28 May 2008

"Loitering with Intent: The Child" by Peter O'Toole

Loitering with Intent: The Child
Written by Peter O'Toole

Cover price: $12.95
198 pages

Finding a used copy of Peter O'Toole's Loitering with Intent: The Child at Half Price Books for a quarter was too attractive to pass up.  The Child is the first of two volumes; the second, The Apprentice, covers O'Toole's rise as an actor.  The Child, as its title suggests, focuses instead on O'Toole's childhood, spent under Hitler's bombs.

The material is fascinating, from his bookie dad, Captain Pat O'Toole, and his shady compatriots to his flagrant hatred of being sent to a non-Catholic school as a child.  Concurrent with O'Toole's account of his own life, he provides a biographical study of Adolf Hitler, a figure who clearly loomed large for young Peter.  In fact, one may well leave The Child feeling they've learned more about Hitler than O'Toole himself.  It is a reminder for those who have come after the great war just how awesome was its devastation, even for those who were never part of the holocaust.The writing style and structure are incredibly dense, especially for an American who doesn't speak much British slang.  O'Toole's thoughts play entirely as stream of consciousness; there are no chapters, no effort at organizing the material either chronologically nor thematically.  When a memory of childhood occurred to him, it appears that's what he wrote; if that triggered a thought from his later life, then that went in next.  These might be followed by an anecdote about the Fuhrer (thankfully, at least, the Hitler stuff is mostly chronological, if random).  This, on top of the fact that many of O'Toole's sentences ramble and take on a life all their own.

Fans of O'Toole the actor will not find much of interest in The Child, though fans of O'Toole the man will find it fascinating.  It is more valuable, though, as the memoirs of a man who lived through the Luftwaffe's bombing of England as a young Irish boy.  Even had he never gone on to play T.E. Lawrence or anything else of cinematic importance, these memories alone make for compelling reading and contribute a sincere and candid point of view to the historical record of World War II.

24 May 2008

"Who Censored Roger Rabbit?" by Gary Wolf

Who Censored Roger Rabbit?
Written by Gary Wolf
214 pages
Oldham County Public Library

While browsing at the Oldham County Public Library, a facility I have come to greatly appreciate in recent months, I stumbled upon a hardback copy of Gary Wolf's Who Censored Roger Rabbit? Having been a fan of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I thought I ought to read this novel.

Fortunately for me, I am not one of those people who are disappointed when a novel and film bear little resemblance to one another. Aside from the scenario of Private Eye Eddie Valiant investigating Roger Rabbit, who is implicated in a homicide, precious little of what Gary Wolf wrote can be found in the film. And, to be honest, it is the novel that is the more rewarding story. Roger is actually murdered, but has created a doppleganger of himself who survives to investigate. The doppel exists proportionate to the energy that went into creating him, and Roger worked very hard at establishing him. That buys him enough time to work with Valiant to find out not only who killed the real Roger, but the truth about the murder of Rocco DeGreasey, the guy who owned Roger's contract and wouldn't let him out of it. He's also the guy that Jessica Rabbit really had a relationship with, and all evidence points to Roger as his killer.

Wolf's writing is easy to read, and the plot is interesting; even more so for someone who has seen the film first, and turns each page wondering if anything from that version will surface. Benny the car? Movie only. The Judge? Movie. The Weasels? Movie. Baby Herman? He actually is in the novel, but only briefly. There is no deed to Toon Town; in fact, there is no Toon Town. Everything happens in real life L.A., and in its own way, the novel is even more absurd than the film because of this. As a mystery, it is quite compelling, and the finale is genuinely surprising. Recommended for those with a sense of whimsy and a few free hours; I managed to read it in its entirety across the span of yesterday afternoon and evening, taking time to eat and watch No Reservations throughout. If I can do it that quickly, a more dedicated reader should be able to knock it out in about the time it takes to watch the vastly different film version.

