Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed May 16, 2007, by James Dawson)

This is one of those horror movies that probably was better to read in script form than to watch on the screen. It's not terrible (which isn't the same as saying it's good), but I had the feeling that the screenwriter probably was hoping the finished film would be more disturbing and less tongue-in-cheek.

Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale end up staying at a remote and otherwise unoccupied motel when their car breaks down. They soon realize they are being videotaped by hidden cameras. Even worse, they discover that they are going to be the latest victims of snuff-film murder unless they get the hell out of the place.

The motel manager comes off like a real-life Ned Flanders, but the creepy guys in masks who torment Wilson and Beckinsale are kind of scary.

Also, this is an "old school" horror film that relies mainly on suspense, without the graphic and sadistic bloodletting and mutilation found in gory flicks of the "Saw" variety.

It ain't "Psycho" (although it takes nearly as long to get to the point), but you could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

(Reviewed January 25, 2001, by James Dawson)

Here is all you need to know about this ineptly made, moronically plotted, and abysmally stupid movie: NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THE GIRLS GETS NAKED. Not even topless. Sorry, Denise Richards fans. She may have bared her breasts in "Wild Things," but not this time around. And since bared boobs are absolutely the only reason to go see idiotic movies like this one, save your money. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Move right along. Thank you.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Valentine's Day
(Reviewed February 3, 2010, by James Dawson)

Don't be duped into thinking that this witless waste of more than two endless hours will be another He's Just Not That Into You. Although both movies share a hordes-of-interconnected-characters format, that's where the similarity ends.

Last year's He's Just Not That Into You managed to transcend typical rom-com cliches by being amusing, clever and interesting. "Valentine's Day" is unfunny, predictable and as boring as a bad date.

But the main difference between the two chick flicks (cue the irony siren) is that "Valentine's Day" has no heart. Every would-be human element here is sitcom-jokey, unconvincing or just plain dumb. A climactic scene at an Indian restaurant, for example, goes to insultingly beyond-contrived lengths to bring several principals together -- but can't make us care about any of them.

I won't bother enumerating this movie's multitude of fatal flaws. Instead, being the sort of sunny and happy-go-lucky fellow I am, I'll reveal the only two things about this abomination that weren't lousy:

The only bit of dialog that seems original occurs when someone points out that a street called Moorpark is "kraproom" spelled backward. (Obviously, the humor here is not exactly on an elevated plane.) Note that the line only works for those familiar with Los Angeles, however, who know that such a street actually exists. For anyone unacquainted with San Fernando Valley geography, the street in question may as well have been called "Emwolb Avenue."

Also, I find Taylor Swift irresistibly adorable. She's the only cast member here who doesn't seem to be mugging, slumming or sleepwalking through her role, possibly because she has almost nothing to do except be charmingly gawky and goofy and carry around a gigantic stuffed bear.

Guys, if you think you have to take a date to see this movie in order to get laid, make it easy on yourself and buy a nice box of chocolates instead.

Mmmmm, chocolate.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed December 25, 2008, by James Dawson)

Not-bad account of a failed plot against Hitler, starring Tom Cruise as a Nazi with a conscience. What's unexpected is that the story actually gets more interesting after the bomb goes off. Also, this is one of those rare movies that makes you want to research more about the true story upon which it is based.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Vanilla Sky
(Reviewed November 29, 2001, by James Dawson)

Incredibly inferior remake of the 1997 Spanish film "Open Your Eyes"--which was no cinema classic itself, but which was immeasurably better than this junked-up, high-gloss, completely offputting Hollywood version.

The amazing thing about this shoddy retread is that virtually everything director Cameron Crowe added to the original is clumsy, forced and wrongheaded. (The only exception is a truly astounding shot of a deserted Times Square at the beginning of the film, which is so impressive that everyone seeing it will wonder the same thing: "DAMN! How much did it cost to get those streets shut down long enough to get THAT shot?")

