Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Secret Lives Of Bees, Aliens And Genetic Mutants As The X-Files Tumbles From Perfection!

The Good: Great Scully character arc, Pretty amazing acting, Some decent plots, Good DVD bonus features
The Bad: The highs aren't as high as the past seasons, Repetitive feel to bottle episodes
The Basics: A pretty incredible, but not quite perfect, season of The X-Files begins to mix up the great with elements that will lead to the show's downfall.

While The X-Files was on the air, it was one of the few shows I made a point to watch. That's not entirely true. After the first two seasons, I was overwhelmed by people who told me I HAD to watch this show and it was so amazing and so I started watching it and I found that was generally true. I watched it pretty loyally until Alias began to share its timeslot and The X-Files fell by the wayside for me. Now that I own the complete series on DVD and have been going back through the whole thing, I am finding what I enjoyed so much about the series. With The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season, I am right in the middle of the episodes from when I enjoyed the show the most in the first-run. I was a devotee of the series and watching it again now, I'm not entirely certain why.

That's not to say The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season is not worth a viewer's time, attention and money, because it is. Rather, in the fourth season, The X-Files both goes off course with its "mythology" and becomes a truly great television series in terms of the character work. The character work there is the inevitable contraction of cancer by Special Agent Dana Scully. The season follows a long arc from Mulder seeing the truth of his sister through to the exposure of everything he believes in as a lie. The fourth season is great television, but it is already showing the cracks in the series that will ultimately drag it down.

Mulder races to save his mother following her stroke. To that end, he enlists the aid of Jeremiah Smith who is one of the shape-changing aliens who is here on Earth for unknown purposes (so far, we have only seen them as the Alien Bounty Hunter). Jeremiah reveals a small agrarian colony in Canada where bees are cultivated to deliver an unknown toxin. The drones are Samanthas and the a pretty bland boy, who Mulder later finds an adult version of. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, Mulder returns to the x-files more prepared than ever to expose the truth about the paranormal in the world.

Unfortunately, with his renewed zeal comes an incredible consequence. Scully soon discovers she has an inoperable brain tumor and Mulder quickly comes to believe that the Cigarette-Smoking Man and his forces are behind it. As Mulder prepares to do anything to stop the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Skinner steps forward to sacrifice his reputation to save Scully's life, which puts Mulder, Scully and Skinner in the crosshairs of the conspiratorial syndicate as a new man comes forward to reveal that the conspiracy involving extraterrestrials is all a lie fabricated to hide the government's greater misdeeds.

The fourth season of The X-Files is an incredible bit of contradictions on DVD as it presents some of the best and worst episodes of the series. On the plot front, the fourth season begins to crack at what the conspiracy is and just who is involved and how. Unfortunately, it also begins to make far less sense than it previously did. What works is the Cigarette-Smoking Man. In this season, his backstory is revealed as Frohike uncovers that the agent of darkness in the series is the man who killed JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. It also puts him nearer the top, as the Well-Manicured Man calls upon him for aid and he has direct control over Mulder's new contact after his former one is purged. And at this point, the shape-changing aliens work as well. They are here to establish a colony, I can dig that.

What doesn't work on the plot front are the bees and the black oil. While the alien-human hybrids come to be related to Scully's abduction, the black oil is recast as a black cancer in this season with very different properties than it had in the prior season. The bees, however, make even less sense. They are carrying smallpox, according to a late-season four episode. The whole point of the bees was to transmit a toxin that one side would have a standing army immune to the effects of. What Chris Carter's vision seems to be advocating is a nightmare scenario involving geriatric warfare wherein only seniors and aging baby boomers would fight after the bees kill off all the young, unimmunized folks. Wow, that's ridiculous!

More than that, most of the bottle episodes do not work nearly as well as the serialized "mythology" episodes. By this point in the series, the freak-of-the-week episodes tend to boil down awfully quickly into one of two types: the viewer knows who and what the freak is from the very beginning or we follow the clues with Mulder and Scully only to learn about what the true nature of the entity is in the very end. This season, such one-shot episodes include a time traveler (I remember feeling awfully betrayed by The X-Files when this one originally aired because it involved freezing and was used as a tie-in of sorts to Batman and Robin), a melatonin eating creature, and a Jewish golem. This season has arguably some of the best bottle episodes, though, with episodes like "The Field Where I Died" (involving Mulder's past lives), "Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man" (which recasts the recurring villain of The X-Files as a lonely, embittered writer), and "Unrequited" (where a veteran who has developed the ability to disappear begins hunting officers who are lying about the existence of P.O.W.s). As well, there are bottle episodes that arguably become much closer to mythology episodes, at least on the character front. Episodes like "Paper Hearts" challenge Mulder's assumptions on what happened to his sister and "Elegy" foreshadows the demise of Scully when she begins to see the newly-dead.

In fact, it is in this season that the characters truly come into their own and rise to the status of cultural icons more than they have in prior outings. Here is how the season finds the principle characters:

Agent Fox Mulder - Desperate to save his mother's life, Mulder learns about the connection between her and the Cigarette-Smoking Man. This sends him into a frenzy of greater devotion to his work and an obsession with learning what truly happened to his sister Samantha once and for all. This puts him in the grip of a serial killer he had locked up years prior, one who claims to have kidnaped and killed Mulder's sister and sets him up for a fateful meeting which shakes him to his very core,

Agent Dana Scully - As the evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to Earth begins to mount, Scully creeps closer to becoming a believer. No sooner is she close to accepting Mulder's long-held beliefs from a scientific perspective than she falls prey to a lethal brain tumor which causes her to question everything. She begins to rely more on Mulder and accepts that her life may well be in his hands,

Assistant Director Walter Skinner - More an ally to Mulder and Scully than ever, Skinner makes an unholy bargain to save Scully's life, in the process becoming indebted to the Cigarette-Smoking Man,

The Cigarette-Smoking Man - Having snuffed out the mole in his organization, his past is revealed by the Lone Gunmen. As well, Mulder begins to recall seeing him as a child and becomes convinced that he was involved in Samantha's abduction. Skinner, like Mulder, becomes convinced that he has the cure to Scully's cancer,

and Krycek - Sure, he appears only for a two-parter, but the villain's true allegiances are exposed when he is rescued from the missile silo out West by a group of domestic terrorists. He then takes Mulder to Russia where he turns him over to scientists performing cruel experiments involving the black cancer and Krycek becomes seriously . . . altered to protect himself.

There are twenty-four season four episodes and if I seem at all punchy about Scully's cancer, it is because everyone else who was similarly abducted and had a chip placed in their neck contracted cancer, back in "Nisei" (reviewed here!). What is does allow the series to do, though, is give actress Gillian Anderson to show off her acting chops in a significant way that she had not been allowed to before this. Anderson shows some amazing ability to play subtle, melancholy and she does some amazing voice-over work that makes her character's condition absolutely agonizing to watch.

And in a season where Scully is given so much to do, it is astonishing how great David Duchovny is allowed to be! Duchovny plays it deep and moody in "Paper Hearts," just the right side of absolutely in love with Scully in "Memento Mori" and like a completely different guy playing Mulder in "Small Potatoes."

