Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, A Review

It’s real, real good. You should go see it right now.

What, you need more? Seriously, you just need to get yourself to a movie theater right away and watch this movie before people talk to you about it too much.

But if you want more out of a review than that, Dear Reader, I’ll oblige. This will be free of spoilers, though I shall assume that you know at least what you could glean from having seen the trailers and maybe a magazine article or interview on a late night talk show or two.

So how is it? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is very, very good. I’d consider it a success on every level I was wanting it to succeed at. It’s not the best movie ever, or even the best Star Wars movie ever, but it might in the top three.

What’s good about it? The familiar parts, and getting to see what the Star Wars universe is like thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi. I was actually a little apprehensive about the original cast’s return. Fortunately, they have more going on than Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Some have only brief cameos while others have almost as much screen time as the new main characters, but Luke, Leia, and Han all have real reasons to be involved in the story beyond just turning the keys over to younger heroes. The veteran actors are clearly comfortable in their roles; I’d say that Mark Hamill gives his best performance as Luke Skywalker to date without having to utter a line of dialogue.

What’s great about it? The new stuff. The new main characters (and the actors who portray them) are strong and engaging enough to carry the film totally on their own. The acting is superb, striking just the right high-adventure tone without overdoing it. The new protagonists are similar to the characters of the original trilogy but aren’t mere duplicates of them. For example, the one most likely to be compared to Han Solo is dashing and daring but also is the furthest thing from being a smuggler who is only in it for the money.

By the end of the movie, I was even interested in the bad guy as a character and how he flips an important Star Wars dynamic. Where the original trilogy had a monolithic, evil [SPOILER] father figure in Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is youthful and emotive. Age-wise, he’s a peer to the new protagonists and essentially a kid compared to the older ones.

Does it feel like a Star Wars movie? Did JJ get it right? Most definitely! Please indulge me while I give two detailed examples (spoiler-free). You know that opening shot in A New Hope, where the rebel ship is fleeing the massive star destroyer which comes into view from overhead and seems to go on forever? It’s a cool visual that also sets the tone for both the scene and pretty much the whole franchise (plucky Rebels against the overwhelming military might of the Empire). The Force Awakens similarly opens with a cool visual that is a visual metaphor setting up the opening scene and the status quo in the galaxy. Compare those two openings to the first shot of The Phantom Menace (if you can stay awake through the trade dispute stuff in the crawl) to see how J. J. Abrams does young George Lucas better than old George Lucas did.

Second, I must reference Mr. Plinkett’s review of The Phantom Menace and his (quite correct) assertion of what makes a good light saber duel. It’s not about the special effects and fight choreography. The prequels had that stuff in spades but their fight scenes are hollow, all flash and no substance. What makes a good light saber battle is the emotional content, the investment of both the audience and the characters in conflict. Probably the best light saber duel in the series is in Return of the Jedi. When Luke starts to go berserk on Vader, it’s all about raw emotion and the confrontation between a son and his father, not elegant fighting moves. (The one and a half light saber duels in the prequels that were memorable had this emotional kind of component, too.) I’m happy to report that The Force Awakens recognizes this core feature and provides loads of emotional involvement for any characters who cross light sabers. There’s always a lot at stake, both internally and externally.

So what’s not so good? Oh, let’s not dwell on anything negative. Seriously, it’s not perfect but it’s very good. If you haven’t seen it yet, I wouldn’t want to taint your enjoyment of it. If you have seen it and are reading this review to see my take… Well, you’ll find other reviews that point out how the plot is derivative, which is a fair assessment. When I was growing up, two-thirds of all Star Wars films involved the destruction of a massive, spherical doomsday machine, so that didn’t bother me too much. The movie’s original bits are more than able to stand on their own, but it leans unnecessarily on what has come before… But on the other hand, it was very important that this film really feel like Star Wars, so I can see why they went back to what was successful. And most criticism in this regard is directed entirely at two or three aspects of the plot. I’ve seen no one complain, for example, that the First Order/Resistance conflict is clearly a way to maintain the Empire/Rebellion dynamic from the original trilogy. (It does help that this feels relatively organic, since the First Order is like die-hard space Nazis who fled to Argentina after WWII… if they had taken over South America so they could continue the war against the Allies.) It’s worth remembering, too, that repeating or echoing important themes and tropes is simply part of the mythic structure of Star Wars. Finally, while this is my biggest complaint about the film, I do think that the setup it provides for the sequels will allow them to go anywhere they need.

