Monday, October 31, 2011

Dominion Rising In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Second Season!

The Good: Wonderful plot arc, Great character work, Amazing acting
The Bad: One or two "bottle" episodes
The Basics: When a shadowy menace emerges from the Gamma Quadrant, the Federation has a new villain to contend with and Star Trek Deep Space Nine gets a fresh new life.

The Star Trek Deep Space Nine Season Two DVD set continues the trend of containing the entire season of a Star Trek show and that works especially well for Deep Space Nine, as it is a serialized television show. Whereas the first season of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!) could have been entitled "Bajor Rebuilding," the second season moves away from that and I consider it a season of "Dominion Rising." This begs the question, "What is the Dominion?" That is the question that dominates the season.

When last we left Bajor and Deep Space Nine, Bajor was without a spiritual leader and the leading factions within the religions were vying for power in a rather political way, one that threatened the safety of those on Deep Space Nine. When the second season opens, the problems have gotten worse and Bajor faces a brief, but important civil war. As soon as the Bajoran Civil War is over, Quark does some business for the Grand Nagus in the Gamma Quadrant and he learns about an organization there called the Dominion. Unsure what the Dominion is, the Ferengi open business negotiations with them through a third party. While one or two minor incidents (or episodes if you want to step back from it) occur, Deep Space Nine strengthens its position of importance in the Quadrant until a group of refugees pour through the wormhole. They reveal that the Dominion destroyed their planet.

Soon, the undertones are undeniable: there is a force in the Gamma Quadrant that the Federation does not understand and seems to be a menace to all who encounter it. As Odo seeks answers to his own existence, strange relics are found on a Gamma Quadrant planet. As the Federation draws closer to an answer of what the Dominion is, civil unrest occurs, forcing the Federation to turn toward its own borders. A rebel group strikes chaos in the new Cardassian/Federation Demilitarized Zone and the Federation find the peace threatened by a rogue group calling themselves the Maquis. As relations between the Federation and Cardassia become more and more tense as a result of citizen conflicts in the Demilitarized Zone, the Dominion finally reveals itself in an amazing display.

The twenty-six episodes of the second season are beautifully presented on the seven disc set. While the episodes continue the unfortunate trend in the Star Trek DVDs of strange track breaks (rather than have tracks that correspond with the acts of the episode, the episodes seems randomly broken up) they are great transfers with wonderful sound quality. The bonus features on the season two set are pretty much the same as those from the first season, save that the character focus is on Quark. This set provides us again with a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes of several of the episodes as well as contain all new interviews with cast and crew about the stories behind the episodes. Unfortunately, there are still no commentaries on the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episodes and, as I've said before, of any of the Trek series that could benefit from commentary, DS9 is it!

The second season of Star Trek Deep Space Nine benefited from a greater sense of purpose than the first season did. Indeed, the first season of Star Trek Deep Space Nine is an establishment of time and place and sets most of the major arcs in motion. Season two establishes the other major half of the Star Trek Deep Space Nine story with the introduction of the Dominion.

Still the focus of the series is on the characters and they continue to grow each in their own way as a result of their experiences. In the second season, each of the characters has something new to do or experience.

Sisko continues to heal from the death of his wife and this season, he falls in love, loses a good friend to the Maquis and works to become more comfortable with the various religious leaders of Bajor.

Major Kira becomes more comfortable with the idea that she is an important part of Bajor as a result of being the first officer on Deep Space Nine. As well, she falls in love with Vedek Bariel, who comes close to becoming the new Kai - or religious leader - of Bajor. She works for the best interest of Bajor and to that end tries to become more comfortable with Commander Sisko.

Jadzia Dax has a run-in with a Trill terrorist and loses her symbiont, at least for a time.

Odo comes closer to learning the truth of his origins in the second season. This is an important step for Odo as his search for his homeland is based on so few clues. As well, viewers are treated to a glimpse into Odo's past in the best episode of the season ("Necessary Evil").

O'Brien has come to accept life on Deep Space Nine and in the second season, he is tortured three times, facing his most horrific fears as he is captured by the Cardassians.

Dr. Bashir finally makes a connection with O'Brien and he becomes less awkward as a result.

Quark gets closer and closer to making it rich as he makes connections at the highest level of Ferengi Society and then with the Dominion in the Gamma Quadrant.

Jake continues to grow up on Deep Space Nine, doing normal young adult things like going on dates and going to school.

As the second season continues, the acting gets better and better. In the first season, the actors were feeling out their characters, trying to figure out who the characters were. In the second season, from the moment Quark opens the second season, it is clear that the actors are more comfortable with their roles. Each of the actors steps up at one time or another in the second season, though they deliver a continual series of performances that are, at the very least, good.

Avery Brooks, especially, steps up as Commander Sisko. Brooks slowly gives Sisko more and more animation. He is astonishingly good at infusing energy over the course of the season to go from more of a brooding sourpuss into a man who can make the tough decisions and act when necessary. Brooks defines Sisko as a man coming out of a long night of depression and his performance resonates with the subtlety the performer adds to it.

While the entire rest of the cast is great, the other stand out in season two is Colm Meany as Miles O'Brien. Meany plays O'Brien as wounded, ill, tortured and entirely bewildered in episodes where his character's plight is the focus of the episodes. Meany makes a definite human connection for the viewer with the series. He makes us believe in O'Brien.

This is a tight series with a great amount of character development and great acting. The Star Trek Deep Space Nine season two DVD set is essential for anyone who loves great science fiction. It is an important stepping stone in the tale of Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

Because this is a serialized show, it may be difficult to get into Star Trek Deep Space Nine with the second season, but it is certainly not impossible. In fact, in some ways the Bajoran Civil War arc that opens the season is more accessible than the series premiere. Given the near-impossibility of a perfect season, Star Trek Deep Space Nine season two does a great job. There are one or two weak episodes, though none come to mind right away except the Sisko love story "Second Sight," and the bang for the buck is pretty high, which makes this seven-disc set a value.

For a better idea of exactly what you would be getting in this boxed set, I have reviewed all 26 second season episodes and encourage you to read the reviews at:
The Homecoming
The Circle
The Siege
Invasive Procedures
Rules Of Acquisition
Necessary Evil
Second Sight
The Alternate
Armageddon Game
Playing God
Profit And Loss
Blood Oath
The Maquis, Part I
The Maquis, Part II
The Wire
The Collaborator
The Jem'Hadar


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

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Everybody's Favorite Anya! "Fear Itself Anya" From Series 4!

The Good: Bunny suit! Interesting sculpt, Generally good poseability, Decent base
The Bad: Light on articulation (terrible head articulation), mediocre accessories, Balance issues, Recycled figure!
The Basics: Hardly the most playable or pliable figure, the kitsch factor makes Anya in her bunny outfit a real must-have toy!

