“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).

Whats Eating Gilbert Grape

Depp Gets Real

10 Times Johnny Depp Was Great Without Makeup

Catch IFC's Nightmare on Elm Street movie marathon Friday, November 20th starting at 6P ET/PT.

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Photo credit: Everett Digital

Ever since Johnny Depp reached teen idol status as a pretty boy cop on the late ’80s TV show 21 Jump Street, he’s made a career of seeking out film roles that he could disappear into. In most of his career-defining films — like Edward Scissorhands, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the Pirates of Caribbean series — Depp has proven to be one quirky chameleon. For his fans that may have forgotten what he actually looks and sounds like, here are 10 times Johnny Depp was great without makeup.

10. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Depp was one of the sleep-deprived teens in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and his character isn’t remembered for rocking a half shirt or being sufficiently freaked out by Freddy. Depp, who played the boyfriend to Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, is remembered for being killed in glorious, horror film fashion. As Freddy’s glove springs through his bed, Depp awakens to get sucked in before blood shoots out at the ceiling like a geyser. Depp played a part in one of the greatest moments from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, except for once the other guy in the scene was buried underneath makeup.

9. Platoon

In another pre-21 Jump Street role before he became a household name, a young Depp was cast as “Gator” Lerner, one of the members of the platoon in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War classic. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role, which Stone cut down to be even smaller, Depp proved he could blend into an ensemble. It was one of the few times a Johnny Depp performance could be described as “subtle.”

8. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

After wowing audiences by believably portraying an outsider with scissors for hands and a knack for landscaping in Edward Scissorhands, Depp began a string of acclaimed dramatic roles in the early ’90s. Unlike quirkfests like Benny & Joon and Don Juan DeMarco, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape allowed Depp to play a relatable, not-so-out-of-the-ordinary twentysomething meandering through everyday life. In a movie where Leonardo DiCaprio received the lion’s share of the acclaim for his quirky portrayal of the always dirty, mentally challenged Arnie Grape, Depp gave a noteworthy, understated performance in the titular role that sets the tone for this highly likeable film.

7. Donnie Brasco

In this acclaimed crime thriller, Johnny Depp had his own undercover cop Serpico role that pitted him against the legendary Al Pacino in some highly charged dramatic moments. Depp’s character is based on the real life Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the Mob. If you’re going to be playing someone who learns the ropes of the gangster life, you can’t do better than Pacino, and the duo have genuine chemistry. Depp’s Donnie Brasco battles his own conscience and allegiances as he loses himself in the Mafia world.

6. Chocolat

As Jason Segel’s character in I Love You Man said, it’s hard to argue that the cinematic bon bon Chocolat is “just delightful.” There’s a sweet (pun intended) tone to this adult fairytale of a film, and both Depp and Juliette Binoche play off each other well. Their flirty scenes fit the sweetness that Binoche’s chocolate shop begins to bring to the repressed French town she arrives in with her daughter. In Chocolat, Depp puts on the European charm as a suave traveler who falls for the effortlessly beautiful Binoche and for once he doesn’t chew scenery like so much delicious chocolate, er, “chocolat.”

5. Secret Window

In Secret Window, which is based on a Stephen King novella, all Johnny Depp plays a disturbed writer holed up in a remote cabin. Like Misery, Secret Window has the brand of psychological thrills that we’ve come to expect from King. Depp’s Mort Rainey is accosted by a stranger, played by John Turturro, who claims he stole his manuscript. It is Turturro who plays it creepy with the over-the-top accent, but by the end of this thriller the audience is taken on a ride into Depp’s own madness. Secret Window is classic King, and proof that Depp is due for a return to psychological horror.

4. Dead Man

Depp gives an understated performance in Jim Jarmusch’s moody Western where for once he’s the one reacting to the quirky characters. (It’s hard to be the “head quirk” in a film boasting cameos from Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton.) An underrated film in Depp’s canon, and a good showcase for his deadpan comedic timing.

3. Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the final movie in the Robert Rodriguez-directed El Mariachi trilogy, and it lives up to the over-the-top action, gunfire and general baddassery of its predecessors. Johnny Depp’s CIA agent character Sheldon Sands steals every scene he’s in, creating one of his funniest and most likeably devious performances. You can’t take your eyes off of Depp, as his character becomes more entertaining after losing his.

2. Ed Wood

Even Depp’s most hardcore detractors have to admit that he gave one his funniest and richest performances as Z-movie director Ed Wood. In one of his least mannered and overtly “quirky” collaborations with director Tim Burton, Depp puts his stamp on a real person without creating an over-the-top caricature. His scenes with Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of horror icon Bela Lugosi, are some of the best work Depp has done in his long career.

1. Finding Neverland

After his comically on-point role in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Depp brilliantly took on as opposite a part as he could the following year, portraying famed Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie in this acclaimed drama. If you’re looking for the definitive great Depp performance where he’s not relying on make-up or a cartoonish wig to help bring his character to life, you’ve found it. (Even his Scottish accent is understated here.) Depp seamlessly embodies the Peter Pan creator with childlike imagination, as he forms a bond with Kate Winslet’s Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons. The chemistry between Depp and Freddie Highmore, as the real life Peter, is so heartwarming, even Captain’s Hook and Sparrow would get emotional in the scene where the two sit on a bench as Barrie comforts the boy after the loss of his mother.

Gigi Does It

Date Gigi

5 Ways to Get Ready for Tonight’s Gigi Does It and Tear Up the Dating Scene

Catch the season finale of Gigi Does It tonight at 10:30P ET/PT on IFC.

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Listen up, widows and widowers: It’s time to stop your sulking! Whip up a beta blocker-and-Metamucil cocktail and hit the club, because it’s time for you to get back out there. But if it’s been awhile since you hit the dating scene, don’t fret. Tonight’s season finale of Gigi Does It at 10:30P ET/PT will guide you in the ways of modern love. Here are five ways to get ready for tonight’s episode and be a hellcat at your next senior singles mixer.

1. Maintain personal boundaries.

Courting rituals have changed quite a bit since the Eisenhower era, with physical relationships starting way before marriage. But no matter how much of a superfreak you are in the sack, don’t let anyone else tell you when you’re ready to show off those skills. Though right after the desert course might not be the best time to propose a public tryst, lest you end up on the receiving end of a drink to the face like Leonard here.

2. Cast a wide net.

As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea — so why not peruse the market before settling on a catch? Attend a speed dating event and let first impressions do all the work. You deserve a break. And it’s a great opportunity to show off your singing voice and/or share some cat stories.

3. Hide any inappropriate body art.

A first date might not be the best time to reveal your ink or your get-rich-quick scheme. That’s more of a third date thing.

4. Let Gigi keep you up-to-date with the latest trends in vulgarity.

Loose lips may sink ships, but no one wants an old fuddy duddy as a first mate. It’s time to undo that truss and check out this Gigi clip which removes the bleeps and blurs for a NSFW look at the foul-mouthed granny in action.

5. Remember: You’re a grandparent first and a lover second.

Rather than let casual sex rule her life, Gigi knows that being a grandparent trumps a roll in the hay every time. But do those nasty urchins appreciate their bubbes? As a little reminder, Gigi penned a children’s book that puts guilt back into grammar school literature. Give it a read here.

That 70s Show Cast

That '70s Meets History

13 Times That ’70s Show Tackled History

Catch That '70s Show Mondays & Tuesdays from 6-11P on IFC.

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Many fans don’t realize that That ’70s Show is set in an actual historical era. The ’70s really happened, although not in the way that people who lived through them remember it. The show occasionally refers to real 1970s events, social trends, and cultural icons, all through the lens of the Forman family and the gang of basement-dwelling misfits. Here are a few occasions on That ’70s Show when the real world showed through the smoky haze.

