Thursday, March 31, 2011

Maybe It Was From Here To Eternity That Made Me Not Join The Military...





The Good: Interesting characters, Generally decent story, Moments of performance, DVD Bonus features
The Bad: Plot is a little slow
The Basics: Entertaining and engaging, From Here To Eternity is a character study of two men trying to make their lives work outside a base in Hawaii before World War II!


When I was very young, my family got a VCR and I remember the three of us kids in the family were immediately thrilled. We figured the VCR would be the gateway to all of the movies we wanted to see, but could not afford to go to the theaters to watch. Instead, it rapidly turned into my father's weekends of cinematic education as we would be subjected to old black and white films we did not care one wit for. So, I was actually surprised when I began watching From Here To Eternity how familiar it was to me. This was one of the movies my father had us watch back in the day and the longer I watched, the more I remembered being a kid and being confused by the movie. Watching it now, there are still elements that are fairly confusing; all of the characters are Hollywood beautiful wearing similar (tan, one assumes - the movie is in black and white) uniforms. They are all dark-haired men with short hair and kind of whitebread looks to them. In fact, Frank Sinatra stands out for looking moderately different in facial structure from the leads.

The rest of the experience, I appreciated for the first time. From Here To Eternity is yet-another military film and the real twist on this one over most of the films featuring characters in the military is that this is less about war and more about relationships. As well, From Here To Eternity is more about the training and off-duty time of military personnel than it is a war story. Because of this, I found myself enjoying the movie quite a bit initially. As always, this review is based upon the film, not the novel upon which it is based.

Private Prewitt arrives at the Pearl Harbor military base with a mysterious past. A bugler, he refuses to play the bugle and he refuses to box, which is a big deal for the head of Company G. Prewitt quickly befriends the easygoing Maggio and the two often go to town together. While the base commander, Captain Holmes, goes off on many affairs, his desk clerk Sergeant Warden finds himself taken with the commander's wife. Hitting it off with Karen, Warden begins a long affair. On-base, Warden begins to realize that Prewitt is actually something special. While Holmes punishes Prewitt for sticking to his guns, Warden tries to protect him quietly.

Things change for the outfit as Maggio gets into a brawl and skips out on guard duty to get drunk. Prewitt takes up with a woman he meets at Maggio's Gentleman's Club, Lorene, and to try to get promoted so he might care for her financially - and on the mainland - he considers giving up all he has stood for. And engaged in a full-on affair with Karen, Warden decides he might be willing to become an officer to try to stand up for her. But as all of the principle characters prepare to make their moves, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and everything changes!

From Here To Eternity might be best known to cinema newbies for the iconic image of Warden and Karen on the beach kissing as a wave washes over them. What is sometimes hailed as a great romantic moment is actually anything but. The moment, so well-known it is what appears on the DVD case, is the beginning of an infidelity on the part of a married woman and the scene might open with a passionate kiss, but it leads to an awkward conversation between Warden and Karen that is more uncomfortable than even remotely romantic.

From Here To Eternity is an odd mix of men being manly in the military and being . . . well, a chick flick. The men may all be in uniform, but the women are strong, with motivations of their own that defy any code or social mores. Instead, they go after what they want - like the way Karen goes after Warden and makes demands of him so she might leave the Captain or the way Lorene details her goals for getting off the island and returning to Oregon - and the movie is surprisingly dialogue-based. Also a strange dichotomy comes from the way the film advertises the military and then features characters who rail against the military lifestyle. So, while moments when Karen mentions an initiative to turn enlisted men into officers sound like advertisements for the military, elements like Maggio being severely punished and beaten by the stockade warden are clearly meant to show the flaws in the system.

What makes most of the movie work is the fact that the characters are interesting, even if it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart! While the musical cues like "Renlistment Blues" might flesh out the reality of being a soldier on a base and just sitting around singing (men being men in the 1950s or 40s), the flavor in the film comes from the fact that the characters are genuine characters, even if they do reprehensible or unlikable things. There are very few movies I like where married people have extramarital affairs, because it so dramatically clashes with my own personal code (if it's real, get a divorce, then go through with it; it takes low character to break one's word, vows, by just cheating on their partner), but From Here To Eternity is one of them.

Holmes is motivated entirely by career ambitions and Karen is left in a position where she is forced to comply to certain standards. As a result, Karen might have many affairs that everyone seems to know about, but she feels trapped by the demands placed upon her. And there is irony in Karen complaining about Warden not keeping his word about officer training, but her character is remarkably empathetic, even if we only get her side of the story. Karen almost makes the cheating housewife classy and a character the viewer may believe is doing the wrong thing for the right reason.

Prewitt is a likable guy and he is difficult to not empathize with as a principled man with a past. Similarly, Warden makes a convincing leader, as he seems to know how to get the best of men - which Captain Holmes is not able to do. Even Lorene's brief role in the film is interesting and her simpatico with Prewitt actually works beautifully.

Despite the way much of the casting is too close, Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed have wonderful on-screen chemistry, as do Deborah Kerr (Karen) and Burt Lancaster (Warden). For all the comparisons James Franco now gets to James Dean, it seems like Clift is the actor whose style he is more clearly the evolution of. The acting in From Here To Eternity is homogeneously wonderful and this boosts the movie up.

On DVD, what pushes From Here To Eternity up into near-perfect film territory for me is the wealth of DVD bonus features. In addition to an informative commentary track and more languages in the subtitles than virtually any other DVD presentation I have seen, this features the theatrical trailers for the movie. As well, there is a featurette on the making of the movie and elements of the director Fred Zinnemann's documentary on his views of making the movie. These home movies are actually incredible for the detail and alternate takes (in color!) that they show of many scenes.

This is a movie where the bonus features eek the film up the last few notches to allow me to consider it perfect. For those looking for a war movie, this isn't it. For those looking for a character-driven movie about the lives of soldiers with little apparent love for the service, well, that's more what this is. And it works. Anyone who likes great drama will find something to like in this.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]

For other reviews of war films, please check out:
Charlie Wilson's War
Wings
Battle Los Angeles

8.5/10

For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.




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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wonder Woman 100-Page Spectacular Restores The Amazing Amazon For One Issue!


The Good: Artwork
The Bad: Short, Addy, A LOT of exposition
The Basics: The four parts contained in Wonder Woman 100 Page Spectacular are pretty much anything but; it looks good, but does little else.


Ever since I completed my Wonder Woman Year, I have found more and more volumes of Wonder Woman to read and enjoy. Hitting the newsstands for an April 2011 release is the Wonder Woman one-shot 100-Page Spectacular and it comes at an odd point in the Wonder Woman mythos. Wonder Woman has been rebooted in the monthly comics with an entire alternate universe storyline that is being connected to other DC Comics projects, like Justice League: Generation Lost. In those stories, Wonder Woman has a new costume, new bearing and an entirely new mission. The 100-page spectacular which starts with "Gods And Monsters" returns Wonder Woman to her classic appearance for a single story and, sadly, it is not quite worth it on its own.

The one-shot is essentially an annual in which Artemis poses the question "What good have you actually done?" to Wonder Woman. The story takes place a few years in the past, as evidenced by the reference to Wonder Woman descending from being a god a few weeks prior. While the artwork is good, there is little here for the fans or casual readers of Wonder Woman comics.

