Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: February

body-snatchers-78

  1. Tron: Legacy (2010) – Dir. Joseph Kosinski
  2. The Congress (2013) – Dir. Ari Folman
  3. 88 (2015) – Dir. April Mullen
  4. Aberration (1997) – Dir. Tim Boxell
  5. Robocop (2014) – Dir. Jose Padilha
  6. The Last Exorcism (2010) – Dir. Daniel Stamm
  7. Inland Empire (2006) – Dir. David Lynch
  8. War of the Worlds (1953) – Dir. Byron Haskin
  9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Dir. Philip Kaufman
  10. Power/Rangers (2015) – Dir. Joseph Kahn
  11. Housebound (2014) – Dir. Gearard Johnstone
  12. Das Boot: Director’s Cut (1981) – Dir. Wolfgang Petersen

Year to Date: 26

Power/Rangers

power-rangers

Joseph Kahn’s short experiment with franchising (as with his features) functions like guerrilla warfare. Power/Rangers dropped unexpectedly, and left those in its vicinity–primarily adults, curious about this latest take on something from their childhood–shocked and perplexed. Many seem to take it at face value, its grimdark tone and the often stilted attempts at “mature” dialogue (the F-bombs, James Van Der Beek’s insinuations Katee Sackhoff’s Pink Ranger is promiscuous, how an ethical question is posed about the Power Rangers as a concept but left to hang) all tonally consistent with similar, real-deal efforts like Christopher Nolan’s Batman or Michael Bay’s Transformers. Yet, little scripting/directorial choices tiptoe around the idea this is an Andy Kaufman-esque gag: the Black Ranger snorting coke and having threesomes; comic relief dimwits Bulk and Skull being junkies living in a trailer park; Green Ranger’s scowl and growl as he says “Who are you?”; the exaggerated blood spurts. Everything based on a juvenile sense of maturity. The impression I get is Kahn enjoying seeing how far he can go with a concept, while everyone else scratches their heads. Why else do a fan movie?

Meta-textual examinations aside, Power/Rangers is fun. Fights are blocked low and wide, absorbing the Rangers in their moment. The only times Kahn cuts away from the big picture is to emphasize gruesome kills (the Black Ranger seems especially fond of turning opponents’ weapons back on them, as when he stabs a gangster in the head with his own dagger). The rest of the film toys around with drifting camera motion and match cuts, surfaces touched by intrusive lighting and holographic displays, and a score composed of Sega Genesis beats. It begs the question of what we want and get out of adapting our nostalgia, then pushes those things to absurdity and revels.

Anything You Say May Be Used Against You

robocop2014 This year’s Razzie awards got me thinking about Jose Padilha’s Robocop remake. This is because it got zero nominations, despite being the most dull and inept piece of filmmaking from a big-budget Hollywood production I’ve seen in years. Picking apart the script, and the way the movie strips out all semblance of nuance, characterization, or subtext Paul Verhoeven’s original film had, is easy. Too easy, yet it’s honestly no worse in this regard than the original’s two sequels. However, the one area in which the movie spectacularly fails is its action sequences. The movie is slick but weightless, gunfights shot in jittery camera angles and edited to cut away from any sort of impact, especially when New Robocop gets around to using actual guns instead of a taser (way more than an hour into the film). This highlights the stark difference between the films.

’87 Robocop is a violent movie, depicting bodies ripped apart by gunfire and blood spurting every which way. It’s a film as much about violence as it is about showing violence. I first watched it in the impressionable 5-10 year range, because my parents are awesome. As much as I loved the movie as a kid (and still love), however, the violence stuck with me in a manner I found unsettling. Every time I watch it, to this day, I always forget just how gruesome it gets and flinch. There’s an ongoing discussion here in America about violent media desensitizing people to violence. That exposure to fictional violence actually makes children more likely to commit violent acts themselves later in life. My own experience is, statistically, negligible, but I’ve found the more grotesque the violence depicted, the more often I feel repulsed by it (even when I’m finding it compelling material to watch). Alex Murphy’s death in Verhoeven’s Robocop acts like a snuff film. You’re watching a man executed by firing squad, the force of the rapid, repeated impacts severing his arm at one point, Murphy’s face contorted in agony. The noise is deafening, a wall of sound closing around the eardrums unless the volume is turned way down. This isn’t violence in service to plot, this is showing what the effect of that violence looks like. This carries forward through the rest of the film: when Robocop confronts Clarence Boddicker’s gang in the drug factory, Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from what his hero’s super-loud, rapid-fire pistol does to his targets. We’re watching a wrecking ball in action, and people are broken in its wake. Far from desensitized, there’s a sense of actions having consequences. Verhoeven is eating his cake and having it, too, with a violent hero elevated to iconic status, but he never downplays what that violence is.

