Sunday, November 19, 2017

Finally! A Wonderful Use For Coconut Water: Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness Is Great!


The Good: Very nutritious, Good flavor, Decent ingredients
The Bad: Expensive, Short shelf life
The Basics: Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness is a surprising hit for those looking for a nutritious fruit juice and who love a good blend of pineapple, guava and coconut flavors!


I have an appreciation for the niche market of truly healthy fruit juices and bottled fruit smoothies. In my quest to find healthy beverage options, I have often encountered - and largely rejected - juices that include coconut water (or flavored coconut waters on their own). So, when my local grocery store started selling Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness, which was coconut water based, I thought nothing of it. But when the store decided to clearance a couple bottles of the Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness, I figured that it was about time that I try it.

Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness is a pleasant surprise and the first beverage I can think of that included coconut water that I'd love to have more of!

Basics

Bolthouse Farms is a health drink brand, which is a full-health beverage (as opposed to being a liquid vitamin supplement) and, as a general rule, they tend to taste better than energy drinks. This is a fruit beverage that naturally contains several nutrients. Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness comes in a 15.2 fl. oz. plastic bottle that is smooth and very portable. The #1 recyclable bottle is filled with the fairly opaque light pink liquid. Bolthouse Farms juice products is one of the leading manufacturer of healthy prepared beverages, both of fruit juices and dairy beverages.

The 15.2 fl. oz. bottle gives consumers just under two full servings, though the bottle is not marked with clear delineations for each serving.

Ease Of Preparation

Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness 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. Tropical Goodness 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.

Taste

The Tropical Goodness smells fruity, of coconut water and pineapple. The aroma is fruity and subtle, though it is aromatic enough to be inviting. The coconut water and pineapple scents are enough to evoke a slight memory of pina coladas, which is pretty cool.

In the mouth, the Tropical Goodness is a pretty distinct blend of pineapple, coconut water and guava. A few years ago, I probably would not have recognized the flavor of guava juice, but the Tropical Goodness tastes like it. The sweet, fruity flavor of the guava plays nicely off the pineapple and the blend manages to never develop the taste of dry from the coconut water or sour for the pineapple. Instead of overwhelming each other, the blend of juices in the Tropical Goodness manage to compliment one another well and work together to create a delightful drink.

The Tropical Goodness has a slightly sweet aftertaste to it.

Nutrition

As a healthy fruit beverage, Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness is designed to fill in some of the nutritional gaps one might have in their diet, most notably Manganese and Vitamins A and C, which the Tropical Goodness has a decent amount of! Nutritionally, Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness is an option for those who are dieting or are trying to improve their health, who are looking for specific nutrients and hydration. Tropical Goodness is made primarily of: coconut water from concentrate, pineapple juice from concentrate, and apple juice from concentrate. It contains nothing bad and it is gluten free, though it does not appear to contain any meat or dairy products in it, so it IS Vegan compliant! As well, there are no preservatives, artificial flavors or colors or genetically modified ingredients!

This drink is also very healthy. One serving of Tropical Goodness has .5 grams of fat and 110 calories. While there are 26 grams of sugars and a gram of protein, the beverage has no cholesterol! There are 60 mg (3% RDA) of sodium in each serving. A single serving is a decent source of five key vitamins and minerals.

Storage/Clean-up

Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness comes in a plastic bottle and it keeps for only a few weeks. This beverage must be refrigerated!

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

Overall

Bolthouse Farms Tropical Goodness is a healthy fruit juice drink that is more than enough to make one rethink coconut water!

For other Bolthouse beverages, please check out my reviews of:
Green Goodness
100% Carrot Juice
Holiday Nog

8/10

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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Generic Justice League: How Warner Bros. Limped Across The Finish Line.


The Good: Moments of characterization, The acting is fine, Some of the humor works well
The Bad: Incredibly basic plot, Utterly generic villain, Painfully derivative plot development, Troublesome continuity, Familiar final battle sequence
The Basics: Justice League arrives and it is hard not to feel like it is a missed opportunity on almost every front.


It's tough to sit down to a film that has been built to in an inefficient way when there is such a good example of building a franchise the right way. The DC Comics Cinematic Universe, sadly, lives in the shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of the problems with the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1 (reviewed here!), the franchise was built well over several years. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took a bunch of mediocre super hero films that were focused on (generally) a single character, loosely tied them together and when they were put together in The Avengers (reviewed here!), that movie succeeded largely because the scale was appropriate to the threat. As well, the essential characterization was already done in the foundation films, so The Avengers was able to illustrate just what those heroes could do, as opposed to giving out basic information about who was fighting.

Justice League has no such grace.

Justice League is the DC Comics Cinematic Universe answer to The Avengers and the immediate tragedy of it is that it comes so late to an already-saturated market (doing anything fresh in superhero films is tough these days!), the foundation work was not actually finished, and there were huge issues with the foundation films that go unanswered going into Justice League. Three major characters in Justice League were virtually unexplored going into the film: Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. Cyborg, especially, suffers in Justice League because his backstory is done more or less on the fly and he ends up seeming like a generic super hero who is intended to fill the same functional niche in Justice League as Iron Man did in The Avengers. Indeed, it is hard for comic book and super hero film fans to not wince when Cyborg appears and to show off his evolving abilities, he levitates much like Iron Man.

The failures in the foundation work make Justice League a tougher sell than it ought to be. Wonder Woman (reviewed here!) left the lingering question: If the God Of War was defeated, how the hell do all subsequent wars on Earth actually occur? (Justice League might have been a conceptual smash if the history of the DC Cinematic Universe included a retcon that showed no wars in that universe followed World War I and Earth was left defenseless against the villains in the new chapter.) If the final shot of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice (reviewed here!) insinuated that Superman was still alive or there was still some form of power in his Kryptonian corpse, how did he let the Motherbox problem escalate to this point? [That question, at least, is satisfactorily answered in Justice League.] And if the parademon threat is growing so fast, would this not be the very definition of an "all hands on deck" situation? Where, then, is the Suicide Squad to help out with basic combat/demolition? It seems like they would have been ideal for the Russian front, at the nuclear reactor. And if Bruce Wayne had the vision of Superman being used by the same entities using the parademons, why would someone so smart attempt to resurrect the dead Kryptonian?

So, Justice League begins from a disadvantageous position where the universe of the DC Cinematic Universe is not fleshed out well-enough on screen (comic book fans have a distinct advantage going into the film, obviously) to absolutely invest in the film's threat. The best analogy I have is that it took until the commentary track for Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!) when it was explicitly stated that the point of much of the dialogue in the final throne room scene was to sell the audience on the idea that Luke Skywalker could actually go over to the Dark Side and join the Emperor. I must have seen Return Of The Jedi thirty-five (or more) times before listening to that commentary track and the moment never once landed where that occurred to me. It was so ineffectively done that the suspension of disbelief did not happen. With Justice League, there is a similar sense of lack of suspension of disbelief to the threat: of course the one character not put into the promotions will show up in the film, of course the team will manage to come together, and there is never a doubt that the invading threat will be repelled. Warner Bros. is building a franchise: of course that reality would not be undone and remade in the first big team-up film.

