Saturday, February 28, 2015

OPERA: The Barber of Seville

Rossini's Barber of Seville is perhaps the world's favorite opera buffa, and with good reason. You have Rossini's delightful music with its hummable, memorable themes (already familiar to anyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny). And you have the classic Beaumarchais comedy of sassy servants helping young lovers outwit pompous elders with disguises, subterfuge, and plot twists, the pinnacle of French comedy drawing on commedia dell'arte traditions. The current production at LA Opera renders this classic splendidly. Some bright young talents enliven the lead roles, with a shimmering golden tenor of René Barbera giving us a handsome Almaviva, the brilliant soaring mezzo of Elizabeth DeShong giving us a spirited and sassy Rosina, and the nimble mellifluous baritone of Rodion Pogossov making a puckish Figaro. Many of the great arias, duets, and ensembles ended to sustained applause from a delighted audience. The set (from a Teatro Real Madrid production) cleverly uses some giant white columns and walls with baroque details and wrought iron gate, all of which move around and reconfigure from a Seville street under a balcony to the interior of Don Bartolo's home. While the architecture is ornate, the furniture is spare, just the essential pieces, plus several chairs that get used in unexpected ways, including being artfully tossed around and pulled out from under people. The costumes and lighting play with color, beginning the play in nearly all white, adding color as the plot progresses, with the finale a riot of bright colors when the lovers take off in an air balloon. (Hey, didn't I just see that balloon the other week in the Ghosts of Versailles? :-)) The direction is lively and playful, layering physical comic notes on an already very funny libretto (like a hyperactive Figaro circling the others when they are "frozen like statues", waving his hands in front of their unregistering faces). When Almaviva sings his opening serenade, the women of Seville step out to see what is going on, and throughout the opera an ensemble of nosy townsfolk are always looking in around the edges of the action. We took our college-age nieces to see this, as it's such a good first opera experience, and we all enjoyed it immensely.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

FILM: The Last Five Years

I had never heard of the unjustly short-lived Broadway musical "The Last Five Years" until my godson did a phenomenal number from it for a high school cabaret. I was intrigued by the concept. It tells the story of young lovers in an ultimately failed marriage, with him singing scenes of their relationship from first excited date to ultimate parting, and her singing her viewpoint backwards, starting from the split and working back. (Since the story opens with the end of the relationship, that's not a spoiler.) Having seen playwright Jason Robert Brown's other major work, Parade, and been impressed with that, I've long been eager to see The Last Five Years someday. Thus, when I saw it had been done as a film with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, we rushed out to see it. Happily, it lived up to all my great expectations. Kendrick is "pitch perfect" as Cathy, struggling to assert herself while not being exactly sure what she wants, singing sweetly and powerfully at the same time. And Jordan (recent Broadway star of "Newsies") brings an equally powerful voice to make a compelling Jamie. It's easy to join Cathy in getting swept up in his exuberance. His exuberance is only fueled when his career as an author rises meteorically. Her plunge into acting doesn't meet with anything like his success, drawing the lines for their fatal rift. The film keeps faith with the structure of the play, as a series of alternating solos, although both actors are present in every number (unlike the play) even if only one is singing. This creates an emphasized subjectivity which really brings out her conflicted pride and loneliness at his book readings and parties, and his frustration with her unvoiced hesitance to enjoy his success. Streets and scenes of New York City provide just the right backdrop, and it is realized in a way that the visuals provide lovely settings, while letting the songs speak for themselves. (Which is perfect, as Jason Robert Brown's lyrics are clever and incisive, in Sondheim territory.) I think the conceit of the forward and backward story-telling works wonderfully, as a relationship is something that you live forward and reflect on backward, especially in those moments like Cathy's opening number, stunned and wondering what happened, where exactly it went wrong. The two really only sing together when they cross in the middle when they marry. The way he winds it up in the end is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized in film. Given that the play is said to be rather closely autobiographical for Brown, it is surprisingly even-handed. Both characters are sympathetic, and the audience is not lead to take sides or fed an entirely pat answer for the ultimate failure. Rather, like the characters, we are left to look back and search vainly for where exactly things went wrong for the beautiful couple that we were all rooting for.

Monday, February 16, 2015

FILM: 2015 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

A few years ago, some friends let us in on a secret. Some of the best films are the shorts, and the Laemmle Theaters run screenings of them every year a few weeks before the Oscars. You can see as many as a dozen great films in one evening! Last weekend, we screened all the live action and animated shorts.


