Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson




Back Row Reviews
by
James Dawson
stjamesdawson.com

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C

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Cabin Fever

(Reviewed September 11, 2003, by James Dawson)

They should have called this one "28 Days Lamer."

This shockingly cheap-'n'-cheesy waste of time takes "don't believe the hype" to a whole new level. The producers somehow got an inexplicably glowing quote from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson for "Cabin Fever"'s ad campaign. That wholly unjustified praise will sucker scads of trusting Frodo fans into buying tickets for this timid, timewasting turd. What those hapless hobbit-heads may not realize is that Jackson himself directed one of the cheapest, stupidest, most flat-out unwatchable horror movies of all time early in his career (1992's "Dead Alive," aka "Braindead"), so his critical faculties regarding this genre should automatically be regarded as more than suspect.

Most of "Cabin Fever" looks like a student project handed in by a guy who was nowhere near the top of his class. It can't make up its mind whether to try being scary (it isn't) or go for "Twin Peaks"-style tongue-in-cheek weirdness (a bicycle-riding party-fan cop with the looks and acting chops of a 1970s porn star is genuinely amusing, making you wish the whole movie had been played for those kind of left-field laughs).

The plot? A bunch of college kids who are renting a cabin in the woods come in contact with a virus that makes them spew blood and lose chunks o' flesh. (What fun!) Our Heros are straight from the Central Cliche Casting: The jock, the blond, the stud, the slut and the "nice guy." They do things no human being ever would do (a friend catches a virus? Lock her in a shed overnight on a bare mattress! Now that's compassion!) (Or even stupider: The most manically germ-phobic and fastidious member of the group, who runs away in "I don't wanna catch it" terror when things start getting gruesome, returns to the cabin later for an extended walk around inside the grotesquely blood-splattered place. I don't think so!)

The movie does include a couple of (very brief) topless shots of the slut, which certainly were appreciated. But when the scariest thing about a horror movie is its opening credit sequence -- mere words appearing against an increasingly blood-soaked background -- something is, as they say, amiss.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-





Cafe
(Reviewed August 18, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie (which is supposed to have an accent mark over the "e," but for some reason that formatting never works on this page) for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Cafe" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




The Caller
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Captain America: The First Avenger

(Reviewed July 20, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Captain America: The First Avenger" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+





Captain Corelli's Mandolin

(Reviewed July 26, 2001, by James Dawson)

There actually may have been a charming, tearjerking melodrama buried somewhere in this very disappointing movie, but none of the filmmakers managed to find it, which is kind of a shame. Part of the time, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" tries to be a gentle, fable-like tale of a Greek island's proud residents interacting with endearingly easygoing occupying Italian soldiers in World War II. But the movie's incongruously violent battle scenes, clumsy stereotyping, dumb plotting and just plain bad acting make the would-be souffle fall with a thud.

This is a movie in which we are supposed to believe that a Greek girl who presumably grew up on a very small island with the man she agrees to marry would not realize that the reason he is not responding to her letters is because he can't read or write. (One would think she may have noticed his absence at school...or, at the very least, that his mother would set her straight sometime before she scribbled her ONE-HUNDREDTH LETTER to the guy.) It is a movie in which a character mails another character a package without bothering to include any note whatsoever mentioning the minor detail of how that character happens to be alive after several missing years. And it is one of those krazy-kasting flicks in which Spaniard Penelope Cruz and Englishmen John Hurt and Christian Bale (!!!) all are supposed to pass for Greeks.

About Ms. Cruz: There's no denying that this lady is a certified knockout. She also cuts a very sexy rug in a hot dance scene (which is another dumb moment in the film, considering that we are supposed to believe she would dirty-dance with an Italian soldier while the mother of her missing-in-action Greek soldier fiancee was sitting at a table watching). But somebody's gotta figure out that the only characters Cruz should play are mutes. Every time she opens her mouth, it's groan time. I've now seen her in four of her English-language movies, and every time it's the same: She looks fantastic, but she speaks and emotes about as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger. (She does, however, have an extremely brief topless scene in this movie that includes two one-second shots of her nubbins. For those who care about such things. Ahem.)

All the raw material was here to make a hankie-grabber, but none of it worked. Beautiful scenery, though, and incredibly well shot (by sometime Kubrick cinematographer John Toll).

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (because I can't possibly give an "F" to a movie in which Penelope Cruz is topless)





Carnage
(Reviewed December 13, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+




Cars

(Reviewed May 16, 2006, by James Dawson)



By far the worst movie ever made by Pixar, "Cars" feels both deadly dull and depressingly dumbed-down in comparison to the studio’s other works (which include "Toy Story," its better sequel "Toy Story 2," "The Incredibles" and even the more kiddie-oriented "Finding Nemo").

In a human-free world where cars are the only characters, Owen Wilson voices an arrogant, showboating racer who ends up in a forgotten, middle-of-nowhere small town. Take a wild guess whether he learns that it’s better to have simple, "just-folks" friends than fabulous fame and fortune. Go ahead, guess.

Paul Newman does a good job voicing the wise, antique Hudson Hornet who is the town’s crotchety doctor and judge.

So-called comedian Larry the Cable Guy is the voice of a rusty, redneck, and annoyingly retarded tow truck named Tow Mater. Maybe it’s just me, but every time I hear this cornpone cracker speak I feel like weeping for what America has become: Dumbfuck Nation, where red-state idiots elected a malleable, misguided moron who sounds exactly this stupid to the highest office in the land. God bless America!

"Cars" feels like a preachy "PBS Kids" program written by a committee of California quiche-eaters trying to appeal to the "git ‘er done" NASCAR crowd. Surprisingly, even the animation isn’t as impressive as Pixar’s usual. There are lots of faded pastel backgrounds. The eyes-in-white-windshields design of all the cars in the movie looks terrible. (Maybe Pixar didn’t want its cars to look like the animated cars in Chevron’s TV ads, whose eyes are headlights.)

The only thing that made me laugh in this entire movie came during the closing credits (and that’s a long wait, considering that "Cars" is nearly two hours long). In a bit that has nothing to do with the main plot, cars watch brief scenes from all-car-cast versions of other Pixar movies, such as "Toy Car Story." The segment has more wit and creativity than everything that went before, so stick around instead of bolting for the exits right away.

Bizarrely, the classic Gary Numan song "Cars" is not heard anywhere in this movie. And there’s not a single AMC Gremlin anywhere to be seen, unless I missed spotting one in a crowd scene. Tragic!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Cars 2

(Reviewed June 21, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Cars 2" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Casino Royale

(Reviewed November 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

Okay, I totally screwed up by not getting around to reviewing this one until three days after its release. So by now you've already heard every other reviewer praise star Daniel Craig as the best Bond since Sean Connery, and remark that the mostly back-to-basics script steers clear of ridiculous gadgetry and groanworthy one-liners, and marvel at this installment's somewhat less easily seduced than usual Bond Girl (Eva Green).

What I haven't seen in any other reviews, though, are any mentions of what's wrong with the movie (other than some critics' comments that, at nearly two and a half hours, it is too long).

I guess that means it's up to me.

Much as I liked "Casino Royale" -- it's not only the best Bond movie since Connery, but it's the best since Connery's best, easily trumping the likes of "Never Say Never Again" and "Diamonds are Forever" -- several things about the script bugged me. The screenwriters stay surprisingly close to the meat of Ian Fleming's 1953 novel, in which Bond is dispatched to out-gamble a bad-guy moneyman into humiliating insolvency. (On the international-relations believability scale, that's right up there with Reagan wrestling Chernenko in Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" video. But I quibble.) Changing the villain from Fleming's corrupt Soviet bookkeeper to a sort of personal finance manager for terrorists wasn't a bad idea. Neither was changing the fellow's instrument of torture from a carpet beater to a thick length of knotted rope. (Both book and movie put a naked-and-bound Bond in a cane chair with its seat cut out, so the bad guy can literally bust his balls.)

Changing the casino's game of chance from a version of baccarat to the considerably less suave Texas Hold 'Em, however, was an embarrassing mistake. It not only smacks of playing to the rubes who think poker tournaments are the height of sophistication, but substitutes a visually complicated game for one that is both elegant in its simplicity and exotic. Who wants to see James Friggin' Bond engaged in a pursuit regularly enjoyed by beer-swilling poker buddies in suburban rec rooms? What will Mr. Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang do next, pitch pennies against the wall of a 7-11 while drinking from a bottle in a brown paper sack?

Also, while the massive flick-of-the-wrist rope should give the torture scene an extra edge of sadistic cruelty that would outdo the book, the movie Bond undercuts the scene's impact by making taunting remarks throughout that downplay his pain. They aren't the franchise's usual sort of of Bob-Hopish corny quips, but they are nearly as inappropriate. In the book, Bond's balls and bum are beaten so badly that he fears permanent impotence and suffers in excruciating agony. In the movie, he thanks his tormentor for scratching an itch.

The most annoying difference between book and movie involves the ending, which I won't ruin. Although most of the particulars are similar, a character's motivation is just different enough to be really frustrating. The book's last sentence is a line of dialog from Bond that is positively devastating; it is truly where "Bond becomes Bond," newly wised-up and cynical and cold as ice. The same line of dialog appears in the movie, but it is not the last line, and it does not carry anywhere near as much weight because it is said in response to slightly different circumstances.

Still, "Casino Royale" gets enough things right that I heartily recommend seeing it despite those flaws. An extended up-front chase scene on foot is so excitingly acrobatic it's like watching an armed version of Cirque du Soleil. (It's easy to see why the "running stunt" choreographer got pre-movie billing.) Craig is very believable as a guy who could kick ass and kill people, which is more than could be said about George Lazenby, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan. (I always thought Timothy Dalton suffered from being put in two completely forgettable Bond screenplays, although he was a good casting choice at the time.) The opening credits don't have the usual silhouettes of top-heavy nudes doing gymnastics, but they're actually pretty classy and stylish. Judi Dench does her usual good job as Bond's boss M.

The closing credits end with the promise that "James Bond will return." Incredibly, however, there won't be a Bond movie next year. Talk about piss poor prior planning! If the producers were smart, they would do an even grittier quick-and-dirty followup, in order to have a 007 movie out in 2007.

Back Row Grade: A-





Cassandra's Dream

(Reviewed December 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

There's a good story in here somewhere, but this movie doesn't manage to find it.

Here we have director/writer Woody Allen's third London-based movie in a row (following the excellent "Match Point" and the so-so "Scoop"), only this time without the enchanting blond goddess known to mortals as Scarlett Johansson.

Instead, we get Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as very unlikely brothers. They need money, their rich uncle wants one of his business associates killed, and he wants to keep things all in the family. And no, this isn't a comedy.

Casting against type, Allen makes Farrell the reluctant, conscience-striken worry wart and McGregor the amoral ice machine when it comes to the idea of killing a stranger. The problem with the movie is that much of it seems to be first takes with no rehearsals; it never feels convincing. Of the two "girlfriend" characters, Farrell's sexy working-class Kate (Sally Hawkins) comes off better than McGregor's bitchy actress-on-the-make Angela (Hayley Atwell), who is such a cold fish that it's hard to see why McGregor is smitten by her.

Tom Wilkinson is okay as the uncle-in-a-bind -- but when he first proposes the murder, his would-be noirish dialog is so unintentionally funny that members of a screening audience laughed out loud.

"Cassandra's Dream" isn't a nightmare, but it's a very half-assed effort. Maybe Woody should give Scarlett another call.

Back Row Grade: C-




Cast Away
(Reviewed December 12, 2000, by James Dawson)

In seven words: Island stuff okay, everything else pretty bad.

I was stunned at how flat, dull and occasionally stupid and contrived the "non-Gilligan" parts of this movie were. Helen Hunt is just plain terrible as Tom Hanks' fiancee, but then again, she's always terrible, so no big surprise there. (She has a very nicely shaped rear end, however. And we are treated to another shot of her in a soaking-wet blouse, a la "As Good As It Gets," but not as revealing.) Hanks himself is all wrong for his "pre-Robinson-Crusoe" role as a driven, on-the-go FedEx honcho. I just didn't buy him as a schedule-obsessed hardass, jetting from country to country to kick the company's foreign employees into shape. And when Hunt-'n'-Hanks are together onscreen, let's just say that movie magic definitely does NOT happen. (When they kiss, you can almost see them waiting for someone to yell "Cut.")

The best performance in this film may well be the one turned in by a character named Wilson, with whom Hanks has a subtle and sometimes touching relationship. Seriously, you will be more moved by the relationship between those two than by anything that happens between Hanks and anyone else.

After his plane takes a header into the Pacific, Hanks washes up on an uninhabited island where not much really happens, but everything looks beautiful. Maybe the filmmakers' intent was to convey how monotonous a life without other people can be, but that won't stop you from waiting and hoping in vain for something on the island itself to kick the movie into higher gear and break things up a little. (For some incomprehensible reason, one big and truly dramatic event that takes place on the island is only referred to in dialog well after it occurs, instead of being shown. Hey, guys, this is supposed to be a MOVIE, not a radio play. Show, don't tell.)

Still, the day-to-day island-life scenes are at least kind of interesting to watch unfold...even if you do start thinking that Hanks must have a superhumanly miraculous resistance to infection, and amazingly non-rotting white teeth. A couple more quibbles: The real-life Hanks shed some pounds to convey an onscreen wasted-away look, but not nearly enough of them. He gets thinner, but nowhere near as emaciated as he should be in the amount of time that is supposed to pass. And there should have been at least one or two stray minutes showing him having more fun--on what is, as far as the audience can see, a clean, hermetically sealed, virtual tropical paradise that is completely free of bugs, snakes, birds, wild animals, disease, and OTHER PEOPLE. If they sold vacation packages to this heaven on earth, it would be booked year-round!

The movie's biggest flaws come at the conclusion (which I won't spoil, even though the moronic dolts in charge of the movie's marketing campaign already have completely ruined the ending in the TV ads). A climactic scene that is insultingly unbelievable is followed by one that is insultingly contrived. Then those two scenes are followed by one that is just plain dumb. Sorry I can't explain further, but that Just Wouldn't Be Right.

(Oh, what the hell, I can't resist. If you want to read what I really, really hated about the ending of this movie, scroll down past the blank area at the end of this review. But be warned that WHAT YOU WILL READ GIVES AWAY THE ENDING! You have been warned!)

What has happened to director Robert Zemeckis, the guy who once made great movies like "Forrest Gump" and "Back to the Future?" This year he gives us this disappointing missed-opportunity muddle and the awful, awful "What Lies Beneath." Yikes.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Spoiler-Related Things That Bugged Me About Cast Away
Here are just a few of the many things I hated about this movie's ending:

The scene in which Hanks is found floating at sea is followed by a cut to a neatly shaven and coiffed Hanks on a plane with the subtitle "Four Weeks Later." Whaaaaa???? Was that cargo ship going in circles for a month? Even if it was a mighty slow boat, it would not be too big a stretch to assume that FedEx, the media, or SOMEBODY would send a helicopter to get Hanks back on dry land with All Due Speed. So, then, did Hanks spend those four weeks recuperating in a hospital? We don't know. But if so, are we really expected to believe that Helen Hunt would not get her shapely ass on a plane and come visit him during all that time? Pretty damned unlikely.

Even more unlikely, to the point of criminally insulting the audience's intelligence, is Hunt's failure to walk through a door in order to meet with Hanks after his FedEx "welcome home" event at the airport. Instead, her new husband tells Hanks that Hunt "needs a little more time." Then Hanks watches from a window as the new hubby and a tearful Hunt get in their car and drive away. Whaaaaa??? God, it's stupid. And that ridiculous scene only exists to set up the most contrived one in the film, which is covered in the very next paragraph.

Because Hunt just could not bring herself to face the love of her life after thinking him dead for nearly five years (man, I feel stupid even TYPING that sentence), Hanks takes a dead-of-night cab ride to her house, so they can stand around in the dark stillness of her happy home feeling awkward, and so he can stare poignantly at the wedding and baby photos that seem to cover every square inch of her walls, shelves and refrigerator. (Another insult, but on a different level, is the filmmakers' implication that Hunt hanging onto Hanks' car for five years is a miraculous act of preservation. As the owner of a beat-up 13-year-old clunker that is about to fail another smog test, I thought that bit of "let them eat cakism" smacked a little too loudly of "wealthy Hollywood mentality.")

The final scene (the just plain dumb one that I mentioned in my main review of this movie) is flat-out preposterous. Okay, follow this: A guy is rescued at sea and gets so much publicity that he is on the cover of People magazine. Knowing our novelty-obsessed culture, he would be so overexposed he would make the "Survivor" cast look like unknowns. But apparently nobody in the media bothers to mention the one thing that he manages to bring back with him from the island, a single unopened FedEx box--even though that would be his story's neatest little "hook," especially to the marketing and promotion people at FedEx itself. In the real world, the person that package was going to would be interviewed extensively herself, and become a "sidebar" celebrity in her own right. FedEx probably would make a ceremony out of presenting her with the precious package. What absolutely would NOT happen is that Hanks would hang onto the package himself (maybe he hid it in his ass all that time), drive it to its "return to sender" address all by his lonesome WITHOUT USING THE PHONE NUMBER THAT PRESUMABLY IS ON THE SHIPPING LABEL TO CALL AHEAD FIRST, leave the package on the front porch with a note saying that it saved his life, and then meet the babe-a-licious, pickup-driving, randy-and-ready fox who lives in the house at the next intersection as she is on her way home. Good lord!





