Monday, August 22, 2016

SS United States Silver Screen Review: Dead Man Down (2013)

"Even the most damanged heart can be mended"
                              - Quote from Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down. It's an action drama movie with gangsters, snipers, romance, death, Albanians, and the SS United States! What more could you want during an afternoon escaping the heat and humidity?

Colin Farrell stars as mostly-mute Victor, who is employed in NYC as a gangster and seeks revenge in his spare time. Along the way, he catches the stare of his disfigured neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). Love, death, and retribution ensue. Terrence Howard and Dominic Cooper also star.

I am so on the fence with this movie. I do enjoy the action and the revenge-seeking, but when it tries for romance, I don't think it knew what to do. I thought there was a little too much focus on the relationship, and not enough fighting taking place. My advice: why not tie the two plots more together?

Speaking of the romance, it was a lot more awkward than it needed to be. I get it, okay? They're both really, really rusty.

A lot of the focus for Beatrice and her story is on her scars from a car accident. It seems to really bother her, but honestly... it's really not that bad. She says she had to have facial reconstruction surgery after the accident, but her face looks amazing except for the lines on her face (which stand out less depending on the kind of lighting). The before-accident photos of her could have been taken after the accident. It could be argued that her perception of her disfigurement is in more in her head, but that doesn't explain the neighborhood kids. They call her "Monster," taunt her, and assault her every time they see her leaves the building (Who raised these kids??). It's a little excessive for a couple faded lines. It's a case of the makeup team failing meet the script's requirements. Also Hollywood afraid that the female lead cannot be too unattractive. It's a shame, and it brings the movie's realism down.

This movie wasn't all bad. The fighting and shooting, while few and far between, were fun to watch. The final one rocked. You have my girl hostage? Okay, I'll drive my truck right through your mansion's front door and crash through to the basement. It's ridiculously amazing.

That ship though? She's the star we're all here for.

Hollywood let all the ship's blemishes show, but that's what helped her get cast in the role of abandoned luxury liner/secret hostage holding location. Victor heads to an abandoned part of the city, driving past abandoned, overgrown piers. Moored to one of these piers is the SS United States (via the magic of CGI). You see an aerial shot and a stern shot while he is driving and walking towards it.

Then, Victor gets on the ship. You see him walking around the ship, first going down the promenade deck, then going down the first class staircase, eventually wandering through the ballroom.

There are some chandeliers and bar props placed in the ballroom. I guess they were added to give some sense as to what that room was, or what kind of ship this was. With the whole ship gutted, it is hard to get a sense of any of the ship's grandeur (other than size). It's probably also there to give people (not obsessed with ocean liners) something to look at instead of bare yellow walls.

Victor then ends his journey through the ship in a hallway to unlock a door. In the next shot, he is in a pool, but it is a movie set. The SS United States' actual pool, deep in the bowels of the ship, is perpetually in darkness. With no power available and no available light like the other locations filmed, the pool was understandably was unusable as a movie location.

The whole SS United States screen time is approximately 25 seconds, but it covers multiple locations. If you include the movie pool location, the time on board is two scenes totaling around 5 minutes.

This is the first time feature film-goers have been given a peek inside the ship after her layup in 1969. The ship's current state helps give the scene an eerie atmosphere. I have seen videos and pictures of the ship, so I wasn't surprised in her condition, but it's still a little sad. I am glad a film studio found value in the ship, even in its current state. It just goes to show, even at the worst she has ever been, she is still usable and still has the potential for greatness.

The Movie: Needed more action, and everything else was problematic. 2/4
SS United States: Used exterior and interior as a filming location relevant to the plot. 4/4

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

DIG! Kids, Dirt & Discovery 2016

DIG! Kids, Dirt and Discovery's dig site

Two weeks back, I volunteered for one of my favorite Colonial Williamsburg programs - "DIG!: Kids, Dirt and Discovery."

When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg, the DIG! site was my favorite site to oversee (you can read some my enthusiasm from last summer at the end of Part 5 of the 35/15 Photo Project). Luckily, they liked having me, so they invited me back this summer as a volunteer!

From the first summer, a lot of progress has been made. For little legs, there are now stairs for entering the site.

