Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Take Me Home Tonight
(Reviewed March 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

Insultingly stupid, relentlessly unfunny and disastrously miscast, "Take Me Home Tonight" sat on the shelf for nearly three years before some sociopathic studio exec decided to unleash this cinematic equivalent of smallpox on an unsuspecting world.

Topher Grace, an actor that any idiot can see should appear only in "smug, overprivileged asshole" roles, inexplicably is cast here as what we are supposed to believe is a likable-loser underachiever. Dan Fogler, an actor that any idiot can see should never be cast in anything, is his obnoxiously bombastic fat-ass friend.

The two of them steal a car, do a lot of blow and get laid one night. It's all about as amusing as having a cactus catheter crammed up the cornhole. (And they say intellectual artistic criticism is dead...)

I detested this movie, which is guaranteed to be on my "10 Worst of 2011" list.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Take Shelter
(Reviewed September 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Take Shelter" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

Talladega Nights
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

Really enjoyable and shamelessly silly, this NASCAR-centric comedy is the much-needed antidote to Disney's boring, sappy and charmless "Cars."

Will Ferrell is a dumber-than-W racecar driver, scene-stealer Sacha Baron Cohen is his very French rival, and John C. Reilly is Ferrell's cheerfully fair-weather friend.

For all of its not-exactly-sophisticated humor, there's a sweet good-naturedness to the proceedings that keeps things fresh. For example, Cohen's character -- a gay Frenchman who sips a machiatto and reads Camus while behind the wheel, and who is married to a bearded Andy Richter -- is presented with more affectionate respect than red-state audiences may be expecting. Technically, he's also the movie's "bad guy" -- but he's incredibly likable, and funny in a coolly dignified (as opposed to stereotypically flamboyant) fashion.

There are lots of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, from "gimmes" like hearing kids talking trash to surrealistically weird moments such as Ferrell psyching himself up to take a drive with a live cougar. And wait until you see how Ferrell's pit-crew boss (Michael Clarke Duncan) removes a knife from Ferrell's leg. Priceless!

Stick around for the credits to see outtakes and some fake product-endorsement ads.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Tamara Drewe
(Reviewed September 6, 2010, by James Dawson)

This sweet-tart British countryside comedy from director Stephen Frears is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable movies of the year.

Like its title character, "Tamara Drewe" is ridiculously good looking, irresistibly charming, full of surprises and slightly naughty. And like Tamara's beaky-to-beautiful nose, the movie benefits significantly from cosmetic but crucial changes that screenwriter Moira Buffini made to Posy Simmonds' original graphic novel (itself a loose contemporary adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd").

The movie's simultaneously touching yet hilarious final scene, for example, not only doesn't appear in the book, it couldn't have. That's because the film's finale features a completely delightful supporting character that Simmonds made the huge mistake of killing off in her version. Ouch.

Tamara (Gemma Arterton), a London newspaper columnist who practically glows with wholesome sexuality, returns to smalltown Ewedown to renovate and move into her recently deceased mum's house. This isn't yesterday's Tamara, though. Locals who knew her back when are stunned to see how the formerly huge-honkered ugly ducking has transformed into a button-nosed beauty after some artful rhinoplasty.

Tamara's former flame Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), thanks to his family's financial bad luck, is now a farmhand on the estate of successful mystery novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his indispensably competent wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). The Hardiment house doubles as a room-and-board retreat for writers including blocked-and-bitter American Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp), who resents Nicholas' fame, arrogance and infidelity to the deserves-better Beth.

Frustrating the fantasies of both Andy and Nicholas, Tamara quite literally falls for rock star drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), whose glowering studliness has earned him the stalker-like devotion of wide-eyed Ewedown teen Jody Long (Jessica Barden). As good as every other member of the cast is -- and all of them are terrific -- it's Barden who steals the movie. As a funny and foulmouthed 15-year-old who is delightfully delusional and too clever for her own good, Barden is both flat-out adorable and laugh-out-loud funny. She and classmate Casey Shaw (Charlotte Christie) provide a kind of running commentary on the action from a local bus stop before becoming part of the proceedings.

It's long-suffering Beth who is the heart of the story, as a generally stoic but definitely not stupid "woman behind the man" whose patience has been tested one too many times. In a wise tweak, the self-described "fat and dowdy" and somewhat bitter frump of the graphic novel has been transformed into a middle-aged but still attractively feminine earth-mother type. This change makes it easier to see why Glen, possibly Andy, and definitely most of the audience can't help developing a crush on her.

Arterton, who somehow manages to be sexier here in denim short-shorts and a red pullover than she was in Prince of Persia harem-style regalia earlier this year, is perfectly pretty, petulant and pouty. If it's a little hard to believe that her Tamara would jump into a rebound relationship with someone she claimed she wouldn't shag if he were the last man left after a nuclear winter, chalk it up to the prerogative of a woman scorned...and the fact that she has a not-so-hidden agenda.

Director Frears directs this rarest of things -- a light comedy for adults who aren't complete idiots -- with the deft skill of a pastry chef who knows that presentation is as important as the perfect mix of ingredients. Alan Macdonald's production design and Ben Davis' cinematography are gorgeous, and Alexandre Desplat's subtle score has none of the aggravatingly obvious cues that ruin nearly ever American comedy of late.

In these budget-conscious times, I'm often asked if a movie is worth the cost of a ticket, or if it would play just as well on a Netflix DVD at home a few months down the road. While "Tamara Drewe" certainly isn't a special-effects extravaganza that demands to be seen on the big screen, there's one excellent reason for getting off your wallet and making a trip to the multiplex to catch it as soon as possible:

Why on earth would you want to wait any longer than necessary to enjoy a dessert this delicious?

One last thing: Be sure to stay through all of the closing credits, because the final song that plays over them is part of the movie's ending. (If you were in a hurry to get out of the parking lot and you bolted from the theater too early to hear the song, send me an e-mail and I'll tell you what you missed. How's that for a full-service review?)

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

Tanner Hall
(Reviewed August 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed 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.)

Disney's 50th animated feature retells the "Rapunzel" fairy tale as a coming-of-age musical adventure that's more goofiness and girl power than Brothers Grimm. That's probably a good thing, considering that a more faithful adaptation of the source material would have been grim indeed. In Disney's version, Rapunzel doesn't have a peasant father who hands her over to the witch Gothel as penance for stealing from her garden. Rapunzel doesn't end up impregnated as a result of nightly visits from an amorous prince. And that same prince doesn't get tossed from Rapunzel's tower and blinded by thorns below.

In this more family-friendly version, Gothel is a witch who uses a magic flower to stay forever young. It is confiscated by soldiers to make medicine for the medieval land's pregnant queen, who gives birth to Rapunzel. Gothel discovers that the baby's hair has the same power as the former flower -- but those golden locks only retain their magic if they never are cut. Gothel kidnaps baby Rapunzel and raises her in a remote tower, far from all human contact.

Mandy Moore voices the about-to-turn-18 Rapunzel, a restless dreamer with a "Little Mermaid"-like curiosity about the outside world. Her hair is now dozens of feet long, and strong enough to hoist Gothel from the ground to the tower's high window. Moore is good at making Rapunzel sound wide-eyed with wonder and sweetly naive, with occasional flashes of spunky rebellion. Her companion is a cute if not quite cuddly chameleon called Pascal.

Contrasting Rapunzel's Disney-teen unworldliness, Gothel (Donna Murphy) is as strident, self-centered and kinda sexy as evil stepmothers should be. Viewed from what is perhaps a too politically correct angle, it's awkward that Gothel is the movie's only noticeably ethnic and accented main character. This gives the story a "Barbie-blond baby abducted by coarse-haired brunette gypsy" taint that feels anachronistic in a reboot with present-day sensibilities and language. (The Brothers Grimm certainly never penned lines like "Skip the drama, stick with mama," or "Sorry, blondie, I don't do backstory.")

The tale's narrator is the rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), who finds Rapunzel's tower while fleeing the law. Flynn is the first of several people Rapunzel knocks unconscious with a skillet. While that sort of thing is nothing new for cartoons, rendering someone comatose with a blow to the head seems more inappropriate than amusing here. Maybe that's because CGI animation is more ouch-inducingly realistic than line-art, or because football concussions have been in the news lately. Either way: Kids, don't try this at home.

Flynn's most relentless pursuer is Maximus, one of the king's horses with more on the ball than all of the king's men. Although none of the animals in "Tangled" talk, the bloodhound-like Maximus is so expressive and fun to watch that's he is one of the movie's best characters.

Not counting a short incantation ditty that makes Rapunzel's hair glow with magic, the soundtrack includes only four songs sung by the principals, all written by Disney regular Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. Rapunzel's "When Will My Life Begin?" is as yearningly hopeful as Ariel the mermaid's "Part of Your World" (by Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman). Two-time Tony winner Murphy is terrific at belting out Gothel's show-stopping smackdown "Mother Knows Best." The silly "I've Got a Dream" is an ensemble number that proves even nasty thugs have secret aspirations, and the Rapunzel/Flynn duet "I See the Light" completely delivers in the romantic ballad category.

While foreground characters and most settings look good, the 3D version of "Tangled" sometimes falls unexpectedly short of state-of-the-art. Many backgrounds seem a tad too dark, as if seen though fine black mesh. That's not to say there aren't plenty of beautiful images here, from a spectacular dam burst scene to something as simple and lovely as Rapunzel's flower-braided hair. Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard not only keep the action moving but nicely handle more subdued moments with style, such as when Rapunzel first sees a rising candle-lantern as a reflection in lake water.

"Tangled" trips itself up a little with things like those repeated bonks on the noggin, presumably intended to keep mush-aversive boys entertained. But when it comes to lost princesses, big-hearted heroes and happily-ever-aftering in general, Disney proves that some styles -- even with an occasional hair out of place -- remain timeless.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed October 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

"Taxi" is so slapdash and amateurish and cheap that it looks like it was shot in a weekend. It has a couple of yucks...but only a couple.

Queen Latifah (as a newly credentialed cabbie with a preposterously souped-up ride) and "Saturday Night Live"'s Jimmy Fallon (as a hapless cop who can't drive worth a damn) team up to track down a foursome of bank-robbing supermodels. That premise is actually easier to accept than other things about the movie, such as the fact that Fallon never bothers to phone in various bits of crucial info to a sexy police lieutenant whom he has every reason to want to impress. Wow, this movie is dumb.

What saves it from the dreaded "F" rating are two main things: A laughing-gas scene that actually managed to make me laugh, and a fantastic chase-scene "money shot" that is genuinely clever.

It's definitely not a good movie, but if you are looking for a place to make out and finger your girlfriend in the back row, I guess you could do worse for your ticket-buying dollar.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Taxi to the Dark Side
(Reviewed December 12, 2007, by James Dawson)

This documentary about the US government's new fondness for torturing, murdering and "disappearing" prisoners of the phony and ineffective "global war on terror" left me with one big question.

While our psychotic War-Criminal-in-Chief and his fellow chickenhawk Republican thugs come in for deserved condemnation here, why do the hypocritical, cowardly, lying Democrats get off without any criticism whatsoever? Those spineless weasels have been the majority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate for nearly a year, but they haven't done jack-shit about ending the war, impeaching Bush or Cheney, closing Gitmo, or demanding the ban of torture as an "interrogation method."

Triangulating, cynically dishonest Democrats like Hillary Clinton have perpetuated the Bush administration's insanity by legislatively ennabling his Constitution-shredding policies and continuing to fund his illegal, immoral and futile wars, instead of acting as a true opposition party. But not a single Democrat is singled out for any criticism whatsoever in "Taxi to the Dark Side."

This obviously biased oversight on the part of director Alex Gibney is what will cause anyone on the right to dismiss the movie as nothing more than propaganda for the left. That's too bad, because there's a lot of interesting, and horrifying, information here about what America has become. In a nutshell, we're not what anyone on earth would call the "good guys" anymore.

If Gibney had spared even a single minute to mention the misguided political machinations of Democrats such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- who famously took the subject of impeachment "off the table" before the 2004 presidential election -- "Taxi to the Dark Side" would have had a lot more integrity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Team America: World Police
(Reviewed October 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

The one-sentence review: If you are one of those pitiable, sniggering turds who finds no-clothes emperor Quentin Tarantino's dreadfully unwatchable movies enjoyable, you will love this achingly unfunny exercise in similarly witless stupidity masquerading as ironic post-modernism.

The slightly longer review:

I really wanted to like "Team America," because its promotional hype makes it sound like exactly what it turns out not to be: a hilarious satire that simultaneously skewers both America's blustering military belligerence and Hollywood's "blame America first" celebrities. The actual movie falls so short of that mark that cheated audiences should demand their money back in droves.

