Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



The review will take
a few seconds to appear.

Please excuse the brief delay,
for which I humbly apologize.

(Reviewed October 25, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is the second film from writer/director Guy Ritchie (better known stateside as Mr. Madonna), whose brilliant "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" was the best film of 1998. (Sez me, that's who.) Like that film, this one weaves several crime-related plotlines into a seamless and incredibly stylish whole. The difference here is that "Snatch" lacks a single obviously central character; it feels more like an anthology of separate stories that end up colliding into each other. The character called Turkish is meant to be our "main man," but there are so many other excellent performances and so many other colorful characters that none take the lead.

Don't get me wrong, though -- this is still a definite "thumbs up" review. Ritchie is a real artist as a director, one who does more with a camera in five minutes that most directors do in two hours. And his script is funny, violent, convoluted and endlessly clever.

Also, casting Brad Pitt as an unintelligible Irish gypsy bare-knuckles fighter was a stroke of genius. His part of the story ends up like an alternate-universe version of "Fight Club," which was the best movie of 1999. (Sez me again.) It's amusingly cruel that in a movie with British accents so broad subtitles would be welcome, Brad Pitt turns out to be the hardest person to understand.

I was going to give this movie a "B+", until I realized that I definitely will go to the theater to see it again. Any movie that gets me to shell out cash for a ticket after seeing it free at an advance screening just has to rate an "A," now doesn't it?

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Snow Angels
(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...


SNOW ANGELS: This sappy soaper is one of the most puzzlingly overhyped movies of 2008. Kate Beckinsale is good as a young mother whose unbalanced, crazy-Christian-stereotype ex-husband (Sam Rockwell) won't leave her the hell alone. Unfortunately, Rockwell overacts so egregiously that he should have his SAG card revoked. Seriously, it's easier to believe that Lisa Marie Presley loved Michael Jackson than it is to swallow the idea of Beckinsale's character ever wanting anything to do with this annoyingly needy douchebag. A drastic tone-shift featuring child endangerment seems desperate, exploitative and tacky. The movie also includes a John-Hughesian high-school romance subplot about a teenage nerd (Michael Angarano) getting lucky with a very sexy nerdette (Olivia Thirlby) who wears clunky black-plastic glasses. A one-second shot of Thirlby's placidly contented face when Angarano goes down on her was my favorite moment in the movie, perhaps because it was the only thing in it that wasn't histrionically overplayed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Snow White and the Huntsman
(Reviewed May 31, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Social Network
(Reviewed September 25, 2010, by James Dawson)

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

This smarter-than-the-average bio is so interesting and artfully crafted that it should be director David Fincher's second consecutive Best Picture nominee come Oscar time. Unlike his tastefully handsome but lethargic "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," however, "The Social Network" actually deserves the honor.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as the brilliant, bitter and brusque (to put it mildly) Mark Zuckerberg, who founded what became Facebook as a Harvard sophomore in 2004. The soon-to-be worldwide website would inspire lots of later litigation, mainly because Zuckerberg shows disinterest or disdain for anyone who expects some of the credit -- much less a piece of the profits.

Actually, Zuckerberg shows disinterest or disdain for just about everyone. Eisenberg plays the programming prodigy with almost robotic detachment; even his resentments and retaliations seem more pro forma than personal. The irony at the heart of the film is that a petty, cold-as-ice outcast with no human relationship skills becomes the guiding force behind the internet's most successful social networking site.

Based on the Ben Mezrich book "The Accidental Billionaires," Aaron Sorkin's completely engrossing screenplay features deliriously fast-paced dialog, abrupt chronology shifts, and fascinatingly watchable characters. In less talented hands, the basic "backstabbing bastard businessman" plot could have played as flat and forgettable as the nothing-special "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Instead, this very 21st century saga feels as fresh as a just-typed status update.

In the movie's opening scene, the smugly superior Zuckerberg can't fathom why the girl he's dating (Rooney Mara) takes offense at his insulting condescension. Exhausted by his verbal volleys, she announces that "dating you is like dating a Stairmaster" and dumps him.

Zuckerberg retaliates by blogging rude remarks about her family name and bra size. Casting his nastiness even wider on the net, he hacks Harvard's servers to create a site that lets students select between pairs of coeds to determine their relative hotness. The finished-in-one-night project is so popular it crashes the entire Harvard system within hours. Thusly are legends born in the information age.

Impressed by Zuckerberg's skills, three other students hire him to write code for a social networking site they want to start. Zuckerberg strings them along for weeks, then infuriates the trio by launching a similar site of his own. His later defense: "They came to me with an idea. I had a better one." Ouch.

Two of the three who get burned are the heroically proportioned Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, identical twins in training to row crew at the Olympics. Both of these by-the-rules big men on campus are played by Armie Hammer, with flawlessly convincing camera-magic doubling. When the two are discussing their options for dealing with Zuckerberg's betrayal, one helpfully points out that "I'm six-foot-five, 220, and there's two of me."

Andrew Garfield plays the sweetnatured and naively idealistic Eduardo Saverin, possibly the only person who could be considered a Zuckerberg friend. Think of him as the long-suffering Wilson to Zuckerberg's high-maintenance House. Although Saverin is listed as a Facebook cofounder when the site debuts, his corporate-savvy shortcomings soon become apparent.

Enter Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the slick and self-confident former head of Napster. In the ultimate "opposites attract," Zuckerberg is irresistibly drawn to a guy who oozes exactly the kind of easygoing charm that Zuckerberg himself lacks. Parker also isn't afraid to dream big when pitching a line. As he seductively tells Zuckerberg, "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars."

With the exception of Zuckerberg's gone-but-not-forgotten ex, female characters in this boys-club geekfest are mostly decorative and/or ditzy. One of them testily sets a bed on fire, another eagerly agrees to be a human coke mirror, and then there's that bevy of beauties who get bussed in from other schools for a Harvard mixer. Ah, youth.

The film's not entirely linear structure, bouncing back and forth between dorm rooms, depositions and debaucheries, is just right for the multitasking, short-attention-span era it documents. The propulsive electronic score, by Nine Inch Nails' frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is distinctive and inspired. It's as unconventional in some ways as Jonny (Radiohead) Greenwood's music for "There Might Be Blood," but more accessible. Basically, this movie doesn't sound like any other you're likely to hear this year. And that's a good thing.

The real Mark Zuckerberg has proclaimed that he will not be seeing "The Social Network." That means buying a ticket will allow you to partake in a sublime two-hour pleasure that one of the world's richest multi-billionaires won't get to enjoy.


Back Row Reviews Grade: A

(Reviewed December 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

Dull and pretentious, with a silly-"Twilight Zone"-ish plot, but at least it has some style. "Kubrick-lite" style, to be specific.

George Clooney is a psychiatrist sent to a space station where everyone has gone wacko. Turns out the planet they are orbiting can recreate the dead from memories, which has a way of freaking people out. Would it be wrong to keep such beings around, even after they realize they are mere shadows without their own identities? Go to Starbucks and discuss.

Oddly enough, I didn't hate this movie as much as the general public seems to loathe it. Yes, "Solaris" is boring. And it's not nearly so deep as the filmmakers seem to think it is. But at least it is kinda sorta about something; specifically, it is about something other than stuff blowing up.

Could be worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

The Soloist
(Reviewed April 2009, by James Dawson)

Jamie Foxx goes full-retard pretty convincingly as a homeless schizophrenic musician, but the movie as a whole is less than convincing. This is the kind of "gone Hollywood" version of what started out as a true story that includes supposed-to-be-funny scenes of Robert Downey Jr. (as LA Times reporter Steve Lopez) slipping on his own spilled piss in a toilet stall, and later getting doused with coyote piss in his backyard. Golden showers fetishists will swoon.

The liberties that the screenplay takes with the true story range from stupid (giving Lopez a fictional ex-wife who also is his editor) to insulting (it actually was a corporate CEO who donated a cello to Foxx's character, not a kindly old lady; the real-life CEO should be furious).

One thing good about the movie is that Foxx's character is not the typical beatific, harmless personification of mental illness we usually see in movies like this. At times, he's not only violent but scary.

I can't imagine anyone ponying up the cost of a movie ticket to see it, but "The Soloist" is worth a look on cable.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Somewhere in Time
(Reviewed August 30, 2000, by James Dawson)

Scheduled for re-release in Fall 2000 at "select theaters" (as they say), this is a schmaltzy, soapy, hokey, corny, impossibly romantic fantasy that I just happen to love. Yes, I know that Christopher Reeve overdoes his Clark Kent-ish mannerisms and can't really act worth a damn, and that the whole production has a vaguely "TV movie" feel. But Jane Seymour is radiantly gorgeous, the John Barry score (and Rachmaninoff theme) is tear-jerkingly beautiful, and there is an overall sweetness to the movie that makes it easy to just "sit back and enjoy." Take a date, guys -- you WILL get laid that night!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Son of Rambow
(Reviewed April 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

Written and directed by Garth Jennings, who previously helmed the sadly misbegotten movie version of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," this is one of those would-be charming kid-centric Brit movies that ends up being just a tad too precious for its own good. It's not as sick-making as "Millions" -- could anything be? -- but at times it comes close.

Freddie Highmore lookalike Bill Milner is Will, a big-eyed naif we are supposed to believe has been completely shielded from such real-world corruptions as television (he has to leave his schoolroom for religious reasons whenever anything is shown on the tube)...and yet who has filled every page of his bible with drawings of rampaging dinosaurs and scenes of explosive mayhem. So it doesn't ring completely true when he transforms from a catatonically clueless mama's little angel into a wildly hyper Ritalin candidate after chancing to glimpse a bootleg video of "Rambo."

He and school troublemaker Lee Carter (Will Poulter) -- whom Will annoyingly always calls by his first and last name -- set out to videotape their own version of "Rambo" for a BBC young filmmakers contest. (Shades of "Be Kind Rewind!") Can Will keep this worldly pursuit from his scarf-wearing, sect-member mother (Jessica Hynes, formerly Jessica Stevenson, best known for her role as Daisy in the Simon Pegg sitcom "Spaced")? Will a creepily androgynous French exchange student and his adoring admirers hijack the project? Will Lee's nasty, dismissive and domineering older brother (Ed Westwick, aka "Gossip Girl"'s Chuck Bass) stop being a total twat? And will this glacially paced movie ever end?

Like "The History Boys," parts of "Son of Rambow" give off a weird vibe. A quartet of male sycophants follow the French fop around with slavishly smitten devotion that resembles swooning. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Songs by the likes of Depeche Mode and the Cure pop up on the soundtrack, and the video camera, portable phone and hairstyles are 1980s huge. Ah, those fabulous '80s. We shall ne'er see their like again, my friends.

This isn't a terrible movie; it's just one with an okay premise that's not executed very well.

P.S.: There's a tiny bit of dialog at the end of the credits that you will miss if you jump up in a stupidly desperate rush to beat everyone else out of the theater and run to your car.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Soul Plane
(Reviewed May 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

This movie probably should get two different grades, one for Ye Middle-Aged White Critic Who Saw It For Nothin' (the "C-" below), and one for those more likely to shell out for a ticket (who probably will be quite satisfied with what they get for their money). That's because paying audiences are going to see exactly what they will be expecting: a jokey, crude, occasionally funny, almost-all-black-cast version of "Airplane!"

An aside: Some major studio really should bankroll a division called Carbon Copy Films, whose sole purpose would be to make ripoff black versions of every successful movie that starred white people the first time around. (Crikey, Denzel Washington is even redoing "The Manchurian Candidate!" Where will it end?) Hollywood apparently has decided that just about everything needs to be remade in "separate but equal" fashion, so why not go ahead and make that philosophy a boutique's mission statement?

"Soul Plane" reminded me of Bill Cosby's term for lowest-common-denominator black sitcoms that make blacks look like crude, obnoxious, ghettocentric morons: "minstrel show." The KKK itself could not have come up with worse representatives of the race than those that populate this flick. Nearly every character is stupid, crass, stoned, oversexed, and/or generally devoid of anything resembling good taste or discretion.

Don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean some of this stuff isn't funny. What it means is that crackers will feel distinctly uneasy about laughing at it if they are sitting anywhere near a person of color...even though that person may be laughing his ass off.

The main problem with "Soul Plane" is that lead actor Kevin Hart (nouveau-riche owner of an airline dubbed "NWA") is wrong, wrong, wrong for his role. He's like a less-talented Chris Tucker (who is not exactly in my pantheon of comedy gods himself). Storywise, Hart's character should be a lot more likeable, instead of coming off from the get-go as the kind of annoying, loud fool who makes white people want to run in the opposite direction. He does calm down later--in fact, he becomes downright boring--but he still is never quite the "frustrated island of reasonable normalcy" he should have been from the start.

Snoop Dogg sleepwalks through his role as the plane's pilot, but then again, I guess that's the guy's schtick. Tom Arnold is friggin' awful (what a surprise!) as Generic White Man. Hot blond jailbait Arielle Kebbel, as Arnold's Britney-lookalike daughter, is eminently watchable, as are the plane's miniskirted flight attendants. A subplot about a horny, blind passenger is so out of place it seems tacked on from another movie. My favorite character was D.L. Hughley as a cheerfully unabashed washroom attendant (who provides Arnold with a smaller "Caucasian Adapter" toilet seat).

Other funny visual jokes include a purple jet with spinning rims, and pay lockers instead of overhead storage compartments in the plane's "Low Class" section.

Okay, we're not talking Shavian wit on the level of "Frasier." But you could do worse if you're looking for mindless laughs.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Soul Surfer
(Reviewed March 26, 2011, by James Dawson)

"Soul Surfer" dramatizes the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a Hawaiian teen who didn't let losing an arm (to a shark bite) deter her from competing in surfing competitions.

I'll take the lazy...I mean "easy"...option of reviewing this movie by simply quoting my reply to a friend who asked what I thought of it:

"Very, um, 'Jesus-y.' The family members are so into their faith that they resemble well-scrubbed, Flanders-like cult members...which I think has more to do with the producers' cynical attempt to appeal to the Bible thumpin' heartland than with portraying reality. I mean, I'm sure the family really believes in God and all that, but they seem annoyingly two-dimensional. AnnaSophia Robb, though, is a knockout in a bikini. Also, the missing-arm effect is flawless, a la Lt. Dan in 'Forrest Gump.' The main thing I kept wondering throughout the movie: Where does this family get MONEY? You'll see what I mean. Beach house in Kauai, home-schooled kids, but never a mention of anyone earning a living. Maybe they won the lottery!"

Okay, in the interest of self respect, I'll add a little more to that brief critique:

The story is sappy, the home-life scenes are so unrealistic that everyone seems to be from "Pleasantville," and singer Carrie Underwood's sunnily robotic character seems to have beamed in from the Church of the Stepford Christ. But Bethany's get-back-on-the-board story about overcoming one hell of a setback in undeniably inspirational. Also, the surf scenes are beautifully shot.

