Private Practice, Season One, ABC Television

I've been a big fan of "Grey's Anatomy" from the very beginning, and from the ratings, plenty of others out there also can't wait to find out what will happen next at Seattle Grace Hospital where it rains just about every day. With a dominating hit on Thursday night, the ABC network tried to pull some of those viewers along with an old '70's style spinoff trick, and thus "Private Practice" was born.

One of the characters, Dr. Addison Montgomery, played by Kate Walsh, has a late thirties midlife crisis. She is some superspecialist that does obstetrics, gynecology and neonatal surgery (this is already ridiculous as newborn surgery is done by someone trained in pediatric surgery, not ob). Despite being an academic specialist, she packs her car, and heads south on the Pacific Coast Highway. She meets up with some buddies from medical school, and joins into an atypical medical practice, hence the title of the show.

To say that this practice is atypical is an understatement. They see, at most, like two patients a day, between five doctors. They do far more alternative medicine than mainstream. Each of the doctors is also having relationship issues making feel like a medical remake of the show "Thirtysomething."

In the pilot episode, they decide to do a delivery in the office on an apparently healthy patient. Things progress to the brink of disaster until an emergency C-section is done. It goes way past implausible when the anesthesia used is only acupuncture (no way, from someone who saw an epidural malfunction during a section once, and believe me it wasn't pretty), and the assistant is the desk clerk who just happened to be in midwife school (midwives only do regular deliveries and never operate so he is both unlicensed and unqualified to assist in this situation). Yeah, it's details like this that make no sense to me.

As much as I wanted to like this show, I just can't get into "Private Practice." The pace is way too s-l-o-w, and not enough happens between the never ending commercials. Actually, last week, I watched "The Bionic Woman," on during the same time slot (Wednesday, 9 PM) and it is a better show. For my weekly dose of healthcare based entertainment, I'll stick with "Grey's Anatomy."

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas

Treasure (1988)

In my continuing quest to read the entire library of Clive Cussler novels, I took a look at Treasure. It is the follow up novel to Cyclops (which I haven't read; I guess I'm reading the series backwards for unknown reasons). Unlike some later efforts, the author writes solo on this one, which produces a great novel of consistent quality.

The overall plot centers around the ancient Library of Alexandria. Today, the knowledge of our world is found on the internet. Back in the ancient world, this massive library functioned not only as a repository, but also as an institution of learning and research. It housed scrolls and artifacts collected from all the known civilizations and more ancient ones as well. The library was burned in 391 AD as it contained Pagan teachings. Before this tragic event, some scholars believe that they moved a good portion of the library's contents for safekeeping to a new location, but it is unknown to this day where the loot may have ended up. This tale of the lost knowledge of the ancients forms the basis of the novel Treasure.

Cussler starts off with a background story of Julius Venator hiding the loot for the ages. It is buried into a mountain in a far off land. It becomes a mystery for Dirk Pitt and crew to track down where in the world could the Romans have brought it, and is it still safe after sixteen centuries of time passing.

To accomplish this plot, there are several subplots intertwined. It starts with the story to take down an airliner. Then we have a search mission for a Russian sub, and an incidental discovery of a Roman galleon. Then there is a ruse to hijack an ocean liner, and a camouflage job to evade detection. Then there is a daring special forces rescue, complete with a massive shoot out. We do finally make it back to the library, but then there is the issue of the Mexicans invading their neighbor to the north. It's not what you think, as it's just a bunch of unarmed women and children running across the border (Wait a sec, that's not exactly fiction...). Anyway, there is another side plot of a revival of Aztec leadership and culture in Mexico, and a regime change. Is it any wonder it took me a while to read this novel?

Treasure has the same feel as Cussler's later works, which is to say, well developed and polished. What makes this novel unique in the Pitt series is that Dirk's father, the Senator, plays a far greater role this time than in any other novel in the series. Also, Rudi Gunn is right in the thick of things, and not more administrative as in later books.