The problem isn't that the level of satire is as painfully unsubtle as a screaming monkey flinging its own shit, although that is a more than fair assessment of the amount of thought that seems to have gone into the depressingly juvenile script.

The problem is that the movie is so damned relentlessly dumb that, I swear to my sweet lord Satan, I did not laugh a single time.

How excruciating is it to sit through a movie that seems to have been written by the two unfunniest kids in the fifth grade who have just learned a bunch of four-letter words, and who insist upon using them in every goddamned fucking sentence? Let's put it this way: I ended up actually being GLAD that the tightassed movie ratings board demanded cuts to give "Team America" an R rating. Every second of film removed from this shambling, brain-dead yawn-fest was one less second I had to sit through.

It's hard to describe exactly how "Team America" goes wrong. How can the "playing bad movie cliches straight for ironic humor" technique work so well in movies such as "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun," but fail so miserably here? Maybe because instead of relying on clever, unexpected absurdities and twists, "Team America" creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone made their movie seem like the work of immature 10-year-old doofuses playing with GI Joes in a sandbox.

If you're into seeing foulmouthed marionettes fight and fuck, fine. But be warned that there is not a single line in this movie that could not have been ad-libbed by a couple of dropout drunks talking back to the screen while watching "Mad TV."

The most frustrating thing about "Team America" is that it is such a huge missed opportunity. Parker and Stone want to leave neither political side unscathed, by featuring both a bumbling US military organization that has no qualms about blowing up sites such as the Louvre, and a cadre of Hollywood leftist liberals who would rather support North Korea's dictator than the US government. Unfortunately, neither attack draws any blood, because the level of discourse is so crudely dunderheaded. Have you ever tried having a politicial discussion with somebody who is just plain stupid, but who keeps making obnoxious remarks that he thinks are cuttingly clever and insightful? Would you pay eight bucks to listen to that vulgar dumbass blather on and laugh at his own jokes for 90 minutes?

The only thing that keeps this movie from getting an "F" is a bit at the end that rose to the level of "almost amusing." One of Our Heroes makes an analogy between the kinds of people in the world and dicks, pussies and assholes. Okay, that's not exactly Shavian. By that point in the movie, however, even a wet fart would have sounded Wildeanly witty.

This is a movie for slacker morons, and for pathetic quote-whore critics who want to appear "hip" with "the kids" by deifying annoying garbage they mistake for "edgy." I can think of no other reason why anyone with an IQ over 75 would pretend to like this abysmal crap.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

Tears of the Sun
(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

The stunningly, amazingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful Monica Bellucci and a bunch of African natives get rescued by Bruce Willis's sharing-and-caring band of US soldiers from ravaging, scary hordes of Nigerians. The end.

Honestly, that's all there is to this movie, and you've seen all of it in the TV ad. There is some nice photography, and Monica leaves her safari shirt unbuttoned far enough to delight cleavage fans during a few run-through-the-jungle scenes, but that's about it. Guns go bang, a few characters don't make it, you know the drill.

The only market I can envision for this movie consists of people who want to delude themselves into thinking that the United States will be doing the "right thing" by blowing the shit out of Iraq and killing lots and lots of its innocent civilians, then spending the next 50 years rebuilding the goddamned place with untold billions of American tax dollars. Great plan, huh?


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Teddy Bears' Picnic
(Reviewed April 8, 2002, by James Dawson)

Good lord, is this ever a lousy movie. What makes that shocking is that "Teddy Bears' Picnic" was written and directed by "Spinal Tap" member,"Simpsons" voice talent and "Le Show" radio program host Harry Shearer, who also appears in a small on-screen role. This guy is witty, funny and clever--but none of those qualities are to be found here.

The premise here should have been a goldmine of opportunities for vicious satire, but the movie settles for obvious jokes and what looks like a whole lot of woefully uninspired improvisation. The setting is a woodland retreat akin to the real world's Bohemian Grove, where the rich and powerful go to act like carefree idiots and bond, far from the prying eyes of people like you and me.

There was only one thing I enjoyed about this limp romp: The stunningly beautiful actress Ming-Na, best known to most of the world as a cast member of "E.R." Since I am one of those smug intellectuals who never watches what passes for TV dramas, I had no idea who she was until I read her biography, but she is so knockout-nice that I'm thinking of becoming a regular viewer. Well, okay, not really. But she is pretty hot looking, even though she never sheds a single article of clothing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Tempest
(Reviewed December 10, 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.)

It may sound like heresy to suggest that gender-switching the sorcerer Prospero into the sorceress Prospera actually enhances Shakespeare's "The Tempest," making the revenge-obsessed protagonist a marginalized mother instead of a usurped father. But what at first seems like an audacious alteration to the 400-year-old play ends up working so well that even the Bard himself might approve.

Director/screenwriter Julie Taymor otherwise stays substantially faithful to the original text. Most edits are deftly executed, and some newly created dialog about Prospera's altered backstory fits seamlessly into the whole.

The movie is as visually striking as all of Taymor's films while avoiding the outrageously stylish anachronisms of her previous Shakespeare adaptation "Titus," which put cars and motorcycles in ancient Rome. The closest "The Tempest" gets to eye-candy excess is in the cut of its imaginatively conceived costumes, by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell. The outfits here are more fantasy couture than period authentic, which turns out to be a fitting choice for such a dreamlike tale.

Helen Mirren is fiercely excellent as the wronged and raging Prospera, former duchess of Milan. Twelve years have passed since she was set adrift with her young daughter Miranda as a result of court intrigue. In a clever and entirely appropriate tweak to her background, she was accused of practicing witchcraft, a charge her enemies will discover was dangerously accurate.

Prospera and Miranda have spent their exile on an island inhabited by the androgynous "airy spirit" Ariel (Ben Whitshaw) and the brutish son-of-a-witch Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Prospera has made both of them her servants, but the resentful Caliban has been in contemptuous disfavor since he tried to rape Miranda.

Prospera conjures a violent storm to wreck a passing ship that carries her backstabbing brother Antonio (Chris Cooper), King Alonso of Naples (David Strathairn), the king's conniving brother Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and others. When they wash ashore, she bedevils them with various torments. Stranded separately is the king's innocent and purehearted son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney, who also stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Taymor's new Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"). Fortuitously for Prospera's future political prospects, Ferdinand becomes marriage-minded upon meeting the now teenage Miranda, who is played to pouting perfection by Felicity Jones.

Whitshaw is alternately fearful and fearsome as the magical spirit Ariel. He cowers meekly at Prospera's commands, but takes demonic delight in abusing her enemies with spells and visions.

Djimon Hounsou is Oscar-worthy as the savage but strangely sympathetic Caliban, who is as much victim as villain. His muscular body is encrusted with elaborate dried-earth designs that are like cracked and barren continents, making him a living work of art. Hounsou impressively captures the essence of a frustrated primitive who is both hatefully sinister and gullibly superstitious.

The cleverly assembled cast also includes the perfectly ridiculous -- or is it ridiculously perfect? -- Russell Brand as the manic jester Trinculo, Alfred Molina as his fellow drunkard Stephano and Tom Conti as the king's compassionate councillor Gonzalo.

A caveat for non-English majors: Shakespeare's 17th-century syntax has rhythms and references that can take a little effort for non-Elizabethans to decipher. Lines sometimes are delivered so rapidly that the inattentive may miss words along the way. Also, some of the play's humor is more weirdly absurd than conventionally funny, such as when Trinculo mistakes Caliban for a "strange fish" and climbs under a gabardine with him.

The only notable lost-in-adaptation deletion is the play's Act IV masque. Instead of showing Ferdinand and Miranda that magical "play within the play," the movie's Prospera dazzles them with a wordless celestial spectacle. The substitution makes Prospera's famous words afterward ("these our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air") a non sequitur -- even if the immortal passage is delivered rather magnificently by Mirren.

A change that works better is the transformation of Prospera's final lines, in which the character directly asks the audience for approval and release, into mournful song lyrics performed by Portishead singer Beth Gibbons over the closing credits.

From its unforgettable opening shot of a black sandcastle dissolving in a downpour to the sinking of its final drowned book in the sea, "The Tempest" is a not-to-be-missed marvel.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Terminal
(Reviewed June 18, 2004, by James Dawson)

I had to blow out of this one 15 minutes before it ended, in order to catch a screening of "Fahrenheit 9/11" across town. Fortunately, it wasn't exactly hard to pry myself away.

"The Terminal" is ruined by the fact that the filmmakers came up with their own remarkably dumb plot for the movie, instead of utilizing the true-life details of a real guy in France who actually did live in an airport terminal for years. What makes this decision absolutely baffling is that Spielberg & Co. apparently bought the rights to the real guy's life story, possibly to avoid any chance of future litigation. This means they would have been fully entitled to make the movie they should have made, instead of this slapped-together excursion to Dullsville.

The reason the studio's "screw reality, let's make up our own version" strategy is the downfall of the movie is because the only way this plot can work is if the main character has mental problems. In the case of the real-life guy in France, his "man without a visa" (as opposed to the movie's "man without a country") situation was resolved long ago, but he chose to remain living in the airport because he apparently is missing more than a few marbles.

Contrast this with the character Tom Hanks plays in "The Terminal," whose country's government was overthrown while he was en route to JFK Airport in New York. We are supposed to believe that many months go by in which his case remains unresolved...but that he does not bother seeking any kind of outside help, and he has no friends or family members from back home or elsewhere who try to contact him, and that his story somehow does not make the media. Because this scenario is presented as a quasi-realistic comedy (as opposed to an outright farce), this stuff just doesn't fly. (Zing!)

Stanley Tucci plays the head of security at the airport as if he is Colonel Klink in "Hogan's Heroes": autocratic, easily foiled and quick to come to a boil over Our Hero's survival schemes and various fortuitous alliances. Tucci does his best with the weak material, but not for one second was I convinced that anybody in his position would act the way Tucci does.

Three examples: (1) It is impossible to buy the idea that Hanks has the run of an entire terminal wing that is under renovation, where apparently no security whatsoever exists. Even after Tucci learns where Hanks is holing up at night, he still does nothing to make that area off-limits. (2) Because Tucci knows that Hanks is being paid "under the table" by a construction crew, he could shut down that illegal source of income immediately. This instantly would achieve Tucci's stated goal of making Hanks so desperate for a means of support that he would leave the airport, be arrested, and become some other agency's problem. (There also is the howlingly unbelievable premise of a New York construction crew taking on a guy who could not possibly possess a union card.) (3) On more than one occasion, Tucci is perfectly willing to "look the other way" (sometimes literally) if Hanks will do something that would result in his departure. Yet we simultaneously are supposed to believe that Tucci is such a stickler for procedure that he won't give Hanks the extra nudge that would result in his ability to leave (such as by simply telling Hanks what the untruthful-but-correct response to a question must be).

Virtually every subplot in the movie is boring, dumb and/or tired. Hanks plays matchmaker between a food-services slacker and a Trekkie immigration clerk. An Indian janitor likes watching people slip and fall on his freshly mopped floors over and over again until you'll want to scream every time the guy appears onscreen (although this apparently is a New York without any trial lawyers who would make those people wealthy).

Worst of all: Catherine Zeta-Jones, otherwise known as "one of the most beautiful women who ever lived in the history of the universe," is a flight attendant who inexplicably falls for Hanks...despite the fact that he is a homeless, doughy, physically unattractive, English-challenged schlub. This development is so intelligence-offending that the script tries to cover up for itself by having her tell Tucci that he is the type of man who never will understand such a relationship. Well, put me in Tucci's corner with the doubters. Here on planet Earth, you don't see a whole lot of girls with movie-star-goddess looks hanging out with middle-aged, fresh-off-the-boat displaced persons who sound like Latka from "Taxi."

Oh, and before I forget: Hanks' whole reason for being in New York is preposterously dumb, in an "only in bad movies" kind of way. What's in that Planter's Peanuts can did not turn out to be what I thought it would be. Instead, it's something far dopier.

There's one good thing about this movie: The set is amazing. Instead of shooting in an actual airport, the entire terminal was built from scratch, complete with elevators and a food court and shops. This is a bizarre thing to praise, I suppose. ("Wow, they spent millions of dollars instead of going on location!") Still, it's an impressive re-creation of reality...and the only thing about the movie that feels genuine.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
(Reviewed June 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

There's an okay mass-destruction car-chase scene that must have cost some bucks, but other than that this movie has the cheap, utterly superflous and unnecessary vibe of a second-rate cable spin-off TV series. Arnold is the only returning cast member, and the guy who replaces Edward Furlong is as dull as a soap-opera actor. Claire Danes is actually pretty good (and somehow manages to get better looking as she ages), but seems very out of place. The chick who plays the new female Terminator looks yum-yum-yummy in a (regrettably brief) dorsal nudity shot when she first shows up with sexy shoulder-length ringlets, but for the rest of the movie her face is so impassive and her hair is pinned back so severely she looks like a cross between Jenny Garth and Barbie.