Chief among the misbegotten changes was Crowe's decision to rummage through his record collection and jukebox the film with song after song after song under nearly every scene, performed by wildly disparate artists ranging from Peter Gabriel to REM to U2 to Freur (anybody else remember "Doot Doot?"). As dull as Crowe's movie is, it would be inconceivably worse without this near constant steroid-like juicing by out-of-context hit singles. (Try this experiment: As soon as a song you recognize begins playing during the movie, tune it out and merely watch what is happening onscreen. Voila, you now know the secret ingredient for making even the most amateurish home movies memorable!)

More complaints: Penelope Cruz played the role of Sofia in Spanish in the original and now in English here. Not being bilingual, I have no idea how convincing her line-readings were in her native tongue, but she certainly seemed more naturalistic in "Open Your Eyes." In "Vanilla Sky," her heavily accented English and awkward delivery add up to Damn Bad Acting.

Tom Cruise, playing a spoiled rich kid (kid???) who may or may not have committed a murder and who is losing his hold on reality, meanders through the movie in two modes: Way Too Intense and Way Too Laid Back. A couple of things that were added to the script (not in the original, in other words) reflect what could be the zillion-dollar hand of an ego-driven superstar/producer at work: Cruise's character's mistress refers to him having sex with her four times in one night (wow, what a stud!). And Cruise's character at one point feels the need to tell another man, "I'm straight" (wow, what a heterosexual stud!).

Worst of all, this movie's supporting cast includes my personal choice for Actor I Most Would Enjoy Never, Ever Seeing Again: Jason Lee. As Cruise's best friend, Lee is so teeth-gratingly, skin-crawlingly annoying that I could not imagine any human being willingly remaining in his company for more than two seconds. Oofah!

The strangest thing about the movie is that it manages to sink under the weight of Crowe's tinkerings and obtrusive little record-maven obsessions (a Dylan album-cover reference is just too sickeningly precious to be believed) even though most of the film is virtually a line-for-line translation of the Spanish original. Crowe's billing as "writer/producer" is a real howl; I think the translator who did the subtitles on the VHS copy of "Open Your Eyes" should challenge that credit with the Writers Guild. The only substantial original writing Crowe did involved completely messing up the movie's ending, rendering it nearly incomprehensible.

Lord only knows how the Great Unwashed will respond to this crazy Cuisinart concoction of "A.I.," "The Family Man," "The Matrix" and "Vertigo." The movie's ad campaign implies that it is a romantic thriller, making no mention of the fact that it has a huge, head-scratching dollop of fourth-rate Philip K. Dick science fiction thrown in.

My prediction: Everyone who sees "Vanilla Sky" on opening weekend will kill this movie dead with bad word-of-mouth by the following Friday, consigning it to the same ashheap as Cruise's similarly pointless and pompous "Eyes Wide Shut."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Vanity Fair
(Reviewed August 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Reese Witherspoon is no Vivian Leigh. Which is too bad, because this lush adaptation of the sprawlingly melodramatic Thackeray novel cries out for a Becky Sharp who -- like "Gone With the Wind"'s Scarlett O'Hara -- manages to be irresistibly endearing even when she is calculatingly ambitious.

Instead, Witherspoon's portrayal of Sharp reminds me of an insufferable administrative assistant with whom I once had the misfortune to work. This self-proclaimed "superwoman," who thought she was a spunky dynamo on her way to Better Things, was actually such an unpleasant, transparently two-faced shrew that she got shitcanned by the boss she thought was her biggest professional ally.

(Note to small children who may learn the wrong lesson from the preceding story: Life is very rarely so just.)

Then again, maybe Thackeray intended for Sharp to be vaguely off-putting and obviously duplicitous, with a sort of permanent smirk that we are to believe goes unnoticed by everyone she charms. (God knows I'm not going to read the nearly thousand-page novel to find out. That would cut too deeply into my "cursing fate" time.) Still, this movie version would have worked better with a slightly softer-edged Sharp than Witherspoon, the set of whose jaw alone would make strong men cover their privates.

