Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Mango Picking Team

When I eat mangoes I like them ripe, soft and juicy, where the flesh is yellow and more sugary than sugar. That is usually how they sell them in grocery stores. Unfortunately for me, that is not how the denizens of this house like them. No, they want them green, hard and tart.

Of all the people here, the primary mango picker of the house is my 12 year old, Jen-Jen. During the production period of my two particular trees—one an apple mango, the other an Indian mango—she’ll come and ask every couple of days or so for permission to pick a dozen or so. I always tell her, “Okay, go ahead. Just be careful.”

I used to ask her and the others to please let a few ripen up for me, but I don’t bother any more. They really seem to relish them green. I don’t get it. I guess they’re okay with salt; but to me, certainly not something to relish. I mean, I would only eat them like that if I had to, and so far, I’ve never had to. Why would I? I tried it a couple times like that but it just doesn’t suit my taste buds. I always ask them why would you want to eat sour mangoes when you can eat them sweet. Oh well, it’s what they like.

Watching the two of them work together to manipulate the long bamboo mango picker you have to admire Jen and Jon’s enthusiasm. Jen, being the stronger of the two, handles the picker; while her eleven year old cousin, Jon, acts as spotter, telling her which way to maneuver the basket end, with its leading edge shaped to strip the mangoes from the tree.

Of course, like many of the useful items in and around the house, my brother-in-law, Eddie, fabricated our two bamboo mango pickers as well. One is long and the other is REAL long. As the low hanging fruit become scarce, and then nonexistent, we find that only the REAL long picker will work to get the fruit that are left high and away.

The other day, enjoying the reduced heat of late afternoon, I puttered around a bit in the yard while taking in the sight and sounds of my mango picking “team” high in the trees above. It occurred to me to go in and grab the cam and take a video of the dynamic duo doing their thing more than 30 feet up in the air.

Without the tower we’d never be able to reach most of the mangoes; although I’d probably finally be able to have a ripe one or two for once. The tower’s stairs and platforms, along with the catwalks between the trees, allows us to reach all but a few of the much sought after fruit.

Aside from the facilitation of mango picking though, I enjoy the tower as a stationary getaway vehicle. In a matter of just a few seconds I’m in an entirely different world of rustling leaves and cooling breezes. Just being way up there in the trees, hidden from the world by the thick sheltering foliage while spying out on that same world through a screen of green, usually while sipping thoughtfully from a morning or evening coffee, or afternoon iced tea, makes life here not just bearable, but positively enjoyable and relaxing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Battle for Los Angeles" It's a GREAT ride!

‘I wonder if there’s a new movie at the theater yet.’

That’s what I was thinking as I went online to the Robinsons Angeles Theater “Now Showing” page. And, indeed, a brand new one was on tap—World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles. The synopsis: “A Marine platoon faces off against an alien invasion in LA.”

I called out to the wife, “Hey, you want to go check out this new flick? It sounds hokey, but maybe the special effects will be cool. Anyway, Hollywood almost always messes up movies about marines. I’ll give you the lowdown on how bad they get it. Whadya say? Let’s go?”

So, our expectations were low, but you know what, it was a pretty darn good flick. In fact, it bordered on awesome. A big surprise to me was the draw. It seems that Filipinos are attracted to alien invasion movies; or maybe it had something to do with the idea of LA being attacked; or it could have been the mystique of American marines. Stretching my arms high before standing up as the closing credits rolled, I was shocked to see the mezzanine behind me almost completely packed.

I asked my wife, ‘Whoa! Where did all those people come from? I didn’t even know they were there.” When we had come in it was the three of us, including my daughter, and maybe two or three other theater goers.

“They came in during the movie,” she answered.

I faked incredulity, “No way. Why would anyone want to see the end of a movie and THEN watch the beginning?” I chuckled as I kidded her once again with my unending rhetorical questions about her fellow citizens that I ALWAYS find SO puzzling.

“Eh! There you go again. Why do you always do that… American!” She gave me a playful poke in the ribs.

“Hey, its academic; you don’t have to actually ANSWER, ya know!” My poor wife, I can’t pull all these strangers’ legs so I settle for hers instead.

The movie was brilliant as far as I’m concerned. Right off the bat I completely identified with Aaron Eckhart’s character, Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Nantz. At the outset we find the 20 year marine doing a morning PT run on a sunny Camp Pendleton beach. He’s running hard, straining to keep a good stride going, only to have a bunch of much younger marines easily pass him by, each with a hearty, “Good morning staff sergeant!” “Good morning staff sergeant!” “Good morning staff sergeant!” As they zip effortlessly past him.