PARVANEH (Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger) – 25 minutes/Switzerland/Dari and German. Parvaneh, a teenage Afghan girl, is a lone refugee in Switzerland, where she attempts to navigate a cold, unfamiliar environment. When desperate and blocked in her attempts to send money home to her parents, she enlists the help of Emely, a punked-out young Swiss teen she meets on the street. What starts as a quick transaction turns into a night of new experiences and a developing friendship. The film adeptly portrays Parvaneh's initial solitude, desperation, and determination, and their transformation into tentative trust and confidence. We watch as Parvaneh (which appropriately turns out to be Dari for "butterfly") blossoms.

BUTTER LAMP (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak) (Hu Wei and Julien Féret) – 15 minutes/France and China/Tibetan. This film consists solely in watching a traveling portrait photographer take photos of various families in a remote Tibetan village, posing them, choosing an artificial backdrop, and "click", next. The premise sounds dry on the face of it, but it was surprisingly charming. The village is full of characters, and just in the minute or two that the photographer spends with each of them, you get a glimpse of their character. It will make you smile.

THE PHONE CALL (Mat Kirkby and James Lucas) – 21 minutes/UK/English. A young woman working at a suicide hotline gets a phone call that changes her life. The scope of story and emotion that is packed into this 21-minute film is impressive, heart-breaking, and touching. I think this may have been my favorite.

AYA (Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis) – 39 minutes/Israel and France/English, Hebrew, Danish. Aya is an intriguing enigma, a woman who feels more connected to strangers than she does to her own family and friends. We learn this over the course of a car ride to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv airport, where she has gone to pick up her husband but instead capriciously gives a stranger a ride.

BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM (Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney) – 14 minutes/UK/English. An utterly charming story of two young boys in Northern Ireland in the 1970s during "the troubles", who attempt to keep two pet chickens. The charm of a good Irish storyteller recalling the earnest innocence of youth with a golden "Wonder Years" patina is a heartwarming winner.


ME AND MY MOULTON (Torill Kove) – 14 minutes/Canada/English. An engaging illustration of a middle daughter's impressions of her own life in a family that's just a little bit different from everyone else. When your father is the only man in town with a moustache, and your architect parents buy you a funky bike that looks different from all the other kids' bikes, it's rough to be a teen. These light-hearted reflections are stylishly and humorously illustrated in colorful line drawings.

FEAST (Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed) – 6 minutes/USA/Non-dialogue. An endearing dog's-eye view of his master enjoying bachelorhood but then getting married and starting a family, all experienced by the food that lands on the floor. Rich, evocative cartoon imagery and some good belly laughs.

THE BIGGER PICTURE (Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees) – 7 minutes/UK/English. A very stylish and impressionistic rendering of two grown brothers dealing with their aging and dying mother, and the conflict when one brother gets stuck with more of the work. A whole arc with emotional nuance is conveyed in only 7 minutes, with skillfully crafted dialog and editing, and the animation is vivid and colorful, in a very subjective, impressionist painterly style. I think I'd put my vote here for most beautiful animation.

A SINGLE LIFE (Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen) – 2 minutes/The Netherlands/Non-dialogue. An LOL funny short short film about a woman and a time-controlling record player.

THE DAM KEEPER (Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi) – 18 minutes/USA/Non-dialogue. A post-apocalyptic Aesop-style fable about bullying and judging others too superficially, with a pig, a fox, and other animal characters going to school and inhabiting a town. The animation is rich and vivid, in a painterly brushed style.

Some "bonus" animations (not nominated, but honorable mention) included "Duet", a beautiful, graceful, sweeping depiction of a girl, a boy, and his dog as they grow up, all done in luminous line drawings on dark background; and "Bus Story", a quirky little cartoon of a plucky woman taking on a school bus route, overcoming the unappreciative kids, the Quebec winter, and a misanthropic old man who owns the bus.

Friday, February 13, 2015

BOOKS: Flash Boys

In his book Flash Boys, Michael Lewis penetrates the shroud of mystery cloaking "high frequency trading" firms, and how they are manipulating the stock exchanges. While the topic may sound dry, Lewis brings it alive by telling the story through the personal perspectives of several key Wall Street players. The main hero is an unusually decent Canadian broker who set out to find out just exactly what high-frequency traders (HFT) were really doing (since practically no one actually knew), and ultimately moved to correct the predatory behavior by creating a new transparent exchange that neutralized advantages of speed. Other characters include an Irish immigrant who became very successful selling technology to the HFTs so they could gain timing advantages measured in microseconds, and a Russian programmer who became the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested in the wake of the financial crisis. Lewis does a good job of breaking down some rather technical details, keeping the story human-focused, and nicely framing it with an artful ending that signals both that the new exchange succeeded and that foiling one game will not end market gaming, it will only change the strategy. I found the tale fascinating, and by the end I was outraged at just how much economic resources and human capital are lost due to the perverse incentives in the current market structure. Fortunately, it seems the FBI has read the book too, and some action has begun to be taken. Now if only the SEC would wake up and read this book.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