Bob Hoskins is enjoyable as the cartoonishly vulgar Sir Pitt Crawley, who hires Sharp to governess his daughters. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is appropriately nasty but ultimately too one-dimensional as the caddish George Osborne, husband of Sharp's friend Amelia (Romola Garai). Rhys Ifans' portrayal of William Dobbin, an upstanding sad-sack "nice guy" who is smitten with Amelia, ends up being unintentionally comic, thanks to his pathetically hangdog reactions to the oblivious Amelia's repeated rebuffs. And Gabriel Byrne, as the stereotypical filthy-rich deus ex machina, lacks only waxed moustache tips to twirl when "pay to the piper" time arrives.

One often has the impression that very long passages of the book have been condensed into single script pages. (Fighting Napoleon takes less time than eating a napoleon.)

One sequence created for the movie, a ridiculously inappropriate Indian slave dance performed by a harem-costumed Sharp for the King of England, is preposterously misguided. (According to the press notes, this flakey "Flashdance" moment has been substituted for a mere game of charades that takes place in the novel. Which says absolutely everything you need to know about Hollywood, frankly.)

Also, I have to confess that I had completely forgotten the identity of an important character who returns near the end, because the cast is so large that some members don't get much screen time.

Still -- and I know this will come as a surprise, considering the foregoing -- this really isn't an awful movie. For all of its problems, "Vanity Fair" is consistently engaging, in a kind of "classy trash" fashion. Don't get me wrong, this is no "Barry Lyndon." Stanley Kubrick was able to bring that Thackeray novel to the screen with the kind of artistic vision of which masterpieces are made.

But the trials, triumphs and tribulations of Becky Sharp -- who goes beyond social-climbing to mountaineering, as one character observes -- are certainly never boring.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

National Lampoon's Van Wilder
(Reviewed February 25, 2002, by James Dawson)

This movie desperately wishes it were "Ferris Bueller Goes to College." Unfortunately, it is somewhat hampered in that aspiration by the fact that it is insistently, maddeningly, thoroughly unfunny. Continuing in the tradition of movies that try to outgross the Farrelly Brothers, this timewaster also includes such charming elements as dog semen, diarrhea and a schoolbus-load of projectile-vomiting kids. And they say that wit died with Wilde.

Absolutely the only thing I enjoyed about this wallow in the abyss was the presence of Tara Reid, simply because I like her looks. I also like the fact that she always seems as if she is ready to start crying, because she seems mopey and depressed all the time. (Lord knows why this is appealing, but--combined with her raspy monotone of a voice--it is strangely charming.)

Go rent "Ferris Bueller" again, instead of torturing yourself by attending this humorless abomination.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F (saved from an "F minus" by the presence of Ms. Reid)

(Reviewed February 16, 2001, by James Dawson)

Go see this one for its unbelievably gorgeous production design and beautiful costumes. As for the story...let's just say this is no "Barry Lyndon" or "Dangerous Liasions," although it clearly aspires to be both.

Gerard Depardieu may be regarded by the French as the best actor who ever drew breath, but he stumbles and mumbles through this movie in a way that sabotages the entire film. His character, Vatel, is the headstrong coordinator of all things festive for a bankrupt ex-general who hopes to impress the visiting King Lous XIV. If the King is sufficiently impressed by the various entertainments at the estate, it is hoped that he will bestow a new commission (and considerable treasury funds) upon the gout-ridden general.

The King's considerable entourage includes a large complement of schemers and scoundrels who engage in various forms of court intrigue. Vatel's heart is won by lady-in-waiting Uma Thurman, who also is desired by the King's right-hand man (Tim Roth) and by the King himself (who beds her for the first time during his stay at the general's estate). But Uma prefers Vatel.

For the plot of this movie to work, Depardieu would have to show a lot more charm and sex-appeal than comes through here. Also, to be frank, he should be about 30 years younger. It's ridiculous that the cliche of "grampaw getting lucky" -- that is, of sixty-ish men attracting women half their age -- is so prevalent in movies that it even appears in would-be "high-brow" movies such as this. It's not as if Depardieu is playing some vital, wealthy or powerful figure in this movie (in other words, he is not playing the kind of desirable man who could land a trophy babe like Uma). Although he supervises peasants, he basically is a peasant himself, one whom his master can put up for collateral in a card game. And yet we are supposed to believe that Uma would jump into bed with him. Gee, it sure would be nice to live in THAT universe (if you're a guy, that is).

