Thor: Ragnarok

Hulk, Thor, Valkyrie and Loki playing bridge. Rainbow bridge, that is.
© 2017 Marvel Studios

(To be reviewed October 19, 2017, by James Dawson)

Marvel Studios has embargoed reviews of this movie until 9am Pacific Time on Thursday, October 19. Check back then to see my extra-length review!

Back Row Reviews Grade: Coming soon!

Blade Runner 2049

Replicant Ryan Gosling and hologram dreamgirl Ana de Armas.
© 2017 Alcon Entertainment

(Reviewed October 5, 2017, by James Dawson)

"Blade Runner 2049" is about four-fifths of a great film, until its mostly psychological suspense and almost somber elegance give way to a rushed flight-and-fight finale that knocks the smarts right out of it. It's still a must-see sequel, if only for its stunning production design (by Dennis Gassner), photography (Roger A. Deakins) and what may be the year's most appealing supporting character (the hologram girlfriend Joi, played by Ana de Armas). But things stop making much sense shortly after the movie's most anticipated fangasm moment, when original 1982 "Blade Runner" star Harrison Ford finally shows up.

Director Denis Villeneuve, whose downbeat SF flick "Arrival" had a similar payoff problem, at first seems to have a real feel for making the understated interesting. Ryan Gosling's K is miserably deadpan as a gets-no-respect "blade runner," a synthetic made-not-born LAPD officer tasked with hunting down earlier-model replicants who have gone rogue. Villeneuve is good at moving K around between futuristic settings that range from the dismal dystopian (dead-tree protein farm, slum apartment, scrap-metal junkyard) to the art-installation exquisite (a lit-slit reception window, shadowy water-platform rooms, a landscape of colossal sculptures).

Lieutenant Joshi (a slicked-hair severe Robin Wright) wants K to take care of a potential "this breaks the world" replicant-related situation that K has discovered before word gets out. Unfortunately, quietly creepy sociopath Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a corporate-head visionary who revived the banned replicant industry in the years following the first "Blade Runner," has a rather evil reason for wanting to find K's quarry first. His lethally efficient assistant, a coolly high-kicking replicant he has named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), secretly monitors K's progress, with an occasional murder along the way.

The movie's most captivating cast member is K's shockingly beautiful hologram girlfriend Joi, who is lovingly sincere and sweetly guileless in addition to being irresistibly sexy. Sufficiently pillow-lipped and big-eyed to play Felicity Jones' exotic kid sister, Ana de Armas makes Joi an impossibly perfect dreamgirl. A scene in which she overlays her projected image onto a flesh-and-blood hooker to share a tangible sexual experience with K is both more tender and more erotic than a similar scene in 2013's "Her," when operating system Samantha likewise employed a surrogate to hook up with her owner.

"Blade Runner" director Ridley Scott (who executive produced this sequel) and Ford famously disagreed in the past about whether Ford's character Rick Deckard was a replicant in the first movie. (Ford said no.) The matter has been settled now in Scott's favor, but the new suggestion that Deckard and his "Blade Runner" love interest Rachel may have been designed specifically to meet in that film is too contrived to be credible. And although Ford is believably surly, morose and gruff here as old man Deckard, it's hard to fathom how he survives in his current circumstances, or even why.

The screenplay is by "Blade Runner" co-writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, using characters from the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Without divulging any spoilers, the movie's ending is unsatisfying both logically and dramatically, setting up an obvious but unnecessary (and hopefully not inevitable) sequel.

The film's first line of dialog is "I hope you don't mind me taking the liberty," which also could be taken as a plea from director Villeneuve to worshipful fans of the first "Blade Runner." While his gorgeous effort to extend the franchise gets more right than wrong, it's too bad that 35 years apparently wasn't long enough to come up with a more fitting final act.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

No, they're not watching online porn.
© 2017 Fox

(Reviewed September 18, 2017, by James Dawson)

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle," like its 2014 predecessor "Kingsman: The Secret Service," is an enjoyably inventive next-generation spoof of mid-period 007 flicks that actually outdoes some of those disco-era James Bond escapades when it comes to huge set pieces, over-the-top action and gags that actually are funny. It's also slightly better than the first "Kingsman," if only because it doesn't have to spend any time setting things up.

But at 141 minutes, this tongue-in-cheek romp may actually be too much of a good thing. Just as manners maketh man, less can be more…even if there certainly are worse problems a movie can have.

