Friday, September 25, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

I am a fan of professional wrestling. I've always been a little hesitant to admit that, because pro wrestling does carry a certain stigma. People have said to me, "How can you watch that garbage? Don't you know it's all fake?" And to that I reply, "Yeah, but just because Julia Roberts isn't really a prostitute doesn't mean I can yell at people for liking Pretty Woman." Yes, the storylines are scripted, the moves are choreographed, and the match finishes are predetermined. But the physical toll it takes on its performers can be very real. The bumps and bruises, the concussions and torn muscles and broken bones, they're real. Just ask guys like Darren Drozdov and Tom "Dynamite Kid" Billington, whose in-ring exploits have left them confined to wheelchairs.

And because of the high risk of injuries, a lot of wrestlers end up getting addicted to painkillers and cocaine and all kinds of other crap, anything to numb the pain. That's why you see so many wrestlers die before the age of forty, thanks to the drug addiction and physical punishment catching up to them. I'm not going to say that's the case with every wrestler, but it tends to happen quite a bit. However, it's usually glossed over and dismissed by most people. Pro wrestling is just some two-bit freak show whose participants are roided-up jackasses in spandex being cheered on by a bunch of brain-dead rubes, so who cares?

Rarely, though, does someone try to shine a light on just what wrestlers put themselves through. Filmmaker Barry Blaustein's fantastic documentary Beyond the Mat was a revealing peek behind the curtain when it was released during the peak of modern pro wrestling's popularity in 1999, but that curtain was completely yanked away by Darren Aronofsky in the winter of 2008. The director of the intense independent movies π and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky decided to tackle the realm of "sports-entertainment" with his fourth movie, appropriately titled The Wrestler. And just like the world it depicts, The Wrestler is both entertaining and heartbreaking.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was the hottest wrestling star of the '80s. He sold out arenas across the country, was in the main event matches of numerous pay-per-view broadcasts, and had his likeness featured in a video game and as an action figure. But twenty years later, Randy is no longer the superstar he once was. He is a pale shadow of his former self, having gone from the top of the mountain to the lowest valley. He lives in a rundown trailer park, doing shows in front of a few dozen people in tiny community centers and high school gymnasiums for paychecks that will barely put gas in his car.

But the change in scenery hasn't put a damper on his passion for the business. Unfortunately, though, the scenery isn't the only change coming to Randy's life. He suffers a heart attack and collapses in the locker room after a particularly violent and bloody match. The heart attack necessitates cardiac bypass surgery, and Randy's doctor implores him to retire from wrestling before his heart gives out permanently.

Dismayed by the news and fearing his own mortality, Randy cancels all of his upcoming matches and tries his hand at a normal, everyday existence. He asks his boss for longer hours at the supermarket he works at, takes a shot at turning his friendship with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) into something more, and tries to rebuild a bridge he burned long ago by reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

But he misses the life his heart attack took away from him. A promoter comes to Randy and proposes a match against his most famous opponent, "the Ayatollah" (Ernest Miller), on the twentieth anniversary of their legendary pay-per-view bout that sold out Madison Square Garden back in the '80s. Though common sense tells him he shouldn't, Randy considers taking the match, despite the risk that it just may be the death of him.

Professional wrestling's inherently over-the-top nature has left it ripe for movies like Body Slam, No Holds Barred, Ready to Rumble, and Nacho Libre to use the pseudo-sport as part of their narratives. There have even been episodes of Quantum Leap, Family Matters, and Boy Meets World dedicated to the lead characters stepping into the ring. Legendary grappler Verne Gagne even produced and starred in a movie about pro wrestling in 1974. But with the exception of a few documentaries, wrestling has almost always been depicted as being either an actual legitimate sport, or as the stereotypically goofy spectacle that non-fans perceive it to be. Very rarely has it been treated with anything resembling respect or in a fashion that wouldn't completely insult the intelligence of pretty much everyone.

But then along came The Wrestler. It's refreshing to see a movie where wrestlers are treated like actual human beings. But it's not just a wrestling movie, either. Pro wrestling could be a completely inconsequential detail. The movie could have been about a boxer or a football player or a race car driver. It is simply a movie about an athlete who is so unwaveringly dedicated to his sport of choice that he simply cannot imagine a life without it. Even if he has to work for peanuts while his body falls apart and lose everything else in his life, he's dedicated to what he does.

