Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Machine Gun Preacher
(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed May 3, 2005, by James Dawson)

Forget about stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, who voice the four main characters featured on the "Madagascar" posters (lion, zebra, giraffe and hippo, respectively). The first half-hour of the movie, which is focused entirely on them as pampered celebrity animals at a New York zoo, is about as edgy and humorous as PBS children's programming. They sound like patronizing parents going through the motions of reading a bedtime story that they know is dumb. Rock is the worst of the four, constantly mistaking "loud" for "funny."

The real magic in "Madagascar" comes from Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as the hilarious white-homeboy comedian Ali G. Providing the voice for the wild-and-crazy king of a colony of hedonistic lemurs, he puts the "party" -- and the "animal" -- in "party animal." (When Stiller's civilization-craving lion points out that this is the kind of place where one has to wipe with leaves, Cohen gleefully responds, "Who wipes?") Cedric the Entertainer also is excellent, as the king's more serious-minded adviser.

The very thin plot sends the New York zoo residents back to the wild in response to protests from animal-rights groups. They wash up on the Madagascar shore, where they find that going native is no walk in Central Park.

The computer animation is pretty much what audiences have come to take for granted by now -- after the action moves to Madagascar, that is. The opening half-hour set in New York is nowhere near as visually interesting, with boring skyline backgrounds and textureless humans. In contrast, the jungle scenes are lushly detailed and vibrantly colorful. Yes, this probably was an intentional attempt to drive home the point that cities are bad and nature is good, but it definitely gets things started on the wrong paw.

Not a great kids' movie, but you'll smile every time the lovin'-life lemurs are onscreen.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Madagascar Escape 2 Africa
(Reviewed October 27, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for a magazine whose name I won't bother to mention, because the bastards who printed it never bothered to pay me for the thing. Accordingly, here is that entire review for your free enjoyment, just as my insignificant way of "sticking it to the man."

SYNOPSIS: Alex discovers his “lion king” roots when an attempted return to New York only takes him and his friends as far as Africa.

REVIEW: The first “Madagascar” didn’t kick into “full funny” until the Central Park Zoo exiles – Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and several shifty penguins -- left civilization behind. The lushly exotic title island where they ended up turned out to be very loony territory indeed.

This sequel begins with a short prequel, showing how a very young Alex was stolen from his father King Zuba (Bernie Mac) and his African birthplace. That makes it easy to guess where present-day Alex and company will crash land when they try leaving Madagascar in an ancient plane.

Fortunately, the movie doesn’t waste much time making us wonder how long it will take Alex and Zuba to realize they are related. After the happy reunion, their part of the plot becomes a tongue-in-cheek twist on “The Lion King,” complete with Alec Baldwin as Zuba’s amusingly oily rival Makunga.

As for the other displaced New Yorkers, Marty must come to terms with what it’s like being in a herd of identical fellow zebras (all voiced by Rock), and Melman gets miffed when his secret love Gloria falls for a member of her own species. Meanwhile, a stranded group of human tourists – led by the kick-ass granny who once pummeled Alex in Grand Central Station – has set up camp nearby.

Madagascar lemurs King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), his right hand man Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer) and squeaky little Mort (Andy Richter) also rather improbably make it to Africa. The androgynously silly Julien steals every scene he is in, whether dispensing offbeat romantic advice, absent-mindedly crooning “Private Dancer,” or presiding over a rather elaborate volcano-god sacrifice.

Absurd anthropomorphisms abound, with animals that are familiar with everything from cell phones to switchblades to San Diego. There also are plenty of pop-culture nods (“Planet of the Apes,” “West Side Story,” “The Twilight Zone”) to keep parents entertained. And the computer animation is both stylish and state-of-the-art stunning.

VERDICT: Worth the trip.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed July 10, 2001, by James Dawson)

Vince Vaughn plays a "who could possibly stand to be around this backstabbing jerk for more than 10 seconds" wannabe badass entry-level mobster who is so annoyingly, endlessly, pointlessly, unamusingly, boringly chatty that you will want to run screaming from the theater, sort of just like you want this incredibly long sentence to end, except that Vaughn's dialog is much more excruciatingly tiresome, if you can believe it, and I also have not used various versions of the word "f*ck" 47 times.

Costar Jon Favreau directed and allegedly wrote this mess, but the entire movie has a "whose bad line is this, anyway?" feel that smacks of uninspired, "indie-cool" improvisation. Scene after scene appears to be "let's put these guys in a room, let them beat up and bore and badger each other far beyond the threshold of human endurance, and then go do another scene just like it in a different location."

Parts of "Made" are supposed to be funny, parts are supposed to be tense, and other parts are supposed to be "look at the pitiful, neglected big-eyed little kid" touching. None of it worked, because the half-baked mob-guys-on-the-make story is always secondary to a "let's work out this scene on camera and see if some magic will happen" feel. For all I know, every second of the movie may have been rehearsed to a fare-thee-well and may have gone through a hundred takes...but it sure doesn't look that way. Can you say, "fast, cheap and out of control?"

If you enjoy sitting in a room with people who (a) just plain won't shut up, (b) make you want to see them die quickly and violently and (c) take eight dollars from your wallet for the privilege of boring and annoying the hell out of you, by all means, go.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place
(Reviewed August 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed December 10, 2000, by James Dawson)

This Italian-language movie starts out kind of sappy and creepy (an odd combination), focusing on a pubescent boy who is carnally obsessed with a beautiful Sicilian woman whose husband is off fighting in World War II. Incidents that presumably are supposed to come across as amusing and charming (the boy's late-night peeping-tom exploits, his theft of the woman's panties from a clothesline so he can wear them on his head while he masturbates, his late-night jerk-off sessions listening to a record he once overheard at her house) looked more like stalking for beginners than like "Summer of '42," though.

Two things that help redeem the movie are the Woman In Question, played by the stunningly beautiful Monica Bellucci (seen earlier this year as Gene Hackman's trophy wife in "Under Suspicion"); and the fact that the plot definitely does NOT resolve itself the way viewers will expect. Unfortunately, even that "plus" is turned into a "minus" when the filmmakers tack on one more plot twist than they should have, making for a wholly unbelievable final scene. It must be Bellucci's curse to get stuck in movies that should have ended five minutes before they do ("Under Suspicion" was similarly marred by a last scene that should have been left on the cutting-room floor).

This was not the worst "coming-of-age" movie this year ("Just Looking" for boys, and "Coming Soon" for girls, were far, far worse.) And at least Bellucci graces us with a few topless moments. Plus the photography is nice, with kind of a lush sepia-gold predominating. But it's all kind of....enhhh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed April 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this one for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Management" review

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Manchurian Candidate (2004 version)
(Reviewed July 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

What bothers me about this movie is not that it's a pointless remake of a good movie; or that it ridiculously changes the meaning of the title to refer to a company name instead of updating the villains to the far more appropriate al Qaeda; or that Meryl Streep (as a kind of "uber-Hillary") overacts to the point of parody. Also, are we honestly expected to believe that a hidden surveillance camera would have a glowing red "record" light that makes it easier to spot through a heating grate?

Still, even with those flaws, this is a serviceable-enough thriller.

What bugs me is something deeper. This essentially is an "X-Files"-type conspiracy story about a politician who is being programmed against his will to act as a pawn of a Halliburton-type corporation. The bad guys in the boardroom want their own puppet in the Oval Office, and are willing to go to quite elaborate ends to accomplish the feat.

Given present-day reality, that's like making a movie in which Martians turn out to be responsible for crabgrass. This movie is obsolete on delivery.

There can't possibly be anyone left who could go along with the premise that politicians would have to be under the influence of sci-fi technology in order to do evil things. At this very minute, America is being run by some of the most evil, greedy, stupid, violent, megalomaniacal sociopaths who ever lived (and I'm talking Republicans and Democrats). Pretending that elected officials would need to be under the wamma-jamma of a brain chip and hypnotism in order to commit the thieving, murderous, oppressive acts that are Washington's stock-in-trade is giving those bastards too much of a free pass.

Ruthless, ambitious, amoral politicians, like crabgrass, are an unfortunate but natural fact of life. Special interests buy influence over these power-hungry but all-too-human monsters by writing checks that help them stay in office. Simple as that.

The fact that America does not have national health care, or a foreign policy that makes sense to anyone who isn't a military contractor (to use two easy examples), is not because of creepy mind-control doctors in secret labs behind false walls. It's because Democrats and Republicans have rigged the system to keep themselves in power, and have duped most of the citizenry into thinking this is a good thing. Venality, vanity and avariciousness are the only explanations needed to explain their actions--not mad doctors with big needles.

Shake off the influence of your own evil brain implant and VOTE LIBERTARIAN, AMERICA. Click the link below to see why Libertarians are the only candidates worth supporting. Go ahead, click it. Ignore the voices in your head. You know that Bush and Kerry are both awful.

Wait, I think I see a black helicopter outside. Oh-oh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed January 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

As in writer/director Lars von Trier's 2004 "Dogville," everything in this sequel takes place on a warehouse-size, nearly bare performance space with only minimal set elements, limbo-darkness beyond the illuminated areas, and locations designated map-style by words painted on the floor.

And like "Dogville," it still manages to be fascinating and absolutely engrossing.

This is part two of von Trier's trilogy of films that began with "Dogville." Bryce Dallas Howard takes over the role of Grace, played by Nicole Kidman last time around. Howard does a good job of embodying a more crusading and "take-charge" Grace, a wised-up version of Kidman's character.

The time period is the 1930s. Grace, her father (played here by Willem Dafoe) and his henchmen have left Dogville and ended up at a southern plantation where slavery never ended. Grace tells her father to leave her and two of his men there, where they reverse the roles of the plantation's whites and blacks.

Don't go expecting a predictable "lesson" movie about equality and social justice, though. The movie has enough twists and turns to offend both the Klan and the NAACP by the time the credits roll.

As outrageous as "Dogville" was, "Manderlay" takes place in an even stranger reality. It's at heart a fairly simple morality fable gone very wrong, a world where even the best of intentions by those who don't know the full story can end up causing more harm than good. And man, is it ever interesting.

For the sake of my readers with Y chromosomes, I also have to mention that the lovely Ms. Howard definitely goes the extra mile when it comes to full-frontal onscreen nudity. There's a sex scene in this movie that leaves almost nothing to the imagination.

"Manderlay" isn't quite as good as "Dogville," but it's still likely to rank as one of the best movies of 2006.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Man of the Year
(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Instead of "Man of the Year," they should have called it "Bomb of the Year." God almighty, what a lousy movie.

The main problem here is that director/writer Barry Levinson couldn't make up his mind whether he was making a dumb Robin Williams comedy, a lame thriller, or a toothless satire.

One thing's for sure: This definitely is NOT the movie anybody who has seen the TV ads will be expecting. The TV spots make "Man of the Year" look like a sitcommy yuck-fest about a stand-up comic running for president. Ticket-buyers will settle into their seats and look forward to 90 minutes of lightweight, goofy comedy.

Imagine their chagrin when they discover that the movie has more to do with a no-laughs, dead-serious corporate conspiracy involving Laura Linney as an on-the-run ex-employee of a corrupt voting-machine manufacturer than with Williams making dated Clinton blowjob jokes. Linney discovers a flaw in the machines' software that would let a candidate like Williams win the election -- and for that she must be drugged, discredited, humiliated, hunted down, and targeted for murder.

Williams, meanwhile, campaigns on a platform that says both Republicans and Democrats are so bad that neither party deserves to be in power. That's about as topical and biting as the script gets. There's nothing specific about anything. And the movie's flabbergastingly stupid ending completely subverts everything that Williams says he believes. What happens makes no sense whatsoever, even in a dumb comedy/lame thriller/toothless satire sense.

Guaranteed to be on my "worst of 2006" list.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Man on a Ledge
(Reviewed January 25, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Man on Fire
(Reviewed April 16, 2004, by James Dawson)

Desperately attempting to ape the visuals of "City of God" and "Traffic" apparently was director Tony Scott's way of trying to class up what basically is nothing more than "The Punisher" gone black and south of the border. Incredibly, "The Punisher" may have a more believable plot.

I have no idea how many things screenwriter Brian Helgeland changed from the original novel. (What, you think I'm going to hunt the book down and read it? I'd rather spend my time doing something more productive, like shouting back at the voices in my head.) What I do know is that the screenplay is full of groaningly overfamiliar badass-in-need-of-redemption cliches. Denzel Washington's character has Done Bad Things. He drinks too much. He wants out of the killin' business. He has lost all desire to live. Then he takes a bodyguard job and meets a girl who makes him want to live again. (One character in "Man on Fire" actually uses those words, in case we missed the belabored point.) In this case, the girl is lil' Dakota Fanning, whom Denzel has been hired to safeguard in Mexico City, which apparently is the hostage-taking capital of the universe.

The most groan-worthy scene here, which serves as an example of countless others, comes when delightful Dakota and dour Denzel are sitting at a breakfast table. "You smiled," Dakota says, happy that Denzel finally has dropped the mopey sourpuss look. "No I didn't," replies Denzel. "Yes you did, you smiled," Dakota giggles. Wanna fwow up yet?

And then there are the numerous, desperate attempts to hammer "Dirty Harry"-variety catch phrases into our brains at every opportunity. The most egregious comes when Denzel's former comrade-in-arms Christopher Walken says, "He's an artist at death. And this is gonna be his masterpiece." Hoo boy.

After what seems a very long time, Dakota finally gets kidnapped. Despite the fact that Denzel is accused of murdering two police officers during that event, we are supposed to believe that he is allowed to be moved from the hospital where he was under police supervision, and later is free to travel about the city buying up an arsenal of weapons and mounting a hugely visible killing campaign. In other words, we are suddenly in Action Hero Universe, having left anything resembling the real world far behind. Denzel has morphed from a "Driving Miss Dakota" chauffeur and part-time swim coach into an unstoppably ruthless killing machine. In Action Hero Universe, Denzel can fire a rocket-propelled grenade at a motorcade from an upstairs window, have time to stroll downstairs and kill the driver of the car behind the one that was hit (which inexplicably has not left the scene), get inside that car, and drive away without being pursued. In Action Hero Universe, Denzel can tie a bad guy to the hood of his car, ram plastic explosives up his ass and spend quality time interrogating him, all within sight of traffic passing by his freeway underpass location. In Action Hero Universe, Denzel can stroll into the slum neighborhood of his adversary and cause all kinds of mayhem without a single other member of that community (or, more importantly, without a thousand of them en masse) hitting, stabbing, shooting or otherwise kicking his ass. You get the idea.

The plot is so predictable that what are supposed to pass for plot twists are just plain pathetic. I lulled myself into thinking, "Hey, it would be great if (a certain very predictable development) didn't happen. Maybe it actually won't happen! Maybe this movie will rise above itself by not sinking low enough to connect every by-the-numbers dot of this tired old formula!" And then, of course, the thing in question happens right on schedule.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Man Who Cried
(Reviewed May 13, 2001, by James Dawson)
The first 10 minutes of this movie are terrific, showing a little Russian girl abandoned by her bound-for-America father, and the girl's sad journey from her burned village to a foster home in England. But when it switches to the grown-up version of the girl (Christina Ricci, looking boringly blank faced, sullen, and way too earnest for her own good), the movie goes straight to hell. Johnny Depp is as dull as a mannequin, and the by-the-numbers machinations of the whole Holocaust veneer are sickeningly cheesy, cliche and obvious. An amazingly stupid and stultifyingly cynical movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Man Who Wasn't There
(Reviewed October 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is only the second Coen Brothers movie I have seen that I have no desire whatsoever to see again (the first being "The Big Lebowski")--and I have seen all of their movies except "The Hudsucker Proxy." It's not that "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a terrible movie. It's...okay...but it seems more like something the Coens did as a technical exercise than anything else. When the main thing that's praiseworthy about a movie is its cinematography, well, you figure it out.

Billy Bob Thornton is a barber who gets mixed up in blackmail and murder, in a plot that owes a hell of a lot to James M. Cain's far superior "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Scarlett Johannson (of this year's "Ghost World" and "American Rhapsody") shows up as a husky-voiced teen. James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos" also appears. The plot is too dull and deadpan to be much fun, and too self-consciously ironic to offer any real "film noir" suspense.

Basically, a real disappointment from a pair of filmmakers who are capable of doing much better work.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Margin Call
(Reviewed October 20, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Margot at the Wedding
(Reviewed November 3, 2007)

I really enjoyed this crappy-looking movie a lot. (How's that for the year's strangest movie recommendation?)

Nicole Kidman stars as bitchy and hypercritical Margot, a short-story writer whose more laid-back sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is engaged to jobless, short-tempered would-be artist Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot and her 12-year-old son come to stay with Pauline and Malcolm at their run-down shore house before their outdoor wedding. That visit stirs up confusion, pettiness, accusations and hurt feelings, but in a simmering, low-key fashion that feels much more genuine and human than the histrionic idiocy of (for example) "Dan in Real Life."

Kidman is excellent as a self-involved would-be perfectionist who refuses to acknowledge that her own life is an unexamined mess. Leigh does a good job as the tolerant trying-not-to-make-waves sister who nevertheless is rapidly losing patience with Margot's attitude. And Black is genuinely funny as a slob who has given up on finding any personal success in the world and is content to go with the flow -- when he's not flying off the handle at any imagined slight. (Hmm, that sounds familiar...)

