"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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rebel rebels. © 2016 Luscasfilm

(Reviewed December 13, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-


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

(Reviewed November 18, 2016, by James Dawson)

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


Back Row Reviews Grade: F

Fantastic Beasts
and Where to Find Them

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

(Reviewed November 16, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

A Monster Calls

"I am NOT Groot."
© 2016 Focus Features

(Reviewed November 16, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+


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

(Reviewed November 14, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Hacksaw Ridge

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

(Reviewed November 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

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


Amy Adams has a close encounter. © 2016 Paramount

(Reviewed November 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-

Miss Sloane

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

(Reviewed November 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Miss Sloane" is one to miss.

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Doctor Strange

"Strange," indeed. © 2016 Marvel Studios

(Reviewed October 23, 2016, by James Dawson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-

2016 California Voter Guide

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

PRESIDENT: They all suck.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Might not help, but couldn't hurt.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Ain't that peculiar?
© 2016 Twentieth Century Fox

(Reviewed September 25, 2016, by James Dawson)

Director Tim Burton returns to fantastic form with the imaginative and appealing "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." It's a more fabulous—as in "fable-like"—version of the Marvel Comics X-Men movies, but with a "Harry Potter"-style hero's journey and similar secret-world weirdness. There's also a bit of "Groundhog Day," some "Pan's Labyrinth"-ian creatures, and even a "Raise the Titanic" moment. How can a combination like that not be fascinating?

Eva Green is Miss Peregrine, guardian of a gothic mansion's worth of children of various ages with individual talents that include super-strength, invisibility, firestarting and making plants grow really large very quickly (which comes in surprisingly handy). They're all hidden in a time loop in 1943 to avoid detection by the theatrically nasty Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to exploit the magic of shape-shifting Miss Peregrine and other peculiar-child-protectors like her to give him and his equally evil friends immortality.

Florida teen Jake (played by the young-Bud-Cort-reminiscent Asa Butterfield) has been told tales about Miss Peregrine and her charges since childhood by his grandfather Abraham (played with unexpectedly earnest low-key sincerity by Terence Stamp), who says he once lived with them. Jake has come to regard those stories as nothing more than made-up fairy tales, until he sees an other-worldly creature near the site of Abraham's untimely demise. With the approval of the psychiatrist he ends up seeing in order to deal with that trauma (Allison Janney), Jake and his disbelieving father (Chris O'Dowd) journey to Wales to find the actual children's home, and hopefully attain some closure.

The screenplay by frequent comic-book-flick writer Jane Goldman ("Kingsman: The Secret Service," "X-Men: First Class," "Kick-Ass"), adapted from the novel by Ransom Riggs, is at its best during the first two-thirds of the movie, which take Jake from hopeful outsider skeptic to take-charge team leader. Things go from played-straight-for-a-storybook seriousness to sillier action antics in the final showdown, however, turning bad-guy Barron from viciously dark to almost comic. That change in tone is unfortunate, but not enough to spoil such a terrific tall tale, especially when a clever last-minute wrap-up provides a pair of perfect twists.

Like most Burton films, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is full of Wonderland-worthy characters, settings and special effects. Lighter-than-air Emma (Ella Purnell), who has to wear weighted shoes to keep from levitating skyward, is Jake's slightly melancholic introductory guide to all things peculiar. In one of the movie's best-looking scenes, she takes Jake to a sunken ship full of the skeletons of its former passengers. Eva Green's Miss Peregrine is a pipe-smoking and deadpan Mary Poppins, albeit one who doesn't require an umbrella to fly. Finlay MacMillan's Enoch, the surly and dismissive bad boy of the group, is like the nasty neighbor kid in "Toy Story" who had a penchant for creating cobbled-together creepies.

Supporting characters include a pair of boys who amusingly describe themselves as "the sickest rappers in Wales." What's also amusing is the way another movie's worth of events are hastily described in a last-minute montage.

