Back Row Reviews: Movie Reviews by James Dawson




Back Row Reviews
by
James Dawson
stjamesdawson.com

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I Am Legend
(Reviewed December 10, 2007, by James Dawson)

Pretty good "deserted Manhattan" special effects, but "I Am Legend" doesn't have anywhere near the suspense, the smarts or the scares of this year's infinitely better "28 Weeks Later."

Both movies take place in major cities (London in "28 Weeks Later," New York in "I Am Legend") where the effects of a biological agent (the rage virus in "28 Weeks Later," a cancer cure with nasty side effects in "I Am Legend") has wiped out most of the population and turned other people into relentless, bloodthirsty monsters. The difference is that "28 Weeks Later" somehow made its preposterous premise both more convincing and more chilling, where "I Am Legend" just seems kind of stupid.

Will Smith is the last uninfected human in Manhattan, sharing the island with an unspecified number of vampire-types who only come out of hiding at night. We are supposed to believe that none of these creatures, who are clever enough to set a very elaborate trap for Smith at one point, have been able to figure out where he lives -- even though it is established that they are alert but merely in hiding from the sun during daylight hours. Also, they seem to have a pretty good handle on Smith's habits, one of which involves going to a neighborhood video store every day to pick up DVDs that he can watch when he's not trying to come up with a cure for vampirism in his basement science lab.

Hoo-boy.

Maybe I'm just being picky, but if I were smart enough to rig a hidden snare trap, I think I also would be smart enough to figure out that I could roam the streets freely between sunup and sundown with the aid of nothing more elaborate than a large umbrella.

The worst thing about "I Am Legend," however, is a plot development about three-quarters of the way through the movie that completely subverts the story's premise. And then there is the absolutely awful ending, followed by a coda that's even worse.

Smith is badly miscast as a character who should be a lot harder, a lot more intense and a lot crazier. His farewell to his Manhattan-fleeing wife and daughter, seen in flashbacks, is as unconvincing as it is sappy.

Basically, this is a movie I dislike even more when I think back to what I disliked about it in the first place.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+






Ice Age
(Reviewed March 2, 2002, by James Dawson)

I was asked yesterday, "What is your favorite movie so far for this year?" Even though it was the first day of March, meaning I already had sat through two months of 2002 screenings, I honestly could not come up with an answer. In fact, I could not even think of a single 2002 movie that I actually would recommend!

That all changed last night. The new animated movie "Ice Age" is so good that I gladly award it an "A" grade. (This seems fitting, since I give out that grade about once every ice age...)

Last year's beautifully animated "Monsters, Inc." was undermined by a really lousy premise and the endlessly annoying Billy Crystal. In last year's beautifully animated "Shrek," the loud, ceaseless, sitcomish bickering between Shrek and the donkey just went on and on to the point where some kids in the theater where I saw a screening actually began wailing in terror. And last year's beautifully animated "Final Fantasy" was subverted by a weak (and nearly incomprehensible) plot.

The beautifully animated "Ice Age" is better than any of those movies, if only because it has none of their weaknesses. The plot here is simple, the characters are charming, and even when those characters argue (sometimes at length), things usually do not descend into jokey sitcom hell. Best of all, each of the three main characters (four, if you count Pinky the baby) do not seem like retreads from other movies. "Ice Age" is full of great visual gags, wonderfully directed action sequences (the ice-slide segment is amazing), offbeat humor (mainly courtesy of John Leguizamo's lisping and amusingly dumb Sid the Sloth), and even a genuinely emotional moment or two. And did I mention the beautiful animation?

This is one of those rare movies that is completely enjoyable both to adults and kids. Want to know how good it is? Here is how good it is: At the overbooked screening where I saw "Ice Age," a couple of sniffling tykes were sitting on a low wall directly behind my back-row vantage point. They talked to the characters onscreen, kicked the back of my seat, and occasionally sneezed over my head. But I loved the movie anyway!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A






The Ice Harvest
(Reviewed November 3, 2005, by James Dawson)

This one gets a "D-" instead of a flat-out "F" because it has what could have been a respectably by-the-numbers hard-boiled plot, with a little tweaking to help it make sense. The main lapse in logic: We see no convincing reason why thieves who steal over two million bucks from a mob boss would not leave town right away, especially after they learn that a killer is trying to find them.

Unfortunately, "The Ice Harvest" tries to camouflage the genre's usual trappings -- in-over-his-head protagonist in love with cold-as-ice dame and partnered in crime with amoral potential backstabber -- by overlaying the usual cross-and-doublecross beats with what's supposed to be amusing irony. Translation: John Cusack acts like a cluelessly confused mannequin, and Billy Bob Thornton delivers his lines like a detached stand-up comic. Oh, and the ever obnoxious Oliver Platt is supposed to serve as a comic-relief drunk.

The result is a movie that tries to have things both ways -- noir thriller and black comedy, a la "Blood Simple" -- but succeeds at being neither.

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-






Identity
(Reviewed April 20, 2003, by James Dawson)

Best way to sum up my feelings on this movie: It vanished from my mind so soon after I left the theater that I completely forgot to review it for over a week.

The worst thing about "Identity" is that I had the nagging feeling the writer thought the script was clever. Somehow, that sort of arrogant contempt for the audience's intelligence offended me. But maybe I'm wrong; maybe the guy knew he was writing crap from the outset.

A bunch of characters converge in very unlikely circumstances at a motel and start dying one by one. Your first reaction: Holy Jesus, I can't believe anybody would make yet another one of these movies. Later, when a character makes a remark about how the situation is just like a movie where characters get picked off one by one, you will want to run from the theater. Screaming. "Yeah, we get it, this movie is stupid and derivative--you didn't have to tell us!" Then comes the plot's little twist, which is more idiocy.

Also, absolutely nobody gets naked or partially so...which should pretty much remove any reasons whatsoever that anyone might have to pay for a ticket to garbage like this.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F






The Ides of March
(Reviewed October 6, 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 Ides of March" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+





I Dreamed of Africa
(Reviewed July 16, 2000, by James Dawson)

It sucked. It bombed. Sometimes, there is justice in the world. A rich family goes off to live in Africa and encounters hardships. Boo-friggin'-hoo. Sorry, but I don't have much compassion for the Range Rover set and their silly problems. (Must be the Bolshevik in me). Nice scenery photography, though, so it's not a total loss. Almost, though!

Back Row Reviews Grade: F






Igor
(Reviewed September 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Nice-looking computer-animated movie that owes a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- to the visual stylings of Tim Burton. (Translation: Many character designs look as if they were ripped directly from "The Nightmare Before Christmas"). But the painfully weak script (by TV's "American Dad!" writer Chris McKenna) is unamusing to the point of being annoying.

John Cusack, doing a pretty good Albert Brooks impersonation, is the voice of the title character, a hunchback lab assistant who dreams of being more than a mere flunky. He creates a monstrously large Frankenstein-type woman who turns out to be sweet instead of nasty, which hampers Igor's chance of winning an evil scientist competition.

Eddie Izzard voices his main competitor, the manipulative Dr. Schadenfreude, with a lot of enthusiasm and style -- but the jokes are sitcommy in the extreme. Note: That's not a compliment.

Also, parents with small children are advised that one character, an immortal creature (Steve Buscemi) who makes repeated suicide attempts, has a habit of doing things like graphically cutting off his extremities and otherwise harming himself. Unless you want to catch little Johnny or Jenny sawing off a leg later in the living room with a butcher knife, you may want to think twice about buying them a ticket.

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D






I (Heart) Huckabees
(Reviewed September 25, 2004, by James Dawson)

Color me pleasantly and completely stunned. (What a feeling!)

I went into "I (Heart) Huckabees" fearing that it would turn out to be nothing more than an unimpressive, second-rate, Charlie-Kaufman-wannabe journey into pointless weirdness-for-weirdness'-sake. I left the theater thinking it was one of the very best movies of the year. (Also, it is one hell of a lot better than this year's "real" Charlie Kaufman movie, the thoroughly disappointing "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Go figure!)

Any description of the "Huckabees" plot is guaranteed to make this film sound absurd, bizarre, convoluted and intellectually preposterous. All of which it is, but in a good way.

Jason Schwartzman is an angry, disheveled environmentalist who is being squeezed out of his own "Open Spaces" organization by gladhanding slickee-boy Jude Law, who works within the Huckabees department store empire that is encroaching on a local marsh. Schwartzman enlists two "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and a fright-wigged Dustin Hoffman) to explain coincidences that he says are befalling him, and to make some sense of his rapidly deteriorating life. Meanwhile, firefighter Mark Wahlberg is having a crisis of faith over society's refusal to give up petroleum, and Huckabees spokesmodel Naomi Watts decides she wants to dress like an Amish woman in the company's TV ads. And then there is Isabelle Huppert, a rival to Tomlin and Hoffman who has her own ideas about how to get people in touch with their personal realities...ideas which primarily involve getting hit in the face.

If that paragraph hasn't scared you away from buying a ticket, you will be in for a genuine treat. "I (Heart) Huckabees" is unlike any other film released this year. It is brainy but ridiculous, and fun but sometimes actually moving. It's a genuine one-of-a-kind experience.

How good is it? All during the movie, I kept thinking, "Damn, I hope this just goes on and on and is nowhere near the end yet." Then it ends with the absolute best last-line of any movie I've seen this year. I loved it!

Further proof: When I came home from seeing an advance screening on a Friday, I had another free screening pass in my e-mail inbox that is good for three days later--and I'm going again! Can't wait! Man, it's great to live in L.A.!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A






I Know Who Killed Me
(Reviewed July 27, 2007)

Lindsay Lohan, the formerly adorable child star who was so sweet and wholesome in "The Parent Trap," takes on another dual role here as a student/stripper with a foul mouth and a bad attitude who is kidnapped, tortured and graphically dismembered by a mysterious psychopath.

No thanks.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F






I Love You Phillip Morris
(Reviewed December 3, 2010, 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.)

Absurdly unlikely and yet based on actual events, this laugh-out-loud love story is simultaneously sweet, bitter, smart, silly, irresistibly joyous and movingly sad. It's for those who like their humor pitch black but with lots of sugar, which won't sound like a contradiction when you find yourself wiping away tears of both glee and sympathy. As star Jim Carrey points out at the beginning of the movie, "Love sure is a funny thing."

Carrey stars as Steven Russell, an easygoing small-town cop who takes forever tucking in his adoring daughter and prays at bedside with his loving wife Deb (Leslie Mann). He's conflicted about using police resources to track down the mother who gave him up as a baby -- sold him in the hospital parking lot, actually -- and realizes he should have left well enough alone when she slams her door in his face. Stealing her welcome mat "because it's a lie," Steven uproots his family to Texas to live the American dream, a goal he secretly finances with frauds.

That's not his only secret. As he proclaims in good-natured voiceover, "I'm gay -- gay gay gay gay gay. Have been as long as I can remember." He explains marrying Deb by noting that "sometimes you have to shave a little off the puzzle piece to make it fit." After a close brush with mortality, he decides to stop living that particular lie, leaves his family and relocates to Miami. That's where he adopts the way over-and-out lifestyle of the rich and gayest with a ridiculously handsome Latin lover (Rodrigo Santoro).