The Dirk Pitt series of Clive Cussler novels are some of the best adventure fiction out there, and Treasure is definitely above average for the series. The theme of pre-Columbian transoceanic crossings figures into some of Cussler's other works, including Valhalla Rising, Trojan Odyssey, and most recently, Treasure of Khan. The author also does a fine job of explaining why this treasure of the ancients, including early Christian writings and maps showing mineral deposits would still be so relevant in our modern world. After hearing some of how various countries would bicker over ownership of this resource, l think it would be better if it stayed hidden. Even if you don't plan on reading the entire Dirk Pitt series, Treasure is an action packed, first rate adventure novel.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

Addendum: I still have to read Night Probe and Cyclops for the original series to be completed. Maybe I'll finally figure out where the bathtub with the outboard motor in Dirk's home came from...

For the rest of our Clive Cussler reviews, click here.

10 Items or Less (2006)

While I'm generally a fan of Morgan Freeman's work, 10 Items or Less is simply a dud. He stars opposite Paz Vega in this independent film from the Toronto Film Festival.

The premise is simple. Freeman is a washed up actor that is looking for a comeback in a low budget film. He heads on over to the local supermarket to gather material by watching the store's manager. While there, he takes an interest in the express lane's cashier, Scarlet, played by Vega. He sees that she is a step above the rest in the market, and learns that she is going for an interview at a construction company. The two embark on a limited journey to the local Target for clothes shopping, and a car wash to prepare for the interview. In this theater of the absurd style, we never see the interview or find out what happens.

10 Items or Less is a short 82 minutes, including the closing credits. Add in two extended musical scenes that don't further the story, and you start to realize that the plot is as thin as a college YouTube video. Freeman does a good job, but except for a few short scenes, like when he argues with his driver that he didn't do the opening voice over for the film Titanic, or how affordable the prices are in Target, it doesn't add up to anything in the end. The characters are not changed for the experience, and the audience doesn't get moved anywhere. Overall, the film is about as exciting as watching Freeman pick up his dry cleaning on his daily errands.

With a better screenplay, this film should have been better developed, and provided a more satisfying experience. In its current form, it feels like a half hearted effort, and I would recommend that you express lane this one by. 10 Items or Less either needs to be better developed into a more complete story, or chopped down into a short film, but it's not worth viewing in its current form.

Overall Grade: D

Reviewed by Jonas


Carioca Fletch - Gregory McDonald (1984)

The Fletch series of books runs to nine novels, this book, Carioca Fletch, is the seventh. The writing style in all the books is rather odd, and it may take the usual reader a little while to both figure out what makes it odd and to warm to it. Essentially, McDonald eschews the usual literary devices of internal monologue or extended passages describing a character's thoughts or rationales. In some ways, the books read more like plays than novels. It is a little disconcerting.

The lack of insight into the interior life of the characters makes it a little hard to warm to them (a problem avoided in drama, usually, since an actor is there to interpret for you), although it does paradoxically render them more realistic since we rarely find ourselves privy to the thoughts of other people in real life. This asks more of the reader, then, since they must provide the interpretation themselves.

That said, the characters are interesting and appealing. The plot in Carioca Fletch is rather bizarre, more so than most of the Fletch books. Fletch is in Brazil where an old woman claims that he is her murdered husband back from the dead to expose his killer. How Fletch would or could solve a murder forty years old is an interesting puzzle and the resolution hinges on McDonald's use and understanding of the psychology of his characters - just because he doesn't share their inner life with us does not mean that they don't have one. The resolution is, ultimately, quite satisfying.

I heartily encourage readers, especially mystery fans, to try a Fletch novel, although this one might not be the best first choice. If the style appeals, read others, if it doesn't give the rest of the series a miss.