Director/writer Noah Baumbach, who cowrote Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and directed/wrote "The Squid and the Whale," only makes a couple of missteps here. Pauline and Malcolm's threatening, inbred-like neighbors are like a clan out of "Deliverance," which means they are at odds with the more realistic characters in the rest of the movie. A single tantalizing line of dialog hints that Margot may be having financial problems that belie her apparent success, but there's no followup on this angle. And although Kidman's character is Christian (and therefore presumably her mother and sister are as well), Kidman's niece refers to her grandmother as "nana," which doesn't ring true.

And that crack about the movie looking crappy isn't a joke. Know how the "deleted scenes" on some DVDs look bad because they haven't been cleaned up and color-corrected and remastered the way the movie itself has been? A lot of this movie looks like that, badly lit and murky. There's also a little too much shaky-cam handheld stuff.

Honestly, though, I'll take a crummy-looking movie that has a script this good over a flawless-looking big-budget piece of dreck any time.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Marie Antoinette
(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Much as I liked director/writer Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," everything I read about the making of her "Marie Antoinette" had me worried that this movie might be an embarrassing disaster. A period piece playing up the main characters' youthful teenagery, with modern songs such as Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and Adam & the Ants "Kings of the Wild Frontier" on the soundtrack? Flashbacks to 2001's abysmally awful "A Knight's Tale" danced in my head.

Which is why I am amazed to report that "Marie Antoinette" not only exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations, but turns out to be one of my favorite movies of the year.

Kirsten Dunst, as Marie, is a delight right from the start. Before the credits, the first shot of the movie shows her seated in all of her finery, being tended to by a kneeling maid. Dunst languidly turns her face to the camera and gives a contentedly feline stare that seems to ask, "What's not to like?" That magic moment sets a new cinematic record for "shortest length of time required to make audience fall in love with main character."

Although the tone of the movie never devolves into camp or silliness, we're definitely in a universe here that's not our own. Coppola creates a kind of heightened reality that is more like an elaborate schoolgirl fantasy than a realistic historical treatise. Everything is as colorful, elaborate and just plain beautiful as a fancy French dessert; it may not be nutritious, but it sure is delicious.

The movie's timespan runs from Marie's betrothal to her eventual removal from Versailles by revolutionaries. In other words, it covers her years of pamper, glamour, indulgence and langour as the often bored wife of Louis XVI, without troubling itself to include anything as uncouth as imprisonment or beheadings.

(Speaking of which: I have it on good authority that a college journalist at a press junket, referring to the movie's final shot of Marie and company being taken from the palace in a carriage by captors, asked whether "we are supposed to assume that they lived happily ever after." That's the state of education in present-day America, folks!)

Jason Schwartzman is a man of very few words as Louis XVI, a stiff bore who is utterly uninterested in consummating his marriage to Marie and producing an heir for more than half of the movie. Our sympathies lie completely with the dejected but duty-bound Marie, whose vitality and sweetness are all but smothered by court ritual and protocol. How does she deal with her frustration? By shopping, of course! Duh!

Rip Torn, in an odd bit of casting, is excellent as the coarse but amusing Louis XV. Asia Argento is sexy and appropriately arrogant as his mistress, the Comtesse du Barry.

The 1980s-and-up songs that are sprinkled throughout the soundtrack work surprisingly well for the most part (although employing three in a row during a masked-ball scene seems over-indulgent). The real standout is a 2001 track by Aphex Twin called (and this isn't a typo) "Jynweythek Ylow," which somehow perfectly complements the 18th-century milieu. Other tunes that seem like odd fits but end up meshing well with what's onscreen are New Order's "Ceremony," the Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It" and Bow Wow Wow's deliriously loopy version of "Fools Rush In."

(One minor quibble: Coppola uses Vivaldi's "Concerto in G" several times when Marie awakens in her royal bed. Bob Fosse used the same music each time Joe Gideon greeted the new day in 1979's "All That Jazz." If Coppola was going for homage, she may as well have gone all the way by having Marie look in a mirror and royally proclaim, "It's showtime!")

"Marie Antoinette" is by far the best looking movie I've seen this year (an honor previously held by "The Illusionist"). Interiors and exteriors of the actual Palace of Versailles are used, and the costumes should be guaranteed Oscar winners.

And for any guys out there who dread being dragged to this tres-chic chick flick by your girlfriends, here's something that will make buying a ticket easier: cute Kirsten graces us with full dorsal head-to-toe nudity in one scene (dear God, what an incredible ass). A later shot that really should have been the movie's poster features Kirsten naked except for a lace fan, white stockings and a blue garter ribbon. Even if you don't really see anything other than a bare haunch in that shot, it's still pretty hot. Trust me.

On second thought, you don't have to trust me. That image, covered with the movie's logo, is on the cover of the soundtrack CD booklet, and here it is:

As Ms. Antoinette would say, "What's not to like?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Marley & Me
(Reviewed December 11, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Marley & Me" review

All I will say here is that this movie is a real dog. As in, it mostly sucks. Also, the damned dog takes a half-hour to die, so it's not recommended for the kiddies -- unless you want to do a lot of explaining about death and lying to them that all dogs go to heaven.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Martha Marcy May Marlene
(Reviewed October 20, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
(Reviewed October 25, 2003, by James Dawson)

Better than I expected, and definitely worth a look if you are a fan of Russell Crowe, sailing ships, and 19th century naval relations between England and France. (And who isn't?)

Even though the entirety of the plot consists of one ship chasing and occasionally fighting another for over two hours, "M&C:TFSOTW" never gets boring, and often is genuinely exciting. (The trip "around the horn" puts you right in the middle of the next best thing to a hurricane at sea, and the cannonballs-a-flyin' scenes are, shall we say, explosive.) Sure, things do get corny now and then, such as when everyone around Crowe's captain's table breaks into a mealtime sea shanty. A few members of the crew seem to have spent their last stint at sea serving under Long John Silver. And there's some plot foreshadowing that is about as subtle as a smack in the back of the head with a yardarm. But for the most part everything here is played straight...or at least straight enough.

Russell Crowe (looking remarkably like Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash) is Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise. The ship's doctor, played by Paul Bettany, has a generally easygoing friendship with Aubrey that is roughly akin to that between "Bones" McCoy and Captain Kirk. (Nerd alert!) The doctor is sensitive, compassionate and more interested in cataloging new plant and animal species than in pursuing an enemy, while the Captain is a forceful man's man who regards his primary duty in life to be kicking ass for His Majesty. (Any intimation of a "more-than-friends" relationship between the two is dispelled by a brief shot of Aubrey writing a letter home to his female sweetheart. The world's women breathe a sigh of relief.)

It's a popcorn movie without any high-and-mighty pretensions, but it's a good one that is undeniably entertaining.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed November 1, 2005, by James Dawson)

Enjoyably offbeat semi-black comedy (grey comedy?) about a sleazy but needy burned-out hitman (Pierce Brosnan) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a straight-arrow, middle-class businessman (Greg Kinnear) in Mexico City.

Most of it seems more like a play than a movie, with long dialog scenes at a bar, in a suburban home and in a hotel room. And Kinnear can be a little too "sitcommy," overdoing the wide-eyed Ned Flanders routine throughout.

Brosnan, though, is a real revelation as the wisecracking, self-deprecating Julian Noble. He shows more characterization here than in all of his James Bond movies combined. Noble is such a likeable, desperate, amusing mess that he's a real kick to watch, even when (maybe especially when) he's falling apart.

Worth a look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Match Point
(Reviewed December 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

Writer/director Woody Allen isn't in it, and there's not a laugh anywhere to be found, but "Match Point" is easily the Woodman's best movie in years. Lots of years.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is excellent as a subtle but Steerpikishly snakey social-climber who marries into money despite being in love with his new brother-in-law's fiancee. That object of desire is the radiantly golden Scarlett Johansson, but Allen doesn't exactly put her on a pedestal. Her character is somewhat crass, slightly shrewish, and possessed of a few unseemly secrets.

Everything about this suspenseful love triangle is enjoyable, especially the delicious tension of waiting for (as the great drama critics put it) the shit to hit the fan. As always, Allen the director adamantly refuses to move the camera, but this static approach does a good job of reflecting the constricted husband's quiet desperation in his too-comfortable new surroundings.

The third act goes into territory you won't be expecting (unless other reviews ruin the surprise, which unfortunately is quite likely). And something that happens by a damned lucky coincidence seems a little too handy, but fits nicely with the movie's theme that it's better to be lucky than to be good.


Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Matchstick Men
(Reviewed September 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

Nicolas Cage gives an entertainingly twitchy over-the-top performance, Alison Lohman is good as his teenage daughter, and the god-awful Sam ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") Rockwell still can't act worth a damn in this story about a con artist, his daughter and his loudly annoying partner in crime. This one has "catch it on cable" written all over it; there is nothing here that demands it be seen on a big screen for real money. The story is sort of "enhhh," I didn't like the way-too-easy ending, and the whole affair has an atmosphere of nervous, unpleasant dread. (Don't go expecting a wacky night's laugh-out-loud entertainment, in other words.)

Plus why the hell is the studio using the song "Brazil" in the TV ads for this movie? Christ, people, have a little respect for a masterpiece (namely, Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," which used the same song as its theme). What's next, for God's sake? The "Chinatown" theme played over ads for the "Ocean's 11" sequel?

"Matchstick Men" isn't worthless, but it sure seems like a waste of director Ridley Scott's talents and time. And why Scott didn't fire Sam Rockwell on his first day of shooting is a mystery for the ages. Rockwell is totally wrong for his role, making big gestures and wearing a cowboy hat and generally acting like a bigmouth with ADD. Yeah, that's definitely the sort of fellow I envision being a convincing keep-things-on-the-down-low con artist.

Cage is interesting to watch, but not $8.00 worth of interesting.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Matrix Reloaded
(Reviewed April 30, 2003)

They should have called it "The Matrix Retarded." Man, what a disappointment.

Here is what this movie is like: Imagine that you're with a girl who is really hot. Unfortunately, she also is tripping--and thinks that the disjointed delusions she feels compelled to share at long length with you are Incredibly Profound. She keeps babbling on and on about a bunch of Great Truths and the Meaning Of It All and how she Knows Things. She's dead serious, too, never so much as cracking a smile while blabbing a bunch of utter nonsense that she thinks should impress your intellect. Meanwhile, all you want the silly bim to do is strip and show you her special effects.

(Now, wasn't that a better analytical comparison than "this movie is `Attack of the Clones' meets `Tron?'" I thought so.)

If you end up waiting in a long line to see this movie, here is a tip. "Reloaded" opens with a pair of pretty decent action scenes that last about five minutes. As soon as they are over, feel free to go use the restroom. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time. With a solid HOUR of boring "down in Zion with the Thunderdome crowd" stuff before anything interesting happens, you can do a very, very leisurely Number Two.

Honestly, I can't figure out what the writer/director Wachowski brothers were thinking. If there is a surer way to blow audience goodwill than by making fans of flashy, hi-tech, fast-'n'-furious violence sit through an hour of dull-and-dingey cave scenes, I can't imagine what it would be. You will sit stupefied with disbelief through a painfully long (and remarkably badly edited) "disco rave." You will wonder if George Lucas's even more clueless twin contributed the talky, molasses-slow chat that Neo has with one of Zion's governing-body councillors. (He seems to be on loan from the narcolepsy-inducing Star Wars senate.) You'll even be treated to one of those classically awful "leaders hashing out policy with military reps and a couple of hundred concerned citizens" scenes, the kind that make you wonder if the movie's creators think C-SPAN holds a weird fascination for jumped-up 12-year-olds.

I kept waiting for ga-ga-ga-gorgeous Monica Bellucci (who plays white-latex-clad Persephone) to show up and give me something to look at besides Zion's potato-sack-clad downtrodden. The problem with her scene is the same one that all of "Reloaded"'s good-looking parts are burdened by: They seem like vignettes intended as trailers for better movies. Nothing makes a lick of sense, the pieces don't mesh, and the characters are all cartoonishly phony...but hey, those bullet-time shots sure look cool (even if they appear just a few times too often here to be special anymore). There also is a lot of that goofy chop-socky wirework that's so silly and unbelievable it has become the modern-day equivalent of a guy in a Godzilla suit knocking over cardboard buildings.

I was trying to puzzle out why the "doesn't-make-sense" aspect of a movie like David Lynch's "Lost Highway" doesn't bother me, but bugs the hell out of me in the "Matrix" flicks. I think the reason comes down to the fact that the Lynch movie is like a weird, disturbing dream, while the "Matrix" movies seem more self-consciously stupid and full of themselves. Lynch's movie is like the haunted fantasy of a disturbed mind that has found its own creepy reality, while "Reloaded" is what the Krelboyne virgins in the Science Building would come up with after too many Red Bulls. (If you think I'm exaggerating with that "virgins" crack, just wait until you see the junior-high-school level "eroticism" of the scene in which Persephone asks to be kissed. You'll think you're watching an outtake from "Dawson's Creek.")

Here are a few of the most basic "doesn't-make-sense" things about "Matrix": If Neo can stop bullets in mid-air, why can't the same "force-field" power be used to keep karate chops or knives from touching his person? If the world of the Matrix is actually a computer program being run by evil machines, and if those machines know that Our Heroes are physically affected by what happens to them when they are "inside" the program, why doesn't Agent Smith simply detonate a large nuclear weapon there--instead of merely punching Neo a lot and playing "pile-on?" Finally, why can't Zion's hackers simply break into the Matrix program using keystrokes on a keyboard from the komfort of their kouches, if the whole thing is really only a bunch of ones and zeros on a big server somewhere?

Okay, so if it's a given that this movie is preposterous when it's not ponderous, how come I'm giving it a relatively generous "C-" grade? Because bits and pieces of it look just swell. There's a great car chase, some cool shoot-outs (even if the bad guys still suffer from "can't hit the broad side of a barn" syndrome), and a few way-too-short scenes of those mechanical squids whipping around with bad intent. Don't get me wrong, there are nowhere near as many action scenes as you will be expecting. But on the scattered occasions when characters stop spouting Zen-for-Dummies dialog and get down to business in the movie's second hour, things look pretty good.

I have a very, very bad feeling that there is only one way this series can end, if it is going to "cover all bases" and make sense out of all the contradictions and chaos. At this point, it really looks as if the only way the third movie can wrap things up is by saying that everything in both worlds--Matrix and Zion--is a computer program, and that nobody we have seen in either reality is real. Either that, or everything will turn out to be happening in the head of a Jerry Cornelius ripoff. (Go read Michael Moorcock's "The Condition of Muzak" if you don't get the reference. Or, if you're post-literate, think back to the finale of "St. Elsewhere," in which everything in the entire series was revealed to have happened in the mind of an autistic child holding a snow-globe.)

We'll see in November!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Matrix Revolutions
(Reviewed October 25, 2003, by James Dawson)

I know it sounds crazy to feel sorry for kazillionaire Joel Silver, the filthy-rich producer of the "Matrix" franchise and loads of other mega-buck Hollywood blockbusters. But I honestly couldn't help picturing the guy putting his head in his hands and weeping with hurt betrayal after he got a look at the final cut of this dumb, deadly dull, thoroughly disappointing finale to the trilogy.

"Did those damned Wachowskis really think people wanted more down-in-the-dirt `Thunderdome' scenes again, instead of getting back to the cool high-tech stuff everybody liked about the first movie?" I imagine the stunned Mr. S. moaning. "Or that adding a bunch of stupid oversized Transformers that look like Star Wars rejects was cutting edge in 2003? They've gotta be kidding! They've gotta be!!!"

Remember how "Matrix Reloaded," bad as it was, at least started off with a short-but-dazzling motorcycle action scene, big explosions, and a genuinely cool falling-off-a-skyscraper bullet-time gunfight before things got excruciatingly boring for the next hour or so down in the murky, mud-brown caves of Zion? "Matrix Revolutions" doesn't even bother giving us an upfront action scene before the claustrophic dystopian lethargy sets in. Instead, we are right down in that stupid hole in the ground from the get-go, watching desperate throngs milling around in badly knit sweaters and other homeless-chic duds, moping and complaining about their impending doom. And where's our boy Neo? Turns out he's off in some remarkably clean and bright subway-station-of-the-mind, chatting with an Indian family of programs who are waiting for the next train. Who are these people, customer service reps for MasterCard? Who knows? Who cares?

Nothing about this series has made a lick of sense from the beginning, but the first movie at least made an effort (however flawed) at getting us to suspend disbelief and go along for the ridiculous ride. "Reloaded" dispensed with rationality altogether, throwing in characters and elements that were kind of cool looking but basically nothing more than window-dressing. The Merovingian? Those albino twins? The stunningly beautiful Monica Bellucci as Persephone? The Architect? It turns out that none of them had any real story function beyond looking stylish. Some of them are back in "Revolutions," and damned if they still aren't just about completely unnecessary to the plot. Bellucci, in fact, says exactly one line in "Revolutions." (Predictably, it is an embarrassing cliche.) The good news, however, is that her extremely low-cut top shows off her spectacular breasts to eye-popping advantage. (Hey, folks, I calls 'em as I sees 'em.)

