“The Rise Of Skywalker” – And The Rise Of Aesthetic Over Ideology

Prologue:

My relationship with Star Wars has, like many fans, been in a strange state of flux over the last few years. I was absolutely enthralled by Rogue One, particularly for its adult aesthetic and tonal consistency with the classic films – a shining example of how style will always trump substance (which has always been my fundamental approach to any art form, and also explains the overwhelming success of The Mandalorian TV series). I fiercely championed Rogue One, and consider it my #2 favorite Star Wars film only behind Empire.  I also really loved The Force Awakens for the first few “honeymoon” months of its release, but my passion for it began to wane as I realized the totality of its rip off of A New Hope – but hey, it’s only the first act so who the hell cares? I really liked Solo for its adult tone and smart blend of western and gangster genre themes. I was also totally swooned by Donald Glover’s near-perfect portrayal of Lando Calrissian, which brought tears of joy to my eyes. However Solo was minorly plagued by a kind of Ron Howard-ey blandness that left me wondering what the film would have been like had Disney not scrapped the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I really wanted to like The Last Jedi – but found it to be a tonedeaf non-story that, aside from a bizarrely written Luke Skywalker, added little depth to its characters, and felt more like a vanity project for director Rian Johnson than a sincere attempt to deepen and enrich the characters and mythology of the previous films. Not to mention the insultingly delivered “diversity” themes that relegated minority characters to a disposable comedic sideplot – a sad but delicious irony coming from the self-congratulatory paragons of “social justice” at Disney. Most tragically, The Last Jedi was marred by its presentation of a flawless and therefore uninteresting protagonist, exempt from adversity (her adversity is implied, not shown). Nor does she require any meaningful training from the only Jedi Master still in existence. What should have been a movie rich with meaty, elegant discourse discussing the complexity of The Force, was reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. A colossal missed opportunity that will quietly haunt Rian Johnson for the rest of his career.

The Middle Act Problem:

I recently re-watched The Last Jedi after having seen The Rise of Skywalker, trying to view it with an open mind, within the fresh context of its successor. And I will admit that within context, some of its flaws are somewhat softened – “a thousand generations live in you now” admittedly carries more weight now. However, I still found the movie incredibly problematic, unfulfilling, and essentially unwatchable. Not necessarily because of its story, but because of its aesthetic. The awkward, tonedeaf humor, the “punching bag” bad guys – essentially memes of themselves – who, with the exception of Snoke, inject zero fear or tension into the movie. The “social” themes, which Rian Johnson delivers with all the subtlety and nuance of a fifth grader (Canto Bight/capitalism, Admiral Holdo/toxic masculinity). Now, I absolutely support socially progressive themes in movies – a hallmark of science fiction – however when those themes are so eye-rollingly obvious as to insult the intellect of the audience, the message gets defeated. This is story-writing 101 folks. Children are not as dumb as you think.

The Last Jedi is essentially the North of Star Wars movies – both smugly conceived stories about lost children in search of their parents, both movies too full of themselves to realize their own dreadful sense of humor (except only one of these was intended to be a comedy). North was one of the rare movies to ever get a zero-star rating from Roger Ebert, and his gloriously scathing review essentially echoes mine for The Last Jedi:

“Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

– Roger Ebert’s review of North

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The secret inspiration behind “The Last Jedi”

The Last Jedi is further handicapped by its lack of any meaningful flashback or historical explanation, which fail to make us believe in its story – most notably Luke’s jarring character shift, and the necessity of The Resistance. As a result, the movie feels weightless and fails to command our investment. It’s doesn’t earn its story. The Last Jedi resorts to spoon-feeding the viewer what to think instead of smartly weaving its themes into the slow-burning nuance of the narrative, thus amplifying their effect when the viewer discovers those themes for themselves (as the original trilogy skillfully did). Instead of showing us its story, the movie merely tells us what to think – the cardinal sin of any artform. And that is why The Last Jedi fails.

I must admit, The Last Jedi killed much of my appetite for Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker. A strong middle act that evokes tension and fear is the most critical part of any three-act story, and is precisely the reason I am so hard on The Last Jedi. Corporate media told me it was because of my bigotry and toxic masculinity. But maybe I was just getting older, desensitized with age, my threshold for good storytelling too high? Perhaps it was the confluence of those things with the cynicism of dawning midlife that seems to plague many childless 30-somethings of my demographic? But for the first time ever, I found myself barely drawn to the trailers. I had checked out. I couldn’t even remember the date I’d bought tickets for. Thankfully my wife reminded me the week prior. But still, like a good fan, I donned my ironic “Chewie, we’re home!” t-shirt and, accompanied by three fellow Star Wars geeks, surrendered myself to my local Alamo Drafthouse theater on a cool December night in Corpus Christi, TX…


The Review:

The Rise of Skywalker begins promisingly, with a rushed but visually cool sequence of Rey undergoing some actual, physical Jedi training under the tutelage of her new master, Leia Skywalker. The scene concludes with Rey delivering the much-needed line, “I will earn your brother’s saber”. Key word being earn. Upon hearing this line, I immediately knew JJ’s head was in the right place, and my optimism piqued. This seemingly innocuous line effectively summarizes the totality of the new trilogy’s fatal flaw – which is the erasure of the fundamental ethos of Jedi Knighthood – the idea that Jedi Knighthood is earned, and not given (or stumbled upon, like in Rey’s case). Unlike superheroes, a Jedi must master his or her power through training, discipline, growth and adversity – you guessed it – the hero’s journey. And it is precisely this theme that made the original Star Wars films so powerful and lasting. They gave us a modern myth, dressed in a dazzling blend of space opera and New Hollywood grit, that resonated the “hero’s journey” within our own lives. It was essentially Rocky in space – a deeply human story drenched in blockbuster spectacle. This new trilogy struggles to connect with audiences precisely because of an excess of the latter, and absence of the former.

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With the exception of this first scene, the initial half of The Rise of Skywalker feels scattered and rushed, told in the usual neurotic visual style of Abrams with nonstop quick-cuts that leave the viewer with little time to catch their breath. It all looks beautiful, but we’re not given enough time to process what we’re seeing. The film resorts to lame scavenger hunt plot tropes of “find the artifact/person to find another artifact/person to lead you to the goal”. The attempts at character-building for Poe and Finn, as told through the introduction of female characters Zori and Jannah, run lukewarm at best. The movie disappointingly fails to capitalize on the opportunity to explore Finn’s Force sensitivity as hinted at in The Force Awakens. Instead, the film seems more preoccupied with making Threepio funnier than he is, with many jokes feeling forced, sometimes reaching sophomoric Rian Johnson-levels of cringe.

I do applaud Abrams for having the guts to go big by bringing back Palpatine – a respectful take on the beloved 1991 Expanded Universe classic, Dark Empire by Dark Horse comics, written by Tom Veitch. Unfortunately, the reveal feels hokey and rushed, starting with ridiculous eye-roller of a line, “The Dead Speak!” on the opening text crawl. Palpatine’s thousand-strong star destroyer fleet rising out of the water also presents a distracting plot hole. Where the hell did he get the manpower for constructing this fleet without signaling his existence? Surely one of those millions of crewmembers or construction workers would have snitched? However General Pryde is a welcome addition, as we’re finally given an austere and competent sub-villain (not the miscast punching bag lightweight Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux).  The movie does make an earnest attempt to slowly unravel the Palpatine-Rey-grandfather connection as told through a few bait and switch scenes between Rey and Kylo. However there simply isn’t enough time, and the epic reveal feels predictable and underwhelming. If only there was a middle film that could have handled this buildup?

However the movie makes a miraculous comeback in its second half. A massive tonal shift occurs precisely when Rey discovers the Emperor’s throne room within the wreckage of Death Star II. The scene is accompanied by those beautiful, haunting pizzicato strings softly plucking “The Imperial March”, directly referencing the Vader unmasking scene from Return of the Jedi.  And at this point the film finally begins to slow the hell down and breathe. The music cuts, and the film begins to focus. We are treated to a short but much needed scene with Rey facing her internal demons, personified by “evil Rey” wielding the memefied “swiss army knife” red lightsaber. This is followed by perhaps the best (only) lightsaber duel in the new trilogy, where a reinvigorated Kylo Ren, flanked by mountains of sea spray, appropriately bests the lesser-experienced Rey in combat.   An overwhelmed Rey kneels in defeat, only to give in to her hatred as she fatally stabs a distracted Kylo in the chest. For this brief moment, we finally see a flawed protagonist, and thus momentarily, she earns our empathy.

Those iconic John Williams strings kick in and what follows is perhaps the heaviest five minutes of the new trilogy. Rey makes an unexpected admission to Kylo while a dying Leia, sensing her son in need, heroically summons her last ounce of energy to perform a deus ex machina force projection of Han’s spirit in order to thaw Kylo’s charred, blackened heart – a scene which totally sounds hammy AF – but is delivered with an uncharacteristic pathos and dignity previously unknown to this new trilogy. Adam Driver absolutely owns his performance, and elevates what would otherwise be mediocre material. His lines feel authentic, and believably convey the inner torment one would feel from murdering their father for the supposed higher calling of the dark side. In what could have easily been a forced and distracting scene, Harrison Ford delivers a surprisingly sincere performance, tastefully concluded by cutting off his son with “I know”, before Kylo has a chance to say, “dad, I love you” – thus finalizing his catharsis and redemption to the light. One can clearly sense that Ford is referencing the real life death of Carrie Fisher, which makes his few lines that much more wrenching. This entire sequence felt like Star Wars, and I admit, I got choked up. You could hear a pin drop in the packed theater.  Nearly one hundred minutes in, and the movie finally commands my full attention.  And no, that’s not nostalgia speaking – that’s the confluence of good acting, writing and directing.

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The momentum injected by these scenes eventually dissipates, however the movie continues to run on fumes for remainder of its much better second half. Rey makes one final trip back to Ach To where a Force ghost Luke Skywalker provides her a pre-fight pep talk while making a delightful wink-wink rebuke to the mishandling of his character in the previous film. Rey’s eventual confrontation with the Emperor – implied to be a clone – is as good as one might expect given the time constraints of the movie. Here it is revealed that Rey and Kylo are two halves of an exceptionally rare “dyad” in the Force which, admittedly, is a legitimately cool and interesting concept that reasonably explains the extraordinary bond between Kylo and Rey. The concept of a “dyad” serves to further the idea that the Force is, in fact, a living, organic entity, transparent to the observable world, but instead exists on some invisible macro level in much the same way that a sphere appears flat when viewed on a small enough scale (sorry flat earthers). The notion that living beings are merely elements of “Force DNA” genuinely intrigued me, and served to enhance the mythology of the Force while satisfactorily explaining Kylo and Rey’s evolved ability to “force skype” with one another and physically manipulate objects. Two halves of a rift in Force-time? Perhaps a bit of a stretch, and a lazy substitute for a far more powerful brother-sister narrative, but I’ll buy it.

Rey’s confrontation with the Emperor feels like a lazy cop out the Return of the Jedi playbook, complete with a concurrent space battle and recycled Faustian rhetoric about sacrificing one’s self to save one’s friends, but the azure-tinged scenes are stylized and delivered powerfully enough for me not to care. The heroic arrival of newly redeemed Ben Solo – no longer Kylo Ren – is satisfyingly kickass. The way he cockily hand gestures “come get some” before dealing whoop ass to the Knights of Ren was a delightful throwback to his antihero progenitor – like father like son I guess. The lightsaber “hand-off” was quite cool as well, and I liked how Rey and Ben needed to team up to defeat the Emperor, which felt like the only natural conclusion to their dyad bond. Their defeat of the Emperor using lightsabers to deflect his Force lightning was a fitting reprise to the mode of his original disfigurement, at the hand of Mace Windu in Revenge of the Sith (“unlimited power!”).  Their victory concludes with the abrupt death of Ben Solo, presaged by Adam Driver delivering what I earnestly believe might be the most authentic post-kiss smile I’ve ever seen on film. And I truly didn’t mind the “Reylo” kiss, especially given all the sh*t they’ve gone through, and given how many times they’ve either spared, taken or saved each other’s lives. Hell, who wouldn’t crave a cathartic makeup kiss after that? Platonic or otherwise. Gutsy move, I liked it.

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However, I can’t stop thinking about how bold of a plot twist it would have been to instead make Rey the martyr, thereby allowing Ben to redeem his family legacy by restoring the Jedi order, thus literally being “The Rise of Skywalker”. To have allowed Rey to make the heroic sacrifice would have immensely deepened her character, and would have served to subvert her oft-criticized image as the flawless victor. Nonetheless, I must admit that I had no major heartache with the film concluding with Rey inheriting the Skywalker mantle. Despite the flawed execution, I generally agree with the new trilogy’s fundamental premise that a “nobody” can transform into greatness. The democratization of the Skywalker name – the idea that family can transcend bloodline – is kind of cool. I can live with that. Unfortunately the lack of depth to Rey’s character certainly dulls that grand premise, but those tastefully delivered final scenes on Tatooine were enough for me to forgive and forget. A careful eye will notice how these scenes are laced with “duality” motifs – two lightsabers, two moisture vaporators, two suns, two companions, two Force ghosts – perhaps to highlight Rey and Kylo’s dyad bond and the larger theme that great feats are never accomplished alone (“Always two there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice”). And that epic closing shot – the indelible image of those twin burning suns casting a hazy silhouette emblazoned over Rey and her loyal companion, elevated by the heroic swell of Williams’ orchestral strings – was so powerful and skillfully realized, that all my criticism momentarily dissolved. Good one, JJ – you got me (I truly am easy to please).