Likeable Taron Egerton is back as Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, a former lower-class layabout who was "My Fair Lady"-ed into a bespoke-tailored secret agent by the urbanely proper Harry Hart (Colin Firth) of the undercover Kingsman organization. Eggsy has assumed Hart's Galahad codename following Hart's apparent demise in the last movie, and the method in which his missing mentor rejoins the living is one of this movie's sillier pleasures.

"Kingsman: The Golden Circle" is the second flick this year (after Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver") with the cocky confidence to start off with a wild car chase that could be the last-act highlight of other action movies. In the backseat of a customized cab that's taking fire from malevolent motorists, Eggsy fights off rejected Kingsman candidate Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), who is now cybernetically enhanced with a viciously versatile mechanical arm that puts the Winter Soldier's to shame. The highlight of that perilous pursuit is an overhead shot of Eggsy's cab doing an extremely extended "London drift" around a long curve, before converting to wheels-sideways amphibian mode and going underwater in Hyde Park. Good evening, Mr. Bond!

When Kingsman security is compromised and nearly the entire English operation is explosively eliminated, Eggsy and tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) head stateside to team up with their American equivalents: Statesman operatives whose cover is a Kentucky distillery. Tobacco-spitting agent Tequila (Channing Tatum) and electric-lasso-wielding Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) take their orders from a spittoon-employing supervisor known as Champagne (Jeff Bridges). Halle Berry, as a wannabe-agent support techie for the undercover organization, only gets to be called Ginger Ale.

Julianne Moore is de rigueur megalomaniacal villain Poppy Adams, a massively successful drug lord who has turned her remote jungle hideout into a retro smalltown "Poppy Land" complete with diner, bowling alley, beauty salon, theater…and a couple of murderous robot dogs, of course. Having tainted her products with a deathly disease affecting millions to which only she has the antidote, she tries blackmailing the United States into legalizing all drugs.

Director Matthew Vaughn, who created the Kingsman franchise with comics writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons, co-wrote both movies with Jane Goldman. Nearly everything about the first movie that differed from its comics incarnation was a change for the worse (including a completely different beginning and ending). This sequel has the odd advantage of being an original story, however, which prevents any comparisons to an existing work. The result is a fun ride that may go on a half-hour too long, but more because it is crammed full of too many treats, as opposed to padded out with filler.

Vaughn, who also directed the Daniel Craig thriller "Layer Cake," the fantasy "Stardust," Millar's "Kick-Ass" and the superhero reboot "X-Men: First Class," does a great job of keeping even the most ferociously frantic fight scenes intelligible. He accomplishes this mainly by staying with the precisely choreographed action through long takes that occasionally shift into slow motion to show off particularly impressive moments of impact.

The movie also includes a fittingly Blofeldian alpine installation, a parachute nod to "The Spy Who Loved Me," and a reluctant seduction scene that turns Bond's brand of conscience-free licentiousness on its head.

There are plenty of enjoyable references to the first movie, including Harry Hart's stuffed dog Mr. Pickle, yet another epic bar fight, and rescued Swedish princess Tilde (Hannah Alström), who is now Eggsy's girlfriend. "If you save the world, you know what that means," she tells him in their bedroom.

As anyone who gets that reference from the first installment knows, Eggsy is more than inspired to give it his best shot.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+


"I'm definitely getting rid of the damned welcome mat."
© 2017 Paramount

(Reviewed September 13, 2017, by James Dawson)

The unexpectedly allegorical and eventually overwhelming "Mother!" is a bizarre hybrid of nightmarish surrealism, sly social satire, psychological terror and cellar-dark humor. It's basically a two-hour art-horror version of the classic Monty Python skit "The Visitors," in which a couple's home is invaded by increasingly obnoxious and destructive uninvited guests, reframed as a creepy metaphor about the perils of fame, the insidiousness of religion and the egotism inherent in artistic creation. If director/writer Darren Aronofsky's brutally gritty "Requiem for a Dream" and his incomprehensibly loopy "The Fountain" had a baby, in other words, it would look a lot like "Mother!"

(That exclamation point is part of the title, by the way, possibly to distinguish it from the Albert Brooks comedy "Mother"—which certainly would make an interesting double-feature companion to this far less family-friendly film.)

None of the characters have names, which is a story conceit that may have worked better if not for places where characters who are introduced to each other for the first time obviously would exchange them. That anonymity may be because everyone here is supposed to be an archetype: the martyr-like muse, the self-involved writer, the ineffectual father, the wicked mother, the sinister sons, and the oppressive unwashed masses.

