Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 2012 End Of The Month Update!

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As a new feature of my blog, I wanted to present my loyal readers with an end of the month round up of where W.L. Swarts Reviews The Universe is at! I am deeply appreciative of all those who loyally read the reviews I post.

First news: The Index Pages are all updated and are current! If you are not familiar with the Index Pages, I have assembled organized lists of the reviews I have written on my personal website. Much easier to find things than via the search engine on Blogger, I have my reviews easily, concisely organized. The primary Index Page, which is now updated daily, lets you know what the featured review is and has an up-to-the-day tally of how many reviews have been reviewed in each category!

At the end of January, I have reviewed the following:
321 - Book Reviews
431 - Music (Album and Singles) Reviews
1323 - Movie and Television Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Movies By Rating (Best Movie to Worst)
Movies In Alphabetical Order
Best Picture Film Reviews
Television Reviews
The Star Trek Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews In Order)!
126 - Trading and Gaming Card Reviews
396 - Toy and Christmas Ornament Reviews
393 - Food, Drink, And Restaurant Reviews
93 - Pet Product Reviews
61 - Travel Reviews
85 - Health And Beauty Product Reviews
107 - Home, Garden, Appliance and Tool Reviews
68 - Electronics, Computers, Computer Games and Software Reviews
12 - Other Product Reviews

My featured review for January is my review of True Blood Season Four! Check it out!

For January, the Top Ten Reviews were my reviews of:
10. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
9. Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
8. Peter's Nature Treats Apple Slices For Rabbits
7. Why Watchmen Deserves The Best Picture Oscar!
6. Godiva Dark Vanilla Sundae Truffle Bars
5. Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
4. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - ". . . Nor The Battle To The Strong"
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Crossfire"
2. Without A Paddle
1. Queen Margot

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 - 209 reviews
9s - 251 reviews
8s - 434 reviews
7s - 463 reviews
6s - 395 reviews
5s - 570 reviews
4s - 396 reviews
3s - 330 reviews
2s - 137 reviews
1s - 98 reviews
0s - 54 reviews
No rating - 6 articles/postings

And, if you haven't checked out the top reviews of all time, at the end of January, the most popular reviews/articles I have written are:
10. 2011 Harry Potter Golden Snitch Ornament
9. The Smurfs
8. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1
7. He's Just Not That Into You
6. 2011 Harry Potter "Fleeing The Fiendfyre" Hallmark Ornament
5. The Star Wars Saga on Blu-Ray
4. Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
3. Friends With Benefits
2. Breaking Dawn, Part 1
1. Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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The Nine-Card "Legends Of" Troi Is Another Mediocre Legends Of Star Trek Set!

The Good: Some truly wonderful images! Limited quality, Cardstock
The Bad: Use of publicity shots, Cost/Value, Only one "blue dress" shot!
The Basics: With only nine cards, the "Legends Of Troi" is bound to satisfy casual fans and card collectors of Counselor Troi and Marina Sirtis alike!

It's a bear to find something to write about a trading card set that only has nine cards in it and no writing!

But hey, that's a little set of cards! I mean, most card releases have around a hundred cards and about half as many bonus cards, here's a nine-card limited edition set focusing on one character! You don't get much smaller than the set of "Legends Of Counselor Deanna Troi" cards!

Basics/Set Composition

"The Legends Of Star Trek" set is a series of cards produced by Rittenhouse Archives and released on average twice a year over the last five years. The "Legends Of Troi" set is the ninth in the ever-expanding series that is released in nine card, limited edition increments. There are no bonus cards in this set, they come as complete sets of nine cards sealed in a cellophane package. There are three things that make these sets truly special: cardstock, an individual limited edition number, and the images on the cards. The cardstock is a 20pt. (thicker than usual) cardstock with the standard UV resistant coating that all quality trading cards come with these days. To illustrate the truly limited nature of the “Legends Of Star Trek“ cards, every set is strictly limited to 1701 sets and the L9 card (visible at the back of the cellophane pack) is foil stamped with an individual number for the specific "Legends Of" set. So, for example, my personal set is number 0440/1701! This is where it helps to have a dealer that you are loyal to; dealers were able to order all of the same limited edition collector's numbers each time, so every time I get an order in, they are the same limited edition numbers and I - and my customers - are assembling sets with matching numbers, which will presumably hold the value of the overall series better in the long run.

Finally, the “Legends Of Star Trek“ series is characterized by wonderful, uncommon images that are (usually) not the typical shots that have been on 8x10s, t-shirts and collector's plates before. Instead, these cards capitalize on big rare images, vivid color contrast and cards that are uncluttered by pesky text! These cards are for the fans who know the accomplishments of their heroes! No need to write about them, the images speak for themselves!

Common Cards

The "Legends Of Troi" set is a nine-card “Legends Of Star Trek“ set that features eighteen images of Counselor Deanna Troi from her second season publicity shot to the two publicity shots from Star Trek: Nemesis. Immediately absent and worth noting are either of the two first season publicity shots that featured a more stern and rigid looking Troi. It's sad, in a way, that there is not a single image from the first season of Troi, especially considering that she was there from the beginning.

It seems that when Rittenhouse Archives began the Star Trek: The Next Generation phase of the “Legends Of Star Trek“ series, they became a bit lazy about culling the images to get truly unique shots into the sets. This is especially insulting to collectors as the sets are released many months apart, only require eighteen images and in the time sets like the "Legends Of Troi" set were in preproduction, another major Star Trek: The Next Generation set was released. Given that the folks at Rittenhouse Archives was combing through the images anyway, one wishes they had been more creative than they were and used only screen captures or images that had not appeared on other trading card releases.

That said, it's hard to screw up a "Legends Of Troi" series and Rittenhouse Archives manages to deliver a good-looking set of cards! Despite a whopping four card fronts featuring images that are clearly recognizable to fans of the series as being simple publicity shots and one of the images on the back that is a Star Trek: Nemesis publicity shot, this set looks good. Fans hoping for a collection of Troi breast shots will be disappointed (only one card - and a back at that - features Troi's famous blue dress) but those looking for something a bit more sophisticated will find it in this set. Outside the five of eighteen images that are publicity shots, there is a decent mix of images featuring Troi in and out of uniform. In fact, only five of the nine card fronts and eight of the nine card backs feature Troi in anything that even passed as a uniform. It's not all blue jumpsuits here!

Instead, fans are treated to images like the centerpiece card of Troi as Durango from "A Fistful Of Datas" and the shot of her as a Mintakan. L6 is, front and back, Troi masquerading as the Romulan Major Rakal. In some ways it is not troubling that the image of the psychically altered Troi from "Man Of The People" is not included, but it is disappointing - considering that two images from Star Trek: Nemesis were used that there was not a shot of Troi in her wedding dress put in the set. The only other omission that might have amused fans would have been an image of Troi as the Goddess Of Empathy. But the truth is, for a character who wore a lot of outfits but almost never left the ship or went on missions where she would look fundamentally different, it seems like Rittenhouse Archives did a phenomenal job of finding images that captured the various roles Troi played. She may not have gotten many, but Rittenhouse Archives got them onto the cards!


