Justin Long

The opening night of Fantastic Fest is always a memorable event, and this year proved to be no exception. Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO, kicked off the evening with pyrotechnics and an extended rap session before introducing director Kevin Smith, who brought his “Human Centipede” remix “Tusk” to open this year’s festival. Smith pledged to retire from film after self-distributing the insufferably self-important “Red State,” but “Tusk” is a welcome improvement and a promising revitalization for the director.

The film was notoriously conceived on one of Smith’s many podcasts, and Justin Long fittingly stars as Wallace, a podcaster who travels the country interviewing social misfits and Internet video stars. When Wallace travels to Canada for an interview, only to have it fall apart at the last minute, he is desperate to come home with a story. Luckily, he stumbles upon Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a secluded old man who promises tales of a life of adventure. Howe has other plans, though, and Wallace soon finds himself a captive to a psychopath with one plan of action: to turn his new roommate into a walrus.

It’s an unabashedly absurd premise, and Smith deserves commendation for bringing his film’s concept to its grotesque logical end point. The film packs some truly unsettling imagery — and spectacular make-up effects from Robert Kurtzman — and even flirts with genuine social commentary, a first for the generally low-brow Smith. Although “Tusk” entertains throughout, the film occasionally drags, and it’s hard not to notice that the plot hinges on a series of coincidences, at best, and utter gaps in logic, at worst. 

Smith assembled a bold cast, led by Parks, one of the most reliable supporting actors in the business. Parks is hypnotizing as Howe, a lonely man with a lifetime of stories and regrets, and, even as the film delves into seriously bizarre territory, Parks keeps things on the rails. Long initially comes off as brash and unlikable, but his terrified work as he transitions from human to walrus is remarkable and disturbing. Meanwhile, an age-ravaged Haley Joel Osment is utterly distracting as Wallace’s podcasting partner, and Genesis Rodriguez is unmemorable as Wallace’s long-suffering girlfriend. 

At the post-film Q&A, Smith confirmed plans to make a trilogy of films set in Canada, kicking off with “Tusk” and ending with “Moose Jaws,” which is exactly what it sounds like. While “Tusk” is an imperfect work, predictably flabby with dialogue on occasion, it’s a promising start to a new phase in Smith’s career. 

Opening night of Fantastic Fest concluded with a double feature of raucously entertaining sequels: “The ABCs of Death 2” and “Dead Snow 2.” “ABCs” is an anthology of horror shorts, with 26 directors helming 26 methods of demise in alphabetical order. While the first film delighted in a disgusting variety of bodily fluids, the sequel reins in the fart jokes and ups the tension and creativity, resulting in a vastly improved product. With segments in a variety of languages and formats — one of the most memorable is a nightmarish stop-motion piece — “ABCs of Death 2” has a far-from-perfect batting average but remains engaging and entertaining throughout.

Meanwhile, “Dead Snow 2” builds on the original film’s Nazi zombie premise by introducing an army of Russian zombies who are destined to meet in the extended climactic battle. That should tell you everything you need to know about the film, which has plenty of blood, guts and even a small helping of brains. Martin Starr brings the laughs in his small supporting role, but Vegar Hoel is fantastically brawny as the unflappable lead character.

Photo courtesy of AdScott Pictures.

The classics of modern comedy are almost universally male-driven — “Caddyshack,” “Vacation” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” are all films defined by their male leads, and the women are usually relegated to the position of love interest. However, the success of last year’s “Bridesmaids” proved there is just as much potential for a quality comedy dominated by female leads. “For a Good Time, Call ...” continues that trend with its affecting examination of female friendship.

Co-writer Lauren Anne Miller stars as the thinly disguised Lauren Powell, a tightly wound girl whose boyfriend leaves her with an apartment she can’t afford and a life in shambles. Enter Katie (Ari Graynor), the audacious girl who once threw a cup of urine into Lauren’s face at a college party (an encounter detailed in a broad, funny flashback). Ten years later, the two get off to an understandably rocky start when mutual friend Jesse (Justin Long) sets them up in Katie’s over-sized, over-priced apartment. After Lauren discovers that Katie is a phone sex operator, her business acumen kicks in and the two start to build a bond as their unconventional venture becomes massively successful.

Miller wrote the film with her best friend, Katie Anne Naylon, whose real-life experience as a phone sex operator gives the film tons of comedic material to work with. “For a Good Time, Call ...” is often very funny, and the phone sex scenes are its most overtly comedic. Graynor handles these moments with unapologetic boldness, and her fearless, perfectly honed delivery makes it clear that she is a truly distinct comedienne. A few choice cameos (including one from Miller’s beau Seth Rogen) make each sexual interlude distinct, but what truly stands out is how Graynor runs the show, even when she’s talking to some of the most prevalent voices in modern comedy.

While its comedic side is strong, “For a Good Time, Call ...” truly shines when it’s focusing on Katie and Lauren’s budding friendship. As Graynor and Miller slowly fall into the easy rapport that comes with being best friends, Miller’s script takes on genuine emotional resonance. While both leads have romantic interests, the film is really a romance between two friends. While that certainly makes for a few predictable notes, the strong chemistry between the central duo helps to disguise the fact that “For a Good Time, Call ...” has the same structure as any other romantic comedy.

Also worth mentioning is Long’s baffling, scene-stealing performance as Jesse, the duo’s gay best friend. It’s a role that could have come across as extremely stereotypical, but Long throws himself into it with such vigor that it’s impossible not to laugh every time he’s on screen. Mark Webber is an actor I’m not very familiar with, but his work as a customer of Graynor’s takes a character that’s creepy on the page and makes him unexpectedly sweet. It’s a nuanced, earnestly romantic performance from Webber, and his scenes with Graynor have tangible chemistry, even when they’re merely bantering on the phone.

“For a Good Time, Call…” almost certainly won’t have the cultural impact of “Bridesmaids,” because its subject matter isn’t as accessible and because its stars don’t have the bullet-train comedic efficiency of Kristin Wiig. Nonetheless, it’s an easy-going, undeniably entertaining examination of female friendship, and its often-hilarious script makes it a painless use of 90 minutes.