CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: March, 2014

“Bloodsport” (1988)

"Bloodsport" poster

 

It’s hard to argue how better off action stars seem to be with the less frills they have. Viewers didn’t need rambunctious kids around to fall in love with Jackie Chan, and Sylvester Stallone captured our attention not as a muscle-bound quip machine but as an everyman trying to get by. Sometimes, the best recipe calls for just one dude and some other dudes with faces to be recipients of that first dude’s fists, which is where 1988’s Bloodsport comes in. One of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s initial forays into martial arts cinema, this movie should by all accounts not work; the screenplay and its many useless subplots are about as directionless as the characters who fill its pages. Yet by some miracle, Bloodsport entertains regardless, a film of slapdash badassery that knows when to hit hard and when to have a good, cheesy laugh.

For centuries, a fighting tournament has been held in great secrecy. Contestants from all around the world are summoned by invitation to prove their worth, displaying their own individual styles in full-contact, anything-goes beatdown. They call this ceremony…Mortal Kom– no, wait, scratch that. My bad. It’s known as the Kumite, and so important is it that soldier Frank Dux (Van Damme) attend, he ditches the service and catches a flight to Hong Kong just in time for the big brawl. For Frank, the Kumite is the culmination of years of training under his beloved sensei (Roy Chiao), but not everyone is as understanding of his desires. In addition to the government men (Forest Whitaker and Norman Burton) tasked with bringing him back to the States, Frank finds himself shadowed by a reporter (Leah Ayres) hoping to infiltrate the tournament and get the scoop of a lifetime. But all this is nothing compared to the opponents our hero comes to face, a laundry list of fighters who only get rougher and bloodier the closer Frank gets to victory.

Bloodsport is at once both incredibly simplistic and needlessly complicated. It borrows one of the most basic but reliable set-ups in martial arts movie history: the tournament. It comes ready-made with the framework for conflict between Frank and an array of antagonists, not to mention ample space for a wide range of combat techniques to be shown off. Barring a couple narrative gaps to be filled, Bloodsport should’ve written itself, yet the movie goes out of its way to make the finer details especially confounding for no good reason. For the entire film, Frank is driven to take part in the Kumite as a way of proving himself to his master; that’d be great, if the audience was ever told why some super-secret, presumably highly illegal fighting contest filled with scumbags galore meant so much to the old guy. On that note, it’s hard to buy into the mystique of the Kumite — hidden away from the civilized world in a part of Hong Kong that supposedly chews up foreigners and spits them out — when apparently just anyone can waltz in and watch, be it the go-getting reporter or the two G-men who sit in on some matches while no one bats an eye. I realize that ’80s action flicks (especially ones like this from the notorious Cannon gang) aren’t the ones to turn to for bastions of clever writing, but it says something when one of them makes a premise as bare-bones as “sweaty guy clobbers other sweaty guys” too much of a puzzler.

But even with these nagging nuisances making themselves known time and again, Bloodsport still retains an infectiously engaging vibe. It helps that it has a somewhat more realistic bent to its than other martial arts titles with similar plots; the Kumite isn’t held in some grand palace by a mastermind whom you couldn’t imagine being that rich and bored, but rather a skeezy hole in the wall that polite society has left behind. The combatants look like an honestly intimidating pack of hombres, with even the ones who don’t have any dialogue (which covers most of the roster) expressing some kind of personality. There’s the Muay Thai guy, the sumo-ish guy, and so on, all culminating in Bolo Yeung’s Chong Li, a force of nature with the nastiest mean streak this side of a Cobra Kai dojo. The fight scenes themselves are exhilarating and well-choreographed, packed with lots of wide shots that nicely capture each contestant’s physicality. As our hero of the hour (erm, hour and a half, that is), Van Damme shows that while his command of the English language was as shaky this early on in his career as it was after he found fame, the charisma and athleticism he exhibits here are undeniably. Some of the expressions he makes throughout the picture have since become the stuff of internet meme legend, but silly as they are, ol’ JCVD sells the hell out of them, performing feat upon feat (including his trademark splits at least a half-dozen times) that never cease to make viewers hurl their Cheetos in the air out of sheer amazement.

It’s so rough around the edges that you could get lockjaw by looking at it, but dadgummit, Bloodsport was a blast. The flick has a gnarly exploitation mentality and a budget just a touch higher than the norm to bring its creators’ vision to life; in other words, it doesn’t look like a snuff film, but it’s not so steeped in overproduced fantasy that the action has no weight whatsoever. As ludicrous as it can be and often is, Bloodsport compensates for its chintzier side with unabashed machismo and a handful of scuffles that sure look like they left their share of bruises.