So while this movie isn't exactly my cup of tea, it probably will fulfill the minimum requirements of anyone who is likely to buy a ticket; namely, anyone looking for a kid-friendly Christian afterschool special with lovely scenery. Personally, I would have preferred a less saccharine and more faith-shattering struggle from doubt to deliverance, as opposed to watching characters meekly accept the idea that even horrible misfortune is "part of God's plan." But cynical atheists like Yours Truly aren't the movie's target demographic, so it would be unfair to judge the flick on those terms.

Which basically is a wishy-washy way of saying "if you like movies like this, you probably will like this one."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed December 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

Holy frijoles, what a lousy movie!

I don't know whether "Spanglish" is more insulting to Anglo (and thereby necessarily clueless and emotionally detached) upper-crusters, or to Mexican (and thereby necessarily proud, noble and wise) illegal immigrants. But the flick is so patronizing, condescending, sappy and simplistic that anyone of any race, nationality or creed may feel free to take offense.

Also, "Spanglish" is so draggy and overlong that you will have time to run out for a couple of greasy tacos and a spicy chimichanga, spend half an hour trembling and sweating on the bowl, and return to the theater without missing anything important.

Tea Leoni (overacting to the point of wild-eyed hysteria) and Adam Sandler (underacting as if he has been hit in the back of the head with a two-by-four, or needs to be) play the kind of fabulously wealthy Bel Air residents who can afford to rent a seaside summer place in Malibu, an address approximately 20 miles max from their luxurious security-gated mansion-with-a-pool. Defying anything resembling logic, Leoni hires a stunningly beautiful, huge-busted maid (Paz Vega) who speaks nary a word of English. This is despite the fact that Leoni, Sandler, their two kids, and Leoni's character's live-in mother (Cloris Leachman) speak nada Spanish. Than again, that's the stuff of which wacky sitcom schlock is made, right?

The tale of this fiery (of course) Latina among the remote, got-bucks, white dysfunctionals is laboriously told in voiceover by her English-fluent daughter, from the text of an admissions essay to Princeton. This makes the entire enterprise resemble the sort of painfully earnest TV-movie dramedy that writer/director James L. Brooks is smart enough to know is dreck. While one might expect this kind of gooey, politically correct pap from the producer of something like "7th Heaven," Brooks is one of the three big enchiladas behind "The Simpsons" (which has to have made him fabulously wealthy himself by now). According to the voice-over commentaries on that show's DVDs, he is not just a name in the credits, but makes real contributions to that smart-'n'-cynical series. Plus he wrote and directed "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News," and directed "As Good As It Gets." Which is a roundabout way of saying that there is no reason to think Brooks had to sell out and pander to the lowest common dumb-nominator in order to make this month's car payment.

I kept hoping that Vega would be invited to take a quick dip when the zillionaire family is lounging poolside. (Although her daughter swims with the Swells, mom never gets so much as a toe wet.) Then Vega would emerge glistening from the water, all luscious and busty and delicious, inspiring Sandler to drop his dull-witted "serious actor" guise and relapse into the babbling, baby-talking moron we all know and love.

Oh, well.

Finally, the movie's ending is preposterously dim-witted. Although the big climax apparently is intended to come across as somehow uplifting and empowering, it only succeeds in making a certain character look sadistically petty, stupid and selfish.

Frankly, this movie blows like the Santa Ana winds.

(A pointless aside: Ever notice how much Cloris Leachman, who plays Leoni's mother, is starting to resemble Robin Williams? Wild!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed March 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

Maybe I'm giving writer/director David Mamet too much credit, but I was kind of stunned by the rampant stupidity of this "thriller." Granted, a guy can't hit one out of the park "Glengarry Glen Ross" style every time at bat. Still, one could reasonably hope for something better from the guy who wrote that masterpiece than this ridiculous, plot-hole-riddled conspiracy caper.

Also, this is the second of no less than three 2004 movies featuring "the President's daughter is missing" plots (the others being "Chasing Liberty" and the upcoming "First Daughter"). Unfortunately, we're definitely not talking about a case of "great minds thinking alike."

Val Kilmer is a military badass who "goes rogue" to rescue the first daughter after daddy and his handlers decide it would be better for the Prez's re-election campaign if his little darling were spirited away by white slavers to Dubai. (And people think Oliver Stone comes up with some wacky shit.) We are expected to believe that the emotionally wrought Secret Service agent who thinks of herself as the girl's "real mother" would go along with this vileness...and that one of Kilmer's agents would not bother to tell Kilmer he has seen a written symbol that proves the girl was at a stakeout location...and that Kilmer himself would not simply go to the media and blow the whistle on the operation once he has been hung out to dry. This ain't no thinkin' movie, that's for sure.

The big finale showdown is even more whoopingly preposterous than the rest of the flick, which is saying a lot. Not only is there a "talking killer" (as Roger Ebert refers to villains who conveniently tell their criminal histories to their would-be victims at climactic moments), but there's even a TV news crew standing nearby to document the event!

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

POSTSCRIPT: Mere hours after writing the above, I was shocked to see Ebert praising "Spartan" to the skies with a wildly enthusiastic thumbs-up review. (Richard Roeper liked "Spartan," too -- but because Roeper is nothing more significant than Ebert's zero-credibility Dan Quayle, his critical shortcomings are far less surprising.)

How remarkably, completely wrong are they about the merits of "Spartan?" Let me put it this way: One of the clips they showed from the movie, presumably to support their contention that it is something better than worthless, actually reminded me of another painfully idiotic aspect of the flick. Know how really, really bad mysteries always include a scene of somebody finding some conveniently accidentally dropped item? In "Spartan," one of the good guys finds one of the missing girl's earrings....stuck to the bottom of a mat on which he was lying during a stakeout outside a cabin...and he is sure that it absolutely has to be the First Daughter's earring, because she always wears proven by a newspaper photograph that clearly shows her wearing the earring. Are you buying any of this? I mean, beyond the ridiculous notion that any teenage girl always, always, always wears only one set of earrings...and remember that we're talking about a girl who is presumably rolling in money and can afford all the earrings she wants, considering that American Presidents traditionally are not paupers...we are told at the outset of this moronic movie that the girl had purposely completely changed her appearance, to the point of cutting and coloring her hair. In other words, even if you can accept the nonsensical premise that this girl always wore one set of earrings, would she continue wearing something instantly identifiable as a personal trademark if she wanted to conceal her identity?

Obviously, I'm putting way more thought into this review than Mamet bothered putting into his dumb movie.

But hey, that's why I get paid the big bucks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Speed Racer
(Reviewed April 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

The worst must-see movie of the year.

Writers/directors the Wachowski brothers' three "Matrix" movies were as visually stunning as their screenplays were vapidly stupid. They bring the same positive and negative qualities to this live-action version of "Speed Racer," an animated 1960s TV series that I've never seen. Don't get me wrong, I've always had a "cultural osmosis" awareness of the show. I've just been too busy perfecting cold fusion, unifying the fields and making sandwiches for the past 40 years to watch it.

The "Speed Racer" script is remarkably lousy, even allowing for the fact that this is a little-kiddie movie (albeit one that includes a jarringly bloody and inappropriate face-pounding fight scene). Whenever the action cuts away from the wild roller-coasterish race tracks and videogame-style cross-country competitions to anything resembling plot or exposition, everything stops dead.

But wow, is this ever one candy-colored, kaleidoscope-cool looking flick. Which car is where, and basically what the hell is going on, is often an incomprehensible visual mess. But since when is "beautiful but dumb" a bad thing?

The story, such as it is, pits Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) and his family-based racing team against an evil corporate gazillionaire who sponsors anything-to-win drivers -- and "anything" ranges all the way from cheating to killing. "Lost"'s Matthew Fox does a good job being taciturn and mysterious as Racer X, who enlists Speed to help him topple the bad guys.

Primary-colors, comic-book silly and cornball-dialog wise, the movie "Speed Racer" most resembles is -- of all things -- the Warren Beatty and Madonna version of "Dick Tracy." On LSD. A lot of LSD.

The movie's most overused visual device is its use of huge head close-ups as "wipes" that move across the screen to change scenes (or sometimes not)...but maybe that's just me being picky.

Richard Rountree, playing a former driver who now does racing commentary, describes a climactic match-up by proclaiming, "It's a whole new world, baby!"

It sure is. And it looks pretty darn good.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-


(Reviewed April 14, 2002, by James Dawson)

I never thought that the thing I would like most about this movie would be the guy who plays Daily Bugle newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Unfortunately, even that character -- like too many other things here -- will seem uncomfortably reminiscent to most audiences of elements from 1978's "Superman" and 1989's "Batman."

Like 1978's "Superman," "Spider-Man" includes scenes in which Our Hero runs down a street toward the camera tearing open his shirt to reveal his costume underneath, saving his girlfriend from a perilous skyscraper fall (just as Superman saved Lois Lane in a helicopter plunge) and being frustrated by the fact that said girlfriend has the hots for his heroic alter-ego instead of for him (an unwelcome change from the "Spider-Man" comic). Both characters also work for frothingly amusing newspapermen.

Like 1989's "Batman," "Spider-Man" has a bombastic score by the excruciating Danny Elfman, a villain (the Green Goblin) who channels Jack Nicholson's Joker so closely that in one scene he even does an eerie impersonation of Nicholson's facial tics and an origin based on a taste for vengeance inspired by the crime-related loss of a relative.

What differentiates "Spider-Man" from those movies is the hero's secret identity as an insecure teenager named Peter Parker. He longs for next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson, who inexplicably has been transformed intoo his life-long fantasy object here (instead of being a girl Peter meets during his first year of college, as in the comic-book version). Mary Jane is the daughter of a loudly abusive father (another departure from the comics) and wants to be an actress (instead of a model). Comics fans will notice that the comic-book Peter's first love Gwen Stacy is nowhere to be found in this movie, although much of her history has been grafted onto the movie's version of Mary Jane.

Although she looks nothing like the comics version of Mary Jane (except for the red hair), Kirsten Dunst is goofy and sexy and genuinely likeable in the role. She also gets a chance to show off her heroically proportioned breasts, in a delightfully gratuitous rainstorm scene that leaves her with a wet and very clingy top. (Unfortunately, however, she never utters the classic comic-book line, "Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot." For shame!)

Willem Dafoe is better as Norman Osborne, father of Peter's roommate Harry, than as his evil alter-ego the Green Goblin. The problem with the Goblin is that somebody thought it would be a good idea to put him in a costume that makes the guy look like a bad action figure with a full-face mask that shows nothing but his eyes.

Now, it's bad enough when your main character wears a full-face mask that shows none of his expressions, but at least that is consistent with Spidey's comic-book costume. Changing the Goblin's get-up so he resembles a bad Ultraman villain, though, was a huge mistake. During dialog scenes between the two characters, as the point of view switches from one emotionless mask to another and back again, the effect becomes unintentionally funny.

There are many other changes throughout the film that also smack of "pissing in the oasis." (Translation: If the Spider-Man property has endured for 40 years and is good enough to be worthy of a movie adaptation, why change what doesn't need fixing?) Some differences that at first may appear to be minor tweaks actually change Spider-Man's basic character. Example: In the comics, before he decides to become a crimefighter, Spider-Man does not bother to subdue a fleeing criminal because he is self-absorbed enough to think doing so is not his responsibility. In the movie, Spider-Man sees that the person the thief just ripped off is a promoter who just screwed Spider-Man out of money, giving Spider-Man an incentive to let the thief go. Not a big change, but an annoying one.

A far worse change is the decision to make Spider-Man's web shooters organic, with the stuff coming directly out of his arms instead of from mechanical devices at his wrists. This makes the character kind of creepy, taking us out of being able to see him as a regular teen who just happens to be able to crawl up walls and beat up bad guys.

Most of the people who see the movie, though, will neither know nor care about such nit-picking fanboy concerns. For them, the main problems with "Spider-Man" will be these: (a) too fast, too fakey special effects of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers to get across town; (b) literally laughable scenes of split-personality Norman Osborne arguing with himself in a mirror; and (c) a real downer ending.

So, what's good about the movie? Tobey Maguire's portrayal of Peter discovering his abilities and awkwardly making his first few web-swings through the city is okay. Kirsten Dunst is cute. And Simmons is a dead ringer for his J. Jonah Jameson comic-book counterpart.

Aside from that...well...let's just say that after seeing this movie I have no desire to see it again. I expected more heart and better effects.

By the way, if you stay through the credits until the end, you will get to hear the theme from the 1960s Saturday morning (barely) animated version of "Spider-Man." Those were the days...

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Spider-Man 2
(Reviewed June 16, 2004, by James Dawson)

I have no idea why the first "Spider-Man" was such a blockbuster hit. I mean, it was okay, but nothing terrific. Even I, a lifelong comics fan, had absolutely zero desire ever to see it again after one viewing. (Go read my review here for details.)

"Spider-Man 2" is even less impressive. There is exactly one good scene in the entire flick. When Spidey has to save a runaway subway train that's on an elevated track, nearly everything clicks. The special effects are good, the physics are halfway convincing and there is actual edge-of-your-seat suspense. I loved the way the effects guys threw in lots of great details that went above and beyond what would have been necessary to make the scene believable. (Watch the glass break behind Spidey's outstretched arms, for example. Nice!)

The Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus fight that precedes the runaway-train bit, however, sums up what is wrong with nearly all of the rest of the movie: The action moves far too fast to be credible (even in a comic-book universe); Doc Ock is so obviously more powerful and quicker than Spidey that it is impossible to believe the webslinger ever would have a fighting chance against him; and the punch-ups are more sadistically violent than "comic-bookish," turning what should be "biff smash pow" fun into the next best thing to a horror movie.

Other than the saving-the-train bit, nearly all of the movie's effects scenes look as if they belong in an arcade video game, not on a big screen. Spider-Man and Doc Ock (or their CGI simulations, I should say) simply do not move in believable ways or at believable speeds, and usually do not seem to exist in the movie's plane of reality. All of their moves seem to be in fast-motion or just slightly "off" enough to take you right out of ye olde Suspension of Disbelief Land.

There are other problems. For one thing, I couldn't help picturing some slickee-boy agent in a thousand-dollar suit chewing a fat cigar and saying to the producers, "It's like this, see: My boy Tobey Maguire needs some more face time this go-round. Capish?" You won't believe how often Spider-Man is maskless in this installment. By the time the credits roll, one hell of a lot of cast members and extras know that Spidey's alter-ego looks an awful lot like Peter Parker from the neck up.

