Operation Gratitude – 900k and the March to a Million

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There are a few places on this planet where I feel absolutely comfortable. One of them is the National Guard Armory in Van Nuys, CA. I don’t know what it is about that wonderful place, but my shyness and social awkwardness don’t seem to exist there. It must be all the love. It’s literally bursting from the seams in there.

900,000!!

900,000!!

If you’re a regular on the blog then you know about my love for Operation Gratitude. If you’re a newbie then let me explain what Operation Gratitude is really quick. It’s an organization started by Carolyn Blashek in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  When she tried to join the military and was told that she was above the age limit, she couldn’t stand by and do nothing so she started putting together care packages in her home. Those humble beginnings have grown into an Operation that has now sent more than 900,000 care packages to troops deployed around the world. We have officially started our March to a Million.

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Now a little background as to how I got involved. I’m a proud Navy Brat and sister of a Marine and several years back I decided that I wanted to do something to support the military and their families. I collected a ton of unused Christmas cards and got everyone I know to write letters and notes in them. I collected more than a hundred and then realized that I had no idea where to send them. I started calling Army-Navy Recruiting Offices and finally a Soldier answered and told me about Operation Gratitude. I called the phone number he gave me and Carolyn answered. Turns out he had given me her home phone number. Carolyn was so warm and kind and told me where to drop the letters off. I asked her what else I could do and she told me about their upcoming Package Assembly Day. I never looked back. The 2nd time I volunteered I was lucky enough to pack the 350,000th package, a moment that I will never forget for as long as I live. I told my Nerd BFF Geek Outlaw about it and he began joining me about a year after I started. I’ve volunteered many times since then, collected hundreds more Christmas cards, and learned to crochet so that I could make scarves for the Winter Drive. It brings me more joy than I could ever express. Now that I’m in San Diego and my schedule is insane, it’s much harder to get up to Van Nuys but I drove up this past weekend for the last packing day of the year.

HNG Opgrat prep

Photo by HNG fan Shaun

I have a bad wrist so I like to get to the Armory early so that I can get a spot putting the items into the boxes. It also gives me a chance to talk to all of the people who walk around the assembly line and arrange the contents as we fill them. And I get to dance to the music which is not only fun, but makes it easier on my back. After saying hello and giving Carolyn a big hug, I settled into my spot along with Geek Outlaw and his Dad. For the morning shift I was put in charge of the Oxy products and was dubbed the “zit girl.”  For the afternoon shift I was moved to another area of hygiene, toothpaste and dental floss.

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Picture posted on facebook

Right before we started for the day I posted a picture on the facebook page and invited anyone in the area to join us. Shaun saw that picture and, still reeling from the tragedy in Connecticut and his personal connection to it, decided that volunteering was exactly what he needed. That, and wearing a red shirt under his sweatshirt. He joined Geek Outlaw and I for the afternoon shift. It was awesome to hang out and chat with him, he now knows more about me than any other fan!

HNG and Shaun

There are always a few celebrities that show up and this year was no different.  The first one who came by was Michael Reagan, oldest son of President Ronald Reagan, along with his wife and daughter. I didn’t recognize him at first, but Geek Outlaw’s Dad did and when I heard his name I perked right up. I asked him “Michael, do you know Dean Minnerly?” He looked surprised and said “Yes!!” I told him that Dean was my step-dad and he couldn’t believe it. Each time he came around we chatted a little more. As I mentioned in my interview with him, Dean was a Karate instructor prior to becoming a Foley Artist. Michael’s son was one of his students and he used to hang out with the Reagan’s and go out on their boat with them. They haven’t been in contact for a number of years though. So I told Michael I was going to take his picture and text it to Dean. This is that picture.

HNG opgrat Michael Reagan

Michael Reagan

Dean was flabbergasted and asked if I could get Michael’s contact info but by the time I got that message we were in the middle of the ceremony and Michael was speaking to the crowd. He left right after and I didn’t see him again. So Michael, if you ever read this, Dean wants to reconnect with you.

The next celebrity to come by was Erik Estrada of CHiPs fame along with at least ten Playboy Bunnies.

