Review: John Dies at the End

19 Feb

Theatrical Release: January 25, 2013 (limited)
Starring: Chase Williamson, Paul Giamatti

Review By: Rachel LaBerge
Otter Score: 5/10

John Dies at the End is a comedic horror film directed by Don Coscarell, based on a cult book originally published online.  After gaining an audience through Reddit and other websites, the book was eventually published as a paperback.  The film only focuses on the first third of the book. While the novel is filled with hilarious dialogue, unexpected plot twists and unique characters, the film is hard to follow and an all-around weak adaptation.

The script seemed unintentionally scattered.  It’s understandably hard to adapt a book into a film, but this definitely shows here.  If John Dies at the End is watched without having read the book, it may be extra confusing.  First, the story jumps all over the place.  It’s not linear, which can be exciting, but in this case it was just confusing. The actions of the main character, David, are not explained when he has a caged monster in the back of his car, how he gets a street drug called “soy sauce” and how he got an interview with a reporter to tell his story in the first place!  The film does not really explain what “soy sauce” is, even.  It just…enables…stuff.  Weird stuff.

The plot continues to carelessly unfold when John and David are asked by an alien(?) to save a parallel universe.  They go to a strange world that is somehow connected to hell and to all the monsters that “soy sauce” allows them to see back on Earth.  But there is no connecting storyline, instead it seems like a distracted sub plot.  We also don’t get a satisfying conclusion; it’s vague and lacking any resemblance of a payoff after having sat through such unsubstantial chaos.

Although the dialogue was funny and clever (much like the book), the film did not capture the essence of the written word.  Other aspects that needed some explaining: the character of John (how did they miss this!?) being a one-dimensional druggie who is dumb yet heroic, and also the character of David’s girlfriend, Amy.

Yet somehow, despite all this, the film is casually entertaining…but still hard to follow. It’s worth seeing only if you’re a fan of cult movies or a big fan of the book.

Reason to Watch:  If you’ve read the book and MUST see the film adaptation.
Reason to Avoid:  There have been many better comedic horror films made, and for this particular story, stick to the book.


Otter Critic’s 2013 Oscar Picks

17 Feb

Here are my 2013 Oscar picks (what I think will win, not what I think should win).  Let me know how you do with your picks!

By Chad “Otter Man” Liffmann

Picture: Argo
Director:  Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Actress:  Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables

Animated Feature Film: Brave
Art Direction: Anna Karenina
Cinematography: Life of Pi
Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man
Documentary Short Subject: Open Heart
Film Editing: Argo
Foreign Language Film: Amour
Makeup: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Music (Original Score):  Lincoln
Music (Original Song): “Skyfall” by Adele from Skyfall
Short Film (Animated): Paperman
Short Film (Live Action): Buzkashi Boys
Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty
Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Lincoln
Writing (Original Screenplay): Django Unchained

Enjoy the Oscars next Sunday, February 24th! 


Review: Zero Dark Thirty

21 Jan

Theatrical Release: January 11, 2013 (wide)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke

Review By: Chad “Otter Man” Liffmann
Otter Score: 8/10

Zero Dark Thiry represents the first of what will likely be scores of movies about the long manhunt for Osama bin Laden.  Like United 93, this film aims to provide a reasonably accurate portrayal of the behind-the-scenes operations and intelligence missions that led to the eventual killing.  Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastic thriller that wisely and (surprisingly) effectively avoids taking sides.  Instead, we get to tag along for a good story, finely crafted suspense, and a mostly superb script.

It’s remarkable how gripping a film can be when you know how it ends.  We all (should) know if the plot to get Osama bin Laden ultimately succeeded or failed.  What we don’t know is exactly what went into every procurement of information and evidence.  By all accounts, neither do the filmmakers…but they do a convincing job!

Most of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty targets the torture scenes.  Yes, they are disturbing and seem quite realistic.  Bigelow and writer Mark Boal do a great job in avoiding opinions on the subject matter.  They aren’t lobbying for anything and allow audience members to come to their own conclusions.