Another huge mistake occurs when Peter Parker 'fesses up to Aunt May that he is the one responsible for Uncle Ben's death in the first movie. What the hell? The fact that Parker carried that guilty secret around with him from his first appearance in 1962 at least until the mid-1970s (when I stopped reading the comic book) was part of his tragic burden, as it were. For all I know, he may never have spilled his guts to this day in the comics (although I honestly have no idea what has happened in the last 30 years of continuity). And yet here he is, deciding to get it all off his chest in only the second movie? Sheesh!

Also, I hated the fact that "Spider-Man 2" has so much in common with "Superman 2." (This is in addition to shots that are identical to some in the first "Superman"and could be passed off as homage: the whole damsel-dangling-from-a-building bit, or Peter Parker running into an alley and pulling his shirt open to reveal his costume underneath.) Here are both movie's three main plot elements (even if their order is shuffled between the two films): hero loses powers, hero decides to stop being hero and (somehow, I don't think I'm spoiling anything) hero changes mind about retiring.

Here's another major gripe: One unfortunate change the first movie made to Spider-Man was changing his web-shooting ability from mechanical (devices strapped to his wrists in the comic book) to organic (in the movies, his body has physically mutated so that he shoots webbing directly from ducts within his wrists). When the comic-book Spider-Man ran out of webbing by using too much of the stuff between refills, it was kind of charming, in an "ever have days like this?" kind of way.

But when the movie Spider-Man loses his ability to shoot webs, and starts falling from great heights in disturbingly painful ways, something creepier and too-heavy-for-the-material is to blame. Turns out that Spidey has a psychological block, one that comes off like a weird take on sexual dysfunction "confidence problems." (Hey, kids! Spidey can't stay up!)

There's another reason why this change is just plain wrong. In the comics, when Parker once decided to be "Spider-Man No More," it was a conscious decision untainted by extenuating circumstances. He simply made up his mind and that was that. In this movie, however, he is helped to reach the decision by the fact that his powers have become unreliable, which undercuts the integrity of the move and the drama of the moment.

It was exactly this kind of unnecessary change that hindered the first Spider-Man movie's version of the character's origin. In that movie, Parker allows the thief to escape because Parker has just been screwed by the person who got robbed. Parker regards letting the thief escape as a way to get some small measure of revenge, in other words. In the comics version, the reason Parker does not impede the thief's escape is because he does not think that stopping the thief is his responsibility, and he can't be bothered to care. In other words, he has no personal stake in the situation. A small change, but a big difference.

Even the things the movie tries to get right often go wrong. We know from the comics that money always was tight for Peter Parker...but he sure didn't live in a decaying, bathroom-down-the-hall tenement slum. At least, he didn't back in the Stan Lee "golden age" of the character.

And we know from the comics that Parker is a bit of a loser...but do we really need to see him fail to get the last hors d'oeuvre from a serving tray TWICE to get the point?

Kirsten Dunst looks kind of blah as Mary Jane Watson in many of her scenes (and still bears absolutely no resemblance other than hair color to her comic-book counterpart). Just about everything the villainous Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) does is over-the-top violent, and not in a good way. Every time he came on screen, and those scary mechanical arms started whipping around like evil snakes and raising the body count, I kept thinking, "A lot of kids in this audience are gonna be pissing their beds tonight!" The Danny Elfman score is exactly as annoyingly forgettable as the shlocky rock songs dropped willy-nilly onto the soundtrack. And there are at least two endings too many, coming long after I had checked my watch more than once.

In other words, director Sam Raimi has pretty much given us "the same mixture as before." I have no idea why that strategy paid off last time--but if you liked "Spider-Man," I suppose you'll enjoy this one, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Spider-Man 3
(Reviewed April 20, 2007, by James Dawson)

The third installment in the Spider-Man franchise suffers from the same shortcomings as its predecessors: unnatural videogame-style action, inappropriately violent brutality and a generally downbeat tone. It's too vacuous for adult audiences and too vicious for kids. Also, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst look uninterested and unconvincing as Peter/Spider-Man and his girlfriend Mary Jane.

What makes "Spider-Man 3" the worst of the trio is that it's also at least an hour too long (a butt-numbing 139 minutes), often boring, sometimes incomprehensible and even more ineptly directed than the first two.

There's only one good thing about the movie: Thomas Haden Church is excellent as frustrated hood-on-the-run Flint Marko, who only turned to crime because he couldn't pay his daughter's medical bills. His accidental encounter with a scientific experiment transforms him into the shape-shifting villain Sandman. Church never plays down to the material, even though his character is basically a pulp-fiction archetype with powers. Instead, he gives Marko/Sandman a kind of tragic dignity that makes many of his scenes surprisingly moving.

Nearly everyone else in the cast is content to camp things up or coast. Maguire wears what looks like a mildly retarded expression throughout, especially noticeable when he is supposed to appear happy. Dunst seems to want to be anywhere but in this movie. Topher Grace, as a photographer who hopes to take Parker's place at the Daily Bugle and who eventually becomes the villain Venom, is off-puttingly hammy. James Franco, as Parker's former best friend and Green Goblin son Harry Osborn, over-emotes in classic teen-soap fashion.

Because the movies have screwed with the chronology and characters of the original comic-book series, the introduction at this late stage of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her police captain father (James Cromwell) will seem awkward and a little insulting to purists. In the comics, Gwen was Peter's girlfriend before Mary Jane came along, at which point all three became pals. Years later, the Green Goblin tossed Gwen from the top of a bridge to her death before getting killed by his own flying machine. (In the first Spider-Man movie, it was Mary Jane who got tossed, but she survived the fall.) The movie version of Gwen is merely an incidental character whose main purpose is to make Mary Jane jealous.

In "Spider-Man 3"'s first action scene, Harry Osborn uses his dead father's Green Goblin technology and toys to attack Peter, whom he believes is responsible for killing the old man. Unfortunately, their battle is literally a blur. All of the fast-motion CGI swoops and flips and zooms during this mid-air melee don't add up to much when it's hard to tell what is going on half the time.

Peter's main concern during the battle is getting back the dropped engagement ring he intended to give Mary Jane. This means the scene plays out like a confusing quidditch night game, with the falling ring as the golden snitch and Harry's goblin grenades as bludgers. (There's also a very "Lord of the Rings"-ish shot of Peter reaching for the falling ring, just to cover all fantasy-franchise bases.)

Harry ends up losing his memory after the fight. It takes about an hour for him to get it back and re-start things from the same point as before.

Mary Jane -- who, like far too many people after the events of "Spider-Man 2," knows Peter is Spider-Man -- becomes jealous of Spider-Man's popularity when her Broadway career suffers a setback. This inexplicably sends her into the arms of Harry.

Meanwhile, Peter falls asleep in his ridiculously crappy apartment. He awakens elsewhere to discover that a gob of space goo from an asteroid has covered his body and become a black version of his Spider-Man costume. We next see him (in his street clothes) and his chemistry professor examining a piece of the goo in an empty classroom. An awful lot of exposition seems to have gone missing along the way. For example, if the goo has become his costume, where did he get the glob they examine? If the goo is a symbiotic life form, why would Peter be able to take the black costume off and put it in a trunk?

I had stopped reading Spider-Man comics before the black costume/Venom storyline played out, so maybe everything made some kind of sense there. What we see onscreen doesn't. When the goo takes over Topher Grace, for example, Grace becomes some kind of monstrous thing with a shark-toothed mouth so wide it splits his head from ear to ear. Yet Grace later is able to remove the goo with his head still intact. Huh? Granted, we're talking about a reality where a guy bitten by a radioactive spider gets super powers, and another guy can turn into a living sandstorm, but still.

Director Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" star Bruce Campbell shows up in a small role, and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee makes another welcome cameo appearance. The score retains Danny Elfman's completely forgettable themes.

Nearly every fight scene leads to brutal beat-downs best enjoyed by sick sadists. A final confrontation in which Spider-Man is repeatedly thrown against steel girders and pounded to within a inch of his life is nearly as nauseating as seeing Superman get his liver pierced in "Superman Returns." Parents, you have been warned.

The best thing that could happen to this series would be a complete re-boot next time around, with a new director and cast who could make this stuff more frivolous and fun instead of overly sappy and sadistic.

'Nuff said.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Spiderwick Chronicles
(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...


THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES: In this substandard and lazily stupid fantasy, Freddie Highmore plays twin boys who move (with an older teen sister and their mother) into a country house where one of their ancestors (David Strathairn) once opened a doorway to a strange world of odd creatures. Magic has kept the nastiest of those beasties at bay for decades, but the baddies manage to break through, causing much running and shouting and house demolishing. Nothing makes much sense; this is the kind of intelligence-insulting flick wherein a huge creature running at top speed through the sewers can't manage to catch kids who always seem within claws' reach. A scene in which the kids journey to a bucolic outside-of-time world where Strathairn is being held hostage by fairies was kind of moving and genuinely creepy, but it feels like something spliced in from a much better movie. Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Spirit
(Reviewed December 18, 2008, by James Dawson)

This bombastically beautiful, hilariously hyper-violent and terrifically tongue-in-cheek treat is the coolest comic-book movie of the year. "The Spirit" is battier than Batman, more ironic than Iron Man, wilder than Wanted and hotter than Hellboy. Mostly, though, it's a whole lot of stupidly wonderful fun.

Based on the 1940s masked hero created by Will Eisner, "The Spirit" was written and directed by comics legend Frank Miller. Its eye-candy-overload look is identical to that of 2005's "Sin City," which Miller wrote and codirected. Wall-to-wall green-screen and CGI effects create a noirishly bizarre comic-book reality that shifts from bright primary colors to stark black-and-white silhouettes to warm sepia flashbacks, each scene as shockingly snazzy as the last. The era is the sorta 1950s, except with cell phones, laptops and an antique vase filled with the blood of Hercules.

The hard-boiled humor is campy to the extreme, but in a good way. Forget Robert Downey Jr.'s wittily wisecracking "Iron Man." The performances here have more in common with the played-straight silliness of the 1960s "Batman" TV series. The Spirit is the kind of crimefighter whose first demand upon waking up shirtless in a hospital is for someone to bring him a tie -- "and it better be red," his trademark color.

Gabriel Macht stars as the title character, a murdered cop formerly known as Denny Colt, whose hidden lair is in the cemetery where he was buried. He doesn't know why or how he was brought back to life, but he dons a domino mask to patrol and protect his city wearing nothing more elaborate than a trenchcoat, shirt, pants, a fedora, that aforementioned tie…and sneakers.

Just because he wears street clothes doesn't mean he can't pull some pretty impressive stunts. This is a guy who can run from pole to pole across power lines, backwards-somersault his way up fire escapes, and survive a plunge from a high-rise window.

In the same goofy way that Clark Kent's associates never recognize him as Superman when he's wearing glasses, no one from the Spirit's past -- not even his unfailingly faithful girlfriend Ellen (Sarah Paulson) -- can discern that he is Denny Colt behind the little mask that covers only his eyes.

His main nemesis is the crazy-loud Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who has the same miraculous healing powers and ability to take one heck of a beating as Our Hero. After bashing the Spirit with an entire toilet in a muddy swamp without getting any reaction, the disappointed Octopus insists that "toilets are always funny!" He later shows up in full Nazi SS regalia, complete with monocle. As one character rather accurately puts it, this guy's mind ain't right.

Scarlett Johansson plays Octopus sidekick Silken Floss, a name that doesn't sound all that unusual in a movie that includes other females with monikers like Sand Seref (Eva Mendes) and Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega). Johansson is deliciously, dismissively deadpan, at one point referring to an underling as simply "you fart."

Mendes is swell as a super-sexy jewel thief who still has a thing for Denny Colt from the days when they were childhood friends. And Jaime King is ethereally lovely as the angel of death Lorelei Rox, who looks forward to the day she can claim the supposed-to-be-deceased Denny.

Observing a diabolical experiment-gone-wrong that creates a man's head attached to a hopping foot, the Octopus notes, "That's just plain damn weird." So is this movie…but in the best possible way.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Spirited Away
(Reviewed August 26, 2002, by James Dawson)

As of August 26, this animated Japanese fantasy is my favorite movie of 2002. The plot is deceptively simple--a little girl journeys to a spirit world--but the execution is incredibly imaginative, surreal, surprisingly touching and hauntingly beautiful. Many of the images in this film are truly stunning, ranging from the elaborate and action-packed to the transcendentally serene, and the characters are both odd and fascinating. Director/writer Hayao Miyazaki has created a masterpiece that is a genuine classic for all ages. (I'm embarrassed to admit that this is the first of his films I have seen--but now I definitely want to check out his previous works, which include "Princess Mononoke," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "My Neighbor Totoro.")

In the first few minutes of "Spirited Away," you will think you know exactly where things are headed. Boy, will you ever be wrong. Many of the twists and turns in the plot and the characters Chihiro meets are truly bizarre. And even with a running time of more than two hours, the movie seems to end too soon--like a wonderfully strange, other-worldly dream from which you don't want to wake.

Already the highest-grossing film ever in Japan (beating out "Titanic" there), the US version has been dubbed into English by voice actors including Daveigh Chase (Lilo of Disney's "Lilo & Stitch"), who does an excellent job. It also boasts a terrific, frequently moving score by Joe Hisaishi.

I absolutely loved this movie, and I can't wait to see it again.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie
(Reviewed November 7, 2004, by James Dawson)

Being too mind-bogglingly cheap to pay for cable, I never have seen the "Spongebob Squarepants" TV show. If you are in a similar situation, fear not. You don't have to be a six-year-old expert on all things Squarepantsian to love this movie!

Look, I know it's weird to give a Nickelodeon cartoon movie the same "A" grade that I awarded to the far less frivolous and infinitely more cinematically important "Dogville." But dang it, this movie really is funny, I thoroughly enjoyed it, I gladly would see it again and I heartily recommend it. So there!

Unlike the egregiously awful, insultingly witless "Shark Tale," this undersea comedy actually is amusing and clever, in an ironic-but-sweet fashion. Spongebob and his pal Patrick the starfish go on a quest to retrieve King Neptune's stolen crown, encountering everything from knee-slapping porch-sitters to biker-bar denizens to a trench of monsters along the way. I liked the combination of Spongebob's wide-eyed innocent goodness juxtaposed with offbeat, and occasionally flat-out bizarre, humor. Example: Spongebob accidentally steps on a little green bad guy named Plankton, scrapes his shoe on the road to get off the resulting slime, and wonders from whence a resulting blood-curdling scream emanates. After a pause, he blithely does the same thing again, causing more screaming from the sole of his shoe. Okay, maybe that doesn't translate well to the printed word, but I laughed out loud in the theater.

