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Thursday, Jun 14, 2007


Maybe it’s the pounding heat. It could be the lackluster offerings at the local Cineplex. It might even be the initial salvo in mainstream moviemaking’s ultimate demise – at least, in the manner as we presently know it now. Yet is seems that as 2007 stumbles along, the entertainment options available to the public are getting less and less impressive. Just look at the choices arriving on your favorite pay cable service. While Cinemax finally steps up and delivers on its popcorn movie promise, the rest of the titles are tried and true attempts to capitalize on certain waning genres. Indeed, unless you wander beyond the scope of the premium movie networks, the midyear malaise will probably hit you too. Being adventurous and thinking outside the idiot box may be the only way to avoid the Summer’s sameness. For those who are brave of heart and stout of constitution, here’s what you can look forward to on 16 June:


Premiere Pick
Superman Returns


It’s all Bryan Singer’s fault. In fact, that’s not fair. Actually, it’s the fault of frothing fanboys who have, somehow, turned this journeyman director into some kind of blockbuster god. Thanks to his earnest, if not completely successful take on the entire X-Men mythos (including bringing their superhero wardrobe up to contemporary snuff), he was handed the prized pig of comic book franchises – the revamp of the waning Superman series. At first, it seemed like he had the proper perspective for the project. He ignored all the recent graphic novel hoopla and went right back to the original films. But when his casting was revealed – Brandon Who as the Man of Steel? Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane?  - it appeared the bloom was finally off this ridiculous rose. Indeed it was. While fairly effective in capturing the grandeur of the hero, the rest of the narrative lumbered along like a drunken door mouse. The small screen is the perfect place for his otherwise underperforming project. (16 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Ice Age 2: Meltdown


Some like to point to Shrek as the moment that CGI started cannibalizing itself. In fact, it got a great deal of help from this incredibly lame Prehistoric kiddie fodder. Highly profitable the first time around, this money mandated sequel is even more cloying and uncomfortable. With jokes that consistently fall flat and a lack of anything new or inventive, this is the perfect definition of empty calorie eye candy. (16 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Pulse (2006)


Kairo remains one of Asian horror’s few masterpieces, an apocalyptic tale that argues the value of human life over the lure of technology. This Americanized remake robs the narrative of all its ambiguity, and instead gives us baffling backstory, overly complex explanations, and lots of ghoulish specters stalking the cast. Parts remain faithful to the original, but overall, it’s a less than successful translation. (16 June, Starz, 9PM EST)


Waiting


Ever wonder if those stories about snot in your salad and purposely overdone meat have merit? Well, this serio-comic look at the life of a waiter/waitress wants to combine said insights with a Clerks-like level of humor. It fails in both capacities. It’s too dumb to be daring, too nasty to be knowing. Still, slackers unable to find real careers may see something of themselves in this otherwise gratuitous groaner. (16 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Primer


When PopMatters published an article on the ‘Death of Serious Science Fiction’, critics complained feverishly that this film, more than any other, failed to get a mention as a post-millennial example of stalwart speculation. Of course, there are reasons for such exclusion, including general critical consensus (intriguing but confusing), the film’s lower than average profile (it was made for $7K after all) and lack of more universal themes (some consider it an engineering lesson on crack). Still, SE&L strives to bring light to the otherwise dark domain of cinematic scholarship, and so we pick this film as our Indie item of the week. A few reviewers stress that multiple sittings are required to decipher the lengthy last act, so it’s clearly TiVo time people. Maybe after a screening or two, its inherent value will be unveiled. Maybe. (18 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
B Monkey


While it’s not the greatest movie in the world – Heck, we here at SE&L barely remember what it’s about – it does contain one element worth considering: Asia Argento. Incredibly sexy in a smoldering sort of way, she turns almost any role she plays into an experiment in the erotic. So what if this is just your standard ‘nerd meets bad girl/hijinx ensue’ storyline. With Ms. A in the lead role, we’re there. (17 June, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

R Point


It’s the Korean take on J-Horror with a little war and remembrance thrown in for good measure. A group of soldiers on patrol in Vietnam are sent to an abandoned manor to locate a missing platoon. Of course, they discover the reason for the previous unit’s sudden disappearance. Seems the local area is inundated with uneasy spirits, and they want their vengeance on anyone living – including our unwitting cadets. (17 June, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Following


