Review: John Dies at the End (the movie)

John Dies at the End

In case you haven’t heard John Dies at the End is a movie now. This is a good thing since it lets me talk about John Dies at the End for a third time. Based on the book of the same that reviewed here, and mentioned here John Dies at the End is a low-budget project help brought to fruition by legendary horror director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba-ho-tep) and the enthusiasm of Paul Giamatti. There are only two directors I can think of who could stay true to the anythings-goes batshit insanity of JDatE and Coscarelli is one of those names, and Phantasm remains one of the best horror/fantasy flicks of any era (James Gunn is the other name I’m thinking of).

JDatE, for those too lazy to google, or click on one of the links above, is a wacked out send up to crazy and wonderful horror films of the 80s. A delightful and frenetic mashup of horror, fantasy, science fiction that revels in its own insanity to such a degree that when you’re a finished reading the novel your very mind is altered by the experience. If it wasn’t apparent let me say so now: I’m a fan. JDatE, both film and book, defies the expectations of genre and format to be its own thing. It is a novel born on the internet and film that both understands and revels in its own madness.

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Some Thoughts on The Phantom Menace

So I, like a many a geek, have my shiny new blu-rays of Star Wars.  Last night I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the first of the prequels (in Pink Floyd’s words: “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”, though I hesitate to call these films meat).  This isn’t a full review, just a collection of thoughts as I was watching the film.

I really like the opening 20 minutes or so.  In fact despite the Trade Federation’s silly accents the opening, while a slow burn compared to A New Hope, it is fairly solid.  Things are all well and good right up until we meat Jar Jar Binks.  I’m willing to support decisions that make the prequel films more accessible to younger audiences.  However, I’m not willing to admit that Jar Jar is actually a step in that direction.  He is neither cure nor funny and his constant muttering of “How rude!” is ripped straight out of Full House.

As the film opens the Trade Federation have set up a blockade on Naboo.  We never really know why.  At some point I think something is mentioned about trade route taxes.  Or does Naboo have some kind of export that is worthwhile?  Some have complained about the style of Naboo’s starships and weapons.  I rather like it.  It has a sleek retro-futuristic design that idealizes aesthetics over function.  I think its neat.

Jake Lloyd is about as solid an actor as Hayden Christianson.  Kudos for consistancy.  Between Lloyd and Portman age differences and Christianson’s non-existing acting skill I figure that casting department aught to have been fired.  I am, and always will be, a fan of age appropriate casting.  As things stand now it feels sort of like Anakin ends up banging his babysitter.

The Jedi are inconsistent and baffling.  First off, Padawan haircuts look like something you might see at a Lynard Skynard concert.  Qui-gon’s rebellious nature is mentioned more than once over the course of the film.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself but since this is the first time viewers are seeing organized Jedi there is little impact and no real way to differentiate Qui-gon’s methods with the rest of the Jedi.  There could have been some interesting sub-text here and I thought I got a hint that Qui-gon is sort of like the council’s bullyboy, otherwise the use of a fractious, rebellious Jedi in an obviously delicate situation makes no sense.  The Council’s decision to ignore Anakin on the basis of his fear is as noteworthy as it is baffling.  I get that they don’t want to risk his falling to the Dark Side but as the presence of the Sith is revealed it seems to me that leaving a potentially powerful force user running around untrained would be a seriously bad idea.

There is a lot made about Anakin’s potential to “bring balance to the force” but no one ever openly questions what that might mean.  The Expanded Universe does a better job about exploring that but in the films Lucas barely touches on the dangers of the Jedi’s hard-lined decision between good and bad sides of the force.  There is a sort of laconic arrogance to the Jedi Council, particularly in Sam Jackson’s performance, that felt extraordinarily galling.  Having read enough EU books before seeing this movie the revelation of midichlorians didn’t bother me.

Ian McDermind is awesome and that starts here.  His bald manipulation of Queen Amidala is wondrous to behold and his smarmy smile oozes devious charm.  Terrance Stamp is woefully underutilized.  The same can be said of Ewan McGregor.  I rather enjoy his performance in later films and his ability to mimic Alec Guinness is absolutely fantastic.  Unfortunately all he does here is sit around a lot.  The fight with Darth Maul is cool but I would have loved to have seen more use of force abilities.  Ray Park really owns as Darth Maul and that character wouldn’t really work without him.  As it is the lightsaber battles, starting here, in the prequels blue the staid, stiff combat of the original trilogy away.

The Droid Army is neat and the final battle with the Gungans is cool….up to a point.  The final moments of the battle with the Droid Army and Anakin’s fumbling in the Starfighter are the start of Lucas’ bumbling Benny Hill/Three Stooges homages that mar this film and the next.  Jar Jars bumbling attempt to escape and Anakin’s accidental success are precursor to the vaudevillian antics of C3PO and R2-D2 in the next film.