The movie can't make up its mind whether to be a sequel or a parody. James Cameron will either wince in shocked outrage or laugh in cruel derision when he sees naked Arnold stroll into a Chippendales-style club and get his leather outfit this time around from a Village-People-macho-man male stripper. The audience audibly groaned at some of the "Arnold-isms." (When the distaff Terminator falls down an elevator shaft, Arnold says, "She'll be back.") And I don't think it was merely the fact that I had just stepped off a transatlantic flight that made me actually DROP OFF TO SLEEP more than once during the movie.

Maybe it's time to pull the plug on this franchise. Or, as Moe the bartender would say, "Power off, Einstein."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Terminator Salvation
(Reviewed July 7, 2009, by James Dawson)

Christian Bale is so surly, dull and uninteresting to watch as John Connor that costar xxxx xxxxx steals the show, as a cyborged-up former prison inmate who does good almost in spite of himself.

The main plot problem with the movie is that a device the rebels create to nullify terminator technology is invented, tested, proven...and then never used. Odd.

Also, the movie's ending is so ridiculous that many audience members (including this one) laughed out load.

There are some nice directing touches from McG, believe it or not -- especially a long following shot of Bale on a battlefield and then in a helicopter that crashes. But even Holy Saint James Cameron himself couldn't do much with a screenplay this weak.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Texas Killing Fields
(Reviewed October 12, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Texas Killing Fields" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

Thank You for Smoking
(Reviewed March 10, 2006, by James Dawson)

What should have been a sly, cynical send-up of the tobacco lobby instead comes off like a made-for-cable exercise in morality reinforcement. Plus one of the supporting players is David Koechner, whose very existence screams "bad TV acting," which doesn't help.

Aaron Eckhart, in a role that seems written for Nicolas Cage, is a divorced-dad cigarette lobbyist who is supposed to be so charming and disarming that he even wins over a talk-show "Cancer Boy." William H. Macy is a self-righteous United States senator intent on putting skull-and-crossbones warning labels on cigarette packs. Rob Lowe is a Hollywood uber-agent who promises to get more smoking scenes into movies for the right price. And Sam Elliot is a former Marlboro man with emphysema who gets bought off with a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills.

Nothing here feels especially edgy, insightful or interesting, despite an awful lot of hammered-in statistics. Unlike "Lord of War" (which actually starred Nicolas Cage, as a blithely amoral arms dealer), "Thank You for Smoking" doesn't do a good job of making us care about its main character enough to overlook his sleazy and contemptible occupation.

Other problems: A subplot about smoking opponents who kidnap Eckhart that comes out of nowhere immediately heads right back there. Katie Holmes plays a newspaper reporter who is about as believable as Katie Holmes playing a newspaper reporter. (Read that last sentence three times and your head will explode.)

Eckhart defends his career by using what he calls the yuppie Nuremburg defense: "Everybody has to pay the mortgage." That's a pretty obvious observation, although admittedly a timely one. Unfortunately, the term keeps popping up so many times that you'll think you're watching a goddamned "Saturday Night Live" skit.

The best thing about "Thank You for Smoking" is its cleverly stylish opening credits, which use fonts and design elements from cigarette packages.

Not a terrible movie, but one that should have been a lot darker and smarter.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

There Will Be Blood
(Reviewed December 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent as Daniel Plainview, a smooth-talking but ruthless turn-of-the-20th-century oilman who is not above giving a brutal beatdown to a small-town preacher who dares to ask him to live up to his financial promises.

Loosely based on the Upton Sinclair novel "Oil!," "There Will Be Blood" boasts some of the best production design and location shots of any movie this year, making the settings feel every bit as authentic as Day-Lewis' masterful performance. Paul Dano is the annoyingly earnest preacher who serves as Plainview's somewhat compromised conscience, and Dillon Freasier is perfectly cast as Plainview's silently suffering adopted son.

At two hours and 38 minutes, the movie has plenty of time to cover several decades in Plainview's life at a pretty languid pace, but never feels boring. Director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson lets the bleak story unfold without any distracting cinematic flash. But the movie's score (by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood) is jarringly discordant at times, sometimes sounding like a trying-too-hard attempt to avoid the conventional.

Not exactly a pleasant night out, but definitely a fascinating look at a character you'll never forget -- the kind of bastard who would drink your milkshake without a hint of remorse.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Ring
(Reviewed October 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

What a dumb waste of time, and what a criminal waste of an excellent actress (Naomi Watts, who should have snagged an Oscar for her outstanding work in "Mulholland Drive" last year). And what's with director Gore Verbinski? His first movie ("Mouse Hunt") was great, his second ("The Mexican") was embarrassingly lame, and now comes this dollar-rental dud. Sad, sad, sad.

"The Ring" is one of those dunderheaded horror movies where characters flit from place to place following no believable logic whatsoever ("I'll go to the lighthouse that I had the incredible luck to identify by paging through books in the library!" "I'll break into the records at the insane asylum!" "Dang, it sure is fortunate that this interrogation videotape happened to be in the VCR when I walked in this guy's living room!") Yeesh!

Even worse, the central gimmick of the movie--that watching a creepy videotape marks viewers for death in seven days--is totally subverted by the fact that the video in question is about as scary as an installment of "Sprockets." Let's put it this way: When shown the video, one of the wholly unimpressed characters mentions that it looks like a film-school project. Right on, brother--and the student would have flunked! (Perhaps the producers should have considered getting David Lynch to direct that film-within-a-film to amp up the "disturbing" quotient...naah, even that wouldn't have saved things.)

There were only two things I liked about "The Ring": A horse that goes nutso on a ferry is pretty unsettling. And when the ridiculous plot contrives to get Naomi Watts soaking wet for a wholly gratuitous "look at my nipples" scene, the movie managed to hold my undivided attention for a few fleeting seconds.

Otherwise: Ho-hum dumb.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Wolfman
(Reviewed February 8, 2010, by James Dawson)

This unexpectedly dignified remake of 1941's "The Wolf Man" classes up that "classic" considerably, with far better acting and much higher production values than its predecessor. (Granted, that's not saying much -- and if you think this sounds disrespectful, you obviously haven't seen the clumsy and cheesy 1941 version recently.) Also, the revised screenplay (by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the original by Curt Siodmak) includes several welcome character and plot tweaks that enhance the credibility, psychological horror and poignancy of what's still essentially a pretty silly story.

The new and improved version may be too serious for some, however -- more solemn and sad than scary and schlocky. Anyone expecting tongue-in-cheekiness instead of a tragic period piece (with occasional dismemberments) may be surprised at how dark, depressing and melodramatic a monster mash can be. Like Kenneth Branagh's fun-free 1994 take on "Frankenstein," director Joe Johnston's "The Wolfman" is more Masterpiece Theatre than midnight movie.

Benicio Del Toro is impressively understated as Lawrence Talbot, a stage actor who returns to the sprawling English estate of his father (Anthony Hopkins) after his brother's gruesome murder on the moors. Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed Talbot as something of an amiable boob in the original -- the kind of guy who expects a female resident of a nearby town to find it charming that Talbot used a telescope to spy on her in her bedroom, and who seems more confused than horrified after the events of a certain night end up going from bad to wolf. His laughably miscast father (the diminutive Claude Rains, who looked like a munchkin next to the hulking Chaney) and others in positions of authority were comically clueless about Talbot's obvious criminal culpability, and Talbot's werewolf transformations weren't even vigorous enough to pop the buttoned top buttons (nerd!) off his shirts.

There's no peeping Tom scene in the remake, and the previously spied-upon stranger Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) is now the bereaved fiancee of Talbot's murdered brother. Talbot's backstory now includes a stay in an asylum occasioned by witnessing the aftermath of his mother's death, which he remembers as a gruesomely bloody suicide with a straight razor. That new bit of background makes the townspeople's suspicions of Talbot later, when he has been bitten by a wolf and the murders start multiplying, take on an added dimension. Is the idea that he is transforming into a werewolf only the delusion of a madman who can be cured by primitive psychiatric waterboarding techniques? There's one way to find out!

Del Toro and Blunt are both good at conveying believably haunted desperation that never feels hokey or dumb. Hopkins plays Talbot's distant and menacing dad with a feral feistiness that doesn't quite match Del Toro's and Blunt's restraint, but then again, the nasty old bastard he's playing isn't supposed to be a candidate for father of the year. Hugo Weaving seems to be doing a Pierce Brosnan impersonation as a Scotland Yard detective investigating several untimely deaths in the vicinity, after failing to apprehend a certain Ripper fellow down London way. (This remake takes place in 1891, decades earlier than the original's 20th-century milieu.)

The locations and settings are chillingly foreboding, and the werewolf attacks are surprisingly gory, but the movie as a whole is ultimately more tasteful than terrifying. Blunt's performance here is actually more moving, three-dimensional and interesting than her portrayal of Queen Victoria last year, with not a hint of condescension to the material, and Del Toro is affectingly moody and miserable.

Whether this "Werewolfing Heights" approach will work for audiences accustomed to less elegant fright-fare is doubtful. But the sort of ticketbuyers who aren't prone to talk and Twitter at theaters may appreciate the tastefulness of the proceedings.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Thing
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Thin Ice
(Reviewed February 16, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Thin Ice" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed August 8, 2003, by James Dawson)

If you are dying to see a lying, thieving, self-mutilating, drug-abusing and generally Very, Very Confused teenage girl spiral dismally downward into depression, despair and utter degradation, this is the flick for you!

"Thirteen"'s gimmick is that one of the script's cowriters (Nikki Reed, who also appears in the film) was 13 years old when she and the director first put the story on paper. The movie was rushed into production so quickly that Reed was only 14 when shooting began. (The studio therefore really should have called this movie "Fourteen," for reality's sake, but you know how actresses are about revealing their true age...)

Although this is Reed's first film role, she does a surprisingly good job playing a damned-bad-influence classmate who gets the movie's main character into the kind of trouble that makes parents wake up screaming. Seriously, every mom and dad who see this movie are going to want to rush home and lock their daughters in their rooms until they are 18. Or maybe 21.

Evan Rachel Wood (also 14 at the time the movie was shot) does a truly impressive job playing said main character, even if her role is ultimately little more than a string of broken-home-product, rebellious-daughter cliches. In a lot of ways, this whole project screams "Lifetime: Television for Women," although it admittedly has a lot more edge than I imagine is found in those made-for-cablers. (Somehow, I doubt that many Lifetime movies feature girls punching each other in the face while doing drugs; blowing rappers and complaining about the taste; or lip-locking each other to show how good they are at kissing.)

What's funny, though, is that the thing is amazingly watchable. I wouldn't call it a guilty pleasure, mainly because there is precious little that is "pleasurable" here. Frankly, most of this movie will make you feel pretty damned lousy, uncomfortable and sad. (When the credits rolled, somebody turned around and said, "Makes you glad you don't have kids, huh?") Just when you think Woods' character has hit rock bottom, she turns around and does something else that is dumb, dangerous and self-destructive. (Kids today!) Still, you can't help rooting for the girl to get it together, make up with her incredibly put-upon mother (Holly Hunter), and basically stop being such a needy, whiney, self-abusing, insecure slut.

It's definitely not the feel-good movie of 2003, but if you are up for some "things sure weren't like that in my day" middle-school soap-opera melodrama, you could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Thirteen Days
(Reviewed November 18, 2000, by James Dawson)

Engrossing and fascinating account of the Cuban missile crisis, seen mostly from the viewpoint of a Kennedy White House aide played by Kevin Costner. That sounds like pretty dry stuff, especially at a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours, but director Roger Donaldson (who last paired with Costner on the excellent "No Way Out") does a great job of keeping things from getting dull. In fact, just about the only thing I didn't like about this movie was Costner's complete inability to pull of a convincing Boston accent. (He tends to sound more like Adam Sandler in goofy-voice mode than like a New Englander.)

Bruce Greenwood (star of one of my favorite movies of the '90s, "Exotica") deserves special praise for his excellent portrayal of JFK. His performance is more "essence" than "imitation," but it really works.

Convincing, suspenseful and intelligent, this definitely ranks as one of the better movies of the holiday season.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

30 Minutes or Less
(Reviewed August 12, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

This Is It
(Reviewed October 30, 2009, by James Dawson)

Instead of coming off like a cobbled-together case of craven corpse-robbing, this collection of footage shot during rehearsals for what would have been Michael Jackson's 2009 "This Is It" tour is surprisingly satisfying and undeniably entertaining.

