Thursday, February 28, 2013

February 2013 End Of The Month Report!

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WOW! Shortest month of the year . . . BEST. MONTH. EVER!

This month at W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe, we broke even more records than last month! For the first time, one of the End Of The Month Reports had a real presence . . . the January End Of The Month Report barely missed being in the Top 10 for the month! There were multiple additions to the Top Ten Of All Time and our #1 rose by several thousand hits! February became the blog's most trafficked month by more than fifteen thousand hits, which is saying something because last month was such a huge leap over the prior months! Once again, big movie releases were what intrigued our readers most, though Oscar nominees accounted for many of the most-hit reviews of the month! This month, we put special emphasis on music reviews, in addition to the new cinematic releases! Thanks for all the "likes" for those posts!

We are always trying to get people to become regular readers and subscribe, so if you enjoy what you're reading, please subscribe by clicking on the right side of the blog to get updates with each posting. As well, if you read a review that really affects you, be sure to "share" it! PLEASE share a link to the blog, not the content of the article; this keeps people coming to the site and, hopefully, liking what they find once they are here! We're really looking to grow our readership in this new year, so sharing and subscribing to the blog is an important way you can help! If you’re subscribing, please tell your friends about the blog!

In February, we were able to keep the Index Pages up and updated almost the entire month, keeping it a very dynamic website. The primary Index Page, which is now updated daily, lets you know what the featured review is and has an up-to-the-day tally of how many reviews have been reviewed in each category! Check it out!

If you enjoy the reviews, please consider clicking on the links in the reviews and purchasing items. We really appreciate all the purchases made through the blog as that keeps us going. Thank you so much! By purchasing items through the links on the blog, you sponsor my ability to continue reviewing. Thank you so much for that support!

At the end of February, I have reviewed the following:
438 - Book Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Star Trek Books
Graphic Novels
750 - Music (Album and Singles) Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Music Reviews By Rating (Best To Worst)
Music Reviews In Alphabetical Order
2169 - Movie and Television Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Movies By Rating (Best Movie to Worst)
Movies In Alphabetical Order
Best Picture Oscar Winner Film Reviews
Television Reviews
The Star Trek Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews In Order)!
The Star Trek Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews From The Best Of The Franchise To The Worst!)!
180 - Trading and Gaming Card Reviews
Gaming Cards Reviews
Star Trek Gaming Cards Reviews
Star Wars Gaming Cards Reviews
The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game Reviews
Other Gaming Cards Reviews
Trading Cards Reviews
636 - Toy and Christmas Ornament Reviews
with specialized pages for:
Ornament Reviews
Star Trek Toys
Star Wars Toys
Lord Of The Rings Toys
Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel Toys
Comic Book, Movie, Television Toys
Plush and Other Toys
644 - Food, Drink, And Restaurant Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Cheese and Meats
Ice Cream
Other Food
178 - Pet Product Reviews
Cat Product Reviews
Dog Product Reviews
Rabbit Product Reviews
107 - Travel Reviews
Destinations Reviews
Hotels Reviews
139 - Health And Beauty Product Reviews
145 - Home, Garden, Appliance and Tool Reviews
86 - Electronics, Computers, Computer Games and Software Reviews
25 - Other Product Reviews

The Featured Review Of The Month for February is: House Of Cards - Season 1!
Check it out!

The month of February saw some serious staying power and growth of some prior popular reviews as well as the predictable popularity of new theatrical releases. For February, the Top Ten Reviews of the month were:
10. Superman
9. Les Miserables
8. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
7. Silver Linings Playbook
6. 21 And Over
5. Warm Bodies
4. Jack The Giant Slayer
3. Oz The Great And Powerful
2. Safe Haven
1. Beautiful Creatures

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

For my reviews, the current count is:
10s - 272 reviews
9s - 391 reviews
8s - 694 reviews
7s - 775 reviews
6s - 693 reviews
5s - 920 reviews
4s - 647 reviews
3s - 525 reviews
2s - 232 reviews
1s - 157 reviews
0s - 79 reviews
No rating - 38 articles/postings

There was more movement in this month than almost any other since the blog started, and at the end of February, the most popular reviews/articles I have written are:
10. The Avengers
9. The Hunger Games
8. Jack The Giant Slayer
7. Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday
6. Won't Back Down
5. Prometheus
4. Oz The Great And Powerful
3. Beautiful Creatures
2. Safe Haven
1. Warm Bodies

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

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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A Modest Proposal For High 5 Casino: What The Online Casino Needs To Do To Grow!

The Basics: High 5 Casino currently has two issues which are likely to inhibit long-term growth going forward; adapting now may continue to allow the Facebook casino to continue to expand effectively!

As a fan of online casinos, at least the Facebook variety, it does not surprise me at all that High 5 Casino on Facebook is celebrating being the fastest growing Facebook casino for last year. High 5 Casino on Facebook uses IGT video slot machines, like the ones actually found in real casinos (and there seems to be a reciprocal agreement, as many of those physical machines now are imprinted with High 5 Games next to the IGT logo!). While I have postulated that expanding their video slot machines on Facebook might be detrimental to IGT (that article is here!), High 5 Casino on Facebook is growing larger for a reason. Having familiar games online is a huge boon for the platform, but even with being named the fastest growing platform for video slot machines on Facebook, High 5 is not the largest platform by any means. More importantly, there are a few challenges to High 5 Casino’s growth going forward.

The two main issues High 5 Casino has going forward are the platform’s fidelity to the original game structure and the mechanic for unlocking games for high level players.

IGT Games on High 5 Casino on Facebook look and feel exactly like the games one finds in casinos. That means that virtually every game features a “Max Bet” button. The “Max Bet” button raises one’s bet to the highest rate one can bet based on their current bank and player/game level. On High 5 Casino, the more one plays a game, the higher their game level goes and the higher their player level rises. Higher player and game levels allow one to bet more. The “Max Bet” button is a great asset for the “high rollers” in casinos, but it is a severe liability to players at an online casino.

I have long postulated that one of the strengths and weaknesses of Facebook casinos (and other on-line casinos where they act essentially like video games) is that because there is no money that comes out of the game, the element of greed that is usually associated with gambling is effectively eliminated. Online casinos do not have the same draw for compulsives that appeals to the longshot hope of gamblers for “winning it big.” Because there is no chance for that, the element of greed that fuels riskier gambling behaviors is far less likely to occur. Because the “Max Bet” button appeals to those who follow a riskier betting strategy and that type of strategy is less likely to occur on games where players spend money, but cannot win any, its legitimate use is pointless or problematic.

