9.28.2007

Vieux Farka Touré (World Village, 2006)

Before his untimely passing last year, Malian singer/guitarist Ali Farka Touré was one of the most widely revered musicians on the African continent. Now his son Vieux Farka Touré is carrying the torch, with the release of his self-titled debut CD. Vieux Farka Touré is a promising work from a young performer who certainly appears capable of making his own mark on the music of his homeland.

The nation of Mali has produced its share of fine guitarists. Habib Koité could hold his own trading licks with any other acoustic guitarist on the planet, and Amadou Bagayoko of Amadou & Mariam possesses a mastery of the electric guitar made all the more remarkable by his blindness. In terms of technical proficiency, the younger Touré is not quite a match for those two. However, he makes up for it with a strong sense of rhythm. On songs like the opener "Sangare" and "Ma Hine Cocore," Touré cranks out some grooves that are hard to resist. He gets some high profile help on his debut as well. His father contributed some guitar on a few tracks, in what turned out to be some of his final recordings. Toumani Diabaté, a mentor to Vieux and a virtuoso on the traditional African instrument called the kora, plays on a pair of instrumental duets, of which "Touré de Niafunké" is particularly good.

Certainly fans of Malian guitar music will want to give Vieux Farka Touré a listen. For those who aren't familiar with the style, there are plenty of performers worth checking out -- I've already mentioned Habib Koité and Amadou & Mariam, and of course there's always Vieux's father -- but Vieux Farka Touré has already earned the right to be mentioned in that group, and seems likely to get better from here.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Cane, CBS, Season One, 2007

Probably the most anticipated show this season (I use that term carefully because I've heard that phrase on several networks, all for different shows!) is CBS' "Cane." This show is an hour long weekly drama that is a continuing series. In my view, CBS has needed a good continuing drama since "Dallas" went off in the 80's. With "The Sopranos" finally coming to an end, of some sort, the time was ripe for them to offer something to fill the void.

The plotline revolves around a Cuban family, the Duque's, that have sugar fields (hence the title), which they manufacture into rum. With our increasingly Hispanic demographic, and the success of the show "Ugly Betty, " it makes sense for the show to be so culturally rich with a Latino bent. The setting is in Southern Florida, with the clubs of South Beach, Miami already figuring into scenes. I could also picture a side trip or two into Havana, Cuba before the series concludes.

In the series opener, the family's patriarch, Pancho, played by Hector Elizondo, is told that he has six months left to live. He decides to step down from running the company to enjoy the time he has left. He has three children: Frank, Isabel, and Henry.

Frank, the eldest, wants to follow in his father's steps, and to focus on the more lucrative rum business. Unfortunately, with his playboy lifestyle, he is less than focused to run the family business.

Isabel is not directly involved in the day to day family business, but her husband, Alex Vega is. Alex is a Cuban immigrant who was brought to the states as an orphan. He is resourceful, and appears to have a Machiavellian philosophy of life, and the Tony Soprano/JR Ewing rulebook. In a surprise move, Alex is made the CEO of the company, passing over Frank. Can we see the seeds being sown for a conflict?

The youngest child is Henry. He has little interest in sugar, but much in running the family nightclub in Miami. He has more ambition than business sense, but there will be plenty of storylines as he learns the ropes of the family business. I relate him to Cousin Christopher of the Sopranos, or Bobby Ewing of Dallas.

My one criticism of the show, is that I recorded it, but on the playback, I had some issues understanding what they were saying. Maybe it was my machine, but I hope that the sound editing was good, because several of the scenes were in Spanish, or heavily accented English. It's good to get the flavor in, but I shouldn't have to struggle to understand what's going on. Then again, maybe it was my new recording device.

After watching the series opener of "Cane," I will say that I'm hooked, and this is probably the best new drama of the Fall season. I think that while the drama is formulaic, there are enough timeless themes like family and power to keep viewers engaged for at least a few seasons. I'm predicting that "Cane" will do very well in the ratings, so join in at 10 pm on CBS on Tuesdays, or online.

Preliminary Grade: B+

--Jonas

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

America's race to reach the moon is an inspiring one; it is also a pretty familiar story. These two elements are present in In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo preparation for, and journeys to, the moon.

In the Shadow of the Moon is composed of two elements: footage from the times and events around the moon missions, and interviews with the surviving members of the NASA program. Director David Sington lets the material speak for itself, not asking questions or injecting himself into the material. He may be a little too much in awe of the actual missions, as the world around the mission -- the social upheaval of the 1960s, the rivalry with the Russians to reach the moon -- is treated very briefly, as if he's rushing back to the details of NASA.

The people interviewed range from famous astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the ground crew and engineers who worked tirelessly to make sure the astronauts reached the moon safely -- and made it back alive. They are a varied bunch, discussing their work and the program with gravity, interest, and often humor, and they all convey a sense of certainty in the goal of the space program.

In the Shadow of the Moon is a little long -- a line near the end suggests the documentary was ending, yet it went on for 20 more minutes -- and much of the story is familiar, whether to the folks who lived during the Apollo missions or fans of the film Apollo 13. It also offers a detailed look at the space program from the inside.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

9.25.2007

Gossip Girl, Season One, The CW

Television has certain recurring genre of shows that periodically get updated, like the police drama, and the family comedy. Following in the lineage of "90210," and more recently, "The OC," is the CW's latest attempt at the genre of the teen drama, "Gossip Girl."

The idea is reportedly to take what was to take the stereotypical teens of fox's "The OC," and to move them to the East coast, and give them even more money. They all attend a preppy upper end and exclusive high school, (which thankfully is coed as firstly, it would remind me too much of my own high school, and secondly, it really wouldn't make for compelling television. Alas, I digress). Anyhow, much of the conflict comes from two rival teenage fems, better known as Serena and Blair who both want to be "leader of the pack," and the relationship with their boyfriends.

I'm just about the antithesis of a Manhattanite, but with that disclaimer made, I must say that compared to the sunny beaches and BMW convertibles of California, at least as presented on "Gossip Girl," the city just doesn't compare. For example, if these kids are so seriously rich, would they really be taking a dirty city bus to this exclusive school? I'm sure Trump's youngin's go first class in a stretch limo, and not with a pocketful of tokens jangling in their school uniform pockets.

The title of the show comes from the blog that the students all are glued to that discusses the going ons of the top social tier of students. It's not clear who the blogger is, and I suspect that it will be quite a while before that piece of info gets revealed, if ever. Technologies like cell phones, and instant messaging have changed our world, and urban teenagers have heavily embraced these technologies. I'm pleased to see a show that tries to incorporates this experience into the drama.

