes and you're out!" He plays an American artist in Paris, who pedals his bicycle through the night to tell his 13-year-old son and estranged wife a "big secret" about his past.

Most of the movie is this flashback, about Duchovny's character as a 12-turning-13-year-old (played by Anton Yelchin) in 1970s New York. Yep, this is one of those heaveworthy "coming of age" tales, in which we are to be informed how Our Hero learned Important Things that Changed His Life.

Yelchin's best friend is the world's most annoying middle-aged retard. That's Robin Williams, in the role he truly was born to play. Think you hated Williams already, for consistently being such an excruciatingly annoying asshole? Just wait until you see him AS A RETARD!

Williams apparently thinks the mentally challenged veer between acting like head-rubbing, mumbling Brando impersonators and spouting lame schtick like bad standup comics. Why Yelchin (or anyone) wouldn't ditch this guy, go out of their way to avoid him, or simply throw him in front of an oncoming subway train is beyond me.

On at least three occasions, Yelchin pisses into a toilet where his mom has thrown cigarette butts, making sound effects with his mouth while his whizz-stream bombards the floating cigs. File under "ugh." This is to set up a later scene of Yelchin gathering butts from the bowl with his bare hand as mementos of mother. That's supposed to be touchingly sentimental, but ends up being laughably sickening (no mean feat).

Mom is played by Tea Leoni, Duchovny's real-life wife. She mainly smokes and mopes about her young widowhood. She also walks in on Yelchin in the shower and engages him in a vaguely desperate game of one-on-one basketball in their small apartment, with vaguely incestuous overtones. That potentially interesting subplot goes nowhere, however.

Yelchin has the hots for a cute schoolmate (Zelda Williams -- Robin's real-life daughter -- who gives the most levelheaded and realistic performance in the movie). He doesn't know how to get busy with her, though, so he does what any boy on the cusp of young manhood would do: Solicit advice from an inmate at the women's house of detention (the "House of D"). It seems that Yelchin and Robin Williams have been hiding their delivery-boy tip money in a sidewalk niche outside that building, for reasons that are beyond my meager ability to fathom. Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't think that a sidewalk in front of a women's jail -- where pimps and other associates of the incarcerated hang out to talk to inmates through the barred windows -- would be the most secure place to stash my cash. Call me judgmental.

One of those women, played by singer Erykah Badu, dispenses advice to Yelchin up to and including how to dance. That's right, just when you think the movie can't possibly get any dumber, we are treated to the sight of Yelchin dancing with an invisible partner on the sidewalk in front of a women's jail at night.

And it goes on and on and gets worse and worse, until finally we are back in that Parisian courtyard, where Duchovny has spent all night telling this moronically maudlin tale. It's impossible to believe that he would not have told his wife this story already. It's baffling how relating it would repair whatever unspecified rift caused them to part. And it's preposterous to think that all of the eavesdropping neighbors hanging out of their apartment windows would find any of this interesting.

Awful beyond belief.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus to infinity...and beyond!

House of Sand and Fog
(Reviewed November 13, 2003, by James Dawson)

Easily the most overrated and overhyped movie of the year. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley give good performances, granted, but the material here is so bad it's like seeing Meryl Streep and Laurence Olivier in a remake of "Tomkats."

For the howlingly preposterous plot to work, we have to believe three impossible-to-swallow things: (1) Jennifer has not opened her mail for months, EVEN THOUGH IT HAS BEEN PILING UP UNDER THE MAIL SLOT OF THE FRONT DOOR TO HER HOUSE; (2) despite being one of the most beautiful women who ever lived on this or any other planet, Jennifer has no boyfriend, and in fact no friends of any kind, who could loan her $500...and she won't ask her family for the money...even though the alternative is LOSING HER HOUSE; (3) Jennifer Connelly is a flat-broke no-prospects HOUSEKEEPER. (Look, I know she was excellent as a desperate drug addict in "Requiem for a Dream," but somehow she was more believable as a jonesing junkie in that movie than as a freelance maid in this one.) Somebody please direct me to the fantasyland where drop-dead-gorgeous Jennifer is a housekeeper and Nicole ("The Human Stain") Kidman is a janitor, because I'd love to see who is shilling Chanel there!