It is tough to complain about The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season as it does some great things. Unfortunately, the greatness is weighed down with some remarkably passe bits that have already been done or were done better before (the comedy episodes this season are nowhere near as funny as the prior comedies the show did). On DVD, though, there are a score of deleted scenes which can be branched back into the episode, which is real nice. There are no "previously on The X-Files" bits, but that time tends to be used for things like deleted scenes in episodes that had them! As well, two of the episodes have commentary tracks and there are featurettes on the entire season which are decent, though they do not exactly explain how the show went off with some of the mythology elements the way it did.

That said, it's still better than most anything else that is out there and it is certainly worthy of the time and attention of anyone who likes science fiction and/or drama. Then again, fans of The X-Files would probably be better served by purchasing the Complete Collection here!

For a better idea of exactly what this season consisted of, please check out my reviews of episodes from season four at:
Herrenvolk/ Home
Unruhe / Paper Hearts
Tunguska / Terma
Leonard Betts / Memento Mori
Tempus Fugit / Max
Small Potatoes / Gethsemane


For other television program and DVD set reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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No Plague, But My Cats Still Avoid Cosmic Catnip Treats In The Fish Flavor!

The Good: Doesn't appear to be anything bad in them.
The Bad: My cats avoid them, No dental benefits, Relatively expensive.
The Basics: Utterly undesired by my cats, the fish flavor of Cosmic Cat Treats is unimpressive and does nothing but make my cats' breath smell.

One of the things that annoys me of late is when pet products so spectacularly miss their mark that my cats will not even consider them. My wife brings home all sorts of new (to us, at least) treats and no line of cat treats has left us more disappointed than the Cosmic Cat Treats line. We've tried three flavors of them with our cats so far and Brillo (our fat Siamese) and Gollum (our thin black cat) have let us know in no uncertain terms that these are not at all their preferred treats. The range of their displeasure so far comes on a scale of avoidance to indifference. With none of the treats have our cats actually been excited about the new treats. This is pretty much the death knell of the product that advertises that cats will go crazy for them.

Well, I guess my cats are not catnip addicts (not actually true; they have a "stoner pillow" which is a little cat toy made like a little pillow and packed with catnip, that they get once a week and they play with and lick obsessively, so . . .). Neither of the cats likes the flavor we've tried them on the last three days, which is the Fish flavor. Like the Shrimp & Lobster flavor, our cats not only would not eat these when we set them on the floor, but they actively avoided the bites. Yes, Gollum especially picked around the Fish flavored treats and given how these are generally more expensive than their usual tartar control treats (which actually DO something), the Cosmic Cat Treats Fish flavored treats are easy to avoid.

With the Fish flavored Cosmic Cat Treats, both Brillo and Gollum exhibited a strong distaste for a cat treat by avoiding them when I entice them to have treat time. Both Brillo and Gollum avoid the Fish flavor and our curious cocker spaniel, Mitzie, only cleans them up when there are absolutely no other options for her. Like the Shrimp & Lobster flavor, the Fish flavored treats are a complete dud. My cats go after any other treat or catfood before going after the Fish Cosmic Cat Treats. This is troubling, because my boys usually love anything flavored as if it came from the sea ("Tuna Day" is a monthly thrill for them!).

Cosmic Cat Treats come in a variety of flavors and we picked up the Fish flavor because these supposedly addictive treats were being given away at my partner's workplace. These treats trade on the gimmick that they contain real fresh catnip and this is supposed to make them irresistible to cats. Given how they were being clearanced at my partner's pet store and my own cats' reactions to these, I suspect that the gimmick is just that. Compared to the Pounce or Tempting Tidbits cat treats my cats enjoy, both Brillo and Gollum illustrate a strong lack of interest in the Fish flavor Cosmic Cat Treats.

In the past, my cat, Brillo, had bad breath and I solved the problem by getting tartar control treats for him. Because I started Gollum young on tartar control treats, he never developed bad breath and the only treats my boys get are ones that have the health benefit of being tartar control. For that purpose, Cosmic Cat Treats Fish flavored cat treats are woefully inadequate. For roughly $2.29 for the standard three ounce package the lack of dental health benefits to these treats is depressing. More expensive than other treats and not providing tartar control is a real downer.

After only a single pouch of Fish Cosmic Cat Treats, I can say with some authority that the Cosmic Cat Treats treats have no beneficial effect on the cats' breath. The treats themselves smell strangely mealy, like juice from the tuna can, and when the cats have consumed them (but before they eat any harder kibble) their breath smells like the treats. This is somewhat counter to the intended benefits of cat treats for me. Having cats with worse breath than they started with (our dry catfood leaves them with no bad breath) is counterproductive.

The Fish flavored treats are shaped like little pie wedges and are a half inch by a half inch at their widest points. Each of these treats is dark pink, soft and smooth, with tiny spots in them. A full 3/8" thick, these treats resemble nothing natural and they do not have any much in the way of surface texture to provide friction or agitation when cats eat them.

These treats are a bit more pricy than both other cat treats and dry catfood. For the price of a small bag (4.2 lbs.) of cat food ($2.99), I can only get a single 3 oz. package of Cosmic Cat Treats treats at full price. This is not an extraordinary value. If they did anything for my cat's health or even happiness, they would be worth it but considering how they avoid them, this is an overpriced flop.

Cosmic Cat Treats treats are available in the stiff-plastic pouches which make it easy to tell if they have been tampered with. Each plastic pouch is vacuum sealed and has a bright blue bag which is very recognizable and protects the treats inside well. The stiff plastic creates a loud, recognizable crinkling sound that brings cats to it right away (I still call out to my cats with the question "Who wants treats?" whenever dispensing this as a treat). Sadly, there are other food products (like vacuum-sealed dinners) that come in similar pouches and when opening them, one's cats are likely to descend, eager for a treat. Cosmic Cat took a lesson from the makers of Pounce when making the Cosmic Cat Treats.

I do not give my cats exceptionally regular treat times these days, either. Instead, I tend to mix the treats in with the catfood, so the cats get the treats like Lucky Charms marshmallows in their dinner. The package makes no recommendations for how many treats a cat gets each day, though it does warn that Tasty Tidbits are intended as supplemental food, as opposed to actual meals for cats. So, my mixing them into the regular cat food seems like a good idea and my boys get five to ten treats that way each day.

Mixing the treats into the food makes a package last about two weeks with my cats. I tend to keep one pouch for use as treats (they get treat time an average of once every other day) and I mix the rest into their food when I jar it up. I jar all of my cat food up to keep the potential mouse population at bay. These treats have a very limited shelf life in comparison to other cat treats. The package which my partner picked up in early August has a September, 2009 expiration date, which seems to make good on the claim that the catnip inside is fresh.

I refuse to taste sample this treat myself to determine whether or not they taste like what they are supposed to, but my cats who like real fish avoid these like they have a plague. Gollum picks around his in his mixed bowl of catfood and treats! Even my lazy Brillo will not eat these. Usually, if he bothers to get up for something, he'll eat it even if he does not like it all that much.