The adoring woman-child wife (lushly radiant Jennifer Lawrence) of an old-enough-to-be-her-dad poet (believably detached Javier Bardem) live in an isolated country house that she has been restoring following a fire. When a smilingly insinuating but vaguely threatening older stranger (the perfectly cast Ed Harris) with a persistent cough appears on their doorstep claiming he thought they had a room for rent, Poet invites him to spend the night, despite Mrs. Poet's wariness.

Mrs. Poet is even more upset when Cougher's brash, nasty other half (a viciously catty Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, followed by their ferociously argumentative grown sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). Things quickly go from bad to much, much worse, resulting in the spilling of blood that apparently has the same acidic quality as that of the creature in "Alien," judging from how it eats through the floorboards.

Are hellish scenes like that actually Mrs. Poet's passive-aggressive hallucinations, fragments of an extremely unpleasant dream, or psychotic reactions to that yellow stuff from the medicine-cabinet that she takes whenever she gets a gut-pain? Or is she just plain nuts? And what the hell is that bloody organ (or organism) in the toilet?

Mrs. Poet goes from confused to exasperated to horrified by hubby's further acts of inexplicable hospitality, as he refuses to evict increasingly irritating interlopers despite their escalating offenses. What starts out as her slow-burning annoyance at his oblivious inconsideration for her feelings grows into distrust, anger and outright fear.

Aronofsky goes completely over the top in the film's high-firepower final act, which is wildly violent, unrelentingly intense and includes what may be the year's single most shockingly disturbing scene. An ambiguous reality-bending ending somehow seems like a perfectly fitting finale to this offbeat ordeal. In a mystifyingly mental movie this stylish and strange, making sense is beside the point.

Even if this metaphysical mash-up isn't your cup of mud (and there's a better than even chance it won't be, especially if you go in expecting a conventional horror flick), "Mother!" is audaciously outrageous enough that you definitely won't forget it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Dark Tower

"Ha, you blinked!"
"No, you blinked!"
© 2017 Sony

(Reviewed August 2, 2017, by James Dawson)

The deliciously distinctive "The Dark Tower," adapted from a series of Stephen King novels by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and director Nikolaj Arcel, is a genre-blending mash-up of young-adult fantasy, dystopian SF drama, monster-mayhem horror and six-gun-blazing western that proves "more" sometimes actually can be more.

Like 2011's unfairly unappreciated "Cowboys and Aliens," which attempted a similar colliding-worlds concoction, this beautifully shot adventure is played surprisingly straight. And that's saying something, in a frenziedly far-fetched tale about an evil sorcerer abducting gifted children from various worlds to power a death-ray designed to destroy a massive tower at the center of the universe that keeps terrifying outer-darkness demons from getting in and destroying everything. Oh, and that murderous villain's never-say-die adversary is a vengeance-bent gunslinger whose magic-bullet-shooting revolver is forged from the metal of King Arthur's sword Excalibur. Everything here is so brazenly outrageous, in other words, that the plot easily could have been played as a total tongue-in-cheek parody, which makes it impressive that there's almost no winking at the audience on display.

Tom Taylor plays believably troubled New York teen Jake Chambers, who has disturbing dreams of a miles-high tower and an evil Man in Black. His frustrated mom and even more fed-up stepdad are about to ship him off to a special psychiatric clinic when Tom notices dead-giveaway seams in the necks of two not-exactly-human would-be kidnappers who arrive to take him there. After a rooftop chase and a terrifying ordeal in a may-as-well-be-haunted house, he ends up in the world of his visions.

Idris Elba is excellent as the tersely tough and doggedly determined Roland Deschain, aka the Gunslinger. He is everyone's last hope for protecting the tower against all enemies, but his sole focus is on killing the sinister sorcerer Walter, aka the Man in Black, for murdering Roland's father.

Matthew McConaughey is scene-stealingly, Voldemort-level vicious as the casually cruel Walter, whose power of suggestion is so effective that he can kill simply by telling people to stop breathing or burn. Onetime Victoria's Secret model Abbey Lee plays his gorgeous deadpan henchbabe, who seems to have modeled her way-too-much-makeup and tight-red-minidress look on old Robert Palmer music videos. (Look them up, kids.)