There's quite a bit here to satisfy fans of Marina Sirtis in her supporting role of the Betazoid Counselor Troi. Shots like those of her drunk in Star Trek: First Contact and in her alter ego forms, like from the Western episode make this set one that will please anyone who likes Troi. As well, card collectors are likely to be excited about this set as the images are largely ones that have not been overdone on the trading cards, giving them a quality that many find appealing as it enhances the overall collection to have new and different images in a set. Fans of the "Legends" series will appreciate that and given the rarity of these cards, any collectors that give up on the “Legends Of Star Trek“ set with the "Legends Of Troi" release will likely find that there are Marina Sirtis fans all too ready to snatch up the remaining sets.

The nine-card sets tend to sell for $17 - $20 but the cardstock quality - which truly is a professional grade - and the limited edition nature of the set makes it worth it. One suspects in the future, the “Legends Of Star Trek“ sets will be sold in the secondary market almost exclusively as entire series collections, so fans who simply have a favorite character will want to snatch up the releases when they first come out!

For fans of Marina Sirtis, this is the "Legends" set for you!

This set culls images from Star Trek: The Next Generation, most recognizably:
"Face Of The Enemy"
and "Who Watches The Watcher?"
Star Trek: Generations
Star Trek: First Contact
Star Trek: Nemesis

For other Legends Of Star Trek cards from Star Trek: The Next Generation, please be sure to read my reviews of:
Legends Of Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Legends Of Data
Legends Of Riker
Legends Of Lieutenant Worf


For other card reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Petty Odo and Righteous Quark Duke It Out On "The Ascent"

The Good: Acting, Moments of plot, B-Plot character development
The Bad: Ridiculous character twist in a-plot
The Basics: When Quark and Odo desperately fight for survival, Rom and Jake try to learn to live together on Deep Space Nine.

Some episodes manage to be the pretty typical a-plot, b-plot story where one or the other is just incongruently better than the other half. "The Ascent" is one such episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It has a rather fractured feel to it and it is somewhat difficult to watch as a result of that.

In "The Ascent," Odo is escorting Quark to a Federation Grand Jury regarding the Orion Syndicate, a vast criminal organization that is essentially the Mafia of the Star Trek universe. En route to the Grand Jury, the pair hears something, opens a bulkhead and discovers a bomb from the Orion Syndicate. The bomb detonates and the Runabout crashes, stranding the pair on a world not quite suitable for humanoid life and the two must attempt to survive long enough for help to arrive. On Deep Space Nine, Nog returns from the Academy to do his field study. He and Jake bunk together and discover they have significantly different lifestyles now. As they find conflict on the station, Quark and Odo find nothing but conflict on their ascent up a tall mountain where they will attempt to get a transmitter to send a signal that might have a hope of reaching DS9.

The a-plot is frequently annoying and has moments that feel very untrue to the characters, especially the character of Odo. Odo is someone who has always wanted justice and if "The Ascent" is any indication, the punishment wherein his people made him fully human was a punishment to the viewers as well as the Changelings made Odo into a jerk. In "The Ascent," Odo is petty, whiny, and utterly unlikable as he complains, hits and cajoles Quark halfway up the mountain. He makes the episode almost unwatchable. Almost.

Odo opens the episode, prior to the Runabout accident, with a great deal of humor. Rene Auberjonois deserves a lot of credit for making Odo's mockery of Quark's complaints more funny than flat out obnoxious. He provides some great deliveries for the character in the beginning and throughout the episode, Auberjonois succeeds in making Odo a character on edge. That works out nicely and is quite believable. So, even when the character is unlikable, it's obvious the actor is working quite hard to pull off the material.

The b-plot, though very much a standard for the sitcom, is surprisingly well-executed in this dramatic setting. The conflict between Jake and Nog feels very organic, especially given how self-centered both of them are and the drastically different directions their lives have taken since the early fourth season when Nog left to go to the Academy. Jake, being a slovenly writer, has something of an "Odd Couple" relationship with the very militarily rigid Nog.

In the end, "The Ascent" is saved by the acting of Aron Eisenberg. Eisenberg returns to the series as an almost entirely different character. Eisenberg's new Nog is more inflexible and bound by StarFleet's rules than the young mischief maker originally introduced in "Emissary." Instead, Eisenberg here has a straighter posture, a great deal more eye contact and he plays Nog with far less smiling than ever before. This change in Nog, while clearly staying true to the fundamentals of the character, prove he is a good actor.

But most of the episode is Odo and Quark making a difficult journey up a mountain and the b-plot is shoved to the background. This episode is hard to enjoy unless you are a fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It's a character conflict episode and that wears thinner than some of the other conflict episodes. It's a part of the essential Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for the return of Nog.

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


For other Star Trek reviews, please be sure to visit my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the Star Trek works I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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A Generic Rebel Soldier That Does Not Truly Stand Up: The Power Of The Force Hoth Rebel Soldier!

The Good: Decent sculpt, Fair detail, Fair collectible value
The Bad: Limited poseability, Accessory size, Poor balance
The Basics: The Hoth Rebel Soldier Power of the Force Star Wars action figure is an overly-buff, tippable figure that is not a bad support figure for the background of Hoth displays or play environments.

It is cold here. Sure, there is not the snow that one might expect for this time of year, but it is bitterly cold here. It is Hoth cold here. So, I stay warm by playing in the warmest room of the house with my wife, the AT-AT she picked up for me (reviewed here!) and all the Star Wars figures I can stock it with and shoot with its missiles! One of the popular pieces of cannon fodder around Casa de Swarts is the Power Of The Force Hoth Rebel Soldier.

For those unfamiliar with the Hoth Rebel Soldier, they were the standard Rebel troopers seen at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) on the ice planet of Hoth. Bundled up in their padded gear, the rebel soldiers on Hoth kept warm mostly by fleeing for their lives when the Empire arrived to lay waste to their base there.

The 4" Hoth Rebel Soldier figure is a generic Rebel soldier in his padded white outfit looking ready to get shot down or try to run!


The Hoth Rebel Soldier figure is a generic Rebel soldier as he appears in the opening sequences of The Empire Strikes Back. The white outfit he wears is padded and warm-looking, including a decent head wrap and what appear to be thick gloves! The figure stands 4" tall to the top of his head. The Hoth Rebel Soldier is a human, with only his face visible as far as skin goes. The figure is made entirely of hard plastic.