Depardieu seems distracted and uninvolved throughout the film. Also, in a movie in which everyone speaks perfect English, his command of the language is less than impressive. At the risk of making what will sound like the lowbrow critical complaint of the century, his performance reminded me of Jackie Chan. You know, the way that Chan can try acting his little heart out, but every time he opens his mouth he quite obviously does not have a complete grasp of English? Same thing here with GD.

So, what you get here is a movie with a slight plot, a King Louis XIV who looks like a cleaned-up Howard Stern, a sexy Uma Thurman (but don't expect to get another look at those amazingly wonderful breasts she bared in "Dangerous Liasions," because she keeps them safely under wraps here), a shambling and mush-mouthed Gerard Depardieu, and some visuals and cinematography that will knock your eyes out. Hey, you could do worse.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed December 8, 2006, by James Dawson)

Peter O'Toole is Oscar-worthy excellent as an elderly and erudite actor in love with a coarse, utterly uncultured but strangely charming teenager (Jodie Whittaker) who is the grand-niece of his fussy fellow-actor best friend (Leslie Phillips).

Forget "Lolita Does London" lust and lasciviousness, though. The movie is more about the wistfulness, enchantment and desperate yearning that can be inspired in men of any age by the right unobtainable girl.

The note-perfect screenplay by Hanif Kureishi also paints a wry but melancholy portrait of what the sunset years are like for O'Toole's aging character, his financially struggling ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave) and his past-their-prime friends. Director Roger Michell gets everything right, from the humor to the pathos to the quiet moments when an adoring look conveys everything we need to know.

Without proper handling, certain elements of the script could have smacked of nothing deeper than wanton wish-fantasy material for dirty middle-aged-and-older men. Although Whittaker delivers occasional rebuffs to O'Toole's advances that range from verbal insults to a sharp elbow jab, she's always ultimately forgiving. What keeps this believable is the fact that O'Toole so obviously is a basically decent and thoughtful old chap, one for whom lustfully inappropriate remarks and gestures have more in common with replaying a favorite remembered role than acting on irresistible impulse.

Whittaker is wonderful at conveying slowly dawning understanding and respect for a man four times her age who thinks of her as his own personal Venus, eventually seeing the humanity beneath the horndog. Incredibly, this is Whittaker's screen debut.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Vera Drake
(Reviewed February 7, 2005, by James Dawson)

Good low-key character study (translation: no gunplay, space aliens or snappy dance numbers) about a 50-something, twinkly-eyed freelance abortionist and her lower-class friends-and-family in 1950 England. Not exactly a good date movie (ain't nobody gettin' lucky after this one!), but an interesting slice o' life that manages to be suspenseful even if you think you know what's coming.

What's really impressive is that I can't see how people on either side of the abortion issue could get indignant about "Vera Drake." (Wait, what am I saying? I live in an ass-backwards country where conservative morons go into spasms of frothing outrage over "Million Dollar Baby." There's no way the holier-than-thou red-state retards here in the "land of the free" are gonna give a movie about abortion a fair shake!)

Anyway, getting back to my obviously flawed point: Although Vera is portrayed as a human being (as opposed to a baby-killing monster), abortion definitely does not come off as a wonderful thing here. So pro-lifers and pro-choicers both have something to like.

Also, "Vera Drake" gets high marks for not once mentioning religion. Yes, boneheaded Bible-thumpers of the world, there actually are some people who don't live their lives based on silly-ass fairy-tale nonsense about an all-powerful God who sits in judgment of our sins.

