Thursday, March 31, 2016

March 2016 End Of The Month Report

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March saw a huge uptick in posts for the blog as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned and Netflix released the second season of Daredevil! As a result, readership picked up and we've been getting more comments and feedback on the blog, which is always nice.

This month, we picked up five new followers on Twitter, but no new subscribers! We are always trying to get people to become regular readers and subscribe, so if you enjoy what you're reading, please subscribe by clicking on the right side of the blog to get updates with each posting. As well, if you read a review that really affects you, be sure to "share" it! PLEASE share a link to the blog, not the content of the article; this keeps people coming to the site and, hopefully, liking what they find once they are here! We're slowly growing our readership, so sharing and subscribing to the blog is an important way you can help! If you’re subscribing, please tell your friends about the blog!

In March, the index pages were frequently updates. The primary Index Page, is usually updated daily and lets you know what the featured review is and has an up-to-the-day tally of how many reviews have been reviewed in each category! Check it out and feel free to use that as it is a much more useful and organized index to the reviews I've written!

If you enjoy the reviews, please consider clicking on the links in the reviews and purchasing items. We really appreciate all the purchases made through the blog as that keeps us going. As the tax returns come in, if you're going shopping online, please come through the blog to to it. Thank you so much!

At the end of March 2016, I have reviewed the following:
542 - Book Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Fiction
Star Trek Books
Nonfiction
Graphic Novels
Magazines
919 - Music (Album and Singles) Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Music Reviews By Rating (Best To Worst)
Music Reviews In Alphabetical Order
2938 - Movie and Television Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Movies By Rating (Best Movie to Worst)
Movies In Alphabetical Order
Best Picture Oscar Winner Film Reviews
Television Reviews
The Star Trek Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews In Order)!
The Star Trek Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews From The Best Of The Franchise To The Worst!)!
The Doctor Who Review Index Page (All Doctor Who Reviews In Order)!
The Doctor Who Review Index Page (All Doctor Who Reviews From The Best Of The Franchise To The Worst!)!
224 - Trading and Gaming Card Reviews
Gaming Cards Reviews
Star Trek Gaming Cards Reviews
Star Wars Gaming Cards Reviews
The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game Reviews
Other Gaming Cards Reviews
Trading Cards Reviews
845 - Toy and Christmas Ornament Reviews
with specialized pages for:
Ornament Reviews
Star Trek Toys
Star Wars Toys
Lord Of The Rings Toys
Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel Toys
Comic Book, Movie, Television Toys
Plush and Other Toys
917 - Food, Drink, And Restaurant Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Drinks
Candy
Cereal
Cheese and Meats
Ice Cream
Other Food
241 - Pet Product Reviews
Cat Product Reviews
Dog Product Reviews
Rabbit Product Reviews
114 - Travel Reviews
Destinations Reviews
Hotels Reviews
191 - Health And Beauty Product Reviews
192 - Home, Garden, Appliance and Tool Reviews
101 - Electronics, Computers, Computer Games and Software Reviews
53 - Other Product Reviews

The Featured Reviews For The Month of March is my reviews of Daredevil - Season 2!
Check them out!


The month of March was, oddly, dominated by prior months' reviews and it was the first month since it was posted that The Top Ten Episodes Of Frasier did not make the list for the month! For March, the Top Ten Reviews of the month were:
10. South - Heather Nova
9. "Watchdogs" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
8. Now In A Minute - Donna Lewis
7. Daredevil - Season 2
6. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below - Outkast
5. Play: The B-Sides - Moby
4. House Of Cards - Season 4
3. "The Inside Man" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
2. "Parting Shot" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
1. "Bouncing Back" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I pride myself on being an exceptionally fair reviewer, but one who is very discriminating. I believe that most reviewers are far too biased toward both what is current and toward unduly praising things. I tend to believe most things actually are average and they ought to follows something around a Bell Curve. Mine is a little lopsided, but not as lopsided as most reviewers I know (who would probably have peak numbers between ten and seven)!

For my reviews, the current count is:
10s - 319 reviews
9s - 477 reviews
8s - 918 reviews
7s - 1024 reviews
6s - 950 reviews
5s - 1210 reviews
4s - 892 reviews
3s - 695 reviews
2s - 328 reviews
1s - 219 reviews
0s - 104 reviews
No rating - 112 articles/postings

While there was a decent amount of movement this month, the all time Top Ten remains unchanged. At the end of March 2016, the most popular reviews/articles continue to be:
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
9. Safe Haven
8. Oz The Great And Powerful
7. The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bone
6. Warm Bodies
5. Iron Man 3
4. Now You See Me
3. Tyler Perry's Temptation
2. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
1. Man Of Steel

Thank you again, so much, for reading! Please share links to the blog with friends and spread the word!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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As Bad As One Might Suspect: Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice Belabors Set-Up And Spectacle Over Substance!


The Good: Moments of Henry Cavill's performance, Moments of plot concept for the conspiracy
The Bad: Dull, Preposterous, Overlong, Ridiculous characterization, Terrible writing
The Basics: Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice sucks.


When it comes to blockbuster movies, there are few movies I can think of that disappointed me more when I went back to them than Man Of Steel (reviewed here!). Seeing Man Of Steel on the big screen, early, it was a real thrill . . . but time, distance, and rewatching the movie truly lessened the film for me. So, when I first sat down to Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, I was very concerned that history would either repeat itself (and I would be too lenient on the film) or I would over-compensate and be overly hard on the movie. The latter was a real concern for me from the moment Gal Godot was cast as Wonder Woman, as I have long advocated for Anne Hathaway for the role (check out that article here!).

After watching Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, I am finally ready to write a review the way my wife has often ask that I do. My wife hates it when I waste my time writing long, well-conceived, complicated analyses of products and events that are very simply bad. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is simple and bad . . . but most of it is not the fault of the performers or even director Zack Snyder. The problems with Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice all start with the writing.

Conceptually, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice tries to do too much, so it does none of it particularly well. The film is a belabored set-up to the forthcoming Justice League film and the scene that features Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) effectively introducing the other three members of the League (Green Lantern is not included!) stops the movie dead. It would have been better as a post-credits scene than a component of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice starts as a potential reflection on the nature of Superman and his role in the world. After Metropolis was virtually destroyed in Man Of Steel, Superman has become a divisive concept; a messianic figure and a potential threat to humanity for his autonomous, unaccountable, nature. That concept is blended poorly with Bruce Wayne's desire to reign in Superman, as he witnessed the carnage in Metropolis 18 months prior and experiences yet another loss in his life as a result. Rather than staying focused on either concept, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice becomes mired in a painfully simplistic conspiracy put together by Lex Luthor.

Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is, arguably, the worst interpretation of the character ever and while actor Jesse Eisenberg is taking a lot of flack for it, he deserves remarkably little blame. Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is written as The Joker. Eisenberg plays him as appropriately twitchy and unsettled and I just kept waiting for the movie to take a clever turn what would have made it explicit that Lex Luthor was the Joker (elements like the Polaroid photos of Martha Kent seemed like foreshadowing in that regard). That moment never comes and instead of Lex Luthor being a genius who is actually motivated by the desire to save the world from its dependence on Superman, he is just a non-committed, rich version of The Joker.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent's relationship is portrayed as simplistic and bland. When Doomsday finally pops up, it looks like leftover footage of Cave Trolls from The Lord Of The Rings. And it is hard not to imagine Joss Whedon cringing as Wonder Woman finally makes her big screen debut as a half-rate sidekick who ultimately appears as muscle (virtually nothing of her cerebral nature is present)(Whedon having famously written a pitch or spec. script for Wonder Woman more than a decade ago, only to have it go nowhere).

Despite the spectacle (though most of it is surprisingly dark), simplistic and bland is an apropos description of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. When the biggest geek-out factor is recognizing actors (on screen and voices) from Watchmen (reviewed here!) in the film, the movie has serious problems. More could be said, but it would be pointless: bad is bad and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is bad.

2.5/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Not Quite Festive, SpecialTea Holiday Earl Grey Blend Tea Disappoints.


The Good: Nothing bad in it, Does not taste bad
The Bad: Not overly flavorful, Unpleasant aftertaste, Expensive
The Basics: SpecialTea Earl Grey tea is overpriced and underwhelming, failing to either be distinctive as a tea or any form of iconic Earl Grey flavor.


My wife is incredible in how hard she tries to surprise me with new things (for enjoyment and review) that she thinks I would like based on past experience. She is pretty tireless in trying to keep me happy (though that is very easy with her!) and when it comes to holiday-themed food and drink, she usually is right on the money. I always feel bad when something she gets for me fails to land and I feel even more bothered when the product she gets for me is more expensive and does not live up to its hype. That is, sadly, where I am with the SpecialTea Holiday Earl Grey Blend tea she picked up for me.

I love Earl Grey tea and the idea of infusing Earl Grey with a chocolate flavor seemed like it would be a slam-dunk. Alas, it does not quite succeed with its promised flavors.

Basics

SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend is a caffeinated tea from SpecialTea, a tea company I have only recently learned existed. The tea comes in a single vacuum-sealed bag, much like coffee and the 1 oz. size was disproportionately expensive for the two servings we got out of it. The Earl Grey Blend is a holiday Earl Grey which is supposed to be an Earl Grey tea that is accented by chocolate. It does not quite live up to either promised flavor.

Ease Of Preparation

SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend is as easy to prepare as any other loose-leaf tea. One needs a decent tea pot and tea strainer (or related device for filtering out the tea leaves from one's beverage). One needs to measure out a heaping teaspoon per cup of water and pour near-boiling water over it. This tea has a surprisingly short steep time of one to three minutes and the tea is ready. I found that the tea did not actually get more potent after the two minute mark.

For those who are tea misers, a second cup made by reusing the same tea leaves resulted in a mug of tea that was less than half as strong as the first cup. The second steeping also resulted in a tea which was much drier and more bitter in flavor than the original brewing and that made it impossible to effectively reuse.

Taste

The scent of SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend is absolutely amazing from the tea leaf blend. There is a hint of Bergamot aroma that blends with a surprisingly stronger aroma of chocolate, with tea packing up the end of the olfactory experience. When brewed up, the Earl Grey Blend tea smells more like chocolate and tea than anything like a classic Earl Grey.

In the mouth, the SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend tastes dry and slightly sweet. The flavor is a fairly generic black tea flavor. In fact, the Bergamot flavoring that makes Earl Grey so distinctive only seems to come out as an aftertaste on the palate. The tea is not even sweet or chocolatey enough to sell itself on being more diversely flavored than some form of weakened Earl Grey.

With a hint of sugar, the tea becomes more palatable, but not much more flavorful. Sweetener cuts through the dryness of the tea, but does not bring out more of the hints of chocolate or even the Bergamot flavoring.

The SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend tea has a very dry aftertaste that lingers in the mouth for about five minutes after the last of it is consumed.

Nutrition

The ingredients to SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend tea are more complicated than some teas, arguably because the holiday blend required some "bells and whistles." The primary ingredients are China black tea, red sprinkles and silver ball candies (I kid not!). There appears to be nothing sinister hiding in this tea, but also there is no explicit mention of Bergamot in the ingredients, which is a pretty essential flavoring for Earl Grey teas (holiday or not!).

In terms of nutrition, this tea is devoid of it. One 8 oz. mug of this tea provides nothing of nutritional value to the drinker. There are no calories (save what one adds from sugar, which surprised me given the candies in the actual tea leaf blend), no fat, sodium, or protein. There is caffeine, but how much is not disclosed. One should not attempt to live on SpecialTea Earl Grey alone! SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend appears to be Kosher for those who keep Kosher.

Storage/Clean-up

Because this is a loose leaf tea, the SpecialTea Earl Grey Blend must be kept tightly sealed (airtight) to avoid denaturing. As well, because this blend has chocolate right in it, it should be kept in moderate temperatures for storage - not overly warm, lest the chocolate in it melt. Kept properly sealed, the tea my wife purchased for me last autumn would have expired at the end of July 2017, had I not brewed it all up first!

As for the tea itself, this is a dark tea and I would recommend cleaning up any spills on lighter fabrics as soon after they happen as possible. This will stain dark and medium fabrics, so consult your fabric guide for how to treat stains.

Overall

SpecialTea Earl Grey is not a bad tea, but it is an underwhelming Earl Grey tea, making it yet another from SpecialTea that may safely be passed by.

For other tea reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Republic Of Tea Cuppa Chocolate Tea Chocolate Peppermint Tea
Oregon Chai Dreamscape Herbal Chai
Lipton tea

3.5/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Massive Continuity Problems Cannot Mar The Flash's "Flash Back!"


The Good: Wonderful character moments, Great performances, Engaging plot
The Bad: Some severe plot problems for larger continuity issues
The Basics: "Flash Back" returns The Flash to the first season where Barry Allen attempts to learn how to get faster from Eobard Thawne.


As one who loves all sorts of science fiction, comic book and fantasy works, it is hard to completely surprise me. Indeed, when you watch and read enough material, it is easy to find parallels in programs. In the case of The Flash, it's latest episode had many notes that rang similar to the Doctor Who episode "Father's Day" (reviewed here!). And, if you're going to take from something else, at least take the great and The Flash does that. "Flash Back" also manages to surprise me in that, as its plot events spiral out of control, it seemed like the episode would have to - by necessity - undo itself, much like "Out Of Time" (reviewed here!) in the first season.

"Flash Back" follows very loosely on the events of "Trajectory" (reviewed here!), but the divergence in the main plot reaps a number of rewards for fans of The Flash. To get the most out of "Flash Back," one has to be a fan of The Flash (its first season anyway) and it helps to have seen "The Sound And The Fury" (reviewed here!) recently.

