The Bleeding Edge


When rich corporations win, we lose.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Stephen Tower, Anna Firmalino, Robert Bridges, Ana Fuentes, Julio Cesar Novoa, Jim Spencer, Rita Redberg, Jeanne Lenzer, Michael Carone, Gaby Avila, Peter Firmalino, William K. Hubbard, David Kessler, Janice Tower, Adriane Fugh Berman, Deborah Cohen, Rodney Evans, Angelia Clark, Bill Vigil, Kemal Malik, Diana Zuckerman, Adam Slater, Tammy Jackson. Directed by Kirby Dick

 

We take for granted that the drugs our doctors prescribe and the devices that they implant in our bodies are meant to make us well. We assume that they have undergone rigorous testing by the government agencies who are supposed to protect the consumer and of course we don’t question that the said devices and drugs won’t make things worse.

But that isn’t the case as this documentary shows. An indictment of the Food and Drug Administration which also grants approval for medical devices, the film concentrates on a loophole that has been exploited by companies that manufacture these devices (companies that included Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble) that allow them to escape any testing should the devices be based on devices that existed before a more rigorous testing policy went into effect.

The result is that this testing, which is expensive and time-consuming, is these days rarely put into effect as most companies make the case for their product are extensions of existing products. Thus things like vaginal mesh, the Essure permanent contraception device and artificial hips made of cobalt have been put in people’s bodies without any idea of how the products effect the human body long term – or even short term.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Dick illustrates his point with some pretty horrifying stories as we see the absolute worst nightmares of anyone planning to have a medical device implanted. Many of them involve the Essure, which is essentially a tiny coil which implants itself in the Fallopian tube and induces fibrosis and blockage. It was marketed as a less invasive alternative to a tubal ligation. However, many women who had the procedure complained of bleeding, intense pain, and unwanted pregnancies. In some cases, the devices came out of the walls of the Fallopian tube and embedded themselves in the uterus; in others the device splintered, leaving tiny shards shredding the walls of the tubes and uterus.

I won’t go further into the other products mentioned; suffice to say that there were adverse affects for all of them, some gruesome and others startling. In every case no testing was done, leaving those who had the devices implanted as essential test subjects, unknowing human guinea pigs. It is sobering to think that a government agency would allow it but the $200 billion medical device industry is powerful and as they say in Washington, money talks and lots of money legislates.

The film makes the point that the FDA, designed as a consumer watchdog agency, has instead morphed into a corporate advocacy agency. As tempting as it is to blame the Trump administration (and the problems at the FDA have worsened under the “astute” leadership of Scott Gottleib who has industry ties but no medical degree as past administrators have had) this has been going on for more than two decades – the Essure itself was approved in 2002.

The film is an eye-opener. Dick uses the various interviews and stories to alternate the history of the FDA to make a devastating indictment of a government agency that has been hopelessly corrupted from its original purpose. Certainly this should be required viewing for anyone who is preparing to have a medical device put into their bodies (and in the interest of transparency, my own wife is one of these as of this writing). It is also a sobering reminder that the medical industry is often far from benevolent; very often they are more concerned with profits over patients.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is simple but effective. A movie anyone thinking about getting a medical device implanted should see.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing imagery.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A week before the documentary debuted on Netflix, Proctor and Gamble announced their Essure permanent contraceptive device portrayed in the film would be pulled from the market.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Lie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
American Animals

Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

documented

As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33

Dallas Buyers Club


A pair of Texas-sized performances.

A pair of Texas-sized performances.

