Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson




Back Row Reviews
by
James Dawson
stjamesdawson.com

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Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
(Reviewed August 30, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Note: The first draft of my FilmReviewOnline.com review of this movie ran a few hundred words too long. Below is what I cut from that version:

Gainsbourg is played as a precocious, proud and persistent young boy by Kacey Mottet Klein. Refused permission to sketch a nude model who is posing for adult students in art class, Lucien Ginsburg (later to take the name Serge Gainsbourg) shows up when the model is getting dressed and asks for a private session. And when Nazi collaborators announce that Jewish citizens must register and wear yellow stars for identification, Lucien boldly makes sure he is first in line to receive his.

A would-be serious painter embarrassed about playing piano at a restaurant to make money to buy canvases, Gainsbourg initially regards the idea of writing pop songs as beneath him. "I'd rather die," he announces. "I don't write songs for prepubescent girls." But with the less loftily minded La Gueule at his side, he ends up adjusting his thinking.

Defying convention, the biography doesn't bother depicting most of Gainsbourg's personal-life milestones. None of his weddings are shown (let alone any in-law encounters), and neither are the births of his children (who appear rarely). That's actually kind of refreshing -- seen one screaming newborn, seen 'em all -- but what's odd is that the film also never puts Gainsbourg in any cultural context. For all we can tell, his world was so self-contained he never gave a passing thought to anyone with whom he didn't collaborate. It would have been interesting to see Gainsbourg's reaction to the libidinous antics of Mick Jagger, for example, or to hear his opinion of disco in general and Donna "Love to Love You, Baby" Summer in particular.

Similarly, even close-to-home political events such as France's 1968 student riots go unmentioned. Later, however, Gainsbourg's reggae version of a reworked "Le Marseillaise" causes a national controversy that's probably exactly what the then 50-year-old provacateur intended.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A




Gangs of New York
(Reviewed January 24, 2002, by James Dawson)

Don't believe the "emperor's new clothes" hype. If Martin Scorsese's name were not attached to this overlong, embarrassing disappointment, reviewers would be placing a silhouette of a turkey next to their reviews instead of singing its praises. (The fact that Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and "Ebert & Roeper's" Richard Roeper named "Gangs of New York" as their pick for the best movie of 2002 says far more about their woefully nonexistent critical faculties than all of my bitter invective ever could.)

From the very first piece of dialog in the film ("No, son. The blood stays on the blade."), you'll know that you are in for a pretentiously arty and stupid slog. Liam Neeson mouths those words after cutting his cheek with a straight razor and handing said "blade" to his son, who starts to wipe it clean on his pants leg. I'm still boggled by the moronic, meaningless symbolism Scorcese was reaching for with that line, which simply makes no literal sense. As my dear brother pointed out when warning me away from this movie, the son should have looked up with a sneer and replied, "Yeah, okay, dad. I'll leave your blood on here to get all hard, crusty and scabby. Should make for a great shave next time."

The movie is chock full of other painfully unsubtle scenes. Bill the Butcher, played with scenery-devouring gusto by Daniel Day Lewis, spouts a jaw-droppingly corny soliloquy while literally draped in the American flag. A fight in a church ends with two combatants knocking down a wall (!) to reveal a huge crucifix, with J.C. himself looking down on the proceedings. Leonardo DiCaprio, during another slugfest, knocks a framed picture of his unavenged father from a mantle when his head is rammed into a wall, so he can see his old man's face looking up at him from the floor. If this isn't the kind of thing that a first-year film student would lose points for on a freshman project, it sure as hell should be.

Voiceover narration almost always is the mark of hackwork, an artless shortcut used by directors who cannot be troubled to tell a story in cinematic terms. "Gangs of New York" is a perfect example, and even goes one worse than usual by adding another voice to DiCaprio's occasional narration. Toward the end of the film, during the Civil War draft riots, we see telegraph operators tap-tap-tapping out news about what's happening all over town...while a disembodied radio-style "play-by-play announcer" tells us what is going on! Trust me, it's even goofier than it sounds.

There is so, so much to dislike in this film. The fight scenes are nonsensical. (For one thing: If the leader of an enemy gang just struck down your own gang's leader, and was taking quite a very long time finishing the guy off, and you and your comrades had knives, cleavers, cudgels, etc. at hand...would you just stand around watching it happen? Methinks not!) We are treated to a few bare breasts during a "sittin'-around-drinkin'" scene, but God forbid that costar Cameron Diaz should whip out her celebrity ta-tas in either of her two "gettin' it on" scenes with Leo. (This is especially preposterous in the first, where Leo is so hot for her that he actually removes her corset and has his hands all over her body...but doesn't scoop out Cameron's lovelies from her stretchy scoop-neck blouse??? Wha..???) During his flag-draped monolog, Bill the Butcher mentions being so ashamed of looking away from an enemy during a fight that he later plucks out one of his own eyes and sends it to the victor. Oh, sure. That's gonna happen.

You never for one second will be drawn into the completely cornball storyline enough to forget that you are watching a bunch of actors hamming it up. Every line of dialog is one that either ends in exclamation points or is supposed to have deep portent and gravity. After almost three hours of this slop, the movie ends up being nearly as preposterously campy as "Far From Heaven."

Enjoyable moments are few and far between, but there are enough of them to keep this one from getting an "F." Bill's knife-throwing act with Cameron Diaz has all of the tension and menace that is missing from the rest of the film. I laughed out loud at one scene that I'm sure was not intended to be funny (wherein a character gets a quite unexpected cleaver in his back; okay, you had to be there). And, just on general principles, I automatically enjoy watching scenes of angry mobs striking back at the condescending rich, and revolting against this country's tyrannical, utterly corrupt government.

In fact, by the time "Gangs of New York" ended, I wondered if Scorsese even realized that his entire "hands that built America" premise is one that in reality is sadly ironic, not uplifting. The hands that built America, after all, ended up not being those of people out fighting in the streets for the right to be left alone, for the right not to be dragooned into fighting wars with which they disagreed and for the right to be free from taxes that fund criminally corrupt politicians' priorities. The hands that built today's America are the ones that have done their best to strangle freedom and pick the pockets of the powerless.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




Gangster No. 1
(Reviewed June 29, 2002, by James Dawson)

In this Brit gangster pic that spans 25-or-so years, Malcolm McDowell doesn't just chew the scenery, he wolfs it down and then belches in your face with a "want to make something of it" sneer. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

In sequences at the film's beginning and end, McDowell plays the older version of a psycho bully drafted into a life o' London crime during the swingin' seventies. His younger self--never identified by name, and very well played by Paul Bettany--simultaneously admires and resents gang boss Freddie Mays (David Thewlis). Although there are a couple of places where the pic veers dangerously close to self-parodying "Deuces Wild" phony-tough-guy territory, it also includes one of the most brutal, stylishly shot murder sequences ever put on celluloid.

Bettany is so good as the young Gangster that any memory of him as Chaucer in last year's abominable "A Knight's Tale" will be stomped and sliced right out of your head. It's not completely convincing that Bettany's tight-lipped, smoldering bastard full of icy contempt would mature into the gregariously vulgar McDowell, but hey, time does funny things to some people.

While "Gangster No. 1" is more character-study than story, and has a frustratingly unsatisfying ending, it never ceases to be interesting--which is more than can be said for 99 percent of what gets slapped onto screens these days. Not exactly the feel-good movie of the year, but you'll remember the champagne-glass-beside-the-urinal scene forever.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-




Garden State
(Reviewed June 18, 2004, by James Dawson)

Before this movie started, I leaned over and said to The Greatest Girl Who Ever Lived, "I hope this doesn't turn out to be one of those cheap, stupid, `indie'-cliche movies full of quirky, eccentric characters doing what are supposed to be charmingly `wacky' things."

Can you say "jinx?"

"Garden State" is a textbook example of that variety of bad-indie awfulness. It was written and directed by sitcom actor Zach Braff, who apparently has spent enough time in Hollywood to develop a real talent for typing remarkably unfunny junk that's supposed to pass for comedy. People in this movie keep saying and doing things that you have the vague impression are meant to be amusing, but absolutely nothing works.

As for the cast of quirksters, "Garden State" has everyone from a grave-robbing pothead to a silent-velcro inventor who golf carts around his unfurnished mansion to a Medieval Times knight who eats breakfast in full armor. All of them are from the land of "trying way too hard."

Braff also plays the movie's lead, with an utterly colorless flatness that can't be excused by the fact that he is assaying the role of a Paxil-Zoloft-'n'-all-the-rest pill-popper who has decided to go off his medication. Imagine a younger, dumber version of Ray Romano, hanging out and doping with a bizarre bunch of New Jersey slackers for two hours while on a trip home for his mother's funeral. Is your flesh crawling yet?

The indescribably lovely Natalie Portman thoroughly wastes her talents (what's new?) as his kooky, zany soulmate, the kind of girl who makes any female who got higher than a "D" average in school embarrassed for her sex. She's perky! She's silly! Her house is full of hamster habitrails, and she likes to do totally unique things like making odd sounds when she doesn't know what to say! She played a crocodile in an ice show! Feeling your lunch come up yet? No? Then just wait until the movie's final act, which is so pathetically cloying and hackneyed and trite that I wish I could spoil it just to make fun of it more.

One thing you can say for "Garden State," though, is that it wears its lousiness on its sleeve. The poster for the movie depicts the single most embarrassingly terrible scene in the entire flick (which is saying a lot): three of the movie's characters standing on a crane and screaming at the top of their lungs, the way characters in these sorts of movies commonly do when they need cathartic release from their Generation-echhh angst.

You'll feel like screaming, too...screaming at the cashier for your money back.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




The Guard
(Reviewed June 9, 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 Guard" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-




Gentlemen Broncos
(Reviewed November 2, 2009, by James Dawson)

Guaranteed to be on my "worst of 2009" list. It's that bad.

Don't be suckered by the tagline trumpeting the fact that director Jared Hess is the same guy who did "Napoleon Dynamite." Where "Napoleon Dynamite" felt genuinely quirky and charmingly offbeat, "Gentlemen Broncos" comes off like a misguided attempt to do a "so bad that maybe people will think it's good" fiasco on purpose.

Teenager Michael Angarano is a nerdish science fiction fan whose bizarrely stupid manuscript gets plagiarized by the big-name author he idolizes (Jemaine Clement). At home, his would-be fashion designer mother (Jennifer Coolidge) is the kind of pathetically desperate and dumb sort of white trash that only John Waters could do justice. As an example of the kind of wit on display here, Angarano accidentally shoots one of his mother's breasts with a blow dart dipped in dog feces. Fortunately, it only punctures what looks like an unimplanted implant that she takes out and displays with some relief.

Clement's oozingly unctuous James-Mason-meets-Michael-York delivery is amusing, but the script is so aggressively stupid and unfunny that it feels endless. The only thing about "Gentlemen Broncos" that I enjoyed was the opening credits sequence, which repurposes a bunch of wonderfully weird 1960s and 1970s SF book covers by replacing their original text with the names of the people responsible for this misbegotten movie.

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




Get Him to the Greek
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

This should have been a hard movie to screw up, but director/writer Nicholas Stoller nearly succeeds in making it unwatchable.

Cheerfully self-absorbed rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), one of the only enjoyable characters in the otherwise abysmal Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is the subject of this sort-of-sequel spinoff. Jonah Hill, who played an adoring Snow fan in the earlier flick, appears in a different role here as record-label lackey Aaron Green. He is dispatched to London to make sure the very flakey Snow makes it to New York for a "Today Show" interview, and then to Los Angeles for a comeback concert.

What should have been a pleasantly slapstick road movie ends up taking too many depressing and unamusingly degrading detours. Some of the "Spinal Tap"-style humor works, such as the press calling Snow's ridiculously pretentious single "African Child" the worst thing for Africa since apartheid. But too much of the movie tries to milk laughs from watching Snow and Green drink, get high, drink some more, and get high some more. Snow's dour reunion with his long-lost father (Colm Meaney) in Las Vegas pretty much stops things dead, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs is amateurishly inept as Green's hot-headed record label boss.

Stoller has an agonizing way of letting scenes run on far longer than they should. Even worse, he seems to be trying out for a directing job at "60 Minutes," filling the frame with endless huge closeups of faces throughout the movie.

