Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



If you can see these words,
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(Reviewed January 27, 2011, 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.)

Director/writer Gregg Araki's weirdly wonderful "Kaboom" is a deliciously deadpan sex comedy that's also a spooky conspiracy thriller. Like its many omnisexual characters, the movie has no problem swinging both ways.

The single-named Smith (Thomas Dekker) is an "18 and perpetually horny" college student with the hots for his cheerfully dumb surfer-bum male roommate Thor (Chris Zylka). That doesn't mean Smith is immune to the very forthright female charms of a blasé, big-haired blond named London (Juno Temple), who has no trouble at all seducing him. As the likably low-key Smith puts it when asked if he's gay, "I'm more undeclared."

Smith's best friend since ninth grade has been the irresistibly sardonic and monotonic Stella (Haley Bennett), who makes seen-it-all ennui look good. Stella is having trouble breaking up with a self-described insatiable sex maniac named Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), a wicked witch who likes messing with the weather. "You have a 'Fatal Attraction' stalker with supernatural powers," Smith tells Stella. "You've got every right to be creeped out!"

Although "Kaboom" is unrated, none of the bedroom scenes include nudity that's any more explicit than a typical "boobs and butts" R-rated feature. The movie's dialog may have garnered it an NC-17, however, with topics that include a detailed how-to guide for an unskilled lover who fails his "orals."

Echoing "Risky Business," "Kaboom" begins with Smith's voiceover informing us that the movie's opening scene is "always the same dream," one he's been having a lot lately. Instead of a steamy shower fantasy, Smith's recurring nocturnal vision takes place in a sterile white hallway with a mysterious redhead, a door numbered 19 and an ominous red Dumpster.

Smith later encounters the same redhead in the waking world, being pursued by black-clad men in animal masks. Is he only hallucinating when he sees one of them kill her? And what's on that flash drive she surreptitiously shoves into his pocket before he passes out?

Intercut with all of the scary paranoia and vigorous but casual couplings are some amusing observations about 21st century sexuality. After Smith walks in on his hetero roommate and a macho friend wrestling on inflatable chairs in their underwear, London matter-of-factly points out that "straight guys are gayer than gay guys."

The look of the movie is sharply immaculate, with day-glo backgrounds, saturated colors and arty exterior upshots of angular architecture. Nearly everyone is adorned with more makeup than a Vegas showgirl and has better hair, like an elaborate eye-shadow homage to '80s MTV videos and "St. Elmo's Fire."

Refreshingly, the many and various hookups in "Kaboom" are spicy and sometimes silly but never seem cynical. Most of the cast is impossibly good looking, nobody ever says "no" and preferences are elastic, to say the least. Yet this movie's offbeat sexual wonderland is somehow less off-puttingly phony than what's onscreen in soullessly generic conventional rom-coms such as "No Strings Attached."

Araki eventually is spinning so many plates at once — sex farce, murder mystery, psychological thriller, apocalyptic fantasy — that you'll wonder if his screenplay possibly can reach a satisfying conclusion. Short answer: Reactions will be mixed. The climax is ridiculously rushed, with an exposition dump of dialog that sounds like a frenzied story pitch for a whole other movie's worth of "X-Files" strangeness.

Instead of dropping a few plates, Araki opts for pushing over the entire china cabinet. The movie's outrageously final final scene either will make you stare in stunned disbelief or throw popcorn at the screen, but you definitely won't forget it.

(Kaboom will be released January 28 in New York and February 4 in Los Angeles, with additional markets to follow. It also is available now through Sundance Selects video-on-demand.)
Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Kangaroo Jack
(Reviewed January 9, 2003, by James Dawson)

Achingly unfunny in the way that bad sitcoms are: Loud, stupid, predictable and insultingly contrived. Even in what is supposed to be a comedy (or maybe I should say "especially in what is supposed to be a comedy"), it is impossible to believe that a couple of guys who hit a kangaroo with a Jeep would find it amusing to dress what they think is the animal's corpse in a baseball jacket and take "goofy" Polaroids of the dead creature. (PETA, start your faxes!) The kangaroo miraculously revives and hops off, still wearing the jacket, which contains $50,000 of mob money. Oh, why go on.

I saw this the day after I saw "A Guy Thing." Fearing total brain meltdown, I couldn't bear to attend a screening of "Just Married" the next night. Sorry, but there's only so much shit a guy can eat in one week.

The only thing good about "Kangaroo Jack" is seeing model/"actress" Estella Warren (the busty blond babe from my favorite Chanel No. 5 commercials) walking around looking, well, busty and blond. Her lips are so freakishly large that the shadow the top one casts looks like a John Waters mustache, but even this does not subtract from her charms--THAT'S how hot she is. Sadly, however, estrogen-charged Estella never once strips down and bounces on a trampoline while eating a banana. So much for giving the people what they want!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

K-19: The Widowmaker
(Reviewed July 15, 2002, by James Dawson)

Depressing, slow-moving, ultimately pointless slog about Soviet-era Russia's problem-plagued first nuclear submarine. If you're sitting at home wondering how you can spend eight bucks to feel totally bummed-out, jump off of your couch and hurry to see this thoroughly miserable-making movie.