23 May 2008

Film: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Story by George Lucas & Jeff Nathanson
Screenplay by David Koepp
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Shia LaBoef
Theatrical Release Date: 22 May 2008

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Adventure Violence and Scary Images)


Aside from being generally fun, if at times too cute and predictable, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a crucible for studying the two filmmakers responsible for it: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  The opening sequence, with impetuous teens racing a military convoy, is pure Lucas, calling to mind American Graffiti, Speeder Bikes and that entirely-too-long podrace.  Indy is betrayed early on in the film, and becomes the victim of McCarthyism, his patriotism and allegiance to Uncle Sam questioned by the FBI.  This is vintage Spielberg; he's reminded us of the horrors of World War II, and now he holds up the 1950s as a mirror for our modern day political anxieties.  Romping around the globe, tracking a kidnapped colleague of Indy's...the middle of the film is pure, vintage Indy.

Once the film reaches its third act, however, it becomes apparent that this was the big thing that George Lucas was obsessed with enough to chase off the reportedly magnificent script turned in by Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont a few years ago.  At the risk of spoiling things, the rumors that Lucas insisted the film deal with sci-fi elements are entirely true.  In fact, at one point in the middle of the film, while finding out what the Russians are after, Indy himself derides it with a crack about "saucer men from Mars," which was at one point the title Lucas wanted. Yet, when one contemplates the previous Indiana Jones films, it becomes a question that each of us as fans must answer: Why should the Crystal Skull payoff leave us so different from, say, the Covenant of the Ark payoff?  Or, for that matter, the Holy Grail payoff?  

Surely, those film endings were supernatural and based only loosely on anything "real," too.  No one has ever found either artifact, and chances are, if and when they should turn up, they won't do what those movies depicted them doing.  No, the real problem with this film is that it's too distinctively split.  Even a mostly casual fan of Lucas's and Spielberg's will immediately identify the parts of the film that were scripted to appease each director.  Lucas may have created Indiana Jones, but it is clear that it is Spielberg who sees the character the way the audience sees him.

21 May 2008

"The Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1" by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

The Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1
Written by: Stan Lee

Art by: Jack Kirby

The Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 collects the first twenty issues of Fantastic Four, along with Fantastic Four Annual 1, all originally published between 1962 and 1963, all written by Stan Lee and pencilled by Jack Kirby. To make the volume cost-efficient for Marvel Comics, the artwork has only been republished in black and white, cheating us of the doubtless brilliant colors that made Kirby's pencils so awesome to readers forty years ago. Because Kirby's pencils were meant to be colored, the text balloons and artwork become taxing on the reader; it is entirely unlike reading a volume that was meant to be published in black & white, such as Jeff Smith's Bone or Frank Miller's Sin City.

One thing that becomes apparent while reading this collection is that Lee and Kirby were not afraid to go back to the well often. Over half the collected twenty-one issues feature either Dr. Doom or Namor, the Sub-Mariner; a couple of issues feature both. Ben Grimm (a.k.a. "The Thing") frequently is transformed back to his human self, only to revert back and start again his ranting of how much he loathes Reed Richards for talking him into going into space in the first place. Modern day readers will either laugh or cringe when Lee focuses any attention on Sue Storm, who busies herself with cleaning and shopping, apologizing for not being very useful in combat situations and generally representing the docile female stereotype of the era.

Still, under all that are some genuinely original story ideas. Each villain, be it the Mole Man or the Puppet Master, Dr. Doom or Namor, has his own clear, understandable motivation for confronting the Fantastic Four. Each of the heroic quartet has his or her own ambitions and ideas about what to do with his or her powers, and although each issue is resolved by Reed Richards formulating a brilliant and hasty plan of action, it always seems a little fresh. Of course, these ideas have been gone back to a thousand times over since they were first employed, but there is something to be said for reading them in their original context. Watch Dr. Doom launch the Baxter Building into space...the first time! Watch the FF stymied by the Skrulls...the first time!

