Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sci-Fried Theater: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

I realize that this is probably not what you are going to want to hear. You want me to squeal with delight and shout "duuuuuuude! this movie is fucking siiiiick duuuuuuuude fuuuuuuuuck duuuuuude fuuuuuuuuck!" If that is what you want you want to hear, just so you know... I'm sorry for everything that's about to happen.

Actually, I liked the movie. Didn't love it, but I enjoyed it well enough. I really, really wanted to love it, if that counts for anything.

A couple of too-cool-for-school college drop-outs (from what I understand), Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), sort of run some kind of paranormal investigation service that we are told pretty much nothing about, but consists of them cracking one-liners at apparitions that they are blithely unimpressed by. One night, at a party (at which John's neo-punk band play a song called "Cannibal Holocaust"), a Jamaican guy named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), hooks up John with some potent shit called "soy sauce" that allows the user heightened perception. Heightened to the point where you can see events happening through time and space, parallel universes and even other people's dreams... and it's not from around here. "I'll try to explain this without cursing," says Dave. "but the black shit from Planet X that came out from that motherfucker looked like it had grown hair. Did I mention that the stuff was moving? Twitching?"

Told in flashback by Dave at a Chinese restaurant to a reporter (Paul Giamatti desperately trying to steal scenes from Williamson), the film is a series of vignettes through various points in time over the span of what seems to be a couple of days. Starting with a phone call from John who has apparently lost his shit completely, trashed his apartment and is running around in his boxers, Dave finds himself in a police station being interrogated over the deaths of several of the party-goers from the previous night including Marley, who is found disemboweled with all of his flesh torn off. After John is pronounced dead at the station (yes, the title lies), John calls Dave up on his cell phone to help him escape the police station so that he can grab more sauce from the crime scene, so that they can continue to communicate and together (sort of) find out what happened. Of course there is a larger conspiracy at work here and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the sauce is a self-aware tool to repel an alien invasion from another parallel dimension. Eh... sort of.

I'm pretty sure this movie is one of those sort of films that is really only made for people who have already read the book, basically hitting the highlights without going through the rigors of actually having to set up characters and plot or really tell much of a story. I felt like I was watching a four hour epic that some suit in a studio office cut down to 90 minutes after having a fight with the director about theater bookings and how many a 240 minute movie screenings could be had on opening weekend. To say that it's episodic and thinly plotted is putting it mildly. Even Tony Jaa can feel like friggin' Tolstoy after watching this. That is not to say that it isn't well written at all. There is a lot of word-play going on, occasionally feeling a bit like someone read Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut and wanted to do something younger and hipper that would get people, who wouldn't normally be bothered, to pick up and read while waiting for their cell phone to be delivered after accidentally dropping the old one in the toilet. Often it's very clever, but sometimes it feels a bit forced, such as when John (via broken cell phone) instructs Dave to buy a bratwurst from a street vendor. He does and it's a fat, red sausage on a hot dog bun with a piece of lettuce on it. First off, that's not a brat, second who serves a brat with a piece of lettuce (in Illinois no less!)? The answer to that is a punchline; John tells Dave to look inside the bun and he will find a $100 bill. Dave looks and says it's only a piece of lettuce. That's the joke (a swerve on an old time-travel cliche), but it is really straining to get to that punchline and when you get there, it's a lot of effort for little reward.

Coscarelli's movie feels like a group of English majors had a spitballing session fueled by jello-shot sidecars laced with drops of untested lysergic acid diethylamide, watched NAKED LUNCH, GHOSTBUSTERS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and BILL AND TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, and then decided to wrap all four in a crispy won-ton wrapper with plenty of cell phones and penis gags for dipping. Yes, my friends, if you are a fan of phallus based humor, this is your movie. Just like THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) was a gift of flatulent love to fans of the mighty fart joke, JOHN DIES AT THE END will be loved by penis punsters everywhere. This means that fans of the book can rest assured that the penis door handle has not been, uuhhh... manipulated, in any way. Watching JOHN DIES made me feel the exact same way as I did when I was 20 and decided to read a Goosebumps book to see what people were ranting about back in the day. This movie is aimed at a demographic that I am no longer part of. I don't have a bong on my coffee table, which is what I think this movie would be best viewed over in the wee hours of the morning. Mainly, though, the relentless smirking and mugging from the leads wears really thin, really fast. After all, that should be the audience's job.

While the leads are disappointing, Giamatti ferociously chews the scenery in his typically over-the-top fashion, which actually works well at the end when you find out what fate has in store for his character. Clancy Brown's underdeveloped televangelist-style paranormal TV personality Marconi truly does steal every scene he's in (which is sadly very few), and Angus Scrimm makes a meal of the appetizer plate he is given as a priest who gives some unexpected advice over the phone, with some great dialogue contemplating the nature of insanity and the inability to self-diagnose. These latter two, and maybe Giamatti if I'm feeling generous, boldly underscore the weakness of the rest of the cast. That said, Glynn Turman who has made a career out of playing cops, doctors, lawyers and elected officials does a really fine job playing a police detective that doesn't know what the fuck is going on, but will damn sure make it stop, even if it means shooting innocent people and setting mobile homes on fire.

Where the film falters in plot and construction, it definitely makes up for in visuals. David Wong's book (which I haven't read), clearly is interested in throwing as much wacky imagery at the reader as possible (always in a comic book way) and Don Coscarelli is more than up to the task. Better still, he uses a deft hand to inject his own signature visuals without reducing the film to tiresome overkill. His use of lighting, color saturation, lens distortions, color temperature and the like are all carefully handled, painting the screen with atmosphere, and setting an interesting tone for the scenes. There are several scenes that very subtly create the queasy sensation of things being... not quite right, which could have been handled in a flat, ineffective way in other hands. Also effective are both the practical and CGI effects, the former used liberally and the latter sparingly, which is exactly what we like to see. From toothy alien slugs and torn-up corpses, to exploding heads and flying mustaches, there is nothing really to nitpick here. Well, except for the climactic scene at the end with the dog and the bomb. What the hell happened there? Did the production run out of money all of a sudden?

Smirky teens and tweens will love love the bits of the film they see between text messages, and will no doubt bond with our bed-head buddies. Others may feel a bit like they've ridden an E-ticket ride that is a lot of fun, but is quickly forgotten. Your mileage may vary.

(no bloggers where harmed in the writing of this review)

1 Reactions:

  1. Well, as strange as it might seem, I can totally see where you're coming from. This definitely didn't make my millennium, but I had a good time with it while I was watching it. In fact, my friend kind of summed it up nicely, saying, "that's the most fun I've had not knowing what the hell was going on or why I should care in a long time." It really does feel like a lark, and not a very deep one at that. Not sure if maybe your expectations were higher than mine, because I had none.


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