Barry Allen is working on calculations for getting faster and trying to figure out how to apply them to himself, when Dr. Snow reveals that physically The Flash, Reverse Flash and Zoom all move their bodies at roughly the same speed. After a dinner with the Wests, Barry is inspired to get mentoring on how to move faster by Eobard Thawne. Ramon and Snow figure out a time period where Barry Allen going back would have little potential to disrupt the overall timeline: the resurgence of Hartley Rathaway. Going back in time - encountering a mysterious entity in the time corridor as he does - Barry Allen once again apprehends Hartley Rathaway and when he returns to S.T.A.R. Labs, he disarms Rathaway to prevent him from exploding the cell he is trapped in.

But the mission quickly goes off the rails. The entity that Barry saw in the wormhole materializes at the Central City Police Department and begins to wreak havoc. Wells realizes that Barry is not who he appears to be and he captures the future version of The Flash and interrogates him. Thawne agrees to help Barry to stop the Time Wraith and get faster. But when the Barry native to that time awakens, things get even more complicated.

"Flash Back" has so much right with it that the things that are wrong actually take a bit of contemplation to recognize. The climax of the episode only works with a specific amount of information that Barry Allen did not give to his comrades at the time (or, even more importantly, Hartley Rathaway). Conceptually, "Flash Back" has the issue that if Eobard Thawne had the information Barry Allen needed, one has to ask why he did not apply it himself sooner. In other words, if Eobard Thawne wanted to get back to his own time as desperately as he did and he was training The Flash, why he would not have incorporated the calculations Barry Allen was working on in the second season to get Allen where he needed him to be faster makes no sense. The shockwaves from "Flash Back" make subsequent episodes like "Out Of Time" and the first season finale where time travel was treated as an absolutely new and audacious concept for The Flash nonsensical.

That said, "Flash Back" is a near-perfect episode and arguably the best episode of The Flash yet. The episode is absolutely ruled by Tom Cavanagh. Cavanagh plays Harry, Wells, and Eobard Thawne as Wells. Cavanagh manages to make each element of the different roles distinct and he is wonderful. Thawne is super-smart and when Cavanagh delivers his lines, we see the wheels in the character's head turning and never feel like we are watching Cavanagh recalling his next lines. The key scene in the middle of the episode is like watching two chess masters play and it is engrossing to watch.

Peppered throughout "Flash Back" is Barry's desire to help Iris move on from Eddie Thawne's death. That core of kindness from Allen leads to a tangent plot by which Barry uses his time travel to give Iris the gift of a message from Eddie. Amid all of the horrible events going on in his life, it is very much a sign of Allen's character and love for Iris that he would take time to get a video from Eddie for Iris.

"Flash Back" is smart enough to cover some of its bases - Barry changing the timeline with Rathaway makes it so he has to course correct Cisco by giving him the information that Rathaway knows where Ronnie Raymond is to allow that aspect of the first season's plot to progress - and it does that within the episode well. The existence of the Time Wraith, though it looked so much like the Black Flash that it was disappointing to not have that added to the mix!, causes huge continuity issues for Legends Of Tomorrow and any of the other time travel adventures within the DC Television Universe.

That said, "Flash Back" is an incredible character study for the Flash and Harrison Wells and is expertly executed to be entertaining, smart, and engaging!

9/10

For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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An Argument For The End Of Political Parties In The United States

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The Basics: U.S. political parties have outlived their usefulness.


Recently, when I wrote my article #GOPDraftHillary (that's here, check it out!), I had a bit of an epiphany. In arguing that Hillary Clinton's voting record as a Southern Democrat was much more in line with that of a moderate Republican and exploring the idea that both major political parties in the United States are at risk of nominating a candidate that either alarms their establishment or upsets their base. The liberal core of the Democratic Party does not want Hillary Clinton to represent them, hence the rise of the Bernie Or Bust Democratic Movement - a group of voters who have let the Democratic Party know that if Hillary Clinton is their party's nominee, they will not vote for her. On the other side, the establishment Republicans have become fearful that Donald Trump might get enough delegates to become their nominee and they are alarmed that he might not be someone they could keep in line; they do not like the idea of what he might do to their organization.

These two trends - a nominee members of the party do not want and a nominee that the organizers of the party do not want - force the question: what is the point of political parties in the United States today?

The Concept Of Political Parties

Political parties have a remarkably simple concept; groups of people associate with a common agenda in order to create blocks of political power. Political parties give clout to widespread ideas that translate into political action: a citizen in Vermont votes for a representative advocating an idea as part of a political party because they trust that idea might translate into law because that candidate has the backing of the political party. The concept of a political party is that people are standing together for a common good and a philosophy of laws that no single member of Congress could ever achieve.

The Execution Of Political Parties

Political parties have grown to be multi-billion dollar organizations that are less concerned with representing any form of core values and are, instead, concerned with perpetrating their own power and control. While there is something inherently respectable about the spirit of inclusion that led former President Bush to campaign on a "big tent" platform, the Republican Party that he was a part of has been systematically hijacked and converted into an unrecognizable political entity. The Republican Party was once a collection of political activists that were pro-small government with an economically conservative platform of fiscal responsibility; the elected officials within the Republican Party have racked up the world's largest debts and now campaign almost exclusively on issues of national defense, anti-abortion, anti-woman, anti-choice, pro-Evangelical Christian, anti-gay legislation. These are all big government concepts that place the federal government in the role of moral police who are highly interventionist.

The Democratic Party has become no better. The sitting Democratic President supports big business interests, has mortgaged the environment and has one of the weakest stances on gun control that, with rising numbers of mass shootings while on his watch, gun regulation has not increased and several laws that were in effect have lapsed. The Democratic Party has been so ineffectual over the last thirty years that only now is the Democratic Party fighting to reclaim both the terms of debate and the moral and legislative ground it won over the prior fifty years. While Democrats have been in power, social progress has been stunted, educational initiatives have been de-funded, social programs have been shuttered and environmental protections have been sold off to allow big businesses to return to raping the environment.

Despite no longer representing any clear core values that translate into consistent legislation and/or executive actions regarding legislation, both the Democratic and Republican Parties continue to bring in billions of dollars in revenue each year. The effective result is that donors throw their money at two big businesses that have a sole function: to perpetrate themselves. If political parties do no convert donations and political capital into consistent, clear results, their only result is their own existence and that is the most consistent result of the two major political parties. They exist, not to represent the people they are supposed to serve, but rather, to keep themselves alive as a political entity. Their attitude of "we are the only legitimate political parties" exhibits a mentality where power and control are their truest, most consistent agendas.

Why The Death Of The Two Major Political Parties Could Benefit The United States

So, why then should we continue to have and support political parties? If nothing else, the 2016 Presidential election cycle makes the argument that we should not continue to support the two-party system and that the existing Republican and Democratic Parties deserve to die as corporate entities. If the Republican Party does not like the candidate who will represent them and the bulk of new blood flocking to the Democratic Party wants a candidate other than those within the Party establishment is pushing upon them, the answer is clear; both parties should splinter.

