Thursday, March 5, 2015

All The Most ? Of International Opinion: The Week!


The Good: Some well-culled articles, Interesting opinions, Delightfully low on ads
The Bad: No original reporting, Old news, Poor labeling of source’s authority
The Basics: Reprinting quite a range of opinion and soft news pieces from around the world, The Week is a hard-sell for a magazine in a world with trending topics on social media.


As a last-minute holiday gift last year, my father gave me a gift subscription to The Week. By that, I mean that everything else had been delivered when all of a sudden, I started getting The Week and I got a card announcing the gift subscription (he may have had it planned for months). I think it’s sweet that my father – who has long encouraged me to “get a real job” and “grow up and get into a career” which would offer me some stability – thinks that I have time to sit and read magazines as I wheel and deal, scrimp and move money around to try to pay the monthly bills on time. Self-employed people might seem like they have it made by not being bound to schedules, but the burden is on us to actually make and meet deadlines and that leaves me with a growing reading pile that now includes a weekly magazine.

But perhaps my father knew of my lifestyle’s inherent drawback when he gave me the gift subscription to The Week. Instead of getting me a subscription to a lengthy, wordy magazine that would engage and challenge me, he gave me a subscription to The Week, which seems to be the world news equivalent of Reader’s Digest (reviewed here!).

The Week is a 38 page magazine which reprints selections from other publications each week with little more depth than the “Trending Topics” column on Facebook. Major news stories are broken down into one to five paragraph blurbs that tend to give a very limited accounting of what the event being reported is before presenting well-culled opinions on the story. As a result, a paragraph in the average The Week article will elaborate on the headline before various pundits are quoted with their opinions on that story. The result is a publication that does not look for facts, subtlety or depth; this is not where one goes for a chain of evidence that exposes the next breaking story or scandal. The Week is barely where one would go to learn about opposing opinions on the trending topics from last week.

What readers can expect in The Week then are news blurbs that are a week old and other people’s opinions on them. While The Week might cull from respectable news sources, the full list of citations requires a trip to the website for the publication. I find that problematic because the mix of people cited within The Week seems to range from experts in the field to pundits with no clear authority on the subject being given equal weight. So, for example, in the March 6, 2015 issue of The Week, an article on Russia and the Ukraine cites opinions from Andrew Korybko, Rotislav Ischenko, Dmitriy Korotkov, and Andrei Lipsky with about equal weight and space for their opinions. Having absolutely no prior knowledge of anything about the situation in the Ukraine, it was virtually impossible to read the three paragraph “article” and come away with either an opinion or a sense that I even had any facts. Four pundits are quoted using judgmental terms – “illegal overthrow,” “neo-Nazi,” “anarchic” – and vague opinion-based words (“surely,” “probably,” “seamy”) and, despite their publications being cited, I have absolutely no knowledge of the veracity of any of their claims. The summary line that declares that there is now “proof” falls dramatically short of that assertion based on the text that precedes it. In other words, a bunch of people I’ve never heard of (Are they reporters? Pundits? Government officials? Whistleblowers with top secret clearance?) writing for magazines, newspapers and websites I’ve never heard of are writing opinions about a subject only vaguely detailed in The Week and I’m supposed to come away from it . . . informed? Convinced? Opinionated? Emotionally affected? At the end of reading the “article,” I am no more informed or educated than I was after reading the headline.

I was going to write more about The Week (about how few advertisements were in it, though I was going to object that their “best properties on the market” was essentially free advertising for the real estate agents they covered, how laughable their entertainment coverage was, etc.), but in this case, that says it all for the magazine. The Week is a glorified Facebook Trending Topics feed (with the top three comments) in printed form. Now I just hope my father didn’t overpay for the subscription . . .

For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
The Bark
Decision
American Baby

1.5/10

For other book and magazine reviews, please visit my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Power Lead-In: “Army Of Ghosts” Sets The Stage Masterfully!


The Good: Engaging plot, Moments of character, Effects
The Bad: Sets up and has to explain a ton of plot details
The Basics: “Army Of Ghosts” sets up another powerful Doctor Who season finale, though it is largely dependent upon seeing the rest of the season to understand the magnitude of the events in it.


There are few hours of television that I have seen over and over again that I have more of an emotional reaction to the more I see it. While Doctor Who is one of the newer shows that I have gotten into, “Army Of Ghosts” is one of the few episodes that I have more and more of a reaction to. The episode opens with a monologue – which traditionally I abhor – that has Rose declaring that this is the story of how her journey with The Doctor came to an end. Hearing her open the episode with that declaration, chokes me up more and more when I rewatch the episode.

And it is worth it. “Army Of Ghosts” is an obvious set-up episode, the first part of a two-parter and it is one of the stronger penultimate episodes of a season. Even knowing that the episode is not actually the last time Rose Tyler will be seen, the episode does a decent job of setting up a good send-off for her. More than that, “Army Of Ghosts” ties the second season of Doctor Who together well. Answering the peppered mystery of who/what the Torchwood Institute is that began in “The Christmas Invasion” (reviewed here!), “Army Of Ghosts” is well-constructed even if it is a bit light on character development and heavy with setting up plot points.

Opening with Rose considering her life before and after she met The Doctor, Rose and The Doctor return to Earth. Rose is miffed when her gift of bazoolium from an alien market does not phase Jackie at all. Instead, Jackie tells Rose that her dead grandfather is about to appear. Moments later, ghostly shadows appear, including one that Jackie claims is her father and another that passes through The Doctor. The Doctor discovers from Jackie that for the past two months, “ghosts” have been appearing at regular intervals. The “ghosts” seem to be manipulated or measured by the Torchwood Institute, which is also investigating a mysterious sphere that seems to exist visually, but not in any other measurable way.

