Monday, February 23, 2009

Heart of Midnight

Reprinted from my website:

The Midnight Meat Train , 2008. Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura. Bradley Kooper, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Brooke Shields, Tony Curran, Barbara Eve Harris.

Synopsis: Leon is a photographer attempting to step up in the world. He's tired of snapping pictures for the tabloids; he wants to show his work in the gallery of hoity toity art dealer Susan Hoff, who tells him that he's got a good start, but that he needs to go further. There's something missing in his work. It lacks an instinct for the jugular. In search of new material that will cut the mustard, Leon photographs three young men in the act of harrassing a woman in a subway station. The next day, he finds that the woman has disappeared, and that he may have a clue to his disappearance. Investigating further leads him to a butcher who rides the late train every night, where he murders unsuspecting passengers on the way to an unknown, abandoned station. But the butcher is only the tip of the iceberg, Leon discovers. Who does he serve? To his horror, Leon finds out more than he ever wanted to know...

Commentary: The Midnight Meat Train is probably more famous for its troubled release than it is for its actual qualities as a movie. A victim of one of those internal studio power struggles, it found itself ignominiously dumped into dollar theaters for one week, then in a protracted limbo as Lionsgate figured out what to do with it. This is unfortunate, because in contrast with some of Lionsgate's other recent product--the 3-D remake of My Bloody Valentine, for one example, or the annual Saw sequel--The Midnight Meat Train is a striking departure from business as usual. Given a proper release, it may have found an audience. But that's a might-have-been. As it stands now, it will have to find its audience on home video just like countless other horror films, great and small, have done before.

That said, this movie has two primary virtues: a striking visual design, in which harsh, industrial surfaces filmed in a desaturating blue light serve as an abbatoir; and a mean streak a mile wide. Taking its cues from the Clive Barker story of the same name, this movie is interested in placing vivid and nasty images on the screen, images that go well beyond the usual spew and grue of the genre. Director Ryûhei Kitamura, best known for the splenetic zombie action film, Versus, and also for the equally splenetic Godzilla: Final Wars, reels in his more outrageous visual tics for most of the film, saving them for the nastier murder sequences, where his signature style sometimes gets the best of him. This is nowhere more evident than in the murder of Ted Raimi's character, a mix of practical effects and less successful computer images:

Ted Gets It

Kitamura is at his best when he finds new points of view for his mayhem rather than new kinds of effects. The POV decapitation in the same sequence is rather more successful:

Heads Up

Structurally, the film is problematic. After a strong first act, the film sags as the filmmakers pad the length of the short story. The movie doubles back on itself as the investigation of Mr. Mahogany, the butcher, is undertaken by Leon's girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb), who basically finds out a bunch of things the audience already knows. The film's final act recovers to a degree, in so far as it doesn't veer away from Barker's Nietzchean conclusion that gazing too long into the abyss will make a monster of you. The impact of this is somewhat muted by the necessity of placing a Lovecraftian race of "Old Ones" on screen. The film doesn't adequately imbue them with an aspect of awe and terror equal to the crimes done in their name. Still, the images before this denouement are startling for their novelty. No horror movie I can think of has put similar imagery on screen. In this regard, The Midnight Meat Train actually manages the difficult feat of capturing what made Barker's intial splash with The Books of Blood so memorable.

Meat Train


My partner and I are getting close to the end of the first season of Rome. Caesar has assumed power as absolute dictator, Vorenus has been installed as a magistrate, Pullo has fallen hard, and Brutus has alienated himself from Caesar, much to his mother's delight.

The thing I really like about Rome is its complete unwillingness to be shy about anything. The sheer amount of frontal male nudity--comparable to the female nudity--is a thing to see (Mmmm....naked James Purefoy). I love how they prefigure this in the animated graphitti during the credit sequence, which is full of phalluses and fellatio. I also love the brutality of the violence, and episode 11, which is where we stand right now, has a doozie of a violent set piece, as Pullo is sentenced to death in the arena and promptly shows that he's the deadliest son of a bitch in Rome. Arms are lopped off, legs are lopped off, there's decapitation by shield. There are hard-core horror movies that avert their eyes more assiduously. Pullo (Ray Stevenson) remains my favorite character, a status cemented a few episodes back when, tossed on the open sea in a storm, he shouts "If Triton can't keep us drier than this, he can suck my cock!" He's delightfully profane. And this ran on television? God, I love HBO. I can't wait to see their version of A Game of Thrones

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vampires, Pink Horses, and Counterfeiters

