Why The Avengers Worked (no spoilers!)

Saw the new 3D Avengers along with my 17-year-old daughter, and though neither of us is a comic book fan we found ourselves – begrudgingly – really enjoying the movie.  Of course, we are not alone:  this mega-franchise tent-pole has already grossed over $700 million worldwide, with $200.7 million domestic from opening weekend alone (setting a new record, natch).  Disney has already announced the development of a sequel, as any sane studio would.

Now, commercial clout is not the gold standard when it comes to quality (think Titanic and its dreadful script; the even more dreadful Twilight Franchise (though I liked Catherine Hardwicke’s take on the first one).  The real surprise of Avengers is how good the film actually is.  Joss Whedon has pulled off the seeming impossible, taking a confabulation of characters, some of whom already had their own “prequels,” and meshing them together in a film that has a coherent plot, a good script, snappy dialogue, and something we’ve lost for about the past 20 years:  character.

The “spine”, as William Goldman would say, is not the flashy effects, though they rival anything in recent CG history, including the execrable Transformers.  Kudos to ILM, Weta , Scanline VFX, Hydraulx, Fuel,, Evil Eye Pictures, Luma, Cantina Creative, Trixter, Modus FX, Whiskytree, Digital Domain, The Third Floor (previs and postvis), and Method Design ( for the killer 3D titles).  Janek Sirrs, who supervised VFX on Ironman, did an amazing job wrangling every FX house in Hollywood and beyond.  The final battle in New York uses 3D as more than a gimmick, especially with those Chitauri cruising through a wormhole on their sky-Skidoos.

However, none of this would matter a damn (see:  the first three Star Wars) if the characters were weak and/or interchangeable.   All of the actors involved do a superb job evoking their particular superhero, especially Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman.  This guy is so lithe you almost want to see him dance Fosse.  He makes an obnoxious, self-absorbed billionaire someone you actually care about.  He’s so good I could even stand Gwyneth Paltrow for the first time this century.

Chris Pine is wonderful as Captain America, and may have the best line in the film (regarding Norse god Loki):  “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.”  He absolutely captures a 40’s sensibility without belaboring the fact that he’s been on ice for 70 years.  The fish out of water broadness was apparently reserved for Dark Shadows, whose trailer makes it look cringeworthy.

Chris Helmsley hits just the right tone as the imperious Thor, and has the biceps to convince us he can hurl that hammer across worlds.  Mark Ruffalo is delightfully understated as Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk, making his transformation into a raging green monster that much more striking.  Watching him and Downey verbally spar over Tesseracts is one of the highlights of the film.

The auxiliary Avengers, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are perfect in rounding out the group.  Scarlett Johansson is dead-on as Russian spy Natasha Romanov, even speaking a mean Russian when we first meet her.  She kicks ass and takes no prisoners with the same aplomb as the guys.  Jeremy Renner is great as the initially brainwashed Hawkeye and he shoots every arrow like his life depends on it.  Augmenting the core is a sinister Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a comical Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, and even the acclaimed Jenny Agutter as a member of the World Council.   The British Tom Hiddleston could not be better as Loki:  Whedon chose his villain well.

What makes this movie stand out is that the Good Guys don’t get along initially.  In fact, they’re so disparate and egotistical that their arguments – and physical brawls – seem much more than trumped-up action beats.  Thor versus Ironman is a hoot, while Downey tells Pine, “Everything about you that’s special came out of a bottle.”  Everyone fears the unleashing of Hulk, which Ruffalo, as Banner, accepts with world-weary sarcasm.  Jackson, who spearheads the revived “Avengers Initiative,” is a slippery ally as he retains secrets of his own.  Johansson as a superspy is eminently believable when she wrests key info from Loki by playing on his arrogance.   The sexual interplay between Downey and Paltrow as Pepper Potts is fun without being a toss-off:  it seems real, not just a feeble nod toward having “a girl” in the picture.