’14 Robocop is all posture, though. When a “major” character (insofar as any of the people in the movie portray one) is killed off in a play on ’87’s factory raid, the sequence is cut so fast–the death seems to be in a place unrelated to where the guy was two frames prior–it looks like a faceless goon is killed instead. This is a guy Robocop devotes himself to hunting down and it plays like nothing of importance happened (hell, I thought the guy escaped). And while ’14 Alex Murphy had a gruesome fate, it was mostly offscreen (he’s crippled in an explosion, which is barely shown) and has no connection to any portrayed violence. These aren’t human beings torn asunder by instruments of murder, but pieces of cardboard knocked down in a carnival shooting gallery (the sound effects for the guns even sound like children’s toys). In addition to just plain sloppy action directing, there’s a further sense nothing these people do has an effect on the people they do it to. Nobody bleeds. And nobody can fault the studio-desired PG-13 rating for this either: the rating was created because of a heart being pulled out of a chest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; more recently, Batman broke Sal Maroni’s leg by dropping him off a fire escape in The Dark Knight (a scene which evoked audible discomfort in the audience both times I saw it in theaters). Violence, when depicted properly, is a sensory experience, and often an uncomfortable one. If nothing is felt, if the audience is desensitized, it’s because the filmmakers don’t care if you feel something, which worries me more than whether a five-year old sees someone’s hand blown off.