When a Cyberman appears at Torchwood, where it absorbs a pair of workers who want to play hooky to snog, The Doctor and Rose set up a trap for one of the “ghosts.” That trap draws the attention of the Torchwood Institute and its leader, Yvonne Hartman. When the TARDIS, with Jackie Tyler still aboard, is arrives at the Torchwood Institute, Hartman incarcerates The Doctor and Jackie (who is impersonating Rose). The Doctor is able to identify the mysterious sphere as a Void Ship, an impossible vessel used to travel the space between dimensions. After learning about Torchwood and its obsession with the Void Ship, The Doctor convinces Hartman not to run the next Ghost Shift to allow “ghosts” to exploit the cracks in dimensions caused by the Void Ship’s arrival in our universe. But after Rose is captured by Torchwood, the Cybermen-influenced Torchwood employees start a Ghost Shift that will completely change the world.

“Army Of Ghosts” is a wonderful set-up episode, even if it is plot-heavy. While Torchwood was formed at the climax of “Tooth And Claw” (reviewed here!), exactly what they have been up to since Queen Victoria has been a mystery. That mystery is answered in “Army Of Ghosts.” The episode also marks the return of Mickey, who appeared lost in “The Age Of Steel” (reviewed here!). “Army Of Ghosts” is well-constructed, despite lacking a resolution. The episode seeds two huge anomalies: the ghosts and the void ship and before the end, the mystery of each of those anomalies is solved. That is refreshing.

“Army Of Ghosts” has a great sense of rising action. While the episode starts with one of the most goofy premises of any episode in the modern Doctor Who and it predictably develops beyond that premise. Fans of Doctor Who will instantly know what Jackie Tyler does not; the ghosts cannot be ghosts and so there is a thrill of discovery as to what they are. Devoted fans – the ones who will be thrilled by the return of the Cybermen – will be able to call well in advance their return based on nothing else but the preponderance of Bluetooth-like headsets around Torchwood.

For an episode that is promising the death of Rose Tyler, the biggest character moment actually comes from Mickey. Mickey returns to our universe confident, smart and surprisingly badass. When he rescues Rose Tyler and details what happened in the universe he was left in, he is almost a completely different character. Mickey and Noel Clarke, who portrays him, is undeniably watchable in “Army Of Ghosts.”

Beyond that, David Tennant is a predictable scene-stealer in “Army Of Ghosts.” Tennant has good chemistry on-screen with Billie Piper in the episode, but he is actually stuck on his own or with Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne) for the bulk of the episode. Tennant has some wonderful physical performance moments as he peers into special effects that clearly were not present when he shot the scenes. He “sells” the universe of Doctor Who beautifully through his acting.

Ultimately, “Army Of Ghosts” is a fun set-up episode that distracts viewers from the impending doom of Rose Tyler creating a mystery that it then resolves! That sets its sequel episode, “Doomsday” up for an hour of delighting viewers for a conflict they have waited decades for.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Second 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 Tenth Doctor here!
Thanks!]

For other big penultimate episodes, please check out my reviews of:
“Dark Water” - Doctor Who
“Bounty” - Star Trek: Enterprise
“Darkness Falls” - The X-Files

7/10

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

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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As Overdone As Han Solo Figures Are . . . The Echo Base Outfit Han Solo Figure Still Holds Up!


The Good: Decent coloring detail, Good accessories, Wonderful articulation, Great balance
The Bad: Jacket undermines some flexibility, Face mask does not stay on on its own.
The Basics: The Vintage Collection Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) is a decent variant of the familiar Han Solo figure!


As a fan of The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars action figures, I have an unfortunate number of Han Solo action figures, though I don’t mind. The latest one I managed to find was the Vintage Collection Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) action figure and it was, generally, worth the wait in picking up.

For those unfamiliar with the Han Solo, as he appeared at the Echo Base on Hoth, this was one of his first outfits in which he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!). While Han Solo and Chewbacca worked to fix the Millennium Falcon so it could lift up off the planet Hoth, Han Solo wore a heavy padded jacket and worked with welding tools. This is essentially the same outfit that he would later wear on Bespin, but without the distinctive navy blue jacket and with a long black winter coat instead.

The 4" Vintage Collection Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) was a new Hoth Han Solo figure.

Basics

The Vintage Collection Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) figure stands 3 3/4" tall to the top of his head. The figure is obviously human with the general look of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. This figure is cast with a mix of hard and soft plastics, but looks and holds up remarkably well. This rendition of the Hoth Han Solo features a pretty standard Han Solo head, a molded-on jacket sleeves, and the appropriate boots with the pants tucked into them. Notable details on this version of the Bespin Han Solo include the holster for his blaster that looks remarkable and holds his blaster perfectly and his fingers which are distinct and include both knuckles and fingernails! The real masterwork of molding, though, is in this Han Solo’s belt. The belt is molded to include every buckle, every pouch and every rivet and it looks amazing! The figure’s chest is coated with a soft plastic coat that descends almost to the knees. The jacket is accented by a hood that it textured and colored to look like fur. The coat is just a little larger at the sleeve holes than it should be, so the white shirt Han Solo is wearing beneath the coat is visible near the sleeves, which is ridiculous.

The Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) is colored remarkably well, as good as it can be for a character who is wearing so many solid colors. Despite the monotonal skin coloring on the head and hands, the hair has highlights and the eyes are expertly colored with brown dots with tiny black pupils! The rest of the figure is appropriately monotonal with highlights. The jacket, shirt and boots are solid colors. The brown pants, however, feature the racing stripe on the side, as is appropriate. The lips on this figure are uncolored. All in all, though, this figure looks exceptionally good.

Accessories

The Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) is the Rebel smuggler and comes with his welding tool, face mask and a blaster pistol. This version of the Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) features separate a face mask, which he was seen utilizing as he welded atop the Millennium Falcon. The face mask has a stick that can be held in the figure’s left hand. The face mask does not have a translucent panel and it is cast and painted with monotonal accents. The face mask does not remain on the figure’s head at all. When the figure is holding the face mask’s stick, it cannot actually hold the mask directly in front of the figure’s face.

This Han Solo figure also features a welding tool, which has a long staff that allows him to be away from the welding point. This welding tool is a 1 3/4" tall device that is cast in plastic and accented with white, silver and red accents. The welding tool matches well the rest of the Han Solo figure. He can hold this in either or both of his hands.

The Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) also comes with a pretty standard version of Han Solo’s blaster pistol. It is a 3/4" long plastic gun with dual scopes that fits perfectly in the holster on Han’s right thigh or in his right hand. It does not fit organicallt into his left hand. However, this is an exceptionally detailed accessory with black and silver accents for the various parts. It is actually amazing how much detail Hasbro can squeeze into an accessory as small as this!

Playability

The four inch toy line was designed for play and Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) is exceptional for that. This Hoth Han Solo figure has pretty amazing balance, not tipping over despite being put in very complex poses. In addition, the holes in the bottom of his feet allow him to stand tall on any number of playsets in outlandish poses or attach to pegs on vehicles, including the latest Millennium Falcon toy!

The Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) also has almost lifelike articulation. He has hinged ball and socket joints at the ankles, knees, elbows and shoulders, as well as a ball and socket joint which allows a great range of motion for the head and bust! The groin socket, wrists and waist are the only simple swivel joints. This is the best-articulated Hoth Han Solo yet, despite some of the articulation being inhibited by his jacket!

Collectibility

The Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) is part of the Vintage Collection line that was released in 2010 and he was a pegwarmer at the time. Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) is Vintage Collection figure VC03 and he was not released more than once. As a result, it has barely maintained his value without truly appreciating.

Overview

The Vintage Collection Han Solo (Echo Base Outfit) action figure might be yet another Han Solo figure for one’s collection, but it fits the newer line of well-detailed, highly articulated figures exceptionally well. This is an obscure rendition of Han Solo, but it is well-executed.

For other Vintage Collection figures of characters from The Empire Strikes Back, please check out my reviews of:
VCP03 Boba Fett
VC01 Dengar
VC05 AT-AT Commander
VC9 Boba Fett
VC10 4-LOM
VC11 (Twin Pod) Cloud Car Pilot
VC50 Han Solo (Bespin Outfit)
VC61 Boba Fett (Prototype Armor) Mail-In
VC65 TIE Fighter Pilot
VC95 Luke Skywalker (Hoth Outfit)
VC111 Princess Leia Organa (Bespin Outfit)

8/10

For other Star Wars toy reviews, please check out my 3.75” Star Wars Toy Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Back To The Beginning With Nightwish: Angels Fall First (My March Artist Of The Month!)


The Good: Voice is good, One or two lyrics
The Bad: Most of the music is amelodic, Obscured lyrics, Repetitive sound
The Basics: The debut of Nightwish foreshadows well what the group would become with Angels Fall First!


My wife is a real trooper when it comes to my music reviews. For music reviews, I insist on listening to each album at least seven times (usually, I am on the eighth spinning when I write the review) and more often than not, I choose an Artist Of The Month that my wife has no real interest in. Even the artists she likes that I immerse myself in, she gets sick from the repetition of their albums. So, this month, I gave her the choice of who I would study for the month. She narrowed it down to Nightwish and Bat For Lashes. Bat For Lashes only lost out only because they have so few albums (and I have already reviewed one!). So, my March Artist Of The Month is Nightwish and I am starting my study of them at their beginning with Angels Fall First.

If Angels Fall First is any indication, March is going to feel like a long month! As a fan of music with melodies, powerful lyrics that may be easily comprehended (for clarity, if not meaning), Nightwish is off to a bad start. Fortunately, the Finnish rock band has potential and the fundamentals for the group are not bad, even on their debut.

With only nine tracks, clocking out at 51:39, Angels Fall First is the symphonic metal debut of the Finnish band Nightwish. While it is mostly in English, the final track, “Lapland,” has extensive Finnish in the vocals. The lyrics were all written by Tuomas Holopainen (who is one of the bandmembers) and the songs were entirely composed by the band. The vocals and instruments are all performed and played by Nightwish and the album was produced by Holopainen and the band. At least at the time, this is very much the creative vision of the band Nightwish.

Instrumentally, Angels Fall First is a lot of electric guitars, bass and synthesizers. This is a loud album and after at least eight listens to it, I don’t think I could pick out a single tune from it. That is because the songs are largely amelodic. Much of the guitarwork is seemingly random thrashing on the guitars. “Elvenpath” opens the album with quiet keyboards and spoken word before the guitars explode to assault the ears with intensity and passionately-delivered vocals. The album continues with strong percussion and guitars acting more like percussive instruments than harmonizing melodymakers. The result is very much a “love it or hate it” sound . . . and one that is objectively very repetitive over the course of the nine songs on the album.

Vocally, Nightwish is led on Angels Fall First by Tarja Turunen and she has an impressive soprano voice. She sings with power and enthusiasm and pretty decent lung capacity. What she lacks, however, is the ability to articulate in English while emoting and carrying the notes. As a result, much of the poetics of Nightwish’s songs is lost to the overbearing instrumental accompaniment and her lack of enunciation. My wife was convinced one of the lines on the album was “sacrifice me to the Care Bears” and I could not contest her assertion based on Turunen’s vocals.

Lyrically, much of Angels Fall First is simply fantasy music. “Elvenpath” is a musical recitation of the creation of the One Ring. “Beauty And The Beast” is a musical retelling of that classic fairy tale. Fortunately, the Nightwish songs on Angels Fall First are not simply verbatim retellings of the familiar fantasy stories. Holopainen puts a very different twist on each of the stories he makes musical, usually from a more emotionally-realized perspective. So, for example, he recalls “Beauty And The Beast” with the lines “Remember the first dance we shared? / Recall the night you melted my uglyness away? / The night you left with a kiss so kind / Only a scent of beauty left behind / Ah, dear friend I remember the night / The moon and the dreams we shared / Your trembling paw in my hand / Dreaming of that northern land / Touching me with a kiss of a beast.”

Nightwish is not limited to only European fairy tales for their songs. They go into Christian rock territory on “The Carpenter” and they sing about Finland on the four-part “Lapland.” But their poetics are largely obscured by clashing guitars that create a mood more than tell a story/make a statement. The result is a debut that is fairly incoherent and unfortunately unimpressive.

For other previous Artist Of The Month selections, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Educated Guess - Ani DiFranco
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
Liz Phair - Liz Phair

3/10

For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Fiber One Makes Granola?! Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond Cereal Is All Right!


The Good: Good ingredients, Wonderful flavor
The Bad: Surprisingly not terribly nutritious!
The Basics: General Mills Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond gives Fiber One a granola twist that is not unpleasant, but not incredibly nutritious, either!


Over the years, one of the cereals that has intrigued me most with the way it has been franchised is Fiber One. I enjoy Fiber One cereal (reviewed here!), but I know that it is something of an acquired taste and that I am in the minority of loving the “fish food” cereal. So, trying to diversify from the original cereal makes sense to me and seems to be a good strategy for General Mills. The latest flavor of the franchise I have tracked down is Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond. Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond is notable in that it is a granola cereal, instead of a flake or “pellet” cereal like other Fiber One variants I have reviewed.

At $3.99 a box (locally), Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond is competitively priced for a granola cereal. I lucked out and found mine on clearance, so I am unsure how much longer Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond granola cereal will be on the market.

Basics

General Mills Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is a very basic granola cereal with a limited dried fruit additive. The cereal comes in a 15.8 oz. box and that’s a little larger than traditional granola boxes. The cereal is comprised of entirely irregular clusters and pieces that range from looking like flat oats to puffed rice pieces. Occasionally, there are tiny pieces of dried cranberries. The almonds are so broken up that they blend entirely with the rest of the granola.

The standard box of Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is 15.8 oz. That represents approximately eight servings and that is about what I managed to get from my box. This cereal is comprised of just the clusters and dried fruit without any other embellishment or additives.

Ease Of Preparation

Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is a breakfast cereal, so this is one of the low-impact breakfast options as far as preparation goes! Simply open the box of Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal, pour out a one cup serving (I recommend actually using a measuring cup, especially if you are monitoring your intake) and add 1/2 cup of milk to it. I have discovered, as part of getting healthy, that one of the biggest challenges one might have with breakfast cereal is actually eating the serving size recommended by the manufacturer. This is not a problem with Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond, though, as the one cup serving seems to be a pretty decent amount of the cereal!

For the purposes of my reviews, and my regular consumption, I only use skim milk (fat free) milk with cereal. When milk is added to Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal, much of it gets absorbed into the cereal over the course of ten minutes (so eat it quickly if you want milk and crunchy cereal!).

Taste

Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond smells like honey without any hint of cranberry to it. The aroma is very faint and is accented by the addition of milk. On its own, it only has a scent when one gets one’s nose right up in it!

Without milk, the sweetness of the honey competes with the fairly bland, oat flavor of the granola clusters. The sourness of the occasional cranberry piece is limited to the bite in which the cranberry appears. There is no distinct or noticeable flavor from the almonds in this granola. The honey flavor is fairly weak, especially compared to the grainy granola that dominates the palate.

With milk, the sweetness spreads throughout the entire bowl. Milk also manages to help eliminate the cereals inherent dryness and grainy primary flavor. Interestingly, the addition of milk completely sublimates any flavor from the dried cranberries in the Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal. With the addition of milk, Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond simply becomes a honey-flavored crunchy cereal.

The Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond granola leaves no distinct aftertaste once one is done consuming it.

Nutrition

General Mills Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is fairly nutritious on its own and with skim milk! Made primarily of whole grain oats, sugar and crisp rice the Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond ingredient list is mostly natural and familiar. This cereal has some preservatives in it, but it also has a separate list of vitamins and minerals, which implies that this is another cereal that has nutrients sprayed onto it. That makes it very important to drink the milk after one has consumed the actual cereal.

A single serving of General Mills Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is 55 grams or 1 cup. In that serving, there are 220 calories, with 45 calories coming from fat. There is half a gram of saturated, but no trans fats in this cereal, nor is there any cholesterol. With 140 mg of sodium and 5 grams of dietary fiber, this is not a bad dietary choice for those striving to improve heart health. With an impressive six grams of protein and 115 mg potassium, Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond is not bad, but it is not one of the more nutrient-loaded breakfast cereals on the market. Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal only has more than 10% of the RDA of one nutrient (15% of one’s daily Iron).

General Mills includes an allergy warning for wheat, soy, almonds, milk, and pecans, so it is not vegan compliant. It is not marked as Kosher, either.

Storage/Cleanup

Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond is a cereal, so as long as it is kept sealed in its box, it ought to remain fresh for quite some time. Obviously, when you are done pouring the cereal from the box, fold down the plastic inner wrap to help maintain the cereal’s freshness.

Cleaning up after Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is simple as well. Simply brush away crumbs left by it and you are done! It is that easy! This is a cereal that barely discolors the milk added to it, but because you should drink that up to get all the vitamins and minerals General Mills added to the cereal, that shouldn’t be an issue with staining.

Overall

Fiber One Protein Cranberry Almond cereal is not bad, but it is hardly an extraordinary rendition of granola. That makes it a very average breakfast cereal.

For other General Mills cereals, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Peanut Butter Toast Crunch
Multigrain Cheerios Peanut Butter Cereal
Cinnamon Burst Cheerios

5/10

For other food reviews, please visit my Food Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the food reviews I have written!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Partial Payoff, Partial Tease, “Aftershocks” Advances Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.!


The Good: Performances, Moments of character, Mood, Special effects
The Bad: Plot is virtually non-existent.
The Basics: Likely working better in context, “Aftershocks” reflects on the powerful events of the prior episode while making minimal exploration of the fundamental characters of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..


Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns at an awkward time. After weeks of being pre-empted by the period spy show Agent Carter, also set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and at a time when House Of Cards fans are still binging on the just-released season three (reviewed here!), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally returns to television.

Given the climactic events of “What They Become” (reviewed here!), the new episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., comes in at an awkward position. The burden on “Aftershocks” is to illustrate that the investment viewers have had in Skye is a good one. Since the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., there has been the tease that Skye is something other than human. Her father, introduced in the second season, has been teased as being non-human as well and in “What They Become,” it seemed that Skye would make a dramatic transformation, which would reveal her true nature. “Aftershocks” was set up to explore what Skye was after encountering the Obelisk in the alien temple . . . and it ends up as more of a tease than a payoff for the faith viewers have had. Even so, it is remarkably satisfying on the level of human drama than many spy shows after cataclysmic events.

Opening in 1983 in a laboratory where Gordon, an eyeless young man who inexplicably teleports around his cell, Jiaying is revealed to be a shepherd of people who have undergone such dramatic transformations. Skye wakes up in quarantine where she mourns the loss of Trip. There, Coulson commits to bringing down H.Y.D.R.A. and declaring their mission a success – whatwith Whitehall being killed. While H.Y.D.R.A. meets to consider a successor to Whitehall within their organization, Raina, altered by her encounter with the obelisk, kills S.H.I.E.L.D. workers to escape the alien temple.

Simmons blows the temple and Coulson reassembles his team to hunt H.Y.D.R.A. Coulson prepares to trade Bakshi for information on H.Y.D.R.A. with Talbot, when he and May are waylaid by a truck. Setting Bakshi up to lure Coulson’s team back to their H.Y.D.R.A. base, Simmons returns to base where she compares Skye’s blood with Raina’s altered DNA. Raina, for her part, reunites with Calvin Zabo (Skye’s father) where she questions exactly what has happened to her. Hunter leads Morse to H.Y.D.R.A.’s headquarters, where Bakshi attempts to kill him and Morse. In the ensuing showdown, H.Y.D.R.A.’s leadership turns on each other creating a power vacuum.

“Aftershocks” makes it very hard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to no entirely accept mutants. While Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch were seen in the post-credits scene to the otherwise grounded Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been largely unable to utilize or acknowledge the Fox-owned Marvel X-Men mutants. “Aftershocks” entirely shakes up the real-world formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Gordon, Raina and Skye. The burden it puts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to explain how wealthy, powerful, brilliant, and well-informed individuals like Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Nick Fury would not know about “mutants” in the next major Marvel movie.

On the character front, Mac asserts himself as one of the more interesting characters of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in “Aftershocks.” Mac, who was possessed in the prior two episodes leads Fitz to an oblique reference to “Yes Men” (reviewed here!), takes an episode that is packed with supernatural/extraordinary and roots it with a realistic character that is very appealing to the audience. Mac grounds the audience well and he makes the episode far more accessible – even if his key scene is interrupted by Skye having a telekinetic incident.

The confrontation between Raina and Zabo is an intriguing one. While Zabo is now obsessed with revenge on Coulson because Coulson robbed him of the opportunity to kill Whitehall, Raina seeks guidance. Raina has been transformed into a mutant with porcupine spines and Zabo implies that she has the ability to change her form or control her mutations, which keeps Raina in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a wild card.

“Aftershocks” is notable in that its tone is a clear departure from the action-adventure tone of prior episodes. Instead, Coulson’s team is reeling from the death of Tripp and their sense of loss is expressed by every member of the team. Each of the performers in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is given a moment to plumb the emotional depths of their characters. “Aftershocks” gives both Chloe Bennet and Iain De Caestecker the chance to truly let loose in ways they have not previously. Bennet plays Skye as afraid and suspicious in a somewhat minimalist way that plays to her talents.

Iain De Caestecker has had the biggest transformation in his performance of Fitz over the course of the series. After delivering mostly technobabble in the first season, De Caestecker has spent the first several episodes of the second season essentially in shock, playing Fitz as diminished by brain damage. In “Aftershock,” he is assertive, intuitive and De Caestecker plays that out without going over-the-top. The resolution to Fitz’s arc is an interesting one and it affords a great chance for both De Caestecker and Bennet to advance their characters in new and interesting ways in forthcoming episodes.

But “Aftershocks” belabors the set-up more than the substantive reflection on the prior episode. Raina is given more of an exploration of the effects of the Obelisk than Skye is. Sure, she moves things around with her mind, but the full extent of how Skye was altered is not known and only Fitz is clued into the truth. While the emotional ramifications of the prior episode are followed-through well in “Aftershocks,” the plot points are far less compelling.

The result is an episode that might enhance the serialized aspects of the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. but holds up less well on its own.

6.5/10

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

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee Might Well Be The Ultimate Baseline Espresso!


The Good: Good taste, Appropriately caffeinated
The Bad: Not the strongest espresso flavor, Comparatively pricey
The Basics: Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is a wonderful baseline blend for ground espressos, even if it is a little more expensive than comparable blends.


Recently, my incredible wife picked me up a home espresso maker. I’m not sure if the five year anniversary was supposed to be coffee or if she just was inspired, but for our fifth wedding anniversary, she gave me a whole espresso making system with all sorts of goodies and accessories. Ever since, I have been experimenting more with new ground espressos, creamers, and coffee flavorings (I found a wonderful local distributor for Torani syrups!) both for review and personal enjoyment. For the espresso I use as a baseline to explore flavored coffee additives, I find I keep returning to Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso. Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso coffee is a dark roast coffee that lives up to its flavor potential, without being overbearing to the palate.

Basics

One of the premium coffee roasters and distributors in the United States and Europe, Illy produces a number of blends. Medium Roast Ground Espresso is one of the more subtle blends by Illy that I have found in stores and for the 8.8 oz. metal canister, it is priced a little higher than most of its competitors. Apparently, Illy is under the impression that people cannot easily find whole bean coffee and an incredible coffee grinder in order to make espresso-quality ground coffee. Medium Roast Ground Espresso is one of the few blends made explicitly for espresso makers and it yields a decent cup of espresso. Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso comes in an 8.8 oz. metal canister of ground coffee. Because it is not whole bean, no grinding is required. With a metal lid that one simply lifts off, the Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is easily protected from absorbing scents of other foods. The container is fairly smooth and easy to handle.

Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is an aromatic blend in the canister and it is only mildly caffeinated.

Ease Of Preparation

Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is remarkably easy to prepare, no advanced culinary degrees necessary! First, open the can. Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is vacuum sealed when first purchased, but it has only a foil seal to get through to break the vacuum seal. After removing the foil seal, procure a scoop (not included) and measure out the ground espresso beans to the proportions of your espresso maker/serving. Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is intended for espresso coffee makers, like my Mr. Coffee Espresso Coffee maker (reviewed here!). This is NOT an instant coffee. As a result, it needs to be brewed.

Taste

The Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee smells surprisingly lightly of coffee, despite being an espresso drink. When brewed, this is not the most aromatic blend, though it does smell like coffee.

On the tongue, the Illy Medium Roast is a bitter, powerful espresso beverage. It starts bitter with a very dry aftertaste that lasts in the mouth for about thirty seconds before finishing bitter. Each sip of this espresso restores the bitter flavor to the mouth and reaffirms that this is a powerful espresso. The flavor of this coffee is equivalent to about double the strength of most dark roast coffees, making it pretty much the archetype of an espresso.

With a flavor syrup or frothed milk, the Illy Medium Roast Espresso is a powerful dark coffee flavor without the bitterness of the unadulterated espresso. This espresso continues to assert its coffee flavor while still allowing the creamer, steamed milk, or flavor syrups to flavor the beverage.

Nutrition

This is coffee, not something that appears on the nutrition pyramid! Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee does not contribute anything to one's daily recommended allowance of anything. In fact, the canister lists only 100% Arabica coffee as the only ingredient.

This is a caffeinated blend, though the container notes it has a caffeine content not greater than 1.5%. Outside that, there are no nutritional notes for the coffee on the canister.

Storage/Clean-up

Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee ought to be stored sealed in its container with the top firmly on. Coffee is known to absorb flavors of food nearby it, so keeping the top on is highly recommended. There are different schools of thought on refrigerating open coffee and I have a very clean refrigerator with a lot of ways to segregate coffee, so I tend to come down on the side of refrigerate it. Stored properly, this coffee might have easily made it to the May 2015 expiration date found on the bottom, but given how frequently we have espresso these days, it will not last that long at all!

After brewing, coffee grounds ought to be disposed of. As an espresso, the coffee grounds cannot credibly be reused for a second brewing. These grounds may be thrown in the trash when used or put in a compost pile, if available. Coffee grounds make great compost.

Overall

Illy Medium Roast Ground Espresso Coffee is a good espresso blend, but it is hardly an incredible one. Instead, this is perhaps the embodiment of quality average espresso beans for home brewing.

For other coffee reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Taster's Choice Gourmet Roast
Starbuck's French Roast
Melitta Extra Dark European Blend Coffee

6.5/10

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

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Worst Of The Bond Films? License To Kill Gets My Vote!


