Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed August 2, 2001, by James Dawson)

This surprisingly enjoyable film-noirish update of Shakespeare's "Othello" moves the action to a prep school in the present-day American south, which sounds ridiculous, but somehow it actually works. Martin Sheen is a histrionic basketball coach whose neglected-'n'-bitter son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) resents star player Odin James (the excellent Mekhi Phifer), who was recruited as the school's only black student and receives special treatment because he is the team's ticket to a championship. "O" is in love with the dean's daughter Desi, played by Julia Stiles (last seen in "Save the Last Dance," and apparently Hollywood's go-to girl these days for black/white love affair flicks). Hugo engineers Odin's downfall by manipulating several classmates in ye olde "web of deception."

Director Tim Blake Nelson (who was one of George Clooney's dunderheaded chain-gang comrades in "O Brother, Where Art Thou," incredibly enough) keeps everything dead serious throughout. Don't expect any injections of Hollywoodish comic relief, or any knowing winks at the audience. The movie plays like an actual drama, as opposed to an embarrassingly arty stunt (such as the horrendous Ethan Hawke version of "Hamlet," which retained all of the bard's dialog but moved all the action to the present day) or a genre-jumping goof (such as Kenneth Branagh's musical version of "Love's Labours Lost"). The movie isn't perfect--a crucial scarf wanders from person to person in unlikely ways, for example--but overall, "O" is one heck of a lot better than you will expect it to be on your way into the theater.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
(Reviewed December 20, 2000, by James Dawson)

Excellent return-to-form for the Coen brothers, whose last movie was the disappointingly ho-hum "Big Lebowski" but whose best films are flat-out brilliant ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Fargo"). In this bizarre retelling of Homer's "Odyssey," transplanted to America's Depression-era South, George Clooney plays Ulysses as a verbose and demented Clark Gable-type with an unnatural fondness for "hair treatments." (I loved the scene in which a deadpan general store proprietor has to tell a disappointed and surly Clooney that he does not have "Dapper Dan" hair cream in stock, because his store only carries "Fop." Fop! What a great word.)

Chain-gang escapees Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson end up encountering twisted equivalents of the Cyclops, the Sirens, Charon, Cerberus, Penelope and...Robert (rechristened Tommy) Johnson and Babyface Nelson! If that doesn't whet your curiosity, you've been watching too many crap Hollywood comedies like "What Women Want" for too long. The humor ranges from slapstick-stupid to very dark (such as when Babyface utters the immortal line, "I hate cows"), but it all somehow manages to work together.

The film's visuals also get high marks. Some scenes have the look of hand-tinted antique postcards (such as when the trio are hitchhiking on a dirt road overhung with green trees). Others have a striking sepia appearance (the desolate landscape surrounding the first farm where they take refuge).

But forget all that artsy-fartsy stuff. The best thing about this movie is that it is literally laugh-out-loud funny. And then there is the great music. George Clooney does a very believable lip-sync of "Man of Constant Sorrow" (which would have been a much better title for this movie). It's foot-stompin', Jesus-praisin', hoe-downin' musicality goodness!

I don't hand out a whole lot of "A" ratings, but any movie I would pay to see a second time definitely rates that grade. And I definitely will be going back to see this one!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Observe and Report
(Reviewed March 23, 2008)

The "Bad Santa" version of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," this time it's Kevin James sorta-kinda lookalike Seth Rogen playing the pudgy, deluded a-hole. The only reason I'm giving this movie a D- instead of an F is because it's satisfying to see Rogen, when he goes over to the "dark side," beating the hell out of a bunch of skateboarders in a parking lot. Ho-ho, what merry fun. Also, this otherwise lousy movie has an ending that qualifies as genuinely shocking, which at least gets points in the "something new" category.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Ocean's 11
(Reviewed November 17, 2001, by James Dawson)

Great God, what a colossal disappointment! As I watched this slow, slow, sloooooooow movie stumble blandly toward its inevitable conclusion, I was reminded of the 1980s movie "Mac and Me." Which is kind of funny, because I never saw that earlier film, but keep reading and all will be made clear.

"Mac and Me" was a film bankrolled by McDonald's, the fast-food folks. From what I read at the time of its release, it was a cheap-'n'-cheesy ripoff of "E.T."--except in this version, the alien had a constant craving for McDonald's french fries, which kept the action returning to McDonald's restaurants (I use the term very loosely) to hammer home the brand name.

