Sunday, May 26, 2013

Side Effects -- big pharma ethics and quick fix mentality

Director: Steven Soderbergh, 2013 (R)

In what he has said is his last film, director Steven Soderbergh brings his cold and crafted camerawork (he does his own cinematography) to a contemporary big-Pharma story that could be pulled from tomorrow’s headlines. But the film is not really about medical ethics. It turns out that it is a sharp psychological mystery.

As the movie opens, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, The Vow) to be released from jail. He is serving four years for insider trading, a white collar crime that carries with it a social stigma. Suffering from depression and anxiety, it comes to the fore when she drives her car into a wall in a suicide attempt after Martin’s release does not bring back her earlier normality. In the hospital she encounters Doctor Banks (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes), a psychiatrist. Sensing something deeper, he stipulates that she come see him after she is released.

Her initial visit results in a prescription for a cocktail of drugs. But these don’t seem  to work, as they leave her struggling to cope. When Banks runs into her previous psychiatrist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, No Reservations), she offers a suggestion: put her on an experimental drug called Ablixa. Although it carries a long list of side-effects, it seems to help Emily cope with her blues.

In the first half of the film, as we expect the movie to be about the ethics of medical doctors’ incestuous relationship with the pharmaceutical companies, Soderbergh paints a dark picture of this association. Banks is offered a chance to participate in an experimental trial, being paid big bucks to be a mouthpiece for the drug company. Although he explains the trial to the patients he coopts into joining the trial, he never reveals how lucrative it is for him, with so little work.

Ethically, such connection with the drug manufacturer without giving full disclosure is questionable at best and criminal at worst. The doctor is viewed as an objective professional, providing prescriptions that are in the best interest of the patient. We don’t expect such prescriptions to be filing his pocketbook. But that is what is happening, at least in this part of the film.

Yet Soderbergh does not camp on this. Indeed, the side effects of Ablixa become the focus at the center of the film. They cause a tragic incident that puts Emily in dire trouble. And as Banks was the prescribing doctor, it puts Banks in the cross-hairs too. And the second half of the film leaves the ethical questions behind, and instead take the viewer on an intriguing mystery. Although it may seem to some to be typical of many psychological thrillers, Soderbergh keeps the viewer engaged with a keen sense of pacing.

Despite the lack of likeable characters here, given that all are ethically or criminally twisted in one way or another, the quality of the acting makes them compelling. Mara brings an air of believability to Emily, as a fragile soul struggling to cope with normal living. Law is back in top form as a man caught in the middle of circumstances beyond his control. Zeta-Jones is delicious as a shady psychiatrist. And even Tatum shows his acting chops, making clear that he is not just a pretty face.

The second half of the film plays out without any obvious ethical dilemmas, and without answering any of the questions raised in the first half. But that first half offers some additional societal commentary. The tag-line says it all: “One pill can change your life.” And the film shows this, with Dr. Banks giving his wife a pill to help her before a job interview, telling her that everyone does it to get an edge.

This is symptomatic of America’s quick fix mentality. We seem to want our problems and our issues resolved right now, with minimal effort. And a pill swallowed with a glass of water is a very easy way to deal with life. Whether it’s an upper or a downer, a legal or illegal drug, we want to pop it and move on. We have no patience. We are in too much of a rush. We need to slow down. We need to allow our bodies to deal with life without overmedication. We must disregard the bombardment of messages from the drug companies that show up in the middle of our prime time shows. Even though they give us a list of side effects, these are usually voiced in rapid fire at the end of the commercial. If we took the time to listen to these and evaluated the risk, perhaps we would refrain more. Side effects can be more dangerous than the benefits of the drugs themselves.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Total Recall -- memories and the past

Director: Len Wiseman, 2012 (PG-13)

Total Recall begins with a dream which could be reality. A man and a woman are being chased by futuristic police. Trapped, she escapes while he is captured. He awakes, not knowing what he has experienced. Sounds a little like the audience for this film.

Set in a future earth where the globe has been devastated leaving only two territories inhabitable, Total Recall tells the story of Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell, In Bruges), a factory worker. Or is it the story of Carl Hauser, a terrorist guerilla? Or is it the story of Hauser, a double agent? Such false recollections and convoluted storylines are mashed together in this remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.