Watching good actors with well-defined characters reciting literate dialogue is something I haven’t experienced since All About Eve (1950).  Unlike the Supermans, Spidermans, and – dare I say it – Batmans, this script doesn’t seem to strain or paint by numbers in reaching its set pieces and climax.  The final image (and I won’t give away any spoilers) is downright brilliant.  Someone, probably Whedon, actually sat down and thought about its impact.   It’s a nice finish to an excellent film.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not going to pretend that Avengers is Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd.  It’s just that compared to its comic book ilk, it’s a refreshing piece that delivers on all levels.  I thought that X-Men:  Last Stand was intriguing, but the story was an incoherent mess (ironically, Zak Penn, who wrote the story for this one, was the screenwriter on X-Men).   Alas, even James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence – who have all been great in other roles  — couldn’t save that one.

It’s nice to have a summer film, finally, which is more than just huge grosses and provides bonafide entertainment.  Hunger Games was excellent, but its dystopian story is a downer, to say the least.  Avengers is what a summer film should be:  fun, layered, well-written, awesome SPFX, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and leaves you wanting more.  It reminds me of Star Wars – the real one, Episode IV.  Something to infuse life back to the studio film.  Disney, you are hereby forgiven for John Carter.

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The Scourge Of Cancer

Brain Cancer Cell

Of course, the statistics are grim.  This year, 564,800 Americans are expected to die of cancer:  that’s more than 1,500 people a day.   It is the #2 national killer, right behind heart disease.  Amazingly, there are 8 million Americans alive today with some history of cancer.[1]  Men have a 1 in 2 risk for developing cancer in their lifetime – for women, it’s 1 in 3.  14% of diagnosed women will die this year from breast cancer – for men, it’s 29% from lung cancer.[2]

As a dual breast cancer survivor, I have a vested interest in the progress being made – or not – in finding a way to halt this scourge.  Over the past two years, I have not only personally had cancer, but have lost four friends:  each to a different form of the killer.  I am so so tired of getting the news that someone else has lost the struggle;  that we will never see them again.  Cancer recognizes no boundaries and has no respect for celebrity:  it can hit anyone, from the great( Ted Kennedy) to the small.  And whether or not you survive is up to a roll of metastasizing dice.  In other words, it’s a crapshoot.

Are there lifestyle changes you can make to increase your odds?  Obviously, stop smoking.  And don’t drink and smoke in excess.  Yes, heavy drinking can lead to cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, voice box, and esophagus. [3]  Try not to become obese (36% of adult Americans are).[4]   Don’t eat crap, especially red meat, preserved meat, and salt.  Don’t expose yourself excessively to the sun, since ultraviolet rays can lead to melanoma.[5]  Avoid intravenous drug use, as hepatitis B and C are major causes of liver cancer.[6]  Stay away from known carcinogens:  asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and nickel.  Get some goddamn exercise, since physical inactivity is linked to 30% of all colon, endometrial, kidney, and esophageal cancers, as well as 30% of breast cancers in older women.[7]

Of course, cancer treatment itself may cause further cancer, as with radiation.  I had thirty-five sessions, and really not much of a choice.  It might not surprise you that the top 16 countries for cancer are all in the West:  in other words, the US, and Europe.[8]  It is here that we’ve developed the sophistication of a toxic, polluted environment; a culture where everyone sits on their ass, eating Pringles and playing video games; and a capitalist economy utterly unconcerned with preserving health.

But here’s the important question:  are there any bright shining treatments peeking over the horizon?  As a matter, of fact, yes.  Let’s examine the future of chemo.  Right now, these drugs permeate the entire body, and that’s why your hair falls out (to chemo, a fast-growing cell is a fast-growing cell).  This therapy evolved from World War I and the then-legal toxin of mustard gas.  It is on an attack and destroy mission, and if the organism is killed in the process. . .oh well.   The next phase of chemo  may very well be targeted, or personal therapy:  “It is hoped that information about a patient’s proteomic, genetic and metabolic profile could be used to tailor medical care to that individual’s needs.”[9]  From Medicine’s mouth to God’s ears!!