Speaking of conclusions, Zero Dark Thirty was already in pre-production long before Osama bin Laden was killed.  It must have been a welcome opportunity for Bigelow and Boal to re-write the ending into a nicely bound story of “success”.  Lord knows how unfinished and depressing this movie could have ended if history hadn’t played out like it did.  The most entertaining result aside from an immaculate recreation of the storming of bin Laden’s compound –seeing Chris Pratt as a Seal Team 6 member.

Unfortunately, one thing that I had some trouble conceptualizing was why this film had to be made?  There are moments in Zero Dark Thirty that seem to be self aware with a similar sentiment.  I understand why the men and women behind the mission deserve to be recognized and rewarded, but is this really the way to do it?  Zero Dark Thirty is strongest in its moments that most resemble real life interactions and emotions; the disturbing torture scenes and the quick business-oriented banter that make up the first 1.5 hours of the film.  The film is weakest when unnecessary cinematic melodrama is injected into the scene; heated arguments bordering on cliche, moments of profound looks and quotes in the midst of deadly operations, and the film’s very annoying hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-message final moment.  It’s in these rare moments that it seems the filmmakers felt obligated to give the film a higher purpose, and sadly it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film.

Reason to Watch:  A good example of intelligent filmmaking, including a mostly smart script and mostly solid acting.
Reason to Avoid:  We know Osama bin Laden was killed.  Why is this movie REALLY needed?

Otter’s Opinion: The Year A-List Directors Went to Lunch

14 Jan

By A.J. Detisch

2012: another year The Hollywood Foreign Press Association seemed too distracted by Harvey Weinstein’s catering efforts to put any thought into their nominations (same as the Academy, for that matter). You need look no further than the Best Director category. With little stakes, surprises, or real competition, this is another year the nominees felt forced onto the ballot. Does anyone really care if Spielberg beats Ang Lee for Best Director? And it’s a shame because this could have been a game-changing year. The slate for 2012 was incredibly promising; we’re talking about the year Ridley Scott returned to outer space, Christopher Nolan closed up his hugely successful Batman trilogy, PTA took on Scientology, and Spielberg finally made his much-anticipated presidential biopic. But, alas, 2012 found the most accomplished filmmakers underwhelming, even where their effort was solid:


If there was one movie in 2012 I looked forward to the most, this was it. I was intrigued to watch Spielberg actually go to work again. We’re talking about a director who has consistently kept relevant by foraying into darker, more topical and psychologically-complex projects (Munich, Schindler’s List, even Minority Report), where despite his slumps (Always, 1941, Hook, The Terminal) he has followed up with redemptive efforts. But like many releases from acclaimed directors this year, Lincoln finds Spielberg borrowing from himself (the courtroom scenes of Amistad or, inappropriately, a visceral battle sequence ala Saving Private Ryan). It’s by no means bad work. The performances, tight script, and restrained cinematography were nothing short of satisfying—but it’s not at all the evocative departure he’s proven capable of.  His shallow, sanctifying depiction of Lincoln, especially his tumultuous marriage, showed the director neglecting the maturity of his previous efforts for something more akin to a John Ford movie. There was nothing bold or surprising in his approach.

The Dark Knight Rises

This film was just steps away from utter absurdity. Nolan is a director I respect and I think his previous Batman films exceeded expectations by adding genre elements and genuine pathos. Even though it achieves production design and cinematography even more elegant than its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises nearly undid every nuance those films made to legitimize superhero movies. With its aloof prologue, Tom Hardy’s hammy and comically-muffled performance, weird casting (Matthew Modine? Really?), shoddy plot construction, two underdeveloped romantic subplots, and lack of decisive political or social statement, it’s very hard not to see this as Nolan on autopilot. Delivered at Nolan’s signature breakneck pace, it expects you to leap over its plot holes as easily as Bruce Wayne leaps hemispheres to return to Gotham from his Indian death pit.


