Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Wellbutrin a Day Keeps the Doctor Flush

Good news in a recent lawsuit against GlaxoSmithKline, which cost them $3 billion: Slate. Apparently it is but a small dent in their profits and the company and pharmaceutical industry will be just fine (the stock was actually up after the settlement). Glaxo, for one, has annual sales of $44 billion and the fine will do little to alter their practice of paying off doctors to market their drugs to patients. And for those who were concerned, Dr. Drew Pinsky will be just fine as well. Yes he looks kind of bad for taking money from the company he is shilling drugs for on television, to the tune of $275,000 for those who are counting. And sure he garnered another $115,000 from Jansen Pharmaceuticals. But rest assured that this doesn't influence the advice he's giving to women and children. And the money the pharma industry is giving to the FDA can't possibly influence their decision on drugs either. So clearly this is just another frivolous lawsuit that will do little to end the kickbacks that help doctors, TV personalities and the FDA make informed decisions on the treatments they should suggest for their patients. Whew, that felt troubling for a second. 

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Nightmare Way Before Christmas ... Arsenal Style

As everyone who follows football at all now knows, Robin Van Persie wants out of Arsenal. Not only has he committed to leaving, he felt like taking a measured pot shot at manager Arsene Wenger and the management on his way out the door. Of course, that exit could be in the next few days, or it could be a year from now. What emerges in the wake of his statement (on his personal website) and the Arsenal response is a series of questions about the direction of the club, the reason so many stars are leaving and what those in charge can do to stop the growing belief that Arsenal is merely a very good "feeder club" for the real leaders of Europe: Man City, Man U, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and, maybe, PSG in the future. With the exception of Barcelona and Real Madrid, these are the clubs with endless streams of money to spend on transfer fees and player salaries. At the top of the list are Man City, Chelsea and PSG, seemingly willing to spend any amount of money to improve their teams (and hurt their rivals).

Where does this leave Arsenal, a club that refuses to pay even 20 million pounds for a player? Increasingly in the hinterlands of the sport, looking in on those they once competed with, or beat with regularity like Chelsea and Man City. Arsenal has their own Russian plutocrat knocking on the door with a 30 percent stake in the club and a yearning to join the board and spend the big bucks to bring a trophy to the Emirates for the first time in seven years. But our American owner Stan Kroenke doesn't want him having anything to do with the club and has blocked him at every corner. He has also largely blocked any critique of Wenger and, from the rumors that have been floating around for a year or so now, pushed him to sell Nasri and Fabergas against his wishes. Looking at the slow decline in this squad since the 2005-06 season (when we came a late collapse away from the champions league), we have lost Henry (though he was soon on the decline), Hleb, Viera, Cole, Adebayor, Cliche, Fabergas, Nasri and a host of others. We have been beat to the punch on Hazard (who I think we might have gotten if we didn't piss off his team by stealing Park, who seemed like a complete waste of money), Vertonghen (who I read just signed for Spurs after protracted transfer fee negotiations), Kagawa (if those rumors were true), Mata, etc., etc, etc. 

Arsenal just can't seem to compete for the top players in Europe any longer and instead grabs young talent or lesser known players who either live up to their potential and leave or fail to impress in the end. If RvP does leave this summer, it is plausible that Walcott and Vermaelen will follow him out the door. And then we are in big trouble, even though I wouldn't mind seeing Walcott leave if the circumstances were different. The problem is it would make other players even more uncertain of the ambitions of the Gunners. And that is really the question that has emerged in the past few years. But all this has been discussed in great detail. So let's consider the situation from a slightly different angle ...

Most people will say I'm insane for saying this, but RvP was not as great a player after the loss to AC Milan, in which it should be remembered that he missed a clear opportunity in front of the keeper to get that fourth goal and at least push the tie to overtime. Instead another heartbreaker for Gunners and their fans. And the season before, while it was an absurd red, Van Persie helped Barcelona make up the 2-1 deficit and blast past us on the way to Champions League glory. His first yellow was completely unnecessary and put the team on edge before the "whistle heard round the world." And in that same game, Fabergas allowed the first goal right before halftime, as many of us remember. RvP's production fell dramatically after that game and it almost cost us third place. Yes he continued to score goals, and yes we went on a run afterwards, but with goals from the supporting cast more than RvP. And following that drop in form was a very average Euros where he again fell short of expectations. This is not to say that he wouldn't come back refreshed and start back where he left off before the end of season slump, but it is plausible that he is on his way back to human form. RvP's production over the course of his Arsenal career is as follows (Season/Starts/Goals):

2004-05 18/10
2005-06 21/11
2006-07 25/13
2007-08 20/9
2008-09 38/20
2009-10 18/10
2010-11 26/22
2011-12 45/37
Total 211/132