Part of what makes The Wrestler so effective is Darren Aronofsky's direction. Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot the movie with handheld cameras on grainy 16mm film, making it look as if it were a documentary instead of a fictional movie. It makes things more intimate, like we're simply following Randy around. That's seems especially evident during not only during the scenes with Randy before and after his matches, but during the beginning of the movie itself. The camera literally follows behind Mickey Rourke as his character goes through his post-match routine, leaves the arena, and returns home for the night. Aronofsky doesn't even give us a good look at Rourke's face until several minutes into the movie. This sets the tone for the entire film. We are simply observers, along for the ride as Randy the Ram leads us through this incredibly rough patch in his life.

It helps that Aronofsky is working from an amazing script, written by Robert Siegel. I'll admit that seeing his name in the credits threw me for a loop at first, because his only previous writing credit was The Onion Movie. That was a super-offbeat comedy, so how would he handle something like this? Turns out he did a fantastic job. Siegel has written a character study about a man who, as I said, simply cannot give up what he loves in spite of how much damage it could do. He is so enamored with his glory days that, when they're over, he's unsure of how to pick up the pieces of the mess that could have been a happy future. This makes the movie alternately compelling yet tragic, because we want to root for the main character yet cry because of where he's ended up.

I also found it intriguing that Siegel used the characters of Randy and Cassidy to parallel one another. They're really two sides of the same coin. Hiding behind fake names, they both use their bodies to perform in front of small crowds for meager paydays. But while Cassidy wants to quit stripping and live her life as a single mother named Pam, Randy is quite the opposite. He hates his real name to the point that he won't hesitate to correct people when they say it. He has a daughter who can't stand the sight of him, and a boss who spends his time mocking Randy when he's not watching pornography on his office computer. And he's stuck sleeping in his van when he can't make the rent on his trailer. His real life is a unsatisfying wreck, so you can't really blame him for wanting to live in the past as a superstar named Randy "The Ram" Robinson instead of in the present as a loser named Robin Ramzinski.

But what ultimately makes The Wrestler worth watching is its cast. There aren't many actual actors in the movie, but the ones that do appear put forth fantastic performances. Among the very small supporting cast, Evan Rachel Wood is great as Randy's daughter. Every word of dialogue that Wood speaks drips with the years of heartache and frustration the character is bound to have felt, making her utterly sympathetic. And I'll admit that I also liked Todd Barry in his very small yet quite funny role as Randy's boss at the supermarket.

But both lead performers are where the best acting comes from. Marisa Tomei is superb here, playing her character with warmth and conviction. Tomei hadn't done many movies of note between The Wrestler and her Oscar-winning role in My Cousin Vinny, but she proves here that she's a damn fine actress who can hang with the best of them.

However, if you need any single reason to see The Wrestler, that reason should be the contribution from Mickey Rourke. The story goes that Nicolas Cage had been hired to play Randy the Ram, but he ultimately left the movie during pre-production and opened the door for Rourke to take the role. This works in the movie's favor, because while I'll admit to enjoying Cage's work, I can't imagine anyone but Rourke as the star of this movie. Rourke is absolutely amazing, to the point that you're able to forget you're watching an actor playing a character. You're not watching a performance, but Randy "The Ram" Robinson baring his soul for all to see.

Rourke makes Randy feel as if he had come to life, playing the character with such pathos that you can't help but feel sympathy for him. The character is a failure, who the wrestling business — and life in general — has pretty much left behind. He's stuck pining for the '80s, wishing for a better life that constantly evades him. Rourke perfectly demonstrates that, playing Randy as if he's hiding behind his rose-colored glasses of nostalgia because it lets him hide from how much his life really sucks. It's fantastic acting on his part, a performance that will more than likely take a permanent spot on Rourke's career highlight reel.

The Wrestler is nothing short of a triumph. The story it tells is a heartbreaking one, doubly so if you're a wrestling fan like me. I heard that it even made Rowdy Roddy Piper cry. It is a stellar movie from start to finish, with excellent acting, intimate direction, and fantastic writing. I know that movies about pro wrestling are a hard sell to non-fans, but I honestly cannot recommend The Wrestler enough. If you have yet to see it, then you're missing out on what I'd call one of the best movies of the decade.