FILM: Mr. Turner

It seems fitting to describe the film Mr. Turner as a portrait of the artist. No real action, plot, or dramatic arc is found here, but rather a visualization of the life and character of the early 19th century artist. Watching his interactions with his father, his maid, his daughters and their mother, his mistress, his peers, and his patrons, we get a good sense of this very interesting character who was often curmudgeonly, but also often gentlemanly, and sometimes generous. Timothy Spall does a superb job of capturing this complex and often taciturn man. We get a good sense of his place in society at the time, prominent though also with a few detractors as his style became more abstract later in life. Visually, director Mike Leigh does a terrific job of conveying the grittiness of the times (even the well-off in England in the 1840s lived a rather dirty existence by today's standards), and also conveying the beauty that Turner saw in it. There are some extraordinary scenes which are completely painterly, capturing the natural light of clouds and sky in such a way that it looks like a painting. And sometimes these scenes fade into or out of a painting. The opening scene, of a Dutch windmill, river, and sky, with two nuns walking along the river, looks completely like a painting, except that the nuns are slowly moving, and as the camera pans back, we see the silhouette of the artist sketching the scene, memorizing the light. In another scene, the artist has himself lashed to the mast of a ship so that he can see what light looks like in a stormy sea (and practically gives himself pneumonia in the process). While the film was bit draggy at times (it was nearly 3 hours after all), I did mostly enjoy it. I am not often a fan of plotless films, but I was engaged by this portrait, and found my thoughts returning to it later in the week.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

FILM: Still Alice

Still Alice features a heart-wrenching performance by Julianne Moore portraying a smart, successful woman in her 50s struck with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film captures her experience and the impact to her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish). Moore’s performance combine with subtle, skillful direction, cinematography, score, and make-up to give subjective impact to the main character’s decline. In some scenes to visualize her disorientation, the focal length tightens so that she is sharp while the world around her blurs. In one scene, where she’s been running and suddenly finds herself lost on what should be the familiar ground of the university campus where she teaches, her panic becomes palpable as the focus tightens and the sound zeroes in on her sharp intakes of breath. In some scenes, the score by a string ensemble subtly deconstructs, to where the strings are just slightly out of synch in time or wavering in tune, not dissonant but kind of the sound of an orchestra tuning before the performance starts. In another scene, where she is viewing a video that her past self has recorded for her future self, the video of her past self is in crisp focus, clear voice, and sharp colors, while her actual present self is subtly muted in color and less distinct. All of these elements of film craft are skillfully combined to great effect to convey her experience. The main character gives a powerful speech at the center of the film, but unlike other works with heavy-handed speeches inserted into the book (Atlas Shrugged, for example), the speech scene is moving and integral to the story. Bring Kleenex, but do see this film (unless the subject is too close to home, in which case a pass is completely understandable). Julianne Moore is squarely in Best Actress territory here, and I’d also call out Kristin Stewart’s performance as one of the daughters, and the co-writer/director team of Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who also brought us the wonderful Quinceañera).

My Favorite Films of 2014

So now that the Academy of old white guys have nominated the best films of (the last six weeks of) 2014, I'll throw in my totally idiosyncratic list of films that I liked in 2014. I'm not keen on picking "bests", so I'll just tell you what I liked, in no particular order, other than I'll put up front the ones I think have been unjustly overlooked and get to the bigger names later, making up my own categories as I go along.

Chef. For me, one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Firstly, it's about food and people who love food, so of course this film had me at amuse bouche. And the shots of the food were absolutely mouthwatering. But more than that, I loved the theme of a guy trying to figure out how to pursue his passion and artistic expression at the same time as meeting the practicalities of doing something that pays. It was a film about finding professional integrity, with a nice side order of father-son relationship. It was a feel good story with a fresh creative angle, inspired in part by the real life story of Roy Choi (who consulted on the film, and don't miss the behind-the-scene shot after the credits of Choi giving Favreau a cooking lesson). I think Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed, and starred in this did a great job of all three. As a foodie, I naturally also really enjoyed The Hundred-Foot Journey. Food, France, and Helen Mirren are a guaranteed recipe for something wonderful, and it was. But for real heart, character, and story, I think Chef was carnitas while Journey was a light air-filled soufflé.

