Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Nacho Libre
(Reviewed May 23, 2006, by James Dawson)

Jack Black is a simple-minded, flatulent cook who secretly becomes a leotard-wearing wrestler to make money for the Mexican orphanage where he has lived since childhood. The movie’s offbeat and frequently deadpan humor comes courtesy of "Napoleon Dynamite" writers Jared Hess (who also directed that movie and this one) and Jerusha Hess, and "School of Rock" writer Mike White. As Pedro’s campaign manager would say, "Sweet!"

Black isn’t afraid to let his fat flag fly to get a laugh, whether that means baring his enormous gut and manboobs in the ring, or flagrantly flexing his buttcheeks while wearing embarrassingly tight pants on a date. He’s like Chris Farley with more of an edge -- or maybe like John Belushi with less of one.

The object of Black’s affection is an innocent and stunningly beautiful nun (Ana de la Reguera) who thinks wrestling is wrong. His tag-team partner (Hector Jimenez) is a feral but disarmingly low-key tortilla-chips scavenger who either hates orphans or loves them, depending on his mood.

There’s a lot of amusing absurdity here, such as when an exiled Black constructs an amazingly crappy "shelter" out of a latticework of sticks, then can barely fit inside the thing. The wrestling matches are slapstick on steroids, and occasionally outright weird (such as when Black and his partner are up against a pair of midgets with lion faces).

Like "Napoleon Dynamite" and "School of Rock," "Nacho Libre" doesn’t seem to have been screwed with by a bunch of Hollywood headjobs before making it to the screen. Great ending, too.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Nancy Drew
(Reviewed June 10, 2007)

Emma Roberts is practically perfect in every way as the sweetly smart teenage detective from smalltown "River Heights, USA." Despite promising her father that she will stop her amateur "sleuthing" when the two of them move to Los Angeles, she soon is investigating the mysterious death of a former Hollywood movie star.

Forget the nothing-special plot, and forgive the movie's occasional unfortunate lapses into teen-flick cliches (the high-school mean girls, the wild house party while dad's away, the precociously obnoxious 12-year-old boy sidekick). What makes this movie special is the absolutely adorable Emma, who is so brainy, mature, centered and sincere that moms everywhere are likely to cuff their surly daughters on the back of the head and say, "Why the hell can't you be more like her?"

Also, this movie deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. Every outfit Roberts wears manages to look old-fashioned classic yet incredibly cute and contemporary. If only stores offered "Nancy Drew Collections." Then every girl could dress this way, instead of parading around like junior sluts awaiting their turns on the pole at sleazy strip clubs.

But I digress.

I have no idea how faithful the movie's spirit is to the original book series from which it is adapted. Fortunately, although there definitely is a "tongue-in-cheekiness" to the proceedings, Roberts plays things totally straight as the good girl who enjoys being good -- and who doesn't mind being a walking anachronism because of it.

Also, the movie gets points for not sexing Nancy Drew up. No swimsuit shots, no shaking her booty, no double entendres, nothing for the raincoat crowd whatsoever. Parents can take girls of any age to the movie without having to worry about covering eyes or ears at any point.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Nanny Diaries
(Reviewed August 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

Absolutely awful in every way.

The movie's worst scene (and believe me, it isn't easy to choose one) consists of nanny Scarlett Johansson getting her pants pulled down in an elevator by the little douchebag she's supposed to be minding. Instead of taking the nanosecond that would be required to pull her pants back up, as any sentient human being would do, she leaves them around her hips long enough for the movie to make a moronic visual gag out of a neighbor seeing her underwear when she bends over.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

(Reviewed August 26, 2002, by James Dawson)

Director Godfrey Reggio is back with part three of his "Qatsi" trilogy (following the masterpiece "Koyaanisqatsi" and the okay-but-not-great "Powaqqatsi"), a disappointing montage of images that never achieves the feeling of melancholy, awe and mystery evoked by its predecessors. "Naqoyqatsi" assembles footage ranging from athletic competitions to A-bomb tests to kaleidoscopic computer art to static shots of wax-museum figures. All of it adds up to not much, although watching this passing parade of visuals to the tune of Philip Glass's soothingly repetitious score is, as before, almost a hypnotic experience. Still, a lot of editing would have kept things from dragging so much. (An endless segment of camera pans across people's smiling faces in a black-limbo set is the first thing that should have hit the cutting-room floor.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed October 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

Well-made, intense, even kind of stylish example of one of those gritty cop movies you can't imagine anyone actually leaving the house and buying a ticket to see, especially in an era when 95 percent of prime-time television is monopolized by various versions of "CSI," "Law and Order," and endless other shows designed to scare audiences into staying home, quaking in fear...and watching more television.

Jason Patric (who really should play the lead role in the movie adaptation of Garth Ennis' great "Preacher" comic, if the damned thing ever gets made, but whose facial hair here gives him an uncomfortable resemblance to comedian Dennis Miller) is an ex-narc who can get back on the force if he cracks a murdered cop case that has the force stymied, as it were. The character's wife is the long-sufferin' type who loves him "with everything I am," but who threatens to take their baby and leave him because he's getting back into the action. Ray Liotta is excellent as the super-intense, perp-brutalizing, hotheaded former partner of the dead officer. All of this sounding a little familiar? Those aren't the only cliches here. Also, the ending has one surprise plot revelation too many, one that is explained at such an artlessly breathless clip it will remind you of that mile-a-minute-talking former Federal Express pitchman.

Still, if you like these kinds of movies--the kind that make you thank God everyday that you're not a cop who has to deal with The Criminal Element--this one is better than most.

An aside: I couldn't help thinking throughout this movie about how America's insane War on Drugs is the root cause of way too much of the crime in this country (and all of the crime in this movie). What a waste of tax money, lives and time it is to legislate what people can put in their own bodies here in the supposed "land of the free." Wake up, America, and vote Libertarian!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

National Lampoon's Van Wilder
(Reviewed February 25, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie desperately wishes it were "Ferris Bueller Goes to College." Unfortunately, it is somewhat hampered in that aspiration by the fact that it is insistently, maddeningly, thoroughly unfunny. Continuing in the tradition of movies that try to outgross the Farrelly Brothers, this timewaster also includes such charming elements as dog semen, diarrhea and a schoolbus-load of projectile-vomiting kids. And they say that wit died with Wilde.

Absolutely the only thing I enjoyed about this wallow in the abyss was the presence of Tara Reid, simply because I like her looks. I also like the fact that she always seems as if she is ready to start crying, because she seems mopey and depressed all the time. (Lord knows why this is appealing, but--combined with her raspy monotone of a voice--it is strangely charming.)

Go rent "Ferris Bueller" again, instead of torturing yourself by attending this humorless abomination.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F (saved from an "F minus" by the presence of Ms. Reid)

National Treasure
(Reviewed November 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

"Right on the Money" was the title of my "Forum Chronicles" installment that appeared in the October 2002 issue of Penthouse Forum. In it, a drunken and foul-mouthed tour guide at the U.S. Mint explains a number of salaciously smutty secrets about the sexual meanings of things depicted on American currency. Ever wonder the real reason why an eye is above an unfinished pyramid on the back of the dollar bill; or why only a few Treasury building windows on the back of the 10-dollar bill are open; or what the Independence Hall clock tower on the back of a C-note "coincidentally" happens to resemble? Then go track down a back issue, pervert. This is a PG-rated website!