Granted, there are some nice SFX shots in "Revolutions," when the flick finally...FINALLY!...gets around to some action. Neo's face-off against Agent Smith in the rain (while a city full of other Agent Smiths looks on) offers some neat variations on your basic "pow," "kapow," "biff" theme (such as when their collision causes the falling raindrops to form a kind of outwardly expanding concussion bubble). I would have expected their flying action to look better than it does--we're still basically in "Superman: The Movie" territory, technology-wise, even all these years later--but that's not saying it looks too bad. And when the big battle for Zion cuts loose, all of the CGI stuff happens too fast for you to get a good look at much of anything, but those mechanical squids still look damned scary.

As for the characters, Morpheus has been reduced to a blank-faced, passive second-banana; the romance between Trinity and Neo remains wholly unconvincing; and the valiant bit players defending Zion are hewn from badly aged cardboard (the tough-as-nails soldier, the green artillery-loader, the ineffectual council). It's sad how much everything that happens underground in "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" has in common with the most recent two "Star Wars" movies: lots of boring talk, lots of expended ammo, lots of videogame violence, adding up to a whole lotta nothing.

I won't spoil the ending other than to say it answers precisely none of the existential threads-within-threads left dangling by the Architect in "Reloaded." I was hoping for some kind of triple-reverse mindfuck, something genuinely clever or at least unusual. Instead, we get just about the most conventional and predictable conclusion imaginable. As it turns out, there are no "bonus levels" whatsoever to this story, despite all of the "deep thought" artificial-world predestination claptrap we heard from the Architect last time around.

My prediction: "Revolutions" will reap even less box-office than "Reloaded," which itself was quite the underperformer expectations-wise. (Yeah, I know the thing made money, but even the most pessimistic prognosticator on the WB lot would never have imagined that "Finding Nemo" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" would turn out to be bigger hits than "Reloaded.")

I never was the world's biggest "Matrix" fan to begin with, but it's still a crying damned shame that the makers of the trilogy made it so easy for all of us to unplug and wave goodbye without feeling a thing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Me and You and Everyone We Know
(Reviewed June 25, 2005, by James Dawson)

This debut feature by writer/director/star Miranda July is easily the best movie of 2005 so far. It is funny, sweet and sometimes strange, but always thoroughly and endearingly human.

"Me and You and Everyone We Know" is a sort of a gentler, warmer "Ghost World," full of obvious affection for its unglamorous but wonderful characters. July plays a meek but wholesomely hopeful would-be multimedia artist whose day job is giving cab rides to the elderly. Her neighbors and associates include a shoe salesman adjusting to the breakup of his marriage; a matter-of-fact little girl who is living 20 years in her own future; an old codger who has found the love of his life 50 years too late; a teenager and his kid brother who manage to make cybersex both hilarious and touching; a snobbish museum curator who is beginning to figure out that art can be a con; and two high school girls who are simultaneously amused, appalled and empowered by their pubescence.

What's most impressive is that every one of these off-kilter characters seems real, and all of their stories are interesting. July has a light, low-key touch as both a writer and director. She avoids predictable comedy beats, hokey dialog and dumb pratfalls.

Instead, she finds subtle, sometimes tender humor in small moments. One of the best examples is when July and her would-be boyfriend (John Hawkes) use a simple walk down the street as a metaphor for an entire romantic relationship. Another is when July writes the word "Me" on the toe of one shoe and "You" on the other, then videotapes the shoes silently enacting a courtship ritual.

Even the big laughs are offbeat. When an adorably guileless little boy types bizarrely impossible sexual requests to a chat room stranger, part of what makes the scene so sidesplitting is his blank, utterly innocent expression.

July the director is equally adept at handling dramatic moments, large and small. Something as simple as the fate of a goldfish left on top of a car in a plastic bag becomes absolutely engrossing. A recently separated father is wordlessly devastated when he finds out that he is not represented in his son's artwork of "everyone." July the actress is resigned but brave as a single woman waiting desperately for her phone to ring, or pleading her case to the museum curator on video.

Miranda July's astonishing triple-threat debut is so assured, genuine and original that it makes nearly everything else at the multiplexes look stupid, alien and dishonest.

Who could have guessed that a movie so accessible and appealing would come from a woman whose earlier works included a pair of avant-garde, wildly surrealistic performance-art CDs ("10 Million Hours a Mile" and "The Binet-Simon Test") in the late 1990s? As a big fan of those relentlessly weird collections, I was amazed to discover that a truly masterful moviemaker was lurking inside the wildly imaginative freakazoid who once related tales of secret germ-warfare medical experiments, suicide by time travel, a talking submarine and a wigged-out girl in a nudie booth remembering a faceless kid on a tricycle. Talk about containing multitudes!


Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Medallion
(Reviewed September 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

This movie really, really, really, really blows.

Jackie Chan as a leading man, doing actual "acting" and sucking face with the achingly beautiful Claire Forlani? I don't think so. (And how on earth can Forlani end up in both the sublimely surreal "Northfork" and this brain-dead garbage in the same year? You can't say the gal doesn't have range!)

It's no exaggeration to say that this movie should be shown to film-school students as an example of how NOT to make a movie. Chan's command of the English language is pathetic, his would-be comic-foil sidekick Lee Evans is so revoltingly unfunny his scenes are nearly painful to watch, and more than one scene is bafflingly, incomprehensibly wrong in every aspect (such as a retarded music-video-style montage that takes place when Chan and Forlani go to Evans' house for dinner).

Absolutely awful.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Meet Dave
(Reviewed July 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

One of my witty high school chums last century, a vivacious young fellow named Chuck Kurilla, had a charmingly urbane expression that he would bandy about when our sophisticated social circle was debating the merits of this-or-that artistic endeavor.

With one hand tucked rakishly in a blazer pocket, he would cock an appraising eye and proclaim, "Frankly, that goddamned thing blows dead bears."

I thought of that good and noble man as I suffered through this horrible, horrible movie -- which truly can be said to blow dead bears most vigorously.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Meet the Parents
(Reviewed October 5, 2000, by James Dawson)

What it has going against it: This is pretty much a one-long-single-joke movie, with no story beyond "guy goes to the house of his intimidating future in-laws and causes unintentional self-destructive havoc." What it has going for it: It really is pretty funny, even when you can spot one of its joke coming from two counties away. (When we see a ceramic urn containing the cremated remains of Robert De Niro's beloved mother standing in a place of honor on a fireplace mantle, for example, there is no doubt what its fate will be. Then the filmmakers up the ante by adding a little something extra that puts the scene right over the top.) Director Jay Roach (who did the delightful "Austin Powers" and its dreadful sequel "The Spy Who Shagged Me") could have picked up the pace a little, but why carp. You'll smile, you'll laugh, you'll leave the theater doing De Niro's "I'm watching you" gesture to your date. Life could be worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(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.)

"Megamind" is the third CGI 3D release from DreamWorks Animation in only nine months, making those perfectionists at Pixar look like slowpokes by comparison. The good news is that "Megamind" has more in common visually with the studio's light and bright "How to Train Your Dragon" than its darker and drearier "Shrek: The Final Chapter." Featuring a cool color palette and a breezily uncluttered retro-future style, "Megamind" looks so good that you almost won't mind watching it through those annoying glasses. (As to whether seeing it in 3D is worth the higher ticket price, that's between you and your financial advisor.)

In this smartly tongue-in-cheek superhero spoof, babies from two different doomed planets are rocketed toward earth in classic Superman style on the same day. The one who manages to land in the lap of luxury -- under a Christmas tree, no less -- grows up to become the arrogantly stupendous Metro Man (voiced with charming smarm by Brad Pitt). He's been so great for so long that a towering museum is devoted to his good deeds. At its dedication, Metro Man literally walks on water.

The big-headed blue baby, whose diverted rocketship has the misfortune to touch down inside a prison, becomes the bumblingly brilliant but consistently outmatched Megamind (Will Ferrell). His criminal career choice is a clear case of nurture winning out over nature; Megamind's not bad, he was just raised that way. David Cross is the voice of his fishbowl-confined alien minion, who is appropriately named Minion.

After a huge explosion takes Metro Man out of the picture, Megamind's initial delight soon turns to despair. Realizing victory is meaningless without a worthy opponent who can carry on the "glorious rivalry," he recruits a needy nerd (Jonah Hill) to become a new hero called Tighten (as in "Titan"). Bad idea. Megamind and Tighten both have unrequited crushes on sarcastic/sweet TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), but the newly superpowered Tighten is a whole lot worse at dealing with rejection. Cue massive destruction, imminent danger to life and limb, and a Megamind identity crisis over whether becoming a good guy would really be such a bad idea.

Most of the violence and property damage is more silly than scary. (For any kid who could handle the city-shattering beatdown in last year's "Astro Boy," for example, this stuff is nothing.) The most frightening moment in "Megamind," in fact, may be an overhead shot of Tighten and Roxanne standing on the tiny platform of a skyscraper spire high above the streets below. Viewed in 3D, it's a scene guaranteed to induce woozy vertigo.

The clever script is full of amusing throwaway bits, such as Metro Man casually juggling babies to entertain his fans, or Megamind's Obama-style banners bearing the slogan "No You Can't." Ferrell manages to give Megamind just the right mix of bravado, frustration, vulnerability and self-doubt. Hill is perfect as his cluelessly self-absorbed protege, who thinks "being a hero is for losers."

On the downside, it's a shame the movie's TV ad completely spoils a funny final-act twist. Also, this is yet another kids movie with an all-oldies-all-the-time soundtrack ("Bad to the Bone," "Alone Again Naturally," "Highway to Hell," etc.). Viewers younger than driving age can be excused for thinking they're in grampa's rec room, listening to him play those ridiculous things called "records" on his "hi-fi."

The screenplay by first-timers Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons originally was conceived as a live-action feature, but its story and characters are so cartoonish -- in the best sense of the word -- that animation probably was the better choice. Director Tom McGrath, who previously helmed both of the animated "Madagascar" movies, does a good job of turning a villain who is nasty enough to be serving 85 life sentences into a sympathetic and even endearing main character.

In the 2010 animation stakes, "Megamind" is neither as flat-out gorgeous nor as heart-tuggingly sentimental as "How to Train Your Dragon," much less the already classic "Toy Story 3." For a second-tier effort, though, "Megamind" is a pleasant enough diversion that's hard not to like.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed November 9, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

Melinda and Melinda
(Reviewed March 16, 2005, by James Dawson)

Writer/director Woody Allen tries having it both ways by telling two variations of a slightly similar story in "Melinda and Melinda," one of them tragic (or at least "morose") and the other comic (or at least "amusing"). He doesn't quite pull off the stunt, but that doesn't make the result unwatchable.

Will Ferrell's performance is the real surprise here. This is not the first time that Allen has employed another actor as his virtual stand-in for a movie in which Allen does not appear onscreen. But who could have guessed that beefy, goofy, amiable Ferrell could do such a good job of channeling the Woodman's trademark wisecracking, whiney yet endearingly hopeful loser?

Ferrell, in the "comic" half of the movie, plays a struggling actor with an indifferent wife (Amanda Peet). He becomes obsessed with their slightly adrift neighbor Melinda (Radha Mitchell), who is cheerfully oblivious to his blatantly obvious fixation with her. A scene in which the three of them take a convertible to the Hamptons beach house of Melinda's date lets Ferrell fully unleash his inner nebbish. The fact that he looks nothing like Woody only makes it funnier to see how well he inhabits Allen's persona, from jealously disparaging their macho safari-hunter host ("Did you kill all the furniture, too?") to getting car sick on the drive home.

The only character who appears in both halves of the movie is Mitchell's Melinda. That's part of what's wrong with the conceit of the film, which concerns whether life is inherently comic or tragic. The movie opens with a pair of writers discussing how an anecdote that they (but not we) have heard could be portrayed either way. This implies that both versions of the story will be identical except for tone, but that's not what we see.

Instead, the "tragic" half involves a considerably more messed up Melinda interacting with a different set of performers with different names, doing different things, with very different outcomes. In this half, music teacher Chloe Sevigny is married to alcoholic actor Jonny Lee Miller. Melinda hooks up with super-suave pianist Chiwetel ("Dirty Pretty Things") Ejiofor. Everything is very talky and stagey, often veering dangerously close to camp, but always played for no laughs at all.

Mitchell does an impressive job of convincingly portraying both the playful, sweet-natured Melinda and the murderous, depressed Melinda. But audiences will wish that Allen had scrapped the boring, soap-operatic melodrama and extended the funny stuff.

Is life comic or tragic? It's pretty obviously both. And it's equally obvious which kind of movies Woody Allen does best.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed February 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

I know what you're thinking. "Gimmick movie." But trust me, the gimmick works like a charm in this clever, fascinating film.

The gimmick is that the film unfolds backwards. But this is not a ripoff of the classic backwards "Seinfeld" episode, even though comparisons are inevitable. In this case, there's an actual reason why the film is constructed this way: The lead character cannot retain any short-term memories for longer than a few minutes. And so, just as he does not know exactly how or why he ended up in the situation that begins the movie, neither do we--until we see things unfold in reverse, scene by scene.

If this is the first review you have read of "Memento," I urge you NOT TO READ ANY OTHER REVIEWS until after you see it. Most critics simply can't resist ruining surprises (the bastards!), and this movie's ending -- or is it the beginning? -- is too good to spoil.

Guy Pearce plays the noir-ish lead character with complete believability; there is no mugging or campiness. Carrie-Anne Moss (seen previously in movies as diverse as "The Matrix" and "Chocolat") also is excellent.

One warning for your wallet: If you see it once, you are guaranteed to want to go back and see it again, just to pick up on things you may have missed the first time around.

This is the first truly satisfying movie of 2001, and the first one this year to get an "A" from this reviewer. GO!!!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Memoirs of a Geisha
(Reviewed November 17, 2005, by James Dawson)

Maybe the bestselling book is better, but this pretentious, overlong soap opera of an adaptation sure doesn't inspire me to find out.

Imagine an unfunny "Pretty Woman" crossed with an unsexy "Flashdance," set in WW2-era Japan. Me so corny!

Before the movie gets around to the fan dances and flirting, almost the entire first hour is devoted to child abuse. Chiyo, the world's cutest lil' blue-eyed Japanese girl, is separated from her beloved sister when dear old dad sells both of them into virtual slavery after their mother dies. Chiyo ends up with a cruel dragon lady who runs a geisha house, where the kid is held prisoner and beaten for things she didn't do.

She also constantly is treated like crap by Hatsumomo, the joint's main money-earner. If your idea of a satisfying movie experience involves watching a mean, scary bitch repeatedly tell a sweet little girl not to touch any of her things because she stinks of fish, this is the flick for you.

Narration keeps informing us that the word "geisha" means "artist," and that geishas are not the equivalent of escorts, courtesans or prostitutes. That claim to respectability seems rather meaningless in a profession where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, however.

A geisha-groomer bets the dragon lady that she can turn Chiyo into the highest-priced meat on the street, essentially. This task is made more difficult by Hatsumomo, who spreads false rumors and generally makes life hell for Our Heroine and her handler. As a wise man once said, "Pimpin' ain't easy."

What doesn't make sense in the context of the story is that (a) geishas are supposed to be refined, subtle, graceful and exquisitely tasteful companions, and yet (b) tops-in-her-field Hatsumomo is a vulgar, crass, angry shrew, even in the presence of men she is supposed to be impressing. This rather subverts the idea that geishas are better than your basic garden-variety whore.

Chiyo's big spotlight moment consists of a spastic catwalk dance in a pair of Herman-Munster-high shoes amid a flurry of fake snow. This routine is supposed to make every male in the crowd stiffen with lustful, gotta-have-it desire. It's about as stimulating and erotic as a bad woodblock print.

Although Chiyo has to feign interest in other men to please her mentor, she romantically pines all her life for a man known as the chairman, who showed her kindness when she was a child. Just what we need, a movie encouraging pedophiles to believe that buying a grade-schooler a cherry-ice will make her want to play kimono-my-house when she gets big enough to bang.

Since high-class hookers are called geishas, maybe the Japanese have another word for "dirty old man," too.

There wasn't a thing I liked about this movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Me, Myself & Irene
(Reviewed August 10, 2000, by James Dawson)

It's too long and it has a lot of dry patches, but when it's funny it really is funny. Which is exactly the same thing I would say about the Farrelly Brothers previous movie, "There's Something About Mary." There should have been more scenes of the "badass" Jim Carrey interacting with the citizenry, and there's not much of a plot, but why quibble? Also, Renee Zellweger is always so adorable and fresh that she has been my choice for "America's Sweetheart" ever since "Jerry Maguire." Love her, love her, can't get enough of her. Yum.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Men in Black II
(Reviewed June 29, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie is so bad, so unfunny, such a cynical, embarrassing piece of uninspired swill that it will make you want to go home and neuralyze yourself.

Will Smith, quite simply, makes my skin crawl. I can't stand that talentless, full-of-himself fool, who mugs, jives and grins throughout with a shockingly couldn't-give-a-shit, happy-go-lucky ineptness.

Tommy Lee Jones is better, but then again, Tommy Lee Jones actually can act. His deadpan disinterest throughout the movie, though, is pretty one-note stuff.

Seeing Lara Flynn Boyle looking like Michael Jackson with implants was incredibly depressing. I never watch her on "The Practice," because no one with an IQ over 20 possibly could bear to watch any TV show from David E. Kelley, so I wasn't aware of how deathly thin and freakish Boyle has become since the "Twin Peaks" days when she looked radiantly healthy and amazingly beautiful. "Men in Black II" has a short cameo by Jackson himself, which only drove home the disturbing resemblance between him and Boyle these days. YIKES!