It's all very fun, and the only real complaint is that the black & white treatment makes reading it something of a chore. The artwork isn't clean enough for a black & white treatment, and it's an outright shame, too. Reading the work of such masters as Lee & Kirby as they establish Marvel Comics should be a thorough joy, and not the kind of thing that a reader sets down frequently to rest his eyes.

"Marvel 1602" Written by Neil Gaiman

Marvel 1602
Written by Neil Gaiman
Pencils by Andy Kubert
Digitally painted by Richard Isanove
Covers by Scott McKowen
Date of Publication: 8 March 2006
Cover Price: $19.99
248 Pages
Oldham County Public Library

I should preface this response by confiding that I have always been a DC reader and not a Marvel reader, and so begins a recent foray into reading works published by the House of Ideas. This is the first of three Marvel projects I have recently read, courtesy of the Oldham County Public Library.

Marvel 1602 posits the principal characters of the Marvel Universe as 1602 versions of themselves. The same themes--persecution of mutants, dual identity issues, questions of loyalty, individuality vs. teamsmanship, etc.--are still there, and the heart and soul of the characters are still clearly present. Nick Fury, Dr. Strange, Peter Parker, the Fantastic Four, Professor X and the X-Men; they're all instantly recognizable. And yet, there is something to be said for this interpretation of characters, where none of the "real" continuity matters; author Neil Gaiman was entirely free to explore the pure nature of these characters and their universe. Indeed, Gaiman prefaces this collection by explaining that it was his first post-September 11th work, and that he wished to get away from the real world for a while, to strip these characters down to their essence and enjoy the things they have to offer us as readers, which is inspiration.

The plot is fairly straightforward: The Spanish Inquisition, run by a 1602 version of Magneto is hunting down mutants and enters into a conspiracy with Count Otto von Doom and Scottish King James against English Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth's right and left-hand men, Dr. Steven Strange and 1602's Nick Fury, must pool their resources in face of this growing threat. Driving the entire thing is a supernatural weapon that only an old monk knows about, and everyone is trying to get their hands on it. Eventually, the warfare chases the Queen's protectors and their forces out of Europe and into what would one day become the United States.

As a mystery, and as an adventure, Gaiman has succeeded quite well in crafting an engaging and fascinating tale. Being a Marvel newbie, I was able to instantly follow the entire story, and even to recognize most of the characters immediately. Taken in the context of a post-September 11 story, Marvel 1602 suggests that perhaps we've become too narrow-minded about seeing our modern day selves as the extent of the story. These battles between "good" and "evil" were fought four hundred years ago, and will be fought four hundred years henceforth. The messages are clear: Don't fear today's battle; realize it is part of a larger war; take comfort in and inspiration from its heroes.

19 May 2008

Biologics

Following my overpriced hotel excursion (as I've taken to referring to my recent hospitalization), it was determined that I should begin Remicade. I was given the appropriate paperwork to qualify for treatments from the manufacturer, my wife's employer had agreed I could receive my treatments at their urgent care center, and it was pretty much a given that by the end of this month I would have begun. Then, about two weeks ago I met with my actual GI doctor and had a chance to really discuss treatment options.He agreed with me that I should hold off. Our reasoning is two-fold: 1) The Prednisone and Imuran seem to be working for now and 2) The Prednisone and Imuran seem to be working for now. That's not a typo, in case you're thinking I've mistakenly just repeated myself. No, by that I mean firstly that the steroid/immunosuppressant tag team I've been using has cleared the obstruction that put me in the hospital. More importantly, because they're working now, there's no immediate need to move onto a biologic.

The GI doctor I was assigned while at Norton Suburban Hospital (Dr. Martin Mark) is of the mind that Crohn's patients should pretty much start their treatment by going on a biologic. He's not alone in this mentality; many GIs are favoring the "Top Down" approach, meaning they favor using a bazooka to deal with a fly. I don't mean to disparage a genuine medical philosophy, but it is not one I (or, it turns out, my GI) share. Here's why:

Firstly, there are only four biologics in existence right now (Remicade, Humira, Cimzia and Tisabre). There may not be any more for quite some time, so we must approach any decisions to move on to such treatment as limited to those four for at least the next several years. Cimzia, you may or may not know, was not approved for use in treating Crohn's or colitis patients by the FDA's European counterpart. The FDA, however, did approve it for patients for whom other options have failed. I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly won over by what I've heard and read about Cimzia. As far as I'm concerned, it's not a treatment option that I consider on the table at this point. Should I exhaust everything else, I will naturally revise this doctrine, but for now I consider Cimzia a non-option.