After the sixth youthful marine sprints by Nantz like he’s standing still he gives up, slows to a trot, and towels off. We find out soon that the Silver Star awardee has had enough of the combat, death and mayhem and is going to retire from the Corps. I silently agree with him as he speaks the truth to one of his superiors who tries to talk him out of getting out, “Top, you know as well as I do that all marines have a limited shelf life and my date has expired.”

Of course his retirement plans go out the window once the aliens invade and begin decimating the human civilian population of Los Angeles and at several other big cities throughout the world. SSgt Nantz is immediately pulled from his job training young marines for combat and placed in charge of an infantry detail assigned to make their way to an LA police station overrun by aliens. Once there, they are to secure it and call for air evacuation back to comparative safety of their own lines. All this has to be done at the double quick though because the Air Force is going to drop everything they have forward of those lines. If they don’t get out in time they’ll be caught in a murderous kill zone.

That scenario sets up the hair-raising adventures that follow. From start to finish I was mostly happy with the film makers’ portrayal of the American fighting man (and woman). The fighting woman is played by Michelle Rodriguez who depicts an Air Force intelligence NCO attached to an army unit. She and several of the army troopers end up with the marines after they were forced to retreat when the aliens wiped out the rest of their outfit. And as she tends to do in most of her past film roles, boy oh boy does she fight!

I read that Aaron Eckhart and the rest of the cast of “marines” went through several weeks of a Hollywood “boot camp” to give them the feel of how to portray Marines. For the most part they did a credible job. They got the marine bravado down pretty well and they carried themselves like actual marines would I think. They must have had real marine advisors on set because they got the haircuts right as well as the uniforms. I don’t know how many movies I’ve seen that have been completely ruined for me because of some actor with blocked hair on the sides, or with a uniform article improperly worn. Believe me, that kind of detail is bread and butter to the marines. When that “easy stuff” is not right, we notice it.

The only thing they evidently weren’t able to instill in any of them is how to produce an authentic Marine yell. Why, I don’t know; it’s not that difficult. “The yell” comes from the diaphragm when done loudly and from the back of the throat when done in conversation. The army says “huwah,” navy seals say “hoorah,” and the marines make the very unique “AuRah.” I heard one of the actors come the closest when he uttered a desultory “AruGah!” Groaning I leaned over to Divine shaking my head.

“Come on guys, it really is NOT that hard to do!” I muttered under my breath. Divine heard me and laughed at my disgust.

On that note, a few days ago one of the young Filipino instructors at the gym asked me for training advice based on how the marines do it. He is fascinated like a lot of people all over the world by how hard the training to become a marine must be, wondering if he could do it or not.

Rather than just give him a simple answer I told him, “Look, if you’re talking about initial “training,” like in bootcamp (he nodded yes), well, it’s not about getting in shape, it’s much more than that. Training is something marines do ALL the time, but bootcamp isn’t all that much about training the body, it’s more about reshaping what’s in HERE!” I pointed at his heart.

I continued. “It’s about learning—learning how far you can physically go and then going further. So sure, you do pushups forever, and you run till you puke, but THAT is not really what they are trying to accomplish. That’s just a means to an end. What they do is break you down, break you up, until all the weak-willed crybaby civilian stuff has been squeezed out. And then, what’s left is molded into a marine. If anything, to simplify it, to boil it down, it’s learning this: Marines don’t quit! Because if they do, they’re letting down their fellow marines and all the marines who ever served going back to 1775! It SOUNDS sappy right? But THAT is what it’s all about my friend.”

By the time I’d finished my little lecture he was weakly smiling, probably feeling a little embarrassed for me and looking for a way to gracefully get away. Laughing at my own unexpected intensity I slapped him on the shoulder and sent him on his way.

Coincidentally, during a very poignant scene in the movie, SSgt Nantz is trying to comfort a little boy grieving over the death of his father. In trying to buck up the poor little lad Nantz utters those very words to him as he bestows honorary marine status to him, “… just remember buddy, Marines never quit!” Throughout the movie Nantz and his marines prove that again and again.

I have to admit, I really got fired up watching the combat scenes—marines vs. aliens. It sounds really schmaltzy but Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, and all the others really do well in making the viewer feel the action. With every trigger pull they make you WANT them to succeed, to KILL those damn alien things. And I noticed that Divine was every bit as caught up in the action as I was.