At its core The Phantom Menace is a solid film marred by poor and questionable decision making and unreachable levels of pre-release hype.  There is the skeleton of a good space-adventure film buried beneath the dross.  The blu-ray transfer of the film looks and sounds great.  There are some spots where the special effects of 1999, especially some of the CGI that is a bit glaringly obvious.  The new CGI Yoda actually looks really good and in truth better than some of the films original effects.  Williams score is as top-notch as ever.

Tales from Earthsea Trailer

I don’t remember seeing this posted on the various SFF blogs I visit, but I could be mistaken. Tales from Earthsea was originally released in Japan back in 2006 and is finally getting a US release this August.  The film is  synthesis of plots from A Wizard of Earthsea, Tehanu, and the Farthest Shore.  Oddly we seem to be the last market getting this film as it has already seen the light of day in Spain, Australia, the UK.  Also interesting this is the first animated film rated PG-13 to be released by Disney (Ghibli’s US distributor).  Check out the US trailer below.

This! Is! THE PROMISED LAND!

Yes, I know the title makes no sense seeing as how God denied Moses the Promised Land, but bear with me here.

Any article that mentions Moses, Moby Dick, and 300 is well worth a look.  The skinny being:

Twentieth Century Fox will develop a retelling of the story of Moses, from his near death as an infant to his adoption into the Egyptian royal family, his defiance of the Pharaoh and deliverance of the Hebrews from enslavement…in a post-apocalyptic wasteland

Ok, I added that post-apocalyptic bit.  Though the truth isn’t any more ridiculous.

The article also mentions that the same scripwriters attached to this Moses project also worked on a  Moby Dick that “was pitched as a “300”-like reimagining of the Melville story as a visually stunning action piece, and the story of Moses is conceived similarly.”

I didn’t add anything to that quote by the way.  Sometimes Hollywood makes me question my sanity….and not in the good way.

Original article here.

A Post in Which I Discuss “Brick”

Brick (2005)
Brick (2005)

On our rainiest day on vacation we spent a considerable amount of time watching the series Kitchen Confidential (pretty funny, too bad it was cancelled after airing only 4 episodes) on Hulu.  Unfortunatley for us every episode had the same commercial for upcoming indie film 500 Days of Summer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel.  A commercial that, after roughly 4 episodes, started to become a bit tiresome.  While I still would love to see 500 Days of Summer it did get me thinking about the film “Brick” which also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Gordon-Levitt, who most viewers likely recognize from his series long stint on 3rd Rock from the Sun, has been making a career starring in smaller, though well-produced, movies for the last couple of years.  Though I haven’t really been following his career too closely the 2005 film Brick is one of my favorite movies of all time and one of those films that I feel slipped through the cracks over recent years.

Set in a modern day California High School, Brick is an old school detective story in every way.  When Brenden is suddenly contact by his ex-girlfriend just before she disappears he suddenly thrust into an all-consuming quest to find out what happened to her.  Along the way he butts heads with various factions around the school.  From the vice pricipal, to football jocks, to a primadonna theatre princess, to junkies, to the local drug runner there isn’t anyone or anything Brenden fears in his quest to uncover the truth behind Emily’s disappearance.

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Eden Log & Dance of the Dead

Eden Log
Eden Log

So I’ve got two interesting movies that you all might be interested in.  I’ll start with the first, and likely the more contentious, of the movies.  Eden Log seems to be french film director Franck Vestiel’s feature film debut and was released on DVD in the States under Magnolia/Magnet’s 6-Shooter Film Series.  It isn’t the easiest film to describe but I’ll give you the official description:

A man regains consciousness at the bottom of a cave, with no concept of how he arrived there, nor any idea who the dead man is at his side. Only one thing is certain – he has to escape the menacing creature that s pursuing him. His journey back to the surface takes him through a cemetery – like world that’s been abandoned by a mysterious organization called Eden Log.

Though that doesn’t quite cover everything this film does. Eden Log isn’t a movie that will win awards for  dialogue or even clever plotting but what it does do is create an absolute splendid atmosphere and mood.  With its black and white filming and heavy juxtaposition of light and dark the movie does a wonderful job of making you feel like you are underground.  I think it is the film’s ability to place the viewer in the same environment and mindset of the protagonist is what had me thinking that Eden Log would have made a fantastic video game.  It has a very overt sci-fi survival horror feel and the main “evil” security team, from costume to slightly garbled radio communications, were very reminiscent of Half-Life 2’s combine.  Eden Log’s set design is both simplistic and surprisingly well done and never once jars you out of the experience.  What the description fails to mention is that the underground system in the movie is part of the root system of some mysterious giant tree that is being farmed/tended for something.  The combination of stark stone corridors, industrial architecture, and gnarled roots lends the film a rather unique and captivating appearance.  Eden Log is hardly a pleasant film and the questionable mental state of the main character leads to at least one moment of fairly uncomfortable brutality that while certainly off-putting serves as a real turning point for the film and certain realizations about our protagonist.  Eden Log isn’t a perfect film and has a rather sedate pace but for fans of horror and sci-fi well worth a look.

