Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Sacred Planet
(Reviewed April 16, 2004, by James Dawson)

This huge-screen IMAX movie's undeniably beautiful nature scenes would have been fine on their own, preferably without the scattered "Koyaaniqatsi"-klone clips of fast-motion traffic and speedy pedestrians that seem plagiarized and peculiarly artless here. Unfortunately, "Sacred Planet" mixes in a lot of embarrassingly reverent narration from the likes of Robert Redford, and an American Indian, and other "indigenous peoples" who mercilessly beat the audience over the head with their "natives good, machines bad" sentiments. Does Redford actually believe that all of us would be better off living like, well, savages? Is he prepared to give up his comfortable existence and all of his material possessions to go live in a grass hut and start fires with a stick, entertaining himself with a round of rhythmic chest-slapping every night and cleaning monkey shit out of his lustrous hair? Methinks not!

I get so frustrated when I see audiences take this "wouldn't we all be better off without technology" nonsense seriously. And the claim (made twice in this movie) that folks who still live like cavemen revere their old people more than those of us who have risen above the "picking nits from each other's scalps" stage do strikes me as a total crock. "Respecting their elders' wisdom" probably meant leaving anyone over 35 under a shady tree to croak in peace, while those still vital enough to hunt 'n' gather went on scalp 'n' rape parties to kidnap slaves and kill. (I anxiously await my honorary Ph.D in anthropology.)

Also, there are some remarkably bad songs underlying most of the visuals in this movie. This ain't no Philip Glass score, people. Which paradoxically reminds me of another "Sacred Planet" steal from "Koyaanisqatsi": Long, long, lingering shots of blank-faced natives staring directly into the camera as if they're playing a one-sided game of "stare down."

Having said all that, "Sacred Planet" has some remarkable visuals. Besides the usual rainforest, desert canyon and starry sky shots we all know and love, there are shots of icebergs that manage to make them look like things you never have seen before, with sunlight illuminating their crystals enough to make them nearly transparent. Plus you'll get to see monkeys high-diving into a river. Which beats seeing anything by Tarantino, I guess.

Note that this movie is under an hour long, which makes hiring a babysitter, burning $2-a-gallon gas to get to the theater, and then shelling out for tickets and concessions kind of an expensive bang-for-the-buck proposition. Especially for a movie that wants to make you feel despicable for contributing to overpopulation, pollution and materialism.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Safe House
(Reviewed February 10, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

(Reviewed February 11, 2005, by James Dawson)

Brooke Shields starred in a flick with the same title back in the fabulous '80s, but this isn't a remake. I never saw that one, but it didn't get very good reviews...which means it probably will have at least one thing in common with the 2005 "Sahara."

Matthew McConaughey stars as Dirk Pitt, treasure-hunting hero of several novels by one Clive Cussler. Don't ask me how faithful the movie is to the book, because I've never read a word by Cussler. (I'm still catching up on my Proust.) All I know is that Cussler sued the "Sahara" producers last year for using a screenplay adaptation that did not meet with his contractually mandated approval.

(One difference between book and movie apparently involves a charming interlude that features plague-crazed modern-day African cannibals eating tourists. It's in the book, but not on the screen. Dang! Another is that Abraham Lincoln's corpse does not appear in the movie. Double dang!)

Whether the characterizations of the movie's leads match up with their print counterparts is a mystery that I don't care to solve by actually cracking open Mr. Cussler's original tome. That means I can't say for sure whether the book features an annoyingly drawling good-ole-boy Dirk, a semi-retarded moron sidekick (Steve Zahn), another sidekick who is the stereotypical doofy computer nerd, and an equally stereotypical industrialist villain. Also, Penelope Cruz assays the role of a total babe who happens to be a deadly earnest World Health Organization doctor...which isn't as ridiculous as Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist, but it's close.

While "Sahara" seems intended as the first film in an "Indiana Bond"-type franchise, something is very "off" about the project. Ineptly directed by first-timer Breck (son of Michael) Eisner, it feels slack and cheesy and unintentionally camp, as if nobody making it was interested in making it good. Lots of stuff blows up, much gunfire is exchanged, people get chased around, you look at your watch, you wonder if McConaughey and Cruz are ever going to get around to doing the monkey mambo, you pray that she uses any excuse to take off her shirt, you finally have the small pleasure of seeing her bikini-clad in an embarrassingly awkward and chemistry-free puppy-love scene, you go home. Another lousy day wasted. After you beat off but before you drift off to sleep, it occurs to you how very little your meaningless, boring, abysmally shitty life has in common with that of anyone even vaguely resembling Dirk Pitt. A tear rolls down your ugly face onto your ratty pillow case. The Dirk Pitts of the world are laughing at you in hateful contempt and insulting you with cruel, vicious jibes. Or is that your own whining voice that is calling you a ball-less, pathetic, worthless joke?

Yes. Yes, in fact, it is.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
(Reviewed March 7, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Salton Sea
(Reviewed May 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

If "Memento" had been written by retards, it might have been as bad as "The Salton Sea."
Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Salvation Boulevard
(Reviewed July 15, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed January 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

Richard Roxburgh is good as the hardass leader of a billionaire-financed team of underwater cave explorers, but the rest of the cast is so amateurish and the script so full of cliches that executive producer James Cameron should be embarrassed to have his name in the credits. Not that Cameron himself is known for works of respectable realism, but at least his screenplays are more convincingly phony, and his actors don't seem to have wandered in off the street.

The real star here, though, is the underwater photography, which is stunning. Also impressive is a brief computer animated journey through the cave system that's been mapped out by one of the team members. There's a videogame of that cave system just waiting to be made.

The nutshell of a plot: The billionaire who's writing the checks for the mission, along with his lingerie-model girlfriend, the team leader's son and a flunky or two, have to escape the flooded cave system before it fills with water. Along the way, the screenplay offers an implausible opportunity for the babe to strip to her underwear.

A movie that's more good-looking than good, "Sanctum" has enough suspense to be interesting even if it's ultimately unconvincing.

Also, it's another damned 3D movie. I really hate wearing those stupid glasses. I really, really do.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Savages
(Reviewed November 3, 2007)

If you're dying to see a really depressing movie about a miserable brother and sister who put their elderly father in a nursing home, this is the flick for you.

The title is misleadingly inappropriate. Instead of referring to a tribe of violent primitives, or to the Bush administration, "Savages" is the family's last name.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the sad-sack but cruelly pragmatic brother, who sets sister Laura Linney straight about the fact that they are putting demented old dad in a place that smells bad where people die. Amid the bickering, lies and shared misery, they develop a deeper relationship with each other -- and with the father who wasn't around for most of their lives.

All of which sounds like a total drag, and God knows it's no laugh riot, but "The Savages" is surprisingly enjoyable as a slightly dysfunctional family drama.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed May 14, 2004, by James Dawson)

"Saved!" is both something more and something less than a John-Hughes-throwback teen comedy. It is "more" in that director/co-writer Brian Danelly tries to spice up the reliable formula of "high school in-crowd vs. outcasts" with a satire of holier-than-thou Christians. But it is "less" in that too much of its comedy falls into the "very easy targets" category. It's like shooting Jesus fish in a barrel.

Mandy Moore plays the ridiculously self-righteous queen bee at a Christian high school; think "young Kathie Lee Gifford." Jena Malone plays her fellow student Mary (!), who has wandered from the straight and narrow by having sex with a gay classmate in the hope that this will convert him back to, well, the straight and narrow. A couple of missed periods later, Jena starts having doubts about the whole religion thing.

As an irredeemable atheist, I suppose that I should be all for anything that makes the faithful look foolish. The problem with "Saved!" is that most of the movie is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. It's not exactly difficult or edgy to make two-dimensionally devout Christians look like deluded hypocrites. (Also, it seems a tad craven for the filmmakers to give the movie's only Jewish character a free pass, religion-wise. I mean, either identifying with a religion is stupid or it isn't. Right?)

The cool Jew is the unbelievably sexy Eva Amurri. (I believe the appropriate descriptive term here is "ga-ga-ga-going, what a rack!") She and Macauley Culkin (as the wheelchair-bound and less-than-devout brother of Moore's character) develop a very John-Hughesian (as in "not at all credible, but kinda cute") attraction to each other. Patrick ("Almost Famous") Fugit is the preacher's son who has a crush on Jena Malone, not knowing about her "delicate condition."

There are some genuinely funny moments in the movie, such as an exchange between Amurri and Culkin about what a "good Christian girl" would be doing at a Planned Parenthood clinic. And Malone is so likeable that it's fun to watch her story unfold, even when the bludgeoning broadness of the humor threatens to overwhelm the Afterschool-Specialness of the plot.

I guess the most frustrating thing about this movie is knowing that conservatives will point to it as an example of "liberal Hollywood" once again denigrating God-fearing American Christians. They will be right, of course; that's not what bugs me. The frustrating part is that I wish the movie had been more artful and less obvious about achieving that goal.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Say It Isn't So

(Reviewed March 23, 2001, by James Dawson)
This bomb is being billed as "From the guys who brought you `There's Something About Mary.'" That would be the Farrelly Brothers. Unfortunately, however, all they did was produce this timewasting trifle. They didn't write it, and they didn't direct it. And boy, does it show.

Look, I like Heather Graham as much as any other guy with a working wang. But this movie is just not much good. One of its main faults is that it does not even have the integrity to be true to its "gosh how shocking" theme of romantic incest. Chris Klein plays an amiable doofus who falls in love with ditzy Heather Graham, but is told later that she is the daughter of his long-lost birth mother, making them brother and sister. But mighty soon thereafter, we find out that this was all a lie to get them to break up. So much for shocking!

Also, if you still harbor any desire to see this movie, be warned that IT CONTAINS ABSOLUTELY NO NUDITY. Heavenly Heather may have stripped nekkid in the (awful) "Boogie Nights," but she keeps completely under wraps here, and so does everyone else.

Convinced to stay home now?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Scanner Darkly
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

Smug twat Robert Downey Jr. is as unpleasant here as in any of his movies. This time, though, he's not the only character who sounds like an annoying, paranoid, monotone-mumbling speed freak.

That's because "A Scanner Darkly" is about a futuristic narc (Keanu Reeves) who lives undercover in a house full of dumb-sounding, endlessly chatty dope fiends. But because the movie is based on a book by Philip K. Dick -- the man who gave us the wacked-out works that inspired "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report" -- things here aren't exactly "Mod Squad" simple. Reeves, who is strung out on the same mysterious "Substance D" that his housemates use, begins to think he may be investigating himself.

It's an interesting premise, with a great set-up and an okay ending, but the middle drags like a pointless dorm-room conversation with a befuddled acidhead.

What doesn't help is that the entire movie is rotoscope-animated, meaning that footage of live actors essentially is traced and colored to look like a trippy cartoon. The effect would be interesting in a short film, but the constantly shifting areas of color become sleep-inducingly hypnotic after awhile, like watching an ever-blobbing lava lamp do its groovy thing for 90 minutes.

Still, it's interesting and different enough to be worth a look.

(Someday, I'll dig out the book from one of the hundred-odd boxes that clutter this overcrowded hovel and actually read it. Really I will.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Scary Movie
(Reviewed July 16, 2000, by James Dawson)

If you actually like the Wayans Brothers, then save yourself the cost of a ticket to this turd and watch the WB instead. Unfunny is in the house!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D, just because there are some cute girls in it that keep it from getting an F.

School of Rock
(Reviewed August 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

As of August 4, this is hands-down the most enjoyable movie of 2003. Exactly how good is it? So good that I'll actually GET OFF MY WALLET and PAY TO SEE IT AGAIN when it arrives in theaters. (That won't be until October 3, so I have plenty of time to collect bottle deposits, sell plasma and panhandle to accumulate the price of a ticket.)

Jack Black stars as a flat-broke, rocker-wannabe loser who resorts to impersonating a substitute teacher in order to pay the rent. He then secretly turns an elementary-school class of repressed, straight-arrow rich kids into a free-your-minds-and-the-rest-will-follow rock band. Simple concept, sure, but Black is so hilariously passionate about the power and grandeur of rawk that this is obviously the Role He Was Born To Play. (Offscreen, Black is half of the Spinal-Tappish group Tenacious D, and obviously knows his way around a tortured guitar solo. In fact, one of the movie's other charms is that the students in the cast also play their own instruments--and these kids are really good!)

I know it sounds incredible, but this is a comedy that is genuinely funny. Not just "occasional semi-amused smile" funny, which is the best that can be said about most of this year's pathetic crop of sitcomish crap, but often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Best of all, the movie got that reaction from both Generation Y iPodders as well as baby-boomers who can remember buying vinyl LPs by the acts Black's character loves: Led Zep, Pink Floyd, the Who and other Classic Rock deities. Mike White (who plays Black's put-upon best friend and roommate) wrote the script, which manages to hit all the right notes (ahem) while miraculously remaining kid-friendly enough that you could take your own future Hendrixes to see it. (Somehow, even the almost total lack of drug references does not seem odd.) Other cast members include comedian Sarah Silverman as White's bitchy-hot wife, who wants Black thrown out of the apartment the three of them share, and Joan Cusack as the private school's tightassed principal who has a secret thang for Stevie Nicks.

There are precious few surprises in the plot--I mean, come on, you pretty much know how this story is going to play out from the very first note--but "School of Rock" overcomes this predictability with sheer charm. Black's often manic performance is worthy of "new Belushi" praise, and the whole project is so likeable and sweet that it seems to have arrived from another planet.

Or, in words that I'm sure will find their way into the movie's print advertising, probably attributed to some other critic who is not fit to lick the soles of my hobnailed purple-velvet boots, "The School of Rock" rocks!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Science of Sleep
(Reviewed September 22, 2006, by James Dawson)

Brilliantly imaginative director Michel Gondry ("Human Nature," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and many of the greatest music videos ever made by artists such as Bjork and Kylie Minogue) is back with his best film yet. Which is saying a lot, considering that Charlie Kaufman wrote both of his previous movies, but Gondry scripted this one himself.

"The Science of Sleep" is a bizarrely dreamlike yet often genuinely human story about what goes on in the quite confused head of a creatively frustrated artist (Gael Garcia Bernal), who can't quite connect with the sweet but distant girl he wants (Charlotte Gainsbourg). His dealings with his very weird coworkers at a calendar publishing company are absurdly hilarious. (His cheerfully crude boss refers to two of them as "fags" and later as "dykes," despite the fact that they are of opposite gender, and frequently references a sex position he calls "the goat on the mountain.")

The movie takes place in Paris and the dialog is mostly in French (with subtitles), but there's also some Spanish and English. That's appropriate, considering that Our Hero's mental state -- Does she like me? Am I being an idiot? Why can't I just stay in bed and live with her in my dreams? -- are pretty universal.

The visuals are amazing, sometimes in a thoroughly charming "less is more" fashion. Instead of a zillion-dollar CGI mindscape, we see things like cars made of corrugated cardboard and streams of water made of cellophane. Sounds cheap, but it's incredibly effective, the difference between something lovingly crafted by an artist's hand rather than mass-produced by machines.

