Wednesday, November 19, 2008 

Film review: The Baader-Meinhof Complex.

In these times of apparently unstoppable mass-casualty extremist Islamist terrorism, the likes of the Baader-Meinhof gang, as they were known, or the Red Army Faction, as they called themselves, appear almost quaint by comparison. This might well be partly because in the UK we have never experienced much in the way of overt left-wing terrorism, our quota for targeted explosions having been filled by the IRA; doubtless their victims in Germany feel differently. Whilst the film only makes brief allusions to our modern-day reality, the one exemplary message which it puts across is that terrorism, regardless of who it is committed by or why, can only be defeated through legitimate, legal means. Much else is muddled and ambiguous.

The makers of the Baader-Meinhof Complex claim that every scene is historically accurate, and with it being based upon the book by Stefan Aust, a contemporary of some of those who made up the group, you would have thought you could have at least some faith in the adaptation. This is in fact stretched to breaking point from the very beginning, where it is at least heavily implied that Benno Ohnesorg, the student shot dead while protesting against a visit by the Shah of Iran, was murdered by Josef Bachmann, a right-wing extremist who went on to make an assassination attempt on the leader of the students' movement, Rudi Dutschke, who never fully recovered. The shooting of Ohnesorg, combined with the breaking up of the protest by pro-Shah elements while the police first looked on and then joined in the orgy of violence, was the catalyst that sparked the coming together of the RAF.

Concentrating, unsurprisingly, on Baader and Meinhof, we never get really past the point of superficiality with any of the main players. Baader, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, is the charismatic former petty criminal that is depicted straight out of the box as a hypocrite, egomaniac, possible psychopath and with no real ideological bearing whatsoever. Meinhof, played by Martina Gedeck opens the film proper, with a scene on a nude beach, her daughters and husband playing in the surf whilst she sits alone and clothed. If the implication is that throughout she was the outsider, the radical journalist that abandons just the pen and takes up the gun, but is still never really accepted by her comrades, then her explanation for doing so is also rendered, like much else, as ambiguous. One of the conceits is that her husband is obviously cheating on her, with a gorgeous blonde no less, who walks by on the beach, stops for a chat and then saunters off. She takes the children when she inevitably finds him up to the hilt inside her, and if anything it is her husband's betrayal as much as her convictions that results in her joining the comparative youngsters in the RAF. Even less satisfying is the way Meinhof, after declaring her love for her children and saying she'd never give them up, suddenly decides to do just that, surrendering them to go and live in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan.

If Baader provided the romance, then Meinhof provided the RAF's ideological underpinning, writing the Urban Guerilla Concept, and while the group thrashed out incoherently at a whole series of injustices, not just protesting violently against the complicity of the late 60s/early 70s West German government with Nazism, when many lower-level officials were still ex-fascists, but against American imperialism in Vietnam and the plight of the Palestinians in Israel amongst other things, the film also falls majorly short on providing us with any real examples of the members arguing or debating such issues. The closest we come is Gudrun Ensslin, played by Johanna Wokalek, sitting in a steaming bath reading Trotsky. Meinhof's justifications for the various bombs and assassinations are played out along with the violence, but their crudity would for the most part shame even our modern vacuous suicide bombers and their gloating messages from the beyond.

Instead what we have is a group of sexy young people doing essentially, sexy young, impulsive things. The key line is from when the group decamp to Jordan to train with the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, where they reject the strictures placed on them by their faintly religious hosts and spend most of their time sunbathing naked on the roof of their quarters, which goes down well with the agog young sex-starved fighters that have most likely never seen such an abundance of naked white flesh before, but further shows the contempt they have for those they are supposed to be in solidarity with. Ensslin shouts, when challenged, "that shooting and fucking are the same thing", and for them that much is true. Baader himself, again you have to wonder how realistically, is shown to be a bigot, and objects to having to crawl under barbed wire in the sand "as they are urban guerrillas", which while a good point, rather undermines their reasoning behind attending the camp in the first place.

Some of these complaints can be answered with the fact that the film doesn't set out to delve too deeply into why the RAF did what they did; rather, it is an objective account, almost a slightly fictionalised record of the original founders of the group from 68 to 77, and that to have gone any further would have extended the already 2hr30mins running time. What you're getting is what you see, and very little else. Irrespective of that, this opens up the allegation that the film as a result romanticises, even sexualises terrorism, one made in Germany itself, and while undoubtedly those involved are impossibly good looking, endlessly alluring, wear the most chic clothes, all long legs, perfect plump bodies and accurate hair-styles, it doesn't quite reach that low.