Calvary. A stunning story with a commanding performance by Brendan Gleeson as a priest in a small coastal Irish parish. The film opens with an explosive revelation that colors the rest of the film, as we watch the priest tending to his parishioners over the course of a week that may be his last. The townsfolk are a colorful lot who don't always appreciate the priest's efforts, but the story is an amazing one of faith, redemption, raw humanity, and a priestly calling in the midst of a broken church and real broken lives. Kudos to writer/director Jon Michael McDonagh, who also brought us the outstanding 2011 film The Guard.

Fading Gigolo. Remember when Woody Allen used to put out movies that were fun, funny, witty, insightful, and in love with New York? This is totally one of those movies. Although Woody Allen is in it, and it feels like peak vintage Woody Allen, it was written and directed by John Turturro, who also stars in it. I think Oscar has some kind of grudge against writer/director/actors, but Turturro does a great job of all three in this quirky, very original, very enjoyable film about a middle-aged florist who is pimped out by his friend to call on lonely or bored rich women, and ends up falling in love with an Orthodox Jewish widow. Only in New York. (Ironically, I found this to be a "better Woody Allen film" than the actual Woody Allen film this year, Magic in the Moonlight, which was clever and enjoyable, but no Midnight in Paris, and didn't have any of the warmth and humanity of Fading Gigolo.)

Love is Strange. A wonderfully tender and keen exploration of marriage and family relationships. When an older gay couple suffers a financial setback, they have to give up their apartment, and both temporarily impose on family and friends until they can get back on their feet. Great performances from Alfred Molina and John Lithgow in the lead roles. Director Ira Sachs ("Keep the Lights On") really steps up, delivering a lot of heart while still keeping it real.

Locke. It is absolutely astounding that a film set entirely in a car with one guy driving and talking on the cell phone about pouring concrete could turn out to be a completely gripping human drama, but trust me, it absolutely is. Obviously it's a bit more than just concrete, but that's the backdrop. The night before the biggest day of his career, the foreman of a skyscraper project has to make a life-changing decision that risks his job and his marriage. Tom Hardy's tour-de-force performance is riveting. Great job by English writer/director Steven Knight.

Obvious Child. As one of their poster taglines says, "the most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made". A fresh original romantic comedy about a one-night-stand, an unplanned pregnancy, and a young stand-up comic in Brooklyn barely keeping it together. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre comes out with a hit (this film, an expansion of a short film she made, is her feature length debut), and lead actress Jenny Slate, in her first big role, is pitch-perfect.

St. Vincent. Great performance by Bill Murray as a sour old curmudgeon who begrudgingly gets dragged into a friendship with the young boy next door and his hard-pressed divorced mother. Also great performances from Jaeden Lieberher (why do kids never get taken seriously when they give great performances?) and Melissa McCarthy. Very funny and full of heart. Nice job by writer/director Theodore Melfi in his feature debut.

The Lunchbox. A charming, bittersweet romance of letters exchanged anonymously between a disaffected housewife and a lonely widower, enabled by a mix-up in Mumbai's famous lunchbox delivery system. The letters go back and forth with the lunchbox, and sometimes as much is communicated with the food she prepares as in the notes. Utterly charming and touching and so much more satisfying than a predictable by-the-numbers Hollywood rom-com. Nice performances from Irrfan Khan ("Life of Pi") and Nimrat Kaur, and kudos to writer/director Ritesh Batra in his debut.

Like Father, Like Son. Based on a true story of two families in Japan who discover years down the road that their sons were switched at birth due to a hospital mix-up. An engaging and heartfelt exploration of what truly makes a family and what is ultimately important in life.

The Rocket. An engaging story of a boy born in a Laotian hill tribe under a sign of bad luck, determined to prove he is not bad luck after all, amidst the whole family being uprooted by a government project to build a dam that will flood their village. If you enjoy being transported to a very different kind of life, this film delivers beautiful scenes of Laotian village life, their ways and struggles, in a rainforest jungle peppered with old missiles, bombs, and other war detritus. Youngster Sitthiphon Disamoe gives an exuberant performance in Aussie writer/director Kim Mordaunt's first non-documentary feature.

Hmm, are all of the best films done by writer/directors? Seems to be a trend here...  Moving on to more mainstream movies that still escaped the notice of the Academy...