The most astonishing thing about this movie is that, while it has lots of SFX and CGI aliens, they just don't look very good. For example, MTV "Jackass" Johnny Knoxville plays a two-headed alien, but the effects on his second head simply do not look "state of the art." (Better looking than Zaphod from "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," but not great.)

And the script... Look, trust me on this, there is exactly one-and-only-one funny line in the entire movie. And I'll tell you what it is, to save you a few bucks. When an amnesiac-but-coming-back-around Tommy Lee Jones is about to step on a cockroach but changes his mind, the cockroach looks up and, in a British accent, says, "Damned decent of you." Well, I thought it was funny, anyhow.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Men in Black 3
(Reviewed May 22, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Men in Black 3" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Men of Honor
(Reviewed October 25, 2000, by James Dawson)

Here's the oddest movie comparison of the year: This by-the-numbers cheapo exercise in patriotic feel-good civil-rights earnestness reminded me of "The Little Vampire." In that dud, kid actor Rollo Weeks did not seem to realize he was in a movie that was total crap, and he turned in a great performance. In this one, De Niro is absolutely perfect as a hardass Navy diving instructor, but he does not seem to realize that he is the only person in the film who is bothering to try to act.

Cuba Gooding Jr. is uninvolved and unconvincing in the lead. Charlize Theron is unbelievably miscast as De Niro's wife. Hal Holbrook sleepwalks through his tiny role as the eccentric and racist top officer at the Navy base. And a nasty captain at the end of the film is as one-dimensionally nasty and ludicrous as a cardboard cutout of a Nazi with fangs and horns pasted on.

But De Niro, Christ, the guy is so good you wish the whole movie had been based on his character. It boggles the mind that this is the same guy who played Fearless Leader in "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" this summer.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (saved from an "F" by De Niro, a god among men)

The Men Who Stare at Goats
(Reviewed November 20, 2009, by James Dawson)
This alleged comedy tries very hard to be counter-culture cool and wittily ironic, but it's like watching a flailing stand-up comic who hopes his smug likability will make up for material that just doesn't cut it. The deadpan, smirking, "we're having more fun than you are" tone is as unamusing as the unhip hipster antics that are the bane of star George Clooney's awful "Oceans" movies.

Looking a lot like J. Jonah Jameson here, Clooney is a former member of a wacky US military operation devoted to ESP, telepathy and a lot of other New-Age nonsense that feels about as fresh as fondue. Jeff Bridges is his hippie-dippy true-believing superior officer, who creates a flower-power "New Earth Army Manual." Fellow soldier Kevin Spacey is a mercenary-minded spoon-bender more interested in making a buck than achieving tactically advantageous enlightenment. Voice-over narrator Ewan McGregor is a bottom-rung newspaper journalist who hooks up with Clooney in US-occupied Iraq, never quite sure if Clooney's psychobabble is a put-on or for real.

According to text shown at the beginning of the movie, "more of this is true than you would believe." One unfortunately non-fiction bit is footage of war criminal President George W. Bush addressing Congress about the illegal, immoral and unnecessary US invasion of Iraq. That unending fiasco has turned out to be more tragically absurd and black-humor ridiculous than anything in what passes for this movie's plot.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Mexican
(Reviewed February 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

This movie is a split-brained missed opportunity. If the filmmakers had stuck to one plot thread--specifically, the one involving Brad Pitt as a luckless slacker dispatched to Mexico to pick up an antique firearm for an underworld boss--it could have been a contender. Pitt remains one of the most talented, likable and underrated actors in Hollywood. (His jaw-droppingly brilliant acting in "Fight Club" proved he definitely is more than just another pretty $20-million face.) He doesn't have a whole lot to do in this movie, but his scenes always are enjoyable.

On the other hand, the Julia Roberts plot thread is just about unwatchable. She plays Pitt's ditzy girlfriend, who gets kidnapped by mob hitman James Gandolfini (TV's Tony Soprano) as "insurance" to make sure that Pitt will return with the gun. (Roberts and Pitt share very little screen time; their storylines run separately, with Roberts in Las Vegas and Pitt in Mexico for most of the film.) Roberts seems to be channeling wacked-out, annoying Dharma, as if the world needs another one. We even are treated to the unfortunate sight of yet another goddamned "let's all dance around and sing along to a golden oldie" scene. (In this case, "Safety Dance" by '80s one-hit wonders Men Without Hats, who probably are quite grateful for the royalties.)

Director Gore Verbinski's only other movie was the excellent "Mouse Hunt" a couple of years ago, which was as tight and polished as "The Mexican" is loose and flabby. Maybe he should stick to rodents.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Miami Vice
(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

Generic, no fun and utterly unnecessary. This movie version doesn't have the style, the deadpan (and possibly unintentional) humor, or even the damned theme music of the 1980s TV series from which it is derived.

Gong Li looks great, though, as a drug kingpin's dragon-lady wife who inexplicably goes all gooey for slovenly sex-god Colin Farrell (as Crockett). Jamie Foxx is Tubbs, who doesn't have much to do. Most of the night scenes look grainy -- not "arty" grainy, just "wrong film stock" grainy. The sound mix is so bad that lots of the mumbled dialog is unintelligible.

With any luck, Farrell and Foxx didn't sign up to appear in any more "episodes" after this one.

Hey, maybe that means the direct-to-DVD sequel will star Kid Rock and the guy who plays Urkel!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Michael Clayton
(Reviewed September 5, 2007, by James Dawson)

A zipless flick.

"Michael Clayton" is one of those movies that's very professionally executed all around, with some good individual performances and a reasonably interesting script. But the whole thing feels more like a passionless technical exercise than an engrossing story. Also, it includes some seen-them-too-many-times-before legal-thriller aspects (including an embarrassingly overused ending) that subvert the entire enterprise.

George Clooney is supposed to be a jaded-to-near-catatonia law firm "fixer" with big gambling debts from a failed restaurant venture on the side. Clooney the actor often seems to be winking slyly at the camera even when he's supposed to appear completely beaten down and hatin' life, which is a bit of a problem. The prospect of facing loan-shark retribution doesn't seem to bother him nearly enough, for example. Still, he's not bad at doing the charming rogue, take-charge-guy stuff.

When a lawyer colleague (Tom Wilkinson) has a crisis-of-conscience mental meltdown, Clooney is dispatched to get him back in line to ensure that the firm's uber-evil corporate client doesn't lose a huge class-action lawsuit. The corporation has other ideas about how to shut the lawyer up, namely by hiring the usual murderous, high-tech, ruthlessly efficient independent contractors who always pop up in movies like this. Tiresome.

Sydney Pollack, as the head of the law firm, has the right combination of amoral professionalism and a vague annoyance with personal relationships that makes him a very convincing boss. Tilda Swinton, however, is saddled with a horribly written role as chief legal counsel for the Evil Corporation. The idea that a skittish, easily flustered and remarkably sweaty nervous Nellie would be head of a team fighting a kazillion-dollar class action suit was somewhat less than plausible.

A subplot about a fantasy novel Clooney's kid is reading and its correlation to the real-world events was a neat touch, although Clooney's somewhat mystical encounter with three horses on a hilltop may have taken the metaphor a little too far. (In that way, it's very reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth's tonally identical encounter with a majestic stag in "The Queen.")

The big finale moment, in which writer/director Tony Gilroy trots out a "gotcha" device that would trip up no one who ever has (a) been to law school or (b) seen a movie in his life, was a real letdown. (In fact, it's exactly the same disappointing and overused plot device Gilroy employed in his co-written script for "The Bourne Supremacy." Dude, think up a new ending next time!)

Definitely not a terrible movie -- I've probably made it sound worse than it is -- but one that sort of misses the mark.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Midnight in Paris
(Reviewed May 11, 2011, by James Dawson)

This is one of director/writer Woody Allen's good ones. It could have used a little tightening, some of the direction is a tad one-take casual, and it's almost a shame that the story resists schmaltzy "Somewhere in Time" sentimentalism by staying as light and airy as a souffle. But "Midnight in Paris" is a funny, clever and generally likable trifle nonetheless.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a successful but self-described Hollywood hack screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. They don't share Gil's appreciation for the city of light, which he finds so inspiring and romantic that he wants to move there to finish his novel.

After getting lost on a solitary stroll one night, Gil finds himself inexplicably thrown back in time to the jazz age, where he hobnobs with the likes of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dali and seemingly every other artist or writer who wandered the rive gauche back then. By returning to the same location each night at midnight, Gil is able to make several return trips to that enticing era.

Kathy Bates is excellent as the no-nonsense Gertrude Stein, who gives Gil advice on his writing. She also keeps him informed about the comings and goings of the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard), former lover of Modigliani and current mistress/model of Picasso. Adriana offers an irresistible alternative to Gil's shallow present-day wife-to-be, who is spending a lot of time lately with a pompously obnoxious friend (Michael Sheen).

The parade of personalities Gil encounters is genuinely amusing, even if the whom-will-he-meet-next gimmick starts smacking of "Young Indiana Jones" fortuitousness. Adrien Brody is a standout in one scene as the hilariously eccentric Dali, and Corey Stoll's Hemingway is both belligerently macho and artistically, well, earnest. France's tres jolie first lady Carla Bruni shines in a small part as a museum guide.

The screenplay never delves too deeply into the characters' emotions, even though the plot could have made for a genuinely romantic tearjerker with only a little tweaking. Which certainly would have made for an interesting departure for the Wood-man, wouldn't it?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

A Mighty Heart
(Reviewed June 22, 2007)

This account of the 2002 search for the kidnappers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, based on the book by his widow Mariane, manages to be gripping and suspenseful despite the fact that anyone who buys a ticket already will know the story's tragic real-world ending.

Angelina Jolie is very good as the French-accented Mariane, bearing up under the strain of not knowing for nearly a month whether her husband is still alive. The portrayal is interesting in that Jolie plays Mariane as a very cool and almost chilly wife, the opposite of the flirty French-femininity stereotype. She's so collected, businesslike and unemotional about her predicament that a CNN staffer, after watching Mariane plea on camera for Daniel's release, remarks that "you'd never know her husband had been missing for six days."

Jolie's only misstep, in fact, is that she goes on a bit long in a "screaming as emotional catharsis" scene, but that's actually more the fault of director Michael Winterbottom for not cutting away sooner. Sure, the outburst is supposed to show her raw expression of grief, but the extended histrionics seem very at odds with her character's previous relentlessly rational detachment -- even given the excuse that she finally can't hold her emotions in check any more.

The script alludes to the fact that Daniel Pearl was unwise to let it be known he was a Jew in a land not exactly known for its philo-Semitism. However, it avoids any suggestion that Pearl may have been dangerously reckless -- with his own safety as well as Mariane's and their unborn child's -- by taking the Pakistan assignment in the first place. A hint that Pearl may have let a tiny bit of ambition play a part in that decision would have made him more human than the saintly but sketchy portrayal we are given here.

The exotically beautiful Indian actress Archie Panjabi plays fellow journalist and Pearl family friend Asra Q. Nomani. Okay, maybe it's wrong to point out the eye candy in a movie this weighty and serious, but I couldn't help myself.

And since I'm wandering off on tangents: Before the screening of "A Mighty Heart" that I attended, a member of the audience apparently had a heart attack. (Insert cruel title-related joke here.) Someone administered CPR to the guy for over 15 minutes, then kept doing chest-compression after the patient was put on a guerney and wheeled away. My guess is that the poor bastard probably was dead.

That's probably how I'll go, keeling over at the movies, considering how much of my time I spend in theaters.

I only hope that I already will have eaten my popcorn before the big usher in the sky shines a white light in my face for me to follow.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Millennium Actress
(Reviewed September 11, 2003, by James Dawson)

This is an okay but shoulda-been-better animated feature about a retired Japanese actress whose recollections of her search for her true love are presented as vignettes featuring her in many period-piece film roles from different eras of Japanese history.

Sound confusing? It should, because that is part of the problem. The movie's ambitious structure can be hard to follow. The story also is undercut by the presence of a documentary filmmaker and his cameraman, who are not only interviewing the actress but who also inexplicably appear within her memories. The movie would have been better told if the actress' memories had been presented "straight," without those two extraneous characters mugging within the scenes and commenting on the action as we see it unfold.

Another problem (and one common to many Japanimation films) is that the characters too often TALK VERY LOUDLY AND EXCITEDLY, AS IF EVERY LINE OF DIALOG IS FOLLOWED BY SEVERAL EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! HAI!!!! Along the same lines, the filmmaker and his cameraman often have ridiculously overblown facial expressions, which don't mesh with the movie's overall tone of romantic melancholy.

Still, there is a lot of beautiful animation here, and some moments that are genuinely touching. I didn't buy the ending of the movie, where we are expected to believe that one of the actress' biggest fans would wait years to do something that he more realistically would not have waited even a minute to do. (No spoilers, but you will know what I mean when you see the movie.)

Worth seeing, but don't expect to be...spirited away.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed February 17, 2005, by James Dawson)

This movie is so sappy, saccharine and sickening it would make vomit puke.

A holier-than-thou little dipshit comes into possession of a big pile o' money lost by bank robbers. His older brother wants to buy electronics and real estate with the loot, but pwecious widdle goody-two-shoes wants to give the money to the poor. Also, he talks a lot to dead saints, each of whom he oh-so-cutely identifies by name and era when they materialize before him.

Sadly, none of this heaveworthy fare is played for irony, or even for wit. The movie comes off like a desperate, cynical attempt to rope in Rapture-ready retards. It's the kind of syrupy-stupid schlock that people you think of as morons will call "sweet."

Incredibly, this Bible-heavy bit of braindeadedness comes from director Danny ("Trainspotting") Boyle, who seems to be auditioning for an in-house gig at the Christian Broadcasting Network. The kids are agonizingly fake, even for a dopey "kid movie." And good God almighty, do those cutesy Liverpool accents get annoying.

Set in England, this utterly artificial and edge-free exercise is what you might get if "Seventh Heaven" crossed the Atlantic and became "Seventh 'eaven"...except "Seventh Heaven" probably has more believable plots. (Considering what a policeman sees on a bedroom wall of the sanctimonious tyke's house near the end of the movie, the entire family should be behind bars by the time the credits roll.)

Jesus Christ, it sucks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

Really dumb "Ten Little Indians"-style would-be thriller. A bunch of trainee FBI profilers stranded on a military-facility island get picked off one by one by an Unknown Killer In Their Midst.

The plot makes no sense whatsoever. It is preposterous to think that the killer would be able to set up the traps concocted. It is even more preposterous that the killer would know with certainty exactly what others on the island will do in order to end up in those traps.

And then there is the traditional fight-that-goes-on-forever ending. Ugh.

A total waste of time.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Mini's First Time
(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

Nikki Reed, the brunette jailbait with the permanent sneer from "Thirteen," plots with stepfather/lover Alec Baldwin to kill her slutty, alcoholic, upper-crust bitch of a mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, apparently in career freefall since the heady days of "Memento" and "The Matrix").

That might sound like trashy fun, but this is just plain trash -- the kind with annoying first-person narration (by Reed), an idiotic plot, and couldn't-care-less performances from everyone involved. What is this, television?

It's all presumably supposed to be tongue in cheek, but has none of the smarts, bite or black humor necessary to keep a movie like this from coming off as dumb and cheap.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Minority Report
(Reviewed June 3, 2002, by James Dawson)

Up until its last 15 minutes or so, "Minority Report" is a slightly disjointed but almost always fascinating chase thriller full of bizarre science, incredible visuals and pervasive dream-reality weirdness. Then it all collapses into a painfully prolonged ending that is so cliche and pedestrian you will think the movie got hijacked by the purveyors of some hack TV cop show.

Tom Cruise assays the role of hyper-intense, laser-focused cop John Anderton with robotic efficiency in a future society where precognizants can find murderers before they commit their crimes. He is an intensely loyal true believer in the "Precrime" organization...until he finds himself targeted by the technology and goes on the lam himself.

The ensuing hot-pursuit scenes are the best part of the movie, and include an up-down-and-sideways futuristic car chase that puts to shame a nearly identical scene in "Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones." In fact, another scene the two movies have in common is a "factory menace," assembly-line-peril nailbiter. (Industrial paranoia seems to be all the rage this summer; even "Scooby-Doo" includes a similar scene. Ye Gods!)

What's odd about "Minority Report," directed by Steven Spielberg, is how many movies by other directors it evokes instead of resembling a unique vision. For the first three-quarters of the movie, those influences range from Paul Verhoeven (the pervasive tongue-in-cheek media and advertising inserts in "Robocop" and "Starship Troopers") to Terry Gilliam (the dark humor and eccentric characters of "Brazil") to Ridley Scott (the creepy futurism of "Blade Runner," also written by "Minority Report" original writer Philip K. Dick) to Stanley Kubrick (the chilly, mechanical world of "2001"). "Minority Report"'s tone and visuals are more like "A.I." -- that most un-Spielberg of Spielberg movies, a "posthumous collaboration" with Kubrick -- than anything else the director has done.

I'm not sure who influenced the writing and staging of the movie's final 15 minutes. Maybe some third-string burnouts from "Diagnosis: Murder."

