Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thoughts On Film: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

 I have taken a vacation, somewhat unintentionally, from blogging the past several months. My job has been very busy and at times overwhelming, and for various reasons the urge to write simply hasn't been there. I can tell you that I have some ideas I'm excited about for the new year, and come January I expect to be posting here with much more frequency. Having said that, on with the review!

 I haven't read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien since I was in middle, middle school. I've read his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, much more recently in addition to having seen Peter Jackson's film adaptations of the latter several times. Extended versions, of course. So I was eager to see the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, once the crowds died down a little bit.

 While it seems natural that the man who achieved so much success with LOTR should adapt its predecessor, negotiations over the book rights and financial problems at MGM (which produced the film in conjunction with New Line and Warner) dragged out the production schedule and resulted in co-writer and original director Guillermo del Toro dropping out of the project to pursue other things. Jackson stepped in to take the reigns, and here we are. The decision to expand the film from its planned two-part structure to a trilogy was met with equal parts anticipation and puzzlement. With many cast and production team members returning to New Zealand for this film, it fits in quite well with the visual and stylistic universe established in the first trilogy. Screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are back (with Jackson and del Toro), as is Weta Workshop's costume/prop/make-up guru Richard Taylor, the Weta Digital visual effects house, composer Howard Shore, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, and cast members whose characters appear in both sagas. In many ways, for a fan of the first trilogy, this film is like going...well, there and back again.

 Jackson takes pains to connect the two trilogies as much as possible, starting the film with "old" Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) as we saw him in The Fellowship of the Ring, writing an account of his adventures for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) on the day of his big 111th birthday party. The story concerns the appearance of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan, excellent as always), a wizard who has taken up assisting a group of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) who want to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor, aka Lonely Mountain, where their vast stash of gold and jewels has been taken over by the vicious dragon Smaug. Tasked with finding the group a "burglar" who can move unnoticed, Gandalf chooses "young" Bilbo (Martin Freeman) for the job. Bilbo's typical Hobbit aversion to adventure and danger eventually gives way to his curiosity and he goes along. Meanwhile, dark things are afoot, as trolls are roaming about, giant spiders stalk the forest, and another wizard, Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, discovers the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), who can raise the spirits of the dead. If that last part seems unfamiliar to fans of the book, that's because Jackson and company have mined Tolkien's other works to fill out the story with concurrent events from his mythology. (Thus, what was a single-volume work of children's fantasy has become a film trilogy with a length comparable to LOTR, which is a much longer book.)

 The performances are quite good, with Freeman making the reluctant Bilbo likably fussy.  Armitage is a natural leader for the dwarves, his warrior personality a good contrast with the somewhat cartoonish company he keeps. (This is consistent with the book, and overall the tone of the film is a bit lighter than is found in LOTR.) McKellan owns the role of Gandalf, a bit flustered here and there but commanding when the situation is dire. Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) also reprise their roles and have the presence one expects from such great actors. And of course, Andy Serkis is back as Gollum, who loses his eventually-important magic ring to Bilbo. The game of riddles between the two is a highlight of the film, a great showcase for Jackson's under-appreciated skill at presenting a confrontation of words rather than weapons. Freeman and Serkis have fantastic chemistry, and the motion capture digital creature looks absolutely convincing. It's time the Academy wised up and nominated Serkis for his performance while they have the chance, given that Gollum probably won't appear in the remaining two films. (Depending on how faithful they stay to the book, of course.)

 Now, some words about the presentation of the film. Jackson chose to a daring way to film this movie, utilizing two non-standard techniques: 3D and HFR, or high frame rate. Most films are shot at a speed of 24 frames per second (fps). HFR uses 48 fps, meaning that twice as much visual information per second is being shown. The movement and detail are closer to what the human eye perceives in real life, so the image is more lifelike. In conjunction with 3D, this results in a visual experience quite different from a typical film. Many viewers have balked at HFR, complaining that the image looks like a television sitcom more than an epic film, and this actually does seems apparent in the beginning of the film. I believe this is a combination of the HFR and the fact that the early scenes in the movie are brightly lit, with relatively little shading. As I became used to watching the movie and the visual tone became darker, the image seemed more "film-like" while still maintaining its clarity and smoothness. The most notable difference seemed to be in the numerous battle scenes, which are startlingly clear and easy to follow. Jackson is an expert as staging action sequences, and this technology really shines in these scenes. The caveat is that, just as in LOTR, the viewer may begin to experience "battle fatigue" as the action just keeps going. But the lovingly designed sets, models, costumes, and makeup, combined with the gorgeous New Zealand scenery, make for a memorable visual experience.  Seeing Gollum in his cave, I found myself thinking, "so this is what Gollum really looks like." Rather than watching a film on a screen, it is easy to imagine you are looking through a window and seeing the actual events.