But, there's Justice League arrived at without all the essential prep work and perhaps the real problem with arriving so late to the marketplace is that the parallels in narrative structure and character beg comparisons to The Avengers. No doubt, someone will soon do a comparative analysis that lines the two films up, side by side, and it would be unsurprising if the rampage in Justice League came about right around the same time in the film as the Hulk smashing through the helecarrier in The Avengers.

So, what is Justice League?

Following the death of Superman, the world has more or less fallen in to chaos. While Wonder Woman deals with street level crimes - terrorists attempting to blow up a bank - Batman is active again in Gotham City, combating a random parademon that arrived in the city. Encountering the alien invader, and having vague information about the Motherboxes on Earth, Bruce Wayne reasons that it is Superman's absence that is drawing the interstellar threats and that it is time to assemble his team. While Arthur Curry rejects Wayne's offer, a Motherbox on Themyscira becomes active. Steppenwolf arrives through a Boom Tube on Themyscira and attempts to wipe out Hippolyta and the Amazons, but the force of numbers causes Steppenwolf to beat a hasty retreat . . . with a Motherbox. Hippolyta lights a warning fire, which informs Diana that the invasion has begun and Diana meets with Bruce Wayne to tell him exactly what they are up against.

While Bruce Wayne easily recruits Barry Allen to his team, Victor Stone (a cyborg altered through a Motherbox and other technology in a scientific accident) reaches out to Diana. When Steppenwolf attacks Atlantis for the Motherbox hidden there, Arthur Curry joins Batman's team. Bruce Wayne believes that the only way to save Earth from Steppenwolf and protect the final Motherbox is to resurrect Superman using the Motherbox Victor Stone brought him. While Diana advises him against it, Wayne and Cyborg agree on the course of action and Barry Allen goes along with them. But when Superman is resurrected, he comes back wrong and triggers Cyborg's technology against Stone's directives. In the ensuing conflict, Steppenwolf is able to get control of the final Motherbox and he takes it to Russia where he begins rewriting reality in order to attempt to make Earth into a primordial wasteland that he can rule.

Within the narrative, Justice League suffers from being That Kind Of Movie. This is a big-budget super hero film and to make a threat worth assembling the biggest DC Universe characters, it requires something incredible. But the name is a misnomer. Justice League is not about justice; there is no higher principle in play in the film. Justice League is entirely preoccupied with survival as all of reality is threatened by Steppenwolf and the power of the Motherboxes. Like its predecessors, Justice League suffers mightily from leaving huge gaps in the narrative for a reasonable sense of continuity: the moment Steppenwolf stole the Motherbox from Themyscira, why didn't Hippolyta reach out to the Atlanteans? There is an allusion that a war occurred between the Amazons and the Atlanteans at least one generation prior to Aquaman's ascendance, but to stop Steppenwolf from getting his hands on the Motherbox in Atlantis, is seems like someone in the know like Hippolyta would have volunteered her forces instead of simply obliquely alerting Diana . . .

The lack of an underlying principle or theme in Justice League becomes painfully clear during the Motherboxes backstory. Justice League manages not to simply copy from The Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here!) with how the backstory is related, but the parallels in the stories are pretty obvious. Sauron, having created the One Ring, plans to cast Middle Earth into darkness, but he is repelled by the combined forces of Elves, Dwarves and Men . . . er, strike that, Steppenwolf brought the Motherboxes to Earth where he planned to rewrite reality, but the combined forces of Themyscirans, Atlantians, Gods, humans and Green Lanterns managed to repel him. The Motherboxes were then hidden, not destroyed, and apparently the governments became idiotic (the moment the Motherbox backstory was related in Justice League, my first thought was "the moment the space program began or Superman started exhibiting his powers, why wasn't one of the Motherboxes taken to the Moon?" and "Why didn't the Green Lantern for Earth get one of the Motherboxes off planet . . . the Corps must have known the three Motherboxes were there after they defeated Steppenwolf?").

So, there's no real thematic strength in Justice League and instead of any rhetorical argument, much of the film comes down to, sigh, yet another fist fight. Steppenwolf is an unfortunately generic villain for Justice League. He is characterized as the Destroyer Of Worlds, so what is his preoccupation with Earth? Earth was the site of his first defeat; what has he been doing since he was repelled the last time? If he's been out destroying worlds without his Motherboxes since he was first defeated, why does he rely upon their power again for his second stab at Earth?! And if he has been out destroying worlds, what the hell happened to the Green Lantern Corps? And if he hasn't been out wreaking havoc in the galaxy for thousands of years since his botched attempt to take Earth, doesn't that just make him the biggest poseur villain in cinematic history? The fact that these questions come up after only a moment's consideration of the adversary illustrates how flimsy his construction is within the movie.

And for a DC Cinematic Universe work, the final battle once again feels familiar. Night and darkness are used in Zack Snyder's films to hide details, which makes the special effects easier to execute, but make for far less complicated or compelling battle sequences. It's a pretty sad world where the attention to fine details is greater in video games than in major blockbuster films.

So, what works in Justice League? The snippets of character for the new protagonists all work. Barry Allen is characterized well and the fact that the defining characteristic for him outside his speed is his insatiable hunger is something that instantly sets him apart from the current television incarnation of the character. In a similar way, Cyborg is characterized intriguingly as a young man who is tormented by his own body and is not at all entirely in control of his powers, abilities, and technology. Aquaman delivers a decent assessment of the team before reducing Diana to a sex object (grumble. And, seriously - and I write this as a lifelong Wonder Woman fan! - Curry starts ogling Diana after leaving Mera under the sea; what does Diana have to offer Aquaman that Mera doesn't?!).

Justice League might not be a slam dunk of a film, but it puts its emphasis on far too many of the wrong things. The moment I enjoyed most was a simple exchange between Bruce Wayne and Diana. Wayne explains that he is getting too old for this kind of fight and he implores Diana to make her super hero alter-ego more available to the fights for which she is needed. It's a quiet moment, but a compelling one.

But, that's not what Justice League is about. It's about getting the team together, resurrecting a guy who can punch harder than the others (shouldn't Cyborg's technology have been able to evaluate Steppenwolf's vulnerability to freezing and given him an ice cannon?!), and making a giant effects-driven fight sequence to save the world from someone who never really had a chance to destroy it. The net result is a fast-paced popcorn movie that lacks resonance once it is over.

For other DC Comics Cinematic Universe works, please check out my reviews of:
Suicide Squad
Green Lantern
Man Of Steel

3.5/10

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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The 2017 Thor Thor: Ragnarok Ornament Is A Let-Down!


The Good: Good balance, General sculpt
The Bad: Terrible paint job, Lame coloring, Expensive for the quality
The Basics: The 2017 Thor from Thor: Ragnarok Hallmark ornament is one of the unfortunate failures of the 2017 ornament line, despite generally having good sculpted aspects.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-represented in the Hallmark Keepsake ornaments. Or, more accurately, certain characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe seem to get made into Hallmark Keepsake ornaments over and over and over again. So, while consumers continue to wait for a Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Widow or Black Panther ornament, they get multiples of other major characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This year, Hallmark has released yet another Thor ornament, this time from Thor: Ragnarok. It is, sadly, an uninspired execution of the character, though the broad strokes are all right.