One of the things that saves it from doing that is the more than sympathetic portrayal, alongside the inexorable action, which is as crisply photographed and choreographed as anything Hollywood can manage, of Horst Herold (Googlish biography), the police chief charged with tracking down and stopping the group's members in their tracks, played by Bruno Ganz, most well known for his turn as Hitler in Downfall. Coming across as a firm authoritative but determined liberal, again making you wonder wholly about the reality, he makes allowances for the group and their actions in ways which no one could get away with doing for jihadists now. He realises that when the momentum behind the student movement starts to subside, the RAF itself will only step up its campaign, which is exactly what happens. He knows that the martyrdom of their members will only further the sympathy which the group engendered, especially among the German youth, which nonetheless happened when the hunger striker Holger Meins succumbed, partially as a result of prison brutality, which inspires the second generation of the RAF to take their revenge, almost completely independently of the leadership in Stammheim prison.

The film finally falls completely apart in the last half hour, the strands frayed almost beyond comprehension as the second generation of members enters with even less back-story and explanation. Undoubtedly this is partly because the leaders of the original group themselves knew next to nothing about them, but it does nothing to help any ignorant in the audience follow what's going on. Also frustrating is again the way it keeps open the possibility that Meinhof did not take her life by her own hand, hinting at the way she had been ostracised by the others for apparently beginning to find her conscience, or alternatively, for drifting into mental illness.

It's the implication though of the second, even third generation of RAF fighters that Baader alludes to, all springing up independently of the leadership with just the group's schizophrenic ideals as their motivation that has the message for us today. The RAF after all did not formally disband until 1998, more than 20 years after the original leaders killed themselves; the leaders of al-Qaida, of which the second generation (third if you count al-Qaida's origins towards the end of the jihad against the Soviets) has learned its trade not in the camps of Afghanistan but in Iraq and now increasingly in Pakistan, have not been even captured or killed yet. Even if they are, the militant ideology behind al-Qaida is far stronger and far more encompassing than anything the RAF ever came up with, and while the death of bin Laden especially would be a huge blow, providing the romance to the movement while Zawahiri provides the ideology, it will undoubtedly continue to prosper for some time yet. We however have not had the wisdom of a Horst Herold in our fight against it, and instead the almost as insane likes of Melanie Phillips and Jihad Watch have the monopoly on the analysis. The analogy is obviously not completely apposite: the anti-authoritarianism, almost anarchy of the RAF is the opposite of what al-Qaida wishes to impose, and the RAF probably had more sympathy then than al-Qaida has now, especially among the general population, although surveys of Muslims students show some tendency towards some of their solutions, which is again indicative more of the radicalism of those at University than something to be really worried about.

Ultimately, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a contradiction in terms, as one of the things it is not is complex. It's instead as superficial as the group itself was. If however you're not looking for an in-depth study of the group and instead want a general, possibly given poetic licence account of their rise and fall, it's as good as one as we're likely to get.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008 

Film review: Donkey Punch.

Since the collapse of the Hammer studios, British horror has often been exactly that: horrible. While it's unlikely that anything will ever be produced on these shores that manages to equal The Wicker Man, the last decade has seen a few flourishings of potential talent. Although both largely derivative, 28 Days Later of the zombie genre and The Descent of the slasher/body count/monster picture, both showed that when both funding and thought is available, commercially successful offerings can still be produced. If you include Shaun of the Dead with those two, and perhaps even London 2 Brighton (which is probably the finest British film of recent years), then the point can be expanded even further. Even so, such films still often require all the help they can get. The makers of Donkey Punch must then be delighted with the Daily Mail's reaction courtesy of Amanda Platell: the most vile film she's ever seen, made with OUR MONEY, via the UK Film Council, although much of the funding would have been provided from those who waste their money on lottery tickets.

The Mail has had a history of giving huge plaudits and attention to films which it finds morally repugnant, therefore driving people to go and see them. It said of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre that if a ever film should be banned, then this it. It was in the vanguard of bringing the mostly pretty bad "video nasties" to wider acclaim, campaigned against Crash, and most recently lambasted Hostel. Some hits, some misses there, but always missing the point that declaring you're outraged about something eminently available will also make it instantly more attractive, and with censorship and bans now largely history, even more pointless than previously.