Harrison Ford plays the sub's captain, looking constipated and pissed-off throughout, although thankfully with not too much of a fake accent. Liam Neeson is the guy who was captain and who doesn't like having to give over his command to Ford, but who remains ridiculously loyal to ye olde chain-o'-command even when things veer into "Caine Mutiny" territory. A bunch of unknowns play the bumbling crew members, who are portrayed as being such incompetent idiots that this movie could have been an American propaganda film "back in the day."

A documentary about this allegedly true incident may have been interesting, but there is not enough "story" here for a movie--at least not with this script. I guess "K-19"'s basic lesson--that anybody who serves in the military is placing his life in the hands of fools--is a good one, but one that is kinda obvious at this point. Or sure as hell should be.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed April 15, 2010, by James Dawson)

Wonderfully silly and hyper-violently hilarious, "Kick-Ass" also manages to be lovingly affectionate toward the superhero traditions it sends up. This movie is a smartass fanboy's wet dream -- and isn't just about everyone a smartass fanboy by now?

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a comic-book geek who can't figure out why nobody in the real world ever has tried emulating superheroes by putting on a costume and fighting crime. He mail-orders a green wetsuit with an identity-concealing hood, fails disastrously in his first attempt as Kick-Ass to confront bad guys, but becomes a YouTube sensation when he takes a later licking and keeps on ticking.

While that "Peter Parker without powers" setup is amusing, it's two other characters who end up stealing the movie. Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) is a wrongly accused ex-cop teaching his adorable, pint-sized 11-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) everything from the proper use of a butterfly knife to how to take a bullet to the chest. In his alter ego as the outrageously lethal Big Daddy, Damon speaks with halted Adam West cadences that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the 1960s "Batman" TV series. In costume as Hit Girl, Mindy is a tiny tornado of miniature martial arts mayhem. She's also unbelievably, laugh-out-loud foul-mouthed. Okay, maybe hearing a pre-teen using the "c" word, the "m" word, and several other choice bits of profanity isn't the height of sophisticated wit. But just try not laughing when the little darling describes a thug who is about to meet his end in a car crusher by saying, "What a douche."

Adapted from a comics series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., the screenplay by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn builds to an audience-ovation finale, complete with the requisite possible-sequel cliffhanger. The script is full of self-deprecating dialog gems, such as Kick-Ass noting that his "only superpower was being invisible to girls," bemoaning the fact that he is "just a stupid dick in a wet suit," and noting that "with no power comes no responsibility." Cage frequently refers to his daughter as "child" in a way that's appealingly goofy, and fanboy in-jokes include a movie marquee promoting "The Spirit 3."

Even the traditional "hero beatdown" scene, in which the protagonist of every superhero movie is pummeled to within a millimeter of his life before getting his mojo back, is given a clever twist here. In voiceover, Kick-Ass warns the audience not to assume that just because he is narrating events means he survives, pointing out that "Sunset Boulevard," "American Beauty" and "Sin City" all were narrated by dead men.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Disney's "The Kid"
(Reviewed November 29, 2000, by James Dawson)

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

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

In a word: Miss it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Kids Are All Right
(Reviewed July 22, 2010, by James Dawson)

Julianne Moore is sweet, sexy, funny and just plain terrific as the slightly flaky half of a lesbian couple whose teenage daughter and son go looking for their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo) in this delightful dramedy.

Annette Bening is the stable and sardonic Nic, Jules's other half. Nic is the stable breadwinner, while the more home-centered Jules isn't too concerned about her own unemployment. She's not a complete slacker, though, and hopes to get a landscaping business off the ground. (Being lesbians, of course, she and Nic already own a pick-up truck.)

Bening mines some of the same brittle-bitch-with-soft-spot territory that she assayed in Mother and Child earlier this year. Fortunately, she dials back her 'tude enough here to make Nic seem more protective and guarded than scary and psychotic.

More good news: The kids in the movie are more than all right. Mia Wasikowska (Alice from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) is Joni, who has mixed feelings about secretly searching for her biological father. When she and her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) discover that their mutual dad is actually a pretty cool guy, they try to make him part of the family...with not so great results. Both actors convincingly show the excitement, hope, initial satisfaction and eventual disillusion that come with getting what they thought they wanted.

The movie manages to pull off a politically incorrect but undeniably hilarious plot twist that could have backfired if mishandled. By then, though, we know the characters so well that the admittedly titillating development doesn't seem offensive or gratuitous. Director Lisa Cholodenko, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, expertly walks the line between making the relationships between Nic, Jules and their kids seem as familiar as those in any family, but also slightly not.

The movie even gives a wink to viewers about the fact that Bening and Moore are not gay in real life. When daughter Joni wonders why her two moms don't watch lesbian porn, she's told that those movies mostly feature straight girls, and therefore aren't convincing!

It's too bad the movie is saddled with a genuinely terrible title. Even worse, the Who song of the same name never is heard here, which makes the choice doubly perplexing.

Moore really deserves to be remembered for her wonderful performance come Oscar time -- and maybe Bening does, too.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

The Kid Stays in the Picture
(Reviewed July 3, 2002, by James Dawson)

Excellent, incredibly entertaining documentary about movie producer and former Paramount studio head Robert Evans--who, to hear him tell it in his suavely oily narration, was the greatest thing to hit Hollywood since talkies. Funny thing is, despite off-the-chart levels of glorious self-aggrandizement here, he makes a pretty good case for himself!