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite the commendable strength of The Rise of Skywalker’s second half, time will likely prove unkind to this new trilogy. It will be remembered as a scattered and unfocused group – not trilogy – of three loosely related films that failed to capture the cohesive vision and tonal elegance of its New Hollywood-era forebears. The proof is not in the loudness of the haters – but in the silence of the supporters. Where are all the fun, passionate fans gathering in droves outside movie theaters, espousing their sincere love and praise for these new stories? Certainly not online. And when they do show themselves, they’re rarely articulating their love for the new movies, but instead, are usually trolling dissenting fans with tired variations of “no one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans” (as if expecting quality work from an established franchise with unlimited resources was such a crime). Or they’re posting intellectually lazy memes about “fans hating Star Wars for being the same, but then hating it for being too different!” But what they fail to grasp is the simple fact that different isn’t always good. To be different is not enough. The novelty must also be delivered compellingly. Adam Sandler could easily make a Happy Madison Star Wars trilogy starring Allen Covert and David Spade, which would subvert all expectations and probably be funny as hell – but would it be good? The “professional” critics did little to help. Their reviews were mostly airless and corporate, blandly focusing on the politics – the “wokeness” – not the aesthetics, mythology, world building – the artistry – of the new movies. They hide behind overused catchphrases like “fan service”, as if to insultingly suggest that nostalgia is the only thing Star Wars fans want. Try this for “fan service” – give us a skillfully directed, written and tonally mature movie that feels like Star Wars and you can write a Star Wars story just about anything, and I guarantee fans will generally like it (The Mandalorian, Rogue One, Clone Wars, Rebels). We aren’t that hard to please.

To this new trilogy’s credit, I sincerely commend Disney’s costly decision to use real models and puppets instead of lazily abusing computer generation. That is no small feat, and the films all look gorgeous because of this – but alone, that is not enough. I’ve always maintained that this new trilogy’s story could have truly worked had the delivery been more focused and mature. But at the end of the day, if your product doesn’t look, feel, smell, sound, and/or taste good – no one is going to buy it. Period. Style. Is. Everything.

Epilogue:

Casual fans and critics always like to dismiss Star Wars as “silly kids’ movies about space wizards and laser swords” – and they’re not wrong – but they understate the enormous influence and immediacy these movies have over the culture, particularly with children. I know because I was one of them (surprise), growing up in 1991 when I first saw Empire Strikes Back one night on TBS. I still vividly remember sitting in front of my giant, ugly-ass wooden CRT television, my vacant six-year old mind captivated by the strange images of a scarred rebel hanging upside down in an ice cave, reaching out for some mystical power; a cyborg’s pristine obsidian helmet glistening in the white lights of his starship; the eerie sounds of Tauntauns, probe droids and Imperial walkers; the haunting clash of sabers in smoky chambers; Mark Hamill’s blood-curdling scream after the grand reveal; the confusion and boredom I felt during the Dagobah scenes – elegant and mature passages that my six-year old mind was incapable of processing, but are now some of my favorite scenes as an adult; my inexplicable aversion to C-3PO and the nightmares I had about him as a child. No kidding, there was something about C-3PO’s soulless golden face that absolutely terrified me as a kid (we’re cool now though). That is how my love affair with Star Wars began, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, how it became one of the most influential experiences of my youth.

As a child I had always dreamed of becoming a military pilot, a dream seeded in no small part because of Star Wars (and probably all the awesome video games it inspired, all of which I became obsessed with, much to my own social detriment). Through luck and hard work I was able to achieve that dream, and I attribute much of that success to the aspirational values of perseverance and self-discipline that Star Wars instilled within my vacant six-year old mind. Yes, I realize how cringing and earnest that sounds. Yes, there were many real human beings that carried me along the way. And yes, I am a huge believer in the value of dark, realist, non-aspirational movies about downfalls and cautionary tales (Taxi Driver, Scarface, There Will Be Blood, Barry Lyndon, Raging Bull, etc). But having the power to positively shape young minds is something filmmakers should not take lightly. Not a responsibility, mind you – as art need not always be socially conscious – but a due consideration when making films intended to inspire young audiences.

It remains to be seen whether or not the story of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren will inspire new generations of young minds in much the same way that the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Vader inspired mine. A rich irony indeed that children’s movies about “space wizards and laser swords” can make men out of boys and women out of girls. Such is the awesome power of great storytelling – of great filmmaking. May it never be forgotten.

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My Year In Bahrain – A Portrait of the “Westworld” of the Middle East

By the grace of God almighty,

And the pressures of the marketplace.

The human race has civilized itself.

– Roger Waters, It’s A Miracle


Sometime last year it dawned on me that, as a white guy, I’ve been a racial minority or near-minority, in every place I’ve lived for the last decade – Corpus Christi, TX (30% non-Hispanic white), Hawaii (25% white), and Jacksonville, FL (58% white). And, yes, the fact this took me so long to realize probably confirms my “white privilege”. I was born in Detroit, moved to Delaware shortly after, and spent the early 90s growing up in an inner-city elementary school in Wilmington, DE – a city with a white population of 34%. My circle of childhood friends included Italians, Jews, Christians, Asians, Blacks, Indians and Whites. My childhood innocence dictated that I not care about what you looked like or what religion you practiced, but only if you liked computers, Star Wars, video games, cool music, or if you knew interesting stuff like how many times Zach De La Rocha said the F-word in “Killing in the Name” (it’s 17).  I say this not to score some dumb liberal “race cred”, but only to highlight that from an early age, living outside the white majority was my normal. It never bothered me, and I’ve never had any reason to think otherwise. So, two decades later when I was offered one-year military orders to Bahrain in the Middle East, I didn’t bat an eye. In fact it sounded really awesome. In taking those orders, I’d be fulfilling the dreaded non-flying “disassociated sea tour” requirement, mandatory for all naval aviators in my career track. Making the deal even sweeter was the fact that I’d be avoiding a grueling two-year boat tour based out of Norfolk, VA. Haze gray and underway in a soul-sucking boat job, or living it up in a posh Middle Eastern city? The decision was a no-brainer. Career implications be damned.

However, despite my comfort with being a racial minority, I still found myself strangely nervous about living in the Middle East. There was something different about being “over there”. My Western conditioning had sewn within me an unexamined “us and them” mentality, teaching me to associate kufiyahs with terrorists and minarets with barbaric old-world values. Weeks before I left, I would spend late nights scouring shock sites like LiveLeak and Ogrish, studying countless videos of gruesome ISIS executions with clinical curiosity – much like the scene from We Were Soldiers where LCOL Hal Moore reviews the chilling images of the 1954 French slaughter at Dien Bien Phu just days before shipping out to Vietnam.   Shot in high-definition close up, edited and stylized for maximal propaganda effect, these modern ISIS videos spare no grisly detail, and are a far cry from the grainy, impersonal images of the Al-Qaeda executions of the early aughties. Watching these videos magnified my hatred of ISIS and rekindled (unnecessarily) my paranoia of living in the Middle East.  This apprehension was partially allayed by watching a few YouTube videos from expats that reaffirmed just how chill and Western-friendly “The Kingdom” actually was. This, however, remained to be seen…

Arrival:

As my plane entered final approach over Bahrain, I remember being overtaken by a very strange, sinking sensation of “wow this sh*t just got real” homesick alienation as the first images of the country hit, perfectly soundtracked as “Metatron” by DARKSIDE played through my headphones – the wildly foreign architecture, minarets, vast networks of pink-tan stucco compounds and villas – all blending into an endless monochrome dull-yellow landscape dissolving into a low, hazy horizon. I might as well have just landed on Mars. But the malaise begins to wear off when I lay eyes on the tall, gleaming towers of Bahrain’s capital, Manama – a modern city of the future whose presence commanded an admiration beyond anything I’d witnessed in the West. Much like its richer Dubai and Abu Dhabi cousins in the UAE, these modern buildings looked like something plagiarized from Sim City 2000, and seemed oddly out of place within the sea of antiquated stucco-clad architecture that surrounded them. Giant, bold, asymmetric shapes of glass and metal synthesizing into a futuristic landscape, manipulated by countless spindly cranes suggesting an old civilization in the throes of rebirth. At night, the city comes alive as a pulsating kaleidoscopic mass of neon lights and exotic cars – Lambos, Ferraris, Audi concept models you never knew existed – the stuff of coke-fueled 80’s fever dreams and Kavinsky synthwave fantasy.

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Upon arrival to my hotel (The Westin), I’m intimidated by how posh and elegant it looks. An overenthusiastic valet rushes my Uber (BMW 5 series) to open my door, nearly getting hit in the process. I feel grossly out of place as I fumble through the entrance wearing shorts and a t-shirt, awkwardly hauling my Fender Stratocaster guitar and giant military seabag over my shoulders like some kind of rock ‘n roll refugee.  A young female concierge wearing a sharp three-piece suit and skirt warmly introduces herself and guides me to the front desk. I might as well have just been greeted by Talulah Riley of Westworld. My self-consciousness immediately subsides when, asked for payment, I proudly brandish my new American Express Platinum, sliding it across the polished granite counter for the maître d’.

Exhausted, I get to my room and pass out for what seems like a lifetime. I awaken to the sound of Islamic prayer music, eerily reverberating off the surrounding buildings. It’s now dark, and my sense of time nonexistent save for the digital clock beside me claiming it’s eight o’clock. I feel refreshed, but a moment of sheer panic grips me before remembering where the hell I am. I’m relieved to discover my 24th floor hotel room looks nicer than I remember. But this brief moment of respite dissolves when, gazing upon the otherworldly glow of Manama’s cityscape, I am haunted by a loneliness I hadn’t felt since childhood. The dark, eternal poetry of “Bladerunner Blues” by Vangelis washes over me, as if trying to warn me about some phantom threat that had yet to reveal itself. I lose myself in this moment for what seems like another lifetime, but a gnawing hunger motivates me enough to leave the sanctuary of my room in search of food. Terrified by my newly acquired status of “stranger in a strange land”, I find the courage to set foot into this new world – beginning with the enormous mall connected to my hotel below…

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First Night at Mall:

A strong, exotic aroma of incense and perfume overwhelms me, but it doesn’t bother me. In fact I kind of like it. Marble floors, three stories tall, immaculate presentation. Far newer and cleaner than anything I’ve seen in the States. The floors are so polished they look like glass. I marvel at the sheer diversity of the crowd as I struggle to hold my best poker face, trying to stay cool while resisting random urges to stare and grin at the absolute strangeness of the situation before me – being a lone white American in a sea of non-white foreigners wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. I had never been so conscious of my race. Ten seconds pass and I’m convinced this is the most densely multicultural place on Earth. Mostly Arabs and Asians, with a few random whites and Indian/Pakistani folks here and there. Dudes wearing anything from traditional Muslim white robes (called thobes) to ripped jeans and punk t-shirts, to slick cashmere suits to shorts and flip flops.  Saudis wear checkered kufiyah headscarves, Bahrainis and Emiratis wear solid white – though the Bahrainis like show off their progressive style by wearing trucker hats with their thobes, or if they’re super chill – no headwear at all. Arab women walk around sporting anything from traditional black burqas to less conservative, more personalized abayas, to chic Western outfits with headscarves (hijabs) or simply wear their hair down – always with heavy makeup, strong perfume and an expensive handbag draped over their shoulder. I walk past a Starbucks, totally packed even though it’s 9 o’clock at night. Mostly chilled-out Saudis glued to their iPhones, usually with headphones, drinking coffee or tea with some kind of pastry. I walk by a few more upscale coffee shops. Equally as packed. Coffee shops are apparently a big deal here.

I happen upon a Virgin store, relieved to see a familiar sight from home. I spend about thirty minutes looking around. First the book section, chuckling as I come across what appears to be a Donald Trump biography, hardcover, printed in Arabic. This amuses me enough to flip through the pages, but I get confused before realizing that Arabic books read right to left – opposite of English. I make my way upstairs and look around the CD section, amazed at how a “brick & mortar” store can even have, let alone profit from a CD section in this new age of streaming and digital downloads. The small Arabic music section is dwarfed by the larger selection of Western pop music. I flip through copies of Taylor Swift Reputation, Ariana Grande Yours Truly (my favorite) and the new Cardi B. A few Pink Floyd vinyls are showcased prominently on the shelves nearby – Darkside, Animals and Obscured by Clouds – falsely implying they’re more popular than they really are, which annoys me for some reason. I check out the small musical instruments section. Mostly Yamaha stuff. The Filipino salesman shows a customer one of the acoustic guitars. Painfully out of tune. He lets me try one of the Ukuleles and the only song I know how to play is “Deep Water” by Portishead, a fact which probably reveals more about me than it should. Afterwards I check out the impressive selection of electronics. iPods, iPads, Asus gaming laptops, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, Bose headphones. As usual, the curmudgeonly PC-gamer within me scoffs at the giant wall of Xbox and Playstation gear, lamenting over the decline of PC gaming and the rise of consoles. I purchase a few voltage converters and head back into the mall’s giant vaulted thoroughfare, smooth jazz echoing throughout.  A little Arab kid wearing a Captain America shirt nearly runs into me. His burqa-clad mother scolds him, the thin slit over her mascara-brimmed eyes revealing what looks like a frown. Two young Saudi guys hold hands while nursing cups of Caribou Coffee.

