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


The BFG










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


Wiener-Dog









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.

Avoid.

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-


The Lobster






Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz bond on the run.
© 2015 A34 Films



(Reviewed May 17, 2016, by James Dawson)

My favorite film so far this year, "The Lobster" is a tongue-in-cheek modern-day fantasy that's so deliciously strange and stylish it's like what you might get if Lars von Trier directed a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Colin Farrell gives a coolly deadpan performance as man who will be transformed into the animal of his choice (a lobster, in his case) if he doesn't find someone to hook up with at a hotel full of similarly desperate singles. That's all you need to know. Really. Just go.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A


Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising






Imagine that's a sack of shit Seth Rogen's trying to get away with, and you'll have a pretty good metaphor for this movie.
© 2016 Universal



(Reviewed May 9, 2016, by James Dawson)

As of May 10, this is the movie I most regretted sitting all the way through this year. Painfully unfunny, vulgar and stupid in the usual Seth Rogen fashion, it not only failed to make me laugh, it made me wish that I could have fled from the theater to be absolutely anywhere else. (Abandoning my similarly unamused seatmate, who had to see this abomination for professional reasons, unfortunately was not an option.) (Because she drove, that's why.)

Here's all you need to know: The movie's first scene features Rose Byrne riding atop Rogen's body in bed until she pukes in his face during sex. Incredibly, things go downhill from there, unless you're a fan of things like bloody tampons splatting against and sticking to windows.

For the love of God, stay away.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F-minus to infinity



X-Men: Apocalypse




New mutants on the block Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler and Tye Sheridan as Cyclops.
© 2016 20th Century Fox



(Reviewed May 9, 2016, by James Dawson)

Featuring only one actor (Hugh Jackman as Weapon X/Wolverine) who appeared in the original X-trilogy before "X-Men: First Class" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" offered different-era versions of some central characters, "X-Men: Apocalypse" takes the risk of replacing everyone else in the cast with younger performers. It's not a reboot in the traditional sense, considering the timeline-changing finale of the last movie, but a cleverly satisfying way to make everything old new again.

Fans also will be glad to hear that Evan Peters, who debuted as the high-speed hero Quicksilver last time around, is back to steal the show once again with the movie's most enjoyable and elaborate action scene. Jennifer Lawrence also returns as the shapeshifting Raven/Mystique, who instantly can alter her appearance to perfectly mimic anyone of any sex or size (right down to that person's clothes, which always seems odd, but just go with it).

Where "X-Men: First Class" took place in 1962 and most of "X-Men: Days of Future Past" was set in 1973, "X-Men: Apocalypse" jumps another decade to 1983. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (the radiant Rose Byrne), whose memories of a Castro-era encounter with X-Men leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) were deleted by him after that event, discovers that a megalomaniacal mutant with god-like powers has been resurrected in Egypt. Apocalypse (a suitably menacing and heavily made-up Oscar Isaac) is sufficiently disgusted with the state of the modern world that he enlists the equivalent of the biblical four horsemen to help him destroy it: the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), the metal-feathered Angel (Ben Hardy), the energy-sword wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and former supervillain with a fresh grudge Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Back stateside, teenage Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) accidentally destroys a high school bathroom with his blazing eye-beams before being enrolled at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, where mutants learn to develop and control their superhuman skills as part of the curriculum. That's where he meets the telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, displaying the same sad resignation that haunts her Sansa Stark character on "Game of Thrones"); the brainy but sometimes blue and brawny Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); and the even bluer and more bizarre Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can vanish in a puff of smoke and reappear elsewhere.

What separates the Fox studio's X-Men outings (and their Wolverine spinoffs) from the same-publisher-different-universe Marvel Studios movies (which include Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers) is that X-Men offerings are a little more serious and a lot less tongue in cheek. That doesn't mean they are grimly joyless "Batman v Superman"-style slogs, but that they have a bit more class and dramatic weight than most popcorn flicks.

This time around, the always excellent Fassbender imbues Magneto with real poignancy on his journey from exiled imposter to vengeance-seeking villain. Lawrence's Mystique is first seen liberating enslaved mutants who are forced to battle each other in "fight or they'll kill us both" cage matches, and Turner's Grey sees horrifying visions of the world ending in flames.

The movie is at its best when it focuses on the heroes' relationships with each other, and somehow feels smaller when the fight scenes get bigger. Also, during the final massive-destruction showdown with Apocalypse, it's odd that the good and bad guys go at each other in a completely deserted no-man's-land with zero interference from soldiers, cops or even angry citizens with sticks.

This is the fourth X-flick directed by Bryan Singer. Simon Kinberg's screenplay takes a jab at 2006's non-Singer "X-Men: The Last Stand" by having a character who has just seen "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" note that "the third one's always the worst." (Personally, I would rank Singer's "X-Men 2" at the bottom of the X-list.) With any luck, Singer's sense of one-upmanship will inspire him to do his own version of Jean Grey's epic transformation to Dark Phoenix, which occurred in "Last Stand" and is foreshadowed in "Apocalypse."

Based on their performances here, the new kids would be up to the task.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+



Captain America: Civil War








It's clobberin' time! (Wait, wrong movie...) © 2016 Marvel Studios

(Reviewed April 13, 2016, by James Dawson)

The differences between the irresistibly appealing "Captain America: Civil War" and the dismally dull "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" offer further proof that Marvel superheroes have the kind of movie-magic mojo that consistently eludes bigscreen DC Comics characters. What has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe—which includes members of The Avengers, Ant-Man and welcome newcomer Spider-Man, among others who appear here—is a place that's more interesting, more exciting and more human than DC's drearily depressing Metropolis or Gotham City.

Marvel movies also are smart enough not to take themselves too seriously. Even though the twisty plot of this third solo Captain America outing does as much globe-hopping as a James Bond flick (and has a comparable body count), there's always time for a little comic relief among the colorful comic-book carnage.

