Salvador Dalí is often quoted as saying "I don't do drugs I am drugs." Whether or not this is a case of attribution decay it's certainly an appropriate statement for the surreal artist. Although it would be silly to suggest that John Dies at the End is on par with such an influential artist (and the movie will certainly never take over Dalí's monopoly of dorm room posters and assorted ephemera) it definitely feels like taking a trip down the rabbit hole.
Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes star as Dave and John respectively best buds and regular dudes who find themselves face to face with grotesque monsters from alternate dimensions and a panoply of other mind-bending horrors all thanks to a drug nicknamed Soy Sauce. The Sauce is an icky sentient black goop that destroys most of the people who inject it (and those who live will never be the same). When we meet Dave and John they're problem-solvers of a sort; if something weird is happening to you — say you're being harassed by your dead boyfriend — they're the ones to call.
The Sauce didn't kill them; it has given them a certain insight into the twisted nature of the universe. Much to Dave's dismay it chose them to save us from certain doom on a regular basis starting with a gross creature from another dimension called Korrok. It's kind of a bubbly vat of sentient goo with one terrible eyeball and it gains knowledge through osmosis. Naturally Korrok would like to nibble on Dave and John to learn their ways so it and a whole legion of freaky followers can hop into our dimension and take over the world we live in. Before they can do that they have a whole host of other problems to deal with like John's untimely demise for starters.
John Dies at the End is a logic puzzle that the viewer has to tease out the meaning of. It benefits from subsequent viewings especially since writer/director Don Coscarelli and author David Wong throw so much at you from the very beginning. (Coscarelli adapted the book for the screen.) It's a hallucinatory midnight movie that is so damn fun it's easy to forgive just how hazy it seems in hindsight. There's also a certain sense of disappointment when Dave and John's mission comes to an end possibly because the two characters and all the weird things they encounter are so entertaining that we hate to leave them.
Coscarelli fans will especially appreciate a small cameo by Angus Scrimm who played the terrifying Tall Man in Coscarelli's Phantasm series as a priest. And any genre lover worth their Sauce will love seeing Doug Jones out of prosthetics (but no less disarming) as a creepy interstellar traveler. Paul Giamatti plays a skeptical journalist who's writing a story about Dave and his misadventures; this narrative is the framing device and ultimately is a bit of a disappointment.
The practical effects have a nice goopy look to them and Coscarelli makes the smart decision to use an animated sequence for some scenes that would have been extraordinarily difficult to create on such a small budget. John Dies at the End is alternately trippy gross and droll and it has a cool B-movie vibe without looking too cheap. Although it's available on demand this would be a fun night out at the movies.
Since Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel A Princess of Mars was published nearly 100 years ago his otherworldly tale story has been subsequently been reworked and riffed on by nearly every sci-fi book or movie to follow. Star Wars Dune Avatar—sift through filmmaker interviews and it's easy to find threads tying their inspiration back to Burroughs. Which makes John Carter the big screen adaptation of Princess of Mars particularly surprising. The film's epic presentation of Martian races colliding in battle could feel stale but instead blossoms with color imagination and fun. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo Wall-E) has a strong sense of what makes "adventure" adventurous helping John Carter encapsulate everything about a great time at the movies.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran with the entire Confederate army on his tail finds himself mysteriously transported via a magic cave (or alien technology? If you get caught up in these details John Carter may not be for you) to smack dab in the middle of a Martian desert. As Carter overcomes the planet's gravity a physical difference that allows him to leap tall structures in a single bound (sound familiar?) he runs into one of Mars' many races: the eight-foot tall four-armed green Tharks. As their prisoner/friend/specimen John Carter takes a back seat to the unique world of the Thark world full of clockwork architecture and airships archaic customs and political strife. The Tharks are in the midst of a 1 000 year battle with the humanoids of Zodanga led by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) who is in turn manipulated by the occasionally-invisible shapeshifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong). The Tharks have teamed up with the residents of Helium including the stunning scientist warrior Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but doom is impending and quickly the Spartacus-esque Thark fighter Tars Tarkas turns to Carter for help.
Unlike Avatar which introduced its fantastical world using the safety net of a simple archetypical story John Carter has no reservations bombarding its audience with plot and intrigue. At times the specifics of the world's complex societies and strifes are complicated and confusing but similarly to info-heavy scripts—think the recent Michael Clayton or Margin Call or heck Shakespeare—Stanton Mark Andrew and Michael Chabon's screenplay feels assured of its own drama confident that no matter your understanding the theatrics will sway you. The human element of John Carter exists behind even the most CG-ified alien creature and that's what keeps us on board.
If there's any misstep it's in the casting of Kitsch a fully capable action hero unconvincing as survivor of the Civil War. Kitsch feels pulled from present day but John Carter needs to be a Confederate soldier in more than name. Kitsch is up to the task of ripping up white apes with giant steel blades or jumping over armies of raging Tharks but in scenes of introspection or humorous back-and-forths he loses footing. The real star is Collins as Dejah Thoris who nails the epic qualities of reciting enjoyably ridiculous Martian-speak. She stands out even in the blinding desert sun and even when decked out in over-the-top boobage costuming manages to deliver a compelling and rousing performance. Doesn't hurt that she knows her way around a swordfight or two.
With John Carter moving at lightning speed investing in the film's handful of characters becomes a difficult task but talented folk like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton bring zest to characters on par with James Cameron's Avatar creations. And with such a strong background in animation it's no surprise that Woola John Carter's scrappy space dog sidekick is as realized and tangible as the rest of the gang. The scrappy six-legged critter adds humor to John Carter born completely out of the moment. Don't confuse this with the Star Wars prequels—nothing cutesy or ham-fisted here.
A streamlined John Carter would have really popped but as a first live-action effort for Stanton the fill is still something to behold. With breathtaking design sweeping action and a score by Lost Star Trek and Pixar vet Michael Giacchino that finds perfect balance between Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones the film works as an immersive cinematic experience that will have you "ooo-ing" and "aaa-ing." If you step into John Carter you'll likely find yourself transported to another world—it beats trying to find a magic cave.
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
The movie tagline sort of sums it up: "Four guys from the suburbs hit the road...and the road hits back." The four middle-aged friends who like to jump on their motorcylces and go riding around once a week are: Doug (Tim Allen) a dentist embarrassed by his job; Bobby (Martin Lawrence) a henpecked husband who wants to break away from being a plumber; Dudley (William H. Macy) a mild-mannered computer programmer and resident geek; and finally Woody (John Travolta) an entrepreneur with seemingly the most going for him. In actuality Woody is about to hit rock bottom but rather than be honest with his friends he convinces them all to hit the open road with him--to feel the wind in their hair so to speak. And as they go looking for adventure they soon find that they’ve embarked on a journey they will never forget. Uh-huh. Who would have thought these four actors would make a movie together? Casting Wild Hogs looked like the best part about making the movie as the producers probably sat around coming up with different variations (wonder who else they considered--Tom Hanks? Steve Carell?) Comedy veterans Allen and Lawrence have fun riffing on one another doing their shtick here and there while Travolta (the only real biker of the bunch) and Macy easily keep up with the antics. For the most part these guys click but I’m sure everyone did this purely for the money—and the Harleys. Ray Liotta gets to play the menacing villain once again as the leader of a motorcycle gang who has it out for our hapless quartet. Of course this time Liotta plays it for laughs and does a nice job with it. Even Marisa Tomei makes an appearance as a small town denizen who falls for Macy’s Dudley as the boys end up defending the town from Liotta and his thugs Magnificent Seven-style. You can see every plot point coming a mile away plus a few director Walt Becker probably didn’t even know were in there. But honestly from the guy who directed Van Wilder what did you expect? Becker is handy with a camera and totally knows where the film’s bread is buttered focusing all his energy and attention on his four stars. Unfortunately in doing so Wild Hogs mostly misses out on the poignancy of say a City Slickers even though it tries real hard to get us to connect with these middle-aged men trying to recapture youth--or whatever. But listen this isn’t supposed to change the world; Wild Hogs is just pure dumb fun about a group of guys wearing leather and riding hogs. Period.
