July 31, 2008

BOOKS: Nudge, Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein (2008)

If a supermarket were laid out sensibly, the milk and the eggs would be right at the front of the store so that you could grab them and go. But of course, they're at the back so that you'll have to walk past all sorts of stuff you weren't thinking about buying. Similarly, the sugary cereals aren't at your eye level, but at the eye level of your 8-year-old.

The supermarket is a shrine to choice architecture, the notion that the way in which choices are presented shapes the choices that are made. Choice architecture is at the heart of the social policy Thaler and Sunstein propose in Nudge.

They call their policy libertarian paternalism. It's libertarian in that everyone has just as many options as ever, and no choice is denied or made unavailable; it's paternalism in that certain choices are encouraged or made easier with the goal of improving people's health, financial stability, and happiness.

Take, for instance, the issue of organ donation. In the US, the choice to be an organ donor is generally made by checking a box on your driver's license; if you haven't checked the box, the assumption that you don't want to be a donor. That's called an opt-in system, and it leads to relatively low rates of donation.

Many European countries reverse the process; if you haven't checked the box on your license, the assumption is that you do wish to be a donor. That's an opt-out system, and donation rates are significantly higher where such a system is in place.

If (like me) you find opt-out a bit too heavy on the "paternalism" end of the scale, Thaler and Sunstein offer a third option: forced choice. We don't make an assumption one way or the other, but when you apply for or renew your license, you have to answer the yes/no question: Do you wish to be an organ donor. Simply requiring that people make the choice raises donation rates, not to the levels found under opt-out, but significantly higher than they are under opt-in.

Many of Thaler & Sunstein's proposals fall into this broad category -- change the choice by changing the default option. These are generally proposals that could be adopted very quickly and easily, at relatively little expense and significant social benefit.

The authors' second common type of proposal is a bit more complex. They call it the RECAP report (for Record, Evaluation, Compare Alternative Prices), and it would be used for businesses where consumers are faced with choices between complex alternatives that might be beyond the economic sophistication of many -- auto insurance, cell phone plans, Medicare prescription drug supplement plans.

Under RECAP, each provider would be required to provide its customers with an annual report, in both print and electronic format, showing what they'd purchased during the year and how much they'd paid for it. The report would be in a standard format for each industry, so that consumers could plug their data into other vendors' websites and find out how much the same services would have cost. (Designing those standard reports is clearly the biggest obstacle to implementation of RECAP; I'd hate to be the guy responsible for designing a report that covers all the various options of cell phone plans, for instance.)

Thaler and Sunstein have written a most interesting book, and in the final chapters, they offer thoughtful rebuttals to many of the most common objections to their proposals. As for the writing, while you never forget that Thaler and Sunstein are academics (professors of business and law, respectively, at the University of Chicago), their writing is relatively accessible and light. They even crack an occasional joke.

July 29, 2008

BOOKS: Curse of the Spellmans, Lisa Lutz (2008)

Second in Lutz's Spellman Family series.

My only real complaint with the first volume (The Spellman Files) was that Lutz's plotting skills were weak; that continues to be the case with this volume.

There is, in fact, almost no actual plot here. Narrator Izzy occasionally reminds us that she's suspicious of her parents' new neighbor (which suspicions have gotten her arrested; she tells the story as a series of flashbacks), but that's mostly a flimsy frame on which to hang a series of diverting anecdotes, meandering digressions, and shaggy dog stories about the misadventures of the Spellmans.

The good news is that, as in the first book, Lutz gets away with it because her diversions and digressions are immensely charming and funny. The dialogue is crisp and witty, and the characters pop off the page. The relationship among Izzy, her teenage sister Rae, and policeman Henry is lively -- Rae has a teenage crush on Henry, who puts up with her eccentricities in order to stay in touch with Izzy, though he won't admit to having feelings for her (nor will Izzy admit to her feelings for him).

Izzy's a great narrator, compassionate when observing others and reasonably self-aware when observing herself. I did grow weary, though, of the frequent footnotes in which Izzy points out that her "previous document" about her family -- Lutz's first novel -- is "now available in paperback!" Shameless commercial plugs have no place in a novel.

I still don't know how long Lutz can keep it up, but so far, her charm and wit are more than enough to make up for her deficiencies as a storyteller. I still think the series has room to grow; each of her characters is entertaining enough to narrate a volume or two on their own. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

July 27, 2008

MOVIES: The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

A significant improvement over Nolan's first Batman movie, which I thought was an excessively gloomy, murky mess.