The film follows Evans' move from senior exec at the Evan-Picone women's-wear label to bit-part actor to the top peak at Paramount to fringe figure in the "Cotton Club" murder case. (The documentary's title derives from what the head of 20th Century Fox said when several actors--and Ernest Hemingway himself--tried to get Evans fired from a matador role early in his acting career.) Adapted from Evans' book of the same name and narrated with grinning tough-guy swagger by the man himself, the movie ranges from the 1950s through 1980s. A too-quick wrapup of events that have taken place in the past 10-or-so years was the only disappointment--and when a movie's only notable flaw is that it leaves you wanting more, that's not much of a complaint!

Enhancing the fascinatingly full-of-himself anecdotes and tales of triumph-'n'-tragedy, the documentary is shot very creatively for a movie made up largely of still photographs. Elements of photos have been separated and moved around to provide 3-D effects, backgrounds move past through open windows, smoke rises from cigarettes--it looks a whole lot jazzier than a boring Ken Burns documentary, let's put it that way. The movie is not all photo-album stuff, though; there are lots of clips and behind-the-scenes moments from movies with which Evan was involved ("Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown," "The Godfather," "Love Story" and, as they say, MORE), plus plenty of period footage of L.A., New York and Palm Springs. (And we get some really nice tracking shots of the Evans house interspersed throughout the proceedings. Some spread!)

Note: Don't dare get up and leave the theater when the credits start, or you will miss the most hilarious part of the entire movie: Dustin Hoffman doing an extended, ad-libbed, very risque impression of Evans that must be seen to be believed! The Hoffman character in "Wag the Dog" was said to have been patterned after Evans, but that performance didn't come close to this portrayal for jaw-dropping verisimilitude!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Kill Bill Volume 1
(Reviewed September 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

People who claim to like this stupid, tiresome, thoroughly lousy movie will fall into two categories:

(a) The desperately pathetic, intellectually insecure Richard Roeper / Peter Travers variety of aggressively clueless critics (and wannabes), who think it is hip and cool and post-modern to deify crap-that-knows-it-is-crap. (A quick rule of thumb: Anyone who says he enjoyed "Punch-Drunk Love" fits quite neatly into this category.) You know the type. The screening room where I got a sneak peek at "Kill Bill" was full of jerkoffs like this, the kind who laugh out loud at embarrassingly dumb lines of dialog simply because they want to be heard laughing at them by others in "look-at-me-getting-it" appreciation. They know the dialog is utterly witless, but they intuit that writer Quentin Tarantino must have known that, too -- which means he intended the lines to be lousy, which makes them funny. (Perfect example: After star Uma Thurman has dispatched some of Lucy Liu's henchmen, Liu says, "Silly rabbit." Thurman responds, "Trix are for kids." It's just plain dumb, and everyone gets the reference, and it is not especially funny -- but the "watch-me-laughers" had to roar with approval for everyone to hear.) Critics like those already have so much invested in proclaiming Tarantino a cinematic god that they will perpetuate said charade in perpetuity, never to be dissuaded from leaving the Emperor's-New-Clothes bandwagon whose wheels they keep greased.

(b) The second sub-strata of saps who will say they like "Kill Bill" are the creepy, girlfriendless, borderline sociopaths who get off on interminable scenes of punching, kicking, stabbing, shooting, and general dismemberment -- all the better when a hot blond chick is getting shot, cut up and beat bloody. They will say that they appreciate Tarantino's "homages" in "Kill Bill" to everything from Japanese anime to 1970s exploitation flicks to chop-sockey and samurai movies. They will argue that it's all "cartoon violence," that Thurman always eventually triumphs, and that the fact the movie is so over-the-top is what makes the mindless mass mayhem so amusing. But the truth is probably that they can't get dates, never get laid, resent the hell out of women, and channel all of their frustrated, unsatisfied lusts into violence fantasies involving females.

Look, folks, this observation isn't coming from some tightassed religious moron movie critic like Michael Medved. I've written porn for NUGGET'S KINKY KONNECTIONS, for Christ's sake, so it ain't like I'm marching with Andrea Dworkin on weekends. But when you sit in a dark theater, see a woman getting the shit kicked out of her onscreen over and over again, and hear the chillingly mirthless laughter of pudgy celibates whose only meaningful relationship with women probably involves characters in videogames, comic books and porn...

...or when you hear those same still-living-with-their-mothers prom rejects giggling like drooling maniacs when a sicko hospital orderly sells another man the right to rape a comatose Thurman in her hospital bed...

...or when you see a group of those twitchy, sniggering, crazy-eyed Ritalin candidates loudly conferring about what a genius Tarantino is afterward...

...well, let's just say it makes you glad they probably won't get the chance to reproduce.

As for the movie itself: The most unexpected thing about "Kill Bill" is how boring it is. Once you get the setup -- a bride left for dead hunts down and kills every individual member of a murder squad to which she formerly belonged -- you realize you're in for nothing more interesting than a series of violent vignettes impersonating a plot. If that's your idea of a pleasant evening's entertainment, how about doing society a favor and checking yourself into the psych ward. The movie will appear in two installments because Quentin apparently was too in love with his crappy handiwork to cut it, but it could have benefitted enormously from some chopping. (The scenes involving Uma and a swordmaker feel endless, for example.)

