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Blurring the Lines of Animation

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 27, 2011 in Entertainment, Movies |

In a quest to see all of the films nominated for about 20 of the Oscar categories, my wife and I are getting a chance to fill in the movie-going gaps of the last year. And last night, we took another step in that direction.

WIth Toy Story 3, Pixar has another winner. That’s hardly a surprise. Similarly, it’s no surprise that the technology has continued to evolve, with so many textured shots containing complex lighting and effects that it could hardly be called the same genre as the first Toy Story, let alone some of the early Pixar shorts. (By the way, there’s a great DVD out with many of the early Pixar shorts on it; it’s a fun view and illustrative of the evolution of the craft.)

What continues to surprise me is the depth of the storytelling. And how evocative a talismanic object can be. Whether it’s a boy and his cowboy doll, or, as in the case of the movie, the converse, it is easy for those ties to bring significant emotion to the fore. As I reflect on the talismanic items of my youth, I certainly still have many of them around decades later.

As I go through this period of seeing lots of movies in close succession, it’s an opportunity to analyze what makes them effective (or not). But in the case of a movie like Toy Story 3, how do you comment on the on-screen work? Is it acting? Well, voice acting to be sure. And art, definitely. But given that the visuals are all artificial (and, indeed, usually depicting artificial items like dolls and other playthings), it seems like a different art. A visceral form of painting and drawing, perhaps.

But if all good art is visceral, then why does Toy Story 3 move people more than, say, the Mona Lisa? One possibility is that the Mona Lisa is junk. Unlikely. Rather, people don’t develop the kind of relationship with museum art that they do with movie characters — especially those that have recurred in three films over a decade or more. But when the Mona Lisa gets her own cartoon action series, well…

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Check Your Pockets

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 26, 2011 in Politics, The World |

The New York Times this afternoon has a story about how New York State is taking financial control over Nassau County, the wealthiest county in New York and indeed, one of the 15 wealthiest in the country (2006-2008). All of this because the county couldn’t balance its budget and is carrying a $300 million shortfall.

There are some striking parallels to what’s going on in states and with the federal government. Nassau County owes at least some of its deficit to the local officials’ desire to roll back taxes in a time of economic hardship. Sounds quite similar to the revised federal deficit numbers out today that show a $400 billion increase — magically, the same amount as the price tag for December’s extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

Of course, the big question is what to do? Cities can declare bankruptcy but states can’t. (There’s a move afoot in Congress to allow it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.) Other states besides New York have the laws in place to take over local governments if they become financially unviable, so it’s conceivable that it could happen elsewhere. But then the state steps in, with all of its own financial drama, and…does what?

In many localities, the long-term neglect has led to a crisis so severe that some combination of hard service and staff cuts, salary and benefit reductions, and revenue increases will be necessary. All of these look pretty grim in a time of economic distress, but they look positively rosy when you compare it with the idea of states issuing IOUs to all of its creditors and employees.

In an era when economic disparity seems greater than ever (i.e., big companies are doing well with record earnings, middle- and low-income individuals are doing worse), there may be some room for … dare I say it? … wealth redistribution. Although the term has gotten evil connotations associated with it (everything from socialism to Marxism), any time we pay a tax or buy something, there’s some degree of redistribution. And taxes are a good place to start.

Our tax system (at both the federal level and in many states) has gotten less progressive over time. Why not reverse that trend? Add some high-dollar brackets back in, cut some high-end exemptions and income-sunset others. It’s easy to say, moderately easy to model, but ferociously difficult to implement. You think every little deduction has a constituency that defends it? Try focusing on the deductions that apply only to large corporations and wealthy individuals? If you listen closely, you can hear the $2000 Italian loafers skittering across the Capitol walkways in a lobbying frenzy.

So as our governmental institutions increasingly run into financial brick walls, keep an eye on your pockets. It may well be the Rest Of Us that pay the piper.

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Oscars 2011: The Nominations

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 25, 2011 in Entertainment, Movies |

OscarWell, it’s been about six hours since the nominations were announced and, although I’m still a little bleary, I have had a chance to do some sifting and sorting of the announcement. There are a few surprises, but not too many.

