Saturday, December 20, 2014

Battle Unending

The Hobbit trilogy has come to a close with the last and least of the three films, The Battle of the Five Armies. I say "least" in terms of entertainment value; it's certainly not least in terms of the sheer volume of visual spectacle presented on the movie screen.

The first two Hobbit movies were uneven in comparison to the emotionally powerful Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade before, but each of them still had a handful of strong character scenes that presented the important personal stakes amid the sweeping setting of Middle-earth. The Battle of the Five Armies feels like the Transformers of the six Tolkien-adapted films. If you like loud, mindless action (and the box office says that plenty of you do), it's a feast for the eyes and ears. But there's very little there for the mind or heart, and that's a disappointing place to end a series of movies that started out with Oscar nominations (and a Best Picture win, for The Return of the King).

It all starts out with a rather awkward 10-minute opening that should have just been the final 10 minutes of the last film. Peter Jackson's desire to end The Desolation of Smaug on a cliffhanger may have been the most expedient way to let audience members (unfamiliar with decades-old spoilers) know there was still more story to come, but it critically compromised the narrative flow. Because this new film starts immediately with action -- Smaug attacking Laketown -- there's no time to reestablish who these characters are. Consequently, everyone comes of generic. Smaug is an angry villain for vague reasons. The mayor of Laketown deserves to be punished, though it's hard to recall exactly why that is. Bard is a generically heroic archer, the new Legolas (who even looks a bit like him), whose backstory about family failure from movie two isn't even mentioned again here.

The next 30 minutes or so contain some of the only quiet scenes of the entire film (though even these are cut with the whiz-bang rescue of Gandalf). The problem with this material, to couch it in legal terms, is that it relies on "facts not in evidence." Dwarven leader Thorin suddenly gives into a vaguely magical greed that seems to affect no one else. Bilbo (and one or two other Dwarves whose names we can't remember) prevail on friendship to try to talk sense into Thorin, but any demonstration of those friendships are one or two movies (and years) ago. The unfortunate result is that a lot of characters seem to behave inexplicably poorly, just to facilitate the titular battle.

That battle does soon arrive -- and it's bigger and bolder than Helm's Deep (from The Two Towers) and Pelennor (from The Return of the King) put together and doubled. It goes on for an hour, and it's full of Hollywood-style set pieces. Taken individually, any one of the gimmicky situations within the battle might be rather fun. But played out in a relentless chain, they start to get silly. The strained credibility snaps entirely when you're asked to believe that a handful of people could turn the tide of a battle this big. From there, you'll laugh openly at Legolas' acrobatics, roll your eyes at hand-to-hand fights that feel drawn from the sillier James Bond movies, and throw your hands up at the deus ex machina that resolves it all. (Even if you know that that last part, at least, is exactly how Tolkien wrote it.)

The volume (audio and visual) is so maxed out for so long that you simply become numb to it, then you start checking your watch regularly as this shortest of the three Hobbit films suddenly starts feeling like the longest. But now having fairly well trashed the movie, the fair thing to do would be to point out that it's really no worse than any other loud, dumb Hollywood action flick. In that company, in fact, it's probably better. The visual effects look generally better in this final chapter than in the preceding two. The geography of all the battles -- both army v. army and one-on-one -- is almost always clear, rarely getting visually confused as so many "handheld camera" action sequences in other films do.

And through it all, you have some solid actors doing the heavy lifting to inject more into the film than is on the page. Martin Freeman is a freaking rock star at it, but solid work is also done by Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, and Luke Evans. They are the edge this movie has over common action fare. Vin Diesel or The Rock are never going to draw you in and make you care the way the cast of The Hobbit does.

Ultimately, if you've come this far with The Hobbit films, you might as well finish the trilogy. But I would seriously suggest The Battle of the Five Armies as one to skip in theaters and catch months later at home. I grade it a C.

Friday, December 19, 2014

...Ye Who Enter Here / What They Become

Before I move on to tales from Maui, I'm going to pause in my vacation tales to catch up on something I missed back home while we were gone -- the last two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before its mid-season break.