Donkey Punch was always going to be controversial. After all, when you name your film after an apocryphal sex act, a sex act which is carried out in full glare of the camera, although unless I missed something it didn't in this case involve anal penetration as the mythical move is meant to (supposedly punching the back of your partner's neck as you're about to orgasm makes the sphincter tighten even further), you're instantly courting attention and potential opprobrium. Although I haven't seen Skins, Donkey Punch has been compared in its attitude and filming to it, and coming from the Film 4 stable, it's not exactly surprising. Perhaps a better comparison though would be to the one-off late night versions of Hollyoaks, except with better actors, a much improved, wittier script, more bloodshed and a tension which although doesn't quite reach the heights or gory excesses of Wolf Creek, or the aptly named Haute Tension, still builds up to a fairly pleasing denouement.

Three young working class women from Leeds, either in their very late teens or early twenties have escaped from northern drudgery to Mallorca. Going out partying, they meet three southern middle class lads, one of whom swiftly steals a bottle of Champagne after one of the girls requests it. Suitably impressed, they retire to the beach, where they inform the girls that this is their last weekend in Mallorca and that they've been working on a yacht, whose owner has conveniently flown off somewhere and left them in charge. After a slight amount of hesitation from Tammi, played by Nichola Burley, who herself wasn't sure of the trip to begin with, they go out to sea, where the debauchery begins in earnest. Drugs, and then sex are the order of the day.

So far, so predictable, and so pedestrian. Having taken ecstasy and a hit off something resembling a crack or meth pipe, two of the girls have had their inhibitions lowered enough to allow themselves to be filmed naked kissing, which nonetheless still rings alarm bells of credulity, before the more audacious Lisa, played by Sian Breckin, invites the suitably dense and achingly nonchalant cool guy Bluey, played execrably by Tom Burke to engage in coitus. Filming all this for posterity is the shy, impressionable and younger Josh, who thinking he's only going to be able to jerk off while watching the two young women fuck his friends, is kindly allowed by Lisa to take over from Bluey while he grabs hold of the camera. About to climax, Bluey tells Josh jokingly to "go on, do it!" While it's not clear whether he's alluding to the previous discussion of unusual sexual practices, where donkey punching was mentioned, or to Josh blowing his load, Josh takes it upon himself to do the former. Tragedy occurs.

It's here where Donkey Punch finally comes into its own. The male group understandably panic, and figure that if they dump Lisa's corpse out in international waters, and say that she fell overboard, all of them will get off and put this terrible incident behind them. The two remaining young women, terrified, but not bowed, also understandably disagree. Their refusal to go along with the plan doesn't matter; Lisa is to be fish food.

At this point the film could have all gone to pot: as satisfying as a I Spit on Your Grave style rampage of revenge from one of the girls for what's happened to thier sister, even if not in blood, would have been, it would have stretched the film to breaking point, even if they had been further brutalised. Instead, it turns into a dripping, almost classical in scope orgy of chaos as one by one the bodycount increases. Incidentally, Amanda Platell has got the complete wrong end of the stick in her own criticism, mainly because what's clear is that the revenge that does come is being meted out by the females against those who have first tricked them, abused them, tried to control them and then finally resorted to out and out murder. If you wanted to get close to Pseud's Corner territory, you could even see it at a large stretch as a film depicting the class war in actual motion: the northern proletariat striking out at the southern, public school educated bourgeois twits who have oppressed and exploited them for most of the film's length, even if at times they have been too trusting to begin with and gone along with their enemies. When Josh, even after the death of Lisa orders the two remaining women, surrounded by the lads to sort them out a meal, it's impossible not to see the sexist overtones which are afterwards hurled back in the most vicious way. In a way, it's little more than an updating of the laughable, ideologically bankrupt cautionary message of Last House on the Left, but both films equally have far more power than just to shock and wag the finger.

The one overwhelming problem which almost blunts the attack is that moments of comedy horror creep into two of the death scenes. If accidental or through sloppy film-making it could be understood, but it's clearly meant to be seen that way. As a result it undermines the tension that has been built up, and almost breaks the spell completely. It's mainly down to the subtle but excellent performance by Burley as Tammi that the momentum is not affected.

