The Beguiled (2017 Version)










Do these look like "vengeful bitches" to you?
© 2017 Focus Features



(Reviewed June 20, 2017, by James Dawson)

Director/screenwriter Sofia Coppola's gauzily gutless remake of director Don Siegel's deliciously devilish "The Beguiled" betrays nearly every earthy element that made the 1971 version such a wickedly guilty pleasure. Where the Clint Eastwood-starring original was as trashy and vulgar as sweaty rock and roll, this colder and cleaned-up re-creation is like a lethargic Longines Symphonette rendition that somehow manages to be literally bloodier yet listlessly bloodless.

Both screenplays were adapted from the 1966 novel originally titled "A Painted Devil" by Thomas P. Cullinan. The trio of writers on the feverish first film—Albert Maltz (as John B. Sherry) and Irene Kamp (as Grimes Grice), with rewrites by an uncredited Claude Traverse—played like a softcore porn installment of Rod Serling's "Night Gallery." Not that there's anything wrong with that. Recuperating in a secluded southern all-girls school during the Civil War, wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Eastwood) was subject to so much forbidden temptation that his situation nearly threatened to become a tongue-in-cheek bedroom farce. Geraldine Page played the school's slightly neurotic and sexually frustrated headmistress Martha Farnsworth, who apparently hasn't gotten laid since a bygone incestuous relationship with her missing brother. Teacher Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman) was a skittishly jittery virgin, slutty 17-year-old student Carol (Jo Ann Harris) was a jealously vindictive vixen, and Disneyesquely precocious Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) was a perky 12-year-old adjudged by McBurney to be "old enough for kisses" right before he planted a big one on her lips in the woods.

In the remake, however, there's no illicitly inappropriate brotherly love backstory for Nicole Kidman's Martha. Kirsten Dunst's placid Edwina is more resignedly melancholy than desperately repressed. Crudely carnal Carol has morphed into Elle Fanning's more aloof Alicia, and Oona Laurence's unkissed Amy is a little more wised-up instead of cheerfully childlike.

The most important difference between the two films is that Eastwood's original McBurney is a shamelessly dishonest and smirkingly deceitful manipulator from the get-go. His claims that he is actually a pacifist and someone who respects the land are revealed as outrageously untrue by quick flashbacks intercut with his lies, and there never is any doubt that he would have his wanton way with any female in the vicinity if given the opportunity.

Colin Farrell's McBurney, on the other hand, is so amiably and unthreateningly charming for so much of the staidly slow-moving remake that his third-act raging outburst feels as out of place as putting a pie fight at the end of "My Dinner With Andre."

Nearly every change that Coppola made to the original film's story is bafflingly misguided. The problem isn't that she tried to class up a genre film (David Cronenberg's "The Fly" and the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" come to mind as two such upgrades that worked). The problem is that she left out so many sinfully rich ingredients from the recipe of 1971's decadently sweet treat that her version becomes a blandly flavorless bore.

Deleting a tense scene in which even visiting Confederate soldiers express ungentlemanly interest in the student body removes the idea that the school faces threats from all sides. A skeptical black female slave character that McBurney tries to manipulate in the original has been eliminated, and so has a captive crow with a broken wing, taking away two allegories to McBurney's situation. There's no mention of Martha expecting Edwina to take over the school someday, setting the stage for a later sense of betrayal.

Also, forget about seeing Martha's erotically charged dream of a torrid three-way with McBurney and Edwina, or an equivalent of the "hussy" Carol very seductively inviting McBurney to her attic bedroom where she later is discovered very naked with him. The original's scene in which nightprowling McBurney has to decide between that attic or the closed-door bedrooms of Martha and Edwina is missing, which reduces the impact of his fateful choice. Worst of all, Coppola's version so mishandles a later scene in which McBurney is subjected to some rather drastic surgery that the procedure seems to be performed for his own legitimate medical good, instead of as a cruel punishment for his sins. Incredibly, McBurney's discovery of what has happened to him occurs offscreen.

Even the movie's title, which cleverly could refer to either the maleficent McBurney or his horny hostesses in the original film, isn't as good a fit on this watered-down version. Farrell's McBurney seems sincerely charming and more amused than aroused by his keepers until the script makes him otherwise, as opposed to the thoroughly devious Eastwood version. And the females in the remake aren't as emotionally needy or (in the case of the Alicia formerly known as Carol) as irresistibly siren-like. Even the movie's classic ending (which I won't spoil) is slightly botched, retaining the payoff but altering a crucial detail that softens its impact.

Even a change that technically makes Coppola's film more faithful to the novel, by revealing that her McBurney is a recent Irish immigrant who took $300 to assume another man's place in the Union army, ends up diluting the story, which works better when McBurney is a less exotic intruder.

Coppola—whose past works include the similarly female-centered "The Virgin Suicides," "Lost in Translation," "Marie Antoinette" and "The Bling Ring"—seems to have missed the whole point of going slumming: You're supposed to get a little more dirty in the process.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D



The Mummy




"I didn't think this was what they meant by 'flying united.'" © 2017 Universal


(Reviewed June 7, 2017, by James Dawson)

Although Universal's completely refurbished reboot of its 85-year-old "Mummy" franchise arrives under the studio's new "Dark Universe" banner, this enjoyably entertaining tongue-in-cheek adventure turns out to be more comedy than Karloff. Sure, there's a potentially catastrophic scenario that involves bringing the Egyptian god of death to our world, and quite a few people literally have the life sucked out of them. But this flick is such a fast-moving fun ride that it offers a promising start to what is planned to be a new shared-world series of updated classic creature features. Think Marvel, but with monsters as the main characters.

Tom Cruise is terrific as the thieving but good-natured Nick Morton, a present-day version of Indiana Jones whose interest in acquiring antiquities has nothing to do with academia. A stolen map that may point to hidden treasure, unless something has been lost in translation (hint!), leads him to an enemy-controlled Iraqi village. A run-and-gun firefight there is the first of many exciting action scenes that perfectly balance the tale's picturesque Pharaoh-era flashbacks, dead-of-night bad doings and secret-organization machinations.

Sofia Boutella ("Star Trek Beyond," "Kingsman: The Secret Service") is bad-girl irresistible as the Egyptian princess Ahmanet, whose devil's bargain to claim the throne she believed was rightfully hers was rudely interrupted way back when. Mummified alive for millennia before escaping her pilfered sarcophagus, she sets her sights on Nick as the new vessel for the death god Set.

Fortunately, Nick has hooked up with the ridiculously beautiful blond Egyptologist Jenny Halsey, played with sexy smarts by Annabelle Wallis ("King Arthur," TV's "Peaky Blinders"). She owes Nick one after he saves her from a plummeting plane in the movie's most thrilling scene, a wild free-for-all disaster that throws everyone weightlessly around a rapidly disintegrating cargo hold.

Russell Crowe is alternately amusing and alarming as Jenny's smilingly self-assured boss Henry, who has a fascinating secret that shouldn't be spoiled. Henry heads the clandestine organization Prodigium, whose mission is to recognize, contain, examine and destroy all manifestations of evil. The bad news for Nick is that being cursed and psychically connected to the exotic Ahmanet makes both of them targets for extermination.

The movie's weak link is Jake Johnson ("Let's Be Cops," TV's "New Girl"), who is bro-speak irritating as Nick's partner-in-crime Chris Vail. His hammy presence seems intended to tip the movie into an outright "Shaun of the Dead"-style parody, which is at odds with the rest of the movie's affectionate-takeoff tone. That may be a fine line, but Johnson definitely is on the wrong side of it. Vail's annoying presence may be due to a case of too many cooks almost spoiling the broth, considering how many writers are credited here: three for the screenplay, and three others for the story.

Other than that flaw, "The Mummy" is nimbly directed by producer and co-writer Alex Kurtzman ("People Like Us"), who also co-wrote two "Transformers" flicks, a pair of "Star Trek" installments and Cruise's "Mission: Impossible III." He proves he knows his way around a big-budget spectacular by serving up sensational special effects ranging from sandstorms to swimming zombies to scary swarms of spiders. A frantic churchyard battle against the disgustingly deteriorated undead that leads to a high-speed ambulance chase through the woods wonderfully defines the term "scared silly."

When Prodigium head Henry points out that Nick has entered "a new world of gods and monsters," the phrase's double meaning is akin to Nick Fury advising "Iron Man"'s Tony Stark that he has "become part of a bigger universe." If subsequent installments of Universal Studios' monster mash makeovers (which will include Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman and the Invisible Man) are as light, limber and likable as this one, "The Mummy" could result in more than one revival.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+



Wonder Woman




The main thing you'll wonder is why so many scenes in DC superhero movies always look this blue-gray bad.
© 2017 Warner Bros.



(Reviewed May 31, 2017, by James Dawson)

Way too much of "Wonder Woman" is as dull, ugly and tedious as most other Warner Bros. DC Comics movies, which proves that a female director can do just as bad a job as any man when it comes to botching the studio's consistently miserable superhero flicks.

This is the first big-budget costumed caper helmed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, directing her first theatrical feature since 2003's "Monster"), apparently thanks either to "only a female should get this assignment" sexism or, ironically, the studio's fear of being labeled sexist if the job of bringing such an iconic female hero to the screen had gone to a man. (Disney/Marvel is guilty of the same identity-politics hiring, tapping a woman to co-direct its upcoming female "Captain Marvel" and a black man for its "Black Panther.") The studios admittedly are in a can't-win situation on films like these, risking accusations of pandering on the one hand or insensitivity on the other, but that's the modern world for you.

