Parody Review: "First Man"











Really subtle, Hollywood. SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!







(Reviewed October 12, 2018, by James Dawson)



Note: When I pitched the following extremely tongue-in-cheek piece to TheFederalist.com, the editor there (probably wisely) took a pass, preferring a straight review of the movie instead. I dutifully wrote one of those (which you can see by clicking right here). I didn’t want to let this very politically incorrect parody go to waste, however, so it appears below.



Insultingly Titled 'First Man' Perpetuates Toxic Patriarchy

In the enlightened #MeToo era, and the painfully tragic aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s shameful recent confirmation, the arrival of a motion picture with the outrageously insensitive title “First Man” is an insult to every woke woman worldwide. Why not wave a penis in our faces and then gang-rape us, Hollywood?

Also, the fact that this misbegotten movie is about a cis-gender American-citizen white hetero male whose sexual preference, nationality and race have not been altered to make the story more inclusive is a slap in the face of the LGBTQIA+ community, undocumented immigrants, and people of color everywhere. Just because the white-privileged and straight astronaut Neil Armstrong went to the moon is no reason for him to be played onscreen by Ryan Gosling, when there are plenty of disabled female African-American actors who are disgracefully underemployed. Ever hear of “equal opportunity,” entertainment elites? (At least Gosling is Canadian, which is a small step for internationalism.)

Also, the last thing that anyone in these #TimesUp times wants to see is a vulgar Saturn V phallic symbol thrusting into space from a state that cost Hillary Clinton the presidency (female-unfriendly Florida), guided by NASA Mission Control white men based in another one (hatefully intolerant Texas). Why not just go ahead and put Make America Great Again caps on every likely sexual predator who probably was "boofing" and secretly drinking in the control room?

Caveman-cretin conservatives have complained about how this movie does not show Armstrong physically plant the symbol of universal oppression—the American flag—on the surface of the moon. This admirable concession by the filmmakers to the idea that a single country has no right to take sole credit for the first successful lunar landing is one of the few good things about what otherwise is a paean to patriarchal so-called progress. American taxpayers may have funded research by American scientists to construct American-made technology manned by Americans for the Apollo 11 mission. But as the much-missed Barack Obama once noted about US entrepreneurs, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Likewise, the true credit for putting a person on the moon obviously should be shared with every other being that ever has existed anywhere at any time on our mother Gaea, including animals,plants and global-warming endangered coral.

Claire Foy (a Brit, thankfully) from Netflix’s “The Queen” plays Armstrong’s legal life partner Janet Armstrong, although she undoubtedly was paid far less than Gosling for doing so.

“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle ensured that a deserving female did not get to helm this project by taking the job himself. Ditto screenwriter Josh Singer, who adapted the book by James R. Hansen, another man. Seeing a pattern here, ladies? One of the executive producers is Steven Spielberg. Hey, Mister E.T. exploiter, how about phoning a few qualified women next time?

And while we’re on the subject of extra-terrestrials, why the Hela is it the “man on the moon,” anyway?

Phoebe in Wonderland











Elle Fanning, through the looking glass.
©2008 Silverwood Films



(Reviewed February 24, 2009, by James Dawson)

Note: I originally wrote this review for the website ArtistDirect.com, which now seems to have wiped all non-music-related content from its pages, so I am re-posting it here (followed by a feature article about the movie that I did for the same site).

It may sound premature to proclaim that Elle Fanning delivers a career-making performance at age nine, but that's exactly what this amazing young actress accomplishes with "Phoebe in Wonderland." She portrays the troubled title character with a sensitivity and complete lack of artifice that make Phoebe seem heartbreakingly genuine. This kind of role could have been disastrously mishandled by a showier, less empathetic young actress, but Fanning makes not a single misstep. She is a marvel.

Imaginative Phoebe can't help being impatient with boring schoolteachers who are determined to transform her into an obediently quiet "Good Job Jenny." Her interest is piqued when a deliciously deadpan drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) visits the classroom, reverently reciting nonsense lines from "Jabberwocky" as if they make perfect sense. When she announces that auditions are being held for parts in an "Alice in Wonderland" school play, Phoebe is both fascinated and fearful.

Part of her reluctance over trying out is because she realizes how devastating failure would feel. Phoebe not only has trouble with anger management (her parents are summoned to school after she spits on a teasing classmate), she also is obsessed with counting, clapping and other rituals. She realizes that her compulsive behavior doesn't make sense, but can't stop herself from doing things like washing her hands to the point where they are cracked and bloody.

Yes, that sounds like the basis of a "disease of the week" TV episode, but the subject matter turns out to be wrenchingly convincing here. We can't help feeling sympathetic embarrassment for Phoebe's illogical impulses and outbursts, because Fanning makes us care so much about the fragile character.

Contrasting with her emotional off-stage turmoil, Phoebe's unselfconscious portrayal of Alice during rehearsals is as much a joy for us to watch as it is for her delighted drama teacher. Resented by other jealous girls who wanted the role, Phoebe's only friend is a boy (Ian Colletti) who gets his wish to play the Red Queen. The two of them thrive under the teacher's hands-off approach, which gives Phoebe a self-assurance that's inspiring. The tragedy is that we know her underlying problems are sure to manifest themselves again.

Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe's caring but frustrated mother, who refuses at first to acknowledge that there's anything wrong with her daughter. Phoebe's father (Bill Pullman) is more stoic about the situation, but no less concerned. A scene in which he tries apologizing to Phoebe for an unintended insult is heartrending, and her response is tearfully devastating.

Writer/director Daniel Barnz says he wrote the first draft of "Phoebe in Wonderland" before Fanning was born, but that the movie took a decade to get made. Sometimes, wonderful things come to those who wait.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A

FEATURE ARTICLE:
Elle Is in Wonderland


"Phoebe in Wonderland"'s 10-year-old star Elle Fanning already has appeared in movies starring Sean Penn ("I Am Sam"), Brad Pitt ("Babel" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Eddie Murphy ("Daddy Day Care") and Jeff Bridges ("The Door in the Floor"). TV-wise, the young actress has been on "House M.D.," both the Miami and New York versions of "CSI," and other series. That means she naturally must have been in a few school plays by now, right?

Wrong.

"I'm in elementary school, so we don't really have the plays yet," she says. "But when I get older, in like middle school, we'll have plays, so I'll probably do some."

When it comes to choosing which movie projects she will do, Fanning says she and her mother decide together. "But it more comes down to my opinion," she notes, "because my mom says, 'Well, it's only if you feel like you want to do this.'"

