Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Classic Christmas Album Even A Grinch Can Enjoy: Loreena McKennitt's A Midwinter Night's Dream!

The Good: Great voice, Good mix of songs, Nice instrumentals, Generalized holiday spirit/feel
The Bad: Sounds a lot like all of McKennitt's other works, Could be longer.
The Basics: Finally presenting an album where she produces her vocals to the forefront, Loreena McKennitt impresses with her Christmas album A Midwinter Night's Dream!

For those who might not follow my reviews, Christmas albums often suffer at my hands. I am, to say the least, not a fan. There are virtually no new, decent, takes on old, classic Christmas songs by new artists these days. Instead, the Christmas album becomes an inexpensive way to release an album and guarantee performers a little extra holiday loot by cashing in on the season. It has been a long time since there has been a truly inspired holiday album that I have heard.

The artist who gets a free pass from that generalized criticism of holiday albums is Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt releases all types of classical-sounding albums and a Christmas album of hers is more in keeping with the style and tenor of her music than most musical artists who release Christmas albums. So when my mother brought home A Midwinter Night's Dream, I was not inherently biased against it and the more I have listened to it, the more I have come to appreciate it. For those looking for a good, classic-sounding Christmas album, this is a great way to go. For those looking for a more generic and universally friendly "holiday" album, this is fine . . . so long as one ignores almost all of the lyrics. McKennitt creates a pretty ideal Christmas album as opposed to a more p.c.-friendly "holiday" album, though her sound is likely to be appreciated by anyone.

With thirteen tracks, clocking out at a disappointingly anemic 54:19, A Midwinter Night's Dream represents a combination of traditional musical and lyrical frameworks and Loreena McKennitt's arrangement sensibilities. What I mean is that McKennitt wrote none of the lyrics and little of the score to the music on this album. Instead, she adapts the classical scores and lyrics to modern instruments and produces the album to be a decent mix of old and new. This is not to say that McKennitt is not presenting something artistic on this album. Quite the opposite, McKennitt provides lead vocals on all songs, plays an instrument on all tracks but one and produced the album. While she only plays the harp, keyboards, piano and accordion on this album, it is hard to say that she is not busy or artistic! This represents, despite the limitations imposed by the classic, established songs and lyrics, the musical vision of Loreena McKennitt.

In fact, if there is any real strong drawback to A Midwinter Night's Dream as far as artistic vision it is in that this is very clearly McKennitt's vision. This album sounds remarkably like every other album of McKennitt's. More than just presenting the same soprano vocals against deep bass chords and mixing harps and electric guitars, this means that a number of the songs that McKennitt arranged on this album sound like songs from her other albums. In fact, even those who only know McKennitt from her hit "The Mummer's Dance" will find "Noel Nouvelet!" instrumentally familiar because of that.

For those unfamiliar with the works of Loreena McKennitt, this is a wonderful and safe way to get into the artist as many of the songs on this album are straightforward classic Christmas songs that are recognizable to anyone. Classics like "Good King Wenceslas," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Emmanuel" are along side less familiar (to many) songs like "The Holly & The Ivy" and "Gloucestershire Wassail." As well, McKennitt provides three instrumental tracks with "Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle," "Brenton Carol," and "In The Bleak Midwinter."

As mentioned, the arrangements are distinctly Loreena McKennitt. Like most of her albums, most of the songs are slow, have a melancholy affect to them - especially in the vocals - and mix classical instruments like the mandolin and harp with modern instruments like the electric guitar to provide a new medieval chic. If one were to imagine Christmas at a Renaissance Festival, this album would most assuredly be the soundtrack to it. McKennitt is well-versed in the classics and this is a soft, non-intrusive Christmas album that is - at the same time - enjoyable to listen to.

Take, for example, McKennitt's version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Without changing any of the traditional lyrics to this son, McKennitt makes the song sound new again. This is the only track she does not play an instrument in, but her vocals act as an instrument. Her soprano voice rings out in countermelody to the deep percussion. This track has an eclectic mix of instruments that creates a brooding, almost dangerous, sound with its use of violins, guitars, guitar synthesizer, acoustic bass, cello, tabla, shawm and multiple forms of percussion. McKennitt takes a pretty classic European Christmas song and makes it sound Middle Eastern or Indian!

This mix of classic and contemporary sounds has its drawbacks. "Snow" sounds like virtually any Celine Dion track (in fact, it sounds a lot in its opening orchestration like "My Heart Will Go On") and the short instrumentals often blend with the tracks next to them. After eight listens to this album, I still could not tell you what the final track sounds like as it basically loops perfectly for "Emmanuel" to "The Holly & The Ivy."

A Midwinter Night's Dream is soft and almost universally slow. Even songs like "Good King Wenceslas" are more subdued than boisterous under McKennitt's musical attentions. This is a very mellow album and it is easy to listen to it and want to do nothing more than curl up in front of a fire and listen to McKennitt's sweet, sensual voice traverse the scales. As well, it is a good album of Christmas songs to have on during a gathering; it is both non-intrusive and an intriguing musical conversation piece for those who need one.

The best song is McKennitt's rich take on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," the low point (and it is not much of one) is the fairly forgettable "Gloucestershire Wassail."

For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
To Drive The Cold Winter Away - Loreena McKennitt
Joy: A Holiday Celebration - Jewel
These Are Special Times – Celine Dion
A New Thought For Christmas – Melissa Etheridge


For other album and singles reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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Want Shocking Lemon Lime Flavor? Go With Jelly Belly, Not Sprite!

Lemon Lime 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: A pretty wild Jelly Belly, Lemon Lime tastes good, but fades fast. Still, if you like them, this is the way to buy them!

Remember all of those old Sprite commercials that advertised that beverage as having the shockingly lemon-lime flavor? Yeah, they're full of it. And that's not because Sprite doesn't taste good (I'll let others debate that one) but rather it is not honestly a lemon or lime flavor. Otherwise, why would people ever order Sprite with a twist? That would be redundant. No, Sprite isn't very lemon lime in its flavor. Truth be told, it's not terribly shocking either. But Lemon Lime Jelly Belly jelly beans . . . wow! Were it not for how fast the taste fades, these would be a perfect jelly bean as well as a perfect embodiment of the mix of fruity lemon and lime flavors.

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 Sour Raspberry, strawberry jam, Orange Crush, or their signature flavor Buttered Popcorn.

Who needs ten pounds of Lemon Lime flavored Jelly Belly's? Anyone who likes a slightly sour jelly bean with a little kick and the authentic flavor of the fruits it claims to be. As for the ten pounds, I don't know; people who are real good at self control?


Lemon Lime 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 Lemon Lime and they come more or less close enough.

Lemon Lime 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 say "home security." The Lemon Lime flavor is an excellent one. Even so, I suspect that for most people, a ten pound case is a year's supply of these jelly beans.

Lemon Lime flavored Jelly Belly's are easily distinguishable from other flavors of Jelly Bellys by their light green color. Lemon Lime is appropriately a mix of yellow and green, leaning a bit more toward the yellow end of the spectrum. It is easy to distinguish from other Jelly Bellys, though, from the fact that it is more green than any of the yellows and more yellow than any of the greens.