The problematic aspect of the “Max Bet” button comes from the fact that many of the IGT/High 5 games have a link for accessing the pay tables or rules right above the “Max Bet” button. Clicking on that text link can easily lead one to accidentally hit the “Max Bet” button and cause players to lose large sums of coins. This is an issue as players may spend real money on coins, but lose them through a mis-click while trying to learn about the game they are playing or want to play.

Fortunately, there is a very simple solution that could help eliminate any issues with the “Max Bet” button and High 5 could easily implement it because the coding is already in the platform. High 5 Casino should create a pop-up that prevents the “Max Bet” button from being hit inadvertently. When one hits the “Max Bet” button, there should be a pop-up that says “Are you sure?” and requires a confirmation click. This is exactly what happens when one tries to spin, but their credits are too low to meet the bet one has made (one is given the option to play or buy more chips). High 5 Casino could easily replicate that pop-up programming to create a confirmation for those who hit the “Max Bet” button and they should. This would help preserve the funds of players, allowing them to play more and enjoy their play experience without risk of catastrophic losses from a mistaken click to the “Max Bet” button when one intends to simply hit “Spin” or “Rules/Payout Amounts.” Those who find such things suspicious might argue that the only reason to keep fidelity to the original game is that High 5 wants players to lose large amounts of coins in order to compel players to buy more to play with. That somewhat jaded view would be analogous to an arcade owner who continually knocks off the power on the machine one is playing after players put in their money. While there is no evidence that High 5 has such disregard for their players that way, not having a safety to prevent catastrophic loss is either irresponsible or not player-friendly. Rectifying that can only help the platform grow.

The much more serious issue comes from how players get new games on the High 5 Casino Facebook Platform. Unlike most other video slot machine platforms on Facebook, players do not simply unlock new games by playing more and “leveling up.” Instead, High 5 has a random slot machine game that unlocks new games when one gets three like symbols for each game. One gets three free spins every four hours and each time one levels up on a game, they earn spins on the High 5 game slot machine. Leveling up on games becomes harder and harder the higher one’s game and player level is. This mechanic actually undermines the longterm viability of the platform for High 5 Casino. Here is how: at higher levels, the proportion of new games to already unlocked games is exceptionally small. Right now, High 5 Casino has twelve games, the latest of which was unlocked earlier this week.

For those who are loyal players and consistently play High 5 Casino games – especially those who pay money for the game – it can be exceptionally difficult to unlock new games. One can cycle through a hundred thousand coins before they level up on a game when they are at the higher levels. Going through so many coins to get a single spin on the High 5 Casino Slot, which only gives one a chance at unlocking a new game – and the odds are not 1:12, each reel on the game has (currently) 20 symbols and that number will only continue to go up as new games are released. Each reel has a 2:20 chance of unlocking a new game (Wilds in conjunction with the game symbol can unlock a new game), which means the odds of unlocking a new game right now are 6 in 8000. The more games that are released, the worse that proportion will get. Unless something changes, it will always be 6 into an ever increasing number.

High 5 need to change that in order to continue to grow. As it stands, High 5 Casino’s mechanic actually punishes those who play a lot and spend money to get more coins and achieve higher levels. Because the element of greed is eliminated, the playing experience is what brings players back to online casinos. If the slots are too tight so players cannot see bonus games on their games or see only diminishing coin balances, there are so many other platforms for players to play on, they will abandon the platform they began on and move to another. High 5 Casino is not immune to the potential of such abandonment; it is not the only platform that uses IGT games on Facebook.

In order to keep players enticed and keep the platform growing, High 5 Casino needs to alter how new games are unlocked for higher level players. Otherwise, it will not be long before the most loyal players to High 5 realize exactly how the platform is exhibiting a law of diminishing returns. Given that video slots have no return, High 5 cannot afford – in the long run – to diminish the playing experience of those who support it most.

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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These Friends Of Mine Makes For Remarkably Average Television And A Strikingly Average DVD.

The Good: The humor of Ellen DeGeneres
The Bad: Mediocre acting, Light on character development, Pretty standard sitcom, Lousy DVD extras
The Basics: Funny, but not exceptional, the average sitcom embodied by These Friends Of Mine (the first season of Ellen) is dragged down by only having one real DVD extra.

I have long been a fan of Ellen DeGeneres. Long before she came out of the closet and even before she had her own television shows, I would watch clips of her and her various specials on the early Comedy Central and marvel at her clever mind and wonderful wit. I loved her nonsequitors and style and I disturbed a friend of mine while reading her book My Point . . . And I Do Have One aloud by getting DeGeneres's cadence and timing down with what I am told was eerie accuracy. If I watched daytime television, I would almost certainly make it a priority to watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show. As it is, there are only so many hours in the day and when I had the opportunity to pick up Ellen - The Complete First Season on DVD, I leapt on it. I had been a fan of Ellen, though I had not seen much from the first season.

In its first season, the show was actually These Friends Of Mine and the series was retooled at the end of the first season such that very little survived the rework and much of the show was altered. This boxed set includes all thirteen episodes of These Friends Of Mine, including the two episodes that were held into the third season of Ellen which are included in this boxed set as "bonus" episodes. Sadly, this season is not up to the standards of the seasons that follow it and we'll explore why.

Ellen Morgan is working at the bookstore "Buy The Book" where she rambles through her day with explanations and monologues to her friends that are loaded with humor. She often finds herself in weird situations exacerbated by her own awkwardness, like her desire to have a decent photograph on her driver's license in the pilot. Ellen and her friends get into various comedic situations that illustrate their friendship or tolerance of Ellen. These circumstances include such things as Ellen testing her call waiting, her friend Holly stuffing her bra and getting a date as a result, Ellen and her friends answering personal ads for dates, going to a high school reunion, trying to get a promotion, Ellen dating a younger guy and hunting for the perfect refrigerator.

These are all pretty standard sitcom plots and the disappointing aspect of These Friends Of Mine is that the plots feel pretty standard. Take, for example, the episode "The Class Reunion." In this episode, Ellen goes to her class reunion and finds that in the fifteen years since graduating high school she has done the least of all her classmates. So, she asks Adam to pretend he is married to her and she pretends she is a cardiologist. This works out fine until her old high school crush arrives hoping to connect with Ellen but believes she is unavailable. Well, there's a plot that seems like it came straight from the situational comedy standards book. Even when watching the episode it feels that way.

