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Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley Traces the Fall of Theranos

Alex Gibney’s documentary tells a dramatic, if somewhat workmanlike, story of Silicon Valley hubris meeting old-fashioned scamming.

2.5

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The Inventor
Photo: HBO

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration.

According to a personal narrative that was told through numerous glowing feature articles and TED talks, that was the kind of sentiment that powered Holmes through years of scouring for investors and trying to do everything humanly possible to make her dream of a simple, cheap, quick fingertip pinprick blood test a reality. The great difference between her and Edison, though, might well have been that while both were stubborn and also—to greater and lesser degrees—self-inventing fabulists, just one of the two actually invented things.

Dispensing with most of her early biography, The Inventor initially presents Holmes to us as the world first came to know her: the unblinking blonde with the hundreds of identical black outfits speaking about her passion project in a monotonous drone that recalls nothing so much as Mira Sorvino in Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion. Initially, Gibney paints this portrait of Holmes with a collection of media appearances and up-close interviews, the latter of which could have been conducted by the filmmaker himself, which would be surprising given the sharp negative turn the narrative takes toward its famously paranoid and media-controlling subject—or may have been repurposed from some of the Holmes-glorifying in-house promotional material Theranos hired Errol Morris to shoot.

Eventually, The Inventor gives a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Holmes’s background—studious, quiet, gawkily intense—that only completes the portrait of an already familiar Silicon Valley archetype: the college dropout with a monomaniacal focus and poor social skills. Of course, the difference with Holmes was that, by not being some schlubby computer engineer in a hoodie, but an attractive blond woman, she secured acres of fawning press coverage and renown as a glass ceiling-smashing female entrepreneur.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the Holmes sales pitch that Gibney shows here. She repeatedly talked to audiences about her belief that quick and reliable health information was a “basic human right,” often referencing an uncle who died too young from a cancer that could have been detected earlier. To her thinking, making blood tests faster, quicker, and less scary—she herself calls the process of giving blood akin to “torture”—was the best way to further her goal.

The technology that Holmes envisioned was the kind of seamless, minimalist ideal that has been pursued since the invention of the iPhone. Instead of messy needles and tubes and waiting weeks to hear back from a faraway lab, Theranos promised that a tiny barcoded “nanotainer” could get your blood from a pinprick, after which it would be inserted into a testing machine—called, of course, an “Edison”—no bigger than a home printer, and return a full blood test in a matter of minutes. No matter that there was no reason to believe the technology could ever make this dream a reality. Holmes seemingly just followed the Silicon Valley model for impossible thinking: “Fake it until you make it.”

Except, as The Inventor reveals in its rather darkly comic second half, there was never any way that Theranos was going to be able to make it. According to the company insiders who appear in the documentary, having already blown the whistle to the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning John Carreyrou (also a top source for the film), the actual Edison machine was a Rube Goldberg disaster of broken instruments and splashing blood that was never close to ready for prime time. The gleaming glass walls of Theranos headquarters, Gibney deadpans in his typically dry narration, was more like a “labyrinth of mirrors.”

This sense of New Economy make-believe that allowed Theranos to chew through hundreds of millions in investor capital while the company’s technology continually failed to deliver on Holmes’s hyperbolic world-changing promises was aided by a curious wrinkle. According to writers who covered her giddy rise to power and appear somewhat chagrined in The Inventor, Holmes had a powerful ability to secure backing from powerful old men who then also staffed the Theranos board: General Jim Mattis signed on, as did George Schultz and even Henry Kissinger, who gushed about her “ethereal quality” like some besotted fanboy. Theranos may not have revolutionized anything in the end, but Holmes’s cult of personality was powerful enough to provide cover for behavior and actions that included extreme paranoia, the hiring of bodyguards, the monitoring of staff emails, and the bulletproofing of her office windows.

