Thursday, April 29, 2010

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

When Freakonomics was published in 2006, I gulped it down in a single sitting. Then I dipped back into it, savoring its provocative blend of anecdote and analysis. Although I've always been intrigued by the 'dismal science' of economics, in Freakonomics, I was also entertained, especially with Levitt & Dubner's unusual choice of examples ranging from Sumo wrestling to drug-dealing to the effects of legalized abortion on crime rates. Because of this, I check out the Freakonomics Blog on a daily basis, and I subscribe to the Freakonomics podcast. In other words, I am a certifiable Freakonomics freak.

So, when Superfreakonomics was published last year, I snapped it up. As with the previous book, I devoured it in a single sitting and then went back through it again, with a more critical eye.

I have read lots of books once. When I take the time to read a book twice, that's saying something. And my second readings are usually slower and more analytical as I pay attention to factors like how a book is structured. So what I'm saying here is that Superfreakonomics passes my first criteria of worthiness: it's worth at least twice the time it takes me to finish it. But there are other reasons I recommend reading this book, and not all of them are favorable to Levitt & Dubner.

Like their first book, in Superfreakonomics, Levitt & Dubner once again use unusual -- and often counterintuitive -- anecdotes to illustrate their basic economic argument, which they conveniently provide in the book's preface:
"People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences."
This argument, which also animated Freakonomics, is nothing new. But, as I said, in Superfreakonomics, Levitt & Dubner elaborate their argument with unusual evidence, this time including such gems as the falling price of fellatio and how data-mining of banking behavior can help find potential terrorists.

One of the more controversial parts of Freakonomics concerned its findings on abortion. In that book, the authors persuasively argued that the legalization of abortion helped cause the lowering of national crime rates throughout the 1990's. Levitt & Dubner went to great pains to explain that their argument was not an endorsement of abortion. It was merely an exploration of the unintended consequences of our nation's legal position on a deeply divisive issue.

Similarly, Superfreaknomics takes on the issue of global warming, making a provocative case for a particular method of geoengineering. Unfortunately, their case for "Budyko's Blanket" -- which is essentially a floating pump for injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere -- is nowhere near as strong as their case for the crime-lowering effects of abortion.

Still, their explanation of the logic that led them to "Budyko's Blanket" is interesting. It is, in fact, a logically cohesive and persuasive argument for testing one possible solution to the growing problem of climate change. As such, it's a fine example of the kind of reasoned, evidence-based argument that should be the norm for policy debates regarding global problems.

And Superfreakonomics' position on "Budyko's Blanket" is also fascinating for its evidence-based approach. Most people just jump to conclusions (based on preconceptions, emotions, and biases), and then find reasons to support those conclusions. This is why simplistic, reductive ideologies are so popular. They make it seem easy to approach any complex issue and find a simple, straightforward solution. But the world is full of lush complexities that defy simple & straightforward approaches.

However, the problem of global warming is just too complex to tackle in a single section of a single book, even one as good as Superfreakonomics. In other words, Levitt & Dubner's evidence & initial assumptions about global warming do not take all significant factors into account before they formulate their conclusion about "Budyko's Blanket." A well-put criticism of their position can be found here in a piece from MIT's Technology Review. Tim Lambert, a computer scientist at the University of New South Wales who writes the "Deltoid Blog," also makes a nice, 10-point refutation of Levitt & Dubner in his blog. And the Union of Concerned Scientists has published a comprehensive webpage regarding their disagreements with Superfreakonomics.

In my own opinion, Levitt & Dubner aren't necessarily wrong about the possible effectiveness of "Budyko's Blanket" in slowing global warming. I just don't think they make a persuasive case. Too many of the factors they cite as evidence (such as the effects of sulfur dioxide on the atmosphere) are ambiguous, and too many other factors aren't even taken into account at all (such as the future effect of technological innovations in power generation and emissions control). The case they made about the effects of abortion in Freakonomics is much more sound.

Even if its conclusions about global warming are wrong, Superfreakonomics is entertaining and thought-provoking in all the right ways. Besides the anecdotes regarding the economics of prostitution or the measurement of doctor performance, the story of how seatbelts finally got adopted by the American automobile industry is especially rewarding. Despite the incredible amount of evidence proving the effectiveness of seatbelts, the automotive industry and the American driving public did not really adopt their use until a set of circumstances occurred to make seatbelts seem...almost cool. It's a story Levitt & Dubner tell well.

Also, economics-based reasoning is refreshing because it generally cuts through all the ideological claptrap that people carry around by focusing on how they really act. As any good poker player can tell you, we can talk a good game, but our real characters shine through when there's money at stake, as Superfreakonomics points out in an experiment using baseball card dealers. Religion & politics can run their ideological shell-games, but I prefer to follow the cash when trying to figure out what people are really like. And Superfreakonomics, with its anecdotes on the limits of altruism and on the capitalist capacities of monkeys, is eye-opening in its revelations of actual behavior.

I urge you to read both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, if only to immerse yourself in the kind of evidence-based reasoning that, while not perfect, is the kind of thinking that is all too rare in our public sphere. Besides all that, these books are also just plain fun.

by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

While I consider Ian McEwan to be one of the best novelists alive, I also think his books aren't perfect. They have problems. I don't mean to say that McEwan is a bad writer. He is, in fact, an unusually wonderful writer who is adept at turning language to any purpose. He can make you laugh, and he can terrorize you. His prose is fluid, his words are precise, and the narratives he weaves have moments of breathtaking beauty. In this, the opening scene of Enduring Love comes to mind, as does the retreat at Dunkirk in Atonement.

