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EW review: A vicious, effective 'Hostel'

Also: OK 'Matador,' fine 'Countess'

By Owen Gleiberman
Entertainment Weekly

Hostel
One of the guests in "Hostel," a gory tale about three friends who end up in the wrong place.

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(Entertainment Weekly) -- Sadism was once an element in horror films. Now it's more or less the only element, with the fear of death replaced by the fear of torture -- a fate worse than death.

The new megaplex sado-thrillers, like "Hostel," strive for the sensation of reality-based dread: the feeling that it's you, the poor viewer, who's being strapped into that chair or hung up on that meat hook, as a sweat-soaked creep in a leather apron approaches your face with a power drill. The decor? Late medieval dungeon, with a soupon of smeared bathroom tile. Are we having fun yet?

In "Hostel," directed by Eli Roth and coexecutive-produced by Quentin Tarantino, a trio of jerky collegiate dudes, two (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson) from the U.S. and one (Eythor Gudjonsson) from Iceland, cruise the discos and hash bars of QT's mythical haunt, Amsterdam, in search of eager babes.

Then, acting on a tip, they travel to a place in which the action is even hotter: Slovakia, where a rusty, dead-zone village is the site of a youth hostel brimming with curvy Eastern European girls who line up, between visits to the nude spa, to meet any posh Western tourist.

It's obligatory for a horror film to feature exploitative sex as an appetizer, but Roth, even as he fulfills the sleaze imperative, does something shrewder: He mocks his heroes, presenting them as cold-eyed horndog jerks who fail to see that they've wandered into an entire country of exploitation, a land where no one has any money and therefore everything is for sale.

Including mutilation for fun. Having tasted the charms of the former Soviet empire, our dude heroes get sold off, one by one, to the local warehouse dungeon, where for a mere $25,000 clients can arrange to torture and kill someone in any way they fancy. What's disturbing about this scenario is its patina of plausibility: You may or may not believe that slavering redneck psychos, of the kind who leer through Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects," can be found in the Southwest, but it's all too easy to envision this sort of depravity in the former Soviet bloc, the crack-up of which has produced a brutal marketplace of capitalistic fiendishness.

The torture scenes in "Hostel" (snipped toes, sliced ankles, pulled eyeballs) are not, in essence, much different from the surgical terrors in the "Saw" films, only Roth, by presenting his characters as victims of the same world of flesh-for-fantasy they were grooving on in the first place, digs deep into the nightmare of a society ruled by the profit of illicit desire.

EW Grade: B

'The Matador'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

From the opening shots of a Mexican bullfighter -- the ''killer'' of title and metaphor -- to the vivid visual design built from hot primary colors and shots of cool long corridors, "The Matador" waves crazy overconfidence like a cape.

Here, writer-director Richard Shepard asserts, is a seedy, amoral contract killer who goes by the gussied-up name of Julian Noble, calls himself a ''facilitator of fatalities,'' and is played with businesslike breeziness by Brosnan, aiming yet another sharp boot up the arse of his James Bond persona.

Among Noble's many disgusting, anti-Bond qualities are a taste for cheap booze and underage girls and a conversational stream of sexual crudities. He's also burnt-out -- a phrase not in the 007 handbook -- and "The Matador" gets its lurching game on when Noble meets squeaky-clean traveling salesman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear, projecting the remembered blurriness of every woman's college roommate's husband) in a Mexico City hotel bar.

The slimeball and the straight arrow find masculine common ground nursing sadnesses and fantasizing about the greener grass of the other fellow's life while Mexico City pulses with possibility and loss. (Shepard shot "The Matador" entirely in Mexico -- even the places identified as Las Vegas, Budapest, and Vienna.)

But once yin meets yang, "The Matador" turns into a confused buddy picture, Hope Davis is underused as Danny's suburban-sexy wife, and the whole thing stumbles to a lurching close -- not the sharp, clean final thrust of a matador at his peak, but the messy slashings of an eager apprentice.

Still, the cinematography is consistently hipster handsome, the script is bracing in its lewdness, and Brosnan adds no unnecessary weight to Noble's meaninglessness.

EW Grade: B

'The White Countess'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

When refined English actors put on studious American accents, the problem isn't that you can hear the ghost of their British inflections echo through. It's that too often, their expressive mojo gets absorbed into all that rehearsed linguistic fakery.

That's just how Ralph Fiennes, speaking in jarringly sculpted low tones, sounds in "The White Countess" -- like a guy doing a schoolbook impersonation of a straight-talking, ''normal'' American. Yet such is Fiennes' suppleness as an actor that he makes the boldly exaggerated, rounded-vowel, ersatz-Yank sound work for him.

It helps that he's playing a blind man; deliberation is built into his being. As Todd Jackson, a former diplomat and would-be nightclub proprietor hanging around 1936 Shanghai, Fiennes wears a bow tie that's meant to evoke Bogart's in "Casablanca," but he's courtly and sweet where Bogie was gruff. He's a true contradiction -- a mandarin dreamer.

Natasha Richardson, radiant enough to play Anna Karenina, is Sofia, an exile of Russian royalty who supports her family as a taxi dancer and prostitute (they live off her money and despise her for her ''sin''). When she meets Jackson, the sparks fly, though mostly from his direction; we hardly know whether to root for him or feel sorry for him.

"The White Countess" is the final film from the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who had worked together since 1963 (Merchant, the producer, died last year), and it's a pleasure to report that their swan song, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a gilded-canvas work of graceful and touching skill -- a repressed love story that basks in smoky wisps of period intrigue.

Jackson, in search of a cocoon, is oblivious to the storm brewing between the Chinese and the Japanese, so he sets up the bar of his dreams: the White Countess, where the usual pleasures (drinking, dancing, the mingling of men with power) are distinguished by a luminous civility. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that this oasis of romance amid the turmoil of Shanghai represents the way that Merchant and Ivory, for 40 years, saw themselves: as a sanctuary of calming, life-size taste in a movie culture grown coarse. It was often far from perfect, but I'll miss that sanctuary.

EW Grade: B+


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