Advertisements

“Thirteen Women” (1932)

"Thirteen Women" poster

 

As I expounded while recalling The Hypnotic Eye‘s nap-inspiring narrative, I don’t put much stock into mesmerism as a storytelling device. It’s hard enough to buy one using the powers of the mind to make people at corporate retreats act like Austin Powers in real life, to say nothing of a plot that completely hinges on similar practices. How strange, then, that the 1932 thriller Thirteen Women cleverly use hypnotism as a cover for psychological manipulation some of the time, while treating the dark arts as the God’s honest truth the rest of the time. It’s a movie that alternates between the sleek and the silly, the mysterious and the muddled; nearly every scene that envelopes viewers in a blanket of strange suspense is soon followed by one that will send their “Yeah, sure…”-o-Meters off the charts.

The twelve former members of a finishing school sorority are about to rue the day they first heard of a horoscope. As teens, Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne), Jo Turner (Jill Esmond), and their friends became interested in astrology, eventually writing a renowned swami (C. Henry Gordon) to have their fortunes personally predicted. But not only did their replies carry news of terrible fates for the girls, said prophecies came true, with various members of the twelve having either gone insane or to the grave. While the other surviving ladies are worrying themselves into fits over whether or not they’ll be next, only Laura remains positive that what’s happening to her pals has nothing to do with the supernatural. As it turns out, she’s not far from the truth, as the exotic Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy) has been slinking behind the scenes this whole time, orchestrating these acts of madness and murder as revenge for a past wrong she’ll never forgive.

Thirteen Women falls short of being an uncommonly deep and daring thriller for its time. It feels a touch incomplete, which may or may not have to do with the fourteen minutes that were removed before its release. The film gets just under an hour to tell a story with a number of complex angles, and while I’ve no clue what the excised footage contains, the final product is a hotbed of shortcuts taken and ideas partially developed. It might not have been that glaring of an issue, were it not for the uncomfortable connotations Thirteen Women suffers from as a result. Long story short, Loy’s character is both the movie’s greatest asset and the elephant in the room, simultaneously a villain with a tragic backstory and an embodiment of early Hollywood’s fear of those foreigners with their mystical superpowers. Loy delivers a commanding performance that puts the fear into you and even makes you feel sorry for her, but with so little of her motivations explored and what is touched upon only done so in the film’s final minutes, she comes dangerously close to becoming a one-dimensional baddie, be that the intention or not.

On top of that, Thirteen Women can’t seem to make up its mind on just what sort of influence Loy’s Ursula actually wields. The movie is at its most interesting when it shows her taking revenge by letting superstition do the work for her, allowing her victims to drive themselves into delusional panics and bring about their own demises. It really is a pleasure watching Loy’s diabolical scheming at work, but the mood is spoiled when the script demands that she shift into “You’re getting sleeeeeepy!” mode. While Ursula may have a killer stare and everything, believing in her ability to send people to their doom via trance is asking just a bit too much of the audience here. Otherwise, Thirteen Women is suspenseful stuff when it can be, brimming with briskly-directed action and jarring thrills. From bombs hidden in children’s toys to runaway car chases, there’s no shortage of opportunities for one to occupy the edge of their seat, especially as Ursula gets closer to wearing down the strong-willed Laura’s resolve.

Thirteen Women had me on the fence for a while, unsure of whether or not I could forgive its more dated shortcomings because of how firmly the film gripped my interest in other areas. Ultimately, an abrupt end to Ursula’s calculating ways steered my thoughts away from the positive, although what works about it still holds up. As far-fetched as it can become, Thirteen Women has the capacity to be sensuous, enigmatic, and pulse-pounding just as often.

(Thirteen Women is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“Beyond Outrage” (2012)

"Beyond Outrage" poster

 

Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!

The amount of bullets the Corleone family blazed through over its entire tenure has nothing on how often Al Pacino’s signature line from The Godfather Part III has been parodied and imitated. But folks take for granted how succinctly it summarizes the appeal a genre teeming with criminal behavior has for regular, law-abiding moviegoers. The line implies a reluctance, an acknowledgment of Michael Corleone’s violent past interfering with his desires for a future on the straight and narrow. It assures viewers that he’s not a completely bad guy, that a shot at redemption is still in the cards, and it’s an angle gangster cinema has been playing from its 1930s heyday to modern times. Not one to buck tradition, director Takeshi Kitano has crafted his latest picture, Beyond Outrage, to easily assume a place at the table next to his prior genre dramas Brother and Sonatine. Ultimately, it doesn’t connect the many dots scattered across its self-made saga as effectively as it could’ve, but those who enjoy both politics and gunplay out of their crime thrillers will find much to admire here.

