With all of the (not completely unfounded) "torture porn" invective heaped upon last year's "Hostel," it's clarifying to bear in mind that none of the horrors that director Eli Roth depicts in either that movie or its just-released sequel, "Hostel: Part II," is really new. All of Roth's slashings, beheadings and jokey castrations knowingly echo the earlier work of various Italian slashmasters — Dario Argento, Joe D'Amato, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, the usual crew. In the new film, Roth has even made room for a, shall we say, juicy cameo by "Cannibal Holocaust" auteur Ruggero Deodato.
This sort of fanboy preening can be an annoyance (see Quentin Tarantino's half of "Grindhouse"). But Roth brings such exuberance to his arterial tributes that you can't help but applaud his spirit. And "Hostel II" differs from its predecessor in significant ways. There's not quite as much nudity in the new film, which is of course too bad; but it's a funnier picture, with a more interesting story.
This time out, the people in highly-anticipated peril are three young women: rich girl Beth (Lauren German), carnal firecracker Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and doomed geekette Lorna ("Welcome to the Dollhouse" icon Heather Matarazzo). On vacation in Rome, they're approached by a mysterious beauty named Axelle (Euro fashion model Vera Jordanova), who advises them that the Eternal City is nothing compared to the wonders of Slovakia, where she knows, as do we, of a happening hostel. The three girls nitwittedly agree to accompany her there, and are soon headed east on a train that's also transporting a herd of subhuman thugs, with whom they quickly make an unwanted acquaintance. Roth starts tightening the screws here with malignant expertise.
Arriving at the hostel, the three Americans are greeted by everybody's favorite Slovakian desk clerk (Milda Jedi Havlas). They hand over their passports and he hands them their keys. Then he scurries down to the basement, photocopies their pictures and emails them out to homicidal maniacs worldwide, along with the announcement that bidding is now open. The winners of this lethal auction turn out to be two other Americans, a well-heeled stud named Todd (Richard Burgi) and his shlubby bud, Stuart (Roger Bart). Soon they, too, are on their way to exciting Slovakia.
After reporting in to their hotel, Todd and Stuart are escorted to the familiar "Hostel" murder factory and issued a pair of black-leather butcher aprons and an assortment of drills, knives, chainsaws and what have you. They get right to work. Amid the ensuing mayhem, only one scene, I think, completely qualifies as torture porn. It's a repulsive interlude in which the suspended Lorna is tormented with a scythe by a naked woman who lies beneath her, bathing in her blood. ("Mrs. Bathory," the woman's called — one of Roth's little gore-lore jokes.) The other abuses on view — skull-sawing, face-munching, ear-needling — although staged with distinctive brio, will hardly be novel to fans of cinematic excruciation. Even the requisite genital-severing is played strictly — and successfully — for laughs. (Also amusing is the scene in which Todd manages to only half-kill one girl, and the management quickly peddles her off to another demented client at a discount.)
Like every other sequel these days, the conclusion of this one offers the hopefully tantalizing possibility of yet another one. In this case, however, the set-up actually is intriguing, and a sequel might well be worthwhile. Not for everybody, of course. Most moviegoers would no doubt find this picture to be a hideous and deplorable exercise. Who would want to see such stuff? Well, at the screening I attended, Roth himself was on hand, introducing the film with a triumphal bray: "Are you ready for some f---ed-up sh--!" The response, from a large contingent of the crowd, was a gleeful chorus of bleats and cheers. Fanboys — what're you gonna do with 'em?
"Ocean's Thirteen": Stargazing
Maybe the most interesting thing about these movies is how immeasurably better they are than the original "Ocean's Eleven," a 1960 Rat Pack souvenir that is now virtually unwatchable. That film presented Frank Sinatra and his drinking cronies (Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and so on) as the incarnation of up-to-date, wise-cracking hipness. What they really were, though, in the parlance of the period, was "swingers," a more raucous and rather less-cool thing. The movie got over on the strength of the stars' showbiz charisma, which was real; but their Vegasoid swanning — even in a story that's set in Vegas — is now leadenly dated.
No doubt audiences 40 years from now will look back upon Steven Soderbergh's three "Ocean's" movies and their stars (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and so on) as irretrievably mired in their own period, too. But the species of contemporary hipness in which these actors trade seems (to us, at least) less grating than the Pack product, more laid-back. Flashes of winking self-regard sometimes glimmer through, but for the most part the stars manage to underplay their celebrated fabulousness. It helps that Clooney and Pitt, especially, can own the screen just by walking into a scene. This is why they rate multimillion-dollar paydays. Unfortunately, with the arrival of "Ocean's Thirteen," it's beginning to seem that the spectacle of A-list salaries on parade may not be enough to sustain the series much longer. Especially since the films' blithe disregard for the intricacies of good heist-flick plotting is now shading over into something like contempt. Possibly for the audience.
In this installment, a Vegas casino magnate named Willie Bank (Al Pacino) is about to open his latest high-roller hotel -- a project he's pulled together by swindling Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), the dear friend and longtime pack-mate of Danny Ocean (Clooney). Deeply irked, Danny calls together his crew — Pitt, Damon, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, the gang's all here — to sabotage Bank's big opening. Doing this will involve creating a fake earthquake by burrowing underneath Bank's hotel; fomenting labor unrest at a factory in Mexico as a cover for the installation of radio-control doohickeys in a whole shipment's worth of casino dice; and altogether too, too much more.
In a classic caper movie — like the great "Rififi" or the nail-biting "Day of the Jackal" — a viewer's pleasure lies in being presented with a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and then being shown precisely how those obstacles can be cleverly surmounted. In "Ocean's Thirteen," that bottom-line requirement is basically ignored. The team's genius tech expert, Roman Nagel (Eddie Izzard), is suitably skeptical of Danny's plan — "You're analog players in a digital world," he wisely cracks. But he's being kind. This scheme was hatched in another world altogether, one where the laws of probability are on permanent vacation. The picture resembles one of those dreadful latter-day Bond movies, the kind in which the villain is headquartered in an Arctic ice castle or something.
Which isn't to say there's not a lot of action here — there's plenty. And it all looks great because the formidably gifted Soderbergh once again shot the film himself (under his "Peter Andrews" pseudonym). There are some funny ideas, too. (Willie Bank hires his restaurant waitresses to be "models who serve," so that if they gain weight he can fire them without breaking any labor laws.) And some of the running deadpan gags still pay off. (The team's Asian acrobat, played by Shaobo Qin, continues to spout nothing but Chinese, which nobody else can speak; but they continue to understand him anyway). And the scriptwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, provide some fine breezy dialogue. (There's a very funny scene in which Willie's sexy aide-de-camp, played by Ellen Barkin, is coming on to Matt Damon with some fine wine. "Château d'Yquem?" she purrs. "As long as it's not '73," he gasps.) But then we get a twilight interlude of humid reminiscence in which Clooney and Pitt meditate on the old Vegas of the Sinatra days (neither actor had even been born in 1960), when a casino on the Strip was still a magical place. "They built them a lot smaller back then," says Clooney. "They seemed pretty big," says Pitt. I'll spare you what I said.
"Ocean's Thirteen" is a sleek professional product of considerable charm -- an unobjectionably entertaining movie. But the plot-cheating in this one is more uncaringly blatant than it was in the previous films, and that's a burdensome thing in a picture with the existential heft of a cream éclair. Three desserts may be enough.
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