Portraying the psychologically troubled Phoebe, who is more at ease in her school's "Alice in Wonderland" play than at dealing with real life, presented Fanning with more than the usual acting challenges. "I met with some kids that sort of had the same issues as Phoebe," Fanning says. "We went and talked with them for about an hour or so. It really helped me a lot. They're just like everyone else. They're my same age, they went to a school like me. They would be my friends."

"Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman, who plays Phoebe's concerned and sometimes distraught mother, admits that it was hard not to take home some emotional residue after playing intensely dramatic scenes for up to 14 hours a day. She cheerfully points out that Fanning had no such problem. When director/writer Daniel Barnz would yell "cut," Huffman recalls, "Elle would jump up and go, 'That was fun! Can we do it again?' It was such a lesson to me about the joy of acting."

Fanning confirms this when asked if she thinks she might be missing out on being a kid. "Not really," she replies. "It's not really working to me. It's more just having fun and playing.

Fanning says she has no plans to work with her older sister Dakota Fanning, and that they don't talk about their acting careers at home. Instead, she says they discuss "normal sister stuff; what happens at school, things like that."

Writer/director Daniel Barnz wrote "Phoebe in Wonderland" a year before Fanning was born. One good thing about taking more than 10 years to get financing for the film, he says, was that it gave him the opportunity to rewrite the parents' roles from the perspective of a parent with young children himself.

Also, as important as the "Alice" metaphor is to the movie, Barnz' long-ago first draft did not include it. Happening to read a review of a production of "Alice in Wonderland" was like an epiphany for him. "Since this was a story about a girl who couldn't fit in, of course she would want to retreat to Wonderland in her imagination," Barnz says. "This is a world where everything is the opposite and rules are broken, everything is kind of topsy-turvy. And of course that would be exciting for her."

Although Fanning says she has seen Disney's animated "Alice in Wonderland" movie many times, neither she nor Huffman ever read the actual book. "'Alice in Wonderland' makes my palms sweat," Huffman says. "It just makes me so nervous and scared, and I don't like reading it and I don't like the chaos of it. So I probably should've, but I couldn't."

Barnz was warned that a movie with a child in the lead and 20 children in the cast might not be the ideal project for a first directing job, but he found that the energy from the kids made the experience magical. "With Elle in particular, it was such a blessing to be working with her, and such an incredible process to see her craft this performance," he says. "She would show up on set in certain moods to play certain scenes, and she would go off between takes and do certain rituals to stay in character."

Barnz says one thing he didn't realize when Fanning was cast was how well she could sing. "She's so good that we actually would sort of say, 'Could you make it a little bit less good, so it sounds like a real kid?"

Fanning will be doing more singing later this year in the movie version of "The Nutcracker: The Untold Story," which opens this Christmas. A musical with lyrics added to the original ballet score, the movie co-stars Nathan Lane and John Turturro.

Beastly










Truly, this is a monstrously bad movie.
©2011 CBS Films



(Reviewed February 19, 2011, by James Dawson)

Note: I originally did this review for a website with the odd name WeAreGoodkin.com. I went looking for it in September 2018 because Jenny Nicholson, aka My Favorite Critic Ever, did a hilarious YouTube video about the movie, and I wanted to re-read what I had said about it. Unfortunately, WeAreGoodkin.com has vanished from cyberspace, so I am re-posting the review here.

Director/screenwriter Daniel Barnz, who showed such promise with his stylish, honest and genuinely moving first feature "Phoebe in Wonderland," resorts here to a mismatch of slick cynicism and unconvincing sentimentality that fails as drama, romance and even post-modern parody. Adapted from the young adult novel by Alex Flinn, "Beastly" combines every CW network cliché -- "Gossip Girl" materialism, "One Tree Hill" melodrama and "Smallville" metahuman malarky -- without managing to make the resulting teen-trash concoction the least bit interesting.

Spoiled, smug and studly Kyle (Alex Pettyfer) is an arrogantly obnoxious 17-year-old with cruel contempt for his high school's less beautiful people. Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) definitely falls in that category, with her frizzed out Halloween hair, rabid raccoon eyes and odd fashion sense.

As someone who obviously hasn't seen "Carrie," Kyle asks Kendra to be his date at a school dance as a prank, then attempts to humiliate her as a "self-mutilated, tatted Franken-skank" when she arrives. Big mistake. Kreepy Kendra puts a "Beauty and the Beast" spell on Kyle that makes him look like a bald, scarred, metal-adorned and heavily inked Burning Man refugee. (The making-of mantra during the movie's production was "no fur," differentiating this beast from those of the Cocteau and Disney variety.) If he doesn't get someone to say "I love you" to him in 12 months, he will stay that way forever.

Kyle is exiled by his embarrassed "people like people who look good" news-anchor father (Peter Krause) to a briar-covered New York brownstone. His only companions are a wisecracking blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris) and a Bob Marley soundalike housekeeper (LisaGay Hamilton). Are we having fun yet? No.

Sneaking out after dark in a concealing hoodie, Kyle inexplicably begins pining for formerly overlooked classmate Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens). We're supposed to think this reveals new maturity and broad-mindedness on Kyle's part, even though Lindy is even more lovely than Kyle's former pre-spell squeeze. From what we see of her, boringly blank Lindy's only defining character traits are a fondness for Jujyfruit and an intense desire to visit Machu Picchu.

Trying to put the classic fairy tale in anything even loosely resembling a real-world context ends up ruining this re-telling. The eye-rollingly contrived manner in which Lindy finds herself forced to share living quarters with Kyle is too ridiculous to explain. Lindy's ability to continue communicating online with friends while she is a (willing) prisoner in Kyle's house is similarly silly, considering that she's supposed to remain incommunicado for her own protection. And Lindy's lack of curiosity about Kyle, who pretends to be someone else while they are shacked up together, is hard to fathom.

Worst of all, it's impossible to respect Lindy as a person when she reveals that she was attracted to Kyle back when he was a good-looking but loathsome jerk. She even has a photo of herself with nasty Kyle from those days as wallpaper on her laptop. "I respect that he called things as he saw them, even if he saw them wrong," she says, even though that pre-uglification Kyle was a rude reprobate with no redeeming qualities. This should give comfort to every belittling, emotionally abusive creep in the audience.

There also is a fundamental problem with "Beastly"'s twist on the "Beauty and the Beast" template. The movie's moral falls apart because "Beauty" is, well, beautiful. If Lindy had a good personality but looked like a frightful frump, instead of like Zac Efron's attractive ex, Kyle's love for her would prove he had outgrown his own shallow obsession with appearances. Instead, he's just hooking up with a different hottie. The real lesson of the movie isn't that looks don't matter, it's that hideous but thoughtful people can land babes. Further muddling the beauty-is-only-skin-deep moral, the "beast" is rewarded for his redemption by becoming as handsome as a hair-product model again. Huh?

