Free Solo Review

            Throughout the history of cinema documentaries have been treated by audiences as something lesser.  They never get the attention that narrative movies do.  That is until recently where instant streaming services have given documentaries new audiences.  Docuseries have become super popular on Netflix and other places. However, the best documentary of the year can be found right now in theaters.  It is Free Solo, the movie about professional rock climber Alex Honnold and his attempts to climb El Capitan without any safety equipment.  Free Solo is one of the most intense experiences you will have at a theater this year and does an incredible job of exploring the human psyche.

            Free Solo begins by introducing us to Alex Honnold, a record setting rock climber that seems more at home free solo climbing (a method of rock climbing where you don’t use ropes, harnesses, carabineers or any other sort of safety equipment) than communicating with humans, as he begins training in order to do a free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  Now, a normal documentary would have just followed Honnold from his training to his eventual ascent of El Capitan.  This movie would have been well shot and would have had a very intense final act, but it would have just been a merely good movie.  Free Solo, on the other hand, wants to be something more.  In Honnold, the movie has found one of the most interesting and unique main characters that you will ever see in cinema.  Honnold struggles with social skills and is clearly obsessed with rock climbing and the pursuit of perfection.  Through interviews with Honnold and the people who know him best as well as an entire segment where he gets an MRI to see if his brain works differently than a normal person’s, the movie makes a major effort in trying to discover what is going on in its main character’s head.  While most of this may seem like a diversion, these moments end up becoming the most interesting parts of the movie other than the final ascent. Even a throwaway question about how Honnold used to respond to people who asked him if he was ever going to free solo El Capitan ends up being used to powerful effect in the final moments of the movie.

            Not only is this movie intellectually interesting but it’s visually stunning too.  It’s hard not to enjoy a movie that’s set in the elements of Yosemite and Morocco for most of its screen time, but this movie goes out of its way to show you how it was able to build up such great shots.  Co-director Jimmy Chin’s attempts to film Honnold’s escapades end up becoming a minor subplot.  Chin runs into so many dilemmas whether it’s how he’s going to set up a perfect shot on a sheer wall or the moral issues of filming someone who may die at any second, and the ways he responds to these questions are always informative.

            Not since Grizzly Man has there been as good of a man vs. nature documentary as Free Solo.


Bad Times at the El Royale Review

            One of my favorite writers currently working is Drew Goddard.  Goddard first came to my attention when his name started popping up in the credits for some of the better episodes in seasons 3 and 4 of Lost.  He has since written CloverfieldThe Cabin in the Woods, and The Martian.  All three movies happen to be some of my favorite genre movies of the past decade. They also mostly succeed off of witty dialogue and unique scenarios.  Drew Goddard’s latest movie is Bad Times at the El Royale, which takes witty dialogue and unique scenarios and puts them on steroids.  It’s an interesting concoction that has already drawn numerous comparisons to the works of Quentin Tarantino.  The comparisons are slightly warranted but the movie doesn’t have any of the self-indulgence that Tarantino’s movies do.  Bad Times also doesn’t have the audacious third act that makes the better Tarantino movies really stick out.

            Bad Times at the El Royale follows a priest (Jeff Bridges), an aspiring singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm) and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) as they try to stay the night at a formerly state-of-the-art hotel known as the El Royale.  The salesman’s secret connection to the hotel starts a series of events that leads to a night that no one will forget.  This is a fun setup that will have you guessing all over the place on where this movie will go next.  The first half of the movie really has you believing that this movie will be something special.  Besides a top notch performance from Jon Hamm (who really excels with the more over the top work that this movie and his appearances in numerous TV comedies have him doing), this movie also has some of the best editing you will see this year as the movie is presented in a Rashomon-style plot without ever skipping a beat.  

            As the movie heads towards its second half, though, it becomes clear that the plot is going to become a bit more conventional. The final act is a bit of let down that relies almost entirely on its admittedly talented cast to carry it to the finish line.  That being said the tricks that the movie does play with its cast are almost as interesting as the ones it does with building up its plot.  On the outset it would appear that Chris Hemsworth’s role in the movie will just be a glorified cameo, but Hemsworth ends up being a charismatic delight in a pivotal third act role.  Meanwhile, in a cast filled with superstars and legends, it’s Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman (as a lobby desk worker) who get the most time to play with character development.  So even though the movie does falter a bit in its second half there’s still a lot to like.

            Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t stick the landing but you will have trouble finding another movie released this year as unique as this one.