Right after his effective short film, Doodlebug, the man who would soon helm the brilliant Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige, crafted his first feature. It remains a nice little low budget gem, the story of a writer who follows random people to gather material for his work. Naturally, he runs across a character, in this case, a thief, who is willing to show him more than he may want to know. (19 June, Sundance Channel, 12:50AM EST)

Outsider Option
How to Frame a Figg


By the time this project – based on a story proposed by the star – landed in Don Knotts’ lap, his days as a comedic icon were beginning to wane. After the slam bang success of The Andy Griffith Show (five years – five Emmys) and a string of successful solo films (The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Love God? ) this political pseudo-satire just didn’t have the same creative kick. As a bookkeeper unwittingly caught up in City Hall corruption, Knotts still gives good fluster. But the changing cultural tide of the ‘70s was far removed from the more innocent days of the early ‘60s, and the actor was seen as a presence whose time had passed. Still, his undeniable talent continues to show through in what remains a nice footnote to Knotts’ more potent parts. If you can get past the cornball conservatism and arch approach, you’ll really enjoy this minor movie. (17 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 2:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Conqueror Worm


Vincent Prince as a touring witch hunter, selling his services as prosecutor to the highest bidder. Sounds spectacular, right? Well, unlike the next two films in this section, this is an effort that actually delivers on its promise. Thanks to the actor’s amazing performance – he practically oozes evil onscreen – we are completely swept up in this period piece. Michael Reeves’ amazing work behind the camera also adds to the creep-showboating. (15 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

John Carpernter’s Vampires


The title alone had horror fans foaming at the mouth. Would their favorite dread director, responsible for such major macabre classics as Halloween, The Thing and Prince of Darkness actually deliver on the promise of a post-modern Wild West take on the neck-biter genre, complete with James Woods in the role of ghoul hunter? Sadly, the answer was a big fat no. It remains a black mark on a career seemingly drowning in same. (19 June, ThrillerMax, 8:10PM EST)

Minnie and Moskowitz


John Cassavetes was on a role after the critical accomplishments of Faces and Husbands. But he somehow lost his way on this goofy drama romance involving a relationship between a museum curator and a slightly off balance parking lot attendant. There will be those who appreciate his gonzo approach to moviemaking, but this is not one of the independent auteur’s best. More of a curio than anything else. (20 June, Indieplex, 2:50PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 13, 2007


You can see what Ghost Rider is trying to do. It’s right there in between all the comic book movie clichés and formulaic action picture trappings. Indeed, if it weren’t for an apparent industry mandate that every funny page crime fighter has to be turned into a mainstream movie icon, star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson could have helmed a really inventive take on the unusual Marvel character. Unfortunately, studio interference is evident throughout this ultimately semi-successful effort, from the casting of Eva “Mediocre” Mendez as Cage’s love interest to the last act showdown drawn directly from the Big Book of Popcorn Film Flash. Instead of staying with character quirk and individual development, we end up with something that’s more eye candy than evocative.


The story starts when young Johnny Blaze discovers his stunt man/daredevil dad is dying from cancer. Hoping to save his life, he makes a deal with a sinister stranger that requires an oath in blood. Naturally, the contract backfires, and Blaze discovers he is indentured to the Devil. He will forever be known as Ghost Rider, a fiery skeletal figure riding a menacing motorcycle. As the bounty hunter for the underworld, his job is to return damned souls to their place of eternal unrest. When Blackheart, Lucifer’s love child, goes after a mythic parchment containing 1000 damned souls, it is up to our fire-drenched anti-hero to stop him. Along the way, he must reconnect with his former fling Roxanne, and discover the secret identify of the kind-hearted cemetery caretaker who seems to know a great deal about the entire Ghost Rider lore.


Granted, it’s a pretty dumb premise for a pen and ink champion. Without the context of the comic, its customary attention to origin detail and backstory characterization, we are left filling in a lot of blanks on our own. Unfortunately, Cage isn’t about to help. Instead, he packs his performance with the kind of eccentricities and observable oddities that, at one time, established his thespian credentials (see: Vampire’s Kiss or Peggy Sue Got Married). His interpretation of Johnny Blaze involves jelly beans instead of beer, the Carpenters instead of anything remotely rock and roll, and a goofy shyness in place of disturbed bravado. It’s an interesting set of choices which, sadly, have very little to do with the actual comic the character came from. A brief perusal of the original story is far more mystical, dealing with demons, the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’, and a great deal of supernatural spectacle.