What Steven doesn't change are his con-man ways, which he ramps up considerably. "No one ever really talks about this," he narrates, "but being gay is really expensive!" Soon caught and sent to prison, he meets soft-spoken and utterly guileless fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a gentle soul who is as saintly as Steven is slippery. And those opposites definitely attract.

While the movie often is hilariously tongue-in-cheek, if not outright outrageous, the offbeat romance at its core is convincing enough to be both amusingly believable and sometimes even heartbreaking. Carrey is excellent as the relentlessly optimistic goofball/genius Steven, who would do anything for love except go straight (as it were). McGregor's performance is equally impressive, especially in some scenes of unanticipated emotional devastation that connect like sucker punches.

One marvel of the screenplay (by co-directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra) is that it successfully alternates between letting us laugh with and at the gay main characters, treating them with neither too much respect nor too little. The movie exploits the crazy circumstances and quirks of their relationship, but never what they are. Steven and Phillip are flamboyant as in funny, not phony.

Requa and Ficarra also are good at misdirection, sometimes cleverly misleading us about who or what we are seeing. Like the multiple identity shifts and impersonations Steven pulls off in his numerous prison escapes and career changes, this beguilingly sneaky movie never is a single thing for very long. It's a campy comedy, caper flick, prison melodrama, sex farce, tearjerker romance, art-house indie potential cult classic.

The movie definitely deserves its "R" rating, so leave the kids at home. Although it features no nudity that doesn't involve doodles or clouds (you'll see), there are plenty of sexual situations, as well as profanity, racial and gender epithets aplenty, and a brutal prison-yard beatdown. Those elements might be expected from Requa and Ficarra, who previously scripted the shockingly amoral "Bad Santa." What no one could have imagined coming from that duo (adapting the book by journalist Steve McVicker) is a movie with this much sensitivity and endearing charm.

A darkly lighthearted one-of-a-kind experience, "I Love You Phillip Morris" is one of the most audacious and enjoyable movies of the year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A






The Illusionist
(Reviewed July 28, 2006, by James Dawson)

"The Illusionist" is easily the most beautiful movie of the year, a late-19th-century period piece featuring scenic old-Europe locations and antique-postcard cinematography. And the acting by everyone involved is terrific: Edward Norton as the peasant-born magician Eisenheim; Jessica Biel as the duchess he loves but who is engaged to the Austrian emperor's cruel son (Rufus Sewell); and Paul Giamatti as a police inspector torn between his loyalty to the prince and his sense of justice.

The only flaw with the movie is its completely predictable plot, which could be summed up as "`Mission Impossible' for highbrows." Compounding the problem, most of the story takes place in flashback, which means even the slowest audience member knows from the start where things are going to end up. Also, certain aspects of Eisenheim's master plan just plain wouldn't work, although I can't give specifics without spoiling the details of the obvious.

Okay, granted, plots are important. But this movie is so gorgeous you won't care that you know exactly what's coming. Edward Norton is good in nearly everything he does, and plays the part of Eisenheim with a suave, detached cool. This may be Jessica Biel's first "prestige" project, but the former "Seventh Heaven" star actually pulls off the refined-duchess role. And even though Paul Giamatti normally leaves me cold, he is excellent as the police inspector, because all of his usual neurotic tics are gone. Rufus Sewell is great as the sadistic prince, too, and the score by Philip Glass is perfect.

"The Illusionist" is an impressive visual treat from director Neil Burger, but an unfortunate scripting disappointment from screenwriter...Neil Burger.

Damned shame, really. But still definitely worth a look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-






The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
(Reviewed October 26, 2009, by James Dawson)

Oh, what a lovely mess.

Director/cowriter Terry Gilliam's latest flight of fantasy is as frustrating as most of his films, which often display more "sense of wonder" than sense. Granted that his 1985 "Brazil" was a masterpiece of cynical allegory, and 1995's "Twelve Monkeys" had a plot that took precedence over its individual components. But almost everything else on Gilliam's résumé plays more like a cobbled together art-direction highlights reel than a cohesive narrative. On the positive side, his "Time Bandits" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" were fascinating storybook-style anthologies set within framing devices that served as convenient bookends. On the negative side, his "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "The Brothers Grimm" were nearly unwatchable excursions into unamusing excess.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" falls somewhere in between, with lots of colorful set pieces but an addle-headed plot that should have gone through several more drafts.

The first thing most people will want to know about the movie is how successfully Gilliam was able to work around the fact that Heath Ledger died before completing all of his scenes. As it turns out, Gilliam's use of three other actors -- Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell -- works surprisingly well to fill in the gaps.

Ledger plays Tony, an amnesiac found hanging by the neck under a London bridge by a traveling troupe of performers led by an immortal guru named Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). After Tony is rather unexpectedly revived, he joins the struggling band in a huge, unwieldy, horse-drawn vehicle that serves as both their home and their fold-open stage. Also aboard are Parnassus' impossibly beautiful 16-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), her obnoxiously jealous would-be suitor Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Panassus' straight-talking midget sidekick Percy (Verne Troyer).

Unfortunately for Valentina (nicknamed "Scrumpy,"short for "scrumptious"), dear very-old dad made a deal with the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) before she was born. When Scrumpy turns 17 in three days, Parnassus has to hand her over -- unless he can claim five souls before Mr. Nick does the same.

Audience participants who pass through what looks like a mylar mirror on Parnassus' stage find themselves transported to fantasy worlds that are supposed to represent their heart's desire. Some are tempted to their deaths in those lands by Mr. Nick. Those who resist being destroyed make giddy returns to the real world, sometimes on swings. Whether they have left parts of themselves behind isn't clear -- frankly, it's hard to make any sense of the spirit-world mechanics involved -- but that's the least of the movie's plot problems.

A more frustrating flaw is that Tony makes a drastic personality shift toward the end of the movie that doesn't seem in keeping with what we have seen of him earlier. Ledger is replaced by Depp, Law and Farrell in sequences that take place on the other side of the magic mirror, which allows his changes in appearance to seem acceptable (even if none of the other characters undergo similar transformations). But Farrell's sequence in the big finale doesn't jibe with what we've been led to believe about Tony up to that point. The transition feels more like a misguided mistake than an acceptable plot twist, as if Gilliam and cowriter Charles McKeown simply changed their minds about what to do with him, with no regard for previous continuity.

Similarly, many segments that are supposed to be whimsical fall flat. When the incredibly off-putting Anton plays one-man keepaway with a mysterious flute belonging to Tony, Tony's patience borders on the saintly long after you want him to punch annoying Anton in the throat. One upper-class matron's through-the-mirror fantasy is a world of women's shoes, which doesn't exactly feel like a fresh comedic conceit.

But there's enough offbeat eye-candy and unsettling weirdness here to make the movie worth a look, even if it never manages to be as good as you want it to be. Waits is flat-out perfect as Mr. Nick, with his trademark rumbling growl and more than a few bizarre lines of dialog that feel ad-libbed straight from Waits World. (Sitting at mechanical controls in the neck of a giant decapitated woman, he gleefully shouts, "I'm goin' to Chicago -- and I'm drivin' a stick!") Blond and blue-eyed Cole is a porcelain-doll beauty as Scrumpy, who manages to be effortlessly sexy, innocently wistful and crudely earthy. Plummer is a credibly wise and ancient Parnassus, and Troyer doesn't overplay his role as Parnassus' conscience and confidante.

Ledger doesn't mesh very well with the other performers, however, looking uncomfortably awkward when he has to show exuberance and not really connecting in the one-on-one scenes. As in Gilliam's "Brothers Grimm," Ledger seems uncommitted, if not embarrassed by the material. He also doesn't convey any of the sinister hidden depths that his character ends up requiring toward the end.

In fact, although it may sound disrespectful of the deceased, the movie would have worked better if Ledger's scenes had been re-shot with Farrell taking his place. That would have given the story a little more of the consistency, and credibility, that this patchwork construction lacks.

(Hey, there's a reason these reviews are called "brutally honest," folks.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-






Imaginary Heroes
(Reviewed November 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

I didn't like this movie two decades ago, when it was called "Ordinary People." But that mopey melodrama was a triumph compared to this embarrassing, stupid, ripped off slog.

A boy whose more successful older brother commits suicide feels adrift, angry and unappreciated. Sigourney Weaver is his mother, one of those utterly fake bad-movie constructs who has an ongoing supposed-to-be-amusing feud with a next door neighbor, tries to act cool about buying pot at a head shop, and threatens a school bully with very long complete sentences.

The boy's father is played by Jeff Daniels, who careens between dad-as-dictator and blank-eyed grieving zombie staring into space from a park bench. Easy work if you can get it.

The only thing I enjoyed about this journey into tedium was Michelle Williams as the boy's sister. Her role was nothing special, but I liked looking at her unconventionally pretty face. So sue me.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F






Immortals
(Reviewed November 11, 2011, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+






Impostor
(Reviewed January 7, 2002, by James Dawson)

Great acting by Gary Sinise as a future scientist on the run from cops who think he is an android with a bomb in his heart. Also, the production looks really nice overall--not "Blade Runner" quality, but far better than one might expect from a Dimension film.

My main problem with this movie is its ending, which seemed incredibly weak. I don't know if the Philip K. Dick short story on which this movie was based ended the same way (what, you expect me to do actual research before writing these reviews?), but I was hoping for something better.

That aside, this is a pretty decent SF film for a market that seems completely devoid of them right now. So what the heck: Go.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C






In Bruges
(Reviewed January 30, 2008, by James Dawson)

Although it's being marketed as a "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"-ish high-caliber comedy, there's a lot more to "In Bruges" than Brit-wit, black humor and awkwardly amusing gunplay. "In Bruges" manages to add regret, remorse and even a little romance to that recipe, resulting in a movie that I'm sure will be on my 10 best of 2008 list -- even though I'm writing this review in January!

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are two Irish hitmen sent to cool their heels in Bruges, Belgium, by their extremely intense boss (Ralph Fiennes) after a botched job. Although the older and easygoingly placid Gleeson actually enjoys the quiet pleasures of sightseeing in the historic city while awaiting their next assignment, Farrell is a jumpy Dubliner who thinks that only someone retarded who grew up on a farm could find anything about the place interesting. Farrell doesn't see any reason to climb a medieval bell tower just to get a better view of what's at eye level, he is thoroughly bored by most of what's on display at an art museum, and he can't even be bothered to stand in line with Gleeson for the chance to touch a vial of what's supposed to be the blood of Jesus Christ himself at an ancient church. Hard guy to impress.

What starts out as a story about an odd couple of fish out of water, however, quickly turns both odder and yet more human. For all of his hilariously deadpan putdowns and hair-trigger tough-guy attitude, Farrell turns out to be a killer with a conscience, and one with genuine worries about his immortal soul.

Coincidentally, Farrell plays a somewhat similar conscience-stricken killer role in the just released and not-very-good Woody Allen movie "Cassandra's Dream" -- but this time he gets the character right. Where his performance in "Cassandra's Dream" appeared under-rehearsed to the point of offhanded distraction, Farrell is thoroughly convincing and consistently interesting here.

