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Friday, Sept. 7, 2007

'Black Snake Moan'/'Hostel 2'

Pain please


Some of you may have seen the poster for "Black Snake Moan"; it's pretty hard to miss. Glowering at the viewer is Samuel L. Jackson, looking pretty burly in a dirty white tank-top, holding a heavy-looking chain. All chained up is Christina Ricci, on her knees in a skimpy outfit, and throwing a meaningful look. It's topped off by a salacious slogan: "Everything is HOTTER down South."

Black Snake Moan Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Black Snake Moan
Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci in "Black Snake Moan"

Director: Craig Brewer
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Sep. 7, 2007)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Yet however much this may look like an exploitation movie, "Black Snake Moan" is strictly wannabe; it talks the talk, but it sure don't walk the walk. The loaded image in the poster is deliberately pushing buttons and playing with stereotypes, and yet the movie can't deliver on this promise.

Director Craig Brewer seeks to set his film up as a cinematic version of the blues. The title comes from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, and the film opens with an old clip of bluesman Son Kite talking into the mike. "Ain't but one kind of blues," he says. "Two people supposed to be in love, but one deceives the other through their love."

Cut to Rae (Ricci) in bed with her boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). Soldier-boy Ronnie has to leave for Iraq, despite Rae's pleading with him to stay. "This ain't gonna work," she tells him, and true enough within days she's having sex with local crack dealer Tehrron (David Banner). Concurrent to Rae's story is that of Lazarus (Jackson), an older man who's left his blues-singer past behind him and now works as a hardscrabble farmer. He's on the other end of betrayal, as his wife has left him for another man.

While Lazarus' bitterness festers, Rae's neediness veers into nymphomania and substance abuse. One wild evening, Rae takes a lift from the wrong guy, and winds up dumped by the side of the road, half-naked, beaten and unconscious. Lazarus finds her near his property and carries her home to care for her.

Now, at this point, that poster is probably leading you to expect a racially-loaded version of "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down." But guess again; Laz resists nympho Rae's attempts to jump his bones, holding up his Bible while she squirms and moans like she's Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." Laz visits Tehrron, who warns him: "She got the sickness, y'know. She gotta get it or she goes crazy." Next thing you know, old Lazarus has Rae chained to his radiator, yelling, "God seen fit to put you in my path, and I aim to cure you of the wickedness!"

Exploitation flick fans can tune out here. What follows is kind of like "Driving Miss Daisy" for crackheads. Lazarus' preacher friend R.L. (John Cothran Jr.) turns up and together the two men turn Rae onto the righteous path. In the blues, the devil has all the best songs, but "Black Snake Moan" clearly takes the path of the good lord. But the notion that firm discipline (chains) is all it takes to cure a lifetime of damage is a bit much. Jackson and Ricci keep you involved, though, even when the plot goes south.

* * * * *

Far closer to the sick heart of exploitation flicks is "Hostel 2," which draws from the seediest, most sadistic hardcore of the genre. Back in the day, torture cruelty flicks such as "Bloodsucking Freaks" were so far underground that only true pervs could find them; nowadays, the "torture-porn" genre — films such as "Saw," "Captivity" and, ahem, "The Passion Of The Christ" — play in the multiplexes. A rather scary thought.

Hostel 2 Rating: (1 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Hostel 2
(c)2007 SCREEN GEMS, INC./LIONS GATE FILMS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Eli Roth
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 8, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The first "Hostel" movie followed a bunch of American frat-boy tourists who were lured to a Slovakian hostel with the promise of loose women, only to end up abducted to a secret dungeon club where members got to torture them to death. "Hostel 2" has the same scenario, except this time the victims are female, and we get to meet the torturers.

When "Hostel" came out, some critics smelled a whiff of anti-American irony, an Abu Ghraib backlash, as it were, by having American teens on the receiving end of torture. But far more likely was the usual U.S. portrayal of "old Europe" as a land of sick pervs and Gestapo. (Mike Meyers' "Goldmember" is one blatant example.)

Quentin Tarantino is listed as Executive Producer on "Hostel 2," and clearly the current cinematic taste for torture can trace a lineage to the ear-cutting scene in "Reservoir Dogs." Tarantino's least attractive trait is his sadistic streak, but at least he deploys it sparingly. Director Eli Roth, however, knows nothing but; his "Hostel" series comes across as the work of someone who never met a face he didn't want to disfigure.

It's hard to call "Hostel 2" a horror film, though, because it's not very frightening. It's grim, nonetheless: a rather nauseating catalog of explicit mutilation, like castration with bolt-cutters, or a power-saw to the face. Even more disturbing is the film's idea of justice — if you escape a torturer's grasp, what better response than to do the same to them?

Perhaps the most frightening thing about "Hostel 2" is that some people actually enjoy watching quasi-snuff films such as this. Fortunately, I don't know any of them. Do you? If so, give them a good, sharp paper cut and watch them whine. Then ask them to thank you for providing some much-needed perspective.



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