Every now and then toy manufacturers truly get something completely right. Diamond Select Toys Buffy The Vampire Slayer toy line has a lot of near misses for really right, even perfect, toys. The standout of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer toy line would have to be the "Fear Itself Anya" from the Series 4 Anya toyline. It doesn't matter how bad the initial sculpt is, Anya in her bunny outfit makes for a great toy!

Utilizing a body of Season Five Anya - despite the fact that "Fear Itself" was a season four episode - the figure attempts to capture who Anya was in the final moments of the episode "Fear Itself" when she comically arrived in a fluffy bunny costume as a representation of something scary. The whole figure is an inside joke and it's a good one.


Fear Itself Anya is one of the exclusive -released via Previews - action figures from the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Series 4 figure line from Diamond Select toys. She is a 5 3/4 inch tall action figure featuring a sculpt of Anya the ex-vengeance demon as she appeared in the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Yes, the basic action figure is the Season Five Anya (reviewed here!).

The sculpt is a tough one to evaluate, though. First, the figure does not scream "Anya," save the packaging. If the figure were standing by itself in the blue jeans and ruffled tube top somewhere, I would be at a loss to place it. The face is very angular and it does not honestly look like Anya. This might be because the sculpt of the hair is flattened on the sides and it frames the face in a very awkward way. It almost looks like Anya's hair was wet and flattened out instead of having the bounce and buoyancy the actual hair did on the show.

Also, the figure is disturbingly thin and this gives Anya more of a scarecrow/stickfigure feel to her than she had in reality on the show.

Outside that, the detailing looks good. Diamond Select Toys has a way of capturing details with a realism that is wonderful and the the recycled Season Five Anya is no exception: The fingernails are carefully sculpted, the feet are visible in the sandals with matching toenail polish and the detailing on the jeans is great. One might be disturbed by the detailing on the bust of the Season Five Anya, though; the stick-figure Anya is well endowed and the detailing on the plastic clothing holding back her bosom looks like it is stretched to the breaking point and it lacks - for want of a better term - realistic lines of force. Fortunately, the primary accessory for this figure makes that a moot point.

The other problem with it, though, is the coloring. Anya's hair is presented as a flat brown that it never was in reality and the skin tones make Anya seem much more tanned than she appeared on the show. So, basically, the fundamental problem is that Anya does not look like a recognizable incarnation of the character in any real way.


What makes "Fear Itself Anya" "Fear Itself Anya" is the primary accessory; the bunny costume! The fluffy suit comes in two pieces; the main body and the hat with the ears. The bunny suit slips over the Anya figure with minimal tugging and prodding. This is a good way to loosen up the figure's joints, though.

The hat piece with the bunny ears slips on over the head just fine, but it is a real trick to tie the bow underneath the head so it stays on without the ribbon slipping and becoming a knot. "Fear Itself" Anya, so accoutered, is a joke and she's cute and funny. And after minutes of struggling against the joints to make this happen (the last time I had to dress one of these figures up, I tore out her elbow!) collectors and fans will be ready for a good joke.

Anya comes with two other basic accessories: the base and a little plastic bunny! Also, around the figure's neck is the necklace bearing the amulet used to endow Anya with her wish-granting powers. The necklace does not come off her and this seems odd as she did not have the amulet any longer by the fourth season. The other items fit the figure well in that they are emblematic of items from the episodes that Anya appeared in. They are not exciting accessories, though.

The base is a decent plastic base that is 4 1/2" inches in diameter and represents the floor of the Magic Box. The base has a foot peg and the peg which fits easily into Anya's right foot, providing ample support for the figure. There's only ne problem: in the bunny costume, Anya's foot is no longer exposed. As a result the peg cannot possibly fit into her foot! Thus, "Fear Itself" Anya falls over an awful lot.

The little plastic bunny is cute and one imagines Anya screaming at the site of it. It does not do much, though.


"Fear Itself" Anya is generally well balanced, though the toy does not allow for much of a range of motion to stay balanced. In the bunny costume, Anya must remain flat footed and the way the costume hugs the character severely limits Anya's poseability.

Anya is hampered in poseability by her limited articulation, both before and after being put in the bunny costume. Anya is articulated at only ten points: knees, groin joint, shoulders, elbows, waist and head. The head is kept on via a ball joint, so the figure's head can move with incredible articulation and range of motion. Or, at least, that's the theory. I've gone through one Season Five Anya and one "Fear Itself Anya" which share the same basic figure because the head has not been articulated. Turning the head tears it right off (this is also the only way to get the amulet from around Anya's neck, it appears!

With the bunny costume on, "Fear Itself" Anya pretty much just raises her arms and puts them down as far as poseability goes.

It is difficult, then, to see how this Anya would be fun for play. Truth be told the Buffy The Vampire Slayer audience that is likely to purchase "Fear Itself" Anya is much more likely to leave the figure in the package or set in on a shelf in a pose as a display piece than actually sit and try to play with it. The economically motivated Anya acts more as a support piece than a battle action figure.


"Fear Itself" Anya is limited edition and fans have pretty much gobbled her up, driving the price of the figure up! Consumer interest in this Anya figure has been high, due in part to the popularity of the moment and recurring theme she represents with the bunny suit. Collectors are lucky to find this figure in the $25 range and it has pretty steadily been going up in value.

The Previews Exclusive "Fear Itself" Anya makes for a worthwhile collectible for fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer!


Fans of Anya and Emma Caulfield will likely be disappointed by the sculpt, but happy to cover up that poor showing by putting her in her bunny costume. The limited articulation and inability to get the figure to stand on the base using the peg are disappointing oversights, but it is doubtful that would keep fans from adding this figure to their collections!
This figure represents Anya as she appeared at in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer - The Fourth Season, reviewed here!

For other action figures, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Blackest Night Nekron
Watchmen Dr. Manhattan
The Lord Of The Rings Galadriel Entranced


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

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

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I Suppose She Always Wanted To Be A Pop Star, Eilleen Shania Twain's Beginnings (1989-1990).

The Good: Vocals, Production. . . I suppose
The Bad: Bland pop-rock, Some truly terrible lyrics, Short.
The Basics: Obvious, poorly-written and not utilizing the vocal skills of the artist, Eilleen Shania Twain failed to break out with Beginnings.

Sometimes, there is something pretty wonderful about coming across an artist later in their career than what might be considered their peak. Such is as it is with me and my exploration of Shania Twain, my October co-Artist Of The Month. I'm not big on the hype of any artist and I pretty much avoided Twain during what might now be considered her heyday (she never actually has to produce anything more to remain rich beyond most of our dreams). So, in going back and studying her works I was very surprised when my library managed to get in Beginnings (1989 - 1990) by Eilleen Shania Twain. And popping it in to listen to it and review it, I was pretty psyched; this was not an album mined over by virtually everyone else in the music-listening world! It does, however, confirm some of my suspicions about Shania Twain.