Catch Me If You Can

(Reviewed December 10, 2002, by James Dawson)

Spielberg blew it. What should have been (and what is being advertised as) a breezy '60s-retro bon-bon turns out to have more in common with "Minority Report" than with "Austin Powers." At a whopping two hours and 20 minutes, it's a flight of fancy with wings of lead. (Although I've gotta admit, it does include the funniest "knock-knock" joke of all time.)

Let's put it this way: That great Leo-with-gaggle-of-giggling-stewardesses scene from the trailer definitely does NOT give an accurate impression of the overall movie's tone, or even its look. What you're expecting is a cheerfully on-the-run Ferris Bueller con artist, not a broken-home runaway who has issues with his hollow-eyed failure of a father (the bizarrely miscast Christopher Walken) and his cheatin'-with-Dad's-best-friend mother. Tom Hanks, with a comes-and-goes Ted Kennedy accent, is such an earnest-but-hapless FBI agent that he seems to have dropped in from a much more lighthearted movie--the one "Catch Me If You Can" should have been, in fact. Even the cinematography is bleak, sometimes looking like 16mm blown up to 35mm and left in a vault to deteriorate since the '60s.

The most basic thing that is wrong with the movie is that Leonardo DiCaprio simply looks too young to be believable in any of his assumed-identity occupations (French teacher, airline pilot, doctor, lawyer) in a movie that is trying to go more for realism than for yucks. I realize this is a paradox, since the real-world Leo actually is 28 (surprised, huh?)...but he obviously has been cast because he looks far younger than his years, which defeats the whole purpose of his role. (I don't think his character could order a drink without getting carded, much less impersonate a commercial jet pilot without anyone raising an eyebrow.) The real-world man he portrays, on the other hand, actually looked much OLDER than his teens, which helped him pull off his scams.

The movie also suffers from "inspired by a true story"-itis, which keeps raising "I wonder if that really happened?" questions that undermine the whole enterprise. I've said it before and I'll say it again: If somebody's life story is compelling enough to be optioned for a movie, does it really need screwing with by some Hollywood hack to amp up the drama? (Case in point: One "Catch Me If You Can" character is a non-existent composite, which makes the claim at the end that he is "still close friends to this day" with another of the movie's characters sort of ridiculous.)

"Catch Me If You Can" has an interesting premise, but it's not the movie you'll wish it was. Surprise, you just got conned out of eight bucks by a downbeat drama impersonating a freewheeling fugitive flick. How appropriate!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





The Cat in the Hat

(Reviewed November 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

One would have thought that after "The Grinch,"
A "Cat in the Hat" movie would be a cinch
To be at least a little funny
And not a total waste of money.

But this movie is so damned bad--
Not good at all, no, not a tad!--
That audiences will stare in horror,
Getting bored, and then more boreder.

Not one laugh, nor smile, nor grin!
Its lousiness should be a sin!
"Examples, please," you may request
And thusly I will do my best
To spell out things one, two and three
That make this flick a "must-not-see":

Worst of all is its bad writing,
Which bites and bites and keeps on biting.
Casting Mike Myers seemed inspired
But he mugs and flounders and just seems tired.

He never finds his inner "cat,"
And makes the flick seem quite old "hat"
By impersonating this odd three:
W.C. Fields, Kool-Aid Man and Streisand, B.

The "humor," if one can so describe it,
Is as forced as most "Saturday Night Live" bits.

Do kids need to see Myers strung from a tree
Pinata-style, then beat mercilessly
By a birthday-party gang of brats
Wielding wooden baseball bats?

Two more scenes that should be missing
Involve a dog that's twice shown pissing.
No lie, the gags are so "non-starting"
It's like watching "Santa Claus vs. The Martians."

And speaking of looking "bargain basement,"
There's the matter of shameless product placement:
Through Hollywood-huckster hocus-pocus,
Everyone in town drives a damned Ford Focus
Except Alec Baldwin as a neighbor fellow,
Who has a Thunderbird of yellow.

Baldwin plays would-be stepfather
To Kelly Preston's son and daughter
And is the actor who comes off best,
Having fun with hammy zest.

The daughter is Dakota Fanning
Whose agent she should soon be banning.
She's likeable and cute and sweet,
But in this role there is no meat.

Her brother's played by some "Hollywood kid."
(And of his type, this industry should be rid.)

Sean Hayes, of that awful "Will and Grace,"
Actually manages to save face.
As the voice of a fish with exactly the right look,
His panicked performance is the most "by the book."

But he and Baldwin are not enough
To save this dull and horrid stuff.
And just when you think things can't get more wrong,
It all wraps up with a Beatles song!

Those bastards at Sony and Michael Jackson
Licensed "Getting Better" to play over the climactic action.
It's performed by Smash Mouth, not the beloved Fab Four,
But is still so wrong fans should run for the door.

You may ask, "Can this flick be as bad as all that?
Could they really have messed up `The Cat in the Hat'
So thoroughly that it's not worth eight bucks?"
That's right, folks! It sucks, and sucks, and sucks!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F, F, F





Cats and Dogs

(Reviewed June 15, 2001, by James Dawson)

If you enjoy seeing real dogs run head-first into trees at high rates of speed, or fly through the air to crash head-first into wooden window sills, or threatened with needle-bombs and razor-sharp boomerangs, or cats and dogs beating and kicking each other senseless with kung-fu moves…look, let’s get right to the point: This movie is awful, stupid, unfunny and despicable. Cartoons such as "Tom and Jerry" (or even "Itchy and Scratchy") work because animated drawings provide a little "distance" between reality and what’s on the screen. But when real flesh-and-blood cats and dogs (with "Babe"-style animated mouths for talking) commit acts of violence against each other for entertainment purposes, there’s something kind of sick about it.

Don’t take your children to this hateful would-be "comedy," unless you want them to turn into the kind of psychopathic little bastards who think torturing animals is funny. I don’t even own a damned pet, but even I thought this movie was cruel.

Where are the SPCA and PETA when you really need them?

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-





Catwoman

(Reviewed July 15, 2004, by James Dawson)

Considering all of the "F" grades I give to movies, you might think that I walk into theaters and screening rooms automatically expecting everything to suck. Wrong! Crazy as it sounds, I always hope that I won't be wasting my time...that I won't leave wearing a hateful sneer...that I won't want to rush to a phone and warn all of humanity to stay away from a bomb.

Case in point: "Catwoman." I'm a comics fan from way back. Even when I heard that Halle Berry would be playing the character--can you say "stunt casting?"--I was still up for it. (With apologies to fans of Eartha Kitt, the comic-book Catwoman is white. Period.) When I saw the billboard posters of Berry in a stupid big-head mask and ugly ripped-leather costume, I was worried, but still eager to see the thing. And when the movie started out with Berry doing a voiceover about dying (and presumably being reborn), I was concerned, but still hanging in there.

I didn't manage to hang in long.

I can't fathom why the producers of this movie thought that making Catwoman's "alter ego" a ditzy, immature flake who acts more like a talking-to-herself pre-teen than a grown woman was a good idea. Nor why they changed her name from the traditional Selina Kyle. Nor why they brought in a loopy, stupid, supernatural element, instead of sticking with the athletic-but-completely-human traditional version of the character. (What's next? Having Batman get bitten by a radioactive bat?)

Worst of all, though, is the fact that this movie is so unrelentingly cheesy. It looks cheap, it has a dumb plot that seems to be straight out of a "direct-to-video" textbook, and it is so full of cliches it feels like a UPN sitcom. Berry's best friend at work (an advertising agency; hey, we've never seen THAT workplace before in a thousand movies, have we?) is one of those fat-and-sassy, wisecrack-spouting bitches who makes you throw a heavy shoe at the TV. Berry's other friend at work is a flamingly effeminate gay stereotype whose very existence should be grounds for a hate-crime lawsuit. And her would-be boyfriend is Benjamin Bratt, as a cop who apparently works both robbery and homicide cases.

Berry stumbles upon incriminating info about a new face cream, gets killed for her trouble, and comes back from the dead with the ability to do everything from climbing walls to riding a motorcycle at extremely fast speeds. I guess that last one is a hidden talent of most other felines, who generally are not spotted tooling Harleys down the interstate. Meow!

The wall-climbing and jumping-from-building-to-building stuff looks extremely similar to the way Spider-Man moves, except without the webbing. But even though I didn't like either of the Spidey movies much, they are light years beyond this cheap knockoff.

The only time Berry looks good as Catwoman is during her first "night on the town," when she wears a masquerade-ball-style mask that leaves her hair visible. But as soon as she puts on that ugly "helmet" with the ears, she looks embarrassingly stupid.

Okay, I've beaten around the bush long enough. This movie sucks, and I mean really sucks--as in "one of the worst movies of the year."

Damn it!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





The Caveman's Valentine
(Reviewed February 10, 2001, by James Dawson)

It's going to be hard for Hollywood to produce a worse movie this year than this ridiculous, jaw-droppingly stupid bore. Samuel L. Jackson stars as a cave-dwelling psychotic in a New York park who cleans up his act long enough to...get ready...SOLVE A CRIME. The whole movie, believe it or not, is played "straight." Actually, it is played worse than straight, because the deluded filmmakers also attempt to slather on a glossy veneer of earnestness and artistic pretension.

A better approach would have been to do the same idea as a total farce, with a rag-wearing nutcase serendipitously coming upon clues and witnesses, then reaching a spittle-flying conclusion based on babblingly absurd non-logic. Hell, I've even got a great title for that movie: "Sherlock Homeless." Sort of a crazy cross between "Columbo" and "Being There."

Attention, development execs: I'm in the book.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




The Cell
(Reviewed August 15, 2000, by James Dawson)

If this movie had a script that was worthy of its absolutely gorgeous visuals, it would be a flat-out masterpiece. Unfortunately, this is one of those "beautiful but kinda dumb" movies. The story is way too close for comfort to "Silence of the Lambs" (of which I never was a fan). Also, there are two plot points that are just plain idiotic. If you don't want them spoiled for you, STOP READING RIGHT NOW AND SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. First, I did not believe for a second that Vince Vaughn -- with absolutely zero experience -- would be allowed to "suit up" and take a head-trip to rescue Jennifer Lopez. Second, what is supposed to be the startling revelation that occurs to him while he is "under" -- and which he frantically radios to his colleagues -- is something that any halfway-competent detectives already would have been investigating long before being pointed in the direction of the incredibly obvious.

Despite those lapses, I still recommend this movie for its stunning visuals alone. Every shot in the "inner mind" world is picture-book fantastic. Director Tarsem Singh is the guy behind REM's "Losing My Religion" video and an even better video for Deep Forest (I'm too lazy to go look up that song's title, but it's the one in which a little girl rides a tricycle to locations all around the world). You will stare and stare at landscapes that are part David Lynch, part H.R. Giger, part Russell Mills and part Chanel No. 5 commercial.

Jennifer Lopez is way too good-looking for the role she plays, but who knows? Maybe there really are a lot of pediatric social workers who happen to look like MTV babes that belong in centerfolds.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B





Cellular

(Reviewed September 23, 2004, by James Dawson)

Kim Basinger is a high-school science teacher in fishnets who gets kidnapped and thrown into an attic with a smashed telephone that, with a little wire twisting, allows her to call a phone number at random. She reaches a hunky young guy who drives like a maniac, carjacks a Porsche, holds up a cell-phone store and performs other unlikely heroics in order to effect milady's rescue without breaking their phone connection. Meanwhile, William H. Macy is a ready-to-retire cop who is on the case, but has no idea of what's really going on.

What's impressive about "Cellular" is the way it takes all of that silliness and actually makes it work with tongue-in-cheek flair. Yes, it's dumb, but it's fun dumb.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B





The Center of the World
(Reviewed April 3, 2001, by James Dawson)

In this slow-moving, overly "arty," would-be erotic tale, Molly Parker plays a lap dancer who takes a bored software millionaire up on his offer to spend three days together in Vegas.

But forget all of the annoying digital-video handheld camerawork, the endless scenes of characters staring listlessly into space, and the general air of pervading ennui and gloom. What makes this movie special are two not-to-be-forgotten scenes that were kind of remarkable to see in a "non-porno" movie.

Before I get to those two memorable moments, I should add that Parker is naked A LOT in this movie. What makes this so enjoyable is that, as her "john" points out early in the film, she doesn't look like a stripper. Don't get me wrong, she has a fantastic (and all-natural) body. But she looks more like a slim-and-sexy apartment neighbor than a painted-tart sex-trade worker. (In fact, this makes a scene in which she makes herself up work so well, as she converts herself from plain-but-pretty to model-flawless.)

The first time my eyes bugged out of my head was when, during a strip scene, the camera moved down a stripper's body to show her inserting a lollipop into her Most Special of Places. Great googly-moogly! We're talking full, visible insertion shot. That probably explains why this movie is being released with no rating, because that single shot alone guarantees it couldn't get an "R." (I thought the stripper in question was Parker herself--the editing and lighting making identities sort of hard to discern--but it turns out the insertee was none other than XXX-rated porn goddess Alisha Klass, who is primarily known for her appearances in movies by Seymore Butts. Say no more!)

The second scene was more subtle, but no less remarkable. After having sex with her benefactor, Parker asks him if he wants to see what "real" really is. Then she sits on the hotel room floor wearing nothing but a bra and slowly, methodically masturbates herself to a low-key but thoroughly convincing climax. Schweet!

I can't whole-heartedly endorse this movie, because it is way too self-consciously bleak and downright plodding at times. But Parker's jaded-and-confused character is a real one-of-a-kind. Don't go expecting a raunchy porn fest, but parts of this movie definitely will stay with you after the lights have come up and something of yours has gone down.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C





Chandni Chowk to China

(Reviewed January 8, 2009, by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website ARTISTdirect.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Chandni Chowk to China" review


I also wrote a feature about the movie, which you can see by clicking this link:
"Chandni Chowk to China" article


Back Row Grade: B+





Changeling

(Reviewed October 18, 2008, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for ARTISTdirect.com, so it wouldn't be fair to put that review on this free website. All I'll say here is that this should have been an exercise in noirish excess, but instead is so tastefully restrained that most of it is boring. And don't believe the hype about Angelina Jolie's performance, which mostly is either catatonic or histrionic.

Back Row Grade: D+





Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

(Reviewed June 25, 2005, by James Dawson)

This utterly unnecessary remake offers Johnny Depp -- as a grey-faced, toothy hybrid of Michael Jackson and the Church Lady -- in place of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"'s infinitely stranger and better Gene Wilder. The always bombastic Danny Elfman provides remarkably awful new songs for the Oompa-Loompas to sing, as well as a dreadful score that never ceases to be loudly annoying. And Tim Burton proves once again that his talents lie in production design, as opposed to directing.

The only things bearable about this movie are Charlie and his grandfather, who are excellent, as are the other members of Charlie's preposterously impoverished family. Oh, and the other kids with the golden tickets and their family members are good, too. Heck, now that I think of it, nearly everyone in the cast besides Johnny Depp is at least as good as their counterparts in the original movie, and sometimes better. Christopher Lee, as Depp's dad in a new bit of backstory, is also good.

The problem is that Depp is so unbelievably "off" that he drags down the entire movie. There's also Burton's tendency to confuse "off-puttingly creepy" with "eccentrically charming." A scene in which Veruca Salt is swarm-attacked and carried off by nut-cracking squirrels, for example, is one that might give little Verucas in the audience nightmares. Violet Beauregard's grotesque, lumpy transformation into a human blueberry is like something out of a horror movie. And the welcoming ceremony at the chocolate factory, in which "It's a Small World"-style figures end up consumed by fire and melting, is about as amusing as watching a late-term abortion.

Go rent "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" instead. It has much better songs, a much better ending (including one of the best shouldn't-work-but-it-does last lines in movie history), and the apparently irreplaceable Gene Wilder.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+





Charlie Bartlett

(Reviewed February 23, 2008, by James Dawson)

This is what "Rushmore" would have been like if "Rushmore" director/writer Wes Anderson didn't have any talent.

In "Rushmore," very eccentric teenager Jason Schwartzman is booted out of private school and has to adjust to the less rarefied, definitely non-blazer-wearing reality of public school.

In "Charlie Bartlett," very eccentric teenager Anton Yelchin is booted out of private school and has to adjust to the less rarefied, definitely non-blazer-wearing reality of public school.

The difference between the two movies is that "Rushmore" veers off into fascinating, character-driven weirdness reminiscent in tone to classic offbeat coming-of-age movies like "Harold and Maude."