The new movie has some of the same problem. In fairness, that's not entirely Nolan's fault; dark and murky is hard to avoid when your hero only puts on the suit at night. But all of Batman's fight scenes are so underlit and shadowy that it's hard to follow the action.

The movie also suffers from Christian Bale's performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman, which is just as stolidly bland as it was the first time around. He's still throwing his voice into an unnaturally deep register in the Batman scenes, and the deep, rumbly quality seems to be electronically enhanced this time around, which often makes Batman's dialogue difficult to understand.

The returning supporting players -- Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman -- aren't asked to do much but play their usual personas, and if none of their performances are particularly interesting or exciting, they are as reliably competent as we'd expect from such veterans. Katie Holmes is gone from the cast, replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal, which is unquestionably an upgrade; the role of Rachel Dawes isn't written as much more than a stock love interest, but Gyllenhaal brings a bit more depth to the character than there seems to be in the script.

New to the cast this time around is Aaron Eckhart as crusading district attorney Harvey Dent. He's perfect for the role; Eckhart's built a career on playing various shades of self-righteousness, and he gets all the different sides of Harvey's personality (which changes significantly during the movie) just right. Better yet, he makes the changes believable and convincing.

But of course, what everyone is talking about is Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. And yes, it's as good as you've heard. Ledger's Joker crackles with intense lunacy; every line reading seems just a bit off-kilter and unexpected. (He actually gets a laugh at one point with a simple "Hi.") Is he going to win the Oscar? Well, I think it would have to be an unusually weak year for nominees from more traditional award-bait movies, but I'd be surprised if he's not nominated.

Ledger is by far the best thing in the movie, which falls a bit flat whenever he's not on screen. The action sequences, even when they are well-lit, are shot so hectically that they're hard to follow; the lone exception is a chase through the streets and freeways of Gotham that does build up some genuine excitement. The movie's too long, at two-and-a-half hours; an early sequence in Hong Kong could easily be cut without doing much damage.

And worst of all, the last half hour of the movie turns into a sort of apologia for the Bush administration, as Batman uses his high-tech gizmos to set up an unauthorized spy network that can watch everyone in Gotham without their knowledge. It's justified, he tells us, because it's the only way to stop the Joker (and the movie has explicitly called the Joker a terrorist, so it would be hard not to make the connection to current events), and the forces of good must be allowed to break the rules under extreme circumstances.

If you're a fan of Nolan's Batman, then you'll certainly want to see The Dark Knight; even if you aren't particularly interested in Batman, Ledger's performance is worth seeing, but you could easily wait for cable or DVD.

July 20, 2008

MOVIES: Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

The ABBA musical comes to the big screen.

Meryl Streep stars as Donna, who runs a small guest villa on a Greek island; her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to be married. Sophie has never known her father, but after stealing her mother's diary from the crucial summer, has figured out that there are three possible dads out there, and she's invited them all to the wedding.

Despite the fact that none of them has spoken to Donna in 20 years, or ever even met Sophie, they all show up (in the forms of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, and Stellan Skarsgard). Also arriving for the festivities are Donna's old sidekicks and one-time backup singers, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters.

There's lots of groups of three in this movie. Streep and her pals; the three potential dads; Sophie and her bridesmaids; the groom and his groomsmen (though we don't see too much of them). It all begins to feel vaguely Shakespearean, and you have the sense that the movie's going to end in some horrifying sextuple wedding. It doesn't go quite that far, thank goodness, but things are wrapped up in awfully tidy fashion.

Director Phyllida Lloyd doesn't have the slightest clue about the differences between directing for the stage and directing for the movies; she's instructed everyone here to give enormous performances as if they're emoting to the back row. Some of the actors have enough skill to get away with this, and manage to come off as merely charmingly hammy; Baranski and Streep come off best, and Seyfried isn't too bad. But most of the cast is overacting badly, gesturing wildly with every line of dialogue and clubbing us over the head with every obvious punchline; Walters is by far the worst offender.

As for the songs, they are (as they always were) entertaining, well-crafted bits of fluffy pop, but they've been shoehorned into a plot into which they don't always fit comfortably. The best numbers are those in which the characters just sing for fun -- a bachelorette-party performance of "Super Trouper" by Donna and the Dynamos is nicely done -- or which have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot -- Baranski steals the movie when she sings "Does Your Mother Know" to a beach full of shirtless young studs.