Genetic research may very well point the way to a cure.   There is a new treatment which helps to persuade the immune system to destroy cancer cells.  So far, it’s been shown to shrink or cure human breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate tumors that have been transplanted into mice.[10]

Irving Weissman, one of the researchers, explains: “What we’ve shown is that CD47 isn’t just important on leukemias and lymphomas. It’s on every single human primary tumor that we tested… We showed that even after the tumor has taken hold, the antibody can either cure the tumor or slow its growth and prevent metastasis.”[11]  His group has just been granted $20 million to begin human testing.

A 2010 Cal Tech study has shown that nanoparticles (talk about science fictional!) can adhere to proteins associated with cancer, deliver medication, and turn off these bad proteins.  It’s called RNA interference and has been proved to work on people.[12]  Go, Cal Tech, go!

Perhaps the most amazing potential cure was refined by a 17-year-old high school student who won the national Siemens science contest and its $100,000 prize.  She deserves it.

Her theory is to mix cancer medicine in a polymer that would attach to nanoparticles — which would then attach to cancer cells and show up on an MRI.   Doctors could then see exactly where the tumors are.  Then she thought that if you aimed an infrared light at the tumors to melt the polymer and release the drugs, you could kill cancer cells without harming the healthy ones.  She has already proven her theory on mice.[13]

There’s another drug called DCA which kills cancer cells by disrupting the way they metabolize sugar, causing them to commit suicide.  Yet here, as always, is the problem:  it is a common, cheap drug, and not patentable.  Says Pharmacologist Omudhome Ogbru:  “Profit is the incentive for the risk that the company takes.  Without the promise of a reasonable profit, there is very little incentive for any company to develop new drugs.”[14]  Even though DCA has caused three patients to go into total remission from “incurable” cancers.  Naturally, this was in Canada not the money-mad U.S.

Not to be outdone, Israel is experimenting with a drug originally developed for stroke patients to kill cancerous cells. [15]    The Susan G. Komen Foundation has given tens of millions to promote research into BRCA1 & 2 mutations (the hereditary genes which cause breast cancer).  Since BC spreads to other organs 25% of the time, Komen is also investing in studying metastasies at the genetic level.[16]

So it’s not like Science is standing around playing with its Petri dishes.  All over the world, researchers are trying to beat the Big C  with swords made of molecular steel.  Someday, one of them will succeed.  Wouldn’t it be nice if they took the Dr. Salk approach and refused to issue a patent?  As Salk remarked about his polio vaccine, “Could you patent the sun?”  Here in the U.S., they’ll try.  Unless the discoverer is herself a cancer survivor.

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[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[11] Ibid

Is It So Wrong For –Everyone– To Have Health Care?

  The Republicans are trying their damnest to derail what they call “Obamacare” by having the Supreme Court declare certain portions unconstitutional.  It looks like troglodyte Scalia and c. are leaning toward doing just that.  Why not?  They get the finest healthcare in the land.

In the meantime, 50 million Americans have exactly zero health care insurance (that’s 1 in 6).[1]  Physician  Dr. George Lundberg said it best:  “The for-profit American health insurance industry — and many of those not-for-profit lookalikes — is a poster child for the triumph of poorly-regulated and misplaced capitalism in a historically fundamental service profession.”[2]

As a breast cancer survivor, I had approximately eight doctors at the same time.  Every single one of them despised the insurance system.  Here’s a typically insane example:  I needed a year’s worth of infusions of a life-saving drug called Herceptin.  HOWEVER, my insurance would not approve this treatment until it was proved that my white cell count was low.  I was going through chemo, and every single chemo patient’s white cell count drops, no exceptions.  Just a little ploy to put added stress on me.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act broached by Obama has already had a powerful effect.  Allowing young people up to 26 to stay on their parents’ plans has added 2.5 million to the ranks of the insured (at no cost to taxpayers). [3]  The Plan also provides that by 2014, insurers can’t deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.   This is unequivocally A GOOD THING.  If I happen to get cancer again (I’ve already had it twice) and I happen to get laid off (as I was when Washington Mutual melted in its pyroclastic flow), then I don’t have to die in a gutter, whimpering about “The Greatest Country On Earth.”

