Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Tusk - Come for Michael Parks, Stay For...Uhh...

As I promised, with tomorrow starting the October festivities (and an announcement on to come as I'm trying something a little different this year, hence why I didn't pool for suggestions) we're continuing the penance with something a little seasonably appropriate.

It always happens. Even before I get to October, I start feeling the itch for horror. Fortunately, this project gave me an opportunity to indulge said itch while I got ready for the big push – Kevin Smith threw his hat back into the ring.

Actually, that sounds a bit harsh. Honestly, I still want Kevin Smith to do well. Even on projects like this, I feel like he has potential in him. Which makes it all the more frustrating when he not only doesn't live up to it, but falls prey to some of his old bad habits that have been called out many times before.

This goes double when it comes to his forays in horror, as some may remember from when I discussed Red State last October. I still feel like there's the potential for a good movie within it, but the finished film was overwritten, too caught up in blindsiding its audience, and making sure we understood what it was trying to say (to borrow a line, somewhat ironically for this movie, from the podcast 'We Hate Movies', all that film was missing was a big red “Do You Get It?” over the end credits) to really work.

To his credit, Tusk does at least avoid some of those earlier hurdles.

Keyword some.

Before getting into the plot, it's worth discussing this movie's backstory quickly for those who aren't familiar with it. For anyone wondering 'is this necessary?', just trust me – even if I didn't inform you, the movie itself will make it clear to you both at the start and finish.

This movie's genesis came on an episode of Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier's podcast, Smodcast (the tied in production company of which proudly displays their logo at the start of this movie as well as crediting the specific episode that this came from). What started as a comment about a person having to wear a walrus costume at the request of a weirdo soon spiraled into an entire movie pitch. And I mean entire here – this wasn't like they had a loose concept that they then asked the web if they'd be interested in, as the credits reveal, they prettymuch planned out the entire rough plot arc in this episode from beginning to end. Then they turned to the people of Twitter to decide if it should be made or not.

Even knowing how it would play out and end, apparently enough people voted yes for this to happen. Whether you wish to use this movie as a future argument for the fallibility of vox populi is entirely at your discretion.

"For the last time, I'm not really a Mac! Those ads were years ago now! Why do you still care?!"

Anyway, the finished film concerns Wallace (Justin Long, channeling equal parts Smith himself and a post-Scrubs Zach's a pretty awkward combination) – the host of an awkwardly named podcast ('The Not-See Party' ...get used to that name, cause when it's not being said for jokes, you're seeing it on a whole lot of t-shirts) which seeks out strange people through the internet and then tries to contact them for interviews. Hot on the trail of his latest subject – an unlucky boy with a katana known as the Kill Bill Kid – he makes his way up to Canada, only to find that his subject (who we're informed passed up an Oprah interview to speak to Long) has passed on.

Determined to not leave without some manner of story, Wallace finds an ad in a bar bathroom (it's worth noting Wallace is decidedly lacking in survival instincts based on some of his choices in this movie) for someone promising stories of adventure for whoever will listen. A phone call later, and he's on his way to the estate of Howard Howe (Michael Parks, again stealing the show), a reclusive explorer who delivers on his promise – as well as drugging and kidnapping Wallace. It isn't a spoiler to say what his end game is, since you already presumably knew it when you bought the ticket, and even if you didn't, Howe tells you himself early on anyway – he intends to, after some alterations, put Wallace into a walrus suit (and you may now take five seconds to groan at the character name choice) with the idea of proving if, and I quote 'within the man there is the heart of a walrus'.

"Say, Wallace...just thinking out ever see a little documentary called Zoo?"

As this unfolds, Wallace's co-host and his girlfriend (Haley Joel Osment and Genesis Rodriguez) get word that something is rotten in the great white north and head up to find their friend. Shortly thereafter, they're put in touch with a detective who has been tracking Howe played by a certain mystery acto—you know what? Screw it. It's been a year and you're on the internet, so it's not longer a secret unless you've been very selective – it's Johnny Depp. It's Johnny Depp in probably one of the worst performances I think I've ever seen him in (though it's worth noting that Mortdecai is still in the running for one of the punishment movies in this run).