Similarly, "Ocean's 11" plays like it could have been a tossed-off quickie piece of junk financed by the Bellagio Hotel for publicity purposes. Absolutely none of the principals involved brings anything entertaining to the proceedings. Everybody is just going throught the motions of a nothing-special heist movie.

Director Soderbergh and star George Clooney, who worked together on the really good "Out of Sight" crime caper a couple of years ago, bring none of the style or magic or charm of that movie to "Ocean's 11." Julia Roberts never has appealed to me, and still doesn't. The usually reliable Brad Pitt, one of the best actors of his generation, is so underutilized in "Ocean's 11" that his role ends up being a glorified cameo. Matt Damon seems to have wandered in from another movie and never quite fits in. Don Cheadle assays a silly Rasta-man accent. Ho-hum.

I went into this movie with really high hopes, and was stunned at how pedestrian and pointless it was. The hype machine is going full blast to promote this turkey, calling it a fun ensemble piece full of more stars than there are in the heavens. The truth is that it is a lifeless lump.

I spit on this "Ocean."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Ocean's 12
(Reviewed November 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

The cinematic equivalent of flipping through an issue of People magazine after a lobotomy, "Ocean's 12" is a flashy, pointless excuse to look at movie stars and not bother with that annoying little thing called "thinking."

The plot makes absolutely no sense, even in a "dumb movie" way. For one thing, we are expected to believe that the Ocean's 11 gang manages to find two of the most wanted, successful and secretive thieves in the world, whose identities they don't know, with apparently no more than a couple of phone calls. Without spoiling the nonsensical climax, I'll only say that something we learn at the end, courtesy of a flashback, means that nearly everything else that happened in the entire flick was completely unnecessary. Even the details of events within that flashback are insultingly ridiculous. (How did they know exactly the right brand and style of backpack to buy? Hmmmm?)

Star George Clooney has become this generation's Bob Hope, amiably grinning his way through scenes as if he just wandered in from a golf course and can't wait to go back. Costar Brad Pitt is criminally (zing!) wasted in this piece of mindless fluff, although he does bring a certain amount of charm and likability to his role as a thief in love with a detective (Catherine Zeta-Jones, looking flabbergastingly beautiful as always). Andy Garcia is properly menacing as the guy Ocean & Company ripped off last time around, who wants his money back with interest. Carl Reiner drops by for a few scenes, Elliott Gould hams things up again, Bernie Mac wanders around doing not much, I didn't even remember that Don Cheadle had an accent last time around, and Julia Roberts frankly is starting to look like hell.

"Ocean's 11" was so instantly forgettable that I honestly didn't remember most of the other members of the gang of thieves. Was that little Asian guy who hops up and down on the bed in the last movie? Who knows? Who cares?

One of the most baffling scenes in "Ocean's 12" features a male thief gyrating his way through security laser beams like a tai-chi breakdancer. Look, maybe it's just my heterosexuality showing, but didn't Catherine Zeta-Jones herself do this same scene about a thousand times better several years ago, in a Sean Connery debacle called "Entrapment?" Can any man who saw that bomb ever forget the shot of CZ-J's stunningly shapely rump coming dangerously close to breaking a beam as she slid under it?

Director Steven Soderbergh uses some zippy angles, changes the film stock now and then for no apparent reason (wow! red and grainy!), and uses lots of pretty European locations, but he -- like the cast -- seems to be slumming. This is the kind of movie that only looks like a good career move if it makes a shitload of money.

Don't worry, it probably will.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Ocean's 13
(Reviewed June 5, 2007, by James Dawson)

The appeal of the "Ocean's" series completely escapes me. All three of the movies ooze with "couldn't give a shit" slapdash smugness about treating audiences like easily satisfied suckers. Some critics call this blatantly naked contempt for quality "breezy," but I think it just plain blows.

The fact that director Steven Soderbergh and his A-to-D-level cast have recreated the "don't take this movie seriously, because we sure didn't" style of the original Rat Pack "Ocean's 11" is hardly a good thing. Tarantino proved he could make a movie exactly as lousy as a bygone "grindhouse" bomb, but that didn't make his effort any damned good.