The Good: Dares to push the character relationships farther . . .
The Bad: Terrible direction/editing, Horrible acting, Painfully dull plot, Ridiculous characters
The Basics: License To Kill is a James Bond film that goes nowhere . . . poorly.


As I near the end of my reviews of the James Bond film franchise, (Tomorrow Never Dies is now the only one I have not yet seen!), it is funny what excites me about the franchise now. At the outset of License To Kill, I suddenly found myself irrationally excited by seeing Everett McGill (from Twin Peaks, reviewed here!), Anthony Zerbe (from Star Trek: Insurrection, reviewed here!) and Benicio Del Toro! For a franchise that has done so much, that License Of Kill lacked a strong plot hook (as opposed to performers who I recognized from other works), it was unsurprising to me that it underperformed at the box office.

Unfortunately, given how straightforward and surprisingly linear License Of Kill is, the excitement for the film pretty much begins and ends with the performers in it. Sadly, the initial excitement of performers who appeared in License To Kill quickly dissipated based on the performances they gave. License To Kill is one of the most straightforward and least exciting Bond movies. License To Kill is hinged almost entirely on the premise that James Bond would risk everything for his occasional CIA ally and counterpart, Felix Leiter.

Opening with James Bond preparing to act as Best Man at Felix Leiter’s wedding, the CIA Agent gets sidetracked with assisting with a DEA bust. They capture drug lord Franz Sanchez and manage to make it to Leiter’s wedding on time. Sanchez successfully bribes a DEA agent to orchestrate his escape. The drug lord then captures Felix and has a shark bite off his leg! Bond allies with Leiter’s partner, Sharkey, until M arrives and tells Bond to leave Key West. Revoking Bond’s credentials and license to kill, James Bond strikes out on his own to avenge Leiter and stop Sanchez.

Bond rescues Leiter’s last contact who knew about Sanchez’s operation, Pam Bouvier. Together, Bond and Bouvier travel to Isthmus City, where Bond hunts Sanchez. Bond uses the millions of dollars that he stole from Sanchez during his escape to pay Bouvier to get him to Isthmus City and open a line of credit at the bank Sanchez owns. Q comes to Bond’s aid with tech that he uses to stop a transaction that would unite Sanchez’s operation with an Asian syndicate.

License To Kill is riddled with problems, not the least of which is how Felix Leiter and Bond are treated as best friends in the film. Bond is recast throughout the franchise and the implication has been that James Bond is an alias – as are M, Q, and Moneypenny. By the same logic of recasting, Felix Leiter is also an alias, used by the CIA. License To Kill seems to want to defy the idea that Bond is an alias, by referencing that Bond was once married. It can be blown off as this particular Bond’s backstory, but the implication is more for the idea that this Leitner was with the old Bond when his wife was killed and that they are the same person.

The kicker in License To Kill is that Bond is monolithic and dull (more from the writing than Timothy Dalton’s performance) and Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier – while she might be played as over-the-top in a few scenes – is far more interesting. Bouvier holds her own with Bond, not simply succumbing to his charm . . . which is good because Bond is less-than-charming in License To Kill.

License To Kill is notable, as well, for the terrible direction and editing by John Glen. Glen makes some terrible cuts (like a person who is thrown out of a plane and barely falls before the shot cuts to something else) and uses some remarkably stiff takes. The stunts are so obviously choreographed that they look entirely unreal and the chases and shooting scenes are so poorly put together that frequently people aren’t even aiming in the right direction to make the shots they do.

Timothy Dalton is fine playing Bond as shaken, but it is not the highlight of his career. In fact, all the notable actors who appeared in License To Kill that I liked give mediocre, at best, performances. License To Kill is just all-around bad and a disappointment for both James Bond fans and anyone who likes quality cinema.

For other works with Robert Davi, please visit my reviews of:
The Expendables 3
“Simon’s Choice” - VR.5

1/10

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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Justifying The Expense: Kong Double Chews Are One Of Myah’s New Beloved Treats!


The Good: Myah loves them, Dental benefits, Healthy, Good ingredients!
The Bad: More expensive than many other rawhide treats.
The Basics: Myah responds to the Kong Double Chews more than to any other treat from Kong we’ve given her so far!


My wife has been determined to keep our Siberian Husky engaged through the winter. Neither she, nor I, enjoy going out into the cold the way Myah does. So, we’ve been getting her a number of bigger treats over the winter and seeing what sticks with her. Arguably her favorite so far and the one that if most affordable so I tend to like them for her, are the Kong Double Chews 100% Natural Beef Hide Long Lasting Rawhide with meaty flavor chew treats. The eight chew pack lasts us about a month and it keeps Myah from doing things like chewing her own nails, so it is definitely a good investment!

The Kong Double Chews come in a pack of eight retriever rolls. While Myah might be low on the performance/play scale, she absolutely loves the Double Chews and spends hours working on them when they are given to her.

Basics

We picked up the eight pack of Kong Double Chews treats when we first found them (which is pretty delightful because so many of Myah’s treats get found only when they are being clearance!). The package has eight treats in it and Myah goes through them at a rate of about two per week, so the 8-pack is not a bad form of entertainment for her for a full month.

The Kong Double Chews dog treats are hard rawhide straws that are wrapped around a beef and glycerine, bacon-flavored center that affords two textures for the dog to be stimulated by. Each Double Chews is about 5 1/2” long and 1” in diameter. Each of the Rollhide treats looks like a rawhide wrapped hot dog. Myah was instantly drawn to these treats.