1. The Gas Crisis

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

During the early 1970s, an oil embargo made gasoline prices skyrocket to over 50 cents per gallon. Americans realized they were at the mercy of foreign oil producers, a situation referred to today as “That’s How It’s Always Been, Right?” In the pilot episode of That ’70s Show, Eric ends up getting the iconic 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser as a result of what Kitty calls “The Gas Crisis.” Red has been forced to buy a Toyota to save fuel, but Eric is glad to get the old gas-guzzling Cruiser, even if it is a “pump- sucker.” Happily, that phrase did not survive the ’70s.

2. Streaking

That 70s Show Streaking Eric

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Running around naked—the norm for 90 percent of human prehistory—experienced a sudden resurgence as a fad in the 1970s. In 1974 there was even a streaker at the Academy Awards, where host David Niven joked about the man showing his “shortcomings.” On That ’70s Show, a visit from President Gerald Ford prompts the gang to give streaking a try. The show used a digitized Smiley Face to hide Topher Grace’s, uh, shortcomings, although for the record, it was a rather large Smiley Face.

3. Feminism

Carsey Werner Productions

Carsey Werner Productions

The 1970s were a time of often shocking transformations and radically changing gender roles—and that’s just David Bowie. In 1973, 55 year-old male tennis star Bobby Riggs lost a “Battle of the Sexes” match to Billie Jean King. That ’70s Show tackled the growing feminist movement in the “Battle of the Sexists” episode. Donna consistently beat Eric in sports and games, leading Eric and his friends to question his masculinity. This was long before society realized that it’s not who wins the game, it’s who gets paid 30 percent more to play it.

4. Disco

Disco fever swept the country in the 1970s, creating a huge boom for suppliers of mirror balls, polyester suits, and tiny glass vials. By 1976, when the first season of That ’70s Show is set, the craze had even infiltrated heartland towns like Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the gang ventured to shake their groove things. By Season Eight — and by 1979 in real life — an anti-disco backlash had led to public burnings of disco records, lending the phrase “Disco Inferno” a literal meaning.

5. Gay Rights

In 1970s Wisconsin, leisure suits weren’t the only things that were kept in the closet. The modern Gay Pride movement took off during the ’70s, when the first Pride Day was celebrated in 1970 in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of the previous year. That first year, marches were held in New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco. It took a while longer for Gay Pride to reach Point Place, Wisconsin. When Eric’s new lab partner, Buddy (played by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) turns out to have a crush on him, Eric has to deal with something the actor’s fans would be totally fine with now.

6. The Pill

In the ’60s and ’70s, oral contraceptives — or simply “The Pill” — revolutionized sex. Amazingly, contraceptive pills were not available to unmarried women in all states until a 1972 Supreme Court decision. But after that and before the AIDS crisis hit in the ’80s, there existed a golden age of easy and worry-free sex. Of course, on sitcoms, nothing is ever easy or worry-free, especially sex. The episode “The Pill” is an exciting “whodunit,”  at least in one sense of the term. The show spoofed parental fears of their daughters’ newfound sexual liberation with an old-timey instructional film with the double entendre title “Open for Business.”

7. Pong

That 70s Show Pong

Carsey-Werner Productions

In the world of video games, before anyone hit on the blatantly obvious idea of having two Italian plumbers as the protagonists, there was only Pong, where two upright lines did battle with a moving dot. Oh, it also went “boop.” This concept was too simpleminded even for Kelso, who takes it upon himself to improve Red’s Pong game and turns out to be something of a Pong savant. On the upside, nobody ever accused Pong video games of making kids violent, unless they lashed out from sheer boredom.

8. The Recession

The 1970s were a time of economic stagnation, hardship, and high unemployment… just like now, except in those days you sent a typed resume to the HR department (who were known as Personnel department) and two weeks later you received a typed rejection letter. In Season Two of That ’70s Show, Red loses the job at the plant where he had worked for years. Set adrift, Red joined a whole generation of guys who thought they would work a factory job all their lives, only to end up living in a Bruce Springsteen song.