One caveat: I've never been a fan of 3D, mostly because 3D glasses often make movies look annoyingly dark, and this one definitely has that problem. Unless you're addicted to the novelty of 3D, save your money and see this one in 2D, which presumably will be brighter and more enjoyable to watch.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+

Suicide Squad

Second. Worst. DC. Movie. Ever. (After "Green Lantern," of course.)
© 2016 Warner Bros.

(Reviewed August 3, 2016, by James Dawson)

It’s not just bad. It’s “Howard the Duck” bad, an embarrassingly overbaked abomination that’s what the enjoyably irreverent farce “Deadpool” may have been like if that movie had done absolutely everything wrong.

It’s also at least four-in-a-row bad for Warner Bros. DC Comics movies (or many more in a row, if you weren’t a fan of Christopher Nolan’s joylessly pompous "The Dark Knight"). “The Dark Knight Rises” was a disastrously dour conclusion to the Nolan Batman trilogy, Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” misinterpreted Superman even more depressingly than Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” did; and the less said about Snyder’s unwatchably dull “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the better.

It’s as if the studio has a pathologically self-destructive compulsion to make DC Comics movies so dismally unpleasant and gray-brown ugly that they are the aggressive opposite of mighty Marvel’s more colorful fun rides. (While “Howard the Duck” was based on a Marvel comic, the movie was made long before Marvel Studios came into existence and perfected the form.)

“Suicide Squad” writer-director David Ayer seems set on subverting everything that makes good comic-book flicks work. It’s hard to imagine a worse mismatch for this kind of material than Ayer, who previously directed the excellent police drama “End of Watch” and the WW2 period piece “Fury.”

The movie introduces far too many characters and fails to make us care about any of them, even with shamelessly maudlin “Daddy, don’t do it” and dead-kid references. The screenplay is a mess of multiple flashbacks that culminate in the usual deafening maelstrom of all-out destruction…but not before a mind-bogglingly stupid detour for a chatty bar scene that destroys the last-act momentum.

The insultingly dumb plot may have been excusable in a consistently cartoonish comedy, but not set against a gritty backdrop of brutally hyperviolent mass homicides in a world where Superman still is dead and sidewalk vendors sell dignified black “Remember” T-shirts marking that event as if they are solemn 9/11 commemoratives.

Sadistic government hardass Amanda Waller (the relentlessly humorless Viola Davis) assembles a worst-of-the-worst team of more-or-less super criminals, ostensibly as a deterrent “in case the next Superman doesn’t share our values.” They are re-purposed to stage a makes-no-sense urban rescue mission (their target requires no actual assistance in simply reaching the roof to get on a helicopter) and then confront a city-destroying supervillain (who wields planet-destroying power, yet takes the time to engage in a punch-up fisticuffs brawl with the squad instead of immediately destroying them).

Why Waller would think that a brain-damaged babydoll sex lure like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie in clown-slut makeup) belongs in the squad is incomprehensible. Harley’s only weapons are a handgun, a baseball bat and the ability to wear ridiculously skimpy panties that she apparently acquired from the little girls section of a party supply store.

As high-priced hitman Deadshot, Will Smith ricochets between sappy-sensitive father and mercenary-minded murderer without being convincing as either. His daddy-daughter scenes make it impossible to believe that he is a remorselessly cold-blooded killer, which is kind of supposed to be the point here, no?

The rest of the squad members are reluctant firestarter El Diablo (Jay Hernandez with mucho facial tattoos), who can’t get over torching his family; lizard-skinned Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who isn’t blessed with a backstory; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a down-under diamond thief; and sword-wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a non-criminal brought along to help keep the others in line. The bad guys are implanted with explosives to kill them if they go rogue. The fact that all but one of them don’t try means they aren’t entirely crazy, which undercuts their viciousness somewhat.

