Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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(Reviewed October 20, 2008)

Josh Brolin and Richard Dreyfuss give amazing portrayals of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in this surprisingly sympathetic portrait of America's WORST...PRESIDENT...EVER.

Audiences expecting a vicious hatchet job by famously liberal and conspiracy-friendly director Oliver Stone are in for a shock. The tone of "W." is more understanding than indicting, depicting Bush not as a cynically dishonest demagogue but as an undisciplined dumbbell with daddy issues.

Although not strictly a comedy, "W." frequently is funny -- in a "laughing at him, not with him" sense. Or maybe it's an "if you don't laugh, you'll cry" sense, depending on your politics.

Flitting back and forth through time, the movie shows Bush acing a humiliating fraternity initiation, meeting future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), screwing up on the job, drinking (a lot), and becoming a born-again Christian. He eventually runs for elected office in an attempt to impress his disdainful father, President George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), who blatantly favors "Junior"'s smarter and less troublesome brother Jeb.

Brolin perfectly mimics Bush's simian physicality, fumbling grammar and good ol' boy garrulousness. In appearance and temperament, Dreyfuss is flawless as W's snidely insinuating VP Dick Cheney, and Toby Jones is perfect as calculating campaign manager Karl Rove. The cast's only weak link is Thandie Newton, cartoonishly unbelievable as national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

The screenplay often gives characters what feels like too much benefit of the doubt, integrity-wise. There's never a suggestion that Bush's religious conversion might be image-motivated, and he genuinely appears to believe that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Also, Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is given an awful lot of credit for being nobly conscientious and conflicted about invading Iraq, despite the fact that it was Powell who laid out the case for war at the United Nations.

Much of the movie feels like a sampler of memorable moments, some of which may be too recent to view dispassionately. Still, there's something genuinely poignant about Bush's eventual realization that the Iraq war -- the centerpiece of his presidency -- has become as much of a fouled-up fiasco as nearly everything else he ever touched in his life. br>
Back Row Grade: C-

The Wackness
(Reviewed June 20, 2008, by James Dawson)

A conflicted, drug-dealing, psychiatric-patient teen with the hots for an authority figure's yummy daughter...wait, didn't we already see this movie earlier this year, when it was called "Charlie Bartlett?"

Actually, the similarities pretty much end there, mainly because "The Wackness" is more of a semi-reality-based, depressing drag than the mainstream-quirky, supposed-to-be-funny "Charlie Bartlett." In "The Wackness," Luke's (Josh Peck) parents are facing eviction from their NY apartment because of mountainous debts, his psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) is suicidally miserable because his marriage is on the rocks, and Luke's kinda-girlfriend Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) is a jaded and vastly more sexually experienced enigma.

I'm kind of on the fence about whether to recommend this movie; it's not all that great, but at least it's moderately interesting, and it doesn't go down any predictable Hollywood paths. Kingsley hams things up way too much in his "old dude trying to have way too much fun" scenes, but redeems himself in others where we see the poignancy of what it's like to be an old dude who knows that his having-way-too-much-fun days actually are far behind him.

This is another of those "little" movies that probably will lose nothing if you see it at home instead of at a theater. So what the heck, give it a look.

Back Row Grade: C+

(Reviewed May 16, 2006, by James Dawson)

Actor Richard E. Grant ("How to Get Ahead in Advertising") wrote and directed this dreadful memoir about his childhood in 1960s British-colonial Swaziland, where indiscreet mom cheated on violently drunk dad, who later married an American "air hostess."

That’s about it, plot-wise. It’s all supposed to be very moving and emotionally wrenching, but everything here is more theatrically melodramatic than convincing. When Gabriel Byrne, as Grant’s father, upends a bottle of whiskey during one of his family-devastating benders, the hammy scene is so unintentionally funny that it’s hard not to laugh.

Also, far be it from me to nitpick, but I can’t imagine a worse or more uncommercial title for this movie. "Wah-Wah" is the derogatory term that Grant’s American stepmother (Emily Watson) uses in one scene to describe the dialect of British upper-crusters.

Is Grant saying that this movie itself is an inaccessible exercise in haughty arrogance? Or maybe the title is a reference to the George Harrison song of the same name (not heard in the film), which was about a headache.

Hmmm...maybe it’s not such a bad title for this movie after all.

Back Row Grade: F

(Reviewed August 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

Ryan Reynolds. If those two words aren't enough to keep you far away from this egregious example of unamusing vulgarity, you obviously never saw "National Lampoon's Van Wilder." Holy God, what a piece of crap.

Reynolds once again plays a Richard-Roeperish, smugly prissy prick. He's like the horrible, humorless bastard child of Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, portraying a deadpan, too-cool-for-the-room waiter at a TGI Fridays-type eatery staffed by underachievers, bitches and idiots.

If you regard the concept of resentful restaurant employees sabotaging the clientele's food as either (a) fresh or (b) funny, or if you find the idea of rapping wiggers irresistibly hilarious, or if you just had your third lobotomy, this may be the flick for you. Personally, the only thing I liked about it was looking at the skinny, exotically ethnic cutie Vanessa Lengies, who plays a nearly-no-longer-jailbait hostess named Natasha. Also, it's interesting to see the big, badass, bald black guy from "House" as a wisdom-dispensing dishwasher who can't seem to decide whether he has a New York accent.

Justin Long is okay as the sanest member of the restaurant crew, a thoughtful guy who is starting to get bothered by the realization that he is in a wholly unsatisfying dead-end job. He's also nearly the only cast member without a terminal case of "Kevin Smithitis": He doesn't talk like a crude, boringly verbose smartass from an achingly unfunny sitcom.

Smutty. Stupid. Suckful.

Back Row Grade: F

(Reviewed April 28, 2007)

Keri Russell is just plain wonderful in this offbeat yet sweetly sentimental comedy about a pie-baking waitress who has an abusive husband, a baby on the way that she doesn't want, and an obstetrician who loves her.

The best thing about Russell's performance is that she plays the title character as a believably cynical woman with a dark sense of humor but a desperate desire to take happiness where she can find it -- instead of as a wisecracking sitcom stereotype. A lot of what goes on around her may be a tad reminiscent of the 1970s sitcom "Alice," but Russell is so adorable and genuine that she seems 100% real.

I haven't seen another actress yet this year who is more deserving of an Oscar nomination. Who says a chick flick that's the perfect movie to see with your mom on Mother's Day can't be worthwhile?


Back Row Grade: B+

Waking Life
(Reviewed September 25, 2001, by James Dawson)

Are there enough self-absorbed, loopy, pseudo-science spouting sophomore philosophy majors in the world to make this movie a hit? That's doubtful, which is kind of a shame, because "Waking Life" does have some interesting bits among its often tedious segments of dream-theory claptrap. Also, this really is an amazingly beautiful animated movie. It uses a kind of floating, multiplane, rotoscoped animation technique that truly conveys the sense of wandering through a waking dream.

That, in fact, is exactly what the main character does. Unable to wake up, he meets several characters who spout theories on lucid dreaming, the nature of reality and time, and the paradox of free will versus determinism. Heady stuff. Unfortunately, the speakers often come off like the kind of hyped-up motormouths or heads-up-their-asses professors you made it a point to avoid in college. Remember all those times when you felt like you were being held hostage by some speed-tripping, polysyllabic bore with only the loosest of holds on reality, but you were too polite to say, "Man, you are totally full of crap?" That's how a few of the "deep-thinkers" in "Waking Life" come off.

My main problem with the movie's dialog had more to do with the aching obviousness of its polemics than with its new-agey "dreams are reality" piffle. In one segment, a guy drives around spouting political statements through a P.A. system's speakers that are mounted on the top of his car. Although I agree with just about everything he says--essentially, that life in our corporate police state has its suckier aspects--there was nothing especially original or catchy about the way he made his points. "Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same coin." Well, duh!

Then again, maybe some teenagers and twenty-somethings who see this movie at midnight shows, and who have not already figured out that politics and capitalism in this country are a cruel and deceitful sham, will have their political as well as their philosophical consciousnesses raised. Then they can all wake up and VOTE LIBERTARIAN, and life truly will be a dream!

Back Row Grade: C+

Waking Up in Reno
(Reviewed September 25, 2001, by James Dawson)

A lousy, cheap, unamusing and insultingly condescending would-be comedy about two redneck couples a-goin' to Reno for some gamblin' and some monster-truck watchin', with lots of fussin' and fightin' along the way. "Waking Up in Reno" is so consistently bad that one has to wonder what the hell Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron and Natasha Richardson were thinking when they signed on. At least Thornton can assay a hick accent without much trouble. Theron's and Richardson's attempts to sound hillbilly are downright embarrassing. This stinker is such a bomb that as of Fall 2001 it apparently has been pushed back with no set release date, so you may never have a chance to see it in a theater near you--but it is sure to slink and slither onto a shelf at your local Blockbuster eventually. Lordy, it doth suck mightily.

