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Big Pharma

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Sexy Beast.

Happy to serve up a vaguely creepy science-gone-wrong story with a self-aware grin and a side of political push-buttons, Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, which I caught last weekend and haven’t had time to write about, is, overall, an engaging genre outing in the key of Cronenberg. In many ways, it’s the contemporary Frankenstein complement to the Spierig’s vampire reverie Daybreakers earlier this year. Both are smart, frothy, and decently entertaining popcorn flicks with a sense of humor and a grab-bag of modern anxieties to play with, and both deliver if you go in with your expectations firmly calibrated at B.

That’s B as in B-movie, although, to be fair, Splice doesn’t have the low-grade, “what the hell am I watching?” straight-to-video feel of Natali’s memorable cult breakout Cube. That’s mainly due to the presence of Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley here, both likable and talented stars who exude intelligence and off-kilter charm, and both of whom seem game for anything this genre material throws at them, without ever condescending to it. (And, after all, why would Brody condescend to this? The man made The Jacket and will soon be in Predators, for Pete’s sake.)

In any case, here the aforementioned duo are lovebirds and genius biochemists Clive Nicoli (Brody) and Elsa Kast (Polley) — the names, other reviewers inform me, are a Bride of Frankenstein reference. While bantering back-and-forth in high-speed genetic Trekspeak (they come across as more hipstery versions of the buttoned-down Primer guys), Clive and Elsa spend their days in an expensive lab paid for by Big Pharma, splicing together new forms of hybrid life in hopes of finding some –any — lucrative new product for the drug market. (Well, that’s the company’s goal anyway — Clive and Elsa just like pushing the frontier and playing with their toys.)

But when the powers-that-be decide that all this basic research is a waste of money and pull the plug, Clive and Elsa feel compelled to take Splice Club up a notch. Unbeknownst to her Pharma masters, Elsa in particular, who we find out later may not have the best sense of judgment around, decides to go out on a limb and add human DNA to their primordial soup. Clive, for his part, has a nagging sense that this is probably a bad idea, but he is hesitant to stop Elsa once the die is cast. Well, that was their first mistake. For, when this new, state-of-the-art bun at last emerges from its oven, our two scientists have a lot more to contend with than just another run-of-the-mill, wormy abomination like the dozen previous iterations. (Said worms, by the way, are both repellent and hilarious, and are the centerpiece of the most absurdly funny scene in the film.)

Instead, they have bioengineered “Dren,” a chittering creature who at first looks like a factory reject from the cute Disney sidekick assembly line, but soon grows into something more recognizably human. And when, after a few months as a inordinately bright little girl (Abigail Chu), she evolves into a reasonable approximation of Sinead O’Connor in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” video (Delphine Chaneac), except with gills, wings, hand-like feet, and a scorpion tail…well, let’s just say that just opens up a whole can of unnatural hybrid-y worms for Clive, especially after he figures out the identity of Dren’s DNA donor. Heady moral quandaries can do a funny thing to a man, and, after a few stiff drinks one evening, he’s not really going to…is he? He is? Ewwwwww. (I think one can guess how Clive would play through Mass Effect.)

It’s not often, this side of Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or Todd Solondz’s blissfully disturbed Happiness, that you find a film that involves deeply un-funny issues like incest, abortion, and bestiality, and yet somehow, some way, stays amusing. But, to the movie’s credit, there’s a knowing, tongue-in-cheek sensibility to Splice throughout, and even while it’s playing the story straight, it seems to have a very good sense of how ridiculous it is at times. (In a testament to their acting chops, Brody and Polley seem in on the joke even as they’re writhing on the horns of their dilemma.) The movie isn’t played for laughs by any means, but it also has an undeniable nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality that keeps the sailing smooth even through potentially treacherous waters. (For a good example of how a movie with more self-importance and less self-awareness can falter with similar material, consider Michael Winterbottom’s abysmal Code 46.)

Aside from its Freudian head-games, Splice — like Daybreakers and genre B-films from 28 Weeks Later to Village of the Damned and countless more in-between — has all kinds of timely political grist to mill over its run. from 21st concerns about bioethics to more bad behavior by pharmaceutical companies to, in its final shot [Spoiler, if you know your magazine racks], a potential comment on this month’s Atlantic cover article. It doesn’t say anything particularly new or interesting about any of these themes, of course, but they are there to give the film color regardless.

Let me put it this way: If a movie like the much-superior Let the Right One In feels, as I said in 2008, like a wintry Stephen King short story, this saucier, clinical, and more acerbic nightmare is closer to what you might find in a Clive Barker paperback ’round the same era. Is Splice a must-see for horror and sci-fi fans? No, I wouldn’t say that. But it’s not bad at all for a B-movie, and it delivers two hours of mildly thought-provoking, occasionally funny genre fare at about the level of its ambitions.