No, the problems of McEwan's books do not come from any failings that he may have as a craftsman and artist. The problems his books have are that they always set up expectations that McEwan willfully, and masterfully, subverts. Yes, McEwan is a master; he is a master of magnificently not giving us what we want.

Still, as I tell my friends, the worst Ian McEwan novel is better than 99% of the books published in the world. (I would gladly re-read Black Dogs rather than slog through anything by James Patterson.) I am not being hyperbolic. McEwan's novels really are among the best books out there. And, I'm glad to report, Solar is no exception.

The dust jacket of Solar describes it as a comic novel, which is inaccurate. It's in fact a farce, for the central character of the book is a fool, though, in typical McEwan fashion, he is a brilliant and brilliantly-realized fool. And the world through which this fool travels, while broadly realistic, is ludricrous. It is ridiculously real, in an I-can't-believe-that's-how-things-actually-work kind of way. A prime example of this occurs when the scene of the novel shifts to a frozen arctic fjord in Norway, where a group of artists & intellectuals have gathered in an icebound ship to discuss & observe the effects of climate change. Talk about a microcosm. It's a set piece on par with that first scene in Enduring Love. And what happens in the ship's "boot room" is especially telling, both in what it says about people and in what it says about their effect on the planet. The "boot room" is also, sadly, nearly naturalistic in its realism. So, Solar is actually a satire, and we all know satires are always serious.

Solar has funny moments, to be sure, and the arc of its plot adheres to the definition of comic structure. But, as you can probably guess, almost nothing in this novel happens the way you would expect it to. As I said, McEwan is subversive; he's almost trustworthy that way.

Consider the opening lines, which come at you just after an appropriately ironic epigraph:
"He belonged to that class of men -- vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever -- who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so."
It's classic McEwan: the omniscient, third-person narration that, paradoxically, is situated right behind the eyes of our protagonist, so that tone and viewpoint are already at odds. We see what our hero really is, but we also see how he sees himself. But doesn't our hero also see what he really is?

Well, ironically (and McEwan does love irony), he does. Michael Beard, our hero, is very aware of what he really is. He is a former genius with a Nobel in his back pocket, coasting through the last acts of both his fifth marriage and his professional career. At a time when most people would be planning for retirement or at least winding down their pursuits to settle into a comfortable dotage, Beard is allowing his life to implode, slowly and surely, like (that old, tired metaphor) a slow-motion car crash.

See, Michael Beard has a problem that is universal: he just can't help himself. To say he has poor impulse control would be to put too fine a point on it. He's a glutton and a slob who loves food, drink, and women, all in the plural. And that medal he was given by the King of Sweden gives him plenty of access to all three. Solar is filled with descriptions of food and sex, all liberally lubricated with liquor.

Now, outsized appetites can be comical and even endearing, but Beard is also a snob. It's a snobbery born of the same laziness that makes him a slave to his appetites while rendering him incapable of cleaning up after himself. He just can't summon up the energy to wrench himself away from his own ego long enough to empathize with other people. Oh, he's a smart one. But his considerable intellect isn't in the driver's seat; it's just what he uses to extricate himself from the wreckage caused by his never-ending hungers.

And, as if Beard's impulsiveness weren't bad enough, McEwan concocts circumstances that further bedevil our hero. Crimes occur, as do cover-ups. There are betrayals and (since this is a McEwan novel) deaths. A chance encounter over a snack on a train turns into a hilarious misunderstanding that becomes the cause of an argument between Beard and a practitioner of what he considers "the soft sciences." A protest gesture backfires, making Beard appear even more monstrous than he really is. A mishap involving a polar bear rug (how symbolic!) leads to lifelong and fatal consequences that afford Beard yet another opportunity for implosion.

Through all of this, as the novel moves through time and space from 2000 to 2009, from England to Norway to America, McEwan performs the alchemy of making a supremely unpleasant character become a sublimely embodied soul. Remember, we spend nearly all of Solar looking out from behind Beard's eyes, even if the narration is peppered with authorial comment. (Indeed, evidence mounts that Beard may be narrating the whole thing to himself.) So, as we read, we begin to care for Michael Beard, despite all of the people he has hurt. We begin to root for his efforts at creating a new, clean power technology, despite the dark source of his innovations.

But, haven't I mentioned McEwan's penchant for frustrating our expectations? It's a penchant that has cost McEwan, both in terms of readership and reputation. I know well-educated, widely-read people who can't stand Ian McEwan's novels. For, no matter how refined our tastes can be, they are subject to our emotions. And there are those who dislike having their emotions toyed with. They expect their expectations to be satisfied. They expect McEwan, who is so good at creating expectations with his nimble command of language & detail, to pay them off. But he has other ideas. And I, for one, think those ideas can be mind-blowing.

