(On Cable TV, June 2015) The good thing about today’s movie universe is that it has never been easier for just about any determined filmmaker to grab decent-quality filmmaking equipment and shoot their own movies. This also works for experienced filmmakers, who can indulge their creative urges with smaller projects for specific audiences. Sadly, this is also making it harder to stop projects that maybe shouldn’t have been completed. So it is that Kevin Smith can riff off a ridiculous premise in a podcast and, months later, complete a project based on that rant, about a hapless podcaster being tortured into becoming a walrus for a madman’s own purposes. The wonders of modern filmmaking! Of course, the problem for end-result Tusk is that even though it tries hard to be a comedy/horror hybrid, it’s neither funny nor scary. Just gross and pitiful, with a big side-order of boring. Justin Long is neither good nor bad as the protagonist: while Long-the-actor is naturally likable, his character is obnoxious enough to shut down any nascent sympathy for his fate. Tusk is self-aware enough to have joke casting (such as having Johnny Depp in a supporting role without crediting him, or featuring Depp’s and Smith’s daughters in small roles), but as with most of the film’s characteristics, the final result is slight enough as to make everything seem pointless. If Tusk had been a better film, I would have a few nice things to say about the dialogue, the fractured chronology, some directorial choices or Michael Parks’ performance. But it’s pointless, grotesque and interminable even at 90 minutes. Even the Canadian content left me less than enthusiastic (the badly-translated French doesn’t help). I’m not opposed to dumb midnight-movies, but Tusk is not a good example of the form. And if Kevin Smith’s career is headed in the direction of increasingly-hermetic fan-service goofs, then I’m happy to let him go there and never look again; after all there are plenty of other filmmakers doing far more interesting things with the means at their disposal.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) With every new Kevin Smith movie, it becomes harder and harder to remember why I liked his first few movies. It may have been the sheer novelty of the sharp irreverent dialogue (at a time where this wasn’t as commonplace) coupled with the conspicuously lousy directing. But Red State is so far from the example set by his earlier better movies that Smith’s name as a director is now more cause for a double-take than anything else. A dull and unpleasant departure in C-grade thriller-land, Red State doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and becomes less and less pleasant the longer it goes on. What looks at first like a cautionary tale about the dangers of Internet hook-ups quickly turns into an interminable sermon about right-wing conservatism, followed by yet another siege film in which the government agents play the trigger-happy just-as-bad guys. This Westboro-meets-Waco setup is pointless enough, but what makes it even less interesting is the sadism through which the characters are mowed down, the violent one-note caricature of the cult and the pointless resolution cloaked in anti-government clichés. Some actors manage to do good work: Michael Angarano could have been the protagonist of the film had it been better-conceived, John Goodman almost manages to acquit himself honorably and for all of the interminable duration of his monologues, Michael Parks is curiously compelling at the bloodthirsty cult leader. Smith’s direction has gotten better over the years but not that much better, and Red State‘s naturalistic atmosphere feels uglier than anything else, not exceeding the standards set by most Direct-to-Video thrillers. You can see the gleeful iconoclasm behind some of the film’s initial intentions, but the execution is simply too dull to be effective, and the film spares no time turning its audience against itself. As unpleasant as it is, rumors about an alternate rapturous ending as originally scripted would have made the film even worse, so I suppose we have that to be thankful about. Still, there is no excuse for the lengthy sermon scene or the trigger-happy violence. Where has Smith’s gift for witty dialogue, sympathetic characters or comic set-pieces gone? He keeps threatening retirement, and after Red State it’s easy to look forward to him keeping his promises.