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I swing by the local telecom office, Batelco, to purchase a Bahraini sim card. The store is packed. Little kids running around or zombiefied by handheld screens. An attractive blonde and brunette, mid-twenties, halter tops, wait nearby, both unpacking new iPhone X’s, speaking what sounds like Russian. Probably hookers. Also wearing ripped designer jeans (the brunette), a not terrible-looking nose piercing (the blonde), and expensive rose-gold watches by Michael Kors. Definitely hookers. Somewhere Lana Del Rey sings “it’s enough just to make you feel crazy, crazy, crazy, sometimes”.  A smartly-dressed Bahraini woman wearing a suit and hijab takes my passport and enters my information into an iPad. I opt for the 500GB, unlimited voice month-to-month plan for 5 dinars ($15) and think to myself, “not a bad deal”. Speaking perfect English, the agent explains the process for renewing my plan every month, but I’m too distracted to care, knowing I can just get the Batelco rep on the Navy base to do it for me anyway. She smiles warmly while handing back my iPhone with the new sim card installed. I pay and head over to the atrium to make sure my data is working but get interrupted by a Pakistani mall cop who yells at me for leaning on the railing. I pretend to be sorry and continue to cruise around the mall, still overwhelmed by the bizarre menagerie of familiar and foreign sights. Going down the escalator I pass by a ‘Pottery Barn for Kids’, which I didn’t know was a thing, but lots of rich people here so I guess it makes sense. A young Arab girl wearing a t-shirt that says ‘fierce femme’ smiles at me from the other side.

I make my way down to the Carrefour, which is basically the Walmart of Bahrain.  On the way, I stop at a virtual reality kiosk where fellow geeks play a high-framerate racing game while sitting in a specially designed gaming chair with Bose speakers built in to the back. A Saudi father and son wearing pristine white thobes currently occupy the seat, having what looks like the time of their lives. The output is displayed on a giant flatscreen TV and I’m impressed with the responsiveness of the headset relative to the gamer’s head movement. I get impatient waiting in line so I continue to the Carrefour and walk around scouting the wares, impressed by the selection, ranging anywhere from fresh produce, wireless routers, garment bags to Kitchen Aids.  I pick up two bottles of kiwi-lime juice and some Canterbury chocolates imported from the U.K.  Lots of U.K. stuff here.  “No Love” by Eminem ft. Lil Wayne plays on the giant flatscreen OLED television on display, which interests me enough to stop and watch the entire video before heading to checkout. The cashier, a depressed-looking Asian woman stares blankly into space while swiping my stuff. I look around to notice all the cashiers are depressed-looking Asians.

My hunger has now become unbearable, so I start looking for a place to eat. Realizing I have no cash, I swing by the currency exchange kiosk where an upbeat Bahraini clerk wearing a single-breasted suit by Yves Saint Laurent tells me they don’t accept credit card, so he politely points me to a nearby ATM. I take out plenty of cash to justify the withdrawal fee, but am furious when I realize I got shorted on the exchange rate – which should be 2.65 USD to BHD, instead I got 2.40. Fuming, I catch the escalator to the third floor and take a shortcut through the “Souq”, which houses the most expensive local wares in the entire mall. A dense, intoxicating aroma of what I assume is expensive perfume saturates the air, overwhelming my senses nearly to the point of unconsciousness. The patrons are mostly bored-looking Saudis dressed in kufiyahs and full burqas. I try not to stare. I’m the only one in Western clothing. Elaborate displays of gold, Persian rugs, diamonds and pearls adorn gilded storefronts with stylized Arabic print, so opulent and foreign that I begin to feel the pangs of homesick discomfort re-emerge. I waste no time walking to the exit where I’m comforted by a massive corridor of familiar restaurants ranging from Shake Shack, TGI Fridays, PF Changs, Cane’s Chicken and a few Arabic places. I lamely decide to eat at Fuddruckers where, even more lamely, I order chicken fingers with vegetables and a Sprite. A single mom with long straightened hair and chandelier earrings trades an iPad back and forth with her young son at a nearby booth.  A constant trickle of parents and laughing children walk past my table, in and out of some kind of Chuck E. Cheese type fun center attached to the rear of the restaurant, complete with neon-clad bowling alleys, arcades, skee-ball lanes, and some really annoying pop songs that I can’t identify. I catch myself staring at a jovial Qatari family of six across from me, bemused by the mother’s cheetah-skin abeyah. The children are eating burgers. My waiter, a cheery guy from Thailand, provides excellent service despite not expecting a tip. A quick google search confirms that tipping is not a thing here, but I do anyway. A group of Bahraini guys with five o’clock shadows wearing Bluetooth earpieces and denim jackets by Ralph Lauren walk past my line of sight outside.

Jet-lagged and satiated from my first meal in 18 hours, I decide to retire to my room at The Westin. I’m tempted to catch a movie at the multiplex, most of which are American movies playing in English to my surprise, but instead am overcome by an inexplicable urge to watch the Brian DePalma movie Body Double, which I can probably stream for free online anyway.

Welcome to Bahrain. Live Without Limits:

The most common colloquialism used to describe Bahrain is “The Las Vegas of the Middle East”, and it really is 100% true. The island-state is a strange, liberal anomaly nestled within the heart of one of the most conservative regions on Earth, quietly humming along to a cosmopolitan dream logic of alcohol, sex, nightclubs, pork, boozy rock festivals, and Brooke Candy singles. Nearly anything goes. During weekends (Friday and Saturday), thousands of rich Saudis flock over the 16 mile King Fahd causeway (usually driving painfully slow in a decked-out Range Rover or Mercedes Benz) in search of high-end shopping, American cinema, fine dining, waterparks, and other Western pleasures. It’s common knowledge that Bahrain’s strong economy is made possible, in part, due to a laissez-faire culture of human trafficking, which supplies a steady stream of cheap labor from East Asia – predominately Pakistan, India and the Philippines. Prostitution, while technically illegal, is seldom enforced because of the economic benefits wrought by the sex-tourism industry, largely enabled by wealthy patrons from Bahrain’s more “traditional” neighbors. Independent, high-class call girls from all over the world travel to Bahrain in hopes of cashing in. Homosexuality, legalized in 1976, is generally tolerated if public displays are kept to a minimum.  Echoing a familiar sentiment from another desert-city the West, Arabs like to say what happens in Bahrain is exempt from Allah’s gaze (because it’s partially man-made, of course).

The underlying aesthetic of Bahrain is difficult to articulate in words, and after much thought, can only be described as a dark, celebratory cross between Prince “Erotic City”, Pink Floyd “Young Lust” and basically any song off that second Charli XCX record.

While the Vegas comparison is suitable, I would take it a step further and declare Bahrain, more accurately, the Westworld of the Middle East – a jokey, but eerily apt comparison made by my friend Justin in response to a video I shared on social media. I say this because Las Vegas is much too established and accessible, whereas Westworld is a younger, more secluded dreamworld still trying to figure itself out. People come to Vegas to get rich and have a good time; people come to Westworld to find out who they really are.

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Soft Power:

A British protectorate until 1971, one can still feel a lingering European presence within Bahrain’s social fabric. English is, effectively, the national language – spoken and written basically anywhere that’s commercially relevant. European-style cafes and bakeries line the city streets, always packed. British Intermediate schools are highly respected, and firmly rooted within Bahrain’s education system.  Cricket and Rugby are highly popular, and it’s not uncommon to see local Bahrainis playing pickup games between buildings in the late afternoon when the heat subsides.

Terrorism was never a concern. I never once felt unsafe, and would often go jogging outside at night (when it cooled to a brisk 90 degrees F). It wasn’t uncommon to see women doing the same, alone.   “High Risk” areas were well known, and clearly delineated on maps. One had little, if any reason, to ever stray into one – and if you did, it would probably go unnoticed anyway (believe me, I’ve done it). Gun violence was non-existent due to a strictly enforced firearms ban. What little violence that did occur was limited to sectarian skirmishes between Sunni and Shia protestors – and for that, Bahrain’s police force is swift and effective – sometimes too “effective” to the point of human rights violations. These human rights abuses have dogged Bahrain’s reputation for a long time, and are fueled primarily by tension between its Sunni-led, Saudi-backed ruling class and Shia underclass majority.

There is effectively zero outward anti-USA or anti-Western sentiment. In fact, one could say there is actually pro-Western sentiment as evidenced by Bahrain’s embrace of Western culture – almost to the point of caricature. “Tribfest” – a huge rock festival that features top tribute bands from the U.K. – is hosted bi-annually at the Rugby club. The  Freddie Mercury act of April 2018 was profoundly entertaining, and I distinctly remember having a near-spiritual experience during the extended guitar outro of “Live Forever” by what was supposedly an Oasis cover band (though they looked and played so much like the real thing it could have been the Gallagher brothers for all I knew) . Coldplay was predictably boring AF, despite apparently being the crowd favorite. However, the spectacle of watching scores of drunk white dudes lamely dancing to “Viva La Vida” more than made up for it.

American cinema is ubiquitous and always in demand. I continued to pay my respects to the Big Screen, frequenting an Arabic cinema near my apartment where I saw Solo (three times), The Last Jedi (also three times),  Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One, and Predator to name a few. In March of 2018 I attended my very first comic-con, which featured local artists, promotional displays from big-name brands like nVidia and Blizzard, guest appearances from the cast of Game of Thrones, and some really cool virtual reality demos that captivated me for hours (and convinced me of the awesome power of VR for flight simulation). I also wrecked some n00bs in an Overwatch PC gaming tournament, feeling like Allen Covert’s character from Grandma’s Boy as I, the lone thirty-something man-child, fervently gamed alongside my team of Bahraini teenagers (all speaking perfect English).  Associated with this comic-con was the annual Formula One race hosted on Bahrain’s enormous 5.4-kilometer International Racing Circuit designed by German architect Hermann Tilke – an enormous, big-budget international event that attracts tens of thousands of visitors per year. The race is advertised relentlessly and the fact that Santana played the 2018 post-race concert should tell one everything they need to know about the enormity of the event. Consequently, racing culture has become hugely popular, as proven every night by the obnoxious sounds of aftermarket exhaust mods (fart cannons) from local street racers living out their “2 Fast, 2 Furious” fantasies. Of note, American muscle cars are considered exotic in Bahrain, and more highly prized than their Audi or BMW counterparts.

Or put simply, Bahrain is the “Austin, Texas” of the Middle East.

The Promise of Globalization:

Yet for all its progressive “excesses”, Bahrain (and the greater UAE) is a fascinating case study in the efficacy of globalization, and how progressive, particularly Western attitudes, are re-shaping the Arab world. Globalization – once a specialized word synonymous with progress and prosperity, has now become a common, xenophobic punchline in the West. But behind the smokescreen of paranoia do lie some very justified concerns – human rights abuses, currency manipulation, financial speculation, worst of all, the erosion of cultural identity. However, Bahrain, for better or worse, seems to be embracing globalization’s promise in full force – and reaping the rewards. Studies have ranked Bahrain as the freest and fastest growing economy in the Arab World, leading its neighbors beyond the (black) gold rush as the first sustainable post-oil economy in the Persian Gulf thanks to its booming financial, tech and manufacturing industries – although headquartering the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet probably doesn’t hurt either.

In his 2000 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman deconstructs, with what now seems like remarkable prescience, the enormous implications of globalization’s new world order. He explains how the slow and isolated world of the Cold-war era has now ceded control to the hyper-connected, hyper-sensitive, “flattened” world of the internet age. Enabled by the microprocessor, the old global rulebook of social and economic interactions changed, effectively, overnight. Those countries who adopted the new rules – pervasive and unrestricted internet access, free market capitalism, the rule of law, government accountability and transparency ­– would prosper (Japan, America, Western Europe). Those who resisted (Russia, China, Iran) would, and continue to lag behind. Despite bringing about the fastest rise in global living standards of any event in human history, Friedman is careful to explain that globalization is a complex beast, and not without its drawbacks. The prevailing metaphor of the book, and its title, poses the fundamental dilemma of globalization – to what extent must a country “sell out” its culture for the sake of appeasing, and thus profiting from, the new rules of the homogeneous global marketplace?