It's also one of those flicks that doesn't even take itself seriously (it's crap-that-knows-it-is-crap, remember?). What kind of talent does it take to harken back to bad movies of yesteryear in order to make an updated but equally bad movie? Hell, forget the "yesteryear" part -- one scene in "Kill Bill" bears a startling resemblance to the most famous scene in "The Matrix Reloaded," which was released a mere four months ago. Instead of a huge number of Agent Smiths in black suits, white shirts, black ties and black sunglasses attacking Neo, "Kill Bill" gives us a huge number of Japanese in black suits, white shirts, black ties and black masks attacking Thurman. Oh, but they have swords this time, which makes it a completely different thing...right?

The chronic masturbators who probably constitute Tarantino's primary fan base should be aware that "Kill Bill" includes a menacingly cute Japanese schoolgirl badass named Go-Go (in school uniform, no less) who will make more than their hairy palms damp, but the movie contains zero nudity. Sorry, boys.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F
Kill Bill Vol. 2
(Reviewed April 2, 2004, by James Dawson)

Vol. 1 of "Kill Bill" made my "10 Worst of 2003" list, because it was so remarkably mean-spirited, stupid, pointless and generally vile. Incredibly, "Kill Bill"'s second half is even worse. That's because Vol 2 adds a substantially larger dose of talky, mind-numbing monotony to the already toxic mix of sadistic misogyny, "Nihilism for Dummies," and ugly-and-dumb-on-purpose recreations of ugly-and-dumb old martial arts and "B" movies. (Memo to Mr. T: "Homage" is just another word for "try getting a fucking original idea for a change.")

The mantra of every deluded Tarantino aficionado (including a lot of emperor's-new-clothes-admiring "critics") always has been, "If a movie is lousy but knows it is lousy, it's ironic, and that makes it good!" Even those silly dupes are likely to be disappointed by "Kill Bill Vol. 2," however. That's because it is painfully obvious that there simply was not two movies' worth of material in this egregious "epic," and most of its actual content appeared in last year's flick. Vol. 1 contained far more of the tawdry, nasty things that make nerdy, pathetic sociopaths snicker and grunt, including rape, chop-sockey, ridiculously goofy "Matrix"-style "wirework," Japanese jailbait in a school uniform, and even a bit of violently bloody anime. Vol. 2, by contrast, seems to have started off as a mere 15 minutes or so that was lopped from the first movie, and then got stretched to more than a two-hour running time thanks to padding, padding, padding and more padding.

Don't get me wrong, there are things in Vol. 2 that still will please the kind of resentful, female-hating dateless wonders who make up QT's prime demo target. Vol. 2 features women getting shot, injected, slashed, beat bloody, buried alive and experiencing the ever-popular "head in the toilet" treatment, among other sundry degradations. I'm sure this kind of stuff is all very cathartic and inspirational to maladjusted losers who spend their evenings beating off to Internet porn and cursing the stupid, insensitive bitches who won't go out with them. But to anyone outside the Manson family who actually has had sex, it's really a bit much.

And honest to God, even the truest of Tarantino fanboys will want to pull their own eyes out during David Carradine's excruciatingly endless monologs, especially the monumentally boring one near the end of the film. "Bill"'s interminable riff about Superman and Clark Kent is one of those tedious asides that QT devotees praise as evidence of The Master's ear for dialog and feel for pop culture, even though the truth is that Tarantino is only Robin Williams with a better-stocked gun cabinet. (Also, "Bill"'s point about what makes Superman unique -- that he is the only superhero whose secret identity is his human alter ego and not vice versa -- fails to take into consideration a much better analogy he could have made to Uma Thurman's character: Wonder Woman, whose alter-ego situation is identical to Superman's. But I digress.)

Ah, why bother going on. Everything else you need to know before making your ticket-buying decision is in my review of Volume 1. Click this link to read it. Click it, damn you!

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Killer Inside Me
(Reviewed June 15, 2010, by James Dawson)

I haven't seen a movie since 2005's Sin City with a script that was so impressively faithful to its source material. "The Killer Inside Me"'s overall tone is off, it has no visual style, and all three of its main characters are miscast to varying degrees -- but it definitely gets points for not messing with the plot and dialog of pulp-noir master Jim Thompson's original novel.

Fans of the book will regard Casey Affleck as an odd choice to play 1950s west Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford, whose sometimes infuriatingly over-friendly exterior masks a manipulative, scheming sociopath. Affleck always comes off a little too whiney, with a cracking voice that makes him sound as if he constantly is on the verge of tears. Most of the time, his Lou is more vaguely pathetic than chillingly disturbing. Instead of playing Lou as a dangerous, charismatic, self-deluding bastard, Affleck opts for a bland detachment that's more cold than icy.

Jessica Alba is completely unconvincing as Joyce Lakeland, the bitchy, punishment-loving whore Lou should have run out of town instead of falling for. Alba is bland, shallow and boring, one of those actresses who may be easy on the eyes when she's standing still but who brings no life whatsoever to a performance. Even a wordless montage of what are supposed to be cute and seductive bedroom moments is awkwardly embarrassing and unsexy.

Kate Hudson is Amy Stanton, Ford's from-a-good-family girlfriend who is tired of being his booty call and wants to hear some wedding bells. Amy is supposed to be a petulant, nagging tightass when she isn't in bed with Lou. That's why it's strange that Hudson gives Amy a kind of lazy sluttiness that Alba should have employed to play Joyce.

Director Michael Winterbottom brings zero visual panache to the proceedings. The story should have been filmed with either starkly direct "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" minimalism, or the kind of skewed "noir humor" the Coen brothers used in "Blood Simple" and David Lynch took to absurd extremes in "Blue Velvet." Instead, Winterbottom's film looks as generic as a home movie.