Future Events Such As These Will Effect You In the Future

criswell-predicts

  • 2018: Mass production of civilian drones begins in earnest. Microcycles–single-wheeled motorcycles intended to ease urban congestion–begin commercial use, primarily among delivery services. American military invasions of the Middle East become routine to the point of seasonal coverage along the lines of tornadoes and hurricanes; debate sparks in Congress over what naming system should be used for all future wars (Republicans in favor of names of Presidents, Democrats in favor of names of civil rights leaders).
  • 2019: Apple enters the civilian drone market with its new iSpy. Promises their drones will be able to monitor data on all Apple-linked devices within a ten-mile radius. Can also tell you the best routes to the nearest store. Foots is a hit TV show in America, earning all time greatest ratings ever.
  • 2021: Microcycles become cheaper, raising their availability. Rumors of microcycle gangs in major cities also rise. Near-light speed travel accidentally invented by Swiss researcher studying gravitational fluctuation. Apple releases iSpy 4, promises to work on “bug” which allowed NSA to gain access to millions of Americans’ shopping data.
  • 2024: Doctor in Kansas discovers mutation in a child, caused by contraction of swine flu by the mother during pregnancy, which causes psychic abilities. More cases reported soon after. A blast occurs for the second time in Tunguska, Russia, speculated cause is gas.
  • 2029: Detroit, Michigan leveled by psychic shockwave of unprecedented strength. The expected invasion of the Middle East that year, Operation Andrew Jackson, diverts from Uzbekistan to Jordan on accusations of harboring psychic terrorists.
  • 2030: First colony on Mars updates via social networking site Twitter on the discovery of oil. Space programs the world over are subsequently privatized, the prevailing forerunners being Nagamiti Industrial and Hammer Solutions (despite neither company having prior experience in rocket technology or space travel).
  • 2035: New Detroit Metro completes first wave of construction; experimental robot police malfunction on first day. Budget talks stall government in the United States, though private firms contracted by them still manage to receive funding.
  • 2038: Nice, France reports UFO sighting, cause is said to be gas. Private security firm XSVE destroys most of Afghanistan and Pakistan while supporting Operation Chester A. Arthur, despite the AO being Syria. No one charged.
  • 2042: Microcycle gang violence reported to be stalling Phase 3 of New Detroit Metro’s construction, as are protests against Emergency Manager Harry Harmon’s gutting of city services to add a third layer to the Rick Snyder Expressway. China prepares mech army for war against Australia.
  • 2046: Hong Kong declares “no take backs” during official reconciliation with mainland China, activates secret engineering project which moves island just into international waters.
  • 2047: Nagamiti Industrial takes lead in private Mars race, getting its first shuttle into orbit around the Earth. Celebration includes influx of bailout money from UN members to the flagging program.
  • 2048: Combat breaks out in New Detroit Metro between anarchists, XSVE, and microcycle gangs. Cause unknown, but psychic activity confirmed. Troops withdraw after three days of fighting and an inexplicable [redacted] Seasonal invasion of the Middle East delayed two months.
  • 2050: Leaked documents reveal [redacted], but are quickly suppressed by the CIA.
  • 2053: Government and private donors in China, India, and Germany take charge in getting privatized race to Mars back on track following news Nagamiti Industrial and Hammer Solutions used the previous bailout money to give executives bonuses. No one charged.
  • 2058: Semi-privatized space race takes off, with Martian colonists leaving Earth orbit. United States dismantle remnants of its space program in favor of contracting military and colonial envoys with corporate shuttles. First craft arrive in 9 months, on account of instability in near-light speed engines. Jetpacks finally get around to commercial use.
  • 2061: War breaks out on Mars between Nagamiti Industrial and Hammer Solutions over claim to ice caps. Rumor spreads of [redacted] forming their own nation on Earth’s moon after lights are spotted on its surface. Official explanation is gas.
  • 2064 Fighting on Mars settles, just as Earth-based sympathizers for each faction declare war on one another following news of atrocities in small outposts. New post-human mutation discovered, of biomechanical nature. Drunk jetpacking incidents on the rise.
  • 2067: Fighting on Earth stops as news of atrocities committed there reach Mars, leading to reignited conflict. Another post-human strain discovered, marked by luminescent veins. [Redacted] said to be spreading beyond solar system.
  • 2074: American government cancels seasonal invasion of the Middle East upon data from probes revealing oil on Pluto; diverts $1.3 trillion towards aggressive expansion of semi-private, near-light speed travel. Apple folds after iSpy 23s are “liberated” by [redacted], a loss of billions of dollars the company never recovers from.