Final Rating: ****½

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quarantine (2008)

Ever since the success of The Ring, it's become commonplace for popular foreign-language horror movies to be remade in English for quicker consumption by American audiences. Most of them end up being remakes of East Asian horror, as by my count, there have been nine remakes of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Thai horror movies between 2002 and today. And that's not counting sequels or non-horror Asian remakes like The Departed, Shall We Dance?, and The Lake House.

But eventually, Hollywood was bound to remake a horror movie that wasn't Asian. Enter [∙REC], a Spanish zombie movie that scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it. It apparently made an impression on someone in Hollywood, because the remake rights were sold even before it opened in Spain. Carrying the new title Quarantine, the remake came to American theaters only one year after the release of its source material. And while I absolutely loved [∙REC], Quarantine just left me feeling like I had a wicked case of déjà vu.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter), the host of a television show focusing on the various social services that operate during the late-night hours. On this particular episode, Angela and her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris) are shadowing a team of Los Angeles firefighters during their nightly routine. Though much of the evening is comprised of rather mundane occurrences, things start picking up once the fire department gets called to help the police deal with a screaming elderly woman who has locked herself inside her apartment.

But when they break down the door, the woman goes absolutely berserk and violently attacks one of the responding policemen, nearly tearing his face off in no time flat. As they drag the injured cop back to the lobby, everyone is shocked to discover that the health department has quarantined the building as part of a biochemical hazard protocol. But while the quarantine causes everyone stranded inside the building to become irritable and paranoid, it has trapped them with something far worse than their own fears. A virus — resembling a super-advanced form of rabies — has somehow gotten loose inside the building, turning those it infects into enraged, bloodthirsty zombies.

I absolutely loved [∙REC], so when Quarantine was released, I was curious to see how it would handle the source material. And as it turns out, Quarantine was almost identical to [∙REC]. Sure, Quarantine is about fifteen minutes longer than [∙REC], but outside of that, they're practically the same movie. I mean, it isn't quite a complete shot-for-shot copy like Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. But the majority of Quarantine plays out exactly the same as the original movie. That made it hard for me to really get into Quarantine, because I felt like I was watching the same movie as before, only in English and with different actors.

It's not that the remake is a particularly bad movie or anything, but its delivery is different. It's all about the delivery. For example, someone tells you a hilarious joke. Someone else tells you the same joke later, only it's not as funny then, due to how the second person told it. That's the difference between [∙REC] and Quarantine; they're both doing the same thing, only one is doing it better.

At the helm is John Erick Dowdle, who does as good a job as he can in replicating [∙REC]. He doesn't quite match the visceral atmosphere of the original, though, partly because of how artificial Quarantine feels. In [∙REC], things felt more natural because the guy playing the cameraman actually was the guy running the camera. Quarantine doesn't have that, sadly. The whole movie forced, like Dowdle was trying so hard to copy [∙REC] that he never thought to try doing his own thing. He could have figured that you can't fix what isn't broken, but there's nothing wrong with trying to shake things up a little.

The same can be said for the script, written by Dowdle and his brother Drew. Outside of a tiny handful of exceptions, the script pretty much duplicates [∙REC] as well. There's some padding to make Quarantine longer than [∙REC]‘s 75-minute running time, and a few things are changed for American audiences. But as with the direction, the writing is pretty much identical to its source material. You're pretty much getting the same movie, ending and all. But as I said, something must have been lost in translation, because it simply doesn't feel the same. I guess I can't really fault the Dowdles for not trying to fix what isn't broken. But they don't really contribute anything to make their version stand out, either. That's really sad, too, because they had the chance to write a really scary movie. And instead, they just gave us something that's just okay at best.

All that's left to talk about is the acting, which I thought was a mixed bag to say the least. Like [∙REC], Quarantine is the type of ensemble effort in which many of the ancillary characters blend into the background. It may be harder than usual to break this down into specifics, but I guess I'll try to wing it. In the lead role is Jennifer Carpenter, who I absolutely loved in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Unfortunately, her performance here is a disappointment. Carpenter begins the movie with a rather bubbly demeanor, and is actually pretty likable. But as the movie progresses, her character becomes more and more hysterical. It reaches the point that you almost want the zombies to get her and shut her up. While I'd assume that most people would probably act the same way if stuck in a similar situation, that doesn't make Carpenter any less annoying.