It remains to be seen how compelling "Gossip Girl" will be as the season develops. I plan on watching at least a few more episodes. Of note, it is filmed on location in NYC. Check it out on Wednesdays at 9 PM, EST, on The CW ( formerly known as channel 11 for those with an antenna), or online here.

Grade: B-

--Jonas

Georgia Rule (2007)

I always enjoy a movie directed by Garry Marshall, because first and foremost, this guy knows how to tell a good story. His typical film is a tight, character driven drama, and Georgia Rule is a prototypical example of this type of film.

Complementing this director are three generations of Hollywood's leading ladies: Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman, and Lindsay Lohan. Rounding out the cast are Dermot Mulroney, and Garrett Hedlund (who I first saw in Eragon). Certainly more than enough talent to make a good film.

The drama focuses on the three generations of women, and the conflict between Grandmother, mother, and granddaughter. Fonda plays Georgia, a domineering matriarch who lives life according to a strict protocol, hence the title Georgia Rule. This has driven her daughter, Lilly (Huffman) off from the family homestead in Idaho, to California where she is married to a high powered attorney. For the summer, Lilly decides that her daughter, Rachel (Lohan) has become too much to handle, and the plan is to drop her off for a while before she packs up to go east for college.

The film goes from conflict to conflict. We begin with Rachel walking outside her mother's car as they approach the town in Idaho as she prematurely parts ways with her mother. Lohan is perfectly cast as the rambunctious "rebel without a clue," as she personifies in real life. Next, Rachel and Georgia have different ideas of a summer vacation when her grandma signs up her to work at the local vets office. It's kind of funny to see the townspeople getting their medical care from the local vet, Simon, played by Mulroney. (As an aside, while this may seem ridiculous at first, the town is kind of small, and the nearest doctor may have been miles away. I also know more than one MD that was fed up with their vet bills and got meds for their animals, so while not encouraging this, I could see it happening the other way). We also have the makings of a love triangle as Rachel attempts to seduce the local Mormon teen, Harlan (Hedlund).

Lest you think the entire film is formulaic, and just small town idyllic Idaho living, we next take a turn into the more serious. Rachel blurts out that she has been sexually abused, by her father. This shocking revelation, coming from one so rebellious and not exactly reliable, then forms the basis of the rest of the drama. Her mother returns from California to get to the bottom of things, followed by the father. Marshall expertly directs this so that for the rest of the film, it's purposely fuzzy if the allegation is true or not up until the very end.

Georgia Rule is a tight drama, that kept my attention throughout. The dialogue is well done, and each of the characters is multidimensional- there are no stereotypes here, even among the lesser characters. This film takes on the difficult subject matter of child sexual abuse by a family member, and gives it a dignified treatment, which is far more common than many would want to admit. While this is not exactly "family friendly entertainment," it does make for a moving motion picture. Check it out when you get a chance.

Overall Grade: A

--Jonas

The Smithereens, Meet The Smithereens (Koch, 2007)

The Smithereens gained a considerable amount of attention in the late eighties and early nineties for their ability to make quality modern rock while remaining true to their classic rock roots. They had a run of radio-friendly rockers like "Blood and Roses," "Behind a Wall of Sleep," and "Only a Memory," but eventually the hits dried up. Now Pat DiNizio and the lads have re-invented themselves, for an album at least, as a Beatles tribute band. Meet The Smithereens! reproduces in its entirety, from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Not a Second Time,", the 1964 Capitol LP Meet The Beatles! which brought Beatlemania across the Atlantic for the first time.

Remaking an album song for song seems like an odd concept, the same way that remaking a classic film came across as odd before it became commonplace. I think you can make it work, though, if you hold on to what was good about the original and show it the proper respect as you present the material to an audience that won't all be familiar with it. I think The Smithereens have succeeded in that regard here. The band members are old enough to have seen the first appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when they were kids, and their collective destiny was probably set right then and there. The purpose of Meet The Smithereens!, then, appears to be to capture some of the spark The Beatles instilled in them and bring it into the present day.

Despite DiNizio's vocal limitations relative to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the musical performances throughout Meet The Smithereens! are solid. And of course, the selection of material is impeccable. Given that The Beatles' recorded output only got better as the sixties progressed, it's easy for somebody too young to have lived through it to forget that their early music was really good too. I suppose I should thank The Smithereens for the reminder.

Will Meet the Smithereens! make anybody forget the original versions of the songs? No, but I really don't think that's their intent. Like fine performers of traditional music, The Smithereens are putting their own stamp on the music that inspired them, in the hopes of directing the attention of younger listeners not just to them, but to The Beatles as well. So I think there's a place for recordings like this one if they at least do the originals justice, which Meet The Smithereens! does.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Blood and Honor (1996)

After enjoying WEB Griffin's Honor Bound, I moved on to the second novel in this series of three, Blood and Honor. This novel continues the plotline in a highly parallel fashion. Once again, it is set in 1943, in Argentina at the height of WW II. The Germans are coming to the realization that they probably are not going to win the war, and are preparing for the worst- that there will be serious reparations like at the end of the first World War. The plan is to secretly smuggle out some serious cash, and hide it for later use.

The main protagonist is Clete Frede, the almost retired Marine who has a fortune in both the US as the heir apparent to an oil fortune, and in Argentina as the heir apparent to his father's fortune which includes sizable land holdings. Once again, the Germans are sending in a supply ship to aid their Southern Atlantic submarine fleet that has menaced British and American shipping (apparently both Axis & Allies were trading with the Argentinians for wool, beef, and other staple products during the war).

While much of the storyline sounds very similar, this is a completely different novel. In a major (WARNING: Plot Spoiler!) twist, Clete's father gets assassinated very early on, giving Clete a huge inheritance, and a struggle as he delves into his father's life and gets the know the man he barely knew. Also, his girlfriend, Dorotea, announces she is pregnant. Much of the middle of the novel focuses on the pomp, circumstance, and ritual surrounding the funeral, and the planning of the wedding (an interesting point/counterpoint of life and death). It turns out that the father was also involved in planning a coup d'etat, and this comes to fruition in Blood and Honor as well (it would appear that Argentina has more regime changes than most other countries...).

Don't think that this book doesn't have any military content. Clete still works for the OSS, and is involved with planning and executing the mission of finding the disguised sub tender. To that end, he needs a plane. In typical military fashion, the hardware he wants (this) isn't available, but he gets something "just as good," (this, which you can see is a lot bigger) which ends up presenting its own set of challenges as he has no experience in the larger plane, and it's too big for the improvised dirt runway. Finally, at the end, just when I expected the sinking of the ship, this novel goes off in a Godfather direction, and goes for revenge in a matter of fact way.