The screenplay, however, is an all-male mess, scripted by Allan Heinberg from a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs and producer Zack Snyder, whose dismal blue-gray aesthetic dominates far too many scenes. As soon as the action shifts away from a colorful first-act fantasy island full of Amazon warriors, the rest of the film looks as gloomy and bleak as Snyder's thoroughly unpleasant WB directorial efforts "Man of Steel" and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."

The movie retains many of the basics of the comic-book character, identified here only as Diana and never as Wonder Woman, although events have been time-shifted backward to occur during World War I instead of World War II. That change is unnecessary and a little insulting to the 76-year history of the character, even if it does allow references to things like women's suffrage and early-20th-century gender inequality. A stranger alteration from Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston's 1941 original: Instead of being given life by the Greek goddess Aphrodite after being sculpted from clay (just go with it), the movie's Diana was given life by Zeus. If the whole point of the character and this movie is female empowerment, why taint her with owing her existence to a dude?

Gal Gadot, who first appeared as the character in the aforementioned and awful "Batman v Superman," does a Schwarzenegger-bad acting job with a similarly awkward accent that's apparently supposed to sound exotic. Stripper skinny yet with an impressively large breastplate, she's as emotionally convincing as a catatonic Kardashian.

Robin Wright adopts a sort-of-similar accent as Diana's Amazon warrior aunt, who defies Diana's mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) by giving the young Diana martial-arts training in secret.

The scenes on the hidden and lushly beautiful island Themyscira are the most enjoyable parts of the movie, before pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands offshore and brings the problems of the outside world along with him. After impersonating a young-bro version of William Shatner's Captain Kirk in three "Star Trek" movies, Pine seems to have adopted that amiably smirking boyish persona fulltime. That means his Trevor doesn't seem mature or, frankly, manly enough to serve as a good opposite-sex counterpart to Diana.

As a spy for the allies, he has stolen a German notebook with the formula for a deadly new gas. The best example of how the screenplay wanders off track: Instead of taking the notebook directly to his superiors (bearing in mind that he believes it is so important it could change the course of the war), Trevor first takes Diana to a London dress shop for a "Pretty Woman" style montage as she tries on various outfits. That kind of thing might work if this were an episode of the tongue-in-cheek 1970s Lynda Carter TV series, but it seems painfully dumb here. There's also an unwelcome final-act twist that somehow manages to seem both ridiculously random and yet completely predictable.

Other plot complaints: The Amazons are presumably immortal (Diana is the only child on the island, and she was sculpted from clay), but they can be killed by bullets. Also, a single minor wound Diana sustains on the island heals with near Wolverine speed (maybe clay's the trick), but she's never significantly wounded on the far more brutal battlefields of war later, when that ability not only would come in handy but make for a more striking visual. Imagine if German machine-gunners had the common sense to shoot at her legs when she was using her shield to fend off bullets aimed at her body, for example. Even the wearyingly endless hero-beatdown against the god of war himself at the end barely musses her hair.

The main problem, though, is that nobody in the movie expresses an adequate sense of shock or awe when they see Diana do the sort of supernatural feats that should make them wet themselves, fall to their knees or doubt their sanity. Trevor, his ludicrously multi-cultural compatriots (there's even a Native American!) and a village full of townspeople see Diana do things like make a five-story leap and completely demolish a bell tower where a sniper is hiding. From their pleased but nowhere near agog reaction, though, you would think they had witnessed nothing more astonishing than an impressive field-hockey goal. Even if nobody calls her "Wonder Woman," there still should be a sense of wonder.

Man, woman or child, the main thing most people are likely to wonder after seeing this wasted opportunity is whether Warner Bros. ever will figure out how to make a comic-book movie that works.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D



Pirates of the Caribbean:
Dead Men Tell No Tales











"Is that a pistol in your belt, or..."
© 2017 Disney



(Reviewed May 24, 2017, by James Dawson)

While there's no denying that its CGI effects are stunning and its massive set pieces are impressive, Disney's latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" outing still manages to seem going-through-the-motions generic. Like Pierce Brosnan's 007 movies, it's serviceable and sometimes spectacular, but feels more obligatory than inspired. Although longtime fans' minimum-requirement brand-extension needs will be met, "Dead Men Tell No Tales" not only won't rank as anyone's favorite of the five films in the franchise, it may not be in their top four. That doesn't mean it's bad, but that it's just sort of "there."

Johnny Depp is back as the more-staggering-than-swaggering Captain Jack Sparrow, who seems more incidental to the plot here than in any of the other installments. This is partly because two new next-generation characters get more screen time than they merit. One reason audiences may feel resentful over this is because Orlando Bloom's heralded return as Will Turner, who did not appear in the last installment, turns out to be little more than a pair of cameos.

One of the newbies is blandly handsome Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner, son of lovers Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from the first three movies. Last seen as a child at the end of "At World's End," the now-grown Henry needs Captain Jack's help to find Poseidon's magic trident, which he thinks can free his father from the curse that has kept Will bound to the Flying Dutchman for two decades. That quest is complicated by an unpleasant maritime encounter with the genuinely creepy living-dead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, even more frighteningly villainous here than he was in "Skyfall"), who has his own reasons for wanting to find Jack.

The other addition is Kaya Scodelario ("The Maze Runner") as Carina Smyth, a spunky-smart astronomer and time-studying horologist (a term of which many amusingly sophomoric jokes are made). By a rather fortunate coincidence, she also is looking for the trident, using a cryptic guidebook left to her by her long-missing father.

They hook up with Jack after he and his latest crew—which includes longtime charmingly exasperated first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally)—pull off a quite literal bank heist that is town-wreckingly stupendous, but not quite as lucrative as they would have liked.

The always excellent Geoffrey Rush reprises his role as the wryly wily Captain Hector Barbossa. His lucrative piracy empire is threatened by Captain Salazar's death ship that is manned by deteriorating and intriguingly incomplete crewmen.

Like every "Pirates" flick, this one includes senses-shattering sea battles and terrific stunts, such as Jack at the mercy of a crazily rotating guillotine or jumping from cannon to cannon between two extremely close-proximity ships. There's also a flashback scene in which Johnny Depp is flawlessly "Benjamin Buttoned" to appear decades younger. A brief bit with Paul McCartney as Jack's jailed but joking uncle is actually funny. (Because Keith Richards played Jack's dad in the two previous movies, the family tree now includes both a Beatle and a Rolling Stone.)

With all of that going for it, though, the movie is missing the spark that would elevate it from being merely satisfactory to something special. Director Gore Verbinski's first three "Pirates" movies were more enjoyably tongue-in-cheek and insanely hyperactive. Director Rob Marshall's "On Stranger Tides," with its missionary-mermaid romance and Jack's reluctant relationship with Blackbeard's daughter Angelica (Penélope Cruz, who sadly does not make a reappearance here), had more heart. Considering that "Dead Men Tell No Tales" (directed by "Kon-Tiki"'s Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg) wraps up enough subplots that it could be the franchise's finale, this potentially last voyage should have been more than merely adequate.

Also, this is one of those rare movies with an end-credits scene that you're better off not sticking around to see. It's so unnecessary that it actually detracts from the impact of the movie's climax, and should not have been included.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-



Wakefield













Bryan Cranston goes into hiding as frustrated family man "Wakefield."
© 2017 IFC Films



(Reviewed May 12, 2017, by James Dawson)

Narrated throughout by its title character, who spends most of the movie observing his unknowing family from a solitary hiding place, the no-frills "Wakefield" often feels as if it could have been staged as a single-set one-man show without too many alterations. When the calmly unhinged everyman doing the lurking is the always appealing Bryan Cranston, however, that definitely is not a bad thing.

Cranston is unforgettable as the insecure, self-centered and suspicious Howard Wakefield, a New York lawyer who decides on a whim to take an unusual break from his unsatisfying personal life and unfulfilling professional responsibilities. Awakening in the windowed attic above his detached garage, after intending only to wait there until his family was in bed the previous night so he wouldn't have to deal with them after coming home from work, Howard resolves to disappear from his life by secretly taking up residence there.

Through Howard's stream of consciousness voiceover narration and unselfconscious habit of talking to himself, we learn how he deceitfully courted and won his beautiful former-dancer wife (Jennifer Garner), the mother of his two indifferent teenage daughters. Fifteen years of marriage seasoned with jealousy, bitterness and resentment have left Howard so bored and frustrated that living like a scavenging hermit is preferable to walking through the front door of his house again.

While the story's premise brings to mind the 1989 Gary Busey suspense thriller "Hider in the House," the tone here is that of a thoughtful (if perhaps overly literal) metaphor for domestic dissatisfaction and alienation. Howard's loneliness and detachment from the life he found intolerable make him soul-searchingly reflective and unexpectedly appreciative of what he has given up, as his appearance, health and sanity deteriorate. At the same time, each passing day makes it tragically harder for him to imagine any way to escape what he refers to as the prison he has created for himself by his unexplained and lengthy disappearance.

Most of the scenes featuring Howard's wife and daughters play like a silent movie. That's because we see their activities from Howard's point of view, where he usually can't hear what they're saying. Garner is silently radiant as the kind of effortlessly lovely upper-middle-class wife that Howard may know he doesn't really deserve. She also is good at wordlessly conveying initial wifely worries about her husband's absence that give way to getting on with her life a little sooner than Howard would have liked.

