Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Match Point - Luck, Infidelity, and Dostoevsky

This is not your father's Woody Allen flick. The main reason for this is that it's not particularly funny. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a comedy. It's far more Crimes and Misdemeanors than Annie Hall, and it's actually even less funny than the former. But it's easy to forget how well Allen can do drama. And this is just about the best thing he's ever done, as far as I'm concerned.

Allow me to preface this by saying that I have found a new reason to love Woody Allen. Allen is clearly a fan of one of my two favorite novels, Crime and Punishment. At one point in the film, I was about to scream with glee at the sheer tonnage of homage. *feels weird talking about glee and Dostoevsky at the same time*

This movie is not what it appears to be in the advertisements, and it's one of those movies where the more you watch it, the more it surprises you. It starts slow, and seems more like a travelogue for London than a story. Then it becomes a fairly standard romance plot about two people drawn to each other but kept apart by their respective relationships. Then it turns into an infidelity plot. But in the third act it turns into something else altogether.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers (mmmm...) plays Chris, a former tennis pro who takes a job teaching. He soon befriends one of his puplis, Tom, and is invited to meet Tom's family for an evening at the opera. Chris spends more and more time with Tom's family and eventually becomes involved with his sister Chloe. And of course things get complicated when he meets Tom's lovely fiancee Nola. When Chris and Nola meet, you can see why they might be good together, were they not involved with other people. It's not just lust, though that's a major part of it. They have similar backgrounds and seem to understand each other. But they have one fundamental difference, and that is what takes their characters in different directions for the rest of the movie.

There are several different themes in the movie, but the one it's most interested in conveying is the concept of luck. The fairly well-known quote that it's "better to be lucky than good" opens the film, and that idea permeates much of the story. It's a lot like Crimes and Misdemeanors in that while money affects the destinies, the risings and fallings of the characters in C&D, luck determines the destinies of all of Match Point's characters. The ones that have it, rise; the ones that don't, fall.

There's an element of "be careful what you wish for" in the film as well. Chris goes to a lot of trouble to get what he wants, and when he gets it, whether it's a cushy, well-paying job or the affections of Nola, it's never what he thought it would be.

And then there's the Dostoevskian third act. Just ... wow. Can't say too much about it without spoiling it. Perhaps I've already said too much. :)

Did I mention that this is set in London? Another thing that makes it a different Woody Allen movie. And he shoots it with the same kind of love that he shoots Manhattan. The same amount of busy, the same kind of quirks, the same kind of urban beauty.

Match Point is definitely among the greatest films of 2005. It goes in directions you don't expect it to, and has lots of juicy characters with lots of flaws and neuroses. So ... maybe it's not that unusual for a Woody Allen movie after all.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I have an interesting relationship with horror movies. When I was a kid, I couldn't see that many, because a)our family didn't have a lot of money to go see any movies, and b)my dad was a preacher (and a decided un-fan of scary movies), so I was very rarely exposed to them. I'm kind of a wuss about them, even now. But I can't help being fascinated by them, and trying them out to see how far I can go and how much I can take.

So it was with equal parts excitement and terror that I stepped into a darkened theater to see Eli Roth's Hostel. I'd heard all kinds of things about it. Guys on Ain't It Cool News were calling it "the scariest film in a decade." There were the William Castle-esque marketing gimmicks where paramedics had supposedly been called in because audience members were vomiting, going into cardiac arrest, or otherwise freaking out. And I'd had one of my favorite Christmas carols ruined by the latest TV ads. I had been pumped up about seeing this movie for months, but on the morning I had intended to see it, I started to get cold feet.

I'm not sure how much of the plot to give away. On the one hand, most of you are probably not likely to see this film unless under extreme duress. On the other, the movie does have quite a sucker punch that I was bummed had been ruined for me (and it was ruined in one of the first trailers).

Paxton and Josh are American college students who are backpacking through Europe. They meet up with their Icelandic friend Oli in Paris and the three of them go looking for adventure. They go to Amsterdam, but get bored with it pretty quickly, as it's "tourist"-y and there are too many Americans. They meet Alex, who tells them of a small town in Slovakia where there are lots of sex-starved girls and, because of the war, no men.

So the three horny college guys hop a train for Slovakia, and on the way they meet a strange guy who, because he's in a horror movie, is bound to reappear later. The guys arrive in this picture-perfect Eastern European village and check into the recommended hostel, which looks way too nice to be a hostel. They're bummed to learn that they will have roommates, but when these roommates turn out to be hot European chicks, it's all good.

All goes well for the next few hours. The guys head down to the spa, where they sit and talk to several beautiful undressed girls. They drink and dance at a disco and go back to their room to ... well, you can guess the rest. The next morning they wake up and discover that Oli never made it back to the room. They go to the front desk and find that he has checked out. They get a text message saying that he's gone home, with a picture he's apparently taken of himself via cell phone. We zoom in on Oli's face in the photo and transition to where he really is. The camera then pulls back to reveal Oli's severed head, sitting on a table, and his cell phone in the hand of a stranger. Welcome to hell.

What follows is a nightmare of trying to figure out what exactly is going on and trying to get out of a situation that's completely beyond the characters' comprehension. There are several scenes of brutal torture, most notably the "eye-gasm", but the real horror comes from the film's twist. If you've seen The Game or The Wicker Man, you can probably guess what this is without much difficulty. But it doesn't make it any less powerful, I don't think.

I've read lots of complaints about the film. Some people think it's over the top, but I disagree. I don't think it's as bloody as Re-Animator, for example. As much gore as there is, Roth still leaves a lot to your imagination. I've read one review that thinks the movie is homophobic, to which I say "Whaaaat?" There are those who think it's xenophobic - a stereotypical "stranger in a strange land" fable where all foreigners are evil. And there have been several complaints that the horror just isn't real enough, because you have the safety of thinking "Well, I'd never do what these characters did to get themselves into that situation, so it could never actually happen to me." There are two problems with this, though. First is that there are characters who end up being tortured who - as far as we know - did not come to the hostel for the same reasons our heroes, which raises the question "why are they being 'punished'?" Second, I think it's just as scary to think that this kind of thing could be happening right under your nose, even if it doesn't happen to you personally.

Like all films by and for film geeks, there are lots of influences from other great horror directors and films in Hostel. In style, it's very much like Italian horror from greats like Lucio Fulci (Zombie) and Dario Argento (Suspiria & Demons) - full-on gore and lots of nudity. In tone, it takes a lot from Takashi Miike (Audition), who incidentally has a short cameo in the film. It's definitely not for those who get literally and physically ill at the sight of blood. But if you think you can stand it, it's worth checking out.