While documentarian and activist Michael Moore was making Sicko, his expose’ of the healthcare game, he discovered some interesting facts:[4]

  1. There are four times as many health care lobbyists as there are members of Congress.

  2. Canadians live three years longer than we do.

  3. In a study of older Americans and Brits, the Brits had less of almost every major disease. Even the poorest Brit can expect to live longer than the richest American.

  4. A baby born in El Salvador has a better chance of surviving than a baby born in Detroit.

  5. 18,000 Americans will die this year simply because they’re uninsured.

  6. The United States is ranked #37 as a health system by the World Health Organization.

It’s a picture of cheer, isn’t it?  Let’s look at some of the most egregious “denials of service” which have taken place recently:

  1. When 17-year-old college student Jerome Mitchell tested positive for HIV in 2002, his health insurance company retroactively annulled his coverage.  Happily, he was ultimately awarded $10 million.
  2. In 2002, a woman was denied coverage since rape was considered “a pre-existing condition.”  Interesting logic.
  3. In 2009, domestic violence qualified as a pre-existing condition in eight states and the District of Columbia.
  4. In 2008, shortly before Robin Beaton was scheduled to undergo a double mastectomy, her insurance company revoked her policy. Beaton, a breast cancer patient, never disclosed that she’d previously seen a dermatologist for acne, a condition her insurer, Blue Cross, said qualified as a pre-existing condition.   And acne is related to breast cancer because. . .?
  5. In 2007, CIGNA refused to pay for the liver transplant 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan because it was “too experimental.”   Due to public pressure, CIGNA reversed its decision but – oops!—too late:  Nataline died the same day.[5]

The state of Arizona and its fascist Governor Brewer has caused the death of two transplant candidates by cutting funds to their Medicaid organ transplant program. [6]  So if you’re an immigrant and need a transplant, please crawl  over the border and die!

On the other side of this issue lies the obscene salaries/benefits of America’s healthcare insurance execs.  Amazingly, THREE OF THEM make the Forbes 2012 List of Top 10 Highest Paid CEOs:

1.       Stephen Hemsley of UnitedHealth Group, whose one-year compensation totaled $48.8 million.

2.       Omicare’s CEO, with $98.3 million

3.       The Grand Daddy of them all, John Hammergren of McKesson Corp, who pulled in $145.3 million for compensation, according to the LA Times.

So can we assume that this business is profitable?  You bet your backless hospital gown it is!   “In the midst of a deep economic recession, America’s health insurance companies increased their profits by 56 percent in 2009, a year that saw 2.7 million people lose their private coverage.”[7]  To celebrate, Blue Cross of CA decided to raise its annual premiums by 39%.[8]  Those guys!

But perhaps the most insidious and distasteful aspect of this whole industry was revealed by the testimony of Linda Peeno before Congress.  Peeno, who had been a high-level Humana and Blue Cross/Shield case worker, confirmed that agents were given BONUSES for denying customers healthcare. Here are her powerful words:  “I contend that ‘managed care,’ as we currently know it, is inherently unethical in its organization and operation. Furthermore, I maintain that we have an industry which can exist only through flagrant ethical violations against individuals and the public.”[9]

So as the GOP tries its best to deny health insurance to as many people as possible; while families are shattered, emotionally and financially, by illnesses they cannot afford to treat; while fat cat for-profit execs luxuriate in the highest salaries in the nation,; our present system, corrupt to the core, continues to grind on.  Would it really be so terrible if every American had affordable health insurance, so we wouldn’t have to cringe in terror every time we were laid off?   Or is this considered as “Socialist” as Emma Goldman hurling a bomb?  Grow up, conservatives.  Let’s not fuck with people’s lives.  Let Capitalism out the back door so that benefits are available for all.

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Ladies – Listen To Me: GET A F***ING MAMMOGRAM!!