Having said that, there is one good thing about this terrible, terrible movie. Natasha Richardson is so bosomy, sexy, dumb, and just plain all-around effortlessly hot that you will stare at her beautiful face and delicious body in lustful fascination every time she is on the screen. She is the kind of all-woman female who can make an extra 15 pounds look erotic and voluptuous instead of fat. And when she gets dolled up toward the end, in a tight sparkly dress that shows off all of her more-than-generous curves...hooo-weee, she am one purty filly! Yee-haw! Hyuck, hyuck! Gol-dang! Shucks! Hoop-dee-doo! Homina-homina-homina! Hubba-hubba! (Supply your own Tex-Avery-style visuals of my tongue rolling 10 feet out of my mouth and my eyes bulging from my head like tetherballs straining on red ropes.)

Back Row Grade: D- (with Natasha saving it from an "F")

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
(Reviewed November 24, 2007, by James Dawson)

Often funny and sometimes hilarious biopic about fictional musician Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly), whose various career reinventions parody icons ranging from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan to the Beatles and beyond.

Although "Walk Hard" is clearly aimed at baby-boomers (the poster's nod to Jim Morrison will be lost on almost everyone under 40), there are plenty of laughs here even for the iPod generation. Especially the gag involving horse shit, which is a universal laugh-out-loud moment. Okay, maybe I have low standards.

Be sure to stick around until the end of the credits for one final zinger you won't want to miss.

Back Row Grade: B

Walk the Line
(Reviewed October 27, 2005, by James Dawson)

Pretty good bio of Johnny Cash, with an excellent performance by Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, even if parts of the Man in Black's story have been "Hollywoodized." For example, according to the LA Times, the inmates at the Folsom prison show were ordered to stay in their seats or the concert would be stopped. In the movie, however, all of the inmates are on their feet and whooping things up like the crazed jail crowd at the end of "The Blues Brothers."

Also, two of the supporting characters are strictly "one-note": Cash's whining first wife and his abusive prick of a father. Even Phoenix himself lays on the "dour" a little too thick for an awful lot of the movie, although he does pull off a few truly joyous recreations of onstage performances (doing his own perfectly adequate singing).

Reese Witherspoon (who also sings in her own voice) does a good job as June Carter, who has no confidence in her talent even though she has been in the spotlight since childhood as a member of the Carter Family.

Cash is drawn to Carter even though he has a wife and kids. Carter, married with kids herself when they meet, reluctantly returns his affections even though she knows she shouldn't. The bumpy road trip of their romance includes multiple divorces, drug abuse, cancelled tours, an onstage meltdown and jail time, plus some really great music.

Parts of the story are corny, such as when a dejected June Carter sits in her car saying to herself, "It burns, it burns," as if ad-libbing the lines to her later song "Ring of Fire." But most of "Walk the Line" is better than it had to be, and certainly never boring.

One piece of advice to anyone who wants to see this movie: See it in a theater, not at home on DVD. The raucous musical performances just won't be the same on a TV in your living room. Also, the slow-build impact of the movie's great opening scene -- with a camera tracking toward the Folsom auditorium where Cash's band is playing -- is a real movie-moment treat.

Back Row Grade: B-

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
(Reviewed September 29, 2005, by James Dawson)

Nick Park's wonderful animated characters Wallace and Gromit, a flights-of-fancy inventor and his hilariously level-headed dog, finally make the move from short subjects to their first feature-length film. The result is not only the best children's movie of the year, it is one of the best movies of the year, period.

Wallace and Gromit have formed a pest control company called "Anti-Pesto" this time around. They use technology such as the "Bun-Vac" -- a huge device that sucks rabbits into a holding chamber -- to keep area gardens unmolested before a local Giant Vegetable Competition. Not quite having gotten the hang of the "exterminating" aspect of things, they take the captured bunnies home to care for them, which is making things a bit crowded around the house. Business gets a lot busier after the appearance of a monstrously huge-and-hungry rabbit who digs holes big enough to drive a van down.

Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes are excellent as the voices of the ditheringly sweet Lady Tottington and her goofy, gun-happy suitor Victor, who sees Wallace as a rival for Lady T's affections. As always, Peter Sallis supplies the voice of the cheese-loving, well-meaning but often oblivious Wallace. Gromit, although mute, often manages to say more with his eyes and expressions than any of the human characters.

There's plenty of action to keep things moving, including a pair of wild, extended chase scenes that are both exciting and funny. Besides being an affectionate take-off on the werewolf legend, the movie also spoofs things ranging from British society to King Kong to Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. And the bunnies are so gosh-darn cute that you will want to stay all the way through the end credits, just to watch them float by and wave.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Grade: A

(Reviewed June 30, 2008, by James Dawson)

The first half-hour-or-so of this movie is a masterpiece of beautiful computer animation and nearly dialog-free storytelling, about a lonely trash-compacting robot named WALL-E going about his endless duty on an abandoned future earth. The landscapes of that polluted dystopia are stunningly rendered, with skyscraper-high piles of refuse, collapsed freeways and rusting ships lined up in a harbor.

That might not sound like an ideal place for romance to bloom, but WALL-E finds himself smitten when EVE, an elegantly egg-shaped flying probe, shows up from space one day.

If "WALL-E" had kept its feet on the ground -- literally -- it easily would have merited an "A" grade. But as soon as the two robots leave earth, the movie becomes a lot less adult-arty and a lot more generically kid-friendly, in the usual Pixar fashion. That's not to say it is a bad movie, only that it had the potential to be a much better one.

One crucial flaw: During the opening scenes of the movie, we see WALL-E watching a videotape of the movie "Hello, Dolly!" featuring that movie's real, as in "human," actors. We also see footage of Fred Willard -- the actor, not a computer generated version of him -- giving a press conference as a corporate CEO. But when WALL-E and EVE make it to a spaceship, the people there are computer-generated cartoons, which makes no sense.

The ship also is filled with various other robots, some of them misfits, whose manic behavior makes them come off like the wacky casts of Pixar flicks like "Monsters, Inc." or "Cars" -- in other words, completely lacking the quietly touching subtlety of the WALL-E we saw at the beginning of the movie.

The movie ends up becoming more message-oriented than character-oriented, with predictable lessons about how humans should take responsibility for themselves and their planet. The ending feels pretty unconvincing -- I can't imagine anyone reacting to what happens the way the humans do here -- but maybe that's just me being cynical.

Nah, that can't be it...

Back Row Grade: B

(Reviewed February 24, 2012, by James Dawson)

Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd trade city life for country comforts in this sweetly silly comedy, but their Green Acres is a retro-60s Georgia commune called Elysium. While a lot of the humor is "look at those crazy hippies" vintage, the cast of characters is so likable that "Wanderlust" is a trip you'll want to take.

As spouses Linda and George, Aniston and Rudd are merry Manhattanites who have just bought a too-expensive studio apartment advertised as a "micro-loft." Then horrified HBO execs reject Linda's ridiculously depressing documentary about penguins with testicular cancer on the same day that George's employer gets shut down by the feds.

Broke and without any New York prospects, they pack everything in their car and head south to stay with George's obnoxious brother in Atlanta. The montage of their journey's first day, which goes from singalongs to insults to shouting, will resonate with anyone who has taken an extended road trip.

They make an overnight stop at a bed-and-breakfast whose sign promises "Dreams Dispensed Daily, Bring Your Own Container." Elysium turns out to be a throwback summer-of-love commune -- or, as absurdly sincere leader-guru-love god Seth (Justin Theroux) calls it, an "intentional community." Initially resistant, Linda and George end up having such a great night partying with the place's pleasantly addled permanent residents that it's hard for them to leave the next morning.

Life with George's relentlessly sarcastic brother Rick (played by screenplay co-writer Ken Marino) at his mega-materialistic mini-mansion isn't nearly as fulfilling. His permanently plastered wife Marisa (Michaela Watkins) lives by the mantra "if you smile all the time, you can trick your brain into thinking you're happy." Rick sets George up with a dismal data-entry job, but after hearing one condescending joke too many George and Linda return to Elysium to see if they can fit in full time.

Many of the commune's appealing oddballs are counter-culture archetypes dating back to the LBJ era, but they are played with more affection than irony. Seth, a bearded Mel Gibson lookalike that Linda says "smells like walnuts and suede," carries a lamb across his shoulders and plays killer acoustic guitar. Sunnily blond free-love proponent Eva (Malin Akerman) is fetchingly forthright, nudist winemaker Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio) is nerdily needy and radiantly pregnant earth-goddess Almond (Lauren Ambrose) blithely gives birth during a front-porch chat. Somewhat befuddled Carvin (Alan Alda), the authority-challenging owner of Elysium since 1971, is dead set against developers who want to turn the property into a casino resort.

Although producer Judd Apatow is known for crass comedies such as "Get Him to the Greek," "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Wanderlust" only goes super-crude when George practices some outrageously profane pillow talk in front of a mirror and later tries using it on Eva. Those sophomoric scenes are not only inappropriately smutty but inconsistent with George's character.

Otherwise, director/co-writer David Wain (who also directed Rudd in 2008's "Role Models," 2007's "The Ten" and 2001's "Wet Hot American Summer") and co-writer Marino keep things goofy but good-natured. Rudd and Aniston make a cute couple who come to appreciate the simple pleasures of sex, drugs and doorless bathrooms. Linda's psychedelic trip after she drinks some special tea is amusingly surreal, and George's efforts to go with the flow are fish-out-of-water funny.

Bloopers appear at the beginning of the credits, but be sure to stay until the very end to see a short bonus scene that's good for one last laugh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

(Reviewed June 15, 2008, by James Dawson)

Violent idiocy for excitable morons.