In Solar, McEwan does not resort to the last-act subversions that he used in Atonement. That is, the end of Solar does not radically rewrite its beginning. Nor is it a kind of logical, clockwork conclusion the way it is in Enduring Love. Nor is it the comeuppance that characterizes the shocking ending of Amsterdam. Instead, McEwan brilliantly delivers Beard to an ending that is neither an escape nor a punishment. I give nothing away by quoting it:
"As Beard rose to greet her, he felt in his heart an unfamiliar, swelling sensation, but he doubted as he opened his arms to her that anyone would ever believe him now if he tried to pass it off as love."
It's a bravura finale, followed by an appendix that shows McEwan at his metafictional best, highlighting his role as the wizard behind the curtain, the one we can't help noticing, even as he commands us to pay no attention.

I recommend Solar to anyone with an appetite for literate fiction that follows E.M. Forster's dictate to "only connect." It will make you laugh, and it will horrify you. You may even learn something. But you will have been transported, enjoyably, into the mind and heart of an all-too-human antihero by a master at the height of his subversive powers.

by Ian McEwan

Monday, April 26, 2010

Forgotten Classic: Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book

Written by the award-winning Maxine Hong Kingston, this book is what I call a "forgotten classic" -- a novel whose artistry and entertainment value deserve more attention. It's a book I have treasured ever since it was first published in 1989. (Yes, I proudly own a first edition.)

The story that Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book tells reminds me of a line from Jim Harrison's novella, Legends of the Fall: "Everyone wishes a measure of mystery in their life that they have done nothing in particular to deserve." Isn't it true that we all want some magic in our lives, no matter who we are?

Well, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is about someone who works hard to fill his life with magic. Set in the heady days of 1960's San Francisco, this is a bawdy, nonstop picaresque seen through the eyes of its hero: Wittman Ah Sing, recent graduate of UC Berkeley and aspiring poet/playwright.

What, exactly is a picaresque? It's a story in which a person of "low character" engages in adventures, usually of a satirical nature, as he or she travels through a corrupt society. The great masterpiece Don Quixote is a picaresque, and Wittman Ah-Sing is, among other things, a quixotic character, a hapless romantic whose heroism exists largely inside his own head. In simpler terms, Tripmaster Monkey is about a funny & crazy young man moving through a funny & crazy world and, gradually, gaining wisdom.

For all its humor, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book begins on a serious note, with music:
"Maybe it comes from living in San Francisco, city of clammy humors and foghorns that warn and warn -- omen, o-o-men, o dolorous omen, o dolors of omens -- and not enough sun, but Wittman Ah Sing considered suicide every day."
This marks our hero as an existentialist, but aren't all serious artists also philosophers of one sort or another? Not to worry, though: Wittman always rejects death. In fact, this is a book about always choosing life, and Wittman Ah-Sing has a mission.

This young man's self-appointed quest is the staging of a massive conglomeration of Chinese myth & literature starring himself & everyone he knows. (Perhaps it was an early inspiration for the title character in Wes Anderson's Rushmore?) Wittman casts himself in the role of the trickster-god from which the novel gets its title, and it's a role that infects his everyday life as he constantly blends anarchic mischief with the verbal artistry of the American poet who is his (mis-spelled?) namesake.

On the way, he marries and falls in love (though not to the same person), extemporizes hilarious "talk-stories" that get him both into & out of trouble, and learns not a little about himself & what it means to be an American who just happens to also be Chinese. Kingston has woven a vivid tapestry on which Wittman's antics (and heroics) are portrayed in language that never fails to delight. And the conclusion of this tale, in which Wittman's improvisational culture-clashing epic is actually staged, is nothing less than inspirational, riffing the archetypes of Chinese mythology into something as American as jazz.

Kingston has been criticized by stuffy eggheads for "corrupting" traditional Chinese lore. This is nonsense. What she has done is fashion an entertaining & engaging account of how one young man grapples with his heritage and his circumstances in order to create himself. Though the story borrows heavily from Chinese tradition, it relies just as heavily on American literary history.

And Kingston isn't silent on the matter of cultural appropriation. Wittman Ah-Sing is constantly commenting on various injustices, and, in the book's final chapter, he has a long verbal rant on the inherent racism of American cinema, hilariously skewering such icons as Charlie Chan, JFK, and James Bond.

But don't let all the cultural trappings & criticism fool you. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is the classic human tale of a person forging their unique identity through art, vision, and plain old hard work. Those of you who know what a "fake book" is will understand Wittman Ah-Sing's efforts immediately. He is taking old standards and making them his own.

As funny & fun-filled as this novel is (and it is bursting with one rib-splitting & heart-breaking anecdote after another, like the one where Wittman fantasizes about turning himself into a human nuclear detonator), it's also deeply serious about issues as basic as identity (both individual & national) and as topical as war. Without giving anything away, I can tell you (as I've already told you), that Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book ends as it began: with Wittman Ah-Sing choosing life. It's a sentence we should all share.

Think of it as The Joy Luck Club with more brains, more heart, and less syrup. Think of it as the Great American Classic that it surely is. Read Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, and laugh your way to enlightenment.

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Sunday, April 25, 2010

20th Annual AFAN Aids Walk

I must begin by thanking those individuals who donated to AFAN on my behalf. Their donations were generous and gracious and helped me be a part of a wonderful event.

See, I decided to enter this event on a whim, after hearing about it on the radio. And it was only after I had registered online and hit my contacts up for donations that I found out how much AFAN has done for my community.

Details below.