Dig site early summer 2015

Dig site late summer 2015

Dig site July 2016

Let's walk through a day at the DIG!. Each day is broken up into four 50 minute sessions. Each session consists of a brief introduction, digging, sifting, and categorizing.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Each archaeologist-in-training is given a pair of gloves, a trowel, and a bucket. Using their trowel, they scrape away the dirt. Everything they find, from dirt to artifacts, goes into their bucket.

Due to site excavations in the 1940's with less-detailed archaeological practices than today's, there are plenty of real artifacts in the soil, with none of the normally-found dirt layers. This site is the perfect place for kids to get a first taste for archaeology.

There are three groups, each one is led by one of CW's archaeologists. Each has their own section of where to dig.

Kids getting last minute instructions before
they get digging!

Dig time!

Looking down the stairs at the dig

One one side of the excavation, you can start to see some of
the higher brick features of the Archibald Blair storehouse
peeking through the soil. The bottom of the foundations
are 7 feet below the ground level!

Once the digging portion has ended, the dirt collected in the buckets is dumped onto a screen over a wheelbarrow. Even if you think you found everything you dug up, there could be something you missed hidden in the dirt. The dirt gets pushed through the holes, while the artifacts stay behind. All the artifacts found get bagged for future analysis.


Pushing dirt through the screen

All the excess dirt from each session is wheeled away to a pile in a corner. Every month or so, a truck comes by to take the dirt away so it doesn't take over the property.

Mount Sifted Dirt. Not a catchy name.

After everything is screened and bagged, the leaders bring the archaeologists-in-training back to a shaded picnic table to go through what was found. They help guide the kids to discover and identify for themselves the different kinds of artifacts that are present.

Sorting artifacts by types

These kids are using wands with magnets in
them to see if any rusty-looking globs have
metals inside.

After the last DIG! session, the site closes down for a quick clean-up, then reopens as a free-flow site for DUG!. As the name suggests, this program centers around things archaeologists do after they dig everything up, so there is no digging during this time. The program is different every day. Sometimes, it's cleaning artifacts, or putting together broken pottery examples. Sometimes, it's a Q&A with an archaeological expert or a special guest (The Father of American Archaeology, Thomas Jefferson, has visited from time to time).  The day I was there, it was cleaning artifacts. Artifacts can be delicate, so wet toothbrushes are used to wash off the dirt. For smaller nooks and crannies, we used a long toothpick-like stick.

Cleaned artifacts!

More treasures found

It's always fun to answer people who ask, "What did you find today?" "Oh, you know," I say, "Lots of broken glass, rusted nails, bones..." And they seem perfectly fine with children handling these normally-abhorred objects because they are artifacts. Ah, well. The present's trash is the future's treasure.

Other objects usually found at the site are pieces of tobacco pipes, oyster shells, broken ceramics and porcelain, buttons, bricks, mortar, and, of course, plenty of dirt.

The Prentis Store next door was a car repair shop before it was restored, so there have been a few automobile items found. It can be an interesting mix. There have been other oddities, but you will have to come by the site yourself to learn about them!

It's like a puzzle with lots of scattered and missing pieces.

After the dig, check out the DIG! artifact display case in the Visitor Center. It has had at least three changes since being established.

Visitor Center Artifact Display
Fall 2015

Visitor Center Artifact Display 
Winter 2015/2016

The latest update has been "Curated By KIDS!"

Visitor Center Artifact Display
Summer 2016

I think this is a great program that allows the future another opportunity to learn from the past.

It's a fascinating site. Most of what you see around Williamsburg is a final product of hours and hours of behind-the-scene work. Here, you get a peek at how it's done. I'm so glad DIG! came back for a second summer. Hopefully, it will continue after the Archibald Blair site has been excavated.

For DIG!, a free ticket reservation can be made the day of at any ticketing location with a valid admissions pass. Ages 5-16 are welcome. Capacity is limited to 20 kids/session, so the earlier you get your ticket, the better. The 9:30am session requires no ticket, it is first-come, first-serve. I recommend coming earlier in the day, as the sun heats things up, shadows disappear, and the soil become harder to dig into.

For DUG!, the site is free-flow 3-4:30pm, no ticket is required.

The official blog for DIG! can be found HERE.

(Want to still dig without getting dirty? Do a virtual dig in the non-CW online game Excavate!)