This is one of those movies with a plot that I don't want to describe too much, because it's so interesting and fresh and weird that you're better off going in "cold." It's also so offbeat and disjointed and unlike anything else you're likely to see this year that you may not connect with it right away, but hang in there and you will find yourself under its dreamy spell.

Very highly recommended.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed June 3, 2002, by James Dawson)

Unspeakably, unbearably, unwatchably awful. Less than half of 2002 has passed, but "Scooby-Doo" is guaranteed to rank as one of the undisputed worst movies of the year.

"Scooby-Doo" will terrify small children with its painfully loud and wholly inappropriate violence. It will bore teens with its achingly unfunny camp excuses for humor. And it will make adults weep hot, salty tears over the shamefully sorry state of popular culture.

Let's not mince words: "Scooby-Doo" is dog shit.

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

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
(Reviewed March 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

Better than the first one, still not very good...but Linda Cardellini's Velma is so foxy that she almost makes up for the movie's shortcomings. (Well, almost.)

Even with the klutzy pageboy haircut, clunky black plastic glasses and That Funny Voice, Cardellini is hot, hot, super-hot! And when at one point she takes off the specs, gets hair extensions and squeezes her fantastic body into a red leather jumpsuit...HUBBA HUBBA! What a Scooby snack!

What's bizarre about this, of course, is that Sarah Michelle Gellar (as Daphne) is supposed to be "the cute one" here. Unfortunately, Gellar looks so drawn and wasted that she seems to have dropped in from some indie homeless-runaway junkie flick. Sorry, Buffy fans.

Which reminds me of another huge mistake this movie makes: At one point, the foursome looks at a photo of themselves as teens. Their younger selves are played by other actors, and the photo briefly comes to life for a flashback of them playing frisbee. Then we're back to the regular cast...three of whom suddenly look even more too-damned-old for their roles. Matthew Lillard (as Shaggy) looks like the crypt keeper, Freddie Prinze Jr. (as Fred) looks like a dopey sitcom dad and Gellar looks like the walking dead. Yikes.

As for the movie itself, the amount of money spent on the thing is pretty impressive, with decent CGI monsters and some rather elaborate sets. It's all kind of dumb, but pretty much what you'll be expecting for your Scooby dollar, so it's hard to get too indignant about the thing.

I could have done without Scooby's flatulence, a character trait I somehow don't recall ever seeing in the cartoon version. And the cameo appearance by American Idol star Ruben Studdard seems bizarre, cheesy and already dated.

Still, none of that will bother you as you leave the theater with starry, lovesick eyes, blissfully chanting, "Velma, Velma, Velma!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed July 25, 2006, by James Dawson)

Hugh Jackman, addressing the absolutely adorable Scarlett Johannson: "Somehow, I can't get the image of you in a swimsuit out of my mind."

Do you really need any other reason to buy a ticket?

The swimsuit in question, a red one-piece glimpsed in only one scene, offers further proof that the lushly proportioned lovely is Every Man's Dream. Or, in more academic critical terms, "Great googly-moogly!"

Johansson plays a goofy, naive and blithely promiscuous college journalism student vacationing in London. The ghost of a deceased newspaperman appears to her during a magic performance by "The Great Splendini" (director/writer Woody Allen), putting Johansson and Allen on the trail of a suspected serial killer.

Johansson has a real gift for Allen's brand of comedy, with a frequently deadpan delivery that is positively charming. When asked why her glasses-wearing character doesn't use contacts, she replies, "I don't like touching my eyeball" -- which somehow sounds hilarious when she says it.

Allen is his classic nebbishy self as he pretends to be Johansson's father and attempts to fit in with the cream of British society. When asked his religion, he replies, "I used to be of the Hebrew persuasion, before I converted to narcissism."

The movie has a casual, breezy feel; you don't get the feeling that there were a lot of second takes. That's not a bad thing, although some scenes could have used a little tightening. (Allen's nervous-magician patter gets a tad redundant, for example.)

Still, this is a really enjoyable little movie that will leave you smiling.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Score
(Reviewed May 13, 2001, by James Dawson)

A completely predictable plot does not ruin this well-made, very enjoyable heist caper with Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando and the always-excellent Edward Norton. Still, you will wish that you were seeing something a little more original; the final plot twist is one that a small child could see coming.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Scorpion King
(Reviewed April 8, 2002, by James Dawson)

Basically, an okay "popcorn movie" that delivers exactly what audiences will expect: good-natured, tongue-in-cheek, cheerfully dumb adventure. The Rock is no great thespian, but he is likeable in reliable "Schwarzenegger" fashion. (Actually, I enjoyed this movie much more than either of Arnold's Conan flicks, to which "Scorpion King" could be compared.)

Looking much better on the screen than she does on the movie's poster, Kelly Hu is absolutely ga-ga-ga-gorgeous as a skimpily clad sorceress. No kidding, whenever she is on screen it is extremely difficult to look at anything else. Can't wait for her upcoming spread in Maxim magazine. YUM!

You know, wouldn't it be great to see one of these movies played completely straight, like an actual drama where sword blows actually hurt and people don't jump right up after falling the equivalent of five stories? Imagine if Hollywood ever woke up and made a film based on Michael Moorcock's brooding, unreliable, doomed emperor Elric, for example. Picture Ralph Fiennes as Elric, torn with doubts, overcome with uncontrollable rages, bitter and distrustful of the God he serves. Well, okay, probably no blockbuster there. Then again, "Lord of the Rings" seems to be doing okay by sticking more-or-less faithful to its source material, so who knows?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
(Reviewed August 5, 2010, by James Dawson)

This movie is so insanely fun, wildly creative, cool, smart and good-looking that you'll wish you could fight seven badasses to make it your girlfriend.

Director/coscreenwriter Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) proves again that he's one of the most visually dazzling and consistently entertaining filmmakers who ever shot a whiptake or a crash zoom. Stripped to its essentials, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is about a 20-something indie-band bass player (Michael Cera) who has to fight a would-be girlfriend's seven exes for her favors. But the movie -- very faithfully based on the comic-book series by writer/artist Bryan Lee O'Malley -- packs so many terrific characters and laugh-out-loud scenarios amid the videogame-style action sequences that watching it is pleasantly overwhelming. Wright and coscreenwriter Michael Bacall have crammed so much non-stop nonsense into the script that it feels like at least three movies condensed into one two-hour sensory overload.

Cera is swell as the amiably self-centered Scott, a 22-year-old slacker whose 17-year-old current girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) is his band's biggest fan. Scott shares an apartment with a cheerfully unrepentant backstabber (Kieran Culkin) who manages to text Scott's secrets to friends even while passed out. Scott's bossy little sister is played by the always delightfully uptight Anna Kendrick, and her ridiculously angry and foulmouthed coffee-shop coworker Julie is embodied by the hilariously intense Aubrey Plaza. (A great Julie line: "The girl that kicked your heart in the ass is walking the streets of Toronto.")

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ramona Flowers, the imperturbable object of Scott's infatuation. Her "League of Seven Evil Exes" (yes, they do call themselves that) include former Superman Brandon Routh, future Captain America Chris Evans and former Max Fischer Jason Schwartzman. Their cartoonish battles with Scott are increasingly intense, ranging from martial-arts street mayhem to an onstage "bass battle" to a disco pyramid swordfight, and hero beatdowns have never been so much fun. The defeated, in true arcade fashion, always turn into showers of gold coins.

What's not to like about a movie in which one of Scott's opponents tells Ramona, "Your BF's about to get F'ed in the B?"

Possibly the best movie of the summer, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is guaranteed to make my 10 Best of 2010 list.

In other words: GO!

(Also: To read a transcript of the roundtable press-junket interview I did with "Scott Pilgrim" comic creator Bryan Lee O'Malley and the movie's co-screenwriter Michael Bacall on July 27, 2010, at Universal Studios, click this link!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Okay but wildly overrated (and regrettably fictionalized) story about the Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit (and, as they say, the people who loved him). Audiences will be corralled into theaters by all of the Oscar hype some critics are shoveling, but this over-earnest flick probably won't even make my top ten of the year. There's an overriding fakeness here, a too-thick coat of schmaltz, a calculatedness that cloys. "Seabiscuit" is not as twinkly and cornball as "The Legend of Bagger Vance," but it's sort of in the same league. A better comparison would be to "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (another movie that starred Jeff Bridges, coincidentally): All of the elements of a good, true story are there, but the end result is flat and disappointing.

The best thing about the movie is Chris ("Adaptation," "American Beauty") Cooper's performance as Seabiscuit's trainer. Cooper is so completely convincing in the role that he makes everyone else in the cast look like a high-school drama student. Damn, this guy is good.

The horse races are well shot, but there's definitely something missing from the off-the-track scenes. I didn't get the feeling that anybody but Cooper was playing a real person with any depth. Bill Macy is decent as a comic-relief track announcer, but Jeff Bridges (as Seabiscuit's owner) and Tobey Maguire (as jockey Red Pollard) don't dig deep enough to seem real. And strange as it seems for a two-hour-plus movie, it feels as if too many real events have been left out of the story. Honestly, I would have preferred to see a documentary about this story, instead of this Hollywoodized version.

I was about to say that this might be a good movie choice for young girls who like horsies, but the fighting and whorehouse scenes at the beginning make that an iffy recommendation. (It's very strange that those scenes are included in a movie that makes no mention of other grown-up vices, such as track gambling or the real-life Red Pollard's problems with alcohol.)

It's too bad there are so few "real" movies out there that this ends up being the winner by default. Go see the dark-horse contenders "Swimming Pool" or "Lost in Translation" instead, if you are looking for better grown-up fare.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Secondhand Lions
(Reviewed August 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

A litle whimsy goes a long way, which means too much whimsy goes way too far. "Secondhand Lions," in which Haley Joel Osment is left in the care of a pair of eccentric nutjob uncles (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) in the middle of a Texas nowhere, wants to be a weird combination of "Holes," "Stand by Me" and "The Princess Bride," but ends up a mite too calculated and insincere to pull it off. It's kind of a hard film to dislike, because all three characters are so twinkly and basically likeable, but the things they do feel too episodic and artificial to be truly involving. I didn't buy the lion subplot at all (one can only wonder what that wooden crate would smell like after a few days, considering that we are supposed to believe the lion never leaves it until late in the movie). Osment is just a little too old for his role, a problem that especially affects the climax. Worst of all, the movie never seems to make up its mind about whether it is a flat-out farce or an affectionate coming-of-age piece.

There are worse movies you could see, and I wouldn't really argue with someone who said he liked "Secondhand Lions" more than I did, but it kind of missed the mark with me. (Me? Wishy-washy? Never! Well, maybe...)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed August 26, 2002, by James Dawson)

Maggie Gyllenhaal is the title character and James Spader her kinky boss in a plot that can be summed up by the old joke, "`Hurt me,' said the masochist. `No,' said the sadist."

Spader likes spanking. Just as Gyllenhaal discovers she likes being spanked, Spader stops. Tension ensues.

The movie's black humor is a little subdued and slow-paced, and the wrapup is way too "Love, American Style," but "Secretary" gets points for being different--and the unconventional-looking Gyllenhaal turns out to be irresistibly sexy playing a very offbeat but strangely appealing introvert. Also, she removes various items of clothing more than once, and has a pretty hot "working out at the `Y'" scene in a ladies-room stall, all of which were much appreciated by those of us in the audience with testosterone.

And what boss hasn't wished he could paddle the bare backside of an attractive underling who makes a typo?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Secret Window
(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

Here is all you need to know, taken from the teeny-tiny credits you won't be able to read in the TV ad: "Based upon the novella `Secret Window, Secret Garden' by Stephen King."

On the one hand, it is nice to think that the studio apparently regards Stephen King's name as box-office poison. (File under "wildly overestimating the taste and intelligence of the Great Unwashed.") On the other hand, what possible reason could there be for making this abysmally awful movie, if not to attract the depressingly undiscerning, monkey-minded millions of Stephen King fans who will swallow any swill to which his name is attached? 'Tis a paradox. Truly.

To be fair (ha!), I have not read King's original "novella." All I can say in my defense is this: If you went to a popular restaurant and were served a dish which tasted strongly of feces, would you go back? I have read other Stephen King stuff, hated every bit of it, and will not be dining at his establishment in future. Call me narrow-minded.

Which is to say that I cannot be certain the "novella" (sorry, but something about that term strikes me as laughably grandiose when applied to anything by King) has a plot as insultingly moronic as what passes for one in the movie version.

Johnny Depp, who probably still giggles himself to sleep every night over his Best Actor nomination for "Pirates of the Caribbean," is a writer stereotype (cabin in the woods, solitary, troubled) being harrassed by a stalker who claims Depp's character plagiarized his work. Not a single damned thing about this story makes any sense -- and the ending is so howlingly lousy as to defy belief. (As in, "Do the producers really think they can get away with this old saw? Oh, Christ, I guess they did -- I can't get my money back!")

I will trouble you with only a single example of the rampant dumbness herein: Depp hires a bodyguard from the Big City, who drives up, inspects Depp's cabin...and then leaves to spend the night at a cheap motel in the nearby town, instead of staying at Depp's place where he could actually GUARD THE GUY'S BODY.

Avoid at all costs.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Secret World of Arrietty
(Reviewed February 17, 2012, by James Dawson)

This beautifully animated children's movie based on Mary Norton's series of Borrowers books was produced by Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli, best known for its 2001 Oscar-winning feature "Spirited Away." Like that movie, the version of "The Secret World of Arrietty" that will be in US theaters has been re-voiced by actors in English as a co-production with Disney. One advantage of eliminating the need for subtitles is that viewers have more time to enjoy the full splendor of the film's gorgeous pen-and-ink, painted and computer-generated artwork, which rivals Disney's best.

Borrowers are tiny people only a few inches tall who secretly live in the houses of humans, "borrowing" what they need to survive: a lump of sugar here, a tissue there. The film's three-person family resides in a cleverly furnished miniature apartment under the floorboards of a Japanese country home. An upturned flower pot is their fireplace chimney, and postage stamps are big enough to serve as posters on the walls.

The small but indomitable Arrietty (voiced by Disney Channel "Wizards of Waverly Place" star Bridgit Mendler) is the almost-14-year-old daughter of an unflappably reasonable father named Pod (Will Arnett) and an easily excited mother named Homily (Amy Poehler). When Arrietty accidentally allows herself to be seen by Shawn (David Henrie), a sickly human boy who is resting at the house before an important operation, her family worries that they may have to move in order to remain safe.

What differentiates the movie from more manic kids' fare is that Shawn is quietly patient, gentle natured and wistfully melancholy. He is so good hearted and sincere that he seems wise beyond his years and fully deserving of Arrietty's eventual trust. Also, children will appreciate the condescension-free faith that Arrietty's no-nonsense father displays when he takes her on her first adventurous night-time "borrowing" run.

"The Secret World of Arrietty" is less bizarrely dreamlike and literally more down to earth than most Studio Ghibli movies (which also include "My Neighbor Totoro," "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Ponyo"). Even though it features miniature fantasy characters so small they can fit under leaves and must keep clear of the cat, there's a relatable realism to most of their personalities and predicaments that keeps them from seeming silly.