Cranston is so good at making us care about the casually amoral Howard that it's impossible not to feel grudging sympathy for him, especially when he realizes that he may have taken his "pause" from reality too far. The movie's tone eases smoothly from Hitchcockian black humor (Howard's improvised impressions of the dialog he imagines visitors to the house saying, and his catty running commentary about their motivations, are priceless) into real poignancy (as Howard's increasing self-honesty makes him more enlightened about his faults).

The closest thing to an action scene, when trash-scavenging Howard has a run-in with some less than genteel garbage-can pickers one night, feels out of place in what otherwise is such an internal story. Also, be warned that although this ideally should have been a three-act story, the movie ends after the equivalent of two, leaving viewers hanging as to what happens next after a painfully abrupt cut to black. (The frustrating finale is identical to that of the E.L. Doctorow "New Yorker" short story from which the screenplay was very faithfully adapted by director Robin Swicord.)

"Wakefield" is interesting and well-acted enough to survive those flaws, however, making this fascinating little morality tale one that's well worth seeking out.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

"Wakefield" will be released theatrically May 19, and will be available through Video on Demand May 26.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword







Spoiler Alert: He whips it out.
© 2017 Warner Bros.



(Reviewed May 11, 2017, by James Dawson)

Director and co-screenwriter Guy Ritchie's re-imagining of the King Arthur myth isn't tongue-in-cheek enough to work as a Monty Pythonesque comedy, but doesn't take itself seriously enough to be a respectable contender in a world where "Game of Thrones" exists. Despite a big budget, decent special effects and a quality cast, "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" feels unconvincing, unnecessary and instantly obsolete.

Charlie Hunnam is the title character, although obtaining said title takes up most of the running time. After escaping death as a small child at the hands of his evil uncle Vortigern (a fittingly nasty Jude Law), who has killed Arthur's parents in a sorcery-fueled coup, the "born king" is raised in a Londinium brothel with no knowledge of his royal roots. Following a zippy montage showing his hard-knocks transformation from meek kid to hustling hunk, he gets his chance to have a go at pulling Excalibur from the stone.

In this version of the story, successfully doing so puts him at war with Vortigern, who wants Arthur and every other member of the resistance to his cruel reign wiped out. Arthur's holed-up-in-the-woods gang and other supporters of his cause are so eye-rollingly diverse that the movie's attempt to cover all racial bases is somehow more offensive than if the legend had been played as the traditional #ArthurSoWhite. Djimon Hounsou and Drake lookalike Kingsley Ben-Adir apparently are African-Anglicans, and Tom Wu plays an Asian martial-arts instructor nicknamed (no lie) Kung Fu George. A goth-mopey female mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) sent by the missing-in-action Merlin does the spellcasting. If the producers had thrown in a transgender troll and a handi-capable dwarf, they probably could have gotten funding from PBS.

The plot ranges from unlikely (instead of killing Arthur as soon as his identity is revealed, when doing so would be effortlessly easy, Vortigern opts for a later public execution in close proximity to a sword that Vortigern knows is magic) to clumsy (tiresomely recurring flashbacks). Ritchie's fight and flight scenes are so frenetic they often are incomprehensible. Also, how Vortigern has managed to wipe out most of the country's mages, despite the fact that they can conjure up things like the mountain-sized monstrous elephants seen in the movie's opening and a grotesquely writhing snake-topus creature, is a complete mystery.

The period-inaccurate designer armor and other costumes are elaborate and stylish enough to be at odds with the more down-to-earth settings, but they definitely look good. Likewise, the fiery father-killing fiend that Arthur fights in his final act face-off is a Frank Frazetta fantasy brought to life. And Arthur's first "George McFly makes a fist moment," when he's had enough and causes an explosive dirt-quake that incapacitates a rather large number of attackers, is impressive.

Taken as a whole, though, the movie is so hyper and jokey and frustratingly phony, right up to a final gag that sounds like the threat of an equally unappealing sequel, that you may want to give this misbegotten myth a miss.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Alien: Covenant







No, he is not about to play "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
© 2017 Fox



(Reviewed May 6, 2017, by James Dawson)

This missed-opportunity follow-up to 2012's "Alien" prequel "Prometheus" is so frustratingly disappointing that the next installment could be forgiven if it explained that everything here was just a very bad dream that only occurred in David the devious android's disembodied head.

Franchise fans will recall that "Prometheus" ended with (spoiler alert) Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the ripped-off noggin of a synthetic named David (Michael Fassbender) exiting the planet where they had discovered a still-living giant from the species that created humankind. Although that murderous engineer (as they referred to him) had made life extremely unpleasant for the Prometheus crew until he was dispatched, sole human survivor Shaw remained sufficiently curious that she wanted to find his home planet for some existential answers, instead of returning to Earth.

When we learn what resulted from her quest in this movie, however, the reveal is thoroughly unsatisfying. What had the potential to be a truly awe-inspiring encounter with virtual gods is given such short shrift that it brings to mind the ridiculously abrupt ending of "Monty Python and The Holy Grail." It's as if the screenwriters here (John Logan and Dante Harper, from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) were so disrespectfully dismissive of what went before by writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof that they preferred sweeping aside its outcome with insulting brevity, instead of building upon such a fascinating foundation.

Even worse, the story they apparently were more interested in telling is so generic and hopelessly derivative that it plays like the kind of uninspired, milk-the-franchise sequel that usually goes straight to video. And although "Alien" and "Prometheus" director Ridley Scott is back, "Alien: Covenant" lacks the distinctive style and quality of either film. Scenes aboard the colony ship Covenant have none of the terrifying, claustrophobic menace that permeated scenes on "Alien"'s Nostromo (although inserting a "dipping bird" on a table in one shot is an amusing homage) or the living hell where it makes landfall. Neither does it offer the icy, clinical chill of the bad doings aboard the Prometheus, or the spooky planet where it lands.

Instead, most of the requisite chest-bursting, teeth-telescoping and such in this movie takes place on an Earth-like planet where starfaring beings so advanced they could create new life forms apparently resided in crudely primitive confines that look uncomfortably similar to the mud-dull decor of underground Zion in the likewise lackluster "The Matrix Revolutions."

The Covenant crew includes a competently can-do widow (the bland but game Katherine Waterston), an indecisive new captain (Billy Crudup, overdoing the insecurity), and a recklessly passionate pilot (a miscast Danny McBride) who wears a straw cowboy hat that's almost as groanworthily eccentric as Idris Elba's unlikely cigars were in "Prometheus."

Also, both movies include the preposterously unlikely appearance of golden oldie AM radio hits (Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" in "Prometheus," John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" here). Maybe there's an awesome-mix crossover with "Guardians of the Galaxy" in this franchise's future.

No one in the cast is as impressive as the frighteningly convincing Fassbender, reprising his role as David and also playing an identical newer-model synthetic named Walter. A delicious decades-earlier flashback that opens the film features freshly activated David and arrogant corporate titan Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) in a sterile white room with only a piano, a chair, a painting and a mountain view. It's too bad that this is about it for any creepily minimalist "Prometheus" (or "2001: A Space Odyssey") style ambience. Instead, screentime is wasted on things like a "Star Trek" style burial-at-space, an interrupted shower-sex scene that is B-movie embarrassing and, I kid you not, a flute lesson.

A final supposed-to-be shocking revelation won't be one for anybody who has managed to pay attention, because the game already was given away by something in an earlier scene. Assuming that the Covenant's crew would be aware of the same information we know, it's impossible to believe that anyone left alive would be taken by surprise.

Jerry Goldsmith's haunting theme from the first "Alien" appears frequently enough to remind everyone that this sixth installment in the franchise is unworthy of it, so including it probably was a mistake.

Here's hoping that number seven in the series opens with exactly the same shot as this movie—one of David's blue eyes in extreme close-up—as he awakens from this unfortunate nightmare into a more fulfilling future.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2









Good lord (or "good Star-Lord"), have you ever seen anything cuter in your life? He is Groot!
© 2017 Marvel Studios



(Reviewed April 24, 2017, by James Dawson)

Marvel always has been the best there is at what they do, and the insanely entertaining "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is the studio's most awesomely enjoyable comic-book-inspired outing ever. Funny, frantic and featuring a more sweetly satisfying storyline than 2014's first "Guardians" adventure, this silly space opera is so gloriously day-glo gorgeous that it should be seen on the biggest screen available, as soon as possible, and at least twice. It's that good.

Returning director James Gunn, who co-wrote the first "Guardians" screenplay but gets sole credit here, gives each of the team's colorful characters plenty of screentime to shine. That's a good thing, too, because it's hard to pick a favorite from this likable band of merry mercenary misfits.

Wait, who am I kidding? Everyone in the universe is guaranteed to fall in love with the tiny and ridiculously cute Baby Groot, whose repeated pronouncement "I am Groot" is again voiced by Vin Diesel. Even a repulsive and murderous turncoat named Taserface (Chris Sullivan) has to admit that Groot is "too adorable to kill."

After a brief 1980 flashback opening, Gunn lets a vigorously spectacular battle between most of the Guardians and a Lovecraftianly grotesque monstrosity—a scene big enough to be the final-act grand spectacle of any other superhero movie—play out in the background, focusing instead on little Groot's oblivious dancing amid all the crazy chaos. Now that's confidence.

