Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Rachel Getting Married
(Reviewed September 4, 2008)

Imagine watching two hours of badly shot home movies about an annoying family full of people you can't stand. If that's your idea of quality entertainment, this is the flick for you.

Anne Hathaway is the worst overacting offender, as a look-at-me Goth girl chain-smoker on leave from a rehab facility to attend her sister's wedding. Vacillating between drama-queen petulance and morose self-pity, she never manages the trick of making us care about a supremely unlikable character.

The screenplay by Jenny Lumet is something akin to what Robert Altman might write if he suffered a brain injury, flitting among a large number of cast members, each of whom gets an utterly undeserved scenery-chewing moment.

The most annoying scene -- although it's hard to narrow them down to one -- features the father of the bride in a race with the prospective groom to see who can load the dishwasher fastest. The interminable footage of this insultingly boring competition comes to an abrupt halt when the father sees that one of the dishes bears the name of his dead son, at which point he goes all verklempt.

The movie's misfires aren't restricted to melodramatic mush, however. There also are moments so wrong-headedly stupid that they only seem to have been included as inappropriate in-jokes. During the ceremony, the groom recites the lyrics of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" -- about a waitress who rides a Harley-Davidson -- as part of his vows. Because this makes no sense whatsoever in context, one can only assume the song was hammered into the script because director Jonathan Demme's last movie was the Neil Young concert documentary Heart of Gold.

I absolutely hated this movie, and I'm positive it will end up on my 10 worst of 2008 list.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Racing Stripes
(Reviewed December 18, 2004, by James Dawson)

Totally by-the-numbers plotwise, this family flick about an abandoned zebra who wants to be a racehorse has a few too many poop and fart jokes for my taste. And that's saying something.

Stripes the zebra is raised at the Kentucky farm of a former racehorse trainer (Bruce Greenwood) who gave up the reins when his wife was killed in a riding accident. The movie's gimmick is that Stripes and all of the farm animals talk to each other, a la "Babe." Unfortunately, their dialog consists mainly of sitcom-level schtick and dopey Afterschool Special homilies.

Frankie ("Malcolm in the Middle") Muniz is the voice of Stripes. David Spade is frequently funny as the voice of a fly, although a lot of his references are rather dated ("Can't Touch This"). Most of the other voice actors are adequate but unexciting.

The movie's big mistake is making all but two of the horses in the movie a bunch of evil, intolerant bullies who despise Stripes because he is "different." I don't think many little kids are going to like the idea of nasty horsies who beat the crap out of a friendly little zebra and leave him for dead. But maybe I'm just too sensitive.

Finally, Stripes joins the reindeer games. Then how the reindeer loved him, and they shouted out with glee...wait a minute, wrong story.

A kid who was around five or six years old was in the seat next to mine. He got very restless during the talky, dull parts of the movie (of which there are many), but he loved the action scenes, clapping his hands and bouncing up and down and making happy, gurgling sounds. Sort of like what I do when I watch a porn video. Zing!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Raising Helen
(Reviewed May 14, 2004, by James Dawson)

I can't believe I'm saying this...I mean, seriously, I'm flat-out amazed...but "Raising Helen" is actually WORSE than "Jersey Girl," the flick I thought would be the undisputed winner of 2004's "Worst Movie of the Year" title.

"Raising Helen" is gratingly worthless in absolutely every regard. It stars the lousiest actress on the planet, Kate Hudson, who always seems insultingly smug about being so aggravatingly and wholly untalented.

Its premise is so moronic and overused (ditzy, carefree bimbo gets custody of three kids and learns What Life's Really All About) that it screams "bad TV movie." And the kids in question are such useless Hollywood dipshits--that fat, obnoxious turd from "The Cat in the Hat," his simpering lil' sister who can't tie her widdle shoes, and a jailbait older sister who looks like she fell into a vat of Man-Tan--that you will want to hurl obscene epithets and a 32-ounce drink at the screen.

If you thought the scourging scene in "Passion of the Christ" was excruciating to sit through, try watching Hudson and family dancing around a living room in red plastic Devo hats while "Whip It" plays on the soundtrack. Holy father, give me strength!

Joan Cusack is completely wasted as Hudson's frumpy, tightassed suburban-housefrau sister. The rest of the cast should be similarly embarrassed about using their real names in the credits.

Also, this journey into swill is MORE THAN TWO HOURS LONG! That's good news for coprophiliacs, but the equivalent of a decade in Abu Ghraib for the rest of us.

"Raising Helen" is shockingly, outrageously awful, even for a Kate Hudson movie. Run in the other direction if you see a theater showing this mindless, misbegotten atrocity. Run, damn you! RUN!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus to infinity

(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...


RAMBO: In the latest installment of this is-it-tongue-in-cheek-or-just-stupid series, Sylvester Stallone's Rambo has turned into a slightly less articulate but moodier Incredible Hulk, with biceps the size of hams and a permanent hangdog expression. He's living in southeast Asia these days on a boat, apparently subsisting in screw-the-world poverty. He reluctantly ferries a bunch of naive missionaries upriver into "Apocalypse Now" territory, finds out later that they've never returned, and joins a badass mercenary rescue mission to find them. Mass slaughter ensues. The free-fire-zone frenzy scenes are pretty well done, if you're into blood and dismemberment, but the real star of the show is what's supposed to be a leftover WW2 bomb that goes off like a plasma torpedo from the starship Voyager. (See, I could have said "starship Enterprise" there, if I weren't so edgy and alt-critic cool.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed February 7, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed March 4, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

"Rango" is so strange, smart and sometimes surreal that it's tempting to say adults may enjoy it even more than the younger set will. But that may not be giving kids enough credit, judging from delighted pre-teen reactions at a pre-release screening.

Johnny Depp voices the title character, a delusional chameleon whose stir-crazy terrarium existence turns into a weird wild-west saga when he finds himself stranded on a desert highway. Depp makes the loquacious lizard not only likably loony but believably melancholy when things go wrong, giving the reluctant hero real heart.

A philosophical armadillo (Alfred Molina) points Rango to a town called Dirt populated by all manner of rodents, lizards, birds and small furry creatures, each beautifully rendered and distinctively unique. The parched populace is having water problems that will be familiar to everyone who's seen "Chinatown," the most obvious of many movies that "Rango" references. Ned Beatty, who voiced "Toy Story 3"'s loathsome Lotso, gives another perfectly nasty performance here as the Noah Cross-like tortoise who is Dirt's manipulative mayor. Before long, big-talking Rango the charlatan chameleon has been named sheriff, and has to live up to his own legend.

One of the unexpected delights of "Rango" is the artistry of its animation, which goes beyond the taken-for-granted technical craftsmanship of most CGI movies. Not only is "Rango" gorgeous, it's full of scenes that are far more imaginative, dynamic and stylish than simple storytelling would have required. A pixel-perfect shadowy saloon, desert dunes where footfalls make tiny avalanches of sand, and a spooky cavern inhabited by something with one heck of a big eye are only three of the movie's many memorable settings. This is the first feature animated by the George Lucas special effects house Industrial Light & Magic, and it is a stunning achievement.

Director Gore Verbinski, best known for helming the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies starring Depp, perfectly stages scenes here ranging from a dusty duel in the sun to a "Star Wars"-style aerial dogfight to a dream-like fantasy interlude. Chases are elaborately outrageous and preposterously destructive, and Verbinski's "camera moves" within the animated image are consistently creative. This is his first animated feature, but he already has mastered the form.

The screenplay (by John Logan, from a story by Logan, Verbinski and "Pirates of the Caribbean" conceptual consultant James Ward Byrkit) features PG-rated gunplay that parents accustomed to an empty-holstered "Toy Story 3" Woody may not expect. Although there's no blood, the sight of bat-riding prairie dogs shooting at Rango's fleeing posse with machine guns may be too intense for toddlers. Also, the gigantic and frighteningly intimidating Rattlesnake Jake (venomously voiced by Bill Nighy) may inspire nightmares in the pre-school set.

For older kids and adults, however, the movie is a genuine treat, with nods to other films including "High Noon," "The Road Warrior" and even Depp's own "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Much of the high-vocabulary dialog is as offbeat as that heard in last year's "True Grit," full of absurd gems such as Rango revealing he is "one of the few men with a maiden name." When robbers make off with the water supply, he proclaims that the townsfolk must "apprehend the culprits behind this aquatic conundrum." And the leader of a mariachi band that serves as the story's Greek chorus points out that Rango is "sinking deeper into the guacamole of his own deception."

A surprise final-act cameo of sorts takes place in the movie's best and most bizarre moment, one that other reviewers may not be able to resist ruining. More than any other, this is the scene that sets "Rango" apart from more traditional talking-animal outings. It's simultaneously hilarious, sublime and even existential. Plus there's a good lesson in there for the kiddies!

Besides beautiful animation, a genuinely funny script and terrific voice work, "Rango" has one more thing going for it: It won't be released in 3-D, which means it will be as bright and sharp on theater screens as it deserves to be. Asked about this decision, Verbinski commented, "I watched the movie, and I don't think there's a dimension missing."

He's exactly right. "Rango" is wonderful just the way it is.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A (SEE THIS MOVIE!)

(Reviewed June 21, 2007)

I enjoyed the plot of this latest Disney/Pixar computer-animated flick more than I liked "Finding Nemo" and a whole lot more than I liked "Cars." There are some moments that don't work, but overall this tale of a French rat who wants to be a gourmet chef is a lot more charming than it sounds. Which isn't too tough, considering that the premise sounds pretty disgusting!