Overall Grade: B


[ni:d] (Academus AB, 2006)

[ni:d] (pronounced "need") are a Swedish folk/jazz trio consisting of Mia Gustafsson on fiddle, Hanna Wiskari on saxophone, and Petter Berndalen (also of the more well-known band Gjallarhorn) on percussion. For their self-titled debut CD, produced by Väsen's Mikael Marin, [ni:d] combine traditional and self-composed folk tunes with free-form improvisation. The tunes here definitely do not follow steady rhythms or tempos in a way that would work for folk dances. The band members do possess a fresh and creative take on arranging folk music, though, and their set at this year's Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis was one of the highlights of the weekend.

For whatever reason, not enough of the spark and vibrance they had in concert comes across on this CD. The album does possess a definite highlight in "Blackberry Blossom," a sharp upbeat piece they learned from the American fiddler Bruce Molsky, but that was the only tune that really captured the same spirit as their live show. By contrast, my favorites among the remaining tunes on the album are the more subdued ones like "Benjamins Vals," which Wiskari composed and performs solo. Another track worth a few listens is the extended set of tunes called "Svängräven." The piece opens with two very similar melodies played simultaneously, one of which is a traditional Swedish tune and the other of which is "Morning Has Broken." The rest of the album is decent enough, but nothing else really grabbed me as much as I expected.

It's not unusual for instrumental folk acts, Scandinavian or otherwise, to make a bigger impression live than they do on record. The contrast between [ni:d]'s performance in Minneapolis and their debut CD is even sharper than what is typical, though. I can't quite put my finger on what, but something just seemed to be missing from the recording.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott


Justin Currie, What Is Love For (Rykodisc, 2007)

Del Amitri fans are ecstatic that Justin Currie, former band front man, has released his long-awaited solo effort What Is Love For—even if the album is a rather glum affair. Glum it is…but brilliant.

Most of the album deals with the emotional stages which ensue romantic breakups: from thwarted desire to lament, anger, disillusionment and detachment. In a long-held Currie tradition, the final number, “No, Surrender,” is a wordy litany of condemnation of the ills of modern society, with a cynical conclusion: “Should you stand and fight, should/ you die for what you think is right/ So your useless contribution will be remembered?/ If you’re asking me I say no, surrender”—so, the bitterness continues, taken from personal concerns to the level of social consciousness. However, Currie’s is bitterness with substance, carried along by gorgeous pop melodies; call it “pop with an attitude,” if you will. Currie is a songsmith in the tradition of the Beatles, and his indebtedness to John Lennon shows through, especially in “If I Ever Loved You.” He is also one of the most clever and inventive lyricists of our time and carries this all off with that soothing and yet deeply emotive vocal quality which is immediately recognizable to those who appreciate his music.

Currie is a versatile songwriter, although much of his varied work has gone by relatively unnoticed. Bouncy tunes like “Roll to Me” and “Always the Last to Know” (still quality pop material) and romantic ballads such as “Tell Her” and “Be My Downfall” made Del Amitri known to the public; however, the Dels could also seriously rock out and were great with folk rock, country-tinged ballads and, later, electronica—which even most hardcore Dels fans didn’t know what to do with (now there are live recordings of favorite Del Amitri standards on their My Space page. After the Dels’ last effort Can You Do Me Good? (2002) was not released in the U.S. and the band was dropped from Mercury Records, Currie and band mate Iain Harvie continued to write and record material, but they ultimately disbanded—at least for the time being. Currie then, as he says, basically got drunk for a few years, but he also worked with fellow Scotsmen Jim and Kevin McDermott on hilarious tongue-in-cheek pop satire, as The Uncle Devil Show, and he collaborated on the soul project Button Up. In the meantime he put together his own material, aided by friends like Harvie, as his fans monitored his progress on My Space.

Currie is a man of contradictions. He loves to foster a cynical and arrogant public persona, and nowhere does this come through better than in “Still in Love”:

Lovers leave their traces like
Jets across the sky
They find in each others’ faces lines
They recognize
My keepsakes have their places—
At the back of a drawer or slipped between pages and stuck on a shelf
But I’m still in love with nothing
But myself.