That leaves Remicade, Humira and Tisabre, and I'm not entirely clear how approved Tisabre is at this point. So now I'm left with Remicade and Humira; Remicade is the one that they seem to start everyone on first, because it's cheaper. Now, the thing is that Remicade has a high success rate (80% of patients go into at least some state of remission within a year according to the most recent data I saw). However, there are patients who reject Remicade outright, and up to 20% eventually develop a tolerance to it that renders it useless to them. Once your body no longer responds to Remicade, it never will again.

So, owing to all this, I believe that my GI doctor (Jonathan Goldstein at University of Louisville) and I have reasonably determined that I should not, at this time, begin Remicade treatment. I have to say, I feel more comfortable about not starting it at this point than I felt about the prospect of being on it. I feel that Dr. Goldstein's "Bottom-Up" approach to treatment is more sensible than Dr. Mark's "Top-Down" approach, and I feel it leaves me more usable options to consider later, as needed.I would appreciate (as I always would) hearing about your similar experiences. Does your GI favor a Bottom-Up or Top-Down approach to treating your condition? Which do you find more reasonable? Any other thoughts, questions or suggestions are also welcome.

05 May 2008

Geek Thoughts

It's late and I'm blogging really just to purge my head of some random thoughts I meant to jot down earlier in the hopes I'll be able to go to bed in the next few minutes.


Last year, Hasbro marked the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars with a line of action figures that came packed with silver coins.  In the last couple of months, a running change has been made whereupon said coins have been replaced by action figure stands.  Whilst shopping at Target this weekend, I came upon a solitary remaining Anakin Skywalker's Spirit figure (capturing Hayden Christensen's controversial retcon cameo in Return of the Jedi).  I was pleased to find one, since I had previously passed on one at Toys "R" Us a few months back, thinking at the time they'd be easy to find.  In the time it took my wife to try on a couple of items, however, I discovered that someone had tampered with Anakin; specifically, they'd cracked open the bubble, cracked open the bubble under the bubble, removed the newly issued stand and re-glued the bubble.  Why?  In all likelihood, it was a completist who couldn't stand the thought of not having both the coin and stand for the figure, and couldn't stand the thought of paying $7 twice for the same figure.


It's tempting to be angry with Hasbro, since they should have known such behavior would be the consequence of their running change.  However, I will not blame Hasbro for such behavior.  Star Wars collectors are, in my experience, the most hardcore of all geeks; they take their blind, unwavering support to such an extreme that it seems all they do is complain about how much they hate all things Star Wars.  Think about the last time you talked about the Prequel Trilogy with a Fan (note the capital "f"): Chances are, he/she had explicitly detailed complaints, but somewhere in the over-long rant, you realized that he/she couldn't imagine a world in which he/she had not gone to the theater thirteen times to see the very film about which he/she spent half an hour complaining.


No, there's something about Star Wars collecting that brings out the worst in too many people.  It's not enough to find a Slave Leia; you need to buy all three that were just stocked.  Sure, you already have Yoda on a red card, but now he's on a green card...oh, crap!  Now he's on a green card with a hologram sticker!  It is truly sickening, and my recent Anakin experience was an unfortunate reminder why I abandoned collecting these figures a decade ago.


I will readily confess, though, that I did still buy three figures (Biker Scout and Boba Fett re-issues and an Episode III Clone Trooper re-deco), and I very excitedly filled out the necessary form to order a Clone Wars Sneak Preview Captain Rex figure.  Like I explained to my wife, there is simply nothing cooler than mail-away redemption toys.  You order it, you forget about it, and then two months later, BAM!  In the mailbox amongst bills and spam you have an action figure.  It was cool when I was five, and it's cool now.  It'll always be cool.