"Get Him to the Greek"'s mean-spirited undercurrent, which includes things like Snow forcing Green to shove heroin up his ass and tricking him into smoking a heart-stopping joint laced with PCP, is reminiscent of last year's disturbingly vile Observe and Report. Even a three-way sex scene turns out to be creepy and sad.

The only reason I'm giving this a "D" and not an "F" is because Hill and Brand occasionally do rise above the material, believably playing an exasperated enabler and an affable nitwit. Also, some of the over-the-top songs hit the mark. (Fans of Yes may be amused by Aldous Snow's "The Clap," which has absolutely nothing in common with Steve Howe's classic guitar piece of the same name that you can hear here.)

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




Get Smart
(Reviewed June 4, 2008, by James Dawson)

This movie is so un-"Get Smart"-ish that you'll wonder if the screenplay was an unsold spec script about different characters before somebody thought of calling the leads "Max" and "99." Here are three of the ways it gets things wrong:

At the beginning of the movie, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) isn't even a CONTROL agent yet. He is a report-writing drone who hopes to be promoted to field work. Wow, way to waste the opening half-hour on backstory the audience doesn't need or want.

Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), instead of being indulgently amused by Max's antics and having a little crush on him, initially dislikes Max and resents working with him because she thinks he is incompetent. In other words, her character is nothing like her TV-series counterpart.

The bad guy (Terence Stamp) isn't funny-bad, he's bad-bad. Which is bad.

There are some good chase scenes and such, but even those are more action-oriented than humorous. The whole movie feels kind of pointless, as if it were made simply to keep the "Get Smart" trademark from expiring.

Catch it on cable.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-




Ghost Rider
(Reviewed February 15, 2007, by James Dawson)

Nicolas Cage stars as the bottom-tier Marvel Comics hero Ghost Rider, a motorcycle stunt rider whose head occasionally turns into a flaming skull and whose bike has super powers. This could have been a lot of fun, if it had been done as a total goof. Or it could have been genuinely creepy, if it had been played as surrealistic and nightmarish horror.

Instead, it only seems kind of stupid.

Director/screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson, who directed/cowrote the much better "Daredevil" a few years back, tries to liven things up with some campy humor. But those bits feel very out of place alongside cornball melodramatic scenes involving lung cancer and young love. Then the devil's sadistic son comes along to instigate a lot of no-laughs menace and murder, which adds up to one big mess of a movie.

The special effects are okay, and Cage probably does the best anyone could do with material that can't decide whether it is tongue-in-cheek or just plain dumb. The lush and lovely Eva Mendes is his spectacularly topheavy love interest, Wes Bentley is Satan Jr., and Peter Fonda is da debbil hisself.

But here's a good example of how unclever the movie is: Fonda never rides a motorcycle, which sort of ruins the casting joke of putting him in this flick.

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website ARTISTdirect.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" review


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-




John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars
(Reviewed August 5, 2001, by James Dawson)

This movie has an incredibly boring setup, lots of general dumbness, and a flabbergastingly unsatisfying non-ending, but God knows it was more entertaining than the other movie I saw the same night ("American Outlaws"), so I can't be too hard on it.

Ninety-nine percent of the story is told in flashback by Natasha Henstridge, the bounteously big-busted blond babe who stiffened the world in "Species" a few years back. She is leaner, harder-edged and less sexy-for-sexy's-sake this time around, with absolutely ZERO nudity and only one very brief underwear scene. (That sentence probably has convinced every straight male over 17 who had any interest in seeing "Ghosts of Mars" to stay home, but I'll keep going just because the alternative would be doing something productive with my time.)

The plot is basically "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" meets "Aliens" meets "Night of the Living Dead," except that those movies were a whole lot better. Miners on Mars are being taken over by a previously dormant life form that converts them into bloodthirsty members of what looks like the KISS army, following a Marilyn Manson lookalike who has a penchant for decapitation. Natasha and company hole up in a police station in one of the zombie-overrun mining outposts, then spend all of their time ah, ah, ah, ah stayin' alive, stayin' alive.

If you are keen on seeing thousands of rounds of ammo expended; plenty o' big, fakey Hollywood explosions; lots of hand-to-hand WWF-style fighting; and several non-state-of-the-art shots of a mining train choo-chooing across a dark Martian landscape that appears to have been built on a family room card-table (okay, I'm exaggerating, but the FX really aren't very impressive), this is the flick for you!

Personally, I wish Natasha had felt the need to take some long, soapy, self-exploring showers every now and then amongst the incredibly loud scenes of carnage and destruction. But then, I'm very shallow.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Ghosts of the Abyss (in IMAX 3D)
(Reviewed April 9, 2003, by James Dawson)

Look, maybe it's just me, but I can't stand wearing the stupid 3D glasses that are required at movies like this. First of all, there is no way of knowing how clean the last person was who used them. (The lenses of the pair I got were smeared with a multitude of greasy fingerprints, probably from some syphilitic SARS victim with head lice.) Second, because I already wear glasses, I was worried that the high-dollar anti-reflective coating of my prescription lenses would be scratched by the constant rubbing of the greasy 3D plastic lenses against them--said "constant rubbing" being due to the fact that I never could find a comfortable position for the damned 3D glasses, and was aggravatedly fiddling with them for the entire length of the movie. (Thankfully, my Rx glasses seem to have suffered no ill effects.) Third, the science behind 3D glasses is, shall we say, still far from perfected. Honest to God, I would have preferred seeing this flick in regular "2D," rather than getting half-a-headache trying to crosseye myself into enjoying the dubious three-dimensional splendor of it all.

Not that there is much here worth seeing. Hey, I'm sorry, but at this point I am pretty thoroughly "Titanic"ed out. Watching director James Cameron go on a megabuck underwater adventure holiday with a bunch of rent-a-scientists doesn't float my boat (zing!).

Plus there is the fact that the movie is kind of a cheat. The advertising implies that you will be spending an hour (that's right, the thing is only an hour long, even though you will be paying an IMAX-premium ticket price) gazing upon previously unglimpsed nooks and crannies of the sunken carcass of the Titanic, and getting the creeps whilst doing so. Instead, most of the movie features Cameron and company (including narrator/"Titanic" star Bill Paxton) aboard a research ship and inside mini-submarines. "Ghosts of the Abyss" turns out to be a behind-the-scenes "making of" the kind of movie you actually will go into the theater expecting to see. After watching Paxton utter some variation of the line, "Golly gosh wow, we're really seeing the Titanic" for about the fourth time, you will wish you were seeing a lot more of what he is seeing and a lot less of him.

But here is my biggest complaint about the movie: The actual camera footage of the "Titanic" turns out to be less enjoyable than watching the movie's computer simulations! Even the filmmakers seem to realize this. The most interesting segment in the movie, in which one mini robot-camera has to "rescue" another one that died inside the sunken ship's hull, is almost entirely shown in computer animation. In fact, the filmed parts of the movie are uniformly dull to anyone who is not a "Titanic" obsessive. As I listened to Cameron and Paxton marvel excitedly over things such as a stained-glass window, an iron gate, a wash basin and a bowler hat, I found myself peering through the murky darkness of the theater to look at my diver's watch. If you know what I mean.

If this turns up on PBS, it might be worth a look, assuming nothing else is on. Plus the only head lice you will encounter at home will be from your own filthy, disgusting family.



APRIL 15, 2003, ADDENDUM: As if I needed another reason to dislike this movie, I now have read that all of the Bill Paxton "look at me in this claustrophobia-inducing mini-sub, marveling at all the never-before-glimpsed wonders outside the porthole and worrying about my safety" shots were FAKED. That's right, folks: According to the LA TIMES, every one of those shots was filmed later, NOT while the sub was underwater. Cheat, cheat, cheat.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




Ghost Town
(Reviewed September 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

"Ghost Town" has plot and logic problems galore, but its amusingly awkward and acerbic star Ricky Gervais is so enjoyable to watch that you won't care.

Gervais apparently had free rein to ad-lib a lot of his lines, so he comes off a lot like his self-deluding, misanthropically muttering characters David Brent of "The Office" and Andy Millman of "Extras." Not that this is a bad thing. Gervais has an interesting way of making sourness seem sweet.

In this case, that means getting us to like a lonely and kinda nasty dentist who suddenly is able to see the ghosts of people who still have some unfinished business on earth. Chief among these is Greg Kinnear, as a philandering husband who wants Gervais to break up his widow's (Tea Leoni) engagement to a guy who seems perfect in every way. Complications ensue when Gervais himself falls in love with Leoni.

"Ghost Town" in some ways is the anti "Ghost," with Gervais playing a very skewed version of Whoopi Goldberg's character from that earlier movie. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, for reasons that are both trivial (Kinnear makes a plainly visible impression when sitting on couch cushions, even though he supposedly cannot affect anything tangible in the real world) and common-sense-defying (it never occurs to Gervais to look up any dead friends or relatives of his own). Also, the fact that the ghosts can walk through walls and follow Gervais anywhere is at odds with the fact that they are not constantly around him, considering that each of them wants desperately for him to do something.

As I said, though, none of this matters. The treat here is watching Gervais fumble and embarrass himself and generally play the fool as his love for Leoni forces him to become more begrudgingly human.

Recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Ghost World
(Reviewed July 14, 2001, by James Dawson)

Deadpan, disaffected teenage irony may have gone out with the '90s (or was it the '80s?), but Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson do a darn good job of reviving it in this strange, funny and smart comedy from director/writer Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb").

While the Dan Clowes "Ghost World" comics series on which the screenplay (by Zwigoff and Clowes) is based was good, the movie manages to be even better than that source material because it is both funnier and more touching. Most importantly, Zwigoff is responsible for fleshing out the Steve Buscemi lovable loser character Seymour and making him central to the plot here. (The character is only briefly seen and very tangential to the original comics version of "Ghost World.")

In comics terms, if you imagine a couple of Jaime Hernandez's sweetly sarcastic "Love and Rockets" girls transplanted into an "everything modern sucks" Robert Crumb universe, you've pretty much got the lay of the land here.

Birch essentially reprises her "go ahead, try to impress me...please" character from "American Beauty," except with more esoteric tastes (and more out-there outfits) this time around. She forms an unusual relationship with the always-great Buscemi, who channels nostalgia-minded malcontent Crumb as a loveless record collector living in a very retro apartment. Johansson is Birch's best friend, who graduates high school with Birch at the beginning of the movie, and who has the most husky, sultry voice you're ever likely to hear coming out of a 15-year-old (her age at the time of filming, incredibly enough).

Things start out slowly, but pick up considerably when the two girls encounter Buscemi. Most of the movie's humor comes from small things (such as Birch's disgusted reaction to the butter used on movie popcorn, a non-PC note she leaves on a friend's door when he is not at home and the rude comments the two girls make about people in general). Yet even though everything stays pretty low-key, it's all so interesting that you will be left wanting more even after nearly two hours.

This is one of the best movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-








The Ghost Writer
(Reviewed February 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

The premise of this movie -- that 21st-century US or UK war criminals ever might have to pay for their crimes against humanity -- is like wish-fantasy porn for those of us who think every member of the George W. Bush and Tony Blair administrations should be wearing orange prison jumpsuits for the rest of their lives.

Pierce Brosnan plays Andrew Lang, a transparently Blair-like former British prime minister living at a home on an unnamed American island while finishing his memoirs. Hearing that he has been indicted for war crimes by the World Court for sanctioning the water-boarding of prisoners in the so-called war on terror, Lang realizes he will be subject to arrest if he returns to England. Because the United States does not recognize the authority of the World Court, however, he can remain free as long as he stays here. Unfortunately, as members of his staff inform him, the only other countries with a similar disregard for international law are places like Iraq, China, North Korea and Indonesia. That means Lang is pretty much stuck in Uncle Sam land. As his icy wife puts it, this is "like being married to Napoleon on St. Helena."

Ewan McGregor plays the latest ghost writer hired to help Lang polish his memoirs manuscript. He has four weeks to do so, later shortened to two, and the fact that Lang becomes distracted by the indictment doesn't help. Like most movies about writers, this one doesn't put McGregor behind a keyboard for nearly enough time to make logical sense. It's as if director/cowriter Roman Polanski thinks books get typed by industrious elves during the night, leaving the ghost writer free to spend his waking hours taking a bike tour, going on road trips and bedding the prime minister's wife. Nice work if you can get it. Well, except for the fact that his predessor may have been killed for digging too deeply into his subject's past, that is.