The Fish flavored Cosmic Cat Treats are made up primarily of wheat flour, poultry and water before the ingredient list turns to the catnip or actual fishy products. The Fish flavored treats contain 19% crude protein, 9% crude fat and 1.5% crude fiber, with 34% moisture. These are not a bad food for my cats, especially compared to other cat treats.

The problem is, there's nothing terribly good either and my cats seem to enjoy less expensive treats that actually work on their dental health by having tartar control properties as opposed to these, which apparently taste bad (or mediocre to my cats) and do nothing but make their breath smell unpleasant. Why would we pay for that again?

For other Cosmic Catnip cat treat reviews, please check out my takes on:
Cosmic Catnip Liver
Cosmic Catnip Seafood Gumbo
Cosmic Catnip Clam Chowder


For other pet product reviews, check out my index page here for an organized list!

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

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Surprisingly Good, The Hangover Is Entertaining "Guys Night Out" Type Humor!

The Good: Funny, Decent acting, Good pacing
The Bad: A bit predictable
The Basics: Funny from almost the first moments, The Hangover has three men lost in Las Vegas retracing the events of a night none remember.

Every now and then, I am pleasantly surprised at the movies. It is not often and it is rarely with a comedy I have seen previews for that have not wowed me. It does happen from time to time, though, as it did the year prior to The Hangover with the movie Sex Drive which was surprisingly charming. This summer, as blockbuster season has begun to hit its stride, I'm surprised to find myself enthusiastically recommending The Hangover as the first comedy put out by Legendary Pictures that is worth spending time on.

The Hangover is a pretty traditional road trip movie and because of the way it is structured, the biggest problem with the movie is that those who enter it with an engaged brain will realize several things immediately or well before the action of the movie reveals it. As my partner said as I spoiled one event over half an hour before the characters realized it, sometimes being smart actually ruins simple entertainment. The thing is, The Hangover is not entirely ruined by coming in with one's brain on. Instead, the humor is so constant and so surprising that more often than not, the film works and is funny, engaging and worth one's time and attention. Comedies have a tough time in the dramatic, big special-effects summers, but The Hangover deserved its weekend at #1 (and it did not lose to Land Of The Lost at the very least). But adults looking for humor geared at adults . . . The Hangover is the comedy of the summer, conveniently released early!

Two days before Phil has to call his best friend's fiance to tell her he and his friends have lost Doug, the groom-to-be, Phil, Alan (Doug's to-be brother-in-law), Stu and Doug drive off to Las Vegas for Doug's bachelor party. Alan, the weird one of the group isolates Phil and Stu - who is plagued by a very controlling girlfriend - and finds himself awkward around Doug. After checking in to a villa at Caesar's Palace, the quartet goes up to the roof to toast Doug's impending nuptials.

The next morning, Stu awakens on the floor of the villa, missing a tooth. He is surrounded by mayhem: a smoking chair, a hot tub filled with bubble bath and an inflatable sex doll, a chicken and a tiger in the bathroom. Alan discovers the tiger and after tripping over Phil, the three quickly realize that Doug is missing. The clues the three remaining men have are an ATM receipt for the Bellagio, a parking receipt from the morning, and a baby they find in the closet. Attempting to track down further clues, they soon discover they have been driving a stolen police car, visited the Best Little Chapel where Stu married a stripper, and finding Doug's car yields more trouble than they ever would guess when a naked Chinese man leaps out of the trunk!

The Hangover is a comedy that relies more on verbal humor than physical comedy and visual gags. In fact, all of the funniest parts my partner and I found ourselves citing to one another were lines, not reminiscences of visual jokes. And The Hangover is full of memorable lines ("I keep forgetting about the tiger in the bathroom. . ."). The characters are fun and perhaps the biggest surprise of The Hangover is that the movie is not about dumb guys who are trying to avoid responsibility for their actions while drunk. Instead, The Hangover is a surprisingly engaging road trip/comedic investigation of a chunk of missing time where the three protagonists struggle to learn exactly what they have been up to and where Doug is.

So, to get it out of the way, what's wrong with the film. The Hangover suffers from its own sense of narration, it is somewhat repetitive with some jokes, and the soundtrack is intrusive at points. The biggest problem is the narration. The movie opens with Phil making a call to Tracy, Doug's fiance. Phil has slashes on his neck, three people are visible in the background and Phil is confessing to Tracy that they have lost Doug. Thus, the viewer spends much of the movie waiting for Phil to get cut (it's no stretch to figure out how his neck gets scratched, whatwith the tiger in the bathroom) and that whatever action leads the men to the middle of the desert, the fourth man with them is not Doug. That last part makes the final act far less interesting than writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore and director Todd Phillips intended. Phillips seems to think showing men repeatedly in briefs will continue to garner laughs and that the more loud rap music is played to bridge between scenes the more the audience will get in the mood of the movie. That said, Phillips makes one of the final gags of the movie work because he has allowed the soundtrack to be intrusive before that.

Given all that, The Hangover is only mildly offensive, especially for an R-rated comedy. Most of the "R" comes from swearing, male nudity, and a bit of violence. "Gay" is used as a pejorative twice, but otherwise the movie is remarkably friendly toward women, homosexuals and people of other ethnicities. There is a strange purity to the characters as they search for Doug and in essence the movie is about men who are convinced they did something dumb . . . they just don't know what.

The movie manages to balance Phil, Stu and Alan so all three characters have a real chance to shine. Phil is the most together adult of the bunch, a married man and the only real issue with his character is that when the group meets up with the police, it makes little sense he would not call his wife. Phil is a teacher and he is plausibly in control as he leads the other two on the search for Doug. But he, like the others, is delightfully flawed and when the humor and violence begin to mix, Phil avoids much of the action.

Alan and Stu, however, bear the brunt of much of that type of humor as Stu is whipped and Alan is just plain odd. Implied to have a record for sex-based crimes, Alan is socially awkward and much of the humor with him comes out in the form of odd non-sequitors. He is wonderfully played by Zach Galifianakis, who is ridiculed through the movie as being a small, fat Jesus and he plays the role with a sense of physical discomfort that is hilarious to watch. Galifianakis is brilliant with his comic timing and he deadpans most of his lines with a blank expression that he makes work. He plays off Ed Helms (Stu) perfectly.

Bradley Cooper is assigned the task of selling most of the preposterous plot as Phil. Cooper, who was used as a pretty miserable appendage in He's Just Not That Into You, is used much better in The Hangover. Usually cast as "the good guy," Cooper has the chance to truly branch out in this role as he plays an irresponsible good guy who is on-edge most of the movie. Cooper infuses a subtle tension into his voice in most scenes when he is forced to negotiate with the authorities and gangsters who want to do violence to him and his friends. He sells the part, both for a character who does not remember the prior night and one who is together-enough to lead the others.

But more than anything else, The Hangover is funny and it is a comedy intended for adults. And it works.

For other comedies, please check out my reviews of:
Hot Tub Time Machine
Cedar Rapids


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

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

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Climax Of The Chronicles With Dragons Of Spring Dawning!

The Good: Good character work, Well written, Firmly establishes the franchise
The Bad: Somewhat predictable on the larger plot elements
The Basics: As the armies of good and evil clash, a personal battle rages within Tanis, the half-elven leader, when the two women he love square off with the fate of Krynn in the balance!