"National Treasure" takes the same sort of premise (minus the flagrant filth) and turns it into an utterly preposterous but kind of fun Disney-style adventure. Nicolas Cage is descended from a long line of historical researchers who have been ridiculed since Revolutionary times for seeking the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. As the TV ads give away, one key to finding the loot turns out to be on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Cage, along with his nerdishly asexual assistant and a ridiculously beautiful government archivist (Diane Kruger, last seen as Helen in "Troy") steal the document, then spend the rest of the movie eluding both the law and a nasty rival treasure hunter (Sean Bean) who has goons and guns.

Clues lead to other clues and then to other clues, to the point where I started thinking, "Just find the damned goodies, already!" (The flick is over two hours long.)

Also, in order to keep the bad guy constantly on Cage & Company's tail, the script has him deduce where clues are leading far too easily on his own. After all, Cage is the walking-encyclopedia history expert and genius puzzle-solver that the BG formerly hired for exactly that brainiac expertise. Which implies the BG was lacking in those skills himself, no?

Finally, the movie suffers from "Mission: Impossible" syndrome. A guy I know (hello, Mr. P) once wisely opined, "Most episodes of that show would be over in five minutes if somebody just shot somebody else in the head." The equivalent here is that Cage & Company--since they clearly are on the side of truth, justice and the American Way--could simply tell FBI dude Harvey Keitel, "We've got the Declaration, we have proven that clues are on it, and guys are shooting at us. Bust their trigger-happy asses and we can get together to solve this thing!"

These quibbles come off as sour-pussedness when applied to a movie like this, though. There's a kind of scrubbed, goofy, Disneyfied wholesomeness to "National Treasure" that makes it more like the unthreateningly swashbuckling "Pirates of the Caribbean" than the more menacing Indiana Jones movies (despite "National Treasure"'s very Indy-looking poster). It's nice to see an action hero with smarts, too.

It's no cinematic masterpiece, but if you happen to "slide" into it at a multiplex after the movie you paid to see ends, you'll have a good enough time.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
(Reviewed December 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

Every cliche about bad sequels is on display in this followup to the first "National Treasure" movie. It's nowhere near as much fun as its predecessor. It offers a very weak excuse for getting all of the principals back together, and a very thin plot with too many similarities to the original. Nobody involved seems to be enjoying themselves. And it sucks.

This time around, Nicolas Cage is searching for proof that an ancestor was not part of the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. That's the claim made by Ed Harris, a manipulative mastermind with a team of super tech-savvy henchmen only found in bad movies like this one. Harris is actually out to find a Native American city of gold, and...oh, why bother going on. Nothing here makes any sense, even in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

This is the kind of movie where Harris and company can pursue Cage and friends at high speed through the streets of London, crashing into other cars, endangering pedestrians and engaging in heavy gunplay. The chase comes to an end on a London bridge, where one of Harris' gunsels dives into the Thames to retrieve an artifact. And yet apparently London's finest don't bother to deter the scofflaws for their transgressions. What the hell?

Also, there's a big problem with this movie that will bother anyone who troubles himself to think about it. The entire conceit of both "National Treasure" movies is that Cage's character uses a mix of obscure-but-real and unlikely-but-believable historical factoids to solve mysteries and puzzles. In this sequel, however, Cage meets a fictional current president of the United States, which undercuts the entire premise of plausibility. Sure, nobody in his right mind would want to see anyone portraying our current War-Criminal-in-Chief on the big screen -- but the fact that the president Cage meets in 2007 is not Bush instantly makes every other "fact" in the movie suspect.

One thing I did enjoy in this movie was a one-second shot that occurs when Cage and blond beauty Diane Kruger are in the White House's Oval Office. When Kruger stands in front of a sunny window, the bottom half of her white dress goes transparent, showing off her frankly magnificent legs.

Honestly, sometimes it takes so little to make me happy...

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Nativity Story
(Reviewed November 17, 2006, by James Dawson)

My street-parking space near the theater where I saw "The Nativity Story" was in front of an abortion clinic. Somehow, that didn't seem right, but you take what you can get.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 16-year-old who plays Mary, is pregnant in real life. She didn't attend a recent press junket for the movie, probably because she didn't want to deal with any spoken or unspoken scorn from those paragons of virtue known as entertainment journalists.

The uncharitable thought on many peoples' mind when they find out Castle-Hughes is knocked up is that she must be stupid, or a slut, or both. Which certainly is sad, considering that we're talking about the sweet little girl who was so good in 2002's "Whale Rider," and who was so cute at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2003. She wanted to meet Johnny Depp. She got to shake his hand, smiling shyly.

What is she expected to do now, as a pregnant unmarried minor -- get an abortion and pretend nothing ever happened? I'm no right-to-lifer, but that option probably was easy to reject for a girl who just finished playing the mother of God.

She does a pretty good job of it, too, although "The Nativity Story" is so reverent and respectful that it resembles a bland children's movie. Joseph (Oscar Isaac) at first is disturbed and doubtful about Mary's pregnancy, but soon takes her side. The three wise men are played for mild comic relief. (The creature-comforts-loving Balthazar, who is reluctant to join the other two on their journey to Bethlehem, gets off the movie's funniest quip when he says, "I need my dates!" Okay, maybe you had to be there.)

"The Nativity Story" has a "made for Christian cable," cheap-but-earnest feel, but even I'm not a big enough Grinch to turn thumbs-down on the Christmas story.

Maybe there's hope for me yet.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Ned Kelly
(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

This retelling of the life of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is frustratingly disappointing, mainly because it brings nothing original to the "outlaws on the lam" form. It is good looking, and the actors seem to be trying, but the script is too stodgy and by-the-numbers. There are a few too many "seen this before" scenes, such as when poor-boy Kelly (Heath Ledger) has a Romantic Stable Encounter with upper-crust beauty Naomi Watts, or the old "charming bank robber" standby set piece.

Also, everybody lays on the Aussie and Irish accents to the point where subtitles may have been a good idea. By this point, we know that Ledger and Watts can speak the King's English intelligibly. It's too bad they went overboard for "authenticity."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Neil Young: Heart of Gold
(Reviewed February 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Neil Young's Ryman Auditorium performance of his 2005 folk-country "Prairie Wind" album (and several thematically appropriate older songs) has been captured by director Jonathan Demme in this genuinely warm, endearingly human and remarkably enjoyable concert film.

Don't expect elaborate sets, dazzling pyrotechnics and dancing laser beams. Instead, Young and company are in bygone Grand Ole Opry mode, dressed in western costumes and standing in front of nothing more elaborate than a couple of painted backdrops. But if you think that can't be thrilling, just wait until you see the curtains part and the music start.

Playing a vintage 1941 Martin guitar that once belonged to Hank Williams, Young literally delivers the performance of a lifetime, placing 10 of his older works in perfect context with his newest material. Decades-old favorites such as "I Am a Child," "Heart of Gold," "Comes a Time" and "Harvest Moon" fit perfectly alongside "Prairie Wind"'s songs about religion, mortality, the creative spirit and the kind of love that lasts.