A four-way race in the U.S. Presidential contest could be the best thing to happen to both the United States and the two major political parties in decades. The Sanders campaign progressing beyond the Democratic Party would force the Democrats to actually take a stand for something. They would either solidify their effective views as a pro-business conglomerate that occupies the space that moderate Republicans used to, while those who are actually liberal would flock to Sanders's new party or they would be compelled to actually return to their core values with actions as opposed to their empty rhetoric. On the Republican side, Trump supporters could rally for whatever pro-business, anti-woman, bullying platform they wanted and the Tea Party/Republicans could figure out how to differentiate themselves with a candidate they could both control and represent their interests beyond the one election cycle.

The two major political parties have the potential now to ruin themselves as citizens become both more politically educated and politically involved. That makes the Republican Party terrified because they have long preyed upon the ignorance of their members; it terrifies the Democratic Party because their ineffectual, milquetoast record in recent decades is easily exposed as counter to the values of its membership. Both major political parties are on notice and find themselves in perilous positions that have exposed them as the frauds they are; citizens deserve better and this election cycle they are becoming astute enough to notice how poorly they have been served.

For other political articles, please check out:
Why Bernie Sanders Will Be The Next President Of The United States
An Open Letter To Senator Elizabeth Warren
Why Modern Libertarianism Is Disastrous For The United States

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Hate Group Is Introduced In "Watchdogs!"


The Good: Philosophy, Character moments
The Bad: Predictable reversals
The Basics: "Watchdogs" introduces a new element to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. that both complicates the Inhumans and sets up the philosophy behind Captain America: Civil War.


At some point, television shows are either just good or bad; television series's are worth watching or they are not. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is nearing its critical mass for a series-long direction that is headed toward the show just being plain bad. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is becoming more a cheap tool for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's projects than being a vital work of its own (which is ironic given that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. now represents the most substantive aspect of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe). As "Watchdogs" begins, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is down two characters because the show is developing another spin-off show; the prior episode was inorganically dropped into the third season to get Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood out so they could shoot the pilot episode for Marvel's Most Wanted. "Watchdogs" has the potential to redirect and re-focus Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. by re-prioritizing the Inhuman threat and HYDRA's attempt to create an army of powered people.

"Watchdogs" follows up on "Parting Shot" (reviewed here!) and is based on a single line of foreshadowing from Daisy in a fight with Lincoln Campbell. While arguing, Daisy referenced the Watchdogs and "Watchdogs" gives them a proper introduction.

Opening in Naperville, Illinois, Mack fixes his brother's motorcycle. He expresses his work frustrations to Ruben, who was laid off recently. While there, an ATCU facility in South Bend, Indiana is attacked by masked people from the Watchdog gang. They destroy the ATCU facility using an implosive compound developed by Stark Technologies and Coulson instantly realizes that former-S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Blake might be involved. While Daisy, Fitz and Mack try to track down members of the Watchdogs, Coulson takes Campbell to find Blake.

After Daisy finds and interrogates a member of the Watchdogs, she and Mack head for their compound to try to prevent their next attack. When Ruben shows up, though, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is forced to make a tactical retreat - Fitz is wounded while Mack tries to find his brother to explain the truth to him. When Coulson and Campbell find Blake in one of his safe houses, Coulson tests his new potential agent with a kill order. But Blake is stalling, allowing the Watchdogs to go after their real target.

"Watchdogs" starts as a Mack episode and the longer it focuses on Mack - a character who was often neglected and minimized in favor of spending time on the Morse/Hunter relationship. Here we see Mack's family and his sense of loss after Morse leaves feels very real. Mack lays the fundamentals for the arguments for the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War when Daisy wants to use unConstitutional means to find members of the Watchdogs, but Mack rejects the violation of civil liberties.

What is clever about "Watchdogs" is how it manages to refocus Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on some real world concepts that make the spy show relatable again. Ruben is laid off, struggling to pay a mortgage and that makes him susceptible to falling in with the radicalized Watchdogs. That, predictably, scares Mack and his concern is expressed realistically and with a decent performance by Henry Simmons. Simmons is one of the more underused talents on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., but "Watchdogs" finally gets the right balance between using him as a physical actor and giving him smart lines to deliver.

Having a large cast, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. constantly struggles to find balance and explore its characters well. Simmons and May get a couple of c- or d-plot scenes that allow Simmons to evolve past being the damsel in distress and for May to hunt down her ex-husband. The passing attempt to service the characters pulls focus from Daisy, Mack and the Coulson/Campbell conflict, but it keeps the hint of the core plot begun at the outset of season three alive. Serviced less well is Fitz; his opening lines have him presented as some odd combination of twitchy, season one introverted and season two brain damaged (a character trait that has been dropped in recent episodes). His "voice" almost completely changes after he is attacked by a weapon that works far slower than the initial use of it in the episode.

Gaius Charles leaps into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a bit character - Ruben MacKenzie and his performance sets the bar high for Chadwick Boseman when he gets the lead role of T'Challa. Charles appearing in the episode that returns Titus Welliver to the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes for a well-performed episode even if it includes such ridiculous conceits as Mack handing an assault rifle over to his brother, as opposed to giving his inexperienced brother the family shotgun.

Despite re-introducing Felix Blake to the narrative - Blake has not been around since "The End Of The Beginning" (reviewed here!) in the first season - "Watchdogs" is a bottle episode that introduces and seems to eliminate a potentially formidable enemy much more compelling than HYDRA. The Watchdogs are the perfect Marvel Cinematic Universe allegory for redneck militias and viewers who are perceptive and engaged enough to catch things like the Daredevil allusion in the first act are unlikely to be offended by the commentary that ought to come from the group's statements and how they are likely to be treated. It is far too early - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been unfortunately inconsistent - to decide whether "Watchdogs" is turning the show around to getting it on a positive track for the series, but it feels like a good start to bucking the downward trend of the season.

For other works with D. Elliot Woods, please visit my reviews of:
"Fortunate Son" - Star Trek: Enterprise
Star Trek: Insurrection
"Sons Of Mogh" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Third Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the third season here!
Thanks!]

7.5/10

For other Marvel movie, television season and episode reviews, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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3-D Enhanced Nostalgia: The 2015 The Poky Little Puppy Ornament Is Neat!


The Good: Good balance, Neat rendition
The Bad: Seems pricy, Binding color
The Basics: A pretty neat sculpt, the 2015 "The Poky Little Puppy" ornament is a cute callback to childhood.


As I look at my body of reviews, I was pretty psyched to realize that for my reviews of Hallmark holiday ornaments, 2015 was my peak year! Part of the reason I have evaluated more Hallmark ornaments from last year than any prior year was that I have branched out from the genre ornaments I love and personally collect and have gotten into more general ornaments because of interests my wife has. I was surprised when she exhibited a strong desire for one of the late-season ornaments. As it turns out, she was a big fan of the Little Golden Book The Poky Little Puppy and when Hallmark released The Poky Little Puppy ornament, she put a big circle around that in the Hallmark ornament dreambook. The real surprise for us was that when the ornament was released, it was not simply a two-dimensional ornament; the ornament is like a little sculpture, attached to a backdrop of the book.