  • 2080: Post-human mutations begin to multiply, on Earth and throughout the solar system, including one which is isolated to a single man in Siberia who subsists solely on snowflakes.
  • 2084: Parts of Oregon and Seattle burn in fire attributed to psychics. War on Mars stops for three weeks, starts again just because.
  • 2090: America elects Danny McGee, CEO of minor technology firm Allfather, Inc., to the Presidency. Ojibwa Nation declares New Detroit Metro the seat of their new, sovereign nation, though nobody notices at first.
  • 2091: President McGee pushes through sweeping legislation in Congress granting his office a lifetime term; in the process, Allfather, Inc. absorbs several private firms with which the government had subcontracted its space exploration and colonization, and severs contracts with those too large to be taken over. First debates on whether or not post-humans qualify for rights held at the UN.
  • 2102: Martian War I finally ends in the Olympus Max Accord; details of the agreement, including who actually won the war, are rendered indecipherable by esoteric legal speak and triumphant speeches given by leaders of both sides.
  • 2107: Ore mining operations spread outside the solar system for the first time. New Detroit Metro officially recognized for its sovereignty, despite President McGee’s later protestations he “had his fingers crossed.” [Redacted] are reported to be perfecting faster-than-light travel. Martian War II begins.
  • 2115: XSVE files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy after merger talks with Hammer Solutions break down. Saudi Arabian researchers aboard space station orbiting Jupiter create first sustainable wormhole; probe sent through reveals Earth-like planet in Andromeda galaxy. Martian War II concludes with a second accord at Olympus Max, still no idea who won.
  • 2127: Martian diaspora begins. Reports of first signs of alien civilization on planets outside the solar system dismissed as gas. Allfather, Inc. buys out wormhole research.
  • 2139: Psychics reportedly spotted on Pluto. U.S. government moves nation’s capital to Space Force One, a station orbiting Jupiter; President McGee promises “New wave of freedom.”
  • 2152: Nagamiti Industrial successfully completes wormhole travel ahead of Allfather, Inc.’s announced benchmark. A middle manager for Allfather, Inc. charged with treason and executed.
  • 2156: Colonial expansion pushes well beyond solar system. [Redacted] spotted by Nagamiti outpost in the Andromeda galaxy. Earth population now down to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Religious war breaks out in the skies of D’Artagnan, an exoplanet colonized by Hindus, Irish Catholics and Shinjinetics–an offshoot of Shinto believing gods reside in DNA and paying tribute will unlock physical perfection.
  • 2160: Europa inexplicably falls from Jupiter’s orbit. Unrelated, United States moves Space Force One to Saturn. Post-human subversives engage in terrifying wave of graffiti across Pluto.
  • 2165: Alien civilization finally confirmed after small-scale mining company Noquest razes a valley, pulverizing two villages of vegetation-like octopods in the process. No one charged, official joint explanation from UN and US for the devastation is an accident caused by gas.
  • 2169: [Redacted]
  • 2172: President McGee passes away after ingesting a triple bacon cheeseburger, at the age of 153. Vice-President Corey McGee (no relation) sworn in as President and CEO of Allfather, Inc., declares his office falls under lifetime term clause, cancelling expected election; protests suppressed with police violence. Business resumes as usual.
  • 2189: More star-spawn deaths following Noquest’s continued drilling in their territory; President McGee sends village a box of President McGee dolls as condolence. [Redacted] continue to spread throughout the known universe.
  • 2199: Envoy to the former United States capital reveals all traces of American government had left some time ago, and the land reclaimed by loose coalition of socialists, anarchists, Native American tribes, post-humans, and other people who remained on Earth. No one notices the lack of economic structure. Canada still exists.
  • 2202: Attempt to recapture American motherland fails due to cost-cutting measures leaving only a force of scab workers with few rights using substandard equipment and working under higher stress. Remnants of different alien civilization discovered near Alpha Centauri. North Korea claims to have bomb which blows up sunlight, revealed to be a disco ball.
  • 2204: Star-spawn declare war on Noquest following destruction of third village; U.S. and allies intervene, devastating the indigenous beings and assuming ownership of their lands. No one remotely expected to be charged.
  • 2206: News reaches Earth of genocide of star-spawn (purportedly through means of psychics and [redacted]); Ojibwa Nation and allies gather to declare war on United States. Foots: The Final Voyage concludes the long-running TV series, watched by everyone in the American Space Colonies.