Last night, I heard a report on NPR which so enraged me that I thought I would go through the windshield.  A new study is apparently questioning the efficacy of women in their 40’s having yearly mammograms (which, BTW, is recommended by The American Cancer Society).  According to the geniuses behind this, only women at risk (i.e., those with dense breasts or a genetic predisposition to breast cancer) need have the test this “early.”  They can sit back and wait for their fifth decade before submitting to this admittedly awkward procedure.

Well, let me tell you a little story:  if I hadn’t had yearly mammograms in my 40’s, I would be dead right now.  Not once, but twice.  That’s D – E – A – D, TWICE.  And not a lump was ever to be seen.  Did I have a history of breast cancer among “a close relative – a mother, sister or daughter.”  NO.  I can go back to my great-grandmothers and tell you that not a one suffered from this malady.  Did I have particularly dense breasts?  I did have a history of fibroid tumors dating from my twenties, but most of them had shrunk in the ensuing decades.  Therefore, I was the person the solicitous doctors would have spared from mammography.  My only hope is that they would come visit me in a comfy corner of Mt. Sinai Cemetery, maybe on Moses Boulevard.

BREAST CANCER #1.  The year was 2007, and I was 48.  I breezed into The Breast Cancer Center in Bellevue, WA, expecting the same old boring result.  Instead, there was a Stage 0 tumor in situ in my right breast.  It was so deep it could not even be detected by the mammogram.  The doctors noticed that something had changed (which saved my life) and it was via a subsequent ultrasound that the cancer was discovered.

There followed:  surgery, and a radiation therapy called Mammosite, which blasts x-rays directly onto the tumor site via catheter.   A mere five days, twice a day, and the catheter was removed.  I returned to my daily life.

BREAST CANCER #2.  The year was 2010.  I was 51.  Just a smidge past my forties, but, having had breast cancer, I underwent  mammograms once a year – and, for at least two years, twice.   Everything was hunky dory.  There was virtually no chance that Stage 0 cancer would return.  But my left breast threw me a curveball:  this time, I had aggressive Stage 2 cancer (completely unrelated to the first), and what was worse, it had gotten into my lymph nodes.  A visible lump?  Nyet.  Again, the mammogram was indeterminate and an ultrasound was required.

This time, even I could see the tumor floating on its black background of normal tissue.  This time, I had the Full Monty of Therapy:  Surgery (on both breasts, since scar tissue had developed on the right); chemotherapy (which put me in the hospital for six days), a year’s worth of Herceptin injections (since I was HER-2 positive); and thirty-five sessions of radiation – the real thing, delivered by a machine the size of a spaceship.  Oh yeah, I went bald.  Oh yeah, I am on the cancer med Femara for the next five years.  But here’s the crucial point:  I AM ALIVE.

Had I listened to the well-meaning doctors behind the current study, I would not be writing this.  I would have left behind a very sad seventeen-year-old, two orphaned dogs, and a bunny.  So I beg you, ladies, literally from the bottom of my heart:  HAVE A FUCKING MAMMOGRAM.  HAVE ONE EVERY YEAR, THROUGHOUT YOUR FORTIES, regardless of your doctor’s advice.   If your insurance won’t pay for it, they are offered FREE or at low-cost through state Medicaid (as are pelvic exams and PAP smears).   Please go to this web site, http://breastcancer.about.com/od/Free-Stuff-Cancer/tp/Find-Free-Mammograms.htm, and find the facility closest to you.  These are not Third World  clinics:  the FDA inspects them annually.

This may be the most important advice you ever receive.  I’m not saying that cancer treatment is a good time, but it does beat the alternative.  Currently, one in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer.  That figure is expected to rise to one in five.  It’s not the automatic killer it used to be, provided there is early detection.  Hey, I’m minus thirteen lymph nodes, but I can still write this blog!  Do yourself – and the people who love you – a favor.  Hair can grow back (mine is currently shoulder-length, and I started from a baseline of zero).  But life is not renewable (reincarnation aside).

Listen to the American Cancer Society.  Oddly, they know a little something about cancer.  Even if you can’t stay cancer-free, at least be a Survivor.  You get to wear a cool pink shirt at the Susan G. Komen Race For The Cure.  And they even give you a medal.

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