 I remember back in September at DragonCon hearing LOTR veteran John Rhys-Davies talk of visiting the set and proclaiming that this film will be a "game changer." (He also proclaimed that he will not be in any of the new films, as his character is not part of the story and he refuses to put the makeup on ever again.) I don't know if HFR will catch on, but if you are a fan of this story you owe it to yourself to check it out as it was filmed. It is a technical marvel, but the tech does not matter if the story and performances are not convincing. For me, it was easy to get lost in Middle Earth again and appreciate the story being told. Keep in mind, this is based on a simpler book for younger readers, and the film reflects that difference in source material. Fans of the book will be pleased to know that many of Tolkien's songs have been retained in this version. (Thorin's song in Bilbo's house about the loss of Erebor is chillingly magnificent.) No doubt there is difficulty in matching the success of the first trilogy, and Jackson and company probably felt like they walked a tightrope keeping the spirit of the book but matching the scale of the previous films. I suppose the jury is out on whether the story can be sustained over two more movies, but I eagerly await the next installment to find out.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How You Will Pay For My New Career

As a musician employed by the US military, you are helping pay my salary and benefits if you are a US taxpayer. (Thanks so much!!!) But I won't be in the military forever, and whenever I decide to return to a regular civilian life, I'll have to have a way to make a living. I just came up with a new plan today, which I will now share with you.

I will make recordings of my wonderful, sonorous, uplifting trombone playing. My music will undoubtedly make people happier after they listen to it. Happier people are healthier. In the name of keeping everyone healthy, I will lobby Congress to require everyone to buy my music. And if they really don't want to, then they don't have to. There will just be a small tax penalty they'll have to pay to make sure that my music gets out to everyone and I make enough to keep doing more recordings. You can buy my music, or you can pay a little more to the IRS. I make a living, you get awesome music to listen to, we're all happier, we're all healthier, everyone wins!

Don't worry if you think that's too coercive or intrusive. Apparently this is how things are going to be done from now on. Learn to love it!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting the Band Back Together (or, Thoughts on Film: The Avengers)

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. --Ecclesiastes 3:1

Turn! Turn! Turn! --Pete Seeger/The Byrds
Today, I took advantage of a day off to go see Marvel's The Avengers. (Also, I mowed my lawn, swam a few laps, dumped some trash at the recycling center, and got some groceries, but the significant thing is the movie.) I thought that it was excellent, with exciting action sequences, great visual effects, some of the snappy dialogue you'd expect from writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity), and fine chemistry between the large cast that includes Robert Downey, Jr, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson. Particularly noteworthy is a fine performance by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk.

The film is an adaptation of the Marvel Comics series of the same name, which combines several of the heroes of the Marvel universe (Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, to name the most popular) into one elite evil-fighting team. The film is the culmination of a major project by Marvel to produce an epic series of the Avenger characters, with Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) having had their own films released in the past year and Iron Man (Downey) and the Hulk already clocking in with two films each. (The Hulk, however, has had a different director and actor for each of his three film appearances.) All the other main characters include the actors from the individual films, with Nick Fury (Jackson) and Black Widow (Johansson) returning after making supporting appearances in other films as well. The group reluctantly joins together to fight Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's (adopted) brother, who enters our dimension to open a portal for an invading alien army which he hopes will allow him to establish himself as Earth's ruler. (Sadly, the plot does not allow for Daniel Craig's James Bond or Chuck Norris to be involved.)

That the film was even made is quite an achievement, as getting major stars to sign on for multiple projects for several years can be tricky to pull off, and finding a director who can bring all that talent together and keep the production from turning into a giant money-sucking disaster is no mean feat. Clearly Whedon was the right choice for the project. After seeing the movie, I found myself thinking about all the other projects that involved assembling established "greats" into a single endeavor. Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables was such a project, making a film that contained many of the great action stars of the 80's and 90's (Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture, and Steve Austin, with short appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzeneger). The upcoming sequel adds Jean-Claude Van Damme and the aforementioned Chuck Norris to the mix. Action fans anticipated this combination with the same fervor that comics fans anticipated The Avengers. (NOTE: Many fans of these two films are, in fact, the same people.)

The title of this blog comes from The Blues Brothers, in which Jake and Elwood Blues decide they must "get the band back together" in order to raise funds to save their childhood Catholic orphanage, which they claim is a "mission from God." Though John Belushi (Jake) and Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) were not professional musicians, the Blues Brothers Band contained some of the top guys in the business, such as Tom "Bones" Malone, Alan Rubin, Matt Murpy, Lou Marini, and the legendary Steve Cropper and the recently-departed Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T and the MG's. The sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 was not a great film, but they took the music up to eleven with a music number that included Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, Eric Clapton, Travis Tritt, Steve Winwood, Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, and Clarence Clemmons to name a few.

There are non-fiction gatherings as well, such as The Three Tenors, the 1992 Dream Team for the Barcelona Olympics, benefit performances like USA For Africa and The Concert for Bangladesh, and "super groups" of established talent like Cream, Velvet Revolver, and Chickenfoot. Fans of a given thing, be it comics, action films, sports, or music, love to see the very best, and often dream "what if these guys all got together?" When it happens, it often makes something special, more than the sum of its already considerably amazing parts.

I have found that after moving several times, I wish that I could "get the band back together," so to speak, trying to connect with old friends and colleagues, something that gets more difficult as people move to other cities, begin to raise families, get busy with work, or just move on to other things. When I was in Atlanta, I had (believe it or not!) numerous social circles: my church singles group, my Events and Adventures singles group, my friends from ballroom dancing, friends who were fans/members of The Lost Boys, and my coworkers from The US Army Ground Forces's amazing now to think I was ever bored when I lived there. While I would love to get all those people together in one place to hang out for a while, the reality is that "life happens" and most of the time getting lunch with a person or two or meeting a few folks for a dance or a concert is the best that can be hoped for. At least we have modern conveniences such as Facebook which allow us to stay in touch with distant friends. It isn't the same as being with people, but it's much easier to stay in contact now than it was just a few years ago.

Plus, remember what the Righteous Brothers said about Rock and Roll Heaven....

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Days of King Henry

This past weekend I made a journey I haven't made since before I moved to New York: the Georgia Renaissance Festival in Fairburn, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. I first found out about the "RenFest" when I was dragged there by some friends/co-workers at Ft. Benning who thought it would help get me out of a post-breakup funk that I was in. It did.

The RenFest isn't quite like stepping back in time, but it is a bit like stepping into the Twilight Zone. The festival is a bizarre mixture of the past and present, with some elements of fantasy thrown in for good measure. Yes, King Henry VIII and his court can be seen strolling the streets and overlooking the daily jousting tournament, there are also pirates, acrobats, comedians, blacksmiths, musicians, and vendors. Food options range from the ever-popular turkey leg to fried pickles. Wares for sale range from tapestries to kilts to armor to "elf ears" to didgeridoos. All this makes for an eclectic day at the park.

For me, it was a day to visit with friends, as I met some who were also visiting that day as well as others who are performers in the park. There is some nostalgia and familiarity as many elements are unchanged from previous years, from the souvenirs to the acts. It was great to see one of my favorite local bands, The Lost Boys, make a return to Renfest after being absent the past few years. Their blend of rock and roll with Shakespeare is one of the most creative musical acts I've come across and they always manage to put on a fun show. (Their oeuvre, which they claim is French for...oeuvre...consists of originals like the opening number "Art Thou Ready?" to parodies like "Desdemona," which sets lyrics about Othello's love interest to the tune of the Knack's "My Sharona.") I also enjoyed a performance by Half-Pint, made up of two of the three members of another favorite band, Three Quarter Ale. (The other member has other engagements on weekend afternoons.) The jousting is also a lot of fun to watch, even though the script is still mostly the same. Considering that it involves guys charging at each other on real horses, the staged nature does not diminish the excitement. There are plenty of other entertainments, from the family-friendly tongue-in-cheek Catholic humor of "Hey Nunny Nunny" to the very NON-family-friendly Ded Bob Show. (Seriously, don't take little kids to that one.)