Gee, can you tell that I'm not feeling particularly charitable toward the monkey-minded, W-loving masses today? I am so sick to death of the fact that America is being run by hypocritical, lying, chickenhawk war criminals that I could fucking scream. Could somebody please step forward to act as the kind of charismatic leader who could deliver our benighted nation from all-encompassing evil? I mean, seriously, is that asking too much?

Don't look for me to do it. I'm much too busy cataloging my CDs.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Vertical Limit
(Reviewed November 18, 2000, by James Dawson)

A stupid script that trots out almost every cliche in the book. Characters who are so laughably unbelievable the actors should have walked off the set (or jumped off the mountain) in embarrassment. Dumb coincidences. Terrible dialog. An awful ending.

Beautiful snow-covered mountains (and a few good action scenes of people sliding off of them) simply are not enough to make up for the dumb story. Go find a copy of "Everest" instead of wasting time on this junk. "Everest" is a non-fiction documentary from last year that is absolutely fascinating, about a doomed expedition to the summit. In other words, the same basic story as this movie, except featuring people who actually are believable as people.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
(Reviewed November 3, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

A Very Long Engagement
(Reviewed October 13, 2004, by James Dawson)

As the Greatest Girl Who Ever Lived put it after we saw a screening, "They should have called it `A Very Long Movie.'"

Director/Co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tatou definitely do not recreate the magic of their previous pairing, the excellent "Amelie." This time around, Tatou is the pining fiancee of a World War I soldier who may or may not be dead. She enlists a private investigator and does much sleuthing herself to track down other soldiers who served with him, as well as their womenfolk.

The movie is so needlessly disjointed and complicated that keeping characters and chronologies straight is difficult. Where "Amelie" was able to keep a complex structure from becoming confusing, "A Very Long Engagement" is so convoluted that we eventually stop caring about what unfolds. Also, there are times when what are supposed to be revelations are completely baffling. (I have no idea what the words that are left behind on that chalkboard at one point are supposed to indicate, or how the person who made them into a code knew that the chalkboard would still have those words on it in those same positions years later.)

The movie does look great, though. Many scenes have a golden glow about them. The WWI trench scenes are elaborately staged and convincingly realistic. And locations such as a balloon hangar that has been converted into an infirmary look amazing.

By the time the credits roll, it's hard not to think of "A Very Long Engagement" as anything more than a sappy romance that's been goosed with a non-linear plot.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

V for Vendetta
(Reviewed February 24, 2006, by James Dawson)

Alan Moore, writer and co-creator of the original comic-book version of "V for Vendetta," would not let his name appear anywhere in this movie's credits.

Wise decision.

Don't be duped by those "from the creators of `The Matrix'" TV ads. Although the script for "V for Vendetta" was adapted by "Matrix" writers/directors the Wachowski Brothers, this unfortunate abomination was helmed by "Matrix" first assistant director John McTeigue. Quite ineptly directed, in fact. The film alternates between a kind of histrionic scenery-chewing camp and relentlessly dull stretches that are as boring as a boob-tube police procedural.

Don't expect any "Matrix"-like visuals or "whoah" moments, either. Everything here looks surprisingly cheesy. Aside from a few very conventional explosions, the only special effect in evidence consists of "vapor trails" made by thrown daggers in a single scene. No bullet-time or wire-work here, kiddies!

The plot, a blend of "1984," "Batman" and "The Phantom of the Opera," is about a medical experiment survivor turned terrorist antihero (Hugo Weaving) in a near-future, Big-Brother Britain. Going only by the name "V" and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask -- emulating the revolutionary conspirator who tried to blow up the houses of Parliament in 1605 -- he enlists the aid of a girl named Evey (Natalie Portman), whose liberal-minded parents were hauled off to concentration camps when she was a child.

Faithfully translating the wit, style and richness of character development that is found in the more than 250-page comics series may have been an impossible task for a two-hours-and-change movie. Moore is rightly hailed as one of the best writers ever to grace the colorful pages of what snobs prefer to call "graphic novels." Many consider his "Watchmen" series to be the greatest thing ever done in the medium, but (largely because "Watchmen"'s visual format is so rigidly monotonous and its ending so unoriginal and anticlimactic) "V for Vendetta" actually is a much more satisfying work.