But on the other hand, we do get a strong performance from Jay Hernandez. Hernandez plays his character as someone trying to stay calm and level-headed even though he wants to panic, which I felt was a really good way to approach it. He's quite good in the role, and I can't complain. There are also some acceptable performances from Greg Germann, Jonathon Schaech, and Rade Sherbedgia, but outside of Carpenter and Hernandez, none of the performances are really all that memorable. But then again, most of the actors don't really do anything to make an impression. Some of them are just kinda there, and others overact to the point of being silly. Maybe that was the problem with Quarantine all along.

I know I've had a few complaints about Quarantine, but my biggest one is in regards to how the movie as promoted during its theatrical run. Believe it or not, but they actually gave away the ending of the movie. The trailers, the TV commercials, and even the poster feature the last shot of the movie. It's not as bad as when the plot twist in the remake of When A Stranger Calls was spoiled in its advertising, because you wouldn't know that was the ending of Quarantine unless you'd seen already seen [∙REC]. (Or unless I spoiled it for you just now. Oops.) But still, it seems like a really rotten thing for an advertising campaign to do.

I've been writing this review with the belief that Quarantine was less a remake of [∙REC] and more of a lame carbon copy of it. And I think that belief is true. But when viewed on its own merits, Quarantine is a thoroughly mediocre movie. It doesn't have the same sense of dread that enveloped [∙REC], and the scares aren't as scary. The movie doesn't outright suck, but it could have been much better. If they really had to do an American version of [∙REC], they could have just recorded an English dub of the original movie, They did it for High Tension, so why not for [∙REC]? But now we're stuck with just a mediocre remake of a great movie, and that's just sad. So I guess I'll just give Quarantine a “thumbs in the middle” with three stars. It's at least adequate, but there was plenty of room for improvement.

Final Rating: ***

[∙REC] (2007)

In a number of my reviews, I've spoken of my belief that some of the best horror movies of the last ten or fifteen years has come from outside the United States. Though I first started saying that in regards to Asian flicks like Ringu, Ju-on, and Audition, we've seen awesome movies coming from elsewhere. Australia and Canada have put their own two cents in, but quite a few significant contributions have come from Europe. Countries like France, Sweden, and England have made some fine additions to the genre with High Tension, Let the Right One In, and Shaun of the Dead.

Spain even got in on the act when they gave us the movie we're here to discuss at the moment, [∙REC]. While zombie movies are a dime a dozen, [∙REC] dared to be different by using a cinema vérité style that made it look like a zombie version of The Blair Witch Project. And although the movie was one of a deluge of movies with the same style released around the same time, [∙REC] is incredibly effective. And quite frankly, it's one of the scariest movies I've seen in a long while.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), the host of a television show focusing on the various social services that operate during the late-night hours. On this particular episode, Ángela and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) are shadowing a team of Barcelona firefighters during their nightly routine. Though much of the evening is comprised of rather mundane occurrences, things start picking up once the fire department gets called to help the police deal with a screaming elderly woman who has locked herself inside her apartment.

But when they break down the door, the woman goes absolutely insane and violently attacks one of the responding policemen, nearly tearing his face off in no time flat. As they drag the injured cop back to the lobby, everyone is shocked to discover that the health department has quarantined the building as part of a biochemical hazard protocol. But while the quarantine causes everyone stranded inside to become irritable and paranoid, it has trapped them with something far worse than their own fears. A mysterious virus has somehow gotten loose inside the building, turning those it infects into enraged, bloodthirsty zombies.

[∙REC] is most assuredly one of the most effective horror movies I've ever had the chance to see. Everything about it from, start to finish, works. I have to admit that I wasn't sure what to expect going into the movie. I was afraid that it was going to be some silly Blair Witch wannabe in spite of the positive word of mouth I'd heard prior to watching it for the first time. But when I finally did see it, I was blown away. It was a really good movie. And this might sound like simple hyperbole, but [∙REC] absolutely scared the pants off me. It's not too often I can say that either, but it's true. [∙REC] had me jumping out of my seat with every scare, moments that come fast and furious throughout the movie. But just what about it makes it so good, hmm?

