I Am Human


The brain remains the most mysterious organ.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Bryan Johnson, Bill Kochevar, Anne Shabason, Stephen Shrubshall, Stan Shabason, Denise Vanier, Ramez Naam, David Eagleman, Bobby Kasthuri, Richard F. Kirsch, Nita A. Farahany, A. Bolu Ajiboye, Miguel Nicolelis, Dustin J. Tyler), Andres M. Lozano, Ana Leffel, Kate Allen, Claude Clément, John Donoghue, Sara Goering, Tracy Laabs. Directed by Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby

 

Despite all the issues that beset us from a fractious Presidential election to climate change to the coronavirus, we still manage to live in amazing times. We even may one day soon begin unlocking the secrets of the human brain.

The brain is the most mysterious of organs, one we even now know very little about. We still have a hard time figuring out why things go wrong for some people neurologically, while we’re at a loss of how to treat let alone cure them. It is frustrating for medical professionals who can offer patients little hope of any sort of meaningful life change when their lives have been altered fundamentally.

Bill Kochevar was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Unable to move his legs or arms, he lived in a 24-hour care facility, using voice commands to lift the curtains or raise the top half of his bed so he could sit up. He agrees to undergo a radical surgical procedure to implant electrodes that would stimulate damaged areas of his brain and reconnect neurons that are no longer working, allowing him to move. Bill’s hope was to one day be able to feed himself.

Anne Shabason is a Parkinson’s disease patient whose life has ground to a halt. Barely able to function due to near-constant tremors, she has had to give up her artwork, and being an active grandmother and mother. She doesn’t even like seeing friends because her smile muscles don’t work right, giving her a stony expression when she attempts to smile. She worries about being a burden to her mega-supportive husband Stan. She is also having electrodes in her brain, undergoing a treatment known as deep brain stimulation, which has only been performed on a handful of patients to mixed results. She hopes she can get the tremors under control so that she can live a relatively normal life.

Stephen Shrubshall had a genetic disorder that didn’t manifest itself until he was an adult, turning his entire world white. He rarely leaves his apartment and his sister Denise Vanier is essentially his sole contact with the outside world. He hasn’t seen his sister’s face in years; he longs to regain the independence he lost when he went blind. Doctors are trying a radically new procedure in which an electrode is placed just in the lens of his eye, and another behind the eye itself. Wearing special glasses with a video camera implanted, technicians tweak the electric flow in order to restore his vision somewhat.

The filmmakers do a good job of making sure that we don’t see these procedures as a panacea, but rather as promising developments. The improvement in the lives of the subjects is considerable but not enough for them to meet their goals. To the credit of the filmmakers, they present their subjects in an even-handed way; in their own way they are courageous, but they are also understandably cautious and skeptical.

At times resembling a Nova episode, sometimes the material gets a little dry. Also, the final third of the film examines potential applications for this kind of technology – the ability to create “superpowers” in ordinary humans, the ability to connect with the Internet without using a device, or to change one’s mood with the aid of a thought-activated interface. If it sounds like science fiction, know that people like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Kernel CEO Bryan Johnson are already investing in making this science fiction into science fact.

Some ethicists warn that this kind of technology comes awfully close to the line of playing God, and we know that man’s hubris generally speaking is much more developed than man’s common sense. I don’t know that this is necessarily a brave new world, but like all technological advancements, we will find a way to live with them whether we want to or not.

REASONS TO SEE: Has the feel of a well-done Nova episode.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the dry side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the surgical procedure footage may be a bit much for the squeamish, although there isn’t much blood shown.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kochevar passed away shortly after filming was completed as a result of complications from the injuries of his original accident.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Icarus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Swallow

The Social Network


The Social Network

Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg, the new Odd Couple.

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Joe Mazzello, Patrick Mapel, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella, Armie Hammer, Rashida Jones, David Selby, Brenda Song, Malese Jow, Dakota Johnson, Wallace Langham, Caitlin Gerard. Directed by David Fincher

With Facebook having just reached 500 Million subscribers, that adds up to almost one in every fourteen people on the planet that have a Facebook account. It has become the pre-eminent social network, replacing MySpace and America Online before it, and in a sense, replacing real life in exchange for a digital replica. It’s insanely addictive and has it’s uses, but it has the insidious side to it, eating our time and energy.

Few of us know that much about how Facebook came to be. Many of its users don’t even know the name Mark Zuckerberg unless they trouble themselves to read the masthead. This new movie, which is often referred to as “The Facebook Movie,” isn’t about giving a fact-based account of the founding of Facebook, but then again, generally those types of accounts make for poor movies.

Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), a sophomore at Harvard in 2003, is having a beer with Erica Albright (Mara), his erstwhile girlfriend, and engaging in some conversation and by conversation I mean he is engaging in a kind of strategic battle of words with her, filled with condescending remarks and sometimes biting thinly-veiled insults. She has grown weary of the battle and breaks up with him.

