Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed October 12, 2008, by James Dawson)

Jennifer Carpenter, best known as the title character's sister on the Showtime series "Dexter," plays a TV reporter doing a story on Los Angeles firefighters. A call to a spooky apartment building where zombie-like activity turns out to be the problem results in Carpenter, the residents, some firefighters and a hair-trigger cop being forced to remain in the building, in order to contain the outbreak of whatever is making the people there get all flesh-eaty.

This is a remake of the Spanish movie "Rec," which I haven't seen. Every frame of "Quarantine" is seen as if the footage was shot by Carpenter's TV-news cameraman, a conceit that becomes a little ridiculous at times; the guy would have to possess nerves of steel to keep shooting some of the things that happen without dropping his camera and running like hell, or without putting the damned thing down long enough to help other people.

Also, the dim lighting in the apartment building made me wonder if anything brighter than a 10-watt bulb existed in that universe.

Still, this is an okay cheapo horror flick for the easily spooked, and Carpenter is sexy-tomboy likable.

One thing that infuriated me, though, is that the TV ad for this movie includes the VERY LAST SHOT in the film. I won't reveal what that shot is, but anyone who has seen the TV commercial will have a good idea what it has to be. It is so memorable, in fact, that it's impossible not to keep thinking, "Hey, that thing in the TV ad hasn't happened yet." When it finally does happen, the very next thing you see onscreen is the credits. Ouch.

Maybe the marketing department should have been quarantined.

Back Row Grade: C-

The Queen

(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Helen Mirren gives a good performance as the terse, cold and slightly bitchy Queen Elizabeth 2 during the week of Princess Diana's death and funeral, but this movie ultimately is little more than a classed-up version of a made-for-TV movie. A symbolic subplot about a beautiful and elusive stag being stalked by the royal hunting party during that same week is heavy-handed, obvious and unlikely.

I did enjoy the dialog given to QE2's hubby Prince Phillip, who is angrily indignant and offended by the masses of "hysterics" wallowing in their very public grief over Diana's death. Two things always come to mind whenever I think back to that event: the incredible amount of money wasted by mourners on flowers that formed a sea of bouquets in front of Buckingham Palace, and a TV news soundbite from some moronic woman who announced that she bought two copies of the sickeningly sappy Elton John CD "Goodbye England's Rose" because she thought she might wear out the first one. Gak.

Then-newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair is portrayed as the kind of eager-to-please, overly respectful douchebag whom one easily can imagine toadying up later to a strutting, imperial asshole like George W. Bush. In the same way that Blair shows a ridiculous willingness to prop up the reputation of the disdainful, uncaring and unnecessary royal family, he would throw in his lot a few years down the road with the most reprehensible, undemocratic and clueless president in American history. Does this guy have a pathological suck-up complex, or what?

But I digress.

Back Row Grade: C+

Queen of the Damned

(Reviewed March 2, 2002, by James Dawson)

So-so adaptation of the second and third of Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" books rolled into one. The screenplay is very choppy; I have read the books, but even I was getting lost here and there. I can't imagine how confusing all of the family-tree flashbacks, Talamascan history and vampire-commune segments must seem to the uninitiated. Also, the movie just plain isn't scary, which is a bit of a drawback for a horror movie. (I found only a single shot in the entire thing genuinely creepy, and it is not even an action sequence. It is the shot that reveals what has become of the Queen of the Damned's King. What that shot implies somehow is more disturbing than any of the bloodletting and general carnage we actually see taking place in the rest of the movie.)

There also is a faint aroma of cheese about the entire production, which more than occasionally threatens to lapse into camp. It is not as bad as it could have been, and Rice herself is to blame for the intrinsically goofy premise of making Lestat into a rock star. Singer Aaliyah actually is okay in the title role, but Stuart Townsend is a bit too slight and unthreatening as Lestat. Also, it is impossible to watch this movie without thinking of the Saturday Night Live "Goth Talk" skits, which pretty well punctured (ha-ha) the pretentiously silly "Bela Lugosi's Dead" crowd.