First up was "...Ye Who Enter Here." Although I know this opinion won't be shared among most fans (especially the Marvel Comics readers), I actually thought this episode was the stronger of the two. It was full of strong moments both for characters and the actors playing them.

Bringing back Agent 33 now permanently stuck with the half-torn-off face of May was a very inspired decision by the writers. I like that they weren't trying to continue the "which May is which" gag from 33's previous appearance, but rather taking advantage of the chance to use another main cast member as a recurring villain on the show. It has worked wonders for actor Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, and it seems like it will lead to good scenes for Ming-Na Wen as well.

The rescue of Raina from Hydra forces was fun for several reasons, none more so than seeing twin Keonigs out in the field. Patton Oswalt seems to be having a ball with these multiple roles, and the writers are also having a ball writing them. The Keonigs' banter with each other (and to other characters at each others' expense) is wonderful. So is the way they play with the other characters (and the audience) -- are they brothers? Robots? Because the stakes aren't as high as last season's "how is Coulson still alive?" mystery, I can enjoy not knowing and being toyed with.

I liked the subplot involving Fitz and Simmons even more, and how Morse and Mack were drawn into their relationship issues. Any other show would play a "love rhombus" here, but instead, this show is using Mack as a confidant for Fitz and Morse as a confidant for Simmons. I also think other shows would feel strained in their machinations to keep two characters romantically separated; here, Fitz and Simmons efforts to avoid each other feel as authentic as they are heartbreaking. (And it's not like Mack and Morse are pure accessories here in FitzSimmons' story here. Their cryptic dialogue about "the other thing" they have going on should prove interesting down the road.)

In all, this episode built up a lot of momentum toward the mid-season finale. I thought it merited an A-, and I couldn't wait to see what happened next. Indeed I did not, leaving me to now cover two episodes in one review.

"What They Become" was still a good episode, but suffered a little bit for trying to cram so much more story into the same amount of space. The nicer character moments of the previous hour got crowded out a bit.

Even more, I thought the episode suffered a bit for moving the ongoing story a bit too fast. This is an odd complaint to voice, since the glacial pace of early season one was one of the series' biggest problems, one well-corrected since. But I was just starting to get into Whitehall as a villain, only to now have him unceremoniously killed. Sure, we still have other villains in play, but Whitehall's behavior and motivations just seemed to be coming into focus. I'm left to hope that perhaps he'll show up in the Agent Carter series.

Of course, the big story advancement was Skye's transformation at the end of it, and her true identity as "Daisy." This meant nothing to me; I'd later find out online that fans were excited that this was all Inhumans material. And while I do like the idea that the TV series will now be introducing information to be covered in later Marvel movies (rather than being forced to follow after them), I feel like purely human Skye hadn't yet been played out. Season 2's new badass-trained-by-May was a compelling leap over season 1's Skye. It was a stand up and cheer moment when Skye simply shot Ward (multiple times) the moment she got free, rather than allow herself to be played by him. But was this stage of her Jedi training truly complete enough that it was time to move on to giving her superpowers? I suppose the back half of the season will show us, but as of right now, I'm a bit skeptical.

Kyle McLachlan was certainly fun in this episode. Now we know his character is based on a comic character too -- one that to my uninformed mind seems like a retread of the Hulk. But McLachlan seems to be giving a very different performance that keeps that sense of similarity at bay. It certainly isn't boring, and I can console myself about the too-soon loss of Whitehall to know that we still have his character as a villain on the show. (Along with May-faced 33, now teamed up with Ward -- who has been waaaaay better as a villain than he ever was as one of the good guys.)

I'd give "What They Become" a B+. It didn't have as many good character moments (except for Skye) as the previous episode, though it certainly appeared to be a springboard to all-new storylines when the show returns in March.