In trying to get to the heart of the problem with this movie – actually, there's a few, but at least the biggest for me – it's the fact that this movie is a weird oxymoron. It's simultaneously overwritten and underwritten all in one. As an overall story, this has enough material to make for a fascinating, if bizarre, short movie. At the same time, there's just not enough here to really carry 95 minutes of film (subtracting credits from the runtime, anyway.) In fact, the finished film feels like it drags in several places care of overdrawn conversations or sequences that just weren't needed (one notable offender being a flashback involving Depp and Parks having met in the past). While the sequence gives a good chance for Parks to show his range, it's a solid five minutes that otherwise adds nothing to the movie that isn't then already recapped by Depp after the fact. It's a diversion for seemingly no other reason than runtime, Smith's love of dialogue, and showing off Parks (which, frankly, the movie was already doing just fine before that point.)

You know, I tried to come up with something snappy here...but really, the fact this was the man that set moviegoers hearts aflame not even ten years ago sort of makes this picture a joke in and of itself.

I keep fighting the urge to compare the scene to the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, if only for concern that that may have been what Smith was going for (I hope not, cause that was at such a point where, while perhaps over long, it still served to introduce and establish Landa and Shoshanna, we already have a pretty strong idea of what was up with Howard by the time Smith rolls out his flashback, and the entire fake simpleton act he uses in the scene amounts to nothing.)

That said, the flashback isn't entirely isolated – Howard gets the lion's share of the development in this script, complete with several monologues that flesh out his character, at times to a point we really don't need in the long run.

Friendly word of advice, Kevin (yeah, I know it's very unlikely this will ever cross his path, just think of this as framing) – as a rule, you don't need the entire life story to a horror antagonist. In fact, many of the really memorable ones we don't know much about, and of those, the ones we do get the full backstory on later, it's usually met with disappointment (for as much love as there is for Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, there's a reason no one talks about Hannibal Rising beyond saying 'this was unnecessary'). While the entire speech about Howard's awful childhood in Canada isn't badly written, and Parks sells the Hell out of it, it really just goes on and builds up to the point where what's supposed to be the shocking reveal seems underwhelming for the time spent setting it up.

"Blood-soaked table, human anatomy charts on the wall with Cronenbergian modifications, unearthly screaming...yeah, I think he's fine."

Compared to Howard, just about everyone else in the movie is little more than a sketch. I do have to take a moment to commend Long, Osment, and Rodriguez here, because for how little the three are really given to work with, they're doing the best they can. Long especially, who stops being a character for the better part of a large chunk of the middle of this movie, instead being reduced to a mere body horror art piece for all but the last few minutes of the run time. There are two scenes where we're given flashbacks of him with Rodriguez, both just before the movie needs us to feel some sympathy for him. Actually, I'll admit it – the scenes aren't bad overall. It's more the timing that undermines them. Rather than trusting the audience to remember these things at the start, Smith saves them for just before he wants us to care about his protagonist, which makes what should be humanizing moments feel manipulative. Particularly the second one, which I won't go into for spoiler reasons, but it is incredibly on the nose.

In a way, this is part of the same problem with the script in Red State – while probably not intentional, there's this weird sense of distrust in the audience. In the earlier film, it was not trusting them to get the message, leading to numerous scenes where characters outright tell you what the movie's trying to say. Here, it's questioning the audience's ability to retain information, as it saves these scenes as flashbacks until they're deemed 'relevant'.

