Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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The Ladies Man
(Reviewed October 10, 2000, by James Dawson)

Foolishly, I went into the theater hoping that this movie might surprise me by being something more than merely a longer, more tireseome version of the beat-to-death "Saturday Night Live" skit. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if the filmmakers had the creativity and passion and integrity to make a movie that actually was BETTER than it had to be, instead of trying to get away with foisting another cheap, stupid, TV-quality piece of SNL-quality junk with a stretched-thin premise upon us?" But no. Oh no, my friends. No, no, no.

Tim Meadows (who plays the title character) and Will Ferrell (his nemesis) are decent-enough comic actors, but the material they are working with here just ain't funny. The script is so surprisingly dull and slow-moving, I suspected that the only people in the theater who were laughing were studio employees with a stake in the movie's gross.

Like all modern comedies, this one has the requisite "gross-out" scene designed to make audiences squirm. (In this case, an "eat-off" challenge involving progressively more disgusting examples of "bar food"). That is literally the only scene in the entire film that did not leave me yawning with boredom. Then again, I'm not sure that "go and be nauseated" is much of an endorsement.

Trivial footnote: Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, who played the conniving brunette bombshell Valerie Malone in "Beverly Hills 90210" and a teen dream in (gulp) "Saved by the Bell," is listed in the credits as Tiffani Thiessen. (Wonder where the "Amber" went?) The lighting and makeup guys don't do her any favors (although she is 26 in real life, her face looks like it is pushing 40 here, and not for any apparent script-related reasons). But her impressively voluptuous body looks pretty darn good in a black merry widow and stockings. See? No movie is completely without merit.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Lady
(Reviewed November 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Ladykillers
(Reviewed March 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

I can't believe how much I disliked this movie. Okay, it's not as bad as the last Coen brothers flick (the unwatchably unfunny "Intolerable Cruelty"). But it sure ain't no "Raising Arizona" or "Fargo." "The Ladykillers" raises the inevitable question, "O Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou?"

Tom Hanks essentially is playing a slighty Southernized Frasier Crane with a criminal bent; his verbosely cultured dialog is so "Frasier" that Kelsey Grammer may actually have been a better fit for the role. Hanks and a very unlikely gang want to rob a riverboat casino by digging a tunnel from the basement of an old lady's rooming house to the casino's onshore counting-house. When the landlady gets suspicious, she must be dealt with...a task that proves more difficult than any of the crooks imagine.

The odd thing is that all of this may have looked good on the page. (I never saw the 1955 original from which it is adapted, so I have no idea what changes were made for this remake.) If nothing else, the movie has a lovely vocabulary. But it moves very, very slowly. Also, costar Marlon Wayans overacts so broadly he seems to have dropped in from one of those Glocks-in-the-hood laugh riots that make audiences rip up the seats at Magic Johnson theaters. Yikes!

I keep going to Coen brothers movies hoping for big "Raising Arizona" belly laughs, or at least for the kind of weirdly sophisticated amusement provided by a dark comedy masterpiece like "Barton Fink." I sure as hell don't go expecting to be bored.

Let's hope they don't make it three misfires in a row with whatever's coming next.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Ladder 49
(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

I hate movies told in flashback, especially ones where that device completely eliminates all suspense from every imminent-danger scene in the rest of the movie. I mean, if we already know that the main character has lived long enough to be flashing back to previous incidents, it's pretty obvious that he's going to escape all of those perils unharmed, right?

"Ladder 49" is one of those barely adequate movies that is so innocuous and "heroic" it could have been made by the firefighters union. There's nothing deep, it is all very "television drama," and the people don't act like anybody I've ever met. Example: If someone put a live goose in my locker at work, and if that goose not only jumped out honking and flapping in my face when I opened the door but also had shat all over my stuff, I would not react with good-natured laughter.

I saw another movie the night after this one, a freebie "civilian" screening where everyone in line was "just plain folks" (as opposed to media writers and reviewers). I overheard the following honest-to-God conversation between two strangers:

"Do you go to a lot of screenings?"


"What else have you seen recently?"

"I saw `Ladder 49' the other day."

"How was it?"

"Piece of shit."

The public has spoken!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Lakeview Terrace
(Reviewed August 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Don't you just hate it when a trailer is better than the movie?

A perfectly nice white husband (Patrick Wilson) and his perfectly nice black wife (Kerry Washington) move into a perfectly nice cul-de-sac home, where they are tormented from day one by a badass cop neighbor (Samuel L. Jackson) with some rather unenlightened views on race-mixing.

Jackson is excellent as the kind of intimidating jerk who always is ready with disingenuously friendly advice or a snidely threatening remark. But events toward the end of the film get so loony and preposterous that it's as if a simmeringly tense character study has collided with a stupidly sensational thriller.

The story also has a tendency to drag, and there's one notable narrative dead end. A pregnancy subplot that clearly was introduced to set up a later pop-eyed wig-out by Jackson -- or at least some conflicted soul-searching -- goes nowhere, because a big confrontation scene was excised from the final cut.

Even worse, director Neil ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors") LaBute, not usually known for timid restraint, is prevented by a PG-13 rating from going full retard with profanity (only two "fucks"; incredibly, neither of them spoken by Jackson) or nudity (there's absolutely none, not even during a bachelor-party stripper scene).

Not a terrible movie, but definitely not as good as the one that LaBute's reputation -- and the movie's trailer -- will lead you to expect.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Land of the Dead
(Reviewed June 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

Last year's well-received remake of director/writer George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" by other hands had the effect of raising the bar for this new zombie movie by Romero himself. The good news is that Romero not only met the challenge, but has succeeded in making what may be his best living-dead movie ever.

Even better, he did so without altering his popcorn-movie sensibilities to mimic the grittier, slightly more real-world tone of the commercially successful remake. "Land of the Dead" doesn't have undertones of existential dread, stylishly innovative camera angles, or any post-modern deconstruction. It's a straight-up honest-to-God horror movie with good guys, bad guys, lots of ammo, and a bunch of decaying zombies eating human flesh. Real red-meat and potatoes stuff. You want more than that, go see a Bergman flick, you pansy.

Dennis Hopper is terrific as Kaufman, the wealthy and cruel owner of a fortified Trump Tower-like skyscraper called Fiddler's Green. That's where the richest of the the rich carry on in carefree bliss. The rest of the surviving populace either lives a desperately hardscrabble life on the streets, or exists outside the barricaded city as mindless zombies.

Simon Baker and John Leguizamo are marauders with guns who raid zombie-controlled areas outside the city for supplies. Baker's dream is to retire and go north, to a place far from both the living and the living dead. Leguizamo plans to buy his way into Fiddler's Green and live the good life as one of the swells.

Complications arise when a member of the undead (the excellent Eugene Clark, whose service-station coverall identifies him only as "Big Daddy") begins showing signs of intelligence and leadership. To paraphrase Monty Python, he is that most dangerous of things: a clever zombie. Trouble ensues.

Like Romero's (more than the remake's) "Dawn of the Dead," whose zombies-at-the-mall scenes offered a tongue-in-cheek view of consumerism, "Land of the Dead" works both as horror and metaphor. Kaufman and his fellow rich, selfish monsters in Fiddler's Green are the utterly amoral Bush administration. The armed band of mercenaries, who literally shoot off fireworks (!) to distract the zombies, are US military forces dispatched to steal from outsiders and keep the wealthy living in style. Meanwhile, the impoverished citizenry is kept docile by violent sports, alcohol and armed guards.

Given those comparisons, the guy who wants to head north to Canada probably has the right idea.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
(Reviewed June 2, 2001, by James Dawson)
Boring beyond belief. That's right, folks: The most anticipated action-movie extravaganza of 2001 turns out to be five percent Stuff Blowing Up and 95 percent Audience Falling Asleep.

I've never played the "Tomb Raider" video game, but I assume it involves a lot of non-stop run-and-gun activity. What I assume it does not include are interminable sections of somnabulent people standing around expressionless in meeting rooms and mansions, boring each other to death with dialog about missing artifacts and Lara's presumed-dead dad.

The direction is terrible throughout, especially in the (few and far between) action segments. You sit there knowing at times that a lot of stuff is going on, and yet you wonder why none of it manages to be exciting or even interesting. Maybe it's because Angelina Jolie plays Lara as if she actually is a two-dimensional computer-screen character. (Well, except for those bowling balls she carries around in her tight T-shirts, that is.) Her face rarely changes from a single "serious ass-kicker, no-nonsense, sexy-sourpuss" expression. There's just no *fun* in this flick, folks.

The movie kicks off with Lara battling a big robot, but the scene is cut together so badly it is hard to get a good, long look at the thing or what is going on most of the time. We then are introduced to that most tiresome of movie cliches, the nerdy computer assistant. Ho. Hum. Oh, and Lara also has her own "Alfred"-equivalent butler. That's appropriate, because the most deadly dull portions of this movie will remind you of all the things you didn't like about the first "Batman." (Remember how all of the Wayne Manor and Keaton-as-Bruce-Wayne stuff bored your ass off, and how you kept waiting and praying for Nicholson to get back in the picture? There ya go--except this time there's no Joker coming along to relieve the tedium.)

Later, gunmen shooting up Lara's mansion get off about a million and a half rounds of ammo without managing to nick Our Heroine. (This kind of thing always bugs me, although I really should be used to it by now.) Apparently, we are supposed to believe that Lady Croft--who must be worth at least a few million pounds, and who knows that she possesses something extremely valuable to unsavory characters--wouldn't bother with putting in a security system that was any damned good. If this movie were played completely for laughs, that kind of casual disregard for her property might make sense. But the production is so ponderously earnest in the non-action scenes that it plays like an elegant Ivory-Merchant film, except without that wacky Henry Jamesian "zip."

When Lara finally...FINALLY...makes it to an actual tomb, there is some okay animation of brought-to-life figures--but the "money shot" is a complete disaster, ruined by a "slow-motion" bit that looks unbelievably lousy for a movie with this kind of budget.

Things wrap up in an ice cave with a big contraption that does its thing, and it's all very silly, especially the would-be emotional climax, which falls completely flat. The most amazing thing about this movie is that it's only about an hour and a half long. You will swear it was at least twice that length by the time you stumble zombie-like from the multiplex.

In fact, the most appropriate line in the entire movie comes when a character announces that one of his butt-cheeks has fallen asleep.

I know the feeling, pal.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Talky, stupid, dull. Is Angelina Jolie actually trying to be as lifeless, boring and cold as a videogame character? If so, she sure pulls it off. I didn't believe her for a second, but then again, I didn't believe a second of anything in this movie. There's no heart to it. You couldn't care less about any of the characters, the action scenes are disastrously directed, and even when a few good CGI creatures pop up near the end they flit around so fast you never get a good, long look at the things.

Stay home and play with your joystick.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Larry Crowne
(Reviewed June 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this abysmally bad movie for the website You can read that review by clicking this ever-so-handy link:
"Larry Crowne" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Lars and the Real Girl
(Reviewed October 13, 2007)

In many ways, this movie is a miracle. And here are some of those ways:

It's miraculous that screenwriter Nancy Oliver was able to tell this story without being smutty, stupid, or schticky, considering that it's about a mentally unstable man who treats an anatomically correct love doll as if it is his girlfriend. Instead of going for broad gags, smirking crassness or general vulgarity, Oliver somehow has created a sweet, heartwarming and -- yes -- wholesome human story that is -- honest to God -- the feel-good movie of 2007. As of October 13, "Lars and the Real Girl" would be my choice to win every 2007 writing award Hollywood has to offer.

It's a miracle that director Craig Gillespie was able to translate Oliver's wonderful screenplay to the screen with exactly the right tone to keep it from being jokey, pandering or insincere. This is especially noteworthy considering that Gillespie's last directing gig was "Mr. Woodcock." (Okay, to be fair, I didn't see "Mr. Woodcock" -- even though I could have attended a free screening -- because its trailer looked so egregious. So for all I know it may have been a sublime cinematic masterpiece...but I doubt it.)

It's miraculous that every actor in "Lars and the Real Girl" is perfectly cast, considering what a temptation it must have been to hire at least one "big name" in the hope of getting more opening-weekend box-office dollars. It's beyond frightening to consider how wrong, wrong, wrong this movie would have gone with, just as a f'rinstance, Robin Williams mugging his way through the title role. Instead, Ryan Gosling hits just the right notes as low-key, unsocial but amiable Lars, whose psychological problems are apparent without being hysterically overwrought for cheap laughs or cheaper pathos.

Emily Mortimer is even more impressive as Lars' caring, thoughtful, funny and absolutely adorable sister-in-law. I haven't seen another actress this year whose performance I enjoyed more. She is thoroughly convincing as a small-town wife and soon-to-be mother with nurturing maternal instincts that aren't sickening, and the kind of open-hearted friendliness that seems 100-percent genuine. You will fall in love with her, guaranteed.

Paul Schneider plays her husband and Lars' brother as an amused-if-confused participant in the charade that the love doll is a real girl. The rest of the town goes along, too, all for the sake of Lars. That's because everyone is aware that "the boy ain't right," but everyone also cares enough about him as a friend and neighbor that they don't want to destroy the harmless delusion that makes him happy. Amazingly, things don't devolve into one of those zany "everybody in town is equally wacky and quirky, so what's one more nut?" scenarios. Another miracle!

Kelli Garner is great as a slightly awkward coworker with a crush on Lars. Patricia Clarkson is quietly convincing as a doctor and psychologist who tries to get Lars to understand that being touched by others, in both senses of the term, is not something he should fear. The score, by guitarist David Torn, is as good as the rest of the movie at avoiding preciousness and predictability.

I liked this movie so much that as of right now it's my new favorite film of 2007.


Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Last Castle
(Reviewed October 16, 2001, by James Dawson)

This tiresome mess of cliche plotting and utterly phony characters is from the same patronizing fathead director (Rod Lurie) who foisted the condescendingly stupid The Contender on movie audiences last year. Where that movie was a sickening Hollywood-liberal handjob for the insufferably smug liar and sexual predator Bill Clinton, this film is a hosanna of sorts for the delusional grandstanding of fatuous demagogue John McCain, the Democrat who calls himself a Republican.

(Note added 7/15/2010: When I was reading this review nine years later, the preceding reference to McCain as "the Democrat who calls himself a Republican" made me realize how much a sleazy, hypocritical politician can change; just when you think they can't get any worse, they always prove you wrong. Who would have thought in 2001 that the 2008 presidential candidate version of McCain would become such a pandering right-wing maniac that he would enlist a clueless moron like Sarah Palin as his running mate? Two years after that, he's still a ranting, disingenuous liar, the kind of shameless toad who backed what essentially was an amnesty scheme for illegal immigrants when George W. Bush was in office, but who now rails against bills identical to that one. Jesus, what an asshole. And now, back to the 2001 review in progress:)

The Contender's main character was a senator who would not stoop to address issues of sexual impropriety, while "The Last Castle" gives us Robert Redford as a former Vietnam POW who refused an offer to be released from the "Hanoi Hilton" because he wanted to stay with his fellow prisoners -- the same way McCain opted to stay a prisoner in Vietnam instead of agreeing to be released after serving a shorter sentence than other POWs who had been captured earlier.

Redford's character is a three-star Army general who has been sent to a US military prison for reasons that are left a mystery (to us and to his fellow inmates) until more than midway through the movie. We are expected to believe that no one in a military prison--a military prison, I repeat--would know what Redford is in for until prison warden James Gandolfini makes a public if a crime that would send a three-star general to the clink would not be front-page news all over the country. Hoo-boy.

Redford gathers up the usual stock characters found in any bad war movie--the amiable lunkhead, the doc, the badass, and the rat-with-goodness-inside-that's-dying-to-get-out--and arranges to take over the prison from the sadistic warden, who has a big collection of war memorabilia but who never has seen combat. (His second-ratedness is driven home with all the subtlety of a blow on the head when the camera shows us that he listens to record albums featuring music composed by Salieri, Mozart's envious and incompetent rival.)

The final showdown is as jaw-droppingly preposterous as something from "Hogan's Heroes." When the cons wheel out a friggin' 20-foot-tall catapult that they somehow have managed to construct and hide from the guards, you won't know whether to do a spit-take or throw something.

This is the sort of movie that is so uninvolving and fake, you realize that you would not sit through five minutes of it if you found it on TV while playing dial-scan at home.