The Gunslinger's seemingly endless ammo supply is good for extended shoot-'em-ups with "Matrix"-level displays of firepower. Settings such as a desolate tornado-columned wasteland, a decayed theme park and Walter's dismal high-tech base are suitably creepy. In one of many visually interesting scenes, a telepathic recap of past events is shown with overlapping time-lapse images in Jake's bedroom back on Earth.

Before the movie's release, some readers worried that the elaborate storyline in King's "Dark Tower" novels (and Easter-egg elements within them that tie all of King's books together into a single all-encompassing multiverse) might prove hard to adapt. Speaking as someone who has not read the series, I have no idea how faithful the movie is to its source material—but that also means I can set other newcomers' minds at ease by saying that they will have no trouble jumping into the screen story without any background from the books. And even if you've never heard of "The Shining," Jake's psychic "shine" abilities still will make sense.

The film has echoes of everything from "The Wolverine" ("I heal fast," notes the seemingly indestructible Gunslinger) to the torture-chair from "Brazil" to the "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" Child Catcher to the not-entirely-happy ending of "Time Bandits," yet still manages to seem fresh. Also, the last-act showdown between the Gunslinger and Walter features a jaw-droppingly ingenious game-over feat that manages to be simultaneously preposterous and yet incredibly satisfying. Which is a good description of the movie as a whole, in fact.

A prequel TV series featuring the Gunslinger is planned, but a big-screen sequel that continues this wild, wild weirdness would be even more welcome.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

The International

Trouble? Bank on it.
© 2017 Columbia Pictures

(Reviewed February 4, 2009, by James Dawson)

Note: This review originally appeared on a shall-remain-nameless website that has now purged all movie reviews in an apparent attempt to rebrand itself, so I am re-posting it here.

With a hopelessly generic title and nobody under 35 in the cast, "The International" looks at first glance like box-office poison. Those aren't the only things that give cause for commercial-prospects concern. It's a paranoid-conspiracy thriller about getting the goods on a bad bank. There is no comic relief. The leads not only keep their clothes on, they never even kiss. Also, there are no car chases, snappy one-liners or pop songs.

Granted, there is a huge shootout that Swiss-cheeses the Guggenheim Museum. But aside from that extremely out-of-place example of endless-ammo overkill, the movie plays more like a tense novel about corporate intrigue than a jumped-up superhero videogame.

A movie for and about adults? What was the studio thinking?

The good news is that this expertly crafted throwback to films like "Day of the Jackal" and "The French Connection" is so suspenseful and interesting that it feels convincingly classic. At the same time, Eric Warren Singer's smart screenplay -- in which a character explains that "the true nature of the banking industry is to make us slaves to debt" -- feels uncomfortably contemporary.

Shoulda-been-Bond Clive Owen is excellent as Louis Salinger, a relentless Interpol agent who watches one of his colleagues drop dead after meeting a would-be informer from a shady multinational bank. That's not the first time the money managers have taken deadly retribution, but it is one setback too many for the permanently seething Salinger. Seems he was roadblocked once before when he was on the verge of taking the bank down, and he is not about to be stymied again.

His partner in crimefighting is Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), the more level-headed of the two. Just when their inquiries turn up proof of the bank's role in everything from an assassination to a nation-toppling arms deal, pressure from higher-ups threatens to stop their investigation cold. That's because, as elderly bank associate Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) puts it, "everyone's involved."

Watts doesn't have much to do except look concerned, but Owen and Mueller-Stahl are perfectly cast. Owen's Salinger is the kind of frustrated but doggedly determined obsessive we can believe would spend days without sleep to get his man. Mueller-Stahl's former East German secret police Colonel Wexler has a calmly untroubled exterior that hides decades of sins and sad regrets.

Director Tom Tykwer, best known for his stylishly flashy "Run Lola Run" and lushly sensual "Perfume," uses a more straightforward and restrained style here that is suited to the police-procedural material. Well, "restrained" except for the way over-the-top Guggenheim firefight, anyway. That high-powered run-and-gun showstopper is the most gloriously choreographed shoot-em-up set-piece since, well, Michael Davis' absurdly violent "Shoot 'Em Up" (which also happened to star one Clive Owen).

Appropriately for a movie titled "The International," the film was shot in several European countries as well as the United States. A pursuit scene through Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and across the city's rooftops is one of the most memorable. The impressive cinematography is by regular Tykwer collaborator Frank Griebe.