This longish novel did take me a while to get through. It's also a little confusing as there are several lengthy formal names both of Spanish and German derivation that did slow me down at times (especially the German ones). It is an enjoyable break from the traditional war novel genre, yet it incorporates some of the essential elements and quite simply defies a neat category.
The prose is especially strong, with crisp details that paint a descriptive picture in a concise fashion which is one of Griffin's signature items. This author also incorporates, in italics, the individual characters thoughts that combine in both the third person, and first person point of view simultaneously, which few other authors even attempt, and even fewer successfully pull off. At times I feel like this Honor Bound Series is like reading a script for a television mini series, and I can't wait to read the conclusion, Secret Honor.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Unaccompanied Minors (2006)

I remember two things about a childhood airplane ride to California. The first is that I was shocked to see a child flying all by their lonesome for one coast to the other. It was explained to me that for a surcharge of an adult fare, the child would be shepherded through the process to reach their destination. The second was that on this transcontinental flight, they actually had a buffet for the passengers to dine from. Wow, how the airlines have changed in our current era where they're charging for a soda or pillow!

This phenomenon of children flying without adults, coupled with the increasing use of the hub system by airline necessitating layovers become the basis of the film Unaccompanied Minors. Basically, a bunch of kids traveling at Christmas time end up in a Pennsylvania airport, and get snowed in. The airline's plan is to keep the kids together and safe in one location-the equivalent of a kid's warehouse with concrete walls and no windows. The children plot an escape from their overwhelmed chaperon, and end up running amuck among the airport buried in snow. It reminded me of Home Alone as the kids run off on their own and have side adventures in places like the unclaimed baggage center. There is also a side story of an environmentally conscious father who tries to take on the snow in a biodiesel car that is no match for the snow.


I found Unaccompanied Minors to have some humor value, but mostly on a tween level. The kids will enjoy this one a lot more than the adults as there is no higher level to the comedy, and the plot is too simplistic. If you've ever been stuck in an airport, (and who hasn't at this point?) there are some chuckles, but this was far from outrageously funny to me.

Overall Grade: C+

--Jonas

9.21.2007

Prison Break, Season 3, Fox Television

I've been a big fan of Prison Break, FOX's sleeper hit that is now entering their third season. To recap, the first season focused on getting Lincoln out of the Fox River State Penitentiary. The second season was a wild chase across the US, and into Central America, concluding in Panama as the convicts fled from the long arm of American law.

For the third season, this time its Micheal Scofield that starts off behind bars, and Lincoln on the outside, the visa versa of how we started off this whole journey. He's in Sona, where only the worst in the Panamanian prison system go to. Even the guards are afraid to enter the anarchy inside. They basically exchange some food and water once a week for the bodies of anyone that died, and shoot any prisoners that try to make a run for it. Whatever goes on inside, their only mission is to keep it contained.

Additionally, in the prison are two previous pursuers: Alex, the drug abusing FBI agent, and Bellick, the former Captain of the prison guards back in Fox River. Also, T-Bag, the deranged rapist/pedophile/mass murderer is lurking around, and regular viewers know that it's just a matter of time before he gets bloodthirsty, and the bodies start piling up behind him.

The conflict starts to come as Lincoln's son, and Dr. Sarah get conveniently kidnapped down in Panama. Hmmmm. That seemed a little too convenient to me, but I guess we needed it to get the plot going. The condition for the release you ask? Scofield has to break someone else out of this Sona prison. Again, rather convenient, but I'll grant them some dramatic plot license as they probably never thought the show would make it this far.

It's too early to tell how this season will play out. On one hand, compared to the breakneck speed of the end of the second season, I felt like there was a lull in the action. However, I can see the stage being set for good things to come. Of course, I'm thinking that a civil engineer locked in a prison with no guards would just dig a tunnel out, but I doubt it will play out that way. In the meantime, catch the third season of Prison Break on Mondays at 8 PM, EST on the FOX TV network, and stay tuned for K-Ville afterwords.

Preliminary Grade: B

--Jonas

The New Guy (2002)

The New Guy is a simplistic teen movie. DJ Qualls plays Dizzy Harrison, and his father Bear Harrison is acted by Lyle Lovett. He's the prototypical nerd that is entering his senior year of high school. He gets an idea after a chance encounter with an advice giving prisoner, Luther (Eddie Griffin), that he should get some serious attitude and start again.

How can one start again in their senior year of high school? By going to another school of course. He accomplishes this feat by getting himself expelled from his first school, a task that is harder than he thought it would be and fertile ground for some sophomoric humor. At the next school, he changes his name to Gil Harris, takes down the toughest guy using some prison yard fighting technique, and becomes "king of the hill." He finds a new romantic interest in Danielle (Eliza Dushku).

All of this comes to a crashing halt when his former past catches up to him just as he is at the height of his popularity. At that point, he gets to see who is friends really are.

The premise of The New Guy reminded me of another TV film, Student Exchange from a while back. In that film, two students make a break with their past by pretending to go to Europe, and returning to their school as Italian exchange students. Student Exchange had far more depth and better characters. In The New Guy, the characters are all typical teen film unidimensional affairs- the jock, the tough guy, the cheerleader, so on and so forth with all of the depth of a Hollywood movie facade.

While The New Guy does have its moments, the film is too simple for my taste. Best suited to a teenage audience, it lacks more widespread appeal.

Overall Grade: C

--Jonas

Peaceful Warrior (2006)


Dan Millman (played by Dan Mechlowicz) is a college gymnast that would appear to be at the top of the world in the film Peaceful Warrior. At USC Berkely he is vying to be "lord of the rings," has the respect of his teammates, and the eye of most of the females on campus. Of course, he is the life of every party. However, at the same time, his life is seriously lacking on a spiritual level.

One night he can't sleep, so he wanders down the road to the local gas station's "quickie mart" in the middle of the night. There he has an encounter with Socrates, a wise oldster portrayed by Nick Nolte. This Socrates clearly has great wisdom, and young Millman is more curious than in awe at first of the years of knowledge that Socrates possesses. Amy Smart ably plays Joy, another Socrates follower on the path to enlightenment, and the only female not interested in Millman, which of course makes him only more interested in her.

Conflict gets created when our young gymnast experiences a devastating motorcycle accident which just about ends his career. Now under Socrates' tutelage, we have Millman acquiring wisdom in a slow and painful process. This part of the film reminded me of the relationship of Luke Skywalker and Yoda in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, or the master & apprentice in The Karate Kid. The tasks seem inane at some points, but wisdom never comes without a price.


Millman is ready to retire, but Socrates encourages him to return to his passion- gymnastics. He faces an uphill battle as his coach has already written him off and put him out to pasture. Through persistence, he manages to make a comeback of sorts and makes it to the nationals. Unfortunately, the film just kind of ends there, and we're not told what happens afterwards to his gymnastics career, but I think it's safe to assume that Olympic gold wasn't in the cards.

One notable aspect of this film is that the entire thing is based on a true story. Millman is now an author, and he writes self help books about being the "peaceful warrior," and his spiritual quest towards enlightenment. Not having read the books, I'm not sure if this is an "only in California" thing or not.

In summary, I enjoyed the acting of the film, but like any good Mythbuster, found the plot itself to be quite implausible, except that gymnasts shouldn't be riding motorcycles. How did Socrates get on the roof of the garage again?

Overall Grade: B-

--Jonas

Funny Money (2006)


Funny Money is a comedy film starring Chevy Chase. While I've always enjoyed Chase's humor, this time out he's just not that funny.

The premise is that Chase plays Henry Perkins, a middle aged accountant, just ripe for a midlife crisis, but he's too mundane for even that. His wife Carol is played by Penelope Ann Miller. Through a subway switcheroo he inadvertently trades his briefcase with a gangster, and innocently returns home with a cool five million in cash. His initial plan to beeline for Barcelona that night before anyone catches up to him is thwarted when a series of both invited and uninvited guests appears on his doorstep.

Unfortunately, from this point on, things disintegrate from implausible to downright zany and confusing. Additionally, very little of it has any humor value to it. The one exception is Chase doing a short bit impersonating being a visiting Australian cousin. However, it's hard to justify watching a whole movie for a mere handful of humorous lines. Even die hard Chase fans will likely be disappointed with this one.

Overall Grade: C-


--Jonas

K-Ville (Fox Television)

While next week is the real premiere week of the 2007-08 television season, a few things debuted this week, one of them being K-Ville. On the surface it appears to be yet another cop drama, a recurring subject matter that's been done oh so many times before. For whatever reason, I decided to watch it, and share my initial impression.

K-Ville refers to Katrinaville, also known as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, caused so much destruction and loss. It is set in present time, and the city is struggling to redefine and rebirth itself- not an easy process when its residents are spread across states. Also, New Orleans was hardly the safest city pre-Katrina, and plenty of crime and corruption has flourished amidst the partially cleaned up remains of this once culturally vibrant city.

The action focuses heavily on Marlin Boulet, a veteran NOPD officer. In a dramatic opening, his partner deserted him right in the middle of anarchy and chaos. While his neighbors have mostly left, he proudly lives in the same house, and struggles to rebuild it among much in ruin. While he gets a new partner, he has some issues in his past, and by the first episode's end, we do get a surprisingly dramatic revelation that I don't want to spoil.

One of the keys to this series is that it is set on location in New Orleans. No amount of Hollywood gimmickry can ever recreate shooting in such a rich set. Apparently, the last police television drama shot on location was Magnum, PI back in the 80's, so it's nice to see a return to this concept. Done like a film, New Orleans starts to become its own character in this drama.

While I was expecting K-Ville to be a downer to see such a devastated city, I was pleasantly surprised that the message of hope came so strongly across. While it will take a while (probably decades), the resilience of the city of New Orleans will survive even a severe hurricane of almost biblical proportions. I'm looking forward to future episodes that can be seen on the FOX network, on Mondays at 9 PM, EST, following Prison Break.

Overall Grade: B+

--Jonas

We've Been Armchaired!

Recently, a new website got in touch with me. The idea is that it's a website that reviews other web sites, and it's called Jerome Surfs. Based in the Philippines, Jerome's ambition is to review a site a day, and wanted to find out if we were interested. Of course we were, and a week later, he shared The Armchair Critic with his readership.

I thank Jerome for his insightful comments, and encourage other sites to let him give them the once over. While I agree we have too many tags, for the time being we're stuck with them, and it is convenient to find older content, and keeps us organized. I also appreciate that he took the time to get some background on who we were, and how we ended up doing this.

Happy Surfing Jerome!

--Jonas

Wild Hogs (2007)


While I'm not a fan of motorcycles (we call them "donor cycles" in the hospital for a reason!), there are plenty of middle aged guys that acquire them during their midlife crisis years- in fact I know a few. Using this sociological phenomenon as a backdrop, the film Wild Hogs takes a look at a bunch of guys, and their need for the open road.

We have John Travolta, William H. Macy, Martin Lawrence and Tim Allen all stuck in their lives. They decide to shake it up a bit, and take a trip from Cincinnati to California on their motorcycles. Along the way, they have some humorous misadventures- their tent burns, a run in with the law, skinny dipping in a mountain lake when a family arrives, and a run in with a biker gang- the Del Fuegos. It all ends up in a show down in Madrid, New Mexico (as an aside, a nearly abandoned mining town that is having a renaissance as an artist colony, a real interesting place to visit if you ever get the chance, and have the chili at the local saloon) where Macy meets a local, played by Marisa Tomei. Our bikers have it out, and the Wild Hogs (big surprise) emerge victorious.

Wild Hogs reminds me of the film Dumb and Dumber. There is a lot of physical comedy, and we're never quite sure when Macy is going to fall off of his bike again. While humorous at first, it does get old as the film progresses. Also, while each of the scenes is fine, they didn't add up to a greater whole. While they do make it to California, I don't get a clear sense that our characters are sufficiently changed for their experience, and won't go right back to what they were upon their return to their homes in Ohio. While any road trip film is more about the journey than the destination, Wild Hogs is more out of balance than most.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that this was a bad film. It was well acted, and I was engaged through most of it. I think I just expected something less adolescent from the star studded cast. If you want some light physical comedy, and don't expect a deep story, than Wild Hogs is a pleasant diversion.

--Jonas

Overall Grade: B

9.20.2007

Väsen, Linnaeus Väsen (NorthSide, 2007)


The Swedish folk group Väsen began their career in the early nineties as a trio, with Olav Johansson playing most of the melodies on a Medieval keyed fiddle called a nyckelharpa, Mikael Marin providing counterpoint on the viola, and Roger Tallroth supplying rhythm on the twelve-string guitar. They quickly developed a very dedicated following among fans of the traditional fiddle music of Sweden, due largely to the tremendous on-stage musical chemistry between the three members. Väsen soon found themselves in the vanguard of the new Nordic folk movement, which brought contemporary interpreters of Scandinavian music around the world to audiences for whom the styles of music had, up to that point, been largely unfamiliar. Near the end of the decade Väsen decided to expand their sound by adding percussion, and André Ferrari was brought into the fold. Purists might not have known what to make of Ferrari, but Väsen's 1997 CD Whirled remains one of the definitive albums of the new Nordic folk genre, and their live shows were nothing short of superb. Ferrari balked at extensive traveling in the aftermath of 9/11, though, and Väsen have spent most of this decade recording and performing as the original trio. But for the first time in eight years, Ferrari went into the recording studio with the rest of Väsen, and the new CD Linnaeus Väsen is the result.