The problem with These Friends Of Mine fundamentally is that the only thing that makes the show bearable and watchable is Ellen DeGeneres when she is doing her schtick. She reuses some of her standup lines in her stories she tells when she is digressing, but it works. It works to provide humor to an otherwise very common and dull viewing experience. Ellen is retooled because These Friends Of Mine did not quite work; the show focused quite closely on Ellen and not her friends. Indeed, in this debut season, the friends are not noteworthy or even all that interesting, making it hard to work with them.

The show tries to be about characters and here are the principle characters from the first season:

Ellen Morgan - A worker at Buy The Book and friend of Holly and Anita. She has a friend she does not like named Audrey and works with Joe. She has a roommate named Adam who is arguably her best friend. She rambles a lot in conversations bringing up loosely related points of conversation to wherever she began. She is physically awkward and often goofy, which leads her to have trouble finding or keeping a boyfriend. She is both very particular and very peculiar and wants - at the end of the day - for people to like her,

Holly - Ellen's shy friend whose high point is teaming up with Anita to try to sell some Mexican art,

Anita - Ellen and Holly's friend who works in a department store and is barely in even this season,

Audrey - Ellen's annoying friend who is increasingly negative. She is disaffected by almost everyone and everything and she expresses that negativity with a strange perkiness about disliking everything. This leads her and Ellen to often not see eye to eye and for Ellen to look for ways to avoid having her around,

Joe - The coffee guy at Buy The Book. He works with Ellen and is cynical and low-key, often expressing dissatisfaction for the way things are with dry irony,

and Adam Green - Ellen's roommate. He is a photographer who has a brutal love life that constantly ends up with him being alone. He has pretty low self confidence with women as a result and has a decent platonic friendship with Ellen and the two often find themselves leaning on one another.

The problem with These Friends Of Mine is that Ellen often ends up going into her trademark monologues when talking to Holly and/or Anita, which does not allow either one to truly get a word in and develop themselves as real characters. Instead, they become sounding boards for Ellen DeGeneres's humor and it's pretty easy to see why they did not last. Interestingly, the only significant DVD bonus feature is a commentary track on the first episode that features Holly Fulger (Holly) and Arye Gross (Adam), the former was written out after these thirteen episodes. "Written out" is not quite right; dropped like a sack of bricks would be more accurate.

The commentary track is mildly insightful, but not the best selling point to picking up this set. Indeed, the only reason to pick up These Friends Of Mine would be because one absolutely loves Ellen DeGeneres and her work. I fall into that category, but even that is not enough for me to keep this boxed set in my permanent collection.

That said, in addition to the mere presence of Ellen DeGeneres, and her performance as Ellen Morgan, there are some redeeming factors to Ellen - The Complete First Season on DVD. I was quite amused to see a younger Peter Krause of Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) fame in "The Hand That Robs The Cradle," one of the better episodes of the season. I liked Krause on Cybil and it's always fun to see some of his earlier work.

And when reviewing this DVD set so soon after watching and reviewing the first season of The Practice (reviewed here!), I was delighted to see Arye Gross (who played a rabbi in several of the early episodes of The Practice!) in such a different role as the lovelorn Adam. Gross is actually very funny and completely empathetic as Adam, which is not the easiest role to pull off when being paired with Ellen DeGeneres, who is a master of comedy. Gross manages to hold his own with a more subtle humor and the ability to play the straightman well.

Ultimately, Ellen DeGeneres falls down some on her own show. The reason for this is the character of Ellen Morgan does not require her to act so much as simply physically perform comedy and limit the duration of her standup routines thinly disguised as dialogue. Is she funny? Absolutely. Almost 100%, she's on and she's funny in These Friends Of Mine. But she's not acting.

Given how much the show rests on her and how standard too many of the plots are (though the dialogue is often wittier and funnier than the plots), the show just doesn't pop the way it ought to. The good news is, there are seasons after this one and they are much funnier and work much better.

For other first seasons of sitcoms, please check out my reviews of:
Cheers - Season 1
Friends - Season 1
Family Guy - The Complete First Season


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

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Forgettable Chopin - Vladimir Ashkenazy Plays Waltzes & Nocturnes

The Good: One or two decent bits of music, Duration
The Bad: Poor mix, Lack of emotional resonance, Narcoleptic Nocturnes
The Basics: Frederic Chopin's Waltzes & Nocturnes are played universally slow and sad by pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, evoking little emotional reaction and summoning sleep, even from the well-rested!

I hate writing reviews of classical c.d.s. I hate doing this not because I don't love classical music, but rather because I am a layperson, not a professional classical music expert or connoisseur. Which means, my reviews tend to do their best to describe the music and then declare whether or not I actually enjoyed the music. But as far as a universal standard of quality, I'm not it. One of my favorite Mussorgsky albums (reviewed here!) gets a lot of play around my house and in the car, but when my mother heard it a few weeks ago, she just crewed up her face and said "This is terrible!" I said, "I like Mussorgsky," to which she responded, "So do I, but this recording is doing nothing for me!"

With that in mind, Waltzes & Nocturnes is by no means the first Chopin work I have reviewed. Once upon a time, I timidly reviewed a collection of Nocturnes (reviewed here!) and I found I did not enjoy them. Because I have heard a great deal about how Chopin's Nocturnes are important and some of his best works, I've been eager to find some that I enjoy.

This album was not it. With seventeen tracks (ten waltzes, seven nocturnes) clocking in at almost sixty-eight minutes, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy presents a bunch of songs that ultimately have a narcoleptic effect and feel to them. This is music to put oneself asleep to.

One of the reasons I - and I suspect many others - cringe away from Classical music reviews is because there are no lyrics. In the case of Waltzes & Nocturnes, the music is solely one man at one piano and without words to critique in combination with music, the big questions are; what does it sound like and what effect did it have on you? Both of these are highly subjective and not terribly useful. Striving for that "very helpful" is hard with so little to work with.

