Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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The Pacifier
(Reviewed February 12, 2005, by James Dawson)

Movies like this are the reason I added a new paragraph to the homepage, about how other critics frequently condescend to the public by recommending utter crap. Mark my words, you are guaranteed to see plenty of patronizing reviewers claim that "The Pacifier" is good "family fare," for the simple reason that they think most members of the hoi polloi are easily satisfied morons. Which may be true, but it's no reason to call feces foie gras.

The movie that "The Pacifier" most resembles is the appallingly awful Steve Martin remake of "Cheaper by the Dozen." Both feature obnoxious "Hollywood brat" children acting like hyperactive, feral, utterly charmless mental patients.

Navy SEAL Vin Diesel is ordered to babysit these annoying monsters while their mother, the widow of a murdered scientist, goes to Switzerland in an attempt to retrieve secrets he left in a safe-deposit box.

See Diesel react in shocked horror to the prospect of changing a shitty diaper. See Diesel accidentally place his hand in the contents of a shitty diaper left on a kitchen counter. See Diesel dive into a sewer at one point and return home covered from head to toe in shit. See a shitty diaper tossed from the family minivan onto the windshield of a pursuing car, whose wipers then smear the shit all over the glass. Seeing a motif developing here? Somehow, I don't think Walt Disney would have been delighted to know his studio would end up peddling scat films.

(There's another thing about "The Pacifier" that is even less "Disney." It's something that should give conservative dickheads like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly reasons to sputter and froth in indignant outrage, which is always good for a laugh. But I'll get to that later.)

I can sum up the unfunny, contrived, desperately trying-too-hard stupidity of this movie with a single on-screen image. At one point in the "get me outta here, this place is a madhouse" festivities, Diesel notices that a toddler is standing in an aquarium in his underwear, eating cereal. I haven't wanted to puke so hard since I made the mistake of trying Carb-Options pasta sauce.

Naturally, Diesel eventually is won over by the kids, who in turn develop respect and appreciation for him. Awwww.

The plot itself doesn't make a lick of sense, of course. Although Diesel is supposed to be guarding all of the kids, he goes off for long periods with only one of them at a time, leaving the others to fend for themselves...even after their house has been invaded on one occasion by a pair of ninjas. (A pair of ninjas who conveniently don't bring along guns, which would have ended that confrontation quite suddenly.) A subplot involving a psychotic wrestling coach (played by that big tool from "Everybody Loves Raymond," whose name I won't publicize by looking it up) is just stupid. And then there is the "Batcave" problem: Just how the hell would the scientist secretly manage to build an elaborate underground vault with Blofeldian booby traps under his suburban family home?

Now, getting back to that other un-Disney aspect of "The Pacifier." (SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS MOVIE'S ENDING, STOP READING RIGHT NOW! I MEAN IT! BAIL OUT! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!) Although the "big reveal" would have been totally predictable plot-wise in a movie from any other studio, I was amazed that Disney -- especially in present-day ultra-nationalist W-loving redneck-uber-alles America -- would release a movie in which a member of the American armed forces turns out to be a traitor. His justification for selling out his country? "The North Koreans pay better."

This is from the studio that refused to release "Fahrenheit 9/11?" How very odd.

The only thing I liked about this movie was the fact that a pink-haired Russ troll makes a few very brief appearances. I just love those little guys. But in real life, they don't any real man knows.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Painted Veil
(Reviewed December 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

Very enjoyable period romance starring Edward Norton as a British doctor ministering to victims of a rural cholera outbreak in 1925 China, and Naomi Watts as the wife who very reluctantly accompanies him to that remote but amazingly picturesque location.

Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, "The Painted Veil" starts out a little stiffly, with Norton very properly courting the upper-class party-girl Watts. She agrees to marry him primarily to get away from home, but soon strays from her loveless marriage. When Norton learns of her infidelity, he gives her an ultimatum: come with him far away from temptation deep into China's countryside, or face the shameful scandal of divorce.

Their life in that primitive setting is fraught with danger both from the infectious disease and the region's warring factions. The British couple's only nearby countryman (Toby Jones, who played Truman Capote in this year's "Infamous") has "gone native," shacked up with a Chinese girl and is no stranger to the opium pipe. Some of the nuns who run the village convent, administered by ex-"Avengers" star Diana Rigg, are dying off along with the inhabitants. And the resentful locals don't think much of foreign interlopers in general, even the ones who are trying to save their lives.

Watching Norton and Watts go from resentment to respect to redemption under those conditions, in an adult and far from Hollywood-cute fashion, is a genuine pleasure. Jesus, it's nice to see a movie made by and for grownups for a change.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed March 18, 2005, by James Dawson)

If you are a fan of writer/director Todd Solondz, here is all you need to know about "Palindromes": It is better than his last movie ("Storytelling"), not as good as his earlier "Happiness" or "Welcome to the Dollhouse," but definitely part of the same offbeat, unpredictable, enjoyably offensive universe. That means it definitely is worth seeing -- and that you should stop reading right now if you don't want to know anything about its weird, sometimes disturbing wonders. Put your faith in the man who created Dawn "Weiner-Dog" and just go. Seriously. Trust the guy.

Still here? Well, okay, I'll earn my nonexistent pay.

Aviva Victor, played by actors of different ages, races and even sexes during the course of the story, is Dawn's 13-year-old cousin. When she runs away from home, she finds herself living with a large group of handicapped kids and their ultra-Christian foster parents. Because "Christian" always ends up meaning "fanatical nutcase" in the movie biz, things are guaranteed to go very wrong, but that's probably the only predictable aspect of the movie. The way things go to hell is wickedly fascinating.

The pacing of "Palindromes" is sometimes pleasantly excruciating, lingering over family drama scenes in documentary fashion. Other parts are unsettlingly suspenseful. And the comedy, as in all of Solondz's movies, veers from borderline cruel laughing-at-people-not-with-them campiness (the handicapped kids performing Christian-rock dance routines) to extremely black humor (a tragically distraught character wails, "How many more times do I have to be born again?").

My favorite of the actresses who portray Aviva is the one who is most unlike the others: a whisper-voiced, very large black woman (Sharon Wilkins). Her portrayal of a shy, sad, white teenager initially seems bizarre, but becomes genuinely poignant. And considering that she is acting opposite a nerdy little twerp whose personality is not unlike the smug little rich kid in "Storytelling" (the one who thought the family maid enjoyed her station in life), that's some accomplishment.

One of the main plot points in "Palindromes" (which I won't reveal) is guaranteed to make conservative idiots froth with righteous "burn the theaters" outrage -- but then again, what doesn't?

"Palindromes" isn't perfect, but you're not likely to see anything else like it this year. Considering how bland, derivative and utterly unchallenging most Hollywood fare is, that's more than enough reason to seek it out.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed June 9, 2001, by James Dawson)

Talk about a hard sell. Imagine having to market a film about the friendship and subsequent estrangement of turn-of-the-19th-century poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth to the American public. Yikes!

"Pandaemonium" has the good and bad points of any "Masterpiece Theater"-type outing. While it is refreshing to see a movie that's about something other than car chases and people getting shot, the characters often seem like waistcoated stock characters (the wild-eyed dreamer, the stodgy friend, his shining-eyed sister, an omnipresent villain). Also, while I have to admit that I'm not completely up to speed on my Coleridgiana (I blame my American education), purists may be troubled by what look like more than a few liberties that are taken with the two poets' accomplishments. Did Dorothy Wordsworth really convince her brother that the opening line to his most famous work should not be "I wandered lonely as a cow," by suggesting that he might want to change "cow" to "cloud?" Was it truly Dorothy who is to thank for suggesting an ending to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and for keeping "Kubla Khan" from being lost to the ages?

Still, that selfsame Dorothy is the highlight of the movie. Actress Emily Woof is perfectly cast as the sort of highly opinionated, flakey-but-smug girl you knew in college who simultaneously infuriated and intrigued you. At first she seems completely annoying and offputting...but then you realized, "Hey, there's something sort of hot about this kinda crazy cutie."

One problem is that, as with any movie about the creative process, it's hard to depict the act of writing poetry as anything other than dull without looking rather silly. When Coleridge, mere seconds after dosing himself with a wee bit o' laudanum, begins furiously scribbling over pages and pages of foolscap with his flying quill...let's just say it looks as unlikely as movie scenes of computer hackers twitching, dancing and gyrating at their keyboards.

The movie's mightily melodramatic (and historically suspect) climax put things right over the top. And after the fade to black, you will be stupefied at the song and visuals that run under the credits. (Honestly, what appears on screen is so inappropriately outrageous that I won't ruin it by spoiling the unpleasant surprise.)

But what the hell, at least the enterprise was semi-interesting. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for, oh, "Tomb Raider."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Panic Room
(Reviewed January 30, 2002, by James Dawson)

They should have called it "Stupid Room," because it is so relentlessly moronic. This tragic waste of director David Fincher's talents proves that even the best director can't save a script that is hopelessly brain-dead.

Jodie Foster and her similarly asexual daughter lock themselves in the fortified "panic room" of their multi-story, zillion-dollar NYC brownstone when three thugs break in. Despite the fact that the leader of the thugs is a security expert, neither he nor his cohorts think to disable the security cameras with which Jodie and Jodie Jr. watch their every move. That is only one of dozens of logic lapses and insults to the audience's intelligence that pop up with maddening frequency. (Just wait until you see the scene where Jodie shoves her bare arm in an air duct filled with propane gas, ignites it, and comes out of the ensuing explosive conflagration without so much as a blister. Hoo, boy.) I would say more, but I wouldn't want to ruin the wholly predictable plot for anyone with a double-digit IQ.

Fincher films all of this dunderheadedness with real style and some great camera moves, but as the old saying goes, "You can't polish a turd." Oddly enough, one of the best-looking parts of the movie is the opening credit sequence, which goes Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" credits one better. If only the movie itself were as good...

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Pan's Labyrinth
(Reviewed November 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

This movie deserves a longer review, and I'll try to get around to writing it eventually. That is, assuming I can take time out from my busy schedule of staring blankly into space, sighing with regret and generally wondering where everything went wrong.

For now, suffice it to say that this is the best movie I've seen so far this year. It is a very grim fairy tale about a young girl in fascist WW2-era Spain whose only refuge from a sadistic stepfather (the genuinely menacing Sergi Lopez) is a magical fantasy world with horrors of its own. Definitely not for young children, even though it stars an 11-year-old actress (Ivana Baquero) who is heartbreakingly good at conveying hope, defiance, despair and valor.

Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, this is Mexico's entry for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar. If there is any justice in this callow, uncaring world (ha!), it also will be up for Best Picture. It's that good.

Definitely do NOT wait for this to come out on DVD, because its beauty and wonders are best appreciated on the biggest screen possible. It is scheduled for theatrical release on December 29. Get in line now.

Very highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Paper Man
(Reviewed June 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

I saw this exercise in awfulness months ago, but only now realized I never actually reviewed the thing.

I could go into detail about the moronic plot, the insultingly earnest acting, the funny bits that aren't, and all that. But life's too short.