The main plot brings good-natured Guardians leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), sometimes known as Star-Lord, together with his unknown and extraterrestrial deadbeat dad (a perfectly cast Kurt Russell). That cheerful cosmic wayfarer, who goes by the unlikely but appropriate moniker Ego, is accompanied by an antenna-adorned empath named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) who can get in touch with everyone's feelings by touching them.

Although Mantis is childlike, big-eyed and meek, her unexpected soulmate turns out to be the gleefully loud and hilariously filter-free Drax (Dave Bautista), a bare-chested tattooed muscleman whose enthusiastic honesty brings the movie's biggest laughs. Drax doesn't like wearing a rocket-pack harness because it hurts his sensitive nipples, he explains his gagging during a bedroom encounter by blithely announcing that "I'm imagining being with you physically," and his proudly unembarrassed description of what his bowels produce may make you lose control of yours.

Also along for the ride again are the amusingly obnoxious and very weapons proficient Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Peter's unspoken-romance-averse would-be girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Michael Rooker is flat-out fantastic and surprisingly touching as the blue-skinned bad-ass Yondu, whose relationship with Peter turns out to be more intriguingly complicated than the kidnapper/hostage scenario laid out in the first movie.

The fascinating characters, uniformly excellent performances and clever story here would make this flick a keeper even on a Roger Corman budget with street clothes and cardboard props, but thankfully Those In Charge had more expensive tastes. The amazing costumes, completely convincing CGI characters and outrageously elaborate settings are stunningly stareworthy. A space battle in a "quantum asteroid field" plays out like an impossible-odds arcade game, and Ego's exotic paradise planet is a luxuriously hallucinogenic Xanadu.

The terrific Tyler Bates score is augmented once again by more "Awesome Mix" classic rock singles, ranging from Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky" to George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" to Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." Also, the way Ego uses the lyrics of the incredibly catchy Looking Glass hit "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" to explain his wandering ways is positively Tarantinoesque.

Because this sequel has a lot more humor than other Marvel movies, it gets away with things like having every alien race somehow speak colloquial English (and use words such as "taser"). A visual gag about Rocket piloting a starship through no less than 700 hyperspace jumps in one go is physics-defyingly funny, especially considering the cartoonishly Tex-Avery-distorted faces of everyone aboard during the trip. And an extended series of questions about whether anyone might have a piece of much-needed tape during an exploding-planet skirmish is a deadpan delight.

The movie even manages to pull off some genuinely heartfelt family-dynamics moments that don't seem at all out of place. One of them is accompanied by a perfectly poignant golden oldie that may even bring tears.

In a perfect world (or galaxy, even), "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" would be the first Marvel Studios movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Sure, it's goofy and garish, but it's also irresistibly appealing, which has to count for something. I can't imagine a more thoroughly enchanting or dazzlingly beautiful movie coming out this year.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A+

Logan





"Was that a Cracker Barrel we just passed?" © 2016 20th Century Fox


(Reviewed February 17, 2017, by James Dawson)

The latest Wolverine installment "Logan" is sufficiently ultraviolent and expletive-laden to earn the sometime X-Man the only "R" rating ever received by any Marvel movie other than last year's diametrically different "Deadpool." But where "Deadpool" was a ridiculously over-the-top black-humor romp, "Logan" is so unrelentingly gritty and grim that it sometimes comes uncomfortably close to resembling such depressing DC Comics downers as "Man of Steel" and "Batman V Superman." Make no mistake, "Logan" is markedly better than either of those interminable bores, if only because it has a trio of main characters worth caring about. Still, it's hard not to wish the dismal affair were just a little less dreary.

Also, any fanboys (and fangirls) expecting this flick to be an adaptation of comics writer Mark Millar's classic "Old Man Logan" arc are in for a disappointment. Although Hugh Jackman's Logan (aka Wolverine, aka James Howlett) is definitely old, and there's a road trip involved, that's about it for any resemblances between those comic books and this movie. (A faithful adaptation would have been impossible anyway, because Millar's story involved many Marvel universe characters who couldn't appear in a Fox feature due to rights issues, but Millar himself had suggested ways the studio could have worked around that problem. Ah, well.)

"Logan" takes place in a future where no other mutants have been born for 25 years. "Maybe we were God's mistake," snarls an embittered and broken-down Logan, now reduced to scraping by as a limo driver who needs reading glasses.

Former X-Men leader Charles Xavier (the always excellent Patrick Stewart) is a senile, brain-damaged wreck. Logan has secreted the prone-to-psychic-episodes Xavier in a remote south-of-the-border hideout to protect the world's most powerful telepath from outsiders, and vice versa. Xavier's caregiver is the albino telepath Caliban, played with impressively pathetic desperation by Stephen Merchant.

A Mexican nurse begs Wolverine to take her and a mysterious child named Laura (a perfectly cast Dafne Keen) north, to escape the clutches of heavily armed commandos employed by the research lab from which Laura has escaped. After an excitingly well-staged and high-firepower car chase that earns extra points for cleverly subverting the standard crash-through-the-fence cliché, Logan, Xavier and Laura hit the road.

As the movie's ad campaign makes obvious, there's more to the deadly serious (and seriously deadly) Laura than meets the eye. Although Laura remains mostly mute, actress Keen conveys everything from surly dismissal to hopeless yearning to feral fury with her expressions alone. When enraged, she turns into a strictly no-nonsense equivalent of Hit-Girl, the relentlessly lethal character played for laughs in the 2010 superhero spoof "Kick-Ass."

Jackman is so convincingly beat down and bummed out that he makes Logan's previous movie mopings about lost love Jean Grey seem almost lighthearted. Life's disappointments also apparently have expanded his (and Xavier's) vulgar vocabulary. Logan's second word in the movie is the "F" bomb, which reoccurs with such frequency that it actually becomes annoying, as if the filmmakers couldn’t resist taking excessive advantage of the license granted them by having an "R" rating.

Stewart gives the movie's most touching performance, especially when we learn the horrific and heartbreaking secret that Xavier's damaged mind can't keep him from remembering. He also delivers one of the movie's rare amusing lines. Referring to the moody and vicious Laura, he asks Logan, "Does she remind you of anybody?"

Returning director James Mangold (who helmed 2013's "The Wolverine") and screenwriters Mangold, Michael Green and Scott Frank offer up enough stabbing, slashing, amputating and beheading to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty videogame devotee. In the movie's most stylishly brutal scene, a deafening white-noise psychic attack from the wheelchair-bound Xavier freezes everyone in the vicinity of his casino hotel room, including a host of heavily-armed bad guys that Logan slow-mo struggles to kill with his claws.

One major aspect of the film's third act is disappointing, because it doesn't have the same unlikely-but-acceptable credibility as what's gone before. Having Logan mock what happens in a meta reference to X-Men comic books (which he insultingly refers to as "bullshit" and "ice cream for bedwetters") doesn't help.

Still, the movie's final image is unforgettable enough to be considered iconic, which makes up for an awful lot of overkill and ice cream along the way.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

War on Everyone












They're bad, and that's not good. © 2016 Saban Films


(Reviewed January 31, 2017, by James Dawson)

British writer-director John Michael McDonagh's 2011 "The Guard" and 2014 "Calvary," both set in Ireland and starring Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, were two of the best films of those years. McDonagh's brother and fellow writer-director Martin had similar success with 2008's excellent "In Bruges," starring Gleeson as one of two Irish hitmen hiding out in Belgium.

Unfortunately, what happened next for both brothers was America (without Gleeson). Martin's 2012 "Seven Psychopaths" was an enjoyable enough small-time-crooks piece set in Los Angeles, but a definite step down from his debut. "War on Everyone" is John's latest, a violent buddy-cop parody based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It's consistently outrageous but rarely as funny as it wants to be, with an inconsistent tone that unsuccessfully attempts to mix silly slapstick with beatdowns and bullets.

Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Boloña (Michael Peña), back on the job after an assaulting-a-fellow-officer sabbatical, are blithely brutal, casually corrupt and very politically incorrect. Single Terry loves Glen Campbell, alcohol and beating up scumbags. Family-man Bob isn't above taking home a suspect's money, flatscreen and X-Box in exchange for not arresting their owner. Both are deadpan low-key and seem dangerously incompetent, but as one of them notes, "Chance favors the bold."

Along with a domestic-case murder, their main concern is a robbery involving resentful snitch Reggie X (Malcolm Barrett). When Terry and Bob try leaning on him for information, Reggie notes that he is "familiar with the whole cop-informant dialectic," one of many clever meta-hardboiled dialog touches.

The movie's big bad guy is "Your Lordship" Mangan (Theo James), a wealthy Brit first seen shooting up in one of his horse stables. When things get personal between him, Terry and Bob, it's car-blowing-up, eye-punching-out and lots-of-fatal-gunplay time.

The problem with trying to make Terry and Bob's reflexive bad behavior appealing is that both are so blank-faced and blasé about it that what's supposed to be their amusing lack of excitement gets boring. Some sight gags actually work, such as when they wonder if their firing-range targets—both featuring black men, one with his hands raised in surrender—might be racist. There's also a sense of the absurd that occasionally elevates the "'Bad Santa' in police cruisers" crudeness. Best example: After the two jet to Iceland in pursuit of a suspect, Terry asks what their plan is for finding the guy. "Stand around here and keep our eyes open," Bob replies, immediately adding, "There he is."