Until then, we'll see how Agent Carter is.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

An Unscheduled Stop / Hawaii By Night

We had spent the entire afternoon at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but we weren't quite done with it. Having missed out on seeing lava up close, we were not going to miss the next best thing: returning to the Kilauea Crater after sunset. By night, the glow from deep inside the crater was said to be visible from the observation point we'd visited earlier. But we had a couple of hours to wait before the sun would go down.

We found out about a short hike that seemed like it would be good to pass the time, on a trail through an area called Kipuka Puaulu. It was back out past the Visitor Center, on the other side of the main road. It was also one more street beyond the one we accidentally turned on. We realized the mistake fairly quickly, but by then we'd noticed a sign on the side of the road promising a winery up ahead. Here, in kind of the middle of nowhere? We were fairly curious.

Sure enough, one mile down the road, we arrived at Volcano Winery.

As Hawaii is south of even Florida back on the mainland, this place touted itself as the southernmost winery in the U.S. It seemed to have two unofficial mascots hanging around in the parking lot. The Big Island has a number of feral cats roaming around. (There were several near our bed and breakfast, in fact, which one of the home owners -- a veterinarian -- was tending to. We were expressly warned not to attempt to pet them.) One such cat was patrolling the winery, while the other was lounging in one of the parking spaces, glaring at us with lazy disdain for even thinking about parking there.

Once we did get inside the winery, we enjoyed a flight of eight different wines, most of which we liked enough to arrange for a few bottles to be sent to us back home. They'll make for nice future memories of this great and unexpected stop in the middle of a wonderful vacation.

There seemed to be enough sunlight after our wine that we still decided to look for the Kipuka Puaulu trail head afterward. Yet even though it only took us perhaps 5 minutes to get there, things weren't looking quite so inviting by then. Still, it seemed like we had about another half hour before sunset -- and flashlights to take with us if we'd judged the length of the trail wrong.

It turned out we were right about it being maybe a 30 minute hike. We were wrong about how much sunlight was left. In a matter of 10 minutes, the flashlights were definitely appreciated. In 10 more, they were necessary. We couldn't clearly see any of the sights that the trail pamphlet and signs were pointing out, but the gist was that transported vegetation from off the island is very damaging to the things that grow locally, and that a substantial conservation effort has now begun to reverse that damage.

Whatever the vegetation, we were hiking along a trail through it in what felt basically like the dead of night. We had the place completely to ourselves, which I suppose was a tiny bit spooky. But on a rather tourist filled day on a very tourist filled island, having a place entirely to ourselves was also pretty neat.

Needless to say, we did make it back to our car safe and sound, and having now killed enough time to return to the Kilauea Crater. It was very much worth our wait.

The inside of the volcano seethed steam and glowed orange, a completely different spectacle than we'd seen by day. It was not quite lava up close and personal, but it may well have been just as hypnotic.

This long day in the national park hadn't really afforded us an opportunity for meals. While we'd brought plenty of snacks bought at the grocery, we were really wanting something more substantial, especially with a two hour drive back to the bed and breakfast still ahead of us. But the trouble is, on the Big Island, many things start closing very soon after sunset. Our one real option was the "Shaka Restaurant," a place billing itself as the "southernmost bar in the U.S." (Southernness is apparently a big thing for this slice of Hawaii.) The food was not the best, but it beat another granola bar and round of jerky to cap the day.

The end of that long day also basically brought an end to the first leg of our trip, on the Big Island. The next morning, we'd be moving on to Maui.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chain of Craters

In my tales thus far of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I've talked about the places you can see on the rather small loop road that runs near the Visitor Center. But you can also set off down a 19-mile winding road called Chain of Craters Road. It takes you down to the coast, with plenty of sights to see along the way.

There was the view at a spot overlooking Mauna Ulu, an almost lunar surface lacking only the pitch black sky.

There was the drive through several labeled lava flows...

...a neat reminder that while most rock you encounter has been there for untold thousands (upon thousands) of years, this rock is about the same age as you.