Let the Right One In (2009, directed by Tomas Alfredson) was a bit of a surprise to me. I had seen the praise here and elsewhere, but I really didn't know what to expect. An anti-Twilight, I suppose, but that's not what I got. Well, no, that IS what I got, but not in the way I expected. This is a film that draws from a deep well of loneliness. Visually, it's a bleak and austere movie, composed in the main of long takes and snowy drabness. It's a film where you can feel the chill of winter radiate from the screen. For me, though the surprise is in how it mixes it all up with a striking genderqueer ambiguity. I had no idea it was as queer a movie as it turned out to be, but it strikes exactly the right notes in this regard, too. Best of all, though, it functions as a horror movie on top of all of its other concerns; it plays by the rules of vampire mythology (including a ghastly demonstration of what happens when a vampire enters a home uninvited). The finale at the swimming pool is both ghastly and comic by turns, delivering the goods for the horror audience. And then...the movie demonstrates an admirable grasp of irony, though the irony is there from the outset (the scene with the dog is a good example). The very end of the movie seems hopeful and touching, but I found it utterly horrifying. After all, we saw what became of Eli's previous familiar. Did he start out as Oskar did? I think he might have. Longer review here.


I wasn't very far into Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse (1947) before I realized that it was a tour de force in the very basics of the director's craft. At a basic level, the director of a movie is responsible for blocking the actors and supervising their movements, and collaborating with the cinematographer to compose the frame. At the outset of this movie, there is a long unbroken take in which a man arrives on a bus at a border town, gets off, walks into the terminal, puts a significant slip of paper in a locker, and hides the key. This is, perhaps, not as showy of a long-take opening as the one in Touch of Evil, but it certainly demonstrates a mastery of craft that used to be taken for granted in movies. This sort of thing is pretty much lost these days, as films are cut to mimimize the need for blocking or the creation of environments. Which is too bad. Ride the Pink Horse isn't an a-list classic, but it has more craft--more art--in that one sequence than can be found in the entire filmography of, say, Michael Bay. The story itself follows embittered veteran Montgomery as he attempts to blackmail a war profiteer. It's a stock, hard-boiled b-picture, though it adds some interesting flourishes, like the Mexican girl who thinks she's seen our hero dead, and the wonderful Thomas Gomez as a merry-go-round operator (which provides the pink horse of the title). After its opening, it doesn't feel the need for complex camerawork, and doesn't need it, really. It's enough to know that they COULD do it if they wanted to.

I could say much the same thing about the crime films of Richard Fleischer, which are models of narrative economy that often end with a flurry of noir stylistics. Trapped (1949) is such a film. It starts as one of those semi-documentary crime films that were popular at the time, complete with stolid narrator extoling the virtues of the agents of the Department of the Treasury, but that goes silent in short order as we engage the story, in which counterfieter Lloyd Bridges escapes from custody to track down the people who are using his plates to make funny money. It's a pretty standard crime-does-not-pay story, but the ending, in which the T-men track the bad guy to a trolley depot, dissolves into a dazzling abstraction of light and shadow. It's not a masterpiece, by any means, but it's a nifty little film.

Monday, February 09, 2009


There was even one drunken American who, laughing, grabbed her, but when he realized that he had seized a fistful of flesh and the chain which pierced her, he suddenly sobered up, and O saw his face fill with the same expression of horror and contempt that she had seen on the face of the girl who had given her a depilatory; he turned and fled.

There was another girl, very young, a girl with bare shoulders and a choker of pearls around her neck, wearing one of those white dresses young girls wear to their first ball, two tea-scented roses at her waist and a pair of golden slippers on her feet, and a boy made her sit down next to O, on her right. Then he took her hand and made her caress O's breasts, which quivered to the touch of the cool, light fingers, and touch her belly, and the chain, and the hole through which it passed, the young girl silently, did as she was bid, and when the boy said he planned to do the same thing to her, she did not seem shocked.

But even though they thus made use of 0, and even though they used her in this way as a model, or the subject of a demonstration, not once did anyone ever speak to her directly. Was she then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from another world, and did they think it pointless to speak to her? Or didn't they dare?

--Pauline Reage, The Story of O

One of the main reasons the best and most subversive erotic books and films stand out is because they don't settle for a mundane boy-meets-girl, boy-boffs-girl they-lived-happily-ever-after kind of storyline. Indeed, some of the best pieces of erotic literature are positively terrifying, chronicling love and obsession as parts of the same coin, and sometimes making the explicit connection between sex and death. In this, erotica sometimes bleeds into horror. The most terrifying erotic novel I've ever read is Pauline Reage's The Story of O. Oh, it offers up a rich panoply of polymorphous perversion, served up with such an economy of non-dirty words that it would make the Marquis de Sade weep in impotent envy. O loses herself to passion that becomes obsession. She loves so desperately that she loses her identity, her dignity, her self-will, and ultimately (if the hints at the end of the novel are to be believed), her life. I'm not entirely sure of how to take this, actually, but when I first read the book (mumble, mumble) years ago, I took it as both profoundly frightening and vaguely anti-erotic. It made quite an impression.