McGregor has some good lines as he get increasingly enmeshed in Lang's situation. Beseiged in his car, he informs his publisher via phone that "some peace protesters are trying to kill me." The pressure of dealing with the secrecy and machinations at Lang's compound make him say that he feels as if he is aging, because the place "is like Shangri-La in reverse."

Polanski keeps the story moving without being obtrusive or flashy, maintaining an air of disturbing tension even during the lighter or more languid scenes. And it's hard not to enjoy his and cowriter Robert Harris' amusingly contemptuous digs at Blair, Bush and their cronies. Describing Lang's situation, one observer sneers, "Why did he go and get mixed up with that damned fool in Washington?" The movie's equivalent of real-life Halliburton corporation is an evil entity named Hatherton, and the US Secretary of State is decidedly Condoleeza-like.

The ominously gloomy island setting and atmosphere of psychological suspense are slightly similar to elements in Shutter Island, which coincidentally arrived in theaters on the same day as "The Ghost Writer." Both even have vaguely ominous lighthouses in the distance, although McGregor never ends up visiting his.

Unfortunately, the other things both movies have in common are somewhat unsatisfying endings. The twist at the end of "The Ghost Writer" feels more like a punchline than a believable revelation.

As a side note, it's impossible to watch this movie without relating its subject matter to Polanski's own real-life situation. The difference was that Polanski believed he was immune to imprisonment for rape so long as he stayed away from America.

Guess that joke turned out to be on him, huh?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-



The Gift
(Reviewed December 15, 2000, by James Dawson)

Straight to the point (or should I say "points?"): Absolutely the only thing that keeps this incredibly stupid movie from getting an "F" is the fact that Katie ("Dawson's Creek") Holmes has a brief topless scene near the end. And not just one or two frames, either: She jiggles and sways onscreen for a total of at least five seconds total, wearing nothing but an open white shirt and white panties. Stills from that brief-but-stimulating scene probably will be all over the Internet soon, and popping up in "Celebrity Skin" magazine, and appearing as screensavers in dorm rooms around the world. In a word: Good God!

As for the rest of the movie, let's put it this way: Keanu Reeves as a redneck badass? Don't think so! Cate Blanchett actually does a pretty good job as a southern white trash psychic, and Hilary Swank is dead-on perfect as a mullet-wearing white trash abused wife, and Giovanni Ribisi is okay as a psychotic but sympathetic white trash Boo Radley type. But man, is this movie stupid. The ending reminded me of the moronic ending to "Lost Souls," and that's saying a mouthful.

Honestly, it is not worth even a cheap matinee ticket to see those few seconds of Katie Holmes Heaven at the end. Wait until this dog comes out on video and DVD, then rent it and fast forward. Yum!

(Note: Am I shallow?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-




Gigli
(Reviewed August 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

Okay, I realize I'm not known for being restrained and charitable, but somebody has to say it: Most of the critics who are panning this admittedly lousy movie are overdoing it. Yes, it sucks. Yes, the plot is moronic, the characters are unbelievable, the ending is howlingly awful, and there is plenty to dislike all the way around. If not for the fact that the director wrote the script, you would think this was a case of a director purposely sabotaging a screenplay that he knew was crap.

But is it the worst movie of the year? Not even close. As of August 4, 2003, that dishonor still goes to the abysmal "Uptown Girls." Even "American Wedding" is worse than "Gigli." Know why? For all of its many, many, many faults, "Gigli" has one thing going for it that those movies don't: It has a single funny scene that keeps it from being a complete disaster.

That scene isn't the one where Jennifer Lopez invites Ben Affleck to go down on her by saying, "It's turkey time...gobble-gobble" (although that one certainly is memorable). And it certainly isn't the groaningly dumb Lopez monolog about why the vagina is preferable to the penis.

It is the scene in which Affleck is preening in front of his bathroom mirror before joining Lopez in bed: flexing his muscles, comparing himself to a bull, and muttering about how he's going to show her his "horn." It was so goofy and funny that it seemed ad-libbed, because it was so unlike the rest of the utterly witless script.

See, I can be nice. Oh, but it still gets an "F"--but not an "F-minus." So there.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




Girl in Progress
(Reviewed May 11, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-




Girl With a Pearl Earring
(Reviewed November 12, 2003, by James Dawson)


An absolute masterpiece. As of November 12, this elegantly simple and quietly beautiful movie about a meek and dejected teenage girl who becomes the maid of painter Johannes Vermeer in 1665 is my favorite movie of 2003.

Until I saw "Girl With a Pearl Earring" last night, that slot was held by "Lost in Translation." Scarlett Johansson stars in both movies, providing understated but utterly convincing portrayals of sad characters briefly awakened from resigned hopelessness by older men. Although her characters in both movies share a certain melancholy, their circumstances could not be more different.

In "Lost in Translation," Johansson's fleeting luxury-Tokyo-hotel friendship with a burned-out movie star (Bill Murray) raises her spirits while she is being ignored by her rock-star-photographer husband. She is the exact opposite of moneyed and educated in "Girl With a Pearl Earring," toiling as an illiterate bottom-rung member of Vermeer's household staff because she has to support her mother and her blind father. (Although the story is entirely fictional, its details are so convincing that you never will look at the actual painting the same way again.)

Johansson's daily drudgery in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is broken only by the confused feelings she has for the handsome but tight-lipped painter and for his art. Her reluctance to act upon those feelings, or even to speak (in what is nearly a silent performance), gives the movie a tension that manages to be heartbreaking without once devolving into sappy melodrama. Even though the basic plot here admittedly sounds like the stuff of cheap romance ("SHE INSPIRED HIM TO PAINT...WITH THE COLORS OF LOVE!"), it is played so honestly that it overcomes its time-worn genre trappings to seem fresh and genuine. There is a reason why this kind of yearning/denial/resolution stuff has worked for a couple of millennia, after all. "Girl With a Pearl Earring" director Peter Webber finds the classic in what so often is rendered as cloying or cliche.

This also is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful movies ever filmed, with cinematography so lush and lighting so flawlessly lovely that I wondered if John Alcott had come back from the dead. Nearly every frame could be a page in a picture book, but the images go beyond mere prettiness. Lingering shots of Johansson's silently radiant face, of Vermeer's studio sanctuary, of a golden canal pathway, of a candle-lit 17th-century drawing room...they are like images from dreams, full of mystery and portent. Director of Photography Eduardo Serra should win the Oscar in a walk, if there is any justice in this world.

The movie's score was composed by Alexandre Desplat, and must be singled out for avoiding easy cliches as artfully as the plot itself does. That is not to say the music is in any way cold or remote, however; it's the difference between cheap sentiment and emotional honesty. There are moments when the combination of image and music will make you get misty, but you won't feel as if you've been crudely goosed or tear-jerked-off. The final shot of the movie literally made tears run down my jaded, cynical face, but it was a case of being deeply touched, not sucker-punched. (And I'm a big enough man to admit it...sniff...)

If possible, make the effort to see this movie in a theater. Even the biggest home-video plasma monitor cannot possibly give you the total-immersion thrill of seeing this amazingly beautiful masterpiece on the big screen. It's the difference between admiring a framed masterwork in a museum gallery versus seeing it on a postcard in the museum gift shop.

To read more about the actual painting, here is a good website where you can start (click the link below to get there):
Girl With a Pearl Earring Website


Back Row Reviews Grade: A+




The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
(Reviewed December 21, 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 Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




The Glass House
(Reviewed September 13, 2001, by James Dawson)

Insultingly stupid would-be thriller that is so bad you will wonder at times if it is TRYING to be lousy. Leelee Sobieski, that long, tall drink of delicious deadpan delight, is horribly miscast as an orphaned teen sent to live with guardians who are Up To No Good. Absolutely zero suspense, lame action, moronic plot and an ending that makes no sense whatsoever. (Let's put it this way: If someone were about to put you into a car that you knew had no brakes, don't you think you might take the trouble to TELL THEM RIGHT AWAY why you didn't want to use that particular car?)

The movie gets points for providing slavering Leelee fans with a bikini scene that is wholly gratuitous, when she decides to take a 3am swim to relieve her stress. (Wha...????) She also is frequently braless in spaghetti-strap cotton tops, and looks most fetching in a pair of sweatpants. Even those small pleasures aren't enough to bring the grade for this bomb above an "F," though.

Instead of wasting money on this mess, stay home this weekend and watch the news to find out if the US will get around to bombing Afghanistan a little closer to the stone age. Those are the kinds of bombs the American public is more likely to enjoy right about now.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




Glee The 3D Concert Movie
(Reviewed August 12, 2011, by James Dawson)

I reviewed this movie for the website FilmReviewOnline.com, and you can read that review by clicking the link below:
"Glee The 3D Concert Movie" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Gnomeo & Juliet
(Reviewed February 11, 2011, by James Dawson)



(I originally wrote this review for the website wearegoodkin.com, but as of September 2011 that website no longer seems to exist -- so I have uploaded the entire text below.)

This comic and computer-animated retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" could have been a charmingly lighthearted tale about little lawn ornaments in love. Instead, in Disney's apparent attempt to attract bratty boys in addition to the taken-for-granted female demographic, the movie includes frequent scenes of bullying belligerence, aggravatingly frantic action and war-like destruction. By the time a backyard mushroom cloud appears, parents who hoped their impressionable offspring might get a gentle respite from the current culture of violence may feel understandably annoyed.

The movie's well-designed characters are rendered with such impressive CGI realism that you'll wish they didn't spend most of their time acting obnoxious and antagonistic. The two leads are the terra cotta-textured Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), who hails from a yard of gnomes dressed in blue, and the porcelain-smooth Juliet (Emily Blunt), from a group of neighboring gnomes dressed in red.

As the two begin a forbidden friendship, the ongoing feud between their tribes elevates into fence-crossing acts of sabotage and "smashing," which is as unpleasant as it sounds. Viewers who aren't adrenaline-junkie sociopaths will be dismayed that the movie doesn't devote more time to Gnomeo and Juliet's developing fondness for each other, instead of glorifying the strategy and tactics of cross-border skirmishes involving graffiti, garden gouging and attempted gnomicide.

The "meet cute" for the star-crossed lovers is more ninja than nice, with both attempting to claim the same orchid by putting the other in various levels of peril. After that, however, they become respectful and genuinely affectionate toward each other. That's a welcome change from the immature bickering that passes for romance in most movies these days.

Another character who stays above the fray is Featherstone (Jim Cummings), a goofy pink flamingo hiding a broken heart. With his oddball accent and permanently distracted demeanor, he's like a cross between the lemur King Julian from "Madagascar" and the flakey fish Dory from "Finding Nemo." A flashback montage that explains why his soulmate is out of the picture is actually poignant.

Unfortunately, there's always another bit of brutality around the corner. The chief instigator is an extremely nasty gnome by the name of Tybalt (Jason Statham). If you're up for taking a small child to a G-rated movie in which a character threatens others with a high-revving power mower, Tybalt will meet all of your toddler-terrorizing needs.

As with the "Toy Story" gang, the gnomes only come to life when humans aren't watching. The little ceramic-on-ceramic "tink" sounds they make when they come in contact with each other are a nice touch that makes them seem convincingly realistic. Enjoyable supporting characters include some mute but very expressive concrete bunnies who use their ears as semaphore devices; an amusingly dumb fawn figure voiced by Ozzy Osbourne; and a talkative statue of William Shakespeare himself (Patrick Stewart).

If the 3D version seems slightly dark, that suspicion will be confirmed when you lift the glasses and see how much brighter the picture looks without them. And for this you pay extra? Inconceivable!

The soundtrack features numerous numbers by executive producer Elton John, some in their original form and others as instrumentals woven into the score. Singing a humorously rewritten version of "Your Song," a nerdish gnome named Paris (Stephen Merchant) turns into an animated fantasy version of Elton from his gigantic-glasses days. Two new songs include "Love Is a Garden," which plays over the flamingo's sad montage, and "Hello Hello," a duet with Lady Gaga.