9. CB Radio

That 70s show van

Carsey-Werner Productions

In Season Two, Kelso put a CB radio in his van to meet hot chicks. In the ’70s, CB radio amazed people by allowing them to talk to each other in their vehicles. The technology was so impressive it hardly mattered that most of your conversations were with truckers on a 4-day amphetamine binge. Thanks to the hit 1975 song “Convoy,” the ’70s echoed with trucker CB slang like “Breaker, breaker,” “Bear in the air,” “10-4 Good buddy,” and other things that made modern texting abbreviations like LOL and OMG seem like Marcel Proust.

10. Cable TV

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

In the 1970s, deregulation of the cable TV industry lead to the rapid expansion of cable to ever-increasing numbers of subscribers. By the end of the decade cable reached over 16 million households. One of them was the household of Red Forman, who finally broke down in Season Six and got cable TV, which was promptly hijacked to the basement by Hyde. Once confined to a handful of broadcast stations, thanks to cable our nation now finally has an adequate supply of WWII documentaries, cooking shows, and airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.

11. Space Invaders

That 70s show space invaders

Carsey-Werner Productions

Most of the 1970s was the era of pinball with its silver ball, flippers, buzzers, bells, and lights a-flashing. But as the decade waned, change was in the air, and the age of video arcade games dawned with powerhouse shooting games like Space Invaders. During Season Four of That ’70s Show, Kelso was behind the curve, buying a stake in the pinball machine at The Hub. Fez turned the Bally tables on him by having the pinball machine replaced by a brand new Space Invaders game, which had just launched in 1978. And Space Invaders would continue to delight gamers for decades, at least until the release of the Adam Sandler vehicle Pixels in 2015.

12. Betamax

In the era before television shows were streamed, downloaded, or DVR’d, they were watched on a device called a television. Then in the mid-70s, manufacturers introduced the first home video cassette recorders. This enabled viewers to watch the Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour while recording Baa Baa Black Sheep (and yes, some sadist actually scheduled those two shows against each other on Tuesdays at 8 in 1976). That ’70s Show paid homage to this era in an episode where Red buys a Betamax videotape recorder. Beta was a doomed technology, beaten out by the technically inferior but better-marketed VHS. Red’s Betamax is undoubtedly in a landfill somewhere alongside his 8-track tape and Laser Disc players.

13. Marijuana!

No, not like today’s marijuana, where you take a doctor’s note to a dispensary and vaporize a pinch of connoisseur cannabis that could incapacitate a herd of wildebeests. In the ’70s, pot was illegal, cheap, and you needed to smoke up a Dust Bowl-sized cloud to get a buzz. And back then, pot was treated just like it was treated in many states today —everybody was obviously smoking it, but it was technically taboo, so it was never mentioned. The gang sat in the famous “Circle” in a cloud of smoke every episode for eight seasons without explicitly saying what they were explicitly doing. Not until the finale of Season Seven did Red catch the kids, and even then it was never flat out stated what he caught them doing. Marijuana goes down as the biggest — and uncredited — star of That ’70s Show.

D Gets Animated

Hit the Road to Festival Supreme with Tenacious D’s New Animated Shorts

Festival Supreme hits Los Angeles Saturday, October 10th.

Tenacious D Animated

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Tenacious D is very animated about this year’s Festival Supreme, which returns to Los Angeles for a third awesome year on Saturday, October 10th. With a line-up that includes Amy Poehler, The Kids in the Hall, a Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunion, Aubrey Plaza, The Darkness and many more, can you blame them?

Now all they have to do is get to Festival Supreme in time to get the party started. And you can follow along as Tenacious D hit the road in a new animated mini-series.

In episode one, tragedy strikes when The D finds out the IFC jet has been double booked. (Maron strikes again!) How will they get to Festival Supreme now?

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As the dynamic duo makes their way to California, someone crashes their road trip—literally.

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The Kids in the Hall may have forgotten to get their passports, but that will never stop them from making it to Los Angeles’ Shrine Expo Hall & Grounds by Saturday, October 10th.

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Will the gang be able to make it to Festival Supreme in time? Watch below, and be sure to grab tickets and follow IFC on Twitter for more updates on Festival Supreme 2015.

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