"Charlie Bartlett," on the other hand, devolves into a predictably by-the-numbers "new guy makes good" slog that merely steals a song from "Harold and Maude." (Yelchin and his movie mom Hope Davis sit side-by-side at a piano to perform an endless version of "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.")

Yelchin's route to popularity among his new peers involves giving amateur psychiatric advice and illegally dispensing prescription drugs to fellow students. He does this from a confessional-like stall in the boys bathroom. He also starts dating the super-hot, very-red-lipsticked daughter (Kat Dennings) of his high school's insecure, in-over-his-head, frankly a bit of an asshole principal (Robert Downey Jr.).

Is anybody else sick of seeing unattractive, socially awkward douchebags like Yelchin score world-class tail in movies like this? Sometimes I think it's all part of a government plot, one aimed at preventing suicides among teenage nerds by giving them false hope. The most egregious example of this kind of thing is probably "The New Guy," in which the scary-weird-looking DJ Qualls ended up bagging the lusciously lovely Eliza Dushku. Click those names to see the people involved, and you tell me.

But I digress...

Anybody who spends money to see "Charlie Bartlett" should have his head examined.

Back Row Grade: D-




Charlie's Angels
(Reviewed October 24, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is like some bizarre, alternate universe version of a soft-core porn flick. It has the requisite extremely dumb plot, incredibly bad acting, achingly unfunny attempts at humor, and girls who are supposed to be hot. But instead of sex scenes, we get lots of bloodless martial-arts fights and stuff blowing up without hurting anybody. Surprisingly, the chop-socky stuff is the best thing about the movie, with lots of "Matrix"-style bullet-time shots and frantic flying fists and feet.

Also, a tip of the hat to the producers for not casting actresses who might have distracted from Cameron Diaz. I found it very easy to tune out chubby Drew Barrymore and scary Lucy Liu, so I could stare agog at Cameron whenever all three "angels" were on screen. The best scene in the movie is an utterly shameless slow-motion ogle of the divine Miss Diaz's apparently all-natural breasts bouncing wildly in her blouse as she dances. Yum.

MTV's Tom Green is truly terrible in a cameo role, Bill Murray's talents are pretty much wasted, and most of the music cues are inexplicably plucked from the 1970s. (Will any teens seeing this movie know the song "Brandy, You're a Fine Girl?")

But Good God, does Cameron ever look good in that all-white leotard.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D, for Diaz.





Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

(Reviewed August 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

I forgot about this worthless cock-tease of a movie so soon after leaving the theater that more than a month went by before I remembered to review the thing.

Quick and dirty: Why the hell would anyone spend good money to see this garbage when you can go to your local video store and simply rent porn instead? What, you prefer seeing these three old-before-their-time brainless crones acting like sexy, retarded teenagers but not showing any of their naughty bits, instead of watching something that delivers the groin-grabbing goods? Are you stupid? Sure, Demi Moore looks pretty hot in that "she-musta-shaved-it-bare" bikini, but come on. There are better ways to spend your soft-core entertainment dollar, dude.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-





Charlie Wilson's War

(Reviewed December 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

In this allegedly based-on-a-true-story dramedy, Tom Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a womanizing, party-hopping, 1980s-era Texas congressman with an all-female, Playboy-Playmate-quality office staff. As his secretary explains to an appalled visitor, "Charlie says you can teach a girl to type, but you can't teach her to grow tits."

Wilson's political consciousness is raised after a junket to Afghanistan, where the invading Soviet army is making life hell for the general population. With the help of the seventh-richest woman in Texas (an icy Julia Roberts) and a no-bullshit cynic from the CIA (the always excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman), Wilson funnels increasingly large amounts of covert military aid to what were then known as Afghan freedom fighters.

The problem with the movie is that Hanks is never completely convincing as Wilson, the good ole' boy who wants to do good. He seems tired in the scenes where he's supposed to be living the happy high life, and passionless when he's supposed to start giving a damn about suffering refugees. He doesn't bring the kind of conviction to a role that should have shown much more confliction. (I know, I know, "confliction" isn't a real word. But it somehow worked pretty well in that sentence.)

On the other hand, Hoffman is so much fun to watch as a rumpled, sarcastic smartass that he steals the movie. And the female forms on display -- including Amy Adams (looking much better here as Wilson's adoring assistant than in her starring role as a princess in "Enchanted," strangely enough), Emily Blunt (unbelievably hot in a white-shirt-and-panties scene) and Shiri Appleby (as a sexy Wilson staffer nicknamed "Jailbait") -- are definitely easy on the eyes.

It's too bad that director Mike Nichols, working from a script by Aaron Sorkin adapted from George Crile's book, wasn't able to make this movie more moving. It's all surface without any depth, substituting in-jokes (John Murtha won't be a fan) for insight.

Also, one aspect of the movie's ending doesn't ring true, which undercuts what is supposed to be a final real-world zinger. (Stop reading here if you slept through the past 20 years or don't read newspapers.) After the Soviets pull out of Afghanistan, Wilson laments the fact that he can't get a million dollars in taxpayer funds to rebuild schools there. But considering that Julia Roberts' very wealthy character is supposedly a fervent supporter of that country, and that she is very successful at fundraising, we are left to wonder why she couldn't simply write a check for that amount when the US government fails to pony up.

I suspect this may be because, once again, "based on a true story" actually means a lot of the script is fictional. Ah, well.

Back Row Grade: C+





Charlotte's Web

(Reviewed November 21, 2006, by James Dawson)

Strangely, I don't seem to remember any farting scenes in the book. But this movie has 'em, which kind of says it all.

Dakota Fanning is okay as Fern, a farmgirl who saves a runt pig from her father's ax. Everything else about this unfortunate project is, well, unfortunate. This live-action adaptation of the beloved children's classic comes off half sitcom-stupid, half just plain creepy.

The creepy part comes courtesy of Charlotte the spider herself, condescendingly voiced by Julia Roberts, in tones that are skin-crawlingly similar to those of patronizing radio scold Dr. Laura. Although Charlotte is supposed to be the pig's wise and patient friend, the sight of her may make preschoolers piss themselves in screaming terror. The "aesthetic distance" that is possible when reading words on paper about a spider is nonexistent when you're seeing a frighteningly realistic, multi-eyed, hairy-mandibled arachnid skittering disturbingly across a web.

Yeah, I realize that part of the movie's message is supposed to be "real beauty lies within." But if I saw something that looked like Charlotte hanging around, I wouldn't hesitate to squash her with a shoe. Either that, or run from the room crying.

A later scene featuring literally hundreds of tiny spiders landing on barnyard animals' faces and crawling everywhere is supposed to be sweetly charming, but it made me feel like I was covered in bugs. Not that I don't usually feel that way.

The excellent movie "Babe," about another little pig who talked to farmyard animals and didn't want to end up on a Christmas serving platter, got everything right that "Charlotte's Web" gets very wrong. "Babe" was heartfelt, sincere, genuine, charming, funny and smart.

Granted, the novel "Charlotte's Web" was around decades before "Babe" was released. But the "Charlotte's Web" movie is so shoddy and second-rate, it's as if the filmmakers are pretending we live in a universe where the infinitely better "Babe" never was released.

Avoid.

Back Row Grade: F





Chasing Madoff
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Chasing Madoff" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-




Chasing Papi

(Reviewed April 9, 2003, by James Dawson)

I know I can't be the only Anglo guy who ends up watching embarrassingly long segments of cheap-'n'-cheesy all-Spanish soap operas while idly flipping channels with my pants off. (Wait, strike that last part) I have no idea what the shows' characters are saying, I don't have a clue about the intricacies of the "plots," all I know is that lots of the female characters are trashily, irresistibly, ridiculously caliente. (Okay, I know at least one word.)

"Chasing Papi" is like a comedy from one of those networks done in English...which is both good and bad. Good because, hey, lotsa nice-lookin' wimmens. Bad because the whole production is cheap, cheesy and insultingly dumb. ("But if you can't understand the language, how can you say the Spanish soap operas are dumb?" Because I'm a provincial, xenophobic American yahoo, of course! Any more questions?)

Essentially, "Chasing Papi" is like a moronic soft-core porn movie with absolutely zero nudity. Three stereotypical bimbos--a Charo-like cocktail waitress, a smart-but-sexy lawyer, and a ripe lil' princess--all have the hots for a Latin stud who makes all women swoon. I think this is called "covering all bases." The girls bounce around, bitch at each other, and eventually bond. Sofia Vergara, whom I recall looking a whole lot better in last year's Tim Allen bomb "Big Trouble," is the loud, low-class "coochie-coochie" clone. Roselyn Sanchez is a skinny Sandra Bullock lookalike (and "act-alike," unfortunately--like Bullock, she has no flair for subtlety, slapstick physical humor or anything in between). Laci Velasquez was my favorite of the trio, a fresh-faced, incredibly healthy-looking brat who definitely knows how to wear a pair of tight white pants. Although I never had heard of her, she apparently is a rather popular singer in countries where people care about the World Cup.

If this shows up on Telemundo or Univision...well, it still won't be any damned good. But maybe you'll be lucky enough to see it dubbed into Spanish, in which case you can pretend everybody is being a lot more witty and filthy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D





Che

(Reviewed November 2, 2008, by James Dawson)

Note: I was so disappointed by this interminable bore that I simply will reprint the text of an e-mail I sent to a friend, instead of wasting any more time thinking about Steven Soderbergh's four-hours-plus folly.

Saw "Che" last night at the premiere. One word review: "Zzzzzzz." No kidding, that movie (or those two) makes Terrence Malick look like Michael Bay.

The most bizarre thing about the four-hours-plus opus is how much time it wastes on running through the jungle (part one) and running through the brush (part two), without delving into Che's personal life at all. Instead, he comes off like such a goodly, one-dimensional Saint Robin Hood that he should have a halo.

Then again, that shouldn't be surprising, given what Soderbergh said in an LA Times interview printed yesterday. Referring to the fact that the movies include no scenes of "the post-revolutionary period in Cuba, in which (Che's) administrative power included overseeing war tribunals that led to the executions of hundreds of people" (as the article put it), Soderbergh says, "I'm sure some people will say, 'That's convenient because that's when he was at his worst.' Yeah, maybe -- it just wasn't interesting to me. I was interested in making a procedural about guerilla warfare."

The fact that his main character was responsible for mass executions just wasn't interesting to him??? Wow. The movie would have been better off giving its lead character a new name and presenting him as fictional, considering that Soderbergh ignores Che's dark side.

What next, a romantic comedy about Pol Pot?

Back Row Grade: D





Cheaper by the Dozen

(Reviewed December 6, 2003, by James Dawson)

I like Steve Martin, but I sure can't figure the guy out. I mean, imagine that you're a streetwalking whore who wins the lottery one day. You're rolling in dough, you've moved out of the old neighborhood, and you're set for life. Would you head back down to Crack Alley every now and then to get laid by filthy, disgusting johns for old times' sake? Even worse, would you do things even more degrading and disgusting than what you used to do when you first entered the profession?

That about sums up Mr. M's career. The guy is bright, funny and talented. He also is rich enough that he should throw scripts for junk like this movie back in the faces of hack producers who so obviously are aiming for only the very lowest-common-denominator audience. Martin has to know that movies like this one (and last year's "Bringing Down the House") are sitcom-level garbage, the kind of relentlessly unfunny crap that he never, ever would watch or enjoy himself.

What's most depressing is that his movies keep getting more worthless. A lot of actors do their most embarrassing work at the beginning of their careers, things like Roger Corman movies or cheapo horror flicks. But Martin's first movie was the genuinely funny "The Jerk." Which mean he not only backslides when he does these timewasters, he actually appears in movies that are worse than his first.

Case in point: This vomit-inducingly saccharine, would-be warm-and-fuzzy, laugh-along-with-the-cornball-chaos remake. Martin is the dad, the smugly chilly Bonnie Hunt is the mom, and a mob of cringe-inducingly fake "Hollywood kid" moppets are their offputting offspring. The children are "humorously" destructive little sociopaths who intersperse bad dialog with bad behavior, the kind of unamusing capers that would make real-world parents pour Ritalin down the little angels' throats or simply shoot themselves. They wreck the house, they ruin their parents' careers, they make neighborhood property values drop with their white-trash ADD antics...and one of them is a four-eyed little nerd wif a fwog that he weally, weally wuvs and we're all supposed to feel sorry for him because he doesn't fit in and mopes around by himself a lot and oh Christ, my lunch is coming up, I think I'm gonna SPEW.

On the way out of this 98-minute descent into hell, I was asked by another writer what I thought of the movie. I replied, "It makes a great argument for post-natal abortion." Then I added, "When Ashton Kutcher is the best thing in a movie, something is seriously wrong." Man, I was riffin' and be-boppin'. Step aside, Pauline Kael!

Hilary Duff is one of the dozen, and I simply cannot fathom this girl's appeal to America's Youth. She's a walking nothing, with no discernible acting ability or charm. I'm frankly amazed that she isn't doing "third extra from the left" roles in the backgrounds of low-rated soap operas.

The one thing I liked about the movie was Piper Perabo, who plays the oldest of the "kids" and has moved into an apartment with her boyfriend (Kutcher). And the only reason I liked her is because she's so skinny and hot, with that extra-wide mouth and those exaggerated features that shouldn't be sexy but somehow are. She has to come home and help out dad when mom goes way on a two-week book tour. (As everyone who watches television knows, no father possibly can cope with running a household when his better half is away.)

Good God, why am I wasting a Saturday afternoon writing about this horrible, horrible movie?

Suffice it to say, it sucks. And it sucks hard.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





Chicago

(Reviewed December 21, 2002, by James Dawson)

Anyone worried that this adaptation of Bob Fosse's 1975 musical would cause the master to pirouette in his grave is in for a terrific surprise. That sound you hear is Fosse high-kicking the lid off his coffin to stand up and cheer!

What a great, great movie this is, easily one of the best of the year. Every song is a show-stopper, the inspired-by-Fosse choreography is thrilling, the direction is dazzling and the casting is inspired. Who knew that Catherine Zeta-Jones could be such a singin'-and-dancin' force of nature? Who would have thought that Renee Zellweger could carry the lead in a musical? And who could have imagined that Richard Gere would be so joyously unrestrained as an actor, singer and (I kid thee not) tap dancer?

A more than worthy companion piece to Fosse's masterpiece "All That Jazz," "Chicago" was flawlessly directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, best known for helming the ABC-TV version of "Annie." Like "All That Jazz," the music numbers exist outside the reality of the story; characters sing and dance in hyper-real stage settings, as opposed to breaking into song during the actual narrative. And what settings they are! There's as much eye-popping eye-candy in this movie as in "The Two Towers" (although I can't imagine two more dissimilar movies).

Zellweger is a wannabe club singer in the roaring '20s who shoots her boyfriend but gains celebrity status after hooking up with flamboyant lawyer Gere. Zeta-Jones is another Gere client, competing for his attention and his talents.

Virtually every member of the cast is impressive. John C. Reilly, as Zellweger's overlooked patsy husband, puts so much heart and soul and sheer singing talent into his woeful "Cellophane" number that you'll never look at the guy the same way again. And Queen Latifah is terrific as Mama, the jail warden with a heart that's only interested in gold.

If you (like me) thought last year's splashy-'n'-flashy "Moulin Rouge" was flamboyant to the point of insulin shock, don't let that stop you from seeing "Chicago," which puts that fluffy bit of frou-frou to shame. If this movie doesn't sweep the Oscars, we should all stare heavenward and ask the question Roy Schneider posed in "All That Jazz": "What's the matter? Don't you like musical comedy?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+





Chicken Little

(Reviewed October 16, 2005, by James Dawson)

Nice computer animation, but a bird-brained script. If this is the best Disney can hatch on its own these days, the company better do everything it can to make sure Pixar doesn't leave the nest.

The adorably tiny Chicken Little is abused to endless excess by cruel classmates and relentlessly humiliated by the townsfolk, who won't let him forget saying the sky was falling. Something did fall, but he couldn't prove it, and even his own widowed father doesn't believe him. The poor guy is even the subject of a movie called "Crazy Little Chicken."

CL's only friends are fellow social outcasts including a hugely obese pig, a fish out of water, and the ugly duckling herself. When something else falls from the sky, they find themselves in an adventure that's part "War of the Worlds" and part "E.T." (with references to "King Kong" and "Signs" tossed in, to boot).

There is maybe a half-hour's worth of story here, at best. The topical references (the pig is a Barbra Streisand fan, a dodgeball game is accompanied by the overused song "Everybody Dance Now," there's a Spice Girls karaoke scene, etc.) make the movie seem dated and cheesy already.

That's too bad, because the movie has a great "CGI storybook" look. One criticism: Animators working on different scenes should have decided exactly how big an orange-haired little alien is supposed to be. He's much smaller than Chicken Little in some shots, but as big or bigger than CL in others. Sloppy.

