Sunday, September 14, 2008

‘Hostel’ (2006)/ ‘Hostel II’ (2007)

‘When the Vacation Goes Awry’

The horror genre has been rampant of late with over the top slash-killings, enough gore to frighten even the hardest heart and impossibly corny endings that make viewers laugh rather than cringe with suspense. An hour into Hostel and I was ready to add one more film to the pile of disappointments and then the most remarkable thing happened: the killings stopped. Not totally, but, suddenly, hidden cul-de-sacs were opening up as the film careened towards what turned out to be a pulsating end.

The set up for the film is pretty standard enough. A couple of bratty, horny American college guys (Josh and Pax) and a very sexually-charged French pal (Ollie) are back-packing through Europe in search for girls. Of course, they start with the Amsterdam red-light district scene. The night is a great success but they are chased away from their hotel and have to overnight with the shady-looking Alexei whose room is more akin to a sex-shop. He tells them of the incredibly compliant girls in Bratislava and they chart a course for that location. A stranger on the train (a bit too pertinent so that was the viewer’s clue to trouble) reinforces what they were told and all minds are made up. They check into a hostel and hook up with two hot looking girls, who, as only women can, subtlety grill them for information then decide to show them around.

Sex in any film normally leads to bad tidings and in horror films it’s a sure ticket to death. Hostel picks up this well-tread motif and runs with it. A series of predictably suspicious disappearances, starting with Ollie, occur after a night of clubbing. His disappearance brings opposite reactions from both Americans. Pax decides to keep his rising terror in check by sticking to the game-plan of getting laid while Josh can’t help but think it signals some further abandonment (his girlfriend recently left him for another man). Pax’s attitude only changes once Josh goes missing. His instinct starts to kick in, even to the extent that he ignores the girls he once found irresistible.

The hedonist in him doesn’t disappear totally though but Hostel—maybe because it is set in a foreign country---veers off the cliché track once it’s down to Pax and his intuition to figure out what is wrong in Bratislava.
His suspicions never give way to paranoia nor does he take the next train in an effort to flee. Yet, unlike most films, he doesn’t see the nightmarish end even in hints. Such naïveté from an American in a foreign country gives the film a kind of reality that most Wes Craven films lack. Finally, Pax comes face to face with the horrible truth—truth that American naïveté thinking derives eventually, that the persons who at first seemed so excited and helpful to see them are actually decidedly against them. In this case, they’re players in a dangerous human-hunting game that will bring around the downfall of foreigners. After accosting the girls (high on drugs) he is taken to a museum where his friends are said to be part of the exhibition.

Pax’s face only registers the sheer horror of what he sees after the familiar countenance of the stranger in the train comes into view, carving up what is left of Josh’s body. He is then placed in a room and ‘tortured’ somewhat in a sick display of cat and mouse game. It proves to be a game that loses its edge when he renounces his patriotism to his captor. Needless to say, he escapes and rescues the girl and makes it out of the nightmare in the end but the manner in which he does so runs smoothly and with much suspense. Thankfully, Quentin Tarantino, the film’s producer, and Eli Roth (the director) decide to spare us the noise-filled gore that decked the first hour and channel Kubrick-esque camera shots, replete with appropriate silences towards the end.

What saves Pax however doesn’t translate into Hostel II. Immediately Eli Roth sets course for a map of suspenseful explanation but gets lost in the maelstrom of gore before anything can seriously unravel. Paxton may briefly appear in this installation but his death is a mere cliff-note and doesn’t serve as interlink to anything substantial other than the thought of an ever expanding human hunting network. Paxton’s thinking level is terribly mixed; after defying odds to escape, he then returns to America only to clamp up and not expose the horrors he faced. Unlike Tarantino’s 2007 smorgasbord epic Grindhouse, Roth however doesn’t spend too much time with logics in Hostel II, instead he laboriously shows us the behind the scenes excitement to collecting the human prey. I can’t recall any other horror flick making its aim and outcome so evident and not expecting to suffer for this foresight of our knowledge.

That drains what little suspense one can imagine and it makes the gore nothing but self-gratifying…which is really a shame. Hostel II does explore the wantonness of the hunters even if Roth encases them with only their depravity. Even in such shallowness, the poetry of this gore is fascinating. In one scene a female hunter sits under her hoisted prey- Heather Matarazzo (the annoying wimp, Lorna), naked and with an extended scythe. She tears at the girl’s body and immerses herself with the blood as it trickles onto her and the candles below. The camera then hones in on her hand reaching for a shorter scythe and slitting her victim’s throat. It’s devastating yet its disturbing silence is the film’s single notable achievement.