Also, it definitely is "the wrong movie for the times," as they say. Is anyone in America right now in the mood for a movie about a bloody, violent prison uprising that involves disgraced US soldiers attacking and killing US prison guards? What's next, a loving biography of Osama's early years?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Last Days
(Reviewed June 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

Michael Pitt portrays a barely fictionalized version of Kurt Cobain as a mumbling, stumbling, barely conscious zombie who could have wandered into Washington state by way of George Romero's "Land of the Dead."

The only thing less energetic and less interesting than Pitt is nearly everything else about the movie. "Last Days" is filled with so many boring characters, pointless scenes and excruciatingly endless takes that audiences will be fidgeting in their seats like jumpy junkies in desperate need of a fix. Then again, maybe that's the point.

Incredibly, the movie's most interesting scene is a shot of a television that is playing the laughably corny Boyz II Men video "On Bended Knee." The video itself is so bad-acting earnest that it's funny, and the fact that we are watching it from the Cobainish character's point of view adds a veneer of weird irony.

The kindest thing one could say about this bizarrely static effort from director/writer Gus Van Sant is that it paints an uncomfortably impressionistic image of the hopelessness, dissatisfaction and resignation that led Cobain to take his own life.

A more honest assessment is that "Last Days" is the kind of aggravatingly artsy-fartsy snoozefest that gives auteurs a bad name.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Last King of Scotland
(Reviewed September 9, 2006, by James Dawson)

An "inspired by true events" movie with key plot elements that are this hard to believe really should be based on actual facts. That way, the screenwriter at least can deflect criticisms with the "look, I know it's hard to buy, but that's the way it really happened" defense.

Unfortunately, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan -- the main character in this movie -- is fictional. Although Ugandan dictator Idi Amin did have a Scottish doctor, he wasn't Garrigan (played by James McAvoy). That real doctor also didn't save Amin's life by driving him out of a would-be ambush, knock up one of Amin's wives, attempt to poison Amin, get the crap beaten out of him at the Entebbe airport by Amin's thugs when a PLO-hijacked plane landed there, and attempt a daring escape hidden among the hostages who were allowed to leave. None of that happened. It's all made up.

I saw "The Last King of Scotland" (the monumentally bad title is an honorific that Amin gave himself) two days before ABC was slated to air a made-for-TV movie called "The Path to 9/11." Critics claim that movie is full of right-wing fabrications about Bill Clinton's dereliction of what should have been his Osama-hunting duty. The screenwriter of the movie should have made up a Scottish physician for Clinton who does the nasty with Hillary during a wild night of bongo-heavy passion. When he discovers that he has put the First Lady in the family way, MacDoc sneaks aboard an Air Force plane to get out of the country. It turns out to be the plane that Bubba is sending to Africa to blow up a baby aspirin factory, in order to distract America from that night's TV broadcast of his embarrassing grand-jury testimony. That would be about as credible as the events in "The Last King of Scotland."

But I digress.

If you can get over the whole lies, lies and more lies aspect of "The Last King of Scotland," it's actually not all that bad -- up until the over-the-top ridiculous Entebbe airport section, that is. McAvoy does a good job as the just-out-of-university, overly idealistic doctor who seems amused and flattered to find himself becoming one of Amin's trusted advisors. Even when it becomes obvious that Amin is doing truly monstrous things, McAvoy avoids facing the truth as long as possible, until it becomes impossible to ignore.

Ex-"X-Files" star Gillian Anderson, looking very different (and kinda better, believe it or not) than she did on that show, has a small role as another doctor's wife in the first third of the movie. Her character, who serves as McAvoy's skeptical conscience in some ways, should have been brought back into the story for more than a quick glimpse later.

Forest Whitaker gives an interesting and intense portrayal of Amin as an overgrown child who alternates between generous good humor and frightening vindictiveness. I was about to write that Whitaker might be guilty of playing Amin as a little stupider than he probably was, considering that Amin -- for all of his obvious faults -- did have the smarts to get to the top office of his land. Then I remembered the psychotic war-criminal dumbfuck who is America's current president. Obviously, brainpower is not a requirement for political success.

Only impeachment and conviction can save us from our very own American Amin. Less than two months until election day, people!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The Last Mimzy
(Reviewed March 1, 2007)

Like last year's "Zathura," this is another kid-centered fantasy that a director like Spielberg could have knocked out of the park. Unfortunately, director (and New Line studio vice chairman) Robert Shaye is no Spielberg. "The Last Mimzy" has elements that should have been unsettling, scary, poignant and touching, but what's on screen never manages to weave the kind of spell necessary to make this kind of story intellectually or emotionally convincing.

The screenwriters share a lot of the blame. "The Last Mimzy" is very loosely adapted, and ridiculously expanded, from the 1943 short story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (writing under their joint pseudonym Lewis Padgett).

The original story, although it appears in the collection "Science Fiction Hall of Fame," is written in the stilted, tediously expository style that characterized a lot of "golden age" SF. The story's basic idea, however, is fascinating: What if a couple of contemporary kids, still young enough to have open minds about things like non-Euclidean geometry, symbolic language and the nature of reality in general, got hold of some teaching-toys from the future?

The short story is told almost entirely from the viewpoint of a brother and sister's parents, who worry that their increasingly preoccupied children may have psychological problems caused by baffling toys that the kids say came from a distant uncle. The story becomes genuinely creepy when the son asks his father,

"Why do we people live here?"
"No -- here. This whole place. It isn't all there is, I'll bet."
"Do you mean the other planets?"
Scott was hesitant. "This is only -- part of the big place. It's like the river where the salmon go. Why don't people go on down to the ocean when they grow up?"
Paradine realized that Scott was speaking figuratively. He felt a brief chill. The -- ocean?

None of that "Childhood's End"-style philosophy made it into the movie, though. Instead, the screenwriters settle for creating a conventional "kids in peril" plot that includes freaking out a babysitter with a display of what one of the toys can do, causing a state-wide blackout that gets the Department of Homeland Security involved, and mounting an escape from a detention facility with the aid of a telepathic science teacher and his new-agey girlfriend. There's also a very undeveloped plotline about a future scientist sending back stuffed rabbits to various time periods in the hope of collecting DNA, or something, that somehow will cure a mysterious ailment affecting the citizenry of his era.

Absolutely none of the plot points in the previous paragraph appear in the original short story. Heck, the moviemakers even changed the spelling of "Mimzy" for the title -- which makes absolutely no sense, considering that the word comes from the Lewis Carroll poem that uses an "s" and not a "z" in the word.

What's frustrating is that much more could have been done with the new stuff. The concept of shunting stuffed rabbits back and forth through time to gather something essential from children makes a neat reversal on the "Velveteen Rabbit" theme of children making toys real. And the parents' reaction to the toys makes no sense whatsoever. If you saw that your kids had toys that could do amazing and unexplainable things, would you throw the toys in the trash bin? I don't think so.

"The Last Mimzy" does have some good special effects and great sound design. And, at least until the men in black show up, things are interesting enough to keep you wondering what's going to happen next.

Once you find out what that something is, though, it all seems very silly and second-rate. The movie's ending is completely different from what happens in the short story, with nowhere near the impact.

But that probably goes without saying by now.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Last Samurai
(Reviewed November 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

What's Japanese for "cornball?"

"The Last Samurai" has way too much in common with "Dances With Wolves," but is played far less convincingly. In both, a disillusioned hatin'-life 19th-century US soldier gets his act together and his priorities straight when he experiences the simple pleasures of a less modern (that's "modern" as in "corrupt, shallow, materialistic and murderous") people. The main problem is that Tom Cruise is very hard to accept as the bitter, alcoholic burnout who is captured by a noble band of samurai and taken to their picturesquely pastoral mountaintop village. Where does he bunk while he is there? Why, in a charming house with the strikingly beautiful widow and kute kids of a samurai warrior that Cruise killed in battle, of course! And does she eventually find herself falling in wuv with him? Mais oui, mon ami!

Look, maybe it's just the warmongering hate-filled American in me, but this stuff just doesn't fly. The prospect of any war widow anywhere in any time showing quietly respectful hospitality and affection TO THE GUY WHO JUST KILLED HER FREAKIN' HUSBAND is either preposterous or just plain sadistic. Since the head samurai who suggests this cozy but crack-brained living arrangement is shown to be a nice enough all-around guy otherwise, I guess "preposterous" wins out.

This was only one of the things that made "The Last Samurai" about as realistic and believable as an episode of "Bonanza." Cruise's US Army superior is so one-dimensionally nasty he really should have gone ahead and twirled his moustache a few times. When Cruise dispatches a bunch of swordsmen in an alley like some chop-sockey superhero, we get to see the whole battle again in slow-mo right away, as Cruise apparently reflects on that magical Mister Mojo moment. The film's ending is silly and sap-filled to the point of being insulting. And long? The concession stand should sell No-Doz patches for your ass cheeks, because they will be asleep long before the credits roll.

The movie is nice looking, with cinematography by John Toll. I also liked the actor who played the head samurai, but I'm way too lazy to search for his name. Sorry.

(One weird thing: There's a dialog scene in this movie that is almost identical to one in "The Missing," when characters say something about having both good and evil inside them. When asked which one wins, the reply is "the one I feed the most." Different writers wrote the two movies, making it a very odd coincidence that both feature the same hokey exchange.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

La Vie en Rose
(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

Interesting biography of French singer Edith Piaf, whose talent and international acclaim were counterbalanced by a life with far more than its share of sorrows.

Director Olivier Dahan, who cowrote the screenplay with Isabelle Sobelman, shows us Piaf's tragedies and triumphs from her pathetic childhood (part of which was spent living in a brothel) to her deathbed. Instead of providing a chronological account, Dahan skips back and forth in time, often leaving the viewer vaguely disoriented but never bored.

Marion Cotillard relies a little too often on jumpy histrionics in her portrayal of Piaf, who seems anxious and wild-eyed even in what are supposed to be her quieter moments. Cotillard also is substantially taller that the under-five-foot "little sparrow," making her a strange casting choice (although some camera trickery and a lot of stooping are employed to hide her height). Still, the way that she makes Piaf seem otherworldly and a tad strange is probably appropriate; Piaf certainly wasn't a conventional singing star, and probably had an equally unconventional offstage personality.

The saddest part of Piaf's story is her childhood. Bad enough that she was abandoned by her mother and sent by her soldier father to live in a whorehouse, but the (literally) poor kid even was struck blind for several years before recovering her sight. Manon Chevallier plays Piaf at five as an intimidated and nearly mute victim of very cruel circumstances. Pauline Burlet plays her at 10, equally silent and hopeless, when her father takes her away to live with him in a traveling circus. Then she reluctantly opens her mouth to sing on a street corner, and her whole world changes.

If Piaf's early years were devastatingly Dickensian, her later ones are pure demanding-diva melodrama. She becomes entangled in a murder investigation that nearly derails her career. The great love of her life is a married man she can't have. Health problems affect her stamina and cause her to collapse onstage. It's just one damned thing after another.

What keeps all of this from coming off like "The Perils of Piaf" is the very adult and uncondescending way that the movie carries itself. For lack of a better word, it has class.

Don't expect the typical Hollywood treatment. "La Vie en Rose" has higher aspirations than recent biographies such as "Ray" or "Walk the Line." It's less artificially uplifting than those movies -- most of it is a real downer, to be honest -- but more stylish, intelligent and cinematically clever.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Law Abiding Citizen
(Reviewed September 18, 2009, by James Dawson)

Gerard Butler is jailed for the revenge killing of the creep who murdered his family, but who got a reduced prison sentence through a shockingly lenient plea-bargain deal with prosecutor Jamie Foxx. The plot becomes increasingly ridiculous as the incarcerated Butler masterminds the killings of several other law-enforcement officials who are part of what he regards as our utterly corrupt justice system. The guy is like some weird combination of the Punisher and the Joker. And he has set things up to such a preposterously elaborate extent that he may as well have a Batcave, a fortress of solitude and an invisible plane.

It's always nice to see audiences cheering anyone with such justifiable contempt for the victim-violating, criminal-coddling joke known as American jurisprudence. But the movie quickly loses its way by transforming Butler from a damaged but sympathetic avenger to a beyond-redemption psychopath. It's as if the script wants to have things both ways, by providing both a "Death Wish" catharsis and a "but he obviously has to be crazy" moral lesson.

Also, this kind of trashy exploitation flick should have had more charismatic performances from both of its leads. Jamie Foxx should have been much more repulsively Johnnie-Cochran disingenuous, and Gerard Butler should have amped up his condescending righteousness. This is basically a violent comic-book movie without costumes, so anything other than over-the-top feels insufficient.

The ending is howlingly stupid in more ways than one, and F. Gary Gray's direction is lackluster at best. Characters in some indoor scenes exhale steam when they speak, as if they are on unheated soundstages in the dead of winter. Odd.

Serendipity note: On the drive home from this movie, I heard a radio news item about how one of four suspects in a local murder case is being allowed to plea-bargain for testifying against his three co-defendants. In exchange, our lovely legal system will charge that suspect with only "conspiracy to destroy evidence." I'm sure the murder victim's family was delighted to hear about that deal. Ain't American justice great?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Laws of Attraction
(Reviewed March 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

Here is the main problem with this remarkably bad movie: It is another of those utterly fake, completely unconvincing and downright insulting would-be comedies whose main character is the "highly educated blithering idiot" stereotype of the successful career woman who goes all gooey and stupid in the presence of a desirable man.

Julianne Moore is the lady in question here. We are told that she is the best divorce lawyer in Manhattan. Bright, wealthy, beautiful. And yet in the presence of fellow divorce attorney Pierce Brosnan, she acts like a 12-year-old moron who just found out she likes boys. Feminists should file a class-action suit against this movie, which is so demeaning it qualifies as a misogynistic hate crime.

Oh, and it's not funny, either.

And don't even ask about the "chemistry" between the leads. There is none. I didn't believe for a second that a free-spirit, easygoing stud like Brosnan's character would give Moore's tight-assed, fidgety prig a second glance, much less get all matrimony-minded about her.

The two of them are on opposite sides of a divorce case involving a rock star -- the kind you imagine a 70-year-old envisioning, with about as much in common with the present-day music scene as Spinal Tap -- and a flakey clothes designer (Parker Posey, slumming just as hard as Julianne Moore but coming off much worse for wear). It's all so dumb, so feeble-minded, so...TELEVISION.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Layer Cake
(Reviewed April 24, 2005, by James Dawson)

"Layer Cake" is mostly well acted, interesting and uniformly good looking, but its ending is frustratingly complicated.

First-time director Matthew Vaughn was a producer on Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," which were nothing if not complex. Yet while Ritchie was able to weave convoluted tales without confusion, Vaughn's cake has too many layers and not enough consistency.

Daniel Craig plays an unnamed and very understated mid-level drug dealer in London. He launders his profits through a legitimate business, and plans to get out of the underworld as soon as possible with his fortune intact. Before he can retire, though, his boss wants him to locate the missing drug-addict daughter of a fellow upper-crust friend (Michael Gambon).

Subplots involve other drug dealers with itchy trigger fingers, an almost supernaturally gifted hitman, a trashy party girl, a grudge-nursing bodyguard with poor impulse control, and corruption in high places.

Craig gives an interesting portrayal of a grounded, low-key criminal who seems more likely to die of ennui than violence. The script mostly plays things straight, except for a couple of misguided attempts at "Lock, Stock"-style humor that don't fit at all.

Things fall apart at the end for two reasons. First, it is impossible to believe that the hitman plot would resolve itself the way it does. Second, I'm not exactly positive what happens in the Ecstasy plot. I have a pretty good idea, because it's the only thing that seems to make sense, but I could be wrong.

If you don't turn to the person sitting next to you when the credits roll and ask, "What do YOU think just happened?", you are a better man than I. Well, you probably are anyway, but you know what I mean. Smug bastard!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Le Divorce
(Reviewed August 4, 2003, by James Dawson)


Regular readers are aware of my complete lack of affection for the Spawn of Hawn, and this preposterously pretentious mess did nothing to change my low opinion of her abilities. Hudson is so blank, so inept, so completely uninteresting to watch that it is hard to believe any actress could do a worse job of playing her character.

The frightfully unamusing script for this would-be comedy of manners is not elevated in the least by the fact that Hudson's performance has no intrinsic humanity whatsoever. This is one of those movies where audience members turn to each other at the end and say, "Oh, I guess we were supposed to think that her character actually was sincere about (fill in the blank)," because it frequently is impossible to tell what might be going on inside her character's head or why she is doing the things she does. This is not because she possesses any mystery or hidden depths, but because she is such a formless, vapid non-entity.