Throughout the movie several other past “War of the Worlds” type flicks came to mind: “Independence Day” for one, which also shows a marine, Will Smith, fighting aliens, only “Battle LA” does it without the humor, which I prefer. In “Battle LA” the combat scenes are filmed exactly like in “Cloverfield” and “Saving Private Ryan,” where the footage is grainy and jouncing as if the camera is being held realistically by a combat cameraman right in the thick of the action. “Battle LA” also reminds me of the recent movie “Skyline,” only that miserable flick shows WAY too much gore and the ending is WAY too unsatisfactory. I mean, why would anyone want to watch a movie about the aliens winning? No way! I hated that flick. I left the theater that day feeling downright cheated.

Getting back to the marine aspect of the movie, one of my favorite parts is when one of the civilians, a female news reporter, asks SSgt Nantz what it means when he calls out “Retreat!” and the other marines yell back as one, “Hell!” He tells her that “Retreat Hell” is the motto of their unit, the 2/5, the second battalion of the fifth marine regiment, which happens to be the most decorated battalion in the Marine Corps. He quietly explains how a marine officer in WWI, just arrived in France with the 2/5, is hastily advised by a French officer that they must retreat from an overwhelming German attack. The young marine officer (Capt. Lloyd W. Williams) rejects the Frenchmen’s “suggestion” responding, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”

Why do I love that part of the film so much? Because it reminds me of how the Marine Corps is so effective in instilling esprit de corps in its troops. They do this by steeping every marine in “their” history and proud traditions. Starting from day 1 in recruit training, every marine becomes familiar with “the long green line,” all their unit battles and the deeds of many of the famous marines who made victory possible.

Presley O’bannon, Archibald Henderson, Dan Daley, Lloyd Williams, Chesty Puller, John Basilone, Holland “Howling Mad” Smith all come to mind. The things all these “greats” had in common were an indomitable spirit and an unwillingness to quit the fight no matter what. I knew I wanted to be one of them when as a teenager I read about the WWII Dec 1941 Battle for Wake Island. I was stunned at how these men fought the Japanese to the death. Many of these marines were shot through repeatedly while also sustaining multiple bayonet stab wounds and STILL they fought like wildcats until the moment they bled out and stopped breathing. Slowly turning the pages, struggling to read through eyes blurred by tears of pride, I remember thinking, ‘I want to be one of THOSE guys.’

Anyway, watching the portrayal of selfless bravery by young marines, soldiers and an airman, it brought back all those proud feelings. I could tell that many of the scenes are of actual footage of real marines, such as the shots of infantry on the run loading up and dismounting from CH-46 helicopters. In fact, there must have been a LOT of Marine Corps cooperation in this cinematic gem because much of what I saw in the movie was at least halfway credible. Anyway, aside from the inability of the actors to voice an accurate marine yell, the only other problems I saw were in some of the infantry tactics and unit movements (much of the time they were bunched up way too close). Still minor stuff compared to the problems I had when I first saw “Saving Private Ryan,” where this tiny detail of Rangers go traipsing along without regard for cover and concealment behind enemy lines while nonchalantly smoking cigarettes, and telling each other their life stories. Geez, what a crock that was.

So, do I recommend “Battle LA?” Well, of course; it was a hell of a ride from start to finish. And it’s always great when the good guys win at the end, and even better when not all the good guys get killed in doing it. So does SSgt Nantz, the very likeable Aaron Eckhart, survive all his old guy heroics to the end of the movie? Watch it and find out! I will say that MOST of that original Marine detail dies. As far as the protagonist Nantz; well, I’m not saying.

As we ambled out of the theater leaving all those nutty people to watch the beginning of a movie that they already KNEW how was going to end, I could not contain myself. Just before we passed from view down the ramp to exit the doors I did a vintage Marine yell for the crowd at less than half volume, “Aaa-u-RAH!” It felt good. There must have been at least one other marine as well because I was rewarded with a very passable yell in response. Nice! Divine and Jen were absolutely thrilled, proud of "their" marine.

Go see this movie in a theater—you won’t be sorry.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Rango," An adult "kids'" animated flick (Thumbs UP!)

It’s been several weeks since the local quadplex mall theater has shown a kids’ movie. Finally, the other day, “Rango” came to town and we happily took the kids to see it. In a nutshell, the kids liked it while I LOVED it; BUT, I wouldn’t exactly call it a “kids’ movie.”

I was fully expecting a cutesy children’s story about talking lizards, and it kind of is; but in no way is this a mere cornball kid’s cartoon movie. The main character, voiced by Johnny Depp, is a bug-eyed chameleon named Rango. The first scene establishes his whimsical yet cultured nature as he does a self-directed soliloquy of a play or movie scene with a fellow cast consisting of a dead cricket and a fish toy. His pathetic weak side becomes evident when his entire world as a kept pet comes to an abrupt, literally crashing end when his terrarium gets bumped out of the back window of the family car on a two-lane highway in the middle of a searing Nevada desert. The defining journey of Rango’s, up to that moment, lonely life, begins at that moment; and that is the incredible journey the viewer follows in watching the movie.

