Monday, June 30, 2014

June 2014 End Of The Month Report!

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Last year, June was the biggest month ever for W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe. This year, we’ve slowed down a little and had less chance to leap on Summer Blockbuster Season films. Even so, this was a great month in the longterm for the blog as we finally finished the Star Trek reviews and started on Doctor Who! We were bolstered by independent cinema reviews, additional food reviews, and the new episodes of the True Blood!

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 indie cinema, the musical works of Sting and Joni Mitchell, new episodes of True Blood and the final 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, we picked up no new subscribers, which is not surprising given how little we were able to produce. 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 continue 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 June, 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 during the summer and going through the blog to do so!

At the end of June 2014, I have reviewed the following:
502 - Book Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Star Trek Books
Graphic Novels
869 - Music (Album and Singles) Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Music Reviews By Rating (Best To Worst)
Music Reviews In Alphabetical Order
2571 - 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!)!
The Doctor Who Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews In Order)!
The Doctor Who Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews From The Best Of The Franchise To The Worst!)!
204 - 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
731 - 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
779 - Food, Drink, And Restaurant Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Cheese and Meats
Ice Cream
Other Food
213 - Pet Product Reviews
Cat Product Reviews
Dog Product Reviews
Rabbit Product Reviews
107 - Travel Reviews
Destinations Reviews
Hotels Reviews
167 - Health And Beauty Product Reviews
176 - Home, Garden, Appliance and Tool Reviews
93 - Electronics, Computers, Computer Games and Software Reviews
37 - Other Product Reviews

The Featured Review For The Month of June is my article on bad job hunting advice: Parents, It’s Not The World You Remember!, which I was largely impressed by.
Check it out!

The month of June had a lot of movement within the month and was (predictably) dominated by new reviews and a couple of predictable resurging reviews! For May, the Top Ten Reviews of the month were:
10. MalIficent
9. ”Jesus Gonna Be Here” - True Blood
8. Orange Is The New Black - Season 1
7. Breaking Bad - Season 5
6. World War Z
5. The Top Ten Episodes Of Frasier
4. Orange Is The New Black - Season 2
3. The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek: Voyager
2. Behaving Badly
1. Bad Neighbors

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 - 292 reviews
9s - 420 reviews
8s - 808 reviews
7s - 911 reviews
6s - 829 reviews
5s - 1084 reviews
4s - 789 reviews
3s - 629 reviews
2s - 286 reviews
1s - 197 reviews
0s - 88 reviews
No rating - 69 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 June 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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Weakest Glade Spray? Cashmere Woods Might Be The Frontrunner!

The Good: Easy to use
The Bad: A little expensive, Does not solve any problems/address cause of smells, Ridiculously weak scent, Weak scent does not endure.
The Basics: Arguably the weakest and least-enduring aroma from the line, Glade Cashmere Woods Glade Spray is a waste of money.

Not long ago, I found myself considering the Glade Sprays limited edition Winter Collection Pure Vanilla Joy spray (reviewed here!) and I found it wanting. In fact, it was no surprise to me that after I bought that spray, my wife went out and bought another Glade Spray to try to combat the scents lingering around our apartment (most of which are animal related). The scent she chose was Cashmere Woods. Rather problematically, Cashmere Woods is even weaker than the Pure Vanilla Joy. In fact, it is such a weak scent that the only reason it does not earn a zero rating is that it does not smell bad. I guess I was feeling generous and figured an air freshener that does not make an area smell worse is worth half a point.

An autumn or winter scent, Glade Cashmere Woods is a spray air freshener that comes in an 8 oz. metal spray bottle. Topped with a plastic spray nozzle and button, the Glade Cashmere Woods air freshener is exceptionally easy to use. Simply press the lever and a mist explodes out of the canister. A one second burst creates a cloud about 1 cubic foot in volume and that is enough to cast the scent around a medium-sized (12’ X 15’ X 9’) room.

The Glade Cashmere Woods canister is expensive. For $3.99, the canister gets at least thirty uses, but the scent only seems to last about as long as one can see it in the air. Cashmere Woods Glade Spray does not address the causes of odor. If you have shoes that smell bad and use this Glade scent, almost instantly, the bad smell will almost instantly reassert itself. Unlike something like a disinfectant (like Lysol) that kills bacteria that cause odors, the Glade Sprays just mask the scent and the Cashmere Woods type does not even do that effectively. I would rather get more enduring value out of a disinfectant than an air freshener.

As for the scent, the Cashmere Woods is a vague nature spice scent. For the two or three seconds the smell lingers in the air, it smells like dry leaves and acorns. The scent is weak, virtually indescribable, and smells most like bark, but not pine or another aromatic wood.

Ultimately, the weakness, lack of endurance and lack of real (disinfecting) benefits make the Cashmere Woods Glade Spray impossible to recommend.

For other products designed to change the scent in the home, check out my reviews of:
Better Homes & Gardens Baked Apple Strudel Scented Wax Cubes
Renuzit Adjustables Mandarin Lemonade
ScentSationals Oatmeal Cookie Wickless Wax Cubes


For other home and garden product reviews, please visit my Home And Garden Product Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Juliet Finds Out In Psych Season Seven!

The Good: Good character development, Decent continuity, Good performances, Very funny
The Bad: Cases continue to have a repetitive/predictable quality to them, Unfortunately obvious product placement
The Basics: Just as Psych was in danger of getting completely stale, it shakes up the formula with Shawn telling Juliet the truth about his abilities.

I’ve been waiting for almost a year to see the seventh season of Psych and the joke, having now watched all fifteen episodes of the season, is that I am psyched to be able to review it. After the extended wait to see the season, I was thrilled that the season was actually one of the funniest seasons of Psych yet. Perhaps as cool as the fact that the show was abruptly funny again in a way that it had not been for the prior ones (at least, not in any memorable ways), is the fact that the show has managed to successfully reinvent itself. The penultimate season of Psych shakes up the familiar formula of the series with genuine character development and continues the series moving forward with a climax that shifts the direction of the series to set up the final season.

Halfway through the season, Juliet learns the truth about Shawn Spencer and that changes the tone of the latter half of the season. In its seventh season, Psych is largely about relationships. Carlton Lassiter has a real shot at love when Marlow is released from prison and they find themselves at the mercy of a vindictive parole officer until Lassiter decides to commit to her. Gus has yet another relationship that seems doomed to failure when it turns out Rachael has a seven year-old son and she needs to take him to Europe for months. But the big relationship changes come with Shawn and Juliet. The two move in together and when Shawn tells Juliet the truth, she pushes Shawn away.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, Psych follows Shawn Spencer, a super-observant young man who fakes being a psychic in order to assist the Santa Barbara Police Department on hard-to-solve murder cases. In the seventh season, Shawn and his partner Gus go rogue in order to find who shot Henry. They get embroiled in a case that finds a charity sending weapons to war-torn areas worldwide. With Henry wounded and in need of convalescence, Shawn considers moving in with him, which appears to push Juliet away as she gets involved with a case that involves an internet dating service that is the common link in a string of murders. Shawn and Gus help a pair of college students in their attempt to prove Bigfoot is living in a nearby woods and Juliet’s new stepfather turns out to not be the milquetoast accountant he appears and Henry gets embroiled in a Mexican mob case that nearly leaves him and the rest of the team dead. After a parody of Clue (or And Then There Were None), Gus’s relationship with Rachael is put on the rocks when he takes her to the Cirque where they witness a murder.

At Lassiter’s wedding, Shawn tells Juliet the truth about his investigative technique. In the wake of her learning the truth, she pushes Shawn away and Psych does an experimental episode (a la Sliding Doors) wherein Shawn solves a case split into two different universes (one where he reacts to telling Juliet the truth and another that denies that event occurred). When Juliet kicks Shawn out of the house, Shawn becomes convinced that Juliet’s new roommate is a killer. With the two estranged, Shawn begins to take bigger and bigger risks, like running for Mayor in order to delay a mayoral candidate from succeeding the murdered Mayor of Santa Barbara. Gus accidentally fouls up a crime scene when his terrible boss dies and Shawn only makes it worse when he tries to help. The guys become DJs to try to solve a murder of a DJ and Henry finds a dead body that seems to implicate a plastic surgeon friend of his. The season climaxes in an episode that finds the Santa Barbara Police Department investigated and Juliet has to choose between exposing Shawn or protecting the SBPD!

There is an awkward second climax to the seventh season of Psych. After the season finale of the seventh season, Psych did a musical episode and it is an awkward addition to the season for several reasons. First and foremost, “Psych The Musical” seems to occur before Shawn came out to Juliet and before the end of the season (as climactic events in that episode change the balance of power at the SBPD). While the episode is hilarious, it is an irksome discontinuity in the seventh season.

Far less plot-centered than the prior seasons, Psych Season Seven contains a ridiculously high number of funny lines (most often delivered by Kurt Fuller’s Woody the coroner), but it also contains genuine character development. The characters in Psych actually evolve in the seventh season. To better understand the seventh season of Psych, it helps to know who the characters are:

Shawn Spencer – The fake psychic continues to solve cases with incredibly few initial clues. He becomes protective of his father after Henry is shot and he is even willing to move back in with him . . . until his mother moves in and Shawn walks in on the two in bed together! He decides in a critical moment to be honest with Juliet. When she takes the news poorly, he fights for her at every opportunity, even when it embarrasses her,

Burton Guster – Shawn’s right hand man, he tries to develop a relationship with Rachael, even when he finds out she has a son. He tries to develop the relationship, despite the fact that he is very uncomfortable with Max and Shawn is super-uncomfortable with what he sees as Gus’s legitimate chance at happiness and a good relationship. When that relationship falls apart, he takes care of Shawn as Shawn struggles with his estrangement from Juliet,

Carlton Lassiter – Loosening up significantly, he helps Shawn track down the man who shot Henry. He becomes enthralled with Marlow and happily marries her in order to take the power away from a vindictive parole officer he briefly dated in the past He remains vigilant and gun happy even after his marriage,

Juliet O’Hara – She acts largely as a sidekick though she is much more in tune with Shawn’s sense of humor. But when she sees some of the clues Shawn collects during the case that precedes Lassiter’s wedding, she questions Shawn point blank and learns the truth. Devastated at being lied to for more than six years, she pushes Shawn away. But as she sees the consequences of Shawn stumbling and realizes what it could mean if the truth ever got out, she faces a much bigger decision than what to do with her relationship with Shawn,

Henry Spencer – Having been shot at the prior season’s climax, he finds himself bedridden at the outset of the season. After casting off the annoying woman who plagues him in the hospital, he reconnects with his ex-wife and forges a new friendship with Juliet’s stepfather, despite the fact that friendship gets him shot at. He tries to protect an old friend even when evidence piles up against her and he gives Shawn the emotional kick he needs to tell Juliet the truth,

and Karen Vick – After giving Shawn the off the books encouragement to go after the men who were involved in shooting Henry, she sits out most of the season, save for exposition purposes. She does a ton of shots at Marlow’s bachelorette party and ends the season in her most precarious position yet.

On the acting front, James Roday and Maggie Lawson give the most intense performances of the season. Roday directs the critical episode of the season, but when Shawn and Juliet have their falling out, it gives Roday the chance to play with much more dramatic range. He is intense and plays the wounded man exceptionally well. With an equally wonderful level of skill, Maggie Lawson plays Juliet as hurt, angry, and confused. Lawson plays Juliet with a realism that makes her compelling to watch for the entire second half of the season.

Ultimately, the seventh season of Psych completely reinvigorates the sagging series. Moving beyond the episodic nature of the show’s usual formula, Psych becomes more serialized and intense, making it one of the best seasons of the entire series.

For prior seasons of Psych, check out my reviews of:
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5
Season 6


For other television reviews, please 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 Desperation Of Killers: “I Found You” Has Infected Vampires Freaking Out!

The Good: Good plot development, Decent acting
The Bad: Pathetically obvious direction, Light on character development, Uninspired continuity issue
The Basics: With a much better sense of pacing and plot progression, True Blood explores the genocide of a neighboring town in “I Found You.”

Like many people, I was seriously disappointed by the seventh season premiere of True Blood, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” (reviewed here!). In fact, my antipathy toward the season premiere led me to delay watching the sophomore episode of the season, “I Found You.” “I Found You,” fortunately, is a much better episode and one that allows the plot of True Blood to progress in a much more satisfying nature than the episode that opened the season.

“I Found You” continues the menace of the vampires who have been infected with Hepatitis V and are threatening Bon Temps. Introduced in the final frames of the prior season, the presumption so far has been that the difference between the vampires infected with Hep-V by drinking the contaminated Tru Blood and the hordes seen assaulting the patrons of Bellefleur’s is that the new breed contaminated by the Tru Blood have a longer period before the virus kills them. Even after “I Found You,” one of the essential questions – how did the infected vampires live long enough to become a menace to a population that should have been able to wait them out in private residences for the days it should have taken for them to all die out – remains unanswered. The scope of the threat, however, is explored through the course of the main two groups of characters presented in “I Found You.”

After Jason Stackhouse has a vivid sexually-charged dream about Eric Northman, he awakens in church where the residents of Bon Temps are freaking out about the assault on the town the night before. The only lead Sherriff Bellefleur has comes from Sookie; a dead body that she suspects came from the same place as the horde that abducted several members of the Bon Temps community the night before. Checking the dead girl’s wallet, Sookie, Alcide, Sam, Andy and Jason discover she came from nearby Saint Alice and they head for the town to see if they can find clues to who might have abducted their friends and where they went.

Meanwhile, in the basement of Fangtasia, Arlene, Holly, Nicole and the other prisoners wait in mortal terror to be dragged off by the vampires who harvested them the night before. Arlene and Holly recognize the new reaper as Betty Harris, a teacher who both found to be exceptionally supportive of their children. Arlene tries to convince Mrs. Harris to save the captives and she makes some headway. Sookie and her team learn that Saint Alice is a ghost town where the residents were butchered or captured days before and she begins to fear that Bon Temps is soon to suffer the same fate. In the absence of law enforcement, the citizens of Bon Temps take control of the guns at the police station, which puts Adilyn in danger.

“I Found You” includes subplots like Lettie Mae becoming a full-fledged V addict and Pam continuing her search for Eric. Lettie Mae has always been a disturbed Christian fundamentalist and in “I Found You,” her character takes a complete right turn. The idea that she has tried and become addicted to V in such a way that she will do such gruesome things as burn herself horribly so Willa has to heal her without any hints of that addiction before now seems like lousy continuity more than compelling character development.

In another, perhaps more problematic leap slip of continuity, “I Found You” introduces Mrs. Harris. Out of nowhere, Mrs. Harris is suddenly the most important person in Arlene and Holly’s lives. While Holly has not been a presence in True Blood for long or in an indispensible way, Arlene has been a part of the series since episode one. Arlene cites Mrs. Harris as a powerful friend to her children after Rene betrayed her and yet this episode is the first and only time we have seen her. Arlene delivers her self-serving monologs to Mrs. Harris in a convincing-enough way, but her sudden importance is somewhat ridiculous.

The defect of character in “I Found You” does not end with the sudden appearance of a brand new character who becomes the only hope for the captive main cast characters. Kendra, who has seemed like a strong supporting character at the Sheriff’s office, gives up all her credibility and personal strength from one ridiculous minute-long monologue from another character who has had no substantive presence in the series before now. It is only Kendra’s suddenly insubstantial character that allows Bon Temps to turn into perhaps the stupidest, well-armed town in Louisiana. It is hard not to watch “I Found You” and suspect that the idiots who are left in Bon Temps (Adilyn alone remains as a character viewers might actually care about) will be slaughtered because they are all hanging out in a public place where infected vampires can easily enter.

The field trip to Saint Alice is a good and appropriately creepy journey for some of the show’s most important characters. That trip brings Sookie back to the forefront of True Blood and makes “I Found You” very watchable and interesting. Unfortunately, director Howard Deutch telegraphs much of “I Found You.” Well before Jason Stackhouse is revealed to be in a church and the mass grave are shown, viewers who have seen any prior True Blood will be able to tell that Jason is engaged in a dream sequence and that the group is coming around the corner where they will encounter the residents of Saint Alice.

That said, all of the acting in “I Found You” is quite good. Despite the problems with the character of Lettie Mae suddenly turning to a vampire blood addict, actress Adina Porter does an exceptional job of selling her character’s unsettling change. Anna Paquin makes reading a diary into gripping television and Carrie Preston embodies Arlene well. Sure, Arlene is hard to screw up given that she is surrounded by people who are just crying hysterically, but Preston does a decent job of balancing emotion and rationality in Arlene’s tone.

In the end, “I Found You” does exactly what it needed to; it reinvigorated the sagging True Blood enough to make viewers want to watch the next episode, which is something “Jesus Gonna Be Here” utterly failed to do.

For other works with Carrie Preston, please check out my reviews of:
A Bag Of Hammers
Cradle Will Rock
My Best Friend’s Wedding

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into True Blood - The Complete Sevent Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of the supernatural show here!


For other television reviews, please 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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Super Chocolate: Cold Stone Chocolate Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars!

The Good: Great taste, Comparatively inexpensive option for chocolate fans, Generally good ingredients, Reasonably priced, Wonderful blend of two chocolate types!
The Bad: Not at all nutritious/healthy
The Basics: Cold Stone Creamery Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars are an impressive blend of the two types of chocolate!

Not very long ago, I found a whole load of Cold Stone Creamery candy bars at my local discount food store. I was surprised because I had never seen the bars in any grocery stores I frequent, but the idea of the Mmmmmint Chip Mint Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars (reviewed here!) was instantly appealing to me. As a result, I decided to stock up on all the bars I could find that were based upon the premium ice cream shop Cold Stone Creamery (reviewed here!). Today, that means trying the Cold Stone Creamery Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars!

Unlike the Mmmmmint Chip Mint Milk Chocolate, the Chocolate Devotion truffle bars fully live up to their flavor potentials and are a pretty delightful combination of the promised flavors!


Cold Stone Creamery, of course, is the famous fancy ice cream maker that has become a fixture in malls all around the United States. They make fancy ice cream sundaes and other premium ice cream products, but the truffle bars seem to be their experiment in branching out into candy bars. The Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars give that target demographic a taste of the good life at an affordable price, even if they taste nothing like an ice cream product from the Cold Stone Creamery!

The Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars come in a 1.8 oz. chocolate bar that is plastic wrapped. Each bar represents a single serving and Cold Stone Creamery has the truffle bar presented as a single 1 1/8” wide by 3 1/2” long by 3/4” tall smooth chocolate bar. This makes the Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars very easy to portion out, though they are packed with calories!

Ease Of Preparation

Eating Cold Stone Creamery Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars is not a real challenge. After removing the wrapper, simply pull out the bar and bite it off into reasonable size pieces. There is no particularly complicated equation to eating these chocolates. This is an entirely ready-to-eat food!


Unwrapping the truffle bar, the consumer is instantly hit with a delightful aroma of dark chocolate. The Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bar might have both milk and dark chocolate, but only the dark chocolate is delightfully foreshadowed by the scent of the bars.

The Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bar is dry and sweet, like someone took a hot chocolate and solidified it into a candy bar. The outer coating of the Chocolate Devotion truffle bar is softer than most dark chocolate bars, but it is clearly a dark chocolate. The milk chocolate truffle center of the bar eliminates the hints of bitterness that creep into the flavor of the bar’s shell as it melts away. That leaves the lighter, very sweet flavor of chocolate filling one’s mouth in a delightful way.

There is no aftertaste to this chocolate bar, though the milk chocolate is so sweet that it leaves the mouth feeling sweet and chocolatey in a way that many chocolate bars fail to.


Cold Stone Creamery chocolates are intended as a dessert product or a snack, not part of a healthy diet at all! The 1.8 oz. Truffle Bars represent a single serving and those looking for real nutrition will have to look elsewhere. Made primarily of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and coconut oil, there are no unpronounceable ingredients in this chocolate bar. This is not an all-natural food product and these Truffle Bars were produced on equipment that forces them to add allergy warnings about milk, soy and tree nuts.

In addition to no ingredients I cannot readily pronounce, Cold Stone Creamery's Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars have 296 calories, 176 of which are from fat. A full serving represents 70% of one's RDA of saturated fat and 2% of the RDA of cholesterol. Surprisingly, they are fairly low in sodium with only 21 mg per serving and there are 3 grams of protein to be had by eating a full serving. These are not a significant source of vitamins or minerals, though they do have 5% of one’s daily calcium and 12% of the RDA of Iron.


As a chocolate, Cold Stone Creamery Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars are fine as long as they are stored below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The bar I consumed minutes ago and they had an expiration date of September 2014, which makes me wonder why I was able to get them so cheap now!

If, however, they melt, they will stain. Consult your fabric guide if that happens as good dark chocolate can be virtually impossible to clean up when melted into light fabrics. Otherwise, cleanup is simply throwing the plastic wrapper away when you are done with the chocolate bar.


Cold Stone Creamery Chocolate Devotion Dark & Milk Chocolate Truffle Bars are absolutely delightful, despite the health detractions of these bars. I’m not sure why Cold Stone Chocolates are so hard to find, but so far the Chocolate Devotion truffle bars are the one to hunt down!

For other reviews of premium chocolates, please check out:
Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Cabernet Matinee
Godiva White Chocolate Vanilla Bean bar
Russell Stover Triple Chocolate Mousse


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Michael Bay’s Latest Popcorn Blockbuster Is Everything One Expects . . . Except That It’s Not Terrible! Transformers: Age Of Extinction!

The Good: Decent new characters, Good special effects, Decent continuity and plot concept
The Bad: Formulaic plot, Ridiculous plot/character/directing conceits.
The Basics: More a predictable and unambitious continuation of the Transformers franchise, Transformers: Age Of Extinction is a mildly creative popcorn flick that undermines itself by playing to the worst conceits of the existing franchise.

Were it not for my place as a film reviewer, I never would have watched Transformers, much less all of the films in the recent cinematic empire that has made an obscene amount of cash in remarkably few years. Over the course of the past seven years, Michael Bay’s live-action, CG-effects loaded Transformers franchise has become one of the highest grossing cinematic franchises of all time and a staple of Summer Blockbuster Season. Regardless of my antipathy toward the franchise, Michael Bay’s latest endeavor into the Transformers Saga suffers more from an unimaginative script and a pathetic dependence on the more lascivious elements of the popcorn film than being actually, genuinely terrible.

In fact, outside the way Michael Bay uses the camera to virtually molest yet another female model – in this case one who is playing a minor child – and lamely recreates the familiar shots of convoys of hot, trendy cars that stick out wherever they go. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is actually the best of the franchise (so far), but the dependence on playing toward the lowest common denominator in terms of humor and style (are the only people who would appreciate a Transformers film really those who find a “whoo hoo girl” to be the ideal?!) undermine the quality elements that Transformers: Age Of Extinction possesses. And Transformers: Age Of Extinction actually has some worthwhile elements, most notably in the cast – which replaces Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, and Tyrese with higher caliber actors like Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, Titus Welliver, and Mark Wahlbrg (replacing Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley with Nicola Peltz and Sophia Myles is more an even swap-out than an upgrade of any sort) – and the overall plot concept that put it above the prior incarnations of Transformers.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction does what very few popcorn movies do: it is steeped in the consequences of the prior film(s) in a way that makes the continuation/reboot of the franchise surprisingly compelling. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is a direct sequel to Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (reviewed here!) and the wholesale destruction in Chicago and the robotic carnage that happened as a result forces a complete redirection of the franchise. The first half of Transformers: Age Of Extinction is spent introducing new characters and wrestling with the problems left over from Transformers: Dark Of The Moon before the second half progresses the story with how irresponsible humans have led to an unholy alliance and a military/industrial complex that has made a bad decision which “the market” pushes into action before adequate testing. While Transformers: Age Of Extinction predictably lacks compelling character development on the front of the virtual characters, the human characters in the film are more than catch phrase-spewing tools; they have motivations that are more well-rounded and realistic than in the prior movies.

In ancient times, a massive space ship floats over Earth and releases technology that obliterates the dinosaurs. Then, five years after the attack on Chicago (which was the subject of the climax of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon), an archaeology team discovers wreckage of an ancient Dinobot (dinosaur Transformer). In Texas, Cade Yeager and his lackey employee, Lucas, go on a salvage mission where they find wreckage from a failed operation in New Mexico in the middle of a defunct movie theater they are considering purchasing (but cannot possibly afford). Yeager’s daughter, Tessa, is embarrassed by her father as the family struggles to afford her imminent college bills (not to mention the mortgage). But in the wake of a U.S. government team flushing out and destroying the Autobot medic, Ratchet, the head of the task force hunting down Transformers in the U.S., the CIA’s special task force director Attinger, steps up his hunt for Optimus Prime.

Optimus Prime, unsurprisingly, is the truck Cade has stashed at Yeager Robotics. Attinger is working with a Transformer bounty hunter who is affiliated with neither the Autobots or the (now completely eliminated) Decepticons and after a disastrous raid on Yeager Robotics, Cade and his family (and Tessa’s boyfriend) are rescued by Optimus Prime. The Yeagers work with Optimus to find what has happened to the remaining Autobots on Earth and their search takes them to KSI, where Joshua Joyce is using the metal from which the Transformers are constructed and the frame of the deceased Megatron to build a whole new race of Transformers. Joyce’s Galvatron manages to hold Optimus Prime in check long enough for Attinger’s Lockdown to enter the fray. But when Lockdown abducts Tessa along with Optimus Prime (fulfilling the deal he had with Attinger), Cade and Tessa’s boyfriend – along with the remaining Autobots – infiltrate Lockdown’s ship on a rescue mission to try to save her and stop the Autobots from ending up as slaves for their original creators.

Transformers: Age Of Extinction is truly an example of “better ingredients, better product” in a lot of ways. For sure, the prior incarnations of Transformers featured acting and vocal talents from some respectable individuals – like John Turturro, Leonard Nimoy, Jon and John Malkovich – but the way Wahlberg, Grammer and Tucci are used in Transformers: Age Of Extinction illustrates a far better use of acting talent than the prior films.

For a film that deals with consequences of the prior movies, there is a strange disconnect between reason and the reality of the Transformers universe in Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Joyce is greedy and motivated by a desire to push ahead human technology using technology scrapped from downed Transformers. Oddly, Joyce is resource poor in Transformers: Age Of Extinction, which makes no reasonable sense. Devastator’s “corpse” alone should have given Joyce enough “Transformium” to build his new Transformers without ever having to hunt Cybertronian fugitives left on Earth.

The Transformers franchise is a film franchise built on the popularity of a toy line intended for boys from the early 1980s and the movies are generally considered “guy movies.” Unlike dramas that focus on deep emotions or romantic movies geared more toward women, “guy movies” tend to trade almost solely on spectacle. The men are manly (Wahlberg certainly fits the bill in Transformers: Age Of Extinction) and the ones who are not traditionally hot are traditionally powerful, which Grammer’s Attinger and Tucci’s Joyce easily embody. But the weakness of the “guy movie” paradigm continues in Transformers: Age Of Extinction with the role of Tessa Yeager.

Tessa is a generic damsel in distress and is something of a hot, idiotic “whoo hoo girl” who fills the requisite T&A component of the Transformers film. This is somewhat creepily executed in Transformers: Age Of Extinction because she is a minor, not particularly talented or smart in any useful way and spends her time in the film with older men, one of whom is her father. Tessa’s relationship with Shane Dyson is a generic plot point: Peltz (Tessa) and Reynor (Dyson) have no on-screen chemistry and their relationship is not presented with any sort or realistic passion or plot-based basis for a relationship. Attinger and Joyce have more on-screen chemistry and character-based reasons for their relationship than the film’s supposed romantic couple.

Before Transformers: Age Of Extinction degenerates into yet another “Optimus Prime and his CG-robots must stop Megatron” film, Michael Bay’s latest entry into the Transformers mythos is intriguing enough to be entertaining and is hardly as misogynistic or slapstick as the prior three films. The result is a popcorn film that is more predictable than disappointing and is hardly as frustrating to admit one has watched than the prior movies in the franchise.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Expendables 3
Guardians Of The Galaxy
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Behaving Badly
Some Velvet Morning
Happy Christmas
22 Jump Street
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Edge Of Tomorrow
X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Echo Dr.
The Double
Bad Neighbors
Making The Rules


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Reminding Readers Why We Love Labyrinth, But Little More: Return To Labyrinth Volume 1!

The Good: Decent continuation of the Labyrinth storyline
The Bad: Repeats a lot of Labyrinth’s material, Unimpressive artwork, Very much an incomplete story, Almost no character development
The Basics: Return To Labyrinth Volume 1 is a creative expansion of the Labyrinth universe . . . except that much of it is simply a rehash of the film upon which the book is based.

My wife’s favorite film is (or, at least, was) Labyrinth (reviewed here!) and when I heard that the story of Labyrinth was continued in Manga form, I decided I would check out Return To Labyrinth Volume 1. Return To Labyrinth Volume 1 starts the four book story of Toby Williams as the protagonist of his own post-Labyrinth story. Return To Labyrinth Volume 1 actually became my first Manga and while there are aspects of the book I enjoyed, one of them is not the book’s artwork.

Despite a bevy of new characters, Return To Labyrinth Volume 1 is exceptionally derivative of Labyrinth. The style of humor and the character designs are instantly reminiscent of Labyrinth . . . or generic Manga characters. Both Toby and the Goblin King bear no resemblance to the characters they were once established as (Toby barely looks like a Caucasian teenager and the Goblin King looks nothing like David Bowie), but they look like characters from the covers of Manga books I’ve seen before.

More than twelve years after Labyrinth, Toby Williams is a disenchanted high school student who is picked on by his peers. He has a lousy run in a school play and when he makes a careless wish, he is rescued unwittingly by the Goblins from the Labyrinth. His half-sister, Sarah, cooks him a meal and Toby tries to work on his homework. When he finishes writing his paper, it is abruptly stolen by goblins. Chasing after the goblins, Toby finds himself at the Labyrinth.

Inside the Labyrinth, the Mayor, Spittledrum, works to maintain the Goblin King’s wishes. Spittledrum is something of an idiot and he craves the Goblin King’s approval. Believing that he is going to succeed the Goblin King, Spittledrum continues to put down everyone around him and ingratiate himself to the Goblin King. Spittledrum’s maid is the exceptionally competent Moppet. Moppet is a human who wears a goblin mask – which Toby sees through when they encounter one another – and is far smarter than Spittledrum. When the Goblin King explains how he has influenced Toby’s life to the teenager, he keeps Toby around with the lure of a Ball. At the Ball, the Goblin King reveals his purpose to all of the entities in attendance and he shocks Moppet, Toby, and the neighboring Queen.

Return To Labyrinth Volume 1 is very much an opening story. The book has a lot to it that is like a “Best Of” Labyrinth in terms of lines and character designs. Stank is essentially a baby version of Ludo. Spittledrum is a generic idiot goblin and Hoggle and Sir Didymus make an appearance right before the Ball chapter. The characters in Return To Labyrinth Volume 1 do not have enough time to truly develop. In fact, only Moppet and the wingless fairy Hana are established with enough character to feel like they will have a chance to develop. The Goblin King bears almost no resemblance to the original character and Toby is hardly a compelling protagonist in Return To Labyrinth Volume 1. Instead, Toby is a hapless teenager who has been manipulated into an end position his whole life.

As a product of Jim Henson’s studio interests, there are a few cute moments in Return To Labyrinth Volume 1. The Bricklayer is written by author Jake T. Forbes with a flair and wit that fits perfectly into the universe established in Labyrinth. Fans of Henson’s works will recognize the Fraggle who appears late in the book, which establishes an explicit connection between Labyrinth and Fraggle Rock. The cute allusions and the moments of wit are not enough to justify this book’s existence of future time investments in the franchise. The illustrated Manga book is a lukewarm expansion of the Labyrinth mythos at best; a cheap rip off of it at its worst.

For other animated books based upon movies, please check out my reviews of:
Twilight, Volume 1
Serenity: Those Left Behind
The A-Team: War Stories


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

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts: Doctor Who Season 1 Holds Together Remarkably Well!

The Good: Interesting characters, Decent acting, Good plot development, Most of the special effects
The Bad: Some ridiculous moments, One or two episodes are duds on their own.
The Basics: Doctor Who was resurrected with a surprisingly cohesive season that had the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler going on an adventure through time and space that is packed with devastating consequences for humanity.

There are a few seasons of television that, because of their serialized nature, hold together better as seasons than the individual episodes might indicate. A good example would be Lost (reviewed here!), which did a decent job of foreshadowing, then developing and telling a story with novel-like depth. On a much smaller scale, Doctor Who resurrected from a several year hiatus with a new Doctor and a story that threaded elements through virtually every episode in order to tell a story that was actually better as a whole narrative than it was (objectively) from its individual episodes.

The seasonlong story of Doctor Who in its “first” season is one of an alien time traveler (the Ninth Doctor, a Time Lord) who appears on Earth in the mid-2000s where he rescues shopgirl Rose Tyler and takes her on a journey through time and space. I write “first” in quotes because Doctor Who was aired on the BBC for decades before it was cancelled in the late 1980s. While the new Doctor Who is not a direct continuation of the series that aired before, it is supposed to fit into the same franchise universe and continue the story of the eccentric Time Lord who is only known as The Doctor. So, while not truly the first season, the 2005 – 2006 season of Doctor Who is the first of the “modern” Doctor Who seasons.

Rose Tyler is working at a shop in London when the Ninth Doctor appears as mannequins around her suddenly animate and attack her. Grabbing her hand and involving her in the plot to save the world from an alien race that was orphaned following a conflict The Doctor was involved in, The Doctor offers Rose a life away from her mediocre existence. Leaving her boyfriend, Mickey, behind, Rose journeys with The Doctor in his time machine (the TARDIS) to the end of the world, Dickensian Cardiff, the near future, Rose’s past, and a space station in the future that exerts dominance over Earth in a way that alters memories The Doctor has.

The Doctor and Rose thwart an alien invasion of Earth and end up in World War II London where people are being transformed into gasmask-wearing monsters. Throughout the season, Rose learns about her goofy and mysterious Doctor, who is wrestling with the consequences of his actions in the Great Time War. Those consequences led to the destruction of the entire Dalek race, though Rose and The Doctor soon discover the eradication of the Daleks was not as complete as the Time Lords thought. As Rose and The Doctor work to protect Earth from various alien and corporate interests, they discover that the Daleks still have the potential to destroy Earth’s future, which forces both the human and Time Lord to risk their lives to save humanity.

The Doctor is a seemingly immortal Time Lord, who is the last of his kind. Having wiped out his race in an act of sacrifice that saw the end of the Daleks, with a number of races acting as collateral damage, he rescues Rose Tyler and finds delight in sharing exploring time and space with her. While he is frustrated by her occasional emotionalism, he has an understated love for her and is thrilled to have someone to travel in time and space with. He utilizes his time machine, the TARDIS, and a tool, his sonic screwdriver, in conjunction with his wits to get himself and Rose out of the dire situations in which they find themselves.

Rose Tyler is a young woman who finds her heart split between Mickey (back in her native time) and The Doctor, who offers her the chance for limitless adventure and a level of danger that appeals to her. She loves her overbearing mother (who hates The Doctor) and was deeply affected by the death of her father when she was very young. So, when given the chance to explore time and space, she utilizes the opportunity to meet her long-lost father, with somewhat disastrous results. While she flirts with a genius she and The Doctor find in the near-future in Utah, his avarice is a big turn-off to her when he accompanies the pair to the distant future. Through their shared experiences, Rose comes to trust The Doctor implicitly and she finds herself willing to risk her life and sanity for him.

Thematically, the first season of Doctor Who is surprisingly unified. Amid all of the various times and places The Doctor and Rose travel, they encounter people, aliens and entire systems motivated by greed. The Doctor acts as a foil to that; entirely without care or commerce, he flies through time and space. The somewhat hapless nature of his existence and adventuring gives him a moral high ground from which he combats the forces of commerce he and Rose more often than not find themselves in conflict with. That sensibility by which The Doctor and Rose fight against brazen greed and oppressive capitalism makes the season pop as it leads both characters to acts of sacrifice and selflessness that rationally set up an emotionally satisfying climax to the season.

The Ninth Doctor is played by Christopher Eccleston and he is amazing in the role. Eccleston gets to play a character who is alternately serious and utterly goofy, passionate about having fun (and bananas!) while at the same time wickedly smart. Emotionally connected, Eccleston gets the chance to play an incredible array of emotions and he makes the part of the Ninth Doctor work because he plays with exceptional range, but always seems to be portraying the same character. There is, for example, no hint of menace in the Ninth Doctor like he played his character from 28 Days Later (reviewed here!). It’s a shame that this was the only season Eccleston played The Doctor on, but Eccleston keeps the role special and distinctive.

Billie Piper, who plays Rose Tyler, has great on-screen chemistry with Eccleston. Piper initially seems like she might have been cast for her classic good looks, but she proves that she can act when Rose is able to successfully make the transition between adventurous and terrified. Rose Tyler ends up running a lot with The Doctor and Piper is able to keep up physically with Eccleston as well as play off him for great banter.

If nothing else, the first season of Doctor Who completely justifies the show’s return to television and as one who was never a fan of the series, the fact that it bowled me over so completely makes it easy to enthusiastically recommend.

For a more complete understanding of what the first season of Doctor Who is about, be sure to check out my reviews of each episode in this boxed set. The first season includes the episodes:
“The End Of The World”
“The Unquiet Dead”
“Aliens Of London”
“World War Three”
“The Long Game”
“Father’s Day”
“The Empty Child”
“The Doctor Dances”
“Boom Town”
“Bad Wolf”
“The Parting Of The Ways”


For other television reviews, please 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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Near Perfect, The Star Wars Vintage Collection Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun Toy Still Rocks!

The Good: Great sculpt, Decent coloring, Awesome flexibility, Collectible value, Good balance
The Bad: Weird bottom seam, Could use a little more articulation,
The Basics: The Vintage Collection Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun is an impressively sculpted version of the classic Tauntaun beast toy!

A few years back, my wife and I were at a local Target store in New York state and we saw their exclusive beast toy during the last Hasbro celebration of The Empire Strikes Back. That year, most all of the exclusives were focused on the Battle Of Hoth and Target had a new sculpt of Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun as a unique release. The Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun was a new sculpt of the popular Hoth beast of burden and while I was somewhat lukewarm to the figure, my wife was adamant that the toy was overpriced. Now, almost three years later, as she has sought gifts for me, she ended up paying twice the original price for the Target-released toy and that was the least expensive she could find it. While I am certainly one who prefers thriftiness, the Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun toy is worth the $30 average price at which it seems to be found now.

For those unfamiliar with the Tauntauns, they were the beasts of burden on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!). Luke rode one out to investigate what he thought was a meteor crash and got knocked out by the Wampa creature. The Tauntaun did not fare so well; it was killed by the other beast and devoured.

The Tauntaun intact and alive is the subject of Kenner’s Vintage Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun toy.


The Tauntaun is a two-legged, furry-looking animal that Luke and the other Rebels rode while on the frozen planet of Hoth. The toy stands just under 7” tall (though with the right combinations of joint movements it can stand up to 8” tall, 7 1/2” long tail to claws and a 3” wide stance that puts it in scale with most of the figures in the 3.75” Star Wars toy line. The Tauntaun is instantly recognizable to fans of the Star Wars Saga and this is possibly the most detailed version of the bipedal, kangaroo-like hairy beast that ran over Hoth, with a saddle to match!

This version of the Tauntaun is molded with a separate saddle that attaches to the main trunk of the furry beast. This Tauntaun is cast with its legs in a running stance and arms with the wrists limp, which is how it appeared in the movie. Hasbro got a lot right with the sculpt of the Tauntaun as it has the horns, claws, saddle with bedroll all molded in perfect proportion. The detailing is consistent with the latest figures and Hasbro even textured the body of the Tauntaun to look hairy, as opposed to leaving it smooth (which would be entirely inaccurate). The Tauntaun even features such incredible detailing as the broken left horn of beast and the back claws on the back of the calves of each leg. That detail had never made it into a Tauntaun toy sculpt before and Hasbro got it right with this attempt.

Oddly, though, this Tauntaun features a weird seam on the toy’s belly. That seam seems to indicate that Hasbro was toying with having a removable belly so one could slice the belly open and place figures inside (and/or extract guts from the toy). That was a feature with some of the earlier Tauntaun toys, but it looks like Hasbro opted not to do the “bonus feature.” As a result, when one removes the saddle, the toy looks a bit awkward.

As for the coloring, Hasbro did an impressive job in that regard. The broad strokes are exceptional; the claws and tail are realistically colored and the saddle is colored distinctly so that each part of it (straps, bedroll, etc.) is colored distinctly. Hasbro really knocked coloring the fur out of the park. On the tail, atop the gray back of the Tauntaun, there are flecks of white which embody snow perfectly. There are also dirt highlights on the knees. The tops of the Tauntaun’s hands are even colored different to connote a leathery skin that is furless and that looks awesome. In fact, the only coloring mishaps on the Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun are the joints (where the smooth hinges of the ball and socket joints are exposed by bending in those directions) and the fact that the well-detailed and colored eyes do not have a glossy sheen to them.


The Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun was a deluxe figure (vehicle) set. The Tauntaun came with only its saddle. The saddle is impressive enough as it includes stirrups that fit the Vintage Collection Hoth Luke Skywalker (reviewed here!) figure’s feet and a bridle that is flexible enough to rest on the saddlehorn realistically. It is clear Hasbro completely resculpted the saddle to fit both the new Tauntaun and the Vintage Collection action figures!


Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun has fairly decent playability. First and foremost, the balance for the Tauntaun is impressive. Because the toy has wonderful articulation at the joints it has, it can be posed in a number of poses and it stands entirely stable in virtually any pose – with or without a rider!

This Tauntaun is impressively articulated, especially compared to all of the prior Tauntaun toys. The tail is inflexible and the Tauntaun has seven points of articulation. There are impressive hinged ball and socket joints for the groin socket, ankles, shoulders and neck. The mouth is molded open and is not jointed to close. The arms and legs do not bend at the elbows or knees. The head articulation is especially impressive compared to prior Tauntaun figures.


Unlike most toys in the Vintage toy line, the Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun toy was exclusive to Targert and was not at all overproduced. Even so, demand for the toy appears to have been met, but its value has now doubled and leveled out at twice its original price. If this ends up being the ultimate Tauntaun figure, then its value might appreciate more, otherwise it has probably topped out at double the original price.


The Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun toy was and remains an impressive supplemental toy that is essential for fans recreating a quality Hoth environment or play experience.

For otherHoth-based Star Wars toys and playsets, be sure to visit my reviews of:
2010 AT-AT
Power Of The Force Hoth Battle Playset
Vintage Collection Scout Walker AT-ST


For other toy reviews, please be sure to check out my Toy Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the toys I have reviewed!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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One-Take Indie Film: Happy Christmas Is Mostly An Extended Babysitting Sequence!

The Good: Realistic
The Bad: Poor performances, Unremarkable direction, Virtually plotless
The Basics: Happy Christmas is an awkwardly-executed independent film that takes forever to get going . . . then goes nowhere.

Heard around my house: “I could go for the new Anna Kendrick movie.” “I have no interest in seeing Lena Dunham’s latest.” Today, a crisis of faith as the new Anna Kendrick movie features Lena Dunham! The truth is, while I stand by my assertion that far too often Kendrick is either typecast into a remarkably narrow role or she has limited acting abilities (I hope the former), my antipathy toward Girls (Season One is reviewed here!) makes me downright loathe watching anything new from Dunham. But, Kendrick and Dunham are together now in Happy Christmas and on a weekend where the box office is guaranteed to be dominated by Summer Blockbuster Season’s latest visual tripe, I figured I should take in something potentially more substantive.

Say what you will about Summer Blockbuster Season’s popcorn fare; at least the portions are good! At 82 minutes long, Happy Christmas is barely a feature film! While duration does not usually factor into my perceptions of films, in the case of Happy Christmas it did, almost from the beginning. The reason for this is simple: writer/director/actor Joe Swanberg starts out in Happy Christmas with lines or presentations of lines that strive for authenticity but are delivered in such a way that made me wonder if he was flubbing his own lines (specifically three and a half minutes in when his character Jeff arrives home and he informs his wife that Jenny’s plane has landed and she is in a cab). The net result of that style (which makes it sound like many of the lines are ad libs) is that the short film ends up feeling interminably long.

Jeff and his wife Kelly live in modern day Chicago with their baby boy, who Kelly is raising in such a way that she barely finds time in her day to day to write, which is her passion. Jeff’s younger sister, Jenny, has broken up with her latest boyfriend and decided to possibly move to Chicago, so she comes to stay with Jeff and Kelly. On her first night in the house, Jenny ducks out to hang out with her friend Carson. They go to a party where Jenny gets black-out drunk and falls asleep on the hostess’s bed, which leads Carson to call Jeff for help in getting Jenny home.

Convinced by Jeff to give Jenny a second chance, Kelly goes out for a day while Jenny watches Jude. When she returns home, she finds Carson hanging out in the house’s basement bar with Jenny and the three sit together for a drink and conversation. Over the course of the conversation, Kelly comes to realize how much she misses her writing and how little enthusiasm she has for being a stay at home mother. While Kelly works to change her relationship with Jeff to get more out of it for herself, Jenny hangs out with Jude’s babysitter, Kevin, and uses him for weed and whiskey. When Jeff gives Kelly some office space to use, Jenny pitches that she write a trashy romance novel in order to make money and they begin to bond.

The initial impression that Happy Christmas might not actually have had a script continues throughout the film. The party scene, the little moments between characters as they meet or react to their surroundings, virtually every incident in the film is presented in such a way that it feels like every member of the cast was given the script seconds before they shot the scene or that there was no script. The odd feeling that the film was shot in one take extends to the editing. When Kevin is playing with the baby, there is a line “. . . we should do that again” that sounds more like actor Mark Webber was requesting another take than it is an organic line from the babysitter asking the child to repeat an action!

Happy Christmas is further hampered in no small part by the film’s direction. Swanson seems to lack ambition for telling a story visually and while Happy Christmas might have worked fine as a stage play, on screen it is noticeably off-putting in its visual style. Early in the movie, Jenny, Kelly, and Jeff sit watching the baby struggle for an inordinate amount of time to use his fork to feed himself. The shot is framed with all four characters in frame at enough of a distance and at such an angle that the baby’s movements are virtually impossible to see. As a result, the viewer is stuck watching people watch a baby. Were I a parent who spent the money to see Happy Christmas in a theater and paid for a babysitter, I’d be pissed at how long Swanberg wasted my time and money with such a shot!

Much of Happy Christmas focuses on Jenny and Jenny might well be Anna Kendrick’s least likable character ever. Kendrick plays her with an unconvincing quality that makes the viewer instantly believe that she is a user and not taking refuge at her brother’s house because of how terrible Jenny’s last break-up actually was. In fact, Kendrick plays Jenny with so little emotion that had the dialogue not explained why Jenny was coming to stay with her brother, it would not have been clear at all. Perhaps as importantly, her relationship with Kevin is so forced and passionless that the connection they have seems more like a function of “this is how many people we cast and who we cast, so they were bound to hook up.”

Dreary and poorly presented, Happy Christmas is an independent film that I stopped caring about so long before it was over that it was hard to maintain interest in analyzing the movie. Swanberg’s direction is so off-putting and the performers are so awkward in their roles that the movie is unpleasant to watch. Most of the movie comes at such a distance – like the dice game Jenny and Kevin play has the pair referencing what is on the dice without it being seen or the toys they are discussing being kept out of frame – that Happy Christmas is hard to watch. Anna Kendrick uses the word “like” about a hundred times in the flick and whenever the film hits a fallow patch, Swanberg fills with footage of Jeff spending time watching Jude.

Perhaps the only redeeming moments of Happy Christmas come from Melanie Lynskey’s performance. Lynskey plays Kelly and she presents most of her lines convincingly enough. Lena Dunham is not horrible as Carson, though she and Kendrick play off each other so poorly that there is no clear emotional connection between their characters. But the redeeming moments are drowned out by a soundtrack that features works that are remarkably similar to one another and does little to lessen the agonizing experience that is watching Happy Christmas.

For other works with Anna Kendrick, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Last Five Years
The Voices
Pitch Perfect
What To Expect When You're Expecting
Breaking Dawn, Part 1
New Moon


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

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