The playing and singing are uniformly excellent throughout, with some of these live performances sounding even better than their studio versions. Young is backed up by longtime collaborators including legendary pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, and backup singers Emmylou Harris, Diana DeWitt and Young's wife Pegi.

The best thing about Demme's direction was his decision to use no audience-reaction shots whatsoever. The film opens with individual in-car interviews with Young and many of his band members, but all cameras stay strictly focused onstage once the music starts.

The movie's only noteworthy flaw: All of the songs from "Prairie Wind" segue nicely into each other in an organic fashion, but Young's back-catalog songs all end with blackouts that break up the concert's flow. Still, the songs are strong enough that this is a minor quibble.

"Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is one of the best concert documents I've ever seen, period.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The New Guy
(Reviewed May 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

Look, you already know this is a bad movie just from the TV ads, so let me steer you to the only good thing about it. Eliza Dushku, the brunette babe who played the badass cheerleader opposite Kirsten Dunst in "Bring It On," is the eye-candy in "The New Guy." About midway through the movie, at about the point where the filmmakers must have envisioned a mass audience exodus from the theater, there is a music montage of the delightful Ms. Dushku doing a bikini fashion show. AND BOY, DOES SHE EVER LOOK GOOD IN NEXT-TO-NOTHING!

So my advice to you, if you are a heterosexual male, if to wait and rent this turkey so you can fast-forward to those 30-seconds-or-so of softcore heaven. If you are not a heterosexual male, I am afraid there is nothing whatsoever in this movie for you to enjoy. Sorry.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D- (saved from an "F" by the enticing Eliza)

New in Town
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
(Reviewed November 12, 2009, by James Dawson)

Not since "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Chronicles of Riddick" has a franchise taken such a shocking cliff-dive in quality between movies one and two.

Virtually everything that made "Twilight" watchable is missing or mishandled in "The Twilight Saga: New Moon." Haunted high-school hottie Edward the sullen Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a moody teenage vampire who was a walking advertisement for hair product, is offscreen for most of the running time. His insufficient surrogate Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a charisma-free lunkhead who takes way too long to lose the world's worst wig, is a toothy native American who also happens to be a badly animated werewolf. The soapy CW network ambience of the first flick is replaced by a cheap horror vibe and lots of groanworthy one-liners ("I guess the wolf's out of the bag!"). Worst of all, "New Moon" rejects the mostly intimate and personal tone of its predecessor, opting to burden its troubled-teens love story with an ominous-and-preposterous Anne Rice-ian global heirarchy of vampire overlords.

The screenplay's shortcomings apparently are faithful to what's in the second "Twilight Saga" novel written by creator Stephenie Meyer, so fans of the four-book series may be prepared for a letdown with this installment. But the shift will be a very unpleasant surprise to anyone who hasn't read the second book.

Edward splits early in the movie because Bella won't stop whining about wanting him to turn her into a vampire, which would stop her from ever looking older than she already is. As her 18th birthday approaches, Bella is getting a lot of heavy-handed comments (in dialog that's about as subtle as a mallet to the cranium) about getting older. This makes her increasingly upset about the prospect of Edward remaining forever 17, appearance-wise, while she ages. But Edward is so opposed to the idea of turning her into a fellow "monster" that he decides she would be better off living a normal life without him around, so he takes off without leaving a forwarding address.

Bella spends several miserable months moping, occasionally seeing brief glimpses of Edward as a Jor-El like vision warning her of danger. She finally decides to hook up with Jacob on a "just friends" basis, although Jacob clearly wants more out of the relationship. Jacob also is trying to resist the gang-like lure of some badass fellow tribesmen who don't wear shirts, have the six-packs of underwear models, and obviously are More Than They Seem. Namely, werewolves.

Bella's thrillseeking attempts to conjure Edward back to protect her by doing things like motorcycle riding or (jeepers!) going to a scary movie feel desperate and phony. A race against time that pits a hot sportscar against a tower clock that's about to strike noon is so goofy and out of place it seems like a "Fast & Furious" outtake. And attempts at comedy ranging from sitcom-level laughs (one of Bella's friends has to rush from the scary movie to vomit) to Hannibal-Lecterish black humor (a group of unaware tourists becomes an offscreen feast for members of the vampire Vatican) feel forced and inappropriate.

"Twilight" was directed by Catherine Hardwicke with a mostly straightforward dramatic style that didn't make fun of the material. (Even that dopey thunderstorm baseball game wasn't played for yucks.) "New Moon" director Chris Weitz takes the opposite approach, going more for slick entertainment and ironic distance than convincing teen angst.

In other words, Weitz takes the easy route by making a hard-to-swallow premise seem self-referential and slightly camp, instead of encouraging the suspension of disbelief by taking things seriously. Edward and his vampire family were interestingly odd in "Twilight," if only because of how much they wanted to be regarded as unobtrusive good neighbors. But Jacob and his steroid-pumped pack of wild-ass werewolves in "New Moon" are portrayed in a way that makes them flexingly, flamboyantly ridiculous. "It must be nice, never getting cold," Bella tells half-naked Jacob at one point. "It's a wolf thing," he replies. Oof.

It almost comes as a relief to realize near the end of the movie that the entire werewolf plot was nothing more than pointless padding between Bella and Edward's separation and reunion. Unfortunately, that reunion comes at the elaborate and thoroughly unlikely headquarters of the Volturi, a group of high-and-mighty vampires who mete out justice to upstarts.

Volturi head honcho Aro (Michael Sheen) bears an uncomfortable resemblance to "Madagascar"'s King Julien the lemur, and is almost as menacing. His wide-eyed assistant Jane (Dakota Fanning) delivers telepathic pain from across the room. Meanwhile, another member of the ruling triumvirate sits watching the talky showdown slumped sideways in a throne with his head in one hand, looking thoroughly miserable and bored.

I could relate.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The New World
(Reviewed December 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

Look, let's get one thing out of the way right up front. Some people are going to say this movie is boring. Instead of appreciating its dreamy, languid, poetic beauty, they will call it an ass-numbing "butt fluffer" that is like a two-hour commercial for Eternity by Calvin Klein.

That's going to be especially likely for anyone who sees this movie at home. Like "Lost in Translation," this is a flick that is so quiet and subtle and non-action-packed that it will be hard for most home viewers to quell their ADD, stay put on their ratty couches, and give this work of art the respectful attention it deserves.

Heck of a recommendation, huh?

"The New World" takes several historical liberties with the story of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), not the least of which involves turning the 11-or-12-year-old naked Native American into a sexy, raven-tressed teenager in a leather minidress. (She's later seen in thigh-high boots and a loincloth that leaves her enticing flanks bare. What's the Indian word for "yum?")

But director/writer Terrence Malick concentrates more on nature imagery and spiritual longing than on lusty historical romance. As in all of Malick's movies, the cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and production design (Jack Fisk) is picture-book beautiful. James Horner's score is reminiscent of Brian Eno's ambient albums by way of Phillip Glass, with a dominant theme that's like a variation on "Taps."