("Shirtless" reminds me in a sort of backwards way that the movie's costuming is one of its strengths, especially in its more flamboyant moments. During that "Super Trouper" number, Baranski and Walters wear epaulets that look as if Shih Tzus have died on their shoulders. There's a beautiful shot of Streep standing at the prow of a yacht with miles of fabric billowing behind her -- think Priscilla, Queen of the Titanic. And the outfits worn by all of the principal players in the closing-credits sequence are spectacularly gaudy rock-star creations.)

The cast varies in its musical ability, though they are all at least able to carry a tune reasonably well. The women come off better than the men, and Brosnan could have used a few sessions with a vocal coach, which might have gotten his voice out of his throat and made him sound less like a strangled frog.

But the movie's biggest problem is its tone. Mamma Mia isn't so much a movie to be watched as it is a movie to be endured. From the first frame, the movie screams at you: "This is a really fun movie, isn't it? Isn't it? Why aren't you having fun yet? Why? Why? Why??????" There are a few brief moments when the movie finds a comfortably campy style, but they are so few and so brief that the audience never has time to relax before the assault begins again. You'd be better off staying at home and digging out your copy of ABBA Gold.

July 19, 2008

MOVIES: Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Wall-E is the last of his kind, a trash collection robot left behind when Earth had become such an ecological nightmare that the human race was forced to abandon the planet. He spends his days stuffing garbage into his midsection and compacting it into tidy little cubes, which he piles up in heaps that are nearly as tall as the abandoned skyscrapers.

He has developed a fascination with certain types of human junk -- Christmas tree lights, plastic forks, a Rubik's Cube -- which he neatly sorts into storage bins in the large truck that serves as his home. Wall-E spends hours on end with his most valuable possession, an old video of Hello, Dolly from which he's learned all he knows about human interaction and love.

Wall-E is a little nebbish of a robot (surely the resemblance to Woody Allen -- the large eyes with heavy frames, the skinny neck -- is no accident), so we don't really ever expect him to find the love he seems to crave. But another robot does eventually show up, arriving on a gleaming spaceship. She is Eve, and it is her periodic mission to check Earth to see if the planet has recovered to the point that it can support vegetation.

The first act of Wall-E is virtually a silent movie, and it's gorgeously done. Wall-E and Eve are astonishingly communicative given their limited features; Eve is a particular animation challenge, being a solid egg shape with two glowing blobs of blue light for eyes.

The two robots do eventually leave Earth, and we find out what has become of humanity. This second half of the movie is a lot more conventional than the first, and a bit less satisfying. With the entrance of people into the movie comes the first significant dialogue, and there are fine voice performances from Jeff Garlin as the spaceship captain, Kathy Najimy and John Ratzenberger as a pair of typical occupants forced to adjust to new circumstances, and Sigourney Weaver as the ship's computer.

I enjoyed Wall-E very much, though I don't find it quite as satisfying as the very best Pixar movies (for me, that would be Ratatouille and The Incredibles); still, saying that a movie is "only" as good as Finding Nemo or Toy Story is high praise, indeed.

What keeps the movie from joining that top rank? I found it to be somewhat chilly and emotionally removed; the characters aren't as inviting or as engaging as they might be. Still, like all of Pixar's movies, it's beautifully animated, and the storytelling is always clear and efficient. Wall-E is a very good movie; it's just not a brilliant one.

Preceding the movie is a new Pixar short, Presto, a very funny tale about the battle of wits between a magician and his rabbit, an heir to the Bugs Bunny tradition of mischievious revenge. It's an absolute delight.

July 17, 2008

BOOKS: The Writing Class, Jincy Willett (2008)

Amy Gallup seemed to have such promise. Her first novels were published when she was in her 20s, and met with great critical success. The lack of corresponding commercial success, though, meant that the market for her work dried up. Now, 30 years later, she's become a misanthropic recluse, supporting herself by teaching night school writing classes at the local community college.

The new class looks promising. Most of the students seem brighter than her average group, and some of them can not only write, they can offer intelligent critiques of their classmates' work. But one of her new students is causing problems. It starts with mean-spirited practical jokes -- insulting parodies of another student's writing, obscene caricatures -- and gradually escalates to the point where Amy and her class need to figure out which of them is responsible.

There are a lot of characters here, and Willett does a fine job of quickly sketching them and giving each one a distinct personality. Imitating bad writing is a difficult thing to do, and Willett's writing samples are delightful to read; each one feels exactly like what that person would have written.

Since this is a writing class, Willett also gets to have a lot of fun by giving us class discussions of the very tools that she's using to misdirect us as we work through her mystery plot -- red herrings, unreliable narrator, distorted perception -- all of which only makes us even more suspicious of everything we're told by anyone.