“People don’t compare their lives to their father’s and grandparents’ lives today. They have more information. They now compare their lives to the lives of neighbors and other people. Because they can identify via television, satellite, DVD and Internet. ” 
– Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree

After spending more than 24 hours in country, it becomes evident to anyone that Bahrain seems to be inundated with a prevailing sense of “to join the West is to prosper; to oppose the West is to fail”. Bahrain seems to genuinely take pride in its comfortable embrace of pro-Western sentiment – but not necessarily out of the goodness of its heart (though my inner optimist wants to believe this) – but because their prosperity demands it – because the rules of the global marketplace demand it. And there’s a rich irony in that the “market forces” so highly praised by anti-globalist conservatives are the very thing working in their favor to ensure a peaceful, prosperous, and pro-Western Middle East.

While I won’t pretend to have deeply engaged in the rich cultural traditions of Bahrain’s Muslim majority,  I will say that it does seem they’ve struck the right balance between modernization and cultural preservation – thus solving the globalization dilemma.  Look no further than the large sums of state money devoted toward preserving and renovating its museums, mosques, and historical structures – most notably the Al Fateh Grand Mosque and the Bahrain National Museum and Theater – beautiful works of architecture that house some of Bahrain’s most prized national treasures and customs.

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Conclusion:

The song lyrics referenced in the beginning of this piece hung over me like a specter throughout my time in Bahrain. I once thought its author, Roger Waters, was making a scathing polemic of conservatives’ cult-like worship of unrestricted free-market capitalism. But I now think those lyrics, which he penned nearly ten years before Friedman’s book, might actually be a sincere (and chillingly prophetic) statement about the bittersweet, irreversible truths of globalization – the effects of which have yet to be fully understood.

For centuries the Middle East has been the crucible for countless empires and invasions, and the fact that it still retains so much of its cultural identity is a triumph unto itself. But this new “invasion” of Western soft power is unlike other invasions of the past, and Bahrain is leading the region in demonstrating that the “weapons” of these new invaders can be harnessed and exploited for their own gain, while still keeping their cultural dignity intact. This effect is already beginning to influence Bahrain’s more conservative neighbors, as evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s recent progressive reforms by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030”, which most notably include allowing women to drive, public cinemas playing American movies, curbing the power of the religious police, and a less restrictive e-visa system to attract tourism. The winds of change are coming, even if slowly.

I will always believe in the judicious use of lethal force when necessary, and am not naïve enough to think jihadist terrorism will ever be totally eradicated. However, my experience overseas has convinced me of the cold but undeniable truth that healthy relations with the Muslim world – the proverbial “hearts and minds” – will ultimately be won not by bullets, bombs, thoughts and prayers; but by iPhones, Twitter, Marvel movies and Ford Mustangs.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story – The Undeserved Sacrificial Lamb of The Fandom Wars

Star Wars fans ought to rejoice. Despite bombing at the box office (largely for reasons unrelated to its quality), Solo should be considered another win for the spinoff franchise. In keeping with its Rogue One predecessor, Solo delivers an adult movie with tasteful humor, compelling characters, consistent lore, and a focused story (we don’t ask for much, Rian) – in other words, a passable Star Wars movie. And this should come as no surprise given the powerhouse creative duo brought to bear. Directed by industry veteran Ron Howard and penned by Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter for Empire Strikes Back), Disney clearly wasn’t f*cking around. In fact, Solo is rather revolutionary in that it’s the first truly “secular” Star Wars flick devoid of any huge themes of The Force or Good vs Evil, and maintains an uncomfortable silence of heart-pounding space battles or lightsaber fights – which perhaps explains why it came off as “boring” at times. But that’s OK! I thoroughly enjoyed the slower, grittier, Scarface-esque scenes of grown-up Star Wars antiheroes dealing with grown-up Star Wars antihero problems (conflicting motives, guilty pasts, heartbreak, choosing between two evils, etc).

It’s clear that Disney is using  the new trilogy to engender new fans while using the spinoffs to ensure fealty from the old – and to be honest, it’s totally working on me. So keep’em coming (just nothing else like The Last Jedi please, thanks). I saw Solo three times, and enjoyed it more each time. Here’s why:

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Han & Chewie:

Alden Ehrenreich’s Han Solo delivers a competent and believable portrayal of how our beloved lopsided-grinning antihero would have actually behaved in his mid twenties, striking the right balance of youthful arrogance, womanizer charm and streetwise grit – all wrapped around a warm gooey center of insecurity, jealousy and good-guy heart. In fact Qia’ra says it best when she chides “no, you’re the good guy” after Han smugly asserts himself as a rough-around-the-edges outlaw, to which he defeatedly replies “No, I’m definitely not the good guy…I’m, uh, a terrible person” – a welcome touch of cinematic self-awareness.

I was relieved to find the Han-Chewie relationship feeling quite authentic and natural, right in-league with their heartwarming “laugh it up fuzzball” antics from the classics. No issues there. I also loved the scene between Han and Lando in the Falcon’s cockpit where, in a brief moment of brotherly levity, they bond over their (effectively) fatherless upbringing – which totally explains their lost-boy “I make my own rules” ethos, distantly echoing Nietzsche’s, “when one has not had a good father, one must create one”. This is followed by Lando further revealing that he’s a mama’s boy – which TOTALLY explains his entitled (but cool AF) attitude. However my favorite Han scene was probably the nostalgia-bomb dropped in Lando’s cape closet on the Falcon when, in true Solo fashion, he cuts off Qi’ra mid-sentence to give her the kiss she secretly desires (SO gangster), beautifully foreshadowing the legendary “my hands are dirty too” first-kiss with Leia in Empire.

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“My hands are dirty too, what are you afraid of?”

Qi’ra:

Portrayed by the lovely Emilia Clarke, Qi’ra adds another strong, well-written female character to the Star Wars fold, and is perhaps one of the most interesting and complex characters to date. Initially Han’s childhood sweetheart from the streets of Corellia, her character evolves into a dark and mysterious spectre of her former radiant self. After being separated from Han during their botched escape from Corellia, Qi’ra ends up becoming a top-lieutenant for premiere crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn, answerable only to its commander, Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany).  However, the film is unclear about her relationship with Dryden, leaving us wondering if she’s a trophy wife, slave, girlfriend or some sort of daughter figure. But if one reads between the lines, the film cleverly implies that she’s developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for Dryden, presumably having been “rescued” from her dead-end existence on Corellia and forced to serve Crimson Dawn. Qi’ra hints at this when she nihilistically quips, “we all serve our own masters”. Either way, she rises through the ranks to become Dryden’s most trusted agent, as evidenced by her charge to “babysit” Han and Beckett on the Kessel Run job (the idiot fanboys are gonna love that one). But as their journey continues, she deliberately evades talking about her past, providing only scant details that hint of something truly dark and filled with some heavy sh*t that she ain’t proud of (making her look even more badass).

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While some might argue that Qi’ra doesn’t stand as a “strong” female, I would respectfully disagree.  Yes, she’s technically subservient to a man (whom she kills, mind you), and yes, Solo does fail the Bechdel test – but who cares? Qi’ra succumbs to none of the usual female tropes, and is portrayed as an equal, if not superior, to every other male character – and does so without coming off as condescending lecture on male behavior. She is respected by other men, competent, emotionally complex, and relevant to the story – all while maintaining a believable feminine vulnerability. She’s also a kick-ass melee fighter-assassin (and thermal detonator thrower) on par with her male counterparts. Damsel in distress? I think not.

The Han & Qi’ra Romance:

I actually found the love story between Han and Qi’ra one of the most interesting parts of the movie. It’s dark, complex and beautiful in its realness. It pushes Star Wars romance into more adult territory and I loved that.  After reuniting with Qi’ra 2.0 on Dryden’s yacht, the film cleverly explores her enigmatic character from Han’s perspective as he tries to process what the hell happened to his once-innocent sweetheart from days past. While the film never explicitly reveals her history, it’s framed in such a way that a discerning viewer will find all the clues they need. She succeeds in suppressing her affection for Han, save for a few moments of weakness, knowing he can never be apart of her opulent new life as a crime boss and all the shady morality that comes with it. This all culminates in that bold, bittersweet final scene when a smitten Han, suavely standing in the elevator looking Qi’ra in the eye, naively thinks she’ll come back with him. However the look on Emelia Clarke’s face as she says,“I’ll be right behind you”, conveys no such intention. In a final selfless act of true love, Qi’ra tells him what he wants to hear in order to protect him from a life he was never meant to have. Beautifully shot and palpable with emotion, this might have been my favorite scene in the entire movie and represents the quality of filmmaking Star Wars deserves.  

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“We all serve our own masters” – Qi’ra

And for the record, there’s nothing “anti-male” about Han getting the hard pass from Qi’ra, because seriously, what dude hasn’t? In the simple words of singer/songrwiter Kurt Vile – “that’s life tho”.

 Lando & L3:

I was nearly brought to tears by how well Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) did justice to the young Lando Calrissian. As soon as I heard that first line of dialogue at the Sabacc table, spoken in that iconic Billy Dee Williams drawl, I was like “yeah, we’re good”. Overall, he does an outstanding job with Lando’s character, properly emphasizing his  signature blend of card-slinging alpha-dog charm and borderline-metro-but-not-really, vogue-rogue narcissism (the holo-blogging scene was a great touch). Some fans might take issue with the “pansexual” innuendo between him and his loudmouth DRA (droids rights activist) companion, L3 – but come on, I think that’s a pretty big stretch given L3’s bizarro, over-the-top personality. My theory? Her emotion chip malfunctioned and caused her to confuse honest friendship for romance – basically the droid equivalent of that mouthy, out-of-touch narcissistic chick from high school who thinks all the boys are in love with her. If anything, I think the film suggests more of a platonic brother-sister dynamic than a romantic one.  And even if Lando is a “pan-sexual” (whatever that means), who the hell cares? He’s still a badass. Case closed. And as for L3, I found her to be funny, relevant and not annoying at all. Some may take issue with her “feminist” overtones, but I found them charming and pretty inoffensive. I would deem L3 a worthy addition to the Star Wars droid lineage (and FINALLY answers who C-3PO was communing with when he “talks to the Falcon” in Empire).

Beckett & The Mercenaries (<–totally claiming this as a future band name, btw):

The fact that I’ve lived long enough to see Woody Harrelson and John Favreau (voice of Rio) together in a Star Wars movie is reason enough for me to die happy right now. The abrasive camaraderie between Becket, Val, Rio and their new teammates, Han/Chewie, felt fun and authentic – and is perhaps best highlighted in the campfire bonding scene when, beautiful in its subtlety, Val’s distrust of Han is immediately defused with a hesitant smile after he admits he’s doing the job for a girl (“well, there was a girl”). Afterwards, Beckett evolves into a reluctant mentor for Han, if not even a father figure at times. However their relationship predictably sours as mercenary life gets in the way, ending unceremoniously as Han’s “good-guy” heart gets the best of him.  The rival merc gang, Enfys Nest, provides a welcome twist at the end which serves to further enrich the tale of the looming Galactic Civil War while also building on Rogue One’s themes of grey morality in times of revolution.

EU References and the Bria Tharen Connection:

Expanded Universe (“Legends”) fans will be delighted to find plenty of respectful nods to the great stories that carried Star Wars since 1983. Most obvious was the inclusion of Han’s time as an Imperial officer and pilot after graduating the Imperial Academy on Carida. Much like Jimi Hendrix, it was within the disciplined confines of military life that Han discovered his true inner renegade, which eventually leads him to risk his career to rescue Chewie from Imperial slavers. As a result, Han gets dishonorably discharged and starts anew as a smuggler alongside Chewie, owing him a life debt. So the film wasn’t totally off-base, the only difference being that he was kicked out of flight school for having a “mind of his own”, but instead of getting court-martialed, he’s forced to enlist in the Imperial Infantry (an even worse fate). However Han still technically rescues Chewie from Imperial slavery just like in the books. My only real complaint was that the movie totally ignored Han’s officer and pilot training at the Imperial Academy. These scenes could of so powerfully (and humorously) added to Han’s “coming-of-age” narrative as his rogue inclinations begin to conflict with Imperial esprit de corps. It also would of been wicked cool to see Han developing his craft in flight school, kicking ass and taking names in tie fighters.

Shrewd fans of Anne (A.C.) Crispin’s beloved “Solo Trilogy” will note the striking resemblance between Qi’ra and the suspiciously rhyming “Bria” Tharen from the books. While not an exact carbon copy of Qi’ra, the Corellian-born Bria was also Han’s longtime love interest who, like Qi’ra, reluctantly leaves him out of a sense of duty to protect him after realizing their diverging paths were incompatible (sound familiar, Padme?). Having struggled with addiction and lack of purpose, Bria leaves Han to confront her demons alone, not wanting to burden him in the process. She eventually finds her purpose in fighting for the fledgling Rebellion and rises to become the leader of the notorious Red Hand Squadron (think Inglorious Basterds) that heroically captured the Death Star plans in the Battle of Toprawa, sacrificing herself in the process. This obviously bears enormous resemblance to Jyn Erso of Rogue One, which begs the hugely important question, is Bria Tharen the spiritual inspiration for the two female heroines of the spinoff films? The resemblance is eerie beyond coincidence, and if this was indeed intentional, mad respect to Disney for bringing this legendary EU character to life as the hybrid of Qi’ra and Jyn Erso, both outstandingly written and performed.