There is so much depth, there is such a large cast, and there are so many cleverly interlocking pulp-opera plotlines in Moore's (and artist David Lloyd's) original comic-book "V for Vendetta" that even a 10-hour miniseries probably wouldn't do it justice. That means the absence here of several secondary characters, detailed subplots and fascinating tangents, while unfortunate, was to be expected.

But the Wachowskis went way beyond trimming and condensing the material for this shamefully screwed-up screen adaptation. They have added entirely new scenes and characters that are so infuriatingly awful and utterly wrong they come off like acts of cinematic sabotage.

Sure, movies aren't comics, and something is going to get lost in translation even when filmmakers have the best of intentions. But absolutely every change that the Wachowskis made to Moore's original story was a mistake.

A few examples:

In the opening pages of the comics version, Evey is a defeated and hopeless 16-year-old with a poor-paying job in munitions. She is so desperate for money that she makes the difficult decision to prostitute herself, but is assaulted by corrupt cops the first night she tries streetwalking. She is rescued by V, who takes her to his lair for safety, because he knows she will be identified by security monitors and become a target of the authorities.

In the movie, Evey is a well-dressed 20-something TV production assistant. She is assaulted by corrupt cops when she is on her way to her boss's house for an illicit assignation that she hopes will further her career. V rescues her, but does not take her away with him. Instead, Evey goes to work the next day, as if she's so stupid that she thinks no one in the oppressive police state will track her down and come after her there. V shows up when the cops do, and spirits her away.

Later in the comic, Evey dresses as a child prostitute to get inside the home of a pedophile priest and leave a window open, in order for V to gain admission and kill the perv. (Yes, she's dressed as a young girl, not a young boy. Wow, this really IS an alternate universe!) Although she later expresses anger to V, saying she didn't expect him actually to kill the priest, she continues living with V and develops a growing attraction to him.

In the movie, Natalie Portman does the jailbait-outfit bit and gets into the priest's bedroom -- but then tries to warn the priest that he is about to be killed. Her betrayal of V makes absolutely no sense. She escapes and seeks refuge at the home of her TV-star boss (Stephen Fry), a character who does not appear in the comic. In the movie's most painfully awful new scene, Fry later does a disrespectful comedy skit on his TV show about the country's dictatorial leader, thinking that he will suffer no reprisals because of his popularity. Huh? What part of "totalitarian police state" doesn't he understand? Even worse, the skit just plain isn't funny, even though we are treated to numerous shots of viewers reacting with gasping hilarity.

The nature of the medical experiment that created V in the comic is not the same as the one in the movie. The British landmarks that blow up in the movie do so in a different order that makes far less dramatic sense. A very important comics scene involving information about V's identity does not appear in the movie. Worst of all, the ending of the movie is different, and howlingly idiotic to boot. (The impossible logistics of V's mass home-deliveries in the movie boggle the mind.)

The biggest drawback of this adaptation, though, is probably best explained by a truism I learned in a freshman Humanities course several misspent eons ago: "Changing the form changes the content." Seeing even a reverently faithful comics-to-film translation like last year's "Sin City" isn't the same as reading the original. Some things work better in comics, some in film.

The mask that V never removes, for example, seems iconic and intriguing in illustrations on the printed page -- but watching a living actor perform in a full-face mask for two hours gets pretty damned boring. Also, as in most comics adaptations, outrageously bizarre action scenes that make for dynamically dramatic drawings can end up looking positively silly when it's real people who are doing the costumed fighting-for-justice thing.

The problem with this movie goes deeper than that, though. By way of explanation, I offer this charming anecdote:

As I was leaving the "V for Vendetta" screening, a security guard asked me, "Well, was it like the comic book?"