This Ghost Rider could be easily categorized as the “user friendly” version of the icon, a far more approachable (and valiant) entity than the one first conceived. There is tons of talk, all throughout the rather simplistic script, of Johnny’s desire from “a second chance” and the ability to redeem his soul-selling decision, and Cage never overemphasizes the crime fighting/payback element of the man-monster. It’s clearly a cop out, a decision designed to make the Rider more stoic than scary, as well as more personally palatable to a mainstream audience. Similarly, the casting of Eva Mendez is truly a demographically demanded decision. She’s not bad here – in fact, there are moments when she overcomes her inherent flatness to show some real emotional depth. But alongside Cage, whose like ionized idiosyncrasy, she’s nothing more than adolescent fantasy fodder.


The rest of the cast should be commended for making the most out of what is standard fire and brimstone balderdash. Wes Bentley, who comes across as a Goth kid unhappy over his allowance, makes for a vague and uninteresting Blackheart, while Peter Fonda’s Satan is more acid casualty than fallen angel. Still, both do a decent job of playing off Cage, and countermand a lot of the stock malevolence they have to portray. As Blaze’s manager and sidekick, Donal Logue is lost. Since the jokes he’s given are beyond bad, he keeps tossing in line readings that seem pulled from another performance. Similarly, Sam Elliot’s caretaker is left over from The Big Lebowski, his drawl so derivative now that you keep waiting for him to poke some cows or ‘get along’ a few doogies. Taken in conjunction with Mark Steven Johnson’s journeyman directing, filled with wickedly wide shots that hope to instill scope into this otherwise small storyline, everything is technically proficient.


When matched against the amazing special effects, however, their adeptness is barely impressive. Ghost Rider is indeed a highly proficient product of the post-millennial reliance on computer technology, and his fiery image makes a definite impression. This is especially true when Blaze first discovers his destiny, and races down a local side street, shop canopies and parking meters melting under his inferno-like presence. Equally stunning is the skyscraper fight, where a completely possessed Blaze rides right up the side of the glass building’s façade. Sure, you’ve see the sequence a hundred times (thanks to a trailer that gave away most of the movie’s visual magic), but within the context of the story, it still scores significant points. The evil elements are not so well done. Both Satan and Blackheart look like snaggle-toothed sea creatures instead of something more sacrilegious, and last act arrival of hundreds of ‘lost souls’ is like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the minions from Constantine.


Yet it’s the departures from the original source material, along with the lack of sufficient character support, that has really divided movie fans. Many could forgive the personal plot holes for the amazing amount of visual finesse on hand. But those hoping that the newly released Extended Edition DVD would cast some light on shallower subjects will sadly be left searching. There is some intriguing material reinserted into the film – more moments between a young Blaze and his dad, Roxanne having to deal with the police – but for the most part, the new information is as ambiguous as what is already on the screen. Why it’s taken Blackheart this long to defy his father, why Satan waited several years before tapping Blaze’s Rider potential – heck, the whole reason behind the character’s odd choice of refreshment and music would have been nice. Instead, it’s more focus group falderal offered as additional insight.


In the end, such a strategy is what really undermines Ghost Rider. Without all the necessary Hollywood hokum, absent the sequences suggested by past comic book movies (this film frequently feels like a production from a parallel universe in its ridiculous amount of referencing), this could have been something strong. Not necessarily popular or marketable, but a unique take on material mostly unknown to the movie going public. It also suggests that the proposed Nicholas Cage/Tim Burton Superman may not have been such a bad idea after all. From a filmmaking perspective, no one understands the vastness of visuals better than the off-kilter ex-animator. And via his intriguing take on Johnny Blaze, Cage continues to argue that he has uncultivated acting chops just waiting to be exploited. Those who’ve dismissed this movie outright are dead wrong. But there are aspects here that truly make it hard to embrace.  It’s a dichotomy that ultimately dooms this attempted trail blazer.


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Tuesday, Jun 12, 2007


(Part One of this two part piece can be found HERE)


It’s clear that Eli Roth’s Hostel series is designed to push buttons. It uses easily recognizable elements - young people alone, international naiveté, the unknown evils of the former Iron Curtain – as components for a combination slice and dice splatter film and sly social commentary. But some have sensed that Roth is more misguided than masterful in creating his corrupt fright fests. While the complaints about the original film focused solely on the gore and brutality, gender has been added to the Part II prototype. As a result, the rabid reaction from critics and commoners has positioned this sequel as the worst cinematic example of violence against females ever attempted. Sadly, such a conclusion is not educated, but instead based purely on personal preference and perception.