The last act of a trilogy has a tough role to fill if the trilogy has been done well. The second act usually puts the characters involved in the worst possible predicament and the best trilogies have a third act that begins with the protagonists somewhat demoralized if the second act was properly agitating. The worst third acts are the ones that reinvent the characters involved in order to get the heroes out of their predicament. Consider, for example, how in Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!), Princess Leia is a much more assertive and strong character (no whining!) and Luke is a virtual Jedi Knight and everyone trusts Lando Calrissian. George Lucas more or less recast the heroes for the final act and barring a significant amount of time between the two films, the viewer truly has to wonder.

Conversely, the best trilogies continue the story from the first two acts with only minimal character changes. The characters do not so much start the act as changed characters, but rather they continue the arc begun in the prior segments. The Chronicles trilogy of the DragonLance novels concludes with Dragons Of Spring Dawning. The novel is definitely a continuation of the story that began in Dragons Of Autumn Twilight (reviewed here!) and Dragons Of Winter Night (reviewed here!). It is impossible to discuss the final chapter without mentioning significant events from the end of the second novel, though. So those who want the richest possible experience out of reading Dragons Of Winter Night ought to stop reading this now.

Following the first major battle between the heroes of Krynn and the dragon armies following the discovery and production of the DragonLances, Laurana the elf maiden and Tas deal with the death of one of their own at the hands of Kitiara, who as it turns out missed her appointment in the Fall because she was busy joining the dark side. Now a minion of evil, the love of Tanis's life captures the other woman he loves and prepares to use Laurana to open a portal that will allow the evil goddess Tahkisis to enter this plane of existence. Eager to warn Tanis and save Krynn, Flint and Tas race to Tanis's side.

Unfortunately, the plans Tanis and Raistlin have been working on to save Krynn have put the world on the brink of a full-scale war and Raistlin is acting more twitchy than usual. As the companions both prepare for an all-out war with the forces of evil and deal with another casualty from their group, Tanis succumbs to Kitiara and Raistlin abandons the cause to take on the leaders of the magical orders, threatening the whole planet!

Dragons Of Spring Dawning is the final volume of the beginning of the franchise, so it's a pretty safe bet that Krynn will not be destroyed by the entrance of the Goddess of evil in this volume and it's not ruining anything to point that out. In fact, this book manages to be quite the nail biter in that regard because well before the reader gets to that point, two of the principle characters are already dead and two look like they are headed over to the side of evil. Dragons Of Spring Dawning is quite adept at keeping the tension high and the variables well in play.

Sure, there are some obvious things. The subtext with Tika in the very first book let any reader with a brain know that she was into Caramon. Moreover, with Kitiara working for evil and all of the racial prejudice against the half-elf Tanis, there are enough factors in play to make the reader consider that perhaps Tanis could fall as well.

What undermines that whole element of the story, though, are the character elements. Experienced writers and readers know that the ways a character is characterized is by what the character says, what the character does and what other characters say about them. It's the last one that undoes much of the tension in Dragons Of Spring Dawning. Tanis is surrounded by people of high moral character who are unwaveringly good: Flint, Laurana, Sturm, and Caramon. In order for us to believe that Tanis could go bad and help Kitiara open the portal, we would have to believe all of those other characters could be deceived.

And the thing is, there is a decent amount of character deception in this novel, just not in the form of the Tanis character arc. Dragons Of Spring Dawning pays off a number of the plot threads begun in the other books. The origin of the draconians is revealed, the presence of the gods on Krynn is confirmed in its way, and the various forces that have been moving toward an all-out war finally come into direct conflict and it is a satisfying novel for the way all of those elements are explained.

Moreover, characters who have not before had as much going for them become absolutely vital, like Laurana who is suddenly a central player. As well, authors Maragaret Weis and Tracy Hickman effectively make the character transitions both realistic and compelling. From the first novel, the sickly mage Raistlin has not been quite right and in Dragons Of Spring Dawning the payoff is done in a smart enough way to create new threads to continue the story after this book is done. Rather smartly, they do it in a way that is integral to completing this story, so it does not simply read like the establishment of a franchise.

Dragons Of Spring Dawning is written and marketed as a novel for young adults, but it is certainly targeted toward the smart and imaginative ones. We all know that the average newspaper in the United States is written in a way that a fourth grade student will be able to read and understand it. Dragons Of Spring Dawning is written with a more intelligent level of vocabulary and diction (honestly, probably about eighth grade). It is, however, written as well with a much more mature sense of interethnic relationships and that level of realism is quite compelling. Tanis is an outcast because he is of mixed heritage and he is written with a real sense of being an outsider that probably makes him appeal quite a bit to teenage audiences.

More than that, Raistlin is the ultimate outsider and his story is one that is dark and very adult. In other words, adults who like fantasy stories - sword, sorcery, grand epic battles - will find much to like in Dragons Of Spring Dawning, though it is virtually impossible to recommend this book without reading the prior two.

For other novels with fantasy elements, please be sure to check out:
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
The Day Of The Locust By Nathanael West
Heroes: Saving Charlie By Aury Wellington


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

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

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Dr. Crusher's Biology Lesson: "The Host" Is Clever.

The Good: Interesting cultural and biological premise, Good acting, Intriguing character development.
The Bad: Staggering lack of biological knowledge in the Federation
The Basics: In “The Host,” a Dr. Crusher romance turns into a biology lesson about an intriguing joined species.

One of the most neglected characters in Star Trek The Next Generation is Dr. Crusher. As actress Gates McFadden, who plays Crusher, has openly stated in the past, "There will never be a Dr. Crusher movie." She's in the same boat as Uhura, Sulu and Chekov in Star Trek, a supporting player, though her cast is a bit more of an ensemble than Star Trek ever was. "The Host" is a Dr. Crusher episode and it is one of the few focusing on the Doctor that were ever made.

"The Host" finds Beverly very much infatuated with an ambassador named Odan. Odan and Dr. Crusher spend the beginning of the episode exclusively getting it on to the extent that one is forced to wonder when Odan actually does any work. While on his mission, however, Odan is critically wounded and it is revealed that his race, the Trill, are a joined species. This means that - for the purposes of this episode - that the Trill exist as a host and a symbiont. The symbiont is a wormlike creature that lives in the belly of the host. The host is dying, but the symbiont, Odan, may be transplanted and the best candidate on board . . . is Riker.

While "The Host" is apparently a Dr. Crusher episode, the episode fails to maintain that; once Riker gets the symbiont, Jonathan Frakes steals the show. And easily. For some time, Riker's character has been in decline and "The Host" illustrates yet again that Jonathan Frakes can act! Frakes plays the joined Riker Odan as an almost completely different character than Riker. He pulls off creating an entirely different body language for the character and watching Frakes here . . . he's mesmerizing.

That's not to say that Gates McFadden doesn't give a good performance. Her portrayal of Dr. Crusher in the final scene explores a melancholy area of Crusher that McFadden has not played up until this point. And she pulls it off quite well. The problem on the acting front is that Frakes is given vastly more to do as an actor while Gates is basically playing Crusher in a somewhat new situation. Crusher is still Crusher; Riker is not just Riker here.

The real disappointment of "The Host" is in its underlying premise. The idea of a joined species is a cool and intriguing one. How neat is it that there could be a part of oneself that outlives us and continues on for hundreds of years? This is a very intriguing concept for the audience. The problem is, the concept shouldn't be all that intriguing for the characters involved.

Dr. Crusher is just as surprised as the viewer to learn about the Trill being a joined species. Yet, the Trill are Federation members. Given that, how could ANY doctor in StarFleet not know about the Trill and their specific needs? It seems improbable and it seriously works to the detriment of the episode.

People who are not invested in the Star Trek universe will find this a minor detail and ought to enjoy the episode quite a bit. Indeed, this is one of the most intriguing races introduced in the Star Trek universe, no doubt the reason Star Trek Deep Space Nine added Dax to the crew roster. This is an interesting love story turned medical drama with a great deal of tension. All of the backstory elements - i.e. Riker and Troi's relationship - are explained enough that this is a remarkably accessible episode. Fans of Star Trek The Next Generation, though unsettled by this fairly obvious flaw in the episode will find much to enjoy, most notably Frakes' performance.

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


For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, please visit my index page on the subject for an organized listing!

© 2011, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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Terrible Balance, Very Average Everything Else, Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform Flops!

The Good: Generally decent sculpt, Good articulation, Decent sculpt on accessories
The Bad: Balance is terrible, Hand molding allows accessories to fall easily.
The Basics: Easily tipped over, the Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform looks good, though is light on human surface details and is an early dud from Playmates.

Sometimes, the obscurity of an action figure sculpt is obvious, like one where one walks into the store, sees the new toy and says "That doesn't look anything like X!" With Star Wars. toys, at least, this is a pretty obvious thing and I've been pleased to note concept figures in Hasbro's Star Wars. toy line where I am able to walk into the store and say, "That's new; it wasn't in any of the movies." But there are action figures that look right and become baffling to fans and collectors only when they take a moment to actually consider them. Tonight I am there because of the Star Trek: The Next Generation action figure line and the Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge action figure.

I'm finding myself miffed because rationally, I know that Geordi La Forge appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation in his dress uniform (there's a picture of him in it with the figure as part of the exclusive SkyBox trading card). But when I tried to figure out an example to cite where Geordi La Forge actually wore his dress uniform. I ended up finding it; despite numerous occasions he ought to have worn one, he wore the stiff, tube-like uniform during the wedding scene in "Data's Day" (reviewed here!). Beyond that, it is exceptionally difficult to find examples of Geordi in his dress uniform (there are, for example, no trading cards of him in it outside the one in this action figure), despite there being two Geordi In Dress Uniform figures from Playmates!


The Star Trek: The Next Generation 1993 Series of action figures contained twenty-three figures released in two waves and the Geordi In Dress Uniform was released in the first wave of sixteen figures in that assortment. This collection focused more on the supporting and background characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation as opposed to the main crew. Still, there were two Geordi La Forge figures in the assortment. The Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform is the Chief Engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise N.C.C. 1701-D as he appeared in the infrequent plots which required him to use a dress uniform. This figure was the more popular of the two Geordi's in the assortment and it has La Forge in his more recognizable yellow uniform. Still, it was never a big seller (though it was more popular and a better seller than the Lieutenant (j.g.) Geordi La Forge figure from the same assortment - in his first season red uniform).

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform appears in the standard Engineering colored uniform, but in the style of the Dress uniform as opposed to the duty uniform. What this means in most obvious terms is that Geordi's outfit is not designed to look like a one-piece uniform. Instead, it is a formal gold uniform which has a stiff shirt, almost like a dress that ends right below the groin. Playmates recreates this pretty faithfully, though they gave Geordi a twisting joint at the waist, which they broke the outfit for (it actually comes at about the figure's abs); the usual striking, solid one piece is then split by a joint!

Standing four and one-half inches tall, this is a generally decent likeness of Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge immortalized in plastic. The character is molded in a stiff, formal pose, though the head is the same head that had been used on prior Geordi figures. The character is recognizable from his VISOR and flattop haircut. There is a decent level of uniform detailing, from the communicator on his chest to the extended piping which goes around the whole collar and into the shoulder. As well, the figure includes the pips in the correct place on the shoulder. Ironically, this is where the paint job is excellent; there are actually four pips molded into the figure's body, but only three are visible because of the way they are painted (which is appropriate). Geordi's eyes under the VISOR are appropriately white and pupil-less and the stiffer posture of the figure fits the concept of wearing a dress uniform. Still, the face and hair lack any sense of realistic toning.

The paint job is fair, but not realistic for a human being. The skin tones are monolithic brown and lack any shading or subtlety. There is no shading to the hair, either, so Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform looks like he has burned noodles on his head as much as he might appear to have hair. The uniform is appropriately colored and the figure looks good in that respect, down to the piping at the bottom of the figure's pants. There, though, it is quite possible the legs were recycled from an earlier figure.


Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform comes with only five accessories and a trading card and these are generally good for the figure. The accessories are: a StarFleet desktop viewer, a type II hand phaser, a tricorder, a plaque of medals and an action base shaped like a StarFleet Symbol. That Geordi LaForge comes with more equipment than weapons makes a great deal of sense, as he would only wear the dress uniform for ceremonial occasions. The Action base is just enough to support Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform and is a StarFleet symbol appropriately colored in gold and silver-gray. The center of the symbol on the base has a peg which fits into the hole in either of La Forge's feet!

The Type II phaser is poorly detailed, basically being a little silver plastic piece in the shape of a phaser with a beam extending two inches out from it. While this makes play easier, it is a tough sell as far as detailing goes. The buttons and displays are molded into the weapon, but it is not colored appropriately. At least the phaser beam is colored pink, which is appropriate. The figure is not able to hold the phaser well in either hand due to the way the fingers are molded. Unfortunately, there was no way to connect the phaser to Geordi's belt when he is not holding it.

The tricorder is a three-quarter inch teal colored molded plastic device that fits awkwardly into Geordi’s hands. This accessory looks utterly ridiculous. The tricorder has realistic molding details, but does not open and close or have any sense of realistic coloring details for the buttons or panels.

The StarFleet Desk Monitor, or Personal Viewscreen, is an odd accessory for this action figure. While Geordi was frequently seen using one, this is usually seen on desks around the Enterprise, not in character's hands and never while Geordi was in his dress uniform. With the right arm movements, Geordi may hold his desk monitor - which looks very much like the ones on the show, save the coloring, and has a sticker to represent what is on the screen - in both hands, but he looks odd doing it.

The plaque of medals is a 1 1/8" long by 7/8" wide flat plastic chip that has a sticker with four (or eight) medals on it in brightly contrasting colors. This is a good concept accessory, but it does not fit in either of Geordi's hands and ultimately it looks quite ridiculous there because of the coloring of the base. There was a similar prop in the actual show, but it was used for Data and instead of being ridiculous-looking and plastic, it looked like hardwood. Playmates truly skimped on this one!