Without thinking, I instantly answered "no" -- even though many parts of the movie look exactly right, from an art-direction viewpoint...and even though some scenes are nearly word-for-word identical to their comic-book equivalents...and even though the basic plot is the same. (A rumor circulating during the making of the movie, which said the Wachowskis had changed Moore's fascists-triumphant dystopia to an alternate future in which the Nazis had conquered England, was completely false.) Anyone seeing a collection of still photos from the production probably would think the movie looked like a fanboy's dream come true.

It wasn't like the comic book, though.

The comic book was good.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
(Reviewed July 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

One of the best movies of the year.

In this thoroughly charming, casually sophisticated and genuinely funny comedy from writer/director Woody Allen, sensible-smart-sexy Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and impulsive-romantic-sexy Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are beautiful American friends spending a summer in Barcelona. Vicky is working on her master's thesis on Catalan culture, while Cristina is getting over the fact that she just spent the last six months making a 12-minute film that she ended up hating.

When seductively smooth but utterly guileless painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) candidly asks the girls to join him for a weekend trip that will include sightseeing and making love, the about-to-be-married Vicky is indignant and offended. (Vicky, in fact, often serves as this movie's Woody surrogate, frequently making amusingly deadpan remarks and flabbergasted observations with Allen's trademark "do you believe this?" style.)

The adventurous Cristina says she wants to take Juan Antonio up on his offer, however, so Vicky resentfully and reluctantly tags along.

I don't want to reveal too much more of the plot, which takes unpredictable turns at every point where a typical Hollywood rom-com would resort to lazy by-the-numbers cliches. Although we've seen main characters like these before -- Hall is absolutely adorable in the "wait, am I marrying the wrong guy?" role, and Johansson is delicious as the sexy free spirit -- they are so well defined and smartly written here that they seem both convincing and new. Bardem is perfect as an utterly honest and genuinely sincere sexiest-man-alive. And I haven't even mentioned Penélope Cruz, who is terrific as Bardem's hilariously passionate spitfire of an ex-wife.

I even liked never knowing how the girls could afford their very long vacation. If you have to ask, you're definitely not part of their social set.

This warm and witty sex comedy is the third movie Allen has made with his new muse Johansson, after the excellent suspense drama "Match Point" and the amusingly goofy slapstick "Scoop." Here's hoping they continue collaborating until they run out of genres. SF? A western? Scarlett as a neurotic Nietzsche-quoting superheroine? Cross your fingers!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

An educational aside: Several locations in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" prominently feature the amazing work of architect Antoni Gaudí, whose life came to a tragic end that's like something out of a novel. Here's an excerpt of his biography from Wikipedia, which I've copy-edited slightly:

Gaudi was an ardent Catholic, to the point that in his later years he abandoned secular work and devoted his life to Catholicism and his Sagrada Família (cathedral). He designed it to have 18 towers, 12 for the 12 apostles, four for the four evangelists, one for Mary and one for Jesus. Soon after, his closest family and friends began to die. His works slowed to a halt, and his attitude changed. One of his closest family members – his niece Rosa Egea – died in 1912, only to be followed by a "faithful collaborator, Francesc Berenguer Mestres" two years later. After these tragedies, Barcelona fell on hard times, economically. The construction of La Sagrada Família slowed; the construction of La Colonia Güell ceased altogether. Four years later, Eusebi Güell, his patron, died.

Perhaps it was because of this unfortunate sequence of events that Gaudi changed. He became reluctant to talk with reporters or have his picture taken and solely concentrated on his masterpiece, La Sagrada Família.

On June 7, 1926, Gaudi was run over by a tram. Because of his ragged attire and empty pockets, many cab drivers refused to pick him up for fear that he would be unable to pay the fare. He was eventually taken to a pauper's hospital in Barcelona. Nobody recognized the injured artist until his friends found him the next day. When they tried to move him into a nicer hospital, Gaudi refused, reportedly saying "I belong here among the poor." He died three days later on June 10, 1926, half of Barcelona mourning his death. He was buried in the midst of La Sagrada Família.