I am so fucking sick of "clueless schlub turns out to be The One" plots created to give loser fanboy slackers the false impression that some total fox -- in this case, one named Fox (Angelina Jolie) -- will show up out of nowhere, tell them they are oh-so-special, and set them on the path toward a super-badass destiny.

"Wanted" shoddily rips off the opening of "The Matrix" right down to putting its pale-'n'-douchey hero (James McAvoy) in a similar cubicle-filled office. Then Jolie shows up as the Trinity clone, Morgan Freeman is the Morpheus-like all-knowing black head of the secret organization, and McAvoy/Neo finds out he can do quasi-mystical stuff by speeding up his perception to slow down time. Christ, they may as well have used bullet-time for the SFX and given the fucker a red pill/blue pill option.

Unfortunately, "Wanted" is completely lacking in the kind of dazzlingly innovative style that helped "The Matrix" overcome any logic problems.

"Wanted" does have a few good action scenes, but it's a damned shame they are wasted in such a shitty, stupid waste of time. When a train derails over a bridge and tumbles into a chasm with wimpy wonderlad McAvoy aboard, all I could think was how much I would have preferred seeing that mishap take place in a James Bond movie instead.

In a nutshell, the plot here has McAvoy being recruited by a centuries-old organization whose members assassinate people chosen for execution by the loom of fate. Yeah, you read that right -- a loom of fate. It's an actual friggin' textile loom that weaves binary code into cloth to reveal the names of people who should be killed to keep the world on track. Gawd.

That's not the stupidest thing in the story, though. The ending, which I won't reveal, is flat-out idiotic; all that one character would have had to do at any point in the movie was to pick up a telephone and tell another character a vital bit of information. Hell, he could have put it in a postcard. Or he could have simply shouted it to the other character.

I absolutely hated this movie, but I'm giving it a "D" instead of an "F" because the action scenes are okay -- and because we get a brief look at Jolie's bare ass. Or maybe it's a body double. Either way, that butt gets a thumbs up. Wait, that doesn't sound right...

Back Row Grade: D

War Horse
(Reviewed December 21, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

(Reviewed August 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

The Watcher
(Reviewed September 7, 2000, by James Dawson) The basic gimmick of this movie (serial killer sends photos of would-be victims to police, giving them a day to locate and save them before he strikes) could have made for a typical, run-of-the-mill, mediocre, forgettable-but-not-entirely-stupid direct-to-video cheapie. Unfortunately, someone had the bright idea to give the role of the killer to Keanu Reeves, who projects about as much menace as a confused hamster. His portrayal does not even work on a "scary retarded slacker guy" level; he is just plain b-a-d bad.

Also, the movie is sabotaged by some truly idiotic script turns. When James Spader has the drop on a weaponless Keanu, the guy who has ruined his entire life and killed countless women, what does he do when Keanu tells him that he has kidnapped one of Spader's friends? Does Spader shoot Keanu in the leg and torture him until he coughs up the address? Why, no! Instead, Spader HANDS KEANU HIS GUN and gets in a car with him! Your intelligence will be so insulted it will make you start punching yourself for not walking out of the theater!

Finally, Marisa Tomei looks absolutely terrible in parts of this movie, but looks like the Marisa we know and love in a hospital scene. Huh? Did they change makeup and lighting guys in the middle of the shoot? And does anyone really expect us to buy Marisa Tomei as a psychiatrist? What universe does this casting agent live in?

Back Row Grade: F

(Reviewed March 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for Los Angeles City Beat, which went to that great newspaper rack in the sky shortly thereafter! In case their website dies a similar death, I have reprinted the entire text of that review below:

The charmingly odd, not-for-kiddies "Watchmen" is stranger, sexier and darker than "The Dark Knight," with several brilliantly directed and unforgettably imaginative scenes. (When's the last time you heard an audience applaud an opening-credits montage?) It's not perfect, especially when it reaches a klutzy climax that changes the ending of the classic comic-book-for-grownups. But the parts that work -- including a tragic time-flitting flashback that may actually bring tears -- are almost worth the 22-year wait it took to bring this award-winning saga to the big screen.

Writer Alan Moore's dense, multi-layered tale of costumed crimefighters in an alternate 1985, where Nixon is in his fifth term and the world is on the brink of nuclear war, is regarded by many as the "Citizen Kane" of so-called graphic novels. Don't look for Moore's name on this version, though. The notoriously Hollywood-averse scribe (who also wrote the comics from whence sprung "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "From Hell" and "V for Vendetta") disavows all movie adaptations of his work. That's why "Watchmen" bears only a "co-creator" credit for Dave Gibbons, the artist who drew the original comics.

Fanboy purists shouldn't feel too dismayed, however. Except for that aforementioned new ending, the movie's screenplay -- by David Hayter ("X-Men") and Alex Tse -- may be the most faithful funny-book-to-film adaptation since 2005's "Sin City."

Ignoring the fact that all costumed heroes have been outlawed as vigilantes, the Batman-like Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the lovely-in-latex Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) suit up again after one of their own is murdered. Their former compatriot Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is a mask-wearing, single-minded sociopath who never gave up his ass-kicking avocation. The group's most prominent success story is the fabulously wealthy tycoon formerly known as Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who just happens to be the smartest man in the world. The movie's only character who possesses actual superpowers is lab-accident victim Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), whose God-like perspective has left him so disenchanted with humanity that he wants to abandon the planet.

All of them are intriguingly flawed, and in more than a Peter-Parker-with-girllfriend-problems sense. Nite Owl is literally impotent without his costume. Silk Spectre II, daughter of the 1940s-era original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), can't figure out why mom doesn't hate her would-be rapist. Ozymandias has an unhealthy fixation with Alexander the Great, and Dr. Manhattan is disturbingly ambivalent about the prospect of mankind's extinction.

The cast's earthiest member is the ultra-right-wing government operative known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the kind of guy who's not above shooting dead the Vietnamese woman who's carrying his baby. Oh, and he also assassinated JFK. Although the Comedian gets heaved from a high-rise in the movie's opening minutes, he turns up in fascinating flashbacks throughout the rest of the running time.

While director Zack Snyder generally gets this offbeat material's tone just right, he occasionally juices things up from "novelistic" to "operatic" -- heightening the brutality to levels that feel more inspired by visceral comics creator Frank Miller than the more thoughtful and literary Moore. (Snyder's last flick was an adaptation of Miller's ridiculously over-the-top Spartan-palooza "300," which wasn't exactly known for its restraint.)

In the "Watchmen" comic, two heroes break a third out of prison after knocking out two guards. In the movie, the two heroes have to run a "300"-style gantlet, fighting off nearly three dozen rioting inmates. In the comic, a kidnapping investigation leads to two dogs fighting over a human bone. In the movie, that bone has a little girl's shoe-clad foot attached to it. Most tellingly, the glowing-blue and frequently naked Dr. Manhattan has a much more impressive "little Dr. Manhattan" on screen than the modest nub he displays in print. (Insert "Long Island" joke here.)

Aside from those, ahem, "enhancements," most of the movie's scenes and dialog are line-for-line faithful to Moore's words, and most of the casting is flawless. Haley is flat-out perfect as the viciously relentless Rorschach, at one point warning a cafeteria full of prison inmates that "I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with me!" Morgan is such a preposterously nasty, kiss-my-ass bastard as the Comedian that he's a black-humor guilty pleasure. And Crudup, whose Dr. Manhattan is a performance-capture CGI wonder to behold, has exactly the right passively detached demeanor.

In "Watchmen"'s most moving scene, Dr. Manhattan instantly transports himself to Mars to reflect on his life and regrets. He's just been told that several people who were in close contact with him have contracted cancer. He remembers his father, his first meeting with a girlfriend, the horrible accident that altered his body and other meaningful moments, skipping among them as if they are happening simultaneously, while the soundtrack plays Philip Glass' haunting score from the movie "Koyaanisqatsi." The effect is unexpectedly but undeniably devastating.

The song choices in the rest of the film are similarly inspired. The Comedian's savagely brutal murder is serenaded with clever irony by Nat King Cole's tender "Unforgettable." A gorgeous hero-history opening montage that's like the most lushly art-directed newsreel footage imaginable unfolds to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." And Nite Owl's eventual triumph over erectile adversity is heralded by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Unfortunately, one flaw the film shares with last year's Batman blockbuster is a last-reel letdown, where things get dumber and more downbeat for the sake of what's supposed to be a dramatic finish. Screenwriters Hayter and Tse actually can't be blamed too much for wanting to junk Moore's original climax. Moore's ending was uncomfortably similar to that of a classic "Outer Limits" episode, a swipe that Moore himself cheekily acknowledged by having a TV announcer in the comic mention the episode by name. The problem is that Hayter and Tse's unconvincing new finale isn't even as good as the one it replaced.

After more than two decades, it's a shame that nobody could come up with a more "watch"-able ending.

Back Row Grade: B+

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter
(Reviewed March 25, 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter" review
Also, here is some bonus info that wouldn't fit into that 400-word review:

Possibly because the filmmakers could not (or didn't want to) get the rights to the song "These Foolish Things," the ad slogan for Veidt's perfume called Nostalgia was changed from "how the ghost of you clings" to "unforgettable." Similarly, a panel from one of the original comics books that is shown in this DVD's bonus feature has been blurred so you can't read "how the ghost of you clings" on a sign in the background. Funny.