The movie's release amid the current global economic meltdown either is perfectly or disastrously timed. Audiences are predisposed to root against nasty bankers right now…but who needs to be reminded that bankers are nasty?

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+


War is...well, you know. © 2017 Warner Bros.

(Reviewed July 18, 2017, by James Dawson)

More of an IMAX-spectacular technical feat than a traditional movie, "Dunkirk" plays like an assemblage of elaborate second-unit footage for a film that should have included more story for those scenes to enhance. Most of the admittedly impressive land, sea and air coverage is presented in an almost documentary style that makes it hard to differentiate between many nameless characters. "Dunkirk" is the equivalent of a silent movie with musical accompaniment that could have dispensed with even the very little dialog it bothers to include, because Hans Zimmer's relentlessly ticking and throbbing score is more important than anything anyone says when it comes to giving scenes a meaningful emotional context.

Director/writer Christopher Nolan, whose "Dark Knight" Batman trilogy proved that bleak can equal big box-office, uses an interesting structure to tell this thin tale, which is based on the 1940 evacuation of 300,000 mostly British troops hemmed in by Nazi forces in World War II. The movie's three interwoven narratives span different amounts of time: a week for the under-fire soldiers awaiting evacuation from the beach in France, a day for one of the privately owned "little boats" dispatched from the British coast to help rescue them, and an hour for three Royal Air Force planes headed over the channel for air support.

Mark Rylance gives a stoic performance as a calmly stalwart British citizen who sets out for Dunkirk with his son and another boy on their small boat despite the obvious danger of heading into a war zone. Tom Hardy is a coolly professional pilot whose flight across the channel is made more difficult by his Spitfire's broken fuel gauge. Fionn Whitehead is a stranded private whose often dishonorable-at-best attempts to get off the beach and make it home to England are repeatedly thwarted by bullets and bombs.

Strangely, the movie never shows a single German (no cutaways to Hitler, sorry), and doesn't provide any explanation for why Nazi forces didn't make more of an effort to wipe out the huge number of all but defenseless sitting-duck Allies who were stranded on Dunkirk beach for days. Also, all of the movie's characters are fictional, even Kenneth Branagh's noble Commander Bolton, who valiantly waits with his men at Dunkirk. Creating Bolton out of whole cloth seems insultingly disrespectful in a movie dealing with a historical incident, but that's Hollywood for you. Also, pop star Harry Styles appears as one of the interchangeable British soldiers who may as well be considered crowd-scene extras.

Visually awe-inspiring yet somehow not terribly moving, "Dunkirk" is like a two-hour trailer for a movie that could have used more meat for the grinder.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets

This movie is more fun than a day at the beach. Especially a beach with spaceships crashing onto it. © 2017 EuropaCorp

(Reviewed July 11, 2017, by James Dawson)

Forget about waiting to catch this dazzlingly spectacular SF-adventure at home. As its fittingly grandiose title implies, "Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets" contains so many awesome wonders to behold that it deserves to be viewed on the biggest theater screen available ASAP. As much fun as "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," more visually stunning than "Avatar" and sexy-cool enough to make "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" seem positively stodgy, it's this summer's most must-see movie.

A clever opening montage of historic first meetings between astronauts from different countries, planets and possibly dimensions, set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," is like an amusing short feature unto itself. That's where we find out that Earth's original international space station eventually grew so huge with add-ons that it eventually was set free from Earth's orbit to become a wildly diverse world unto itself called Alpha, aka the City of a Thousand Planets.

That's where the enthusiastically fearless Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his deadpan delightful sidekick Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne) run into escalating problems with their superiors, various aliens and hatchet-headed killer robots when they bring back a last-of-its-kind creature from their latest mission.

The two confidently competent and effortlessly appealing characters, who originated in French graphic novels by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières that were first published 50 years ago, genuinely seem to like and respect each other, despite some occasionally exasperating behavior. When Valerian runs through a wall and ends up floating in space because Laureline accidentally misread a number, his pleasantly unperturbed response to her apology is, "That's okay. We all make mistakes."

It's hard to believe that 20 years have passed since "Valerian" director/screenwriter Luc Besson's similarly eye-candy delicious "The Fifth Element" was released. Both movies share an outrageous sense of style and a winkingly tongue-in-cheek attitude that paradoxically comes across as innocently sincere. The boyish seven-medals-of-honor Valerian, despite an apparently well-deserved rep as a playboy, is obsessed with getting Laureline to accept his wholesomely heartfelt proposal of marriage. And Delevingne is so good at making the resting-beautiful-face Laureline convincingly sexy, brave and smart that it's easy to see why Valerian wants to put a ring on her.