It all starts in Hostel: Part II’s second act. Reminiscent of the famous legend surrounding the Blood Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the death of our dour, sensitive wallflower Lorna is what has most detractors of Roth up in arms. Up front, they are disturbed by the pseudo-sexual nature of the crime. Hung upside down and naked, actress Heather Matarazzo is featured topless and terrified. As preparations are being made for the soon to arrive ‘customer’, the young actress puts on a clinic of stifled sobs and desperate cries. Suddenly, her killer arrives – a middle aged woman with more than a little experience exposed in her aged appearance. Obviously buying into the whole mythical “rejuvenation” aspects of the Báthory story, she sits stark naked under the crying Lorna, and proceeds to tease her with an oversized scythe. Eventually, she stabs (unseen) and carves (seen) into the helpless girl’s body. As the craven claret covers her middle aged torso, our matron massages it into her flesh. It’s a horrific sequence, one made even more impactful by the performance from Matarazzo and the directorial flourish shown by Roth.


Because of its snuff film strategies, the combination of real and blood lust, and the overall viciousness of the attack, many in the media have decided that such a scene demands condemnation. In fact, many are convinced it’s the most awful atrocity committed against women onscreen in the history of the motion picture. The outright ludicrousness of such a statement aside, these self-professed experts are just plain wrong. Here, as a refresher, are a collection of titles that are far worse in their treatment of females, as well as the use of violence against women as a means of making movie macabre (the following is by no means all inclusive):


Psycho, Scrapbook, Blood Feast, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Suspiria, Frenzy, Peeping Tom, Last House on the Left, Make Them Die Slowly (Cannibal Ferox), Cannibal Holocaust, Gates of Hell, I Spit on Your Grave, The Virgin Spring, Maniac, Tenebrae, Don’t Go In the House, Bloodsucking Freaks, The Gore-Gore Girls, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Opera, The Hills Have Eyes (both original and update), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Ilsa Movies, The Olga Movies, The Flesh Trilogy, The Friday the 13th Franchise, The Stendhal Syndrome, Se7en, Straw Dogs, The Death Wish Series, Jackson County Jail.


Clearly, Roth is not the first male filmmaker to use gender as a measure of cinematic vileness. In fact, the first Hostel is based clearly on the notion of twisting archetypes for the sake of invention. But it also belies an interesting conceit. In that first film, two young Slavic sluts are rundown by a car, one body so badly mangled it gets stuck under another vehicle’s frame. Yet these deaths are not lamented by haters of Roth’s ideas. Why? Because from all we learn about these evil mercenary whores, they deserve to die. They’ve set up our heroes (and hundreds of others like them) for the sake of a few dollars and some much needed drugs. They aren’t innocent and naïve. Unlike Lorna, who goes off with a fat foreign Romeo because he treats you like a goddess instead of a clod, they’re perverted and evil. Lorna’s only flaw is being too trusting, and her reward is getting garroted for the sake of some rich witch’s baneful beauty regiment. Right?


Wrong. There is nothing decidedly different in Lorna’s death vs. Josh’s in the original Hostel. All allusions to historical context aside, both she and he are mangled and murdered for no good reason. Yet somehow, when some viewers see Lorna die, their internal parenting protocol comes raging to the fore. Don’t call it a concern for humanity – a boy’s death is no different than a girl’s (and why, oh WHY does no one mention what happens to a grade school age CHILD during the course of Hostel: Part II’s narrative?). No, the old ridiculous psychosexual roles come immediately back into play, and Lorna is viewed as helpless, while Josh is merely reckless. People can point to the supposed erotic undercurrent, but that’s reading a great deal into a scene that is clearly presented for its splatter value. Besides, what does it say about the thinker when they argue that adolescent males will “get off” on such a sickening sequence?


In addition, only Whitney suffers a similar fate. Her face is cut with a buzzsaw, and she loses a patch of hair (and scalp) when it gets tangled in the mechanics (yes, it is noxious). But that’s it. Her eventually death occurs off camera, as part of a joke at the expense of the Elite Hunting Club’s surveillance team. Compared to what happens to Paxton (stabbed multiple times with a gardening tool, fingers sheered off by an errant chainsaw), she gets off metaphysically easy. In direct comparison to its predecessor, Hostel: Part II’s killings are succinct and to the point. Beth endures the most psychologically damaging situation as she has to play cat and mouse games with Stuart to save her life. She’s beaten, almost raped, and confronted by Sacha’s men before her undeniable wealth saves her. Told she must also take a life to be freed, she makes an immediate beeline for her capture’s manhood.