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The fierce new (relatable) women of Star Wars, inspired by the EU’s Bria Tharen (top left)…sorry Rey

Conclusion:

It’s a crying shame Solo had to be the first casualty in the fandom wars (second if you count the declining toy sales), and with rumors already swirling about future Star Wars film delays and cancellations, it certainly won’t be the last. Ron Howard’s team did stellar work, and most certainly do not deserve their “sacrificial lamb” fate borne by The Last Jedi’s backlash boycott. The fact that Solo and Rogue One were quality films suggests that Disney is capable of delivering high-caliber and tonally-consistent Star Wars films – and contrary to popular belief – actually shows how little Disney wants to obstruct the vision of the writer & producer, which, unfortunately for Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy, only serves to magnify their responsibility for the sheer carelessness with which Episode VIII was handled.

However it’s not enough for Disney to just make good spinoff movies – it must ensure the same level of care for the mainline trilogy, whose episodes should not be lazily conceived in isolation, but in aggregate, as an entire trilogy (isn’t that the whole point?!). The results of Solo seem to suggest The Last Jedi backlash is indeed strong (and well organized), and if killing Solo is what it takes to wake up Lucasfilm’s leadership to their pompous and negligent treatment of the new trilogy and its legions of conscientiously dissenting fans, then, in the indelible words of Jagger, let it bleed.

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“Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution”

 

“The Last Jedi” and the New Aesthetic of Star Wars

Upon leaving the theater from The Last Jedi, I was immediately struck by two questions – 1.) Did Star Wars change or did I change? And 2.) Did people feel the same way about The Empire Strikes Back in 1980?

I’ll admit, my expectations for this movie were enormous, especially after 2016’s masterful Rogue One. The epic title, the crimson-hewn poster art, the badass trailers– all implied a sense of hugeness and gravity.  Given the events of Episode IX have yet to occur, my opinion of this movie could completely change; and I wholeheartedly commend Rian Johnson for attempting to sate our desire for a “unique” movie. However The Last Jedi underwhelms because it fails to capture the tonally mature, carefully-paced elegance of the originals – which I contend is the subconscious reason people, including children, fell in love with Star Wars in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of things I liked about the movie; however The Last Jedi is ultimately a double letdown of both story and storytelling. The film is marred by too many awkward moments of humor and goofy plot beats, while severely lacking in exposition, character development and artful dialogue – the latter two being the hallmarks of a great second act. It was alike and different from the classics in all the wrong ways. The fundamental reason why so many sequels fail (which is a whole new discussion) is because the new creators fail to understand what made the originals so great. Disney appears to be no different.

The Story

Before touching on aesthetics, let’s first discuss some structural problems with the plot. First, the story feels fundamentally hollow due to a lack of exposition for the good guys (The Force Awakens is partially to blame). We’ve seen Return of the Jedi, and are owed some explanation. Without it, the good guys feel like weightless carbon copies from the original trilogy (and no, the originals owed us nothing because no prior canon existed to Star Wars in 1977).  We can’t empathize with the Rebellion “Resistance” because we still have no explanation (literally zero) of their origin or motive. Why was a resistance even necessary after, just 30 years prior, pulling off the most kick-ass guerilla military operation in the galaxy? What was the New Republic government even like and why is it worth fighting for? Where the hell were the mighty fleets of the New Republic and why were they concentrated so finely that they could be wholly destroyed by a few superlasers from The Deathstar Starkiller Base? The easy answer is that the New Republic was a pacifist government that dismantled its weapons and only kept a token fleet for defense (and apparently a worthless intelligence agency). Such naïve rationale would make even the peace-loving Captain Picard facepalm himself in dismay. Disney could have at least honored the legacy of Return of the Jedi by giving us a simple 5-minute flashback (Lord of the Rings style) on the post-war events after Episode VI. This could of been easily accomplished by a short dialogue between Rey and Han/Luke/Leia.  Doing so would have provided the critical weight in helping us believe in that “spark” to ignite this new rebellion (or is it resistance?).

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Problem Number Two – There is basically zero relationship between Luke and Rey, and zero training accomplished. She shows up, Mark Hamill plays a cynical version of himself (which is sort of entertaining for a while but awkward for the movie), she swings a lightsaber at a rock, force-skypes with Kylo and leaves. This feels more like reality TV than epic storytelling.  Most criminal of all, the movie completely omits any semblance of the “hero’s journey” for young Rey.  After ditching Luke, she cordially meets bad-guy Kylo with whom she teams up to defeat a Sith master with little more than a scratch (although the lightsaber battle is really cool and the movie’s highlight). This narrative would have been far, far more satisfying had they been brother and sister, but I digress. She then heroically flies the Millennium Falcon into battle and rescues the surviving Resistance fighters by effortlessly force-lifting a ton of rocks (a feat even Luke would have struggled with as a trained apprentice).

Wow. Disney, I get you’re trying to be “different”, but there is nothing epic about telling a story of a kid who, unchallenged, “figures it out on their own”. It is neither inspiring nor relatable, and does a disservice to young viewers. And while I vehemently maintain that “relatability” is not a prerequisite for good art, it is a very powerful storytelling element whose omission is painfully absent in Rey’s development. Aside from an apparently painful mind-meld with Snoke and receiving some bad parental news (which she already knew), Rey achieves success without any suffering, failure, or catharsis (could this be Disney’s cruel play to the “entitled millennial” stereotype?). She better be the second-coming of Yoda or Jesus Christ to be this adept in The Force without a teacher. In fact, doesn’t Yoda even say that “failure is the greatest teacher” in the movie?! While Rey’s competence with a lightsaber is conceivable given her skill with a staff, her self-mastery of the Force is uninspired, unrelatable and ultimately detracts from the beauty of the story. Daisy Ridley is a dynamite actress and her portrayal of Rey is fantastic. Her character deserves far more complexity from the script.

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So…is she ever gonna get her ass kicked?

Supporters of the movie will likely celebrate its “punk” sensibility– how it seems to push the confines of epic storytelling (the three act structure, the hero’s journey, etc). However I would argue that these inspirational elements are hardly a “limitations” at all, but fundamental ingredients like sugar and salt, from which thousands of recipes can be made. It is still possible to craft a unique story without sacrificing these classic themes, and to think otherwise just seems intellectually lazy.  Yes the story was different, but not in a satisfying way. Disney promised us Rocky. What we got was a super-hero movie reboot. Looks like they’re saving the heavy-lifting for Episode IX!

Aesthetics

Even despite these annoying plot issues, I would argue The Last Jedi still could have been a great movie had Disney simply been more respectful of the tone of the classics. While lighthearted at times, the originals were fundamentally serious movies about suffering, faith, warfare and heroism. Perhaps a product of the post-Vietnam milieu, Lucas masterfully blended dark and adult themes with tasteful moments of humor (a skill he apparently lost for the prequels).  The solemnity of The Last Jedi is beleaguered by far too many awkward, ill-timed moments of slapstick that rob the film of any sense of tonal majesty.  For example, the scene on the cliff where Rey is practicing her hot lightsaber moves started swelling up as this gorgeous scene of badassery and focus…and then stalls when she accidentally cuts the stone in half, nearly hitting two of those goofy bipedal bird aliens. *facepalm*. Let’s not forget that classy montage (soon to be a meme) where “Jeremiah Johnson” Luke awkwardly milks the teat of a dopey-looking sea cow with Rey watching in confusion. And of course the scene where Mark Hamill (playing himself) tickles Rey’s hand as she “reaches out to The Force” – which is actually really funny but robs the scene of the dignity it deserves. What should be a movie rich with meaty, elegant dialogue discussing the complexity of The Force, is reduced to a classless litany of hipster rants and lame jokes. Granted, as a young child watching The Empire Strikes Back I remember getting bored with all the Yoda training scenes on Dagobah. However as I grew up, those scenes quickly became my favorite part of the entire trilogy. Those philosophical exchanges between Hamill and Oz in the misty Dagobah jungle reign as some of the most artful and transcendent lines of dialogue I’ve ever witnessed from science fiction.

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And it wasn’t just the Luke and Rey scenes, but countless more off-color distractions such as the General Hux phone prank scene, gravity-falling bombs (in space), Finn dumbly walking around in a leaking suit, Rey scolding a shirtless Kylo, and the cringe-worthy horse-alien rescue on Canto Bight (a scene that felt more befitting the disastrous Episode I). And of course the watered-down battle of Hoth Krayt that seemed more concerned with promoting the weird narrative of Finn and Rose than depicting the realities of combat.

However I will grant that the final Luke Skywalker scenes were pretty cool and befitting the grandeur of his character. The lightspeed kamikaze was wicked cool too. Also, the Snoke and Kylo scenes were fantastic, and I loved how Snoke (brilliantly voiced) immediately addresses the “elephant in the room” by rightfully eschewing Kylo for being defeated by an untrained girl, not to mention mocking his Vader-wannabe mask. The Leia resurrection scene was also masterfully done, and a heartbreaking ode to Carrie Fisher’s famous request to “die in the moonlight strangled by my own bra.” (I held back tears on all three viewings).

Chuck Klosterman, in his book of “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs”, fascinatingly deconstructs the symbolic importance of The Empire Strikes Back as the cultural moment that marked the ascendance of Generation X. The rebellion is in retreat, the fate of the galaxy uncertain, and our hero forced to cope with a major identity crisis (sound familiar?). Emotionally heavy, cynical and bleak, Empire masterfully tells a coming-of-age tale that mirrors the Gen-X aesthetic with chilling accuracy. However there’s a frustrating irony in that the Gen X-ers helming the New Star Wars seem incapable of replicating the weightier tone of the classics they grew up with, Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards notwithstanding – but maybe they deliberately don’t want to?  As a millennial myself (who identifies as Boomer), I can’t help but wonder if The Last Jedi is serving the same cultural purpose for my generation as Empire did for Gen-X? A movie coddled by cutesy jokes, emo entitlement (Kylo) and unearned success (Rey), could The Last Jedi be Disney’s cruel affirmation (or mockery) of the millennial stereotype? Its nihilistic motif of “letting the past die” also seems eerily reminiscent of our “post-truth” Trump moment and its crusade against old institutions of media, politics and government.

But maybe the haters just don’t understand The Last Jedi? Maybe it’s just too artsy, too intellectual?  Or maybe our adult-centric view of Star Wars is wrong and that it really is meant to be nothing more than lightweight children’s fare? Who are we to demand more substance from the new stories? Maybe it will be us millennials who will triumphantly bring Star Wars back to its roots? But seeing as we’ve nearly killed rock ‘n roll, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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May We Honor Their Legacy

 

Roger Waters The Wall – In Theaters Oct. 18

Fully automatic MP-40 gunfire dropping streams of hot brass, bomb explosions, Liam Neeson, fireworks, tequila shots, Ray-Ban clad Neo Nazis in trenchcoats, iPod-toting Hitlers, live flying WWII planes and giant nightmarish puppets – a Tarantino screenplay? No. Just some good old fashioned rock theater. Roger Waters The Wall, to be exact. And yeah, I cried too.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, just when I thought I’d become desensitized and familiar with all things Pink Floyd, the great Roger Waters strikes back hard with a full-length tour de force concert film that left me spellbound.

Captured in full 1080p high-def luster, Roger Waters The Wall is a gorgeous, emotionally wrenching statement about war and human loss, given a fresh facelift relevant to the geopolitically trying times of today. At it’s core though, the film is a two-hour long visual exorcism of Roger’s single greatest personal demon (and creative fire) – the loss of his father in World War II.

Instead of watching a disheveled Bob Geldof waste away in smoky L.A. hotel rooms, we’re guided by a smartly dressed Waters through regal cemeteries, war memorials and dark oaken hallways in classy French hotels doing shots of top shelf Jose Cuervo (I did NOT take Roger Waters for a tequila guy). In fact, the film is in many ways similar to Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same in that it interleaves footage of Roger’s personal side-story narrative with actual concert footage. And as much as I’d LOVE to see Roger Waters gallivanting on horseback, storming castles and rescuing fair maidens, we are taken in a vintage Rolls Royce on a deeply personal-and sometimes painful- road trip spanning from overcast English countryside to the shores of south Italy.

Sitting in the mostly empty theater (there behind my wall)-flanked by mostly Boomers and Gen-X’ers -I was clearly the youngest one there, perhaps even the only millennial. My run-ins with Pink Floyd fans my age are extremely rare (unless I’m in Austin, TX). And by “fan” I mean someone whose first reaction to the band isn’t just reciting “we don’t need no education”. Despite Dark Side of the Moon being the bestselling rock album of all time, it baffles me how little Pink Floyd love and awareness there is in the world- and if there is, people just aren’t showing it! Sitting there in the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder how my experience with The Wall differed from that of my fellow movie-goers. Did I discover this Waters-driven Floyd masterpiece any differently than my older peers? War, sheltered upbringing, innocence lost to sex drugs & rock ‘n roll, heartbreak, depression, societal disillusionment, isolation, self-loathing, rebirth, prejudice, racism, and the idea that our greatest fear is to be exposed and vulnerable – what themes of the human condition doesn’t The Wall touch on?