It blows. It really, really blows.

A lot.

Trust me.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus to beyond infinity

Paris, Je T'Aime
(Reviewed April 18, 2007, by James Dawson)

The 18 short films by different directors that make up the two-hour "Paris, Je T'Aime" vary wildly in quality and tone, with only their city-of-lights setting in common. Fortunately, the good segments are very good -- and the bad ones are over quickly.

Strangely, the vignettes by most of the bigger-name directors (Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Tom Tykwer, Wes Craven) are among the worst of the lot. Also, four of those five are nothing more than set-ups for unsatisfying would-be punchlines. (The exception is the Coens' film, which just sort of peters out.)

Van Sant's effort, about a gay man's attempt to hook up with a printing apprentice, is unconvincing and boring. The Coen Brothers put Steve Buscemi in a Metro station as a non-French-speaking tourist intimidated by a pair of demonstrative lovers, with only mildly amusing results. Cuaron's single-tracking-shot sidewalk conversation between Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier plays like bad improv, with a final "reveal" that's even less clever than Van Sant's. Tykwer's stylishly edited story of an annoying-but-supposed-to-be-charming actress (Natalie Portman) and a blind Parisian student has an ending that's insultingly stupid. Craven's segment, about an engaged couple (Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer) visiting the grave of Oscar Wilde, features acting that is more hammily histrionic than hilarious.

A few other films here that feature "name" American actors suffer from what looks like a similar lazy reliance on star power instead of quality. Maggie Gyllenhaal appears as an actress shooting on location who parties and buys drugs and...well, that's about the extent of her story. A segment featuring Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant, as a middle-aged couple trying to role-play some romance, could have been lifted from a bad episode of "Love, American Style." And Elijah Wood's encounter with a vampire is about as goofy as a lame installment of "Night Gallery." (Wow, two crusty baby-boomer TV references in one paragraph!)

Then there's a "mimes in love" story that is about as funny as Robin Williams in whiteface, and a pointlessly absurd bit about a salesman of hair-care products for Asian women.

Okay, so if 10 of the 18 vignettes range from unsatisfying to outright crummy, what's so good about the other eight that merits a "B" grade for the movie as a whole? Basically, most of them feel more convincing, more interesting and more human than the rest.

My favorite is one of the simplest, with almost no dialog, directed by Walter Salles & Daniela Thomas. It features Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria Full of Grace") as a young lower-class mother, in a heartbreakingly minimalist performance.

A more gut-wrenching tearjerker is Oliver Schmitz's account of a dying Nigerian immigrant (Seydou Boro) attended by a paramedic on a Paris street.

And then there's Juliette Binoche's portrayal of a bereaved mother given the chance by a mysterious cowboy (Willem Dafoe) to see her dead son alive again. Director Nobuhiro Suwa gives the piece just the right mix of sentimentality and magic realism to keep it from being either sappy or silly.

Bruno Podalydes wrote, directed and starred in his piece, about a lonely man who makes the acquaintance of a possible love interest when she faints on a sidewalk near him. Gurinder Chadha ("Bend It Like Beckham") offers a vaguely "Afterschool Special"-ish but sweet tale about a teenage French boy with a crush on a Muslim girl (Leila Bekhti). Spanish director Isabel Coixet shows how tragedy can get an unfaithful husband back on the straight-and-narrow. In a segment directed by Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu, Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara have a melancholy meeting the night before they are scheduled to sign their divorce papers.

The movie ends with a wryly bittersweet segment directed by Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Sideways") in which a midwestern, middle-aged American woman narrates -- in precise but utterly passionless French -- a deadpan account of her solo sojourn to Paris. Your first impulse will be to laugh at her utter lack of sophistication, until her self-delusion gives way to a kind of resigned sadness that might just make you cry.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Paris 36
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Paris 36" review

I also wrote a feature article about this movie, which you can read by going here:
"Paris 36" feature article

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Passion Play
(Reviewed May 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

A strong contender for "Worst Movie of 2011," and one that uses the same insultingly stupid ending that the abysmal Sucker Punch stole earlier this year. (Revealing the title of the movie from which that overused ending was pilfered wouldn't be fair, even though the "twist" that's coming is so obvious that I probably shouldn't worry about being so restrained.)

Mickey Rourke stars as a jazz trumpeter who has cheated with the wife of a mobster named Happy, who is none too happy (Bill Murray). As in "wants him dead" none too happy. Rourke hooks up with a sideshow attraction named Lily (Megan Fox) who has angel wings. Real ones, that is, growing out of her shoulder blades. Fox plays Lily as a baby-talking, big-lipped hottie with fantastic hair, but the movie is so dismal, stupid and boring it's like finding an issue of Maxim in a mortuary.

Relentlessly moronic. Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed December 6, 2003, by James Dawson)

Watch in disgusted horror as a group of criminally misguided moviemakers exhume the rotted corpse of Philip K. Dick, claw off his moldy trousers, flip him onto his dessicated stomach, and anally rape the poor bastard for two excruciating, infuriating hours.

Until now, movies made from Dick's writings have ranged from classic ("Blade Runner") to okay ("Total Recall," "Impostor") to ambitiously impressive but flawed ("Minority Report," which really should have lost its final 20 minutes or so). "Paycheck" is not only the first Dick adaptation to fall short of "watchable," it is just plain lousy in every respect.

Director John Woo and some screenwriter hack I won't dignify by naming have taken a slight-but-sly pulp SF story, thrown out most of the original's noirish plot and motivations and all of its paranoid subtext, and substituted a bunch of preposterously unbelievable chase-and-shootout scenes and lamebrained plot elements that make no sense whatsoever.

In Dick's original story, Jennings is an engineer who agrees to work for a mysterious corporation for two years and then have his memory wiped of the entire experience, in exchange for a hefty "paycheck." Instead, he discovers upon re-entering society that while he was "under" he gave up all that dough in exchange for an envelope of seemingly worthless trinkets: a piece of wire, half a poker chip, a strip of cloth, and other stuff that fits in his pocket. Each item ends up being important as he tries to discover why he possibly could have thought they were preferable to a fat wad of cashola.


Okay, so here is the first problem with the adaptation: In the movie, Jennings has been given many more items in the envelope, almost none of them the same as the items in the story. What's worse is that we are expected to believe that he somehow was able to create several of these items...even though he was living in a controlled environment's dormitory-style housing where his every move was monitored. Now, you tell me how a guy in that situation could somehow "manufacture" things including a fortune-cookie fortune with winning lottery numbers printed on it, a matchbook with a fake wipe-away logo on its cover, and a crossword puzzle with a printed clue that relates directly to information he later will need to know. In the original story, everything in the envelope was a real item that had been "scooped" from the future, but that "time-scoop" device has been replaced in the movie with a monitor that merely (merely?) shows future events.

Which brings up possibly the biggest blunder in the entire movie: One of the things Jennings has in his envelope is a key that unlocks a maintenance door in a shopping mall. WHERE DID THAT KEY COME FROM? Did the moviemakers forget that they had thrown out the "plucking objects from the future" function of the device?

Any time-travel story (including Dick's original, but to a lesser extent) has inherent problems related to the alternate futures created when any element of the present or past is changed. For example: In the movie version, how can Jennings possibly know what even the second -- much less the third, fourth, fifth and so on -- item he might need could be, if he is changing a version of the future that is the only version he can see? In other words: Once he uses the first device, he has altered what will happen next, and so he should have no way of knowing where he will go or what he will need next.

The other big brain-scratcher is this: Because Jennings does end up changing the future, why was the future-viewing machine showing him things that never ended up happening? (Calling Professor Einstein!)

Another problem that the story and movie have in common: It defies belief that the evil corporation would allow Jennings to "mail" himself a package of items that give away secrets the corporation would not want him to know after he leaves their employ. I mean, those guys aren't stupid; wouldn't they be just a little bit suspicious as to why Jennings would give up nearly a hundred million dollars and take an envelope of junk instead? (This is finessed in the printed version with an explanation that is pretty implausible, but at least an effort was made to address the problem.)

But forget all of that stuff. File it all under "stupid sloppiness" (like the newspaper headline we see at one point that has a glaring typo even the most inept editor would catch) and "suspension of disbelief." Those shortcomings are nowhere near as offensive as this:

In the transition from printed page to silver screen, the oppressive American police-state that was the backdrop of Dick's story has been replaced by an FBI whose team leader eventually decides to HELP Jennings. Also in the movie, Jennings himself is out to destroy the corporation, because "nobody should have the power to see the future, or everyone will lose hope!" (Disregard the fact that seeing his own future is what empowers Jennings to change it for the better; like I said, the movie version takes "nonsensical" to a whole new dimension.) Those changes should make Dick rise in outrage from his grave and go on a Hollywood homicidal rampage...because in Dick's original story, Jennings wanted to get back INSIDE the corporation and assume control of it, because he completely AGREED with the corporation's intentions to OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT! (I guess the producers of the movie version thought that kind of thing wouldn't play well in George W. Bush's Fortress America.)

Another tragedy: Before seeing the movie version, I told a few people that the best thing about the short story was its final scene, which had a very crowd-pleasing gimmick that would translate perfectly to film. Well, folks, it's not in the movie, because the moviemakers changed the setup that would have made the scene possible. Idiots.

The best way to sum up everything that is wrong with "Paycheck" is that it borrows from other Philip K. Dick movies instead of from Philip K. Dick. The first scene, in which Jennings moves computer-monitor visuals around by hand, is shamelessly ripped off from "Minority Report." The brain-drain dentist-chair is straight outta "Total Recall." And lead actor Ben Affleck's workout and fight scenes are pointless "Daredevil" retreads. (Okay, Philip K. Dick had nothing to do with "Daredevil." I just thought I'd throw that one in.)

Uma Thurman looks really haggard and wasted as the love interest, but hey, who am I to judge. Paul Giamatti plays the stock cardboard nebbish friend of Our Hero (a character who does not appear in the original story, thank God).

How bad is "Paycheck?" Let me put it this way: I saw it right after a screening of the abysmally awful "Cheaper by the Dozen" remake...and I'm having a hard time picking which movie was worse. Yikes!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Pay It Foward
(Reviewed October 18, 2000, by James Dawson)

You go into this movie expecting it to be manipulative and sappy and tear-jerkingly shameless. Over two hours later, you walk out dry-eyed and cheated, wondering how even the most clueless director and screenwriter could screw up such a surefire weeper of a premise.

I never did read the original novel (somehow, books that make Oprah's reading list never find their way onto my shelves). So maybe everything that is wrong with this movie -- the painfully uninteresting subplots involving one-dimensional characters, the utter unlikelihood of Kevin Spacey's well-educated school teacher being sexually attracted to Helen Hunt's white-trash boozehound slut, Haley Joel Osment's sitcomishly tired matchmaker hijinks -- came straight from the original. All I know is that this movie is phony and cold and fake to the core. If I ever had lowered myself to watch "Touched By an Angel," I would say that this movie feels like an attempt to push those same lowest-common-denominator "feel good" buttons, except with a trio of Oscar winners on hand to class up the crappy material.