Depp “speaks” this part perfectly. He talks fast; he has to, there’s a LOT of dialogue to get in. Depp almost does his lines as a string of mumbles, except that he has the ability to make every quick and quietly delivered underplayed word quite understandable. But the really cool thing is the LEVEL of the discourse; it’s nonstop clever, and the vernacular, in script form, probably reads to at least the 10th grade level (the average American adult reads at the 9th grade level).

You really have to listen and focus as you watch this flick if you expect to follow even half of the double-entendres, play on words, puns, jokes and subtle references, much of which are quite “adult.” I’d say that most of the really good stuff goes right over the heads of the kids taking in the flick. Of course, the same could probably be said about most of my fellow movie going grownup citizens (present company excluded of course!).

It’s no wonder Depp accepted this gig. It must have been a joy to perform; probably as much fun as portraying the coolly complicated Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. But there’s nothing of Captain Jack’s panache in this film, far from it; instead, Rango’s persona reminds me of Don Knotts while his situation is that of Don Quixote.

Rango’s quick tongue, used to spouting Shakespearean-like passages in his earlier make-believe world when he was still just a family pet, gets him mixed up in dangerous things in his NEW desert world, perilous things that are WAY more than this quietly simple lizard would ever have had to deal with in the lonely limited confines of his old glass terrarium.

And that’s the fun of the movie, because in the end, he figures out that there’s more to him than he ever suspected. Then again, he doesn’t come to this realization on his own; he receives puzzlingly enigmatic guidance from an old Mexican Armadillo, as well as from a Clint Eastwood looking and sounding “Man with no name” human type character called “The Spirit of the West,” not to mention the inspiration and strength he gets from Miss Beans, his lizard love interest.

We’ve come to expect awesome graphics in animated features these days and this one does not disappoint in that respect; but what really tickled me was the development of the celluloid creature characters. The artists who invented the look of these critters must have been inspired by some of the art work done in some of the old Mad Magazine spreads where the ugly and the odd was the entire point of the magazine.

Just as in the style of the old MAD Magazine characters, the Rango movie ones aren’t cute by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, they aren’t the sicky-sweet characters we usually get in MOST animated films of the day. What they ARE is impressively ugly, but in a really fresh quirky way.

Because of the refreshingly, slightly repulsive look of the characters, this film will most certainly NOT appeal to really young kids; but it SHOULD appeal to kids 7years old and older, including 53 year old kids like me. Coz I’m here to tell you—this flick was fun. I have a feeling that this one will achieve cult following type status fairly quickly. And I won't even wait; count me as one of those cult movie type followers, like right now. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm going to go see it again; it's that good.

Oh, and my 7 year old boy also loved the movie; mostly because he loves animals. If you have one of those, a kid obsessed with fish, foul and fauna, by all means take 'em!

Don't hate me.....

Since returning from my last scuba foray in January I’ve not done much, other than take the online PADI open water diving course, putter in the yard, sweat a little in the gym, and last but not least, watch a myriad of recently released movies at the Robinson’s theater quadlplex just around the corner. Ahhhh geez, but my life is SO hard, . . . or not. (Do I have two boxes of popcorn at the theater today, or just one? THAT is my life as of late.)

Don’t hate me just because I’ve fallen into this tropical, affordable life of leisure. Believe me; sometimes, even though I’ve come to take it all for granted, it all seems too good to be true; especially when I consider how many folks my age and physical status have it. Most are still hard at work, or they are if they are lucky; and those disabled in some way, like me, are probably not having nearly the good life that I manage to enjoy. It's too good to be true, I think uncomfortably, almost guiltily, and keep expecting something to happen that will bring it all to an abrupt end.

Anyway, I KNOW that it WILL end—our life as it currently exists will surely change as the plan is to take the family back to the states so they’ll have a crack at being Americans. With that, I tell them ALL things are possible, as long as one is willing to work hard, have a plan, save—and again—WORK HARD.

In doing that for them though I’ll be giving up this golden existence I currently have here. Ah well, nothing lasts forever, or so I hear. Unlike here, I know the costs of living stateside will eat up all the money I draw in pension and disability, and probably much much more. . . . Sigh. . . I seriously doubt we'll be going to the movies much when we finally arrive back in the land of the cold and the costly.