Sunday, January 26, 2014

Old Dude, Old Movies - "Robin and Marian" (1976)

I loved this movie. I stumbled across it Saturday, and really enjoyed it. Its' an interesting take on the legend of Robin Hood, and a really cool love story for grown folks. There is even some resonance for today's soldier. It's a romance at its' core, but there is some violence present in the story.

Released in 1976, it stars Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the titular characters. This isn't a jaunty, smiling Robin. This isn't a demure Maid Marian, waiting for her rescuer. There's not a lot of swashbuckling, not a lot of grinning or showing off.

This story takes place roughly twenty years in the future of the Robin Hood who's familiar to generations of movie goers. This Robin has been co-opted by King Richard the Lion-Heart (Richard Harris). Robin's a captain in the king's army, off fighting in the Crusades. It's been a long slog of combat. There's no "robbing the rich" nor "giving to the poor". The army is a formidable force, but all this fighting has Robin weary and disillusioned. The king is getting progressively more jaded and abusive after years of fighting. Robin can't help but wonder what was gained by all this fighting. He's getting older, but he doesn't know anything else. He's starting to contemplate his present worth in the world, and his future fate.

The army comes upon a castle, where rumors abound of a gold statue and substantial riches inside its walls. In reality, the castle is shabby and run-down. The able-bodied men have abandoned the castle, leaving women, children and one old man to fend for themselves. The king orders Robin to lead forces to overtake the castle and loot the riches. Robin knows there are no riches, nor is there any military adversary. He challenges the king's orders, refusing to take part in the needless slaughter of innocent non-combatants.

The king is incensed, and has his other soldiers ransack the castle and massacre its' inhabitants (save the old man). Of course, there are no riches, no gold statue. The king, angered at Robin's insubordination, orders Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) arrested for eventual execution. However, in the midst of the ransacking the castle, the king is mortally wounded. A few days later, as he succumbs to his wounds, the king has a change of heart. With his last breath, he pardons Robin and Little John.

The pair of friends are free, and the war for them is over. Robin decides to go back to England, back to the familiar environs of Sherwood Forest. As he and Little John make their way through the forest, they encounter Friar Tuck (the British comedian Ronnie Barker) and Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott). As the four men catch up on twenty years of events, the latter two mention to Robin that Marian is an abbess (head nun of an abbey) nearby. Robin's eyes light up, and makes his way to his one true love.

Marian is still beautiful, but it's a mature beauty earned through work and strength. When Robin left all those years ago, she initially was left without her paramour or direction for her own life. Through difficult events, she ended up at the abbey. Over time, she became a part of the order of nuns, then eventually the leader. When their eyes first meet, the battle-worn Robin lights up like a schoolboy. Marian pretends to keep her emotions in check, but her eyes tell a different story.

As the two erstwhile lovers spar verbally, Marian prepares to be arrested. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), accompanied by the arrogant nobleman Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh) have come to arrest Marian. The new king has ordered expulsion of all senior leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, and Marian is among that number. Marian is ready to die for her faith, but Robin has other ideas. He disobeys the Sheriff and repels Sir Ranulf (earning the latter's enmity). Robin abducts Marian and heads off into the forest.

As the group finds respite in the woods, Robin and Marian re-connect. He admits he's tired of the constant warring, and has missed her all these years. She too admits that even as she found purpose for her life, she missed him. He was the only true love she's ever known. Their relationship re-kindles in short order. The way they interact is romantic and exhilarating. It appears they will have their "happily ever after".

Even as the lovers enjoy the pastoral surroundings, danger is afoot. The Sheriff and Sir Ranulf have become bitter rivals, each wanting the glory of taking down the legendary Hood. The Sheriff sees Robin as his counterpart, and the one man whose defeat will solidify the Sheriff's eternal legacy. The nobleman is an arrogant upstart, taken lightly be everyone he encounters. If he could defeat Robin Hood, his image will be bolstered for life.

Eventually, the new King John (Ian Holm) commissions Sir Ranulf and 200 soldiers to capture/kill Robin and his growing cadre of friends and allies. The Sheriff encounters the army on the road to Sherwood Forest, and quickly usurps command of the forces. The next day, the opposing forces meet on the battlefield, but Robin proposes an alternative that will minimize wanton bloodshed. Instead of all-out warfare, Robin volunteers to take on the Sheriff in a duel, one-versus-one. Robin wins, his band of folk go free. The Sheriff wins, Robin's band of folk go peaceably under the Sheriff's direction.

(As they prepare to duel, there is a small moment of prayer that I thought was neat. The two men, adversaries for decades, still had a deep, abiding respect for one another.)

