John Dies at the End


You don't want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

You don’t want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Angus Scrimm, Prandihi Varshney, Riley Rose Critchlow, Helena Mehalis, Maria Mehalis. Directed by Don Coscarelli

FFF Banner 2012

The world is divided into two kinds of people; those who get John Dies at the End and those who don’t. Those who do appreciate fun for its own sake, and don’t mind a good genre mash-up. They don’t need a conventional narrative structure and are willing to sacrifice plot coherency for a good laugh…or a fiendishly fun gross-out. They are the sorts who read webcomics religiously, are students of pop culture, think Arrested Development just might be the best television show ever made, don’t mind staying up 36 straight hours playing a good videogame or occasionally partake of a little recreational drug use. Or perhaps all of the above.

David Wong (Williamson) – who isn’t Chinese; he just changed his name to make it harder to find him – meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti) – who isn’t blonde – in a Chinese restaurant. David and his partner John (Mayes) are a kind of demonic Ghostbusters if you will. They’re nearly as well known in the community as Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown) and Arnie wants to get their story.

But David’s story is not the usual kind. David and John have been using a drug with the street name of soy sauce because of its appearance. However this is one of those drugs that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Some people ingest it and become…altered. For David and John however, they develop some rudimentary psychic powers like the ability to read minds, see the future, communicate with the dead and more importantly see demonic presences that the ordinary living can’t detect.

Basically, what’s going on is that there is a biological supercomputer in an alternate universe that wants to break into our universe and take over since it already reigns supreme where it lives. I guess even near-omnipotent biological supercomputers get bored too. Anyway it, and the people that it controls, have been trying to break into our dimension for decades without success but now that David and John have actually done it, the computer wants to know how they did it and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that knowledge. For David and John’s part they’d much rather be sleeping.

That’s a very rudimentary outline of the plot and doesn’t really give you too much of a sense of the real lunacy going on. Based on the book by the same name by David Wong (who is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), the movie has all the genre-bending fun from the novel coupled with the visual sense of Coscarelli who some might remember as the man who gave us the Phantasm movies as well as the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. As you can tell from his resume, this kind of thing is right in his wheelhouse.

Some will find a bit of glee in trying to determine which other movies this most resembles. For example, it has the philosophical sci-fi ramblings of a Donnie Darko but also the hip quotient of a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s the roller coaster gore quotient of Army of Darkness and the trans-dimensional goof of Big Trouble in Little China. I could go on but you get the picture.

Williamson and Mayes make a good team. The chemistry is right there between them, two longtime friends who often speak in their own code (brought to ridiculous levels) but are nonetheless insanely loyal to each other. Their banter is realistic and makes the relationship and bond between them seem more natural and organic.

They get some decent support as well. Turman is good as a philosophical police detective who knows a lot more than he wants to know, while Brown plays a kind of Eurotrash self-help book author who has a beautiful entourage but doesn’t just talk the talk. I was also kind of fond of Weston as a hip-hop talking gangsta who is lily-white and looks and sounds ridiculous but doesn’t know it; you see a lot of those sorts on TV and in real life and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge that it’s moronic even though it’s probably not politically correct to do so. Le sigh.

The effects are mostly practical and a bit old school but they still work. Some of them are pretty nifty, like the police officer’s moustache that abruptly comes to life and starts fluttering about the room like a butterfly, or a freezer full of meat that assembles to become a meat monster (okay, that one was a bit cheesy I’ll grant you).

This one’s a roller coaster ride through current slacker culture and if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that this is probably not a movie that’s going to age well and will be likely viewed as a product of its time as movies that cater to youth culture inevitably do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is in the here and now, nor does it mean that it doesn’t excel at what it is aiming for. This isn’t exactly fun for the whole family – some people are simply not going to get it and truthfully they’re probably never going to get it – but that doesn’t mean that those who do shouldn’t get the pleasure of knowing they’re one of the club.