Let's start like my reviews typically do, with the direction. The movie is helmed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, a pair of individual horror directors who've teamed up for this particular flick. Doing that movie in a cinema vérité style is something that most people can either like or hate, but I found that it was something that worked in [∙REC]'s favor. With the movie shot from a first-person perspective, it allows things to sneak up on you and ultimately be scarier. None of the scares seem cheap or forced, and with cinematographer Pablo Rosso actually playing the cameraman within the movie, everything seems more natural.

That natural feeling is helped by the absence of a musical score. Music is good in setting the mood for other movies, but [∙REC]'s lack of it means that Balagueró and Plaza must try harder to set the tone with sound design. And if you ask me, I think they succeeded. Let's also not overlook the fact that Balagueró and Plaza pared the movie down to a sleek 75-minute running time, making [∙REC] a much more intense experience. The short running time affords precious little room to breathe once the ball really starts rolling. It allows Balagueró and Plaza to crank out scare after scare after scare, as if it were a cinematic roller coaster.

As the movie is based more on visual scares than psychological ones, you'd think that the script might suffer because of it. And to tell you the truth, the script — written by Balagueró, Plaza, and Luis Burdejo — is probably just a secondary element in the grand scheme of things. But aside from a few flaws here and there (such as a scene where the virus's origins are conveniently explained all at once), the script is relatively solid.

The characters are a little one-dimensional at times, but for the most part, they're good enough to pull you into the movie and make you worry about what will happen to them by the end of the movie. The only bad part of the whole thing is that the concept seems like they've just taken the zombies from 28 Days Later and stuck them into an apartment building. But even that's not totally bad, since putting a bunch of frightened, erratic characters in a small place with some rabid zombies, and you've got 75 minutes of entertaining chaos.

Last but not least is the ensemble cast, who all do fine jobs. They're all quite good, but since a lot of them are in roles so minor they practically blend into the background (while still retaining a particular distinctiveness), I'm just going to touch on some of the highlights. My favorite performance came from Manuela Velasco, who I thought was very charming in her role. She plays the character as inquisitive almost to the point of being pushy about it, and while the character is practically reduced to only running and screaming by the end of the movie, Velasco manages to maintain the viewer's attention and sympathy for the entire flick. Her character is perhaps the most crucial one of the movie, and she hits all the right notes.

I also thought that Jorge Serrano and Carlos Lasarte were great as a panicky police officer and a vain building resident respectively, and Ferran Terran played his part as one of the firefighters very well. It's hard to really pick any major standouts, though, because everyone gels together so well. So on the whole, the cast is fantastic.

If you're anything like me, then you'll find that [∙REC] will stick in your head for a few days after you see it for the first time. It's one of the few horror movies that really scared me at the level it did. It actually made me a little paranoid at first. I watched the movie for the first time in the dark in the middle of the night, and I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me. [∙REC] almost made me scared of my own shadow, something most horror movies don't do nowadays. That's how effective it is. And for that, I'll definitely give [∙REC] four stars out of five. It's definitely a movie worth seeing if you're a horror fan.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)

Most geeks have a certain television show that they're drawn to before all others. Some have Star Trek, Doctor Who, or Battlestar Galactica. Others have the shows created by Joss Whedon. As for me, my drug of choice is Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, MST3K begain airing on Minnesota TV station KTMA in 1988. It was picked up only a year later by the cable channel that would one day be known as Comedy Central, before its cancellation forced its move to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997.

Though the show was ultimately cancelled for good in 1999, it continues to maintain a faithful cult following. The show's popularity through the '90s was noticed by Hollywood, and the Universal Studios subsidiary Gramercy Pictures released Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie on April 19, 1996. Though the movie does have some flaws, it is a valiant effort by the MST3K crew.

The plot of the movie follows the show's concept rather closely. Mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) has trapped Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) aboard the Satellite of Love, a space station orbiting Earth. Dr. Forrester subjects Mike to a number of bad B-movies in an effort to drive him insane, hoping that he can find the perfect bad movie to use as a weapon in his plans for world domination.