The concept for the new CD, curiously, revolves around the renowned eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the founder of the system of scientific nomenclature used in modern biology. Described by biographers as having "no ear for music," Linnaeus nevertheless came from a family of musicians and was an avid dancer of polskas. Most of the tunes performed on this CD have some connection to Linnaeus, and would have likely been recognized by him. In fact, the opening tune "Carl Linnaeus Polonaise" was composed for him by his brother-in-law, Gabriel Höök.

The music on Linnaeus Väsen maintains the same high standard that the band have always set for themselves, whether as a trio or a quartet. As before, Ferrari makes his presence most strongly felt on the more energetic pieces. The highlight for me is "Grevilius' Polonaise," a polska taken from the notebook of a prominent fiddler from Linnaeus' home village of Växjö during the time Linnaeus would have been attending secondary school. This particular piece has a strong melody that lends itself well to the kind of dynamic shifts at which the band has always excelled. Ferrari's ominous pounding propels a breathtaking set of marches from the playing of Linnaeus' great uncle, Sven Tiliander. The brilliant interplay of the viola and percussion underneath the melody on "Söderblom's Polska" showcases the band's willingness and ability to innovate with traditional music.

Some people might be partial to the trio version of Väsen over the quartet, but while they've always been fantastic in concert regardless of which line-up I've seen, I always felt that the quartet did a better job of matching their live energy on disc. In that regard, Linnaeus Väsen picks up right where Whirled and 1999's Gront left off. Long-time fans of the band shouldn't need my recommendation to go out and get this, but anybody unfamiliar with the folk music of Sweden will find this an enjoyable introduction.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

The Bromeliad, or Nome, Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers and Wings) - Terry Pratchett (1990-ish)

This series of three books, Truckers, Diggers and Wings is not set in Pratchett's Discworld. This may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal preferences. Rather the books are set in a world much like our own, the major difference being that we are sharing the planet with nomes, not gnomes mind you, who we learn are space travellers stranded here many years ago and who have reverted to something like barbarism when trapped on a planet where nothing is on their scale - either physical or time. Nomes, you see, are about 4 inches tall and live about ten times faster than humans.

In Truckers, some nomes from "Outside" make ther way into "The Store." After some amusing, and sometimes touching, cultural confusion, things settle down for a little while, until the nomes learn that "The Store" is to be demolished. This causes a religious crisis, and Pratchett works in some of the wry humour he does so well. Eventually the nomes steal a truck and flee "The Store."

In Diggers, the nomes' new life at "The Quarry" is threatened once again by humans who are intending to re-open the quarry. Life is complicated by the fact that the main nome leader, Masklin, has gone missing, never returning from a mission to explore the nearby airport. Eventually, the nomes flee again, this time in an earthmover. All looks dark, though, as the forces of humanity close in. At the last moment, the nome starship arrives and our heroes are saved.

Wings flashes back and takes up the story of Masklin and his companions as they travel to the airport and beyond to try to find and reactivate their ancient and legendary starship. It, too, concludes (more or less) with the rescue of the nomes from the quarry.

Apparently this trilogy was intended as "young adult fiction" or somesuch. I learned this after reading the books, and it came as a bit of a surprise. They work just fine for not-so-young adults such as myself. It is the mark of good juvenile fiction that it does not talk down down to its audience and that it addresses issues that are real, even if it does so in a fantastic setting. Heinlein was a master of this, Lewis' Narnia books are a good example, and even the Harry Potter books achieve the difficult task of appealing to a wide range of readers. With the nomes, Pratchett is able to comment on religion, science and human (or nomish) nature.

Oddly, or perhaps not oddly, since Pratchett is not trying so hard to be funny there are more moments of insight or tenderness than one finds in a usual Pratchett book.

"I reckon," said Angalo, looking down, "that humans are just about intelligent enough to be crazy."

"I think," said Masklin, "that maybe they're intelligent enough to be lonely."


Pratchett has captured something essential abut the human condition there. But fear not, there is much humour to be had as well. Ultimately, the trilogy works very well and I place it well up in my ranking of Pratchett's work, for (as Corgi books puts it) adults of all ages.

Overall Grade: A

9.18.2007

Augie March, Moo, You Bloody Choir (Red Ink, 2007)

Augie March hail from Melbourne, Australia. Led by guitarist/vocalist Glenn Richards, this modern rock quartet specializes in melodic but melancholic laments of love and loss. It's a familiar formula to be sure, but Richards, drummer David Williams, guitarist Adam Donovan, bassist Edmondo Ammendola, and keyboardist Kiernan Box mostly make it work due to some tight musicianship and good songwriting. Richards, in particular, has a feel for melodies and a soulful voice that is well-suited to the kind of songs he writes.

Their third album, titled Moo, You Bloody Choir, came out last year in Australia but just got released in the U. S. last month. The band plays mostly straightforward rock, with some country leanings. A lot of the album is pretty moody, as typified by the opening song and single "One Crowded Hour," which will please some people more than others. I don't mind music that leans towards the more somber side of things, but after hearing the band rock out on "Just Passing Through" and get somewhat rustic on "Thin Captain Crackers," I kind of wish Augie March had made the album a bit more diverse.

Moo, You Bloody Choir does have enough good tracks to justify giving it a listen, though. It will appeal to people who like melodic, no-frills guitar rock with tinges of country and soul.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

9.17.2007

In Defense of Britney

If there's one thing the public loves more than seeing a star rise, it's then seeing that star fall. There may never be greater proof of this than the amazingly vitrolic backlash against Britney Spears after her performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.

I am not a fan of Britney Spears. I think her music is completely bland, she owes her success to self-exploitation, and any interest I have had in her is based on simple prurience rather than artistic interest in her as a musician or [shudder] an actor. That said, after she performed headlines continue to blast her -- and I'd say unfairly.

Most of the articles focus on her weight, claiming she is "fat," "doughy," and "displaying a paunch." True, Britney is no longer of the modelesque proportions that used to land her in the top spots when Maxim and FHM would list their 100 hottest women. But so what? To quote the title of a movie, real women have curves. And if Britney wasn't under 100 pounds, she also wasn't sporting a beer belly or looking ridiculous. I wonder how many women commenting on how heavy she's gotten would have felt comfortable with their look if they were in a spangled bikini dancing in front of millions.

There has been criticism that Britney lip-synched very poorly to her song. This is true -- but MTV is built on lip-synching (do you really believe the musicians are really singing in their music videos?) and the network has also done their own "enhancing" of supposedly live performers before. To fault Britney for poor lip-synching is like saying she isn't as good as cheating as the network is.