The battle is well-choreographed, but not glamorous. The two men are skillful combatants, but neither is a young man anymore. There is blood, sweat and dirt. They're like two stags, crashing and slashing into each other. Neither can take an early advantage, and the battle takes a toll on both...

The ending is sad, but fitting. Marian's testament of love to Robin is one of the best I've ever heard or seen in any medium. Anyone who is either in love or wants to be in love wants to hear the words Marian uttered to Robin at the end (well, most of them, anyway).

The cast does a great job with this material. Connery played to his strengths in this role - he's the guy every woman would want, and the man other men would want to emulate. His Robin was bulkier, more grounded. You could see the years of battle weighing on his frame. Williamson is the strong "wingman" any man would want on the battlefield. Little John could hold his own in any circumstance, and brought a quiet determination to the story.

Shaw's Sheriff is a man of great loyalty and integrity in service to the Crown. In a different light, he could be seen as the most heroic, most capable character in the story. Haigh's Ranulf had lots of confidence and ambition, but lacked the actual skill to make his ambition reality.

Hepburn was the heart of this film. At once, she could be defiant, outspoken, tender, loving and hopeful. Her love was the characteristic that brought the story together. Her Marian was the symbol of the possibilities for Robin's future.

All in all, I would watch this one again, gladly. This would be a great choice for "movie night" at home. For those in the mood for a romantic movie with some action components, this would be a rewarding choice.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

My Job Here Is Done

It hit me Friday, while I was shopping for groceries. Normally, I took my son into account when shopping - he would probably need something, and I didn't mind picking it up. This time, I realized I didn't have to get him anything.

Seems he moved out on Saturday. He has his own place, and is taking another step in building his own life. He's the last in line for me, so it's a weird feeling. I know, lots of parents have told me "you never stop being a parent. You never stop caring about your kids." All true, but all my direct descendants are adults. Obviously, my role in their lives must change.

I couldn't help but think back to the time we came here to house-hunt. The military has/had something called "permissive temporary duty" or "permissive TDY". If the member had orders to move permanently to a new unit, the member could go permissive and scout out the immediate area around that new unit before the move.

We came to Colorado from Omaha, the last weekend in April of 1997. A couple of days before we arrived, the local area had gotten several inches of snow. The mountains were covered, and we were so impressed by the natural beauty. My kids were young, and the trip was a cool part of the adventure in being a military family. To see the wonder in my kids' eyes as we checked out the local area was pretty cool.

So many things happened from then to now. Successes, heartbreak, failure, deep affection, recovery, meeting new friends and saying goodbye to loved ones. Through it all, I always had something external on which to focus. There was always someone to take care of, or a job to perform. Now, all those things have either moved on or washed away. Now, the way ahead is wide open. I am truly intrigued to see what God sends my way.

But, I'd be silly to deny the fact that I get a bit choked up about this. The years have gone by so fast. Goals I chased after were achieved, and in some cases once I achieved them they weren't what I expected. Love has come, and just as quickly left for parts unknown. The dreams for the future aren't as easily defined as the ones from my youth.

Other realizations come into play. I don't fit in the coveted secular 18-49 year old demographic - most of this society is marketed away from me and my peers. On some levels, I've reached the peak of my journey. After years of self-centerness in the midst of the rat race, I don't have to run that race anymore.

Regardless, the rest of the journey promises to be a great adventure. I'm blessed to have the freedom others desire. After many years in a cubicle, wishing for freedom, now it's here. It's not scary, but the not knowing the exact way ahead feels like being on top of a mountain. I can feel the breeze, crisp and clean. I can look down from the peak in all directions, pick a heading, and head out. Here we go...

Friday, January 24, 2014

Old Dude, Old Movies - "Tugboat Annie"

This 1933 release was surprisingly touching. I stumbled across it one morning. It has heart and depth most movies today don't take the time to develop. Marie Dressler starred in it as the titular character. Her character is the emotional center of the story, and she does a great job with the shifting emotions required.

Wikipedia states the story was based on the life of Thea Foss. Her story was presented in a series in the Saturday Evening Post. Norman Reilly Raine. Raine was one of the screenplay's co-writers.

"Annie (Dressler)" and her husband "Terry (Wallace Beery)" own their own tugboat, plying their trade in a major port. Their son "Alec (Frankie Darro)" is bright and spunky. The parents see big things in his future, and Annie works hard to make sure Alec is prepared to achieve. She quizzes him on the ways of the sea, and also sprinkles in some Bible study. Annie is a doting mother, and resourceful when running the business and her family. While Annie is busy steering the tug and rearing Alec, Terry is nearby but not very effective. He's a happy-go-lucky drunk, but Annie's infinite patience and love hold him together. Their on-screen affection towards one another plays out genuine.