These same lava flows that felt like a curiosity up close took on an entirely different character when viewed from a distance later on down the hill... you could clearly see the paths where they'd wiped out all life in their unstoppable march to the ocean.

Neither of us was enough of an anthropologist to appreciate the petroglyph field near the end of the road. Touted as the largest of its kind in all the Hawaiian islands, we made the short but scorching one-and-a-half mile hike across open rock to see this area where hundreds of symbols, centuries old, had been carved into the lava rock. I think we'd been expecting to see a large variety of symbols, somehow akin to Egyptian hieroglyphs or what my Hollywood-infected brain conjures when thinking of "cave paintings." Instead, we saw lots of circles and dots.

And actually, the petroglyphs show up better in our pictures than they did to actually see them in person. So unless you have some background in Hawaiian history that renders you better able to appreciate this area, I'll give you the same advice we gave a pair of skeptical tourists who questioned us at the trailhead as we returned to our car: you can skip this bit of the park.

Instead, continue on down to what is (as of this writing) the end of Chain of Craters Road, and view the "sea arch." The road ends along the coast at an impressive rocky cliff, miles long in each direction.

Those intense waves battering the shore have eroded the rocks in an especially picturesque way:

In pictures (including ours here), I think this feature looks larger than it actually is. Still, the spot was beautiful -- even inspiring.

We then turned around and headed back up Chain of Craters Road. But the day still wasn't over... which I'll get into next time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Vistas of Beauty and Devastation

The third day of our Hawaii trip was a "road trip" day. We put the top down on the convertible we'd rented and headed south around the island toward Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But we had one particular stop in mind along the way: Punalu'u Beach.

This spot along the southern coast of the island is better known as Black Sand Beach, and is one of several interesting colored sand beaches to be found throughout Hawaii. (We were curious about another green sand beach on the Big Island, but were told a four-wheel drive vehicle was necessary to get there.) The black sand there is not oversold or metaphorical:

I know that photo makes the place look more like Black Rock Beach, and parts of it certainly are -- like the area where lots of guys like this were hiding out:

But there were big patches of sand too, and it was indeed black, ground down lava rock.

We walked around for a while, taking in the gorgeous scenery...

...and then were back on our way.

Despite being no more than 75 miles away, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park took around two hours to get to, a phenomenon we came to refer to as "Hawaii miles." It's not just that the roads wind around more than they do in the typical city, and it doesn't seem like it's just that the speed limits everywhere are lower than back in the continental U.S. No, I swear that every "Hawaii mile" feels longer when you're driving it. Just when you get to thinking, "I must have missed the last mile marker a while back," there it comes.

So, several Hawaii miles later, we arrived at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It was the intended main attraction of our days on the Big Island, because we wanted to see lava (aka "liquid hot magma") as up close and personal as possible. We were quickly disappointed by the park ranger at the Visitor Center, who told us there was no lava accessible anywhere in the park limits at the moment. A real comedian, he pulled out a bar of Lava hand soap and showed us that. I assure you he wasn't as sick of telling that joke for the thousandth time as we were of hearing it the once.

We knew from news reports (and from daily lava alerts issued in Hawaii) that there was indeed flowing lava elsewhere on the island -- it had been destroying people's homes in recent weeks. We briefly discussed trying to seek out such an area. I'd like to claim that we weren't ghoulish enough to go gawk at someone's ruined home, but it's probably more fair to say that we simply weren't willing to do more driving in search of something that might have access to it blocked anyway.

But there was plenty more to see in the park. The steam vents were a bit unimpressive after our recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, but the Kilauea Caldera was a breathtaking sight, along with the desolate land around it:

Also just a few minutes from the Visitor Center was a lava tube you could walk through. The short trail to get there was through a small, lush rainforest...

... a stark contrast to the bleak landscape just minutes away at the caldera, and full of interesting enclaves, nooks, and crannies.

The lava tube itself was fairly neat. Or at least, we thought so at the time.