The only impressive thing about "Beastly" is that it seems to last forever, even though it's a scant 86 minutes long. "Beastly," indeed.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F



Ant-Man and The Wasp











"Shouldn't it be 'The Wasp and Ant-Man?'" (#TimesUp)
©2018 Marvel



(Reviewed July 6, 2018, by James Dawson)

Like 2015’s “Ant-Man,” this enjoyably goofy sequel is figuratively and literally more ground-level than Marvel’s more mythological, international, billionaire-genius-centered or extra-terrestrial superhero franchises. And where “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” are the studio’s metaphorical families, bringing together mostly unrelated individuals who squabble but bond, “Ant-Man” and “Ant-Man and The Wasp” are more like the real modern-family deal.

Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, an amiably dumb divorced dad who adores his almost sickeningly cute shared-custody daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and has an amusingly congenial relationship with his understanding ex (Judy Greer) and her overly affable new hubbie (Bobby Cannavale). More or less stumbling into the hero game last time around, Scott has spent nearly two years under house arrest after picking the wrong side during 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” superhero showdown. (Chronologically, this flick takes place between that movie and April’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”)

This means Scott has been prohibited from contacting mentor and former Ant-Man Dr. Hank Pym (a gruffly wry Michael Douglas) or Dr. Pym’s no-nonsense daughter Hope (a fighting-trim Evangeline Lilly), because it was their tech he used in violation of the Sokavia Accords. (If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe foreign treaties, just go with it.)

Days away from having his ankle monitor removed and becoming a free man, Scott gets a mental message from Dr. Pym’s long-missing wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was another shrinky-dink before getting trapped in the sub-atomic quantum realm three decades ago. Helping Hank and Hope rescue Janet would mean violating the terms of Scott’s soon-to-be-completed sentence and risking 20 years behind bars, but what’s a hero to do?

Complicating matters, a mysterious entity known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can pass through walls and everything else, has her own reasons for wanting Dr. Pym’s technology. She blames Dr. Pym for her father’s death and her multi-image phasing condition, which has turned her into a real-life version of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2.” (Snobbishly intellectual reference deftly inserted into funny-book-flick critique: check.) Very loosely based on a white male villain from the comics, the character now is a female half-Argentinian mixed-race hottie with a British accent. Viva diversity!

Laurence Fishburne joins the cast as Bill Foster, a professor who once worked with Dr. Pym on the “Goliath Project” before the two had a falling out. As for whether that means his role will be growing (ahem) in a future installment, check back later, same Ant-time, same Ant-channel!

Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo may be the most appealing minor character, an earnestly polite and endearingly friendly FBI agent tasked with being Scott’s minder.

Although the movie includes gunplay, plenty of frantic fisticuffs and an explosive flashback, one aspect of Ghost’s background—the revelation that her résumé includes Winter Soldier-style killing—feels inconsistent with the otherwise generally light tone. At the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum, a scene featuring Scott’s former ex-con cohorts engaging in silly office banter about Ghost goes on way too long.

Just right, however, is the movie’s funniest bit: Scott’s former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) giving a rapid-fire recount of everything that has happened so far, accompanied by scenes of the main characters miming the hilariously paraphrased dialog he attributes to them.

Like last time, the special effects that minimize and maximize people, vehicles and entire buildings are a treat even when (or maybe especially when) they look laughable, such as when toy-sized cars look and sound just like toys racing down streets. And because Scott’s old Ant-Man suit has an unreliable regulator, he sometimes gets stuck at the wrong size, whether too big for a closet or short enough to pass for an elementary school student.

Rudd’s likeable charm as Scott is offset by Lilly’s tough-on-the-outside single-mindedness as Hope. True to the title, the winged Wasp participates in at least as much onscreen action as Ant-Man, and may actually be better at it. Her rumble with reprobates in a restaurant kitchen, featuring a very enlarged salt shaker and a mid-air run along the blade of a thrown knife, is expertly choreographed chaos.

Other highlights are a running gag about truth serum, a Hot Wheels Rally Case full of miniaturized vehicles, Ant-Man using a flat-bed truck as a scooter through San Francisco streets, and some colorfully trippy “Doctor Strange”-style visuals in the creepy quantum realm.

One interesting aspect of this franchise is that Scott and Hope are next-generation versions of earlier characters who had the same names. Dr. Pym and wife Janet were the original Ant-Man and the Wasp, both here and in the comics, although their comic-book bios have been significantly rebooted. As one of Marvel’s first female superheroes (originating in 1963’s “Tales to Astonish” #44, and becoming a founding member of “The Avengers” the same year), the original fashion-forward Wasp was known for frequently changing costumes, which was unusual at the time. These days, of course, every Marvel movie character changes outfits with new-toy-selling regularity.

The film’s weird science is obviously ridiculous (wouldn’t a shrunken multi-story building still be somewhat heavier than a piece of carry-on luggage?), but nobody who buys a ticket will be expecting an advanced-placement physics lesson. A bit harder to accept is the idea that Janet could spend 30 years isolated in the quantum realm without suffering any mental-health consequences. Then again, she was gone before the Internet arrived, so she didn’t have to worry about how many e-mails and tweets she was missing.

It always will be hard not to wonder what visionary fanboy-favorite director/writer Edgar Wright (who exited the first movie over “creative differences”) could have done with this franchise. Returning director Peyton Reed keeps things moving well enough, but without any distinctive style. The apparently gang-effort screenplay is credited to Rudd, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari.

Stan Lee reliably appears in one of his better cameos, and a mid-credits tag provides a deliciously suspenseful not-to-be-missed cliffhanger. Another scene at the end of the credits is less essential, but it’s good for one more gag, so don’t get antsy about leaving right away.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom











The radiantly lovely Bryce Dallas Howard. There also are dinosaurs in this movie. ©2018 Universal


(Reviewed June 22, 2018, by James Dawson)

The serviceably entertaining but sometimes frustrating “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” the fifth film in the franchise, may be a little too evolutionary for its own good. Even though stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are back for only their second outing and not exactly long-in-the-tooth fossils, they are supplemented by a pair of stereotypically annoying millennials who are about as welcome as Poochie the rapping dog on “The Simpsons.”

Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is a delicate tech-nerd of color who flagrantly overdoes the insect repellant and is given to shrieking hysterics. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) is a snarky and tatted-up dinosaur doc in big plastic glasses who actually proclaims herself to be a “nasty woman” at one point. Presumably intended to attract more vaping and Tide-pod-eating ticket-buyers, these two regrettably are not early casualties of rampaging carnivores.

