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“John Dies at the End” review: A demented, dimension-hopping good time

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Some films are easy to review. You assess the director’s presentation of the story, note the highs and lows of the cast’s performances, offer some critique of the writing, set pieces, or any other standout elements of the film, and then call it a day.

“John Dies At The End” is not that sort of film.

Like “Naked Lunch” or “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” before it, “John Dies At The End” is a weird, wild, and wonderfully unique film that defies just about every convention that critics – and traditional media – throw at it. And while that’s usually a recipe for disaster, “John Dies At The End” somehow manages to make all of its disparate elements work together into a fun, crazy adventure that carries you along for the ride instead of making its audience feel perpetually left behind.

Directed by Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Phantasm”) and based on Jason Pargin’s trippy horror novel of the same name (published under his pseudonym David Wong), “John Dies At The End” follows a pair of slackers whose experience with a new drug called “soy sauce” reveals the existence of an interdimensional invasion occurring all around them. As they get caught up in thwarting the invasion, the drug’s effects on time and space push them into confrontations with all manner of strange creatures and leave them uncertain of what’s real and what is simply another hallucination.

The film stars Chase Williamson as protagonist and narrator David Wong, and a similarly unfamiliar face, Rob Mayes, as David’s stoner pal, John. Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones highlight a short list of well-known actors who appear throughout the film in a variety of appropriately weird roles.

Not having read Pargin’s 2007 novel, I can’t speak to Coscarelli’s faithfulness to the source material, but given the surreal nature of the story, “John Dies At The End” deserves praise for somehow finding the linear narrative in what could’ve been a terribly messy, tangled adaptation. Instead of falling apart into a series of weird, sci-fi vignettes, “John Dies At The End” manages to constantly move forward with the story it’s telling – even when it seems like a plot point or timeline has veered off into tangent territory.

Coscarelli’s knack for putting an unsettling, sinister spin on just about any type of scene – one of the hallmarks of his “Phantasm” films – gets a heavy workout in “John Dies At The End,” as there’s rarely any certainty about what’s real and what Dave and John have unintentionally conjured from their drug-addled, reality-warping subconscious. Still, there’s an underlying sense that the pair are taming the drug as the adventure progresses, and by the end of the film the ratio of chemically-induced terror to chemically-induced heroism (a twisted, non-traditional sort of heroism, but heroism all the same) gradually shifts into their favor. It’s a subtle transition that could’ve been easily overdone – or even not done at all – but Coscarelli does a nice job of turning his aimless slackers into our dimension’s best hope for survival.

Williamson and Mayes both offer up great performances in their respective roles, with Williamson playing off Giamatti particularly well during their scenes together. Neither Giamatti nor Brown (or Jones, for that matter) have particularly meaty roles in the film, but Coscarelli puts them to good use providing a big dose of flavor to scenes that might otherwise be a little dry. The entire cast, in fact, seems to find just right the balance in their performances to sell the over-the-top weirdness going on around them.

Still, despite all of the diverging, mingling, and meandering timelines that constitute the narrative of “John Dies At The End,” the story being told in the film still manages to stay on a linear course that separates it from many other failed adaptations of unconventional stories. There’s no shortage of mash-ups out there that try to blend elements of horror, sci-fi, and black comedy – often with a heavy dose of the surreal to lubricate the mix – but few of them manage to pull it off with any success.

“John Dies At The End” is a great example of what can happen when a writer and director’s vision syncs up with that of the author of something very unique, and very special. Only time will tell if “John Dies At The End” will achieve as similar a level of under-the-radar success as Coscarelli’s “Bubba Ho-Tep,” but it’s hard not to believe the film is well on its way to becoming a cult classic.

“John Dies At The End” hits theaters in limited release Friday, January 25. The film is directed by Don Coscarelli, and is based on a book of the same name by Jason Pargin (written under the pseudonym David Wong).

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Marc Maron – Maron – Season 4, Episode 4

Behind the Anger

Marc Maron Gets Deep in an Interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross

Follow Marc's journey to recovery tonight at 9P on IFC.

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It ain’t no stage persona: Marc Maron is an anxious, angry, complicated fellow. In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, the Maron star described how he’s beset by constant anxiety, self-hatred, and general unease, which he considers his “uncomfortable” comfort zone. “Being sort of anxious and uncomfortable has really been my home base, innately,” he said. “And I don’t know how to change that, and that’s really the challenge for me now.”

A former addict himself, Marc also discussed the difficulty of portraying his TV character’s drug relapse, downfall, and rehabilitation — a fear he’s glad “happened in fiction and not in real life.”

Click here to listen to Marc Maron’s deep and revealing interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

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weird al goldbergs

Keep It Weird

10 Hilarious “Weird Al” Cameos

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P.