It is worth noting at the outset that there are two versions of Eilleen Shania Twain's Beginnings. This release, from Jomato Records, is a twelve-track album and according to the liner notes was leased special to make money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Kid's Cafe/Second Harvest, though Twain's actual participation in the album is limited. It appears a company leased the Limelight recordings, pressed the c.d. with no real involvement from Twain. This becomes somewhat interesting in reading the liner notes where Twain's original producer, Paul Sabu, makes such dubious comments as "The time I spent with Eilleen was special to me. She was, and I suppose still is, a kind, sweet, gracious, and thankful woman . . ." It's the "I suppose still is" that makes me think Twain might not be terribly involved in this project. All but one of the songs on this album are on The Complete Limelight Sessions, which I suppose does not live up to its name then. There is a virtually identical Beginnings that is missing two of the tracks. So, if one feels they absolutely must have Beginnings, this is the version to get, as opposed to the ten-track version.

But, there is little reason to pick up Beginnings, even to help a charity out. This is one of the most generic pop-rock albums I have heard in some time and it is not recognizable as the works of Shania Twain for those who are simply looking for more by her. Her Country music fans especially will be deeply disappointed by how this work is such a departure from all that came after. As an unknown, Eilleen Shania Twain was looking to become the next Pat Benatar or one-woman version of The Bangles. She failed and went a different route to superstardom.

With a dozen tracks (eleven songs, one which is repeated with a marginally different mix) Beginnings (1989 - 1990) occupies a paltry 44:47 and is a very bland, overproduced pop-rock album that illustrates some early talent from Eilleen Twain. Twain wrote all but two of the songs, with her presenting two different versions of "For The Love Of Him" and a cover of "Half Breed," which was popularized by Cher. To her credit, Twain performs all of the lead vocals and most of the backing vocals. She does not, however, play any of the instruments and she was not at all involved in the production of the album.

Beginnings is pure pop-rock without any real hint of Country or even the pop-Country that Twain later became associated with. "Wild And Wicked" opens with almost the identical instrumental riffs as Melissa Etheridge's "Bring Me Some Water" and "(Don't Gimme That) Once Over" borrows instrumental and vocal bits from the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," down to the fact that Paul Sabu backs her with his clearly male vocals to support her! The derivative quality continues on "Hate To Love," though for the love of all that is good, I cannot place why that song sounds so familiar to me right now.

But this is pretty generic guitar and keyboard-driven pop-rock with no real spark. So, for example, on "Half Breed," there is no character, no sense of the wrenching pain caused by the type of racism the musical protagonist sings about. And instrumentally, it does not hold a candle to Cher's version which had a force to it this version lacks. The generic and unmemorable becomes unfortunately laughable when Twain presents her song "LUV Eyes," though, which promotes dumbspeak and is so sugary-pop that it is likely to make fans of decent music anywhere cringe. The overall sound of Beginnings is very '80's pop and Twain actually nails the sound spot-on. She could have been big, like any number of women trying to sound like Madonna at that time (I'm thinking "Hate To Love" sounds like that era Madonna).

Twain hints at her range on Beginnings, though she seems much more committed to sounding tough than sounding good. As a result, she works in the lower range of her ability, seldom venturing into her soprano range. Instead, she keeps her notes generally short and low, like on "Send It With Love," where the Madonna analogy holds vocally as well as with her instrumental backing.

But Twain's writing abilities make it clear why she was not a success at this point in her career. Songs like "LUV Eyes" are so bad that one imagines a teenage girl scrawling the poetry in the margins of her spiral-bound notebooks at school. Indeed, it is hard to believe that such a powerful adult sex symbol emerged when she used to write lines like "This friend of mine, he looks real good / He drives a fast car and lives in Hollywood / He treats me like his little sis' [yeah, that made me cringe!] / I gotta let him know I want more than this . . . / I got L-U-V eyes looking at you / I got a B-I-G heart made for two / You could feel the same if you only knew / I got L-U-V eyes looking at you" ("LUV eyes"). One wonders what Lange saw in lines like that that made him say "yeah, I'd love to work with her!"

I suppose some of the lyrics are more mature, though most do focus on nervous, young ideas of love. Twain is plagued by a very basic sense of rhyming, which comes across in virtually all of her songs. While she has a sense of fun when she is being ridiculous on songs like "Rhythm Made Me Do It," the rest of her songs have an earnest quality that is somewhere between painful and laughable. Indeed, even the thought of Twain today cannot sell listeners on the value of her rhymes "Yeah I run straight home I got a hot date tonight, yeah / I got a chilled champagne for dinner by candle light / He's gonna be here soon and everything will be alright (sic) / I get a call, Guess who's on the other line / I can't make it tonight, Can we do it another time yeah / Oh the nerve, I'd like to give him a piece of my mind" ("Bite My Lip").

I suppose the best track is the straightforward rock of "Wild And Wicked," but the low point is such a tough call between so many of the remaining tracks.

For other Shania Twain album reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Shania Twain
The Woman In Me
Come On Over
Up! (Country mixes)
Up! (Pop Mixes)
Greatest Hits


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

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Taster's Choice House Blend Might Be One Of The Better Instant Coffees, But It Is Still Disappointing To Regular Coffee Drinkers.

The Good: Easy to prepare, Decent initial taste
The Bad: Fairly expensive (especially in prepackaged tubes), Environmental impact of packaging
The Basics: Those used to regular brewed coffee might be initially surprised by the strength of Taster's Choice House Blend instant coffee . . . until that taste fades.

Since I reviewed the Taster's Choice Original Gourmet blend instant coffee (that's here!) I have been hesitant to review more instant coffees. Even so, I felt the desire to review something new and I went with the Taster's Choice House Blend instant coffee. The House Blend is an interesting drink, but not one that has the enduring taste most coffee drinkers are likely to find satisfying.


Taster's Choice House Blend instant coffee is part of Taster's Choice's new premium instant coffee line and one suspects that the company is trying to compete with the flavors from the International blends instant coffee line. This mix now comes in plastic containers easily found in the grocery store, though for my review, I was provided with premeasured samples which each create a 6 oz. cup of coffee.

Ease Of Preparation

Taster's Choice House Blend instant coffee mix is exceptionally simple to make. The single serving is the packet and six oz. of water. There is no measuring of the product involved, though with the canisters one needs to measure out the Tablespoon of instant coffee. This is a very simple beverage to prepare.

The top of the single-serve packet has a perforated edge and one need simply tear open the top, which is quite easy, and pour the contents of the packet into a mug that is at least eight ounces large. Then, simply pour hot water - near boiling, but not actually boiling as boiling water cooks the ingredients as opposed to simply dissolving them - over the powder and stir. Stir the powder until there are no blobs of coffee granules visible in the water. The beverage will have a dark brown color to it and it will be fairly translucent.


The House Blend smells like a very weak cup of coffee, with no distinction outside the aroma of coffee beans. The scent is neither distinctive, nor inviting.