The radiantly lovely Claire Dearing (Howard), operations manager at Jurassic World until the park was overrun by its un-extincted inhabitants in 2015’s “Jurassic World,” now lobbies on their behalf as head of the Dinosaur Protection Group. An active volcano on the creatures’ island threatens to wipe them out, a possibility that has sign-carrying triceratops-huggers demonstrating in the streets for the US government to intervene.

The crawl at the bottom of MSNBC footage of those protests proclaims that the planet is “Warming at a Pace Unprecedented in 1000 Years,” and that the “President Questions Existence of Dinosaurs in the First Place.” Later, when Toby Jones shows up as a cynically evil auctioneer selling off illicitly obtained dinosaurs to arms dealers, big pharma reps and a cartoonish Russian, his hair bears a curious similarity to that of our current commander-in-chief. Subtle!

Jeff Goldblum cameos as Dr. Ian Malcolm from the first two “Jurassic Park” flicks, rationally explaining during congressional testimony that letting nature take its course by destroying the unnaturally revived dinosaurs would not be such a bad idea. Washington agrees.

Fortunately for the imminently endangered species, Claire is summoned to the mega-mansion of wealthy Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). As the former partner of Jurassic Park’s creator, he wants to bankroll a private rescue mission. Claire next enlists retired raptor trainer Owen Grady (Pratt), after some beer-drinking banter about who left whom when their relationship ended sometime between the last movie and this one. With Franklin and Zia along for the ride, they’re off to Isla Nubar.

Wheatley (Ted Levine), the military-demeanored expedition leader in charge there, is the kind of heartlessly cruel bastard who yanks a tooth from each captured specimen as a personal souvenir. Claire, Owen and their younger appendages have to deal with Wheatley’s malicious secret agenda, treacherous lava flows, flying volcanic boulders and a thundering stampede of thoroughly convincing CGI dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the movie takes place during a single dark and stormy night back at Lockwood’s mansion, where the surviving dinosaurs have been relocated. This has the effect of diminishing the story’s scale in two ways. First, the newly created most-dangerous-ever hybrid that is supposedly a step up from the last installment’s Indominus rex is compact enough to chase its prey into spaces as small as a bedroom. Although you still wouldn’t want to come face to face with the thing in an enclosed space, less definitely isn’t more, when it comes to getting maximum bang for your prehistoric-beast buck.

Also, isolating the action to a single (although admittedly large) building in the middle of nowhere doesn’t exactly live up to the “World” part of the title, which implies more global goings-on. As the second part of an intended trilogy, this one suffers from “middle movie syndrome,” with an open-ended finale that promises bigger things next time around.

Director J.A. Bayona adequately handles the action, but a silly popcorn movie like this seems like a waste of his talents. It doesn’t have the wrenching emotional impact of his disaster drama “The Impossible,” the low-key psychological horror of his “The Orphanage” or the stylish dark-fantasy creepiness of his “A Monster Calls.”

The screenplay (by Derek Connolly and “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow) throws in a cute little girl (Isabella Sermon) as Lockwood’s precociously precious granddaughter Maisie, who becomes the designated child-in-peril this go-round. Housekeeper Iris (Geraldine Chaplin) seems to be the only person on staff at the impressively massive mansion besides Lockwood’s right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), which seems unlikely. Even more unlikely: When Owen, Claire and Maisie are being pursued through the mansion’s museum wing by the new-and-improved Indoraptor, allegedly the most lethal hunter on Earth, Owen decides that turning out all of the lights is a good idea. Huh?

Although the likeably amusing Pratt stands astride both this fantastically profitable franchise and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” blockbusters, Howard once again is the heart of these new “Jurassic” jaunts. Her Claire is so sweetly sincere, endearingly earnest and slightly naïve that she seems almost angelic. Even Owen feels compelled to mention that her skin looks nice. She’s also so un-waif-like womanly that it’s a shame she hasn’t suited up as a superhero herself. Plus she gets to wear sensible shoes this time out, and even they look good. But I digress.

It should be noted that what presumably are supposed to be a dinosaur parent and one of its offspring are allowed to remain together in the same cage after being captured, which should endear the bad guys to real-world immigration activists. The film’s villains may be viciously mercenary and dangerously maniacal, but at least they aren’t complete monsters. Have I got that right?

Also, be sure to stay until the credits end for a final scene that sets up the next installment. Nearly everyone had walked out by the time that bonus played at the screening I saw. Have these people learned nothing by now? Evolve, humans!

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



Isle of Dogs






This movie is doggone good. Yeah, I said it. ©2018 Fox Searchlight


(Reviewed March 23, 2018, by James Dawson)

My rave review of this absolutely wonderful movie appears on the website TheFederalist.com. So click the link and go read it immediately.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A



A Wrinkle in Time









Things are getting rocky for Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) and Meg Murry (Storm Reid). ©2018 Disney


(Reviewed March 7, 2018, by James Dawson)

My epic pan of this unwatchably bad movie appears on the website TheFederalist.com. The review got a link from DrudgeReport.com, and ended up with 450 comments as of March 23. I'm so proud.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus to infinity



Annihilation










Ouch. ©2018 Paramount


(Reviewed February 21, 2018, by James Dawson)

“Annihilation” may be more good-looking than good, but this mostly somber SF drama includes enough stunning scenery and mind-trip moments to be a must-see despite any pacing or plot problems. Imagine an Earthbound mash-up of H.R. Giger’s “Alien” production design and visuals by way of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but with a tone borrowed from 2016’s deadly dull “Arrival.”

Director Alex Garland, whose similarly slow “Ex Machina” also was better at CGI than logic, adapted “Annihilation” from the first-in-a-trilogy novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Garland says he did not read the other books when writing the screenplay, which takes liberties including a not very satisfying new ending that one of the film’s producers wanted changed. Garland’s frustrating finale—which bears a regrettable resemblance to that of a certain not-exactly-obscure music video—remained intact.

“Ex Machina” star Oscar Isaac appears here as Sgt. Kane, who has been out of contact with his biology professor wife Lena (a blankly shellshocked Natalie Portman) for a year after leaving on a secret mission. His unexpected return, with significant mental and physical issues, leaves Lena with more questions than answers. When both of them are abducted from an ambulance by the military, Lena awakens in a research facility monitoring an “Area X” quarantine zone nicknamed the Shimmer, where something from space has caused the laws of nature and physics to go haywire. Turns out it was hubbie’s trip into that weirdness that messed him up…and the weirdness is spreading.