You walked for a couple minutes and a few hundred feet through this tunnel once carved by magma, then emerged back in the rainforest. As interesting as the contrast was, we'd have another experience later on in the trip that retroactively rendered this place little more than a "Black Bart's Cave" for adults. (Denver area readers, or people who have seen the "Casa Bonita episode" of South Park, should understand the reference.)

But that will be a story for later, as will be the rest of our time in the park.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Manta Heaven

We had a big evening ahead after our tour of the coffee plantation: a night time scuba dive. Not just any night dive, but a well-known one with a long history.

The story goes that in the early 1970s, a resort on the Big Island decided to illuminate the ocean behind the hotel with floodlights so that guests could watch the waves come in at night. The bright lights had the unintended effect of drawing in lots of plankton, which in turn had the unintended effect of drawing in giant manta rays for an easy meal. A dive shop began hosting weekly dives to observe the mantas, which soon blossomed into a nightly event with numerous shops joining the action.

The hotel closed in 2000, but the action only relocated to nearby Garden Eel Cove, a deeper location already naturally attractive to mantas, made more so by the hundreds of nightly divers and snorkelers shining their X-Files-strength flashlights into the water. Now, by night, the location is known as Manta Heaven.

We chartered with Kona Honu Divers to go to the site. I was a bit nervous about my first night dive, but everyone was assured by the team that this was "the Las Vegas of night dives," lit up brighter than the Strip. I relaxed even more when over a dozen boats gathered in the cove -- you'd stand a far greater chance of accidentally trying to surface under a boat than becoming disoriented in the dark.

We were given a nice briefing before the dive, informing us about the creatures we were soon to see. Many would have a 10 or 12 foot "wing span"; the largest, Big Bertha, was 16 feet wide. Yes, mantas have names, because the spotted patterns on their bellies are a sort of fingerprint by which divers have identified over 200 unique mantas. (And if you photographed a new one, you'd get to name it!) The females are larger than the males. Toothless and there just to suck in plankton, they wouldn't threaten the divers in any way... but they would be passing very close to you, and please don't touch them, thankyouverymuch.

We were each given a bright light, and had a glow stick attached to our tanks. (Ours would be red, to distinguish our group from the dozens of different colors used by different dive groups on site.) The program was simple: dive to the bottom, a mere 35 feet down, swim over to the "campfire" where everyone was gathered, then just kneel or sit in a line on the bottom and enjoy the show for 30 or 40 minutes.

The "campfire" was like an alien landscape.

There were spotlights everywhere, each illuminating a vortex of fish swirling toward the surface. Clusters of snorkelers hovered above, dangling from floating PVC racks like light banks in a space age kitchen.

We were wearing fairly thick wetsuits, and were thus more buoyant than expected. Sitting on the ocean floor was easier said than done, as frequent swells would start to pick us up and carry us. Our dive master Nico had the answer for this; he scooped up a few large rocks nearby and gave us each enough to rest on our laps and anchor us in place.

Finally comfortable, it was time to point the lights up.

We didn't have to wait long. Indeed, I'm not sure we had to wait at all; there were mantas all over the place, had we not been too busy fumbling with the rocks to focus our attention in the right place.

For a while, the mantas stayed at a comfortable distance. But when Nico saw that we'd become more comfortable in this truly unusual situation, he arranged a more close encounter. He had with him a few high-powered lights to position on the ocean floor, and knew just where to place them and how to angle them. Within seconds of him putting them a few feet in front of us, mantas started drifting our way.

The mantas would swim right at us, their alien maws open wide to afford a weird view all the way down their throats. But they'd always pull up to glide just inches above our heads.

Often, they'd loop around in "Top Gun" style rolls above us, or sweep in unexpected from behind.

35 minutes flew by, and soon it was time to go. We'd captured lots of clear images of those telltale manta "fingerprints"...