The 2015 The Poky Little Puppy ornament is a cute ornament that brings the cover of The Poky Little Puppy to life by creating a little sculpture of the titular character greeting a lizard and a caterpiller in the field he is exploring.

Basics

The The Poky Little Puppy ornament is an ornament that features the book The Poky Littlle Puppy with the character from the cover bursting out of the ornament into the third dimension. The ornament is similar to the book, but the spine of the book on the ornament is yellow, not gold. The ornament, released in 2015, is a standard-release ornament, though it was one of the final ornaments released for the season, so many stores did not even display it!

Hallmark made a creative reinterpretation of the protagonist from the book for the The Poky Little Puppy ornament. The medium-sized Hallmark ornament that is very light and features the curious little puppy looking at the lizard, which is attached to the right side of the hill the puppy is standing on. On the left side is a pink caterpiller. The Puppy is sculpted with finer detailing like etching for the puppy's fur, while the Puppy's nails are smooth. The book backdrop is smooth as well.

The Hallmark "The Poky Little Puppy" ornament is colored in monotones, which is perfectly appropriate for an ornament based on artwork from a children's book. The only real issue with the ornament's coloring is that the spine of the Little Golden Books is usually a gold foil and the ornament has a yellow spine. Getting the coloring right is well within the ability of Hallmark; that they didn't is disappointment, though not a severe one.

Features

As a Hallmark Keepsake ornament, "The Poky Little Puppy" could have a sound or even a light effect, but it does not. Given that there is not an iconic reading (like an essential audiobook version) of the book The Poky Little Puppy, consumers have no real expectation for an additional feature.

Balance

As with all ornaments, the intent of the Hallmark Keepsake "The Poky Little Puppy" ornament is to be hung on a Christmas tree. And the "The Poky Little Puppy" ornament is an exceptional option for anyone who has fond memories of childhood associated with the book upon which the ornament is based. The ornament has the brass hook loop embedded into the center of the book backdrop. From that point, the The Poky Little Puppy is very well-balanced, allowing the ornament to hang perfectly level.

Collectibility

Hallmark Keepsake began delving into the collectibles market in 1991 with Star Trek when it introduced the exceptionally limited edition original U.S.S. Enterprise ornament (reviewed here!). Within a few years, every major franchise from Star Wars to A Nightmare Before Christmas to Indiana Jones started making Hallmark ornaments. "The Poky Little Puppy" is a non-genre ornament that is not part of an annual series, but seemed to come to Hallmark from their licensing with Dreamworks. Given that it was one of the final releases of the season, many fans never even saw it in real life and several of the Hallmark stores I visited only got in one of the ornament! While the original issue price was $14.95 and that seemed a little high, its relative rarity seemed to allow it to hold its value and it might actually appreciate in value if it is not re-issued in 2016.

Overview

Fans of cute ornaments, children's books, Hallmark ornaments, and generic Christmas ornaments are likely to find the The Poky Little Puppy ornament an awesome addition to their collections, even if the spine is not perfectly rendered!

For other non-genre Hallmark ornaments, please check out my reviews of:
2015 Big Box Of 64! Crayola Crayons ornament
2015 Misfit Friends ornament
2015 Seasons Treatings ornament

8/10

For other ornament reviews, please visit my Ornament Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Indistinct Shadows Allows Lilly Wood And The Prick To Deceptively Terrorize Their Listeners!


The Good: Lyrics, Vocals are not bad
The Bad: Repetitive sounding, Instrumental accompaniment and vocals are very mundane
The Basics: Shadows is an album that completely blends into the background when it is on, but when one listens to the lyrics being sung, they are almost universally assaulted with some of the saddest, most horrific songs ever produced.


I love how two people can have perceptions of something that are virtually identical, but almost completely different in the effect they have. Today, when I had the Lilly Wood And The Prick album Shadows on for several hours, my wife turned to me and said, "I like it; it's good background music" and I watched as she would wiggle her feet along to some of the disco beats. When she weighed in with her opinion, I nodded and admitted that that was what I did not like about the album; none of the songs were standing out. We both felt the album, musically, blended together into a fairly indistinct auditory blur and while that comforted my wife, it left me underwhelmed.

As a reviewer, I have a whole category for such albums: they fall into the classification of "Indistinct." There are a ton of albums I have reviewed that fall into that category and Shadows may be one of the best of the ones that I have reviewed. The real catch with Shadows for me came when I started catching some of the lyrics being sung over the murky tunes or dance tracks. So many of the lines being sung on Shadows are either depressing or outright horrifying.

With fifteen songs, clocking out at 58:29, Shadows is the work of Lilly Wood And The Prick. The duo of Nili Hadida and Benjamin Cotto wrote all of the songs and Hadida provides all of the lead vocals. Cotto provides supporting vocals and together they play the lion's share of the instruments on the album. While they were not involved with mixing the songs, they seem to exert enough creative control over their work to define Shadows as the album they intended to release.

Musically, Shadows is a bit of a departure from the Lilly Wood And The Prick's albums Invincible Friends (reviewed here!) and The Fighter (reviewed here!). Shadows is far less experimental in its sound and musical diversity. Instead, the songs alternate between dance pop songs with up-tempo keyboards and murky bass and keyboard driven tracks that are modern dirges. "L'enfance," for example, lacks a strong, recognizable tune, so the vocals drive any sense of music it possesses. Basslines in the songs blend from song to song creating a surprisingly homogeneous sound for Shadows and it hobbles the album by failing to let any single track break out to catch the ear of the listener.

That said, Hadida's vocals are competent and (mostly) clear. On tracks like "Shadows," Hadida's primary vocals repeat the same line over and over at such length that her voice becomes entirely hypnotic. Benjamin Cotto's supporting vocals break out only on "Collapse" when he harmonizes with Hadida. What changed my perception of Shadows was the second half of the album. On "By Myself," Hadida's vocals go up into a higher register and break out from the instrumental accompaniment. When that happens, she suddenly seems more articulate - like she is enunciating more. And that is when the lyrics pop and the listener starts to catch what a dark place Lilly Wood And The Prick is mired in for the album.

"By Myself" might well be the perfect post-break-up song. The musical protagonist has a core of inner strength and when Hadida sings "Faces haunting hallways / Witches in corners, witches / My monsters are trying to speak / They only have nice things to say / There are ghosts everywhere, / There are ghosts everywhere / I'm well, by myself" ("By Myself"), the lyrics resonate. For once, the repetition does not simply become mind-numbing; it is a chant of strength.

Lilly Wood And The Prick continues their trend of having some intriguing musical story songs with wonderful imagery on Shadows. Arguably the best on Shadows is "Le Chant Des Sirenes." The duo paints a very strong sense of place and mood with the lyrics "Every step we take drives us away / When all we try to do is get much closer / Lost in a blue swamp, soaking wet / Creatures calling out to save remains / Will we drown alone? / Our lungs filled with regrets" ("Le Chant Des Sirenes").

Shadows ends in a dark place, at least for those who have overcome the musical thread that makes the instrumental accompaniment blend each song together. The album, which has songs exploring abuse, loss and assault ends powerfully with "I Hate You." "I Hate You" is one of the rare songs that effectively expresses anger toward an abuser without letting out the sounds of raw rage or sounding in any way dippy or whiny. Instead, with lines like "It's a mistake that / You made me do / I ask for nothing / But for you to leave / Now face it, now face it / Now face me / Go to hell, go to hell / Go to hell / I don't forgive you / I hate you" ("I Hate You") Lilly Wood And The Prick effectively gives voice to survivors and provides a musical catharsis for those who wish they could tell-off their abusers!

Shadows might be a better album than I give it credit for; it clearly has something to say and it is exceptionally well-written, even if so many of the lines are very difficult to hear. But the sound of the album is indistinct and while that might be clever and deceptive, it just did not work as well as it could have for me. Instead, it numbs the listener into a mundane place before the vocals cut through and stab the listener with horrifying and sad statements.

The best track is "By Myself" (though "Forget" is a close second!); the rest of the album is fine, but pretty much on par with itself, making for no truly weak tracks.

For other albums that have an indistinct sound, please visit my reviews of:
Hu manBe ing - Seal
Your Little Secret - Melissa Etheridge
Slow Motion Daydream - Everclear

5.5/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Friday, March 25, 2016

End On The Anticlimax: "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" Is More Foreshadowing Than Satisfying!


The Good: Good character moments, A lot of plot seeding, Moments of performance
The Bad: Light on resolutions, Details, Mundane mood accents the less-developed plot
The Basics: Daredevil ends its second season on "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen," which might be a good tie-in to future episodes, but is more lackluster than fans of the show (and comic) might want.


It is very easy to think that Daredevil shot its creative wad in its first season. Daredevil appeared on Netflix with a season that utilized its most iconic villain (which is par for the Marvel Cinematic Universe course) and killed off a shocking number of its essential support characters. When the second season of Daredevil was first announced fans might have had the reasonable concern that what was left of the franchise was nearing its creative end; with Elektra and The Punisher popping up now, only Typhoid Mary and Bullseye remain from the core of essential Daredevil villains. Both Typhoid Mary and Bullseye would have trouble with fitting into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and (even together) sustaining a full-season arc for the show. The second season finale of Daredevil is built almost entirely on the promise of future seasons of Daredevil. "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" does a faux-conclusion for Elektra's storyline - faux- because only those ignorant of every other Marvel Cinematic property would not see the episode's final scene and what it promises coming.

"A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" follows upon the threat made at the climax of "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" (reviewed here!), when Nobu set The Hand upon the task of killing Daredevil. The episode has Elektra in her full, honest, form and manages to not completely neglect the core characters of Daredevil while justifying her appearance on the show. Some of the best moments of "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" are allusions to Jessica Jones and set-ups for future episodes of Daredevil (which are fairly well-telegraphed for anyone who has read Shadowland).

The mysterious object that Nobu has been protecting is shown to still be in Nobu's possession when Nobu tasks one of his assistants with capturing twenty targets in New York City for his own purpose. Daredevil patches Stick up while the two debate the Black Sky, which Murdock refuses to believe in. Elektra, continues to struggle with understanding her true nature and Murdock tries to convince her of her humanity and they resolve to try to stop Nobu and The Hand. While Foggy Nelson meets with Jeri Hogarth for a job at her firm, Elektra and Daredevil visit Melvin Potter, who outfits Elektra with a costume and gives Matt his unique billyclub. Nelson calls Murdock to reveal that Mahoney has been roughed up and the people who assaulted the police detective took the records of all the people Daredevil saved.

The abductors are Nobu's forces and they capture Page and Turk, among others, which leads Daredevil on a chase across Hell's Kitchen to try to rescue them. Turk being among the captives becomes advantageous as he is under house arrest and Page convinces him to re-activate his ankle monitor to alert the police to their location. Murdock correctly deduces that the capture of the people he once rescued is a trap designed to draw him out and to save Karen and the others, he willingly runs into the trap . . . though he has back-up from Elektra and someone he never expected.

The promotions for the second season of Daredevil - one featuring The Punisher, another featuring Elektra - allowed attentive viewers (like me) to pretty easily predict the basic plotting of the larger second season arc. Despite that, "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" is entertaining and it creates an effective emotional investment for viewers. The faux-resolution for the Elektra arc is a deposit into the emotional bank for viewers; will it pay off? The answer seems to depend almost entirely upon how far ahead the executive producers of Daredevil have plotted the series and the rest of Marvel's "street level" universe on Netflix. Given the quality of Daredevil so far, it is hard not to bank on the investment paying off.

After the revelation in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel," seeing Elektra react with considering suicide is actually refreshing on television. Elektra has had a core of evil within her, which Stick has tried to redirect and use for his good cause. So, Elektra's sense of violence perfectly fits within her character to have her consider self-violence and that sense of realism is well-constructed. Director Peter Hoar and writers Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez wisely put Elektra on a ledge for her first solo scene following her truth being revealed to herself. Murdock's faith in Elektra is not wasted, which is refreshing. When Page is captured, Elektra calms Murdock and exhibits an affection for him that is very human.

Fans of Daredevil, both the show and especially the comic, and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe will have a lot to squeal about from "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen." Jeri Hogarth's appearance leaves viewers with the promise of a potential crossover of Nelson to any potential second season of Jessica Jones - or any other trips to Hogarth's law firm within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil getting his iconic billyclub is more of a geek-out moment for the fans of the man without fear than seeing Frank Castle in his full Punisher armor. And geeks cannot help but delight by some of the background details - like a poster for The Gladiator in the background at Melvin Potter's workshop. Given that level of detail, it's virtually impossible to believe that the "Wanted For Robbery" poster over Nelson's shoulder when he calls Matt is random!

Oddly, for a show (and episode) that is so detail oriented, it seems odd what details the episode gets wrong. For sure, Jeri Hogarth has a ton of money for things like reconstructive surgery, but the seemingly compressed timeframe of the second season of Daredevil and the lack of a significant gap between it and Jessica Jones (Claire Temple's first appearance in the second season is within the month window after the finale of the first season of Jessica Jones, though there seems to be an incredibly poor transition between the hot summer at the beginning of this season and the finale ending at Christmastime) make it somewhat unrealistic that Hogarth has no visible scars whatsoever. Within the episode, Detective Mahoney requests lights up on three different locations to illuminate the rooftop for the final battle, but those lights never materialize (despite the long stairwell scene before that confrontation.

"A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" illustrates one of the problems with a show that features a lot of physical fights; the final battle in the episode might be a decent-enough fight sequence, but it is poorly lit and much of it is resolved without being focused on. It is like the executive producers, like the viewers, were feeling fight fatigue and didn't know how to top previous fights and just didn't care to try. Fortunately, the episode does not bank everything on the fight sequence. Instead, the episode's big moments are appropriately focused on Matt Murdock.

Murdock declares his love for Elektra in a fairly convincing way in "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" and her observations tie well to the confession Murdock ultimately makes. Season three has an important character aspect to follow up on - Daredevil does not kill, so how Murdock's feelings of guilt play out in the next season for what director Peter Hoar shot in a way that convincingly could be written off as an accident is fodder for fan speculation until it airs. Stick and Murdock's relationship deepens in "A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" (though how Stick got out of the chair remains a mystery) and their final scene makes Murdock's final scene make perfect sense (especially tied with the stairwell scene between Daredevil and Elektra).

The acting front is dominated by Geoffrey Cantor. Cantor has the supporting role of The New York Bulletin's Mitchell Ellison, who is now Karen Page's boss. Cantor takes a fairly small supporting role and performs the hell out of it. There is not a millisecond of his portrayal of Cantor in his final scene of the season that he is not absolutely convincing as an editor. His final scene, which is part of the season's long denouement after all the action is over, is one of the most interesting, even through it is mostly just a guy lecturing to his employee. Deborah Ann Woll's responsive monologue is well-delivered, even if it feels a bit gushy for the oppressively dark Daredevil. On-screen, Woll nails her final moment of the episode, which relies entirely upon her reaction.

"A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" is enjoyable, but not actually extraordinary. While it affords some level of closure to the season, the episode is belaboring the foreshadowing to future Daredevil, seeming to bank on the future as opposed to creating something great in and of itself.

For other climactic season finales, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"AKA Smile" - Jessica Jones
"Fast Enough" - The Flash
"S.O.S. Part 2" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Daredevil - 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 sophomore season of the blind vigilante here!
Thanks!]

5/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Soft And Flavorful, Sunbelt Bakery Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars Are All Right.


The Good: Flavorful, Healthy
The Bad: Not overly Pumpkin Spice flavored, Comparatively expensive
The Basics: Sunbelt Bakery Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars are enjoyable, but not incredibly distinctive.


Every now and then, I encounter a food that is good, but not truly exceptional. Granola bars are one of those foods that generally falls into the average range; it is hard to find the right balance between the promised flavor and the wheat and oats base that forms the medium for that flavor. Sometimes, the best one can hope for is a granola bar that tastes like a flavorful oatmeal. Sunbelt Bakery's Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars actually led to that realization for me. The Pumpkin Spice chewy granola bars have a spiced flavor that blends nicely with the oats and the dryness of the granola does not overwhelm the flavor. Even so, these are more generically sweet than they are truly pumpkin spice flavor.

The Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars are a good snack product from Sunbelt Bakery, even if they are not extraordinary.

Basics

The Pumpkin Spice granola bar is my first experience with Sunbelt Bakery. Sunbelt Bakery seems to be a health food company that is devoted to making snacks and foods that are healthy, made with good ingredients and are light on preservatives for an all natural food. The Chewy Granola Bars come in several flavors and I chose the Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars, while there are many other flavors of Sunbelt Bakery products.

Each Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bar is in a .95 oz. bar that is plastic wrapped. Each bar represents a single serving and the Chewy Granola Bars are each 1 3/8” wide by 5/8” thick by 3 1/2” long bar that is unsurprisingly squishable, though they live up to their promise of being chewy. A box of Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars contains ten bars. Each bar looks like a plain, soft granola bar with nothing distinctive about its appearance.

Ease Of Preparation

Eating Sunbelt Bakery Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars is simple. After removing the plastic wrapper, simply pull out the bar and stick it in your mouth. There is no particularly complicated equation to eating this snack; it is an entirely ready-to-eat food!

Taste

Unwrapping the Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bar, one is given a powerful burst of the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon. The chewy granola bar smells like autumn. Anyone who loves pumpkin spice will be instantly enticed by the aroma of these chewy granola bars.

In the mouth, the Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bar is sweet and dry. The flavor of cinnamon blends with the oats and wheat making it taste like pretty much a cinnamon granola cereal. The flavor is identical to a cinnamon-flavored oatmeal and the additional flavors of nutmeg and sugar make it taste a bit more like pumpkin spice than just a chewy cinnamon granola bar.

This treat has a strong, dry, aftertaste that leaves a lingering sweetness on the tongue for only a few seconds before it simply dries the mouth out.

Nutrition

Sunbelt Bakery Chewy Granola Bars are intended as a snack, not a meal. Each .95 oz. Chewy Granola Bar represents a single serving and they are predictably healthy. Made primarily of whole grain oats, sugar and whole grain rolled wheat, there is nothing in these bars that is unpronouncable. This is a mostly-natural food product and these Chewy Granola Bars were produced on equipment that may leave the bar with traces of coconuts, peanuts, wheat, almonds, soy and milk, so they are not Vegan-compliant.

Sunbelt Bakery's Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars have 110 calories, 25 of which are from fat. A full serving represents 5% of one's RDA of saturated fat and these are cholesterol free. They are fairly low in sodium with only 65 mg per serving and there are 2 grams of protein to be had by eating a full bar. These are not a significant source of vitamins or minerals, though they do have 2% of one’s daily RDA of Iron.

Storage/Cleanup

As a healthy snack, Sunbelt Bakery Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bar remain fresh so long as they are kept in their wrappers. As long as the bars are not heated up, they remain fresh and the only real clean-up for them comes from wiping up crumbs. It is virtually impossible for these granola bars to mess up one's clothes or anything else - there is nothing to melt from them.

Overall

Sunbelt Bakery Pumpkin Spice Chewy Granola Bars are good, but they lack any sort of pumpkin flavor; they live up to their name of being pumpkin spice, but spiced granola bars are pretty hard to differentiate when so many use cinnamon as a flavor.

For other reviews of pumpkin spiced foods, please check out:
Twinings Pumpkin Spice Chai Tea
Ghirardelli Milk & Pumpkin Spice Caramel chocolate squares
Pumpkin Pie Pop Tarts

6/10

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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Unadulterated Elektra Backstory Comes Through "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel!"


The Good: Good performances, Character revelations and direction
The Bad: Physical darkness of the episode, Medical science, Predictable plot
The Basics: Stick and Elektra's backstories are made explicit in the Daredevil episode "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" when Stick is captured by The Hand.


When the second season of Daredevil was first teased, I - like many fans - was super-excited about the addition of Elektra to the cast and the narrative. I had a lot of trepidation about the addition of The Punisher to the second season of Daredevil, as he was a character that never actually interested and I was unsure how he would fit into the narrative without overwhelming it. Perhaps the irony of my initial concerns was that the execution proved to be opposite in terms of the quality of the storylines and characters. The Frank Castle (Punisher) storyline was used to draw out further character traits for Karen Page and it became a pivotal aspect of the relationship between Foggy Nelson and Matt Murdock . . . and Jon Bernthal gave a shockingly deep performance as Castle. On the other side of the storyline, Elektra has been surprisingly underwhelming in Daredevil and she seems to be serving the larger plot by foreshadowing to elements for the eventual Shadowland plot being used on Daredevil, while distracting Matt Murdock from his daytime responsibilities. With the Frank Castle plotline being virtually ended by ".380," the penultimate episode and the final episode put the onus on the Elektra plotline to bring home a strong finish to the sophomore season.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" picks up in the final minute of ".380" (reviewed here!) and one cannot discuss the new episode without revealing where the prior episode ended. Given that Elektra and Stick were squaring off at the end of ".380," "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" opens in an exciting place and the penultimate episode finally makes explicit the backstory of Elektra. Matt Murdock's conflict with Elektra on-screen came from the revelation earlier in the season that Elektra knew his old master, Stick, and their history ten years prior was artificially generated . . . and that Elektra is a trained assassin who completely lacks his moral compass. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" explains Elektra's perspective without Matt Murdock's judgmental nature.