This toy is a decent sculpt, though this is very much a Rambo Hoth Rebel Soldier. This sculpt features very broad shoulders and pects that could take on the Empire themselves! The Hoth Rebel Soldier looks just like one of the Rebels seen in the trench awaiting the attack by the AT-ATs. He looks like one of the Rebels that ended up running for his life! This character is wearing padded pants, a textured white outfit with gray boots, gloves with some controls on them and a headwrap with a visor. The boots feature molded details like the straps and the face is molded to look human, down to his beard! The outfit features goggles molded onto the chest and things like grenades and a blaster molded onto other parts of the toy.

The goggles stand out quite a bit as blue-green on an otherwise cream-colored chest. Outside that, the only real coloring detail comes on the face. The skin tones are monotonal, but are set off well by the beard and mustache to be a little less bland. This figure features brown eyes with white pupils. Generally, the figure looks good, though it is buff and molded in a wide stance that seems to be ready for action!


The Hoth Rebel Soldier, badass who can run away or get shot by a giant dog-like vehicle, comes with two accessories: his rifle and his backpack. The blaster rifle is a 2 3/8” long black gun that fits in either of the figure’s hands and looks right in terms of size. Because the Rebel soldiers on Hoth need to be able to run from certain death, the Hoth Rebel Soldier’s rifle includes a strap that allows the figure to throw the weapon over his shoulder before he starts to run. The blaster rifle is monotonally colored and fits the sense of molded detail that the rest of the figure has, though its monotonal color scheme is somewhat troubling next to the colored figure.

The Hoth Rebel Soldier also comes with his backpack. The 1” wide by 1 3/4” tall backpack is molded with a silver-gray antenna on the side. It features a peg that plugs into a hole on the figure’s back and because the backpack has molded tubes and devices, it holds up next to the rest of the figure as far as being molded to look appropriate on the back of this particular toy. The coloring details are also up to snuff with the “clean” look of the rest of the figure.


The four inch toy line was designed for play and Hoth Rebel Soldier is only fair on the playability front. The figure is poorly articulated, as all of the Power Of The Force figures at the time were. Flatfooted, Hoth Rebel Soldier has poor balance, probably because his legs are spread so far apart. The redeeming grace is that it has the additional benefit of holes in the soles of its feet that may be stuck in pegs on various playsets. With those, he may be posed to actually stand up.

Just as the Power Of The Force line was characterized by poor balance, the Hoth Rebel Soldier also lacks significant articulation to make him interesting. In addition to low articulation, Hoth Rebel Soldier is barely poseable. The figure comes with only six points of articulation, all of which are simple swivel joints. He has joints at the groin socket, shoulders, waist and neck. The elbows do not extend, and the arms are cast slightly bent.


The Hoth Rebel Soldier is part of the Power Of The Force four-inch series, a series of Star Wars action figures that was incredibly common. This version of the Hoth Rebel Soldier appeared at least three cards and was competing with the Deluxe Hoth Rebel Soldier (reviewed here!) that hit the market at the same time. That made it one of the figures that did not retain any sense of value and is a very poor investment.


The Hoth Rebel Soldier is a very generic soldier, so they may be stocked up on. The Power Of The Force Hoth Rebel Soldier might not be the most articulated and may tip over quite a bit, but at least he can be found cheaply to help build up a team worthy of taking on an AT-AT!

For other Power Of The Force figures from The Empire Strikes Back, please check out my reviews of:
2-1B Medic Droid
Hoth Luke Skywalker
Luke Skywalker In Dagobah Fatigues
Hoth Han Solo


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

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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When Did "Adult Contemporary" Become Synonymous With "Bloody Boring?" Sometime Before James Taylor's Hourglass!

The Good: One or two lines
The Bad: Boring instrumentals, Unchallenging vocal performances, Nothing timeless in the lyrics, Monotonous
The Basics: Musically, vocally, instrumentally and lyrically boring, Hourglass goes a long way to proving Grammy voters are profoundly uncool and have no clue what is popular at a given time.

I like Adult Contemporary music, if for no other reason that it is probably the most difficult genre to define. Pop music is whatever is popular at the time, Techno is defined largely by instruments and production levels, Classical by the choice of instruments as well, for the most part. But Adult Contemporary, that can be pretty much anything. Sure, it is probably defined somewhere as music that appeals to the over 30 crowd, but how does Billboard determine when it is people over thirty years old requesting songs on the radio or purchasing c.d.s?

Far more often, Adult Contemporary seems to be the dumping ground for musical artists who continue to produce music even though they might never again be considered popular or cool. It's where one-hit wonders go to appeal to their still-loyal fans or people whose music is more prominently featured on Oldies stations as opposed to any format playing anything new. James Taylor IS Adult Contemporary. And I'm saying this as a fan of the genre and as one who appreciates Taylor's works. What I think falls way too flat, though, is his album Hourglass which seems to be more or less the target Adult Contemporary album. But as one who still listens to music that is fresh, new, different and inspired, Hourglass is just plain boring.

With thirteen tracks, clocking in at 54:53, Hourglass is a mix of James Taylor's talents with a pretty impressive supporting cast of backing vocalists and instrumentalists, like Sting, Shawn Colvin, and Yo-Yo Ma. Taylor wrote all but two of the songs and it appears he does the primary vocals on all of the tracks. As well, he provides the guitar and harmonica on most of the songs. As well, Taylor got a co-producing credit on Hourglass, so it's pretty much impossible to deny that this is his musical vision.

Largely, Taylor's musical vision on Hourglass is boring, unimaginative and mostly similar to what we have heard from Taylor on albums that precede this one. Hourglass did earn the Best Pop Album Grammy in 1998 and I can only guess that the Grammy voters were rewarding him for an amazing career in music. The songs are largely repetitive, simplistic and/or safe within the well-established and documented range of James Taylor. By the time one gets to their seventeenth album, one hopes that they might take a few musical risks and stretch some. Alas, Hourglass does not (for the most part).

The one way that it does stretch the expectations a listener might have for James Taylor is in the level of production. Hourglass is a bit more produced, mixing in more instrumentals and a level of production, including increased use of background singers for accent. They are noticeable as punctuation on "Ananas" and more or less carrying the refrain sections on "Little More Time With You" and "Gaia." The increased production and accents by supporting vocalists is almost enough to distract the listener from the fact that Taylor never truly leaves his comfortable tenor range with his vocals.