Director/writer Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant," "The Invisibles") deserves to be commended for including no real-world contemporary references or in-jokes whatsoever, despite the fact that the movie is set in what looks like the present. Patton Oswald, who voices Remy the Rat, sounds like a young Richard Dreyfuss. Lou Romano voices Linguini, a boy with no kitchen skills of his own who serves as Remy's puppet to create gastronomic delights. Janeane Garofalo is flat-out excellent as Colette, the only female member of the cooking staff, who is tough on the outside but has a gooey-sweet center. And Peter O'Toole is just plain wonderful as the voice of the scathingly bitter and frighteningly intimidating food critic Anton Ego.

As always with Pixar, the animation is simply amazing. If you think the ultra-realistic fur on the rats looks good, wait until you see it wet, and even steam-dried! The water effects are stunning, when Remy takes a trip down the sewer using a cookbook as a raft. And the food -- ooh-la-la, the food! Make restaurant reservations at a nice French bistro for after the show, because you WILL be hungry. The final dish that is prepared is so elegantly beautiful it's like a miniature work of art.

Take the kids, but don't worry if you have no kids to take, because you'll love it yourself, too.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Rat Race
(Reviewed June 10, 2001, by James Dawson)

Excruciatingly unfunny, boring and insulting rip-off of the brilliant "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." I hated this movie.

Jerry Zucker, one of the trio behind the first "Airplane" movie and the "Police Squad" TV series, is listed as the director of this dull disaster, which shows absolutely none of the wit or humor of those earlier efforts. I swear to God, I am not exaggerating when I say that I did not so much as smile (much less laugh) a single time during this shockingly bad bomb.

How could so many once-great talents produce such charmless dreck? How could John Cleese, former Monty Python member and co-creator of the brilliant "Fawlty Towers," think that this pathetic project merited his involvement? How could Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson deliver a performance that is by far the worst of any (and that's saying a lot) in this timewasting turd? And didn't Cuba Gooding Jr. actually win an OSCAR a couple of years ago? (Of course, fellow costar Whoopi Goldberg also has one of the things, but her charms always have escaped me.)

Plotwise, a varied bunch of Vegas vacationers race to collect a two-million-dollar cash prize put up by a casino owner, while high-rollers bet on who will win. While "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" made hilarious fun out of a basically similar premise (minus the wagering), "Rat Race" wants us to laugh at things like a busload of Lucille Ball impersonators (could there be anything more annoyingly unamusing?) and wildly daring cow abuse (perhaps the filmmakers thought nobody would remember "Me, Myself & Irene" and "Say It Isn't So," both of which came out within the past 12 months, and both of which included similar bovine "humor").

Every time you think it can't get worse, the movie always rises to the challenge. The climax is jaw-droppingly awful, playing like a payola promo for the rock group Smashmouth, whose appearance goes on...and on...and on.

How lousy is this film? In between checking my watch and wondering if time were standing hellishly still, I eventually found myself looking more often at background characters on the screen than at the actors, just to see if any of them were doing anything interesting. (Christ knows the main players weren't.) The only cast member I enjoyed watching was blond-and-perky Amy Smart, who runs around in a pair of tight stretch pants that do a very nice job of showing off her amazingly perfect ass and her flawless legs. Yum! But even those assets can't save this bowl-dweller from stinking to high heaven.

I know it's a cliche, but I can't help saying it: This is the kind of movie that should be used in film-school classes as the perfect example of how NOT to make a comedy. It's that bad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

The Raven
(Reviewed April 26, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed October 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Anyone who says Jamie Foxx deserves an Oscar for his portrayal of singer Ray Charles in this slightly-better-than-TV-movie-quality biopic is guilty of what "compassionate conservatives" (now there's an oxymoron for you) call the "soft bigotry of low expectations." He probably will get a nomination from Academy members who want to appear "progressive," but they very obviously will be casting their vote for reasons other than artistic merit.

That's not to say Foxx does a terrible job here, only that he does not do an exceptional one. His portrayal of Charles often seems more an impersonation than a characterization. He has the moves, the expressions and the voice down pat, but not much depth. Even though "Ray" has a running time of well over two hours, I never felt as if I had seen into the guy's, well, soul.

Part of this is due to the choppy structure of the Taylor-Hackford-directed film, which seems more like a slapped-together photo album of highlights (and lowlights) than a story. Ray struggles, he succeeds, he shoots heroin, he gets married, he cheats...a lot of big moments, but not much in the way of reflective transitions that would make them meaningful.

The most affecting parts of the movie are the segments from Ray's childhood, before and after he becomes blind. Then again, it's pretty damned hard not to be moved by the sight of a young boy feeling his way around a home he can't see anymore.

At the other end of the spectrum, the movie's worst scene has to be the one that shows the genesis of the song "Hit the Road, Jack." Did this song really come together, almost line for line, during a domestic spat between Charles and his mistress...while Ray was conveniently sitting at a keyboard? Hmmm...

Not a bad film for what it is, so long as you don't buy a ticket thinking that Foxx is the new Olivier. Also, one thing that bumps "Ray"'s grade up considerably is the movie's great music. Foxx lip-syncs to the real Ray's vocals for most of the songs, and nearly every one of them is a gem.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Reader
(Reviewed December 12, 2008, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Real Steel
(Reviewed October 2, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Reaping
(Reviewed March 30, 2007, by James Dawson)

Great Louisiana bayou scenery and some good special effects can't save this not-very-smart junk.

Hilary Swank is a college professor who moonlights as a miracle-debunker. A small town enlists her aid to find out why the local river is running red, and whether that situation might have anything to do with a murder committed by a mysterious backwoods girl (AnnaSophia Robb, doing a very good "creepy mute kid" act).

Soon the 10 biblical plagues descend on the town, in correct biblical order, no less. The best of these, SFX-wise, involves one hell of a lot of locusts.

The ending is moronic, partly because it renders a subplot about a doomed priest (Stephen Rea) to be contradictory and nonsensical. In fact, this movie's ending has an awful lot in common with the ending of the excellent new Brit comedy "Hot Fuzz" -- which isn't a good thing for what's supposed to be a gothic suspense thriller.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

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

Well-made and interesting whodunit about a troupe of Dark-Ages actors and a runaway priest (Paul Bettany) who find themselves in a Village With A Secret. Bettany convinces Willem Dafoe, the leader of the troupe, to mount a play about a recent murder in the village, instead of doing traditional Biblical stories. But it seems they have a few of their facts wrong...

I really liked the whole "look and feel" of this movie, which gives an utterly convincing (and mighty damned bleak) portrait of 14th century life in England (even though it was filmed in Spain). The third act has real problems, though, when things get far too talky and static after what should have been the movie's natural ending.

Still, I reckon "The Reckoning" is worth a look. (God, I'm just so damned funny.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed April 16, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for ULTIMATE DVD, a publication that never bothered to pay me, so I'm printing the entire review below!

Synopsis: Poor but honorable martial arts instructor Mike Terry (Ejiofor) reluctantly agrees to compete for money in a prize fight after suffering devastating personal and financial setbacks.

Review: This movie's tragic flaw is its unconvincing plot, which includes ridiculous coincidences and laughable lapses in logic. That's a real shame, because nearly every character in "Redbelt"'s silly story is interesting and well acted.

Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a rigorously calm jiu-jitsu black belt with undercurrents of soulful humanity beneath his stereotypically zen-master exterior. He soon has plenty of reasons to lose his cool, starting when an emotionally fragile stranger (Mortimer) shoots out his storefront window with a careless cop's handgun. Terry's sullen wife (Alice Braga) resentfully points out that they can't afford to replace the glass if they want to pay the rent.

Things seem to be looking up after Terry serendipitously rescues a self-loathing movie star (a convincingly miserable Tim Allen) from a bar-fight beatdown. This selfless good Samaritan act gets Terry an on-set consulting job, but one that comes with a whole new set of problems. Then Terry's wife goes into bigtime debt to a loan shark, and the bitter spouse of a suicide victim blames Terry for the untimely death.

At that point, what guy wouldn't forsake his noble no-competition code for a shot at 50 grand -- even if he knows the match is staged by a cadre of criminally craven creeps?

The movie's worst moment involves a final-reel betrayal that simply makes no sense. It is impossible to imagine how the sellout-the-hero scene that is needed to set up the would-be "twist" could work…which may be why it occurs offscreen.

Writer/director David Mamet, whose "Glengarry Glen Ross" was one of the best scripts of the '90s, obviously is capable of better work than this addle-brained flop.

Verdict: Down for the count.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Red Eye
(Reviewed August 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

This would-be thriller is too unforgivably stupid to generate much real tension. The premise: A terrorist boards a plane with a hotel manager and threatens to have her father killed if she doesn't switch a government VIP's reservation to a room where he can be assassinated easily.

The main flaw with this setup is that there is no reason whatsoever for the baddie to get on the plane to accomplish his objective. He very easily could kidnap the hotel manager from the airport, simply by making the same threat he makes to her on the plane: Come with me or your father dies. Then, from someplace much less confined and risky than an airborne jet, he could have her make the phone call he needs her to make.

Pardon my logic.

Also, the movie looks very "direct to video" cheap, and Wes Craven's direction is serviceable at best. Cillian Murphy does what he can with the bad-guy role, but he was far creepier as the Scarecrow in "Batman Begins." And I didn't believe for a second that Rachel McAdams could be head honcho of any luxury high-rise hotel outside of a bad soap opera.

