|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of (Spoiler Alert!) "John Dies at the End," "Stand Up Guys" and "Warm Bodies."
Imagine a demented blend of "Ghostbusters," the film version of "Naked Lunch" and the TV series "Supernatural" and you will begin to get a grasp of what to expect from the strange horror-comedy "John Dies at the End." Adapted from the novel by David Wong by Don Coscarelli, who has long been a member of the off-beat movie pantheon thanks to such wild and wooly films as the "Phantasm" horror franchise, the basic cable staple "The Beastmaster" and the immortal "Bubba-Ho-Tep" (which, you will recall, featured a very much alive Elvis and JFK battling mummies in the basement of a crummy Cleveland nursing home), this one concerns a couple of slacker pals (Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes) who stumble upon a mysterious new drug--known on the street as Soy Sauce--that allows users to trip through the time-space continuum and which may also be the precursor to a full-out alien invasion. A head-scratcher even by Coscarelli's usual standards (and bear in mind, this is the guy who once cast Ossie Davis as JFK), the film starts off on such a breathlessly outrageous note that I was wondering how in the world Coscarelli could possibly keep it up for the entire running time. The trouble is that Coscarelli goes through the material at such a voracious pace that he exhausts it all well before the halfway mark and as a result, the whole enterprise is pretty much running on fumes by the end. Like most other films that try to become cult classics by design, it doesn't quite work and is never quite as clever as it thinks it is. However, Coscarelli certainly makes the most out of a presumably tiny budget and if nothing else, one has to applaud him for at least making the effort to come up with something different from the usual fare.
If you have seen one movie about an aging criminal preparing for one last hurrah, I can pretty much guarantee that whichever one it was, it was better than "Stand Up Guys," a film that plays more like a retread of the unspeakably bad "The Bucket List" (and if you forgotten about that one, do not under any circumstance decide to look it up) with a slightly higher body count. Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin play a trio of aging gangsters--fresh out of prison, retired and in a nursing home, respectively--who reunite for one last night of hijinks before one is forced to rub out another as per the wishes of a local mob boss; said hijinks include repeated trips to a local bordello, a Viagra mishap that send one to the emergency room and into the care of a nurse who turns out to be the daughter (Julianna Marguiles) of another, car theft, repeated visits to a diner featuring a friendly waitress (Addison Timlin) who seems to be working the 24-hour shift and whose real identity is revealed at least an hour after everyone in the audience has figured it out, an interlude in which they discover a naked rape victim (Vanessa Ferlito) in their car trunk and help her get back at her attackers with a baseball bat and a trip to a cemetery that so completely flies in the face of plausible human behavior that it defies any rational explanation. Oh yeah, there are some weak parts on display as well.
The screenplay by is by a first-time screenwriter, Noah Haidle , and that is pretty obvious because the entire thing feels like notes cribbed after spending a couple of days watching bad movies and TV shows on cable--the contrivances fly so fast and thick that I wouldn't be surprised to discover that there was originally a subplot involving Walken accidentally making two dates on the same night and attempting to juggle both of them. And seriously, even if this script was destined for actors of a much lesser stature than the ones it ended up with, couldn't Haidle have come up with something slightly wittier than Viagra-related whimsy? Making his feature directorial debut, Fisher Stevens mishandles the not-exactly-complex material so badly--largely by making everything as broadly obvious as possible--that one wishes that Raphael Sbarge could have been brought in to take over the reins at some point. What little entertainment there is to be derived from "Stand Up Guys" comes from the unmistakable goodwill generate by its three stars--although none of them are really making much of a discernible effort (Pacino is in full-on blowhard mode here), just the sight of the three of them bouncing off of each other is enough to breathe a little life into material that even Al's little-known cousin Shemp Pacino might have found wanting. Amazingly, "Stand Up Guys" marks the first time that the three stars have all worked together on the same film despite nearly 150 combined years of acting. That is a lot of movies between them and the good news is that, with few exception, virtually every single one of them is better and more interesting than this one.
There have been any number of remakes, rip-offs, parodies and oddball riffs on William Shakespeare's immortal "Romeo & Juliet" to hit the big screen over the years but "Warm Bodies" may be the first one that begins with one of its young lovers already dead and works its way backwards from there. (Then again, it has been a while since I sat down to watch the schlockfest "Tromeo & Juliet" and my memories of it are a tad sketchy.) This time around, our heroes are R (Nicholas Hoult), one of the countless victims of a bizarre plague that has transformed most of humanity into shuffling zombies scrounging around for reasonably fresh meat, and Julie (Teresa Palmer), the beautiful girl he falls for at first sight (although since his love is fueled in part by having eaten the brains of her boyfriend, it is probably closer to love at first bite) after rescuing her from a zombie attack. The two grow closer and as a result, it seems as if R is slowly becoming human again, giving possible hope for the revival of society. The only trouble is that her father (played, perhaps inevitably, by John Malkovich) is the leader of one of humanity's last outposts and has vowed to eradicate as many of the flesh-eaters as possible and is aghast to discover that his own daughter may be in love with one.
For most younger viewers, the key touchstone for "Warm Bodies" will be not "Romeo & Juliet" but the slightly-less-elevated "Twilight" saga and indeed, it too is based on a best-selling book aimed at young adult readers. If one were to place it on a scale of such projects, with "The Hunger Games" serving as the high-water mark for the genre and the "Twilight" films at the the other end of the spectrum, it would land squarely in the middle. It is certainly better-made than the "Twilight" saga (with most of the laughs being of a deliberate nature this time around), the two leads are sweet and appealing (even while snacking on grey matter) and there are funny supporting turns from Malkovich (in what can only be described as the Jeremy Irons role) and Rob Corddry (in what can only be described as the Rob Corddry role as a fellow zombie). At the same time, writer-director Jonathan Levine doesn't always demonstrate a sure manner of handling the tricky tone of the piece, some of the jokes are as moldy as the corpses on display (including yet another bit where someone is taught how to act like a zombie) and the story, after threatening to go off into strange and interesting areas, winds up concluding on a depressingly simple and familiar note. Still, this isn't the worst film that you will see this year to try to ride on the sparkly coattails of "Twilight" (trust me on this), though anyone in the mood to see a zombie-themed rom-com should bypass this one and shuffle directly to "Shaun of the Dead" instead.
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originally posted: 02/07/13 17:16:03
last updated: 02/07/13 18:40:40