Fresh out of the slammer Calvin “Babyface” Sims (Marlon Wayans)--or to us “Little Man”--robs a jewelry store along with his partner in crime Percy P (Tracy Morgan). After the heist is somewhat botched Calvin drops the jewel in the purse of an unsuspecting young woman Vanessa (Kerry Washington) in an attempt to elude cops. Calvin then follows Vanessa and her husband Darryl (Shawn Wayans) out to their suburban home where it’s calm and where the thief learns Darryl is desperate to father a child. So three-foot-tall Calvin shows up on Darryl’s doorstep in a dog basket goo-goo-ga-ga-ing much to the couple’s delight. They take him in and turn a blind eye on the fact that he has facial stubble and a mouthful of pearly whites as Cal tries repeatedly to retrieve the diamond. Amid countless muck-ups and pratfalls the trio grows closer with even Cal showing his heartfelt side. But he is still a criminal with a motive a motive which Vanessa’s elderly father (John Witherspoon) thinks he’s got figured out. Shawn and Marlon Wayans are easily two of the top five actors in the Wayans clan which is a feat if you know their genealogy but at this point it’d be nice to split the brothers up. Their roles here weren’t easily executable--especially Marlon’s--but it’s as if they implore us to not see them as artists. Marlon whose head is superimposed atop a little person’s body--a not-so-special effect--boasts some funny lines as a hardened thief but makes for a grating “toddler ” even though most will inexplicably find his proportions to be hilarious. Meanwhile Shawn actually steals more of the physical gags like getting hit in the groin oh maybe a dozen times by various objects. And it’s a sad day in Hollywood when people like Ray’s Kerry Washington bolt the good stuff for a Wayans vehicle but hey at least she looks great! The true comedy here sparse as it may be comes from numerous cameos by In Living Color alumni and three SNL-ers (Rob Schneider Molly Shannon and Tracy Morgan). Marlon Shawn and Keenen Ivory Wayans are an absolute testament to the Hollywood Machine in action. They “get” Hollywood more than perhaps even George Lucas does making them studio execs’ best friends. They are also more in touch with their fanbase than anyone and churn out precisely what their loyalists crave. In short they are utterly fascinating. Their movies? Not so much. Director Keenen often seems to mistake irreverent for crude and co-writers Marlon and Shawn--well clearly they didn’t envision a brainbuster but they produced (at least) one: We’re merely supposed to laugh at the fact that Vanessa and Darryl don’t notice Calvin’s perpetually changing ages spewing unintelligible babytalk in one scene and playing football in the next. Otherwise it’s more or less a series of Keenen alternating locales to exploit pratfalls that would arise if the man-child problem existed.
Is anything more frightening than realizing that a desperate and hackneyed sequel to a desperate and hackneyed parody required the work of seven writers? Yes seven writers including brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans. Perhaps one group of writers divided their time poking fun at the latest pop culture phenomenons while the other group concocted new and disgusting ways to drench their cast in vomit urine excretion and semen. The result: a tired tasteless and uninspired send-up of The Exorcist and The Haunting complete with jibes at Nike's new Stomp-inspired basketball commercials and the Florida presidential election fiasco. Our heroes-plus some fresh meat--spend the night in the haunted Hell House as part of an experiment conducted by mad professor Tim Curry. Naturally they find themselves tormented by the ghost of the house. Cue sexual humiliations mutilations and giant wedgies.
So the sequel ignores the fact that some of its cast members perished or were implicated in the first film's murders. Were you expecting a semblance of logic to permeate the proceedings? Anna Faris as the virginal Cindy; Marlon Wayans as pothead Shorty; Shawn Wayans as the closeted gay Ray; and Regina Hall as the pushy Brenda return. They are joined by Tori Spelling wasted as a coed obsessed with her ghostly host; Curry hammy as the professor willing to sacrifice his students; David Cross hysterical as Curry's wheelchair-bound assistant whose self-reliance causes more problems than necessary; and Chris Elliott a hoot as the mansion's caretaker whose withered left hand generates more laughs than almost all the script's woeful cracks at satirizing its intended targets. All prove game especially Faris who finds herself up to her neck in all kinds of nasty goo in the name of comedy.
If only director Keenen Ivory Wayans made an effort to be funny rather than just shocking. He seems intent on making the sequel so much more outrageous than his first film that he forgets to make us laugh for the right reasons. The chuckles mask the slight disgust at seeing Faris dripping in semen or Shawn Wayans sodomizing a demonic clown (but the sight of Cross fellating himself is an amusing way to emphasize his character's doggedness). Wayans' attempts at parodying What Lies Beneath and Hannibal flounder but he does a fine job sending up John Woo's dove-filled climax to Mission: Impossible 2. There's nothing more lazy than tearing into The Exorcist--it's 28 years old!--and it's sad to see James Woods demean himself as a priest with a taste for little girls. Woods stepped in for Marlon Brando whose poor health cost him a reported $2 million but saved him his dignity.