Clive Owen is scarily intense as their commander-with-a-secret, Herbie Hancock (yes, the musician) is Alpha's no-nonsense Defense Minister, and Ethan Hawke is a flamboyantly hustling Paradise Alley pimp. Pop star Rihanna is excellent in a brief role as a shape-changing dancer named Bubble, whose Fosse-esque very-quick-change act transforms her from naughty nurse to French maid to lingerie-clad catwoman, with a few other male fantasies in between.

Special-effects-wise, the ridiculously large variety of alien creatures and the stare-worthy settings are so impressive that the movie would be worth watching even with the sound turned off. There's such an embarrassment of visual riches—such as when hot-pursuit Valerian runs, flies and swims through numerous Alpha environments in rapid succession—that repeat viewings may be required to fully appreciate them.

There also are sight gags aplenty, such as when Laureline admires the wrong "pretty butterfly," suffers the result of a repulsively retaliatory roar, and gets crowned in more ways than one. The fast-moving screenplay also manages to work in references to topics such as illegal immigration, genocide and refugees without seeming heavy-handed about it (although the specific number "6,000,000 dead" can't help having obvious connotations). And if you can't make it to the beach, there are a couple of incredibly scenic ones here that are the next best thing to a virtual vacation, if you don't mind the view being ruined by crashing spaceships.

"Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets" is the kind of fresh, franchise-deserving fun that makes everything else at the multiplex look very been-there, seen-that. This is the kind of huge, extravagant, thrilling and sometimes silly popcorn flick that makes leaving the house actually worth the effort. A Bromosaur on even the biggest TV screen just wouldn't be the same.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Given all the choices of photos from this movie, somehow this is the one I couldn't resist using: Marisa Tomei as the ridiculously hot Aunt May. © 2017 Columbia Pictures

(Reviewed June 29, 2017, by James Dawson)

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" gets enough little things wrong about the classic superhero to bug fans of the original comic-book version of the character. Fortunately, it gets two very big things right: Tom Holland is the most likeable and age-appropriate actor ever to take on the role, and finally bringing the webslinger into the Marvel universe of other heroes in one of his own movies is every fan's dream come true.

Holland is a youthful and exuberant breath of fresh air for the re-rebooted franchise, making high school sophomore-with-a-secret Peter Parker believably eager, immature and insecure. Previous Parkers Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were too old for the role. Maguire's Parker also was hindered by the wrongheaded decision that he should shoot webs directly from his wrists as a creepily mutated hybrid, instead of from mechanical webshooters.

Because Sony/Columbia owns the rights to make Spider-Man movies, the character never was able to swing over and interact with any Disney/Marvel heroes until his memorable cameo in last year's "Captain America: Civil War." His relationship with Robert Downey Jr.'s wealthy genius inventor and benefactor Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) from that outing continues here, Captain America pops up for a cameo or three, and the alien invasion from 2012's "The Avengers" is referenced as taking place in the same New York where Parker is a science student in Queens.

Michael Keaton hams it up as the obnoxiously vicious Adrian Toomes, whose illegal sales of salvaged alien technology from that invasion catch Spider-Man's attention during an ATM robbery that goes disastrously wrong. Toomes' much lower-tech incarnation in 1960s comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko was called The Vulture, but (in an obvious nod to Keaton's Oscar-nominated role in 2014's "Birdman") he only is referred to here as "the bird guy."

Toomes gets into the action in a huge metallic contraption with massive rotors and what looks like a more than 20-foot wingspan. The suit seems ridiculously massive and heavy in a world where Iron Man, and even The Falcon, get airborne with a lot less elaborate equipment, but it's definitely intimidating.

When Parker isn't pestering Stark's right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with endless calls and texts about when Spider-Man can Avenger-up for another mission, he's John-Hughes-style high-schooling with nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), name-calling nemesis Flash (Tony Revolori), fantasy dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier) and sardonic oddball Michelle (Zendaya). A wacky Spidey chase scene through suburban backyards, complete with asides to people he encounters, is such an obvious homage to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" that producers apparently thought they should acknowledge their debt by including a shot of the movie playing on a TV in the background.