Lena joins psychologist Dr. Ventress (a hauntingly grim Jennifer Jason Leigh) and three female scientists on a mission into the zone. The weakest member of that unlikely team is Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”) as Anya, a lesbian paramedic whose portrayal of a psychotic paranoid episode is hammily unfortunate.

The imaginatively mutated flora and fauna they encounter range from benignly beautiful (such as deer-like creatures with leafy “plantlers”) to dangerously horrific (a monstrous alligator-shark hybrid), in settings that include overgrown forests, ominously abandoned buildings, a crystal-sprouting beach and a terrifying lighthouse. Because Lena recounts her tale in flashbacks intercut with the journey from which she has returned, however, the story is robbed of some will-she-make-it-out-alive suspense.

Annoyingly, the script has characters stop watching video files featuring Kane that they find along the way not once but twice, which makes zero sense. Hard as the footage may be to watch, how could anyone searching for answers to such an incredible mystery decide that they are better off not seeing everything Kane thought was important enough to document? Another problem involves the matter of how Kane made it all the way back home in the first place, since it’s kind of hard to imagine him navigating public transportation in his nearly catatonic condition. It’s also odd that we never see anyone in the movie make any attempt to communicate with the life force in the Shimmer.

The biggest flaw, however, is a climax that may bring to mind “Battlefield Earth,” which can’t be a good thing.

One side effect of the Shimmer is that time moves more slowly there than in the outside world, which is a quality the zone has in common with the movie itself. Although “Annihilation” clocks in at under two hours, it feels considerably longer. On the positive side, many of its unforgettable images—all the way from dreamlike landscapes and colorfully dividing cells to frightening new life forms— may stay with you forever.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



Black Panther















Here kitty kitty.
©2018 Marvel Studios



(Reviewed February 6, 2018, by James Dawson)

Too many politically correct praise-heapers are giving Marvel's blah "Black Panther" the same patronizing diversity pass they bestowed upon last year's DC Comics dud "Wonder Woman," as if movies like these automatically are elevated from generic mediocrity based on how many minorities or women were involved in making them.

While "Black Panther" is a serviceably average superhero flick, it definitely is not a great one, regardless of any historic importance it achieves for featuring a nearly all-black cast as well as a black director (Ryan Coogler) and black writers (Coogler and Joe Robert Cole). Although the character was created in the 1960s by white guys Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, both were Jewish, which may count for something to the sort of people who care about things like that.

The story here is simple enough: Newly installed King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of the reclusive and highly advanced fictional African nation Wakanda is faced with challenges to his rule. He also wants to apprehend a murderous arms dealer who has stolen some dangerous Wakandan precious metal that can be used for nefarious purposes.

The movie's main problem is that the soft-spoken king, who moonlights as the costumed title hero, is unintimidating, uninspiring and uninteresting. He's more of a blandly even-keel Obama than a fiery Malcolm X, which means he also is considerably more mild mannered than the radical political party that adopted the Black Panthers name the same year as the character's 1966 comic-book debut. The silly accent Boseman employs as T'Challa—which falls somewhere between Archbishop Tutu and Apu from "The Simpsons"—doesn't help.

Even worse, T'Challa shows a lack of both passion and compassion that makes him come off like a right-wing Republican's dream: a restrained black man who accepts the global status quo despite knowing that oppression and injustice make life outside his isolated enclave considerably less utopian for other members of his race.

Boseman is outshined by nearly every other member of the cast, especially Michael B. Jordan as the street-lethal and frighteningly militant pretender to the throne Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. With fashionably off-center dreads, hundreds of raised body-bumps indicating each of his kills and a viciously badass attitude, Killmonger wants to supply Wakanda's advanced weapons to his agents in major cities, so "the two billion people that look like us" can rise up and take power.

If Quentin Tarantino had been in charge, it would have been interesting to see Killmonger and company go full Django on various presidents, prime ministers and premiers to create a black planet to be feared. Instead, the safely cornball climax we get is so unsatisfyingly sappy that it not only castrates the Killmonger character but undercuts his revolutionary message. While T'Challa (mild spoiler alert) does finally decide that Wakanda should come out of hiding and share its futuristic tech with other countries, this essentially means providing it to the same business-as-usual leaders still holding the reins of power that Killmonger wanted to seize. Way to elevate the race, your highness!

Politics aside, the script also has logic and suspension-of-disbelief problems. An especially groanworthy one is the idea of anyone accepting the premise that a certain extremely important character is dead without expending any effort whatsoever to confirm this by locating his body. Plus there's the old "allow the bad guy you have wanted to capture for years escape, instead of letting others deal with a wounded comrade while you continue the pursuit" device. And the concept that an otherwise civilized society technologically advanced enough to leave CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) in wonderstruck awe would select its head of state based on a brutally barbaric trial-by-combat ritual seems almost racist in its implication that even the most modern Africans would cling to such a savage tradition. Europe and the US did away with duels shortly after the invention of the combustion engine, but it still is possible to become monarch of 21st-century Wakanda by throwing a dude over a waterfall? Ouch.

Danai Gurira shows that she can wield a souped-up spear as fiercely as she swings Michonne's sword on TV's "The Walking Dead." Lupita Nyong'o is T'Challa's not-so-ex Nakia and an undercover Wakandan spy, although it is not clear what the hidden kingdom would do with intel gathered from outside its bubble-barriered borders. Letitia Wright is T'Challa's teenage sister Shuri, an apparently genius-level inventor who supplies him with Q-type James Bondian gadgets but who seems to have dropped in from an annoying sitcom. Andy Serkis is murderous one-armed arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, whose missing limb has been replaced with a powerful blaster.

The CGI that animates the Black Panther when he is in action doesn't seem quite state-of-the-art; the character often seems as "mass-less" as Spider-man did during the Sam Raimi trilogy. Futuristic aircraft look videogame-like, and a pack of CGI armored rhinos are just plain ridiculous.

There are two end-credits scenes. The first makes the mistake of simply being a ho-hum continuation of the story that just concluded. The second, featuring only a minor character from the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe, will be a disappointment for anyone expecting to be blown away by a wow-level tease for the upcoming all-heroes-on-deck "Avengers: Infinity War."

On the positive side, although Killmonger's hood dialect includes lines such as "I ain't worried about no brand," his "I'ma burn it all" that appears in the movie's trailer does not feature that unfortunate first contraction in the finished film. Score one for the grammar good guys.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C



Phantom Thread








Say yes to the dress...maker.
©2017 Focus Features.



(Reviewed December 14, 2017, by James Dawson)

The premise of director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson helming a tastefully sophisticated semi-gothic romance about a dictatorial dress designer in mid-1950s Britain sounds unlikely enough to be the followup to SNL's skit about a Wes Anderson horror flick. Instead, the lovely, hypnotic and intriguingly unpredictable "Phantom Thread" turns out to be one of the best films of his career.