Best Picture. With ten nominees in the field again this year, there were bound to be some interesting choices. All the expected names were there, including the “Big Five” (The King’s Speech, The Social Network, The FIghter, 127 Hours, and Black Swan), as well as the movie with the momentum right now, True Grit. Toy Story 3, The Kids Are All Right, and Inception were fairly predictable, too. Only the addition of the Winter’s Bone was a bit of a surprise.

(Side note: my favorite quote of the Golden Globes was the maker of Toy Story 3 backstage after winning the award. His words were to the effect of relief — he just didn’t want to be known as the guy who made the Bad Toy Story Movie.)

Actors. Man, the Academy has a love affair with Javier Bardem. The only nomination that Biutiful got was for his performance and for foreign language film (which it will certainly win). What about Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter? It was a quiet performance, but it was a steadying one and one that was very giving to the other actors in the film. It’s a testament to the nominations that Bale, Leo, and Adams got that Wahlberg was a force there. The Academy just didn’t agree. Jeremy Renner for Supporting Actor (for “The Town”) is another surprise. Enjoy the nomination.

Actresses. With two nominations for “The Fighter” in the Supporting Actress category (for Melissa Leo and Amy Adams), expect all of the prognosticators to talk about them canceling each other out in terms of votes. But it could be another Tatum O’Neal/Anna Paquin year for Hailee Steinfeld. We’ll see how she does during the campaign season. And it’s gotta be a sign of love for the movie that the Academy nominated Helena Bonham Carter for The King’s Speech. Maybe they’re just looking forward to another fashion disaster on the red carpet. (At the Golden Globes, someone called her “the new Bjork.” Sounds about right.) On the lead side, it’s probably Portman’s to lose. The Academy routinely dismisses lighter films like The Kids Are All Right when it comes to the awards, and they love the descent-into-madness roles. Portman’s performance was pretty good, but it’s unclear if it’s the best of the year.

Directing. Most of the Big Five are represented here, with True Grit taking the place of 127 Hours. Which is an interesting choice, since 127 Hours required quite a bit of intricacy from the director, setting up shots in very confined places. Beyond that, though, little surprise here.

Cinematography. Again, the biggies are mostly here. The surprise for me was the addition of Inception, since so much of that seemed to lie in the art direction world, not necessarily cinematography. That, or visual effects (both categories for which it also got nominations). The cinematography in Black Swan seemed…okay. Another mild surprise that it got a nomination.

Editing. A personal favorite category of mine, and usually one in which I seethe. It seems that many films over the last few years have been poorly edited, with running times that vastly exceed the stories they tell. This year, the five nominees all did manage to get through their reels without dragging too much. There was no watch-peeking during these nominees, which is a good sign. I’d guess it would be a race between King’s Speech and Social Network, with the beloved nature of the former challenging the breakneck speed of the dialogue of the latter.

With the shortened Oscar season this year (and looking to get shorter all the time), the suspense won’t last long. The red carpet unfurls on February 27…

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127 Hours: A Late Review

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 24, 2011 in Entertainment, Movies |

127 HoursA man is trapped. He can’t go anywhere, and he’s alone. During long days and nights, he reflects on his family and his life as he tries to extricate himself from the situation. Though long stretches of the movie are wordless, the impact on the audience is real and moving. Finally, at the end, he manages to get back to life, although the worse for wear.

The movie? 2000’s Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks in an Oscar-nominated performance. Hanks, an initially comedic actor who had, by then, well established himself as a versatile craftsman, essentially carried the movie. Along with a volleyball named Wilson.

Of course, there are many parallels to the reasonably current 127 Hours, this time with James Franco in the OMG-what-do-I-do-now role. Again, Franco is asked to carry the movie, and, like Hanks before him, generally delivers. (Yes, I realize it’s been out quite a while; it took a bit to get around to seeing it.)