Unfortunately, all three of these accessories, outside the phaser, are molded in an inaccurate teal plastic that is utterly lacking in realistic coloring detail. Geordi In Dress Uniform is over-accessorized and with the lame coloring of the accessories, it is less exciting than it otherwise could be.

The 1993 line of Playmates action figures also comes with a very cool SkyBox trading card unique to the action figures. The Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform card features a big shot of Geordi's head and upper body with a warp field background that is quite striking. The back of the card has all sorts of vital information on La Forge and the figure is highly sought by card collectors who collected the cards and disposed of the figures. Interestingly, the repackage that used the SkyCap often had multiple cards in the bag behind the SkyCap, so it can often save collectors money to pick up the figures that way for the multiple cards!


Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform came early on in Playmates Toys's tenure with the Star Trek: The Next Generation toy line. As a result, the company was still trying to prove itself to fans and collectors. As such, they created a figure that was surprisingly articulate. Unfortunately, the figure has no ability to stand. Standing even on his base, Geordi tips over (this is one of the few Playmates Star Trek figures that actually tips over and takes the base with it! Rather inconceivably this figure appears to be too topheavy, despite it not having an unrealistically broad chest. Because of the curve of the StarFleet communicator symbol the figure stands on, with one foot plugged into the base, the other is actually suspended awkwardly over the base, causing it to tip. Rearranging the figure becomes problematic because there is no joint in the groin socket (it is entirely inflexible below that "dress!").

This Geordi figure is endowed with ten points of articulation: thighs, knees, elbows, shoulders, neck, and waist (abs). All of the joints, save the elbows and knees, are simple swivel joints. As a result, the neck turns left to right, for example, but the head cannot nod. Similarly, the shoulders are not ball and socket joints and only rotate, though this limitation is dealt with in the Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform figure by the swivel joint in the bicep.

For use with actual play, Geordi In Dress Uniform may bend or extend at the elbows, which offers a greater amount of movement potential, though the knee joint is somewhat ridiculous given the lack of flexibility in the groin socket. None of the weapons or equipment fit well in his hands as they are molded almost entirely open. The monitor and plaque of medals are both too big for a single hand and the phaser falls right out of either hand as well. The tricorder may be carefully balanced in his grip, but that falls out when Geordi falls over!


Playmates mass produced the first few waves of Star Trek: The Next Generation figures, but still Geordi In Dress Uniform seems to have held his value on the secondary market. This is one of the figures almost never found below its original issue price of $6.00, which puts it above several of its peers from the time. Playmates flooded the market with these figures and they are almost impossible to use as investment pieces, but this Geordi at least is not a losing proposition!

Playmates tried to make the figures collectible. Each figure has an individual number on the bottom of his right foot. In the attempt to make them appear limited, they had numbers stamped on them, though one has to seriously wonder how limited something should be considered when there are at least 200,000 figures out there (my Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform is numbered 199673!).


Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge In Dress Uniform is an obscure concept for a figure - Picard, Riker and Data all appeared more memorably in the Dress Uniform - and this figure is seriously hampered by the inability one has to get the figure to actually stand up. Add to that the terrible coloring of most of the accessories makes this figure pretty easy to pass by.

For other Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures, please check out my reviews of:
Galoob Lt. Worf


For other action figure reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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A Decent Mix Of Socially-Progressive Songs From Peter, Paul & Mary In These Times.

The Good: Decent lyrics, Musically and vocally rich sound
The Bad: Short, Some vocal issues
The Basics: A good album, despite being more of a general folk album and having vocals that sometimes are less impressive than on other albums, In These Times rocks!

As I continue my monthlong exploration of the music of Peter, Paul & Mary, I am discovering that sometimes it is tough to tell the difference between compilations of previously released works and new recordings. For some reason, because the trio works with various charities and social causes which seem to get a cut of their profits, they often have wildly erratic liner notes. With In These Times, though, it appears I have finally stumbled upon an actual unique album, despite the varying copyright dates on the different songs. As such, this becomes the first album that was actually recorded by the Trio that I've heard, as opposed to the various compilations that have been dominating my study so far.

In These Times seems to be an unfocused album which is largely designed to remind folk music listeners what tumultuous times we live in. Recorded and released in 2003, is thematically diverse - within pretty typical folk music themes. Peter, Paul & Mary sing about the importance of unions, protesting injustices, and treating all people alike. As well, they sing to advocate ethnic diversity and reclaim social justice issues as Christian (in the literal form with the idea that Jesus stood for social equality). As well, they include an obvious attempt to keep kids engaged with "All God's Critters" and the overall effect is that Peter, Paul & Mary are trying to keep their causes and their careers alive. And they do fairly well with the album.

With only a dozen tracks (it's tough to say how many songs because the first song is a medley and the final track has a hidden extra song in Spanish) clocking out at 47:40, In These Times is only marginally the creative enterprise of Peter, Paul & Mary. As far as the writing goes, only three songs have members of the band credited even as co-writers and some of their co-writing talents are simply for rearranging the instrumental accompaniment to traditional songs. While the members of the trio sing all of the songs and Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey play the guitars, they are largely singing the words of others. At least Yarrow and Stookey produced the album, so this is apparently the album the band sought to release.

Despite the lack of unique creative sentiments to share, Peter, Paul & Mary make a decent outing with the words of others. First the album has a surprisingly rich sound to it, despite the fact that the songs are largely just accompanied by Stookey and Yarrow on their guitars. The pair produces the album so the instrumental accompaniment sounds more vibrant and musically complex than it actually is. They, for example, give a little bit of reverb on "Don't Laugh At Me" which makes the song sound more energetic and produced. Most of the songs are similar ballads that have simple guitars produced to sound rich, even though in the end it is simply two men on guitars accompanying most of the songs.

Even so, In These Times contains a few more energetic songs as well. For the first time in my study of Peter, Paul & Mary, I've encountered a song where the instrumental accompaniment forms a rich melody that is both memorable and dominates the song. This comes on "Wayfaring Stranger" and the guitarwork is vigorous and enthusiastic. Yarrow and Stookey strum their hearts out and the result is a fantastic song that is unlike anything else Peter, Paul & Mary have done.

But even on "Wayfaring Stranger," when the vocals come on, the instrumental accompaniment is sublimated to the vocals. Peter, Paul & Mary are all about a message (though the specifics of the message may vary with the album) and as such, the vocals are always produced to be louder than the instrumental accompaniment. On "In These Times," the band has great vocals which illustrate their collective talents. On the opening "Union Medley" they do rounds that end in harmonizing and on "Invisible People," all three harmonize beautifully throughout. They break up some of "Union Medley" with spoken word recitations of working conditions, but for the most part In These Times is musical.

There are, unfortunately, two notable exceptions. First, on "All God's Creatures," the group creates animal sounds and the song just becomes noisy and jumbled. It is not one of the group's best songs and unfortunately, following on the heels of "Of This World" which has a wonderful give and take between the vocals of each member, "All God's Creatures" sounds particularly sloppy. Second, the vocals of Mary Travers frequently sound strained and sometimes painful to listen to on In These Times. On "Have You Been To Jail For Justice?" Travers becomes enthusiastic and she amelodically squeals out her lines and that part of the song holds up remarkably poorly over multiple listens.