Where the finished show would have been a slick, ultra-expensive, utterly over the top production (including even an onstage bulldozer among its props), the raw edges here give the proceedings a refreshing grounding in reality. Giving musical directions and occasionally talking with director Kenny Ortega, Jacko seems slightly less Wacko than the public persona he presented during most of his life -- even if he never resembles anyone's idea of a 50-year-old man. He also is far more energetic and physical than his frail frame would suggest. Despite being painfully thin, he still had the energy and moves of someone half his age.

It's likely that the audio of Jackson's singing, and the playing by his impressive backing band, were augmented or at least sweetened in post production. He never misses a note, and the musicians are flawless. This perfection never is blatantly obvious or annoying, though -- and there is no denying that the movie sounds great.

Guitarist Orianthi Panagaris deserves special mention. At first glance, it's easy to imagine that the platinum blond beauty is only miming the guitar-god action while serving as onstage eye-candy. But when she actually launches into some Eddie Van Halenish string-bending and fret-tapping solos, the girl proves she can shred most totally.

Produced pieces that would have served as backdrops during the show include a new "Thriller" graveyard scenario and a clever "Smooth Criminal" montage, with Jackson inserted into vintage black-and-white footage featuring the likes of Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart.

The songs are nearly wall-to-wall crowd-pleasing greatest hits from Jackson's solo years. The only number that Jackson seems uninspired about rehearsing is the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." He probably would have sung it just fine in performance, but it's hard not to detect his lack of enthusiasm about reaching that far back to what he probably regarded as the bad old days, family-wise.

Absolutely no one who buys a ticket to this movie will be disappointed, and even casual Jackson fans will be impressed. It doesn't delve documentary-deep, concentrating mostly on the music. But the glimpses we get of Jackson's personality, his professionalism and the preparations for this untaken journey are fascinating.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

This Means War
(Reviewed February 14, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"This Means War" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

(Reviewed May 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

The Asgard gods-and-monsters fantasy stuff is much cooler and more enjoyable than the draggy and unexpectedly cheap-looking Earthbound scenes, but overall this latest Marvel comic come to life is better than you're probably expecting.

Chris Hemsworth is perfectly adequate as the big-muscled, blond-maned god of thunder, exiled to New Mexico after trying to start a war with a race of frost giants against the wishes of his king and father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Tom Hiddleston gives an interesting performance as his conniving brother Loki, who is neither as bad nor as good as he seems.

Natalie Portman is Thor's mortal girlfriend Jane Foster, a nurse in the comics who has been upgraded to an astrophysicist here. Portman displays an unfortunate tendency to act more like an immature schoolgirl than an adult woman, making it hard to believe Thor wouldn't be much more attracted to the sexier yet more serious-minded goddess Sif (Jaime Alexander). Colm Feore is convincingly menacing as the frost giant king Laufey, Kat Dennings is sweetly goofy as Jane Foster's intern Darcy, and Idris Elba is excellent as the imposing and intimidating Heimdall, guardian of the rainbow bridge to Asgard.

The CGI effects are well done, especially the movie's version of that aforementioned rainbow bridge, which is rendered to resemble clear ice embedded with constantly shifting colors. The flamethrowing "bad robot!" known as the Destroyer is appropriately menacing, the frost giants' world is creepy and Asgard is as heroically proportioned as a home of the gods should be.

Be sure to stick around until after all of the closing credits have ended for a bonus scene that includes something that will make fanboys gasp in recognition...and give them something to explain to their non-comics-reading friends!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Thorn in the Heart
(Reviewed May 17, 2010, by James Dawson)

Here we have exactly the kind of movie that no fan of writer/director Michel Gondry has any desire to see from him.

Gondry is known for his imaginative visual style, off-kilter storytelling and quirky characters, seen in movies such as The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature and Be Kind Rewind.

That's why it comes as such an unpleasant surprise that "The Thorn in the Heart" is a boring, home-movie quality documentary about members of Gondry's French family, with the focus on an elderly schoolteacher aunt and her middle-aged gay son. Most of this vanity project unfolds so slowly that it feels agonizingly endless, despite an under-90-minutes running time. The only brief glimpses of Gondry-like creativity that break up the talky monotony are links between segments that follow a model train, a short stop-motion animated segment of a coffin being carried to a cemetery, and footage of playing kids who are rendered semi-invisible through the magic of blue-screen camera technology.

A guaranteed cure for insomnia, "The Thorn in the Heart" is sadly more "science of sleep aid" than "Science of Sleep."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Three Stooges
(Reviewed April 12, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"The Three Stooges" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed September 16, 2005, by James Dawson)

Insecure teenage boy sucks thumb, gets on Ritalin, joins debate team, hangs out with stoner girl and is embarrassed that his mom is obsessed with a hunky TV star. Look, I'm sorry, but "quirky, dumb ennui" just doesn't work for me. And if you need another reason to stay away, Keanu Reeves is in it.

The movie's only bright spot: We are treated to a brief fantasy shot of Our Hero's object of desire in nothing but panties, lying on a bed and asking if he's going to fuck her.

Hey, I like to give credit where it's due.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed July 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

What a joy it is to discover that a movie I thought would suck major bigtime turns out to be one that I liked so much I will be seeing it again--and soon!

You think I'm pulling your leg, right? I mean, how could a live-action movie based on an obscure British 1960s kid that starred PUPPETS, for Christ's sake--possibly be any good? The entire premise sounds as if it will be stupid, cheesy, campy, cheap and all-around lousy. And the flick's advertising campaign is so boringly awful, it's as if the studio is actively trying to sabotage the box-office chances by keeping people away.

Trust me, though: This movie really is a lot of fun. It's more fun than "Spider-Man 2," that's for sure--more colorful, more goofy-in-a-good-way, sweeter natured and a whole lot more stylish. (For example, the opening '60s-mod animated credit sequence is so cool and "kicky," it makes Spielberg's attempt to do the same thing in "Catch Me If You Can" look stodgy and second-rate.)

The Thunderbirds are a family of international-rescue specialists. Bill Paxton is the straight-arrow, amusingly two-dimensional dad (a "billionaire ex-astronaut," no less), who thinks that his teenage son Allan is too young and inexperienced to join his older brothers on the team. The Thunderbirds operate from a secret Pacific island paradise that is so cool every kid (and adult, too) will wish he could live there. This is a place where the living quarters separate and slide apart to allow one of the massive Thunderbirds rockets to take off...and another rocket launches from beneath the retractable swimming pool!

When evil genius Ben Kingsley (as villain "The Hood") lures away Dad and the team and takes over the island, it is up to Allan (along with fellow teens Tintin the adorable island girl and brains-of-the-outfit Fermat) to prove they've got the right Thunderbirds stuff. The movie closest in tone to "Thunderbirds" is the first "Spy Kids" movie. Both are wildly implausible but effortlessly ingratiating, as light and fluffy as cotton candy.

And I haven't even mentioned my favorite character: Lady Penelope, the classically reserved British blond beauty with a gift for understatement and irony. When she picks up Allan at his boarding school, and Allan makes a remark in public about her being a spy, she admonishes him to be more discreet...just before they get into a ridiculously massive, six-wheeled pink monster of a vehicle (with a Thunderbird grill, appropriately enough) that has everyone in the vicinity goggle-eyed.

Lady Penelope sums up what is so wonderful about this movie with one line, delivered to her chauffeur while flying to Thunderbirds island: "Isn't life fun sometimes?"

For these two hours, it sure is!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie
(Reviewed March 2, 2012, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C+

(Reviewed November 19, 2003, by James Dawson)

Cheap, obvious, predictable. Did I mention "cheap?"

"Timeline" looks and plays like a made-for-cabler. I've seen episodes of "Sliders" that would have made better movies than this. The time machine is about as technologically impressive as a three-way mirror at Macy's. The romance between Paul ("The Fast and the Furious") Walker and some brainy cold-fish archaeologist is laughably preposterous. There is no depth here at all, and not much sense, either.

I did learn a couple of things from "Timeline," though. (Okay, three, if you count "avoid subsequent Paul Walker movies.") First, those huge, catapult-like devices that fling massive flaming boulders at a castle are called trebuchets (treb-yoo-shays'). Second, "Greek fire" is a composition that makes fire spread the more it gets wet.

Oh, so you knew those things already, huh? Well good for you, Brainiac. GFY!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Time Machine
(Reviewed March 2, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie starts out so well that I wanted to shake my fist at the screen and shout obscenities when it went to hell. That was at precisely the moment when Guy Pearce (excellent as a college professor who creates the title device in hopes of saving his dead fiancee's life) encounters clownish, pop-eyed, no-talent fool Orlando Jones (best known for shilling "7-Up" in an increasingly grating series of TV ads).

Jones, artlessly playing a wise-cracking, eye-rolling hologram of a reference librarian, completely derails a movie that until his appearance was a charmingly old-fashioned science-fiction adventure story. Whoever's bright idea it was to "Robin-Williams-ize" things by tossing in this painfully unfunny and inappropriate character should be fed to Morlocks, head-first.

Things get even worse when Pearce fast-forwards thousands of more years into the future and encounters a tribe of hill dwellers who appear to have just wandered in from Venice Beach, some of whom speak completely fluent present-day English. This part of the movie has a very Kevin-Costner-in-"Waterworld" feel about it, and I don't mean that in a good way...

This is all a real shame, because Pearce manages to do the impossible with his role by playing things completely straight. Also, the special visual effects are dazzling throughout the movie, especially the time-lapse photography segments as Pearce travels through time. (Stan Winston's designs for the evil Morlocks, however, are unexpectedly cheesy. The creatures often look like guys in bad costumes, even when they are computer animated--which is certainly a strange accomplishment.) And an encounter toward the end of the film between Pearce and Jeremy Irons (directed by Gore Verbinski, spelling director Simon West) is genuinely creepy and kind of moving.

Even with its flaws, "The Time Machine" has such a timeless plot (well, it does) that it's still a fascinating ride. I only wish that everything else about the production had been as impressive as Pearce's performance, the set designs and the visual effects. Maybe next "time."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Time to Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste)
(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

A self-absorbed gay fashion photographer learns he has only months to live in this low-key meditation on mortality written and directed by Francois Ozon ("Eight Women," "Swimming Pool"). The melodrama is kept to a minimum, although the character's final days include one highly unusual and unexpectedly life-affirming incident that falls in the "only in France" category.

Overall, though, this movie is serious enough about the sadness of letting go to be haunting and quietly moving.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Time Traveler's Wife
(Reviewed July 29, 2009, by James Dawson)

This not-bad romantic tearjerker is hampered somewhat by star Eric Bana's stiffness as time-traveling Henry DeTamble, as well as the screenplay's insufficient explanation as to why he can't change a tragedy from his past. The latter problem is especially annoying in light of the fact that Henry, whose jumps mostly are involuntary, sometimes can travel to specific times and places of his choosing (to see and talk to his dead mother on a subway, for example). Although Henry says he can't alter the past, we have no idea why he can't simply go back and tell his mother not to drive on the night she is killed in a traffic accident, especially considering that he does reveal aspects of the future to other characters. If his mom won't listen, Henry could go back and hide her car keys, steal the car, pour sugar in the gas tank, slash her tires, whatever. You get the idea.

Every time-travel story faces the problem of whether to follow the "everything that has happened already takes into account all efforts to change things" single-timeline model, or whether every change to the past creates a new and different timeline from the existing one (a la "Back to the Future"). Whichever path is taken, the audience needs to believe there are rules. In "The Time Traveler's Wife," it's tough to reconcile Bana's claim that he can't save his mother with a later scene in which he has bought a lottery ticket that has winning numbers he has seen in the future.

Also, according to the imdb message boards, a scene from the original novel (by Audrey Niffenegger) that many picked as their favorite didn't make it into Bruce Joel Rubin's screenplay, and neither did at least one important character.

Still, it's hard not to be caught up in the story of a man who finds himself disappearing from the present and turning up naked in different times and places. (As in the "Terminator" series, clothes and time-travel don't mix.) Clare (Rachel McAdams), the love of Henry's life, first meets him in a meadow when she is a little girl (Brooklynn Proulx), not realizing she will marry him in her future.

Note to parents: Impressionable young daughters may learn the wrong lesson from this scene, in which a naked grown man in the bushes befriends a trusting little moppet and asks her not to tell her parents about him. Just sayin'.

As an adult, Clare is remarkably understanding about Henry's frequent disappearances. After awhile, though, her situation seems more like the premise for a comedy than a drama. Her wedding to Henry, for example, is played for laughs when present-day Henry vanishes but an older Henry from the future pops in to take his place at the ceremony (another example of Henry having pinpoint-accurate control over his jumps when the script requires it). The most bizarre thing about the wedding, however, is the couple's first dance -- to a dirge-like performance of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" performed by a cover band. Crikey, hang the d.j.!