I write "so little to work with" because composer Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849) gives the listener so little to work with. Musically, there are things that may be mentioned ("Waltz E minor, op. posth." includes a number of going up and down the higher ranges of the scale and sounds is composed of fast movements, so it seems like it must be hard to play), but for the subjective experience of what it means, the composer is of no help whatsoever. The titles to the pieces describe them to the classical music aficionados, not to the common person. With titles like "[Nocturne] E flat major, op. 9 no. 2" and "[Waltz] A minor, op.34 no.2" the listener is left with no reference point and it's both annoying and snobbish. It's the auditory equivalent to a painting entitled "Oil Painting, White Canvas, 96% Yellow Ocre, 4% Cadmium Yellow." Yes, it tells us what it is, but it does not tell us what it IS. It's enough to make me wish I were a time traveler, working at a cafe and when Chopin walked in I offered him "83% H2O, 7% Citric Acid, 10% Vitamins C, D, E and B12." Should he look at me funny, I would be able to declare, "Now you know what it feels like, you pompous ass!"

I write this not because I lack the imagination to feel what these piano numbers might make me feel or because I am somehow deficient in the research skills to find out what all these chords and numbers mean, but because the titles do not say anything! Even if I knew all of the code, it would still be a list of the composition. When I was in college, there was a research paper I wrote on Anton Chekov's The Ant that I remember to this day. I spent time and effort researching the comparisons in Chekov's story to a fable and I churned out the required five pages with the (admittedly lame) thesis "Chekov's The Ant Is a Metaphorical Recreation of The Ant" (I think it was probably Aesop). I was heartbroken when I received the paper back with a C- and the t.a. who graded it, when I tried to contest that my analysis was flawless, simply said, "Chekov gives you that with the title. What does it MEAN?" Chopin's names are the same by analogy. Fine, he's created a Waltz that uses the chords in B minor with op.69 (and I'm assuming the no. 2 means it's the second one he's done in this specific combination) (track 6), what does that mean?

Which leaves the listener to define completely what it means to them. Part of the reason I belabor this point so much is that the music did not mean all that much to me. My favorite classical album thus far, Chopin's Greatest Hits (reviewed here!) inspired any number of images and thoughts to pop into my mind. After ten listens to this disc, only two tracks were distinctive enough to stand out.

Track ten, the "Waltz E minor, op. posth." is a fast-moving piece that - while it is never loud - soars up and down the scales, evoking a sense of ascent and descent that is free of labor, effortless, but still somehow important. The other track, "Nocturne C sharp minor, op. 27 no. 2" (track 13) has some of the same elements. There is a strong sense of movement and Vladimir Ashkenazy keeps the pace fast and the sound as rich as it can be considering he is one man at a piano and all of the music is in the upper registers.

Lacking in these pieces are range that I've heard in other works by Chopin. Indeed, these pieces are relegated to the higher keys of the piano and while the two tracks listed above have some speed to them, most do not. In fact, most are quiet, ponderous and inspiring less of the imagination than sleep. Usually when I think of waltzes, I think somewhat faster classical pieces, though several of Chopin's waltzes - at least as performed by Ashkenazy on the first half of this disc are remarkably slow.

I would not recommend this disc for a quiet dinner or romantic evening, it is hardly mood music as it does not engage the listener and inspire imaginations of anything. Instead, it recommends itself well to sleep. Insomniac? Try this!

For those who understand the codes, here is a track listing, though from an objective standpoint, most of these tracks sound alike: they are slow and high. Ashkenazy plays:
(Waltzes) E flat major 'Grande valse brillante,' op. 18
A minor, op.34 no.2
F major, op.34 no.3
A flat major, op42
A flat major, op.69 no.1 [These prior three tracks blend together for one nine minute bit of auditory goo]
B minor, op.69 no.2
G flat major, op.70 no.1
F minor, op.70 no.2
D flat major, op.70 no.3
E minor, op. posth.
(Nocturnes) E flat major, op.9 no.2
F sharp major, op.15 no.2
C sharp minor, op.27 no.1
D flat major, op. 27 no.2
B major, op.32 no.1
A flat major, op.32 no.2
G major, op.37 no.2

While I anticipated, from earlier experiences with Chopin nocturnes, the nocturnes to be slow and sleepy, I did not anticipate the waltzes being that way. Ashkenazy plays the entire album with a largely sleepy, slow and draining affect to the music. While he might well be playing fine, the music is a terrible mix, homogenous and sleepy (not depressing but evoking sleep from the listener). My only note here is that I've slept very well the previous nights, so there's no earthly reason I should fall asleep to this disc, save that that is the reaction it evokes.

The best track is "Waltz E minor, op. posth." I was not fond of the very tiresome (and tiring) "Nocturne D flat major, op.27 no.2."

For other Classical music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Pini Di Roma - Respighi, Eugene Ormandy
The Masterpieces Collection: Grieg Volume 4
Metamorphoseon - Ottorino Respighi


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

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Voyager’s Crew Begins To Disembark In “Homestead!”

The Good: Interesting character moment, Decent-enough acting
The Bad: Light on plot developments
The Basics: Neelix is thrilled to encounter Talaxians who have established a colony in an asteroid belt, causing him a personal quandary in “Homestead.”

I recall being on the road in the early 2000s on the convention circuit as a dealer and I did a slew of conventions with Robert Picardo and Ethan Philips. Sometimes, at the smaller shows, I was the only dealer outside the convention promoter in the room! So, I got to hear Robert Picardo and Ethan Philips speak at length frequently about their experiences on Star Trek: Voyager. I recall Ethan Philips saying very vociferously that he was never getting into the Neelix make-up ever again. I told a friend of mine that and he shrugged it off and suggested that Philips was probably just angling for a raise should they ever request he appear in one of the Star Trek films. Seeing “Homestead,” though, it is hard to see how Neelix would be integrated into any such future film.

“Homestead” continues the trend begun in “Imperfection” (reviewed here!), which saw the departure of the Borg children. This time, though, Voyager sees a more significant crewmember disembarking the ship for good and it is a bittersweet departure, but not a tragic one.

While celebrating First Contact Day on Voyager (a holiday Neelix and Naomi Wildman have invented), Chakotay detects lifesigns on a nearby asteroid. The lifesigns are Talaxian and finding Talaxians so far from home surprises them all. Neelix eagerly joins Tuvok and Paris on the Delta Flyer to go investigate the asteroid, but the small ship is shot down by mining charges from another race. Inside the asteroid, Neelix is rescued by the Talaxian colonists, but is segregated from the other two. While Janeway communicates with the race that is mining the asteroid field, Neelix meets with the young son of one of the Talaxians, Brax.

Brax reminds Neelix of himself at a young age and he tries to keep the boy from getting into trouble with his mother, Dexa, whom he is attracted to. Neelix quickly becomes embroiled in the conflict between the Talaxian colonists and the miners and he helps them take a stand against the miners, who are evicting the Talaxians from their asteroid colony. In standing with the Talaxians, Neelix begins to feel a kinship for his people that tugs at him to stay with the Talaxian colony.