In "Gods And Monsters," the moment in Wonder Woman history only previously alluded to is finally revealed. As Artemis and Wonder Woman struggle to keep Gateway City from collapsing into flames and death, Wonder Woman confronts Zeus and the other Greek Gods and makes the permanent choice to renounce her godly status. For those who have followed Wonder Woman for years, this story is a bit of an anticlimax. Wonder Woman has been back - and mortal - for years. Moreover, there is no conflict in the story that is so essential or different from others she has endured to truly sell the reader on the idea that this conflict is truly so devastating that Wonder Woman would sacrifice everything to return to mortal life.

This is followed in the book by "Trinity 98" Parts 1 and 2. In that storyline, the JLA satellite detects an anomaly on Earth and Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman must defend a city from an invading army. Unfortunately, I've never read any of the "Trinity" stories, which feature the team-up between the three big powers in the DC universe, so this storyline fell a little flat with me. The artwork, however, was generally decent.

The one-shot volume ends with the story "The Bearing Of The Soul." In that, Wonder Woman takes on a militant force and finds the floating museum of super hero greats. This story generally concludes Diana's quest to end war on Earth, even for a few minutes.

What strikes one instantly about the Wonder Woman One-shot is how utterly unnecessary it is. Readers will find nothing extraordinary in the story and the whole of it reads like what it is likely to become: a bonus section of whatever graphic novel anthology ends up housing Wonder Woman #600. Like that, the stories in this are not part of the continuing storyline and thus seems unnecessary. With all of the loose ends dangling when the current alternate Wonder Woman storyline began, one would hope a bonus volume like this would either wrap them up or flesh out the new continuing storyline better. This does neither.

Moreover, the heroism of a hero may often be judged by how tough the villain is. In the Wonder Woman 100-Page Spectacular, it is pretty much Wonder Woman vs. the world and guerilla operatives are hardly as compelling as any villain that can match her with strength, brains or magic.

Ultimately, that makes it very easy to pass this comic by. Hopefully, the next tribute to Wonder Woman will do something a little more vital.

For other Wonder Woman books, please check out my reviews of:
Down To Earth
Amazonia
The Hieketia
Contagion

3/10

For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Humor, Horror And Patrick Stewart's Performance In "Menage A Troi!"


The Good: Well-acted, Amusing in points, Characterization in the b-plot
The Bad: Plot is fairly obvious, some a-plot characterization
The Basics: A mostly-fun episode, "Menage a Troi" finds Lwaxana tortured, Riker and Deanna not in love and Wesley Crusher preparing to leave the Enterprise.


For the first few seasons of Star Trek The Next Generation, the show did an excellent job of a few things: spreading philosophy, keeping Riker interesting and vital and having Patrick Stewart playing Picard in a manner very different to who Patrick Stewart is. That is to say that while Picard was something of a curmudgeon, Patrick is reputed to be friendly, Picard was highly literate, but asocial. "Menage a Troi," changes that in its final scene by having Picard pull a Patrick Stewart, which is a wonderful, dramatic moment that ought to be left best to the professional Shakespearean actors. Picard was never that.

"Menage a Troi" is not, however, a Picard story. It's a Lwaxana Troi story in the a-plot, a Wesley Crusher b-plot. The Enterprise visits Betazed, which gives Riker and Troi a chance to visit places they did when they were in love. Lwaxana walks in on them and they are all three promptly captured by the Ferengi. It seems a Ferengi DaiMon has fallen in love with Lwaxana Troi and wishes her to be his consort to aid him in negotiations; with her telepathic powers, he believes he could get riches beyond compare. When Riker and Deanna Troi attempt to escape and rescue Lwaxana, Dr. Farek, the DaiMon's assistant, comes up with a better plan; brain scans and obscure torture to get the biological secrets needed to enhance the Ferengi brain without Lwaxana's help. In the meantime, the Enterprise searches for the Trois and Riker while Wesley Crusher prepares to leave the ship to go to StarFleet Academy.

"Menage A Troi" very effectively combines humor with a sense of urgency. After all, Lwaxana is not a regular, so there is the possibility that she could be killed. And Dr. Farek seems like a pretty good villain to do it. But the horrific concept of killing a middle aged woman with a brain scan is balanced by the humor of Lwaxana's babbling, Riker's chess games and the almost hazing quality to Data and Wesley's discussions about going off to StarFleet Academy.

What works even better is the acting. First, Ethan Phillips (who would later play Neelix on Star Trek Voyager) gives a great performance as Dr. Farek. He's a very intelligent villain and one who is refreshing to see on Star Trek The Next Generation. It's nice to see a doctor who understands the consequences of things (i.e. giving out computer codes even for minor things).

Majel Barret does a great job as Lwaxana Troi in this outing, sparkling as she usually does with energy that only she could bring to the role. But the best acting moments come in the b-plot. Wil Wheaton does a great job playing Wesley Crusher as mature, confident, yet flappable. It's a delicate balance and Wheaton does it phenomenally here.

And Wheaton's character, Wesley Crusher, has a great arc in this episode. Here Wesley makes the transition from childhood to adulthood, making choices that have real consequences. His is a character that seems to have real growth here and it feels worthwhile.

Unfortunately, in the main plot, Riker and Troi do not advance anything in their relationship. Lwaxana Troi comes out of the whole torture experience pretty unphased. And those are two somewhat unsatisfying results of an episode that places the light tone over the real effects of something like what occurs here.

Still, it's worth watching. It's funny and it's good television. People who are not fans of Star Trek The Next Generation are unlikely to appreciate Lwaxana Troi as she is more a shocking foil to fans, more annoying to those who are not regular viewers of the show. In fact, the elements of transition with Wesley Crusher that dominate the b-plot also make the episode inaccessible to non-Trek fans. I suppose those who like action adventure shows might enjoy this. Otherwise, I say either become a fan of Star Trek The Next Generation or hold out for season four's "Half A Life." And even if Picard behaves a little like Patrick Stewart here, it's still worth seeing.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third season by clicking here!
Thanks!]

6.5/10

For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, please check out my index page for an organized listing.

© 2011, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Enterprise Not Worth Tracking Down Is The 2006 Hallmark Enterprise Ornament!


The Good: Good sculpt, Interesting light effect
The Bad: Missing nacelle lights, Poor balance on stand, Only lights up on stand, Repetitive
The Basics: The original U.S.S. Enterprise ornament returns as a substandard ornament/statue that is likely to disappoint avid collectors and underwhelm more casual fans.


When Hallmark began making Star Trek ornaments for the 25th Anniversary of Star Trek, it began with an exceptionally limited ornament released with almost no fanfare. That was the U.S.S. Enterprise ornament (reviewed here!) and the few people who found them were pretty well amazed by the piece with its light up function and rarity. For the 40th Anniversary, rather than actually innovating, Hallmark released the U.S.S. Enterprise again . . . with some alterations. As a result, there is a vastly more common Enterprise 1701 ornament that has no improvements and a few detractions from the original, making one wonder why Hallmark opted for the lazy way out.