HNG waiting for Erik and the Bunnies to catch up with the rest of the line

HNG waiting for Erik and the Bunnies to catch up with the rest of the line

He was so incredibly nice. You could tell that he really wanted to be there and was genuinely excited to meet and hang out with the Soldiers who were present.

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HNG and Erik Estrada

Joe Mantegna was there along with at least fifteen other crew and production people from Criminal Minds. Dean works on the Law & Order shows so we exchanged a few joking jabs back and forth each time they made the rounds.

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Geek Outlaw, Joe Mantegna, and HNG

After lunch, Geek Outlaw, Shaun, and I reclaimed our spots on the Assembly Line.

"My spot!" says Geek Outlaw

“My spot!” says Geek Outlaw

A few minutes later Carolyn came up with a little boy named Charlie (that’s him behind Geek Outlaw) and asked Geek Outlaw and I to watch him and show him the ropes. We’re responsible adults so we said no problem! After chatting with him for a few minutes (seriously, he was so cute and sweet), Carolyn came back and told me “By the way, he’s Jon Cryer’s son.” You probably know Jon Cryer best from Two and a Half Men. I’ve never seen that show so I know him as Duckie from Pretty in Pink. Jon was a client of my previous boss in LA so I had spoken to his wife before on the phone. The line started back up and the next thing I know, here comes Jon. I said “Hey Jon, we were put in charge of your kid, he’s really cute.” He smiled and said “Well I certainly think so! I think I’ll join you guys.”

HNG and Jon Cryer

HNG and Jon Cryer

He took a place on the Line and was put in charge of the 5 Hour Energy’s. Having had that job before, I know how filthy your hands get, so I told him I had a hand wipe with his name on it once we stopped for the day. He was also really nice and even danced with me when “Stayin’ Alive” came on over the speakers. I told him who my old boss was and he got a big smile on his face and told me to tell him that he said hi, which I did. Tada! Two sets of old friends reconnected by me and Operation Gratitude. I was kind of on a roll that day.

Then, of course, there was Santa (Santa’s a celebrity! 😉 )aka Supervisor Jack, the nicest man you will ever meet and a fantastic singer…

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…and Captain Freedom…

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…but the real celebrity that day was Spc. Samuel M. He was the recipient of the 800,000th care package; recently back from his latest deployment in Afghanistan. The recipients of the milestone care packages always get a few extras. On Saturday Spc. M. was presented with a custom motorcycle made by Torque and Orange County Choppers. I know absolutely nothing about motorcycles but even I knew that it was a special bike. It was really gorgeous.

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Regardless of how you may feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the brave men and women of our military are the reason we have the freedoms that we do and they need to be supported by those of us back home who take advantage of those freedoms. You don’t know their names but they are sacrificing and sometimes dying for you. The least we can do is send them a little piece of home. I’m proud to have contributed to that effort in my own very small way.

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Thanks again to Carolyn and the Blue Shirts for all that you do and for making Operation Gratitude feel like a home away from home.

To learn more and find out how you can help, visit the Operation Gratitude website HERE.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Reviewed

I'm ready Gandalf, let's go on an adventure!

I’m ready Gandalf, let’s go on an adventure!

I really need to stop burning the candle at both ends. I woke up Sunday morning with a horrible sore throat and a pounding headache that is making my head feel like it weighs about 800 lbs. But nothing was going to keep me from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Nothing. So I opted to see it in 2D because of my head. I’ll go back and see it in 3D once I’m feeling better.

WARNING: I geek out a bit so expect spoilers. But really, y’all should have read the books so I really shouldn’t be spoiling anything for you.

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The movie takes us through the first 6 chapters of The Hobbit or There and Back Again by JRR Tolkien which means that it took them just under 3 hours to get through approximately 100 pages of a children’s novel.  I’ve been arguing since 1999 that The Lord of the Rings should have been six movies instead of three. People who haven’t read The Lord of the Rings might not know that it’s actually six books in three parts. The movies were great, I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched them, but they would have been even greater had they been able to stretch out a bit more. Cuts had to be made, like Tom Bombadil, and that’s fine but a bit sad for those of us who love the books. The Hobbit  could probably have been done in two movies as opposed to three, but I, for one, am glad that they aren’t limiting themselves this time around. It means less changes while they try to squeeze in major plot points. They do still make a few changes, which I’ll mention later, but it’s mostly additions that I didn’t mind.