Fair warning: Even though most of the movie is very juvenile, with almost no attempts at "Shrek"-style sophistication, the intense action scenes upset a sevenish boy sitting in front of me so much that his dad had to take him out of the theater. If you think that your little angel might freak out at the sight of huge, flying robots with spinning saw-like tentacles pursuing helpless, terrified little animals, you may want to avoid this movie. Or at least make sure your kid is wearing plastic pants.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+





Children of Men

(Reviewed November 17, 2006, by James Dawson)

There are lots of impressive things about this dystopian vision of a near-future in which no babies have been born for 20 years. The hellishly bleak locations, including city streets running for entire blocks in 2027 England, are convincing right down to the rubble, dead bodies and burned-out buses. Clive Owen gives a very believable performance as a former activist who has become don't-give-a-damn numb to the disintegrating civilization around him, without going the usual deadpan-ironic Nicolas Cage route. And the screenplay, adapted from the novel by mystery writer P.D. James, takes at least two interesting plot turns that audiences won't see coming.

But the best thing about "Children of Men" is something that sounds like a filmmaking gimmick but which works amazingly well: lengthy takes -- often several minutes long -- in which a handheld camera follows the action without any cuts. When that action consists of following characters who are in the middle of running gun battles between rebels with rifles and RPG launchers versus military men with tanks, the result is grippingly "you are there."

Director Alfonso Cuaron deserves a lot of credit for executing what sounds like an ostentatious technical stunt -- think Scorcese's show-offy nightclub tracking shot in "Goodfellas" -- in a way that genuinely serves the story instead of drawing attention to itself. (One frustrating exception: The camera is a little too close to a character who gets shot at one point, and several drops of "blood" stay on the lens so long that you can't help wishing they had been digitally erased -- or that Cuaron had gone ahead and used an edit earlier than he does. When an edit finally does come, it is so seamlessly executed that the shot still looks like the same take, except the drops are gone.)

The aspect of "Children of Men" that may inspire the most discussion is its portrayal of how future Britain treats unwanted war refugees and other illegal immigrants (namely, by locking them in brutally inhumane camps until they can be forcibly deported). As a southern California resident who is sick to death of all the problems associated with illegal immigrants to the US -- from ever-increasing taxes to gang-related crime to overcrowded emergency rooms that the "undocumented" use for free medical attention -- the message I get is, "stop the goddamned problem now, and maybe it won't reach that point."

Sure, as if that's going to happen in a country where our pandering idiot politicians want to reward border-jumpers by putting them on a "path to citizenship," instead of booting their asses out. Hey, all of you would-be American citizens who are doing things the legal-and-proper way instead of sneaking past the Border Patrol and making yourselves right at home: You're all of bunch of chumps! Anybody who plays by the rules is a sucker! Ha-ha-ha!

But I digress.

Michael Caine gives an interesting performance as a very aging hippie who lives in his own isolated world way out in the woods. Julianne Moore is a rebel leader protecting a certain very important refugee. Danny Huston is Owens' brother, curator of a London art museum that has rescued major pieces of art such as Guernica and the statue of David from apparently conflict-overrun countries. The sight of David with a steel rod taking the place of part of his missing marble leg is even more jarring than seeing Pink Floyd's inflatable pig moored outside a window.

Recommended!

Back Row Grade: B+





Chloe

(Reviewed February 25, 2010, by James Dawson)

Attention, Mr. Skin fans: The first shot in this movie features the jaw-droppingly busty, blond and blue-eyed Amanda Seyfried topless. The surprisingly voluptuous Seyfried nudies up a few more times later, in both hetero and lesbian sex scenes, and she's so crazy hot she could make a fortune as a Vivid contract girl.

That's really all I need to say to pique every guy's interest, but I'll keep typing for respectability's sake.

The steamy setup of Erin Cressida Wilson's screenplay is such an overused cliche it would be laughed out of Juggs magazine. Gynecologist Catherine (Julianne Moore) thinks her college professor hubby David (Liam Neeson) may be cheating on her. She hires ga-ga-ga-gorgeous call girl Chloe (Seyfried) to test David's faithfulness by tempting him to stray. When Chloe reports that David couldn't resist her charms, Catherine is emotionally devastated...but also undeniably turned on. Very, very turned on.

Director Atom Egoyan tries classing up what's basically a softcore porn flick by keeping things moody and designer tasteful, until the script takes an embarrassingly ill-conceived third-act turn. What started out as a domestic drama with hot parts suddenly becomes a ludicrous psycho-stalker drive-in movie. That's too bad. It would have been interesting to see how actual human beings might extricate themselves from an awkwardly compromising situation like this, without justice-dispensing fate conveniently jumping in to lend a hand.

That mindless twist -- and a final shot that's just plain preposterous -- turn what could have been an amusingly erotic assignation into a much tawdrier guilty pleasure.

Still, though...Amanda Seyfried topless. Julianne Moore, too. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-




Chocolat
(Reviewed December 14, 2000, by James Dawson)
Maybe I'm showing my soft, gooey center, but I absolutely loved "Chocolat." I went in expecting a cutesy French ripoff of "Like Water for Chocolate," a movie that already has been badly plagiarized at least twice (by the Penelope Cruz movie "Woman on Top" and by the monumentally awful Sarah Michelle Gellar movie "Simply Irresistible"). Instead, "Chocolat" turned out to be a different flavor altogether. It is sweet, warm, beautifully presented and wholesomely delicious.

Free-spirited Juliette Binoche, the sort of actress for whom the term "classically beautiful" was invented, arrives in a conservative French town circa 1959 with her young daughter to open a chocolate shop. The forces of church and state (represented together in the form of the town's mayor, played by Alfred Molina) attempt to subdue, convert, repress and expel her. She resists with charm and grace, befriends the town's outcasts (including the great Judi Dench as her crotchety landlord and Lena Olin as an abused wife), and is charmed in turn by the Irish leader of a bohemian group of "river rats" (Johnny Depp). There are not many surprises in the sentimental plot, but that's because the story has the comfortable predictability of a children's fable, and you won't mind a bit.

"Chocolat" is beautifully photographed, with wonderful performances from everyone in the large cast, and is directed with tender loving care by "Cider House Rules" director Lasse Hallstrom. This is one of the best movies of the year. And if you are worried that it is "one of them gol-durn furrin films with subtitles," fear not. Despite the movie's title and setting, all dialog is in English (not dubbed English, but the real thing from the git-go). So now you have no excuses. Go!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A





Choke

(Reviewed September 10, 2008)

This very low budget but 95%-faithful adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel is worth a look, even if Sam Rockwell and Kelly Macdonald are miscast as two of the main characters.

Back Row Grade: C





A Christmas Carol (aka Disney's A Christmas Carol)
(Reviewed November 11, 2009, by James Dawson)

Any version of "A Christmas Carol" that doesn't make audiences choke up over Tiny Tim is a failure. Sorry, but that's a pretty basic story requirement -- and this ridiculously high-tech but no-heart version isn't up to the task.

The motion-capture animation used here, in which performances by real actors are translated into videogame-style computer graphics, is as off-puttingly artificial and vaguely creepy as it was in director Robert Zemeckis' previous uses of the technology ("The Polar Express" and "Beowulf"). The surface textures are impressive, and some wildly elaborate action and chase scenes are Star Tours thrilling, but nobody's home.

Motion capture is this century's version of rotoscoping, in which line-animation cartoons were created by tracing filmed images of real actors. It's a frustrating neither-fish-nor-fowl form that lacks the warmth of genuine human performance, yet doesn't fully commit to a satisfying artistic alternative. It's not the difference between real cheese and Velveeta, it's the difference between real cheese and a picture of real cheese.

There's never a point in "A Christmas Carol" where I wouldn't have preferred seeing the real Jim Carrey instead of his elaborately code-crunched avatar. As someone once put it in a much better movie (Seth Brundle in "The Fly?" J.F. Sebastian in "Blade Runner?" Ron Jeremy in "Inside Seka?"), there's something special about real skin. Virtual backgrounds (a la "Sin City") wouldn't have been a problem, and things like flying ghosts would have been fine as computer effects. But what's the point of trying to make real people appear realistic, instead of simply filming them in makeup?

As a final indignity, the movie is in 3-D, which means wearing those goddamned glasses.

Bah, humbug.

Back Row Grade: C-




Chronicle
(Reviewed February 3, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+




The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

(Reviewed May 13, 2008, by James Dawson)

I haven't read the C.S. Lewis book on which this expensive but mediocre children's-fantasy movie is based. But the film version shares the same faults as the book and movie of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," so I'm assuming that once again the major plot points are faithful to the original. The problems include:

1. Four main characters who have no depth whatsoever. Never in either movie do we get the sense that the four kids have any friends, relatives or basically any lives in the real world, which happens to be WW2-era England. We see them in school uniforms, but when they are whisked away to the magical world of Narnia they show no concern at all about the fact that they may never see any school friends or anyone else that they know or love again.
...

2. Similarly, we have to believe that the four never met anyone they cared about during the years (or possibly decades) that they spent in Narnia in the first movie. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the first movie, stop reading here.) Remember that the first movie ended when much-older versions of the four kids -- having apparently spent quite a long time as kings and queens of Narnia -- returned through the wardrobe passageway to our world and became kids again, as if no time had passed here. One would think that the four must have established friendships, possibly fallen in love, or at least met a few people they liked during all that Narnia time. Yet when they return to a centuries-later Narnia in this movie, no one says anything like, "Oh, no, that means my beloved (fill in) is dead!" The only characters they seem to recall from the previous movie are the beavers and the faun.
...

3. Empty-headed and silly religious allegory. Lewis apparently was heavily into the whole Christianity thang, but the Aslan-as-Christ bit makes for a laughably imperfect metaphor. For one thing, Aslan the lion's self-sacrifice in the first movie was not a true martyrdom in the Jesus sense, considering that Aslan knew he would come back to life because of a convenient technicality. (When Jesus gives up his life in the Bible, it's not part of a "ha-ha, fooled ya, I'm back!" trick.)
...

In this sequel, we're apparently supposed to see the seemingly immortal Aslan more as all-powerful God than trickster son-o'-God -- but he comes off as such a cruel and capricious asshole that it's hard to see why anyone is fond of him. Even though Aslan has the power from frame one to wipe out the evildoers and help the innocent, he ignores the death and destruction until the movie's finale. No one expresses any anger, resentment or wavering faith about the fact that Aslan allows the brutal murder of scores of oppressed creatures before deigning to get off his haunches and intervene.
...

4. Little Lucy's "come-back-to-life" juice. Look, maybe it's just me, but if I knew that this kid had a potion that could restore near-dead creatures to life -- which she does twice in this movie -- I'd be pretty pissed that she didn't think more fighters were worth saving. "Hey, you little creep, sorry I'm not one of your personal friends, but you can see I'm friggin' dying over here! And that bottle looks like it has enough drops in it to restore all of us to life! Quit bogarting salvation, you monster!"
...

5. Both movies are far too long. In this one, I groaned when a storm-the-castle attempt failed, knowing that meant there had to be at least one more extended battle to come. And then it turns out there are three more. Oofah.
...

6. Very unsatisfying endings. In the first movie, our heroes' return to the real world should have been poignant and moving. Based on their grown-up appearances during their last day in Narnia, the four main characters had spent more time there than they had on Earth. This wasn't the equivalent of Dorothy spending only a few days in Oz before returning to Kansas. The four had matured from children to adults, for Pete's sake, and they presumably had done more during those years than just practice their swordsmanship and archery skills. But we saw no emotional transition, shock or sense of loss at all when they fell back into our world, even though they apparently did remember their time they spent in Narnia.

This time around, the four don't even have the dubious "we kinda forgot what would happen if we pushed our way through these coats" reason for coming back to our world. There's some "our work here is done"-type blather that seems like a ridiculously insufficient reason for leaving a beautiful, magical world where "God" is a personal friend, especially given that they don't seem to care a whit about anything or anyone on Earth.
...

7. Considering that the four arrive in Narnia on what looks like a tropical beach, and immediately peel off their coats and shoes to frolic in the surf, I kept thinking how miserably hot all of them (and everyone else) must have been in all those heavy wool maxiskirts and such. Okay, that's a minor point, but still.
...

8. I get the feeling that a lot of the jokey, sitcom-type asides in this movie are not in the original book, and they seem strangely out of place here. For example, a sword-wielding mouse has the same look, attitude and sense of humor as Puss in Boots from the "Shrek" movies. If the screenwriters were going to make the film feel more contemporary and ironic, they should have done it throughout, instead of dropping occasional zingers into a plot that otherwise takes itself too seriously.
...

There's a lot more wrong with Narnia, but you get the point.

So, what's right about it? Well, older-teen Susan (Anna Popplewell) grew boobs since the last movie, and her bee-stung lips give her a permanently petulant Angelina Jolie look. Also, some of the CGI effects (especially walking trees with pretty savage roots) are pretty good.

But the movie as a whole is so badly directed and emotionally flat that it's hard to care about anyone in it. Even the valiant fugitive Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) comes off like a two-dimensional joke with an Ensign Chekov accent. (NERD ALERT! STAR TREK REFERENCE!)

My first comment when the credits rolled was, "For a movie with so much going on in it, I can't believe how bored I was."

Back Row Grade: C-





Cinema Paradiso: The New Version (2002)

(Reviewed June 21, 2002, by James Dawson)

Remember how great this movie was when you first saw it in its chopped, non-director's-cut version? You probably thought this longer version would be even greater, right? Boy, are you in for a letdown. (Unless you have seen the director's cut of "Apocalypse Now," that is, in which case you already know that more does not always equal better.)

Most of what has been added to this "new version" (actually a restored version of the original European edit) is stuff that rightfully was left out the first time around. In the shortened-for-America "Cinema Paradiso," the teenage girl who breaks the narrator Salvatore's heart when she fails to show up for their planned rendezvous never returns to the story. Part of what I enjoyed about that version of the movie is that there was no happy ending and no real resolution to that aborted romance; Our Hero simply got screwed, and had too much pride to try finding the girl who had stood him up. It seemed real, in that sometimes life just plain sucks and you don't get a second chance.

The restored version of the movie offers a sickeningly cliche wrapup to that plot thread, in which the long-lost love (and her identical lookalike teenage daughter) are found after a little easy detective work by Salvatore when he returns to his village for Alfredo the projectionist's funeral. And if this tawdry, soap-opera-cheesy conclusion is not offensive enough, there is even more to dislike about what has been added. In the new version, kindly Alfredo is revealed to be a bit of a psychotic, nasty prick, in a restored scene that makes no narrative sense whatsoever in light of what we know about his character.

It is incredibly ironic that the director's cut of a movie that decries movie censorship is markedly worse than its earlier, edited version. Life's funny that way sometimes, huh?

Back Row Reviews Grade:
Original version: A
2002 version: C-





Circumstance
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+




Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
(Reviewed October 2, 2009, by James Dawson)

Campy, stupid and witless. To save his best friend's life, a high school boy agrees to become a vampire's assistant and live with a circus of supernaturally odd freaks.

I haven't read any books in the series that inspired this annoyingly unamusing movie, so for all I know they may be equally as off-putting as what ended up on screen. This is one of those flicks that somehow manages to be both loudly frantic and yet utterly boring.

Avoid.

Back Row Grade: F




City by the Sea

(Reviewed August 8, 2002, by James Dawson)

Can you say, "Deuces Wild 2?"

Robert Deniro is a cop whose father was executed for murder and whose junkie son is now on the lam for killing a dope dealer. Not a bad premise, I guess--but boy-oh-boy, is this ever a bad movie. That's "bad" as in "audience members laughing quite rudely during what are supposed to be touching scenes" bad.

James Franco, who plays Peter Parker's best friend in "Spider-Man," is nearly unrecognizable as the doper-on-the-run. Maybe that's because this movie was shot so long ago that it bears a 2001 copyright. (And yes, those are the Twin Towers you see in the backgrounds of two shots.) And folks, this flick didn't improve with age after being on the shelf that long.

Eliza Dushku is Franco's girlfriend, looking pretty yummy in way too much slutty eye makeup, but her clothes have a very frustrating way of remaining on her body throughout the film. And that accent! Everybody in this movie speaks with the kind of honking inflections that just might make everyone in America go back to hating New Yorkers all over again.

This is the kind of stupid movie in which a dope dealer in a car hands over the goods to a junkie BEFORE getting the guy's money, merely to set up a scene in which he has to get out of the car and fight to get his baggies back. And things go downhill from there.

It's definitely low tide in this "City by the Sea," because it stinks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





City of God

(Reviewed January 2, 2002, by James Dawson)

This jaw-droppingly excellent Brazilian film about life in the unbelievably mean streets of Rio's wrong-side-of-the-tracks was released outside the United States in 2002, but won't show up here until 2003. So, what the heck, I'm listing it under both years on this website--and probably will put it on my top-10 list for both years, too. It's that good!

I wasn't expecting much going in; the prospect of seeing a film about poverty, violence, crime and the pervasive drug trade from the 1960s-1980s in a South American slum seemed to portend a thoroughly feel-bad evening. I could not have been more wrong.