However, in person he’s quite gracious to his fans, and he’s shown this at recent shows he’s played to intimate crowds in the UK, New York and Los Angeles. On the limited-edition autographed lyric sheets which were delivered to the first 500 people to purchase his new album, Currie signed his name with a smiley face: five hundred smiley faces from the man with the acid wit, who staunchly prohibits emoticons on his My Space comments—now who is the real Justin Currie: a poseur or hypocrite? His fun is, most likely, in keeping the public guessing.

Not all is gloom and doom on his new album; there are lessons learned through relationships gone bad:

Maybe I was not the one
But I had to try
And in the end there’s no such thing
As wasted time

I was the interim between
Nothingness and him,
So how is that a crime?

Nothing, however, brings this collection of songs to the point of levity; evidently, Mr. Currie got his jollies out with The Uncle Devil Show’s A Terrible Beauty, in 2004, as he sang of cross dressing and his love for Gilbert O’Sullivan. Those who know Justin know that his marvelously dry sense of humor will surely reemerge on the next album, or so—or in sidesplitting My Space blogs. In the meantime we can all deliciously wallow in sorting out past disappointments and mining the question “What Is Love For?”

What Is Love For, released by Rykodisk, can be listened to in its entirety and purchased through Lala.com on Justin Currie’s My Space page. It will be available in U.S. stores on October 23.

Reviewed by Rachel Wifall

Hobby Games: The 100 Best

"Best of" lists are always dangerous propositions: They can be too subjective, they can leave out what we think should be on, they can include "bad picks," and they can be little more than lists without explanation. Editor James Lowder bypasses these dilemmas in his book Hobby Games: The 100 Best through excellent guidelines and reviews from hobby professionals.

The introduction sets the stage for these picks. After a broad definition of hobby games (a game that "invited repeated play and depth of strategy"), Lowder explains that the game professionals contributing to this book had to select three or four of their favorite games, without knowing what the other contributors had picked. They could also not select anything they had created or something from their own companies, obviating any self-praise or self-promotion.

The result is a fascinating collection of selections. The games chosen are all over the map, from popular mainstream works (Axis & Allies, Dungeons & Dragons) to pretty obscure works (My Life With Master, Terrible Swift Sword). There are board games, card games, roleplaying games, and narrative/storytelling games. Some games that take a year to finish, while others can be completed in minutes. Entries go as far back as the 1960s to 2006. And there's a wide spectrum of subjects for the selections: While there's no shortage of re-creations of historical battles, there are also games on fantasy and sci-fi, conspiracies, even bean farming and mail delivery!

The contributors to Hobby Games are all industry professionals (with brief biographies listed after their entries) and they all offer their own views of what makes a great game and why they picked their entries. For some, their choice is based on rules mechanics. Others cite a game's overall impact on all that followed it. There are also subjective reasons, as the contributors share stories about playing their favorite games with friends in college, or the experience of playing a favorite with family members. And the contributors all explain very well why they picked their favorites.

Naturally, no "best of" list will be perfect. Some of the games here are disliked by me (I had a very bad time playing Diplomacy) and others (the Marvel Super Heroes game rpg, chosen by Steve Kenson as his best, made InQuest magazine's list of worst games ever), while other favorites are conspicously absent. (I'd love to see a list of the ones that just missed making the cutoff.) That said, Hobby Games: The 100 Best provides a rich, fascinating look at the myriad elements in the gaming world. It's a must-read book for fans of gaming, or anyone who wants to learn more about gaming.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch

(who owns 17 of the games in Hobby Games and plans on picking up at least 3 more listed there)


Knocked Up (2007)

Knocked Up is a romantic comedy. It stars Katherine Heigl (Izzie from "Grey's Anatomy"), and Seth Rogen. It follows the formula of the pregnancy comedy, and reminds me of the film Nine Months.