For those unfamiliar with the U.S.S. Enterprise, this was the defining starship of Star Trek. Included in every episode of the original Star Trek (reviewed here!), the U.S.S. Enterprise is a science fiction icon. The home of the Federation crew whose mission was exploration and discovery, the U.S.S. Enterprise was popular with Star Trek fans and was the obvious choice for a starting point from Hallmark when they began producing Star Trek themed Christmas ornaments and, one supposes, an obvious choice to reissue if they had to reissue anything. I am from the camp that there are plenty of other starships Hallmark could do for the first run before they had to repeat, anniversary or not.

Basics

The "U.S.S. Enterprise" ornament faithfully recreates the famed Federation starship in solid white plastic. The ornament, released in 2006 - as part of the show's 40th Anniversary celebration - perfectly captured the surface details of the original Enterprise. This was easy enough to do as the Enterprise had a rather simple mold and very few details. However, Hallmark created the starship with its distinctive bridge dome, engineering hull (with such details as windows molded into it!) and warp nacelles. Measuring five and a quarter inches long, two and one-half inches wide and one and three-quarters inches tall (four inches tall when attached to its stand), the U.S.S. Enterprise ornament is one of the essential Star Trek ships and after years of searching for one, many fans of the ship and the ornaments gladly shelled out the $25.00 Hallmark wanted for the ornament because it was a better option to them than the $350 first run Enterprise, which remains that pricey in the secondary market. The thing is, many fans who held out for this reissue were disappointed: it does not light up except when attached to the base and the ship falls off the base rather easily.

The Hallmark "U.S.S. Enterprise" ornament is made of a durable white plastic and has the starship on its own, as is typical for Hallmark's starship line of Star Trek ornaments. Like many of the subsequent Star Trek ornament releases, this one does have the date stamped or painted on it; it is dated 2006 on the stand, which it must plug into to light up.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is detailed adequately. So, in addition to details molded into the starship, like windows, phaser banks, plating on the saucer section and the deflector dish on the front of the engineering hull, the Enterprise has a very faithful paint job. This means that the top and bottom of the saucer section has the call numbers (1701) on them, the starship's name and number on the front of the saucer section, the numbers and racing stripes on the engineering hull and warp nacelles and even gold tones in the deflector dish! In other words, the sculpt and painting details continue (or, in this case, recreates) a high level of quality for fans of the ornaments and the show!

That said, the U.S.S. Enterprise is a pretty easy ship to get right and Hallmark did a great job of not screwing it up!

Features

As a Hallmark Keepsake ornament, the "U.S.S. Enterprise" has a light function. Fans of the ornaments might be a little disappointed that this ornament has a light function, but no audio one, especially considering that the original release had lights, but no sound, too. Many of the Star Trek ornaments both light up and play a sound clip. The "U.S.S. Enterprise" does not. It does, however, have a slot in the bottom of the ship that plugs (poorly) into a black plastic base. Assuming one has batteries that work (three 1.5V watch batteries) the ship lights up. Well, what of it that lights up lights up.

Plugging the ornament in to the stand activates the light effect on the "U.S.S. Enterprise." The light effects on this starship ornament is remarkably simple; the bridge dome atop the saucer section lights up white, as does the primary phaser array dome directly underneath it. There are four flashing lights on the saucer's lip, two green, two red. While the ornament is plugged in, these lights flash at random, which is pretty neat.

But the big strike against this ornament comes in the warp nacelles. The tips of the warp nacelles are appropriately molded in red plastic, capping off the struts with translucent red domes. But these do not light up! Rather astonishingly, there are no light effects in the final area that actually had a practical light on the original working model of the ship! That Hallmark either couldn't or didn't manage to include this as a lit area is disturbing. One would think in fifteen years they could have solved that problem.

As well, the Enterprise continually falls off its stand (see below), so the light effects only work hit or miss based on whether or not it is actually on the stand firmly or not.

Balance

As with all ornaments, the intent of the Hallmark Keepsake "U.S.S. Enterprise" ornament is to be hung on a Christmas Tree. And for those creating the ultimate Star Trek Christmas Tree, the "U.S.S. Enterprise" ornament is an essential piece. The ornament has the standard brass hook loop embedded into the top, aft portion of the saucer section.

The location of the loop is the best that Hallmark could reasonably do. However, this forces the front of the saucer up about twenty degrees as the nacelles weigh the back down some. As a result, this ship does not cruise straight through space, but rather is always ascending. It looks fine, though.

The real balance problem comes when one tries to keep the Enterprise attached to its stand. The Enterprise's pitch actually is enough so that when it is pressed into the base, it often wobbles back, with the weight of the nacelles torquing it off the base. The result is that one either has to choose to hang it on the tree or light it up on the base and while having options might seem like a good idea, it's only a good idea when that actually works. This only does sporadically and the base is poorly designed for keeping the Enterprise on it.

Collectibility

Hallmark Keepsake began delving into the collectibles market in 1991 with Star Trek when it introduced the exceptionally limited edition U.S.S. Enterprise ornament. This Enterprise recreation is vastly more mass produced, but word quickly spread among fans as to how poorly it worked in terms of functionality so it became a pegwarmer. As a result, it is still fairly easily available in the secondary market at the original issue price or a deflated one. Unlike what frequently happens when products are reissued, this Enterprise did not cause the original ornament to deflate in value.

Overview

Fans of the Star Trek franchise, science fiction and the U.S.S. Enterprise specifically are likely to want a U.S.S. Enterprise 1701 ornament, but those who look into it will not want this one. The lack of balance and consistent light effects make it a dismal failure, even if it is far more affordable than the original release.

For other Star Trek ship ornaments from Hallmark, please check out my reviews of:
2010 U.S.S. Enterprise (Star Trek refit)
2009 Klingon Battlecruiser
2008 U.S.S. Reliant
2005 U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-A
2003 Scorpion Attack Craft
2000 Borg Cube
1998 U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-E
1995 Romulan Warbird
1994 Klingon Bird Of Prey
1993 U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-D
1992 Shuttlecraft Galileo

4/10

For other ornament reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Distinctive Afterglow Of Catharsis: Everclear's So Much For The Afterglow




The Good: Distinctive sound, Good lyrics, Fun to listen to
The Bad: Repetitive both thematically and musically
The Basics: So Much For The Afterglow is a surprisingly good album that doesn't hold up to repeated listenings, not because of its themes, but because of the repetitive sound of the tracks.


Every now and then, an artist does therapy and is able to sell it. So Much For The Afterglow by Everclear has many moments where it "reads" like a session of Art Alexakis's therapy. Indeed, the almost 49 minute disc seems largely like an attempt to express raw emotions and stories related to his own life.

Not that that's a bad thing.

In fact, the strength of the album is in the lyrics and following from track to track toward catharsis, the release of all of the pent up anger and loss that has been building on the early tracks. The album is quite expressive without being explicit and it works quite well as a telling of a man's life. How autobiographical is the album? I don't know, you'd have to ask the band. However, So Much For The Afterglow does tell a story, whether of an actual person or a character, there's a story here.

If you have never heard Everclear on the radio, they are a rock band, not so much pop as actual rock. They are strong on guitar, drums and reasonable rhymes. To be honest, other than classifying the band as rock, there's no further classification other than "Everclear." Everclear has a very distinctive sound that is based on their use of guitars, Art Alexakis' vocals and a balance of refrains. It is quite distinctive.