The mystery is secondary here, and I'm not sure whether there are really enough clues along the way for the reader to have a fair shot at figuring out who the villain is. But the character sketches and the storytelling are great fun, and the interaction among Amy and her students is often very funny. Think of it as a comedy with a few mystery elements thrown in, and you won't be disappointed.

July 16, 2008

BOOKS: Dark Cities Underground, Lisa Goldstein (1999)

Ruth Berry is working on a biography of children's author E.A. Jones, who always claimed that her books were inspired by stories told to her by her son Jerry. Jerry is reluctant to be interviewed, as he has not been close to his mother, and does not like to talk about her. But when Ruth and Jerry are both approached by the same mysterious, menacing man, they begin to realize that there may be some element of truth in the Jeremy books; perhaps those far-fetched adventures really did happen after all.

Goldstein weaves a wild tale in which most of classic children's literature is, she suggests, about the real world entrances to the Nether World, where the figures of classic Egyptian mythology still battle over the fate of mankind. These days, the Nether World can most easily be gotten to through secret passages built into the world's subway systems.

Ruth and Jerry are immensely likable characters, and Goldstein has created a marvelous fantasy world. The villains are appropriately creepy; the helpful characters are frequently ineffectual ditherers, which only makes them all the more lovable (the Corn Sisters are particularly delightful creations).

Goldstein's inspiration runs short at the very end, and the resolution of the book is just a bit flat compared to what has come before. But for most of its length, Dark Cities Underground is a terrific blend of whimsy and terror, and I enjoyed it greatly.

July 11, 2008

BOOKS: Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris (2008)

The mid-1960s weren't a happy time for Hollywood. The studios had become adept at making blandly prestigious pictures that audiences would go to see, but for which no one felt much enthusiasm. The lists of Best Picture nominees from the era are littered with the likes of Becket, Ship of Fools, and The Sand Pebbles. These weren't the money makers, though; "what paid studio bills were James Bond extravaganzas, John Wayne westerns, Elvis Presley quickies, [and] Dean Martin action comedies."

Something new was needed, and in Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris describes the moment when that something new began to arrive. His focus is on the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, an odd list in which "half of the movies seemed to be sneering at the other half." You had two successful studio pictures that dealt, albeit tepidly, with the issue of race (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night); one big-budget disaster that would help to kill the movie musical for nearly forty years (Doctor Dolittle); and two smaller, more personal films that drew huge audiences of younger moviegoers (The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde).

What's most striking to me in Harris's reporting is the vividness of his portraits -- the insecurities of Dustin Hoffman (and the cruelty with which Mike Nichols used those insecurities on the set of The Graduate); the ambition of Warren Beatty, attempting to produce a film as a very young actor; the struggles of Sidney Poitier to balance his goals as an actor with the responsibility he felt to properly represent African-Americans on the screen.

The other thing that comes through with great force is just how difficult is to make a movie. The logistics, the number of people (and egos) involved, the financial challenges, the constantly shifting obstacles -- it's a marvel that any movie ever makes it to the multiplex.

The younger filmmakers in this book would dominate Hollywood for the next decade or so; the older ones are on the verge of fading into irrelevance. But of course, no one ever realizes in the moment that one is part of a historical sea change; every one is just trying to make a good flick.

Harris' reporting is detailed and thorough; his writing is always entertaining to read. I find myself wishing that he'd make this the first of a series, studying the Best Picture nominess from a different year in each volume. Pictures at a Revolution is a fine look at an industry on the verge of change.

July 03, 2008

MOVIES: Get Smart (Peter Segal, 2008)

Sharp casting does a lot to lift this one well above the average TV-to-movie adaptation. Steve Carell as Max, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Adam Arkin as the Chief are all just right for their roles; as are (in briefer appearances) Bill Murray as Agent 13 and Patrick Warburton as Hymie. Only Terence Stamp disappoints as Siegfried, playing the part a bit too straight and not quite getting the same comic tone as the rest of the cast.

There's one key decision in the setup that I think hurts the movie a bit. As the movie opens, Maxwell Smart is a skilled analyst for CONTROL, one of those guys who listens to the satellite chatter and writes long reports that no one bothers to read. But when the evil KAOS discovers the identities of all the CONTROL field agents, Max finally gets his chance to leave office work behind.

Making Max a first-time field agent changes the character from the incompetent bungler of the TV series to an inexperienced bungler; it's a subtle distinction, but an important one, and it creates a different brand of humor. It also changes the Max/99 relationship. No longer is she the long-suffering partner whose affection for Max gives her the patience to keep fixing his mistakes; now she's the annoyed partner who doesn't want to be teamed with a rookie and has very little patience for his blundering about.