Which brings up an interesting dichotomy. In 2002, French filmmaker Gaspar Noé caused an international sensation when his film Irreversible featured a nine minute realistic rape scene that had many audience members running for the exits. While its artistic merits were bandied about, the outcry for his incontrovertible crime against women was never as loud as that for Roth. The reason why is obvious – first, Hostel: Part II is part of the most easily marginalized and dismissed genre in all of motion pictures: the horror film. It’s a long standing scholarly bias, one that argues for the categories disposability as a credible form of cinematic expression. Almost always reconsidered in retrospect (imagine the reaction of critics who climbed all over Tobe Hooper’s Chainsaw to see it heralded today), the fright film is, to most, incapable of creative vitality. So anything it offers is pragmatically pointless.


And let’s not forget the snooty arthouse factor. Irreversible was indeed viewed as confrontational and repugnant, but because it represented an experimental effort, highly improvised and shot in an unusual manner, the repugnance of the rape was contextually compromised. In essence, if Roth was any other homemade horror addict, creating his craven delights in the basement of his parent’s home with a group of friends, the uproar would be limited by logistics. But because he is making a mainstream scarefest as part of the Summer Movie season, he’s open to outright attack. True, the images and elements at play in Hostel: Part II are not natural and do not represent the best that the medium of film has to offer. But if there is room for inexcusable violence against women in award winning dramas (The Accused) or foreign films, then horror should be able to do the same without facing increased scrutiny.


Again, there are far worse examples of what Roth is being condemned for. Take the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw film. Actress Marilyn Burns spends the final act of the film tied to a chair and abused both emotionally and physically by the diabolical Sawyer clan. She is beaten repeatedly in the head with a sledgehammer, cut severely with a straight razor, and eventually chased, bloody and insane, by a crazy man wielding the title power tool. Or how about David Lynch’s sickening send-off to his famous Twin Peaks series. Aside from the obvious sexual/incestual undercurrent, the infamous auteur languishes on Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk With Me, her bruised and battered face full of fear as her dad crushes her skull with a bolder. Throughout Wes Craven’s early career, his female leads are typically raped and murdered in particularly graphic fashion. Even the exploitation realm which started the entire taboo-busting side of cinema had Olga, Ilsa and Michael Findlay’s foul slasher start-up, the Flesh Trilogy to violate all kinds of interchangeable victims.


Of course, for every supposed outrage, there’s someone out there ready to complain about it. When Lynch presented a completely naked Isabella Rosalinni, scarred and scared, at the doorstep of Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet, Roger Ebert was so appalled he accused it’s creator of being a soulless monster. Similarly, when I Spit on Your Grave took the entire rape/revenge element to new, nauseating heights, the well respected reviewer, along with his then partner in prostylitizing, Gene Siskel, decided to focus an entire show on women as the centerpiece of the scary movie slaughter ideal. Pointing to the overabundance of female deaths in the derivative slasher films, they made it sound like they had discovered something completely novel in the new post-modern movie dynamic. Sadly, as far back as one goes, gender has helped define the terms of terror. Even the early Universal monster movies used the so-called “weaker sex” as the object of evil’s unhinged desire.


If those who are complaining about Hostel: Part II are only up in arms because its girls, not guys, getting torn apart for the sake of shock value, then their “humanitarian” argument is hypocritical. Imagine the Lorna scene with a ‘Larry’ substituting for the victim and a middle aged MAN as the scythe wielding reprobate and see what kind of response you’d get. It’s the dirty little secret of this entire debate that gender determines reaction in a way that is antithetical to the overall concept. If you hate pointless brutality against any individual, sex doesn’t matter – not in perception, not in presentation. Death is death, and the reproductive organs of those being butchered are unimportant. Besides, looking back over the murders in both movies, one would dare say that the original Hostel is far more gruesome than the smattering of gore given in the sequel.