It was late last Friday afternoon when I heard about the 20th Annual AFAN AIDS Walk happening on Sunday, so I had 2 days to drum up the minimum $35 in donations. After signing up as an individual walker on the AFAN website, I quickly worked my entire online social network (Twitter, Facebook, and email), shamelessly soliciting all of my contacts for donations.

Frankly, I fully expected to pay that minimum out of my own pocket. So imagine my surprise when my friends and family were generous enough (especially on such short notice) to pitch in a grand total of $235 dollars on my behalf through the AFAN website.

This is definitely yet another case of other people making me look good.

So, what is AFAN?

From their website:
Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFANprovides support and advocacy for adults & children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in southern Nevada.  AFAN works to reduce HIV infection through prevention education to eliminate fearprejudice and the stigma associated with the disease.
Also from their website:
Founded in 1984, Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN) is the oldest and largest AIDS service organization in the state of Nevada. Nearly two thousand men, women & children infected with HIV are registered as clients with our agency. AFAN provides direct client service programs, food programs, prevention and education programs, and community outreach. It is the mission of our client service programs to enhance the physical health and psychosocial wellness of the individuals we serve, while promoting their dignity and improving the quality of their lives. 
So, early this morning, Brother Juan & I headed downtown, parking in the cavernous World Market Center garage and heading to the AFAN AIDS Walk headquarters, where a collection of booths and a small stage were set up.

(the crowd mixes and gathers swag)

We hit the registration tables first, picking up our event swag at a nearby booth. This included the usual t-shirt and shopping bag. And other booths -- representing local organizations like Planned Parenthood and QVegas, as well as businesses like Whole Foods & Coffee Bean -- provided their own collections of knicknacks and snacks. There was even a makeshift petting zoo, as well as facepainting for the kids.

(I pose with some men who have lots of PRIDE)

We mingled for a while, and I couldn't help noticing all the dogs. If we had known how pet-friendly this event would be, we would have brought Buddy the Puggle with us. He would have especially enjoyed meeting the biggest -- and most mellow -- Great Dane I have ever seen. (His name was Savior.)

(some kids from Nellis AFB sung the National Anthem)

The pre-walk festivities soon got under way, with performances from some local groups, including a group of young singers from Nellis Air Force Base and the dancers from the Crazy Horse Paris show at the MGM Grand. Local newscaster Chris Saldana acted as emcee.

(Penn Jillette leads the way)

At 10:30, the crowd gathered behind Grand Marshals Penn & Teller to begin the walk. Fortunately, the weather was perfect, warm & clear with a slight breeze to keep everyone refreshed.

As we filed down Bonneville Avenue into the heart of downtown Las Vegas, we passed several stations where local bands serenaded the passing walkers, water was passed out, and the doggies got to cool themselves in little kiddie pools.

The best of these local bands was The Clydesdale, who were set up on the corner of Bonneville and Grand Central Parkway, regaling us with their signature brand of alt-country jamming. Another standout was the Smith & Wesson Blues Project, who projected a clean, clear blues vibe as the crowd sauntered past. I will have to make a point to check out both of these acts in their more native environments.

(The Smith & Wesson Blues Project jams on the corner of Bonneville & Main)

Other interesting stops along the way included DJ Ladyfingers (who was blasting an old Erasure hit that really brought me back), the Sin City Sisters (a charity group who danced and waved in bright costumes and even brighter makeup), The Duchy of Cithara (apparently a member of the Kingdom of Vega, a Renaissance re-enactment troupe that specializes in combat demonstrations), and a local high-school marching band, whose rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" brought back memories of my own time in the brass section.

Needless to say, the AFAN AIDS Walk brought together a diverse set of interests. And, as we all know, diversity is a strength -- even if it does lead to a fair amount of head-scratching.

(the home stretch!)

And so, after turning down 4th Street and looping back to Bonneville, we headed back to the World Market Center to cross the finish line. Of course, this wasn't a race. And the hundreds of people participating weren't competing with each other so much as communing on a nice day for a worthy cause.

And how has AFAN affected me personally? Well, it turns out that AFAN helped a close friend of mine when a relative of hers was dying of AIDS. This was something I learned about only after I had hit her up for a donation. This relative was someone I had known and remembered fondly, but I had not known about the help from AFAN. My friend gladly donated after sharing this story, and it made my walk so much more meaningful on a personal level.

So, I guess the upshot is that you can't know how close-knit your community is until you get involved in it. I plan on doing this again next year. Care to join me?

20th Annual AFAN AIDS Walk
April 25th, 2010
Downtown Las Vegas

Saturday, April 24, 2010

(More) Quick Thoughts on Health Care Reform

I have always thought the central problem confronting our nation's health-care system is our reliance on for-profit health insurance companies to administer care. The profit motive, while it may lead to innovations & efficiencies, is at odds with my view that health care is a public good, not a product. The recent news about WellPoint targeting breast-cancer patients is a case-in-point of the profit motive interfering with the public good. This is the same company that sought to hike its premiums last January (but, after public outcry, has postponed those hikes) and recently gave its CEO a big raise.

Well, I have found someone who articulates my view and proposes a sweeping, workable solution that still uses the strengths of the free market while insuring basic coverage for everybody. John E. Girouard wrote a well-reasoned, comprehensive article in Forbes Magazine in October of 2009. Mr. Girouard is the founder & President of Capital Asset Management Group, and he is the author of The Ten Truths of Wealth Creation, so he's no impractical, pie-in-the-sky reformer. He's a realistic business-man. I just wish the legislation that eventually passed Congress & was signed by the President had more of a resemblance to what Mr. Girouard proposed.

