Monthly Archives: June 2015

Top Five 4th of July Movies

Happy early 4th of July! As we count down the days to fireworks, I thought I’d share my favorite movies for getting in the patriotic mood.

Disclaimer: I know you want me to say Independence Day, but I won’t.

5) Blues Brothers
Weren’t expecting me to say that, were you? Well, the main reason for this is because when I was a kid my mom taped Blues Brothers off of TV on the same tape as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, my number one on this list. Every 3rd of July we would pull out this tape and run it on loop as we worked on our entry for the neighborhood 4th of July cake contest (which, on a side, we won so often that they stopped giving first prizes and eventually renamed the contest in my mom’s honor…boo yah). In addition to this fond association, I stand by Blues Brothers as a fantastic piece of Americana. It shows off some of the greatest things about one America’s greatest cities, it contains countless cultural references, and pushes Nazis off a bridge. Also, after watching it recently after many years’ neglect, I was astounded by the excellent cinematography. This movie is memorable for so many reasons (hut hut hut) that I never thought to actually look at the movie. When you watch it, admire with me the artistry in many of the shots. You will be thankful you did.

4) Band of Brothers
I wasn’t too excited about watching this mini series when Josh pressed me to see it a few years ago. I thought it would be some macho bromance complete with outrageously fake and gory battle scenes. A few minutes in I realized how wrong I was. For one thing, it is all based on true stories from a paratroop unit who experienced firsthand many of the most critical moments of World War II. Each episode includes interviews with the surviving members, emphasizing the significance, the historicity, and the gravity of the stories being told. While there is a good bit of gore, it is shown realistically and tastefully. Most surprising to me was how much of it was character-driven; viewers are immediately drawn to these men and desperately want to see them succeed. As for the 4th of July, Band of Brothers stirs up a great deal of pride for the men and women who fought and continue to fight for our freedoms and ideals.

3) The Sandlot
Ahhh, the quintessential summer movie in all its glory. This is a must for every summer, and it is especially appropriate around the 4th of July thanks to the scene where the boys play at night on their field illuminated the multitude of fireworks. It’s hard not to be moved by how much fun it looks. Not to mention, you have Ray Charles crooning America the Beautiful in the background. “To us, baseball was a game. But to Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez, baseball was life.” 

4) John Adams: Independence
When we think about Independence Day, we might think about fireworks, or hot dogs, or spending all day at the pool, or all of the above. Watching the Independence episode of HBO’s miniseries John Adams, based on David McCullough’s biography (also EXCELLENT) sends shivers down my spine. We think of July 4th as a jovial day, but the day the founding father’s signed the Declaration of Independence they knew full well that they were signing their lives away. They were committing treason against their country for the principle and protection of freedom and inalienable rights. As John Adams says in his speech, “How few of the human race have ever had the opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children?” A republic of laws, not men.

1) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
God Bless Frank Capra. I can’t say enough good things about this movie. This is a story about, as one of the characters puts it, “A forty-foot dive into a tub of water;” a David and Goliath story; a little guy defeating the odds; an elegant defense of American ideals; a return from disillusionment. Just watch it already.

Happy 4th of July!

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Five Reflections on Pixar’s Inside Out

My husband and I wasted little time getting to the theater to see the new Pixar hit, Inside Out, on its opening weekend. Over the last year, we both eagerly consumed news of Pete Doctor’s latest brainchild, having so dearly loved both Monster’s Inc. and Up. My husband, an extraordinary animator and character designer himself, felt increasingly giddy with each new piece of tantalizing teaser content. I was a little more skeptical. I knew the basic premise of the movie: a look at the emotions of an 11-year-old girl after her family moves to a new city, but I had many questions:

How can you show character arcs in characters who, of necessity, must consistently embody specific emotions?

How closely will this story reflect real biological mechanisms?

Will the story even be interesting?

You see, I love story. A well-told story both warms my heart and stimulates my mind. While Pixar has proven itself a master of story in the past (Monster’s Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, etc.), more recent films impressed us less. Brave, for instance, was a catastrophe in storytelling. What the heck were those little fairy things and why does Merida keep following them? Why is this girl so determined to poison her own mother? What are the rules of this fate-changing business? All this to say, I was dubious of Inside Out’s potential, especially considering the daunting subject matter.

Now that I have seen it, I have a short and a long version of my review:

The short of it: Definitely go see this movie. As a creative exercise, Pete Doctor’s trip into this little girl’s mind cannot fail but to impress. Coming out of the theater I dearly wanted to turn around and see it again to appreciate more fully the amount of research that went into the film. I wish I knew more about psychology and neuroscience because I wager this film is jammed with references to current theories on brain function and behavioral science. As a story, Inside Out is perhaps not as rich or satisfyingly complex as many of its predecessors, but it still kept me engaged and made me tear up at the end (in a good way!).

The long of it: Josh and I had several thoughts coming out of this movie. I would love to hear yours as well so please chime in below in the comments.