Like many of my fellow Floyd fans, I discovered The Wall in my formative high school years during which I dealt with many of those very themes. But the truly great thing about The Wall is that it’s one of those rare, timeless albums whose message is universal, and somehow always relatable. I once naively thought I had outgrown the album after graduating past those chaotic coming-of-age high school and college years; that true to its stereotype, The Wall was just a silly phase every angsty teen went through. But I was very wrong. I’ve continued to rediscover and relate differently to the songs as I’ve marched forward into the brave new world of adulthood.

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None of this guy in the new movie

But of course the real fire and excitement of the movie lies in the concert footage itself. And as someone very critical of live Pink Floyd—especially live Pink Floyd without the mighty David Gilmour—my expectations were exceeded. Granted, the performances were likely heightened by the film’s superb editing, mixing, and playback through theater-grade speakers, I’m willing to give Waters and his band the benefit of the doubt. The ensemble is about a 50/50 split of British and American musicians. Lead guitar duties are shared between Dave Kilminster and the ever-faithful Snowy White (who toured extensively with Floyd during Animals and The Wall, and who is responsible for one of the coolest, unreleased Floyd solos ever in “Pigs On The Wing”). With a few exceptions, I was pleasantly surprised with the care and respect they gave to preserving the original legendary work of Dave Gilmour. However “In The Flesh Pts. 1 an 2”, “The Thin Ice”, and “One of My Turns” just aren’t played with enough of that wild, piercing Stratocaster abandon as in the originals.  Instead, the three songs come off as too cautious and subdued (as is the problem with most Gilmour impersonations). I could write another article on guitarwork comparisons alone, but I will stop here.

G.E. Smith (Hall and Oates, Saturday Night Live) competently handles rhythm guitar and bass when Roger plays six-string. John Carin and Harry Waters (Roger’s son) take on keyboards and piano. Robbie Wyckoff provides the Gilmour-esque baritone vocals; and while a bit stiff, captures them with all the elegance and grace of Gilmour himself.

“Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Vera” were probably the most heartbreaking and beautiful moments of the film. If you can’t sit through “Vera” without tearing up then there is seriously something wrong with you! I challenge you!

“Mother” was another standout, featuring an intimate performance from Roger on acoustic guitar, hauntingly synced up to an old black and white video of him playing the same song from the 1980 tour. The juxtaposition was too perfect, and of no coincidence – the grainy video above the stage showed a young, arrogant, domineering (and utterly genius) bandleader playing in sharp contrast to the much older, lighthearted and good-humored man on stage below. And while Roger hastily reveals later in the film that he’s torn down many of his personal walls, he defeatedly admits he still hasn’t torn down all of them.  Damn.  Who can’t relate to that?

Overall, the songs are very well done, and minimal artistic license is taken with the exception of a few personal flares here and there. Roger has always treated the album as a classical composition, and it shows.  He has little tolerance for variation from the original studio recordings.

To both die-hard and “have-been” Pink Floyd fans alike, Roger Waters The Wall is a must-see. It is a audio/visual kick-in-the-ass guaranteed to make you re-think and rediscover what this album means to you. So if you need a break from the information firehose of Netflix TV show binging and want to get out and actually feel something, go see this movie in theaters on Sunday, October 18th.

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*SPOILER ALERT* The Wall falls!

Middle Earth Travelogue Part 3/3 – Gondor, Pillars of the Kings, Fangorn Forest, Amon Hen

Minas Tirith and The Pelennor Fields – Twizel

We set out from the beleaguered city of Christchurch towards our final destination-  Queenstown.  But first we’d spend the night in the small town of Twizel where Jackson filmed the grassy outskirts of Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor.  The road south took us through two gorgeous turquoise mountain lakes formed by glacial terminal moraine.  Their distinctly blue color is a result of finely ground rock particles churned up by glaciers, otherwise known as “glacial flour”.  Unrelated to Lord of the Rings but equally as cool was the Church of the Good Shepard situated along the banks of Lake Tekapo.  It is considered to be the most photographed Church in the entire country, and it’s not hard to see why.

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Church of the Good Shepherd – Lake Tekapo

We continued the drive down from the mountain elevations into a large brown grassy lowland.  We had arrived in Twizel.  At first glance, there was really nothing that impressive about the region.  Sarah was really confused as to why I was so pumped up to see a big grassland, but it wasn’t just any grassland.  To any fan of Jackson’s Return of the King, Twizel’s importance is enormous.  This was the filming location for one of the greatest, most desperate battles conceived in literature and subsequently depicted on film. In the words of Gandalf, this was THE “Battle for Middle Earth”-or more precisely- the Battle of the Pelennor Fields during which thousands of Rohirrim, united under King Theoden, launched their heroic charge on the armies of Mordor during the siege of Minas Tirith.

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The grassy outskirts of Minas Tirith (Twizel)

We got into Twizel in late afternoon and we were racing twilight to be able to get some decent photos of the Pelennor Fields. I plugged in the lat/long coordinates into my GPS and we drove (sped) to the ridge from which the Rohirim made their charge, which was just off Highway 8.  Despite being a completely fake war, I looked upon the colossal battlefield with an eerie reverence.

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The Pelennor Fields. “Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn! Forth, Eorlingas!”

Hundreds of horses and local riders had been cast (which was basically Twizel’s entire population).  I had learned that the horses were literally auditioned through a series of psychological and physical tests to ensure they could remain calm with hundreds of other horses, humans and the chaotic stimuli of a large film set.

After paying my respects at the Pelennor Fields, we ate dinner at a really nice local place called Poppies.  We set out early the next morning to Queenstown in order to arrive in time to catch our scheduled wine tour in the afternoon.

Ithilien, Nen Hithoel, The Pillars of the Kings, Amon Hen – Queenstown/Milford Sound

Queenstown, simply put, was the coolest most novel city of the trip.  It’s a bustling mountain town nestled around Lake Wakatipu- New Zealand’s longest and weirdest shaped lake.  Queenstown had a fresh and youthful energy about it.   Its denizens were predominately young people like us, and the local culture revolved around outdoor sports, music, pubs and individuality.   I’ve never really been to Colorado, but Queenstown is what I envision a small mountain town in Colorado to be like.

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Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown at the far end

We did a wine tasting tour around the Central Otago region surrounding Queenstown (I had to give Sarah at least one non-LOTR activity on the trip).  We got wine-drunk during the day (first time for me), and it proved a pleasantly mellow, warm buzz.  Pinot Noir was the flagship wine of the Otago region and I learned to love it.

Still reeling from our wine buzz, we had enough wherewithal to hunt down one last filming location for the day – Ithilien – located near the Twelve Mile Delta campground.  Ithilien was the wooded region in Gondor where Frodo and Sam first saw the Oliphants and a company of Haradrim before being captured by Faramir.  Burned out from my LOTR sidequests, Sarah opted to stay in the car while I set out on foot down the trail from the campground.  I must of walked at least a mile through the lonely forest before I had my fill and turned back.  The backdrop of Lake Wakatipu also provided some of the wide shots of Amon Hen in Fellowship.  We then got to bed early that night in preparation for our 5am wakeup the next day for our long day-trip to Milford Sound.

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Ithilien and Amon Hen location at Twelve Mile Delta campground

Geographically only 40 miles from Queenstown, Milford sound is actually a long and arduous 8 hour drive through mountainous fjord land, in fact the region is literally called “Fiordland”.  The sound itself is an awe-inspiring costal region of sharp cliffs towering over the water, easily evoking the awesome spectacle of The Pillars of the Kings.   It was of course pitch black in the early morning, but it was truly sublime to see the untamed beauty of the mountains slowly resolve from the sunrise.  It was also on this drive that we finally finished our audio book of “The Fellowship of the Ring”.  It served as a bittersweet reminder that our trip, just like The Fellowship, was coming to an end.  It also served to highlight the insane amount of driving we had just done – well over 26 hours!

We stopped halfway in the small town of Te Anau to take a bus that would take us the remaining 4 hours to Milford Sound.  Much to our dismay, we got an awful foggy day to see what many call New Zealand’s grandest sight.  But like our trip to Hobbiton, we took the bad weather in stride, rationalizing that the blustery conditions added a certain majesty  to the views.

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The Argonath – The Pillars of the Kings (Milford Sound)

We boarded a small ship that took us on a 2 hour journey through the Sound.  Even despite the mist and low clouds, the giant slopes of the Fjords still made us feel like we were paddling down the Anduin through the mighty Argonath (the two giant statues of Isildur and Anarion that guarded the northern borders of Gondor).  The Howard Shore soundtrack was playing in my mind the entire time.

Amon Hen, Lothlorien, Fangorn Forest and Isengard  – Paradise/Glenorchy

The next day marked our final day of the trip, and what better way to end a 1,300 mile road trip-not in a car-but on horseback.  We made our way to Dart Stables located 20 miles north in a small rural town appropriately called Paradise.  The company had exclusive access to the private land on which the scenes were filmed.  Our first stop was in forest of beech trees where they filmed the Fellowship’s run-in with Haldir in the Elven tree-city of Lothlorien.  This area was simultaneously used to film most of the Amon Hen closeups in Fellowship, most notably the scene where Aragorn fights and beheads Saruman’s Uruk-hai captain, Lurtz.

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Exact spot where Aragorn defeats Lurtz (also Lothlorien filmsite)

We ventured further through the forest up to a ridge overlooking a giant valley carved by the Dart River.  This was unmistakably the valley that provided the core exteriors for Isengard and Fangorn Forest.

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Isengard and Fangorn Forest in the distance (Dart River Valley)

We then returned through the forest to discover the exact spot where Boromir was slain.  The forest floor was studded with fallen beech leaves which gave the spot that signature look from the film.  Boromir’s last stand to defend Frodo depicts one of the most beautiful scenes of heroism and sacrifice in the story and is a personal favorite of mine.  Although *spoiler alert* not actually in the book, I find his death scene appropriate—perhaps even crucial—to the Boromir narrative.  The idea that we can find the strength to fight on, even in the face of assured defeat, is one of the most beautiful and noble lessons of the Lord of the Rings story.  In the same way I looked upon the Pelennor Fields, my hopeless inner nerd looked upon the site of Boromir’s death with a solemn reverence.

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Exact film site of Boromir’s death

And on that sad note, our journey came to its end.  The weather took a turn for the worse and we spent our final hours driving to the airport under Gandalf’s proverbial “gray-rain curtain of this world”.  The glum weather matched our mood as our Middle Earth holiday came to its end as our plane carried us back into the Northern Hemisphere.

Huge thanks to my wife Sarah for putting up with my film site hunting antics throughout the trip.  Sometimes it was a frustrating wild goose chase for little payoff, but most of the time the site hunts led us to spectacular views we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.  Having lived in Hawaii for 3 years, I feel like we’ve become pretty desensitized to beautiful scenery and the fact that New Zealand still blew our minds is testament to its awesome beauty.

I was lucky to have visited Peter Jackson’s particular vision of Middle Earth, and I fully realize that Tolkien’s universe cannot be reduced to a single country or worldly locale. Middle Earth is ultimately what we make of it.  In much the same way as Prince fantasized about his beloved Paisley Park, the same is true of Middle Earth – it’s in our heart.

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Middle Earth Travelogue Part 2/3 – Wingnut Studios, Rohan, Isengard, Nazgul Chase and The Anduin

We departed Ohakune (Mordor) for a lengthy 4 hour drive down Highway 1 to New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington.   We took our first stop to catch a glimpse of the mighty Anduin (The Great River), which was partially filmed within the steep gorges of the Rangitikei River.  For the non-geeks, The Anduin is the river the fellowship used after departing the Elven tree-city of Lothlorien in Fellowship of the Ring.  Using my LOTR film location guidebook, we followed signs for “Mokai Gravity Canyon”- New Zealand’s tallest bridge bungee jump.  We figured it would be an innocent 15-20 min detour but it ended up taking about 45 minutes to navigate the winding roads deep into the rocky valley ahead.  The view was well worth the trip however.

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“The Anduin”

We continued south and set our sights on exploring the Waitarere Forest on the western Kapiti coast.  It was here that they filmed the Trollshaw Forest where the Aragorn escorted the hobbits on their way to Rivendell in Fellowship (and also the location of Bilbo’s petrified Trolls in The Hobbit).  We arrived in the small beach-town of Waitarere and had lunch at a nearby café where I had some really great fish and chips.  We managed to find the entrance to the nearby forest but much to my dismay, it was gated off with a “no trespassing” sign- probably to ward off LOTR film-site hunters just like myself.  How lame!  I badly wanted to sneak in but my inner child was kept at bay when Sarah managed to talk me out of it.  We got back on Highway 1 and enjoyed glorious sunset drive along the dry cliffs of the Tasman coast which evoked a kind of California Highway 101 feel.