The movie's flaws include a little too much scary-brutal violence for a flick that should have stayed lighter even in the fight scenes, and some miscastings that range from unfortunate to patronizing to downright bizarre. Keaton is so crazy-eyed and cruelly nasty from the get-go that he never seems human (unlike, for example, Thomas Haden Church's thoughtful portrayal of bad guy Sandman in 2007's "Spider-Man 3"). Flash, Liz and a much more important character from the comics whose identity is a last-act reveal are no longer Caucasian, making this version of Parker's world more diverse but regrettably disrespectful of the source material. (Note: If you have seen the movie, see the addendum at the end of this review for updated information on that third character.) Likewise, turning Parker's elderly and sickly Aunt May into a tank-top-rocking 50-something beauty who is sexy enough to elicit horndog appreciation from Stark, a lusty "hot Italian lady" compliment from a bodega owner and free sticky noodles from a leering Thai waiter is just plain weird.

And while the amiably endearing Ned provides great comic relief ("Do you lay eggs? Can you spit venom? Can you summon an army of spiders?"), giving Parker a buddy who shares his unpopular-loser social status and knows his secret identity defeats the point of Parker being a misunderstood loner. Like director Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, this movie makes the mistake of having too many people know that Parker is Spider-Man way too soon. Unlike almost every other hero in what is known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Parker has a secret identity, so why throw that away? Similarly, giving Spider-Man a souped-up suit with an artificial-intelligence voice that provides him with KITT-car-like guidance and advice robs the character of his sometimes awkward autonomy.

Director Jon Watts (2015's "Cop Car") gives the film an almost cheesy vibe that works by keeping things teen-comedy casual for the most part. The special effects are a little inconsistent, sometimes making Spidey seem too much like a weightlessly flitting CGI image, and some too-fast fight scenes are hard to follow. One of the most dramatic action scenes turns out to be one of the simplest, involving plummeting-elevator peril inside the Washington Monument.

Watts and five other writers get screenplay credit, which could explain the shifting tone. After Toomes disintegrates—as in for-real outright kills—a henchman, he looks only mildly surprised and quips, "I thought that was the anti-gravity gun." Later, one of the movie's best lines is so absurd that it seems to have been lifted straight from "The Simpsons." (It's what Parker's teacher says after a field-trip disaster is averted.)

In the "non-spoiler" category (as in "things that don't happen"), there is no J. Jonah Jameson, no Gwen Stacy, and the writers strangely resist a perfect opportunity to have the public mistakenly regard Spidey as a villain (which was a staple of the comics).

On the positive side, the 1960s animated TV series theme song is back (although without lyrics), Stan Lee makes another welcome cameo, and just about all of the movie's humor actually is funny. Also, after playing a video of Captain America addressing students, a deadpan-disinterested teacher notes that he's "pretty sure this guy's a war criminal now," which is a nice nod to current Marvel continuity.

Stick around for two bonus scenes at the end. The last one works even though it's the second time a Marvel-character movie has referenced the same classic gag. Which is appropriate, because "Spider-Man: Homecoming" proves that everything old really can be new again.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

7/10/17 Addendum (warning: contains spoiler): After the movie's opening weekend, a story appeared in which Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said that the third character mentioned above who underwent a race change for this reboot actually is not the person we are led to believe she is. In the movie, Zendaya's character Michelle (who is black) mentions at the end of the movie that her friends call her MJ, implying that she will be this universe's version of the classic comics character Mary Jane (MJ) Watson. Sure, "Michelle" isn't "Mary," but it seemed unlikely that the franchise would expect us to infer that this MJ is merely another girl who happens to go by that nickname, and she's not the as-yet-unintroduced MJ who plays such a crucial role in Spider-Man's life. Feige, however, is now saying that "we never even looked at it as a big reveal necessarily but more of just a fun homage to his past adventures and his past love. She's not Mary Jane Watson. She never was Mary Jane Watson." (See the article at for more details.)

As the writer of the article notes, "It's possible that Marvel and Sony wanted to test the waters with the whole 'MJ' reveal and that they've now realised that it would have been a mistake to handle Mary Jane like this." That's exactly what I think. Having Michelle announce that she goes by MJ without expecting everyone to assume that she will be THE MJ is the equivalent of having Peter meet a fellow student named Gwen who would turn out to be just another girl who happened to go by that likewise instantly identifiable name. I'm not buying it. But having said that, I'm glad that the classic white redhead version of MJ presumably has yet to meet this new Peter Parker, and that such an important character has not been re-raced to become Michelle.

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-


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+


"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


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