"City of God," named for a hellish low-income housing development outside of Rio, is engrossingly interesting, surprisingly human, brilliantly written and expertly directed. The screenplay condenses a 700-page based-on-fact novel into a brisk two hours filled with uniformly fascinating if not always likable characters. The amazing thing is that you never will be lost or wonder who is who in the huge cast, because each individual character is so well realized and convincing.

The story is seen through the eyes of Rocket, a kid who grows up in the City of God watching nearly all of his friends succumb to the lure of the underworld to varying degrees. The movie is not all brutality, badasses and bullets, though. It contains moments of both black humor and genuine humor, and scenes that are both touching and tragic. Director Fernando Meirelles uses lots of stylish techniques reminiscent of Guy Ritchie's excellent "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" to tell this sprawling story (fast/slow motion, bullet-time and other tricks). I also enjoyed the way he sometimes focuses on small stories-within-the-story that are introduced with their own titles (such as "The Story of the Apartment," which is a marvel of narrative economy).

I can't emphasize enough how enjoyable this movie is. Don't be put off by the idea that it is foreign with subtitles. Don't think it is one of those boring, badly shot flicks that only high-falutin' film school students could appreciate. Don't let your date convince you to throw away your hard-earned money seeing some brain-dead piece of Hollywood garbage that you know ahead of time is going to be shamelessly lousy, instead of buying a pair of tickets to this unforgettable movie.

"City of God" won't exactly be running in multiplexes on every block, but trust me: For the chance to see this gem, it will be worth taking a drive to one of the few theaters in your town that isn't showing "Just Married."

Back Row Reviews Grade: A





CJ7

(Reviewed February 23, 2008)

Writer/director/star Stephen Chow, whose "Shaolin Soccer" comedy and "Kung Fu Hustle" fantasy adventure were incredibly entertaining, takes a big step backward with this cheesy, sometimes funny but frequently disturbing children's movie.

CJ7 is the name a poor Chinese boy named Dicky (Jiao Xu) gives to a stranded space alien with a head like a big-eyed kitten but a body made of what looks like smooth green silicone. He takes CJ7 to school, hoping the creature will give him high-tech help to pass a test...but things don't work out the way Dicky hopes they will.

What bothered me about this movie was the cruel way Dicky and others often treat CJ7, in scenes that apparently are intended to elicit laughs. Maybe it's a cultural thing -- the movie was made in China, and is in Chinese with English subtitles -- but things like hitting, crushing, sawing and drilling a little creature who looks like a cross between a trusting pet and a lovable toy didn't strike me as funny in the least.

Those scenes aside, Dicky is a very likable character. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he deadpan-innocently replies, "I want to be a poor person." After the laughs of his fellow (and much more well-off) students die down, he explains that a poor man is more honorable than a rich man.

If Dicky had stayed that sweetly noble throughout the movie, this would have been a much better movie. As it is, "CJ7" is sort of like what "E.T." would have been like if Elliot had been subject to fits of hyperactive, cartoon-violent rage.

Weird.

Parts of the movie are very creative, including some "Spy Kids"-like computer animation effects during a fantasy sequence in which Dicky triumphs at every sport during recess. Chow is good as Dicky's sad-sack father, a laborer who desperately wants his son to have a better life than his. And, Kitty Zhang Yuqi, who plays a teacher at Dicky's school, is swoon-inducingly beautiful in the deliciously form-fitting white dress she always wears.

Back Row Grade: C-




The Claim
(Reviewed October 13, 2000, by James Dawson)

This is easily the most aggravatingly, infuriatingly, earnestly dull movie of 2000. Sarah Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter"), Milla Jovovich (whom I always remember as the scantily clad babette in "The Fifth Element," no matter how many other movies she does), Wes Bentley (the plastic-bag-lovin' videographer from "American Beauty"), and Nastassja Kinski (who looks frighteningly like Linda Hamilton here) mope and sulk and stare into space a lot in this way-beyond-lethargic 1800s old-west melodrama about a town that wants to become a stop on the transcontinental railroad.

"The Claim" allegedly is an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge," which somehow never made it onto my must-read list, so I have no idea how many liberties the screenwriter took. (Director Michael Winterbottom's last film was of Hardy's "Jude the Obscure," with a title shortened to "Jude" and notable mainly for a full frontal nude shot of one Ms. Kate Winslet.) What I can say is that Winterbottom seems to have mistaken "The Claim"'s sappy soap operatic silliness for the kind of high art that is best served by long pauses, monotone dialog and emotion-free performances.

If you have been having trouble sleeping, this two-hour trip into tedium is just the ticket. Otherwise, avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





The Clearing

(Reviewed June 10, 2004, by James Dawson)

Pretty good low-key thriller (if that's not a contradiction in terms) that doesn't need cheap shocks to stay consistently interesting. Willem Dafoe is a no-hope loser who kidnaps millionaire Robert Redford. The movie plays with time in an interesting way, flashing back and forth between a single day Dafoe spends with Redford in the woods and a much longer period in which Redford's family cooperates with the FBI in hopes of getting Redford back.

Helen Mirren is excellent as Redford's wife, who learns something she didn't want to know about her husband during the investigation. While Redford is a bit too smooth and unruffled in his role (I'd expect even the Sundance Kid to show a little more uneasiness and emotion about his situation), Dafoe conveys a quiet but convincing desperation without resorting to any histrionics.

Best of all, the movie has a satisfyingly believable ending.

No flashy special effects, no space aliens, just a good little story. If you don't want to shell out $$$ for it (I mean, God forbid anyone should pay money to see a movie where nothing blows up), try to catch it on cable or home video. You won't be disappointed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B





Clerks 2

(Reviewed June 30, 2006, by James Dawson)

Absolutely awful in every way, "Clerks 2" easily ranks as the worst movie of the year so far. Of course, if you've ever seen a Kevin Smith movie, this should come as no surprise. "Mallrats," anyone?

Here's how bad "Clerks 2" is: This amateurish, boring, sappy, and relentlessly unfunny piece of shit reminds me of 2005's fifth-worst-movie-of-the-year "Waiting..." Both movies are about repulsive restaurant employees who talk endlessly about filthy yet boring topics, sabotage the food order of a customer, and conclude by attempting to get serious about the need for their immature and stupid main characters to grow up and take some responsibility.

Smith directed, wrote, appears in and edited this heaping infinity of excrement, in which people take turns speaking in page-long paragraphs of utterly witless dialog that will make you want to scream at the screen, "SHUT UP! FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, JUST SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" There's even, I kid thee not, a music montage. With choreography. To a Jackson 5 song.

Just when you think things can't get worse, Smith tries to get all warm and gooey by tossing in a surprise pregnancy and a cutesy marriage proposal. Yeah, that's just what a movie with donkey sex, ass-to-mouth references, and porch-monkey jokes needs: a sappy goddamned subplot about the redeeming and transforming power of wuv.

How bad is this movie? It allows Rosario Dawson to say that she has been in something even worse than "Rent."

THAT'S how bad it is.

Back Row Grade: F-minus





Click

(Reviewed June 7, 2006, by James Dawson)

Unfortunately not based on the sexy Milo Manara graphic novel of the same name, about a device that cranks up a woman's libido to embarrassing extremes, "Click" is essentially Adam Sandler with a universal remote that controls the universe.

That basic premise is at least as old as the Twilight Zone episode "A Kind of Stopwatch." My own salacious short-story take on the idea was published nearly 14 years ago as "Hooter Hunter Part Two: Stop/Rewind," in the October 1992 issue of "Gent: Home of the D-Cups." (I think that magazine is where John Cheever and Isaac Bashevis Singer got their start, but I could be wrong.)

Kate Beckinsale is Sandler's way-too-good-looking wife, whose Indian name would have to be "Little Slender Thighs." (Just wait until you see her in skimpy "sleep shorts" and a tank top.) I still can't believe that Kute Kate has a seven-year-old daughter in real life. That fact should make every chubby, out of shape, nacho-noshing mother in the theater want to kill herself. Or make their husbands want to do the job for them.

What's nice about "Click" is that it does more with its premise than the TV-commercial sight-gags imply. Sure, there's the bit where Sandler hits slo-mo to savor the sight of a jogger's boobs bouncing as she runs past, or freeze-frames a bully long enough to reposition his catching arm so the kid gets beaned when time resumes. But when the remote starts remembering Sandler's "preferences" -- such as fast-forwarding through showers and fights with his wife -- "Click" becomes an almost frightening lesson about the importance of living in every single moment.

The result is the kind of script Charlie Kaufman might write if he lost most of his talent. It's no work of genius like "Adaptation," in other words, but the mere fact that it has a good central idea makes it better than anybody buying a ticket will expect for their Adam-Sandler-moviegoing dollar.

Having said that, the ending of this movie is absolutely awful -- and it doesn't help that the filmmakers seem to know it, based on the fact that they try to have things both ways.

And I've heard that "Click"'s Bed, Bath & Beyond gag first appeared in, of all things, an episode of "Family Guy." That should make the screenwriters want to jump out of the nearest window in shame.

Still, Kate Beckinsale in sleep shorts....meowrrrr.

Back Row Grade: C-





Closer

(Reviewed January 13, 2005, by James Dawson)

Worth seeing although uneven, "Closer" can't decide whether it is a low-key look at shallow contemporary relationships...or "Love, Actually."

Clive Owen, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman bed-bounce back and forth, alternating between tearful or angry recriminations and those prettily pleasant low-key romantic comedy interludes for which London-based movies have become known. The most interesting aspect of "Closer" is its use of time, as it fast-forwards (and eventually fast-backwards) by months or years in the characters' lives.

Director Mike Nichols may have been better off deciding which of two movies he wanted to make. Clive Owen has the hardest time fitting into things, alternating between "angry, edge-of-violence prick" and "comically needy doofus." Jude Law does a better "Alfie" here than he did in "Alfie," as a selfish would-be player. Julia Roberts is a bit too passive and personality-free to be believable as a woman over whom both Law and Owen would obsess; she seems more schoolmarm than lust object. And Natalie Portman has to veer wildly, and not very credibly, between playing a codependent crybaby and a hard-as-nails stripper. (Then again, seeing her in a fringe-and-thong outfit doing a table dance counts for a lot -- although pervs should note that Portman provides zero frontal nudity.)

I liked "Closer," but wanted to like it more.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B





Code 46

(Reviewed July 30, 2004, by James Dawson)

God, it's refreshing to see a science-fiction flick that targets adults for a change.

Instead of offering up exploding spaceships, killer robots and rampant stupidity, "Code 46" is a thoughtful and quite subdued look at a future society with strict controls not only on travel and place-of-residence but genetics. When straitlaced, all-business family man Tim Robbins is sent to Shanghai to find out who is trading in illicit documents, he ends up falling for suspect Samantha Morton, whose flaunting of authority is like a desperate attempt to find some measure of freedom in her otherwise rigidly controlled world.

(An aside: There is a brief shot of Morton's -- or more likely a body double's -- bare crotch in one scene. That shot is the only thing I saw in the entire film that could have merited "Code 46"'s "R" rating, which makes its inclusion completely baffling. I mean, cheers to director Michael Winterbottom if he thought it was artistically essential, and Lord know it always is nice to see a vulva on the silver screen -- but it seemed very out of place and unnecessary. Also, its inclusion probably will keep "Code 46" from attracting the wider audience it could have received with a "PG-13." How very odd.)

Although "Code 46" is definitely not a big-budget extravaganza, the production's use of existing locales, barren landscapes and only the occasional "futuristic" device makes for an effective and convincing look at what the future truly is likely to resemble. The only real "maximum suspension of disbelief required" element is Robbins' empathy virus, which enables him essentially to read minds, but even that is made to work in context. (The selective memory-wipe technology also may seem farfetched, but only to those who haven't been under a general anaesthetic. It's not much of a reach to assume that future technicians could tweak that effect to give a subject partial amnesia. But I digress.)

I also like the way that not all questions -- only enough of them to matter -- are answered by the end of this movie.

Even if you can't motivate yourself to shell out for a ticket, be sure to catch this one on DVD or cable. It's actually interesting...and when was that last time you could say that about anything you saw at the multiplex?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+





Cold Mountain

(Reviewed December 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

The tastefully dull love story of separated soulmates Nicole Kidman and Jude Law is the least interesting aspect of this soapy Civil War drama set in the Confederacy. The best parts involve the supporting characters Law meets on his deserter's odyssey back to his Cold Mountain, North Carolina home. The always watchable Philip Seymour Hoffman is hilarious as a constipated and hypocritical man of the cloth; Giovanni Ribisi is a drawling, full-on Cletus-clone hillbilly with a shack full of moonshine and sluts; and the supernaturally beautiful Natalie Portman is a rebel soldier's widder woman in a melodrama-to-the-max encounter with dastardly nasty damn Yankees. And then there is Renee Zellweger, who gets to chew scenery like a billy goat as the spunky, straight-talkin' gal who shows Southern belle Nicole how to eke out a livin' during the hardships of war.

The first half hour of "Cold Mountain" is so stodgy and uninvolving (even with a mighty big battlefield explosion thrown in) that I thought the whole thing would be awful. (There's also a terribly directed hand-to-hand struggle between Union and rebel soldiers that makes you worry whether the movie even will be coherent, but I guess the rationalization for this is the standard "war is chaos" director's trope.) A lot of the accents sound more condescending than convincing, and parts of the movie are a tad self-consciously serious.

Once you realize the story is going to be more romantic trash than realistic truth, though, it gets a whole lot more likable.

Another reason to appreciate the movie is because it has so many very obvious parallels to America's current senseless war of occupation in Iraq. Men who thought the hostilities would be over in a month end up serving for years. Evil chickenhawk warmongers stay at home bullying the townsfolk while sending soldiers off to die for a pack of lies. I could go on and on.

In a perfect world, every soldier who sees this movie would realize he is being played for a fool and make his own journey home. As Nicole's character says, "If you're marching, stop marching. If you're fighting, stop fighting." This country is being run by a bunch of evil, corrupt psychopaths who are quite willing to empty taxpayers' pockets and sacrifice anyone's life but their own to establish an American empire that is doomed to be despised by every other nation on earth. The sooner America's soldiers and citizens realize that, the better.

Can a movie about the nobility, humanity and integrity of an army deserter change this country before we slide completely down the slippery chute to hell? Couldn't hurt!

VOTE LIBERTARIAN, PEOPLE! THROW ALL OF THE BASTARDS OUT! I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+





Collateral

(Reviewed July 30, 2004, by James Dawson)

The mistakes this movie makes would have been so ridiculously easy to fix. "Collateral" has a great "high concept" premise: Out-of-town hitman Tom Cruise forces out-of-luck cabbie Jamie Foxx to drive him to the five locations of Cruise's targets in one night. Right there, you've got a nice film-noirish plot that should have made for a good psychological thriller. The whole thing could have been a taut, minimalist two-character piece about good and evil and how people can get trapped in their roles even if they think they are free.

But no.

Instead, by the end of this movie, Cruise has become such a ridiculously over-the-top killing machine that half of his face should have been a metal Terminator skull. Also, the coincidences and implausibilities are laid on so thick that there eventually is no semblance of believability whatsoever. Example: I've never seen a desk telephone in "real life" that shows what room and floor of a building each button represents, but one of those is essential to the plot here. Example: Unless Foxx's cab is the nexus of the universe, I didn't buy that he coincidentally would pick up both an assassin and one of his targets in the same night. Example: I did not believe that a homicide cop conveniently would recall a closed case in another city that had elements in common with Cruise's night o' mayhem. Example: This is one of those movies where a workaday schlub (cab driver Foxx, in this case) has to impersonate another character at one point...but that means accepting the premise that a cab driver not only can act, but can convincingly transform himself from a timid nice-guy into a threatening, intimidating badass.

In other words, the human element gives way to the Hollywood element. Which is too bad, because somewhere under all of this ridiculousness Cruise actually is pretty effective as the icy, amoral killer, and Foxx is actually not bad as the cabbie. Also, there is one scene here that is so flat-out excellent (Cruise, Foxx and a jazz club owner discussing Miles Davis) that it shows how good this movie could have been if things had been kept low-key instead of hokey.

This is not so much as bad film as a frustrating one. "Collateral" coulda -- and shoulda -- been a contender.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Collateral Damage

(Reviewed January 30, 2002, by James Dawson)

A dimwitted and surprisingly cheesy waste of time, with an ending that will impress any viewer who feels the irrepressible urge to stand up in a theater and shout, "This movie could not possibly get any dumber!"

Regular-Joe L.A. fireman Arnold Schwarzenegger, all by his lonesome, goes hunting a Colombian terrorist whose latest handiwork killed Arnold's foxy wife and his adorable little munchkin. The message here seems to be that relatives of World Trade Center casualties would get up the gumption to ditch work, lock-and-load and hop on a plane to Afghanistan, if they really cared about their losses.