Wingnut Studios, Isengard, The Nazgul Chase, more Anduin – Wellington

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital and is situated at the very southern tip of the North Island along the massive Fitzroy Bay.  The greater landscape is markedly more arid and brown with large rolling hills and actually looked a lot like San Francisco.  The California-esque landscape is particularly fitting because Wellington-often referred to as “Wellywood”- is the heart of New Zealand’s film industry.  The next morning we took a guided tour through Peter Jackson’s “private” Hollywood in the nearby district of Miramar.  At this point I’m pretty sure Wellington has some kind of California wannabe complex going on.

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Wellington, city by the bay

Our first stop was at Weta Workshop.  This is the place that fashions props for Peter Jackson films and also many non-Jackson films such as Avatar, The Chronicles of Narnia, Van Helsing, and Kingdom of Heaven.  We took a tour of the workshop but were banned from taking any pictures due to copyright and film secrecy reasons.  But what was inside was a fascinating array of first-hand props, many of which were actually used in the the Lord of the Rings movies.    On the tour I learned a lot of interesting facts such as that Sauron was mostly filmed using a live actor in an actual costume (which was surprisingly smaller than you’d imagine) and that the “chainmail” used was actually made from lightweight PVC piping to keep the actors comfortable.  The coolest thing was that all the weapons used in the films were hand made  by local blacksmiths hired to work for Weta.  On the tour you could actually peer into the individual metalworking studios used by the local artisans.  The part in Return of the King where the elves of Rivendell forge Aragorn’s new sword, Anduril, with hammers and anvils wasn’t too far off from how it was actually made.  (And yes, I do know Anduril was actually forged in “Fellowship of the Ring” according to the books)…

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Peter Jackson’s lair – Wingnut Studios

On a sidenote, our tour guide told us a story about how Viggo Mortinsen, ever the method actor, was arrested in downtown Wellington for walking around in costume wielding his pre-Anduril broadsword.  Keep in mind this was before the film’s release so no one had a clue what was going on.  The cops, assuming he was some mad vagrant, apprehended him with a straight face saying the words “sir, please lay down your sword”.  How Viggo thought no one would call him out wearing his scrappy ranger costume in broad Wellington daylight is anyone’s guess, but major props to the dude for dedication.

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Having a man-child moment with Thorin’s sword, Ocrist

After departing Weta Workshop we explored the nearby park where they filmed the Black Rider (Nazgul) encounter with the Hobbits in Fellowship of the Ring.  It was filmed in a public biking trail shrouded in a surprisingly small woodland area atop Mt. Victoria, which was more of a big hill than an actual mountain.     We walked the exact same trail they used when they filmed in the scene where Frodo says “get off the road!”

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Can you hear the Nazgul shriek?

The little earthen alcove the hobbits used to hide from the Black Riders is still there- but a good eye will notice that the giant tree stump is missing.  It was actually just fake prop they imported from Weta Workshop down the street.

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They also filmed the Hobbits tumbling down the hill from farmer Maggot’s crop, which of course, I had to lamely re-enact.

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When I was done nerding out to Hobbit-Nazgul chase we grabbed lunch and drove out for an afternoon trip to the Hutt Valley- a northern suburb of the city where they filmed more of the Anduin, Aragorn’s river rescue, and the gardens of Isengard .  The highway paralleled the Hutt River which eventually took us to another Anduin film scene location as pinpointed by my film site guidebook.

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More of “The Anduin”, filmed on the Hutt River

Our next two locations were a true hunt to find however as the guidebook offered vague directions made more complicated by our subpar GPS.  We meandered through a big middle class neighborhood to find where the horse Brego rescues the befallen Aragorn after taking a “tumble off the cliff” in The Two Towers.  It was an overcast day and the sun had just started to melt through the clouds casting a heavenly glint along the river rocks.

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Who wouldn’t want to wash up here half dead?

We then turned down the street to hunt for the nearby Harcourt Park where Gandalf walked with Saruman in the gardens of Isengard.  They also filmed Saruman’s orcs cutting down the trees around Orthanc and Fangorn Forest in The Two Towers.  The irony made me laugh when I discovered Sarumon’s evil hideout was nothing more than an innocent disc-golf park in New Zealand suburbia.

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The gardens of Isengard (yes really)

The first half of our road trip was now over, and I returned our faithful red Toyota Camry to Thrifty the next morning.  Today we departed Wellington by ferry and sailed 3 hours through Cook Strait towards the South Island.

Rohan – Christchurch

We disembarked the ferry in the small fishing town of Picton, nestled in a beautiful little pocket of tall sloping hills riddled with evergreens.  We were going south, but the temperature was getting colder as we strayed further from the equator.  We picked up our new rental car, another Toyota Camry, and made our way south to the distant city of Christchurch.  Our travel itinerary had us spend the night in the gorgeous coastal whaling town of Kaikoura, which was actually our favorite town on the trip.  Here we caught our first glimpse of the mighty snowcapped mountain ranges bisecting the South Island from north to south.  These were the beginning of the Misty Mountains. Sarah and I of course commemorated this milestone by blasting the Led Zeppelin song of the same name from Led Zeppelin IV.  Growing up I had always associated “Misty Mountain Hop” with driving on the Brooklyn Bridge to New York city with Jimmy Fallon yapping at me as seen in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous– but today that memory would change.

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“So I’m packin’ my bag for the Misty Mountains, where the spirits go now. Over the hills where the spirts flaa-eeya!”

The Southern Alps have a significant effect on the South Island weather patterns. The prevailing westerly winds create a region of lush, cool, greenery and rainfall on the western half while leaving the east coast hot and dry.  It is this weather phenomenon that is responsible for the iconic brown tussock-filled landscape of Rohan, also known as the Riddermark.  This was the Beowulf-themed realm of the horse lords and the beleaguered King Theoden from The Two Towers.

When arrived in Christchurch to find a city devastated by a long and unusual series of earthquakes between 2010 and 2012, 4,558 earthquakes to be exact.  The city was a humbling landscape of futuristic new buildings spread among ruins, cranes and renovations.  It was eerily quiet, lifeless and devoid of people.  It felt like a warzone.  Not to diminish the city’s struggle, but my reaction upon arriving in Christchurch perfectly matched Gimli’s in Edoras – “you’d find more cheer in a graveyard”.

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Ruins in Christchurch

The hotel we stayed in was actually extremely nice (at least compared to the run of motels we’d just had).  It was brand new and still had that stale new-construction smell.  We looked up restaurants online and discovered a newly renovated district to eat in.  The new locale felt modern and comfortable- a far cry from the ruins only minutes away.  This was but one example of the city using the devastation to improve itself.  Christchurch was in the midst of a bold reconstruction program which aimed to rebuild it as a “city of the future”.  It was going to be greener and more energy efficient.  It sought to modernize its public transportation and infrastructure.  The plan called for a futuristic zoning concept of re-arranging the city into individual districts of the arts, government, business and recreation.

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The devastation, and rebirth of the city became more apparent the next day when we drove through the city on our day-long trip inland to the Canterbury countryside – the filming locale for Rohan.  We drove in a large, rugged ATV that was necessary to negotiate the rough unpaved road that took us to Mt. Sunday where they built and filmed Rohan’s capital of Edoras.  The dry, brown mountainous expanse was unmistakably Rohan.

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Welcome to “The Riddermark”

Our ATV crawled its way a few miles off road through streams and rock as we made our way to the base of Mt. Sunday.  The entire valley was a giant wind tunnel, and we battled 50 mph winds as we hiked to the top.  The Edoras set was built by hand, leaving very little to CGI.  To think that the film crew built such a giant set in violent winds was totally mind blowing (no pun intended).  It was also much smaller than it appears in the film.

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Mt. Sunday, aka “Edoras” and “The Golden Hall”

The view from the top was easily the grandest, most epic scenery of the entire trip.  Mt. Sunday was perfectly situated in the middle of a vast valley expanse carved by the Rangitata River.  Looking northeast you could see the massive river delta that served as Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers.

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“Helms Deep” – The Rangitata River Delta

The awesome, untamed grandeur of the Canterbury region is beyond description so I’ll let the visuals do the rest of the talking.  In Part 3 our trip comes to an end in Twizel, Queenstown, and Milford Sound.  Here we’ll explore Gondor, Fangorn Forest, The Pillars of the Kings, Lothlorien, and Amon Hen.

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From the top of “Edoras” (Mt. Sunday)

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Middle Earth Travelogue Part 1/3 – Intro, The Shire and Mordor

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Let me just get one thing immediately clear.  I am, and always will be, a Lord of the Rings apologist.  I am comfortable in my nerdiness to admit it.  Like most of the population, I discovered Tolkien’s masterpiece through Peter Jackson’s film adaptations in the early aughties.  I was immediately gripped by the theatrical experience; the wide sweeping visuals, the grand scale of the adventure, the beauty of the dialogue, and of course Howard Shore’s truly masterful score.  Jackson’s cinematic experience continued to affect my subconscious long after departing the theater and the underlying themes of the story and its characters became my obsession. To me, The Lord of the Rings is much more than the universal tale of good vs. evil.  It’s a grand epic about the human condition.  It’s about romantic idealism, friendship and loyalty, leadership and honor, the importance of history, the relationship between power and morality, and the awesome force of hope.  Its characters are archetypal just enough to be accessible, but complicated enough to be interesting.  Despite Peter Jackson’s brilliant envisioning of the books, it is Tolkien’s content that ultimately guarantees that the films will endure as timeless classics.

Lord of the Rings struck me during a very crucial time in my life.  I was dealing with the many cliché coming-of-age struggles that every 17-22 year old has during the formative high school and college years- breakup, rejection, identity issues, grades, stressing over the future, etc.  And as dumb as it sounds, I drew a lot of childish inspiration from The Lord of the Rings that kept me hungry and idealistic enough to fight for my goals into adulthood.  In High School, and especially throughout my time at The Naval Academy, my subconscious always found some kind of motivational parallel to the story; whether it was King Theoden’s battle speeches, the grace of Lady Galadriel, Aragorn’s reassurance to the defeated Rohirrim, Boromir’s noble (and utterly badass) last stand, or the unconditional loyalty between Frodo and Sam.  I realize this sounds insanely lame and sentimental but whatever.  Lord of the Rings rules.

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This is epic. Your party last night was not.

Fast forward to October 2014.  My childhood fantasies would be realized upon reaching the end of a three-year assignment flying Navy P-3 Orions around the globe.  I was granted a precious 2 weeks of end-of-tour leave to basically do whatever I wanted.  Stationed in Hawaii (life was rough), my wife Sarah and I decided to take advantage of our close proximity to New Zealand.  Naturally, and much to Sarah’s chagrin, I oriented the entire trip around the exploration of Lord of the Rings film sites.  It would be a mammoth 1300 mile road trip spanning both islands from Auckland to Queenstown.   Armed with a few maps, a film site guide, and The Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook, we began our 8 hour nonstop flight to the bottom of the world…

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“The Shire” – Auckland, Rotorua, and Matamata

We arrived in New Zealand’s largest and most northern city of Auckland – and yes – to the tune of Lorde’s Royals playing in my head since Auckland is actually her hometown.  We debarked and picked up our travel itinerary made with the Kiwi travel company “Relaxing Journeys”, which I would highly recommend. Then we picked up our trusty steed, a red Toyota Camry.  My mind was blown within about 1 or 2 seconds upon settling into the driver’s seat…on the right side.  Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road jetlagged on zero sleep in New Zealand’s biggest city was no easy task.  My mind remained blown throughout that harrowing first drive into the city.  I felt like I was in high school driver’s ed all over again.  I navigated the alien roadways slowly and cautiously.  I was terrified because I knew that the moment I broke focus I would revert back to my normal USA right-side-of-the-road autopilot mode and risk a head-on collision.  Left is life I kept repeating until my brain eventually adjusted to the opposite driving challenge.  Our first day was spent exploring the Waitakere Forest and western Tasman coast where we saw our first notable sight- a vast, rocky coastline whose beauty rivaled even that of Hawaii’s.

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The western Tasman coast

The next day we made our way south to the rural city of Rotorua.  The urban landscape of Auckland quickly dissipated into a rustic paradise of rolling emerald green hills.  It looked like a fairy tale.  It was quite literally, The Shire, and it blew my mind (of which there will be many future blowings of).  I love the Midwest to death but growing up there has caused my idea of “farmland” to be associated with boring flat brown plains extending to infinity.  The farmland of New Zealand was anything but that.   I had never seen so much green before- and also white- as there were thousands of sheep everywhere.  Apparently the New Zealand spring (our fall) is prime time for birthing lambs.  We were told there were more sheep in this country than humans and it definitely appeared to be true.  I initially craved to listen to the Pink Floyd album Animals, but I resisted, instead popping in disc 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring unabridged audiobook narrated by Bob Inglis.  The book of course begins in the Shire and it was just too perfect.

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We arrived in Rotorua in the late afternoon, having stopped at the Waitomo glow worm caves on the way.  We were bombarded with signs for “agro-adventures” as we entered the town, highlighting the many bizarre outdoor activities invented by bored New Zealanders such as “zorbing”.  Rotorua is a beautiful little town nestled beside a big lake with hilly outcroppings.  We arrived at the first of our long list of motels and decided to catch the last bit of twilight on a gondola ride on our way up to dinner.  The restaurant was nestled atop a big hill that provided a beautiful view overlooking the lake.  This is totally like Lake Town from The Hobbit!, my hopeless inner nerd exclaimed.

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The Town of Rotorua

The next morning I went jogging beside the lake to the Queen album Made in Heaven which fit my mood perfectly.  Following the run, it was time to make our daytrip north to Hobbiton, located in the small podunk town of Matamata.  Our excitement was blunted slightly when the day became gray and overcast- hardly the proper weather to experience the heart of the Shire in.  But we kept our spirits up and rationalized that the gray-green landscape was still beautiful in a kind of sophisticated English, Jane Austen kind of way.

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We arrived at a quaint looking office/farmhouse with a big dirt parking lot with sheep pens by the road- hardly what I expected for a film set as grand as Hobbiton.  Inside we got our tickets for the tour and marveled at the dizzying array of movie paraphernalia in the giftshop.  Sarah really loved the green leaf brooch the Fellowship wore with their elvish cloaks, but at $300 they were out of the question.

The actual film set was deep inside private land, and could only be reached by the official tour busses that ran on a schedule.    Hobbiton was unique in that it was the only LOTR film site that was still preserved by order of Peter Jackson.  This was in order to provide last minute shots for the recent Hobbit trilogy.  The land for the set is owned by a humble New Zealand family farm, of course making loads of money off the tourism.

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We unloaded off the bus and herded through the entrance.  Nobody in our tour group was dressed up which kind of surprised me.  Giddy like a schoolgirl, I was immediately transplanted into the movie.  It was a truly surreal sight to behold.  The set was impressively well-preserved and all 44 original Hobbit holes remained.  Even the chimneys were smoking, which the film crew used honeybee smokers to provide the effect.  The set wasn’t very recognizable from the entrance at the bottom, but after making our way up to the “House on the Hill”, the Shire’s cinematic panorama was unmistakable.  We then made our way to the famous Party Tree passing Sam and Elanor’s house on 3 Bagshot Row.    The real thing felt much smaller, but highlighted just how brilliantly Jackson’s crew engineered the scale of the set to cast the illusion of depth and space.   Our Hobbiton tour ended with free pints of Southfarthing ale at the Green Dragon.  Sarah and I called first dibs on the fireplace, and drank our brews in geeky bliss.

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We departed Rotorua the next morning and made our way south to Ohakune where they filmed many of the Mordor exterior shots.  But before leaving Rotorua I finally talked Sarah into going “zorbing” with me.  I knew I could never live with myself if I didn’t know what it was like to tumble around in a giant plastic ball careening down a steep hill.  It was an uncomfortably cold day, but the water inside the big plastic orb was pleasantly warm.  The ride itself was actually more benign than I expected since the water inside keeps you pretty stable.   At the end they opened a big drain plug and we slid out of the zorb in a kind of “wet live birth” experience.

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“Mordor” and The Barrel Escape – Ohakune and The Waikato River

As we drove south, the innocent rolling green terrain began to give way to rocky crags carving the terrain.  We were proceeding into the volcanic heartland of the North Island – Mordor.  It seemed a bit ironic that the two most distant places on Middle Earth were so close in real life.  We stopped enroute at the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park which featured an alien landscape of colored geothermal pools.  It felt more like I was on the set in Star Trek: The Original Series than Lord of the Rings.

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We continued the drive around the massive and incredible Lake Taupo which looked like Nen Hithoel (the big lake behind the twin rock statues) from Fellowship of the Ring.  This lake provides the source water for the Waikato river on which they filmed the “barrels out of bond” scene from The Hobbit.

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The Waikato River, minus barrles and dwarves.

We then proceeded on the last leg of our journey to Ohakune which saw one of the biggest scenery transformations of the entire trip.  What remained of the rustic paradise of the northern region, completely dissolved into a bleak, arid volcanic plains riddled with dead trees.  It was a landscape I had never seen, let alone envisioned before.  We were actually ascending into the higher elevations of the North Island’s core where most of New Zealand’s volcanoes lie.  The entire bleak area was actually within the confines of Tongariro National Park, and it was here where they filmed Mordor and the Emyn Muil (the craggy misty place Sam and Frodo wandered through in the beginning of Two Towers).  We checked into our hotel in the mountain town of Ohakune, which was actually nestled in a beautiful alpine region at the base of Mount Ruapehu.  It was late afternoon and we were racing daylight to make it up to the Whakapapa Ski Lodge near the mountain’s summit.  This is was our only chance to see a sunset from Mordor, so we sped (which is like over 100 km/hr in NZ) up the mountain and basked in the last rays of sunlight from the barren volcanic desert.  This was the legendary Dagorath Plain of Mordor where The Battle of the Last Alliance was fought and Isildur cut The One Right from Sauron’s hand.  This was also the Gorgoroth Plain where Frodo and Sam trudged toward Mt. Doom cloaked in orc armor.  And it was here, at the base of the Whakapapa ski lodge where they filmed it.  The translucent sunset over the black plain had an eerie kind of majesty to it.  You could even see Mt. Ngauranga (the real life Mt. Doom) in the distance.

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The next morning we drove up a different part of Mt. Ruapehu to see the spot where Gollum chased a fish down the river in Two Towers.  It was a beautiful mountain stream that plunged into a nearby waterfall.  There was still a ton of residual mountain snow from the IMG_1773winter during filming, so the crew hired the local fire department to wash away the snow with fire hoses.  Andy Serkis was apparently really pissed at Peter Jackson who, true to form, made him do a ton of takes despite the freezing cold water!

This concludes part 1/3 of my travelogue.  Part 2 will cover our southbound journey to Wellington and Christchurch where we’ll discover Peter Jackson’s private Hollywood, the great river Anduin, the Nazgul chase, and most importantly- Rohan.  Stay tuned!

 

“Psychic” by DARKSIDE album review

I want to talk about a relatively unknown two-piece recommended to me by my good friend Josh Goulding. The name of the band is called DARKSIDE. Having recently attended one of their live shows Josh immediately recognized their brilliance; and after telling me about them, their atmospheric jams would come to haunt my mind for weeks to come (in a really good way). They are a band responsible for crafting an electronic sound unlike anything I’ve heard before. DARKSIDE is the collaborative union between New Yorkers Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington, two young Ivy Leaguers (Brown) who bonded over laptop songwriting in hotel rooms.  Together they birthed an album (their debut LP) that pushes modern guitar rock in a direction yet unexplored by what few champions of the genre still exist (Radiohead, Kurt Vile, The Kills, and Muse to name a few).  The name of that album is Psychic (Matador, 2013), and despite its quiet downtempo veneer, Psychic roars as a bold and promising statement of what can be achieved by the inevitable union of rock ‘n roll and electronica.

Psychic can perhaps be best described as a minimalist “indie” (God I hate that term) rock experiment that places a refreshing emphasis on groove and atmosphere over vocals/lyrics. The album’s vocals are often times unintelligible, with hints of MGMT-esque psychedelia at times. Rather than serving as sonic focal points, vocals are merely decorations adorning the LP’s eight captivating, pad-riddled soundscapes. The lyrics are obviously not taken seriously, which is totally fine given this endeavor of music.

The album kicks off with “Golden Arrow “ abducting the listener into an alien starship dreamscape laced with four minutes of static, scratches, and cyberpunky synths- all tied to the droning of a soft bass kick. Then suddenly the fog dissipates, and the listener awakens to a tight dance kick that eventually leads into a subtle, muted rhythm guitar jam. What follows is an icy cool A minor arpeggio in the distance. A flowing bass groove takes over as these frantic little tremolo strums ring out from above. At times the track almost sounds as if were written for the late 90’s video game Unreal Tournament (a compliment).

The album breaks its stiff upper lip and loosens up with “Heart”, which hits with a badass, simple-as-hell blues guitar riff, shitty tone, and followed by these wonderfully precise hits of awe-synth. A couple cool interval slides follow (the thing Keith Richards does on Wild Horses) accompanied by some unintelligible vocals and lovely atmospheric keys. The track is somehow able to sound both massive and small at the same time.

“Paper Trails” (personal favorite) is a lighthearted blues number with a brilliantly catchy riff on repeat throughout the track. The tone is again simple, probably recorded off a Vox or Fender amp. It’s a basic riff played imperfectly, but it just sounds perfect (kind of like Stephen Stills’ middle-finger-waving guitar solo in the beginning of CSNY’s “Ohio”). A simple bass walk provides an open canvas for a few minutes of cleverly played blues quips which culminate at 3:35 into a tight little bend played and then re-sampled into the background as Jaar’s synth takes us into space.

The danceable, borderline funky “Only Shrine I’ve Seen” starts out with a few minutes of clap-chant drone that eventually evolves into a steady compressed dance kick. Halfway in, the track is set ablaze by a funk guitar riff that sounds so creamy and slick it feels robotic-but it’s entirely real. “Freak,Go, Home” continues the album’s dance movement with a super cool Thom York-ish bass/synth groove that crescendos and fades as if swimming in a wavepool of psychadelia.

The emotionally devastating “Greek Light” hits out of nowhere and takes the album to its lowest, darkest place. It’s a brutal three minute meditation of pure tragedy, brilliantly accented by the rhythmic oscillations of some kind of soulless hospital machine. An unintelligibly silly voice accompanied by eighth-note hits of sparkle-synth give the song a trace of light-heartedness. I sometimes find “Greek Light” too emotionally overwhelming to listen to, but it is undoubtedly the album’s most beautiful moment.

“Metatron” is the smooth comedown after “Greek Light”, confidently anchoring the listener back into a warm and safe embrace. Harrington throws down another simple reverb-drenched guitar lead in between little funk strums on the “and” of the beat. Jaar then joins in with triumphant blasts of synthesizer at all the right moments. The track cleverly closes under a lo-pass filter as the song’s signature blues riff fades into oblivion.

As a wannabe amateur musician myself, Psychic is the album I’ve always fantasized about making. I must admit that I both love and hate DARKSIDE – love them because they made brilliant music that immediately enhanced my life, but hate them because I am jealous they made this album before I could (and will probably never will).

Psychic by DARKSIDE is a brilliantly paced and articulated statement of minimalism, atmosphere and groove. The kings of subtlety and nuance, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington are two Millennial electro-rockers doing it right

Since I’ve Been Loving You 360

Led Zeppelin’s U.K. Tour in early 1973 marked a certain end of an era for their British fanbase.  This would be the last time you could catch a Zep show at a smaller intimate venue before their meteoric rise into a god-like stadium act.  The preceding two live installments of Since I’ve Been Loving You 360 were both stadium-era U.S. performances, but now we step back to the more humble, unpolished, small-time Zeppelin with a bootlegged Southampton University performance from January ’73.

Page impressively negotiates through the intro lickstorm despite a fairly vanilla, dry tone.  It even sounds like he throws in a rare fingertap @ 0:25! After a few loud guitar thrusts, Page goes unusually quiet – like so quiet you have raise a hand to hear.  Plant follows up with an unusually quiet, low-register vocal, accompanied by a barely-audible Jones and Page. I expected something loud, dense, and wet with delays and compressed overdrives – but I begin to relax as the performance makes me feel like I’m at a local Texas dive, bathed in second-hand smoke while stepping on spent cans of Lonestar.  The nakedness of the performance has a satisfying sincerity to it.  Page’s tone is pure unadulterated Gibson crunch, and you can practically hear the saturated tube buzz on his Orange Matamp in the background.

A stiff Plant starts to really loosen up on the second verse as he cries out “E’ry body tryin tell me, tell me, tell me, that you did me no good, no no no no no, oh darling, darling, darling!” – you can literally hear Plant run out of breath as he croaks out the last “darling” @ 2:45.  Page seems to fall asleep at this part as he lazily slides up and down the fretboard as he responds to Plant (a point where he usually does a violent tremolo pick).  Page concludes the second verse with a really soulful croon “I been a-workin been a-workin from seven to eleven every night, ooooh!” @3:00, once again illustrating how Plant never sings the same way twice.

Just before the guitar solo @ 3:35, Plant clarifies that he’s about to lose his “worried mind” for only five minutes, which is the second instance of this.  I am curious to know when/where Plant stopped providing this 5-minute clarification since it is not apparent by The Song Remains The Same performance in Madison Square Garden.

Page kicks off the solo as if half-asleep as he kind of pukes up a bunch of trashy riffs accompanied by some occasional open string buzz.  He wakes up about 30 seconds in and starts to crank out some of those calculated riffs we start hearing by the more polished American tour in late ’73.

The rest of the song is fairly textbook. The band delivers a cohesive performance which is much improved from a relatively sterile opening.  Now keep in mind Zeppelin were still warming up to that familiar big-time arena sound we know and love from The Song Remains The Same and How The West Was Won.  While the performance and the sound quality are obviously weaker, this early bootleg is packed with lovely intimate details such as mic feedback, string buzz, and even some voice cracks from Plant. You can even hear the band introduce a very early version of “Dancing Days” at the very end.

The next round we’ll cover another small-venue U.K. performance from Stoke ’73.  Stay tuned!