The 2017 Thor is a common, late-release, mass-produced Hallmark ornament that is one of two Thor: Ragnarok ornaments and one of several Marvel comics ornaments produced by Hallmark this year. For those unfamiliar with it, in Thor: Ragnarok (reviewed here!), Thor finds himself for a time on a distant world where he is forced to fight in a gladiatorial contest. It is Thor, with his helmet on, in an action pose, which is the subject of the Thor Thor: Ragnorak ornament.

Basics

The Thor ornament recreates the God Of Thunder in solid plastic, predictably without his hammer. The ornament, released in 2017, is an poor recreation of the heroic character as he appears in the cinematic rendition of Thor from Thor: Ragnarok. In addition to having very few attributes that are directly analogous to Chris Hemsworth, the 2017 Thor Ragnarok ornament appears to be incredibly sloppy on the painted details, making it a very tough sell for fans or collectors.

Thor is the helmeted warrior of Asgard, with a sword raised, leaping forward in an action pose. Thor is armored, though his arms are exposed and the sculpted detailing arguably reaches its peak with the ornament's biceps. Hallmark did comparatively fine veining for the helmet wings, but in general the 2017 Thor ornament is light on sculpted details that make it distinct or interesting. The Hallmark 2017 Thor ornament is made of a durable plastic and has him in an action pose. This Thor: Ragnarok ornament measures out at 5" tall, 3 1/2" wide and 2" deep.

The coloring for the Thor ornament is done in monotones. In other words, Thor’s skin is all one color, as is his outfit. Between the lack of realism to the sculpt and to the coloring, the Thor from Thor: Ragnarok ornament is underwhelming and indistinct. The paint job, which includes the war paint the character was adorned with, seems to be ill-applied. I checked five different copies and the faces on each looked terrible with the beard, skin tones and war paint each being applied differently and with very little success. The costume for this Thor is similarly colored in monotones, which make it look much less like the cinematic rendition of Thor.

Features

As a Hallmark Keepsake ornament, Thor could have a function like a sound chip or light effect, but does not. This is just an ornament, a low-cost (comparatively) option for those who might not want to shell out for the more expensive Marvel ornaments. This Thor simply hangs on a tree.

Balance

As with all ornaments, the intent of the Hallmark Keepsake Thor ornament is to be hung on a Christmas Tree. And for those creating the ultimate Marvel Universe Christmas Tree, Thor is essential, but not this version. The ornament has a brass hook loop embedded in the top center of his helmet. From that hook, the Thor ornament hangs surprisingly level. Despite the other issues with this ornament, balance is not one of this ornament's problems!

Collectibility

Hallmark Keepsake began delving into the collectibles market in 1991 with Star Trek when it introduced the exceptionally limited edition original U.S.S. Enterprise ornament (click here for my review of that!). Since then, Hallmark has gotten into every major franchise from Disney to Twilight to the Marvel Comics universe. This Thor ornament was not at all limited. I would not bet, given the lack of inherent quality and how the other Marvel ornaments have met demand without leaving a lot of people wanting, and how little it looks like the cinematic version of Thor, that this will not be an incredible investment piece.

Overview

The 2017 Thor: Ragnarok Thor ornament is vague on most of its sculpted details, sloppy on its paint job and indistinct in its coloring details. That makes for a poor ornament not truly worth picking up.

For other Marvel Hallmark ornaments, please check out my reviews of:
2017 Spider-Man: A New Kind Of Hero Spider-Man: Homecoming ornament
2016 Team Captain America ornament
2011 Thor ornament
2010 Defender Of Justice Iron Man 2 ornament

2.5/10

For other ornament reviews, please check out my Ornament Review Index Page!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Saturday, November 18, 2017

All The Backstory The Punisher Seems To Need Comes In "Kandahar!"


The Good: Good acting, Decent directing, Characters hold to their core
The Bad: Annoying character conceits, Potential trouble on the continuity front
The Basics: The Punisher continues with "Kandahar," which provides a backstory for David Lieberman and fleshes out what went wrong for Frank Castle in Afghanistan.


The Punisher had an uphill battle with the fans; this late into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the television component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is hard to escape the feeling that it's all been done. The Punisher has almost all of the components immediately in play for a familiar project in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: there is a conspiracy, an antihero, upper class folks who seem undoubtedly to be the villains, a revenge storyline and a person in an adjacent field who knows about the protagonist's actions and seems doomed to work at cross-purposes to the protagonist. In fact, structurally, The Punisher Season 1 seems to have a lot in common with Luke Cage Season 1 (reviewed here!). Despite, objectively, having a lot of similarities, The Punisher manages to feel remarkably fresh. That feeling continues into "Kandahar," the show's third episode.

"Kandahar" follows on "Two Dead Men" (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the new episode without some references to where the show went in the prior episode. In fact, "Kandahar" continues where "Two Dead Men" left off - with Wolf dead and Frank Castle ready to interrogate David Lieberman. "Kandahar" makes explicit, as well, portions of the mission in Afghanistan wherein Frank Castle worked under Major Schoonover. As a result, it helps for viewers to have seen Daredevil Season 2 (reviewed here!) before sitting down to "Kandahar."

Frank Castle has Lieberman tied, naked, to a chair when an alarm in Lieberman's lair begins to go off. Lieberman insists that only he can deactivate the alarm, with his retinal scan. After managing to convince Castle of the importance of letting him deactivate the system, Lieberman tries to get Castle to trust him and work with him. Lieberman tells Castle his story of getting the disc with Zubair's interrogation on it. He sent the video of the interrogation to Dinah Madani and the next morning, Wolf hunted him down and appeared to kill him in front of his wife. Lieberman, though, did not die when shot and he went underground.

Elsewhere, Madani and Stein begin investigating Wolf's murder. Curtis Hoyle and Billy Russo meet, with Russo funding the space Hoyle does his group therapy in. Hoyle turns down Russo's offer for a job. In the interrogation, Castle recalls working for Major Schoonover on Operation Cerberus, where he remembers working with Russo. The Zubair interrogation ends with the police officer getting assassinated by Castle's team and Castle burying the body in the desert. While Dinah Madani assumes command over her section, her partner brings her information that suggests Wolf was corrupt and Lieberman manages to reverse his situation with Castle. It is then that Castle recalls the mission on which Schoonover lost his arm . . . and that it was Rawlins who was calling the shots.

David Lieberman starts off "Kandahar" trying desperately to convince Frank Castle that the two of them are on the same side. It seems entirely reasonable that Lieberman and Castle would have been targeted by the same organizations. Lieberman worked for the N.S.A. and he spends a decent amount of time detailing just what it was that he was supposed to analyze and take action on. Lieberman's big break at work seemed to come when he was sent the MICRO CD-ROM.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe - especially the Netflix television aspect of it - has done interrogation episodes a lot already. "Kandahar" fits the pattern, but because it comes so early in the first season of The Punisher, the episode is preoccupied with continuing to define the characters involved. There is an immediately irksome quality to "Kandahar" in that there is a lot more torture than other interrogation sequences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Torture does not, historically, work and there was something refreshing about "Two Dead Men" where Wolf pointed that out. The Punisher was suddenly thematically smart.

And yet, in "Kandahar," Frank Castle is torturing Lieberman. Castle's perspective is that torture is about breaking comfortable patterns and the implicit argument is that most people simply do not do torture the right way. That's a ridiculous premise and it's initially agonizing to watch Lieberman get tormented by Frank Castle. Lieberman is Castle's equal and he is eager to help Castle . . . but he is treated by Castle with unnecessary violence.

Dinah and her mother interact well in "Kandahar." Farah, Dinah's mother, is no longer saddled with expository dialogue. Instead, she actually provides calm counsel to her daughter and that is refreshing. Dinah is now in line to run her Section at Homeland Security and her mother believes that she is feeling guilty over not liking Wolf before his death. That is an interesting angle and it shows that Farah has a lot of perception over her daughter's process.

"Kandahar" occurs on Frank Castle's birthday and the current and past birthdays make for an interesting contrast.

The Punisher has a fundamental issue in the way the conspiracy was developed for the show. In Daredevil, when The Blacksmith was revealed, he referenced Frank Castle as, essentially, the last hold-out to his plan. Schoonover mentions that the rest of the elite team Castle was a part of came back to work for him after the war. The Punisher retcons that by giving Frank Castle more associates who left before the rest of the team was recalled. So, while Russo seems initially clean given that he got out early, it is hard not to believe that he is corrupt as hell. In addition to the prior, established, backstory that included Schoonover selling heroin was done using his former subordinates, Russo is clearly pumping Hoyle for information in "Kandahar." The idea that Schoonover's former team all ended up corrupt but people like Russo are still in play after The Punisher's purge, which opened this season, seems to be contradictory and "Kandahar" does not yet provide satisfying answers in that regard.

Andy Goddard directs "Kandahar" exceptionally well. Goddard is saddled with a script that felt compelled to illustrate the formative mission for Frank Castle, which was well-detailed on Daredevil. Goddard seems worried that The Punisher might simply devolve into violence and gore that is familiar and becomes boring and he directs "Kandahar" with that in mind. As a result, for the most violent battle scenes, most of the violence actually happens out of frame and Frank Castle simply ends up splattered in the gore that results from his actions. It's a clever way to direct the sequence to prevent it from becoming passe.

Ultimately, "Kandahar" spells out many important aspects of Frank Castle's backstory, while making both Lieberman and Madani more important to the story The Punisher seemed to be meandering toward in its first season.

For other works with Shohreh Aghdashloo, please visit my reviews of:
Destiny 2
Star Trek Beyond
Destiny
Rosewater
The Odd Life Of Timothy Green
X-Men: The Last Stand
House Of Sand And Fog

7/10

For other aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a relativistic listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano Does What It Promises, But It's Still Not Good!


The Good: Wonderful ingredients, Accurate flavoring
The Bad: A little expensive, Utterly unpleasant and enduring aftertaste
The Basics: For those who love hot foods, Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano might satisfy, but for a general audience, these are just awful and painful to consume!


There's a whole niche market surrounding hot foods these days and the truth is, that's not my thing. I tend to like subtle flavors that have layers and complexity; hot foods tend to be overwhelmingly spicy with little in the way of subtlety. That fad is not my thing. Despite that, as my immersion in Taza chocolates, I picked up a pack of Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano.

Alas, though, Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano lived down to my expectations of what a spicy chocolate would be when the emphasis on the chilis in it was simply "hot!"

Basics

Taza is an premium chocolatier in Massachusetts that makes stone-ground Mexican chocolates. Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is a high-quality chocolate that I was lucky enough to find inexpensively at my local discount store, because why would I want to pay full price for such an unpleasant culinary experience?!

The Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano comes as two discs (2.7 oz. total) that are paper-wrapped together and packaged inside a cardboard wrapper. The whole disc is presented as a 3” in diameter by 5/16” thick slightly segmented chocolate disc. The segments do not snap apart evenly. Despite that, the Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano are generally easy to portion out to have less than a full serving; this type seemed to fracture a lot more than the other Taa Chocolate Mexicanos.

Ease Of Preparation

Eating Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is not a real challenge. After removing the chocolate from the cardboard and the paper wrapper, simply pull out the disc or break a segment off and stick it in your mouth. There is no particularly complicated method to eating these chocolates. This is an entirely ready-to-eat food . . . unless one wants to make it into a hot cocoa!

The hot chocolate version of the Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate requires milk and uses both discs in a package. One needs to grind up both discs of the chocolate and stir it into the simmering milk. Honestly, I've yet to make up some of this flavor as a cocoa.

Taste

Unwrapping the paper around the Guajillo Chili dark chocolate disc, the smell of dark chocolate is potent and recognizable. Interestingly, the scent finishes with a physical sensation more than an actual aroma. The nasal canal opens, as if there is a vapor; the chocolate does not smell like chilis at all, but the scent of the chocolate finishes with the effect of smelling chilis.

In the mouth, the Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate is appropriately dry and dark, like the rest of Taza's chocolate Mexicano line. The moment one begins to masticate the Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano, the dry, slightly sweet, chocolate, the chili flavor explodes in the mouth. The Guajillo Chili is fiery and real. There is little subtlety in the flavor; this chocolate is generically spicy hot opposite the dry, dark chocolate flavor and the burning chili flavor continues in the mouth long after any chocolate flavor has dissipated.

There is a hot, peppery flavor that continues in the mouth for several minutes after the last of the Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is consumed. The hot, chili flavor of the Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is unpleasant, making it an enduringly miserable experience to consume these chocolates.

Nutrition

Taza chocolates are intended as a dessert product, not a health food! Each 38 gram disc of Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano represent a single serving of the chocolate. Made primarily of organic cacao beans, organic cane sugar and organic chili powder, there are no unpronounceable ingredients in this chocolate. They were produced on equipment that forces them to add a disclaimer about almonds, coconuts, pecans and hazelnuts. The Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano are marked as both gluten free and Vegan-compliant, as well as Soy Free.

Taza's Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano have 210 calories in a one-disc serving, 110 of which are from fat. A full serving represents 35% of one's RDA of saturated fat, but they are cholesterol-free. There is a minimal amount of sodium in these Dark Chocolate Mexicano Guajillo Chili chocolates and there are 3 grams of protein. These are not a significant source of any vitamins or minerals, though they do have 1% of one’s daily calcium and 4% of the RDA of Iron.

Storage/Cleanup

As a chocolate, Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano are fine as long as they are stored below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The package I picked up three weeks ago had an expiration date of April 10, 2018. Given that mine are almost all gone already, I cannot comment on how well they endure as they come closer to the expiration date.

If, however, they melt, they will stain. Consult your fabric guide if they melt as dark chocolate can be a bear to clean up when melted into light fabrics. Otherwise, cleanup is simply throwing the paper wrapper away when you are done with the chocolate disc.

Overall

Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano might be accurate for what it promises, but it is an unpleasant chocolate to consume.

For other Taza chocolates, please check out my reviews of:
Almond Dark Chocolate Mexicano
Vanilla Dark Chocolate Mexicano
Coffee Dark Chocolate Mexicano

5/10

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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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The Good: Wonderful ingredients, Accurate flavoring
The Bad: A little expensive, Utterly unpleasant and enduring aftertaste
The Basics: For those who love hot foods, Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano might satisfy, but for a general audience, these are just awful and painful to consume!


There's a whole niche market surrounding hot foods these days and the truth is, that's not my thing. I tend to like subtle flavors that have layers and complexity; hot foods tend to be overwhelmingly spicy with little in the way of subtlety. That fad is not my thing. Despite that, as my immersion in Taza chocolates, I picked up a pack of Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano.

Alas, though, Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano lived down to my expectations of what a spicy chocolate would be when the emphasis on the chilis in it was simply "hot!"

Basics

Taza is an premium chocolatier in Massachussetts that makes stone-ground Mexican chocolates. Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is a high-quality chocolate that I was lucky enough to find inexpensively at my local discount store, because why would I want to pay full price for such an unpleasant culinary experience?!

The Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano comes as two discs (2.7 oz. total) that are paper-wrapped together and packaged inside a cardboard wrapper. The whole disc is presented as a 3” in diameter by 5/16” thick slightly segmented chocolate disc. The segments do not snap apart evenly. Despite that, the Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano are generally easy to portion out to have less than a full serving; this type seemed to fracture a lot more than the other Taa Chocolate Mexicanos.

Ease Of Preparation

Eating Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is not a real challenge. After removing the chocolate from the cardboard and the paper wrapper, simply pull out the disc or break a segment off and stick it in your mouth. There is no particularly complicated method to eating these chocolates. This is an entirely ready-to-eat food . . . unless one wants to make it into a hot cocoa!

The hot chocolate version of the Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate requires milk and uses both discs in a package. One needs to grind up both discs of the chocolate and stir it into the simmering milk. Honestly, I've yet to make up some of this flavor as a cocoa.

Taste

Unwrapping the paper around the Guajillo Chili dark chocolate disc, the smell of dark chocolate is potent and recognizable. Interestingly, the scent finishes with a physical sensation more than an actual aroma. The nasal canal opens, as if there is a vapor; the chocolate does not smell like chilis at all, but the scent of the chocolate finishes with the effect of smelling chilis.

In the mouth, the Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate is appropriately dry and dark, like the rest of Taza's chocolate Mexicano line. The moment one begins to masticate the Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano, the dry, slightly sweet, chocolate, the chili flavor explodes in the mouth. The Guajillo Chili is fiery and real. There is little subtlety in the flavor; this chocolate is generically spicy hot opposite the dry, dark chocolate flavor and the burning chili flavor continues in the mouth long after any chocolate flavor has dissipated.

There is a hot, peppery flavor that continues in the mouth for several minutes after the last of the Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is consumed. The hot, chili flavor of the Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano is unpleasant, making it an enduringly miserable experience to consume these chocolates.

Nutrition

Taza chocolates are intended as a dessert product, not a health food! Each 38 gram disc of Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano represent a single serving of the chocolate. Made primarily of organic cacao beans, organic cane sugar and organic chili powder, there are no unpronounceable ingredients in this chocolate. They were produced on equipment that forces them to add a disclaimer about almonds, coconuts, pecans and hazelnuts. The Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano are marked as both gluten free and Vegan-compliant, as well as Soy Free.

Taza's Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano have 210 calories in a one-disc serving, 110 of which are from fat. A full serving represents 35% of one's RDA of saturated fat, but they are cholesterol-free. There is a minimal amount of sodium in these Dark Chocolate Mexicano Guajillo Chili chocolates and there are 3 grams of protein. These are not a significant source of any vitamins or minerals, though they do have 1% of one’s daily calcium and 4% of the RDA of Iron.

Storage/Cleanup

As a chocolate, Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano are fine as long as they are stored below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The package I picked up three weeks ago had an expiration date of April 10, 2018. Given that mine are almost all gone already, I cannot comment on how well they endure as they come closer to the expiration date.

If, however, they melt, they will stain. Consult your fabric guide if they melt as dark chocolate can be a bear to clean up when melted into light fabrics. Otherwise, cleanup is simply throwing the paper wrapper away when you are done with the chocolate disc.

Overall

Taza Guajillo Chili Dark Chocolate Mexicano might be accurate for what it promises, but it is an unpleasant chocolate to consyume.

For other Taza chocolates, please check out my reviews of:
Almond Dark Chocolate Mexicano
Vanilla Dark Chocolate Mexicano
Coffee Dark Chocolate Mexicano

5/10

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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Friday, November 17, 2017

A Long Way To Go For The Inevitable, "Two Dead Men" Continues The Punisher!


The Good: Decent acting, Excellent direction, Decent thematic truth
The Bad: Very slow plot, Very light on character development
The Basics: "Two Dead Men" slows down The Punisher until it gets to the pretty obvious endpoint.


One of the issues with making a truly great pilot episode for a television series is that one is saddled with the responsibility of following it up. "Two Dead Men" is the second episode of The Punisher and it is very tied with the second season of Daredevil. In addition to exploring the MICRO disc, "Two Dead Men" gives decent time to Karen Page and her editor at the New York Bulletin.

"Two Dead Men" picks up the morning after "3 AM" (reviewed here!) and it continues the tone of the pilot episode remarkably well. "Two Dead Men" established a concrete plot for the first season of The Punisher as the content of the MICRO disc that was shown in one of Frank Castle's final scenes in Daredevil Season 2 that Castle extracted from his old house.

Arriving at a diner away from the borough where he killed the Italian mobsters, Frank Castle sits down to eggs when he gets a call on the restaurant's phone. The man who left the MICRO CD at Castle's home is the man contacting him and he encourages Frank to finally watch the content of the disc, which included an interrogation that ends in murder. Castle turns to Curtis Hoyle for help. When Hoyle is unable to help, Castle reaches out to Karn Page and gives her all the information that he has on Micro.

In his secluded location, David Lieberman (Micro) monitors his family. Carson Wolf accepts Madani's proposal to visit Anvil for a teambuilding exercise. Her partner, Sam, does fairly well in the simulation, but after debriefing him the head of Anvil, Billy Russo, strikes up a conversation with Madani. Page meets with Castle and informs him that she can confirm some of his story. Page gives Castle Lieberman's name and sets him on his quest to find Micro. Castle finds Lieberman's house and manages to get inside by letting Sarah hit him with her car. Because he is monitoring the house, David Lieberman becomes aware of Castle in his residence and watches the time Castle spends with his wife. Castle breaks into Wolf's home and interrogates him about Lieberman.

"Two Dead Men" is very much entwined with Daredevil. The loose ends surrounding Karen Page and Frank Castle's relationship is addressed and the idea that Madani can identify Frank Castle from the footage she saw in the past is an intriguing one. "Two Dead Men" helps to establish the idea that there are many people in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who are supposed to be dead, but are not - that Frank Castle is not the only one. Billy Russo instantly seems like a secondary antagonist - he is too smooth and refined, like many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe villains - and if the Daredevil allusions hold, the most solid clue is in the name of his company. Frank Castle's corrupt Commanding Officer went by the codename "Blacksmith," so the moment "Anvil" enters the narrative, viewers are hard-pressed not to think that he is related to that outfit.