No less than seven writers get screenplay credit, based on an original screenplay by two others. In this case, that turns out to be an example of too many gardeners spoiling the landscaping.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+




God Bless America
(Reviewed May 10, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Gods and Generals
(Reviewed February 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

Laughably awful dialog and robotic acting sink this historical (and sometimes unintentionally hysterical) Civil War drama. Your jaw will drop in disbelief when you see stilted scenes such as Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and his black cook taking turns sharing a starlit roadside prayer, during which the cook asks God how good men can tolerate slavery. (Jackson should have rolled his eyes and said, "Wow, real flair for subtlety, dude.") Or the scene in which Mira Sorvino, playing the wife of Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), delivers what may be the corniest and most sap-laden sendoff since talkies came in (quoting that old chestnut about knowing her hubby could not love her as well had he "loved not honor more"). Or the scene in which the aforementioned Colonel Chamberlain lectures an assistant on not using the term "darkies," then piously proclaims that "freeing the negro" would be worth the sacrifice of his own life AND that of the assistant (pretty big of him).

Robert Duvall embues General Robert E. Lee with roughly the same amount of dignity and gravitas as that possessed by an especially unexcitable oak tree. We never see even a spark of passion or anger from him, as he sits and watches battles unfold with all the casual disinterest of a distracted chess player. Maybe that kind of "above-it-allness" was the point, but it still seems wholly unconvincing on a character level.

The real shame of all this is that there obviously are lots of incredibly moving stories within the Civil War years. This comes back to the admittedly simplistic-sounding complaint that "Gods and Generals" should have been a whole lot better. (Duh.) For example, when a major historical character in this tale is grievously wounded as a result of "friendly fire," his later death should have been at least a little bit moving--but he has been rendered as such a cartoon that any real empathy for him is nearly impossible.

Also, the movie could have done with a debate or two about the fact that, in what is supposed to be the land of the free, states cannot take advantage of that freedom by setting themselve free from the union. Here in La-La Land where I live, the same sort of issue came up during the 2002 election. The majority of us in Los Angeles' western San Fernando Valley voted to secede from the city of Los Angeles and go our own way as an independent city. But because of the criminally, absurdly unfair legislative rules regarding the issue, a majority of the ENTIRE CITY had to vote likewise. They didn't (big surprise), so those of us whose income is not welfare-derived retained the honor of staying yoked to that wholly corrupt metropolis, continuing to pay a wildly disproportionate percentage of the city's sky-high taxes. The bastards in charge should rename the town East Berlin! Build guard towers at the tops of palm trees, and set up checkpoints where we have to empty our wallets whenever we dare to emerge from our overpriced houses to dodge drive-by gangs and maneuver around loitering day-laborers and other illegal immigrants selling bags of fruit at every gridlocked intersection! Aaaaaaaaaarghhhhh!

But I digress...

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-




Godsend
(Reviewed April 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

"Godawful" is more like it.

Robert DeNiro slums it like he's never slummed it before in this shockingly straight-to-video-quality "thriller." No, wait, I forgot about "Showtime," which makes this only the SECOND worst entry in Bobby D's cinematic oeuvre. No, wait, I forgot that Greg Kinnear is in this one, stinking the whole thing up worse than even an Eddie Murphy ever could. I'm so confused!

DeNiro plays a doctor who illegally makes a clone for Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos of their recently deceased son, who starts having creepy visions and acting rather Damien-esque at eight years old. The whole family, we are to believe, also has had to remain in an isolated town for the kid's entire life, after breaking all contacts with everything and everyone from their previous existences. Who writes this crap? I mean, seriously, what sort of brain-dead moron writes these kinds of movies where people live like members of a witness-protection relocation scheme for the sake of an idiot plot? We're expected to buy that Kinnear and wife have no family, no friends, no contacts with anybody outside their Stepford community...oh, except for the guy Kinnear calls at one point when he is looking for a specialist to see if his son is Not Quite Right in the Head, that is. And then, get this: Right after he asks the guy to recommend that kind of doctor, HIS FRIEND DOESN'T EVEN ASK HIM WHY HE NEEDS THE INFORMATION, much less what Kinnear has been up to lately. Jesus, simple courtesy alone would seem to dictate that the fellow would make a polite inquiry about why Kinnear thinks his kid needs a shrink.

This suspense-free, silly, stupendously stupid movie blows like a hurricane.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F



Godzilla 2000
(Reviewed August 8, 2000, by James Dawson)

Watching this "return to form" Toho production, I kept wondering one thing: "Is it this bad on purpose, or only by accident?" "Godzilla 2000" is so cheesy, so dumb, so badly written and badly shot and badly directed and badly acted, it's hard to believe this is not a lost 1960s installment of the long-running series...or even a 1950s installment. There are some funny lines ("These negatives are as blank as your mind!"), and the spunky female news photographer is cute, but absolutely nothing about this production is anywhere close to what was state-of-the-art even 30 years ago. (Still, even with all of its faults, I prefer this clunky version of Godzilla to the god-awful American version released two years ago.)

The big fella holds a certain everlasting charm for millions, but a couple of guys in rubber suits hitting each other got old pretty fast for this reviewer. (Call me elitist.) Also, bring earplugs, because this is the most mind-shatteringly loud movie I've seen since "Titan A.E."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C, because parts of it really are "so bad they're good." Unfortunately, there aren't enough of those parts...




The Golden Compass
(Reviewed January 7, 2008, by James Dawson)

This beautiful, fascinating and grimly elegant fantasy is the most underrated movie of 2007.

I didn't get around to reviewing "The Golden Compass" until it already had been in theaters for a month. The pre-release screening I wanted to attend was ridiculously overbooked, and I was cruelly turned away despite waiting in line for an hour. I'm sure this kind of thing happens to Richard Roeper on a regular basis...

By the time I finally saw it, "The Golden Compass" had made news as a big-budget box-office bomb here in America. (It is doing much better in foreign markets.) Apparently at least some of the blame for its lack of success here in Jesusland has been due to smears by this country's ranting religious retards (note: redundant?), who decry its plot as an allegorical attack on the church in general and the Catholic hierarchy in particular.

But while the allegory is glaringly obvious in the original novel, which actually dares to include such terms as "church" and "pope," the movie version includes nothing that specific. Although the movie does include obvious references to a priest-like class that fears scientific rationalism and wants to maintain its hold on power over the faithful, those bad guys could just as easily be seen as surrogates for rigidly orthodox Nazis, or for America's own corrupt, dishonest and secretive current government. (Hmmmm...)

On the one hand, this change shows a certain amount of cowardice on the part of the filmmakers, who foolishly thought they could avoid offending the American Taliban of conservative Christians by taking a more subtle approach. On the other hand, that subtle approach almost works better than the book's less indirect skewering of such an easy target.

(Also, isn't it funny how fragile the fundamentalists think their "all-powerful" God is? Nothing is more threatening to them than something that might make people wonder if religion just might be a huge scam perpetuated by cynical frauds who want timid followers to stay docile and stupid.)

Also, the villains in the movie (and book) obviously are villains, and the "heretics" obviously are on the side of good. It is not as if the plot glorifies a gang of evil-minded, lying, deceptive apostates who are out to subvert a noble and kind order of lovingly paternal leaders. Which means that any of the supposedly "outraged" real-world Christians who choose to see this movie's malevolent Magisterium members as stand-ins for a certain group of Vatican City residents might want to examine why that comparison comes so readily to mind.

Dakota Blue Richards is amazingly good as Lyra, a clever and brave girl who is spirited away from her home by the mysterious, glamorous and icily threatening Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Richards' acting is so completely convincing that it's hard to believe this is her first movie role. She is a marvel.

In the movie's universe, everyone's soul is embodied by a companion animal who is always with them and who can talk. Which sounds pretty silly, but hey, it's a fantasy, okay? If you want realism, limp down to the corner 7-11 and chow down on a greasy microwaved burrito next to an overflowing Dumpster.

Daniel Craig is a scholar/adventurer who thinks he has found proof that other universes exist, but Those In Charge want to shut him up before he upsets the Way Things Are. They also don't like the fact that children are so annoyingly inquisitive, and they've come up with a rather unpleasant way of keeping kids in line.

Lyra ends up on a quest where she encounters a beautiful archer witch (Eva Green), a cowboy aeronaut (Sam Elliot), seafaring gypsies and armored polar bears. What makes the movie special is that none of this is performed tongue-in-cheek or presented as silly, which was the downfall of 2007's Stardust. It's easy to make a story with so many imaginative elements a joke, but playing material like this completely straight is a genuine accomplishment.

Director/screenwriter Chris Weitz adapted "The Golden Compass" from the bestseller by Philip Pullman. Parts of the movie have a "condensed" feeling, as if the filmmakers were trying to get as much of the book as possible onscreen in two hours. But when the only complaint I have about a movie is that I wish it had been longer, that's not exactly a crippling rebuke!

One reason to see "The Golden Compass" at a theater is because the visuals are absolutely stunning, from elaborate cityscapes to strange vehicles to a whole bunch of CGI talking animals. And then there's the golden compass itself, a pretty nifty device for determining the truth.

Also, stick around during the credits for a wonderful new song by Kate Bush called "Lyra."

It would be tragic if this movie's lack of success in America meant the other two parts of the trilogy won't make it to the silver screen. Here's hoping that its worldwide box-office take will be enough to convince New Line, and Weitz, to finish the story properly.

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-




Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
(Reviewed August 2, 2008, by James Dawson)

Here's what bugged me about this otherwise okay documentary: I don't like seeing unflagged "re-creations" of events in a movie that otherwise plays like a piece of journalism using real film footage and audio sources. Interspersing scenes that use actors with actual footage of the people they are portraying without specifying what is real and what's fake makes the veracity of the entire project suspect.

That's unfortunate, because Thompson's life story -- narrated here by Johnny Depp, who portrayed Thompson's alter-ego in the egregiously awful film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" -- is pretty fascinating stuff. The guy may have been a self-centered, unreliable, obnoxious narcissist, but...well, okay, there's not really a "but" there. The fact that he was such a creatively genius maniac is the reason there's a documentary about him, after all.

Some of the stories in his past are funny (mainly having to do with pharmacology), some are chilling (witnessing a motorcycle gang-rape), and some are oddly poignant (his doomed run for sheriff), but the guy sure lived a life.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+




The Good German
(Reviewed December 5, 2006, by James Dawson)

This isn't so much a movie as an elaborate but unimpressive stunt by director Steven Soderberg, attempting to recreate the flat acting, black-and-white cinematography and bad production values of a 1940s war B-movie.

In a word, it's "Crapablanca."

George Clooney is a reporter sent to defeated Germany at the end of WW2. His driver (the miscast Tobey Maguire) is a thieving "Radar O'Reilly gone bad" hustler who does things like sock world-weary prostitute Cate Blanchett in the stomach when he's pissed. Blanchett also happens to be Clooney's ex-girlfriend.

The plot makes little sense. For one thing, Clooney seems ridiculously unconcerned about what secret information might be in Blanchett's "potential war criminal" case file. When Blanchett tells him -- in an extremely unlikely bit of candor -- Clooney appears stunned. I was hoping Blanchett's next line would be, "What, you were expecting maybe jaywalking?"

Still, the script is the best thing about the movie, and may have worked if the director had not been intent on making everything look old-fashioned and cheesy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




The Good Girl
(Reviewed August 8, 2002, by James Dawson)

Some of America's dopier critics have called this "one of the best movies of the year," which says more about what else has been released in 2002 than it does about the quality of this occasionally amusing but not quite wonderful trifle.

Jennifer Aniston plays a dispirited, married, 30-year-old, lower-middle-class cashier at a crappy Retail Rodeo store who has an affair with a Younger Man who could be Tobey Maguire's scruffier, hornier twin. Aniston's primary means of conveying the characterization of one of the Common Rabble is by walking without swinging her arms. Nearly every whiter-than-the-whitest-whitey-whitebread suburban character in the movie is written with the same cloddish, cliche-ridden lack of finesse that distinguished 2000's God-awful Natalie Portman movie "Where the Heart Is," which so obviously was written by a committee of smug, rich, Hollywood jerkoffs that hordes from the heartland should have risen up with pitchforks and marched westward to California in a mad frenzy of death and destruction. BUT I DIGRESS.

The biggest disappointment in the movie is the old, old, old plot device of a guy getting a sperm test, and the resulting consequences. Can you say PREDICTABLE AS HELL?

Basically, this is one of those movies that sort of just misses being funny. It's...okay...but then again, the only time I laughed was when a character found himself unexpected naked. So much for wit!