"War on Everyone" (and yes, that is a genuinely terrible title) may have read better on the page than it plays on the screen, where too many scenes include painful pauses for laughs that don't come. Bob dismissively stating that Pythagoras believed the human soul migrated into a green bean after death, or that Elvis and Judy Garland both died on the toilet, are entertaining tossed-off asides. But when a car runs into a trash can in what looks like an homage to the cult-favorite sitcom "Police Squad," "War on Everyone" definitely comes up short in comparison.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C

Passengers








Star-crossed lovers Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. © 2016 Columbia Pictures


(Reviewed December 15, 2016, by James Dawson)

The visually stunning and completely engrossing "Passengers" is not only a great date-night flick, it's one of the best films of the year. Forget this month's other big outer-space movie. For a thoughtfully fascinating SF story featuring actual human drama, genuine suspense and an intriguingly improper romance, this is the one to see.

Chris Pratt is Jim Preston, one of 5,000 passengers and 258 crew members suspended in hibernation pods aboard a luxury starship bound for the distant planet Homestead II. A good-with-tools mechanic by trade, Jim wants a fresh start far from what the corporation that owns the vessel refers to as the "overpopulated, overpriced and overrated" Earth.

Accidentally awakened only 30 years into the 120-year trip when the ship sustains damage, Jim is unable to return to suspended animation, or even to convince a computer interface that anything has gone wrong. Think of the technology nightmare of "2001: A Space Odyssey," but with very bad luck to blame instead of a malicious HAL.

Pratt does a good job of showing the twin terrors of Jim's frustrating solitude combined with his maddening knowledge that he most likely will be dead before everyone else on the ship ends their hibernation at journey's end.

His only conversation partner is the perpetually on-duty android bartender Arthur (the always enjoyable Michael Sheen), whose pleasantries-dispensing programming is of little use when it comes to discussing moral or existential issues. "Jim, these are not robot questions," he smilingly notes at one point, amiably dispelling any nagging similarities between himself and the creepy barkeep from "The Shining."

Eventually, Jim's crushing loneliness leads him to awaken fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), even though he knows what a monstrous act he is committing by doing so. He also knows that the survival of their slowly growing friends-into-lovers relationship depends on Aurora never finding out what he did…which means that's exactly what has to happen (sooner rather than later here, thankfully).

Director Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game") lets this deceptively simple plot expand into a moving metaphor about the need for forgiveness and acceptance in any romantic relationship. Tyldum also expertly ramps up the things-getting-worse tension as onboard systems continue to fail. Watching a futuristic Roomba repeatedly run into a wall is a surprisingly ominous sight.

The Oscar-worthy production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas ("Inception") makes the starship's interior seem both elegantly spacious yet coldly intimidating. Spacewalks outside the massive, constantly spiraling hull are as awe-inspiring and thrilling as those in "Gravity."

Two standout SFX scenes include the ship's up-close slingshot maneuver around a red giant star, and a terrifying display of what happens to someone unfortunate enough to be in a swimming pool when the artificial gravity cuts out. Other visual treats are Aurora's black jogging bodysuit and white mesh swimsuit, or Jim's bare backside, depending on your taste.

Minor flaws include the unlikelihood of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" or Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" playing on the ship's sound system in whatever far-future time period the movie takes place. Also, Aurora at some point should have realized with horror that her beauty was a curse, being a contributing factor to why Jim awakened her. (Speaking of which: Imagine how different this movie would be if the actor playing Jim had been an ugly, middle-aged slob who wouldn't take "no" for an answer, instead of studly and sensitively patient Chris Pratt.)

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts, co-writer of "Doctor Strange" and Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," makes Jim and Aurora's personal dynamics as compelling as their frightening predicament, which is so rich with possibilities that it could have been a multi-part series. Although the movie is self-contained, it's not hard to imagine sequels that could expand on this universe and its characters.

Highly recommended.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story











Rebel rebels. © 2016 Luscasfilm


(Reviewed December 13, 2016, by James Dawson)

While it probably will satisfy the minimum requirements of Star Wars franchise fans, so much of "Rogue One" is dull, dumb and (literally) dark that it often seems depressingly desperate. Oddly, many of the frenetic action sequences turn out to be the most tedious parts of the movie. Stormtroopers still have such poor aim that it's hard not to wonder if they even can see through their helmets, and the interminable aerial dogfights are about as engaging as watching somebody else play a videogame.

The best thing about the film is deliciously deadpan new droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a significantly less fidgety C-3PO who gets all the best comedy-relief lines. The worst thing is the rest of the ridiculously padded and boring screenplay, which boils down to "find dad and his blueprint." This painfully puny plot is stretched out to a mind-numbing 133 minutes…but if you're looking to maximize your entertainment dollar, be assured that the running time feels at least twice that long.

The stunningly lovely Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, whose luscious cupid's-bow lips, alluring eyes and consistently flawless makeup are somehow ignored by every male in the cosmos. Sure, she and her fellow rough-and-ready rebels are running around trying to topple an empire and all, but it's hard to imagine even a rusty robot not making a pass at such an irresistible beauty.

Although billed as a standalone story, "Rogue One" actually is an immediate prequel to 1977's first "Star Wars" outing, setting up the events in that film. Jyn's father (a suitably somber Mads Mikkelsen, who also appeared in this year's "Doctor Strange") tried escaping the evil Empire, but has been dragooned back to the dark side to design the Death Star, every nerd's favorite weapon of mass destruction. His hiss-worthily nasty superior Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) manages to be even more vicious than returning baddie Grand Moff Tarkin (the deceased Peter Cushing, appearing by way of a rather remarkable CGI reincarnation). Where Krennic would be cool with destroying an entire planet as an initial demonstration of the Death Star's capabilities, Tarkin settles for only a single city.

Tarkin is one of several returning original-trilogy characters, including a final creative cameo guaranteed to goad geeks into fangasms. The entire enterprise ends up feeling somehow hollow, however. In the same way that this year's "Star Trek Beyond" played like an unengaging fanboy pastiche, "Rogue One" is another going-through-the-motions franchise filler that barely gets the job done.

Director Gareth Edwards (who helmed 2014's abominable "Godzilla") lets the story drag in too many places. It doesn’t help that many of those scenes are so dark even in 2D that I can't imagine how bad they would look through 3D glasses.

The only bright spots in the Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy screenplay come from the sarcastic K-2SO, who is less persnickety than C-3PO but more endearingly annoyed than Marvin the Paranoid Android from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." When rebel assassin Cassian Andor (a grimly no-fun Diego Luna) gives Jyn a weapon, K-2SO petulantly complains, "Why does she get a blaster and I don't?" He later responds to one of Jyn's remarks by stating, with amusingly peevish David-Hyde-Pierce-like matter-of-factness, "I find that answer vague and unconvincing."

During a suitably ominous one-on-one encounter, Darth Vader (voiced as always by James Earl Jones) threateningly advises the conniving Krennic, "Be careful not to choke on your aspirations." It would have been nice if the "Rogue One" filmmakers, however, had aspired to something a little higher than this generic space junk.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Jackie








This dreadful movie's box-office prospects are deader than JFK.
© 2016 Fox Searchlight



(Reviewed November 18, 2016, by James Dawson)

"Jackie" may be the most insufferably unwatchable example of grotesquely maudlin vulgarity this year, with a dazed Razzie-worthy performance by Natalie Portman, who seems to think Jackie O should be played as if she were one of her delusionally creepy "Grey Gardens" relations. The low point (which is saying something) occurs when she catatonically roams the post-assassination-empty living quarters of the White House to the strains of "Camelot," which she has put on the record player.

Avoid.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Fantastic Beasts
and Where to Find Them












A-hunting they will go: Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler.
© 2016 Warner Bros.



(Reviewed November 16, 2016, by James Dawson)

When a talented baker is informed by a dismissive banker in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" that "there are machines now that can produce hundreds of donuts in an hour," he confidently replies, "They're nothing like what I can do."

Likewise, Harry Potter's one-of-a-kind creator J.K. Rowling has served up a tasty new concoction that seems distinctively hand-crafted instead of mass manufactured, with enough of the author's signature charm to please both longtime fans and newcomers to her fascinating fantasy universe.

"Fantastic Beasts " originated as Rowling's 2001 facsimile of a Hogwarts textbook purportedly written by "magizoologist" Newt Scamander. Expanded into Rowling's first screenplay, the movie finds Scamander (appealingly embodied by Eddie Redmayne) arriving in 1926 New York with a magic suitcase full of wildly imaginative creatures, not all of whom want to stay put. The plot follows his efforts to track down the wayward ones, avoid the wrath of a worldwide wizarding council upset by the attention he's attracting to their secret community, and locate a destructive monster that's wreaking havoc on the Big Apple.

The tone mirrors the storybook style of Rowling's Potter books and their movie adaptations, all of which had dark undercurrents grounding their flights of young-adult fancy. Director David Yates, who helmed the final four of the eight Harry Potter installments, maintains stylistic continuity with those films by keeping a sense of menace that tempers the lighter moments.

Redmayne is good at portraying Scamander as a socially awkward but passionately committed defender of the dangerous but endangered. Although he nervously avoids looking people in the eye, he's brave enough to confront, capture and shelter a variety of beasts that are genuinely beastly.

The film cleverly expands the Potter-verse to America, where the nickname local wizards have for anyone without magical powers is "No-Maj" instead of "Muggle." The primary one of those here is baker Jacob Kowalski (a likeably restrained Dan Fogler), who accidentally becomes involved in the perilous proceedings. Acting as the audience's wide-eyed viewpoint character, his "I don't think I'm dreamin', I ain't got the brains to make this up" shock gives way to an endearing go-with-the-flow acceptance.