The conflict at the heart of "Captain America: Civil War'" involves Cap and his fellow Avengers (Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, Paul Bettany's Vision, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, Don Cheadle's War Machine and Anthony Mackie's Falcon) taking sides on the issue of whether superheroes should be restricted to serving under the control of the world's governments. Tony Stark/Iron Man is guilted into wanting to cede the group's autonomy when confronted with information about casualties that have resulted during previous world-saving exploits. Captain America opposes the idea of heroes giving up their independence to choose where they can do good.

That philosophical split is almost the only thing the movie has in common with the 2006 Marvel Comics series that shares the "Civil War" title. Missing and very missed from the movie version are the global security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (unfortunately eliminated at the end of Captain America's previous on-screen outing), Thor (who appeared in the comics as a murderous cyborg-clone) and the much larger groups of us-against-them heroes in the comics. Spider-Man's most shocking moment in the comic-book series, and his later crucial change of heart, also do not appear in the movie.

Instead, "Captain America: Civil War" inserts a decent human metaphor for the conflict, tosses in an emotional subplot involving newcomer T'Challa and his alter ego Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and arrives at a satisfying new finale that should calm any funnybook fanboy outrage.

In 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) learned his former partner James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) also had survived WW2 with his youth miraculously intact. Unfortunately, Bucky had been turned into a mind-controlled and memory-impaired assassin known as The Winter Soldier.

In the new movie, the still-on-the-run Bucky is blamed for a terrorist incident. Captain America and others pursue him, Iron Man and others pursue Cap, and all of their futures are at stake (as they say).

One story flaw is that the plot depends on bad guy Zemo (Daniel Brühl) apparently already knowing something that he spends most of the movie trying to find out. It's also hard to believe that this bit of information is unknown to the person it later impacts the most, but the end is intriguing enough to justify the movie's questionable means of getting there.

The character providing the most fun amid the fisticuffs is Tom Holland, debuting as the youngest and best-ever incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Youthful, enthusiastic and likable, he at first notes that he can't leave Queens with Tony Stark to join the fight in Germany because he has homework. He later points out with deadpan innocence that Captain America's flawlessly ricocheting shield "does not obey the laws of physics at all."

That line comes during the movie's best action scene, in which all of the costumed heroes face off at an evacuated airport where everything from empty jets to the control tower itself are used as weapons. That sensational set piece also includes what is literally a huge surprise involving one character.

Helmed by returning "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" directors Anthony and Joe Russo and scripted by that film's screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, "Captain America: Civil War" is another worthy addition to Marvel's slate of superhero blockbusters. The same foursome will be back in two years for the next Avengers movie "Infinity War Part I."

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+



Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice






"Grrrrrrrrrrrr."
© 2016 WB



(Reviewed March 23, 2016, by James Dawson)

Stupid, sadistic and absolutely no fun whatsoever, the relentlessly dreary "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" offers further proof that every 21st-century Warner Bros. movie featuring those characters seems doomed to be dark, depressing and don't-drag-a-date-along dismal. Like "Superman Returns," "Man of Steel" and the "Dark Knight" trilogy, this latest example of joyless, heavy-handed brutality is nothing but a bad time.

None of those Warner Bros. movies ever could be mistaken for the more colorful, clever and character-driven Marvel superhero flicks ("The Avengers," "Iron Man," "Captain America," "Thor," et al). But that different-as-night-and-day distinction is no virtue when the alternatives WB offers are so off-puttingly miserable that they substitute boringly operatic overkill for engagingly amusing adventure.

Dreadfully dark in both senses of the term, "Batman v Superman" spends its first half setting up a tiresomely dumb plot that depends upon pissed-off and permanently dyspeptic-looking Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck, mistaking beard stubble for method acting) somehow missing the point that Superman (the forgettably blank-faced Henry Cavill) saved the planet in "Man of Steel." Instead, he regards Superman as potentially the same sort of incredibly powerful enemy as the very nasty gang of fellow Kryptonians that Supes dispatched last time around.

Granted, a lot of Metropolis was laid waste in that battle, which never would have occurred if Superman hadn't arrived on Earth. But Wayne's unreasonable resentment smacks more of childish jealousy than believable concern for humanity's welfare. Likewise, Batman's eventual intention to outright murder Superman, after receiving some taunting hate mail that even a fifth-grader could figure out was fake, makes one wonder if a bit of moron-producing inbreeding went on in the Wayne family.

Also, Superman and Batman both should realize a lot sooner that annoyingly twitchy psycho-genius Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, doing Mark Zuckerberg with a slightly worse attitude and bad hair) is up to no good. Yet somehow Superman never bothers keeping an eye on a crashed Kryptonian ship in the middle of Metropolis to which Luthor gains access for nefarious purposes, or another one in the Indian Ocean that went down carrying a cache of kryptonite. Meanwhile, Batman apparently can't simply Google the puzzling term "White Portuguese" to discover that it's the name of a ship carrying questionable cargo.

Admittedly, lots of suspension of disbelief is required for any superhero flick, but the premise of a fight involving one contender who literally is faster than a speeding bullet is preposterous from the get-go. When the big throw-down arrives, it's impossible to believe that Superman (who earlier has flown from Metropolis to Mexico in minutes at the most) wouldn't completely disarm and restrain Batman in the blink of an eye, then calmly clear up the contrived misunderstanding that brought them to that point.

Director Zack Snyder keeps everything murky, morosely moody, sometimes monochromatic and occasionally incomprehensible. (This is the man who brought us "Sucker Punch," remember.) Besides the fact that Snyder can't even handle the basic mechanics of a lens-flare-festooned car chase, the stylings of this movie's Batmobile may forever remain a mystery, because we never get a good, long look at the thing. Maybe that's a blessing. The more we see of Superman and Batman themselves, in their bulkily muscle-enhanced costumes, the harder it is not to think of them as the Hans and Franz of the superhero set. (A later armored version of the Batsuit designed by comics writer/artist Frank Miller does have the advantage of not making the wearer look like a steroid-bloated freak, at least.)

Where Snyder's adaptation of the classic "Watchmen" comics merited some grim seriousness, that approach here comes across as pompous, ponderous and irritatingly pretentious. The bombastically aggravating score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL doesn't help, although its deafening omnipresence may help keep audiences awake.