Following the events of 2010’s Outrage, the Sanno family’s influence has skyrocketed in the yakuza world. With enemies on both sides of the law having been disposed of without mercy, new boss Kato (Tomokazu Miura) is now free to expand the syndicate even deeper into society. But concerned that Kato has become too big for his britches, Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) has put his own personal plan to wipe out not only the Sanno but the rival Hanibishi clan into motion. Using his cover as a corrupt cop at the yakuza’s service, Kataoka instigates what conflict he can between the two families, gladly causing blood to spill in the name of taking everyone down. He also has a secret weapon in Otomo (Kitano), an ousted gangster who was rumored to have died but is alive, well, and peacefully doing time in jail. Otomo is hesitant to return to his former life, but with the detective’s prodding, temptation gets the best of him, and he’s swiftly on his way to settling many an old grudge the only way he knows how: with the most brute force possible.

As of right now, I’ve still yet to see the original Outrage, and before popping in its sequel, I asked my fellow hopeless cinephiles if watching it was required to keep from getting lost here. I was told that going into Beyond Outrage cold was fine, which is true for the most part, although the opening act did have me wishing I gave its predecessor a whirl after all. Long story short, there’s a lot of information dispersed in the first batch of scenes, laying out what characters have loyalties to what families, who has a vendetta against who, and so on. It’s nice that Kitano (pulling triple duty here as writer, director, and star) wants those who might’ve missed out on the last film to catch up, but to bring them up to speed with such exposition-heavy chunks of dialogue makes the first half-hour drag a bit. But when the dust settles, Beyond Outrage soon amounts to a pretty compelling gangster tale, in which the crooks are the ones searching for order, and the police (or a lone wolf, at least) are the ones who keep stirring the pot. It’s a game of dominoes we have the pleasure of seeing topple in suitably bloody fashion, with Kitano keeping a close watch on tone, making sure that we feel every literal shot and never letting the requisite violence come across as impersonal or exploitative.

Beyond Outrage has the right mood and stakes in place to draw viewers in, but by the end, we only get a hint of the meat and potatoes that lie beneath the surface. Though we’re never bored by what the characters are up to, one gets the impression that Kitano thinks they’re deeper than they seem. As is, everyone is assigned basically one objective, few of which the narrative dares to examine in much detail. The dirty tactics to which Kataoka resorts in fighting the yakuza are given no background, why retired hood Kimura (Hideo Nakano) joins forces with former rival Otomo is never fully convincing, and Otomo himself remains fairly aloof and emotionless even when external forces are pulling him in so many directions. Perhaps I missed more than I thought in skipping Outrage, but it seems like Kitano engages in a lot of hand-waving here, explaining away motivations aplenty with an all-too simple, “Because honor.” Still, that doesn’t mean Kitano skimps on a cast that’s worth our attention, as the man himself shines in several moments of quiet badassery, Kohinata plays Kataoka with flippant relish, and the supporting players are a diverting blend of blustery yakuza thugs and stone-faced underbosses.

If anything, Beyond Outrage left me eager to see what its predecessor was all about. Though the combination of action and underworld civics will endear to yakuza newcomers more than something as steeped in the philosophic as Sonatine, some advanced knowledge on how Japan’s criminal culture works would be helpful to stay balanced during the film’s initial, info-laden scenes. Kitano has some catching up to do if he wants to keep pace with the likes of Johnnie To’s modern gangster epics, but flawed as it may be, the slickly-presented Beyond Outrage is still a good step forward.

“The Real Blonde” (1997)

"The Real Blonde" poster

 

I happened to come of age during the Great Irony Boom of the 1990s. Detachment was the order of the day in much of the media I consumed, be it Clerks having an effect on my sense of humor to “Daria” shaping my taste in women (for better or worse). But while the approach isn’t in and of itself dated (trends come and go, but sarcasm is forever), the films that depended so heavily on being all aloof to make up for a lack of intelligent writing are often the ones whose “coolness” doesn’t stand the test of time by a longshot. The Real Blonde feels like just such a title, albeit one made with better intentions than a lot of its contemporaries. It’s not insufferably hip, but most of its jokes, characters, and observations fall flat, leaving behind a largely superficial relationship dramedy with a couple movie references to its name.