Not that anything could redeem this laughably stupid screenplay in the first place. Here we have Naomi Watts as Hudson's pregnant sister living in Paris with a young daughter who is nothing more than a prop. Hudson and Watts are California girls, daughters of a Santa Barbara university professor and wife who quite obviously have Lots o' Bucks and some book-learnin', but who act like completely unsophisticated ugly-American hayseeds when they drop by the City of Lights for a visit in the second half of the film. Watts' French husband has decided to leave Watts while she is still With Child, which leads his decadently wealthy family and hers to spar over who owns an expensive painting that Watts brought to the marriage from her parents' house. Are you feeling sleepy yet? Everything about this insufferable catalog of rich people's petty problems makes you want to rob the wealthy, push their smugly well-scrubbed faces into the dirt, and burn their damned mansions. Or maybe that's just me.

Hudson, meanwhile, seduces one of the randy older members of the French family, then proceeds to act like a schoolgirl twit when it comes to handling the affair. About three-quarters through the movie, I started wondering why a plot this brainlessly soap-operatic had not yet featured the appearance of a handgun. And then, voila!

Incredibly, this botched souffle is from the Merchant-Ivory folks, who apparently should stick to adapting the classics instead of trying to branch out into contemporary trash.

"Le Divorce" est merde.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Legally Blonde
(Reviewed July 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

So-so hybrid of "Clueless" and "My Cousin Vinnie." Reese Witherspoon is likeable but never thoroughly engaging as a stereotypical cartoonish blond California sorority girl who manages to get into Harvard Law School after cramming for her LSATs and sending the admissions committee a video essay that she narrates from poolside in a bikini. Sounds funnier than it is...which sums up the whole movie. Almost all of the humor is from sitcom-land: lines and gags that you can see coming from across the quad.

Still, no one who pays to see this movie will be terribly disappointed, because it pretty much is "as advertised." But anyone who has seen Reese Witherspoon in the excellent "Election" will be disappointed that the script here is not as smart as she is. Rent that one instead of wasting time on this.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
(Reviewed 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.)

This humans-free fantasy about talking owls who rescue others from kidnapped subjugation is too loud, violent and sometimes terrifying for small children, yet too juvenile for older kids and adults.

That's a shame, because its state-of-the-art computer animation, by the Australian studio Animal Logic that made "Happy Feet," is Pixar perfect. The movie is bombastic and occasionally brutal, but undeniably beautiful.

Another problem is that the movie ends up being exactly the sort of might-makes-right glorification of war that one of its heroes condemns. The nasty bad owls (with only one exception) are evil, and the virtuous good owls (also with exactly one exception) are clearly in the right. But whether the concept of "necessary war" is one that kids should be consuming as entertainment or avoiding as indoctrination will be up to each parent's particular politics.

By comparison, this year's "How to Train Your Dragon" -- a similarly gorgeous CGI fantasy for kids -- felt more sophisticated and civilized about conflict resolution. In that movie, warring humans and dragons with some depth of character come to a mutual understanding that puts them on the same side against a monster they realize is their common enemy.

"Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" is director Zack Snyder's first animated movie, but it makes repeated use of his signature sudden-shift-to-slow-motion trick that he employed in both "300" and "Watchmen." We see so many shots go from regular speed to extreme slo-mo, in fact, that the effect starts getting tiresome.

The movie is adapted from the first three books of the 15-book "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" series by Kathryn Lasky. Idealistic prodigy Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) and his jealously resentful brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) are young owls who get shanghaied to serve the Pure Ones, a kind of Owl Qaeda militia group bent on world domination.

The Pure Ones are led by the silken-voiced but savage Queen Nyra (Helen Mirren) and the disfigured, similarly ruthless King Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton). They bend new recruits to their will through cruelty, intimidation and a spooky form of brainwashing called moonblinking.

Soren's spiteful brother Kludd becomes an enthusiastic stormtrooper-in-training for the Pure Ones, so eager to gain their approval that he delivers his innocent little sister into their clutches. But when goodhearted Soren and a small owl he befriends named Gylfie (Emily Barclay) object to becoming soldiers, they are assigned the disgusting task of searching for metal in other owls' regurgitated pellets. That scene, and one in which an owl takes what feels like forever to yak up onscreen, are guaranteed to put a lot of viewers off their popcorn.

The Pure Ones want metal for a mystical weapon of mass incapacitation that uses high-voltage blue electricity (a la Dr. Manhattan from "Watchmen") to render owls flightless and helpless, at which point swarms of nightmarishly vicious bats have been enlisted to swoop in for the kill. That's entertainment?

Soren and Gylfie flee to the utopian Great Tree home of the Guardians to enlist help. Soren receives battle training there from Ezylryb, a seasoned old campaigner who knows war is hell, but who still is up for a good fight. Ezylryb is voiced by Geoffrey Rush with a combination of crusty cynicism, charming modesty and unmistakable resolve that gives him more credibility than any other character here.

Animation-wise, every distinctively designed owl truly seems covered in thousands of individual feathers that move independently with even the smallest gusts of wind. Even after all these years of CGI wonders, that's a technical feat that's still pretty amazing. Also, the 3D effects are consistently bright and sharp -- even if wearing the glasses is still a pain.

On the downside, the movie's generic score by David Hirschfelder is aggravatingly grandiose, and every character voice seems to have been miked at maximum volume. Subtlety, in other words, is in short supply. There's also the requisite cliché montage sequence accompanied by an insufferably peppy pop song ("To the Sky" by Owl City) that sounds like it should be the theme to a bad sitcom.

The film's frequently repeated moral involves the power of belief and having faith in oneself. Before Soren has proof that the Guardians exist, he declares, "There's nothing wrong with dreams!" Later, when he and his brother are fighting each other literally to the death, he announces that "my dreams are what make me strong, Kludd!" And when things are at their worst, Soren proclaims that "I need to trust my gizzard!"

Trust yours, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Legend of Zorro
(Reviewed October 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

Antonio Banderas returns as the likeable, almost tongue-in-cheek Zorro, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is back as his beautiful, big-breasted bride. Unfortunately, their son who was born at the end of "The Mask of Zorro" is now a sickeningly cute Hollywood kid who has way too much screen time in this cheerfully dumb sequel.

The year is 1850, and California is on the verge of statehood. Unfortunately, foreign interests who hope to establish a one-world government are making trouble. An evil, wealthy Frenchman wants to supply 19th-century weapons of mass destruction to the Confederate states, for one thing. (In the movie's universe, the Confederacy apparently was formed 10 years earlier than in ours.)

Meanwhile, Mrs. Zorro not only has kicked Zorro out of the house because he won't give up the mask, but has hooked up with the evil, wealthy Frenchman! Zut alors! Sadly, this has the effect of making most of the movie a big downer. Who the hell goes to a Zorro movie wanting to see Antonio Banderas act like Milhouse's sad-sack dad, drinking too much and pining about a wife who has moved on?

There are some good swordfights, stunts and explosions, but the plot twists are stupid and the whole thing goes on way too long.

(An aside: Here is an easy way to tell if a critic is the kind of unimaginative, redneck dope who thinks the term "Freedom Fries" is the height of political wit. Part of this movie's plot involves soap smuggling. This guarantees that several xenophobic yahoos who never have set foot outside the U.S. of A. will include a line like this in their reviews: "When soap and a Frenchman are involved, you can bet it won't be used for washing!" Feel free to kick such people in the throat. Hard.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

This concert/documentary is way too much concert (by other artists performing Leonard Cohen's songs, with varying degrees of success) and far too little documentary.

Still, it's a pleasure to see even the short glimpses of Cohen that this movie offers. Now in his 70s, the writer of such great songs as "Suzanne," "Hallelujah," "I'm Your Man," "The Future" and "Democracy" is interesting, likable, and about as down-to-earth genuine as you'd expect a sometime Zen monk to be.

I'm probably being too generous by giving this movie a "C," because some of the performances (such as Nick Cave vamping through "I'm Your Man" like a half-crocked lounge singer) are...unfortunate.

But listening to Cohen talk about his songs and his life, even in brief snippets, is fascinating for anyone who enjoys his work. And watching him lip-sync with U2 on a tiny stage at the end of the movie is like something out of a very cool David Lynch film.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
(Reviewed December 5, 2004, by James Dawson)

This dreamily (or is it nightmarishly?) beautiful, darkly amusing and captivatingly clever novelty resembles what you might get if Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Charles Addams were tossed into a very large blender. Pour resulting mixture over the piquantly hammy Jim Carrey and a trio of deliciously deadpanning kids, and serve it all up with narration by Jude Law (as fictional writer Snicket himself). This mashup of segments from the first three books in the "Unfortunate Events" series is one of the best movies of the year.

The story follows the tongue-in-cheek misadventures of the orphaned Baudelaire children: book-smart Klaus, inventor Violet and baby Sunny. They live in a world that looks like something out of Charles-Dickens-meets-Jack-Skellington, always managing to avoid certain doom at the hands of their inheritance-craving relative Count Olaf. The resourceful and ridiculously capable kids always manage to remain rational and relatively businesslike, even when scrambling to avoid being run over by an oncoming locomotive or eaten by leeches.

The look of the movie is "bizarre baroque," ranging from little things such as the multiple rear-view mirrors in an alternate-1940s-era auto, to retro-gothic costumes that could have been purchased at the House of Edward Gorey, to sets ranging from the luxuriously ornate to the deliriously dilapidated. The overall production design falls into that refined category known as "eye-poppingly amazing." Just wait until you see the perils-of-Pauline-ish railroad-tracks scene, or what happens to the creaky cantilevered house mounted on shaky stilts over Lake Lachrymose, or even something as simple as trying to make dinner in a kitchen that looks nearly as ancient, dirty and disgusting as my own.

Jim Carrey is often genuinely hilarious as the completely over-the-top, theatrically evil Count Olaf. (And don't worry: Although he sometimes skitters dangerously close to Robin Williams territory, Carrey knows the difference between "funny" and "flailing.") Count Olaf is obsessed with obtaining the fortune of the three orphaned children by any means necessary, usually involving elaborately fantastic violence perpetrated in increasingly unlikely disguises. His sea-captain impersonation had me laughing out loud, which doesn't happen often, considering the thoroughly depressing life that I lead.

The real find in this movie is Emily Browning as 14-year-old Violet Baudelaire, perpetually dressed like an 18th-century dowager except for her black fishnet sleeves. For most of the movie, Browning retains the cool expression of a disaffected runway model who can't be bothered with worrying about any impending disaster. Somehow, that blank look works perfectly to convey the offbeat black humor of the proceedings. When things get really tough, Violet calmly uses a ribbon to put up her hair, then devises an ingenious solution to the dilemma du jour without breaking a sweat.

I didn't have high hopes for this movie when I heard that director Brad Silberling would be at the helm. Silberling's last two efforts were the outright awful "Moonlight Mile" and the nearly as dreadful "City of Angels." And screenwriter Robert Gordon's last screenplay was for the wretchedly unwatchable "Men in Black II." The fact that both men stepped up their game so much this time out is truly impressive.

The movie's score, by Thomas Newman, gets high marks for avoiding both John-Williams-style sentimental predictability and Danny-Elfman-variety bombastic quirkiness. And the animated closing credits are so well done they are like an unexpected dessert.

(A pointless fun fact: Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both appear in this movie, presumably for the first time since "Kramer vs. Kramer." If you know of any Hoffman/Streep movie that I'm forgetting, feel free to correct this off-the-top-of-my-pointed-head claim. I mean, it's not as if I bothered to do any actual research or anything.)

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Letters From Iwo Jima
(Reviewed December 15, 2006, by James Dawson)

Do members of the L.A. Film Critics and the National Board of Review owe Clint Eastwood money or something?

There's no other reason I can imagine why those two laughably misguided organizations would bestow their best picture award on this half-dull and half-trite, strictly average war flick.

Maybe they were intellectually intimidated by the fact that it's shot in the so-ugly-it's-gotta-be-art, bleached-color, "Saving Private Ryan" style as "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood's other (and inferior) Iwo Jima movie this year.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" gets liberal brownie points for telling the story of the battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldiers. Guess what -- those guys were actual human beings, who loved their mothers, wives, kids, a horse and a dog.

Our viewpoint character is a slightly goofy former baker (Kazunari Ninomiya) who just wants to go home. He gets rescued through so many nick-of-time plot contrivances it's absurd, for a movie that's not supposed to be a comedy, but the guy is likeable enough.

Ken Watanabe is good as the impossibly noble general in charge of defending the island, an exercise made futile by scant resources and a complete lack of support from headquarters. This makes the American victory look pretty unimpressive, like shooting sushi in a barrel.

That's not the only aspect of "Letters from Iwo Jima" that will make conservative morons like Limbaugh and Hannity go apoplectic, though. Wait until they get a load of the scene in which American soldiers treat two helpless prisoners of war in less than dignified fashion, decades before our current psychotic Attorney General chosen by our War Criminal in Chief declared that the Geneva Conventions were "quaint" and could be interpreted however we pleased.

The first half of this movie is so sleep-inducingly uninteresting that I nearly nodded off, until American bombers coming over the mountains shook me from my lethargy. The flat, gray, monotonous look of things doesn't help.

Not a terrible movie, but one that I can't imagine anyone leaving their houses and buying tickets to see. Trust me, there's going to be something more enjoyable on another screen at any multiplex in the world.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Libertine
(Reviewed November 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

Ineptly directed, horribly shot and woodenly acted, "The Libertine" is so deadly dull that even the sight of a midget riding a huge, wheeled cock across a stage doesn't relieve the tedium. And that old standby usually works so well!

Johnny Depp plays John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, in 1670s England. The real Wilmot supposedly was a witty, talented, scandalously debauched rogue who was both a child prodigy and a young war hero, but Depp plays him as an mean-spirited, unsmiling creep in a permanent snit. In other words, Depp's Wilmot possesses all of the tired cinematic stereotypes of your basic decadent upper-class fop -- casual cruelty, emotionless conversation, moody self-absorption -- without anything resembling charm.

Worse, we never get the sense that Wilmot ever has enjoyed any of his licentious pursuits. The movie's tone is so constipated, unfun and morally judgmental that it could have been made by Focus on the Family, if not for the occasional tit shot and a few four-letter words. See Wilmot. See Wilmot drink and sport with whores while remaining unfulfilled. See Wilmot fall in real, true love with inept stage actress played by Samantha Morton. See plot become "Pygmalion" pathetic, as Wilmot wagers that he can make the actress a star. That's right: the lusty, sinful libertine was nothing more than a nurturing Henry Higgins in hiding!

King Charles II, portrayed with coolly reptilian restraint by John Malkovich, commissions Wilmot to write a new play that will reflect glory on his royal person. This makes no sense in the context of the movie, which shows Wilmot to be a disrespectful prick who clearly has no affection for the king. If Depp had played Wilmot with the kind of sly likability of a true rogue, this wouldn't have been a problem.

The movie's idea of clever wordplay consists mostly of grade-school level sex puns. Oh, what mileage there is to be had from a manservant named Alcock! And while "The Libertine" may set a new record for the number of times the word "cunt" is voiced, don't count on seeing a real one here. Or seeing any flesh-and-blood male members, either. So far as anything resembling actual sex is concerned, "The Libertine" is somewhere between a tease and a dry hump.

This is what passes for intellectually stimulating erotica in today's America: a softcore, joyless bore where the horny hero's comeuppance is a hideously rotting face, a hemorrhaging crotch and a limp body ravaged by syphilis. Abstinence, kids! Abstinence!

Both the original play and the screenplay were written by Stephen Jeffreys, so this isn't a case of the movie's flaws being the fault of some careless interloper hack. First-time director Laurence Dunmore presumably is responsible for the flatness of the performances, the decision to use hideously grainy film stock for most of the indoor scenes, and some extremely annoying camera techniques. (Depp and his movie wife Rosamund Pike are in a two-shot for an extended conversation, both of them facing the camera, which changes focus back and forth between them with each line of dialog -- to the point where you'll want to shout, "Stop playing with the damned knob!")

I haven't disliked a ploddingly pretentious art-porn period piece this much since sitting through a screening of the egregiously awful "Quills" exactly five years before I saw "The Libertine."

On November 3, 2010, I think I'll stay home and read a book.