Since I did not see the original movie, I have nothing to compare this one to. But Farrell is no Arnie. His lack of mass is made up by his acting muscle, so perhaps it is a fair trade. Regardless, Total Recall is a full-on sci-fi action film that overwhelms with chases and action and underwhelms with depth. It raises many intriguing questions and answers none of them. It just leaves them hanging.

Quaid is married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale, who herself is actually married to the director), a security agent for the United Federation of Britain (UFB). He works in a factory in the Colony, the former Australia (where Britain used to send its convicts a couple of centuries ago). Travel between these two remaining territories is via “the fall”, a subway of sorts that cuts through the very core of the earth (and of course features in one of the major set-pieces). Quaid’s life is dull, and he thirsts for more. He wants to experience things and determines to visit Rekall, where false memories are implanted so the customer can remember experiences he never had.

When Quaid does visit Rekall against all advice, he chooses to be implanted with a secret agent’s memories, vis-à-vis James Bond (as in the book he is seen reading on the fall). But memories cannot be implanted if there is a trace of reality already present in the recipient’s brain. And guess what? Yes, Quaid has secret agent memories locked up inside his head, unbeknownst to him. Cue the alarm, and before you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger, a platoon of USB security forces are shooting up the place, the first of many set-pieces.

Escaping and returning to Lori, he is shocked to find her ready to kill him. She tells him, “It’s true. Your memory was erased, your mind was implanted with a life you think you’ve lived. You keeping up, baby? There is no Dennis Quaid, there never was.” He is in fact Carl Hauser, whoever Hauser really is.

Is this deja vu for us, too? Have we been implanted with these memories? Haven’t we seen this film somewhere else? Since it is inspired by yet another Philip K. Dick short story (“We can remember it for you wholesale”), it is likely we have seen this before. The dark, damp environment of the Colony recalls Blade Runner. The android army brings to mind scenes from various Star Wars films. And the whole plotline of a man whose memory is gone but whose survival skills remain brings to mind The Bourne Identity.

With Quaid/Hauser on the run, hunted by his wife and UFB police, his only ally is a woman who suddenly shows up. Melina (Jessica Biel) is the woman from his dreams, the one who escaped. Her presence triggers a stunning aerial car chase, before she tells him things he cannot accept: that the terrorist leader Matthias (Bill Nighy, Hot Fuzz) is a true freedom fighter and Hauser is working for him.

A crucial centerpiece of the film has Quaid and Melina trapped in a building lobby surrounded by police. Guns pointing at them, one of Quaid’s friends enters to tell him that this is all a dream, and that he can escape by killing Melina. Is it real? Is it a dream created by Rekall? Is this man friend or foe?

Although by then we know the answers to these questions and the suspense of the scene is missing, the questions posed remain. Is a memory real? If chemical stimulation of the brain can create images that seem real, can we trust our memories, our minds? How can we anchor ourselves in reality if we don’t know what that reality is? Certainly, the whole concept of implanted memories was done before, and better, in Blade Runner.  Do memories create a man? If we have no memories are we any less human? What makes a person human?

That brings us to one more key scene. Quaid has a significant interaction with Matthias, telling him: “I want to remember.” When asked why, he responds, “So I can be myself, be who I was.” Matthias tells him, “It is each man’s quest to find out who he truly is, but the answer to that lies in the present, not in the past. As it is for all of us.” Quaid: “But the past tells us who we’ve become.” Matthias replies, “The past is a construct of he mind.”

The film would have us believe that the past plays no role in who we are. In answer to the question, who am I, one character points back to the past (I am who I was) while another character points to the present (I am who I am now, not who I was then). Which is right? Are both right?

Certainly the past plays a role in who we are. That is true. Our upbringing, our education, our choices, our relationships all are critical in where we are, and are formative in our person. So Quaid is right. But, there is also a biblical aspect to this that points away from the past. The apostle Paul talks of our former way of life (Eph. 4:22), of our old self “which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:23). He goes on to say that we must take off this old self and be made new, putting on a new self “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:26). In this regard, it is an act in the present that defines us. We are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) that is now living in Christ. The acts and deeds of the old self are forgotten as we live in the grace of the new and now. Both contain aspects of truth and reality. We must remember this, with a memory that is not implanted!