Farrell and Kilcher deliver most of their lines by way of internal-monolog voiceover, each of them trying to make sense of their lives, their hopes and their destinies. The most poignant moment in the movie, which is easily read as an allegory for every nation's exploitation of weaker ones throughout history, comes when Smith is honest enough to tell Pocahontas, "Don't trust me." He means it, too.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

New Year's Eve
(Reviewed December 9, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"New Year's Eve" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

New York, I Love You
(Reviewed October 2, 2009, by James Dawson)

This second film in the series that began with 2006's "Paris, je t'aime" is a real disappointment. As with the earlier installment, the movie is comprised of several loosely interlocking segments by different directors and writers. But where the first movie boasted numerous "name" directors (including the Coen brothers, Tom Tykwer, Gus Van Sant and Alfonso Cuaron) along with lesser-known talents, the biggest name involved with "New York, I Love You" is Brett Ratner. Quite a comedown, n'est-ce pas?

Also, the various short scripts this time around are so unimpressive that it's hard to remember one that stands out as the best. Many (such as Ratner's bit about a guy taking a wheelchair-bound girl to the prom) end with groaningly predictable twists. A segment directed by Shekhar Kapur, with Shia LaBeouf as a hunchbacked bellboy and Julie Christie as a retired singer, is so self-consciously arty and pretentious as to be laughable. And Joshua Marston's section, with Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach as an annoyingly chatty elderly couple who apparently are supposed to be charming, is enough to make you want to poke sharp things in both ears.

Allen Hughes contributes one of the least objectionable segments, following Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo as they individually make their way to a next-day rendezvous after a one-night stand. And Fatih Akin's piece, about an artist's desire to paint the portrait of a pretty Chinese herbalist, is short and bittersweet.

Unfortunately, Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci are wasted in a segment by Shunji Iwai that wants to evoke Dostoevsky but ends up being closer to "Alex & Emma." And Natalie Portman is stuck in an odd but unconvincing story directed by Mira Nair about what's apparently an unvoiced and unrequited love.

The film as a whole ends up being the cinematic equivalent of people-watching from a busy corner. It's just too bad that the people aren't more interesting.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

A better title for this outrageously dumb but strangely not-unwatchable flick would have been "Two-Minute Warning." That's because Nicolas Cage, as a sad-sack magician, has the ability to see two minutes into his own future.

It doesn't take two minutes of thinking to realize that a guy with that talent wouldn't be wasting his life doing tricks for tourists in a Las Vegas lounge for a living. The plot built up around him is equally dunderheaded. There's a missing nuke, see, so the US government wants to grab Cage so he can find it for them by watching the news on TV and telling them where it's going to explode.

Was this script written by a complete retard? Assuming that Cage saw a news bulletin about the bomb going off two minutes before that report actually aired, that would give the good guys only TWO MINUTES to mobilize, reach the location in question wherever it might be in the entire country, and disarm the bomb. Hope they're wearing their Keds!

It gets worse. The terrorists who have the bomb find out that the feds who are on their trail also are looking for Cage, so they decide that he must be somebody they should take the time to eliminate. Instead of simply setting the bomb off, that is, which I guess they thought would be too easy and unsporting.

To top everything off, the movie's credits say the screenplay is based on a Philip K. Dick short story called "The Golden Man." Unfortunately, the only thing the screenplay has in common with the story is that both feature a guy who can see into the future. And when I say that's the only thing, I mean it!

In Dick's story (SPOILER ALERT!), that guy is a mute 18-year-old mutant who is captured by a government agency in charge of exterminating "deviants." His captors realize that the mutant, whom they at first feared might be their intellectual superior, is more like an unthinking animal whose only goal is to survive and propagate. The fact that he looks like a golden god whom women find sexually irresistible makes them realize that his kind eventually will replace humans after he escapes. The end.

No Vegas. No nukes. No terrorists. No foxy dreamgirl love interest played by Jessica Biel, who somehow manages to get more deliciously sexy in every movie she does. No hardnosed Fed played by Julianne Moore. None of that. If the writers of "Next" had called their work an original screenplay, no court in the land would have found them guilty of plagiarism.

So how come I'm not being harder on this piece o' crap? I guess it's because Cage is fun to watch, and Biel is sexy, and I'm in a very uncharacteristic good mood. Or maybe it's due to that home lobotomy I just gave myself with a flat-head screwdriver.

Oh, and one other thing: The ending of "Next" is such an outrageous, flagrant, shameless cheat that you won't believe your eyes.


Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Nicholas Nickleby
(Reviewed December 21, 2002, by James Dawson)

Shameful deprivation, horrifying child abuse, a despicably cruel uncle, relentlessly evil capitalists, a crippled servant boy and the noble struggles of the poor-but-righteous...for Charles Dickens fans, that all adds up to "feel-good holiday movie of the year!"

The melodrama is as thick as hasty pudding, the coincidences are eye-rollingly ridiculous, and the final plot twist is amusingly preposterous, but it's all in good fun. When his father dies and his family loses everything, teenage blond hunk Nicholas is dispatched by his nasty uncle (the brilliantly thin-lipped Christopher Plummer) to the world's worst boarding school for boys (run by the outrageously mugging Jim Broadbent). Nicholas befriends a pathetic waif and escapes to rejoin his family, stopping along the way to join a wildly over-the-top troupe of actors (Nathan Lane and Alan Cumming being, as they say, simply wonderful). Anne Hathaway, who was so absolutely awful in last year's dreadful "The Princess Diaries," shows up later to bat her big brown eyes and enchant our Nick with her dewy adorability and irresistible sweetness.

It's all a big, corny, "Masterpiece Theater"-lite romp, but God knows it's more enjoyable than sitting through a piece of predigested swill like "Two Weeks Notice."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
(Reviewed October 5, 2008, by James Dawson)

This sweet, everything-happens-in-24-hours teen romance would have gotten an "A" grade if it hadn't included a sickeningly gross Farrelly Brothers element that is completely at odds with the rest of the movie's tone, and which is impossible to get out of your head once you've seen it.

Nick (Michael Cera) is a desperate, quietly deadpan loser whose bitchy girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) keeps throwing his "please take me back" mix CDs in the trash. Norah (the absolutely adorable Kat Dennings) is a fellow student at Tris' all-girl Catholic school who has been retrieving and cherishing those CDs, but who hasn't met Nick. That changes one night when they and several of their friends go on a New York City scavenger-hunt type search for a secret concert by a cult band.

Along for the ride is Norah's friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), who spends much of the night hilariously drunk. The "Farrelly Brothers moment" occurs when she drops her cell phone and her gum into the very brown water of a filthy bus-station toilet. She pulls both items out of the crapper...and puts the gum back in her mouth.

I defy any audience member not to be thinking of that disgusting gum for the rest of the movie -- especially when it ends up being transferred to both Norah and Nick (don't ask). It's damned hard to appreciate the endearing tentativeness of the title characters' budding young romance when you're fixated on bacteria-swarming toilet gum that keeps swapping mouths.

Which is too bad, because the rest of the movie is so oddball charming. Nick's battered yellow Yugo inspires one of the best offbeat lines of dialog. Norah notes that "you don't see many of these." Nick resignedly replies, "After you buy one, you see them everywhere."