This prepares the consumer well for the cup of coffee they get with the House Blend . . . except that it is not weak. I was thoroughly prepared to dismiss this beverage when I smelled it, but when I sipped it, it tasted refreshingly dark. The instant taste one gets when one lets it flow over their tongue is a smoky, robust flavor that tastes like regular brewed coffee.

Unfortunately, that taste does not last. After approximately three seconds, a strong, watery aftertaste takes over and mutes the coffee taste. My tongue felt dry and ultimately, the House Blend left me feeling more thirsty. The aftertaste lasts several minutes longer than the initial flavor of the coffee.

The use of sugar or cream with the House Blend instant coffee instantly overwhelms what flavor the coffee initially had, making it taste either like sugar or milk. This is a poor instant coffee to attempt to garnish.


Taster's Choice House Blend instant coffee is a coffee mix and therefore is entirely lacking in nutritional value. There are no calories or fat in this drink, though there is caffeine. How much is a bit of a mystery to me. This is not a beverage intended to be a health drink or one one might survive on.


So long as one gets Taster's Choice House Blend instant coffee mix in the packet, it ought to stay usable. Visiting my local supermarket, most of the packages of this instant coffee had an expiration date over three years away. One assumes it will last quite a while and dissolve appropriately when one attempts to use it. The packets, for those of us who consider the environmental impact of such things, are terribly wasteful and expensive. The foil/plastic wrappers are not recyclable anywhere I've been.

Cleanup is very easy as well. If the product spills while dumping it into the mug, simply wipe it up or brush it up with a dry or damp cloth. If it has already been reconstituted with water into coffee, simply wipe it up. Light fabrics are likely to stain if this gets on them, in which case consult your fabric care guide to clean it up.


Taster's Choice makes a decent House Blend that would be better if it was darker and the taste lasted longer. Even so, as a staple instant coffee, the House Blend is not bad, just average for an instant coffee.

For other beverages, please visit my reviews of:
Bigelow Fruit & Almond Tea
Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Green Lemon Jasmine Tea
Land O'Lakes Chocolate Graham Hot Cocoa


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

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

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Another Awkward Family Falling Apart: The Squid And The Whale Is Troubling And Real.

The Good: Great dialogue, Good acting, Good direction.
The Bad: Predictable plot points.
The Basics: Very difficult and true, The Squid And The Whale is less esoteric and more of an increasingly common experience as a family moves toward divorce.

The modern family, with its complexities has been the source of fodder for movies . . . pretty much forever. I think the angsty family reached its critical peak with Kramer Vs. Kramer (reviewed here!). Lately, it seems the movies about families I enjoy most are the ones that focus on eccentric families, like The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!). After accidentally subjecting my wife to The Other Woman (reviewed here!), we were out and she saw the DVD for The Squid And The Whale and thought that we might enjoy that film more.

The Squid And The Whale is a surprisingly stark film about people and the awkwardness of relationships. There is a surprising number of references to semen and the sexual elements alternate between the utterly creepy (the youngest child wiping ejaculate on the locker of a girl he likes), the stiflingly realistic (the teenage child cumming remarkably quickly when his girlfriend first tries to touch him) and the completely predictable (a student coming on to the father). Despite the moments of predictability and awkwardness, The Squid And The Whale is enjoyable and captures a sense of reality that those who have gone through an awkward divorce are destined to recognize as true.

Starting with a tennis match wherein Bernard and Walt take on Joan and Frank, the Berkman family is in the process of torquing apart. In 1986 Brooklyn, Bernard and Joan are having a difficult time raising Walt and Frank. When Joan is published in a literary journal, Bernard's jealousy begins to rear up. It is not long before Bernard and Joan separate and are moving toward divorce very rapidly. Joan begins dividing the family by hiding books she claims are hers and Bernard has Walt steal books back for him.

The family is pretty much doomed the moment Bernard tells Walt that the marriage was dead when Joan had an affair with a shrink named Richard and some other men. Frank begins to assert himself by claiming he wants to be a tennis pro and Bernard continues to find it difficult to get his next work published. While Joan uses the separation to grow and experiment, Bernard becomes more mired in his patterns and the family seems to get further from the potential of staying together.

The Squid And The Whale very realistically captures the angst of a family in the process of a divorce. Many of the characters are awkward and troubled. Frank, the youngest of the family, swears the most and he is the one most curious about what explicit sexual acts his mom might have done with the men she had affairs with. The film is abrupt and troubling in many portions, especially when Frank masturbates in the library and calls his mother ugly. He begins to drink and discovers his budding sexuality on his own, which causes more problems at school.

Walt, like Frank, is awkward, though his relationship issues are much more common. He feels pressure based on how he tries to live up to his father's intellectual pretenses. Walt is trying to live up to his father's expectations, but in the process he skates by without actually developing. One of the most interesting aspects of the writing of The Squid And The Whale is how writer and director Noah Baumbach takes time to develop the ideas without making them painfully explicit. So, for example, Walt listens to his father's opinions on the great books and movies and as a result, he seldom actually reads the masters. This is heavily implied when his girlfriend, Sophie, asks him a specific question about Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which he glosses over. The writing for The Squid And The Whale is excellent.

In addition to being an interesting character, the angst-filled Walt is masterfully played by a young Jesse Eisenberg. Sure, he's still young now, but even in The Squid And The Whale he illustrates a strong talent and the ability to deliver complex lines. He has wonderfully expressive facial expressions and he delivers with an understated way that helps maintain the reality of the character. It is easy to see how Jess Eisenberg had a meteoric rise following this film and he plays off Anna Paquin well in her few scenes with him as Lily.

The surprise for me was how good Jeff Bridges was in The Squid And The Whale. Usually, I would champion Laura Linney, but as Joan she is woefully underused. Bridges, on the other hand, is stunningly good as the pretentious Bernard. With his overgrown beard and mustache, Bridges immediately sets himself apart from every other role he has taken. Instead, Bridges plays Bernard as both erudite and pretentious. Bernard is a complex character who is both metaconscious and annoyingly unethical, which Bridges is able to play that with his body language. In one key scene, he makes his eyes look more lazy and tired and that sells the sense of emotional fatigue his character has.

The Squid And The Whale is not for everyone. As my wife noted at the end, "I hate independent films!" there is little sense of resolution to the film. Instead, Baumbach opts for a slice of life wherein the characters are put into problematic situations, the situations are brought to the attention of the others and then nothing happens as a consequence. That can be irksome for those who want a real strong story, but for those looking for a movie with both odd characters and the problematic realism that independent films often embody, The Squid And The Whale delivers.

For other works with Anna Paquin, be sure to check out my reviews of:
True Blood - Season Three
True Blood - Season Two
True Blood - Season One
X-Men: The Last Stand
X-2: X-Men United
The Piano


For other film reviews, 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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Still Underwhelming Me, Jurassic Park Entertains, But Not Much More.