Despite lofty philosophical ambitions, this unofficial Alien prequel had zero character development, a silly plot, and very muddled logic throughout. That’s not to say it lacked Ridley Scott’s signature craft, but his contemplative film left behind the horror and intrigue of his original film, an essential element. And it also made very little sense. Its ambitions for 2001: A Space Odyssey fell closer to Event Horizon.

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Review: Rust and Bone

9 Jan

Theatrical Release: November 23, 2012 (wide)
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts

Review By: Rachel LaBerge
Otter Score: 9/10

Over the last 10 years, Rust and Bone director Jacques Audiard has directed two other movies — The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Prophet (2010).  The latter was one of the best movies of 2010 and yet despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it didn’t receive a large audience.  These two French films deserve greater attention.  Audiard has a talent for telling unique stories and introducing viewers to real world characters that would otherwise go unnoticed.  The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about a gangster with a passion for piano and A Prophet tells the story of an imprisoned Algerian immigrant.  Rust and Bone follows Audiard’s pattern of observing ordinary and dejected characters that overcome their circumstances.

The relationship between very unlikely friends is what drives Rust and Bone. Matthias Schoenaerts delivers a tragic performance as Ali.  Similar to his role in the Belgian film Bullhead (2011), Ali is a man controlled by his fists and muscles, not his brain.  He befriends Stephanie, a whale trainer at a marine tourist park played by Marion Cotillard, who contacts him after an accident leaves her wheelchair-bound.  They require each other’s support, yet have difficulty acknowledging it.

It’s frustrating yet captivating to watch a relationship where both adults are in denial of having feelings for one another.  They become intimate, yet remain emotionally unattached.  Their love flowers despite a string of unfortunate events, Ali’s misogyny, and Stephanie’s handicap.  Ali is an unlikable character, yet somehow he demands sympathy and attention.  Meanwhile, Stephanie’s depression consumes her.  Their pairing as two broken pieces coming together to form a whole may be identifiable to us, but only becomes apparent to the two parties after an unfortunate tragedy.

Reason to Watch:  Schoenaerts and Cotillard are fantastic!
Reason to Avoid:  This isn’t a light-hearted drama. This film is heavy and depressing, but otherwise quite beautiful.

Review: Les Miserables

30 Dec

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2012
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway

Review By: Chad “Otter Man” Liffmann
Otter Score: 8/10

Melodramatic to the core!  The latest version of Les Miserables, a film directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), ramps up the emotion with a unique cinematic approach…the results being quite fantastic.

If you haven’t seen the highly publicized clips/featurettes of the actors singing live on the set of Les Miserableshere’s the deal:  For the first time, instead of pre-recording the songs and then acting the scenes out/lip-synching, all actors sing and act simultaneously with their live on-set performances serving as the soundtrack (with orchestra added in post).  The actors were able to listen to a pianist on set through earbuds that were later digitally removed.  The result is phenomenal and showcases the talent of the actors on screen.  We can hear the imperfections in their voices and see the emotion of the scene leaking through in their trembles and shudders.  You can’t capture that with highly produced pre-recordings.

Tom Hooper decided that the best way to capture this new methodology was to keep the camera as close to the actors as possible.  Multiple numbers in the film consist of one shot that pans with and follows the singer.  This cinematography choice allows us to feel the emotional arch of every song without the ability to turn away.  The characters can’t escape from the tragic, unfortunate, or tender situations they experience and so we are pulled alongside them.  It’s hard to deny the emotional punch of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” (played by a sensational Anne Hathaway).  Her number could very well be the most dramatically captured song in musical history.  It’s brilliant in its simplicity and absolutely heart-wrenching.  Audiences are leaving theaters with wet sleeves.