Neelix is a character who had an interesting amount of potential at the outset of Star Trek: Voyager, but the writers lost focus with for a large part of the series. In the third season, Neelix lost his initial ship function in “Fair Trade” (reviewed here!) and he became an “Ambassador” for Voyager, which was a role he erratically served in. More often than not, he was simply a babysitter for Naomi Wildman and the ship’s cook. Even so, there were several episodes of the series which used Neelix to present a deeper theme and really stretched Ethan Philips as an actor. Those anomalous episodes presented a very human side of Neelix, but did not so much utilize the character in a way that illustrated his function on the ship.

“Homestead” explores Neelix as a Talaxian and gives the characters on Voyager a chance to show their appreciation for the role he has played up until now and it redirects the character in a way that is surprisingly satisfying. The character conflict in “Homestead” is primarily an internal conflict for a character who is far from home and who gets the chance to be among his people. There is a romantic subplot which is developed as well as one can in a single forty-three minute episode.

Ethan Philips and guest star Julianne Christie (Dexa) have decent on-screen chemistry and their relationship in the episode is presented as plausible enough. Christie is able to emote quite a bit beneath her make-up and that sells the brief relationship her character and Philips’s have. But the real moment of chemistry and acting prowess comes in a brief scene between Tuvok and Neelix. In that scene, Tim Russ presents Tuvok in a way that clearly illustrates his character cares about Neelix. Knowing how little Russ and Philips actually enjoyed each other on-set, that Russ could portray a soft spot for Neelix, the moment that is essentially their “good-bye” is very satisfying for fans of the series.

“Homestead” is a good episode for the fans, but it is not an episode where much happens at all. Instead, it is a chance for the fans to have an emotionally satisfying sense of closure for one of the more likable, but unnecessary characters for the final arc of the show. Very little happens in “Homestead,” save Neelix rising to become the soldier he never was on Tellax the write-off of the character is good, but not extraordinary, and it is virtually meaningless to anyone who is not already invested in the character of Neelix and his journey on Star Trek: Voyager.

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

For other works with Rob LaBelle, please visit my reviews of:
Hot Tub Time Machine
“Mr. Monk And The Candidate” - Monk
“False Profits” - Star Trek: Voyager
“Faces” - Star Trek: Voyager


For other Star Trek episode and movie reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Other Than The Under-The-Helmet Details, The Star Wars Vintage Collection Stormtrooper Is Perfect!

The Good: Good coloring detail, Good accessories, Wonderful articulation, Excellent balance!
The Bad: Lacks great facial detailing
The Basics: The Vintage Collection Stormtrooper action figure is wonderful, despite how he looks underneath his helmet!

When it comes to Star Wars action figures, it is virtually impossible to go wrong with Stormtroopers. The Star Wars Vintage Collection Stormtroopers are easily one of the best. In fact, my only issue with this toy is that underneath the helmet is a slightly smaller than normal head that lacks the sculpting and coloring details that make the rest of the figure pretty awesome!

If you are unfamiliar with Stormtrooper, where the hell have you been?! The Stormtroopers are the standard soldiers of the Empire in A New Hope (reviewed here!). First seen blasting a hole in the Tantive IV, the Stormtroopers are the basic soldiers employed by the Empire.

The 4" Vintage Collection Stormtrooper is the latest rendition of the generic Imperial trooper.


The Vintage Collection Stormtrooper figure stands 3 3/4" tall to the top of his head and this is a standard sculpt of a Stormtrooper. However, Hasbro did an excellent job on the Stormtrooper in that the white plastic that defines the Stormtrooper’s armor has not yellowed at all, which was a severe problem that plagued Clone Troopers released at the same time as this figure.

On the sculpting front, the Stormtrooper made entirely of hard plastic and is the armored shock trooper of the Empire made inscrutable in its heavy white armor. The detailing on this iteration of the Stormtrooper is pretty incredible, though. The left knee has a molded on knee guard and the thin fingers are molded to perfectly hold the blaster this character comes with. The figure has a removable helmet that has a standard Clone Trooper head underneath.

As for the coloring detail, the Stormtrooper is so basic that it was impossible to screw up. The white of the armor is pristine and clean and the blacks at the joints contrast that in a lovely way. The only other coloring details are highlights; little vents on the helmet. This Stormtrooper is appropriately colored for a position on an Imperial ship.


The Stormtrooper is a powerful military presence for the Empire and as such, he requires three accessories: his blaster rifle and his blaster. The blaster rifle the Stormtrooper comes with is arguably the most detailed one that Hasbro has yet produced. Molded with exceptional details for the scopes, battery and trigger area, this 2 1/2" long weapon is cast in solid black plastic and looks badass in the Stormtrooper’s left hand (the left trigger finger is molded to perfectly fit into the trigger guard. You can fake a two handed grip with the Stormtrooper, though the right hand is not molded to quite cradle the barrel.

The blaster is a very standard 1 1/8” black plastic Imperial blaster that fits in either of the figure’s hands or in the holster on the figure’s belt. This is incredibly detailed for the sculpt, but the coloring is monotonal.


The four inch toy line was designed for play and Stormtrooper is exceptional in that regard, regardless of how he may not be able to hold his guns in a real two-handed grip. The Stormtrooper figure has great balance, not tipping over even when posed in some fairly outlandish positions. The figure does have holes in the bottom of his feet to allow him to stand tall on any number of playsets in outlandish poses or attach to pegs on vehicles.

This Stormtrooper also has amazing articulation. He has hinged ball and socket joints at the ankles, knees, groin socket, elbows and shoulders, as well as a ball and socket joint which allows for some range of motion for the head and torso. The wrists are the only point on the figure that have simple swivel joints! This is easily one of the best Imperial Stormtrooper figures ever made!


The Stormtrooper figure is part of the Vintage Collection line that was released in 2011 and, against all odds, it has managed to appreciate a little in value already. The Stormtrooper is Vintage Collection figure VC41 and is a fairly good investment figure, largely because fans are likely to want to stock up on this figure.


The Stormtrooper is an impressive rendition of the Imperial Stormtroopers as they appeared throughout the original Star Wars Trilogy.

