By Joe Bendel. It starts with a wickedly macabre riddle. Where it finishes is not so clear. One would assume the title offers an obvious clue, but not necessarily. Those who require a rigorously logical approach to the space-time continuum might be out to sea, but genre fans looking for a wild trip will find it in Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

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Based on the novel by Jason Pargin published under the pen-name David Wong, JDATE (as it is cheekily abbreviated) follows the story character David Wong has to tell reporter Arnie Blondestone, in a series of rapid-fire flashbacks. He really does not look like a Wong, but looks are frequently deceiving in this reality.

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“Wong” and his partner John are amateur exorcists approaching professional status. Two years ago, they were exposed to a drug known as Soy Sauce. This stuff really opens up the doors of perception. Now they can see beings from other dimensions and tell you what you dreamed last night. Unfortunately, just as Wong adjusts to the sauce, he learns his best friend has died. Shortly thereafter, John starts calling him, first to apologize for all the drama and then to guide him through a series of predicaments. Eventually, they reunite to confront an imminent threat from another universe, on what appears to be the Eyes Wide Shut world, with the help of their powerful ally, Dr. Albert Marconi, who masquerades as a television psychic. Or something like that. Then it becomes a bit complicated.

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What Bill & Ted were to stoner science fiction, JDATE is to psychotropic genre fare.

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Like the original source novel, the film is episodic in structure, madly hop-scotching back and forth across time and planes of existence. The audience just has to live in the moment of each segment, which are almost always outrageously clever. Frankly, viewers really do not care if the lads save the universe. They will just want to see what comes next.

From "John Dies at the End."

As Wong and John, Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are likable lugs, who treat the bedlam with admirable seriousness, never winking at the camera. However, it is the supporting characters that really enrich JDATE. Executive producer Paul Giamatti is kind of awesome as Blondestone—a rather more complex role than it first appears. Likewise, Clancy Brown delivers pure genre gold as Dr. Marconi. There’s also a dog, Bark Lee, as himself, who deserves consideration for next year’s Golden Collar Award, if they can keep it going that long. There is even a brief appearance from Angus Scrimm, the cult favorite from Coscarelli’s Phantasm.

JDATE’s energy and inventiveness are impressive. As eccentric as things get, the film never feels forced or self-consciously hip. That is the real trick. As a result, the rough edges, apparently the result of budgetary limitations, can easily be forgiven. In fact, they become part of the charm. Highly recommended for fans of over-the-top sci-fi-horror hybrids, John Dies at the End opens today (2/1) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, with Coscarelli attending the evening screenings tonight and Saturday.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on February 1st, 2012 at 11:44am.

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By Joe Bendel. Thirty-some years ago, a film like this might have generated all kinds of controversy, regardless of its merits. It could be considered a sign of social progress that it now only inspires shrugs. Nonetheless, gender-oriented vigilantism should never be such a hum drum affair. Indeed, that is about the size of Austin Chick’s Girls Against Boys (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Shae thought she was going to have a lovely romantic weekend with her technically married boyfriend. Instead, he dumps her, having resolved to make his marriage work for the sake of his young daughter. His timing is lousy, but frankly this is sort of the right thing to do. He will pay for it, though. First, the depressed Shae turns to her co-worker Lu for support. At Lu’s prompting, they embark on an all night bender, culminating in the loft of a group of hipsters everyone in the audience can tell are blindingly bad news. Unfortunately, Shae is so disoriented she leaves with Simon, the worst of the lot, who does exactly what we suspect he will.

The next morning, she reports the crime to the police, who are ridiculously disinterested. One would think any red-blooded NYPD cop would relish the opportunity to roust a pretentious Greenpoint “artist,” but evidently not. However, Lu is perfectly willing to lead her into a Thelma & Louise-style revenge killing spree.

From "Girls Against Boys."

There are two paths a film like this can take. Either it becomes a dark psychological study in which viewers are supposed be horrified by the acts the two “girls” commit against the “boys,” or it should be a cathartic exercise in frontier justice-by proxy. Yet Chick tries to steer a middle course, suggesting that maybe on the one hand, the guys deserve some form of cosmic retribution – but then again, there seems to be something a little off or overboard about Lu’s plunge into binge murder. The resulting lukewarm tone leaves little lasting impression. Even when the women get medieval on Simon, GAB’s only halfway memorable scene, Chick chickens out, wrapping it up just as it starts illicit an emotional response.

Danielle Panabaker is actually pretty good covering Shae’s considerable range of extreme emotions and Nicole LaLiberte can flash some seriously crazy eyes as Lu. The rest of the cast just isn’t bad enough to stand out in any way. One wonders if the word generic was used in the casting notices.

Clearly, GAB thinks it is edgy and challenging, but in reality it is gutlessly noncommittal. Completely lackluster, Girls Against Boys will profoundly disappoint the grindhouse audience it is targeting when it opens today (2/1) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

LFM GRADE: D

Posted on February 1st, 2012 at 11:43am.

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