A very dirty book.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

License to Wed
(Reviewed June 16, 2007)

Well, that serves me right for thinking there couldn't be anything worse this year than "Knocked Up." Sigh.

"License to Wed" stars Robin Williams as a wildly irreverent reverend whose pre-marriage counseling technique involves acting like a manic, incredibly annoying, relentlessly unamusing asshole. In other words, the sort of character Williams has made a career of portraying.

His chubby "Hollywood kid" sidekick (Josh Flitter), a minister-in-training, is the same obnoxious 12-year-old twat whose wisecracking presence was so unwelcome and inappropriate in "Nancy Drew." I pray that this young lad soon lands a long-term gig on some sub-moronic sitcom, playing the stereotypical "young Danny Bonaduce douchebag" that we all know and loathe, so I won't have to see him again anytime soon on the big screen.

Mandy Moore and John Krasinski are the potential bride and groom. They display absolutely no romantic chemistry and have nothing whatsoever in common, aside from the fact that both seem to be going out of their way to be uninteresting and unfunny. In fact, the strangest thing about the movie's plot is that audiences apparently are supposed to root for the two of them to survive counseling and get married, despite the fact that these two immature idiots very clearly have no business going through with the wedding.

Don't get me wrong, nothing could save "License to Wed" from its vast multitude of other flaws. But it would have been nice to see Miss Anal-Retentive and Mr. No-Balls realize that they would be better off at the end by splitting up rather than by going through with the ceremony.

Mandy Moore, who actually seemed to be getting better at the acting thang in two of her recent movies ("Saved" and "American Dreamz"), retreats into embarrassing amateurism here. (I managed to miss her in this year's "Because I Said So," but I hear she was no Meryl Streep in that one, either.) Moore's main facial expression here is a creepy mimic of Robin Williams' trademark "smile with furrowed brow" mask, as if she is grinning gamely through painful sorrow. She's not sexy, not funny and a bit of a bitch.

She shines compared to her utterly colorless co-star Krasinski, though. Krasinski, who plays the American version of Tim in the NBC version of "The Office" that I can't stomach, is supposed to be the movie's awkwardly desperate-to-please Ben Stiller clone. He fails at that task nearly as badly as Zach Braff did earlier this year in "The Ex," and for the same reason. Stiller is good at conveying a believable sense of seething resentment under his going-along-to-get-along efforts, doing a slow burn until he finally erupts. Krasinski and Braff reduce this to merely pouting and yelling.

The would-be bride and groom are given a series of tests they must pass in order to be married in Williams' church, including abstaining from sex until the wedding day and having their first screaming argument. The movie becomes downright disturbing when they are required to care for robot infant twins who look frighteningly, disturbingly monstrous. Bad enough that this gives the movie an excuse to trot out one of those "baby pissing in dad's face" scenes that Hollywood apparently thinks audiences love. What's even worse is a diaper-changing scene in which one of the creepy robot-babies pumps out a few feet of blue shit. Charming.

As of June 16, this is the worst movie I've seen in 2007. And that's no blue shit.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F- to infinity

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
(Reviewed December 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

Good God, has Bud Cort's appearance ever changed since "Harold and Maude." The ridiculously slight teen with jet-black hair and an innocent, androgynous face has aged into a portly, balding middle-aged man who quite believably plays a bond-completion accountant in this movie. Time is the enemy, folks.

Now that THAT is out of the way:

"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is the latest from director/cowriter Wes Anderson, whose last movie, 2002's boringly precious "The Royal Tenenbaums," was a shocking disappointment compared to his "Bottle Rocket" debut and his wonderful "Rushmore." Incredibly, "The Royal Tenenbaums" was so bad that it easily made my "10 Worst of 2002" list. Thankfully, "The Life Aquatic" is a getting-back-to-form effort, with more heart and more laughs than "Tenenbaums" (not to mention an actual plot).

Bill Murray stars as a Jacques Cousteau-type underwater explorer, albeit one without Cousteau's prestige, financial backing or sense. When his partner is killed by a heretofore unknown species Murray identifies as a "Jaguar Shark," Murray declares that his next documentary will follow his quest to locate that monstrous maneater. Along for the journey are a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett) whom Murray dreams of bedding, a Kentucky Airlines pilot (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be Murray's son, and an insecurely jealous but fiercely loyal crew member (Willem Dafoe). Other characters are Anjelica Huston as Murray's somewhat bitter ex, Jeff Goldblum as a ridiculously more successful rival explorer, and Michael Gambon as Murray's unflappable financial manager.

"The Life Aquatic" is likeable but just a tad too smirkily ironic. It's one of those movies that knows it's a goof and doesn't care. It looks kind of cheap, the performances are sometimes a bit too offhanded, and the guy-singing-Bowie-songs-in-Portuguese gimmick is overdone to the point of "okay, enough already."

Still, it's one of those movies that gets points for trying, and could have been a hell of a lot worse. It could have been "Shark Tale."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Life as a House
(Reviewed October 3, 2001, by James Dawson)

Here is the best way to convey how insultingly, unwatchably, vomitously sappy "Life as a House" is: Kevin Kline seems to be impersonating "serious movie"-mode Robin Williams throughout the film. Think of that trademark Williams expression, the brave smile with its corners turned down as wet-but-twinkling eyes look heavenward with hope and gratitude at how wonderful life is, even with all of its struggles and cares. And think of the way that Williams minces through his sensitive-man roles with all the forced whimsy of a clueless "in-his-own-world" mime, occasionally going stone-faced for big-drama moments of ridiculously over-earnest sincerity. God, I hate that guy.

That's exactly how Kline plays the role of an architect's model-maker who gets canned and cancer on the same day, then decides to reconnect with the distant son from his first marriage by using his remaining days on earth to build a house on the site of his dilapidated shack. Holy cow, where do I begin to catalog the multitudes of inanities in this flick? The "tear down the old house and build a new one" allegory is so forced that all those carpenter hammers on screen may as well be pounding on your cranium. I picture a bunch of venal studio execs (are there any other kind?) telling each other, "The Oprah and Sally Jesse crowd will eat this slop right up! Surly, death-obsessed, inhalant-sniffing, defiant, sexually-confused son goes from multiply-pierced Marilyn Manson fan to healthy all-American boy in one summer! I'm smellin' a hundred mil, easy!"

Beneath that obvious bit of crass calculation, there could be another reason why this pathetic "Pay It Forward"-ish piece of crap got greenlighted. It has instant appeal for every over-40 Hollywood jerkoff who ditched Wife Number One and his kids for a trophy wife, but who wants to think that he could make everything right again with some hokey symbolic gesture before meeting the reaper. In other words, it has instant appeal for Oscar voters who would like to believe in this kind of idiotic wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Still, imagine sitting in on a pitch meeting where the writer goes through this kind of spiel:

"Okay, we start out going for the cheap laughs. Ritzy Southern California neighborhood of cliffside, million-dollar homes. Make that multi-million-dollar homes, with ocean views all the way to Catalina. Pan across those immaculate estates to the most run-down, falling-apart shack ever seen outside of Arkansas. Kevin Kline is in there, sleeping. He wakes up, strides outdoors in nothing but his jockeys, and takes a whizz off the cliff, in full view of his uptight neighbors! Then his dog--make it a big Lab or something--cocks a leg on the front bumper of a neighbor's Lexus! Every Joe Lunchbucket and Sally Soccermom in America is lovin' it already, right! Don't worry, they won't even think about how preposterous it is that the weatherbeaten shack is sitting on a zillion-dollar piece of real estate more likely to be owned by the real-life Kevin Kline than the character he plays.

"Kline gets fired after 20 years by one of those smirking, intellectual types that everybody hates. Throw in some `take this job and shove it' rage as Kline breaks up a bunch of the models he spent his life making for `the man.' Can you hear the nine-to-fivers cheering in the aisles yet? Then it's tug-the-heartstrings-'til-they-sing time. Kline collapses outside his former workplace. Yikes! It's the big `C!' He tells a nurse how lousy life has been since his wife split 10 years ago, and how no one has touched him since then. She closes the curtain around his hospital bed and starts giving him the kind of attention that might get nursing organizations really pissed at us, but maybe not, 'cause most nurses probably would love to get all touchie-feelie with a movie star if they had the chance.

"Cut to his ex-wife's place. Big glass house, ritzy. Sam, the 16-year-old she had with Kline, is a total mess. Her new husband is so stiff he makes Charles Grodin look like George Clooney. He not only hates Sam, he can't even hug the two little munchkins he and the wife have had together! Cold, baby--cold!

"You can see where this is going, right? Dad leaves the hospital but doesn't tell anybody he's terminal. How is he still able to run around with enough strength and vitality to pull a one-man `This Old House' routine, even though he has only months to live? Hey, this is Hollywood, baby! Go with the flow!

"He offers to take his son off his ex's hands for the whole summer. Father and son fight but then bond. Father and ex remember what they loved about each other. Kiss-kiss, hug-hug, pass out the hankies!"

"But there's more! Just for kicks, let's throw in the jailbait teenage daughter of one of Kline's neighbors who likes to shower with Sam--and do more than shower, if you get my drift! Also, she dates this sleazy Porsche-driving high school stud who...I'm really going out on a ledge here, but stick with me...who tries to pimp poor, penniless Sam out to rich guys, so Sam can pay for weed! No, no, wait, it will work, I'm telling you! We're living in a `Dawson's Creek' world, people! And then maybe that teenage pimp can start banging the jailbait girl's mom, and the jailbait girl can even make a play for Kline, snuggling up in bed with him while he's zonked on painkillers. Okay, putting a sex farce in the middle of a weeper is kinda offbeat, but we've gotta have something in this dopey chick flick to keep the guys in the audience awake!

"Big finish time: We're gonna go with a one-two punch. First, we use a painfully stupid, coincidence-contrived plot development that will get big guffaws from the kind of TV-watching doofuses who would pay to see this kind of junk. Then we top it all off with a finale that is so sickeningly sweet, the Wal-Mart crowd will run to the phones to insist that their friends simply HAVE to go see this feel-good, family-friendly flick!"

Or, in other words: This movie is so far beyond awful that I thought of adding it to my three-way tie for worst movie of 2001 (which currently includes "Tomcats," "A Knight's Tale" and "Bandits"). The only things that kept it off that list were performances by Kristin Scott Thomas (who tries to bring some restrained dignity to the cliched "neglected wife" role); Jenna Malone (who is like some "Barely Legal" fantasy chicklet come to life--"You looked like a really good kisser when I watched you with my mom, and I wanted to find out if I was right"); and Mary Steenburgen (who graces the public with a full-dorsal nude scene, and who looks pretty damned well-preserved as she preens, black-lingerie-clad, in front of a full-length mirror).

They were good enough to keep "Life as a House" from getting an "F-minus," but not enough to make it squeak any higher than an "F." Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Life Before Her Eyes
(Reviewed April 16, 2008, by James Dawson)

In this second feature by "House of Sand and Fog" director Vadim Perelman, the terror and aftermath of a high-school shooting are seen from the viewpoints of a 32-year-old suburban mother and the bad-girl teenager she was at the time of the tragedy.

Evan Rachel Wood, who portrayed an every-parent's-nightmare daughter to perfection in 2003's "Thirteen," is equally impressive here as semi-delinquent 17-year-old Diana. She smokes, she gets high, she loses her virginity to an older tattooed creep. Yikes.

She also tries to corrupt her nice-girl best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri), a church-going Christian who refreshingly does not come off like a nutjob Jesus-freak stereotype. Their world is shattered when a rifle-wielding fellow student goes on a killing spree before cornering them in a school bathroom.

Flash forward 15 years. Married-and-settled Diana (Uma Thurman) has a beautiful home, a college professor husband and a golden-child daughter, but she's haunted by that fateful day. The movie does a good job of bouncing back and forth between events in teenage and older Diana's life, giving it an interesting structure that teasingly reveals more details about exactly what happened. Ninety-five percent of the movie is the kind of solid, character-revealing melodrama that really works.

Unfortunately, the ending is the equivalent of a fake-lottery-ticket practical joke. The whole time you're scratching it off and seeing jackpot symbols, you desperately hope it's the genuine article. Sure, the printing looks a little suspicious, and the friend who gave it to you keeps humming "Loser," but the rest of your birthday has been so magical and romantic that you can't imagine anyone wanting to spoil it. Then you see the word "sucker," and you wonder why some people can't figure out that a little too much cleverness can be incredibly annoying.

That's a real shame, because Wood's convincing performance as a cynical but insecure teen almost makes up for the extremely unsatisfying ending.

Seriously, leaving the theater 10 minutes before the credits roll and making up your own conclusion would be better than seeing what happens onscreen. Also, that way you will be able to get to your car before the rest of the audience, beat the mad rush out of the mall parking lot, and get home sooner to binge on nachos, white fudge, pineapple pizza and corn nuts during the 11 o'clock news. Ah, sweet nirvana!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Life During Wartime
(Reviewed July 15, 2010, by James Dawson)

Although this black-comedy, dysfunctional-family gem is a sequel to writer/director Todd Solondz's deadpan and depraved 1998 masterpiece "Happiness," all of the returning characters are played by different actors this time around. (Solondz did something similar with Palindromes, his last movie, in which the main character was played by several different actresses over the course of the film.)

This total-cast reboot is initially jarring, especially when "Life During Wartime" opens in exactly the same restaurant booth featuring exactly the same silver ashtray gift that's seen at the beginning of "Happiness." Even one of the characters admits to feeling "just a little deja vu."

The other big difference between the two movies is a new emphasis on religion and ethnicity. While the secularly suburban parents-and-three-kids Maplewoods of "Happiness" were as whitebread and seemingly un-ethnic as a 1950s sitcom, mom Trish (Allison Janney) in "Life During Wartime" is a fervent Jew who is thrilled that the new man in her life is "pro-Israel." Her middle son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is studying for his bar mitzvah. Dad Bill, played in "Happiness" by the blandly low-key and decidedly unthreatening Dylan Baker, has been replaced by the darkly glowering Ciarin Hinds, an actor who comes across as scarily menacing even when he's doing nothing more frightening than eating gumdrops. And Trish's sister Helen, played with regally icy supermodel detachment by Lara Flynn Boyle in "Happiness," becomes screechingly witchy as played by a wild-haired Ally Sheedy.

The most unfortunate substitute here is actress Shirley Henderson as Trish's other sister Joy. Where Jane Adams played Joy as a wide-eyed and gullibly optimistic naif in "Happiness," Henderson -- perhaps best known as the girls'-room ghost Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- turns Joy into the kind of creepy, Betty-Boob-voiced weirdo who appears to be one unraveling thread away from shoving a nail file into your left eye.

The overall effect is as if Solondz wanted to subvert standard sequel expectations by setting this movie in an alternate side-by-side universe with "Happiness," one where the basic essentials are the same but the ambience is completely different.

The two films don't even look alike. "Happiness" is better lit, sharper and aesthetically unthreatening, while the digitally-shot "Life During Wartime" is often dark, murky and haunting. Somehow, Bill's bloody sociopathic fantasy in "Happiness" of walking through a park and shooting strangers is less unsettling than his recurring Lynchian "Life During Wartime" dream about a blurry child standing beside a picturesque lake. "Life During Wartime" is full of other visually arresting dialog-free scenes, such as Bill's dead-eyed walk from the bus station after being released from prison, Joy's nighttime stroll to a restaurant where she encounters the ghost of former boyfriend Andy (Paul Reubens, taking over for "Happiness"'s Jon Lovitz), and Timmy's purposeful silent stride to his mother's boyfriend's house after his bar mitzvah.

As should be expected in any Solondz film, the screenplay includes blackly comic references to shock-value hot buttons ranging from pedophilia (a college girl downplays a friend's story about being molested by her stepfather by saying it was "just fingers") to suicide (a ghost advises a listener to kill herself and then write a note afterward) to homosexuality (after being called a "faggot," Timmy says he "just ran a faggot").

There also are lots of less outrageous laugh-out-loud lines, such as when a horny, past-her-prime barfly (Charlotte Rampling) sums up the guy sitting across the table from her by saying, "I see a man, and he's alone, and he's straight. That's good enough for me." Or when Trish tells Joy that her new beau (Michael Lerner) voted for both Bush and McCain, "but that's only because of Israel. He knows those people are complete idiots otherwise." Or when Joy's pleadingly polite ex-con husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) shamefully admits that he does still make the occasional obscene phone call, but "just a little...on Sundays."