Watchmen writer Alan Moore's name appears nowhere on this DVD's packaging or credits, in keeping with his apparent wishes, just as his name does not appear on the Watchmen movie itself. Although the illustrator (Dave Gibbons) and editor (Len Wein) of the Watchmen comic book series make single references to Alan Moore simply as "Alan," only one of the people interviewed in the feature -- DC Comics Sr. VP/Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck -- says the two words "Alan Moore," and he only does so once. But thanks to an editing decision that is frustratingly misleading, anyone watching the bonus feature who does not already know who this Alan Moore person is might easily think that Danny Fingeroth wrote Watchmen. Fingeroth's onscreen ID says simply "Danny Fingeroth" above the word "Writer," and the way he discusses the origin of the comic's Black Freighter segment easily might convince someone that he is talking about how he came up with the idea: "The title 'The Black Freighter' was taken from the Brecht and Weill 'The Threepenny Opera.' 'Pirate Jenny' is a song about the black freighter, and it's kind of...based on my limited knowledge, it's sort of an image of death. When the black freighter comes for you, it's probably not a great thing."

The "Under the Hood" faux documentary includes a newly created TV commercial for Nostalgia perfume and two genuine vintage commercials, one for Seiko digital watches and the other for Sani-Flush toilet bowl cleaner. What destroys the illusion that we are watching a real broadcast, however, is the fact that both of the real commercials obviously are old copies that are not in pristine condition.

There's some well-done foreshadowing in the on-camera interviews that make up "Under the Hood," such as when the prison pychiatrist who later will examine Rorschach in prison says, "I hope that one day I can psychoanalyze one of these masked heroes." Also, original Nite Owl Hollis Mason, referring to his unrequited love for original Silk Spectre Sally Jupiter, wistfully remarks that he thinks "Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are gonna end up together one day." What actually happens in the later story detailed in "Watchmen," of course, is that the next-generation versions of those characters are the ones who end up together.

Back Row Grade: B-

Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic" DVD review

Back Row Grade: D

The Way
(Reviewed October 7, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+

The Way Back
(Reviewed January 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

This very cinematic story of an epic Siberia-to-India journey on foot was inspired by a book that has been discredited, so its claim about being "inspired by real events" should have been excised. It's also a huge mistake to begin the movie with text telling the audience exactly how many of the desperate travelers survive the journey. In the first place, that ruins the suspense about whether anybody will make it all the way; the journey is so arduous that it's a near miracle anyone could accomplish the feat. In the second place, it's distracting to keep mentally counting down as successive characters fall by the wayside. We know that once the magic number is reached, there's no more reason to worry about anyone else's survival chances.

Having said that, this is an undeniably moving and well-made film. Things start in a hellish 1940s Siberian gulag, where prisoner Colin Farrell plays a nasty, top-of-the-food-chain knife-wielding badass. He escapes with fellow prisoners played by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and others. Keeping out of sight to avoid being turned in for reward money by the locals, they cross forests, mountains, rivers and deserts, hoping to make it to freedom in China. Shocked to discover that China is now communist like Russia, and presumably equally oppressive, they change plans and head for India instead.

As incredibly unlikely as the journey seems, director Peter Weir and the actors pull off the trick of making their trek seem damned difficult but not impossible. When the all-male group of escapees falls in with an orphaned waif (the excellent Saoirse Ronan), their task becomes more problematic, desperate and ultimately tragic.

Weir shot the movie on actual locations, using many bleak and remote settings that are frighteningly formidable. Makeup that turns the actors into debilitated, sunburnt and blistered wrecks is completely convincing.

The story may not be based on facts, but it still rings true enough to be inspiring and unforgettable.

Back Row Grade: B

The Weather Man
(Reviewed August 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

Nicolas Cage sad-sacks his way through this would-be profound look at the trials and tribulations of a divorced TV weather man, his distant and dying father (Michael Caine), his icy ex-wife (Hope Davis), his fat and surly pubescent daughter, and his amiable but unrealistically clueless teenage son. The too-obvious themes along the way include heavy-handed indictments of consumerism, celebrity, ambition and all of the other things that make having too much money and too little love such a soul-deadening modern-day American burden.

It's not a terrible movie, simply one with a reach that exceeds its grasp. While it strives for an "American Beauty" mix of deadpan resignation, dawning self-awareness and occasional black humor, "The Weather Man" too often feels forced and inorganic. Lines about the unpredictability of weather, or Cage placing himself both literally and symbolically between firemen and SpongeBob Squarepants, feel so "written" that the director may as well have put a flashing red "GET IT?" sign on the screen.

A subplot about a perv who has an unhealthy interest in Cage's son is as ridiculously unsubtle as a soap opera. Cage's nasty attitude toward friendly people who recognize him on the street at first is bafflingly unconvincing, until you realize that those scenes are only in the screenplay to give Cage something to stop doing later. Cage's interest in archery looks like it was only added to give him a memorable quirk. And, as in every bad comedy (or any episode of Letterman), when something happens that may be amusing once, it gets repeated to the point of "enough, already."

Being a screenwriting instructor must be a real bitch. How would you tell somebody who wrote a script like this one, "Look, I know what you're going for here, and maybe this really is the best you can do, but something's missing. Unfortunately, that `something' is what would have made it special. But at least you tried."

(A pointless aside: I once had the privilege of seeing, live on the tube as it happened, a great "screw the media" moment. I always watch the 11pm newscast on L.A.'s UPN 13, because anchor Lauren Sanchez and weather babe Maria Quiban are like a giggly pair of Playboy Playmates whose outfits nearly always fall into the "delightfully inappropriate" category. Reporter Hal Eisner was doing a remote from the Sunset Strip House of Blues, for some undoubtedly newsworthy reason. Just as Eisner was wrapping up the story with some live "happy chat" from the scene, a slacker douchebag walked into the frame and shouted, "Kiss my ass, you media whore!" while Eisner backed away. Okay, it was totally uncalled for -- but man, was it funny!)

Back Row Grade: C-

The Wedding Planner
(Not reviewed January 16, 2001, by James Dawson) I had a free screening pass to this one and did not even bother to go. I mean, crikey, two hours of even a life as meaningless and empty as mine are worth more than sitting through something that looks as "missable" as this.

I later learned that the divine Jennifer Lopez does not appear in even a single swimsuit, negligee or underwear shot in the entire movie. Sheesh, even "The Cell" snuck in a wholly gratuitous scene of her in shirt-and-panties. So those of you hoping for an ogle at her ample posterior or other womany attributes may as well stay home and watch MTV.

Back Row Grade: N/A

Welcome to Collinwood
(Reviewed August 27, 2002, by James Dawson)

Allow me to be the first of about a million movie reviewers who will use some variation of this line: "They should have called it `Ocean's Five-and-a-Half.'"

A bunch of colorful, bottom-of-the-rung losers in the world's crappiest neighborhood plan a heist. What are supposed to be hilarious complications ensue. George Clooney is the brains behind the operation--but anyone tempted to buy a ticket to ogle his rugged manliness should be warned that Clooney appears onscreen for a grand total of only about five minutes, in exactly three scenes.

What's incredibly frustrating about this flick is that the direction is so unimaginative, flat and plodding that it sucks every bit of life from what could have been (and should have been) a fast-paced slapstick comedy. I haven't seen the 1958 Italian "Big Deal on Madonna Street," on which "Welcome to Collinwood" is based, but the original had to have more "zip" than this lifeless lump.

The script probably looked pretty good in print, and in the hands of directors such as the Coen brothers this might have been a real winner. Instead, it's a genuine missed opportunity.

One more thing: I'm getting really, really tired of movies that start with a scene that appears deep within the movie (or, in this case, spoiler-close to the ending), then flash a card that says something akin to "Six weeks earlier," then pick up where they should have begun in the first place. The movie "Secretary" begins exactly the same way. But I digress.

Back Row Grade: D

Welcome to Mooseport
(Reviewed February 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Do yourself a favor: If you have any desire whatsoever to see this movie, save your money by staying home and watching any unfunny, badly acted network sitcom that you normally would avoid. (I recommend a rerun of "Home Improvement," but there are plenty of other awful options.) Then imagine that whatever lousy waste of airtime you have chosen is three times as long.

The last time I flew, the airline was sadistic enough to run an "Everybody Loves Raymond" marathon as part of the in-flight "entertainment." God help me, I actually watched a few minutes of each episode, trying to fathom how this worthless, relentlessly dumb series could be one of the most popular TV shows in America. My own taste may not fall into the category of "rarefied and refined," but it doesn't exactly take a Proust aficionado to be appalled and depressed at the current state of...aah, why go on.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" star Ray Romano is a plumber in "Welcome to Mooseport." The Mooseport of the title is one of those entirely unbelievable small towns full of skin-crawlingly artificial made-in-Hollywood eccentrics, the kind dreamed up by hacks and their even hackier rewriters whose idea of "rural" is anyplace outside of New York and L.A.

