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

New Releases for the Week of August 7, 2015


Fantastic Four

FANTASTIC FOUR

(20th Century Fox) Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Castallaneta. Directed by Josh Trank

Four young researchers who are experimenting with a transporter device end up in an alternate dimension where things go very badly for them. They do return home, but they’ve been  changed fundamentally – all four of them have amazing powers. While sinister government forces plot to use these youngsters for their own ends, the fantastic four intend to use their powers their own way and on their own terms – to fight a super-powered villain more powerful than they are individually but only together will they beat Dr. Doom. This more serious-minded reboot by the director of Chronicle has gotten really horrible early reviews, although it should be said that most reviewers are less than enthusiastic about the superhero genre in general.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and language)

Bangistan

(A A Films) Jacqueline Fernandez, Rajesh Sharma, Ritesh Deshmukh, Pulkit Samrat. The fictional country of Bangistan is a nation divided; the Muslims on one side, the Hindus on the other but there is hope; a Karma conference which is being attended by the spiritual leaders of both sides may bring the nation together but there are those who would rather see it torn apart. Each side, unbeknownst to the other, sends a human bomber to put an end to peace. Fortunately, each of the bombers is a complete nincompoop and neither is too anxious at the prospect of blowing themselves up in the name of ideology.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection “F”

(FUNimation) Kyle Hebert, Chris Ayres, Sean Schemmel, Monica Rial. The 20th feature film in the Japanese anime franchise brings back one of the most notorious villains in the franchise. After being resurrected following his death, Frieza plots his revenge against the Z Fighters with the eventual plan to take over the planet, but Goku, Vegeta and the rest of the Fighters aren’t about to go down without a fight.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (special engagement; opened on Tuesday)
Genre: Anime
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

The Gift

(STX Entertainment) Jason Bateman, Joel Edgerton, Rebecca Hall, Busy Phillipps. The lives of a married couple are thrown into turmoil when a chance encounter with an acquaintance from the husband’s high school days turns into something more terrifying. The husband, you see, is harboring a horrifying secret and the acquaintance, through a serious of mysterious gifts, is going to make sure that secret comes back to haunt him. This is not only Edgerton’s directorial debut but also the first release from new mid-size distributor STX.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language)

Irrational Man

(Sony Classics) Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey. The latest film from Woody Allen is about a distraught philosophy professor who falls for two very different women. Feeling that nothing he has accomplished in his life has made a difference, he takes no joy out of life but when he overhears a stranger’s conversation, it leads him to make a momentous choice that will affect all three of them profoundly.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for some language and sexual content)

Ricki and the Flash

(TriStar) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield. Ricki had a husband and children but she also had a dream of rock and roll stardom. She has chased it all her life and it has cost her everything and like most rock and roll dreams, has not returned the stardom she envisioned. Making a living as the guitarist and singer for a bar band, Ricki returns home when she finds out her daughter is undergoing a crisis. Determined to be the mom she never was, she attempts to build bridges with all of her children but that’s far easier said than done. The latest from director Jonathan Demme was written by Diablo Cody and features Streep’s real-life daughter as her onscreen daughter.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief drug content, sexuality and language)

Shaun the Sheep Movie

(Lionsgate/Aardman) Starring the noises of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber. The newest feature from Britain’s stop-motion experts Aardman Studios features their beloved character Shaun the Sheep, who lives in the English countryside with the Farmer. The Farmer is all about getting the work done; Shaun wants nothing more than a day off. When his plot to put the Farmer to sleep goes awry, the Farmer ends up in the big city without any memory. It will be up to Shaun, his flock and the ever-vigilant dog Bitzer. Cinema365 was treated to an advance screening and you can read my review here.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for rude humor)

Srimanthudu

(Eros International) Mahesh Babu, Shruti Haasan, Rajendra Prasad, Jagapati Babu. A wealthy man has everything – but his soul feels empty. When he comes upon a small village by chance, he realizes that he can affect profound change on the lives of the villagers. However, there are those who would not see him spend his millions in that way.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

The Wolfpack

(Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Narayana Angulo, Mukunda Angulo. Seven brothers are confined to their Lower East Side Manhattan apartment, home schooled and having rare contact with the world outside the walls of their apartment. Their isolation and loneliness is eased by elaborate re-enactments of their favorite movies using props from around the house. When one of the brothers manages to escape this existence, the dynamics in the household are changed.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick