There's been a lot of talk about meningitis B lately. That's the type of responsible for outbreaks at Princeton and the University of California in Santa Barbara.
And it got us thinking. How come this form of the illness isn't fazed by the vaccines given routinely to most young people in the U.S.?
This week, Princeton is administering an imported vaccine not approved for general use in this country, with special permission from the Food and Drug Administration.
The vaccine, called Bexsero, is fairly new. Swiss drug giant Novartis, which manufactures the vaccine, completed clinical trials early last year, and got approval to sell the vaccine in Europe last November.
It turns out that the meningitis B bacteria are tricky little things. They have a sugar coating that's very similar to sugars found on the surface of certain cells in the human brain and body.
Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of Emory University's vaccine center, says this sugar coating complicates the development of an effective meningitis B vaccine.
The older, more common vaccine (which protects against strains A, C, W-135 and Y) works by training the body's immune cells to recognize the sugar on the meningitis-causing bacteria as something bad, Orenstein tells Shots.
The same approach won't work for the B-type bacteria.
When immune cells encounter the meningitis B sugar coating, they're more likely to identify it as belonging to a friend rather than a foe, Orenstein says. They're used to seeing the same sugar all over the human cells.
There are ways to teach our immune system that the meningitis B coating is bad, but that could be risky, he says. In the hunt for meningitis bacteria, the immune system could start attacking human cells by mistake.
The obvious solution is to train the immune system to recognize meningitis B by some other characteristic. But there are hundreds of strains, and sometimes the only thing they all have in common is that darned sugar coating.
Dr. Andrin Oswald, head of Novartis' vaccine and diagnostics unit, says researchers analyzed the genes of hundreds of meningitis B strains before they found a few chemicals that most of the strains seemed to share.
"But substrates are different around the globe," Oswald tells Shots. And even within a single country, the meningitis strains can change over time. Even so, some protection is better than none, and Oswald says he hopes the FDA will approve Bexsero for broader use in the U.S. sometime soon.
Oswald says the Novartis vaccine protects against at least 70 percent of meningitis B strains — and up to 95 percent of strains in some countries.
The most common side effects include fever, sleepiness and pain at the site of injection.
So Bexsero's not perfect. But Emory's Orenstein says at the moment the Novartis vaccine seems like the best bet. "I think it's as good as we can get for now," he says. "Certainly if I had a kid at Princeton, I'd want my kid to get the vaccine."
Peter Jackson's decision to turn the single volume of The Hobbit into a three-film epic — with a total running time nearly as long as his adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy — was met with considerable skepticism. Did Tolkien's relatively slight book really have enough story to justify stretching it out that much?
The second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, makes it clear that the three-chapter treatment has little to do with making adequate room to fully adapt Tolkein's story — or even, as some have argued, to include material from the original trilogy's considerable appendices. The extra time, it becomes increasingly clear, is primarily about the considerable embellishments devised by Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing. A little infidelity in the process of adaptation can make the material fresh for even the most fervent fans of a classic, and the skill with which this team employed strategic cuts, additions, and composited characters in the original trilogy was part of what made Lord of the Rings work so well.
But as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the company of dwarves continue their quest to reach the Lonely Mountain, confront the dragon Smaug, and return Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to his rightful role of King under the Mountain, it becomes clear that the process of adapting the novel for the screen has mostly become one of padding the source material with extra battles, utterly unnecessary romantic subplots, and material culled from those appendices to give Gandalf more screen time after he leaves the primary quest.
This all essentially serves to distract from the fact that all that really happens in the film is that the company manages to eventually reach the mountain. Sure, they're waylaid in the elven realm of Mirkwood — and the human Lake Town — for a little while on the way. But there's no particular arc here, just nearly three hours of bludgeoning rising action, culminating in a battle sequence invented by the filmmakers to provide an artificial climax.
It often feels as if Jackson and company spent time focus-grouping the previous films, then inserting favorite bits where the source material lacks adequate fan service. So Legolas (Orland Bloom) shows up here, firing arrows while skating dashingly through throngs of foes; we get a new female elven warrior and love-triangle corner in Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly); there's Morgul-weapon poisoning, kingsfoil pharmaceuticals, and orcs attacking whenever the director needs another action set-piece. At some point, The Desolation of Smaug starts to feel like Peter Jackson as lounge act, serving up his greatest hits.
If we didn't know he was capable of so much better, the film might seem more passable. The action sequences are admittedly thrilling; the giant forest spiders here may be even more fearsome than Return of the King's Shelob. They're expertly choreographed, even if the barrel-ride river escape stretches the bounds of plausibility even for a fantasy film. And Jackson's penchant for dizzying camera movement and disorienting Dutch angles, along with the always stunning New Zealand-as-Middle Earth setting, still make for dazzling eye candy.
But the movie is at its best when Jackson dials down the bombast and goes for tension, or when he lets Martin Freeman's performance carry the day. Freeman simply gets the duality of hobbits, that nervous reticence hiding a deep well of bravery, better than anyone who's yet donned those hairy feet. Just as the first Hobbit film plateaued with Bilbo's game of riddles with Gollum, here the strongest scene is his interaction with the dragon Smaug, a cunning and beautifully rendered marriage of digital artistry and the seductively evil voice of Benedict Cumberbatch.
Unfortunately, moments like those are far too few, especially in a movie this long, and it often feels like the movie's title character is marginalized in his own story. Jackson wants to make The Hobbit exist on the same massive scale as his previous Tolkein adaptations, but the aesthetic of always more and always bigger tends to overshadow this diminutive hero.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
That endlessly quoted line from Joan Didion's The White Album echoes with more than the usual resonance for the two adversaries duking it out for control over the movie adaptation of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks.