Is it okay for the kids? Oooh, maybe not, depending upon how young or how into Star Wars they are. It’s rated PG-13. The only other Star Wars film to get that rating was the one where [SPOILERS] the protagonist of the previous two movies kills a roomful of children and gets his arms and legs cut off by his best friend. My younglings aren’t going to see it any time soon — but, then, I am still planning to spend years working them through the other films. I do feel that if you want to share your love of Star Wars with your kids, this is not what you want to start them on; the original trilogy is much more kid-friendly and it only makes sense that you lose some context by starting on Episode VII (when, you know, Episode IV makes a much better place to begin). I’d recommend seeing it yourself first and making your own decision… but if the PG-13 rating doesn’t sway you against it, it’s probably okay to take your children.

In conclusion… Why are you still reading this? Go see it!

Skipper Canteen: A Review

We interrupt this series on vacationing in Iceland (with children) to bring you this breaking news! Thanks to a surprise trip to Walt Disney World from the Wife, we at Blog of the Dad managed to eat lunch at the brand new Skipper Canteen restaurant during its “soft opening” and have been burning the midnight oil at both ends to bring this review to you.

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Located in the Adventureland area of the Magic Kingdom across from the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Skipper Canteen is a table service restaurant that continues the theme from the Jungle Cruise ride. The idea is that the fictional owner of the Jungle Cruise, Alberta Falls, also owns the Canteen — part of her attempt to diversify the “shipping cargo to and from exotic locales” business her late father built, I suppose. (Yes, I bother to read the backstory to Disney rides. They’re getting made into blockbuster movies these days, so why not?) IMG_2878

The decor really feels like it was put together with trinkets and supplies from the jungle trading company. The cast members were wearing uniforms identical to those over at the ride (indeed, our server said he had been piloting one of the boats that morning). Also, the cast members employ the same deadpan delivery of terrible puns that is the hallmark of the Jungle Cruise. You’ve been warned!

Below, you’ll find some pictures I took of the interior, in my unique “I hope the Stasi doesn’t catch me using this miniature camera” style.

A view of the lobby, including a portrait of Albert Falls, founder of the Jungle Trading Company.
A view of the lobby, including a portrait of Albert Falls, founder of the Jungle Trading Company.
Suitcases provided for you to sit on. I didn't have a chance to pry them open.
Suitcases provided for you to sit on. I didn’t have a chance to pry them open.
More lobby. At the top, you can see the restaurant's "biggest fan."
More lobby. At the top, you can see the restaurant’s “biggest fan.”

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A restaurant review isn't complete without examining the bathrooms! Note the changing table placement, right by a paper towel dispenser and trash receptacle. Good job as usual there, Disney.
A restaurant review isn’t complete without examining the bathrooms! Note the changing table placement, right by a paper towel dispenser and trash receptacle. Good job as usual there, Disney.

The cuisine is similarly based on the far-flung regions visited by the Jungle Cruise. While the meats are still cow, pig, and chicken (no “you’ve seen these exotic animals on the ride, now eat them in the restaurant” here, unless you consider lamb and shrimp exotic) but served in a vaguely African, Brazilian, or Eastern style.

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The Wife ordered the Punch Line Punch and we started with the arepas appetizer. The server also brought us some Ethiopian bread with a sort of spiced honey to dip it in. The Wife and I both thought the drink was yummy and refreshing, even though we both dislike mango (a key ingredient in it). The slow-cooked beef portion of the appetizer was fantastic, perhaps the best thing I ate there. While the beef was very flavorful, the rest of what made up the arepas was fairly bland by comparison. (The Wife points out — no doubt correctly — that the cornmeal cakes and tostones are meant to just be a delivery system for getting the meat and beans into your mouth. They are supposed to add texture, not flavor. Well, mission accomplished!) I liked the Ambasha bread, and the honey did wonders for the little cornmeal cakes that came in the appetizer, too.

The Punch Line Punch with savory spiced rim adornment.
The Punch Line Punch with savory spiced rim adornment.
House-Made Arepas. "Because making them on the boat was too hard."
House-Made Arepas. “Because making them on the boat was too hard.”
Bread and honey
Bread and honey

The Wife and I split the Char Siu Pork, which was delicious. I failed to take any pictures of it because I was too busy cramming all the yumminess into my face. The bright red pork was tender and full of flavor. The rice was just a tad too al dente.