The traditional appearance of Frank Castle is restored in "Two Dead Men," which helps to differentiate Castle from Lieberman. Having been sporting a bushy beard and mustache, Castle had effectively created his Pete alias and it was only through gait analysis that Lieberman found him initially. By the climax of "Two Dead Men," though, Castle is feeling unafraid of wearing his old face and that is an interesting (albeit obvious) character transition.

"Two Dead Men" is a slow episode of The Punisher; it is not bad, but it works to establish David Lieberman as Frank Castle's equal in staying out of sight. The inevitable meeting between Castle and Lieberman is put temporarily on hold when Madani manages to interrogate Russo. Russo claims to have known Frank Castle, but given how every other member of the Blacksmith's squad went bad, it is hard to believe that he is as squeaky clean as he initially appears.

Lieberman and Castle are established as the core of The Punisher and the episode's climax goes a long way to illustrating just how Frank Castle has managed to stay alive since he went dark at the end of Daredevil. "Two Dead Men" is a drawn out march to an obvious and necessary conclusion and Tom Shankland directs the episode with a level of artistry and style that is almost enough to make the viewer overlook that very little actually happens in the episode.

For other works with Jon Bernthal, please visit my reviews of:
Baby Driver
The Accountant
Daredevil - Season 2
Sicario
Grudge Match
The Walking Dead - Season 2
The Walking Dead - Season 1
Date Night

5/10

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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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A VERY Sweet Treat, Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bars Are Good!


The Good:A good embodiment of all the promised flavors, Decent quality, Does not melt easily, Good company/corporate ethics!
The Bad: Comparatively expensive, Somewhat generically sweet as it stays in the mouth.
The Basics: The Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bars are good as long as one wants something that is exceptionally sweet!


I tend to like sophisticated flavors; flavors of foods that have depth and multiple layers to them. Sometimes, I encounter something that lives up to its promised flavors, but lacks a lot of flavor depth. The Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bars are definitely one such chocolate. The Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bar lives up to all of its promised flavors, but the net result is a somewhat generically sweet candy bar, which for the price is a little problematic.

Basics

The Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bar is a solid milk chocolate bar from Wild Ophelia. Each 2 oz. chocolate bar is wrapped in a cardboard wrapper. Inside the cardboard case is a thick metallic plastic wrapper (with a seam resembling a Pop Tart more than a chocolate bar). The actual chocolate bar is 4 1/2” long by 2 13/16” wide by 1/4” thick. The Bar has no identifying marks or logos on it, but it is segmented to make four 1 1/8” wide by 2 13/16” long bars. The top features ribbing that give the bar a very Art Deco look that is distinctive.

The chocolate is firm, despite being milk chocolate and usually more susceptible to melting and not at all waxy; it’s a quality chocolate bar. Individually, the bars are found in the $5.99 range. Given the quality of these bars, it is tough to call them too expensive.

Ease Of Preparation

Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bars are chocolate; preparing them is as easy as unwrapping the candy bar. Because the chocolate is a premium chocolate product, I recommend eating this a little at a time, not just biting right into the bar.

Taste

The Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bar smells sweet and creamy, the scent of milk chocolate dominating the candy's scent. There is, surprisingly enough, a slight buttery scent to the aroma, which insinuates caramel in the candy bar!

On the tongue, the Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bar tastes overwhelmingly sweet. The crispy rice is reminiscent of a chocolate-covered Rice Krispies treat . . . but even sweeter! This is an incredibly sweet chocolate bar with the added sweet, buttery caramel flavor that effectively coats the crispy rice in the Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bar making the milk chocolate even sweeter.

The Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bar has a strongly sweet aftertaste to it that endures in the mouth for only a few moments after the last of the bar is consumed!

Nutrition

Wild Ophelia makes their fine chocolates with quality ingredients, which is arguably why the range in price in the real world and online is a bit more than other chocolate bars! With the primary ingredients being milk chocolate (41% cacao), caramelized puffed rice, and sea salt, the Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bars are a candy bar, not a legitimate source of nutrition needed to survive. That said, Wild Ophelia uses natural ingredients and organic ingredients where possible; none of the ingredients are unpronounceable. In a full 56 gram serving (2 ounce), there are 290 calories, 160 of which are from fat. This represents 29% of one's RDA of fat (54% of the RDA of saturated fat). Each bar has 105 mg of Sodium (which is low considering the sea salt in these candy bars) and 4 grams of protein. There is a smattering of Calcium (8% RDA) and a decent amount of Iron (20% RDA), but no other vitamins and minerals. In other words, this is not a snack to try to survive on.

While the bars are all natural with no artificial ingredients and have no preservatives, they do contain soy. As well, there is an allergy warning for milk, tree nuts and peanuts, which rules them out for those who observe a Vegan diet.

Storage/Clean-Up

Because the chocolate is generally hard, though milk chocolate melts easier than dark, the Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bars are comparatively hard to melt. Despite that, these should be kept cool in order to not melt. As long as they are kept cool and dry, these bars will last at least six months (the ones my wife gave me last month would have lasted until October 5, 2018, had I not eaten it up first).

Clean-up is easy, so long as the chocolate does not melt. The Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate bars have wrappers that ought to be properly disposed of, but otherwise, the chocolate washes off skin and non-porous surfaces. It the chocolate melts onto fabric, consult a fabric guide.

Overall

Wild Ophelia Caramelized Crispy Rice Chocolate Bars are good, but not particularly complicated for the flavors they promise, making it a slightly tougher sell than some of Wild Ophelia's other bars.

For other Wild Ophelia candy reviews, please check out my reviews of:
Wild Ophelia Cold Brew Mexican Vanilla Chocolate Coffee Bites
Almond Sea Salt Chocolate Bars
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Smoked Chipotle Chili And Milk Chocolate Bar

6.5/10

For more food reviews, please check out my Food Review Index Page!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Who Would Have Guessed?! The Punisher Knocks Out A Series Premiere With "3 AM!"


The Good: Well-performed, Realism of conflicts, Excellent pacing, Great direction
The Bad: Some of the initial characterization feels expository
The Basics: The Punisher opens with "3 AM," which is an engaging pilot that will suck in viewers who are up for an exploration of consequences, not just a revenge tale.


When Frank Castle turned up in the second season of Daredevil (reviewed here!), I was admittedly indifferent. I've never cared about the character of The Punisher and, much like the first season of Daredevil was a long origin story of Daredevil, the second evolved Frank Castle into The Punisher. Given the success of the second season of Daredevil, it was somewhat unsurprising that Netflix decided to fast-track The Punisher Season 1. Given, however, the relative disappointments of the first season of Iron Fist (reviewed here!) and The Defenders Season 1 (reviewed here!), it remained difficult for me to actually get excited about an entire season devoted to Frank Castle and The Punisher.

But then, the preview trailer dropped and the sheer artistry of it - which, admittedly, I needed my wife to point out as I was not at all familiar with the musical piece in it, which was essential to understanding the depth of art in the trailer - made me look twice at the concept of The Punisher. I was still not particularly interested in thirteen episodes of revenge, gore and violence, no matter how well Jon Bernthal had played Castle in Daredevil. Still, I decided to give the show a chance because of my love of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the way that Netflix has pulled off almost all of its works in that franchise. The Punisher Season 1 opens with "3 AM" and the shock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year might well be how engaging such an off-putting character's story might be!

