Thursday, December 27, 2012
Movie Appraisal: John Dies at the End (2012)
I also have to say that I love the book of the same name by David Wong (of Cracked.com fame). It has fast become one of my favorite novels after I read it, full of both horror and comedy, with both mixing together to create a wonderful reading experience. Because I thought so highly of the book I was really looking forward to the movie... but then I started hearing things. I generally avoid the hype or hate machines because my tastes tend to be fairly different from most other critics and reviewers. i tend to like fairly different things from either mainstream reviewers or the indie crowd. So, most of the time I reserve judgment for myself. The things I was hearing though... they were on the fairly negative side of things, with some calling it a disjointed mess and others saying it was fun but confusing. It was mostly plot-related and pacing-related criticisms. I hate to agree with most critics but... well... I'll give my opinions shortly. First I want to talk about the book and what I liked from it.
I like to think of myself as a pretty big reader. I tend to like horror, but I'll try anything that has urban fantasy or that might be kind of different. I bought the book in a Borders before they went out of business because I had heard some interesting things about it. Then I waited a year to read it because that's what I usually do. Anyway, when I finally picked it up, I fell in love with it. It told a story I loved, with great characters, great ideas, and a great execution despite not having the best writing ever and being mostly very casually written. Even so it left me wanting more and more. I just wanted to read more about these characters and their adventures. That happens pretty rarely, let me tell you, but I was absolutely sold on it. The comedy was great, if a little random at times. The horror was actually really well done in a story this goofy. And mostly, there was a perfect balance between the serious and the comedic, which appeals to me quite a bit. The book was something of a dramedy horror book, something I see very rarely, and like quite a bit.
And you know what? It worked. It found that perfect place of happiness in my head and settled there. It had great scenes- memorable scenes- a great cast of characters, and a lot to say about almost everything- weird and normal alike. The first person narration really added to the character of David (the main character), and made him seem like a big ball of randomly knowledgeable everyman... and it worked. The other characters, Dave, Molly, Amy and the rest... well, they worked too. Dave being this goofy screwed-up and drugged-up guy who was the main comic relief and David's best friend. Amy was this sick and disabled girl who really became the heart of the book... and the reason for Dave to do anything crazy or heroic at all (mostly). And then there's Molly the dog, who remains the smartest character around. Other characters were really well done as well, these ones being completely absent in the film, like "Big" Jim Sullivan and Jennifer Lopez. Both of these characters were incredibly well-written and created despite being fairly minor characters in the finished work.
"Big" Jim is kind of the crux of the entire novel, seeming to be the real reason for the soy sauce to have come into the world. (The soy sauce is the drug that makes the characters see the weird things that normal people can't see.) His characterization in the novel is one of slight antagonist or antihero even though he thinks of himself as the put upon heroic Knight Templar. He knows much more than he ever lets on, and yet we as the readers and David Wong as the narrator know almost nothing about what he did except for the conjecture on his part. Jennifer Lopez also was well done, being the initial object of desire that David wins over, this perfect woman he falls for, gets as a girlfriend, then loses through their inability to stick together. In some ways its one of the most depressingly real parts of the book. David gets the girl; he wins her over by being the best he can be, by being the hero, and by standing by her... but their relationship, which is both heavily physical as well as being emotionally draining on the two of them ultimately doesn't work out. They go their separate ways... and even though it's kind of amiable... relationships ending like that are never pretty. It makes the Dave in the second half of the novel one that is a bit more serious and a bit more depressingly real as well.