The team is led by no-nonsense miltary Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who has a personal stake in their mission. Potentially world-destroying villain the Enchantress is the evil alter ego of Flag’s girlfriend Dr. June Moone (a wild-eyed and spooky Cara Delevingne). What’s sad is that the basics of the Enchantress subplot may have made for a decent solo outing, because that character is the most interesting one here by far.

Jared Leto plays Harley Quinn’s lethal lover the Joker, who is intent on springing her from confinement, as a more icy and dandified sociopath than Heath Ledger’s disheveled psycho or Jack Nicholson’s hammy madman. Although he cuts an impressive figure in more than one iconic outfit from the comics, he and many of the other cast members suffer from “Gotham” syndrome. Like nearly everyone in that not-quite-right DC Comics TV series, most of the characters here come off like second-rate stand-ins for what should be better versions of themselves. That also applies to Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne, who makes a couple of brief cameos that confirm how wrong he is for the role.

Part of “Suicide Squad” wants to be a deadlier-stakes “The Dirty Dozen,” the rest wants to be a “Deadpool”-derivative comedy, but it only ends up being more disappointing DC dreck.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus

Star Trek Beyond

Sofia Boutella fights the power as new character Jaylah.
© 2016 Paramount

(Reviewed June 29, 2016, by James Dawson)

Sadly, co-screenplay writer Simon Pegg, who also plays Enterprise engineer Montgomery Scott here, got it right when he penned this line of dialog for his character Tim Bisley on the 1990s Britcom "Spaced": "It's a fact, sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit." "Star Trek Beyond" is number three in the rebooted series. (What spoils this clever reference, of course, is that the 2009 J.J. Abrams-directed "Star Trek" was all-around excellent despite being the first of the new batch, and therefore an odd-numbered one.)

There are so many annoying things wrong with this installment that even the snazzy visuals, an appealing new character and one genuinely funny bit ("What's your favorite color?") can't make up for the script's shortcomings. The idea that adventure-loving Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) would apply for a desk job as a vice admiral instead of soaring the spaceways is impossible to swallow. So is the premise that someone apparently forgets about a crashed but easily fixable starship for over 100 years, and that a hazardous space route we're informed is impossible for any existing ship but the Enterprise to navigate presents no apparent difficulties later for an older and far less sophisticated vessel.

Most of the actors seem bored or embarrassed. Zachary Quinto's Spock wig is distractingly bad. An action bit with what would be an extremely antique motorcycle is off-puttingly silly. And even on a starbase with what we're told are millions of residents (many in Starfleet uniform), apparently the only people who can take action to do anything to prevent their mass extermination are the half-dozen main members of the Enterprise crew.

Also, there's something very Monica-Bellucci-getting-her-face-violently-ruined-in-"Irreversible," or Edward "I felt like destroying something beautiful" Norton in "Fight Club," about having to watch the Enterprise suffer the equivalent of a devouring and dismembering when attacked by multitudes of might-as-well-be space piranhas. Another decade, another planetfall for another crippled Enterprise.

Idris Elba overacts egregiously as new bad guy Krall. Sofia Boutella, however, is appealingly spunky as new character Jaylah, whose name is short for "Jennifer Lawrence in 'Winter's Bone.'" (Seriously, that's straight from Pegg's mouth.)

Knowing that transporter technology exists in the "Star Trek" universe makes many scenes illogical, to say the least. When anyone can be beamed anywhere...or snatched from anywhere if they're in peril, such as in the film's finale...it makes no sense that this technique isn't employed.

When I mentioned this to someone after a screening, he reasonably replied, "Well, yeah, but that would ruin almost every 'Star Trek' story." So I guess fans are cool with it.

"Star Trek Beyond" isn't shit. But with Pegg behind the keyboard, it should have been a lot more "not shit."