What's unexpected is how thoughtful, and even moving, many parts of the film are. Several characters ask forgiveness for transgressions ranging from the trivial (tardiness) to the unthinkable (child molesting). Timmy raises the philosophical question of whether people sometimes might choose to forget but not forgive, when the injury is so severe that forgiveness isn't possible. Trying to rekindle his romance with Joy from the afterlife, Andy pleads that "sometimes pretending can be better than the real thing." And Bill, a psychiatrist before being sent to prison, compassionately tells a self-critical woman that "people can't help if they're monsters."

This is a film that should be seen more than once to appreciate all it has to offer. That's especially true if you enjoyed "Happiness," because it does take a while to get over wishing that the original actors had returned to their roles here. And as with a sequel to any movie as brilliant as "Happiness," it's impossible not to have incredibly high expectations that a sequel rarely will meet.

Even with those caveats, though, "Life During Wartime" is one of the most fascinating and rewarding films you're likely to see this year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

The Life of David Gale
(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

This plodding, patently stupid movie is quite obviously anti-death-penalty. I mean, come on--it *is* a Hollywood movie, after all. But its script is so ridiculously contrived and thoroughly unbelievable that it also could be taken as an indictment of bleeding-heart liberals who are so screwy they can't figure out that committing what in essence is "suicide by cop" is not exactly a convincing argument that capital punishment is wrong. (Then again, I would be delighted if more of them would try the tactic.)

Kevin Spacey thoroughly embarrasses himself yet again (what is this, four bad movies in a row since "American Beauty"? Why, yes, it is: "Pay It Forward," "K-PAX," "The Shipping News" and now this steaming pile) as an anti-death-penalty crusader on death row who claims to be innocent. He gets a news magazine to pony up half a million bucks to interview him a few days before he is scheduled to be executed. ($500,000 for an interview with a convict who is not even a Hollywood celebrity? What planet is this movie from--K-PAX?) The mag sends Kate Winslet and, get this, a completely inexperienced intern. Yeah, that's a good use of a half mill.Star reporter Bitsey (seriously, that is Kate's character's name) is so ditzy she can't figure out a final plot twist that is screamingly obvious from minute one.

God knows there are plenty of things about George W. Bush to make fun of, if not to despise. Yet the unsubtle caricature of Bush presented here (a Texas governor whom Spacey dominates in a TV debate) is achingly one-dimensional. The movie makes no attempt to give a fair shake to the other side of the capital-punishment argument, of course. (See previous note about "Hollywood movie.")

I can't imagine "The Life of David Gale" changing anyone's opinion on the death-penalty issue. If you are a criminal-coddling idiot who thinks rapists and murderers should get free room, board and organ transplants on the taxpayers' dime for the rest of their misbegotten lives, you will go on being pathetically delusional. If you are a right-thinking moral absolutist who believes the scum of the earth should be sent to the fires of Hell with all due dispatch, you will go on being one-hundred-percent correct.

(File the above under "equal time.")

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Like Crazy
(Reviewed October 27, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Lilo & Stitch
(Reviewed June 21, 2002, by James Dawson)

Funny, frantic, offbeat and actually touching, this is a warm-wacky-'n'-wonderful Disney animated movie that boys and girls both would love if they saw it (although getting boys into theaters to see a movie with a little Hawaiian girl as its main character might be tough).

Stitch, a genetic-experiment warrior creature created by an alien "mad scientist," escapes to earth and is adopted by lil' Lilo, a fellow outcast misfit. Their resulting bond is predictable, sure, but done so well that you never once feel like gagging. And -- THANK GOD -- this is NOT another Disney musical. (Disney seems to have beaten the cartoon-musical genre to death, and may it rest in peace.) "Lilo & Stitch"'s songs are provided by Elvis Presley, which shows just how quirky the movie is.

As of June 21, this is one of my top-five favorite movies of 2002. Go. Take the family. Take somebody else's family. You'll love it!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Limits of Control
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Lions for Lambs
(Reviewed November 3, 2007)

This shallow, limp and stupid exercise in politics for puddinheads is embarrassingly simpleminded, even by Hollywood standards.

"Lions for Lambs" is director Robert Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan's way of trying to simultaneously criticize the disastrous handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by Republican chickenhawks while praising the nobility of two supposedly bright college students who have enlisted in the army as their way of proving their commitment to American ideals.

Say it with me, people: "Wha...???"

The screenplay is divided into three concurrent plots, and none of them work. US Army soldiers Michael Pena and Derek Luke, former students of poli-sci professor Redford, are stranded on an Afghan mountaintop hoping to be rescued before enemy soldiers reach their position. Meanwhile, Redford is back home at "a California university" (seriously, that's how it is identified onscreen), counseling an apathetic student about why the kid should get involved in government instead of tuning out in hopeless disgust. And in Washington, magazine reporter Meryl Streep is listening to an hour's worth of "mission almost accomplished" bullshit from robotic rising-star Republican senator Tom Cruise.

The result is not only inconsistent and unconvincing but insincere. The Republican senator clearly is presented as an evil, ambitious con man spokesman for a dishonest and corrupt administration. That's obviously how Redford, and anyone else with a lick of sense, regards anyone who supports our current War-Criminal-in-Chief and his congressional enablers. While interviewing the senator, Streep clearly is disdainful of his relentless, nonsensical jingoism, even if her disbelieving asides are rather timidly voiced.

Given that context, how can the audience possibly take seriously the idea that soldiers Pena and Luke are anything other than idiots and dupes?

We see Pena and Luke in flashback as students whom Redford bafflingly regards as among the brightest he's ever taught, even though they come off like a couple of barely articulate dopes. During a presentation arguing that every American should devote his junior year in college to some sort of national service to improve conditions here and abroad, the two surprise Redford and the rest of the class by revealing that they have just enlisted in the army, apparently as their way of putting their money where their mouth is.

While Redford says that he disagreed with them and tried to talk them out of it, he supposedly respected their decision. That makes about as much sense as respecting a pair of promising 1940s-era German medical students for deciding to sign on as interns with Dr. Mengele.

As Redford relates this story to a promising slacker student, what's implied is that the slacker should show the same level of commitment by wanting more out of life than money -- preferably by working to put an end to war, but apparently even if that commitment means doing something as insane as offering himself up as cannon fodder for the draft-dodging alcoholic cokehead moron who currently occupies the White House. The slacker should laugh in his face, call him a waffling, spineless old fool, and take a dump on his desk.

That doesn't happen.

The whole movie comes off like Redford and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan's misguided attempt to please the antiwar crowd by offering up a villainous Republican senator who embodies everything that's wrong with the right, while simultaneously attempting to placate red-state retards by disingenuously waving a "support our troops" flag.

Even the title makes no sense. "Lions for Lambs" refers to a World War I German general's comment about British troops being lions led by lambs. But "lambs" is not a word that anyone would use, even disparagingly, to describe Bush and company. "Sociopaths," "traitors," "profiteers" or "psychotic weasels from Hell," maybe, but not "lambs."

I hated this movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Little Black Book
(Reviewed July 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

Yet another stunningly, offensively, irredeemably worthless piece of garbage from Revolution Studios, whose president Joe Roth apparently enjoys being the biggest shit merchant in Hollywood. (And that's saying a lot, folks.) During most bad movies, your main regret is that you wasted money on a ticket. During Revolution Studios movies, however, you fall into a dark abyss of angry, bitter despair, despising yourself for wasting two hours that you never will get back, wishing you could beat up the shameless sons of bitches responsible for stealing your time.

Brittany Murphy, whose "Uptown Girls" very easily made my "10 Worst of 2003" list, is back as another pop-eyed blithering idiot with the brains of an annoying five-year-old. This ditz-brained freak gets a job as an assistant on a TV show that is a hybrid of "Oprah" and "Jerry Springer." Holly Hunter, working that weird speech impediment of hers as if half of her mouth is sewn shut and the other half is set on permanent lisp, is a coworker.

At one point, Murphy and Hunter dance around a living room while singing along to an old Carly Simon song. Is there a soul on this planet who is not sick of variations of that scene? Sweet Buddha, give me strength.

(Also, I have to wonder how many times during production Holly Hunter raised a clenched fist and cursed God, whose cruel sense of humor steered her career path from "Broadcast News" to this unfunny, retarded, negative-universe cousin of that flick.)

"Little Black Book" is foul from frame one, wherein we hear Murphy's flakey voiceover narration (nearly always a bad sign in any movie), which continues throughout. Her character is so damned dumb and hyper and "wacky" that she makes Jenna Elfman's Dharma come off like a Nobel laureate. What kind of self-hating female disgraces-to-their-sex (two women are credited with writing the screenplay) could create a character so childishly, shockingly moronic?

When her boyfriend leaves town on business, Murphy goes through his Palm, or Blackberry, or whatever the fuck it is, to track down the guy's ex-girlfriends. Pretending to be interested in each of them as potential guests on the TV show based on their occupations, she interviews each without letting on who she is. She finds out that her boyfriend has not been exactly faithful. Later, Murphy and said ex-girlfriends are hoodwinked into appearing on the tabloid TV show together. The truth is revealed to all on live TV (how fucking preposterous), to the would-be-amusing embarrassment of all.

(If that TV-humiliation moment seems familiar, refer to a similar scene in Sandra Bullock's 1998 movie "Hope Floats.") (And yes, I'm ashamed that I know this.)

I can't begin to describe how lame this movie is. It's so bad that I have to assume the writers are cynical, by-the-numbers hacks who were snickering to themselves as they typed the screenplay, all the while cruelly denigrating the taste and intelligence of their target audience. The alternative would be to believe that anyone could possibly write this swill without being aware of its wretchedness, which seems flat-out impossible.

There is one person in this reeking fiasco who acts as if she is giving 100 percent regardless of the tawdry material, and thereby shames everyone else involved. Julianne Nicholson, who plays ex-girlfriend restauranteur Joyce, somehow manages to be likeable and sweet and genuine in spite of the remarkably awful dialog she has to spout.

Nicholson deserves to be cast in better movies in the future. She sure as hell can't be in one that's worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Little Children
(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Most of this movie is like a good soap opera. Unfortunately, it ends like a bad soap opera.

Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson are jobless, upper-middle-class, suburbanite parents who are hot for each other. Unfortunately, both of them are married, Kate to an unloving internet-porn fetishist and Patrick to a cold-fish documentary maker (Jennifer Connelly). The would-be lovers meet every day at the crowded community swimming pool, she with her toddler daughter and he with his toddler son. Their yearning for each other is so realistic and intense that when they finally get around to hooking up, it's as big a release for the audience as it is for them.

Things get more complicated at that point, of course. What happens next for a stay-at-home former English Literature major and an unemployed guy who has failed the bar exam twice? As bad as their home lives are with their uncaring spouses, at least they don't have to worry about actually making a living. Is love really all you need?

All of that stuff might sound sappy, but it's really well done. Winslet is excellent as the slightly frumpy mother whose early cynicism is overpowered by her desire for real romance. Wilson conveys just the right amount of reluctance and guilt about what he can't stop himself from doing.

If only this movie had concentrated solely on their story. Unfortunately, the cast of characters also includes a loudmouthed uber-jock ex-cop who enjoys taunting a registered sex offender who lives with his mother. I guess these two were thrown in to "action/sexy" up the plot. I mean, God forbid that a movie should simply be a thoughtful domestic drama, without any touches of stupid "outrageousness." Ugh.

"Little Children" also has one of the most unsatisfyingly unconvincing endings of the year. I won't say what happens, but Wilson absolutely would not do what he does in anything resembling the real world, and neither would Winslet. That final act is so dumb it's as if the screenwriter suddenly lost 90% of his brain before typing the last five pages.

File under "a damned shame."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Little Miss Sunshine
(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

Things sometimes veer a little too far into "indie-quirky" territory in this road-trip tale of a family heading from New Mexico to California in a VW bus for their young daughter's appearance in a beauty contest. But the movie as a whole is likable enough to get away with a few missteps.

Greg Kinnear is the bitterly optimistic father, who doggedly refuses to lose faith in his chances of hitting it big with a self-empowerment book. Toni Collette is the barely-keeping-it-together mom. Her suicidal brother (a refreshingly understated Steve Carrell) is along for the ride. So is teenage son Paul Dano, whose vow of silence results in some of the movie's best sight gags as he communicates via pen and notepad. Alan Arkin is Kinnear's crude, porn-loving, heroin-snorting dad, and Abigail Breslin is terrific as seven-year-old daughter Olive.

Far from slick, the movie has a low-budget look that actually works well for the material. A subplot involving Grandpa should have been jettisoned, considering that everyone who sees this movie will think it is ripped off from a not-exactly-obscure 1980s comedy. And the movie's ending goes on about twice as long as it should.

Still, there's a lot more that's right than wrong in this movie, which has a lot of genuine humor and a lot of heart.

Even Juggs magazine makes an appearance. Now THAT'S quality filmmaking!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Little Nicky
(Reviewed October 24, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is a pretty bad movie, but there are a few laughs in it. Not very many, but a few. Don't get me wrong, most of it is damned bad, especially the stunningly unfunny scene that takes place in heaven. But Adam Sandler always manages to be likable, Harvey Keitel makes a good devil dad, and Rodney Dangerfield is swell as the devil granddad.

Most of the rest of the cast members seem to have been cast because they were friends of the producers or something. (The two metalheads who follow Nicky around New York are at least twice as old as the characters should be, for example.) And one can only wonder how much money Popeyes chicken put up to be Nicky's "awesome" favorite.

Speaking of which: I kept waiting for one of the errant lightning bolts from one of the devils' hands to split the Popeyes logo so it would say "Pope yes," which would have been kind of a clever good-vs.-evil joke. But apparently the screenwriters never looked at the Popeyes logo as closely as my eagle-eyed brother John did. (Hi!)

Dumb-comedy-wise, this one is way down there. But it beats wasting your money on swill like "Pay It Forward" any day of the week.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Little Vampire
(Reviewed October 4, 2000, by James Dawson) The sad thing about this mediocre mess of a movie is that it could have risen to the level of a classic children's film if the filmmakers had possessed the talent and integrity to play things straight. The basic plot (lonely American boy transplanted to Scotland befriends sad vampire boy, and tries to help his persecuted vampire clan escape their doom) is offbeat and dark, and could have been rendered with some real heart and poignancy if it had gotten the "E.T." treatment. Instead, the makers of "The Little Vampire" take the low road by turning the movie into something akin to one of those painfully stupid Disney made-for-TV movies, full of hammy acting and embarrassing music cues and achingly unfunny sitcomish "humor." (When a cartoonish, stogie-smoking vampire hunter shows up in a gadget-festooned truck, it's like being slapped in the face and told, "Abandon all hope, folks, because this movie is now officially declared CRAP!")

The real tragedy is that the actor who plays the vampire boy (Rollo Weeks, in what apparently is his first movie role) does not seem to realize that he is in a truly lousy movie. This kid is great. As in, this kid can actually ACT. His performance has the kind of depth and emotion and genuine credibility that is found nowhere else in the entire production.

Here is the essence of why this movie fails: Anybody can take a hard-to-swallow fantasy premise and make a stupid movie out of it, by giving up and saying, "Hey, it's all dumb stuff anyway, why waste the effort to make it seem believable?" It takes real genius, though, to make a hard-to-swallow fantasy premise seem real and touching and sincere (think Steven Spielberg's "E.T.").

Rollo Weeks thought that he was making "E.T.," but everybody else here -- amateurish Hollywood kid Jonathan Lipnicki, the criminally wasted Richard E. Grant, the director, the screenwriter, etc., etc. -- thought they were making junk. And that really sucks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (It escapes the dreaded "F" solely because of Rollo Weeks, who shines like gold in this dross.)

Live Free or Die Hard
(Reviewed July 4, 2007)

Bruce Willis returns to his best role in this fun and frantic fourth installment of the "Die Hard" franchise.

Only the first "Die Hard" seemed to worry about being even vaguely realistic, but this time believability is cheerfully thrown out the window. The bad guys with big guns always have horrendous aim, Willis can take more punishment than the Terminator and come back for more, and he seems to possess a perpetual supply of fresh ammo clips. Also, the big action set pieces frequently are beyond preposterous. A guy in a tractor-trailer wins a showdown with a fighter jet? Sure.

But wow, does all of this nonsense ever make for a great ride.