Back Row Reviews Grade: C




Good Night, and Good Luck
(Reviewed August 30, 2005, by James Dawson)

A black-and-white movie about journalist Edward R. Murrow's 1950s TV takedown of commie-paranoid Senator Joseph McCarthy? When it comes to commercial prospects, "good night and good luck" is right!

(Sorry, that must be the capitalist in me talking.)

David Strathairn is Oscar-worthy convincing as the deadpan and dead-serious Murrow. Director/co-screenwriter George Clooney plays Murrow's producer Fred Friendly, the genial regular-guy yin to Murrow's brooding, no-nonsense yang.

For the most part, "Good Night, and Good Luck" provides a believable behind-the-scenes look at Murrow, Friendly and other CBS-TV staffers who knew they would become targets themselves if they dared to expose McCarthy's witch-hunting ways. Frank Langella is intimidating, humorless and stern in a small role as the godlike CBS Chairman Wiliam S. Paley.

McCarthy essentially plays himself; he is seen only in actual kinescope and newsreel footage. That's because, as one producer put it, "We realized that whomever we got to play McCarthy, no matter how good they were, nobody was going to believe it. They were going to think that the guy was overacting, so we decided to use the real footage." He's probably right. McCarthy was such a shameless, delusional, irredeemably evil bastard that anyone who gave an accurate impersonation of the guy would come off looking like a wild-eyed ham. (The same problem will confront anyone who might try to portray George W. Bush someday.) (Oh, come on -- you knew I wasn't going to get all the way through a review of a movie like this without dragging the Chickenhawk in Chief into things.)

A subplot involving married news team members Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) should have been jettisoned, not only because it adds nothing to the movie but because Downey is his usual amateurish and showy self. An offhand performance like his has no place in a movie with a literally timeless performance by Strathairn.

It's almost sad these days to watch a story about the struggle of dedicated journalists who wanted to "make a difference," back when Americans who were shown the truth actually might have cared about such small niceties as "right" and "wrong." Most of the US populace today seems perfectly happy to sit back and let a war-criminal president bankrupt this country by instigating an illegal, immoral and utterly unnecessary war to enrich his corrupt corporate cohorts, in a criminally misguided attempt to reshape the world into some impossible imperial fantasyland of cheap oil, religious harmony and rose-petal parades from the conquered. W is more deceitful, dangerous and disgraceful than a whole squadron of McCarthys, but no amount of news coverage is enough to get the lying monster impeached.

Have you no decency, Mr. Bush? At the end of the day, have you no decency?

That sound you just heard was my head exploding. Sorry.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




A Good Old Fashioned Orgy
(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:
"A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" review


Back Row Reviews Grade: D-




The Good Shepherd
(Reviewed December 29, 2006, by James Dawson)

I already wasted nearly three hours watching this boring slog, so I'm not inclined to throw away much more time reviewing it.

Matt Damon plays an expressionless mannequin who joins Skull and Bones, is recruited to spy in England during WW2, transitions into a CIA desk job in Washington, and has a hand in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He neglects his family along the way, causing wife Angelina Jolie to make a public scene and his son to pee his pants while on Santa's lap. What did they expect? The guy shows about as much life as a wax dummy. Hell, he never even seems to age over the decades, looking pretty much the same when he's a rigid straight-arrow college twat as he does when he's supposed to be a glassy-eyed middle-aged bureaucrat.

Robert De Niro directed this dirge, and very briefly appears in a couple of cameo scenes as the head of what becomes the CIA.

"The Good Shepherd" fails at the admittedly difficult task of making us give a damn about the kind of soulless sons of bitches who don't realize that agencies such as the CIA are not "necessary evils," but the antithesis of ideals that are supposed to define America.

Maybe they should have given Damon's character a dog.

(Which reminds me: A fellow writer -- hi, Judy! -- jokingly said they should have combined this movie with George Clooney's "The Good German," and called the resulting movie "The Good German Shepherd." What a wag. Wag? Get it?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




A Good Woman
(Reviewed January 21, 2006, by James Dawson)

It's bad enough that a misguided and delusional fool presumed to change the setting and even the title of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" for this unfortunately reimagined adaptation. What's even worse is that the resulting product's tone is remarkably, infuriatingly "off." What very obviously should be played as a wittily ironic farce with an outrageously preposterous plot twist is rendered here as a good-looking soap opera that actually expects to be taken seriously.

Scarlett Johannson is a new bride summering in 1930s Italy with her dashing husband. Helen Hunt, a notorious maneater who left New York when several of her lovers' wives cut off her cash flow, shows up and is accused of wreaking homewrecking havoc. Yes, we are supposed to believe that anyone alive could think a male of the human species might actually stray from the loving arms, pouty lips and titanic bosom of sexy Scarlett to bed Helen Hunt, whose face is resembling Michael Jackson's a little more with each passing day.

Okay, I'll burn for that, but it needed to be said.

This movie could have worked as the screwball comedy it's supposed to be, even with everyone playing the same roles they assay here. As a melodramatic period romance, though, it's a rather conflicted oddity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+




Goon
(Reviewed March 28, 2002, by James Dawson)

Seann William Scott is unexpectedly sweet natured as a bar bouncer turned professional hockey brawler in the outrageously profane comedy "Goon," but most of this true-story-inspired tale is literally a bloody mess. When a slow-motion shower of gore and a broken tooth hit the ice during the movie's first minute, it's obvious that these fun and games are going to get gruesome.

Another problem is the presence of an aggravatingly obnoxious and tiresomely foul-mouthed best-friend supporting character played by Jay Baruchel, who cowrote the movie's screenplay with Evan Goldberg. Both are veterans of Judd Apatow's crude lowest-common-denominator comedies, and it shows. Baruchel seems almost pathologically determined to sabotage "Goon" with his hyperactively hammy and ceaselessly smutty performance.

Scott plays Doug Glatt, the slow-witted black sheep in an otherwise respectably upscale family that includes a gay brother. While attending a hockey game as a spectator, Doug takes two-fisted offense at a player who tosses around the "F"-word slur that rhymes with "maggot." A coach who sees Doug knock the offender out cold decides he would make a good enforcer, the player responsible for protecting fellow team members and doling out beatings to rivals who want to play rough.

The premise of an unfailingly polite and childlike innocent who takes out opposing players using powerhouse, penalty-worthy punches may not have been as disturbing if the fights were shown as cartoonishly or harmlessly unrealistic. Even then, the fact that sports-related concussions have been in the news lately would make the subject matter questionable for a comedy. But some of the extended beatdowns here are as punishing and sickeningly graphic as "Raging Bull" boxing matches.

Baruchel plays Doug's apparently only friend Pat, a relentlessly crass motormouth who hosts a call-in hockey fan show. Other supporting players include Alison Pill as a reluctant self-described "bad girlfriend" named Eva, Richard Clarkin as a frustrated teammate going through a humorously difficult divorce, Kim Coates as a furiously exasperated coach and Eugene Levy as Doug's disappointed dad.

Liev Schreiber is excellent as Ross "The Boss" Rhea, the baritone voiced, brutal and believably bitter enforcer for another team. He's the villain responsible for ruining the career of Doug's broodingly self-destructive teammate Xavier LaFlamme (Marc André Grondin), a one-time wonder who lost his mojo after one of Ross' on-ice assaults. In the tradition of nearly every sports movie ever made, Doug and Ross are fated to go mano-a-mano when their teams end up playing each other in a championship match.

What's odd about the conflicted "Goon" is that it may have worked as either a straight drama (there's absolutely nothing funny about Schreiber's melancholy but arrogant Ross, who is frighteningly intimidating) or a lightweight goofy slapstick (Scott's Doug is as pleasantly dumb as most of Will Ferrell's roles). As it is, the movie's savage brutality kills the comedy, but Doug's Forrest-Gump-like gullibility can't be taken seriously.

"Goon" is inspired by the book "Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey Into a Minor Hockey League" about player Doug "The Hammer" Smith. The end credits include archival footage of some of Smith's greatest "hits," for those who want to see a few more unsportsmanlike fistfights before leaving the theater.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Gosford Park
(Reviewed January 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

The good points: Interesting, different, well-directed, with lots of great performances from a large cast of Brits including the great Maggie Smith, Richard E. Grant, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and the lesser-known Kelly Macdonald, who plays Maggie's mousey but strangely sexy maid. Maggie Smith's upper-crust character is so entertainingly rude and blithely disdainful that she is a joy to behold.

The bad points: Bob Balaban, as a mincing Hollywood producer, and Stephen Fry, as a police inspector, play their roles far too broadly. The rest of the movie appears to be designed as a more realistic and believable version of a "Murder on the Orient Express"-type outing, but Balaban and Fry seem to have been dropped in from a goofier and far less "dry and witty" movie.

Also, the sound quality of this film is atrocious. What is it about British productions that so often renders dialog unintelligible? It's not merely the accents (which often are VERY thick). The problem is that lines of dialog frequently seem to have been re-recorded in studios with too much ambient sound. This results in hiss under certain lines...a hiss that vanishes when the lines end, but which reappears when the next line is spoken. Very annoying.

Still, this meandering little movie gets points for creating a strange little world of its own that is full of more interesting people than can be found in any half-dozen typical Hollywood flicks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Gothika
(Reviewed October 26, 2003, by James Dawson)

How infuriatingly stupid is this moronic abomination? So stupid that you will wonder if the producers purposely intended to allow even the most slow-witted cretin in the audience to feel intellectually superior to this shoddy, lousy product. A skinned potato in a beaker of urine could come up with a better plot and more believable characters than are to be found in this witless, pointless, thoroughly unengaging waste of time.

Although insults to the intelligence abound here, only a single egregious instance should be enough to convince you to expend your entertainment dollar elsewhere: This is one of those would-be scary movies in which a ghost can open locked doors, throw people around, interfere with electrical systems, drive a car, burst into flame, paint cryptic words on a wall, and slash the same words on a character's arm with a scalpel...but who apparently can't simply pick up a pencil and write on a piece of paper. That is all it would take, you see, for this particular ghost to get across the message it is trying to convey; namely, to explain the real circumstances of her death and identify the guilty. Did I mention that this ghost WRITES REAL WORDS with a scalpel and with paint in the movie, proving that she is fully literate and able to communicate? Just wanted to make sure you got that.

Much as I detested this movie -- and I hated it so much that it is absolutely guaranteed to make my worst-of-the-year list -- I'll actually do the producers a favor by letting you in on something that might help you despise it a little less than I did. Everything about this flick is so unbelievable, so entirely lacking in even the merest hint of credibility, that you will be certain most of what you are seeing has to be a dream, a hallucination or some other sort of bizarre, only-in-the-character's-imagination fantasy. Halle Berry is one of the most beautiful women on the planet, and I know that should not lead to any assumptions about her brainpower, but I had a damned hard time buying her as a prison psychiatrist. I had an even harder time believing that her character would be married to massively overweight baldo Charles Dutton. (The temperature in the theater actually drops 20 degrees when they share what is supposed to be a playfully romantic kiss. Maybe that's due to the strong winds created when several hundred people desperately whip their heads around at the same time to look away from the screen.) And could anyone as skin-crawlingly offputting as mumble-mouth Robert Downey Jr. possibly be allowed to treat human patients even in a prison in our world? Christ, the guy is almost as annoying and snarky as Richard Roeper. Even the meekest nutcase would kill him with his prissy little black-plastic glasses before lunch!

And yet even though every painful second of this movie shouts "fake, fake, fake," it turns out NOT to be a dream, not a hallucination, not a fantasy. You actually are supposed to believe that everything you see actually takes place in the story. There's no twist, no clever "gotcha," none of that. All of the dumbness is deliberate.

Halle Berry certainly is taking a strange and unfortunate career path by doing pathetically worthless shit like this AFTER winning an Oscar. At this rate, she'll be turning up in bukkake porn by next summer. (File under "silver lining?")

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus, minus, minus...




The Grand
(Reviewed April 17, 2008, by James Dawson)

Know how sometimes critics will say that a movie is so utterly boring and completely uninteresting that it will put you to sleep? Well, this one literally had that effect on me -- even though I saw it at 11 o'clock in the morning!