Jeffrey Tambor (as King Neptune) and Scarlett Johansson (as kindhearted Princess Mindy) supply guest voices. Both are perfect. And there's a surprise guest star near the end, playing himself in his second movie role this year--and doing a great job of it!

Don't leave until all the credits finish, or you will miss a little bonus at the end.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Spring Forward
(Reviewed December 10, 2000, by James Dawson)
This is a fine little film that is mostly dialog between two characters, Ned Beatty as a close-to-retirement parks-and-recreation worker, and Liev Schreiber as his new just-outta-jail assistant. Other people occasionally wander in, but the best scenes are "two guys talkin' 'bout life in general." There's not really a plot as such. In fact, when a dramatic development involving other characters rears its head toward the end of the movie, the scene seems contrived and unnecessary.

All in all, not the kind of movie that makes people leap off their couches and race to the multiplexes. But if you are flipping around on TV a few months from now and land on this movie, you definitely will watch it to the end.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Spy Kids
(Reviewed July 12, 2001, by James Dawson)

I missed this one when it was in theaters, but I saw a screening tape yesterday and was knocked out by this excellent not-just-for-kids classic. There is more imagination, style and cleverness packed into this gem than you will find in any 10 other children's movies released this year. (Note added on December 9, 2001: The previous sentence was written four months before "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" came along and made me eat my words!)

A pair of funny, likeable kids find out that mom and dad actually are spies when their parents are kidnapped while on a mission. The boy and girl manage to acquire lots of 007-style gadgets (and some great modes of transportation) and set out to rescue the 'rents from a 21st-century Willie Wonka gone bad...but not entirely bad.

The kids are what make this movie so good, because they are not sickeningly robotic "Hollywood kids." Also, the movie is very pro-family without being all "family values" disgusting about it. It's wholesome but not sappy, in other words.

The look of the movie is amazing. Although it was by no means a big-budget extravaganza, it sure manages to look like one, with effects and creatures and sets that are terrific.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams
(Reviewed July 27, 2002, by James Dawson)

Not as good as the first installment--then again, that one was so good it made my "10 Best of 2001" list--but still a really enjoyable, stylish, quirky movie full of imagination and likeable characters. This time, Juni and Carmen end up on misguided (as opposed to mad) scientist Steve Buscemi's hidden island of oversized hybrid creatures (a spider/monkey, a cat/fish, a bull/frog and lots more). They're also up against a rival brother/sister team of spy kids, including a Draco Malfoy-type on whom Carmen happens to have an unfortunate crush. And there's even a bonus treat during the credits: Carmen singing Britney-style on stage, with Juni on lead guitar!

Once again, writer/director/producer/editor Robert Rodriguez has come up with a truly fresh little movie that is colorful and lots of fun. Can't wait for "Spy Kids 3!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
(Reviewed July 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

I hate 3-D movies. I absolutely HATE them. I can't stand wearing those goddamned stupid glasses, whether they be the red/blue kind that come with tickets to this movie, or the grey "polarized" type used in "Ghosts of the Abyss." They are uncomfortable, they make the screen look way too dark, and worst of all THEY USUALLY DON'T WORK. Sure, you sometimes get a depth effect, but there are always double-images somewhere on the screen, things that don't quite line up right, things that make you want to run screaming from the theater.

I mention all of this because you will have to wear those horrible, horrible glasses for more than three-quarters of "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over"'s running time. After about five minutes, you will close your left eye and try watching the movie with only your right. Forget about taking off the glasses, because then the screen looks like a total mess. Covering your left eye, however, gives you an acceptable 2-D image that is almost light enough not to be annoying, even though the image will be all but devoid of color.

As for the movie itself: Man, has this series ever gotten strange! Juni is the main character this time around, with all other members of the Cortez family reduced to little more than cameos. In "Tron"-like style, Juni enters a computer game to save his sister Carmen. The wild, incredibly imaginative visuals of the game take up most of the movie. Director/writer Robert Rodriguez is some kind of genius when it comes to creating CGI landscapes and characters; the eye-candy in this movie is amazing. (Of course, it would be a lot more amazing if you could see it in 2-D. A 2-D version apparently will be available on VHS when the movie comes out on home video. My advice is to wait and rent it.)

Not as good as parts one or two, mainly because this installment is a lot colder and more technical instead of being family-centered, but still worth a look. A painful, exruciating, very annoying look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (aka Spy Kids 4D)
(Reviewed August 17, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed July 30, 2004, by James Dawson)

What a strange, dumb movie. Stander, a South African apartheid-era cop (Thomas Jane) who kills a black protester during a riot, gets a case of the guilts that makes him doubt his convictions, dance naked in his living room at night...and, oh yes, embark on an audaciously ambitious bank-robbing crime spree.

Jane comes off like a cross between Starsky-and-or-Hutch and Ned Kelly in this allegedly based-on-a-true-story tale. This is a guy who steals a Porsche model that we are told is only one of four in the entire country, yet somehow manages to tool around in it for what seems like an awfully long time before anybody notices.

Weird, baby. WEIRD.

Not very good, but"unique."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed August 6, 2007, by James Dawson)

If I were grading this movie on an "eight-year-old girl" scale, I might love this very conventional fairy tale. There's a naive but handsome hero (Charlie Cox), a star that falls to earth in the form of a very blond girl (Claire Danes), a wicked witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a sky pirate (Robert De Niro) and even a damned unicorn. If you're in charge of the entertainment for your second-grade daughter's sleepover, in other words, this might be the perfect DVD to keep the little hellraisers out of the liquor cabinet.

As a jaded and somewhat more discriminating adult, however, I found this tongue-in-cheek fantasy to be too precious, too dopey and too long (over two hours). It's obviously going for a knowing "Princess Bride" vibe at times, but it's usually more corny than clever. I didn't like Cox, who is too bland to pull off wide-eyed innocence, or Danes, who is too angry and bitchy to be romantically appealing.

Ricky Gervais is amusing in a small cameo as a lightning merchant (don't ask). De Niro seems embarrassed about assaying the role of a pirate with a lifestyle secret who does not appear in the original novel.

Neil Gaiman, who wrote the book on which the screenplay is based, is regarded as one of the greatest "comic books for grownups" writers ever, thanks mainly to his literate and smart "Sandman" series.

"Stardust," however, is strictly for little kids.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Starter for 10
(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)

Here we have every John Hughes teen comedy cliche transplanted to England. There's even a Molly Ringwald lookalike, for Christ's sake. And the story takes place in the Hughesian 1980s, of course. (The good news is that this means the soundtrack is a jukebox of great Reagan-era -- make that Thatcher-era -- British singles by groups including the Cure and the Smiths, so at least the movie sounds good.)

James McAvoy, who played the smart but socially inept doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," is a smart but socially inept freshman at Bristol University. See him meet his eccentric roommates (you can tell they're eccentric, because they are a couple of guys wearing dresses and playing ping pong), who never appear onscreen again. See him fall for a beautiful blond goddess with the biggest boobs in Britain, who naturally must betray him, because she is from a family with money. Wonder why, oh why, Our Hero can't see that the hip and edgy Jewish girl is plainly The One For Him.


There also are touches of annoyingly contrived whimsy, such as McAvoy walking in on his mother and the ice-cream man having a romantic tub bath. Rest assured that all concerned will end up taking a trip in an ice-cream truck.

I guess someone who never saw a Hughes comedy from the greatest decade of the past century (God, how I miss Frankie Goes to Hollywood) might not dislike "Starter for 10" as much as I did, but for me everything about it seemed obvious, predictable and incredibly derivative of better and funnier movies.

Also, because I know you're wondering, the title refers to the first question on a British quiz show called "University Challenge." The first question, or starter, is worth 10 points. McAvoy is part of Bristol's team, which also includes an Asian girl who is given no personality whatsoever; a preppie twit; and the big-bristols blond, whom we are supposed to believe is simultaneously smart enough to be on that team and yet a bit of an airhead.

If you get the urge to see this movie, just tell yourself, "Relax, don't do it, when you want to go to it."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Star Trek: Nemesis
(Reviewed December 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

There is absolutely nothing about this movie that merits the "big-screen" treatment; it is more like a dull TV episode padded out to a very boring length. I never was a fan of the "Next Generation" TV series, whose only charismatic character was Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard, and this dull movie didn't do anything to change my opinion.

Also, the ending of this movie is almost identical to the ending of an episode of "Star Trek: Voyager," which only emphasized the lack of imagination here.

Certainly one of the worst of the 10 "Star Trek" movies, if only because so very little happens.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Star Trek
(Reviewed July 7, 2009, by James Dawson)

I know this sounds blasphemous, but J.J. Abrams' "re-invention" of the Star Trek franchise is my favorite movie of the series. That's right, I like this almost-all-new-cast version more than "The Wrath of Kahn," and even more than "The Voyage Home." In fact, I can safely predict that this action- and fun-packed romp will be on my 10 Best of 2009 list!

The best way to describe why this complete makeover works is that Abrams (and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) rather audaciously "cheat to win," and completely succeed. In the same way that Captain Kirk defeats Starfleet's Kobayashi Maru test by reprogramming the computer simulator (an event seen in the first Star Trek movie, and revisited in this one), Abrams and company essentially change the parameters of the Star Trek game by creating a separate reality timeline from the one we know and love. Because these technically are not the same characters from the TV series and the first 10 movies, it's "anything can happen" time. In this offshoot reality, Kirk can be a directionless, bar-brawling badass, Spock can hook up with Uhuru, the planet Vulcan can be devoured by a black hole...and it's all fair play.

In an impressive casting hat-trick, all three of the main roles -- Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as Dr. "Bones" McCoy -- are perfectly cast, and so is Simon Pegg in a smaller part as engineer Montgomery Scott. Eric Bana is excellent as a raging Romulan with a time-altering 'tude, thanks to the fact that his home planet was destroyed (another change). And Winona Ryder pops up as Spock's mom!

If you're already a Trek fan, you've already seen this movie. If you're not a fan, you will be after you see it. Which you should do at warp speed.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Star Trek Voyager: Endgame
(Reviewed May 24, 2001, by James Dawson)
What an incredible disappointment. Don't get me wrong, there certainly have been worse finales in TV history ("Seinfeld" being the hands-down champion). But I definitely was hoping for a much better send-off for my all-time favorite "Star Trek" series.

Let's put it this way: I didn't have either of the two reactions I wanted to experience by the time the closing credits rolled. I was hoping that I would be sniffling and choking back big, unmanly sobs, with streams of salty tears running down my time-ravaged face. And then I was hoping to feel a total endorphin rush of triumph, satisfaction, and "all's right with the world" joy. (Gee, was I maybe hoping for too much?)

Instead, the first words out of my mouth when the episode ended were, "That absolutely sucked." Ouch.

Here's what I didn't like (if you missed the episode and are waiting to see it in syndication, bail out now, because I'm going to blow major plot points):

Frankly, the Borg Queen has been rendered so toothless and silly by now that she's about as threatening as a one-eyed teddy bear. How many times have Janeway and Company already defeated her? At least twice (and, of course, Picard flicked her aside earlier). The Borg's tolerance for failure seems to be on a par with a bloated business corporation that keeps missing its earnings estimates but whose board bafflingly refuses to fire the CEO. The Borg started out as a great concept, but they were so completely "defanged" over the years that I started wondering why the Voyager crew kept getting worked up over encountering them.

(A nerdish aside: The castration of the Borg over the years was bad, but the real tragedy was how a single episode of "Voyager" completely ruined Species 8472 for all time. Those very "alien" aliens, who were genuinely scary the first time they popped up, became campy jokes after the shockingly embarrassing script in which they assumed human form on a recreation of an Earth Starfleet academy. All of a sudden, a species of 12-foot-tall aliens with whom humans could not even communicate became "just folks" led by Ray friggin' Walston. What were the producers thinking???)

So, anyway, here we have the Borg Queen monitoring Voyager and Admiral Janeway's shuttle after Voyager's near-miss with a Borg cube in the "gateway" nebula. We are supposed to accept this ridiculous premise: Even though there are only six of those hubs in all the universe, the Borg Queen will not destroy Voyager to protect this one because Seven of Nine always has been her "favorite." (Gosh, BQ must be getting sentimental in her old age...) If BQ can monitor Admiral Janeway's communications with Voyager AND appear to Seven of Nine during Seven's regeneration process, she certainly knows where Voyager is, but she keeps her hands off. I didn't buy it.

Here are several other plot holes and basic inconsistencies that I didn't like:

(1) A recurring cliche on this series is the sustaining of dramatic tension by refusing to allow characters simply to say upfront what they know or what they plan to do. In this case, Admiral Janeway knows that Captain Janeway is no idiot, and therefore Admiral Janeway should realize that Captain Janeway will figure out what the hub is and its importance to the Borg. So why wouldn't she simply say, upon first meeting her former self, "Here is exactly what is in that nebula, here is how it can get you home, now let's figure out how to have our cake and eat it, too"; i.e., how to get Voyager through the wormhole and destroy the hub after Voyager is through it. I never was convinced for a second that Janeway's personality had so completely changed over the decades that she honestly would be up for sacrificing billions of beings for the sake of getting Voyager home earlier. To make that personality change credible, we should have seen one heck of a lot more bitterness (if not actual psychosis) in Admiral Janeway.

(2) Having said that, I had a basic problem with the premise that billions of lives could be saved by destroying the hub anyway. If there are five other hubs in the universe, and if each of them permits near-simultaneous travel to anywhere, what big difference will shutting down one of them make?

(3) The Unimatrix Zero uprising was mentioned during Admiral Janeway's classroom lecture, but that bit of continuity appeared to have been forgotten by the second hour of the episode, when the Borg Queen was able to invade Seven's mind. Wasn't the whole point of the Unimatrix Zero ending that Seven, and others including her Borg boyfriend, had freed themselves from the collective and become true individuals?

(4) The whole last-minute romance this season between Chakotay and Seven has been a tad bizarre and extremely rushed, as if Chakotay suddenly noticed that the most beautiful woman in the universe just might make a good girlfriend. Continuity has been jettisoned for both characters: We have to believe that Chakotay somehow has lost all of his hopeless yearning for Janeway. And we have to believe that Seven simultaneously has human emotions regarding Chakotay while appearing to be unaware or uncaring about the Doctor's feelings for her (even though he expressed his love for Seven a mere two episodes ago).