Gleeson is likewise excellent in his less-flashy role as the world-weary "sensible" half of the duo, who displays Oliver-Hardy-like frustration, resigned despair and an almost fatherly affection. And Fiennes perfectly pulls off his part as a vicious cockney sociopath family man, one whose set of standards must be upheld at all costs. A race-war prophesizing dwarf, a pregnant hotel manager, a drug-dealing blond local with a heart of gold, an effete gun dealer with a fondness for the word "alcoves," even an officious ticket-taker at the bell tower all are incredibly fun to watch.

This is one of those rare movies that I liked so much I don't want to give too much of the plot away. First-time feature director/screenwriter Martin McDonagh (winner of the 2006 live-action short film Oscar for "Six Shooter," which starred Gleeson) has crafted a story with so many big-and-small laughs, outrageously inappropriate conversations, fascinating characters, shocking brutality and yet moments of genuine heart-wrenching pathos that the viewing experience is akin to watching one of those jugglers who manages to keep several objects of wildly varying shapes and sizes in the air with no trouble whatsoever. There's not a single misstep along the way.

So just take my word for it and GO!

(Also, in case you wondered, "Bruges" is pronounced "broozh." Hey, I didn't know that either, until I saw the movie. I blame my American education...)

VERY highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A





Inception
(Reviewed July 15, 2010, by James Dawson)

"Inception" is not as smart as it wants to be, but director/writer Christopher Nolan gets points for at least trying to make a thoughtful SF movie that requires some actual thinkin'.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a shady corporate espionage freelancer whose team specializes in covertly implanting false memories and influential ideas into the heads of business bigwigs in order to influence their behavior. They do this by drugging and then using technology to enter the minds of their subjects, running unsuspected con-game scenarios within the subconscious.

Leo is starting to lose his mind-manipulating mojo, though, thanks to a mystery involving his former wife that has made him a fugitive from U.S. justice. When he gets a "big score" offer with a payoff that includes a pardon, he doesn't bother fully informing his team about the mental and mortal risks involved in the dangerously complicated scheme.

Coming after Shutter Island, this makes two "haunted and mentally unbalanced husband" roles in a row for DiCaprio. He comes off a little better here, if only because his eternally boyish looks make him slightly more convincing as a cold future-shock techie than a hard-boiled '50s cop. There are definite noirish elements in both films, however, and a similar overall theme of deception used in service of redemption.

The movie goes wrong when Nolan tries to frost this densely cerebral fruitcake with action-movie icing. A painfully long skiing-and-shooting scene on a snowy mountain looks like something out of a bad James Bond movie, for example. It's a transparently obvious attempt to wake up those slower-witted audience members who might be glazing over trying to make sense of the various levels of dream-time reality, the threat of existential peril, and the basic question of exactly what the hell is going on.

There's also the fact that the movie's gunshots-to-hits ratio is nearly 1:1 for the good guys, but closer to 1:1,000 for the baddies, who for the most part can't seem to hit the side of a barn even at point-blank range.

Nolan also makes the unforgivable mistake of telling most of the story in flashback, with an opening scene that's an infuriating spoiler. I'll never understand why filmmakers undermine their movies this way.

The screenplay also plays a little loosely with the way time dilates within the various levels of inner-mind reality, and how much screentime it takes for those intervals to pass, but that's something that may concern only especially obnoxious members of the science club.

"Inception" more than makes up for those flaws, however, by being so oddly and undeniably interesting, a movie guaranteed to inspire lots of post-credits discussions. It's a multi-layered mental mindfuck that's part "Mission Impossible," part "Matrix" and part Minority Report. How can you resist a movie that includes concepts about thoughts being susceptible to theft, pronouncements like "his subconscious has militarized," or questions like "how do I drop you without gravity?"

Go!

Postscript added July 17, 2010: After seeing "Inception" again, I was reminded that I didn't mention the movie's most overriding plot flaw, one that should make the entire storyline fall apart. The fact that the movie is incredibly enjoyable even with this drawback is either a triumph of style over content, or proof that emotional resonance will trump logic every time.

Without giving away anything specific, proving that reality is reality (and that a dream state is not reality) would be as simple as demonstrating that buildings can't be created from thin air in the real world, but can be conjured up from nothing in a dream.

On the positive side, I also neglected to mention that one of the best things about "Inception" is its sweeping, gripping, incredibly forceful and absolutely essential score by Hans Zimmer. A masterpiece.

If I see the movie a third time, I may make this already too-long review even longer!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+






The Incredible Hulk
(Reviewed June 4, 2008, by James Dawson)

Edward Norton's scenes as Bruce Banner, the fugitive scientist who unwillingly becomes the monstrous green Hulk when his heartrate gets too high, are the best parts of this movie. That's partially because the Hulk, and his even more monstrous nemesis the Abomination, are computer-generated characters that are fascinating to watch but never entirely convincing. No matter how good CGI effects get, there's always that missing "certain something" that would make the pixels seem more plausible.

In fact, although it obviously would eliminate the movie's main marketing element, I would have enjoyed "The Incredible Hulk" more if the Hulk hadn't been in it at all. The human story here -- Banner on the run from the government, which wants to use his experiment-altered blood to create a biologically-enhanced army -- is much more interesting, suspenseful and exciting than watching a couple of CGI freaks beat each other up and cause massive property damage.

Director Louis ("The Transporter") Leterrier does a terrific job with an early chase scene through Rio de Janeiro's crowded mountainside favelas, for example, that involves only Banner being pursued by the US military. I also enjoyed Banner's hesitant relationship with girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler), which got the Marvel Comics brand of reluctant soap-operatic romance just right. And Marvel founder Stan Lee actually gets to voice a word of dialog in his cameo appearance this time. (No, it's not "excelsior!")

Leterrier also gets points for quickly but very stylishly telling the Hulk's origin story in a montage at the beginning of the movie. This guy is good!

Also, the fanboy in me likes the fact that this movie, like last month's "Iron Man," takes place within a reality where crossovers can occur with other Marvel comics characters. Iron Man's alter-ego Tony Stark shows up, the army enlists the aid of S.H.I.E.L.D., we see Nick Fury's name flash by on a computer screen, and there's even an offhand reference to the World War 2 "super-soldier" program that created Captain America (although Cap's name isn't mentioned).

That's not to say reverence for the comics can't go too far at times. The final showdown includes an awkwardly hammered-in, straight-from-the-funny-books exclamation of "Hulk smash!" that seems extremely goofy.

Still, this Hulk outing is a lot more interesting and involving than Ang Lee's "Hulk" of several years back, and Norton is terrific. It's not as tongue-in-cheek as "Iron Man," but definitely worth seeing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-






The Incredibles
(Reviewed October 19, 2004, by James Dawson)

Really enjoyable, beautifully animated, and probably not what most audiences will be expecting -- but that's not a bad thing. "The Incredibles" is more of an affectionately tongue-in-cheek "Spy Kids"-style take on a James Bond adventure than a goofy slapstick parody of superhero antics. It not only has an actual plot, but a lot of heart as well.

The movie opens with Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and other costumed heroes doing what costumed heroes do...until the government orders all of them to stop. That's because Those In Charge think that the powers that make the heroes special might make normal citizens feel inferior. (I was reminded of the great Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which the gifted are purposely handicapped to make sure that everyone is no better than average.)

The heroes give up their costumes and secret identies, go into relocation programs, and try to blend in. Fast forward several years to Mr. Incredible working as an insurance adjuster while Elastigirl pulls housewife duty at home. Of their three kids, two already are manifesting powers they have to keep hidden.

Then Mr. Incredible gets an offer he can't refuse. It involves getting back into his outfit and doing secret work for a mysterious company while pretending to continue going to the office every day. Before long, the entire family is involved...but not in ways they would have wanted.

The movie has a really great retro-1960s look, with angular tract houses and character designs reminiscent of that era's cartoons, made 3-D by the Pixar computer animation folks. "The Incredibles" is written and directed by Brad Bird, who did the wonderful 2-D animated feature "The Iron Giant" a few years back and formerly worked on "The Simpsons." I liked the fact that "The Incredibles" did not have that "written-by-committee," "endless-barrage-of-dumb-jokes" feel (can you say "Shark Tale?").

The only thing that bothered me about the movie is Holly Hunter's voicing of Elastigirl. Hunter's strange lisp makes her voice so distinctive that it is impossible not to think of Hunter whenever Elastigirl speaks. I didn't have this problem with Craig T. Nelson's Mr. Incredible, because he does not seem to be going out of his way to draw attention to himself. (An even better example of someone showing this kind of selflessness, albeit from a different movie, is Tim Allen, who sounds so "un-Tim-Allen" as Buzz Lightyear that most people who watch the "Toy Story" movies may not even recognize him.) I would have preferred that an actress who sounded as midwestern, turn-of-the-'60s whitebread as Nelson had done Elastigirl's voice.

Also, very small children might be freaked out by some of the movie's more intense action sequences. Then again, any kid these days who isn't used to things blowing up in spectacularly loud fashion probably is living somewhere without a nearby movie theater...or a TV...or electricity.

Two final things I liked about "The Incredibles" are sort of polar opposites of each other. I liked the fact that Elastigirl somehow has wide, "mom"-type hips and a beyond-J-Lo-size butt, yet still manages to be hot. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was refreshing to see a teen-ish daughter who is not portrayed as a sex lure. (Are you listening, Kim Possible, you delectable tramp?)

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+






In Darkness
(Reviewed February 9, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-






Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
(Reviewed May 19, 2008, by James Dawson)

Well, it's better than "Temple of Doom," anyway. And you're right -- that's not saying much.

Arriving 19 years after the last Indy installment ("Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"), this going-through-the-motions slog proves that everyone involved should have quit while they were ahead. Star Harrison Ford is now a frequently grumpy old man who seems more annoyed than adventurous. Director Steven Spielberg seems to have forgotten how to make a story engaging, relying instead on audience goodwill and nostalgia ("Hey, look, he brought back Karen Allen, and she's still feisty!"). The special effects are much more lavish, but at the expense of making many of the stunts here look utterly unbelievable (not one but three plunges off skyscraper-high waterfalls) instead of only cartoonishly exaggerated.

Also, the utterly illogical screenplay occasionally seems cobbled together from segments of spec scripts that may have made for better movies with different main characters. The opening bit on a nuclear test range, and the way Indy escapes annihilation there, seems to belong in a sequel to "Crank." A depressingly dour interrogation segment in which red-hunting FBI agents insult Indy and question the medals he won as a WW2 OSS officer feels like a heavy-handed, hammered-in allegory to today's Bush administration security state.

Worst of all, this movie's idiotic ending is sci-fi stupidity that literally makes no sense whatsoever. It's impossible to reconstruct a set of circumstances that would make the plot work. For one thing, we're apparently dealing here with all-powerful god-like beings who somehow can't even manage to keep someone from stealing one of their friggin' heads.

Shia LaBeouf isn't bad as Indy's is-he-or-isn't-he son. (Thankfully, that mystery is resolved sooner rather than later.) Cate Blanchett, in a pageboy black wig, pretty much plays things straight as a Russian military officer with a psychic bent that never amounts to anything. Allen is just kind of embarrassing as the 40-something version of her Marion Ravenwood character from the first Indy movie. Her banter with Ford here has a forced "reunion show" deliberateness instead of playfulness.