Keeping the camera so close also has its drawbacks.  The movie is long.  Combining a long running time with tight close-ups can result in anxiety bordering on boredom.  It would’ve been nice to have some camera pull-backs or a few more cuts to wide angle shots of the sets.  Risking the wrath of die hard Les Miserables fans, it could’ve also been nice to cut some of the less-needed songs.  There are musical exchanges that don’t advance the story enough to warrant their inclusion and may have been more welcome in a director’s cut.  Too bad the days of film intermissions are over (last known… Ghandi in 1982?), otherwise these minor complaints would be negated.

But back to the plus sides.  Each actor has a distinct singing voice and it’s fun to listen how their respective vocal performances match their characters.  Hugh Jackman sings with tenderness and fear, anger and love … an emotional dissonance paralleling Jean Valjean’s internal struggles.  Russell Crowe makes an excellent Javert, his voice stoic and bereft of anything beyond the task at hand.  There are too many characters to go into but all employ the right tone.  When all is sung and done, the film strikes the right chord.

Reason to Watch:  A well-rounded tear-jerker and welcome version of the Victor Hugo classic that will please (nearly) everyone.
Reason to Avoid:  If you’re a member of that “nearly” crowd, including people who hate Les Miserables or those who have no soul.

Review: Django Unchained

27 Dec

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2012
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

Otter Score: 7.5/10

There’s traditional.  There’s radical.  Then there’s Tarantino.  In 2009, Quentin Tarantino gave us Inglourious Basterds, a cinematic masterpiece that showcased the work of an artist in his most inspired state.  The story of Basterds re-imagined WWII history and gave us a fantastical look at bloody revenge.  In Django Unchained, we get the same deal but this time over the backdrop of slavery in the South in 1858.  While Django is incredibly well directed, written, and (especially) acted, the brutal violence takes on different tones and this takes away from the overall enjoyment of the film…and hopefully this was Tarantino’s intention.

When the audience laughed at some of the gruesome deaths befalling scores of characters in the last 30 minutes of the 2 hr 45 min film, I became uneasy.  It wasn’t because the deaths weren’t “fun” in the same way that deaths were “fun” in Inglourious Basterds, but that they differed in tone from those in the first half of the film.  About midway through the film (upon meeting Leonardo DiCaprio’s love-to-hate villain), the violence in the film takes a brutal turn.  This violence is no longer playful.  It’s disturbing and realistic.  It grinds at your bones, turns your stomach to knots, and makes you realize you’re watching a film that doesn’t intend to tip toe around the fact that slavery WAS horrific and shy away from showing you why.  The problem is that once this mood is established, it’s hard to return to the over-the-top ridiculous violence that filled the first half.  My mind was trapped in a state of shock and it was hard to click back to the enjoyment of violent popcorn mayhem.  I got the sense that others in the audience felt similarly.

Despite the conflicting tones of violence, the actors involved are top notch.  Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx make a solid team and command the screen well.  It’s Leonardo DiCaprio and a brilliant Samuel L. Jackson that steal the spotlight.  I had to confirm with IMDB that Leonardo DiCaprio had yet to play a villain in his already illustrious career.  He may have played characters with despicable traits and villainous moments, but not like this.  Boy does he have fun with it!  Likewise, Samuel L. Jackson nails the role of a two-faced elderly house slave.  Though playing a supporting role, Jackson’s character has more subtle complexity than any of Jackson’s previous incarnations and does well to remind us how talented an actor he is.  It’s his best performance to date.

Every Tarantino release is a big event and Django is no different.  The crisp and witty banter, the neat camera work, and the oddly fascinating soundtrack are all Tarantino’s signature moves.  Those that love him love his unique style and/or his plethora of pop culture homages.  Those that hate him will find no reason to enjoy this film any more than his others.  It’s an acquired taste, basically.

Reason to Watch:  An unconventionally bloody tale that will challenge your taste for brutality.
Reason to Avoid:  If you know you have no taste for brutality, or the stylings of Tarantino.

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