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 13, 2013

To Rome with Love -- fame, lust and casual sex

Director: Woody Allen, 2012 (R)

Woody Allen’s latest comedy is a mish-mash of four stories that have nothing really to do with one another but are woven together as though they are interconnected. Set in the Eternal City, Allen fails to do for Rome what he did for Paris in has last film (Midnight in Paris). Sadly, his comedy here is a little lackluster, with charm scattered sparingly among the stories. And Woody’s characteristic atheism comes across strongly (“I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence. You know, I am an atheist.”) along with his relativistic morality, especially his view on fidelity (actually encouraging infidelity as a way to learn more about sexuality).

One story focuses on Hayley (Alison Pill), an American tourist in Rome, who meets and falls in love with Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Her parents Jerry (Woody Allen, Manhattan Murder Mystery) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly to Rome to meet him and his parents. When there, Jerry, a retired music producer, realizes that Michelangelo’s father, a mortician, has the operatic voice of an angel. The catch is, he can only sing in a shower. And Jerry sets out to give him his moment in the spotlight.

Another story focuses on a middle-aged architect, John (Alec Baldwin), revisiting his old stomping grounds. When he comes across a current architectural student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network), they go back to Jack’s apartment where girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) informs them that her neurotic and sexually aggressive actress friend Monica (Ellen Page, Inception) is coming to stay. With the freedom and charm of magical realism, Allen makes John become Jack’s conscience. He is constantly popping up as Monica begins to seduce Jack. As she preys on Jack’s infatuation, John shows up whispering words of wisdom unseen by all but Jack.

The third tale features a pair of young Italian newlyweds who have travelled to Rome to meet relatives for a job. When Milly goes out to find a salon and subsequently gets lost, Antonio is visited by a hooker Anna (Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces), who mistakes his room but has been paid to please the person in the room. Of course, his relatives mistake her for his new wife, and an extended comedy of mistaken identities ensues. Meanwhile, Milly stumbles around until she meets her favorite actor, who proceeds to try to bed her. All this in a single day, although the timeframe seems magically compressed.

The final story is about an ordinary man, a clerk Leopoldo (Roberti Benigni, Life is Beautiful), who overnight becomes a celebrity for no reason. Suddenly the paparazzi are waiting at his door to document every moment of his life. With this comes the “perks of celebrity”, women clamoring to sleep with him, even while his wife quietly accepts such behavior. And then as quickly, his celebrity status is gone.

Allen fills this film with stars, each bringing solid performances to their characters. But they are given less to work with due to the very nature of the movie. The four stories force them to have only a quarter of a film, thereby not giving enough time to really develop characters. Hence the audience is left not really caring too much for any one of them.

More than this, there is little connection between the stories except the location and the apparent idea of love in this romantic capital.

However, a theme does emerge that seems to tie these together: the transitoriness of fame, and the vapidness of infatuation or of casual sex.

Many of us see the celebrities of Hollywood or of sports teams and pine for such status. We may wish to be famous. But Leopoldo’s character gives a different picture of fame. The initial glamour and glitz disappear after a while. Allen even seems to point out that the sexual desirability can dissipate. Andy Warhol coined the phrase “15 minutes of fame” whereby everyone will be in the spotlight at some point. And Leopoldo seems to exemplify this. Indeed, he is said to be famous simply for being famous, which is illogically circular reasoning.

If Leopoldo demonstrates the classic transitoriness of “reality celebrity”, Jack gives us a picture of vapid infatuation. He comes under Monica’s spell, and is ready to break up with Sally. But Monica is a man-eater who can move on in a moment. Those infatuated fall victim to the seducer, to whom the sex is nothing more than pleasure in the moment. He is not so much in love with her as in lust with her. And lust is gone like the morning mist as the sun comes up.

Jerry’s story seems to focus on his desire to get back into the spotlight by putting the singing undertaker on stage. But his slant won’t last. Like Leopoldo, he is destined for a short-lived applause as showerheads and operas won’t form a lasting companionship.

Lastly, Antonio’s education by Anna at a garden party is a classic example of a one-night (or one-day) stand. Such casual sex will not enhance his relationship with Milly, even if it may refine his technique.

Rather than seeking out fame and status, the New Testament urges that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:2-3). Fame is rightly reserved for God (Jos. 9:9), whose status is as an eternal celebrity to be worshipped not lusted after.

Further, the Bible has much to say about sex, which after all is a precious gift of God to humanity for pleasure and procreation. But as the writer to the Hebrews says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). Sex is designed for enjoyment by a man and wife joined in marriage. Outside of this union, sex, though pleasurable, can wreak havoc on relationships as well as psyches. As Solomon says of a neighbor’s wife (or by inference, a prostitute or any other woman): “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes” (Prov. 6:25).