What's incredible is that the movie's story is so relentlessly fascinating it nearly trumps all of the film's faults. The reverses-filed plot is sufficiently complicated that it may leave some viewers shaking their heads, partly because one piece of the puzzle is missing from the film. (Warning: Minor spoiler alert ahead, but one that's actually helpful and does not ruin the ending.) Lou blames wealthy construction-firm owner Chester Conway (Ned Beatty) for the death of Lou's adopted brother Mike, an unpunished crime that sets Lou's blackmail-and-murder machinations in motion. In the movie, the only explanation as to why Chester wanted Mike killed is because Mike was a convicted child molester who had served his time. Mike has the same crime on his record in the book, but the reason Chester wants him dead is because Mike is an honest city building inspector whose by-the-book demands are costing Chester money.

One minor change in the movie actually improves on the original text, when Lou's girlfriend Amy detects evidence of his infidelity with Joyce in a similar -- but much sleazier -- way than she does in the book.

Other changes don't make any sense. In the movie, the girl who was molested was five, while the book describes her even more shockingly as "less than three years old." Lou plays piano in the movie accompanied by singing from Chester's gullible son Elmer after the two work out details of a blackmail transaction, a musical interlude that does not appear in the book. And movie Lou doesn't do nearly as much needling people with weird cliches such as "the man with the grin is the man who will win," a habit of the book's Lou that makes his listeners feel annoyed, uncomfortable and resentful.

Speaking of uncomfortable, be warned that at least two of the beatings in this movie are brutal and bloody enough to be nearly unbearable. We're not talking Irreversible-level sickening, but definitely not for the squeamish.

So, what's the verdict? This movie should come with a label that describes it as an adequate generic adaptation that will neither thrill nor infuriate anyone who buys a ticket. It meets the minimum nutritional needs of those who enjoyed the book, who will regard it as a faithful but rather flat souvenir of the novel.

But everyone in the theater will wish that a director with more flair and a more convincing cast had taken exactly the same screenplay and done more with it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed June 6, 2010, by James Dawson)

Until "Killers," I never attended any screening where I was required to sign not one but two documents stating that I absolutely positively would not review the movie in question before its release date. After seeing this bomb, I'm surprised the studio didn't make me sign three.

Ashton Kutcher plays a government hit man who settles down to a life of domestic bliss with Katherine Heigl. One day, Kutcher starts getting shot at, nearly run over and generally assaulted by lots of his neighbors. This is because he has a multi-million-dollar bounty on his head that everyone else in town except him and Heigl somehow knows about. (Guess they missed a Neighborhood Watch meeting or something.) This being the new Depression and all, people apparently will do anything nowadays for a buck.

That includes Kutcher and Heigl, who should have known from page one that this movie had "awful" written all over it. It's unfunny, utterly charmless and just plain stupid.

The only reason I'm putting a "+" after its "F" grade is because the insufferably inept Heigl has a truly impressive body (even if we never get an unobstructed view of her naughty bits). Look, a guy has to give credit where it's due -- and Heigl's big, bouncing, beautiful breasts look so good in a satin-striped bra that they should have come out for a curtain call after the credits.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F+

Killing Bono
(Reviewed November 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Kill List
(Reviewed January 31, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Kingdom of Heaven
(Reviewed April 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

Nice looking but often uninvolving account of Saladin's siege of Jerusalem during the Crusades era.

Orlando Bloom is somewhat miscast as the city's defender. He was more believable as the pretty-boy brother of Hector in "Troy," or as the androgynous archer in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, than as the resolute, relentless and perpetually gloomy hero here.

Also, this is a movie that seems to be missing at least half of its necessary exposition. How does Bloom, a rural blacksmith with no military experience whatsoever, turn into a tactical genius and master general without fighting a single onscreen battle?

Director Ridley Scott left a lot of footage on the cutting room floor that apparently will be restored to the DVD release, but that won't help theater audiences. That's a shame, because this isn't so much a bad movie as a movie that feels "half there."

Eva Green, excellent in last year's "The Dreamers," plays an adulterous princess who kind of comes and goes. Liam Neeson is appropriately earnest as Bloom's highborn father. The sets, locations and costumes look amazing. And the battles are appropriately epic in scope.

Still, there's little here that is as entertaining, or even as interesting, as Scott's "Gladiator." Maybe it's the pacing, maybe it's the lack of variations in texture, maybe it's that some two-hours-plus movies need even more room to breathe.

This is the unfortunate legacy of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. Theatrical releases have become nothing more than unsatisfyingly abridged versions of the full-length works they should have been, versions that will be seen later on home video.

Then again, who knows? Maybe the four-hour (or whatever) version won't be any better.

Still, at least that cut will have the benefit of being the version that didn't have to be cut for reasons unrelated to artistic considerations.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

King Kong (2005)
(Reviewed December 6, 2005, by James Dawson)

Walk into the theater an hour late, and you'll enjoy this three-hours-plus movie a lot more than I did. That's because the first 60+ minutes are wasted on campy character development and tired "insider" jokes about the film industry ("you can trust me, I'm a movie producer"). Somebody should have told director/coscreenwriter Peter Jackson, "Can the corn, just show us the monkey!"