Both of those characters exist in Book I, and they are either gone or dead by the second half. Their disappearance from the narrative makes other characters (mostly Amy) have room to come into the story and be used effectively. This works really well in the novel, better than I would have ever thought. Having two distinct and very different feelings to a distinct and singular novel makes the novel feel more like a vignette of stories rather than a coherent narrative despite the fact it remains a fairly cohesive narrative throughout. It works well at establishing many moments of fun and terror between all the characters of the novel, as well as showing that a history exists between many of the same characters in the novel. Amy was not always the heart of the novel, but became it through perseverance. Hell, in the novel she is initially established as some kind of deranged and disturbed young woman, one who David went to a special school with. He even made fun of her, giving her the slightly awkward nickname of Cucumber because she threw up so much and he likened it to sea cucumbers exposing their guts when attacked. She was never meant to be his girlfriend. Again, she was set up with this confusing and somewhat disturbing past. Her brother "Big" Jim died in the first half of the novel, and David really didn't like him. There was nothing that foreshadowed their romance. He never called her hot or gorgeous or the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Instead they fell in love because of mutual respect, some conversation, and both of them taking care of the other. It exists in the novel and is one of the most well put together romances I have ever seen in fiction. But it sadly does not exist in the movie.
I'm not here to review the book, but it disappointed the hell out of me that certain scenes didn't make it into the movie. For instance, most of the second half of the novel isn't there in the movie. Amy basically takes on a very different character than she was in the book. She becomes some strange mixture of both Jennifer and Amy without ever being either of them, and being a much blander character because of it. She also has the least amount of characterization for the main cast. Because so much of the second half of the novel is cut out (and because I prefer the second half of the novel), I found myself not enjoying the second half of the movie as much as I could have otherwise. Now, don't get me wrong I loved the first half of the movie, but the second half... Look, there were no snow scenes (some of the most atmospheric moments of the novel), no real reason for going into the mall or any explanation of what the mall was at all, no shadows, which are some of the main antagonists of the novel, no going to Amy's house and finding her missing and all the things that came with that (some of the tensest and most serious moments in the novel), no dog eating a bomb, no characterizations for many of the minor characters, and no Las Vegas bloodbath. Most importantly, there is no major plot twist like the novel has. If you've read the book, you already know the twist, if not I won't say it. It makes the entire monologue at the beginning of the movie about the ax completely worthless with that twist not being in the movie. It has nothing to do with anything... unless Justin's status as Shitload is being discussed, or Arnie status as... yeah... Without that plot twist, there is no real emotion coming from the movie, no real reason to bother with or fear Korrok, and no real reason for Amy and David to be together. It instead becomes a random collection of scenes and emotions (mostly funny ha ha) that have little to no emotional ground in them, something the book hit incredibly well.
Ultimately, with some of my favorite moments of the book excised from the movie, this is a movie I could never LOVE. I was glad I went into the movie already knowing some of the changes. And I think others who love the book should be prepared as well. I would have been very annoyed at the movie if I hadn't known what the changes were, specifically to Amy, Bark Lee, and the whole second half of the plot. The scenes between David and Amy were the biggest disappointments. I understand that with the plot of the film those scenes couldn't have been fit in without reworking the script, but those were Amy's character establishment scenes, and taking them out essentially removes a main character in the plot from being characterized. Also, the time crunch of the story bothered me in the film. The novel takes places over the course of years (I think two years, but I could be slightly off. It could be three.), and it needs that time to establish the characters and their feelings towards everything that's going on. The movie makes everything seem predestined and very quick, almost making us and the characters get used to everything long before they even have a moment to think and become established as characters. These guys have to get used to all of this in maybe two days or so rather than two years, and their characters never really reflect that. There is no real change or arc to the characters in the movie, unlike the book, and some of the most poignant and meaningful moments and character establishments are just nonexistent. David's line about John never calling Amy the girl with one arm, Amy's reaction to the twist and to Dave beating the crud out of the guy who called her a "burden," Dave helping Amy after she threw up, Amy and Dave's time in the car with the shadows chasing them and the snow slowing them down, John holding Molly to the antagonists and commanding her to defecate the bomb she had eaten... well, too many great moments are just missing, and I just don't see much good that comes from that.
I think the emotions in the novel added a lot to it and made those scenes with comedy all the more comedic. It let the steam off of a fairly serious and pretty horrific plot. The second half of the novel real upped the stakes, and made everything a lot more meaningful... but that doesn't come out in the movie at all. The movie is basically and essentially the first half of the novel with a few parts of the second half put into it, mostly Amy (if you can call her Amy), Korrok's homeworld, the other dimension basketball game, and the mall. Other than that the movie was almost a straight adaptation of the first half of the novel... which, honestly, it should have been all along. Just take away Korrok, add Jennifer and Jim (and the characters who get forgotten after they are lost to the shadows), add Las Vegas instead of Korrok's lair... and there you go. You have the first half of an incredible book made into a stellar movie, and you can hope that a second half of the book can be made into a movie later on. Maybe that's crazy... you know, with money and the chances of success... but it's so close to only being the first half of the novel... why not just make it that and add the second half later or not at all?