Tina Goldstein ("Inherent Vice"'s Katherine Waterston), a demoted wizarding council investigator who hopes to reverse her fortunes by apprehending Scamander, instead becomes his on-the-run ally. Unfortunately, the plot slows to a crawl when she takes him to the apartment she shares with her psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol of Amazon's "Transparent"), where things seem more sleepy than dreamlike. Queenie's later relationship with Jake, however, is one of the movie's sweetest aspects.

Colin Farrell is excellent as the coolly cruel Director of Magical Security at MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America). Examples of the movie's elaborate production design at MACUSA HQ include self-typing typewriters, a memory-pool execution chamber and a massive clock that includes designations such as "Severe Unexplained Activity." The period costumes by Colleen Atwood, including Scamander's soon to be iconic blue overcoat, also deserve praise.

Samantha Morton is suitably stern as the head of an anti-witchcraft organization, who mentally and physically abuses her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller, flinchingly shellshocked in a Moe Howard haircut).

Renegade dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is the big, bad but mostly offscreen main villain. As dreaded and feared as Harry Potter's nemesis Voldemort, Grindelwald (portrayed by a surprise-cameo actor whose identity is destined to be a poorly kept secret) may play a larger role later in the projected five-film franchise.

Fittingly, there are enough wildly creative computer-animated creatures both great and small here to stock a small menagerie. The most fun to watch is the thieving Niffler, a sort-of-platypus with a seemingly infinite capacity for secreting vast quantities of stolen items in its fur. Ron Perlman memorably appears in a small role as a tough-guy underworld elf in a speakeasy that serves genuine giggle water.

Besides the obvious Potter parallels (hidden-world wonders, importance of tolerance for outsiders, Scamander's Hagrid-like conservation impulses), the movie contains echoes of everything from "Jurassic Park" (Kowalski's sense of awe during his first trip into the rather-bigger-inside-than-it-appears suitcase) to "The Avengers" (a colossal amount of citywide destruction when the dark force goes on a raging rampage). With a hilariously calamitous slapstick jewelry store rescue and an unexpectedly touching love story thrown in, this flick has something for everyone except the coldest-hearted Dementor.

The movie's excellent score is by James Newton Howard, but the first music heard under the opening credits is the John Williams "Harry Potter" theme, which sets a pretty high bar for what will come after. Even with some pacing problems and what might be a few too many very-dark-of-night scenes, "Fantastic Beasts" is both a worthy successor…and predecessor…to the adventures of Harry and company.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

A Monster Calls









"I am NOT Groot."
© 2016 Focus Features



(Reviewed November 16, 2016, by James Dawson)

A very short review: "A Monster Calls" has incredible special effects, with a massive and jaw-droppingly realistic Yew tree creature that's like a more impressively convincing and genuinely frightening version of Groot (voiced in a rumbling baritone by Liam Neeson but looking more like a woody Hugh Laurie). He appears in the fantasies of a troubled schoolboy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose single mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) must cope with Conor's frustrated acting-out and his mother's impending demise.

The movie's mixture of nightmarish terrors and poignantly dramatic tragedy is unexpectedly effective. Its one notable flaw, however, is that it's one of those movies that didn't know where to end. After a perfect tearjerking conclusion, there's a final scene that very obviously should have been cut.

Still, that's not enough to keep this interesting hybrid of storybook fable and domestic tragedy from being highly recommended.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Moana








That pig better enjoy life while he can. © 2016 Disney


(Reviewed November 14, 2016, by James Dawson)

Disney's tropical fairy tale "Moana" is dazzlingly good looking, but the movie's tediously formulaic empowered-princess plot feels as if it was left out in the sun too long, its songs (co-written by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) are aggressively annoying and the entire project feels pandering and phony. The girl-power basics that worked so swimmingly in many of the studio's past efforts (most notably "The Little Mermaid") feel so by-the-numbers and once-more-back-to-the-well here that "Moana" sinks like a stone.

The title character, voiced with generic Disney Channel overenthusiasm by Auli'i Cravalho, is the daughter of a chief and is being groomed to succeed him. She's frustrated that he won't let her sail beyond their island's reef to explore. Supernaturally selected by the ocean to find the exiled demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), she also must convince him to save the world by returning a magic rock to the island where he stole it. So off she goes with a crazy chicken stowaway, shout-singing a typical anthems-by-the-yard ode to optimistic self-realization.

The screenplay is credited to Jared Bush, with no less than seven story-by credits, but there's probably Disney scriptwriting software that could have done an equally minimum-basic-requirements job. Things that don't make much sense include the fact that the ocean-as-character could take care of the entire put-the-rock-back mission with no assistance from Moana or Maui whatsoever. Also, it's ridiculously unlikely that Our Heroes could emerge unblowdarted after an encounter with hundreds of seafaring coconut pirates (as in "pirates who actually are coconuts").

A character's death is rendered moot when she reappears more than once in physical form to freely communicate with the living. The massively muscled Maui's egomaniacal childishness is one-note tiresome, except for the requisite moment when he must solemnly relate his unfortunate origin. The single strangest story misstep occurs when Moana giddily recalls the flavor of "that's some pork" aloud in a hut. Hearing this, her adorably cute piglet pet understandably shrinks back in shocked disappointment. Although Moana immediately regrets being overheard, there's no indication from her that the shocked pig won't end up on a plate later. Oink!

Despite all of those drawbacks, there's no disputing that the computer-animated film is incredibly beautiful. The manic high-seas showdown with those coconut pirates, a couple of confrontations with a living lava demon and a journey to an undersea land of monsters are wonders to behold. By far the standout scene visually is a confrontation with a colossal and very crabby crab (voiced by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Concords), who shifts from gold-plated to colorfully black-light radiant. His decidedly non-Sebastian-like rap number wasn't my cup of poi, but he sure looks good performing it.

Maybe the current miserable state of the real world is partly to blame, but something about this movie's bludgeoningly inspiring attitude, far too frequent high-fives, saccharine air of self-satisfaction and simplistic celebration of wide-eyed can-do confidence made me want to leave midway through and go read a book in the lobby.

There's only so much artificial paradise a guy can take.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Hacksaw Ridge










Life is just a box of ammo.
© 2016 Cross Creek



(Reviewed November 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

Although director Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge" includes extensive and graphic blood-and-guts war scenes that rival "Saving Private Ryan" (or even "The Walking Dead") for their shockingly gory realism, the events leading up to the hellish title battle are Hollywood hokey, and the main character of this true story is embarrassingly unconvincing.

Andrew Garfield lays on what’s apparently supposed to be Forrest Gumpish dumbbell charm and a hick accent so thickly that he seems borderline retarded as Desmond Doss, a Virginia hillbilly who goes all moony for local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). Why the lovely, sensible and considerably more emotionally mature Dorothy would romantically reciprocate dopey Desmond’s desire is indecipherable, but maybe the heart wants what the heart wants.

The movie’s gimmick is that World War II inspires Desmond to enlist in the army, but as a conscientious objector who won’t so much as touch a rifle. That’s because his father (Hugo Weaving, overacting shamelessly) was a violent alcoholic who once threatened Desmond’s mother with a handgun in their living room. What stopped him from decorating the wallpaper with mom’s brains was Desmond grabbing said gun and threatening dad with it, which would seem to make the point that a weapon in the right hands is a good thing. Reaching that logical conclusion apparently is beyond Desmond’s mental capacity, however.

At boot camp, the belligerently stereotypical Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and barracks bullies make Desmond’s life hell, until he earns the grudging respect that those stock characters always eventually bestow upon the weak. Incredibly, however, we never see a single heart-to-heart discussion between Desmond and anyone else about whether his holier-than-thou stance really means that he would sit by and watch one of his fellow soldiers get shot, instead of troubling himself to shoot a would-be killer.

Similarly, during the relentless hours of the Hacksaw Ridge battle against the Japanese on Okinawa that’s depicted in the movie’s second half, we never see Desmond in a single situation where he would be forced to decide between staying true to his beliefs or saving a life by taking up arms. It defies credibility to think that such a situation never occurred in the free-fire frenzy of all that fighting. By never showing Desmond faced with such a choice, his pacifism is never tested by a situation that would make it morally meaningful.

Desmond shows inspiring heroism by remaining behind to drag wounded soldiers to safety instead of retreating with the rest of the able-bodied when US troops are about to be overrun. His courage deserves all of the respect and praise he received, and it’s nice to see footage of the real Desmond Doss near the movie’s end. It’s just too bad that this movie doesn’t convey more convincing humanity behind the hero.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Postscript (11/4/16): It turns out that just about everything important in the weak first half of "Hacksaw Ridge" is fiction. The real Desmond Doss was drafted (didn't enlist); did not save his mother from being shot by his father (it was his mother who saved her brother); and met his wife in church (not at a hospital). Incredibly, though, what he did on Okinawa was even more impressive than what is shown onscreen. Click for more info: History Vs. Hollywood "Hacksaw Ridge" Story.

Arrival













Amy Adams has a close encounter. © 2016 Paramount


(Reviewed November 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

The drearily serious "Arrival" has some suitably awe-inspiring giant-hovering-spacecraft shots and emotionally wrenching moments, but it's ultimately kind of dumb for a movie that tries to look so smart.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a languages professor haunted by thoughts of her dead daughter that are underscored by composer Max Richter's moving "On the Nature of Daylight" (heard previously in "Shutter Island," and sad enough to make just about any footage of anything bring tears).