(5) What was the deal with Tuvok's mad rant, which led absolutely nowhere? More than anything else in the episode--the rushed and confusing ending, the terrible pacing, the complete lack of emotional punch--this had the feeling of something that fell victim to an incompetent editing job. Translation: Some resolution of this hanging thread must have been filmed, even though we didn't see it in the episode that aired. Maybe the original script will turn up on the Internet somewhere and reveal what the heck he was talking about... (6) Time travel always has been...problematic...on this show, because the inherent paradoxes make so many stories simply fall apart. The basic problem is that the show allows for multiple alternative futures (instead of sticking to the golden-age Heinlein "one timeline" rule), and yet wants to have it both ways by making those alternative futures vanish if the past is altered. (Using Heinlein's golden-age rule, Abraham Lincoln can never be saved because Abraham Lincoln WASN'T saved; no time-traveller appeared to stop John Wilkes Booth, and so no time-traveller ever will stop him. There is one unalterable past that incorporates all time-travelers' efforts to change it--which therefore also means that no future visitor can make his own existence impossible by preventing his own conception.) In this episode, the dying Borg Queen says that if Captain Janeway dies, then Admiral Janeway never would exist: "If she has no future, then you will never exist, and nothing you have done here today [destroying the Borg Queen and the hub] will happen." But think about it for a second and that reasoning falls apart: Captain Janeway only would be dying because Admiral Janeway has appeared from the future and set Captain Janeway on the course of action that led to Captain Janeway's death. Silly.

(7) I refuse to believe that in a future where transporters are the norm, it would not occur to a brilliant Klingon inventor that Admiral Janeway just might be carrying a portable transporter device which she could use to spirit away a piece of technology that is rightfully hers. What, did his henchmen forget to pat her down when she arrived or something? Stupid.

(8) Even though the dying Borg Queen points out that she has assimilated knowledge of the armor Admiral Janeway brought with her from the future, and even though she is in communication with the Borg sphere that is chasing Voyager through the wormhole, the sphere does not use that knowledge to reconfigure its weapons in order to destroy Voyager. Huh?

(9) Call me a sentimental fool, but what I most wanted to see on this episode was the Voyager crew back on Earth, adjusting to a world they hadn't seen in seven years. If you're gonna have a finale, then by God make it something special. A ticker-tape parade. Their uncomfortable status as celebrities and heroes in a world that presumably would be even more media-saturated than our own. Touching (or frustrating) reunions with loved ones. Something different, for Pete's sake. No such luck. Maybe it was a budget problem. UPN seemed to have lost interest in the series months ago, and did not even deliver on the promise of airing a "clips" show of "Voyager" highlights to commemorate the conclusion.

On the Los Angeles UPN affiliate's newscast following the "Voyager" finale, coverage included an interview with Garret Wang (Harry Kim on the series). Wang was asked what he thought of the final episode. In a jaw-dropping display of honesty, he said it did not end the way he would have liked, and that one problem was how the episode was edited. Jeri Ryan said she thought the ship should have blown up just when it was close to Earth, which would have been pretty funny, actually. Unfortunately, the series ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

And one last complaint: Where the hell was Naomi Wildman?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
(Reviewed May 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

I really, really don't like Star Wars movies. If you do, you'll probably like this one. It includes everything about this series that has failed to move me in the past: Bad writing, embarrassing acting, and a general air of mediocre dumbness. The special effects are okay as always -- but as always are in service of nothing. This movie is more like a CGI demo reel than a narrative. In fact, it is kind of like bad porn in that respect: The "story," such as it is, is only here to break up the money shots.

Also, director/writer George Lucas displays a strange sort of arrogant contempt for audiences by bringing back the universally despised Jar-Jar Binks for several excruciating scenes in this installment. If you hated him in "Phantom Menace" -- and who didn't? -- you will wonder what sort of lofty artistic integrity compelled Lucas to give him more screen time here.

Hayden Christensen, as the Jedi knight who will grow up to become Darth Vader, is about as dark and menacing as a poodle in a snit. (The haircut doesn't help.) His romance with Natalie Portman's character is thoroughly, laughably unconvincing; they have zero chemistry. For example, a fireside tete-a-tete between the two is so cheesy and cornball that it does not even rise to the level of an afternoon soap opera.

The only two people who come off well in this so-bad-it's-gotta-be-a-blockbuster debacle, however, are Portman and Ewan (Obi-Wan Kenobi) McGregor. Portman because she is such a delicious little knockout (especially in her "dude, where's my bra" white bodysuit), and McGregor because he is the only one here who at least makes an attempt to convey a personality (Alec Guinness's personality, to be specific).

Much as I would like to, I can't give an "F" rating to a movie in which the staggeringly beautiful Natalie Portman is shown straining so fetchingly against chains, or cinched so sensuously into a black corset. Hey, nothing's completely bad, right?

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
(Reviewed May 9, 2005, by James Dawson)

I almost felt sorry for a douchebag in the audience who kept trying to lead rounds of affectionate applause whenever familiar characters first appeared onscreen in this sorry sendoff to the "Star Wars" saga. Nearly every time, the nerd was left hanging, with nobody else bothering to join in. Maybe he was the only one in the theater who didn't feel bored, burned, mistrustful and antagonistic toward the franchise after suffering through "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones."

"Revenge of the Sith" is better than both of those installments, but that's not very high praise. There's a snazzy lightsaber duel on a river of lava, we get more action than political debate this time around, and Jar-Jar Binks doesn't have any lines. (Unless he is the character in a group scene who mutters "excuse me," that is, which would be a remarkably appropriate thing for him to say.) And as annoying as that little verb-before-subject vermin Yoda can be, he is beautifully animated.

On the downside, some of the character voices (especially the wheezing General Grievous and members of his robot army) are cartoonishly bad, many of the CGI fight scenes look about as convincing as an Xbox videogame, and dialog commonly spans the very short distance from camp to cliche.

More important, writer/director George Lucas has not come up with a plot that logically precedes the events in episodes IV, V and VI (the original "Star Wars" trilogy, which chronologically follows this installment). Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) never comes off as desperate, crazy or nasty enough to turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. We see neither the level of conflicted inner turmoil nor a sufficiently overwhelming psychosis that would make a Jedi Knight reject all of his teachings, turn on his friends and commit mass murder (of children, no less) to save the life of the woman he loves (Natalie Portman). Frankly, we don't see a level of passion between those two that would justify Anakin giving up a Sunday golf match for a brunch date, much less taking up arms against everything good in the galaxy.

It's also impossible to believe that the romance between Anakin and pregnant Padme is in any way a secret, considering that he apparently spends most nights in her bed. When Obi-Wan deduces that Anakin is the daddy, Padme's response should be, "Well, DUH!"

Worst of all, the fact that Anakin/Darth must survive this installment to destroy another day forces Lucas to commit a laughably "Dr. Evil"-style story sin. "Austin Powers" mocked the way that inept movie villains wander away from death traps in which they have left their adversaries, instead of sticking around long enough to verify a victim's demise. Lucas manages to do something even worse. When Anakin is knocking on death's door and suffering a literal living hell, there is no way that his opponent would blithely exit instead of putting the poor bastard out of his misery. It simply makes no sense, especially considering the identity of Anakin's opponent, that Anakin would not be allowed that final mercy.

These and other missteps keep what should have unfolded as a tragic and emotionally wrenching journey into madness look silly, shallow and not a little bit dumb.

If the rationalization that nothing about "Star Wars" is supposed to be any deeper than a cheesy old-time movie serial works for you, fine. But don't you wish you were able to weep for Anakin, and feel cold horror when that black helmet is put on his charred head for the first time? Don't you wish you could walk out of the theater feeling simultaneously excited, battered, drained and yet completely satisfied?

I'll bet that lonely guy who kept trying to lead the applause sure did.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Star Wars: The Clone Wars
(Reviewed August 2, 2008, by James Dawson)

This shockingly shoddy Star Wars spin-off, the first animated feature from Lucasfilm, takes place between the events of installments two and three of the live-action series ("Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith"). You may recall that those movies were utterly inept, with horrendous dialog, embarrassingly awkward attempts at characterization and melodramatically moronic plots.

"The Clone Wars" yanks all of those shortcomings a few rungs lower by employing clunky marionette-style animation for all of the story's humans and aliens. Backgrounds, ships and explosions all look fine -- in fact, those elements look nearly as good as their equivalents in the live-action movies, considering that CGI is CGI is CGI. But everything here that is supposed to be alive looks videogame fake.

Maybe the fact that creating completely convincing CGI people still is beyond the grasp of digital effects artists led the makers of "Clone Wars" to try going in the opposite direction, deliberately executing all living characters as obviously phony constructs so they could pass off the result as "stylish." Bad call. In a world accustomed to Pixar perfection, seeing animated characters who look and move like spastic "Thunderbirds"-era puppets just doesn't cut it.

The storyline here seems designed to delight ADD-addled eight-year-olds, but everyone else will find the relentlessly endless battle scenes extremely tiresome. Even moreso than in the live-action movies, the main gimmick involves putting the good guys up against ridiculously, impossibly overwhelming odds, but making the bad guys so slow, clumsy and unable to hit the broad side of a barn that Our Heroes never suffer so much as a scratch.

Those heroes are young-and-studly Anakin Skywalker (in completely noble-knight mode and without even a hint of the Darth-Vaderishness that's in his future); fellow Jedi ass-kicker Obi-Wan Kenobi; that annoying little green (but for some reason brown in one scene) muppet Yoda; and a new teen-chick Jedi student named Ahsoka, who looks like a Bratz doll in a tube top. Padme Amidala shows up near the end almost as an afterthought, voiced by a very convincing Natalie Portman soundalike. (The only characters who are voiced by the actors who portrayed them in the live-action movies are Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Christopher Lee as Count Dooku.)

Despite a long, nerdishly detailed voiceover intro about a bunch of galactic politics and war-related nonsense, the basic plot boils down to nothing more complicated than the need to rescue Jabba the Hutt's son so the Republic's fighters can obtain permission to use Jabba's airspace. Or his "space-space," as it were.

The "acting" here is on the level of your basic crappy Saturday morning cartoon, which is appropriate, considering that "The Clone Wars" is a forerunner of exactly such an endeavor. Anakin and Ahsoka, despite their obvious adolescence, banter like dopey pre-teens and have dumb nicknames for each other ("Sky Guy" and, for some reason, "Snips"). They call Jabba's son "Stinky." The movie's worst new character is one who should have been called "Truman Capote the Hutt," an effeminately drawling nephew of the big guy.

While most of the battle scenes (and I'm not exaggerating when I say that more than 75 percent of the movie's running time is devoted to shooting or light-sabre-duelling) are repetitive to the point of tedium, one that takes place on a sheer, vertical cliff face is interestingly done. Also, some of the weapons and vehicles are imaginatively appealing ("death balls," anyone?).

Still, it's strange to realize that everything onscreen that doesn't talk is only slightly quality-degraded from what would appear in a live-action Star Wars movie. When an open-sided troop-carrier lands, for example, it looks pretty much exactly the same as the ones in the last "real" movie -- with the exception of the herky-jerky Jedi warriors inside. Odd.

I can't really recommend this movie. It's too insultingly dumb for adults. As for kids, "The Clone Wars" is so hyper, loud and violent that the little monsters probably would start hitting each other or themselves, running up and down the aisles like pants-pissing maniacs, and generally being annoying little Ritalin-requiring twats.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

State and Main
(Reviewed November 30, 2000, by James Dawson)

I expected this David Mamet written-and-produced sendup about a team of moviemakers invading a sleepy Vermont town to be better. Actually, I expected it to be a lot better. I was hoping it would be at least as funny, quick and incisive as the wonderful but sadly deceased FOX-TV comedy series "Action" used to be every week. (R.I.P.)

It isn't. Instead, it is often obvious, slow and predictable. Instead of pitching its references high and inside, and not caring if the rubes in flyover country might miss a few of the jokes, "State and Main" seems to have been written for lowest-common-denominator "Entertainment Tonight" viewers who have no connection with the industry but who think they are Hollywood savvy because they keep up with weekend box-office grosses.

I've never been a huge Mamet fan to begin with. The only work of his I have seen that I thought was an unqualified success was "Glengarry Glen Ross," which was absolutely brilliant. But I'm starting to wonder if it was a fluke. "The Spanish Prisoner" seemed so silly and obvious that its central scam resembled something that Angel from "The Rockford Files" might have come up with. In "House of Games," the dupe had to be a complete moron for the plot to work. Screenplay-wise, Mamet wrote the god-awful remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the egregious "The Untouchables" and the dopey "We're No Angels." Okay, I liked "Wag the Dog," but I'm sort of predisposed to enjoy anything that mocks our horrible, horrible government, so that one doesn't count.

A couple of the "State and Main" casting decisions are remarkably wrongheaded. Alec Baldwin plays a superstar who is supposed to have a weakness for jailbait. Cast as the object of his affection is Julia Stiles, who looks to be every day of her 19-going-on-20 real-life years. On "Action," at least their nymphet character (Reagan Bush, if I recall) actually looked underage.

Casting mistake number two: Am I the only guy in America who thinks Sarah Jessica Parker is a bit of a two-bagger in the looks department? Okay, hot body, but that face is not one that I see in my dirty dreams. I am completely perplexed as to why she keeps getting trotted out in roles that are supposed to be filled by sexy bombshells.

There was one character I liked a lot in this movie: Annie, the deadpan, brighter-than-her-townsfolk bookstore owner played by Rebecca Pidgeon. I kept waiting for her scenes, because she was so gosh-darn appealing. Imagine a sexy version of Janeane Garafolo (I know that's difficult), except with a knowing attitude that is more amusement than disgust.

Everyone else here is a stock character you've seen too many times before: the put-upon writer, the dictatorial director, the hot-headed producer, the bumbling mayor, the ditzy actress, the dumb actor. And the ending makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Great opening credits, though. (Really, I mean it.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C ('cuz I'm feeling generous)

The Statement
(Reviewed December 6, 2003, by James Dawson)

Laughably, ineptly over-earnest "thriller" (ha!) about an ex-Nazi (Michael Caine) being hunted by the descendants of Jews he massacred in WWII. Or is it somebody else who is after him? That's what investigators Jeremy Northam and Tilda Swinton have to find out, as they trail Caine from monastery to monastery in France. The Catholics, you see, are protecting Caine. They've even been paying him a stipend for the past 50 years. Why? Hell, don't ask me, I've forgotten already. I think it's because Hollywood thinks Catholics make such easy targets as villains. Especially French Catholics.

This is the kind of dopey movie where the bad guy kicks a dog and people talk to themselves. (When Caine feels chest pains while sitting in a car by himself, he actually speaks the words, "I'm having a heart attack." It is to laugh.)

The only statement that matters about this movie is, "It sucks."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

State of Play
(Reviewed March 21, 2009, by James Dawson)

Enjoyable "All the President's Men"-type newspaper thriller, with Russell Crowe as the gruff old-school journalist and Rachel McAdams as the fresh-and-sexy young neophyte he shows the ropes. Ben Affleck is good as a slick politician tangled in a murder case involving an assistant with whom he was having an affair.