1. No Villain.
As I have learned in my study of storytelling, stories are stories because of conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. Most often, and especially in animated films, conflict comes from an external force, usually in the form of a villain. Inside Out bypasses this convention and instead risks leaving conflict merely to challenging circumstances. Circumstance A has Riley, the 11-year old, and her parents moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, an upheaval that challenges Riley’s emotional status quo. Circumstance B involves two of Riley’s anthropomorphized emotions, Joy and Sadness, getting lost in Riley’s mind and trying to get back to “headquarters” to reestablish Riley’s emotional balance. So, no bad guy. Do we miss the bad guy? Not really, which is in itself impressive. I did feel, however, that I never really feared for the main characters, which indicates the conflict could have been weightier. Consider, for instance, the furnace scene in Toy Story 3. I actually feared the toys would burn up the first time I saw that scene. I’d guess most people did. THAT is powerful conflict. Alas, Inside Out lacked that level of oomph.

2. A made-up world in a very, very real one

Like I said, Inside Out as a creative exercise absolutely enchanted me. Whereas I fawn over films like Monster’s Inc. for creating consistent rules in a completely made-up world, I now salute Pixar for creating a colorful and imaginative world and staying, as much as they could, within the painfully constricting boundaries of real life behavioral and emotional science. In other words, the ways of Riley’s mind necessarily had to abide by reality in order for her story to have any power. Pixar likely had to question themselves every step of the way, asking, “Does this analogy work?” or “Do our brains actually do that?” This could not have been easy, but given the magnitude of the challenge, they did a fabulous job.

3. Where does Reason live? 

Ok, so, fair warning, my philosophy major is coming out now. Inside Out is about emotions, but we know that our emotions alone do not govern our decisions. We deduce, we calculate, and we employ inductive reasoning in our ongoing quest to make something of this world. This begs the question, therefore, where or what is Reason in Inside Out? Is Reason an absent character? Does Reason live elsewhere, outside of “headquarters”? Or perhaps Reason is not its own being, but rather the product of the emotions working together to intuit Riley’s best choices? This last option is my best guess for how Pixar chose to tell this story. While it works to do this, and while the story was impressively simple and consistent, I for one really wanted the question of Reason to be addressed. It just wasn’t clear, and if I noticed it, others probably did too. Reason could have been another character to challenge the emotions’ convictions. Reason could have been the villain! Or even if Reason were not another character, the emotions could have engaged in more elaborate reasoning and thereby reinforce the message that no feeling or memory is ever one-dimensional.

4. I wanted more from Sadness. 

The character of Sadness is, well, a pushover. Because I don’t want to give away the ending, I will just say that I wish Sadness displayed a little more hutzpah and foreshadowed her value earlier in the film. Had she been written stronger from the beginning, she would have been a better counterpart for Joy, who is so Type A she comes off as a little obnoxious, however well-meaning. Had Sadness been stronger, their conversations would have been much more intriguing and their conflict much more subtle and complex.

5. Other assorted observations…

  • It makes me happy that all three predominant characters in this film are female, given the long, male-dominated lineup of Pixar films.
  • There were a few give-away expository lines that dropped like anvils. “These are the core memories. They make up Riley’s personality.” Um, Ok. I know you were up against a lot with this story, but surely there are ways of showing and not telling…?
  • I am very impressed with Pixar’s portrayal of Riley; I felt like she was a real person.
  • Why did Riley have both male and female emotions while her mother’s were all female and her father’s male? Also, why is the mother’s emotional leader Sadness and the father’s leader Anger? Does this mean anything? Are we supposed to conclude something from this?
  • I’m not sure how I feel about the “Abstract Thought” scene.
  • I wish Fear, Anger, and Disgust were more developed and nuanced, especially as they try to maintain control and “do what Joy would do.” When they try, they utterly fail, and I think we were supposed to find this funny. I, however, wanted to see more deliberation. When we feel angry, for instance, the feeling can vary from indignant to frustrated to confused. I know I’m asking for a lot, but it would have been nice to see more contemplative treatment of these nuances.
  • Is it at all possible to retrieve things from the giant pit of lost memories? Why can the emotions remember things that have gone into the pit when Riley cannot?

Again, I would love to hear your reflections on the film. Please share!

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Photo Friday: Cheekwood by Night

Last night I finally went to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and saw for myself that it is indeed one of the loveliest perks of living in Nashville.

Currently on exhibit at Cheekwood is collection of large scale sculptures by Jaume Plensa entitled Human Landscape. While fascinating during the day, each Thursday Cheekwood welcomes guests until 10PM to see the sculptures lit up at night, and the effect was well worth the outing. Enjoy the photos!

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Photo Friday: My Lunch

Guess what I had for lunch yesterday? Aren’t you excited to know? Are you on the edge of your seat? Ready…set….

LEFTOVERS!