For other Vintage Collection figures from A New Hope, please check out my reviews of:
VC14 Sandtrooper
VC53 Bom Vimdin
VC57 Dr. Evazan (Cantina Patron)
VC65 TIE Fighter Pilot
VC112 Sandtrooper


For other Star Wars toy reviews, please check out my Tow Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Even Subtle Christian Undertones Don't Spoil Cracked Rear View By Hootie And The Blowfish!

The Good: Good vocals, Decent lyrics, Fun instrumentals
The Bad: Short, A few weaker tracks/lines
The Basics: Simple and fun, Cracked Rear View reminds the listener just how fun lines about misery can truly be!

Some part of me fantasizes - occasionally - about having regular readers who follow my many reviews who might see me going through an artist's repertoire and when I near the end of it say, "I wonder who W.L. will get immersed in next?" After a few days of trudging through the works of Massive Attack, I was in the mood for something fun. So, I returned to my late high school and early college days and the music of Hootie and the Blowfish. It's about time I actually listened to some of their c.d.s. So, I started at the beginning with Cracked Rear View.

So, there are two observations I have right off the bat with Cracked Rear View: it still rocks in a light, fun, pop-rock way and how do we define "Christian rock?!" I ask this latter question because god and angels pop up on a number of tracks (sure, angels appear in the Old Testament, but it seems the Evangelicals and not so much the Jews run around talking about angels in their lives) and there are a number of popular Christian Rock artists who try to go mainstream by putting out singles that don't highlight their Christian Rock emphasis, but then stick that track on an album that is largely CR - LifeHouse, I'm looking at you! Yeah, if it wasn't for No Name Face (reviewed here!) I probably wouldn't be so sensitive about it. But Hootie And The Blowfish does seem to have a much more spiritual side to it. Perhaps, I'll just consider this "subtle Christian undertones" (in the words of Robot Chicken), shrug and accept that there is no real agenda to songs like "Running From An Angel" and "I'm Goin' Home." After all, it takes some serious staying power with a song to get me to sing (terrible voice!) yet when I began spinning Cracked Rear View, I was filled with a wholesome sense of happiness the moment "Hold My Hand" began. Good times, good times.

With only eleven (and a tiny bit more) tracks, clocking in at 46:45, Cracked Rear View made for a pretty impressive debut by Hootie And The Blowfish, a quartet of men from Columbia, South Carolina who rocked the pop-rock world in the mid-nineties with a very simple, direct, vocally-driven sound that resonated with virtually everyone who heard them. Cracked Rear View had four radio-played successful singles and made Darius Rucker a household name for a time. All four men are credited with the writing on the album, Rucker provides lead vocals and the members all play instruments. As well, supporting vocals are essential to songs like "Hannah Jane" and "Hold My Hand," so it's not like the group slouches just because Rucker takes lead vocals! The only creative aspect the band is not credited with on this album is in the production department. Still, it is hard to argue that this is not their musical vision.

And largely, it's a very successful, enjoyable musical vision for anyone who likes pop-rock. The songs are guitar, bass, drum tracks with deep vocals from Darius Rucker. Rucker sings clearly, often supported by the other band members with vocals that sound like well-practiced a cappella group with instruments (yes, I know a cappella is without instruments, but that level of synchronisity that an a cappella group has is often lacking from garage bands). Instrumentally, the songs tend to be simple pop-rock tunes with catchy tunes, memorable refrains and strategic crescendos.

Lyrically, Hootie And the Blowfish had all of the elements for a successful album with their largely feel-good lyrics. No, it's not that, because reading their lyrics, Cracked Rear View is a morbid collection of songs about young love torn apart by parents ("Look Away"), emotional manipulation ("Let Her Cry") and being ravaged by age ("Time"). There are songs about the destructive nature of racism ("Drowning") and losing love ("Goodbye"), so it's not that the lyrics are at all feel-good. But Hootie and the Blowfish make terrible themes and wrenching lines sound oh-so-good.

So, when we hear "Yesterday, I saw you standing there / Your head was down, your eyes were red / No comb had touched your hair / I said get up, and let me see you smile / We'll take a walk together / Walk the road awhile, 'cause / 'Cause I've got a hand for you / I've got a hand for you / 'Cause I wanna run with you / Won't you let me run with you? yeah / Hold my hand" ("Hold My Hand") we almost forget that the narrator never gets his satisfaction. "Hold My Hand" is one person crying out to let them rescue the other, but the other never responds. At the end of the song, the musical narrator is standing, hand outstretched waiting to support, but we never find out if the subject of that desire turns and takes the hand! Anyone with experience knows that you can love someone to death; it's nothing if they don't reciprocate or let you act upon it.

Even Hootie and the Blowfish know this! This is why they had a number one hit with "Let Her Cry!" It's impressive how such a wrenching song could be so successful, but one supposes the band received a royalty for every breakup that occurred in 1994 and 5. It's easy to see how the song has endured as it has with lines like "This morning I woke up alone / Found a note standing by the phone / Saying baby, maybe I'll be back someday / I wanted to look for you / You walked in I didn't know just what I should do / So I sat back down and had a beer and felt sorry for myself / Saying let her cry / If the tears fall down like rain / Let her sing / If it eases all her pain / Let her go " ("Let Her Cry"). Yes, it might be a whiny man's anthem, but hey, emotive men are cool and you always know what to buy them (handkerchiefs!). In all seriousness, Hootie and the Blowfish wrote a pretty timeless song for the current generation by speaking to something very necessary, with real articulation: the need to let go when a relationship is emotionally manipulative. Dang, if only I had listened closer before I first got married!

The reason the album holds up so well even now, though, is that the radio-friendly hit tracks are not the only decent ones. I was surprised by the power of "Goodbye." For all of the pop-rhymes and late-teen appeal sentiments, "Goodbye" is just wrenching as a poem: "Tomorrow used to be a day away / Now love is gone and you're into someone far away / I never thought the day would come / When I would see his hand not mine / Holding on to yours because I could not / Find the time / And now I can't deny / Nothing lasts forever / But I don't wanna leave and see the teardrops in your eyes / I don't wanna live to see the day we say goodbye." From the first time I heard that track, I was astonished by the power of this ballad which is raw and emotive and piano-driven in contrast to most of the other tracks.

Part of the reason songs like "Goodbye" work so well is that Darius Rucker can sing! He has a smooth, soulful voice that carries notes with real emotion and clearly articulates the poetry the whole band wrote.

Never has misery been more fun to listen to!

The best track is "Let Her Cry," the low point (which is not very low at all!) is the somewhat unmemorable "Look Away."