Still, considering how quickly newspapers are dying off, this movie already feels like an anachronism. The final "papers rolling off the presses" scene just doesn't have the same impact in an era when the big headline story already would have been available online long before those newspapers hit subscribers' driveways.

I wrote a review of this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"State of Play" review

For some reason, the last two paragraphs of that review do not appear on the page -- so I have pasted them below!

Jason Bateman is a surprise standout in a supporting role as an amusingly creepy public-relations pimp. At one point, he asks McAffrey what's in his "gay rage," waits a beat while McAffrey looks disturbed and confused, then clarifies by saying he means "garage."

State of Play never gets heavy handed about the tragic consequences of the newspaper industry's current economic freefall (which also is referenced in this month's The Soloist). Still, it's easy to see the doggedly unglamorous McAffrey as the kind of crusty craftsman destined to be replaced by the sort of sexy young Frye candy who never seems to have a pen. The implication is about as subtle as a banner headline.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Steal This Movie
(Reviewed August 29, 2000, by James Dawson) As Abbie Hoffman, Vincent D'Onofrio acts as if he was hit in the hit by a two-by-four prior to shooting most of his scenes in this movie. From what I have seen of the real Hoffman, he was manic and animated and funny. D'Onofrio, however, plays him like a half-lobotomized schizophrenic. Also, there is absolutely no facial or physical resemblance between the actor and Hoffman whatsoever, which doesn't help things any.

Back Row Grade: D (instead of an F, because I did like the anti-government tone throughout.)

Step Brothers
(Reviewed June 28, 2008)

I reviewed this for a magazine that never bothered paying me for more than $700 worth of material, so I have uploaded the entire text below. Also, I hope the magazine's editor burns in hell for a thousand eternities. But that's probably a given.

SYNOPSIS: Two still-living-at-home, hilariously immature grown men adapt to life under one roof when their single parents marry.

REVIEW: Will Ferrell gives what is quite literally the most balls-out performance of his career in this cheerfully vulgar, sophomorically crude and wonderfully stupid ode to arrested development. And yes, I do mean "literally."

Freeloading man-child Brennan Huff (Ferrell) and the equally irresponsible Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) see no reason to change their 40-going-on-14 lifestyles by getting jobs, moving out or basically growing up. When Brennan's remarkably indulgent mother (Mary Steenburgen) marries Reilly's equally enabling father (Richard Jenkins), the two selfish sons are urged to overcome their childish resentments and behave like brothers.

Unfortunately, the overgrown boys hate each other so much that Dale threatens to punch Brennan in the face as soon as he falls asleep. Brennan responds by promising to put a rat trap between Brennan's legs. Things go downhill from there, culminating in a riotous front-yard battle royale that's enough to make even the lovely and genteel Steenburgen turn a hose on the two while screaming, "Fucking fuck!"

The only thing funnier than scenes of adult men acting like spoiled toddlers prone to violent temper tantrums turns out to be seeing how ridiculous they act when they start getting along. A lot of the humor is delightfully deadpan-weird, such as Brennan's inability to pronounce a job interviewer's name ("Pam") or Dale's completely clueless confusion about sex ("Something's gonna happen!").

Adam Scott is perfect as their common enemy: Brennan's smug, smartass and super-successful sibling, who tries to get the stepbrothers evicted from the family home. And Jenkins is terrific at conveying beyond-the-breaking-point exasperation that's enough to make a stressed suburban dad leave the dinner table to go drink at the Cheesecake Factory.

VERDICT: This highly recommended reteaming of the two leads and director of Talladega Nights is the most silly, satisfying and flat-out funniest Ferrell farce ever.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Stick It
(Reviewed April 3, 2006, by James Dawson)

I'm giving this an "F+" instead of an "F" simply because costar Vanessa Lengies is such a total babe, even if her terribly written character is the stereotypical "dumb-snob-who-eventually-comes-around."

Honestly, though, this movie is absolutely awful. It gets off on the wrong foot by apparently expecting audience sympathy for Missy Peregrym as a rebellious, obnoxious, unappealing bitch who flaked out at an important gymnastics match, thereby screwing over her teammates. She now spends her days in a gangsta-look hoodie, trick-riding her bike through luxury houses that are under construction with her moronic homeboys. I had the same feeling watching her and her fellow slacker thugs as I felt when watching trespassing skateboarders fuck up the concrete of empty swimming pools in last year's "The Lords of Dogtown."

Brought before a judge for causing substantial property damage, she is "sentenced" to serve time at a gymnastics school run by controversial-but-committed trainer Jeff Bridges. What the fuck? Hey, if I rob a 7-11, maybe I'll get sent to a fantasy band camp run by Al Yankovic!

Vanessa Lengies, last seen as a jailbait restaurant-hostess in last year's vomitously egregious "Waiting...", is an ethnic hottie who spends most of the movie in a leotard. No complaints there! She is petite enough to look a lot more convincing as a young gymnast than the too-tall, too-big and too-old Peregrym.

For a movie that presumably is intended for a young-girl audience, "Stick It" has a few inappropriately vulgar lines of dialog that seem glaringly out of place. The one in which Peregrym says to Bridges "so, you're eating my piss?" leaps to mind. Even the title -- which is a term for a clean landing in a gymnastic exercise -- is as crude as it is lame. And this is a Disney flick! (Technically Touchstone, but you know -- same cynical corporate overlords.)

This movie sucks so hard that I can't even recommend it to dirty old men, because most of the girls in it (aside from the vivacious Vanessa) aren't even very good-looking. Zing!

Sure, I'll burn in hell for that. What's new?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed March 8, 2006, by James Dawson)

Somewhat cheesy but not completely worthless bio of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones (Leo Gregory), a multi-talented chap who became a sad parody of the overindulged burnout rock star before his early demise.

Overshadowed by songwriters Mick and Keef, and possessing far too much fondness for drugs and drink, Jones eventually stopped bothering even to show up for the group's recording sessions. Instead, he spent most of his final days vegetating at his country manor, the former home of "Winnie the Pooh" writer A.A. Milne. (You can't make this stuff up, kids.)

The story here is mostly told from the viewpoint of Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine), an unsophisticated blue-collar builder Jones hires to do various jobs around the house and grounds. Jones alternates between taking lordly advantage of Thorogood as a hired-hand nonentity, and attempting to have a desperately pathetic friendship with him.

Other sections of the film follow the band on an ill-fated trip to Morocco, and detail Jones' sordid and intermittent love affair with actress Anita Pallenberg (Monet Mazur).

"Stoned" seems to have its heart in the right place, with a dourly unglamorous cast, a sometimes grainy '60s-psychedelic look, convincingly unintelligible accents, and classically murky British lighting. Also, a few girls appear topless, and Gregory's rather impressive wang makes a couple of noteworthy appearances for the ladies.

Unfortunately, "Stoned" includes no Rolling Stones songs whatsoever -- not even the great B-side that bears the same title! Although the soundtrack includes various period tunes such as Traffic's "Paper Sun" and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," the closest it comes to anything by the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band are covers of songs the Stones did that were written by other people (such as "Not Fade Away" and "Time Is On My Side"), performed here by other artists.

The fact that "Stoned" is a depressing slog is strangely admirable, in that the portrait it paints of Jones is anything but sentimental or box-office-friendly.

On the other hand, it is a rather depressing slog.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed March 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for ULTIMATE DVD magazine, which got a sudden urge to stop paying its bills, so I have pasted the entire text of the review below.

Review: "Stop-Loss" undeniably has its heart in the right place. The American military's new tactic of compensating for low recruitment levels by holding onto grunts who thought they were home to stay has created a new definition for "prisoners of war." Hawks and doves alike would agree that what Ryan Phillippe's character derides as a 'backdoor draft" is a lousy trick to play on soldiers who already have shouldered their share of the battlefield burden.

The problem is that this movie is more about moral posturing than plot plausibility. After going AWOL, Phillippe hopes to contact a previously friendly Senator about the injustice of being stop-lossed. But instead of simply picking up a telephone, he decides to take a lengthy Texas-to-Washington road trip with another soldier's sympathetic girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) along to provide some sexual tension.

The overly simplistic writing often devolves into tired cliches. Nearly every returning soldier besides Phillippe is a variation on the shell-shocked Vietnam-vet stereotype. A scene in which wedding presents are used for target practice after a broken engagement apparently is intended as "guys being guys" amusing, but feels inappropriate and dumb. As metaphors go, a final-act fistfight in a cemetery is about as subtle as a mortar shell. And do we ever need to hear anyone mouth the words "I don't even know you" again?

Verdict: For World War I there was "Paths of Glory," WW2 had "The Best Years of Our Lives" and Vietnam had "The Deer Hunter," but the first truly worthwhile movie about Iraq has yet to appear.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Stranger Than Fiction
(Reviewed October 26, 2006, by James Dawson)

Every writer probably gives in to the temptation to type this kind of too-precious "character, meet author" drivel at least once. And once is always more than enough.

(My contribution to the genre was a shamelessly self-indulgent short story I wrote more than 10 years ago called "Read Me," in which a porn writer is seduced by one of his own incredibly oversexed creations. That classic was published in the august literary journal "Gent: Home of the D-Cups," with a great illustration by an artist with the improbable but appropriate name Otis Sweat. I think he went on to design borders for The Paris Review. But I digress.)

The problem here is that the "God-like author" conceit is so inherently stupid that trying to give such a work any real-world heft (as "Stranger Than Fiction" attempts) makes it collapse under the weight of its own painfully obvious lack of logic. Translation: If one of my characters actually showed up on my doorstep, proving that I could alter reality with nothing more than strokes on a keyboard, my first reaction would involve sprinting to my laptop to peck out the following sentences: "I AM AN IMMORTAL WHO WILL ENJOY PERFECT HEALTH, UTTER CONTENTMENT, UNLIMITED WEALTH AND GOD-LIKE POWER FOREVER. ALSO, A MINT-CONDITION 1974 LEVIS GREMLIN X WILL MATERIALIZE IN MY DRIVEWAY." (Some of my fantasies are more modest than others.)

In "Stranger Than Fiction," Will Ferrell begins hearing the "narrator" of his life (Emma Thompson) one day while brushing his teeth. He is freaked out to realize that he is a character in a book, and even more upset when he learns that his character faces -- as the narrator puts it -- "imminent death." He goes in search of advice to a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt, in a brief cameo) and a literary professor (Dustin Hoffman) to make sense of things.

All of this sounds a lot more amusing than it is. Every attempt the script makes to hammer some emotion or humanity into the story comes across as calculated and cynical. Hey, look, there's Maggie Gyllenhaal as the standard-issue "flakey free-spirit love interest," who will bring romance into Ferrell's dull, businesslike life...even though we can see no reason whatsoever why she would be attracted to him. (Even the possible excuse that she falls for Ferrell because that's what Thompson is writing doesn't wash, because a relationship so corny and fake wouldn't appear in a work that is later described as an important literary masterpiece.) Maggie is a heavily tattooed anarchist who runs her own bakery. Will's a tightassed IRS agent who audits her. Yeah, I can really see those two hooking up.

There's also Ferrell's standard-issue "quirky dork sci-fi fan friend." And there's his "new-age, hug-giving human resources manager." It's like a casting call for a bad sitcom. Even Hoffman seems to be impersonating his own far better "existential detective" character from the excellent "I (Heart) Huckabees." Queen Latifah shows up at Thompson's loft as a personal assistant sent over by the publisher to make sure Thompson finishes her book, but mainly functions as someone to stand around while Thompson talks to herself.

Everything about "Stranger Than Fiction" comes off like "Charlie Kaufman Extra Lite." It's the kind of script that people who think they are smarter than they are will call smart. (Just watch!)

Worst of all, the movie's ending is the kind of utterly unsatisfying cop-out that seems to be the result of misguided focus-group input from complete morons.

What's sad is that I am willing to bet this script ends up an Oscar nomination, based on the academy's dreadful track record. I predict that members will notice that "Stranger Than Fiction" doesn't have any gunfights or car chases, and therefore decide that this makes the movie meaty intellectual fare.

The only thing I really liked about "Stranger Than Fiction" was its great use of graphics, overlaying numbers and charts and architectural drawings over various scenes from time to time. Also, it's always nice to hear Paul Weller's "That's Entertainment," even if the song is only underscoring scenes of Will Ferrell reading on a bus.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Straw Dogs
(Reviewed September 15, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Street Kings
(Reviewed March 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for FILM REVIEW magazine, a publication that never bothered to pay me, so I have put the entire text of that piece -- plus some restored bits -- below.

Co-screenwriter James Ellroy gets story credit, but this misfire has more in common with his bloody awful "Black Dahlia" than his critically lauded "L.A. Confidential."

Procedure-be-damned vigilante cop Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) wants to break his ex-partner's jaw for ratting him out to Internal Affairs. Then the snitch gets machine-gunned by thugs in a way that makes badass Reeves look just plain bad. Determined to bring the killers to justice by any means necessary, Ludlow ends up uncovering enough LAPD corruption to make Joe Friday come back to life and weep.

Nicknamed "Phonebook Tom" thanks to his preference for beating info out of suspects with those diabolical directories, Ludlow is supposed to be a haunted alcoholic with a very mean streak. Unfortunately, Reeves plays the part with his usual John-Wayne-on-lithium detachment, more cyborg than psycho. He sounds unintentionally amusing calling perps "punk," or justifying his methods by indignantly demanding, "Who's gonna go where the law won't?"

Forest Whitaker assays the role of Ludlow's look-the-other-way superior officer like a one-man learning disability. Honestly, the guy played Idi Amin with more intelligence than this. Maybe he had Amin in mind when he praises Reeves by telling him, "You are the tip of the spear." Okay, maybe not.

As Internal Affairs Captain James Biggs, Hugh Laurie basically does his smugly contemptuous "House M.D." act, but that's good enough to make you wish he had more to do here. Chris Evans vacillates between don't-mess-with-me officiousness and rookie anxiety as one of his underlings. "Scribble" (Comedian Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles) is the movie's underworld-connected Huggie-Bear surrogate, a convertible-Caddie driving mack daddy who is more annoyed than defiant about the idea of helping the police. He genuinely is funny, but he's an awkward fit in what's supposed to be a gritty suspense thriller.

The down-and-dirty dialog is loaded with politically incorrect jibes (Reeves derides a couple of Koreans by saying they "dress white, talk black and drive Jew") and laughable tough-guy dialect ("you gotta hold your mud"). And when you see an aquarium in a flick like this, you better believe it will be shattered by gunfire post-haste.

Director David Ayer is fond of hubcap-level angles during car chases and lingers lovingly on bullet-twitched bodies, but otherwise doesn't bring much flair to the proceedings. He should have amped up the visuals to make this a gleefully shameless guilty pleasure, instead of a plodding unintentional parody.

