Friday, January 31, 2014

January 2014 End Of The Month Report!

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Happy 2014 readers! W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe had a very average start to 2014, mostly because our movie reviews were more limited to already-released and much smaller films than usual (though ironically, one of our just-posted reviews already made the Best Of The Month listing!).

This month was an exciting month for W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe in that we formed a new relationship (Thanks so much to Sheila G’s for their entire product line of Brownie Brittle for review!) and got some great new product in from Jelly Belly jelly bean corporation for review. We might not have broken any records for the blog this month, but it was a substantive month of reviews with a decent chunk of reviews in the docket for a (hopefully) uninterrupted February!

This month at W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe, there we had no new additions to the Top Ten Of All Time. This month, we put special emphasis on food, new Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes, the musical works of Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell and Star Trek: Enterprise episodes! Thanks for all the "likes" for those posts, as well as all of the new hits on older reviews!

This month our subscribers remained solid – thanks for that! 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 hoping to grow our readership this 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 January, the index pages were very regularly! The primary Index Page, which we try to update 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! Thanks so much to all of the shoppers who have been spending after the holidays and going through the blog to do so!

At the end of January 2014, I have reviewed the following:
483 - Book Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Star Trek Books
Graphic Novels
844 - Music (Album and Singles) Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Music Reviews By Rating (Best To Worst)
Music Reviews In Alphabetical Order
2451 - 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!)!
201 - 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
713 - 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
732 - Food, Drink, And Restaurant Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Cheese and Meats
Ice Cream
Other Food
205 - Pet Product Reviews
Cat Product Reviews
Dog Product Reviews
Rabbit Product Reviews
107 - Travel Reviews
Destinations Reviews
Hotels Reviews
161 - Health And Beauty Product Reviews
166 - Home, Garden, Appliance and Tool Reviews
92 - Electronics, Computers, Computer Games and Software Reviews
36 - Other Product Reviews

The Featured Reviews For The Month of January are: Sheila G’s Mint Chocolate Chip Brownie Brittle and Draft Beer Jelly Belly Jelly Beans !
Check them out!

The month of January had a lot of movement within the month and was dominated by prior reviews that came thundering back! For January, the Top Ten Reviews of the month were:
10. High Hopes - Bruce Springsteen
9. August: Osage County
8. Android Cop
7. ”The Magical Place” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
6. ”Seeds” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
5. The Worst Ten Episodes Of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
4. The Top Ten Episodes Of Frasier
3. ”The Cage” - Star Trek
2. The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek: Voyager
1. Compulsion

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 - 285 reviews
9s - 410 reviews
8s - 782 reviews
7s - 869 reviews
6s - 790 reviews
5s - 1040 reviews
4s - 752 reviews
3s - 603 reviews
2s - 267 reviews
1s - 191 reviews
0s - 86 reviews
No rating - 61 articles/postings

There was a decent amount of movement this month, but there were no new entries into the Top Ten. At the end of January 2014, the most popular reviews/articles I have written are:
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
9. Safe Haven
8. Oz The Great And Powerful
7. The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bone
6. Warm Bodies
5. Iron Man 3
4. Now You See Me
3. Tyler Perry's Temptation
2. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
1. Man Of Steel

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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Nog Not Worth Tracking Down: Bolthouse Farms Holiday Nog Is Disappointing!

The Good: Not as fatty as most egg nogs
The Bad: Expensive, Not as nutritionally beneficial as other Bolthouse Farms beverages, It does not taste great
The Basics: Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog is an unfortunate waste of money, which is a real rarity for Bolthouse Farms!

I am a big fan of egg nog. I love how the drink is spicy and thick and delicious. There is something fabulous about egg nog and I know that it is probably better for my health and waistline that I can’t get it all year round. So, when I saw that Bolthouse Farms had a new Holiday Nog on the shelves this year, I was excited. My hope was that it would have the health benefits of Bolthouse Farms drinks and the incredible flavor of egg nog.

The Holiday Nog is only available locally in the 52 fl. oz. bottle and that runs $5.99 here. It would have been nice if Bolthouse Farms had released the beverage with a festive reduced price for those of us on a budget, but given how unfortunately flavored this drink is, its price matters less than I would have thought!


Bolthouse Farms is a health drink, which is like an energy drink except that is designed for more of a full-health solution (as opposed to being a liquid vitamin supplement) and they tend to taste better. And it differs from being a coffee beverage by minimizing the bitter taste of actual coffee in favor of milk and flavoring that pretty much drowns out the coffee flavor. This is like a chocolate milk that is enhanced with nutrients and, in this case, mint. Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog comes in a 52 fl. oz. plastic bottle that is smooth and not very portable at all. The #1 recyclable bottle is filled with the opaque brown liquid, reminiscent of chocolate milk, which is Limited Edition Holiday Nog. Bolthouse Farms products are one of the leading manufacturers of healthy prepared beverages and one that has the widest (and most consistently delicious) portfolio.

The 52 fl. oz. bottle is intended to give consumers six and a half servings, which continues the company’s regrettable tradition of not providing full, even servings in a bottle.

Ease Of Preparation

Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog is a liquid in the 52 fl. oz. bottle and is a ready-to-drink beverage. So, preparation is as easy as opening a plastic bottle. Bolthouse Farms beverages have a plastic cap that easily twists off and can be put back on in order to reseal it. It is important to note that this is supposed to be refrigerated, so quality of the beverage may degrade if it is left out at room temperature before or after the bottle is open. This has a pretty standard security seal ring around the lower half of the cap and informs the consumer as to whether the product has been opened by cracking off when the top is twisted.


Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog has a surprisingly light aroma to it. It smells mostly of vanilla and does not at all foreshadow the flavor that will be coming when it hits one’s tongue. Unlike Egg Nog, the Holiday Nog does not smell like nutmeg or any other spices.

In the mouth, the Holiday Nog is surprisingly bland. The flavor of whole milk (which is what it tastes like by texture and basic flavor) is cut by a strong undertone of carrot juice. There is a faint vanilla flavor that comes in and out; the dominant flavors are milk and carrot juice, which is rather unsettling.

The Holiday Nog has a slight eggy and milky aftertaste to it. The carrot juice also has a somewhat souring aftertaste that lingers for about two minutes after one is done drinking it.


As a healthy dairy beverage, Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog Beverage is designed to fill in some of the nutritional gaps one might have in their diet, while tasting like egg nog. Sadly, this drink falls down on both fronts. Nutritionally, Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog is a mediocre option for those who are dieting or are trying to improve their health; it is nowhere near as bad as egg nog is for one’s health, but nowhere near as healthy as any other Bolthouse Farms drink I’ve reviewed. Limited Edition Holiday Nog is primarily composed of low-fat milk, filtered water, and cane sugar. It contains nothing bad and it is somewhat surprising how strong the carrot juice flavor is when carrot juice from concentrate is one of the last ingredients in the ingredients list. While it is gluten free, it contains milk and whey, so it is in no way Vegan compliant. On the plus side, though, there are no preservatives nor artificial flavors.

This drink is not very healthy, though not as bad as actual egg nog. One serving of Limited Edition Holiday Nog has only 1.5 g fat and 80 calories, 15 of which come from the fat. While there are 12 grams of sugars (12 total grams of carbohydrates), the beverage has only 15 mg of cholesterol and 4 grams of protein! Surprisingly, there are only 65 mg (3% RDA) of sodium in each serving. A single serving does not have significant percentages of any nutrients; the highest is 10% of the RDA of Calcium with 6% of the RDA of Vitamin A as the only other significant nutrient!


Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog comes in a plastic bottle and it keeps for only a few months. The bottle my wife and I bought in early December had an expiration date of January 24, 2014 (ours was consumed and this review written well in advance of that!). This beverage must be refrigerated!

This drink is a dairy product and fairly light. If this gets on light clothes, it will certainly stain them. Consult a care guide for your clothes, though I suspect light clothes would need bleach to get this out. Still, the drink wipes off surfaces easily with a cloth, assuming they are impermeable.


Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog is an unfortunately vegetable flavored drink that tastes nothing like egg nog, making it a far from festive drink option this holiday season.

For other egg nog flavored items and seasonal drinks, please check out my reviews of:
Bigelow Eggnogg’n tea
Edy’s Limited Edition Egg Nog Ice Cream
Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Peppermint Mocha Coffee Beverage


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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“Black Robocop” Has The Android Cop As A Sidekick!

The Good: Fairly interesting plot, Good protagonist
The Bad: Predictable character development, Direction/Acting
The Basics: A minor twist on Robocop geared toward the urban audience, Android Cop is a low-budget action cop movie with a familiar science fiction (and cultural bias) twist.

It has been years since I saw Robocop; it’s on my list. Like many people, I’m looking to rewatch Robocop in advance of this year’s remake of the film (reviewed here!) which is going to hit theaters soon. Even so, I remember the gist of Robocop well enough to recognize that Android Cop is essentially Robocop meets Rush Hour with a decidedly urban (yes, read that as “black”) bent. The Tyler Perry audience is the target demographic for Android Cop, but making the buddy action film the way director Mark Atkins does makes for an unfortunate film.

Poor Michael Jai White! Michael Jai White was, once upon a time, a rising star tapped to take on some big projects that had a lot of potential. While movies like Spawn (reviewed here!) might have underperformed, they were not the fault of Michael Jai White. White is the lead in Android Cop and while he performs admirably in the film, he is put in a role that plays on an awful number of stereotypes about the black community.

In 2037, Los Angeles is a post-earthquake wasteland broken down into different Zones patrolled by the police. There, Officer Hammond and his partner are preparing to meet an informant when they run into drug runners for the notorious criminal Dex Muldoon. An automated gun station at the edge of the quarantine zone kills Hammond’s partner and leaves him as part of a team hunting Muldoon. In the course of apprehending Muldoon, Hammond is rescued by an ultra-armored, part machine police officer.

Paired with the android, Officer One (Andi), Hammond goes to talk a potentially suicidal man down from a building. Andi distracts the man, undermining Hammond. After that, Hammond and Andi are called to the Mayor, whose assistant informs them of their next case. The Mayor has an illegitimate daughter who was wounded. She has connected herself to the most lifelike android ever created, one so real that she does not know that she is an android with her organic component transmitting from a remote location. Tasked to prevent the android version of the Mayor’s daughter from being discovered and used as a sex android, Hammond and Andi begin following the clues needed to find her. Going through gang territory on the Mayor’s orders, Hammond and Andi are used as tools to prevent the android Helen Jacobs from undermining the Mayor’s agenda while cleaning up the crime-filled Zone. As the two officers struggle to work together, they uncover the Mayor’s corrupt scheme.

In Android Cop, the police are clumsy and somewhat stupid (Officer Hammond is an obvious exception), but they are characterized as better than the machines. In other words, the police may be corrupt, not smart enough to use their full body armor in clearly dangerous areas, and unskilled in the most basic forms of police work (Andi is supposed to be a police officer’s head grafted to the android body, but he has no ability to bluff or strategize using a human element), but – the viewer infers – it’s still better to have human cops on the beat than having machines take over policing the streets. In the fashion of so many films geared toward the black demographic/community, the dichotomies are set up in very literal black and white terms. Hammond, the Mayor, Jones and most of the police working in what used to be Beverly Hills are black; Dex, the corrupt informant, and the antagonist/sidekick Andi are all white. As if to keep that fresh in the mind of the viewers, Andi is kept with his helmet off for most of the film, despite the fact that he and Hammond are in an incredibly dangerous area where a bulletproof helmet would be advised.

The idea of using the android cop as a sidekick is a vaguely interesting twist on the Robocop idea. The conspiracy surrounding the radiation-filled Zone is actually an interesting one. Sure, Android Cop might just be the most convoluted real estate-centered thriller of all time (really? We need a movie where the Los Angeles real estate market is inflated even more than in reality?!), but on a plot level, it is actually surprisingly engaging. That is not to say the movie’s plot is flawless at all; there are pointless gun fights and fist fights thrown in with little regard to reason or necessity and the effects in the film are largely laughable (was there a deficit of squibs when the film was shot?! One scene has a machinegun-wielding thug shooting off enough rounds to take out a decent-sized aircraft, but the reverse shot has only about five bullet holes appearing in the building next to which Andi stands). But, conceptually, the plot developments upon which Android Cop is built are not bad.

It’s also hard to call the acting in Android Cop bad, especially when one is talking about a film led by Michael Jai White that features Charles S. Dutton (as the Mayor). Michael Jai White and Larissa Vereza (Helen) have cringeworthy moments where they absolutely step on their lines; why Mark Atkins did not get them to do another take (or even use ADR to fix the clunky places) is inconceivable. For the most part, though, Michael Jai White does great as Hammond, delivering a lot of articulate monologues and emoting well opposite the dispassionate Andi. And, it’s always nice to see Kadeem Hardison getting work and Smith – where he is cast as a minor villain – is a good role for him.

What is missing from Android Cop is chemistry. For a buddy action flick to work, the leads have to have some form of chemistry. Android Cop is set up to have either an Odd Couple chemistry based on antagonism or a variation of the cultural mismatch humor chemistry like Rush Hour. Android Cop lacks either. Michael Jai White plays the role of Hammond completely straight and Randy Wayne seems like he is playing the role of Andi straight-laced as well. Wayne is filling the exact performance niche that Jeremy Renner would have if the movie had a bigger budget. Unfortunately, Wayne and Michael Jai White fail to play off one another in any meaningful way to sell the concept of Android Cop as anything audacious.

The result is a film that is set up to be surprising, but when the revelation surrounding manual override of the android finally comes up, the result is more “eh” than “woah!” Despite a plot that moves along, the characters are virtually impossible to care about in Android Cop. What we are left with is a film with potential that remains unreached. Hopefully, the remake of Robocop will satisfy . . . for all demographics.

For other ridiculous science fiction films, please check out my reviews of:
The Snow Queen
Aaah! Zombies!!
Alien Trespass


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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A Delightful Snack For Myah: Pup-Peroni Original Bacon Flavor Treats Excite Myah!

The Good: Healthy, Good ingredients, Smells great, Myah enjoys them!
The Bad: No dental benefits, Could always be less expensive, Because they are soft, dogs eat them incredibly quickly.
The Basics: Myah loves the Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni and I like them for her, save the lack of dental benefits and how fast she goes through them!

For Myah’s stocking this year, our Siberian Husky got a number of wonderful treats. Arguably the most common of these treats is the Pup-Peroni Original Bacon Flavor treats and Myah likes them quite a bit. In fact, I was surprised by how much Myah likes them, for a treat that she consumes so very quickly! My wife and I have taken to making these treats stretch by breaking them up and using them in training exercises with Myah. Otherwise, for the speed at which she consumes them, the Pup-Peroni Original Bacon flavored treats might be considered a bit too expensive for us for her.

Outside how fast my Siberian Husky, Myah, went through the 10 oz. bag, these were a great treat for reward and training reinforcement!


We picked up the 10 oz. bag of Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni on clearance at a local discount store when we were shopping for gifts for Myah. Myah made it clear from the way she came running every time the bag was opened that she loved the Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni dog treats.

The Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni dog treats are soft, beef stick-like treats that are shaped and colored to look more or less like human-consumable beef sticks (like Slim Jims). Each Pup-Peroni Original Bacon Flavor is about 4 3/4” long and 3/8” in diameter. The Pup-Peroni sticks are red-brown and meaty looking.

Ease Of Preparation

This is a ready-to-eat dog treat and only requires one to open the resealable bag to dispense.

Myah’s Reaction

The Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni smell exactly like bacon and beef and they make my mouth water almost as much as they make Myah salivate! They smell just like human beef sticks. Myah comes to attention the moment we crumple the bag to open it and the second she can smell these Pup-Peroni, she practices being obedient until the moment they are hers! She has illustrated a clear preference for this dog treat.


The Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni dog treats are fairly healthy. With at least 24% crude protein, 12% crude fat and no more than 2% crude fiber and 24% moisture, the Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni offer some decent nutrition to dogs. Made primarily of beef, meat by-products, and soy grits, we were thrilled to find a major treat with meat as one of the main ingredients (which is surprisingly rare for dog food and dog treats). Still, Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni appear to have nothing bad in them. The Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni have over a year shelf life (our bag would have expired in April 22 2015, had Myah not eaten them up within two weeks!). As with all dog treats, it is highly recommended that when you give your dog Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni, you make sure they have a decent supply of clean water available. Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni treats are not intended to replace dog food.


It is only when Myah is super-gorged that she does not come running for the Del Monte Original Bacon Flavor Pup-Peroni treats. If they helped keep her teeth clean or she took longer to actually enjoy them, it would be much easier to rate this Pup-Peroni a bit higher. Still, they are good and Myah enthusiastically endorses them!

For other dog treats and foods, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Purina Busy Real Beefhide Rollhide
Chicken Yum-It-Up! Spread For Dogs
RedBarn Ham & Cheese Flavor Filled Rawhide Bone


For other pet products, be sure to visit my Pet Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Development And Wonderful Dialogue Do Not Keep The Big Bang Theory Season Six From Settling.

The Good: Character development, Very funny
The Bad: Formulaic plots, Formulaic jokes, No exceptional performances, Raj’s character direction is abruptly changed.
The Basics: The Big Bang Theory Season Six is good, but lacks a universal and rewatchable quality that makes it a tougher sell than many prior seasons of the show.

Long-running comedies are a tough-sell with me. Even the shows I generally enjoy can have a tougher time as they go on, especially if the humor in the show is based on a simple gimmick. Norm’s one-liners on Cheers, for example, become far less memorable as the series progressed, even though they were cute. By comparison, The Big Bang Theory is populated by interesting characters who develop well and by the sixth season, it is easy to enjoy the organic way the show is developing. That said, The Big Bang Theory has a very basic type of humor that is exceptionally predictable by the sixth season, much like the timing and placement of Norm’s quips. The humor in The Big Bang Theory is almost entirely based on the use of overly sophisticated dialogue and the gags that use physical humor usually involve either Kaley Cuoco or Mayim Bialik staring blankly or looking utterly frustrated. The humor is very formulaic and in the sixth season is exceptionally predictable, especially in the broad strokes. The specific lines for the jokes are not predictable, but the timing and nature of all of the jokes in the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory are.

The result is that the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory is fun and enjoyable to watch, but it does not hold up as well as far as rewatchability as some of the earlier seasons. In fact, the only reason to rewatch the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory is for the incredible character development, though even that is not flawless. The writers chicken out on the character arc that has Raj and the comic book store owner Stuart getting closer and closer before the writers abruptly drop the development and replace Stuart with a young woman with crippling social anxiety.

The sixth season of The Big Bang Theory picks up where the fifth season (reviewed here!) left off, with Howard Wolowitz in space. Married to Bernadette now, Howard has not told his mother he is moving out, which leaves him on the International Space Station fighting with both his mother and Bernadette. When Howard returns to Earth, he brags excessively about having been in space, much to the annoyance of all his friends. While Leonard and Penny continue their relationship largely unhindered, Sheldon hires an assistant to look through his childhood journals for a sign of genius. Amy becomes jealous of Alex, but Penny becomes even more jealous of Alex’s flirtations with Leonard, that he seems excited by.

As the three couples settle into their routines, with disruptions like Howard spending quite a bit of money on a three-dimensional printer to make action figures much to the chagrin of Bernadette, Raj finds himself on the outside once again. He and the comic book shop owner, Stuart, become closer and closer. Their almost romantic relationship escalates until Valentine’s Day, when they throw a party for all the single people at the comic book shop and Raj meets Lucy, a terrified young woman who has even more anxiety about meeting people than Raj has with talking to women. After a round of Dungeons And Dragons that climaxes in Sheldon and Amy engaging in virtual foreplay together, Howard lines up a job opportunity for Leonard; a research fellowship on Stephen Hawkins’ team working for six month on a boat!

The characters in the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory grow and develop, though there are no exceptional performances that give any of the performers the chance to showcase anything they have not in seasons prior. This is the season that the show began to trade excessively on the guest stars who popped up for one-shot appearances. LeVar Burton, Bob Newhart, and Regina King make appearances in the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory. The acting is good in the sixth season, but the performances are largely familiar and well within the range of the actors.

In the sixth season, the principle characters of The Big Bang Theory remain:

Sheldon Cooper – He tries to negotiate his life with his relationship with Amy. He is thrilled to interact with his friends playing D&D and moves closer and closer to sex with Amy. He fights with Wolowitz over a parking spot, discovers that Kripke has an edge on him in a proposal for a grant, and tries to adapt to Stuart being in the mix while Wolowitz is in space. He is threatened when Leonard briefly moves out and Amy moves in and is menaced by Stephen Hawkins via Words With Friends. He continues to do his web series “Fun With Flags” and actually gets help with it from Wil Wheaton, LeVar Burton, and Penny,

Amy Farrah Fowler – Head over heels for Sheldon, she begins to feel real pressure to have sex with him. Her desires go largely unmet, save when she gets sick and manipulates him into spending time with her (and touching her). She tries to get him over his need for closure after Alphas is abruptly cancelled,

Howard Wolowitz – Now married to Bernadette, he comes back from space arrogant about having been in space, despite the fact that he pretty much went crazy in the International Space Station. He finally moves out of his mother’s house and actually neglects his friendship with Raj most of the time. When Sheldon unearths a letter from his father, he burns it and lives in uncertainty about what his father had to say to him,

Bernadette – Supporting Howard, she has more outings with Penny, Amy and Raj. She tires of Howard bragging and is furious when he spends thousands of dollars on action figures and a 3-D printer. She supports Howard through the mystery of his father’s letter,

Raj Koothrappali – With all of his friends paired up, he befriends Stuart in a much more meaningful way. While he gets closer to the depressed small business owner, he comes out of his shell quite a bit. On Valentine’s Day, he meets Lucy, who is a flight risk and runs away from his advances repeatedly, though he starts catering dates to her through texts,

Penny – In a stable relationship with Leonard, she gets jealous when she sees Alex hitting on him. She actually performs amazingly well in a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. She finally tells Leonard she loves him and tries to be supportive of him when he is offered the amazing opportunity at sea,

and Leonard Hofstadter – Now with Penny in a pretty stable relationship, he vies for a tenured position when one of the professors at the university abruptly dies. He stops proposing to Penny and becomes furious enough with Sheldon to briefly move out. He enjoys Alex flirting with him, but is not looking for anything more with her. He is thrilled when he has the chance to work on Stephen Hawkins’s team.

On Blu-Ray and DVD, The Big Bang Theory Season Six has minimal bonus features. The gag reel is funny and the featurette on the relationships is very cool for fans of the actors and the characters of the show. But the bonus features are not enough to make the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory worth watching more than one time and makes the boxed set a little less of a value on its own.

For other works with Kevin Sussman, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Weeds - Season 8
Burn After Reading
Changing Lanes
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Almost Famous


For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Look, The Flavor, The Beer Memories Without The Hangover: Jelly Belly Draft Beer Jelly Beans!

The Good: Tastes very much like inexpensive beer, Accurate aroma, Great ingredients! Very cool look!
The Bad: Flavor could be a little stronger (more beer, less water), Fans might want to wait for an environmentally responsible bulking!
The Basics: The new Draft Beer Jelly Belly jelly beans are exactly what they promise to be and will satisfy casual beer drinkers, while those who like more flavorful beers will find them to be just a little less than they could hope.

It’s that time again! Every year, Jelly Belly shakes up their line-up of amazing jelly bean flavors and 2014 is off to a good start for the company with one of its most inventive jelly beans in years. This year, Jelly Belly is releasing Draft Beer flavored jelly beans and I have been fortunate enough to receive my samples from the company for review (Thanks Jelly Belly!). It should be noted up front, mostly because my wife was on me about this from the moment Jelly Belly announced their new flavor, that I do not drink alcohol. In fact, I have not had an alcoholic drink in over twenty years, so my ability to review alcohol is nonexistent. I vaguely remember the taste of beer – my father (unlike my wife) had a taste for pretty light beers, like Genny Cream Ale, Coors, and in later years Sam Adams – and in my college years, I took the trash out in the dorms for a year and the smell of cheap beer became one of the omnipresent, nauseating scents of that period in my life. But, the short of it is that I have very little comparative analysis abilities when it comes to a beer flavored bean – my wife jokingly said I would be unable to differentiate between a beer, lager, and ale for the flavor and she is right. But, my interpretation of draft beer (from watching my wife’s career in the restaurant business) is that draft beers tend to be less expensive beers at most establishments (and their taste really depends on how well the lines are kept clean!).

All of that said, having now tried the Draft Beer Jelly Bellys, the best way I can both compliment and critique the bean is with a chocolate analogy. The Draft Beer flavor is a perfect representation of what it promises to be, but what it promises is something less than the ideal. To wit; so many chocolate-flavored items taste like chocolate, but once one has developed a taste for dark chocolate, it is very hard to go back to milk chocolate. Milk chocolate and milk chocolate-flavored items taste “watered down” by comparison to the bold, full flavor of dark chocolate. Even by scent alone, I can tell the difference in potency between a porter or stout and a draft beer or mass-produced beer. Jelly Belly gets the “watered down” beer flavor absolutely right, but given their talent it is somewhat disappointing that they did not develop the headier, stronger, darker flavor of a more powerful beer. But, it’s hard to argue with nailing the promised flavor and Jelly Belly does that once again with Draft Beer.

For those who might never have had Jelly Belly jelly beans, these are easily the best jelly beans on the planet, packing a lot of flavor into a very small size. Unlike most jelly beans which are only vaguely flavored and are more based on colors, Jelly Belly jelly beans have a wide variety of actual flavors, like candy cane, Plum, Snapple Ice Teas or their signature flavor Buttered Popcorn.

The Draft Beer Jelly Bellys are creeping into the market in smaller packages (the ones sent to us from the factory were .5 oz. bags), but if these are successful they will no doubt create their usual ten pound bulk boxes.


Draft Beer is a new flavor of Jelly Belly jelly beans, a premium jelly bean, and this flavor is one kept out of the standard 50 flavor assortment. Jelly Belly jelly beans are approximately one half inch long by one quarter inch wide and they are roughly bean-shaped. These little candies are marketed to taste precisely like Draft Beer and they meet the expectations of those looking for a pretty generic beer flavor perfectly!

Draft Beer flavored Jelly Bellys are easy to recognize in the pantheon of Jelly Belly jelly beans. The Draft Beer is very coolly colored with an iridescent (shiny!) brown/copper color that looks like the bubbly head of a beer! This distinctive, pearlescent color is different from every other Jelly Belly jelly bean and sets the consumer up for a fun taste experience from the look to the smell to the taste.

Ease of Preparation

These are jelly beans, not making your own microbrew, so it's not like there is a challenge to eating them. In the case of the small bag, simply open and pull out the beans and enjoy!


Opening the package of Draft Beer Jelly Bellys, the scent of a college frat house bursts out. The sour, distinct smell of beer is instantly evident the moment the package is opened. In fact, the scent is so true to the smell of beer that my stomach turned. But, anyone who does not like the smell of beer (it truly is a young, manly smell that is instantly associated in my mind with dirty places and empty bottles – the frat house without the smell of pizza and/or sweat) will find that Jelly Belly’s accuracy works as a detriment; the scent is inviting only to those who like beer and are excited by the potential that the aroma elicits.

As for the flavor, my wife beat me to the punch as she tried one and said, “They nailed it!” Well, my taste buds and tummy agree; Jelly Belly has created a fizzy, beer flavored bean that is distinct, but not overwhelming to the taste buds . . . just like draft beer. The amazing aspect of Draft Beer Jelly Belly jelly beans is how the company captured the watered-down flavor of draft beer or light beer as opposed to the darker brews; the Draft Beer jelly beans are sweet only as an aftertaste, with a primary flavor that is watery and the exact flavor of a lighter-colored beer.

The Draft Beer Jelly Bellys have a slightly sweet, minutely bitter aftertaste that dwells on the tongue for about a minute after the last bean is eaten . . . and yes, if you burp for up to half an hour after the last bean, the mouth fills with a beer flavor again. Ahhh . . . gross (but perfect for the flavor!).


Again, these are jelly beans, so anyone looking to them for nutrition needs to understand that they do not have any of the nutritional benefits (or detractions, for those watching their sodium or caloric intake) of actual Draft Beer. Jelly beans, even Jelly Belly jelly beans, are not a legitimate source of nutrition. These are a snack food, a dessert, and are in no way an adequate substitute for a real meal. A .5 oz. serving is approximately fifteen beans, with each Jelly Belly jelly bean having approximately four calories (there are 50 calories in the .5 oz. pack). The 13 grams of carbohydrates represents 4% of the RDA of carbs.

elly Belly jelly beans are not as bad as they could be in the nutrition area. They have no fat and no protein and these are Vegan compliant (except to the most militant vegans who won’t consume beeswax) because they contain no gelatin! They have no significant sodium and they are gluten and alcohol free! The main ingredients are sugar, corn syrup and modified food starch, so it's not like this is an all-natural food, but they could be far, far worse. Draft Beer Jelly Belly jelly beans are made in a peanut free factory!


Jelly Belly jelly beans have a shelf life of approximately two years and I have yet to run across a stale Jelly Belly. The batch I just received direct from the factory did not have an expiration date, so how long it might take them to go bad shall likely remain a mystery! They remain freshest when they are kept in an airtight container and they ought to be kept in a cool or lukewarm environment. Storing them in hot places is likely to make the beans stick together and be gross. Kept in a cool, dry place, the beans retain their flavor perfectly.

As for cleanup, unless one allows the Jelly Belly to get hot to the point that the waxy coating on the bean melts, the dyes on these do not bleed or denature, so there is usually no cleanup necessary, but you should wash your hands before eating them anyway (you might want to wash them afterward as well, especially if you’re going out driving because, let’s face it, the only thing more embarrassing than telling the officer you’ve just had a couple of beers is probably having to admit that you’ve just gorged on beer flavored jelly beans). I've never had Draft Beer Jelly Bellys stain anything.


Draft Beer Jelly Belly jelly beans are incredibly good, but looking over my pantheon of Jelly Belly Jelly Bean reviews, the common element for the beans I gave a perfect 10 to was not only fidelity to flavor, but a flavor I would actually enjoy having again. Draft Beer was wonderfully accurate, but was a flavor novelty, more than one I would ever crave having again. It’s perfect for the draft beer drinking crowd, but me? I’m more a dark chocolate fan and to really sell me on a beer bean, I’d want something more potent than this.

For other Jelly Belly jelly bean flavors reviewed by me, please check out:
Beanboozled Assortment
Raspberry Dips


For other Jelly Belly Jelly Bean reviews, please visit my Jelly Belly Jelly Bean Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Arms And The Man Presents A Very Typical Love Story . . . With Wonderful Lines And Lots Of Charm!

The Good: Very funny, Interesting characters, Decent plot, Some wonderful lines
The Bad: Very basic plot/character development
The Basics: Bernard Shaw writes the seminal pacifist romantic comedy with Arms And The Man.

The last few nights, as I work at my night job, I have found myself thinking of my high school and college girlfriend. For over three years we dated, despite going to different high schools and colleges and having increasingly divergent interests. One of the things she became very interested in was live theater. She went to an artistic high school and became a theater techie, so I attended a couple plays that she worked the light board and sound for. I realized that the reason she was drifting to my mind – a decade and a half after we were last together – because the book I was reading on my breaks was Arms And The Man. Arms And The Man, as I began to recall as I read, was my ex-girlfriend’s favorite play back in the day.

Reading Arms And The Man, I could actually see why – at least for the young woman she was back in the day. Arms And The Man is a romantic comedy by Bernard Shaw and it’s a quick read. The three act play is set during and after the Serbo-Bulgarian War in a Bulgarian house of Petkoff. Petkoff was a Major and he has left his wife and his daughter home while he and his daughter’s fiancĂ© are out fighting the war.

One night, as the Serbian Army is fleeing through the town, Raina (the daughter of Major Petkoff) and Catherine lock down their house to protect themselves as soldiers flee through the town. Raina is in her bedroom when a soldier climbs the drainpipe and enters her room. The man is a Swiss soldier of fortune working for the Serbs. Raina is not intimidated by the exhausted soldier and when he tells a story that includes Raina’s fiancĂ©, Sergius, her interest is piqued. Sergius, as it happens, led a cavalry charge against the Serbians which was tactically unwise, but succeeded because the Serbs had ammunition problems. Raina is thrilled by the story of Sergius’s victory and uses it as a point of derision against the man who has invaded her bedroom. The man reveals that he loathes warfare and prefers chocolates and over the course of the ludicrous conversation, he becomes exhausted, Raina becomes enthralled and she hides him in her room from the military forces that are pursuing him.

Months later, with the war over, Sergius returns to the Petkoff residence to reconnect with Raina. Raina is flirtatious with Sergius, but somewhat reserved and the Petkoff maid, Louka, becomes the subject of Sergius’s attention as well. With the relationship between Sergius and Raina strained, the appearance of Bluntschli (the man rescued by Raina months prior) at the home becomes a source of romantic intrigue. Bluntschli reappeared at the house to return the housecoat he wore when escaping the Bulgarian soldiers who were searching for him and to Raina’s shock, both Sergius and the Major recognize him. Over the course of the time together, Sergius and Raina realize they have little in common and Bluntschli and Raina banter quite a bit. When Bluntschli inherits a fortune, Raina is torn between the reliable, but unwanted, Sergius, and the uncertain, but desireable, Bluntschli.

Arms And The Man is funny and charming. Bernard Shaw is a master of banter in Arms And The Man. In addition to being witty and cute, Shaw uses his dialogue to deliver some pretty exceptional observations. Shaw has some biting commentary on military doctrines that remain relevant even today. As well, Shaw makes clever observations on the way men and women relate. He strips away the pretense of societal structures by having Raina’s affections for Sergius be based more on his reputation and stature as opposed to anything they have in common, contrasted with the instant chemistry of Raina and Bluntschli.

The characters in Arms And The Man are interesting. Bluntschli is funny, insightful, and charming; Raina coins the cute pet name “chocolate-cream soldier” for him. The moments of farce are well-delivered for humor without ever seeming ridiculous in a way that diminishes the rest of the potency of the themes. The result is a substantive romantic comedy that makes meaningful commentary that continues to resonate.

For other plays I have reviewed, please visit:
An Enemy Of The People By Arthur Miller
A Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Eugene O’Neill
The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare


For other book reviews, please visit my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Too Little, Too Late; Fortunately, Even All Bad Things Come To An End: Star Trek: Enterprise Season Four!

The Good: Storylines try to use Star Trek lore
The Bad: Terrible acting, Lack of character development, Sense of desperation
The Basics: On its final legs, the NX-01 Enterprise returns to the Star Trek universe to try to repair the damage of the prior three seasons and still fails.

Having fairly gutted the Star Trek canon with Temporal Wars, Xindi, and appearances by races that had no business preceding Kirk's times, Star Trek Enterprise had lost a large portion of its audience and it looked like it was going to utterly fail. Miraculously, the show was picked up for a fourth and final season and the producers must have sensed their time was limited. Brannon "I hate the original Star Trek" Braga was replaced in the writer's room by Manny Coto, a writer who had great respect for Star Trek. It fell to Coto to save the series and while Star Trek Enterprise - The Complete Fourth Season is easily the best in the NX-01's storyline, it is too little, too late.

Having destroyed the Delphic Expanse and rescued humanity as we know it, Captain Archer and his crew are forced to deal with the final twist from Season 3, that behind all the conspiracies were alien Nazis. No, no one could have realistically seen that one coming. Sadly, Coto's first task is to clean up the mess left at the end of the prior season and the first two episodes seek to do that. They manage to sweep the Temporal War up under the rug (finally) and the NX-01 goes on from there.

Where the Enterprise goes is into more familiar territory. Sort of. Following their debriefing on an Earth that is suddenly rather anti-alien, the Enterprise leaves to find genetic supermen like Khan, Orion slave girls, Vulcans who are working to reform their society around logic, and we finally learn why Klingons look different in Star Trek than in all of the other incarnations of the franchise. And it all leads up to an unreasonably bad series finale.

Is it worth it? No. Coto is a gifted writer and exec, but the efforts to save the show come far too late and the attempt to rewrite the prior three years of television catastrophe still force him to deal with those premises established for the previous three years. So, for example, from the series premiere of Enterprise, the Vulcans behaved in rather un-Vulcan-like ways. They were a factionalized society that was not terribly logical duking it out between factions that were solidly into mysticism and the other into political and social control. Coto is forced to deal with that disparity in the Trek pantheon and the resulting three-parter ("The Forge," "Awakening," and "Kir'Shara") explains the phenomenon, but doesn't make it work any better in the overall tapestry. That is to say that despite the "Temporal Cold War" being written out, Enterprise still finds itself stuck in the universe of Enterprise as opposed to Star Trek. To try to make those two creative visions come together, things like the illogical Vulcans have to be dealt with and even dealing with that undermines the Star Trek universe. In short, Coto is stuck in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. After ending the Temporal Cold War, he (presumably) had the choice to restart the series from the beginning - doing it right - or doing his best to correct the problems and go forward from there. He chose (or it was chosen for him) the latter. All that could have saved the series was the former. All that could have saved Star Trek Enterprise was Patrick Duffy in the shower.

But what we have instead is season four of Star Trek Enterprise and in it, the Vulcans overcome their lying tendencies and embrace both mysticism and logic to become the Vulcans we know from Star Trek. The Klingons become infected with a genetic condition which make them look more human, which sets up the Klingons in Star Trek, but does not explain how the Klingons from Star Trek that we see later on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine make the transformation back. And ultimately, xenophobes on Earth must be thwarted to bring the Federation into being.

The latter concept is pretty much lifted right from the playbook of Babylon 5, which Coto was associated with. Babylon 5, which knew where it was going and what it was doing, did it much better because of who the people in the B5 universe were. In Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future in Star Trek and especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, humanity came together after the third world war and made something of itself and headed off in a positive and progressive direction. In the Berman/Braga Trek universe, that didn't happen. Coto tries to negotiate between the two, but as previously stated, this is a tough order that comes too late.

The acting throughout the fourth season of Enterprise is almost homogeneously bad, with Scott Bakula continuing to play Jonathan Archer as largely stiff and Jolene Blalock continuing to play the Vulcan T'Pol with far too much emotion. In the twenty-two episodes of Star Trek Enterprise Season 4, there are no superlative performances.

Here is where the show finds the characters, though:

Captain Jonathan Archer - Having survived the Xindi attempt to make a superweapon doomsday machine, he helps reset the timeline, then finds himself inside a catalog of Star Trek backstories where he blusters his way through,

T'Pol - Outside an arc where she helps save the Vulcan people, her purpose seems mostly to continue to develop a relationship with Commander Tucker,

Trip Tucker - He continues his relationship with T'Pol,

Malcolm Reed - He shows up and shoots things,

Hoshi Sato - She occasionally shows up to translate something,

Travis Mayweather - After being captured in the season premiere, his next big contribution is to help sniff out the xenophobes in the series' final arcs,

and Dr. Phlox - He continues to work medical magic for the crew and later for the Klingons.

Of note, the mirror universe from Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" (reviewed here!) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is featured in two later episodes of the series ("In a Mirror, Darkly - I and II") and the writers are careful and clever about how it is approached.

Even that, though, is not enough to make this set worth recommending. From day one, Enterprise tried to mortgage its original Star Trek audience. Creatively, they established a universe unlike what Star Trek fans were used to and comfortable with. The NX-01 was never a logical predecessor to the NCC-1701 and none of the equipment looked to precede Captain Pike's. Star Trek Enterprise - The Complete Fourth Season is the last ditch attempt by the creative minds behind the series to woo back the fans it forsook at the outset.

It's not enough.

For more information on this season of television, please visit the reviews of each episode in the set at:
Storm Front
Storm Front, Part 2
Cold Station 12
The Augments
The Forge
Observer Effect
Babel One
The Aenar
In A Mirror Darkly, Part 1
In A Mirror Darkly, Part 2
Terra Prime
These Are The Voyages . . .


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

© 2014, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Bulky, Goofy, Burtonesque: The 2013 The Nightmare Before Christmas Ornament – Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares – Is Average-At-Best

The Good: Looks interesting, Big, Affordable
The Bad: Balance issues, Breakable, Not iconic
The Basics: "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" is a troublingly imbalanced ornament from Hallmark from The Nightmare Before Christmas, though it can be found dirt cheap now.

Hallmark knows its audience very well. They seem to know who their reliable customers are when it comes to their holiday ornaments. One of their annual ornaments is always from A Nightmare Before Christmas and 2013 was no exception; Hallmark released the “Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares” ornament. Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares is an all right ornament for fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas, though it is unbalanced and seems to be one of the more breakable Hallmark ornaments . . . ever. While inspecting Hallmark ornaments for review late last year, I found three Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares ornaments with breakage to the sled’s blades.

For those unfamiliar with The Nightmare Before Christmas (reviewed here!) Jack Skellington, a denizen of Halloweentown finds himself transported to Christmastown in a bizarre turn of events and there the spirit of Christmas (or, at least, an obsession with Santa Claus) reaches Jack and he tries to bring that back to Halloweentown. It is Jack, seated at the helm of his absurd sled/tank with goggles on that is the subject of "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares." The Hallmark "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament is a very basic ornament and not one that is iconic of The Nightmare Before Christmas, though for fans who can find it inexpensively now, it is different than all the other The Nightmare Before Christmas ornaments Hallmark has produced.


The "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament recreates Jack Skellington seated at the helm of the weird drill-like tank-like sleigh he rode briefly in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The ornament, released in 2013, is as authentic as it can be considering it is based upon an animated work for the source material. Because everything in A Nightmare Before Christmas is colored in simple solid colors (without human shading or details), the ornament appropriately does not have any coloring depth or shading to it.

Still, Hallmark clearly made an effort on the "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament and almost everything about the ornament looks good and functions well. Jack Skellington has adequate detailing in his lips and mouth and in his spindly legs and his arms. The ornament even has Jack’s coattails hanging down between the main sleigh and the sleigh with the bag of gifts that trails it! The character's arms in his distinctive striped jacket's sleeves are visible and there are even the weird cranks molded into the side of the sleigh. At 3" tall and almost twice as long, the "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament is the same price as similar size ornaments (originally released at $19.95, but now found at half price pretty easily).

The Hallmark "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament is made of plastic, though it is not as durable as collectors might hope. The finely molded sleigh blades descend from the ridiculous green sleigh and they are so fine that if the ornament falls, they may break off. As previously noted, having visited six Hallmark stores and found three broken ornaments, the fragility of the Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares ornament cannot be overstated. The coloring on the Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares ornament may be accurate, but it looks very plastic and ridiculous with its bright, olive green nose.


As a Hallmark Keepsake ornament, "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" has no light effect or sound effect. The ornament is just fragile plastic and fine detailing (like the treads on the sleigh!), without the need for any light or sound function; there was no organic place for a light effect and a sound chip would have probably driven the price up to well over the $19.95 original issue price.


As with all ornaments, the intent of the Hallmark Keepsake "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament is to be hung on a Christmas Tree. And for those creating the ultimate Christmas Tree for A Nightmare Before Christmas, the "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" ornament is an extravagance. It is utterly unnecessary. The ornament has the standard brass hook loop embedded into the top front of the second sled. It is actually a pretty discrete position for the hook loop, but from there, the ornament is ridiculously front-heavy. The ornament pitches downward at a pretty extreme angle and I was not able to get any of them to hang level or less than thirty degrees descending; usually, it hangs closer to a 45 degree angle pointing downward!


Hallmark Keepsake began delving into the collectibles market in 1991 with Star Trek when it introduced the exceptionally limited edition original U.S.S. Enterprise ornament (reviewed here!). Within a few years, virtually every major studio with a marketable property jumped on the bandwagon and began merchandising Christmas ornaments, including Disney, which produced The Nightmare Before Christmas. "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" was the only The Nightmare Before Christmas ornament released in 2013 and fans seemed pretty neutral to it. As a result, I have been able to find this ornament easily after the holidays at clearance prices. I suspect it will be one of the few The Nightmare Before Christmas ornaments that does not appreciate in value any time soon, if at all.


Despite the fact that "Jack’s Sleigh O’Scares" was manufactured with pretty incredible attention to detail, the balance issue is enough to sour casual fans on it. The Nightmare Before Christmas might be a reliable subject for Hallmark ornaments, but in 2013, Hallmark missed the mark with their ornament based on the film. Fans who are considering picking it up anyway should be sure the one they are getting is intact, given their fragile nature.

For other The Nightmare Before Christmas ornaments, please check out my reviews of:
2012 Jack Sneaks A Peek
2011 A Snowy Surprise
2009 Welcome To Christmastown


For other ornament reviews, please check out my Toy And Ornament Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Not As Bad As It Could Be . . . Britney Jean (Deluxe Edition) Is More Familiar Than Horrible.

The Good: Some of the lyrics, Moments of natural voice
The Bad: Musically unimaginative, Some of the lyrics, Could be longer, Vocally overproduced.
The Basics: The deluxe edition of Britney Jean illustrates more that Britney Spears has failed to grow as an artist, as opposed to showing any real degradation of her talent.

If Katy Perry’s album Prism (reviewed here!) was to be any indication, 2013 was a pretty dismal year for pop music. Where I live now, there are no actual pop stations and given how little I leave the house most days, I do not hear much in the way of pop music any more. So, when Britney Spears was set for a late 2013 release with Britney Jean I opened myself to the possibility that she still had something to add to pop music. When Spears began promoting the album with teases about how personal Britney Jean was going to be and how the song “Perfume” was emblematic of her new approach to music, I raised my hopes some. Having now completed eight replays of the deluxe edition of Britney Jean, I find myself sorry that I got my hopes up.

Britney Jean is not bad, but it has the opposite problem of most Britney Spears albums. Outside the few albums of Spears’ that I absolutely hated the from the first listen on, most of Spears’s works wear me down; I start out with a generally unfavorable opinion, but the constant repetition of the songs makes me get to the point where I think “It’s not so bad” by the time I write my review. Britney Jean is just the opposite; most of the songs I liked or found tolerable the first two or three spinnings have become songs I actively despise now. And, at this point, it’s not even the fault of Britney Spears; on Britney Jean, she’s just doing what she’s always done.

Since I first truly listened to “. . .Baby One More Time,” I’ve been of the opinion that Britney Spears does not have any idea how to use what talent she possesses. She sings her songs wrong: songs she makes into dippy dance songs have the lyrics to be wrenching, heartbreaking ballads, for example. She treads for the obvious side of popularity, including pairing with artists who have no sense of compliment for her work (on Britney Jean this is absolutely evident – publicly, she spoke about toning down the video for “Work Bitch” because she is a mother and could not reconcile the continued sexualization associated with her public persona with her trying to raise her children, yet she has T.I. provide guest vocals like “Find me in the club where the girls get busy / With a flask and the fat booty nice shaped titties“ on “Tik Tik Boom”. So, apparently, dominatrix sex with a consenting partner is bad parenting, but inviting guys to sing about slipping loose women date rape drugs at clubs is all right. Go figure.). On Britney Jean, she just does more of the same. Instead of pushing herself to create a truly new and different album for herself, she makes yet another dance album that panders to the hip-hop club audience (with an occasional oblique reference to Christian rock – “Passenger,” “Hold On Tight”). The problem with Britney Jean is not that Britney Spears is any better or worse on the album than she is on any of her other works, the problem is that most of the songs are virtually interchangeable with any number of other Britney Spears songs on almost any of her other albums.

With fourteen tracks (thirteen songs, one remix) clocking out at 50:48, even the deluxe edition of Britney Jean is pretty short. This album represents a very clear sense of Spears exerting creative control over her album. In addition to providing all of the primary vocals on Britney Jean, Spears is a co-writer on all of the songs (only one song has only one other co-writer, though, so even her most personal works apparently take a team of about four people including her to get out) and she is a co-executive producer on Britney Jean with (who uses the opportunity to essentially create a Black Eyed Peas reject song with Spears in the form of “It Should Be Easy.” But, despite changing record labels, it is clear Britney Spears still had incredible creative control over her own work with Britney Jean.

Musically, Britney Jean is exactly what one expects from a Britney Spears album: it is produced synth music. There are remarkably few actual instruments listed on the credits for the album; most of the album’s musicians are credited with “programming.” While the single “Perfume” sounds like it has actual pianos, there is only one credited piano player on the album and the string orchestra seems to be used pretty sparingly also. But, again, this is more to be expected than to be considered a departure for Britney Spears. While the dance beat might play well on “Alien,” it is absolutely horrible when it breaks out on “Chillin’ With You.”

Also (unfortunately) expected is how little Britney Spears’s natural voice comes through on Britney Jean. For an album that has so much to do with alienation that comes from being a celebrity, there is so little that sounds like the authentic voice of Britney Spears. While I have surprisingly little problem with the amount of repetition that opens the album with “Alien,” the fact that Spears’s voice is overproduced on the track diminishes the raw humanity of the lines she sings and that is a serious problem for the listener and the artist.

Lyrically, Britney Jean is very much a fractured album. The first single illustrates well the problems with today’s editing. “Work Bitch” in an edited version comes across as one of Britney Spears’ most glib and terrible songs as she sings to young people, “You wanna hot body . . . You wanna Lamborghini / Sip martinis / Look hot in a bikini / You better work [work].” Oh, thanks, Britney! I didn’t know I had to work work for success! The thing is, that second “work” only comes out in the edited version; in the actual song, the word is “bitch” and it entirely changes the tone and nature of the song. Instead of being a brush off (“You, too, could be a pop princess, if only you worked for it! Screw existing opportunities!”), “Work Bitch” is a surprisingly dark song wherein listeners hear the type of self-degradation artists (and athletes) go through to push themselves to produce results. Either way, it is not the most lyrically strong song.

When Spears announced on her Facebook page that “Perfume” was going to be her most personal song yet and was the song she was most proud of on Britney Jean, that piqued my interest. Was Britney Spears going to sing a scathing indictment of how artists become merchandising tools for all manner of things (Spears has so many perfume lines and if she was willing to burn that bridge as part of creating a deeply personal song about how she was overwhelmed as a child star and teenager and . . . but no)? Despite my disappointment in quickly realizing that Spears was just creating a power ballad with “Perfume,” it’s hard not to acknowledge that “Perfume” is easily the best Britney Spears song in years. Seriously, when Spears’s massive library is distilled down to a single “Essentials” album and sold at rock bottom prices, “Perfume” will be one of the tracks. The song is a yearning, wrenching expression of insecurity, fear, and jealousy. In it, Spears creates a musical protagonist who “want[s] to believe / It’s just you and me / Sometimes it feels like there’s three of us in here, baby / So I wait for you to call / And I try to act natural / Have you been thinking ’bout her or about me? / And while I wait I put on my perfume, / Yeah, I want it all over you / I'm gonna mark my territory” (“Perfume”). And Spears gets the song, the emotions, everything absolutely right.

Sadly, it is the exception to the rule on Britney Jean. The songs head more in the direction of safe and dull than probing. Spears and her co-writers use some terrible and overdone imagery and garble their message as a result. There is nothing new, for example, about the lines “I know you feel my fire / Throw you into my flames / Tonight we take it higher” (“Body Ache”).

Ultimately, that’s where Britney Jean falls: it is never quite audacious or interesting enough to justify the listener’s attention for the entire album and that makes it a tougher sell than an album touting to be Spears’s most personal work ought to have been.

The best song is “Perfume,” the worst song is the terrible, misogynistic and stupid “Tik Tik Boom.”

For other reviews of Britney Spears music, please check out my reviews of:
. . . Baby One More Time (single)
From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart (single)
Stronger (single)
Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know (single)
I'm A Slave 4 U (single)
Overprotected (single)
Me Against The Music (single with Madonna)
Toxic (single)
Gimme More (single)
The Singles Collection
The Singles Collection (2-disc CD/DVD with videos)
The Singles Collection (Deluxe Collector's Edition)
Femme Fatale (Deluxe Edition)


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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