Sadly, we did not get dessert.

All in all, the food was great. The Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd.’s Skipper Canteen offers flavors different from anywhere else in the park. In addition to that, the cast members’ awful puns add perhaps a little more entertainment value than you get in other restaurants in the Magic Kingdom — though a few bits were recycled from the Jungle Cruise script. I enjoyed the 1930s explorers theme (which made me yearn for an attraction or eating spot based on Tale Spin) and I have to admit that I find it kinda cool that they’ve expanded on the narrative behind the Jungle Cruise. According to our server, Trebor, we ate there on the last day they were accepting the Tables in Wonderland discount card. That’s too bad, because the Wife and I will likely make this a frequent lunch or dinner spot whenever we have time for a sit-down meal while in the park.

At least, we will until the jokes get stale.

The Jungle Navigation Co., Ltd. Skipper Canteen opens today (!) in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Reynisdrangar, and Other Metal Bands

The best part of our trip to Iceland was the beautiful, rugged landscape. The daily rainbows were spectacular, but the scenery delivered in all weather, rain or shine. It’s got volcanoes, glaciers, cliffs, geysers, hot springs, fjords, and waterfalls. Most of our vacation was just spent driving around looking at it all.

Is that Mount Doom in the background?
Is that Mount Doom in the background?

In my last post, I said the area where the Blue Lagoon is located looked like Mordor by way of Disney. Really, the whole island felt like something out of The Lord of the Rings, once you get away from the city. If you’re a Tolkien fan but you aren’t up for a trip to New Zealand, you can consider Iceland an acceptable substitute. It doesn’t have the actual locations used in Peter Jackson’s films, but you’ll have no problems finding spots that evoke the same feel. (That’s probably why they’ve shot some Game of Thrones stuff there.)

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All it needs is some Orc raiders coming down from the hills.

To give you an idea of what it’s like, imagine someone has dumped a load of black rocks, jagged and freshly blasted out of a quarry, on the side of the road. Now, picture that everywhere, as far as you can see. After dumping all those rocks, someone has come by and sprayed a layer of lichen on them — but they just stood in one spot, so they didn’t get good coverage. That’s the view outside your window as you drive. And while there are more pastoral regions that aren’t just fields of volcanic rock, the whole place pretty much does look like it just got put there yesterday.

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Freshly coughed up by your local volcano! (Geologically speaking.)

When planing your route and navigating your way around Iceland, you really have to pay close attention to the designation of the road. Lots of the roads — nearly all of them in the interior of the island — are actually only passable if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. These roads will have a number preceded by an “F” — such as “F151.” When you are looking at your map and you see something like that, don’t plan to go on it unless you have the right kind of vehicle.

Batman was here.
Batman was here.

We did not have an off-road vehicle to use on these roads and ended up on them by accident a couple of times. I can tell you from experience that they are not like gravel roads you may be familiar with in the states. As a teenager in rural Tennessee with a freshly laminated driver’s license, I did my share of reenacting Dukes of Hazard episodes, skidding sideways through turns and leaving clouds of dust as I drove way too fast down tiny country roads that had never felt the hot, sticky touch of asphalt. Try driving that way in Iceland on an F-road and your vehicle will shake apart like a second-hand space shuttle. Those fields of black rocks I described earlier? The F-roads I saw cut through them, and you could only sometimes tell where the “F-road” ended and “off-road” began. Mostly, it was just a jumble of fist-sized pieces of basalt with tire-shreddingly rough edges as far as you could see.

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Hmm… Maybe we should figure out how to turn around.

The Icelanders are paving their roads as fast as they can, though. When the Wife visited for a couple of days in 2006, she found that aside from the ring road that goes all the way around the rim of the island, there were no paved roads at all, and many bridges were only wide enough for one car.

There was one place the Wife visited on that 2006 trip that she particularly wanted us to experience. She kept referring to it as “the bird cliffs.” It was a good half day’s drive from Reykjavik, down on the southern coast. As she drove and I worked out how to navigate us there, I figured out she was talking about was a place called Reynisdrangar.

The cliffs at Reynisdrangar are easily reachable by paved roads, so no worry about that. If you have a guide book on Iceland, it will likely mention this place. The sign for it while you’re driving on the main road, however, is very easy to miss. The good news is that you can approach the cliffs from two different directions (though the view, and the whole ambiance, will be different as well) and if you miss the first turn-off, you’ll end up in the town of Vik, which has more prominent signage.

