The Last Days on Mars (2013)
★ / ★★★★
With only nineteen hours left of their mission on Mars, a research crew of eight, led by Brunel (Elias Koteas), are supposed to be wrapping things up by checking that everything is working properly for the crew planned to take their place. But Marko (Goran Kostic) notices something under a microscope: evidence of bacterial cell division. Along with Harrington (Tom Cullen), they go to the site where the samples were acquired. But these are no ordinary bacteria. They have the capability to infect a host, take over completely, and attempt to kill and infect the next living being.
“The Last Days on Mars,” based on the screenplay by Clive Dawson and directed by Ruairi Robinson, is a big disappointment because by the end it is reduced to a standard slasher picture with no brain and little ambition. Despite a premise that I have weakness towards—people discovering something bizarre and horrific in a foreign environment—I found myself incredibly bored. It should have ended around the forty-five minute mark.
The latter half is junk because there is no mystery or real emotion. It is simply all about who will get infected next. Why is that interesting? When someone eventually does get exposed to the bacteria, it is neither executed nor accomplished in a manner that is willing to surprise us, move us, or scare us. What is the point?
At times the images are too dark so it is difficult to appreciate what is supposed to be curious or terrifying. The story takes place on another planet. It is science fiction on the surface but we rarely experience the feeling of wonder, its core is a horror film but the visuals are so unexciting and shot in a painfully ordinary way that we feel nothing for the events that are unraveling. The trek to the final scene is most interminable.
I guess the heart of the picture is supposed to be the friendship between Campbell (Liev Schreiber) and Lane (Romola Garai). What they share has a romantic undercurrent but since we are not given sufficient information about their connection prior to the discovery of the bacteria, I could care less about what would become of them. Are they worthy rooting for because they are “nice” and always willing to save the crew even those who have become infected? I found them boring. I liked Kim (Olivia Williams) precisely because she is the opposite. She is direct, smart, and often comes off as uncaring. Many of the characters require more friction, a bit of sauciness to create a semblance of intrigue.
Based on the final product, I guess the film’s goal is to appeal to people who just want to be entertained by watching characters on screen get killed. But I say we deserve a little more than a pessimism. The research crew has come across one of the greatest discoveries of mankind. Why play the story small and safe?
The Thin Red Line (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
An AWOL soldier, Private Witt (James Caviezel), had never been good at following orders. When ordered to go left, he turned right. But when he was found in a Malaysian island by 1st Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), Pvt. Witt, as punishment, was assigned to be a stretcher bearer in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The attack was led by Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) and his superior Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte). The former wouldn’t obey the latter’s orders because he believed that sending his men forward was suicide. The Japanese bunkers were too far and too hidden for a typical affront. Lt. Col. Tall wasn’t convinced. Based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones and beautifully directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” was fascinating because it combined the horrors of war with spirituality. We were given the chance to hear a soldier’s thoughts, American and Japanese, about his place in the world, trepidation in terms of facing his mortality, and the loved ones he left behind. While the action scenes were raw and unflinching, I was most impressed with the way the soldiers played the hand they’ve been given. Some made rookie but dire mistakes out of panic (Woody Harrelson), some succumbed in fear and would rather be invisible (Adrien Brody), while others were distracted by flashbacks, wondering whether someone was still waiting for them at home (Ben Chaplin). The film highlighted that war was not as simple as two sides fighting for a cause. In a way, the battlefield was a glorious arena in which we had to fight ourselves. While good soldiers trusted their instincts, orders, too, must be obeyed. The conflict between instinct and duty could break a man. I was most interested in Pvt. Witt because he looked at his enemies with serenity. Unlike his comrades, not once did he show hatred toward the soldiers on the opposite side of the mountain. I wondered why. If I was in his position, I’m not quite sure if I could look at my enemies as if they were my equal. I would probably see them as lower animals and treat them as such. I just don’t think I can be as forgiving if I knew that my friends and comrades died because of them. Pvt. Witt mentioned that “maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man.” Malick used images to underline man’s place in nature. There were zen-like shots of soldiers just sitting around and admiring, for example, a plant. It took them out of the situation, even for just a few seconds, until the voice of their leader urged them to go on. There were several shots of birds, flying in sky or dying on the ground, which symbolized either glory or pain. “The Thin Red Line” was sensitive and intelligent. It tried to find answers in a place where answers were as transient as they were permanent.