The alternately adventurous and affecting screenplay is by Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote and directed all of the Studio Ghibli movies mentioned above as well as many others. Longtime studio animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who makes his feature directing debut here, is as good at staging furtive quests by the Borrowers as he is at showing the development of Arrietty's tentative and tender relationship with Shawn.

Only two characters are played with the unnaturally broad cartoonishness associated with less understated "Japanimation" films. Arrietty's mother is prone to pop-eyed hysterics, and a nastily loony housekeeper named Hara (Carol Burnett) wants to capture the Borrowers to prove she isn't crazy. Both serve as different forms of comic relief, but it's hard not to wish they had been rendered with the same believability as other members of the cast.

Interestingly, the movie was released last year in the UK (as simply "Arrietty") with a completely different voice cast that included Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty, Mark Strong as her father and Olivia Colman as her mother, marking the first time any Studio Ghibli film has appeared in more than one English version.

This intriguing and thoughtfully told tale of courage, friendship and loyalty is the perfect all-ages film for families everywhere.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Seeking Justice
(Reviewed March 12, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(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 ridiculously brief reviews of each.

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


SEMI-PRO: Will Ferrell continues on his quest to make silly, just-good-enough comedies about every sport known to man. (Next up: mancala!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

The Sentinel
(Reviewed April 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

Imagine how goddamned stupid agents of the Secret Service would have to be in order for them not to realize that one of their own is having an affair with the First Lady. If you can get over that kind of plot idiocy, this could be the movie for you.

Michael Douglas is the agent who is banging First Lady Kim Basinger, and apparently has been doing so for awhile. Framed in an assassination plot, he is pursued by former friend Keifer Sutherland and new recruit Eva Longoria. Yeah, that's right: Eva Longoria, law-enforcement officer. What's next, Kelly Ripa as Director of the CIA?

It's all very predictable, blatantly phony and completely worthless -- the kind of junk-food movie to watch if you're stuck in a hotel with nothing to do and you've already beat off to whatever was on the porn channel. Also, "The Sentinel" has one of those endings that makes you think whatever comes next would be more interesting than everything that went before.

Also, nobody gets naked.

Back to Skinemax!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Seraphim Falls
(Reviewed January 22, 2007, by James Dawson)

Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson are excellent in this hunter-and-hunted western set just after the Civil War. The entire movie is basically one long chase scene. Neeson and a posse are on the trail of the solo-but-stupendously-self-sufficient Brosnan, for reasons we don't learn for more than an hour.

If you're lucky, you won't know anything more than that when you see this movie. The trailer and TV ads probably will spoil some of the surprises, but I won't!

Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending is a real disappointment. All of a sudden, the film shifts to a kind of mystical allegory that is jarring in its inappropriateness.

Still, the rest of the movie is interesting and entertaining enough to make up for a fizzle of a finale. Beautiful scenery, too, from snowy mountains and raging rivers to a desert as dry and cracked as the skin on the back of my hands. Man, this L.A. January low humidity is a killer!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

A Serious Man
(Reviewed September 24, 2009, by James Dawson)

In this low-key black comedy, 1960s college professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) has to deal with a wife who unexpectedly wants a divorce, a son who is a pothead "F Troop" fan, a teenage daughter who spends most of her time washing her hair, and a deadbeat grown brother with an elaborately detailed gambling system that is attracting police attention. The setting is what must be the most Jewish suburb in Minnesota (the only goyim in the movie are some cops, a dental patient and Gopnick's buzzcut redneck neighbor, the type of guy who lets his miniature-lookalike son skip school to join him on a hunting trip).

A lot of plot elements lead nowhere, such as an elaborate story that Larry's rabbi tells about a dentist who finds a secret message inside a patient's mouth. Also, the movie never spells out the relationship between a pre-credits sequence involving a rabbi who may or may not be a revived-from-the-dead dybbuk. Are the peasants whose home he visits Larry's ancestors? Is that why Larry suffers one Job-like hardship after another? Who knows?

And who cares? Even if the movie has an awful lot of loose ends, and an extremely abrupt ending, it's impossible not to get caught up in poor Larry's strangely amusing woes. Stuhlbarg does a great job of simmering in mounting frustration, and of silently deliberating with himself about whether to give in to an illegal temptation that could make his life easier.

"A Serious Man" isn't as broadly funny as co-directors/co-screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen's last movie ("Burn After Reading"), and it certainly isn't as grim as the one they made before that ("No Country for Old Men"). This one falls somewhere in between those extremes, a weirdly fascinating parable that manages to be entertaining even if its moral is hard to find.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Serving Sara
(Reviewed August 11, 2002, by James Dawson)

You know what this is. It's another one of those absolutely worthless, badly acted, stultifyingly dull exercises that is billed as a comedy, but which includes absolutely nothing that is actually witty, funny, or even amusing, let alone clever or surprising. Instead, it is stuffed with the kind of mindlessly stupid dialog you hear on almost every television sitcom, lines that are delivered as if they are supposed to be funny but which most emphatically are not. Seriously, people: There ain't a single laugh in this whole brain-dead waste of time, unless you happen to be one of the moronic, drooling simpletons who thinks "Friends" is guffaw-a-minute hilarious.

Matthew Perry, of that aforementioned monkey-minded TV show, is a process server whose every utterance here is a lame would-be wisecrack. Elizabeth Hurley is the piece-of-ass wife a a Texas millionaire who brings Perry over to her side and tries to turn the tables on hubby to get her hands on more of his money in the divorce settlement. Hurley presumably made this flick before real events in her own life began imitating its plot (she got knocked up by a billionaire, then went after the poor, unlucky bastard for big-bucks child support as he ducked and weaved and unsuccessfully tried denying being the dad). Can you say, "Most expensive screw of that dude's life?" Hey, pal: Rubbers only cost about a quarter each. Next time, spend the two bits.

Absolutely no nudity from Ms. Hurley, as usual (or from anyone else), although she does get back into a pleated plaid miniskirt again. Hey, Liz--that outfit didn't save "Bedazzled," either.

Yet another of the worst movies of 2002. God, there are so many!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Seven Pounds
(Reviewed December 11, 2008, by James Dawson)

I don't have time to do a full review of this right now, but suffice it to say that this is an okay "gimmick" movie -- trying to tell what the plot is would ruin the ending -- but most of it is a real downer. Directed by the same guy who did such a good job with Will Smith on "The Pursuit of Happyness," but not as good.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Sexy Beast
(Reviewed December 9, 2001, by James Dawson)

Ben Kingsley is terrific as The Most Annoying Underworld Figure Who Ever Lived, a British thug who shows up in Spain one day to badger, harass, insult, threaten, demean, cajole and generally brutalize a former underling (Ray Winstone) into taking part in an upcoming heist. His interactions with that character, another former henchman and their wives are deliciously nasty, turning what is mostly a four-character living-room drama into an edgy psychological thriller. Easily the best dialog of the year (although the Brit accents are so thick at times that you will be very grateful for the subtitles button on your DVD's remote), and the cinematography is equally colorful and sharp. A great movie!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

Look, I know what's going through your head. If you have read or heard anything about this movie, you're thinking, "Cuba Gooding Jr. as a hitman? And it's not a comedy? You're kidding, right?"

Set those doubts aside, o faithless one. "Shadowboxer" turns out to be a stylish, offbeat, understated and occasionally downright elegant character study that is one of my favorite movies so far this year.

In broad outline, the basic plot sounds like a typical hitman-at-a-crossroads genre thriller. A kid taken under the wing of a criminal mentor grows up to do contract kills for a psycho crime boss, until a broad comes along who severely complicates things. What makes "Shadowboxer" special is the way it takes those classic elements and makes them fresh by giving everything a twist.

Instead of portraying the hitman as a violent thug, Gooding is nearly devoid of expression throughout, as if his humanity was stripped away by the brutality he suffered as a child. He always seems profoundly sad, however, and shell-shocked into a permanent state of walking catatonia. He gives a remarkably minimalist performance, speaking what might be fewer than a hundred words in the entire film.

His mentor isn't some amoral, hard-as-nails tough guy. She's Helen Mirren, who also functions as Gooding's surrogate parent and -- wait for it -- as his lover.

What I really liked about this movie is the way that first-time director Lee Daniels (a producer of "Monster's Ball") makes some predictable neo-noir plot developments feel new and engrossing because the characters are so fascinating. Also, the look and feel of the movie is very European: lots of silences, beautiful cinematography, and a general sense that the filmmakers are more interested in attracting art-house audiences than corralling the car-chase crowd. "Shadowboxer" would be a great double-feature companion to Jean-Jacque Beineix's "Diva."

The script is attributed to the pseudonymous William Lipz, about whom I can find nothing on the web except this lone writing credit. I'm hoping to find out who the heck he really is, because I can't wait to see what he does next.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Shadow of the Vampire
(Reviewed August 29, 2000, by James Dawson)

This one is not scheduled for release until December 2000, but what the hell, I'll review it while it still is fresh in my mind. This is a very strange and frustrating film, one that cannot seem to decide whether it is a horror movie or a parody of one. The premise (which I would bet money was used in the 1950s as a plot for an EC Comics story) is that a film director making a horror flick enlists a real vampire to play his lead.

Instead of using fictional characters in "Shadow of the Vampire," the main character is real-life director F.W. Murnau (played by John Malkovich), and the film being made is Murnau's classic "Nosferatu." (If Murnau has any descendants, I wonder what they think of seeing dear old F.W. portrayed as, in essence, the maker of a drug-ridden snuff film.)

At times, "Shadow of the Vampire" seems to be going for an over-the-top "Ed Wood" vibe. Everyone speaks in hammy, "Sprockets"-like German accents, people don't seem especially alarmed at seeing the vampire do things such as catch a bat in mid-air and drink its blood, and no one seems to notice when a crew member suddenly is not around anymore. Yet while that kind of stuff sounds like it is straight from the "Young Frankenstein" mold, other scenes are sufficiently twisted, malicious and disturbing that you will turn to your neighbor with a blank expression and say, "I ain't laughin'."

This could have been a much better film if its makers had the conviction to go in one direction -- either to play things straight with flat-out no-snickering horror, or pull out all the stops and channel their inner Mel Brooks. It gets points for being different, but something is very "off" about this movie. I picture (very small) audiences leaving theaters saying, "Maybe being John Malkovich ain't all it's cracked up to be sometimes."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (instead of an F, because at least it is not like anything else you will see this year)

Shallow Hal
(Reviewed October 28, 2001, by James Dawson)

There are so many things wrong with this movie I hardly know where to begin. "Shallow Hal" is basically an Afterschool Special morality tale about how everyone would be better off if we could put more emphasis on people's inner beauty than their outward appearance. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that message gets thoroughly mangled by the movie's dumb, inconsistent and unexpectedly unfunny script.

Hal is a guy who prefers to date good-looking women, thus making him (and, dare I say, every other man alive) "shallow." Motivational guru Tony Robbins, playing himself, essentially hypnotizes Hal into seeing nice people as beautiful and bad people as ugly. The first problem script-wise is that Hal proceeds to make those perceptual judgments BEFORE EVEN TALKING TO PEOPLE. As soon as he sees Gwyneth Paltrow, and before she has given him any indication whatsoever as to what sort of personality she possesses, he sees her as sexy and skinny (even though she actually is enormously obese). Huh? It gets stupider. After it has been established that Gwyneth looks good because she IS good, she then makes two rude remarks to Hal's roommate (played by Jason Alexander) within 30 seconds of making his acquaintance. Wait a minute, shouldn't that make her start looking a little less hot? Nope!

Later, Hal meets Gwyneth's boss. As soon as he sees her, before she has uttered a single word, he envisions her as old and ugly. How did he know she had a bad personality? Shouldn't the guy at least have a brief chat with someone before he knows whether he should see her as hot or horrible?

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that Jason Alexander is horribly, insanely miscast as Hal's roommate. Alexander's character is supposed to be a guy who ditches an incredibly beautiful, supermodel-quality girlfriend simply because one of her toes is too long. No, no, no, no, no. Alexander's character should have been played by some good-looking smug prick like Ben Affleck, the kind of guy who actually could score a good-looking girlfriend and not care about tossing her aside for some trivial shortcoming.

The entire movie has a "first-draft" feel to it. Jack Black, who plays Hal, is the kind of actor one normally finds on bad sitcoms that are cancelled after three weeks. There is something indefinably Jim Belushi/Tom Arnold about the guy.

Gwyneth Paltrow is lovely, as always, but her presence here falls under the "bad career move" category.

The Farrelly Brothers, who directed and cowrote "Shallow Hal," continue a real downward slide. (Earlier this year, they were two of the directors of the absolutely awful "Osmosis Jones." Before that, they produced the gratingly unamusing "Say It Isn't So.") Maybe "There's Something About Mary" was a fluke.

Most damning of all, "Shallow Hal" contains no nudity whatsoever, and absolutely none of the gross-out comedy that ticket-buyers will be expecting from these creators. (Don't expect anything on the level of "Mary"'s classic Ben Stiller stuck-zipper or "hair gel" scenes, for example.) To today's after-school audience, that probably means "shallow" box-office prospects indeed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (instead of an "F" merely because I am such a fan of the ga-ga-ga great-looking Gwyneth, which I suppose makes ME shallow)

(Reviewed November 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Shanghai Knights
(Reviewed February 2, 2003, by James Dawson)

Man, talk about throwing away audience goodwill. "Shanghai Noon" was goofy and enjoyable; not a comic masterpiece, but good for a few laughs. This sequel, however, has absolutely none of the original's charm.

Jackie Chan, now a sheriff in a western town, has to go to England and help his kid sister hunt down the guy who killed their father. Owen Wilson tags along. The Chinese actress who plays Jackie's sis is kind of hot, running around in her red silk pajama outfit and doing chop-sockey stuff, but the movie bogs down early and never takes off.

For one thing, Chan has reached an age where watching him do the stunt work that made him famous is painful; you can't help wondering if the guy is going to break a hip or something. And his "acting"...I'm not exaggerating when I say that Chan's thespian abilities are comparable to those that Bob Hope displayed in all those horrible, horrible TV specials all those years ago.

Owen Wilson is likeable, but only has about three good lines in the entire flick. One of them is, "This country blows."

This movie blows.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Shape of Things
(Reviewed April 15, 2003, by James Dawson)

No exaggeration, this movie is so bad that I kept expecting the camera to pull back and reveal that we were watching a purposely awful "movie within the movie" being filmed. No such luck--it stays lousy all the way to the end.

I had high hopes for this one, since it is written and directed by Neil LaBute, but he sure is a "hit and miss" kind of guy. "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors" were good, "Possession" was pretty decent up until the ridiculous action-packed ending, and "Nurse Betty" was a muddled mess. "The Shape of Things" is his worst film by far, like a badly written string of talky set pieces pounded out by a peevish college hump who couldn't get laid and wanted the world to see how terribly mean and unfair life is. Looks matter and people can be manipulative--wow, what a pair of deep revelations!