Henry and Clare's story becomes increasingly tragic as they foresee Henry's death and have trouble conceiving a child. Despite the movie's SF time-travel aspect, director Robert Schwentke wisely avoids making it a special-effects extravaganza. It also never gets too deeply into the philosophical aspects of how unsettling it would be for anyone to meet his future or past selves.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" gets points for mostly playing it straight with such an inherently unlikely premise. And it's probably a much better date-movie choice than "Inglourious Basterds."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(Reviewed December 5, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

The Adventures of Tintin
(Reviewed December 18, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"The Adventures of Tintin" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Titan A.E.
(Reviewed August 8, 2000, by James Dawson)

This movie was actively, aggressively, annoyingly moronic. The voice talents were as terrible as the drawings of the main characters. Proving that sometimes there is such a thing as "cosmic justice," "Titan A.E." bombed so hard that it took down the entire Fox Animation studio with it. Sometimes, Hollywood actually CAN underestimate the taste of the American public.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (instead of an F, because at least the backgrounds--especially the ice-crystal area and CGI characters--looked so good)

(Reviewed March 16, 2001, by James Dawson)

Here is all you need to know: THIS MOVIE CONTAINS NO NUDITY. It is a stupid, unfunny, R-rated exercise in brain-dead vulgarity that is not even redeemed by the presence of a naked female torso or two for you to stare at while you're not laughing. It is, in a word, terrible. The only boob in sight is a fake one that dribbles milk in a single dumb scene. Well, unless you count all the boobs sitting in the theater who wasted their money on tickets, that is.

Guaranteed to rank as one of the worst movies of the year. No kiddin'.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-

Tooth Fairy
(Reviewed January 22, 2008, by James Dawson)

One of the good things (okay, maybe the only good thing) about being master of my own web domain is that I can make reviews of bad movies as short as I want, instead of having to pad them out to hit a specific word count.

This movie is utterly worthless. The end.

Okay, I'll add a little more. Somehow, it's even sadder to see Stephen Merchant in this abysmal movie than it is to witness Dame Julie Andrews debase herself by appearing in it. Merchant, co-creator with Ricky Gervais of the wonderful original BBC incarnation of "The Office" and the equally excellent "Extras," is a smart enough writer to know that "Tooth Fairy" is the antithesis of good comedy. It is so broad, predictable, badly acted and stupid that even the excuse that it is aimed at kids doesn't fly. Bad is bad.

While Andrews already has appeared in other less-than-prestigious films in her career ("The Princess Diaries" and its sequel, for example), it's just a shame to see can't-possibly-need-the-money Merchant reduced to appearing in this sort of dreck.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is a pro hockey player nicknamed "Tooth Fairy" because of his penchant for literally knocking out opposing players' teeth. Laughing yet? And is this really what you want your impressionable lil' brats seeing on a Saturday afternoon?

Because he nearly tells girlfriend Ashley Judd's young daughter that there is no real tooth fairy, he is swept away to a fantasyland overlorded by Andrews, who tells him that he must put in duty as a tooth fairy himself. Merchant is a wingless wannabe tooth fairy who assists Johnson.

Honestly, I can't go on. Johnson's acting is embarrassingly bad, the script is shit, and sitting through the movie is more excruciating than...than...damn, it's so tempting to use the old "root canal" cliche, especially in this context. But I'm better than that.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed August 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Marketing-wise, it's a damned shame that the title of Alicia Erian's original novel wasn't changed for this movie adaptation by writer/director Alan Ball. "Towelhead" sounds too obnoxiously hipster-ironic and defiantly vulgar for this sweetly quirky material, about a simultaneously modest but secretly oversexed teenager. If that criticism seems too harsh, try to imagine a studio calling a deadpan coming-of-age dramedy about an adorable black girl "Nigger."

(Then again, the proposed new title for "Towelhead" that was on before the movie's release was the hopelessly generic "Nothing Is Private," which wouldn't have been much of an improvement.)

Being saddled with a purposely offensive title could keep the movie from being seen by people who think it might turn out to be be boringly political or self-righteously earnest. In reality, this darkly humorous gem is one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

In pre-Persian-Gulf-War suburban Texas, 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) has been sent to live with her racist, often hilariously strict Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) after her ditzy mother's boyfriend confesses to shaving Jasira's bikini line. What daddy doesn't know is that Jasira has the hots for an adult neighbor (the excellent Aaron Eckhart), or that she masturbates to that neighbor's porn mags when she babysits his son, or that her new boyfriend at school is black.

Bishil does an amazing job of playing her part with quietly angelic detachment, an innocent who can't figure out why certain things that feel good are considered wrong. More touchingly, she can't imagine why anyone would want to take advantage of her, which makes it heartbreaking when they do.

Writer/director Ball manages the movie's transitions from humor to drama pretty well, although near the end it's hard not to wish things could have stayed shockingly amusing instead of turning more real-world. Also, Ball needlessly stacks the deck against one character by having him do something that doesn't seem at all believable, as if to make the need for his already-deserved comeuppance more obvious. (It's a plot development that is faithful to the book, however, which does give Ball some cover.)

Those are minor complaints, though. "Towelhead" is one of those movies that deserves the description "like nothing else you are likely to see this year."

In a good way, that is.


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Tower Heist
(Reviewed November 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Tower Heist" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The Town
(Reviewed September 16, 2010, by James Dawson)

Starting with a preposterous premise, concluding with a ridiculous ending and with not much to admire in the middle, "The Town" is too silly, strained and sappy to take seriously. Fans of submachinegun shootouts and demolition derbies, however, may enjoy the bang-bang and car crash scenes.

Director/star/coscreenwriter Ben Affleck is Doug, a workmanlike crook with a conscience, whose team of Halloween-masked hoods knocks over banks and armored cars in Boston's Charlestown district. Unfortunately, the gang is saddled with a Gilligan named Jim (Jeremy Renner) -- the trouble-causing cliche character who is so reckless, stupid and annoying that it's impossible to believe anyone would want to associate with him. No matter how working-class dumb these beantown banditos are supposed to be, it's hard to imagine any of them wanting to bring along a bigmouthed hair-trigger psycho on dangerous jobs that are supposed to be easy-in easy-out exercises.

After the movie's opening heist, the gang takes assistant bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage, lifting her driver's license before letting her go. Realizing that she lives in the same neighborhood as the gang members, which is a little too close for comfort, jittery Jim wants to kill her. Doug talks him out of the idea, starts shadowing Claire, finds himself chatting with her in a laundromat and ends up dating her. Whether it's more unbelievable that Doug would be so incredibly indiscreet, or that Claire would show such slumming bad taste in men of a lower social stature, is left for the viewer to decide.

Doug's situation is complicated by the fact that his slutty single-mom booty call of late (Blake Lively) is Jim's sister, which is certain to make things doubly awkward if Jim finds out that Doug is hooking up with someone who could put them behind bars if she were to wise up.

Jon Hamm is the FBI agent on the team's tail. He gets to deliver the screenplay's best line, about how the only way the feds could receive authorization for 24-hour surveillance would be if one of the gang members converted to Islam, but his main function is to act frustrated yet determined and sternly square-jawed.

The smashup car chases through Boston's narrow streets are entertaining enough, and one cop's unexpected reaction upon coming face to face with the carload of heavily-armed hoods is priceless. Still, there's more than a whiff of inauthenticity when it comes to how easily the robbers consistently avoid capture. The Boston of the film's universe obviously has helicopters -- one of the gang even mentions their existence -- which makes it unlikely that a van cutting a "Blues Brothers"-level swath of destruction through the city could avoid being trailed to its final destination.

Topping things off, the movie is saddled with a terrible title and a misleading print campaign that makes it look like a horror movie, with a poster image of nuns whose Halloween mask faces appear to be straight out of "Scream."

Finally, be warned that "The Town" does not offer anything close to the the brains, style or overall quality of the similarly Boston-based "The Departed." That won't stop every jackass quote-provider (Pete Hammond, I'm looking at you) from making the comparison because of the two films' shared geography, however.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Toy Story 3
(Reviewed June 15, 2010, by James Dawson)

The plot is a basically a reverse retread of "Toy Story 2," this time with Woody the cowboy (Tom Hanks) plotting to rescue Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and company from confinement instead of vice versa. Also, there are some off-putting and incongruous toy-abuse scenes that seem to be trying too hard to cater to the destructive-dickheads-with-ADD demographic, the same little monsters who related to the sadist neighbor brat in the first "Toy Story." It's as if Pixar believes boys couldn't possibly want to see anything that doesn't include torture, bullying and stuff getting broken, and that even a children's movie needs a little red meat to attract future gang members, wifebeaters and CIA interrogators. Finally, one has to wonder how well a scene featuring a massive red mushroom cloud will go over with Japanese audiences, or with anyone else who doesn't experience childish delight when reminded of nuclear holocaust.

But aside from those drawbacks, nearly everything else about the movie is flat-out wonderful. So why quibble?

Andy, the human owner of Woody, Buzz and the gang, is now old enough to be heading to college. His mom tries guilting him into donating all of his childhood toys to a day care center for kids, but Andy gladdens the heart of every Peter-Pan-syndrome audience member by deciding to hang onto them and store them in the attic. A mix-up ensues, leaving all of the toys except Woody believing that Andy has forsaken them, so they resolve to make the best of their new life at the day care center.

As in "Toy Story 2," where Woody at first thought life with fellow action figures from his "Woody's Roundup" TV show in a collector's condo might turn out to be not so bad, the other toys are led to believe that the day care center in "Toy Story 3" is going to be a plaything paradise. But the Lots-o'-Huggin' stuffed bear (Ned Beatty) who's in charge, just like Stinky Pete the Prospector in "Toy Story 2," turns out not to be quite as kindly and benevolent as he first appears. Andy's former toys are forced to remain in an area where the kids are too young (and apparently too violently savage) to treat them with any care. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) are dismembered, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) is used as a paintbrush and Buzz Lightyear is used to pound wooden pegs after getting disgustingly slobber-tongued. Oh, the humanity!

Meanwhile, Woody has managed to Great Escape his way to freedom, and plots to save his pals.

There's no heart-tugging song-montage like "Toy Story 2"'s "When She Loved Me" segment to jerk tears this time around, but a scene in which Our Heroes face the prospect of a genuinely hellish doom may cause screaming, crying and basic existential trauma among younger audience members. (A philosophical aside: It's interesting to note that even when the toys are faced with what looks like certain death, none of them resorts to anything resembling religion. Instead of praying for salvation, for example, they simply join hands and prepare to face what seems inevitable. Are these loving, caring but non-spiritual toys more rational and evolved than God-fearing human beings are? Discuss.)

The animation, as always, is a joy to behold. Style-wise, it's interesting that Pixar has kept the human characters looking the way they did in 1995's first "Toy Story" -- kind of artificially plastic and just a little bit "off" -- instead of rendering them with current state-of-the-art photo realism a la Avatar.

(Also, fans of big-haired troll dolls will get a brief train-related treat within the first five minutes of the movie.)

Suspenseful, thrilling, warm, joyous and sad -- with only a few misguided mayhem moments that are easily disregarded -- this is one of the best movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

(Reviewed December 4, 2000, by James Dawson)
This often fascinating movie by "Out of Sight," "The Limey" and "Erin Brockovich" director Steven Soderbergh starts out a lot better than it ends. Interlocking stories involving Mexican drug cartels, the trial of a California drug kingpin, and the appointment of a new US drug czar are shot with style and imagination, and offer a lot of promise at the outset. But every one of those three plots deteriorates into pure melodrama by the time the credits roll, as if the movie ran out of gas halfway through.

You will roll your eyes when Michael Douglas, playing a strait-laced Ohio judge who has been tapped for the US drug czar position, decides to cruise the hood and bust into crack houses vigilante-style. Oh, yeah, I can just imagine Barry McCaffrey, the real-life holder of that position, going all Dirty Harry without being followed by a pack of reporters. Catherine Zeta-Jones undergoes a similarly unbelievable transformation, from pampered pregnant trophy wife to a cold-blooded consorter with killers. The final fate of the informer played by Miguel Ferrer is so laughable it seems lifted from a really bad radio serial. And Benicio Del Toro's lightning-fast rise from bottom-rung Tijuana cop to a guy who gets to sit in on a top-level summit between the US drug czar and his more-or-less equivalent in Mexico seemed a tad expedient.