I Think I Feel Better.

It may be, then, that the simplest and least ethically hazardous way to capitalize on the placebo effect is to acknowledge that medicine isn’t just a set of approved treatments — it’s also a ritual, with symbolism and meaning that are key to its efficacy. At its best, that ritual spurs positive expectations, sparks associations with past healing experiences, and eases distress in ways that can alleviate suffering. These meanings, researchers say, are what the placebo effect is really about.

In the Boston Globe, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow examines the past, present, and future of the placebo effect. “You’re talking about many, many, many millions of dollars a year in drug treatment costs…If [doctors] can produce approximately the same therapeutic effect with less drug, then it’s obviously safer for the patient, and I can’t believe they wouldn’t want to look into doing this.’

Before Sunrise.

Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Let the Right One In…it seems creatures of the night are everywhere these days. The conceit of the Spierigs’ clever and satisfying Daybreakers is to go the next step and make the situation literal: Everyone’s a vampire now, and blood — particularly the primo-quality human stuff — has become the new oil. Also, there are no sparkling teenage nosferatu here — quite the opposite, really. If you don’t get your hemoglobin fix on the regular…well, let’s just say you won’t end up looking like Robert Pattinson.

Daybreakers was the first leg of a Friday night triple-feature for me, and, if you’re not one for reading long-winded reviews today, I had much the same reaction to all three films: If this particular genre is your cup-of-tea, you’ll probably have a grand ole time. In this case, if you’re someone who enjoys a smart, unabashed B-movie with several dollops of gore, a side of cheesy action, and a patina of political allegory, then Daybreakers should definitely satisfy your nocturnal cravings. On the B-movie scale, I’d say Daybreakers is quite a bit better than, say, Equilibrium or Reign of Fire, and hits at about the level of minor-canon John Carpenter, like They Live! or Prince of Darkness. And, while I think I prefer Stephen Norrington’s Blade in the end, this vampire-noir outing by the brothers Spierig sits very comfortably next to those two flicks on the vampire B-movie shelf.

After an opening tone poem involving a pre-adolescent vampire suicide (a la Claudia in The Vampire Lestat), Daybreakers begins in the near-future: 2019, to be precise. (Given all the vampire-friendly tech on display here — camera-driven cars, “subwalks” to get about during the day — I might’ve moved that date a little further down the line.) We’re now a decade into the infection that turned everyone — or all of those who weren’t eaten, at least — into vampires, and blood is getting scarce.

Enter vampire hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), who has been tasked by the now-reigning Big Pharma overlords (most notably Sam Neill) to develop a safe and adequate blood substitute and prevent panic in the streets. But, unlike his military-minded kid brother (Michael Dorman), who loves being a vampire and hunting down the last remnants of humankind, Edward is conflicted about his condition: He’s basically a vampire-vegetarian, who refuses to drink human blood and tries to help the food he encounters whenever possible.

As such, after a chance encounter with a gaggle of humans where he acts surprisingly honorably for his kind, Edward gains the trust of one Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan). And she, in turn leads him to Elvis (Willem DaFoe), a mechanic and now ex-vampire. Ex-vampire, you say? Yep — apparently there might be a cure for the blood thirst, if the strange happenstance that un-turned Elvis can be recreated. But, of course, many folks enjoy their new lifestyle, and have no desire to be “cured.” And, be they human or vampire, pharmaceutical companies tend to operate along similar principles: Namely, who wants a cure when they you can just string out a financially lucrative “treatment” over the course of a lifetime?

Kicking the vampires of Big Pharma in the eyeteeth is just one of the reasonably clever political analogies at work here — there are also some Syriana, Crossing Over, and Food, Inc nods along the way, as well as a class-war aspect within vampire society and an exceptionally gory military fracas near the end that has its own allegorical resonance.) But, mainly, the Spierig brothers just want to tell a cool vampire story, and I like the way that the film sets down a few basic ground rules — 1. Everyone’s a vampire and needs blood. 2. Not getting blood will turn vampires into crazed man-bat-type beasts. 3. Drinking vampire blood will accelerate this process — and then just lets the story unfold from there. (That being said, I do think the story opens itself to trouble by giving these vampires some of the old mythic qualities, like not appearing in mirrors and being susceptible to stakes in the heart. If that’s the case, why aren’t all these humans wearing garlic necklaces and carrying crosses?)