Directed and cowritten by Zak Penn, best known for writing the screenplays of comic-book movies ranging from "Elektra" to "X-Men: The Last Stand," "The Grand" is a largely improvised look at several dysfunctional players in a big-money poker tournament. But the only thing it does well is prove how hard it is to make a Christopher Guest movie like "Waiting for Guffman" or "Best in Show" if you're not Christopher Guest. (Then again, considering how lousy "For Your Consideration" was, even Guest can't make a Christopher Guest movie anymore.)

What's supposed to pass for humor isn't funny, what's supposed to pass for quirky is merely stupid and the whole project drags like a dead dog's ass.

When the credits rolled and I saw Jason Alexander's name go by, I leaned over and said to the cutest girl who ever lived, "I guess his part ended up on the cutting room floor." She looked at me with puzzled annoyance (note: not a new look) and said, "He was that mystery-ethnic guy. Remember?" I had to confess that I must have taken a short eyes-open nap during that scene.

It's that kind of movie.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




Gran Torino
(Reviewed December 18, 2008, by James Dawson)

The most enjoyable parts of this movie are the scenes of director/star Clint Eastwood acting like a hilariously crotchety racist. Anyone buying a ticket based on seeing the TV ads that make this look like it will be nothing more than "mean old Dirty Harry" will be pleasantly surprised by how funny the non-gang-violence sections are -- so much so that more than half of the movie qualifies as a genuinely funny laugh-out-loud comedy.

The rest is a pretty predictable moral lesson (racism bad, punish the guilty), done in Eastwood's traditionally straightforward, no-frills fashion. Widower and Korean War vet Eastwood doesn't like the fact that his deteriorating neighborhood is becoming home to too many immigrants. He nevertheless ends up bonding with an Asian neighbor girl and her brother, and eventually has to kick some ass.

One thing that bugged me is that the ending of "Gran Torino" (which I won't reveal) has far too much in common with a 1963 episode of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" titled "Death of a Cop" (written by Leigh Brackett).

Still, any movie in which Eastwood refers to someone as "pusscake" has to get a recommendation!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




The Great Buck Howard
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website ARTISTdirect.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"The Great Buck Howard" review


Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Great Directors
(Reviewed May 17, 2010, by James Dawson)

How do you sabotage a documentary consisting of interviews with 10 major and not-so-major directors from various countries talking about their craft? By presenting the feature-length product as if it's a cheesy segment from "Entertainment Tonight" or a Barbara Walters special.

First-time director/interviewer Angela Ismailos, a mean-hot blond who could have stepped out of a '60s spy flick (click here), makes sure we see plenty of footage of her reacting to her subjects' comments, strolling alongside them, and even being adoringly circled by the camera as she gazes meaningfully into the distance. This sort of look-at-me egomania comes off like a third-string journalist's attempt to put together a demo reel that includes plenty of personal facetime for the benefit of potential future employers.

The interviews themselves are adequate but not especially illuminating. The most entertaining bits include hearing the always amusing David Lynch describe his "75% nightmare" experience directing "Dune," or hearing straight-talking John Sayles slam Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" as "a beautifully photographed lying piece of shit." Stephen Frears comes off as the most likable of the bunch, Bernardo Bertolucci is charmingly genial, and Todd Haynes the most pretentious -- but 10 minutes after leaving the theater, it's hard to remember much of anything they had to say. The other interviewees are Richard Linklater, Agnes Varda, Ken Loach, Liliana Cavani and Catherine Breillat.

The most intriguing thing about this doc is how it possibly could feel so interminable when it's only 86 minutes long, meaning each interviewee receives an average of less than 10 minutes' screen time.

"Great Directors" is worth seeing for a look at the 10 directors, even if the documentary's own director makes herself a distraction.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Greenberg
(Reviewed March 19, 2010, by James Dawson)

Ben Stiller is Roger Greenberg, a miserable, self-centered and casually obnoxious 40-year-old loner recently released from a mental hospital. We never learn any details about the breakdown that landed him there, but it's not inconceivable that the perpetually annoyed Roger may have checked himself into the place out of frustrated disgust with the world in general. His issues also include a failure to take responsibility for a long-ago missed opportunity, an inability to connect with people and a basic refusal to stop acting like a needy pain in the ass.

That may not sound like the kind of guy you want to watch mope around on screen, but Stiller makes this bitter and occasionally volatile character strangely endearing. Housesitting the Los Angeles home of his rich and married-with-kids brother, Roger reluctantly and resentfully ends up in a low-key romance with the family's "personal assistant" Florence (Greta Gerwig). She's young, accommodating, naive and a little bit dumb, a 20-something who seems nice enough but never fully aware. Rhys Ifans is Roger's former 1990s bandmate Ivan, who has made the transition into adulthood that the arrested-adolescent Roger never pulled off.

Not a lot happens in director Noah Baumbach's screenplay, which fits Roger's stated desire that he is "trying to do nothing right now." Roger's brother's dog gets listless and has to be taken to the vet. Roger writes letters of complaint to various corporations. Roger and Florence have low-key hookups where the conversations are even more awkward than the silences. The movie's most raucous scene, in fact, feels completely out of place and unnecessary: a rockin' movie-cliche house party featuring multitudes of raucous guests filling every available room. Greenberg's attempt to bond with the half-his-agers there while simultaneously berating them doesn't work for two reasons: It's hard to believe that he would want to be around them, and it's impossible to believe that they would be amused by him.

Roger sometimes comes off like a darker and stranger Woody Allen, observing that in Los Angeles "the men dress like children and the children dress like superheroes," and that "life is wasted on people." His shopping list items are whiskey and ice-cream sandwiches. He bums rides from people not because he can't drive, but because he doesn't want to.

Roger's relationships with Florence and Ivan take unexpectedly bittersweet turns that don't feel like cheats. Also, this is one of those rare movies that knows exactly where to end, with a final line of dialog before the screen cuts to black that's just plain perfect.

Don't go expecting laugh-out-loud zaniness, because this low-key character study offers more awkward anxiety than uplifting hilarity. But Stiller's angry, rationalizing, cruel, self-destructive yet sympathetic Greenberg is not only a guy you'll remember, he's one you probably already know.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Greendale
(Reviewed February 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

No exaggeration, this is the ugliest, worst directed, most amateurishly awful piece of shit I've ever seen on the big screen. It was badly shot in Super 8, most of it is annoyingly out of focus, the "acting" is embarrassing...seriously, this movie is just unbelievably fucking lousy in every way...

...every way except one, that is. The music is swell!

"Greendale" is a kind of "karaoke home movie" version of the songs from Neil Young's CD of the same name. While the soundtrack plays the pristine-sounding tracks from that album, actors are seen mouthing the words or acting out scenarios the songs describe. Well, most of the time, anyway. At other times, it's as if Young (who directed this mess) simply told people to mug shamelessly, dance around, or play air-harmonica. A lot.

The "earth good, government bad" lyrics frequently slip from simple to simplistic, with a dashed-off-and-never-revised feel that smacks more of laziness than "in the moment" immediacy. But the music, by Young and longtime backing band Crazy Horse, is some of Young's warmest and most accessible in years.

"Greendale" tells the story of the Green family, which primarily consists of crusty ol' grampa, cop-killer Uncle Jed and modern-day hippie-chick activist Sun. Unfortunately, nearly every visual in the movie subtracts from the songs instead of adding anything to them. The only exception might be the final "Be the Rain" treehugger tune -- but I'm probably only saying that because it features a hot teen chick with face paint and a great body singing through a bullhorn.

I'm shallow enough to enjoy that kind of thing even when it's out of focus.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-
The Green Hornet
(Reviewed January 14, 2011, by James Dawson)



(I originally wrote this review for the website wearegoodkin.com, but as of September 2011 that website no longer seems to exist -- so I have uploaded the entire text below.)

Compared to last year's clever and transgressive superhero spoof "Kick-Ass," "The Green Hornet" is as flat and hammy as a bad Carol Burnett Show parody. Everything about it feels second-rate and couldn't-care-less casual, which apparently is supposed to be part of its charm.

The movie tries getting most of its laughs from the fact that dough-faced, unshaven Seth Rogen looks goofy as the masked crimefighter, and acts like a slacker moron as the hero's alter ego.

Real-life Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou is sidekick Kato, a one-man fighting machine who brews a killer cup of coffee. Chou's shortcomings in acting ability and English fluency invite inevitable comparisons to Jackie Chan. He's so blatantly bad that it's hard not to assume he was cast solely to attract his Asian fan base.

Cowritten by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the screenplay has so few laughs that it could have been played completely straight with surprisingly few tweaks. The not very deep secret about comic-book movies is that all of them, even would-be classy efforts such as "The Dark Knight," are inherently ridiculous. What's difficult is making those stories believable, not letting them play as silly as they already are.

After party animal Britt Reid inherits fabulous wealth and a Los Angeles newspaper, he and manservant-slash-mechanic Kato end up in the right place to stop a mugging. Seeking a purpose in life, Reid decides the duo should become masked vigilantes. Their gimmick is wanting to be regarded by the media as bad guys, so they can be seen as a dangerous threat to criminals they pretend are their competition.

In one of the few scenes with comedic edge, Reid rudely refers to the "twilight of life" age of brainy secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz). When Case indignantly points out that she's only 36, Reid expresses admiration, because he thought she was 31. "Twilight of life," indeed.

Giving credence to the "Oscar curse," last year's Best Supporting Actor Christoph Waltz appears in his first role since "Inglourious Basterds" as Chudnofsky, a Russian ganglord. Waltz is adequately amusing, but probably wishes he had followed up his win with something more worthwhile.

Rogen's "Pineapple Express" co-star James Franco has an okay cameo as an arrogant club owner who defies Chudnofsky. The resulting mass-murder explosion and other multiple killings feel out of place in what's otherwise a genially dumb PG-13 project.

Not counting last year's documentary "The Thorn in the Heart," director Michel Gondry's most recent movie was the 2008 stinker "Be Kind Rewind." Unfortunately, "The Green Hornet" has more in common with that frustrating flop than with Gondry's brilliantly creative and stylish "The Science of Sleep," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Human Nature." Snatches of Gondry's technical artistry are glimpsed during fights viewed from Kato's slowed-time perspective. The wholesale destruction wrought by a high-firepower car chase into an office building also is pretty impressive. But a slapstick living-room fight between Reid and Kato goes on long enough to be boring, shootout logistics are confusing and most of the movie looks so conventionally generic that it's hard to detect any Gondry involvement whatsoever.

Also, because much of the film's footage was shot in 2D and converted to 3D, the negligible depth effects aren't worth the price of a premium ticket. Not a joke: The best 3D section of the movie is its pop-art end credits.

Fans of the Green Hornet's short-lived 1966 TV series will appreciate that the movie prominently features the hero's heavily armed Black Beauty, a modified Chrysler Imperial that's a retro classic. The series also was notable for starring martial-arts legend Bruce Lee as Kato. Lee is evoked here by pencil drawings in the movie Kato's design sketchbook.

"The Green Hornet" may satisfy Rogen fans who enjoy his standard half-baked schlub shtick, which consists of going for laughs with lines like "there are thorns in these bushes" during a hillside pursuit. But it's hard not to wonder if a different cast and director could have turned the screenplay into a gritty, noirish throwback to its 1930s radio-serial origins. If this version gets swatted at the box office, here's hoping the Green Hornet's next flight will take the character in a less dopey direction.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+




Green Lantern
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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


Back Row Reviews Grade: D




Green Street Hooligans
(Reviewed July 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

Elijah Wood is remarkably miscast as an expelled Harvard journalism student who gets caught up in the violent rivalry between British football-fan gangs. And the plot is remarkably weak, leading to not one but two groaningly unbelievable climaxes.

Fortunately, however, costar Charlie Hunnam gives a flat-out remarkable performance as Pete, the crude but charming head of the Green Street Elite football "firm" who takes Wood under his wing.

"Green Street Hooligans" starts out like a bad WB network post-teens-in-torment soap, as Wood takes the fall for his wealthy and politically connected cokehead college roommate. In other words, the script loses all credibility within the first five minutes, considering that Wood is a reporter on the Harvard Crimson newspaper at the time but does not even consider saving himself by putting the truth in print.

Defeated and depressed, he flies off to London to visit his sister (Claire Forlani), who has married a Brit. Hubbie's brother is Pete, who takes Wood off to meet his mayhem-minded mates before a football (that's soccer to us Yanks) match.