Back Row Reviews Grade: C-

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

They're back, sweetie!
© 2016 Fox Searchlight

(Reviewed July 22, 2016, by James Dawson)

Still as delusional, drug-addled and deliciously despicable as ever, the “Absolutely Fabulous” Britcom’s Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) return for a big-screen debut that seems to share the pair’s own endearingly self-involved sensibilities. Putting up an expensively showy front, brazening through bad patches and giving offense with casual obliviousness, the movie and its main characters exist in a world where life is their party. And if you don’t recognize cameo stars like Graham Norton, Jean Paul Gaultier or most of the other various entertainment and fashion-world guests here on sight, well that’s your problem, isn’t it, sweetie?

Frumpy and flustered fad-follower Eddy is a high-living PR agent with money troubles now that Lulu and Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton are her main clients, and neither of them are happy with her services. (Showing a good sense of humor, both singers appear as themselves.) Saunders, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, manages to give the shockingly shallow Eddy more than a hint of desperation as she resolutely keeps self-awareness at arm’s length. The best of her casually cutting asides comes after Patsy refers to the long-ago era when Brigitte Bardot was “just out of nappies.” “She’s back in them now,” Eddy deadpans.

As always, Joanna Lumley is a scene-stealing sensation as Patsy, a smugly bitchy magazine editor with an outrageously outsized sense of entitlement and a preposterously promiscuous past. When she tries reconnecting with actor Jon Hamm by reminding him of their history, he pleads, “You took my virginity. Please leave me my sanity.” (Later, we see that he apparently was unable to resist her age-undiminished charms.) Patsy also has built up enough of a tolerance to drink, drugs and general debauchery that she survives an extended tasering without a flinch.

After accidentally pushing both would-be new client Kate Moss and Eddy’s loopy personal assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks) to their seeming watery deaths in the Thames, Eddy absconds with 13-year-old granddaughter Lola (the easygoingly charming Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) and Patsy to France. Eddy’s long-suffering daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) and her new detective-inspector boyfriend Nick (“Peep Show” star Robert Webb) go in search of the fugitives, whose insatiable appetite for the good life leads them to attempt a shady “Some Like It Hot” solution to their money problems.

“Glee” star Chris Colfer is flamboyantly frank as Eddy’s brutal-with-a-brush hairdresser (“Take the pain, bitch!”), and Kathy Burke is perfection in a tiny role as Patsy’s gruffly domineering boss Magda. Designer Stella McCartney, who demands that Eddy not wear her clothes and eventually throws a brick through her window, also resents Patsy’s 1969 relationship with dad Sir Paul. “And the world blames Yoko,” she sighs.

The TV show’s edgy humor surfaces in jokes about topics including transgenders, Ebola, a white woman who declares that she’s black and a jacuzzi that’s like “a smoothie of old sperm.”

While the movie’s big-screen budget permits production luxuries such as big fashion-show launch parties and a scenic side trip to Cannes, the story plays out like a satisfyingly extended episode of the TV series. Director Mandie Fletcher previously helmed the show’s three 20th anniversary specials, as well as two seasons of Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant “Blackadder.”

Asked at one point to explain her unlikely lifetime friendship with Eddy, Patsy matter-of-factly replies, “It’s bloody good fun.” Likewise, “Absolutely Fabulous” fans won’t have to think twice about whether to drop in on this terrible twosome again.

They’re old friends.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B


This movie is a Big F-ing waste of time. © 2016 Disney

(Reviewed June 29, 2016, by James Dawson)

One-sentence review: "The BFG" starts out bad, gets much worse in the middle, and ends up being a legacy-tarnishing embarrassment for both Steven Spielberg and "E.T." scriptwriter Melissa Mathison.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D

The Man Who Fell to Earth
Limited Collector's Edition

(Reviewed January 22, 2017, by James Dawson)

The three-disc Studiocanal/Lionsgate Limited Collector's Edition box set of the SF cult classic "The Man Who Fell to Earth," starring David Bowie in his first leading film role, includes several new extras along with a booklet, four art cards, a fold-open sheet of production notes and a mini poster. Although the now out-of-print 2005 Criterion Collection edition was more impressive, if only because it offered a commentary track featuring Bowie (along with director Nicolas Roeg and actor Buck Henry) among its bonuses, there's plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes material here.