(2013) True Life Drama (Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler, J.D. Evermore, Ian Casselberry, Noelle Wilcox, Bradford Cox, Rick Espaillat, Lawrence Turner, Lucius Falick, James DuMont, Jane McNeill. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Waiting for Oscar

2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto
Best Editing – Martin Pensa & Jean-Marc Vallee
Best Hair/Make-up – Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews
Best Original Screenplay – Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
WINS – Pending

The AIDS epidemic has been a scourge on gay men, responsible for the deaths of an astonishing percentage of the total population since the 80s. At the same time, it became a rallying point for the gay community, forcing them to organize – literally to fight for their lives. What they learned from that fight has served them well more recently in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

But before that, it was simple survival and not all of those fighting to live were gay. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), an electrician in the Dallas area, should have been on the Texas state flag. A  hard-partying, homophobic, heavy-drinking SOB who loved the rodeo and lived his life on the edge, gets the dreaded diagnosis in 1985 – not only does he have the HIV virus but full-blown AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Given his gaunt, cadaverous frame, it’s a miracle he’s even alive at all.

But life is too important to Ron to give up on it so easily. He does research and finds a treatment, currently in the test phase, called AZT that might save him. Unable to qualify for testing, he takes matters into his own hands and buys illegally obtained drugs. When it turns out that AZT is extremely toxic, he goes to Mexico to find alternatives which are provided by an expatriate American doctor (Dunne). Bringing enough back to the United States for use but also some to sell catches the eye of the FDA in the form of a bureaucratic agent (O’Neill) who keeps a wary eye on Woodroof.

At first Ron is just interested in selling the stuff so he can afford to buy more for himself, but with the help of a transgender named Rayon (Leto) and a shady lawyer (Roberts) he figures out that selling memberships in a buyers’ club circumvents the law. However, despite the support of a sympathetic doctor (Garner), her officious boss (O’Hare) who sees his patients flocking away from his lucrative AZT study and towards Ron’s less toxic treatments teams up with the FDA to find a way to bring Ron down, which is a death sentence to him and those who rely on his drugs to survive.

It is unbelievable that a federal agency would take the attitude that dying people should just lay down and die and accept their fate rather than to fight to live, but that’s just what has happened and in many ways continues to happen today. It’s all in keeping with the American and Christian attitude that gays and lesbians are less than human and deserve what they get when it comes to AIDS. That kind of thinking made my blood boil then and does so now. Why is compassion so lacking when it comes to the gay community?

McConaughey has been building to this performance his entire career. He is magnificent, having lost a terrifying amount of weight for the role and looking so gaunt I imagine that there was some legitimate concern for his health. Beyond that he plays the curmudgeonly and homophobic Ron without his usual likable charm; Ron is something of a son-of-a-bitch. Still, he grows through the film and though he remains somewhat arrogant and a bit of a blowhard, he does soften around the edges.

Leto, long an acclaimed actor who has been absent from the screen of late, returns in triumph, making the fictional Rayon the conscience of the movie. Although she is quite flawed  – Ron basically browbeats her about her drug use, knowing that it destroys her immunity system faster than the treatment can repair it – she still has a heart as big as the Big D Metroplex and then some.

I can’t say that this is a movie that will make you feel great when you leave the theater but you do see the human spirit at its finest. Ron, given 30 days to live, survives seven years thanks in part for his refusal to just lie down and die and accept what his doctors told him. He found a way to extend his life and in doing so, helped extend the lives of many others. That is in my book the very definition of a hero.

REASONS TO GO: Jaw-dropping performances by McConaughey and Leto. Moving and brilliant.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too emotional for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can be pretty rough. There’s also some sexuality and nudity, drug use and some pretty mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jared Leto hadn’t taken on an acting role in five years prior to this film, spending time concentrating on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and the legal problems they were embroiled in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philadelphia

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Watcher

Limitless


Limitless

Abbie Cornish monitors Bradley Cooper's hand positioning very carefully.

(2011) Science Fiction (Rogue/Relativity) Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, Darren Goldstein, Ned Eisenberg, T.V. Carpio, Richard Bekins. Directed by Neil Burger

We all are victims of our own limitations. We forget things, often almost as soon as we learn them. Still, that knowledge is there, locked in the recesses of our own minds, waiting for us to access it and use it. What do you think would happen if we did?

Eddie Morra (Cooper) is a writer. Excuse me, a wannabe writer. He’s been given a book contract for which the deadline is fast approaching and he hasn’t written one word. He lives in the ugliest, most slovenly bachelor pad in New York. And his girlfriend Lindy (Cornish) has just given him the boot.