Ease Of Preparation

This is a ready-to-eat dog treat and only requires one to open the plastic bag to dispense. Because they have a bit of an aroma the moment they come out of the bag, I recommend keeping them in a cool, dry, dark place until one is ready to treat one’s dog!

Myah’s Reaction

The Double Chews treats smell mildly like bacon and the moment one comes out, Myah goes right for it. She will spend two to three hours focused intently on chewing up the Double Chews retriever roll. Myah plays with the Double Chews until she either finishes it or gets so exhausted she passes out. She likes these retriever rolls so much that even when she is exhausted and near passed out, she will growl at the cats if they come near her bed and the treat!

The softer center of the Kong Double Chews seems to act as positive reinforcement for Myah to keep going. She has never shown this amount of determination with a plain rawhide treat and that enhances their value.

Nutrition

The Kong Double Chews dog treats are fairly healthy. With at least 70% crude protein, 2.5% crude fat and no more than 2.5% crude fiber and 20% moisture, the Kong Double Chews offer some nutrition for dogs. Made primarily of rawhide, glycerine and bacon flavor, this seems to the right balance of natural beef and flavorful center. Kong Double Chews treats appear to have nothing bad in them. The Double Chews treats have over a six year shelf life, 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 Kong Double Chews treats, you make sure they have a decent supply of clean water available. These treats made Myah very thirsty. Kong Double Chews treats are not intended to replace dog food.

Overall

Myah loves Kong Double Chews and given how vigorously she goes after them, they live up to their promise for cleaning dogs’ teeth and keeping big dogs busy!

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

9/10

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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Monday, March 2, 2015

Peter Jackson Fails To Make The Hobbit Legendary With The Complete Motion Picture Trilogy Collection!


The Good: Acting is fine, Plot develops fine, Special effects
The Bad: Unremarkable plot, Reversals, Ridiculously low character development
The Basics: The Hobbit Trilogy is not Peter Jackson’s crowning achievement as it dilutes the magnificence of his The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy.


When New Line and MGM decided to make The Hobbit, I was one of the people who was exceptionally happy when Guillermo Del Toro was replaced with Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson did an incredible job at adapting J.R.R. Tolkein’s novels to make his cinematic The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (reviewed here!). Unfortunately, Jackson was unable to get lightning to strike twice by making The Hobbit Trilogy equally memorable and impressive.

The Hobbit Trilogy is a surprisingly uncomplicated film series that is a prequel to The Lord Of The Rings. The film collection for The Hobbit consists of:
An Unexpected Journey
The Desolation Of Smaug
The Battle Of The Five Armies

The Hobbit Trilogy is set in Middle Earth and is set well before The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy and includes important elements that lead into the Trilogy Jackson produced a decade prior. As Middle Earth darkens from the emerging presence of Sauron, the wizard Gandalf The Grey visits Hobbiton. There, he enlists the restless hobbit, Bilbo, to join a company of dwarves that is headed to the ruined dwarven city of Erebor. Bilbo is hired to be the company’s burglar, which Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield – the leader of the company and the presumptive king of the dwarves – believe they will need as Erebor is under the oppressive control of the dragon Smaug. Setting out from Hobbiton, the company of dwarves runs afoul of trolls, orcs and immense spiders which all threaten their chances of getting to Erebor. In the kingdom of the goblins, underground, Bilbo is separated from the dwarves and he encounters Gollum, a creature whom he exchanges riddles with. He escapes thanks to finding a ring of invisibility by chance.

The company escapes into the realm of the Elves, who distrust the dwarves. Once the Dwarves arrive at the Lonely Mountain, they find the Dwarven Nation impossible to enter, until Bilbo figures out how to find the secret door. Entering the mountain realm, Bilbo squares off against Smaug. In doing so, Bilbo inadvertently enrages the dragon and it goes out and destroys the nearby human city of Laketown. With Smaug no longer looking over the mountains of treasures in the Dwarven Nation, the humans, orcs, and elves descend upon the Lonely Mountain to take the gold. But the company is beset from within by Thorin, who has become obsessed with the treasure and the mythical Arkenstone which will solidify his claim to the dwarven throne.

The Hobbit is a very straightforward quest story and after witnessing the quest to destroy the source of all evil in Middle Earth, there is something incredibly underwhelming about a story that eventually gets around to being about one man’s obsession. Thorin Oakenshield is determined until late in the story when he becomes absolutely obsessed with hoarding the same riches that Smaug accumulated. Unlike the One Ring, which is fueled by Sauron’s evil, the mountain of gold has no supernatural reason for the obsession it brings to Thorin, Smaug, and all the others who covet it.

The company of dwarves is surprisingly large – a dozen strong – but only three of them are actually distinct. Thorin, the aged Balin and the young, elf-loving Kili are the dwarves with substantive characters. The rest are just filler and that makes it hard to invest in the bulk of the company.

The Hobbit features Martin Freeman as Bilbo and the role is unlike any of his other parts. He is not at all goofy, not regulated to simply supporting another, more forceful actor. Instead, he perfectly embodies Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo is clever and ethical. He has the heart of an explorer from a people who usually want to simply be left alone and Freeman finds the balance incredibly well.

Director Peter Jackson makes Middle Earth look as amazing as he did in The Lord Of The Rings. The story of The Hobbit might not be exceptional, but the look and feel of it is consistent with the rest of Jackson’s Middle Earth Saga. As a result, The Hobbit stands as a testament that style cannot sell an inferior story that lacks impressive characters.

For other works with Martin Freeman, please check out my reviews of:
The World’s End
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Love Actually

6/10

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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