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A little background on me and Archaeology. I love archaeology. It's still on my list of things I want to do when I grow up. I was a master sandbox digger starting at a toddler age. I proudly boasted I would find the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island (that's still on my to-do list). I was fascinated by Pompeii. Around the turn of the millennium, I did a CW kids dig at Carter's Grove. Apparently I also toured the house, but I can only recall the dig. That dig's artifacts were all planted, and the dirt had layers, so it was a bit different than DIG!.

Me digging at Carter's Grove
June 26, 2000

After that, I don't think I had any other archaeological experience before last summer. It has been great to reconnect to (or should I say, dig up?) a lost part of me.

Me sifting for overlooked artifacts
with CW Archaeologist Libby

Thank you to Meredith, Libby, and Victoria for letting me help you DIG!

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Millennium Stage

Millennium Stage, waiting for the magic to begin!

[Full Disclosure: I am a current employee of the Kennedy Center. Any opinions expressed in this piece are my own personal views and do not represent that of the Center, its management, or its staff.]

I haven't written about my new job yet. I have been working in the Community Engagement department of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Along with various festivals and community outreach, we are the curators and vanguards of Millennium Stage.

What is Millennium Stage? It is probably one of the hardest working stages around the world. Millennium Stage was created in 1997 by then-chairman James A. Johnson to offer the world one free performance a day at 6pm ET, 365 days a year, with each day a different artist. Could it be done? 19 years later, and it is still going strong.

All genres of performing arts are offered, from classical music, to avant garde inprov'd art creation. We have had theater, jazz, hip hop, dance, bboy battles, opera, new works, old works, genre-blending, "How dare you try to label me!" genres, and more. We have had performers aging from elementary school students all the way to 90+ year olds; from local DC-area artists, to international. Up-and-coming and already-there all in one space. It's exciting to say the very least.

Millennium Stage has two physical, home-base stages, but we like to think of "Millennium Stage" more as an idea (The home-base stages are also referred to as Millennium Stage, so it can be confusing). Millennium Stage's mission is to make the performing arts available for everyone, so it's our job to reach our audiences in the best way possible. Sometimes, that means moving the performance into different venues, or even outside. We also broadcast on digital stages. Since 1999, our performances have been live-streamed and archived on the Kennedy Center website (and just recently on YouTube). The stages are our vehicle.

It would be very easy to assume our performances are haphazardly chosen, with no rhyme or reason. To the contrary, most of our events are tied to other programming or festivals, a supplemental in a way. We help celebrate many building-wide and city-wide events and festivals. We also have a few annual traditions that we bring back every year: Merry TubaChristmas!, Let Freedom Ring! MLK Jr. Celebation, Page-to-Stage, and Conservatory Projects performances are a few of those. Then there are our own festivals we bring into the mix. Just this summer, we held American Acoustic with Chris Thile and partnered with Youth Speaks to host Brave New Voices 2016.

The list of examples could go on and on. Over 6,700 performances and counting worth of a list. Yet all of these are how we reach out to the community, and invite our audience to respond. It's been an honor to be part of such a hardworking and caring team.


What is your job specifically?
I run the show five days out of the week. It's a mix of a role, between stage manager, artist liaison, producer, and staff contact. I make sure everything is running smoothly. I also help out on the administration side with advancing upcoming shows.

Has the show ever not happened?
On occasion. The only reason we might cancel a show is if the Kennedy Center as a whole shuts down. This past winter, the building closed due to snowstorms.

If the artist doesn't show/can't make it, that's a different story. If we have time, we plug in another artist. This can be done with up to a few hours before showtime. If it's very last minute, and we don't have enough time to get anyone else, the show still happens. In the past, we have had talent shows from staff and our audience. Luckily, this scenario hasn't happened to me yet.

Why are there two home-base stages for Millennium Stage?
The Millennium Stages are on each end of the Center's Grand Foyer. The Foyer also serves as the lobby for the Center's three biggest performance venues. Millennium Stage's seating blocks access to whichever venue it is next to, either the Concert Hall or the Eisenhower Theater. So, depending on if there is a show in the CH or the ET, the Millennium Stage is able to switch sides without disrupting the other show's audience flow. If there are shows in both the CH and ET, then the Millennium Stage performs next to the venue that has the later starting time, then breaks down the seating as fast as possible after the show.

Let the show begin!