Instead of acting as a catharsis for every bigmouthed couch-bound warhawk with a hard-on for Osama, "Collateral Damage" comes across more as a slap in the face to anyone who prefers letting Operation Expensive Fiasco handle the job instead of getting off their overfed asses and hooking up with a mercenary squad to take out the trash. "Every day you sit in your warm, cozy theaters watching millionaire bad actors in flashy movies, bin Charlie hunches in his cave, getting stronger."

Absolutely the only thing good about this flick is some character's comment that the United States should get the hell out of Colombia. Ha-ha, fat chance! Empty your pockets, taxpayers, because the "War on Your Wallet"...oops, I mean the "War on Terrorism"...is here to stay! Buy a car flag and grab your ankles!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





Colombiana
(Reviewed August 25, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Colour Me Kubrick

(Reviewed March 30, 2007, by James Dawson)

John Malkovich stars as a beardless gay fop who deceives quite a few gullible dupes into thinking he is Stanley Kubrick, despite looking and sounding nothing like the straight, bearded and not-bald film director. Incredibly, the film is based on a true story, although the usual dramatic liberties have been taken.

The movie's offbeat and dark humor derives from the fact that Malkovich's character makes no effort whatsoever to bother with actually impersonating Kubrick. Assuming that most people would have no knowledge about Kubrick's appearance or personal life, he flounces about like the most flaming of stereotypes, seducing male lovers and taking extreme advantage of people's hospitality.

The problem with the movie is that Malkovich portrays the con man without any of a trickster's basic vocational requirements: trustworthiness, credibility or charm. Even if part of the gag here is that people will forgive any kind of bad behavior from someone they think is a celebrity, Malkovich ends up being so annoyingly unlikable that it's impossible to feel either empathy or sympathy for the guy.

Kubrick fans will appreciate music cues from several Kubrick movies that appear on the soundtrack. Also, first-time director Brian Cook was assistant director on Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining" and "Eyes Wide Shut," and screenwriter Anthony Frewin was Kubrick's personal assistant on "2001: A Space Odyssey," for all you trainspotters who care about such things.

This is odd little movie, but ultimately not a very enjoyable one.

Back Row Grade: D




Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope
(Reviewed April 5, 2012, by James Dawson)

Director Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") provides an affectionate look at the film, fantasy and funny-book fans who flock to San Diego's annual Comic-Con event in the thoroughly enjoyable documentary "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope." Many of the interview subjects talk about taking pride in their geeky outsider status, but pop culture has been dominated by superheroes and videogames for so long by now that the 2010 gathering covered here attracted more than 125,000 attendees. That's quite a change from the roughly four dozen who showed up for the first Comic-Con in 1970, before self-proclaimed nerds seemingly took over the entire entertainment industry.

The film's franchise-sounding title is a joking "Star Wars" reference (there aren't really three other "Comic-Con" movie installments). But judging by the hordes of colorful and often costumed eccentrics on display, Spurlock probably could make a dozen more of these documentaries without running out of real-life characters worth covering.

This one makes things personal by focusing on several individuals (and one cute couple) instead of providing only an overview of the show itself. Two of them are would-be comic-book artists hoping to break into the industry. Skip is a Matthew-Lillard-lookalike bartender whose parents were conventiongoers themselves. Eric, a modestly soft-spoken soldier from North Dakota with a wife and daughter, may be the most untheatrical of all the interviewees -- but his drawing skill is undeniable.

In the "adorkable" fangirl category, amateur costume designer Holly and her friends hope their elaborate outfits and an impressive animatronic based on the game "Mass Effect 2" will be costume-contest prizeworthy. Their efforts may be all for naught, however, if they can't fix some last-minute backstage mechanical problems.

Adding romance to the mix, a young fan named James wants to pull off a surprise marriage proposal to his amusingly clingy girlfriend during a massively attended Q&A session with director Kevin Smith.

Also singled out for attention is Chuck Rozanski, the gray-ponytailed 38-year Comic-Con veteran and longtime owner of mega-retailer Mile High Comics. Among the collector issues he has brought along to display at his dealer-room booth is a copy of Red Raven #1, a 1940 comic he's not sure he wants to sell even if someone agreed to pay its half-million-dollar price tag.

The documentary also includes numerous comments from fandom favorites including legendary Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, movie directors Eli Roth and Joss Whedon, writer/artist/director Frank Miller, actor Seth Rogen and "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman. One small flaw with the film is that the many cameo subjects are identified only the first time they appear onscreen, making it hard to remember who some of the less-famous talking heads are when they pop up again later.

Spurlock, who provides no narration and lets his subjects do all of the talking, doesn't touch on any of the negative aspects of fandom. Collector-crazed obsessions are portrayed as amusing quirks instead of potentially problematic pathologies. A much darker film could have touched on the expense of speculating on fluctuating-value collectibles, relationship problems among game players who prefer online worlds to the real one and the strange body-image perceptions imparted by characters of literally heroic proportions.

Instead, this is a love letter to forever-young fanboys (and the far fewer fangirls) who revel in their arrested development. Fortunately, it's also a lot of fun for everyone else, too.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+



Coming Soon
(Reviewed August 29, 2000, by James Dawson)

I saw this awful, awful movie last month and forgot to review it. That may be because it was so shockingly, stunningly bad that I did not want to recall even a single second of it. Honestly, this film is so inept, unfunny, stupid and embarrassing that I am flat-out amazed it even got made. Did ANYONE read the script before the cameras rolled? The premise -- a teen girl in search of her first orgasm in an allegedly humorous series of misadventures -- undoubtedly sucked a lot of horny idiots into the theaters. Every one of them must have been left limp and angry by the time the credits rolled. Bad acting, retarded script, and a production that looks worse than most straight-to-video cheapies...and Mia Farrow as a ditzy, bohemian mother. I'm going to start hitting myself in the head now and hope for amnesia.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-





Conan the Barbarian (2011)
(Reviewed August 19, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Conan the Barbarian" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+




Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

(Reviewed December 5, 2002, by James Dawson)

Holy cow, what an abysmally awful movie! I honestly picture audiences from coast to coast walking out of this bomb in the proverbial droves. Ticket-buyers will be expecting a goofy lowbrow yuk-fest, considering that it is a fictionalized biography of "The Gong Show" creator/host Chuck Barris. What they will get instead is a bleak, ugly, relentlessly unpleasant, ass-numbingly dull "anti-comedy." Yikes!

Sam Rockwell is charmless, unfunny and therefore woefully miscast in the Barris role. The only time he makes any effort to impersonate Barris is during a few short "Gong Show" hosting scenes. In the rest of the movie, he mainly looks stupefied and shell-shocked.

The cinematography alternates between the color-bleached-and-overexposed to the too-dark-and-dismal, sort of like what you might expect to see in a cheap documentary about eastern-European mental asylums. Even the score of this movie is gratingly unpleasant.

The main thing that makes this bomb so incredibly disappointing is the fact that its screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, the genius who gave the world "Being John Malkovich," "Human Nature" and "Adaptation." Maybe Spike Jonze, who directed two of those, could have done something with the "Confessions" script to make it absurd, surrealistic, or even merely amusing. But "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"'s first-time director George Clooney (who also has a role) gets everything wrong here. There should have been at least a few laughs in the bizarre premise that Barris was working as a CIA hitman at the same time as he was producing game shows such as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," but you won't find them in this dirge.

If my "Worst of 2002" list had 11 slots instead of only 10, this movie would be on it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





Confessions of a Shopaholic

(Reviewed February 2, 2008, by James Dawson)

Okay, it's still early, and I'm sure there are plenty of abysmal movies to come. But as of February 2, this is my pick for the worst movie of 2009.

Not only is it unfunny, badly acted and stupid, but it trivializes the "living beyond one's means" mentality that is sending America into an economic death spiral. I guess we are supposed to identify with a woman who can't control her insane impulse to buy every piece of worthless, overpriced, status-conveying junk she sees, to the point that her mental illness threatens her job, her relationships with her friends and her self-respect. This is supposed to be humorous? I don't think so.

I hated this movie.

Back Row Grade: F





Confidence

(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

Look, forgive me, maybe it's just a personal thing, but I simply can't stand Ed Burns. The guy makes my skin crawl. He comes off like such a pompous, insufferable, full-of-himself prick that I can't believe he keeps playing roles that require charm and likability.

In "Confidence," he proves to be equally as lousy at conveying edgy menace...mainly because a guy in his character's line of work (con man) also would require, you guessed it, a certain amount of charm and likability.

How Dustin Hoffman got roped into this bomb is a mystery for the ages. We are supposed to believe that Hoffman is the baddest of the bad, a beyond-psycho underworld figure on the level of Monty Python's Doug Piranha. ("Everyone was terrified of Doug. I've seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug.") When Burns and his band of hoods discover they have ended up with some of Hoffman's dough after conning the wrong guy, Burns tries to make amends by going to Hoffman's den of ill repute...where Hoffman turns out to be more of a flakey weasel than a Piranha, which fatally hamstrings the entire plot. Simply put, he just isn't scary.

We also are expected to believe that Hoffman's top-of-the-food-chain character is stupid enough to advance Burns DOUBLE the amount that Burns owes him, to set up a con job that Burns says will net them an even bigger pile. Oh, yeah. I can totally see an underworld boss being that gullible.

Worst of all, the movie's final "surprise" twist is one that any idiot could see coming from from down the block. Hell, make that from across town.

The real people getting conned by this movie are the ones unfortunate enough to shell out for tickets.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





The Constant Gardener

(Reviewed July 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

This adaptation of a John Le Carre novel is undeniably a handsome and classy production, with excellent performances by Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat trying to unravel what happened to his humanitarian aid-worker wife, and Bill Nighy as his unctuous but oily government superior.

So why is the plot so frustratingly stupid?

Here's the problem: Fiennes' movie wife (Rachel Weisz), whom we have seen having high-broadband video web chats from her African location, discovers a dangerous corporate/government scandal. She has shown herself to be a brassy loudmouth unafraid of "speaking truth to power." Yet we are expected to believe that, instead of going online to every news organization on earth the minute she realizes what's going on, she sits on this information and lets people continue dying in order to make the rickety plot work.

Making this logic-lapse even more insulting, a scene near the end of the movie hinges on someone's hypocrisy being revealed to the press, proving that media outlets with the ability to expose evil do exist in the script's universe -- even though online whistle-blowing is an idea that somehow doesn't occur to a bleeding-heart activist with a video hookup to the world.

Two other problems: Like all movie women who have a passionate commitment to anything, Weisz comes off as just this side of nuts. Wouldn't it be nice to see a sincerely dedicated-to-a-cause female character who didn't resemble an obsessed stalker shrew?

Also, the fact that most of Africa seems to be a violent, backwards, poverty-stricken, contagious-disease hellhole doesn't exactly make for a pleasant entertainment experience, no matter how ironically picturesque the cinematographer might try to make the shantytowns.

I get the feeling that most of the people who pay to see this movie will be the kind of hypocritically hand-wringing hosebags who thought that watching the "Live 8" concerts somehow gave them brownie points for human compassion. The sad truth is that almost none of us -- especially the millionaire and billionaire performers and poverty pimps who strutted their sympathy onstage at those events while somehow managing to remain fabulously wealthy -- actually give a damn.

Hey, I told you these reviews were brutally honest.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Constantine

(Reviewed February 7, 2005, by James Dawson)

The sickening smell of sulfur and sewage wafts into a dismal studio office in Development Hell. The boil-covered demon at the head of a charred conference table inhales deeply, savoring the disgustingly overpowering stench, before getting down to business.

"You think we've managed to sinfully screw up great comic-book properties before?" he sneers, yellow pus bubbling from the corners of his bloody lips."Well, we're going to outdo ourselves this time, boys!

"We've got an option on an award-winning series called `Hellblazer' that has been around for more than 200 issues. It's the longest-running title from Vertigo Comics, otherwise known as the classy `adult' division of DC Comics. The book is about a veddy British, London-based occult-arts antihero named John Constantine. He is a charmingly amoral bastard who looks like Sting gone to seed, and who is equally contemptuous of heaven and hell.

"A lot of his friends and associates end up dead, often as an indirect direct result of Constantine's own actions. One of the few who hasn't snuffed it is a long-suffering London cabbie named Chas. The guy is beefy, roughly Constantine's age, and has no interest whatsoever in Constantine's very nasty brand of magic.

"So get this: For the movie version, we're going to make sure that Constantine -- the tough-as-nails, street-smart, blond-and-British badass -- is played by Keanu Reeves, one of the most dully unthreatening actors in the history of Hollywood. Keanu's gonna sleepwalk through the entire movie just like a freakin' zombie, only with less personality. His main character trait will consist of firing up his cigarette lighter about a zillion times.

"And for the part of his old pal Chas, the family-man working-class cabbie? We've cast that spunky teenager from `Holes,' who will be a wisecracking sidekick-wannabe in a dopey newsboy hat.

"If that's not enough to make audiences want to commit mortal sins against theater owners, how about this: We're gonna let a couple of utterly clueless writers come up with an offensively stupid script that completely subverts the essence of the original character. In the comics, John Constantine is quite happy to be neither angel nor demon, because he regards both sides with active disgust. In the movie version, we're gonna make getting into heaven Constantine's main motivation.

"We're gonna say that Constantine tried committing suicide once, saw what Hell was like before he was revived, and now desperately wants to make sure he gets his angel wings when he croaks for real. Instead of being a selfish existential prick, in other words, he's gonna have a gooey center that yearns for God-granted redemption. Oh, man -- fans of the comic are gonna puke green pea soup when they get a load of this!

"And one other thing that'll drive the faithful howling into the streets: The writers of this misbegotten mess are gonna cherry-pick a bunch of little things from the comics, but twist and screw up virtually every one of them. First, Constantine becomes a humorless American wimp instead of a scrappy London con artist, which pretty well throws out Constantine creator Alan Moore's whole concept of the character. Jamie Delano's early issues of the comics series included several things that are in the movie, such as the Papa Midnite character, the Sing-Sing electric chair, and a scene in which Constantine traps a roach under a glass that he fills with cigarette smoke. In the movie, Papa Midnite is transformed from a bloodthirsty crimelord voodoo-master into some kind of neutral diplomat-slash-referee between heaven and hell. The electric chair that Constantine and Papa Midnite use in issue two of the comic book to imprison one of Constantine's friends, so the unknowing but had-it-coming-to-him dupe can be invaded by a demon and killed, becomes a sort of magic doorway to Hell. Whee, watch Constantine go! And the roach trapped under the glass to die in cigarette smoke? He becomes a spider in the movie, just for the hell of it...one that is set free by the movie's other main character. That's right, boys, there is no detail too small to be screwed with!

"That other main character I mentioned is a cop played by Rachel Weisz, whose twin sister in the movie committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. In the comic-book series, John Constantine strangled his own twin brother in the womb, which kind of made him guilty and/or cursed from the get-go. You might expect that the movie writers would toss in that fact, to set up a little parallel structure, since it's something Constantine and the cop would have in common. But guess what? The movie writers apparently didn't read that far into the comic-book series, because that background detail never even gets mentioned!"

At this point, one of the other demons at the conference table raises a wart-festooned hand. "Well, sir, to be fair, a later writer of the comic did come up with a really lousy story maintaining that Constantine wasn't responsible for his twin's death."

"Don't nitpick, damn you! And I do mean damn you!"

After dispatching the impertinent demon who dared to speak up, the head Hellion continues: "And then there is the matter of John Constantine's lung cancer, a story element lifted from writer Garth Ennis' tenure on the `Hellblazer' series. In the comics, Constantine ensured his survival by selling his soul to three different demons, knowing none of them would want to face the prospect of warring with the others when the time came to claim it. In the movie, something more lunkheaded happens...and is so badly executed that audiences may not even realize what has occurred.

"Last of all, anybody who sticks around until the very end of the credits is going to see a bonus scene that is so vomit-worthy in its Jesus-freaky wrongheadedness it could be an outtake from `Touched By an Angel!'"

Overcome with delight, the demon throws back his head and laughs with sinful glee, speckling everyone near him with chunky phlegm. He finally wipes tears from his eyes, collects himself, and turns to the next order of business.

"Now, about that `Fantastic Four' movie that's coming out this summer. I've got a few notes..."

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





Contagion
(Reviewed August 22, 2011, by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Contagion" review


Back Row Reviews Grade: C-



The Contender
(Reviewed October 7, 2000, by James Dawson)

This astonishingly awful crock of crap is one of the very worst movies of 2000, right down there with "Coyote Ugly" and "Loser." It is not even redeemable as one of those "so-bad-it-is-perversely-entertaining" disasters such as "Battlefield Earth." This one just plain stinks.