Ease Of Preparation

These are jelly beans, not playing the complete works of Schubert without sheet music. 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 using this ten pound box as part of a shock and awe security system, eating them right out of the box might be necessary.


Lemon Lime Jelly Belly jelly beans are pretty wonderful. The jelly beans do not have a bouquet, so that they are packed with as much flavor as they actually are is something of a small miracle. Unaided by any strong scent, Lemon Lime Jelly Belly jelly beans still embody the flavor of both lemons and limes.

Biting into the Lemon Lime Jelly Belly, one is instantly hit with a kick of sharp, taste that I can only define as "fizzy." When one opens a sparkling soda or puts Pop Rocks on one's tongue there is a distinct taste or texture that is the embodiment of tiny bubbles popping. It is that taste or texture that the Lemon Lime Jelly Belly possesses.

Beyond that, the taste is exactly that of a fresh lemon and a fresh lime squeezed together with some sugar added. The fine folks at Jelly Belly were smart enough to not overwhelm the jelly bean with a lot of sweetness. The sour kick from this bean helps to define the two fruit flavors it claims to be and as a result, this has a very authentic flavor that mixes the two tastes it claims to be.

However, the taste fades remarkably quickly. More than a handful of Lemon Lime Jelly Belly jelly beans consumed at a time leaves the consumer with the vague taste of sugar in their mouth, not anything wonderful or as distinct as the initial flavor. Of course, if one can limit themselves to about half a cup of these little gems at a time, there ought to be no problem!


Again, these are jelly beans, so anyone looking to them for nutrition needs to remember that it takes a pretty intense sense of denial to believe that jelly beans might have real nutritional value. 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.


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 Bellys, because lemon and lime juice hurts when in cuts, who knows what the super-concentrated power of those flavors in a jelly bean would do?!). I've never had Lemon Lime Jelly Belly's stain anything. That said, it's pretty wild to be able to eat something that tastes so much like Lemon Lime and not have to clean juice off one's fingers afterward!


Lemon Lime is one of the best tasting Jelly Belly jelly beans, but the real unfortunate aspect of this wonderful tasting jelly bean is that the taste fades so quickly. Outside that, it is worth stocking up on and this is a great way to do that!

For other Jelly Belly flavors reviewed by me, please check out:
A&W Cream Soda
Pink Grapefruit
Sour Blueberry


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

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Surprising Winner For The Family Guy Franchise: It's A Trap Delivers!

The Good: Genuinely funny, Decent self-referential bits, Some gags work exceptionally well, DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Still not as tight as Blue Harvest, minor things (no deluxe version . . .)
The Basics: Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap returns the parodies to a high note, mostly through self-depreciation.

Say what you will about geeks, but we are easy to shop for! Last year around this time, Family Guy Presents Something, Something Something Dark Side was released weeks before Christmas and made for a perfect gift for me to give to my geek wife and I. This year, Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap was released four days before Christmas and it is entirely possible with the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, your favorite geek missed picking it up or requesting it on their holiday gift list. Or, you (if you are a geek, lover of Family Guy or your favorite geek to spoil with DVDs) might have seen the prior installment of Family Guy Star Wars parodies and thought, “This is just going in a bad direction.” To be fair, with the parody of the magnificent The Empire Strikes Back, the Family Guy franchise did seem to be headed for disaster. Indeed, on that DVD set, I noted that at the table read for the project that was, at that time, called We Have A Bad Feeling About This that none of the staff was laughing and that the gags did not seem so funny.

So, today, I am pleased to report that Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap bucks that trend. The parody of Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!) is solidly funny and appears to have been retooled in addition to being renamed. Ironically, the one gag I did enjoy from the teased table read did not make it into the finished project. That said, Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap succeeds in making fans of Family Guy and the Star Wars Saga laugh and that is what it is supposed to do.

When the power goes out in the Griffin household once again, Peter reluctantly begins telling the family the story of Return Of The Jedi. Darth Vader arrives on the incomplete second Death Star shortly before C-3P0 and R2-D2 are given away by Luke Skywalker to Jabba the Hutt. When Princess Leia rescues Han Solo from his carbonite prison, she is captured and things look dire. But then, Luke Skywalker appears, ignores C-3P0’s warning and fights the Rancor (hilariously filled in by Rush Limbaugh) and rescues his friends.

Leaving Tatooine, the Rebels regroup while Luke visits Yoda and confirms that Leia is his sister and Darth Vader is their mutual father. Rejoining the Rebel fleet, Luke arrives on Endor – home of the furry Ewoks – and pedals his way to Darth Vader. Through goading about the many projects of Seth Green, the Emperor tries to turn Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force.

Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap works for the same reason that Something, Something, Something Dark Side did not. The prior parody had so much it was stretching for because the source material was hardly flawed. As a result, that work became a study in jokes that referenced Family Guy issues more than they dug into The Empire Strikes Back. It’s A Trap has a distinct advantage, then, in that Return Of The Jedi has plenty of faults to pick on and the crew from Family Guy exploit those weaknesses wonderfully.

For those unfamiliar with the basic concept of the Family Guy parodies, Peter Griffin tells the story of a Star Wars film with his characteristic sense of narrative divergence and ineptitude. So, Luke Skywalker is played by Chris, Lois plays Princess Leia and Peter himself takes the role of Han Solo. Brian is neglected for Chewbacca’s early role in Return Of The Jedi, but roles like Darth Vader and C-3P0 are wonderfully recast with Stewie and Quagmire, respectively. Throughout the pared down story of Return Of The Jedi, It’s A Trap presents cutaway gags and allusions to works outside of the science fiction film, while poking ample fun at the source material.

So, for example, the Rancor creature in Jabba’s palace is played by Rush Limbaugh, who appears frothing at the mouth prepared to gobble up Luke. The Ewoks are replaced with the bear from The Cleveland Show, which is clever because the character is a religious fundamentalist and the Ewoks fall into line from a faith-based interpretation of C-3P0s appearance. Also from The Cleveland Show is Rollo, replacing Nien Nunb, Lando’s copilot of the Millennium Falcon. The writers of It’s A Trap make fun of the fact that there are almost no female characters in the original Trilogy outside Princess Leia by acknowledging Mon Mothma’s token appearance. Lois’s reaction to her is an amusing bit of commentary.

Viewers get almost exactly what they expect from Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap, except a deluxe edition with all sorts of swag. The prior Star Wars parodies were released in expanded editions that came with merchandise – like a t-shirt for Blue Harvest and a lunchbox for Something, Something, Something Dark Side. It’s A Trap comes with no such bonuses. However, the programming bonuses are rich, even if they are weird. There is a commentary track which is a lot of fun, adding something for fans who want to hear about the behind-the-scenes issues with making the parody. There are also advertisements for the prior Star Wars parody shows and the animatic rendering of It’s A Trap! Oddly, there is also the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit game played by four members of the Family Guy staff to determine which of them is the Alpha Geek of the office. I’m not sure which is weirder, the bonus feature itself or the fact that my wife and I actually sat through the whole thing, playing along, to see how it came out. Go figure.

Either way, Family Guy Presents It’s A Trap works and that is more than can be said about the last one of these. Fans will be pleased and anyone who has seen Return Of The Jedi ought to be able to get almost all of the jokes, making it very accessible to all.

For other animated works by Seth MacFarlane, please check out my reviews of:
Family Guy Volume 1
Family Guy Volume 2
Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story
Family Guy Volume 3
Family Guy Volume 4
Family Guy Volume 5
Family Guy Presents Blue Harvest
Family Guy Volume 6
Family Guy Volume 7
Family Guy Presents Something, Something, Something Dark Side
Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy
Family Guy Volume 8
Family Guy Presents Partial Terms Of Endearment


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

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Why Not To Buy The Nikon Coolpix L16!

The Good: Easy to use
The Bad: Low quality images, Dismal battery drain, Poor zoom, Unimpressive options.
The Basics: A very disappointing digital camera, the Nikon L16 has far too many issues to be worth the time of a professional or anyone who wants their pictures to appear professional.

I often find myself considering how a good series of objective tests can truly make for a valuable enough evaluation. After all, if a product is lousy to begin with, who cares how durable it is over the years?

As my wife searches for a new camera due to the untimely demise of the one I worked for earlier this year, I have been accompanying her hither and yon to find one that works to meet her needs and that we can afford. We still have our Fuji FinePix camera (reviewed here!), but my wife is a serious photographer and that is not a serious camera. If there is anything that being married to a professional photographer has taught me it is that there are a lot of crap cameras in the world right now. The current trend in photography is more style over substance and the triumph of convenience over picture quality. In other words, if it looks cool, works like either a cameraphone or one of the more advanced MP3 players (like the iPod Touch), then it is “in.” These, however, tend to produce poorer images in-camera and when uploaded from the camera. But then, cameras like the Nikon L16 Digital Camera are not intended for professionals. Ironically, after my partner moved on from this one to look at others, I stuck with it longer and was overjoyed to see a member of the camera’s target demographic – 16 – 24 year-old female – turn up her nose at this.

First, the basics: the Nikon L16 is point-and-shoot digital camera, intended for tourists, family photographers or other non-professional photographers. Even for those users, though, it is fairly inadequate, as my hour of testing the camera proved to me. The L16 is a fairly discrete digital camera which as it is 3 3/4" wide, 2 1/2" tall and 1 1/8" thick! This is also very light (under one pound, even with the batteries in) and the back panel of the camera is an LCD screen. Having now had months of experience with my iPod Touch (reviewed here!), I am getting used to touchscreens and for the first time ever, I found it odd to be working on a little screen that was not a touchscreen. Outside its thickness, this does seem very much like a cameraphone and it is clear that Nikon is trying to go for that demographic with the L16.

The Nikon Coolpix L16 is silver, which is pretty neutral for a color shell and I did not see any other colors for this particular camera. This was the only way I found that Nikon did not seem to be going after the younger non-professional crowd with this Coolpix. Like every other Nikon I have had experience with (so far), the Coolpix L16 comes with everything needed to make the camera work – except the batteries - and get ones pictures off the camera. PC users will find the software to upload and manipulate the images one takes on this camera easy-to-use and included in a cd-rom that comes with the camera. The camera also comes with a USB cable to connect the camera to one's computer (there is a USB port on the camera's right side, when holding the camera and looking at the back of it) and a strap that loops onto a loop that comes off the camera right below the USB port.

The lack of batteries leads me to my first serious beef with the Nikon Coolpix L16 digital camera. This is a huge battery hog. When my partner and I went into test this camera, we turned it on and two pictures later, the power failed. The shop owner gladly broke out some fresh batteries so we could continue testing with it. While the “specs” claim that one gets 180 photographs out of a pair of batteries, I made it ninety-three pictures before the “low battery” light came on and only another twenty before the second pair of batteries failed. Rather unfortunately, the time element here is what concerns me even more. The ninety-three pictures took about an hour to take. Those last twenty took an additional twenty minutes. As the batteries get drained, this camera takes a ridiculous amount of time to reload. As a result, those looking to capture the moment with candid’s will often find this lags far too much to be of any real use.

Using the camera is fairly easy. There is an on/off button atop the camera that boots up the camera within twenty seconds of being depressed (though when the battery is low, it can take almost a minute). Rather annoyingly, the on/off button is right next to the shutter control (the button one hits to actually take the photograph) and they feel similar, especially when one is moving quickly. Several times during my tests, I turned the camera off as opposed to shooting a picture. The L16 was more than a little irksome in that way, though one suspects with more time, this is the sort of thing one adjusts to.

When the camera is on, the back panel lights up as a viewscreen and the pictures may be taken by simply looking at the back of the camera and pressing the button on the top of the camera. Physically pressing the button on top is the only way to take pictures with the Coolpix L16. Beyond the ease-of operations, it was all detractions for me with the Coolpix L16. The pictures I took with the L16 were homogenously blurry (and I’ve taken pictures for years, so it’s not the fundamentals of breathing that was screwing me up this time). Instead, the L16 seemed to be very mobile in my hand, almost too light. As I touched the control on the top of the camera, the camera tended to shake. I figured this might be user error, until I used a tripod for stability and discovered that the images still came out as blurry. In some of the pictures, this was just minor blur around the edges, but all of the pictures were unable to create a perfectly vivid image when we uploaded them to the store’s computer for that test.

In addition to blurry, the Nikon Coolpix L16 took a drastic step down in quality for me with the basic functions of the autofocus and the light adjustment. Other Coolpix models I have tried, most notably the S60, had an incredible speed to the focus and light adjustment, so moving around and moving from inside lighting conditions to outdoor sun brightness were exceptionally easy. The Coolpix L16, on the other hand, was just the opposite. The autofocus seemed determined not to stop looking for a better quality image, which was irksome. On almost every quick point and shoot test I performed, I watched the image become clear and focused, then move past the place it was focused before working its way back to the ideal position. At the beginning, I thought it was quirky and a little annoying to have a 2 – 3 second autofocus lag. Then, it just became troublesome as the batteries wore down.

As for the light adjustment, there was an even greater lag time and there were some conditions the L16 did not adjust sufficiently. The camera automatically adjusts to different lighting scenarios, most notably the change between indoor (artificial fluorescent) and outdoor (sun) light. The light adjustment tries to prevent washout and keep colors looking as close to how they do in reality. After several seconds, the L16 could get the colors in the store OR outdoors correct, but not both. So, for example, one of my most telling test pictures had a photograph into the snow-filled parking lot. The snow outside looks right and real, but the walls inside (bright white, lit be fluorescents), were a light brown (sepia, tan) color. Even some of the images I took either in the store or outside that looked fine on the camera did not look as good on the computer. Frequently, the colors in the final picture seldom matched the colors on the screen before the picture was taken or reality. This was an especially problematic camera for getting whites to render well. In almost all conditions, especially indoors with fluorescent lighting, the camera shifted whites to a more yellow color, so everything looked as if it were nicotine stained. This is a terrible deficiency and not one that was solved by changing the lighting conditions (i.e. flash type) on the camera. As a result, users not especially fluent in post-shooting manipulations will find the L16 unbearable.