The Most Promise of Things to Come

Tron 2 is polarized by its strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue is almost entirely exposition, leaving grander ideas about evolution, perfection, contradiction, openness and security hung on mere plot points. Joseph Kosinski had only done commercials up to this point, which shows in his obsession with surfaces: he frequently frames actors inside circles and octagons (either the disc weapons or various openings in The Grid); images reflected in mirrors, windows, or obsidian visors are a motif. There’s also a genuine love of European electronica and 80s aesthetic, with Daft Punk supplying a score which evokes Tangerine Dream’s hauntingly beautiful synths as much as it does Hans Zimmer’s percussion. It all hangs on a script too busy explaining itself and dropping sequel hints–the actors are game to punch it up, but it still comes across dry. The makings of a great director are here, but Kosinski is either too constrained by studio politics or not sharp enough to coalesce his imagery and the script into something more than its parts.

Despite these faults, Tron: Legacy does something interesting: a hundred-plus million dollar tentpole structured like The Terminator. That is, a simple pursuit thriller occurring over a short period of time. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has to get himself, his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges), and friendly program Quorra (Olivia Wilde) out of The Grid before a portal closes, trapping them with hyper-fascist CLU (Bridges, badly CG-ed to look like his 80s self). CLU’s attempted invasion of the real world, through the same portal, is treated as a complication (albeit lethal). The course of human evolution (and its digital counterpart) is at stake, but only experienced through the lens of something simple yet urgent. This is taut and occasionally exciting, where similarly franchise-obsessed blockbusters often seem bloated and listless.

Unsurprisingly, Kosinski turns in his strongest work during action sequences. The above scene, where Sam recovers Quorra and a MacGuffin while Kevin secures transportation, plays like a statement about the characters and their ideologies. CLU, being a nostalgia relic, seems pulled from the 80s: charismatic and psychotically indifferent, he’s spent a lifetime wrestling lesser personalities into submission, then stamping any further resistance under his boot. He’s backed by agile, lethal subordinates, including a corrupted Tron (christened “Rinzler”). Under them are waves of stiff-faced mooks marching in formation, cannon fodder their only purpose. Sam, Kevin, and Quorra (eventually Tron himself) represent a different sort of collective, which values spontaneity and individuality. Kosinski tracks them as personalities: Kevin breaks his Zen master hippie routine by thumping a goon on the head, Sam uses Tron/Rinzler’s own two-disc attack against him and Quorra watches, biding her time to strike even while cuffed and “helpless.” The three take turns saving each other (Sam’s “Made it” is a callback to Quorra’s equally daring rescue of him), naturally becoming components of a whole. For a film this steeped in franchising, these hints of what kind of director Kosinski can be show the most promise of things to come.

Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: January

  1. The Guest (2014) – Dir. Adam Wingard
  2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
  3. The Heat (2013) – Dir. Paul Feig
  4. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
  5. Tusk (2014) – Dir. Kevin Smith
  6. Cam2Cam (2014) – Dir. Joel Soisson
  7. The Runaways (2010) – Dir. Floria Sigismondi
  8. The Running Man (1987) – Dir. Paul Michael Glaser
  9. The French Connection (1971) – Dir. William Friedkin
  10. Heat (1995) – Dir. Michael Mann
  11. Pompeii (2014) – Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
  12. Blackhat (2015) – Dir. Michael Mann
  13. The Damned (2013) – Dir. Victor Garcia
  14. Apocalypse Now (1979) – Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Blackhat

 

blackhat

With Michael Mann’s switch towards digital cinematography following his 1995 epic Heat, and his obsession with technology and surveillance, it was probably inevitable he would make a film about hacking. Blackhat is that movie. A nuclear plant in China and a Chicago exchange get hacked, and a joint U.S./Chinese task force brings in convicted hacker Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) to help track the culprit.

Mann stresses the lethality of networked living, with government agencies and decentralized criminals able to gain access to information. Hemsworth’s team bullies its way to access stock portfolios, the group they chase manage to slip a tracker on their pursuers’ vehicle. Both watch each other through abstracted form–Blackhat‘s version of a stakeout revolves around staring at a bank account on a screen. Mann also takes the inert visual of writing code on keyboards and makes it as dynamic as his gunfights (which are also present): early cyber-attacks follow along cables and modem lights, exposing the guts of an intangible world; smart phones, computer screens, and flash drives are given closeups stressing their blocky, monolithic design. Hacks, especially when Hemsworth starts taking action, are put together like heist films rather than the magic wand they’re often portrayed as (Mann’s love of process at work). In flesh and blood scenes, cameras are often tightly focused over an actor’s shoulder as they glance around their oppressive surroundings, aware they could be watched at any moment from any angle. Blackhat is full of palpable, jittery paranoia. It’s a movie you drink in.