In fact, the producers are missing a bet if they don't immediately pitch "Pay It Forward" to a TV network as a series idea. Each week, some down-on-his-luck ne'er-do-well would get an out-of-the-blue boon from a stranger, clean up his act (after a bit of dramatic struggling with his personal demons), and then pass on a kindness to somebody else. The rubes would eat it up with a spoon!

Kevin Spacey, how could you waste your precious time on dreck like this? We all know that Helen "Mad About You" Hunt can't act (the Academy members must have been hypnotized by her huge, wet-T-shirt-revealed jugs when she copped that undeserved Oscar for "As Good As It Gets"), so it is no great loss to the culture if she spends a couple of months on this sort of histrionic hog wallow. And Haley Joel Osment is just a kid, so he has the excuse of not knowing any better. But you, Mr. S., should be above playing the kind of cardboard construct lonely-guy character who makes a big secret about his past for the first two-thirds of the movie, saving it up for a Big Reveal (a la Tom Hanks in the execrable "Saving Private Ryan") that feels as if it were written by a script doctor who was brought in by your agent to let you chew the scenery. Sure, you probably cinched a Best Actor nomination when you dropped those two grocery bags during your big sputter-and-choke. But doesn't it all feel a little hollow? A little too easy? A

Absolutely the only thing that I didn't dislike about this terrible movie was its surprise climax. But even that minor pleasure was ruined when the director decided to outright steal the last shot from "Field of Dreams" for "Pay It Forward"'s last shot. Now that's really shameless.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding
(Reviewed May 29, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed April 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

Okay, this is really embarrassing. I didn't get around to reviewing nine movies that I saw at advance screenings earlier this year until after they were released, and this was one of them. (None of the neglected nine could be mistaken for cinematic classics, which partially explains my regrettable lapse.) But in the time-honored slacker spirit of "better late than never," I have written one-paragraph reviews of each.

Please, don't thank me. No, honestly, it's the least I could do. The very least. Wait, I mean...


PENELOPE: This is what a Tim Burton movie would be like if Burton didn't have any talent. Christina Ricci is a rich girl with a pig's nose. Her parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) desperately want to marry her off. James McAvoy is a suitor with a secret, and Reese Witherspoon cameos as an earthy bike messenger. It's all very quirky and colorful and eager to be amusingly charming, but for the most part falls very flat. Not Kate-Hudson-flat, but flat. Watch for Peter Dinklage as the "little man in the boat." Ho-ho, it is to laugh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

People I Know
(Reviewed April 20, 2003, by James Dawson)

This movie is so preposterously, blatantly awful that I can't believe its producers did not throw themselves out of a window when they saw the finished product.

What in God's name has happened to Al Pacino's career? This bomb follows Pacino's starring role in "Simone," another movie so egregiously lousy it should have gone straight to some not-very-selective landfill. In "People I Know," he plays a seen-better-days New York publicist with a bizarrely unconvincing southern accent who gets mixed up in a murder plot that is like a duller version of "Eyes Wide Shut" made on the cheap. Tea Leoni is an attractive woman, lord knows, but she is wildly miscast as a young, flakey starlet with a drug habit. Equally out of place is Kim Basinger, who is saddled with the insurmountable task of lusting after Pacino's addled, mumbling, overmedicated "shaking mover" (to coin a phrase).

Ryan O'Neal is the only participant who is sort of okay here, as a Hollywood prick with political aspirations, Pacino's character's last remaining semi-name client.

Also, "People I Know"'s version of New York is so offputtingly unattractive that it feels more like a guerilla filmmaking exercise on NYC's mean streets than a buffed and polished movie. That kind of reality can be a good or bad thing, depending on how much you like the gritty city that never sleeps--but I kept thanking my lucky stars that I didn't live there.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Percy Jackson and the Olympians:
The Lightning Thief

(Reviewed February 12, 2010, by James Dawson)

If this movie weren't so indisputably shitty, you'd almost have to feel sorry for director Chris Columbus. Many critics (but not this one) gave Columbus grief because his movie versions of the first two Harry Potter books were slavishly faithful to the printed word. But now he's getting pilloried for aging Percy Jackson from 12 to shaving age and making other changes to that hero's source material.

Then again, Columbus may actually deserve the criticism this time around. Although I haven't read the Percy Jackson books, I can't imagine that any of the changes made here were for the better. This movie is so hopelessly dumb, uninvolving and charmless that it qualifies as a third post-Potter strike for Columbus (after his dreadful film version of Rent and last year's unwatchable teen comedy "I Love You, Beth Cooper").

Jackson (Logan Lerman, previously best known as the kid in 3:10 to Yuma) is the half-human son of the Greek god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). Because of a decree by Zeus that gods can have no contact with their mortal offspring, Poseidon has been a deadbeat departed dad during Percy's formative years.

After being left high and dry by Poseidon, Percy's mortal mom (Catherine Keener, making her second consecutive appearance in a dreadful children's book-to-movie debacle following 2009's excruciating Where the Wild Things Are) has been shacked up with an abusive alcoholic asshole (Joe Pantoliano). She explains this decision by saying that the stepdad slob's "pungent odor" kept other gods from finding and harming Percy by detecting the scent of his blood. This makes absolutely no sense, considering that stinky stepdad would be nowhere near Percy during (for example) school hours five days a week, but logic isn't exactly a priority here.

When Zeus discovers that someone has stolen his personal lightning bolt, suspicion for some utterly unexplained reason falls on Percy. Zeus threatens to pretty much destroy the earth if Percy doesn't hand it over by a midnight deadline. Meanwhile, power-hungry Hades -- the third of the big three gods in this particular pantheon -- kidnaps Percy's mom and demands the lightning bolt for himself as ransom, so he can be more powerful than Zeus and Poseidon.

The fatal flaw with the plot is that all three gods have to be complete idiots to believe that the obviously clueless Percy could be the thief. The guy doesn't even know his old man is a god, having been kept in the dark about that fun fact all his life. More importantly, he doesn't have any idea how to wield any supernatural power, until he is spirited away for his own protection to an outdoor training facility for demigods that looks like a combination summer camp and Renaissance Faire.

That's where he meets the the ass-kicking and humorless daughter of Athena (Alexandra Daddario), who teams with Percy and his school chum-cum-hornless-satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) on a quest for...oh, I give up. Honestly, as soon as we find out that this trio has to go find three objects in three different places in order to visit Hades and then escape, I felt like groaning "dear gods, let it end."

Getting back to director Chris Columbus, it's hard not to imagine him being haunted by the knowledge that he made the most colossal career mistake in Hollywood history by walking away from the Harry Potter franchise. Since then, it's as if the gods have bound him to a rock so eagles can eat his liver every day for not appreciating his previous good fortune.

That'll teach him.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Perfect Getaway
(Reviewed August 6, 2009, by James Dawson)

Great Hawaii, Jamaica and Puerto Rico location scenery doesn't make up for a weak story with an unsatisfying ending that is more of a cheat than a twist.

Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich play young newlyweds taking an extended hike to a remote Hawaiian beach with another couple they just met (Kiele Sanchez and Timothy Olyphant). Are those recent acquaintances secretly the on-the-loose psychos who killed a honeymooning couple in Honolulu? Jeepers, the guy sure acts like a red-state loudmouth gun-lover, and the gal seems a little too handy at butchering a goat for supper.

But then there's also that other couple, a pair of scary hitchhikers (Marley Shelton and Chris Hemsworth) that Zahn and Jovovich denied a ride. The girl is hippie-bitchy, the guy is a badass with a "Do Not Revive" chest tattoo, and the two of them appear to be shadowing Zahn and Jovovich through the rain forest. What's up with that?

Director/writer David ("Pitch Black") Twohy keeps things B-movie suspenseful for about two-thirds of the film, then the story goes over a cliff. A plot surprise that simply does not work in context of what has gone before is endlessly drawn out and overexplained through lengthy black-and-white (actually blue-and-white) flashbacks.

The movie has its moments, and is beautifully shot.

Unfortunately, that ending is a real groaner that pulls the plug on credibility.

"Do Not Revive," indeed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
(Reviewed November 17, 2006, by James Dawson)

Director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") does an amazing job of conveying the sense of smell onscreen in this tale of period-piece magic-realism about a guy with a real nose for trouble.

Ben Whishaw is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born into the most unbelievably squalid of circumstances in pre-revolutionary France. Withdrawn nearly to the point of autism, he possesses incredibly heightened olfactory abilities that allow him to inhabit his own sensual world. He briefly finds his calling as behind-the-scenes assistant to a past-his-prime perfume maker (Dustin Hoffman, laying things on just a bit too thickly even for a powdered-wig performance), but can't stop being obsessed with the idea of capturing the literal "scent of a woman."

Once he comes up with a method of distilling such an essence, a technique which happens to involve killing unfortunate maidens, he must reach the magic number 13 to create what he believes will be the perfect blend. The fairest maiden of all that he craves is Rachel Hurd-Wood, a radiant 16-year-old redhead who plays the angelically beautiful daughter of wealthy landowner Alan Rickman. (Hurd-Wood was Wendy Darling in the 2003 version of "Peter Pan," and the way she has blossomed between then and now is a wonder to behold.)

Another absolute knockout (also a redhead) is Karoline Herfurth, as a character identified only as "the plum girl." She's plum purty, that's fer shore! Hyuck, hyuck! Gawwwleee!

2006 has been a great year for incredibly beautiful movies, and this one is right up there with the likes of "Marie Antoinette," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Curse of the Golden Flower." Incredible landscape photography, terrific locations, fantastic costumes. Also, there's a surprising amount of nudity that will mean lots of fun for DVD renters.

The ending may veer a little too far into "fairy tale" for some, but it worked for me.

One thing did bug me, though: For a guy who is so into smells, Grenouille gives no attention at all to -- as Borat so charmingly would put it -- the vazhins and annooses of women. Not that I wanted to see him scuttle around on all fours like a leg-humping French poodle, swooningly sniffing crotches and backsides like a dog. (Okay, maybe I did want to see that.) But it seems unrealistic that anyone with his obsessive, overpowering olfactory fetish wouldn't savor those areas more than the nape of a woman's neck or her skin.

Pardon my French.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed November 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

Interesting if frequently depressing animated feature adapted from Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical comics about growing up in Iran before and after that country's government takeover by authoritarian religious fanatics in the 1970s.

What a sad and pathetic world we live in, when superstitious idiots like those vicious, self-righteous bastards -- and our own maniacal "I answer to a higher father" president -- still hold positions of power in the friggin' 21st century. Welcome to the new Dark Ages.

But I digress.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Peter Pan
(Reviewed December 6, 2003, by James Dawson)

Don't let the slow-and-sappy start put you off. As soon as the kids and Peter Pan leave London, this live-action version of the classic story gets really interesting. That's because the tone shifts to something that is somehow stranger and more dreamlike than the Disney animated version, with pink cotton-candy clouds, Maxfield Parrish cliffs, an icebound pirate ship and a super-sized crocodile.

Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" movies) is excellent in the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. How excellent is excellent? He was so different in the two roles that I didn't even realize he was playing Hook until the movie was over! Like Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean," he almost seems to prefer flamboyance over fiendishness, but with much more menace than Jack Sparrow behind his mincing.

Newcomers Rachel Hurd-Wood (as Wendy Darling) and Jeremy Sumpter (as Peter Pan) also are great. They look like young versions of Kylie Minogue and Brad Pitt, almost too perfect to be real, but thankfully act nothing whatsoever like plastic "Hollywood kids." And Ludivine Sagnier (of "8 Women" and "Swimming Pool") is terrific as Tinkerbell, a role with no dialog whatsoever.

A really enjoyable movie. Take the kids. Take crazy old Grampa. Take the dirty, filthy perv who lives in the bushes near the elementary school. They'll all love it!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Phantom of the Opera
(Reviewed December 18, 2004, by James Dawson)

Maybe they should have called it "The Batman of the Opera."

Director Joel Schumacher, who fatally tackied-up the Batman franchise with the flagrantly vulgar installments "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin," brings the same misguided phony-is-fab sensibility to this movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Granted, neither the Dark Knight nor the Phantom could be mistaken for average joes living in a typical, everyday world. Still, there is a difference between the fantastic and the "simply fantabulous." I kept expecting Mr. Freeze to pop out from behind one of the oversized cemetery statues brandishing his great big gun, or for the Riddler to flit onto the floor of the masquerade ball. (During said soiree, one of the solo dancers actually "vogues." I kid thee not.)

For all of the uber-art-direction, there is a nagging "on the cheap" feel to large parts of the production. Nearly every set in the movie is very obviously a set, from a laughably phony "outdoor" cemetery to the Phantom's Disneyishly unmenacing underground lair. (One has to wonder whom the Phantom contracted to build the giant, goofy candelabras that rise from the water in his private love-lagoon.) Snow is paper confetti that sticks to characters' hairdos. A misquided flashback to the Phantom's past is shot on a black "limbo" stage.

Webber bashers (and I am not one of them) may argue that this "popera" deserves no better treatment. "Phantom"'s main theme is nicked note-for-note from a section of the Pink Floyd song "Echoes." Plotwise, most of "Phantom"'s third act should be unnecessary; it makes no sense that Raoul simply lets the murdering Phantom go free after subduing him in a swordfight, simply to set up a more elaborate capture of the villain later. And how does a guy who never leaves the opera house or interact with anyone but a ballet teacher become an architect, a composer, and a duellist -- or even know the way to the cemetery, for that matter?

Finally, so many members of the great unwashed enjoy Webber's work that it can't possibly be worth treating with any serious respect, now can it?

On the other hand, it would have been nice to see a director take this material and do something more creative (if not respectful) with it, or at least try to elevate it above the level of "dinner theater on steroids."

I did enjoy Emmy Rossum's performance as Christine. Rossum has an excellent singing voice and an unconventional but striking beauty. An amazingly sexy shot of her in white stockings and negligee, sitting with knees up in the Phantom's boat and looking innocently fetching, is burned forever in my brain -- right next to the image of Scarlett Johansson's panty-clad posterior from "Lost in Translation." (Gee, and I wonder why I'm not writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly...)

Gerard Butler is good as the Phantom, and Patrick Wilson is adequate if a tad bland as Raoul. Minnie Driver is amusing as La Carlotta, the diva that Christine replaces.

One of the opening special-effects shots in the movie is very well done, in which the ruined opera house transforms into its former glittering opulence. (The same "Titanic" effect occurs in "Lemony Snicket" this season.) Unfortunately, too much of the rest of the movie feels artificial and uninvolving.

Amazingly, Schumacher even manages to blow the movie's "money shot." In live performances of the play, everyone knows that the climactic chandelier crash cannot be too realistic or destructive, because the prop has to be reeled back into place for the next show and burning down the venue is not an option. In the movie version, however, the crash should have been violently spectacular. It isn't. The camera is in the wrong place, the edits don't work and the scene simply is not frightening.

Still, if you are a fan of the original musical, this adaptation probably won't make you want to throw Milk Duds at the screen in frothing outrage. The songs are memorable (infuriatingly so, Webber's snooty detractors would argue), well sung and well recorded. (An unfortunate but brief appearance by cheesy, 1980s-sounding synths amid the orchestra, however, felt like an anachronistic shout-out to longtime fans who first saw the play when Reagan was in office.)

Still, this movie is very likely to make every fan wish that somebody had bothered to videotape the Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford stage version and make it available.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Phoebe in Wonderland
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

I also wrote a feature article about this movie, which you can read by going here:
"Phoebe in Wonderland" feature article

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Phone Booth
(Reviewed April 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

Colin Farrell is amazing to watch in this taut thriller about a guy held prisoner in a phone booth for more than an hour of "real time" by a mindgame-playing sniper. This could have been an embarrassing, scenery-chewing extravaganza opportunity for a lesser actor, but Farrell manages to go right up to the edge of excess without falling over. An amazing performance.

There are some plot problems with "Phone Booth," but ultimately they don't hurt the movie much. For one thing, I'm not convinced that a duplicitous, fast-talking hustler like Farrell's character would not hang up on the anonymous caller right away, before his antagonist could get to the point. And there is a definite time problem with the final resolution, the details of which I can't go into without spoiling the ending.

Those flaws are distinctly minor, however, in a "stunt" movie that is this incredibly well executed. I really liked this one a lot. So go see it, already.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

The Pianist
(Reviewed December 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

Somehow, this Holocaust-survivor flick manages to fall short by being too dull most of the time and yet too over-the-top the rest. Adrien Brody is a bizarrely unexcitable Polish pianist (think Chance the gardener with an armband) who spends WW2 hiding from and being hidden from the Nazis. How can subject matter that potentially tense and dramatic come off looking like the world's most lethargic game of hide and seek? Ask director Roman Polanski, whose real-life flight from American justice has been equally unexciting. (Haven't we all kind of been expecting an elite unit of the American Sex Police to raid his Parisian pied-a-terre for the last two decades to haul the undeniably talented little child molester back to our fair shores for an extended incarceration? Meanwhile, he blithely goes on making movies without even a backward glance to see if Ashcroft's Asskickers are on his trail. Ah, the carefree joys of France!)

At the other end of the spectrum, occasional outrageous atrocity scenes (feeble old man in wheelchair being tossed over balcony, gun-happy Nazis making ghetto dwellers dance old-West style by firing bullets at their feet, etc.) feel as if they have been inserted in a cynical attempt to keep audiences awake. Things getting a tad too earnest and boring? Shoot a pretty girl in the forehead for meekly asking a perfectly reasonable question!

The movie does have some amazing looking scenes, the most impressive of which is an incredibly realistic exterior shot of the nearly destroyed ghetto. Also, I liked an unexpected development that occurs near the end of the movie, involving a character whose story is even stranger than the pianist's (and possibly even more tragic, in the Shakespearean sense).

Not really a bad movie, just one that doesn't bring a whole lot that's new to this sad "stain on the face of humanity." For a much more artistic, human and compelling storyline on this subject, rent "Sunshine," a largely overlooked masterpiece from a couple of years back.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny
(Reviewed October 26, 2006, by James Dawson)

Jack Black and Kyle Gass meet on California's Venice Beach, form the two-man band Tenacious D, and go in search of a legendary guitar pick that they think will make them the greatest rockers in history. Like the D's great HBO series from a few years back, the humor ranges from deadpan to slapstick to surreal (just wait until you see why they call themselves Tenacious D). Many of the group's songs are hilarious parodies of belligerent cock-rock arrogance, but it's obvious that they kid because they love.

Parts of the movie are a little slow (up until they take the stage for their first open-mic-night performance) or go on too long (such as a hallucinatory Sasquatch interlude), but there are plenty of laughs. Also, Black and Gass have oddly endearing childlike personalities that swing wildly between bitter pessimism and naive hope, with a little righteousness-of-purpose thrown in.

Be sure to stick around until all of the closing credits end, for a bonus scene that most people will miss.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Pineapple Express
(Reviewed June 30, 2008, by James Dawson)

If you're already stoned, you may be the right audience for this piece of shit about two potheads on the run from a violent dope dealer and his minions. You'll laugh giddily at its lame attempts at humor. You won't mind that it is ploddingly paced and padded. The cheap production values won't bother you a bit. And you won't be perceptive enough to realize that star Seth Rogen is nothing more than this century's Jim (definitely not John) Belushi.

On the other hand, if you haven't just huffed a big bongload, you may want to find another way to spend your hard-earned entertainment dollar.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Pink Panther (2006)
(Reviewed January 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

Incredibly, I've never seen any of the Peter Sellers "Pink Panther" movies. So the fact that I didn't much like this 2006 Steve Martin version has nothing to do with harboring any pink-colored-glasses fondness for the originals.

I'm not sure what audience the studio is targeting, but most of the humor in this amiably dumb exercise seems aimed at small children. Well, except maybe the part where Martin hooks electrodes up to his testicles, which should get big laughs from American military commanders in Iraq.

The big surprise here is how much more appealing Emily Mortimer (playing Martin's mousey secretary) is than Beyonce Knowles, who displays none of the likeability she showed in "Austin Powers in Goldmember." Plus two of Beyonce's awful, awful songs are featured, which doesn't help.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Pink Panther 2
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"The Pink Panther 2" review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Pirate Radio
(Reviewed November 10, 2009, by James Dawson)

There's something sad and shocking about this desperately unfunny homage to unlicensed radio stations that operated from ships in international waters off the coast of swinging '60s England. Incredibly, this witless and utterly forgettable exercise was written and directed by Richard Curtis, co-creator of the classic British TV series "Blackadder" and "Mr. Bean." His subsequent screenwriting efforts have been romantic comedies ranging from the adequate but overpraised ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") to the condescendingly cute ("Bridget Jones's Diary") to the sickeningly sweet ("Love Actually"), but nothing so bad as this.

The tragedy is that the premise of "Pirate Radio" -- a crew of eccentric DJs filling the newly awakened musical needs of an otherwise rock-and-roll deprived nation -- should have been a rich source of anarchic retro fun. Yet even a great cast and a terrific soundtrack can't keep this boat afloat.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is wasted as "The Count," the crew's only American DJ, who is so fervently dedicated to disc-spinning that he literally is willing to go down with the ship. The Count feels threatened by the arrival of cult-favorite air personality Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a purple-clad dandy in bippity-boppity hat. Bill Nighy is his usual serenely imperturbable self as the station's onboard owner, regarding the staff's sitcommish antics with coolly aristocratic detachment. Back in London, Kenneth Branagh is a constipatedly conservative government minister intent on shutting down the station.

Nick Frost comes off the worst of the lot, as a physically and metaphorically piggish DJ who somehow manages to seduce the would-be girlfriend of the station owner's teenage nephew (Tom Sturridge). Frost has so little to work with here that he shows none of the lunkhead charm he has displayed as sidekick to Simon Pegg in "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz."