As the credits rolled, I still was sort of waiting for an actual story to kick in. That's because this movie feels more like an elaborate videogame with successive levels of difficulty, rather than the tale of the charming guy who is facing those challenges.

Will it be possible for Spielberg and Ford to bounce back from this disappointing misfire with a possible fifth Indy flick, the way they recovered from the abysmally awful "Temple of Doom" with the likably lighthearted "Last Crusade?" As they used to say in the serials, stay tuned!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+






Infamous
(Reviewed October 6, 2006, by James Dawson)

Sorry, but I never saw last year's "Capote." What can I say? I didn't get passes to a free screening, I wasn't going to shell out $10 for a ticket, and Lord knows I'm not about to rent a DVD that has been in the filthy, germ-laden mitts of some complete stranger.

That means I can't make any cogent comparisons between this movie about writer Truman Capote and that one. What I can do is say that Toby Jones' performance is so interesting and convincing that he might make Oscar history, if he gets a deserved nomination for the same role that resulted in a Best Actor win for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

"Infamous" focuses on Capote's relationship with the "In Cold Blood" killers, whom he got to know while writing that book, and with the townspeople where they murdered a farmer and his family. Daniel Craig is excellent as the broodingly intense killer Perry Smith, whose relationship with his father was the stuff of genuine tragedy.

Sandra Bullock is a strange casting choice to play Capote's friend and helper Harper Lee (writer of "To Kill a Mockingbird"), but she does an okay job, especially in a dramatic scene where she takes Capote to task for taking liberties with people's quotes.

I didn't like the movie's use of talking-head comments from various characters, who looked as if they were sitting in easy chairs on a cheesy talk-show set as they addressed the camera. This device completely disrupted the flow of the story. Also, the movie inexplicably begins with a nightclub scene featuring Gwyneth Paltrow singing a torch song. I like Gwyneth Paltrow, and I like torch songs, and I like Gwyneth Paltrow's singing -- but this scene was completely unnecessary.

Like I said, I haven't seen what Hoffman did with the role of Capote. But what Toby Jones does with it is amazing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B






The Informant!
(Reviewed September 3, 2009, by James Dawson)

Not quite as coma-inducingly boring as director Steven Soderbergh's two-part snooze marathon "Che," but close. Let me put it this way: I was nodding off for most of the first hour, so was Little Miss Wonderful beside me, and the guy two seats down was sound asleep...at a 3pm screening!

Even worse, this is supposed to be a kinda-sorta comedy. You can tell by the exclamation point in the title. Subtle, huh?

Matt Damon stars as a corporate executive who provides the FBI with inside info about his employer's crimes. At the same time, he appears to be so sunnily, naively idealistic that he thinks the board of directors will reward him for his efforts with a promotion after the firm's bad apples have been sent to prison.

Soderbergh tries to make this based-on-real-events story into a wry farce, but the result is about as amusing as his dreadful "Ocean's" trilogy. Considering that the anachronistic 1960s score by Marvin Hamlisch is brazenly Burt Bacharach-ish, and that Damon comes off like an unsinkably optimistic cartoon, maybe they should have called this dud "Austin Flanders."

Scott Bakula is good as Damon's FBI agent handler, Tommy Smothers (of the brothers) is unexpectedly adequate in a brief cameo as the head of the evil corporation, and Damon himself does his best with a character who is not well-written enough to be convincing and not funny enough to make up for it.

What's too bad is that the raw material here could have made for an interesting no-nonsense psychodrama a la "The Talented Mr. Ripley," in which Damon proved he could play a deceptive character with hidden depths.

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D






In Good Company
(Reviewed December 4, 2004, by James Dawson)

The Greatest Girl Who Ever Lived whispered the perfect two-word putdown for this movie during a recent screening: "Surviving Christmas!"

Like that abysmal bomb, the first half of "In Good Company" involves a weaselly, needy twerp (Topher Grace) trying to worm his way into the wholesome hearth-'n'-home of a macho father-figure (Dennis Quaid). The entirely unqualified Grace, dumped by wife Selma Blair, has just replaced longtime ad manager Quaid at SportsAmerica magazine in a corporate-takeover shakeup. When Grace invites himself to dinner at Quaid's place, he practically swoons over the happy suburban-family wonderfulness, and over Quaid's college-student daughter (Scarlett Johansson, slumming shamelessly for reasons best described as "inexplicable").

The rest of the movie involves Johansson and Grace carrying on a secret, and embarrassingly chemistry-free, affair. Seeing the radiant, hugely talented star of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and "Lost in Translation" making out with some testosterone-free twat from "That '70s Show" is proof positive that the sublime and the ridiculous ne'er should meet.

Quaid actually manages to survive this debacle, with a genuinely likeable and unironically "manly" performance that saves this Christmas turkey from an "F" rating.

I kept thinking that "In Good Company"'s main problem -- an even bigger one than the miscasting of Topher Grace as a romantic lead -- was trying to be a "have it both ways" dramedy. If the young-lovers-avoiding-daddy angle had been played more as straight slapstick, maybe it could have worked. Or imagine a realistic drama about how incredibly awkward the daughter's-boyfriend-as-boss setup would be, especially for a father who wonders if his little girl's love life might be all that is keeping him from being fired.

(Pointless aside: Quaid's character is Dan Foreman, a name that will be familiar to anyone who ever saw Howard Stern's old Channel 9 show.)

"In Good Company" is from the producing/directing/writing Weitz brothers, who gave the world the egregious "American Pie" flicks as well as the much better "About a Boy." They supposedly will be bringing Michael Moorcock's sword-and-sorcery character Elric to the screen at some point, which promises to be the oddest match of moviemakers and material since Chris Columbus and "Harry Potter." With any luck (and a lot of it), they will be equally as successful in their upcoming Elric endeavor...and "In Good Company" will be as deservedly forgotten as Columbus's "Nine Months."

Back Row Reviews Grade: D






Inkheart
(Reviewed December 30, 2008, by James Dawson)

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


All I will say here is that this movie is a real disappointment for the simple reason that it's kind of stupid. Imaginative, but stupid. Trust me.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+






Inland Empire
(Reviewed December 15, 2006, by James Dawson)

Utterly incomprehensible, but disturbingly interesting. Also, for something that makes no damned sense whatsoever, "Inland Empire" looks and sounds great.

I'm a huge David Lynch fan. "Mulholland Highway" was my favorite movie of 2003. I loved the even weirder "Lost Highway," which until now was regarded as his loopiest effort. But this three-hour melange of seemingly random scenes is easily the most frustrating thing he's ever done.

The closest thing here to a plot involves Laura Dern as an actress with a domineering husband. She learns that the film she is about to appear in is a remake of an earlier movie that halted production when its lead actors were murdered.

"Inland Empire" quickly veers sideways from that premise, though, into vignettes ranging from an attack on a prostitute to a police interrogation of a girl with a screwdriver in her side to a monotonously deadpan drama with inappropriate audience laughter about three people with rabbit heads. Several scenes are in Polish. A tacky living room is full of trashy whores who dance the Locomotion.

What...the...hell?

The tone varies from Lynch's trademark sense o' dread to his usual unwinkingly tongue-in-cheek irony, all scored with the usual creepy ambient sound design (by Lynch himself). But man oh man, is it ever one confusing and disjointed mess.

For Lynch obsessives only, but if you're into weirdness for its own sake, you might dig this freaky ride. It sure doesn't have anything in common with any other movie you'll see this year -- for better or worse!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-






Insomnia
(Reviewed May 23, 2002, by James Dawson)

What a disappointment. "Insomnia" director Chris Nolan's "Memento" was one of my top-10 movies of 2001, a completely original masterpiece of storytelling finesse. So even after I heard that this movie would feature Robin Williams (YIKES!), I held out hope. Even after I heard that this movie would feature Hilary Swank--whose work has left me so unimpressed in places such as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "The Affair of the Necklace" that I still cannot rouse myself to see "Boys Don't Cry" (so shoot me)--I STILL held out hope. I mean, come on, with the great Al Pacino in the lead and Nolan at the helm, how bad could "Insomnia" be?

Answer: Pretty bad. Not that you would know it from the hosannas for "Insomnia" that are emanating from nearly every other movie reviewer in America.

I really don't understand media-lunkhead critics who are so intellectually dishonest that they feel compelled to line up behind directors whose last work they praised despite what they see on the screen in front of them. Are all of these dopey Richard Roeper clones so insecure that they feel as if honestly assessing a stumble by a talent they canonized last time around would make them look foolish? I can think of no other reason why any writer would give "thumbs up" to a boring, unconvincing, seen-it-a-hundred-times-on-TV-cop-shows-before movie such as this one.

Al Pacino plays a cop-with-a-shady-past on loan from the city of Los Angeles to a burg in Alaska to solve a murder, which should set off your "dumbbell plot" alarm right from the get-go. As in, "Wha...???" In the movie's universe, I guess that Los Angeles is doing so well at wiping out local crime that it is magnanimously sending cops to other states that can't get their acts together.

Many details of the case itself add up to "Twin Peaks" without the irony (dead teenage girl, secret diary, out-of-town detective showing the ropes to small-town cops, dead girl's best friend secretly screwing dead girl's boyfriend). Unfortunately, irony is the only thing that can make stuff this stale seem fresh.

Pacino does things that are so patently ridiculous they cannot be neatly explained away by excuses as pat as sleep deprivation or I-secretly-want-to-get-caught guilt. ("Hey, I'm completely setting myself up by blabbing away like a fool to a ridiculously clever murderer, but there's NO WAY I possibly could imagine that he might be tape recording my every word.") The scene in which he bolts from an interrogation room to race the cops to an apartment where evidence has been planted is so preposterous it belongs in a bad comedy. And wouldn't at least one person in town (or, more likely, several of them) even bother to suggest that hollow-eyed Al might consider taking a sleeping pill if he's having trouble getting to slumberland?

As for the movie's ending...hoo, boy. Even if Hilary Swank could act, it still would be cornball.

So, what's good about "Insomnia?" The settings are stunning, both in aerial shots and in locations such as an isolated cabin, a fog-bound ravine and a log-choked river (where the best suspense scene in the movie takes place). Pacino is fantastic even with this unchallenging and unconvincing material; he looks as harrowed and glassy-eyed and bone-weary as I felt by the time the closing credits came up.

Why director Nolan chose this ho-hum, nothing-special project is beyond me. He wrote the script for "Memento," and it was a work of sheer brilliance. With any luck, he will get back to the keyboard and write his own next movie, instead of plucking another snoozer like "Insomnia" from the slush pile.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D






The International
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

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


Back Row Reviews Grade: B+






The Interpreter
(Reviewed April 20, 2005, by James Dawson)

Director Sydney Pollack had problems with various aspects of the "Interpreter" script, including its ending, so he hired multiple top-dollar rewriters to give it a going-over. Considering what made it to the screen, one has to wonder what could have been worse about the original version.

The movie is undeniably handsome, even well-acted for the most part. The problem is that its "grownups acting deadly serious" core, about an assassination plot at the United Nations, is subverted by a storyline that gets more ridiculous by the reel.