I've now seen all three of these instantly forgettable installments. Because the first two provided nothing that could pass for character development, even in a comedic sense, I couldn't remember who was who in "Ocean's 13" -- much less what their relationships were to each other. Here's how bad it gets: I had no clue what Brad Pitt's character's name was until about halfway through the movie, when somebody called him Rusty.

Even worse: When Andy Garcia comes onscreen, I had the feeling this was supposed to be one of those big-surprise movie beats designed to make the slack-jawed go "oooooOOOOOOoooooo," sort of like when Sting walks out from behind the curtain on an episode of "Oprah." But I had to search my memory to figure out who the hell Garcia's character was in the Ocean's universe, which kind of took the magic out of the moment. (If I recall correctly, he was George Clooney's rival for Julia Roberts' hand in "Ocean's 11." But I'm not going to waste 30 seconds looking it up.)

And worst of all: At one point, Clooney and Pitt talk about Pitt's domestic problems -- something about having a fight that ended with a pancake on the floor. (The scene's dreadful dialog feels very improvised, but maybe I'm letting the screenwriters off the hook too easily.) I think the audience was supposed to know who Pitt's unseen and unidentified significant other was supposed to be, perhaps someone from a previous "Ocean's." So I started thinking, "Well, it ain't Julia Roberts, because she was Clooney's girl in the first movie. And I don't think it would be the Catherine Zeta-Jones character -- but then again, I can't remember anything whatsoever about what she did in 'Ocean's 12,' so maybe." Then I simply stopped worrying about it and stole another impatient look at my watch.

That problem did bring up an interesting question, however: Are Clooney's compatriots all supposed to be on-the-down-low gay? Is everyone missing what's actually some pretty obvious subtext?

Think about it: Has anyone besides Clooney expressed any interest in females in any of these flicks? Matt Damon, in an "Ocean's 13" con-job seduction scene with the surprisingly hot-bodied Ellen Barkin, seems utterly panicked at the idea of actually getting physical with her. Even Clooney, while twinkling charmingly at a few female characters here, never so much as kisses any of them.

Maybe next time, the entire gang will come out of the closet for "Bathhouse 14." The slogan? "They've got each other's backs!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"O'Horten" review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Old School
(Reviewed February 2, 2003, by James Dawson)

Kind of a half-assed movie, but one with lots of genuinely funny moments.

"Saturday Night Live" alumnus Will Farrell is strangely restrained during most of this, his first starring vehicle. (A notable exception is his streaking scene, which is genuinely hilarious.) Even more laid back is Luke Wilson, who never seems to realize he is in a comedy.

Fortunately, totally over-the-top Vince Vaughn more than makes up for their shortcomings. He is flat-out perfect as a loudmouth, take-control ringleader who convinces suddenly-single Wilson to turn his bachelor pad into a party-central fraternity house. The result is kind of an "Animal House"-lite, really more a collection of funny bits than a coherent whole. One plot thread is inexplicably resolved off-screen, and the ending is one that is so lame and overused you won't believe anyone could think it was a good wrap-up.

Still, there are lots of real laughs, so what the hell. You could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Oliver Twist
(Reviewed August 25, 2005, by James Dawson)

Frightening squalor, rampant child-abuse, preposterous plotting and melodrama gone mad. Ahh, 'tis time once again for Dickens!

Barney Clark is excellent in the title role of this Roman Polanski adaptation, which features stunningly handsome sets and picture-book locations. Ben Kingsley is a slightly more likeable Fagin than might be expected, and various of the novel's more unlikely (which is saying a lot) story elements have been altered or excised.

Nevertheless, this makes for an impressive new take on little Oliver's bizarre tale that should please fans of crime, cruelty, compassion, coincidence and comeuppance.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
(Reviewed September 12, 2003, by James Dawson)

Offbeat, fitfully charming but just a little bit...shoddy.

Writer/director Robert Rodriguez gets points for being a creative, DIY kinda guy (as the poster says, he "shot, chopped and scored" this one, in addition to writing the thang and pulling various other duties). And there definitely are things to like here: Johnny Depp assaying his second ingratiatingly off-kilter good/bad guy of the year (following his swishy pirate of the Caribbean), Antonio Banderas radiating south-of-the-border studliness with a smile, and super-sultry Salma Hayek steaming up a showdown scene (in a role so brief it is barely more than a cameo).

