Sunday, September 25, 2016

Surprisingly Delightful: Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars Live Up!


The Good: Good ingredients, Wonderful flavor
The Bad: Not the world's darkest chocolate
The Basics: Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars were a pleasant surprise, blending well the fruit and chocolate flavors they promise!


Lately, it seems like I discover new products most frequently when they are being clearanced at my local grocery store. It was there that I found the Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars and when we found them, my wife suggested we pick up as many as they had because it seemed like something I would like. I have had mixed experiences with chocolate bars with fruit, so I suggested we only pick up a couple.

I was wrong!

I should have picked up as many of the Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars as I could while they were locally-available. The Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars are delightful and a true blend of all of the promised flavors, which is less common than one might think with chocolate and fruit combinations.

Basics

Brookside Chocolate is an imprint from Hershey's, which seems to be one of their mid-range options. The Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars are evocative of the line in that they blend chocolate and fruit.

The Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars come in a 3.17 oz. chocolate bar that is foil-wrapped and inside a cardboard wrapper. Each bar represents a two servings and Brookside Chocolate bars are segmented as squares that can be broken apart to make the proper servings. The whole bar is presented as a 2 7/8” wide by 6 1/2” long segmented chocolate bars. Each segment snaps apart from the bar and is textures on the bottom and smooth on the flat top with the Brookside symbol stamped on some of the blocks. There are eight squares and a middle strip of chocolate to make up the whole bar. This makes the Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars very easy to portion out to have less than a full serving, which is nice for those who might be watching their waistline!

Ease Of Preparation

Eating Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars is not a real challenge. After removing the cardboard and the foil wrapper, simply pull out the bar or break a segment off and stick it in your mouth. There is no particularly complicated equation to eating these chocolates. This is an entirely ready-to-eat food!

Taste

Unwrapping the dark chocolate bar, the smell of mango is impressive and very clear. There is a faint afterscent of coconut in the bouquet, but not even a hint of chocolate in the Dark Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp's aroma.

The Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bar is sweet and dark, but not at all dry or unpleasant. The Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars have an amazing blend of fruit flavors with the chocolate. The crispy rice in the dark chocolate makes for an interesting texture and contrasts the soft, chewy mango pieces. The coconut flavor manifests as a sweet and dry aftertaste that is distinctly different from the crispy rice. The Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate bars have all of the promised flavors in perfect proportions; the mango is fruity and muted by the dark chocolate, which is sweetened by the coconut!

There is virtually no aftertaste for the Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bar, which is somewhat surprising given that the chocolate is fairly dark.

Nutrition

Brookside Chocolate chocolates are intended as a dessert product, so anyone attempting to live off them is going to feel silly trying to get their fruit this way! These 3.17 oz. Dark Chocolate Bars represent a two servings and those looking for real nutrition will have to look elsewhere. Made primarily of dark chocolate, sweetened dried mangoes and crisp rice, there are no unpronounceable ingredients in this chocolate bar. They were produced on equipment that forces them to add a disclaimer about peanuts and almonds. Because they contain milk fat, they are not at all vegan compliant and are not marked as gluten free or Kosher.

Brookside Chocolate's Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars have 220 calories in a half-bar serving, 110 of which are from fat. A full serving represents 45% of one's RDA of saturated fat and 1% of the RDA of cholesterol. There are 55 mg of sodium in these bars and 2 grams of protein. These are not a significant source of any vitamins or minerals, though they do have 10% of one’s daily RDA of Iron.

Storage/Cleanup

As a chocolate, Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars are fine as long as they are stored below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The bar we picked up on clearance a month ago had an expiration date of June 2017. Given that mine is gone already, I cannot comment on how well they endure as they come closer to the expiration date.

If, however, they melt, they will stain. Consult your fabric guide if they melt as dark chocolate can be a bear to clean up when melted into light fabrics. Otherwise, cleanup is simply throwing the foil wrapper away and recycling the cardboard exterior when you are done with the chocolate bar.

Overall

Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars are very good and reasonably priced. I tend to prefer a darker chocolate in general, but the execution of the Brookside Chocolate Mango Coconut Crisp Dark Chocolate Bars makes it very hard to complain about them!

For other reviews of chocolates with fruit, please check out:
Ghirardelli Chocolate Squares Intense Dark Cherry Tango
Lindt Intense Orange Dark Chocolate Squares
ChocoMe Dark Chocolate With Ground Cocoa Beans, Freeze-Dried Sour Cherry Pieces, and Freeze-Fried Strawberry Pieces chocolate bars

8/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Murder Mystery With Mutants (Or Close Enough!): "The Lady In The Lake"


The Good: Good effects, Performances are decent, Engaging plot set-up
The Bad: Assumes relationships that are not developed, No real character development, Very familiar plot
The Basics: The second season of Agent Carter opens with a murder mystery involving that appears to be a serial killer, but opens up to being a mystery that has a villain with superhuman abilities in "The Lady In The Lake!"


There has been, fairly consistently, no corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I have cared less about than Agent Carter. The first season of Agent Carter (reviewed here!), was so underwhelming to me that when the ten-episode second season of Agent Carter aired on ABC during a winter hiatus, I could not muster up the enthusiasm to tune in to watch it. Perhaps the best reference I can give to how very little I cared about Agent Carter is this: as summer moved towards its end, I found myself picking up graphic novels pertaining to the Inhumans (Inhuman: Volume 1 - Genesis is reviewed here!) so I could better understand some of the nuances of season 3 of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (reviewed here!) before I bothered to track down the second season of Agent Carter and give it my attention. In fact, I only had a couple of weeks between reviewing the last television series's I actually cared about and the fourth season premiere of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the debut of Luke Cage, so I felt like I needed to catch up on Agent Carter solely to insure that I did not miss any allusions to the show in the continuing Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Season Two of Agent Carter opened with "The Lady In The Lake" and it continues by immediately picking up the loose end from "Valediction" (reviewed here!), in the form of capturing the escaped villain Dottie Underwood. Underwood was a Soviet spy working in the first season to undermine Agent Carter and the SSR and she managed to escape at the climax of the first season. Ironically, in "The Lady Of The Lake," it is Dottie Underwood and her arc that makes Agent Carter at all relevant to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a pin she was interested in contains the iconography for the mission HYDRA co-opted in the third season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.! In other words, just as perceptive viewers might have figured early on that Will was (knowingly or unknowingly) working for HYDRA when Simmons encountered him on the distant world, attentive viewers will know almost immediately that Dottie Underwood is interested in or affiliated with HYDRA.

Opening with a woman leading a bank robbery, the woman manages to get the vault, where Agent Carter is waiting. The woman is Dottie Underwood and the bank is staffed entirely with SSR agents determined to apprehend Underwood and take her associates into custody. Moving to Los Angeles, 1947, Sousa arrives at a murder scene where it appears a serial killer from the past may have struck again. The SSR was called out because on the hottest day of the year, the lake where the corpse was found is almost entirely frozen. Sousa, who is running the new West Coast division of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, is understaffed and Thompson sends Carter, mid-interrogation, out to Los Angeles to assist him. Carter arrives in Los Angeles where she is reunited with Jarvis, who is working for Howard Stark, who is working for a movie studio as a location scout.