A real disappointment.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Red Planet
(Reviewed November 7, 2000, by James Dawson)

Stupid. Make that *really* stupid. Not even the numerous and wholly gratuitous cheesecake shots of braless, hatchet-faced, stiff-nippled Carrie-Anne Moss (the ice-queen-in-black from "The Matrix") can redeem this dud. There is absolutely no nudity, with the exception of a brief dorsal shower shot, but Carrie-Anne seems to spend a whole lot of time in thin cotton tops with spaghetti straps. Also. she seems to have gone up two cup sizes since "Matrix."

Here we have a movie in which a mechanical dog with military capabilities is brought along on a mission to a planet that scientists are certain is lifeless. Huh??? Something goes hinky in his computer (think "bow-wow HAL"), and he starts killin'. Yawn. Even worse, while engaged in such killin', he stands on his back legs and (I am not making this up) goes through "kung-fu fighting" poses before striking.

There are lots of other stupidities, but you get the idea. As bad as "Red Planet" is, though, it still is better than this year's earlier, and very similar, "Mission to Mars." But that's only because "Mission to Mars" ranks as one of the worst movies of the decade, not merely a complete waste of time. (Maybe Hollywood should give Mars a rest.)

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Red Riding Hood
(Reviewed March 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

As Valerie, the blond-and-blue-eyed "girl in the hood," Amanda Seyfried is so lushly lovely that she seems likely to explode in an ecstasy of estrogen at any moment.

Now that "stating the obvious" is out of the way, everything else about this barely adequate fairy tale is so phony and flat that it's sometimes infuriating. The action takes place in a rustic bygone village where it's presumably supposed to be winter, judging from the snow and such. But nobody appears to be the least bit cold. Some of the villagers walk around in open-necked shirts, for Pete's sake. Convincing it ain't.

The town has been making livestock offerings for years to a never-seen werewolf, one who apparently was content to leave the humans alone so long as the terms of that unwritten deal were met. But when Valerie's sister is found killed, the townsfolk decide that a-hunting they will go.

Gary Oldman is hammily entertaining as Solomon, a werewolf-killing priest who rolls with his own small but heavily armored militia. He puts the entire village on lockdown, telling the residents that one of them has to be the werewolf. But who is it? Who? Who? WHO?

I'm not tellin', but the final revelation seems fair-play clever...until you think about it, and realize that the story as a whole doesn't make much sense.

Mild spoiler warning (but not much of one): If the werewolf really wanted Valerie to come away with it, the werewolf has plenty of opportunities to give her a little bite, which would change her into a werewolf herself. Why this doesn't happen is a mystery explained only by bad plotting.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the first "Twilight" movie, doesn't bring much of anything special to the proceedings. Also, the wolf isn't too impressive; the first time he talks, some uncharitable audience members actually laughed out loud.

Fans of the lesbo interlude in "Black Swan" will enjoy a scene in which Seyfried dirty dances with another girl around a bonfire to annoy her boyfriend. Her character obviously is very confused about what men like and don't like.

But maybe that's just the wolf in me talking.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Red Tails
(Reviewed January 19, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Reign of Fire
(Reviewed July 27, 2002, by James Dawson)

Matthew McConaughey channels "Natural Born Killers"-era Woody Harrelson as a cigar-chomping Amurrican military hardass with a hard-on for taking out the fire-breathing dragons that have pretty much laid the world to waste a few years from now. Christian Bale slums as the leader of a grimey bunch of survivors in a castle that's miles from nowhere. That blond chick from "Vertical Limit" is an eye-candy chopper pilot.

Basically, what I'm getting at is that this movie is stupid, boring and kind of cheesy. Not enough dragon scenes, either. Big mistake.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed August 15, 2008, by James Dawson)

Considering that the devout are damned unlikely to put this religion-debunking documentary on their must-see list, "Religulous" may end up preaching only to those who already share narrator Bill Maher's extreme skepticism about all things God-related.

Fortunately, educating the unenlightened about flaws in their faith-based thinking isn't the movie's only purpose. There's also the sinfully wicked fun to be had watching pious, arrogant, anti-intellectual or simply disengenous interview subjects make themselves look stupid.

That's to be expected in a movie directed by Larry Charles, whose last offering was the even more politically incorrect "Borat." It's "give dumb people enough rope and they'll hilariously hang themselves" cinema. A fundamentalist U.S. Senator who has no trouble believing there could have been a talking snake in the Garden of Eden 5,000 years ago laughingly notes that his job doesn't require an IQ test -- then stares in apparent shock when he realizes what he just said. An Israel-hating, Iran-embracing rabbi claims that even the Holocaust was part of God's plan. A British Muslim rapper who wants the right to spew terrorist-glorifying songs won't allow that Salman Rushdie should have the same freedom to publish "The Satanic Verses" without facing execution.

In addition to stops in Salt Lake City, the Vatican and Jerusalem, Maher journeys to a Jesusland theme park, a creationism museum featuring a display of dinosaurs coexisting with humans, and even a truck-stop chapel. Closer to home, Maher's mother discusses keeping her Judaism secret while Bill and his sister went to church on Sundays with their Catholic father.

Aside from humorously mocking the fairy-tale elements found in most faiths (Jonah living in a "great fish," the extra-terrestrial aspects of Scientology), Maher presents some fascinating historical fun-facts, such as one indicating that the gospels were pretty much plagiarized from earlier sources. In Egyptian mythology, for example, the god Osiris had a son, Horus, by a virgin mother. Horus was baptized in a river by a man who was beheaded. He healed the sick, made the blind see, resurrected a dead man (whose Egyptian name translates to Lazarus), walked on water, was tempted in the desert, and was resurrected three days after being crucified. Sound familiar?

(Here is a link to a site with additional info about even more "coincidences" between the lives of Horus and Jesus. It's absolutely amazing how many elements the two stories have in common.)

A few scenes go on a little long, and the often guerilla-style filming veers into home-video cheapness, production-wise. Also, it's sometimes actually hard not to wish that Maher had debated one or two thoughtful religious scholars to balance the buffoons. The closest we get to that here are Maher's interactions with a priest who is a Vatican astronomer, and another priest who is cheerfully candid about not regarding everything in the Bible as the literal truth.

You don't already have to be atheist, or even agnostic, to appreciate the food for theological thought served up by "Religulous." But if your beliefs aren't wavering even a little by the time the end credits roll, you just haven't been paying attention.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed October 13, 2007, by James Dawson)

Thanks to blatantly unconstitutional and murderously psychotic policies of War-Criminal-in-Chief George W. Bush that have thoroughly trashed whatever was left of America's virtue, it's pretty hard to be shocked by a movie plot about the "state secret" that the United States tortures terrorism suspects. Gee, really? Next week: "The Sky Is Blue."

The term "rendition" refers to the US government's sickening practice of transporting prisoners to foreign countries to be tortured, a weaselly (and expensive) way of letting our elected representatives claim that it's not us but foreigners who are doing things like waterboarding and genital-electrocution. In "Rendition," Jake Gyllenhaal is a barely convincing CIA man who comes to have his doubts about the practice. Back home, Reese Witherspoon is the suspect's pregnant wife who goes to Washington in hopes of finding hubby, eventually confronting the bitchy and indifferent Meryl Streep, who authorized the procedure.

I liked the movie's politics, but everything here seemed kind of obvious and "TV movie" unconvincing. It does get points for a neat trick that the script plays with the chronology of events, though.

Enhh, you could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed November 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

Here are three of life's greatest and most enduring mysteries:

(1) Is there a God?

(2) Do we have souls that live on after we die?

(3) How the hell did the pukeworthy play "Rent" manage to win a Pulitzer Prize?

Assuming that this energetically embarrassing film is faithful to its source material, I can't conceive of any way that the competition for that year's drama prize possibly could have been worse than "Rent." The movie version is so agonizingly, excruciatingly, endlessly awful that I almost feel compelled to stand outside theaters and warn people away from the ticket window.

No exaggeration: The "Everyone Has AIDS" musical number in last year's dreadful "Team America" farce ("C'mon everybody, we got quilting to do!") is easier to take seriously than any of the sappy, politically correct histrionics that are sung -- or more often shouted -- in this alleged musical drama.

Everything about "Rent" -- its insultingly soap-operatic plot, its unlistenably generic songs, its annoyingly self-important characters, and especially its treatment of HIV-positive status as a bohemian bonding experience -- feels phony, juvenile and dumb.

"Rent" is about a bunch of stereotypically self-involved "starving artist" wannabes and drama queens of various sexual orientations who possess a very vocal, self-righteous and off-putting sense of entitlement. (Spoken like a true Libertarian!) They morally object to the idea of paying rent to live in their huge but fashionably grungy lofts in a crappy NYC neighborhood. One of their number -- whom we apparently are NOT supposed to think is the world's most untalented performance artist, despite all onscreen evidence to the contrary -- stages a multi-media rally against the landlord, who unfortunately does not immediately release the hounds and demolish the entire block.

Over the course of a year, a bunch of these irresponsible bums meet cute, fall in love, break up, get back together, score heroin, go to AIDS support groups, dance in the streets, shoot grainy film footage, dance in a subway car, brood, play the guitar, dance in a restaurant, leave town, come back to town, and generally act like the kind of needy, flamboyant, theater-major assholes who are so "look-at-me" loud that you dread finding yourself anywhere in their vicinity.

The sometimes spoken but more often sung dialog is so skin-crawlingly bad it could be unfavorably compared to Vogon poetry. "Rent"'s signature song "Seasons of Love" (which includes repeated references to the fact that a year consists of 525,600 minutes) is as invasively memorable as a McDonald's jingle that sticks in your brain even though you never, ever want to hear it again. The rest of the songs are like cheesy pastiches that range from Bon Jovi lite to Whitney Houston saccharine. Just because this is a period piece that takes place in the 1980s, did its music have to ape the very worst of the era?