Perhaps what bugged me most - other than the lazy instrumentals, none of which form a memorable tune - from my first listen to Hourglass was that none of the lyrics truly pop. There is no "Fire And Rain" or "Copperline" on Hourglass. Lyrically, the biggest risks Taylor takes is in singing in French on "Ananas" and singing like an African immigrant (he takes on the affect and repetition more common with lyrics from South Africa, as well as instrumentals that have more of a flavor from that continent) on "Jump Up Behind Me." "Jump Up Behind Me" shows well what Taylor is saying in his song and that is admirable, but the song is still lyrically simple with a wide-eyed vocal presentation for some of the dullest and most repetitive lines on the album, like "This land is a lovely green / It reminds me of my own home / Such children I've seldom seen / Even in my own home / The sky so bright and clean / Just like my home / Kind people as have ever been / Won't you take me back to my own home." If anything, James Taylor's Hourglass has changed my appreciation for Avril Lavigne. Perhaps she just listened to "Jump Up Behind Me," heard Taylor rhyming "home" with itself over and over again and said, "Hey, I can do that!"

If the lame rhyme scheme of "Jump Up Behind Me" weren't enough to disappoint those who generally enjoy the lyrics of James Taylor, the repetitive quality of many of the songs on Hourglass would be. Opening with "Line 'Em Up," Hourglass is a powerful argument against replayability. "Line 'Em Up" repeats the title within the song at least eleven times in a monotonous droning that is a terrible way to open the album. Song like "Little More Time With You," "Up From Your Life" and "Yellow And Rose" are all plagued by repetitive lines that get tiresome rapidly. Indeed, "Up From Your Life" is presented in such a way that the more times Taylor sings the title, the more it sounds like he is falling asleep while singing it!

James Taylor is well known for musical storysongs and Hourglass has some of those, but none of them are terribly interesting. For example, "Yellow And Rose" seems to have the elements of story songs, like a protagonist and a stanza with some dialogue in it, but it lacks a real point. Indeed, when it goes into stanzas with the lines "Down under got the south side / This groovy crazy planet / Watching from the outside / It's as smooth as a gravy sandwich / People play music night for day / One caught the sun in a sekere" ("Yellow And Rose"), the listener is left scratching their head and asking, "so this is a song about living on a planet within the space-time continuum?!" While I applaud Taylor for his use of words like "sekere" (a word absent from my dictionary), the song does seem to lack a point or an expression of a universal emotion that the best of Taylor's storysongs usually have.

The closest Taylor comes on Hourglass to reaching the audience with something powerful and universal is on "Enough To Be On Your Way" and even the lyrics of that are hampered some by the monotonous vocal presentation that makes it sound like Taylor is bored while singing it. At least there, he does have some some decent lyrics when he sings "The last time I saw Alice / she was leaving Santa Fe / With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists / In a killer Chevrolet / Said they turned her out of Texas / Yeah she burned 'em out down back home / Now she's wild with expectation / On the edge of the unknown" ("Enough To Be On Your Way"). Taylor sings a decent moving on song with that and it is refreshing to hear that he has not completely lost his touch.

But largely, it remains something of a mystery to me as to why Hourglass was as successful as it was. Usually, my big gripe with Taylor's albums are that they are short or that there is a better compilation for his works than the one being presented. In the case of Hourglass, it's just as letdown of boring vocals, simplistic guitarwork, an utter lack of memorable melodies, and unimpressive vocals. His cover of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" adds nothing to the song and Hourglass hardly impresses the listener with Taylor's abilities.

The best track is "Enough To Be On Your Way," the low point is "Yellow And Rose" (though I'll gladly accept virtually any other track as the disappointing one on this album).

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Sweet Baby James
Greatest Hits
New Moon Shine
James Taylor Live


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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One Of The Best Chai-flavored Drinks I Have Had, Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea Is A Delightful Soy Beverage!

The Good: Tastes wonderful, Exceptionally nutritious, Great for virtually any style of diet.
The Bad: Dry aftertaste, Expensive!
The Basics: Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea is another wonderful beverage from Bolthouse Farms, though it is hardly a thirst-quencher!

For the last few months, my wife has been on a health kick and has been drinking things like soy milk. I’ve been slower to get into her healthy beverages, though I did give the Bolthouse Farms Mocha Cappuccino beverage (reviewed here!) a fair shake last week. Now, I am trying to show some love to the Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea drink. And it is remarkably easy to appreciate this drink, though it is not the best beverage ever. It is, however, one of the best soy milk beverages I have ever had. Seriously.

Even so, Bolthouse Farms continues its tradition of making healthy comparatively expensive. Despite how good the Vanilla Chai Tea soy drink is, the $2.99 for a 15.2 fluid ounce bottle, makes me ration the drink to the actual serving size!


Bolthouse Farms Vanilla Chai Tea is a soy 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. This is a soy beverage that is enhanced with nutrients. Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea comes in a 15.2 fl. oz. plastic bottle that is smooth and very portable. The #1 recyclable bottle is filled with the opaque white liquid, that looks just like regular milk. Bolthouse Farms juice products is one of the leading manufacturer of healthy prepared beverages and their dairy-oriented line is increasing in popularity and availability.

The 15.2 fl. oz. bottle is intended to give consumers just under two servings, which is annoying for a prepared food. Bolthouse Farms does have a bulk bottle of Vanilla Chai Tea, though I have not been able to find it locally.

Ease Of Preparation

Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea is a liquid in the 15.2 fl. oz. bottle and is a ready-to-drink beverage. So, preparation is as easy as opening a plastic bottle. The Vanilla Chai Tea bottle has 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 Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea smells like an upscale chai beverage one might buy at a Starbucks, Caribou Coffee or other fancy coffee shop. The aroma is spicy and inviting, scented like cloves and nutmeg, a chai smell that is as intriguing to the nose as it promises to be to the tastebuds.

And Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea drink lives up to that promise. From the first sip, this is a creamy, spicy beverage that is flavorful and intriguing. This is a perfect embodiment of chai flavor and the light tea flavor comes in as a secondary taste. As one who has had mocha chai beverages where the chocolate or coffee flavors of the mocha have overwhelmed the chai spices, it is refreshing to drink a beverage that is firmly vanilla with an intriguing sense of spices to it. This is, foremost, a chai flavored beverage and it is quite good for that.

What it is not great for is quenching a thirst. In fact, the Vanilla Chai Tea drink is very dry and that prevents me from rating it higher. After drinking this very healthy beverage, I had to drink a glass of water just to not feel thirsty. That aftertaste is unrelenting, though, even the dry aftertaste is spiced and flavorful, making it not entirely unpleasant.


As a healthy dairy beverage, Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea is designed to fill in some of the nutritional gaps one might have in their diet, while tasting great! Nutritionally, Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea is a wonderful option for those who are dieting or are trying to improve their health. Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea is primarily composed of soy milk from concentrate, cane sugar and soy protein. It contains nothing bad, but does have additional vitamins pumped into it. It is gluten free and because it is soy milk instead of milk from an animal, it appears to be Vegan complaint! As well, there are no preservatives, artificial flavors or colors or genetically modified ingredients!

This drink is also exceptionally healthy for you. One serving of Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea has 3.5 g fat and 170 calories, 35 of which come from the fat. While there are 27 grams of sugars, the beverage has no cholesterol and a whopping 9 grams of protein! Surprisingly, there are 70 mg (3% RDA) of sodium in each serving. A single serving is a sufficient source of Calcium (30% RDA!), Iron, Magnesium, Potassium and Zinc. It has more than your daily needs for Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12, so this truly is a healthy beverage (ironically, more healthy than many fruit juices I have reviewed!).


Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea comes in a plastic bottle and it keeps for only a few months. The bottle my wife and I bought the first week of January had an expiration date of March 9, 2012. This beverage must be refrigerated, though because it does not contain any actual dairy products, I am not exactly sure why.

This drink is a soy product and light because that is just how soymilk is. If this gets on clothes, it ought not stain them. Consult a care guide for your clothes, though I suspect the drink shouldn’t be allowed to soak into your clothes and stay there. Still, the drink wipes off surfaces easily with a cloth, assuming they are impermeable.


I was very impressed by Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea, initially for the taste that surprised me. But while the health benefits of this drink are exceptional, I was a little more put off by the aftertaste than I initially thought. That, combined with the expense of the drink made the Vanilla Chai Tea soy beverage a little farther from perfect than I initially thought it was.

For other prepared beverages, please check out my reviews of:
Powerade Mountain Blast
Duff Energy Drink from The Simpsons
Dole 100% Juice Orange Peach Mango


For other food reviews, please visit my index page for a complete listing by clicking here!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Monday, January 30, 2012

A Master Plays A Fairy Tale Worth Returning To With The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen!

The Good: Excellent direction, Great acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Very old plot, Some pacing and editing issues
The Basics: With an phenomenal cast and great characters, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen takes the viewer on a ride that reminds us of the power of imagination.

Terry Gilliam, the co-writer and director of Brazil, is a cinematic genius. He has a brilliance to him that is unmatched, even in this day where computer generated special effects can make magic in the most marvelous sense. Brazil is, quite possibly, the best film of all time, enduring even now. Terry Gilliam comes with a great deal of street credibility in my book. It would take a lot for me to not give a new Terry Gilliam movie a chance (even after seeing Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas). It was with great pleasure that I sat down to watch The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fairy-tale that Gilliam has described in press as a final act to a story told by viewing Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen collectively.

This is a distinctive Terry Gilliam picture and it is somewhat disappointing that even on DVD it does not get much in the way of special attention. There is no special edition, no commentary, no bonuses outside foreign language subtitles, biographies of Gilliam and Eric Idle and the theatrical trailer for the movie.

What is this, then?

The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen is essentially a fairy tale. As a proud city falls under siege of the Sultan during the Age of Reason, a legendary figure from the past named Baron Munchausen appears to contradict the myths about himself. Claiming only he may end the siege, Munchausen reveals the origins of the war as one of his many adventures. Surrounded by the fastest human alive, Berthold, and an array of almost superhuman comrades, Munchausen reveals that the Sultan's discontent is over a trick Munchausen pulled on him decades ago.

At the urgings of a local girl, Sally, Munchausen vows to save the city by reuniting with his old group and liberating the people from the Sultan's siege. Munchausen and Sally then head off to find Berthold, the exceptionally strong Albrecht, the keen-eared, magnificently winded Gustavus and the sharp-eyed Adolphus. Their quest takes them to the moon, the center of a volcano, and the ends of the earth and they meet impressive figures along the way, including gods and goddesses, giants and killer fish.

At the end of the day, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen is about reuniting old comrades (in the literal sense) and the importance of elders passing on history and myth and imagination to the youth (in the metaphorical). This movie works very well when viewed in its metaphorical context, because otherwise, it's pretty dull. I mean, a story about an old man looking for his friends is not exactly a killer great plot. Either he finds them or he does not, either the city is saved or it falls, plot-wise, this movie is a bit of a lightweight.

Terry Gilliam (and co-writer Charles McKeown, who also stars in the movie as Adolphus) compensate for the weak plot with an exceptionally interesting assortment of characters. These are intriguing individuals who populate Gilliam's world and Gilliam and McKeown do not disappoint in keeping the movie moving through interesting creatures, like the man on the moon with the detachable head. With an almost Swiftian view of the Age of Reason, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen reinvigorates the viewer with the sense that imagination makes the extraordinary possible. Indeed, there are few points in the fantastic story where the viewer sits up and says "That's impossible," so engrossing are the characters.

What does pull the viewer out from time to time are a series of rough edits, especially in the latter half of the movie and during the action sequences. There are several cuts between various camera angles and perspectives that are very sharp, problematically cut together. Some moments felt like they were truncated, as if there was not enough material to get the ideal take and the director was forced to go with what he had. Lacking a commentary track, it's difficult to say what was going on.

That said, the actors give astounding performances. It's pleasant to see Uma Thurmond in one of her earlier roles and Jonathan Pryce steals his scenes playing Horatio Jackson as an antithesis to his heroic Sam Lowry from Brazil. Peter Jeffrey is great as the Sultan as well.

But the film turns on two performances. The first is Sarah Polley. Polley plays Sally, the defiant girl who believes in Baron Munchausen and his adventures and steals away with the Baron to help him find his friends. Her youthful rejection of reason for imagination suggests there is a spark in each of us to change the world. Polley brings that forth in a way that only a child actress can; by being an actual child and not an older person playing a youth or some computer-generated child, Polley comes across as perfectly natural and completely genuine. She "reads" as a real person in a way that makes her character utterly credible.

The other pivotal performance is that of John Neville, who plays Baron Munchausen. Neville is magnificent as Munchausen, portraying the hero with alternating senility and wisdom, seamlessly taking the character from confident to cynical to childlike to mentor. Neville has an impressive dignity to him that he brought to the character of Munchausen, making the character's journey one told not only in lines but in subtle voice modulation and rigid posture. Neville makes Munchausen riveting. Without an actor of John Neville's caliber and character, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen would have been sunk.

Who will like this movie? Anyone who needs a shot in the arm of imagination, a reminder of the importance of teaching children and thinking outside the box. This is ideal for those who want to be reminded that a single person can change the world (but for those who do not want to invest the time or money on Babylon 5). It won't be enjoyed by those who have lost all sense of delight in the absurd or those who are unable to make leaps of fancy.

It is a shame, for they are the people who need this movie the most.

For other films by Terry Gilliam, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
12 Monkeys


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my Film Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Outside The Noise, Casino Niagara Might Be The Best Niagara Falls Gambling Option!