Still, there will be those who question all of Eli Roth’s intensions. To them, both movies are simply the same notes being hit on different masculine/feminine beats, and the entire girl angle of the series smacks of reprehensible personal depravity. Like most of the horror genre, it will be easily dismissed as the playground for perverts and those who get some manner of sick kicks out of the terrifying and torture of human beings. Like hardcore pornography, it is given over to a select group of weirdoes who can’t see the forest for all the blood and guts soaked trees. Unfortunately, such criticism is as narrow-minded and biased as any other position of intolerance. Hostel: Part II is not a mindless rip-off of its original narrative, nor is it the most violent movie concerning women ever created. Both ideas are simply shorthand for avoiding the whole horror as entertainment discussion. Until said situation can be settled once and for all, it will be motives, not the movies themselves, that will be constantly chastised and challenged.


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Monday, Jun 11, 2007


June is typically touted – both in song and maxim - as busting out all over, but when it comes to digital product headed to your local brick and mortar, this month is shaping up to be simply a bust. The release pattern appears to consist of one or two name titles per week, followed by dozens of unknown efforts and unnecessary double dips. Take this upcoming Tuesday. We get an intriguing thriller, a wannabe popcorn blockbuster, and a bunch of lesser offerings. That’s it. In fact, if it weren’t for the independent distributors and outsider creations, we’d have a real dearth of DVDs on the market. And it’s not getting better anytime soon. The next 20 days will see some intriguing titles from Criterion, and another few mainstream hits, but that’s about it. So mark your calendars well – every release date will be very similar to 12 June. Here’s hoping July turns the tide:


Breach


Flying in under the radar this past February (just in time for 300 to steal all the box office fire) this intriguing real life story of international intrigue and Cold War espionage deserved better. Featuring fine performances from Ryan Phillippe and Laura Linney, as well as an award worthy turn by Chris Cooper as the rogue FBI agent selling secrets to the Russians, what should have been a sleeper hit was unceremoniously dumped into cinema’s supposed dead zone – a.k.a. the spring. There, it languished, receiving excellent reviews and good word of mouth. Yet for some reason, it failed to become a substantive hit. Now, thanks to a rapid turnaround on DVD, fans of tense, taut thrillers can enjoy this intriguing effort from screenwriter (Flightplan, Suspect Zero) and director (Shattered Glass) Billy Ray. His is a career behind the camera worth following.

Other Titles of Interest


Charly’s Aunt


Successful radio (and then TV) talent Jack Benny never seemed to get a handle on big screen stardom. In this, the sixth adaptation of Brandon Thomas’s celebrated cross dressing stage play, the comedian plays the title character, a student in drag helping out his buddies in the chaperon department. Naturally, hilarious hi-jinx ensure in what ends up being one of Benny’s most well known and triumphant cinematic jaunts.

52 Pick Up


It’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel. It was directed by the always intriguing John Frankenheimer. It stars Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret in some of their best work ever. So why isn’t this film heralded as a mid ‘80s classic? Well, for one thing, the era was too high concept for such an old fashioned noir. Second, the lack of a legitimate DVD release limited its appreciation – until now.

Ghost Rider: Extended Edition


While not the worst comic book hero movie ever made, this take on the Devil’s diabolical bounty hunter is highly reminiscent of the recent string of studio-hindering hackwork that the genre has become known for. Star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson obviously wanted to impart some quirk into the character, but the suits needed to satisfy the bean counters. Thus we have this amazing looking movie that’s lacking a serious superhero soul.

Primeval


It was promoted as a serial killer flick. Turned out, the title terror was a rogue crocodile eating people in South Africa. What a gyp! Anyway, critics weren’t confused by what they saw unfold onscreen. Many called it a below average ‘when animals attack’ effort with too little story and too much blood. That seems to sum it up quite well. For lovers of the creature feature end of the genre only.

Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girl


Continuing his commercial cottage industry sans his amazing Medea character, raconteur Tyler Perry delivers this interesting take on single parenthood and cultural class standing. Without the whacked out mother figure at the center of the story, the humor is more subtle and based around the interaction with children. Some will find its heart in the right place. Others will lament the lack of a delirious drag dimension.



And Now for Something Completely Different
Sex Hex


While horror is constantly harangued for offering nothing but the same old thing, it’s actually the softcore sex romp that deserves said detrimental delineation. While the fright flick tries to use the genre basics to deliver differing fear factors, it’s nothing but nudity and naughtiness in these fake fornication fests. Sex Hex hopes to shake things up by adding Airplane! style spoofing to the mix, as well as keeping all the gratuity strictly girl/girl. When an erotic succubus strikes a California company, Carl the Cable Guy turns into a fearless vampire hunter to catch her. The result is a very silly, very Sapphic slice of pseudo-porn. While the actresses are a little on the plastic fantastic side of attractiveness, they sure do enjoy their lesbian loving. The result is a DVD bound to tickle much more than just your funny bone.