The ending is not the only thing that doesn't work. Every scene featuring a character who is supposed to pass for comic relief (the eye doctor, the hologram hustler, the organist-warden) falls shockingly flat, as do other attempts at humor that only undercut the suspense. An essential plot point involving an eye is left dangling. And there is one logic lapse that makes no sense whatsoever, considering the "heightened level of security" one has to assume would be put in place as soon as Cruise hotfoots it out of Precrime. (Maybe the honchos at Precrime never saw the Sylvester Stallone movie "Demolition Man," wherein Wesley Snipes used exactly the same ridiculously preposterous means as Cruise of gaining entry to a restricted location.)

Still, what's good about "Minority Report" is almost good enough to make up for its shortcomings. The movie's thematic riffs on predestination, destiny and existentialism -- not to mention its indictment of the kind of "big brother" police state tactics that America is adopting these days -- will give audiences something to think about on the way to their cars, which is more than can be said about most flicks. The flashy on-the-run and in-the-air thrill-ride scenes are a rush, but so are many of the smaller moments; a crucial scene at a swimming pool is so expertly staged and shot it is like a little gem. And "Minority Report" does look damned good, often shot with an arty blue tint.

Shame about that ending, though. You will know while watching "Minority Report" exactly where it SHOULD have ended. Maybe somebody like the guy who did the unauthorized edit of "The Phantom Menace" will get hold of "Minority Report" somewhere down the line and whip it into shape. Ain't technology wonderful?

Back Row Reviews Grade:B-

(Reviewed February 6, 2004, by James Dawson)

This Disneyfied (no cussin' or unclean thoughts, please) retelling of the American hockey team's victory over Giant Evil Faceless Robots...oops, I mean Russian the 1980 Olympics is about as by-the-numbers as you would imagine. Much of it seems a little too "made for cable" (many of the team members are very obviously rookies in the acting game), but the recreated hockey matches themselves are well edited and fast paced. Coach Kurt Russell does an okay job, although his intermittent "Fargo" accent is a little less than convincing.

It's a hard movie to actively dislike -- I mean, we're basically talking about a low-aiming feel-good effort targeted at kids, jocks and flag-wavers. Still, I wish the characters had more depth. For one thing, it seems very unlikely that the team members would not at least occasionally ponder the desirability of female companionship. Only once in the movie is that subject even glancingly referenced, when a team member points out a good-looking girl in the stands to a teammate. This shortcoming becomes most obvious during a Christmas party scene at the coach's house, where there are absolutely no females in attendance except the coach's wife. What, none of the studs on the friggin' OLYMPICS TEAM could get a date?

There's also the question of whether the world really needs this kind of movie right now. At a time when the leadership of this country is doing its daily best to antagonize, disgust or enrage just about every other nation on the face of the planet, "Miracle" can't help seeming less like a movie about national pride than one about national arrogance. After all, any sports-as-metaphor movie like "Miracle" is not exactly subtle about saying that if we're number one, everybody else is number two...or lower. "In your face, rest of the world!"

I dearly wish that the propaganda aspect was not a consideration, and that this movie could be seen simply as two teams trying to score instead of two tribes going to war. But these days, the red-white-and-blue has been reduced to merely a taunting red flag by the lying hypocritical chickenhawk in the White House...and by the fact that the US has an army of occupation in a country it "liberated" but which it will not allow to have free elections...and by the US government's policy of financially and militarily supporting so-called "allies" who indulge in financial corruption, ethnic cleansing and nuclear proliferation.

Will this country ever get back on the right track? I'm starting to think it would take a...miracle.


Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed June 30, 2005, by James Dawson)

Amazing visuals are almost enough to compensate for the draggy pace, unappealing characters and flat performances in this contemporary amalgam of "The Wizard of Oz" and the lovely but lousy "Legend."

Written by respected comic-book writer turned fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman, and directed by the excellent comics artist and commercial illustrator Dave McKean, "Mirrormask" follows a disaffected teenage girl named Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) into a bizarrely beautiful but quite creepy wonderland. A nasty lookalike princess there has traded places with Helena by escaping into our world.

The plot, which sets Helena on a quest with a masked and far too chatty companion named Valentine (Jason Barry), makes no sense whatsoever and feels very made up on the fly. Why does Helena first awaken in an apartment building exactly like her own, in a world where none of the other architecture "mirrors" the real world? Why wouldn't Helena automatically have materialized in the Dark Queen's digs, where the evil princess presumably worked her magic? Why would the orbiting giants still possess a key to a drawer that already has to have been opened, considering that its contents have been taken and used by the evil princess? Even for a surrealistic fantasy, this stuff doesn't make a lick of sense.

Helena's search for an explanation of her circumstances is very obviously nothing more than an excuse to put her in various increasingly strange settings. But wow, are those ever some dazzling settings.

McKean's wild designs for characters, buildings and creatures will be instantly familiar to fans of his comics and illustrations. It's a real thrill to see his unique work -- which encompasses everything from pen-and-ink drawings to digital photo-realism -- convincingly brought to life in computer-animated 3-D splendor. Many of the images here (a landscape of spiral staircases to nowhere, bat-winged "sphinxes" with pasted-on human features, the immense floating face of the evil queen, and many, many others) -- are like the unforgettable bits of very freaky nightmares.

If only all of that style was in service of a story with more substance. Like "Legend," "Mirrormask" is about a girl in a bad place who eventually gets tricked out in goth finery by her nefarious nemesis while awaiting salvation by a male companion. Like "The Wizard of Oz," that nemesis is a nasty, all-seeing witch-equivalent who dispatches creepy minions to abduct Helena. Meanwhile, Helena is worried about her ailing mother back home (standing in for Auntie Em), and just might be experiencing nothing more than a dream.

When I was a kid, I read a comic-book story about a guy who tried to fool a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" type show by claiming to have a bowl of never-ending spaghetti. The charlatan had hollowed out the legs of a table and run pump-powered tubes from the four legs to a hole in center of the tabletop. His bowl, which secretly had a hole in its bottom, would be placed over that "feeder" tube so spaghetti would keep being replenished as it was removed. Which basically means he believed the show's producers were such morons that they (a) wouldn't bother to pick up his bowl and notice the incriminating hole, and (b) wouldn't try to remove more spaghetti than what fit in the table legs, as they attempted to verify the "never-ending" claim.

Showtime nears, he thinks he has pulled off his scam, and the cameras roll. To his horror, however, the host snatches the tablecloth from the table, sending the bowl crashing to the floor. But instead of pointing out the scam, the host proceeds to rave about the tablecloth's rare, exquisite beauty. Turns out that the thing is a priceless treasure, and the con artist didn't even know it.

"Mirrormask"'s script is like that spaghetti bowl, with a hole in its center and workings that are rather obvious.

But it looks as great as that tablecloth.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Mirror Mirror
(Reviewed March 29, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Miss Bala
(Reviewed January 16, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Miss Congeniality
(Reviewed December 1, 2000, by James Dawson)

I saw this stupid, schlocky, unfunny, overlong movie only six hours after a screening of one of the very best movies released this year, "Proof of Life." But even if I had not just seen one of only three movies all year that I have rewarded with an "A" rating, I still would have had no use for this brain-dead junk.

It's weird. Back when the first "Speed" was released, I thought Sandra Bullock was okay. She verged on the sickening, sure, but she didn't make me run for the exits. But I have disliked her more and more intensely with every movie she has done since then. Think of the stupid "Practical Magic," the pointless "Speed 2," the gorge-rising "Hope Floats"...aaack, I'm starting to taste my breakfast coming up, I'd better stop.

Bullock's sickeningly saccharine "look at me, I'm a klutzy and adorable tomboy with a widdle girl's heart of gold" act has metastisized into a coldly calculated collection of cutesy cliches. I've never been able to understand how anyone can buy her as a wholesome love-interest "America's sweetheart" type. It seems she would be better cast as conniving, ruthless, bad-girl bitches. But maybe that's just me.

In her latest waste of celluloid, she is an FBI agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant. The kind of "comedy" that ensues is akin to that found on the very worst TV sitcoms, the kind you flip past and wonder, "Who the hell actually watches these shows and enjoys them? Or, worse, actually laughs during them?"

The blond who plays Miss Rhode Island (Heather Burns) is kind of cute. But one thing that is very obvious in this movie is the way that none of the other beauty-pageant contestants who appear in scenes featuring Bullock are good looking. Almost every female who appears in the frame with Bullock seems to have been selected because she, to be delicate about it, would not overshadow the star.

The only thing that saves this bomb from being the worst beauty-pageant movie of the year is the existence of Minnie Driver's unwatchable "Beautiful." Aaaaaaaaaaack, oh, God...I knew I would be seeing my breakfast again before I finished this review...

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
(Reviewed March 9, 2005, by James Dawson)

About halfway through this wretched movie, a journalist of my acquaintance squeezed past my seat on his way to the restroom...or to go bang his head against a lobby wall, cry in a dark corner, or something. The point is that he leaned over before exiting to remark, "You can't imagine how dreadful this is for me."

Me? ME??? I can't imagine how dreadful it is to watch an abysmally awful movie? Jesus, pal, try reading my reviews more often!

It's a given that nobody who goes to see the sequel to "Miss Congeniality" will be expecting cinematic greatness. Unfortunately, the flick even fails as a mindless popcorn movie -- mainly because it's just no damned fun. The completely misleading subtitle "Armed and Fabulous" should be grounds for a false-advertising class action lawsuit.

Sandra Bullock is back as the cloddish, 40-going-on-14 FBI agent who posed as a beauty pageant contestant last time around. Only three weeks have passed in the "Miss Congeniality" universe, where Bullock's fame hinders her ability to do undercover work. Accordingly, she is told to give up field work and become the "face of the FBI." That means writing a best-selling memoir, flying around the country making appearances...and quickly turning into a bit of a bitch.

What's odd is that I've long thought Bullock might be more convincing playing a Kathie Lee Giffordish shrew than trying to come off like America's sweetheart all the time. But wow, is this ever not the right vehicle for that kind of character. It's as if they made a followup to "Bridget Jones's Diary" where Bridget turns into a cocaine smuggler. (Wait a minute...they did!)

Everything here is just plain dreary, from Bullock's gay-stereotype stylist to her achingly unamusing ongoing feud with her hardass bodyguard (Regina King).

That bodyguard character is named Sam Fuller, by the way. I guess the screenwriter naturally assumed that moniker would mean nothing to any Sandra Bullock fan. Maybe a ball-busting manicurist in the next installment will be called Terrence Malick.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Missing
(Reviewed November 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Slim-and-blond frontier teen beauty Evan Rachel Wood is abducted by a buncha nasty, murderin', no-account Injuns who are making a run to Mexico to sell her into white slavery. Fortunately, though, the fiends apparently are members of the "No-Rape-Um" tribe, because Evan and her seven fellow bound-and-helpless female captives are left unbelievably unmolested during the several-days-long trip.

That's the main thing wrong with "The Missing": The plot's unrealistic modesty seems dishonest. What makes this timidity incomprehensible is that the movie has an "R" rating. That should have meant a considerably grittier accounting of the actual unpleasantness that would befall a bunch of white womenfolk being herded toward whoremongers by outlaws.

The main thing right about the movie is that it offers some genuinely interesting takes on standard Western stereotypes. Tommy Lee Jones is a deadbeat dad who went native -- Native American, that is -- by abandoning his family and living as an Apache years before the movie opens. Daughter Cate Blanchett doesn't want anything to do with him when he tries to come back into her life and make amends. She is a "healer" who is single-momming it with two daughters, one of them being the aforementioned Evan. There's also a shiftless Army captain (Val Kilmer) whose men are only interested in looting, and the movie's main bad guy is a real bastard of a bruja (a curse-wielding wizard-type whose idea of fun is milking rattlesnakes and hanging them from trees). All of these are characters who should have been in a better story. Oh, well.

So, what we have here is yet another movie that's not so much "bad" as "not as good as it should have been."

Could be worse.

(One weird thing: There's a dialog scene in this movie that is almost identical to one in "The Last Samurai," 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: C+

Mission: Impossible 3
(Reviewed April 14, 2006)

Poorly directed, stupidly plotted and surprisingly TV-movie cheesy. The only good thing about this "dazzle the doofuses" exercise in "Things Blowing Up and People Running Around" is Philip Seymour Hoffman's way-too-good-for-this-junk portrayal of the bad guy.

The first two M:I installments bordered on incomprehensible, but somehow didn't seem as outright moronic as this one.

It opens with a hero-in-peril scene that's probably the best thing in the movie, with scary-sadistic Hoffman threatening to blow Tom Cruise's wife's brains out unless the shackled Cruise coughs up some info by the count of 10. Two problems: Hoffman is so much better than Cruise at the whole acting thang that the resulting talent mismatch brings to mind Cruise and Jack Nicholson's courtroom showdown in "A Few Good Men." And instead of having the courage to continue the plot's timeline forward from that right-in-the-thick-of-things moment, director/cowriter J.J. Abrams spends the next two-thirds of the movie in a goddamned flashback that consequently contains no suspense whatsoever. We already know that Cruise has to end up handcuffed to that chair, which sort of takes the guesswork out of wondering whether he will survive any hazards that took place earlier.

(Sure, sure, it's a given that the movie's main character is not too likely to croak, lose a limb or even develop so much as a disfiguring scar in movies like this. But there has to be at least the illusion that the guy is risking more than the chance of getting unlaunderable sweat stains on his black T-shirt.)

The movie also can't make up its mind whether to play things relatively straight or to go outright goofy, with characters making bad James-Bond-style wisecracks to each other. Things reach their nadir when Cruise and his new bride (Michelle Monaghan) begin aping "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Cruise's supposed-to-be-steely, laser-focused badass morphs into Action Sitcom Hubby, while his other half turns out to be quicker on the draw and a better aim than pursuing henchmen. As Moe the bartender would say, "Wha...???"

Also, we once again are treated to a plot device common to all of the M:I movies that is so insultingly ridiculous as to undercut any pretense of believability: whole-head masks that turn characters into perfect doubles of other characters (no matter the height or body-type), with throat devices that duplicate voices. Every time somebody pulls off one of those masks, it's like a bad joke.

"M:I 3" doesn't even get the mindless-action stuff right. The shoddy, slapped-together, badly edited feel of those scenes is more annoying than exciting. They're not even well scripted. Example: Cruise's convoy is attacked on a bridge, by a helicopter full of baddies who eventually will attempt to kill everything in sight. But when the copter first rises into sight behind Cruise, who is standing RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF THEM WITH HIS BACK TURNED, not one of those killer commandos bothers taking a shot.

I could go on and on.

But I won't.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
(Reviewed December 16, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Miss Potter
(Reviewed January 22, 2007, by James Dawson)

Renee Zellweger is Beatrix Potter in this melodramatic mixture of facts and falsehoods about the creator of Peter Rabbit and numerous other children's book characters. It's not a bad movie, but a very frustrating one, for viewers who have any respect for reality.

Ironically, one of the plotting liberties taken with Potter's life story serves to undercut the movie's portrayal of her as an early 20th-century feminist who was determined to make her own way in the world. The real Potter already had printed a small edition of her first book before taking it to the company that ended up making her rich. The movie's spinsterish and persnickety Potter seems entirely ignorant about the industry -- and life in general, for that matter -- until her book is accepted for publication by that firm.

On the other hand, the movie also gets reality wrong in the opposite fashion. Although we see Potter apparently making her own business deal with the publishers -- causing concern later for her snooty parents, who don't like the idea of their daughter toiling as a lowly writer -- the truth is that Potter's father had to sign her contracts in those unenlightened days.

Also, the editor assigned to her in the screenplay (Ewan McGregor) is a new-to-the-biz younger brother of two dismissive creeps who run the company. Their only reason for giving him that responsibility is because they don't think Potter's work will sell; they want their brother to fail and, as a consequence, get out of the family business. In reality, McGregor's character was no wet-behind-the-ears novice, and the publishers certainly did not set out to lose money as a way of teaching him a lesson.

Emily Watson does a good job as McGregor's spunky sister, who befriends Potter and gets her to loosen her corset stays a bit, as it were. And the movie looks great, with picturesque settings in London and the countryside that Potter loved.

Zellweger manages to walk the line between eccentric spinster and unworldly innocent pretty well, although the device of having her talk to her drawings as if they were people makes her seem sort of nuts. Seeing those characters come to life via animation before her eyes only reinforces this impression.

Overall, though, not a bad period romance.

Too bad the producers didn't think Potter's real story was interesting enough to film without sending the script down the Hollywood rabbit hole.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The Mist
(Reviewed November 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

A Stephen King-sized pile of shit.

"The Mist" is badly directed, dopey, inconsistent and horribly acted -- which a plot that might have filled a half-hour "Twilight Zone" slot on a bad night, but which feels agonizingly padded at over two hours.

A bunch of laughably written stock characters hole up in a supermarket after one of the locals claims that something in the thick mist outside "took" a fellow townie. Tentacles come under a loading-dock door, big bugs fly in the window followed by pterodactyl-type creatures, and then there's a rude spider encounter.

In between bouts with CGI nasties, a religious nut (Marcia Gay Harden, hamming things up so badly she should have set up camp on the Honeybaked aisle) convinces some ridiculously impressionable converts that this is all an end-times event that requires human sacrifice. I can't begin to tell you how utterly unconvincing all of this is.

At least King can't be blamed for the howlingly stupid ending that's been grafted onto this turd, which differs from that of the original novella. As bad as the new ending is, though, it's still surprising that the idiots in the studio marketing department saw fit to spoil the would-be shocking climax in the movie's poster and newspaper ads.