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The Good: Good customer service, Great buffet, Good gaming options, Nonsmoking!
The Bad: Poorly organized, Annoying parking, Loud!
The Basics: Casino Niagara is fun, even when the odds are cold on the video slots, and is worth visiting for the buffet if nothing else!

On our recent honeymoon, my new wife and I did a bit of gambling (which ought to keep my reviews of casinos flowing pretty well!) and as a result of hitting five casinos over the course of three days, one might have thought we'd be all gambled out. But no, I have married a woman who loves the video slots almost as much as I do! So, instead of my paychecks going to therapy, perhaps we'll use a couple for travel to casinos to keep having fun. On our honeymoon, arguably the best full casino experience we had was over at the Casino Niagara casino on the Canadian side of the Falls. We went there the night after our less than exciting evening at the Fallsview Casino arguably for the buffet and the chance to leave our hotel room.

But despite our low expectations and almost complete lack of plans for the night we went, our experience at Casino Niagara was fun. Given that there is no real room in Niagara Falls for sprawl, most of the bigger establishments are built up as opposed to outward and as a result, Casino Niagara was a couple floors of fun, the only serious drawback being a terrible cover band playing and a lack of "atmosphere." Still, this is one of the few casinos I would eagerly return to.

Casino Niagara: came in with $100.00 (Canadian), left with $50.00 (Canadian) (several hours, a couple drinks and two very full tummys later!).


Casino Niagara is one of the most visible casinos in Niagara Falls and it appears to be located just over the Rainbow Bridge, but given traffic patterns, one has to drive past, then back down to get to it. It is a fairly large slot-machine dominated casino located at 5705 Falls Avenue in Niagara Falls, Ontario in Canada. This is just north of the Rainbow Bridge and along a strip of hotels, casinos and wax museum/horror-theme parks on the Canada side of Niagara Falls. Mapquest directions were more than adequate for finding the casino and drivers ought not to feel odd about how they appear to be driving away from the strip to get to it; for traffic control purposes, the route from the U.S. to the strip in Niagara Falls actually detours about a mile and a half up before turning back toward the strip. As well, we were able to find Casino Niagara only using street signs at night and that worked out just fine.

The Casino Niagara is adjacent has a parking structure and limited grounds which we did not get a great look at whatwith it being night. The parking structure is at least six stories of parking lot and that seems to be adequate for the casino. Parking is cited at $20 (Canadian) but by signing up for a Player's Club card, there is a way to get it free (read on!).


Casino Niagara is large, covering at least three floors and possessing a series of gaming floors with twenty-five hundred video slot machines, as well as several table games. The entire casino floor has the feel of a hotel lobby with bright overhead lights and video slot machines. The main level had the buffet and public stage with one of the worst cover artists we had ever heard (my partner loves Bowie, so when the singer began to butcher "Pressure," she nearly rose from our meal to teach him a lesson on messing with the classics!) as well as thousands of video slot machines. In the center of the room was a pair of escalators to get gamers down to the lower level. The lower level was smaller, darker and had a bar. There was a level below that which was a V.I.P. club of some sort, but we had no interest in even trying to get in there. The purpose of the place is to come and gamble and there is little - visually - to encourage visitors to do anything but that. In fact, this is a rather bland casino in that regard; it is a casino that trades simply on being a casino. There is, truly, no gimmick to this one and that is disappointing.

To give credit to this exceptionally boring casino, the atmosphere is delightful, especially when contrasted with the Seneca Niagara Casino across the river! Being in Canada, the facility is 100% nonsmoking and it is very easy to breathe in the casino. Given that no one is smoking in the casino, there are no issues with separate areas and that makes for a decent experience, at least in that regard.

As for the "atmosphere" of the Casino Niagara, this is a casino trading on the gambling and I cannot honestly recall seeing any servers outside the central bar island or the staff that was maintaining the machines. At the player's club and on the floor, the staff wore tuxedo shirts and slacks and seemed dressed more for professionalism than enticement. The casino was remarkably indistinct instead of having any sense of flash. At the buffet, the workers wore tasteful slacks and shirts. This is not a casino like in Vegas where there is skin or a sense of flash to it.

Gaming Options/Player's Club

I have a very simple gambling philosophy: I sit down at a slot machine with $5.00. I work it up to $10 or down to zero. At Casino Niagara, I made an exception to my philosophy; it was my honeymoon after all! My wife and I traded in our winnings from the prior night - cashiers trade the currency as all of the machines run on Canadian funds - and went to eat at the buffet and do some gambling. The video slots were fairly cold, which made some sense to me as we were there on a Saturday night. Like the partner casino down the road, Fallsview, Casino Niagara has a generally poor sense of organization to it.

As I continue to accumulate gambling experience, I know what I like when it comes to video slot machines: I like the ones that are fun! If I'm winning, I would rather do it on a machine I enjoy and if I lose, I would rather do that on a machine that I am having fun playing regardless. I like machines with interesting graphics and great bonus games. I tend to enjoy the slots that are more girly themed or video game-like, and I was met with real mixed results at the Casino Niagara. My wife and I split the money and I was thrilled to find the first banks of Mermaid's Gold slots that I've encountered since leaving Las Vegas. I suppose my luck on the machines stayed in Vegas! My wife and I tended to bounce from machine to machine a lot using our time at Casino Niagara more to try new (to us) video slots. Still, the night was pretty cold and around us we did not see anyone really winning on any of the machines. Over the course of four hours of play, I hit only one bonus game on one of the twenty machines I played!

Still, there were a ton of video slot machines and traditional slot machines to have fun on. Casino Niagara seems to trade a lot on the progressive slow machines and there was a pretty extensive selection with titles like Wheel Of Fortune, several variants of Monopoly, "The Wizard Of Oz," Slingo, John Wayne, Cleopatra, "Deal Or No Deal," The Game Of Life," Hot Shot Progressive, "Top Gun," Gold Fish, and hundreds more. Like Fallsview, there seemed to be a remarkably small selection of penny slot machines; most of the floor was dominated with two-cent and five-cent machines. While this might seem chintzy of me, there is a huge difference between playing games where one is playing all lines for $.20 - $.25 vs. $.40 - $.80 per spin! Moreover, the gaming floor was ridiculously organized as far as getting around. Slot machines of various denominations were strewn together without any real delineation between the areas. The result was that the casino is difficult to navigate around, forcing players to wander aimlessly to find machines they want to play on. My partner and I went to several machines that were literally across from the penny machines we were playing to find with dismay they were $.05 or $.25 machines!

For those who might be into games of chance and card games instead of the fun and controlled reinforcement of video slot machines, there was a whole area with table games right when one walks into the casino. Rumor is there is a poker room, but upon entering, all we saw were the tables of roulette, craps and blackjack. Downstairs, there was a sports bar area where people were betting on sporting events as well.