Anyway, I have other, granted mostly minor, gripes, but I think that last point I mentioned is the most important. I would have loved this movie if it were only a straight adaptation of the first half of the novel. And as it is now, it's pretty freaking close. The first half of this movie is nearly perfect, making sure that each important note of the novel is hit in turn. It's only when the things from the second half of the novel are added and shoehorned into the plot that the plot stops working as well, and the adaptation kind of craps out. Robert North is the first indication of this. Although I love Doug Jones, and he's playing the right part here, the character is completely unnecessary to this film for all of the two scenes he's in. Marconi is another problem, being dumb rather than well done. I hated how this character was portrayed in the movie, especially when he was a very different kind of character in both the novel and its sequel This Book is Full of Spiders. Also, why the hell is Amy's last name changed from Sullivan to Larkin? It seems like such a dumb and arbitrary change to make. I know the dog was named Bark Lee instead of Molly because they had a male dog, not a female one... and I can't complain about that change because of that... but Amy's last name change just seems insane and nonsensical.
The funny thing about this movie is that although the plot is sometimes not incredibly coherent and at other times actively confusing as both halves of the novel are crammed into the movie, the little vignettes with the meatman, the police station, and Robert Marley's trailer are incredibly well done. Hell, even the ax scene that starts the movie off is all kinds of awesome. The bratwurst phone is funny; the soy sauce looks fantastic. All of the characters (except Amy and John) look dead on to me. "Camel Holocaust" is brilliant and hilarious. The acting is really top-notch throughout as well, with Chase Williamson making the perfect David Wong. I loved his voiceovers, his dry humor, his jumping between melodrama and absolute deadness in his voice. I thought he was absolutely brilliant. Rob Mayes is also great as John Cheese... but he looks nothing like the character is described in the book, and tends to act very little like a man who has an addictive personality to booze, smoking, women, and any kind of drug available. Rob Mayes is way too ripply and well-muscled to scream out John Cheese to me. That being said, I loved his acting performance as well. He had some absolutely fantastic expressions and comedic timing.
The direction was good as well, especially in the soy tripping scenes. Don Coscarelli did an amazing job with the directing even if his screenwriting was not as amazing. I was pleasantly surprised by how good almost everything looked (except Korrok and the wig monsters) even with a ton of CGI at times. I was less happy about how the plot and characters ended up, but an adaptation containing both halves of the novel would have been difficult for anybody to adapt. It was a really good try... even if the second half of the film mostly didn't work.
Uh... I guess I can quickly talk about the plot if you know nothing about it. David Wong, the main character, is getting interviewed by Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti) about being some kind of spiritual exorcist or something like that. He tells Arnie about some kind of drug that can make him and his friend John see things that most people cannot see. As the story starts, David is at a party. Amy is there too (not in the book though; in the book it's Jennifer) looking for her dog Bark Lee. David is listening to John's terrible band Three Arm Sally playing and eventually runs into Robert Marley (not his real name), a (possibly) Jamaican man who is the "source" of the soy sauce. He tells David what he dreamed and freaks the guy out a bit.
Eventually David gets a call from John after he gets home and goes to sleep. John is telling David to come over and help him. David jumps out of sleep and rushes over to find John going crazy and seeing things that aren't there. David sighs as John runs outside. He looks around and finds a syringe full of some dark liquid that John calls soy sauce. Eventually, after they go to a restaurant to cool down, David gets a call from John while he's sitting across from him. This is the first indication that something is wrong. David takes John away, calls a priest, gets poked by the needle in his pocket, starts tripping (in one of the best scenes of the movie), and is eventually accosted by Detective Appleton. The detective takes him and John into custody to ask them some questions about the party. It is here Appleton reveals to David that a bunch of the party-goers have shown up dead or are missing, and that only he and John are known to have survived. David freaks out as the soy sauce enters his system completely, but before he can do anything John "dies," and he is left alone in the interview room with a police officer who doesn't show up in mirror. A fight ensues, he gets away, talks to a bratwurst, and ends up at Robert Marley's trailer.
