Rated R for violence, terror and pervasive profanity
Microscopic Martian Matter Morphs Into Monster In Outer Space Screamfest
In recent years, Hollywood has started serving up some outer space adventures, a la The Martian (2015) and The Space Between Us (2017), suggesting that the Red Planet is basically a benign environment free of any hostile creatures. But just when we thought it was safe to visit Mars again, along comes Life, a cautionary horror flick unleashing a terrifying alien force aboard an international space station.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), the claustrophobic thriller co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds as Dr. David Jordan and Roy Adams, respectively, the Pilgrim 7’s flight engineer and chief medical officer. The balance of the six-person crew is composed of Center for Disease Control quarantine specialist Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), systems engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), eco-biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and the spaceship’s captain, Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya).
As the film unfolds, we learn that their appointed mission is merely to deliver a single-cell organism arriving via space probe from the surface of Mars. It all sounds easy enough as the disarming plotline initially devotes itself to developing the characters’ back stories, like how David is a disenchanted, Iraq War vet.
Upon retrieving the capsule, they celebrate the discovery of the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth. They even allow Sho’s daughter to give the ostensibly-innocuous substance a cute, cuddly name, oblivious of the danger lurking just over the horizon.
The plot thickens when “Calvin” begins reproducing via mitosis, and every cell of its luminescent ectoplasmic mass proves to be an irrepressible mix of brains and muscles. By day 25, the sentient creature develops proto-appendages and becomes strong enough to breach containment.
Initially, it nibbles on a finger of Hugh’s, who somehow discerns that “Calvin doesn’t hate us, but he’s got to kill us to survive.” Great. What ensues is a desperate race against time to return to Earth before the mushrooming monster devours them all, one-by-one.
Though reminiscent of such sci-fi classics as Alien (1979) and Species (1995), Life is a worthwhile addition to the extraterrestrial on the loose genre. Substantial credit in this regard goes to the ever-underappreciated Jake Gyllenhaal who turns in the latest in a long line of impressive performances which includes outings in Nocturnal Animals (2016), Southpaw (2015), Nightcrawler (2014) and Prisoners (2013), to name a few.
Strap yourself in for a cardiovascular screamfest that’ll keep you squirming in your seat. A riveting reminder that it still ain’t smart to mess with Mother Nature!
Excellent (4 stars)
In English, Japanese and Chinese with subtitles
Running time: 103 minutes
Betting On Zero
Zipper Bros. Films
Intriguing Exposé Chronicles Billionaire’s Crusade Vs. Possible Pyramid Scheme
Every couple of years or so, I get approached by a friend or acquaintance excited about some great new product that they’ve just quit their job to sell. Curiously, instead of trying to get me as a customer, they’re always more interested in offering me an opportunity to share in their good fortune by becoming a distributor.
That’s a big red flag that the business isn’t legit, but a pyramid scheme. Such an operation is easy to identify, because its participants invariably profit primarily by recruitment rather than by the sale of goods or services to consumers.
Directed by Ted Braun (Darfur Now), Betting On Zero chronicles the high-profile campaign of hedge fund manager Bill Ackman to expose the health food corporation Herbalife as little more than a multi-level marketing Ponzi racket. What makes the movie intriguing is that he was not necessarily acting altruistically, since he had also shorted Herbalife by placing a billion-dollar bet that the company’s stock price would plummet.
Nevertheless, the self-styled activist investor was still considered a Robin Hood in working-class circles, given his promise to disgorge any profits he might enjoy in favor of the unsophisticated minorities who had lost their life savings in the ill-advised enterprise. The millions of victims were predominantly undocumented immigrants too afraid to report to the authorities how they’d been fleeced, for fear of being deported.
To prevail on their behalf, Ackman first needed to convince the Federal Trade Commission that Herbalife was indeed a criminal enterprise. That would prove to be no mean feat, considering all the prominent individuals lobbying on behalf of the firm, from CNBC investment adviser Jim Kramer, to Donald Trump’s “killer” crony Carl Icahn, to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to ex-Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa.
For instance, there’s billionaire Carl Icahn not only propping up Herbalife’s stock by taking a huge stake in the company but he even goes on TV to dismiss as “B.S.” Ackman’s pledge to give his financial gains from the short to charity. Ultimately, the controversial case is resolved in one side’s favor, though it would be unfair for me to spoil the ending.
Is Herbalife a thinly-veiled con game being run by shady snake oil salesmen, or a benign operation affording average folks a realistic shot at the increasingly-elusive American Dream? You be the judge!
Excellent (4 stars)
In English and Spanish with subtitles
Running time: 104 minutes
OPENING THIS WEEK
For movies opening March 24, 2017
Chips (R for crude humor, graphic sexuality, frontal nudity, violence, drug use and pervasive profanity) Dax Shepard wrote, directed, produced and co-stars in this comedic screen version of the ’70s TV series revolving around the exploits of a couple of California Highway Patrol officers (Shepard and Michael Pena). With Adam Brody, Kristen Bell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Maya Rudolph and Jane Kaczmarek.
Power Rangers (PG-13 for violence, action, destruction, profanity and crude humor) Reboot of the hyperactive kiddie franchise finds five teens imbued with unique superpowers (Naomi Scott, R.J. Cyler, Ludi Lin, Dacre Montgomery and Becky G.) joining forces to save the planet from an evil witch (Elizabeth Banks) with an army of militant minions. With Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston and Sarah Grey.
Slamma Jamma (PG for violence, mature themes and mild epithets) Tale of redemption about a wrongly-convicted basketball star (Chris Staples) who attempts to get back on his feet after parole by entering a slam dunk competition with a grand prize of $25,000. Cast includes Michael Irvin, Jose Canseco and Michael Hardy.
American Anarchist (Unrated) Hippie Era documentary catching up with controversial cult figure William Powell, the now regretful author of the anti-establishment manifesto, “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.”
I Called Him Morgan (Unrated) Reverential retrospective revisiting the life of Lee Morgan (1938-1972), the legendary jazz great murdered by his wife between sets during a late-night gig at Slug’s Saloon in Greenwich Village. Featuring commentary by contemporaries Albert “Tootie” Heath, Wayne Shorter, Benny Maupin and Billy Harper.
I, Olga (Unrated) Crime blotter docudrama, set in Prague, deconstructing the series of events triggering 22-year-old, mass murderer Olga Hepnarova’s (Michalina Olszanska) 1973 killing spree. With Martin Pelchat, Klara Meliskova and Marika Soposka. (In Czech with subtitles)
In Search Of Israeli Cuisine (Unrated) Foodie documentary examining the 70+ cultures contributing to Israeli eating habits at home and in restaurants.
The Levelling (Unrated) Haunting, modern parable of Biblical proportions chronicling a grief-stricken Prodigal Daughter’s (Ellie Kendrick) attempt to reconcile with her long-estranged father (David Troughton) while performing a post mortem on her brother’s (Joe Blakemore) untimely death. Featuring Jack Holden.
Prevenge (Unrated) Horror comedy, set in Wales, about a pregnant mom in mourning (Alice Lowe), who is prodded by her fetus to embark on a homicidal rampage against the people responsible for the baby-daddy’s fatal mountain climbing accident. With Kate Dickie, Gemma Whelan and Jo Hartley.
Wilson (R for sexuality and pervasive profanity) Woody Harrelson plays the character in this dysfunctional family comedy about a lonely misanthrope who decides to reconcile with his estranged ex-wife (Laura Dern) upon learning that he has a teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) he never knew existed. With Brett Gelman, Judy Greer and Toussaint Morrison.