The best that can be said about Gal Gadot's Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, who resembles a skinny Kardashian and has the same otherworldly air of exotic vacuity, is that she isn't onscreen long enough to wear out her welcome. She's beautiful and gives good crotch-shot, but is that all there is? The interminable screenplay (by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer) also includes bits about other heroes who will team up in next year's Justice League movie by offering very brief glimpses of Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash. Unfortunately, the prospect of taking another tedious excursion into this ugly, vicious universe feels more like a warning than an invitation.

Although "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" has a PG-13 rating, be advised that it probably is best enjoyed by the variety of violence-obsessed sociopath who thinks Superman got off too lightly by taking only a dagger to the liver during his comparatively more genteel beatdown in "Superman Returns."

A frustrating failure on every level, this is one comic-book movie that definitely isn't for kids. Sadly, it also isn't appropriate for most adults. Although Lex Luthor might like it.

Back Row Reviews Grade: F



The Brothers Grimsby






Mark Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen, brothers in arms.
© 2016 Sony



(Reviewed March 10, 2016, by James Dawson)

The hilariously outrageous "The Brothers Grimsby" is so gleefully, jaw-droppingly crass that it may set a new standard for what an R-rated comedy can get away with. Going far beyond "laugh out loud," this salaciously silly secret-agent spoof is so dangerously funny it may result in streaming tears, shortness of breath and actual incontinence.

Like star and co-writer Sacha Baron Cohen's previous oddball incarnations Ali G, Borat, Bruno and others, the no-filter Nobby Butcher is ridiculously crude yet constantly oblivious to his own impropriety. While Nobby grew up in England's loutishly lower-class Grimsby, the "Twin City to Chernobyl" where citizens proudly self-identify as scum, his separated-since-childhood younger brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) has grown up to become a lethally sophisticated James Bond-type, albeit one bald enough to be mistaken for Vin Diesel.

The two awkwardly reunite at a very public event in which Nobby accidentally causes Sebastian to give "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe AIDS, which is a clue as to how politically incorrect the gags here can get. The movie also features on-screen scrotum-sucking, a beard made of pubic hair and anuses so enlarged they whistle like pan pipes in a breeze. That's entertainment!

Nobby and Sebastian spend most of the movie pursuing an assassin and trying to determine the identity of his mass-murder-minded master. What happens when they escape detection in South Africa by hiding inside an erotically irresistible elephant is so preposterously explicit and sensationally sophomoric that it borders on the obscene. If you're not laughing like a maniac, it may be because you've passed out in shock.

One refreshing aspect of the movie is that it's so cheerfully British, with offhand humor targets ranging from pub culture hooliganism to storming the pitch. A joke about the biggest crime syndicate in the world ("What, she runs FIFA?") is likely to sail over many Americans' heads like a bicycle-kicked football of the non-pigskin variety.

Although director Louis Leterrier may be best known for helming the first two "Transporter" films, a couple of first-person-shooter action bits here are so frantic that a lot of what's in them goes by too fast to appreciate, but that's a minor complaint.

Rebel Wilson appears as Nobby's large and lusty significant other, Isla Fisher is Sebastian's bespectacled and beautiful contact back at HQ and Penélope Cruz is the head of a philanthropic organization with a mission to cure all diseases (because why not?).

Nobby's eventual realization that "this killing people is a right laugh" when he picks up a gun and begins firing away shows that no target is off limits in this literally balls-out extravaganza, which also gets laughs from jokes about a sex offender, a heroin trafficker, elephant semen and Donald Trump.

Oh, and it's also about the importance and joys of family. Really.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+



Zoolander 2









Ben Stiller, the beguilingly bespectacled Penélope Cruz and Owen Wilson are on the case.
© 2016 Paramount


(Reviewed February 10, 2016, by James Dawson)

The 15-year gap between 2001's "Zoolander" and this similarly silly sequel is addressed in a quick catch-up that gets points for aging the characters in real time, but which also adds melancholy to the mirth. The movie has several good gags, including a cleverly amusing revelation about what really went on in the Garden of Eden, but a lot of the fun here feels almost desperate.

Last time around, the laughably self-involved Derek Zoolander (director/co-writer Ben Stiller) had to get back his male-model mojo after being surpassed at his craft by hot-new-thing Hansel (Owen Wilson). This year, both are humiliatingly out of fashion (at one point finding themselves wearing "Hi, My Name Is" badges that identify one as "Old" and the other as "Lame") and in need of serious runway redemption.

While the first installment undeniably had its own dark touches (three flamboyant characters literally go up in flames, and the central plot involves a "Manchurian Candidate"-style assassination attempt), this year's model includes serial killings, an absurd but still awkward joke about miscarriage and a building collapse that kills Derek's wife and leads to authorities taking away his young son.

An invite from the severely speech-impaired fashion magnate Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig, in demented Donatella Versace mode) gets the now-estranged Derek and Hansel back together in Rome. Scenes mocking their novelty-obsessed industry and Emperor's-New-Clothes scenesters in general include an appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch as a no-eyebrows-and-Cher-hair model known as All who is "not defined by binary constructs," and a hiply horrendous hotel known as Palazzo D'Caca that is constructed entirely of reclaimed human waste.

Interpol Global Fashion Division Special Agent Valentina Valencia (the red-leather lovely Penélope Cruz) is investigating the murders of pop stars whose dying expressions all mysteriously resembled Derek's signature Blue Steel look. As Hansel notes, "She's hot. Trust her." An archived black-and-white TV commercial she watches that features Derek as a half-man, half-cow centaur is one of the movie's best bizarre bits.

Derek's teenage son Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), lost to Derek for more than a decade and raised in an Italian orphanage, isn't exactly what Dad expects when the two reunite. That makes for some opposites-repulse moments, but those things have a way of working themselves out in movies like this.

Will Ferrell is back as the hilariously hyper-hostile designer Jacobim Mugatu, who was locked up for his "Zoolander" crimes in a prison resembling a giant thimble. His finest moment may be when he says that he can't believe the rest of the cast actually believes his explanation of the supernatural circumstances leading to an elaborate human-sacrifice showdown.

