One man's view of the world, from the top of this great big rock somewhere in the middle of God's Country, with an eye toward freedom....or at least some way to get back down without goin' over the edge.

My Photo
Location: West Virginia, United States

Former U.S. Army, SPC E-4, Veteran of Operation Desert Storm. If you are or have ever been a soldier, you have friends in my house.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Stander's Screening Room: The Chronicles of Narnia -- The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

My family and I don't go out to the movies much these days, although it is something we greatly enjoy doing. Most of the reasons for this dearth of entertainment are pretty classic: lack of available funds, other things to do, bad timing with my work schedule...
...but mainly, there's just not a lot out there that seems worth the time and expense to make the trip.

That's why my wife and I got excited when we heard that someone was making a new film of the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. We were both familiar with the story from reading it as youngsters, and thought it would be the perfect flick for all of us (my 9-year-old son makes three). It has been done before, of course, but I've always loved the story, so what the heck, right?

Then I saw that the picture was being done by Disney...and I actually started wondering what would happen here.

If you haven't heard by now, there has been not a little political hay made of late concerning the Christian undertones of the story. As a lad, I saw the similarities between Aslan's sacrifice and Christ's passion, but I didn't know then of Lewis' devotion to Christianity, and the story was strong enough on its own that this didn't make any difference in my enjoying the story, so at the time I dismissed them as being a mere coincidence.
These days, of course, coincidence is not something that makes news. So I actually did start worrying that the story itself would end up being sacrificed to the gods of political correctness (or just plain "Hollywood-itis") in an
effort to put some distance between the Disney empire and anything that might "offend" someone.

Nonetheless, this looked to be about as good it was going to get moviewise this year. So, in we went...
...and my fears were thoroughly put to rest.

Folks, Andrew Adamson (the film's director) deserves some serious accolades. This is about the truest I have ever seen a story-based movie stick to that which inspired it. The feeling I got from this film was that it was done with a deep and abiding sense of honor and respect to the tale itself and to the man who originally spun it.

A few things that really stood out about this film for me:

1) It seemed to assume that the audience was already well-equipped, thank you very much, with enough imagination to follow along quite nicely without any undue over-explanation. Everything we needed to know about Narnia was right there in front of us, and the director wisely decided not to weigh us down with any more information than was necessary to get the story moving along.

Additionally, while there were some technically impressive special effects and computer-aided animation going on, the story was never overwhelmed by them. They were a means to the end of story-telling, and they did the job admirably without it seeming like someone was just trying to burn some extra CGI budget money.

2) The powers that created this film had to be aware of the possible "religious undertones" problem I told you about earlier. Thankfully, Disney apparently decided that it would be easier to just completely ignore them, present the story as it was written, and let the audience make up its own mind.

The result is a wonderfully portrayed feat of imagination that would undoubtedly have earned C.S.'s stamp of approval, had he been alive to see it, and a textbook demonstration of the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

3) The casting for this picture was damn-near pitch perfect. I will say it again...damn-near pitch perfect.

Liam Neeson was the optimal choice to give voice to the champion of good, Aslan. The lion king's good-natured patience and stalwart loyalty to his land and its people shone through brilliantly.
James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus brought a fine taste of shy, awkward kindness to his character, metered with just enough satyr's-unpredictability to keep him from becoming too sweet.
And they could not have done better than Tilda Swinton to portray the desiccated, decadent White Witch. They needed someone to show the perfect foil to Aslan's rock-solid strength of heart, a brittle, soulless, snake-in-the-grass, black-widow baddy with enough poison to kill a country, and Tilda carried it off like the Queen of the Valkyries. Brava, madam.

The young actors chosen for the roles of the four Pevensie children played their parts with refreshing frankness and clarity. These are babes of the Battle of Britain who don't get the chance to let go and just play all that much, and so their doubts of the youngest's description of Narnia, and their sense of wonder at their new surroundings on the other side of the wardrobe once they all get there, are completely unforced and genuine.

William Moseley as Peter was the quintessential practical older brother, Anna Popplewell's Susan came off as the brains of the bunch (with just a pinch of big-sister snark), and Skandar Keynes's portrayal of Edmund was a fine blend of jealousy coupled with enough goodheartedness to keep him from being a complete lost cause.

But in the end, all of the above were reduced to supporting roles for the REAL reason this movie got to the mountain-top:

The performance of little Georgie Henley as Lucy.

Lucy Pevensie, as portrayed in this film, is the kind of doe-eyed tot that makes you weep for the world that could mean her harm. That little girl put such a perfect injection of heart, innocence, and absolute trustingness into her character that...well, I don't want to blow it for you. You'll just hafta see for yerselves.

I'll put it this way. With the possible exception of Schindler's List, I haven't cried at a movie in almost two decades. I've come close a couple of times, but I've almost always won out in the end. My wife sometimes wonders vocally whether I've got a soul at all.

Well, little Lucy Pevensie found it. She got me. No, that's not right....she OWNED me. Bought and paid for. She literally had me blubbering in my popcorn.
And any actor that can do that -- any film that can do that -- gets my vote every time.

Ladies and gentlemen...The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Andrew Adamson director.