But the storytelling is confused and redundant, things go on a little too long, and some of the violence seems out of place in what is basically a tongue-in-cheek affair. For example, at one point Johnny Depp announces that a dish he is eating at a restaurant is so delicious and perfectly prepared that he has to shoot the chef, then he proceeds to do so. Something about that killing came off as gratuitous; I mean, just about everybody else in the movie that gets blown away at least has a gun in his hand. Color me constipated, but for some reason the killing of the cook came off as a tad stupid and didn't make me laugh.

It did, however, seem to amuse Elijah Wood, who was sitting one row in front of me. Which reminds me of something more amusing than the entire "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" script: When I pointed out Mr. Wood's presence, a journalist who was two seats down from mine leaned forward and tapped Frodo on the shoulder. "Elijah?" he said. "I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your performance in `Seabiscuit.'"

Honest to God, I didn't know whether to bust out laughing or crawl under my seat. Instead of calling the guy a brain-dead moron, Frodo calmly (and somewhat apologetically) replied, "Sorry, but I wasn't in that movie."

True story!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

One Hour Photo
(Reviewed July 15, 2002, by James Dawson)

Not-so-hot stalker-thriller that goes through the motions but never really sneaks up on you, grabs you by the throat and slowly starts to squeeze. If you know what I mean.

Maybe it's me, but I never have liked Robin Williams. Never. Not ever. His bad-guy hat-trick this year of playing creeps in the egregiously unwatchable "Death to Smoochie," the ridiculously overrated "Insomnia" and this movie smack of a desperate attempt at remaking his sickeningly sentimental image. Yet even though he always has seemed to have a bit of the psycho bastard underlying his manic, annoyingly unfunny cheer, he is not a good enough actor even to play crazy convincingly.

"One Hour Photo"'s supporting cast has its moments, and the movie has a nice, sterile look to it. Also, it may be the first film to feature actors with laughably contemporary haircuts--you know, those horrible Jimmy Fallon/Tina Fey hairdos that appear to be the result of horrible hedge-shears mishaps. Seriously, do people with those crazy coifs ever look in mirrors? Every time I see someone with one of those beyond-bed-head, screwed-up styles, I'm reminded of the scene in the first "Batman" movie where news anchors have stopped using cosmetics and haircare products because the Joker has put poison in them--so everybody ends up looking like a disheveled mess. Crikey, it's even spread to "Entertainment Tonight!"

But I digress.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

One Night at McCool's
(Reviewed February 7, 2001, by James Dawson)

Okay, maybe this qualifies as a guilty pleasure, but what can I say -- I likes what I likes.

This is a kind-of cheap, kind-of dumb comedy about a slutty-dumb knockout (Liv Tyler, who never has looked better) who manages to frustrate and fascinate Paul Reiser, Matt Dillon and John Goodman -- each of whom has his own version of events that end up affecting all of them. It's no cinematic masterpiece, and it takes a while to get going, but it ends up being so darn likable that you can't help smiling.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Liv Tyler has scenes involving washing a car in a diaphanous purple dress, simulating a lesbian seduction, and getting lots of (fully clothed, unfortunately) mattress action. No nudity, but hey, you can't have everything.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Open Range
(Reviewed August 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

As I was leaving a screening of a different movie, a fellow critic asked if I had seen "Open Range." When I groaned by way of reply, he asked, "You didn't like it?"

"God, no," I replied. "It was like `Unforgiven' lite." He looked befuddled, so I added, "You have seen `Unforgiven,' haven't you?"

Now, this next part may seem hard to believe--but then again, that's why I'm the only critic you should trust. This frightfully foolish fellow actually said to me, "Yeah, I've seen it. I thought it was pretentious. `Open Range' was a lot better."

Now, granted, "Unforgiven" may not be the greatest western ever made (although some have given it that title). I always had trouble with the climax, frankly, where an alcohol-fueled Clint Eastwood still is steady enough to outgun just about a whole damn town on his own. But anyone clueless enough to claim that Kevin Costner's shockingly lousy "Open Range" is a better movie than "Unforgiven" better check in at a clinic, because somebody must have removed his frontal lobes while he wasn't paying attention.