Cameos include several fashion designers who hope to achieve immortality based on more than their work, the abnormally fond of a baby hippo Willie Nelson, the big-secret-possessing Sting, and a "Rocky Horror Picture Show"-referencing Susan Sarandon.

At one point, the cool-with-being-clueless Derek tells the similarly uninformed Hansel, "I miss not knowing things with you." That kind of comfortably dumb humor keeps the movie likable, even if it no longer seems especially fashion-forward fresh.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B-



Deadpool





Ryan Reynolds finds fanboy redemption in "Deadpool."
© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox


(Reviewed February 6, 2016, by James Dawson)

Ryan Reynolds is so appealingly demented as Marvel's super-but-no-hero motormouth "Deadpool" that he might actually make fanboys forgive him for starring in 2011's DC Comics dud "Green Lantern." And that's saying a lot.

Deadpool's gimmick, aside from possessing a Wolverine-style healing factor that renders him essentially unkillable, is his habit of constantly wisecracking to himself and the audience during bouts of insanely acrobatic combat. He not only is fully aware that he's a character in a story, but also gleefully acknowledges genre conventions and pop culture ephemera. At one point, his running commentary includes a snarky inquiry about whether the reason we see only two X-Men guest stars onscreen is because the studio couldn't afford to use more. Later, when X-Men leader Professor X is mentioned, Deadpool casually wonders, "McAvoy or Stewart?"

That ironic self-awareness isn't the only thing that sets "Deadpool" apart from typical superhero flicks that aren't anywhere near as self-mocking or brazenly tongue-in-cheek. "Deadpool" also has so much bloody violence and profuse profanity that it easily earns its "R" rating. It also may be the first mainstream comics movie with boobs-and-buns nudity—and who could have imagined Marvel main man Stan Lee doing a cameo as a strip club DJ?

Things get off to an impressively creative start as the camera pulls back, pans around, goes over-under-sideways and finally ends up outside a suspended-in-motion car crash that's full of visual gags (including a copy of People's "Sexiest Man Alive" cover featuring star Reynolds). First-time feature director Tim Miller brings the same manic spirit to several ridiculously hyper-violent fight scenes that feature gunplay, decapitations, stranglings, explosions and conflagrations. As in many costumed capers, the fast-motion action sometimes is too frantic to follow, but that apparently is the price of living in a videogame culture.

The clever screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the duo who scripted 2009's "Zombieland," combines dark humor with a kind of surreal, self-referencing absurdity. We learn in flashbacks that Deadpool started out as ex-military underachiever Wade Wilson, whose mercenary gigs were limited to tasks such as discouraging a teenage girl's stalker. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wilson agrees to undergo an experimental treatment that will force him to "mutate or die."

Wilson refers to this part of his backstory as "a horror movie," and that's no exaggeration. His chief tormentor Ajax/Francis (Ed Skrein) who underwent a similar procedure and emerged devoid of all feeling, sadistically tortures Wilson into a grotesque husk of his former self…but with a healing factor that lets him survive anything from gunshots to stabbings to amputations. Fortunately, Wilson survives with his sense of humor intact.

Reynolds previously played a far less goofy Deadpool as a bad guy in 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," but most of what he did there (and his vastly enhanced powers in that flick's final act) are ignored here. Instead, the new movie makes the character more faithful to his crazier comic-book incarnation, created by writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Rob Liefeld.

On the other hand, the amusingly deadpan, buzzcut-sporting teenage female X-Man known as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who shows up as sidekick to the CGI-generated X-Man Colossus, has nothing in common with her comic-book namesake except her name. One step forward, one step back, comics fans!

Morena Baccarin is Wilson's unsuspecting fiancée Vanessa, who naturally ends up as a damsel in distress. T.J. Miller plays Wilson's smartass bartender friend Weasel, who explains why he won't accompany Deadpool on a rescue mission by saying, "I'd go with you, but I don't wanna."

"Deadpool" has more in common with the wised-up, wacky but absolutely not-for-kids sensibility of comics-inspired fare like "Kick-Ass" and "The Secret Service" than any of the more conventional Marvel movies. At one point, Colossus reacts to something Deadpool does by throwing up in disgust, which says it all.

Whether you find the quip-spouting Deadpool endlessly entertaining or "relentlessly annoying" (as Francis puts it), he's definitely a one-of-a-kind character. His finest aside to the audience may be when he notes that he's just done a "fourth-wall break inside a fourth-wall break" during a flashback.

Dead clever, that.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi







Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski and David Denman have a very bad night in "13 Hours." © 2015 Paramount Pictures

(Reviewed January 13, 2016, by James Dawson)

Like 2001's "Black Hawk Down," which frustratingly did not include any mention of that horrendous debacle's most shocking and politically devastating incident, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" likewise ignores the political fallout of that later fiasco that continues to make it newsworthy today. The result is a high-firepower shoot-'em-up that sacrifices any meaningful historical context in favor of generic "mavericks against middle managers" military madness.

In the case of "Black Hawk Down," director Ridley Scott somehow left out the infamous and outrage-inspiring image of the dead American soldier who was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu amid cheering crowds. Similarly, "13 Hours" includes only an offhand reference to news reports linking the September 11, 2012 attack on the US ambassador's Benghazi compound to protests about an anti-Islamic video, without revealing that this actually was a lie spread by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration. The closest the movie gets to addressing the issue is when someone points out, "We didn't see any protests."

In other words, "13 Hours" isn't going to satisfy anyone who hoped it would help derail Clinton's campaign for the presidency by dramatizing her dishonesty. Because the movie ends on the morning after the carnage, there are no references to later congressional investigations of Clinton publicly blaming a YouTube video and those non-existent protests while she was sending private e-mails in which she acknowledged that the attack was a targeted act of terrorism.

