Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: some thoughts

So I finally caught The Amazing Spider-Man and I enjoyed it enough. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement but let me put it another way: it didn't disappoint me. That's probably because I had no expectations going in. It wasn't as amazing as the title suggests, in fact its worst transgression is that it's just unnecessary.

The previous batch of Spider-Man movies started 10 years ago, Spider-Man 3 having come out just 5 years back, so why was it necessary to reboot the character so indecently quickly? Did we all have to sit through the origin story again? I get the feeling that the filmmakers knew that we all know the drill and rushed through the salient points: Peter's parents are gone, his aunt and uncle take care of him, he neglects to stop a crook who ends up killing his uncle, so he devotes himself to helping others. He gets web shooters (mechanical this time, which is an improvement) and a costume. All these things happen so quickly, though, with a few changes in detail as if to make it different for difference's sake.

I very much get the feeling that most of the story was a recycled script from the aborted Spider-Man 4. The previous series was building up to having The Lizard as a villain, mentioning or showing Curt Connors in each film, and introducing Gwen in the last one. With a few minor tweaks, this story could have been a fourth in the existing series. I feel it would have been a better movie had they continued with Tobey and company, rather than restart.

I think movies should be judged on their own merits and I try not to compare them relative to others, but rebooting so quickly makes doing so a near impossible task. If The Amazing Spider-Man were the only Spider-Man film in existence, then sure it's a fine movie, not great, not terrible. But I couldn't help but think how much more engaging and funny Spider-Man (2002) was, how it had this wow-factor of finally seeing Spidey in the flesh. In fact, I'd say I liked each movie from the original series more than this one (yes, I go against the shrill, reactionary Internet grain to proclaim that, while flawed, Spider-Man 3 wasn't the worst movie ever made). Peter as portrayed in those movies was the nerdy underdog, a likeable dweeb. Peter this time is just a moody punk. Which is fine, I suppose. Teens are like that, but it's not really the way the character should be. I'm fine with changing source material when adapting for film, but only if it's for the better. I wasn't rooting for him. I won't go so far as to say he's a stalker, like I've heard in some corners of the Web, but he's just not...right, as portrayed here.

I also thought it was peculiar that they didn't include anything about Peter's financial difficulties at home, which is a major component of the original character. And no Daily Bugle? No JJJ? Come on, now. There was also no emotional impact when Uncle Ben gets shot. It was like the movie was just running through the bullet list of "things to cover in Spider-Man's origin story" before getting into the movie proper, making the runtime unduly long.

While it sounds like I'm endlessly trashing this movie, I did enjoy much of it:
  • The costume (which he miraculously designed and made in a matter of seconds on-screen) looked fantastic.
  • The Lizard's size and scale was also perfect, but they couldn't at least give him the snout? Also, he kept taking off the white lab coat. Grrrr, he should have kept it on like the classic character's look in the comics.
  • The action sequences were interesting (but too few).
  • Gwen Stacy was really good here, unlike the "Gwen Stacy" they put in Spider-Man 3.
  • The best part of the "new" origin story was involving Peter's parents in some OsCorp scientific conspiracy. They worked this angle in the Ultimate Spider-Man comics and it was great. Hopefully, they follow that line and it ends up with a bad-ass Venom, like in the comics.
  • I loved that at the OsCorp tower, there was a big, obscured face of Norman Osborn on the wall. Typical movie trick to "include" a future villain in a movie before casting him.
  • Stan Lee's cameo was solid.
If you're a big Spider-Man fan, you're probably going to see this movie regardless. If you're on the fence, I'd say go see it on cheapie-Tuesday (like I did) or the equivalent where you are. Or wait for the blu-ray. In fact, I think people who are relatively unfamiliar with Spider-Man might enjoy this more than those who know the character well.

P.S.: What's a "Science" high school and why is Flash Thompson enrolled in one?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Aura Cozumel Grand Resort: My Review and Impressions

Having just come back from the Aura Cozumel Grand Resort, I feel it's my duty to give some of my thoughts on the place, in case people out there are trying to decide on a vacation spot. In short, I was very pleased with this all-inclusive hotel and I hope this blog post conveys why.

The Hotel
Once you land at Cozumel airport, you'll have to buy a taxi ticket to get to the hotel. Other all-inclusives I've been to have provided their own free shuttle bus but Aura is a "preferred boutique" hotel so they figure you can afford it. It cost $12 per person for the cab ride. (Don't worry, you can get by on your Cozumel vacation with only US dollars. No need for pesos. You might get some as change down there so use those to tip.)

Map of Aura

The cab ride is maybe 20-30 minutes, depending on whether you're sharing the cab with other people and they're being dropped off at their hotels first. Once you get to Aura, you're presented with a small, open-air lobby with a very friendly wait staff. I must say I was pleased with everyone who worked at the hotel. Very friendly all around. They'll even give you some champagne upon check-in.

Lobby

Sink

Shower

Sitting area

Bed area

Balcony

The first thing I noticed at Aura is size, both the small scale of the hotel and the large room we were brought to. I'm not disparaging the small resort at all, I think it's a huge plus. Other all-inclusive resorts I've been to in the Bahamas and Cuba were immense places, with crowded beaches blasting loud, obnoxious dance tunes at you. Aura is quite the opposite, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The room was much bigger than I'm used to for a resort like this. The shower was pretty big, nicely tiled and provided Gilchrist & Soames soaps, shampoo and moisturizer. I'm not sure whether that's a known brand or whatever, but it was fine if you forgot to bring your own products. Our room had a decently large closet, with a safe, iron and ironing board. There was a nook with a queen bed and a TV that got a decent range of channels, mostly showing subtitles American movies and recent TV shows. There was also an L-shaped couch in the sitting area, with a large coffee table. Along one wall was a dresser with a coffee maker on top. What really impressed me was the size of the balcony overlooking the ocean. Very nice.

The Beach and Pools
One huge plus about Aura: it's adults only, meaning there are no whining or screaming kids anywhere, which is a great bonus.

There are two swimming pools, both of which were quite warm and wonderful: one rectangular pool near the lobby, and one larger one that makes a loop, going under little footbridges and touching the swim-up suites' patios. This pool attracted the rowdier element, aka the few douchebags who were there.
An Aside About Douchebags
It seems that douchebags are inescapable. At other resorts I've been to, they are simply everywhere. You know the kind: jacked dudes who only work out their top half so they end up looking like downward-pointing triangles. The kind of guys with tattoos everywhere, often including Asian symbols, and wearing their baseball caps backwards and in the pool. The kind of guys who are fall-over drunk early in the afternoon and loudly complain that their stupid wives are bitching at them "because I'm drinking too much". The kind of people who are offended that the resort they've staying at doesn't have the same comforts as back home and then look down their noses at the workers. Ugh. At least at Aura, this element is minimized but was present. I stayed clear of them, as they congregated mostly at the larger pool.
As I mentioned earlier, the beach was nice and uncrowded, and quiet. The actual amount of beach, from pool to water, was quite narrow, compared to other resorts, but that was fine because there are so few people at Aura that you're not fighting for chairs or space. There were plenty of chairs, including some square beds on the beach itself with a little shelf in the middle to hold your drinks, books, or whatever. Bonus: the waiters come to you to take your drink orders.

Beach facing north

Looking out to the pier

Hot tub!

Swim-up suites at the larger pool

Looking out towards Playa del Carmen, which is far on the other side

The smaller pool
The beach itself is a little rocky, as Cozumel has plenty of coral reefs around. Luckily the water was so calm and clear, you could generally walk around the rocks or coral to get into the ocean, otherwise, there's a pier that juts out into the water with a ladder at the end, so you can descend directly into the warm Caribbean Sea for a dip surrounded by all kinds of colourful fishes. Speaking of which, you'll encounter all kind of creatures out here. Pelicans, crabs, salamanders, iguanas, funny looking birds...I even saw a needlefish hop out of the water.

As with most resorts, you can pay extra to go out on jetskis, or go parasailing but kayaking is free. Customers of Aura even get access to the sister resort next door, Sabor. It's a larger resort with their own pools and slightly less rocky beaches, so give them a shot too. The good thing is that Aura customers can go use Sabor's stuff but apparently the opposite isn't true. Sabor is very close to Aura, so close that you might not realize where Aura ends and Sabor starts. But if you're lazy, ask the bellhop and you'll get driven over in a golf cart.

Also, there's are two hot tubs at Aura: one nestled in a nook near the larger pool, and another at the rooftop bar.

The Food
Most resorts have a buffet and a few à la carte restaurants that's you're only allowed to eat at once during your visit. Not so at Aura. This resort only has à la carte restaurants and the food was excellent. Everything was made as if you were at a decently fancy restaurant, with great presentation and sensible portions. I mean, if you wanted to pig out, you can just order a lot of dishes, but it was unnecessary. The portion sizes may seem small at first but they fill you up faster than you'd think. The best thing about the portions is that you won't come back home having gained 10 pounds.


The food options break down as such:
  • Isola: breakfast (7am-10:30am), lunch (noon-3pm)
  • Hava Grill: lunch (11am-6pm), dinner (7pm-10pm)
  • Trader's Lagoon (6pm-10pm)
  • Aura Grill (6pm-10pm)
  • Room service available around the clock, with different items offered at different times of day.
In addition to these restaurants, you also have access to two restaurants at the neighbouring sister resort, Sabor. As I mentioned, Sabor is so close to Aura that you might not even realize it's a different resort. A walk of less than 5 minutes will lead you to either:
  • Mosaique (Asian food)
  • Roberto's (Italian food)
Unlike the restaurants at Aura, you'll need to make reservations at either of these two places beforehand, though. Remember that for dinner, men have to wear long pants, closed shoes and sleeved shirts. No tanktops or sandals, much to the consternation of the douchebag element, I'm sure.


Room service breakfast

Some kind of salad

Pork loin with prosciutto and cheese


Asian food at Mosaique

Chicken enchiladas 

Trader's Lagoon restaurant

The bars are as follows:
  • Luna (noon-1am)
  • Brissas (4pm-10pm)
  • Hava (10am-10pm)
The staff is very friendly and will suggest drinks if you tell them an ingredient or two that you like. My personal favourites for this trip were slushy drinks the Dirty Monkey or the Blue Hawaiian but don't be afraid to ask people what they're drinking, if it looks interesting.
A Word on Tips
Some resorts allow their staff to accept tips. Some don't. The workers at Aura were always glad for a tip here or there, but I wouldn't tip like you would back home, or you'll find yourself broke in no time. But a dollar here or there will definitely go a long way towards making the staff helpful and happy.
Excursions
As with any resort, you can book excursions directly from the hotel. We went on two.

The first excursion was to Chichen Itza, whose pyramid is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And it did not disappoint. In terms of travel, Chichen Itza is quite a bit inland, so leaving from Cozumel, it's a bit of a trip. First, you need to get to town (San Miguel) on your own dime, then take a ferry across to the mainland (Playa del Carmen), 30-40 minutes away. Then, you board the bus and take off, making a stop at a small town along the way. Don't worry, all these connections are not daunting. The people at the hotel go in details about everything and all the connections are easy to make and locate. In total, I'd say it takes about 3 hours to get to Chichen Itza from Aura, but the ride is comfortable. The bus is air conditioned, of course, and the tour constantly offers you free Coke, Sprite, juice, water, or beer. And once you experience the majesty of the destination, the transit is no trouble at all.



El Castillo, at Chichen Itza

A pic of a photo depicting how a snake lights up the pyramid on the equinoxes

Big snake heads at the base

The ball court (notice the hoops high up on either side, and the king's viewing dais at the end)

Carving on the side of the ball court (see the beheaded sacrificed player spewing blood from his neck?)
Temple of the Warriors with Chac Mool statue (between the two pillars). Its flat belly is meant to accept body parts from human sacrifices.
Another angle of the Temple of the Warriors


Refreshing cenote 
Charc the dolphin!


I won't go too much in depth about this place here. If you want to learn more, just read up about it on Wikipedia. Needless to say, however, that if you like history, you need to go here. There are other ruins sites closer to Cozumel but this one is the place to see. The pyramid is spectacular but by no means the only wondrous thing to see. The ball court, where an ancient sport was played...to the death...is also amazing. The stories carved into the walls are creepy, depicting human sacrifice and other creepy things. Make sure you go with a tour because you'll need someone to explain to you all the cool things here, from how the pyramid is actually a calendar (on the solstice, the design of the pyramid lights up a snake, from base to peak), to the magical acoustic spots throughout. You can speak at one end of the immense ball court and someone clear on the other side will hear you. It's just a magical and eerie spot. The locals have superstitious that aliens built the place (yeah right), and the royalty would wrap the heads of their young to elongate their skulls. I appreciate the 4th Indiana Jones movie more after having visited this site. Oh and make sure you have lots to drink (the tour we went with did an excellent job at keeping everyone hydrated) and bring a hat because it was so damned hot, it wasn't even funny. It was fall-down-from-heat-exhaustion hot there so be prepared.

To counter the heat, though, we did visit a cenote afterwards, which is an underground, natural sinkhole. The water is clean and cold but refreshing after baking in the heat. Very much appreciated.

The second excursion was to Chankanaab National Park, which is a 5 minute drive from Aura. Chankanaab is a large stretch of beach where you can pay extra to go swim with dolphins and manatees, as well as rent snorkel equipment and go see the huge variety of fishes and coral just off the beach. It's a pretty neat place to stop off, so check it out. Interacting with a dolphin was a great experience and I definitely recommend it.


Miscellaneous
  • If you're like me and enjoy staying connected, Aura offers free wifi internet access. There are multiple signals all around: one (unprotected) signal in the lobby, one for the suites, and even one for the beach. The lobby signal was the most reliable but the others are that bad either. Definitely appreciated, since other resorts usually charge prohibitively high prices for internet access.
  • There's a small shop at Aura for sundries but if the selection isn't very good, walk on over to Sabor. They have a much larger shop, as well as a shop for alcohol and another for Cuban cigars. Being Canadian, Cuban cigars aren't the verboten item that it is for Americans, but if you're American, go knock yourself out. But don't forget to negotiate.
  • The gym at Aura apparently closed from disuse but, again, you can use the gym at Sabor. It's just a short walk or golf cart ride away.
  • Ask around for any activities or parties going on. There's an activities schedule in the main lobby but one night of our stay, there was an outdoor Mexican buffet and show at Sabor which was pretty fun. All kinds of authentic Mexican food, with traditional dancing and music representing the different states of Mexico. Another night, there was a gathering at the rooftop bar to watch the sun set.
  • If you're planning on some grand romantic gesture, for the low low price of $250 (!) they'll set up a fancy dinner for you on the beach.
  • The weather in the Caribbean is very mercurial. The forecast predicted rain all week, but in the end, it only rained in the evening for the first three days of our week. The rest of the time, it was hot. Hot hot hot. Make sure you wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen, lest you feel the wrath of the sun.
  • Make sure you look around for bonus deals when booking this place. We got a $100 gift certificate at the spa (next door at Sabor). The spa is pretty nice so check it out if you get a similar offer.
Conclusion
I came away very pleased with Aura. Yes, it's a bit more expensive than some other places you might be tempted to go to, but the food and beach are better than other resorts I've visited. The lack of buffet is actually a blessing, the room was spacious and comfy, and the beach was quiet and relaxing. If you're looking for a party hotel, then look elsewhere. This is a small, laid back resort, without many people. It's more of a couples place, judging by all the people there on honeymoon. I recommend it if you want to avoid the obnoxious all-inclusive party-going types.
The sun sets on a nice trip.