Written and directed by Living in Oblivion‘s Tom DiCillo, The Real Blonde focuses on some of the most unsatisfied sadsacks you’ll ever meet. Joe (Matthew Modine) is a waiter and would-be actor whose refusal to perform even in commercials constantly thwarts his chances at a big break. His longtime girlfriend Mary (Catherine Keener) berates him for this snooty attitude, although her own self-esteem issues regarding sex aren’t helping diffuse any tensions. Meanwhile, Joe’s pal Bob (Maxwell Caulfield) lands a nice gig on a soap opera, after which he ditches his supermodel paramour (Bridgette Wilson) for a co-star (Daryl Hannah) who fits his requirements of having a romantic partner who’s naturally blonde. In their own ways, each of these misguided dopes strives towards an ideal that just doesn’t exist, blissfully unaware of that old adage about books and the covers by which they shouldn’t be judged.

As whatever potential for dramatic weight it might have conveyed dissipates with each passing frame, it’s only appropriate that The Real Blonde‘s key theme is that of illusion. Most of its characters make believe for a living (as actors, models, etc.) and delude themselves into thinking that there’s a perfection out there to aspire to, rather than recognize how good they already have it. Joe scoffs at accepting bit parts because he only wants highbrow scripts, Bob tosses a perfectly sweet girl to the curb because of arbitrary standards, and the beat goes on. But instead of acquainting viewers with the places from which these misinformed desires emerged, DiCillo gives us two hours of stupid people doing stupid things, without an inkling as to what we’re supposed to find so fascinating about it all. By the end, no one really learns anything, which is a reasonable conclusion to arrive at (history just repeats for certain folks), but with no understanding of what’s driving this troupe or why we should even care, any semblance of an arc that the writing attempts to mount is all for naught.

Not much of what anyone in The Real Blonde‘s ensemble says carries any wit or perception. It’s true that the movie doesn’t rub your face in its smugness, but I’d almost rather have had that instead of the absence of personality that holds sway for the bulk of the running time. Scenes such as Dave Chappelle as a Holocaust denier and an entire restaurant arguing about The Piano are memorable not because they’re funny but because that’s all the flick has; otherwise, there’s little to set these exchanges apart from the pop culture dissection so many indies indulged in after Quentin Tarantino made it popular. The Real Blonde is the kind of movie whose faults are almost entirely behind the camera, since so many in front of it are trying like mad to make it work. Modine doesn’t quite pull off the self-important sleazebag type, but Caulfield makes for a pretty solid cad, and Keener avoids making Mary into the shrew she could’ve become. Altogether, this is one incredible cast (which also counts cameos from Buck Henry, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Lloyd, and more), even though so many of its ranks are called upon just to say something offbeat for a moment before vanishing into the aether.

The ’90s forgot about The Real Blonde in a hurry, and so will you. While I haven’t seen anything else he’s done, DiCillo was a favorite of many in the decade’s independent cinema scene, so I’d like to think that this was a brief creative misstep or the result of some pesky postproduction meddling. Either way, The Real Blonde isn’t a hateful picture, but only because it’s too boring to despise.

“Christmas in July” (1940)

"Christmas in July" poster

 

If you’re a Preston Sturges fan who felt enlightened by the clever social commentary of Sullivan’s Travels, then it’d be best to pass on Christmas in July. In fact, this 1940 comedy much like the sort of movie that Joel McCrea’s character tired of making in that former feature, a frothy farce with nary a hint of meatiness in sight. Of course, Sullivan’s Travels taught us the good that can come of humor, and so it goes that Christmas in July is a harmless little thing that only aspires to make us smile. You can’t help but admire the flick’s liveliness, but with a premise as threadbare as the one it’s packing, even its 67-minute length comes off as way too prolonged from time to time.

Never before has coffee meant so much to so many people. Millions across the country are waiting by their radios, hoping to be named winner of the Maxford House java giant’s new slogan contest. Mild-mannered clerk Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) is one of them, but to him, the $25 thousand grand prize is more than just a nice chunk of change. It’s a new couch for his mom, the start of a life for him and his sweetie (Ellen Drew), and the chance to prove his creative talents to the world. Unfortunately, some of Jimmy’s fellow officemates have taken note of his enthusiasm and worked up a fake telegram declaring him the contest’s victor. But before they get a chance to spill the beans, word of Jimmy’s success spreads like wildfire, sending the lad on a spending spree that won’t last long when the boys at Maxford House get wind of the deception.