The intriguingly told if suspension-of-disbelief-straining film portrays orange-haired alien Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie, perfectly cast as a tragically fragile stranger in a strange land) who hopes to fund a rescue mission to his dying planet with profits from his advanced technology. Candy Clark is a naïve small-towner who insists on trying to love him, Rip Torn is a lecherous college professor hired to help the mission get off the ground and Buck Henry is the head of Newton's eventually too-big-to-be-tolerated corporation. Instead of a conventional sci-fi adventure, the film is a depressing and often unsettling allegory about how the real world (ours, that is) will distrust and attempt to crush an idealist outsider.

The beautifully restored 1976 film and all bonus content on the single Blu-ray disc are duplicated on the set's two DVDs. A gum-chewing Bowie appears in a 1977 French TV interview that's made slightly awkward by the host's constant running translations of his English questions (such as "Will you change careers?" and "Will you change your face again?") and Bowie's tolerantly amused answers. Then 30 years old and residing in Switzerland, Bowie notes that he wants to live two years in different countries for the rest of his life (which didn't happen), and that a biography of expressionist painter Egon Schiele will be his next film (it was never made). About his music, he says, "It seems I'm singing less on my albums, because I don't think I have anything to say anymore," and incorrectly predicts "a lot of instrumental things from now on, I think rather like the last album ('Low') but even moreso."

More recent (although unfortunately undated) cast-and-crew interviews are with director Roeg; screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, who adapted the Walter Tevis novel; actress Candy Clark; producer Michael Deeley; cinematographer Tony Richmond; costume designer May Routh; and stills photographer David James. All offer interesting making-of tidbits that make watching them worthwhile.

Roeg and Mayersberg both point out that seeing Bowie in the BBC documentary "Cracked Actor" convinced them that he was their man-who-fell. Mayersberg says that Peter O'Toole was considered for the role but never approached, and that Bowie did everything "immaculately."

A very likable and outgoing Clark recalls exiting the movie's US promotional tour early in frustration, because the badly edited version initially released in America had been cut from 2 hours 19 minutes to two hours. (The full-length version appears here.)

Richmond recalls that when Bowie demanded no pig's blood be used in a scene, Richmond donated some of his own instead, a solution that Bowie apparently found acceptable. He also reveals that Roeg used neither storyboards nor a shot list when making the film.

An interview with Sam Taylor-Johnson, a director who had nothing to do with this movie and who only offers her thoughts as a fan, is completely superfluous.

A very interesting featurette titled "The Lost Soundtracks" uses interviews with arranger/composer Paul Buckmaster and author Chris Campion to explain why the movie's score ended up being written by John Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas instead of Bowie. (CD and LP versions of the movie's soundtrack will be released for the first time on February 17.)

Strangely, the set's photo-filled 72-page booklet, the four "art cards," a 16-page fold-open sheet of production notes and the folded mini-poster are so small that they come nested in a cardboard tray that's not as big as the plastic case for the three discs. Everything fits in a slot that's only 5.75 x 4.5 inches, and the poster unfolds to 19.25 x 13.25 inches.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: Limited Collector's Edition has a retail list price of $34.99 and will be released January 24, 2017.


It's a dog's life for this pooch.
© 2016 Amazon Studios

(Reviewed June 20, 2016, by James Dawson)

Fans of the always audaciously uncommercial writer-director Todd Solondz, who is perhaps best known for his extremely dysfunctional 1990s family affairs "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," needn't worry that his first pet-centered production would be any less disturbing, deadpan or dark than those human-centered tragicomedies. It's such a given from the outset that the title character here will have a less-than-ideal life story, in fact, that canine lovers may not know whether to leave or cry.