All of which is almost completely missed by Just Jaeckin's version of The Story of O (1975). Oh, it has more or less the same plot: O's lover, Rene--played by the deliciously creepy Udo Kier--takes her to the Chateau d'Roissy to be trained in the ways of submission. Here, she is dressed (or not) for the pleasuring of men (and women), is punished, etc. What the movie misses, however, is the alarming implications of O's willingness to partake, and it misses the darker aspects of the story's end. And instead of the book's elegant language, Jaeckin has substituted the cliches of soft-core Euro-porn, particularly the tendency to film through filters that look like someone has smeared vaseline on the lens. Still and all, the people in this movie are beautiful to look at. Corinne Cleary was an ideal physical match for O, sexual but naive, but she's not much of an actress. And it's not really boring, the way, say, some Emmanuelle movies are, either. Though I suppose that might depend on your own kinks.

A movie that totally "gets" what one finds in The Story of O is Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), which in style is completely deadpan (as are most Bunuel movies) but which in substance is totally subversive. Like many of Bunuel's films, this is an epistemological toybox that bobs and weaves between "reality" and "fantasy" at will until it detonates both the real and the unreal at the end of the movie. Here, we get the erotic obsession of O reincarnated as a destructive force and liberating force at the same time: Severine, a frigid housewife trapped in a sexless marriage, spends her days catering to the kinks of a high-end house of ill-repute. This ultimately destroys her, but on the way, we see her sexual hypocrisy crumble, and at the end, we are given to wonder if it's her kinks that destroyed her, or her unwillingness to share them with her husband. The most telling scene in the movie is when one customer is refused service by the other women in the house because of the awful thing he carries in a box; Severine takes him on and afterwards is shown to be completely satisfied, released temporarily by giving in to her baser needs.

But the thing I love the most about this movie is the way it deals with the Catherine Deneuve problem. The thing about Catherine Deneuve is that, left to her own devices, she has the potential to wreck a movie. She's so inhumanly lovely that everything else runs the risk of being completely upstaged by her. One solution to the Catherine Deneuve problem is to submit to her completely. This is the solution usually employed by Jacques Demy, whose Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Donkey Skin bow down and worship. Bunuel, on the other hand, defiles her. He spits in the face of her beauty and drags her through the mud--sometimes literally. The scene that gives this strategy its fullest expression finds Miss Deneuve dressed in a blinding white gown and tied to a stake while her husband throws shovels full of mud at her. I think this is the scene that cemented my own love for Catherine Deneuve for all time.

Among more vanilla films:

Action in the North Atlantic (1943, directed by Lloyd Bacon) is a Bogart film that I've managed to miss all these years, and woe is me. This one's a corker, chronicling the wartime experience of the Merchant Marines as they brave the Nazi u-boat wolf packs. This starts with a bang, as Bogart's ship is torpedoed and the entire cargo of gasoline goes up in flames. This is a bang-up action sequence that lasts for the first half hour of the film. The film sags a bit when Bogart, his captain (played by Raymond Massey), and his crew are rescued and sent home. Things pick up again in the last third of the movie, in which all hands are back on duty as part of a convoy to Murmansk. We get a full-fledged naval battle here, followed by a game of cat and mouse with a u-boat and the Luftwaffe, all staged with aplomb by director Bacon and the Warner special effects department. Sure, the boats look like models, but they don't look more "fake" than the computerized boats in Pearl Harbor, really. And even though it was the result of the movie's slant as propaganda, there's a refreshing cosmopolitan attitude in this film, in which America still thinks that every allied country contributed to victory in the great war. Would that our contemporary nativist superpatriots remember that.