Justin Long, the Mac guy from those smugly off-putting Apple TV ads, is a hacker Willis has to protect from baddies intent on crashing every major computer system in America. Long sometimes comes off like a retarded Keanu Reeves (think about that and shudder), but his presence can't dilute the ass-kicking Willis mojo. Kevin Smith makes an unwelcome cameo as a computer genius who lives in his mom's basement. Smith is such a bad actor that he doesn't even pretend to type very well.

Also, Maggie Q is hot and nasty as a martial-arts minx who just won't quit.

Make no mistake, this isn't heady intellectual fare, or a hip deconstruction of the genre, or an ironic allegory. It's just a good stupid movie that looks swell on a big movie screen.

Sometimes, that's enough.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed April 10, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Lola Versus
(Reviewed May 29, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed January 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

If your idea of a pleasant night's entertainment involves listening to a self-pitying, utterly unappealing cokehead endlessly run off at the mouth for two hours in a bathroom, this is the movie for you.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Lonesome Jim
(Reviewed March 23, 2006, by James Dawson)

Directed by actor Steve Buscemi (who does not appear in it) and written by first-timer James C. Strouse, this very low-key sorta black-comedy starts slowly but eventually becomes an interesting slice-o'-quirky-life.

Casey Affleck is Jim, your basic depressed and expressionless 20-something slacker, who moves back to his parents' Indiana home after failing to make it as a writer in New York. He hooks up with single mom Liv Tyler and goes to work at his family's ladder-manufacturing company, where his trailer-trash uncle steals snacks and deals drugs on the job. When Jim tells his divorced brother, who lives at their parents' house with his two young daughters, that he is an even bigger loser than Jim, the brother reacts by driving into a tree. Also, Jim has a premature ejaculation problem. It's that kind of movie.

Affleck may be guilty of underplaying the title character, but then again, the guy's supposed to be bummed out most of the time. Tyler is excellent as a normal (although fantasy-fulfillingly "easy") small-town nurse who manages to come off as sexy but simultaneously sensible. Mark Boone Junior is both funny and a little frightening as Jim's bearded badass, scooter-riding Uncle Evil. When Jim and Uncle Evil share a joint that Jim points out it is "kind of strong," Evil blithely remarks, "That's because I put a little crack in it." Yeowtch!

"Lonesome Jim" isn't the most technically proficient film you'll see this year -- some strange angles and annoying handheld camera scenes scream "novice director," for example -- but its characters definitely will grow on you. The ending briefly takes an unfortunate wrong turn, arriving at a satisfyingly appropriate ending by way of an unsatisfyingly overused plot device, but that misstep is easy to forgive.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Longest Yard
(Reviewed March 28, 2005, by James Dawson)

Adam Sandler is wildly miscast as an incarcerated ex-pro quarterback who puts together a team of fellow prison inmates to play against the guards who abuse them. (Just imagine how much better a big good ol' boy like Matthew McConaughey would have been in this role.) Burt Reynolds, who starred in the original version about 30 years ago, hams things up as a grizzled coach. Chris Rock supplies wisecracks from the sidelines.

I don't remember jack about the original, but this 2005 retread didn't make me laugh once. Part of the problem is that some of the prison scenes are too realistically brutal for what's supposed to be a comedy. There are nightstick beatings, a bloody one-on-one basketball game, and a scene in which an inmate is burned to death. Ha-ha.

Then again, what passes for humor in the rest of the movie mainly revolves around rampant homophobia and guys getting hit in the balls. Ho-hum.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
(Reviewed January 13, 2006, by James Dawson)

Sometimes, a report-card style grade for a movie just isn't enough. Albert Brooks' "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," for example, deserves a handwritten "Albert needs to apply himself more to his work" comment on the back of the card.

That's because this mildly amusing but never completely satisfying comedy seems kind of cheesy, flabby and slapdash compared to Brooks' best work ("Lost in America," "Modern Romance," even "Defending Your Life" and "Mother"). What's supposed to come off as director/writer/star Brooks' trademark low-key frustration with people and situations occasionally veers uncomfortably into Andy Kaufman "purposely boring and annoying the audience" territory. Viewers unfamiliar with Brooks' previous work are likely to think, "Man, Larry David does this schtick a lot better on `Curb Your Enthusiasm'" (although without Brooks' special brand of defiant geniality, it must be admitted).

The buzz about "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" is misleading, but maybe the film's marketing campaign will clear things up when the movie's release date draws near. (No TV spots had been aired when I saw a screening in December 2005.) Going into the theater, I thought I would be seeing a documentary about Brooks, well, looking for comedy in the Muslim world. It would have been interesting to see Brooks interviewing Muslims about what they think is funny and possibly revealing a little shared humanity across cultures -- a technique that Michael Palin has perfected in his travels around the world.

The movie is entirely fictional, though. Brooks is enlisted by the US State Department to spend several weeks in India and write a 500-page report on comedy in the Muslim world. He has two unhelpful and apathetic handlers who personify the redundant term "useless bureaucrat," and he hires a sweet Indian girl who has boyfriend problems as his ever-optimistic assistant.

The movie's most painful scene is one in which Brooks hires an auditorium to do a free stand-up comedy show that completely bombs, not only because most of the audience doesn't "get" his humor but because his act just plain isn't funny -- which seems to defeat the point. Or maybe this is supposed to represent irony piled atop irony, in some kind of inside-out, meta-humor Klein bottle. Either way, the people on screen aren't the only ones not laughing.

Brooks is likeable enough in the rest of the movie, although the project feels like a half-hour idea padded out to feature length.

Even though "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" is Brooks' weakest movie, it still has enough of what his fans like about him to be worth seeing.

I just wish he had found a little more comedy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Lorax
(Reviewed March 2, 2012, by James Dawson)

This expanded and beautifully computer-animated version of the 1971 Dr. Seuss book manages to make a pro-environment parable irresistibly entertaining. Its cautionary "greed is bad" message is more crazily charming than heavy handed, with some wildly elaborate musical numbers and high-energy chases to help the conservation-minded medicine go down.

"Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" reunites "Despicable Me" director Chris Renaud with writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. Both movies have the same slickly state-of-the-art visual style. Purists may object that the film's characters and settings are more realistically rendered, smoothly rounded and just plain prettier than Dr. Seuss' trademark scritchy-scratchy drawings. The same criticism could be leveled at 2008's "Horton Hears a Who!," also written by Paul and Daurio.

In addition, the screenplay supplements the book's plot to the point that there is more new story here than old, with several added characters, a lot more action and a new ending. Most alarming of all, the movie includes almost none of the book's distinctive rhyming narration and dialog. A Dr. Seuss movie bereft of rhyme? It cannot be, it is a crime!

What's impressive is that the project still works surprisingly well, with a breezy charm that lightens the book's grim mood without subverting its point. Think of this amped-up and more adventure-oriented interpretation as an extended remix of a classic. Besides, a far more faithful rendition already exists: A 1972 TV version retained the scruffy menace of the book's illustrations, with a teleplay and song lyrics by Dr. Seuss -- aka Theodor Geisel -- himself.

In the book, a bitter recluse called the Once-ler recounts how his careless greed devastated the landscape. He refused to listen to the Lorax, a magical creature of conscience who "speaks for the trees."

A boy who mostly only listens to that story in the book becomes the movie's main focus. Lovestruck Ted (likably voiced by Zac Efron) hopes to impress artistically inclined Audrey (pop star Taylor Swift, who strangely never sings a note here) by giving her a real tree for her birthday. His wacky but wise grandmother (Betty White) says only the Once-ler can tell him where the trees went, but that Ted must journey outside their thoroughly artificial town to find him.

Riding a cartoonishly cute and agile one-wheeled motorcycle, Ted discovers a grayly barren wasteland on the other side of the town's high walls. The hermit-like Once-ler (Ed Helms, in high hilarity) tells a flashback tale about his discovery of a fantasyland forest full of singing fish and cuddly bears. When he cut down a pink-tufted tree so he could weave a weird garment called a Thneed, the furry orange Lorax (an endearingly gruff Danny DeVito) appeared from the stump to plead nature's case...but the Once-ler refused to listen.

The movie adds an amusing new villain in the form of a tiny corporate tyrant named O'Hare (Rob Riggle) who sells bottled air and doesn't want real trees making a comeback. The diminutive tough guy brings to mind the similarly height-challenged and bowl-cut-hairstyled Edna Mode from Pixar's "The Incredibles."

The best of the clever and catchy musical numbers is an electric-guitar rocker called "How Bad Can I Be." Helms belts out that showstopper with impressive theatricality, set to a dazzlingly hallucinatory money-money-money montage.

One of the most interesting holdover aspects of the plot is that the non-violent Lorax's only real weapon turns out to be shame. For all of its added adventure-comedy elements, the movie ultimately remains true to the book's wise words of warning: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
(Reviewed December 9, 2001, by James Dawson)

I read J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" more than 20 years ago and disliked it so much that I never felt any desire whatsoever to slog through the "Rings" trilogy proper. That's not because I have anything against heroic fantasy in general--I am a huge fan of writers ranging from Lord Dunsany to Robert E. Howard to Michael Moorcock--but Tolkien just didn't float my boat.

The same things I remember disliking about "The Hobbit" are what sink this movie version of the first "Rings" installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring." The movie begins with tediously endless exposition about What Went Before in the Tolkien cosmos, information that should have been relayed in dialog rather than history-lesson narration. Then we are in the land of the Hobbits, diminutive hairy-footed humans so sickeningly precious that it's a wonder there isn't a PBS kids program about them. Elijah Wood is Frodo, a Hobbit entrusted with a ring of power that must be destroyed to save the world. Ian McKellen is excellent as Gandalf, the all-knowing wizard who guides him on his journey. Viggo Mortenson is appropriately dark, handsome and mysterious as a noble human who joins the travelers.

This merry band fights off various attacks for three hours, then the movie ends with no resolution, because it is the first third of a trilogy. Imagine playing a video game up to the point where the electricity in your house suddenly goes out. Game over!

Still, the movie does have absolutely beautiful scenery and truly amazing special effects. The scene in which a giant fire-demon pursues Our Heroes through an underground city and across a crumbling stone bridge was one of the most exciting things I saw at the movies all year. The cinematography throughout is unbelievably lush.

The pacing is frustratingly slow, the Hobbits are a wee bit too twee, and the score is oppressively omnipresent, but see this movie just to be knocked out by its incredible visuals.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Lords of Dogtown
(Reviewed May 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

Attention moms, dads and legal guardians: If you think your child is becoming too respectful, decent and law-abiding, be sure to send the little angel to this vile glorification of the insolent, coarse and criminal. In no time, your former model student will be vandalizing property, engaging in several varieties of self-destructive behavior, and pursuing a stupidly unrealistic career goal!

Like 2003's "Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown" comes from the cinematic genre known as "every parent's nightmare." Spending two hours with the no-impulse-control, hyperactive punks in this flick would make even the Dalai Lama pack his kids off to military school.

Both movies were directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who appears to have found her nasty little niche. Also, "Thirteen" co-writer/co-star Nikki Reed appears in a small role here as a two-timing yet one-dimensional slutty girlfriend.

A bunch of circa-1970s no-hope teens in Venice, California, get tired of being kept out of the water by older wave-hogs. They make the switch from surfing to skateboarding, ushering in an era of competitions, endorsement deals and millions of little jerkoffs chipping sidewalk concrete and scraping the paint off public handrails worldwide. The only one of the three based-on-reality main characters here who comes off not looking like a dumb thug is the clean-cut, job-holding Stacy Peralta...who just happens to be the movie's writer.

Heath Ledger, doing some weird impersonation of Val Kilmer channeling Gary Busey, plays the loudly obnoxious bully who owns the surfboard/skateboard shop that serves as a hangout and sponsor for what becomes the Zephyr team. Rebecca DeMornay looks every inch the part of one boy's haggard, been-through-the-wringer, factory drudge mother. Time is the enemy, folks. Time is the enemy.

Her son is played by Emile Hirsch, last seen in the egregious "Imaginary Heroes." Hirsch has the big-chip-on-shoulder, resentful, thoroughly unlikeable attitude that is Hollywood shorthand for "victim of a broken home." That makes it pretty hard to believe that straight-arrow Peralta (played by John Robinson) would have anything to do with the pugnaciously unpleasant little backstabber -- or with most other members of the bottom-socioeconomic-rung Zephyr team, for that matter. The third main skater, played by Victor Rasuk, is a loudly arrogant egomaniac, a fist-throwing hothead, and a walking advertisement for Ritalin.

None of the competition scenes feature moves that are especially impressive in the context of today's gravity-defying X-Games contests, but the movie does an excellent job of making it look as if the actors really are doing all of their own stunts. Also, the movie has the washed-out and gritty look of "8 Mile," which is quite appropriate for the wrong-side-of-the-tracks setting, and believably recreates a dilapidated Venice pier that no longer exists.

Those are the only positive things I can say about "Lords of Dogtown," however. Granted, people who resemble the characters in this movie may really exist, but that doesn't make watching them enjoyable. If I want to have a bad time, I'll stay at home and stare in a mirror.

And maybe I have an irrational respect for private property, but seeing a gang of surly teens skateboarding on the tops of cars stuck in traffic...or breaking bottles in parking lots...or trespassing to skateboard in empty backyard pools does not give me warm "kids will be kids" feelings. Just imagine coming home to find a dozen of these uncivilized pricks scarring the concrete bottom and cracking the tile of your beautiful in-ground pool, then seeing them gleefully assault police and speed recklessly from your quiet neighborhood. Welcome to hell, Harry Homeowner!

Even worse, imagine that one of them is your kid. Or that your kid hangs out with them, wants to be like them, and can't wait to do stuff like this the next time your back is turned.

Or that this is what your future kid will be like.

It's enough to make a guy give himself a vasectomy with a rusty staple-puller.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed July 21, 2000, by James Dawson)
Absolutely, without a doubt, positively the WORST movie I have seen in 2000 -- and I've seen a goodly share of dogs this year, my friends. I'm giving this one an F-minus even though it features the undeniably gorgeous Mena Suvari.

This movie is so bad, so stupid, so insultingly egregious that I don't know where to begin criticizing it. So I won't bother. Just take my advice and STAY AWAY! Don't be lured in by Mena's huge blue eyes, sensous mouth and taut little body. Walk right past this one. Don't even THINK about seeing it! For the love of God...DON'T!!!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F minus minus minus to infinity

The Losers
(Reviewed April 16, 2010, by James Dawson)

Although the lazy and lousy "The Losers" seems to have been cobbled together from a rightfully rejected "A-Team" spec script, the movie actually had it origins in a comic book series. I haven't read the source material, but this cheesy big-screen adaptation doesn't exactly inspire me to go hunting through back-issue bins at my local funnybook emporium. (I had exactly the opposite reaction after seeing "Kick-Ass," a movie that was so good it made me want to kick myself for never reading the comics version.)

This is one of those stupid actioners where a character who has absolutely no reason to withhold certain information from the others does so only to set up a later looks-like-betrayal confrontation that makes no sense whatsoever. It's also one where the "meet cute" (between stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoe Saldana) soon involves beating each other up and later devolves into shooting at each other, which is a lot less romantic than it sounds.

The witless plot in a nutshell: A group of soldiers seeks revenge on an evil CIA mastermind (Jason Patric) who ordered them killed after they took part in one of his undercover missions. How does this supposedly top-level team of mission-impossible mercenaries hope to fool investigators into thinking they all perished in a helicopter crash? By casually tossing their detached dogtags into the wreckage. That's how intelligent the script is.

The grainy/gritty movie looks as if it were color desaturated and then resaturated, making it nearly as ugly as last year's "Push." Chris Evans plays yet another arrested-development lunkhead (making one shudder in anticipation of his performance as Captain America next year). And yes, there is the obligatory cliche shot of Our Heroes walking abreast toward the camera in slow motion. Need I say more?


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Lost City
(Reviewed April 14, 2006, by James Dawson)
Andy Garcia directed and stars in this all-around awful melodrama about a Havana nightclub owner whose business and family life are thrown into turmoil by Castro's rise to power in 1958-59. It's like a horrible hybrid of a crappier "Casablanca" and a sappier "Godfather," with a boatload of bad Cuban musical numbers thrown in for spice.

Bill Murray is disastrously out of place as a Garcia hanger-on who is supposed to serve as comic relief, but whose snarky presence continually undercuts any already hard-to-detect traces of believability. Besides abounding in plot cliches and embarrassingly inept dialog ("you should have earth on your hands, not blood!"), the script is so flabby that at last an hour could have been excised from its interminable 143-minute running time.