Despite Platell's endorsement, much of what's here, apart from the orgy and punch itself, which are as you would expect fairly graphic, there's nothing here in the violence or gore stakes that you won't have seen before, mainly because it would be out of kilter with the film itself if there was. It's also perverse to see it as part of the torture porn genre, which is purely nihilistic and indulges in depravity because it can; the script here is too strong, the characters, if not completely three-dimensional fairly well-drawn, and the social commentary far too prevalent. If there was one word to describe the torture-porn genre, you'd be inclined to use grimy, as both the locations, the filming and the scripts are exactly that. Here instead there is gloss, and while I wouldn't say that it is anything approaching realistic, up until the film's title sequence it's nothing that is beyond the realms of imagination.

While not a classic by any means, Donkey Punch stands above most of the recent American offerings that share similar motivations, and does suggest that a new generation of British film-makers and also actors can escape from the drama/comedy/soap-oriented hell to the big screen without making such drivel as Sex Lives of the Potato Men or Three and Out, Daily Mail approved or not.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008 

Film review: Diary of the Dead.

When George A. Romero finally got the funding and studio-backing that had been missing from his original dead/zombie trilogy to produce his long-written script for the fourth film in the series, most assumed that he'd finally be able to square the critical and box office success he managed with the first two films with the production values that had been absent from them. In the circumstances, Tom Savini's gore effects in both Dawn and Day were superb, with the effects in Day, although over-the-top remaining some of the most effective to date, but the zombies themselves somewhat suffered. While this was corrected to an extent in Day, it still lacked the budget that would have enabled Romero's original vision to be realised.

In the event, Land of the Dead was a mess. It perhaps didn't help that it came shortly after Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright had ripped the genre to pieces with Shaun of the Dead (a film incidentally that Romero loves and championed), while Zack Synder remade the original Dawn, which was a competent updating if nowhere near on the level of the original, but it just didn't come close to equalling the first three in the series. While all the previous films had made use of almost unknown to completely unknown actors, Land saw stalwarts of the scene like Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento make appearances, and ones that just didn't seem to fit with either the mood of Romero's previous works or that helped the film in other states rather than recognition. Romero had simply taken the story arc as far as it could conceivably go in Day: even the military and scientists had been overwhelmed, with the only safe havens distant islands. Now we were back to a city where intricate defences had been built with the poor going on scavenger hunts for the rich walled up in secure apartments, and where the vehicle which took them on such jaunts seemed a bigger star than the characters themselves. The money which he had always felt that he had needed to create his opus had actually only shown up the weaknesses that he had previously thrived on overcoming.

The announcement that there was to be a fifth in the series, with Romero going back to his roots and starting again from scratch, on a much-lower budget and with again mainly no-name actors filling the roles pointed towards a potential return to form. The only sticking point was that the story was to be based around college students filming a horror film only to be interrupted by the dead returning to life; it stank of all the inherent problems which have long afflicted "slasher" films where the characters are crude stereotypes to be killed off rather than developed.

Nobody needed to of worried. The very last thing that Romero does is create weak characters: even if you don't really know much about the 4 individuals put together in Dawn, you soon warm to them regardless of their sketchiness. Diary works so well exactly because the students which are thrown together, trying to reach their various homes and survive the zombie awakening are, unlike in so many other films in the genre, likeable, well-rounded and actually believable as students. The perhaps one weak-spot is their professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), the rather unbelievably erudite, suave and given to profound epiphanies Englishman, seen constantly swigging from a canteen, whom we later learn is a graduate of Eton, where he handily learned archery. Thankfully, he's just a bit of fun and clearly not to be taken too seriously.

Starting out with a news report that documents some of the first "dead" returning to life and with the students learning during the shooting of their mummy movie from the radio that there are reports coming in of zombies starting to maraude, the conceit is that Jason (played by Joshua Close), the lead, has always wanted to be a documentary-maker rather than a film-maker, and so naturally begins to shoot everything on their journey together in a Winnebago. The first step is naturally to retrieve his cynical girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), whose first remark on seeing him after he enters her room is to ask him why he's filming.