The audience also is expected to believe that a cop would put his career on the line doing idiotically unimaginable things, because at about the halfway point this movie painfully shifts from lethargic literary nonsense to become an "Unlawful Entry"-style would-be thriller.

One of its high points: A completely gratuitous shot of the lovely Jennifer taking off her shirt to reveal a see-through maroon bra you will dream about removing for the rest of your days. Ms. Connelly's breasts are so magnificently large that the sight of them will take you right out of the movie, which isn't a bad thing in this case. Or, to put it more simply: GREAT GOOGLY-MOOGLY!!!

Kingsley is incredibly good as an ex-Iranian military officer who buys Connelly's house at a tax auction, but the things the plot makes him do are ridiculous, to the point where he seems to be playing a whole host of different men instead of one who has any believable consistency.

Also, the look of the movie is too dark and often too self-conscious, full of would-be "meaningful" cutaway shots (sunsets, a birdbath, seascapes) that end up being about as "arty" as motivational posters on sale at the mall.

Great acting, lousy script. You've been warned.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

House of Wax
(Reviewed April 24, 2005, by James Dawson)

Most of "House of Wax" falls into the tired horror category known as "annoying dumbasses getting picked off one by one." But stick around for the frantic, fiery, finger-snippin'-good finale, which nearly makes up for everything that went before. Talk about a "waxy buildup!"

Paris Hilton plays the sexy airhead girlfriend of a guy who doesn't know she's running "late" this month. The horny couple and four friends take a road trip from Florida to New Orleans to see a football game. A misguided shortcut takes them into unknown territory. After a rude encounter with an unseen stranger in a pickup, they make the mistake of camping in the middle of nowhere for the night. Next morning, the fanbelt on one of their cars has been cut. Oh-oh!

Elisa ("The Girl Next Door") Cuthbert is the story's main character. Or maybe her breasts are, considering how often sweet Elisa stands in profile to show off those bouncing beauties in a white tank-top. (Note: This is not a complaint.)

La belle Paris is the flick's marketing draw, but her role is very much a secondary one; she spends most of the movie offscreen. And don't buy a ticket hoping for any naked-and-naughty "One Night in Paris" moments. Ms. Hilton peels down to a red lace bra and panties during a striptease scene, but this flick contains no nudity whatsoever. Unless you count wax nipples, that is.

Most of the movie consists of Cuthbert, her dopey boyfriend and her "evil twin" brother suffering various stages of unpleasantness in a very creepy town where the rather imposing wax museum is literally made of wax. Say, are those dummies in it just a little too lifelike? Yikes!

If all of this sounds by-the-numbers, you're right. But there actually are some surprises along the way. And the ending is so visually creative, original and exciting that you'll remember it every time you find yourself locked in a wax museum with a relentless, knife-wielding maniac.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed September 20, 2010, by James Dawson)

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

First things first: Yes, studly James Franco is too good looking to pass for either a young and clean-shaven Allen Ginsberg reciting his groundbreaking poem "Howl" for the first time in 1955, or disguised behind thick plastic glasses and a somewhat dubious black beard as a several-years-later version of the writer. Any actor who once played James Dean isn't exactly a natural for the part of a sexually conflicted New York nebbish with a flair for free verse, much less the more settled intellectual Ginsberg became.

Still, it's interesting to watch Franco try rising to the role, which counts for something.

"Howl" is directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, best known for Epstein's "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" and their collaboration on the documentary "Celluloid Closet." The movie's interwoven sections include a recreation of Ginsberg's first public reading of the work that would make him one of the 20th century's most acclaimed poets; several imaginative and beautifully animated segments that accompany the poem's spoken verses; courtroom proceedings from the 1957 obscenity trial of City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti for printing "Howl and Other Poems"; and brief voiceover-narrated scenes from Ginsberg's life.

Although the trial segments use dialog from court transcripts, with 1st Amendment implications at least as important as those in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," those scenes unexpectedly turn out to be the least interesting part of the movie. "Mad Men"'s Jon Hamm is dapper and deft as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, David Strathairn is tentative and clearly outclassed as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, and a succession of witnesses disagree over whether "Howl" is literature or loathsome.

