Jim Allison: Breakthrough


They call him surf cowboy…

(2019) Documentary (DadaJim Allison, Woody Harrelson (narrator), Willie Nelson, Sharon Belvin, Malinda Allison, Dr. Jedd Wolchok, Andrew Pollack, Eric Benson, Murphy Allison, G. Barrie Kitto, Lewis Lanier, Tyler Jacks, Jeffrey Bluestone, Max Krummel, Alan Korman, Nils Lonberg, Dr. Elliott Sigal, Rachel Humphrey, Padmee Sharma. Directed by Bill Haney

 

Occasionally, you see a documentary that resonates with you because of the place and time that you’re in. It’s the cinematic version of all the planets aligning to smite the viewer with something so personal, so relevant to the viewer that one can’t help but be sucked in.

Jim Allison is a Texas iconoclast with a scruffy beard, a wild mane of hair and a collection of Hawaiian shirts that would shame Magnum, P.I. He plays blues harmonica with such luminaries as Willie Nelson but that’s more of a hobby. You see, when Jim Allison isn’t busy blowing his harp or fighting the powers that be in Texas education regarding the teaching of creationism in schools, he is developing a cure for cancer.

This particularly hits home for me since in May I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and just this past Wednesday I had surgery to have it removed. This type of cancer is the same that Jim’s brother Mike was stricken with and eventually succumbed to. Jim’s mom also passed from lymphoma when Jim was just 11 years old; it was then that the seeds of beating this dread disease were planted in him.

Jim went the route of immunotherapy, using the body’s own immune system to beat cancer. The T-cell is one of the components of white blood cells that seek out cells that are causing harm in the body. Cancer cells have managed to figure out a way to turn off the receptors in T-cells which effectively renders them invisible to the body’s immune system, allowing them to flourish and grow until it’s all over but the funeral arrangements.

Jim developed a drug with the odd name of Ipilimumab which faced a daunting task to make it from the lab to the pharmacy. A tremendous amount of research would be needed before the FDA would approve the drug, the kind of money only Big Pharma can provide and to be bloody honest Big Pharma has a reputation to be more about treating cancer than curing it. However, Bristol Myers Squibb, one of the biggest of Big Pharma, led by Dr. Rachel Humphrey, decided that the research Jim had conducted was promising. The rest, as they say, is history. Jim’s dogged persistence had a great deal to do with his success, but it also cost him his marriage as his wife Malinda like most human beings didn’t have an inexhaustible well of patience.

The movie is essentially a whole lot of talking head interviews interspersed with some nifty computer graphics depicting how T-cells work and other medical matters. One of the most compelling interviews is with Sharon Belvin, at the time a 22-year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with melanoma, essentially a death sentence. She was part of one of the first to participate in clinical trials for the drug and eventually became the first patient to use the drug that Allison met, one of the most emotional scenes in the film.

Much of the science went right over my head – there’s a reason I’m a film critic and not a research scientist – and some might find the scientific sequences thick. However, Jim’s “I gotta be me” personality and perseverance in the face of widespread disbelief on the part of his colleagues and often outright disrespect are some of the highlights of the film.

I’m hoping that I don’t need to use drugs like ipilimumab in the future; I’m hopeful that the cancer was caught early enough that the surgical removal of my prostate will leave me free of cancer for years to come. There are no guarantees when it comes to the Big C, however, and it’s comforting to know that there are drugs and methods out there that may extend my life many years beyond what prostate cancer patients in years past were able to survive so if I rate the documentary on the high side, I think I can be excused for that.

REASONS TO SEE: A really close look at how important research is done. Portrait of a Texas iconoclast.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the science is a bit dense.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Allison shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Tasuku Honjo of Japan in 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Blood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Omaha

William (2019)


So simple even a caveman could do it?