Where do I begin? The crack-brained plot would have us believe that Joan Allen's character, a senator nominated to succeed a vice president who (presumably) died in office, is a former Republican who became a Democrat after the Clinton impeachment. How utterly preposterous is it that this character ever, in any bizarre universe, could have been anything other than a radical left-wing Democrat? During her confirmation hearings, she says she wants to remove all handguns from every American home, is pro-choice, and wants the death penalty abolished. The only reason the plot makes her a former GOP member is to include a vote for Clinton's impeachment on her list of accomplishments, which she says she cast (as a Republican, remember) because Clinton was "not guilty, but responsible." What? I repeat: What? That was the argument used by snivelling hypocrites who voted AGAINST impeachment, not for it! They admitted that what Clinton had done was wrong, but claimed he nevertheless was not guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Evidence arises that Joan Allen's character took part in a college gang-bang, but she refuses to answer questions about her personal life, which she regards as "sexual McCarthyism." Her stoic silence is presented as if it is a good thing -- as if elected officials who trot out their families at every occasion, and whose character determines how they will vote on matters of conscience in the legislature, should not be expected to lower themselves by addressing questions about their own morality. Please.

Jeff Bridges portrays the president as a purely one-dimensional good-old-boy, so poorly fleshed out that we have no idea if he even has a wife or kids. Virtually every time he appears onscreen in the Oval Office, his tiresome running gag is to ask the White House chef for increasingly exotic things to eat. This is the kind of sophisticated wit that one usually must watch a WB sitcom to enjoy.

Gary Oldman plays the stereotypically despicable and likewise one-dimensional Republican who is out to sabotage the would-be VP's nomination. Look, I'm sorry, but I am so sick and tired of liberal Hollywood constantly presenting Democrat politicians as flawed-but-noble saints and Republicans as snake-eyed psychotics that I could puke. Don't get me wrong, I despise Democrats only slightly more than I dislike Republicans. (I'm a Libertarian, so I say "a pox on both their houses.") But movies like this one could have been sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.

Along those same lines, the very worst thing about this stupid movie (and that's saying a lot) is its jaw-droppingly moronic twist ending, in which the director may as well have made angel wings sprout from Joan Allen's shoulder blades and had her ascend unto the heavens. Honestly, even the most die-hard Democrat will be left agog at the flat-out ridiculous lengths to which the movie goes to restore Allen's character's virtue.

After the fade-out, we are presented with the absurdly pompous closing words "FOR OUR DAUGHTERS" in white capital letters against a black screen.

They deserve better. We all do.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





Contraband
(Reviewed January 12, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Control

(Reviewed September 25, 2007, by James Dawson)

Bleak is beautiful.

This stark, unsentimental and relentlessly sad biography of late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis is the first feature film by photographer and video director Anton Corbijn, best known for his work with rock groups U2 and Depeche Mode. Corbijn does a masterful job of making his subject fascinatingly human, despite the fact that Curtis ultimately is more pathetic and tragic than likable and charismatic.

"Control"'s high-contrast black-and-white photography gives it a 1960s British documentary feel that is is perfectly suited to the general air of doomed hopelessness here, even though the events covered take place in the late 1970s.

Sam Riley is remarkable as Curtis, a miserable teenager who marries young, has a kid, works behind a desk at an employment exchange, and writes gloomy lyrics for his struggling band's dirge-like tunes. He seems baffled and unsettled when he becomes a fame-without-money cult figure -- but this definitely isn't your typical "boo-hoo, the pressures of success" tale. His life and moods are further complicated by a case of epilepsy that numerous prescriptions fail to bring under control.

Samantha Morton is thoroughly convincing as Curtis' stoic wife Deborah, who sees her husband become increasingly detached and distant from her and their daughter but has no idea what to do about it. Curtis is torn between his obligation to his small family and his love for Belgian music journalist Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara).

Refreshingly, neither woman is presented as a demon. Deborah clearly loves and cares about Curtis, and is hurt by his lack of attention, but she never comes across as a haranguing harpie who has driven her man into another woman's arms. Annik is undeniably more exotic and beautiful than Deborah, but is portrayed as a loving artistic soulmate who simply had the bad luck to meet Curtis after he already was "taken," rather than as a heartless, homewrecking groupie.

What's impressive is that "Control" works so well as a story that the excellent music performances in it almost seem secondary. Riley does his own singing on most of the songs, and is impressive at recreating Curtis' sometimes manic style and voice-of-doom vocals without doing strictly soundalike impersonations. I actually liked the movie versions of many songs here more than the real Joy Division's originals. (Heresy! Heresy!)

This is easily one of the best movies of the year.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Grade: A-





Conversations With Other Women

(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)



"Conversations With Other Women" tries to disguise the fact that it is coma-inducingly boring by telling its entire tedious tale in split-screen. For every terminally talky minute, the action (or lack thereof) unfolds in side-by-side squares. File under "utterly pointless, annoying gimmick."

Sometimes we see two different camera angles of the same scene, as if the editor were too lazy to make decisions about when to cut to a different character's face. Sometimes one square shows the here-and-now (in which Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter are ex-lovers who reunite at a wedding and spend the night in Carter's hotel room) while the other square is a flashback to different actors portraying the characters in their hippie-dippy, lovey-dovey past.

To say that the technique gets old fast would be giving insufficient emphasis to the words "old" and "fast."

The dialog between Eckhart and Carter rambles on and on, far past the point of anyone caring why these two broke up, what they ever saw in each other, and whether they have any future together. About halfway through the film, Eckhart suddenly loses all of what is supposed to pass for his boyish charm and becomes a bit of a needy, annoying prick. The change doesn't seem convincing; it's more like an attempt to keep the audience from nodding off by tossing them a curveball.

Also, not to nitpick, but the script is basically one long, nearly real-time conversation with one woman, not with other "women."

I haven't been this bored since the last time my life flashed before my eyes.

Avoid.

(Fun fact: Didja know that the stunningly beautiful star of the classic sci-fi movie "Invaders From Mars" -- that's her below, about to get implanted with a mind-control chip -- was Helena Carter? That may be why Helena Bonham Carter uses three names. Fascinating, huh?)

Back Row Grade: F






The Cooler

(Reviewed December 6, 2003, by James Dawson)

You could do worse on a "lying around the house channel-surfing through the cable listings" evening. William H. Macy is the title character, a generally sad-sack loser employed by a casino to bring bad luck to winning gamblers. Buying that premise requires quite a leap, not so much because of doubts that such a profession ever existed (crazier things have happened), but because Macy is so consistently reliable at it that he seems to have magical powers. When he's down, people lose. When he's up, people win. If the rest of the movie had the same "magic realism" tone, maybe it would have held together better. It doesn't -- and Macy's part of the movie ends up being the least interesting because it seems the most "gimmicky." Also, his character is way too naive for somebody with his background. Would this guy really give his life's savings to a transparently no-account son who suddenly reappears in his life? I don't think so.

The best thing about "The Cooler" is supporting player Alec Baldwin's performance as the bitter, nasty, violent owner of the casino. I wish the movie had been more about this "old Vegas" dinosaur who hates what the city has become: a "family friendly" tourist destination. He practically seethes with disgust.

I can relate.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Copying Beethoven

(Reviewed October 14, 2006, by James Dawson)

"Copying Beethoven" is "Girl With a Pearl Earring"
rendered as a cheesy knockoff dramedy for dummies.

Both movies introduce beautiful, intelligent, frustrated young women into the worlds of demanding geniuses (the tersely intense painter Vermeer in "Girl With a Pearl Earring," and a vulgar egomaniac version of dear old Ludwig in "Copying Beethoven"). But where Scarlett Johannsson was able to convey the quiet hopelessness and humanity of a servant girl who seemed tragically real, "Copying Beethoven"'s Diane Kruger is like a soft-porn star who lucked into getting cast in a bad episode of "Masterpiece Theater."

Both women manage to improve the works of their masters. Johansson timidly explains to Vermeer that one of his paintings would look better if it did not include a chair. Kruger, instead of faithfully transcribing notes the way a music copyist should, brazenly changes a major chord to a minor in his Ninth Symphony. She believes, you see, that the alteration more accurately reflects Beethoven's soul. After all, what does LVB (played by Ed Harris) know? As portrayed here, Beethoven was a raging, deluded manic-depressive given to pouring pitchers of water over his head and onto the floor, gleefully dropping trou to moon his copyist, and generally acting like a socially inept five-year-old.

The movie's best scene features Kruger in an eye-poppingly low-cut gown, orgasmically co-conducting the premiere of the Ninth Symphony from a place where only Beethoven can see her. (Because he's deaf, he needs to mimic her gestures to keep the orchestra on track.) Considering the heaving prominence of Kruger's ripely luscious, bodice-busting bazongas, the camera should have panned down to show Beethoven's other baton beating time in his pantaloons.

Also, this was yet another movie told entirely in flashback after its first scene (in which Beethoven is seen on his deathbed). Man, that drives me nuts.

Back Row Grade: D+





Coraline

(Reviewed February 5, 2009, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this for the website ARTISTdirect.com, and you can read that review by clicking this link:

"Coraline" review


Here are a few supplemental thoughts to go with that review:

The main thing that bugged me about this movie was how many small and not-so-small changes for the worse that director/screenwriter Henry Selick made to Neil Gaiman's wonderful original novel. I had a chance to ask the incredibly friendly Gaiman how he felt about the alterations, and he seemed completely happy with what Selick did. Considering that Selick's biggest change subverts the entire theme of Gaiman's book -- that a smart, brave and resourceful little girl can escape a dilemma all by herself, without the help of a neighbor boy Selick invented for the movie -- I found Gaiman's opinion baffling.

Other changes fall into what I call the "Pop. 1280" category. "Pop. 1280" (which refers to a small town's population) is a Jim Thompson crime novel that was the source material for director Bertrand Tavernier's movie "Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate)." In addition to setting and plot changes, Tavernier went so far as to include a shot of a road sign that listed a population number different from the one in Thompson's book title. Can you say "arrogantly insulting?"

In the same way, the fact that Selick would do things like change the name of Coraline's neighbor Mr. Bobo to Mr. Bobinsky seems annoyingly arbitrary.

The list below of other differences between the "Coraline" book and movie is far from complete, but indicates how dissimilar the two are:

The "Little Me" doll that looks like Coraline does not appear in the book, and neither does the idea that the "Other Mother" uses such dolls to spy on children in this world. There are no such dolls in the book.

The annoying neighbor boy Wybie -- who ends up delivering the coup de grace that defeats the "Other Mother" -- does not appear in the book. Neither does his grandmother.

The movie's setting is changed from England to Oregon.

The time of year is changed from summer to around Presidents Day.

Coraline's mother doesn't have a whiplash collar in the book.

We never know what sort of writers the parents are in the book.

The book's "Other Mother" never looks as wholesome as she does in the movie. When Coraline first sees her in the book, the "Other Mother" is described as having skin as white as paper and fingers that are too long. Later in the book, her hair is described as resembling plants under the sea and lazy snakes wriggling on a warm day.

Coraline is asked to sew buttons on her eyes the first time she visits the other world in the book. She is not asked to do this until her third trip there in the movie.

In the book, Coraline physically returns to the real world each time through the doorway. In the movie, she returns by falling asleep and waking up at home.

Coraline only makes two trips to the other world in the book. Her parents are trapped in a mirror in the real world after she makes her first trip.

Coraline's real family does not collect snow globes in the book (as they do in the movie), which is why seeing a snow globe on her house's mantle in the other world strikes her as unusual. This becomes important to the conclusion, and makes more sense in the book than in the movie.

The rats in the other world always are rats (not rats disguised as cute jumping mice, as they are in the movie). Things like this made the book creepier than the movie.

The book's scariest and most disturbing scene occurs when Coraline's father tries (unsucessfully) to stop himself from attacking her in a dark, narrow cellar. He is described as "pale and swollen like a grub, with thin, sticklike arms and feet. (He) had almost no features on its face, which had puffed and swollen like risen bread dough." In the movie, a cartoonish father attacks Coraline in a fantabulous flower garden while riding a mechanical praying mantis.

In the book, the spirits of dead children ask Coraline to find their souls. In the movie, they ask her to find their eyes.

Coraline's picnic dream scene at end of the book becomes a weird limbo scene with a background like Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

I could go on and on. Look, I know there are those who say "the book is the book and the movie is the movie," and that artistic allowances should be made for adaptations. But when the source material is a bestselling contemporary classic like "Coraline," it seems ridiculous and stupid to alter a story that worked just fine as it was.

Having said all of that, the movie is undeniably gorgeous, with incredibly creative stop-motion animation. (That's why I gave it a "B-" despite all of the problems I had with the script.)


Back Row Grade: B-





The Core

(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

Regular Back Row readers (it is to laugh) will wonder if I suffered a botched lobotomy before writing this review, but "The Core" is really a quite decent thrill-ride popcorn movie--DEFINITELY much better than anyone will be expecting.

Sure, the plot is flat-out preposterous (good guys on a laser-shooting "shuttle" that literally journeys to the center of the earth). But this movie wastes almost no time on anything that requires engaging one's brain as it flies right along. Also, the special effects--especially the visuals of the Earth's interior--are generally excellent. (What's too bad is that the trailer and TV ad for "The Core" completely give away a MAJOR plot point that is supposed to come as a surprise in the film. Bastards!)

Speaking of the TV ad: One odd difference between a short clip shown within the ad and the actual scene in the movie occurs when the requisite Computer Nerd character asks for "Hot Pockets and Star Trek tapes." In the movie--at least at the screening I attended--he asks for "Hot Pockets and Xena tapes." I get the feeling the TV ad was altered because "The Core" has been finished and waiting for a release date so long that the canceled "Xena" series has vanished from the mists of most people's memories. (Considering how badly the latest "Star Trek" movie fared at the box office, maybe even that cultural touchstone was a bad choice...)

The studio has had a hard time finding a release date for the "The Core," first because its scenes of global destruction might have spooked a terrorism-skittish world, and later when the Space Shuttle blew up. ("The Core" includes a Shuttle scene that is just plain eerie to watch in light of that disaster; the whole audience sort of tenses up.) Also, I'll bet the movie's producers are wishing they had not included a heavily-accented Frenchman among the cast, now that the slack-jawed yahoo-warmonger faction in this country is so anti all things francais. Well, except for Frenchie from "American Idol," that is. C'est la vie!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B





Coriolanus
(Reviewed November 29, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Corman's World
(Reviewed December 15, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Corman's World" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




The Count of Monte Cristo

(Reviewed January 22, 2002, by James Dawson)

So-so adaptation of the classic tale, occasionally lapsing into TV miniseries mode and not terribly well directed, but it has its moments. Most of those good moments occur when the great Richard Harris is onscreen, playing a fellow prisoner Our Hero meets while imprisoned at the Castle D'If. Unfortunately, he has more life, spirit, vigor and charm than star Jim Caviezel, who specializes in moping, moping some more, and looking sullen every now and then to break up all the moping.

The screenwriters couldn't resist the temptation to throw a few achingly inappropriate gag lines, but for the most part the story is played straight. At least, I think it is. God knows I haven't read the novel. Hey, at least I'm the one critic who will admit it!

Beautiful locations and sets, and very nice cinematography. Not really a movie to dislike very intensely, but also one that seems as if it should have been quite a bit more thrilling.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Country Strong
(Reviewed December 12, 2010, by James Dawson)

Nobody could have guessed that Leighton Meester, best known as snooty Upper East Sider Blair Waldorf of TV's "Gossip Girl," would turn out to be the best thing about this witless wallow in heartland hokum.

Meester is just plain adorable as Chiles Stanton, a former beauty contestant who is taken seriously by no one but wants a country music singing career. She's good, too -- easily the best singer in the movie, even though her character is supposed to be the most inauthentic and pop-oriented (horrors!).

She's tapped to be an opening act on the comeback tour of superstar Kelly Cantor (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been in public disfavor since a drunken performing mishap resulted in a miscarriage and landed her in rehab. The guy doing the tapping is Kelly's nastily domineering husband/manager (a grimly overacting Tim McGraw), who clearly likes sweet Chiles' looks but never actually cheats with her. He's Snidely Whiplash with scruples. Heck, he even takes care of his wife's orphaned baby bird, carrying it everywhere in a little wooden box and feeding it with an eyedropper. Throwing up yet?

Paltrow spends the movie bouncing from mascara-mussing breakdown to breakdown, acting almost as miserable as ticketbuyers will feel when they think about what else they could have done with their entertainment dollars.

The fourth corner of this ridiculous rectangle is shaggy, pickup-truck drivin' good ol' boy Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund). He's supposed to be the picker-and-grinner with actual artistic credibility in this silly soap opera -- a future Townes Van Zandt, one newspaper laughably proclaims -- but his singing and songs are so cliche and dreadful they're like bad parody. Considering that it's country music we're talking about, that's quite an accomplishment.

Even though "Country Strong" will be released during the first week of 2011, it's a shoo-in to be on "worst of the year" lists come next December.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-





Cowboys & Aliens
(Reviewed July 26, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Cowboys & Aliens" Review

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



Coyote Ugly
(Reviewed August 1, 2000, by James Dawson)

It should have been titled "Coyote Stupid." Folks, this movie sucks like a hotel toilet. It is insultingly, maddeningly, relentlessly dumb. It is "Flashdance 2000," with the exception that all of its female stars rolled together do not have one-tenth of one percent of the looks, charisma or sexuality of Jennifer Beals. Damn, could that girl ever eat a lobster.