From there, the movie becomes a sort of lightweight "Fight Club"/"Clockwork Orange" hybrid, as Wood is seduced by both the adrenaline-rush violence and secret-society camaraderie of the hooligan set. Although the rival firms engage in brutal and often bloody confrontations, one difference between them and American gangs is the complete absence of gunplay (possibly owing to Britain's tough gun-control laws). Another difference is that the Brits we meet who form the core of the Green Street Elite work at surprisingly respectable jobs (airline pilot, telemarketer, even a grade-school history teacher) when they aren't being street-fighting men.

Wood's problem is that he never is convincing as a newly converted badass, no matter how intensely he sets his jaw, stares expressionlessly into space or smokes a cigarette. When we see him swinging his tiny fists in mass brawls and actually besting his opponents, it's hard not to laugh.

The script contrives to produce a dramatic misunderstanding that never would take place, an incredibly unlikely betrayal, and a pair of showdowns that are just plain stupid. One of them is so badly directed that a character must suddenly forget how to drive in order for the scene to work.

Despite all of this, the movie is very "watchable" as a slightly guilty pleasure. The Brad-Pittish-but-burlier Hunnam and his gang members provide a fascinating look at an interesting (if admittedly "movie glorified") subculture that has no American equivalent. The movie looks good, too, with occasional documentary-style grittiness and a number of interesting locations.

It's too bad that Mr. Frodo couldn't project a little more toughness and seething rage, though.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-




Green Zone
(Reviewed March 2, 2010, by James Dawson)

When he was my college roommate many eons ago, the late great Pierce Askegren said he wanted to write an SF story in which Jesus Christ got a do-over. At his crucifixion, J.C. 2.0 would free himself from the cross using previously unglimpsed superheroic strength, then angrily proclaim, "Things are gonna be a lot different this time!"

"Green Zone," like last year's similarly history-ignoring "Inglourious Basterds," has that kind of mindset. The movie takes place in some better alternate universe where a fictional American soldier (Matt Damon) risks life and career by standing up to the US military over the fact that we invaded Iraq based on lies...and where a Bush-administration-believing journalist (Amy Ryan) is merely a well-meaning dupe as opposed to an intentionally propaganda-spouting ideologue...and where a CIA (embodied by Brendan Gleeson) that isn't staffed by Bush bootlickers actually cares about keeping Iraq from going to hell. In "Green Zone"'s equivalent of "we killed Hitler in a movie theater," a final-reel made-up moment is one that probably would have shortened the Iraq war considerably. If only.

After eight years under a sociopathic moron, and one (so far) under a craven con-man who refuses to make Bush and company pay for their war crimes, Americans couldn't be blamed for preferring this fraudulently phony feel-good fairy tale to reality. Even though almost every onscreen American is evil, at least two of them are interested in doing the right thing.

We're now at the point where this country has become so disconnected from what are supposed to be its ideals that the hero of this flick is a US soldier who withholds information from his own military, and who knows that the only way he can act honorably is by subverting his military and government superiors.

Director Paul Greengrass keeps things run-and-gun manic in the chase scenes, one of which is very reminiscent of a similar Damon foot pursuit in The Bourne Ultimatum. The entire movie is shot in sometimes grainy shakey-cam, with occasionally incomprehensible moments, like a fast-paced first-person-shooter videogame. Damon often comes off like a robotic never-say-die boy scout, but does do a good job of conveying hurt confusion, which means he has plenty of moments to shine.

Brian Helgeland's screenplay allegedly was inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's nonfiction book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," but that's like saying "The Wizard of Oz" was inspired by the Farmer's Almanac. Trying to class up a standard-issue "lone wolf gone rogue" story like this by associating it with a well-regarded nonfiction bestseller seems misleading at best. That's especially unfortunate when Helgeland's plot climax turns out to be logistically laughable -- unless you believe that a certain one-legged man is a damned fast runner. Also, Damon's character seems to have a lot more "off reservation" autonomy than seems credible.

Like "The Hurt Locker," "Green Zone" has limited appeal to anyone who is sick to death of the illegal, immoral and unwinnable Iraq war. Adding a wish-fantasy element to that shameful misadventure doesn't make it an enjoyable entertainment. Here in the real world, nobody who instigated the war has had to pay for their crimes, and they apparently never will be held to account. Regarding what America has done in Iraq as anything other than disgraceful is dishonest and delusional.

If you like make-believe war, go see Avatar instead. It's a lot more colorful, and it won't remind you of how very far America has fallen.

And if you want to join me and a few thousand others in the streets on March 20 to oppose the Bush/Obama war machine, click here for full where/when details:
A.N.S.W.E.R. Peace Marches in DC, L.A. and S.F.

It probably won't do a damned bit of good, but it couldn't hurt.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C




The Grey
(Reviewed January 25, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B




Gridiron Gang
(Reviewed September 9, 2006, by James Dawson)

I don't like a justice system that coddles underage criminals by putting the little thugs back on the streets and wiping their police records clean when they turn 18. I also don't like seeing tax money spent to buy uniforms and equipment for these thieves and predators who have been sentenced to juvenile detention. Call me insensitive, but I would like to see these antisocial, violent, stupid little bastards suffer for their crimes, not enjoy fun-filled field-trip games against law-abiding high schoolers who have had the basic humanity not to steal, rape, assault or kill.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays real-life detention camp probation officer Sean Porter, who decided in the early 1990s that putting underage inmates on a football team might turn them into productive, upstanding citizens -- or at least keep a few of them from ending up behind bars again right away.

The movie tells us that 75% of juvenile inmates normally return to prison or meet violent ends, and that Porter's program reduced that percentage among his team's players. The statistic appears to be misleading for two reasons. First, it seems probable that juveniles from the "learned their lesson" 25% of the inmate population, and not the hardcore 75% recidivist-badass group, would want to take part in (or be able to remain part of) the football program in the first place.

Also, the statistic does not mention what the players' re-arrest rate is, as opposed to their re-conviction rate. It seems likely that any morals-free public defender (note: redundant?) could get probation for a guilty defendant by saying, "Your Honor, little Johnny Rapesalot showed his commitment to turning his life around by being part of Mr. Porter's football program when he was incarcerated as a youth. He assaulted this pregnant kindergarten teacher in a tragic relapse moment of weakness. Won't you show your faith in his good intentions by giving him probation and a second chance?"

(Just typing the above paragraph made me want to puke.)

All of which is a long way of saying that it's hard to enjoy a movie with a premise that makes you seethe with resentment and frustration. The scene in which Johnson cheerfully admits to misappropriating $10,000 of taxpayer funds to outfit his Mustangs team in spiffy uniforms only reinforced my vow never to vote for any legislative bond issue in my life. When Johnson lobbies administrators at "regular" high schools to let his team play against theirs, all I could think about was how every "yes" answer needlessly exposed taxpayers to untold millions of dollars in lawsuit liability. If I were a parent at any of those schools, I would have been outraged that some idiot bureaucrat would put my kid's safety at risk for the sake of some politically correct, bleeding-heart, dangerously hazardous attempt at rehabilitation.

Casting the mixed-race black/Samoan Johnson as Porter (who looks Wonder-Bread white in documentary footage that runs over the credits) may have been the producers' way of avoiding "Caucasian man's burden" syndrome. But it seems kind of inappropriate, in a changing-history way, to alter the fact that the mostly-black members of the real team were able to respect, relate and respond to someone of an entirely different skin color.

Having said that, Johnson does an okay job with the "guy who cares too much" role. Don't get me wrong, he's no Olivier, but he's perfectly adequate for this kind of "intense after-school special" material. His character's personal life outside the detention facility should have been more fleshed out, though. We see his attentiveness to a dying mother, but no interactions with anyone else on the outside -- no friends, no girlfriend, nobody.

Grittier and not as well shot as a Disney flick, "Gridiron Gang" nevertheless falls back on a lot of "zeros to heroes" stereotypes and cliches. Johnson tough-loves some of his players, but every one of them loves him right back, and the team is the perfect model of decorum on the field. Naturally, a white player on one of the opposing teams eventually has to fling the "N" word at one of the Mustangs, just so the player can manfully ignore the insult while using it to reinforce his resolve to win.

This movie left me with several questions. How is participation in team sports supposed to prepare anyone, much less a convicted criminal with little or no education, for life in the real world? Wouldn't having the concept of us-versus-them "teamwork" pounded into his head make a gang-banger even more likely to gravitate toward gang membership on the outside, instead of relying on his own individual skills and abilities? (The title of the movie, after all is "Gridiron Gang.")

Wouldn't giving some kind of vocational training to these going-nowhere kids make more sense than letting them believe that winning at football is any kind of ticket to success? Isn't a childish refusal to stop playing games and get on with the tough business of growing up part of their problem in the first place? Isn't the idea that putting numbers on a scoreboard has any relevance to putting food on the table a cruel joke on kids who have no idea how to make a legal living?

I guess we aren't supposed to think about those things, though.

This is kind of a hard movie to grade. Technically, I guess it gives the we-are-the-world and jocks-uber-alles ticket buyers what they want. The thrill of victory, the agony of the streets.

Personally, though, I wish that at least one of the surly little hoodlums at the detention camp had stood up and asked the coach, "Unless you honestly think that any of us are NFL first-draft-pick material, why the hell aren't you teaching us something a little more practical than how to play a goddamned game?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




Grindhouse
(Reviewed March 29, 2007, by James Dawson)

Directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino set out to make a couple of bad movies on purpose. Unfortunately, they both succeeded in this three-hour double feature, although in different ways.

The two-fer's title, according to Tarantino, refers to the kind of less-than-deluxe theaters of yesteryear that showed nothing but B-and-below pictures. The gimmick of "Grindhouse" is that Tarantino and Rodriguez each would create a new, intentionally awful movie that might have played in such a dump.

In other words, Tarantino still thinks it's hip and ironic to make crap that knows it's crap. And this time he has Rodriguez along for the ride.

What's strange is that the first half of "Grindhouse" -- an ultra-violent horror/SF flick titled "Planet Terror," directed by Rodriguez -- succeeds much better at simultaneously recreating and parodying its genre than Tarantino's second half, a talky and tedious cars-and-chicks flick called "Death Proof."

That's partly because Rodriguez goes the whole "distressed jeans" route of making his movie look like a scratched, burned and spliced film that's been run through old projectors about a hundred times too many; there's even a "reel missing" card at one humorously appropriate point. His special effects are infinitely better than what would be found in any actual B-movie, which kind of subverts the overall conceit, but the script and acting are suitably dumb and over-the-top to smell of vintage cheese.

The most remarkable of the effects is the completely convincing "CGI amputation" of star Rose McGowan's right leg. Sure, the same effect was done equally well way back in "Forrest Gump" -- except for the fact that Lieutenant Dan didn't get a machine-gun for a prosthetic, that is -- but it's still an amazing trick.

"Planet Terror" goes on a little too long, and always feels a little too tongue-in-cheek for its own good. Also, we can see that the actors are being "bad on purpose" too often, which is very different from watching actors who are just plain bad. Wait, I almost forgot Quentin Tarantino's unfortunate appearance in one of the acting roles, mugging as usual like Bob Hope's evil twin on crystal meth. Somehow, that performance doesn't work here, either.

Rodriguez also directed a hilarious trailer that appears at the beginning of "Grindhouse" for a movie that looks even "B"-er than "Planet Terror": a guns-and-vengeance exploitation fest called "Machete," with the unforgettable tagline, "They fucked with the wrong Mexican." Rodriguez apparently intends to shoot and release "Machete" direct-to-DVD, even though it probably would be a genuine box-office hit that could play midnight shows forever.

Other trailers by different directors for movies that apparently will continue to be non-existent appear during the "intermission" between "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof." Eli ("Hostel") Roth has one for "Thanksgiving," about a serial killer who stuffs more than turkeys. Rob Zombie offers "Werewolf Women of the SS," the weakest of the bunch. And then there's the note-perfect coming attraction by "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" director Edgar Wright for "Don't," a perfectly executed send-up of bygone haunted-house flicks that cries out to be made.