While it's amusing to hear a "Howl" detractor proclaim that she is qualified to judge the poem because she has "rewritten Faust," or to watch Strathairn's perplexed distaste as he recites a few of "Howl"'s more lascivious lines, there's never a great "gotcha" zinger or transcendent philosophical fillip. Not helping matters dramatically are the facts that Ginsberg himself did not attend the trial, and that the actor portraying publisher Ferlinghetti never speaks.

On the other hand, what's incredibly impressive for a low-budget indie flick is how elaborate and creative the computer-animated segments are. Based on illustrations by Eric Drooker that appeared in his "Illuminated Poems" collaboration with Ginsberg, these definitely are not anything as dull as slow dissolves or boring pans of static drawings. These surrealistic and fully animated segments are so interesting and striking that they perfectly complement "Howl"'s often hallucinogenic images, from a rooftop angel-headed hipster to Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows to poor electroshocked Carl Solomon in Rockland.

The poem's reference to "vast sordid movies" is cleverly visualized as a porn theater marquee featuring the words "DESTROYED BY MADNESS, STARVING HYSTERICAL NAKED" from "Howl"'s first line. Bright red outlines in snow movingly illustrate the plight of those "who walked all night with their shoes full of blood," and the fiery and monstrous Moloch segments are like a hellishly industrialized version of "Fantasia"'s "Night on Bald Mountain."

This dazzling synthesis of words and images will make "Howl" easier to appreciate for anyone who remembers its run-on ramblings being pretty rough going as a reading assignment. Similarly, watching Franco as Ginsberg recite the poem with increasing excitement to a club full of listeners makes it obvious that "Howl" is more accessible as a jazz-style performance piece than as mere words on paper.

The interview segment features Franco as a mellow and chain-smoking older Ginsberg, reflecting on his life, loves and art in a deadpan voice that's somewhere between Woody Allen on downers and a Harvey Fierstein rumble. Although not based on a single specific Q&A, all of Ginsberg's dialog in the scene is assembled from his actual words from other sources.

Popping up in short, mostly wordless vignettes are Beat Generation legends Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, both of whom Ginsberg loved; Ginsberg's fellow mental institution inmate Carl Solomon, to whom "Howl" is dedicated; and Ginsberg's eventual longtime partner Peter Orlovsky.

"Howl" is unrated, but includes no explicit sex and may have squeaked by with an "R" if it had been submitted to the MPAA. Then again, several animated nude males are rather well endowed, and we see a motorcycle riding through a forest of photo-realistic phalluses.

Also, the language of the poem itself remains sufficiently shocking that fear of US government fines kept even the ultra-liberal Pacifica Radio Network from airing a reading of it as recently as 2007.

Unlike Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassady, Moloch unfortunately is still with us.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Howl's Moving Castle
(Reviewed June 7, 2005, by James Dawson)

Like his previous masterpiece "Spirited Away," director/screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki's new "Howl's Moving Castle" is a beautifully animated fantasy that's as wonderfully strange as it is sweet. It also is one of the best movies of the year.

Teenage hatmaker Sophie lives in a Victorian-looking reality that happens to include such things as personal aircraft, witches and wizards. One of the latter is Howl, whose home is a bizarrely constructed walking building that's a mechanical cousin to the chicken-legged cottage of Russian folklore's Baba Yaga.

When the nasty Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an elderly woman out of spite, Sophie runs away from home in search of a cure. She finds refuge as a cleaning woman with Howl, a complaining fire-demon named Calcifer, and Howl's boy apprentice.

The script, adapted from the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, sometimes operates on a kind of "dream logic." Which is a nice way of saying that occasional elements of the story don't make perfect sense, yet manage to work anyway in this eccentric, otherworldly context. The mostly hand-drawn animation (with occasional CGI elements) is stunning, from gorgeously rendered landscape vistas to the amazingly baroque clutter of Howl's bedroom to the enormous glass conservatory of a king's ornate palace. The lushly romantic and often moving score is by regular Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi.

Every member of the voice cast is excellent. Christian ("Batman Begins") Bale ranges from manfully assertive to childlike and vulnerable as Howl. Emily Mortimer is appropriately meek as young Sophie, while Jean Simmons is charmingly spunky as Sophie's elderly counterpart. Lauren Bacall is both menacing and melancholy as the vindictive Witch of the Waste. The real surprise here is Billy Crystal, who voices Calcifer with deft humor that never crosses the line into over-the-top schtick.