"Open Range" has lots of pretty-as-a-postcard panoramas, but the story is strictly been-there, seen-that-done-better. Costner is a rough-edged cowpoke with a Secret Past, working for grizzled-but-good-hearted father figure Robert Duvall. A cartoonishly evil landowner (Michael Gambon, playing the "anti-Dumbledore") with the local lawman in his pocket don't take kindly to cattle drivers a-crossin' his land. When his rowdies kill one of Duvall and Costner's merry band, it's up to Duvall and Costner to ride in and face down more than three times their number, 'cause nobody in the completely cowed cow-town is a-gonna stand up and help 'em get justice. Lord a-mighty, is this ever a corn fest!

There is exactly one good thing in the movie (and since it is shown in the TV ad, I don't feel like I'm giving anything away). When Costner and Duvall confront the Bad Bunch, Costner asks one of them is he is the one who killed Costner's friend. When the guy smugly admits it, Costner blows him away without wasting any more conversation. Unfortunately, what follows is the usual silly can't-hit-the-side-of-a-barn run-and-gun shootout you've seen a thousand times. Even worse, there are points where the fighting stops long enough for the two sides to stand in front of each other, and we are supposed to believe nobody would use those occasions to simply pull a trigger. Dumb.

Plus there's the subplot in which Costner has the hots for the town doc's purty sister (Annette Bening), and the bit where he discovers that varmints has gone and shot his dog, and...ahhh, why bother.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Open Water
(Reviewed July 30, 2004, by James Dawson)

Extremely low-budget but genuinely suspenseful. A tourist couple on a scuba-diving trip mistakenly get left behind in open water far from land...and let's just say that those fins they keep seeing don't belong to dolphins. You think that premise can't make for a movie-length story? Go find out how wrong you can be!

Note to pervs: There's a sex scene (with nudity) early in this movie that is delightfully unnecessary, but certainly appreciated.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Oranges and Sunshine
(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:
"Oranges and Sunshine" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Orphanage
(Reviewed January 4, 2008, by James Dawson)

This is an okay but nothing great psychological suspense tale about a woman who thinks ghost-children have abducted her son -- so don't believe the insultingly misleading ads that claim it is this year's "Pan's Labyrinth," even if "Pan's" director Guillermo Del Toro is one of the "Orphanage" producers.

Also, it's in Spanish, even though the TV ads give absolutely no indication of this. (The only dialog heard in the TV ad is the woman saying her son's name.) Personally, I don't mind reading subtitles -- and I definitely prefer it to hearing dubbed dialog. But if you're a semi-literate mouth-breather, be warned that you'll have to do some readin'.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez have claimed in interviews that "The Orphanage" presents audiences with is-the-mom-actually nuts ambiguity, but plot incidents make it pretty obvious that what we see happening is actually supposed to be happening. That's too bad, because the sorta-dumb plotline may have worked better if there was reason to doubt mom's hold on reality.

Still, for some moody atmosphere and decent performances, "The Orphanage" is certainly more worthwhile than the brutal and stupid torture porn that seems so popular of late.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Osmosis Jones
(Reviewed August 2, 2001, by James Dawson)

What a major disappointment. The Farrelly Brothers struck gold two movies ago with "There's Something About Mary." Last year, their "Me, Myself & Irene" was nowhere near as successful, but I liked it. Okay, it wasn't a landmark of comedic genius, but it had its yocks.

But "Osmosis Jones"--man oh man, is this ever a lousy waste of 90 minutes.

Half of the movie is live-action, with Bill Murray as the slovenly, overweight single parent of a goody-two-shoes pre-teen girl who spends most of her screen time trying to get him to eat better and exercise. Laughing yet? Me neither! The live-action footage doesn't even LOOK good, with ugly contrasts, graininess and bad color.

The other half of the movie is animated, following the exploits of a jive-talking white blood cell voiced by Chris Rock. Is this guy EVER going to be in a good movie? His remake of "Heaven Can Wait" last year ("Down to Earth") was flat-out awful. In "Osmosis Jones," he shucks and struts like an annoying ghetto clown who got dropped into an especially bad (and that's saying something) "Tiny Toons Adventure." David Hyde Pierce (of "Frasier"), who plays a superhero-type cold-capsule, is the stereotypical "clueless white male who needs lessons in keeping it real" character. Their banter is what you would expect government employees to come up with if they scripted a daffy public-service announcement about "Our Friend the Immune System."