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Photo Credit: ABC

“Weird Al” has had one of the most unique careers in entertainment history. Sure, he made his name with parody songs, but he’s long since transcended simply poking fun at pop, becoming an American comedy staple in the process. With his new gig behind the keyboard on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, we thought we’d take a look back at just a few of his classic pop culture cameos, in which he showed he was more than just the man with the accordion and rhyming dictionary.

10. The Goldbergs

“Weird Al” came full circle with this recent cameo on this ’80s-set sitcom, once again donning the frizzy hair, mustache and Hawaiian shirt to return to his glorious retro roots.


9. Galavant

Galavant, the historical musical comedy series, was recently canceled by ABC, but not before we got to see Al as a doo-wop crooning monk who’d taken a “vow of singing.”


8. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Wet Hot Weird Al
Netflix

With Wet Hot American Summer making a triumphant return last summer, we all should have known they would work in a bit in which “Weird Al” played a summer camp hypnotist who turned into assassin Jon Hamm.


7. Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Wet Hot Batman
Cartoon Network

“Weird Al” creates music for all ages, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he occasionally pops up on Saturday Morning cartoons, like this turn on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, in which he got to battle the Joker and the Penguin alongside Batman, Robin and Scooby-Doo.


6. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

Al has popped up on Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s bizarre ode to anti-comedy series a few times, but this wedding fever dream, straight out of the mind of a serial killer, really sort of sums it all up, whatever “all” is.


5. 30 Rock

Al is a man of many talents, but at the end of the day, he knows how to rip out a parody song with some bite. Here he puts his gifts to good use, writing lyrics to the 30 Rock theme song, and highlighting their lack of ratings in the process.


4. Halloween II

“Weird Al” shows up in just about the last place you would expect here, in Rob Zombie’s hard R horror remake. Playing a guest on what looks like an early version of Talking Dead, Al does some typical talk show shtick alongside Michael Meyers’ ethically compromised doctor, Samuel Loomis.


3. Transformers: Animated

Al has quite a history with the Transformers. His song “Dare to be Stupid” was used in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, and he also popped up as Wreck-Gar, a simple-minded robot brought to life by the All Spark, on Transformers: Animated.


2. The Naked Gun

Al’s stardom was ascendant in 1988, if this classic gag from Naked Gun was any indication. (He also did the theme song for the 1996 Leslie Nielsen comedy Spy Hard.)


1. Amazing Stories, “Miss Stardust”

Weird Al
NBC

Al’s first TV cameo might just be his, ahem, weirdest. As an alien affectionately known as “Cabbage Man,” “Weird Al” made quite the impression without even needing his trusty accordion.

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Sally Kellerman- Maron – Season 4, Episode 5

Hello Sally

5 Roles That Prove Sally Kellerman Is a Comedic Genius

Sally Kellerman returns to Maron this Wednesday at 9P on IFC.

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With her statuesque beauty and sarcastic verve, Sally Kellerman has put her stamp on several iconic TV and film roles. She always gave as good as she got, keeping her leading men on their toes. With Toni Maron returning to help Marc through a tough time on Wednesday’s brand new Maron, we thought it was time to revisit a few of Sally’s classic roles that prove she’s more woman than most of us can handle.

5. Judge Henderson, Moving Violations

Playing a saucy judge with a taste for bondage, Kellerman got to go full-on villain in this absurd comedy starring lesser Murray brother Joel. Who needs Bill when you’ve got Sally in a full leather getup?


4. Louise, Brewster McCloud

It takes some real talent to make a conversation about remaining celibate this sexy. Kellerman turns up the heat here, mixing sensuality with a mythic quality (she may be a fallen angel of some sort in this movie), that makes us want to forget Brewster’s dream of flying, and just spend a little more time with her on the ground.


3. Maron

Whether she’s dropping passive aggressive comments or searching for his love handles, Toni is the perfect representation of all of Marc Maron’s neuroses.


2. Back to School

Holey moley, when literature professor Dr. Diane Turner starts reading some sexy prose to her class, Rodney Dangerfield isn’t the only one whose eyes nearly pop out of his head. Kellerman proves yet again that she can mix class and crass with the best of them, playing the type of woman you can discuss erotic literature with — or just live it out with.


1. M*A*S*H

In perhaps her most iconic part, the one that scored her an Oscar nom, Kellerman plays the apple of a whole army base’s eye. It’s far from easy getting that kind of attention in the middle of a war zone, which Kellerman shows with one truly epic meltdown. Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan would make anyone’s grandpa’s war stories a littler bit easier to listen to.

Watch how Toni comes back into Marc’s life on this week’s Maron. 

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