Rachel Weisz plays a flakey art student (note: redundant?), a role for which she is at least 10 years too old--but she also is one of the movie's producers, which must have been good for some job security. She is a gratingly annoying "free spirit" (God help us) whom we are supposed to believe a pudgy loser would find irresistible. Uh...don't think so.

Paul Rudd plays the frog she badgers and cajoles into becoming, well, less of a frog. To give the guy some credit, I would guess that he (or, indeed, nearly anyone) can act better than what we see onscreen; he seems to have been directed to come off like the biggest dipshit in the universe. This makes a scene in which another girl (the delicious blond babe Gretchen Mol) admits to always finding him "cute" baffling in the extreme, because all we see is a creepy kind of overeager forced good-naturedness combined with childishly stupid naivete. But hey, maybe chicks dig that.

Frederick Weller is the only character I enjoyed watching, because he was such a rude, direct but often strangely low-key prick. He was the only member of the cast that had any classic "LaBute"ness to him, in that I could picture his character sharing a drink with the two vicious bastards from "In the Company of Men."

One last complaint: The Elvis Costello soundtrack is fucking horrible. If you like Costello, maybe you'll eat the stuff right up -- but to me it only made a bad movie even worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D
(Reviewed June 8, 2005, by James Dawson)

Amazing digital sets and CGI effects as always from Robert ("Spy Kids") Rodriguez, but the astoundingly awful script is roughly on a par with "Santa Claus vs. the Martians." Think criticizing a kids movie for being too silly and juvenile is wrong? Try sitting through this one!

Making things worse, the retro red/blue 3-D glasses that must be worn during most of the movie make everything too damned dark. Half of the time, I simply looked through the red lens with one eye while leaving my other eye uncovered, just to brighten up the dull grey image. Why Rodriguez would sabotage the look of this movie's incredible designs and fantastic backgrounds by presenting them in "Dismalvision" is beyond me.

Aside from those obscured but still impressive SFX, everything else about the movie is depressingly cheesy and amateurish. The young actors are unconvincing to the point of seeming distracted. George Lopez, doubling as both a schoolteacher and otherworldly villain, hams things up with a very loud lack of ability. David Arquette and Kristin Davis, as Max's parents, are boring.

And then there's the plot. Max is a 10-year-old, pushed-around pussy who literally has dreamed up Sharkboy, Lavagirl and the fantasy planet known as Drool. He journeys there with them to confront an evil overlord, the classmate bully who stole Max's dream book back on Earth. This should have been an opportunity to grip the audience with "Wizard of Oz"-like emotion during the quest's life-and-death perils. Instead we get a lot of bad puns, a monumentally terrible song-and-dance, and an excruciatingly sappy moral.

I saw this movie a day after seeing the excellent "Howl's Moving Castle." What they have in common is a wealth of imagination. Unfortunately, comparing the two reveals that prolific creativity -- despite the cornball "dream, dream, dream" message of "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" -- simply is not enough to make an interesting story.

See "Howl's Moving Castle" instead.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Shark Tale
(Reviewed September 26, 2004, by James Dawson)

If you have the intellectual misfortune to be a Will Smith fan, you might enjoy this movie. Then again, that's like saying a coprophiliac might take pleasure in being tossed face-first into an overflowing cesspool.

I've never been a fan of Smith, who typifies the sort of arrogantly loud, grinningly obnoxious clown-of-color derided by the likes of Bill Cosby and Spike Lee as a modern-day minstrel-show fool.

In the computer-animated "Shark Tale," Smith provides the voice for a fish who works as a tongue-scraper at a car wash for whales. Thanks to a stack of IOUs of unspecified but presumably shiftlessness-related origin, he owes $5,000 to the mob-connected car wash owner. (That character is voiced by Martin Scorsese, in a career move almost as sad as Orson Welles doing commercials for whatever the hell he used to pitch before death mercifully stopped him from further degrading his reputation.)

Smith's girlfriend (voiced by Renee Zellweger, another person who should have taken a much longer look in the mirror to ask herself if she really was this desperate for a paycheck) tries to help him out by giving Smith an heirloom pearl. Smith blows the money on a losing longshot bet at the seahorse racetrack instead of giving it to Scorsese.

Just when things look their worst, however, Smith gains fame and commercial endorsement fortune when he is mistakenly hailed as a city-saving "shark slayer." (The surviving brother of the shark in question is voiced by Jack Black, and his daddy shark is Robert De Niro. Holy Christ, is there ANYTHING De Niro turns down anymore?) Smith uses that money to buy a party-central penthouse as ostentatious as any found on "Cribs," and is seduced by a slinky golddigger (Angelina Jolie), because he is unable to see the inexplicable love in homegirl Zellweger's eyes.

Look, I'm not the most bleeding-heart liberal guy in the world by a long shot. But are these kinds of movies secretly bankrolled by the Klan? Smith comes off like a bigmouthed, jive-talking moron. It's supposed to be poignant that he used to look up to his father, also a career-long car wash tongue-scraper, until other kids in school pointed out that this was not exactly an upscale occupation. We are supposed to be amused instead of disgusted by Smith's three little-kid fish friends who vandalize billboards and brick walls with graffiti.

When a bunch of sharks show up to kick Smith's bragging ass, I was amazed that the Smith fish's eyes didn't bulge from his head as he exclaimed, "Fins, don't fail me now!"

The computer animation is pretty, as always in these kinds of movies, but not as jaw-droppingly amazing as that seen in last year's "Finding Nemo." And even though I was not a huge fan of "Nemo"'s script, it was nowhere near as sitcom-shitty as what passes for a story in "Shark Tale."

The only thing interesting about this entire enterprise has to do with an unanswered question: What cataclysmic event put what looks an awful lot like New York City under water? The fish live in a decaying underwater metropolis, complete with skyscrapers and such. Did some cosmic event make the oceans rise and turn everyone in the Big Apple into bad-dialog-spouting fish?

"Shark Tale" is yet another shameful example of the coarsening and dumbing-down of America. Parents, I beg of you, don't take your impressionable brats to this horrible, hip-hopping heap of horseshit -- unless you actually WANT the little monsters to turn into ebonics-spouting dumbass gangbanging predators whose idea of witty conversation consists of the words "yo" and "a'ight."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Shaun of the Dead
(Reviewed September 23, 2004; re-reviewed April 4, 2007, by James Dawson)

Here's something you never will see another critic do: rewrite a previous review two-and-a-half years later -- after seeing the movie in question again and wondering what the hell he was thinking the first time around.

Back in September 2004, I must have been in an especially bad mood when I saw "Shaun of the Dead" at a pre-release screening. Maybe the strangers sitting on either side of me were incredibly annoying or smelly. No, wait, that happens at every movie.

For whatever reason, I originally gave this "romzomcom" (the creators' term for "romantic zombie comedy") a grade of "B-." I complained that the direction was "a tad too low-key for the material," that star Simon Pegg was "kind of consistently bland as Shaun," and that Nick Frost played Shaun's housemate Ed "as such a dumb, obnoxious fuckup that I got tired of that character within seconds."

Like I said earlier: WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?

When I watched the movie again on DVD this week, I thought Edgar Wright's direction was entertainingly zippy, Pegg was the perfect frustrated-and-endearingly-funny everyman, and Frost was obnoxious because he was SUPPOSED to be obnoxious.

At least I did have sense enough to end the review with this: "I'm probably making 'Shaun of the Dead' sound worse than it is, because I did enjoy the writing enough to recommend it." (Also, as regular Back Row Reviews readers can attest, the "B-" I gave it was the equivalent of a four-star rave from anyone else.)

I admit that part of my newly discovered affection for "Shaun of the Dead" could be due to what I think of as "Seinfeld Syndrome." I saw the first episode of "Seinfeld" when it first aired, wasn't impressed, and (believe it or not) never watched another episode until the show's final which point I fell in love with the series. Eventually, I caught up by seeing every episode from all nine seasons. By the time I caught the pilot again in reruns, I had such affection for the characters that the episode didn't seem nearly as bad as I remembered (although its tone was much more subdued and conventional than the manic, innovative genius of later seasons).

Similarly, this year's reteaming of Wright, Pegg and Frost on the terrific new comedy "Hot Fuzz" -- my favorite movie of 2007 so far -- was what made me want to give "Shaun of the Dead" a second look. Since the two movies have the same director (Wright), the same writers (Wright and Pegg), and the same stars (Pegg and Frost, with Bill Nighy doing small roles in both movies as well), how could it go wrong? Answer: It couldn't! I had all-new appreciation for "Shaun of the Dead" this time around, to the point where I had to -- as they say in Congress -- "revise and extend my previous remarks."

In the movie, Shaun is an underachieving Londoner with two housemates, a boring job, and a girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) who has just dumped him. When people start turning into flesh-eating zombies one morning, Shaun rounds up friends and family for a last stand at their favorite pub.

That's pretty much the entire plot, but the gimmick is that everything is played for ironic laughs instead of horror-movie screams. One of the funniest bits is when Shaun and Ed attempt to fend off a pair of zombies by frisbeeing vinyl records at their heads -- but only after deliberating whether certain records deserve that fate. (A Stone Roses LP is spared, but Prince's "Batman" soundtrack gets tossed.)

The script is genuinely clever, as is Wright's frequent use of "crash-zoom" edits and sight-gag set-ups.

Also, viewers of the DVD get to hear two different commentary tracks, one by Wright and Pegg and the other by Pegg with cast members. Both are frequently interesting and very funny (as when Pegg accurately describes two characters as lookalikes for Britney Spears and "Harry Potter, the Cappucino Years").

It takes a big man to admit when he was wrong. And it takes an even bigger man to admit he was wrong, rewrite an old review, and give a movie the higher grade it deserved the first time around.

A very, very big man.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Sherlock Holmes
(Reviewed December 12, 2009, by James Dawson)

This okay but slightly off original story featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character may have worked better if the actors playing the lead roles had been switched. That's because even though star Robert Downey Jr. isn't actually a good fit for either part, Jude Law -- who plays the detective's sidekick Dr. Watson -- would have been a much more interesting and appropriate Holmes.

After enjoyable turns in "Tropic Thunder" and "Iron Man," Downey unfortunately is back to the muttering, mush-mouth monotone mode that made many of his earlier on-screen appearances unpleasant. His Holmes also is disheveled, rude and a little bit nuts, as obsessive-compulsively goofy as he is ingenious.

Director Guy Ritchie brings almost none of the wild style of his brilliant "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" to this very gray outing, which pits Holmes and Watson against an evil black-arts practitioner who apparently has returned from the dead in late-1800s London. There's a running fight through a shipyard that's deliciously destructive, and precarious scenes atop the then-under-contruction Tower Bridge are visually impressive. But somehow the movie never gets, as it were, "afoot."

Rachel McAdams plays Holmes' unrequited love Irene Adler, a globe-hopping adventuress who seems like a hammered-in modern addition to the canon even though she actually is a Doyle-created character. Other aspects of the screenplay, such as Holmes' proficiency at bare-knuckle boxing, feel similarly out of place, even though they have legitimate origins in Doyle's work. The overall impression here is that this new story's underpinnings may adhere to the letter but not the spirit of elements found in the source material.

Diverting but a little chilly, this Sherlock just isn't very captivating.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Sherlock Holmes: A Games of Shadows
(Reviewed December 9, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Shine a Light
(Reviewed March 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for ULTIMATE DVD magazine, but the bastards there stiffed me for several hundred dollars, so I've put the entire text of that review below. Rough justice!

Synopsis: 2006 Rolling Stones concert with interview footage.

Review: "Shine a Light" opens with a humorously frustrated Scorsese trying to plan the logistics of filming the event at New York's intimate Beacon Theater without getting a set list until an hour before showtime. Thankfully, the director of what's widely regarded as the best concert film ever made ("The Last Waltz") is more than up to the task.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood may resemble craggy, desiccated pirates, and nearly every song here dates to the 1970s or earlier, but the Stones definitely are not one of those oldie-but-goodie acts that should have stayed home to leave their legacy intact. Incredibly, Jagger seems more energetic and animated now than he did last century, and arguably is in better voice. Richards, Watts and Wood play classics from "Satisfaction" to "Start Me Up" to "Shattered" for the umpty-hundredth time with what looks like genuine, anything-but-bored joy.

Guest duet performers are Jack White of the White Stripes on "Loving Cup" (one of four songs from 1972's "Exile on Main Street"), Buddy Guy on Muddy Waters' delightfully debauched "Champagne and Reefer," and stiletto-heeled Christina Aguilera wantonly wailing her way through "Live With Me." The sight of nasty-girl Aguilera mike-to-mike with 60-something Sir Mick, not to mention a stage fringed with fresh-faced audience beauties young enough to be the band's granddaughters, is so wrong it somehow seems rock-and-roll right.

Verdict: In a 1960s clip, a shockingly young Jagger confesses he didn't think the group would make it to two years but notes, "I think we're pretty well set up for another year." He has a better handle on his destiny in a later interview. Asked if he could picture himself at age 60 "doing what you're doing now," Jagger casually replies, "Yeah, easily."

Makes you want to cheer, it does.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Shipping News
(Reviewed December 9, 2001, by James Dawson)

This was one of those movies (and there are a lot of them) that made me lean over and say, "DEAR GOD, WILL IT EVER END?"

I absolutely hated everything about this mawkish, stupid, incredibly disappointing piece of junk. Kevin Spacey, what the hell happened to your career? What made you think that starring in a movie this embarrassingly sappy and preposterous was a good move? Didn't you learn your lesson last year from last year's abysmally awful "Pay It Forward," which even the "Touched By An Angel"-loving American public wasn't thickheaded enough to embrace?

In "The Shipping News," Spacey plays a slow-witted dope who gets treated like a doormat by his cartoonishly ridiculous slut of a wife (Cate Blanchett), then moves to Newfoundland with his disturbed daughter and a cranky old character of an aunt (Judi Dench) who has Hidden Issues. There, Spacey manages to get work as a reporter at a newspaper, despite not only having no previous experience at the job but being at least "three bricks shy of a load," as they say. He strikes up a howlingly unbelievable romance with Julianne Moore, the mother of a sweet little retarded boy. Are you starting to get the picture here? Imagine loading every redeemed-loser, eccentric-character, family-secrets cliche into a garbage compacter, then larding it up with so much artificial sweetener and fermented schmaltz that it would kill at 20 paces.

Throughout the movie, Spacey very obviously is in overly earnest Master Thespian mode: "LOOK UPON MY PERFORMANCE! SEE ME ACTING LIKE A STUPID PERSON! LO, NOTE MY HALTING DELIVERY AND CONFUSED, UNCOMPREHENDING EXPRESSIONS!" Yikes! Julianne Moore lapses in and out of Canuck-speak, sometimes sounding accent-free but occasionally laying on the Bob and Doug Mackenzie act. Dench gives a good performance with very bad material, which is about the best that can be said for anyone involved in this fiasco.

I never watched the TV show "Northern Exposure" because I always had a sneaking suspicion it would be just like this movie: A cut-off northern town full of phony, wacky characters doing phony, wacky things. This is the kind of movie in which a character invites all his friends to a farewell party, and they end up completely destroying the guy's refurbished boat and his home. As in "completely destroying." The next morning, the guy shrugs this off as if it is nothing more momentous than a spilled drink on the carpet. In other words, this a movie that not only is stupid, but is one that treats members of the audience as if they are even more stupid.