Into this burg moves Gene Hackman (dear God, what a waste of talent), playing a fictional former president. He and Romano run against each other for mayor, while both woo Romano's asexual girlfriend. Laughs, shall we say, are not aplenty.

No kidding, this is one of those movies that makes a guy look around the theater and think, "Why the hell am I here? Is there really nothing better I could be doing with my time? Is my brief life on earth so meaningless, so totally devoid of value that I feel comfortable squandering even this small a portion of it watching something this brain-deadeningly abysmal?"

Then again, "Welcome to Mooseport" could have been worse. It could have starred Tim Allen.

Back Row Grade: F

We Were Here
(Reviewed September 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

This documentary about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s San Francisco is told from the viewpoints of several residents who lived through those trying times but lost friends and loved ones to the outbreak. Concentrating on only five subjects -- a nurse, an artist, a local politician, a counselor and a flower seller -- the film makes the effects of the disease more emotionally intimate than a scientifically comprehensive facts-and-figures recounting would have been.

Using film and still photos from the period to underscore the reminiscences, "We Were Here" retraces the frightening early days when AIDS was referred to as "gay cancer." A handmade sign posted in a drugstore window showing one sufferer's lesion-covered body wondered what the cause was, and warned others that "something" was out there. (That condition turned out to be Kaposi's sarcoma, an opportunistic viral infection that came to be known as an AIDS-defining illness because it thrives in weakened immune systems.) The movie says that up to 50% of the city's gay population was believed to be HIV positive within only a few years.

Images of similarly lesion-covered and emaciated sufferers illustrate how fast and deadly AIDS turned out to be. Putting the disease in a cultural context, the documentary reflects on the intolerance personified by the reverend Jerry Falwell, who implied that AIDS was God's punishment of gays for their sinful lifestyle. In a news report from the period, Tom Brokaw mentions poll numbers of people who believed those with AIDS should be quarantined or even tattooed.

The film's most powerful personal anecdote comes from a counselor who worked with the Shanti Project, an organization that sent companions to visit with AIDS patients. He describes a father after a hospital visit who said that learning his son was gay was worse than finding out he was dying.

Thirty years after the widespread onset of the disease, the testimony of five people who were at the epicenter of the outbreak when it was a terrifying mystery offers a very personal perspective on what was to become a worldwide tragedy.

Back Row Grade: B

The Whale
(Reviewed September 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

What a Girl Wants
(Reviewed February 2, 2003, by James Dawson)

This embarrassingly stupid movie has a plot so predictable, cornball, overused and cliche that it's like something a computer shat.

A teenage bim (Amanda Bynes) plays the daughter of a funky free-spirit single mom (Kelly Preston). Although said mom got knocked up way-back-when by a guy she was madly in love with (Colin Firth), she accommodatingly split the scene--without even discussing the matter with loverboy--after one of his British family's retainers told her that the guy didn't want to see her anymore. She had never bothered to tell the dude that she was preggers, either. I mean, hey, he was only THE GREAT LOVE OF HER LIFE.

When the daughter gets big enough to nicely fill out a bra, the little darling takes off to pay the old "surprise visit" on her unknowing dad. Holy crap, turns out he's running for a seat in Parliament! And she's so wild and fun-loving, all of Britain soon is agog over her crude but charming Yankee ways! And daddy is about to marry a stuck-up social climbing bitch with a nasty daughter, unless he comes to his senses!

The only thing novel about this strictly-for-preteen-girls crapfest is what is surely an unintentional creepy-incest vibe. The "getting to know you" scenes between daughter and dad seem more like romantic interludes, especially because she has a penchant for wearing, shall we say, "form fitting" outfits. (Sadly, though, her face is one of those blank, generically interchangeable "sitcom daughter" mugs that never registers a single honest human emotion during the entire length of the film.)

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Grade: D-

What Lies Beneath
(Reviewed July 16, 2000, by James Dawson)

My God, what an awful, awful piece of work this is. I absolutely hated this waste of celluloid from start to finish. If this is what Harrison Ford has come to, he had better pray that somebody whips an "Indiana Jones 4" script into shape REAL soon. "What Lies Beneath" is one tired cliche after another, completely predictable, with every clumsy "gotcha" telegraphed so far in advance that even a nervous child would be insulted. The wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, sleepwalking as usual) has one of those sitcommy, supposed-to-be-funny, "eccentric" female friends. The first 45 minutes are such a blatant rip-off of "Rear Window" that I expected Alfred Hitchcock's corpse to shamble past in a cameo. Nobody stays dead or does anything bordering on the logical. Why am I wasting time even describing this bomb? The main horror of this movie comes from realizing that you have lost two hours and fifteen minutes of your precious life by sitting through it.

Back Row Grade: F-

What Women Want
(Reviewed December 2, 2000, by James Dawson)

I don't think I've liked a Mel Gibson movie since "The Road Warrior," and this movie didn't break that streak. Mel reminds me of a beefier (and somewhat less tipsy) Dean Martin, mugging and goofing and going all rubbery-faced all the time, not giving a damn about being anybody but himself no matter what character he is supposed to be playing.

As for Helen Hunt, spare me. She seems to have three expressions (the most aggravating of which is the tight-smile, chin-thrust-forward, eyebrows-raised one that is supposed to indicate amused skepticism). I didn't see even the teensiest bit of chemistry between her and Mel, whom we are supposed to believe falls life-changingly in love with her.

Although every scene featuring Mel-&-Hel drags and bores, the movie is saved from an "F" rating by the mildly amusing things that Mel "overhears" when he gains the ability to read women's minds. Even those scenes, however, are vaguely anachronistic and condescending. I'm no strident feminist (God knows), but would it have been possible to let even a single female character have thoughts that ran deeper than musings about faked orgasms, lying about her age, or making long-distance calls to her boyfriend on the company dime?

Also, I liked the fact that Mel's character's 15-year-old daughter actually looked as if she may have been that age in "real life," instead of being played by some 20-something shrew.

A basic flaw with the film was that Mel is just too darn good looking. The premise that a man who really does know "what women want" could have any woman he wanted would have worked a lot better if the guy in question did not have the built-in advantage of looking like "the sexiest man alive." Imagine this movie with, for example, Richard E. Grant in the lead. (Sheesh, why don't the studios ever call me during casting? I'm in the book.)

"What Women Want" was directed by "Father of the Bride" and "Parent Trap" director Nancy Meyers. Like those movies, it has a look that is buffed to a high-gloss polish that you could shave in. Man, it sure would be great to live in one of those clean, neat, perfect universes full of rich, good-looking people with not a care in the world.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go pick up a few piles of dog crap that my inconsiderate neighbors' mutts deposited on the dead grass of my front lawn last night.

Back Row Grade: D

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?
(Reviewed April 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for ULTIMATE DVD magazine, but they never bothered to pay me, so I have put the entire text below.

Synopsis: Documentarian Morgan Spurlock, who last risked his life eating fast food in "Super Size Me," travels to several friendly and not-so-friendly nations to find the world's most wanted terrorist.

Review: The fact that Spurlock comes off like a genial regular Joe is both this movie's gimmick and its curse. The novelty of watching a guy who could be your goofy next-door neighbor casually asking foreigners where he can find Osama bin Laden wears off pretty fast. So do some silly animated segments, such as an overlong "fight Osama" videogame bout.

Still, the movie gets points for putting a human face on Muslim citizens of countries from Morocco to the Mideast to Afghanistan. Nearly all of those interviewed condemn terrorism, say their problem is with America's policies and not with Americans, and show no animosity whatsoever toward Spurlock. In fact, the only on-screen hostility Spurlock encounters comes from a shouting-and-shoving mob of Orthodox Jews in Israel.

It's hard not to wish Spurlock had asked a few US government officials why they haven't brought Osama to justice, given that is it hard to believe they don't know his whereabouts by now. If Michael Moore had made this movie, the sound bites would have possessed considerably more bite.

Also, Spurlock claims his impending fatherhood is one reason why he wants to find Osama. But knowing that he abandoned his late-term pregnant wife for several weeks to make this very slight movie is somewhat off-putting. During onscreen phone calls between the parents-to-be, you'll keep hoping Spurlock's wife will order him to get his globe-trotting ass home for some childbirth classes. But noooo.

Verdict: The lightweight approach here is more Michael Palin than Michael Moore, and the ending is aggravatingly anticlimactic. But it's refreshing to see people in nasty "Islamo-fascist" countries portrayed as actual human beings instead of as mindless, hate-filled fanatics.

Back Row Grade: D+

Where the Heart Is
(Reviewed July 17, 2000, by James Dawson)

I saw this one several weeks ago, but it deserves special dishonorable mention even at this remove. "Where the Heart Is" is shallow, cloying, and criminally condescending. It is a movie that all but screams that it was cobbled together by venal Hollywood types in the hopes of putting one over on the people they regard as the barefoot bucktoothed rubes of America's hillbilly heartland. "All the Tammy-Fayes and Cletuses will just gobble this swill right up," you can hear the studio money-men chortling. "It makes hick look hip!" God, what a waste of Natalie Portman, and also the always alluring Ashley Judd.

Back Row Grade: D (instead of an F, and that's only because Natalie Portman is so jaw-droppingly, achingly, amazingly beautiful that I would go see her in absolutely anything -- even "Phantom Menace," and that's saying quite a bit...)