The Good: Interesting idea, A few good lines, Generally good acting, Good direction, Good DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Light on character development, Predictable reversals, Erratic special effects
The Basics: Jurassic Park is an action adventure film that milks a simple premise and fractures into a weird high-minded debate on science vs. commerce and people running in horror.

I remember when Jurassic Park was THE big special effects film of the summer. It was back in 1993 and I was working at a summer camp and most of my peers were excited about the movie. I saw it at a cheap theater on my day off and was unimpressed. I pretty much never gave the film or the franchise that sprouted up from it another thought until my wife and I were at the library looking for a movie to watch. I knew she was a fan and I suggested it when she was steering me toward inane comedies instead. What I was not prepared for was an afternoon where she asked me to hold her close and every five minutes asked, "Aren't you scared?!" I swear, she was less freaked out during A Nightmare On Elm Street and frankly I found the movie to be exactly as I had remembered it.

Jurassic Park is a very average summer blockbuster attempt that hopes audiences will be dazzled by the special effects, dramatic score and people running on screen to not notice the predictability of the character arcs and camera movements that telegraph virtually everything. I've found films resonate with me more when I actually care about the characters and Jurassic Park might have actors performing well, but there are no characters I empathize with for very long and frankly the film and franchise could have ended with the whole lot of them getting squished in a flung car and I am fairly sure I would not have felt cheated. That said, Jurassic Park is entertaining and for those looking for an entertaining popcorn movie they can watch and shut their brains off for, this certainly fits the bill.

After an incident on an island near Costa Rica that costs a man his life, an insurance agent is sent to get experts to testify to the safety of a new theme park. Shrouded in mystery, the creator of the theme park, John Hammond, journeys to a dig where he convinces doctors Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler to come with him to the island home of his new theme park. Flown with the lawyer and fellow scientist Ian Malcolm, the pair finds themselves on a remote island populated by genetically engineered dinosaurs! Amazed by the potential and impressed by the ambition, the scientists nevertheless resist the spectacle of Jurassic Park to do a real and thorough inspection of it.

However, when one of Hammond's workers is corrupted by greed and attempts to flee the island in advance of an impending storm with the genetic material used to clone the dinosaurs, Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm find themselves stranded in the park with Hammond's grandkids, Tim and Lex. While Sattler is able to return to the base to try to restore power to the malfunctioning theme park, Malcolm is wounded and Grant and the kids must brave a night where they are hunted in the wild by carnivorous dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and a trio of velociraptors.

Jurassic Park is two movies, unfortunately neither one is terribly extraordinary. The first is a high-minded debate on the limits of scientific enterprise, the second is an action-adventure film. The way the first Jurassic Park fails is that it comes out of nowhere. After seeing the first elements of the process of creating the dinosaurs, Dr. Malcolm suddenly starts spouting off about the irresponsibility of the endeavor. He makes accusations - like that the scientists did not earn the discoveries they employed to engineer the dinosaurs - that have no support in the context of the film. After all, in the appropriately hokey theme park film, the process of capturing dinosaur DNA is detailed and the process of making the dinosaurs from it is laid out. The way it is described is exactly how science works; discovery builds on discovery and the prior discoveries are applied to the current methods and the field is pushed forward.

This is not to say Malcolm - or writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp - does not make some good points, especially on how commerce is exploiting science for its own gain in the concept of Jurassic Park. The problem is how it comes up. Malcolm is far less an individual or a character as he is a random string of thesis lines. His mention of chaos theory and his philosophical arguments come with almost no backing within the movie and no real context. All of a sudden, Jeff Goldblum (who plays Malcolm) is speaking and he sounds smart and right, but his arguments are poorly supported - save by the action adventure that follows - and they come up at annoyingly random intervals.

As for the other half of Jurassic Park," the movie is very much a typical and uninspired action-adventure flick. That half of the movie features computer-generated dinosaurs chasing humans, cars getting flung and quick reversals. Unfortunately, while director Stephen Spielberg is usually able to make the shots look good, he hardly ever makes them surprising. As the kids run from velociraptors through a kitchen, the angles used to reveal where the dinosaurs are coming from are all the most predictable and cliche ones (most notably after featuring a kid looking left and right, the dinosaur is revealed to be above). There are the cliche reversals of people tripping and slipping in the rain while running and the usual last-minute rescues and quiet moments suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a new villain.

Almost as bad is the cliche character development. Dr. Grant is characterized as a man who does not like or want children and he is paired up with Tim and Lex. The result is that he spends most of the movie protecting the kids by putting himself in extreme danger. That the character does not swear off children for exactly the reasons he began the movie loathing them for is counterintuitive. In other words, Jurassic Park proves every liability Dr. Grant complained about, but he seems more open to children at the end than at the beginning!

The special effects are erratic, most notably in the computer generated dinosaurs. In Jurassic Park the technology was being pioneered to integrate computer generated beings into live-action films. It is not there yet in this movie and many of the CG-dinosaurs are lit with a poor sense of realism for the real world. Conversely, the actors in the film do a great job interacting with the virtual characters. Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and the young actors Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards all have a strong ability to play opposite nothing real and convince the audience they are looking at real creatures! This is pretty wonderful, especially as many movies since have failed to have performers follow eyelines and such of virtual characters.

Jurassic Park also has a pretty wonderful supporting cast with actors like Wayne Knight and Samuel L. Jackson having memorable (if small) roles in the overall story. And if one shuts their brain off, Jurassic Park is fun, but it is hardly the greatest movie of all time or even a masterwork that is smarter than a popcorn movie.

For other epic science fiction or fantasy film series', be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Star Wars Saga
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Back To The Future Trilogy


For other movies, 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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Sunday, October 30, 2011

For When A Ballpark Will Do, The Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale Delivers.

The Good: Weight tracking function works, Inexpensive, Battery lasts a long time
The Bad: Terribly inconsistent, Large footprint.
The Basics: The Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale works when stuck very firmly in one place, but even the most minor movements lead to very different results.

What happened to the simple, functional things? Yeah, I've become one of those cranks who no longer sees every technological advancement as a good or, at least, worthwhile thing. Yes, I'm about to utter the words "When I was a kid . . ." When I was a kid we had bathroom scales that actually worked. I know, it might seem like a strange diatribe to begin my review of the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale, but the truth is that after six months of use, I would gladly trade the gimmicks for the functionality scale companies used to deliver.

Back when I was young, electronic scales were not even on the market. The mechanics of the physical, mechanical scales were somewhat clunkier than the new electronic scales, and they required recalibration every few uses. Sure, they were only accurate to about the pound, but they worked. By that, I mean that if I stepped on my home scale, I would get consistent results, even if I was not happy with them. The same cannot be said of the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale.

The Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale is an electronic scale that measures 12 3/8" wide by 11 3/8" deep by 1 1/4" tall. It has four feet that are rubber to prevent skidding on tile or linoleum floors and that is a nice touch. Even so, this has a surprisingly large footprint for the bathroom floor. Unless one has a very large bathroom and can afford to give up the space - a little over a foot square - then one is likely to be moving it and that led to the biggest issue I had with this scale (see below).

The scale features a large (1" by 3") LCD display. The display is activated when the scale is turned on. Activating the scale is very easy; simply press the lower right corner of the top of the scale. When that happens and the scale turns on, the LCD will flash "0.0" which is followed by flashing lines that indicate the tracking scale has calibrated itself. The Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale may then be used, so long as one steps on it within thirty seconds. Waiting longer than thirty seconds will cause the scale to turn itself off.

The first feature I actually liked about the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale is the size of the LCD screen. It is bright enough that it is visible when one is standing atop the scale and it is very clear in its readout. This scale reads pounds to the tenth of the pound and may be calibrated for kilograms, though all of my testing was done with the scale on pounds. No matter the problems with the scale, its results may be very clearly discerned.

That brings me to the issue I have with the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale. The scale changes its mind far too often to be considered at all reliable. So, for example, just now, I stripped down and weighed myself (it's night, so go easy on me!). Weighing myself three times about a minute apart, with the scale securely on the floor and my feet placed exactly the same place on top of it, I got 173.2, 173.8, and 173.0 lbs. I am pretty sure that I did not gain that much weight and lose it in the course of a three minute period. The scale's directions recommend weighing yourself at the same time and conditions each day. That's fine advice, because apparently if you're a minute off, your results can vary quite significantly!

Why this is an issue is the big selling point of the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale. The weight tracking function is a memory that allows a user to record their weight by tapping the "on/calibrate" portion of the scale. This allows the user who has their weight recorded to step on the scale and after the reading, have an evaluation of that made relative to the last recorded weight. So, for example, if I used this function, I would tap the scale with my toe after it was calibrated and tonight, it would sat 173.0. Tomorrow, if it said 172.5, that reading would be followed by the screen flashing -.5 That seems like an exciting and worthwhile function.

Unfortunately, all experiences I've had with the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale indicate that moving the scale even a little gives different readings. But more than that, if I got different readings within three minutes of one another, it lessens the presumed accuracy of the scale when it comes to how much weight one has actually lost. This is not the scale one ought to use when one has bets or challenges going over their weight. As one who was working with someone else to lose weight, this is not the ideal tool to keep accurate scored. I know that both of us got frustrated with the fluctuations and it's pretty rotten to have to do a weigh in where one either gets three chances or bets on which weight it going to be the most advantageous to keep and quitting with the weighing, as opposed to weighing ourselves with confidence and being able to trust the results.

Ultimately, the lack of consistency makes the Health O' Meter HDM560DQ-05 Weight Tracking Scale the wrong scale for those looking to lose or monitor their weight reliably, no matter how inexpensive it is.

For other appliances for around the house, please check out my reviews of:
Cuisinart Grind Central Coffee Grinder
Dave Lennox Signature Collection Brentwood SP EPA-approved Wood-burning Fireplace
Dyson Air Multiplier fan


For other home and garden products, be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Seven Episodes, Zero Laughs: Chef! The Complete Series Two Flops!

The Good: Wow, you've got me for a change. Ummmm . . . . nice film stock?
The Bad: Not funny, No real character growth, Bland acting, Stale, stale, stale plots
The Basics: Easy to pan, Chef! in its second series on DVD is an un-funny presentation devoid of laughs or bonus features to redeem it.

Once upon a time, I was traveling and I caught an episode of Chef! and I was amused. Years later, I came upon the DVD collection of Chef! (reviewed here!) and remembered how, while on the road I enjoyed Chef! on PBS and I picked it up. And it was not good. Was wherever I was stuck in the U.S. truly so bad as to make Chef! seem good by comparison? I believe that is possible. I refuse, however, to believe that the episode I saw was from Chef! - The Complete Second Series [that's "seasons" for us Americans] Having picked that set up on DVD and watched all seven of the episodes, I have found it utterly without redemption, worth or - sadly - laughs.

When I watched and reviews Chef! The Complete Series One (reviewed here!), I made a comparison to the short-lived FOX television show Kitchen Confidential, which I have seen a few times now and at its worst makes me laugh still. The second series of Chef! did not make me laugh a single time. Not once. They had 205 minutes of my attention and garnered no laughs. It's that bad.

Le Chateau Anglais is a French restaurant where the finest food in England, if not the entire world, is prepared and served by Chef Gareth Blackstock. Gareth is high-strung, verbally abusive and something of a pain to live and/or work with. He demands the best out of his brand new sous chef - the recovering alcoholic - Gustave, the lackeys Crispen, Alice and Alphonse, and his loyal intern Everton. Everton is the only returning member of the kitchen staff and he displays a loyalty to Gareth that is uncompromising, despite coming into his own as a chef.

Outside the kitchen, Gareth is having marital problems. He and his wife are having a pretty standard marriage when the man is a boar and the woman is a nag, though in this season they work together as business partners to attempt to keep the place running. In the second series, Gareth spends a great deal of time outside the kitchen, leaving the food preparation to Everton when Everton is written about in a magazine and declared a master and when Gareth needs to prepare a romantic dinner to apologize to Janice.

Chef! in its second series is far less serialized than the first series - which is a strike against it in my book - but it involves terribly little in the way of character development. Thus, it is largely plot heavy and focused almost exclusively on Chef Blackstock. Because of that, the show is more about what happens than the people (or, in truth, person) doing it. The plot of Chef! then flows over the seven episodes (one disc) as a story of Blackstock and his staff at le Chateau Anglais and his marital problems with Janice, mostly around his lack of libido and her sudden desire for a child.

Chef! begins with Gareth scrambling to replace his sous chef. For that, he finds Gustave, a man whose cooking once impressed Blackstock, but who is now a raging alcoholic. Gareth hires him anyway, with Janice's blessing, only to discover that he drunkenly dreams of taking over the kitchen at the restaurant. Gareth puts him in his place while Everton struggles to keep the kitchen functioning

The episodes continue with the Blackstocks debating about having children and Gareth revealing his deep-seated fear of being a father. The Blackstocks run from the law when they smuggle in some unplucked pigeons against the law (with Chef Blackstock reiterating his utter inability to stand up to the police with even a simple lie) and a magazine does a feature on Everton, which makes Blackstock terribly jealous and feel out of touch. The tables are turned when Blackstock makes it onto an exclusive television show thanks to Janice's efforts, only to tear Janice apart on national television for her inability to cook. Tossed out of the house, Blackstock struggles to get back on her good side, which he does long enough for her to get him into an impossible competition in France.

Chef! in its second season is tragically not funny. There is an inane laugh track to supply the laughs that the show will not get from anything resembling actual humor. Gareth has not grown as a character and as a result, much of Lenny Henry's performance in the second season is what the viewer already saw in the first season. Henry's Blackstock work his way through long rants of insults to his workers and equally sarcastic quips to his wife, but none of them are terribly original or funny.