Frank Castle is hunting motorcyclists in rural Alabama, eliminating the Dogs Of Hell, before moving on to Juarez, Mexico to kill off more of the cartel that was involved in the death of his family. After El Paso, Castle returns to New York City to kill the last person even remotely associated with his family's death before hanging up the mantle of The Punisher. Six months later, Frank Castle is quietly working demolition for a construction crew under an alias, where he is mocked by his peers and does what he can to keep to himself. While others at work mock and resent "Pete Castiglionni" (his constant work is cutting into their overtime), the new guy, Donny Chavez reaches out over a lunch break when none of the guys will talk with him.

Rather than actually attend a meeting of veterans who are suffering through shellshock, Frank listens outside to the group therapy. There, he hears reactionaries blaming the government for all they went through during and after the wars in which they fought. After the meeting, he has a heart to heart with his old friend Curtis Hoyle. F.B.I. Agent Dinah Madani arrives at Homeland Security where she meets her new partner and tries to explain to him why she is hunting leads into the death of her former partner, Ahmad Zubair. Madani asks her partner to investigate Frank Castle and one of his also-dead partners, while Donnie goes out for drinks with his co-workers and ends up with a $344 bill to pay. Donnie and Pete's coworkers are pulling robberies to get out of their debts and Pete overhears two of them the next day planning to rob a mob card game. When one of their crew gets wounded on the job, Pete steps away rather than get involved, much to the chagrin of Donny.

Anyone not looking forward to The Punisher only has to give "3 AM" five minutes before thety are likely to be sucked in. The immediate violence comes with a clear purpose; Frank Castle is cleaning up all of the organizations involved in the death that inspired his transition into The Punisher. And it seems like he actually makes a good-faith effort to leave that violence behind, but Castle is pretty reasonably tortured by the memories of watching his family be slaughtered in front of him. Even those who might be unfamiliar with the backstory laid out in Daredevil for Frank Castle and The Punisher are likely to quickly understand that Frank Castle is trapped in the moment where he lost his family. He sees his family while he works, while he tries to read, pretty constantly.

"3 AM" does the essentials for a pilot episode; it defines the protagonist enough to make him accessible to a new audience and surround the established character with new people to send him in a new direction. Donny Chavez, a nice guy who is simply trying to take care of his grandmother after being out of work for a while, immediately leaps into the role of sidekick and in "3 AM," it is hard for the viewer not to feel like he's either generic support or destined to die horribly to push Pete back into being Frank Castle. The moment Jason R. Moore appears as Curtis Hoyle, his screen presence is enough to make it clear that he is destined to become Frank Castle's moral core (his Foggy Nelson, Claire Temple, Malcolm, etc.). The "type," though is fleshed out with realism in the writing that is refreshing for what one might expect of a simple revenge story.

As "3 AM" builds its support staff for Frank Castle, Castle starts to un-repress memories of what he did in Afghanistan. "3 AM" is well-written in that the moment Castle first mentions Afghanistan, a new character - Agent Madani - pops into the narrative with an unsolved case from Afghanistan. Madani is quickly set up with her own sidekick, Sam Stein, and her own adversary in the form of her boss, Wolf. Wolf is presented in "3 AM" as a generic boss who holds the cards and exerts power over his subordinates.

"3 AM" does a decent job of characterizing Madani and Castle in an adult way. Castle is messed up from his past and Madani's mother worries that she is drinking too much to actually deal with her problems. Much more often than not, "3 AM" works to characterize in an organic way. Madani's mother makes statements about religion (he father is a theist, her mother an atheist) that read as inorganic until the kicker line (characterizing religion as a threat to Madani comes out as anything but artificial).

For a pilot episode that has a lot of work to do make any of the characters interesting enough to watch, much less able to empathize with any of them, "3 AM" does an amazing job. Donny is young enough to make viewers believe he would succumb to peer pressure for the robbery and Lucca De Oliveira is amazing at finding the balance in his physical performance to balance naivete and desperation. Donny feels surprisingly real based on De Oliveira's performance and when he cries out at the episode's climax, it is virtually impossible not to feel agony for his character.

"3 AM" is not the unrelenting blood and violence one might expect from The Punisher, but it is definitely R-rated Marvel content. And it is surprisingly well-executed, making it easy for those who have no inherent interest to get sucked into the story of Frank Castle and the new life has has built for himself.

For other Marvel Television Universe Series Premieres, please visit my reviews of:
"Behold . . . The Inhumans" - Inhumans
"AKA Ladies Night" - Jessica Jones
"Pilot" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

8/10

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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Better Narrative, Lower Playability: Destiny 2 Evolves While Fixing What Wasn't Broken To Begin With!


The Good: Graphics, Story/concept
The Bad: Forced multiplayer experience, New shader concept and weapons mods lower the playability
The Basics: The saga of Destiny continues with Destiny 2, which elevates the Cabal, adds new planets and makes it harder to make weapons and armor work efficiently.


I came to Destiny (reviewed here!) comparatively late. Despite that, it did not take me particularly long to get into Destiny and enjoy the worlds, weapons, and adversaries of the game. As rumors swirled about the content of the first sequel to expand the Destiny universe, I was apprehensive. The early release presentations hyped up how Destiny 2 would increase the community aspect of the game. The community aspects, which forced a player to play with others after initially featuring a story that players could play entirely on their own.

I loathed the forced community aspect of Destiny. Of course, by the time I got to Destiny, most of the players were seasoned, arrogant and bored with trying to shepherd newer players through the climactic story adventures that required full six-person fireteams. So, the idea that Destiny 2 would increase and highlight that was not a big selling point for me. Despite the hype of one of the aspects that did not thrill me from the first incarnation of Destiny, I eagerly bought Destiny 2 only a day or two after its official release and I've been playing it for the past two months.

I got Destiny 2 for the Playstation 4 (reviewed here!) and daily play of the new game has illustrated to me that the creative forces behind Destiny created a far more problematic game with Destiny 2, despite there being a stronger narrative for the video game.

Basics

At its core, Destiny 2 is a first-person shooter game in a science fiction warfare setting. The game is broken into three essential modes: Story, Co-operative missions, and player vs. player combat.

The story mode is a single-player experience that has the player portraying a Guardian, one of the last surviving people in the solar system tasked with protecting the remaining human population. The player makes a journey from The Last City on the Traveler to ruined sections of Earth before the player progresses out to Io, Titan, Nessus and then later to the Leviathan, a new massive ship out near the edge of Earth's solar system. As in Destiny, in Destiny 2, the player fights little rogue aliens (The Fallen), massive armored warriors (the Cabal), mindless alien robot drones (the Vex), a race of killer humanoid insects (the Hive) and a sinister race invading the solar system that absorbs entities from all those races and makes them into shadow warriors (The Taken). In the main story mode, the player has to flee The Last City, which comes under attack by the Cabal's elite Red Legion. In a wounded state, the player slowly recovers their light and rescues the leaders of the Guardians from the planets they have scattered to before confronting the leader of the Red Legion to try to rescue the Traveler and The Speaker.