(2019) Drama (Dada) Will Brittain, Maria Dizzia, Waleed Zuaiter, Susan Park, Beth Grant, Callum Seagram Airlie, Krystle Dos Santos, Kevin Dzah, Stefania Indelicato, Jaren Moore, Ellie Harvie, David Nykl, Nisreen Slim, Christian Convery, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Sydney Bell, Finn Haney, Michael Meneer, Kurt Ostlund, Iris Paluly, Lisa MacFadden. Directed by Tim Disney

 

Neanderthals occupy an interesting place in pop culture. On the one hand, they are our ancestors; we evolved from them and then eventually wiped them out (or out-survived them). On the other hand, they are portrayed as both stupid (“So easy even a caveman could do it”) and brutish, normally portrayed as being possessed of enormous strength and aggressiveness. In truth however, we really don’t know very much about them.

Paleontologist Julian Reed (Zuaiter) would very much like to change that. He dreams of coming face to face with a Neanderthal, particularly after a colleague (Grant) of his at Wallace University where he teaches discovered a nearly-perfectly preserved body in a Pacific Northwest bog not far from the University. Bio-engineer Barbara Sullivan (Dizzia), attending one of Julian’s impassioned lectures on the subject, thinks she can make it happen by cloning a Neanderthal using DNA from the remains of the Neanderthal. The two find common ground and eventually get married.

As for cloning the Neanderthal, the University brass reacts with horror. It’s not just a no but a Hell, no! Being the maverick scientific power couple that they are, they decide to do it anyway, using one of Barbara’s eggs as an embryo. By the time the university finds out, the deed is already done and a baby – named William, after Irish naturalist William King who was the first to identify Neanderthals as a separate species – and the university has no choice but to support the two scientists after the fact.

Barbara and Julian develop a deep rift in their relationship on how William’s upbringing should be handled. Julian wants to keep the boy at the University where he can be closely monitored, whereas Barbara, once the gung-ho maverick, has turned all mom on him and demands the boy be raised in an environment where he has a shot at a normal life which in retrospect doesn’t seem terribly realistic because there’s no way other children are going to let up on a completely different species. William mostly tolerates the abuse although from time to time when cornered he does show an ability to more than adequately defend himself.

William also has trouble with literary interpretation, particularly when it comes to humor and metaphors. Think of Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy who didn’t understand anything in other than a literal sense. William is that, only more soft-spoken and less blue. William is in all ways polite and brilliant but his shortcoming in this one department threatens to derail his plans for college – or perhaps more his dad’s plans. Also, William is getting a little tired of other people making decisions about what’s best for him.

While this sounds like soft sci-fi along the lines of Creator or Encino Man, this is more of a coming-of-age drama with some light science fiction overtones. This is not so much about the creation of William but of the practical ramifications of creating him. Given that some scientists believe that we’ll have the ability to clone dinosaurs by the end of the next decade, the immortal line “They were so busy trying to figure out if they could they never bothered asking themselves if they should” from Jurassic Park immediately comes to mind. The premise is an interesting one and it is handled in an unexpected way which is reason enough to recommend it right there.

Brittain does a great job of making William sympathetic and alien at the same time. He’s just like us, only he’s not. There is a universal truth hiding in that statement; that truth is that we’re all under that category. I don’t know if that was a message Disney meant to send but it was one I read loud and clear all the same.

Cinematographers Graham and Nelson Talbot utilize the Pacific Northwest setting nicely and some of the shot compositions should be used as teaching tools in film school. The negative here (and it’s a big one) is that the ending is completely tone-deaf with the rest of the film. Disney went out of his way to approach the subject in a unique way and then just about wipes out the good will of the audience by tacking on a cliché ending. The ending is an easy one that has the advantage of tying things up neatly more or less but it is almost like it came out of another movie – and not a better one.

Despite the disappointment of the film’s ending this is still that rarity – an intelligent movie with an intriguing premise that never talks down to its viewers (until the last ten minutes) and generally takes the road that isn’t easy or safe. I only wish that Disney had the faith in his own project to give us an ending that didn’t feel so out of tune with the rest of the film.

REASONS TO SEE: The premise is interesting. I liked the shot composition going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a bit of violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim Disney is Walt’s grand-nephew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
One Child Nation