Please read Mr. Girouard's article.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Moon starring Sam Rockwell

(Sam Rockwell carries the weight in Moon)

Forget all the science-fiction bells & whistles. The dilemmas at the center of Moon are simple yet profound. What if you suddenly realize you're not the person you thought you were? What if the people you trust most are lying to you? And even as the doubts pile up, how many of us willfully ignore uncomfortable facts staring us right in the face? Finally, what does it take to goad us into action, if not to save our lives then at least to give us a sense of meaning?

Once you strip away the special effects and technological extrapolations of Moon, these are the questions animating the drama of this brightly-lit but claustrophobic movie made by Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie. And, in Sam Rockwell, Jones has cast the perfect lead for an existential thriller that raises more questions than it answers. Rockwell has both broadness & depth, able to signal a change in character just by altering his posture, delivering lines from every register with equal conviction. His talents are particularly tested by the fact that he is, by-and-large, the only person on-screen for much of the movie, except for the voice of Kevin Spacey, whose smooth inflections animate the boxy, tentacled automaton functioning as Rockwell's foil.

Moon is essentially a tightly-plotted locked-door mystery, except instead of the English countryside, it's set in the unforgiving environment of an automated mining camp that's out of view of Mother Earth. In this lonely place, Rockwell's character, Sam Bell, serves as caretaker to processes that create power & profit back home, but the toll of his 3-year stint is beginning to show. He has gone a little batty, but who wouldn't? Because of his remoteness (and some faulty equipment), he can't have an actual conversation with his family or his bosses. Instead, they send video messages back and forth, which only heightens his solitude. All he wants is to go home, but he has begun to see things....

But to say Moon is tightly-plotted is not to say it is fast-paced. It has an almost-glacial rhythm, and Jones develops such a naturalistic sense of not stating the obvious that it never feels as if Moon were beating us over the head with its implications. Of course, as the audience, we realize what's actually happening long before Bell does. But Bell seems to take forever to act on his discoveries. Rockwell's talent shines in making this dithering entertaining, like watching Hamlet arguing with himself over the choice of murder or suicide.

It helps that Sam Rockwell is so charming. After all, everyone talks to themselves. But few people can make that conversation interesting. Rockwell has that ability. And Kevin Spacey has always been able to make sincerity seem menacing, adding to the paranoia that starts to infect the air.

(Kevin Spacey animates GERTY)

The mystery gets resolved nicely, with elements that are present from the beginning, showcasing Jones's intelligence in building this puzzle. In fact, Moon is a testament to the director's brainy restraint, as even the special effects smack of doing just enough to keep the story moving forward in a credible way without stealing the spotlight from its characters. One of the weakness of science-fiction movies is their reliance on exposition, which Jones keeps to a blessed minimum. For the most part, he avoids being too obvious. Even the obligatory voice-over at the end is oblique and lifelike enough to be forgiven.

Why a movie like Moon languishes in theaters while a clunky mess like Avatar flourishes says less about the failings of Moon than it does about the failures of audiences. It suggests a world where a story like Moon might actually happen and probably already has.

Find Moon and watch it. I plan to rewatch it again and again.

directed by Duncan Jones
starring Sam Rockwell & Kevin Spacey

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Secret In Their Eyes (El Secreto De Sus Ojos)

A man writes in a notebook, conjuring a blissful breakfast scene between a young man and a fetching young woman. Just as the scene begins to develop, we cut back to the writer, who cries out in frustration, tearing the page out. Then comes a scene of intense brutality. Is the writer imagining it? Or is he just remembering it?

We soon learn the answer to this question, just as we learn who the writer is and why he is writing this particular story. And it is this unfolding of the truth, as we move from this writer's past through his present, that is the magic of The Secret In Their Eyes, an Argentinian movie that won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Thrillers rely on the element of surprise for their entertainment value, and the surprises in The Secret In Their Eyes are the kind that resonate for years in the lives of its characters. They may sometimes come from the same implausibilities that plague most thrillers (the lucky coincidence, the improbable encounter), but director Juan Jose Campanella is less interested in their pyrotechnic value (there are no ticking bombs or spectacular explosions) than he is in their tectonic consequences. Every revelation sends ripples through the lives of his characters, but the violence itself generally happens off-screen.

The violence at the center of The Secret In Their Eyes is the rape and murder of the young woman in that breakfast scene at the start of the movie. You don't see the crime happen, but Campanella rubs your nose (or rather, your eyes) in its aftermath, as a cynical criminal investigator finds himself enmeshed in the case. At first, this investigator loudly complains that this crime, by rights, should be someone else's problem, but, when brought face-to-face with the sprawled, blood-spattered, naked corpse of the victim, he finds himself compelled to find her killer.

Why such a worldly, downtrodden cynic of a man should, at that moment, feel such a compulsion would force to me to reveal elements of plot that I think an audience should find out on their own as they watch the movie. Suffice it to say that this particular crime changes the lives of these particular characters, from the investigator himself to his smart, beautiful boss to the broken-down, boozy office mate whose loyalty comes at incredible cost.