Selma. It is deservedly a Best Picture nominee, but how David Oyelowo was overlooked for best actor is staggering, not to mention Carmen Ejogo for best actress as Coretta Scott King, and director Ava DuVernay. The film was a moving and powerful dramatization of events leading up to a pivotal moment in our nation's history.

The Lego Movie. This should win best animated feature, yet it's not even nominated. If you missed this film cause you thought it was just a kids movie, you really missed out. Sure your kids will love it too, but it is fun and wickedly funny for all ages. I declare this the Best LOL Film of 2014.

Maleficent. Maybe the Academy thinks Disney movies don't count as serious film consideration? I beg to differ, and this is exhibit A. It was a fantastically clever story, doing for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz, giving us a fresh creative back story that turns the original inside-out. And kudos to Disney for giving kids more credit and once again smashing the handsome-prince trope and instead giving us a much more mature fantasy. The whole package was beautifully visualized. Shame on the Academy for seeing nothing Oscar-worthy here beyond the costumes. Angelina Jolie was superb.

Into The Woods. A beautiful visualization of the Sondheim musical. Not sure if the Academy actually watched this film, or if they just automatically nominate Meryl Streep for anything she does. She was great as always, but Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick were terrific too.

And finally a few places where the Academy did get it right:

Grand Budapest Hotel. Another brilliant picture from the fantastically creative mind of writer/director Wes Anderson. He vividly creates an evocative forgotten pocket kingdom of the Austro-Hungarian Empire post-WWI, with the appropriate grayness of its present and nostalgia for its past. All this as the backdrop for a tale of intrigue worthy of James Bond, with the hero being the ultimate hotel concierge rather than a spy. Crazy, funny, bittersweet tale. Anderson has been nominated before, but this may just be his year.

Boyhood. Art Linklater has played with the idea of time and real life before, with his Sunrise/Sunset trilogy taking an intermittent look at a romantic relationship, checking in every several years. But this latest film is his most audacious, following a boy from age 6 through 18 in actual years. Like his other films, it's very "real life" like (in a real way, not in a "reality TV" way), all character, no big drama, and minimal plot, but just enough to keep it interesting. The amazing film achievement here is its fluidity. Time moves as it does in real life. There are no typical Hollywood markers where it goes dark and a caption says "A Year Later". Time passes in a simple cut. It's also amazing that he was able to keep such a consistency of style and quality to the film over the 12 years it took to make it. Truly an artistic film achievement.

The two geek genius holiday blockbusters, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, are both great stories about great men, excellently acted and realized. Eddie Redmayne, in particular, deserves praise for his performance as Stephen Hawking.

Ida. Seems a leading contender for foreign film, and rightly so. An intriguing story of a young girl raised in a convent in Poland, who, just before taking her vows, discovers an estranged aunt and unravels a dark family secret from the darker days of WWII. The black-and-white film does a great job conveying the atmosphere of 1960s Communist Poland.

There are certainly films we still need to catch up on (Gone Girl and Birdman, for example), and we look forward to what 2015 has to offer (including Still Alice, which is only being released for real now, even though the old white men got screeners for it in advance and are counting it as a 2014 film).

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Debt Ceiling On A Personal Scale

Some of my more conservative Facebook friends have recently posted this video, and I really appreciate it. I think it does a great job of sincerely expressing how they feel about the debt ceiling, in a way that makes it very understandable. After watching it, I can see where they are coming from, and I can see how they must think I am crazy to disagree. So I'd like to explain how I would tell this same story, with the same underlying facts, but end up seeing things differently, in the hopes that they will understand where I am coming from.

To begin with, I think the video begins on a subtly misleading note by giving the guy an income of $21,000. Sure, I get that it's just an analogy for $2.1 trillion in federal revenue, with an arbitrary number of zeroes chopped off to make it more relatable on a human scale. But $21,000 is just a hair above the poverty line for a family of three. For people living in poverty, they are perpetually on the edge of disaster, with no tolerance for any unexpected expenses like an illness or a car repair. That would be a good starting point if we were talking about Haiti or Rwanda, but we're talking about the USA, one of the wealthiest nations on earth. So let's start this story off on the right track, and say that our guy made $245,000 last year, and is one of the most well-off people in his town. (Note that the video is slightly dated. I'll use updated numbers, but keep everything in the proper proportion. US federal revenue in FY 2012 was $2.45 trillion, so I'm just chopping off 7 zeroes to tell our story.)