The distinctive quality, however, becomes something of a rut on So Much For The Afterglow. The songs have very little diversity in sound. Musically, they are very much a balance of the vocals, guitars and drums. The tend to keep the same balance and form, so there is little variation in how the three elements are used. If you've heard an Everclear song on the radio, you know what to expect. The songs on this album all sound like that.

What does that mean? It means, if you don't like how "Wonderful" (which is not on this album) sounds, you won't like So Much For The Afterglow. It means, after you listen to the album once, you'll be thinking that "I Will Buy You a New Life" sounds an awful lot like "Amphetamine." It means that if you don't like the first three tracks, odds are, you're not going to dig this album.

It also means that if you DO like the sound of Everclear, this album is for you. They are doing what they do and they're doing it well. If you like rock music, this is a good album, with lyrics that are more intelligent and emotive than most rock bands these days.

Whereas Matchbox Twenty creates musically diverse albums with a running theme (loss and loneliness), Everclear's So Much For The Afterglow is a musically homogeneous album that explores multiple themes like hope ("Amphetamine"), paranoia "White Men In Black Suits") and hate ("Father Of Mine" and "Like A California King"). Which is better? Well, I liked So Much For The Afterglow, but not enough to add it to my permanent collection, whereas I listen to Mad Season By Matchbox Twenty frequently and I purchased it on sight when it was released.

The album's best track (which is hard to say because they tend to sound so much alike) is "I Will Buy You A New Life" (which if you like on the radio is almost worth investing in this album for and why it was a close call adding this one to my collection) and the weakest link is "Ataraxia (Media Intro)" because after listening to the album three times in a row it left no impression on me one way or another.

For other works by similar artists, please check out my reviews of:
Soul To Squeeze (single) - Red Hot Chili Peppers
No Name Face - Lifehouse
Mer De Noms - A Perfect Circle

7/10

For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.





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Mildly Watermelon, Watermelon Jelly Belly Jelly Beans Don't Need To Be Stocked Up On!

Watermelon Jelly Belly Jelly Beans - 10 lbs bulk
Click to buy directly from Jelly Belly!


The Good: Tastes good, Environmentally responsible bulk
The Bad: No real nutritional value, Taste fades quickly
The Basics: Not the ideal flavor of Jelly Belly jelly beans, Watermelon Jelly Belly's disappoint some.


Some might have wondered just what it takes for me to reject the environmental responsibility of the 10 lb. box of Jelly Belly's in favor of a smaller size package. The answer, now that I finally have one, is simple: a less worthwhile flavor. I found that flavor with Watermelon Jelly Belly's, one of the few flavors of Jelly Belly that is fair at best and that seems to have little or no reason to be stocked up on.

For those who might never have had Jelly Belly jelly beans, these are easily the best jelly beans on the planet, packing a lot of flavor into a very small size. Unlike most jelly beans which are only vaguely flavored and are more based on colors, Jelly Belly jelly beans have a wide variety of actual flavors, like Berry Blue, A&W Root Beer, the Smoothie Assortment, or their signature flavor Buttered Popcorn.

Who needs ten pounds of Watermelon flavored Jelly Belly's? For Watermelon, I find myself unsure!

Basics

Watermelon is a flavor of Jelly Belly jelly beans. Jelly Belly jelly beans are approximately one half inch long by one quarter inch wide and they are roughly bean-shaped. These little candies are marketed to taste precisely like Watermelon and they come more or less close enough.

Watermelon flavored Jelly Belly's are available in a wide array of quantities, but the largest quantity available is the ten pound bulk case. This is a decent-sized box with a plastic lining and while some might wonder why anyone would need a ten pound box, I find myself simply repeating that question; why would anyone need ten pounds of this mediocre jelly bean? The Watermelon flavor is a fair one. I suspect that for most people, a ten pound case is a year's supply of these jelly beans.

Watermelon flavored Jelly Belly's are easily distinguishable from other flavors of Jelly Belly's by their dark green and red coloring. They are a fairly consistent mix of green and red, which makes them different from Green Apple (translucent solid green), Juicy Pear (opaque olive green with spots), lemon-lime (translucent light green), kiwi (solid neon green) and Margarita (translucent green with spots).

Ease Of Preparation

These are jelly beans, not naming all of the former vice presidents of the United States. Preparing them is as easy as opening the box and popping one (or a handful) into your mouth. In the case of the ten pound box, one might want to put them in a candy dish of some form as opposed to always going into the box. Then again, if one is bobbing for Watermelon flavored Jelly Belly's, the open box might well be the best way.

Taste

Watermelon Jelly Belly jelly beans are good, but not great. This is not a flavor of Jelly Belly that is likely to light the world on fire. Instead, like watermelons themselves, Watermelon flavored Jelly Belly jelly beans have a more subtle flavor. Watermelon, one might recall, was named because its dominant taste is . . . water. Let's be honest; who wants a flavor of jelly bean that has a taste mostly reminiscent of water?! No one I know either.

The problem, then, is that Watermelon Jelly Belly's have too distinct a flavor to actually replicate the taste of watermelons. The beans have the faint aroma that embodies the produced, oft-assumed scent of watermelon that those who frequent candle shops and aromatherapy booths would recognize as watermelon more than farmers and produce vendors who work with actual watermelons. Like many fruit flavors, there is a difference between the actual fruit and the taste/scent of the confection/other food version of it. Watermelon Jelly Belly's suffer from that syndrome.

The result is a jelly bean that smells like Assumed Watermelon and tastes more like lemon or a more rich and flavorful fruit than actual watermelons. Indeed, there is a somewhat generic sweet and fruity taste to watermelon Jelly Belly's that makes it a tough sell, even to those who love Jelly Belly jelly beans.

Either way, Watermelon seems to be one of the flavors that one cannot eat in excess in one sitting before the taste begins to fade and the taster is simply tasting a generic, sugary flavor of gelatin. It does seem that this is not one of the flavors that is flavored strongly on both the shell and the center, leading to a generic taste within a handful, even when eaten bean by bean.

Nutrition

Again, these are jelly beans, so anyone looking to them for nutrition needs to do a comparison between the nutritional information provided by a greengrocer and the fine folks at Jelly Belly. Jelly beans, even Jelly Belly jelly beans, are not a legitimate source of nutrition. These are a snack food, a dessert, and are in no way an adequate substitute for a real meal. A serving is listed at thirty-five beans, with each Jelly Belly jelly bean having approximately four calories. This means that in a single serving, there are 140 calories, which is 12% of your daily recommended intake.

The thing is, Jelly Belly jelly beans are not as bad as they could be in the nutrition area. They have no fat and no protein, but for those who have ever dated a Vegan, these are Vegan compliant because they contain no gelatin! They have only one percent of the daily sodium with 15 mg and they are gluten free! The main ingredients are sugar, corn syrup and modified food starch, so it's not like this is an all-natural food, but they could be far, far worse.

Storage/Clean-up

Jelly Belly jelly beans have a shelf life of approximately one year and I have yet to run across a stale Jelly Belly (though that could have something to do with a package never surviving a year around me . . .). They remain freshest when they are kept in an airtight container (the bag in the bulk box is sufficient if it is kept closed) and they ought to be kept in a lukewarm environment. Storing them in hot places is likely to make the beans stick together and be gross. Kept in a cool, dry place, the beans retain their flavor perfectly.