She and mathematician Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the US military's Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to try communicating with the inhabitants of a dozen massive spaceships that have materialized in various locations around the planet. Nobody else in the world is having much luck, and the Chinese are uncertain enough about the aliens' intentions that they may take military action. (They obviously haven't seen "The Day the Earth Stood Still.")

A door in the bottom of the otherwise featureless ship that's suspended over Montana opens every 18 hours, allowing Banks, Donnelly, a canary and some soldiers manning recording gear inside for an unspecified interval. What's never addressed is how long that interval is, or exactly how the aliens indicate that anyone inside should leave, which would have to involve some sort of communication. Also, while the canary apparently is supposed to be a coal mine throwback, its presence begs the question of how other-worlders might regard a species barbaric enough to use a bird in a cage as a "see if it falls over dead" atmosphere tester. This is something you would think might occur to at least one person on the first-contact ground teams, but apparently not.

The creepy aliens, which resemble huge elephant-skinned octopuses with one fewer leg, float in a foggy mist behind a transparent wall inside the ship. They communicate with what look like splotchy coffee rings that they "ink" onto the wall.

Banks tries teaching them English in the most unbelievably slow and inefficient way imaginable, starting out by writing the word "human" on a board and pointing to herself. Considering that these aliens are able to selectively control gravity, most likely have mastered faster-than-light travel and therefore probably have more brains than an inarticulate toddler, they presumably could handle a lesson more academically advanced than the equivalent of "me Tarzan, you Jane."

It's also hard to believe that the task of finding a way to converse with the newcomers wouldn't involve a lot more technology (if not with a laptop displaying Google Translate, then at least a screen flipping through a picture dictionary). Plus it's hard to buy that such an important mission would be entrusted to only two people who get in-person facetime with the aliens in America, especially since one of those people doesn't do much of anything except watch the other's earnestly well-meaning efforts.

Without spoiling any specifics, the eventual reveal about the aliens' intentions raises an intriguing philosophical point. But the climax hinges on the very hard to swallow unlikelihood that the aliens would need to possess universal mind-reading omniscience to know something they pass along to Banks. Also, despite an admonition that the answer to why the aliens are here has to involve all 12 first-contact teams working together around the world, that's clearly not what happens.

Director Denis Villeneuve ("Enemy," "Sicario") gives the proceedings a nearly humorless gravitas that frankly gets a bit dull, although the alien encounter bits are suitably unsettling. If the screenplay by Eric Heisserer (adapted from the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang) had shown a little more thought, "Arrival" may have been as intellectually satisfying as it is sentimentally touching.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-


Miss Sloane




"What are the box-office prospects for a movie about politics and lobbying this month? I'll plead the fifth." © 2016 Europacorp


(Reviewed November 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

"Miss Sloane" is not only an irritatingly simplistic movie that thinks it's smart, but one that takes place in some strange alternate reality where politicians have shame, lobbyists have consciences and a hunky hooker has a heart of gold.

Jessica Chastain is the icy, insomniac, pill-popping and prostitute-procuring title character, a high-level workaholic at a lobbying firm that has just taken on an NRA-like entity as a very top-dollar client. After literally laughing in the face of that organization's head at the prospect of creating a women-for-guns campaign, Sloane departs for a pro-gun-control "boutique" firm that embodies every bad-TV David-vs.-Goliath cliché. Earnestly committed Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) leads an eager, diverse and bright-eyed team of 20-somethings there with patriarchal patience, impressed by Sloane's skill set if a little worried that she might Go Too Far. Which, of course, she does.

Everyone speaks in rapid-fire complete sentences that are so ridiculously didactic, sermonizing or expository that the whole affair comes off like Aaron Sorkin writing a mashup of "The West Wing" and "50 Shades of Grey" on a coke binge. There's also a lot of shouting in offices, of course.

In the movie's framing scenes, John Lithgow is good as a corrupt US senator who has Sloane on the hot seat at a congressional hearing looking into an incriminating document with Sloane's handwriting on it. Because, sure, that's really likely. In what may be the movie's most unintentionally laugh-out-loud moment, he initially was reluctant to call such a hearing because they cost a lot of public funds. What's even more preposterous is a scene in which an elected representative who has been bought off by the gun lobby is shamed into reversing that position because of a single on-camera question about his previous stance.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who is popping up in more movies lately than Samuel L. Jackson (he's also in this month's "Doctor Strange" and "Arrival"), is a former Sloane associate out to ruin her for jumping ship. Resembling a young Grandpa Munster and with an almost cartoonish nastiness, he sneers his way through encounters such as a conference room showdown and a live TV debate.

Alison Pill plays Sloane's big-glasses-blond former assistant like a slightly wised-up Elle Woods from "Legally Blonde." Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Sloane's big-eyed new second-in-command with a soon to be exploited secret. Boring Sam Waterston perfectly embodies Sloane's pompously imperious ex-boss.

Director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love," "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") seems intent on making most of the cast deliver their logorrheic lines as if they're in a screwball comedy crossed with "A Few Good Men," which isn't a winning combination.

Although Chastain does her best with the achingly unbelievable title character, Sloane is such an expressionless high-energy motormouth that her rare displays of anything resembling humanity are unconvincing. Her hotel liaisons with a pay-for-play stud (Jake Lacy) feel embarrassingly contrived by screenwriter Jonathan Perera to shove some sex stuffing into this Thanksgiving turkey, and a final twist is so silly it's insulting.

"Miss Sloane" is one to miss.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-


Doctor Strange

"Strange," indeed. © 2016 Marvel Studios


(Reviewed October 23, 2016, by James Dawson)

The doctor is out…of this world! Marvel's mystical "Doctor Strange," who originated in 1960s comics by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, is a surrealistically spell-spinning sorcerer who employs magic instead of might to fend off his foes. Using mindblowingly trippy special effects and stunning CGI settings, director Scott Derrickson brings Strange to the big screen with all of the way-out weirdness that long-waiting fans could want.

Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the genius-and-knows-it neurosurgeon with just the right amount of Marvel's trademark tongue-in-cheekiness. His initial Tony Stark-style arrogance gives way to humility and desperation after a car accident handicaps his hands. Medical science can't help him, but he hears there may be hope in the Himalayas.

Instead of slowing the story to a drag during his time at a monastic retreat there (see "Batman Begins"), his studies have an appealingly Hogwarts-ish sense of wonder about them as Strange discovers how to manipulate "the source code that shapes reality." That's how bald head honcho The Ancient One (a wryly beatific Tilda Swinton) describes the unscientific rules that can be manipulated with enough practice, willpower and belief. Okay, this mainly involves making cool hand gestures in the air—but if it works, it works.

The bad guys are former students Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, rocking some terrifically overdone eye makeup) and his henchmen, who want to deliver our world to the dark dimension's dread Dormammu (think "really, really bad guy"). On Strange's side are the retreat's sternly humorless librarian Wong (great straight man Benedict Wong) and true-believer fellow disciple Mordo (the always enjoyable Chiwetel Ejiofor). Back in the more material world, trauma surgeon Rachel McAdams is Strange's former colleague and ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer, who refreshingly never finds herself consigned to "damsel in distress" duty.

The dazzling visuals are so imaginative and clever that a single viewing of the movie may not be sufficient to take in all of the wonders on display. In addition to kaleidoscopic "Inception"-style building-bending and impossible M.C. Escher angles, one action scene takes place while the city around the protagonists "undestroys" itself in backward time. The equivalent of the "Beyond the Infinite" bit from "2001: A Space Odyssey" sends Strange on a thrill-ride innerspace free-fall. Spirits leave bodies as ghostly astral projections that duke it out unseen by unknowing mortals, "Sling Rings" teleport wearers wherever they want to go and Strange's oddly affectionate cloak of levitation has a life of its own.

The screenplay (by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill) succeeds in differentiating "Doctor Strange" from Marvel's more conventional superheroes without getting overly intellectual about it. While it's hard not to wonder how the movie might have played with fewer Beyoncé gags and more genuinely terrifying existential worlds-beyond-worlds horror, the mass-appeal approach here is enough fun that it doesn't seem commercially cynical.

One story flaw is that we should have seen something to verify Mordo's grave misgivings about a time-altering spell, considering how important his stance becomes later. In addition, "Doctor Strange" features a really weak Stan Lee cameo that completely breaks the flow of a fight scene. And the title of the book he's holding is almost impossible to read, which ruins the gag.

Those are very minor complaints about a movie with so many must-see moments, however. "Doctor Strange" is the 14th Marvel Studios movie (which doesn't include those featuring the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, among others, which were produced by other studios). It's also one of the best, hands down.

(Note: Stick around at the end for a mid-credits scene, and another short scene when the credits finish.)

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-


2016 California Voter Guide

Los Angeles residents: Are you confused, annoyed, frustrated or outright angered by the prospect of having to vote on no less than 17 state measures, two county measures, another goddamned school bond and four city measures in the November 2016 election, in addition to making selections for president, US senator, US representative, state senator, member of the state assembly and four judicial candidates? Here's some helpful advice.

PRESIDENT: They all suck.