But helping Mike keep his sanity are his three robot associates: Gypsy (the voice of Jim Mallon), who pilots the Satellite of Love, and Tom Servo (the voice of Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (the voice of Trace Beaulieu), who accompany Mike into each movie. The movie they'll be watching here is the 1955 sci-fi flick This Island Earth, starring Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow. Though Dr. Forrester intends for This Island Earth to break their wills, Mike, Crow, and Servo entertain themselves by mercilessly mocking the movie.

If you've seen an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, then you'll have an idea of what to expect from the movie. The only odd thing is that at 73 minutes, it's actually shorter than your average episode of the television show. Yeah, no kidding. That had to be some kind of studio mandate, because I'm sure they could have easily filled two hours. But I don't think Gramercy Pictures ever had any faith whatsoever in the movie, since they only released it in 26 theaters at its widest. Why even bother putting the movie in theaters at all? But problems or no problems, the MST3K crew manages to be at the top of their game with some of the funniest gags they've ever done.

Since there's no real reason to talk about direction or music or acting or anything like that, unless I wanted to turn this into a review of This Island Earth, I'm going to skip all the formalities and go right to discussing the writing. Credited to Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chaplin, and Bridget Jones, the script takes a little time to get rolling. Once it finally hits its stride, it's hilarious. The jokes don't come as fast and as furious as they would on a regular episode of the TV show (perhaps due to executive meddling?), but that doesn't make them any less funny. I'll confess that some of the jokes do fall flat, and there are a few moments of extended silence in the commentary. But I found the flaws to be outweighed by all the gold the jokes produce.

I first found Mystery Science Theater 3000 when I was around 11 or 12 years old, and I was immediately hooked. I spent every Saturday parked in front of the television, eagerly anticipating whatever lame movie the crew would be watching. The show can probably be thanked (or blamed) for helping shape the snarky sense of humor I have today. (And it's because of MST3K that I often feel the need to crack jokes during bad movies or TV shows.) In spite of the failure that was its theatrical run, their movie definitely some of the best work that its crew have ever produced. So for that, I'll give it four stars, leaning towards five, along with my own personal seal of approval. If I had to rank it alongside the best episodes from the show, I'm not quite sure where exactly I'd place it. But it'd be close to the top, for sure.

Final Rating: ****

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Any horror fan worth their salt is at least familiar with Clive Barker. He might not have the mainstream recognition of Stephen King, but Barker is often recognized as one of the leading names in the gothic horror and dark fantasy literary genres. His novels and short stories have proven popular with fans of that style, and they've also had their effect on the world of motion pictures as well. There's been a handful of movies based on his work, the most notable of which are the popular cult classics Hellraiser (which Barker himself directed) and Candyman.

But we're not here to discuss Hellraiser, Candyman, or their sequels. Instead, the movie I'll be reviewing right now is The Midnight Meat Train. Based on one of the stories in the first volume of Barker's Books of Blood collections, the movie was barely in theaters at all before it was quickly and quietly rushed off to DVD. But I think it might have a chance at becoming a cult classic if people can discover it, because it's an awesome movie.

Our tale of terror focuses on Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper), a struggling photographer looking for his big break. That break seems to come when his girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb), pulls some strings and gets him a meeting with influential art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan believes Leon has potential, but asks him to bring her some grittier material before she'll consider displaying his photos. Leon finds his grittier pictures soon enough, getting a few good shots while stopping a gang from harassing a young woman in a subway station. Susan is impressed with the photos, agreeing to give him a spot in her next display show if he can produce two more similar pictures.

This task leads him to cross paths with Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), a well-dressed butcher who is frighteningly silent at all times. When Leon hears that the girl he helped in the subway station has disappeared without a trace, he begins to notice that Mahogany appears in the background of many of the pictures he took that night. A curious Leon investigates, discovering that Mahogany is a brutal serial murderer who has turned a subway train into his own personal meat locker. But as he digs deeper into the madness behind Mahogany's methods, he'll soon discover that some mysteries are best left unsolved.