"Street Kings" may have worked as a hyper-stylized "Sin City" goof, but it's too flabby and phony to pass for convincing film noir.

Verdict: Frustratingly familiar and hilariously hard-boiled.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Stuck on You
(January 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

This plodding, cheesy, ceaselessly unfunny comedy plays like some kind of horrible community service punishment that a moviemaker would be forced to produce after being found guilty of, say, raping a deaf woman who has cerebral palsy. It couldn't be more "hire the handicapped" diversity-friendly and dull if it had been bankrolled by PBS.

Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon are conjoined twins who head to Hollywood so the Kinnear half can take a shot at stardom. Many dumb things happen, including scenes with Cher, if you need a further reason to avert your eyes.

The movie reaches its nadir when one of the supporting actors who is, um, "differently abled" gives a thank-you speech to the filmmakers during the closing credits. The creeps this induces are roughly equivalent to having a dead baby with leprosy shoved in your face by a toothless beggar woman on crutches.

Okay, I'll burn in hell for this review, but at least I've saved you a few bucks. And isn't that what matters most?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Sucker Punch
(Reviewed March 24, 2011, by James Dawson)

"Sucker Punch" is a colossal wall-to-wall disaster, one of the most infuriatingly disappointing fanboy-targeted fails since "Superman Returns". (A possibly troubling aside: Director/cowriter Zack Snyder's next movie will be a new reboot of Superman, a prospect that doesn't seem quite as appealing after seeing this bomb and Snyder's previous dud "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." But maybe he will return to his previously more impressive "Watchmen," "300" and "Dawn of the Dead" form.)

"Sucker Punch"'s "free your mind and your heavily armed ass will follow" script is painfully stupid. The female characters are the sort of offensively delusional "we're not exploited, we're empowered" bimbos who are supposed to pass for feminist icons these days. And the movie's ending swipes from two infinitely better movies whose titles I won't reveal, even though this would spoil what only the slowest witted cinemagoer would see as a surprise.

Snyder's art direction is in the right place, with several elaborately video-gamish battle set-ups that should get points for imagination alone (zombie World War 1 soldiers, fire-breathing dragons, giant samurai warriors). But the murky photography makes many scenes look as dismal as a bad 2D-to-3D transfer, even though "Sucker Punch" is not in 3D.

The story in a nutshell: An unjustly imprisoned mental patient nicknamed Babydoll (Emily Browning) fantasizes about escaping the asylum with other inmates by locating five items in different imaginary worlds. Sounds promising, right? Unfortunately, we don't get a chance to know any of the girls well enough to see beyond their tacky corsets, whorish makeup and big guns. If you like seeing surly babes in skimpy outfits looking miserable while being mentally and physically abused, though, all of your misogynistic needs will be met.

In her mind, Babydoll has transformed the asylum into a nightclub-slash-brothel-slash-dance-studio, but don't get too excited. The depressingly dismal dive is like a cross between the joint in the bombastically bad "Burlesque" by way of the sickeningly campy "Moulin Rouge."

Snyder has jukeboxed the high-firepower mayhem to songs such as Bjork's "Army of Me," a cover of "White Rabbit" by Emiliana Torrini and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" sung by Browning herself (she's actually pretty good). The soundtrack is more enjoyable than the movie. So is a coffee-table "making of" book called "Sucker Punch: The Art of the Film," which makes scenes and characters from the movie look better and much more interesting than they are onscreen.

When the end credits rolled, a stranger in front of me turned to her seatmate and asked, "Who do they expect that will appeal to?"

I couldn't help answering for the guy: "Good question."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F+ (hey, I liked the music...)

Sugar & Spice
(Reviewed January 16, 2001, by James Dawson) Lordy, what has happened to Mena Suvari's career? She was great as the stuck-up bitchlet cheerleader in "American Beauty." Then came the execrable "Loser," absolutely and without doubt the WORST movie of 2000. (And in a year that included the release of "Battlefield Earth," that's saying something!) And now comes this achingly unamusing, so god-awful it reminded me of television, groaner of a "comedy" "Sugar & Spice."

For this reviewer, a movie that is chock full of cheerleaders automatically has a lot going for it. So just try to imagine how incredibly, unbelievably bad this movie had to be for me to give it an unwavering "F."

Another shocker: I was stunned to find out later that the lead actor in this crapfest, whose name I will not trouble myself to look up, is the guy who played a pretty good Cyclops in "X-Men." In this movie, his performance is so broad and unfunny and just plain bad that he is darn lucky he made it AFTER getting the "X-Men" job--because his headshot would have gone straight in File 13 if the producers had seen this dog first.

Also, there is no nudity whatsoever in this movie, for those of you shallow enough to care about such things.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed July 16, 2000, by James Dawson)

As of July 16, this is my favorite movie of the year. Nothing about it will sound appealing -- it is three hours long, and it is a family epic about successive generations of Hungarians -- but trust me, this is the movie to see. With any luck, next March we will be hearing the magic words, "And the Oscar goes to...Ralph Fiennes!"

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+ (That's right, A+!!!!! GO SEE THIS MOVIE!)

(Reviewed June 8, 2007, by James Dawson)

Boring, stupid and shamelessly derivative of several better SF movies, the only thing "Sunshine" has going for it is that it looks damned good. (Even its title is stolen, from an excellent Ralph Fiennes drama released in 2000, about three generations of Hungarians.)

This "Sunshine," directed by Danny Boyle and scripted by his frequent collaborator Alex Garland, posits a future in which mankind is smart enough to create a spaceship carrying an explosive payload so powerful it will reboot Earth's dying sun (hoo boy), yet not smart enough to make the thing fly on autopilot. Think about the idiocy of that premise for a second.

Also, consider the fact that if the ship weren't carrying a crew that would have to return to Earth after flipping a "bombs away" switch somewhere inside Mercury's orbit, the ship wouldn't need to be carrying twice as much fuel as a one-way trip would require, to say nothing of an "oxygen forest," food, sleeping quarters, a short, the entire ship could have been made into a simple and efficient bomb-delivery system, pointed at the sun, and set on its merry way. I mean, come on, people: The sun wouldn't exactly be a tough target to hit.

Instead, we get a crew of eight on the Icarus 2 for absolutely no good reason. They hear a distress signal from an earlier crew whose mission failed. (Gee, maybe their ship should have been on AUTOPILOT!) Defying all logic, an Icarus 2 crew member accidentally screws up a course recalculation in a way that damages the ship. (See earlier note, re: autopilot.) Considering that the Icarus 2 has an onboard computer as sophisticated as the HAL 9000, and also that one would think the guy who 'ucks up would have somebody else check his work instead of simply "winging it," this plot device is absurd.

A broken airlock leads to a scene that is a direct steal from "2001: A Space Odyssey." A bad-guy-onboard plot ends up looking way too much like "Alien" territory. Astute junk-SF viewers also will be reminded of movies including "The Fountain," "The Core" and even (yikes!) "The Fantastic Four." One of the stars here, Chris Evans, plays the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies. Which I guess is somehow appropriate.

There's a lot of dullness that's supposed to pass for a kind of mystical transcendence, all of it adding up to nothing. The bad guy is always shot as a jittery camera effect, so we never even get a good look at him.

And slow...Good God, this movie drags.

The ship sets, shots of the sun's boiling flames, and a nifty space-time distortion bit at the end look fantastic, but they aren't enough to make me recommend this very slow slog into the sunset.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Sunshine Cleaning
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed August 6, 2007, by James Dawson)

"Superbad" wants to be a dirty, new-millennium version of an '80s-era John Hughes teen comedy, but the movie is hampered by production values as cheap and cheesy as a '70s porn flick, an unattractive cast of annoying characters, and a script that's about as funny as a bad Saturday Night Live skit generously sprinkled with four-letter words.

Having said that, it's still a friggin' masterpiece compared to an abysmally unfunny cinematic abortion like "Knocked Up," this summer's earlier Seth Rogen flick. (Get it? Abortion? "Knocked Up?" It's really a crime that I don't get paid for coming up with this stuff.)

Rogen co-wrote "Superbad"'s script, as well as starring in a supporting role as a lazy, drunk and remarkably easygoing California cop. The movie's main characters are three high-school senior boys who spend the movie trying to buy or steal liquor after making a promise that they will supply a hot chick's house party. Oh, and they want to get laid, too.

Jonah Hill is the fat, vulgar, know-it-all loudmouth, the kind of friend anyone would avoid at all costs. Michael Cera is his more mature, sensitive-guy, Beck-lookalike pal. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a wimpy weirdo whose fake ID bears only the single name "McLovin."

I didn't completely despise this movie (high praise, huh?), but it didn't make me laugh, which is kind of a minimal requirement for what's supposed to be a comedy. It's telling that the best I can say about a movie that seems calculated to be over-the-top outrageous ("period blood," anyone?) is that it isn't bad enough to hate.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Super 8
(Reviewed June 10, 2011, by James Dawson)

At last it can be said: "Super 8" is so blatantly derivative, ineptly acted (except for Elle Fanning), badly written and generally inadequate it's like a shoddy, half-assed counterfeit of a movie. It's more "Dumb E.T." than "Dark E.T."

There's a pretty obvious reason why studios occasionally stipulate that pre-release screening audiences are forbidden to "Tweet, Facebook or do any other social networking" about movies like this before they arrive in theaters. That reason definitely is not because they expect positive word of mouth (except from the usual "critics" who will call any crap caviar in order to get quoted).

The plot in a nutshell: A bunch of generically phony teenage boys and one much more genuine girl who are making an amateur movie in 1979 with a super-8 film camera turn out to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time to see a pretty spectacular train wreck. The military tries to keep local townsfolk in the dark about a rather violent alien that escapes from one of the boxcars. The kids run around figuring out what's up and saving each other.

"Super 8" feels so "hacky" and unoriginal it's as if somebody gave a pile of money to a D-list director and told him to do a cheesy horror version of a Spielberg rip-off. Which is odd, considering that Steven Spielberg himself produced this dreck. Also, the fact that "Super 8" was written and directed by J.J. Abrams had me hoping beforehand that the movie would be as fresh and satisfying as his reboot of Star Trek, or as interesting as his terrific two-part pilot for "Lost." (Even if that series quickly turned unwatchable afterward, its pilot really was something special.) No such luck.

There are two reasons why "Super 8" doesn't deserve an "F" grade. The train wreck really is great, no complaints there. Also, Elle Fanning once again succeeds in transcending bad material, as she did with last year's aggravatingly unwatchable The Nutcracker in 3D and Sofia Coppola's soporifically pointless "Somewhere." She's so good she even manages to pull off a scene that's shamelessly stolen from one in Mulholland Drive, of all things: She does an acting audition for the boys that is so honest and devastating they are awed into silence.

The plot of "Super 8," on the other hand, utterly fails to deliver the same kind of emotional impact. That's not for lack of some very fumbling trying, however. The movie's ineptly manipulative ending, for example, attempts to jerk undeserved tears with the transparently forced desperation of a vulgar two-dollar whore trying to get off a disinterested, disgusted and offended john.

(Somehow, I don't think that line will make it into the movie's print ads.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Superman Returns
(Reviewed June 12, 2006, by James Dawson)

This unnecessary, pointless and unexpectedly dull exercise in cinematic redundancy is a great Rorschach test that moviegoers can use to gauge whether a given critic is a trustworthy beacon of integrity or a useless quote-whore hack.

An honest critic who fairly evaluates what's on the screen will tell you that this movie gets just about everything wrong. Parts that are recreated from earlier Superman movies were done better the first time around. Brandon Routh (as Superman/Clark Kent) and Kate Bosworth (as Lois Lane) are pretty enough to be Sears catalog models, but they are charisma- and chemistry-free. Routh mimics Christopher Reeve's portrayal of a naive and guileless Supes, but is less convincing than Reeve in both the bumbling alter-ego and the bulky superhero departments. Bosworth displays none of the starry-eyed soft center that made Kidder's otherwise all-business Lois Lane so endearing. Kevin Spacey mostly tries to replicate Gene Hackman's comic portrayal of villain Lex Luthor, but veers too wildly between cartoonish camp and an unpleasant new element of brutally realistic sadism. Finally, the movie's big surprise (don't worry, I won't spoil it, even though I'm sure others will) is so shockingly stupid, inappropriate and just plain wrong that it should kill anyone's desire to see a sequel reflecting Superman's new character-altering circumstances.

A dishonest reviewer, on the other hand, will find it impossible to fault anything directed by critics'-darling Bryan Singer -- whose work here is so unimaginative and often boring that the movie's nearly two-and-a-half hour running time feels more like a long weekend. Singer left the "X-Men" franchise to do this movie. That led a lot of intellectually insecure fools to say that the third X-Men flick, which ended up being directed by Brett Ratner, was not up to Singer's standards. They couldn't admit that the zero-cachet Ratner actually made what was the best of those three movies, because this inconvenient fact didn't jibe with their preconceived critical worldview.

Similarly, you can bet that a bunch of Singer sycophants will fall all over themselves to praise "Superman Returns," just because of the B.S. credit at the beginning. 'Twas ever thus.

Aside from the aforementioned big surprise, the thing I disliked most about "Superman Returns" was what has become a staple in comic-bookish movies: the "beat the living shit out of the superhero" scene. No exaggeration, this segment of "Superman Returns" is so unpleasant, graphic and disturbing that it will make parents feel as if they have accompanied their impressionable little tykes to a snuff film. Yes, I know that General Zod and company didn't exactly treat Our Hero with kid gloves in "Superman II." But there's a difference between tossing a bus at a guy and shoving a foot-long kryptonite dagger in the vicinity of his liver and then kicking him face-first into a puddle. Sometimes, less is more -- and not in a good way.

One last thing: There's a moment in this movie that sums up how thoroughly whatever was left of the real-world America's honor has been destroyed by War-Criminal-in-Chief George W. Bush and his gang of hateful psychopathic thugs. Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella), upon learning that Superman has returned to Earth from a five-year journey in space, tells a reporter to find out if Superman still stands for "truth, justice, all that stuff." In the 1950s George Reeves TV series, "truth, justice and the American way" were the things Superman was said to represent. These days, the phrase "the American way" apparently would have too many negative associations for international audiences, who would not want to believe that Superman stood for illegal wars, torture in violation of the Geneva Conventions, renditions of kidnapped suspects to foreign prisons, suspension of habeas corpus for political detainees, coddling oppressive and dictatorial governments, and basic all-around arrogant stupidity on the world stage.

Truth and justice? Only in the movies, folks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Surviving Christmas
(Reviewed October 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

When Matt Damon sees movies like this irredeemable bomb starring his old pal Ben Affleck, does he laugh...or cry?