There is a player's club at the Casino Niagara, which is the Players Advantage Club. This card is good both at the Casino Niagara and the nearby Fallsview Casino, as they are affiliated with one another. There were no gifts for signing up (not even for newlyweds!). Signing up was as simple as showing a driver's license. Points appear to be accrued based on how much is gambled with one point being earned for every twenty dollars lost at a video slot machine. This might seem unpleasant and annoying, but for losing twenty dollars at a machine, one pays for the parking as one point earns the visitor parking credit.

Entertainment Options

Casino Niagara is average as far as casinos go. It seems like Fallsview was getting the better entertainment coming. In addition to the lousy cover artist who was singing his heart out while we were trying to eat, the only other entertainment I saw advertised was for the tour of six female singers neither my wife or I had ever heard of. Outside that, the place seemed strongly focused on the gaming and buffet!

Dining Options

Casino Niagara seems to be catering more to the fine dining crowd than the casual snack and fast food lovers. There is a central bar - which closes around 1 A.M. on a Friday night/Saturday morning - right on the gaming floor. Honestly, we stopped looking around for dining options the moment we saw the buffet.

The buffet at Casino Niagara is shockingly good, even near the closing time of eleven P.M. My wife was amazed at the selection of sushi laid out at this buffet and watching her enjoy herself was a treat for me as well. There was a huge selection of Chinese, Japanese, Mediterranean, and comfort food. I packed three plates up with food like mashed potatoes and gravy, lasagna, freshly cut roast beef, and huge salads with only what I wanted in them, along with an entire plate of desserts like mousse, cake and cookies, among other things. My new wife piled on the seafood and we had a long, comfortable meal despite the fact the buffet was closing. At $17.95 Canadian, each, the buffet was a great deal and we more than got our money's worth. The quality of the food was shockingly good and there were a ton of options that were baked as opposed to fried, making it one of the best buffets I've ever eaten at at a casino.

Shopping Options

Casino Niagara is focused far more on the gambling than the shopping. As a result, there are limited shopping opportunities and the casino has more of a gift shop than a real shopping experience.


Casino Niagara would be a lot more fun if it had a gimmick or even a hook. That said, the selection of games was incredible, even if there was no sensible layout to the casino. The buffet is worth stopping in and to get your parking "free," it is worth it to play, even just the twenty bucks. After all, as we say right over the bridge in the U.S. "you never know!"

For other casino reviews, please check out my takes on:
Railroad Pass Casino
Turtle Creek Casino
Mohegan Sun At Pocono Downs


For other travel reviews, please be sure to visit my Travel Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Music Soothes The Savage Breast In The Soloist

The Good: Amazing acting, Great direction, Decent story, Interesting character development
The Bad: Difficult to watch
The Basics: When Steve Lopez hears Nathaniel Ayers playing music, he becomes intrigued by the street-dwelling man's predicament and works to change his life.

As I consider my review of The Soloist, I find myself wondering if Steve Lopez, the reporter upon whom The Soloist is based, is sitting trolling the internet on the eve of its theatrical release, reading reviews. On the off chance that he is, I shall flatter myself for a moment with the notion that he has stumbled upon this one and take the opportunity to say "thank you." Thank you, Steve Lopez, for seeing the world and trying to make a difference in it. Thank you for writing about your story and being successful enough at it to create a template for a film that might raise awareness about real social problems as well as tell a life story of one of the millions of extraordinary unsung humans on this planet.

The Soloist is based upon Steve Lopez's book, adapted for screen by Susannah Grant, and directed by Joe Wright. The film is an obvious contender for award season next year as it deals with both mental health issues and tells an interesting character-driven story. Actually, The Soloist is a decent love story with two people who do not have a romantic relationship and Wright captures both the love Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. has for music and the love Lopez has for humanity as he reconnects with it. The Soloist is remarkably direct, largely satisfying and it is one of the best motion pictures of 2009.

Steve Lopez is out cycling one night and by dawn, he finds himself falling face first off his cycle onto the pavement and damaging himself. As a writer for the Los Angeles Times, he writes about it in his column and as he mopes back to functionality, he finds himself one day in a park listening to music. The music is being played by Nathaniel Ayers, a man who is down on his luck and playing a violin that is down to two strings. But Lopez is fascinated by this man, especially when in his strange ramble, he mentions attending Juliard. A quick factcheck on Lopez's part determines that Ayers attended Juliard, but never graduated.

Intrigued by what knocked Ayers off course, Lopez befriends the homeless man and is able to provide him - through one of his readers - with a cello and contacts who will aid Ayers. As the Los Angeles Times downsizes, Lopez explores the world of homeless Los Angeles and he attempts to assist Ayers. Soon, though, it becomes apparent to Lopez that Ayers is in greater need than he is qualified to help and when he attempts to intervene in Nathanial's life, he realizes he might be in over his head.

Nathaniel Ayers may or may not be a paranoid schizophrenic; The Soloist leaves that undefined. What The Soloist does quite well is tell a story and keep the viewer engaged. Indeed, I have not been this engaged in a musically-based drama since The Red Violin (reviewed here!). In that film, the drama lay in the travels of a single instrument, in The Soloist, the action is almost entirely explored through quiet conversations and softly played pieces involving two men who connect through one's ability to play music and another man's growing reconnection with the important aspects of life and love.

What remains important throughout the film is not the music so much as the mystery of Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers enters the film as a clearly disturbed mind and how and why he ended up that way when all bets indicated he would be the next best thing in the classical music world is an intriguing puzzle. Clues to Ayers's history and illness are doled out whenever the film slows down in the form of interviews between Lopez and Ayers's sister, Jennifer. As well, flashbacks introduce the more cognizant moments in Nathanial's past where he is able to piece together significant moments with his mother, sister, and early experiences as Juliard. In these, the viewer is given the strongest impression and clues that Ayers suffers from schizophrenia.

In these scenes, the film takes a turn toward the disturbing and troubling. Watching Ayers battle with voices only he is able to hear is frightening to watch and his lack of understanding in what is happening to him makes the scenes heartbreaking. What viewers might want to see is an explanation, a series of events that lead Ayers to a mental collapse, but we are afforded no such catharsis; there are no incidents, no turning points, no negotiations that failed. At one point in the flashbacks, the world of music fails to keep the voices at bay.

This failure to connect, where timelines do not explain anything more than what was to offer comparison to what is now, is made watchable by the character journey of Steve Lopez. Lopez, recently divorced from his wife - one of the few apparent liberties the film makes with reality according to interviews with Lopez - begins to become passionate about life again through the experiences he has with Nathaniel and the LAMP Community, a homeless ghetto in Los Angeles. As Lopez discovers the world of poverty and mental illness that is cramping the streets of Los Angeles, he awakens to the idea that helping Nathaniel and the denizens of the community, he will better himself in a way that is not simply self-serving. Watching him go from a disconnected jerk to a man who truly loves someone is amazing.

