Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson

Back Row Reviews
James Dawson



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Zack and Miri Make a Porno

(Reviewed October 18, 2008, by James Dawson)

Everyone knows somebody who thinks he's funny but isn't, or who is so annoyingly foul-mouthed that he's embarrassing to be around even when no females are present, or who is so shockingly clueless about adult relationships and the opposite sex that everything he says about either topic sounds creepy, immature and idiotic.

With "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," writer/director Kevin Smith once again makes the case that he belongs in all three of those categories.

Smith's movies consistently seem to be the work of a masturbating moron so witless he thinks he's the first person to come up with jokes about things like "granny panties." Dude, how pathetic are you when you're reduced to stealing material from "Bridget Jones's Diary?"

In what passes here for a plot, Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are cash-strapped roommates who decide that making their own porn movie will be a good way to pay the utility bills. Their first idea is to do a "Star Wars" parody called "Star Whores." Jesus Freaking Christ, Kev, do you honestly think you're even among the first hundred million people to use that joke?

Complications move the taping to Zack's workplace, a Starbucks-like coffee shop. So you'd think the painfully obvious new title for the vid would be "Starfucks," right? Nope -- it's "Suck My Cockuccino." Forget what I said about trying to be original, Kev. You're better off sticking to swiping.

With utter predictability, lifelong "just friends" Zack and Miri discover they actually love each other during their we-don't-see-any-naughty-bits-whatsoever sex scene. Wow. Couldn't have seen that one coming, huh?

Would-be crank-yankers who are hoping for lots of nudity should be aware that the full extent of the nakedness on display consists of two pairs of breasts (neither of them possessed by Banks), one female bush (again, regrettably not belonging to Banks), Rogen's flabby ass, and full-frontal-and-dorsal shots of costar Jason Mewes. That's it. Even real-life former porn star Traci Lords doesn't come across with the goods; she is shot from the waist up wearing a black bra during her sex scene.

Most notable among a vast multitude of plot problems is the fact that Banks is way, way too good-looking to be believable as a boyfriendless loser who would shack up in a shithole with a schlub like Rogen. Apparently Kevin Smith gets his worldview from watching too many "fat guy/hot wife" sitcoms.

The movie also apparently takes place in a universe free of STDs, considering that no one even raises the possibility of taking safe-sex precautions whilst screwing strangers. Along with all the sophomoric sexism is some offensive racial stereotyping, the kind that socially retarded white boys think is cool because they're so down with the black community and it's obviously all done in "good fun."

I fucking hated this movie. (Note: I would have said, "I hated this fucking movie," but that would give the false impression that "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" has more to offer than strictly soft-core stupidity.)

One of the worst movies of 2008. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Back Row Grade: F-


(Reviewed October 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

There's a pretty good movie in here, but it's too bad that this seems to be the "B-team" version of it.

A six-year-old boy finds a very retro mechanical board game called Zathura in the basement of an old house. After some "nobody ever plays with me" begging, he gets his reluctant 10-year-old brother to indulge him. Unfortunately for them, the events described on cards dispensed by the game become literal, and occasionally terrifying, reality. Which means their house is subjected to a meteor storm, transports to outer space, and suffers other violent indignities ranging from an out-of-control robot rampage to an alien attack by lizard men.

The special effects are generally excellent and occasionally breathtaking, such as the boys' first glimpse at the asteroid belt surrounding their suspended-somewhere-near-Saturn home. Little kids might freak out during some of the more violent bits, but hey, that's their problem.

"Zathura" also features the boys' sexy teenage sister as a more earthy kind of eye candy. Whenever I see a leggy knockout like this in a children's movie, I can't help thinking that she was tossed in as a treat for all of the daddies who get dragooned into taking their little angels to the theater. In a word, "Yum!"

What I didn't like: Both of the boys seem too typically Hollywood. I wish that whoever was in charge of casting had dug a little deeper into the pile of headshots, to come up with a six-year-old who was less sappy and a 10-year-old with more personality.