In my humble opinion, it has never been done better.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Good People: Tom McNutt and the United States Bocce Federation

Before I start, a little newsflash for those who have never been soldiers:

Soldiers, being action-oriented people for the most part, tend to get bored easily when not actively doing something.

They also treasure what little precious downtime they get -- especially in a warzone -- and have a knack for using it to the full when they have it.

I now present a captain with a novel idea to help maintain the morale of his troops, and a civilian who spearheaded a nationwide effort to help him fulfill it.

As it happens, all it took was a certain quantity of balls, and the selfless sacrifice of thousands of patriotic.....oysters?

Once again, I owe today's tasty tidbit to the ever-overly-informed Jim Quinn.


Allow me first to introduce Capt. Steve Jacsek, an officer with the US Army 110th Infantry Battalion currently serving in what he calls "the most dangerous square mile on earth" -- Habbaniyah, which is located squarely between Ramadi and Fallujah in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq.

He also happens to be a fan of that ancient game of warriors....bocce.

He was looking for a way to help bolster his troops' morale, and it hit him: Why not set up the world's first battle-ready bocce court?

Unfortunately, building a proper court is no mean feat. According to the home page of the United States Bocce Federation, a regulation bocce court is 76'-90' in length, 10'-12' wide, and consists of a three-to-five-inch layer of pea gravel, a three-inch layer of limestone for drainage...
...and a final three-inch layer of crushed oyster shells.

Yep, you read right. The traditional top surface of a bocce court is crushed oyster shells, which provide the optimum speed and minimum bounce that marks a quality court.

So, rather than try to kludge through such a demanding project by themselves, Capt. Jacsek and his non-com cohort, SFC Robert Foster, went to the experts -- the USBF itself -- and it didn't take long to get an answer:

"I get a note back from Tom McNutt, a true patriot who owns Boccemon [a company which specializes in bocce-court surfaces] in Bellingham, Wash." Jaksec said. "He wanted to do the job right, so he arranged to have 12,000 pounds of custom-blended oyster shells sent to us so we could use it as our surface on the court."

To make a long story short, Tom McNutt rallied the efforts of USBF members across the country (including Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue fame) to send everything the soldiers needed to construct, and play on, their very own tournament-quality bocce court.

The results of all this?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Habbaniyah Combat Bocce Club, the world's first bocce house in a warzone...and the newest fully-sanctioned, recognized chapter of the United States Bocce Federation.

Now THAT takes balls....and a lot of Good People.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Neighbors (or, The Other N-Word)

Apologies for the long delay (man, I'm saying that a LOT lately, aren't I?) as usual, with a few longer stretches of work thrown in for spice. Personally, I prefer black sesame, but what do I know?


I've been thinking about something for a while now, but it has recently been thrown into a new focus with the advent of the miners' tragedy here in West Virginia this week.

To start, a question.....What are your neighbors' names?

Seems to me that this is a very telling question indeed...and one whose answers tend to ask a question or two of their own.

I have two neighbors on my side of the street....a young family to my right, headed by an all-right guy named Jason who has a knack for outdoor decor, and an older lady to my left (whose name I completely forgot to ask) whose driveway I helped clear of ice and snow after a big snowfall last month. My wife had seen her struggling to get to her mailbox one day, and had asked me to see what I could do. No problem. It's amazing what a good pickhoe and a bag or two of rocksalt can do to an inch-and-a-quarter sheet of ice.
The lady in question had thankfully said she normally has a lawn man come out and see to it, but he was laid up for some reason, and she didn't have anyone else to come out for her.

Just across the street, I once had a older neighbor named Ralph, a Jehovah's Witness with a big family who had a habit of helping out when someone needed it. I clearly remember him driving me out to the store in his big van for extra food and supplies after the big blizzard that hit our area about this time two years ago, when my car couldn't take the hill we live on. He said he was happy to do it, as he was going to be picking his daughter up from work in that direction in any case.
They have since moved to Sandusky, Ohio, and I do miss him and his family.
Just this week, his house finally came up for sale with a local realtor. Wonder who my new neighbors will be?

I know the old gal just up the hill from me, too. Her name's Donna. I get my smokes from her in the local 7-11 a lot of the time. (Her dog doesn't like me much, though....but then he hates most everybody.)

It seems like second nature to me. Around here, neighbors see to each other when it's needed. We may not speak much on an everyday basis, but we know we're there when we need us. Nothing romantic or nostalgic about it. We just do.

Case in point with the people of Tallmansville, WV this week.

No one in their right mind -- neighbor or no -- would wish that kind of tragedy on anyone, much less the kind of emotional meat-grinder that happened when one guy from the command center got his signals crossed and gave his own neighbors exactly the wrong news.

But, as has been evidenced, that community -- as do many others in our area -- takes such tragedies in as their own, regardless of which of their numbers suffered, because they know it could just as easily have been their own husbands and fathers trapped down there....and that their own neighbors would be just as quick to do it for them.

In today's world, where the ratrace seems to rule all, it can be WAY too easy to forget about things like that.

It can be too easy to say to yourself, "It's not my business", or "They wouldn't want us meddling in their affairs"...or even, "What have they done for me lately?"

Well....what have you done for them lately? And does that question even matter?

To end, here's another question you should ask yourself, if your answer to the initial one was "I don't know"....

Why not?