Auteur Anderson's considerably less reserved previous works include the porn-biz period piece "Boogie Nights," the sprawling L.A.-mosaic mess "Magnolia," the Adam Sandler dramedy oddity "Punch-Drunk Love" and an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's bizarre-noir "Inherent Vice." His grim roman à clef "The Master" (featuring an L. Ron Hubbard-ish religious leader) and the Sinclair Lewis-inspired "There Will Be Blood" (about a ruthless turn-of-the-20th-century oilman), while grittier and more aggressively forceful than "Phantom Thread," come closest to its surprisingly traditional novelistic sensibility.

If that description makes this sound like an off-puttingly stuffy good-for-you exercise that only pinkie-extended patrons would appreciate, fear not. While it admittedly is no comic-book thrill ride, the film is so accessibly elegant that even a pop-trash fan who can't help noting the resemblance between star Vicky Krieps and Leighton Meester of "Gossip Girl" can enjoy it. (Ahem.)

Three-time Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (who received one of them for his raging brilliance in "There Will Be Blood") says this will be his final film role. If so, he definitely is leaving on a high note, as the solemnly tyrannical and casually cruel London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock. The domineering designer has a disturbingly codependent relationship with sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a serious dead-mother fixation, and an apparent habit of discarding female companions who probably would be misdescribed as lovers. Referring to the latest one dismissed by his disregard, he notes, "I simply don't have time for confrontations."

His fancy is struck by the nearly half his age Alma (Krieps), a meekly placid waitress with a slight foreign accent of indeterminate origin. Although she plainly is not of his class, misplaces a step in the hotel dining room and later wears too much lipstick for Reynolds' taste, Alma is no cartoonishly uncouth Eliza Doolittle. That's because "Phantom Thread" is more "Rebecca" than "My Fair Lady," with the imperious and humorless Cyril standing in for nasty Mrs. Danvers.

Reynolds at first regards Alma more as mannequin than muse, insensitively noting that "you have no breasts" during her first fitting and displaying no detectable interest in her as a person, much less a woman. Despite this, his attentiveness to taking every conceivable one of her measurements when she is half-dressed is erotic in itself, with Cyril's intrusion on the moment adding a soupçon of shame. Even as the relationship between Reynolds and Alma develops into something more lasting, it does so with gradual and almost somber inevitability, rather than giddily starry-eyed romance.

When Alma's increasingly distracting presence threatens to result in another Reynolds re-set, the film takes more than one intriguingly decadent, completely unexpected and satisfyingly original turn.

Two small and quirkily humorous aspects involve Reynolds' ridiculously large breakfast order and his comically fast driving, which makes an amusing contrast to the more sedate tone of nearly every indoor scene.

Day-Lewis perfectly portrays Reynolds' desperate dignity, shameless self-absorption and prideful dedication to his craft. One of the few times Reynolds shows genuine vulnerability is when he is hurt to learn that a longtime client has taken her business to a more "chic" competitor.

Krieps is excellent at both teasingly concealing and later revealing Alma's hidden depths. And Manville is icily officious in her attempts to keep her brother undisturbed by the bothersome inconveniences of being human.

Exquisitely made and fascinatingly entertaining, this is one of the year's best films.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A



The Shape of Water










This amazing adult fantasy is one of the year's best films.
© 2017 Fox Searchlight


(Reviewed November 26, 2017, by James Dawson)

"The Shape of Water" is an R-rated and sometimes viciously grim adult fairy tale with a sweetly sensual and irresistibly touching cross-species romance at its center. Although occasionally reminiscent of numerous other films in plot or appearance ("E.T.," "Pennies From Heaven," "Splash," "Amelie," and even David Lynch's "Dune" come to mind), it somehow feels refreshingly original, in addition to being thoroughly charming. It also manages to include implicit criticisms of human failings such as racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice against the disabled without seeming too preachy or didactic about being good for you.

In other words, this is the movie that fans of director Guillermo del Toro have been hoping for since his 2006 fantasy masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth." His other features since then—a visually impressive but flat 2008 sequel to "Hellboy," the 2013 battling-robots adventure spectacular "Pacific Rim," and 2015's forgettable haunted-house flick "Crimson Peak"—had their moments, but none possessed the heart or soul of this awards-worthy wonder.

Like "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Shape of Water" features actor Doug Jones very convincingly costumed as a startlingly inhuman creature, but this time only his exterior is monstrous. Resembling a very upgraded reboot of the creature from the black lagoon or a hunkier Abe Sapien, he is imprisoned in a Baltimore research facility's holding tank in the Cold War days of 1962, after being dragged from a South American river where tribes worshipped him as a god. The American military is brutally studying his physiology for tips on how to win the space race, but the Russians intend to lethally sabotage that plan. "We don't need to learn," one of their agents says. "We need Americans not to learn."

Actress Sally Hawkins perfectly conveys the heartbreaking vulnerability and courage of mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito, who takes pity on the tortured creature. Michael Shannon is frighteningly excellent as government agent Richard Strickland, who is savagely determined to learn the creature's secrets—either by administering the electric cattle prod he calls his "Alabama howdydoo" or by vivisection. Richard Jenkins shines as Elisa's pleasantly deadpan neighbor Giles, a former ad-agency illustrator and alcoholic striving to get his career back. Michael Stuhlbarg is researcher Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, who has significant secrets of his own, and Octavia Spencer is Elisa's cleaning-staff compatriot and sometime sign-language translator Zelda Fuller.

The screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is a marvel of mixed tones that range from tender eroticism to quirky comedy to bloody horror, yet successfully blend into a literally wonderful love story. The always creative Alexandre Desplat supplies an enjoyably distinctive score that perfectly complements the onscreen strangeness. And the production design by Paul Denham Auterberry is stunning, whether conveying the industrial-concrete gloom of Elisa's oppressive workplace, the homey eccentricity of her period-piece apartment, or the floating images of her dreams.

The film's title refers to an unidentified poem quoted in voiceover about the humbling, overwhelming ecstasy of religious love: "Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me." It also works as a metaphor for the movie's primary moral. Like water, true love will conform to fill the dimensions of any vessel that contains it, whether mute maiden or misunderstood monster. As del Toro has noted, "It doesn't matter what shape we put love into, it becomes that, whether it's man, woman or creature."

This is one of the year's best films, and one so beautiful and emotionally immersive that it genuinely deserves to be seen on a theater screen. Dive in!