It's the question that's asked throughout the picture, and one though it never quite becomes tiresome, is rather overplayed. Romero's subtext and social commentary has never been entirely subtle, and the riff this time round is clearly that user-generated content and citizen news-gathering is the future. Indeed, the mainstream news, which they have on occasionally, is broadcasting that the outbreak is simply a virus and that everyone reporting that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living is simply mistaken or exaggerating. Briefly the satire turns on the American government directly, with a White House official asked to justify why the terrorist threat level was initially raised at the beginning of the outbreak, with the official then going on to argue that things will return to normal shortly and that no one should panic. This is of course just slightly unbelievable; we're talking about the US news networks here, never afraid in the slightest to scaremonger or screen the most sensationalist stories they can possibly find, almost urging viewers to panic perpetually. That they wouldn't be screening some of the user shot footage sent into them to prove the government is lying is also rather daft. Still, that isn't Romero's point; it's rather that the corporate machine has taken over, and that it simply can't be trusted with something as loosely defined as the truth. Lying beneath the surface is in actual fact a far more interesting notion: just why do we film and watch the most horrendous things that we can imagine and just happen to come into contact with, and does this make us any better than those who perpetrate such things? Why also do we increasingly feel the need to record our every moment, our every thought and every action? This is most powerfully expressed at the film's conclusion, in a gore scene which outdoes everything else in the picture by quite a margin.

Due to the film's conceit that everything is being recorded by relative amateurs, if film students, the rather shaky hand-held camera-work can be somewhat annoying to start with, but it's still nowhere near as bad as the awful MTV-video style constant cutting which afflicts so many new Hollywood movies, and you soon get used to it. Most impressive is that the no-name cast has delivered for the most part, with Michelle Morgan as Debra being especially impressive both in narrating what her boyfriend shot and in her role as the long-suffering voice of reason that tries to understand Jason's motives for continuing to shoot while everything around them is falling apart. It's clear that it's Jason's way of coping as they come into contact with the shambling dead, as well as how little by little their group diminishes before they eventually reach the "fortress" home of one of their friends who went off on his own at the start, and where the film begins its final act. He's also not immune to wanting stardom, as his hastily-edited first part of what has happened to them rapidly gains 72,000 hits within 10 minutes on MurdochSpace. This is what makes the film: while such details would have been brushed out of a Hollywood effort in delivering all-out mayhem, action and gore from start to finish, or dealt with quickly and unsatisfactorily, such as in the Dawn remake, Romero's script and narrative is at least 10 times as intelligent as all his imitators, as you would expect.

Speaking of the gore, and keeping in mind the low-budget origins (the film was shot for approx $2,000,000), much of it is of the CGI variety and looks it, but a gag near the beginning where Debra uses hospital resuscitation pads on a zombie's head, resulting in a eyeball explosion is impressive and amusing, and the later use of weaponry other than guns also alluded to is pulled off with relative panache. The effects are produced by Savini protege Greg Nicotero, as they were in Land, which provides the connection to the landmark effects in the previous films. Nothing does however quite reach the nastiness and comment of the set-piece in Land where a girl has her navel-piercing pulled out by a zombie's teeth, which is a shame. Also evident if you can spot them, and I relatively failed, are news bulletins as read by Wes Craven, Tarantino, Stephen King, Simon Pegg and Guillermo del Toro as well as one directly taken from the film that started it all, Night, while Romero also puts in a more easily noticeable cameo.

Flawed as it, it's definitely a return to form for the master of zombie horror, and who can bet against Romero now turning in a sixth and one would imagine final Dead film to end it all on a high?

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Saturday, July 07, 2007 

Film review: Hostel: Part II

(This review contains spoilers.)

Sometimes, you end up getting things horribly wrong. The original Hostel, a film so flatulently awful, offensively irredeemable and without a single aspect worthy of defending, couldn't possibly produce a sequel that would be any better, or at least that was what I thought. I went along to see it with the sole intention of coming back here and writing about how it was yet another new low in modern Hollywood horror film-making, a further cynical cash-in on a genre that rather than going back to its roots continues to stagnate and degrade inexorably. Eli Roth, who before directing Hostel made the similarly breathtakingly bad Cabin Fever, was just a hack who had somehow picked up the backing of Quentin Tarantino, possibly because he can tell a money-maker when he sees one.

Well, I take it all back. Hostel: Part II by comparison to the original is a smartly-made, reasonably well-written and competently directed film by a man that on this evidence will probably only get better. First though, some background.