Yes they are impressive numbers over the past four  seasons, but injuries have severely restricted him over the period. And just when he has a breakout season, he decides to not only leave but essentially spit in Wenger and the clubs face on his way out the door. Now there are two possible reasons for the statement: 1) he is trying to push Arsenal to actually complete more signings and make staying worthwhile (highly unlikely) or 2) he is afraid Arsenal would make him see out the final season of his contract and then leave on free, which might affect his overall valuation (particularly if he is again struck by injuries). While this continues the trend of players ruling over club and managers, as is the new trend in world footfall, at some level, can we blame him? Arsenal has been linked with just about every available player for the past three seasons and yet have very little to show for it besides Arteta and the Ox (and maybe Pod and Giroud, though we'll have to wait and see on these two). Wenger has blown a number of opportunities to sign great players and seems poised to lose out on Vertonghen and M'Villa, both long term targets of the skipper. With the former, it may very well be a case of limited opportunities for first-team football, with the latter a sense that he saw a drop in form last year and didn't acquit himself well at the Euros. But isn't Wenger known for turning players like this around? ... including Van Persie, for that matter. 

The problem, besides Wenger's apparent stubborness, and what seems like personal greed on the part of the board, is that great players generally don't want to go to the Emirates. They know that there are "greener" pastures to the North, West, South and even East (PSG, for one). Yes, Arsenal has some talented young stars in the making in Ox, Sczenzny, Frimpong and a few others, but lack the veterans around them. The team seems to have lost faith in the magic of their boss and seven years without a trophy means potentially wasting their talents and ambitions on a club that calls making the Champions League a worthy goal. What is ironic, is the very players that have walked out the door have played a part in our failures over that period, from the Champions League failures, to FA Cup losses to the disastrous Carling Cup final a year and a half ago that seemed to foreshadow the doom to come. If a wake up call has not emerged now for the club, it appears it may never come. 

So what should be done? I think we should consider holding RvP to his contract, signing M'Villa or another defensive midfielder, a centre back better than Djourou, a creative midfielder and maybe a winger. The only good news since the Giroud signing is that Sagna should be back by the beginning of the season, making siging a quality right back less important (though I have less faith in Jenkinson than most). On the other side, I like the combination of Santos and Gibbs for now and think Kos and Vermaelen with Mertesacker as the primary backup should be okay (please oh please don't sell Vermaelen to Barca!!!). Looking to the midfield, Wilshire will come back, but probably not until September and I would guess there will be a period of adjustment before he returns to form, if he ever does. Arteta was a key to our second half run and should continue to steer and one hopes Song continues his development and reduces the errors. I am far less sanguine on Ramsey, who I'm afraid may never return to his best form. It would be a pity, obviously facilitated by the schmuck Shawcross, but if he doesn't have a great Olympics I like this idea of putting him out on loan. One hopes Rosicky continues his resurgence in the new year and that Ox gets his chance in the central role. Then we have Pod and Giroud up front with Gervinho, Walcott and Ox vying for wing spots. Now with Van Persie in the middle, this could be a formidable side (with a better defensive midfielder, maybe a better winger and a firmed up back line). But if he goes, the rest of the team will have to step up and I do worry they are not up to the task.

So the next few weeks should tell us a lot. If we sell Van Persie, I believe we need to sign another striker. Rumors abound, but of those I've heard Lewandowski is the most promising. That would be a great signing and reaffirm Arsenal's commitment to winning now. But if he goes without a replacement and I have to see Bendtner, Chamakh or Arshavin on the pitch again, I am really going to start losing faith. If Squillaci ever plays another game for the Gunners, then RvP was right to leave. If no reinforcements come in in the middle and back line, Arsenal really has become a farm team. This is probably the last year that Wenger has to salvage his legacy as the best manager of the club. There is no questioning his record the first decade in charge, but the last seven years have seen a team on the decline. It's not always his fault, but he has certainly played a role -- more than anything with his stubborness to spend money, to give up or at least bench players that aren't performing, to sell players early that are clearly not going to stay and occasionally, to play winning tactics when necessary. Let's hope that someone is listening in the boardroom and finally spend at least the money that's sitting around at present -- supposedly around 50 million pounds. If that includes the RvP fee of 20-25 million, that would be at least 70 milliion. With that we could buy Lew (12 to 15 million) or Higuin (?) or some other top striker, M'Villa (17 million), a central defender to backup our starters ($8 to $10 million), a creator in the middle or on the wing (say $10 to $12 million) and a backup keeper (if rumors are to be believed, $12 for the Lyon 25-year old). That adds up to about $75 million. 

Arsenal should spend that money and make themselves contenders next year. Enough talk about the future. Enough talk about players being overpriced (remember we also lost out on Gary Cahill, who after an average start has been decent for Chelsea), about them having bad attitudes (John Terry and Ashley Cole are both assholes) or waiting it out until the last second (we really did have a good shot at Mata and Hazard last summer, I believe). And enough talk about fair play, particularly when money has been taken out of the team for the past several years. Do your job Wenger and Kroenke, or give the reins to someone who will. 