Beyond that, the controls on the Nikon Coolpix L16 are generally intuitive, at least for those used to manipulating physical buttons to get results. On the camera, one may zoom in - the zoom is only four times closer, so this is not like a telephoto lens and there is no way to attach a better lens to this camera - and manually adjust the type of flash used. This includes such things as red eye adjustment, a manual use of flash (overriding the camera's sense of proper lighting) or flash off for situations where one does not wish to draw attention to themselves and their photography. All of these controls are easily accessed using menus that pop up when one hits the “Menu” button on the camera’s back (to the right of the viewscreen) with one's finger.

Like some of the other Nikon Coolpix products, other controls are less intuitive from the menu, most notably the delete function. When deleting photographs from the Coolpix L16, I did not find a way to wipe the entire memory at once. Instead, I had to go through image by image and delete them. This is time consuming and annoying and while there might be a way to mass execute one's unwanted pictures, it was not intuitive and by the time I wanted to wipe a whole card, I knew I was not going to be keeping this camera. As a result, it seemed foolish for me to check the manual. The point here is that the ease of operation is not always easy.

As well, the more I have used digital cameras, the more I have been concerned by camera memory and the Coolpix L16 only has 24 MB worth of image capacity, so upgrading the card immediately is pretty much a necessity. Even at the lowest resolution setting, the L16 held less than two hundred images and the quality was terrible. At the highest resolution, the card only holds about a dozen pictures and even those were pretty consistently blurry, so it’s a crapshoot either way.

As for the durability, this seems generally durable, but my testing was not rigorous enough to speak fairly on that. The camera does have a one-year warranty, but I suspect my usage of the camera would have been so low that it would have expired before I ever cashed in on said warranty. The programmability was also not intuitive. There is a way to program the camera to take photographs on a timer, but the options on the viewscreen were not intuitive. When I went through the process, I was able to get the autotimer to run and take a (blurry) picture, but it was a series of steps that did not have options as quick as the flash adjustment to make.

My excessively long preamble at the beginning of this review, as well as this conclusion, are meant to serve a single purpose: as I gain more and more experience with digital cameras, I’ve come to understand what flies and what doesn’t much better than I did when I wrote prior reviews. So, while my Finepix A200 was average at the time, it is decidedly below average now. For serious photographers and those who want a step up from their cameraphones, my ultimate judgment on the L16 is that it can be avoided. There are vastly better products on the market and the photographer that wants decent digital pictures will likely find better even in the same price range.

For other electronics, please check out my reviews of:
iBud Earphones
Playstation 3
TNT! Kyocera Cell Phone


For other electronics reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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Uncomfortable Laughter Rules Jackass Number Two An Anemic Stunt Comedy Film I Loathed.

The Good: There are some moments of humor.
The Bad: No plot, No character development, Loathsome pranks
The Basics: Short, unpleasant and repetitive, Jackass Number Two is simply an escalating series of painful and vile pranks which are not worth watching.

After weeks of trying to get through a review of Jackass Number Two, I've decided the best way I can muster up enthusiasm for this is to simply write a succinct one.

My wife came to our relationship with Jackass Number Two on her shelf of DVDs and that surprised me, despite knowing she had a love of dumb comedies. When she insisted we watch it together, I had trepidations, despite never having seen an episode of Jackass or the first Jackass movie. Those reservations, it turns out, were well-founded.

Jackass Number Two is a short film which captures various pranks formed by the team of twenty-something men who put one another in mortal risk for the thrill of surviving dangerous obstacles. The movie has no character development, no plot and is essentially a reality show on the big screen (or now on DVD). The team of young men, led by Johnny Knoxville, put themselves in ridiculous and painful situations just to be able to say they did them

The viewer, then, is subjected to Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Ryan Dunn, Wee Man (Jason Acuña) and the others doing such things as: getting branded (Bam has a penis-shaped brand burned into his butt, but because he flinches it is done several times and actually gets infected), running with bulls, having a leech placed on the eyeball and getting shot with rubber projectiles used for crowd control. A few of the stunts border on clever, like the way a gag that results in people getting punched in the face through a wall uses a sign with increasingly smaller script that forces them to move closer to it, but most of them are ridiculous and dumb. The men make a wheelchair rocket propelled and Knoxville launches himself into the air on a giant rocket.

Most of the stunts are painful, like five of the guys playing on a four-way see-saw while a bull tries to gore them from below or the way Wee Man is blown across a marsh using a giant fan and a parachute. Jackass Number Two occasionally tries to be simply funny, like a simple gag where a man wearing only his underclothes chases Wee Man in his underwear down the street and around a corner, a moment later resulting in the man being chased by over a dozen similarly diminutive men.

Jackass Number Two builds up to a stunt that is not just dangerous, but is mean on many levels to the guys involved. There is no narrative to the film; it's just a series of vignettes which take about five minutes each and usually involve coercing members of the group to go through with the current stunt.

The movie shows the men engaged in planning terrible, painful or embarrassing pranks which illustrate no respect for one another. The men keep upping the ante conceiving evermore heinous activities and watching the movie is dehumanizing to the viewer as much as it is problematic for the men involved. I found myself laughing occasionally at the stupidity of the pranks or because I was uncomfortable. I found myself looking away a lot because the movie often had elements which were nauseating and gross (several of the men vomit at various points in the film).

Jackass Number Two is gross and not entertaining enough to recommend or even encourage a third part. Utterly worthless.


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

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

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

No Longer Indispensible, The Star Trek Compendium Is Only Revised To A Point.

The Good: Interesting behind-the-scenes information, Adequate plot and production descriptions
The Bad: Like most reference materials, tends to need updates
The Basics: A thoroughly-researched, canon history of the original Star Trek, Allan Asherman's The Star Trek Compendium is now out of date.

I feel sorry for Allan Asherman. Actually, I feel worse for Mike Okuda, but today I'll focus mostly on Allan Asherman. I feel bad for Mike Okuda because he wrote a masterful Star Trek reference work The Star Trek Chronology, which was a complete and accurate timeline (in universe) of the Star Trek franchise. It has been a long time since The Star Trek Chronology has been updated and one suspects that it is now a virtually impossible task because of the way Star Trek: Enterprise gutted the canon timeline of the franchise.

But then, there's Allan Asherman. Asherman wrote the various incarnations and revisions of The Star Trek Compendium, which is designed to be the authoritative reference book on the original Star Trek. And its latest incarnation - revised in 1993 following the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - has remained stable, stagnant and thorough for over a decade and a half. But with the release of the film Star Trek (reviewed here!), designed to regut, er, reboot the franchise, Asherman's indispensable work on the series is once more incomplete. It is only now as I am reviewing it that I realize it has been incomplete for years.

A reference book, The Star Trek Compendium is a careful collection of everything pertaining to the original Star Trek series and the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 (and later NCC-1701-A). As such, it includes in it thorough information on:
Star Trek (all 79 episodes)
Star Trek: The Animated Series (all 22 episodes)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The Star Trek Compendium is an oversized book, standing twice as tall as the usual Star Trek paperbacks and even an inch or two taller than the average encyclopedia. In its 192 pages, Allan Asherman discusses the history and impact of the development of Star Trek, provides an episode synopsis of each episode, discusses the failed Star Trek Phase II and details each of the films. What makes this book at all interesting or useful, though are the stories, the details beyond the simple plot synopses.