The first film version of The Maltese Falcon (1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth) is an interesting film. On the one hand, Bebe Daniels is a much more appealing femme fatale than Mary Astor, there's far more pre-Code sex and innuendo than in the Bogart film, and Sam Spade is the sleazeball one finds in the novel. On the other hand, Ricardo Cortez is a stiff as Spade. He's "acting" smarm, and it just doesn't work. Still and all, it's fun to watch. Otto Matieson gives almost exactly the same performance as Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Thelma Todd is a knock-out as Iva Archer (with whom Spade is DEFINITELY having an affair), and we get a fun non-horror turn by Dwight Frye as Wilmer (for which he seems perfectly cast). What this lacks, though, is Bogart. Oh, Bogart. If there were ever any doubt as to whether Bogart had the "it" that makes great movie stars, the contrast between this film and his should put that all to rest. There's a weird kind of alchemy going on in the Huston film that this film never once matches. Oddly enough, this is a case where the Production Code did something good, because THIS version of The Maltese Falcon was totally out of bounds, so they had to make another one. And when that one didn't work so well, they made a third.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Rings and Monsters

I was home sick this week, so I took the opportunity to revisit an old friend: Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (2001, directed by Peter Docter and Lee Unkrich). This remains my favorite of the Pixar films, in part because it makes me laugh the hardest, but also because the door chase at the end is the most jaw-droppingly imaginative setpiece I've ever seen. It's Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd all rolled into one. Plus, my emotional investment in it grows every time I see it. Just as I'm coming down from the adrenalin rush of the door chase, the movie sucker-punches me in the gut as Boo and Sully are parted. And when the movie reveals its last shot, and we hear "Kitty!" on the soundtrack, I'm bawling. Oh, plus it's got fun monsters, and a sushi restaurant called "Harryhausen's." How cool is that?

In contrast, I maintain a cool emotional distance from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. I watched the extended editions of all three of them this week, and for the most part, I viewed them as formal exercises. In retrospect, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) is probably the most uniformly excellent of them. It really only strikes a false note with the council of Elrond, and even that's not bad. It loads the screen with terrifying menaces--it's very much the most monsterific of the trio--with my favorite of the monsters being the Watcher at the the gates of Moria. The Balrog was realized better than I could have imagined, but turns out to be something of a straw man (in the first film, at least). And the Ringwraiths seem like something that galloped out of The Tombs of the Blind Dead. I think a fair amount of the success of these films stems from having a director steeped in horror movies at the helm. Many of the film's set-pieces are palpably terrifying. Sean Bean arguably gives the most nuanced performance of the series as the doomed Boromir.

While The Two Towers (2002) is probably the most inconsistent of the three, it's probably my favorite. It's got the most Christopher Lee in it, and it throws in Brad Dourif for good measure, both terrific villains, both more comprehensible villains than the Great Eye of Mordor. A great villain makes for great fantasy. Jackson again gets to show off his horror chops as Frodo, Sam, and Gollum navigate the Dead Marshes, and shows a melancholy romanticism in Elrond's vision of Arwen's future, a vision worthy of the German romantics, Friedrich and Runge. This film begins an interesting escalation of scale in one half of the film (the battle of Helm's Deep) and an interesting narrowing of scale in the other half, in spite of the fabulous attack on the rangers of Gondor by the Nazgul.

The narrowing of scale continues in the third film, The Return of the King, even as the rest of the movie becomes so overstuffed that it's fit to burst. This one is all over the map, but when it comes down to it, the story devolves into a three sided psychodrama that, if one so desired, could probably be staged on a bare stage without any scenery. More than the other two films, this is a film that resonates with deep mythic images, from the reforging of The Sword that Was Broken, to Faramir's last ride, to Eowyn's battle with the Witch King and Theoden's heroic death, to Shelob, the cinema's all-time scariest giant spider. All of this, and the multiple maudlin endings, are emblematic of a director whose style is excess. Jackson doesn't know the meaning of restraint. Tell him that less is sometimes more, and he'll scoff at you because, by his lights, MORE is always more. Still, by the time Frodo sails into the West, the viewer is exhausted. This viewer, anyway.

I normally stay until the end of the credits when I see a movie in the theater, so when Taken (2009, directed by Pierre Morel) unreeled it's last few feet before me and the film's rating came up, I was shocked. PG-13? THAT was a PG-13 movie? Really? In retrospect, there's not really any bad language, and what sex there is isn't more revealing than your average episode of CSI, but, jesus, it's a brutal movie. This just goes to show that the MPAA, and Americans in general, are still ridiculously prudish when it comes to sex and language, and ridiculously permissive with violence. Disgusting. The movie itself isn't bad, though I daresay that the movie WOULD be bad if Liam Neeson wasn't playing the lead. He makes a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Like most Luc Besson movies (he wrote this one), the particulars are ridicuolous, but not moreso than your average Seagal or Van Damme movie. Neeson's conviction sells it all, and gives his role an extra cold-blooded malice that would elude a more regular action star. He's the reason to see it. No other. Certainly not director Pierre Morel's handling of the action scenes, which are clumsy even for being filmed in the run and gun, shaky-cam style.