Whiter-than-white Nicole Kidman is the movie's novelty, playing an interpreter from a fictional African nation run by a murderous dictator. She overhears a plot to kill him when she goes back to her UN office after hours one night. That's because the bad guys very conveniently, and quite unbelievably, are discussing their nefarious plan in the empty General Assembly hall of the UN, where all microphones apparently are permanently active. Anybody buying this?

Kidman goes to the cops and gets protection from moody Secret Service agent Sean Penn. His wife has just left him, in more ways than one, so he spends time in bars listening to "their song" on the jukebox and at home playing her old answering machine message over and over. Considering that said home is a huge, decorator-showcase NYC loft, I guess we are to assume that wifey was some sort of heiress or Lotto winner. Either that, or Penn is pulling down one hell of a lot of overtime pay.

There's way too much politically correct claptrap about how avenging the dead by killing their killers is ultimately unsatisfying and Just Plain Wrong. Give me a break. Maybe "The Interpreter" was financed by a lobbying group for death-row inmates, genocidal monsters, wanton warlords and civilian-slaughtering Bush administration chickenhawks. "Don't do as we do," they maliciously grin while wringing their dripping, bloody hands, "or you'll become just like us."

A platonic semi-romance that develops between Kidman and Penn feels very hammered in and inappropriate. The movie's most cringeworthy scene occurs when Kidman, being watched through her apartment window by Penn on stakeout across the street, asks if she can fall asleep while on the phone with him. What is this, junior high?

The climax of the movie is nonsensical. Without spoiling it, I'll just say there is absolutely no way that a certain character could hide in a certain place without being detected. One millisecond of thinking should have told Pollack and his team of rewriters that this twist was laughably preposterous.

Maybe he should have hired a few more guys to run the script through their laptops.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-






In the Cut
(Reviewed October 14, 2003, by James Dawson)

This is the kind of would-be "dark" and "erotic" movie that seems to have been made by poetry-reading shut-ins who never actually have had sex...and who also can't tell a story worth a damn, and who don't worry about obscure little things such as "logic" or "sense."

Meg Ryan falls for a badass cop who may be More Than He Seems...but she never bothers to point out the single detail that would have answered the main burning question she has about him and his motives. Considering that said detail will establish whether or not the guy is a potential MURDERER, one would think she might be concerned enough to actually voice it...but nooooo!

Without giving anything away (God forbid): When the cop tells Meg she is mistaken about having seen him before, she does not bother telling him why she thought it was he. It is not exactly a stretch to assume that anyone would make that kind of retort to try backing up the claim. She would have said something along the lines of, "No, I'm sure it had to be you, because..." Instead, Meg simply clams up, purely in order to let the dumb plot creak interminably onward to its dumb conclusion.

This also is the kind of movie where strippers who live over dangerously seedy bars conveniently leave their keys in flower pots outside their apartment doors, which simply Can't Be Good News. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Director Jane Campion shoots everything all dark and gritty so it's supposed to be menacing and "street," but the whole thing comes off like Suburban Divorcee Goes Slummin'.

There's a teensy bit of nudity, but unless you've had a lifelong jones to see Meg Ryan's ta-tas, save your money and wait for the inevitable video captures that'll turn up online someplace real soon.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F






In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
(Reviewed December 23, 2007, by James Dawson)

I know it will sound as if I'm being a sarcastic smartass if I say that I actually kind of enjoyed this cheesy-script-but-terrific-effects fantasy movie. I mean, we're talking about a flick where Burt Reynolds plays a warrior king, and Ray Liotta is a hammily nutso sorceror, and the shambling human-like creatures at his command are called Krugs. That's right: Krugs.

And the plot is about as cliche as they come. Jason Statham is a farmer -- known only by the name "Farmer," as a matter of fact -- who wants nothing to do with the king's army or violence in general. Then the Krugs (God, I love that name) burn a village, kill Farmer's son and make off with his foxy wife (Claire Forlani), causing a rather sudden change of heart on his part.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, sexy Leelee Sobieski is the just-learning-her-sorcerous-craft daughter of Merick, the court magus (John Rhys-Davies). She's also pretty handy with a sword, and desperately wants to join the fight against the Krug (the Krug!!!) -- but can't because she's just, you know, a girl. She's determined, though, and soon is suiting up to kick serious ass in a silver-armor-and-black-satin get-up that had this fanboy hoping an action figure will be forthcoming forthwith.

There's also a forest populated by tree-dwelling leather girls, massive battles with swordplay aplenty, and a fantastic final showdown in which Liotta fights back with the contents of his library. (No kidding, it really is pretty cool.)

Throughout this flick -- which apparently is based on some video game called "Dungeon Siege" -- I kept thinking, "This kind of blows. But it's also kind of fun. Weird."

Okay, that might not sound like much of a recommendation. But any movie with an armored Leelee Sobieski going medieval and Krugs (Krugs!!!) on the march is certainly worth a look.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+






In Time
(Reviewed October 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:
"In Time" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-






Intolerable Cruelty
(Reviewed September 24, 2003, by James Dawson)

Leave your high expectations and goodwill toward the Coen Brothers at home, because this would-be comedy is shockingly, depressingly mediocre. (Translation: If you're looking for big "Raising Arizona" laughs, or if you are expecting cleverly offbeat black humor a la "Fargo," you will be very, very disappointed.)

What's sad is that the characters played by "Intolerable Cruelty" stars George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones are likeable enough (and so good-looking they are like gods walking among us). But the slow-moving plot through which they must plod is like a flat, badly padded "Love American Style" vignette. It tries for screwball comedy, but has precious little of the snap and crackle that makes those movies pop. Christ, was that ever a cornball, embarrasing, mainstream-critic-type sentence. What am I, trying out for the goddamned "Today" show or something? Jesus!

You'll know from the movie's first scene (Hollywood producer Geoffrey Rush arrives home unexpectedly and catches his spouse cheating on him with the pool man -- a set-up we've most recently seen done better in "Mulholland Drive") that you should have spent your entertainment dollar elsewhere. How badly directed and unfunny is it? It's like television. 'Nuff said.

Clooney is a charmingly easygoing but kinda wacked-out divorce lawyer, and Zeta-Jones is a slinky, golddigging wife for whom he has the hots. Sounds like a great premise, and there definitely is a decent movie in here that is trying to get out, but something is just "off." Everything is forced, badly edited and nowhere near as slyly sexy as it should be.

Clooney is goofy and animated and tries to rise above the material. He was so good in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" that this reteaming should have been gold from the git-go. Maybe the fault lies with the fact that "Intolerable Cruelty" started out as a script by other writers that the Coens retooled. In the future, they might be advised to stick to their own material, as opposed to punching a time clock to churn out something in which they seem to have so little of themselves invested.

It's a damned shame, it is.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-






Into the Blue
(Reviewed September 22, 2005, by James Dawson)

Jessica Alba doesn't really do it for me. I'm sure there are guys who pop wood at the mere mention of her name and will think I'm nuts for saying this, but she's just plain not sexy to watch when she's trying to act. That's why casting her as the every-man's-fantasy dancer in "Sin City" was such a mistake. There's nothing going on behind her blank eyes or her expressionless little-Mexican-boy face that makes her intriguing, or even particularly interesting.

"Into the Blue" seems to acknowledge the fact that Alba's best side is her backside, with plenty of bikini-bottom wedgie shots of her fine, fine, superfine ass. For the ladies, Paul Walker wears his board shorts so low in the front that he looks like he's ready for a hernia exam.

Scott Caan fills what I call the "asshole Gilligan" role -- the guy in any teen-oriented movie who is such an obnoxious fuckup that it's impossible to believe anyone would want anything to do with him.

The plot involves poor-but-honest treasure hunter Walker stumbling upon both a legendary wrecked ship and a downed cocaine-smuggling plane. Trouble ensues. For the plot to work, the movie's bad guys have to be so monumentally stupid that they don't think about simply following Walker & Co.'s boat to see where they keep going every day.

There's lots of nice underwater footage, with plenty of swimsuit crotch-and-butt shots as well as other scenic highlights, but not much else to recommend this one.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+






Intruders
(Reviewed March 19, 2012, by James Dawson)

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: D





The Invisible Circus
(Reviewed January 18, 2001, by James Dawson)

Having trouble sleeping? Then I heartily recommend seeing this boring, overly earnest, beautifully photographed snooze-fest. The lovely lovely Cameron Diaz definitely should stick to comedies, because her performance here (as a flakey, cause-minded 1960s hippie chick) is a real bore. Man.

As is the movie itself. All of the Cameron Diaz scenes are flashbacks, as her just-turned-18-years-old sister retraces the steps Cameron took that led to her death in Europe. Along the way, kid sis (played by the dark and delicious Jordana Brewster) ends up tripping on acid, stumbling around the Continent, and eventually bedding Cameron's old boyfriend (whose name, I kid you not, is "Wolf"). I briefly came out of catatonia when Jordana graced the camera with a tasteful but tantalizing nude scene, which was absolutely the only thing I enjoyed in the entire picture.

Jordana's next role will be in a car-jack caper called "Fast and Furious," which probably will make the awful Nicolas Cage version of "Gone in 60 Seconds" look like a cinematic masterpiece. So much for sensitive art-house snoozers!

Back Row Reviews Grade: D (saved from an "F" by Jordana's jiggling jugglies)






The Iron Lady
(Reviewed December 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:
"The Iron Lady" Review

Back Row Reviews Grade: C+






Iron Man
(Reviewed May 1, 2008, by James Dawson)

I'm not the biggest Robert Downey Jr. fan in the world. Okay, to be honest, I usually can't stand watching Downey do his usual deadpan-hipster fast-talking monotone act. But that cooler-than-thou smugness is perfect for his role as self-absorbed mechanical brainiac Tony Stark, alter-ego of the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man.

Gwyneth Paltrow also is good here -- sweetly endearing and sexy-librarian lovely -- as Stark's hyper-efficient and adoring gal Friday Pepper Potts.

Nearly everything else about the movie, though, is surprisingly flat, often dull, and kinda cheesy. Considering that this is the first release from Marvel's own Marvel Studios (distributed by Paramount), you'd think the powers-that-be would have come up with something more impressive.

"Iron Man" gets off to a great start, with a suit-wearing, drink-holding, debauched-but-dapper Stark being Humvee-chauffeured by American soldiers through Afghanistan. As the world's leading arms manufacturer, he's in the neighborhood to demonstrate a new mountain-leveling missile.

Then the plot kicks in, and the movie goes horribly wrong.

A local warlord ambushes the convoy, kidnaps Stark, and demands that Stark construct one of the new missiles for him if he wants to live. Which means imprisoning Downey in a cave full of tools and missile parts.

In other words, the plot is really, really stupid. Not in a tongue-in-cheek, post-modern fashion, or even in a kiddie-story kind of way. It's just dumb.

Granted, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn't as far as sticking to the specifics of Iron Man's comic-book origin story. Although the comic-book Iron Man got his start during the Vietnam war instead of the current fiasco in Afghanistan, the main elements are pretty faithful to the 1960s printed version. Basically, the bad guys are so stupid that not only do they throw Stark into a cave full of weapons, they also don't figure out that he's building a super-powerful set of armor -- even though they are monitoring his progress in person and on closed-circuit video. Sheesh, these guys give terrorists a bad name.