Allan Asherman provides detailed behind-the-scenes information about each and every episode and movie that is Star Trek (the original series). So, for example, he discusses the script changes that had to be made in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" when it was moved from being a second part of "The Naked Time." He talks about the off-screen life of Melvin Belli (who was a judge) when writing about "And The Children Shall Lead" as well as hundreds of other stories. Asherman is thorough, like when he describes little details like how the producers got around the censors with a heavily implied sex scene in "Wink Of An Eye."

And Asherman is quite thorough and articulate on his exploration of the behind-the-scenes information pertaining to the writing campaigns that saved Star Trek, the development of the "Animated Series" and the film franchise and the effect certain episodes have had on popular culture.

When I was teaching business English, one of the lessons that I tried to nail home with my students was the importance of authoritative sources. Anyone, for example, can start their own website and post their views as "facts." Books, at least most published books, fall under a different set of criteria. They are vetted, fact-checked and sent through the legal department to insure accuracy. Allan Asherman's The Star Trek Compendium is arguably the most unimpeachable source of behind-the-scenes Star Trek information. For sure, there might be other people who have had access to more authoritative sources or stories not in The Star Trek Compendium (some of whom are not allowed to legally write behind-the-scenes books) but for the stamped, approved, accurate history of Star Trek, The Star Trek Compendium is THE source.

Allan Asherman was thorough and he thanks a pretty long list of contributors in his acknowledgments. He culled many of his behind-the-scenes stories from interviews with Gene Roddenberry, episode directors, staff writers, and actors, making this an authoritative tome on the history of Star Trek (not in-universe). As well, Asherman and Roddenberry selected over one hundred twenty-five photographs which are printed in this book. They are printed in black and white and some of them are early promotional photographs, but there are some interesting ones that are not overly reprinted in other sources.

The fundamental difference between The Star Trek Compendium and the Star Trek Omnepedia - other than the former being a book and the latter being an oft-revised digital presentation - is that this reference book focuses much more on the behind-the-scenes details. Asherman describes in depth the original pitch for Star Trek and the development process of "The Cage" and getting the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" to try again. While both include plot summaries, stardates and air dates, the "Omnepedia" makes the connections between the episodes and attempts to make the definitive in-universe reference for the Star Trek franchise. The Star Trek Compendium views Star Trek as just a television show, though one of significant social and historical value.

Asherman is predominantly concerned with presenting a history of Star Trek that is unbiased by the different political elements that still surround the series today. Believe it or not, there are camps of people who fight over details about why certain things in the making of Star Trek happened as they did; The Star Trek Compendium is the most legally authoritative document on Star Trek to date and is likely to remain that way as more of the people who were present during the creation of Star Trek continue to die.

I mentioned before that The Star Trek Compendium is out of date. As an authoritative document on the history of Star Trek, it has actually been out of date for a few years, despite there being no new Star Trek movies (until last summer's installment). A few years ago, part of the new cabal in charge of the Star Trek franchise began softening the fans of the franchise up for the reboot by attempting to sell Star Trek redressed. A "Remastered" version of Star Trek has been produced where each of the episodes has been meticulously reworked so that valuable plot elements have been edited out in favor of updating the special effects. If that sounds snarky, it is; I saw little reason for the exercise and many episodes suffer as a result of the meddling. So, for example, in order to accommodate new computer generated special effects, and current syndication timelimits, "The Paradise Syndrome" now lacks the entire plotline involving Kirok getting Miramanee pregnant!

Regardless of how I feel about the special effects overhaul, the remastering phase is a portion of Star Trek history that deserves to be documented, explored and set down authoritatively (as opposed to just on Wikipedia). And this makes The Star Trek Compendium, like most reference books, subject to falling out of date (as it is now) and in need of further revision.

Still, what is here is valuable for both Star Trek fans and television scholars.

For other Star Trek books, please check out my reviews of:
The Klingon Dictionary
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the novel)
Spock: Reflections


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

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts.  May not be reprinted without permission.
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A Bad Idea Made Better: "Unnatural Selection."

The Good: Acting, Quasi-sensible plot, Characters
The Bad: Recycled plot, Unconvincing make-up
The Basics: When Dr. Pulaski begins to age rapidly, the rushes to find a reason, the viewer tries to stay awake.

In one of the closer calls as to recommend or not a second season Star Trek The Next Generation episode, "Unnatural Selection" actually came down to a split decision and I ended up opting not to recommend it. Is it an all right episode? Sure. Is it something to write home about, no. It's probably a hair's width below average.

"Unnatural Selection" takes a cue from Star Trek's "The Deadly Years" (reviewed here!) and decides to explore the nature of aging. In this instance, Dr. Katherine Pulaski begins to age significantly while investigating an outbreak of rapid aging from a dead starship and then a genetic research center. After taking every possible precaution to attempt to discover the cause, Pulaski exposes herself to a genetically engineered youth and soon after begins to age rapidly.

So, it's fairly obvious to us, the viewer, who is the cause of this affliction and the rest of the episode is spent attempting to determine how or why the genetically enhanced youth are causing this malaise. Is it enough to keep us in our seats? Probably, but certainly not on the edge of them.

This episode suffers from being occasionally obvious - from the solution to the problem to the naming of the genetic research center Darwin Station. Similarly, the make-up is unconvincing and too often, the viewer finds themself thinking, "Well, Diana Muldaur must have hated having all that put on" or "I can still tell it's Diana Muldaur" instead of actually believing the changes in Dr. Pulaski.

However, "Unnatural Selection" has both a more sensible cause and a more reasonable resolution to the aging problem than "The Deadly Years" ever did. In fact, the science of this episode is often fun to watch and intriguing to listen to, if not wholly plausible. This is one of the episodes that very effectively balances the human aspect with the scientific.

Part of the way that balance is maintained is through the use of Pulaski and her foil Data. I know I've said in previous reviews that the Pulaski/Data relationship is detrimental to the series in that it attempts to recreate a Spock/McCoy relationship that is out of place in the new environment. In this episode, the bitter quips are gone, the two are operating in a stalemate derived from sensibility. This is less of an adversarial foil relationship and more a "these are opposite sides of the same coin" experience.

And the actors, especially Diana Muldaur and Brent Spiner, come out in this episode with strength. Diana Muldaur, especially, makes the whole experience plausible and her character strength is enhanced only by the actress performing with great delivery and charisma.

In the end, however, all of the character development that is exposed or developed in this episode turns on a simple trick and that leaves us ultimately unfulfilled. This episode is quite accessible to those who are not fans of Star Trek The Next Generation but is unlikely to be enjoyable to anyone who doesn't like science fiction. At best, a nice way to spend a Saturday night.

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


For other Star Trek movie and episode reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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Somewhat Bulky, But Neat Nonetheless, Hallmark’s Tron: Legacy Lightcycle Ornament Is All Right.

The Good: Good sculpt, Neat light effect
The Bad: Light effect fades quickly, Frontheavy, Overproduced
The Basics: As part of their shilling for Disney, Hallmark Keepsake creates a Tron: Legacy ornament that does not quite live up to the expectations of fans.

