Sunday, April 26, 2015

Avengers In, Avengers Out, Avengers In Again: The Avengers: Age Of Ultron Barely Reaches Average!


The Good: Performances are fine, Generally good direction
The Bad: Unrelenting effects sequences/splintered cast makes for a strangely underdeveloped couple of hours.
The Basics: With The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Joss Whedon has a rare stumble into mediocrity that advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a particularly unthrilling direction.


I have been worried lately that I will never again fall in love with a new work of art. I listen to a lot of music, watch and review a lot of television and movies and I try to experience food on multiple levels when I am introduced to new culinary delights. Having critical standards has led to a number of conversations around my house between my wife and I. She has voiced a concern that my idea of a "perfect film" is virtually unattainable and when I spend a significant amount of time after a viewing trying to find something wrong with a movie just to not give it a perfect ten, I am actually delivering a contrived rating that works to deny perfection, as opposed to celebrate it.

With The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, I fear no such contrivance. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron was easily the film I was most unabashedly excited about seeing this year, so it was the one I was also at the greatest risk of rating high based on prejudice in favor of the film. The irony for me is that X-Men: Days Of Future Past (reviewed here!) last year came with so much less hype and delivered such a vastly superior film that I was not genuinely prepared for how mediocre The Avengers: Age Of Ultron actually was.

To his credit, Joss Whedon had a herculean task at hand when he penned and directed The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a sequel to Whedon's The Avengers (reviewed here!) and the marketing department at Marvel Entertainment/Disney has worked overtime to leak its forthcoming schedule of Marvel films. Joss Whedon had to try to top a superhero team origin story that brought together disparate heroes and made them into a group that could fight a single villain and his incredible army. Where do you go after that?

The problem Whedon faced conceptually within the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that he had one film to introduce and defeat a new villain that could hold his own in the imagination of the viewer with Loki (the adversary from The Avengers), while servicing a sprawling cast of established heroes and making that work within the confines of the stories told since The Avengers. From a studio, practical moviemaking point of view, Whedon had to wrestle with reorganizing characters so the franchise could survive if significant actors decided to leave when their contracts came up and that meant adding new cast members to the mix. With all those pressures upon him, Whedon had to write an entertaining super hero story that could entertain and set up the next, known, installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That's a lot of balls in the air for anyone and the only real hope for the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes in the promises made outside the actual film The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Writer/Director Joss Whedon has promised that The Avengers: Age Of Ultron will have a slew of deleted scenes and unseen footage when it drops on Blu-Ray. One has to hope that there will be a director's cut because as it is, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is something of a mess.

At the core of my issue with watching The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is the fact that so much of it felt like it had been done before that I kept waiting for the movie to begin, to get engaging, to thrill me, to show me something new, to surprise me, to . . . well, you get the picture; I just kept repeating and rephrasing things without actually saying anything fundamentally new. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron feels a lot like that. In fact, were one to do a double-feature, one suspects that if one dozed off at any point in the Chitauri attack on New York City in The Avengers and awoke at virtually any point in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, they would feel like they were in the same movie.

The Avengers: Age Of Ultron goes from one sprawling, fast-paced, CG-encrusted action sequence to another to another to another with breaks that are surprisingly uninteresting. Much of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is like watching The Avengers blended with outtakes or b-roll footage from Iron Man 3 (reviewed here!). It is chaotic, warlike, easy to lose track of and takes a long time to get through before it gets to anything truly good. And in the quiet, character-building moments, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron focuses on the least-impressive Avenger, belabors the set-up to Captain America: Civil War and entirely jerks the audience around. We'll come back to that.

What is it about? The Avengers: Age Of Ultron follows in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!) with The Avengers - Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk - working to clean-up the problems left in the world from the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. In Sokovia, they hit upon the motherload: Baron Strucker and Dr. List have a laboratory where they have the scepter Loki used, along with corpses of Chitauri vessels and two powerful (for lack of a better term) metahumans. When the Avengers break in to put an end to the H.Y.D.R.A. lab, the twins Pietro (who has superspeed, much like The Flash) and Wanda Maximoff (who is not actually magical, but has the ability to influence neurons in the brain to make people see things and has telekinetic powers over matter and energy) escape. As the battle for the H.Y.D.R.A. base is winding down, Wanda returns and uses her powers on Tony Stark, who sees a nightmarish image of the Earth under attack by legions of the creature/ships that attacked New York City with the Chitauri.

Their mission successful and the scepter recovered, the Avengers return to New York City and Avengers Tower where they plan to put the problems that have been lingering behind them. The recovery of the scepter will allow Thor to return it to Asgard and remove the lingering influence of Loki from Earth, the destruction of Strucker's organization and lab effectively decimates S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest enemy (which removes a big psychic burden from Captain America). Only Tony Stark is not over-the-moon thrilled about the campaign. While studying the scepter, Stark realizes that the glowing piece at its tip is not a brainwashing device, but rather a complex program or neural network, comparable to (but vastly more complex and alien than) Jarvis (Stark's A.I.). He pitches an idea to Dr. Bruce Banner; they can use the alien a.i. in their mothballed planetary defense project, Ultron. Bypassing the rest of the group, Stark and Banner activate the alien intelligence and then go off to a party celebrating the victory of the Avengers over the Earth's enemies. While they party, the alien a.i. kills Jarvis and takes control of the Avengers's robotic army (a collection of flight suits much like those in Iron Man 3, which are now serviced through Avengers Headquarters).

After the main party, the a.i. reveals itself as Ultron by attacking the Avengers using the Avengers robots. Calling for human evolution through the extinction of the Avengers, Ultron disappears into every computer on earth when his robotic body is compromised, but in the attack, his forces make off with the scepter. Needless to say, the other Avengers are pissed at Stark and Banner (especially Thor, who now has to try to find and recover the scepter yet again!) and they soon become terrified that Ultron will break into computers that have nuclear launch codes and obliterate the Earth. Ultron makes a new body and heads with the Maximoff twins (who want nothing more than revenge upon Tony Stark for the death of their family) to the African nation of Wakanda. There, Ultron acquires Vibranium he needs for his nefarious plan and when the Avengers track him down, they are set upon by Wanda and Pietro. Wanda influences Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk before she is stopped by Hawkeye. Shaken, the team retreats to a safe house where they try to figure out what UItron wants and how to stop him. Their brainstorming leads them to Dr. Helen Cho's skin-growth machine where Ultron is attempting to create the entity that will be the downfall of the Avengers. But in the process, Wanda sees Ultron's plan and his idea of peace comes through an extinction-level event and she (and her brother) are forced to choose sides in the battle for the fate of the planet.

Writing out the plot for The Avengers: Age Of Ultron actually makes the movie sound really interesting and engaging. On screen, it didn't seem as awesome, though (much like the way some of the plots to Star Trek: Enterprise sound pretty good, but then when one turns on the show and the characters start talking, the dialogue and acting are so bad, it doesn't matter what is going on, the show is virtually unwatchable the way it tries to tell the story). The film opens with a big battle, montage/regroup/party, post-party battle, characters argue, Wakanda battle, moody safe house scene, extended climactic battle. It's a lot of fighting. And, try as he might, Joss Whedon and the special effects department don't have a lot they can do that hasn't been mined by The Avengers and Iron Man 3 (Whedon had a real disadvantage in that Ultron's robot army is basically made up of shiny silver Iron Man-style suits).

So, it comes down to character. Tony Stark gets one or two quips (they've been in the trailers), Bruce Banner is predictably conflicted, and Nick Fury pops up for a dramatic speech just at the right time. But Ultron never pops - he's General Grievous from Revenge Of The Sith (reviewed here!) meets any generic Decepticon. Ultron is the real shock; he's such a monolithic villain. Even James Spader voicing him cannot make him seem less generic and, therefore, entirely un-frightening. Will The Avengers unite to find a way to stop Ultron? Gosh, I hope so. Come to think of it, if they just crashed the world's power grid long enough for every computer in the world to actually shut down, wouldn't that have stopped him?! The point being, it would be a surprise if the Avengers couldn't stop Ultron more than any real revelation that they can.

Of the new characters, that leaves Wanda, Pietro, Vision, and Laura. Wanda and Pietro are motivated by a sense of revenge that is adequately explained in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. It's not so satisfactorily explained to make viewers feel satisfied when Pietro doesn't kill Tony Stark in the film's first twelve minutes. Seriously; Pietro stands, watching the completely vulnerable Tony Stark take possession of the scepter when all he had to do was run over at super-speeds, kill his family's mortal enemy . . . movie over. Vision is engaging to watch, but is just about as generic as Ultron. And Laura . . .

. . . Laura gives Joss Whedon an excuse to keep Hawkeye in the mix in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Hawkeye is, as the film openly acknowledges, an archer in a team that includes a super soldier, a demigod, a trained assassin, a raging lab experiment, and an armored weapon equivalent to a small army. So, Hawkeye is given a sudden, abrupt, backstory and when the Avengers arrive at Laura's safe house, it humanizes the archer and gives the viewer an emotional root. And Whedon uses all the momentum with Hawkeye to set up one of his famous reversals and it would be truly nitpicky to say that doesn't work. Whedon pulls off his final-act reversal with Hawkeye and that is one of the few treats of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Of the big three (Thor, Iron Man and Captain America), The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is unfortunately fractured. One has to guess that a number of the scenes Whedon could put back into the film center around Thor and his large chunk of time away from The Avengers entering the mysterious pool and leading to the resolution that brings him back. Thor sits out a surprising and significant chunk of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. That gives Tony Stark and Steve Rogers a lot of time on screen to disagree. Rogers is, reasonably, pissed because Tony Stark does in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron exactly what Pierce did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; he tried to anticipate world problems and stop them before they ever occur. Stark's characterization here makes sense: he is reeling from fear that Earth cannot protect itself and he doesn't want to debate with the team the merits of having a global defense system. When it goes wrong, Rogers climbs off his high horse to yell at him and Stark yells back. But the conflict between Stark and Rogers never quite boils up to the level where it would create a credible schism to result in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, while the conflict between Stark and Rogers is essential for that, Whedon takes a big crap on the writer who has to create that film with where he leaves Stark. And while Rogers moralizes, he's essentially the same guy we've been seeing. This time, he's already so disillusioned from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s actions in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he doesn't seem particularly surprised when one of his teammates screws him (and humanity) over.

The other big character arc in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is just a colossal mindfuck for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After finally figuring out how to make The Hulk interesting and truly work, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron belabors a romantic relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow). Mortgaging the chemistry Romanoff and Rogers developed throughout Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron teases a "will they or won't they" through most of the film. The result is particularly unsatisfying, if for no other reason than that Joss Whedon (who is both incredibly intelligent and remarkably personable, at least in interviews!) perpetrates the stereotype that incredibly smart people are emotional idiots. Bruce Banner can be absolutely brilliant, but to offset that, he can't have enough emotional maturity to face his demons, ask for help, or accept the compassion and love of someone who fits him surprisingly well.

The acting in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is good. But, that's it. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is not bursting with big emotional scenes that allow the actors to actually do much in the way of stretching. In fact, newcomer (to the franchise) Elizabeth Olsen is given the character with the biggest emotional journey. Wanda transitions from angry to triumphant (her smile at seeing Tony Stark shaken after she mojos him is wonderful) to horrified when she realizes Ultron's plan is embodied well by Olsen's performance. Olsen has good emotional range for her eyes, posture and body language to sell the conflicted emotional states of Wanda well. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not given as much in the way of big moments to make Pietro pop.

So, Joss Whedon had a tough task with The Avengers: Age Of Ultron and the fact that he has already said there is much more to the movie than viewers will see in the theaters virtually guarantees a time when he admits that the theater version is not the film he intended to make. The Avengers: Age Of Ultron contains noticeable narrative gaps, some troubling gaffes and a "ho-hum this is *supposed to be* adventure" feel to it that makes one wonder if more will actually be better when the longer version is eventually revealed.

5/10

For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Flash Recovers Its Footing When It Asks "Who Is Harrison Wells?" (My 7000th Review!!!!!)


The Good: Decent plot, Good character development, Special effects
The Bad: A few obvious technical gaffes, Problematic final scene, Arrow fans are robbed of an important moment.
The Basics: "Who Is Harrison Wells?" makes The Flash exciting and watchable once again!


It's been a Marvel intensive week for me, whatwith the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 trading cards (reviewed here!) and Daredevil Season 1 (reviewed here!) being released. But given the mediocre quality of the prior few episodes of The Flash, I was not exactly eager to jump back into the DC "Cinematic" Universe. Fortunately, "Who Is Harrison Wells?" seems determined to put the mediocrity and awfulness of the prior pair of episodes. A more subtle crossover than "All Star Team Up" (reviewed here!), "Who Is Harrison Wells?" progresses the mysteries surrounding the elusive scientist Harrison Wells.

"Who Is Harrison Wells?" works a strong serialized plot focusing on the investigation into Harrison Wells with the pretty standard "Metahuman Of The Week" storyline that defines the episodic portions of The Flash. The nature of the metahuman - a shapeshifter going by Everyman - makes for some unfortunately predictable scenes and reversals that the episode's writers fail to innovate with. But, outside a few fairly minor gaffes on the directing side and a lack of real innovation on the writing front, "Who Is Harrison Wells?" makes The Flash exciting and worth watching again.

Cisco and Joe prepare to go to Starling City to find whatever they can about the time Harrison Wells spent there, when Dr. Caitlin Snow rejects helping the small group that is investigating him. A bank robbery in Central City leads Eddie Thawne to suspect that the perpetrator of the robbery is able to influence minds or take on other shapes when the robber's alibi seems incredible strong (and the crime is entirely uncharacteristic of her). Barry and Eddie trace the history of wrongly convicted people in Central City back to Hannibal Bates, which leads to a chase in which it appears Thawne shot two police officers. Bates is the shapeshifter and he is able to appear as anyone he touches, which makes Barry fearful of being touched by him (because it might reveal to Bates that he is the Flash). Barry is able to find some evidence to exonerate Eddie, but then (rather stupidly) falls victim to the shapeshifter.

In Starling City, Joe and Cisco work with Detective Lance to investigate the scene of Wells' accident decades prior. Cisco discovers tachyons at the site and there, they dig up a corpse with Cisco quickly identifying the body as that of the actual Harrison Wells. Back at S.T.A.R. Labs, the shapeshifter learns from Dr. Snow about a serum that will stop him. Iris arrives, recognizing an inconsistency with the video footage of Eddie and Harrison Wells is actually able to stop the shapeshifter. While the S.T.A.R. Labs team and Iris work to exonerate Eddie, Cisco comes up with the evidence that proves that Wells is not who he says he is.

"Who Is Harrison Wells?" has an interesting balance of amusing moments that work incredibly well and eye-rolling moments that genre fans are likely to loathe. Hannibal Bates as Barry Allen hits on Dr. Snow and the incredibly awkward moment Snow experiences is hilarious to watch. "Who Is Harrison Wells?" has one of Danielle Panabaker's better performances on The Flash has she has body language that perfectly embodies discomfort and eye movements that are hilarious.

Director Wendy Stanzler presents a rather unremarkable take on a shapeshifter suspense episode, though she gives the bulk of the cast a chance to do fight scenes with Grant Gustin (The Flash). That's fun to watch. But Stanzler has poor attention to detail; seconds after Barry takes Dr. Snow from Wells's house, Snow and Wells are assisting the Flash from S.T.A.R. Labs. Stanzler cannot take all the blame for the episode's shortcomings. Fans of Arrow (which, to date, I am not) are likely to feel cheated by "Who Is Harrison Wells?" as Black Canary gets an essential piece of her costume/tech in this episode, as opposed to on Arrow. As well, it seems like the big moment of reconciliation for whatever problems Quentin and Laurel Lance have comes in an episode of The Flash.

Moreover, the episode's final sequence is somewhat ridiculous. Cisco's ability to find the secret room at S.T.A.R. Labs makes perfect sense and it is pretty easy to buy his explanation for why he did not find it before, but how Barry, Cisco and Dr. Snow get access to it is utterly ridiculous. How could a man as smart as "Harrison Wells" not have the secret, hidden room that requires a handprint to access have it biometrically sealed to only his DNA or handprint is utterly ridiculous.

Ironically, in one of the episodes that does the most travel and uses the whole cast fairly well, the high point might well be an intimate scene between Joe and Harrison near the climax of the episode. Tom Cavanagh and Jesse L. Martin play a conversational scene with such timing and subtlety that the rising tension between their characters is palpable. So little is said and so much is done in undertones that the genius of the moment is that it manages to create such tension! The scene is so strong and sets up such excitement for the next episode that it is almost enough to forget the obvious reversal with the shapeshifter when Barry and Eddie visit Hannibal Bates's grandmother.

The performances in "Who Is Harrison Wells?" are good, with Panabaker standing out for being the best. This is not a high-emotion episode of The Flash, but actresses like Panabaker and Candice Patton are given the chance to do more physical acting than usual. And they rise to the challenge quite well.

The result is an episode that makes The Flash well worth watching again. Viewers may already know who Harrison Wells is, but "Who Is Harrison Wells?" makes the process of the characters learning the truth exciting.

For other works with shapeshifters, check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Fringe
"I Will Face My Enemy" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

7.5/10

For other television episode and movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Much Improved: The Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad Is Worth Picking Up!


The Good: Inexpensive, Quiet, Easy to use, Easy to travel with.
The Bad: Requires USB power to use, Poor air flow
The Basics: The Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad is an adequate laptop cooling pad that does what it needs to well and inexpensively.


For my recent anniversary with my wife, she got me a new laptop computer and a cooling pad. The cooling pad was a Kootek Laptop Cooling Pad (reviewed here!) and it was an utter dud. When she returned the essentially worthless one, we went back to a brand we trusted for its replacement: Belkin. My new cooling pad is the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad and it is a dramatic step up from the last pad she bought for me!

Having used the Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad for almost two weeks now, the only aspect of the device I have not been able to evaluate is its longevity.

The Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad, model 2814CS, is a hard plastic desk-like support for laptop computers which features rubber feet on the bottom and a curved top surface to promote air flow. It is 14" wide by 10 1/2” deep and 1 1/2” tall at the back. The front is lower, which makes the laptop’s keyboard raised when it is on the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad. The laptop computer does not slide, though, because of the curved top surface, which seems to help hold the laptop on its surface and a pronounced lip at the front of the pad. The Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad features a single fan in its center, which sits beneath the center of the laptop that is placed on the stand.

The Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad is powered via USB power. There is a twelve inch cord that ends in a USB-male jack that plugs into any USB port on the laptop. As soon as the device is powered, the fan on the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad begins blowing air up. Because the surface of the top of the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad is very curved, the air that is being blown up blows out both sides of the base of the laptop.

The first thing I noticed about the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad is that it is virtually silent. I only knew it was on because I stuck my hand in front of it and felt air moving. When one has a computer operating and set atop the Cooling Pad, the pad has no sound pollution from it! The laptop cooling fan (the one internal to the laptop) is louder than this cooling pad.

Unfortunately, the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad is not very powerful. In fact, the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling pad acts best as a supplement to a good internal laptop fan; it is not strong enough to cool older laptops or laptops that are overclocked and heat up excessively. But, it moves just enough air under my new laptop to prevent my new laptop from ever getting warm enough that I would worry about its internal components.

That said, Belkin included a neat feature on the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad. The cord comes in a small channel which allows one to easily wrap the cord under the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad when it is not in use. That makes the cooling pad easier to transport in computer bags securely.

While there have been other Belkin laptop cooling pads that I have preferred, it seems Belkin no longer makes or distributes them. That makes the Belkin Coolspot Anywhere Laptop Cooling Pad their best, most economic cooling pad on the market!

For other products laptop coolers, check out my reviews of:
iWorld Laptop Cooling Station
Belkin Laptop Cooling Stand F5L055
Targus AWE45US1 HeatDefense Cooling Mat

7/10

For other computer-related reviews, be sure to visit my Computer Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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In Advance Of Ultron: Ward Turns Up As "The Frenemy Of My Enemy!"


The Good: Good plot, Good pacing, Decent special effects, Moments of character
The Bad: More plot-heavy than character motivated, Unremarkable performances
The Basics: "The Frenemy Of My Enemy" does not live up to its advertising, but does manage to be a surprisingly engaging episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. that uses the full, very broad, cast.


In advance of the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was given the chance to lead into one of the big Marvel properties and the episode "The Frenemy Of My Enemy" was hyped as doing just that. For the bulk of the episode, the hype is vastly overstated; the tie-in to The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is the reference to the H.Y.D.R.A. leader Baron von Strucker, who does not appear in the episode. The reference to H.Y.D.R.A. having (essentially) two leaders is a cheat that allows The Avengers to have their own big mission that appears significant, while allowing H.Y.D.R.A. to remain the primary adversary on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Picking up right after "Melinda" (reviewed here!), "The Frenemy Of My Enemy" tries to restore ex-Agent Ward to the series. The problem with Grant Ward has always been that he is not a particularly interesting character and so virtually everything that has been done with him has had a contrived feeling to it. As a result, when he was exposed as part of H.Y.D.R.A., he was momentarily interesting. When it became very clear - by the end of the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - that Ward was more a rogue agent indebted to John Garrett than a H.Y.D.R.A. loyalist, the writers lost any momentum or intrigue for Ward. So, when "The Frenemy Of My Enemy" bothers to bring him back, the viewer has to wonder why they bothered.

Fitz eludes his tail and joins Coulson, Mike Peterson, and Agent Hunter. Using Fury's toolbox, Coulson prepares to make a deal with Ward, who is now a significant power in H.Y.D.R.A. While one of H.Y.D.R.A.'s new leaders, Dr. List, experiments upon Potentials, Skye reacts to having had dinner with her parents. After capturing (ex-)Agent 33, Coulson lures Ward into a meeting where he offers Ward a chance to walk away by getting him into H.Y.D.R.A. and letting him use the T.A.H.I.T.I. Protocol on Ward. Ward agrees, reluctantly, while Simmons tells May that Fury's toolbox is gone and she is shocked when May tells Morse.

At Jiaying's Sanctuary, Skye tries to convince her mother not to evict Calvin under the pretense that the world it too dangerous for Calvin to be out in it alone. Using Bakshi, Coulson plans to infiltrate H.Y.D.R.A., while Simmons tries to track down Coulson's team through Peterson's eye. Bakshi uses Peterson as a bargaining tool to endear himself to Dr. List, which leads to a standoff in List's office.

"The Frenemy Of My Enemy" does a decent job of utilizing the rather broad cast of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a way that the show has not managed to do that effectively before. Virtually everyone has a role to play in the episode, even if some of them are rather unremarkable, like Mack being used as a punching bag for Morse. That makes it a very plot-heavy episode.

In fact, the biggest character development in "The Frenemy Of My Enemy" comes from Skye and Calvin. Calvin Zabo is dropped back into the real world and Skye is determined to keep him from getting angry and exploding with his powers. Zabo becomes increasingly frustrated by all of the things in the world that are different from how he remembers them. That frustration continues to make Zabo more twitchy and it puts tension on the bond between Skye and her father.

Zabo is aptly played by Kyle MacLachlan. His performance as Zabo puts a lot of pressure on the reboot of Twin Peaks; MacLachlan's character there was just transformed into the embodiment of all evil in our world when last he was seen. If MacLachlan returns to that role, the challenge for him will be to differentiate it from Zabo, who is articulate, but twitchy, and barely containing his rage.

What "Frenemy Of My Enemy" does more than give Ward a decent return to the series or effectively lead into The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is undermine Skye even more than it has in the past. Skye recognizes that Calvin might go ballistic when she reveals that she is leaving him, but still she lets it slip that she is leaving. Instead of being cautious and waiting for her backup to arrive, Skye is not careful enough to keep herself in check, even when faced with mortal consequences for, frankly, her stupidity.

"The Frenemy Of My Enemy" is, essentially, a rescue mission and J. August Richards, Chloe Bennet and Kyle MacLachlan give the best performances of the episode. There is a "comedy of errors" aspect to "The Frenemy Of My Enemy" that leads to all of Coulson's plans going awry. While it makes for a well-plotted episode, it hardly leads into The Avengers: Age Of Ultron the way it makes the next episode a potentially indispensable one.

6/10

For other reviews of components of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of reviews from best to worst!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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A Touch Of Sea Salt Pops . . . Only When The Center Is Reached!


The Good: Decent quantity, Generally natural ingredients, Interesting flavor once the chocolate coating melts away.
The Bad: Surprisingly indistinct chocolate flavor that does not wow for either its sweetness or its dark chocolate nature.
The Basics: Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares are flavorful, but take too long in the mouth/on the tongue to reach their potential to be considered truly great.


When trying various flavors of new (or new to me) chocolates, I look for something distinctive and flavorful. In that pursuit, when I have trouble describing as new chocolate, it does not bode well for it. While going through the last of my Lindt Excellence chocolate squares, the one that has lingered longest are the A Touch Of Sea Salt dark chocolates. The Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares are good, but only memorable when one finally gets to the sea salt in them and the rest of the time in the mouth, they are indistinct. The thing is, there is so little sea salt in these chocolate squares, so they are mostly unimpressive.

Basics

Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares are one and 1/8” squares of chocolate that are about one-quarter of an inch thick. Each of the squares comes individually wrapped in a white, blue and dark brown wrapper. It is worth noting that while I usually rail against the environmental impact of such things, it is hard to imagine Lindt Excellence chocolate squares not wrapped. This keeps each one clean, unmelted and intact.

Each chocolate square is a seamless square that is solid, with lines etched into the top and the Lindt name also punched into the top. The A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares come in a standard 4.9 oz. bag, the individually-wrapped chocolate squares are packaged together in a thick foil paper bag. The thick foil paper bag does little to protect the squares, though I’ve never had any breakage. The bag is not resealable, though this matters very little considering that the chocolate squares do not go bad as they are individually wrapped.

Ease Of Preparation

These are candy, so preparing them is as simple as opening the bag and then opening one of the foil wrappers around the actual chocolate square one wishes to eat. There is no grand secret to eating Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares. This is a flavor that is good at room temperature or frozen; it has a delicious solid flavor to it that carries the taste in all temperatures.

Taste

The Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares smells like a slightly dark chocolate, dry and unsweet. The sea salt does not truly add anything to the aroma to foreshadow anything for the flavor.

On the tongue, the A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares are sweet and dry, not overly flavorful. The sweetness is not overbearing and the dry dark chocolate flavor is not impressive or distinct either. As the somewhat indistinct chocolate melts away, it blends with flakes of sea salt that make the cocoa in the A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares pop. It is only when the salt blends with the chocolate that it reaches its flavor potential.

There is a fairly dry aftertaste left on the tongue by these chocolate squares. The aftertaste from the A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares does not linger in the mouth for much longer than three minutes.

Nutrition

These are candy, so they are not healthy, but the Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares are not nearly as bad as they could be. The primary ingredients are sugar, chocolate and cocoa butter. There is nothing unpronounable in these candies and everything in these could be readily identified by me.

A serving of the Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares is considered four squares. From four squares, one takes in 230 calories, including 15 grams of fat. There are 25mg sodium and 3 g protein, but no vitamins (save 2% of the RDA of Vitamin A) in these chocolate squares. There is 6% of one's daily iron and 2% the RDA of Calcium in four squares, so that is a plus.

These are not Vegan-compliant (they have real milk), nor are they recommended for anyone with a nut allergy as they are produced on the same equipment that peanuts and tree nuts pass over. They are, however, kosher.

Storage/Clean-up

The bags of these Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares remain fresh for quite some time. One assumes that if they are kept in a cool, dry environment they will not melt or go bad. Given that they are individually wrapped in a very sealed package, it is hard to imagine just what it would take for these to go bad outside melting and refreezing.

As for cleanup, I applaud those who actually throw the wrappers away in socially appropriate places, as opposed to litter. Outside that, there is no real cleanup needed, unless one is eating them in a hot environment. In that case, it is likely one would need to wash their hands. If these chocolate squares melt into most fabrics, they will stain. Getting them to melt is surprisingly hard, though.

Overall

Lindt Excellence A Touch Of Sea Salt chocolate squares are good, but rise to average, as opposed to truly impressing as most Lindt chocolates manage to.

For other Lindt chocolates, please check out my reviews of:
Intense Orange Chocolate Squares
Strawberries & Cream Lindor Truffles
70% Cocoa Almond Brittle chocolate bar

5/10

For other food and drink reviews, please visit my Food And Drink Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Monday, April 20, 2015

Rise Of The Kingpin, Rise Of The Vigilante: Daredevil Season 1!


The Good: Strong season-long arc, Interesting characters, Some decent surprises for fans of the books, Moments of performance
The Bad: Some weaker episodes, Some troubling loose ends/thematic issues
The Basics: A generally strong season-long arc establishes Daredevil as an engaging tangent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wilson Fisk uses corrupt measures to rebuild Hell's Kitchen following the Chitauri invasion.


It is hard to believe how long it has been since there was a real addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the eve of the release of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the burden of keeping enthusiasm up for the Marvel Cinematic Universe was taken off Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Netflix released the thirteen episode first season of Daredevil. Daredevil is an intriguing tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has become a sprawling, fantastic place filled with billionaires, super soldiers, Norse gods, and overpowered victims of scientific experiments. Taking an entirely different tact than even the placeholding spy show, Daredevil is insular and focuses on a single borough of New York City: Hell's Kitchen.

In its first season, Daredevil is a crime drama even more than a vigilante crime fighting story. Daredevil Season One is a gestational story and it follows the rise of the two essential characters from the comic book Daredevil: Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Divorced entirely from the 2003 film Daredevil (reviewed here!), Daredevil is a seasonlong origin story that slowly transforms Matt Murdock from a simple, Masked Man vigilante randomly fighting street crime at night to Daredevil, the Man Without Fear and Guardian of Hell's Kitchen! At the same time, the corrupt elements of the business underworld in Hell's Kitchen consolidate their power over the borough.

Linked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe primarily by allusions to the destruction wrought throughout New York City at the climax of The Avengers (reviewed here!) and easter eggs reminding viewers that The Incredible Hulk (reviewed here!) existed, Daredevil is much more a gangland crime drama than a legal thriller, superhero story or crime fighting saga. This is a Marvel Cinematic Universe show without cameos or Stan Lee sightings.

Twenty years after he was blinded by an accident that was the result of saving a stranger from getting hit by a truck carrying hazardous waste, Matt Murdock opens a law firm with his best friend in Hell's Kitchen (New York City). At night, Murdock puts on a simple black outfit and a mask and beats up local criminals, like those who are kidnapping women and selling them into sexual servitude. Murdock's blossoming law practice gets a lead when a desk sergeant Foggy Nelson bribed clues Nelson & Murdock into their first case; a woman who woke up next to the dead body of one of her coworkers.

The woman is Karen Page and she works for Union Allied, a business that has won a number of contracts to rebuild New York City following the Chitauri invasion. Recognizing that Page is telling the truth, Murdock insists on taking the case. What follows is a sequence of events that results from one thread of the tapestry being pulled; Page accidentally found herself in possession of records of monetary fraud from Union Allied and the attempts on her life end only when the Masked vigilante makes those records public. Cleaning up that mess forces the architects of the embezzlement and fraud to adapt and they begin to consolidate their power.

Behind the scenes, businessman and Hell's Kitchen native Wilson Fisk is using the Russian mob, Yakuza, a Chinese heroin smuggler, and a corrupt accountant to manipulate Hell's Kitchen's residents and politicians so they might work together to tear down the old and rebuild the borough in their image and by their designs. To that end, Fisk uses a network of corrupt cops, assassins, and an especially loyal right-hand man to consolidate his control and eliminate his business partners. Chasing the Union Allied clue, Matt Murdock soon learns of the existence of Wilson Fisk and becomes determined to expose his corruption. While he works the streets as the masked vigilante, Page approaches a tenacious reporter from the New York Bulletin, Ben Urich and sets him on the same story. As the small law firm and the reporter get closer to exposing the machinations of Wilson Fisk, Fisk redirects his attention to destroying them!

In its first season, Daredevil works to introduce the essential, core characters familiar to those who read the comic book. Perhaps what is so impressive about Daredevil Season 1 is how the characters are not clung to to maintain fidelity to the source material, so the show has some surprising moments to it that are bound to shock the die-hard Daredevil fans. In the first season of Daredevil, the primary characters are:

Matt Murdock - A blind lawyer who graduated summa cum laude from Columbia, he has developed his skills to essentially "see" the world around him. Uninhibited by fear, he prowls the night at night whenever he hears injustice going on. He rescues women, children, and is able to tell when people he is interrogating by listening to their heartbeats. When Nelson and Murdock takes a pretty clear murder case, he starts to learn about how the reconstruction of Hell's Kitchen is actually being done. He feels protective of both Page and Hell's Kitchen and begins to relentlessly pursue Wilson Fisk in order to stop him from restructuring or redesigning Hell's Kitchen for himself,

Foggy Nelson - Matt Murdock's best friend and law partner. He abandoned the Manhattan law firm Landman & Zack with Murdock, leaving behind his soulless ex-girlfriend. He deplores the way Murdock is willing to take cases that make the pair money (as opposed to "fighting the good fight") and the methods used by the masked vigilante. He is obviously infatuated with Karen,

Karen Page - Shocked when she wakes up next to a coworker who is dead, with blood on her hands, and barely surviving an attempt on her life while in police custody, she reluctantly allows Nelson & Murdock to help her. When the lawyers protect her and expose the secret she was menaced for, she takes a job as the paralegal secretary at Nelson & Murdock. Fearful of living in Hell's Kitchen following the attacks on her, she turns to reporter Ben Urich to try to expose those responsible and pulling the strings behind the scenes,

Ben Urich - A New York Bulletin reporter, who is trying to remain relevant in a world where print media no longer dominates, his wife is gravely ill and he is trying to balance working and getting her the best care possible. He is chasing a mob story - the ceding of local Italian mobs to the Russians - when Karen Page seeks him out and tells him her story. He begins putting together the story of the various mob interests and is soon the target of Fisk's assassins,

Claire Temple - A nurse who finds the masked vigilante in a dumpster and is drawn into his world. For a brief time, she acts as a moral compass to Matt Murdock and patches him up so he can fight another day. She is captured by the Russians and tortured in their attempt to find Matt,

Leland Owlsley - Fisk's accountant, he is constantly moving around the mob's money in order to hide Fisk's assets, worth and even his name. He is being extorted by Fisk and is much more cautious than the mobsters whose money he moves. He becomes very wary when Fisk starts seeing Vanessa and he believes Fisk's focus in compromised,

Wesley - Working for Fisk, he represents Confederated Global when bringing Healy to Nelson & Murdock for representation. He acts as the middleman between Fisk and all but the highest members of Fisk's budding syndicate. He is beyond loyal and is the only real friend Fisk has in the world. He manages Fisk's day to day operations,

and Wilson Fisk - A native of Hell's Kitchen, whose father was an abusive drunk who once ran for City Council, he is surprisingly vulnerable with Vanessa, an art dealer who sells him a painting that speaks to him (and his dark childhood). He has the goal of rebuilding Hell's Kitchen through any means necessary and ruthlessly pursues his goals. When the Masked Vigilante begins to put pressure on his operation, he lashes out and also exposes himself to the public in a way he never anticipated, becoming the public savior of Hell's Kitchen. Usually withdrawn and buffered thanks to Wesley, when confronted, he has explosive rage issues.

Daredevil succeeds, as much as it does, in its first season because of the dark reality it portrays. Wilson Fisk seems like a real guy with understandable motives and an uncommonly long reach. But he is hardly monolithic. Played by Vincent D'Onofrio, Wilson Fisk is complicated and presented with nervous ticks, a powerful physical presence and moments where D'Onofrio softens all of his face muscles to appear entirely childish, exposed and vulnerable. He is not the only complicated character in the cast.

Charlie Cox does fine as Matt Murdock and Deborah Ann Woll is allowed to present an incredible range as Karen Page. The real surprise of the cast is Elden Henson. Henson plays Foggy Nelson and he manages to make the sidekick character anything but a goofy sidekick. Henson has funny lines from the outset, but Nelson has one of the few legitimate character (not plot-based) arcs of the season and in "Nelson V. Murdock," Henson truly comes into his own and makes Nelson into a vital, realistic character with depth.

Also incredible is Toby Leonard Moore. Moore plays Wesley and he steals almost every scene he is in, which is pretty impressive for an understated character who is given no backstory. Wesley could be a generic, pointless buffer character, but Moore makes him seem vital, important and brings him presence for every one of his scenes.

Ultimately, Daredevil Season One is a long origin story and it works to create a very different part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is it a viable franchise of its own? It seems so, but the first season of Daredevil all but demands a completely different direction for its subsequent seasons. It appears Marvel bet big on the first season and while it pays off for the most part, it is a tough act to follow!

For more information on this season, check out the reviews of each episode in it at:
"Into The Ring"
"Cut Man"
"Rabbit In A Snow Storm"
"In The Blood"
"World On Fire"
"Condemned"
"Stick"
"Shadows In The Glass"
"Speak Of The Devil"
"Nelson V. Murdock"
"The Path Of The Righteous"
"The Ones We Leave Behind"
"Daredevil"

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
The Newsroom - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 2
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
”Now Is Not The End” - Agent Carter
”Melinda” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

7/10

For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Surprisingly Cool Small Treat For Myah: Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls!


The Good: Inexpensive, Myah loves them, Dental benefits, Healthy, Good ingredients!
The Bad: None!
The Basics: Myah finds the Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls to be a perfect distraction . . . which is exactly what I wanted them for!


In the last few months, Myah has become much better at staying home alone. A big part of her being calm has been distracting her while my wife and I leave the house. While the expense of various treats had been building up while my wife and I went out over the winter, a clearance rack recently transformed out pantry to a stockpile of vastly more affordable treats which adequately distract Myah when we need to go out . . . without breaking our bank.

The Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls come in a pack of fifteen rawhide rolls. While Myah might be low on the performance/play scale, she absolutely loves the American Beefhide Mini Rolls and spends a little over an hour working on them when they are given to her.

Basics

We picked up the fifteen pack of Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls treats when we first found them, which was on clearance . . . taking up an entire rack! The package has fifteen treats in it and Myah goes through them at a rate of about one every other day, as given to her. They might not take her long to go through, but she sure does love them!

The Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls dog treats are hard rawhide straws that are simply tightly rolled into small activity treats. Each American Beefhide Mini Rolls is 3” long and 3/4” in diameter. Each of the Rollhide treats looks like a small rawhide wrap. Myah was instantly drawn to these treats, which was surprising because they do not have a coating or a strong scent.

Ease Of Preparation

This is a ready-to-eat dog treat and only requires one to open the plastic bag to dispense. They are that easy to use for dogs.

Myah’s Reaction

The American Beefhide Mini Rolls treats have no strong scent; these are an incredibly basic rawhide treat. And yet . . . when given one, Myah excitedly wags her tail, which is surprising given how hard it is for her to get excited about anything at all. She wags her tail, leaps around, and goes to her bed to await mowing down upon these very basic treats. They are hard enough that it takes Myah about two hours to chew though these treats in order to break it up and swallow it. These clean Myah's tongue, teeth, and keep her occupied long enough to slip out and exhaust her enough that she wants to rest afterward. That makes them perfect for a short-term distraction that has been effective for me (and Myah) for the past three months without Myah getting tired of them.

Nutrition

The Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls dog treats are fairly healthy. Made entirely of beefhide and have nothing bad in them. The American Beefhide Mini Rolls treats have a shelf life that appears to be indefinite, which makes them ideal as a treat to stock up on. As with all dog treats, it is highly recommended that when you give your dog Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls treats, you make sure they have a decent supply of clean water available. These treats made Myah very thirsty. Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls treats are not intended to replace dog food.

Overall

Myah loves the Pet Factory American Beefhide Mini Rolls and they are a remarkably affordable way to distract big dogs like my Siberian Husky, Myah!

For other dog treats, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Beneful Healthy Smile Twists Dental Dog Snacks
Busy HeartyHide Basted Chicken Flavor
Meaty Bone

10/10

For other pet products, be sure to visit my Pet Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Collision Of Two Unstoppable Forces In "Daredevil!"


The Good: Good acting, Decent plot development
The Bad: Characters move the plot, but do not develop
The Basics: Daredevil peaks with "Daredevil" when Matt Murdock comes into his own . . . with a lot of help from his friends!


For season finales, it is almost pointless - at least in serialized television - to post a spoiler alert. After all, if the season finale is the climax to a sequence of events, it must by its nature include elements of how the principles got into place. With the first season finale of Daredevil, aptly entitled "Daredevil," the big plot moments of "The Ones We Leave Behind" (reviewed here!) frame the conflict and actions of the episode. Consider that a spoiler warning.

By "Daredevil," it is hard to figure how Daredevil has any real surprises left in it. The season has been building to the actual establishment of the traditional, costumed Daredevil and the rise to power of Wilson Fisk as the eventual, obvious, Kingpin. So, if "Daredevil" gets to either of those points, it is not much of a shock. It's hard for fans of the comic book to be wowed and surprised the way they were when Wesley was killed in "The Path Of The Righteous" (reviewed here!) or Fisk murdering Ben Urich in "The Ones We Leave Behind."

Opening with Ben Urich's funeral, Karen Page expresses her feelings of guilt to Ben's widow and to Matt Murdock. Fisk, for his part, has retreated to his penthouse to take care of Vanessa. He comes out at night to meet with Owlsley, who has been skimming from Fisk. Fisk is able to do his building, thanks to Owlsley clearing the way with Senator Cherryh, and Owlsley plays his endgame by coming clean when cornered by Fisk. With Gao having retreated, Owlsley is Fisk's last obstacle and, despite Owlsley's threats, Fisk clears that obstacle.

Foggy Nelson tracks down Murdock and confesses to him that Marci has been copying legal records on Fisk to use against the businessman. Murdock, Nelson and Page begin hunting for the missing Detective Hoffman, trying to get to him before Fisk does. Page figures out the way Owlsley was squirreling away funds and Murdock goes out to find Hoffman in his masked alter-ego. Murdock compels Hoffman to confess and turn himself in, which leads to the F.B.I. cleaning out the 15th Precinct, the New York Tribune and the law offices of Landman & Zach. Fisk, however, is prepared for his arrest and he uses his last moments to propose to Vanessa. While celebrations break out at Nelson & Murdock, Fisk orchestrates his own rescue and forces Daredevil to come into the field to stop him.

"Daredevil" is the culmination of all the rising action of the first season and Steven S. DeKnight writes and directs an episode that is dark and character-centered. As much as the plot necessitates certain actions, Matt Murdock, Karen Page, Leland Owlsley, Foggy Nelson, and even Detective Hoffman change the direction of the show. "Daredevil" takes the characters who have been pushed to their limit and empowers them to turn themselves around. Karen Page has been tenacious, but it is Foggy and Marci who actually manage to do the legwork that turns the tables on Fisk.

While the characters move the plot forward, they do not actually develop in "Daredevil." "Daredevil" has the characters simply embodying all they have in the prior episodes. In fact, only Owlsley alters his personality . . . and his stepping up to Fisk does not end well for him! The protagonists simply push the right people the way they had been the rest of the season (albeit pushing the wrong people for the prior several episodes) and the antagonist simply becomes articulate about who he is.

The season finale to Daredevil includes the obvious revelation of Matt Murdock in his proper Daredevil costume (the entire season has been building to it), but it is arguably the episode that most relies upon Matt Murdock's heightened senses to achieve the plot resolution the arc demands. More than the prior episodes, Matt Murdock seems to utilize his superhuman hearing and "radar" sense. In "Daredevil," he hears phone conversations at incredible distances that push well beyond what he has exhibited the ability to do in prior episodes.

The performances in "Daredevil" are good, but none of the actors are actually given heavy lifting to do. Charlie Cox and Vincent D'Onofrio participate in some excellent fight sequences, but neither they nor the rest of the cast have big emotional scenes which require them to exhibit much at all of their range.

"Daredevil" clears the way for a dramatically different second season of Daredevil. With three of the biggest recurring characters in the franchise being buried by the end of the episode, Daredevil will need an infusion of new characters for its second season. While a lot happens and the episode is fine for getting the show where it needs to, but it does so without any real flair or wow factor. That makes for a ho-hum feeling at the climax of the first season of Daredevil.

For other season finales, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"The Beginning Of The End" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"In The Hands Of The Prophets" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"Valediction" - Agent Carter
"Radioactive" - True Blood

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Daredevil - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of the Man Without Fear here!
Thanks!]

6.5/10

For other television episode and movie reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Too Bland To Overlook The Health Detractions: Haagen-Dazs Stracciatella Gelato Is Unimpressive!


The Good: Does not taste bad at all, Great ingredients
The Bad: Seriously unhealthy, Incredibly bland flavor, Expensive
The Basics: Haagen-Dazs Stracciatella Gelato is not at all worth picking up, despite being made of good ingredients.


I really screwed the pooch the other day with trying to help my wife with her new plan to eat healthy. I was at our grocery store and saw that the clearance section had a pretty significant number of frozen desserts on clearance (it turns out, they were revamping their frozen food section and wanted to eliminate their inventory rather than move it around the store!). Seeing a bunch of Haagen-Dazs for half price, I went a little bit nuts. I bought up all the sorbet that was on sale and then I moved onto the Gelato. Gelato, as it turns out, does not have the amazing low-cal benefits of sorbet. In fact, despite having about half the taste of most ice creams I have experienced, Gelato appears to have all the calories of full-fat ice cream. So, I now find myself reviewing a bunch of Gelatos and I started today with Stracciatella.

I decided to start with the Haagen-Dazs Stracciatella Gelato for a simple reason. Outside the Stracciatella Lindt Lindor Truffles (reviewed here!), I have no frame of reference for what "Stracciatella" is supposed to be. After having this gelato, I'm guessing "sweet cream." Regardless, this is an unremarkable gelato and any product that I find unremarkable that makes me blanch when I look at the nutritional information is virtually impossible for me to recommend or rate highly.

Basics

Haagen-Dazs Gelato comes in a 14 oz. (almost) pint container. The Stracciatella Gelato is a smooth Gelato without very thin shavings of chocolate in them. The chocolate is shaved so thin that it does not inhibit a spoon or scoop going into the pint container.

At (locally) $5.99 a pint, the Haagen-Dazs Gelato is an expensive frozen dairy dessert. That I found it on clearance for $2.99 was the primary reason I bought the pint of Gelato!

Ease Of Preparation

The Stracciatella Gelato is a simple Gelato with an additive that is so malleable that it can barely be called one. As a Gelato, preparation is ridiculously simple: one need only open the top of the container, remove the safety seal from the top, scoop out a half cup and consume! There is no trick to preparing or eating the Stracciatella Gelato!

Taste

Haagen-Dazs Stracciatella Gelato has virtually no aroma to it while it is frozen. As it nears its melting point, this Gelato takes on a faint scent of vanilla bean, but otherwise, this is a flavor that is presenting virtually all of its flavor through the taste, not the scent of the frozen treat.

On the taste front, the Stracciatella Gelato is light, creamy and sweet . . . with hints of chocolate. The ice cream (Gelato) flavor is not even a vanilla bean; it tastes like sweetened milk. That is problematic only in that it is not at all very flavorful. If one were to take coffee creamer, add sugar to it and find a way to freeze it without it crystallizing, they would have the Stracciatella Gelato. Mixed fairly liberally into this bland base are chocolate shavings. The chocolate shavings provide a waxy texture to break up the sweet, creamy flavor that covers one's tongue while eating this Gelato. The chocolate flavor only asserts itself as the gelato reaches its melting point and as an aftertaste in the mouth after the actual gelato is swallowed. Indeed, I tasted more chocolate from the Stracciatella Gelato by running my tongue over my molars and finding chocolate shavings melted in there. Otherwise, the sweet cream flavor entirely pummels the flavor of the chocolate shavings.

This Gelato has no aftertaste to it. The chocolate shavings, if any remain embedded in one's teeth, have a dark, dry, chocolatey flavor that endures there until they are entirely melted and then swallowed.

Nutrition

The Haagen-Dazs Stracciatella Gelato is a comparatively light Gelato on its own. The 14 oz. container represents three and a half half-cup servings. In the half-cup serving, there are 270 calories, 120 of which are from fat. The thirteen grams of fat represent 20% of the RDA of fat, with 35% of one’s RDA of saturated fat coming in the 7 grams of saturated fat in this Gelato. One serving has 90 mg of cholesterol (that’s 30% of the RDA!) and 40 mg of Sodium (2% RDA). The only other real nutrients are four grams of protein, 8% of the RDA of Calcium and Vitamin A in the Stracciatella Gelato.

Haagen-Dazs Gelatos have decent ingredients! Made primarily of Skim milk, cream and corn syrup, Stracciatella Gelato is entirely natural! There is nothing unpronounceable in the ingredients list. The Stracciatella Haagen-Dazs Gelato is neither Kosher, nor marked as gluten free. There are no allergy warnings on the package, though it is noted to contain soy ingredients. It does, however, contain milk and egg ingredients, so it is not at all Vegan compliant.

Storage/Clean-Up

Haagen-Dazs Gelato is both a frozen and a dairy product, so it is pretty obvious that it must be kept frozen in order to remain viable. Kept frozen it remains fresh for months (my pint had an expiration date of September 2015, so I wonder if I'm not the only one who does not absolutely love this flavor).

The Stracciatella Gelato is fairly light, but the chocolate shavings in it are likely to stain. Moreover, as a dairy product, when the Gelato melts and gets onto fabrics, it will require one to wash it right out. On nonporous surfaces, the Gelato wipes off exceptionally easily.

Overall

Haagen-Dazs Stracciatella Gelato is bland and unhealthy. As it nears its melting point, it takes on more flavor than it ever has while solidly frozen, making it a troubling frozen dessert for enjoying on a hot day or after a hot meal. If one is trying to put on weight and wants a bland, semi-cold dessert to assist with that, this fits the bill. But, for those of us who love flavor, the Stracciatella Gelato is easy to pass by!

For other Haagen-Dazs products, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Peppermint Bark Limited Edition Ice Cream
Orchard Peach Sorbet
Coconut Macaroon Ice Cream

3.5/10

For other food reviews, please visit my Food Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Hell's Kitchen Falls Into Darkness: "The Ones We Leave Behind"


The Good: Good acting, Excellent character and plot development, Direction and dramatic tension.
The Bad: A little plot-heavy . . .
The Basics: Daredevil rushes toward its first season finale with "The Ones We Leave Behind" which pushes all the characters to their most helpless positions yet!


Character-centered dramas tend to have plot elements that influence future character development. When an episode has a character reacting to their actions in one episode in the subsequent episode, it becomes virtually impossible not to have plot spoilers in discussing the reflective work. As Daredevil reaches its penultimate episode with "The Ones We Leave Behind," it becomes impossible to discuss the episode without referencing events from the last few minutes of "The Path Of The Righteous" (reviewed here!). "The Ones We Leave Behind" has the three central protagonists of Daredevil at odds with one another and it starts as an incredibly dark, miserable place for all involved.

"The Ones We Leave Behind" opens, very simply, with Karen Page throwing Wesley's gun (the one she shot him with) into the river, before returning home to drink, shower excessively, and have nightmares. Such an opening continues and furthers the strong trend in Daredevil for the show having a deeply human bent to it (as opposed to being comic book-like or glossing over the psychology of violence like most super hero works). Karen Page is entirely unsettled by her defensive murder of Wesley and that plays out throughout the entire episode "The Ones We Leave Behind."

Deep in shock after killing Wesley, Page returns to Nelson & Murdock where she runs into Foggy, who asks her about what is going on with her. After Nelson takes the files Page and Urich assembled on the Masked Vigilante, he passes Matt Murdock on the way out of the office. Matt recognizes that something is wrong with Karen, but does not press her too hard. Fisk is thrilled when Vanessa wakes up. His jubilation is cut short when Wesley's body is found. In his rage, Fisk nearly kills his bodyguard that let Wesley leave the hospital alone. Owlsley visits the scene of the crime and calms Fisk down.

The Masked Vigilante visits Urich, chasing a lead on how heroin is entering Hell's Kitchen. Urich is visited immediately afterward by Page, who tries to get him to publish the piece on Fisk murdering his father. Foggy, for his part, tries to enlist Marci to investigate Fisk (who is a client at the law firm she works for). Unfortunately for Ben, pushing his editor on the Fisk backstory piece results in him getting fired. When Murdock infiltrates Gao's factory, his attempt to liberate the factory turns disastrous, though it does put him and Gao in front of one another. Gao and Owlsley meet and their machinations are revealed . . . leaving Leland on his own with Fisk!

"The Ones We Leave Behind" is very character-centered and much of the push in the episode comes from Karen Page. Page is understandably rattled by her actions. The episode makes intriguing allusions to Page's past, in addition to using her character as a tenacious activist trying to right the wrongs that surround her. Deborah Ann Woll plays Page completely convincingly and the opening sequence of "The Ones We Leave Behind" is heartbreaking to watch as a result.

I am very much not into trendy things like parkour, but Daredevil uses it pretty well in "The Ones We Leave Behind." Murdock leaping over the rooftops of Hell's Kitchen is an iconic image and director Euros Lyn does an excellent job of translating that from the page to the screen in this episode. As Matt runs over the rooftops chasing a car he is tailing, the sequence is clear and entertaining. In an episode that is steeped with consequences, the fact that Murdock tears opens his stitches tailing the car is a wonderful detail.

One of the interesting aspects of Daredevil is how the show could develop while fitting into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Amid all of the gritty, real-world aspects that frame the heroics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the mysticism that crops up in Daredevil seems tragically incongruent. In "The Ones We Leave Behind," the supernatural aspects of Daredevil begin to bleed into the storyline in the character of Gao. Gao has been characterized as a mysterious Chinese mobster and as she exits Hell's Kitchen, her line indicates a potential mystic tie to the Shadowland storyline from the book Daredevil. Like Doctor Strange, Shadowland would be impossible to execute in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without introducing a strong supernatural element to a series that has belabored realism and the unexplained, as opposed to magic and the fantastical.

"The Ones We Leave Behind" is well-executed in terms of dramatic tension. With the death of Wesley in the prior episode, the rising tension in all of Urich's scenes is palpable. Wesley is a central character to Wilson Fisk in the established canon of Daredevil, so killing him so early in Daredevil means all bets are off for canon. That makes Urich's arc in "The Ones We Leave Behind" a ramping up of tension that is stomach-tightening to watch.

Daredevil is brilliantly focused and while it is heavily-serialized, it manages to keep a high level of quality for many of the individual episodes because it keeps the focus on the characters and gives them realistic motivations and struggles. "The Ones We Leave Behind" is an excellent embodiment of that, even if the titular character is almost incidental to it.

For other works with Adriane Lenox, be visit my reviews of:
"Nelson V. Murdock" - Daredevil
"Rabbit In A Snow Storm" - Daredevil
The Skeleton Twins
Red Lights
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
The Blind Side

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Daredevil - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of the Man Without Fear here!
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9/10

For other elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my Marvel Cinematic Universe Best To Worst Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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