A new wrinkle that does not appear in the comic-book origin makes things even more illogical. Without spoiling the specifics of that utterly inane surprise, we find out later that the terrorists have no reason whatsoever for keeping Stark alive.

What makes all of this even worse is that, like "Batman Begins," this movie wastes an awful lot of time on set-up -- and director Jon Favreau does nothing to make the dull parts interesting. He's even worse at directing later action scenes, in which it's hard to tell (for instance) who is throwing which car at whom, and where the combatants are in relation to each other.

Hammy Jeff Bridges is flat-out awful as Stark's trusted friend and overbearing business partner, who is so transparently disingenuous and manipulative that it's impossible to believe a sharp cynic like Stark wouldn't see through him. Terrence Howard is similarly unconvincing as Stark's pal and military-purchasing liaison Lt. Col. Rhodes, who always seems timid and unfocused.

Although the prototype Iron Man outfit is pretty clunky and unimpressive (it's built in a friggin' cave, after all), the later version that Downey puts together in his Batcave-like Malibu mansion workshop is a sleek, Transformers-like wonder. Downey also has a lot of amusing interplay with a couple of robot assistants in that ultra-high-tech lair, which doubles as a huge underground garage for Stark's many sportscars. Comic-book dudes always have such great stuff.

(And just for boomer comic-fans: Listen for the melody of the Iron Man theme song from the 1960s "Marvel Superheroes" animated TV series, which a band plays during a swanky party near the beginning of the movie.)

When Downey and/or Paltrow are onscreen, their performances almost make up for the movie's shortcomings. Although "Iron Man" doesn't have nearly the high-class pedigree of "Batman Begins," the sequels to both movies should be improvements on what went before, if only because later installments can put both guys in their costumes faster and get to the good stuff right away.

In fact, the last line of dialog in "Iron Man" is so good that it's one of the best moments in the movie, and instantly makes you want to see what happens next.

Also, watch for Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee, who makes yet another cameo -- one of his best yet!

POSTSCRIPT ADDED 5/5/08: Schmuck Jon Favreau apparently thought it was a good idea to leave the after-credits ending off of pre-release screening prints of "Iron Man," meaning that those of us who write about movies didn't get to see the whole thing. Hey, thanks a lot, you untalented asswipe! I just loved sitting through all of the credits, seeing nothing for my trouble after they ended, and then finding out from somebody who bought a ticket that there are an extra 30 seconds of movie in the released version. DICK!

Anyhow, this is my way of saying to be sure to stay until the credits end. If you already saw the movie and didn't stick around, go to YouTube and search for "Iron Man ending."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C






Iron Man 2
(Reviewed April 26, 2010, by James Dawson)

Director Jon Favreau still can't direct action sequences worth a damn, Justin Theroux's inconsistent script detours into a few unfortunate plot ditches, and there's something very wrong with any comic-book movie if the hero is more fun to watch when he's in civvies than when he's in costume.

Worst of all, "Iron Man 2" utterly wastes what should have been its Joker card by sabotaging Mickey Rourke's role as the villain Whiplash (who never is called by that name, but that's who he is supposed to be). Scarred, muscular, covered in tattoos and acting very believably psycho-badass, Rourke's character only would have worked here if the producers had intended to make this sequel much darker than its predecessor. But although Rourke's first scene is set in grim Russian tenement poverty where he witnesses his father's painful death, he's later plopped down in cartoonish set pieces, such as one in an antiseptically immaculate all-white airplane hanger where he enjoys a luxurious catered dinner with a wisecrackingly snarky Tony-Stark-wannabe (Sam Rockwell).

Robert Downey Jr. has some funny lines as Stark, who refuses to hand over his Iron Man technology to the US government during a contentious Senate hearing. Stark is proud of the fact that he has "successfully privatized world peace" on his own, apparently acting as a deterrent to the globe's potential warmongers in his Iron Man guise. It's nice to see that anyone with smarts in the Marvel Comics universe has no more faith in the American government than anyone in our own world should, and Garry Shandling is amusing as a self-righteous senator. What gets old fast, however, is the movie's gimmick of having characters talk over each other at length. This is most aggravating in the sexual-tension-laden dialogues between Stark and his assistant Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), neither of whom ever shuts up when the other is speaking.

Not as fun or fast-moving as the first Iron Man (which admittedly had its own problems), this followup moves the traditional "hero beatdown" scene up from its usual place in act three to near the beginning of the movie. That's when Rourke, in a mechanical suit and wielding destructive whips arcing with blue-white electricity, attacks Stark during the Gran Prix in Monaco. The resulting car crashes, fireballs, general destruction and sadism may be a bit intense for small children, unless they are the type who enjoy seeing people rammed into walls by cars. (Later scenes involving acts that involve off-screen but obvious mass death also may trouble tots who were happily hoping to be thrilled by seeing a man flying around in a colorful metal suit.)

Scarlett Johansson has a small role as a Stark employee secretly working undercover for America's S.H.I.E.L.D. defense organization run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). She's absolutely beautiful, she looks delicious in a black catsuit, but she's as one-dimensional as an automaton. Also, although her character's alter ego in the comics is called the Black Widow, that name never is heard in the movie.

Stark's realization that he is being poisoned by the very thing that keeps him alive -- an element powering the chest device that he constructed in the first movie -- makes him depressed, a bit of a dipsomaniac and frankly kind of a drag. Apparently thinking that the "Superman's drunk!" segment in the dreadful "Superman III" was something worth emulating, the filmmakers include a scene in which an overserved Stark begins recklessly destroying his Malibu beach house and fighting with his pal Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) while under the influence. At that point, anyone who can avoid checking the time and wondering why this movie is so damned long must be a Zen master.

The plot then dawdles over Stark trying to create a new power source, using clues that his dead father bizarrely left behind in a ridiculous form of code instead of simply writing them up in a nice letter with his will.

Iron Man's final showdown with Whiplash involves a whole lotta bad robots and things blowing up, but good luck making any sense of the action. One second, Our Hero is being hounded at close range by several pursuers whose airspeed matches his own. The next second, he has time to pause on the ground for a sensitive chin-wag with a pal for a decent interval before any of the nasties arrive.

Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee appears in a wordless cameo dressed as a different celebrity than last time, and the movie includes a great sight gag involving a certain unseen red-white-and-blue Marvel hero who has his own movie on the way. At a pre-release press screening, there was nothing at the end of the credits -- but that doesn't necessarily mean there won't be a final "tag" scene in the theatrical version. The short "Nick Fury waiting in Tony Stark's apartment to tell him about the Avengers Initiative" bit that ended the first "Iron Man" was not included in the version screened for the press, even though it later showed up in the version ticket-buyers saw.

Best advice for anyone considering seeing "Iron Man 2": Kick-Ass probably is still playing somewhere nearby. If you want to see a thoroughly enjoyable comic-book movie, go check out that one instead.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-






Irreversible
(Reviewed February 28, 2003, by James Dawson)

If watching one of the most beautiful women on the planet (Monica Bellucci) suffer vicious anal rape prior to having her flawless face repeatedly slammed into concrete is your idea of a good time, then by all means, take a date!

"Irreversible" is not really very good, but--like a savage, unexpected beating--it definitely qualifies as an unforgettable filmgoing experience. The rape occurs in a real-time, unbroken shot that goes on for several incredibly excruciating minutes. Although there is no hardcore "insertion" shot during that scene (or elsewhere), there is enough nudity to keep this baby out of most suburban multiplexes. Oh, and did I mention that another endless scene involves a red-lit tracking shot through a creepy gay sex club called "Rectum?"

"Irreversible"'s two main problems are an overreliance on very obviously improvised dialog, and the fact that the director regrettably chose to jump on the "story told in reverse" gimmick. That structure worked amazingly well in "Memento," where it was thematically appropriate, and in "Seinfeld," where it was novel enough to seem fresh. (Hell, I even used the technique in a PENTHOUSE FORUM story called "Back Asswards," which is proof positive that it is has reached a cultural saturation point.) In "Irreversible," showing things unfold in reverse comes off like a transparent attempt to disguise the fact that the script would be nothing more than a simplistic and shallow revenge piece if it had been told in A-B-C order.

Even worse, most viewers will have forgotten the details of the movie's ending (which is actually its beginning, remember) by the time the movie is over. If you are like me, that means you very well may be completely wrong about what you think happened at the "end," because you will be confused as to who is who. You have been warned. (If you wonder whether your interpretation of the ending is correct, send me an e-mail. God knows I'm not busy.)

Despite these problems, this movie will stick in your brain like a traumatic memory of bizarre brutality long after you leave the theater. In this bland, predictable, boring world, that counts for something, I suppose. (In this case, it counts for a "C.")

ADDENDUM (March 4, 2003) (Warning: Sensitive readers who have not already stopped reading are strongly advised to do so now):

After reading a quote from "Irreversible" director Gaspar Noe in the Los Angeles Times today, one troublesome technical flaw in this movie that I did not mention above now bothers me even more. After the anal rape scene, Monica's attacker rolls onto his back, giving the audience a brief view of his rather substantial member. What bugged me was that this shot ruined the brutal "genuineness" of the attack, because...how can I put this delicately...the guy's wang is completely clean and dry. No blood, no feces, no slick sheen of residual semen, nothing. Seeing it in that condition sabotages the moment by completely undercutting the audience's suspension of disbelief. ("Oh, thank goodness, that horrid man is obviously just an actor who was not really doing anything improper to that nice Monica!")

I remember seeing some cheesy '70s porn flick once in which a guy was banging away doggie-style behind a girl on all fours, really going at it, when a badly positioned camera caught his flopping, flaccid organ dangling pointlessly between his legs instead of being lodged in milady's love canal. Seeing Le Rapist's dry, immaculately spotless schlong in "Irreversible" was sort of like that.

I mention this now because "Irreversible"'s director told a Times interviewer that the penis was DIGITALLY ADDED TO THE SCENE! I find it flabbergasting that this glaringly obvious mistake was inserted into the movie after the fact. What was the director thinking? Wouldn't it have been much more shocking, transgressive, and exploitative (the movie's three main raisons d'etre) to show the dirty dong in all its gory glory? How very, very odd.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C






Is Anybody There?
(Reviewed by James Dawson)

I wrote this review for the website ARTISTdirect.com, where you can read it by clicking this link:
"Is Anybody There?" review


Back Row Reviews Grade: B-






The Island
(Reviewed July 19, 2005, by James Dawson)

Okay, I know it sounds as if I'm only being contrary for the sake of contrariness -- seeing as I hate almost everything, and that this means I certainly shouldn't like this cobbled-together-from-at-least-three-other-SF-flicks, Michael Bay-directed monstrosity. But this big, dumb, carnival-ride popcorn movie is so good-looking and "watchable" that I actually didn't despise it. (High praise indeed!)