The delay might not have been so annoying if this long, long buildup had been played with a little more realism than is found in a typical "Mad TV" sketch. For some reason, I was expecting this remake to offer a different take on the classic story by playing things straight, the way David Cronenberg retooled "The Fly" by making it take place in something close to the real world. Instead, we get a bunch of really excellent performers (Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann) acting like...well, like they're in a "B" monster movie. The fact that the script isn't very witty leaves even Jack Black adrift, like a struggling comic who knows his lines are falling flat.

Once Skull Island looms into view, though, it's "sit back and enjoy the CGI" time. An incredibly elaborate sacrifice scene, one fine-looking Kong, rampaging dinosaurs, giant bugs, huge vampire bats -- this flick's got it all! I'm no fan of Jackson's directing or writing (watching the first two torturously boring "Lord of the Rings" movies has kept me from ever viewing the third, even though I got a free copy of the DVD), but he does have a way with digital effects, locations and creatures. You haven't enjoyed true movie magic until you've seen a giant uncircumcised penis eat a guy's head. (It happens here. Trust me.)

Unfortunately, a lot of the best action scenes go by in "Spider-man time." That's how I think of CGI scenes that whip by so physics-defyingly fast that it's hard to tell what's going on. Two prime examples here are the "running of the brontosauruses" scene that takes place in a narrow canyon, and Kong's battle with a trio of T Rexes amid hanging vines. Also, while the closeups of Kong and all of the other creatures are amazingly convincing, a few longshots definitely have a fakey "PlayStation" feel.

The most thoroughly embarrassing and unnecessary scene in the movie is "Kong on Ice," where Our Hero and Watts romantically slip and slide on a frozen Central Park lake. If Jackson ever does "Son of Kong," maybe he'll send the big guy and a date to Six Flags to ride the Viper.

There's enough special-effects eye-candy here to make seeing "King Kong" worthwhile. But anyone who thinks this movie is anything more substantial than an impressive technical achievement is just plain bananas.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

King of California
(Reviewed July 27, 2007)

I really can't stand movies about quirky, eccentric, irresponsible crazies who are supposed to be charming but come off as unconvincing and annoying. In this one, Michael Douglas is the bearded, wild-eyed, just-out-of-the-nuthouse father of Evan Rachel Wood, a McDonald's drone who has been struggling to make ends meet. He's on a quest for Spanish doubloons that he thinks are buried under a Costco.

Not to sound bitter (me?), but I kept thinking that this is the kind of laboriously offbeat happy horseshit that wins screenwriting competitions judged by morons.

I wish the movie had been about Wood's mature-before-her-time character alone, without wacky dad coming along to drag things down to Robin Williams territory.

(Aside: Which offscreen relationship is stranger, Michael Douglas schtupping Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Evan Rachel Wood doing the horizontal mambo with Marilyn Manson? Discuss.)

Back Row Grade: D-

The King's Speech
(Reviewed December 3, 2010)

I really should write more about this movie, considering that it's one of my favorites of 2010. All three of its leads -- Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter -- are so good they deserve Oscar nominations. The movie itself is not only "good for you" in the educational sense, it's also genuinely good (even if it does take a few rather substantial liberties with chronology).

If you're thinking that a movie about a king of England overcoming a speech impediment can't possibly be suspenseful, funny, touching and generally sublime, think again.

Highly recommended.

Back Row Grade: A

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
(Reviewed October 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

I didn't like "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" writer/director Shane Black's main claim to fame ("Lethal Weapon") at all. I can't stand the mumbling, muttering, monotonal Robert Downey, Jr. And Val Kilmer doesn't exactly set my world on fire.

Still, having heard some positive buzz about this flick, I tried to keep an open mind.

Big mistake.

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is one of those smirking, snarky, stupid movies that thinks it's clever. It's sort of the cinematic equivalent of Richard Roeper in that respect. Know how Roeper always looks so smug and self-satisfied as he spouts his moronic opinions on "Ebert & Roeper?" And how you sit there watching him and thinking, "How in God's name does a dope who gave `Wallace & Gromit' a thumbs-down keep his job? Is Ebert that pathetically desperate to make himself look good, by sitting next to such a blatantly brain-dead fool?"

But I digress.

There's one thing about "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" that I really liked a lot: It has lovely opening credits. Seriously.

As for the rest:

The movie's gimmick -- Downey is a fan of a series of pulp crime novels, and frequently references them in his endlessly uninteresting narration -- was done much better in a short-lived 1980 TV series called "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe." That TV show also had the advantage of featuring the genuinely likeable and amusing Jeff Goldblum in the pulp-fan-turned-fumbling-detective role. Downey, by contrast, is so damned dull that I swear I heard a viewer who was sitting next to me snoring. Twice. And this was at a 3pm screening.

Val Kilmer actually isn't bad as a businesslike gay private investigator who has to put up with the utterly charmless Downey. Some blond whose name I won't bother to look up plays the requisite spunky tomboy hottie, whose main talent seems to be looking as if she finds Downey romantically appealing.

There's an adequately noirish plot buried very deep under all of the sitcommishly jokey bullshit. Apparently that storyline was borrowed from somebody's real crime novel, which is listed in the credits. I guess Shane Black's contribution consisted of smearing a thick layer of dumb wisecracks, talking to the camera, and lame pop-culture references onto the original. Also, he swiped the "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" title from the 1960s Japanese nickname for James Bond. That's Hollywood, baby!