What we are left with, then, is a brothers-in-arms exercise that goes from a risky rescue mission to a modern-day Alamo standoff, in videogame-violent Michael Bay-directed fashion. After heavily armed terrorists invade the US ambassador's compound, a half-dozen rowdy CIA security team members buck the authority of their stereotypically bureaucratic station chief (the hiss-worthy David Costabile) by gunning up after they are told to stand down. When they return that night to what's supposed to be the CIA's secret annex and come under attack there as well, their calls for US military help go ignored for so long that, as one character puts it in classic Bay-speak, "This sh*t's startin' to get real."

James Badge Dale is good as senior security operative Tyrone "Rone" Woods, whose manly take-charge impatience with protocol eventually leads him to snarl at his superior, "You aren't giving orders anymore, you're takin' 'em! You're in my world now!" Pablo Schreiber is the never-scared-in-a-firefight Kris "Tanto" Paronto. David Denman is bearded Garth Hudson lookalike Dave "Boon" Benton, the kind of placid warrior who reads Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" during his downtime.

The cast's weak link is John Krasinski as former Navy SEAL Jack Silva, newly arrived in Benghazi to join the CIA security team. Even bearded, bloodied and brandishing various firearms, the former star of the US version of the sitcom "The Office" just doesn't cut it as a tough guy. Also not helping are laughably cornball scenes in which he long-distance video-chats with his ridiculously adorable young daughters and his ditzy, newly preggers wife, who says things like, "The girls don't need a treehouse, Jack, they need you!" She later casually notes that hubbie's life insurance bill hasn't been paid. Good God, lady, do you know what he does for a living?

The action scenes are intense if sometimes geographically hard to follow (even when maps are provided). The attackers who approach the CIA annex through an area nicknamed Zombieland are as fittingly terrifying as the relentless walkers in "The Walking Dead." And in case a loudspeakered call to prayer isn't already enough to make Western audiences feel a sense of fearful dread, Bay helpfully puts plenty of rifles in the same shot with Muslim men kneeling on prayer rugs. As one character notes, "They're all bad guys, until they're not."

The screenplay by Chuck Hogan (based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff) employs some dramatic license, but is sufficiently credible. It's also strenuously apolitical, laying the blame more on institutional incompetence than on anyone specific. That's too bad. The perfect trust-no-one epilog should have been the real-life footage of Clinton, caught in her lie about the cause of the deadly Benghazi attack, defensively telling a 2013 Senate committee, "What difference, at this point, does it make?"

Back Row Reviews Grade: C



The Coffee-mate Man











Illustration from the July 2000 issue of Penthouse Letters, where an expanded (and slightly naughtier) version of the article below appeared as the first installment of my monthly "St. James Place" column.


Ever glimpse a vision of your ideal future? I'm talking about seeing something so profound and meaningful that it makes you sit up and take stock of where your whole life is heading. It makes you say to yourself, "Hey, if I manage to get a few breaks and avoid completely fucking up, that guy could be me!"

For me, it was sometime in the late 1970s that I saw a premonition of my ideal life. I witnessed it more than once, actually. I knew that it showed what could be my own destiny, if I got lucky. Although decades have passed, I never will forget the man who epitomized everything that I wanted to become.

He was the Coffee-mate man.

I wish I could say that I remembered every detail and nuance of the TV commercial that summed up all of my adolescent aspirations, but some of the particulars are lost amid the coffee grounds of time. The basics are still there, though. Some might remember crusty character actor Jim Davis for playing Jock Ewing on "Dallas," but I always picture him swinging down from a San Francisco trolley with a coat over one arm, then strolling into a townhouse that had a great view. His attitude was serious yet amused, and his voiceover revealed his thoughts as he made his way into the kitchen:

Great apartment. Nice of Al to let me use it while he's gone. Hey, there's the coffee pot. Hmm, guess I'll have to drink it black. What's this? Coffee-mate non-dairy creamer. Well, it sure makes the coffee taste good. I'm gonna remember Coffee-mate.

For me, the commercial's true meaning had nothing whatsoever to do with coffee. The setting didn't matter, either.

What impressed me was that the ad featured a middle-aged man who looked financially comfortable, with no pressing cares or responsibilities. He could breeze into town to "use" a friend's empty place. He seemed at ease with his solitude, and even appeared to have some purpose that necessitated it.

The guy just had to be a writer.

This is pure supposition on my part, of course. Nothing was said in the commercial about the unnamed character's occupation. In those pre-laptop 1970s, he never scrolled a blank sheet of paper into a typewriter and rubbed his hands together, preparing to craft virile yet sensitive prose. He didn't etch notes in a stenographer's pad between pensive glances across the bay. And, although he was drinking, what he was drinking was coffee.

But other indicators were there. He had a somber, almost Zen-like demeanor. He didn't seem to be on a pleasure trip, but he obviously wasn't in town on business of the conventional-job variety. If he were, he would have been staying at a downtown hotel on an expense account.

He clearly was a writer of serious fiction who, although not yet successful on a mass-readership scale, had earned the regard of several important critics and sold quite respectably in university towns. His royalties were modest, but sufficient, because he lived simply: staying at friends' places when possible, and taking the trolley instead of a cab. He dressed well, and he had managed to put a little money away. He could take his time between novels and short stories.

When the Coffee-mate man entered my consciousness, I was still in my teens. In the many years after I first saw him hold a steaming mug to his lips, I went on to college and a succession of unrewarding editorial jobs at publications I never would have read by choice. Eventually, I realized that if I truly wanted to be like the Coffee-mate man—that shining paradigm of noble purpose known as the writer—I either had to resign...or resign myself to a lifetime of frustration.

Some people can hold down a job and write in their off-hours, but trying to make a dream come true in the minutes left over at the end of the day and on weekends never worked for me. Besides, relegating a life's calling to "hobby" status seemed wrong. It was like a slap in the rugged, timeworn face of the Coffee-mate man and everything he represented.

I left my job in 1989 to write for a living. Three years later, I relapsed into working for someone else again, but only so I could list an employer on a mortgage application. (Unless you happen to be Stephen King, and I'm guessing you're not, the designation "self-employed writer" doesn't much impress anyone who is selling a house.)

By that time, though, I was as addicted to the writing life as a java junkie is to his morning fix of caffeine. I quit again in 1994, and I haven't looked back since.