Part of this is done through simple movie magic. Director Joe Wright takes a cue from Across The Universe (reviewed here!) and Fantasia (reviewed here!) and plays with the idea of making music a visual experience. Therefore, there a moments in The Soloist when Lopez simply listens to Ayers play and he envisions the music. The first time this happens, it appears to be a pointless visual bit involving birds, but when one understands the connection between the music and the imagery it quickly becomes apparent what Wright is doing.

The Soloist is also incredibly strong on the acting front. Jamie Foxx leads a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, and Lisa Gay Hamilton. Foxx is predictably brilliant in the role of Ayers and he continues the strong trend he has for picking work that allows him to explore his full range as an actor. In this he is amazing in the speed of his dialogue and in the intensity of his body language. Credit ought to be given to Justin Martin, who plays the younger incarnations of Ayers for holding his own and keeping the feel of the character alive.

But the surprise for most people will be Robert Downey Jr. In this film, Downey exhibits all of the talent that he insinuates in other roles where he is simply well cast and stuck into a niche. In this, Downey Jr. is not simply a mellow, slightly understated, sarcastic man who delivers great wisdom. As Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. is a man on an emotional journey and the way his eyes change from dead and bored to engaged as the film progresses is a testament to his acting.

Not quite a perfect film, The Soloist lacks a full measure of catharsis, but is close enough for me to give it a five-stars. The pacing is a little off at a few moments, but outside that, it is the dramatic powerhouse one hopes is remembered around award time.

For other works with Catherine Keener, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Where The Wild Things Are


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

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Flash: Rebirth Is A Strangely Mediocre Return For Barry Allen To The DC Universe.

The Good: Moments of character, Great artwork, Decent villain.
The Bad: Exceedingly technical and filled with jargon, Character development ends in favor of plot progression, Requires a LOT of outside knowledge.
The Basics: Returning Barry Allen to life and existence in the DC Universe, The Flash: Rebirth is hardly one of Geoff Johns’ most inspired stories.

As my Flash Year continues, I am actually quite pleased with most of the new books I have been getting in. The Flash has an interesting legacy, I am learning, and with my latest reading selection, I have come to realize that I am actually a fan of Wally West. There are several speedsters in the DC Universe and Wally West has held the mantle since the mid-1980s when Barry Allen’s Flash appeared to be killed while trying to save the final universes in Crisis On Infinite Earths (reviewed here!). I was not a huge fan of that crossover, but I respected the fact that DC would kill off one of its flagship characters. Of course, in comic books, few characters truly stay dead. The demise of Barry Allen was undone in The Flash: Rebirth.

The Flash: Rebirth follows up on the physical return of Barry Allen at the climax of Final Crisis (reviewed here!). Penned by Geoff Johns, I sat down expecting a story that was intriguing, intense and made sense out of Barry Allen’s return. Unfortunately, this is one of John’s less compelling works and while DC’s instinct to use John might well have been based on his success with Green Lantern: Rebirth (reviewed here!), that might well have been the book’s undoing. The Flash: Rebirth has some troubling structural and character similarities to Green Lantern: Rebirth that robbed me, as a somewhat seasoned DC Universe reader, of some of the joy or intrigue of the story.

Barry Allen has returned from the Speed Force and is unsure why, so he begins to slowly get his life back in order. But when the forensic police officers in Keystone City are murdered, Allen is asked to help investigate. He is not given much of an opportunity because a villain that uses the Speed Force resurfaces and when he comes into contact with Allen, he is abruptly killed. When the body of the Black Flash is found, Allen becomes concerned, especially because the death of Savitar comes with an odd side effect; the other speedsters on Earth are all temporarily immobilized.

Much to his horror, the death of another speedster reveals Barry Allen to be a new incarnation of the Black Flash. Fleeing from the potential of hurting those he loves more, Barry Allen runs himself into the Speed Force again. There, he confronts his ultimate villain and in the process fights to reclaim his life on Earth!

The Flash: Rebirth lost me in the middle and almost lost me for good. The two fundamental problems with the book is that it is too familiar and far too technical. The problem of familiarity comes when Barry Allen transforms into the Black Flash. This reads as strikingly similar to Hal Jordan being transformed into Parallax and the question of the character’s identity and powers gets problematically murky. At that point, I felt like I was simply reading a retread of Green Lantern: Rebirth.

Much of the rest of the book was muddied by excessive jargon. More than simply a story about the return of Barry Allen, The Flash: Rebirth is an expose on every speedster in the DC Universe. As a result of their inclusion, which is vital to the plot of the book, the book devotes an inordinate amount of time to explaining not only each of their powers and genealogies, but the exact nature of the Speed Force. And, unfortunately, by the end of the book, it is not entirely clear what much of the jargon was actually trying to say.

And to cut off the argument before it comes up, I am not a neophyte to the DC Universe. Enjoying The Flash: Rebirth is, in many ways, dependent upon having read several other volumes. Readers who have not read Crisis On Infinite Earths, Final Crisis, some of the Flash books and even some Green Lantern books are likely to be more confused than anything by the sheer number of allusions in The Flash: Rebirth. As one who has read many of those other books, I still found The Flash: Rebirth to be remarkably incomprehensible in its jargon.

Another problem with The Flash: Rebirth is that the book is light on character. Barry Allen is back. Okay, why should we care? Sure, it’s always cool to see old heroes, but Barry Allen is not presented as a particularly compelling character in The Flash: Rebirth. In fact, Eobard Thawne is given a few moments with more genuine attempts at characterization than Barry Allen is. The exception to this is when Allen makes observations on the world around him. Seeing how things have changed in just twenty years through Allen’s eyes is engaging.

The book recovers at the end, which pretty much reaffirms my feeling that some of the villains in The Flash are actually more interesting than the heroes, but it is a long way to get to the satisfying conclusion. That said, Geoff Johns cleverly foreshadows both the Blackest Night Saga and the Flashpoint Saga in The Flash: Rebirth.

The artwork throughout The Flash: Rebirth is homogenously good. The book has strong lines and vibrant colors that make it enjoyable to read. Ironically, many of the panels do not have the strongest sense of movement to them, but the book is still very readable and enjoyable from an artistic front.

Ultimately, though, The Flash: Rebirth gives us exactly what the title promises. Barry Allen returns. As one who is intrigued by Wally West’s character, I am definitely of the camp that wonders why Allen is so important as to resurrect. Hopefully, in the rest of my Flash year, I shall discover the answer. I certainly did not learn what was so incredible about Barry Allen from The Flash: Rebirth.

For other Flash books, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Return Of Barry Allen
The Secret Of Barry Allen


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

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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