That said, Travers is not all bad. Her voice is clear and smooth on "Some Walls" both when she sings solo and when she harmonizes with Stookey and Yarrow. Travers has a wonderful soprano voice when she focuses and her voice is a decent contrast to the lower voices of her accompanying men. On In These Times the men, though, have their day. Most of the songs are dominated by their voices and songs like "It's Magic" are presented with a very mellow smoothness of the men's tenor voices that is quite memorable.

Thematically, In These Times is a rather diverse folk album, but it does seem mostly to be preoccupied with reminding listeners that there are causes for social justice that listeners still need to stand up for. There is a very classic 1960s mentality to some of the songs, despite when they were actually written. So, for example, when the band sings "Have you been to jail for justice? / I want to shake your hand! / 'Cause sitting in and laying down / Are ways to take a stand" ("Have You Been To Jail For Justice?") the group has a very different sensibility than the current (and sadly, more apathetic) generation. The band seems to be trying to pass the torch for outright protest onto the next generation and while the song is enthusiastic and fun, it is unlikely to sway many people not already inclined to actually stand up for justice.

My partner, though - who is ridiculously young I sometimes feel - instantly recognized "Don't Laugh At Me" because there was a popular Country music version of it. I am certain I will one day hear it, but on "In These Times," the song is brilliantly stark in a folk music context. As the group harmonizes with the chorus "Don't laugh at me / Don't call me names / Don't get your pleasure from my pain / In God's eyes we're all the same / Someway we'll all have perfect wings" ("Don't Laugh At Me") the message is clear and presented in a heartfelt way that more production is likely to distract from.

Ultimately, In These Times is a worthwhile folk album, but it is a bit more scattered than some works by Peter, Paul & Mary and outside the thematic lack of unity, there are moments the vocals crack and as a result, this is probably better for fans of the group than those just getting into Peter, Paul & Mary. That said, there is enough to recommend In These Times and anyone looking for a classic boost of folk music from the mature voices of Peter, Paul & Mary will find something to enjoy on this album.

The best song is "Don't Laugh At Me," the weakest link is "How Can I Keep From Singing?" more for being unmemorable than in any way bad.

For other albums by Peter, Paul And Mary, please check out my reviews of:
Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too
Around The Campfire
Songs Of Conscience & Concern


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

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

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The Art Of Trying Something New: Dole Sensation Natural Guava Juice Is Yummy!

The Good: Tastes good, Novelty
The Bad: Slightly watery taste, Could be a lot more nutritious!
The Basics: Not a food to try to live on, Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is a good dessert on cold nights or just when one wants something different from standard hot chocolate!

Having returned from our latest trip with rather grave health concerns for my wife, this summer finds us stocking up on more healthy food and drink than usual. To play along and trick my heart into something a little more healthy than coffee, black tea and cocoa, my wife picked me up some Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice. This is my first, that I can recall, juice review and despite my enjoying the novelty of the flavor, Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice could be better in a number of ways.

That said, if one can find it on sale, there are far worse things to put in your body than this juice. But, as my wife and I are rapidly discovering, store bought juices like Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice are not the incredible health food love fest that many people hope it would be!


Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is a refrigerated juice put out by Dole. The blue, pink and green carton is like a standard half gallon milk container and is found currently in the refrigerated juice section of most major grocery stores. Dole Sensation Natural is a new product for Dole and locally, my wife and I could only find the Guava and Tangerine juices. The guava juice is a light pale pink/orange juice which is more opaque than translucent and reminds one of fresh pink grapefruit juice in its appearance. The half gallon cardboard carton has eight servings in it. This is a very light juice and has no leg, though it does foam nicely for a little head when shaken up properly.

Ease Of Preparation

Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is very easy to prepare, as it is a fresh juice drink. Simply unscrew the spout at the top of the container (the first time one does this, they must remove the plastic safety seal from inside) and pour the contents into a glass. It doesn’t get much easier than drinking juice like this!


Pouring the Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice reveals a light fruit juice which has a vaguely citrus aroma. Of course, the guava juice smells like guava and the best analogy I could provide for the fleshy, fruity smell was mango. Guava smells a lot like mango and the Dole Sensation Natural juice prepares the consumer for that taste well.

Tasting the drink – which is by far best cold – one is introduced to a taste that is much like mango: Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is not as overwhelmingly sweet as most mango is and tastes like a watered down citrus juice. This guava juice is initially sweet, like apple juice, then ends with just enough tartness to suggest a citrus flavor. As it washes over the tongue, I recall flattened grapefruit soda and the middle taste is precisely that flavor.


Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is giving me quite the education. I always thought fruit juices were nutritious, but this one is not exactly blowing the doors of good health wide open. One serving, which is classified as 8 fluid ounces has 110 calories, none of which are from fat. In fact, this drink is fat free (which makes some sense) as well as cholesterol free and protein free. What baffled me, though, was that Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice has no vitamins, calcium or iron and the only mineral it has is a trace amount (1% RDA from 35 mg) of potassium. As well, it has 24 grams of sugar and 10 mg of sodium. This is not an incredibly healthy beverage.

What it does live up to is its claim to be all natural. With the primary ingredients being filtered water, sugar and guava puree, there is nothing bad in this drink.


Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is ridiculously easy to store and clean up. Kept unopened in the refrigerator, it will last a few weeks. We bought ours last week and it has an expiration date of June 6, 2011. Because it is all natural with no apparent preservatives, it does expire quicker than some juices, but because it tastes so good, it is likely not to be around when the expiration date comes!

Cleaning up Nestle Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice is easy, though it is likely to stain lighter fabrics and one ought to consult one's fabric guide for cleaning if that happens. In general, it is a light fluid and can be cleaned up easily with a washcloth.


While Dole Sensation Natural Guava juice tastes sweet, light and different from any other single juice, it is not nutritious or delicious enough to make one want to stock up on it.

For other drinks, please visit my reviews of:
Powerade Fruit Punch
The Simpsons Duff Energy Drink
Kahlua Mocha Coffee


For other food and drink reviews, please be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Before The Next Sequel Bombs, Why Transformers Is So Very Bad.

The Good: Special effects, General attempt to create a larger sense of the world.
The Bad: Terrible acting, No real character development, Direction, Light on plot
The Basics: In an often-ridiculous special effects film, Transformers shows the appearance of giant robots who camouflage themselves as vehicles bringing their war to Earth.

As I entered the last few hours between when I have to "fish or cut bait," as it were, on an opportunity to journey down to see Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen at the Smithsonian IMAX with director Michael Bay (it was a VERY cool offer and given I had a free ticket to the event, it was very tempting), I found myself considering the original film Michael Bay released for Summer Blockbuster Season two years prior and that I saw for the very first time the night before the special event in order to prepare myself for the sequel. I was surprised to realize that I had never actually watched a Michael Bay film before seeing Transformers, so that might have been cool. In fact, it turns out the only film I had seen where Michael Bay had a big role was Friday The Thirteenth, which Bay produced. So, with one strike against Bay, I sat down and watched Transformers on DVD in my home theater. This, though, made the decision to drive six hours to see the director and the newer film in IMAX very easy. Arguably the best deterrent to wasting my time and money (and possibly just asking "Really?! Are you serious? This is the best you've got?" to the director), is seeing the film upon which the sequel was based. And, before any potential trips arise for Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, I think it’s good for me to be thinking of this film.