When we seek our 15 minutes of fame, or our moments of lust, leading to casual sex, we displace God, we demean ourselves, and we damage our relationships. In contrast to Allen’s message in this film, the Bible warns us to avoid this. Enjoy the film but ignore the message!

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Chronicle -- hurt people, apex predators and the Messiah

Director: Josh Trank, 2012 (PG-13)

Superhero movies have been overdone in recent years, with all the Avengers movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.), Batman (The Dark Knight) and the upcoming Superman. And the hand-held camera subgenre has also become a little stale, after The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity films, and Cloverfield (a preponderance of horror). But when first-time feature director Josh Trank combines the two in a mash-up of genres, he breathes new life into both in this “origins tale” of three teens. He even determines a plot device to stabilize the shaky-cam and put the anti-hero in the picture rather than being hidden behind the viewfinder.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a reclusive, somewhat troubled high school senior.  He has few friends, and only his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) hangs with him. It might have something to do with his aloof personality. Or it might be related to his ever-present video camera with which he is capturing his life story in a first-person chronicle (hence the movie title). Things change at a student rave to which they both go.

When Matt discovers a hole in the ground, his friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the popular student campaigning for class president, invites Andrew to come with them to explore. Descending into the ground while still capturing on tape, they find an unearthly object that somehow gives them strange powers accompanied by profuse nose bleeds. They have a form of telekinesis, which seems to get stronger as they exercise it, much like a physical muscle.

The first half of the film follows the three teens, who now have a secret bond. Their initial excitement and joy is captured well, especially as they discover they can somehow fly, despite the low-budget special effects. As teens, they realize they can use their newfound powers to pull pranks on their friends, even on strangers. And it is fun to watch them having fun, even if it is slightly at the expense of others. It is what immature teens do, after all.  And then the film gets darker.

Where Sam Raimi’s teenage hero Peter Parker learned the lesson, “With great power comes great responsibility." This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I'm Spider-man”, Trank’s hero are much more irresponsible. Although Matt wants to set some rules on how they can use their powers, Andrew sees this as too constraining. So the film in effect asks how such super powers might test the integrity of more realistic teens, particularly one who is troubled. For Andrew, great power carries little responsibility. Instead, it carries with it the opportunity to make apparent amends for all the bullying and trials he has endured.

With a drunk and abusive father, and a mother lying in bed dying of cancer, Andrew has plenty of reason to feel hurt and angry. But now he has the ability to retaliate, and must face the choice of whether to. Indeed, he can choose to prove himself and become popular, even if it is temporary and marks him as somewhat of a freak.

In a wonderful line from another movie (the awful Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller), “hurt people hurt people.” And Andrew’s anger boils up inside until it overflows in acts of revenge. His hurt translates into hurting others. The bullied becomes the bully himself, a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself.

The Bible tells us, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Rom. 12:19). Peter goes so far as to say, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). But a teen that has felt violence and insult for most of his life, this message is lost in the noise of his superpowers. Now he can be the evil one, even reveling in it, even if it seems to be for a good purpose.

Toward the end, as his rationalizing cements his philosophy, he tells Matt who he has become: “Apex predator”. He is the top of the pile, the supreme animal, the primo predator. In his eyes, killing a human has become to him like pulling the wings off a fly to a normal person: something insignificant and without feeling. As he reaches the top, his sense of ethics and morality have dissolved into a pragmatism of power. The unpopular misfit has become the powerful superman sans compassion or empathy.

It is quite a contrast with the supreme being, the powerful messiah Jesus Christ. It is said of Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8).
 He was at the apex, although not as a predator. All things were made through him (Jn. 1:3). Yet he did not take his position as God as an opportunity to flaunt his power over those far below him. Instead, he lowered himself to become one of those, one of us even. It is this fact, celebrated at Christmas in the birth of the God-man and honored at Easter when he died, was buried and rose again (1 Cor. 15:3-5) that is at the heart of Christianity. Through his death we are given life. Rather than take our life he offers true life. And in doing so, he is raising us up with him, to a position we could never dream of in this life. Will we accept his offer? Will we experience his power through the Holy Spirit?  If so, the chronicle of your life, shaky camera and all, will have a happier ending than this one.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs