Monday, July 8, 2013

The Great Gatsby and CGI

After my article on The Lone Ranger, I thought I would add this post that also relates to movie-making.  A few months ago, I went to see The Great Gatsby movie after re-reading the book (which I have always loved) with my book club.  I thought it was a visually-entrancing and interesting interpretation that did justice to the book.  I loved Toby Maguire, found Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby to be a credible version, and found my doubts upon hearing that Carey Mulligan was playing Daisy to be confirmed (however, that may be the hardest role in the book--certainly, the previous attempts I've seen to capture Daisy have been similarly unsuccessful).

Of course, viewing all the Baz Luhrmann excesses of the roaring Twenties would not have been possible without CGI.   But I didn't realize how much that was true until I saw this video by Chris Godfrey, who was the Visual Effects Supervisor for the film.  This video displays some of the scenes as  before and after shots--before CGI, that is.  It is really amazing!  I knew some, even lots, of this stuff was computer generated, but there were other elements that I never imagined weren't there in real life.

Watch it for yourself below:

The Great Gatsby VFX from Chris Godfrey on Vimeo.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Postmodern Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp's Empowered Tonto

We kicked off our 4th of July weekend by seeing the latest Johnny Depp movie, The Lone Ranger.  While the reviews haven't been stellar, I found the move to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking.  But I guess the problem is that I've ended up thinking more about why the movie makers included some of the things that they did, so that I'm focused on the process or message of the move rather than the movie itself.

In some ways, while the movie reunited some of the main players who produced The Pirates of the Caribbean (which I really loved, despite my initial skepticism about what sounded like the most ridiculous premise for a movie ever--an amusement park ride?), this is almost kind of an anti-Pirates movie.  Why I mean is that Bruckheimer and company just went whole hog with that movie, making it an outrageous and  rollicking tale that reinterprets pirates as not thieves and murderers, but as incarnations of the American spirit of freedom and non-conformity against the British formal restrictions  against individuality and independence.  What's not to love?

I think that the issue with The Lone Ranger is that the point, at least the one expressed by Johnny Depp in the interviews I've read, was to reinterpret Tonto not just as a faithful sidekick, but an equal partner who incorporates Native American perspectives with our typical Caucasian hero fare.  But to do justice to the Native American experience, the movie can't simply be a fantasy Wild West story that whitewashes the mass slaughter of people who inconveniently were already occupying land that we wanted to claim for our own purpose.

Hence, the dilemma.  Buddy tale, or political statement?  Summer action blockbuster with a conscience?  Not an easy thing to pull off, and we'll have to see how it all fares.  But I think it was a more interesting attempt to use a star vehicle for something more than just making boatloads of money.  And so I would recommend it.

I found an interesting review of the movie by Richard Brody in The New Yorkers, and I've reproduced it below.  It contains spoilers, so go see the movie first, then read his views about how this movie is more of a reflection of our times than of our Western history.

July 3, 2013

“The Lone Ranger” Rides Again

Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” is the Western for this age of meta-cinema, a time when viewers see beyond movies to their making and their marketing. In effect, “The Lone Ranger,” like other recent tentpole movies, is a work of conceptual art. The high concept, delivered at the imagined pitch meeting, becomes part of the story, and, as a result, the script dominates the experience as surely as if it were pasted onto the screen, page by page. (The budget is also displayed, in the form of the images and the so-called production values that they convey.) “The Lone Ranger” says little about the American West but a great deal about the virtues and failings of our time and of contemporary big-scale Hollywood filmmaking.

The first shot of the movie, depicting the Golden Gate Bridge in a state of ruin, is a shocker. It seems to be taken from a postapocalyptic political disaster movie, but a superimposed title setting the action in San Francisco in 1933 reveals that, instead, the bridge is under construction. The association is clear enough, though—it puts the modern West under the sign of the Wild West. The shot continues, in a sinuous crane, to a boy (Mason Elston Cook) who gazes into a life-size diorama featuring a statue-like rendering of “The Noble Savage,” a Native American who turns out to be not a mannequin but, rather, a living man standing stock-still on display—none other than Tonto. Well past eighty, he tells the boy a story, set in a Texas outpost in 1869, that turns out to be the bulk of the film, in flashback.

The action of the story that Tonto tells gets under way with a prisoner’s escape from the train that’s bringing John Reid (Armie Hammer), ultimately the Lone Ranger, home to a Texas town to serve as prosecutor after his stint out East in law school. Tonto’s tale has the authority of the first-person account as well as the exaggerations of an avuncular performer and the distortions of time. This accounts for its overtly political elements and its occasional forays into goofball comedy, as well as for its wildly impossible set pieces, which are designed to amuse rather than inform his young audience of one.

The plot (spoiler alert) involves a railroad executive (Tom Wilkinson) who hires a bloodthirsty criminal (William Fichtner) to stir up trouble with the peaceful Comanches in order to get the U.S. Army to dispose of them and free up land for the rail line’s westward passage. This story replaces the triumphalist legend of the westward expansion with a troubled and guilt-ridden tale that reflects its guilt forward, into the present day. But the politics of that plot are subordinated to its main purpose: to set up the two backstories of how Reid became the Masked Man and how Tonto became his partner (not his sidekick).

Backstory is an essentially democratic mode of storytelling; it defines people by their personal particulars rather than by their social station or other outward identifiers, and it explains action not in terms of situations but in terms of individuals’ needs, conflicts, desires, dreams, and troubles. Popular Hollywood movies are the avant-garde of this liberal idea (“Man of Steel,” for example, is nothing but backstory), which converts the present into destiny and the future into a vision of redemption, whether making good on a past error or sin (that’s Tonto’s story) or seeking some sort of vengeance.

With Westerns, backstory makes sense: history is to society as backstory is to character, and the country is as tethered to its past as are its citizens to their personal stories. The simple didacticism of “The Lone Ranger” is to grant Native Americans their rightful place in the national narrative, and to find a way to make good on the injustices on which the nation developed. The Western is an inherently political genre because it renders as physical action the functions of government that, in modernity, are often bureaucratic and abstract. But that’s exactly where the highly constructed conceptualism of “The Lone Ranger” disappoints: it renders the physical abstract. Despite the elaborate and often clever gag-like action stunts (or C.G.I. contrivances) and the occasionally grotesque violence, the movie seems not to be there at all, replaced throughout by the idea of the movie.

In fact, “The Lone Ranger”—which features many of the elements of classic Westerns, including an all too brief view of the majestic landscape—is not a Western but a collection of signifiers of Westerns that are assembled in such a way as to attract audiences that would never be attracted to a Western. It’s almost beside the point whether its elements are “good.” Johnny Depp brings a sonorous voice and a dry humor to the role of Tonto, and Armie Hammer, who specializes in the soul of the Wasp (and should have played Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”), offers just the right genteel naïveté to suffer the disillusionment that counteracts the popular Western myths of 1933 and their vestiges today. Verbinski takes pains to meticulously recreate crusty details and directs the action sequences with a graphic academicism, a bland eye-catching cleverness that communicates action without embodying it—which is exactly the point. For those who love Westerns (and I do), “The Lone Ranger” winks at them consistently enough to elicit warm reminiscence of the moods, the gestures, the styles, and the themes, even as it averts the sense of time and place to convey a sturdy and generic substructure of modern storytelling akin to that of other superhero blockbusters.

Read more:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Holst's Planets Suite Beneath the Stars

I believe I'm mentioned before that one of our favorite summer traditions is the Summerfest concert series.  Summerfest is an annual concert series by the North Carolina Symphony held at Koko Booth Amphitheater, which is a mostly outdoors/uncovered performance space.  We go with another family that we've been friends with since our boys were in a playgroup together over 10 years ago.  We bring lawn chairs and a picnic (including wine, which is allowed for this series), and usually hang out for a couple of hours before the concert starts at 7:30.  It is a perfect place for children to begin their classical music education, because it is affordable (kids under 12 are free!) and they can eat and run around and such in addition to listening to the music.  Plus, the concert themes are often geared to family interests--for example, a couple of years ago they did a whole concert on pirates music!