What hasn't received much notice is the new song itself; you'd think this would be the most important part of the performance. It's no better or worse than anything else Britney has done. If she wants to improve her reputation, Britney should try to focus on and improve as an artist, like Christina Aguilera (who went back to big band sounds) or Mariah Carey (who didn't stop showing her body but made better music at the same time).

Perhaps this performance shows that Britney can't just shake her money maker and garner the same approval she once got. But the public shouldn't crucify her over what is, essentially, one poor performance.

Commented on by James Lynch

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

What does it take to be the next legendary supernatural serial killer? Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a comedy exploring the slasher's plans and methodology from the slasher's point of view.

Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) is a cheerful, enthusiastic young man out to join the ranks of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Meyers (or, as he calls them, Fred, Jas, and Mike). As he plans his spree, he has college journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) along to shoot a documentary on him. Joined by two cameramen, Taylor is both repulsed and fascinated by Leslie's grand plans.

Behind the Mask explores the "famous" serial killer motif from several angles. On the practical side, Leslie rigs the potential weapons and escape routes of his victims, and he performs cardio to keep up with running victims while appearing to slowly walk behind them. Philosophically, retired serial killer Eugene (Scott Wilson) explains that their type exist to provide the evil that good must struggle against. Leslie is even very careful in selecting his targets, from the "girl survivor" who must grow from helpless victim to leader-fighter to the right sort of group that mixes jocks and geeks. And when Leslie's psychiatrist Doc Halloran (played by Bob Englung, best known as Freddy Kreuger) turns up, Leslie is thrilled: "I have an Ahab!"

Much like the Scream movies, Behind the Mask plays with the idea that the people in horror movies actually know the mechanics of horror movies. Ultimately, Behind the Mask doesn't do much to advance the genre: The first two thirds of the film walk us through the horror movie cliches we all know (and sometimes love), then the final third turns into the planned slasher flick. Nathan Baesel makes for a likeable villain, and fans of horror movies will find quite few chuckles here. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a mildly entertaining look at the slasher's world.


Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

9.14.2007

The New Pornographers, Challengers (Matador Records, 2007)

The New Pornographers began life in the late nineties as a side project of a number of performers involved in the Vancouver music scene. By the time their first CD Mass Romantic came out in 2000, though, most of the band members' other musical projects had fallen by the wayside. Only vocalist Neko Case, who has had a superb career as a solo artist, has matched separately what the New Pornographers have accomplished collectively. Last month they followed up their excellent 2005 CD Twin Cinema with the release of their fourth album, titled Challengers.

Challengers largely follows the same formula established on the first three New Pornographers albums. Guitarist A. C. Newman writes most of the songs, giving a few to Case to sing and singing the rest himself. The remaining songs are contributed by Danny Bejar, whose quirky stream-of-consciousness lyrics have always provided a welcome counterpoint to Newman's more conventional approach. Musically, the band haven't strayed too far from the power pop that defined their sound initially, although the new album does include a bit of orchestration. Some of Newman's lyrics on the new record take a fairly serious tone as well; on the opener "My Rights Versus Yours," he sings about not wanting to fall under the wheels of "the new empire in rags."

I felt that the New Pornographers took a big step forward the previous time around with Twin Cinema, especially Newman as a songwriter. Challengers, while still good on the whole and certainly worth getting if you're a fan, didn't make quite the same impression on me. It has some fun songs like "All Of The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth" and "Mutiny, I Promise You," but I feel that the band covers mostly familiar territory here. Still, it's a respectable effort from one of the better bands out there right now.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

Freedom Writers (2007)


Freedom Writers is this week's "stand up and cheer" movie about a teacher taking on a challenging classroom and suceeding. It stars Hillary Swank, Scott Glenn and Patrick Dempsey (better known as McSteamy from "Grey's Anatomy"). It takes place after the 1992 LA riots.

Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a student teacher who truly wants to make a difference. She is married to Dempsey, who plays Scott Casey. She gets thrown into a freshman English class where half the kids are on probation, and the other half are in gangs, many bringing weapons to school. The class is polarized around racial lines, and they live in a literal war zone where daily violence is the norm, and not the exception. The more senior teachers teach at the junior and senior level because most of the problem students have either gotten killed, or at least dropped out, so the remaining students at least have an interest in learning. After a riot breaks out in the first week of school, this new teacher starts to realize that she has her work cut out for her.

Gruwell has more ambition than experience, and she takes on the challenge. When she can't get the school to supply her with books, she gets a second job to be able to buy them herself. When she figures out that the kids have such a narrow view of the world because they've never been anywhere else than Long Beach, CA, she gets a third job to do a field trip. When her department director and principal start to squawk, she gets support from the board of education. In short, she becomes a rebel who takes up the cause of tolerance.

This devotion to her students of "Room 203" starts to exact a high price on the rest of her life. Her husband rarely sees his wife, and their relationship becomes strained. Her father, a retired successful businessman initially views this a big mistake for his daughter, and can't believe how hard she works for 27K a year.

Gruwell, comes up with the idea of the kids writing their own story in a daily journal. This was inspired after the students read The Diary of Anne Frank, and can identify with the Nazis oppression and violence of WW II as the "ultimate gang," and compare it to their oppression. Through reading her student's journals, Gruwell gains even greater insight into the impoverished, and violent circumstances that the students are facing. Many of them view it as an achievement if they are not dead or pregnant by age 16. These stories get collected into a book, The Freedom Writers Diary.

Freedom Writers reminded me quite a bit of The Ron Clark Story. Both films deal with young educators taking on an inner city students, and succeeding against all odds. Of the two, I think that Freedom Writers is the stronger film. By using voice overs of the students and their personal stories, set against their homes and violence, it makes a powerful impact. It was also impressive that all of Gruwell's students went on to college when none of them were expected to even graduate high school.

Overall Grade: A-

--Jonas

Inside Out (2005)

As the resident expert on healthcare and entertainment, when I saw the DVD box for Inside Out, featuring Eriq La Salle from "ER," and Kate Walsh from "Grey's Anatomy," (and this upcoming Fall season "Private Practice"), I figured I had to see how we could combine the talents of these two veteran actors of the hospital entertainment scene. To put it bluntly, the box was the most enticing part of the experience.

La Salle plays Doctor Peoples, a strange psychiatrist that moves into a very ideal appearing suburban neighborhood. It becomes clear from the outset that his just doesn't fit in with his neighbors, especially when he mows his lawn after midnight! This is reinforced when he has a garage sale, and sells some goods that are simply too dirt cheap. As time goes on, Doctor Peoples antics start having an effect on the families of those that surround him. Add in some strange sounds coming from his basement, and we have the makings of a mystery.

While the premise had some potential, things keep dropping another notch until we're in the subbasement. At no point does any of this seem in any way realistic, and is just too far out there. the fact that La Salle plays a psychiatrist is only cursorily related to the plot. He could had the profession of a typewriter salesman just as easily. Finally, the end was quite obvious from one half hour into this dismal film.