From the title, it's not that much of a leap to infer the plot. Heigl plays Alison Scott, a young women who is suddenly on the up and up in her broadcasting career at an "Entertainment Tonight" style show. When she learns she is going on camera the next day for the first time, she and her sister decide to celebrate by having a drink at the local clubbing hot spot. Soon, the two are loosened up under the influence, and they meet Ben Stone (Rogen). If Ben's mission in life is to do nothing, then he is wildly successful. We learn later that he and some buddies basically do nothing under the guise of building a web site (after fourteen months they only have an "under construction" sign up on their URL). Their other activities could be euphemized as "recreational pharmaceutical consumption," better known as pothead in 60's slang. Alison, intoxicated, invites Ben home, and a few weeks later figures out that she's pregnant, after clearing a shelf of home pregnancy kits from the local pharmacy (seriously, they're pretty accurate, so if you get the plus on the first test, it's time to see the ob/gyn), hence the title.

The predictable rest follows suit. Alison has to find Ben, who she knows very little about. Will she want to be with him? Will he want to own up to his responsibility? Yeah, it's mostly been done before, but not this week so it had some entertainment value.

There were some humorous scenes including when Alison deals with the issue of her pregnancy at her job, or Ben's discourse on how he supports himself at the forever frathouse. As someone who has caught a few babies back in the day, and was delivered by "the new partner" himself, I found the sections that dealt with the finding of the obstetrician and the discussions at the delivery to be the most funny. I will admit that I've seen quite a few woman throw their natural childbirth plan right out the window once the contractions started, and take out the pain on their OB.

So, what's wrong with this film? It's too darn long. I viewed the uncut DVD, which weighed in at 2:15. I can't recall another comedy being that long, and it implies to me that at least a half an hour (if not even more) needed to be on the cutting room floor. Director Garry Marshall understands that sometimes scenes need to be sacrificed to maintain the pace of the story, but that wasn't done here so the pace is v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. Even more astonishing is that there were even more deleted scenes on the DVD! This film needed a healthy dose of nip & tuck. I get that Ben and his friends are a bunch of slackers, but by the third scene of them sitting on the sofa pontificating on life, the universe, and every other nonsense it's just overkill, and doesn't advance anything.

All right, let's come to a final verdict. Knocked Up is a decent comedy in serious need of a tighter edit. The acting is reasonably good, and the plot is predictable, but there is some decent humor. It's good enough for a DVD rental, and viewing once. Just don't think you have to own it.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas


Ranarim, Morning Star (NorthSide, 2007)

When last I heard of the Swedish folk band Ranarim, they had just performed at the 2001 Nordic Roots Festival in support of their debut album Till the Light of Day. Since then they expanded from a quartet to a sextet and recorded one album that didn't get released outside Sweden, but had kept a low profile since 2003. As often happens with Nordic folk bands, the members of Ranarim had all sorts of other projects to work on. They have most definitely benefited from the time off, though, as their new album Morning Star is as fresh and vital as any Scandinavian album I've heard in quite some time.

For Morning Star, the original quartet of Ulrika Bodén and Sofia Sandén (vocals), Niklas Roswall (nyckelharpa), and Jens Engelbrecht (guitar) are joined by Anders Johnsson (bass) and Olle Linder (percussion). As usual, when a folk group opts for a fuller band sound they run the risk of offending the purists, but I think the new members provide just the spark that the band and their music need. The lyrics are mostly taken from traditional sources, usually with one of the band members setting them to music. Despite the personnel changes, Ranarim's sound still revolves around the harmonizing of Bodén and Sandén, both of whom sound superb on this recording. While I've been enchanted by the sound of singing in the Finnish language for as long I've known about it, this is the first time that Swedish singing (which has its own distinct sound but comes from entirely different linguistic roots) has produced a comparable effect for me.

I can't really pick out one standout track on Morning Star, but that's in no way intended as a criticism of the album. Indeed, the album starts out fun and lively, and maintains the feel throughout. They sing polkas and polskas, throw in some Medieval ballads, and give a few of the songs a bluegrass feel; all of it works. Ranarim sounds like a band having a lot of fun making music together right now, and the pleasure rubs off on the listener all the way through Morning Star. I just hope the band don't wait so long to make their next recording.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2007 The Green Man Review


Snow Patrol, Eyes Open (A&M, 2006)

I first heard of Snow Patrol while listening to Instant Karma, the compilation of various artists performing John Lennon covers put together by Amnesty International. I had previously told a friend that I thought that Lennon's first solo album was too personal for another performer to cover a song from it and make it work. However, I wound up being extremely impressed by Snow Patrol's cover of "Isolation," the one real standout track on either CD of the compilation. Naturally, I had to find out more about Snow Patrol.

The members of Snow Patrol met at school in Glasgow, Scotland. Gary Lightbody sings and plays guitar, Nathan Connolly also plays guitar, Paul Wilson plays bass, Tom Simpson plays keyboards, and Johnny Quinn plays drums. Their fourth and most recent album Eyes Open has solidified their position as one of the biggest-selling acts in the UK, and they are starting to build a following here as well.

Eyes Open follows a similar pattern to the Vega4 album You and Others that I just reviewed. Most of the album struck me as being a bit predictable and formulaic. Snow Patrol's sound is a bit edgier on the whole than Vega4's, but the band hits its best stride when it tones things down. The moody "Shut Your Eyes" is propelled a simple yet insistently effective guitar riff that runs through most of the song. "Make This Go On Forever" begins as a somber piano ballad, but the chorus just seethes with intensity. Another strong ballad is "Set the Fire to the Third Bar," on which Lightbody duets with Martha Wainwright.

So just like with Vega4, I'm left wishing that Snow Patrol had been willing to follow their own instincts more often and spend less time sounding like a lot of anonymous bands out there right now. The talent is there to make a more consistently strong album than this.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

The Deep (1976)

I recently stumbled onto The Deep at a book fair, and picked it up. While just about everybody has seen the film Jaws, and its many sequels more times than we'd care to admit, I'm sure only a few have read the original novel. The Deep was the follow up novel to Jaws, although it is not a sequel at all.

The plot of The Deep focuses on a couple of newlyweds that are on their honeymoon to the island of Bermuda, always a popular destination. The husband, David Sanders, is looking for a little adventure, and his new bride, Gail, is not discouraging him enough. Taking advantage of the shipwreck diving, they decide to scuba dive on a sailboat that was lost a few decades ago. They bring up a curious glass ampule, and before too long they figure out contains a medical grade narcotic from a lost shipment during World War II. Apparently this wreck had been fabled among the Bermudians for years, but no one knew where it was, and if it was true. Drugs on an island predictably attracts the local drug lord, and their honeymoon starts to turn into an episode of "The Sopranos."

While I thought from here on out, I thought we were going in the direction of the film, Into the Blue. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed, and The Deep had a lot more plot turns than I expected for its diminutive size of less than 300 pages. I won't give the rest away, but there was plenty of suspense as to whether the diving or the drug lords was going to be the source of the premature end of the honeymoon in a very final sort of way.

While nothing exceptional, I found The Deep thoroughly entertaining. It also has stood up well over a quarter of a century later, something that not too many novels do well. While Peter Benchley will forevermore be known as "the author of Jaws," it would be a mistake to not look at some of his other work.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

The Contract (2006)

The Contract is a thriller starring Morgan Freeman, and John Cusack. It is set in the Pacific Northwest, and is rated R.

Cusack plays Ray Keene, a high school gym teacher. His son, Jamie, played by Chris Keene is dabbling with illicit drugs, and is starting to stray from the straight and narrow to cope with the recent loss of his mother. These two decide to take a camping trip (if they were Aussies it would be a walkabout) into the forest. While strolling along, their paths cross with Frank Cardin, played by Morgan Freeman. It turns out that Cardin is an assassin who got arrested after a freak car accident. Unfortunately, Cardin was on a job, and his men decide to break him out. What follows is a chase through the woods with changing alliances as we have to decide who the bad guys really are in this character driven thriller.