What's also interesting is that this is a teen movie with no on-screen parental figures whatsoever; the only grown-ups to be found are of the store clerk, ticket salesman and bouncer variety. There's also the fact that neither Nick nor Norah drinks or does drugs, but they aren't portrayed as religious freaks or retarded.

The pop songs on the soundtrack are all by contemporary groups for a change (although Norah's ringtone is the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry"), which means most people over 30 won't recognize any of the music. Which probably is a good thing, verisimilitude-wise.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Night at the Museum
(Reviewed December 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

Good basic concept, but poor execution.

Ben Stiller is a night watchman at a museum where all of the exhibits come to life after hours. Little kids won't mind the inconsistencies of logic that bugged me, such as how one historical figure knows he is a mannequin while others seem fully inhabited by the souls of the people they represent; or how an information desk destroyed by a rampaging T. Rex skeleton somehow is fully intact the next morning; or why there are no cleaning crew members or other human inhabitants besides a single night watchman at a major New York museum between closing and reopening time.

For anyone over seven years old, though, this is pretty lame stuff that really drags.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Night Listener
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

This dully "serious" Robin Williams suspense/drama may have skated by with a "D," if its climax wasn't a complete and utter cheat.

In fact, I was so insulted by this movie's idiotic and stupid "twist" ending that I am going to do something I never have done in the six-year history of Back Row Reviews. That's right, I'm going to spoil a movie's ending.

So if you think you ever will make the mistake of seeing this incompetently scripted dose of dumbness, and you don't want to know what happens, bail out now. You've been warned.

Okay, here goes:

The setup is that Williams is a gay radio host with a talk show. A publishing-exec friend puts him in touch by phone with a teenage terminal patient who has written a book about the abuse he endured from his sick-'n'-twisted parents. Williams begins to suspect that things are not as they seem with the boy and his guardian (Toni Collette).

In true crappy-TV, amateur-detective-hokum fashion, Williams gets on a plane and starts doing things like breaking-and-entering the kid's house and sneaking around in a hospital after visiting hours.

That's because he wants to make sure the kid actually exists, and that the kid isn't just Toni Collette using a different voice on the phone.

Only one problem: We've already SEEN the kid, in cutaway shots during phone conversations with Williams. He is played by Rory Culkin. We even see Culkin and Collette in the same shot.

Which makes it pretty damned moronic when we find out that the kid doesn't exist. The revelation makes absolutely no sense. The cutaway shots to Culkin talking on the phone are not presented as if those scenes are taking place in Williams' imagination. It's a complete cheat.

Somebody should tell "The Night Listener"'s director Patrick Stettner exactly how the concept of objective reality works. You can't pull a surprise ending in a movie if what you have shown the audience as being real directly contradicts the final would-be "gotcha" moment.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
(Reviewed April 29, 2010, by James Dawson)

The one element that could have kept this unnecessary remake from being pointless is the presence of the brilliant character actor Jackie Earle Haley as the new Freddy Krueger, the boogey man who attacks teenagers in their sleep. Unfortunately, the movie sabotages itself with its own script. This 2010 re-do includes a clever twist that improves on the original plot, but which simultaneously makes it impossible for us to see much of Freddy's backstory.

That means nearly all of Haley's screen time is nothing but scream time: Haley in melted-face makeup making gravelly whispered threats before using a knife-fingered glove to dispatch his victims. He does a perfectly adequate job of executing those duties (by executing most of the cast), but it's a shame that the screenplay asks so little of an actor who could have brought so much more range to the role.

A few of the actors playing high-schoolers here look as if they left adolescence behind an awfully long time ago. There are the obligatory horror-movie cliches of small children creepily singing a kiddie song, the killer making groanworthy quips ("How's this for a wet dream"), and an idiotic final "grabber" based on franchise-extending economics rather than sense.

This cheapish reboot includes almost no special effects that look any more advanced than those seen in the 1984 version. Like the original, there is no nudity whatsoever, despite the "R" rating.

On the bright side, at least the studio resisted any temptation to thrust this utterly generic clunker at us in 3-D.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed December 21, 2009, by James Dawson)

On a scale of one to 10, this movie is more of a five than a nine. It's not actually bad, but it's never terribly good, either.

The flimsy story, about a frustrated Fellini-like philanderer (Daniel Day-Lewis) who can't come up with an idea for his next film, gives each of the main women in his life the spotlight in what is basically a musical revue broken up by occasional acting. His frustrated mistress (Penelope Cruz), his straight-talking costume designer (Judy Dench), his iconic mother (Sophia Loren), his melancholy wife (Marion Cotillard), the actress who is his sometime muse (Nicole Kidman), a slutty journalist (Kate Hudson) and a scary seaside whore (Fergie) all get one or occasionally two songs, most of which are so generic they sound as if they were written by committee. Fergie's would-be showstopper "Be Italian" is loud, Hudson's swinging '60s catwalk number "Cinema Italiano" is energetic, and Cruz's "A Call From the Vatican" is softcore burlesque, but not one of them feels inspired. Cotillard manages to convey genuine pathos in "My Husband Makes Movies" and "Take It All," but the credit plainly goes more to the actress than the material.

Also, as one of the few critics who will confess to not being a fan of Fellini's "8 1/2," I didn't go into "Nine" with a big chip on my shoulder about the entire production being a crass sacrilege that picks the bones of a cinematic masterpiece. However, I was hoping for more from director Rob Marshall, who did such a great "re-imagining" of Bob Fosse's "Chicago."

Lots of music and fashion, but not much passion.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Nine Lives
(Reviewed June 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

Here we have a very "watch me act" project with too many scenes that play like dully ad-libbed workshop exercises (although Rodrigo Garcia is credited as writer/director). Even worse, the movie's gimmick is that each of the nine segments unspools as a single, unbroken shot, with no edits. How silly.

Each of the nine lives of the title is that of a different woman, identified on a card before her segment. They include an inmate whose daughter visits her in jail, a pregnant wife who encounters an ex-boyfriend at a grocery store, a patient (Kathy Baker) about to undergo a mastectomy, a cheating wife (Sissy Spacek) who witnesses an arrest and others. Their stories sometimes overlap.

Most of the vignettes are dull little melodramas, except the one about an annoying pissed-off daughter with father issues, which is tediously histrionic. At least one segment is preposterously stupid (Amy Brenneman's former boyfriend bangs her at his wife's funeral). The one in the grocery store feels especially endless, and includes what may be the worst line of dialog of the year. (Robin Wright Penn's ex-boyfriend Jason Isaacs, trying to convince her to hook up with him again, uses the argument "we were Damian and Diana!" Honest to God, can you imagine anyone actually saying those words, using his own name third-person style that way? Paging Robert Dole!)

The no-cutting rule means a lot of doors get left open that wouldn't (so the cameraman can follow the action), which becomes distracting. When a screen door is left ajar, you'll feel like yelling, "Hey, lady, you're letting the damned bugs in! Haven't you heard of the West Nile virus?"