It is true that our guy has been spending more than he earns the last several years, and last year his expenses were $354,000. But the video paints the guy as an irresponsible profligate, wantonly spending on flatscreen TVs and vacations to Australia, when that is a completely unfair characterization. A huge part of the reason our guy is spending so much is because he's supporting his elderly parents, who have moved in with him. He doesn't complain, and he is happy to accept the responsibility of caring for his parents, but the fact is that every year they get older, they require more care, which equals more expense. A full 45% of expenses last year went to caring for his parents. Another 19% of his expenses went to maintaining a state-of-the-art security system, as well as a private security patrol. They've talked about trimming that, but his wife is pretty insistent on protecting the family. You see, their own house was burglarized 12 years ago, and several other close neighbors have been hit more recently, and it seems the threat of crime persists. Aside from that, another 13% goes to mandatory bills, 6% to the mortgage, and the remaining 17% is discretionary spending. But by "discretionary", we're still not talking about flatscreen TVs, we're talking about things like putting the kids through school (not nearly the best nor the most expensive), health care (one of the best and by far the most expensive), utilities, transportation, food, and the like.

In the video, the banker asks the guy if he has made any cuts in his expenses. He has made cuts. They haven't been huge, but they're a bit better than the video makes them out to be. He cut $6,000 from his discretionary spending, including $3,000 from the security system and $3,000 between health, education, and utilities. The video banker asks the guy if he has any new income, and the guy just hems and haws. But that's not our guy at all. In real life, our guy has seen his income go up in each of the past three years, is on track to get a nice bump this year, and looks likely to see even bigger increases for the foreseeable future. In 2009, he made $210K; in 2010, $216K; in 2011, $230K; and in 2012, $245K. This year he's looking to clear $270K. Though his business took a hit like everyone else with the recession 5 years ago, he has picked up, and has been slowly growing again, and is looking to grow even more. So our guy is actually in much better shape there than the video portrays. As far as income goes, one thing that should be noted is that he could be making much more if he chose to work more. But about 10 years ago, his wife was really concerned that he was working too much, and she forced him to give up some really large accounts in his business. Truth be told, he could handle the stress just fine, but for his wife's piece of mind, he let those big accounts and the additional income go. If he hadn't let those accounts go, he would be much closer to making his ends meet.

He's been financing his excess spending mostly by drawing against his home equity line of credit (current balance $1.2 million) and borrowing against his IRA retirement account ($485,000). That sounds like a pretty large number, and it's certainly larger than our guy would like. The biggest reason for the size of his debt was the 2008 recession. That hit his business and his whole town pretty hard, but he made some crucial decisions at that time. He could have stemmed his own losses in the short term by laying off a lot of his employees when his business dropped. But he realized that would only be a very short-term fix. As one of his town's major employers, he realized that if he laid off so many people, that would have a ripple effect that would plunge the town into deep depression, sinking his own business even further as the town sunk. Thus, he decided instead to keep employing as many people as he could, just paying them out of his home equity loan to do pro-bono maintenance and construction work around town, until the economy picked up and his business along with it. Though he drew heavily on his own personal debt (probably to the tune of about $450,000), he's seeing the strategy pay off. Major depression was averted and business has been slowly growing again. Another cause for his debt was that extra business he could have had, except for his wife fretting about him working too hard. By working less, he figures he's added $160,000 to his debt.

As big as his debt is, it's still not really so far beyond the pale for a guy of his means. He is completely staying current on paying his loans, his credit cards are completely paid up, and with a recent refinance, his combined mortgage and interest payment on all of his debt is $1,860 / month. Now that might be higher than your mortgage payment, but for a guy who made $245,000 last year, that is nowhere near tapped out. Note that if you look at financial planner's guidance on how much mortgage one can afford, they typically say your mortgage shouldn't exceed 35% of your income, or if they're very conservative, maybe 25% of your income. Our guy is currently paying 9% of his income on his mortgage. Chances are that your total mortgage (or rent) and credit card payments add up to more than 9% of your income. In that light, perhaps our guy isn't quite so financially irresponsible as he was unfairly made out to be.

Which brings me to the most unrealistic part of the video. In the video, it shows a skeptical banker unwilling to extend this guy a loan. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our guy has a top-notch credit rating, and bankers are basically tripping over each other wanting to loan our guy money. They view our guy as the most reliable place to put their money, better than just about any other place they could invest it. They look at the value of his house, which is way more than his current debt, and they look at his current income, his income growth, and his potential for the future, and they are completely comfortable lending him even more money. In fact, they are so confident in our guy that they are willing to lend money to him at rates that are so low that, taking inflation into account, they are practically less than zero. Yes, that's right. The bankers of the world are willing to basically pay our guy to hold their money. And we're not talking about wild-eyed crazy bankers lending like it's 2007. We're talking about sober post-crash bankers. The smart money in the world looks at our guy and sees nothing to worry about.