Honesty compels me to admit I don't have a life that is exactly like the Coffee-mate man's. Still, I can get paid for writing things like this story about the guy. So that's close enough, ain't it?

I originally thought I would end this soul-baring sentimental sojourn down free-lance freeway with something corny and catchy and motivational: "Becoming your own version of the Coffee-mate man is tough, but the first step is easy. All you have to do is wake up and smell the coffee."

But fuck that. I'm not here to play guidance counselor. I want to know if anybody can supply me with a copy of that damned TV commercial! I've been trying to hunt one down for years. I've visited the Museum of Radio and Television to pore through their records. I've contacted the parent company of Coffee-mate, as well as their former advertising agency. I even called the Screen Actors Guild for the address of actor Jim Davis' widow and sent her a nice note, all to no avail.

So, in closing, follow your dreams, fulfill your destiny and all of that happy horseshit. But more important, somebody find me that ad!

2015 Update: Thanks to the Internet, I finally was able to see the Coffee-mate commercial again—and you can, too. Just click this link.

Isn't the future wonderful?


The Hateful Eight






Samuel L. Jackson is one of the damn good reasons to see Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight." © 2015 The Weinstein Company


(Reviewed December 16, 2015, by James Dawson)

The oddest thing about director/writer Quentin Tarantino's wild and wicked new western "The Hateful Eight" is how unnecessary all of its lily-gilding aspects are. It's a dialog-driven, amusingly tongue-in-cheek and sometimes incredibly violent exercise that would be just as enjoyable without any of the technical excesses of the epic it clearly isn't.

Avowed film (as opposed to digital) buff Tarantino shot the movie in the decades-bygone "Ultra Panavision" 70mm format, but that super-widescreen presentation actually works against the story's mostly cabin-bound claustrophobia. Instead of offering an IMAX-style immersive viewing experience, "The Hateful Eight" ironically appears smaller than a typical movie. That's because so much space at the top and bottom of the screen is left unused in order to accommodate the hyper-horizontal Cinerama aspect ratio that it's like watching a movie through a pair of retro slit-visor sunglasses.

Also, the film will be released in not only a butt-numbing 167-minute wide-release version, but also as a bring-two-sandwiches 187-minute "roadshow experience" that includes an exclusive overture and a 12-minute intermission. Now, don't get me wrong, I liked this movie a lot—but it's definitely no "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Gone With the Wind." Most of the movie takes place in a single room, and the action in the film's few exterior scenes is very small-scale stuff.

Another example of inessential extravagance: The overture and the rest of the movie's score are by the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose name Tarantino undoubtedly was thrilled to add to the credits…but it's not the composer's best work, or even especially memorable. For what's otherwise such a smart and saucy western, the overcooked music here is pretty limp spaghetti.

So forget every film-geek enticement for seeing the flick. The real reason to go is simply to watch Tarantino's shifty and cynical characters play out the sidewinder sinister plot.

Exuberantly ornery John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell, occasionally lapsing into John Wayne speak) and former Civil War Union Army Major Marquis Warren (the always appealing Samuel L. Jackson) are bounty hunters who sense something amiss when they're forced to wait out a Wyoming blizzard in a remote roadhouse with five strangers. Ruth's crude and contemptuous prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a $10,000 bounty on her head, which is enough to make Ruth mighty suspicious of everyone.

Scenery-devouring Walton Goggins nearly steals the show (which is saying a lot with this cast) as Chris Mannix, an entertainingly aggravating hitchhiker who says he's a soon-to-be sheriff. Bruce Dern is excellent as an ancient ex-Confederate general who crossed paths with Jackson's Warren during the war. Tim Roth has what's hard not to think of as the Christoph Waltz role of a smugly superior Englishman. Michael Madsen is a bearishly threatening cowboy whom Ruth describes as not looking like "the comin' home for Christmas type." Demian Bechir is a Mexican mystery man of few words.

The usual Tarantino blend of over-the-top outrageousness and midnight-black humor remains intact. A couple of vigorously blood-spewing characters may remind viewers of Monty Python's projectile-vomiting Mr. Creosote. Warren's graphic tale of an encounter with an unprepared unfortunate who came hunting for him is viciously hilarious. Ruth's mistreatment of Daisy is cartoonishly nasty, and what happens when Daisy is shown Warren's most prized possession is both shockingly unexpected and laugh-out-loud funny.

Tarantino fans who read the leaked version of the movie's screenplay when it appeared online last year will be pleased to hear that it has been significantly improved by re-arranging events near the end, and with welcome additions concerning a certain piece of correspondence. Added narration over the beginning of the post-intermission scene feels very out of place, however. So does Daisy playing a guitar and singing a folk song, even if her captor's "Animal House"-like reaction to that performance is priceless.

Channing Tatum's small but important role late in the film adds a new dimension of nasty savagery to the suspense. The whole bloody mess wraps up with a quiet and beautifully written human moment that caps all of the coarseness, cruelty and carnage with an unexpectedly sweet grace note.

Yes, even glorious bastards like these can have a sentimental streak.

Back Row Reviews Grade: A-



Star Wars: The Force Awakens







John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, in a galaxy far, far away. © 2015 Lucasfilm

(Reviewed December 16, 2015, by James Dawson)

As Han Solo himself puts it in the everything-old-is-wonderfully-new-again "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "The girl knows her stuff."

The female in question is new character Rey, a desert-planet salvage trader turned resistance fighter played with smarts, toughness and likeable determination by Daisy Ridley. Of all the familiar and fresh faces in this skillfully revitalized seventh "Star Wars" installment, the resourceful Rey emerges as the unexpected primary protagonist.

Ridley's not the only appealing addition this time around, however. Fellow newcomer John Boyega is Stormtrooper FN-2187, aka the slightly goofy Finn, who decides on his first combat mission that the whole "kill them all" thing just isn't for him. Oscar Isaac is rebel pilot Poe Dameron, who gets plenty of cockpit time flying various air-and-spacecraft. Adam Driver is the vaguely Snape-ish Darth Vader stand-in Kylo Ren, with the same penchant for voice synthesizer, black attire and general evil-doing.