REASONS TO GO: One hell of a mindf*ck. Psychedelic horror that refuses to take itself seriously. Imaginative visuals and fun throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: May freak one’s freak a little too much. Some may find the story confusing and convoluted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of bad language,  a scene or two of nudity and plenty of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the FedEx package that John sends himself at the mall, his full name is John Cheese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100; the reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Olympus Has Fallen

Takers


Takers

You can tell these cats are cool because of the blue lighting. Really.

(2010) Action (Screen Gems) Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Zoe Saldana, Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown, Michael Ealy, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Jay Hernandez, Steve Harris, Jonathan Schaech, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Glynn Turman, Nicholas Turturro, Gideon Emery.  Directed by John Luessenhop

There are those who go through life wishing they could have things, and there are others who simply take what they want. There are those who admire such people and wish they had the brains and the cojones to do the same.

Detectives Jack Welles (Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Hernandez) are on the trail of a group of bank robbers who pull of daring heists that operate like clockwork. Welles knows that he’s after some smart, competent men who know how to plan down to the smallest detail.

The crew is led by Gordon Cozier (Elba), a smart, dapper sort who has a sister (Jean-Baptiste) who’s addicted to crack. He is anxious to get out of the business while he still can so he can take care of his sister. Also in the crew is Jesse Attica (Brown) and his brother Jake (Ealy), A.J. (Christensen) and John Rahway (Walker). Missing in action is Ghost (T.I.) who was one of the leaders in the crew before he got caught during a botched robbery and imprisoned. Now he’s out and even though his ex-girlfriend Lily (Saldana) is engaged to Jesse, he is letting bygones be bygones.

In fact, he has a plan for a heist that should bring enough money in so that they can all retire. It’s an armored car heist, a very daring and seemingly impossible one. However, with Ghost’s help, the crew manages to pull off the heist although not exactly as planned. However, taking the money is not the whole crime. Getting away with it is what counts and with the cops hot on their tails and double crosses awaiting within the crew, who is going to be left standing when all the money is taken?

This is meant to be a slick, modern heist thriller with an urban cast. It can’t be denied that the movie looks stylish. However, the script is incredibly derivative with elements of many other heist films coming into play, The Italian Job coming chiefly to mind.

There are also way too many characters who come and go throughout the movie. Even the crew seems terribly interchangeable and some members redundant. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who without a scorecard, and at the end of the day the movie would have been better if some of the parts had been consolidated.

What’s worse is that none of the characters that are here really stand out. Elba comes close as Gordon; he has a natural charisma that shines through a part that is essentially a stock character. His relationship with his sister is one of the elements in the movie that actually works; the interrelationship with the gang is largely forced and seems to come straight out of a music video.

The palate here is in soft hues and neon bright; there is also an overreliance on the hand-held cam which sabotages the filmmakers’ attempt to look slick and cool. There are moments however when the film succeeds and that is mostly in the action sequences.

The armored car heist is spectacular and is the best part of the movie by far. The fact that it doesn’t go off like clockwork only adds to the thrill factor. There are several chase scenes and fight scenes that are also effectively staged, although a hotel shoot-out with slow motion tumbles and bullets flying looks way too 90s for my tastes.

This is one of those movies that is all concept. It could have been a decent movie if the filmmakers (and likely, the studio) had taken more chances and tried to be a little more of its own film but sadly, there seemed to be more attention made to attracting box office numbers than making a good movie. In that sense, you get what you pay for.

WHY RENT THIS: Some really impressive action sequences.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters who are too interchangeable; a smaller crew would have benefitted the film. Nobody really becomes the film’s center although Elba comes close. Too much style over substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence action-style, some nudity and sexuality and  a fair share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Stephen King called the armored car heist sequence the best action sequence of 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: With a cast this heavy with rappers, you know there’s going to be a rap video on the extra menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $69.1M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Bless the Child

Super 8


Super 8

Elle Fanning can't believer her eyes. Neither can we.