Where the Truth Lies
(Reviewed October 10, 2005, by James Dawson)

A certain Gwen Stefani fan I know, giving her opinion of Stefani's "Love Angel Music Baby" CD, offered this odd critical assessment: "I like it, but it's not very good."

That's kind of how I feel about "Where the Truth Lies," the latest offering from director Atom ("Exotica," "The Sweet Hereafter") Egoyan. Two of its principal roles are frustatingly miscast. The plot has some major problems. A crucial scene that's supposed to be disturbingly shocking is unintentionally funny. And the production should have been more gripping and menacing in tone, since it is going for a "film noir" vibe, instead of lethargic and low-key.

But somehow the movie as a whole is so earnest, interesting and refreshingly un-tongue in cheek that it gets a B- for effort despite these flaws. What can I say, I'm in a generous mood.

The first miscast is Kevin Bacon as the Jerry Lewis half of a very thinly disguised Lewis & Martin 1950s comedy duo. The team splits up shortly after headlining a Veterans Day Polio Telethon. (Subtle, huh?) Bacon is good at portraying the detached-and-bitter offstage elements of the character, but he's not believable at all as a wacky, off-the-wall comic in the performance bits.

The other miscast is Alison ("White Oleander") Lohman as a writer interviewing Colin Firth (the other half of the comedy duo) for an "as told to"-style autobiography. I couldn't buy the idea that any publisher spending a million-dollar advance in 1972 would hand the project to a girl who looks and sounds like a naive college freshman who just learned how to apply lipstick. The fact that the cast includes another much more mature and womanly actress (Rachel Blanchard) in the role of a college newspaper reporter emphasizes what an inappropriate choice Lohman was to portray a presumably older and more seasoned career woman.

The main thing Lohman wants to know about for the book is an incident at a mob-controlled hotel, where a girl turned up dead in Bacon and Firth's suite. Flashbacks reveal conflicting accounts that don't add up, and Lohman finds herself in a little too deep when she starts digging for details.

Without giving away any of the plot twists, one problem with the "big reveal" is that Lohman twigs to the truth thanks to a preposterously minor detail that no one realistically would bother mentioning in conversation. Making the climax hinge on that fun fact is unnecessary by then anyway, because the audience probably already has figured out what Lohman hasn't.

The movie looks great, covering a time span from the dinner-jacketed 1950s to the leather-sportcoat-with-neckerchief 1970s. While things like the mechanics of a 1972 Pan Am first-class cabin dining table are oddly fascinating, though, Egoyan should have resisted the urge to get cute by having an Alice-in-Wonderland costumed singer perform Jefferson Airplane's downer anthem "Go Ask Alice" for the very young patients at a children's hospital. (What would she do for an encore, "The End" by the Doors?)

The reason this movie probably won't be playing at a theater near you is because Egoyan impressively refused to trim its relatively tame sex scenes (simulated humping, but no cocks or gap shots) enough to get an "R" rating from the timid, idiotic philistines at the MPAA. Instead, it is going out "unrated," meaning most theaters won't run it. Also, Lohman gets props for peeling down instead of staying covered up. Nipple exposure equals thespian integrity, in my book.

I also liked the truly lush cinematography as well as the sets and locations, especially Firth's glass house in the Hollywood Hills. Firth nails his portrayal of a jaded has-been, and Bacon is weirdly watchable during his prickly Buddy Love moments. And the movie has a truly great last line of voiceover narration that will hit you like a body blow.

Even if "Where the Truth Lies" is a guilty pleasure, that still qualifies as a pleasure, so go and enjoy. What's so great about respecting yourself in the morning, anyway?

Back Row Grade: B-

Where the Wild Things Are
(Reviewed October 2, 2009, by James Dawson)

I haven't seen a movie this visually creative but shockingly bad since "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

The "wild things" that a young boy encounters on an island in his imagination are impressively convincing realizations of the characters from Maurice Sendak's classic children's book. They have great expressions, and simultaneously look like oversized (and kinda creepy) stuffed animals and actual living creatures.

But the screenplay, by Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze, is violent, disturbing and wholly unappealing. Max, the main character, comes off like a hyperactive little psycho who should be on some very strong meds. All of the moody and occasionally nasty "wild things" act like candidates for therapy at a mental institution. Parents should be warned that this definitely is NOT a movie for small children.

I've only seen illustrations from the book but haven't read it. I'll try to do so this weekend while loitering in some bookstore and handling the merchandise. (According to Wikipedia, the book's entire text is a mere 10 sentences long.) I will add more to this review after digesting that slim volume, comparing and contrasting.

All you need to know for now, though, is that the movie version is a thoroughly unpleasant experience.


Back Row Grade: F+

Whip It
(Reviewed September 26, 2009, by James Dawson)

According to the woefully misguided opinion of some shameless quote whore, whose blathering idiocy is featured in print ads for "Whip It," this movie is "a work of pure genius," and first-time director Drew Barrymore "is the director to watch this year. She's the real deal."

I disrespectfully disagree.

"Whip It," about a petite 17-year-old waitress ("Juno"'s Ellen Page) who becomes a regional roller derby star in a single season despite not having skated for years, is such a lame piece of nothing-special teenage junk that it includes a full-out food fight, a block-rockin' house party, and the obligatory parents-who-just-don't-understand...until they do.

Barrymore, who also has a role as one of the rough-and-tumble skaters, does a strictly generic directing job with most of the material. She falls down completely, however, when it comes to shooting the roller derby action, which is largely incomprehensible.

The story also seems full of anachronisms, as if it couldn't decide when all of this self-empowering nonsense is taking place. Although things seem to be set in the 1980s -- with record players, cassettes, and a pay phone instead of a cell phone -- characters also go online to view Wikipedia and Google, and Page's best friend mentions that her untrusting parents want to put a GPS in her car. Is the town caught in a time storm, or what?

There's also a desperately misguided attempt at doing something new with a love scene, when Page and her grungy boyfriend (Landon Pigg) repeatedly kiss and progressively undress underwater in a pool. The result looks no-fun awkward and utterly unsexy.

The punning names of the teams (Hurl Scouts, Fight Attendants) and the rink pseudonyms of the roller girls (Bloody Holly, Smashley Simpson, Babe Ruthless) are clever, but the script isn't.


Back Row Grade: D

The Whistleblower
(Reviewed August 4, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The White Countess
(Reviewed October 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

This undeniably handsome Merchant/Ivory production, with a tastefully restrained performance by Ralph Fiennes as a blind former diplomat, could have been a crowd-pleasing weeper. Instead, while the movie does have a few Harlequin moments (in both the literary and literal senses of the term), the relationship between Fiennes and costar Natasha Richardson is more courteously respectful than soaringly romantic. Their eventual need for each other is based more on practical considerations (for her) and an almost noble sense of responsibility (for him) than on unquenchable fires of lust-crazed desire.

"The White Countess," set in 1936 Shanghai, contains elements of "The Last Emperor" and "Casablanca." Imperial Japan is on the march, and China is facing its own internal upheavals. Fiennes, given to drink and distraction over the death of his family and the collapse of his League of Nations ideals, establishes a Shanghai nightclub that he envisions as a smaller and more civilized version of the outside world. He wants the place to have an air of political tension, but not of actual danger.

He hires struggling ticket-dancer Richardson away from another club to be both a showy centerpiece and a sort of old-world symbol of a bygone, more glamorous era. Richardson, her daughter and her dead husband's extended family are former Russian royalty exiled after the Russian revolution and living in near poverty. Although the in-laws survive off of Richardson's income, they regard her as a disgrace because of the way she earns it. Fiennes, however, is so impressed by her kindness and her tragic sense of melancholy that he names his White Countess club after her, but keeps his emotional distance.

He starts to thaw after encountering Richardson and her young daughter outside the club one day. I liked the fact that the daughter is not typically pretty-and-precious, but plain and slightly annoying. What I liked more was that Fiennes and Richardson don't get all gooey over each other like a pair of teenagers. Both are mature enough to see the advantages the other could offer, but more in the sense of a merger than a passionate love affair.

Eventually, the real politics of the outside world encroach on Shanghai, in the form of Japanese troops and bombs. The plot goes a bit "Hollywood" at this point, but the fairly standard climax isn't milked to sickening excess.


Back Row Grade: B-

White Noise
(January 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

"White Noise" really isn't very good, but it does have a few creepy little moments. There aren't enough of them to make shelling out for a movie ticket a good idea -- but if you're sitting around your disgusting hovel when it comes on TV, watching it beats staring at a blank wall.

Michael Keaton, shortly after his wife dies, is approached by a fat nut who believes that the dead communicate with the living via the white noise static between TV channels.

What's infuriating is that the movie does not make better use of certain spirits who are vulgar, violent and just plain evil. When Keaton first visits the fat nut's house and is listening to recorded examples of how the process works, he (and we) are shocked and freaked out when he starts hearing very loud and psychotic ravings from the afterworld. (Most of the dead, you see, converse in barely audible, nearly unintelligible whispers.) The fat nut, however, quickly reaches over to hit the "delete" button, while saying something equivalent to "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." Incredibly, Keaton accepts this without question, instead of asking something as reasonable as, "WHO THE HELL WERE THOSE GUYS???"