Other things I didn't like: There are two places in this movie where Soderbergh seems to be saying, "Maybe all of this is too subtle. I'll throw in two quick lectures about the unwinnable war on drugs, just to beat people over the head with the obvious." After Miguel Ferrer goes off on a point-by-point rant, DEA cop Don Cheadle even asks him if he thinks he's on the Larry King show. Note to Steven: Having a character in your movie point out a bad-dialog moment does not excuse it. The second occasion is even worse, when a prep-school student lectures Michael Douglas for what seems like a solid minute about drugs-'n'-racism. The moment does not ring true at all.

One last quibble: The first time you see a bunch of teens sitting around doing drugs, you just know that one of them has to OD. But even more offensive, in a strange way, is the rich-girl character who descends into literal crack-whoredom in what seems like, oh, maybe a couple of weeks' time. Now, I'm sure that plenty of privileged, straight-A, private-school students who are heavily into extracurricular activities take drugs. But I don't think they would be so mindlessly stupid about it. (I think it would be a lot more likely when she runs away from home that she would go into hiding at a friend's summer house, for example, than "taking it to the streets" right away.)

Despite those lapses, there actually is a lot to like in this movie. The whole hopeless attitude toward the war on drugs throughout the film is actually a hopeful sign, if it gets even a single one of the idiots in Congress to realize that the war on drugs is a war against common sense. Early on in the film, Michael Douglas attends a Washington party populated by several real-life politicians (including Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer, in a bipartisan display of Hollywood-humping egomania). Do any of these jackasses know the meaning of the word "irony?" Did any of them read the REST of the script? Do any of them care that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution?

A brief aside: I spent last weekend spewing from both ends, thanks to some nasty flu-like malady. Couldn't eat, constantly felt the urge to puke. As bad as my nausea was, I realized that cancer patients have it about a thousand times worse. And I thought about the fact that it is our wonderful government that keeps chemo patients from using medicinal marijuana to quell that nausea so they can keep food down. It is our elected representatives who have decided that glaucoma patients can't smoke pot to keep from going blind. It is shameless, hypocritical bastards in Washington who slurp at the trough of campaign donations from beer, liquor and tobacco companies who have decided which drugs are A-OK and which will land you in a lock-up for life. In a perfect world, every single one of those smug, evil, self-satisfied pricks would end up writhing in horrible agonies that could have been relieved by the very drugs that are illegal because of their own legislation (or inaction).

Oops, now who's getting preachy?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

(Reviewed June 16, 2007)

Loud, stupid, surprisingly boring, horribly directed and at least a half-hour too long, "Transformers" is a worthless pile of unwieldy, rickety junk.

Well, maybe not totally worthless. I did enjoy the occasional gratuitous down-blouse cleavage shots of busty 20-year-old Megan Fox, who looks like a younger, meaner and trashier Jennifer Connelly.

I never was into Transformers back in the '80s, so I have no idea how well this movie will satisfy nostalgic, arrested-development nerds who have a hard-on for Autobots. I guarantee, however, that they will be disappointed by how much time the movie wastes on what passes for a plot when the CGI title characters aren't onscreen.

Also, the movie kind of cheats by including many segments that are nothing more than car chases. Even though we know the cars and trucks in question are "robots in disguise," what we see are and trucks. Make that "General Motors cars and trucks." No kidding, most of this flick plays like an extended infomercial for the GM line. (And if the filmmakers truly think that the new model Camaro is hotter than the classic version, they must have nuts and bolts in their heads.)

If you want an idea of how the special effects look, take a sledgehammer to a clock radio, throw the parts in a box, and shake the box under your gaze as vigorously as possible. That's the equivalent of watching the rushed transformations that occur onscreen, which are more like too-quick morphs than mechanical alterations. It's even worse during Transformers-involved action scenes, when it becomes impossible to get a good fix on what the heck the things actually look like, much less what they are doing.

The "Transformers" battle scenes are frustratingly incomprehensible. Not only are the clanking combatants a virtual blur, but there's no sense of what is where, or often who is who. Also, director Michael Bay seems to have shot large segments of the movie too "close-up," as if what we are seeing onscreen is a cropped-top-and-bottom version of what started out as a full-frame image.

Getting back to that plot: As in "Disturbia," Shia LaBeouf once again plays an immature high-school tool who manages to hook up with a centerfold-quality hottie after she realizes that he's a nice guy despite his childishness, inexperience and pathetic desperation. Maybe this kind of sick, dishonest wish-fulfillment bullshit keeps dateless wonders from slitting their wrists in their mothers' basements, but I'm sick of seeing worldly and wise-beyond-their-years uber-babes falling for twitchy, utterly unmanly dipshits.

In fact, I pity any real-world female who might be dragged to this movie by the kind of guy who would want to see it. Her only honest reaction when it's over would be to inquire, "Are you mentally retarded, or just stupid?" Then she would run into the street and beg the first man she spotted who didn't look like he had an action-figure collection at home to tear off her clothes and give her a high hard one.

L.A. resident LaBeouf's dad buys him an old Camaro that turns out to be one of the "good" Transformers, who is hoping to find a map showing the location of some cosmic cube thingy that the bad Transformers also want. On the other side of the world in Qatar, American military forces have been attacked by one of the "bad" Transformers.

I couldn't help wondering how the US military angle will play overseas, where the sight of American soldiers these days is likely to get international audiences rooting for the robots to win. This isn't helped by the fact that one of the movie's main characters is the American Secretary of Defense (played by Jon Voight), and that a secret US agency abducts and essentially tortures one of the good Transformers. Even our War-Criminal-in-Chief makes a brief appearance (although thankfully we don't see his stupid, smirking face) aboard Air Force One. It's sad that the Bush administration has so thoroughly trashed America's reputation abroad that featuring the US government or military in a movie seems dangerously self-destructive these days.

"Transformers" is too dumb to appeal to a superhero-movie crowd that has come to expect something more sophisticated than rock-'em sock-'em robots, but too loud, violent and long for little kids. No girl in her right mind would be caught dead seeing it. And any male whose testicles have descended will be mortified at having wasted over two hours of his life on this juvenile junk, instantly remembering why he threw these toys away when he started shaving.

In other words: Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
(Reviewed June 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Transporter 2
(Reviewed August 30, 2005, by James Dawson)

It's a good thing that I saw a rented copy of the first "Transporter" before attending a screening of "Transporter 2." That's because there is nothing in this unfortunate sequel that would inspire anyone to seek out the infinitely better original, which is a real shame.

The first "Transporter" -- about an ex-military man (the excellent Jason Statham) living in the south of France who takes dangerous, no-questions-asked delivery jobs for shady characters -- was as fresh, fun and stylish as this unfortunate followup is stale, tiresome and stupid.

The first time around, Statham was terse, stone-faced and serious as a rocket attack, until one of his cargos turned out to be a bound-and-gagged (and unbelievably hot) petite Chinese beauty. Although a large part of the movie was made up of car chases and chop-sockey fights, it was just tongue-in-cheek enough to be ironic instead of obnoxious. And the few funny bits actually were amusing.

The sequel has exactly the same opening, with Statham once again sitting behind the wheel in a garage and checking his watch. This time, though, the action has moved to Miami. And instead of a mysterious but "no questions asked" package, what he has to transport is...a little kid who is just getting out of school. He needs to be driven home, where Mommy and Daddy are arguing so loudly that Statham kindly distracts the moppet.

It gets worse. Before you can say, "Didn't Denzel Washington do this lousy script last year, when it was called `Man on Fire?,' Statham is making his apparently magical car do impossible stunts that are more ridiculous than James Bond's bayou loop-the-loop in "Live and Let Die."

Think I'm exaggerating? At one point, in order to get rid of a bomb that is attached to the bottom of his car, Statham races up a ramp, flies into the air above a boat harbor, spins his car upside-down so that a crane's hook can snag the bomb from his undercarriage, spins the car the rest of the way around, then lands on dry ground and continues on his merry way. He should have gone home and painted "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on the side.

(An aside: I heard that one idiot at a press junket actually said, "I'll fight anyone who doesn't think the hooking-the-bomb stunt was the best action scene of the year!" Okay, douchebag: Put 'em up!)

"Transporter 2" is a textbook example of "going Hollywood," in every bad sense of the term. The first movie's quirky, exotic tone has morphed into loud, vulgar, one-cliche-after-another dumbness. The sleek European import has turned into an ugly American.

Okay, I think I've made my point.

What's strange about the franchise's transformation is that the same writers who did the first one are back, the director this time around was a second-unit director on the first one, and the first movie's director is back as fight choreographer. Did all of them forget what made the original special? Apparently.

(An aside: The great song that's playing as Statham drives over a bridge is called "Cells" by the Servant. If you think you've heard it before, it was in the unbelievably great trailer for "Sin City," but unfortunately did not appear in the actual "Sin City" movie. Now you know!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Transporter 3
(Reviewed November 26, 2008, by James Dawson)

I wrote a feature story about this movie as well as reviewing it for the website Click this link to read the review: "Transporter 3" review

And click this link to read the review: "Transporter 3" feature

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Treasure Planet
(Reviewed October 11, 2002, by James Dawson)

Really disappointing Disney animated movie--disappointing mainly because the studio's last one (this summer's "Lilo & Stitch") was so original and fresh.

"Treasure Planet," a clunky-dumb update of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," has a lot in common with last year's dreadful Disney dud "Atlantis": A young male protagonist on a mission to a near-mythical location encounters dangers from nasty crew members with ulterior motives. There's even a sorta similar "retro-futurism" approach, with advanced technology appearing in antique trappings (in this case, starships that look like sailing ships).

The problem is that nothing here is convincing or involving; it all seems very hacked out and pointless. I especially disliked three things: The skin-crawlingly annoying use of achingly overused present-day cliches in a world that is not our own; the utter implausibility of a plot in which someone who is the guest of the guy who charters a ship is expected to work as the next best thing to a galley slave; and the third-act appearance of (God help us) this movie's Robin-Williams-equivalent (in this case, Martin Short voicing a screechingly twitchy robot). Also, "Frasier"'s David Hyde Pierce overdoes his tired persnickety schtick to the point where you'll be praying for him to walk a plank.

The character animation seems okay but dated. (Many of Jim's mother's facial expressions appear to have been traced directly from 1989's "The Little Mermaid.") By contrast, many of the backgrounds (starscapes, space ports, explosions and such), often mingling line art and computer animation, look nice in a show-offy "demo-reel" fashion.

Too bad they couldn't have been used in a movie with a better script. I was really, really bored by this one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Tree of Life
(Reviewed May 20, 2011, by James Dawson)

Beautifully shot but more boring than a century-long sermon, "The Tree of Life" is "The Great Santini: A Space Odyssey"...with dinosaurs.

This snail-paced slog alternates between scenes from a grimly somber bygone family drama and awe-inspiring montages of space, volcanoes and ocean waves, but it's ultimately more soporific than spiritual. Dialog is rare, curt, close-miked and achingly earnest. Is this a movie, or a two-hour-18-minute ad for Eternity by Calvin Klein? Oft-repeated prayer-like intonations of "" are regrettably reminiscent of the pretentiously delusional art teacher's laughable "father...mirror..." short film in Ghost World.

Brad Pitt is the hardass and humorless 1950s husband of a cowed-into-silence wife (Bryce Dallas Howard lookalike Jessica Chastain), and the tyrannical father of three very intimidated young sons. When the movie isn't cutting away to shots of Jupiter or the Jurassic age, there are fleeting shots of Sean Penn as a morose present-day businessman moping around a glass skyscraper or trudging through nature dreamscapes in a suit and tie. Or maybe he's in the afterlife. Hard to say.

Penn apparently is one of the three sons as an adult. He spends all of his brief on-screen time looking tired, confused and miserable. Coincidentally, that's exactly how the audience feels.

This meandering, metaphysical mess was written and directed by Terence Malick, who lives up to his rep for making strikingly gorgeous movies that aren't exactly strong on plot. At Cannes, some audience members reacted to "The Tree of Life" with loud and sustained booing when the credits rolled. Quietly frustrated disappointment would be a more understandable response, one perfectly in keeping with the movie's dismal, dour and dirge-like tone.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

(Reviewed October 11, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

Tristan and Isolde
(Reviewed January 13, 2006, by James Dawson)

Think "Romeo and Juliet" meets "Camelot." Without songs, that is.

In ye olde Dark Ages, James Franco is Tristan, the adopted son of a British clan's chief. Isolde (Sophia Myles) is the comely daughter of a nasty Irish king who enjoys attacking and plundering the Brits. They meet under circumstances that are as unlikely as those in most of these types of tales, fall in love, and are forced to part.

Attempting to screw up British tribal politics, the Irish king later holds a rigged competition for the hand of his fair daughter, but Tristan manages to defeat the dastardly Brit who is in cahoots with the king. Ah, but there is a complication: Tristan was fighting merely as his tribe's champion, and so Isolde is obligated to marry Tristan's adoptive father Lord Marke, not Tristan. Verily, Freud wouldst have a field day!