 


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Sunday, Jun 10, 2007


I’m sure he expected vitriol. Maybe he even welcomed a little of it. Controversy sure spins the turnstiles. But nothing could have prepared Eli Roth for the advanced word on his recently released sequel to the successful horror film Hostel. One critic questioned his humanity, even going so far as to state publicly that, upon finally meeting the man, he would refuse the offer to shake his hand. Ouch! Then there are the neo-con calls for boycotts and censorship, arguing that “trash” like this only glorifies the death and defilement of young women. Granted, it’s a shortsighted argument, but a very effective one in our touchy feely mindset. You see, it’s all about the chicks, man. That’s what’s got everyone in an uproar. Stick a bunch of horny teen boys in a slice and dice slasher flick centering around an Eastern European hostel from Hell and no one screams. But change the gender dynamic, and it’s the latest example of filmmaking excess.


For many Hostel: Part II is a non-issue. It’s a horror film, fulfilling the questionable thrill seeking needs of a particularly narrow dynamic. To them, the genre itself has very little going for it artistically, and those rare films that break out of the categories mold of mediocrity to become certified cinematic classics – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, etc. – are the anomalies in a field overflowing with filmic offal. As a result, most mainstream critics avoid it, while the marketing makes it clear that the adolescent teen demo is the target for such shock value. All in all, it is easy to dismiss, the typical carnival barking of an otherwise pointless motion picture ideal. But there is another facet to this film’s outright rejection – and it has very little to do with its effectiveness as a shocker, a splatter fest, or a social commentary. No, this aspect of the argument goes to the very heart of how people interact with their entertainment media of choice.


Looking over the isolated discussions of Roth’s return to his previous success, two main complaints arise. The first is also the most ridiculous – that all he offers in Hostel: Part II is more of the same. Anyone with half a brain and a real knowledge of what this filmmaker did in his original film would instantly deride such a preposterous suggestion. Still, by viewing both efforts back to back, we will see how incredibly sloppy such a suggestion is. The second disparagement is equally ludicrous, but goes to an issue much more culturally complex. To listen to the pundits and self-described purveyors of taste, Roth has offered up the most misogynistic film ever. He degrades women in ways that few, if any, have done before, and mixes the sexual with the sickening to further his gangrenous goals of sensationalism. Sadly, such a view ignores 50 years of moviemaking and illustrates that, in many cases, these objections are based on the source’s own desire for glory, not a realistic grasp of motion picture reality.


Let’s take the first point, shall we - that Roth is merely repeating himself. Again, that’s a completely bogus attack. The first Hostel centered on a group of teenage
boys backpacking across Europe looking for sex, drugs…and more sex. They find themselves in Amsterdam partaking of cheap booze and readily available marijuana. When the female element fails them, a Slovakian student suggests they head to an inn in his homeland. There, he says, there are hundreds of willing women, and, as Americans, they can do pretty much anything they want to them. The lure of easy companionship sends the boys to the Eastern Bloc. There, they check into the youth accommodations, meet some incredibly hot to trot honeys, and begin their descent into debauchery. Now, for those who have not seen the film, and may be eager to do so some time in the future, a SPOILER ALERT is now offered. From this point on, we will be dealing with major plot points and scare reveals.


Our three men are separated one night, with two (Josh and Paxton) waking up to wonder where their friend has gone. Turns out, he has become the first victim of something called The Elite Hunting Club. A rich person’s permutation of The Most Dangerous Game, it’s an organization that allows the wealthy to spend obscene amounts of cash in pursuit of the ultimate taboo – the taking of another human life. The factory facilities that house this horror show offer the clientele any number of death dealing options – power tools, surgical equipment, firearms, old fashioned torture devices. All the paying customer has to do is choose his personal ‘poison’ and start the slaying. Soon, Josh is kidnapped and killed, his body used by a wannabe doctor as a kind of fresh cut cadaver. Paxton investigates his pal’s disappearance, and it’s not long before he’s being sliced up by a nervous German with a chainsaw. Managing to escape, he saves an Asian girl, gets out of Slovakia, and even manages some revenge on the deviant who vivisected his friend.