The best and most natural segment is the last one, with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning visiting a grave. It would have made a nice stand-alone short.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

No Country for Old Men
(Reviewed December 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

"No Country for Old Men" is a real return to form for writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen, whose three most recent movies (an unamusing remake of "The Ladykillers," the aggressively unfunny "Intolerable Cruelty" and the stylish but pointless "The Man Who Wasn't There") pale in comparison to their early masterworks (the contemporary noir of "Blood Simple" and "Fargo," the surrealist black humor of "Barton Fink," and the very offbeat hijinks of "Raising Arizona" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?").

Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, "No Country for Old Men" has one of the most basic crime-thriller plots imaginable: Josh Brolin finds a lot of money at the site of a drug deal that went very wrong, wants to keep it, but is pursued by the drug cartel's psycho hitman (Javier Bardem) and a crusty sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). What makes the movie special is the way the Coens show us each character's state of mind -- Brolin's quiet desperation, Bardem's quiet relentlessness and Jones' quiet professionalism -- in a movie with many lengthy dialog-free but almost unbearably tense scenes.

Bardem is excellent as the low-key but lethal Chigurh, a guy who definitely knows how to make the most of a compressed-air tank. His encounter with a gas station proprietor early in the movie is a marvel of malevolent minimalism: a blood-chilling conversation about nothing more than a proposed coin toss. (I was even more impressed with Bardem's unforgettable performance when I left the auditorium and noticed that the theater next door at the same multiplex was showing "Love in the Time of Cholera," in which Bardem plays a meek, love-smitten mama's boy. Talk about range!)

Supporting actors Kelly Macdonald, as Brolin's unsettled but quietly authentic wife, and Woody Harrelson, a "cleaner" dispatched by the drug cartel to corral the possibly gone-rogue Bardem, are as good as the main players.

The only noteworthy flaw with the movie (and what keeps it from getting an "A" grade here) is the Coens' baffling and frustrating decision not to show us the fate of a main character onscreen. Letting something that important happen off-camera was an inexplicably bizarre storytelling choice.

Also, some audience members may feel cheated by the way the movie ends, because things are not exactly tied up in a justice-is-served, life-affirming fashion. Welcome to the real world, people. Sometimes, all a guy can do is sit and stare in hopeless helplessness at a world gone mad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

No Reservations
(Reviewed July 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

Stupid spinster-porn for middle-aged workaholic women who think a hunky, opera-singing, gourmet chef Prince Charming would prefer breaking down their bitchy defences and putting up with their bullshit instead of nailing some sweet 20-something piece of tail who isn't a shrewish pain in the ass.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart act like a couple of sitcommish overage adolescents, the kind of unbelievably immature-about-love stock characters that probably make real teenagers throw up. Abigail Breslin is the lil' moppet entrusted to Zeta-Jones' care after losing mommy in a car wreck -- which, as we know from movies as recent as Kate Hudson's "Raising Helen," is the best cure for loneliness and self-centeredness.

Composer Philip Glass wrote the score, and even makes a brief cameo appearance, which is sort of like spotting Shostakovich playing the 88s at a Tijuana donkey show. Christ, what a waste.

The only reason I'm not giving this an "F" is because it might be a good date movie for ugly couples who want to go home and imagine that their partner looks like Zeta-Jones or Eckhart as they wrestle and thrust in the dark.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed October 19, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

North Country
(Reviewed September 22, 2005, by James Dawson)

Completely predictable, extremely fictionalized, but really not-bad account of a female miner (Charlize Theron) who files a sexual harassment lawsuit against one of the most chick-unfriendly places of employment on earth.

Theron doesn't go to extreme measures to ugly herself up the way she did for "Monster," but then again, she's supposed to be good-lookin' white trash this time around. Woody Harrelson, as the disillusioned former lawyer who reluctantly agrees to take Theron's case, has a pretty good "histrionic courtroom moment" near the end.

The cruel and criminal ways that the male miners treat Theron and her few fellow female workers are juxtaposed with scenes of Anita Hill testifying against Clarence Thomas during Thomas' confirmation hearings, a device that comes off as heavy handed and unnecessary. Director Niki ("Whale Rider") Caro should have realized that this Davida-vs.-Goliath story didn't need a "beating the audience over the head" element.

One of the movie's best scenes features Theron's concerns being smilingly dismissed by the contemptuously two-faced owner of the mining company and his cohorts. I was reminded of a time when I worked for a company that wanted to send me to an out-of-town conference, where I would be expected me to share a hotel room with another employee. My dignity-affronted reaction essentially was "fuck that."

A higher-up later called me into his office, closed the door, and said he just wanted to give me some "friendly advice." I was told that it wouldn't look good for staff members of this membership-supported organization to be seen enjoying such luxuries as individual hotel rooms.

At which point I asked this would-be folksy father-figure, "Does that mean you will be sharing a room?" The old son of a bitch gave me a smile that looked like murder, didn't say a goddamned thing for about five seconds, then said, "Just think about what I said." Then the hypocritical bastard put out his hand for me to shake.

I got the single room.

Okay, that's not as oppressive a work situation as finding a dildo in a lunchbox, getting dry-humped on a pile of coal, or finding a changing room smeared with feces. But we all have our battles to fight.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

I'll say it right upfront, so don't blame me if you see this movie on my recommendation but end up thinking it blows: This is a definite love-it-or-hate-it film. I liked it a lot, but if someone told me they hated it like poison, I would have to say I could completely understand their feelings. It's unremittingly weird, it's slow and it has a few scenes that are just plain clunkers. Still, I was swept away by this dreamlike story about a dying orphan, a town that is about to be flooded by a new dam, a bunch of black-clad federal agents who are moving out the last remaining residents, and a band of very eccentric angels.

Beautifully shot, and not like anything else you will see this year, with great performances by Nick Nolte and James Woods as two very different kinds of "men in black."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

No Strings Attached
(Reviewed January 21, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Natalie Portman should be mortified that this witless and smutty embarrassment is being released the weekend before Oscar voters may be deciding whether she deserves a Best Actress award for "Black Swan." (The list of Oscar nominees will be announced Tuesday January 25). Academy members impressed by Portman's unbalanced ballerina act can't help but regard her decision to star in this charmless by-the-numbers dreck -- which she executive produced -- as a shockingly clumsy misstep.

"No Strings Attached" is a tangled mess of genres, tones and performances. It's an R-rated movie about sex, but it includes no naughty-bits nudity. It's also supposed to be a comedy, but there's not a line in it that doesn't sound as artificial and processed as Cheez Whiz.

Portman is Emma, an emotionally frigid yet sexually voracious doctor in training. She tells acquaintance-with-benefits Adam (Ashton Kutcher) that she wants to keep their relationship purely physical, a story premise that's about as believable as a porn video plot. Unfortunately, Adam is the sort of immature, 30-something manchild Hollywood loves putting on the big and small screen, a grown man who acts like a needy 12-year-old experiencing his first puppy-love crush.

Portman is so rigid and humorless that she often seems more bitterly cruel than blithely casual, as if she thinks she's in a movie with more sophisticated dramedy than dumb comedy. Kutcher, delivering sitcom-level lines that even a laugh track would fail to find amusing, doesn't bother putting forth any more effort than the material deserves.