On the other hand, the movie does a good job of mixing slapstick humor -- Carell has a charming comic dance scene with a hefty partner -- with a solid action caper. A climactic chase involving a small airplane and a race to Disney Hall works just as well as similar scenes in most of the serious action movies we've seen in recent years.

The movie's doing well enough that there will surely be a sequel. I'm hoping it brings a nice big role for Hymie.

July 02, 2008

BOOKS: The Black Dove, Steve Hockensmith (2008)

Third in the Amlingmeyer Brothers mystery series.

One of the nice things about having protagonists who are itinerant cowboys / ranch hands / laborers is that Hockensmith gets to use a different setting for each installment in the series. Holmes on the Range took place on a ranch; On the Wrong Track found the brothers working as railroad detectives; and in The Black Dove, Gustav and Otto are in San Francisco. To be precise, they are in "the most sinister section of the world's wickedest city" -- Chinatown.

It's 1893, and Chinatown is controlled by ruthless gangs; so long as their problems don't spill into the rest of the city, the police mostly leave them alone. The Amlingmeyers find themselves in Chinatown after the death of their friend, Dr. Chan (whom we met in On the Wrong Track), which the police write off as a suicide. Gustav's not buying that for a minute, and following in the footsteps of his hero, Sherlock Holmes, sets his own "deducifying" skills to solving the murder.

Along the way, they'll cross paths with vicious Chinese ganglords, visit a magnificently appointed bordello, and discover the secret of the mysterious Black Dove. Their old friend Diana Corvus plays a key supporting role, and she's a fine addition to the series; it's fun to watch how flustered the brothers get in the presence of a pretty woman.

Hockensmith's portrayal of attitudes towards the Chinese is appropriate for the era without being gratuitously offensive for contemporary readers; he does all he can to diminish the impact of the racist attitudes, largely by making Gustav and Otto a bit more open-minded than most men of their era and by putting the most egregious lines in the mouths of the biggest villains.

As always, Otto's narration -- he writes these stories down with hopes of selling them, playing Watson to Gustav's Holmes -- has enough period flavor to be convincing, but doesn't go so far overboard as to be distracting or irritating. The brothers are a likable team; their relationship, full of brotherly squabbling and teasing, is thoroughly convincing. There are perhaps a few too many minor characters and suspects this time around, and things get a bit confusing near the end. Still, even if it's not quite up to the level of the first two volumes, The Black Dove is a fine piece of entertainment, and I look forward to the further adventures of the Amlingmeyers.

July 01, 2008

MOVIES: Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne & John Stevenson, 2008)

Yes, it's another slacker-with-a-dream story, and parts of it are a bit familiar, but the animation is gorgeous and the voice cast performs with great wit, carrying you through the weaker moments.

Our hero is Po (voiced by Jack Black), a roly-poly (even by panda standards) goofoff who dreams of being a warrior and is eager to see the festivities at the Jade Temple. Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is about to select the Dragon Warrior, whose responsibility it will be to defend the valley against the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who has recently escaped from prison.

Oogway's protege, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), fully expects that the Dragon Warrior will be one of his students, an all-star team of warriors known as the Furious Five (voiced by an all-star lineup of Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, David Cross, and Jackie Chan), and is dumbfounded when Oogway selects Po. But "there are no accidents," says Oogway, and Shifu reluctantly set out to train Po for the task ahead.

You know the rest of the story -- Po struggles, Shifu does assorted slow burns, Po finds his inner warrior and saves the day -- but it's executed with lively charm and terrific humor. A training sequence involving a dumpling is a marvel of comic timing, and the final showdown between Po and Tai Lung is a spectacular battle that would feel at home in a live-action kung fu flick; I especially liked the way it acknowledged Po's clumsiness and worked his blunders into the sequence of events. The fact that so many martial arts films now bend the laws of gravity and physics has the effect of making the battle sequences feel like the most realistic bits of animation in the movie.

The movie looks marvelous, with (of course) strong Asian influences in the style; an opening dream sequence is particularly impressive, done in a style reminiscent of the TV series Samurai Jack, and having the feel of animated woodblock cuttings. The celebrity voices aren't distracting, as they sometimes can be; you might not even recognize most of them until you see their names in the closing credits.

You won't miss much, I suppose, if you wait to see this on cable or DVD, but it's worth a trip to the theater, especially if you've got kids; they'll love it.