...but no brand new one for us to name "Ray-Cray" (our leading contender). The team we were with had identified all eight of the unique mantas we'd seen: males Blain, Doug, Cpt Mike, and Sugar; and females Shirley, Mango, Koie, and Lisa. (Now that we're back home, I've found the library where the rays are all catalogued. Perhaps at some point, I'll go through our video to see if I can pick them all out.)

After that rare and exciting adventure, it seems rather weak to mention this postscript, but after the dive, we went to Kona Brewing Company for a rather tasty dinner and a few flights of the local beers. We found several beers we liked, and probably would have gone back again to sample more if we'd had the time. Fortunately, Kona Brewing Company ships at least some of their beers here to Denver, so we can check back in at some point. In any case, it was a nice cap on a memorable day. But still more memorable days were ahead.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Water and Coffee

Day two of our trip -- and our first full day on Hawaii -- began with a trip to the nearby Kealakekua Bay. It's said to have the best snorkeling on the Big Island (and could be a contender for best snorkeling anywhere), and our bed and breakfast hosts had equipment you could borrow. We'd brought our own masks and snorkels (and my boyfriend, his own fins), which just meant I needed to take some fins. I grabbed the biggest ones they had (still a bit tight) and off we went.

Kealakekua Bay is quite picturesque even above the surface.

My boyfriend and I each have scuba experience. (You may recall my blogs about that from last summer.) We can both swim (him quite well, from his high school years on the swim team). But neither of us had been snorkeling before, and so we were a bit timid about the whole thing. There had been life jackets with the bed and breakfast gear, which we'd forgotten to grab. And both of us had a healthy respect for how hard it is to tread water for a long time under normal circumstances. So we just didn't want go very far out -- I'm guessing never more than 75 feet from the coast, if that.

Consequently, we didn't see much. There were a few colorful fish. But ringing in our minds were those forgotten life jackets, and the guy at the shore trying to talk us into renting his kayaks by telling us all the good snorkeling was on the north side of the bay. So rather than push farther in the hopes of seeing better stuff, we gave up the enterprise fairly early.

When we got back to shore though, we realized how very not tired we really were, how easy it had been to keep afloat with minimal effort using the fins and simply relaxing. So it turned out that this first snorkel attempt, though a bit dull, was a real confidence booster for us to try more later in the trip. (A story I'll get to in a future post.) We might have even tried again right then, but there was more on the day's itinerary. So back to the car it was, and on to the next stop.

That stop was Mountain Thunder, a coffee plantation. Even a non-coffee drinking philistine like me is aware of the reputation of Kona coffee. Lacking the bitter, acidic finish of most coffees, it's grown only by a few plantations in a small strip of land on western Hawaii. My boyfriend was eager to go straight to the source, and I was certainly interested enough in the coffee-making process to go along.

The plantation tour was both better and worse than I was expecting. What I think I was expecting was something like the Sterling Vineyard tour we'd done in Napa Valley, substituting coffee for wine. And I think Mountain Thunder actually had a special VIP tour that offered exactly that -- at an exorbitant price tag. So instead we did their free tour, which was a bit disappointing in how little of the plantation we actually got to see.

On the other hand, what we did get to see in the one-hour tour was quite interesting, and super informative as well. After seeing everything that goes into making coffee, I now understand why good coffee costs as much as it does. From picking the cherries from their trees... extracting their seeds... getting the roast just right...

...I learned that there's a lot that goes into making coffee, and a lot that could go wrong at each step. I also now understand exactly what the differences in roasts mean, and know that most "Kona coffee" is actually just a 10% blend, along with plenty of other little factoids that were quite interesting even without a love for coffee.

And here's the big shock. If you can get the pure, 100% Kona coffee? It's actually not bad. It still needed about twice as much sugar as I'll put in my tea, but the samples we got to try? I actually had seconds. (Gasp!) As advertised, no acidic aftertaste. Far less bitterness. We brought a limited (and pricey) stash of "the good shit" back with us. And though I'm not yet sure I want to cultivate a coffee habit, I could imagine doing so with this stuff. (And access to milk and sugar.)

Seriously, what is happening to me?