Director Chris Columbus opted to give all but two of the movie's main roles to members of the play's original 1996 cast. Which basically means that everyone onscreen is too damned old, because even the two new additions don't look appreciably younger than the rest.

Columbus was in a no-win situation when it came to casting, though. If he had gone with all-new actors, he would have taken flak for unfairly passing over the performers who made the original play a hit.

Still, that would have been a better choice if Columbus wanted audiences to see these characters as young, naively innocent, hand-to-mouth hopefuls -- rather than as delusional, long-past-adolescence vagrants who really should have gotten their shit together by now. For example, 30-something Idina Menzel (as the bisexual performance artist Maureen) looks way too long in the tooth to be playing a character who is supposed to be irresistibly appealing to members of both sexes. On the unforgiving big screen, Menzel comes off looking about as youthful and sexy as what passes for Madonna these days. (Snap!)

A movie as heavyhanded about all things homosexual as "Rent" almost requires a "some of my best friends are gay"-type bona fide from any critic who dares to pan it. Otherwise, a negative review might be attributed to the assumption that the writer is a knee-jerk homophobe neanderthal who spends every Sunday praying for Sodomites to come to Jesus.

And so, I offer this: "Brokeback Mountain," the gay cowboy movie, is on my top 10 list this year. The faux-Fosse fabulous "Chicago" was number three on my list of 2002 favorites. The screamingly flamboyant "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" was my second-favorite movie of 2001, bested only by David Lynch's lesbianlicious "Mulholland Drive."

When it comes to this year's "best of" list, though, there ain't no room for "Rent."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Repo Men
(Reviewed March 16, 2010, by James Dawson)

You might think that Jude Law -- a good actor who did "Hamlet" on Broadway last year, for Christ's sake -- would be a little more selective about choosing his movie roles. You might think that, but you would be wrong.

Using the same preposterous premise as last year's laughably awful Repo! The Genetic Opera, "Repo Men" takes place in a similarly unlikely future, one where purchased human organs can be rather violently repossessed if their recipients don't make timely payments. Law and Forest Whitaker are a pair of body-armored, taser-wielding glorified butchers who track down deadbeats and cut out their high-dollar guts, often killing their victims in the process.

The movie goes wrong by trying to present this premise with what's supposed to be day-after-tomorrow realism that's impossible to swallow. For all of its (many) problems, at least Repo! The Genetic Opera was smart enough to go for cult-musical camp with this crap. "Repo Men" wants to be more darkly dramatic and socially relevant, making painfully obvious points about the evils of for-profit healthcare, but keeps slipping in its own blood.

It's impossible to believe that people in this line of work would have criminal immunity, and the freedom to kill at will, so long as they possess the right paperwork. Gruesomely graphic surgeries, stabbings, and throat slashings abound. Even the simple logistics of the repo men's duties defy belief, such as when a cab driver is completely cool with Whitaker thoroughly bloodying up the back seat of his car to get back a kidney. I mean, come on, somebody would have to clean up that mess.

Although Law and Whitaker are supposed to be longtime best friends, they have nothing in common other than an employer. Family man Law is the sensitively empathetic type with some reluctance about what he does for a living, while lone wolf Whitaker comes off like a brutal and slightly retarded thug.

The only parts of the screenplay that aren't predictable are stupid. It's pretty obvious from the get-go that Law will find himself on the run, in what turn out to be circumstances shamefully similar to the infinitely better "Blade Runner." "Repo Men" also swipes from sources as varied as "The Matrix," "Brazil," "Robocop," Minority Report and even the "we're here for your liver" skit from "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (which Law and Whitaker are seen watching on TV).

Art-direction-wise, some of the hyper-overdeveloped cityscapes and a shootout in the world's largest "clean room" look nice, but otherwise there's a lot of slick "made for TV" cheesiness on display. When Law retreats to abandoned urban ruins and starts voiceover-typing his story on a manual typewriter, I was reminded of the "Slags" episode of the 1980s Brit comedy series "The Comic Strip Presents," of all things. (How's that for an obscure reference, trainspotters?)

On the positive side, maybe "Repo Men"'s allegorical aspects will raise the political consciousness of torture-porn fans about the desperate need for single-payer universal healthcare in America. "Congressman, one of your constituents wearing a bloody apron and carrying a cleaver is here to see you about supporting Medicare-for-all. Shall I send him in?"

If only.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Repo! The Genetic Opera
(Reviewed October 18, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for, where you can read it by clicking this convenient link: "Repo! The Genetic Opera" review. All I'll say here is that the songs are forgettable and the story is idiotic, but star Alexa Vega ("Spy Kids") is cute and the movie looks so good it should have been a coffee-table art book.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Requiem for a Dream
(Reviewed September 3, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is a surprisingly faithful (with one exception) translation of the vivid, unforgettable, relentlessly depressing novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. The exception: In the novel, Ellen Burstyn's character is hopelessly desperate to appear on a TV game show that she envisions changing her life. That game show, for some reason, is rendered as a motivational "infomercial"-type program (which apparently runs around the clock) in the movie. Considering how ubiquitous "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and its ilk are these days, the reason for this change is baffling. If anything, the nationwide lust for instant game-show riches is more pronounced today than when the novel was written in the 1978. Another criticism: Jennifer Connelly is, as always, so strikingly, jaw-droppingly attractive that her good looks are almost distracting; one does not expect a junkie's heroin-addicted girlfriend to look like one of the world's five most beautiful women. (In one restaurant scene, she is so glamourously made-up and lit that she looks like a supermodel -- only better.)

Even taking those quibbles into account, this film by "Pi" director Darren Aronofsky still ranks among the very best movies of 2000. It is disturbing in the extreme, as a movie about shattered dreams and irresistible addictions should be, but also is directed with visual style not seen since last year's David Fincher masterpiece "Fight Club." Ellen Burstyn's descent into madness is a bravura performance. The soundtrack (written by Clint Mansell, and performed by Mansell and the Kronos Quartet) is sometimes painfully moving, sometimes shocking, and always brilliantly evocative. And the script, co-written by Aronofsky and Selby, is as straightforward and wrenching as a punch in the jaw. (Also, look for Selby in a cameo as a shouting, racist jail guard.)

At the time this review is being written, the studio plans to release "Requiem for a Dream" unrated, because getting an "R" would have required cuts that the filmmakers were not willing to make. I have to wonder if the producers and the director now wish they had been even more extreme in what they had filmed, since they essentially are branding the movie as "adults-only" by going the "unrated" route. An orgy scene, for example, could have been much more graphic than what we are shown, in order to more fully convey the extent of the degradations taking place.

The ratings contretemp proves yet again that the MPAA ratings board deserves the contempt of anyone who believes that movies, like paintings or music or anything else, should not have to be restrictively labelled to avoid the threat of government censorship.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

Rescue Dawn
(Reviewed April 28, 2007)

Christian Bale is an American pilot who engineers an escape from a Laotian prisoner-of-war camp during 1965, after getting shot down during a secret Vietnam war mission.

The Thailand scenery that doubles for Laos is beautiful, even if the ordeal that Bale and his fellow prisoners endure is decidedly unglamorous.

Director/writer Werner Herzog should have told Bale to dial back his performance a little, though. Bale often seems to be channeling Matthew McConaughey in his attempt to come off as a never-say-die American good ol' boy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Resident Evil
(Reviewed March 2, 2002, by James Dawson)

No exaggeration, I spent the last half of this movie with my fingers stuck in my ears because the remarkably bad score (by Marilyn Manson) was SO GODDAMNED HEAD-SPLITTINGLY LOUD! The movie itself is pretty much by-the-numbers shlock (it reminded me of a cross between last year's "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars" and the egregiously awful remake of "13 Ghosts"). Things start out okay, with very clean and video-game-like settings and some stylish direction. Also, star Milla Jovovich is excellent as the buff, beautiful and bemused amnesia victim who is not initially sure what her part is in the proceedings.

Then the dead start coming to life. Hoo, boy. Scenes of the mobile undead always, always, always look like a bunch of bad actors milling around, and this movie is no exception. Added to this is the fact that the amateurish and obvious score by the aforementioned Mr. M telegraphs absolutely everything that is supposed to be suspenseful or surprising with the equivalent of clumsy blows on the head. Or maybe I should say "blows on the side of the head." As in WHERE YOUR EARS ARE. GOOD GOD, THIS MOVIE IS LOUD! I SAID, "GOOD GOD, THIS MOVIE IS LOUD!" HELLO? AM I TALKING? I STILL CAN'T HEAR MYSELF THINK!

Take away the utterly witless score and the extras-in-bad-makeup, and this could have been a pretty cool movie. As it is: Game Over.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed September 14, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed February 5, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Revolutionary Road
(Reviewed December 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

The best thing about this bleak 1950s domestic-drama reteaming of "Titanic"'s Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet turns out to be supporting actor Michael Shannon, as a brutally, hilariously honest mental patient who visits them on four-hour passes from the asylum where he's getting electroshock therapy. Shannon only has two scenes in the movie, but both of them are uncomfortable-to-watch classics.

My other favorite performer was Zoe Kazan, who plays a sweetly naive but sexy secretary DiCaprio seduces at work. And Kathy Bates is good as the truth-telling mental patient's real-estate-agent mother.

As for the stars...maybe director Sam Mendes was trying to make a point about the dulling, life-sucking side-effects of suburban living, but both halves of that middle-class couple were unconvincing and uninteresting. Hubby has an office job in the city. Stay-at-home wife is bored and wants the family to move to Paris. An unintended pregnancy screws things up. Much yelling. Meh.