And yet, despite the hardness of that female hunter, the two main male hunters we see are poles apart in their ambition towards the killing. Todd (Richard Burgi) is the atypical alpha male and Stuart (Roger Bart) is pathetically lacking cojones. When Todd finally gets to torturing a victim, his sadistic joy is stalled by an unplugged instrument. His victim—Beth (Lauren German)—cowers in fear while he bellows at her; ‘you should see you f--king face.’ When the instrument gets unplugged a second time however, he accidentally disfigures her face. In the few seconds that follow, Hostel II swerves completely further off track and descends into a corny finale. Roth does not clarify the reason for Todd’s sudden change of heart. We are not sure if he is angry that electrical limitation is robbing him of his pleasure or the implications of his actions have caught up with him finally. Instead of probing this, Roth has the character mauled to death by dogs for reneging on his contract as a means of clouding the issue.

Roth thus misses his most valuable tool for true suspense. Hostel II salaciously proves that in such a postulation women are just as vicious as men. Indeed, the human hunting is co-coordinated by a woman. We realize also that the human hunters are not a tight-knit brotherhood, per se, but lovers of the highest price. Whitney (Bijou Phillips) escapes elimination by bargaining a price to partake in the game. She tells her captors that with a PDA she can have the money wired within minutes. It’s admittedly a clever twist amid the clichés… showing the strength of technology in the film but immediately it lets itself down with her only aim being to seek revenge not on the hunters themselves but the female that lured her to Slovakia in the first place. Ah, kids, they never learn.

RATING: "Hostel 1" 6/10 "Hostel 11" 2.5/10

‘It is Time for a Love Revolution’ (Lenny Kravitz) (2008)

‘Lost in Emotion’

Like most artists who grew up with a wide appreciation of various music forms, it is difficult to place Lenny Kravitz into exactly which specific genre he belongs. Case in point: he got shifted into alternative soul because of a constant guitar presence and that only helped him to win four consecutive Grammys for male rock vocal solo. There is another reason too; like this year’s so happening group, Vampire Weekend, he is an artist clearly with an affluent background. There ends the similarities though because while VW can push off from their upbringing and relish it on record, Kravitz always sounds too keenly aware of his privilege and the struggle to escape it is a constant hurdle of his new album, It is Time for a Love Revolution.

It’s a lot of hurdles but his music production isn’t a hindrance, thankfully. It’s to his credit that all his albums indicate a classically trained background and a track like Bring It On features some extended guitar licks that rock the house but, unlike his best songs like Fly Away, there is a disconnect along its way. Like many non-geniuses who attempt an alternative, urban sound (there are too many to start name-dropping) Kravitz overuses his acoustic tools to compensate for the innate vocal and dynamic tools he just doesn’t have. In short, he’s no genius and thus a part of his appeal is being able to camouflage or dress up that fact. Kravitz succeeds in this by mostly doing covers like American Woman or maintaining a hip, rocker look that appeal to both women and men. I’m also sure it’s imminent for him to take a slot of a judge on American Idol or a Miss World beauty pageant. However, if you’re like me, then you’re more interested in the music. Production value aside however there is little here to keep one interested. Lyrics have always been his Achilles heel and coupled with a desire to go beyond a facile level, the album is downright bland in that regard. The ridiculous I’ll Be Waiting is a fitting title because it sure sounds like he’s waiting for something to happen on the track but, unlike you the listener who can discern what it lacks; Kravitz seems unsure what he is waiting for. One wonders how it made it through so many demo takes and still came out as a fully-armed thing daring to pass itself off as anything but the dud it is. He fares better on A New Door but the middle section may put you to sleep.

Even with his reliable guitar-wielding base though, Kravitz settles in rather than attack. I Love the Rain is a mixture of Hendrix-esque (or in his case, Aerosmith) shards of feedback and the trip/hop vibe a-la Portishead but even as it fades out his lack of urgency costs him. Greater artistes like Prince and Terence Trent D’arby would’ve ripped it up. Kravitz though isn’t concerned about exploring beyond what has become comfortable for him. He thinks that by merely still encasing everything in guitars that it’s experimental enough, thus disregarding the entire alternative soul movement that he got caught up in by default in the first place. Like Mary J. Blige, he’s become too comfortable with what works for him and his patented sound to really want to shake things up or apply any real depth vocally anymore. There’s no fight or challenge left in him and, at forty-four, only a mid-life crisis could possibly rouse him into something new and it shows on this comfy yet too familiar record, which is odd given the harshness this decade has treated him (being racially-profiled by the police and all).
Albums like It is Time for a Love Revolution though will always be better received by soul yuppies desperate to be seen as hip on a visceral level. They’ll respond to this bummer than say a true alternative masterpiece like Trent D’arby’s Symphony or Damn or Miss Badu’s latest. I could spend the entire article writing on reasons for this but, hey; you continue to watch the Grammys struggle to remain relevant while ignoring the most exceptional talent. You lament over the nominating of the same boring line up yearly as much as I do. Kravitz does the very same thing and while it doesn’t make his stuff awful by a long shot, this is his eight album of pushing the same shtick on us and that clearly doesn’t make this a work of progress. All it does is keeps him bogged down by way too much recession and there’s no bail-out in sight.