Cabrillo National Monument

            Today, October 14, 2018, marks the 105thanniversary of the establishment of Cabrillo National Monument.  The monument was originally built to commemorate the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, an explorer who became the first European to step foot on the American west coast when he landed in San Diego.  The monument also happened to be one of my last stops on my southern California trip last month.  

            We drove through San Diego on a busy Saturday to get to the monument, and the first thing we did when reaching the park was check out the visitor center.  The visitor center and the park itself overlook the center of San Diego and its harbor. The visitor center has all of the usuals of a proper national park visitor center with an information booth, gift shop, museum and auditorium.  We did everything but the auditorium, and ended up a bit disappointed as the museum really struggled to capture the momentous moment of Cabrillo landing in San Diego.  All of the artifacts at the museum were replicas, which was a massive disappointment. In fact, the monument really struggled to display its history in all aspects.  An area dedicated to the site’s military history was rather lackluster, and large sections of the monument’s historic lighthouse were closed off.

            Fortunately, Cabrillo makes up for this with the fantastic views it has around every corner.  The upper level of the park has gorgeous views of San Diego.  A statue of Cabrillo and a statue dedicated to the whales that migrate through the area were also standout features.  After checking out the upper level of the park we drove down to the seaside portion of the park where the great views kept on coming.  We walked the ocean cliffside, which are apparently a really fun place to be at low tide (we came at high tide).  Walking along the cliffside and seeing waves crash against the rock walls made this place at some points seem like a west coast version of Acadia.

            So despite its historical significance, your best bet for Cabrillo National Monument is to come expecting great views.

Joshua Tree National Park

            On my southern California trip last month, the place that I looked forward to the most was Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree doesn’t have the same spot in the American culture as a Yellowstone or a Grand Canyon does, but its unique habitat and relative closeness to such a major city made it a place to look forward to.  We headed out from the Los Angeles area on a hot morning and made it to the Joshua Tree area in about four hours.  

            Our first stop was the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, which was one of the odder visitor centers I’ve been to as it was located in a small shopping mall.  As a national parks passport stamp collector, I quickly got my stamp, entrance pass and map before we left to go get breakfast nearby.  After our meal, we went through the West Entrance of the park (which is a bit of a confusing drive if you are not used to the dirt-filled back roads of the desert terrain) and headed out for Barker Dam.  The Barker Dam area features a nice 1-mile hike and is known for its frequent desert bighorn sheep sightings.  It was also a nice introduction to the park for us as we got to see a little big of everything that makes the park great on such a small hike. We saw boulders of all shapes and sizes. We saw tiny bits of history whether it was the remnants of the eponymous dam or petroglyphs.  We saw the desert bighorn sheep  (we found a pretty good sized group of them about halfway through the hike as the terrain became more level), and, of course, we saw a lot of Joshua trees.

            By now the temperature in Joshua Tree was well into the nineties so the rest of the day was mostly spent touring the park on Park Boulevard (the park’s main road).  We started off by taking the road to Keys View, a 5000-plus foot mountain that gives you a great view of the surrounding valleys.  We then headed towards all of the park’s boulder stops. I was able to stretch my legs at the Skull Rock area (named for a rock that sort of looks like an alien head) as I tried some rock scrambling.  Our next stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden, which is about as close to the center of the park as you can get without leaving the main roads.  Here was another short hike through a field of cholla cactus (also known as the jumping cactus).  The hike is one of the most beautiful you can find in the park as the cactus have such a unique look (they look like a cross between a cactus and a teddy bear accidentally dropped in neon goo) and it’s located at the top of an entry way to a valley. From there we wrapped up our day in Joshua Tree by heading to the Oasis Visitor Center, a much more visually pleasing place than the previous visitor center.  The center has a nice garden, another small hike, and an architecturally interesting design.

            After checking into our hotel and grabbing dinner, we headed back into the park to get a sense of the area at sunset.  We followed some back roads into the park as we came to the Covington Flats area.  This felt like an authentic slice of the desert as we were able to enjoy a lovely sunset while occasionally hearing the howls of coyotes and see a jackrabbit hop by.  

            The next morning we were able to get one more adventure in at Joshua Tree as we took an early morning drive to the Split Rock area to take a hike on an unmaintained trail to an abandoned mine.  This ended up being one of my favorite hikes that I have ever done as we had to stay really focused on the trail as it meandered through boulders and all sorts of cacti.  The trail then ascended into a rock scramble before a brief extension of the trail at the top of the scramble finally led to the abandoned mine.  As I came to the flat area in which the mine was located, it felt like I was the only person in the world as I checked out the remnants of the mine.  It was such an exhilarating experience.  After climbing up a couple more boulders on the way back to the car it was time to say goodbye to Joshua Tree.