A kitchen scene near the end best represents this shortcoming, because the performances are so fake and stilted -- apparently intentionally -- that the characters are impossible to take seriously.

Not a terrible movie, by any means, but one that you will wish was more realistic.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed October 29, 2007)

Has being married to that kabbalah-krazy kook Madonna fried Guy Ritchie's brain, or what?

I loved Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," and I liked his followup "Snatch." I never saw the remake he did of "Swept Away" that starred his muddle-headed missus, so all I can do is take the word of nearly unanimous critics who hated that one.

And now comes "Revolver," a movie so excruciatingly idiotic that only a single stylish shoot-'em-up scene saves it from an "F" grade. This piece of dreck was released two years ago in England, and should have stayed there in quarantine.

Here's how bad "Revolver" is: The plot is so incomprehensible that a bunch of real-world mental health authorities (including Deepak Chopra???) appear at the end to explain the main character's psychological condition. Astute cinemagoers will be reminded of a similar stunt in an even worse movie earlier this year, Lindsay Lohan's "I Know Who Killed Me," in which conspiracy-crackpot radio host Art Bell appeared as himself to try explaining what the heck was going on.

The decipherable part of the plot involves recently released jailbird Statham plotting revenge against a casino-owning mobster (Ray Liotta) who screwed him over. He intends to use strategy and tactics learned from two prisoners serving sentences in cells on either side of his. Unfortunately, he soon learns he has a very short time to live, at which point he hooks up with a pair of absurdly omniscient hoods (Vincent Pastore and Andre Benjamin) who say they will help him get revenge if he gives them everything he owns.

Things get so loopy and stupid that nothing makes sense. The movie's only redeeming scene takes place when a hitman has to take out an entire house full of guys with guns. Violent, cool and clever.

As for the rest, you're better off going in with very low expectations, if you don't want your head to explode the way Ray Liotta's almost does every time he gets vein-poppingly furious in this flick. Which occurs several times.

I really hope that Ritchie manages to get his mojo back. It would be tragic if all the early promise he showed in "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (and "Snatch," to a lesser extent) was only a fluke.

After the Beatles made their "Revolver," the next thing they did was "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which is considered by many to be their best album ever.

Of course, the difference is that the Beatles' "Revolver" wasn't god-awful, and Ritchie's is. Damn -- so much for that metaphor!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Riding Giants
(Reviewed July 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

I have been surfing exactly one day in my life, when I got free lessons at a Hawaii resort in 2003. (Unathletically inclined as I may be, I can't pass up anything with that price tag.) It was actually kind of fun, but the main thing I recall about the experience is how banged-to-hell my knees were afterward. They were bruised like you wouldn't believe, from sliding my legs forward to rise from lying flat on the board to crouching to standing, per the instructor's guidelines. That process is harder on the lower extremities than you might think, even if you don't happen to be a pathetically out-of-shape disgraceful specimen of humanity like Yours Truly.

I mention this to make the point that I am not a sun-worshipping, ESPN-fanatic beach boy with a natural predisposition to enjoy surfing documentaries (which is what "Riding Giants" is, even if this is impossible to discern from its rather unfortunate title). When I walked into the screening room, I was not expecting anything deeper than a bunch of colorful clips of dudes making like extreme-sports ho-daddies.

Wow, was I ever wrong. Yes, "Riding Giants" has plenty of great surfing footage, all of it set to an unbelievably good selection of eclectic but uniformly excellent songs that make its soundtrack CD a must-have. (The choice of the Waterboys' "This Is the Sea" for the final segment is so perfect it almost brings a tear to the eye. It's beautiful man...beautiful!) But what makes this movie easily qualify as one of the best of the year is the way it recounts the entire history of surfing in a way that is both amazingly informative and absolutely fascinating. This is no moderately engrossing PBS-type doc. It is warm and funny and inspiring and just plain wonderful.

The heart of the movie belongs to three larger-than-life personalities who were among the best surfers of their respective eras: Greg Noll, Jeff Clark and Laird Hamilton. These are the kind of live-for-today, go-for-the-gusto guys who make desk-jockey homebodies like Your Humble Reviewer feel like we richly deserve to have sand kicked in our faces and our women stolen away. After the credits rolled, I wanted to hop a plane to Hawaii, rent a shack, buy a board, and live off of speared fish in between wave rides for the rest of my life.

Instead, I came home, logged on, and wasted a few more pointless hours of my thrown-away life on this goddamned, soul-sucking laptop. Excuse me, I have to go punch myself in the face. Forever.

All self-loathing self-analysis aside: This honestly is one of the very best movies of the year--well worth a trip to the theater and the cost of a ticket. Fifty-foot waves just won't look the same on a TV screen if you wait for the home-vid version!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Ring Two
(Reviewed March 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

The most frightening thing about this movie was watching it next to a mouth-breather who was clutching an "X-Men" reprints collection on his lap. Mommy!

The blockbuster success of the first "Ring" completely mystified me, because it seemed more stupid than scary. Gore ("Pirates of the Caribbean") Verbinski, who directed 2002's "The Ring," is replaced this time by Hideo Nakata, who directed both installments of the original Japanese versions.

Nakata seems to mistake "plodding tedium" for "leisurely pacing." (I haven't seen the Japanese incarnations, so maybe this is a "lost in translation" problem.) There are exactly three not-bad scenes -- a deer attack, tub water going anti-gravity, and creepy-crawling in a well. But everything else is slow, dumb and surprisingly cheap looking.

The lovely Naomi Watts and the unwatchably bad David Dorfman are back as the mother and son haunted by events from the first flick. The whole "get somebody else to watch the evil videotape in a week or you'll die" premise is jettisoned very early on. That's not a bad decision, since the gimmick was boneheaded to begin with. The plot then becomes drowned-in-the-well girl trying to take over Dorfman's body. Okay, not much of an improvement.

Lots of things make absolutely no sense. Example: If a minor left a dead body behind in a hospital room and was nowhere to be found in the building, don'tcha kinda think somebody might check to see if the little scamp went HOME?

Like last time, the plot contrives to get Naomi Watts nipple-stiffeningly wet and cold near the end.

Unfortunately, she's wearing a sweater.

The horror! THE HORROR!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Ringer
(Reviewed December 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

You don't have to be retarded to enjoy this Johnny Knoxville comedy about a non-handicapped schlub who tries to win the Special Olympics, but...

No, wait, I'm wrong. You do have to be retarded. Sorry.

The only thing I liked about this unfunny slog was Katherine Heigl, a perky, huge-busted blond who looks like she could be Britney Spears' less fucked-up big sister. Heigl is a Special Olympics coach, complete with conveniently two-timing boyfriend, that Knoxville secretly lusts after. She am hot.

What really kills me is that my darling wife came up with the same premise for a movie many years ago, but never wrote the damned thing up. She even had a better title: "Special Ollie." Okay, granted, it may have turned out to be every bit as irredeemably awful as "The Ringer." But we really could have used the script money to buy new windows for this drafty, tomb-cold craphole we call home.

Thanks a lot, honey! Don't feel too bad about it, though. Maybe we'll win the Super Lotto instead! Then we can pay the goddamned gas bill!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
(Reviewed August 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Road to Perdition
(Reviewed July 15, 2002, by James Dawson)

Stylishly directed and beautifully shot but a little frustrating, mainly due to the miscasting of Tom Hanks as a hitman in the Al Capone era. Hanks is never completely convincing as a cold and distant father who goes on a methodical bank-robbing and revenge spree with his teenage son. I also had trouble with a few plot elements that can't be specified without blowing important parts of the plot. (Let's just say that one of them involves the fact that I did not believe for a second that the guy who runs a den of iniquity would do what he does when Hanks shows up--and the resolution of that particular scene is even more preposterous.) And I really, really disliked the ending of the movie, which featured not one but two huge cop-out cliches.

Still, Paul Newman is excellent as a grandfatherly mob boss, and Stanley Tucci has an interestingly unusual take on Capone henchman Frank Nitti. Photographer/hitman Jude Law seems to have dropped in from another movie (a creepy German expressionist horror flick, maybe), but does give the movie some juice. The main thing I enjoyed about the movie is its minimalism; there's not a whole lot of dialog, and only one scene (Hanks teaching his teenage son to drive) qualifies as a corny "crowd pleaser." The rest of the movie unfolds at a measured pace that felt refreshingly "adult." (Speaking of which: I have no idea why this movie is rated "R." If I recall correctly, only a single word--"pussy"--would keep this movie from being shown on network TV with no other cuts whatsoever. Strange.)

Even with its flaws, the movie merits seeing for some of the directing touches by "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes. A silent execution scene on a rainy Chicago street, for example, is one that will stay with audiences forever; it's a classic. And Hanks himself is not terrible, it's just that you find yourself wishing somebody else had played his part. (How's that for faint praise?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Road
(Reviewed October 26, 2009, by James Dawson)

At a yard sale last Saturday, I asked the proprietor if he had read the paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" that was in the box on his driveway. He said it belonged to his girlfriend, and that he hadn't read it. I did such a good job of convincing him he would like the book that he gratefully took it back into the house.

It would be hard for any movie to do the novel justice. The main characters, an unnamed father and son trying to survive in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, are heartbreakingly pathetic. Some of the situations they face are terrifying and horrific, but all of it feels uncomfortably believable.

Now comes the film version, directed by John Hillcoat and starring Viggo Mortenson as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son. While the well-cast Mortenson looks appropriately hollow-eyed, haggard and hopeless, Smit-McPhee simply doesn't look like a kid who lives in the next best thing to hell and has been scrambling to avoid death by starvation. I realize that ragging on a child actor may sound harsh, but his role is crucial to the story -- and it should have been played by a boy who could not only do a better job of looking the part but show more depth and compassionate spirituality.