P.S. I've read almost every post on the RvP situation and some have been good, some silly and some outright absurd, but this is one of the most level-headed and reasonable: I believe he is right in arguing that the stadium played a role in the strategy that emerged between 2006 and 2008, but he is also right in arguing that it is time for the club to start spending again and bring in a balance of young talent and established veterans.Finally, is this interesting piece that essentially makes ambition and money synonymous: While I don't fully agree -- we have made some disappointing signings and missed out on others that were within our range, I think the author has a point. Money increasingly rules in all sports, like in the rest of our lives.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Slightly Under the Radar Films

Today i thought I'd mention six movies I love that aren't necessarily part of the American filmography lexicon. They are not the greatest works ever put on celluloid, but are entertaining and certainly superior to watching the Star Wars, Harry Potter or Bourne series for the seventeenth time. 

1. Great Expectations (1998): for reasons I don't fully understand, this modernized reverb of the classic Dickens tale directed by a young Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, Solo Con Tu Pareja -- another sleeper that could easily be added to the list (slight but entertaining)), was skewered by most critics. It starred Gwyneth Paltrow, long before she became the most unbearable member of the most unbearable couple in the world today, and Ethan Hawke at the height of his talent, together with an impressive supporting cast that includes Hank Azaria, Robert De Niro and a great performance from Anne Bancroft as the insidious old maid Ms. Dinsmoor. The film is beautifully shot and acted and though it does suffer from stereotyped characters and sometimes tepid plot turns, I think the directing, acting and underlying story still shine through. And it does have the bonus of a stirring nude scene with Paltrow and some, to my eyes, interesting art.

2. Zero Effect (1997): released a year earlier, this directorial debut from Jake Kasdan includes a great turn from one of my favorite "character actors in average mainstream films" Bill Pullman. He plays quirky, brilliant detective Daryl Zero, along with sidekick lawyer/assistant Steve Arlo (played with deadpan brilliance by pre-Schlocky Ben Stiller) and love interest Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens). Zero is employed by rich scion Gregory Starks (in a nice turn by Ryan O'Neil) to find his keys, and the blackmailer who has something on him he won't share with the world's "best detective." The plot then builds around the budding romantic relationship between Zero and Sullivan, attempts to unravel the mysteries around Starks and the odd relationship between Zero and his assistant. The film is funny and clever and though slowly paced at times, a complaint of many critics, it shines as an example of innovative, art house fare with a focus on entertaining over art for art's sake.

3. Ghost Town (2008): while the critics loved this film, I know few people who ever heard of it. And that's a shame because it is a lovely mix of humor and pathos, employing the talents of Ricky Gervais to maximum potential. Here he plays a misanthropic dentist who lives a insular, miserable life that includes treating those around him as near annoyances. He goes in for a relatively standard procedure at the hospital, dies for seven minutes and comes out with the ability to see and hear ghosts, who it turns out are stuck on earth until they can resolve issues with loved ones. The irascible Bertram Pincus is soon charged by a bastard ghost and cheater named Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) with breaking up the engagement of his ex-wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) to Richard (Billy Campbell, more recently of The Killing). Pincus succeeds but of course falls for Gwen in the process. The film is moving without being too saccharine and is full of laughs, generally of the third-hand schadenfreude type. 

4. And Justice for All (1979): a great, well-received film for the late 70s that saw Al Pacino give one of his greatest performances as pragmatic idealist lawyer Arthur Kirkland trying to keep his integrity in the corrupt world that surrounds him. He is drawn into defending his archnemesis Judge Fleming (John Forsythe) after he is charged with a brutal rape and soon learns there is more to the case than he could have imagined. The film nicely blends humor, suspense and a brilliantly rendered critique of the legal system and the ways it can steal our humanity, and those who become trapped within its labyrinthine corridors. The film is also backed by nice supporting work from Jack Warden (as a suicidal judge), Jeffrey Tambor (as a lawyer who loses his mind) and Christine Lahti as the love interest who is idealistic in a completely contrary way to Arthur. 

5. Yi Yi (2000): this turn of the century film from Taiwanese master director Edward Yang is an intricately weaved tale of an extended family dealing with the major and minor tragedies of daily life. It again cleverly combines humor, drama and philosophical insights with lovely directing and cinematography employed not for dramatic appeal alone but aesthetic pleasure, without undermining the narrative. While In the Mood for Love (2000) is more beautifully shot from scene to scene, this film entertains from beginning to end with an inspirational and compelling narrative that meanders into interesting nooks and crannies without ever getting lost.

6. Sweet & Lowdown (1999): Woody Allen has had a rather surprising renaissance in the past decade with the success of Melinda Melinda (2004), Match Point (2005), Cassandra's Dream (2007), Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) and Midnight in Paris (2011). After a rather anemic 1990s, Allen rediscovered his mojo in this sparse vehicle for Sean Penn, as a brilliant but hapless Jazz Guitarist Emmet Ray, the second greatest in the world behind Django Reinhart. Allen perfectly captures the inner-workings of the artistic genius wasting his talent in boozing and womenizing while shunning the love that stands in front of him. It is a lovely bittersweet tale of the price of talent and genius, with some great music and plenty of laughs. 

Rather than offering great art films that could bore, here I have tried to highlight movies that you might have missed but that are definitely worth a viewing or two ...