And as for that positive buzz? Just before she left, the young lady beside me put it best:

"Don't believe the hype."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Kite Runner
(Reviewed December 12, 2007, by James Dawson)

Things get way too soap-opera melodramatic and frankly unbelievable in parts of this movie about a rich Afghan boy and the son-of-a-servant friend that he betrays. That doesn't keep parts of it from being moving, though.

"The Kite Runner" has gotten so much press about the real-life problems faced by its child actors as a result of one pivotal plot point that I don't think I'm spoiling anything by writing about it here. Idiotic real-life Islamic religious fanatics are outraged over a scene in which one boy is raped. Also, some examples of Taliban insanity shown within the movie -- from armed "beard patrol" thugs to the stoning of a weeping woman for adultery -- are almost as infuriating as the fact that our own Fearless Leaders have completely failed at ridding Afghanistan of those oppressive monsters, despite several years of flushing away hundreds of billions of our taxpayer dollars there.

But I digress.

"The Kite Runner" begins in pre-Taliban 1979 Afghanistan, when people with servants could flaunt their wealth with things like massive birthday parties featuring live bands and fireworks. A rich boy hopes to win his disappointed father's approval by winning a kite contest, which involves using a kite's glass-powdered string to cut opponents' strings, making them lose their kites. The rich boy's quietly loyal friend who retrieves the kites is the son of one of his father's servants.

When the rich boy goes looking for the servant's son, he sees him being beaten and raped by jealous older boys. He pretends to see nothing, and the servant's son later says nothing about the incident. The rich boy's overwhelming guilt ends up affecting him for years afterward, however.

The movie begins with a San Francisco scene featuring the rich boy as a man, before relating his childhood scenes in flashback. He gets a phone call asking him to return to Afghanistan, which is now a blighted, dangerous hell-hole.

That's where the movie lost me, going from what had been an interesting if somewhat subdued character study to a kind of 2007 "Not Without My Daughter" groaner, complete with a little preposterous action-adventure. Suddenly we are in the land of dubious coincidence and impossible escapes, as if the producers suddenly realized that what this movie really needed was a good fistfight and a car chase.

There's a decent moral lesson about responsibility and redemption in "The Kite Runner." It's just too bad that things get so "Hollywood" at the end.

Back Row Grade: C+

Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
(Reviewed July 31, 2000, by James Dawson)

The weird thing about this movie is that Eddie Murphy as Buddy Love -- the character who is the most obviously Eddie himself -- is singularly unappealing, but Eddie as all of the Klump family members is excellent. The script is flat-out terrible, but the Klump characters themselves are great; funny and believable, seamlessly interacting with each other and with make-up that is jaw-droppingly great. Honestly, you will forget it is Eddie Murphy in the make-up. Otherwise, there are some funny lines, but the plot is dumb and goes on too long.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C (as in, "C it for the make-up")

A Knight's Tale
(Reviewed March 31, 2001, by James Dawson)

My choice for a tie for the WORST MOVIE OF 2001, as of the end of the year's first quarter. That's right, folks--I've seen absolute dreck like "Caveman's Valentine," but even it was better than this jaw-droppingly inane mess. (The only movie equally as awful so far this year has been "Tomcats.")

I'll write more about why this medieval "Cop Rock" crock is so lousy (although the short answer is two words long: Brian Helgeland). Gad, it doth suck!

(Postscript added June 2, 2001)
A friend with three daughters wrote and asked me to elaborate on the above thrashing, because she was considering doing the unthinkable (i.e., taking the kids to see this misbegotten movie). Here is what I wrote to her:

God, I hated that piece of junk. It's just so condescendingly of those movies that both assumes the audience is retarded, and assumes that the audience won't mind being treated as if it is retarded. It's like that horrible show "Cop Rock," except in armor; the "classic rock" songs dropped into the soundtrack are often wildly inappropriate, and are used purely for "gimmick" value. The plot is like watching an episode of "Saved by the Bell" unfold. You know exactly where it's going every single step along the way, there are no surprises, and the only person in the entire production who can act is playing an annoying character who obviously is the writer's "look at how wonderful I am, I'm a genius" stand-in.

Who knows, young girls might like it, 'cuz it stars that dreamy Heath Ledger fellow. But I never would let any kid of mine go see something so calculatedly lousy and worthless. It's not even good "junk food!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Knockaround Guys
(Reviewed July 15, 2002, by James Dawson)

This is a pretty lousy mob movie that can't make up its mind whether it is a bad drama or a dull comedy. Younger-generation Jersey hoods lose flight bag full of money, fly to Montana to get it back, encounter local characters...ugh, you just don't want to know. The only thing that makes this movie look good is the fact that the shriekingly horrendous "Deuces Wild" was released the same year. (And what kind of title is "Knockaround Guys," anyway? Okay, sure, "Goodfellas" and "Wiseguy" are taken, but "Knockaround Guys?" Sheesh!)

Having said that, there is one thing about this misbegotten mess that shines like a diamond. John Malkovich is good as a lisping hood, but the breakout in this cast is superstar-in-the-making Vin Diesel, who plays the "muscle" of the group. Whatever it is that makes a guy burn up the screen with heat, this dude's got it. He's big, tough, convincing and simultaneously likable but intimidating as hell. This movie is a big waste of time, but it definitely whets the appetite for Diesel's next role as a badass secret-agent in next month's "XXX." Move over, James Bond!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Knocked Up
(Reviewed March 29, 2007, by James Dawson)

Look, I have to be honest. Despite the fact that I didn't laugh even a single time during this painfully overlong alleged "comedy," most of the other people at the screening I attended were cracking up like lunatics in tickle chairs. The same thing happened during director Judd Apatow's last effort ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin"): I was utterly unamused, but you would have thought everyone around me was on nitrous oxide and giggle pills.