The original novel of "The Shipping News" actually managed to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, which means that the book must have lost one hell of a lot in the translation from print to screen. Or maybe the Pulitzer judges that year were Beetlejuice, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf and Gary the Retard.

This "Ship" is un-see-worthy. (Jesus, I just crack myself up.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Shoot 'Em Up
(Reviewed August 9, 2007, by James Dawson)

In this deliriously over-the-top masterpiece of outrageously clever mayhem, star Clive Owen is an unstoppable good-guy gunman who is given to asking the question "you know what I hate?" immediately before letting all hell break loose.

You know what I hate? Dishonest, hypocritical reviewers like the one whose ass was parked two seats away from mine at the "Shoot 'Em Up" screening I attended. Although he made amused grunts and other appreciative noises during the deliciously inventive stunts, laughed out loud at the jokes, gasped and groaned at all the right gasp-and-groan-worthy places, and generally appeared to be having a grand old time, he said afterward that he didn't like the movie.

What the hell is wrong with critics like that? Are they afraid the art-house crowd won't take them seriously if they express appreciation for a film in which a newborn's umbilical cord is cut with a gunshot, or a thug gets killed by having a carrot shoved in his mouth and out the back of his head? What, you mean Bergman or Antonioni never filmed a lactating hooker tearing out a Marilyn Manson lookalike's cock ring to convince him to talk?

Somehow, I have the feeling that if Quentin "critic's darling" Tarantino or some flash-in-the-pan chop-sockey auteur had his name attached to this flick, that same critic would be spasming with gushing delight over its knowingly ironic deconstruction of classically noirish B-movie tropes and blah-blah-head-shoved-completely-up-his-own-ass-blah.


Although the posters for "Shoot 'Em Up" resemble Frank Miller comic-book drawings come to life, the actual movie has more in common with the work of another comic-book great: Garth Ennis, writer of such jaw-droppingly hyper-violent heroes as Marvel's the Punisher. (Although the awful 2004 "Punisher" movie included some supporting characters and plot points that originated with Ennis, it lacked anything resembling his very dark yet fiercely entertaining style. The guy definitely has a way of making vigilantes and their dangerous toys fascinating.)

Owen plays Mr. Smith -- and that's probably not his real name -- a guy who is simply waiting for a bus when he gets drawn into one of the wildest, most crazy-violent action opening scenes of all time. By the time the bullets stop flying, Smith is on the run with a complete stranger's targeted-for-death baby and one hell of a lot of questions.

Smith enlists a kinky "got milk" hooker (Monica Bellucci) to wet-nurse the infant. Despite some tough talk, she turns out to be more placidly sensual and maternal than kick-ass tomboy, which makes for a nice change in this kind of movie.

Meanwhile, a sadistically evil genius appropriately named Hertz (Paul Giamatti) dogs their trail with a never-ending army of hired killers and, yes, a couple of dogs. Giamatti scores as this badass with brains, who is shocked and hilariously furious about how Smith & Company keep managing to survive. "Do we suck this bad," he says at one point, "or is this guy really that good?"

Writer/director Michael Davis has loaded the film with one unforgettably imaginative image after another: spent shell casings bouncing off a pregnant woman's stomach, a gun dropping in an unflushed toilet, a hand with bullets between the fingers shoved into a fireplace as an improvised weapon. There are showdowns, standoffs, car chases, airborne gun battles and even a shootout in a firearms factory.

Best of all, the screenplay manages to both glorify in and yet subvert some of the things you'll be expecting. For example, it's a mega-body-count, blizzard-of-bullets barrage that's actually a plea for gun control at heart. Seriously. Also, although it has scenes referencing bits from movies as diverse as "Lost Highway," "The Transporter" and even "Raising Arizona" (how's that for range?), it still feels fresh and original.

And there's one perfectly done little scene that's so poignant you may actually find yourself tearing up. Don't worry, though -- a hail of gunfire follows very shortly thereafter. Heck, a hail of gunfire follows shortly after EVERYTHING in this movie, usually including other hails of gunfire!

I can't wait to see what relative newcomer Michael Davis does for his next movie, but it will be hard for him to top this one. "Shoot 'Em Up" is a flat-out joy to watch. When it was over, the first thing I said was, "I want to see this movie again RIGHT NOW!" It's that good!

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed March 4, 2006, by James Dawson)

"Shooter," the first movie version of a Stephen Hunter novel, has been so stupided-up by Hollywood that Hunter purists may hope it also is the last.

The movie does have two things going for it, though. Mark Wahlberg makes a surprisingly not-bad Bob Lee Swagger, Hunter's tough-as-leather ex-military marksman who gets framed for a political assassination. And director Antoine Fuqua does a pretty good job with your basic car chases, running gun battles, and billowing fireball explosions.

The screenplay, though, takes so many bad-choice liberties with Hunter's novel "Point of Impact" that what started out as a neat character-driven conspiracy thriller is bloated into a kind of white-trash James Bond preposterousness.

Nothing sums this up better than a showdown scene in the book that takes place amid fall foliage in an Arkansas mountain range during hunting season. For the movie, the setting becomes formidable snow-covered peaks that would give Sherpas altitude sickness, where Swagger is outfitted in an embarrassing fringed spandex all-white camouflage outfit that appears to be on loan from the Richard Simmons Ice Capades collection.

The movie also amps up several action scenes to "Rambo"-like ridiculousness, and makes Swagger as superhumanly indestructible as Wolverine of the X-Men. Not that the novel was a subdued exercise in rational realism, of course, but at least it stuck to gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. ("Point of Impact," like many Hunter novels, goes into so much loving and excruciating detail about firearms and ammo specs that it should be in its own "Gun Porn" bookstore section.) The movie version adds pipe bombs, homemade napalm, and a rather impressive natural-gas explosion that blows a building to smithereens.

Events also have been brought forward in time for the movie. In "Point of Impact," Swagger is a three-tours-of-duty Vietnam vet with a pin in his hip from a rifle shot that required three years of painful rehab. He is coaxed out of ascetic, trailer-hermit retirement just after the Persian Gulf war by government figures who say they need his help to prevent a Baghdad-financed sniper from killing the (unnamed) president. In "Shooter," we first see Swagger picking off human targets in Ethiopia on a clandestine mission, where his handlers leave him for dead when things get hairy. The movie then cuts to the present, where Swagger has retired to a large luxury-resortish cabin complete with computer hookup. The thing probably has an aromatherapy sauna out back, for all we know.

The movie plot's victim is an Ethiopian ambassador with information about US-backed mass murder and a corporate oil pipeline, not a Salvadoran archbishop with information about mass murder for political purposes in El Salvador. The movie's shooting takes place in Philadelphia instead of the novel's New Orleans. In the book, the FBI's Nick Memphis is not a clueless bumbler fresh out of the academy, but a would-be fellow sharpshooter who recognizes Swagger the first time he sees him because of Swagger's legendary reputation as a military sniper.

Swagger, on the lam in the novel, hooks up with his ex-spotter's wife, who is a registered nurse. In the movie, she's a schoolteacher (Kate Mara) who gave up on nursing -- which is odd, considering that she has to do surgery on Swagger in the movie but not in the book. (She also has a frankly spectacular rack, displayed to full, braless advantage in a very tight top the first time we see her, if you care about that sort of thing.)

There are lots of other changes that range from the trivial but insultingly petty (renaming Swagger's dog) to the boneheadedly dumb (changing a corrupt State Department official to a corrupt United States Senator). Every time something happens in the movie that seems too over-the-top or just plain wrong, you can bet it wasn't in the novel.

By far the worst change involves a wholly unbelievable scene involving Swagger, the heads of nearly every United States intelligence agency, and Shooter's rifle all in the same room. In the novel, the same information is conveyed much more convincingly and dramatically in a courtroom scene without any government bigwigs on hand.

And then there's the movie's epilog, wherein Swagger does something that the law couldn't possibly ignore.

Despite all of that, the fact that Wahlberg is so well cast as the badass, suffer-no-fools Swagger almost makes up for "Shooter"'s adapted-screenplay shortcomings. He makes Swagger's combination of red-state patriotism and blue-state skepticism seem like more than an attract-all-demographics marketing ploy. You can believe that this guy would come out of retirement to do what he thinks is his patriotic duty even though he says he doesn't like the current president -- or the last one, either.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Director John Cameron Mitchell's followup to his excellent "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is an often sweetly funny social commentary that just happens to include a few hardcore sex scenes.

That's "hardcore" as in "actual fucking and sucking, right there in front of your face." Which is both a good and a bad thing. "Good" in that it is incredibly refreshing to see a movie that doesn't fade to black during the hot parts, or make smutty allusions to stuff you never see, or generally treat the audience as if it is made up of preschoolers. "Bad" in that it's hard not to keep hoping for more onscreen screwing, once that option has been put on the table. In other words, it's tough not to keep hoping that more naughty bits doing naughty things will be coming up soon, no matter how enjoyable the acting-and-dialog stuff is.

But maybe that's just me.

The title "Shortbus" refers to a sort of literary salon-cum-Plato's Retreat establishment where New Yorkers meet to party and have sex. Crossing paths there are a gay couple who want to recruit another guy for a threesome; a female sex therapist (the excellent Sook-Yin Lee) who insists on being called a relationship counselor but who never has had an orgasm; a spunky dominatrix and her "trust fund baby" regular client; and a very thinly veiled Ed Koch, former mayor of New York.

What keeps things from being merely "Love, American Style" with hard-ons is an element of sadness that goes along with the humor. One-half of the gay couple wants to end the relationship. The dominatrix wants more out of life. The relationship counselor is tired of faking it with her husband. And Ed Koch's doppelganger is haunted by the knowledge that people think he didn't do enough to stop the AIDS epidemic because he was in the closet during his tenure as mayor.

As for the hardcore action, it should be noted that there's more male/male (and male/male/male) stuff here than male/female. (If you're not comfortable with the idea of seeing a guy sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" between the ass cheeks of another guy who is blowing a third, this may not be the movie for you. But the scene really is pretty funny.)

For what plainly is not a big-budget movie, "Shortbus" nevertheless has a really clever linking device between segments that looks unbelievably elaborate. The camera swoops and glides over and between hundreds of painted cardboard buildings that create Manhattan, complete with bridges, rivers and even the Statue of Liberty. Apparently it's all computer generated, but it looks convincingly handmade.

I may be the only critic with enough shamelessness to make this comparison, but "Shortbus" ended up reminding me of a 1980s-era porn flick called "Sex Spa USA," which featured several characters from different situations who ended up at a Plato's-like establishment. There's even an equivalent of the the inhibited "never had a climax" chick, who ends up putting on a show for everyone present that's so hot it makes everyone applaud and cheer. Interesting, no?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed March 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

Put aside the fact that this shockingly lame and unfunny movie treats its audience like brain-dead morons. That practice is not exactly something new in the entertainment industry, after all. There honestly is not a single laugh in this campy, stupid pairing of Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro as a pair of L.A. cops who are the subjects of a "Cops"-like TV show. There are plenty of the sort of lines that garner waves of hysterical pants-pissing guffaws from sitcom laugh tracks, but I don't think I so much as smiled during the entire dismal duration.

But like I said, put all of that aside. What is really offensive about the movie is this:

The creative talents (and I use the term very loosely) behind "Showtime" apparently are so indoctrinated in Hollywood knee-jerk liberal ideology that they cannot allow for the possibility that privately owned firearms ever could be used for good. One scene in the movie takes place at a convention-center gun show. Despite the fact that enough firepower to supply a few armies is displayed on tables and in booths, NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THE DEALERS OR CONVENTIONGOERS PICKS UP A WEAPON TO TAKE OUT A BAD GUY WHO SUDDENLY BEGINS SHOOTING UP THE PLACE. Let me repeat that: When a bad guy starts shooting, not one single person with access to firepower bothers to pick up a gun and plug the bastard, even though there are thousands of firearms present and thousands of people present who know how to use them!

Now try to imagine such a scene happening in real life. The bad guy would be shot full of holes so fast that the coroner would need to pick him up in a body baggie instead of a body bag.

I am reminded of the news story from a few years back in which some psycho killed several diners at a Texas restaurant. One of the women present said that she might have been able to save her mother from being one of that killer's victims if she had been allowed to carry a handgun in her purse. Naturally, liberals were outraged at the mere suggestion of such a thing.

People, do yourselves and this country a favor: Stop voting for idiots, and start putting Libertarians in office. To learn more about the only party that believes in ALL of the freedoms the Bill of Rights is supposed to guarantee, go here:

Libertarian Party Home Page

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed May 13, 2001, by James Dawson)

Really enjoyable computer-animated "anti-fairy-tale," even if the script seems a little half-baked (way too much pointless, loud, back-and-forth bickering, for example, which had kids in a screening audience screaming and crying). But Cameron Diaz looks great as a skinny, big-busted princess, and the animation really is amazing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Shrek 2
(Reviewed May 16, 2004, by James Dawson)

Worth seeing, if only to ogle the pretty computer animation, but not as good as the first "Shrek." Also, the ending of "Shrek 2" is so infuriatingly stupid, blatantly dishonest and insultingly condescending that it leaves a very bad aftertaste.

Tone-wise, the main thing I disliked about "Shrek 2" is something that had bugged me to a lesser degree in "Shrek": This time around, there's even more loud arguing and anger and stuff that's just a plain old drag. Shouldn't there be a little more joy in what's basically a goofy kids' movie?

Shrek, targeted for death (!) by Fiona's father, mopes around and complains a lot. Mike Myers invests so little in voicing the character that Shrek's miserable depression is, well, miserably depressing to witness. Cameron (Fiona) Diaz also seems to have looped her dialog in single takes, giving a completely unremarkable performance. Eddie (Donkey) Murphy is okay, but his character is such a relentless chatterbox that even he gets annoying.

The standout performer in "Shrek 2" is Antonio Banderas, who is excellent as the voice of sly would-be hitman (hitcat?) Puss in Boots. Genuinely funny.

Aside from the movie's egregious ending, there's also a huge plot gaffe. Donkey at one point becomes a beautiful white stallion. He is thrilled and delighted. And yet, even though he knows he will revert to donkey-ness unless he does a certain thing within a certain timeframe, he makes no effort whatsoever to do it. The reason this is a problem is because there is absolutely no downside for him to do the thing that would ensure he remains a stallion; he will suffer no ill effects whatsoever if he remains fine-lookin', in other words.

Which ties in neatly with what is wrong with the overall ending as well...but I can say no more.

Well, I could, but...naah.

Okay, maybe just a hint:

If somebody offered me the chance to look like Brad Pitt for life, without any drawbacks of any kind, I can guaran-damn-tee you that I wouldn't say, "No, thanks. I prefer looking like a cross between the gyro-captain from `The Road Warrior' and the Cryptkeeper."

(Obviously, these reviews are brutally honest in more ways than one...)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Shrek the Third
(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

Not as good as the first movie but better than the second, "Shrek the Third" is a breezy 81 minutes of funny-enough stuff. All of the usual voices are back, with additions including Justin Timberlake.