Actually, I should say the bankers see nothing much to worry about. The one thing that is starting to worry them a bit is the potential instability of the guy's business, because of his wife. You see, his wife has become increasingly nervous about their level of debt, and she and her husband have been squabbling over the best way to grow the business. (At the same time, she continues to be nervous about her husband working too much, and wants him to work less, reducing his income. Somehow she doesn't realize how counterproductive that is to reducing their debt.) Their disagreements have been much more public in recent years, as she has at times taken actions like stopping payment on checks that her husband has written, or held up action at board meetings. As his wife and part owner of the business, she does have the legal ability to cause such disruptions. She is well-meaning, but her actions are threatening to jeopardize the business. From the outside, people just see instability and a business that is becoming less predictable in its management and direction. Most recently, she's threatening to cancel the whole home equity line of credit that enables their ongoing business, not realizing how catastrophic that would be. She truly wants what she thinks is best for her family, but ironically her own actions could lead to great harm to the very thing she wants to protect.

And that, my friends, is a much more accurate analogy of the current situation.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

FOOD: Papilles

We discovered a great little gem of a restaurant called Papilles, tucked in the corner of a tiny strip mall on Franklin near the foot of Beachwood Canyon (convenient for a post-Arclight dinner). It caught my eye on OpenTable as being too new to have any reviews at all, so I Googled it and noted glowing reviews on Yelp, as well as from L.A. Times critic Irene Virbila, who compared it to the tiny neighborhood bistros of the 11th or 13th arrondissements in Paris. And so it was true French cooking with farmers market fresh ingredients, but with a neighborhood scale and vibe. They have a $37 3-course fixed price menu, frequently updated based on what's fresh, with a couple choices of starters and a couple choices of mains, and that's the extent of the menu, so you have to be a bit game to eat here and just trust that the limited choices are all good. (And lucky for us, most of the choices were gluten-free, so we had no problem there.) I suspect that's the secret of what makes this place work is that they just cook a few different things each night, but those few things are superb. I started with a light and flavorful bacon and leek quiche with a marvelously flaky crust, and a light accompaniment of frisee and dandelion greens, while George started with a plate of perfectly carmelized roast cauliflower with pine nuts and mint. For our mains, we both opted for the beef cheek with baby parsnips, cardoons, and black trumpets. The beef was fall-apart tender and flavorful, and doused in a dark, umami-rich sauce rendered from the black trumpet mushrooms, complimented by the sweet earthy parsnips and the cardoons (a cousin to artichoke, but more resembling fennel stalks). For dessert, we shared a cheese plate with some excellent selections -- a Spanish cheese with a roquefort-like crust, a pungent, runny goat cheese from New York, and an aged Gouda -- as well as a delicious chocolate terrine (gluten-free!) with pistacchio crust and crème anglaise. They have an eclectic selection of wines arrayed on a bookshelf on one wall for you to peruse, and some unusual by-the-glass offerings. The red and the rosé on offer were both from Pfalz, while the white was a Sancerre. We opted to try the German pinot noir, a whole new idea to us, and found it quite nice, fruity but enough to stand up to the dark meaty sauce. We'll definitely be back to this charming little piece of a Paris neighborhood dropped in the corner of Hollywood.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FOOD: Whisper Lounge

We'd always seen the Whisper Lounge at The Grove, and had even been there for drinks once, but we always assumed it was just a bar, maybe with some pub fare. How wrong we were! On Saturday, we had dinner there after a movie, and discovered what a hidden gem this place is. There is some excellent, creative cooking going on here, and we enjoyed one of the best dinners we've had in a while. I started with a kale and apple salad that was extraordinary. I think some of the kale leaves were quickly blanched, leaving them still fresh but slightly softened, while others were very lightly toasted and slightly crispy. These two kale textures were tossed together with crisp mandarine-sliced apples, bits of blue cheese, walnuts, and little golden raisins, all in a light tart dressing of pomegranite vinaigrette. George had a simple butter lettuce salad with avocado, some beautiful radish slices with pinkish hues inside, and a bit of pecorino in a lemon vinaigrette. Our mains were equally impressive. My Scottish salmon was perfectly cooked: crosshatched grill marks on the outside but still moist and tender inside, and served covered in marvelous locally-foraged mushrooms, with soba in a light ginger-sesame broth. I wouldn't have thought to pair mushrooms with salmon, but these mushrooms -- a light, willowy kind, something like oyster mushrooms -- were perfect. The broth was a subtle earthy complement, just a hint of ginger perfume without overpowering. Meanwhile, George was singing high praises of his braised short ribs over whipped potatoes and root veggies. They had a bunch of tempting sides that were hard to choose from: Brussels sprouts with bacon, roasted cauliflower in a lemon-mint-fish sauce; polenta with radicchio, pears, gorgonzola, and walnuts. We chose the grilled broccolini with finely sliced peppadew peppers, fine slices of chorizo, in a light aioli. The cocktails were also creative, with craft ingredients. I had a wonderful cocktail of Hendricks gin, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, and fresh lemon juice, muddled with fresh blackberries. For dessert we stayed simple and gluten-free, but even there the quality ingredients and craftwork shone through in scoops of housemade strawberry and toasted marshmallow ice cream with fresh berries. We will definitely be dining at Whisper Lounge again!