One of the book's most haunting scenes occurs after the boy fleetingly sees another boy and pleads with his father that they have to find him. In the movie, the scene goes by like just another incident, instead of summing up the difference between the coldly practical father and the more human and empathetic son.

The movie version also includes too many flashback scenes to the boy's mother (Charlize Theron), which feel more soap-opera than the rest of the starkly unsentimental story.

Robert Duvall is exceptionally good as an old man the father and son meet on the road, giving the kind of brief but unforgettable performance that seems destined for a supporting-actor nomination. And the gray, lifeless locations where the movie was filmed (including Mount St. Helens) are appropriately devastated.

Somehow, though, the movie doesn't fully capture the bleakness, agony, terror and sorrow of McCarthy's novel.

Next year, if I see a DVD of "The Road" in a yard-sale box, I probably wouldn't ask the seller what he thought of the movie.

But I would ask him if he ever read the book.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Robin Hood (2010)
(Reviewed May 11, 2010, by James Dawson)

With a plot that's mostly swiped from "The Return of Martin Guerre," a silly storm-the-beaches ending that's like a third-rate "Saving Private Robin Hood" mashup, and a pair of leads who are at least two decades too old for their roles, this may be the summer's most frustrating big-budget misfire.

The most basic problem with the film is that its derivative and often dull screenplay comes across like a bad spec script that originally had nothing to do with the Robin Hood legend, until character names were changed to shoehorn this sham into Sherwood forest. That probably isn't what happened, but the irony is that this might have been a better movie if it wasn't carrying so much Robin Hood baggage so unconvincingly.

It's asking a lot to expect audiences to buy the idea of a Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) beginning his outlaw career when he's old enough to be a grandfather, or a good-lordy-she's-40 Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett). Robin's three "merry men" are stock sidekick appendages who thankfully get sidelined early on, Friar Tuck is similarly extraneous, and the Sheriff of Nottingham has a role so tiny it's a glorified cameo.

If none of the Robin Hood names had been used, and the movie simply had been about a disillusioned crusader impersonating a dead soldier, and shacking up with the guy's widow so she won't lose her land...well, it still would have been a pretty shameless ripoff of "The Return of Martin Guerre," actually. But at least it wouldn't have to live up to so many heroic-exploit expectations.

Also, in an example of bizarrely misguided "retroactive continuity," it turns out that the long-deceased father this Robin Hood lost as a child wrote the first draft of the Magna Carta. That's sorta like having Iron Man's dad turn out to be the real brains behind the Manhattan Project, in that it's either kinda clever or outright groanworthy, depending on one's sense of history (and humor).

The movie includes only a single example of robbing the rich (the church, in this case) to give to the poor, but its anti-tax theme should resonate with present-day wage slaves. At one point, a rabble-rouser shouts that he and his fellow landowners are sick of being "stripped of our wealth to pay for foreign adventures!" Sound familiar?

The movie's main villain isn't the Sheriff of Nottingham, it's King John (Oscar Isaac), a foppish and petulant tyrant who comes off like a cross between Russell Brand and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

William Hurt and Mark Strong are good in supporting roles as a pair of diametrically opposed advisers to the king, one pragmatic and decent, the other calculating and vicious. Max von Sydow is enjoyably crusty but wise as the dead soldier's father.

The big battle scenes are so choppily assembled from shaky-cam handheld footage that I was shocked to learn editor Pietro Scalia is a two-time Oscar winner. Then again, considering that he got one of those Oscars for the edited-with-a-blender "Black Hawk Down," this may say more about the strange affinities of Oscar voters than about Scalia's skills. On the third hand (!), his other Oscar was for "Gladiator," which may actually have deserved the prize.

Director Ridley Scott probably does the best job he could with the weak screenplay, giving us another undeniably classy looking production. The omnipresent score (by Marc Streitenfeld), however, is nearly unbearable. And a little of that awful medieval "dancing around the bonfire" music goes a mighty long way.

When it comes to the crass concern of commercial prospects, it's hard to imagine most teens having any desire to see "Robin Hood." The foxy blond tart (Lea Seydoux) who plays King John's slutty queen looks like the only character here under 30, and she's not around much. "Dude, you wanna see 'Robin Hood?'" "Naah, the guy playing him looks like my dad's boss, and his girlfriend looks like my mom."

It's easy to imagine what the usual quote-whores (Peter Travers, Pete Hammond, et al) who want their names to appear in the print ads will say about this movie. That means the easiest way to give an honest appraisal of the movie will be by saying the opposite of what they are likely to come up with. And so: "Robin Hood misses the target!" "Robin Hood not a bullseye!" "Robin Hood the opposite of merry, men!"

You get the idea.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed February 12, 2005, by James Dawson)

The story is a little thin, and the Robin Williams supporting-character robot is sometimes a tad too "Robin Williams." But the computer animation in "Robots" is so inventive, clever and downright amazing that this is the first must-see movie of 2005!

"Robots," from the Blue Sky studio that produced the wonderful "Ice Age," actually manages to out-Pixar Pixar. Lots of scenes are so elaborate, detailed and beautifully rendered it's as if the animators are saying, "Yeah, we know we didn't have to put in this much effort -- but take a look at THIS! And THIS! And THIS!" A scene in which Rodney the robot (voiced by Ewan McGregor) takes his first trip on public transportation in Robot City is like Rube Goldberg meets the Star Tours ride at Disneyland. Only better.

Every robot has a unique look. Even better, each of them looks incredibly real -- not only because of their believable imperfections (rust, scraped paint, dents) but because they seem to have more "depth" than previous computer-animated characters. Also, I loved the retro-futurist style of the movie.

Even the musical production number in "Robots" is enjoyable. (And any movie that includes a Tom Waits song gets extra points for style.)

"Robots" takes place in a world without humans, where every character is a robot. Greg Kinnear is the voice of Ratchet, a corporate villain who has decided to up profits by discontinuing the manufacture of spare parts for robots. Because this essentially means that poor robots who can't afford to "upgrade" to new robot bodies are doomed to the scrap heap, Rodney and his motley gang of mechanical friends rise up in revolt. Other voices include Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Mel Brooks and Halley Berry.

Go and be stunned.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

(Reviewed September 10, 2008, by James Dawson)

Director/writer Guy Ritchie's last movie ("Revolver") was such a shockingly embarrassing disaster that anything would be an improvement. Here, he tries returning to the flash and style of his terrific first feature "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," with so-so results -- but at least the guy seems to be trying.

Tom Wilkinson is terrific as the crude and brutal head of a London gangster organization that's out to flim-flam a Russian property developer. Unfortunately, everyone else in the cast is merely adequate at best -- with the exception of the consistently boring Thandie Newton, who does absolutely nothing with what is supposed to be an ice-queen sexy role.

Gerard Butler, as a mid-level thug seduced into staging a couple of very high-stakes heists, seems too grown-up and humorless. Even the movie's best scene, a robbery-gone-wrong that turns into a cartoonishly hyper-violent chase, should have been played even broader and wackier for full effect.

There's also a plodding quality to the movie during some stretches, especially when things stop dead each time the scene shifts to the title character: a psychotic, faked-his-own-death rock star (Toby Kebbel) hiding out in a squalid, relentlessly gloomy flat.

After the main action wraps up, the movie's final bit raises the question, "How the heck did that happen?" Then we are told onscreen that the story will continue in a "RocknRolla" sequel.

I would go see the follow-up -- there's enough here that's interesting to make me want to see what Ritchie does next with these guys. But I would be hoping for a big improvement over this first installment.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Rock of Ages
(Reviewed June 14, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this unbelievably bad movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Rock of Ages" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Rock Star
(Reviewed August 7, 2001, by James Dawson)

If you've seen the TV ad or the trailer, you've seen the entire movie, which somehow manages to be hopelessly predictable at every ridiculous turn. Mark Wahlberg, looking more like Stuttering John than ever, is an obsessed fan of fictional 1980s rock group Steel Dragon. That platinum-selling band fires its lead singer and goes looking for a replacement...Wahlberg is a suburban photocopier tech fronting a tribute band in's kismet!

The main problem with "Rock Star" is that it can't make up its mind whether it is a mildly amusing comedy or a melodramatic "pitfalls of fame" wallow, and ends up failing in both regards. The would-be "Spinal Tappish" bits look jarringly out of place, and what are supposed to be choke-up moments of "where's that sweet guy I fell in love with" bathos (courtesy of Ms. Jennifer Aniston, who continues an unbroken losing streak in movies) are just embarrassing.

The first half of the movie, before Wahlberg gets tapped for fame-'n'-excess, at least tries to be something different. Wahlberg's sincerity about his devotion to Steel Dragon, and the fact that imitating the group's lead singer is his main joy and purpose in life, makes him a guy who is almost, dare I say it, INTERESTING. I would rather have seen a grittier story about a guy like this than yet another by-the-numbers "money corrupts" morality tale.

Shallow, for-men-only aside: Jennifer Aniston has exactly one good scene, and it involves no thespian ability whatsoever. When she and Wahlberg arrive at LAX, the impressions of her protruding nipples are so clearly defined in her blouse that it's easy to imagine her topless. In later scenes, the same outfit no longer works that mammary magic, curse the luck. But for those brief few seconds...yum!