Rufus Sewell is appropriately noble, forthright and world-weary as the King-Arthur-like Lord Marke, whose love for Isolde makes Tristan feel like a right bastard for being this story's conflicted, wife-banging Lancelot.

There's occasionally a whiff of cheese about the production (I'm amazed that people meeting Tristan don't immediately ask who does his pretty-boy hair), but this really isn't a bad movie. There are some pretty good swordfights, a castle siege, and a silly but still kind of hot scene wherein Isolde tells her maid that the two of them should strip naked to press their warm flesh against Tristan's cold body to revive him. (Men henceforth will begin feigning unconsciousness whenever they find themselves around hot babes, methinks.)

Okay, it ain't Shakespeare, but you could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Tron: Legacy
(Reviewed 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.)

The techno-existentialism of the first "Tron" was fairly unusual stuff in 1982, and certainly unexpected from the House of Mouse. Also, the Disney movie's videogame-style, neon-in-limbo animation segments were undeniably cool -- in both senses of the word.

Nearly 30 years later, animation that puts human actors into artificial high-tech environments is nothing new, and glitch-in-the-machine flicks have run the gamut from "WarGames" to "The Matrix" and beyond. That makes it impossible for this "Tron" sequel to seem uncommon or unique, but the franchise definitely still looks cool -- and still in both senses of the word. The spooky low-light landscape of the computer-world "game grid" remains stylishly distinctive, and inhumanly chilly.

"Tron: Legacy"'s adequate but sometimes sluggish screenplay, by former "Lost" producer/writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, requires the same leaps of logic that were necessary to appreciate the first "Tron." Once you accept the idea that humans can be physically transported inside computers without feeling mighty cramped on a hard drive, it's a cinch to believe that the programs there could look like people, enjoy arena sports and patronize disco bars.

Videogame designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) left a digital doppelganger named Clu behind to run the grid after the events in "Tron." But Kevin mysteriously vanishes from the real world again a few years later, leaving his motherless young son Sam to be raised by his grandparents.

Two decades pass. Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is now a disillusioned loner who hacks his father's software company to make its newest product free for all. That's because the firm is now run by the kind of greedy corporate suits whose idea of product innovation is changing a program's operating system number.

Kevin's former coworker Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, who played the same character and his grid double Tron in the first movie) is the only board member Sam trusts. When Alan tells Sam he has received a mysterious page (how last century!) from Kevin, Sam heads for the place it originated: his father's long-abandoned video arcade. He locates a secret room there, appropriately hidden behind a coin-operated Tron console, and soon is transported to the game's permanent-midnight cyberland.

Sam abruptly is captured, suited up by a quartet of bodysuit-wearing babes, and forced to take part in gladiator-style death matches. "What am I supposed to do?" he asks. "Survive," replies a pulchritudinous program in platforms. A fast-moving split-level version of the first movie's "light cycle" competition, rebooted but still elegantly retro, is a joy to behold for any joystick junkie.

Sam learns that Clu has been corrupted, gone dictator and wants to invade our world. Thanks to some amazing computer effects work, Clu is played by the present-day Bridges but doesn't appear to have aged a day since the Reagan administration. The years haven't been as kind to the now grizzled and gray-bearded Kevin, who has been in hiding on the grid for 20 years.

Olivia Wilde (best known as 13 from "House M.D.") has the odd role of Kevin Flynn's heroically resourceful companion Quorra. She looks like a black-clad bondage pinup, but is as naive and enthusiastically wide-eyed as a child. Considering that she also apparently lives with Kevin, it's hard to believe Sam doesn't raise an eyebrow and ask dad if she is his trophy byte.

The movie slips its sectors when it introduces Michael Sheen as a hammily glam-tastic albino club owner, whose campy performance is very out of place. Also, Bridges as Kevin lapses into too many "Big Lebowski" moments, sounding winkingly Dude-like with lines like "you're messing with my zen thing, man" and riffing about "bio-chemical jazz."

First-time director Joseph Kosinski otherwise takes the story seriously enough that he doesn't provide much in the way of lighthearted fun. Hedlund's Sam, for example, is a 20-something who comes across as an actual adult, not the sort of immature wisecracking man-child that moviegoers have come to expect.

The film's great synth-heavy score, by the duo Daft Punk, has electronic echoes of Depeche Mode's more Wagnerian B-sides and Philip Glass' "Koyaanisqatsi." Another '80s flashback is the screenplay's very "Blade Runner"-reminiscent ending.

Even with its minor flaws, "Tron: Legacy" is a worthy upgrade that's worth seeing, and definitely worth hearing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Trouble With Bliss
(Reviewed March 23, 2012, by James Dawson)

Michael C. Hall, best known as the blood-splatter expert who moonlights as a serial killer in Showtime's "Dexter," is a lot less motivated as the unemployed and unshaven Morris Bliss in the offbeat comedy "The Trouble With Bliss." A 35-year-old who still lives with his disgusted dad (Peter Fonda) in Manhattan's East Village, Morris is the half-awake center around which a quartet of quirkier characters revolves. Like Chance the gardener in "Being There," life is what happens to Morris when he's making no plans whatsoever.

Hall is almost too passive and perplexed in the role, which would have been a better fit for the alternately morose and mischievous Zach Galiafianakis. At times, Hall seems to be impersonating a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was similarly half-awake and unkempt in early films such as "Happiness" and "Love Liza."

Chris Messina is Morris' tall-tale-spinning buddy NJ, who has just left a fiancee at the altar. Lucy Liu is Andrea, a voraciously seductive neighbor who isn't getting enough attention from her husband. Morris' new girlfriend is the demandingly bossy and amusingly sarcastic Stephanie (Brie Larson), who says she is 18 even though she still wears a school uniform. And Brad William Henke is Steven "Jetski" Jouseski, one of Morris' former high-school classmates who also happens to be Stephanie's clueless and ridiculously friendly father.

The very age-inappropriate affair between Stephanie and the wrapped-around-her-finger Morris is the most consistently enjoyable part of the movie. Larson is excellent at giving Stephanie a combination of self-centered immaturity and smartass cynicism that's completely convincing. Stephanie states with deadpan authority that rats are "worse than horny cousins, the way you've got to fight them off," and her life's goal is to own a Subway sandwich shop. It may be hard to believe that such a vivacious young beauty would find the more than twice her age and mopey Morris irresistible, even if Woody Allen was able to make the same idea work in "Manhattan," but their chemistry definitely is entertaining.

The other three even less likely plots are not as satisfying partly because they feel padded out. Morris hasn't seen Jetski for so long that he only vaguely remembers who he is when Stephanie identifies him as her father. When Morris and Jetski accidentally bump into each other later, Morris naturally is afraid of the consequences if Jetski realizes who his daughter's new boyfriend is. But the unanticipated one-sided bonding that occurs when the overly affable Jetski enlists Morris to go undercover and help eject squatters from a building is so awkward it seems badly improvised.

Morris' encounters with NJ, which primarily involve sitting on a bar stool listening to him spin unlikely stories, could have been cut. And while the Morris-Stephanie relationship is absurd enough to work, Andrea's attraction to Morris seems forced and a little redundant. Granted, she "doesn't want to turn into a shabby sofa" by being regarded as a piece of furniture by hubby and craves a little appreciation. But Morris looks like he sleeps in his clothes precisely because he does, which wouldn't make him any woman's go-to guy for adulterous amour.

Adapted by director Michael Knowles from co-screenwriter Douglas Light's 2007 novel "East Fifth Bliss," the story is set in an indeterminate but presumably contemporary time period. Morris has a cell phone, but we never see him online, which would seem to be an obvious refuge for someone who spends so much time in his small bedroom.

Even if three of the four main plotlines in "The Trouble With Bliss" don't quite work, the "Manhattan"-lite one that does is worth taking the trouble to see.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed May 14, 2004, by James Dawson)

I know the dialog is often cheesy and unbelievable. And I hate the fact that "Troy"'s hack screenwriter thought it was appropriate to "piss in the oasis" by having the audacity to change plot points from Homer's "The Iliad." (Christ, talk about mindless Hollywood arrogance!)

But I liked the look of "Troy" a lot, and thought Brad Pitt (as superstar warrior Achilles) and Eric Bana (as Troy's frustrated but duty-bound Prince Hector) did a good job of staying on the right side of the line between pomposity and parody.

Also, while some critics have faulted Orlando Bloom (Prince Paris of Troy) and Diane Kruger (Helen of Troy) for having something less than an epic romantic relationship, I liked the notion that the Trojan War could have been started by a love affair as carelessly casual as Britney's Las Vegas wedding. Granted, Kruger seems more womanly and mature than Bloom seems manly--but then again, Demi Moore is dating Ashton Kutcher. The rich and powerful are different, folks.

Also, I actually found myself enjoying the popcorn-movie acting histrionics of scenery chewers such as Brian Cox (as would-be world-dominating King Agamemnon) and Brendon Gleeson (as cuckolded-and-quite-ticked-off King Menelaus). The two of them are just this side of campy, but hey, this ain't no documentary.

Despite some great clashing-army battles and general CGI violence, the best fight scene in the movie is the one-on-one throwdown between Pitt and Bana, which is so well choreographed that it does not seem choreographed at all. Know how most movie swordfights seem a little too obviously staged, with no thrust ever seeming truly intended to do harm? Not this time. The two characters actually seem to want to kill each other. WWE fans, take note!

Finally, Peter O'Toole classes up the joint with a swell portrayal of Troy's King Priam. His scene with Pitt is the best dramatic part of the film.

"Troy" may not be a great movie, but it's better than "Gladiator," and that flick seemed to make people think they had well-spent their sword-and-sandal dollars. So go, already.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

True Grit (2010 version)
(Reviewed December 22, 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.)

The three billboard-featured stars of "True Grit" -- Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin -- all shine in this thoroughly remarkable remake. As the cantankerous deputy marshal Rooster Cogburn, Bridges gives what may be the best performance of his career, and that includes his Oscar-winning role in last year's "Crazy Heart." Damon is fun to watch as the full-of-himself Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, and Brolin appears briefly as a killer on the run who is both dastardly and dumb.

But it's newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, as the precocious, bossy and fearless 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who steals the show from that talented trio. Mattie is the offbeat western's main character, a deadpan force of nature who appears in nearly every scene as she seeks vengeance for her gunned-down father. Steinfeld conveys exactly the right attitude of optimistic but no-nonsense determination to see the job through. What makes her performance even more impressive is the fact that the actress was younger than the wise-beyond-her-years character she portrays when the movie was being filmed. (Steinfeld turned 14 this month.)

Noting that this truer and grittier "True Grit" is better in almost every way than the 1969 version doesn't give directors/screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen nearly enough credit. The 1969 movie was played too broadly, had two of its lead roles miscast and was done on the cheap. Riders bizarrely stopped to make camp during full daylight, possibly to avoid the expense and complications of night shoots. Also, there was that achingly awful title song: "The pain of it, will ease a bit, when you find a man with true grit."

The first movie's problems couldn't be blamed on its Marguerite Roberts screenplay, however. Aside from killing off a main character in the last act and substituting a sweeter coda than the one in the original Charles Portis novel, Roberts stuck extremely close to the book's plot points and dialog. Although the Coens' version looks and feels more authentic, their screenplay takes liberties of its own with the source material. Their version adds an entirely new scene about a corpse found hanging from a tall tree, and separates the main characters into two groups before a nighttime stakeout that goes wrong. Heck, the Coens even switch which eye is covered by Cogburn's iconic eyepatch.

What the Coens get exactly right is the book's ironic, Mark Twain-like tone. The 1969 "True Grit" had a cornier and less clever take on the novel's brand of tongue-in-cheek. John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn came across as more sitcom-crotchety than wryly sardonic, which is how Bridges plays him, even though much of the character's dialog is identical in both movies. Singer Glen Campbell was a disaster as the first movie's LaBoeuf, with no handle on the subtle humor of the character's high self-regard. Damon nails that trait in scenes like one in which he casually displays his Texas Ranger badge with the smug self-satisfaction of a frontier Barney Fife. Twenty-something Kim Darby was far too old to play 14-year-old Mattie in the first movie, and always seemed more petulantly persnickety than the efficiently indomitable Steinfeld.

The Coens' movie is full of genre visual treats, from a river crossing by horse to an intimate forest campfire to an open-field gunfight. Frequent Coens cinematographer Roger Deakins makes every scenic vista, snowy mountainside and revealing closeup picturebook perfect. Plus there are plenty of night scenes this time around, and they look terrific.