Dance of the Dead
Dance of the Dead

Now, a film I can recommend whole heartedly, Dance of the Dead.  While I remember positive buzz from the guys over at AICN I was quite prepared for how fun this movie was.  Genuinely funny dialogue, age-appropriate casting, quality zombie effects, and an odd blending of genres manage to help this film stand out from the pack and really shine as something special.  If you’ve seen any high school based movie or show certain elements will be familiar: the geek going for the hot cheerleader, the lovable smartass, the hard-ass slightly crazy gym teacher, the delinquent badass mythic student, the stressed and alcohol swilling principal, and the jerky science teacher.  As familiar as those elements may be there is still something fresh feeling about the whole experience and a sensation, without any overt evidence, that the filmmakers are looking at us through the characters and offering us a conspiratorial wink.  There is even a frog dissection scene early in the film, you don’t get more stereotypical High School the frog dissection, but my first thought on seeing that wasn’t ::groan::, it was “Oh, zombie frogs!?”  All I can say is: hell yes!

While I wasn’t a fan of the film’s stereotypical emo-rockers I was amused by zombies being quelled by the power of rock and the zombie filled dance scene (no the zombies don’t dance), to a surprisingly well-done cover of “Shadows of the Night,” was one of the movies (many) great character moments.  Both the rock element here, and certain scene later in the movie was extraordinarily reminiscent of zombie/rock masterpiece Wild Zero which I hope was intentional since I frickin’ love Wild Zero.  Dance of the Dead retains an ineffable ability to borrow from other zombie-movie and yet maintain its originality.  It is the single most entertaining zombie movie I’ve seen since Shaun of the Dead and deserves far more recognition then it has currently received.  If you are a fan of zombie films and haven’t seen Dance of the Dead stop whatever you’re doing and go rent (or better yet) buy this film now.

2008 Bests: Film, Video Games & Wrap Up

Film

Ok I’m going to take a lot of flack for this but my favorite theatrical release wasn’t The Dark Knight.  It was Iron Man.  Oh, don’t get me wrong I think Dark Knight is an absolutely stunning film with some truly superb performances.  It certainly aims higher than Iron Man in terms of what it says about it’s main characters but at the same time I feel it over reaches in terms of what, plot wise at least, it tries to accomplish.  At the same time there is a certain amount of heavy handedness to the juxtaposition of Batman and the Joker that belittles its audience and keeps it from reaching the level of narrative it could have.

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UPDATED: The Darker Side of Hobbits

The Hobbit movies now officially have a director and the choice couldn’t have been more perfect: Guillermo del Toro. I can’t wait to see what he does with the series. His previous movies have shown a perfect combination of whimsy and psychosis and modeling The Hobbit in his trademark style could make it something truly disturbing (and awesome). I look forward to a very disturbing portrayal of Gollum.

Update from Mike:

I’m pretty excited.  I love the practical effects from Hellboy from the Hand of Doom design, the Samaritans and especially the work done on Kroenen.  I don’t know how much input del Toro had with the prop design but the thought of Jackson, del Toro, and Weta putting their heads together is a pleasing image.  The Balrog was amazing, I will have dreams of Smaug until the movie(s) are released (and will do my best to ignore any pre-release leaks/design shots).

Thoughts on who might play a young Bilbo?  I love Ian Holm’s performance from LotR; hopefully they’ll get someone of his caliber.

Some del Toro links:

Aintitcool post on the announcment.

Variety’s announcement.

del Toro’s IMDB page.

Solid del Toro fansite with pre-official annoucement coverage.

It’s evolution, baby

It’s been a big week on the evolution front. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is looming on the horizon, threatening to again paint our country as a bunch of backwards yokels who don’t understand a) the distinction between faith and science (and why one can’t substitute for the other), b) what a scientific theory is and why it’s different than a theory in everyday language, and c) that not all scientists are atheists but rather all scientists have to ignore faith in their experiments because it’s not a valid part of the scientific method. For those that don’t know what the movie is about, let me give you the tl;dr summary: “The Man” (referring to scientists here) is keeping creationists down and blackballing them. Plus evolution brought us Social Darwinism and the Holocaust, therefore it’s bad.

You might be tempted to think I was using hyperbole here to mock the film. Nope. They actually went so far as to edit Darwin’s writings to make it look like he approved of eugenics, despite the unedited paragraphs saying exactly the opposite. Expelled is just now filtering out to audiences that can actually analyze the movie’s content instead of just test audiences from the uber-right and the reviews have been predictably bad. Watch the movie (preferably by finding yourself a copy on BitTorrent) and understand that we live in a country where the teaching of evolution is threatened in numerous states, including right here in PA.

But it hasn’t been all bad for Darwin and his theory. He got his complete works put up online for all to see at no cost. There’s some great stuff on there, including original sketches from his time on the H.M.S. Beagle. Plus Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania just announced 2009 to be the Year of Evolution. Philadelphia is frequently mocked (sadly with good cause) for being low brow and a second-tier city, so it’s good to see the city take an active role on the front lines of an intellectual battle.