Another high-point in "Rock Star" is the inclusion of the Greatest Song Ever Written in the background of a party scene: Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax." It precedes a shockingly unsexy, supposed-to-be-decadent grind amongst Wahlberg, Aniston and a vampy Steel Dragon liaison. Aniston actually open-mouth kisses the vamp, though, which makes up for a lot. (What was that about her having only one good scene in this movie? Make that two good scenes.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
(Reviewed July 31, 2000, by James Dawson)
This movie is so very, very bad. The humor is lame, the animation is strangely un-state-of-the-art, the whole thing looks cheap, and Robert De Niro thoroughly embarrasses himself. Still, there is something about Piper Perabo that is strangely appealing. She is no classic beauty, but has an interestingly pretty face; not your everyday bim, in other words. Still, this movie blows. (Bet you've never heard Roger Ebert use that term, huh?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Rocky Balboa
(Reviewed December 15, 2006, by James Dawson)

Is a sequel a sad, embarrassing, cheapass parody of everything that's gone before if what it's based on is also crap?

Just wondering.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Role Models
(Reviewed October 12, 2008, by James Dawson)

Lame, offensively stupid comedy about a cheerfully brainless mascot for a Red-Bull-like energy drink (Seann William Scott) and his morosely dissatisfied suit-and-tie-wearing minder (Paul Rudd) who are sentenced to mentor a pair of kids after Rudd goes on a minor rampage with the company's monster truck.

Rudd is teamed with the kick-me dweeb who played McLovin in "Superbad" (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), while Scott is paired with a pint-sized black kid (Bobb'e J. Thompson) who comes off like a relentlessly unfunny and tiresomely foul-mouthed Gary Coleman.

We are not amused.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed February 11, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie is just plain bad. It is not offensively, insultingly, degradingly lousy like "40 Days and 40 Nights." It also is not one of those "you may like this annoyingly offbeat movie but I absolutely hated it" flicks like "The Royal Tenenbaums." And it certainly is not one of those "boring as hell but the action scenes and special effects make up for it" films like "Lord of the Rings."

"Rollerball" is just bad. Bad acting, dumb plot, terrible direction. (Just try following what is going on in the Rollerball game scenes, which seem to have been cobbled together from random lengths of film found scattered on the editing-room floor after a violent shredding incident.) Here is how bad it is: A full-frontal nude scene featuring Rebecca Romijn-Stamos reportedly was cut from the film so it would not get an "R" rating, but even restoring that scene would not save this movie from being absolutely awful.

I caught flak recently from one Back Row Reviews reader for giving failing grades to so many movies, but trust me: Anything that gets an "F" from me is something you do NOT want to waste your money seeing. I calls 'em as I sees 'em, folks--and this movie sucks harder than a black hole.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Rookie
(Reviewed March 11, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie is guaranteed to bring big, salty tears to the eyes of every delusional middle-aged slob who parks his sorry, out-of-shape ass in front of the tube every night to watch baseball while fantasizing about What Might Have Been. If only you had followed that childhood dream of trying out for pro ball and working your way up through the minors to the bigtime, instead of taking that goddamned lousy eight-to-six job you have hated for the past 15 years, maybe you could have made it. Instead of rooting for a bunch of ball-scratching millionaires from your split-seamed La-Z-Boy in the rec room while stuffing Doritos and Domino's pizza into your bloated face, you could have been the superstar signing autographs at high-priced memorabilia shows for overgrown losers whose greasy caps barely fit over their fat heads and bad haircuts.

"The Rookie" actually is not a bad movie, following the story of high-school baseball coach Jim Morris and his attempt to make it into the major leagues at an age when most players' glory days are well behind them. Dennis Quaid is excellent as Morris because he is entirely believable in the role. He looks like a guy who actually might play baseball when the cameras are off, as opposed to Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Don't get me wrong, I loved "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural," but Quaid definitely would get picked before either of those two if it came to choosing up sides for a sandlot game.

Still, the main reason that suburban wives may want to take their hated husbands to this flick is to watch those chairbound, abusive blowhards blubbering like babies, desperately wishing they could drop 75 pounds and run the bases without experiencing a coronary. Said wives then can laugh derisively at their mates' discarded dreams all the way home, where hubby will grab his souvenir bat and warn her to knock it off or get knocked off. Then one of their snot-nosed brats will begin screaming from the next room, making the dog start barking loud enough to wake up the whole lousy, stinking neighborhood. Daddy's bat will drop to the stained carpet from his stubby, sausage-link fingers as he stumbles to the fridge for the first of a dozen beers, followed by his wife's shrill shout of, "Go to hell, you lousy bastard!"

"I'm already there," he will mutter in sad reply, twisting off a top. "I'm already there."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Royal Tenenbaums
(Reviewed November 17, 2001, by James Dawson)

Unendurably endless and utterly charmless would-be "quirky" comedy that definitely has a spot on my "10 worst of 2001" list. I never saw director/writer Wes Anderson's critically acclaimed "Rushmore," but this followup film is so achingly tedious and unfunny that I have no desire to find out what I missed.

Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, Gene Hackman and Los Bros Wilson (Luke and Owen) play the members of a dysfunctional family of eccentrics, brought together as adults when father Tenenbaum claims he is dying in order to keep mother Tenenbaum from remarrying. The production design is ugly, the acting is flat, the black humor isn't humorous. The only thing I liked in the entire movie was a 10-second scene of Gwyneth open-mouth kissing a topless woman. (Hey, nothing's completely bad!)

I have an Indiglo watch, and normally I try not to "light" the thing more than once or twice a night, to conserve battery power. (I am nothing if not frugal.) But as I felt my life slipping away whilst being bored senseless by "The Royal Tenenbaums," I checked my watch no less than three times, praying for the final credits to roll.

Avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Rugrats in Paris
(Not Reviewed November 29, 2000, by James Dawson)

I had two chances to see this movie free, and I blew them both off. (Wouldn't you?) The wisdom of that decision was confirmed when I saw a TV ad which included a sight gag about a baby peeing quite profusely in his diaper. Christ. I think this is what George Will means by "the coarsening of America."

Back Row Reviews Grade: None

The Rules of Attraction
(Reviewed October 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

By no means a good movie, and in fact a pretty bad one, but "The Rules of Attraction" is not as irredeemably awful as some critics would have you believe. (Heck, it didn't even make my "Bottom Ten of 2002" list.) Plus it includes one scene that is just plain terrific, which automatically lifts it out of "F" territory.

Director/writer Roger Avary (adapting Brett Easton Ellis' novel) is hampered right from the git-go by the fact that he had to excise the racier parts of the movie in order to get an "R" rating here in the neo-Puritan USA. (In one surviving scene, the back cover of a porn publication is smeared-and-blurred so as not to offend Americans' delicate sensibilities--which is either funny or damned sad, depending on your point of view and your opinion of the 1st Amendment.) Also, some of Avary's stylistic tricks--such as briefly running scenes in reverse as a transitional device, or split-screening two characters who are having a face-to-face conversation--are a little "film-schoolish."

Other problems: Lead actor James Van Der Beek (or "cereal-box head," as some wag once dubbed him) doesn't have much credibility as a drug-running college badass. The debauched sex-and-drugs-and-more-sex-and-drugs collegiate lifestyle is ramped up to the point of silliness. And I just plain don't dig lead actress Shannyn Sossamon at all. (Ms. S. starred in two of the worst movies of the past two years, "A Knight's Tale" and "Forty Days and Forty Nights.")

Still, this great big sloppy mess of a movie kind of sucks you in against your better judgment after awhile, like a smuttier, dopier version of "Beverly Hills 90210." And that great scene I mentioned--Victor's motormouth Europe-in-two-minutes montage near the end--is so weird and funny it makes up for seeing Fred Savage shoot himself up between his toes.

Oh, and by the way: Leonard Maltin, in his November 2002 "Film" column in Playboy, is totally wrong when he says, "in one of its first scenes...a young man is anally raping a semiconscious coed (and) throws up on her." Actually, that semiconscious coed says in voiceover that she is losing her virginity in that scene--and she doesn't mean the "backdoor" kind. Maybe Leonard never has heard of the doggie-style position...which must make him sort of unusual among Playboy staffers...

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Rum Diary
(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:
"The Rum Diary" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Rumor Has It...
(Reviewed December 11, 2005, by James Dawson)

"Rumor Has It..." springs from a singularly despicable and artistically bankrupt plot premise: Catching up 35 years later on the lives of the "real" people who inspired the characters in "The Graduate." That could have made a damned interesting documentary, if such people really exist and could be located. The problem with this totally bogus would-be romantic comedy is that all of its characters are every bit as fictional as the ones they are supposed to have inspired.

In other words, some integrity-free Hollywood asshole (note: redundant?) has figured out that it's now fair game to co-opt any goddamned movie in the world by hacking out a script claiming that cinema's classic characters were based on sorry contemporary contructs who are so fucking dull, stereotypical and worthless that they aren't fit to share the same universe as Those Who Came Before.

Think about how many snivelling, talentless, film-school douchebags this flick could inspire to lift characters from any damned movie that's ever existed and stick them into crappy plots about made-up men and women who "inspired" their creation. Biff's dad was the real Rick who became the Bogart character in "Casablanca," and here is the story of how Biff rebuilt his bar with a bunch of zany, eccentric Moroccans! Heidi's mom inspired the pregnant sheriff in "Fargo," and now Heidi is a beat cop with a wacky partner in St. Paul! Daltrey's uncle was the real Ennis in "Brokeback Mountain," and now Daltrey is falling in love with a rodeo cowboy who dreams of breaking into musical theater!

"The Graduate," starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross, directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, based on the novel by Charles Webb, is one of the best movies ever made. It's a masterpiece.

"Rumor Has It..." is a mediocre, unconvincing piece of dumb, sitcom-level junk directed by "Meathead" (and California political jackass) Rob Reiner and written by "Ocean's 11" schlockmeister T.M. Griffin.

