Friday, September 19, 2014

Tusk (2014)

I've seen a ton of movies that have drawn their inspiration from novels, TV shows, comic books, video games, and even old toy lines. But for the first time, I've stumbled across a movie that came about thanks to a conversation two people had on a podcast. Specifically, it comes from episode #259 of SModcast, the podcast Kevin Smith co-hosts with longtime friend Scott Mosier. In that episode, Smith and Mosier craft a wild story around a hoax advertisement on the British website Gumtree, eventually turning their story into a pitch for a movie. I couldn't tell if their pitch was serious, but here we are, just over a year after SModcast #259 was posted online, and the release of the movie Tusk is upon us. I wasn't for sure if it was even a real movie until I sat down to actually watch a midnight screening the other night. And I'll say now what I told my friends when I stepped out into the parking lot after the movie ended: it is legitimately one of the strangest flicks I've seen theatrically.

Meet Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who, along with best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment), hosts a podcast called The Not-See Party. When they're not making fun of viral videos and the minutia of pop culture, the primary focus of the show sees Wallace travel across the globe, collecting crazy, off-the-wall stories before returning home to share these stories with Teddy. (The podcast's groan-worthy title comes from the fact that, as he stays home while Wallace travels, Teddy did not see anything Wallace tells him about.) And despite the utter silliness of the whole endeavor, The Not-See Party is a widely popular show, allowing Walter and Teddy to live comfortably off their ad revenue and merchandise sales. But the success is also going to Walter's head, much to the chagrin of his doting girlfriend Ally (Génesis Rodriguez).

As the movie begins, Wallace has lined up a trip to the suburbs of Winnipeg to interview "The Kill Bill Kid," the star of a viral video who accidentally chopped off one of his legs while goofing around with a samurai sword. But when he arrives at the kid's house, Wallace is dismayed to learn that the boy killed himself a few days earlier rather than deal with the embarrassment the video's popularity brought him.

Frustrated with the fact that he will seemingly return to America empty-handed, Wallace stumbles into a local bar and notices an odd handbill posted on a bulletin board advertising free room and board in exchange for listening to an old sailor's stories of life on the high seas. Wallace is intrigued and excited, as this could make perfect material for the show. He travels to a remote part of Manitoba, to the isolated mansion of disabled raconteur Howard Howe (Michael Parks).

Howard wows him with wild, almost unbelievable tales of high adventure, including one in which he had a run-in with Ernest Hemmingway while storming the beaches of Normandy. His most compelling story, however, is of the time he was shipwrecked and lost at sea. Near death, he was rescued and befriended by a walrus he named "Mr. Tusk." In the many decades since he last saw Mr. Tusk, Howard has endlessly longed to be reunited with his beloved companion. And reunited he hopes he will soon be, as he drugs Wallace and begins surgically altering him into as close an approximation of a walrus as he can get.

After seeing and being less that thoroughly impressed by Red State, I was initially hesitant to give Smith's second attempt at a horror movie a chance. But the concept sounded silly and the commercials looked ridiculous, something that spoke to the fan of goofy B-movies in me, so I figured what the hell, I'll check it out anyway. And while Tusk is a flawed, imperfect movie, the sheer lunacy of the movie was enough to win me over. It feels like a Troma movie with a bigger budget and less sex and gore, the kind of movie one would have seen on a video store shelf in 1989 next to worn-out VHS copies of The Toxic Avenger Part II and Night of the Creeps. And even if the movie's not as great as I'd have hoped it would have been, Tusk is still a fun time if you're in the right mood for it.

While Tusk represents some of Smith's most unique work as both a writer and as a director, the biggest problem with the movie is that Smith has a hard time blending the horrific aspects of the story with the comedy. Some movies can effectively combine scares and humor, but it is a delicate balance and not every movie succeeds at it. Tusk has a hard way to go about it because both elements work individually, but Smith doesn't really make them work together seamlessly. The mood whiplash really makes it hard for Tusk to find and sustain any real groove. I will say, though, that Smith does get a few bits and pieces right, like creating a really creepy villain and an intriguing story that shows some real promise. But the uneven shifts in tone don't really help to make Tusk anything more than a curiosity on Smith's résumé.

To his credit, though, Smith succeeds in drawing some fantastic performances out of his cast. Génesis Rodriguez is sweet and charming, while Haley Joel Osment doesn't have much to do but is still likable nonetheless. The uncredited Johnny Depp also very nearly steals the show, however, in his role as a very eccentric private detective from Quebec who assists Ally and Teddy's search for Wallace. Depp plays the character like something Eugene Levy would have done on SCTV. Depp is funny, but it's almost too much, almost too goofy for the movie. It makes it hard to take him seriously. I almost think that it could have worked out better if Depp had played the character like Robert Shaw's Quint from Jaws, or even how Donald Pleasence approached his Dr. Loomis role from Halloween. Instead, we get a funny performance from Depp, but one that nearly derails the whole movie.