It starts much like The Fellowship of the Ring did, with a back story setting up the adventure that’s about to happen. In this case, it’s the story of how the House of Durin discovered and claimed Erebor, or The Lonely Mountain, as their home. Erebor is pretty rad. It’s got a ton of precious gems and metals and giant hammers that come down from the ceiling and slam together to make golden blocks of something kick ass. They also have the Arkenstone, which is basically like the greatest diamond ever found, second only to the Silmarils (which were made, but that’s a different story). King Thrór, or as I now like to think of him, the Dwarf with the Awesome Beard Bling, becomes so obsessed with his wealth that he starts going a bit batty. His Grandson, Thorin, is the only one who seems to notice this but says nothing. Apparently, insanity attracts evil because one day Smaug, a Fire-drake (or Uruloki) left over from the days of Morgoth, decides that Thrór’s treasure would make a mighty fine mattress. *Totally random side note – maybe it’s because of my life-long obsession with Norse mythology, but did anyone else ever notice that a UruLOKI stole everything from someone named THrOR?

But I digress.

There are a few things that are different from the book; for example, the way in which Bilbo decides to join the adventure at the last minute, the whole Radagast part, the way the Dwarves leave Rivendell, the Orc hunting party, the scuffle with Azog during the burning trees bit, the way the group finds themselves in the hall of the Great Goblin. But you know what? None of that bothered me. Because they are splitting the book into three parts, they are able to keep the storyline line almost entirely intact. Unlike with The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which they had to cut a lot of my favorite parts out and therefore, modify parts to make it all flow. Which they did quite nicely considering it had to be squeezed into such short films (yes, I said short).

Let’s explore the characters, shall we?

Bilbo Baggins

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The first time I saw Martin Freeman was when he was playing Tim in the original British version of The Office  and I remember thinking, how can you not love this guy?? What is wrong with you Dawn! GO GET HIM!! (If you haven’t seen it, you really need to, it’s brilliant). Steven Moffat once said that Freeman has a way of making “ordinary people fascinating. He finds the poetry in just being ordinary, and that’s an extraordinary gift.” And it’s true. When I found out that Freeman would be playing Bilbo I literally sqee’d. It’s like he was born for this role. He is, quite simply, a revelation. And I don’t say that lightly. Every word, every movement, every mannerism is perfect. It’s lovely to see Ian Holm on the morning of his birthday party at the beginning of the film but I couldn’t wait until they went back to 60 years prior and the introduction of Freeman as Bilbo. Right from the get go his performance is charming and emotionally gratifying. Even when he’s covered in Troll snot. When Galadriel asks Gandalf why he brought Bilbo along he’s baffled and haltingly replies “Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I am afraid and he gives me courage.” Indeed, Bilbo is simultaneously the mascot, the cheerleader, the little brother and, in many ways, the most capable member of the group, all of which the Dwarves slowly begin to realize the closer they get to Erebor. One of the minor alterations made by Peter Jackson is the way in which Bilbo tries on the ring for the first time. Instead of just slipping it on like he did in the book, they decided to mirror it with Frodo’s first time by having Bilbo trip and fall. As the ring flies through the air, IT makes the decision to slide onto Bilbo’s finger.

Gandalf

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Speaking of people who were born to play a role, the same could be said about Ian McKellen and the role of Gandalf the Grey. He’s here in all his pointy grey-hatted glory. One of the biggest differences between the book and the film is the way that the Dwarves leave Rivendell. In the book they depart with Elrond’s blessing on ponies packed with provisions that he has provided. In the movie they slip away in the middle of the night while Gandalf distracts Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman with a Morgul blade and tales of the Necromancer. As per usual, he saves the day on more than one occasion, the most notable of which is with a repeat of Gandalf the Moth Whisperer from LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring. But the best example of Gandalf’s magic? The fact that he never loses his hat. For real, it’s like it’s sewn onto his head.