Although "Pirate Radio" feels endless at more than two hours in length, at least one segment feels awkwardly shortchanged. (About 20 minutes were cut from the version released in the UK, where the movie was called "The Boat That Rocked.") A DJ's fiancee who arrives by motorboat to get married has no backstory whatsoever, which makes it hard to care about her -- and even harder to find her cruel behavior as a new bride amusing.

It's a shame that what we see onscreen never is as interesting, appealing or fresh as what is playing on the soundtrack, even though the songs are decades old. Pandering pop pimp Cameron Crowe himself couldn't have done a better job of juicing scene after scene with classic-rock tunes to lend doses of undeserved affection to the plodding proceedings.

With nearly four dozen instantly recognizable hits from the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Cream, the Beach Boys, the Turtles and the Supremes, "Pirate Radio" is like an infomercial for a damned fine Time-Life CD collection. (Bizarrely, the movie includes no songs whatsoever by the Beatles, even though that group's music would have been prominently featured on the era's actual pirate radio stations.) Curtis even manages to screw up some of those music cues, however: The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," for example, wasn't recorded until several years after the events depicted in the movie.

"Pirate Radio" is so unengaging, shallow and dumb that it easily could be the basis for a really lousy TV sitcom, complete with annoying iTunes ads at the end shilling the songs in each episode. Jim Belushi, call your agent.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
(Reviewed April 25, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Pirates of the Caribbean
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Lightweight but unexpectedly not-bad adventure movie, with Johnny Depp as an amusingly swishy pirate and Keira Knightley (the skinny blond knockout from "Bend It Like Beckham") as a comely teenage damsel in distress. Unfortunately, at well over two hours in length, this movie is at least a half-hour too long; the padded-out last third seems as if it never will end. But what the hell, it's still far better than the even-more-interminable but nowhere near as fun "Lara Croft."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

A fellow journalist summed up this movie's main problem perfectly in a discussion after the screening. Since I'm feeling lazy (what's new?), I'll simply pass on his words of wisdom:

"They sucked all the fun out of it."

Boy, did they ever.

This bloated bore manages to look incredibly expensive, be full of elaborate action set-pieces, and yet be utterly unengaging. It's too long, it's deadly dull, and the enjoyably lightweight sense of fun that made the first "Pirates" such a treat is wholly missing.

The script borrows its format from "The Empire Strikes Back," with the three main characters on separate tracks throughout most of the film. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is on the run from the octopus-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), a demon who wants his promised soul. Lovers Will and Elizabeth (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley), thanks to death warrants they received for aiding Depp in the first movie, separately go in search of Depp. Also, the movie ends with a very "Empire Strikes Back"-reminiscent cliffhanger.

It sounds nuts, but this movie seems to suffer from having too much money to burn. We get eye-candy for miles, but the script is a bore and the performances are talky and flat.

The last franchise that went this far wrong between its first and second installments was the moody and minimalist "Pitch Black" and its outright awful sequel "The Chronicles of Riddick."

I'm giving this a "D+" instead of a failing grade because parts of it really look terrific, so it's not a total waste.

But here's hoping we get some of the fun back next time.

(Also: Stick around until the credits finish, if your benumbed ass can bear it, for a short additional scene at the end.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Planet 51
(Reviewed November 11, 2009, by James Dawson)

"Planet 51" is a predictably generic CGI kid-com, roughly as cutting-edge witty as a "Zits" comic strip. The basic concept -- a belligerently Buzz-Lightyearish astronaut (Dwayne formerly-known-as-The-Rock Johnson) lands on a planet of green aliens living their version of 1950s America -- could have made for some clever "Back to the Future" meets "Pleasantville" tongue-in-cheekiness. Instead, the height of wit here involves a puppy version of the alien from "Alien" who pisses green acid.

There's the typical loser teentagonist, his unattainable dreamgirl, his nerdy friend, a belligerent authority figure, clueless parents, the whole deal. The most likable cast member is a mute and cute lil' robot ripoff of WALL-E called Rover, who rolls around quite adorably for something so shamelessly swiped.

But forget all that. Ignore the Pixar-on-a-slow-day screenplay, the by-the-numbers plot and the boringly stock characters. What this movie has going for it is an incredible background -- literally. The flying-saucer motif designs of the cars, buildings and furniture on the planet are retro gorgeous. The computer animation that makes metallic and painted surfaces beautifully reflective and glossy is reminiscent of the great work in "Robots" a few years back. Basically, all of the stuff here (including Rover) looks so good that you'll wish you could furnish your house (and your garage) with it.

Something that seems commercially questionable in This Day And Age is the prominence of the American flag (as opposed to a fictional "Earth Federation" type logo) on the astronaut's spacesuit. Considering how sullied and resented America has become this century under a pair of endless-war presidents, the sight of the stars and stripes may have less than favorable connotations for foreign audiences. "Look at zee typical American pig, arrogantly trying to colonize and subdue zee indigent population! Zut alors!"

So much for hope and change. Sigh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Pledge
(Reviewed January 6, 2001, by James Dawson)

This is the best-looking, best-acted stupid movie I have seen in a long time. Great cinematography, and Jack Nicholson makes a very badly written character very "watchable," but Good Lord, is the plot ever moronic.

First up, the film includes three of the biggest cliches in Hollywood:

(1) Jack Nicholson is a retiring detective who just Can't Let Go of his One Last Case. How the hell could the makers of this film read this script and convince themselves that nobody ever had seen this hackneyed device?

(2) The automatic suspect in a string of child murders is a churchgoing Christian. Look, I'm no Bible-thumper -- far from it. As a practicing atheist, I can take a pretty neutral view of things like this. But pinning the sins of the world on Jesus freaks has become as tiresome a Hollywood cliche as making every psycho turn out to be a Vietnam vet a few years back.

(3) Just when I thought this would be the one movie featuring a 70-something Hollywood leading man who does NOT get in the pants of a female half his age, Robin Wright Penn suddenly develops a jones for Jack in a fade-to-black makeout scene. Man, it must be nice to live on Planet Hollywood, where women get hot for guys the age of their granddads.

Oh, and about that plot. We are expected to believe that city detective Jack would buy and operate (by himself) a rundown rural gas station/convenience store solely to stake out the town where he thinks the serial killer lives. We are expected to believe that Jack would use an eight-year-old girl he comes to love as a daughter as a sex lure to entice the murderer -- without bothering to inform the girl's mother (whom Jack also obviously loves) that there is a psycho on the loose whose modus operandi involves grabbing and mutilating such girls. And the ending...hoo, boy. I won't ruin it except to say that it is simultaneously laughable, frustrating, and dumb beyond belief.

It's hard to believe that this was the movie Jack picked to be his first film since 1997's "As Good As It Gets." Hope it won't be another four years until his next one...and that it is one heck of a lot better than "The Pledge."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (because Nicholson saves it from an "F")

(Reviewed December 10, 2000, by James Dawson)

Ed Harris directed and stars in this cheerless bio of abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (aka "Jack the Dripper," although that nickname surprisingly never appears in the film). Boy, is this ever a depressing slog. If the movie's portrayal of its subject is accurate (I admit it, I'm too lazy to do any research this time around--hell, I practically wrote a term paper on the Marquis de Sade in my "Quills" review, give me a break), Pollock was a neurotic, zombie-like, occasionally violent alcoholic. I would like to think that the poor bastard had at least a little more joy in his life than we see here, or at least that he might have changed his facial expression now and then. (Harris spends 95 percent of the movie with a mug as blank as a member of Blue Man Group.)

Marcia Gay Hayden plays Pollock's lover/wife/main support system Lee Krasner, with a Brooklyn accent so thick you could schmear it on a bagel. Spends much time calling him simply "Pollock." Puts up with an awful lot of abuse. No joy here, either.

The jaw-droppingly beautiful Jennifer Connelly pops up in a role very near the end of the movie, but even her lovely presence doesn't bring a smile to Harris' stone face. Pollock definitely not a happy guy.

A brief aside: The most shocking thing about this movie was seeing supporting actor Bud Cort (teenaged Harold of "Harold and Maude") looking like a tubby, balding, middle-aged man. Yikes! Where does the time go?

This is not really a bad film, but it is no day at the beach, even when it is about a day at the beach. Don't go expecting to witness the uplifting spirit of artistic inspiration and noble creation at work, in other words. This guy's life was a bigger mess than his artwork, and that's saying something.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Poolhall Junkies
(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

Some nice trick shots in the hustling scenes (even though the direction makes each billiard match pretty much impossible to follow), but not much of a movie overall. Writer/director/star Mars Callahan ("Mars Callahan?") bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the always off-putting Edward Burns, and the "buncha guys" dialog among him and his band of doofuses is strained and dumb. A plot development toward the end is so ridiculously unbelievable that it makes suspension-of-disbelief bounce off the felt and roll right out the door. Also, there is a cheap-'n'-cheesy "maxed-out credit cards" indie feel to the flick that is hard to overlook, even with the presence of Christopher Walken (doing his always-watchable "Christopher Walken" thang) and Rick Schroder (who actually makes a pretty good badass, believe it or not).

So how come I bestowed a rather generous C as a grade? Simple: This movie has an absolutely GREAT final twist. When it dawns on you what has happened, you will smile like an idiot, smack yourself in the forehead, and shout, "God-DAMN, that was clever!" No kiddin', it's that good!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed May 11, 2006, by James Dawson)

I’m one of the few baby boomers who never saw the original "The Poseidon Adventure," to my eternal unrelenting shame, so I can’t make any deep and pithy comparisons between it and this 2006 remake.

As mindless entertainment, though, the new "Poseidon" definitely gets the job done; anyone inclined to buy a ticket to this kind of flick won’t be disappointed. By "this kind of flick," I mean the kind of old-school, suspenseful but unsickening action-disaster movie where something awful but not graphically horrifying happens. In other words, a flick that doesn’t involve gruesomely sadistic torture, annoying attempts at pop-culture irony, or creepy little ghost girls with stringy hair and blank expressions.

All of the passengers who will be running around trying to save themselves after the giant cruise ship flips are introduced in mercifully brief "Love Boat"-style scenes. Kurt Russell is a nice-guy former New York mayor (and former fireman, of all things) whose headstrong daughter (Emmy Rossum) is about to announce her engagement to an already henpecked wimp (Mike Vogel). Josh Lucas is a badass professional gambler who develops a soft spot for a single mother (Jacinda Barrett) and her doofy son. There’s also a foxy stowaway, a cruise ship steward, and Richard Dreyfuss as a gay corporate honcho newly dumped by his boyfriend back home.

The CGI effects in the movie are state-of-the-art impressive. Even this many years after "Titanic," it’s still amazing to realize that a movie like this can be created without employing an actual ship. Or an actual "rogue wave," for that matter.

Who will live? Who will die? And will Rossum keep the top of her low-cut gown in place during even her most strenuous raging-water exertions?