Back Row Reviews Grade: A



Justice League









Yep, it's another dark and dreary DC Comics dirge. Damn it.
© 2017 Warner Bros.



(Reviewed November 16, 2017, by James Dawson)

Even drafting Marvel MVP Joss Whedon to co-write the screenplay and offer an uncredited directing assist to Zack Snyder isn't enough to keep this dismally uninteresting bore from being another DC Comics strikeout. "Justice League" is nearly as bad as Snyder's unwatchable 2016 "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," and for many of the same reasons: The movie is almost monochromatically dark and ugly, none of the performances seem emotionally sincere, and the perfunctory by-the-numbers battle scenes are deafeningly incomprehensible.

Everything that Whedon's two "Avengers" outings (and most other Marvel superhero flicks) consistently deliver—likeable-character camaraderie, meaningful emotional beats and mostly the sense of enjoyably adventurous comic-book fun—is off the roster here.

Instead, "Justice League" plays like an oppressive dirge, taking place in a grimly gray world still mourning Superman's "Batman v Superman" passing with black banners on bridges and such. Batman (a barely going-through-the-motions Ben Affleck) is interrupted in the act of apprehending a rooftop burglar by a Parademon (think mechanical flying corpse). He quickly dispatches this CGI antagonist and swings away, puzzlingly leaving the burglar with his sack of loot and no punishment, as if the thief is on the UCLA basketball team or something.

In a wholly superfluous action scene that appears to have been added to the movie just to give Wonder Woman more upfront screen time, the alluring Amazon foils a terrorist takeover in London with her bullet-deflecting bracelets. Blankly wide-eyed Gal Gadot, still as lovely, lithe and lifeless as an exotic mannequin, reprises her role as the sword-wielding Zsa Zsa soundalike from this year's most overrated movie. (Trigger warning side note: Brett Ratner's RatPac Entertainment, which helped fund "Wonder Woman" but reportedly has been barred from involvement with its sequel due to sexual harassment allegations against Ratner, is one of the production companies credited on "Justice League.")

The actual plot kicks in on the hidden island home of Wonder Woman's fellow Amazons, where the otherworldly "new god" giant Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) unleashes dozens of other Parademons to help him steal one of three mystical power-cubes called Mother Boxes. In a backstory almost litigiously similar to that of "Lord of the Rings," the three Mother Boxes played a part in an ages-earlier world-domination attempt by Steppenwolf that was thwarted by the joined forces of Atlanteans, Amazons and men, who then decided that the boxes must be kept separated because of their combined doomsday-potential danger.

Steppenwolf gets the box, and the surviving Amazons notify Wonder Woman (who is now in Paris and toiling in her Louvre-employee day job as Diana Prince) about what's up. Batman and Wonder Woman go about getting a team of heroes together to combat the potentially world-ending threat, yet they never bother informing anyone in any position of authority about it. Because, you know, who needs armies of thousands or weapons of mass destruction or scientists who might want to get involved and help out. It's only the future of all life on Earth that's at stake, after all, and a mere half-dozen costumed do-gooders can probably handle it.

Jason Momoa's Aquaman is a hard-drinking tattooed bro who seems to be propelled by jets of flatulence bubbles as he zooms around underwater. Ezra Miller's Flash constantly dispenses aggravatingly unamusing sitcom-manchild quips. Ray Fisher's half-mechanical Cyborg is broodingly miserable. And Henry Cavill's Superman (what, you thought he would stay dead?) still looks too waxy, sort of nasty and vaguely sleazy in his strangely textured suit to be a good fit as a wholesomely optimistic man of steel.

Go-to superhero-flick composer Danny Elfman's bombastically generic score is oppressively omnipresent yet never achieves any emotional impact, even in scenes that should have been easy tearjerkers, fearjerkers or stand-up-and-cheer jerkers.

The weak plot is hindered by little annoyances like a scene in which Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne shows up with a full beard in a far-north fishing village, where he hopes to recruit Aquaman. Does this mean he took a few weeks off from crimefighting before the trip, or was Gotham City treated to the sight of a Batman with facial hair until Bruce got out his razor again? There's also way too much focus on a besieged Russian family that lives near Steppenwolf's evil lair, which is located under a dome that resembles an electric-blue mammogram. A reference to Wonder Woman's World War I traveling companion Steve Trevor, and the fact that Wonder Woman disappeared from public view for most of the century afterward, doesn't address why she was out of sight for so long. A Flash and Cyborg grave-robbing scene, complete with clumsy bonding dialog and attempted fist-bumps, is painfully dumb. And the way the heroes occasionally address each other by their secret identity names in public means that more than a few bystanders can't help hearing who Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne dress up as when they want to punch people.

As Wayne's faithful butler Alfred, Jeremy Irons makes a meta-reference to the days of "exploding wind-up penguins" before commenting, "I don't recognize this world." Unfortunately for viewers who are weary of dreary DC Comics movies like this one, "Justice League" will be all too familiar.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F



Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
(Criterion Collection Edition)








Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee share a mildly risque joke in this lighthearted romantic comedy. Not.
© 1992 CiBy 2000



(Reviewed October 28, 2017, by James Dawson)

The new "Director Approved" Criterion Collection edition of 1992's "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," available as a single Blu-ray and a two-disc DVD, adds a whopping 90 minutes of expanded and deleted scenes plus other extras to the restored 4K digital transfer of the movie. What's even more shocking, frustrating and incomprehensible than the film itself is why so many original "Twin Peaks" TV series cast members ended up on the cutting room floor, completely excised from the 135-minute theatrical release.

Characters featured only in unused scenes that appear here include juvenile delinquent drug dealer Bobby Briggs' parents, Laura Palmer BFF Donna Hayward's parents, Sheriff Harry Truman, deputies Andy and Hawk, scatterbrained receptionist Lucy, "gas farm" owner Big Ed and his wife Nadine, sawmill owner Josie Packard, and Laura's-corpse-discoverer Pete Martell. Deleted scenes also include more David Bowie appearances as mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, whose single brief bit that did make it into the finished film was so truncated it did not even feature a single close-up of the actor/musician. (At last, we get a good look at his otherworldly eyes.)

Although making sense probably never was a priority for this prequel, which intersperses the final week of incest-victim Laura Palmer's tortured life with surreally Lynchian backwards-talk weirdness and an FBI investigation of another murder, what takes place in many of the discarded scenes should have been regarded as essential to the storyline. Angel-referencing dialog dispensed by Dr. Hayward (Warren Frost) to Laura (Sheryl Lee) foreshadows the vision Laura has during the film's finale. A comic scene in which Laura's father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) tries to teach Laura and her mother (Grace Zabriskie) how to introduce themselves to visiting Norwegian businessmen offers a refreshing example of Leland acting appealingly undemonic during a rare "unpossessed" moment. And scenes that jump forward in time to take place after the chilling "How's Annie?" finale of the original series offer a fascinating bridge between that signoff and the "Twin Peaks: The Return" revival that appeared on Showtime this year.