In the trailer, David sees the soy sauce, ingests it accidentally, saves himself inadvertently from dying from a gunshot, and almost gets run over by Bark Lee driving his truck. He goes back home, meets Shitload, formerly one of the people at the party, and is taken captive along with a comatose John, Bark Lee who is channeling John, Fred, and Amy. (Fred dies by the way. That's what happens to minor characters...) Shitload takes them to an abandoned mall, John tries to run off, makes Shitload go outside where he gets shot by Appleton. They all are "saved" until Appleton explodes into little white worms. They then decide to go into the mall and take care of business.
Amy has only one hand. Her other is gone. She opens a ghost door with her phantom hand. And then she disappears for the rest of the movie... She kind of starts a romance with David, but it is so quick and stupid that it is actually embarrassing to watch, and it shouldn't be there at all if it's going to be that kind of low quality. Bark Lee, David, and John... the humans among them armed... enter the mall and meet Robert North, who kind of held David at slugpoint (ha ha) earlier in the film, and Dr. Marconi, who seems out of place here and is idiotically used with his twin blonde assistants for... reasons... They send the three "heroes" of our story into another world where they find a Largeman and a bunch of naked other people, all of them with their upper faces masked. Largeman talks about the history of their world, Korrok, and why John and David need to help them. There's also a really gory and well done cartoon shown. I liked that part quite a lot. Eventually they meet a badly CGIed Korrok, explode a bomb, inexplicably meet Marconi again, and survive. David is with Amy at the end. Arnie is a half-ghost, and John and Dave play basketball and go into another world, but make fun of the guys there rather than help save it.
And that's about it. Some parts of it come out of nowhere and are confusing, while others work quite well. Very little is added to the plot, with the movie mostly being an adaptation of the first half and the very last part of the novel. A lot of lines are taken directly from the novel... and subsequently they work very well... although there are some lines not in the novel that are also quite good.
I guess the ultimate conclusion I have come up with to this movie is that while it is sadly a very broken movie... it worked pretty well for me. I think very few people who haven't read the novel will like it. And I think that people who have read it will be annoyed by some of the plot choices. I have to also disagree with most people who said it needed a bigger budget. It may well have when it came to the amount of film or getting a great screenwriter to adapt... but for the most part, besides Korrok, the CGI was solid, the acting was solid, and most everything else worked. What it needed was about twenty more minutes or so to establish characters, specifically Amy and John, and to have a slightly less confusing plot. Hell, even David needed some fleshing out. And the plot is all over the place. The romance, a wonderfully written romance in the novel, is awful here, if it exists at all. The main point of the novel is completely untouched in the movie. The main antagonists of the novel are not even mentioned here. Amy is for all intent purposes a completely different character. And mostly, the movie forgot that there were both serious moments and comedy in the novel. Those are the main problems, and I doubt throwing money at the film could have fixed them.
That being said, I liked the movie, but didn't love it. I enjoyed it, but felt confused by some of the plot points and how some things were executed. I would not recommend this film for people who haven't read the book (although some very well might enjoy it, so take that as you will. I think most will find it more confusing than not, although I could be wrong.), and for those who have read the book and want to see the movie, beware of the changes the movie makes and know them before watching it. I suggest reading a few reviews (or just mine here), looking at the changes, and thinking to yourself if you really want to see a novel you like with light characterizations, inexplicably dumb changes to the plot, and some of the best scenes of the novel not even in the movie.
I will say that the scenes that are lifted straight out of the novel are really good though. So, take that as you will. I really think the movie is worth seeing for those scenes alone... but just take your head out of the plot or the coherency of the story... they really don't work. So, here's to tentative recommendations with warning labels attached to them in red ink! Check it out, but don't blame me if you're disappointed with it in the end.