The enormously imaginative plotline also features a mute, turnip-headed scarecrow, an irresistibly cute duck-footed dog and creepy tarlike creatures in straw boater hats. There's even an anti-war message that is universal enough to apply to nearly any conflict. When Sophie sees massive airship bombers overhead and asks the pacifist Howl whose they are, he sadly replies, "It doesn't matter."

"Howl's Moving Castle" is being distributed by Disney, but was not made by the studio. Unfortunately, that means this gem-like Cinderella of a film will not get the promotional support, nor appear in as many theaters, as Disney's own movies. The fact that this modern classic will be released on only a few screens, while "Herbie: Fully Loaded" will debut on a few thousand, officially qualifies as a crying shame.

For anyone who seeks out "Howl's Moving Castle," however, a thoroughly magical experience awaits.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A- (GO SEE THIS MOVIE!)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
(Reviewed October 27, 2000, by James Dawson)

To truly appreciate what an accomplishment this movie is, try to imagine how screechingly, unwatchably awful it would have been if the Grinch had been played not by Jim Carrey but by Robin Williams. Not that this movie is a masterpiece, but when you think about how much worse it could have been with exactly the same script but Williams in the lead, appreciating its charms becomes a whole lot easier.

Carrey and the kid who plays Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen) are the ones who had to carry this movie to make it work, and the amazing thing is what a good job they do. Carrey's asides are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny (and regular readers will know that I am not a guy who is easily amused). At times, Carrey seems to be channeling Jack Nicholson's Joker, but that's not a bad thing.

Momsen has to be just about the cutest kid in the universe, and it is fun to watch her on the verge of cracking up in some of her scenes with Carrey. Kudos to the casting director for managing to find a little girl who won't make audiences think, "Oh, God, another phoney-baloney Hollywood kid who is nine-years-old-going-on-forty-five."

Ron Howard, not usually known for showing much imagination as a director, goes for a "Tim Burton lite" approach here that only becomes annoying when Carrey (or one of his younger Grinch selves) is not on screen. For example, the non-Carrey scenes that featured Who townfolk going about their Whoville lives were almost as flat as the egregious live-action "Flintstones" movie. Jeffrey Tambor (Hank in the late, lamented "Larry Sanders Show") plays his role so broadly that he seems to have wandered in from that lousy TV adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" a few years back, the one where a bunch of C-list actors all mugged their way through their roles to the point where I finally went "Gaaaaack!" and had to turn the channel.

Much of the production design also was oddly unimpressive. For all of the work that obviously went into constructing Whoville, the result looks too much like Disneyland's sterile Toontown attraction, instead of like the wild-and-woolly (and sometimes grim-and-gritty) Dr. Seuss drawings. I kept looking at stuff and thinking, "I know I'm supposed to be think this set is as cool and convincing as Munchkinland, but it looks too much like a bunch of people in costumes and fake noses running around a Disney store at a mall." And why can't even a mega-buck movie like this one come up with fake snow that looks less like attic insulation? Crumpit Mountain, where the Grinch lives, is the best looking thing in the whole movie--but would have looked even better if it did not have that woeful fake-snow shortcoming. (File under "bizarre pet peeve.")

So how can I still recommend this movie? How can I, one of the harshest cinema-fare evaluators on the whole dang web, actually give it a "B?" Chalk it up to the Christmas spirit, but also to the fact that Jim Carrey is so undeniably likable. I went into this movie with VERY low expectations (the TV ads make it look like another "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians," possibly the worst movie ever made, and yes, I have seen "Plan 9 From Outer Space"). But Carrey is funny, Cindy Lou Who is consistently cute without being cloying, and the younger versions of the Grinch were great. Hell, I even liked the dog.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
(Reviewed September 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

Simon Pegg knows better, and he should be ashamed of himself.

As cowriter of the brilliant TV comedy series "Spaced" and the terrific movies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," Pegg has proven that he knows the difference between clever and crap.

Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to give a damn that both this movie and this year's equally shitty "Run Fatboy Run" clearly fall in the latter category, resembling shamelessly cynical bids to appeal to the dumbfuck mainstream.

My review of "Run Fatboy Run" ended this way: "Pegg is better than this kind of junk. With any luck, he has gotten 'going mainstream' out of his system, and will return to doing smarter stuff that's actually funny."