Jennifer Aniston discovers that she is the granddaughter of the "real" Mrs. Robinson (Shirley MacLaine) when she goes to Pasadena for her sister's wedding. Thinking that the "real" Benjamin Braddock (Kevin Costner), and not the man her mother married, may be her father, Aniston travels to San Francisco to confront him. He says that what she suspects is impossible, and proceeds to seduce her.

Aniston's fiance (Mark Ruffalo) is understandably upset by this turn of events. What's not understandable is why Aniston would have any hesitation about dumping him for the thoroughly charming, incredibly wealthy Costner. Okay, there's the age difference. And the fact that Costner has slept with her mother and her grandmother. But a choice between a dull simp (and lawyer, to boot) like Ruffalo, and a rich and sophisticated man of the world like Costner, doesn't seem like much of a contest -- unless you're a condescending studio development exec dope who panders to his idea of Middle American values, that is.

This ties in with the fact that Aniston's character in general is more "blithering idiot" than "empowered adult." Not that such a thing is unusual in Hollywood movies, but here we have a woman in her mid-30s, for Christ's sake, acting a conflicted high school sophomore. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think most women who are old enough to be the mothers of hormonally imbalanced teenagers act like hormonally imbalanced teenagers themselves. Unless they are on TV shitcoms or in bad movies like this one, that is.

I would have loved to see this movie end with Aniston telling Ruffalo, "Sorry, babe, but it's obvious that I don't have any great passion for you. Otherwise, I wouldn't have let a guy who is old enough to be my dad bone me. And even though things may not last with him, he's so much cooler than you that I won't mind hanging out here in the land of Half Moon Bay mansions, charity balls and private jets as long as the magic lasts. Sayonara, sucker!"

Aniston has taken a big step backwards with this movie. Remember when critics were saying what a good job of distancing herself from "Friends" she did in "The Good Girl" a few years back? With "Rumor Has It...", she is right back in "boy, does this crap ever need a laugh track" territory.

Costner and MacLaine actually do a good job of being fun to watch, even with this weak material, which keeps this regrettable exercise from getting an "F." It was a close call, though.

And now, I'm off to work on a script about the second-cousin of the guy who inspired "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer." He's wondering why he keeps getting these funny urges...

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Runaway Jury
(Reviewed September 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Left-wing fathead Michael Moore and his ilk have gotta love this moronic, ridiculously one-sided gun-control advocates' wet dream about a widow's lawsuit against a gun manufacturer. This being a lousy-with-liberals Hollywood flick, the gunmakers are naturally portrayed as wild-eyed, conspiring criminal overlords. (When one of them takes the stand, he becomes so frothingly, belligerently apoplectic while shouting about his 2nd Amendment rights that he nearly bursts a vessel. Yeah, I can really picture this guy getting the backing of a board of directors in today's corporate America.)

In John Grisham's original novel (which I have not read), the lawsuit was not even about guns, but about suing tobacco companies. I have no idea how much else was changed in the trip from printed page to screen, but Grisham purists can consider themselves warned.

John Cusack plays a Guy With a Secret who somehow gets himself on the jury of exactly the case he wants, which shows right off how credible and realistic things are going to be. He has a "meet-cute" at a candle shop with Rachel Weisz, a scene that makes no sense whatsoever later, considering that the two already share a long acquaintance and are, as they say, "in cahoots." The howlingly unbelievable plot involves Cusack and Weisz trying to get either party to the lawsuit to pay up big bucks, in exchange for which Cusack will swing the jury's verdict.

Assisting the gun manufacturer, Gene Hackman is a shady, viciously amoral jury consultant who must have entered that career after spending time running the CIA, considering that he sets up a dazzlingly high-tech superspy command center full of huge plasma screens that looks like an upgraded version of Tom Cruise's "Minority Report" workplace. He somehow has bugged the courtroom with listening devices and cameras (several of them, apparently, letting him switch between multiple angles of the action) that escape the detection of the mere mortals therein. Harry Caul certainly has gone upscale! (Somehow, though, he has not managed to get any cameras or microphones in the jury room...or into Cusack's apartment...or into the motel where the jury eventually is sequestered. Which I guess means that it is easier to sneak A/V guys into a public courtroom than into any of those other places. Sure, that makes sense...NOT.)

Hackman actually turns in a great performance in a role that could have been mere moustache-twirling villainy, because he seems to take such happy satisfaction in being bad. This is a guy who likes his dirty work. The movie may be garbage, but at least he's having fun.

Dustin Hoffman is the grieving widow's lawyer, employing the same tired old bag of tics and weird grins and shuffling that has endeared him to a grateful nation. The guy has become as much a catalog of predictable mannerisms as Lt. Columbo by now.

The worst thing about the movie (well, aside from its general air of idiocy and preposterously last-minute nick-o'-time plot developments) is that not one single good argument is given to the "right to bear arms" side during the trial. Whether this was done out of laziness or contempt (I have my suspicions) doesn't matter. What matters is this: It is completely unbelievable that the gun manufacturing industry would be willing to spend literally millions of dollars to defend themselves, yet would not manage to get a lawyer who is anything better than an indecisive buffoon -- one who cannot offer even the simplest of arguments to support his case. The lawsuit involves a workplace shooter who has killed several employees at a stockbroker's office. The gun side's legal team could have suggested that the shooter would have been "nullified" a little earlier if one of those employees had a handgun of his own. The defense team could have pointed out that guns come in pretty handy for home protection, and that their misuse is no more the manufacturers' fault than graffiti is the fault of a paint maker. He could have asked what brand of handgun the police who apprehended the shooter were carrying, and if that manufacturer is any less culpable than his client for unintended incidents. Hell, the defense could have simply argued "personal responsibility," rightly pointing out that guns don't kill people, people kill people. But no. This, I submit, is insulting to the intelligence.

And at least one person in the movie should have bemoaned the fact that ridiculous "blame somebody other than the person who did it" lawsuits like this are not immediately thrown out of court. I just heard over the weekend about a lawsuit that has been filed by the parents of a protester who was killed in the West Bank when Israeli troops bulldozed a wall on top of her. Who is the family suing? Why, Caterpillar, or course -- the maker of the bulldozer.

Lock and load, America!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Runaways
(Reviewed March 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

Dakota Fanning is surprisingly foxy and fine as lead singer Cherie Currie, and Kristen Stewart is fittingly sullen and leather as guitarist Joan Jett. But this sometimes amateurish flick about the Runaways' rock-and-roll rise and demise is too dismally flat and uninvolving to do its subjects justice. Also, there's a reason filmmakers stopped doing "Midnight Cowboy"-style sex-and-drugs montages. It's because they look stupid.

Michael Shannon is the best thing about the movie, as the Runaways' often hilariously manic manager Kim Fowley.

Possibly the only movie you'll see this year in which a rock band is pelted with dog turds in a mobile home. That's entertainment.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

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

Big, loud, dumb action movie that makes not a lick o' sense, as if anyone who goes to see it will have the critical faculties to care. Translation: If you are the kind of person who would even entertain the mere notion of paying to see this flick, you probably are the type who will enjoy it. Does that sound elitist? Well no shit, Sherlock!

Pro wrestler The Rock is once again surprisingly able and likeable (as he was in his first starring role, "The Scorpion King"). This time, he is the hired -- "indentured" is more like it -- muscle for a short-tempered badass, who sends him to Amazon country to bring back his son (Seann William Scott). Turns out the son is looking for a valuable ancient artifact there, one that also is sought by the sadistic and ruthless owner of the town's gold-mining operation (Christopher Walken, once again playing Christopher Walken), and by the leader of an armed rebel group. Much punching, kicking, shooting, and general mayhem ensue, along with many lame wisecracks. Really, it's all basically rather stupid.

And now, back to my Proust.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Run, Fat Boy, Run
(Reviewed September 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

A real disappointment from star and cowriter Simon Pegg, who was so good earlier this year in the British buddy-cop spoof "Hot Fuzz."

"Run, Fat Boy, Run" is a badly directed (by David Schwimmer) retread of the old "estranged dad trying to get back in good with his kid and his baby-mama" stories. It starts out promisingly, with a terrified-of-marriage Pegg leaving his pregnant would-be bride (Thandie Newton) at the alter. Then the story picks up a few years later with one of those "she's hooked up now with a rich guy (Hank Azaria) who's secretly a prick and has to be shown up" plots.

We also are treated to Pegg's "comically" ethnic landlord, the landlord's hot ethnic daughter and Pegg's lazy bastard best friend. Transplanting this kind of crappy canned corn to London doesn't make it any more tasty.

Pegg registers to run in a marathon with Azaria, and is determined to finish the race just to prove he's not a quitter at everything he tries. Unfortunately, the movie uses the standard copout of making Newton's choice between sticking with Azaria or going to Pegg ridiculously easy.

Simon Pegg is better than this kind of junk. With any luck, he has gotten "going mainstream" out of his system, and will return to doing smarter stuff that's actually funny.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Rush Hour 3
(Reviewed August 6, 2007, by James Dawson)

The reason I stuck a plus symbol after the F grade below is because this painfully bad movie actually does have some pretty good Eiffel Tower stunts and green-screen scenes near the end. If you make it that far without walking out, you might enjoy them purely on their technical merits. Really.

I never saw the first two "Rush Hour" installments, so I can't comment on how this one ranks in the series. All I know is that Chris Tucker is loud and unfunny, Jackie Chan can neither act nor speak English believably, and the script is stupid and predictable. What more do you need to know?

Thusly, I depart.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F+