The deleted and expanded scenes have been assembled by Lynch into a continuous feature titled "The Missing Pieces," a feat similar to how more than an hour's worth of "Spinal Tap" deleted scenes were combined to form the equivalent of almost an entire second film on that movie's home-video edition.

Other extras here include new interviews with Sheryl Lee and composer Angelo Badalamenti, as well as 2014 interviews with Lee, Wise, and Zabriskie. A 48-page booklet includes an interview with Lynch from the 2005 edition of filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley's book "Lynch on Lynch."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



Thor: Ragnarok








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



(Reviewed October 19, 2017, by James Dawson)

The surprisingly silly "Thor: Ragnarok" subverts the big-name superhero genre in a way that could signal a questionable shift in direction for future Marvel movies: Once they've gone wacky, can they ever go back?

Although every previous Marvel Studios film has been at least a little tongue-in-cheek, this third Thor outing marks the first time that any of the company's previously established franchises has given so much screen time to comedy. The two "Guardians of the Galaxy" romps were primarily funny from the get-go, and always stood apart from the rest of what is referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe for exactly that reason. (That's why the prospect of the Guardians intermingling with the rest of the Marvel stable in the upcoming "Avengers: Infinity War" crossover is expected to be a tricky oil-and-water proposition.)

Despite the inherent ridiculousness of comic-book heroes in general, whose abilities to fly, turn into monsters, crawl up walls or punch out giant robots automatically require some pretty extreme suspension of disbelief, Marvel's trademark had been presenting its stories more as appealing modern myths than as self-mocking farces. The closest any Marvel Studios non-Guardians movie has gotten to being this outright goofy up to now may have been "Ant-Man," which certainly couldn't be accused of taking itself too seriously, but even it wasn't as broadly laugh-happy as this. (Fox's deliriously over-the-top "Deadpool" isn't technically a Marvel Studios film, so it doesn't count.) Yes, "Thor: Ragnarok" has some un-nutty moments, plus the usual level of violent pitched combat and CGI destruction, but its very broad sense of humor definitely predominates the proceedings.

If "Thor: Ragnarok" racks up big box-office bucks, will Marvel favor humor over heroics from now on, putting more "funny" in all of their funny-book flicks?

Granted, that certainly seems preferable to going darker. For over a decade, Warner Bros. has sucked anything resembling joy or fun out of its Batman and Superman big-screen bores by trying to put too much dreary dramatic weight on those characters' caped shoulders. Marvel, on the other hand, traditionally has succeeded by finding precisely the right balance between adventurous heroics and just enough levity to make its good guys charmingly likeable.

The trouble with "Thor: Ragnarok" is that it plays more like a standalone parody than like a legitimate installment of the franchise. Its serious bits (including what should have been the more meaningful and melodramatic death of an important supporting character) do not blend well with its jokier moments (such as Thor—played as always by the jovially studly Chris Hemsworth— taking the equivalent of a narrated theme park ride to the strains of "Pure Imagination" from "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"). Sophomoric but admittedly amusing details include an outer-space portal called The Devil's Anus, a frighteningly lethal weapon known simply as "the melt stick," and rude references to Asgard as "Assburg." Sophisticated, it ain't.

Another reason fans may wish this movie was not part of the official Thor canon: Director Taika Waititi and screenplay writer Eric Pearson (working from a story by Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) playfully break so many of the franchise's best toys by the time the end credits roll that they end up throwing out parts of the baby, most of the bathwater and finally the whole damned tub. Thor has lost girlfriend Jane Foster offscreen, gets his godly blond locks shorn, has his signature hammer destroyed less than a quarter of the way through the movie…plus there are at least three more frustratingly major developments that haven't been spoiled by the trailer.

That wouldn't be a big deal if this were only a standalone "Lego Movie"-type lampoon, with no effect on the "real" character's continuity. But having to live with the significant changes that Thor and Asgard itself undergo here is even more annoying than when Nick Fury's SHIELD organization was obliterated in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," or when Cap gave up his shield at the end of "Captain America: Civil War" (at least he got to hang onto the thing for most of the movie).

What's even more unfortunate is that the previously non-verbal, rage-fueled but poignantly tragic Jekyll-and-Hyde creature known as Hulk has been turned into a chatty, green-skinned, Mike Tyson-style lunkhead who enjoys a nice hot-tub soak in between gladiator-style bouts. Turns out that after the events of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," he somehow was transported to a distant planet run by the games-staging Grandmaster (played with deliciously hammy relish by Jeff Goldblum). Thor ends up there too, after a showdown with his sadistically nasty big sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett, looking drop-dead fabulous in a snug bodysuit costume with a huge-antlered headpiece).

Supporting characters include Tessa Thompson as a hard-drinking valkyrie who has turned her back on her responsibilities, shaved-head Karl Urban as the Asgardian turncoat Skurge (whose fondness for a pair of very Earthly semi-automatic rifles may be a plot point Marvel regrets in the wake of October's Las Vegas shootings), and Idris Elba as former Rainbow Bridge dispatcher and current hero-in-hiding Heimdall. Tom Hiddleston is excellent as always as Thor's devious half-brother Loki, Benedict Cumberbatch cameos as the sorcerer Dr. Strange, and Mark Ruffalo is suitably ruffled as Hulk's brainy alter-ego Bruce Banner.

The most enjoyable supporting character is the endearingly mild-mannered arena fighter Korg (voiced by director Waititi), a large rock-skinned alien resembling a blue version of The Thing from the Fantastic Four. His commiserating comments while Thor reminisces about the wonders of his beloved former hammer are low-key hilarious.

One probably unintentional but touching aspect of the short cameo by Marvel Comics mastermind and Thor co-creator Stan Lee is the sight of Lee's wedding band on his finger. (Lee's wife of 69 years died in July at age 95.)

The movie's quirky videogame-synthy score is by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, but the two best musical moments are battle scenes choreographed to Led Zeppelin's relentless "Immigrant Song" (with its fitting reference to "the hammer of the gods"). A mid-credits scene presents a fateful cliffhanger encounter, and a final after-credits bit is good for one last gag.

"Thor: Ragnarok" isn't as full-camp zany as the 1960s "Batman" TV show, but it's definitely leaning in that direction. Will we ever be able to take Thor even semi-seriously again? The God of Thunder only knows.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



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+



Mother!










"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+