Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Movie Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on the book by Rebecca Skloot, opens big by showing the creation and subsequent global propagation of the HeLa cell line, and closes on a profoundly intimate scale, focusing on the family that Henrietta left behind. Oprah Winfrey, as Deborah Lacks, dominates the movie, but there are also non-Oprah things here that are good! The soundtrack is excellent, the supporting cast is outstanding, and the cinematography is on point. Overall, it’s a great complement to the book.

Background: in 1951, Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but not before cells from her tumor are harvested by the Gey lab at Johns Hopkins. HeLa, the celebrity nickname of these immortal cells, quickly became the foundation for biomedical research and has been instrumental in the development of cures such as the polio vaccine, to name just one example of its myriad uses. To this day, HeLa is the most commonly used human cell line in scientific research, and is manufactured and sold by life science corporations.

The main conflict in the movie, as in the book, centers on family. Henrietta's husband and children were completely unaware of HeLa, and that the cancer that took her away from them was benefiting so many others. When they find out, Henrietta's sons want compensation, while her daughter Deborah (Oprah) is hungry for details about the mother she never knew. But the research community provides very little information to the family, who come to distrust Johns Hopkins. This wariness extends to Rebecca, who is on a mission to uncover the story of Henrietta the person, not just the cell line. Winning over Deborah is key to Skloot's success, since both women share this common goal.

The book does a fantastic job of recounting Henrietta's life, death, and immortality, while the movie is more focused on Rebecca and Deborah's journey. Oprah's skill as an actress shines here, as she expresses the many emotions of Deborah, a woman who suffers from various physical and mental issues. Byrne plays Rebecca as earnest, awkward, and determined, and the actresses have good chemistry. Together, they travel to the places that Henrietta touched: Clover, Virginia, where she lived; the former institution where Henrietta's eldest daughter died; and finally, Johns Hopkins, where Henrietta first became immortal.

Visual imagery, of course, is where the movie tops the book, especially the scene at Johns Hopkins where the cells are shown stained with dyes. And the cast is just phenomenal. The tearful delight of Deborah and her brother Zakariya (Reg E. Cathey in a powerful performance), when shown a vial of their mother's cells, underlines just how much Henrietta is missed. Henrietta herself is shown in flashbacks as Tony Award winner and foremost Schuyler sister Renée Elise Goldsberry, who has the necessary heartbreaking beauty for the role.

In conclusion, read the book if you want thorough descriptions of the woman and the small lab behind HeLa cells, the meaty details of the evolution of ethical considerations and legalities in research, and engaging questions about science, legacies, and our bodies. Watch the movie if you want to watch two women navigate suspicion, intellectual disdain, racial disparities, and crippling loss to find out about another woman and thereby gain some semblance of justice and closure. Or better yet, read the book AND watch the movie, like a true nerd! What else you gonna do on a weekend?

TL;DR: Best watched after reading the book!


This post brought to you by peanut butter!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day! I Broke My Foot (Again)

Hello, fellow humans! It's raining today here in fair Boston, a sure sign of prosperity. Families will be crowding into restaurants all day, first the ones with small kids, then the boozy types who can stay up later (lucky!).

Meanwhile, hubby had prepared a billionaire bacon breakfast (secret mix: brown sugar, paprika, black pepper) for my special day. The open bottle of white wine in the fridge beckoned to me, but alas, we had no orange juice to mix it with. So I just had the wine, obviously.*

*I did not.

In other news, my wish to have some ~me time~ came true a couple of weeks ago. I really wanted a few days all to myself, to play video games and generally just laze around the house, perhaps do a little cooking without a small person issuing myriad, incessant demands.

I granted my own wish during my usual run, by rolling my right ankle so badly that a small piece of bone broke off my fibula. This is called a chip or avulsion fracture, and it hurts like a mother. Here is my ankle one hour post-roll:

Batman sticker courtesy of Junior

Normally I would act all tough and carry on, but it hurt so much that I immediately called hubby, who charged over to -- get this -- swing me over his shoulder and carry me out of the park. "I know this guy," I assured the children and their caregivers staring at us in horror.

We went to the ER, got an X-ray ("Put the softball on the plate," joked the radiologist), an air cast, and a prescription for oxycodone. The orthopedist's office would call us the next day for a follow-up.