            As my first introduction to the desert habitat, Joshua Tree National Park will be a hard place to forget.  With numerous places to hike and climb as well as a lot of opportunities to view a wide range of wildlife, it’s hard not to see this as one of the best national parks that we have.

Channel Islands National Park

            On a gorgeous summer morning last month, my friend Andrew and I took a ferry to one of the most unique national parks in the world, Channel Islands National Park.  Our journey began in Ventura Harbor, a well-organized harbor that finds a way to fit in a little bit of everything on just a small strip of land. From there we took a ferry to Santa Cruz through Island Packers, the main company that transports visitors from the main land to the Channel Islands.  The pricing for the ferry is a bit steep, but Island Packers does a good job of making sure that you not only get a gentle ride over to the islands but an educational one as well.  Charts at the Island Packers headquarters reveal that they have encounters with wildlife on almost every ferry.  For our ferry to the island we got to see a few seals and a good-sized pod of dolphins. 

            Eighty minutes into the ferry ride we finally pulled into the harbor for Santa Cruz.  Santa Cruz actually has two harbors that the public can go to. Unfortunately, the last minute designs of this trip meant that we were only able to stay for the day so we ferried into the main harbor, Scorpion Harbor.  Upon stepping onto the island we were greeted by a park volunteer who made sure we were aware of some of the basic rules of the island before we were left to do what every we choose to do.  Santa Cruz and the rest of the islands are pack-in, pack-out locations meaning there are no amenities on the island other than a couple of rustic restrooms so you need to come prepared.  As we turned the corner from the harbor we walked right into the remnants of an old village that showcased previous attempts at permanent settlement on the island. It is here that the National Park Service has some maps, diagrams, small exhibits, and the stamp for the park if you collect those like I do.  

            The avid hiker that I am, the thing I made sure that we did next was find the closest trail and take it to its endpoint.  That happened to be the Potato Harbor trail, a five-mile loop trail that crosses the coastal cliffside before cutting into the center of the northern end of Santa Cruz Island.  The first half of this hike as it overlooks the cliffs is stunning. It seems like there is an even better view every time you come around a corner.  On our journey we were fortunate enough to see some pelicans and hear some seals (although we didn’t see any), but our more interesting wildlife encounters would happen later in the day.  The midpoint of the hike found us at Potato Harbor, an inlet on the island where the water appears as a vibrant turquoise.  It’s a nice view but if you want a closer view you are out of luck because any access routes to the beach are closed due to habitat rehabilitation. 

            From there we descended into a valley away from the cliffs.  The valley was filled with white limestone formations and the occasional bits of shrubbery (trees are almost non-existent on the northern end of the island). Walking down the trail into the valley it was hard not to notice the many lizards scurrying around, but once we got into the valley proper it was another animal that left the biggest impression on me for the trip.  On many of the islands that compose Channel Islands National Park can be found the island fox.  The island fox is endemic to the Channel Islands, meaning the islands are the only place in the world where you can find them.  When you are on Santa Cruz Island, though, they are everywhere so if you are trying to catch a glimpse of them you won’t have to look long.  The foxes have become accustomed to humans, and have learned that they may be able to get an easy meal off of them (the foxes and the ravens on the island apparently know how to open zippers).  So as we hung around the campground on the island and by the docks, we were able to catch numerous glimpses of the creatures.

            After some time to eat and relax we checked out the shoreline by the dock area.  It was a little too crowded with snorkelers and kayakers (you could rent kayaks with Island Packers or with another company that set up base next to the campground) to do anything but we were able to admire some of the clearest water we had ever seen.  To avoid the crowds we went up a steep trail nearby that gave us some more views of the island.  The trail led to Smuggler’s Cove, but the cove was an eight-mile hike there and back meaning we would have struggled to do the hike and make it back in time for our 4pm ferry back to the mainland.  With nothing urgent to do we decided to spend the rest of our day on the island by taking a nap and admiring the view from our highpoint at the beginning of the trail.

            When 4pm came around we boarded the ferry once more and said goodbye to a place filed with amazing views and interesting wildlife. While on the islands, Channel Islands National Park seems so remote.  Yet as soon as the ferry takes off you begin to notice oilrigs, skyscrapers and other hints that humanity is lurking just beyond the shore.

AllTrail's Connecticut Top 10

If you ever want to get into hiking there is no greater app that I could recommend than AllTrails. Due to a large user base, AllTrails has o...

Popular Posts