One thing’s for sure: For pure popcorn-movie, junk-food enjoyment, "Poseidon" beats the hell out of "Mission: Impossible 3." Even if Rossum does manage to keep her cupcakes covered. (Oh, what a giveaway!)

(Postscript added May 16: I couldn’t upload this or any other reviews I wrote during the second week of May because I couldn’t get online, thanks to a fried laptop. Which means this is one of the rare occasions when readers of this website may have seen other critics’ reviews before mine was accessible. If you are one of them, you probably noticed that most reviewers turned a big thumbs-down on "Poseidon." What a bunch of dishonest dopes. Look, I’m not saying this movie is a milestone masterwork, but it sure as hell isn’t as bad as the "let’s all pretend it’s this year’s `Gigli’" crowd would have you believe. To put it another way: Anybody who gave "M:I 3" a higher rating than "Poseidon" is couch-jumpingly clueless.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed August 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

The first and second halves work against each other, making for an incredibly frustrating whole, but "Possession" still gets points for making at least a partial effort to appeal to adults with brains. Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart are "opposites-attract" academics in contemporary England trying to track down a Love Connection between a married Victorian-era poet-laureate and his hitherto unsuspected mistress, a minor poet formerly assumed to be a lesbian. With that kind of pinkies-extended premise, director Neil Labute effectively kisses off 99.999 percent of the American market right from the git-go. ("Whut? No car chases?") Good for him!

Eckhart is an underappreciated American research assistant in London who unearths the initial evidence and enlists the aid of icy-hot British scholar Paltrow to help him shore up his theory. Both are excellent in their somewhat stereotypical roles (Eckhart the scruffy and casual Yank who calls himself a "brush and flush" guy when it comes to sharing a bathroom, Paltrow the rigid no-nonsense Brit who both literally and figuratively must be convinced to let her hair down). Sure, their "getting to know you" scenes are predictable, but their chemistry is convincing and so is their enthusiasm for their quest. Also enjoyable are the flashback scenes of the two long-dead poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) going through their own romantic paces.

The movie stumbles when Eckhart and Paltrow's first attempt at taking their relationship to the next level is mind-bogglingly aborted in mid-clench. That complication seems to occur merely to prolong the romantic tension, but makes no sense in regard to what we have seen before. Later, the script's intelligence is subverted by a sitcomishly unlikely grave-robbing scene and an embarrassingly soap-operatic climax.

But what the hell--even with its flaws, this is still the smartest romance an American studio is likely to release this year. Date flicks for grad students are damned hard to come by, so see this one while you can!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Post Grad
(Reviewed June 24, 2009, by James Dawson)

Alexis Bledel's huge blue eyes, dumbbell angel face and still-jailbaitish-after-all-these-years bod aren't enough to save this embarrassingly stupid, horribly written and embarrassingly overacted piece of lowest-common-denominator junk.

(Y'know, after being gone doing paying gigs for the past few months and not posting much of anything here at good ol', it feels good to be back with a critique that positively demands unloading both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun at close range.)

Bledel is the improbably named Ryden Malby, a recent college grad who moves back in with mom and dad when she can't find a publishing job in Los Angeles. The premise that anyone might expect to get work in publishing in L.A. is funnier than anything in the movie, actually, considering that such firms are about as common here as Honeybaked Ham outlets in Tel Aviv.

Michael Keaton is her manic, bug-eyed, utterly obnoxious father, taking a huge step backward from a not-bad dramatic role earlier this year as a hitman in "The Merry Gentleman." Carol Burnett is Bledel's drolly unfunny grandmother, Jane Lynch is her drolly unfunny mother and Bobby Coleman is her freakishly annoying little brother Hunter.

Virtually everything involving Bledel's wacky "Little Miss Sunshine" wannabe family is unnecessary, unappealing and utterly aggravating, from dad's plan to moonlight as a belt-buckle salesman to grandma's casket shopping to little brother's whining desire to race in a soapbox derby. I can't imagine why the producers didn't take the writer aside and order her to jettison every plot point not directly involving Bledel, because every second of the family stuff is achingly unamusing.

Not that Bledel's scenes are much better, mind you. It's just that she's easier on the eyes than anyone else here.

The main plot problem with "Post Grad" -- and trust me, it's damned hard narrowing down the list -- is that Ryden's "just friends" best bud Adam (Zach Gilford), filling the stereotypical role of the unappreciated should-be love of her life who you just know is going to end up with her in the end, is a needy, off-putting douchebag. There's absolutely zero chemistry between the two actors. Adam is the kind of pathetic, no-self-respect pussy who writes wimpy songs for Ryden, buys her a pair of feet warmers, and has a pouting pity party for himself when she doesn't show up to watch him sing his awful song at a club. She forgot that date because she was busy rolling around on a beach with her sexy Brazilian neighbor (Rodrigo Santoro). The audience can't help wishing those two characters would stay together. In fact, the movie would have been improved considerably if Adam had committed suicide after leaving an oh-so-sensitive note that makes Ryden sneer, roll her eyes in disgust and toss it onto his pathetic corpse.

No such luck.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Prairie Home Companion
(Reviewed May 16, 2006, by James Dawson)

This smugly boring, fake-folksy slice of unfunny would-be irony is so damned dull it appears to be aimed at geriatrics who think the Lawrence Welk show is too "hep."

I’ve never understood the appeal of Garrison Keillor’s "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. It always struck me as one of those things -- like Quentin Tarantino movies, Frank Gehry buildings, and "Family Guy" -- that confuses being bad on purpose with being good.

On the other hand, if you’re into dismally flat-as-a-prairie anecdotes, dopey spots for dubious general-store staples, and cornball country & western music, this may be the flick for you.

In the movie’s less-than-substantial plot, the live radio show is airing its final broadcast in a soon-to-be-demolished Minnesota theater. Kevin Kline is a mildly amusing retro security-guard-cum-private-eye who keeps spotting an otherworldly trenchcoated woman (Virginia Madsen) with a secret. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep are a bickering singing-sisters act, and Lindsay Lohan is Streep’s withdrawn and sullen daughter.

Keillor himself, as the show’s emcee, raconteur and occasional musical performer, is as deadpan, detached and deathly dull as he sounds on the radio. I think that his blank-eyed, monotone lifelessness is supposed to come off as charming.

Director Robert Altman tries to make juggling lots of backstage characters interesting, a task that is complicated by the fact that none of them are.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed March 2, 2007)

Sandra Bullock, the mother of two young daughters, lives the days of a certain week out of order. Knowing that her husband is going to die in a car accident and that several other bad things are going to happen, she tries to figure out a way to change things.

A movie like this lives or dies by whether it plays fair with the facts in its version of reality. Unfortunately, "Premonition" doesn't. Without ruining the ending (don't worry): When we finally see what happened Wednesday, what happens Thursday makes absolutely no sense.

Also, the movie takes forever to reach that ending.

It's appropriately moody and fairly interesting up to that point, though, which I guess counts for something.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Prestige
(Reviewed October 16, 2006, by James Dawson)

Director Christopher Nolan's first feature "Memento" was a stylish, clever and fascinating bit of low-budget cinematic genius. That means everything else he makes for the rest of his career inevitably will be compared to that dazzling debut effort.

Unfortunately, all three movies he has directed since "Memento" -- the tedious "Insomnia," the boring "Batman Begins" and the disjointedly dumb "The Prestige" -- all suffer from the comparison.

That's not to say there is nothing good about "The Prestige." It is, as the genteel would say, a very handsome production. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play rival turn-of-the-20th-century British magicians who become enemies after a tragic on-stage accident. Scarlett Johansson is, as always, the sexiest woman alive -- here as a deliciously showgirl-attired magician's assistant (as opposed to the clutzy amateur magician's assistant she played earlier this year in Woody Allen's "Scoop"). Michael Caine is a combination impresario and confidant to Jackman, while David Bowie gives an otherworldly deadpan performance as the frustrated inventor Nikola Tesla.

The problem is that the convoluted, non-linear screenplay (by Christopher and brother Jonathan Nolan, adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest) wants to appear intelligent but is undercut by a couple of remarkably stupid and crucial plot elements. I won't spoil things by revealing specifics, but neither major "twist" makes any damned sense. The first is so obvious and predictable that it is impossible to believe the astonished party would not have figured things out long before -- especially considering that he is in intimate, up-close contact at one point with proof of what should have been an easily deduced deception. (I'm not a big enough bastard to say more here, but I'll be glad to answer e-mail queries.)

For the second major story point to work, you have to believe that Tesla willingly would part with an invention that would have made him the richest and most powerful human being in the history of the universe. Even if you try giving the movie the benefit of a doubt, by assuming that Tesla could have made another one for himself later, the story still doesn't work. That's because Tesla's invention, within the movie's version of reality, still would have made him the richest and most powerful human being in the history of the universe. That kind of thing would be sort of hard to keep secret.

What's equally frustrating is knowing that the ending of "The Prestige" should have raised all kinds of very creepy philosophical and metaphysical questions about identity and mortality, but instead treats its story as nothing deeper than an expensive episode of "Night Gallery." What a waste.

Useless fun facts for comic-book fans: The stars of "The Prestige" have played Batman (Christian Bale), Batman's butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and Wolverine of the X-Men (Hugh Jackman), which makes this a weird "Elseworlds" kind of alternate-universe crossover. Or not. Also, Bale's character name in "The Prestige" is Alfred. Fascinating, no? No?

Before seeing "The Prestige" and this year's earlier period-piece magic movie "The Illusionist," I never would have guessed that I would end up preferring the simpler and more romantic "Illusionist" (which admittedly had its own predictability problems) to the more ambitious and, ahem, prestigious "Prestige."

Funny old world, innit, guv'nor?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Priceless (Hors de prix)
(Reviewed March 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

I really liked this bittersweetly sexy and very French romantic comedy a lot.

Audrey Tautou is an icy-cool golddigger who is thisclose to marrying into money when she makes the mistake of hooking up with another guy she believes is as loaded as her would-be husband. Oops. Turns out the new guy is only a lovestruck hotel bartender (played with Keatonesque deadpan guilelessness by Gad Elmaleh). He is perfectly willing to let Tautou believe what she wants to believe...until the truth raises its head and wrecks their romance.

The rest of the movie is devoted to Elmaleh trying to win back Tautou's favor, but things play out in very amorally interesting fashion when he finds himself turning into a male version of his beloved...and seems to enjoy the experience.

Tautou's elegantly erotic outfits are mouth-wateringly delicious, especially a purple gown that's held up with gold-braid ropes (click here for a partial glimpse). Who would have thought that offbeat little Amelie could be this unbelievably hot?

There's a definite anti-sentimental "Breakfast at Tiffany's" feel to the proceedings (apparently the "Priceless" producers even admit to their movie being a "reimagining" of sorts). But the movies' storylines go off in such different directions that any similarities between Tautou's Irene and Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly have more to do with personality than plot...and it's not as if Holly was the first mercenary-minded minx who thought she preferred luxuries to love.