One of the worst movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed June 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Some critics seem to be giving this movie undue praise simply because it is pretty lavish for a Russian production -- not to mention pretty pretty, with great location vistas and such. "Aw, look at the nice little epic, with big armies and bloody battles and a romance so corny that we would make fun of it endlessly if this were a movie without subtitles, but we'll give it a pass because it's foreign."

Screw that.

"Mongol" director Sergei Bodrov might be a good pick for second-unit work the next time Hollywood wants to film agitated hordes going at each other with swords and such, but he isn't much of a storyteller. Not that he has much to work with, mind you. "Mongol"'s screenplay, cowritten by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, relies on the excruciatingly annoying technique of opening with Genghis Khan imprisoned, which means that much of the movie is told in flashback. Then he is rescued in a wildly improbable (and apparently completely fictional) fashion, he gathers the tribes together into one mighty army...and the movie ends.

In other words, we see absolutely nothing of how GK ended up conquering much of the known world at the time. It's as if this movie is a prequel for the movie that people think they are paying to see.

Skip it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed February 15, 2001, by James Dawson)

It's amazing. Less than a week after I wrote that it would be hard for Hollywood to make a worse movie this year than "The Caveman's Valentine," damned if they didn't turn around and do it!

"Monkeybone" is so bad, so unfunny, so painfully stupid that it is guaranteed to show up on critics' "worst of the year" list come December. If you thought Brendan Fraser was bad in "Bedazzled" (and he was), you ain't seen nothing yet. His big, dumb, good-hearted retard act never has done much for this reviewer, but I've never disliked him this much in any other movie (and I saw "Dudley Do-Right," for Christ's sake).

The real tragedy here, though, is the criminal waste of the beautiful, sexy, smart Bridget Fonda. A few years back, she was great in "Jackie Brown." Then something horrible happened to her career, and she ended up in absolute dreck like "Lake Placid" and now this mess. Oofah.

Monkeybone is the name of a remarkably unappealing cartoon monkey created by Fraser. When a car wreck (what a waste of a Karmann Ghia!!!) leaves Fraser comatose, his soul goes to "Downtown," which could be described as "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" with all the fun and wit and humor sucked out. There, Monkeybone is a real being. He manages to escape into the real world by taking over Fraser's body.

The problem with the movie is that Monkeybone is basically nothing more than a crude, unamusing jerk, prone to doing annoying things that make the audience groan, "Enough, already!" Do we really need to see Monkeybone (in Fraser's body) cramming fistfuls of cake in his face, or drugging a basset-hound with nightmare hallucinogens, or crooning "Brick House" to a thoroughly embarrassed Fonda? No. No, we most assuredly don't.

There are a few nice visuals, but nowhere near enough of them to make up for the lame plot and Fraser's off-putting performance. In fact, Downtown often ends up looking like one of those movie sets that you know cost a whole lot of money, but which never is fully convincing as an actual place. Oh, and did I mention that Whoopi Goldberg is in this disaster? (Just in case you needed another reason to stay home.)

Don't be tempted by the shots of Rose McGowan dressed as a sexy feline in the TV ads, either. In the first place, she doesn't get nearly as much screen time as you will desire. In the second place, no nudity. None. Zip.

The screenplay was written by Sam Hamm, who wrote the first "Batman" movie, but he must have done this one while *HE* was in a coma. The score is by Art of Noise's Anne Dudley, but you never would know it.

If you have gotten this far in this review and STILL harbor any desire to see "Monkeybone," consider this: "Ain't-It-Cool-News" webmaster Harry Knowles appears in a non-speaking, but very visible, cameo role. Try to imagine how desperate, how pathetic, how unbelievably insecure and achingly needy the producers would have to be to make that particular casting decision.

In a nutshell: "Monkeybone" is this year's "Battlefield Earth." Avoid at all costs.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F minus, minus, minus...

(Reviewed January 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

Interesting character study of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos (excellently played by Charlize Theron, fattened and uglied up to look like Gary Busey's white-trash sister) and girlfriend Selby (Christina Ricci, spookily evoking Wednesday Addams gone quietly evil). Even though many elements of Wuornos' story have been altered and at least one character is entirely fictional, the movie is relentlessly fascinating, with my pick for the best-written ending of any movie this year.

The only unfortunate thing about "Monster" is that Theron actually did pack on the pounds to "flab up" for the role. In the same way that I would be offended if a great artist smeared feces on his masterpiece, I'm always angered, confused and depressed when women with stunningly beautiful bodies ruin themselves this way. In a world where Eddie ("The Nutty Professor") Murphy and Mike (Fat Bastard in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"), to name two quick examples, can wear makeup to play obese characters, it is tragic to see knockouts like Theron (or Renee Zellweger in the "Bridget Jones" movies) balloon themselves up to Rosie O'Donnell proportions for the sake of their craft. Even if they lose the weight later, it's unlikely they ever can look as good as they did before grossly distorting their formely fantastic flesh. (And before somebody yells "sexist," I thought DeNiro was just as nuts for gorging himself into obesity for "Raging Bull.")

Still, this is a damned good movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Monster House
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

When a bookish boy unintentionally gives his creepy neighbor a heart attack that sends him to the hospital, the neighbor's haunted house starts abducting people. The boy and two of his friends investigate.

The main reason this movie didn't work for me is because I didn't believe in the "world" where it takes place -- a world where none of the other neighbors seem to notice that people are disappearing and bad stuff is happening, and where parents don't seem interested in the fact that their kids are staying out all night and not coming home. Also, CGI still hasn't reached the point where human characters look convincing.

In fact, nearly everything about this movie seems very not-quite-state-of-the-art. I pity anyone who gets suckered into buying a ticket because they see Spielberg's name in the TV ads. He didn't direct, merely executive produced, and nothing about this movie has any of his trademark warmth.

The script is strictly "Saturday morning cartoon" blah, with none of the occasional clever bits that pop up in good Pixar movies. The female member of the intrepid trio is a manipulative hustler who acts as if she is 11-going-on-30 when we first see her, but she seems to have lost all of her smarts and sophistication in later scenes. And the cliche "fat friend" boy is such a second-rate knock-off of Ron Weasley that J.K. Rowling should collect royalties.

Finally, even though the rest of the movie seems aimed at small children, the ending is probably too frightening for that age group.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed April 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

J-Lo should send bottles of Cristal to David Duchovny and Will Smith, pronto. That's because, as of right now, DD's amazingly lousy "House of D" and Smith's stupendously worthless "Hitch" are the only things that keep "Monster-in-Law" from being the worst movie of the year.

I know this sounds incredible, but Jennifer Lopez doesn't play a very convincing idiot. She's supposed to be one of those sunny, happy, mindless, utterly untroubled stock-character "good girls" found in every no-brain cookie-cutter romantic comedy these days. You know the type: No depth whatsoever, nothing vaguely resembling an inner being, always with the big smile.

She's as content as a lobotomized clam with her crappy career as a temp who walks dogs on the beach, plays receptionist at a doctor's office, and serves hors d'oeuvres from silver trays at loft parties. She also has the standard pair of advice-giving, gently sarcastic pals: the slightly sardonic female and the safely sexless gay guy.

After the movie's equally sitcom-shallow Mr. Wonderful (Michael Vartan of TV's "Alias") asks Lopez to marry him, his control-freak mother (Jane Fonda, disgracing herself even more thoroughly than she did behind anti-aircraft guns in Hanoi) decides to sabotage their wedding plans, with groaningly sitcom-ish results. I think there's a computer program that churns out moronic scripts like this. It's called "MS Shitwriter 2000."

The intended hilarity of Fonda moving in with Lopez and driving her crazy before the wedding never raises so much as a weak grin, much less a laugh. That's because Fonda is more annoying than infuriating, and Lopez is too blank to look more than mildly bothered. Also, we've seen all of this recycled waste before -- and recently. Fonda sleeping in the same bed with Lopez wasn't funny when Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac did the same thing last month in "Guess Who." Lopez having a swollen-up allergic reaction to eating nuts wasn't funny when the same thing happened a few weeks back to Will Smith in the egregious "Hitch."

Wanda Sykes plays Fonda's stereotypical black-and-sassy personal assistant, a wise-and-wisecracking Whoopi stand-in. Director Robert Luketic doesn't have a clue about such niceties as pacing, comic timing or even where to begin and end scenes. And everybody in the cast is too damned old to be this damned dumb.

Lopez and her would-be groom (who is supposed to be a surgeon) are 30-something adults acting like never-been-kissed teenyboppers. Fonda, playing a longtime TV talk-show host who has interviewed major world figures from war criminal Henry Kissinger to the Dalai Lama, comes off more like an out-of-touch country-club matron. I'm not saying that Barbara Walters has the makings of a sadistic gaslighting mastermind, but I'll bet she could come up with something more effective than faking a panic attack to antagonize an enemy.

The most embarrassingly awful moment in "Monster-in-Law" occurs during the inevitable wedding-day rapprochement between bride-to-be and prospective mother-in-law. I don't mean the utterly predictable bit where Fonda decides she likes Lopez's spunk enough to back down and let the nuptials proceed. What's far, far worse is Lopez suddenly deciding that she wants Fonda to be on hand for every holiday, every birthday, every little league game, every recital, every...honestly, it has to be the most sick-making, cloying, unconvincing, faker-than-fake dialog of the new millennium.

The only unexpected things about this movie are a few jokes at the expense of J-Lo's enticingly oversized posterior. It's nice to see that she has a sense of humor (and objectivity) about her main asset.

In a perfect world, Jenny from the block's next flick would be a Seymour Butts production. God, are you listening? Hello?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Monsters, Inc.
(Reviewed October 16, 2001, by James Dawson)

Incredible computer animation (as always from Pixar/Disney) and imaginative character designs are the best things about this movie. Billy Crystal is the worst thing about it. Crystal's loud, annoying, Catskills-comic schtick just goes on and on, nearly sinking the very slight story. Since "Aladdin," way too many Disney movies have featured the same sort of unfunny motormouth Robin Williams clone. Give it a rest, guys.

As for the disappointingly weak story: An amazingly cute little girl ends up in a world made up of the monsters that kids supposedly worry about just before they fall asleep. John Goodman is the big blue furry one, and does a good job of making him likeable. The action includes a really remarkable journey inside the workings of the "Monsters, Inc." factory on a series of fast-moving conveyors (similar to "Toy Story 2"'s scene inside the airport baggage-handling area, except with the adrenaline ramped up about a hundred notches). But the central premise here is so flimsy that the movie kind of falls apart. Do the writers really think that all children everywhere scream their little heads off on a regular basis because they are afraid of monsters that lurk in their bedroom closets? Weak.

Still, "Monsters, Inc." is worth the price of admission just to see the eye-popping things that computer animation can do these days. Plus you will fall in love with "Babblin' Boo!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Monsters Vs. Aliens
(Reviewed March 21, 2009, by James Dawson)

Dreamworks animated movies never seem to have as much heart as Pixar releases, but this one still is light-comedy enjoyable. Also, Susan the 50-foot-woman is irresistibly sexy in her ripped wedding gown, Area 51 jumpsuit and (especially) her Tron-meets-Seven-of-Nine unitard. Move over, Jessica Rabbit!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Monte Carlo
(Reviewed June 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed May 2009 by James Dawson)

This dark side of the moon psychodrama from first-time feature director Duncan Jones (son of rocker David Bowie) includes none of the frantic action or high-decibel violence that supercharges most contemporary SF flicks. "Moon" is a throwback to more downbeat philosophical fare like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and its less ambitious offspring, a subgenre spanning somewhat soporific sagas from "Silent Running" to "Solaris."

Unfortunately, low-key doesn't always mean high-IQ. Much of Moon's screenplay (by Nathan Parker) requires a Saturn V's worth of suspension of disbelief, and parts of it feel padded. But it has style to spare, along with an airless ambience of quietly mounting dread.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the only worker at a lunar mining outpost. Nearing the end of his three-year contract, he is eager to go home to his wife and young daughter on Earth. Aside from some plants, his only companion is the HAL 9000-ish computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

Distracted on the moon's surface, Sam wrecks his vehicle. He regains consciousness in his habitat but senses something isn't right. Returning to the scene of the accident, he finds himself still inside the crashed vehicle, banged up but still alive.

After the battered Sam is revived, the movie becomes an existential debate about whether his freshly decanted clone is equally entitled to be Sam. In an interesting sideline to that argument, battered Sam has overcome an anger management problem by living in what essentially has been solitary confinement, while new Sam has not had a chance to mature out of an unsympathetic hothead personality.

Intellectually, it's hard not to wonder about the cost-effectiveness of a corporation running a criminal cloning and disposal conspiracy, instead of simply hiring new workers to fill Sam's undemanding position. On the other hand, the movie ultimately is more about identity and humanity than profit-and-loss logistics.

A bigger problem is that Gerty the sentient computer is impossible to take seriously. Gerty's viewscreen constantly displays variations of the classic "smiley face," at one point becoming a sad face complete with a cartoon tear. Even worse, Gerty actually displays a surprised-expression smiley when Sam's probing questions get too close to the inconvenient truth. You'd think a machine would have a more convincing pokerface.

That's too bad, because the rest of the movie looks great, especially considering that it was made for a minuscule $5 million. Interaction shots that include the two Sams -- both played by Rockwell -- are flawless. The futuristic sets and hardware are impressive, and lunar-surface exteriors are completely convincing.

Don't expect "Star Trek" adrenaline or "Terminator: Salvation" overkill, but this thoughtful space oddity is worth a look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Moonlight Mile
(Reviewed August 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

If you enjoyed the abysmally wretched "The Royal Tenenbaums," which easily made my "10 Worst of 2001" list, maybe you'll like this endlessly unamusing would-be black comedy written and directed by TV hack Brad Silberling ("Judging Amy," "Felicity"). On the other hand, if you can't stand smug, quirky, pointless scripts full of unconvincing and off-putting eccentrics portrayed by scenery-gobbling actors who can't seem to remember if they are in "Northern Exposure," "Coyote Ugly" or "Ordinary People," stay far, far away from this instantly forgettable flick.

Dustin Hoffman shuffles, mumbles and stares blankly into space a lot as the husband of brassy, wisecracking, please-go-away-forever Susan Sarandon. They play the parents of a murdered girl who was supposed to marry Jake Gyllenhaal (the poor man's Tobey Maguire), who now inexplicably lives with his would-have-been in-laws. (Lord only knows where Jake's character's own family members are, or what they think of this arrangement.) Jake falls for Ellen Pompeo, one of those skinny, vulgar, asexual-but-hot blond chicks with a smart mouth and a guy's name ("Bertie," in this case) who populate horrible TV shows all over the dial, constantly making what are supposed to be cute little witticisms and acting as if they don't realize they aren't "one of the boys." She runs a bar...and the small town's post office! When things start getting too romantic, she says she has to pee and runs away! Christ, I can't believe I'm even bothering to type this stuff. Also, she never gets naked, so there's one more good reason to stay home.

"Moonlight Mile" takes place during the Vietnam war era, when we are expected to believe that young men were so scarce in America that hordes of girls (including, of course, the beauteous Bertie) would be all over a pudge-faced dimwit like Jake as if he were David Cassidy with a Trans Am. Obviously, this movie takes place in some alternate universe than the one I grew up in. There is absolutely zero chemistry between Hoffman and Sarandon, and even less between Gyllenhaal and Pompeo.

The only thing good about this sickeningly saccharine and yet simultaneously sour slopfest is its period soundtrack, including the great Rolling Stones song that is the movie's entirely inexplicable title.

Guaranteed to make my "10 Worst of 2002" list, unless Brian Helgeland writes a lot more movies between now and New Year's.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Moonrise Kingdom
(Reviewed May 22, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

Morning Glory
(Reviewed December 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

I never got around to reviewing this insultingly misogynistic, painfully unfunny and thoroughly abysmal piece of garbage until I was putting together my "10 Best" and "10 Worst" lists of 2010. Guess which one this ended up on.

Rachel McAdams plays the kind of bad-movie stereotype career woman we are supposed to believe is incredibly capable at her job -- TV producer, in this case -- despite the fact that she acts like immature, hyperactive 10-year-old and can't figure out things like how a door works.

Life's too short to say more about junk like this.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Mother and Child
(Reviewed April 26, 2010, by James Dawson)

The always interesting Naomi Watts is fascinating to watch as an icy seductress (yes, you will believe there is such a thing) with a self-destructively suppressed longing to reconnect with the mother who gave her up at birth in this semi-classy soap opera.

Unfortunately, Annette Bening -- playing Watts' almost psychotically remorseful mother in a parallel storyline -- is not nearly as convincing in her role. She's a rigidly humorless physical therapist who lives with her own sick mother at the beginning of the movie, and she initially rejects the friendly advances of co-worker Jimmy Smits. Unfortunately, we don't see anything beneath the surface of her shrilly off-putting persona that would make Smits want anything more to do with her, which makes his continued pursuit baffling.

Watts lands a prestigious job at a law firm headed by Samuel L. Jackson. Unlike Bening, Watts is able to pull off a simultaneous "go away/come hither" act, one that her boss quite believably finds irresistible. At the same time, the seemingly amoral Watts is not above sleeping with the husband of a pregnant neighbor, just because she can.