Before long, Alec grows into a ramrod-straight, polished seaman. Robert Young plays the adult Alec with style and a grim formality. He falls hard for "Pat Severn (Maureen O'Sullivan)", daughter of a rival tugboat skipper turned local industry leader (Willard Robertson as "Red). The young couple are overjoyed as Alec gets promoted to captain of a cruise liner, the youngest captain in the fleet. At the gathering to announce Alec's success, his parents are so proud. Annie joyfully embraces her son at the ceremony. Terry shows up late, boisterous and drunk. Oh, by the way, Terry is also missing his trousers...

There are a lot of weird moments like that throughout the movie. As Annie works her best to help her family, Terry comes along either in a drunken stupor or some misguided attempt at redemption to upset her plans. Despite his bumbling, Annie's loyalty to him is steadfast. Even when Alec proposes getting his mom a nice apartment so she can give up the tug and her husband, Annie immediately chastises her son and defends her husband & her choices.

Yeah, there's some romantic drama and late-in-the-movie danger, but anyone who knows about films of that era can anticipate the ending.

This was Dressler's penultimate movie role - she died of cancer the year after this film's release. In her day, she was one of Hollywood's biggest stars. This role is a great example of her talent. I enjoyed this movie big-time, and would watch it again

My Team - the Washington Nationals and the 2014 Season

As January comes to a close (yippee!), one thing I look forward to is the start of baseball spring training. At various locations in Arizona and Florida, hundreds of ball players gather to train and compete for coveted spots at the big league level. To me, it's a much better harbinger of the coming spring than any groundhog.

My favorite team, the Nationals, are coming off a 2013 season that was a disappointment compared to pre-season expectations. Former manager Davey Johnson's "World Series or Bust" declaration was bold, but ultimately unfulfilled. New manager Matt Williams inherits a strong roster. Talent won't be an issue. Let's look at that talent-laden roster:

Outfield - last year's starters (from left field to right) Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth. This is a strength of the team. Harper has vowed to get bigger and stronger, to endure the grind of 162 games. This is the season where the team needs Harper on the field 150+ games. The Nats also need Harper to contribute more than 20 homers and 60 RBI. If he stays healthy, I'd suspect he can go for 30 homers/80+ RBI. If he gets off to a good start at the plate, he boosts the team into early contention. Span played Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field, and improved at the plate the second half of the season. The team needs his skill at the top of the batting order. He's gotta get on base early and often in April and May, setting a tone for the whole year. Werth is the steady pro, doing his best work in the second half to get the team back in contention. He's one of the team leaders on the field and in the clubhouse. Expect him to get 25+ homers, a .900 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS)percentage and good defense.

Infield  - last year's starters (from third base to first base) Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche. When healthy, this is a strong unit. Zimmerman gutted out a tough 2013, playing through rehab of a surgically-repaired throwing shoulder. He had some throwing issues early in the season, but got stronger as the year went on. He's the face of the franchise, and hard to replace if he's out for any length of time. Zimmerman's a great defender (especially when charging slow rollers), and a dangerous hitter. Desmond is an All-Star caliber shortstop. He can do it all, and is usually good for one or two hot streaks where he's ripping line drives all over the ballpark. If the team gets off to a good start, expect him to get plenty of All Star Game consideration. Rendon showed promise after changing positions at the big-league level. He made himself a competent second baseman after playing third base in college and the minor leagues. He had some issues with concentration in the field, but improved as the season progressed. He's got doubles power, and he's quick around the bases. Expect him to grow more polished and consistent in the field this season. LaRoche provides left-handed power and a steady set of hands at first base. He had a subpar 2013 at the plate, and the team needs a bounce-back year from him. This is the final year of his contract, and there is talk of posting Zimmerman at first base when the team faces particularly tough left-handed pitchers. The team's batting order needs the balance LaRoche can provide. Offensively, will we see last year's LaRoche or the 100-RBI man from 2012?

Catcher - last year's starter Wilson Ramos. He had one more RBI than Harper last year, and Ramos played 40 fewer games. He's a threat at the plate, and a pretty good catch-and-throw guy. He handles pitchers pretty well. The big thing for him is durability. The team needs him available for 120+ games, since there is no established veteran backup catcher on the roster. If Ramos goes down with injury, that hole will be tough to replace.