Director Pierre Salvadori, who cowrote the screenplay with Benoît Graffin, deserves praise for letting the story unfold in an almost languid fashion. If "Priceless" ends up getting remade by Hollywood (and I really don't see how a major American studio could resist), the result probably will be manic and slapstick and vulgar, instead of low-key and witty and sophisticated.

Highly recommended -- see the original now, before it gets remade and ruined!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Pride and Glory
(Reviewed September 10, 2008)

This all-in-the-family bad cop/good cop drama is a pretty fair impersonation of 1970s-style gritty New York flicks, even if things do go a little over-the-top by the end. Not exactly a fun night at the movies, though.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Pride and Prejudice
(Reviewed September 29, 2005, by James Dawson)

This adaptation of the Jane Austen novel gets off to a frustratingly slow start -- the ballroom scene drags on for an eternity -- and is full of the sort of misunderstandings, coincidences and reversals that have become hoary romantic cliches. On the other hand, it's been about 200 years since the book was published, which makes it easier to cut the movie a little slack in the "been there, seen those windswept moors" department.

Actually, at the risk of tainting my studly macho image as someone who prefers the literary efforts of Chuck Palahniuk to those of the Bronte sisters, this flick ended up winning me over. I haven't read Austen's book (research? me?), but Keira Knightley does a good job of portraying a no-nonsense, headstrong, middle-class girl of marriageable age who chafes against her mother's, and Regency England society's, expectations of her. When she encounters the cold, standoffish and frighteningly wealthy Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), let's just say it doesn't take a genius to figure out where things will lead -- but the getting-there makes for an enjoyable trip.

Donald Sutherland is excellent as Knightley's father, who appears alternately amused and bemused by the behavior of his five nubile daughters. Sutherland also pulls off a couple of small but very well-done emotional scenes.

The girls' loud-and-crude mother is played by Brenda Blethyn, whose hammy portrayal was too over-the-top for my taste. Tom Hollander is amusing as Mr. Collins, a vicar to whom Knightley dreads being engaged. Rosamund Pike, best known as the blond Bond beauty in "Die Another Day," is believably moonstruck in love as Knightley's older sister Jane. And Dame Judi Dench is flat-out perfect as the high-bred, haughty and utterly humorless Lady Catherine.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the movie's dialog, which mainly consists of cleverly constructed deadpan witticisms delivered quite quickly, monotone-flat, and usually through clenched teeth. But Knightley does a good job of transforming from a high-verbal cold fish to a real, live girl who eventually learns from her mistaken assumptions about people and circumstances.

And now, back to reading my "Punisher" comic books.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
(Reviewed May 11, 2010, by James Dawson)

Frustration with a bad editing job normally isn't the first thing anyone mentions in a movie review. But both "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "Robin Hood," which will be released within two weeks of each other in May, suffer from the same problem: sloppy cutting that makes scenes unconvincing and occasionally incomprehensible. The flaw is so noticeable that I was hoping both movies were edited by the same person, as opposed to representing a harbinger of some horrible new stylistic trend, but no such luck. "Prince of Persia" was chopped and slopped by Mick Audsley, Michael Kahn and Martin Walsh (two of whom -- Audsley and Kahn -- are former Oscar winners), while "Robin Hood" was sliced and diced by Pietro Scalia (a two-time Oscar winner himself). What the cuss?

In "Prince of Persia," action scenes are so poorly assembled it's as if the filmmakers purposely want them to look fake, even though the movie clearly is not meant to be tongue-in-cheek campy. When unjustly accused fugitive prince Dastan (an unexpectedly beefy Jake Gyllenhaal) does things like leap from rooftop to rooftop, jump out of windows and such, the stunt work and SFX consistently are subverted by multiple edits that can't help ruining the flow. For the same reason, extended "parkour" run-and-climb sequences come nowhere near the high standard set by Casino Royale. And what transpires in the big finale, set in a massive collapsing underground cavern, is so what-just-happened confusing that where people end up and how they got there is utterly baffling.

Sharing the blame is director Mike Newell, who helmed the only genuinely disappointing Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). A movie about a hunted but good-hearted prince joining forces with a beautiful and spirited princess (Gemma Arterton) to keep the world from being destroyed by a magic time-reversing dagger should be thrilling, charming and romantic in both the fantasy and hooking-up senses of the word. Instead, "Prince of Persia" is so bland and by-the-numbers it gets boring. Attempts at comic relief, such as a segment about a tax-evading ostrich-race promoter (Alfred Molina), fall flat. Also, this is one of those adventure movies that has more than one moment when it could have ended, and almost each time it doesn't is a disappointment.

But here's a paradox: When the actual big climax finally arrives, it's one that cries out for an additional scene that could have been as romantic and touching as the rest of the movie isn't. Prince Dastan and Princess Tamina, who have behaved like a pair of asexual 12-year-olds up to that point, have the chance to make a deeper, stranger and more potentially interesting connection than we've seen during all of the betraying and bickering that's gone before. Instead, the credits roll.

On the positive side, the screenplay features a slightly subversive (well, for a Disney movie, anyway) subplot that's an Arabian nights allegory to America's current occupation of Iraq. Against Prince Dastan's advice, his country's army invades a city under the pretense of looking for weapons that a certain leader knows don't exist. Also, even though busty and beautiful Gemma Arterton never appears in anything as revealing as, say, Princess Leia's harem-girl outfit, she still looks pretty delicious in a corset and gold eye-shadow. And her puffy and perfect lips -- the kind that money can't buy, even though plastic surgery patients keep trying -- are the stuff that dreams are made of.

"Prince of Persia" isn't a terrible movie, just one that should have tried a little harder to rise above generic mediocrity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Princess and the Frog
(Reviewed December 12, 2009, by James Dawson)

After getting off to a depressingly slow start that's so unfunny and uninteresting it makes you wonder if Disney really cares anymore about hand-drawn (as opposed to Pixar-style CGI) animation, "The Princess and the Frog" turns around nicely once it gets "swamped." As soon as the visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) and working-class 1920s New Orleans native Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) go green -- by getting turned into frogs, that is -- and come in contact with various animals, bugs, hillbillies and a toothless priestess in the Louisiana bayou, the movie becomes exactly the kind of amusing, heartwarming, and just-scary-enough story that Disney does so well.

Randy Newman's songs are uniformly excellent, especially the production number "Friends on the Other Side," which is sung by a genuinely big and bad voodoo daddy (Keith David). Michael-Leon Wooley is charmingly goofy as Louis, an overweight alligator who lives to play jazz, and Jim Cummings is surprisingly touching as a firefly who thinks a distant star is his one true love.

What's most impressive about the movie are its very moving and then downright clever final scenes, which are so well done they will make you forget all about what a drag the film's first reel was.

I suppose I also should mention that the movie marks a Disney milestone by featuring the studio's first black main character since "Song of the South." Tiana's portrayal and environment are completely "race neutral," in that she faces no discrimination and no one in the cast ever refers to anyone's color. Even though the movie's opening scene takes place in a plantation-style mansion owned by a wealthy white man (John Goodman) who employs Tiana's struggling mother as a seamstress, there's no implication that anything other than class separates their worlds.

Maybe the Roaring Twenties Big Easy really was cool like dat, and maybe not. Whether the movie should be applauded or chided for ignoring the issue -- whether putting things in a racial context would have been appropriately instructive or inappropriately oppressive -- will be up to each viewer to decide.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Princess Diaries
(Reviewed June 19, 2001, by James Dawson)

There are two things that make this horrendously acted, amateurish would-be "comedy" not just bad but utterly despicable.

First, although its "ugly duckling" plot already has been used everywhere from "The Brady Bunch" to "She's All That"--you know, the plot where an obviously beautiful girl is supposed to appear ugly just because she wears nerd glasses and has a bad hairdo in the first act, but then we are supposed to be shocked and amazed when she turns out to be ga-ga-ga-gorgeous after a makeover--I've never seen even the cheesiest retelling of that fable resort to outright CHEATING. In "The Princess Diaries," the first time we see allegedly 15-year-old Anne Hathaway (the utterly babe-alicious star of last year's Fox series "Get Real"), SHE IS WEARING A PROSTHETIC NOSE. Now, that's just not playing fair. In the movie, we are supposed to believe that a single afternoon with a makeup man converts Hathaway from a frizzy-haired, potato-nosed Chelsea-Clinton-type into a sleek, perfect-nosed teen goddess...but that obviously wouldn't be possible. Every pre-teen girl who sees this flick (and I can't imagine any other demographic shelling out for tickets) should get together and file a class-action lawsuit against the producers.

The other contemptible thing about the movie is that it is so unrelentingly awful even though it has Julie Andrews in it, who deserved so much better. Good God, this is the woman who was Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins, not to mention Victor/Victoria, Americanized Emily and the Queen of Camelot herself. And now is shamelessly sullied by appearing in this inept "Saved by the Bell"-level tripe directed by Garry Marshall. (Also, Marshall's "Pretty Woman" is an obvious template for a lot of the stuff that goes on in this movie: the unsophisticated klutz who has to learn manners and class to dwell among her betters. Unfortunately, however, Hathaway never wears fishnets and hot pants.)

Oh, and there's one other thing about this movie that should make cinema fans weep. Heather Matarazzo, who was absolutely perfect in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" a few years back, appears as Hathaway's best friend. Ain't it sad that even a girl who actually can act, and who actually appeared in a truly great indie movie that was about real people, is now appearing in this "Disney Channel" level crap?

Why, yes, in fact, it is.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D- (Saved from an "F" because Hathaway is just so darned good-looking, even if she can't act or move worth a damn.)

The Producers
(Reviewed November 30, 2005, by James Dawson)

I didn't schlep to New York to catch Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway, but now I can almost understand why people took out second mortgages to buy tickets to the stage version of "The Producers." This movie adaptation is so much joyous, corny, ridiculous fun that it's a genuine holiday treat.

Lane is Max Bialystock, a producer with a track record so bad that his latest play has a hinged sign that flips from "Opening Night" to "Closing Night." Broderick is Leo Bloom, a timid but high-strung accountant who points out that a flop could be more profitable than a hit to an unscrupulous impresario and a creative bookkeeper. Before you can say "Enron Worldcom Halliburton," the two have joined forces to stage what they decide is the worst play in the world: a frothy little musical called "Springtime for Hitler."

Lane is the star and heart of the movie. He is wonderfully loud, hammy and preposterously optimistic, whether romancing little old ladies for financial backing, pleading with a pigeon-tending neo-Nazi playwright (Will Ferrell), or stroking the ego of outrageously flamboyant director Roger De Bris (Gary Beach).

Beach and his "common law assistant" Carmen Ghia (Roger Bart) are flat-out hilarious in the movie's funniest scene, which takes place in their gayer-than-gay home headquarters. The shamelessly silly stereotypes therein may make this scene the movie's most politically incorrect -- which is saying a lot, in a flick that has Busby Berkeley-style dancers forming an on-stage swastika.

Uma Thurman is Ulla, a Swedish stage-star-slash-receptionist whose audition gets a "standing ovation" from Bialystock and Bloom even though they are sitting down. Although she and Ferrell are the only major cast members who did not appear in the Broadway play, both do a good job of throwing themselves into the general craziness of their surroundings. Both turn out to be pretty good singers and dancers, too. Who would have guessed?