I'm not one of those people who thinks Affleck is completely lacking in talent. I really enjoyed last year's "Daredevil," for example.

Having said that, however, it would be hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than Affleck playing a hyper, needy, delusional millionaire in what is supposed to be a wacky black comedy. The "Surviving Christmas" script is so relentlessly unfunny that no one may have been able to save it, but the lead role clearly was written for an Andy Dick or a Jim Carrey type. It should have taken the studio less than a day of shooting to tell that Affleck was absolutely not the right guy for this thankless job. Hell, make that less than five minutes.

He's not the only victim of tragic miscasting. James Gandolfini, trying his best to convey a De Niro-like "Meet the Parents" threatening-but-amusing attitude, instead comes across like a seething psycho killer. When he bashes Affleck full-strength in the head with a snow shovel, for example, it's about as side-splittingly funny as...well, as a severe head injury.

The only participant who emerges relatively unscathed from this waste of celluloid is Christina Applegate, who manages to be genuinely likable. Even though it is impossible to believe her character would find anything about Affleck charming, or even tolerable, she seems to have dropped into this cesspool from a completely different movie. I ended up wishing the entire movie had been based around her, instead of centering on the mugging, loud, amazingly annoying Affleck.

Without a doubt, one of the worst movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Suspect Zero
(Reviewed July 31, 2004, by James Dawson)

Occasionally draggy, and sometimes more irritating than eerie, "Suspect Zero" still rates as a pretty good psychological thriller -- and definitely gets points for putting a new spin on the "demoted FBI agent getting a chance at redemption" plot.

Aaron Eckhart, sent to the sticks after bungling a serial-killer collar, finds himself stalked and tormented by the always excellent Ben Kingsley. Kingsley's kill-happy character's intensely creepy behavior includes a talent for "remote viewing": the ability to go into sweaty, twitching trances and see things that are happening (or will happen) elsewhere. This guy is so wacked-out, he makes Hannibal Lecter look like Mister Rogers on Zoloft. (Christ, did I really just say that? I can't stand reviews that make those kinds of comparisons. Pardon my was just so hard to resist. And is there more to Kingsley than meets the lidless eye, or is that just part of his psychosis?

Also, I liked the fact that "Suspect Zero" has the integrity not to pander to morons by including any comic relief. Trust me, you won't leave the theater chuckling after this one. But you may check the back seat of your car to make sure nobody is hiding there.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed August 5, 2003, by James Dawson)

For the life of me, I can't figure out why anyone who has a working TV set would leave the house to see this movie. It is so generic, so by-the-numbers, so nothing-special that you may as well sit home and take your pick of any mediocre guns-as-porn cop show that you can see for nothin' on the tube just about every hour of every dang day.

Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez and Samuel L. Jackson go through the motions as S.W.A.T. team members, bonding and bullshitting and breaking heads so predictably that the "teamwork uber alles" plot borders on parody. We've seen this stuff so often that maybe having fun with it by going for big laughs would have been a better strategy than trying to play things straight.

Also, the direction here is so slipshod that big shoot-'em-up action scenes are sometimes a confusing mess. Besides being hard to follow--the director seems to have a real aversion to putting the camera in the right place, much less keeping it there long enough--the image often is rendered in fuzzy TV-monitor-type scan lines, for no discernible reason. Hey, pal, if I want to see a picture like this, I can stay in my own crackerbox and turn on the friggin' idiot box.

For this somebody needs to spend $8? I don't think so.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Reviewed December 18, 2007)

A bloody masterpiece.

Johnny Depp should win every Best Actor award there is for his mesmerizing portrayal of the title character in Stephen Sondheim's darkly brilliant musical, directed with dazzling style by Tim Burton.

Very highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Sweetest Thing
(Reviewed April 9, 2002, by James Dawson)

Former "Married With Children" jailbait Christina Applegate completely steals this extremely bad movie from star Cameron Diaz. Now in her 30s, Christina is as brassy and human and genuine as Cameron is annoying and unconvincing and fake. This is Applegate's second movie in a row in which she shines much brighter than the picture itself. In last year's "Just Visiting," she was funny and convincing and sweet, as if she were in a completely different picture than the rest of the cast. Here, she is kind of a cross between the gals from "Absolutely Fabulous" and a crasser version of Rachel from "Friends." (Speaking of whom, Applegate would be perfect casting as Jennifer Aniston's sister in some future project. But I digress.)

"The Sweetest Thing" is about a trio of female roommates who are sexually promiscuous, crude and stupid. Then Cameron Diaz falls for a guy who is engaged, and takes a road trip with Applegate to crash his wedding. Hilarity does not ensue.

Here are three of the movie's lowpoints: At one point, Diaz and Applegate are seen in a montage playing dress-up as various celebrities. Unfortunately, the director endlessly repeats and drags out the segments to the point of sheer aggravation. One is tempted to shout at the screen, "Okay, okay, we get it--she's Julia Roberts in `Pretty Woman!' Now for Christ's sake, move on!"

Then there is the scene where we are expected to believe that Diaz would not figure out that there just might be a guy on the other side of a hole in a restroom wall.

Finally, we have a scene in which Diaz--whom the movie establishes is supposed to be impossible for any man to resist--gets sexually rejected because she tells a guy at a bar that she is looking for more than a one-night stand. In the real world, of course, the guy simply would smile and nod his head, bang the hell out of her all night long, and then never call back. What planet is this movie's scriptwriter from, anyway?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Sweet Home Alabama
(Reviewed September 18, 2002, by James Dawson)

Once again, we are graced with a dismal would-be comedy extolling the easy-livin', down-home virtues of life in the sticks among unsophisticated "simple folk"--made by a bunch of cynical Hollywood swells who wouldn't be caught dead there. This movie is so dishonest, so stupid, so insultingly fake that the viewer has to wonder if anyone involved in the production ever has had the pleasure of actually meeting anyone with a southern accent.

Plot? If you've seen the TV ad, you've seen the movie. Let's put it this way: Is there any doubt in your mind whether citified fashion designer Reese Witherspoon will remain engaged to her wealthy New York boyfriend, as opposed to returning to her cornpone childhood sweetheart in Pigeon Creek, Alabammy? No surprises here, folks!

Personally, I am hoping that the residents of Alabama will rise up and storm Hollywood in outrage over this flick--not merely because they are portrayed as semi-retarded simpletons, but because NOT ONE FRAME WAS FILMED IN ALABAMA! That wouldn't be so bad if the whole mess had been shot on a studio backlot, as in the old days. But no--the makers of this bomb actually went on location in GEORGIA to shoot the Alabama scenes...EVEN THOUGH THE FRIGGIN' MOVIE IS CALLED "SWEET HOME ALABAMA!"

The only thing I liked about this bad-sitcom-level timewaster is the fact that for once a Democrat (the mayor of New York, played by Candice Bergen) is portrayed in a bad light (making a contemptuously sarcastic crack about liking poor people because "poor people put me in office"). Don't get me wrong--as a good Libertarian, I despise Republicans as well as Dems--but it is refreshingly unusual to see a Democrat portrayed by the entertainment industry as anything other than saintly, progressive and enlightened.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed August 26, 2002, by James Dawson)

Not only a lousy teenybopper would-be thriller, but a lousy teenybopper would-be thriller with absolutely ZERO NUDITY. What it does have is a stupid plot, no thrills, a retarded ending, and a Bizzaro-world cast (with Erika Christensen instead of Julia Stiles, Jake Gregory filling in for Freddie Prinze Jr., and somebody whose name I'm too lazy to look up subbing for Brendan Fraser).

An aside: Christensen's stalker-chick character is named Madison Bell. Considering that there is a real-world, not exactly obscure writer named Madison Smart Bell, I guess we can look forward to future characters named Arthur Doyle and Edgar Poe from the moronic scripters of this predictable, pointless bomb.

This movie doesn't swim, it sinks like a stone.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Swimming Pool
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

I loved this movie, and I thought its ending made perfect sense, but be warned: When it was over, a critic at the screening I attended blurted out, "What the hell happened?"

Charlotte Rampling is a repressed British crime novelist taking a working vacation at her publisher's house in France. The impossibly beautiful Ludovine Sagnier is the publisher's slutty daughter, who shows up and generally disturbs the peace (primarily by bringing home strange men and running around stark naked A LOT) (and guys, when I say A LOT, I mean A LOT). Saying anything more would give too much away, but trust me, this is like no other movie you are likely to see this year.


Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Swing Vote
(Reviewed July 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

In this annoyingly lamebrained attempt at popping some 21st-century Capra-corn, Kevin Costner is a trailer-living single-dad good-ol'-boy drunk. When he breaks a promise to meet his precocious young civic-minded daughter (Madeline Carroll) at a polling place on a presidential election night, she sneaks in to cast his vote for him. That plan is foiled when an electric plug gets kicked out of a socket (damn those electronic voting machines!) and she flees, leaving "dad's" ballot behind.

Wouldn't you know it, the election ends in an electoral college tie, and the only vote in the country that matters is Costner's. That hokey high concept would be hard enough to swallow without the added plot contrivance that Costner is not allowed to re-cast his vote for 10 days, which makes no sense whatsover -- except in a "stretch this half-hour idea to feature screenplay length" sense. Why on earth wouldn't state officials simply ask Costner for whom he voted as soon as they discovered his ballot was spoiled? Because then we wouldn't see all those scenes of the world's media descending upon the small town where Costner lives, making him into an aw-shucks celebrity, and permitting both presidential candidates to pander shamelessly for his vote.

The movie's other crucial flaw is that Costner's wise-beyond-her-years daughter, who clearly is the brains of the family, obviously had her mind made up about which candidate would get her vote. Yet during those 10 days, she never once mentions her choice, or tries lobbying her dad to make the same selection. Huh?

The weirdest thing about "Swing Vote" is that exactly the same plot could have worked as a decent episode of "The Simpsons," with smarty-pants Lisa casting a vote for clueless dad Homer. The difference is that "Simpsons" writers would make the idea funny, clever and satirical, instead of tiresome, obvious and dumb.

Also, "Swing Vote" has a cop-out ending that's just plain insulting.

The only reason I'm not giving this movie an "F" is because Carroll is actually pretty good as the daughter, especially in a crying scene in front of her class.

The rest of the movie is an impeachable offense.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed June 1, 2001, by James Dawson)

Absolutely terrible movie with only three redeeming features. There's a nice "Matrix"-style, 360-degree, frozen-action explosion that occurs within the first 10 minutes. And there are Halle Berry's nipples, which are really quite nice to behold, even if you only see them for under 10 seconds.

The plot is stunningly moronic. Hugh Jackman is a down-on-his-luck computer hacker on parole. He is enlisted by John Travolta to, in essence, rob a bank. What are supposed to be twists in the plot are not, unless your IQ is under 30. And what are supposed to be dramatic surprises are not, to anyone who has seen the ads on TV (which even include one of the very last scenes, and I do mean "very last").

This is the kind of stupid movie that tries to make the act of typing on a computer keyboard look as physical, dramatic and passionate as performing the lead in "Lord of the Dance." (A scene in which Hugh Jackman gyrates, bumps and grinds in his ergonomic chair while assembling a computer program is so silly it has to be seen to be believed.) The biggest mystery in this bomb is how Jackman managed to be such a good Wolverine in last year's "X-Men," because he is flat-out TERRIBLE in "Swordfish."

Stunningly bad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

(Reviewed October 25, 2003, by James Dawson)

Life got you down? Feeling depressed? Wondering if it's even worth going on with your sad and sorry day-to-day existence? Then for the love of sweet merciful Jeebus, don't see this movie!

If you're not up on the personal lives of your major 20th-century poets, suffice it to say that this bio of Sylvia Plath and her wandering husband, British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, is not exactly the feel-good flick of 2003. Gwyneth Paltrow is Sylvia, an artsy-'n'-anxiety-prone upper-crust American flake who falls for Hughes (Daniel Craig) at college on the sceptr'd isle in the 1950s. Their courtship includes Paltrow quoting Chaucer to cows from a punt rowed by Hughes; a poetry smackdown among tweedy friends trying to out motormouth each other that somehow doesn't have quite the same urgency as a similar scene in "8 Mile"; and an awkward meeting with Plath's chilly-as-New-England mother (played by Blythe Danner, lil' Gwynnie's real-life mum). After Sylvia and Ted marry, he cheats, she gets jealous, she wigs out, she can't let it go, she REALLY can't let it go, and...well, let's just say there ain't no happy ending here, folks.

Paltrow and Craig are actually pretty good as intent-and-intellectual soulmates, the kind of people you can't imagine ever actually having any F-U-N. Still, the overall tone of "Sylvia" is such a downer that the movie feels more like a depressing wallow than a well-rounded biography. There is exactly one laugh in the entire movie: After imposing on downstairs neighbor Michael Gambon for a favor, Paltrow apologetically says, "You must think I'm a crazy American bitch." He replies, "Actually, I thought you were Canadian."

Also, I have to mention that there is a short and wholly gratuitous nude shot of Gwyneth sitting primly on a couch in a "Little Mermaid" pose, perky breasts fully exposed, that is the kind of thing for which "pause" buttons were invented.

Other than that, "Sylvia" doesn't have much to offer your basic red-blooded, poetry-hatin' American male. Which I'm sure comes as a real surprise, huh?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Synecdoche, New York
(Reviewed September 24, 2008, by James Dawson)

Abandoned by his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their four-year-old daughter, director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) embarks on a massive theatrical piece that includes a city's worth of buildings and actors, including stand-ins for himself and the major figures in his life. When some of those surrogates become more real than the people they portray and identities start to shift, the gargantuan project either has gotten completely out of hand -- or is succeeding in ways that Cotard never contemplated.

This chronicle of an emotionally battered man's obsessive need for control is the directorial debut of writer Charlie Kaufman, known for his wildly imaginative screenplays "Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Adaptation." Be warned that "Synecdoche, New York" is a much darker destination, however; occasionally amusing, but more often unsettling and genuinely sad. Don't go expecting a "Truman Show"-like fable about stage-managed reality, in other words. Things are much colder and crueler here.

Samantha Morton is excellent as Cotard's assistant Hazel, always hoping to establish a personal connection. An early scene in which a real estate agent nonchalantly takes her on a tour of a house that's literally afire establishes the movie's weirdness, which also encompasses everything from unexplained green poop to an airship drifting over skyscrapers after an apparently apocalyptic event.

Michelle Williams does a good job of conveying the confusion of an actress who takes on an important role in Cotard's life but who never is sure where she stands.

This is Hoffman's show, though, in every possible way. His heart-wrenching portrayal of bewilderment, frustration and longing is unforgettable, as we follow him through nearly two decades of despair.

This bleakly unique oddity is the best bad time you'll have at the movies all year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A