But the different experiences of the two movies are based more on their differences. In Cast Away, Hanks is thrust into the situation based on no fault of his own, when his plane crashes into the ocean. In 127 Hours, Aron Ralston gets into trouble because he was reckless and foolish, choosing to travel into the wilds without letting anyone know where he was going or when he was coming back. That makes it harder to gin up sympathy for his plight.

Also, while the middle portion of Cast Away is filled with Hanks’ character striving to make small accomplishments to survive and then succeeding, Franco as Ralston strives to make one major accomplishment and fails. Well, until he succeeds at the very end in a somewhat gory result. I didn’t feel the same kind of vicarious joy that I did when Hanks made fire when Franco drank his own urine. It’s not learning a new skill to survive, it’s holding your nose and gulping.

None of this is to say that 127 Hours is a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s actually pretty good. The cinematography is beautiful, with panoramic shots of Canyonlands and the Moab, Utah area. The pacing doesn’t ever really stall, and at just over 90 minutes, there’s really no time for surreptitiously checking your watch. And as I said, Franco fills the screen well, portraying a (belated) embarrassment and realization of impending death as Ralston’s time marches on.

But it didn’t take me on as visceral a journey. Which makes it a good movie, but not a great one. Despite a strong performance by James Franco.

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Set It…and Forget It

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 20, 2011 in Cooking, Food |

Sous Vide SupremeWhenever I get a new, fun toy, I’ll admit that it becomes an obsession for just a little while. Then it usually settles down a bit and joins its place in the pantheon of nifty stuff I’m fortunate enough to be able to play with.

Well, in the recent maelstrom of the holidays, I became the proud new owner of a sous vide machine. And it seems like all I talk about now with friends, acquaintances, and soon, ex-friends.

For those who aren’t professional watchers of food TV (and what a good gig that would be!), sous vide is a method of preparing food where you take something, vacuum seal it in a bag, then immerse it in precisely-controlled hot water for a period of time. Generally, in my experiences so far, it’s low and slow. The machine then circulates the water continually so that the temperature of the food gets to that level throughout.

It means that you virtually cannot overcook something — it gets to temperature and stays there. Also, with meats, it means that the whole cut is all the same temperature. So when sous viding a steak, for instance, it’s the same level of rareness (or doneness) all the way through.

So far, all I’ve done are steaks of different cuts and thicknesses — and they’ve been among the best steaks I’ve had (and certainly the best I’ve ever cooked). But it ain’t quick. A 2-inch steak takes around 4 hours to get to medium-rare (and then you do a quick 1-minute sear on each side to get the maillard reaction going and brown the outside).

But you just set it and forget it until it’s almost time to eat. And man, the results are juicy and moist, tender and succulent. And perfectly done. Every. Time.

Which is why, to mix languages, I’m living Sous Vida Loca.

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The Pond’s Getting Smaller

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 19, 2011 in Eating, Food |

Karen Brooks over at Portland Monthly reported a couple of days ago that Fin, the six-month-old seafood spot in inner southeast Portland, will close on Valentine’s Day.

Although I never want to see any decent-or-better restaurant close, I’m particularly sad about this one. Fin was among the most promising restaurant concepts in a while, with an array of unusual seafood options in a non-chain, more intimate atmosphere. My hope was (and still is) that it would trigger other chefs and restauranteurs to think about opening unhomogenized, interesting fish-focused spots.

On the other hand, my dining experience at Fin wasn’t as stellar as it was for Roger Porter. The menu was interesting and the food was reasonably well-executed. There were some issues with temperatures and doneness of the non-fish components of the dishes. But most concerning, there was a real disconnect between the front and back of the house.

Dishes came out with haphazard timing, and servers didn’t seem well-prepared to deal with it. A night that we were there, a large party was also dining, and both the kitchen and servers seemed swamped. We were offered a halfhearted apology, but befuddlement seemed predominant.

These are the kinds of issues that can easily be ironed out over time, and indeed, may have already been addressed — it has been a couple of months since we’ve been back. It’s just too bad that Fin didn’t get the time and opportunity to last.

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Where Went Da Judge?