(2011) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noel Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Ryan Griffiths, Zach Mills, AJ Michalka, Glynn Turman, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Giacchino, Dan Castellaneta. Directed by J.J. Abrams

There is an age that is magic, when the possibilities of life are endless and unimaginable. At that age, summer stretches out like a magic carpet, taking us anywhere and everywhere. Some of those places are places we might not necessarily want to be.

Young Joe Lamb (Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler) has some anger issues, blaming town drunk Louis Dainard (Eldard) for his wife’s demise.

Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a movie made husky kid who is making a zombie movie for a film festival, on Super 8 stock. Oh, did I mention that this is 1979? It is. Anyway, they want to shoot at the train station and Charlie has decided to add a love interest for his lead actor Martin (Basso) and into the picture comes Alice Dainard (Fanning), the daughter of Louis. She is drawn to Joe, who does the make-up and sound, whose melancholy draws her like a moth to a flame. Neither of them realizes the issue between their fathers, or what Louis’ role in the death of Joe’s mom is.

While filming at the train station, they witness what appears to be an intentional derailment of the freight train by a pickup truck which, to their shock, is driven by their science teacher (Turman) who warns them to tell nobody. When military types led by the hardnosed Colonel Nelec (Emmerich) swoop in, they believe their teacher may have been right.

Soon it becomes apparent that there was something aboard the freight train that wasn’t supposed to be there, something terrifying and angry. People disappear, dogs disappear and property is damaged. The military is covering it up. It has something to do with a creature that was captured on the young filmmaker’s camera, and some strange cubes. When the military insists on evacuating the town, the kids – including pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Lee) will find out the truth, and risk everything to rescue one of their own.

Director Abrams has crafted a loving homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works (and Spielberg produced this under his Amblin banner) especially E.T. and maybe Poltergeist with a heaping helping of The Goonies for good measure. Setting this in 1979 was a good move; it places it squarely in Spielberg’s golden era and adds that nostalgic sheen to the movie.

The juvenile actors in this movie do a really whiz-bang job. Fanning, who up to now has been overshadowed by her sister Dakota, pulls her best performance yet as the lovely but shy Alice, who is the object of affection for Joe. She is both kind and sweet but with a tormented side which shows from time to time. It’s a bravura performance that is nearly matched by Courtney, who is the hero here and a boy who is coping with overwhelming grief and a father who is distant from him and was so even before his wife died.

Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not big on the “kids saving the day” types of movies. They tend to be insulting to the intelligence of both kids and adults. Still, this one is better than most, harkening back to some of the best movies of the 70s and 80s with 21st century flair and awesome creature effects. What’s not to like?

REASONS TO GO: A really great creature feature, E.T. meets Cloverfield.  Some fine juvenile performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids saving the day syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: The creature can be terrifying and there are some scenes that might be disturbing for the very young. There’s also some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the town, Lillian, is named for director J.J. Abrams’ grandmother.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen. This is a popcorn movie all the way.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Frozen

New Releases for the Week of June 10, 2011


June 10, 2011

SUPER 8

(Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Bruce Greenwood, Glynn Turman, Greg Grunberg. Directed by J.J. Abrams

A group of kids making a monster movie on their Super 8 camera in 1979 witness a spectacular train derailment. It turns out that the train was carrying living cargo, cargo that was never supposed to get out but it does and now a small town is fighting for survival against an alien invader. From producer Steven Spielberg and director J.J. Abrams, this looks like a cross between E.T. and Cloverfield.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13(for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some nudity)

The Double Hour

(Goldwyn) Ksenia Rappoport, Filippo Timi, Antonia Truppo, Gaetano Bruno. An innocuous speed date leads to a romance between an Italian ex-cop and a Slovakian immigrant. A weekend in the country takes a dark turn when things from the Slovakian’s past begin to surface as a variety of twists and turns take the ex-cop on a whirlwind ride in which even what he takes for granted as real may not be.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: NR

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer

(Relativity) Jordana Beatty, Heather Graham, Kristoffer Winters, Parris Mosteller. A young girl bored out of her mind and facing a summer of the same determines to make this the best summer of her young life. With the aid of her eccentric Aunt Opal and her annoying kid brother, she goes about finding every thrill possible in an idyllic summer free of parental supervision.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and language)

Kings of the Evening


Kings of the Evening

Linara Washington discovers how fine Tyson Beckford can look.