Unfortunately, much of the humor is obvious and the viewer sees coming well before the first chance to laugh. So, for example, in the final episode of the series, after insulting the French constantly and winning multiple second and third place awards in the contest, it comes as little surprise when Chef Blackstock actually wins the overall competition. Or when Gareth apologizes to Janice by taking her to the first place they made love only to have her point out it was not the first place they did it . . . these are standard and obvious jokes. Throughout the series, such reversals become commonplace as Chef Blackstock has to apologize to others or admit he was wrong to his wife or he simply insults his way to less-than-greater glory.

And the conflicts between Gareth and Janice soon wear thin on the viewer. After all, there are only so many times that Gareth can say "Shut up, Janice" before it loses its humor and one begins to be disturbed by the obvious cruelty behind it. So, in addition to the humor being a bit obvious at too many points, Chef! suffers because the protagonist is largely unlikable in a way that is less pleasant than amusing.

Similarly, Chef! The Complete Series Two is short. With only seven episodes, just under half an hour each, the repetitive nature of the plots and character actions is accented somewhat. Chef! wears itself out quickly on DVD, making for a poor investment for a permanent collection. Because there are no DVD bonus features, all we have are the episodes. Because the episodes focus almost exclusively on Chef Blackstock and his violent mood swings, abrasive declarations and apologies, it quickly takes on a very formulaic feel. One shudders to think how stale it would be by a third viewing. If I didn't laugh the first time, I doubt the third would make me smile.

But the truth is, because it is so repetitive and it focuses on Gareth so heavily, there is little room for any other character to shine. Indeed, I don't believe there was a single scene that did not have Gareth in it. As a result, characters like Janice soon are relegated to looking very much like a parody of a character, as opposed to a genuine character who has any depth or shading to her. She might have started the series as a schemer, but by the time the second series ends, she is almost exclusively a shrill nag who demands of Gareth in a way that almost makes one understand how he could neglect her in favor of his kitchen.

This DVD is easy to pass by; it's a comedy that is not funny, not clever and hardly original.

For the sophmore seasons of other comedies, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia - Season 2
Weeds - Season 2
30 Rock - The Complete Second Season


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

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

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Barnes & Great Selection/Shipping/Service, Less Great On Price.

The Good: Good shipping, Good selection, Generally decent service
The Bad: You have to pay to get the best discounts, Generally higher prices.
The Basics: Pretty much until I started using, Barnes & was my steady source of books, c.d.s and DVDs and now it offers the occasional deal for those who pay for the privilege.

Tonight, I have chosen to undertake a review of an online store. I have only done this once before, when I went on a rant about eBay some years back. I have been remarkably hesitant to write about websites for several reasons, largely because it seems like whenever anyone has a lousy experience with a webstore, they pop on here and rant about their one bad experience.

I've been doing business with Barnes & Noble online for over a decade, so when I decided to give myself a writing challenge, this seemed like the most natural online store for me to write about. Barnes & - or - is the web-based incarnation of the popular chain of bookstores, Barnes & Noble. They share a common corporate headquarters, a common frequent shopper discount card (the Barnes & Noble Member Program) and items ordered through Barnes & may often be picked up at a local brick and mortar Barnes & Noble. However, Barnes & has far more competitive prices than the physical store counterpart. For me, this is a bit irritating; Barnes & ships out of Manhattan and being so close to the City and the warehouse, I tend to resent that when I go into the stores the prices are so drastically different from the on-line store.

Barnes & is all about the books. Actually, it is all about the books, music, DVD, Blu-Ray and electronic download of books in addition to having a smattering of games and gadgets. This store has one of the most extensive libraries of media of any company and it rivals for selection of media items. As well, because it has remained focused on books, music and movies (instead of diversifying outside media like Amazon), Barnes & tends to have a very quick interface that is up-to-date with all of the latest items in print. Once an item has an ISBN number, it seems like it appears in the Barnes & database available for preorder, if not outright sale.

When visiting (I always type that in because I tend to transpose the "l" and "e" in Noble and end up at the wrong place and only having to type in two characters before my browser knows where it is going is nice), the visitor is brought to an image-rich front page. Using the latest media players, the current bestsellers scroll across the top of the front page with dizzying speed. Barnes & is a graphics-rich website and it immediately tries to overwhelm the visitor with a plethora of current, trendy, releases. Usually on the front page there is also a banner which includes the current promotion going on at the site.

First-time visitors to Barnes & are encouraged to open an account, though anyone using the shopping cart will be able to register after they find the items they are looking for, if they don't want to "risk" it. Barnes & keeps credit card information on-file on secure servers and in the decade since I started doing business with the company, I have never had a problem with identity theft. When accessing my account information, only the last four digits of credit cards on file show up (along with expiration dates) so when I'm using my library's high-speed connection, I don't have to worry about anyone who might be peering over my shoulder. Customers at Barnes & may have multiple shipping and billing addresses stored in their account and I've found that useful for when I was in the process of a move or shipping items as gifts. If I've ever sent a person a gift from Barnes &, their address is there in my profile and a click of a button allows me to ship to that house (or, conversely, redesignate shipping items to my house as opposed to whomever I sent a gift!).

One of the nice things about placing orders with Barnes & is the friendly customer service and the way they are on top of the information they have. More than once, I have placed an order and my credit card temporarily did not have the money I needed for the order. Under those circumstances, I have had to call the company when the funds were available and never once has Barnes & denied me the use of coupons, promotions, etc. that might have expired in the meantime. Actually, the irony is that more often than not, I discover my credit cards are out of date from Barnes & than any other way!

In addition to a graphics-intensive interface, Barnes & has an incredible search engine which makes it very easy to navigate the site. The search engine deftly looks up items by author, book title, DVD title, genre, Musical artist, c.d. title and several other ways. The search engine is intuitive and after a few characters are typed, assuming one has selected a category first, an additional box will open beneath the typing box with possible topics one might be looking for. Clicking that completes the form and takes the user to a page with products that match those criteria. This is a nice bonus when one is in a hurry.

Product pages at Barnes & include at least one image of the product (which may often be enlarged) as well as details about the product. This includes the basic information (i.e. what the product is), special features (lists of bonus features, for example with DVDs), and editorial reviews, if they exist. One of the minor problematic aspects of Barnes & is that for those who have not used it the alternate versions of video media may be harder to find. So, for example, each title has its own listing, but alternate forms of the same title are found through the details page on the product page which comes up first. So, for a DVD that has two different versions plus a Blu-Ray available, going to the listing that comes up from the search results would usually be for the least expensive (say, one-disc) version. Underneath the title there will be a hyperlink text field for other options, like "This title is also available on: (linked) 2-Disc Special Edition, (also linked) Blu-Ray."