Arguing the merits over the movie is one thing (this critic happens to believe it’s an important horror classic), but to say that Hostel: Part II is exactly the same is pure and utter crap. The differences are so painfully obvious that you have to believe Eli Roth sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a completely contradictory take. Sure, this time around we focus on three girls instead of three boys, but this is not where the differences end. No, this movie is purposefully out to fill in the gaps left by the original narrative, plus provide some incredibly novel twists on the whole women in peril dynamic (more on this later). Our Hostel: Part II leads are not really looking for sex and pharmaceutical thrills – they’re students studying abroad. Looking for a little relaxation outside their Rome routine, they take the advice of an attractive artist’s model named Axelle and head to a Slovakian spa. Naturally, their accommodations are the title tenement. 


Our trio is like sketches out of an archetypal coed guidebook. Beth is rich, so much so that she keeps her Dad on an allowance. Whitney is an international skank, but she also seems centered and sensitive to her raucous reputation. Lorna is the Sylvia Plath of the bunch, lost in her own world of wounded self-doubt, but capable of bursting out of her carefully crafted cocoon now and again. That we know more about these ladies is one of Roth’s new conceits. In the first film, our heroes are differentiated by size (tall, medium, muscular) and appearance (light, medium, and dark). We learn very little about their lives save for Paxton’s discussion of a young girl’s drowning and Josh’s mending of his recently broken heart. The guys have goals (lawyer and writer) but we don’t get much more meat than this. Before long, they’re ‘under the knife’, so to speak.


Similarly, before the girls are served up for their sickening purpose, we are introduced to the behind the scenes situations of the Elite Hunting Club. We learn of Sacha, the principle organizer and his connections to the corporate world. When our heroines check in, their image is immediately flashed across PDAs, cellphones and laptops worldwide. Rich individuals with a decidedly depraved outlook start a manic bidding frenzy, using the lives of these young girls like so much highly prized commodities. The winners are beyond excited. The losers are downcast and depressed. Unlike the original Hostel, which showed this killer’s club as a kind of underground den of unspeakable inequity, Roth revamps the idea, turning it into the ultimate escape for the overworked, overstressed CEO.


In this regard, we are also introduced to Stuart and Ben. The former is a slightly sheepish man with family issues. The latter is a pumped up powerbroker who believes that murder makes a man more threatening – even if only ephemerally. They have won two of the gals in our story, and are traveling to Slovakia to meet their manifest destiny. All of this material is new to the Hostel mythology. The original movie had the psychotic surgeon in training and nothing else. We learned a little about him (his love of things tactile, as well as his daughter) but there is not as big a backstory. No, Stuart and Ben come to represent two very intriguing concepts in Hostel: Part II. Without giving it all away, it boils down to what makes a man, and what eventually emasculates him.


This all leads to the most talked about element in Hostel: Part II – the death of our leads. Again, to avoid ruining the movie for those still interested, here’s another SPOILER WARNING. Unlike the first film, which offered at least a dozen on screen kills (some in very gruesome and graphic detail), this time around Roth gives us only three. Granted, another four (or five) occur, but they happen mostly off screen, without so much as a simple special effect to illustrate their dread. Only Lorna, Stuart and Axelle are shown being horrifically tortured and killed, and even then, only the first two have particularly nauseating deaths. In the case of our snooty model, she’s beheaded in a last act in-joke. Stuart has his gender literally removed when his penis is cut off. Lorna, on the other hand, becomes our first female victim, and it’s her disturbing death that’s causing all the clamor.


Quite clearly, these two movies are not “exactly” alike. They both take different routes to reach similar ends, and both are derivative of their creator’s desire to explore the premise he perfected in the first film. Indeed, the notion of a 180 degree reimagining of the original Hostel is so obvious as to be more than crystal clear. In the first, male machismo leads to hormonally charged happenstance – and death. In the sequel, female intuition constantly wins, but only as far as the dominating male Id will allow it. In the end of the original Hostel, brawn and bravery triumph. At the conclusion of the revisit, sensitivity and female cunning allow the tables to be turned. When meshed together, both Hostels become a complete whole, a look at both sides of the sexism coin and how it affects dread. If it weren’t for all the false bravado and public policy kvetching from the wannabe watchdogs, these films would be celebrated as such. In the future, perhaps they will be.


In Part Two, (scheduled for Wednesday, 13 June) we will discuss the death of Lorna, the entire “violence against women” angle, and how complaints about its blatant brutality fail to take into consideration the entire history of horror – or the other half of gender humanity.


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