The anthology-style film (complete with an amusing musical intermission) follows the destiny of a primarily passive dachshund through four separate tales with different casts. Her first owners are an upper-class family with a short-tempered dad (Tracy Letts) and a laughably earnest mom (Julie Delpy), who tells an unintentionally hilarious story about the repeated rape of a French poodle named Croissant by a mutt named Mohamed to explain why spaying is a good idea. If you can't imagine the potential humor in that sort of thing, or in the revelation that the perpetrator was skinned and turned into a purse, this flick definitely won't be your can of Alpo.

The couple's young and sickeningly sweet cancer-survivor son (Keaton Nigel Cooke), like Jonathan Osser's Mikey in Solondz's "Storytelling," is patiently inquisitive to the point of being Andy-Kaufman infuriating. His questions about suffering, death and "what about God?" are at first dismissed by mom with a calmly reasonable, "We don't believe in God."

Those topics arise after Wiener-Dog (for such is the first name she's given) has a dramatic bout with diarrhea that inspires a ridiculously long tracking shot of the result, followed by even worse health complications.

Her next owner is the Solondz cinematic universe's perpetually put-upon protagonist Dawn Wiener, first played by Heather Matarazzo in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and mentioned in passing (quite literally) in "Palindromes." Dawn, whose own childhood nickname was Wiener-Dog and who renames the dachshund Doody, is portrayed with an endearing mixture of uncertain but quietly indomitable hopefulness by Greta Gerwig.

Reunited with her sullen not-exactly-boyfriend Brandon McCarthy from "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (played here with convincingly lethargic indifference by Kieron Culkin), she takes a road trip to Ohio for a reason that's unrelated to crystal meth…although desperate Dawn seemingly wouldn't mind even if it were.

There's no link between that chapter and the next, in which bitterly frustrated film professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito, in full misery mode) somehow has taken possession of the pooch. Having to endure duplicitous agents, laughable know-nothing students and a smugly successful alumni who mocks Schmerz's "What if? Then what?" guidelines has turned dismal Dave into what his doctor calls a "ticking time bomb." And you know what those do.

The film's final chapter is its darkest, in which the dachshund somehow has ended up with the elderly and gruffly joyless Nana (a compulsively insulting Ellen Burstyn). She may be dying, but as she points out, so is everybody else. When her seemingly solicitous granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) shows up with her angrily self-absorbed would-be artist boyfriend in tow ("Fuck Damien Hirst!"), it's soon obvious that presenting Nana with an ostrich egg isn't the real reason for their visit. Also, Nana has renamed the dog Cancer, which sort of says everything.

Like all of Solondz's films, "Wiener-Dog" is so blithely odd, utterly unpredictable and apparently unconcerned with attracting a mainstream audience that watching it feels something like witnessing an experimental performance-art piece. Even if this isn't his best work, it's still so compulsively interesting that it could be the basis of an anthology TV series. Each week, the less-than-dynamic dachshund could show up with a new owner in a different so-sad-it's-strangely-funny situation.

Could there be a more fitting mascot for this dire decade than that kind of low-key, bad-luck "Lassie?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: B

The Neon Demon

Elle Fanning stars as an it girl who is as lovely and vapid as this movie. © 2016 Amazon Studios

(Reviewed June 2, 2016, by James Dawson)

It's hard to believe that Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of "Drive" and "Only God Forgives" (both of which got an "A" grade from Yours Truly) could make a movie as beautiful but embarrassingly bad as "The Neon Demon," which is like what you might get if David Lynch suffered a head injury before helming a boringly soft-core Penthouse video. Also, it's so painfully, ass-draggingly slow that even a dyslexic typist would have no trouble transcribing all of its dialog in real time without hitting pause.


Back Row Reviews Grade: D

Preacher (AMC TV Series)

"Preacher" is no church picnic.
© 2016 AMC Networks

(Reviewed May 23, 2016, by James Dawson)

The AMC network's "Preacher" TV series debuted with an impiously pointless pilot that couldn't have disrespected its source material with more compromised disregard if it had been produced by Pontius Pilate. Fans of the original comics on which the show is based will regard this version as a blasphemously debased abomination, while this slow-moving Sunday disservice will be as boring as church for newcomers, even with the occasional brawl.