Lead actor Ricardo Darin, who was brilliant in Nine Queens, plays the role of investigator Benjamin Esposito with the air of a man who knows his limitations. He knows he's no "lone wolf" whose role in life is to right wrongs and rescue damsels in distress, all the while bucking the system that holds him back. He's no Dirty Harry or John McClane. He's just a low-level bureaucrat who files just enough paperwork to keep his job.

His boss, played by Soledad Villamil, however, is a different story. A woman of privilege and intelligence, she breezes into his work-life, and he is not so much shocked to find that he is attracted to her as he is confused by the fact that she seems to feel the same way about him. He has done nothing to deserve her attention, but there she is, shooting him the same looks that he can't help giving her.

His office mate, of course, sees it all and wonders aloud why the two of them can't just get on with it, but he's got his own demons to wrestle with. Played by Guillermo Francella, the best he can offer is the occasional pointed observation, and he actually does his best work in the bar down the street.

Esposito is both the man writing about the case of the murdered young woman and the investigator originally assigned to solve it, and the plot of The Secret In Their Eyes involves showing what happened to the case and why, after 25 years, Esposito is still working on it, even though he is now retired.

Argentinian political history plays an important role in these developments, as do the actions of the victim's husband, but, as I said, I really shouldn't reveal too many details. Most of the pleasure of this movie is its nested unfolding of both plot & character, though there are some moments where directorial virtuosity takes center-stage, as in a shot that winds down from the sky into a soccer stadium to follow the movements of individuals as they navigate the crowd. And, as serious as the story is, it is filled with comic touches, as in a funny scene when a judge confronts Esposito and his partner about their clandestine activities.

Too many thrillers are driven only by their plot-twists and special effects. The Secret In Their Eyes is driven by vivid characterization. And that makes all the difference. It's what makes a movie worth, not only watching, but rewatching. And Campanella's talent at breathing real life into what is essentially a potboiler earns the movie its final 3 lines of dialog, which are perfect:
"It'll be complicated."
"I don't care."
"Shut the door."
Once you see The Secret In Their Eyes, you'll understand the hard-won poetry of these words.
directed by Juan Jose Campanella
starring Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil & Guillermo Francella

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Alice Munro - Selected Stories - for FREE (really)

Want a FREE book? Keep reading. This isn't a joke, and it's not a gimmick. I want to give away a book.

See, I have a book-buying compulsion. It's slightly less acute than my book-reading compulsion, but it's still pretty bad.

Sometimes these compulsions lead me to buy several copies of the same book, and sometimes I accidentally buy extra copies of a book that I didn't mean to. There's a difference. Really.

Yesterday, I realized that I have too many copies of an amazing book, a book I own in both hardcover & paperback, so I've decided to share my extra copy with someone.

Here's how I'm going to decide who to give it to: write a comment below on why I should send you this book, and, on May 15th, I will pick one of you and send you the book. It's that simple.

There are no other strings attached. Just comment below, and, if I pick you on May 18th, I will contact you for a shipping address. Then, you just have to wait for the book to arrive. That's it. (I will, of course, announce who I pick, but I will not divulge any confidential information about them, like address, etc.)

Oh, and what book is it? It's the Selected Stories of Alice Munro, a book of short stories by a living master of the art form. It's such a wonderful book that it should be used as a textbook in writing programs everywhere. Her work has won a host of awards, and her stories reward rereading the way all the best literature does.

This is an actual photo of the particular copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro that I want to give away. It's in as-new quality, having never even been opened. It's been sitting on a bookshelf for a couple of years, but, like I said, I didn't even realize I owned it until yesterday. This is a book I dip into again & again. It's that good.

So if you want a FREE copy, just comment below. Tell me why I should sent it to you. You just might get it.

(Remember, don't divulge any confidential information about yourself in your comments. If I pick you and need your address, I will contact you privately to get it.)

Good luck. Make those comments interesting.

by Alice Munro

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Settebello - the BEST Pizza in Las Vegas

I've tried a host of places around town, but for several years now, the absolute best pizza in the Las Vegas area is at Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana in The District in Green Valley. By a long shot. The Las Vegas Weekly's Pizza Map agrees.

Since opening in 2005 in a location on Horizon Drive, proprietor Brad Otton (a former UNLV football coach) has moved Settebello to a more centralized location near Whole Foods. But one thing he hasn't done is compromise on quality.

As a member of an organization called Vera Pizza Napoletana, Settebello follows a set of standards designed to ensure the quality of their signature dish. These standards include working with high-quality ingredients, following an established recipe that includes hand-rolling, and cooking in a real wood-fired oven. The result is pizza that tastes far better than the doughy, sauce-smothered, greasy mess covered with rubbery cheese-substitute that is served in most pizza joints. Like the organization's name says, this is "True Neapolitan Pizza," as Otton himself trained as a pizzaiolo in Italy for 3 years before opening Settebello.

You can view a video of the Settebello pizza-making process here. It was shot at their original location, but it's tantalizing.

And the pizza at Settebello is sublime -- especially their signature pizza, the Margherita. The crust is thin, chewy, and full of rich, wheaty flavor. The layer of crushed tomato actually tastes like fresh tomatoes with a hint of olive oil. And the mozzarella cheese and fresh basil are perfectly proportioned to complement the pizza without overpowering it. It's pizza you can eat and still feel good about afterwards.