The ending of the movie makes no sense; heck, neither does most of the middle or the beginning. But every time the three blurry silhouettes of the bad spirits show up, it really is chilling.

To be honest, though, I thought the most frightening aspect of the story was the idea that Keaton lives without curtains in a condo that has windows for walls. Frankly, the idea of my neighbors being able to watch me go about my daily habits is scarier than the concept of being in a chatroom with the deceased...even the loud, murderous ones. But maybe that's just me.

Back Row Grade: D+

White Oleander
(Reviewed September 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

Maybe they should have called it "Florence Gump."

After her mother (the embarrassingly intense Michelle Pfeiffer) gets sent up the river for murder, can't-win teen Astrid (Alison Lohman) is shuffled from one mega-melodramatic foster home setting to another. Those painful pitstops along life's damned rough highway range from the desert digs of a white-trash Jesus freak straight out of "Jerry Springer" (Robin Wright Penn) to a hellacious orphanage that's enough to make a girl tear her hair out (or at least chop it off with a pocketknife) to a preposterously lush Malibu movie-star mansion (with Renee Zellweger and Noah Wyle) to a flea-market gypsy goth-girl commune run by somebody who sounds like Natasha from "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Although Lohman does an okay job of acting morose, betrayed and sullen, and you can't help being interested in what fresh hell she will be dropped into next, there's something very "Oprah's Book Club" about it all. It's like the uber "chick flick."

(Also, this may sound funny coming from a Libertarian atheist, but will Hollywood ever tire of releasing "look at the awful Christians" movies? Ever notice how whenever Christian characters appear in films, they always are portrayed as hypocritical, repressed, delusional or moronic? Believe it or not, I've actually known Christians (from Catholics to born-agains) who were Actual Human Beings--but to Hollywood, they are the regarded as the last safe, easy-target stereotype to ridicule. Maybe members of the WGA and DGA should get out more.)

Two things I did like about this movie: There's no "battered wife" rationalization for what Astrid's boyfriend-murdering mom did; she's pretty much just a mean bitch. And when Zellweger's ex-B-actress character is showing Astrid one of her old movies, the clip used is from 1994's "Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre," in which Zellweger actually did appear, which was kind of a clever touch.

Back Row Grade: C-

Wild Hogs
(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)

There is exactly one laugh in this beyond-lame movie. And I'm going to go right ahead and tell you what it is. I don't even feel guilty about doing so, considering that it's already in the TV ad, but stop reading now if you feel the need.

Still here? Okay, here it is:

John Travolta, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy and Tim Allen are four middle-age friends from an especially unamusing corner of Sitcomland who set out on an all-guys cross-country motorcycle trip. We see a bug splatter on one of their faces, then another bug splatter on someone else's face. Travolta notices this and is amused. He has his lips apart, leading us to expect that he is going to get a bug in his mouth as a capper to the visual joke. Instead, a crow hits him square in the chest. This is so unexpected and absurd that it actually made me laugh out loud.

A fellow journalist later said that if a movie makes him laugh once, he considers it a successful comedy, which seems like a pretty low threshold to me. Hell, there's probably at least one laugh in "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer." Okay, maybe not.

What's weird about "Wild Hogs" is that it takes an odd turn from jokes about Harleys, homophobia and henpeckedness to an air of actual menace about halfway through. The four stars encounter a genuinely badass biker gang at a remote bar. The bikers, led by the dead serious Ray Liotta, end up terrorizing a town and beating the shit out of the movie's four stars. (Seriously!)

Strangely, though, this is a town that never seems to have heard of firearms. Even when the townspeople decide they have had enough of the very destructive and scary biker gang, the only weapons in the hands of the vengeful citizens are baseball bats. Even the police don't have guns!!!

Maybe "Wild Hogs" actually is a subtle argument in favor of concealed-carry laws.

Back Row Grade: F

(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

Slow, slow, slow. I don't remember much about the original "Willard" besides its main points (nutcase with a thing for rats goes on ratty revenge trip), but it probably wasn't any better or worse than this retread. All I can say for sure is that this remake (starring Crispin Glover as the title character) is surprisingly dull and drawn out. Honestly, it has the look and feel of a bad installment of the new "Twilight Zone" TV series. (Note: Redundant?)

In essence, "Willard" is a half-hour idea that got blown up to movie length. The most horrifying thing about it is the criminal waste of the stunning Laura Elena Harring, who was so wonderful in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." Here, she plays a supporting role that gives her just about nothing to do.

Lotsa rats running around, though, if you're into that kind of thing.

Back Row Grade: D

(Reviewed September 26, 2004, by James Dawson)

Paul Bettany is so likeable and good in this nothing-special romantic comedy that he, and he alone, makes it worth seeing.

Bettany is an about-to-retire British tennis pro whose last shot at Wimbledon glory is spiced up by a romance with bratty, overprotected American player Kirsten Dunst. Bettany's family consists of the standard Britcom cliches: stupidly eccentric dad, slightly uptight mum, asshole brother. Dunst's dad disapproves of his daughter's dalliance with Bettany (damn, why couldn't his last name start with a "D?"). Blah, blah, blah.

The movie's ending so so cloyingly sappy that you'll want to use your empty popcorn sack as a barf bag.

Bettany deserves so much better, but even in a dud like this he really manages to shine.

Back Row Grade: C-

Winnie the Pooh
(Reviewed July 15, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Without a Paddle
(Reviewed July 31, 2004, by James Dawson)

This is one of the worst movies ever made in the history of the universe.

Back Row 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 that comment 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 essentially still a pretty silly story.

The new and improved version may turn out to be too serious for some, however -- more solemn and sad than scary and schlocky. Anyone expecting tongue in cheek fun 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 Theater than midnight movie.

Benecio 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 button (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. This new addition 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 water-boarding techniques? There's one way to find out!

Del Toro and Blunt are both good at conveying believably haunted desperation that never feels hokey. Hopkins plays Talbot's distant and menacing dad with a feral feistiness that doesn't quite match Del Toro's and Blunt's more restrained tone, but then again, the nasty old bastard he's playing is not 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 Grade: B

Woman on Top
(Reviewed September 13, 2000, by James Dawson)

You won't believe what a disastrous wrong turn this movie takes at about the half-hour mark. You will stare in complete disbelief, your mouth hanging open in stunned stupefaction, as you watch this movie commit suicide before your very eyes. If you are like me, you will want to stand up, shake a fist at the screen, and curse the filmmakers for sabotaging their own project.

"Woman on Top" starts out as a light, breezy, cheap and cheerfully empty-headed movie centered on Isabella, a naive Brazilian girl played by the indescribably beautiful Penelope Cruz. (Honest to God, this woman has the best-looking hair you ever will see in your life--and the rest of her is just as amazing.) She is a cook married to the owner of a beach restaurant. The first time the voice-over narrator mentions Isabella's unearthly kitchen abilities, it is obvious that the screenwriter has "borrowed" a lot from the (vastly superior) "Like Water for Chocolate." But Isabella is so sunny, pretty and effortlessly sultry that it is hard to let a niggling little annoyance like plagiarism ruin the show.

Isabella catches her husband cheating, packs her bags, and flies to San Francisco. In fable-like fashion (a drop of her sweat makes a flower bloom, and the mere sight of her attracts hundreds of men to follow her as she walks obliviously down a street), Isabella quickly lands her own TV cooking show. Watching her charm and entrance everyone in sight is a sheer pleasure. Think of the "Mary Tyler Moore" show, except that the girl who's gonna make it after all is a shy, big-eyed Brazilian beauty who likes to show lots and lots of cleavage.

So far, so good, right? But instead of sticking with Isabella turning the world on with her smile, the filmmakers take a movie that all seems worthwhile and turn it into a nothing day. The last two-thirds of the film are about Isabella's very unappealing husband (imagine a duller version of Antonio Banderas) trying to win Isabella back. What kind of clueless idiots would think it was a good idea to shift the viewpoint character in this movie from Isabella to her mopey, stubble-faced cheating husband? Did the writer, director and producer all go hopelessly insane after eating some tainted toothfish for lunch one day? "Hey, even though we have one of the world's most beautiful women as our star, let's change the focus to concentrate on the second-rate Zorro who plays her hubbie!" I was so mad I could have squashed a grape.

(Odd comparison: A fellow writer said he thought "Hollow Man" tanked because "you can't ask the audience to root for Kevin Bacon at the beginning of the movie, but then flip protagonists halfway through and expect them to start cheering for Josh Brolin instead." In the same way, it was just plain crazy for the makers of "Woman on Top" to make us fall in love with Penelope Cruz's character at the beginning, but then to start portraying her as heartless and mean for not wanting to get back together with her philandering husband.) (And what's the deal lately with movies portraying cheating husbands as nice guys who deserve judgment-free compassion and complete forgiveness? First there was last week's god-awful "Just Looking," now this. Obviously, we have entered the Post-Clinton age of consequence-free immorality, in which women should be perfectly willing to be treated like doormats because, hey, "Guys is guys!") (Christ, that sounded almost feminist...somebody slap me.)

I can't give this movie a failing grade because, what the hell, Penelope Cruz is great to ogle, even if she should have held out for a better script. (But note that, despite its provocative title, the film contains absolutely no nudity, unless you count a quick glimpse of Cruz's unclad flank viewed in profile during a short bed scene.)