You might not have heard of The Midnight Meat Train, but that's okay. You wouldn't have heard of it unless you were following horror movie news websites during the summer of 2008. Prior to its theatrical release, there was a management shakeup at Lions Gate Entertainment. Joe Drake had just been hired to run Lions Gate's theatrical division, and the story goes that he decided to throw many of his predecessor's yet-to-be-released movies under the bus after he took the job. The Midnight Meat Train caught the worst of it, seeing an unadvertised ten-day release in only 102 discount theaters. Its final domestic box office gross was an incredibly paltry $73,548. And that's a shame, because it's a brave movie. It isn't afraid to be different from the usual horror movies that get released all the time, and it gets my respect for that.

At the helm is Japanese filmmaker Ryûhei Kitamura, who had previously directed Godzilla: Final Wars and the cult favorite Versus. Whoever hired him to direct The Midnight Meat Train should be proud of themselves, because Kitamura does an absolutely fantastic job. The movie looks gray and gloomy, carrying a look that suits the content. The darkness sets the perfect atmosphere for the movie, as does the super-slick cinematography from Jonathan Sela. While some of the coolest camerawork could only have been done through CGI, Kitamura and Sela still manage to go make the movie look like a million bucks.

They also get a big boost from the music, composed by Robb Williamson and Johannes Kobilka. Their music alternates between a melancholy sound and a more industrial style depending on the situation, and it all goes a long way in helping to establish the movie's atmosphere and tone.

Next on my list is Jeff Buhler's screenplay. I must confess that I've never read Barker's original short story, so I can't compare the movie to it. But I still got the feeling that Buhler lost something in the translation. There are some parts that feel rushed, and others that feel incomplete. And when the explanation for Mahogany's killing spree finally arrives, you get the feeling that Buhler forgot about it and had to slap something together at the last minute. It seems rushed almost to the point of feeling cheap, because it nearly comes out of nowhere.

The argument could also be made that the movie has a real lack of character development. But after the movie, I came away with the feeling that it wasn't a movie about characters, but about obsession. As the movie goes on, Leon becomes more and more obsessed with catching Mahogany in the act and proving he's the killer that Leon is sure he is. It consumes him, drives him beyond his initial desire to help find a missing girl to wanting to justify his own fears. This obsession nearly destroys him, making him push his girlfriend away, ignore his career's big break, and drives his sanity to its breaking point. If this really is what the movie is about, then Buhler's done a fine job of putting it together. Shame about that rushed payoff, though.

The final component of The Midnight Meat Train is the cast, which is quite small, actually. Most of the characters either add nothing to the plot or are completely inconsequential, so that just leaves us with three actors to discuss. In the lead role, Bradley Cooper does exactly what he needs to hold the audience's attention. Cooper effortlessly shows the character's evolution from curious voyeur to borderline lunatic, all the while making sure the audience cares about Leon and wants to follow his exploits. He's the center of the movie, so it would have lived or died on his performance. And personally, I thought he pulled it off well.

I also thought Leslie Bibb did a fine job as well. Though I will admit that her character seems somewhat forgettable in the long run, Bibb plays the role with a certain vulnerability that makes her endearing.

But my favorite performance in the movie comes from Vinnie Jones. I don't think it's possible for Jones to play anything other than a tough guy when he's cast in a movie, but what sets Mahogany apart from other characters he's played is his lack of dialogue. Most of the time, Jones's characters get to make plenty of smart-ass remarks and add a certain sense of levity to the movie. But not in The Midnight Meat Train. His character here only speaks three words at the very end of the movie. This silence works wonders, because it makes Mahogany a more frightening, more intimidating character. The whole visual of an imposing brute of a man dressed in a slick three-piece suit, slowly approaching someone so he can bash their brains in with a steel mallet wouldn't be as terrifying if the killer was making goofy puns while he went about his business. Jones is almost stoic here, killing his victims not with any perceivable malice, but as if it were just another day at the office. He's very good in the role, conveying all the necessary emotion with just a look or a movement. I don't think they could have hired a better actor for the part.

While The Midnight Meat Train has elements of a slasher movie, it's most definitely a horror movie of a different sort. It's the handiwork of Clive Barker, that's for sure. And maybe it's for the best that it got screwed out of a wide theatrical release, because now it can find an audience the old fashioned way: through word of mouth among the truly dedicated horror fans. It's not a perfect movie, but it's quite good, good enough for me to give it three and a half stars out of five. Hopefully, The Midnight Meat Train will find its audience, because it deserves one.

Final Rating: ***½