Hostel: Part II undoubtedly belongs to the new-wave of horror films that most agree have risen in response to the glut of post-modern slashers, ala Scream, and the Hollywood remaking of Japanese horror flicks, eg the Ring, Grudge and the Eye, films that were already tame by the gorehounds' standards which Western directors' subsequently made even less challenging. Designed as a return to the exploitation genre's heyday of the 70s, where for a while almost anything went and where post-modernism and the tongue in cheek were yet to be invented, most of the returns have actually been fairly disappointing or even more questionable. Leading this pack are Rob Zombie, Roth, Alexandre Aja, and the various directors of the Saw franchise. All, some would suggest in the aftermath of 9/11 and with the rise of a new perceived brutality, both in and outside the realms of bourgeois society, have decided that the public mood is no longer on the jump-scares provided by the Japanese ghost films or the weak, PG-13 rated-slasher more focused on providing pop-culture references than on delivering the goods in the way of blood and grue, but on nihilism, unflinching violence and in the case of Zombie's the Devil's Rejects, making serial killers into anti-heroes where it's difficult to know whether you're meant to sympathise with the debauched police or with the wise-cracking murderers.

In actual fact, while Zombie's films are unashamed homages to the excesses of the 70s, being set then for a start, and at least the original Saw owes as much to Seven as it does to the days of "It's only a movie", Roth's Hostel owes a far greater debt to another Japanese film, Audition. Directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, Audition is almost certainly his masterpiece, at least outside the yakuza gangster genre which he has made his own. While the film is as much a study of who holds the power in relationships, of who's using who and of the Japanese work ethic as it is an out-and-out horror, the last 40 minutes are rightly considered some of the most intense, downright twisted and shocking in recent times, just as the first hour is quiet and unassuming by comparison. The last twenty minutes especially, where the middle-aged businessman who used the process of an audition for a film to meet young women is tortured by the beautiful yet mysterious Asami, are as much the template for Roth's scenes in a Slovakian dungeon where the rich pay to kill and torture backpackers as anything else.

There has been plenty of comment, both in America and over here about how this new-wave is in effect "torture-porn", glamourising and brazenly depicting acts of depravity which a couple of decades ago would have resulted in the films themselves being banned. There is a certain amount of merit to those making such arguments, but that's about all. While Zombie's Rejects is certainly troubling, it's a brilliantly executed dark journey which has been seen before, and lest we forget, those responsible for the carnage do get their comeuppance, even if it is to Free Bird and beautifully shot. It's the Saw sequels, and most certainly the last one which perhaps come closest to meeting the description, being little more than one scene after another of sickening tests of both nerve and stomach, with little of the suspense of the first or the brilliantly simple but still pleasing twist of the second. Additionally, while the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition may have brought torture back to the top of the news agenda, and these films may be attempting to cash-in, there's nothing in these films that anyone's either going to get off on or likely to attempt to replicate, although saying that there has recently been a case in the Netherlands where Hostel has taken the blame, although it was bound to happen sooner or later.

These films can neither adequately be described as glorifying torture, featuring porn, or in actual fact being either. For the most part they are just a response to what the public wants: let's not forget that Hollywood is now so ruthlessly focus-grouped that there's little that'll be released that doesn't meet their approval, which is why so much of its output is mundane, dull, unoriginal, brainless and for the most part inoffensive, at least to an American audience. The new wave of horror is around the only thinking outside the box which is currently going on, and the public and critics are mixed, rightly so considering how abysmal the original Hostel and other recent attempts at upping the ante like Captivity and Paradise Lost are.

Where the original Hostel suffered was in its sheer boneheadedness. Roth, rather than heeding the message of Audition which is what he was trying to emulate, decided not to bother with the excellent characterisation, plotting, feeling of dread and dream/nightmare-like quality which built up during it and instead focused on recreating the visceral nature of the torture: unsurprisingly, the film as a result was execrable. Taking 3 young men, each more annoying and unsympathetic than the last and leading them one by one into the torture chamber simply didn't work. We needed to care about them to share the horror of their torture; instead they were stereotypically badly-behaved Americans (with one Icelandic guy tagging along for the ride) abroad in Amsterdam, smoking pot, visiting stunningly gorgeous prostitutes (the only one of whom who isn't is described as "a fucking hog") before being persuaded to move onto Slovakia, where there's been "a war", and as a result the young ladies are gagging for it. The casual denigration of women continues apace throughout, with them either being whores or monsters who sell their foreign friends into the dungeon, but not before it's revealed that they're in fact ugly beneath their make-up. In comparison to its reputation, the actual torture and gore is remarkably slight, with only the scene featuring a young girl's eye meeting a blowtorch being particularly nasty (she later throws herself under a train once she's seen herself in a mirror; undoubtedly because she's a vain female like all the rest of them). Some defenders of the film tried to paint it as being some sort of satire either on American ignorance, or on cultural imperialism, but that always seemed far-fetched. This was cynicism and the work of a hack rather than someone trying to say something.