The best way to describe my mixed feelings about this movie: Imagine how cool it could have been if a stylish director with a real affinity for the "dark side" (David Fincher is the first name that comes to mind) had been behind the camera. Yikes!

Back Row Grade: D+

Quid Pro Quo

(Reviewed June 19, 2008)

Sometimes slow, and too long even at 82 minutes, this nevertheless is an intriguing character study about a wheelchair-bound radio reporter (Nick Stahl) discovering a group of fetishists who wish they were paralyzed or amputees. He falls for one of those nutjobs (Vera Farmiga), whose problems also include issues with a demeaning, bitchy mother.

I would have liked this movie a lot more if it hadn't resorted to a very predictable would-be twist in the plot. Watching the quietly miserable Stahl interact with the sexy-but-sanity-challenged Farmiga is interesting on a weird worlds-colliding level that doesn't really need an overriding story -- or at least not one as nothing-special as this one.

I can't imagine spending money to see this in a theater, because it will lose nothing on the small screen, but it would make a decent rental.

Back Row Grade: C

The Quiet American

(Reviewed November 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

Michael Caine is excellent as a lazy, adulterous British journalist in 1950s Vietnam, when the French were leaving the country and the CIA was skulking in. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, is embarrassingly miscast as the title character, about whom there may be More Than Meets The Eye.

As always, the viewer is left thinking that anyone...ANYONE...would be better cast than Fraser in any movie in which he is supposed to play a dramatic role. He is so out of his league in scenes with Caine that I kept hoping Fraser would throw up his hands and walk off the set saying, "I'm sorry, I'm too unworthy, I'm going back to Hollywood and try to get `Dudley Do-Right 2' off the ground."

Having said that, the rest of the movie manages to be good enough to make up for Fraser's presence. The film offers a neat colonial allegory of Caine, the sophisticatedly debauched European, stringing along his trusting Vietnamese mistress until she rebels by hooking up with Fraser (who, in time-honored American fashion, will end up exploiting her trust far more cruelly than the paternal Caine ever could).

As this country prepares to charge into Iraq with the same kind of bullshit rhetoric and gung-ho rationalizations that got more than 50,000 Americans and God knows how many Vietnamese and Cambodians killed last century, it would be nice to think that somebody in charge would see this film and go, "What the hell are we thinking?"

Yeah, right. That's gonna happen.

Back Row Grade: B-

(Reviewed November 3, 2000, by James Dawson)

As a bit of an unrepentant filthmonger myself (at one point having written four regular columns for Penthouse publications each month, he shamelessly confessed), I was hoping that this would be an edgy, lascivious, shocking, intellectually challenging movie about an 18th kindred spirit, the Marquis de Sade. Considering that director Philip Kaufman's previous attempt at filming erotic subject matter was the dreary and dismally dull "Henry and June," I should have known better.

"Quills" is dishonest, pretentious, tedious junk whose only paying audiences will be culture vultures and the raincoat brigade. The former will fall into two categories. Some will delude themselves into pretending that "Quills" is a masterpiece so as not to appear intellectually "unhip," if they are as insecure as certain members of the screening audience, who made it a point to laugh quite loudly at every heavy-handed example of what was supposed to pass for writerly wit. Others will recognize this unconvincing, unsubtle, dimwitted dirge as nothing better than a bad costume melodrama full of declaiming hams instead of actors, with a few crudely carved dildos thrown in for spice.

As for the raincoat brigade, let me save you guys a few bucks. Here is the full extent of the sex and nudity to be found in this preposterously timid tale about one of history's dirtiest scribes: A fully-clothed instance of dry-humping; a fuzzy profile shot of Kate Winslet's left breast; several shots of Geoffrey Rush's droopy ass when he is photographed nude from behind; a long shot of full-frontal Rush nudity in which his member looks like a golf ball resting in a black bird's nest (G.R., call your agent); a brief nude shot of a slutty laundress sandwiched between two naked guys; some remarkably unattractive asylum inmates in various stages of undress during a few looney-bin background shots; and Rush cowering nude in a cell with his package hidden from view. Winslet does come through with a nice topless scene toward the end (and may I say, she has a rather impressive rack), but you will be asleep by then, so it hardly counts.