The 1990s "Preacher" comic-book series by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon was outrageously violent, gleefully irreverent and full of bizarrely colorful characters that included debauched angels, the advice-dispensing ghost of John Wayne, murderous rednecks, mine-dwelling cannibals and a secret worldwide military organization devoted to laying the groundwork for Armageddon. Where the TV pilot dawdled away its time in what may as well have been called Dullsville, Texas, the first issue of the comic started out like a house on fire (or a church, actually), with an epic high-body-count supernatural showdown, some shockingly Bible-black humor and a side trip to a not-sufficiently-high-security Heaven.

In the comics, title character Jesse Custer is a smalltown preacher who has been beaten down, broken and brainwashed into taking that job by his mother's insanely savage family, who executed his former Marine father for trying to get Mom away from their clutches. When the spiritual offspring of an angel-demon union inhabits Jesse's body and wipes out his congregation, he goes on a road-trip quest to make God pay for his crimes against humanity.

Joining Jesse are his good-with-guns ex-girlfriend Tulip O'Hare, on the run after botching her first assignment as a hitman, and the nearly century-old alcoholic Irish vampire Cassidy, who was unexpectedly enlisted as her getaway driver.

The TV adaptation, which seems intent upon throwing the baby out with the holy water, gets so many things wrong that's it's hard to know where to begin. Jesse (Dominic Cooper, more soporific than smoldering) has become the son of a preacher, which alters the context of one of the few lines of dialog that survives from the comic. When Jesse is told by his father in flashback that he has to be one of the good guys because there are "too many of the bad," the advice changes from secular common sense advice to a hokey homily. In a similarly wrongheaded change, the humiliating barroom beatdown that Jesse suffers in the comic goes exactly the opposite way on TV, where Jesse becomes an almost superheroic one-man wrecking crew.

The most infuriating alteration involves the momentous occasion in which Jesse's body is overtaken by the angel-demon's spirit. In the comic, this occurs during one of Jesse's sermons, resulting in an explosive inferno that incinerates his entire congregation. In AMC's version, it happens when Jesse is alone in church at night, with no literal or metaphorical fireworks whatsoever.

Tulip (a smirky-sassy Ruth Negga), bafflingly race-changed from blue-eyed blond in the comics to black onscreen, also has been transformed into a cartoonishly MacGyver-style action hero who can improvise a bazooka out of tin cans and duct tape.

As Cassidy, Joseph Gilgun does the best job of retaining his comics character's irresistibly likeable Blarney-Stone bluster. His TV incarnation apparently is on the run from unknown pursuers, however, which adds an unnecessary unfinished-business complication to an already elaborate story that didn't need another non-canonical subplot.

Executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who developed the series for TV and co-directed the pilot episode, are apparently misguided disciples who have expressed their devotion to the comic and yet managed to subvert and betray it in nearly every way possible. Two of the three main characters are mishandled, supporting ones (such as Sheriff Hugo Root, no longer a frothing and maniacal racist) fare even worse, and new characters (including a Flanders-like congregant and an apparently amour-minded church assistant) are uninteresting. Even fan-favorite supporting player Arseface (Ian Colletti) gets toned down, transformed from a monstrously freakish and unintelligible unfortunate who is so grotesque that he literally makes people throw up when they see him into a guy with an admittedly anus-puckered mouth but no other deformities.

The last comics-to-TV adaptation this completely disappointing was Fox's "Lucifer," which turned that heady, heretical and sometimes horrific fallen-angel fantasy into a smirking buddy-cop waste of airtime. Just as I never returned for another episode of that show after its pilot, because I didn't want my memories of the far superior printed version tainted by such an inferior impersonation, I won't be back in the pews for more "Preacher." These days, there are too many good things on TV to waste time watching one of the bad.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D-