The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Advertisements

The Lazarus Effect


Olivia gets a little Wilde.

Olivia gets a little Wilde.

(2015) Horror (Relativity) Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Scott Sheldon, Emily Kelavos, James Earl, Amy Aquino, Sean T. Krishnan, Ator Tamras, Liisa Cohen, Jennifer Floyd, Bruno Gunn, Scott L. Treiger. Directed by David Gelb

There was a horror movie back in the 60s that was somewhat ironically titled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. In the decades since, we have learned that adults pretty much shouldn’t either.

Zoe (Wilde) and Frank (Duplass) are young doctors in love. Well, actually they’re more like medical researchers than actual MDs but you get my drift. Along with young researchers Clay (Peters) and Niko (Glover) they have created a formula that, with judiciously applied electricity (shades of Frankenstein) can extend the life of the dying, allowing doctors more time to repair what is killing the patient and saving lives. They bring in a comely videographer named Eva (Bolger) to document their impending breakthrough.

Except it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Instead, it revives a dead dog. Brings it right back to life, and even cures the cataracts which were the cause that the dog’s owner had their pet put down for in the first place. Cause to celebrate, no?

Well, not quite yet. For one thing, the dog is moody, refuses to eat or drink and is mostly lethargic except for bouts of absolute mother humping menace that have the researchers freaked out, particularly the e-Cig puffing Clay who is normally the prankster of the bunch. He’s a little freaked out by the pooch who certainly looks to have a bit of the devil in him.

Well, their research also has the effect on the marketplace as well. The small pharmaceutical company which underwrote their research at the university has been gobbled up by a bigger one who really want their Lazarus formula. The smarmy CEO (Wise) shows up to collect it, which because Frank, the author of the grant proposal, didn’t read the fine print on the contract, is entitled to lock, stock and barrel, although the comely videographer manages to spirit Fido away before the vivisectionists get hold of him.

Frank is quite properly cheesed off about the whole situation and in a fit of pique, decides to recreate the experiment while their equipment is still in the lab. So late one dark and stormy night – well, it’s a night anyway – they sneak into the lab and attempt to revive one last frozen but dead dog.

But something goes horribly wrong and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what it is and without going into too much detail, they are forced to conduct human experiments a little sooner than they had intended to. However, what they don’t realize is that the Lazarus formula plucks the soul right out of the afterlife and if that afterlife happened to be Hell, then the thing that comes back isn’t quite human and isn’t quite happy about it. A childhood trauma becomes the basis of a hell all of the team is going to go through, alive or not and before the night is over there will be a lot more bodies available to use the Lazarus serum on.

This is a short but sweet little thriller clocking in at well less than 90 minutes which is a good thing because I don’t think the story could have sustained a whole lot of extraneous business. Most of the action takes place at the lab (although a few scenes take place in the lobby of the building, in the office of the dean and in the apartment that Zoe and Frank share) which may be the most underlit medical lab in the history of college research facilities. You half expect the Boogie Man to reside here on a permanent basis.

Duplass, who has become something of an indie film darling for the movies he’s co-directed with his brother Jay (Baghead, The Puffy Chair) as well as his television work on The League and more recently the HBO series Togetherness. He’s actually pretty charismatic as an actor and he works really well with Wilde, who has been on the verge of breakout stardom for awhile now. In a lot of ways it’s frustrating to watch Wilde who is so very good in most everything she does and she’s just so close to making the next level but the right role to put her over that hump eludes her. This isn’t the movie that will do it, although she is very, very good in it.

The movie was made for next to nothing and relies more on practical effects than on CGI for the cool factor. Horror fans are going to find this a bit light on scares, although there are a couple of good ones. What is to be commended is that there is a great deal more character development than is typical for low-budget horror movies. What is to be condemned is that the film’s plot relies overly much on smart people – these folks are educated after all – doing dumb things. Even the scientifically challenged like myself could have told Frank and Zoe that their bright idea of recreating the experiment so that they could prove that the research was theirs would end badly.

There’s stuff here to like, but there is also a lot of stuff here to not. My big problem is that the atmosphere of fear that is vital to any horror film just isn’t pervasive enough. I can forgive a movie that starts slowly and builds to a roller coaster of a climax, but The Lazarus Effect is more of a kiddy coaster that could have used a few inversions and taller lift hills to give its audience a better ride.

REASONS TO GO: Duplass and Wilde make an attractive pair. Does a whole lot with a little.
REASONS TO STAY: Smart people doing stupid things. Not as scary as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome subject matter, intense horror violence, some sexual references and a surprisingly small amount of merely mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually filmed in 2013 and was scheduled to be released by Lionsgate. However, internal management changes at the studio led to the movie being shelved for a year and a half with Lionsgate selling the U.S. distribution rights to Relativity although they did retain the overseas rights.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Home of the Brave