The Wife wanted us to have the same experience of the “bird cliffs” that she had years ago, when she had turned off the main road on a lark and had no clue what sight awaited her. The inevitable march of progress thwarted that somewhat. A brand new restaurant (with pay toilets) now sits at the head of the trail that leads from the parking lot to the cliffs. Also, there’s now a trail and a parking lot. Fortunately, once you take that trail around the corner there’s nothing to detract from the view.

And the view of Reynisdrangar is tremendous.

Waves pound upon a flat beach of black sand. A short distance from the surf, cliffs rise straight up, with the occasional cave worn out at ground level. Large black obelisks are thrust up out of the sea. One of them is a sharp blade of basalt that curves to a point, like God’s own combat knife standing just offshore.

RU and the Wife at Reynisdrangar
RU and the Wife at Reynisdrangar

 

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RU walking along the cliffs.

 

Apparently, during some parts of the year, you can also see multitudes of birds inhabiting the cliffs and circling overhead. They weren’t there during out visit, but I think my capacity for absorbing natural beauty was already in the red so I doubt I could have appreciated them. They must really add something to the experience, though, if after the Wife’s first visit to Reynisdrangar she came away calling it “the bird cliffs” and not “the jagged black rocks poking up from the sea.”

 

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Blue Lagoon

Papa, give me all your cash so I can keep it in my boot.

          -RU

Our trip to Iceland included a visit to the Blue Lagoon, which we had scheduled for our first night.

I didn’t see Brooke Shields or Christopher Atkins anywhere. Instead, the Blue Lagoon turned out to be a geothermal spa with milky blue water. It’s situated on some lava fields and is created by water output from a nearby geothermal plant. A swanky spa has been built at the lagoon to provide a classy environment for separating people from their money.

That isn’t to say that the Blue Lagoon itself lacks natural beauty. On the contrary, like pretty much everywhere in Iceland outside of a city, it has natural beauty out the yin-yang. To get to the spa entrance from the parking lot, you walk down a stone path between two walls of black, volcanic rock. Steam billows from cracks in the earth and from pools of hot water, murky and mineral-rich. The whole place looks like Mordor after it got fixed up by Disney.

After we got there, we were informed that Z was too young to partake of the lagoon. This meant that someone had to sit with him while everyone else got to enjoy it. If we’d known that ahead of time, we probably wouldn’t have gone. As it was, the Wife and I ended up taking turns but it severely cut down on the amount of time we got to enjoy the main attraction. Z wasn’t happy about missing out, either.

I, personally, was less than happy with the process for actually getting out into the lagoon. There are men’s and women’s locker rooms where you are to change out of your clothes and get a shower. Faced with the prospect of my father-in-law and I accidentally seeing each other naked in there, I waited in the restroom for several minutes before choosing a locker and disrobing. Once I’d had a very brief shower and set the world’s speed record for getting one’s bathing suit on, I had no clue what to do next. I wandered back out into the hallway and realized that I was the only person around who wasn’t fully dressed; no one else was coming out of the locker rooms wearing their bathing suits and dripping wet. So I went back in and eventually discovered a door near the showers that lead out to the lagoon area.

The place really should have provided some sort of orientation or instructional video for how one is supposed to navigate about the place. You might say that it would have been easy enough for me to note what everyone else was doing or perhaps read the signs posted at the exit. You’d be right if it wasn’t for the fact that I was in a room with other men taking off their clothes. I deliberately don’t pay attention to the people around me in those situations and do my best to keep my eyes from actually focusing on anything. That can make it difficult to see where the exit is.

My experience of the actual lagoon was much more pleasant but all-too brief. The air was cold and the water was hot. We stayed near entrance where it was shallow enough that the girls could just about touch the bottom. The lagoon seemed more than large enough for the crowd that was there, though I didn’t get to wander around much (nor did I partake of the bar that’s right there).

All in all, it seemed as though we were there a long time yet I didn’t feel like I’d spent much time indulging in the actual lagoon. Well, somebody had to stay with the baby; that’s just how it is sometimes. I’m not sure we would have gone to the Blue Lagoon if it hadn’t been included in our trip package, but I am very glad I got to experience it. I’m not the sort of person who goes to a spa or does much self-pampering of that regard (these days, just finding time to take a shower or a nap is a luxury). This, however, really helped us to relax into the vacation and soothe any nerves still jangling from the flight.

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