But at the end of the day, Tusk belongs to Justin Long and Michael Parks. Long's character is a tremendous douchebag, a condescending prick who's let whatever miniscule fame he's gotten from his podcast go straight to his head. You just want to leap into the movie and slap the taste out of his mouth. But Long plays him in such a way that it makes him enjoyable, and when things really start going to Hell, sympathetic as well. One might want to see him get brought down a peg or two, but not at this extreme. Long makes Wallace both irritating and oddly likable at the same time, and it works.

And much like his role as the cult leader in Red State, Parks is the best villain Smith could have asked for. He never goes over-the-top with his mad scientist schtick like Dieter Lazer in The Human Centipede, instead giving his character a cool edge. His portrayal of Howard Howe is one of a man who has long since parted ways with his sanity, and enjoys the horrible indignities he forces his victim to endure, but does so in a way that gives off a vibe like Howard believes Wallace is doing him a great favor. It's creepy and off-putting, and Parks is wholly fascinating to watch.

I've read another review online that called Tusk a bizarre amalgam of The Human Centipede and Misery. I actually kind of agree with that analogy because it isn't really too far off from the truth. The only drawback is that Kevin Smith hasn't quite gotten the hang of the whole horror thing yet. He's too much of a natural comedian. Don't get me wrong, Tusk is vastly superior to Red State, so Smith is definitely improving. But it's like I said before, Tusk is just too damn goofy to take seriously. Smith has said he plans on making this the first chapter in an informal, loosely-connected trilogy similar to his "View Askewniverse," following it with Yoga Hosers (an action-adventure movie) and Moose Jaws ("Jaws with a moose," says Smith) so I'm curious to see where Smith goes from here. And as for Tusk, I did like it, but it's simply "okay" at best. After his last few movies, I'm really starting to miss Jay and Silent Bob.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Captivity (2007)

Not long after the turn of the new millennium, the horror genre embraced a fad that's come to be known as "torture porn." Bolstered by the success of the Saw franchise and Eli Roth's Hostel, these ultra-gory, ultra-sadistic movies that evolved from the splatter movies from the '70s and '80s seemingly dominated the genre during the middle part of the last decade. Their heyday has essentially come and gone, more current takes on the style usually being relegated to international productions that go direct-to-video and fly under the radar in the United States. And even now, Saw and Hostel are the only ones from that time that anyone remembers, the majority of them having been almost completely forgotten.

Take, for example, the movie Captivity. As its release in the summer of 2007 approached, its advertising campaign was met with controversy after a billboard promoting the movie was viewed as being overtly misogynistic. Joss Whedon himself was so offended by the billboard that he spearheaded an effort to have the MPAA refuse to give the movie a rating and thus stifle its theatrical release. But the controversy and the hype came and went, and seven years after it bombed at the box office, Captivity isn't even a footnote in the horror genre's history. There's a very good reason for that, too: the movie sucks.

Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) is one of the most successful fashion models on the planet, with billboards and advertisements featuring her face having become practically ubiquitous. But, if I may paraphrase the lyrics of an old Iggy Pop song, her pretty face is about to go to Hell. Someone spikes her drink while she's out partying one night and she awakens in an elaborate cell, trapped by an unknown captor. As Jennifer's anonymous kidnapper repeatedly brutalizes her both physically and emotionally, she discovers that she's not the only one trapped. In the cell next door is a man named Gary (Daniel Gillies), a drifter who has befallen the same fate as Jennifer. They try to formulate a plan for escape, but their captor has far worse things in store for them.

I'm normally okay with bad movies as long as they're fun. As long as they still manage to be entertaining in some form or fashion, I can honestly forgive a movie for not being very good. And Captivity most certainly is a bad movie. Everything about it is terrible from top to bottom, and the absolute lack of any kind of scares or tension just makes things worse. But the catch is that it's the kind of bad movie that is just a chore to get through. Had the movie been a funny kind of bad, where one could laugh at all of its cheesy faults, it would have been at least tolerable. But instead we're left with a movie that has absolutely no purpose whatsoever other than to try and make a quick buck off the hot horror trend at the time.

Helming this disaster is Roland Joffé, a two-time Oscar nominee in the ‘80s whose career pretty much tapered off in the '90s. And if you were to compare his previous work to this movie, you'd swear they were made by two different people with the same name. Captivity is dull, plodding, lifeless. It's like Joffé realized the movie was probably going to be awful no matter what he did, so he didn't bother to even try. There's no spark to anything, nothing that would make it even remotely interesting. It is, in a word, boring.