For other Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out my reviews of:
Working On A Dream - Bruce Springsteen
Forty Licks - The Rolling Stones
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie


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

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Flavorful Enough, But Pricey In The Packets, Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Crème Is Enjoyable!

The Good: Easy to prepare, Good scent, Tastes good.
The Bad: Poor environmentalism of the single serve packages, A bit pricey by the single-serve packets
The Basics: Hills Bros. has a flavorful winner with its Cappuccino Irish Creme flavored drink mix!

It is worth noting up front that while I enjoyed the Hills Bros. Irish Creme flavor instant cappuccino, I encountered it in its single serve packet form. From there, I found myself underwhelmed both by the environmentalism and expense of the packets. I understand that this product is available in canisters and in that form, I would certainly recommend it higher than the individual packets. But, for those for whom expense and environmental responsibility mean nothing, regardless of the form one finds the Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Crème, the company has produced a delightful and delicious beverage!


Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Creme instant coffee is part of Hills Bros.'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 is a powder that comes in a .95 oz. paper envelope for the single serving. The single serving packages come three to a box. The mix is very fine and I could not find it in bulk locally, though I understand it is available in that form.

The individual packets are environmentally irresponsible and proportionately exceptionally expensive.

Ease Of Preparation

Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Creme instant coffee mix is fairly simple to make. The single serving is one packet of dry mix, added to eight oz. of water. One does not need to measure out the product, but they need to mix this product. This is a very simple beverage to prepare.

After pouring the mix into a mug, simply pour boiling water 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 very light tan color to it; it is almost white it is so light.


The Irish Creme flavored instant coffee has an aroma to it that is delightfully spiced. While it does not smell at all like coffee, it smells very much like rum cake and cream, which might be the embodiment of the scent of Irish Crème!

The Irish Creme Cappuccino flavor is very sweet, with a creamy vanilla aftertaste. The cinnamon and vanilla flavor is instantly recognizable to the tastebuds as Irish Crème; it is a flavor which defines itself and from the first scent to the last sip, this beverage embodies that flavor wonderfully.

As the Irish Crème Cappuccino cools, the sweetness fades and the beverage takes on a much drier flavor. It is not at all unpleasant, but the coffee flavor asserts itself a little bit more when the drink is colder and the result is a drier beverage. The dry aftertaste dissipates within a minute, though.


Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Creme instant coffee is a coffee mix and therefore is mostly lacking in nutritional value. There are 120 calories in this drink, 45 of which come from fat. With 5 grams of fat (8% of one’s RDA), the Irish Creme Cappuccino gets all five grams from saturated fat, though it only has 105 mg of Sodium. The 19 grams of carbohydrates prevents this beverage from being appropriate for those doing low-carb diets and the gram of protein is not nutritionally significant. The only vitamins and minerals in this drink are 2% of the RDA of Calcium. This is a nutritionally underwhelming beverage.

Made primarily of sugar, creamer, and nonfat dry milk, the Irish Creme drink is not Vegan compliant, but is marked as Kosher. It contains milk and soy ingredients.


So long as one gets Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Creme instant coffee mix sealed, it ought to stay usable. Visiting my local supermarket, most of the packages of this instant coffee had an expiration date a year away. The box of Irish Creme I picked up in early December had an expiration date in February 11, 2014.

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 unlikely to stain if this gets on them, but consult your fabric care guide to clean it up if that occurs.


Hills Bros. Cappuccino Irish Creme is good and anyone who enjoys other brands’ Irish Crème instant cappuccino would do well to try Hills Bros., though they might want to go ahead and get the canister instead of the packets!

For other Instant Coffee drinks, please visit my reviews of:
Taster’s Choice French Roast
Nescafe Caramel Latte Memento
Starbuck’s VIA Columbia Coffee


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

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Oh The Cheese! Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure Is Truly Terrible!

The Good: Production values
The Bad: Plot, Acting, Characters, Many of the special effects
The Basics: In Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure, two human children end up among the Ewoks in an unsophisticated adventure to find their parents.

Lately, I have been taking some time to stretch my reviewing wings and revisiting some of the delights of my childhood in order to revisit things I might have once enjoyed. Watching Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure, I am utterly flabbergasted that I was ever so young! In fact, even for fans of the Star Wars films, it is impossible to recommend this television movie.

Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure combines the worst aspect of Return Of The Jedi - the Ewoks – with the always-problematic use of young child actors. Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure is a science fiction children’s movie that lacks a truly compelling story or memorable characters and is performed by adult actors in bear suits and child actors who probably should not be in the profession. And the stop-motion animation sequences are so cheesy as to be entirely laughable.

Two parents search for their missing children near a downed space ship on the forest moon of Endor when a giant creature comes out of the woods to menace them. Elsewhere on Endor, Wicket is left behind by his father when his father wants to go looking for his children using an Ewok glider. In the process, the Ewok children and father recover the human children Mace and Cindel. After helping Cindel get the medicine she needs in order to survive, the Ewoks befriend the two children.

The older child, Mace, takes his little sister away from the Ewok village and they are attacked by a giant animal. Rescued in the morning by Ewoks, Mace and Cindel get their first evidence that their parents are still alive when their father’s life monitor is found on the creature. Visiting Logray, the Ewok medicine man, they are directed toward the master of the beast and they go on a quest to find him and rescue their parents from the Gorax.

Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure is seriously hampered by a terribly unlikable protagonist. Much of the movie focuses on Mace, a child who looks like Luke Skywalker, but talks like Han Solo. He is an arrogant boy who is ready to take care of his younger sister when he realizes that their parents are still alive and he becomes determined to find them. The character is basically an arrogant jerk and his anger is never presented or explained in a compelling way. Actor Eric Walker alternately snarls or yells each and every one of his lines, making his character thoroughly unlikable.

The movie is fleshed out with pointless scenes of Ewok parents and children simply existing together without any real purpose within the film. As a children’s movie and a film that is packed with dialogue that is in the guttural Ewok language, there is narration that actually helps as it informs the viewer what is actually going on in several of the scenes. This narration is most useful during a ceremony the Ewoks perform before the caravan begins its dangerous journey which would otherwise be incomprehensible and pointless. As it is, it feels more like filler and the display of Ewok culture ultimately goes nowhere.

Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure features problems that are solved by the child Cindel (like her realizing that the magic trap Mace falls into at the pond can be solved with Wicket’s magical stick) and this only seems to reinforce the idea that Ewoks are only about as smart as children. But I suspect smart children will not be impressed by the terrible acting, lack of interesting characters and atrocious special effects utilized in Caravan Of Courage – An Ewok Adventure.