It’s been a bad day for Eddie. However, somewhat serendipitously he runs into his ex brother-in-law Vernon (Whitworth) on the street. Eddie was married to Vernon’s sister Melissa (Friel) right out of college and though the marriage didn’t last, Vernon remains something of a douchebag. He was a drug dealer when Eddie knew him but he’s graduated to a much different kind of drug.

It’s called NZT and it allows you to access 100% of your brain capacity at once, instead of the 20% we normally use. Eddie is skeptical but when he takes one, he suddenly remembers things half-glimpsed and is able to fend off a nagging landlord’s wife (Carpio) and not only help her write her dissertation, but ends up bedding her as well.

He also winds up cleaning his apartment, then sits down and bangs out 40 pages of the book he has been unable to write due to an advanced case of writer’s block or, more likely, a terminal case of nothing in particular to say.

However the pill wears off and he goes to Vernon’s apartment to get one and instead winds up with a stash. Now he finds himself learning new languages, and finishing his book in four days. He has become irresistible to women and sleeps with a bevy of super-attractive Manhattan partiers.

He also has become bored. He wants to make money faster, so he learns the art of day trading and quickly turns a paltry stake into millions in just ten days. This gets him noticed by Carl Van Lune (De Niro), a ruthless energy tycoon who is in the midst of brokering the biggest merger in American history with the company owned by Hank Atwood (Bekins), whose meteoric rise to the top has puzzled a lot of pundits.

Even as Lindy comes back to Eddie, there are cracks appearing in the façade of Eddie’s perfect existence. A Russian mobster (Howard) who accidentally took one of Eddie’s pills has decided he needs Eddie’s stash. Worse yet, the pill is showing signs of having major side effects which unchecked can be deadly. Is Eddie smart enough to think is way out of this one?

In a very real way this is the legitimate heir to Charly (which was, like this, based on a work of literature, in that case Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and here Alan Glynn’s “The Dark Fields”). Unlike the other which was more of a drama this is more of an action film slash thriller. The ramifications of a drug like this on humanity are only hinted at in the broadest terms and the story often leaves that conversation behind for the murky and sometimes meandering plotlines with the Russian mobster and the Machiavellian industrialist.

That’s too bad, because this could have been so much more compelling. Cooper is a charismatic lead, coming into his own a couple of years after his breakthrough role in The Hangover. He is easygoing and charming, for the most part but the role deceptively calls for more. Cooper makes both the slacker Eddie of the first reel and the brilliant Eddie of the rest of the film mesh together, clearly the same man at heart but wildly different in personalities. This is Cooper’s first real leading role; given the success of the movie so far, I can’t imagine there won’t be more in his very near future.

De Niro is, well, De Niro. Of late he seems to be coasting more and more in parts that are truly beneath him. While Van Lune has the potential of being worthy of a De Niro performance, at the end of the day he’s just another corporate villain, offering no real insight into what drives him or people like him and reminding me – not in a good way – of De Niro’s role as the Senator in Machete and when did you think that De Niro wouldn’t be the strongest acting performance of all the cast in a movie?

Burger uses a lot of interesting tunnel vision-like effects that can be dizzying. The first time he does it, the effect looks cool. By the fourth or fifth time it kind of loses its magic. There are an array of digital effects that represent Eddie’s growing intellect that are well played in the movie however.

The premise is clever; it’s a bit of a disappointment that they didn’t do more with it. Still, as I write this I realize I’m coming off as harsher on the movie than it really deserves and quite frankly, I enjoyed it. The movie hums along at a brisk pace and the story is compelling enough that given the fine work by Cooper in the lead role you have enough for a recommendation from me. However, I kinda wish these pills really existed. Maybe I could take some and start writing great screenplays right?