It's also fun just listening to the movie's colorfully contraction-free old West dialog. In a line taken word-for-word from the novel, Cogburn proclaims, "If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies that says he never drank water from a horse track I think I will shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar." A later Coens-created pronouncement flawlessly mimics the author's style, when Cogburn describes himself as "a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild-goose chase by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop."

The 2010 "True Grit" is so well crafted and thoroughly entertaining it could convert those who think they don't like westerns, and it will delight those who do.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

The Truth About Charlie
(Reviewed October 8, 2002, by James Dawson)

Mind-numbingly boring and utterly pointless remake of the 1963 Stanley Donen flick "Charade," this time starring a good-looking but unexciting Thandie Newton in the Audrey Hepburn role and a sleepwalking Markie Mark Wahlberg standing in for Cary Grant. (The mind boggles, I realize.) Imagine Matt Damon on some really strong downers, wearing a career-ending beret and an expression that's somewhere between "confused" and "constipated," and you've got a pretty good idea of Wahlberg's contribution to the movie.

The plot of the original is pretty much intact, but everything is somehow cheesier, less romantic, nowhere near as colorful and a whole lot less fun. And I say this even though I'm not a huge fan of "Charade," which struck me as a somewhat forced Hitchcock pastiche.

"The Truth About Charlie"'s director/writer Jonathan Demme (adapting Peter Stone's "Charade" screenplay) starts flailing about hopelessly very early on. When French singer Charles Aznavour suddenly pops up out of nowhere (a la Burt Bacharach in the "Austin Powers" movies) to serenade Newton and Wahlberg, the only appropriate audience reaction is, "What the...???" Demme later gives up entirely on the film when he throws away any remaining shreds of believability by having all of the various good-and-bad guys take part in a jarringly unamusing partner-changing tango scene.

By the time this slow death of a would-be romantic mystery finally gasps its last, and the ridiculously over-complicated who's-really-who details have been tiresomely explained, you'll be way beyond caring.

I couldn't help thinking throughout "The Truth About Charlie" that I would rather have seen a movie about Charlie himself, an identity-shifting, chick-charming con man on the run. The first scene in the movie is Charlie smiling appreciatively as a Euro-blond gets into panties and a bra, presumably after a vigorous sex session on a train. Now THAT'S entertainment!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil
(Reviewed September 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Tuck Everlasting
(Reviewed August 28, 2002, by James Dawson)

Okay, I realize that an "F" grade for this one might seem a tad harsh. After all, the radiantly wide-eyed Alexis Bledel (from TV's "Gilmore Girls") is sweetly appealing, the nature settings are lush-'n'-lovely, and the plot on first glance appears to be one of those perfectly respectable Disney workhorses about an overprotected child learning-'n'-growing after being exposed to unusual characters.

What ruins the movie is that its basic underlying theme is flagrantly, insultingly, even cruelly idiotic.

Bledel plays a WWI-era teenage girl who meets a reclusive family that has discovered the fountain (or a spring, in this case) of eternal youth. The Tucks keep to themselves in the woods because People Just Don't Understand folks who never age, never get sick and never can be wounded or killed. Meanwhile, a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) is searching for the Tucks so he can drink from their secret spring and sell sips from it to well-paying customers.

Okay, so far, so good. The problem arises when Tuck patriarch William Hurt earnestly explains to Bledel that immortality ain't all its cracked up to be. He points out that it is unnatural to break the "cycle of life" by not dying, and laments the fact that his family members' lives just go on and on without ending, as if that's a bad thing.

What a load of utterly unmitigated horseshit. If given the choice, would anyone besides the most psychotically deluded religious fanatic hesitate for a split nanosecond before deciding to live forever in perfect health? Put it this way: Somebody gives you the choice between continuing to wake up every day as a perfect physical specimen, or gradually wasting away and DYING. Kind of a no-brainer, don'tcha think?

With that underlying premise, "Tuck Everlasting" becomes rather a sick little treatise on how wonderful it is to wither away into blind, deaf, addlebrained incontinence; or how virtuous it is to be killed in a car wreck; or how aesthetically pleasing it is to contract cancer. Maybe Disney can set up a special Tuck Everlasting Suicide Island at its theme parks, where impressionable youth who buy into the movie's despicable philosophy can complete the wonderful cycle of life while wearing a pair of goddamned Mickey Mouse ears.

Also: In the original novel, Bledel's character is only 10 years old. she has been aged into her mid-teens for this movie, so that her infatuation with teenage Jesse Tuck can flower into a tender, young romance. Unfortunately, their first kiss is preceded by a forest campfire scene in which Bledel does a sensuous harem dance so wildly inappropriate and completely out of place that it should delight pedophiles everywhere.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The TV Set
(Reviewed March 29, 2007, by James Dawson)

Cheap, very predictable and not very interesting "insider" comedy about the selling and making of a TV pilot.

David Duchovny plays the creator of what we're supposed to believe is a heartfelt and very personal series about a man who returns to his home town after his brother's suicide. The guy in the series reconnects with an old girlfriend, blah, blah, blah. Doesn't that premise sound just like some presumable piece of shit that premiered just this past season on ABC, about a writer who left Manhattan to reconnect with "real" people in the small town where he grew up? What the hell was that show called -- it starred the smirky redhead from that fucking awful "70s Show," and ABC was promoting the hell out of it. Hang on while I make a quick trip to the invaluable

"October Road," that was it, starring Laura Prepon. Probably cancelled by now, for all I know.

ANYWAY: One of the problems with "The TV Set" is that it doesn't seem self-aware enough to acknowledge that Duchovny's character just might be as much of a self-deceiving mercenary hack as the people he thinks he's better than. We see a lot of Duchovny suffering over what's happening to his "art," lamenting the ways that the network president (Sigourney Weaver) is polluting his vision by making casting and plot decisions. Gee, how original. Writer good, meddlers bad.

Just once, I'd love to see a movie like this that portrays a writer as a delusional, thin-skinned douchebag who can't take good constructive criticism, instead of as the god-like reincarnation of Dennis Potter himself.

"The TV Set" is slightly better than last year's "For Your Consideration," but still seems far too timid and obvious, especially in a world where a cinematic masterpiece called "Network" has been around for 30 years.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
(Reviewed June 24, 2010, by James Dawson)

The petulantly hammy werewolf and the mopey dreamboat vampire are still hot for the robotic asexual bore.

Stupid junk.


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
(Reviewed November 18, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1" review
Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Two for the Money
(Reviewed September 16, 2005, by James Dawson)

Come over here, pal. Let me give you a tip. Over the weekend, I was flipping channels and saw that "Jimmy Hollywood" was on. I never had seen that movie, even though I have a framed copy of the its one-sheet on display in the cluttered hell that I laughingly refer to as my "home office." What can I say; I always liked the flick's title, for obvious reasons. And the poster's slogan -- "One thing stands between Jimmy and stardom. Reality." -- seemed remarkably resonant with my own life here in La-La Land. And it was written/directed by Barry Levinson, so hey, how bad could it be?

Long story short, "Jimmy Hollywood" turned out to be one of the worst pieces of shit I've ever seen. No exaggeration: It was shockingly, amazingly, shoe-throwingly bad. Joe Pesci plays a fright-wigged out-of-work actor who starts a two-man vigilante group with a brain-damaged Christian Slater, in what's supposed to be an insider, black-humor comedy. More than that, it's impossible not to hate Pesci's character, who gives new meaning to the word "annoying."

The only noteworthy thing about the movie is that the infinitely better "Get Shorty" completely ripped off "Jimmy Hollywood"'s ending (in which a Big Name Star, as himself, is shown acting in a movie based on the protagonist's life) a year later.

What I kept thinking was, "Anybody who paid to see this in a theater must have wanted to kill himself. Or at least make a strongly worded request for a refund."

What does all of this have to do with "Two for the Money," in which Matthew McConaughey is hired by boiler-room operator Al Pacino to make football betting picks?

It sucks, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
(Reviewed December 12, 2002)

Director/coscreenwriter Peter Jackson still can't tell a story worth a damn, you won't have any idea who some characters are or their relationships to each other (and good luck remembering their names), battle scenes are edited so sloppily that you occasionally won't know who is getting hacked and who is doing the hacking, your ass cheeks will go numb way before the three-hour (!!!) mark, and some of the CGI characters don't blend in well enough with the live action to look one-hundred-percent convincing...

...but "The Two Towers" still ranks as one of this year's true must-see movies, if only because it often is so visually spectacular, dazzling and ambitious even when it comes up short. (And when I say "must-see movie," I mean "get off your friggin' wallet and see it in an actual theater." Watching this eye-candy extravaganza on a TV would be like looking at the Grand Canyon on a postcard.) The sheer, epic scale of the climactic battle, for example, falls under the category of "why the good lord invented great-big-huge movie screens."

The star of the show this time around is the pathetic, brain-addled, split-personalitied Gollum, who acts as guide for ring-bearer Frodo and his fellow hobbit Sam. (His words "my precious" are destined to become a part of every audience member's vocabulary.) Although you never will be able to forget that he is computer-generated (his movements are so unnaturally fast that it is impossible to believe he couldn't snatch Frodo's ring before anyone could react; the texture of his flesh looks unconvincing; and his eyes are like a pair of oversized starburst-cut class-ring stones), he's just plain more interesting than anybody else in the entire enterprise. The hobbits are innocent (sometimes sickeningly so), Gandalf is crafty, Aragorn and the warriors are rigidly noble and the legions of badass monsters are brainlessly determined--but Gollum is so scenery-chewingly all over the place that he ends up being more emotionally 3-D than any of them.

That too-quick CGI movements problem also affects other scenes, most notably an attack by riders who are mounted on some weird bear/wolf/horse hybrids. (What, you think I'm going to plow through hundreds of pages of Tolkien to see what the things are called?) The creatures move with such unnatural speed that they seem to have zero weight or mass. This same problem ruined "Spider-Man" for me earlier this year; that piece of computer code swinging from building to building was too unaffected by the laws of physics to be convincing as a teenager in a costume.

A few other things I didn't like: The endless "comic"-relief asides by fiesty dwarf John Rhys-Davies got old fast. Battle scenes in which one or two characters hold off hordes of hundreds are as silly as contemporary "can't hit the side of a barn" scenes in which the hero somehow never takes a bullet. In a story this long and weird, more explanation of what the heck the quest is all about definitely was needed. (If you've forgotten all the pre-history about the rings of power that was rushed through in the opening minutes of "The Fellowship of the Ring," tough luck--there is no recounting of that info whatsoever here.)

And even at over 180 minutes, the movie often seems like a "greatest action-'n'-scenery bits from the book" affair, because there is zero depth to many of the participants. That blond archer dude, for example. (If you can recall his name, you're a better man than I.) What's his deal? Sure, he looks good. Seems like an okay guy to have in your merry band. But he is as blank a slate as a red-shirted Enterprise crew member. ( my pocket-protector showing?)

Structure-wise, there are three concurrent storylines here involving the characters separated from each other at the end of "Fellowship." Two of those characters spend almost the entire movie in a tree. Excited yet? And if you are hoping to see lots and lots of Liv Tyler, dream on. She's in maybe three minutes of this flick...which is about twice as much screentime as Cate Blanchett gets this time around.

Then again, there are some knock-your-eyes-out scenes of enormously oversized elephants, monstrously-muscled gate-tenders, legions upon legions of hellaciously nasty-looking bastards with swords and pikes and crossbows, and possibly the best looking flying dragon you've ever seen. The blond chick in the clingy white damsel dress never drops her top, but you can't have everything. All of my nit-pickery aside, there's so much amazing stuff to stare at in this movie that nobody's going to regret buying a ticket.

Or to put it another way: Even though it is obvious that the main opening-weekend devotees of this movie will be trembling nerds whose idea of adventure involves daring to play a spirited round of Magic: The Gathering during lunch sure beats the pants off the lousy new Star Trek movie. (Gosh, if only "X-Men 2" were out at the same time; talk about your Dork Trifecta!)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Two Weeks Notice
(Reviewed December 21, 2002, by James Dawson)

You know how Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock seem to have really great chemistry when you see them interviewed together on "Entertainment Tonight," et al? How the two of them are likable and goofy and kind of sexy around each other? Well, rest assured that absolutely none of that chemistry--none, I tell you!--transfers to the screen in this tediously unfunny slog.

Bullock is a sickeningly ditzy and yet brilliantly intelligent lawyer (only in the movies, folks!). She hooks up with Grant, a dumb but charming rich guy developer whose company is (HORRORS!) about to tear down Bullock's beloved hometown community center.

They both basically act like a couple of retarded morons spouting witless one-liners at each other until planting a big smooch on each other at the end. Oh, I ruined it for you? Oh, right--like you thought it would end any other way. Grow up, for Christ's sake.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F