Admittedly, this may have a lot to do with the presence of the indescribably beautiful Scarlett Johansson. She's sporting oddly yellow hair, but hey, it's the future -- when apparently even clones are entitled to stripper dye jobs. Those big eyes, those lusciously overlarge lips, that absolutely amazing body...plus she's playing things very sweetly naive, innocent, and a little bit dumb this time around. What's not to like?

Sexy Scarlett and equally-easy-on-the-eyes Ewan McGregor are clones on the run (that's as in "Logan's Run," and very much so) from a sterile detention facility where winning a lottery-prize trip to an island paradise actually means being spirited off for a gruesome session of organ-harvesting. Ouch! That's kinda like voting for W because he said he wouldn't get us into any "nation-building" exercises, then getting called up to have your ass shot off in Iraq.

The movie also borrows from "Blade Runner" and "Coma," with a smidgen of even "THX-1138." Hell, throw in "Mission Impossible," too, for the utter preposterousness of the ending -- in which a couple of clones raised like veal somehow find themselves sophisticated enough to pull off a daring infiltration operation.

On the plus side, "The Island" includes a terrific chase scene with at least one element that looks completely original. No spoilers, but it has to do with how Our Heroes rid themselves of some nagging police cruisers from the back of a Mack truck.

The look of the film as a whole is the very definition of the term "eye candy." Giant futuristic sets, hundreds of extras, sweeping vistas, a yacht that's so coolly minimalist it's a work of art unto itself, grand-scale destruction, and Steve Buscemi thrown in for good measure. Plus we get to see what "Star Trek: Voyager"'s Neelix (Ethan Phillips) looks like without prosthetic makeup. (He's a hyper, conspiracy-theory-spouting clone.) Djimon Honsou is also good, as the glistening, intensely badass head of security assigned to hunt down the runners.

For deep thinkers (although I don't envision many lining up for tickets), "The Island" also offers some cogitatin' material about the ethics of cloning, stem-cell research, government "big brother" surveillance and alla that.

Most critics automatically will pan this movie on reflex alone, which is one of many reasons why most critics are useless. If you want to see something loud, fast, beautiful and cool, though, "The Island" will more than satisfy your junk-food cravings.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-






The Italian Job
(Reviewed April 7, 2003, by James Dawson)

I never saw the original (what, you want me to drive to Blockbuster and rent it? do I look like I'm made of money?), but this remake is dull, dumb and thoroughly uninvolving. Let's put it this way: The best stunt in the movie is one you don't even end up seeing, because it is planned by the crooks on a computer but never executed!

Also, most of the movie feels like a shameless infomercial for the recent relaunch of the Mini automobile. From what I have read, a Mini chase was one of the main features of the original "Italian Job." However, I'm assuming that Minis were a little less conspicuous in 1969 Italy than on the streets of 2003 Los Angeles. (That's right, folks: Most of this remake does not even take place in Italy, despite the title.) In other words, it makes absolutely no sense (except from an advertising standpoint) for modern-day crooks to race around L.A. in such an easily identifiable trio of cars--especially ones that are painted red, white and blue with racing stripes, for Christ's sake!

Then again, what am I thinking? This movie also takes place in a universe without any L.A. cops, whether in squad cars, helicopters or even in the subways. Good lord, it's dumb.

The stars are mopey would-be stud Mark Wahlberg, who has roughly zero charisma, and Charlize Theron, presumably in her last role as a skinny hot blond. (The flawlessly beautiful Theron is packing on the pounds these days to play a white-trash serial killer in some movie, turning herself into a flabby pudge for her art, and probably will never look as good again in her life. Can you say Renee Zellweger in "Bridget Jones's Diary?" There oughta be a law.)

Donald Sutherland is good as Charlize's father, but he is onscreen for a mere 10 minutes or so. Edward Norton essentially plays the same character he played in "The Score," and seems embarrassed to be part of the cast.

Ehhh, why go on. This "Job" blows.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F






It Might Get Loud
(Reviewed November 20, 2009, by James Dawson)

I was shocked to realize in November that I never posted a Back Row Review of this excellent documentary when it was first released this summer, even though I loved the film so much that I saw it twice. At the time, I e-mailed so many people to sing the praises of "It Might Get Loud" that I must have thought I had done a formal review, too. Oops.

Better late than never, though -- and at least this review will be out in time for the December 22 release of the DVD version.

Directed by Davis ("An Inconvenient Truth") Guggenheim, "It Might Get Loud" spotlights guitarists from three eras of rock music: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's the Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes. The Edge seems like the odd man out; while Page and White's playing styles are retro raw and obviously derived from the same American blues origins, the Edge's work feels more technology oriented than tradition bound.

Driving home the difference, the Edge's and Jack White's opinions regarding the benefits of current music technology are diametrically opposed. Considering that the film opens with White on a rural front porch assembling a makeshift electric guitar from a block of wood, some wire and a coke bottle, it's easy to guess where he stands on the issue.

At the other end of the spectrum, we later see the Edge in an equipment-overloaded studio that looks like something out of a science fiction movie, playing an echoing, sonically overwhelming and U2-ishly contemporary guitar solo. Like a genial Mr. Wizard, he then turns off all of the effects and plays just a few basic notes, which turn out to be exactly the ones he was playing in the earlier stadium-shattering roomful of noise.

The spare-no-expense production apparently was the dream project of executive producer Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of the production company Legendary Pictures ("The Dark Knight," "The Hangover"). It includes footage from America, England and Ireland, interviewing each of the guitarists on his home turf and providing brief "bio-travelogues" for each. This definitely is no bare-bones affair. It's beautifully shot, and so full of good stuff that it never hits a slow patch. There is lots of archival footage and many still photos that even the artists' biggest fans may not have seen, such as black-and-white video of a teenage Jimmy Page on British TV. We even get to see his "Session Guitarist" business card, from before he joined the Yardbirds.

The most unexpected aspect of the film is that Page, known in Zeppelin's heyday as a black-arts dabbling lothario who sometimes was so drug impaired that he played concerts sitting down, comes off here like a friendly, grandfatherly and soft-spoken Marlon Brando lookalike. (Perhaps an even odder celebrity-lookalike comparison: The Edge these days is starting to resemble actor Patrick Stewart!)

One of the movie's most endearing moments finds Page in the record room of his mansion going through his old 45s. The joy on his face when he plays those old records is positively heartwarming. He even plays a little "air guitar" while listening to one of them!

Page's best scene with a real guitar comes when he plays "Ramble On," both the soft and loud passages, with no accompaniment. The guy's still got the chops -- as if there could be any doubt.

The movie concludes with all three guitarists on an L.A. soundstage, playing together and talking to each other. It's not only funny but kind of charming to watch them learning to play the Band song "The Weight" -- especially when the Edge points out that they have been playing an incorrect chord!

Highly recommended!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

SPECIAL BONUS FEATURE: THE "IT MIGHT GET LOUD" PRESS CONFERENCE

This Back Row Reviewer got to be front-row center at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles on Friday, June 19, 2009, for the "It Might Get Loud" press conference. Jimmy Page and Jack White were among the interviewees (the Edge was not in attendance).

Both Page and White appeared to enjoy promoting the movie. Neither seemed resentful or "rock star surly," and there was a lot of friendly kidding around. Jimmy's grey hair was tied back in a "stub" ponytail, which didn't look as out-of-date "hipster" as it might sound. He also looked as if he had gotten a lot of L.A. sun; his face was sunburn red. White was pale, boyish and animated.

Each journalist selected by a moderator got to ask a single question. Below is an edited transcript of the questions answered by Page and White. (Mine was the one asking with whom each would like to collaborate.) Enjoy!


QUESTION: JACK, IF YOUR NAME HAD BEEN SMITH, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE CALLED YOUR BAND?

WHITE: The MC5. What would I have called my band? Oh, you mean the White Stripes. Funny question. I don't know. We were searching. It all came from the peppermint candy actually. I said to Meg (White), "You should paint that on your bass drum, because you play that like a little kid." She liked peppermint candy, and so we did paint that on her bass drum, the stripes on there. That's where the name of the band came from.

QUESTION: JIMMY, DO YOU THINK THAT MUSIC TODAY STILL HAS THE POTENTIAL TO BE AS LIFE CHANGING AS IT WAS IN THE '60S AND '70S?

PAGE: I think that music can always be a life changing experience for musicians and...or life affecting at least. It depends to what degree, but there's music that can affect people and their lives, and they'll always relate to that point, when they heard it and when they experienced it. So that's either if you're playing it or whether you receive it as an audience.

QUESTION TO PAGE: DID YOU KNOW OF JACK BEFORE THIS PROJECT, AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM HIM DURING THIS PROJECT?

PAGE: Well, I've met Jack before. We'd done an interview before and obviously I was very aware of his work. But what was going to be so fascinating about this (movie) was that we were all really self-taught guitarists, and so we were really all going to have interesting characteristics. It's not like we're part of an orchestra, where everyone has been taught the same way and it's just varied areas of interpretation. With this it's really, really strong with character and of what we've actually lived in our music. So there was a lot to actually receive, if you like, from the characters and how it manifests through their playing. I do really believe that all guitarists have a different character that comes through, a strong character, and the stronger the person. So there was a lot to learn and a lot to experience. It was a really good experience doing this. I really enjoyed this.

QUESTION: JACK, ONE OF THE THEMES IN THE MOVIE IN YOUR CASE IS ABOUT OVERCOMING OBSTACLES. ONE OF YOURS WAS GROWING UP IN A PRIMARILY MEXICAN NEIGHBORHOOD. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT, BECAUSE YOU JUST RELEASED A SINGLE IN SPANISH?

WHITE: That's right, yeah. You absorb so much from whatever your environment is as an artist, and you learn to take from it what can help you create. Many people in the neighborhood that lived in liked hip hop music and house music, which I couldn't play. You can't perform that on guitar or drums, which is what I was playing at the time. But I got so much from mariachi bands that were playing constantly. Even Tejano music that was playing all around. I absorbed all those melodies and I loved those rhythms. Eventually, we finally got to use it on our last White Stripes record on "Conquest."

QUESTION: WHAT ARE YOU GUYS LISTENING TO NOW?

WHITE: I've been recording a lot lately. I just opened this institution in Nashville, a vinyl record system. I've been producing records and listening to a lot of artists. This little goth named Mildred and a girl named Rachelle Garniez I've been producing. I play drums behind her. I've been listening to all this music. I can't listen to other music. I can only listen to what I'm working on at the time. I can't listen to anything else because I don't want to copy it.

PAGE: What have I been listening to? I've actually been listening to a lot of rockabilly again. I go through periods of just concentrating on blues and I've gone back to rockabilly, and especially getting off on some of the wild recording sounds.

QUESTION: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE THE AUDIENCE TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS DOCUMENTARY WHEN THEY LEAVE THE THEATER?

WHITE: Maybe just a sense of how things are made from a standpoint that's not so...say that a listener listens to the radio and they start to think, "Okay, well you chose to write this song and you chose to do this and chose to do that on purpose." Like, I wanted to write a rock and roll song or I wanted to right a punk song, but maybe they'll see a little bit of the idea that that's sort of an aftereffect, that's an aftertaste of what the songwriter is doing to begin with. They're trying to get to an emotion or an idea, and the by-product ends up being a rock song or a punk song or a ballad, whatever it is. If you see though how sometimes they are attacked in the beginning and then what it ends up being. I think when Jimmy talks about the drum sound in "When the Levee Breaks" in that scene in the film, you can see that it wasn't like Led Zeppelin sat down and wrote on paper, "This is going to have a ferocious drum sound that everyone will remember for eternity and then we'll go to the riff and critics will love it. Great."