Which means that if you liked the witless, sitcom-stupid variety of "humor" that stunk up "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," you may bust a gut larfing at this depressingly dumb piece of lowest-common-denominator dreck.

If your tastes are a little more refined, however, you will be frustrated and depressed to know that this is the kind of thing that appeals to today's monkey-minded masses.

How's that for helpful consumer advice?

The completely unbelievable premise here is that Katherine Heigl -- the young, stacked and goddess-beautiful blond anchor of an "Access Hollywood"-type TV show -- would be so hard up for male attention that she would permit a crude, fat and stupid no-prospects loser (Seth Rogen) to take her home from a singles bar and bone her one night. Thanks to being so drunk she can't tell Rogen's not wearing a rubber, she ends up preggers from that one-night stand.

Incredibly, we are supposed to believe that Heigl would not break all existing land-speed records getting to the nearest abortion clinic as soon as she detected a "positive" reading on her home-pregnancy-test piss paddle. Call me cynical, but if Maria Menounos got knocked up after a drunken one-night-stand with some butt-ugly pothead moron, I don't think she would start buying maternity clothes.

The huge-breasted Heigl never removes her bra when having sex and always keeps her butt covered, so forget about getting a glimpse of any of her goodies. That is, unless you count seeing a baby's head stretching what's supposed to be her vagina later, a scene that is presented here as the gross-out equivalent of Ben Stiller's testicle-in-zipper moment in "There's Something About Mary."

That's right, folks. The blessed miracle of childbirth is presented here as a sight-gag designed to make a character, well, gag. It's that kind of movie.

What's worse than the drag-ass script and lame attempts at humor is the story's attempt to overlay this garbage with family-values sweetness. Rogen cleans up his act, moves out of the shithole he was sharing with other stoners, and starts reading baby books at night instead of partying -- as if impending parenthood is enough to turn even the most selfish, immature asshole into a responsible adult. Single mothers in the audience who have been left high and dry by deadbeat dads should riot in the aisles.


I loathed this movie.


Back Row Grade: F-

(Reviewed March 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Incredibly stupid "scary SF" movie that should have been called "Deus Ex Machina," because nothing that takes place before the remarkably witless ending has anything to do with what ultimately happens. And what ultimately happens is visually reminiscent of the shudderingly awful Darren Aronofsky movie "The Fountain," which makes for a wildly unsatisfying payoff.

Without giving too much away, all of the "numbers predicting dates/places/body counts of tragedies" stuff ends up being utterly unnecessary, considering that supernatural agents simply end up abducting the characters they want -- characters who are not at the designated place at the designated time instructed by the numbers-sheet. What the...?

This seems like one of those screenplays that may have started out with an interesting idea that went full retard in the rewrite process. The movie does have a couple of great-looking disaster set pieces, one with a plane crash and the other a subway car, but they aren't enough to make up for all of the silly, pseudo-religious dumbness on display.

Back Row Grade: D+

(Reviewed December 7, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed October 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

Boring, precious, inappropriately earnest story of a guy (Kevin Spacey) who gets tossed into the most unconvincingly free-and-easy party-central psychiatric ward on earth when he insists that he is an alien named Prot from the planet K-PAX. Not really funny enough to be a comedy or convincing enough to be a drama, it plays like a head-on collision between "What About Bob?", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and this year's own "Happy Accidents" (in which Vincent Donofrio spent two hours claiming to be from the future).

I can't get worked up enough about this movie to hate it, but it all seemed kind of pointless. Worse, it contradicts itself at the end, considering that we were told earlier that Spacey possesses an inhuman ability to see ultraviolet light. Dumb.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Kung Fu Hustle
(Reviewed March 28, 2005, by James Dawson)

Visually dazzling, fascinatingly strange, oddly sweet and laugh-out-loud funny, "Kung Fu Hustle" is truly something special. How special? This Hong Kong chop-sockey comedy features amazing special effects; cartoonishly frantic fight scenes; a dance number performed by tuxedoed gang members wielding hand axes; a pair of blind musician-assassins who magically conjure up flying swords and skull-faced demons; the most abusively loud landlady in history; a toad-man master killer; a mute and sweetly adorable ice-cream vendor; an all-powerful ass-kicking savior from the skies...and more!

Director/producer/writer Stephen Chow stars as Sing, a lovable-loser con artist pretending to represent the murderously evil Axe Gang. After his attempted shakedown of Pig Sty Alley goes hilariously wrong, he tries to join for real. One of his first assignments is to spring the fastest and most dangerously lethal martial-arts master alive from prison, which leads to some positively epic fists-of-fury faceoffs.

If you're thinking that "Kung Fu Hustle" sounds like cold Quentin Tarantino camp, think again. This isn't some soulless, post-modern pastiche, full of forced irony and lamebrained pop-culture references designed to make girlfriendless nerds chuckle in mirthless appreciation. "Kung Fu Hustle" is more like a weird cross between screwball slapstick comedy and surrealistic anime fantasy, with affectionate nods along the way to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Matrix." Who says homages can't have heart?

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-