Broderick is the unexpectedly weak link in the cast. He often seems distracted, tentative or embarrassed, instead of fully embracing his inner Gene Wilder (who played Bloom in the 1968 original version of the movie). This is more of a problem during dialog scenes than songs. Even Bialystock himself notes at one point that Broderick has a surprisingly good singing voice.

And it's the songs that matter the most here. They are what sets this version apart from the 1968 version, whose only tunes were numbers within the "Springtime for Hitler" production. Funny-for-funny, the dialog scenes in the original movie might have this one's beat. But the new songs -- all written by "Producers" creator Mel Brooks himself -- are so light, funny, well choreographed and beautifully staged that they make everything old seem new again.

And just wait until you see the elaborate, 2005 take on "Springtime for Hitler" itself, with next-to-naked showgirls festooned with giant pretzels, sausages and Iron Crosses; a swishy but sensitive Hitler; and a stage full of bubbly, brown-shirted chorus girls. Somewhere in Hell, Stalin and Chairman Mao must be green with envy.

Be sure to stick around until the very end of the credits for a musical bonus: a "Producers" version of Ferris Bueller's famous "go home, the movie's over" routine.


Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

(Reviewed June 7, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed July 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

Wow, what a bad movie. It's "A Beautiful Mind" for boneheads.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the strung-out former caregiver to her former math-genius father (Anthony Hopkins), recently deceased after a few years of laughably good-natured dementia. A grad student (Jake Gyllenhaal) going through dead old dad's gibberish-filled notebooks discovers a revolutionary math proof, but Gwyneth claims to have written it herself.

Is she telling the truth? Or has she gone to Crazytown, too? That's what sister Hope Davis, in town to sell off the family property and spirit Gwyneth away to a New York nuthouse, thinks. The lovestruck grad student, who slipped Gwyneth his slide rule of love after a math-nerds house party, isn't so sure.

The high-school-freshman-level theme, in other words, relates to which takes precedence -- resolute faith vs. uncontestable facts -- when it comes to establishing a "proof" offered by a loved one. This reminds me of a friend-of-a-friend's creative writing exercise I heard about in college, in which a sword-wielding hero made his way through a thick forest into a wet cave. Get it? GET IT?

"Proof" stared out as a play, and maybe this relentlessly boring nonsense worked better on the stage.

But I doubt it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Proof of Life
(Reviewed December 1, 2000, by James Dawson)
I absolutely loved this movie. Let me put it this way: I started writing these reviews in July of 2000, and this is only the fourth movie released this year that I have given an "A" grade. What's strange is that none of those four movies (the other three being "Sunshine," "Requiem for a Dream" and "Snatch") have anything in common, except that all three are movies made for actual grown-ups who like having their intelligence respected instead of insulted.

Russell Crowe plays a tough-but-sensitive go-between handling negotiations to get back Meg Ryan's kidnapped husband in a fictional South American country. Simple setup, right? But the artistry of this film is that every character, every location, every conversation feels genuine and true. This is the kind of movie that usually is "Hollywoodized" into complete crap by giving the lead role to a hammy no-talent like Mel Gibson, who would mug and twitch and goof his way through the role like a guy who was in a hurry to get back to his mansion or onto a golf course.

But I completely bought Russell Crowe in this role. He is smart, no-nonsense, professional, confidence-inspiring, reassuring, intimidating when he needs to be, knows when to be subtle and when to be dynamic--everything a guy in his job should be. His relationship with Meg Ryan (of whom I never was a fan in the past, but she is entirely appropriate for her role) is believable and adult. Crowe might get a Best Actor nomination next March for his work in "Gladiator." But if I had the keys to the AMPAS rental truck, I would hand the Oscar to him for this performance instead. He's that good.

In fact, in a perfect world, this movie would be up for Best Director (Taylor Hackford), Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actor (the flat-out excellent David Caruso) at Academy Awards time. But it probably will get lost in the shuffle of holiday hype for Christmas crud (can you say "Family Man?"). Still, that doesn't keep it from being one of the very best movies of 2000.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Punch-Drunk Love
(Reviewed October 1, 2002, by James Dawson)

Honestly, I'm stunned. I never would have thought that any movie could replace the abominably noxious "Forty Days and Forty Nights" as my pick for "Worst Movie of 2002."

I'm tempted to stand outside theaters on opening day to watch Adam Sandler fans emerge from screenings looking confused, betrayed and positively enraged. Every one of them will want a refund. Many may want blood. The ones who didn't get the word that Sandler is supposed to "act" in this movie will be shocked at the complete lack of laughs, in what is supposed to be an edgy black comedy. Director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson may have been trying to pull a Todd Solondz ("Welcome the the Dollhouse," "Happiness") here, but only proves how incredibly hard it must be to produce unsettling humor that does not come across as forced, fake and artsy-fartsy.

Sandler fans who DID get the word that he would be attempting to emote here (as opposed to mugging and goofing) will be no less frustrated. That's partially because Sandler is no Olivier--heck, he's not even a Steve Martin--but mainly because the guy he plays is not so much a character as a completely artificial, unbelievable, and basically uninteresting writer's construct. The entire movie seems so ad-libbed and pointless that it feels like a bad first draft written by a guy who absolutely hated what he was doing, but who felt obligated to pound out new pages until the pile was tall enough to shoot.

That couldn't-care-less attitude about the loser-in-love plot is best typified by the fact that Emily Watson appears as a woman whose attraction to Sandler is utterly and wholly inexplicable. There is not enough suspension of disbelief in the history of the universe to account for this seemingly normal woman to fall for a guy who is borderline retarded, socially inept, easily intimidated, prone to rage against inanimate objects, conversationally clueless and financially unsuccessful. (If that happened in the real world, a lot more comic-book fans would have girlfriends.)

Even the technical aspects of the movie are substandard. Lots of jarring hand-held camera work. Atrocious lighting throughout. Many scenes overlaid with soundtrack music that is so aggravatingly loud as to completely smother the dialog. Even if all of this comes under the heading of "lousy-on-purpose," a la Dogma-style filmmaking, I'm sorry--bad is still bad.

Look, I know what you're thinking. If you liked Anderson's "Boogie Nights" (or even if you're like me and didn't), you can't help having some misplaced affection for the guy who gave the world a couple of drool-inducing Heather Graham nude scenes. Well, folks, nobody's naked in this one--except critic's-darling emperor Anderson, who has absolutely no clothes at all.

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

(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Punisher
(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

His name appears nowhere in the credits for this movie, but Garth Ennis is a goddamned genius. That's because Ennis, who writes the "Punisher" comic book these days, manages to do so brilliantly what this film does so poorly: mix intensely visceral vigilante violence with bizarre, over-the-top black humor.

The movie version also suffers from the flat-out bizarre decision to move the action from the mean streets of New York City to the stunningly inappropriate sunny clime of Tampa, Florida. When Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, appears in one scene wearing a floor-length black-leather duster coat, it is impossible not to think, "Jesus, the poor bastard must be burning up in that thing!"

Many of Ennis' original characters from his "Welcome Back, Frank" 12-issue Punisher miniseries appear more-or-less faithfully in the movie, including the nearly unstoppable Russian, a contract killer who Just Won't Quit.

Unfortunately, the rest of the ho-hum (and often stupid) plot has no relation to anything from the comics. John Travolta is a murdering money-launderer who wipes out the Castle family after his own son is killed in a sting operation. This makes Frank Castle put on a skull T-shirt, acquire an arsenal and an armored GTO, and go on a vengeance spree. (I prefer the comic-book origin of the Punisher, in which his family is killed because they witnessed a mob rub-out during a "wrong place at the wrong time" Central Park picnic trip.)

Here's a quick example of how dumb the script is: Travolta gives his wife (the stunningly delicious Laura Harring, who went by the name Laura Elena Harring in "Mulholland Drive") a huge pair of diamond earrings early in the movie. For some inexplicable reason, she carries them in her purse...still in their Harry Winston box...whenever she leaves the house to go to the movies, even though she doesn't wear them. Furthermore, she always leaves her purse in her car! Actually, the reason isn't so inexplicable; it's so the simple-minded plot can permit the Punisher to use the diamonds to set her up. Weak.

I know this sounds like a joke, but I honestly prefer the 1989 Dolph Lundgren "Punisher" movie to this one. Like this 2004 version, it was set in the wrong locale (Sydney, Australia, doubling for what looks more like Los Angeles than the Big Apple). Like this one, it changed Frank Castle from bitter ex-Vietnam vet to disillusioned law-enforcement officer. And both movies make the same mistake of changing Frank's reason for becoming the Punisher from "victim of cruel fate" to "victim of bad-guy payback." But somehow, the 1989 felt more like a good comic-book instead of a bad cop movie.

Plus there's the fact that Dolph Lundgren makes a much better hollow-eyed, single purpose, badass killing machine than does surfer-boy Thomas Jane. But then, who wouldn't?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Pursuit of Happyness
(Reviewed December 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

Hell hath frozen over.

I've never been a fan of Will Smith. I never imagined that he could make a movie I wouldn't hate. I dreaded going to this screening, expecting to endure the same kind of agonies I suffered during the headache-inducing "Hitch."

Which is why I am stunned to report that Will Smith deserves a Best Actor nomination for this performance. He's that good. And I wouldn't be at all annoyed if the movie itself got a Best Picture nomination.

The storyline is as sentimental and melodramatic as they come. Smith's bitchy, fed-up wife (Thandie Newton) leaves him with a five-year-old son. This is despite the fact that Smith is going broke fast trying to peddle overpriced medical equipment, into which he has sunk his life's savings. When he is about to hit rock bottom, he's admitted into an internship program at the Dean Witter brokerage firm. The catch is that the six-month position is unpaid, and offers no guarantee of a job offer upon completion.

That means Smith has to survive eviction, homelessness, poverty and soul-crushing despair for half a year while showing up every morning in a shirt and tie like any other young exec on the make.

I know, I know -- that description sounds depressingly Dickensian to the point of parody (like the old Monty Python routine: "We were so poor, we had to sleep in a hole in the road!"). But Smith and his real-life son are so touching and believable in their roles that both of them will bring tears to your eyes.

The script does have a few missteps. Items stolen from Smith have a very World-of-Coincidence way of reappearing. And if I were down to my last dime, I sure as hell wouldn't leave one of my most valuable possessions in the care of a hippie-girl stranger I just met on the sidewalk.

A lot of facts have been changed and fictional incidents created in this adaptation of the real Chris Gardner's story, too. For one thing, the real-life Gardner's son was only a baby, not a five-year-old. And the internship paid a small stipend, which puts a very different spin on things.

Still, even with those flaws, this is one of the most moving stories of the year. Best of all, it never resorts to "playing the race card." Not once does anyone make an issue of Smith's skin color, and Smith's character never blames his situation on racism.

Again, I can't believe I'm saying this, but:


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Puss in Boots
(Reviewed October 26, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-