In a third plot that should have been cut from the movie, Kerry Washington plays a young wife who is unable to conceive and wants to adopt. It's obvious that her story eventually must intersect with the two others, but the payoff isn't worth the distraction -- or the wait.

Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, whose last movie was 2005's similarly serious-but-slightly-soapy Nine Lives, does a good job of maintaining an air of melancholia and melodrama tinged with just a little madness. Watts is so much better than anyone else in the movie, though, that it's hard not to wish everyone else in the cast had raised their game to her level.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Mothman Prophecies
(Reviewed January 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

Surprisingly not-terrible little supernatural thriller, with Richard Gere as a Washington Post reporter who finds himself in a town where Spooky Things are happening. The plot is nothing special, and the last line is pretty weak. But the director spins out this yarn with a nice atmosphere of creepy dread that contains not one second of dumb irony. There's something to be said for a movie like this that has the integrity to play things straight instead of winking at the camera.

Two carps: Laura Linney would have been better off not channeling Holly Hunter quite so much, but otherwise gives an okay performance as a cop. And a scene with a ringing telephone toward the end of the movie plays out in a way that is completely unbelievable.

On the other hand, a line of dialog about window-washers on a skyscraper was genuinely clever, and the climax was impressively shot. You could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Motorcycle Diaries
(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

I wanted to like this one more than I did if only because its subject matter seemed interesting: Retracing the Argentina-to-Venezuela route that 23-year-old Che Guevara and a friend took on a Norton 500 in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, there are a lot of potholes in the road.

The actor who plays Che has none of the fire or charisma one would assume the real Che possessed, even at that young age. He comes off more like a South American Jim Caviezel, kind of sleepy and blank, definitely not someone easily pictured rousing populaces and fomenting revolution in his later years. At the opposite end of the acting spectrum, his travelling companion is portrayed as a dopey cartoon.

Good points: The movie has a great soundtrack, lots of location scenery, and is likely to teach you some things you didn't know about the beret-wearing Communist icon. (Then again, maybe I'm the only guy who didn't know he was a medical student specializing in treating lepers. I blame my shoddy American education.) The movie Che never dons the beret, though.

Not really a bad movie, but neither is it one that will make you take to the streets and burn the headquarters of greedy capitalist corporations. Which is, of course, too bad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Moulin Rouge
(Reviewed May 14, 2001, by James Dawson)

What a pretty mess. This definitely ranks as the very best looking of the worst movies I've ever seen. The production design and cinematography are absolutely beautiful, in a gaudy, glitzy, ultra-Technicolor-brothel fashion, with literally hundreds of amazing effects shots. (I'm just waiting for one of those pathetic quote whores like Peter Travers or Rex Reed to dub this "the Matrix of musicals.")

Also, Nicole Kidman is undeniably beautiful (if a tad icy), in numerous elaborate costumes that out-Vegas Vegas. Plus she and costar Ewan MacGregor allegedly did all of their own singing in "Moulin Rouge," and the results are more than adequate. (Although one often has to wonder, "Is it them, or is it ProTools?")

But the script, the direction, the gods, what a disaster. The movie's gimmick is that characters regularly break into song. Unfortunately, most of the songs they break into don't survive the assault. Nearly all are "classic rock" tunes, mostly from the 1970s and '80s. This "rockin' to the anachronisms" device is not as poorly or cynically employed as in the egregiously unwatchable "A Knight's Tale," but the result is the same: Both movies feel very "camped up," corny and clumsy. Trust me, you never will want to hear Elton John's "Your Song" again in your life, after hearing it over and over and OVER in this movie. Each time you think the characters finally have flogged the poor tune to death, it pops up yet again!

Worst of all, numerous elements of the script that are supposed to be comedic are painfully, unbearably unfunny. The movie's very first scene, in which would-be writer McGregor's flat is invaded by fast-talking Toulouse-Lautrec and his band of incredibly annoying eccentrics, is the kind of manic and stupid barrage that makes you want to run screaming for the lobby. Later, when Jim Broadbent (as Moulin Rouge owner Zidler) and Richard Roxburgh (as Kidman's evil suitor The Duke) serenade each other with Madonna's "Like a Virgin," you will wonder if you have descended into some unbearable hell presided over by Rip Taylor and Charles Nelson Reilly.

The direction is maddeningly frustrating. Baz Luhrmann's insistence on ruining every song and dance number with hundreds of one- and two-second takes makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the splendors that are on display. You think you've seen fast cutting in MTV videos? Most of this movie is like MTV on speed. Every time you start to catch a glimpse of something that deserves a long, lingering look, you may rely on the fact that it will be yanked from view before it can be allowed to fully register on your consciousness. Nearly the entire movie plays like a chopped-up trailer for a movie.

Pacing-wise, we find out far too early that a certain character is, as they say, Not Long For This World. Several musical numbers start and stop so jerkily that it becomes impossible to let the songs "carry you away." And a climactic death scene drags on for a couple of eternities.

Okay, so with all of these complaints, why am I giving this movie a "C" grade instead of my usual big, fat "F"? Because at least it TRIED to be something different and, god forbid, "artistic." Every now and then, it even succeeds. If nothing else, you never will forget the unique look of this movie, where many scenes are so saturated with dazzling hues that the colors nearly drip from the screen.

Plus any movie that has the luminous Kylie Minogue as a Tinkerbell-style Green Fairy, flying into a starry sky from an Absinthe label to sing a few brief seconds of "The Sound of Music," can't be all bad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Mr. & Mrs. Smith
(Reviewed June 6, 2005, by James Dawson)

There's something very "off" about this movie. It looks good, it stars two of the most beautiful human specimens alive (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), it has an interesting score, and the high-caliber action scenes are an NRA member's wet dream.

The problem is that the basic plot is rather stupid -- as opposed to black-humorous, tongue-in-cheek stupid, which it aspires to be.

Essentially, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is "The War of the Roses" with more firepower. But where the divorce-seeking Roses had good reason to hate each other, Pitt and Jolie (as a married hitman and hitwoman) are out for each other's blood because each mistakenly thinks the other tried to kill him/her during an assignment. When both return home for dinner after that incident, neither bothers asking the simple question, "Um, honey, what was that all about this afternoon?"

The sexy chemistry between the leads almost makes up for the weak script. Almost. Unfortunately, a final twist only makes things worse, because it is completely nonsensical.

Also, why the hell does this movie have the same title as an Alfred Hitchcock movie? Sheesh, talk about disrespect.

Look for "House" star Jennifer Morrison (who plays Cameron on that most excellent of TV shows) in a small role as a member of Jolie's all-female support staff.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Mr. Brooks
(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

Wealthy businessman Kevin Costner not only has his own successful company, a lovely wife (Marg Helgenberger), a beautiful college-age daughter (Danielle Panabaker) and a home that's straight out of Architectural Digest. He also happens to be a very methodical, if somewhat reluctant, serial killer.

Costner's invisible-to-everyone-else imaginary friend (William Hurt) is always hanging around and goading him to kill again. When Costner gives in, there's a slight problem. World's Biggest Douchebag Dane Cook has witnessed the crime through a window. He blackmails Costner into promising to take him along the next time Costner commits murder, because Cook is basically a sick, if simpering, fuck.

Cook is such an annoyingly awful actor that he can't even play a believable asshole, even though the role should come quite naturally.

Making this nonsense even more ridiculous, Demi Moore is a wealthy police detective who is in the process of divorcing her younger boy-toy husband. Inexplicably, we see more than one shot of her swimming. Maybe it was a contractual thing, so she could show the world she's still got the kind of body that's good enough to keep Ashton Kutcher out of the clubs.

The only interesting aspect of this entire movie involves Costner's incredibly sexy, luscious-lipped daughter, who has a rather intriguing secret. Okay, maybe the only reason that subplot is interesting is BECAUSE she's incredibly sexy and luscious-lipped.

The movie's most laughably stupid moment comes when Detective Demi is engaged in a hallway gunfight with a couple of trigger-happy criminals. She shoots out the overhead fluorescent lights, but they still flicker enough to turn the scene into a stroboscopic freakout that's like something from a cheesy video game.

I probably should give this a lower grade, but Costner actually isn't terrible, in a playing-against-type sort of way.

And did I mention Panabaker's luscious lips?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Mr. 3000
(Reviewed August 25, 2004, by James Dawson)

Years ago, I read an advice-column letter from a woman who had been told that a friend's baby was "exceptional." Thinking this meant the child must be extraordinarily gifted or beautiful, the woman said she was shocked to discover that the child was severely retarded.

Before seeing "Mr. 3000," I read a short Entertainment Weekly interview with star Bernie Mac. He said his intention in making this movie, about a baseball player who comes out of retirement when his 3,000-hits record turns out to be three hits short, was to do something on the level of "Field of Dreams" or "The Rookie." Accordingly, I went in expecting something considerably better than a stupid, unfunny, relentlessly cheesy 90-minute version of what is at best a half-hour idea.

In other words, I was shocked to discover that the movie was severely retarded.

One thing about it deserves a special "Hall of Shame" shout-out: Know how preposterous it is to see post-coital women in movies take an entire sheet with them when they get out of bed, so the camera doesn't get a look at their naughty bits? In "Mr. 3000," it is Bernie Mac -- not his paramour -- who takes the sheet along, wrapped around his entire lower body. Bear in mind that he is with a woman he presumably has just boned, and that his character is an arrogant egomaniac in a profession not known for modesty about the human body. Or, in other words: wha...?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Mulholland Drive
(Reviewed September 19, 2001, by James Dawson)

Noirish, unsettling, eerie and unforgettable. A stunningly beautiful amnesiac woman tries to figure out who she is, while various subplots (some funny, some creepy, and more than one that is just plain bizarre) pop up along the way, a la "Twin Peaks." (Look, it's a David Lynch movie; everything in it is not SUPPOSED to be linear and rational.)

This movie started life as the pilot for a TV series that did not get picked up, but Lynch does a masterful job of wrapping up what was supposed to be an ongoing series that should have taken months (or years) to unfold. The result is entertainingly, uniquely strange and completely absorbing, with a shock ending that seems to fly in out of left field but which ends up making perfect sense after a little thought. Naomi Watts deserves to win the Best Actress Oscar for her amazing performance as a wide-eyed Hollywood innocent who gets a very rude awakening in the city of dreams.

Also, "Mulholland Drive" has one of the hottest soft-core sex scenes I've ever seen in my life (no kidding). Who would have thought Lynch had THAT in him?

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
(Reviewed July 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

A truly lousy movie, even if some of the CGI effects look okay.

I've never been a Brendan Fraser fan, but his brand of wide-eyed big-galoot dumbness is particularly grating here. Maybe that's because the square-jawed, no-fun actor playing his 20-something son (time flies in these movies, huh?) seems to have dropped in from a generic direct-to-DVD adventure flick, making Fraser's performance look even more embarrassing.

His movie son bears no resemblance whatsoever to Fraser in appearance or temperament. Maybe Fraser will find out in the next movie that the guy is really the milkman's kid, at which point he will murder wife Maria Bello and then spend 90 minutes fighting her corpse after she rises from the grave. ("The Mummy 4: The Mommy!")

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed December 14, 2005, by James Dawson)

Dull, heavyhanded, ugly and occasionally dumb, Steven Spielberg's "Munich" will come as a sad shock to anyone expecting another soul-stirring "Schindler's List" experience.

"Munich" follows a team of off-the-record assassins secretly dispatched by the Israeli government to kill behind-the-scenes players responsible for the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Eric ("The Hulk") Bana, a Corey Feldman lookalike whose minimal acting ability is tested even by the act of staring longfully at kitchen appliances through a storefront window, is team leader.

His movie-fake merry band, which at times comes off like a cross between Hogan's Heroes and the Keystone Cops, includes next-James-Bond Daniel Craig as a badass thug given to righteous utterances such as, "The only blood I care about is Jewish blood!" Other team members include a barely competent bomb maker who is full of excuses (oh, what laughs there are to be had when he puts too much plastic explosive in a hotel mattress bomb); an old glasses-and-hat-wearing guy whose main duty seems to be picking up a single spent cartridge from one of the crime scenes; and a stocky, bald fireplug who is the type that will march right up to a door and toss in a grenade if the lethal gimcrackery left in a room fails to explode as planned. And yes, that is how you spell "gimcrackery."

Somehow, the idea that the Israelis picked a team this inexperienced and prone to screwing up defies credibility, considering how important their mission was. Bana appears to get tapped for his leadership role based on the fact that he was Golda Meir's favorite bodyguard and his dad was a hero. There had to be more in the dossier of his real-life equivalent than we see onscreen.

The four of them do a lot of eating large meals, because the screenwriters' idea of character development involved giving Bana cooking skills that he learned growing up at the kibbutz. His contact in Paris is a Roman Polanski lookalike who takes him home to meet papa for some al fresco dining in a bizarre, Franco-"Godfather," gather-the-extended-family-'round-the-table scene. Naturally, Bana helps the genial-but-lethal old man in the kitchen first.

Then it's back to killin'. There are some cheap supposed-to-be laughs amid all of the extralegal carnage, such as a penny-pinching Israeli government accountant who keeps asking Bana for "Receipts! Receipts!" Laughin' yet? Or how about the femme fatale whose final words, just before we see blood gush from bullet holes in her enticingly displayed, semi-nude body, are, "What a waste of talent."

The presumably unintended laughs arise from just plain tacky scenes such as one in which Bana, banging his wife missionary-style while staring in blank, thousand-yard-stare intensity into space, keeps flashing back to mental re-creations of the athletes' murders. I know it's supposed to make him seem haunted and all that, but it looks more like a guy doing his damnedest to ward off premature ejaculation.

"Munich" may be good as a conversation starter, if only because it wants to have things both ways politically. Despite a few perfunctory lines of dialog about whether what Bana and company are doing is exactly what terrorists deserve or cold-blooded murder, and even though Bana's targets pointedly are not portrayed as wild-eyed violent radicals, the movie obviously is meant to appeal to the "screw the courts, let's lynch the guilty" crowd.

On the other hand, those "Dirty Harry" fans may not want to think about how the plot ends up resembling America's own "war on terror." Bana comes to realize that the men on the hit list that his government gave him were not directly responsible for orchestrating the Munich tragedy, just as Americans who were all fired up to get Osama were betrayed by a president who sent them to an Iraq war that had nothing to do with 9/11. Instead of simply eliminating the guilty, Bana's team ends up causing all kinds of collateral damage, the same way our Beloved Leader's insane war has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis. And Bana eventually acknowledges that all of the "spy versus spy" killing only leads to more killing, and makes his country no safer, because the men he eliminates end up being replaced by ones who are even worse.

It's too bad that Spielberg apparently thought he had to hit audiences over the head with a hammer to get them to make that connection, though; I really could have done without the shot of the Twin Towers at the end.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Muppets
(Reviewed November 23, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Musketeer
(Reviewed August 29, 2001, by James Dawson)

Hopelessly inept. The studio is trying to sell this badly shot, horribly directed bore with the tag line "As You've Never Seen It Before." That claim is based primarily on the fact that "Musketeer" includes a few dopey "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-type scenes of high-speed fight choreography.

As much as I disliked those silly, cheesy-looking wire scenes in the ridiculously overrated "Crouching Tiger...", they are even less impressive here. A scene in which several sword-wielding combatants slash and parry whilst dangling from ropes on the side of a castle tower is so jaw-droppingly lame it reminded me of the 1960s "Batman" TV show, in which Batman and Robin would scale building walls in scenes that plainly were shot on horizontal surfaces by a tilted camera. In "Musketeer," the ropes from which the characters dangle actually have slack in them!

Even more maddening is director Peter Hyams' talent for always finding exactly the worst location to place a camera. During virtually every action scene, it is impossible to tell who is who or what the heck is going on. Even the film's color stock keeps changing. I kept thinking this was one of those embarrassingly cheap movies from Mexico or India that pop up on obscure cable channels, the kind of travesties that make you wonder if the filmmakers think people in those countries never have had the opportunity to see a professionally made Hollywood film and won't know the difference.

Tim Roth, playing the sort of irredeemably evil bastard he probably could do in his sleep by now, is the only good thing about the movie--although his character's occasional tendency to lapse into self-referential camp is like a wink at the audience that says, "Yeah, I know this is crap." Mena Suvari once again makes the world wonder if she ever will be in another good movie, or if "American Beauty" was a complete fluke. (Also, although she has a brief sitting-in-a-bathtub scene, there is absolutely no nudity in the movie.) The title-character Musketeer D'Artagnan leaves no impression whatsoever, but whether this is the actor's or the script's fault is hard to determine.

Finally, David Arnold's score was thuddingly unimpressive "music-by-the-yard."

I see a lot of really bad movies, but there are surprisingly few that I hate so much I actually want to walk out of the theater. ("Made" probably was the last bomb that fit in that category.) With "Musketeer," I'm amazed I even made it to the halfway point.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Must Love Dogs
(Reviewed June 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

They should have called it "Must Love Dog Shit."

Watching this shamelessly worthless, insultingly dumb, completely by-the-numbers dreck actually made me angry. This movie is so blatantly condescending that it's obvious writer/director Gary David Goldberg has utter contempt for anyone who has the misfortune to see it. There is no way in hell that Goldberg could think anything offered here is fresh, original, genuine or even vaguely associated with a little thing called "humanity."