Despite its success, it seems that Roth took all these criticisms and more on board. Ignoring the beginning, which quickly deals with the demise of the only survivor from the previous film, Roth twists the original full-circle, with instead of 3 guys out to fuck anything that moves we instead have 3 young American women, Beth, the "straight" one, played by Lauren German who has a striking resemblance to Nicola Walker, Whitney, the party girl, played by Bijou Phillips and Lorna, the nerd, played by Heather Matarazzo. While Whitney and Lorna mostly do the same thing the two guys with the similar characterisation in the first film did, Roth obviously realised he was going to need to flesh out Beth much more than he previously did Paxton. As a result, she's the fully-formed, sympathetic and well-written centre of the film, with a decent performance from German helping immensely. While there are a couple of major holes still, as she's supposedly swimming in money but not living the high life, instead slumming it while one would imagine others in her position doing the opposite, especially as she's deeply concerned about getting into potential dangerous situations, she's the structure which the original was crying out for.

In fact, the major problem with the film isn't that Roth's tried to up the ante while further developing the characters, it's that he's tucked-in a sub-plot which is neither believable nor necessary. While the original just centred purely on the three backpackers, this time round we also see the story develop from the viewpoint of two of the men who've paid to murder our three young American ladies, who incidentally carry a far higher price than any other nationality. Why two Americans would be paying to kill their own kind when in certain parts of the states they could just shoot someone and claim it was self-defence for nothing is unclear, but it's forgivable. What isn't forgivable is how Todd (played by Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart) are an unhappy throwback to the cliches and bad writing of the original. Todd is in simple terms a psychopath, a businessman looking forward to slaughtering someone as he would clinch a deal, while Stuart is the family-man unsure of the whole business. Predictably, their roles are eventually reversed, as every horror flick now worthy of the name has to have such a twist.

Roth in fact succeeds most in the demise of Lorna, the nerd who's bumped off half-way through. In the sort of scene that would have given James Ferman a heart attack, she's hung-upside down naked while the woman who's paid to kill her enters, strips off and lays beneath her in a sort of bath, before using a scythe to first scratch and then rip apart her prey's skin, resulting in a shower of blood not seen since Carrie. It's undoubtedly the sort of scene that fits the bill for torture-porn, yet it's carried off with such panache that you almost feel the blade against scraping against your own skin. Very few of the other attempts in the genre have come close to creating such an excellent set-piece, both scary and satisfying. It's perhaps worth mentioning that during the video nasties moral panic the case of SS Experiment Camp featured a woman half-naked upside down on a cross, which caused more outrage than perhaps the actual content of the film itself did; things, it seems, have quite rightly moved on.

Nothing else quite comes close to equalling that, but the cinematography is splendid thoroughout. The extended budget over the original shows, with many more full shots showcasing the well-chosen locations, and Roth certainly maturing as a film-maker. Unlike most recent Hollywood efforts, the frenetic steadicam shots are kept to a minimum, and the film is far better for it. Keeping with the spirit of the first, where the aforementioned Miike made a daft cameo, this time round we have Edwige Fenech, the Italian starlet who featured in many 70s sex comedies and giallos making an appearance, still looking stunning, with Ruggero Deodato, director of the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, a film far, far better than this one, living up to his reputation by playing err, a cannibal.

While by no means perfect, Hostel Part II is certainly worth a look. The misogyny is gone, much more attention has been paid to the characterisation and the blood-letting, as it is, is far improved. The only real clanging scenes are one in which a load of severed heads, including Paxton's, are discovered by Beth in Sacha's wardrobe, and the train scenes involving an attempt by Beth and Whitney to score drugs, although it provides a rather weak echo for the film's conclusion. It doesn't come close to the tension and dread in Wolf Creek for example, or the sheer brilliance of Haute Tension, but no longer can it be said that Roth is just going through the motions.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007 

Film review: 300.

Out of all those influenced or inspired by the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans allied with 700 Thespian volunteers managed for three days to hold back the overwhelming Persian forces, the most infamous was how it was exploited by the Nazi propaganda ministry in the lead-up to the fall of Berlin, trying to inspire an already broken German people to further resist when all was already lost. Hitler, deluded to the last, wanted to take the entire German nation down with him.