The homey and the honky are on the trail of a killer virus inside Bill Murray's body. That whole concept is kind of off-putting, because in this day and age it is hard not to think of the menace they are pursuing as AIDS. (The producers should have called this movie "FantAIDSia." Or maybe "The Little MermAIDS." Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week!) Making the villain a cold virus would have been a little less creepy, considering that the movie seems to be geared toward kids.

It's not funny. It's not fun. Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Other Boleyn Girl
(Reviewed February 27, 2008, by James Dawson)

They should have called this royally trashy soap opera "The Other Boleyn Gossip Girl."

Not that there's anything wrong with that; personally, "Gossip Girl" is right at the top of my guilty-pleasures list. Just don't go in expecting a reverently respectful retelling of "The Six Wives of Henry VIII."

Blair Waldorf...wait, I mean Anne a bitchy, backstabbing brunette babe who can't get over the fact that her golden-haired goodie-goodie sister Serena van der, I mean Mary Boleyn...bedded that nice Nate Archibald...make that Henry VIII...before she did. There are elaborately beautiful Tudor-era costumes instead of chic private-school fashions, castles instead of brownstone mansions and actual court intrigue as opposed to high school social rituals. Otherwise, London of the 1500s turns out to be not that different from the 21st century Upper East Side.

Well, okay, except for that nasty beheading business.

Exactly who qualifies as merely the "other" Boleyn girl, as opposed to the one who is in favor, shifts back and forth in the movie. Eager to gain position and privilege, daddy Boleyn decides to pimp daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) as a potential mistress to King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), who is dissatisfied with wife Katherine of Aragon for not giving him a male heir. Henry at first seems quite taken with Anne's spunk and undeniable hotness, until he takes an embarrassing offscreen spill from his horse. His wounds are tended to by the timid, wholesome and equally-hot-in-an-entirely-different-way Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Mary happens to be newly married, but hey, kingship has its privileges.

Although Mary is reluctant at first about accompanying Henry back to London to be his concubine, she falls in love with him after a night of tender passion. She also finds it easy to forget about her husband, who cared more about returning to the royal court than keeping the king's mitts off of his missus.

Anne, furious over Mary usurping what she regarded as her rightful position as the king's mistress, soon slithers her way back into Henry's favor. The heartless hussy's most memorable moment comes when she flirts shamelessly with the king while Anne is giving birth to the king's bastard in the next room. The slattern!

Although the character of Mary Boleyn did exist, much of "The Other Boleyn Girl" is complete fiction. For one thing, Henry most likely was not the father of Mary's son. A big problem with the screenplay, in fact, is Henry's complete lack of interest in the baby that the movie would have us believe is his. Henry's utter indifference toward him -- he never even expresses a desire to see the boy -- makes no sense in light of the fact that Henry's main desire in life was to have a son.

The real Mary did not return to London to plead that Henry spare Anne's life, nor did she visit Anne Boleyn in Anne's Tower of London cell. File under "melodramatic license."

The movie sometimes feels too condensed, quickly skipping past several small and large events. Anne's banishment to France, which had to have lasted for several weeks of screen time, seems much shorter, and England's break with the Catholic church appears to occur after a single discussion.

The story also includes several instances of "Family Ties" syndrome. Remember how that Michael J. Fox sitcom had an infuriating habit of building up to dramatic or awkward moments but not showing them, cutting instead to later scenes? In the same way, some of the character interactions you most want to see in "The Other Boleyn Girl" occur offscreen -- such as when Henry asks Mary whether Anne was telling the truth when Anne said she never consummated an earlier secret marriage. The tension is almost unbearable. Will Mary, who has been cruelly betrayed by Anne, and who once loved Henry, tell him the truth and thereby doom her sister? Or, despite the fact that Mary is the one member of the Boleyn family who has retained some measure of integrity and decency, will she try to lie to save her sister's life?

Unfortunately, we don't see Mary say anything. Instead, the scene cuts to Mary and Anne talking about what happened. Gorblimey!