Two days later, my ankle still looked awful:

So I took a couple of days off from work. ~ME TIME!!!~ Too bad I was not enjoying it. It really sucks to not have mobility, guys.

My particular fracture was like bad sprain, which takes at least two weeks to heal, based on my expertise. Trust me, I have literally painful experience with sprains. Anyway, the orthopedic doctor gave me a walking boot to stomp around in while I recovered.

Then I pondered what to do about my commute. See, I walk several blocks to drop Junior off at daycare, then proceed on foot for another mile to get to the office.

I tried a few different methods:
  • Method A: Complete the whole walk while in the boot. Result: pain. Fortunately, a coworker drove me back in the afternoon.
  • Method B: Alternate between limping on the boot and hopping around on crutches. Result: less pain, more time taken to get to destination.
  • Method C: Homemade knee scooter, see below:
My crew prepares to help

Definitely not recommended

The "knee scooter" consists of planks of hard foam duct taped together and then to my scooter. I operated it by popping my knee on the foam, using my good foot to kick, and steering while uncomfortably close to the handlebars. It was by far the fastest, least painful, and most dangerous way to get to work while in the boot, so it was my favorite. It was especially treacherous on newly waxed floors, I discovered.

At work, it was so fun to explain over and over again, to various different people, what happened and how long recovery time was, etc. etc. On the upside, everyone carried stuff and opened doors for me.


Exactly two weeks after my injury, the swelling has gone down:

Not pictured: the bruising on both sides of the foot

I can now walk around fairly normally, but running is out of the question right now. Apparently I have to start doing strengthening exercises and then go to physical therapy to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Or I could just stop running, I guess.

In conclusion, be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.


This post brought to you by Mother's Day!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 retains the same hilarious irreverence and absurdity as the first film, but it also has deeper and darker moments that add layers to the characters. Highlights include Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), more murder, more name-calling, and betrayals! Ah, family!

Just like its predecessor, Vol. 2 has a perfect opening sequence: a formidable battle is mere background to Baby Groot dancing adorably. Then the adventure truly begins, as the team splits up after facing off against the golden-skinned Sovereign, led by the haughty Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, the awesome femme fatale from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.).

Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) join Star-Lord's father Ego (Kurt Russel) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to find out more about Star-Lord's heritage. Meanwhile, Baby Groot, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and a captive Nebula (Karen Gillan) find themselves under assault by the Ravager faction led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). The story takes a number of twists after that, culminating in an epic battle against an entire planet.

Fortunately, by that time, the personal journeys taken by each of the characters have further strengthened the bond between them. Gamora and Nebula start to become true sisters instead of the weapons Thanos made them into. Thanks to Yondu, Rocket finally realizes why he's such an a-hole. And Drax is so damn happy. His frequent bellowing laughter reveals a side to him unseen in the first movie, when he was bent on revenge: he's a lusty, passionate person who has zero sensitivity. His interactions with Mantis are highly entertaining.

Zany humor balances out the gravity of some of the scenes, usually in the form of snarky dialogue, like Nebula snapping "Get over it!" when Gamora is speechless at being saved, or Ego's, "I thought my rugged good looks would make it obvious" that he's Star-Lord's paternal organism. In particular, the many insults used to describe Rocket had viewers snickering: "triangle-faced dog," "pet puppy," and my personal favorite, "trash panda." There's a running gag with yams that ends predictably yet satisfyingly. This time around, David Hasselhoff replaces Kevin Bacon as the imaginary Earth hero (so does Mary Poppins). And basically anything Baby Groot does is comedy gold.

Naturally, the effects are stunning, the fight scenes are fire, and the soundtrack is nostalgic while being thematically relevant. (I preferred the songs on Vol. 1, but YMMV.) In terms of visuals, I was a fan of Gamora shouldering a torn-off space gun while screaming bloody murder, and Yondu and his arrow are equally badass. Watching this movie in 3D is worth it!

Overall, Vol. 2 effectively tells its story while setting up the team's next villain (Adam Warlock) and dropping hints about the coming Infinity War. Looking forward to all of it!

TL;DR: Vol. 1's soundtrack is superior, but Vol. 2 takes us deeper into the characters. Highly recommended!


This post brought to you by first-time spring allergies! wtf.

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)