Thorin

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I never understood why Marian went for Robin instead of Guy of Gisbourne. I mean seriously, just look at Richard Armitage, the guy (heehee) is drop dead. I first saw him in the BBC mini-series North & South.  Which you should totally watch if you’re at all into British period drama…which I totally am. North & South  is my favorite of all the ones I’ve seen and I’ve seen pretty much every one that Netflix has to offer. Then, of course, he was Gisbourne in the BBC series Robin Hood. A show that I found totally hokey at first but that I ended up being completely addicted to. Seriously dudes, the end of the final episode made me cry the ugly cry. Twice. Armitage has a tendency to play brooding characters and Thorin Oakenshield, the King in exile, is no different. He’s stubborn but magnetic and majestic for a Dwarf. If you’re an Armitage fan like I am, you’ll be thrilled by the countless close-ups of Thorin with his hair blowing in the wind. No joke, they pop up about every 10 minutes or so. Let me tell you, he has nailed the art of gazing just to the right of the camera and looking all inspirational and stuff.

The Dwarves

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This jovial band of brothers and cousins is filled primarily with relatively unknown actors from New Zealand and Great Britain, there is one that you might recognize, not only because he starred in another favorite BBC series of mine, but also because the makeup people just couldn’t seem to bring themselves to cover up such hotness and he’s got the least amount of prosthetics of any of the dwarves. I’m referring, of course, to Aidan Turner, our favorite tormented vampire from Being Human who plays Kili. The only other name I even recognized was Graham McTavish and that’s mostly because of my love for gratuitous violence. There are a couple of stand outs though. One being Balin (spoiler alert: the Fellowship finds his tomb when they’re walking through Moria) played by Ken Stott. Stott does a masterful job of being a wise and calming influence for Thorin.  If you’re not a Tolkienite, it can be easy to miss Glóin son of Gróin (bottom right in the picture collage). He doesn’t feature prominently in either the book or the movie, but he’s notable in that he is Gimli’s Daddy. Gimli, of course, being the sole Dwarf in the Fellowship of the Ring. As a whole they provide some very memorable and chuckle-worthy moments, including a burping contest and a kitchen clean-up job the likes of which have not been seen onscreen since Beauty and the Beast. “Blunt the Knives,” the comical clean up song, is quickly followed by a haunting rendition of “Misty Mountains.” Both songs are in the book and it’s highly satisfying to actually hear them for once. Many of the songs in the book get left out of the film, but the ones that are scored are brilliant.

Radagast

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I think that Peter Jackson felt guilty about leaving Radagast out of The Lord of the Rings because he made the part of Radagast the Brown much, much bigger in The Hobbit. In fact, if I remember correctly, I think he’s only mentioned in The Hobbit. You probably know Sylvester McCoy best as the seventh incarnation of the Doctor (the one who got his wardrobe cues from The Riddler). As one of the five Istari or Wizards of Middle Earth, Radagast is the one who is utterly obsessed with animals. He has virtually no contact with other humanoids and names the animals of the forest he protects. He even lets birds nest under his hat and crap down the side of his face. This is both hysterical and disgusting. He’s got a sled pulled by Rhosgobel rabbits who can outrun Wargs and, according to a disdainful Saruman, he eats lots of shrooms. Jackson uses Radagast to introduce the Necromancer. If you’ve read the books then you know who the Necromancer is, but just in case you haven’t, I’m not going to spoil it here.

Gollum

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Along the treacherous road to Erebor, the company stumbles on three Trolls. After defeating them by allowing the dawn to turn them to stone, Gandalf and company find the Troll’s cave and three very important swords, Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, Glamdring the Foe-Hammer, and Sting. When Gandalf hands Sting to a reluctant Bilbo he encourages the Hobbit by telling him that “true courage is not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” If you’ve seen The Fellowship of the Ring, then you know that Gandalf alludes to this moment when he scolds Frodo for wishing that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” Andy Serkis returns as the strangely loveable Stoor, Smeagol, in a performance that defies explanation. How someone can talk in that voice for that long is beyond me. Serkis mentioned on The Colbert Report that the “Riddles in the Dark” scenes were the first to be filmed. You’d never know it. It seems as though he and Freeman have been at it for ages.