As for cleanup, unless one allows the Jelly Belly to get hot to the point that the waxy coating on the bean melts, the dyes on these do not bleed or denature, so there is usually no cleanup necessary, not even washing one's hands after eating them (always wash your hands before eating Jelly Belly's, though, especially when coming in off working in the fields; who knows what you touched out there?! I don't care if you were wearing gloves!). I've never had Watermelon Jelly Belly's stain anything. That said, it's pretty wild to be able to eat something that tastes so much like watermelon and not have to clean watermelon juice off one's fingers afterward!

Overall

In the end, though, Watermelon is simply too unlike the flavor of actual watermelons to rate highly or recommend. With so many amazing flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans, it's easy to give this one a pass and move on to other, far better flavors.

For other Jelly Belly flavors reviewed by me, please check out:
Strawberry Daiquiri
7UP
Peach

4/10

For other food and drink reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.





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The X-Files Nears Perfection With "Colony" And "End Game."






The Good: Fairly solid plot, Strong on character
The Bad: ?, Minutia
The Basics: Essential for fans of The X-Files, a lot to enjoy for those who are not. Fast-paced and character-driven!


"Colony" and "End Game" are pretty potent examples of why the second season of The X-Files picked up more fans and garnered quite a lot of critical acclaim.

In "Colony," Mulder is clued in to the deaths of several doctors who work at abortion clinics, which puts him on the trail of two mysteries. The first is why there appears to be a network of almost a dozen doctors who look identical and ended up in the same profession, the second is who is murdering them. The other mystery is what is happening to the bodies of the murdered doctors.

Mulder and Scully team up with an FBI agent who ends up found dead in Syracuse and then a CIA agent whose mere presence causes one of the cloned doctors to flee. Scully discovers that the doctors might well be extraterrestrial when the green blood from one eats through one of her shoes and Mulder is drawn into a deeper family mystery compliments of the assistant to one of the fleeing doctors!

In "End Game," a nuclear submarine is incapacitated in the Arctic while trying to destroy a downed craft, while Scully falls prey to the alien bounty hunter, who had assumed Mulder's form. The alien bounty hunter demands one thing for Scully's life, the life of the woman Mulder is with, the woman who claims to be Samantha Mulder!

Having ascertained how to kill the shapeshifter, Mulder reluctantly swaps Samantha for Scully, which leads to a gunfight on a bridge and a series of revelations far deeper than Mulder or Scully were prepared for!

The two-parter is excellently narrated, with "Colony" beginning in what turns out to be the last act of "End Game." Sound confusing? It actually turns out to be fairly simple; as the plot progresses, one has only to remember that you're approaching a known scene. As a result, there is some mystery that is taken away from the episode, but at the same time, it adds an intrigue and anticipation that carries well through the show.

In addition to a remarkably unique narrative technique - certainly by today's standards - the episodes have a depth of character to them that is often lacking in science fiction works. The behaviors of Mulder and Scully are of two deeply intimate, passionate individuals and the character chemistry is worked masterfully in this pair of episodes. And poor Scully! Here's a woman who was abducted earlier in the season and now that she is back on her feet, running around gun in hand, she gets smacked around by the biggest brute in the galaxy!

The special effects in "Colony" and "End Game" are surprisingly good, reminding viewers of how decent special effects can enhance a story without dominating it. These episodes use very early morphing technology for the alien bounty hunter and those effects still hold up well today.

Outside of an occasionally bland performance by the woman who plays Samantha, these episodes are very tight and they keep even non-X-Files fans interested. Anyone who likes a decent science fiction thriller will find these two episodes engaging. In short, it's pretty much the top of the television spectrum.

On VHS, the episodes come with a little featurette called "A private conversation with Chris Carter" wherein the creator of the series walks the viewer through the significance of these two hand-picked episodes! It's a fun feature.

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete Second Season, which is reviewed here!
As well, those who already love The X-Files will find The X-Files - The Complete Series to be an even better buy, click here for my review!
Thanks for reading!]

"Colony" - 9/10
"End Game" - 8.5/10
VHS - 8/10

For other reviews of television programs and seasons, check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.



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A Blissfully Simple Product, A Simple Review For It! The AIE-200 Impulse Sealer Works!




The Good: Durable, Easy to use, Useful
The Bad: Annoying to replace elements
The Basics: A great, durable impulse sealer that experience has shown me can work for decades if properly cared for, the AIE-200 is an excellent impulse sealer for small businesses!


Back when I was in high school, I worked at a craft store and while there, I used an impulse sealer to seal up plastic bags of glitter, jewelry, etc. Over two years of use, I became so familiar with how to use the device that it is no surprise that when I went into business for myself and discovered I had plastic bag sealing needs, I went for the exact type of impulse sealer that I had used at Craft Service. That impulse sealer - and the one I have been using for the last decade since I went into business myself - is the AIE-200 Impulse Sealer.

The AIE-200 Impulse Sealer is a very simple device which is designed with a single, simple purpose. This sits on a desk or tabletop and seals plastic bags using heat generated from an electric current. The AIE-200 Impulse Sealer is made of three essential pieces: the cord, the base and the handle. The cord is a 63" electrical cord which plugs into any standard three-prong outlet, so this device is grounded for proper use. It is remarkably efficient with the way it uses electricity as well, as it does not use any energy until the handle is depressed.

The base of the AIE-200 Impulse Sealer is thirteen inches long and three inches wide. It sits three and a half inches high on the desktop. The cord attaches to the back of the base, near the joint for the handle. The front has the controls of the AIE-200 Impulse Sealer and those looking for high tech interfaces will be surprised and possibly confounded by the simplicity of the controls on this device. The front has a simple knob numbered from one to eight above which is a red LED. The numbers represent plys of plastic or polypropylene bags one is looking to seal and the high the number, the longer the impulse sealer remains active when it is activated.

The top of the base is where the action of the AIE-200 Impulse Sealer occurs. There are two metal bars which hold down the Teflon tape at the peak of the device. The AIE-200 has an active top area of eight inches long. Those eight inches are from the hinge to the screw that attaches the element to the top of the AIE-200, and they are covered with the non-stick Teflon tape. This makes for a very easy area for one to use when sealing to know exactly where they ought to put the item they want sealed.

The handle is the activating element on the AIE-200 Impulse Sealer and it is ten inches long and connected to a hinge at the back of the base. The handle itself is made of the same steel as the base, with a 2" in diameter plastic knob which is at the opposite end of the handle as the hinge. The handle is attached to the base with a hinge that keeps the handle angled at about forty-five degrees to the base. The underside of the handle has a metal bar and a rubber bar below that. The rubber bar is curved slightly to take the element of the base in when it is pressed down.

To use the impulse sealer, there is ridiculously little one has to do. First, plug the AIE-200 into a three-pronged socket. Then, bring the item you want sealed to the AIE-200 and arrange it so that the end you want sealed is laying on the Teflon tape in the center. Then, depress the handle until the handle is pressed against the base (or as much as it can be while the item being sealed is inside!) and the light on the front of the base illuminates. At that time, the AIE-200 will buzz as well. When the buzzing stops and the light turns itself off, usually within two seconds, lift the handle (or simply let go of the bar) and gently remove the now-sealed bag.