For those who have regarded the previous half-dozen "Star Wars" movies as little more than feature-length toy commercials (I include myself), it may come as a shock to realize that even the new inverted-bowl-on-a-beach-ball droid BB-8 is more than just a merchandise mover. Rolling into the R2-D2 role with the same beep-boop language and childlike innocence, BB-8 is as funny and charming as Jar Jar Binks wasn't.

As for the returning cast members from the original trilogy, Harrison Ford's still gruffly roguish Han Solo is back in the smuggling business with Chewbacca, even if he's running from unhappy associates a little more awkwardly these days. Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is now the resistance's matronly General Organa (and, as Han notes, has "changed her hair"). Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, meanwhile, is the missing-in-action object of a galaxy-wide search by both the good and bad guys.

Director J.J. Abrams (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) manages to make the movie much more satisfying than a mere by-the-numbers retread, even if many scenes here are so familiar they often play like an alternate-universe do-over of events we've seen before. Yes, you will hear again the immortal lines "I have a bad feeling about this" and "May the force be with you." You will see a hit-the-target bombing run on a bigger and badder equivalent of the Death Star, and lots of odd characters populating a different cantina. There also are the usual multitudes of videogame-style laser-gunned and exploded-ship casualties.

Two new plot developments are so major, however, that they qualify as extremely big deals in the history of the franchise. The bad news is that blabbermouths probably will ruin both surprises long before you buy a ticket. The good news is that the movie still is worth the ride, even if your jaw won't drop quite so far when those would-be astonishing events occur.

That's because the film is so entertaining and fast-moving that it's irresistible fun even for those hard-to-please snobs who were thoroughly unimpressed by the original trilogy, and who absolutely loathed the three more recent installments. (Again, I include myself).

Abrams has worked the same magic on "Star Wars" as the trick he pulled off with his 2009 "Star Trek" re-imagining, by remaining faithful to the core essentials of each franchise while cleverly tweaking, upgrading and innovating where needed.

In fact, it's hard not to imagine George Lucas watching this movie unfold with the same admiration Han Solo wordlessly expresses when observing the eagerly enthusiastic Rey as she co-pilots his beloved Millennium Falcon.

The force is with them.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+



The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2








"Games" over for Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth, Evan Ross and Jennifer Lawrence.
© 2015 Lionsgate


(Reviewed November 18, 2015, by James Dawson)

Miserable, boring and grim, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2" ends the franchise on a disappointing note by completing its four-film descent from garishly outrageous charm to dismal videogame tedium.

Where 2012's "The Hunger Games" enhanced its dystopian-future foundation with eye-candy outrageousness and bizarrely over-the-top characters, each successive film has been less colorful, less interesting and a lot less fun.

Similarly, main character Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has transformed from a clever, noble and appealingly human victim-turned-victor into a humorlessly mission-driven warrior intent upon killing the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), no matter how many hyper-violent death traps she must overcome to do so. Lawrence mostly appears solemn and stone-faced, which actually is preferable to a pair of crying and shouting scenes she overacts.

Katniss still cares about her brainwashed fiancé and former "Hunger Games" partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, believably shell-shocked), as well as her wannabe boyfriend and fellow soldier Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), but everyone in that love triangle is now damaged, conflicted or distracted.

Movie magic largely succeeds in keeping the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the picture as Plutarch Heavensbee, the rebels' wryly amused propaganda minister. Julianne Moore returns as the coldly calculating rebel head Alma Coin. As former Hunger Games mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Woody Harrelson has little to do beyond looking dour and reading a letter aloud.

"Mockingjay Part 2" is not very welcoming to anyone who missed earlier installments, and who won't be aware that the series ever was anything more intriguing than a futuristic war movie. (For comparison, imagine seeing only the dismal "The Matrix Revolutions" without knowing "The Matrix" existed.) Even those who saw the first three "Hunger Games" films may need good memories to recall who's who at times. The smartass bald girl who gives Katniss guff in the rebel infirmary may look familiar, for example, but she never is called by name—so viewers can be forgiven for forgetting she is former Hunger Gamer Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from District 7.

The murky movie looks as bleak as its subject matter, all underground bunkers, urban decay and hopelessly huddled masses. The CGI perils that Katniss and company face when they infiltrate the Capitol, including a swarm of big-toothed albino humanoid creatures, are well executed and unexpectedly lethal, wiping out a surprising portion of the cast.

The smart "powerless vs. the powerful" cynicism of the first movie has morphed into a much darker form here. Gale justifies an attack plan that will result in substantial collateral damage by saying, "Even if civilians are mopping floors, they're helping the enemy." Johanna notes that "anybody can kill anybody…you just have to be willing to sacrifice yourself," a lesson that could have come from the ISIS playbook. And Katniss herself is a would-be presidential assassin, after all.

At least one of the backstabbing betrayals in the finale feels like a cheat employed solely to wrap up a subplot that deserved a more thoughtful resolution. Also, the set-up for the last-line "zinger" of the movie (taken directly from the Suzanne Collins novel) is embarrassingly contrived.

Game over.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D



Spectre










Daniel Craig is back on the hunt as James Bond in "Spectre."
© 2015 MGM/Columbia/EON


(Reviewed November 3, 2015, by James Dawson)

Nobody did it better than actor Daniel Craig, director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with 2012's "Skyfall," a strong contender for the best James Bond film ever made.

That same team (plus writer Jez Butterworth) fails to reach those heights with this fun but frustrating follow-up, which makes so many nods to the franchise's fabled history that it sometimes feels like a fan-fiction nostalgia fest. There's a frantic "From Russia With Love"-like fight in a train car, an "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"-style Alpine mountaintop clinic, a "Casino Royale" collapsing-building deathtrap do-over, and a pre-credits helicopter-peril scene a la "For Your Eyes Only" (although thankfully without a delicatessen reference).

What's strange is that those and other throwbacks somehow add up to "more is less." Like the two J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" movies, familiarity is fine up to a point, but reboots should be more than retreads full of winking references. (Another drawback that "Spectre" has in common with that two-film franchise: a someone's-actually-someone-else reveal that feels like a cheat.)