Although Gaudi was constantly changing his mind and recreating his blueprints, the only existing copy of his last recorded blueprints were destroyed by the anarchists in 1938 at the height of Franco's invasion of Barcelona. This has made it very difficult for his workers to complete the cathedral in the same fashion as Gaudí most likely would have wished. La Sagrada Família is now being completed, but differences between his work and the new additions can be seen.

As of 2007, completion of the Sagrada Familía is planned for 2026. However, this may prove wildly optimistic if the worst fears of many eminent engineers and architects are realized. These have pointed out the structural dangers posed by a tunnel for a TGV-style high-speed rail, which would run within feet of the church’s foundations; one might note the precedent of one metro tunnel in Barcelona’s Carmel district that collapsed and destroyed an entire city block on the 27th of February 2005.

Interesting, no?

Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights - Hollywood to the Heartland
(Reviewed April 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

Okay, this is really embarrassing. I didn't get around to reviewing nine movies that I saw at advance screenings earlier this year until after they were released, and this was one of them. (None of the neglected nine could be mistaken for cinematic classics, which partially explains my regrettable lapse.) But in the time-honored slacker spirit of "better late than never," I have written one-paragraph reviews of each.

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


VINCE VAUGHN'S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW: 30 DAYS & 30 NIGHTS - HOLLYWOOD TO THE HEARTLAND: I've already forgotten every one of the stand-up routines featured in this documentary-style compilation of onstage and backstage footage, shot during a 30-city bus tour that featured Vaughn and four alleged comics. That's because absolutely none of their material is fresh or clever -- or funny, damn it! All I recall is that I didn't laugh a single time, and that the deservedly unknown comics came off like parodies of desperate "open mike night" losers trying to sell lame, lowest-common-denominator material. Katrina hit during the month-long tour, and a scene featuring homeless victims of the hurricane being visited and "cheered up" by the bus-o'-bozos feels pandering and incredibly awkward. But not in a funny way. Damn it!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

(Reviewed May 17, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed September 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

The title means "coming back," as in spirits of the dead revisiting the living, in this Pedro Almodovar trifle. Penelope Cruz is the hot-hot-hot mother of a 14-year-old daughter who kills dear old dad when he tries to get in her pants. They have to dispose of his body, when they're not secretly running a vacant restaurant while the owner is out of town. Meanwhile, Cruz's dead mother mysteriously reappears and moves in with Cruz's sister, pretending to be a Russian hairdresser's assistant.

It's all semi-amusing, but nothing worth leaving the house to see. Also, Ms. Cruz never undresses, although Almodovar does provide a down-blouse shot in one scene that's so gratuitous it's actually funny.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

The Vow
(Reviewed February 9, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(5) What was the deal with Tuvok's mad rant, which led absolutely nowhere? More than anything else in the episode--the rushed and confusing ending, the terrible pacing, the complete lack of emotional punch--this had the feeling of something that fell victim to an incompetent editing job. Translation: Some resolution of this hanging thread must have been filmed, even though we didn't see it in the episode that aired. Maybe the original script will turn up on the Internet somewhere and reveal what the heck he was talking about...

(6) Time travel always has been...problematic...on this show, because the inherent paradoxes make so many stories simply fall apart. The basic problem is that the show allows for multiple alternative futures (instead of sticking to the golden-age Heinlein "one timeline" rule), and yet wants to have it both ways by making those alternative futures vanish if the past is altered. (Using Heinlein's golden-age rule, Abraham Lincoln can never be saved because Abraham Lincoln WASN'T saved; no time traveller appeared to stop John Wilkes Booth, and so no time-traveller ever will stop him. There is one unalterable past that incorporates all time-travelers' efforts to change it, which therefore also means that no future visitor can make his own existence impossible by preventing his own conception.) In this episode, the dying Borg Queen says that if Captain Janeway dies, then Admiral Janeway never would exist: "If she has no future, then you will never exist, and nothing you have done here today [destroying the Borg Queen and the hub] will happen." But think about it for a second and that reasoning falls apart: Captain Janeway only would be dying because Admiral Janeway has appeared from the future and set Captain Janeway on the course of action that led to Captain Janeway's death. Silly.

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D