Let Me In (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A man with a badly burned face had been taken to a hospital and a detective (Elias Koteas) arrived to interview him. But when the detective stepped out of the room to talk on the telephone, the person of interest jumped from a ten-story building. Cut to a lonely kid Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who was constantly bullied in school. He spent most of his time by himself as he tried to cope with his parents’ divorce. So when a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her guardian (Richard Jenkins) moved into the apartment building, naturally, Owen wanted to be friends with her unknowing of the fact that she was a vampire. “Let Me In,” directed by Matt Reeves, is very similar to Tomas Alfredson’s “Låt den rätte komma in” or “Let the Right One In.” While I did enjoy this film’s interpretation of the events, I constantly felt the need to compare it to the original. I found it difficult to separate the two because Reeves’ version did not really strive to do anything too different. From the cold locale to the grizzly murder scenes, it was just good instead of impressive because I’ve seen it all before. What I liked most about “Let Me In” was the actors. I immediately felt Smit-McPhee’s loneliness and desperation to connect with others. The scene when he called his dad to ask if evil truly existed was very sad and I just wanted to give him a hug. Moretz as the twelve-year-old vampire was accessible. I also felt her loneliness because she knew what she was and her capabilities but nobody understood her. For those who tried, such as Jenkins’ sympathetic character, they ended up getting hurt or dead. I’m giving “Let Me In” a recommendation because if I had not seen the original, I would have still enjoyed this vampire film. Its heart was always the focus instead of the blood. I always appreciate that quality especially with horror pictures because it is so much easier to deliver the violence instead of trying to explore what makes the characters tick. Further, the somber mood complemented the haunting score and vice-versa. What I felt “Let Me In” could have done was to explore Abby’s past much further. When Owen finally had a chance to enter Abby’s apartment, we saw pictures and other paraphernalia involving Abby’s mysterious past. Remaking a movie does not necessarily mean the remake should be confined to the original’s ideas. In order for the remake to be stronger, it must not be afraid to think outside the box (or even break the box) to surprise us.
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
“Some Kind of Wonderful” was about two best friends named Keith and Watts (Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson, respectively) who initially failed to see that they were perfect for each other. Watts being a hardcore tomboy certainly did not help their situation. But after popular girl Amanda (Lea Thompson) and popular rich boy Hardy (Craig Sheffer) broke up, Keith wanted to take Amanda on a date and Watts started to feel uncomfortably jealous. I did enjoy the movie as a whole but I think it came up short on delivering something unique. I love the whole 80’s thing going on with Keith’s eccentric family, the divide between the rich and the poor students, the big hair, and the nostalgic soundtrack but by the end of the movie, I didn’t feel like I knew the main characters that well. Since the picture was written by John Hughes, compared to his other projects, his characters in this film felt one-dimensional and the way the story unfolded (like most 80s teen movies) felt painfully obvious. But what made this movie work less for me was the fact that it didn’t even try to surprise me in terms of delivering something I didn’t expect from the characters. I also thought it was weird that I didn’t get emotionally involved with the characters’ lives. All of the drama was on the outside so as much as I tried to like it on another deeper level, I just couldn’t. Although there was tension between Keith and his dad (John Ashton) because Keith did not want to go to college, it felt like a distraction because the movie was more about (or should be more about) the relationship between the two best friends. I didn’t feel much chemistry between Keith and Watts so I thought it was necessary for the film to prove to me that there’s a compelling reason for the two of them to be together. There were times when I thought Thompson’s character outshined Masterson’s because of the popular girl’s shame of desperately trying to hide where she came from to the point where she was willing to hang out with snobby rich girls who could care less about her. I was more interested in Thompson’s character because I could see the pain she was going through and the reasons why she decided to make certain decisions. Although Watts had her share of insecurities in the locker room, I needed to know more about her, especially if Keith was going to choose her in the end. Still, there were some funny scenes especially when Elias Koteas (as a bully who looks like a skinhead) was on screen. Directed by Howard Deutch, “Some Kind of Wonderful” needed more sensitive moments that weren’t necessarily expressed in a highlighted manner. Sometimes, subtelty can go a long way. Ultimately, it’s a nice movie but there’s a fine line between sensitive and cheesy. At times it stepped on the latter’s territory.