Monday, June 21, 2010

Alfred P. Sloan in your FACEEEEEE

What is the Alfred P. Sloan Prize? It's a prize at the Sundance Film Festival that awards a film that focuses on science or technology as a theme or has a scientist as a main character. After seeing good reviews of a few films that happen to be winners of this prize, I decided to review some of them.

1. Primer (2004)
Aaron (Shane Carruth, who also directed the film) and Abe (David Sullivan) are two engineers who work for a large corporation during the day and have an invention workshop during off hours. Inadvertently, they manage to make a time machine while messing around with a device to reduce the mass of objects. At first they use the machine to manipulate the stock market, but soon they start to abuse their new powers, crossing ethical and moral lines to change the course of their lives.
The plot has an experimental structure, given the whole time travel conceit, but is still relatively easy to understand once you get what is going on. It will probably take a viewer a couple of times or more to grasp everything that goes on in the film. What is amazing is that all this is made by a small group of people, but looks so refined and professional. Carruth uses his background in mathematics and engineering to ground the film in reality; documenting the minutiae of tedious scientific research, including the trial and error associated with it. He also uses muted colors and ambience to create an atmosphere of both sterility and dread.

As the film goes on the tension mounts, but at 70-odd minutes does not seem as adequate as it would seem in developing this tension into a climax. Nevertheless, Primer is an accomplished sci-fi film that I think will become a cult classic.

2. Grizzly Man (2005)
For thirteen years Timothy Treadwell lived his summers along with Grizzly Bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska until his life was cut short in 2003, killed by the very bears he swore to 'protect.' This documentary by Werner Herzog is a little portrait into Treadwell's own experiences with the bears, and the events that eventually led to his death. Most of the film is framed within Herzog's own perspective on Treadwell, in his capacity describing Treadwell as both an actor and filmmaker. Thus Herzog himself narrates the entire movie. It takes a bit getting used to as he sounds like a 70 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger (imagine hiring Arnie to narrate your film) but seeing as this is Herzog's message and opinion on the man, it's understandable.

At points the film portrays Treadwell as a kind and gentle man who loves nature and the animals and wildlife he protected and research every year. On the other hand, through his own films we see a Treadwell who was paranoid, interfered with the bears more than he 'helped' them, had this skewed idealization of nature, and openly shunned humanity and civilization while at the same time craving attention, perhaps treating his ventures into Katmai as a sort of self therapy for his own inner demons. Although one could say that he was foolhardy enough to dare to do this with the bears, he did survive 13 years with them with nary an incident. And the circumstances behind his death did push towards a scenario where he would be more likely be attacked than normal. He knew the risks. He knew that he would be killed, either by his own pragmatism or an inner self-destructive urge.

If anything, the film made me want to know more about the real man behind all the hoopla, so in a way, this documentary did its job. Read here for some points about his life and death.

3. Sleep Dealer (2008)
Alex Rivera directs a film that, although being science fiction, deals with problems the world is facing even today.

Memo (Jacob Vargas) lives in Santa Ana Del Rio, a small town in rural Mexico. He dreams of making it big somewhere in the city and uses a homemade transmitter to listen in on conversations of people from far away. Unforunately, this leads to the US government, depicted here as an isolationist and imperial state, attacking his home. Memo now heads to Tijuana where he begins his work as a Sleep Dealer, a sort of virtual laborer, doing the dirty jobs without the problem of immigration.

The commodification of the human soul, cheap outsourcing of labor, water politics (as opposed to energy politics) and increasing corporate and state imperialism are all topics that are valid and as feasible today, but at the same time they are discussed in this movie. Memo and his father Memo goes to a reservoir to get water that should rightfully be theirs; they are asked at gunpoint to pay or face the consequences. Later, Memo delivers money to his family back in Santa Ana del Rio; after taxes and other fees are deducted, only 2/3 of the original amount is given.

The issues raised in the film are quite powerful, but the presentation falls short quite a bit. Some come off as cheap or cartoony; a fight sequence at the end was unnecessary. The characterization was also a bit off the mark, as characters such as Luz and Rudy are given scant screen time, so we don't get to know them as much as we do Memo, making the full product seem incomplete.

Sleep Dealer is a flawed film, but that does not make the issues it raises any less important. In the end, it is worth watching to gain perspectives of things that might be happening to us not in the future, but in the here and now.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Japanese Medical Drama Roundup

I'm a doctor by profession, and I watch J-dramas. No brainer here.