Back Row Grade: D

Women in Trouble
(Reviewed November 13, 2009, by James Dawson)

This cheap-looking collection of melodramatic vignettes by writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez apparently is supposed to seem insightfully edgy in its talky portrayals of various betrayed, conflicted or sexually adventurous women. Unfortunately, it's too smutty and condescending to be taken seriously.

Carla Gugino is a pregnant porn star, Adrianne Palicki is a dumb-bunny hooker, Marley Shelton is a horny flight attendant. They and several other actresses in this unfortunate ensemble find unlikely reasons to strip to their underwear, talk dirty, and get so worked up over their silly soap-opera situations that they cry on camera.

The screenplay (and some of the performances) are so bad that "Women in Trouble" ends up belonging to that most resented and unfortunate of cinematic genres: nudity-free porn.


Back Row Grade: F

(Reviewed September 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Val Kilmer has never been a favorite of mine, and he seems on first consideration to be all wrong for the role of porn-star legend John Holmes. (Holmes always struck me as more of a sleazy grown-man type, as opposed to addled, overgrown surf-bum type.) Then again, if you never have seen footage of the real Holmes, Kilmer does a good enough job making his not-convincingly-Holmesian character believable. It's not an incredible simulation, in other words, but it's an acceptable substitution.

"Wonderland" recounts the true story of Holmes' involvement in a drug ripoff and the resulting revenge murder spree that occurred on Wonderland Avenue in early 1980s Los Angeles. It is stylishly directed and has good supporting performances from Dylan McDermott (convincingly playing a biker badass in a bad fake beard, a character who has absolutely nothing in common with the lawyer he played on TV's "The Practice"); Kate Bosworth (as Holmes' teenage girlfriend on the run); and Lisa Kudrow (as Holmes' long-sufferin' wife, a bitter but centered character who is universes away from Phoebe on "Friends").

The faded, orange-overtone film stock and the grittiness of the images makes "Wonderland" resemble a documentary unearthed in a time capsule from the period. A little too much of the story is told in flashbacks, with shifting viewpoints giving different versions of the story. Then again, this covers the problem of nobody knowing to this day exactly what exactly happened on Wonderland Avenue.

Not exactly a feel-good flick, but definitely worth a look.

Back Row Grade: B-

The Woodsman
(Reviewed December 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

Kevin Bacon plays a paroled child molester who gets a job at a lumber yard, hooks up with the ridiculously huge-breasted and even more ridiculously understanding Kyra Sedgwick, and really resents the fact that a gay pedophile is cruising the elementary school near his crappy apartment.

His performance is good, in blank-eyed loser fashion, but none of the main characters as written are completely convincing. Bacon's brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) is his only family member who stays in contact, even though Bacon desperately wants to see his estranged sister and 12-year-old niece. I didn't believe that Bratt, in a moment presumably intended to pass for male bonding, would tell Bacon that he harbored secret desires to cheat on Bacon's sis. Also, it seemed damned unlikely that Bratt would mention how sexy his daughter and her friends are dressing these days. What came next was even harder to buy: That Bacon would casually ask if Bratt ever had "thoughts" about his daughter. Inappropriate, dude!

Hannah Pilkes is heartbreaking in a small role as one of Bacon's intended victims. Mos Def is good in a cop-show cliche role as a seen-it-all detective who doesn't bother with such niceties as search warrants. Rapper Eve is appropriately petulant as a rebuffed and resentful secretary at the lumber yard.

"The Woodsman" gets points for tackling unusual subject matter, and for managing to elicit some actual audience sympathy for a guy who rightfully should be lynched. I could have done without a completely unnecessary and overly dramatic bit of action near the end, which was at odds with the rest of the movie's attempts at low-key realism.

Not exactly the kind of date movie that is likely to get you laid afterward, but definitely worth a look.

Back Row Grade: B-

The World's Fastest Indian
(Reviewed December 4, 2005, by James Dawson)

Back in the mid-1970s, when I was a fresh-faced teen, I had a Kawasaki 90cc motorcycle. Even though an engine that size is roughly comparable to what you'll find today on a lawnmower, the bike actually would go 70mph. Downhill, anyway.

I customized it by using model paint to cover up the "90" decals. One side became a Superman logo, the other side became a Rolling Stones tongue. Hide your women, townies! There's a badass on the highway!

I sold that cherry-red dreamcycle when I went away to college, back in the prehistoric days of record players, Gerald Ford and the AMC Gremlin. (Don't get me started on how much I want another Gremlin.)

These days, like every other middle-aged idiot trying to recapture his lost youth, I've searched eBay to see if I can find another Kawasaki 90 like the one I let get away. They turn up every now and then, usually looking like hell and with no compression, no title, a split seat and absolutely no warranty. A dealer told me that even if I do manage to locate one that runs, there is no way I could order parts for the thing if it ever broke down. Also, because the extent of my mechanical ability is limited to knowing where to put the ignition key, I wouldn't be much good at "tinkering."

"The World's Fastest Indian" is about a real-life guy who puts me to shame in that regard. The Indian in question is an antique motorcycle. New Zealander Burt Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) was a garage-dwelling eccentric whose dream was to speed-test that lovingly maintained-and-modified 1920 bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats when he was in his sixties. The movie follows him from Kiwiland to the history books.

Hopkins gives a good performance, but the movie falls down in the middle when it becomes a twinkly, Crocodile Dundee road movie full of the wacky, eccentric Americans that he meets on his way to Utah. I wished that director/writer Roger ("No Way Out," "Thirteen Days") Donaldson had played things straight, instead of going all warm and fuzzy and fake.

Still, this is an interesting (even if typically movie-fictionalized) biopic about a determined man who never gave up. It should give hope to every graying old fart who refuses to act his age.

And now, it's back to eBay for me.

Back Row Grade: C-

World Trade Center
(Reviewed July 31, 2006, by James Dawson)

They should have called it "Two Guys in a Hole."

It's a crime that this boring, mawkish melodrama has co-opted a movie title that should have been reserved for a story with a bit more dramatic heft than this lame retelling of "A Very Brady Christmas."

That's right, folks. If you're under the misimpression that this will be maverick, free-thinking conspiracy nut Oliver Stone's gripping and comprehensive take on the tragic events of 9/11, forget it. What we get instead is a film that focuses on two Port Authority cops (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena). They get trapped in the rubble of a collapsed tower, then painfully shoot the shit while awaiting rescue for what seems like forever.

Their families fret, moan and reminisce in soap operatic fashion, the way Carol Brady and the kids did while praying for Mike Brady's safe return from a construction-site cave-in. "World Trade Center" does have better sets than that made-for-TV fiasco, though. And the families don't arrive at Ground Zero to sing Christmas carols, which counts for something.

Cage and Pena's colloquy is so cornball that I found myself wondering if Quentin Tarantino gave the dialog an uncredited polish, especially when the subject turns to the "Starsky and Hutch" theme. The characters' constant "don't fall asleep" warnings to each other seem equally directed at the audience. Also, Jesus makes not one but two cameo appearances. No foolin', folks.

Surprisingly, director Stone makes no political references, other than showing a very brief news clip of President Stupid making a statement to the press.

That decision makes sense in the context of this very "micro" narrative, but it also drives home the fact that anything resembling a uniquely Stonish "vision" is nowhere to be found here. It's like when David Lynch helmed the utterly unLynchian "The Straight Story." Well, except that "The Straight Story" was good, that is.

Cage is actually okay, for a guy who spends most of his onscreen time lying down on the job, as real-life cop John McLoughlin. Pena's portrayal of his real-life counterpart, however, makes the guy look so needy, whiney and dumb after the tower collapses that it's like watching a mustachioed paraplegic play Lenny from "Of Mice and Men."

Their wives are played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who veer between earnest worry and indignant fury like a pair of daytime drama divas.

This is the third 9/11 movie I've seen this year. "United 93" was the best by far. "World Trade Center" is not quite as bad as the made-for-cable "Flight 93," however. That's mainly because "WTC" has better sets and, of all things, better sound design.

That brings up another problem with "World Trade Center," though. Presumably, the "booms" we keep hearing offscreen at the beginning are supposed to be from the bodies of jumpers loudly hitting the ground. (A documentary on CBS a while back included footage shot inside the towers before they fell, and noted that those sounds came from falling bodies. Many of those "booms" were deleted from what aired, for "audience sensitivity" reasons.) Yet while it is chilling to hear those disturbing sounds as Cage and company make their way inside one of the towers, there is no way that anyone who didn't see the documentary will know what the sounds indicate. Although we see Cage and others look offscreen in reaction to the sounds, we never are privy to what they see. The movie includes only one glimpse of a falling body, seen from a distance while it is still in mid-air.

Granted, the sight of numerous bodies hitting concrete wouldn't exactly make for pleasant viewing. But a story that is supposed to give us insights into the hell that two cops faced on 9/11 shouldn't whitewash a single bit of the horror.

Back Row Grade: D-

Wrath of the Titans
(Reviewed March 28, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Wrestler
(Reviewed November 22, 2008, by James Dawson)

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

I also wrote a feature article about the movie, which you can read here:
"The Wrestler" Feature Article

Back Row Grade: A