(2010) Drama (Indiecan) Tyson Beckford, Lynn Whitfield, Glynn Turman, Linara Washington, Reginald T. Dorsey, James Russo, Bruce McGill, Steven Williams, Clyde Jones, Lou Myers, Willard E. Pugh, Justin Meeks, Terrence Flack. Directed by Andrew P. Jones

When times are hard, sometimes the only things that sustain us are our own sense of self-worth. Even the best of us can use a boost of self-confidence every now and again.

In the Great Depression, the African American community was hit harder than most. Already struggling for employment, jobs have become even scarcer and some have resorted to crime just to put food on the table. Homer Hobbs (Beckford) just got paroled from a chain gang after having stolen some worn tires. He ambles into town looking for work and a place to stay and not having very much money for either. He meets up with Benny (Dorsey), a bit of a dandy and a hustler who promises him work and a place to stay for a fee.

Benny is as good as his word; he hooks up Homer with work in a quarry and lodging at the boarding house of Gracie (Whitfield), a no-nonsense lady who is just hanging on by the skin of her teeth. The only other boarder who’s got steady employment is Lucy (Washington) who works as a seamstress and is trying to save up enough cash to open her own dress shop.

Putting a crimp in that is a loan shark (Russo) who wants to collect debts owed by Lucy’s ex-husband and is willing to do whatever it takes to force poor Lucy out of her hard-earned cash. Homer becomes sweet on her nearly immediately.

Also living in the boarding house is Clarence (Turman), a gentleman relying on a long-delayed government relief check that has yet to arrive. His desperation and plummeting self-confidence (and feelings of being a failure) are driving him to the edge of doing something drastic.

Keeping them together is a men’s fashion show hosted every Friday night. To the winner goes the princely sum of five dollars and the title “King of the Evening.” When there’s not a whole lot to look forward to, this becomes a central driving force for most of the men because, as the master of ceremonies proclaims, “If a man can stand up to the mirror, he can stand up to anything.”

While the cast is full of unfamiliar names (Beckford is a former male model who is just now crossing over into the acting realm), it does a pretty stellar job, particularly the veterans Turman as a man hanging on by a thread to his dignity and Whitfield as the practical but harried boarding house owner. Beckford and Washington also make a fine couple with plenty of chemistry and Dorsey provides additional spice.

Jones does a fine job of re-creating the Depression – not just in the look of the film but also in the tenor. The feeling of desperation, despair and of lowered self-worth – all captured beautifully, as well as the camaraderie of people rowing together in the same leaky boat. While some might look at this as a movie aimed primarily at African-American audiences, I found it to carry a lot of universal truths. The pacing may have been a bit slow and there isn’t much in the way of action – even the confrontation with the loan shark is low key – but still in all, not a complete sin.

That’s not to say that the experience of being an exploited minority doesn’t play heavily into the story here. Certainly there are racial overtones that wouldn’t exist for a white cast, although Jones suggests that the heavier prejudice is more class-oriented than ethnic-oriented, a point that is well-taken. He does give all of the characters a goodly amount of dignity, although Washington’s Lucy is a bit shrill at times (which is understandable given her background – Lucy’s that is).

This is a movie that sat on the shelf for years while it was shuffled about from one indie distributor to another before getting a microscopic release and quickly being slotted into home video. Sometimes, there are good reasons why a film doesn’t get the kind of release it deserves. Here, I think distributors didn’t see a cast they could sell and figured that this would get only a niche audience – African Americans into art films. I think they sold the movie short.

WHY RENT THIS: A great sense of place and time. Nice performances evoke the desperation of the period.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This might be a bit too slow-moving and low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of foul language and a smidgeon of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glynn Turman was once married to soul legend Aretha Franklin.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $99,270 on an unreported production budget; it appears that the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: MacGruber