The movie's other main flaw is really ugly "permanent dusk" cinematography (it was shot on hi-def video, a huge mistake), and director Justin Chadwick's fondness for sticking out-of-focus stuff in the foreground of nearly every shot.

Still, I ended up enjoying the sometimes histrionic salaciousness on display here more and more as the movie went on. The scene in which Anne frantically implores her brother (Jim Sturgess) to impregnate her is a masterpiece of utterly over-the-top trashiness, somehow made more outrageous by the fact that the actors don't seem aware of the knuckle-biting humor in the situation.

This kind of thing definitely wasn't what I was expecting from producer Scott Rudin, since the guy is known for more higher-minded fare (most recently "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood"). It's more infotainment than educational, but who cares? You know you love it.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Other Guys
(Reviewed August 5, 2010, by James Dawson)

Will Ferrell comedies are so hit and miss that you're never sure what you're going to get. For every hilarious Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, there's a lackluster "Land of the Lost" or barely adequate Semi-Pro.

Fortunately, "The Other Guys" is one of Ferrell's best, as absurd and endearingly silly as his classic "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." One obvious reason: This is his fourth collaboration with director/writer Adam McKay, who helmed all three of the other good ones mentioned above.

"The Other Guys" opens with a laugh-out-loud New York car chase featuring two preposterously badass action-hero cops (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). When their cruiser hurtles through the side of a bus filled with people, Jackson loudly asks, "Did someone call 9-1-holy-shit?"

Back at the police station, by-the-books straight-arrow Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and hair-trigger hothead Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) are deskbound drones -- until Gamble starts investigating some high-finance hijinks.

The movie is loaded with deadpan deranged dialog ("Are you sure you don't have testicular cancer?"), ridiculous running gags (a homeless gang uses Gamble's Prius as an orgy "F shack"), and bizarre back stories (Gamble met his incongruously sexy doctor wife [Eva Mendes] when he was a college-age pimp with poison ivy on his rectum).

On the technical side, the movie includes a stunning "3-D bullet-time" sequence in which the camera moves around a frozen-action bar tableau, finding Gamble and Hoitz in several different places engaged in various unlikely acts.

Wahlberg is a great straight man for Ferrell, alternately annoyed by his partner's persistent persnicketiness and stunned by revelations about his salacious past. And Ferrell is a great straight man for Wahlberg, fending off his partner's hyper belligerence and frustrated anger with maddeningly cool but crazy retorts.

The end credits include a series of fun facts about the sorry state of American capitalism, proving that the truth about modern finance in this country is more outrageously shameless than anything even this movie could come up with. Also, stick around for a final scene when the credits are over.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Other Woman
(Reviewed February 2, 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.)

"The Other Woman" has its problems, but star Natalie Portman isn't one of them. Transcending the limitations of a soapy melodrama that has an odd reliance on sitcomish one-liners, Portman gives a performance that's actually richer and more interesting than her neurotic paranoid act in "Black Swan."

Portman plays Emilia, a 20-something trophy wife haunted by the recent death of her newborn daughter. After her obnoxiously inconsiderate eight-year-old stepson William (Charlie Tahan) suggests that Emilia should sell the dead baby's crib and stroller on eBay, the screenplay flashes back to fill in the adulterous details of Emilia's sort-of-sordid but not overly salacious backstory.

Here we find smart and single Emilia, a recent law school grad, on her first day as an associate at a Manhattan firm. She's instantly smitten with Jack (Scott Cohen) a married and older lawyer. She doesn't immediately act on that impulse, but does confide her feelings to coworker Mindy (Lauren Ambrose). "I hope you meet their kid," Mindy replies. "That should knock this out of you."

Invited to a staff party at the home of Jack and his physician wife Carolyn (an effectively bitchy Lisa Kudrow), Emilia arrives looking more like a high-priced escort than an attorney, with a sexy side-swept hairdo, strapless gown and seductively smoky makeup that seems formulated for harem lighting conditions. It's no surprise that Carolyn greets her with cool curtness; Emilia may as well be wearing a scarlet sash that says FUTURE HOMEWRECKER.

Sure enough, Jack gives in to Emilia's charms on a business trip, but says he can't leave his wife because she and William are "family." Emilia soon trumps that objection with an "I don't understand, I'm on the pill" revelation that she somehow has gotten pregnant.