Hallmark Keepsake is a pretty cool company, but they either have a lot of responsibility to the companies they license from or they are cash hungry. I mention this because in addition to this year’s odd choice of Disney ornaments, like the lead from the new film The Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, Hallmark dropped an ornament into the marketplace strategically designed to promote Disney’s Tron: Legacy. It might seem hypocritical of me, who reviews all sorts of merchandise from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises to object to Disney’s relentless merchandising, but even now, every Hallmark store I have visited has been overstocked with Tron: Legacy Lightcycle ornaments. It is one thing to try to make a franchise; it is another to exploit it with the merchandising to try to get people so financially invested in it they feel compelled to enjoy the source work.

For those unfamiliar with the Lightcycle, this is a black, computer-generated vehicle from the 2010 film Tron: Legacy (reviewed here!). Given how it was overproduced, the enduring value of the Lightcycle is questionable for fans of Tron. But for fans of Hallmark ornaments, the Lightcycle fares no better as it has balance issues and its light effect seems to be one of the more serious battery hogs of the season.


The Lightcycle ornament faithfully recreates the black and glowing blue motorcycle that is computer code, not a physical prop. From the virtual world of the Grid comes a vehicle used to play gladiator sports in and in the film, the contest with the Lightcycles is exciting. As a physical ornament, the vehicle is somewhere between intriguing and baffling, as it has two wheels, but they do not turn. As a result, discerning collectors at the time waited and this was one of the few 2010 Hallmark ornaments to be bought en masse as part of after-Christmas sales. It was one of Hallmark Keepsake's gambles that has not yet paid off for the company.

The Hallmark Lightcycle ornament is made of a durable black and white plastic and has the sleek vehicle on its own, with a single driver, presumably Sam Flynn. This one does not have the date stamped or painted on it. Instead, it is faintly molded into the very bottom of the vehicle as part of the copyright information. This ornament is powered by very small watch batteries (included!) which allow the light effect to be activated.

The Lightcycle is lightly detailed, with the lines of the vehicle being sharp where appropriate, but mostly very futuristic looking curves and strong lines. There is empty space in the center of the two tires, mimicking the motorcycle driven by James Kirk in that last Star Trek. It is cast almost entirely in solid black plastic which has a beautiful glossy sheen to it, making it look dangerous and compelling.

As for the pilot, he is basically a mildly molded lump of black plastic. Hallmark did not strive for a lot of detail on the Lightcycle driver and while it has the appropriate helmet and armor of one of the Lightcycle drivers, the exposed parts of the man’s face and neck are not appropriately colored and looks goofy as a result.


As a Hallmark Keepsake ornament, the Lightcycle has a light function. Fans of the ornaments might be easily impressed by the light function initially, even if they might be dismayed that there is no audio effect. So long as the batteries are in, pressing a button on the Lightcycle causes the wheels to light up and a panel on the center of the Lightcycle to do the same. The lights are bright blue and they fit the theme for one of the “good” gladiators from Tron: Legacy or the cycle of Sam Flynn himself.


As with all ornaments, the intent of the Hallmark Keepsake Lightcycle ornament is to be hung on a Christmas Tree. For those creating the ultimate science fiction Christmas Tree, the Lightcycle ornament not at all an essential piece. The ornament has the standard steel hook loop embedded into the top center of the driver’s back, which is the most stable point on the ornament. Unfortunately, because of the way the driver is leaning (and possibly other elements having to do with the internal weight of the ornament), the Lightcycle pitches forward when hung at an unfortunately abrupt angle.

The result is that no matter how I tried to hang the Lightcycle, it always looked like it was going down a twenty to thirty degree grade.


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 (reviewed here!). Since then, they have made ornament replicas from virtually every major franchise, including everything Disney. The Lightcycle ornament appears to be a colossal failure commercially. Owing largely to the overproduction and lack of a huge fan base for Tron merchandise, the mass public appears to have largely passed this one by. The result was that it was overproduced and they are readily available currently at severely deflated prices. In other words, this is not an ideal investment piece!


Fans of the budding Tron franchise, Disney and Hallmark ornaments in general are likely to be largely unimpressed by the Scorpion ornament; it is a mediocre recreation of an obscure vehicle from a film that did not quite reach expectations in the theaters. The result is that the fans have all they want and need and those who were not interested to begin with are hardly likely to be bowled over by this ornament.

For other Hallmark ornaments from genre sources, please check out my reviews of:
2010 “The Pensieve” Harry Potter ornament
2005 Princess Leia As Jabba’s Prisoner ornament
1995 Star Trek Romulan Warbird ornament


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

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Entirely Mediocre Pop, Reba McEntire's Pointless Cover Album, Reba.

The Good: Decent enough vocals
The Bad: Short, Very poppy, None of the songs resonate with real originality
The Basics: A shockingly lame album, Reba is short, derivative and has country music star Reba McEntire presenting a bland pop album.

Sometimes, when I set out with my monthly Artist Of The Month, I don’t know what I am truly getting into. Around this time last year, I was immersed in Ella Fitzgerald’s works and I was astonished to learn she was only a performer, having almost never written any of her own material. When my Artist Of The Month was Reba McEntire, the more I listened to her works, the more lukewarm I became to her works. The more I consider Reba, for example, the more pointless I find it to be. While I have a healthy respect for Reba McEntire’s prolific production, everything from the concept to the execution of Reba has been bothering me since the first listen (I’m on listen number sixteen as I type this).

Reba is a very pop-based album which was one of Reba McEntire’s biggest early successes (though she had been making music for well over a decade by the point Reba was released). While McEntire and her production staff might not be wild about the comparison, Reba is like a second-rate version of Tori Amos’s album Strange Little Girls. The only stretch with the analogy is that while Tori Amos’s album was an obvious collection of cover songs she was reinterpreting, Reba is often more subtle, though “Respect” (by Otis Redding, but popularized by Aretha Franklin) is pretty obvious and one of the songs was one made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Furthermore, Strange Little Girls was a stretch for Amos, who is a prolific singer-songwriter. As little as McEntire’s fans might like to admit it, Reba is a decent performer, but very lacking on the creative end of her albums, even crediting her producers on Reba for the song choices on this album!

With only ten songs occupying 35:50, Reba is anything but the creative vision of Reba McEntire. McEntire was not involved in writing any of the songs, nor does she play any of the instruments on the album. Instead, Reba McEntire provides the vocals to songs which were all written by others. I have a real pet peeve about that with eponymous albums; if you’re going to name something after you, you should at least create it is how I figure. McEntire is also credited as a co-producer on the album and, especially important, for doing her own make-up for the photograph on the c.d. cover. In other words, McEntire is only peripherally involved in her own album, though she does sing.