On the positive side, it was nice to see Che Guevera portrayed as the murderous thug he was, as opposed to the deification he received in "The Motorcycle Diaries."

The tragedy of Cuba is that the revolutionaries were fully justified in overthrowing the Batista government, but that Castro turned out to be equally deserving (if not much moreso) of an armed rebellion...but he's been in power for NEARLY 50 YEARS! That's one good thing about America: Term limits will keep our own maniacally murderous Dictator-in-Chief from serving more than eight years. Well, unless he declares martial law in 2008 and decides to stick around longer, that is -- which becomes more likely with each day that W takes us closer to World War III and "nuke-ular" armageddon.

An aside: Watching mob scenes of Castro supporters in this movie reminded me of recent news footage of illegal immigrants here in America, marching in hordes to demand their "right" to ignore U.S. immigration laws and take American jobs. There are more than 11 million of these "undocumented" residents in this country. Half a million of them and their supporters marched in Los Angeles alone on March 25. Half a million! One bright day, the organizers of these marches may decide that taking beats demanding. They'll definitely have the numbers to get what they want, too -- all because the corrupt U.S. government was more interested in providing American business owners with slave-wage workers than in securing our national borders.

When the Mexican flag is flying over the White House, let's at least hope that our new El Presidente doesn't somehow manage to be even worse than Batista-Bush!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Lost in La Mancha
(Reviewed January 23, 2003, by James Dawson)

When director Terry Gilliam set out in 2000 to film his take on Don Quixote, nearly everything that could go wrong did. This would be a lot more tragic if not for the fact that the project seemed doomed from the outset, thanks to insufficient planning, prep time and (according to Gilliam) funding. Apparently, $32.1 million doesn't go very far these days...even in Spain.

"Lost in La Mancha" chronicles the lows and, well, deeper lows that befell Gilliam and company on location. While it gives an interesting behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking, a longer running time (it's only 89 minutes) could have included scenes that are very noticeable by their absence. Would-be star Johnny Depp never is interviewed, nor is would-be Quixote Jean Rochefort. We see absolutely nothing of would-be costar Vanessa Paradis except some silent costume-test footage. As Gilliam grows increasingly (and justifiably) frustrated, we see nothing about how events are affecting his personal life. Indeed, although it appears that Gilliam et al spent continuous weeks if not months in Spain, we never know if they flew back and forth to family and friends, or had any kind of social life. Finally, we never find out if the investors got stuck with what must have been a pretty large bill, because it never is resolved onscreen whether the insurance company covered the losses when production was shut down.

Still, it is perversely fascinating to see a documentary that shows the flip side of "seat of the pants" filmmaking--namely, that sometimes obstacles really are too big to overcome, and that freewheeling irresponsibility sometimes results in complete disaster. Gilliam comes off as a likable dreamer, even when he realizes that he has gotten himself into an even bigger debacle than his financially disastrous "Baron Munchausen" (which at least managed to get finished and released). The guy often makes brilliant movies ("Time Bandits," "Brazil," "12 Monkeys"...and yes, I am purposely ignoring the unspeakably awful "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"). But he clearly needs a strong producer at the helm to take care of all the nuts-and-bolts work that enables Gilliam's genius to make it to the screen.

Also, be sure to stay until the end of the credits, when a short tag provides the perfect ending to this sad tale of a genuine missed opportunity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Lost in Translation
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

It's odd. There are quite a few things wrong with this extremely low-key character study about a rock-star photographer's neglected young wife (Scarlett Johansson, from the excellent "Ghost World") and a bored, past-his-prime movie actor (Bill Murray) who meet while both are staying at a Tokyo luxury hotel...but none of those flaws end up mattering. Murray at first seems miscast in a role that probably should have gone to an actor with more graying-movie-star good looks, and his character bounds from world-weary cynic to karaoke party-boy a bit too easily, and a few of his scenes seem too comedic to be in what basically is a quiet, lost-souls-finding-each-other drama...but his performance is genuinely enjoyable. Scarlett Johansson is such a good actress that we honestly believe she would enjoy hanging out with a guy old enough to be her dad (if not her granddad). A couple of scenes are genuine cliches (one of them involving Murray waking up with someone he does not at first recall going to bed with), but they are far outweighed by the ones that seem realistic and true. And while some of the "look how wacky the Japanese are" segments are borderline offensive, they seem in keeping with the perceptions of two Americans who are strangers in a strange land.

The pace is leisurely, there is remarkably little dialog, nothing blows up, nobody gets shot...hard to believe this is an American film, huh? "Lost in Translation" was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, making it one of the best advertisements for nepotism you'll ever see.

I really liked this one a lot, and not just because Scarlett Johansson spends so many scenes in pink panties. Really.

POSTSCRIPT (added September 12, 2003): I've just seen this movie a second time, and actually enjoyed it even more than the first time around. I even upgraded it from a B+ to a solid A rating.

No kidding, this really may turn out to be the best movie of the year. Go!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Lost Souls
(Reviewed September 15, 2000, by James Dawson)
What is the point? What in God's name is the point of wasting money and film stock to make another lame, leaden-paced, flat-out moronic rip-off of "The Exorcist?" What the hell were the producers thinking? Do they imagine that the cinema-going audience lives in a universe where "The Exorcist" never was made? Have they forgotten that earlier this summer another studio tried this same trick by making the horrendously terrible Kim Basinger bomb "Bless the Child?" Or that just last year yet another studio made an egregious "Exorcist" retread called "Stigmata," which deservedly came and went without a trace?

Let's not mince words here: This movie eats it. Sure, the ageless Winona Ryder still looks elfin and winsome, running around in too-big clothes that make her look like a harried, raccoon-eyed teenage runaway. (Yum!) But she mopes her way through the entire picture, smokes so much that she should worry more about lung cancer than about the advent of the antichrist, and wears what I can only hope is a stringy, ridiculous wig throughout. Sorry, baby--this is one of those rare cases where cuteness doesn't trump stupid. (Rare, indeed!)

Speaking of ciggies, has anyone else noticed how often cigarettes are used in bad movies by bad actors only because they seem to need something to do with their hands? Hey, people: If you can't convey your character's state of mind by actually ACTING, think about taking a few more classes, okay?

Here is one example of how brain-dead this turkey is: If you knew for certain that a guy was the antichrist, if you knew that fact beyond any shadow of a doubt, would you willingly go to a deserted house out in the middle of the woods with him? Winona Ryder would!

Avoid this one like church, folks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Love Actually
(Reviewed November 13, 2003, by James Dawson)

The odd paradox about this movie is that it is likeable enough but not really very good. In fact, parts of it are just plain lousy...and nearly every funny line is groaningly predictable...but you'll still come out of the theater with generally warm feelings toward the thing. Weird.

My favorite scene has next to nothing to do with love, actually, but is more uplifting than any of the film's nine sweet-and-sour subplots combined. It occurs when Hugh Grant, as the British prime minister, publicly stands up to the president of the United States (well played by Billy Bob Thornton as an oily amalgam of Clinton's lechery and Bush's evil arrogance). In other words, Grant displays the sort of integrity, self-respect, honesty and decency that is so obviously lacking in the character of real-world British PM Tony Blair, a toadying, bootlicking, ass-kissing disgrace to his nation. Honest to God, that lying little warmonger lapdog is almost more despicable than George W. Bush himself, to whose anus Blair's tongue seems permanently affixed. Bush's psychotic, murderous, fascistic belligerence can at least partially be blamed on malleable stupidity. Blair, on the other hand, appears bright enough to be fully aware that his pro-war policies are utterly wrong and indefensible, but adamantly refuses to stop playing the obsequious Smithers to Bush's monstrous Montgomery Burns.


Getting back to those nine subplots, herewith is a rundown:

The Prime Minister and the Secretary: He's Hugh Grant, doing his usual charmingly boyish Hugh Grant thing, which is always enjoyable even in absolute bombs like "Two Weeks Notice." She's a salty-tongued salt-of-the-earth brunette babe (Martine McCutcheon) who could only be considered "heavy" in the movies. (When she says her last boyfriend left her because her thighs were the size of tree trunks, every normal-weight woman in the audience probably felt like killing herself.) Grant bends her over his 10 Downing Street desk, tears off her tight miniskirt with his teeth, and savagely rapes her with a bronze replica of Nelson's Column. No, not really. Had you going there for a minute, though, didn't I?

The Stepdad and Stepson: Liam Neeson is okay (although I can't really imagine a bereaved husband even jokingly referring to his just-lost-his-mom stepson as a "motherless bastard"). The kid (Thomas Sangster) is great, though. That's "great" as in "nothing like those cloying and talentless Hollywood kids to whom we are so unfortunately accustomed." He's funny and likeably serious. Also, he does something in an airport with a lack of consequences that would be utterly preposterous in our real-life, paranoid, post-9/11 world. At first the scene seems wrongheaded, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it. Just as "Love Actually" takes place in a universe where the British PM has a spine, maybe it also is a universe where Big Brother is still a fictional entity.

The Writer and the Housekeeper: Yet another "love among the wealthy" subplot, in which cuckolded Colin Firth flies off to a simply lovely cottage in Provence to write a novel. There he is smitten by his smolderingly sexy Portuguese housekeeper (Lucia Moniz), a mouthwatering knockout who speakas no Engliz. Personally, I hope that when I write my next novel I'm blessed with an adoring sexpot servant who will whip off her dress and dive into a pond to retrieve any of my manuscript pages that blow there, as Moniz does in this movie. Maybe that should be in the job description.

The Frump and the Adonis: I didn't buy for a second the premise that mousey desk jockey Laura Linney would hold any appeal whatsoever for a coworker (whose name I forget) who is so good-looking he could be an underwear model. This subplot gets even stupider when Linney interrupts their never-would-happen getting-it-on session later to take calls from an institutionalized brother (who apparently has incredibly liberal cell-phone privileges). Beyond dumb.

The Husband, the Wife and the Other Woman: Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are fine as a used-to-each-other older married couple. One of his underlings at work wants some of his man meat. Will he stray, even though she looks like a vampire who's a quart low? Or will he stay true to the middle-aged mother of his children? I won't blow it for you, but this subplot comes the closest to something resembling interactions that could occur between real human beings.

The Rock Star and the Manager: My favorite subplot by far. Bill Nighy is flat-out excellent as a past-his-prime rocker who is cheerfully honest about selling out by recording a sappy Christmas single. Genuinely funny.

The Best Man and the Happy Couple. God, this one was bad. Really, really bad. Keira Knightley is radiant as a newlywed bride, Chiwetel Ejiofor (from "Dirty Pretty Things") is kind of wasted as her hubby, and Andrew Lincoln is saddled with the role of their best man who Has A Secret. The outcome is just embarrassingly, moronically saccharine. Hated it.

The Jerk Who Wants to Get Off: Hated this one even more, about an obnoxiously dumb Gary Busey lookalike who thinks he will find poon paradise in America. This crude sex-farce silliness is about as out of place as a tit shot in "Mary Poppins."

The Stand-Ins: A guy and gal meet while doing nude sex-scene stand-in work for movie actors who never are seen. Much as I enjoy the sight of naked female flesh, this storyline is just insultingly stupid, besides being less substantial that your typical Benny Hill skit. You don't have to be a Hollywood insider to know that no non-porn movie would have as many nude sex scenes as the one we are supposed to believe is being filmed here...and God knows that no porn movie has a budget to afford these crew members. So what we are left with is a damned flimsy excuse to show a little simulated sex between a wimpy schlub of a guy and a pretty cute blond.

Like I said, I know I should enjoy seeing the blond's T&A, but this story was as out of place in the movie as the vulgar "Jerk Who Wants to Get Off" subplot. Writer/director Richard Curtis should have cut both of these scenes (and a few scattered four-letter words) to get a "PG-13" rating instead of an "R," which potentially could have added tens of millions of dollars to the movie's box-office. I mean, we ain't talking "art film" here, so it is not as if the movie's "integrity" would have been ruined by rendering it watchable for young teenage girls (who probably would be the main demographic to enjoy it, yet who won't be able to buy tickets because of that "R").

The roundaboutly-arrived-at point of this wishy-washy review is that there is stuff here to like and dislike, but there is so much stuff overall (the movie is more than two hours long) that you are pretty much assured of finding somebody or something in it to float your little blue-or-pink-sailed romantic boat.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Love & Sex
(Reviewed August 29, 2000, by James Dawson) Imagine taking the excellent Albert Brooks movie "Modern Romance," sucking every last bit of humor out of it, changing the viewpoint character from a neurotically indecisive boyfriend to the flakey woman he is pursuing, and then going through the script to make sure that not a single instance of cleverness, wit or imagination is anywhere in evidence. What do you get? This odorous bomb of a movie. Thankfully, lead actress Famke Janssen segued from this sitcom-stupid waste of time to playing smolderingly sexy Jean Grey in "X-Men." Trust me, folks, it was a big step up.

Also, I feel obligated to point out that even though this movie is titled "Love & Sex" there is ABSOLUTELY NO NUDITY WHATSOEVER, so don't go expecting to see Dark Phoenix's bodacious ta-tas. Can you say "false advertising?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Love Crime
(Reviewed August 30, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Love Etc.
(Reviewed July 13, 2011, by James Dawson) I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Love Etc." Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Love Guru
(Reviewed June 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Is this movie targeted at very small children who will laugh at anything, and who love repetition as much as they adore sight gags involving elephant shit? Or have things gotten to the point where there no longer is any difference between those undiscriminating turd-loving tykes and the average movie-going audience?

Also, aren't the likes of the Maharishi or Deepak Chopra already parodies of themselves? Is this movie necessary on any level whatosever?

"The Love Guru" is the kind of desperately annoying comedy that relies on what I call the "David Letterman" strategy of beating a joke to death in the hope of wringing laughs from lame material: The hope that something which may be moderately amusing the first time it is voiced will become much, much funnier if it is endlessly repeated to the point where you want to say, "Just shut up, you pathetic old gap-toothed prick." In this case, the Guru Pitka (Mike Myers) greets everyone he meets with the words "Mariska Hargitay"...over and over and over.

Jessica Alba looks okay but doesn't have much to do. Justin Timberlake is completely wasted as an arrogant hockey player. Vern Troyer is okay as a hockey team manager with a short fuse. "Short," get it? Ah, fuck you.

A pretty terrible movie that might be a diversion to watch on a plane, but you're nuts if you pay money to see it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Love in the Time of Cholera
(Reviewed October 14, 2007, by James Dawson)

The almost fairy-tale romantic Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel becomes more heavy handed and broad in this film version, which may have been unavoidable. The plot, after all, is about a mama's boy who carries a torch for his uninterested beloved for more than half a century, while consoling himself during that time by screwing more than 600 other women. Even the most deft director -- and that director certainly is not Mike Newell -- would have had trouble keeping things from getting goofy.

Javier Bardem is very good as Our Hero, however.

More of this review to come, when I can take time away from doing things like curing the world's ills and developing table-top nuclear fusion. Hey, life's a work in progress, have a little patience.

POSTSCRIPT ADDED JANUARY 6, 2008: Well, it looks like I never got around to adding anything to the above. And now I just don't care. See, this is the kind of half-assed lack of interest you get from a free site like this, where the reviewer has no chance of getting fired. Ah, it's good to be the king.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The Lovely Bones
(Reviewed December 8, 2009, by James Dawson)

The best thing about this mystical, melodramatic mess from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson is its soundtrack, which features the brilliantly timeless work of musician/composer Brian Eno. From the understated minimal elegance of Eno's ambient "1/1" to the throbbing, manic rush of his "Baby's on Fire," these are pieces that deserve to be displayed in a much better setting.

I haven't read the Alice Sebold novel on which the movie is based, having been warned away by someone who found it "dreadful." That means I don't know if the screenplay's bizarre genre-hopping tone, lame-brained plot and preposterous ending are faithful to the source material. It also means I'm not keen to bother finding out.

Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a murdered 14-year-old who narrates the film from a beautifully computer-animated fantasyland located between our world and heaven. She often sounds like a placidly spaced-out pre-teen being patronizing to a five-year-old, in the "Our Town"-ish monotone of the dead who are detached but not quite departed.

Mark Wahlberg is way out of his depth as Susie's father, who becomes obsessed with helping a police detective find Susie's killer. That's "obsessed" as in "wild-eyed yet simultaneously robotic," which isn't a very good combination. Susie's mother (Rachel Weisz) has a different way of dealing with her grief: She runs away from home to become a fruit picker.