Though Sturges has a reputation as a master of screwball cinema, Christmas in July is so airy and laid-back, I wouldn’t categorize it as zany in the least. Maybe he just saved his surplus of craziness for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek four years later, but there’s seriously not much to this thing. Sturges’ vibe is a very mellow one, to such a degree that any of the zippy jokes or awkward set pieces that you’d expect out of a situation as sticky as the one Jimmy lands in never emerge. Christmas in July doesn’t even concern itself that much with the characters pranking Jimmy to begin with, merely showing him getting the telegram and buying a bunch of stuff until the plot decides to let him in on the truth. Not to rag on Sturges, who expresses obvious empathy and affection for his creations, but there’s really no movie here. While he can fill the screen with all the good intentions that he can summon, they’re not enough to provide a backbone suitable enough to keep a narrative like this interesting.

I may not have the kindest words to say about its storytelling, but I admit that the entirety of Christmas in July‘s ensemble appears to be having a grand ol’ time. Powell supplies a sympathetic hero, a guy with noble aspirations who’s just gotten a few bad breaks in his time. It’s easy to root him on, especially when his charitable side kicks in after hearing of his “win,” a welcome surprise from the usual routine of the good guy making a selfish ass out of himself before reality humiliates him in the climax. Everyone else puts on a good show, especially Raymond Walburn (Broadway Melody of 1938) as the blustery head of Maxford House, though one can’t help but feel that too many got slighted with the minor roles they were given (even Drew). It would certainly seem that way, since Sturges pays so little mind to his own message, with his pleas to appreciate the little guys in all of our lives arriving too late and too heavy-handed to accept.

In all honesty, I began writing this in hopes of digging up some reason not to dislike Christmas in July, but I’ve got nothin’. Although it’s a jovial jaunt with some funny lines and an infectious optimism, these traces are disappointingly scant at best. Christmas in July neither provides the intellect with much to mull over or inspires the belly to conjure many laughs of the hearty kind.

“Mitchell” (1975)

"Mitchell" poster

 

I can think of some weird choices for action heroes that the movies have made. Someone saw fit to give Dennis Rodman some screen time in the ’90s, and few anticipated Liam Neeson’s career resurgence as a kicker of multiple hindquarters. But with these guys, you can see how their physiques and attitudes earned them a shot at stardom, which I can’t really say about Joe Don Baker. Though he was a perfect fit for the role of a no-nonsense, hulking country sheriff in the original Walking Tall, his boorish persona doesn’t serve him well in a flick like 1975’s Mitchell that calls for a bit more finesse. In this vigilante cop drama made to piggyback on the then-current success of the Dirty Harry series, Baker only enhances his character’s worst qualities, making him seem less of a hero with his finger on the American public’s pulse and more like a slovenly jackass who lucked his way into a badge.

When bigwig attorney Walter Deaney (John Saxon) blasts away an intruder in his home, it seems like a cut-and-dry case of self defense. But there’s one man who thinks there’s more to this murder than meets the eye: Detective Mitchell (Baker), who’s lugged to the crime scene sleepy, slurring, and in the back of a police cruiser. Mitchell senses that the deceased couldn’t have been much of a threat and immediately sets about trying to expose Deaney as a cold-blooded killer. Unfortunately, due to a lack of evidence and the FBI’s own interest in the creep, the detective is taken off the case and assigned to keep watch over James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam), a well-to-do businessman with mafia ties. But Mitchell still can’t help being a nuisance and proceeds to sniff out both Cummings’ and Deaney’s criminal dealings on his own time, gleefully racking up even more enemies and attempts on his life in the process.

Mitchell is best known to folks today thanks to its appearance on a little program called “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” I’m not sure how I feel about that, since the film’s prints would probably be withering away in some cave where they belong, were the thing not lampooned by Joel and the bots in what became one of their most popular episodes. It’s no exaggeration when I say that, if anything, they undersold what an unappealing pile of dreck Mitchell is. From top to bottom, this is seriously depressing, a slog through cop movie clichés with no visible signs of life or personality. Be it the made-for-TV cinematography or the simple yet bafflingly roundabout story, everything about the flick feels routine to a fault, as the powers that be make no efforts whatsoever to offer more than what viewers can get from the kind of pictures it’s cheaply trying to rip off. There is simply no action, danger, humor, or anything of worth for the audience to latch onto, only the soulless regurgitation of tropes into a shape intended to fool people into thinking stuff is happening.