Oh, sorry, was that anticlimactic? Well, hold on. You don’t know what kind of leftovers. I took a look at my fridge and got creative. I had leftover grilled burgers that needed eating. I also had half of an avocado, some bacon bits, red leaf lettuce, half of an heirloom tomato, whole grain mustard, and farmer’s market eggs. I put them together in five minutes, and this is what I got:

burger and lemonadeI toasted the bun lightly while simultaneously heating up the burger in a small frying pan with a little olive oil. After the burger was hot, I balanced it on top of the avocado, tomato, lettuce, and mustard, then sprinkled it with bacon bits. I added a little more oil to the pan and fried the egg. When I bit into the monstrous sandwich, the runny yolk exploded and gushed over my fingers and all over my face.

I think my puppy nearly passed out from envy. burger 2To accompany my meal, I poured out yet another leftover treat. Josh got to experimenting with lemonade the other night. We have an abundance of mint growing outside, so I requested using some of that. He also recalled a peach lemonade recipe, and I handed him a peach. He made a syrup of brown sugar, water, and steeped mint. He added it to a pitcher of lemon juice, more water, and sliced peaches. Last night we also added some champagne to make it punchy (I did not do this yesterday…I have work to do!)

So here you have it: peach mint lemonade.
peach mint lemondade

You know, sometimes I complain about working from home. Then I do stuff like this. Life is good.

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How to Make Easy, Decadent Tomato Cream Sauce

It’s a weekday night. You had a lousy day. It’s already late in the evening; do you really want to cook?

YES! ALWAYS!

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Cooking always makes my day better. One of my favorite quick and decadent go-to dishes is a creamy tomato sauce served over angel hair pasta. This meal is a great choice for a weekday because it uses items I regularly have in my pantry–no shopping, no fuss, just delicious. My husband likes it so much his plate gets literally licked which, though rather unseemly, proves how tasty it can be.

Em’s Creamy Tomato Sauce

1 large shallot, diced
2 tbs garlic
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 tsp kosher salt or sea salt
pepper to taste
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup parmesan or goat cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tbs chopped fresh basil

pasta, preferably angel hair

Heat olive oil in a skillet. Saute shallot and garlic until translucent. Add tomatoes with juices along with salt and pepper. Simmer for 10-15 minutes for sauce to thicken. Lower heat and add cheese. Stir until melted. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Once combined, stir in the balsamic.

Serve over pasta and sprinkle with fresh basil.

Devour.

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Three things I didn’t know about Chinese Cuisine

My mother told me that when I was a baby she used to order Chinese take-out, blend it up, and feed it to me as baby food. She said it made this delightful, aromatic green-colored mush. To this day there is nothing so comforting to me as a Chinese stir fry of chicken and snow peas.

Despite my early introduction to Chinese food (albeit, Americanized Chinese food), as well a ceaseless pursuit of excellent Chinese restaurants, I have rarely cooked any Chinese recipes. I make some mean pork and veggie dumplings, but other than that, I have never owned a wok, never learned the techniques, never grasped the principles…

…until now.

Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs Double fried in a wok and slathered in homemade sweet and sour sauce

Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs
Double fried in a wok and slathered in homemade sweet and sour sauce

Two factors led to this exciting development. First, I moved to Nashville. Alas, there are very few Chinese restaurants in this town. I was just so spoiled living in Chicago with Chinese friends showing me the best Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. These friends even ordered for me. It was heaven. In Nashville, however, I’ve gone without. Second, I listened to an interview on America’s Test Kitchen with cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop who shared about how easy it can be to make Chinese food at home. Once I heard this, I wanted to try it for myself, so I immediately purchased a wok and “gave” it to my husband for his “birthday.”

I also took out three Chinese cookbooks from the library. These are Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop, The Chinese Kitchen by Deh-Ta Hsiung, and The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp. I am, so far, finding Dunlop’s book underwhelming. The noodle soup and fried rice both lacked flavor. Tropp’s book looks and reads like the Chinese version of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art, complete with picture-less, textbook-like pages detailing technique. I have not yet cooked from this one. Hsiung’s book is an encyclopedia of sorts, with each of the common Chinese ingredients described and used in a recipe. So far, from this one, we have made sizzling beef with broccoli, scallion pancakes, and sweet and sour spare ribs.

Here are three things I never knew before:

1. The Proper Use of Sesame Oil 
I never knew that sesame oil is more of a condiment than a cooking oil. Sesame oil enhances the flavor of a dish and is frequently added in small quantities at the very end of cooking. It is rarely ever heated.

2. Scallions, Scallions, and More Scallions 
This is one of those “duh” moments. Despite all the Chinese food I’ve consumed since infancy, I never noticed how predominant a flavor scallions play in the cuisine. In the few attempts I’ve made at stir fry in the past, I could never figure out why my dish didn’t taste like it ought to. The answer? Scallions. And then more scallions.

3. Not yo’ mama’s soy sauce 
I had no idea soy sauce could differ so greatly. I’ve always bought the Kikkoman soy sauce because that is the one served at the table in restaurants. Cooking Chinese cuisine, however, requires both light soy sauce, or Tamari (the Japanese style), which is both saltier and sweeter than Kikkoman, and dark soy sauce, which is more viscous and less salty. Each brings its own umami flare to enrich the dish.

Stay tuned as experimentation continues!

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