One of the things that makes Emilia interesting is that she's not presented as flakey, crazy or one-dimensionally conniving. She's more self-deluding and passive-aggressive. She may honestly believe she got pregnant by accident, although this seems impossible (and we never really know for sure). Similarly, Emilia resents her father for betraying her and her mother by cheating, but she won't acknowledge that her own husband is guilty of doing exactly the same thing.

The screenplay (by director Don Roos, adapting the novel "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" by Ayelet Waldman) doesn't serve most of the movie's other characters as well. Stepson William is annoyingly robotic, one of those humanity-free smart-kid stereotypes who knows how fast dog poop freezes but can't figure out why his stepmom might be sad about losing a three-day-old baby. "My mom says she was surprised they even let us have a funeral," William matter-of-factly announces.

It's his dad Jack, however, who is saddled with the movie's most hard-to-swallow display of cluelessly cruel insensitivity. Jack tries convincing Emilia that something he knows upsets and humiliates her actually is proof that their baby "didn't die in vain" and "something good came out of it." At that point, it's a wonder Emilia doesn't simply throw herself out of the nearest window.

Portman is good at conveying Emilia's emotional exhaustion, resignation, sorrow and guilt, but also her persistence and sometimes ironic sense of humor. ("That hurt," William tells her at one point. "Tell your mother," Emilia flatly replies.) The movie takes some sudden unexpected turns toward the end that up the emotional ante, but Portman navigates most of them flawlessly. One notable exception is a loud scene of public recrimination that rings as hollow as Hallmark, but that's the screenplay's fault.

Director/screenwriter Roos does deserve credit for not making Portman play Emilia as ditzy or dumb. She's clearly intimidated by and resentful of Carolyn, but never retreats into childishness. When someone at a "Remembrance Walk" event for bereaved parents tries consoling Emilia by saying her daughter is "still here," Emilia rationally replies, "I know the difference between here and gone."

"The Other Woman" has been on the shelf awhile (the movie's copyright date is 2009), and it probably is being released now to take advantage of Portman's increased "Black Swan" visibility. Like her Oscar-nominated performances in that Best--Picture nominee and in "Closer," "The Other Woman" proves that Portman can be much more than just an irresistibly pretty face.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Our Idiot Brother
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Over the Hedge
(Reviewed April 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

Most people think "mediocre" means something akin to "irredeemably worthless." The actual Merriam Webster definition is "of moderate or low quality, value, ability or performance; ordinary, so-so." (I like how M-W regards "of moderate or low quality" as synonymous with "ordinary." What a sad but accurate comment on life in present-day America.)

"Over the Hedge" is a mediocre animated movie based on a mediocre comic strip. It's not bottom-of-the-barrel awful (see "Shark Tale"). It's just not what could be considered "good."

Bruce Willis is the voice of a raccoon who is caught in the act of stealing and accidentally destroying a surly bear's stash of junk food. Under threat of death, he promises to replenish the bear's stockpile in seven days. He hoodwinks a group of very naive woodland creatures (led by the conscientious and reluctant Garry Shandling as a turtle) into helping him raid a suburban neighborhood for the goods.

The movie's puzzling message seems to be that the perfectly understandable desire of suburbanites to be free of animal infestation, strewn garbage in the streets, property vandalism and theft should be regarded as unreasonable tightassedness. We are supposed to root for characters who do everything from robbing cars, kitchens and Girl Scouts to destroying backyards, vehicles and entire houses.

(Could "Over the Hedge" be a disguised commentary on this country's illegal-immigration problems? Ignoring the bordering hedge, characters who want to feed their families cross over to the land of plenty and send back the ill-gotten fruits of their labors. All that's missing are a few treasonous ringleaders on the human side to exploit the migrants by taking their cut of the take.)

The computer animation is state-of-the-art lovely in the lush forest scenes. The utterly sterile housing development is much less detailed -- to drive home the whole "nature good, people bad" thing -- which has the unfortunate effect of making half the movie look kind of cheesy.

The only moment that seems original and clever is when Hammy, a hyperactive squirrel, is amped up to even higher uberspeed by a swig of caffeine. From his point of view, everything appears nearly frozen in time as he casually surveys a scene of absolute and total mayhem.

Like I said, not an awful movie. Just a mediocre one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-