The real issue for me with Reba, and I suspect for many of her early fans, is that this is a pop album. On Reba, Reba McEntire abandons the pretense of being a Country music icon and goes entirely for performing in a pop-music tradition. From her song choices – jazz and pop-rock standards or newer songs which sound more like Richard Marx than Reba McEntire – to the instrumentation, Reba is a pop album and it is a pretty mediocre one at that. In fact, this is a flat-out dud for a single, simple reason: there is nothing truly new, unique or otherwise extraordinary on this album. Instead, Reba McEntire performs the works of others without adding her own flavor or zest to them. So, this is a pretty boring cover album and likely only to appeal to fans of Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand as opposed to Reba McEntire’s fan base.

Instrumentally, Reba sounds like a typical late-80s synth and guitar-driven album. Songs like “You’re The One I Dream About” sound like late-80s schmaltz with their predictable, overproduced crescendos and drum machines (to be fair, drums are credited to a human being on this album, but the drumming is so bland and unexpressive that it sounds mechanical). The song sounds more like something by Tiffany or a Star Search contestant than Reba McEntire and the entire album has bland instrumental backing which is so unimpressive as to be aurally boring. For fans of Country music, Reba McEntire isn’t trying to keep you around: there is no pedal steel, no violins (fiddles), it’s all very keyboard, drum, guitar on Reba. And it’s a very bland use of all of those elements as well.

As for Reba McEntire’s vocals, I’ve not heard a more overproduced version of her vocals until now. These songs are so unimpressive in the way they take Reba McEntire’s natural alto voice and alter them for reverb (“Respect”) and overwhelm her with backing vocals. It is only on “Everytime You Touch Her” that her natural voice manages to break through, but even there, the song is so overproduced with the instrumental accompaniment that the overall sound of the song is still less impressive than one might like. As well, that song just sounds like Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in the opening.

Usually, I go into an evaluation of lyrics, but for Reba, I’m not going to bother because she’s not bothering to write any of the songs. Instead, I’d like to take a final moment to gripe about how unoriginal the album is. Reba McEntire here has the chance to explode as a pop star and she wasted it (the album did well with her Country base, but this was not her big crossover success) because she sounds like virtually every other pop-rock performer out there. “Respect” sounds a lot like Franklin’s version of the song. “Do Right By Me,” from the vocals to the instrumental accompaniment to the very tune, sound so frustratingly familiar (it’s a male performer, like Richard Marx, whose song this sounds identical to!) that one wonders if McEntire is just trying to be a mimic on the album.

Ultimately, Reba will only be enjoyed by those fans of Reba McEntire who want to hear her impersonations of other pop artists. The song selection is mediocre, the vocals are predictable and overproduced and there is not s single song on the album that makes the listener sit up and say “Reba OWNS that song!” Instead, after multiple listens, I’m shocked I came up with this much to write about the album.

For other Reba McEntire works, please check out my reviews of:
Just A Little Love
The Best Of Reba McEntire
Whoever’s In New England
It's Your Call
Greatest Hits Volume III: I'm A Survivor
Room To Breathe
20th Century Masters: Christmas Collection - Best Of Reba


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

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

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Very Average, Weaker Than I'd Like: Bigelow's 100% Ceylon Tea Underwhelms.

The Good: Caffeinated, Good ingredient
The Bad: Bland, mild taste, Extraneous packaging
The Basics: Average to the point of boring, 100% Ceylon tea from Bigelow disappoints.

It seems this is a time when I am finding myself surrounded by a lot of tea-flavored teas and several that are in no way superlative. In the case of Bigelow's 100% Ceylon tea, my sense of being entirely underwhelmed by the taste is not surprising. Ceylon, which is a blend based entirely on where the tea leaves are from, is intended to be a very basic, inoffensive black tea and it succeeds at that in that it is bland and flavored only like tea. But even for those looking for something robust from a tea will find the 100% Ceylon a bit watery for their tastes.


100% Ceylon is a tea from Bigelow. It is a tea that has caffeine and it is one of the weaker black teas Bigelow makes and markets. 100% Ceylon comes in Bigelow's standard individually-wrapped tea bags, means that each tea bag has a wax papery envelope it is sealed in for freshness. Each tea bag has a five-inch string with a little paper tab at the end, which is quite a bit more waste than I like from a tea bag. When I make pots of tea, I tend to use two bags and making a steeping pot of 100% Ceylon reminds me of why I like the easy environmentalism of Celestial Seasonings' stringless bags. A box of 100% Ceylon comes with 20 individually-wrapped tea bags.

100% Ceylon is marketed as a tea-flavored tea and it is adequate in that regard . . . barely. If one wants something that is flavored like tea leaves this will more or less fit the bill. I tend to like flavorful teas, not the bland ones that are simply what they claim to be.

Ease Of Preparation

100% Ceylon is a black tea, which means preparation is as easy as boiling a pot of water! 100% Ceylon, as the directions clearly state, require water that is boiling. A single tea bag will make the standard 8 oz. coffee mug worth of tea, though reusing the tea bags yields little more than hot water. These tea bags can be reused and the resulting beverage is about 1/2 strength and has a more potent dry aftertaste than the original brewing. I tend to make my tea using a 32 oz. steeping tea pot and that works well, even for a second pot.

To prepare 100% Ceylon, simply boil up some water, and pour it over the tea bags in a cup, mug or steeping pot. This tea is recommended to take one to two minutes to steep and after a couple cups and pots, I've found that with boiling water, the tea is ready at the two minute mark and letting it steep longer does not truly change the results. Letting the tea steep more than three minutes does not net any additional flavor, nor does it denature the flavor of the tea.


100% Ceylon is a tea that tastes like what it is. Unlike most flavors that either have a taste or scent that tries to be something else, 100% Ceylon is a tea flavored tea. Like black coffee when it goes by the location (Columbian, Supreme, etc.) that tells one nothing about the actual flavor, 100% Ceylon is an adjective tea whose name does not exactly describe the taste sensation that it is.

For those wondering, though, 100% Ceylon from Bigelow is a tea that smells woody and tea-like. It smells like a Chinese restaurant at closing, when concentrated amounts of green tea are being dumped down a sink. It is not the strongest scent for a tea, which bodes poorly - but accurately - for the taste.

As for the taste, this has a rather dull and woody taste, like chewing on dried herbs or weeds. This has a diluted tea flavor that is stronger than most green teas, but weaker than many black teas. If English Teatime by Bigelow was 4/5 the strength of Earl Grey, 100% Ceylon would be the next rung down at about three-fifths the flavor strength of Earl Grey. I put this at right around the strength of Lipton's bland, regular tea. This is a tea that lacks the aroma and energy of other black teas, but at least has some substance and flavor to it. This is truly tea flavored tea and the only real taste note might well be that it has a very dry aftertaste. Fortunately, that aftertaste is as mild as the tea; it starts out without any real strength and ends there.

With a teaspoon of sugar, 100% Ceylon maintains its dry taste as the primary taste and does not becomes sufficiently sweet to suggest it is anything other than tea. Strangely, my cups of Bigelow 100% Ceylon have ended up accenting the taste of water in the tea when the tea has sugar added to it, diluting the sense of the tea flavor some. The aftertaste, somewhat dry, was essentially as strong as it was before the addition of sugar to the tea.

Similarly, milk does little for the tea, save overwhelm the tea flavor. It dilutes it to the point that it tastes more like flavored milk than flavored tea. As the tea becomes cooler, it continues to taste drier, becoming more and more sour as well. This is not an ideal tea to have iced, unless one likes cool, dry and sour for their beverage choices.