Investigating the frozen corpse from the lake, Carter and Sousa discover some peculiarities, including the fact that the corpse glows because it contains radioactive elements. The lab tech clues Carter into the fact that there is a particle accelerator in Pasedena at Isodyne Energy. Carter sneaks into Isodyne Energy where she meets Dr. Jason Wilkes, who is able to identify the corpse from the lake. Carter learns that the scientist who was killed was associated with Calvin Chadwick, a politician who was having an affair with her. Carter interviews Chadwick and finds him willing to comply with her requests, but only if they come from official, legal channels. The situation is complicated by the coroner dying during the autopsy; frozen when he first cut into the mysterious corpse. As Thompson discovers that Dottie is out of his league, Carter unravels the mystery behind the frozen lake and the corpse it contained, revealing that there is a massive new conspiracy that requires Agent Carter's attention!

My own antipathy toward Agent Carter notwithstanding, "The Lady In The Lake" illustrates what a tenuous concept Agent Carter was to begin with, by almost completely redefining it in its second season premiere. "The Lady In The Lake" is a fairly abrupt transition for the series which belabors maintaining the few successful elements of the first season (like the Carter/Jarvis relationship) while moving the show in a very different direction.

"The Lady In The Lake" picks up character relationships in progress, most notably one between Carter and Sousa. Sousa's move to Los Angeles strained the budding romantic relationship between him and Carter. The relationship was never truly developed and when "The Lady In The Lake" leaps back into it, it seems somewhat abrupt. Even more forced than the Sousa and Carter relationship is the banter between Rose and Carter. The dialogue is good, but it assumes a relationship that was not at all substantive in the first season.

The three new characters in "The Lady In The Lake" that are introduced to the Agent Carter mix are Jason Wilkes, Ana Jarvis, and Vernon Masters. Wilkes is a brilliant physicist working for Isodyne Energy, who has an instant rapport with Agent Peggy Carter. Indeed, Reggie Austin (Wilkes) plays off Hayley Atwell (Carter) with such palpable chemistry that it is almost hard to believe that the writers and producers forced any romantic tension in "The Lady In The Lake" between Carter and Sousa! Ana Jarvis is a supporting character who seems to have been thrown into the mix to replace Carter's roommate in the first season and Vernon Masters appears to keep Jack Thompson and his thread even remotely interesting. Kurtwood Smith plays Masters and his appearance is what allows Thompson to lose Underwood as a prisoner and the truth is that Jack Thompson was such a white bread character that the viewer does not so much care whether or not he is heading up the East Coast SSR or not; Agent Carter was revealed in the first season as the most competent agent of the SSR, so that the story follows her makes so many of the other, prior, supporting characters superfluous. So, Vernon Masters is a tangential character to an unnecessary lingering thread on the Agent Carter story.

Agent Carter's first season was somewhat hampered by the theme of "Agent Carter is a woman, here's how that complicates her life." "The Lady In The Lake," fortunately, progresses past that. In fact, when Thompson begins his interrogation of Underwood, there is a threat of physical violence between them that is very much the embodiment of gender equality. To keep the sense of time and place, "The Lady In The Lake" includes references to racism of the day, which enhances the realism of the era beyond the simple costumes and sets.

"The Lady In The Lake" is very much a set-up episode of Agent Carter and it almost instantly creates an issue with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, specifically from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. On Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Simmons is characterized as a brilliant medical doctor who also idolized Peggy Carter; the elements included in "The Lady In The Lake" undermine that characterization as they are ridiculously close to elements from the story of Donnie Gill. In other words, Donnie's story is a "brand new" mystery to Simmons, but it should have been incredibly familiar to her as the common elements would have been included in the legend of Peggy Carter, available (at least) to a high level agent like Simmons.

That said, on its own, "The Lady In The Lake" is a surprisingly good start to the second season of Agent Carter. The acting is competent and the story is engaging enough to be watchable, even if there are larger continuity issues and the mystery seems more predictable than it was audacious. "The Lady In The Lake" might not light the world on fire for portraying any universal themes or making any grand statements, but it is entertaining enough to be watchable.

For other Marvel Television Universe season premieres, please check out my reviews of:
"AKA Ladies Night" - Jessica Jones
"Bang" - Daredevil
"Laws Of Nature" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

5/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Average And Overpriced: The Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote!


The Good: Good air flow, Remote can be helpful
The Bad: Expensive, Not at all energy efficient, Very large footprint
The Basics: In a pinch, we picked up a Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote and while it was helpful, it was very overpriced for the results it delivered.


This year has been the hottest one in my conscious memory, which has been supported by record high temperatures in my area even now in September. In August, our air conditioning broke down, and it was then that we realized that our prior Lasko fan had broken down (the motor burned out) and the only other fans we had in our home were window fans. Given that out apartment is on the sunny side, with windows that are right off the first floor roof, window fans were not a good option for us to try to beat the August heat. The middle of one hot night was not the night to debate with my wife the merits of trying to repair a fan or come up with another solution, so we ended up running out to buy a fan. We ended up picking up a Lasko Stand Fan (S18601) for $60 and we continued using the fan for the past month and a half, even though our air conditioning got fixed.

And, having had an inexpensive Lasko Stand Fan that was under $30, which lasted for a few years, the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote seemed vastly overpriced for what it offers.

The Lasko Stand Fan model S18601 is a floor fan with an adjustable height function. The Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote requires assembly when it comes out of the box. The base is a very heavy circular stand that is 21" in diameter. While this has a very large footprint on the floor, the base is sufficiently heavy to keep the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan completely stable on the floor, regardless of how high one turns up the speed on the fan head (which is more of a problem with stand fans than one might initially think!). The large size of the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote continues into the fan head, which is also 21" in diameter and 10" deep. The Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote has an adjustable height that allows the unit to go from being 41 1/2" to 53" tall. The footprint of the SL18601 is increased by the cord for the unit. While that would not usually be a factor, with the Lasko S18601, it becomes one because of the oscillating factor; if the fan is near anything that protrudes, or too close to a wall, the fan knocks against anything nearby.

The Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote has a black finish which is fairly stylish, broken up by the brand name in stainless steel in the center of the fan head. To the credit of the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote, it does exactly what it promises. This stand fan moves air with considerable force; even at the lowest of the four settings, we can easily feel the air flow from over ten feet away. On the highest setting, the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan keeps the whole room cool, even when it's blowing air from our kitchen when the oven is on! I'm not certain how it does that, but the Lasko S18601 manages to work, even on the hottest day.

Use of the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote is decidedly variable. While it took us less than fifteen minutes to assemble the fan out of the box - it was thoroughly intuitive, which is a real plus - there are a number of adjustments that can be made to change the experience one has with the S18601. The height may be adjusted by unscrewing a cuff at the bottom of the stand, pulling the fan head up and then retightening the cuff. There are no gradations to force any specific height upon the user; the cuff is enough to hold the head at any height along the foot of potential heights. The oscillating function is controlled by a similar physical manipulation, by adjusting a peg at the back of the fan head.

As the name suggests, the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote features a remote control, which seems like an initially cool feature. The remote is a 3 1/2" long, 2 1/8" wide by 3/4" thick remote control that runs on two AAA batteries. It has two buttons: one that activates the fan, another that adjusts the speed of the fan blades upward. The issues with the remote are two-fold. First, the stand's control panel has to be facing the user. My wife and I sit on a couch and a chair separated by a small endtable; we are usually separated by about two feet while we are working. When the unit's control panel is facing her, I cannot use the remote to turn on the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan. If the S18601 is facing me, both of us can activate it, so it is somewhat finicky. Ostensibly, the purpose of the remote control for the S18601 Stand Fan is to be convenient for people who do not want to get up to turn the fan on and adjust the speed. What one cannot do using the remote is turn the oscillating feature on or off. In other words, the remote is not "full function" for the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan.

The Lasko Stand Fan is not at all quiet. The Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote is very obvious when it is on, for much more than just its air flow. When it is on one of its lower settings, from my vantage, sometimes I cannot feel the flow from fifteen feet away, but even then I have to adjust the volume on our television because of the noise from the S18601. The only other big detraction I have found for the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote is the maintenance factor. No other variables have changed in our apartment between our first Lasko Stand Fan and getting the Lasko S18601 Stand Fan, but this stand fan attracts dust and hair at a ridiculously accelerated rate. While we had to clean our first Lasko Stand Fan about once a month, the fan blades and the metal basket that houses them attracts such significant amounts of dust that we must clean the full fan head once every two weeks.

Cleaning the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote is fairly easy, though. The front of the fan head pops off and can be washed off easily enough. The fan blades may be wiped off easily, as well. The only part of the fan that is tough to clean is the back portion of the fan head; the plastic latticework behind the fan blades is nowhere near as easy to clean as the front of the fan head. The Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote is not a particularly energy efficient fan and I did notice a slight uptick in our electric bill the first month we started using the S18601 (which was saying something given that we had a whole week without using the air conditioner in that month!).

Ultimately, the Lasko S18601 18" Stand Fan With Remote is a mixed product with higher initial cost and cost of usage than comparable fans that provide similar amounts of air flow (some with less of a footprint).

For other electronic devices and appliances, please check out my reviews of:
Dyson Air Multiplier Fan
Feature Comforts FTT-4 3-Speed Oscillating Tower Fan
Meco Digital Kitchen Scale

4/10

For other appliances, please check out my Home And Garden Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Friday, September 23, 2016

Moments Do Not Save The Inconsistent Flock Of Dudes.


The Good: Some humorous lines, Moments of performance
The Bad: Predictable plot progression, Inconsistent character direction for the protagonist, Long periods of mediocrity
The Basics: Flock Of Dudes features a man sort-of trying to change his life to win a bet in an ultimately unimpressive comedy.


One of the aspects of the two months between Summer Blockbuster Season and the traditional Oscar Pandering Season for cinematic releases that I enjoy is that for two months, virtually anything is possible in movie releases. September and October see a pretty massive dump of films to the marketplace as major studios throw out their early Oscarbait, horror films and their low-publicity imprints (the major studio departments that allow them to think they still have any credibility in the "indie film" world) and they compete with indie films and all of the projects that could not cut it the rest of the year . . . but the studios did not want to wait until the February Dump to release. As a result, this is a time of year when writers and directors see some of their work hit theaters in a pretty massive push and so it is for the feature film debut of writer/director Bob Castrone with Flock Of Dudes.

Flock Of Dudes is an independent film comedy starring Chris D'Elia and, more than being known as Castrone's directoral film, is probably getting more press for being the project Lea Michele bowed out of in the wake of Cory Monteith's death. Michele was replaced with Hilary Duff and Castrone soldiered on. I sat down to Flock Of Dudes with fairly low expectations given that the last thing I saw D'Elia in was XOXO (reviewed here!) and he was pretty much lost in the ensemble cast; having D'Elia at the head of a similarly large cast was not a selling point. The moment Peri Gilpin appeared on screen as Adam's mother (Chris D'Elia's character) after the opening credits, D'Elia was already upstaged.

Adam, Barrett, David, Howie and Mook go out on a pub crawl and end up on a barcycle. Adam misses a date with his girlfriend Katherine on their anniversary when he was supposed to have dinner with her parents. Following their break-up, the guys are at a party for their Fu-Manchu-oose-Your-Own-Adventure when Katherine appears, dating Mario Lopez. David is moving on with his life by proposing to his lawyer girlfriend and moving out of the guy's bachelor pad. After their Halloween party, at which the guys are evicted from their house, Adam seems to wake up to their unsatisfying college-like lifestyle.

David writes up a break-up contract for the four guys. Adam, Barrett, Howie, and Mook are challenged to spend six months apart from one another, figuring out their lives. The carrot is a cool house, the stick are a series of consequences like a "jack and jill" party in lieu of David having a bachelor party and a cash bar at his wedding. Adam moves in with David and David's fiance, Amanda, and starts dressing better for work, which gets him the attention of the boss at work. As he avoids his old friends, Adam starts a healthier relationship with his co-worker, Beth. Adam starts to blog and figure out his life, purposely getting fired and pursuing his dreams.

Flock Of Dudes is a very guy-centric comedy, as one might expect. The men live together and some work together at the National Lacrosse League. The guys live in their own filth, declare vengeance on one another (sending a bouquet of vibrators to Adam's work), hit on anything that moves and spend most of their time drinking. But Chris putting his foot down is handled very inconsistently; Chris does not say "no" to the absolutely incompatible, crazy woman who comes home with him. In putting their lives in order, the film has Chris growing and regressing in very inconsistent ways that make it a very erratic narrative.

Bob Castrone and his cowriters have some good lines in Flock Of Dudes, but they are not enough to make a compelling film. Chris's "break-up" speech is pretty funny - especially the realization that he does not have a dentist and, as an adult, ought to. Mook's reaction to seeing Adam at work the first time after the break-up is funny and sets the tone for much of the rest of Flock Of Dudes. Flock Of Dudes turns into a "fish out of water" comedy as Chris goes from being a ridiculous partier to being straightlaced. But "straightlaced" in Flock Of Dudes still has the thirty year-old Adam playing kickball with his company against other local businesses. In a similar fashion, while Chris is avoiding his friend Barrett, his coworker Jamie tries to use him as a source for information (they dated and he is no longer returning Jamie's many calls). But instead of being straightforward with Jamie about his lack of a relationship with Barrett and exactly what Barrett is doing to Jamie, he continues to cover for his friend. As a result, the fish never seems quite out of water; Chris's drunken epiphany does not lead to a substantive internal change.

D'Elia plays straightlaced fine, especially opposite Brett Gelman's ridiculous performance as Howie. The moment he hits his potential in playing Adam is off Bryan Greenberg's Barrett asking him for advice on how to deal with his burgeoning relationship with Beth. D'Elia has an earnest quality in that scene that plays well and illustrates the lost potential of Flock Of Dudes.

So many films where characters attempt to change their lives suffer because the characters make such gigantic changes far too quickly; Flock Of Dudes does not go far enough fast enough or in a clear, compelling, way. Adam changes his clothes . . . briefly, but continues to slouch through life. While Adam changes his outfit, he does not shave, but suddenly his boss notices him and starts striking up a conversation with him?! The moments Flock Of Dudes tries to explore the nature of changing one's life, it actually works - Adam trying to be honest with Beth or actually reaching out to a friend for substantive advice - but too often, the film goes for the cheap laugh or the obvious "easy out" of a situation. After having an honest conversation with Beth, Adam reaches out to the most horrible character in the film to hang out and it doesn't even feel like a relapse; it just feels like a terrible plot or character direction.

The cast of Flock Of Dudes does generally well. Skylar Astin seems more out of place than the rest of the cast, delivering almost all of his lines as if he is doing a bit. While it might initially seem like a writing problem, it is Astin overselling his lines with an over-eager performance that reminds the viewer of a comedian doing a shtick. The main cast of Chris D'Elia, Bryan Greenberg, Brett Gelman, and Eric Andre plays off one another with a pretty natural chemistry, which fits their characters having a long-term dynamic. The supporting cast featuring Hannah Simone, Marc Maron, and Melissa Rauch manages to steal most of the scenes they are in.

Flock Of Dudes tries to make changing one's life seem utterly craptastic. The "jack and jill" party is presented as the world's lamest party before the bachelor party falls flat as well. Changing sucks, staying the same suck, too, in Flock Of Dudes.

Bob Castrone directs Flock Of Dudes fine, but in an unremarkable way. There are no particularly distinctive visuals in Flock Of Dudes and the inevitable montage sequence comes far too late for viewers to care about how the people in it are changing. And there is something flat-out disturbing about seeing Hannah Simone's Beth looking like a supermodel (no perspiration, not a hair out of place) after playing kickball.

Ultimately, Flock Of Dudes is inconsistent on every front, making it hard to invest in or enjoy even though it is short enough that anyone can sit through it.

For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Cardboard Boxer
Other People
Zoom
Spaceman
The Whole Truth
Pete's Dragon
Suicide Squad

2.5/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Durable And Efficient The EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W Compact Florescent Spiral Light Bulb Work!


The Good: Quality light, Bulbs last long, VERY energy efficient, Environmentally responsible
The Bad: Initial cost
The Basics: The EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W Compact Florescent Spiral Light Bulb are a wonderful lighting option for those who want to lower their electrical bills!


When it comes to lowering electric bills, there are few easier ways that I can find than by using energy-efficient light bulbs. After years of trying various energy efficient bulbs, my landlords decided to make our buildings far more efficient. They got us in a whole stash of EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W light bulb and have been using them for the last two years consistently. The nice thing about living in one place so long with no other changes is that I am able to do some pretty solid comparisons between old and new electric bills. As a result, I know that my wife and I have actually saved money using the EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W light bulbs. Switching from actual 60 Watt light bulbs to 13 W light bulbs lowered our electric bill by about one quarter, which makes sense given that my wife and are both night owls and use lights most of our awake time.

For those who don't know what the big deal is, the EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W is a lightbulb that has a spiral core that rises out of a standard lightbulb bottom. The top looks like a twisted up fluorescent lightbulb and when it is turned on, it gives off light that is a quality that is reminiscent of a classic fluorescent light (the long bulbs used in industrial lighting). This bulb starts out giving off a soft, white light that is like a fluorescent light.

The EarthBulb 13W is a lightbulb that uses mercury and a low-watt charge to create light. There is no filament that is visible in the bulb, so they are a bit sturdier than standard lightbulbs. The filament in a regular lightbulb is the thin wire-like thing that is where the light comes from and what breaks when the bulbs burn out. The EarthBulb 13W bulbs are durable; I have dropped a couple onto my foot without them breaking (so long as they do not hit the floor, they seem to remain intact!

The base of the bulb is identical to a standard lightbulb and as a result, it fits in any socket that a standard lightbulb will fit in. While the base above the screw-in portion is a little wider than the standard lightbulb, unless one was using specialty bulbs to begin with, the EarthBulb 13W will fit anywhere that a classic lightbulb will fit.

Standard lightbulbs tend to last approximately two to three years (sometimes dramatically less) with regular use (estimated by the lightbulb industry at four hours a day, seven days a week). The EarthBulb 13W lasts for at least five (I have two that are older than that). Standard lightbulbs that generate 800 to 1000 lumens operate on 60 Watts of electricity. This bulb, which generates 900 lumens runs on 13 Watts!

For those taking their time with the math, that means that one EarthBulb 13W uses 1/4 the energy of a standard lightbulb and averages two and a half times the lifespan of the usual 60 Watt bulb! In other words, with the cost to operate 1 60 Watt lightbulb, four EarthBulb 13W s can be lit and still save the user electricity! This is the socially responsible way to light your house and you can even keep your house brighter for less money!

EarthTronics does not make any guarantee about lowering your electric bill, but with the cost of electricity rising, changing over to the EarthBulb 13W will lower your bill, assuming your usage does not increase dramatically. Because the bulk of our energy usage in our apartment is based on lights and television, our bill did go down noticeably since we switched over entirely to the EarthBulb 13W bulbs.

The EarthBulb 13W will take a few minutes to get up to maximum brightness. When you turn on the light, the bulb will come on at a dimmer than usual setting. Within five minutes, it will reach its maximum brightness and the user will be bathed in a gentle white light of a similar quality to fluorescent lights. This effect is liable to make everything seem more vivid in one's living space at first. Standard lightbulbs cast a dirtier, slightly yellowish light to them. The EarthBulb 13W emits a very pure white light. The only other time after the initial two or three uses of a bulb where this delay is exacerbated is when temperatures are particularly low. My house if often fairly cold and as a result, sometimes the bulbs take six to ten minutes to reach full brightness in the winter.

The EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W Compact Florescent Spiral Light Bulbs glow for three minutes after they are turned off. Unfortunately, the initial outlay for the EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W Compact Florescent Spiral Light Bulbs is a bit more than many people are comfortable with. While the standard lightbulb can be bought for 4/$2.00 on sale, the EarthBulb 13W is liable to run consumers $3.00/bulb. That price goes down when one buys a bulk pack at most places and the cost for bulbs has been dropping over the years since these were originally released. The outlay cost can be inhibiting, but the day to day savings can be worth it! Also, some states have grants for homeowners (especially seniors) to help make home improvements that make their homes more energy efficient. Switching over to lightbulbs like the EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W is usually recommended and may be covered (at least in part) under such a grant!

Regardless of the initial cost, the EarthTronics EarthBulb 13W Compact Florescent Spiral Light Bulb are a pretty wonderful lighting option that can save one money!

For other household gadgets and tool reviews, please check out:
MaxAttrax Ant Bait
Speedy White Hearth & Ceramic Glass Cleaner
Craftsman Electronic Stud Finder

9/10

For other home and garden product reviews, please visit my Home And Garden Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Waking Nightmare: Why Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox Endures!


The Good: Good themes, Clever character twists, Decent construction and edits from the source material
The Bad: Some less successful edits, Simplistic resolution, Packed with multiple flat supporting characters
The Basics: Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is a clever adaptation of the Flashpoint crossover event in movie form!


This month is shaping up to be a pretty intensive month for me with reviews of Marvel Comics-based works. To balance that, I figured I should seek out some DC Comics-based works. In advance of the third season premiere of The Flash and with a fascination for the more adult-oriented works coming from DC Animation that I discovered by watching Batman: The Killing Joke (reviewed here!), I figured that it was a good time to take in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is an animated film adaptation of Flashpoint (reviewed here!) and while it has been quite some time since I read that crossover event and its various volumes, I recalled it well enough to look forward to both the animated film and the new season of The Flash.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is a work that bends the traditional DC Comics Universe and offers a glimpse into one of the most provocative alternate universe scenarios that DC Comics ever created. The animated rendition of Flashpoint does a generally good idea of portraying the complexity of the graphic novel crossover event while minimizing the less successful subplots of the books.

Opening with a flashback to Barry Allen's backstory in his childhood with his mother before her murder, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox leaps back to Barry Allen's adulthood. On his mother's birthday, Barry Allen is called to action when the Flash Museum is attacked by the Rogues, who were hired by Professor Zoom. When Eobard Thawne uses the Rogues to carry the bombs he wants to use to destroy the Flash Museum, the Justice League arrives to stop the bombs from detonating. With the Rogues detained and Zoom being sent to S.T.A.R. Labs for containment, The Flash's success is undermined by a remark from Thawne, so he tries to run off his frustration.

Barry Allen wakes up at his desk at Central City Police Department where no one recalls The Flash and he is devoid of his powers. Outside the CCPD, Barry Allen encounters his mother and he is shocked that she is alive. From Nora, Barry learns that the world is on the brink of war and the only superhero she seems to know about is Batman. In Gotham City, Batman is briefed by Cyborg on the impending war between the Amazons and Atlanteans in the ruins of Europe. Batman refuses to join the war effort and when Barry Allen visits Batman, Allen discovers that in this reality, Thomas Wayne is Batman and Bruce Wayne is dead. As the world falls into carnage as various elements get caught between the building armies of the Amazons and Atlanteans, Allen is convinced that the only way to right the world is to find and thwart Professor Zoom, whom he believes is responsible for the destroyed world on the cusp of war. To find Zoom, Allen enlists Batman's help in recreating the accident that made him The Flash, with initially disastrous results. But in attempting to save the world, Barry Allen becomes deeply embroiled in saving the darkened reality!

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox does a decent job of illustrating how important Nora Allen was to Barry Allen in order to set up the premise of the film. As well, while the initial incident in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox seems somewhat pointless, it is enough to sell Barry Allen's assumption in the altered timeline. The Reverse Flash is a time-traveling meddler who seeks to undo all of the heroism of The Flash, so when Allen wakes up without powers in a darkened present, Eobard Thawne is a reasonable suspect from the available evidence.

Flashpoint was an incredibly complex crossover event in the DC Comics books, so condensing it down to seventy-five minutes necessitates cutting quite a bit of material. As one who generally enjoyed the book series, the most glaring and frustrating omission comes in the form of leaving out The Joker. Because Thomas Wayne has such a significant presence in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, that his search for the Joker is treated as a very minor tangent and dropped after only the second allusion to the Joker is somewhat disappointing.

What is not disappointing is the quality of the animation. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is one of the more consistently well-rendered DC Animation projects and given the scope of it, that is no small task. The character designs are distinctive enough that the bulk of the characters are instantly recognizable in every frame in which they appear and that helps the flow of the film stay tight and taut.

It is worth noting that Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is very much intended for adults; the on-screen kill count is exceptionally high and several of the character deaths are fairly graphic (as is Barry's first attempt to regain his powers!).

The voice acting in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox quite good. Led by Justin Chambers as Barry Allen, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox might be a world-bending war story, but the portrayals of Barry Allen and Thomas Wayne make the film far more relatable and present some more universal themes. It is a bit disappointing, based on the clarity of the voice acting and the themes of Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox that no one seems to recognize that Barry's grandmother was simply reciting the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous. That said, that is not a fault of the actors and their clear, emotive, performances help to create the world of the Flashpoint reality as well as the animators.

Ultimately, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is a gruesome exploration of what one man's grief can create and it is well-rendered even if it has to gloss over some of the complexities of the source material.

For other animated films based on DC Comics books, please check out my reviews of:
Wonder Woman
Watchmen: Tales Of The Black Freighter
Batman: Gotham Knight

6/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Two Stories, One Book: Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac Is Mostly Fun!


The Good: Moments of character, Well-defined backstory for new characters, Wonderful artwork
The Bad: Odd story breakdowns, Short, Poor characterization of love/male influence
The Basics: Resolving the conflict of Brainiac, the gynocentric Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac then works to set up the next volume!


When it comes to my book reviews, I can think of no other work that pleasantly surprised me of late quite like Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 (reviewed here!). Based on the oversexualized statue and toy line from DC Collectibles, the Ame-Comi book was one that I picked up on a complete lark, not at all expecting it to have any serious merit. I'm a big enough person to admit when I am wrong and I was wrong about Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1. Based on the strength of the first volume, I picked up Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac.

Right off the bat, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac seemed like it was something of a misnomer; after all, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 1 had very powerfully introduced Brainiac to the narrative, so it seemed like readers already knew Brianiac was rising. Beyond that, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac is an anthology of the first four Ame-Comi Girls comic books to follow the introductory ("featuring X Character") series and it picks up immediately after Volume 1. As such, it is a story in progress and it is impossible to review Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac without referencing where Volume 1 left off. Unfortunately, because only the first two (of four) chapters deal with the dangling plotlines left from Volume 1, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac starts to feel like something of a cashgrab by transitioning awkwardly into the next story instead of having Volume 2 tell the whole next story. In other words, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac is an awkward bridge between two stories; the fast resolution to one and the slow build to another (without any resolution or strong character development). That fracture makes it a tougher sell than it ought to have been.

Opening with Wonder Woman squaring off against the black Kryptonite-infected Supergirl, the battle between the heroes and Brianiac's forces seems to be going quite poorly. As Batgirl, aboard Brainiac's ship, searches for a weakness, Wonder Woman finds the possessed Supergirl's weakness and utilizes the Lasso Of Truth to turn the tide of battle against her. Seeing which way the wind is blowing Duela Dent abandons Brainiac's ship. While Brainiac activates the computer at the Earth's core and sends devices up to the surface all around the Earth, the heroes fight off Brainiac's drones in Kansas. Power Girl makes it to the Earth's core, but finds it filled with giant, mechanical bees controlled by Brainiac. After Power Girl manages to communicate with the drones, she discovers that Brainiac is already in the core waiting for her!

Gaining access to Brainiac's ship leads Brainiac to shut off life support. Rising to the occasion, The Flash passes through the door and hunts down Brainiac as Power Girl fights the Brainiac in the Earth's core. After battling Brainiac, the alliance between the heroes begins to fracture when Power Girl becomes determined to save Supergirl's life, regardless of Wonder Woman's advice. Forming a Justice League to come together should another threat to Earth arise, the group splinters apart to return to their own lives.

Following the Brainiac Incident, in China, the blind mountain-climber Jade Yifei is in the middle of an ascent when she is attacked by the Flying Guillotine. Before she can hit the ground, though, she is chosen by Oa to be the Green Lantern of Sector 2814. Saving her family and getting her attacker to flee, Jade takes up the mantle of Green Lantern with surprising ease. In the anti-matter universe, Parallax finds a way through to the matter universe and on Earth's moon, Carol Ferris finds a downed space ship belonging to a Star Sapphire and she becomes one of the ringbearers for the violet light. Returning to Earth, Ferris attends a party where she steals James Olsen away from Kara Jor-El, in the process revealing herself to be a Star Sapphire. After a fight between Power Girl and the Star Sapphire, Kara Jor-El enlists Avril Palmer (The Atom) to aid her in saving Supergirl's life. The volume ends with the set-up for the next major conflict with a backstory detailing the rise of Sinestra!

First off, and I couldn't truly discuss this when writing about Volume 1 as it came right at the end, the black Kryptonite is one of the coolest ideas that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray brought to Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac. The transformation of Kara Zor-El into a villain under Brainiac's control is a cool idea that is executed fairly well in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac. In fact, Supergirl is only stopped by the Lasso Of Truth and that is treated as a temporary fix, with Kara Zor-El being in a state of mortal peril for pretty much all of Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac.

I was initially disappointed that Catwoman had survived the events of Volume 1 to participate in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac. After all, the artwork in the first book made it look like dark Supergirl has snapped her neck and the potential casualty lent some weight to the somewhat light volume. In Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac, Catwoman's survival is blithely described as a function of using up two of her nine lives and that is a bit disappointing as there is nothing else in the text to indicate Catwoman had anything remotely supernatural to her. Keeping her alive is sadly pointless given that she has no substantive role in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac.

There is something thematically disappointing about Steve Trevor's role in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac. As Power Girl and Wonder Woman form the Justice League, Steve Trevor is the voice of pragmatism and reason, the only one in the room discussing the legal ramifications of non-U.S. citizens launching military-style missions from U.S. soil and the superhero team including minors (Barbara Gordon and Carrie/Robin). Trevor is also the only one who brings up the idea that members of the team could be killed and that leads to liability issues. While Trevor's counterpoints to the budding Justice League are a good place to finally address "Girls" (as opposed to "Women") in the title, it is troubling that Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac uses a male character to negotiate practical and rational elements in a female-centered super hero team. In the real world, there are enough problems with getting women to work together for their common goals; it would have been refreshing in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac to see the female characters model it well for any young women actually reading the book.

In a similar way, Star Sapphire basically uses a love potion (mind control) on James Olsen and that pulls the reader way out of the narrative. In a book filled with accomplished, powerful women (including Carol Ferris, the way she is first introduced and described by Olsen), it seems particularly lowbrow that the Star Sapphire sells herself as the best looking woman at the party. It's a shallow reason for Olsen to want her and it does no service to the concept of love that the Star Sapphire is supposed to embody. For sure, the Green Lantern comics have had trouble reasonably and consistenly defining the Star Sapphires and their powers, but Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac is not doing any favors to the struggle by picking a pretty shallow portrayal of love with Ferris obsessed with Olsen. At least Kara Jor-El is rational enough to see Olsen's near-infidelity for what it truly was and not make the book go too far in the direction of melodrama.

On the opposite side, Princess Diana is presented in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac as a refreshingly strong character. Not at all plagued by self-doubt or a sense of melodrama, she comes across as a natural leader. Similarly, Kara Jor-El is characterized well as a powerful, articulate woman not requiring the traditional trappings of stereotypical American relationships. Jor-El is not jealous and her protective nature of James Olsen actually comes across in Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac as her desire to see her boyfriend not be victimized by a woman willing to use mind control over him.

The addition of Green Lantern to Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac is an interesting one and the book has a decent re-imagining of the Green Lanterns. Jade's mantra is different and her story sends the book in an entirely different direction. Her backstory is dwarfed by the extensive backstory given to Sinestra at the very end of the book. Sinestra, having once thwarted Brainiac on her own, becomes the next great villain for the Ame-Comi saga . . . right before the book ends.

Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac is somewhat sloppily written in that Kara Jor-El (Power Girl) is referenced as Kara Zor-El (Supergirl) is a scene where the artwork is clearly of Power Girl in her mundane outfit and Supergirl is still in stasis elsewhere in Metropolis.

Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac includes bonus features, in the form of rough character sketches for Brainiac at the end of the book. Between the variant cover gallery and the sketches, the bonus features are mildly amusing, but leave the reader wishing there were more story (substance) as opposed to fluff.

Despite being terribly short and broken up to sell more books as opposed to finish and begin narratives at logical places, Ame-Comi Girls Volume 2: Rise Of The Brainiac is still worth reading and a fun book.

For other books featuring characters that had Ame-Comi reworks, please check out my reviews of:
Wonder Woman: Gods And Mortals By George Perez
Superman: Brainiac By Geoff Johns
Harley Quinn: Power Outage By Amanda Connor

5/10

For other graphic novel reviews, please check out my Graphic Novel Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Come The End Of The Universe, Doctor Who Remains Ethical Through His "Journey's End!"


The Good: Performances, Donna Noble's character arc, Plot progression/resolution
The Bad: Martha Jones is woefully underused
The Basics: "Journey's End" manages to be fun, adventurous Doctor Who as it ties up the franchise Russell T. Davies had created.


I am not an expert on Doctor Who. In fact, of the pre-2005 Doctor Who, I have seen almost none. As a result, I am not exactly sure how long the conceit for the series had been in place about the number of times The Doctor can regenerate, but by the end of "Journey's End" and "The Day Of The Doctor," that conceit had pretty well been violated beyond any sensible continuity. After all, as "Journey's End" begins, The Doctor is regenerating and, with the retcon of The War Doctor (however that is justified by fans to be canon), by an objective count, marks the first appearance of the Twelfth Doctor! But, rather than quibble about such things, let's look at the fourth season finale of Doctor Who: "Journey's End."

"Journey's End" picks up in the seconds following "The Stolen Earth" (reviewed here!) and there is little point to discussing the episode without referencing the events of the prior episode. Indeed, it is pretty much impossible, given that this is the second part of a two-part episode and the first part worked very hard to bring back almost everyone significant from Russell T. Davies's tenure on Doctor Who. "Journey's End" brings back the two stragglers missing from the first part and completes the writer's love letter to Doctor Who in a way that is not only enjoyable for fans, but is a pretty solidly enjoyable hour of television!

Opening with The Doctor, Rose, Donna, and Harkness in The TARDIS after The Doctor was shot by a Dalek, The Doctor regenerates. Much to the chagrin of those present, he retains his present (David Tennant) form and channels some of his regeneration energy into his preserved hand, which is on the TARDIS bridge. On Earth, Sarah Jane is rescued by Micky and Rose's mother, while the Torchwood team is trapped in their building in order to keep the Dalek's out with a temporal lock. The Daleks abduct the TARDIS and Martha Jones travels to Germany with a key that will activate the world's nuclear arsenal and destroy the Earth.

When The Doctor, Rose, and Harkness disembark on the Crucible, Donna Noble remains on the TARDIS when the Dalek's send it to the heart of the Crucible to be destroyed. Before the TARDIS can be destroyed, though, Donna Noble regenerates The Doctor from his amputated hand and saves the ship. The new Doctor is human and has a connection to Donna. The Dalek's attempt to kill Harkness and Martha prepares to activate Earth's self-destruct mechanism, while The Doctor and Rose are brought before Davros and Dalek Caan. Davros and Caan have brought the stolen worlds together to create a reality bomb and The Doctor and his allies must thwart them before Martha destroys the world!

"Journey's End" is a packed little episode that allows fans of Doctor Who to (metaphorically) have their cake and eat it, too. The duplicate Doctor provides a satisfying resolution for Rose Tyler's arc and, in the process, makes Donna Noble into one of the most important Doctor Who characters ever! At long last, Donna Noble's character becomes remarkable and the way she is made special is a wonderful character twist that plays out brilliantly.

The flirting between The Doctor and Rose Tyler is a welcome reward for those who sat through the heartbreak of "The Parting Of The Ways" (reviewed here!) and "Doomsday" (reviewed here!). David Tennant and Billie Piper fall into perfect rhythm and chemistry as if they had never stopped working with one another and were truly into one another. Their reunion and their time together on screen for the bulk of "Journey's End" is a true treat to watch.

But flirting is nowhere near the peak of David Tennant's performance abilities in "Journey's End." Playing the role of the familiar Doctor and the new, human, Doctor, allows Tennant to express more range. The new Doctor has a great comedic introduction, which allows Tennant and Catherine Tate to play to their well-honed (from other projects) comedic banter. Tennant differentiates his human Doctor with a slightly agape mouth and exposition and epiphanies that come slower than normal, which helps to make for a new-feeling character.

At the other end, Catherine Tate has to play Donna as a Timelord and her comedic patter is an asset. Tate stretches her range by delivering technobabble exposition brilliantly.

As "Journey's End" progresses, it starts to eek toward the ridiculous as the allied of The Doctor move into check with the Daleks by producing not just one, but two, apocalyptic devices that can thwart their plans. Fortunately, "Journey's End" quickly redirects from the plot conceit to the intense character dilemma of the episode. The Doctor abhors violence, but to save existence itself, he is in position to authorize the destruction of Earth or the Crucible. The retrospective of (not even all!) the people who have died in the service of The Doctor is horrifying and recalling it has an effect on The Doctor. The Doctor's sense of compassion has often defined his character and in "Journey's End," that compassion is challenged. The moment is not belabored, but it helps to keep the show feeling very Doctor Who. And, its being revisited at the climax of the action helps to keep the character pure and the episode focused.

Outside a single special effect - Donna getting blasted - "Journey's End" has wonderful special effects. The restoration sequence might have incredibly wonky science, but it is well-rendered. Similarly, the thwarting of the Daleks is presented somewhat ridiculously, even though it is fun to watch.

"Journey's End" has a strong sense of resolution to it and the disgust The Doctor feels for his counterpart is a clever twist to the episode. "Journey's End" might underuse Martha Jones, but it packs a lot into the episode and is self-referential to Doctor Who while still managing to be entertaining and engaging for more casual viewers!

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of David Tennant as The Doctor here!
Thanks!]

For other sweeping season finales, please check out my reviews of:
"Call To Arms" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" - Daredevil
"Ascension" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

8.5/10

For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Barbie Returns Well To Hallmark With The 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie Ornament!


The Good: Good sculpt, Vivid coloring, Good balance
The Bad: Seems expensive, Inconsistent paint jobs
The Basics: The 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie is a decent ornament that is arguably Hallmark's best Barbie since it returned last year!


Last year, Hallmark Keepsake picked the license for producing Barbie ornaments and the return to the marketplace involved a lot of catch-up. 2016 allowed Hallmark to start producing some truly new ornaments and with the 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament, they prove that quality does not necessarily come from quantity. The 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is an obscure choice for an ornament, but Hallmark makes it (generally) work. For my review, I picked up one and looked at four other copies of the ornament, which made me realize that the execution of the 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is an inconsistently rendered ornament.

For those unfamiliar with them, Barbie dolls have been a leading trademarked doll (and model for female bodytypes pretty much guaranteed to result in back pain late in life) from Mattel for over seventy years. Hallmark Keepsake picked up the Barbie license in order to produce Christmas ornaments and Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie was one of several Barbie Hallmark ornaments released in 2016.

Basics

The Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament recreates the Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie doll that appears to have been based on a Wisconsin Cherry Festival Barbie doll. The ornament features the recognizable visage of Barbie with her blonde hair in pigtails and giant blue eyes. This Barbie is has the blonde pigtails with a slight upward curl at the bottoms flipped out to the side and bright red lipstick which is pretty iconic for the doll's head. The ornament has Barbie wearing blue jeans and a white shirt with little red and green cherries painted on it.

The Hallmark Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is made of a durable plastic and has the feminine icon standing alone, not even holding a pie for the alleged picnic! The 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is 4 1/4" tall, 1 1/8" wide and 1" deep and is incredibly well-sculpted. Barbie's hair is very detailed and includes a decent sculpt of aspects like the shirt collar and the belt. The 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie is wearing high heels and the sculpted detailing for the folded-up cuffs on the jeans is well-executed.

The paint job on the 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is inconsistent, which is unfortunate. The cherries on Barbie's shirt are immaculately detailed and was pretty impressive for any Hallmark ornament. Oddly, though, when I looked over other copies of the same ornament, the paint job was nowhere near as consistent on the ornaments other painted aspects. The belt buckle and the bright red fingernails on the 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament were rendered far sloppier than the cherries on the shirt.

Features

As a Hallmark Keepsake ornament, Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie could have a function like a sound chip or light effect, but does not. This is just an ornament, a comparatively low-cost option for fans of Barbie. I think it's disappointing that Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie does not have any articulation to her limbs or have her actually holding a cherry pie. It was well within the abilities of Hallmark to make the ornament articulated at least at the shoulders or neck, but they opted for a boring statue look for the ornament and that disappoints some, though it is consistent with prior Barbie ornaments.

Balance

As with all ornaments, the intent of the Hallmark Keepsake Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is to be hung on a Christmas Tree. And for those creating the ultimate Barbie Christmas Tree, the Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament is a good addition to the line. The ornament has the standard brass hook loop embedded into the top center of the character's head. From there, one hangs the ornament and this Barbie ornament is well balanced! Unlike the doll itself, which is almost impossible to get to stand up, the Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament has great balance and hangs very stable!

Collectibility

Hallmark Keepsake began delving into the collectibles market in 1991 with Star Trek when it introduced the exceptionally limited edition original U.S.S. Enterprise ornament (reviewed here!). Since then, they have branched out into every major franchise from Barbie to Gone With The Wind to Twilight. The Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament sold fairly well at my local Hallmark stores since Preview Weekend, but I suspect that its value will be shaky; those who get the sloppy paint jobs will blow out the ornament cheap, those who get the immaculately painted 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornaments will have cause to sell theirs at higher prices than the original release price.

Overview

Fans of Barbie will want the 2016 Cherry Pie Picnic Barbie ornament, but this is definitely an ornament fans should check out by unboxing to be sure they get one with the paint job that justifies its price.

For other Barbie ornament reviews, please check out:
2015 Celebration Barbie (Black)
2015 Barbie Celebration Set (2013/2014 Celebration Barbie)
2012 Barbie Provencale
2012 Brava, Ballerina! Barbie
2012 Holiday Celebration Barbie (Black)
2012 Holiday Celebration Barbie (Caucasian)
2012 Matinee Fashion Barbie - Final In The Series!
2012 Tweed Indeed Barbie
2011 Celebration Barbie (Black)
2011 Campus Sweetheart Barbie
2011 Prima Ballerina Barbie ornament
1996 Enchanted Evening Barbie ornament
1995 Barbie Debut (Brunette) - Club Exclusive
1994 Barbie Debut ornament

8/10

For other ornament reviews, please visit my Toy And Ornaments Review Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Supernatural Enters The Marvel Cinematic Universe With "The Ghost!"


The Good: Acting is fine, Some of the character leaps are interesting
The Bad: Plot is derivative and does not suck the viewer in, Shaky special effects, Emotionally unsatisfying character directions.
The Basics: "The Ghost" fractures the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet again to put them up against the first major (possibly supernatural) villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arguably one of the things that made the comic book-based universe so popular was that it surprisingly grounded in reality. Outside the Thor faction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a pretty strong sense of reality to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that the works try to justify everything with science and real-world concerns (like profit motive, war, and international boundaries preventing characters from having jurisdiction in territories). When Doctor Strange was announced as a project that would be pursued as a major cinematic work, that fundamental principle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going to be altered. Arguably to soften the market up for Doctor Strange, much as it had for other Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced the first major supernatural character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the season four premiere, "The Ghost." The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. picks up after major shifts in the MCU from the end of the third season (reviewed here!) and "The Ghost" forces some sense of change to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..

"The Ghost" is an episode that forces a sense of redefining for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. "The Ghost" picks up after the six month leap that capped off "Ascension" (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the the season premiere without some revelations of where the third season ended. After all, "Ascension" saw the end of two main cast members and the show then leapt ahead months in order to set up a sense of consequence and redefine S.H.I.E.L.D.

Ostensibly, the purpose of "The Ghost" is to introduce the supernatural character Ghost Rider to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Putting Ghost Rider in the MCU is an odd choice given that the character was licensed to Sony (at least in the United States) for its two cinematic outings. But more than that, Ghost Rider is a character more frequently associated with the "street level heroes" that Netflix has licensed, like Daredevil and Luke Cage, as opposed to the Inhumans, which have preoccupied the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the last two seasons. "The Ghost" puts Ghost Rider in play before Doctor Strange, softening the MCU up for the forthcoming surreal adventure. Ghost Rider is also an odd choice for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as neither of the two cinematic renditions of Ghost Rider have been particularly popular or successful; with all of the Marvel Comics character not yet added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, picking one that has not found its base in film is a weird choice. Of course, if Disney were to assert its authority over the property, it makes sense that Ghost Rider would appear on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as opposed to getting its own feature film, given that the film route has been proven somewhat inviolable.

Opening with members of Aryan Brotherhood out on a hunt, presumably to do violence, Daisy encounters one, who begs her for help. The white supremacist shoot at an oncoming car, whose driver survives a rocket hitting the car and takes ones of the Watchdogs away in his car. Coulson and Mack are recalled to base to investigate the new super-powered individual, with May letting them know that the new Director believes that they are letting Quake, as the media has dubbed Daisy, go free. Daisy visits the surviving racist in the hospital to get information on what it was that attacked the men and he references "the Rider" before he lets himself die. While one of the mobs gets what is supposed to be a weapon of great power - and appears to be a spirit in a box - Daisy comes face to face with The Rider, who is unphased by her powers. The Rider makes a bat light on fire and he squares off with Daisy while Coulson tries to take down the gang in Los Angeles that just released a spirit.

Simmons and Fitz are working on a virtual reality headset when Mack and Coulson come for a visit to get new tech. As Daisy follows the trail of The Rider, who threatens his prison with violence if he won't give up the information he wants. Elena Rodriguez meets Mack and Coulson as "official mission" cover before they head to Los Angeles, while Fitz meets Aida (Radcliffe's android) while visiting the scientist. After leaving S.H.I.E.L.D., Rodriquez visits Daisy and she gives the fugitive information and pills to help her regenerate her bones. Daisy encounters a man in Los Angeles who clues her into the idea that the man she is looking for is the Ghost Rider and that he has killed many people in that neighborhood.

"The Ghost" opens at a somewhat awkward storytelling position. While opening six months after Hive and Lincoln appeared to blow up allows some measure of reset, which allows Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to redefine itself. But, having two flash forward scenes - Daisy/Quake eluding Colson and Mac and Dr. Radcliffe building an android body for his AI - puts some burden on "The Ghost" because it forces viewers to accept something that has seldom been true in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; that the casualties from "Ascension" were real. It is hard for fans not to have some doubt that Hive was truly, irrevocably, killed and watch "The Ghost" waiting for Brett Dalton to pop up.

As one might expect, "The Ghost" bears the responsibility of setting up the new season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the initial antagonist does appear to be Ghost Rider with a side of Quake. "The Ghost" has the S.H.I.E.L.D. team that was once Coulson's fractured yet again and with Coulson working in the field, Daisy gone, May teaching the new recruits and Fitz and Simmons working away from all of them. Given that the prior two seasons have had essentially the same set-up, "The Ghost" feels derivative.

"The Ghost" starts off at an odd place in having the adversaries being "Aryan Brotherhood," when director Billy Gierhart has one of them holding a mask that is virtually identical to one work by The Watchdogs last season. Why Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. adds another hate group to the show when there was a very relevant one in the past season - especially in an episode that has what appears to be a supernatural character (so they are not that worried about being grounded in reality) - is something of a mystery at the episode's outset (though it does sell Mack's line about "brothers" amusingly enough).

Because "The Ghost" is so busy laying out a new framework for the season's plot, there is minimal character development in the episode. Jemma Simmons is given the greatest sense of character redefinition from the prior seasons as the medical doctor is put in a position of authority within the new S.H.I.E.L.D., which has her isolated from her prior team in a way that makes her interactions with people like May very tense. Simmons seems to be a character that the writers don't quite know how to make interesting, so this is the third major recharacterization of Simmons since Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. began. The problem with redefining Simmons as a leader in the way that she is in "The Ghost" is that it is such a character leap for the introverted scientist that it feels instantly inorganic. In "The Ghost," viewers are not given the emotional payoff for how and why Simmons would leave working so closely with Fitz behind after years of the two having an incredibly satisfying working relationship. In fact, Simmons pined for Fitz when she was in a hopeless situation stranded on the far side of the universe, so her being willing to leave him to take a more management-style role within S.H.I.E.L.D. requires a lot of explanation to make the leap satisfying or believable.

The only character who has been redefined more from the main characters is Daisy. In "The Ghost," Daisy is rogue who is not truly hunted by Coulson, though he is supposed to recover the fugitive. Like Simmons, Daisy is supposed to have made a believable leap between who she was and who she is now and the viewer is supposed to believe that she went all Goth and rogue because she lost Lincoln Campbell. Daisy searched her whole life for her family, lost them and came back to work the next day; the viewer is supposed to believe that the half-assed romantic relationship that was a c- or d-plot throughout parts of the prior two seasons of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. were enough to set her off.

The c-plot in "The Ghost" features the introduction of Aida, who fans of Marvel Comics will recognize as, essentially, a Life Model Decoy. Aida is the scientific foil to the supernatural Ghost Rider and she is presented as a lithe young woman untouched by special effects. Her introduction is not particularly compelling - her not being seen in the prior season's finale was quite simply the result of the part not yet being cast.

The special effects in "The Ghost" are decidedly mixed. When Ghost Rider is revealed in the final act, the effect is impressive, but the blue-screen shot for Simmons's introduction is painfully obvious. The initial car flip in "The Ghost" is not overly impressive or believable, but it is not terrible.

Ultimately, though, the goal of a season premiere is to make viewers want to tune in to the next week's episode and the season that follows. "The Ghost" is, to be fair, an ambitious premiere, but I kept waiting for the episode to pop, for there to be some hook that made me care. Instead, "The Ghost" contradicts the notions of Lash (that Inhumans ultimately change permanently), seems like a redundant adversary (the Inhuman Hive made last season appears to have essentially the same abilities) and implies a past that seems virtually impossible to retcon. If the Ghost Rider has been active for long enough to have the whole wall in tribute in Los Angeles, he has been doing his thing for a while . . . entirely under the radar of every superhero in the MCU. "The Ghost" asks the viewer to swallow a lot and it never quite makes the viewer want to . . . or want to come back next week.

For other season premieres from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., be sure to check out my reviews of:
"Pilot"
"Shadows"
"Laws Of Nature"

4/10

For other reviews of elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of all those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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