Then comes the tedious full-length snoozer "Death Proof," which seems to be Tarantino's way of thoroughly embarrassing any clueless critic who ever had the bad taste to claim that QT has a talent for writing dialog. At least 80 percent of this beyond-boring butt-numbing bomb consists of utterly unconvincing female characters talking and talking and talking about absolutely nothing, to the point where you find yourself praying that road-rage maniac Kurt Russell will run over them just to shut their yaps.

There's absolutely no story here, just Russell as a stunt man who apparently has some unresolved issues with women. The only action scenes are a head-on collision about midway through, and a bump-and-run car chase at the end. Neither is anything special. Also, Tarantino shows up in an "acting" role again here, which is worse news than having a crazed killer trying to drive you off a lonely road.

If "Grindhouse" were split into two movies here (as it will be in Europe), I can imagine a certain segment of the audience coming back more than once to see "Planet Terror," because its relentless lousiness is kind of fun in a "guilty pleasure" way.

I can't picture anyone but the most self-hating masochist ever paying to see "Death Proof" more than once, though. In fact, it would be interesting to find out how many "Grindhouse" repeat ticket-buyers here walk out after "Planet Terror" ends.

Back Row Reviews Grades:
Planet Terror: C-
Death Proof: F-




The Groomsmen
(Reviewed July 18, 2006, by James Dawson)

Ed Burns ought to know by now that he only should play manipulative, cynically amoral assholes. I mean, look at the guy. He has "prick" written all over him!

Instead, here we have a mawkish and stupid would-be "chick flick for dudes" in which we are supposed to buy Burns as an upstanding nice guy who is about to marry his knocked-up live-in girlfriend (Brittany Murphy, who can't stop rubbing her prosthetic "baby bump" absolutely every single minute she's on camera). (Dear God, I just used the term "baby bump." I've obviously been watching way too much "Access Hollywood.") Burns is having doubts about impending fatherhood, but there's never any possibility that he will stray from the path of decency and righteousness.

His friends are a bunch of loud, obnoxious, bombastically blue-collar mooks. Man, what a waste of Jay Mohr's talents. To think that the guy who starred in the brilliant-but-doomed-from-day-one TV series "Action" is now taking roles that call for him to piss on the front seat of a romantic rival's Thunderbird.

Another of Burns' pals is Matthew Lillard, to whom falls the odious responsibility for delivering a sappy monolog about how meaningless his life would be without his two kids. Throw out the popcorn, honey -- I need that bucket to puke in!

Even worse, just wait until you see another of the beer buddies break down and blubber over the horrendously unbearable fact that he can't have children. The horror!

Heather Burns (no relation to Ed) plays one of the mooks' wives. She's kind of hot, if you care about that kind of thing, even though she remains frustratingly clothed throughout the movie.

Okay, that's not much when it comes to trying to find anything at all to like about this movie -- but at least it's something.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




The Ground Truth
(Reviewed October 10, 2006, by James Dawson)

The people who really should see this documentary are those chickenhawk, flag-waving idiots who still support war criminal George W. Bush's insane, illegal and immoral war in Iraq. Fat chance. Those dumb cattle will be convinced by their right-wing ayatollahs -- Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Coulter, and their ilk -- that the anti-war soldiers interviewed here are "traitors" and "cut and runners" who can't see the "big picture," so their opinions should be disregarded.

Which means the only people buying tickets to "The Ground Truth" will be those of us who already know that war is hell, and that our leaders are hypocritical fools, and that we should "redeploy" our asses out of Iraq right now as in RIGHT NOW. The soldiers and Marines in this movie give first-person accounts of the insanity inherent in fighting a war whose purpose is incomprehensible, and where it is impossible to identify who is friend and who is foe without killing them first. One soldier sums things up by recounting how his mental health therapy request was denied because feeling guilt over civilian casualties classified him as a "conscientious objector."

God bless America!

I'm giving this a "C-" grade because it's kind of a cheesy production, basically a lot of talking-head interviews, without the kind of depth, insights or cleverness that made "Fahrenheit 9/11" so fascinating. That doesn't mean these voices don't deserve hearing, however.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-




Grown Ups
(Reviewed June 4, 2010, by James Dawson)

A condescendingly stupid movie for the kind of dumbfuck rubes who made Adam Sandler costar Kevin James' stupendously shitty sitcom "The King of Queens" a hit. This is true lowest-common-denominator junk, the kind of witless dreck that everyone involved would avoid and insult if anyone else had made it. Does anyone imagine that snarky David Spade, edgy Chris Rock -- or even Rob Schneider, for Christ's sake -- would have anything but contempt for this phony feel-good family-friendly-with-fart-jokes fiasco if they weren't getting a paycheck for doing it?

The saddest thing about the movie, though, is the presence of the great Steve Buscemi in an utterly unamusing supporting role. Dude, show a little self-respect. If you've got mortgage bills to pay, pimping or crack-dealing would be more respectable ways to earn some scratch than showing your face in a movie like this.

The plot: Several middle-aged men who were on a champion basketball team as kids reunite after the death of their former coach. (The movie's most sickmaking moment comes when Sandler's character's daughter, one of those tiny widdle Hollywood girls wif big eyes who acts so saccharinely cute she makes you want to puke your guts out forever, rolls daddy's SUV across the lawn. When he asks what she was doing behind the wheel, she says that one of his friends called to tell him "Coach Buzzer has gone to heaven" -- "So I got in the car and used the navy (ugh) to try to find heaven, so you could go visit your friend." Anyone who finds this charmingly adorable is officially a moron.

After the coach's funeral, the former team members and their families spend the weekend at a rented lake house near their old home town, where a bullying member of the losing team from way back when (Colin Quinn) demands a rematch. Although this plot doesn't play out as you might predict, that's only because the resolution makes no sense whatsoever.

The movie features two hot bimbos in short-shorts and bikinis to ogle (Madison Riley and Jamie Chung, playing Schneider's character's ridiculously beautiful daughters), but there's nothing else here that anyone will want to see.

Leaving the theater, I turned to the greatest girl who ever lived and said, "I've honestly forgotten what USED to be my pick for worst movie of the year."

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Avoid.

Really.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-




The Grudge
(Reviewed October 9, 2004, by James Dawson)

Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as some kind of human helper-monkey in Tokyo. (I didn't catch her job title, sorry.) She is dispatched to the home of a catatonic woman after a previous social worker meets a scary end there. Through a series of flashbacks, we find out that Very Bad Things happened in the house, and that the dead are still hanging around making trouble for anybody who wanders in.

This movie has its moments, but it doesn't make a lick of sense. Even its title seems to be a mistake; the perpetrators of nearly all the mischief are murder victims, not "grudge holders." Why they would want to bring misery to innocent strangers is a complete mystery. And the pace is slow, slow, slooooooooooooooooow.

Still, the movie does have a few genuinely creepy scenes. I'm not talking about stupid "gotcha" moments where a hand suddenly grabs a leg, but really eerie bits, such as when a security monitor shows a shadowy ghost take shape in a deserted hallway. Or when Gellar is taking a shower and briefly finds someone else's fingers in her hair...fingers that seem to be coming from inside her own head.

The ending is groaningly bad. And I'll save you the trouble of sitting through the credits: nothing is tacked onto the end.

An aside: One thing in this movie that seemed noticeably odd was when Gellar's boyfriend lights up a cigarette. Maybe it's just because I live in health-conscious California, where it's rare to see anyone who isn't lowbrow trash firing up a cancer stick, but every time I see somebody smoking in movies it feels like a commercial (if not a desperate attempt to give bad actors something to do with their hands). Would Gellar's character's studly, architecture-student, part-time waiter boyfriend really smoke? Like I said, it seemed...odd.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C




The Guard
(Reviewed July 28, 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 Guard" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-




Guess Who
(Reviewed March 15, 2005, by James Dawson)

Bernie Mac plays an overprotective father called Percy Jones in this wholly mediocre, race-switched retread of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" that borrows very heavily from "Meet the Parents." Ashton Kutcher costars as the o-fay fiance of Bernie's Nubian princess daughter.

Ha-ha, look at how black people and white people antagonize, frustrate and misunderstand each other. Cue hysterical laughter from the easily amused.

Personally, I would have preferred seeing a movie about the real Percy Jones, not the fictional sitcom-stock "Guess Who" character who bears the same name. What's the untold story about that innovative, amazingly talented bass player, who has been making music for 40 years? What fascinating tales could he tell about being a founding member of the great 1970s jazz-fusion band Brand X? What was it like to be prominently featured on Brian Eno's two finest albums, "Another Green World" and "Before and After Science?" Or to work with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett on Hackett's first solo outing "Voyage of the Acolyte?" Or to play with the supreme and godlike David Sylvian on "Words With the Shaman?"

Here's an idea: Instead of blowing 15 bucks on a pair of tickets to this dumb movie, go buy a copy of Eno's "Another Green World" CD. Cue up the track "Over Fire Island." Then sit back and let Mr. Percy Jones' fine, fine fretless make you wriggle and throb with obscene delight.

Damn, that guy's good.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F




The Guru
(Reviewed February 4, 2003, by James Dawson)

A stunningly strange throwback to the gone-and-not-particularly-missed days of "Love American Style," this is a remarkably lunkheaded sex farce without any sex but with an awful lot of talk about it. An Indian dance instructor moves to New York with Big Dreams, gets unknowingly sidetracked into the wacky world of porn video, and emerges as a platitude-spouting and rich-folk-duping "Guru of Sex."

What keeps all of this relentless unfunniness from getting an "F" is the stimulating presence of Heather Graham (as a huge-breasted porn star) and Marisa Tomei (as a yummy, preposterously new-age flake). Full of achingly dated cultural references (Macarena and Sallye Jesse Raphael, anyone?) and not-clever-enough-to-be-ironic ethnic stereotypes (Indian cabbies! How incisive!), "The Guru" only really comes alive during a lip-synced "Bollywood"-style production number set to (gulp) John Travolta's and Olivia Newton-John's "You're the One That I Want" from Grease. (Heather Graham in a gold harem outfit is rather unforgettable.)

Female-flesh fans should be aware that there are only a scant few incidents of nudity, NONE of which involve the lovely Marisa or the radiant Heather (quite a trick, considering Heather's character's profession in the film).

Also, my own name is unaccountably missing from the end credits, even though the title of one of the porn videos being made during the course of the movie ("Glad He Ate Her" as a pun on "Gladiator") is a line I used in my June 2001 PENTHOUSE FORUM column titled "They Don't Make 'Em Like This: Hot Hints for Hollywood." Wow, I guess they actually took that particular "hint"--literally!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D




A Guy Thing
(Reviewed January 9, 2003, by James Dawson)

Not even two weeks of 2003 have passed, and yet already I feel certain that this horrendously lousy movie will make my "Year's 10 Worst" list. Holy Jesus, is it bad.

For the life of me, I simply cannot fathom the appeal of actor Jason Lee. How does this guy keep getting work? He has no discernible acting ability, charm, or sense of comic timing. Not to be shallow or anything, but the vacant-eyed, weasel-faced, Hair-Club-for-Men candidate is not even good looking. Normally, his name in the credits alone would be enough to make me seriously consider blowing off a movie screening in favor of staying home and staring at a blank wall for two hours.

The reason I roused myself to attend "A Guy Thing" was because it also stars Julia Stiles, who is kind of cute in a Pekingese-faced way, and who was good in 2001's "O." Unfortunately, she's not good here, mainly because no thespian in history could pull off the act of pretending to find Jason Lee romantically desirable. (At one point, when she has to tell Lee he is a nice guy, the next shot should have been a used, extra-large crack pipe falling out of her purse. But no!)

Stiles plays one of those flakey, free-spirit stereotypes of which the movies are so enamored, the kind of rootless, job-hopping wisecracking-but-wise sprites who inspire button-downs to try things that make them afraid for a change. God help us.

She meets one-week-away-from-his-wedding doofus Lee when she appears as a hula girl at Lee's bachelor party. (I am not sure in which universe this bachelor party occurs; in the one where I live, the duties of bachelor-party girls extend somewhat beyond hula dancing.) Lee is engaged to rich, uptight Selma Blair, who should have gotten movies like this out of her system after appearing in last year's stunningly awful Cameron Diaz fiasco "The Sweetest Thing." It doesn't take a Stephen Hawking to figure out where the plot goes from there.

Not a single laugh, no nudity, and Jason Lee. Stay home and stare at the wall. I wish I had.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F



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