Starting pitchers - last year's starters Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. New acquisition Doug Fister. The first three guys everybody knows about. Strasburg signed a one-year deal in the off-season (avoiding arbitration). He showed improved durability in 2013. The upcoming season is the one where he needs to show he can be that number one starter that takes the ball 32 times, goes deep into games, and stops losing streaks that come up. If Strasburg does that, he'll get his big payday. Gonzalez pitched pretty good in '13, but didn't get a lot of offensive support. I expect his won-loss record to improve as the offense improves. Zimmermann was one of the best starters in the majors last year, and is durable and tough. On some other teams, he would be a number-one starter option. Continued good health and resultant production will be what the team needs from him. Detwiler, a lefty, would give the rotation needed balance. His injury issues stunted his progress. Can the team count on him for the whole season? Fister was acquired in a trade with Detroit. The tall righthander has playoff experience and tenacity. He'll fit right in with this rotation.

Relief pitchers - Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Ross Ohlendorf, Ryan Mattheus. New acquisition Jerry Blevins. These guys are proven, but 2013 was a struggle for some of them. Soriano closed last year, but struggled the middle of the year. Clippard was solid in a setup role, but once in a while would fall in love with his slider. Storen struggled early, got sent to AAA to work on his command, and came back more productive. Stammen was a workhorse in middle relief, and challenged hitters all year. Ohlendorf was pressed into a starting role, and usually gave the team 4-to-5 innings of competitive pitching each start. Matthews struggled at the start, got injured, got sent out to AAA, and never found his groove upon returning to the majors. Blevins (acquired from Oakland) is the left-handed option the team sought for the bullpen. The team needs 2012 levels of consistency from this unit to contend. Relinquishing leads in the late innings will demoralize any team.

Bench - outfielders Scott Hairston, Tyler Moore and Nate McLouth. Infielders Danny Espinosa, Jamey Carroll and Mike Fontenot. Catchers Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. Hairston and Moore provide power off the bench. Moore can also play some first base. Espinosa has power as well, but had severe problems making contact last season. Carroll (former National) and Fontenot have big league experience, and were signed to compete for the second base/backup infielder spot held last year by Steve Lombardozzi. Neither Solano (29 in August) nor Leon (25 in March) have extensive big-league experience, and it's hard to tell if either will hold his own offensively if pressed into extended service. I expect Hairston, McClouth, Espinosa, Carroll and Solano to comprise the main bench component when the season starts (barring any future acquisitions or injuries).

On paper, this team should approach 90 wins or so in 2014. As with most teams in most sports, two keys will be a) good health for the regulars and b) a good start offensively in April. The team fell off the pace early in 2013, in large part due to the anemic offense. Too many runners were left on base in April and May. That has to change for the team to reach its post-season goals this year.

Overall, as a fan I'm excited for this upcoming season. If Washington can play to its full capability this year, it should be an enjoyable baseball summer in the District.

In Dreams - "What, You're Gonna Run Me Over?"

It started with me back at work, in a shiny office building. I'd gone up to the third floor to wait for some unknown reason. As I waited, I hit the snack bar room for a single-wrapped chocolate Twinkie and a Kit-Kat bar. As I sat there, a guy I used to know approached me. He was in his Airmen Battle Uniform (ABU), but he had a garment bag slung over his right shoulder.

We visited for a bit as if we were lifelong friends. I remembered his face, but couldn't capture his name. We talked for a bit more, but were soon interrupted by increasing numbers of people coming into the room. Seems there was to be some ceremony taking place in the same room in a matter of moments. Since I was in jeans and a hoodie, I was not dressed for the occasion. I hastily gathered my snacks and snuck out.

Next, I was on a farm in West Tennessee (probably Maury City), in a field talking to my mom. The conversation was general shoot-the-breeze stuff, nothing serious. I sat on a four-wheeled bike, like an adult-sized tricycle but with four wheels instead of three. I was facing north, and could see a road 40 yards or so in front of me. On that road, a school bus stopped, and several children exited the vehicle.

As I watched the bus pull off, I could hear something behind me. I turned my head, and saw a Toyota minivan pulling up directly behind me. The driver paused maybe twenty feet or so, then started to ease forward. I was sure he would stop short, so I turned my head back to face my mom. That's when I felt a bump - the van's bumper "kissed" my rear wheels enough to give me a jolt. I was surprised, since no other vehicles were parked near us. Why get so close?

As the driver shut off the van's engine and got out of the vehicle, he looked at me with a sheepish grin and extended his hand as a peace offering. He looked like a shorter, rounder, younger version of Kevin Costner. I refused his handshake offer and verbally lit into him. "What, you're gonna run me over? I ain't shaking your hand, man! You saw me sitting here, hit my bike anyway, put my health at risk, and expect me to say everything's' cool? Well, everything's not cool. Next time, be more careful".

The guy put his hand down, showed an impassive, emotionless expression on his face, and walked away.