When his royal father-in-law croaks (literally and figuratively), Shrek is in line to become king. He doesn't want the job, though, so he goes looking for long-lost nephew-in-law Arthur (Timberlake), who is next in the line of succession. Arthur turns out to be more nerdy than noble, but he gets his act together by Act Three.

There's one moment in this movie that is so funny it got virtually everyone at the screening I attended to laugh. Unfortunately, the gag appears in the TV ad, because marketing departments just love to spoil surprises and give away the good parts. Damn them!

I still wish Fiona had stayed good looking, instead of reverting to ogre-ugly in "Shrek 2." (I'm shallow even when it comes to cartoon characters.) And part of "Shrek the Third"'s plot reminded me of this year's earlier "Happily N'ever After" animated movie, which also featured storybook villains taking over for a change.

Still, not a bad movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Shrek Forever After (aka Shrek The Final Chapter)
(Reviewed May 17, 2010, by James Dawson)

Strangely depressing for a kiddie movie, this fourth chapter in the Shrek series finds our hero (voiced by Mike Myers) bored and unhappy with his married-with-children life. "I used to be an ogre," he laments. "Now I'm just a jolly green joke."

Desperate to get back his ogre mojo, he signs a contract with the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) that will let him live a day as his former predomesticated self, in exchange for giving up a day from his past. Bad move. He soon realizes that the day Rumpelstiltskin has taken from him is the day Shrek was born. That means Shrek has only 24 hours to try setting right a terrible alternate reality in which he never existed, never befriended Donkey, never married Fiona and never had three kids. If he doesn't straighten things out in that time, he disappears for good.

This "It's a Wonderful Life" setup gives the movie an air of miserablism that's at odds with the wackier attitude of the first three "Shrek" movies. While it's a relief that there aren't as many instantly dated pop culture references this time around, things stay so dark for so long (in both senses of the word) that younger audiences may wonder if they're being punished. Not only is the story gloom-and-doomy, but the 3-D here is nowhere near as good as that seen in this year's bright and beautiful How to Train Your Dragon.

Antonio Banderas returns as the always funny Puss in Boots, who has become a flabby tabby in the Shrekless reality where Rumpelstiltskin is king of Far Far Away. Without Shrek to rescue her from imprisonment, Fiona (Cameron Diaz) has freed herself and leads of a group of ogre revolutionaries -- arguably a more self-actualizing fate than that of housewife motherhood, but maybe that's just the feminist in me talking.

Despite some ads that refer to this movie as "The Final Chapter," there's no reason to think this will be the last we see of Shrek; in fact, DreamWorks would be crazy to end a franchise that has built up so much goodwill over the years. Even if this installment could have been a little brighter -- again, in both senses of the word -- it's still worth seeing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Shutter Island

(Reviewed February 3, 2010, by James Dawson)

I normally wouldn't think of recommending a movie with a miscast main character and an eye-rollingly unsatisfying ending. So how come I like this one so much that I can't wait to see it again?

"Shutter Island" is director Martin Scorsese's first non-documentary movie since 2006's excellent and Oscar-winning The Departed. Although Scorsese's 21st-century go-to lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio is back as another guy with a badge, the two roles -- and the two movies -- couldn't be more different. This definitely isn't the kind of period-piece mystery that anyone would expect from a director best known for mythologizing mobsters, mooks and mean streets.

With a menacing, pulpy and just-this-side-of-ironic film noir ambience, "Shutter Island"'s closest companion in the Scorsese canon would be his amped-up and camped-up 1991 thriller "Cape Fear." The difference is that "Shutter Island" may exist in a similarly hyper "B-movie movie" reality, but the plot here is played deadpan straight, with no tension-relieving laugh lines or goofy camera moves like "Cape Fear"'s barrel-rolling boat shot.

Adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from the novel by Dennis Lehane, "Shutter Island" is neither a post-modern parody nor an entirely respectful recreation of film noir, but something weirder and more ambitious. It is reminiscent of everything from "Twin Peaks" to "Schindler's List" to "The Prisoner" to "A Beautiful Mind" to "Sin City" to "Vertigo" to "Patton" to "Synecdoche, New York," but simultaneously feels brand new.

DiCaprio is a U.S. marshal investigating the disappearance of an inmate from the psychiatric-hospital prison on an isolated island where "only the most dangerous damaged patients" are sent. He and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) get the distinct feeling they aren't receiving full cooperation from the hospital's disturbingly calm director (Sir Ben Kingsley, employing an odd accent that makes him sound not unlike Robin Williams), and his quite possibly ex-Nazi compatriot (a condescendingly patrician Max von Sydow). Paranoia strikes deep, and things get outright gothic when a hurricane-force storm that cuts off communications with the mainland makes leaving the island impossible.

The plot itself includes a maelstrom of midcentury misanthropy, from concentration camps to trans-orbital lobotomies to the House Un-American Activities Committee. There's arson, multiple murder, swarms of rats, symbolic nightmares, a stop inside a mausoleum and a trip to a forbidden lighthouse that definitely isn't what it seems. Man, just typing this stuff makes me want to get in line for the next show.

Jackie Earle Haley is excellent as always in a small but memorable role as an abused fellow inmate, and Michelle Williams gives a suitably ethereal performance as DiCaprio's deceased but lingering wife. The locations and settings are distubingly perfect, especially the intimidatingly high-cliffed island and a shadowy, maze-like central prison fortress.

So what about those two shortcomings I mentioned earlier?

Well, DiCaprio does his best, which definitely isn't bad. But he suffers from the same physical handicap that made him an unsuitable Howard Hughes in Scorsese's "The Aviator." His eternally youthful appearance prevents him from being convincing as a mature adult, especially one from an era "when men were men." A craggy tough guy like Mickey Rourke would have been a better choice to play the haunted, frustrated and emotionally unstable World War 2 vet.

And without spoiling what happens, the ending is a huge disappointment after such a fascinating build-up. It's pretty preposterous stuff, and it doesn't completely work. (For an example that won't mean anything to anyone who hasn't seen the movie: Why wouldn't DiCaprio have been given back his suit?)

Maybe it's easy to forgive the ending simply because a last-act letdown seemed almost inevitable. Watching the strange and sometimes surreal story unfold, it's hard not to wonder how any conclusion could do an adequate job of wrapping things up. That's why the climax is more likely to inspire the reaction, "Darn, what a shame," as opposed to, "Damn, that sucked." Also, the movie's final scene after that big reveal is an absolute killer, so heartrendingly tragic that it easily redeems any earlier sins.


Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Postscript added February 17, 2010: After seeing "Shutter Island" again last night, I can confirm that the plot really doesn't work if you go in knowing what's coming in act three. Far too much suspension of disbelief is required to buy the "everything you've seen is wrong" climax. But like Hitchcock's "Vertigo," the hard-to-swallow ending doesn't ruin what's still a must-see movie.

Shut Up and Sing
(Reviewed October 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

It always happens. Whenever I see two screenings in one day, the movie that I'm expecting to like turns out to be a dud, and the one that I thought had a good chance of sucking turns out to be a winner.

In this case, I thought that the Richard Linklater "inspired by" adaptation of the bestseller "Fast Food Nation" would be funny, interesting, entertaining and insightful. It turned out to be none of those things -- but "Shut Up and Sing" is all four.

In fact, I'm flat-out amazed to report that this documentary about the Dixie Chicks country-music trio is one of the best films of 2006.

Apparently originally intended for TV (it's in full-frame -- as opposed to widescreen -- format), the footage for "Shut and and Sing" covers the Dixie Chicks before, during and after lead singer Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush onstage in London by saying she was embarrassed that he is from her native Texas. You may think you know what happened next, from pieces on "20/20" and "60 Minutes" about the subsequent redneck-hysteria hurricane of outraged indignation, radio boycotts, hate mail and at least one very credible death threat. But those stories only scratched the surface.

What makes "Shut Up and Sing" so enjoyable is the very intimate backstage access it provides to the three group members, their families, their incredibly tolerant and personable manager, and others who were caught up in the inanity and insanity of that sickening shitkicker shitstorm.

Despite the fact that the Dixie Chicks were then (and remain) the best-selling female group in history, the entire country-radio industry stopped playing their songs in response to the furious protests of some frothing, Bush-supporting morons. (Note: redundant?) Although Maines is the most outspoken and opinionated Chick, she and bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire all express shock, sadness, anger and finally a resolute solidarity in the face of adversity.

In the immediate aftermath of the remark, as she began to realize how much career damage it was causing, Maines wavered slightly by giving some non-apology apologies. Thankfully, she soon settled on what is basically an "I said it and I meant it" stance. It's easy to cut her some slack, though -- even John Lennon backpedalled and waffled over his "more popular than Jesus" crack before finding his backbone.

The documentary ends up telling a very human story that is more involving, moving and satisfying than many scripted dramas. Sure, it helps if you already are smart enough to acknowledge that Bush is one of the worst presidents in American history.

But "Shut Up and Sing" ultimately is more about the price of freedom of expression, and the bravery it takes to pay that price, than about partisan politics. Maines, Robison and Maguire not only are likeable, talented and funny, but they deserve a lot of respect.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed June 21, 2007)

Writer/director Michael Moore's latest documentary isn't as powerful or focused as his last effort ("Fahrenheit 9/11"). It occasionally loses its way, and skims the surface of what's wrong with the American health-care system without providing dollars-and-cents details about a workable alternative.

That doesn't mean, however, that this is a movie anyone in America should miss.

Moore spends a little too long on some real-world examples of Americans who got screwed by their insurance companies, bankrupted by astronomical medical bills, or cast onto the streets by hospitals whose primary interest is the profit motive. Not that their stories aren't worth telling, but some tightening would have been nice.

He then extols the virtues -- and rightfully so -- of Canada, England, France and Cuba, where health care is provided free or at incredibly low cost. Instead of telling us what this costs those countries' citizens in taxes, Moore is content to interview one Parisian couple and show what a nice apartment them have -- as if this proves that everyone in the country manages to live in upper-middle-class splendor despite whatever tax burden they pay.

Don't get me wrong; I completely agree with Moore's premise that America's current system is corrupt, criminally expensive, and a disgrace to any nation that wants to pretend it is civilized. But "Sicko" often reminded me of the old Monty Python skit "How to Do It," where solutions to monumentally difficult problems consisted of nothing more than saying the equivalent of "all we have to do to fix things is make all doctors and hospitals free," without explaining how exactly we would get from the status quo to that point.

Moore almost lost me during a segment when he treats the 1993 version of Hillary Clinton like a saint for proposing a version of national health coverage during husband Bill Clinton's first term as president. Moore posits that the plan was killed by a right-wing and big-pharma conspiracy, which is partially true. But couldn't he have spared just a few seconds to go over the economics of the disastrous idea itself? It certainly was no Parisian-like panacea. As I recall from living through the era, "Hillarycare" would have been ridiculously expensive without providing a respectable level of benefits or covering anywhere near the entire populace.

Moore redeems himself later, however, by including present-day Senator Hillary among a group of politicians who have accepted large campaign contributions from the health-care industry, pointing out that she has been bought and co-opted just like all the others.

Overall, the best way to describe why I didn't like "Sicko" more than I did is because it comes off more like a sorta-shallow "20/20" piece than a hard-hitting "60 Minutes" story. Moore's attempt to get decent medical care for some 9/11 workers by boating to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp already has gotten a lot of press, but the actual footage falls pretty flat, mainly because he never gets any sort of reply from anyone in charge.

Also, with the sole exception of some recent footage of a patient who was dumped on Skid Row here in lovely Los Angeles, the movie doesn't feel very up-to-the-minute. For example, why doesn't Moore mention that none of the main Democratic candidates for president -- Clinton, Obama or Edwards -- favors single-payer universal health care? Those candidates' empty promises of reform boil down to requiring every American to buy insurance, instead of cutting out the insurance industry altogether and making free health care a right of every citizen. It would have been fitting for Moore to drive home the point that nothing here is going to change as drastically as it should anytime soon, no matter which Democrat or Republican gets elected.

Still, I'm giving "Sicko" a "gentleman's C" just because the topic is so damned important. You will come out of the movie feeling just plain miserable, knowing how much better off people are in countries that have elected representatives who serve the people instead of the profiteers.

If you want to stop feeling sick, get off your ass and vote the sorry sons of bitches out of office.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

Peter Travers, the clueless dolt who somehow lucked into the "reviewer-for-life" gig at ROLLING STONE, actually called "Sideways" "the best American movie so far this year." What was he drinking?

The likeable, catcher's-mitt-faced Thomas Haden Church and the always overrated bore Paul Giamatti play two extremely unlikely friends who take a road trip from Los Angeles to the Santa Barbara wine country. Church plays a former soap opera actor who can't get work doing anything but commercial voiceovers these days. He is about to marry into money after this last guys-only trip. Giamatti is a bitter sad-sack school teacher and would-be novelist.

They meet a couple of women in Santa Barbara. Church cheating with Sandra Oh isn't too hard to believe, but the horse's-ass-homely Giamatti scoring with yummy blond Virginia Madsen falls in the "zero credibility" zone, even for a comedy.

Also, I didn't buy the basic premise of the movie. Not only could I not picture dumb-jock Church and bitter-snob Giamatti wanting anything to do with each other, but the idea of these two spending several days in a motel together in Santa Barbara just seemed kind of...odd. Also, the movie veers from sappy "dramedy" to some insultingly stupid setups. (The retrieving-the-wallet scene is among the dumbest things I've seen all year at the movies.)

Then there is the "doesn't know when to end" problem. "Sideways" reaches a decent conclusion, but instead of the credits rolling we get a few more scenes that (a) are wholly unnecessary and (b) undercut the attempted poignancy of what has gone before. Bad move. The "seatbelt" line of dialog would have been a much better ending than what we get.

Worst of all, this movie comes from director Alexander Payne, whose "About Schmidt" and (especially) "Election" prove he is capable of much better and truer stuff.

Dull and dumb.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed July 30, 2002, by James Dawson)

Know how you'll be sitting around talking about nothing with a bunch of your friends, and then somebody brings up the old TV show "The Twilight Zone," and everybody starts recounting all of the great, classic episodes? And then you find out that some channel will be running a "Twilight Zone" marathon, so you gleefully set the VCR to record several hours' worth, and then kick back to watch the tape? And then, to your complete shock and disappointment, you realize that a whole lot of them weren't any good at all--that, in fact, most of the episodes of that show were just plain dumb, predictable as hell, or insultingly silly?

Well, "Signs" is the 2002 equivalent of one of those thoroughly lousy, embarrassing "Twilight Zone" episodes that nobody remembers fondly. Jesus Christ, it's bad. It's so bad that you leave the theater mad at director/writer M. Night Shama-lama-dingdong, mad at the deceptive ad campaign, mad at the fact that now another director can't possibly use the subject matter of crop circles without looking like a Johnny-come-lately even though they actually do not figure much into the plot of "Signs" at all, and mad at yourself for throwing away good money that you could have used for something more satisfying, such as shoving it up your nose, burning it or employing it as toilet tissue.