While The Inventor is filled with bright details and sharp asides that puncture Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing fabulism, it doesn’t make a strong enough attempt to get behind Holmes’s messianic aura. The basics of the Theranos case are laid out in clear reportorial fashion, and Gibney makes a brief stab at connecting Holmes to the long line of inventors who more than stretched the truth; Edison, for instance, pretended he had perfected the incandescent light bulb for four years before he actually had. But as with many stories about great American con artists, from Bernie Madoff to L. Ron Hubbard, the more one uncovers about their lies and subterfuge, the more the person’s character tends to recede. The Holmes of The Inventor appears to have been no different. Claiming to have found a way to change the world, while bullying and obfuscating her way around the unfortunate truth, Holmes may in the end have been only able to successfully invent a version of herself.

Director: Alex Gibney Distributor: HBO Documentary Films Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Review: Amazon’s Hanna Quickly Exhausts the Novelty of Its Premise

The series fails to uphold, subvert, or otherwise comment on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

1.5

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Hanna
Photo: Amazon Prime

Like the 2011 film upon which it’s based, Amazon’s Hanna follows the eponymous teen (Esme Creed-Miles) as she embarks on a revenge mission against a shadowy spy agency. The series milks visceral thrills from Hanna’s fight skills as she kicks, punches, shoots, and kills burly adult men. But where Joe Wright’s film was distinguished by its thumping Chemical Brothers score, bluntly filmed and brutal action scenes, and strikingly lensed locations, the series neither carves a unique path for itself nor upholds, subverts, or otherwise comments on the stylistic vision or thematic coherence of its source material.

After an opening sequence that sees Hanna’s parents fleeing for their lives from the spy agency, the series flashes forward to regard Hanna training with her ex-military father, Erik (Joel Kinnaman), in the woods where they live in solitude. When the duo is eventually forced to flee their safe haven, Erik reveals to Hanna that he’s actually been preparing her to hunt and kill a villainous C.I.A. agent named Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos). While Marissa is shown in flashback to be nefariously connected to Hanna’s childhood, Erik tells Hanna nothing else about her target. Consequently, the central mystery of Hanna’s origin, and Marissa’s role in it, is predicated on the secrets that Erik keeps from her for reasons that are never made clear.

Every episode of the series more or less follows the same format, as slow-burning cloak-and-dagger spy games eventually yield a few more revelations about Hanna’s past before leading to an eruptive and often incoherently filmed climax. The season’s middle stretch is particularly dull, as Erik and Hanna’s first attempt to kill Marissa goes awry and the teen finds herself stranded with a vacationing English family. Hanna attempts to use the relationship which emerges between Hanna and the family’s daughter, Sophie (Rhianne Barreto), to yoke a violent revenge plot to a coming-of-age teenage drama—which doesn’t work, chiefly because it’s impossible to understand why the otherwise unremarkable Sophie would be suddenly obsessed with Hanna, who’s nearly feral and prone to extreme violence.

Of course, Sophie’s fascination with her new friend is mysterious in part because Hanna herself is purposefully difficult to know, with Creed-Miles uses her open face and wide eyes to portray Hanna with a faraway look and a curious intelligence. The girl is inscrutable by Erik’s design, but less understandable is why the adults in the series, particularly Marissa, are similarly vague. Throughout, Hanna goes to great lengths to make its villain, who’s shown committing heinous acts, more sympathetic to the viewer. Certain plot twists suggest that Marissa may be ready to deal with her guilt over the nature of Hanna’s being, yet Enos’s severe, unsmiling performance and the season’s hectic third act go a long way toward muddying our sense of whatever change of heart the woman may be experiencing.

This muddled depiction of Marissa’s ostensible moral transformation, along with the introduction of a cabal of more menacing villains operating alongside her, rob the season finale of catharsis—which is about the only quality otherwise still preserved in the vicious retributions doled out by Hanna. Just as the series struggles to define Marissa’s motivations, it doesn’t hint at what might eventually happen to the rest her shadowy organization. The season’s conclusion asks as many questions as it answers, appearing to exist only so that Hanna may sustain itself, offering more henchman bones for Hanna to snap without wondering whether the character should, or even wants to, keep snapping them.

Cast: Esme Creed-Miles, Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Khalid Abdalla, Rhianne Barreto, Benno Fürmann, Sam C. Wilson, Félicien Juttner Airtime: Amazon Prime

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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