Monday, October 29, 2012

YES on 34: The Death Penalty Is Not Effective

Regardless of whether you believe that the hardest core criminals should be killed, or whether you believe that the death penalty is immoral, we should all agree that the death penalty as it exists today is not serving its intended purpose. Because the death penalty entails a lengthy appeals procedure, very few inmates sentenced to death are ever killed. Since 1978 when the death penalty was reinstated in California, only 13 inmates have been executed. Many more have died of old age. While some death penalty supporters argue that we could just speed up the appeals process, that is simply not realistic in this day and age, where advanced forensic evidence such as DNA testing has proved that innocent people have been sentenced to death. It is simply not acceptable to our society that we should allow innocent people to be put to death mistakenly, so great care is taken to prevent that (and even still the record is imperfect). Given the realities of the present situation, one can hardly argue that the modern death penalty has any special deterrent effect beyond a life sentence.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining a "death row" has been estimated at over $4 billion since 1978. Death row inmates are specially segregated, and require special handling and extra guards. Ironically, even though the law provides for criminals to work in prison and have their wages garnished toward repaying their victims, death row inmates are often exempted from working because of the special handling required (extra guards, not allowed to mix in the yard with other prisoners, etc).

Prop 34 would replace the death penalty with a life sentence with no possibility of parole. This would eliminate the need for the special "death row" protocols, saving the state upwards of $100 million each year. The most heinous criminals could then be forced to work, and to pay back debts to their victims. The law would never allow them to be released. The commercials claiming that this proposition would let dangerous criminals out are just plain lying, and the ballot pamphlet argument against this prop is completely disingenuous on this point. If you read the actual proposition text yourself, it is quite clear that the death penalty is replaced with "imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole". Moreover, explicit language is added to require that the prisoners work and to have their wages garnished to repay any debts.

It is noteworthy that a number of conservative, tough-on-crime former supporters of the death penalty have endorsed Prop 34. These include Donald Heller, author of the 1978 proposition that reinstated the death penalty, Ronald Briggs who worked with his father to spearhead the 1978 campaign, and Jeanne Woodford, a former chief warden at San Quentin, who supervised four executions. If these death penalty proponents realize that the death penalty is not working, it is definitely time for change. For all these reasons, I urge a YES on 34 vote.

Friday, October 12, 2012

YES on 40: A No-Brainer to Support Citizens' Redistricting

Some of the propositions require wading through lots of argument for and against, but not Prop 40. You may recall that over the last several years, California has instituted a citizens redistricting commission to draw the political district boundaries that for years had been egregiously gerrymandered by both parties. (Seriously, look up gerrymander in Wikipedia, and you'll see a picture of California's 2008 State Senate districts.) The first citizen's commission completed their work in 2011, and the new more fairly and rationally drawn districts were in place for the June 2012 elections. Alas, several incumbents were unhappy about the new districts, and they placed this referendum on the ballot and sued in court, in the hopes of getting the districts tossed out for the 2012 elections. These politicos were righteously smacked down by the California Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion that noted that not only do the new districts appear to comply with all of the constitutionally mandated criteria, but they were arrived at through an "open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process", as was the intention of the California voters in establishing the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Having lost in court, the proponents of this referendum are no longer even supporting their own referendum. If you look in the voter information guide, the argument against Prop 40 is just a short statement from the people who put it on the ballot saying essentially "we give up". (Yes, it's a bit confusing, but the people who put the referendum on the ballot wanted a "no" vote.) So the obvious thing to do is to vote YES on 40, and show your support for California's open, transparent, and nonpartisan redistricting process.