Why do I so enthusiastically recommend Barnes & It's simple: in addition to having an amazing selection, the prices are very competitive, especially for Barnes & Noble Members. The program, which unfortunately one has to pay to join, always entitles shoppers to an additional 10% off merchandise. For me, that basically eats the sales tax, but I am happy to save any amount of money. The reason I purchase so much via Barnes & is because the prices are so much better in the store. Take, for example, the hardcover graphic novel Lost Girls (reviewed here!) which bears a $70 cover price in stores. On-line, at Barnes &, it is $32.99 before shipping (or, at least, it was when I picked it up there, it is currently back up to $50 - before discounts - for a new, mint, unopened copy).

The thing is, Barnes & Noble has frequent promotions which offer things like free shipping on all orders over $25. As a result, a big, heavy, expensive book like Lost Girls (or your college text books!) can be less expensive and shipped for free. One of the little, esoteric quirks I've noticed about Barnes &, though, is that frequently even if I click "ship all items together" in the check-out, when I order three or more items, oftentimes two will be shipped and the third will arrive in a second package. While this is baffling, I have never been charged for the weird shipping practices of Barnes &

Check-out through Barnes & is simple with a shopping cart interface which is as easy as clicking buttons (after one has established their account). Shipping usually occurs within twenty-four hours and Barnes & e-mails an update to users as to the status of their order. More often than not, my e-mail alerts come after the product has been en route for a day, but I'm not obsessive about that sort of thing.

Barnes & remains a favorite place for me to shop, because I tend to spend more than $250 at Barnes & Noble and on-line at Barnes &, which easily justifies the expense of the Member card which entitles me to some pretty hefty discounts and deals at various times of the year!


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

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The Final Outing Of Star Trek: The Animated Adventures Is Typically Poor With "Volume 11!"

The Good: Use of mythology for one episode
The Bad: Terrible animation, Vocal presentations are mediocre, Lack of scientific basis makes one a children's story!
The Basics: Kirk is abducted by a Mayan/Aztec god and Spock watches as the crew gets significantly younger in this volume of the Animated Series!

I know there are those who might like the Star Trek: The Animated Series. I tend not to be one of them. At times, it is the natural successor to Star Trek, presenting adult storylines as best as can be crammed into half an hour, the remainder of the time, it is the most disappointing of children's programming relying on the silliest standards and obvious plot devices that only a child would find fresh and new. In other words, at times, this series is Star Trek and the rest of the time, it is something far worse. And the result is quite disappointing.

With the "Volume 11" VHS of the Star Trek: The Animated Series, the series concludes and it goes out on a downbeat with "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" and "The Counter-Clock Incident" the viewer is subjected to one of the most dismal pairings of episodes on the volumes of the series. "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" is cerebral and a strangely complex remixing of "The Cage" (reviewed here!) and "Who Mourns For Adonais?" (reviewed here!). "The Counter-Clock Incident" finds the crews de-aging in a story that is pure children's fare. The result of watching this final pairing of episodes is a viewing experience that will leave neither children nor adults truly satisfied.

"How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" finds the Enterprise following an alien probe which leads it to an immense alien ship. Trapped by the huge ship, the Enterprise is hailed by a hologram of the Mayan/Aztec god Kukulkan, which suddenly abducts Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and the ethnically convenient Ensign Walking Bear. Trapped in a menagerie of life forms Kukulkan has saved, the quartet struggles to get released, despite the god's benevolent intentions.

"The Counter-Clock Incident" finds the Enterprise transporting Robert April and his wife, two dignitaries headed toward a retirement colony. April, as it turns out, is the first and original captain of the Enterprise, preceding Captain Pike. While aboard, the crew begins to de-age, quickly becoming children. As the crew becomes incapacitated, Robert April becomes the only hope for the ship and its crew!

First the positive: "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" has a strong sense of mythology and a relatively clever gimmick for presenting the Mayan-Aztec god. The episode is mostly about understanding human heritage and the value of all of the different peoples of the Earth. The episode promotes the lessons of working together and growth through understanding of history. With "The Counter-Clock Incident," children - because the episode is clearly intended for a younger audience - are implored to treat elders with respect and so see the value of the contributions of the elder generation.

Beyond that, though, the episodes fall down. And hard. "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" is heavily plot-driven and there is no genuine character development in it. Moreover, it seems like a lesson more than an actual episode of the series as there is a great deal of exposition needed to explain the circumstances and backstory.

And far worse than that is "The Counter-Clock Incident." That episode is all about a gimmick, a condition where the crew begins to shrink into children. There is no scientific or pseudo scientific explanation of the phenomenon and as a result, it is wiped away as a children's cartoon conceit. This is much like the fact that the episode should be wiped away from memory!

The problem with "The Counter-Clock Incident" is that it is a kid's cartoons more than they are an animated reimagining of Star Trek. For a series that promised sophisticated stories and character development for adults, Star Trek: The Animated Series here degenerates into pretty standard Saturday morning cartoon fare. That is a huge disappointment, especially in comparison to the educated and vaguely adult "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth;" "The Counter-Clock Incident" seems largely silly and childish.

The animation in Star Trek: The Animated Series is pretty terrible and on the videos, it is not cleaned up like it was for the DVD versions. Even on DVD, the animation is choppy and rather generic. Backgrounds are looped in both episodes. The only genuine benefit of the animation comes in the creature design and ability to do some actual starship maneuvering, which were not possible in Star Trek. "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" makes use of this with the Enterprise encountering the zooship of Kukulan, though the animation is still pretty primitive looking. In "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth," there are also several creatures visible in the zooship.

The thing is, many of those creatures could have been very easy to pull off in a live-action series, at least as they are imagined and presented in "How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth." As well, the de-aged crew of the Enterprise could easily been performed in a live-action episode using the talents of child actors. I suppose the episode was easier in this regard utilizing the animation, despite how silly it looks with the kids with their big black dot eyes.

Neither episode involves genuine character development. The episodes do not enhance or progress Kirk, Spock, McCoy or any of the supplemental characters' character. Indeed, there is never a moment that the viewer doubts Kirk and the others will escape from the alien ship and Robert April becomes the essential character in "The Counter-Clock Incident" In fact, far from developing, Kirk lets another rescue the Enterprise!

The voice acting in these episodes is homogeneously unremarkable. The actors give performances that sometimes feel like straightforward line readings and it is odd to see the minimally expressive animation with the more expressive vocals when they are. Even James Doohan, who voices many of the supporting guest roles, gives a surprisingly inexpressive performance and the result is a bland characterization of the various aliens. Between the blockish animation, the dull voice-overs, the recycled plots and the minimal growth of character, these episodes truly are unremarkable.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Animated Series on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the complete collection here!

"How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" - 2.5/10
"The Counter-Clock Incident" - .5/10
VHS - 1/10

Check out how these episodes stack up against the others and get direct links to the other episode reviews by visiting the index page here!

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

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