(the final slice of my Margherita pizza from today's lunch - mmmm!)

As good as it is, Settebello isn't just about the pizza. Their commitment to quality extends to their entire menu. Their focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients makes for really amazing salads. They don't just pull some roughage out of a bag and pour some dressing over it. At Settebello, they lovingly construct their salads by hand, and it shows, with perfect proportions that create a nice mix of flavors.

(my Insalata Grande)

My favorite salad is the Insalata Grande, which combines roasted mushrooms, marinated artichokes hearts, pine nuts, kalamata olives, flakes of parmigiano-reggiano, fresh tomatoes, mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette. The peppery crunch of the greens melds wonderfully with the tangy chewiness of the mushrooms & artichokes, with the tomatoes, nuts & cheese adding nice counterpoints. It's such a fulfilling experience that I've often ordered it as a meal in itself.

The Princess enjoys the Rucola salad, which is utter simplicity: a pile of fresh arugola dressed with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. It's a testament to Settebello that such a basic recipe could lead to a dish worth paying for.

I'm no pizza purist. I'm willing to believe in the possibility of good pizza that doesn't follow the tenets of Vera Pizza Napoletana. What matters to me is the final product. Does it taste good? Is it satisfying? Settebello succeeds on both counts, in ways that have kept me coming back again and again.

Also, the service at Settebello is always excellent, and the prices are reasonable. Today, for example, my buddy John Z and I enjoyed a nice, 2-salad-and-a-pizza lunch for a bill that came to $40 including tip. Given the food, the clean & cozy atmosphere, the friendly service, and the long conversation between two old friends, it was a bargain.

140 Green Valley Parkway
(near I-215 & Green Valley Parkway)
Henderson, Nevada 89012
open 11am - 10pm every day

Friday, April 16, 2010

Kick-Ass the movie

The moral reservations of Roger Ebert aside, I actually enjoyed the movie Kick-Ass. But I come to it with low expectations and a deep appreciation of the genres from which it was born.

After all, the idea of applying realism to action movies or superhero comics is absurd. Realism is best left to documentaries and memoirs, and even most of those can't actually match the lush contexts of the actual world we live in. I once heard the novelist Robert Stone (a die-hard realist if there ever was one) say, "Realism is a poem one writes to the world."

Also, dismissing these genres for being unrealistic is as immature and artistically myopic as getting your entire entertainment diet from them. These genres have their own time-honored conventions and expectations, and one can be just as artistic working with them as with oils on canvas.

So, is Kick-Ass a worthy addition to the already-crowded category of superhero action movies? I think so, but mainly for the ways in which it violates established forms. For instance, the opening scene, which plays exactly as it does in the comic book, vividly illustrates the absurdity of the idea of superheroism itself. It's a start that seems to signal at least an awareness of the strictures of realism, giving those of us who live & breathe an easy entry into this particular world.

Based on the comic book series by Mark Millar, Kick-Ass takes the convention of the teenage crusader and updates it for our internet-enabled times. High-school student Dave Lizewski is the kind of anonymous sad-sack that fills every neighborhood, but he chafes at his circumstances, finally deciding to take matters into his own hands by becoming a masked vigilante. He has no superpower, other than his earnestness, and he puts up a MySpace page and begins answering requests for help, but not before comically & painfully breaking himself in as streetfighter.

So far, so what. Except for the MySpace page, which I guess is the current generation's version of the bat-phone (though Facebook would've been even more trendy), this is run-of-the-mill stuff. But the consequences of Dave's first fight have rather funny ramifications in his personal life & relations. The way this plays out comes off as fresh and interesting, much more so than the typical over-the-top action that forms the climax of the movie. Dave is much more compelling as Dave than he is as Kick-Ass.

In the original comics, the action seems more dramatic & intimate, mainly because it's consciously filtered through Dave himself. Even the revelations behind the character of Red Mist come through Dave's awareness. However, the movie isn't shot from the inside of Dave's head the way the comic seems to be. In the movie, Dave still narrates, but the intimacy -- and thus the emotional connection -- is gone. We go from conscious identifying with Dave to merely watching him.

Another factor hurting the movie is the casting. The use of Nicolas Cage (who, frankly, phoned in his performance) and other recognizable actors such as Mark Strong for supporting roles distances us emotionally from the story. I know this sounds paradoxical, since the job of good actors is to elicit a connection with their audience, and these are really good actors. But, in the comic, all we have to judge Big Daddy on are his actions. Is he crazy for turning his daughter into Hit-Girl or not? In the movie, when I see Mr. Cage playing him, I start wondering when he is going to uncork one of those scene-chewing rants he's famous for. Mr. Cage distracts more than he embodies, and Big Daddy becomes less a character than a role.

The film has other weaknesses, like the aforementioned by-the-numbers action sequences. There are a lot of them, and they're about what you'd expect. But what saves the film is the performance of Chloe Moretz (last seen by me in 500 Days of Summer) who plays Hit-Girl. As funny as it is to hear a little girl spew profanities, Ms. Moretz does an even better job managing to switch between doting daughter and hardened killer without missing a beat. She has real presence, essentially stealing the show. Despite Kick-Ass being the title character, Hit-Girl is the one with superpowers.