No such luck.

This time out, Pegg plays an unamusing, socially retarded moron who edits a low-budget celebrity magazine in London. We are expected to believe that this witless, unsophisticated lout is a good enough writer that the uber-successful editor of Vanity Fair (rechristened Sharps here) recruits him to move to Manhattan and join the staff -- and doesn't fire him when he proves to be a complete embarrassment around entertainment-industry types. After his only attempt at writing a piece for the magazine is rejected, he nonetheless is promoted, eventually becoming enough of a major player that he accompanies a beautiful actress to an Oscars-type awards ceremony.

(Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. The movie opens at the awards show and most of the movie is told in flashback, thereby ruining any suspense that Pegg might be fired or simply killed as earlier events progress toward that inevitable scene.)

Despite the fact that Pegg acts like a vulgar, charmlessly immature dipshit, magazine coworker Kirsten Dunst finds herself attracted to him, although their zero-credibility romance suffers the usual stupidly sitcommish complications.

This dud was adapted from a bestselling memoir I haven't read. Maybe the book had more to offer. According to the production notes, the office romance subplot does not appear in the book, and neither does Dunst's character.

I hate to say it, because I enjoy Pegg's work so much when he is doing movies in which he seems more invested, but "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People" is so bad it's not even worth watching on cable. It's simply lousy.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

How to Train Your Dragon
(Reviewed March 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

I'm no fan of 3D, mainly because I hate wearing those damned glasses that usually make the picture look too dark. Having said that, "How to Train Your Dragon" may be the best-looking 3D movie I've ever seen -- and yes, that includes Avatar. The entire CGI-animated movie is bright, sharp, colorful, and just plain beautiful.

And here's another unexpected comparison to the biggest movie in the world: The dragon flights and fights in "How to Train Your Dragon" are better looking, better directed and more thrilling than those in Avatar. The high-speed swoops and dives are amusement-park exciting, and a scene in which a dragon rider lifts a hand to sweep it along the underside of a cloud is genuinely sublime. This movie is an absolute marvel to behold.

Fortunately, the simple story is every bit as good as the elaborate graphics. In a Viking village frequently attacked by fire-breathing and other nasty varieties of dragon, the chief's amusingly less-than-macho son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) gets in a lucky shot during an aerial attack. No one believes him, though, so he sets out to find the dragon he thinks he downed. The formidable Night Fury dragon turns out to be wounded but not killed, and the two form an unlikely but heartwarming friendship.

The character and creature animation in this movie is exceptional, even considering the current state of the art. The many types of dragons are imaginative, funny, frightening and even cute. Toothless, the dragon that Hiccup befriends, turns out to be playfully cat-like. The Vikings are stylized and cartoonish in the best sense, not "motion-capture" surrogate people.

Hiccup's highly competitive rival Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera but resembling a blond-braided Leelee Sobieski, is one of several Viking teens undergoing dragon-fighting training with him. One of the screenplay's funniest throwaway lines comes when a fellow student, being pursued by a violently angry captured dragon, informs the instructor that "I'm beginning to question your teaching methods!"

Astrid becomes suspicious of Hiccup's sudden proficiency at getting dragons to do his will, based on things he secretly has learned from Toothless. What's even worse for the newly dragon-sympathetic Hiccup is knowing that he may be expected to kill one of the creatures at the end of his training.

The movie avoids almost all of the potential pitfalls that have become cliches in movies like this. There are no pop songs on the soundtrack and no contemporary-culture references in the dialog (aside from colloquialisms such as "cool" and "amazing"). Although there is a "you are not my son" moment that seems too by-the-numbers, there are enough better father-son moments to make up for it. Also, the movie's "can't we all just get along" and "peace through understanding" morals are more sweet than sick-making.