Similarly, almost all of the scares here fall on the cheap side — a sudden loud noise or a man-bat leaping out of the darkness. Otherwise, as you might expect from a story where the protagonist is already a vampire, the film isn’t what you’d call particularly frightening. But for what it is — a fun, vampire-centric B-movie with a lot of grist to think over once safely back in the daylight — Daybreakers delivers the goods rather well. And, if you’re a genre fan, there’s a certain pleasure to be taken simply in watching Sam Neill play the Big Bad, not unlike seeing Michael Biehn showing up in Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror. (In fact, it’s exactly the type of fanboy thrill one gets from seeing Tom Waits play the Devil, but more on that in due course.)

The Myth of 11-Dimensional Chess.

“Obama supporters are eager to depict the White House as nothing more than a helpless victim in all of this — the President so deeply wanted a more progressive bill but was sadly thwarted in his noble efforts by those inhumane, corrupt Congressional ‘centrists.’ Right. The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start — the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry.

A day after Senate Democrats kill Byron Dorgan’s non-importation amendment in order to preserve the administration’s back-door deal with Big Pharma, the indispensable Glenn Greenwald takes the Obama administration to task for the final Senate product on health care, which, suffice to say, is looking pretty far afield from the House bill. (And all the while, the bought and paid for Joe Lieberman grins like the Cheshire Cat.)

I was going to wait until year-in-review post week to put this up, but now’s as good a time as any: From civil liberties to this Senate health care fiasco, it’s hard to think of any arena where this administration’s first year hasn’t been a tremendous disappointment. (Regarding the former: I didn’t mention this here earlier, but the brazen audacity of this passage from the president’s war-is-peace Nobel Prize speech made me blanch: “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor — we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.” Uh, your Justice Department is not upholding them, remember? Is the president even aware of his own civil liberties record?)

Anyway, I keep being reminded of this line from my Obama endorsement of January 2008: “There’s a possibility — maybe even a strong possibility — that he’ll end up a Tommy Carcetti-like president: a well-meaning reformer outmatched and buffeted to and fro by the entrenched forces arrayed against him.” Well, welcome to the Carcetti presidency, y’all. The only surprise so far for many of us is in how little he’s actually even tried to enact meaningful reforms. But I guess once the president surrounded himself with the exact same GOP-lite people we’d spent months trying to defeat in the Democratic primary, the writing should have been on the wall. This will not be change we can believe in. A New Day is not dawning. And the president is not really with us — We’re going to have to do the heavy lifting for reform next year without him.

Rats on the Titanic.

“‘There‚Äôs a growing sense, a growing probability, that the next administration could be Democratic,’ said Craig L. Fuller, executive vice president of Apco Worldwide, a lobbying and public relations firm, who was a White House official in the Reagan administration. ‘Corporate executives, trade associations and lobbying firms have begun to recalibrate their strategies.‘” As a Democratic presidency in 2008 looks increasingly likely, business lobbyists scramble for deals under Dubya. “Few industries have more cause for concern than drug companies, which have been a favorite target of Democrats. Republicans run the Washington offices of most major drug companies, and a former Republican House member, Billy Tauzin, is president of their trade association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.” Well, for them to be really concerned, we Dems have to show more backbone in the face of lobbyists than we have thus far in this Congress. And, as Simon Lazarus recently pointed out anew in The Prospect, no matter who wins in 2008, corporate lobbyists will still have the Roberts Court to back their play for some time to come.


“Spawned by a White House under the influence of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, rubber-stamped in a Congress bought by lobbyists for those interests, and imposed on the nation with prevarication, duplicity and outright bribery, the drug bill represents everything Americans hate about the federal government today.” Iraq, Abramoff, Plamegate, and the NSA wiretaps aside, Joe Conason sees the seeds of GOP doom in their Medicare fiasco, particularly since it’s become clear that they’ve been lowballing the price tag to the tune of $600 billion.

Man of Constant Sorrow.

Next up on the Labor Day bill was Fernando Meirelles’ well-received The Constant Gardener, starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in a sort-of action-romance-thriller-edutainment about the extreme shadiness of the Pharmaceutical Trust’s clinical trials in Africa. (Or, put another way, it’s The Limey meets Hotel Rwanda meets The Bourne Supremacy meets The Girl in the Cafe.) At its best, The Constant Gardener is a compelling travelogue and a resonant Soderberghian love story, anchored by a great performance by Fiennes and solid supporting work by Weisz, Bill Nighy, and others. (By the way, nothing screams “English conspiracy” quite like the presence of Gerard McSorley, who plays a pharmaceutical tough here. Between him and Pete Postlethwaite flitting in and out, this occasionally seemed like In the Name of the Father transported to Kenya.) But, Gardener also suffers some of the defects of Meirelles’ earlier film, City of God, namely an overreliance on shaky hand-held camera work and a plot that strains credulity often enough to detract from the overall experience.