Other members of the cast find their own ways to avoid anything resembling on-screen cohesion. While Portman is under the impression that she's in a bittersweet contemporary comedy of manners and Kutcher is doing "That '70s Show: The Motion Picture," Kevin Kline is "Robin Williams goofy" as Adam's ridiculously hipster father. Lake Bell is cartoonishly hyper-awkward as one of Adam's coworkers, a twitchy character who seems to have beamed in from another planet. And "Saturday Night Live" cast member Abby Elliott gets the chance to do an actual Drew Barrymore impression, in the middle of acting a lot like Drew Barrymore.

First-time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether manages to include rom-com cliches ranging from the exasperatingly expected (unconvincing breakups, incorrect assumptions) to the outright offensive (one of Emma's roommates is a swishy "just us girls" gay-guy stereotype). And when it comes to the tired and overused, nothing quite beats a character getting the munchies after smoking pot.

The raunchy script's frequent vulgarisms often sound as if they've been hammered in to meet an obnoxiously high Judd Apatow offensiveness quota. Does anyone believe that uptight Emma, celebrating at a miniature golf course, really would utter the words, "That hole is my bitch?"

Also tiresome is the interminable wait for ice queen Emma's mandatory third-act thaw. With a running time of nearly two hours, the movie takes far too long for steely cyborg Emma to undergo the inevitable transformation into a weepy, donut-hole-downing wreck.

In addition to being coarse, vulgar and formulaic, "No Strings Attached" has a perverse attitude toward modern relationships that's downright depressing. The movie wants us to regard a woman who rejects love in favor of commitment-free sex as reasonable, practical-minded and empowered. But if the roles were reversed, with Adam coldly ordering Emma to forget about being anything other than his body-on-tap booty call, Adam rightly would be regarded as an insensitive pig. In that situation, no one would root for Emma to debase herself by sticking around, hoping to convince Adam that she deserved to be appreciated and loved. Are today's females supposed to be as eager for meaningless hook-ups as males who once were derided as cold-hearted "players?" Discuss.

Director Ivan Reitman helmed one of the biggest box-office comedies of all time (1984's "Ghostbusters"), but his only two directing credits this century have been 2001's nothing special "Evolution" and 2006's less than super "My Super Ex-Girlfriend." Even those misfires seem clever and respectable compared to the sappy, predictable and stupid "No Strings Attached."

An odd footnote: Portman's "Black Swan" costar Mila Kunis will star later this year in her own friends-with-benefits movie, appropriately titled "Friends With Benefits." That's Hollywood, folks: home of innovation, creativity and original ideas!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Notes on a Scandal
(Reviewed November 17, 2006, by James Dawson)

This deliciously nasty guilty-pleasure melodrama is a genuine treat.

Cate Blanchett is the overwhelmed new teacher at a British high school. Fellow teacher Judi Dench is the sour old spinster with years of experience and utter contempt for everyone. Her only confidante is her diary, and her writings in it provide the story's positively acidic narration.

When Dench discovers that Blanchett is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, she uses the information as a very twisted kind of emotional blackmail to worm her way into Blanchett's personal life. And an odd life it is, too: Blanchett's husband is the much older Bill Nighy. Her son has Down Syndrome. And her teenage daughter is older than the boy Blanchett is boffing.

Yes, it sounds very "soap opera," but the beauty of "Notes on a Scandal" is that it plays all of this straight. Even better, it turns into an actual thriller by the end, constantly ramping things up another notch without ever seeming ridiculous.

There's a plot glitch near the end, involving something in a wastebasket that doesn't make any logical sense, but what the hell. This is still one of the most flat-out entertaining movies of the year, and Dench gives an Oscar-worthy performance.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Notorious Bettie Page
(Reviewed March 21, 2006)

The best thing about this cheap and borderline campy bio of the naughty-but-nice 1950s nudie model is Gretchen Mol's portrayal of Bettie.

(Postscript added July 25, 2009: I apparently never wrote any more than the above sentence about this movie. Jesus, what a lazy bastard. And the flick even included full frontal nudity and everything. There's just no pleasing some critics, right?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Nowhere Boy
(Reviewed October 8, 2010, by James Dawson)

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

Don't be misled by the iconic opening guitar chord of "A Hard Day's Night" that kicks off this so-so bio of the pre-Fab-Four John Lennon. That's all there is of the song, the word "Beatles" never is uttered, neither drummer Pete Best nor his replacement Ringo Starr makes an appearance, and only three Beatle-written tunes are heard on the soundtrack.

Instead, "Nowhere Boy" documents the upheavals of Lennon's awkward adolescence and the first stirrings of his interest in music. Aaron Johnson, last seen as the spoof superhero "Kick-Ass," is a bespectacled but unexpectedly buff Lennon. Imagine a seventh-year Harry Potter who is big and fit enough to make the wrestling team, which probably isn't how most Beatlemaniacs imagine Lennon looking in the early Elvis era.

Johnson has plenty of opportunities to become angry, act out and get hurt as the emotionally battered Lennon, but always seems more tepid than genuinely troubled. He also has difficulty displaying the wit and snarky charm for which Lennon would become known. Granted, Lennon's cool charisma may not have been fully formed by the ages of 15 to 17 covered here. But there is little indication that we are seeing the kind of sensitive, cuttingly clever but angry young man destined for probable permanent delinquency if he hadn't achieved pop immortality.

Lennon's upbringing was the stuff of a soap opera. He was given over at age five by his immature and irresponsible mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) to be raised by her more settled sister Mimi. Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Aunt Mimi, who is straitlaced and stern without being an entirely humorless stereotype. Thomas actually is better at delivering a deadpan Lennonesque wisecrack than Johnson is. When Lennon is surprised by her at one point and says, "I didn't see you there," Mimi drily replies, "Where did you see me, then?"

After one of 15-year-old John's cousins says he knows where to find the long-gone Julia, John is stunned to discover that her house is within walking distance. Julia, now living with the father of two half-sisters John didn't know he had, turns out to be the opposite of Mimi in every way: youthful, vivacious, sexy and fun-loving. Her renewed relationship with John is more inappropriately flirtatious than maternal. A seaside trip where she playfully buys him a cowboy hat with "Kiss Me Quick" written on it seems more like a first date than a family outing. Paging Dr. Freud!

It's Julia who turns John on to rock and roll, a term that she informs him means sex. She also teaches John how to play the banjo, which inevitably leads him to pick up a guitar and form his first band. No, not that one.

The screenplay's melodrama hinges on the strain caused by John's divided loyalties between dependable Aunt Mimi and the free-spirited mother he wants to forgive but can't help resenting. Writer Matt Greenhalgh previously scripted 2007's excellent "Control," a bleak but thoroughly convincing bio of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Where Anton Corbijn's unsentimental direction gave "Control" a gritty, almost documentary-style realism, "Nowhere Boy"'s first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood takes a blander, more conventional approach that never feels similarly genuine or compelling.

"Nowhere Boy" is respectful enough to most factual details that it shouldn't terribly offend longtime fans, who will enjoy seeing faithfully recreated historic moments such as John's first meeting with a ridiculously young-looking Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) at a church fete in 1957, or the first recording session featuring John, Paul and George (Sam Bell). Still, it's hard not to wish that Lennon had been played by an actor with more "genius is pain" complexity, or that the screenplay had been directed with less tasteful restraint.