Even the scenes that are intended to gross out the audiences are more hokey than anything else. I referenced Hostel and Saw as the torchbearers of the "torture porn" movement, and even at their worst, they succeeded in eliciting a visceral reaction from their audiences. Whether you were frightened or nauseated by the blood and guts, you still had a reaction that befitted what you were seeing. But when Elisha Cuthbert's character is force-fed a glass of pureed body parts straight out of a nearby blender, all you can do is just chuckle at how ridiculous the whole thing is. You can't take it seriously because it's just too stupid to react with anything other than either laughter leading to apathy.

The story I heard is that, believe it or not, Joffé didn't get to do the final edit of the movie. Instead, it was supposedly taken away and reshot by producer Courtney Solomon. The story goes that Solomon wasn't satisfied with Captivity being a simple thriller about a young woman being imprisoned, and decided he wanted to cash in on the whole "torture porn" thing while he still could. The guy who made the Dungeons and Dragons movie (a movie so awful that it killed Thora Birch's career and nearly took Jeremy Irons with it) and the lousy ghost story An American Haunting reshot a movie made by an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker so he could add some gore. All Solomon ended up doing was turning Joffé's mediocre movie into a tragically stupid one.

And the direction isn't the only bad part of Captivity either. There's also the script, written by Larry Cohen and Joseph Tura. Cohen's name will be familiar to fans of low-budget schlock, thanks to the number of classic B-movies ― with titles like Maniac Cop, The Stuff, It's Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent ― on his résumé. But while Cohen's written some memorable movies of both the mainstream and cult varieties, Captivity isn't really one of them and for good reason. There's no story or plot to speak of; it's one of those movies where things just happen for no real rhyme or reason. It doesn't even go from Point A to Point B because there no sort of narrative path for them to follow. The movie plays along like Cohen and Tura had no endgame in mind when they wrote it. It's like they came up with a bunch of scenes yet didn't think to make them connect in any coherent way.

And on a related note, there's absolutely nothing resembling any sort of character development. The characters are so thin that calling them one-dimensional would be a disservice to other one-dimensional characters. They're so flimsy and underdeveloped that you have no reason to care about them or feel sympathy for them. They're empty shells, devoid of personality or any sort of memorable traits. One feels like Cohen and Tura didn't even try, because it comes across like they're the stand-ins for characters, the blank spaces where characters would had the writers put forth some sort of effort. But all one can do is sit back and watch in disbelief because it's hard to wrap one's head around just how vacant they are. It's like watching department store mannequins being played by flesh-and-blood people.

That leads me to the acting, the awful, awful, awful acting. I'm legitimately amazed at just how bad the acting is. It's not over-the-top, "get a load of this mess" acting like one would see in classic bad movies like Troll 2 or The Room, but a dull, phoned-in, boring kind of acting that makes that department store mannequin joke I made a few sentences ago seem all the more true to life. Elisha Cuthbert was a rising star at the time thanks to her role as Jack Bauer's daughter on the hit show 24 and movies like The Girl Next Door and House of Wax, but Captivity pretty much put a stop to all that. And even if the movie had been a runaway box office success, that wouldn't have changed the fact that Cuthbert is absolutely dreadful here. She never makes one feel any sort of sympathy for her, never makes you want to see her character escape or even care for her wellbeing. You just want the villain to hurry up and kill her in the hopes that the movie will move on to something or someone more interesting.

Daniel Gillies is just as bad, his performance being equally as laughable as Cuthbert's. He's bad enough in the role of "cheesy token romantic interest," but when a third act twist leads to him becoming more predatory, Gillies becomes more silly than intimidating. All I could do is just shrug my shoulders and ask, "Really? That's how you're approaching this?" The fact that all the scenes that follow this twist are way too stupid for me to wrap my head around doesn't help, but Gillies's awful acting just makes it worse. And when you combine that with Cuthbert's poor efforts, all one has is a great big, groan-worthy mess.

Looking back, the temporary controversy that surrounded Captivity seven years ago is actually pretty funny. People got so worked up over that one billboard, but nobody ever really said anything about the movie itself. And having seen the movie nearly a decade after the fact, it's easy to see why. Captivity is a giant pile of crap, a piss-poor attempt at cashing in on a subgenre that had been already started fading out of popularity before being summarily killed by the box office failure of Hostel: Part II just a month before Captivity hit theaters. So fast and swift was its failure that it was shuffled into the land of obscurity almost immediately. I myself had even forgotten it had existed at all until last week, when I noticed it mentioned in the Wikipedia article about the Razzie Awards. And the movie should be forgotten. Captivity is simply not worth watching or even remembering.

Final Rating: *