The AIE-200 impulse sealer works by sending an electrical current through the element on the base, below the Teflon tape. The Teflon tape and the rubber on the bar on the handle are both designed not to stick to the melted polypropylene or plastic and if one uses the device at the right setting, it will create a seal that is about a millimeter wide for the full length of the bag you want sealed. If one has the AIE-200 at the proper settings for the bag thickness, cleanup is simple as there is nothing to clean up. The sealed bag peels right off the Teflon tape and one is ready for the next sealing project. If one has the device too hot for the material they are trying to seal, the plastic or polypropylene which is being sealed will melt and split. When that happens, residue may remain on the working surface of the AIE-200. To remove it, simply rub the Teflon tape and it ought to ball off in little pills. Nothing sticks on the tape . . . unless the tape gets lacerated, in which case it ought to be replaced as melted plastic will attach itself to the edges and tear the fibers in the Teflon tape.

The lowest possible setting ought to be used to seal the bags and excessive heat and melted residue will cause the Teflon tape to wear prematurely. This can be a trial and error process as one finds the right setting for the item they want sealed. However, starting at 1 and testing the impulse sealer at settings on a practice piece may make it easy to find the right setting. As soon as the item becomes sealed, that is the number setting to keep the AIE-200 on for that material. So, for example, I seldom use more than a setting of 2 - 2 1/2 for the polypropylene bags I seal my trading card sets in . . .

. . . Or at least, that's what I used to do. Honestly, after years of using the AIE-200, I discovered it was a bit more durable than my boss at the craft store ever gave it credit for. I started sealing my bags at a 3 1/2 setting. At that setting, the heat not only seals the polypropylene bags, but it also makes it easy to pull on the excess bag and sever it from the sealed bag. In other words, while some more fancy models have cutters or the bags I seal would usually be left with excess poly that I would need to trim off (lest it look unsightly), I discovered early on with the AIE-200 that the heat itself can both seal and ever with no adverse consequences.

The nice thing about the AIE-200 is that the impulse sealer does not use any electricity until one actually activates it. When it is plugged in, there is no risk of burns or electrocution because the AIE-200 does not complete the circuit until the handle is fully depressed. This makes it a very energy-efficient impulse sealer. As well, it is generally durable. Each AIE-200 comes with two replacement element kits, which include a different element and Teflon tape covers, as well as instructions that make it very easy to replace them on the AIE-200. That process is a little annoying, but not difficult.

In a decade of using my own AIE-200, I have only had to replace the element once and the Teflon tape twice, so this is a very durable product and so long as the item one is looking to seal has less than eight inches of length on the side that needs to be sealed, this is a wonderful impulse sealer.

9/10

For other electronic product reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.





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Monday, March 28, 2011

A Deeper Comedy Than Most, Cyrus Is Wonderfully Awkward Humor!






The Good: Very funny, Good character development, Decent acting, Fine plot.
The Bad: Lags in some parts, Repetitive humor.
The Basics: In a very rare (for me!) short review, I find Cyrus to be a short comedy that is funny, dark and surprisingly deep for the summer!


Given how much Step Brothers (reviewed here!) was both lauded and oversold to me by my wife (well, before she was my wife. . .), I was a bit more cautious about Cyrus going into the film than I probably ought to have been. Cyrus relates to Step Brothers more than just through the sharing of star John C. Reilly. Both movies deal with the awkwardness of remarriage. This time, instead of Reilly playing the cause of problems in a remarriage, he plays a much more plausible protagonist who is hated by the grown son of the woman he falls in love with.

Cyrus returns John C. Reilly to his dramatic cinematic roots, though the film is very much a comedy. The humor is frequently awkward and there is a darker tone to much of the interactions between John and Cyrus. But instead of being an inane comedy, like Step Brothers, Cyrus opts for smart with a film that has surprising psychological depth and is both funny and disturbing in ways that work out well for the audience.

John has been divorced from Jamie for seven years, but he still has regular communication with her. While she dates and is now engaged with Tim, John has been slow to recover from the divorce. So, Jamie takes John to a party to try to get him to socialize and he begins to fall down. But he is rescued by utter embarrassment among Jamie's friends by Molly, who is bubbling with life. Despite their inherent differences, Molly and John hit it off and they begin seeing one another. But when Molly leaves John, she returns home to Cyrus, her adult son who screams in the night and demands a lot of her attention.

As John tries to get closer with Molly, Cyrus feels threatened by his mother's new relationship and he starts threatening John, overtly and subtly. While John tries to be honest with Molly about how manipulative Cyrus is, Molly reveals her blind spot for her son and Cyrus and John are left to figure out the relationships on their own.

Cyrus is filled with awkward humor and Jonah Hill plays the title character of the film with a surprising undertone of menace. As John and Molly get frisky in the living room, Cyrus threatens John from down the hallway and while there is humor to the unexpected way this happens, it also is genuinely unsettling. More than any other movie I've seen Hill in, in Cyrus he has real range and he plays the full breadth of that ability well. So, for example, while he is cold and menacing in scenes opposite John C. Reilly, he is surprisingly affectionate and emotionally open in many of his scenes opposite Marisa Tomei, who plays his mother, Molly. There is an unhealthy connection at points between Molly and Cyrus and Hill manages to keep Cyrus as a realistic, well-conceived character throughout. In other words, the viewer never feels like Hill is playing anyone other than this very distinctive and disturbing character.

Molly is a touch more monolithic by comparison. While viewers are likely to feel thrilled for John to have found some measure of happiness, they are less likely to be interested in the John and Molly relationship because there is nothing especially distinctive about the mother (other than the fact that she lets Cyrus get disgustingly close to her at times).

But as much as Jonah Hill astounds as Cyrus, it is hard not to be impressed by John C. Reilly. Reilly returns to playing the good guy who we want to see catch a break and he makes John feel unlike any of his other characters. Still, he masters in the stiff one moment, broken at another moment until Reilly and Tomei are on screen together. After that, viewers are treated to Reilly emoting a delicious sense of complete delight and his character quickly becomes lovable. Moreover, just as we want to see Cyrus grow up and back off from Molly, Reilly helps make John a character we want to see stop struggling and move on.

And that was the deeper thing that Cyrus had that most other movies last summer did not. Amid all of the special effects flicks and dumb comedies, Cyrus had characters that are easy to care about and who have real motivations that are evident throughout. Sadly, it was forgotten or overlooked during award season just because of when it was released.

For other films featuring John C. Reilly, please check out my reviews of:
Cedar Rapids
Chicago
Magnolia

7/10

For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.




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A Wake Shouldn't Make You Wish For Death! Finnegan's Wake Flounders.




The Good: The auditory/lyrical nature of the work
The Bad: Length and nonsensical nature, No plot, no defined characters
The Basics: Pick Finnegan's Wake up, read the opening line, set the book back on the shelf, walk away. You'll have the best this book has to offer there!


Whenever one encounters a giant of literature in length and depth, the first thing one ought to take into account when reading a review of such a work is "Did the reviewer actually read the whole book?" My answer for Finnegan's Wake and my response is: I lost six months of my life reading it, but I finished the thing! I want to resurrect James Joyce only to smack him around for a while and ask him what he was thinking.

Usually after an introductory paragraph like that, I begin a summary of the novel's plot, including mentioning the significant characters of the book. Herein you might grasp the crux of my difficulty with the novel. Not only does Finnegan's Wake lack plot (or if it has it, it is so shrouded in density that it's impossible to find without a Ph.D), but it has no definable, memorable, recognizable characters. That's not to say there aren't different voices, but often who is speaking in the novel is impossible to tell. The characters are not named nor do they do anything.

One expert opinion on Finnegan's Wake is that it is the history of a single day where, from a starting point, it explores a single day of the Earth and every individual on the planet. By that interpretation, I have to say, the book feels like it is long enough that I can't think Joyce missed anyone. It WAS written to be a cyclical thing, running from the last line back into the first, but that is not incentive to keep reading the book over and over again.

It's a tough nut to crack because it does not have a plot. This is a novel not with a difficult to describe plot, but a book where nothing happens per se. Beyond that, it's no one doing the nothings, so we don't have any characters to latch onto. It's a book without plot or character and that makes it a book about language.

I admire poetics, in fact I think that if there's a college reading Finnegan's Wake aloud, you ought to go and listen in for about an hour. If it's presented properly, it will sound good. In fact, Finnegan's Wake is a masterful study in putting words and sounds together. The long winding lines of this poem do not necessarily say anything, but they sound good. I mean that literally, by the way; often Joyce creates his own words and pops them into the middle of a sentence where their meaning is not clear. But the meaning, I'm told, is not important, the sound is. And the novel sounds fine.

Unfortunately, that's all it will do. If you're not shaking your head and asking "What's going on?" odds are you're stoned out of your mind. Don't do drugs, they're bad. That said, trying to decipher this novel (which has easily the most poetic opening line of literature ever) will drive you to drink or do something stronger.

It's infuriating that this is considered one of the great works of literature in that - outside sheer length - there is nothing impressive about it. It says nothing and the simple joy of language and sound wears off so quickly. It's not literature, it's an experiment. And as I've been known to say, whenever you do an experiment you have to be open to the possibility that it will fail. Finnegan's Wake fails because it does nothing other than make noise.

Ultimately, it might be frustrating for such a long book to be reviewed with so few words, but - unlike Joyce's experiment with sound and language - I find I can make my point with these few simple words.

I was hugely disappointed when I finished this that I stuck it out through the whole thing. I advise you to not make the same mistake.

For other classic works of Modernist literature, please check out my reviews of:
The Sound And The Fury - William Faulkner
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Day Of The Locust - Nathanael West

4/10

For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.



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"Sarek:" A Blast From Star Trek's Past




The Good: Excellent acting, Good character work, Fun for the fans
The Bad: Gets repetitive quickly.
The Basics: A surprisingly good first crossover between Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation finds Sarek visiting for one last negotiation.


The early philosophy on Star Trek The Next Generation was that the creators and producers of the show wanted to make a new series that had no crossovers to Star Trek. They wanted Star Trek The Next Generation to be distinctly different. At least, that's what they said. In the second episode, "The Naked Now" (reviewed here!), they steal a plot so directly from Star Trek that they even mention the original series mission. The first direct crossover between the two shows takes place in the form of "Sarek." Sarek was first seen in "Journey To Babel" (reviewed here!) and has the character played by his original actor, Mark Lenard.

Sarek, Spock's Vulcan father, arrives on the U.S.S. Enterprise for the final negotiations of his career. Very old now, Sarek is accompanied by his new wife, Perrin, and two advisors who are quite protective of the Ambassador. Shortly after his arrival, there are violent outbursts among the crew; Wesley and Geordi have an argument, Dr. Crusher slaps Wesley and Picard and Riker yell at one another on the bridge about whose ship the Enterprise is. The source of the emotional outbursts is unknown until Picard observes Sarek crying at a concert being held in his honor. It is revealed that he has Bendii Syndrome, a disease that robs Vulcans of their emotional control, and Sarek is likely not well enough to complete the negotiations.

"Sarek" comes at a good time in the Star Trek The Next Generation lore. The series is striking out in bold new territory that the writers of Star Trek never conceived of. In the process, it is beginning to feel like an entirely different universe than that created in Star Trek. "Sarek" helps root the franchise together.

And it is a worthwhile outing in its own right. The pretense for having Sarek aboard allows the writers to explore the issue of aging for the first time in a realistic way. Sarek is a tortured soul very analogous to any human senior suffering from depression.

"Sarek" is worthwhile as well for the acting. Patrick Stewart gives one of his most amazing, and loud, performances as the receptacle to Sarek's emotions. His moods change with lightning speed and while the scene is heartwrenching to watch, each mood is made distinct by facial ticks, tones of voice and the most subtle and expressive eye movements ever. It's truly an extraordinary scene to watch.

Picking Sarek as the focus of the crossover also allows the series to use powerhouse actor Mark Lenard. Lenard brings dignity and professionalism to the project that is impossible to define outside using the word presence. Lenard has definite screen presence.

But the rest of the cast gives it up well, too. Wil Wheaton dishes it out and takes it with both anger and utter surprise in his scenes. The writers were sharp, making the arguments worthwhile and sharp. Wesley Crusher picks on LaForge for not being able to score outside the holodeck. It's a low blow, but it's exactly the type of remark that people say when they are angry. It's that type of realism that is refreshing in "Sarek."

More than that, the episode does attempt to explore a compelling issue. What do we do with the aged who are genius' but cannot control their bodies or minds any longer?

The only real downside to this episode is that the patterns of arguments becomes quickly predictable and we come to expect them more than we ought to. Still, there's a lot here to like. A treat for the fans, this might be a little harder for non-Trek fans to get as it is heavy in technobabble and jargon, especially that which is specific to Vulcans. Of course, if you have a Star Trek fan friend, it's a great one to watch together, especially if you want a lot explained.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third season by clicking here!
Thanks!]

7.5/10

For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, be sure to check out my index page for an organized series of listings!

© 2011, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.





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Gollum FINALLY Appears For The "Battle Of Helm's Deep" The Lord Of The Rings TCG Cards!





The Good: Some very cool cards (especially rares), Compelling theme
The Bad: Serious collectibility issue (foils)
The Basics: Despite being vastly overproduced, "Battle Of Helm's Deep" increases the menace to players in a way that makes The Lord Of The Rings TCG fun again!


Sometimes when I see a movie, I see it not only through the lens of a movie reviewer, but through one of my other hats. As a collector and player of The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game, I distinctly remember watching The Two Towers and thinking "Wow, how are they going to incorporate THAT into the game?!" when the siege of Helm's Deep began. It was such a tremendous event that I knew that Decipher would either have to omit the massive warfare from the much more intimate game it had begun with The Fellowship Of The Rings or there were some major changes in store for players of the game.

Decipher did not disappoint, opting to step up The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game as opposed to leaving out the huge battles from The Two Towers. The set where they made the more significant alterations to game play came with the expansion "Battle Of Helm's Deep." Encompassing a sense of massive warfare into the game was done in "Battle Of Helm's Deep" without changing many of of the fundamentals of The Lord Of The Rings TCG.

As well, the "Battle Of Helm's Deep" introduced Gollum into The Lord Of The Rings TCG. And from my perspective, he arrives not a moment too soon!