There's a little time left this year, so if you're in the Atlanta area on the weekend check out the Renaissance Festival. As my friend/fellow musician Andy Womack has observed in song, it isn't necessarily historically accurate, but it is a lot of fun.(Also, I hope he doesn't mind me borrowing a song title for the name of this post...)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I Back Pat

Just a few days ago, my alma mater, The University of Tennessee, announced that legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt was stepping down. You've probably heard all about it--since being diagnosed with Alzheimer's-type early onset dementia, it was just a matter of time until the realities of her condition made it impossible for her to deal with the complexities of managing what is quite probably the biggest brand in women's college athletics. Her record of 1,098 victories, eight national titles, and the foregone conclusion of a high seed in the NCAA tournament place her in the rare company of Wooden, Smith, and Rupp. When the Pride of the Southland Marching Band lined up to march to the football games outside the old UT Music Building (now demolished as a new facility is under construction), they lined up on Pat Head Summitt Street. The basketball court at Thomson-Boling Arena is now officially recognized as "The Summitt." She has not only done the job better than just about everyone else, she did it in such a way that she revolutionized her own sport, and it could be said that not only women's basketball but women's college athletics and professional athletics have prospered as a result. Fans would often speculate that she would be offered the men's basketball coaching job--not just because of the often abysmal state of men's basketball at UT, but because she was just that good.

 I remember a couple of personal interactions with Coach Summitt during my time in college. One is in March of 1998 when the Lady Vols were in Kansas City for the Final Four, which they won to cement an undefeated season. I remember some of us in the pep band chasing her then-young son Tyler around while we waited for the luggage to be unloaded from the charter flight, and while Coach Summitt was in a good mood, she was clearly all business. But my strongest memory comes from my sophomore year football home opener against UCLA. (We won the game behind our junior quarterback Peyton Manning.) After the halftime show, I was walking through one of the concourses at Neyland Stadium. Coach Summitt happened to be walking by, and seeing me in my band uniform, walked over and said something to the effect of, "I just wanted to tell you that I thought y'all did a great job out there, and I always enjoy watching band!" She then went on her way, while I stood there, probably drooling on my shoes while trying to comprehend having just been personally complimented by Pat Summitt.

 While it is certainly sad to see such a legend step down, the victims of dementia and other mental illnesses and their families have gained one of the strongest, most inspiring advocates they could ever hope to have. Unfortunately, this is the type of thing that one doesn't defeat. However, those of us who have seen her at work know just how Coach, now Coach Emeritus Summitt, will face the challenge--like a champion.

Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I'm Back

Well, I'm back. Back in the USA. Back to blogging. Back in the state of Georgia.

I left Afghanistan with the last remaining members of the 10th Mountain Division Band the final week of September. We actually left a day late due to there being no airplane available on the first attempt, despite a whole lot of us getting up before dawn and waiting in line, inside and outside, going through security, waiting in the terminal, and waiting on the tarmac. We weren't very happy about that.

But the next evening, we departed Afghanistan and began the process of slowly making our way back home to Ft. Drum, NY. The flights out of Afghanistan aren't direct to the US, but I'll refrain from specifics for the sake of security.

We returned to Ft. Drum on October 1st, 2011 and I was fortunate to have much of my family waiting for me. Even though I was eager to move to my next assignment in six months, being back in my home country was a wonderful feeling. I have many friends in the North Country, and I'm glad I got to spend time with them over the next several months. Their hospitality and warmth is the most positive thing I'll remember about my time in upstate New York. I am also honored to have served a full year in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, and to share that bond with my fellow Soldiers both in the Band and in the other units that served in Regional Command-South and throughout the country. In a future installment I'll discuss my thoughts on what we accomplished over there and what I can take away from the experience. I was able to conduct the band for some ceremonial occasions during my final months at Drum, and I should thank the Band leadership for allowing me to have those opportunities.

Last month, I moved to my next assignment, the Signal Corps Band at Ft. Gordon, Georgia near the town of Augusta, most famous probably for hosting the Masters golf tournament every spring. I suppose I now have no excuse not to use those left-handed golf clubs my great-uncle gave me. (My great-uncle served in World War II, so we're both war vets now, and it's cool having that in common with him.)

So now that I've had time to get acclimated to life in the US and at my new job, closer to home, family, and many friends, it's time to start blogging again. I have a lot of stuff to write about and writing much more frequently is one of my goals for the near future. (Frequent readers will note that I've updated the look of the blog page.) Stay tuned!