This movie sucks so hard it disappears in a black hole, reappears, and sucks itself back in again in an endlessly repeating loop of cosmic, colossal crappiness.

The only "sign" you'll care about as you watch this disappointing drivel is the one that says "Exit." Run for it. Quickly. Quickly, damn you!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Silent House
(Reviewed March 9, 2012, by James Dawson)

The first gimmick of this moody, disturbing and unusually somber horror flick is that it unfolds in 88 minutes of real time, as an increasingly terrified young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is menaced by things that go bump in her house and in her head.

The second gimmick is that the movie has been artfully assembled to appear as if it were shot in one continuous take, with no edits or cutaways. That stunt, most memorably employed in Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 drawing-room thriller "Rope," sounds more interesting than it plays. The technically impressive feat eventually becomes a tiresome restriction. When directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau give realism a rest by using a slightly pixelated style during a panic-stricken run, the brief change comes as a refreshing relief.

Ironically, most of the scares in "Silent House" are sound-related -- the sort perfected at a different haunted house almost 50 years ago. As in 1963's classic "The Haunting," thumps, creaks and other noises heard offscreen are the cause of more anxiety and chills than the things we actually see.

The plot couldn't be more simple. Sarah and her father John (Adam Trese) are preparing to leave an isolated old vacation home where they have been staying with Sarah's surly Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). The three-story house with no electricity has been vandalized to such an extent that the windows are boarded up and padlocks secure every door. That means the interior is so dark that flashlights are required even during the day, and leaving the house without a key is as difficult as getting inside.

When Uncle Peter leaves to go to town, Sarah finds her father bloody and unconscious on an upstairs floor. Then she keeps hearing...and occasionally seeing...things that turn her into a scrambling, traumatized hysteric.

The illusion of continuous-shot camerawork throughout is excellent, keeping Sarah onscreen for nearly every second of the film. Besides leading, circling and following Sarah, the camera smoothly glides in and out of a car and other tight spaces. Dim lighting adds to the eerie ambience of the house, which has a bygone-days basement full of ductwork and pipes that would be creepy even without an unknown intruder lurking around the corner.

Director Kentis and co-director/writer Lau previously teamed on 2003's excellent "Open Water," another movie that presented interesting production challenges. (The protagonists of that film spent most of their time treading water and hoping not to get eaten by sharks.) "Silent House" is a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film "La Casa Muda," which used the same continuous-shot format.

Olsen, who was so good in last year's similarly unsettling "Martha Marcy May Marlene" that many thought she deserved an Oscar nomination, effectively portrays Sarah's psychological descent into wild-eyed paranoid panic. But the filmmakers' decision to put her in a low-cut white tank top that shows off her frankly spectacular "Olsen twins," and to employ frequent down-blouse shots that ogle those assets, seems odd for a movie that aspires to be more than a cheesy exploitation flick.

The movie disappoints in its last act partly by not living up to the theater-of-the-mind expectations previous scenes have created. Characters begin behaving in ways that are horror-cliché hokey, hallucinatory images look like second-rate "The Shining" swipes and the final twist is an unsatisfying storytelling device roughly on a par with "it was all a dream." Discussions by viewers afterward are likely to include debate over what exactly happened, because the fate of every character is left frustratingly unclear.

That's a shame, because this offbeat and engrossing cinematic stunt deserved a more thoughtful and less ambiguous payoff.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Silver City
(Reviewed August 25, 2004, by James Dawson)

This movie is roughly the equivalent of what you would get if someone with a severe head injury wrote and directed "Chinatown." It desperately wants to be a multilayered, noirish indictment of political corruption, but is so boring, illogical and simplistic that it fails in every possible way.

The movie's main plot premise is ridiculously nonsensical. While shooting a "watch me fish" campaign commercial in the great outdoors, gubernatorial candidate Chris Cooper (channelling George Doofus Bush) ends up hooking the hand of a dead guy floating in a lake. Campaign manager Richard Dreyfuss goes into full freakout mode, assuming that the body must have been planted there to embarrass the would-be governor. He gives a private investigator the names of three people he thinks might be responsible: the candidate's aging hippie-dippy sister (Daryl Hannah), a frothing radio talk-show host (Miguel Ferrer), and a codgerly environmental activist (Ralph Waite). The rest of the movie consists of said investigator tracking down these leads and various tangents.

Believe it or not, this plot is not played for laughs. We actually are supposed to believe that a gubernatorial candidate's campaign manager thinks the would-be governor's sister...or a radio talk-show host...or an environmental activist PLANTED A DEAD BODY IN A LAKE because they HOPED IT WOULD BE IN EXACTLY THE RIGHT PLACE for the candidate TO SNAG IT WITH A FISH-HOOK WHILE SHOOTING A TV COMMERCIAL.

I've never been able to figure out why a lot of critics like writer/director John Sayles. (Maybe they have severe head injuries.) If you see a review by anyone who says this movie is anything other than a plodding, snooze-inducing, badly acted slog, seek medical help for them. Immediately.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed August 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

How can a movie starring Al Pacino and Catherine Keener possibly be as embarrassingly lousy as this one? This bomb isn't merely bad, it is a strong contender for worst film of the year. No kiddin'.

Pacino is a down-on-his-luck director who revives his career by "discovering" a new and very mysteriously private actress known only as Simone--who actually is an entirely computer-generated creation. Keener is his ex-wife who now runs the studio that releases Simone's movies. The whole wide world falls for Simone as if she is a combination of Greta Garbo and Britney Spears (now there's an image...), thinking that she is human.

There is not a convincing moment in this entire movie, even on a comedic level. I didn't believe that Pacino could keep his secret, which makes the whole movie fall apart right from the start. The "inside Hollywood" studio stuff seemed to have been written by someone who either (a) got all of his info about the way the biz works by reading cheap paperbacks and watching "Entertainment Tonight," or (b) decided to patronize the rubes in the audience by writing down to them instead of giving them credit for any intelligence whatsoever.

There were only two things I enjoyed about "Simone": Evan Rachel Wood (of TV's "Once and Again"), who plays Pacino's teenage daughter, is really sweet and likeable in a "non-sickening-Hollywood-kid" way. And when Pacino tries to subvert Simone's image by putting her in a film titled "I Am Pig," the clip we see from that "Springtime for Hitler"-type debacle really is funny.

Other than that, Simone is all zeros and no ones. Okay, that's a nerdy and pretty lame binary-code computer joke, but it's better than what I was going to end with: "Simone sucks the big one." See? You're welcome.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Singing Detective
(Reviewed October 25, 2003, by James Dawson)

What an incredible disappointment. Almost everything about this movie version of Dennis Potter's wonderful British TV series seems calculated to subvert the script (written by Potter himself). Most of the casting (especially that of the title character) is terrible. The direction is flat and uninspired. And the whole project looks as cheap as a public access all-amateurs TV show.

Robert Downey Jr. is wrong, wrong, relentlessly wrong as the lead, a writer who is both a hospital patient with a horrible skin disease and that writer's fictional pulp-novel private detective alter-ego. Michael Gambon had the role in the TV miniseries, and was perfectly convincing as a bitter, cantankerous crank who was "getting on in years." Downey is far too young for the character, however, and comes off more as a spoiled, snooty prick than as a sad, nasty, but fitfully endearing old wretch.

Katie Holmes of TV's "Dawson's Creek," playing a perky nurse, is about as colorless as cardboard cuties come -- the diametric opposite of smokey, sultry, but somehow sweetly sexy Joanne Whalley in the original miniseries. Mel Gibson, in a bald wig and thick glasses, seems to be channeling the unctuously schmaltzy Robin Williams as Downey's oh-so-patient psychiatrist. Like the TV series, this version has characters break into period songs on occasion (a Potter trademark), but the movie's songs are from the American 1950s instead of the British 1940s, which takes away a lot of the original's exotic charm. (The setting here also has been changed from England to California, although Potter's script for the movie originally moved the action not to California but to Chicago. Confused yet?)

The only actors I liked in this movie play small supporting roles. Adrien Brody and Jon Polito are great as motivationally confused gangsters who come to realize they are in a story with "all clues, no solutions" (as the movie's slogan puts it). And Jeremy Northam and Carla Gugino are good in dual roles. But they are not enough to keep this movie from coming off like a cheap, shoddy roadshow version of a genuine classic.

The only thing that keeps me from giving this version an "F" is the fact that I can recognize (with difficulty, granted) things I still like about the writing. (Hey, Shakespeare performed by a company of retards still would be Shakespeare. Right?) (Just call me "Mr. Sensitive.")

The money you would spend for tickets, parking, popcorn and drinks probably would go a long way toward paying for the DVD box set of the original "Singing Detective" six-part TV series. A word to the wise...

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Sin City
(Reviewed March 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

I hate to say it, because the trailers for this movie are so goddamned gut-grabbingly great, but "Sin City" didn't live up to my stratospheric expectations. The worst part is that it comes so close, so agonizingly close, that only a few changes would have made the difference between "good" and "terrific."

Don't get me wrong, it's definitely worth seeing. "Sin City" comics creator Frank Miller and codirector Robert Rodriguez have made the most faithful line-for-line, nearly shot-for-shot comic book adaptation ever. Fans of the comics (count me in) can't help being thrilled to see how Miller's black-and-white, highly stylized artwork is reverently brought to life in several interconnected, extremely hard-boiled tales.

From the corrupt cops, psycho sadists, hot hookers and heroic hardcases to Miller's harsh shadows, wild angles and expressionistic sets, it's all up there on the screen. Nearly every word of the uber-pulp dialog is taken directly from the comics, balloon for balloon. Far from being toned down, the comics' hails of bullets, flashing swords, car wrecks and general buckets-of-blood violence nearly leave the audience splattered.

Also, most of the actors (especially Mickey Rourke as the monstrous but misunderstood tough-guy Marv; Bruce Willis as the betrayed but noble detective Hartigan; and Michael Clarke Duncan as the gigantic enforcer Manute) are perfectly cast.

Rosario Dawson is great looking and great as Gail, the ball-busting boss of a gang of kinky, heavily-armed whores. Clive Owen occasionally injects a little too much Nicolas Cage into his portrayal of Gail's take-no-prisoners boyfriend Dwight, and the prosthetics that transform Nick Stahl into the "Yellow Bastard" villain give him an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ferengi, but those are minor quibbles. Carla Gugino is deliciously sexy as Marv's lipstick-lesbian probation officer Lucille, and Elijah Wood's creepy, cannibalistic Kevin is sure to freak out his fervent Frodo fanbase.

Story-wise, Miller's dynamic artwork on the comics always has taken precedence over his purple plotting, which gleefully abounds in genre cliches. Let's face it, things like a cop getting into deep shit on the last day before he's supposed to retire, or finding somebody thanks to a discarded matchbook bearing an address, are not exactly fresh devices.

Miller's ability to take that kind of familiar material and employ it within wild, ultraviolent fever dreams involving hyper-human versions of traditional archetypes is what makes "Sin City" more reinvention than retread -- but the art remains the main attraction. Full-page spreads, sometimes page after page of them, often seem like nothing more than excuses to do big, cool drawings. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Similarly, the movie's main selling point is its jaw-droppingly beautiful look. Actors performed every scene on bare soundstages, with digital backgrounds added later, a la "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." Unlike "Sky Captain," which maintained the illusion throughout, "Sin City" frequently revels in the very unreality of the process. High-speed car chases through winding mountain roads are gleefully fake, color appears and disappears from spot elements of the black-and-white cinematography, and some scenes are nothing more than stark white silhouettes against black backgrounds. This is the kind of flick that makes you wish publishers still printed tie-in books with frame-by-frame photos of every scene in the entire movie. It's a joy to behold.

With all of that going for it, the fact that "Sin City" falls short of being the knockout, geek-heaven, guilty-pleasure masterpiece it could have been is, well, a sin.

Here are its three main shortcomings:

When it's good, it's good, and when it's not, it's Flonase. Ever see the tacky-on-purpose TV ads for a nasal spray called Flonase? They are black-and-white film noir take-offs featuring a private dick lamenting a doll who dumped him, but who reappears at his shadowy office when she needs a refill. (Maybe the guy runs a pharmacy on the side or something.)

During a few of the slightly off-pace scenes in "Sin City," I couldn't help wondering how many people suddenly thought, "Hey, I know what this reminds me of: that corny commercial!"

A lot of Miller's tough-guy dialog is such an obvious homage to crime fiction cliches that it borders on affectionate camp, and his plots take place in an amped-up fantasy world whose charm is its over-the-top artificiality. While Miller nearly always manages to make this work on the printed page, there's a thinner line onscreen between "tongue in cheek" and "silly." Some things that come off as badass-cool in the comics (a hitman with bodies to dispose of says he needs "a hardtop. With a decent engine. And make sure it's got a big trunk!") sound flat-out funny coming from an actor's mouth.

Jessica Alba is completely miscast as the exotic dancer Nancy, a crucial character in the Bruce Willis segment of the movie. Nancy always dances bare-breasted and bare-assed in the comics, onstage at a seedy and dangerous dive bar. That is part of what makes the moment so powerful when the upright and valiant Willis character discovers what the girl he knew as a "skinny 11-year-old kid" has grown up to do for a living. Eliminating the nudity takes away a lot of that scene's dramatic impact. And considering that two of the movie's other featured actresses -- Jaime King and Carla Gugino -- do appear topless, the decision to cover up Alba's naughty bits probably had more to do with a no-no clause in her contract than with ratings board or artistic considerations.

(Willis's Hartigan and Stahl's "Yellow Bastard" also have nude moments in the comics that become wang-hidingly tamer on film, but neither of those changes is as blatantly wrongheaded as Nancy's unjustifiable modesty.) (And I'm not just saying that because I'm a horny heterosexual.)

Plus Nancy is supposed to be erotic-but-angelic dream-girl perfection on the stage, the best of her kind. Unfortunately, Alba is simply not a good dancer. She looks stiff, inhibited and -- despite her good looks -- not very sexy; more like an awkward amateur-night contestant than a sensual, top-shelf pro. Alba is one of those girls who looks better preening and pouting in still photos than she does when she's moving around. All you guys with "Dark Angel" posters above your beds, you know I'm right. It's okay to admit it.

The music is fucking awful. The main thing wrong with "Sin City," a problem that affects nearly every dang scene, is its dreadful score. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie so utterly and painfully sabotaged by its background music. Rodriguez himself, along with John Debney and Graeme Revell, wrote the music. I remember Rodriguez's scores for his "Spy Kids" movies being pretty good, but I didn't like a single thing about this one.

The trailers and TV ads prominently feature a driving, powerful guitar number that perfectly complements the amazing visuals and quick-cut action. That song -- "Cells," by a group called The Servant -- appears nowhere in the actual flick. Instead, we are subjected to a sludge of unmemorable, inappropriate, and boring cues that undercut everything onscreen. The most tragic example occurs behind the finale of the Willis segment, which should have been poignantly operatic, not flat and dull. No exaggeration, I would have preferred no score at all.