The multiplayer mode allows players to team up to do specific missions that involve bigger bosses than one player could reasonably handle. Players work together to perform complicated story missions that cannot be done by one player and do mini-strikes that allow them to work together in variations of other story adventures. There is also a very basic combat experience where the team of players combats enemies in an arena setting as part of the expanded training.

As with the original, Destiny 2 begins as a single-player game that has the single player moving through the worlds at their own pace, explore aspects of the setting that interest them and accomplish goals in their own desired order. But Destiny 2 includes major events that cannot possible done on one's own. The Leviathan, for example, is a raid that requires multiple players to unlock the puzzle portion that opens the doors that allows the player to progress. There is no possible way to complete the Leviathan Raid without multiple players and completing that raid unlocks several significant things, like the ability for a player to pledge to a Faction.

Finally, there is the player vs. player mode. In the Crucible (player vs. player mode), players either join a randomly assigned team or assemble a team of like-minded murderers and they go out to fight in various settings against other players. The Player Vs. Player modes range from games where the players must collect fallen baubles when they kill ("Supremacy") or take and hold control points around flags ("Control") to free-for-all combat between players. For Destiny 2, there are two new Crucible games - one which involves a four-person team either setting explosives and guarding them (with the opposing team attempting to disarm them) and another one where the players have only a few, shared, lives that they have to preserve before their entire team is irrevocably wiped out.

At the end of virtually every mission or round of combat, players are awarded points, artifacts, and/or weapons and armor to level up their character.

Story

Destiny 2 has a more focused story than the original Destiny. After years of the Guardians re-establishing themselves and protecting Earth's solar system, the Cabal, under the leadership of Dominus Ghaul attacks the Traveler. Ghaul and his Consul abduct The Speaker and enslave the Traveler to tap it for Light. Destroying the power center of the Guardians, the Guardians are forced into retreat while Ghaul interrogates the Speaker.

The Guardian, having lost their Light, crashes down to the abandoned portions of Earth where they slowly begin to regroup. The human survivors of the Last City struggle without a hierarchy and the Guardian (the player) has to protect the humans, rebuild an infrastructure and head out to other planets in the solar system to find the leaders of the Guardians. With their leaders restored and shards of the Light giving them power again, the Guardian has to stop the massive device draining The Traveler before confronting and killing Ghaul!

Game Progression

The main story of Destiny 2 has pretty reasonable progression. The player starts on a map and, while they might explore almost any part of it, there is a pretty linear sense of movement throughout the story. When a player encounters a story node along their current plotline, they begin a well-contained mission, like entering a phantom realm to recover shards of the Light or restoring a communication's device from salvaged parts from a downed colony ship on an outer moon.

The game progression is one of the clear areas where Destiny 2 devolves from its original story. Destiny had a clear, simple, and enduring method of upgrading armor and weapons. In Destiny, one could get shaders, which changed the coloring of one's mismatched armor. It was nice; the player got a cohesive look out of random things they picked up around the many worlds they visited. In a similar fashion, Destiny had a very linear sensibility for upgrading the weapons and the armor, for the attributes and powers they had.

Destiny 2 is a massive step back on that front. First, the shaders are used on each individual piece of armor (helmet, breastplate, gauntlets, leggings, and cloak) and when one upgrades out of the current piece they may have customized, they lose that shader. While this might allow greater customization, it makes creating a look for one's character harder (one must get several copies of the same shader and equip each piece of armor). And once one gets rid of lower-powered armor which the player had shaded the way they liked, they might lose that shader entirely and not be able to get it back. That's annoying, as is not having an overall shader that endures on the character.

The weapons and armor upgrades in Destiny 2 are done with "Mods." Mods are the exact opposite of intuitive; they are supposed to add power and attributes to weapons or armor - equipping to make an otherwise mundane weapon a Solar, Arc or Void weapon, equipping a piece of armor to give the player attributes when equipping a certain type of weapon. These mods, in addition to having the incredibly annoying tendency to reduce the power of certain artifacts (it sucks to finally get an Exotic piece of armor, attempt to equip it with something that should make it more powerful and watch the defensive capacity of the armor actually go down!). As with the shaders, equipping any weapon or armor piece with a Mod becomes problematic in that the lower powered items one equips with them and then later outgrows loses the mod. The upgrade and enhancement process for the weapons and armor in Destiny 2 is needlessly complicated and a dramatic step back from the simple elegance and efficiency of the original game.

Effects

The effects in Destiny 2 are homogeneously amazing. The visuals for the environments look fantastic and the animation is usually clean and flows exceptionally well. Destiny 2 is remarkably glitch-free on the visual effects and it creates an impressive setting that looks great. The fires throughout the Last City, for example, look amazing!

As an older player, it is worth noting that while the speed of the graphics are good and the rendering of adversaries is excellent, the scope, scale and lighting are frequently problematic. To see and, usually, to aim, I almost constantly had to engage the scope on whatever weapon I was using. This has the unfortunate consequence of removing the radar, which informs players where the enemies and goals are! That said, Destiny 2 has superior directional information. Enemies in Destiny 2 can shoot players from a decent distance, outside the effective radar range; the on-screen graphics that indicate where a player is being hit from attacks are excellent.

Arguably the most impressive effect in Destiny 2 is the quality of the voice acting. Bungie employed genre favorite actors like Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Lance Reddick, Lennie James and Bill Nighy to voice non-player characters who pop up during the movie portions of the game. The actors create distinctive characters for the Ghost and the leaders of the surviving factions within the Last City, making for an exciting sense of flow and continuity through the different story elements.

Replayability

Destiny 2 has three different styles of character a player may create - Titan (essentially brute soldiers), Hunters (more mobile and precise operatives, like bounty hunters) and Warlocks (essentially magic-users) - that each have different strengths, capabilities and forms of attack. As a result, players may play through the story portion of the game multiple times and have very different experiences with each run through. Going back through the game, for example, reminded me of one of the irksome aspects of the environment that allows multiple people to be playing in the same spot at the same time; when one is playing their own personal mission and when other players are playing around you, they might might poach your kills to make your goals more difficult to achieve. In areas where there are very few enemies, the game gets bogged down by several people all trying to kill the same enemies to accomplish their goals!

The player vs. player portion of the game changes with each and every attempt. That said, the new player vs. player event that seems like the Trials Of Osiris for Destiny 2 is problematic in that there are not enough players on the platform actually playing to give players access to that new style of game.

Overall

Destiny 2 foreshadows well how the Destiny franchise will continue to expand. This expansion fleshed out the Cabal and made them a lethal enemy to the last of humanity. Perhaps the next expansion will find the Vex traveling through time to undo humanity and make the player into a time traveler or the Taken will possess the leaders of the Guardians and the player will have to find a central controlling power source for the Taken to free all those who are under their influence from them. But the creators of Destiny 2 illustrate the dangers of tweaking a system that was well-made in the first place. Destiny 2 is less player friendly and compelling than the original. While the idea of the Light being corrupted and the Traveler being menaced is an interesting one, players quickly overcome the complications that creates and end up in a world that is partially familiar, somewhat annoying. The result is a game that is quicker to get through and harder to want to stick with afterwards than the original Destiny.

For other game reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Star Wars Battlefront
Injustice: Gods Among Us Ultimate Edition
Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham

6/10

For other video game reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by visiting my Software Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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