This past Saturday, the keystone of the concert was The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst.  However, in addition to hearing the entire suite played live by the Symphony (with some unusual additions, like the celestra, the instrument most famous for the opening tones of the Harry Potter theme song, but which means "heavenly" in French and thus is perfect for this music), they were projecting high-resolution images from NASA of the planets in the music.  And, of course, we were under the open heavens ourselves, on a beautiful warm North Carolina night (that part of the concert didn't start until 9:00 PM).

I have to say, it was one of the most powerful concerts I have ever attended.  The transporting music, the compelling images, and the wonderful atmosphere all came together to make it really a magical experience.

So while I can't reproduce the sensations for you, below I have included some videos of the London Symphony, who apparently recorded the Planets Suite using the same images we saw.  Even without being in the night sky, they are still pretty powerful.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thoughts on Creativity and Educational Reform from Sir Ken Robinson

When I wrote last week's post on Sir Ken Robinson's latest TED talk on why current US educational policy is doomed to failure, I was shocked to discover I hadn't included some of his earlier videos in my blog.  So, better late than are two of my favorites.

If I wanted to encapsulate this thinking into one presentation, I would choose the RSA Animate video entitled Changing Educational Paradigms:

But if you would like more detail on his theories about education and creativity, which is his particular expertise, I think the best source is his first TED talk, which has been seen by over 20 million people and has been translated into 58 languages:

They are insightful, funny, but most important, important videos to watch if you are concerned about the state of education....and, really, who isn't these days?

Monday, May 20, 2013

8th Grade Science Quiz

In North Carolina, homeschoolers have to take nationally-normed standardized tests once a year.  We usually do ours in May, so we are brushing up on some of the topics right now.  In looking for some resources, I found a quiz of science topics commonly covered in 8th grade (which my son is completing).  I like these kinds of things just to help me make sure I haven't TOTALLY missed some topic that is appropriate for his age.

So here is the link, in case you and/or your children would also like to see how they fare on a "typical" 8th grade science quiz.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Latest TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson Urges Returning School Control to Local Educators

Sir Ken Robinson, the educational reformer whose talks are on the top of the TED most popular video list, has just come out with another wonderful presentation entitled "How to Escape Education's Death Valley."  In it, he explains why current educational "reforms," such as No Child Left Behind, run counter to fundamental human nature and thus are doomed to fail.  He contrasts the current American system, which is increasingly narrow, centralized, and standardized, with systems that rank at the top of international achievement, such as Finland, which are broad in scope, controlled by local educators, and individualized to particular students.  He is pithy and persuasive, and delivers his talk with his typical dry humor.  (My favorite humorous line from this talk was when, in discussing the growing diagnosis of American students with ADHD, he said "Children are not, for the most point, suffering from a psychological condition...they are suffering from childhood.")

Watch the video below to learn more about why our current educational policy ends up with the US spending immense sums of money but achieving unacceptable results in terms of drop-outs and other human factors:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Shakespeare and Hip-Hop

April is such a great month for us bibliophiles.  First, we're celebrating the entire month as National Poetry Month, and then April 23 is generally accepted as the birthday of the most-acknowledged writer of the English language--William Shakespeare.

So in honor of Mr. Shakespeare birth on or around this date in 1564, here is a wonderful resource I found recently.  It seems that in England there is an organization that is exploring the connections between Shakespeare's works and....hip-hop.  Not necessarily the first connection that would leap to my mind, at least, but The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company founder Akala makes a good case for it.

For example, check out this video of his presentation before one of the TED gatherings.  First, he challenges the audience to guess which lines are quotes from Shakespeare, and which are quotes from rapper songs (and believe me, it's not as easy to tell as you might think).  Then, he gives two renditions of one of Shakespeare's most famous poems, Sonnet #18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?").  Both fall into hip-hop rhythms perfectly, showing that Shakespeare's "outdated" iambic pentameter is actually current in today's music.

Anyway, don't take my word for it....check it out yourself in this TED video:

It is, after all, the sign of a masterpiece that it can be re-interpreted and re-imagined over the ages.  The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company seems to be doing a great job of reaching at-risk youth and having them tap into the genius and wonder of the works of William Shakespeare.