Angry and humiliated, Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm room and as 21st century kids tend to do, starts blogging. Caught up in the raw emotion of the moment, he does a pretty thorough character assassination of her, even going so far as to insinuate that her breasts are “barely there.” A more experienced man might have told him never to insult a woman’s breasts.

Half-drunk and fueled by his own rage, he decides to humiliate every woman at Harvard and creates over the course of the night a webpage that allows women to be rated like so much meat. He calls it Facemash and it becomes so popular it crashes the servers at Harvard. This gets Mark hauled before the board of administration for some disciplinary action.

It also gets him noticed. Twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Hammer) and their programming friend Divya Narendra (Minghella) want to create a kind of Harvard-exclusive site that allows people with Harvard e-mail addresses to link up online and enlists Zuckerberg to do it. He agrees, but early on determines that their idea is more compelling than their vision and determines to create his own site which he calls The Facebook. His roommates Dustin Moskowitz (Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Mapel) are enlisted to do the programming and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Garfield) fronts them the seed money.

Of course, when his new creation goes online on February 4, 2004, the twins are furious, thinking they’ve been ripped off. Tyler and Narendra are all gung-ho to sue Zuckerberg but Cameron, wishing to maintain the decorum of a Harvard gentleman, wants to find some other way of redress. It is only when they discover that the once Harvard-exclusive site has gone global that Cameron changes his mind and calls out the family lawyer.

As the site begins to grow by leaps and bounds, Zuckerberg decides to summer in Palo Alto, hoping to get some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs interested in his start-up. Eduardo stays behind in New York, trying to sell advertising for the new website which makes Zuckerberg a bit uncomfortable. He begins to fall under the sway of Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake) who at least has the vision to see Facebook as a world-changing application, and determines to capitalize on it, interesting venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel (Langham) to invest big bucks in Facebook. Soon Zuckerberg finds himself as one of the youngest billionaires in the world, but the cost is his friendship with Saverin, as at the urging of Parker he devalues Saverin’s shares from nearly 30% to less than 1%. Saverin, incensed, decides to sue. The simultaneous lawsuits act as a framing device for the film.

The buzz for this movie has been plenty high and after its debut at the New York film Festival last month, grew to a dull roar. It’s being touted as the year’s first serious Oscar contender and it seems likely that some nominations are going to be coming its way, quite likely for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and maybe even to Eisenberg for Best Actor.

The real Zuckerberg is reportedly none too pleased with his portrayal here, and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin’s screenplay certainly isn’t very complimentary. It gives us a Zuckerberg who is arrogant, ruthless, cruel and socially awkward; he doesn’t seem to have a problem gutting his friends and certainly believes himself to be the smartest guy in any room. Is that the real Mark Zuckerberg? Chances are that elements of the character are accurate but I sincerely doubt that this is meant to be an exact capture of the essence of the Facebook founder. Rather, it’s meant more to be symbolic of digital hubris in an age of online egos gone out of control. Eisenberg becomes something of a cipher, his face often going blank when he is trying to hide what he’s feeling. He usually plays likable nerds but there’s not much likable about this guy and yet still we are drawn to him; as one of his lawyer’s (Jones) tells him near the end of the film, he’s not an asshole but he’s trying really hard to look like one.

Garfield, who was recently cast to be the next Spider-Man, does a great job as well, making the likable but ultimately out of his depth Saverin the emotional anchor for the story. Audiences will naturally root for him, and when he is eventually betrayed will feel his pain. Garfield hadn’t to this point caught my eye with any of his performances, but he certainly shows the ability to carry a franchise film like Spider-Man on his own.

Timberlake, whose acting career has blown hot and cold, delivers the best performance of his career to date as the unctuous Parker. Looking visually not unlike Quentin Tarantino, he is slick and snake-like, mesmerizing his victims with his charm and promises, then striking with lethal speed, delivering his venom in a swift, fatal blow.

Much of the movie is about courtrooms, programmers and start-up Silicon Valley businesses, as well as the rarefied air at Harvard, but despite some of the dry subjects manages to hold our interest throughout, and that’s mainly due to the interactions between the characters and Fincher’s deft hand at directing. The movie is both emotional and antiseptic, sometimes showing us heart and then slamming that door shut abruptly. It serves as a cautionary tale, not just for would-be billionaires but also to all of us. We reap what we sow and if we choose our own egos over actual human interaction, we too could wind up endlessly refreshing a computer screen, waiting for a friend request acceptance that never comes.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story and some intense performances. Eisenberg is particularly marvelous in a role that is quite frankly unlikable.

REASONS TO STAY: The portrayal of Harvard students is so self-aggrandizing at times it makes you wonder if our species has any future.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of drug usage, quite a bit of sexuality and no shortage of foul language. Older teens should be able to handle this, but more impressionable teens should be steered clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finch was unable to find suitable twin actors to portray the Winklevoss twins, so he cast Hammer and Josh Pence who have similar body types, then digitally inserted video of Hammer reading the lines over Pence’s face to create the illusion of identical twins.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen, so you can be forgiven if you wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)