So the upshot is this: Fiennes, the titular gardener, is a kindly and reclusive British diplomat in Kenya with an ill-defined job and a young new activist wife (Weisz), whom he met-cute (well, sorta) at a lecture he gave back in England and married after a whirlwind romance. When Weisz is found murdered on a desolate, unforgiving stretch of African road beside her colleague and possible lover (Hubert Kounde), Fiennes is forced to abandon the orderly and carefully tended confines of his mental garden and embark on a quest to discover both why she was killed and how she lived. Along the way, he finds that large pharmaceutical companies, the nemeses of his slain wife, have been rigging clinical trials and, worse, hiding the fatal side effects of their drugs by erasing the existence of poverty-stricken Kenyans who were administered them (How these fatal side effects were supposed to go over once these drugs went on the market is left unexplained.) Whatsmore, he soon finds his superiors at the embassy (Danny Huston, Nighy) have been steadfastly looking the other way, and that the global reach of Big Pharma isn’t above using strongarm tactics to ensure the truth never gets out…

The Constant Gardener is expertly acted and expertly put together, and it’s deserves the high praise it’s been getting — it’s easily one of the better films of this year so far. Nevertheless, I had nagging problems with the movie. For one, while I have no doubt that Big Pharma is up to many grievous misdoings in Africa (and elsewhere) in the name of the almighty buck, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if they have unctuous corporate flaks cooking books and crossing the palms of anybody it might help them to buy off, I had trouble believing that they were this kind of shady, with a seemingly universal intelligence capability and more agents than SMERSH. (Also, while I’m sure this type of trial-tinkering probably happens, the real pharmaceutical conspiracy — as others have noted — is how companies simply ignore medical crises in the developing world and attempt to ban the use of generic drugs in devastated areas.)

Also, while I could see how Fiennes’ character might be this clueless about his wife’s life-work if he had seemed more distracted during her lifetime, as played he’d have to be willfully oblivious to miss what’s going on. (Perhaps his almost-disturbing passivity is the point — the script seems to say as much at times — but I still felt it rang false.) Add an overdose of shakicam work (don’t sit too close) and some rather pointless action sequences (the late second act car chase, the bandit attack) and The Constant Gardener falls out of the top echelon of all-time-great films. But, in an otherwise down year for movies, Gardener is an adult, intelligent thriller and a believable romance that’s well above the mean and well worth catching.

Puppets of Industry.

Fortune 500 companies that invested millions of dollars in electing Republicans are emerging as the earliest beneficiaries of a government controlled by President Bush and the largest GOP House and Senate majority in a half century…Bush and his congressional allies are looking to pass legal protections for drug companies, doctors, gun manufacturers and asbestos makers, as well as tax breaks for all companies and energy-related assistance sought by the oil and gas industry.” In the stating the obvious department, the Washington Post discovers the Republicans are in the thrall of corporate power.

Botched Prescription?

In a boon for President Bush’s reelection chances, the GOP succeed in remaking Medicare. (At least the Dems can content themselves with defeating the energy bill.) To be honest, I haven’t been following this bill as closely as I should…I always get a bit annoyed when both parties prostrate themselves before the AARP, far and away the richest (and most likely to vote) portion of the electorate. In fact, the US spends 12 times more on its oldest, wealthiest citizens than it does on its children, even though kids are three times more likely to live below the poverty line. Hence, budget and deficit-busting prescription drug giveaways in the midst of child poverty…great investment.)

All that being said, Medicare is one of the foundations of the American social safety net, just as AFDC was until 1996, and as such this act is a biggie. Mickey Kaus of Slate seems to think the bill is actually good for Dems, while Urban Institute experts believe the back door to privatization is in fact only “window dressing.” But still, most Senators I trust came down against it (including John McCain, who railed against the giveaways to drug-makers in the bill.) And, while I still find it absurd that we’re giving prescription drug benefits to a select portion of the electorate before finding a way to insure every citizen, even paying lip service to the idea of privatizing Medicare does not seem a step in the right direction towards universal health care.

Finally, if this bill is so innocuous, why are the GOP so gung-ho for it? I hope it’s because they believe they wrested the Medicare issue away from the Democrats rather than due to any real movement towards privatization in the bill. Still, I fret. I mean, would you trust a prescription filled out by a cat-slaughterer?

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