For 20 years Walt Disney, reportedly on his young daughters' say-so, had tried to wrestle a green light from P. L. Travers, who wrote the original novels about the discipline-minded governess who flew in through a London window to save a troubled family from itself.
In 1961, Travers flew from London to Los Angeles, invited by Disney to work for two weeks with writer Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers on the script and the score. Uncle Walt was hoping for compliance, but like Mary Poppins, Travers was no pushover. In fact she was a stubborn, argumentative piece of work.
Travers wrote tough-minded literature; the Disney machine made uplifting entertainment. Not to disparage either, but Travers' Mary Poppins was no Julie Andrews. She was an implacable termagant armed with a much tougher brand of love than Disney was prepared for. Anyone who really knew the character, or the author, might have predicted that this effort to mix oil and water would end in tears.
Saving Mr. Banks does end in tears, but they're Disney tears, as befits a movie about Disney made by Disney. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't see this beguiling piece of pop storytelling, built on half-truths whipped into shape for a storybook ending that never was.
That's pretty much what you'd expect from the humane if expertly commercial hand of John Lee Hancock, who did the same for the fact-based The Blind Side, in which, come to think about it, Sandra Bullock was her own kind of Poppins, a bossyboots savior throwing her weight around for the greater good. Like the Mary Poppins film Disney would eventually serve up, Saving Mr. Banks is an affable, enjoyable spoonful of sugar that sweetens into palatability the sinus-clearing bite of the books — and the implacable iron lady who wrote them.
To have a dragon like Mary Poppins on your side was a big thrill for us kids growing up in post-Depression, post-War England. She may have been the T-Rex of British nannies, but she was a protector and a believer in kids' ability to look out for themselves. There was more than a little of both in Travers, who's played in the movie by Emma Thompson, a vision in pursed lips, hair permed within an inch of its life, and the clipped syllables of a rigid defender of the Queen's English. Queen Victoria, most likely.
Revered and lusted after this side of the Atlantic as the blooming rose of Howard's End, Sense and Sensibility, and Love, Actually, Thompson has far more kick to her when she mines the rich vein of fearsome British educators, like her warty Nanny McPhee or the quietly anti-Semitic headmistress in An Education — a gorgon so like my own girls'-school principal that I left the theater shaking.
Yet Thompson's schoolmarms always carry a barely suppressed undertow of fragility. So too her spinsterish Pamela Travers, a famous but cash-strapped author who's a pill-popping neurotic beneath her cool poise. This Travers curls her lip at the giant Mickey Mouse placed in her hotel room by way of welcome, only to cry herself to sleep later, clutching him to her neglected bosom.
Never mind that in real life Travers had a lively romantic history with both men and women, and raised an adopted son alone. She was anything but the prim, lonely virgin, forever on the brink of hysteria, that the movie makes her out to be.
By every account she was no picnic either — so by way of sympathetic explanation, Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith supply her with a plausible if awkwardly wedged-in back story. In flashbacks to her itinerant childhood in Australia, we learn that Mrs. Travers is neither Mrs., nor Travers, nor British by birth; she papered over a host of childhood sorrows with a self-invented construct.
As a child she was Helen Goff, a willing captive to her charming, feckless father (Colin Farrell, to the manner born), a failed bank manager and raging alcoholic who corralled his daughter into becoming his enabler and co-dreamer.
The movie draws neat and possibly accurate parallels between Travers' characters and the real-life people who helped and hurt the author as a little girl — among them a practical Aunt Ellie, played by the great Rachel Griffiths, who brings forth potted plants from a carpetbag and ... well, you know.
Walt Disney, played by an avuncular, subtly conniving Tom Hanks in slicked-down hair and a toothbrush mustache, gets his own Bad Dad back story too. But Disney has reinvented himself as the ultimate upbeat American, and he wants this glum Brit to toe the line.
He'd ultimately like her to be happy — Disney wanted everyone happy, or else — but he's also a wily businessman who exploits his own sad tale to get Travers to sign on for creative changes she hated. (Among them: that giddy suffragette mother, and Dick van Dyke in the role of Bert the chimney sweep. Let's not talk about the dancing penguins, which filled Travers with more bile than she could stomach.)
Interviewed recently in The New York Times, the surviving Sherman brother didn't remember his encounter with the holy terror very fondly. There are tapes of their sessions to back him up, yet the movie's funniest and sweetest scenes play out in the culture clash between Travers and the brothers, played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman.
Here as elsewhere — I could have done without Travers' relentlessly sunny driver, played, of all people, by Paul Giamatti — Hancock packs on the schmaltz. So far as I can tell, though, there's only one genuine potential whopper in Saving Mr. Banks. It comes right at the end, when Travers breaks down in tears at the glitzy Hollywood premiere, to which she had to invite herself because Walt Disney feared that she might make a scene.
In the movie, she's crying with relief at having her awful childhood symbolically turned into uplift. The historical record here is ambiguous, though by many accounts Travers actually went to pieces because she loathed the way Disney had bowdlerized her work. Certainly she gave no more permissions until 1994, when Cameron Mackintosh came cap in hand for his Broadway musical adaptation.
Were he alive today, Walt Disney would have kvelled over the ending of Saving Mr. Banks. For her part, Travers would have rolled her eyes, or maybe filed suit. In one sense, Disney won — but do stay for the credits, which come with a mischievous but, I like to think, loving tribute to the obstinate battle-axe who made his life miserable, and his blockbuster movie possible.