The Strength of Heart Required to Face Oneself Has Been Made Manifest

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 drops this year, so I’ve been playing through Persona 4 (having only played Persona 3, previously). Atlus’ spinoff RPG series, or at least the PS2 entries which have broadened its popularity, seems something of a meeting ground between the grinding battles and flashy melodrama common to Japanese RPGs and the Choose Your Own Adventure narratives favored in the West. Stories are structured on a daily basis: player protagonists (mostly mute, save for dialog prompts) transfer to a small town and find themselves in a psychological/supernatural high school drama. These elements are then investigated using the power of “Persona, creatures of myth and folklore representing the psychological states of various characters, which can be summoned into battle. Players strengthen their Persona through combating “Shadows” (creatures which exist in another world and threaten people) and by developing relationships in their new surroundings.

Atlus hones in on this latter part, constructing incremental vignettes where protagonists meet students or townsfolk, become friends with them, and help them through some personal turmoil over various encounters. There’s an instructional, aspirational quality to this: protagonists in both P3 and P4 are seen as lonely, introverted types who must reach out. Attributes like “intelligence”, “courage”, and others are built up through rigorous study and practice, often needing to be a certain level themselves before being able to converse with others (while a fine friendship simulator, the gamification of modern living gets a bit queasy when either installment attempts romance[s]). In the narrative, this takes shape as the protagonist and a peer group of students taking it upon themselves to use their special abilities to defeat the Shadows, mainly in secret.

Like the superhero narratives this resembles, there’s a paradoxical mistrust of authority implied here, even as the games promote harmonious social responsibility. Persona 3‘s team are explicitly cleaning up a mess made by their elders (and are betrayed by a mentor) which has left Shadows to secretly terrorize a city for decades. Persona 4‘s, meanwhile, see police as, at best, unable to handle the supernatural nature of the serial murder mystery at the heart of the narrative or, at worst, too incompetent to–though they prove useful in helping gather clues (a young detective who often, inadvertently leaks details of the case to the teens). In both, teachers and principals are quirky, fragmented personalities, often too concerned with their own interests to assist outside of preparing their students for exams.

What makes all this compelling is the momentum. Days progress at a steady clip, often with scripted events and dialogue prompts. Typical RPG elements–exploration, combat, acquiring items–are limited to after school, where players choose whether to go into the Shadows’ world or strengthen their attributes/relationships through scripted sub-events. Similarly choice-obsessed developers like Bioware and Obsidian have typically placed a premium on freedom, allowing players time to make their choices (notably, the Mass Effect series and Alpha Protocol, which break this mold, came well after Persona 3). Atlus forces players to prioritize and manage their time. The system these teens live in may be busted, but they have to operate in and navigate around it to become stronger, more capable.

The Runaways

Biopics, especially music biopics, follow so rigid a structure, it’s easy to assume they’re manufactured. Highlights are covered: formation, the rise to stardom, in-fighting and complications (often drug use), the fall and return–messy, complicated life reduced to a five-act structure. Discussions of these movies tend to revolve around how well actors imitate the people they’re portraying, rather than anything said about the subject. Almost as much as superhero movies (especially Marvel superhero movies), authorial voice is flattened out into product. Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways operates in this milieu, but is aggressive against the form, its director refusing to be silenced.

Using 16mm, Sigismondi recreates the sun-blasted grime of 70s L.A. City streets are blinding orange, nightclubs flood with hazy red. The camera whips and zooms, pans and tracks, energy as unsettled as the Runaways’ music. Narrative focus is split between singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), drawn together into rock history. Their counterpoint is producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, sleazing it up). He regards the band as a gimmick to exploit, mock, degrade, and pit against each other. Cherie is a favorite target, building her up as the jailbait face of the group (he arranges a leering photoshoot), before dismissing her as a diva who does what he tells her to do. After the break up, he remarks in an interview: “In a few years, they’ll all be living in a trailer park in the valley. Fat, pregnant and happy as fleas on a dog.”

Sigismondi seems especially mindful of her leads–Fanning, the former child star growing up; Stewart, the female face of the blockbuster YA franchise Twilight, who’d rather do real acting. Neither taken seriously as actors in the public forum, only as commodities due to youth, gender, and appearance. The expectation is they play the characters which made them famous. Here, they get to grow. Rebel. Shout “fuck” and piss on an asshole’s guitar for slagging them. More importantly, they survive and succeed despite a system pushing them to failure.