Speaking of things that should be cool, iTunes has just made available a trailer for the forthcoming film adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit.  Knowing this was in the offing, I recently checked out The Best of The Spirit from the Oldham County Public Library.  Not only did I check it out, I actually read the thing!  (People who know my reading habits will be impressed; others will wonder why I bother to mention such things; I will wonder why people who aren't familiar with my reading habits are reading my blog.)  I will say now what I expect most Eisner readers have taken for given: Those were some of the most interesting short stories I've ever read from the funnybooks.


If you consider yourself a fan of short fiction, comic books, comic strips or even simple literature, you should check out The Best of The Spirit.  It's an anthology of stories, each of which runs precisely seven pages.  The Spirit himself is not particularly well developed throughout the collection, and his early sidekick is sure to alarm anyone with racial sensitivities.  Still, when one considers that the sidekick (whose name escapes me) was originally published in 1940s strips, it becomes easier to characterize as an unfortunate sign of the times.


Beyond that, though, the storytelling is fast-paced and yet in seven simple pages, Eisner crafts an entire world.  My best characterization would be to imagine if O. Henry collaborated with Frank Miller; the stories are compelling, the characters interesting, the situations absorbing, the dangers real and the women all those things and more.  It is fitting, then, that Miller should direct the film adaptation of The Spirit.  His interpretation of the Battle at Thermopylae notwithstanding, I have always respected Frank for the stand that he took for creator rights and the way he has really been a torch-keeper for the industry.  Sometimes he makes me squeamish with his work, but I also feel he's the most important individual to impact comic books of my generation.


There.  I think I've purged enough thoughts to finally go to bed.  If I should fail in my endeavour, I will likely be back on to blog until I can't see straight.  If you're reading this, or have read any of my other blogs, be sure to offer feedback of some kind.  I keep posting these things, and I keep seeing that you're reading them, but I have no idea who you are or what you get out of my blog.  All writers--even us amateur bloggers--like to have an idea who their audience is, and what their audience is looking to find in their work.  Let me know: Do you prefer blogs like this, where I discuss my own experiences, or do you prefer the more perfunctory ones, like the last few describing forthcoming summer film festival schedules?  What should I do more/less?  Think about it, and let me know.

01 May 2008

My Latest Hero

I was discharged from the hospital two weeks ago yesterday. I am just now beginning to consistently feel back to my version of "normal." Sometime a couple days ago, after cleaning out one cabinet of the entertainment center completely exhausted me, I had an epiphany. A couple of months ago, my wife and I spent the best $38 we've paid for anything in our lives and had our cat, Muffin, neutered. When we picked him up, he was so doped up he could have passed for dead. He was so out of it--even after they gave him whatever stimulant it was they give post-op critters--that we had him in his carrier in the bed with us that night, just to make sure he was safe and we could get to him quickly if needed.

Within about 24 hours of having his anatomy severed, however, Muff was leaping on to the desk to look out the window and yell at the birds. He was tentative about things for another day or so, true, but he wasn't slowed down much, or for long. It'll have been three weeks ago Sunday that I went into the emergency room. Three weeks--and I wound up not having surgery! I've never been neutered (despite what my brother will tell you), but somehow I expect that were I to endure such a procedure, I would not bounce back from it half as well as our cat. It's given me pause to think: Why would I, a human being posessed of self-consciousness, take so much longer to get over something?

I have two ideas: 1) Maybe he just played through the pain that well and 2) Maybe not thinking about it helps. Since I haven't mastered the Vulcan mind meld, I'll never know how much pain he's pushed himself through to recover so well. That leaves "not thinking about it" as a lesson learned. Based, then, on my cat recovering much more quickly to surgery than I have to not having surgery, my advice to you, dear reader, is to think less about things. Or should you think more about other things....?