Although most of "Quills"' characters are based on real people, almost everything they do is fictitious, as are many facts about them. The Abbe played by Joaquin Phoenix was actually a four-foot-tall hunchbacked dwarf. The Marquis himself was fat. The water-dunking "calming chair" used by the doctor (Michael Caine) never existed. I don't know if the doctor's juicy jailbait bride (Amelia Warner) has any basis in reality. But she looks so good wiping her lips with the back of her hand as her head rises from a man's crotch that I'll give her a pass. (Attention Joe "Let's Censor Everything" Lieberman: This movie officially qualifies under US government guidelines as kiddie porn, because it features a girl under 18 in sexual situations. She is clothed, but rules is rules, right? Quick, organize another Senate subcommittee investigation, you anal-retentive idiot!)

In the most central plot point of "Quills," de Sade writes his scandalous novel "Justine" at the Charenton asylum and has laundress Winslet smuggle out the manuscript pages. The book's publication causes Napoleon himself to appoint nasty Dr. Royer-Collard to oversee the asylum and break de Sade's spirit.

In reality, de Sade was first incarcerated at Charenton from 1789 to 1790, after serving a few jail stints for crimes wholly unrelated to penning porn (poisoning, sodomy, that sort of thing). Although he wrote an early version of "Justine" while imprisoned in the Bastille, de Sade completed "Justine" as a free man after leaving Charenton. It was published in 1791. TEN YEARS LATER, in 1801, he was arrested for writing it. He then was sent from prison to prison for the next two years, arrived back at Charenton in 1803, and resided there until his death in 1814. And get this: NONE of his published books were written after 1800. According to, "He began work on an ambitious 10-volume novel (at Charenton), at least two volumes of which were written: Les Journées de Florbelle ou la nature dévoilée ("The Days of Florbelle or Nature Unveiled"). After his death his elder son burned these writings, together with other manuscripts."

In other words, the movie's entire premise--of laundress Winslet smuggling out de Sade manuscripts from Charenton, their subsequent publication, and the resulting notoriety those books bring to de Sade--is complete and utter bullshit.

Now, if there is one thing I hate (and believe me, there are quite a few), it is movies that want to have it both ways by co-opting a historical figure's name to sell tickets, but playing loosey-goosey with the facts of his life in a misguided effort to amp up the plot. If somebody is interesting and important enough to get the bio-pic treatment, doesn't that sort of imply that there just might be enough worthwhile stuff in his REAL life to make for a good movie, without giving some Hollywood stooge free rein to make stuff up?

But I'm saving the very worst thing about "Quills" for last. The most egregious thing about this two-hours-plus yawner, which supposedly champions the value of upholding the right to free expression even for an irredeemable degenerate such as de Sade, is this: Passages from de Sade's works that are read aloud in "Quills" WERE NOT WRITTEN BY DE SADE, but by screenwriter Doug Wright, in a weaselling and spineless attempt to ensure that this misbegotten film would get an "R" rating. Here are the integrity-free hack's own words of explanation, taken from an L.A. Times interview: "I think if you really read Sade's fiction you will find that he describes things in such a baroque and over-the-top fashion that they are biologically impossible. It becomes a phantasmagoric linguistic riff on perversity that has no visual component. As such, I think we can only regard him as a satirist. To simply present him as the Hannibal Lecter of literature felt reductive to me. I thought the most subversive thing I could do was give him back his wicked wink, his sense of humor." (Gee, maybe Wright's next project will be a Pokemon version of Georges Bataille's "Story of the Eye.")

Somebody tell this clown Wright that de Sade's work, whatever its merits, has managed to survive 200 years without some 20th-century crap artist giving it a "wink." God willing, Wright's work will be forgotten in considerably less time.

Back Row Grade: F