Politics then are always going to play at least some part in any re-imagining of a battle that enabled the Greek empire to regroup and repulse the Persian invasion. A previous attempt at filming it,
the 300 Spartans, made with the co-operation of the Greek government was noted for its cold war overtones. Based on a comic by Frank Miller, not noted for his political sensitivities or his subtlety (his Sin City, filmed by Robert Rodriguez, involved one of the heroes rescuing a little girl who repays him once she's grown up into Jessica Alba by banging him) the omens were perhaps not good from the start.

The one bright spot was that Zack Snyder, who previously directed the Dawn of the Dead remake which eschewed the consumer society eating itself satire of Romero's original to go for full-on zombie action instead, was signed up to do the honours. Unlike his Dawn however, 300 doesn't just make the subtext obvious like it was in Romero's Dawn; it slices your head off and then screams it down your neck.

For 300 is so completely overbearing in apparent modern day "war on terror" clash of civilisations subtext, something that Snyder himself less than convincingly denies, that it stifles everything else in the film. The Spartans, led by King Leonidas, played reasonably well given what he has to work with by Gerard Butler, aren't just holy, beautiful, Western warriors, fighting for freedom, justice and presumably the Greek equivalent of apple pie against barbarian, ugly, mystic Asian hordes who want to overthrow the only bastion of rationalism and modernity in the world, they're the only remaining hope for humanity as we know it.

Did I mention that the Persians are hideous? For they are; in fact the only somewhat decent-looking Persian depicted here is Xerxes himself, and that's in a homoerotic, body-pierced, hulking giant form of beauty. Played by the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, he stands at least two foot taller than Leonidas, his sculpted pectorals not quite as pronounced as the Spartans' own heavily digitally enhanced chests, but still definitely the closest that Spartans come to a mirror to themselves, albeit a greyed, evil version. The rest of the Persians are either black, smirking Arabs with strange facial hair and more piercings who quickly meet a unsavory end, masked warriors whose choice of facial covering more than resembles that of modern-day mujahideen, or the deformed Immortals, who wear steel Scream-type masks to hide their leper like faces.

There is no in-between when it comes to good and the bad, the attractive and the imperfect. The good, righteous Spartans are universally beautiful, their bodies sculpted to either being perfectly muscular or waif-like, depending on their sex, the exceptions being the elephant-man like Ephilates who betrays Leonidas for rejecting him from the frontline due to his inability to raise his shield and the traitorous, peace-mongering priests who tell Leonidas not to go to war after consulting the gorgeous, auburn-haired, nude Oracle. The Persians instead are the opposite, as described above, with even their women being bulky, their bodies pierced, and decidedly brown compared to the pale but bronzed Spartans.

The little dialogue that there is, substituted instead to get as much blood-drenched, limb-flaying, head-chopping carnage on screen as possible in the two-hour running time is dedicated to shouted impassioned pleas for/to Sparta, defending freedom while everyone else sits back and just lets these throwbacks enslave the whole of Greece. This couldn't be more symbolised by how Leonidas refers to the culture of Athens being devoted to "philosophers and boy-lovers", while the treacherous politician Theron, opposed to Grecian deployment to support Leonidas, pledges to do the opposite, but only if Leonidas' Queen Gogo submits to him sexually. Just to rub it in, he not only seemingly sodomises her, but tells her that "this will not be quick, you will not enjoy this." War, slaughter and blood-letting are for heroes, who'll be immortalised forever as the beautiful people, while those who oppose it are cowardly traitors, defined either by being in the pay of the enemy or by their resemblance to mutants.

As for the look of the film, Snyder couldn't have piled it on more thickly or monotonously. Everything is meant to make you permanently alert, at least one of the battles is introduced with hardcore power chords, and it all becomes enormously tiresome. The battles are at least to begin with competently shot, although the constant fast cutting soon overstays its welcome.

It's wrong however to see 300 as directly being a plea for war against Iran, against modern-day Iranian culture or in any way supporting President Bush: doing this in the same sledgehammer way as the film's lust for war would have been too much and take too long. What's more than apparent though is that it certainly is at the least a paean to neo-conservative ideology: might is right, defending our values of democracy in the battlefield to the death is noble, heroic, and in no way counter-productive. Anyone who opposes it is worthy of derision. In fact, 300's portrayal of martyrdom is actually closer to the fundamentalist Islamic love of death, designed to send a message to the corrupt kafir Muslims to rise themselves up in the holy jihad. It certainly couldn't be further from the dark, ugly side of American might we saw put into practice by the grunts at Abu Ghraib.

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