Also, director Jon Favreau has a hard time making the movie's emotional beats work. More than one scene should have had viewers bawling like blubbering babies, but nary a tear will be shed. I couldn't help imagining how much better those scenes would have worked in the hands of an "E.T."-era Spielberg, especially if the boys had been more like Elliot and his big brother.

Another directing problem: Favreau doesn't do a good job of making time pass believably. If meat-eating lizard-men invade a house, I don't think they would linger forever in the basement before bothering to check out what kind of tasty morsels might be hiding upstairs.

Plotwise, one flaw that may have been due to budget constraints is that a few of the game's cards don't have any effect whatsoever (such as "You are promoted to fleet admiral"). It doesn't make much sense to establish that the game affects reality, but then ignore this fact every now and then for no apparent reason.

Also, even though I really liked the ending, it only makes sense if we assume something that should have been explicitly stated earlier. I can't be more specific without spoiling something, but one measly sentence of dialog would have solved the entire problem. (If you see the movie and want to know what I'm talking about, just send me an e-mail. I'll take a break from curing cancer long enough to send a reply.)

Despite these nit-picks, however, "Zathura" is definitely worth seeing. Sure, it could have been better -- but it's still a fun ride.

Back Row Grade: B-


(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)

David Fincher ("Seven," "Fight Club," "Panic Room") directed this account of the hunt for the real-life serial killer known as Zodiac, who terrorized the San Francisco area in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the movie has only one scene featuring anything that could be considered a "Fincher touch": a moving shot in a newspaper office has cypher code symbols hanging in mid-air, which looks kind of stylish.

Otherwise, there is no flash whatsoever to lighten up the movie's relentlessly downer tone. Jake Gyllenhaal is a newspaper cartoonist who is obsessed with the case. He becomes more tenacious about solving it than the police are. Robert Downey Jr. is his usual smugly monotonous self as a reporter who ends up being a different kind of victim of the killer. Mark Ruffalo is a sotto voce cop who tries but fails to stop caring about Zodiac murders that go unsolved for years.

The murders themselves are recreated with disturbing directness, for the most part. The most frustrating scene, however, is one in which the camera fails to show what should have been the single most exciting moment in the movie. The killer has a pregnant woman and her baby in his car, and obviously means them harm. Next thing we know, mom is on the road screaming for someone to stop and help her. She somehow has managed to escape from the moving car -- but we never saw it happen!

"Zodiac" is well over two hours long, and definitely feels like it. Appropriately, perhaps, it has the feel of a 1970s cop movie: gritty and low-key, dimly lit, and sort of a bummer.

Back Row Grade: C


(Reviewed September 24, 2009, by James Dawson)

The surprisingly enjoyable "Zombieland" makes up for a paper-thin plot with style, humor and even a little heart. After mad cow disease has mutated into a "mad human disease" that turned people into flesh-eating zombies, nerdy Jesse Eisenberg has managed to stay alive by adhering to a numbered list of "Fight Club"-style rules. They include getting plenty of cardio exercise in order to outrun the undead, resisting the urge to be a hero, and "double-tapping" zombies -- as in shooting them twice -- to make sure they stay down. As he ticks the rules off, they are spelled out onscreen and reappear during appropriate scenes.

He meets up with a very intense Woody Harrelson, and later with con-artist sisters Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, on the wreck-strewn highway. They decide to strike out for Los Angeles, where they encounter a very funny surprise guest star in Beverly Hills. There's also tons of mow-'em-down carnage at a fictional southern California amusement park -- which would have been much cooler if it had been Disneyland instead of a "Six Flags"-type establishment, but you can't have everything.

Eisenberg is likable and funny as the self-deprecating virgin narrator. Also, some of the quick-cut road-trip dialog between the four stars is hilarious, such as hearing Breslin briefly explain the concept of Hannah Montana to a mystified Harrelson.