I almost skipped this screening, thinking the movie would turn out to be another dopey kids' flick full of bad music and sitcommy humor. Instead, "How to Train Your Dragon" turned out to be one of the best not-just-for-kids movies I've ever seen.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
(Reviewed July 27, 2010, by James Dawson)

This documentary about Playboy empire founder Hugh Hefner highlights the bunny-master's financial and philosophical advocacy of worthwhile causes including civil rights reform, drug decriminalization and -- no surprise here -- freedom of the press. Director/writer Brigitte Berman combines archival and recently shot footage of Hefner interspersed with flattering comments from the likes of Dick Gregory, Bill Maher, Mike Wallace, Joan Baez, several Playboy staffers, and even Gene Simmons of Kiss. (Strangely, we never are informed that former Playmate of the Year and former Hefner girlfriend Shannon Tweed, who also is interviewed, has lived with Simmons since 1985.)

Hefner's opposition to racism during the Jim Crow era is genuinely admirable. We hear how he included mixed-race singing groups on his early-1960s TV show "Playboy's Penthouse," despite knowing that this meant the syndicated show never would air in certain markets. He also bought back Playboy Club franchises in Miami and New Orleans at a loss after hearing that the managers there would not admit black keyholders.

Possibly the most unexpected of Hef's good deeds was when he allowed Playboy's "Big Bunny" DC-9 corporate jet to ferry Vietnamese orphans to US cities from San Francisco, with Playboy bunnies serving as flight attendants. The lord, and the licentious, obviously work in mysterious ways.

Although there are a few negative comments from D-list Hefner detractors such as self-righteous radio scold Dennis Prager, feminist author Susan Brownmiller and "Christian activist/singer" (as he's billed here) Pat Boone, their sniping seems passionless and perfunctory. Instead of presenting those small-potato puritans as representatives of those who don't think Hefner deserves canonization, Berman should have included footage of people such as Hustler's Larry Flynt (whose epic 1st Amendment battles make Hefner's court fight to get a second-class mailing permit seem trivial), adult film star Linda Lovelace (whose claims of sexual exploitation at the Playboy Mansion are somewhat at odds with Hefner's stated embrace of feminism) and film director Peter Bogdanovich (whose bitter condemnations of Hefner following the murder of Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten are the reason Hefner says he suffered a stress-related stroke in 1985).

The documentary also ignores the fact that a libertine lifestyle like Hefner's comes with certain physical risks as well as legal ones. In 1982, Time magazine famously noted that Playboy employees referred to the Playboy Mansion's grotto-adorned swimming facilities as the herpes pool. How's that for sophistication, gents?

By not even so much as mentioning the existence of other men's magazines, the documentary fails to note the political benefit Playboy eventually received from sticking with breasts and buttocks, instead of progressing to Penthouse- or Hustler-style gynecological explicitness. The federal 1996 "Military Honor and Decency Act," for example, banned sales of racier publications such as Hustler and Penthouse at military bases, but not Playboy. It would have been interesting to hear free-speech advocate Hefner's opinion of a censorship law that actually helped his magazine while hurting his competitors.

Likewise, it would have made sense to ask Hefner -- who took an anti-war stance during the Vietnam debacle -- for his opinion of that conflict's current counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the closest thing we get to a commentary on contemporary American politics are some remarks by Hefner about Obama's historical significance as America's first black president.

Lapses like those mean "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" plays more like a puff piece than a complete portrait of the man. Technically, it's annoying that none of the interview clips mention the dates when they were filmed, mixing the dead with the living in a context-free limbo.

One thing the documentary conveys without having to be blatant is that Hefner may now be the exploited party, which should give some satisfaction to those who think he helped ruin the life of many a poor girl. It's almost poignant to realize that Hefner, now 84 years old and dating women young enough to be his great-granddaughters, is deluding himself if he thinks those "girlfriends" are interested in anything other than self-promotion.

Then again, so long as he's getting his jollies, should a playboy really care?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed November 23, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Bottom line: He looks fake, the movie's pace is glacial, and the lifelessly depressing overall tone is going to make comic-book-action fans want to beat up box-office cashiers from coast to coast. As soon as they wake up, that is.

First things first: The CGI Hulk is about as physically convincing as Roger Rabbit. He is one of those computer-animated characters whose mere existence on film is kinda impressive, but who always is very obviously not "real" and of this world. Forget the comparisons to Shrek; while the Hulk's skin texture does resemble Shrek's to an unfortunate degree, Shrek at least had the advantage of living in an entirely animated "universe," not having to be seen interacting with actual humans or genuine physical landscapes.