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 18, 2011 in Law, Politics, The World |

There’s been an interesting discussion going on over at PrawfsBlawg about retention elections vs. impeachment for judges. You may recall that some judges in Iowa lost their retention election because they found a same-sex law valid under the state constitution.

Electing judges, in general, seems to be a pretty bad idea. I know that strikes at the core belief of Americans (and singing competition reality show watchers everywhere) that voting is the One True Way to make decisions in a democratic society. But being a judge is a very highly skilled profession, and one in which it is difficult for most people to measure quality.

In these contexts, “Is person A going to be a better judge than person B?” can often come down to name recognition, whose picture is nicer in the voter’s pamphlet, or who looks like they have the Right Politics. But to me, electing judges is like holding an election to determine if someone should become a board-certified doctor. Are the voters the best ones to make that call? Sure, the person has an MD and they have an interest in the heart — is that enough to know they’re ready for board-certification (which is theoretically an honor denoting advanced expertise and ability)? Similarly, someone with a JD and in interest in becoming a judge isn’t enough for the voters to make an informed call.

So if not that, then what? Gubernatorial appointment? Well, let’s look at Iowa again. There, the state justices just named Mark Cady to be their new chief. Cady happens to be the one who authored the same-sex opinion that got the court in trouble politically. He also was named to the bench originally by a Republican governor in 1998. That governor left office, but is now back, and this time he says nobody who would vote for the same-sex rights would be asked to serve on the bench.

Again we find ourselves in a maelstrom of politics, not evaluating the abilities and skills of the potential jurists. So this doesn’t look like such a hot idea, either.

Absent a clearly better idea, I tend to lean toward an appointed commission, comprised of current members of the state bar and appointed by leaders of the state legislative bodies and the governor. The appointing bodies can ensure that the political makeup of the commission is heterogeneous and matches the political makeup of the other two branches (which, presumably, matches the state as a whole). Because the appointees are all lawyers or judges themselves, they’re in a better place to evaluate judicial quality (one would hope).

So what would this commission do? There are a couple of approaches. First, they could be a review panel. In this model, all applicants for judgeships (or nominees) go through the panel first for a gold star or a whoopee cushion. Then the governor selects from the gold-star list. In that approach, the commission acts as a sifter, increasing its workload but potentially broadening the array of possible candidates.

Another option would be for the governor to nominate, the name(s) to go to the commission for an up/down approval, then — and only then — would the governor’s nominee be promotable to the bench. This allows the governor to shape public conversation more in terms of who is in line for a judgeship. But it’s fiddly, and smells bad in terms of separation of powers in most, if not all, states.

So I reluctantly settle on the commission-as-sifter model. Without retention elections, but with the possibility of impeachment. It’s not a perfect system. But in many places, it’s better than the status quo, I think.

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Talking about Service

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 17, 2011 in Eating, Food |

Over the weekend, my wife and I had an opportunity to dine at three different Portland establishments for dinner and/or cocktails. Each place (all fairly new, generally open six months or less) had things to recommend it, and generally, the food at each was good to very good.

I’m not mentioning the names of the restaurants because I generally don’t like to review places unless I’ve been there more than once. Especially if the review is less than superlative.

And in these cases, the lack of superlatives is due in part to the service, which tended much more toward fair or worse. It got me to thinking: we have a whole vernacular for evaluating food. We even have a fairly evolved language for evaluating drink. But what about service?

In one case, for instance, we were having a drink and snack at the bar of a highly-regarded spot on the eastside. There were multiple bartenders, and we ended up with one who was, if not surly, then perhaps sullen. The drinks were well-made, and delivered promptly. But we couldn’t help looking at another bartender cheerfully interacting with his patrons just a few seats away.

So how to rate that? The mechanics of the service were, after all, quite good. The product that was created was good as well. But one of the critical interpersonal elements just wasn’t there, and it impacted the experience.