But even more than the lackluster directing and inane writing, what cripples Mitchell most is its own headliner. It’s not often that a movie’s fate is so contingent on its performers (the vast majority of whom do their jobs, with few hang-ups), but Baker takes an already unsavory project and sours it up yet further with his presence. As previously mentioned, the goal here was to create a Harry Callahan type of figure, someone with a disdain for bureaucracy and a hankering to see justice served, no matter what procedure says. Instead, Mitchell ends up chronicling the life and times of an oafish slob who basically bugs crooks into cooperation, complains about his duties, and literally tells old ladies to go wander off in the middle of nowhere. Baker’s exhausted look and nearly complete lack of charisma make it impossible to root him on as an antihero, and the way Linda Evans’ prostitute love interest paws him makes for some of the most shockingly ill-conceived sex scenes ever put on film.

Because of “MST3K,” there are many out there who consider Mitchell a schlocky guilty pleasure, a sentiment that I cannot share. Although certain parts are inherently silly (the attempted assassination via dune buggy comes to mind), there’s no entertainment I could glean from this joyless vehicle, ironic or otherwise. Mitchell was a tough enough sit on “MST3K,” but unriffed, it’s even less endurable.

(Mitchell is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“The Last Days on Mars” (2013)

"The Last Days on Mars" poster

Ever since Neil Armstrong and company traversed the moon’s surface, Mars has been the next celestial body on mankind’s to-conquer list. But over the years, movies have given us reason after reason to get our asses away from the angry red planet, presenting it as a hotbed of rogue robots, colossal monsters, and that most abominable of creatures, Taylor Kitsch. The Last Days on Mars isn’t about to do its namesake world any favors either, with its rouge-tinted landscapes serving as the backdrop for what a George A. Romero flick would look like in outer space. Surprisingly, though, this turns out to be one lean and mean little thriller, thanks to a cast that plays it straight and a director who knows just when to heighten the stakes where it counts.

In just shy of twenty hours, our first manned mission to Mars will have been a bust. Intrepid astronauts Vincent (Liev Schreiber), Kim (Olivia Williams), and their crewmates are understandably disappointed when it looks as if they’ll be heading home empty-handed…until a colleague makes a shocking discovery at the last minute. Signs of microscopic life have been found, little bacteria-like buggers that just might end up making the whole trip worth it. But when two of the crew are exposed to the germ, their wait for a ride back to Earth turns into a fight for survival. The infection spreads from astronaut to astronaut, transforming them into bloodthirsty shells of their former selves. As their numbers begin to dwindle, those lucky enough to avoid the virus rally behind Vincent, who must set his personal demons aside in order to lead his fellow explorers to safety or die trying.

The world of low-budget science fiction is a pretty hefty gamble, but The Last Days on Mars powers through just fine. While this was blessed with more cash than similar genre productions are often afforded, it keeps a close eye on its pennies, making sure the story’s ambitions aren’t beyond what can be properly pulled off. The Last Days on Mars is just content with being a good, old-fashioned monster movie (and a rather expediently-assembled one, at that). It’s a very economical endeavor, as director Ruairi Robinson gives us viewers all we need to know about the setting, the characters, and whatever background info is necessary for us to get plenty freaked out as soon as possible. He has the movie paced too quickly for plot holes or lapses in logic to settle in right away, and without giving away the direction our story comes to take, he creates a suspenseful atmosphere from a situation in which everyone on screen seems to be boned six ways to Sunday.

The Last Days on Mars is, at its heart, a siege flick, one whose premise you buy into without terribly much technical wizardry having to be employed. A good deal of its success is due to the actors, and although one wishes their characters left a slightly more meaningful impression (seriously, anyone could’ve played these roles), this cast still finds ways to keep the audience on its toes. Not only are there no major issues in the way of us caring about anyone’s fate, the movie likes to surprise us with where their arcs go, as saviors and cowards emerge from unlikely places. Schreiber leads this ensemble with the right touch of stern authority, not too serious but not stopping to wink at the camera every five minutes. He’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast that follows suit, one rounded out with the likes of Williams, Romola Garai, Elias Koteas, and others who are up to the task of convincing us that space zombies are running amok.

I dug The Last Days on Mars, but the way it fulfills genre requirements and little more is a bit of a letdown. It’s just jokey enough, just scary enough, and just gory enough, which is fine, though it does make you wonder what things could’ve been, had the film pushed itself a little further. Still, The Last Days on Mars is fun sci-fi fare with a horror flair, its thrills delivered consistently and its mood nice and claustrophobic.