That might seem like a cruel assessment for a film based upon an animated series which was built around a popular toy line, especially when one considers that films like Masters Of The Universe were nowhere near as successful as Transformers, what made my stomach sink after this boring, overbearing special effects flick was seeing who wrote it. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who are responsible for the reboot of Star Trek (reviewed here!) also have the indistinction of writing this trainwreck. Where they were creative and clever for the Star Trek reimagining, here they are a strange mix of overly ambitious as storytellers and cliche in the dumbest possible ways with their few attempts at making character. All of this is eventually for naught, though, as the final act is devoid of even the pretense of character and instead devotes itself to huge special effects battles that soon become repetitive and unimpressive. And the easy bottomline here is this: this is very much a "guy's movie" with utterly unrealistic women, a boy living out pretty much the male fantasy for a seventeen year-old, cars (where the very act of driving is supposed to be impressive or cool) and big explosions.

In the desert of Qatar, a United States military installation is attacked and the target of the attack seems to be a classified database. The mechanical assailant, cut off by a hard-line cut, appears to be searching for an object in U.S. custody. In the wake of the attack, Defense Secretary John Keller mobilizes every possible resource to determine who the attacker is and how to disable the new weapon system that seems invincible. Meanwhile, in the United States, Sam Witwicky is a high school junior who is trying to sell his grandfather's relics on eBay to afford a car for himself. His father takes him to purchase a car and he leaves the lot with a little yellow jalopy that he is not truly wild about. The car soon begins to cause problems for Sam, communicating through the radio and doing its best to hook Sam up with an attractive, but snooty popular girl named Mikaela.

The storylines rapidly converge as Sam is hunted by giant robots who realize that his grandfather's glasses contain an imprint with the coordinates to the mysterious object that is being sought by two mechanical armies. As the military forces flee the active Decepticons who are searching for an object known as the All Spark, Sam - and his car, a robot named Bumblebee - is rescued by the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime. The Autobots are seeking the All Spark to try to save Earth from the war they inadvertently brought here. The problems multiply, though, when the special teams that converge at the Hoover Dam - where the Decepticon leader, Megatron, has been kept cryogenically suspended for decades - and Megatron is reanimated and the All Spark is left in the hands of a boy.

I feel like I have been running low on synonyms lately, so perhaps simplicity is what Transformers truly demands, given the way the film degenerates into a simple shoot-em-up popcorn flick; Transformers is bad. Transformers is so bad that the only reason theaters are currently packed with people checking out the sequel is that it made so much money. And by the end of Transformers, there is only truly one character who is "franchise" who actually has to be returned for the sequel. Seeing as though that character is played by Shia LaBeouf - whose acting career as the star of summer blockbusters seems to prove that miracles can happen and talent is not necessary for Hollywood success - one suspects that the relative expenses of the sequel were fairly low. In other words, no one is tuning into Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen or Transformers: Dark Of The Moon for the storyline or characters, they want to see a big special effects film and to be dazzled without having to think about much of what is going on.

Sadly, that is where Orci, Kurtzman and Bay put the viewers of Transformers as well. The film is remarkably busy and stupidly simple before it becomes a fairly lame special effects flick. I say "fairly lame special effects" even though the special effects are arguably the best thing this movie has going for it in the end because while director Michael Bay employs some ridiculously talented people for the special effects, he has little in the way of eye for making it interesting. As I watched Transformers, there was a shot in the film where missiles are being fired and giant robots are running that looked ridiculously familiar. I realized that it was because I had seen the exact same shot - framing, movement, explosions, etc. - in the trailer for the new G.I. Joe film (reviewed here!). This is not Bay's fault, but then I realized the shot was pretty much the archetypal running gunfight shots, just with bigger guns.

Where does Transformers go right? The movie starts fairly well, with the idea that there is something of international consequence going on and that no single group can figure it out. The Secretary Of Defense reasonably calls in all possible analysts in order to try to evaluate the weapon's system that attacked the U.S. in Qatar. But by the time "Sector Seven" emerges, though, the sense of reality has already been mortgaged by too much time spent with Sam Witwicky.

Sam is a pretty dull high school student who is interested in girls and cars and that's about all. He slides by doing the least possible work and that his teacher bumps his grade from a botched oral report up because of "What Would Jesus Do?" would be decent farce if only the rest of the movie were nearly as smart. Instead, though, Bay's Transformers quickly becomes less about character and any sense of how real agencies would react to an attack from giant robots to a ridiculous chase around the world with little sense of consequence or character.

In the special effects, Bay and his people get the film very wrong by an almost complete neglect of basic physics. One Autobot, Jazz, does a few funky dance moves before sliding onto the hood of a car. The last time I saw one car or car-weight/car-material object strike another car the result was not a robot leaning back looking the robot equivalent of urban funky. It was a mess. Okay, Bay wants viewers to turn their brains off. But there is turning one's brain off and there's lobotomizing oneself. Sam and Mikaela get bumped around quite a bit, falling great distances only to be caught by giant metal hands. Yet, they never react like they are in pain or that there is any consequence to the dives they take.

This brings us back to the acting in Transformers. When the cast is led by actors like Shia LaBeouf, whose acting differed very little from the virtual version of LaBeouf used in special effect sequences in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (reviewed here!), one has to cringe. Megan Fox and Rachael Taylor are cast for the obvious salivation factor that the average viewer of this PG-13 will bring to the theater. Taylor is asked to play an analyst and while that might be plausible, the fact that she picks up an accent halfway through the film is just terrible. Josh Duhamel is plausible as Captain Lennox, though he had more dramatic gravitas back when he was on All My Children. Lennox's cliche "soldier waiting to meet his baby girl back home" is so canned that one suspects Duhamel was cast for the role because he was the only actor who could pull off the lines with a straight face, whatwith his background on soaps.

But the mystery here is how Bay managed to snag John Turturro and Jon Voight for Transformers. Turturro, more than any other performer in this film, is used in a way that completely mortgages his credibility as a great actor. Turturro performs well with the virtual characters, but arrives in the film long after most viewers will care and will be looking for anything remotely about performance.

On DVD, Transformers is accompanied by Transformers: Beginnings, which is a seventeen minute, poorly animated feature that spells out the complete backstory of Transformers. Illustrated - where the film merely tells - the program shows Bumblebee sending the All Spark away from Cybertron (the planet of the Transformers) and the pursuit by Megatron. After Megatron arrives in the primordial soup and is sucked under the surface, ages go by until Captain Witwicky finds him and sets off the events in the feature film. This is all covered in the actual film, so it is pretty much a waste of time.

Then again, I suspect that for most film buffs, watching the Transformers Beginnings disc and then the trailer for the film will be more than enough to entertain them. The trailer contains many of the big special effect battles, a few shots of Megan Fox and the shots of the Transformer as ordinary cars and trucks driving along a desert road. That's about the substance of the film in a nutshell. Life is too short for more.

For other big budget special effect-driven films, please check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
Tron Legacy


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

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