Stanley Tucci is the nasty neighbor responsible for the crime, a weirdo who lives alone in a split-level near Susie's house. He comes complete with a creepy laugh, a dollhouse-constructing hobby and a guilty demeanor that's so blatantly suspicious he might as well be wearing a sweater that says I DID IT.

Susan Sarandon is utterly out of place as Susie's grandmother, a bizarre comic-relief version of "The Graduate"'s Mrs. Robinson by way of "Malcolm in the Middle" nasty granny Cloris Leachman. She smokes, she drinks, she can't wash clothes without turning the laundry room into a sea of soap suds. When Sarandon is on screen, the movie becomes that lost episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy developed a pack-a-day habit and started hitting the bottle after Fred Mertz killed little Ricky. Waaaaaaaaaa!

Here is the single stupidest thing about the plot: Very late in the movie, long after her death, Susie takes over another person's body for a reason too ridiculous to explain. So why didn't she do that the day after she was murdered and identify the neighbor who killed her, instead of letting her family and other potential victims go through months of agony and danger? For that matter, why hasn't anyone else she meets in the afterlife done so? Once it is established that the dead not only hang around observing the living but can communicate with them, it makes no sense that any crime whatsoever would remain a mystery. And yet even when Susie makes her brief "comeback," she doesn't finger the serial killer.

Other silliness: For the plot to work, we have to believe the killer could construct an underground clubhouse in a flat field visible from a suburban neighborhood all by himself over what would have to be several nights, using the headlights of his car for illumination, without attracting any suspicion. Later, Susie's sister secures hard evidence and is chased from the killer's house, but doesn't immediately turn it over to her parents as soon as she sees them, nor bother mentioning the not-quite-trivial fact that her sister's killer was in hot pursuit. Despite the fact that Susie has shot multiple rolls of film with a new camera before her death, her dad ritualistically allows himself to develop only one of the rolls a month, as if it never occurs to him that she may have snapped something or somebody suspicious. And then there's the matter of a massive safe in the killer's basement that he apparently is able to get upstairs and lift into the back of his vehicle unaided (all of which occurs offscreen), despite the fact that the safe appears to weigh about a quarter-ton and the killer is not the Incredible Hulk.

The "in-between world" scenes are as lovely and colorfully imaginative as a Chanel ad, but have none of the narrative weight or allegorical power of similar fantastic imagery in (for example) Tarsem's "The Fall." In "The Lovely Bones," Susie's ship-in-a-bottle-building dad has an unconvincingly unlikely freakout scene in which he smashes several examples of his handiwork, giving Jackson license to serve up CGI footage of seafaring ships in bottles crashing against rocks on a beach in Susie's plane of existence. Cool looking, but a bit on the nose, no?

Back in the real world, the movie's most impressive location shot is a huge and unsettlingly realistic sinkhole full of junk. I don't really have to write the next line, do I?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed June 7, 2006, by James Dawson)

Kyra Sedgwick portrays a creepy, eccentric, "free spirit" single mother obsessed with keeping her six-year-old son Loverboy (ick) all to herself.

Her character is an utterly unconvincing soap-opera construct: wealthy, educated and preposterously irresistible to men despite the fact that she's as flaky as a buttermilk biscuit. She apparently is designed to make childless, bitter spinsters feel better about their barren lives, because even the most dipsy, desperate and delusional wannabe mommies in the audience can't be anywhere near as nuts as this broad.

This unpleasantly unwatchable exercise was directed by Sedgwick's hubbie Kevin Bacon, who plays her ridiculously disco-Stu father in flashbacks. Her mom in those scenes is the sexy and goofy Marisa Tomei. The problem with the flashbacks is that mom and dad's "still honeymooners after all these years" attitude toward each other is cartoonishly silly, even if we are supposed to be viewing those memories through Sedgwick's distorted memories.

Sandra Bullock cameos as the "cool neighbor mom" from Sedgwick's childhood. For dramatic purposes, however, we have to believe that she would up and move away without informing the young-and-impressionable Sedgwick that she's leaving town. Dumb.

The low-budget filmmakers wring maximum value out of licensing David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" by returning to those songs so many times it almost becomes funny. I have to tip my "Mr. Careful-With-Money" hat to the producers, though, for the clever way they avoided paying to use "Happy Birthday." In flashback, Sedgwick's parents appear with a birthday cake and sing only the first syllable of the song ("Haaaaa...") before the movie cuts to another scene. Deucedly clever!

The only other thing I liked about "Loverboy" was the shockingly lovely actress Melissa Errico, who plays first-grade teacher Miss Silken. Miss Silken!!!

Following Kevin Bacon's pedophile-turned-avenger turn in "The Woodsman," his wife Sedgwick's disturbing enactment of this "mommy and me" fantasy gone wrong comes off like a case of keeping perversion all in the family.

What a strange niche!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Love Song for Bobby Long
(Reviewed December 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

God save us from movie stars playing poor white trash -- especially from playing eccentric, Southern characters with ridiculously colorful, melodramatic and wholly unbelievable back stories. This is the kind of silly, overwrought crap that people who don't read books think is "literary."

Scarlett Johansson, living with a redneck beau in (where else?) a trailer park, finds out too late to attend the funeral that her no-account mama has died. Thinking that she has inherited her mother's dilapidated house in the dirt poor but darn happy section of New Orleans, Scarlett moves out on her boyfriend and heads from Florida to that dumpy Louisiana domicile. There she meets two ne'er-do-well squatters (John Travolta and Gabriel Macht), who claim that their friend the deceased said they could continue living in the house.

Instead of simply calling the cops, a lawyer, or any authority figure of any kind, Scarlett moves in with these two unemployed, no-visible-means-of-support, alcoholic bums, one of whom (Travolta) is a bit of a prick. Bear in mind that Scarlett is supposed to be 18 years old, moving in with two strange men who appear to be complete and utter losers, and whose word she has no reason whatsoever to trust.

Turns out Travolta, as Bobby Long, is a former college professor whose past includes a Secret Moment of Disgrace that put him in his present drunk-and-disreputable circumstances. Long is the kind of book-smart guy seen only in movies who regularly spouts quotes from novels or poems for his drinking-buddy to identify. That would be Macht, one of Long's former prize students, who dropped out of society along with him and is writing Long's biography in between cigs and swallows. He has a habit of destroying sections of the manuscript soon after they are written, though, because he is that timeworn type of dissatisfied, perfectionist-but-pessimistic author.

Travolta, Macht and Johansson end up forming an oddball family unit that overcomes its dysfunctions just in time for an achingly overused cliche of a finale. The only surprises in this plot are very minor ones; everything major is easily predictable.

Incredibly, Johannson acquits herself well in this gooey gumbo. She manages to take a very "written" (as opposed to "organic") character and bring her to life, showing genuine emotions ranging from resigned despair to confident pride. One complaint: She smokes way too much (as in "nearly every time she is on camera"), especially in a house with two men who aspire to set her on a better path than the one they have taken. Smoking in movies nearly always comes off looking like a substitute for character development, and this is no exception.

Travolta tries too hard to be a wise-and-wiley good ol' boy who is smarter than he looks. He seems to have just dropped in from a bad Capote story. Macht, who could be Josh Lucas' clone, suffers from having to play a character who supposedly is attracted to Johansson and yet does not make a move on her, even when they are spooning one night in front of a fireplace. (I was hoping she would turn to him indignantly and say, "Jesus, are you gay, or what?")

Also, it would have been nice to know how this trio manages to stay in liquor, ciggies and food on an income that apparently consists only of Johansson's weekend-waitress pay.

But then, that's not the kind of thing moviemakers bother thinking about when they set out to glamorize po' folk, is it?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Lucky Numbers
(Reviewed October 15, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is a quirky comedy that tries to be a sillier and lighter version of "To Die For" and, for the most part, actually succeeds. John Travolta is a big-ego, low-bankroll weathercaster who connives to rig the Pennsylvania state lottery with charmingly bitchy Lotto TV girl Lisa Kudrow, a plan that goes awry in every way possible.

The pacing could have been tightened, and Bill Pullman's slacker police officer character is so out of place that the part should have been cut, and Travolta's role may have been better interpreted by someone a tad closer to the Bill Murray school of deadpan antic frustration.

But the script gets bonus points for being darker and more offbeat than audiences will expect, and Lisa Kudrow is absolutely wonderful in every way. It is strangely charming to hear her cussing up a storm and acting like a sweetly self-absorbed shrew, for example. One of her best lines comes when she is in a car that gets stuck behind an Amish buggy on a narrow lane. Lisa yells, "Put a motor on it, Jake!" Kudrow is so adorable here that she almost made me want to watch that horrible, horrible TV show she is in. But then I remembered that I actually do have a brain, and I manfully resisted.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+...ah, hell, make it a B-

Lucky Number Slevin
(Reviewed February 9, 2006, by James Dawson)

Bruce Willis, in this movie's noirishly pulpy opening, recounts a loan-shark encounter gone very, very wrong. That violent tale ends with his reference to a scheme called the Kansas City Shuffle, a con game involving deception by misdirection.

Unfortunately, "Lucky Number Slevin" itself turns out to be its own kind of Kansas City Shuffle. It promises one thing, then cheats the audience by delivering something insultingly shoddy and entirely unsatisfying instead.

Immediately after setting itself up as a hard-boiled, unselfconsciously retro crime melodrama, the movie deteriorates into a smirky, stupid, preposterously overplotted and utterly predictable piece of timewasting tongue-in-cheekery.

That's mainly due to the fact that the focus shifts to Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu, portraying a smartass pretty boy and a motormouth, 37-going-on-13 ditz. Incredibly, we are expected to find them appealing as a couple. They spout would-be witty dialog that's apparently supposed to evoke Humphrey Bogartish sarcasm and Katherine Hepburn's mile-a-minute screwball-comedy monologs, the kind that made watching movies like "Bringing Up Baby" inspire even the strongest of men to run screaming into traffic. (For you younger readers, just think of how Jenna Elfman nattered on and on in airheaded deadpan self-satisfaction on the egregiously sick-making "Dharma and Greg." Or the way that smugly repulsive brunette Dharma who plays the mom on "Gilmore Girls" talks so fast and so much that you wish her delicious daughter would grab a knife and cut her a pair of gills.)

I can't write too much about "Lucky Number Slevin"'s story, because God forbid I should ruin some genuinely idiotic climactic developments that any moron can see coming. (In fact, I kept hoping that my early-on assumptions had to be wrong -- that there was no way the movie would proceed in such an obvious, and dumb, direction. Silly me!)

I'll tell you what's funny, though. Toward the end, when a crucial bit of information is about to be revealed, it really cheesed me off that some asshole in the audience saw fit to say aloud what he finally had figured out. Even though that loudly-uttered "revelation" was absolutely no surprise to anyone with an IQ over 75, I couldn't believe that somebody would be such an inconsiderate dick that he would attempt to spoil the moment for anybody who happened to be even stupider.

Again, silly me.

Although it has a stylish look, and rises above itself when the always-underrated Willis is onscreen, "Lucky Number Slevin" is a real disappointment from director Paul McGuigan. I expected a lot better from the director of the excellent "Gangster No. 1."

Silly m...oh, never mind.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F+

The Lucky One
(Reviewed April 20, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Lust, Caution
(Reviewed September 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

Attention, pervs: Although this movie sports an NC-17 rating, don't expect some sort of salacious "Suzie Wong Does Shanghai" screwfest. There are only a handful of short sex scenes (of the "ta-tas but no twat or tool" variety) in a 157-minute running time. None of them are actually sexy -- unless sadism and humiliation are your thing. Also, there are no insertion angles, flaccid or erect penises, closed or split beavers or pop shots. The only reason that the timid puritans on the MPAA ratings board didn't give "Lust, Caution" an R rating instead of the adults-only NC-17 may be due to some spirited missionary-position lunging that looks like the real deal. But trust me, this is no porn flick, or even an "art-porn" flick.

Now that that's out of the way:

This is one of those movies that is hopelessly sabotaged by its structure, because it begins very near the end of its plot and then flashes back four years. This means there is no suspense whatsoever about whether the undercover heroine will be discovered or shot during most of the movie, because we already have seen her alive and well years later.

Also, for a movie that basically is an Asian riff on "Notorious," long passages are frustratingly tedious instead of tense. Or maybe I'm the only person who doesn't find endless games of mahjong engrossing.

In a nutshell: A pretty Chinese drama student named Wang (Wei Tang) is enlisted by fellow actors to befriend and seduce a married Chinese official named Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Yee is collaborating with the occupying Japanese army during World War II to root out resistance members. The students hope to lull him into letting his guard down so they can kill him. Wang poses as the wife of a Chinese businessman, who is impersonated by a fellow student.

Swallowing this setup requires believing that a naive, unsophisticated girl who has been in exactly one college play has the thespian chops to dupe a smart, suspicious and ruthless monster who routinely authorizes torture and executions. Not likely, no matter how porcelain-doll pretty she may be.

The most wrongheaded scene in the movie is one in which the other drama students who are in on the conspiracy decide that Wang, who is a virgin, should be deflowered by one of them to help their cause. Their reasoning is that if Wang does manage to get Mr. Yee in bed, his suspicions must not be aroused by her lack of experience. Her companions select a member of their group who is known for whoring to do the deed. Instead of jumping at the chance -- Wang is nothing if not easy on the eyes -- the guy feels the need to get drunk to accomplish his mission, which is played for would-be laughs.

Putting a scene that's like something out of a bad teen-sex comedy in the middle of what's supposed to be a serious dramatic period piece is baffling, to say the least.

In a plot development that should be decried by feminists and anyone else who thinks brutal abuse isn't a romantic courtship ritual, Wang comes to have feelings for Mr. Yee. This is despite the fact that, as she puts it to a superior, he always makes her scream and bleed. Ain't love grand?

Sure, there are kinky people in the world. But the "hot" parts of "Lust, Caution" come off more like dreary, degrading smut than transgressive erotica, and the rest of the movie is a good-looking snooze.

This is director Ang Lee's first movie since the sublime "Brokeback Mountain," but it doesn't have any of that movie's humanity or poignancy.

Consider yourself cautioned.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

(Reviewed November 24, 2009, by James Dawson)

The ghost of Thanksgiving present appeared to me last night, a monstrous and malevolent turkey with eyes like bottomless black pits, feathers of flame and a blood-red beak. The Brobdingnagian bird threw back its horrible head and gobbled, "You never reviewed 'Lymelife,' you idiot!"

He was right, damn him. I was ashamed to realize that I never got around to writing a review of a movie I liked enough when I saw it waaaaay back in March to think it might have a shot at making my 10 best of 2009 list.

I sat down and, fingers trembling, began to type:

Adorable Emma Roberts leaves sweet innocence behind in this 1970s period piece about a couple of teens whose parents are breaking up, having affairs and basically being suburban-torture miserable. Is it wrong to get a kick out of hearing the girl who played the latest version of Nancy Drew chide a fellow high-school student (Kieran Culkin) for spreading a lie about fingering her and claiming that she "felt like a jelly doughnut?" We also get to see the former star of "Unfabulous" smoke pot and have sex, only months after appearing in the Disney-wholesome "Hotel for Dogs." They grow up so fast...

Alec Baldwin is great as a domineering dad. Timothy Hutten is creepy as a withdrawn, cuckolded and seething lyme-disease sufferer (hence the movie's frankly lousy title). Director Derick Martini (who wrote the screenplay with brother Steven Martini) gives the proceedings a low-key, anything but glamorous look.


I stopped typing and looked up at my wattle-wobbling visitor, who spread his wings to their full width. "That's kind of a short review," he gobbled, "but I guess it will do."

"Does that mean you will leave me in peace?" I raised my arms to ward off any possibility of being pecked.

"On one condition," the massive turkey said. He thrust his narrow, fleshy head very close to my face, turning it quickly from side to side, inspecting me with one lifeless ebony eye and then the other.

"Anything, great spirit! Anything!"

"One word," the titanic turkey told me. His breath smelled like rotten corn meal, although I wasn't sure how I recognized the aroma. "One word must you remember, from this day hence."

I shrank back against the wall, feeling urine run down my leg. "What is it?" I whimpered. "What is the word?"

The turkey pressed his bone-rigid beak against my forehead and shouted, "TOFURKEY!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: B