RATING: 5.5/10

Baby Mama (2008)

’Outsourcing 101’

In one of Baby Mama’s earliest scenes Kate (Tina Fey) commits the cardinal rule of dating: never come on too desperate. After confessing how badly she wants a baby, Kate calmly watches as her date bolts into an awaiting taxi then tells the waiter that she’ll have her food ‘to go’. Kate is a late-thirties success story that is incomplete in her own view by the fact that she hasn’t yet mothered a child. It reaches a point where in a boardroom meeting all the men look like babies in diapers. While director Michael McCullers (co-writer of the Austin Powers films) hits a smart point with that image, the extent of his innovation unfortunately ends there.

The film’s opening sets up nicely a mélange of issues dealing with single women trying to get pregnant. Its difficulty though is that it tries too hard to find duality in a role that is heavily monochromatic. Kate recognizes the futility of her task and even accepts that others do not feel as zealous as she does…indeed the calmness she has when her date leaves is indicative of a reality the film only hints at. In the bubble world she lives in, people offset reality at every chance because it’s equated as losing some essential part of their lifestyle. With that in mind, the fact that she hadn’t considered surrogacy is surprising. That she’d settle for Angie (Amy Poehler) just seems ridiculous especially with the clear baggage it’d involve. That she hasn’t seriously considered what a baby realistically means is also worrisome. But, even worse, that Baby Mama provides few laughs proves how the best intensions sometimes go awry as well as bore along the away.

While Fey’s balancing act of humor and seriousness is the weakest thing here, her Saturday Nite Live predecessors—Steve Martin and Sigourney Weaver—manage theirs with consummate ease. Martin (Barry) is the guru/boss whose eccentricities are regulated to limited perfection. Weaver (Chaffee Bicknell) runs the surrogacy clinic Kate ends up going to with an assured display of bluntness. It’s interesting to watch Kate maneuver around these two because both are oddly part of the ideal she aims for in spite of the conflicting rigidity within her. The film never seriously attempts to explore the juxtaposition of her inherent tension and their carefree mentalities however. Nor does it minimally even look at the issue of alternative parenting types, which is legally changing yet again globally.

It does try to bridge the gap somewhat between her and Angie but McCullers clogs endless clichés and outright boring scenarios in the way. Both women start out predictably enough superficially assessing the other. Kate however refuses to see the change of lifestyle that a baby will bring even as Angie initially acts like one. Here the film goes overboard in trying to convince us of Angie’s instability when its clear from her first line that she’s not playing with a full set of marbles. Neither is Kate who is so wrapped up in her own personal space that she doesn’t even suspect the (spoiler alert) scam going on around her. All she sees, with her well coiffed hair and power broker glasses, is another step towards her happiness.

Watching Fey, I’m struck at the parallels she runs to Charlotte Brady, Kristen Davis’ character in the series Sex & the City. Charlotte’s eternal quest for maternal happiness however is part of a bigger, more serious picture that Kate could never fit into. Kate’s delusions are deep enough that she doesn’t even have friends who keep her grounded. All she has is a mother who plays dicey race jokes and a sister who she would switch roles with in a heartbeat. Neither adds to her as an aspiring mother nor does she inject anything to them. The love interest, Rob (Greg Kinnear) is a side-bar to say the least. More deploring is Kate’s life itself, the utter emptiness of her success and the awkwardness she has with real situations. Kate is a heavy amalgamation of not just Charlotte but of other feminist types and the ditzy appeal of Diane Keaton too. With so many iconic types guiding her, Fey fails to cull just the right amount of their essences to build one whole, empowering character even with her own talents. Nor is Poehler, stuck viciously into stereotype, allowed much room to lighten things up.

It's unfortunate but for all the intuitive genius that is clearly within Fey and Poehler, the film stops dead-stock before it can gather even a smidgen of the chemistry both exude so easily on Saturday Nite Live. Both are riotous when bouncing lines off each other in that comedic outlet but here the ambitious plot weighs down and restricts them. Baby Mama, alas, to quote a line from a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song… does not cut deep but cuts most absurdly.

RATING: 5/10