We're talking here about a movie whose protagonist moves to New York to attain songwriting success with a bunch of generic, old-fart MOR material that actually was written by Dianne Warren, queen of the Hollywood crank-'em-out-by-the-dozen hacks. (Then again, Warren has made a fortune from her soporific swill, so maybe Jersey Girl ain't so dumb after all.)

A credit at the beginning of the movie says "Music by Trevor Horn," which is a tragedy in itself. (What will he do next, produce a Barry Manilow comeback?) Movie-score-wise, the legendary and genius Yes, Seal and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (!!!) producer only appears to have contributed some undistinguished synthesizer washes that sound like bare-bones demos. Maybe he got a look at a rough cut of the film, developed a sudden case of Good Taste, and ran screaming into the night before completing his arrangements.

The producers must be praying that there are an awful lot of teenage boys out there who (a) can't manage to find a place that will sell them porno mags, and (b) are too retarded to figure out how to access smut on the Internet. Who else would have any desire whatsoever to see this cheesy, moronic, no-nudity tease-fest? That's right, all of you desperately horny would-be dupes: THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NUDITY IN THIS MOVIE. NONE. ZERO. Instead, you will be treated to numerous scenes of fully-clothed women stomping and sliding on top of a bar, mostly to songs that none of them would know, because the bar bimbos are not old enough to have heard them (unless they fall in that micro-minuscule demographic of 18-24-year-old women who tune in Classic Rock radio stations). At one point, Piper Perabo quiets a rowdy crowd by karaoke-ing to a Blondie song from the 1970s. What, did her granny sing her to sleep with that moldy chestnut when she was an infant?

And speaking of Ms. Perabo: As I mentioned in my "Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" review, she has an interesting, unconventional look that grows on you. But her non-stop mugging and flat-out terrible acting (which sort of fit the general tone of "Rocky and Bullwinkle") make her performance here excruciating to watch. She has that hammy, "look how expressive I am," completely fake acting style that typifies "Saved By The Bell"-type sitcoms. Watch my eyebrows go way up! Watch my rubbery face contort with every emotion! Watch my bottom lip stick out so far when I pout that I could carry drinks on it! Ugh.

Honest to God, if "Loser" had not been released this year, "Coyote Ugly" would stand a darn good chance of being my pick for Worst Movie of the Year. Stay home and look at pictorials in Penthouse Letters if you want to be titillated. This is the kind of movie that makes a guy mad at his own tool. ("Why did you convince me to pay to see this? Why, why, why???")

Oh, and one last thing: Anyone who thinks that the comic book "Amazing Spider-Man" #129 is worth A THOUSAND DOLLARS, as this movie would have you believe, is more than welcome to buy my copy for that price! (Its true value is considerably under a hundred bucks, as of August 2000, but there's always the chance that speculators will send it to dizzying heights. REALLY dizzying heights...)

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-





Crank

(Reviewed August 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

The studio has an embargo on reviews of this movie until opening day. Which is nuts, because I can't imagine anyone giving it a pan. It's probably the best action flick I've seen this year!

However, all I will do at this point is quote what the immortal Tom Cruise allegedly said upon seeing Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (which has a lot more than the presence of star Jason Statham in common with "Crank," actually):

"THIS...MOVIE...ROCKS!"

Also, you'll fall in love with the beautiful, sexy, ditzily adorable Amy Smart, who plays Statham's cute and clueless girlfriend.

If comics legend Garth Ennis wrote movies, this is what they would be like: hyper-violent, hilarious yet oddly human. High praise, indeed!

That's not a review, though. The review will come later.

But go see this movie!

Back Row Grade: B


Back Row Grade: B





Crash

(Reviewed April 24, 2005, by James Dawson)

Can't we all just get along? Sure we can -- if each of us goes through a hokey, credulity-straining moral crisis leading to a life-alteringly sappy Moment of Redemption.

The gimmick in "Crash," written and directed by "Million Dollar Baby" writer Paul Haggis, is that nearly every character of every race in the movie is a racist. All of their seemingly unrelated stories turn out to interlock through conveniently coincidental circumstances that cause most to see the error of their ways. It's all about as subtle as getting hit in the head with a brick that says RACISM IS BAD on all six sides.

The ham-handed intent is to show that all God's chilluns are connected, even if they don't realize it. But the actual effect is to make one wonder if only a dozen people live in L.A., and the poor bastards just can't help bumping into each other at every turn. What's supposed to be clever becomes dopey very fast, then degenerates into the just plain ridiculous.

Here we have a homeboy (Ludacris) who justifies his actions with anti-white political rants in between carjackings; a honky rich bitch (Sandra Bullock) who thinks her Mexican locksmith will sell copies of her keys to fellow gang members; a Korean hit-and-run victim with a secret misanthropic vice; a vandalized Persian shop owner bent on gunning down someone he knows is not responsible for the crime; a Hispanic hottie (Jennifer Esposito) who doesn't like Asian drivers; her black boyfriend (Don Cheadle) who doesn't like Hispanic drivers; a white D.A. (Brendan Fraser) with political aspirations who is willing to sweep black crime under the rug if it helps him get black votes; a black police captain who would rather tolerate anti-black racism than make career-jeopardizing waves; and so on.

Come to the City of Angels, folks, where everybody hates somebody -- and most of them hate themselves, to boot!

The storylines all resemble non-nutritive little soap opera segments: watchable enough, but ultimately unsatisfying. Ever been flipping past one of those dumb daytime dramas when something catches your eye? And you find yourself watching very intense characters acting shrewish, conniving, sleazy or seductive? And you sit there thinking, "God, this is so awful. Who knows people like this?" But you stick around until commercials for tampons, detergent or bladder-control drugs make you resume channel surfing? No? What do you mean, "Most people have jobs?"

Also, the movie is full of big moments that ring completely false. Most of the dramatic climaxes are the result of sitcom-fake miscommunications and outright plot cheats. (Example: One "surprise" only works because a gun shop owner does not say something that he absolutely would say in real life.) Two scenes that are supposed to be heart-wrenchingly moving are so howlingly cornball that they belong in an "Airplane!"-type spoof. The people around me probably thought I was a heartless monster when I actually laughed out loud during one of them. Not that they didn't think of me that way before.

"Crash" is one of those Big Issue, Important Sociological Statement flicks that critics reflexively wet themselves over. But what it reminded me of was a very-pleased-with-herself teenage girl I heard on NPR the same day, reading an earnestly awful poem she had written as if she thought it deserved an honored place in the National Archive.

"Crash" is the kind of simplistic, pretentious movie that girl would write in an attempt to shame us all into joining hands and singing "We Are Family" around the Tolerance Tree.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D





Crazy/Beautiful
(Reviewed June 1, 2001, by James Dawson)
Kirsten Dunst is pretty good as a messed-up, borderline alcoholic, unloved "poor-little-rich-girl" stepdaughter who falls in wuv with a lower-class, straight-arrow, Mexican-American boy. But this isn't the kind of movie I can imagine anyone regarding as "must drive to the theater and pay to see" entertainment. It's more like one of those you might stick with if you were flipping around cable channels on a slow TV night.

Essentially, this is a very low-key "Romeo and Juliet"-type tale. Their parents want them to stay apart, but nobody gets too agitated about it. There are lots of make-out scenes (ah, the tender joys of statutory rape!). Kirsten never wears a bra during the entire movie, and there are a few "underview" peekaboo shots of her very large breasts from inside the bottom of a gaping shirt, but no actual nudity whatsoever. (Sorry, fellers.)

The filmmakers manage to resist using even a single gun in the entire movie, which counts for something. When Kirsten and a female friend drive to her boyfriend's lower-class L.A. neighborhood at night, you'll be thinking that a flashy drive-by has to be right around the corner, but things stay very copacetic.

A scene toward the end is patently ridiculous, in which Kirsten's dad delivers a long, all-encompassing, soul-baring monolog to Kirsten's boyfriend. But for the most part, the movie rolls along inoffensively enough and tries to be more than just another "Dude, Where's My Bra?" flick. Even though Kirsten seems to have lost all of hers. Oh, did I mention that already?

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Crazy Stupid Love

(Reviewed July 28, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking this link:
"Crazy Stupid Love" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+





Crimson Rivers
(Reviewed May 13, 2001, by James Dawson)

Absolutely terrible police procedural starring Jean Reno, who was so jaw-droppingly excellent in "Leon: The Professional" that this movie comes as a real disappointment. This movie is "stupid" with a French accent. Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F





Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course

(Reviewed June 29, 2002, by James Dawson)

Crocodile (and snake and spider and lots of other things) hunter Steve Irwin is so likable and entertaining that this movie really should have been a longer version of his TV show. Unfortunately, only half of the movie is that--while the other half is a dumb, awkwardly grafted-on story about battling CIA agents trying to retrieve a downed spy satellite that has ended up in the gullet of a croc Irwin is trying to relocate. Without fail, every time the CIA agents are onscreen the energy level (and interest level) of this movie drops to zero--but every time the camera is back on hyperactive Aussie Steve, things are really fun in an innocently goofy way...and even, God help me, educational.

I did like the fact that the American government agents are portrayed as violent, stupid bullies--which certainly is an accurate assessment of our great nation's overpaid, underworked idiot bureaucrats. God bless America!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-





Crossing Over

(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website ARTISTdirect.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Crossing Over" review


Back Row Grade: C-




Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(Reviewed November 15, 2000, by James Dawson)
Here is a very strange movie that tries to be several different things at once, and occasionally even succeeds. It starts out as a solemn, and frankly kind of dull, tale of a conflicted warrior (Chow Yun Fat) in ancient China who decides to hang out in retirement with the female head of a bodyguard concern called Sun Security. He gives her his sword to take to a nobleman in Peking for safe keeping. When the sword is stolen from that man's house, the movie turns into a predictable "police procedural" with occasional martial-arts scenes to break up the monotony.

Although "fight choreographer" Yuen Wo-Ping did the same duties on "The Matrix," don't expect any of those swell bullet-time shots that we all know and love. Also, although the kickboxing scenes in "Matrix" between Neo and Morpheus tended toward the gravity-defying, this movie dispenses with gravity altogether. Characters bounce along the ground and glide over rooftops like helium balloons. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near as cool-looking as it sounds; many of the wire-work fights end up resembling cheesy "Ultraman" TV-show scenes. Knowing that the tussles are supposed to look fake and goofy does not save them from being, well, fake and goofy.

Next, the movie makes a jarring shift into a long flashback involving a teenage aristocratic girl who does not want to go through with her impending marriage. She recalls being kidnapped by a desert bandit (who bears a strong resemblance to Keanu Reeves, actually) and sharing blissful cave-love with him until returning to her family. Great photography, stunning landscapes, cliche melodrama.

Finally, the movie returns to the hunt for the thief. A silly scene in a tavern results in Jackie-Chan-style destruction, throwing things off in yet another direction. Things get back on track later with the best fight scene in the movie, which takes place in a lush bamboo forest. The "magic realism" that the director was going for all along works beautifully in this scene, where the flying combatants really seem to be flying with grace, instead of merely bobbing along on digitally-erased wires.

There are a lot of frustrating elements to this movie, not the least of which are the majority of fight scenes that are unconvincing and silly because, to paraphrase the old "Superman" tag line, "you won't believe a man can fly."

On the other hand, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is almost always gorgeous to behold, and occasionally breathtakingly so, with a final scene that will knock your eyes out. And so, in true Taoist fashion, this review is neither a rave nor a pan, and is content to walk the middle path we all must travel to gain true enlightenment. (Wishy-washy? Me?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: C





The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

(Reviewed December 17, 2008)

An undeniably handsome production, as they say, but one with a strangely flat and uninvolving tone for what is supposed to be a sweeping, era-spanning romantic fable.

Directed with uncharacteristic sentimentality by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt as the title character, the movie is very loosely adapted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name. That's "very loosely" as in "nearly everything except the aging-in-reverse premise is new here, and even that is differently done." In the story, Button is born as a full-grown, full-sized old man who eventually becomes baby-sized at the end of his life. In the movie, he is born as a baby with an old man's face...a change that means he should have been an old man with a baby face when the movie ends, but this is not the case.)

All of the details of Button's life have been changed for the movie, including even the date of his birth (pre-Civil War in the story, Armistice Day 1918 in the movie) and his family circumstances (father is always present in the story, father abandons the just-born Button at an old-age home in the movie).

The film with which this one has the most in common is "Forrest Gump" (which also was scripted by Eric Roth), except without "Gump"'s endearing humor or heart-tugging aspects. Like Gump, Button lives a very episodic life, hopscotching continents and encountering/abandoning different mini-casts of characters throughout the 20th century (although none of them are political or iconic figures). His now-you-see-her, now-you-don't equivalent of "Gump"'s Jenny is played by Cate Blanchett. And when Button discovers he is about to become a father, his worry that his son might be like him mirrors Gump's concern about the same thing.

The makeup and special effects that age Pitt and put his head on other bodies at his different ages is completely convincing -- as in flat-out amazing. The cinematography bathes nearly every scene in a golden-honey glow.

Yet what ultimately becomes the movie's tragic flaw is that Button's story always feels too tasteful and restrained to be as movingly touching as it wants to be. Button is always on such an even, untroubled, passionless keel that he almost seems drugged; we never see him get angry or laugh freely or seem to give much of a damn about any of his circumstances.

This is certainly not a bad film, but it is missing whatever secret ingredient would have made us care more about the characters and their lives.

Back Row Grade: B





Curse of the Golden Flower

(Reviewed November 20, 2006, by James Dawson)

Incredibly beautiful, lushly lavish, eye-dazzlingly amazing...and as shallow and silly as a soap opera.

"Curse of the Golden Flower" is about a power struggle during China's Tang Dynasty that involves secrets and subterfuges within the emperor's family. The emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) is slowly poisoning the empress (Gong Li), who is shagging her stepson, who doesn't know a certain very important secret about the royal physician's daughter he loves, and so forth. It's like watching an episode of "Chynasty."

The sets, costumes and locations are so kaleidoscope colorful, though, that this movie is worth seeing just for the "seeing." The battle scenes, between armies of thousands, are as fantasy-fantastic as some of the clashes in "Lord of the Rings." And if you're into martial arts (I'm not), there's also chop-sockey action and the usual wirework stunts.

I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is (if at all). A scene near the end, though, is sure to remind viewers of a certain real incident that occurred at Tiananmen Square. Some things never change.

As George Orwell would say, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- for ever."

Back Row Grade: C-





The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

(Reviewed August 15, 2001)

Woody Allen really can't win these days. If he had used another actor in the role he plays here, fans who always want to see him onscreen in his movies would complain. But the truth is that Woody is so horribly, ridiculously miscast in "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" that his presence helps sabotage the film.

And his is not the only casting mistake. But first things first.

Even in a comedy, it is disturbing and preposterous to see Woody playing a man who dates Elizabeth Barkley, and whom Charlize Theron regards as sexually desirable (even for kinky kicks), and in whom Helen Hunt can find true love. That ain't comedy, folks--that's absurdity! Maybe a millionaire movie director can marry a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, but Woody's not playing himself here. He is supposed to be a debt-ridden insurance investigator. Not exactly a "prize catch," in other words.

The other major casting mistake is Helen Hunt. Now, I'm not Hunt's biggest fan; her extremely limited acting range and her choice of exactly two facial expressions don't exactly put her in Meryl Streep's class. But one thing she does have is great hair, a well-above-average face, and an absolutely killer body. (Some of her outfits here make her bountiful breasts look like jutting jet nosecones. And I say that in only the very nicest way.) So when Woody engages in what is supposed to be witty repartee with Hunt in which he refers to her as ugly and repulsive (at one point comparing her to an organ grinder's monkey, for Christ's sake), one has to wonder when he last visited the eye doctor. I'm not sure who Woody may have had in mind for the role when writing the screenplay--Roseanne?--but I can't imagine any man regarding Hunt as, well, a dog.

Similar carelessness is found throughout the movie. There are at least two scenes in the film that include dialog flubs. What the hell is this, "One-Take Theater?" The pacing is sloooooooow. Woody's character goes into great detail--TWICE--explaining information that the audience, and his listeners, clearly already know. And the ending is a horribly obvious (and flat-out unbelievable) cliche.

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" probably would have made an amusing short story (emphasis on the word "short"). It even could have been a decent enough movie, if Woody had cast modern-day equivalents of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in the roles and quickened the pace--since he obviously was trying for a screwball-comedy feel here. Granted, he also would have to drop the "you're an ugly broad" stuff, but those lines aren't funny anyway, so no great loss.

It's way beyond time for Woody to act his age. Playing Julia Roberts' boyfriend a few years back in "Everybody Says I Love You" was creepy enough. But seeing him making out with Helen Hunt in a full-on, fireworks-bursting clench is an outright insult to the audience's intelligence.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D- (Escaping an "F" mainly because Charlize looks so good braless in a sheer white gown; oh, and there are a couple of funny lines, too)




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