We certainly have language for when things are truly horrible. But it tends to be sweeping, it seems. For instance, in one dinner, our party of six had everything from a refusal to take drink orders until everyone arrived (we arrived in four groups over a 10-minute period) to forgotten orders to passing food plates family-style down to one diner at the end instead of walking around the table to put the plate down directly. But the server at least seemed earnest, and like he was genuinely trying (ineffectually, but still). So would I call it “horrible” or “dreadful”? No. There’s a bit more nuance than that.

I’m just not sure how to characterize it without describing the detail. And in a world of “unctuous cuts of meat” and “full-bodied red wines,” that’s a lapse in language.

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Golden Globes: The Morning After

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 17, 2011 in Entertainment, TV |

As I write this, I’m imagining that most of the revelers from the ceremony itself are still in bed. Although the ceremony ended almost 15 hours ago, the parties went well into the night. During an interview on NBC’s Today show this morning (at 4:30am Pacific), Aaron Sorkin, Scott Rudin, and Armie Hammer were sitting in the Four Seasons watching tuxedo-clad stars gripping awards just staggering back to their hotel.

So the revelry part came off as expected (although I thought it was a bit more subdued in that regard than usual). Ricky Gervais, as host, was as provocative as ever, although he’s getting some backlash this morning for being too nasty. (I didn’t see it as particularly nasty — and usually the biting comments were pretty funny. He did seem to be trying harder than usual, though, which was occasionally uncomfortable.)

But what about the awards themselves? And how were my predictions? Unlike most prognosticators, I’m not afraid to look back and see how I did.

On the TV drama front, I was generally on target. Boardwalk Empire took best series and best actor for Steve Buscemi, which was the prediction. The big surprise, though, was Katey Sagal winning best drama actress for Sons of Anarchy. Given that the show has gotten good review but only fair ratings, perhaps this will give some viewers impetus to try it out. (And as an aside, Sagal looked great at the awards! I don’t know if it’s spa time or plastics, but it’s working.)

On the comedy/musical side, it was more of a mixed bag — both in terms of the awards and my predictions. I did get the best series (“Glee”) correct, as well as the supporting actress nod for Jane Lynch. Lynch gave a brisk and funny acceptance speech, appropriating the old line about sharing the award but being the one who hangs on to it.

But Laura Linney for The Big C as best actress? I’m as big a fan of Linney as any (although apparently not as big as the members of the HFPA), but I was surprised. Her acting has been very strong on the show, but the writing hasn’t always kept up with the talents of the actors involved (regulars and guest stars). I suppose Linney didn’t think she had a shot either — she wasn’t there to accept.

On the men’s side, I was way off. I’ll admit it. Jim Parsons gave perhaps the most literate acceptance speech of the night, catching himself thanking “my writers,” before chastising himself as being so “crass.” Between the award and the recent three-year pickup of The Big Bang Theory, it’s been quite a couple of weeks for Parsons!

And on the supporting actor front, I didn’t foresee the Glee juggernaut beating Temple Grandin’s David Strathairn. Colfer did really strong work with a meaty character arc, playing Kurt in Glee, so it’s certainly a well-deserved award. The Temple Grandin party was still being heard, though, with Claire Danes winning for her portrayal of the title character. I’m beginning to think it isn’t an awards ceremony unless we see Grandin herself, flinging her arms around Danes or otherwise getting acknowledgment from the audience.

(And in a brief aside on the movie part of the awards, I think the HFPA generally got it right. Having seen virtually all the movies that won, the performances and efforts in each were really remarkable. I might have split the other way on the Amy Adams vs. Melissa Leo award, but it’s a minor quibble.)

Perhaps the most overblown part of the evening was the appearance of Michael Douglas, presenting the best dramatic movie award. He got the expected standing ovation for getting through his recent cancer scare (and had a good line about finding a better way to get a standing ovation). But the media coverage of a touching moment, a surprising moment…eh. It might have been more so if he hadn’t talked to everyone on the red carpet beforehand, done a bunch of interviews during the week, and generally announced himself already. Seemed more like a victory lap. For beating cancer — certainly not for Wall Street 2.

Oscar noms are only 8 days away. The home stretch is near!