Cusack and Freeman do their best to save this film, and they both are strong actors. However, even this powerhouse of a duo can't save the overall plot of The Contract. Too much of this has been done before. The squabble between the local law enforcement and the FBI is completely unoriginal, and been done too many times before. The chase through the woods reminded me of Rambo, or The Fugitive, and both are better films (yes, even Rambo). The shootouts, while loud, also offer nothing original, and neither does the usual fare of the veil of a conspiracy.

Medical Moment: When the helicopter gets shot down, and comes crashing to the ground, it it simply implausible that ALL the occupants simply get out, and walk away without a scratch. Seriously, they probably would have been dead, but for the sake of the film, they should have at least had someone fracture an extremity, or something. Walking away from a crash with no tail rotor simply wasn't happening.

Overall, this film simply feels too formulaic. Even fans of Freeman and Cusack can safely skip The Contract.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas


Vega4, You and Others (Sony, 2006)

Although the members of Vega4 met in London, they come from Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand. You and Others is their debut CD. Johnny McDaid (vocals and guitar), Bruce Gainsford (guitar), Gavin Fox (bass), and Brian McLellan (drums) have drawn attention for their emotional and melodic pop songs.

Most of the album is decent, if somewhat formulaic, mid-tempo rock, but a couple of songs stick out. The best of these is the disarmingly positive single "Life Is Beautiful." Running over six minutes, this song boasts an exceptionally strong melody and chord progression, and is one of those songs that just seems guaranteed to get people singing along by the end of it. "It's amazing where I'm standing, there's a lot that we can give. This is ours just for a moment, there's a lot that we can give." "Let Go," while not quite as potent, boasts a similarly compelling chorus. There's definitely some promise here, but I just wish they had taken a few more chances with the rest of the album.

You and Others demonstrates that Vega4 possess the ability to make singles that "hit" in both the artistic and commercial senses of the word. Time will tell if they develop from this point into a band that can make albums that are gripping all the way through, but this is an encouraging debut regardless.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott


The Last King of Scotland (2006)

If one were to come up with a title for a film that deals with Africa, The Last King of Scotland would seem a quite unlikely choice. After all, Scotland is more than a stone throws away from the dark continent. However, this is not your typical African genre movie.

The film opens with Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who recently graduated from medical school, being congratulated by his father that he was joining the family medical practice. The scene is priceless, as most sons don't want to do what their father did (most anything but), and the young doctor promptly heads up to his room, spins the globe, and puts his finger down for a destination so far away that he won't be joining his father's practice anytime soon. (While this all seems quite crazy, I can tell you that there was one guy in my medical school class that when he graduated, at the "not so young age to graduate medical school" of forty-six, he decided to run off to Africa and was never heard from again. Then again, he lived in a Volkswagen camper for four years with solar cells on the roof for power, so he was hardly an ordinary guy. I won't mention the TMNT outfit he wore to class one Halloween...)

Getting back to the film at hand, Garrigan next ends up in a missionary medical clinic in Uganda. Clearly the need is great, and there seems to be no limit to the good he can do among this extremely underserved population. He works there with another missionary couple, and the natives come from miles around. Things seem content, and this does keep him from joining his father's medical practice. However, one day, a chance encounter with the country's new leader, military dictator Idi Amin Dada (who went by such modest titles as "His Excellency President for Life"), in an academy award performance by Forest Whitaker, causes him to get involved with this corrupt government.

The Last King of Scotland focuses on the young doctor's role within the government, and his relationship with Amin, this ruthless dictator. On the one hand, he wants to be able to help the Ugandans, on a scale, and in ways that he would never be able as a missionary doctor at a rural clinic. However, along the way, he needs to compromise his morals, and does plenty of looking the other way past the regimes policies and politics. This film is a fascinating character study that shows how absolute power leads to absolute corruption.