Some behind-the-scenes things about "Sin City" that deserve mention: Rodriguez gave up his membership in the Director's Guild of America to give Miller a co-director credit on the movie. (Guild rules apparently would have prevented this, for some arcane reason.) And because Rodriguez adapted the script almost word-for-word from Miller's work (the collections "The Hard Goodbye," "The Big Fat Kill" and "That Yellow Bastard," as well as a short piece titled "The Customer Is Always Right"), Rodriguez didn't take a screenplay-writing credit. Is it obvious that Rodriguez isn't based in Hollywood, or what?

Some last notes for trainspotters: An extremely brief scene at the end of the movie, just before the credits roll, is the only bit not taken from a previously published Miller comic. There is no bonus scene at the end of the credits, though, so don't bother sitting through them. Frank Miller has a cameo role as a priest visited in the confessional by Marv.

Also, Quentin Tarantino "guest directed" the conversation between the characters Jackie and Dwight as they drive through the rain -- which happens to be the worst scene in the movie, and the most unfaithful-in-spirit to the source material. (Instead of presenting Dwight's internal-monolog thoughts via voiceover, Tarantino has Dwight talk to himself by saying all of those thoughts aloud, which looks really dumb.)

Now you know.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
(Reviewed April 24, 2005, by James Dawson)

Negative criticisms of this agonizingly awful movie by anyone who is (a) old enough to drive or (b) male are sadly pointless. "It wasn't made for people like you," will be the inevitable response. "My tween-to-young-teen daughter might like it just fine."

Other things those daughters might like just fine include greasy fast food, sugar-water colas, bulimia, body piercings, tattoos, beer, pot, ecstasy, "American Idol" and unsafe sex with perverts they meet online. Just because a kid likes something doesn't mean it's any goddamned good.

There is not a single moment of this offensively stupid and skin-crawlingly saccharine soap-opera-for-the-16-and-under-set that feels genuine or true. It is worse than bad; it feels calculatedly condescending. I can't believe that the author of the original bestseller, or the writers who adapted the book into screenplay form, were thinking of anything other than cynically making a buck by pushing the emotional buttons of gullible, immature girls.

The plot gimmick: Four 17-year-old friends of differing proportions buy a single pair of jeans that magically fit each of them. (Considering that one of the girls is a chubby, thunder-thighed lardass, the other three should have spent most of the movie in catatonic states of horrified disbelief.)

In a scene that sums up exactly what kind of sickeningly icky and ridiculously fake movie this is, that night they break into the aerobics studio where their mothers met before the girls were born. This is so they can have a candlelight sitting-in-a-circle ceremony outlining the ground rules of their "sisterhood of the traveling pants." Man, I'm getting nauseous just thinking about it.

The main rule is that each girl gets to keep the pants for only a week at a time. (Another rule is that the pants can never be washed, which eventually could result in offended bystanders whistling "The Shrimp Boats Are Coming." But I digress.) When the girls separate for the summer, they send the pants back and forth to each other by FedEx, hoping that miracles thusly will be made.

Shy, reserved Alexis ("Gilmore Girls") Bledel heads to Greece. She comes out of her shell and has a secret romance with a fisherman from a family her relatives have hated for years. Guess how that plot ends.

Amber ("Joan of Arcadia") Tamblyn is a sarcastic, disgusted-by-everybody goth. She meets a spunky little girl who is dying of leukemia. Guess how that plot ends.

America ("Real Women Have Curves") Ferrera is a loud, repulsive child of divorce who thinks her soon-to-be-remarried daddy doesn't love her. Guess how that plot ends.

Blake Lively is a Playboy-Playmate-hot blond who goes to Mexico for soccer camp, pursues a really cute and sexy coach, and GETS LAID BY THE GUY ON A SCENIC BEACH. (Okay, you don't actually see her get pinned to the sand in a sweaty, naked dance of love, but the act is rather unmistakably implied.)

I know what you're thinking: "At least that wasn't predictable." What ruins the segment, though, is that the deflowered lass instantly is overwhelmed by completely unfathomable shame and regret. Huh? Remember, she really likes the guy. And he isn't a creep who is using or taking advantage of her (well, except for that niggling statutory-rape detail, considering that she is 17 years old). Nevertheless, she is not allowed to enjoy even a single second of pleasurable afterglow, lusty satisfaction, or simple "today I am a woman" contentment. It's as if the Taliban stepped into the editing room to make sure viewers get the THIS IS WRONG AND YOU WILL GO TO HELL IF YOU TRY IT message.

Every one of the actresses gets a crying scene before the movie is over. Every one of them gets a reconciliation scene with somebody. Every one of them Learns Something About Herself. It's enough to gag a maggot, frankly.

Parents, don't condescend to your kids by paying for them to see junk like this simply because they don't have the critical faculties to tell shit from souffle. That's like enabling an alcoholic by handing him a bottle.

Instead, sit down and gently explain to them that certain authors and moviemakers are more interested in feeding kids empty-calorie, synthetic crap than anything that is real and sincere and good.

If you don't know the difference, feel free to trust me on this one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The 6th Day
(Reviewed November 5, 2000, by James Dawson)

Arnold Schwarzenegger always fails miserably when he tries playing a "normal guy" (as opposed to a comic-book-type hero, a robot or an out-and-out cartoon). This movie is no exception. As a charter pilot caught up in a cloning conspiracy, he has several scenes that call upon him to actually, gulp, act in "The 6th Day." Trust me, you have not seen awful until you have witnessed the big A trying to assay the role of an average, middle-class family man (who just happens to have biceps as big around as his head). In a scene toward the end of this film that is supposed to be sentimental and moving, a LARGE segment of the audience laughed derisively. It's that bad.

There are plenty of loud, flashy, stuff-blowing-up action scenes, but nobody involved in this fiasco seems to have his heart in the proceedings. It's just another by-the-numbers exercise, one that drags on and on and on long after it should end. And if you can't guess the moronic "surprise" ending, welcome to this planet, stranger, and don't take any wooden nickels. (Actually, in a way it was a surprise -- I was flat-out amazed that the writer was crazy enough to think he could get away with using it!)

This movie is not only pointless but stupid, which is really a crying damned shame. A really decent SF movie could have been made using the same sort of subject matter, if a little intelligence had been employed. Imagine a Philip K. Dick-type treatment of this topic, with urban paranoia and oppressive urban atmosphere and believable characters having philosophical dilemmas about identity and humanity and the soul. Oh, wait a minute, they already made that movie and called it "Blade Runner." Okay, replicants aren't clones, but close enough.

I can't say this about many movies, but there is absolutely nothing in this film that I liked. Usually there is some hot actress, or SOMETHING. But in this one...oh, wait a minute. There's a sexy blond "virtual girlfriend" who pops up in one scene, looking like Kylie Minogue on a really good day. Gosh, I guess nothing is entirely bad, after all.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F (even with the virtual girlfriend)

The Skeleton Key
(Reviewed August 7, 2005, by James Dawson)

Kate Hudson is such a wholly uninteresting non-entity as an actress that she can't even play "shallow" very well, but the sets and New Orleans locations in this "gothic-lite" exercise are interesting and well photographed. Which counts for something.

"What's going on in the haunted mansion" stories live or die by their big-reveal endings, and this one's is pretty lousy. Harlan Ellison used something similar about 12 years ago in one of the worst books that I ever tortured myself to finish ("Mefisto in Onyx"), and that certainly wasn't the first time the device was employed.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Skin I Live In
(Reviewed October 11, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
(Reviewed August 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Will audiences appreciate this strange, wonderful, incredibly stylish movie that looks like nothing else at the multiplexes?

Will critics be able to recognize that this movie, not the "Indiana Jones" trilogy, is the true successor to classic movie serials of yesteryear?

Will this groundbreaking movie's jaw-dropping technical effects point the way to how more films will be made in the future?

Will I stop asking rhetorical questions and start the damned review, already?

I liked this movie a lot. Its central gimmick -- the fact that the entire production was shot by actors on bare soundstages, with sets and locales digitally added to every frame of the movie later -- is an absolutely amazing technical feat. If only for that reason (but trust me, there are others), this is truly a "must-see" movie.

Far from being mere backdrops or video-game-style settings, the "digital domains" here are fully realized environments in which characters believably can walk around, fly and submerge. Director/writer Kerry Conran gets the credit as a visionary who made his visions not only real, but really cool. Like "Spy Kids" director Robert Rodriguez, he has a real gift for blue-screen wizardry.

The settings and locales of "Sky Captain" have the pulp-SF-magazine look of an alternate-universe 1930s, one where the "Hindenburg 3" zeppelin docks at the Empire State Building and giant evil robots march in deadly formation between New York skyscrapers. Who you gonna call? Sky Captain, of course, a bomber-jacketed fighter pilot played to angular-jawed retro perfection by Jude Law. His on-again, off-again girlfriend is the trenchcoated and radiantly blond reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), the kind of gal whose first allegiance is to getting a story -- and the pix to go with it.

The reason the movie could be a harbinger of things to come in the biz is because the gimmick works so well. Actors and studios from this day forth may think long and hard about incurring the expense of sending productions to faraway locales. Why send Tom Cruise and a crew to Japan, when he can do his bit in a Culver City studio and have Japan added behind him later?

"Sky Captain"'s impressively detailed, three-dimensional backgrounds are so well rendered and so artfully incorporated into scenes that the effect is completely convincing. The grand designs of everything from a recreated Radio City Music Hall to a deadly undersea labyrinth make a perfect fit to the glamour-lit, sepia-toned way the actors' faces are shot.

In fact, I couldn't help thinking that this is the way early cinemagoers probably thought science-fiction movies always would look -- more "Metropolis" than "Star Wars," with velvety textures and muted tints, square-jawed heroes and beautiful heroines, dastardly villains and (almost) impossible obstacles.

Those bygone audiences certainly would recognize the acting style employed here, which could best be described as "resolutely reserved." The understated characterizations are appropriate for the period portrayed, and thankfully never devolve into camp. Also, this flick gets major points for being "irony free." Even the most outlandish plot points are played completely straight.

There is humor, romance, drama and action, but everything is just slightly "off" enough to make the entire adventure seem dreamlike and "of another place." Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as an imperiously imposing no-nonsense fellow pilot in black leather and matching eyepatch. Giovanni Ribisi is great as the unflappable Dex, the brains of Sky Captain's private-island outfit. There's even a memorable cameo by Sir Laurence Olivier, believe it or not.

Is this magical movie an unexpected crowd pleaser, or strictly for special tastes?

Is there a chance in hell that people will turn out for a movie this offbeat, unusual and (dare I say it) artistic?

Is everything old new again?

Stay tuned, action fans!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Sky High
(Reviewed July 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

Easygoing, corny-but-cute Disney comedy about a secret airborne high school for the children of superheroes. The son of A-list heroes Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, who pose as suburban real estate agents when they are not fighting giant robots and such, finds himself shunted onto the "sidekick" track when he can't manifest any powers himself. He befriends other students with less-than-impressive abilities (one glows, one turns into a guinea pig, one melts), but later has to choose between them and the cool "hero"-track kids when he develops super-strength. (That plot element is given away by the movie's TV ad, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything.)

It's actually too bad that the movie goes in that direction, with all of the usual cliches about abandoning true friends, feeling guilty and seeking eventual redemption. Letting a literally powerless kid find a way to triumph despite his handicap of being "normal" would have made for a more interesting and original story.

Lynda Carter (TV's Wonder Woman way back when) has a small role as the principal of Sky High, and B-movie mainstay Bruce Campbell is funny as a drill-instructor style gym coach.

Although the school aspect of "Sky High" gives the impression that the movie will resemble the X-Men movies, and the family-of-superheroes element makes it look as if it might be a live-action riff on "The Incredibles," a better comparison would be to "Harry Potter"'s Hogwarts. The students are sorted into different classes, have magic-like powers, and study under eccentric teachers who have their own odd talents. Plus there's prejudice based on parentage. Bus driver Ron Wilson, for example, is the equivalent of a "squib" from the Potter books, in that he did not inherit any abilities from a mother and father who both were heroes.

The movie drags a lot in the middle, with an unrequited romance that distracts from the cool stuff. Overall, however, you could do worse if looking for something to take the kids to see (the god-awful "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" comes to mind).

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(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...


SLEEPWALKING: Charlize Theron white-trashes herself up for another "pretend I'm not gorgeous" role, this time as an irresponsible mother who dumps 11-year-old daughter AnnaSophia Robb with Theron's dirt-poor, detached and kinda dumb brother (Nick Stahl) before making herself scarce. Robb's petulant acting-out over her abandonment is well played, but the movie goes into a downward spiral when she and Stahl leave town on a desperate road-trip after the rent money runs out. A motel scene in which Robb smokes, wanders around a pool in oversized sunglasses, and dives into the water fully clothed feels jarringly out of place, as if the filmmakers wanted to juice the plot with a "Lolita" supplement it didn't need. Robb and Stahl move in with Stahl's psychotically hateful father (Dennis Hopper, in full "Blue Velvet" effect) on a cold and remote farm, where things get incredibly unpleasant and then even worse. Definitely not an uplifting date movie, but if you're in the mood to be really bummed out, you could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed October 14, 2007)

Review to come, but hey, at least I gave it a grade already. And I'll say this much: The only things worthwhile about "Sleuth" are the sets. The rest of the movie is so aggravatingly WATCH ME ACT!!! and talky-awful you'll want to stuff popcorn kernels in your ears and pull the greasy bag over your head.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

A Slipping Down Life
(Reviewed April 16, 2004, by James Dawson)

Puzzlingly left on the shelf since 1999, "A Slipping Down Life" starts off like the cinematic equivalent of a depressingly dour "little magazine" short story written by a self-indulgent spinster. Lili Taylor plays a drab, put-upon woman who still lives with her dull father in a run-down small town. She has reached the point of taking her hands off the steering wheel to let her car drift into oncoming traffic (haven't we all had nights like that?), but manages to keep plodding on with life.

Listening to a radio station in bed on another lonely evening, she is amazed to hear a local singer (Guy Pearce) who completely captures her fancy. She and a chubby friend with too much makeup who looks like she just dropped in from a John Waters flick go to see the singer perform at a rowdy roadhouse, and that is where the movie starts getting intriguing.

Pearce not only does a good job of singing/talking several offbeat songs that David Lynch would love, he is genuinely interesting to watch. His character is a bitter former dreamer resigned to being a big fish in a very small pond, playing songs at night and pumping gas by day. Although his ensuing romance with Taylor requires a little suspension of disbelief -- it smacks of wishful thinking on the part of the world's unappreciated shrinking violets, considering that Pearce's character attracts a gaggle of trashy but undeniably more stimulating sluts to his shows -- his vulnerability, cynicism and utter frustration with his lot in life are right on the mark. (Take it from somebody who couldn't catch a break using both hands and a barrel. I feel your pain, brother!)

There are moments that don't quite work, such as a pair of loud confrontations that seem to climax too quickly, and a playful "kidnapping" that doesn't lead anywhere. And make no mistake, this is a low-budget movie that is more about acting than action. But ultimately it is so interesting and quirky and human that "A Slipping Down Life" is definitely worth a look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Slumdog Millionaire
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Smurfs
(Reviewed July 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D