A word of advice: Sneak a package of Twinkies into the theater with you when you go. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

Back Row Grade: B


(Reviewed July 7, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Grade: D+


(Reviewed September 21, 2001, by James Dawson)

This is a very funny lightweight "Austin Powers" sort of comedy starring Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander, the dumbest male model in the universe (which probably is saying a lot). Stiller's real-life wife Christine Taylor plays a Time magazine reporter who stumbles upon (as they say) a nefarious plot to brainwash Zoolander, Stiller's real-life father Jerry Stiller plays Zoolander's agent, Owen Wilson is Zoolander's chief rival Hansel, and "Saturday Night Live" star Will Ferrell is a way-over-the-top fashion designer who is flamingly, flamboyantly Up To No Good.

Best scenes include a "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" montage featuring Zoolander and three of his fellow rather effeminate male models cavorting at a gas station while a pair of disgusted attendants look on, and a mano-a-mano unsanctioned "walk-off" runway competition refereed by a surprise guest star who really is a surprise. Also, Jon Voight's performance as Zoolander's father and "X-Files" star David Duchovny's cameo as a conspiracy-spoiler are deadpan comic gems.

Stiller directed, from a script he cowrote, and does an impressive job, especially in his send-up of a VH1-style fashion awards show. (The fact that VH1 Studios is one of the companies that produced this movie probably helped...)

Best of all, this movie VERY prominently features the classic Frankie Goes to Hollywood single "Relax," arguably the finest song ever written in the history of the universe. A piece of fictional Frankie history that is mentioned in the movie is hilarious, especially for fans of that sorely missed 1980s group.

Frankie say: Go see this movie!

Back Row Grade: B+


(Reviewed July 28, 2006, by James Dawson)

Everything about this absolutely awful movie is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Tim Allen is Zoom, a retired superhero who now runs an auto repair shop. Concussion, his evil brother and former fellow super-team member before turning bad, is on his way back to earth after spending decades in another dimension. Zoom has been recruited by the military to train a new batch of kids as a fighting team to confront Concussion.

Even assuming that this incredibly juvenile movie must be intended for very small and very stupid children doesn't excuse its wall-to-wall flaws.

First, what misguided Hollywood idiot thought that Tim Allen would be a good viewpoint character for a movie like this? No six-year-old is going to have any interest in watching Allen make bad sitcom jokes and witless insults about the kids on the team. He comes off like a bored old fart with a bad attitude that's supposed to be funny.

Making Allen seem like a hip comic genius, however, is the tired and tiresome Chevy Chase, who plays a scientist at the secret training facility. Rip Torn is the movie's scenery-chewing stereotype of the usual angry and unreasonable military man in charge of the project. Courteney Cox is embarrassingly unamusing as a lab-coated staffer who falls down a lot. (Her boobs are impressively huge, though: full, free-swinging, much-bigger-than-they-were-on-"Friends" knockers that were first glimpsed onscreen in last year's "The Longest Yard." If you care about that sort of thing.)

The actors who play the super-powered recruits are zero-charisma Hollywood kids. The youngest, codenamed "Princess," probably has a future as a piece of Hefner "Girls Next Door" arm candy in about 10 years. She could have played one of the too-cute "junior hooker" beauty contestants in "Little Miss Sunshine" with no trouble at all.

The teenage-girl member of the team is surly and tomboyish. One of the two boys is that pudgy jerkoff from "The Cat in the Hat." The older teenage boy is from central casting's generic slacker-rebel-dreamboat catalog.

There's a scene at a Wendy's restaurant that goes so far beyond product placement it's more like a two-minute commercial hammered into the movie. Most of the infuriatingly chuckleheaded songs on the soundtrack are by the unlistenable band Smash Mouth. And absolutely none of the movie's feel-good bonding moments, or triumphing-over-adversity moments, or "we-are-family" moments manages to work. The whole misguided mess is fake, cheap and stupid.

Forget the fact that this movie makes the "X-Men" flicks look like "Paths of Glory" by comparison. "Zoom" isn't even as good as last year's "Sky High," which at least had sense enough to identify with kids instead of with the middle-aged former star of goddamned "Home Improvement."


Back Row Grade: F-minus