While I used to be a fan of "ER," and currently watch "Grey's Anatomy," the film Inside Out has no redeeming quality. Skip this one.

Overall Grade: D

--Jonas

9.10.2007

Lost City (2004)

In my mission to finish up reading the entire bookshelf of Clive Cussler novels, I directed my attention to Lost City. This is the follow up novel to White Death, which I found more than a little lackluster. Cussler writes this side series of novels, better known as the NUMA files, with coauthor Paul Kemprecos. At times, I think the coauthor is the source of the inconsistent quality when I compare these novels to the rest of Cussler's work.

I can tell you that, unlike some previous outings, the writing duo is in top form here. Following his own formula, Cussler starts with a tale of a pilot attempting to cross the Alps in 1914 with an aerial dogfight that Snoopy and the Red Baron would have enjoyed. From there we get into present day, and we have a main plot of a powerful European family, and their centuries long quest for profits, power, and the "fountain of youth." They are like the modern day equivalent of the Hapsburgs, and they are heavily involved in the lucrative industry of weapons manufacturing. Side plots include trips under a glacier (subglacier?) with a research lab and power plant no less. If that isn’t exotic enough, we also have a trip to the bottom of the Atlantic, and to a reportedly deserted British Isle. There are also more cosmopolitan destinations of Washington, and Paris with a cast of expansive characters.

This NUMA files series is starting to mature, and it is including what could be signature elements to this series, and not merely living off what has been done already. For example, we have a St. Julien type expert of aviation that offers some background information analogous to the colorful, and knowledgeable nautical expert that permeates the main series of novels. Another example is the use of the Trouts- a couple with maritime expertise that have appeared in previous NUMA file works. Lost City also felt more like a Cussler novel as we had references to both Sandecker and Dirk Pitt that seemed to naturally fit in, and were not forced.

As if this wasn’t enough, Cussler and his coauthor also made multiple literary references, not too indirect either, to many of Edgar Allen Poe’s novels. It was nicely done to include many of Poe’s protagonists at a costume party, that true to Poe, turn a lot creepier than initially advertised. Finally, this whimsical reference to Poe's work, particularly The Fall of the House of Usher carries through to the end of Lost City.

Summing up, Lost City served to revive this offshoot series of Cussler novels in a major way in my mind. The prose is crisp, and it is quintessential Cussler. It would appear that this writing team has hit their groove in a way that I haven’t seen since the first two novels of this series: Serpent and Blue Gold. This novel is strong enough to fit in with the best of Cussler’s work.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

9.08.2007

Anúna, Celtic Origins (Elevation, 2007)


The Irish choral group Anúna began their career over a decade ago, presenting Irish and Celtic folk and Medieval songs in a choral setting. On their new CD Celtic Origins, they perform highlights of their career live during a series of concerts at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.

A glance at the song list shows that Anúna are well-versed in the contemporary shapers of the Irish musical tradition. For example, seminal rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span established a whole new way of looking at traditional songs, and the importance of these two bands is acknowledged by Anúna with the performance of "Our Wedding Day" (a variant of "She Moved Through the Fair") and the Christmas chant "Gaudete," respectively. The Bothy Band brought the attitude of rock fully to bear on Irish music, making some great recordings in the process, and their repertoire is represented here with the classic Gaelic tounge-twister "Fionnghuala." Tradtional Irish songs popularized by more current performers like Clannad, Altan, and Enya are included as well, along with a medley of two well-known standards from the English tradition, "Greensleeves" and "Scarborough Fair."

Michael McGlynn and John McGlynn serve as the directors for Anúna. Michael arranges the pieces and does some composing, while John wrote one song on the disc and is a featured vocalist on several tracks. The arrangements on Celtic Origins are generally straightforward for a four-part mixed chorus, and the performances are good but not spectacular. Anúna does get ambitious on a couple of the tracks, though. "Our Wedding Day" greatly expands on the fairly simplistic chord progression generally associated with that song. On the Latin chant "Sanctus," the band makes excellent use of throat-singing to give the song an eerie (and decidedly non-Irish) ambience.

Celtic Origins works well on the whole, although more for the choice of material than for the strength of the performances. I suppose that somebody more deeply rooted in Irish music than I am might criticize them for not taking more chances with less familiar material, but Anúna seem primarily intent on bringing traditional Celtic music to new audiences. In that regard, they've done a fairly good job.

A DVD of Celtic Origins is also available, and the performances have been broadcast on public television.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

9.07.2007

Bobby (2006)

If I was looking for a film that would fill up our tags, then Bobby was the one to do it. The superpower cast includes: Harry Belafonte, Anthony Hopkins, Lindsay Lohan, Ashton Kutcher, Helen Hunt, Emilio Estevez, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Elijah Wood, Joy Bryant, and William H. Macy.

The plot focuses on the day at the hotel before the night that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Most of this film takes place at the Ambassador Hotel, which was a landmark until it was torn down recently. Bobby attempts to portray the characters of all social levels, from the busboy on up to the owner of the hotel as their live proceed during the day. It also tries to show that their paths intertwine, and that these folks are all related somehow, kind of the "six degrees of separation" thing.

My criticism of this film is twofold. Firstly, I felt that at times,we were reinterpreting the "stormy sixties" of 1968 through our modern times. While I guess this is impossible to avoid, as we all interpret the world through filters, it still doesn't need to be so obvious as it was in Bobby. The other thing was that there was very little of RFK. He finally makes a cameo appearance at the film's end to declare victory in the California primary, and get shot exiting through the kitchen (not much of a spoiler there, I think we all knew how it would end). His other several appearances are all canned newsreel footage of RFK giving speeches that made me feel like I was watching some type of "Kennedy marathon," on the History Channel, and not a major motion picture with this much star power.


Strange as it might seem, the part of Bobby that I enjoyed the most was the setting. The props all looked quite accurate and authentic for 1968. It reminded me of the analog world of the late Sixties, and how the digital revolution would change the world over the next three decades.

The acting performances were all excellent, although with so many characters, I would have liked to know less of them better, and at times I felt that the film lost focus. At least a few of the characters lacked depth, and I wasn't really sure who they were, or what they were doing in the hotel that day.

In summary, if you're a Kennedy fan, than Bobby is probably a great film for you. If you're not, then despite its big name star power, its only average.

Overall Grade: B-

--Jonas

The Negotiator (1998)

The Negotiator is a thriller from a few years ago (ok, it's almost a decade, but it really doesn't feel like that long). It stars Kevin Spacey, Samuel Jackson, and David Morsein in a cop style drama.