For other works in the Star Wars franchise, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Star Wars - Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
The Clone Wars
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Volume 1
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Volume 2
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars - Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Monday, February 25, 2013

It May Still Smell Like Bacon, But Myah Won’t Play With The Hartz Chew ‘N Clean Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy!

The Good: Durable, Relatively inexpensive, Smell endures
The Bad: Myah pretty adamantly refuses to play with it or chew on it.
The Basics: Myah does not play with the Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy Chew ‘N Clean toy, even though if she did it could help her dental health!

I am a fan of Hartz products, both their foods and their toys. However, I have yet to find a company where they produce 100% winners. Unfortunately, Myah found a lemon from Hartz with their Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy. The Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy has a number of very worthwhile traits to it, but the fact that Myah adamantly refuses to play with or chew on the toy. While my wife and I both worked at a pet store and saw numerous dogs playing with these toys on a daily basis, our five year-old Siberian Husky, Myah, did not,

The Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy is a simple one; it is five and a half inches long, one and five-eighths inches wide and 1 1/8” thick. The Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy is a durable nylon toy that is bone-shaped and made of a hard white nylon. The center portion of the toy is purple and significantly textured, for cleaning teeth. That center portion smells very much like bacon and even after five months, Myah has only played with the toy twice.

Myah is almost five years old, but she is very rambunctious and eager to play. But, no matter how many times I get out this toy Myah does not play with it or show interest in chewing on it.

Having had other experiences with the Chew ‘N Clean toys, I know that they are exceptionally durable. They can be cleaned repeatedly with bleach (and have to be rinsed incredibly well) and dogs can be exceptionally rough with them. Myah, however, has a Chew ‘N Clean Bacon Flavor Durable Chew Toy that shows no wear whatsoever because she refuses to play with it.

Arguably the only dud I’ve yet found from Hartz’s dog toy line, the Chew ‘N Clean toy is one Myah just does not want.

For other Hartz Dog products, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Precious Pals Pink Teddy Bear
Crunch 'n Clean Savory Dog Biscuits
Hartz Angry Birds Flyer
Hartz Angry Birds Plush Ball With Sound Chip Dog Toy

2.5 /10

For other pet product reviews, please visit my Pet Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Seduction Of The Obvious: Sirens

The Good: Wonderful acting, Great direction, Decent character development, Engaging themes
The Bad: Sometimes thematically heavy-handed, Frequently very awkward
The Basics: Sirens explores well the conflict between art and religion when a young minister tries to convince an eccentric artist not to exhibit his most controversial work.

Tonight, I took the opportunity to return to some things I have not for many, many years. In the last place my wife and I lived, we had very limited kitchen access. So, for almost the first four years of our marriage, I did not cook her my extraordinary lasagna. Tonight, I did just that. While I was doing prep and after we ate, I put in a film that I have not seen since I was in high school: Sirens. Despite my wife looking at me with more than a little bit of shock that I saw this film – which had quite a bit of nudity in it – while in high school, I am pleased to say that Sirens is as good as I remember it being.

Actually, there were some additional elements that were enjoyable for me now that I did not catch as a younger person. While I have always enjoyed Sirens’s direct approach to exploring the conflict between art and religion, I had not seen Portia de Rossi in anything before this (there was nothing as it turns out) and it would be years after before I saw her in anything and I never made the correlation before tonight! Sirens is an explicit and potent exploration of the conflict between art and religion, with one woman ending up as the focal point of the attraction of several women, a man, and an artist’s eye. The film has a very slow build, but Sirens is ultimately very satisfying and it remains very relevant, even now.

Minister Anthony Campion and his repressed wife Estella arrive in Australia at the residence of the artist Norman Lindsay. Lindsay is a painter whose nudes and religiously-themed works have stirred up a great deal of controversy. Campion wants to convince the artist not to show his controversial piece depicting the crucifixion of a woman in an upcoming show. The Campions are shocked by how openly flirtatious Lindsay’s models, Sheela, Giddy, and Pru are. Lindsay tries to create a magical atmosphere for the children on the estate by having the models pretend to be fairies out in the garden.

In getting to know the three women and the help around the facility, Devlin, Estella slowly begins to shed her inhibitions and become a more well-rounded sexual being. In addition to becoming seduced by the modeler’s lifestyle, she has vivid fantasies about the other women, Devlin, and art and free-thought in general.

Sirens is not only thematically liberal and very straightforward with its presentation of how art is not inherently bad or good (that the viewers must judge and find what they believe to be art and what is offensive), it is occasionally heavy-handed. Sirens is wonderful in promoting the relationship between art and religion and it challenges viewers to not find its content – which has a lot of nudity and married people opening themselves up to fantasies and seductions by other people – offensive. But, amid the sophisticated argument in favor of artistic freedom, director John Duigan goes visually over-the-top with frequent uses of snakes in the imagery. We get it: Estella is being seduced by the potential of “evil.” Duigan has created an ideal, Eden-like setting, so the presence of snakes is just obvious, painfully so.

The characters of Anthony, Estella, and Norman Lindsay are memorable ones. Anthony Campion is a painfully awkward and somewhat ridiculous young minister and he is portrayed with surprising humor by Hugh Grant. This is one of Grant’s more subtle roles, one where he is not simply banking on his good looks or his smile in order to sell the character. In fact, I cannot think of a role where Hugh Grant has a more stiff body language to his character than in Sirens. Norman Lindsay is well-portrayed by Sam Neill, but his character is a somewhat generic mouthpiece for a lot of exposition and art theory.

Much of Sirens is really about Estella and she and Giddy (Portia de Rossi) play characters on converging arcs. Giddy is attracted to Anthony and yet wants to be more than just a model or an object of attraction. Estella has lived a very sheltered life and by actually talking with Giddy, she begins to open up to possibilities bigger than her prior experiences. The arc for the character is very realistic and takes an organic amount of time as Estella and Anthony find themselves continually unable to leave the Lindsay estate. Estella is played by Tara Fitzgerald and I was surprised by how this film, which allows her to play a decent range and a realistic amount of character growth, did not open a ton of doors for her.

Sirens may not be subtle, but it is a wonderful, memorable film and it makes philosophical arguments entirely enjoyable!

For other films about artists, please visit my reviews of:
Cradle Will Rock
The Girl With The Pearl Earring


For other films, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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