Republican Donald Trump is the crash-the-system protest-vote choice who unfortunately appears to be a bit of an unhinged, raving madman. Democrat Hillary Clinton is a deceitful politics-as-usual warhawk owned by Wall Street. Libertarian Gary Johnson is a dope. For Californians, that only leaves Peace and Freedom candidate Gloria Estela La Riva (who cannot possibly win, because she is on the ballot only in California, so I won’t bother critiquing her) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (who is on the ballots of 46 states and the District of Columbia, so she theoretically has a shot). Stein would have been my first choice — she is against war, in favor of universal single-payer healthcare and not beholden to either of this country’s despicable “Big Two” major parties — but she also is in favor of open borders, amnesty for illegal immigrants and paying slavery “reparations” to African-Americans, which indicates she is hopelessly insane. So either pick which candidate you hate the least and pretend to be happy if that one wins, or take the moral high ground by refusing to participate in a process that offers such insultingly unsatisfying choices.


UNITED STATES SENATOR: No vote

California wastes voters' time and money with a system in which the top two vote-getters in the primaries, even if they are members of the same party, go on to be the candidates on the November ballot. That means we once again have a "choice" between two Democrats, this time the embarrassingly dumb Loretta Sanchez and the Clintonesquely reptilian Kamala Harris. Don't lend legitimacy to this corrupt charade by voting for either of them.


STATE SENATOR and MEMBER OF THE STATE ASSEMBLY: Why bother?

Because of state gerrymandering, my voting district would go Democrat even if the Republican alternative were Jesus Christ himself. Feel free to protest-vote for the Republican. Or write in Mickey Mouse.


JUDICIAL

I don't know jack about any of the candidates who are up for these four elections, but I assume they're all lawyers, which means all of them would lie about themselves and their positions, anyway. Next!


STATE MEASURE 51 (SCHOOL BONDS): No

Go by this simple rule when it comes to deciding on any measure that involves increasing taxes or fees: Do you think that the obscene amount of money already being hoovered from your wallet by the government is being well spent? I don't. I never would vote to give Los Angeles, LA County or California another penny. When it comes to school bonds, all you have to do is remember the multi-billion-dollar construction bond that voters foolishly passed a few years ago, only to watch its funds be used for an insanely wasteful and corrupt "iPads for all" scheme.


STATE MEASURE 52 (MEDI-CAL HOSPITAL FEE): Yes

This only continues a program in which hospital fees fund Medi-Cal. Fine.


STATE MEASURE 53 (REVENUE BONDS SUBJECT TO VOTER APPROVAL): Yes

Requires voter approval of any bonds totaling more than $2 billion. Which at least means there would be a chance that state lawmakers could be kept from getting everything they want when it comes to robbing taxpayers blind.


STATE MEASURE 54 (NO BILL PASSED UNLESS POSTED): Yes

Requires bills to be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before a vote, which will let us pretend nothing can get railroaded too quickly into law.


STATE MEASURE 55 (EXTENDS TAX HIKE ON $250,000-AND-UP EARNINGS): Yes

I'm normally against tax hikes, but anyone making $250,000 or more should be paying more of them in the first place.


STATE MEASURE 56 ($2 TAX HIKE ON PACKS OF CIGARETTES): Yes

Cigarette smoking is disgusting, obnoxious and causes cancer. Case closed.


STATE MEASURE 57 (PAROLE FOR NONVIOLENT FELONS): No

Most inmates have had the charges against them pleaded down from more serious crimes before they are sentenced. Also, even what are referred to now in California as "nonviolent" crimes include thefts of up to $950 of personal property. It makes no sense to let any inmate in this slap-on-the-wrist state serve any less time than even the infuriatingly inadequate sentence he already has received. This measure is yet another misguided attempt by California to reduce its inmate population, as it has been ordered to do by the courts, instead of building more prisons to house them. Here's an idea: Maybe Governor Jerry Brown could divert a few billion from his beloved bullet train boondoggle to slap up a few more San Quentins. Problem solved.


STATE MEASURE 58 (ENGLISH PROFICIENCY): Yes

Preserves the requirement that public schools ensure that students obtain English language proficiency. I can't imagine anyone having a problem with that, especially considering that it would have "No notable fiscal effect on school districts or state government."


STATE MEASURE 59 (CITIZENS UNITED DISAPPROVAL): Yes

This is a completely toothless "advisory" that lets voters express their disapproval of the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case, which essentially allowed unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns. Go ahead and vote for it, then clap your hands really hard and maybe Tinkerbell will give you a unicorn pony.


STATE MEASURE 60 (RUBBERS REQUIRED IN PORN PRODUCTIONS): No

This moronic measure (a version of which already is in effect in loony Los Angeles County) would require porn actors to wear condoms, and would fund (at an estimated cost of more than $1 million annually) enforcement of that ridiculous regulation. Which apparently means "Dick Inspector" will become a new government job, complete with the usual platinum-level pension and benefits. What next, a law that says mainstream actors must use dental dams in kissing scenes?


STATE MEASURE 61 (PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICING STANDARDS): Yes

Want to know how vile pharmaceutical companies are? This measure would ensure that the state of California would be prohibited from paying more for drugs than the price paid by the US Department of Veteran Affairs. So drug makers are running anti-61 ads warning that passing it will mean higher costs for vets...apparently threatening that prices will be raised across the board, for vets and everyone else, to ensure that Big Pharma will keep raking in the billions. (It would be nice to think that if they follow through on this threat, California would adopt a single-payer universal healthcare system in response.) Don't let drugmakers get away with profiteering. Vote yes.


STATE MEASURE 62 (REPEAL DEATH PENALTY): No

The problem with the death penalty in California is that it has become meaningless, because the sentence has not been carried out in more than a decade. Instead of repealing it, remove the stumbling blocks to speed up the process of putting violent, subhuman monsters to death by voting Yes on Measure 66 (see below).


STATE MEASURE 63 (BACKGROUND CHECKS FOR AMMO SALES): Yes

Might not help, but couldn't hurt.


STATE MEASURE 64 (MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION): Yes

I've never smoked pot in my life, but I couldn't care less if somebody else wants to do so in the privacy of their home. Outlawing it has been an expensive law-enforcement fiasco for decades.


STATE MEASURE 65 (CARRYOUT BAGS FUNDS TRANSFER): Yes

Laws requiring stores to sell plastic bags (instead of giving them away with purchases as before) let stores keep the money. This measure would require the money be turned over to the state for environmental projects. I think it was nuts to ban the bag giveaways in the first place, but anyone forced to cough up a dime to buy a bag should at least know the money is going somewhere other than to the grocery store's pockets. (Also see Measure 67, for another bag-related proposition.)


STATE MEASURE 66 (SPEEDS UP DEATH PENALTY): Yes

There are so many impediments to executions in California that the death penalty has become meaningless here. The solution isn't to get rid of it, however, as Measure 62 would do. Better to speed up the appeals process and eliminate other hurdles that have kept it from being implemented, so rapists and murderers get their due before dying of old age.


STATE MEASURE 67 (STATEWIDE CARRYOUT BAG BAN): No

The Los Angeles ban on grocery stores providing plastic bags to customers meant everyone here had to start acting like a homeless vagrant, carrying around their own soiled old sacks for their purchases, unless they wanted to pay for paper bags at the store. It also means we don't get free plastic bags to use later as trash bags, or to pick up dog crap, or to tie around our heads while performing erotic auto-asphyxiation acts. Bring back the bags!


COUNTY MEASURE A (PROPERTY TAX HIKE): No

Does anyone in Los Angeles County think we're not paying enough in property taxes already? Or that the taxes we are paying already are well spent? It doesn't matter what the county wants to do with new taxes, because they have taxed us enough already. Instead of letting the county take even more, force them to re-prioritize.


COUNTY MEASURE M (SALES TAX INCREASE FOR TRANSPORTATION): No

Wouldn't you think that highway improvements would be one of the first places where taxes should be spent, especially the ones we pay as gasoline taxes that are specifically earmarked for transportation needs? When the government says it needs more money for that purpose, what it really means is that they have wasted too much money on other things, and that they think we can be fooled by being told the money is needed for roads. Force them to set better priorities. Vote no.


$3.3 BILLION SCHOOL BOND: No

Again, if you actually believe that you are not paying enough in property taxes already, go ahead and vote to flush more of your money away to LAUSD. Maybe this time they'll use it to give every student an iWatch.


CITY MEASURE HHH ($1.2 BILLION HOMELESSNESS BOND): No

It's another bond, which means higher property taxes, which means no.


CITY MEASURE JJJ (AFFORDABLE HOUSING REQUIREMENT): No

Sounds inoffensive at first, until you realize that the part saying it will create an "incentive program" will mean taxpayer money going to developers. And legislators wonder why we question their spending priorities?


CITY MEASURE RRR (DWP BOARD CHANGES): No

Why bother making meaninglessly incremental window-dressing changes to the DWP, which instead needs a top-to-bottom overhaul and an end to its corrupt pay-for-play relationship with the county? This is only another fake feel-good measure that will accomplish nothing significant.


CITY MEASURE SSS (ADD MORE EMPLOYEES TO PUBLIC PENSION ROLLS): No

California's public-employee pension funds already are so underfunded that the state is effectively bankrupt when those obligations are figured into its overall debt. This insane measure would add even more employees to that taxpayer-funded gravy train. No thanks.

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So, there you have it. Now go forth on November 8 (or sooner by mail) and pretend that your vote actually means something, and that democracy is anything more noble than mob rule.