Besides the story issues, the overall assembly of the movie is very hit and miss. As a horror movie, there's a lot to be said for a good sense of atmosphere. The right lighting, composition, and editing can make a basic room look creepy as Hell done right. Surprisingly, despite being given any number of opportunities to play with it, Smith never really makes a bid for that here. Outside of perhaps two scenes in the movie, one of which, despite its good build-up still runs longer than it needs to, much of the movie's presentation is just...there. What menace there is in many scenes is prettymuch all on Parks to carry the weight, as Smith's direction is pretty by the numbers despite his outlandish concept.

I'll give him this much. For as cartoonish as his take on Canada is, I was pleasantly surprised to not see a single Mountie or took hat anywhere.

Likewise, the editing doesn't really enhance things either, though there isn't too much wrong with it. A lot of the movie tends to rely on quick back and forth cuts (plus a few dramatic zoom in/out moments in the last act) but they never really strengthen the scenes much. About the only thing I find really standing out is sort of a strike against this – I sympathize with the fact they likely had problems figuring out how to show Wallace, in his walrus suit, eating, but the sudden jumps from a complete fish to a half-eaten one to get around the mechanics of it just feel lazy, especially as this technique isn't employed anywhere else in the movie.

And capping all of this off is Smith's climax – a sequence that, as we hear on the podcast over the credits, he apparently found to be quite amusing. In actual execution, however, the whole thing feels like the movie's back and forth identity crisis over whether it's more comedy or horror hits critical mass, and instead we get a final duel that is neither bizarre enough to be funny or truly twisted enough to really horrify.

"Come wheelchair race for fun?"

...and before anyone goes assuming I'm somehow above this, I'll be happy to link you to the reviews where I spoke well of Meet the Feebles and enjoyed the unrated version of Caligula - even while acknowledging it's a pretty bad movie, so it's not like I'm not above enjoying weirdness in a film. It's more just in this case, it never quite hits. The horror has a couple of decent moments during the actual transformation, but once Long's in the suit (which is the kind of look that you can play well in a climax, but this is an act two reveal) it loses its shock quickly and within five minutes I was trying not to see it as a prototype Pizza the Hut cosplay. The comedy, meanwhile, falls painfully flat for a man of Smith's credits – the bulk of it being largely stale Canada humor the likes of which would make Bob & Doug McKenzie look and go “who dusted this one off?” Depp, of course, being the nadir of that collective comedic thud – sporting a Quebecois shtick that feels like a failed Inspector Clouseau audition tape and eats up a surprising amount of time just in his slow, stalled line delivery.

Oddly, the funniest (and maybe a bit sad) moment of this movie for me came in the first act when Parks recounts meeting Ernest Hemingway. There's a certain black humor to the idea of invoking an author famous for having killed himself when he ran out of ideas for stories right in the middle of a movie whose plot was literally just sort of spitballed as an odd rambling on a podcast and only went ahead as a movie because people on Twitter said they wanted it.

An idea that he has since gone on to say is now turning into a whole trilogy of Canada-themed movies, I might add.

I'm not sure if the man himself would have laughed, but I got a morbid chuckle from it.

As it is, I kind of feel bad for coming down on this as much as I do in a way. It's not like it's trying to make any grand statement like Red State was before it to really fall down over. It's mostly just trying to be a standard weird little horror comedy.
Which I would probably be able to forgive more if it wasn't for the fact the comedy left me stone-faced and the horror only occasionally connected.
Besides that, more and more I find my frustration with Smith becoming like my frustration with Adam Sandler. He's a man who has his own studio and, thanks to (at least in Smith's case) his devoted fans, he has a degree of freedom that other directors would give the first digits of their fingers for. So to see him use that power for an idea he literally just sort of thought up on the spot increases my shaking my head in utter dismay.

Kevin, I want to believe there's still a really solid movie left in you. Even with the last few lackluster films, I want to feel like you could still wow me once again.

But with Mallrats 2 and another two Canada movies coming down the pipeline, I'll admit even my faith is flagging.

The remaining five punishment movies will continue in November. Announcement to come tomorrow about this year's October run.

Till then.

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