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Golden Globes: Thoughts on TV

Posted by Aaron Munter on January 14, 2011 in Entertainment, TV |

It’s almost that time — the 2011 Golden Globes are around the corner, coming up Sunday on NBC. And man, has NBC been pimping the ceremony. Heavy ad rotation with Ricky Gervais, cross-promotion with the news and entertainment divisions (Tonight, Today, Late Night in particular), even on the other “networks of Universal.” (It’s also been interesting to see how they are hyping the drunkenness and spontaneity factors, too. Maybe if the Oscars want better ratings, they should loosen up a bit more?)

Anyway, I’m still in mid-pursuit of the movies, having seen many of the nominees but not enough to feel competent yet to assert an informed opinion. So I’ll focus on the TV side, the more democratized component, assuming that every home has $100/month premium cable.

Category: Best Series, Drama
Winner: Boardwalk Empire.

Yes, yes, Mad Men is groundbreaking with great performances and good writing. And kudos to CBS’ The Good Wife for making the nominations list, given that it’s the only broadcast drama to do so. But Boardwalk Empire has been getting great buzz, including with the HFPA, and like Mad Men, features great performances and good writing. Plus, it’s the sparkly new kid.

Category: Actress, Drama
Winner: Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife

I’m a big Elisabeth Moss fan, and she’s a strong actress. Similarly, Kyra Sedgwick carries The Closer, and has for several seasons. But the nuance and evolution of Julianna Margulies’ character in The Good Wife means she deserves the nod, and I think the HFPA (fans of hers for many years since ER) will do it.

Category: Actor, Drama
Winner: Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire is Buscemi’s TV vehicle. And, even after strong stints on other great shows, I think it has finally settled the question of if he has the kind of comedic and dramatic range we all knew he did. Plus, he has a movie star luster, which HFPA digs.

Category: Best Series, Comedy/Musical
Winner: Glee

Man, this is a tough category. 30 Rock might squeak it out, but I think the HFPA will split their votes and go for Tina Fey personally and for Glee in terms of the show. The music plays well internationally, and it was an amazing first season.

Category: Actress, Comedy/Musical
Winner: Tina Fey

HFPA’s love affair with 30 Rock isn’t over. Fey had a strong season, and the show did as well. Toni Collette’s chameleon performance in United States of Tara is strong, as is Edie Falco’s in Nurse Jackie (and she still has Sopranos glow with the foreign press). Laura Linney, who has been steadily improving in The Big C (or, rather, the writing has; her performances have been great), may see some love next year.

Category: Actor, Comedy/Musical
Winner: Steve Carell

Although it refers to last season, not the current one, consider this the beginning of the Carell farewell awards tour. He’s done great work on The Office, and the increasingly nuanced and, dare I say it, mature, portrait of Michael Scott has allowed him to flex more acting muscles. I suppose there’s an outside shot of HFPA going for Thomas Jane because they want to demonstrate how hip they are with the subject matter of Hung, but I doubt it.

Category: Supporting Actress
Winner: Jane Lynch

It’s obligatory, and yet valid, to note what a weird category this is. Glee against Boardwalk Empire against Modern Family against The Special Relationship? If you were on TV, it seems like you’re eligible for this category. I’m surprised there’s not a local newscaster or two in there. Anyway, I’m a big fan of Julia Stiles, but this is all Lynch. At least that’s how I…”C” it.

Category:Supporting Actor
Winner: David Strathairn

In what I’m guessing will be a “didn’t we already do this?” moment, I think the acclaimed and talented actor will get the nod for Temple Grandin. Again, a bona fide movie star, which dazzles HFPA, plus it really was a strong performance. Of course the MOW came out in ..what, 2002? 2003? Or maybe it just seems like it was that long ago…

Well, there you have it — at least for most of the TV awards. Tune in Sunday and see how far wrong I am. Frankly, it’s been a strong period for series TV, so I’d be delighted if almost any of the nominees got the award. Of course, according to NBC, they’ll all be so drunk that they might not realize their name was called…

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