Opening with Elektra as a young girl, training at Stick's remote compound, Elektra holds her own against the older boys she it pitted against. Elektra is observant, but she is undisciplined; still, she learns fast. Stick pulls her off before she can kill her training partner and tries to advise her on how to be an effective weapon in his ancient war. Back in the present, Stick and Elektra fight because Stick attempted to have Elektra killed. Daredevil arrives and intervenes to save Stick. They are distracted enough that The Hand's ninjas are able to abduct Stick. While Karen Page looks for closure at the pier where it appears Frank Castle was killed the night before, Foggy Nelson says goodbye to Matt Murdock and they agree to shutter Nelson & Murdock.

Tipped off by Nelson to old bootlegger tunnels below Hell's Kitchen, Daredevil goes looking for The Hand's lair to rescue Stick. Karen Page is pushed by Ellison to complete her expose on the Punisher, so she visits the only person she knows who respected Frank Castle, Colonel Schoonover. After a charming conversation with Schoonover, Page finds her life in danger from The Blacksmith. While Daredevil fights for his life against ninjas who make no sound and Stick struggles to remain alive through The Hand's torture, Page confronts The Blacksmith.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" suffers from a narrative problem that observant fans - the only ones who would truly care about Elektra's backstory - will catch almost instantly. When Elektra revealed her true nature to Matt Murdock, she reveals that she was a child when she first killed and that she did it just because she could. The first flashback scene has Elektra at the right age, so astute viewers will pretty much immediately figure out that the purpose of the episode is to illustrate on-screen how Elektra made her first kill. The story of her first kill is set off against her promise to kill Stick if she gets to him first and the set-up does not disappoint fans . . . but, because we know what is coming, it also does not thrill them. The episode feels largely inevitable instead of exciting, at least on the Elektra front.

Similar foreshadowing was done in the Punisher plotline in ".380." Astute viewers will note that The Punisher only starts taunting the man on the boat after he sees the face of the boat's primary guard in ".380." That and the explicit remark from one of the final cadre of killers set against Frank illustrates a connection between Frank Castle and the drug kingpin known as The Blacksmith. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" resolves the story with the hidden villain of the season by revealing The Blacksmith and while it might not be the biggest surprise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is enjoyable to watch and frees up The Punisher for his own adventures unencumbered by any mysteries from his own origin story.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" offers viewers subtle characterization for Karen Page. Page's backstory in Daredevil has only been obliquely alluded to - including a headline in a newspaper this season from Ben Urich's file on her. Page is motivated by her backstory elements and her fears about who she might become having killed Wesley in the first season. Ellison pushes her to complete her story on Frank Castle not knowing what truly pushes her . . . and it puts her in danger. It also explains her desperation to humanize the man behind The Punisher. Page has also made the transition in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" from legal assistant to professional reporter.

The return of Clancy Brown to Daredevil allows him to deepen his bit role within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Brown is one of the few men who has a screen presence that is able to credibly pull off a role that could believably command Bernthal's Castle. Schoonover is an interesting part for Brown and he is absolutely credible as Bernthal's former commanding officer. Brown's role in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" is satisfying enough to allow viewers to forgive the old trope that the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses pretty much constantly; if a character's death is not shown graphically on-screen, odds are they are coming back. To date, there are ridiculously few characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who are actually 100% dead - The Clairvoyant and Tripp on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Odin are the only ones who come instantly to mind. So, viewers are not at all surprised when Frank Castle shows up again.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" excitingly makes Elektra's backstory layered and deep while confirming Stick's version of the story of the conflict between The Hand and The Chaste. Elektra is hard to see as heroic - she is not given an episode with perspective that humanizes her like Kilgrave was given in the Jessica Jones episode "AKA WWJD?" (reviewed here!) - as she is a trained assassin who seems to enjoy the act of killing. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" fleshes out Elektra's backstory in a way that makes her almost the anti-Kilgrave; Elektra had to tame her inner demons and channel them into her work, but her life was surprisingly carefully constructed by Stick. The episode's emotional climax comes from Daredevil and Elektra facing one another and Murdock appealing to Elektra's humanity and it is surprisingly satisfying to see someone who is not a slave to their instincts act like they want to. By comparison, the resolution of The Punisher plotline allows the anti-hero (he does the wrong things for the right reason) to get closure in a way that seems to leave very little potential for the future of the character.

The acting in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" is shockingly good. From Brown to Elodie Yung (Elektra) and Scott Glenn (Stick), the performances are very layered throughout the episode. Deborah Ann Woll exhibits wonderful range as Karen Page and Elodie Yung similarly shows off a decent number of facets. Only Peter Shinkoda is given a monolithic role to play as Nobu runs The Hand with remarkably little depth to his performance - the role doesn't give him much to play with, so it's not his fault.

The science in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" is hard to buy given how rooted much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the real world when it is not exploring its heroes and their devices/abilities. The Hand's ninjas have to breathe, but they are able to entirely repress their own heartbeats. Just like the basic biology relying on a conceit that feels a bit off (our hearts beat more per minute than we breathe), the direction is somewhat problematic. Euros Lyn lights so much of the episode so darkly that it cannot be seen well. The episode reiterates the problem in so much modern television and movies; if the effects cannot be seen, it is hard to call them truly special and/or appreciate them.

From a larger storytelling perspective, "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" introduces an idea that none of the characters follow up upon. In the first season of Daredevil when Murdock's mentor is introduced in "Stick" (reviewed here!), he is in Hell's Kitchen to kill the child who the Hand has identified as The Black Sky. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" introduces the idea that there is more than one Black Sky, but that idea is not satisfactorily explored or even acknowledged by any of the characters. Indeed, given where the series goes in the final moments of its finale, the failure of that new information to be acknowledged is made even more troubling; it begs the question of how Stick disposed of the Black Sky child in the prior season so its corpse could not be used by The Hand!

Within "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel," Elektra manages to reach her potential for fans and those who simply have been watching Daredevil. Elektra becomes more deep and intriguing than she has been for the rest of the season, making her suddenly vital to the presence and future of the show.

For other big penultimate episodes, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"Graduation Day, Part 1" - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
"In The Cards" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"S.O.S. Part 1" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Daredevil - 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 sophomore season of the blind vigilante here!
Thanks!]

7/10

For other television episode and movie reviews from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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