The film is based around Lt. Danny Roman, ably acted by Samuel Jackson who is a police hostage negotiator in Chicago. The film opens with a sequence that shows him at the top of his game, intervening to save lives from bullets. Next, his partner confides in him about some missing money in a pension fund, and the plan is to look into it. Unfortunately, especially for the partner, he turns up dead shortly thereafter. In a textbook frameup, all of the evidence quickly starts to pile up that makes Jackson look guilty with a capital "G." In an act of desperation, Jackson takes key members of the police hostage in a spontaneous moment, and walls up in the police headquarters. In other words, the hostage negotiator becomes the hostage taker. Jackson decides he only wants to deal with one other negotiator- Sabian, played by Kevin Spacey. Perhaps it is because he has a reputation for long, drawn out (we're talking 55 hours) negotiations, or maybe there is another reason...

I really enjoyed this film. There's plenty of action that runs at breakneck speed until the very end, but it is also well balanced with a hefty helping of drama that glues the whole thing together. It is a little lengthy at 2:20, but the time was worth it. This is one of those "one man vs the world" plots that makes you cheer for the underdog. The acting is well done, and this is one of Jackson's (pre Snakes On A Plane) and Spacey's better films. If you missed The Negotiator the first time around (like I did, and the 2nd time too), it is worth seeking out on DVD.

Overall Grade: A-

--Jonas

Liberty Stands Still (2002)

Liberty Stands Still is a look at the gun industry, and one man's mission to extract revenge. It stars Wesley Snipes, and Linda Fiorentino.

The plot of Liberty Stands Still gets based around Joe, played by Snipes who sets himself up in a building over a park. Liberty Wallace (hence the title, at least in one meaning), played by Fiorentino, is going through the city park, when her phone rings. It's Joe, and he has her in the sights of his sniper rifle. Before she can say "hot dog, extra mustard" she is chained at the ankle to a local food vendor's cart. The rest of the film plays out between these two as they discuss guns in our society, and profit vs. morals. The other plot is the police efforts to figure out where the raining bullets are coming from.

This film really fell flat. It reminded me too much of Cellular where too much of the film takes place over the phone without enough real story to glue it all together. A better look at the gun industry is Lord of War. I mean, the whole premise of this film is that snipes is antigun, so in order to express that he shoots a rifle into a city park? Talk about a double standard!

Liberty Stands Still should be renamed "Snipes Snipes Into Park- News At Eleven." I thoroughly did not enjoy this film, and suggest others skip it.

Overall Grade: C-

--Jonas

9.06.2007

Dungen, Tio Bitar (Kemado, 2007)

Lots of different styles within the rock genre have come and gone over the years. Every so often, a performer or band tries to revive one of the older styles, with varying degrees of success. The Swedish group Dungen are such an act, bringing psychedelic hard rock and extended hippie jams into the present, with no attempt to modify the old style to make it sound contemporary. Predictably, you have to be a fan of the old style to appreciate the result.

Dungen are a quartet when they perform live, but in the recording studio nearly all of the work is done by the band's principal member, Gustav Ejstes. Ejstes is as devout a disciple of the heavy, psychedelic guitar rock of the late sixties and early seventies as you're likely to find thirty-five years after the fact. Indeed, Dungen's fourth CD Tio Bitar apppears to have been quite deliberately designed to sound just like it could have been made in 1971. The album runs only forty minutes, with two distinct halves of five songs each, just like a typical LP would. If not for the songs on Tio Bitar being in Swedish, they'd fit right in with most of the songs that have enjoyed regular rotation on classic rock radio for decades.

While Ejstes varies the volume from one song to the next, he maintains the psychedelic prog feel throughout the album. The quieter songs feature acoustic guitar, usually accompanied by strings and flute along with some organ and one-note-at-a-time piano riffs. The album's strength comes from its rockers, though. Blistering tracks like "Intro" and "Gör Det Nu" feature heavy guitars plugged in, presumably, to vintage amplifiers to generate feedback effects evoking Jimi Hendrix. By contrast, the power pop of "Du Ska Inte Tro Att Det Ordnar Sig" sound like it comes straight from Big Star's Radio City album. Ejstes makes no attempt to hide where he gets his musical ideas from; if anything, he seems determined to reproduce his favorite recordings.

I enjoyed Tio Bitar quite a bit. It may not be all that original, but as a long-time fan of classic rock who's been listening to lots of other very different things lately, I found this to be a fun breath of fresh air. Still, I really can't recommend this to everybody. If you didn't grow up listening to classic rock radio or don't care for the style, you'll probably sit there wondering what the big deal is. On the other hand, Gustav Ejstes and his band certainly believe the music of the late sixties and early seventies holds up today, and people who are too young to have experienced it, or even to have heard a lot of it on the radio, might just dig the new sound.

Overall Grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

9.04.2007

Honor Bound (1994)

Following a brief hiatus from WEB Griffin, it was time to delve into another of his series. After all, I had finished The Corps, and The Brotherhood of War, but still didn't want to get back into the Presidential Agent series. After finishing his longest series, it was time to look at his shortest series, Honor Bound.

Honor Bound starts with a brief look at the Marines on Gaudalcanal, and even uses a character from The Corps series, Colonel Dawkins, in a cameo appearance. The connection with The Corps quickly ends, and a Marine aviator ace, Captain Clete Frede, who should be on a war bond tour gets pressed into service. The plot focuses around this Frede character, and how he ends up in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA that is a common thread that permeates many of the Griffin novels (and also the film, The Good Shepherd).

Interestingly, this OSS had jurisdiction throughout the Western hemisphere, including Latin America. Now, while my knowledge of WW II is pretty good, I can't say I'm well versed in what went on in South America during that war. Seriously, the last time I studied Argentina and Brazil, it was high school global studies class! The author, Griffin, winters in Argentina, so he's picked up some first hand knowledge, and it clearly shines through here. Even though Argentina was officially neutral, there was a significant Nazis involvement down way south. For the plot of Honor Bound, the Germans are running submarine supply out of Argentinian waters, all on the QT- except the OSS knows.

The decision is made to send a small group of Americans to disrupt things for the Germans, without bringing the war down to Argentina. This Clete Frede is an interesting character as he is half American, and half Argentinian by descent. This reminds me of the protagonist of the Presidential agent series who also has mixed blood, and therefore uncertain allegiance.

Honor Bound successfully transports us to a far corner of the world, during a tumultuous time in world history. It is a novel less about war in the end, and more about what it takes to mount a clandestine operation in a foreign country, without getting caught. It is definitely not the standard WW II novel with the marines charging up the hill. There is a lot of culture, and place setting. This novel builds in the first 100 pages at a slow pace. Once the freight train gets moving, it is quite intriguing. I'm already working on tracking down the next novel in this series, Blood and Honor.

Overall Grade: B+

--Jonas