★★★ / ★★★★
I think the goal of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” is to make the viewers so uncomfortable that somewhere during its descent to hell they find their heads pulling away from the screen without thinking about it. As ugly, gory, and violent as the film is, an argument can be made that it is true horror in a sense that it elicits a response so visceral and so powerful that by the end it leaves one enraged, drained, or wallowing in disquiet. I found it to be entertaining from beginning to end; the story is propelled with great energy combined with a “Look what I can do!” gall.
Those who consider only the surface of the picture will be quick to label the work as “torture porn.” I’m not so sure it qualifies. Consider the extended scene in which we find one of our three backpackers—Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)—handcuffed to a chair. From the moment the physical torture begins, the camera fixates on his face. We are there with him the first time a drill punctures his skin, as he shrieks in pain, begs for help and to be released. If the purpose were to excite the viewer, the camera would have focused on the tormentor’s facial and body expressions throughout the ordeal. But no—physical suffering and desperate screaming are front and center. By framing the face just so, there is no escape; we are forced to sympathize with the doomed character.
The picture begins like a comedy—a stereotypical comedy surrounding two Americans (Hernandez, Richardson) and one Icelander (Gudjonsson) being boisterous, rude, always on the lookout for weed and women who wish to sleep with them. I was amused by their shenanigans because the performers do a good job in looking and sounding the part. They share chemistry, and what elevates the comedy is the precise phrasings, looks they give to one another, and timing in terms of when to go for hyperbole versus when to downplay. It is not until forty-five minutes into the picture when we finally encounter something especially gruesome.
There is a creative idea here. Rich folks from all over the world pay to torture and kill unsuspecting individuals. To be able to do whatever they wish to an American, it costs $25,000. Considering the film was released post 9/11, there is merit to claims that a) the movie is made for Americans and b) it wishes to make a statement about what Americans consider to be their place in the world following that tragic day. But I go further. I think the writer-director wants to show his American audience that we as a society are not blameless for 9/11.
Like the characters in this film, we go into other people’s countries and act like we own the place, sometimes forcing them to adopt our values and morality—a modern day invasion. To make that point is brave and Roth opens himself—as a filmmaker, as an American, or just any other person—for censure. And yet to do so is a very American thing to do. To criticize ourselves for what we are doing wrong is, in my eyes, patriotic. Clearly, there is substance in “Hostel” should one bother to wade through the warm blood, shredded organs, and fatty tissues.
Suicide Squad (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” has an approach problem. Despite the picture being about villainous persons forcibly recruited by the government to be of some use to society, what it offers is a standard action film fare with a whole lot of shooting and explosions but not enough thoughts and compelling motivations. What results is a forgettable mediocrity, extremely frustrating given the talent involved from in front and behind the camera.
Think of classic video games where avatars are controlled from left to right. Throughout our journey to the showdown with the big bad at the end, we are provided physical challenges such as henchmen and pitfalls. It were as if this film is inspired by such a setup—the only difference is that such games are a lot more fun to play than it is to watch this movie because the former actually engages while the latter seems intent on keeping the audience passive.
The lack of characterization is astounding—a problem because we are supposed to care about them eventually, as individuals and as “family.” Out of the group, only about three are somewhat interesting: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Deadshot (Will Smith). The rest are either reduced to one-liner sock puppets (Killer Croc played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Katana portrayed by Karen Fukuhara) or are stuck with eye-rollingly bad, soap opera-like, vomit-scented romance (Rick Flag played by Joel Kinnaman and Cara Delevingne portraying Enchantress). One wonders halfway through whether the writer-director had been replaced by an impostor given that the Ayer’s previous works, such as “End of Watch” and “Fury,” function on such a high level of intelligence, wit, humanity despite the chaos that threatens to consume its subjects whole.
Delevingne is completely miscast as the central villain. Although she has the extreme looks in takes to have an interesting face to look at, I found her unable to emote more than three emotions. Her scenes are excruciatingly bad, at times downright laughable because when the character is supposed to exude menace, Enchantress merely does some sort of dance. The filmmakers do not even bother to use Delevingne’s voice as Enchantress. It gives the impression that the performer is hired simply for her looks, not for her talent.
Jared Leto as the Joker is one bad joke. Although the issue is not completely Leto’s portrayal, given that the editing is so manic that it fails to take the time to rest simply on the performer’s face so we are able to cherish every droplet of controlled insanity, it is still apparent that Leto is acting. Not once did I believe he is the titular villain; he is the knock-off version who is trying too hard to be impressive. And that’s problem with this particular character: the more you try to play it big, the faster you sink in quicksand.
There is one excellent scene that takes place is a bar, a moment when the motley crew decides to take a break from all the unimpressive, ugly, formulaic action and simply talk to one another. It is perhaps the best moment in the film because the camera is at its stillest and there is silence. And so when a character says one thing and another reacts a certain way, we are drawn to what is unfolding rather than simply sitting back, eyes half-closed, wishing for a better anti-superhero movie.
Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie genuinely scared me. It is comparable to “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later” because of the zombie-like creatures that are fast and extremely menacing; “Cloverfield” comes to mind because the entire picture is seen through a hand-held camera. Despite the content of the film, without Jennifer Carpenter (“White Chicks,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Dexter”), this movie probably would’ve failed. Providing a character that’s real, good-natured, and one of the boys (established during the amusing first fifteen minutes), we ultimately care about her when the creatures roam about the apartment complex. She really amazed me during the last few scenes because not only can she scream and look good doing it, I wanted to reach out into the screen and help her escape. Another stand-out is Jay Hernandez (“Hostel,” “Planet Terror,” “Lakeview Terrace”) as a firefighter who is both strong and approachable. I wish he and Carpenter had more scenes together because when they interact, the movie feels more alive. As for the scares, a lot of them are memorable: whether something is moving in the background, strange noises coming from a dark room, or bodies falling from above–all of it worked because the characters are trapped in one place. Danger is always around the corner and it doesn’t let go until the credits appeared. I thought the use of lighting is excellent. Most of the time, it makes me want to look closer because the “thing” that we’re supposed to be looking at is shrouded in darkness. Therein lies the trap because once you look closer, something pops out–your heart starts beating and your eyes try to look for an escape. This is one of the better horror films to come out recently and I’m glad to have seen it in the cinema with a friend and enthusiastic horror fans.