It is utterly unsurprising that the dominant flavor in 100% Ceylon is tea as the only ingredient is black tea. 100% Ceylon tea is all natural, gluten free, and does contain caffeine. There is not a ton of caffeine (the box does not say how much there actually is in this, but it does seem like it is sufficient to keep one awake, especially when drunk late at night).

Were it not for the sugar I add whenever I make pots of 100% Ceylon, this tea would be devoid of any nutritional value. It contains no calories, fat, sodium, carbohydrates or protein.


100% Ceylon is a medium to fairly light black tea. As a result, cleanup is rather simple, save on fabrics. The mugs and steeping pot easily rinse out. This tea will stain if it is left on fabrics, so simply do not let the tea cups or mugs linger on light colored materials that might stain!

100% Ceylon is easy to clean up after - the tea bags may be disposed in the garbage, or composted if you have a good garden and/or compost pile. One of the nice things about this tea - like most - is that so long as it is kept cool and dry, it can last for a long time and it is easy to clean up. However, like all Bigelow teas, there is extra waste from the strings, paper tabs and individual wrappings around each bag.


100% Ceylon is too bland to be worth the time of anyone looking to drink a black tea. If you want bland, go for a green tea; at least then you don't have to worry about kidney stones!

For other Bigelow tea reviews of mine, please check out:
Perfect Peach
Ginger Snappish
White Chocolate Kisses


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

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

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M. Night Shyamalan Creates A Film That Doesn't Hinge On A Twist! The Last Airbender Still Whimpers.

The Good: Excellent effects, Decent hero story
The Bad: Very obvious set-up/story arcs, Young acting is frequently melodramatic.
The Basics: A surprisingly engaging fantasy film geared for youngsters, The Last Airbender is almost tight enough to entertain adults, save the acting and anime delivery conceits.

It has been a long time since I saw a good fantasy hero story that I actually enjoyed enough to enthusiastically recommend. Appropriately enough, the same may be said for movies by writer and director M. Night Shyamalan. Both streaks have ended, though with the emergence of The Last Airbender and Shyamalan finally has the franchise he always wanted (Unbreakable was supposed to be the first in a film series, but its commercial failure prevented the director from continuing with that). In many ways, The Last Airbender, which is Shyamalan’s 2010 entry into Summer Blockbuster Season is a very typical hero story, but the density of its opening instantly clues the viewer into the beginning of a franchise, whether or not Shyamalan wanted that feel to it. In other words, even from the beginning, there is an appropriately epic quality to the film.

It ought to be noted right up front that: 1. The Last Airbender is a remake or reimagining of the anime work Avatar: The Last Airbender, and 2. I have never seen an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, read any of the manga nor even seen any of the new action figures that accompany this film. I went into the screening of it a complete blank slate. That said, The Last Airbender is an ambitious start to the franchise, even if it seems like Shyamalan and his production crew had to pull punches at certain moments.

There are four known elements in the world: Fire, Air, Earth and Water. The world has been devastated by a long war waged by the Fire Nation upon the Earth and Water Nations (Air has pretty much already fallen to the Fire Nation and those who identify with Air are now nomadic and spread thin). Hope, however, comes in the form of Aang. Aang appears to be only twelve years old, but he is actually far older as he was frozen and is reanimated through Katara and Sokka.  Aang is the last of the protectors and manipulators of Air, an Avatar known as an Airbender. Aang finds himself in the company of the Water Tribe and Sokka and his younger sister, Katara. Aang has the ability to airbend, manipulate air to do its bidding, but he soon learns that the other elements may be within his grasp with the right training.

As a result, Aang, Sokka and Katara set off for the north pole where they hope to find a master of waterbending who might be able to teach Aang how to waterbend and help them to repel the Fire Nation. Unfortunately for the heroes, they are hunted by the disgraced Prince Zuko, who hopes to regain the natural line to the throne by capturing Aang and prove himself to Lord Ozai. But just as Zuko is hunting the young Airbender and his friends, so too are other Fire Nation leaders and all signs point that if Aang falls, the world will fall to Fire!

The Last Airbender is an ambitious start to a fantasy series that feels incredibly familiar in some ways. M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote the movie, is clearly not attempting to reinvent the wheel with the hero narrative and the plot for The Last Airbender is simple and direct in a way that will not surprise most moviegoers. Given that this film was co-created by Nickelodeon Movies, it is no surprise that the plot is kept somewhat simple with reversals that one suspects even young people will see coming. Even so, it is not unenjoyable and there are moments that certainly seek to push the envelope of a fantasy film geared toward youngsters.

Even so, there is very little that is truly bothersome for parents in The Last Airbender. Despite having pretty incredible special effects at moments, the relationships are kept very much platonic. Aang appears to be 12 and his friends are only a few years older than him. The movie plays much more like a buddy film than a movie that is building romantic interests between the protagonists (much like the early Harry Potter films). And like many movies with a hero in the process of becoming, Aang goes through a lot of training and dispenses and receives a great deal of expository dialogue, in this case frequently delivered with inappropriately heightened senses of emotion. The movie is packed with enough information to make the universe it is set in seem plausible without it ever slowing the pace down or feeling the like the viewer is being unnecessarily lectured.

Aang is a likable protagonist as well. He has all the characteristics of the archetypal hero, including the desire to do good and to help those around him. What Shyamalan manages to do well with Aang is present the idea of responsibility and the way it clashes with Aang’s inherent desires to have fun and do his own thing make him a much more compelling and realistic protagonist. Similarly, Prince Zuko is appropriately fleshed out for a villain who might otherwise appear monolithic. Zuko is the disgraced leader and while there are moments he seems like he might simply be acting out of a sense of entitlement, his desire to regain his position as legitimate heir to the throne seems to truly come from his desire to see his people excel.

Zuko is played by Dev Patel, who might still best be known for Slumdog Millionaire (reviewed here!). In The Last Airbender, he sublimates his good guy nature and presents a character who is hurt, angry and works masterfully as a villain. In fact, the only real difficulty with Patel’s performance is believing his character is so young. Similarly, Jackson Rathbone (Sokka) and Nicola Peltz (Katara) give decent supporting performances that make one want to see where they might go in the future.

But much of the film hinges on the performance of Noah Ringer, who plays Aang. Ringer is actually a tween and he is charged with portraying a character who only appears to be so young. Ringer has moments when he stares, when he sets his jaw and when he speaks where he effectively connotes his character’s true age and that type acting ability is certainly uncommon. Ringer succeeds with what he has to and he holds his own as well in the physical scenes. But more often than that, Ringer and Peltz are compelled to give deliveries with the start and stop of melodrama that is common to anime works and this acts as a severe drag on the film, especially in the middle of the movie.

As far as the special effects go, they work in The Last Airbender, but are nothing groundbreaking. Fans of big special effects films will be pleased, just as fans of drama will be happy that Shyamalan does not go over-the-top with them.

Ultimately, The Last Airbender does just what one hopes a summer popcorn movie will do: it entertains and makes one care about the characters. Who could ask for more?

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl


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

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

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