Thranduil

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I don’t know if Lee Pace got a new agent or what, but he has certainly been making the movie rounds lately. His adorkable face is showing up in the most random places. If you’re like me your first exposure to Pace was Pushing Daisies,  a brilliant and gorgeously shot TV series about a man who can bring people back to life with a touch, but if he touches them a second time they are dead for good. Then I didn’t see him for a few years and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to him. Then 2012 rolls around and he’s suddenly in the last Twilight movie, Lincoln, and now The Hobbit  trilogy as none other than the Elvenking Thranduil (aka Legolas’ Daddy). I gotta admit, his looks are very Elvish and even though the extent of his part in An Unexpected Journey involves him riding a giant moose and cocking his head to one side while looking bemused, I know from past experience that he’s a great actor. I look forward to seeing more of him in The Desolation of Smaug in which he’ll play a much bigger role.

The White Council – Elrond/Galadriel/Saruman

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There are a few people on this Earth who are chosen by a higher power to be a part of multiple nerdtastic franchises. Mark Sheppard is one, Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly becoming another, and they are ruled over by Hugo Weaving. As Elrond, he helps the Dwarves discover hidden text on Thror’s Map written in Moon-letters, the Middle-earth equivalent of invisible ink. He brings his usual gravitas to the role. Galadriel shouldn’t even be in this movie but I can’t say I blame Peter Jackson for doing it. I can seriously watch Cate Blanchett and her pre-raphaelite hair all day long. Sheesh she’s pertiful. Also, she has mastered the art of the dress swirl. You know, where she’s standing with her back to you and then she smoothly spins around to face you which causes her dress to do an awesome swirly thing that is the envy of brides everywhere. Saruman is only mentioned in The Hobbit when Gandalf is describing his fellow Istari (there are also two mysterious Blue Wizards who journeyed to the East after being brought to Middle-earth) but again, why pass up a chance to watch Christopher Lee?? The White Council’s surprise regarding the Necromancer is yet another variation from the book but I’m not going to get into that here because this review is getting crazy long as it is.

Lindir aka Aegnor aka Figwit

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Way back in 2001 a random elf showed up next to Elrond at the Council in The Fellowship of the Ring. He didn’t appear for long and ended up becoming affectionately known by fans as “Figwit.” The name came from three people who worked on the film who remarked in the commentary “Frodo Is Great, Who Is That??” Voila! F.I.G.W.I.T. was born. His popularity and the mystery surrounding him grew so much that Peter Jackson brought back the young brunette elf and gave him a speaking part. He became Arwen’s Elf Escort and called after her when she ran away and returned to the…uhmmm…well, King. Nearly 10 years later, Figwit shows up in The Hobbit as Elrond’s representative and he’s got an actual name this time, Lindir (he was randomly dubbed Aegnor, aka one of Galdriel’s brothers, in a card game tied in with the trilogy). Then it hits me like a ton of bricks. OMFG, it’s Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords. I have no excuse as to why I didn’t realize it was him in the bazillion times I’ve watched the LOTR triology since Conchords came out other then the fact that I’ve never seen someone look so different without beard stubble. Turns out The Fellowship of the Ring was Bret’s big break and he’s the son of the guy who played Elendil (Aragorn’s 89-great-grandpa). Just thought you should know.

The Baddies – Azog/The Great Goblin

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Azog (aka the Pale Orc) played by Manu Bennett, should not be a contemporary character in this movie. Period. He does belong in the flashback of the Battle of Azanulbizar and he did behead Thror, but that was way prior to the climactic battle which he did not survive. He was beheaded by Dáin, a cousin of Thorin’s. The Great Goblin Chieftain of the Misty Mountains played by Barry Humphries does belong, however. He is killed by Gandalf (albeit much earlier in the book than in the movie) and it’s his death that spurs Azog’s son Bolg, the Goblin King of Moria, to confront the Dwarves at Erebor in what becomes known as The Battle of the Five Armies (which you will see in Part 3 There and Back Again).

The movie ends with the thrush (if you’ve read the book then you’ll know what that signifies) and that’s all I’m going to say. Overall, the movie is far more mature than the book. Peter Jackson manages to adapt a children’s novel into something that fits in seamlessly with the Lord of the Rings trilogy he started working on nearly 15 years ago. The cinematography is stunning and the wide shots of the New Zealand landscape are, quite simply, breathtaking. It’s a beautiful film and it needs to be seen on the big screen.

4.5 out of 5 Sci-Fives!

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