QUESTION: DO YOU THINK TODAY'S AUDIENCES ARE MORE INTERESTED IN THE PERSONALITY OF THE MUSICIAN OR THE MUSIC OF THE PERFORMER?

PAGE: The lines are getting blurred a little bit. People are famous for being famous in this decade, and so people sort of have to make a choice. I think there are distractions all around. There's so much media for a young kid now to almost battle against to get to something soulful. They have to make a decision on their own what they can take from these people, if they can dig deeper. The thing is that it's nice to be able to let people dig. I think this film is just letting people dig deeper into the music, let alone the personalities. I think the personalities, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what high school Jimmy and I went to, or the Edge, but there are things that you can dig into about the music and where it comes from.

QUESTION: YOU BOTH HAVE UPCOMING SOLO ALBUMS TO BE RELEASED, AND SINCE YOU'VE NOW PLAYED WITH EACH OTHER WILL YOU EVER PLAY TOGETHER? ALSO, WHAT CAN WE EXPECT ON YOUR ALBUMS?

WHITE: Well, I think that Jimmy needs to practice a little more. (THIS GOT A HUGE LAUGH FROM THE CROWD)

PAGE: Yeah (laughs). He's gone and said it.

QUESTION: WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST INFLUENCES IN YOUR LIVES THAT SHAPED YOUR MUSICAL CAREERS?

PAGE: Well, for me it was hearing the rock and roll artists that were coming out of the '50s, and the fact that what was driving them was just the sheer excitement of the music. I mean, they were really onto something and they knew it. It must've spread like wildfire, what they were doing out of Memphis. Presley was turning everyone on. Then he was taking from the blues and Little Richard and all the rest of it. The whole thing was going and so the whole excitement and the urgency of a movement like that, that just took me with it. I have to talk about it on an overall thing. It wasn't just one person or one main thing, although there are shining lights through it, but it's really that overall movement which came through from the blues or whatever. Nevertheless, it's something that captured a generation. Plus, they tried to sort of take it out, the authorities certainly did in Britain.

QUESTION: JACK, IN THE MOVIE YOU TALKED ABOUT WANTING TO LEARN EVERYONE'S SECRETS. SINCE BEING IN THE MOVIE WITH JIMMY, DID YOU LEARN HIS SECRETS, OR SOMETHING FROM THAT ENVIRONMENT?

WHITE: Some of them I can't tell you. They're just for me and I would never tell -- unless a publishing house made the right offer one day. Some of the things are obvious in the film. You can actually see them. I like the three of us learning to play "The Weight" at the end of the movie. Even us going over the chord changes of the song. It's not even either one of our songs. But just to know that these things have a genesis and that you don't just wake up one morning and know how to play every song or know how to write a song like that; all those little moments come from that spot, we're all coming from a similar spot of when this music is generated. After that, all you can do is learn the techniques and the production styles and all of that afterwards. That's always the gravy on top.

QUESTION: JIMMY, SINCE THE '50S HAVE YOU HEARD MUSIC THAT'S MADE YOU FEEL THE SAME WAY, MADE YOU FEEL YOUNG AGAIN?

PAGE: I got the first part of that because of course you have to dig the whole generation that were turned on by that sort of music, the blues and all the musicians and fans that came out of the '60s. So I wasn't the only one there. I don't know about feeling young again, but certainly, yeah, there's always music that I hear along the way...it doesn't necessarily mean that it's within the parameters of either rock or blues or whatever. It's usually far more reaching than that. So it can be in many different genres. The best part of it is when you hear something that is a total surprise to you, or you hear something that you wouldn't quite of conceived might have been there musically before. That can really move you and take your attention.

QUESTION: HOW DID YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON COME ABOUT, JIMMY? WAS THAT BEFORE OR AFTER THE YARDBIRDS?

PAGE: It hadn't come out, the one that was done with the Yardbirds. It was done live. It was their manager who called me in because I was a studio musician at the time. I think that Sonny Boy was living in his flat. Somebody actually told me once that they went around to their house and they heard Sonny Boy plucking a live chicken. I don't know how true that was. That wasn't happening when I was there, but we rehearsed these numbers. Or I did. Sonny Boy and myself in Georgio Gomelski's flat. Of course, as you can imagine, by the time that we got into the studio -- which was only a couple of days later -- Sonny Boy had forgotten all of the arrangements of what we were going to do. So it was just sort of us basically jamming on the spot, really, which was cool. Good music comes out of that.

QUESTION: "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN" HAS BEEN REMASTERED. DID YOU GUYS HAVE TO BAKE THE MASTER AND GET A PASS ON IT THAT WASN'T DESTROYED?

PAGE: No. We haven't gone back to the...you mean the multi-tracks? None of those. You only have to really bake it (if it's from) a certain point of time.

WHITE: '75?

PAGE: Even a little bit later than that. But all of our stuff is really quite early, and so you don't really need to bake it. Although, I'll tell you that when we did "How The West Was Won," there was this paranoia about things. And so, yeah, they were baked then. If we went back to the multi-tracks, I don't know if there would be a bit of scratching there. So I don't know that it is necessary really.

QUESTION: HOW WOULD TWO FEEL ABOUT THE IDEA OF FORMING A SUPER GROUP OF AX MEN WITH THE EDGE?

PAGE: Well, we did. Yeah.

QUESTION: DO YOU HAVE ANY FEELINGS ON THE GUITAR HERO FRANCHISE THAT'S KIND OF MADE MUSIC A DIFFERENT COMMODITY?

WHITE: I've had a lot of conversations about that over the last couple of years and I sort of, I don't know, gave up trying to understand. I do know that it's depressing to have a label come in and tell you that this is how kids are learning about music and experiencing music. That's like the only outlet now, that you have to put it into a videogame to get it in front of them. That's a little sad. But other than that, I don't know. I don't like to tell people what format to get things in, like, "I'm only going to listen to this on vinyl and nothing else. You have to come to my world." I don't like to say that to people either, but I do think there's a loss of romance.

PAGE: Yeah. There have obviously been offers made to Led Zeppelin. But when you've got a track, for instance if you start with the first track on the first album, "Good Times Bad Times," and you think of the drum part that John Bonham did there, I mean, how many drummers in the world can play that -- let alone dad on a Christmas morning? There might be a lot of alcohol to be consumed over Christmas. He still ain't going to get it.

QUESTION: JACK, WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO COVER THE SON HOUSE SONG "DEATH LETTER" AND PUT IT ON ALBUM?

WHITE: Someone had played it for me when I was about 18 or 19, that song. I had already heard it and I was in love with that, and then I heard "Grinning in Your Face," and that was sort of the end of it for me. I just couldn't believe it. By the time the Stripes started recording, I picked "Death Letter." I wanted to sing "Grinning in Your Face," but it was too special to me, and I didn't want to insult it. I thought, "I can't do it," just trying to record it. So we picked "Death Letter" just off the cuff. And the funny thing was that we recorded that song in my living room and the door was open, and I was looking at Meg while we were recording it. When I finished the song, Meg had this scary look on her face and I was like, "What?" I was just waiting for the hiss to die down on the last song and there was a drunk man standing behind me who wandered into the house (laughs). It took me about a half hour to get him to leave. Always lock the door when you're recording.

QUESTION: YOU TOOK A DIFFERENT APPROACH IN THE MOVIE THAN JIMMY OR EDGE, IN THAT YOU'RE TALKING TO YOUR EIGHT-YEAR-OLD SELF.

WHITE: Yeah, nine-year-old self.

QUESTION: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO TAKE THAT APPROACH?

WHITE: Ideas fly around you're talking about making a film, and this was extremely incredible, because Davis (Guggenheim) put so much leeway into what we were going to do -- which was why I got involved in the first place. If he had sent a script over that said, "It's going to be this, this and this, and that's how we're doing it," I don't think it would've been as interesting or creative for any of the people involved. One of them was about childhood just thought about it and tried to take a different look at it, like if I was going to teach myself to play guitar what would that look like. It would've been easy to show a childhood photo, but harder to try to get somewhere with that idea. So I just took the hard route there.

QUESTION: HOW WOULD YOU APPROACH TEACHING A CHILD NOW IN THE AGE OF GUITAR HERO?

WHITE: Probably the best thing to do is take them to see live music. Actually, physically put them in a position where they can't get away (laughs).

QUESTION: IF YOU WERE GIVING ADVICE TO PEOPLE STARTING TO PLAY GUITAR, HOW IMPORTANT IS THE INSTRUMENT, GETTING A TOP OF THE LINE GUITAR OR STARTING WITH WHAT YOU CAN AFFORD?

WHITE: I think starting with whatever you can afford is the best thing to do. Starting with the top of the line guitar won't facilitate anything. There will be less of a struggle. And I think that especially someone who's young should have a little bit of a struggle, because they'll find their own relationship to an instrument and all the kinks that are involved with it, the bent neck or the out-of-tune string or the nut that's broken. They need to have that. It has to become their own.

PAGE: Yeah, I sort of agree with that, because you'll see that they've got a passion to want to play the instrument and that is a good initiation into it. I must say that from my experience, once I got a guitar that was relatively user friendly, not super-duper easy, but then I really came on at that point as a guitarist. It helped. It wasn't a super-expensive guitar, I might add. But what I'm saying is that fact that something needs to steer you a bit, if you're playing an instrument which is really hard to get on with.

WHITE: Yeah, eventually you should get on with something...

PAGE: That's user friendly, but still a struggle.

QUESTION: BOB DYLAN SAID IN A RECENT ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW THAT HE WISHED HE HAD COLLABORATED WITH PAUL MCCARTNEY, AND THEN MCCARTNEY CALLED HIM AND THEY ARE GOING TO WORK TOGETHER. IF SOMETHING LIKE THAT COULD HAPPEN AS A RESULT OF THIS INTERVIEW, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH THAT YOU HAVEN'T WORKED WITH BEFORE?

WHITE: I get asked that once in a while. George Jones would be somebody that I'd like to work with. I'd like to see what's kicking around in his head nowadays.

PAGE: Well, there are a number of people. I can't give you an answer right now. Maybe what I should do is just write them all down, put them in a hat and do one of those things.

QUESTION: WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE TO REVEAL THINGS IN THIS THAT WERE VERY INTIMATE TO YOU ON FILM AND STILL HAVE THEM BE AUTHENTIC FOR YOU?

WHITE: It's not easy. I think it helped that the idea wasn't really all scripted, all these parts. That made it a lot easier to do it. I don't know if it's always a smart move for the artist to give everything away. And there's a temptation to do that nowadays, because there's so much more media to give it away with. But at times you just make a decision about what's important to talk about certain things. He handed me a Son House Record while we were filming there, and we didn't talk about that we were going to do that necessarily, but we listened to that and we talked about it. I could've said, "No. That's too close to me. Let's not put it in the film." But it felt right to me.
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