"Must Love Dogs" is as unconvincingly fake as the perfunctory, patronizing moans of a cheap, used-up whore.

No kidding: The staggering, wall-to-wall number of romantic-comedy cliches on display here made me think there had to be a twist coming. One of the characters had to break the "fourth wall" to reveal that achingly cornball scenes such as the living-room song-and-dance number, or the gay pal and his macho boyfriend who like midnight manicures, or the repeated would-be amusing instances of coitus interruptus between John Cusack and Diane Lane, were all taking place in the hopelessly damaged mind of some doped-up, battered housewife locked in a padded cell.

No such luck. All of this literally unbelievable tripe is played straight. Cusack makes wooden racing sculls by hand, and somehow manages to survive quite nicely in the world without actually selling any of them. Lane plays a kindergarten teacher whose character must have had one hell of a good divorce lawyer, considering that she lives alone in an immaculate two-story house you couldn't touch for under a million in the movie's presumably southern-California setting. The obstacles to their romance conveniently turn out to have major flaws that send Cusack and Lane back into each other's arms, because movies like this never allow for the possibility that there could be more than one "nice guy" or "good girl" in the universe.

Dramas that would have been averted by someone simply picking up a telephone instead of racing across town abound. So do flabbergastingly unlikely coincidences, such as Lane appearing on another suitor's doorstep at just the right moment to catch him cheating, or Lane getting a midnight manicure right across the street from a theater from whence Cusack emerges with a date, or Cusack casually spilling his emotional guts to a stranger at a muffin shop who just happens to be Lane's character's father (Christopher Plummer).

Worst of all, the deliciously mature Diane Lane is reduced to playing a flustered woman-child who acts more like an inexperienced teen than a functioning adult divorcee. Cusack is the standard-issue "easygoingly asexual good egg" who comes off like a high-school sophomore virgin with his heart in the right place. Bear in mind that these people are 40 (Lane) and 39 (Cusack) in real life, folks.

When in God's name will critics other than Your Always Reliable Host start being honest by calling movies like this junk? Must they constantly shill for shit by pandering to morons?

Case in point: At a press event for this flick, one notoriously shameless quote-whore walked up to a studio publicist and offered this suggestion for the movie's marketing campaign: "Makes `You've Got Mail' look like spam!"

And this fucker gets paid to write about movies for a living.

Excuse me, I have to go put a shotgun in my mouth.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus to infinity

My Afternoons With Margueritte
(Reviewed September 14, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
(Reviewed April 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

Embarrassingly second-rate, sitcommy souvlaki of Greek-American ethnic jokes that range from the tiresomely cliche (overly loud-and-proud restaurant owner) to the painfully inept (his belief in the restorative powers of Windex). His ugly-duckling 30-year-old unmarried daughter somehow manages to charm a studly guy who looks like a less snide version of the insufferably smug Ed Burns, despite the fact that (a) she looks more like 50 than 30, (b) she possesses no personality whatsoever, and (c) she often seems so awkward and dumb as to be borderline retarded, whereas he is a schoolteacher who presumably would put some value on intellect.

It all plays like the kind of by-the-numbers, witless sludge you might expect the government to fund in the name of celebrating diversity. THAT'S how bad it is.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

My Bloody Valentine (2009)
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

This nothing-special horror remake has a really unfortunate cheat for an ending, which takes things from bad to worse. A serial killer in miner's gear kills a bunch of people. 'Nuff said.

Also, I wrote a feature article about this movie for the website, and you can read it by clicking this link:
"My Bloody Valentine (2009)" article

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

My Blueberry Nights
(Reviewed April 16, 2008, by James Dawson)

Singer Norah Jones actually isn't bad in her first acting role, but this movie is. Bad, I mean. Very, very bad.

The plot is boring and illogical, with not a single moment that rings true. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Jones starts hanging out after closing time at a New York pie shop run by Jude Law. Despite the fact that the two of them start hitting things off, Jones ups and moves to Memphis for no discernible reason, from whence she sends Law regular postcards but does not bother telling him her address or phone number. Huh? She gets a job as a waitress at a bar, where one of the regulars is a catatonically bitter cop (David Strathairn) with a film-noirishly slutty wife (the abominally miscast Rachel Weisz).

Next thing you know, Jones has uprooted again and moved to Nevada, where she's working as a waitress again when she means cocky badass poker hustler Natalie Portman. Yeah, you read that right. Thanks to plot developments which make about as much sense as the rest of the screenplay, Jones and Portman end up on a road trip to hit up Portman's dad for money.

Seriously, this mishmash mess of a movie feels like it started life as three badly written, unconnected scenes bearing no logical relation to each other until they were hammered together.

The movie doesn't look bad. Even though every interior resembles a stage set, the pie shop and the Memphis bar are shot with a dark but rich lushness that's almost sensual. Jones looks luminously lovely, with a naturalness that makes Jude Law seem like the too-perfect-to-be-real android he played in "A.I." by comparison. And the pies look great.

That's not enough to make up for a screenplay that resembles bad improv by the worst students in a cheap drama class, though.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

My First Mister
(Reviewed September 26, 2001, by James Dawson)

Why on earth would comic genius Albert Brooks, the brilliant writer/director/star behind such masterpieces as "Modern Romance" and "Lost in America," sign on to costar in this absolutely worthless, thoroughly stupid and offensively sappy movie? Are good gigs really that hard to come by these days? Try as he might to save this turkey with his always amusing deadpan delivery, even Brooks can't rise above "My First Mister"'s relentlessly moronic script.

Imagine if a bunch of completely humorless no-talents at the Lifetime cable network ("Television for Women"--JEEEZUS!) got together and decided to remake "Harold and Maude," except flipping the genders and not bothering to include any cleverness, believable characters or good songs. Next, imagine the horrible, horrible result being about a million times worse than you are thinking. Now imagine it is even worse than that. At this point, you almost have an idea of how monumentally unwatchable "My First Mister" is.

Leelee Sobieski is a 17-year-old Goth girl obsessed with death, cutting herself, and writing poetry that's almost as earnestly awful as Sobieski's real-life writing. (Anybody hear her on Leno reading her howlingly embarrassing original ode to the New York Twin Towers disaster? Douche chills to the max, baby!) Didn't Goth go out at least five years ago? Hasn't even "Saturday Night Live" stopped trying to milk laughs out of "Goth Talk?" And could there be a less convincing actress on God's green earth to play the role of an ugly-duckling never-been-kissed outcast? Even uglied-up, Leelee still has the face and body of an Estee Lauder model, except with D-cups, which is not exactly a bad thing.

Albert Brooks plays her sweetly crotchety boss at a men's clothing store where Leelee somehow manages to get a stock-clerk job despite such minor things as her wholly inappropriate outfit, tattoos and piercings, her bad attitude, and foul mouth. Oh, yeah, I can really see a chick like this getting hired an at upscale men's haberdashery by an anal-retentive. Leeleee proceeds to engage in such sitcommish hijinks such as creating an S&M window display while nobody's looking. Guffawing yet?

What follows is the most unsexy, unamusing, unfunny and unconvincing May-December romance in cinema history. See Leelee take a very uncomforable Albert to a groovy hipster coffee bar! See Leelee make Albert lie on a grave to feel the energy of dead people! See Leelee convince Albert to get a tattoo--almost! Ha-ha-ha, the belly laughs just never end.

Later, a preposterously contrived scene leads to a plot development that is so mawkishly ridiculous it ratchets the movie's stench up to a whole new level. Incredibly, this is followed by a further contrivance that is even dumber. I kid thee not.

I love Albert Brooks, and I usually love looking at Leelee Sobieski. But boy, did I ever hate this movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

My Life in Ruins
(Reviewed May 2009 by James Dawson)

The most disappointing thing about this unconvincing comedy is that it was scripted by Mike Reiss, whose credits include "The Simpsons Movie" and many Simpsons TV episodes. Possessing none of the wit, weirdness or wackiness that made Springfield famous, the mediocre "My Life in Ruins" could have been grunted out by any hack in Hollywood. Also, Donald Petrie's lifeless, workmanlike direction does nothing to turn this blandness into baklava, even though it was shot at locations including Olympia, Delphi and the Acropolis.

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding"'s Nia Vardalos stars as Georgia, an American with Greek roots. Frustrated in her plan to teach classical history at a university in Athens, she has remained in the city as a tour guide. Unfortunately, her attempts to impart actual knowledge to her charges are more resented than respected. "Nobody comes to Greece to learn," points out cranky boss Maria (Bernice Stegers).

As Georgia is about to take a new group on her latest multi-day tour, Maria induces the agency's other guide Nico (Alistair McGowan) to undercut and sabotage Georgia into quitting. Simply firing her would have made more sense, of course, but that would have offered fewer opportunities for hollow Hellenic hilarity.

The character who comes off best is the appallingly named Poupi Kakas (Alexis Georgoulis), a bus driver of few words who helps Georgia get her Grecian groove back. Asked if he has a life plan, he smilingly replies, "How do you plan life?"

Much of the movie plays as if it were made by, for and about Ugly Americans. With the exception of Poupi, Greeks are portrayed as conniving, misogynistic or Zorba. In the tour group, the Brits are bottled-up, the Australians are alcoholics, the Spaniards are sluts and the Americans are assholes. It's not the stereotypes that are offensive so much as the fact that nothing funny, much less transgressive, is done with them.

The tourist who is given the closest thing to a rounded personality is jokester Irv (Richard Dreyfuss), who gradually transforms from obnoxious to oracular over the course of the trip. In the movie's single attempt at pathos, Irv becomes maudlin remembering his dead wife, who always wanted to visit Greece with him. Later, though, the shoddy screenplay subjects Irv to a pair of howlingly inappropriate indignities. In an utterly wrongheaded scene that's supposed to be amusing, Viagra-powered Irv is discovered with two women in his hotel room. Later, the ghost of his dead wife appears and understandingly coos, "I had to leave you a few years to sow some wild oats."

At least Irv doesn't ask why she couldn't have been kind enough to croak back when his little Irv was still working.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Mystic River
(Reviewed October 14, 2003, by James Dawson)

It is regretfully appropriate that this opened the same weekend as "Kill Bill Vol. 1," because they are the two most flabbergastingly overrated movies of the year. When I see some critics calling "Mystic River" the best movie Clint Eastwood ever directed, I don't know whether to shake my head in sad disgust or put a drill-bit to my frontal lobes (which apparently is what counts as "prior experience" for most movie reviewers these days, judging by their complete lack of critical faculties).

"Mystic River" conveys its thin, preposterous plot with such unconvincing earnestness that you may wonder if it is meant to be a deadpan parody of all those "urban playmates grow up to take drastically different paths" flicks. Kevin Bacon is Joe-Friday-no-nonsense as the cop, Sean Penn is DeNiro-lite as the hood, and Tim Robbins is just plain embarrassing as a mumbling-and-stumbling survivor of childhood abduction. A murder occurs in town, all eyes turn toward Robbins (who may as well be wearing a forehead tattoo that says RED HERRING), and everything wraps up with a would-be twist that is so laboriously tortured as to qualify for the term "insultingly moronic."

Even worse, we are treated to a ridiculous (and ridiculously long) denouement that will make your mouth drop open in disbelief. As in, "Did this lousy movie suddenly decide it was `The Godfather Part II' while I wasn't looking, or what?'"

Wait a minute. I just realized that I typed three paragraphs when all I really had to do was type four words to tell you how bad "Mystic River" really is: "Screenplay by Brian Helgeland."

'Nuff said.

POSTSCRIPT ADDED JULY 21, 2011: I kept forgetting to mention this charming "Mystic River"-related anecdote, but better late than never. The studio gave journalists some really nice zip-up black jackets at the promotional junket. The "Mystic River" logo was embroidered at top left. At a screening for a different movie a few days later, I saw a fellow journo wearing the jacket -- but he had used a magic marker to black out the movie's title, because he disliked the film so much. True story.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

My Summer of Love
(Reviewed March 31, 2005, by James Dawson)

At one point in this very slow-going British import, a character easily proves that another is a fraud by getting him to fall for her obviously manipulative charms.

Keep that scene in mind when you come across high-mindedly reverent reviews of this movie. And trust me, you will.

Before the screening I attended, the critic seated next to me was gleefully slamming the lesbians-in-love comedy "D.E.B.S." (Incredibly, I have not yet seen that flick, despite sexy-schoolgirl-spies subject matter that should have sent me racing to buy a ticket.) He noted that "D.E.B.S." even broke the cardinal rule of lesbian movies: "The girls don't get naked."

After "My Summer of Love" ended, I remarked, "Well, at least in this one they got naked."

Affronted and apparently appalled, my fellow journalist replied, "At least? It also had characters and plot development and..."

Hoo, boy.

Look, "My Summer of Love" isn't a terrible movie. But it's not exactly subtle about the way it pushes the buttons of art-hound snobs who think plodding pacing, shaky handheld camerawork and interminable close-ups of thoughtful blank stares are cinematic virtues.

Let's count off a trio of the movie's other elements that are guaranteed to goose the snooty:

British Class System Transgression. Tamsin is a privileged and sophisticated (she likes Edith Piaf and Nietzsche!) schoolgirl spending the summer at her posh family's ivy-covered mansion. Mona is a no-future orphan who lives over a dismal pub with her brother and spends her evenings getting shagged by a married creep. They bond, have sex and declare their undying love for one another. I've always thought there was a fine line between this kind of art-porn "Upstairs/Downstairs" romance and, say, "Mandingo." But maybe that's just me.

A Metaphor So Obvious It Must Be Ironic...Mustn't It? Simple, sad-eyed and directionless Mona's only possession besides her clothes is a motorbike without a motor...until Tamsin buys her one, so they can ride around on the thing together. Get it? GET IT?

Christians As Misguided, Fanatical Fools. As an irredeemable atheist, I am appalled and ashamed that my country's government has been hijacked by Bible-thumping war-criminal hypocrites who utterly pervert the teachings of their alleged Lord and Savior. But even I am tired of seeing easy-target Christians constantly mocked at the multiplexes. Paddy ("In America") Considine is Mona's endlessly praying-and-proselytizing brother here, a nutjob who is building a massive iron cross to install on a hilltop. When it comes to overused movie-cliche villains, you've got your sneering Nazi, your rapacious capitalist, your self-righteous Christian, and your brainless-killing-machine monster/alien/robot/shark. Just once, wouldn't it be refreshing to see a delusional Jew, a full-of-crap Hindu, or a brainwashed Buddhist?

Considering those complaints, what rescues "My Summer of Love" from a "D" or "F" grade? First, it's always nice to see girls get in bed together and make out. (There's a reason I call these reviews "brutally honest," people.)

Emily Blunt, as Tamsin, is the kind of dark, unsmiling, distantly dour, skinny but nicely stacked ice queen that grad students dream of befouling. Natalie Press, as Mona, is a trustingly naive, poor-girl simpleton who is so desperate for affection she will take it anyplace she finds it. Watching such completely different people intersect is always uncomfortably interesting.

And while I'm no fan of palsy cinematography (the constantly-in-motion handheld camerawork is frequently distracting), there are some nice location shots of the English countryside's rolling hills and such.

Finally, director/screenwriter Pawel Pawlikowski does give the two lovers a semblance of actual humanity, which sets the film apart from most of the other junk that is in current release. Tamsin is slightly crazy and Mona is a little bit dumb, but neither is unbelievable as a character -- even when the actresses portraying them occasionally cross the line between naturalness and offhandedness.

Finally, although the outcome of this particular summer of love is predictable, a couple of surprises do add spice to the climax.

"Climax." Heh-heh. I wonder if "D.E.B.S." is playing someplace nearby that has a cheap matinee?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

My Super Ex-Girlfriend
(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

This is one of those frustrating movies that seems to have originated with a lightweight but amusing script that lost something on the way to the screen.

Writer Don Payne, who has scripted and produced episodes of "The Simpsons," created this tale of a nice guy (Luke Wilson) who dates a neurotic superhero's alter ego (Uma Thurman). When he realizes that she is kinda nuts and attempts to break up with her, she starts doing things like heaving his car into orbit and using her super-speed to strip him naked at business meetings.

This kind of story should have been played like a live-action cartoon, with a jilted superheroine who remains likable even in her fury. (Think of a dating-age Buttercup from "The Powerpuff Girls," for example.)

The problem is that Thurman doesn't seem funny-crazy, but psycho-killer crazy. Director Ivan Reitman keeps going over the line that should separate sexy and silly from scary and sad. When Thurman tosses a live 15-foot shark into Wilson's bed, the effect is troublingly terrifying, not "Treehouse of Horror." And when she's not in costume, Thurman comes off like a pathetic and depressed Miss Lonelyhearts.

Another problem is that Thurman and Wilson are too long in the tooth for their roles. Both of them would be more believable playing the parents of these characters, who -- considering their immaturity and lack of common sense -- should be in their late teens or early 20s at the oldest. This point is driven home in flashbacks to Thurman's schooldays, in which she is played by a younger actress who is much less jaded and more appealing in the role.

I'm grading this one on a very forgiving curve, thanks to the script -- which I'll bet was a lot more enjoyable to read than this movie is to watch.

(Fun fact: According to, Payne is the writer of next year's "The Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer," the sequel to last year's dreadful first installment of that franchise. All I have to say is, "There's nowhere to go but up!")

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Myth of the American Sleepover
(Reviewed July 20, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

My Week With Marilyn
(Reviewed November 23, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-