Currie is introduced during her first period, outside a burger joint, the camera closed in on Fanning’s leg as blood trails down. Fanning plays her as restrained, back always straightened and poised (mimicking Tatum O’Neal as Cherie’s overbearing, image conscious mother). She regards the Runaways as a gig, a performance, a chance to grow herself as an individual outside her troubled family life. Consequently, as her commitment increases, she all but neglects her sister and alcoholic father. Currie’s own descent into addiction becomes poignant within the biopic cliches.

The film’s achievement, though, is Stewart as Jett. All leather and business, Stewart prowls and observes. Her statements are direct, intentions clear, and focus precise, upsetting men who expect her to be submissive and demure like Bella Swan: upon seeing Fowley, Joan abandons a pouty boy toy to pitch for an all-girl rock band. She seems an actual runaway, too: her only life outside the band seems to be teen friends she lounges and parties with.

It’s clear Sigismondi is infatuated with Joan. Cherie has to grow, learn, struggle to pick herself back up, but her road is truncated and dumped in an end-film caption. Her survival matters, and is communicated to Joan in a touching phone call, but Jett pushes forward. She pulls herself out of a funk, picks up a guitar in her bedroom, and jams out “I Love Rock and Roll.” The joy of playing, her own edification, given more weight than the world which seeks to diminish her.

Tusk

As low-budget, intentional schlock goes, Tusk fares better than Kevin Smith’s previous outing, Red State. Slightly. Both movies are meandering, jokey affairs, content to revolve around Michael Parks chewing scenery as he explains away the conceits behind his nightmarish actions rather than showing them. Tusk feels especially cheap: rooms are stage-lit, James Laxton often failing to incorporate ambient sources (lamps, candles, a fireplace) in his photography, treating them as mere set decoration. Howard Howe (Parks)–the loquacious madman who kidnaps and mutilates Justin Long’s podcaster jerk in an attempt to turn man into walrus–isn’t a tactile threat, creeping from his surroundings, but a theatrical performance, on display for our amusement.

Parks delivers hammy monologues, often about the horrible nature of mankind, laced with poetic and literary references. Insanity aside, Howard is a more erudite version of Randall from Clerks, quick with the snark whenever Wallace (Long, the Dante here, I suppose) says something crude. Smith sure is fascinated with him. Attempts at any filmmaking more complicated than a closeup or a wide shot are rare. During the trans-species operation, where Howard recounts abuses he suffered as an orphan, Smith cuts away to diagrams and medical instruments and amputated limbs, always coming back to Parks’ face. At its conclusion, Smith zooms out, feasting the eyes on the grotesque (yet silly) walrus-man Howard has created, Parks excitedly bellowing. Once Parks enters the film, he becomes the closest thing to a tether.

Elsewhere, Smith’s conservative direction stops the film dead. Dialogues give way to monologues give way to flashbacks of dialogues. A Celebrity Cameo (played by Johnny Depp) rambles in a bad impersonation of a French accent. A girlfriend (Genesis Rodríguez) tearfully laments Long’s descent into crass exploitation and infidelity (curiously, the only vile behavior of his not shown, even as she uses it to justify cheating on him). Haley Joel Osment lingers around the edges as a half-used subplot device. The only thing Smith can think of for these people is to fumble about with dick jokes and Canadian stereotypes. Horror and comedy are out of sync, as if from two completely different films.

The only throughline seems to be a general contempt for humanity shared with Howard. All the more baffling when Smith attempts to backpedal this theme in the third act, with a speech (of course) about crying making people better than animals. It’s a false note, though: Smith shows Long, flopping about in his lumpy walrus suit, tongue cut out, screaming like an animal. His friends are shocked upon discovering him. A shotgun is drawn, the mercy killing end of David Cronenberg’s The Fly come again. Cut to a year later, and Long is instead given an unnecessarily cruel fate. Ironically, this moment of (Intended? Hard to tell) narrative incompetence becomes the only funny part of Tusk.