Basics/Set Composition

"Battle Of Helm's Deep" was the fifth set of The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game cards created by Decipher to expand the gaming platform to fans of The Lord Of The Rings. Envisioned as a game played by two to four people, players created decks of cards utilizing their own version of the Fellowship and prepared to seed the adventure path with obstacles to thwart other players' Fellowship. For those unfamiliar with the concept, CCGs (or TCGs) are basically a strategy game that is like a Role-playing game with cards. The break here is that the characters, artifacts, and scenarios are all already conceived by others.

"Battle Of Helm's Deep" is a 128-card set focusing on characters, location, artifacts, villains and scenarios presented in the second The Lord Of The Rings film, mostly at the end of the movie. This card set utilizes material from the film - specifically the intense, large-scale battle sequences - presenting a playing environment that allows players to truly take advantage of the Archery Phase of the game and the Shadow player's ability to overwhelm the Fellowship player. The set consists of 40 common cards, 40 uncommon cards, 40 rare cards and 8 starter deck exclusive cards, with only Gimli, Legolas, Frodo and Sam being represented from the Fellowship.

The 128 card set features 4 Dunland, 6 Dwarven, 7 Elven, 6 Gandalf, 10 Gollum, 13 Gondor, 27 Isengard, 10 Raider, 19 Rohan, 16 Sauron, and 7 Shire Affiliation cards, and 3 Site cards. These are generally broken down evenly between Fellowship (your cards you play with) and Minion (cards you set upon your opponent) cards. Within the various affiliations, there are: 2 Ally (cards depicting supporting characters, like the reluctant recruits Ecglaf and Sigewulf), 20 Companion (cards depicting primary characters and those who may join your customized Fellowship, like Theodin or Lindenroot), 24 Condition (cards illustrating long-term changes to Middle Earth that remain in play more than one turn, like being compelled to Follow Smeagol or wielding a Battering Ram), 27 Event (cards depicting temporary effects on players, like Break[ing] The Charge of one's enemies or the Eye Of Barad-Dur settling upon the ringbearer), 39 Minion (cards depicting villains used to obstruct your opponent, like Gollum or Sharku), 13 Possession (cards depicting objects used to enhance the natural strength or endurance of a character, like the Horn Of Helm or a Warg), and 3 Site (cards depicting locations in Middle Earth, they form the "board" for the game).

This set plays out the Battle of Helm's Deep, including the arrival of the elves to ally with the people of Rohan. The booster pack boxes are comprised of thirty-six packs per box with eleven cards per pack. The eleven cards are portioned out with seven common (six in packs that have a foil card), three uncommon, and one rare cards. A foil card replaces a single common in approximately six packs. The foils are simply reprints of the standard cards; there are no cards that are uniquely foils in this set.

Playability

At its most basic level, this is a board game where one constructs the board and pieces out of a selection of cards. The purpose of the game is to survive to the end of the ninth site in the Adventure Path, which (theoretically) indicates the end of the Ring Bearer's quest. The basic idea is to assemble a sixty card deck, lay out the board (Adventure Path) and play against an opponent. The deck is evenly split between Fellowship and Shadow cards, so players ought to have a hand that allows them to play and attempt to thwart their opponent at any given time.

This game uses a "payment" system where cards have a cost. The rulebook recommends something like poker chips or glass beads to establish the twilight pool and wound indicators and I've found small poker chips (not included) work very well for this.

It takes a great deal of time and energy to learn the game, but once one has played a few hands of it, it is a pretty easy concept for an adult to master and the challenge becomes assembling a strong fellowship and accompanying minion deck and being creative (and lucky) about how the cards from one's hand are used.

Rules/Rule Changes

The rulebook for this game is forty pages long and the rules are essentially the same as they were when the set was released with The Fellowship Of The Ring (reviewed here!).

However, in "Battle Of Helm's Deep" there is the addition of the Gollum affiliation, which puts Smeagol and Gollum into play. Rather cleverly, Smeagol may be played as a Companion while Gollum can be played to turn your opponent's Smeagol against their other Fellowship members!

As well, the "Battle Of Helm's Deep" utilizes a new type game text on some of the Conditions as Saruman utilizes "Machines." Cards with the game text "Machine" have very specific conditions that govern their use. So, for example, 5U60 Siege Engine plays to the support area and allows one to put counters on the card each time an Uruk-hai is played on any machine. If that machine is going to be discarded as a result of an opponent's actions, the Siege Engine can be discarded instead. This allows one to stack enemies and tokens for future rounds and when the Siege Engine is sacrificed, it allows the player to keep that investment safe for later in the game. As a result, Machines can be used to overwhelm your opponent fairly easily in the later phases of the game.

Highlights

Players, collectors and fans of The Lord Of The Rings franchise will appreciate the image quality of the characters and scenarios from The Two Towers. The "Battle Of Helm's Deep" set features the decent ways to enhance the naturally strong Dwarven and Rohan decks, while still providing a great deal of new menace to the game with the mechanics that allow enemies to blow holes in the stronghold and kill Companions quickly in bulk. The game takes a dangerous turn for Fellowship players with "Battle Of Helm's Deep."

For the highlight, I have to say the most fun to play is 5R25 Gollum, Stinker. Playing Smeagol weakens the Fellowship player far too much, but Gollum makes for a pretty powerful adversary, especially as the game continues. Gollum's strength increases for every burden the Ringbearer has and every time he wins a skirmish, he adds a burden to the Ringbearer. As a result, Gollum becomes possibly the best chance to win the game by killing Frodo. After all, if Frodo puts on the Ring, a burden is added, if another character intervenes to block Gollum's attack on the ringbearer and Gollum wins, the additional burden makes him even stronger for the next time he is played! He becomes a pretty ruthless assassin and even a mithril coat will not save your Frodo from his attacks late in the game!

Collectibility

Rares are evenly distributed in the booster packs, making only two starter decks necessary for those collecting a master set, as the Legolas and Eowyn decks each have a single card that cannot be found in the booster packs. As well, those moderately hard to find starter decks also have three (each) alternate image rares. The last six cards in the set reprint some of the best cards in the main set with alternate images. It's a clever idea, but it also means that the starter decks are completely fixed; there is no random rare in them, making booster boxes the essential way to make sets.

These cards popped up in several other products, though, and there was even a second printing of them, seriously diluting their value as the supply was so high. The "Battle Of Helm's Deep" cards appeared in The Two Towers Anthology boxed set, "Reflections" and they were mixed into the Two Towers Draft Packs.

Given that, die-hard, obsessive collectors who want to spend a lifetime going from dealer to dealer on a vain search to complete something will thrill over the foil cards. All 128 cards are reprinted as foil cards and the foil sets are near impossible to complete and seem to be disproportionately less valuable than the master sets of non-foil cards. In other words, while the foil sets might take hundreds of dollars to complete, dealers seem to only be able to get in the low hundred dollars for them, probably because many collectors didn't go for this gimmick from Decipher.

Overview

Players finally get a real challenge with the severe menace posed by the powerful abilities of the Minion cards and the new stacking abilities presented in the "Battle Of Helm's Deep" set. Were it not for the drastic overproduction of these cards, this could have been the best The Two Towers TCG set, though it remains one of the stronger components of the War Of The Ring block!

This set culls material from The Two Towers reviewed here!

This set was preceded by "The Two Towers" (reviewed here!) and followed by "Ents Of Fangorn" (reviewed here!).

This set and cards from it are sold in my online store here!

8/10

For other trading card game reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.




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