Code Blue
Starring: Tomohisa Yamashita, Erika Toda, Yui Aragaki
Synopsis: Four doctors undergo training in emergency medicine. With helicopters.
Bad Guy: just some regular disasters/accidents.
Drama: 8/10. Each character has their own dramatic thing going on and will try to milk you hard for tears. Most of it is patient related and they are usually nice people, so you feel sorry for them. The drama ratches itself up near the end.  
Medical Accuracy: 3.5/5. I guess your disbelief will depend more on whether the actors/actresses were convincing to you. The cases themselves are understandable. As for that thing in the special, well...
Overall: 8/10. Again, a fun drama.


Nurse Aoi
Starring: Satomi Ishihara
Synopsis: A really good nurse is recruited into a hospital where the doctors mostly really suck. She fights off her emotional baggage and tries to make the hospital a better place.
Bad Guy: Tadokoro, a doctor who wants to transform the hospital into a health-for-profit place. And he sucks.
Drama: 8.5/10. Aoi treats all her patients like family, and is really a nice person. The one good doctor in the hospital is also a nice dude, and the episode that involves him was good drama. Medical Accuracy: 3/5. I dunno what the laws for nurses are in Japan, but are they allowed to perform at least needle thoracotomies, at least under supervision? The iffy translation made understanding the actual diseases harder, but throwing out a diagnosis of sick sinus syndrome just like that?
Overall: 7.5/10. It sucks when the nurse is better than most of the doctors in the hospital lol. But still a good drama.


Iryu: Team Medical Dragon
Starring: Kenji Sakaguchi, Asami Mizukawa, Teppei Koike
Synopsis: A super genius surgeon goes to a hospital, to perform a super hard heart surgery (season 1) and to revitalize a dying hospital (season 2.) Over the top drama ensues.
Bad Guy: Noguchi, an evil medical director who wants to make the hospital into a health-for-profit institution.

Drama: sdbjgfk/10. This series is sometimes so over the top its crazy. Surgery without electricity? Check. But with regards to scenes that mine those tears from your eyes, it's just okay.
Medical Accuracy: 2.5/5. Given that most of the medical scenarios in this series are ridiculously over the top (albeit possible) it's hard to say that it can happen in real life. A new Batista technique? Fictional. A thoracotomy using a ballpen case? Well...

Overall: 8/10. It's fun if you don't take it that seriously.



Starring: Eita, Ikuta Toma, Satomi Ishihara
Synopsis: Four medical students undergo a special elective class... in forensic pathology.
Bad Guy: Whatever or whoever killed the dead person of the week.
Drama: 9/10. The drama focuses on each person who died and their intentions and reasons for dying. Most of it is thankfully really really good.

Medical Accuracy: 3.5/5. Actually the medicine takes a backseat to the drama in this series, but what medicine does exist is more or less spot on with a few exceptions.
Overall: 8.5/10. Fun drama by itself. As a medical drama, don't expect too much.



Starring: Miho Kanno, Yutaka Takenouchi
Synopsis: A disgraced surgeon turned government worker is tasked to help rejuvenate a dying community hospital. Bad Guy: The dudes who want to close the hospital down and make the resort, or the Neurosurgeon who wants to make the hospital into a for-profit specialty hospital.
Drama: 10/10. I was impressed by the quality of the drama in this series. It is character driven and a bit manipulative, but it works overall.
Medical Accuracy: 3/5. A lot of the medicine here is okay, but some of it is just plain weird. Some take the medicine with some liberties (near instant recovery after a cranial hematoma evacuation? lolwut) What makes this drama different is that it tackes some important topics (DNR, right to live, living wills, 'monster patients,' overstaying patients, malpractice) that every health practitioner has encountered in their lifetime.
Overall: 9/10. Quite a good drama actually.


God Hand Teru
Starring: Junpei Mizobata, Asami Mizukawa Synopsis: The son of a super genius surgeon who died in a plane crash is recruited by a super prestigious hospital full of excellent surgeons. BUT, he's actually just a newbie. If he's in a bind, on the other hand, he summons the strength of his dead father and gains super genius surgeon powers.
Bad Guy: some evil corporation that wants the hospital to be for-profit. Are we beginning to see a trend here?
Drama: 7/10. Standard j-drama fare. What makes this different from Iryu is this isn't over the top enough. So it's not that fun.
Medical Accuracy: 2.5/5. Again, the outlandishness of some of the medical scenarios makes them hardly believable. Normal people would die with such grave conditions. But since our protagonist has super awesome surgeon powers, it's okay.
Overall: 7.5/10. Still fun, but not as fun as Iryu.