The best way to explain what's wrong with the Hulk is to use Roger Ebert's perfect line about why the CGI scenes of a swinging-through-the-city "Spider-Man" looked bogus: the character has no "weight." For all the booming sound effects and bouncing cars and ripples in water that happen when Hulk bounds around, he still seems completely insubstantial, especially in the silly, far-too-fast way he bounces and flits from place to place. Objects he throws don't seem to obey natural laws of physics, light doesn't ever seem to hit him the right way...essentially, he looks about as genuine as a video-game character. His expressive face is the best thing about him, but the full-body shots are not even state-of-the-art. Both Dobby and Gollum looked better last year (in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," respectively).

How a studio can spend mega-tens-or-hundreds-of-millions on a project like this and not realize that they have botched the movie's central reason for existence is beyond me, but test footage of the Hulk character should have shown anyone with eyes that the technology just wasn't up to the task of making people believe in this less-than-jolly green giant.

Forget jolly--when he's not full of rage, this guy is positively morose, and for good reason. There's no gleefully mindless "Hulk smash!" destruction here (which is the kind of thing most ticket-buyers will be expecting). When he finally shows up (which takes so long you'll think you must be in the wrong theater), the Hulk mainly reacts to emotional torment, viciously brutal attacks and just plain sadistic torture. If you thought that the final beat-down scene in "Spider-Man" went on too long for anyone but the excruciating-pain-loving, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's one thing to try engendering sympathy for a movie monster by showing him subdued and victimized (a la "King Kong"), but this flick wallows way, way too much in the Hulk's agony, and in alter-ego Bruce Banner's psychological childhood-trauma problems.

This goes to the heart of what is most "wrong" about the movie: "Classy" critic's-darling director Ang Lee burdens the lightweight source material with such an oppressive load of gravitas that he effectively removes every single bit of cheesy, rampaging-monster fun. It would be hard to imagine a more bizarrely inappropriate matchup of director and subject matter. (What's next? Wim Wenders doing "Millie the Model?")

Jennifer Connelly looks radiantly beautiful, as always, but her primary duty here is to mope around and cry a lot. There's a neat SFX shot toward the end of the movie involving a character other than the Hulk that I won't ruin (it involves fingers and metal), but that was the single CGI image that looked fresh and new. Star Eric Bana is boringly bland, the frequent overuse of split-screen is annoying, and at least a half-hour of tedium could have been cut from the running-length with no trouble at all.

Beyond that, the script (by people for whom I have so little respect that I won't bother looking up their names) tosses out everything from the original comic book storyline except character names and the basic look of the Hulk himself. But what's this nonsense about the Hulk having the ability to grow treetop-tall? Sheesh. The Hulk is not even referred to by that name anywhere in the movie except once, when Banner himself mutters some awkward line about turning into "that hulk" the night before. The military operation to subdue the Hulk refers to him as (I kid you not) "Angry Man."

I couldn't help imagining what Hulk co-creator Stan Lee (who has a cameo with TV Hulk star Lou Ferrigno) should have thought after seeing this movie. "Uh, yeah, that's really great, true believers--except that you threw out the goddamned green baby with the bathwater! AAAAARGHHHH! STAN SMASH!!!!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Human Nature
(Reviewed March 16, 2002, by James Dawson)

Another great movie written by "Being John Malkovich" scripter Charlie Kaufman. I saw "Human Nature" the same day I saw the lousy new movie "Big Trouble," and you couldn't imagine two more diametrically opposed comedies. "Human Nature" is original, fresh, fascinating, strange and unique. "Big Trouble," which stars former "Home Improvement" TV star Tim Allen, is the kind of written-by-committee, obvious, unfunny junk that doofus sitcom audiences lap up. (Guess which one is going to open in more theaters?)

"Human Nature" stars Patricia Arquette as a hairy nature girl who befriends a feral man who learns civilized ways from Patricia's anal-retentive behavioral scientist boyfriend who is teaching table manners to mice. And then things get really strange.

If you think all that weirdness doesn't sound like your kind of movie, trust me: You're wrong! It's terrific! And it is directed by Michel Gondry, formerly best known for doing videos for Bjork (including "Human Behavior," which seems appropriate).

If you liked "Being John Malkovich," see this movie immediately. If you didn't like "Being John Malkovich," go see if "Yes, Dear" is on tonight and park your sorry ass in front of the tube again, you pathetic dope.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Human Stain
(Reviewed October 31, 2003, by James Dawson)

I can't remember the last time so many genuinely good actors found themselves in such an utterly preposterous movie. The plot and characters in "The Human Stain" are so unconvincing that you will wonder if the thing was supposed to have been played as an outright farce instead of a high-minded Oscar-bait drama.

The media probably has ruined the movie's big twist for you already, but just in case you didn't get the word I won't blow the surprise. Suffice it to say that Hopkins is not exactly what he seems to be...and that this is the biggest problem with the movie. Basically, what we are expected to swallow about him is howlingly, comically unbelievable. It's the kind of thing that may work perfectly well in a book, which lets readers create their own mental pictures, but not in a movie whose every frame betrays the all-important premise.

It is similarly hard to buy a romance between the just-this-side-of-elderly Hopkins and the considerably-more-than-a-generation-younger Nicole Kidman. That love affair is such a stretch that it almost makes going along with the giggle-inducing idea of Kidman as a white-trash cow-milking janitor possible. Well, not really.

The normally excellent Gary Sinise is wasted as a secluded writer Hopkins befriends, because he is put in situations that are flat-out silly but only unintentionally funny. When Hopkins grabs Sinise out of a chair to ballroom-dance the poor guy around to the strains of "Cheek to Cheek" for what seems like an eternity of screen time, the audience doesn't know whether to shake its collective head in pity or shuffle in shock to the nearest exit.

Ed Harris is good as Kidman's vengeful ex, because his character is evil in a strange don't-give-a-damn-honest way that makes him, if nothing else, unique.

The movie gets points for trying to say something about this country's sorry slide into political correctness, but not enough of them to make it worth seeing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Hunting Party
(Reviewed September 3, 2007, by James Dawson)

It's easy to agree with the underlying politics of this black-humor satire, which boil down to the fact that the United Nations and the United States government are laughably and criminally ineffective when it comes to making some war criminals pay for their crimes. (For example, George Bush and Dick Cheney have not been dragged to the World Court in leg irons. But I digress.)

The problem is that the execution of this "three motivated guys can accomplish what an unmotivated international community won't" doesn't live up to the material's potential for either parody or drama. It feels flabby instead of sharp, its most important plot "surprise" is a complete cheat and its ending is insultingly stupid.

Richard Gere is a very down-on-his-luck TV war correspondent who lost a respectable gig after displaying on-air disgust with events in Bosnia during the mid-1990s war there. While his former run-and-gun cameraman (Terrence Howard) has moved up to a top job at the network, Gere is reduced to hustling videotape of self-financed reporting trips to small-time markets.

When events bring the two together in Bosnia again, Gere convinces Howard that he knows where to find a notorious Serbian war criminal who has not been brought to justice. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, writer/director Richard Shepard inexplicably handicaps the movie by saddling the two with an utterly unnecessary third wheel: the greener-than-green, clueless, just out of Harvard son of a network VP (Jesse Eisenberg). It is impossible to believe that Gere's and Howard's characters would want this stereotypical doofus anywhere near them. His presence doesn't even work as comic relief in an otherwise darkly tongue-in-cheek exercise that is supposed to be more sophisticated than sitcommish.

Even worse, we are supposed to believe that Howard would be surprised when he learns that Gere wants to do more than simply interview the war criminal they are trying to find. But this makes absolutely no sense, considering what Howard knows about Gere's personal history with the guy. Frankly, it would be ridiculous to assume that Gere WOULDN'T want to kill him!

As for the lousy ending, let's just say that Hollywood types apparently have no concept of what the words FIVE MILLION DOLLARS mean to anyone living in the real world.

The most interesting thing about "The Hunting Party" may be the text that appears before the closing credits, revealing how many of the things in the script are based on fact. One example: Posters distributed throughout Bosnia listed a toll-free 800 phone number where the local citizenry could report a war criminal's whereabouts in hopes of collecting a reward...but that number didn't work in Bosnia. Ouch.

"The Hunting Party" is ambitious and even admirable for what it attempts to be -- a buddy-caper flick with a conscience -- but it doesn't live up to the high standard set by Shepard's last outing: the offbeat Pierce Brosnan anti-Bond flick "The Matador."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed May 17, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B