A bigger mistake is that "Spectre" attempts to tie all of the Craig 007 outings together by maintaining that the arch-villains of "Casino Royale," "Quantum of Solace" and "Skyfall" actually were working for the global terrorist organization Spectre, headed by the amiably snide Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who has a psychotic but very personal stake in wanting Bond dead. This retroactive-continuity gimmick not only trivializes the bad guys from the earlier films, who definitely did not come across as mere "regional manager" types, but implies that Oberhauser has a ridiculous amount of patience when it comes to disposing of Bond.

Similarly, it's a mystery why the former M (Judi Dench) never bothered assigning Bond to take down Spectre while she was alive, instead of waiting to put him on the hunt via a cryptic recording delivered to him after her death.

Two moments in the movie that ring very false occur when Craig's gritty version of Bond should have taken kill shots to make sure that certain antagonists wouldn't pop up to give him more trouble later. One of those lapses is chalked up to the same unlikely sentimentality that makes him fall for the spy-game-hating daughter of a former adversary. While Léa Seydoux ("Blue Is the Warmest Color") is lazily lovely in that role, her character doesn't seem nearly interesting enough for Bond to regard as life-changingly irresistible.

In spite of those lapses, there's actually plenty to like about "Spectre." The Day of the Dead opening in Mexico City is terrific, beginning with a wonderfully long continuous shot that follows Bond from a cast-of-thousands parade into a hotel, out a window, over ledges and across rooftops to assume a sniper position. It's the stylish cinematic opposite of the frantic foot chase that opened "Casino Royale," but leads to an equally thrilling outcome.

Add in a car chase in Rome, a plane-and-SUVs chase in Austria, a beat-the-clock bomb countdown in London and the seduction of Monica Bellucci as a not-so-grieving stiletto-heeled widow, and all your basic Bond needs will be more than met.

Andrew Scott (Moriarty in the BBC "Sherlock" series) is appropriately obnoxious as Max Denbigh—aka C—the condescending new head of British intelligence. Resembling a creepy Mark Ruffalo, he wants to eliminate the "double-O" program and instigate a new worldwide electronic surveillance network. It's obvious from frame one that he wants to send the world down the tubes, and not just because the newly merged MI5 and MI6 headquarters skyscraper looks like a toilet seat on top.

Ralph Fiennes is back as the new M, whose function this time around is nearly identical to that of Alec Baldwin's character in the latest "Mission Impossible." Ben Whishaw's Q comes up with exactly the kind of fancifully deadly gadgets here that he mocked in "Skyfall," and also gets out of the office for some laptop-toting field work.

Craig has made noises about not wanting to return for another 007 installment, but it would be a shame if his exit occurred quite literally without a bang. "Spectre" isn't a bad Bond film (certainly nowhere near as disappointing as "Quantum of Solace"), but one that feels more like a placeholder than a properly spectacular sendoff.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B



Steve Jobs









Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and a Mac in "Steve Jobs." © 2015 Universal Pictures

(Reviewed October 7, 2015, by James Dawson)

The ingenious "Steve Jobs" updates the standard biopic operating system by stripping its subject's life story down to backstage encounters at only three crucial events (with a few flashbacks): the 1984 launch of the Macintosh computer, the 1988 debut of Jobs' NeXT company and the 1998 arrival of the iMac.

The fact that the same group of very meaningful cast members from Jobs' personal and professional lives shows up for all three of those occasions to praise, berate, comfort or condemn him is as unlikely as their perfectly honed pronouncements, which often play like a series of dazzling witticisms broken up by the occasional meaningful stare. Also, Michael Fassbender bears no resemblance whatsoever to Jobs beyond his wardrobe, and the whole affair comes across as much more stage play than cinematic.

Somehow, though, this unorthodox approach turns out to be surprisingly effective. Fassbender conveys a fascinating mixture of arrogant self-righteousness, cruel pettiness and credible remorse as Jobs, even if he wouldn't win any look-alike contests. Director Danny Boyle keeps things moving in the limited confines of the three main venues, with only brief glimpses of back-story locations including the garage where the seeds of Apple were planted and the boardroom where things went rotten.

Aaron Sorkin's screenplay (based on the "Steve Jobs" print biography by Walter Isaacson) makes nearly everyone present sound as casually clever and cutting as his version of Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," but there are worse flaws a movie can possess than a surfeit of quotable bons mots. Rationalizing his own misanthropic perfectionist attitude, Jobs notes that, "God sent his son on a suicide mission, but we like him anyway, because he made trees." He later compares himself to Julius Caesar, with what turns out to be good reason.

Jobs, who couldn't write computer code and wasn't an engineer, describes his function as a conductor who "plays the orchestra." Boyle plays up that metaphor with a score that swells with intensity during some of his harried main character's harangues.

Although each of the three days covered in the movie should mark moments of triumph for Jobs, each turns into a series of "stop and catch Hell" recriminations, to the point where it's sometimes hard not to wonder if all this drama might be happening only in his guilt-ridden mind. Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) chastises Jobs for denying he is the father of their daughter Lisa, and for providing her with so little financial support that she has signed up for welfare. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wants Jobs to share more credit with him and to acknowledge the efforts of company employees. Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) undercuts him, longtime right-hand "work wife" Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, with an Eastern European accent that comes and goes) gets fed up with his shortcomings as a father, and a resentful Lisa (played as a 19-year-old by Perla Haney-Jardine) insults Jobs' beloved iMac by saying it "looks like Judy Jetson's Easy-Bake Oven."

The cast's weak links are Rogen as "Woz," who is too slacker goofy as Jobs' ineffective Jiminy Cricket, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Macintosh software designer Andy Hertzfeld, whose overdone stereotypical nerdishness seems more suited to TV's "The Big Bang Theory" than to the big screen.

This is Fassbender's show all the way, however, and his remarkable portrayal of Jobs as an obnoxious, damaged, self-aggrandizing huckster who is more than a bit of a bastard is as entertaining as it is award-worthy.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B+