Lennon's 1970 song "Mother" -- with bitter lyrics such as "I wanted you, you didn't want me" -- is featured over the closing credits. A better choice would have been his hauntingly sad "Julia," a Beatles "White Album" track Lennon sings accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. "Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia," Lennon plaintively sings to his by-then dead mum. The song has the kind of genuine, heartbreaking, artistic sincerity that is nearly nowhere to be found in "Nowhere Boy."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Number 23
(Reviewed February 2, 2007, by James Dawson)

I hated this movie so much that I thought about giving 23 of the main reasons why it sucked, but only one of them really matters: The plot is incredibly, infuriatingly, thoroughly idiotic.

Jim Carrey, making another tragically unfortunate foray outside the comedy genre, becomes obsessed with the number 23 after reading a book that (a) points out the mystical importance of that number and (b) seems to be about him. He gets his son on board with the theory, but wife Virginia Madsen -- who gave him the book -- is extremely skeptical.

Parts of the movie look great -- the parts that bring the noirish book to life, in gritty high-contrast color -- but everything here is just dumber than hell. There's a murder mystery, a seemingly magical dog, and a final revelation that is so howlingly moronic it will make you want to throw 23 Milk Duds at the movie screen. Making things even worse, that flabbergastingly ridiculous ending drags on for what feels like 23 eternities.

Here is the only thing I liked about "The Number 23": The David Sylvian-sung "The Banality of Evil," from the Nine Horses "Snow Borne Sorrow" CD, plays over the end credits. It has nothing to do with the movie, it's just a really good song.

As for the rest of this would-be-but-ain't thriller, did you know that the numerical equivalents of the letters B, O, M and B add up to 32, which is 23 reversed?

Coincidence? I think not!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Nurse Betty
(Reviewed August 10, 2000, by James Dawson)

Renee Zellweger is absolutely adorable and wonderful, as always, but something is more than a little this movie. The script seems to have been written as a lightweight little farce that should have been shot as a breezy, fast-moving comedy. But this filmed version is flabby and drawn out and all over the road.

I haven't seen director Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men." All I know about that movie is its log line, and somehow I never could get up for the idea of watching a pair of cruel bastards sexually harass a deaf girl for two hours. (Call me sensitive.) But I liked his viciously funny second film, "Your Friends and Neighbors," which if nothing else proved that Jason Patric would be the perfect choice to play Jesse Custer if the "Preacher" movie ever makes it out of development hell.

Why anyone thought the director of those two films would be a good choice to helm an off-kilter little comedy about a naive waitress who wants to live in her favorite soap opera is beyond me. This should have been a really tight, funny, almost slapstick outing. But in LaBute's hands, it is plodding and even inappropriately violent in places. Renee's character literally seems to belong in a different movie (which I suppose works in a thematic sense, but not on the screen).

Still, it does get points for being different, even if "different" in this case means some bizarre hybrid of the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Garry Marshall. And Renee Zellweger is so natural and beautiful and perfect that you just can't help falling in love with her. (Did I mention that I like her a lot?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C, because Renee is simply irresistible in just about anything

The Nutcracker in 3D
(Reviewed November 24, 2010, by James Dawson)

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

This offensively misguided attempt to turn Tchaikovsky's classic ballet into a campy, Nazi-allegory action flick is a huge lump of coal in this year's Christmas stocking. It's not just bad, it's "Springtime for Hitler" bad -- a movie so utterly wrongheaded and bizarre that it's hard not to wonder if the producers purposely set out to make the season's biggest turkey. Even the 3D effects are dodgy. One character's head, for example, appears to float several inches in front of his body.

The tragedy is that star Elle Fanning actually is quite good in her thankless role as Mary, the little girl known as Clara in most productions of the ballet. Fanning expresses everything from disappointment to joy to awe-struck wonder with an innocent sincerity that never seems cynical or Hollywood-kid phony. Even stuck in this Hindenburg of all holiday howlers, she still manages to shine.

Neglected by her parents as Christmas nears, Mary prefers the company of eccentric Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane, accessorized with German accent and Albert Einstein fright wig). Channelling the ballet's Godfather Drosselmeyer character, Uncle Albert arrives with presents including a very special nutcracker.

Any hopes that the movie might be respectful to its origins are dashed when characters start singing over the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy" melody. Written by former Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John collaborator Tim Rice, the lyrics to this and other "Nutcracker" themes are so witless and forgettable they seem ad-libbed. "Inappropriate" isn't a strong enough term to describe this repurposing of poor old Pyotr's beloved classics into backing tracks for jokey, insipid show tunes.

Mary is awakened later by the CGI-animated wooden nutcracker, who wants to be known as N.C. (The new nickname sets up a groanworthy final-act "E.T." steal, when Mary tearfully says, "I love you, N.C.")

For some unfathomable reason, the CGI nutcracker has the squeaky voice of actress Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in the "Harry Potter" movies). But when he transforms into a real boy, the character is played and voiced by actor Charlie Rowe.

Mary and N.C. ascend a gigantic Christmas tree to meet an ice-skating Snow Fairy who looks like a holdover from the disco era (Yulia Visotskaya, who also plays Mary's mother). Through the magic of some pretty cheesy special effects, Mary ecstatically takes flight with snowflake dancers in a scene that's at least vaguely related to the spirit of the ballet.

The fantasy goes completely wrong, however, when N.C. points out distant smokestacks to relate some dismal backstory. The Rat (not Mouse) King and his extremely stormtrooper-like soldiers have taken over N.C.'s home city, where they burn toys around the clock in hellish furnaces. That's right, folks, the Third Reich's gas ovens have become fodder for Christmas-movie kid stuff.

The screenplay, by director Andrei Konchalovsky and Chris Solimine, splits Mary's dream-adventures with N.C. over two nights. After she wakes from the first and tries explaining where she's been, her parents worry that she may be, well, nuts. A reference to Dr. Freud may be a clever nod to Flanders-like critics who find more than familial affection in the original ballet's Drosselmeyer/Clara relationship -- but that's probably giving the screenwriters more credit than they deserve.

Mary's second dream pits her, N.C. and others against the formidable forces of the Rat King (John Turturro, unrecognizable in facial prosthetics and an Andy Warhol coif) and his even scarier mother (Frances de la Tour, who also plays Mary's family housekeeper). If any patrons of the arts ever thought that what the ballet always needed was a machine-gun-mounted motorcycle chase, relentless attack dogs with steel teeth or a town-square helicopter crash, all of their needs will be met.

Instead of letting this misbegotten mangling taint your memories of the source material, check out any of the fine versions of the actual ballet that are available on DVD. The 2008 performance by the San Francisco Ballet is a gorgeously staged production recorded in HD splendor, and the 1977 American Ballet Theatre version featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland is undeniably essential. Others may prefer productions by George Balanchine's New York City Ballet or the Bolshoi.

Unlike the dreadful "The Nutcracker in 3D," those versions are guaranteed not to include the nightmare-inducing inquiry, "Ever wonder what happens to a doll's soul when in burns?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

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

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

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