The movie also strikes me as too clean and too clear. The artwork of the original comic is gritty & darkly-complected, suggesting a cityscape that begs for young Dave to don his costume. The photography & set design of the movie is, by contrast, almost antiseptic, unmooring the story and putting it on a soundstage. The conventions of genre call for darkness & filth, especially when dealing with themes of violence & vengeance.

Maybe I'm asking too much. After all, I did enjoy the 2 hours it took for me to watch this movie. And, though I'm a little old to be called a fanboy, I also appreciate the ways in which the movie tried to be faithful to the comic book. So I give Kick-Ass the movie a passing grade. I just hope the inevitable sequels do even better.

directed by Matthew Vaughn
starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage and Mark Strong

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

The movies of Wes Anderson are an acquired taste. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are all-time personal favorites of mine. But I recognize they're not for everyone. They're full of oddness & a kind of understated, wry humor, and their storylines typically follow a bewildering cast of characters. But I love them and rewatch them all the time. Mr. Anderson, you had me at Bottle Rocket.

His latest movie is Fantastic Mr. Fox, a very loose adaptation of the book by Roald Dahl, the man who created Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Anderson has chosen to animate the story using stop-motion, giving the movie a quaintly classic feel, and he has enlisted an all-star cast of voices, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.

Clooney voices the title character, a fast-talking, chicken-stealing rogue who is forced to settle down when his wife (voiced by Streep) announces that she's pregnant. But the life of a suburban breadwinner rankles Mr. Fox, and he soon starts plotting nocturnal heists to satisfy his urge for excitement.

Supposedly, Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first book Wes Anderson ever owned, and he still has the copy that he was given as a child. So this movie is what we call a "labor of love." And it shows. Mr. Anderson, with the help of co-writer Noah Baumbach, has taken the original story and lovingly expanded it.

This is a children's story, true, but it's also a story that explores old questions. How do we reconcile our lust for adventure with our need for security? Which is better, to follow our innate drives & talents and achieve self-satisfaction or to sacrifice our desires to provide for the welfare of our loved ones?

These are serious issues. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is a comedy. And, early in the movie, when Mr. Fox starts waxing intellectual about his predicament to his handyman, the down-to-earth opossum replies, "I don't know what you're talking about, but it sounds illegal."

And it's not just the dialog that's humorous. Anderson has always been a director who uses a distinct color palette and every inch of the screen to create a discernible world. He has even chosen to shoot the movie at only 12 frames per second in order to accentuate the puppet-like movements of his characters. Fantastic Mr. Fox is full of sly, blink-and-you'll-miss-them sight gags, and Anderson's decidedly idiosyncratic soundtrack informs the playful mood of the piece, such as when he uses the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" for the break between Mrs. Fox's announcement of her pregnancy and the scene showing how the Fox family has settled into domesticity.

About those scene breaks: Wes Anderson is fond of them, and they help give a sense of structure to what are essentially rambling ensemble pieces swirling around a central character. In Rushmore, it was the adolescent Max Fischer, struggling to juggle his overdeveloped sense of grandeur and his raging hormones. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it was Bill Murray's title role, a burned-out ocean explorer dealing with a boatful of personal issues. Sure, these plots tend to ramble, but only because Anderson allows the richness of the worlds he creates to impinge on the storyline. In The Darjeeling Limited, despite having Adrien Brody & Owen Wilson & Jason Schwartzman as triple leads, the movie's minor characters stole the show.

And, in Fantastic Mr. Fox, the minor characters also get their due. From Kylie the opossum handyman to Badger, Mr. Fox's lawyer (voiced by Bill Murray), they are each fully-realized and given their moments on the stage. Even the bad guys get to elicit a measure of pathos, as when Willem Dafoe's malevolent Rat has his showdown with Mr. Fox. We actually feel a little sorry for the loser in that fight.

That Fantastic Mr. Fox is able to engage our sympathies in a story starring stop-motion figurines is in no small measure due to the voice-work of the cast. George Clooney brings his gravelly-yet-smooth enunciations to the title character, making him an animal-world analog to the Danny Ocean character he has portrayed in several Soderbergh-directed heist comedies. Meryl Streep brings her always flawless vocal control to the character of Mrs. Fox, effortlessly-but-convincingly moving from exasperation to adoration as she copes with her husband's hijinks. Her best line? "If what I think is happening is better not be." You just have to hear her say it.

I could go on through the entire cast listing, but you get the idea. Anderson picks great actors and knows how to use them.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is an animal story, but the theme of these urbane animals having to embrace their wild side has all-too-human equivalents. These characters come to terms with who they are by doing what we all do -- by being tested and by finding ways to survive. Anderson's characters are oddballs, sure, but in a sense we all are, stumbling through life, attaining hard-won moments of clarity only to squander them with the next irrepressible urge. Mr. Fox's final toast to his compatriots is particularly appropriate, but it would only make sense once you've watched the movie. Which you really should.

So, I hope I've proven that Fantastic Mr. Fox is worth a look. It's got a richness that I've barely tapped. I haven't even mentioned Anderson's inspired use of the word "cuss" or the wonderful satire that is the game of Whackbat. And the three farmers Mr. Fox goes up against? They're positively phantasmagoric. Those treats and more await you should you decide to enter this crazy, entertaining world. I recommend that you bring your kids along for the ride.

directed by Wes Anderson
featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray & Jason Schwartzman