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is an engaging lead. The cinematography is stylish and the movie is surprisingly clever.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many “Look ma I’m directing” shots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is extensive drug usage (it is a film about a miracle drug after all), violence, some disturbing images and finally, a bit of sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first film from new distributor Relativity Media to be #1 at the box office for the weekend.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the digital effects are kinda cool, for the most part this works equally as effectively at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casino Royale

Bigger Stronger Faster*


Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

To get these kind of muscles, you really gotta hustle.

(2008) Documentary (Magnolia) Christopher Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Sheldon Bell, Rosemary Bell, Stan Lee, Lyle Alzado, Hulk Hogan, Joe Biden, Will Harris, Greg Valentino. Directed by Christopher Bell

America loves a winner, General George Patton tells us, and can’t abide a loser. This is a truth that is central in understanding the American character. We all know what the American dream is; but what is the American ideal?

Filmmaker Christopher Bell knows. As a boy growing up in Poughkeepsie, he and his brothers worshipped the same things that other boys growing up in the 1980s worshipped; Rambo, Hulk Hogan, the Terminator. He wanted to be just like them, as his brothers Mike and Mark also did. When it came out that their bodies weren’t developed naturally but had a little help from steroids, at first he was devastated. However, that understanding brought all three of the boys to the same conclusion; if that’s what it takes to get those kinds of bodies, then that’s what they had to do.

In fact it wasn’t the muscular bodies themselves that the Bell boys craved but what came with it; success and victory, victory in weightlifting competitions and professional wrestling matches. They wanted to be famous and admired. What they got instead was a lifetime of frustration. Professional wrestling is a tough business to achieve glory in and the Bell brothers made little headway. Brief careers in World Wrestling Entertainment did not yield the expected results.

The movie addresses calmly and rationally the entire steroid and performance enhancement issue. Steroids are illegal in this country without a prescription and the purpose of building muscle is not considered a valid reason for prescribing them medically. However, unlike other drugs with similar prohibitions, there are no narcotic elements to steroids. There’s no evidence that steroids are especially harmful (Lyle Alzado’s assertions that steroids caused his brain tumor to the contrary) and quite frankly, the whole concept of “Roid Rage” which allegedly fueled pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s homicidal rampage has no medical basis.

The real issue with steroids, Bell alleges, is far more insidious. It is the buying into the culture of competitive edge, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It drives athletes – where, the movie alleges, steroid us is commonplace from the professional level on down – to use whatever edge they can find to be successful.

Then-Senator Joe Biden called steroids “Un-American,” but as Greg Valentino, a steroid user asserts, “Steroids are as American as apple pie.” Self-proclaimed with the largest biceps in the world, Valentino is something of a freak. Although muscular, his biceps are so large that it is unattractive which Valentino cheerfully admits. For him, it’s not about attracting the ladies for Valentino; it’s about being the biggest. He certainly attracts male admirers who think the man is a legend. His interviews in the movie are some of the most entertaining; Valentino is a naturally charismatic guy.

The movie’s at its best when it concentrates on the effects of steroids on the families of the brothers. Their parents were unaware of the boys’ steroid use and the news of it was devastating to them. Mike’s wife is concerned with the use of the steroids; she wants another baby and steroids decrease fertility. Mike promises to stop using them when he lifts 700 pounds, an achievement he does eventually attain. However, whether or not he keeps that promise is very much up in the air.

Like documentarian Michael Moore, Bell tells his story very specifically, using a lot of facts – and a fair amount of humor – to illustrate his points. However, Moore’s pieces haven’t been personal since Roger and Me; this is Bell’s family story and it obviously is very important to him. That investment is what makes this documentary special. Whether or not the subject interests you, the glimpse into an American family – and seeing what the American ideal has done to it – is more than worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-made, rational and sober examination on the use of steroids and its impact on a single American family. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Near the end the filmmakers try to tackle a little too much of a range; the movie is better when it focuses on the Bell family.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie is about the consumption of what are now illegal drugs in the United States, so you do the math. There is also some sexual content and a bit of everyday foul language as well as some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was compiled from over 400 hours of filmed interviews and 600 hours of archival footage.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Shoot ’em Up