I seriously enjoyed this film. The panoramic scenes were shot well. It also presents a realistic view of this dictatorship in Uganda, and the downside of these dictators that live in royal opulence, while their citizens don't even have basic services. This film will frustrate you, entertain you, and finally make you think- all at the same time. If you want over two hours of thought provoking drama, all well acted, than The Last King of Scotland is for you.

Overall Grade: A


PS: There's a chest x-ray that's up backwards in one of the hospital scenes; see if you can spot it.


Nordic Roots Festival 2007, Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, MN, September 28-30 2007

The ninth annual Nordic Roots Festival was held this past weekend at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. This year's edition did not feature any of the big headlining acts from previous years, and had more than the usual amount of first-time performers. This likely was the cause of a noticeable drop in attendance; certainly the number of Festival passes, which grant the purchaser entrance to each show, was down this year, and even the headlining show on Sunday night had some empty seats. There were still some excellent performances, though, including some pleasant surprises from the performers I was previously unfamiliar with.

Ruth McKenzie, flanked by her backing vocalists

The Festival opened on Friday night with local folk artist Ruth McKenzie performing her music from the theatrical production Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden, to celebrate the show's tenth anniversary. McKenzie had immersed herself in a number of Scandinavian singing traditions, including Swedish kulning and Finnish runo songs. At some point she decided to take a story from the Finnish national epic poem the Kalevala and present it theatrically and musically in a way that would make sense to English-speaking audiences. To call it an ambitious undertaking would be a huge understatement, but the original production sold out its full run and met with rave reviews. McKenzie did not have the sets or any dancers with her on Friday night, but she did have a terrific supporting cast of musicians, several of whom had also been part of the original production. Some of the pieces came across as overwrought to me, but just as many were really intense and powerful. McKenzie deserves a lot of credit for pulling off such a difficult endeavor, and the locals who had seen the production back in 1997 greeted her performance on Friday with particular warmth and enthusiasm.


The Saturday show featured a young Swedish trio with the rather odd name of [ni:d] (pronounced "need"). Fiddler Mia Gustafsson, saxophonist Hanna Wiskari, and percussionist Petter Berndalen (who performed at last year's Festival with Gjallarhorn) played the tunes off their debut CD, and made a very favorable impression on the audience. Their material is firmly rooted in Swedish fiddling traditions, but [ni:d] play with considerable tightness, a lot of spirit, and a little bit of swing thrown in for good measure.

Sinikka Langeland and Markku Ounaskari

Sinikka Langeland, another newcomer to the Festival, opened the Saturday evening show. She comes from a part of Norway that was settled by Finnish immigrants and maintains a strong cultural connection to Finland. Her instrument of choice is the concert-sized kantele, a Finnish folk instrument. Accompanied by percussionist Markku Ounaskari, Langeland performed her musical adaptations of the works of the nature-inspired Norwegian poet Hans Børli. Her pieces tended to be very impressionistic and a little too loosely structured, though, and she didn't do a good enough job of engaging the audience. These shortcomings were at least partially offset by Ounaskari's superb playing and Langeland's very funny comment that she had heard that the Cedar was the "best club in Scandinavia."


The headliners for Saturday night were the veteran Finnish fiddle ensemble JPP. Twelve tears ago, their album Kaustinen Rhapsody was the first Scandinavian album I ever purchased. What they lack in flash, JPP have always made up for with beautiful tunes and superior musicianship. This show was certainly no exception, as the band spent the hour playing highlights from their twenty-five year history, making difficult tunes look effortless but sound great in the process.

The Lännen-Jukka String Band

The following afternoon featured the first Minneapolis performance of a group that are almost entirely unkown here, but their singer is a chart-topper in their native Finland. Ironically, the Lännen-Jukka String Band don't play their own country's folk music, but rather play some rootsy, swampy bluegrass and American old-time music. And they do a damn good job of it too. A rock star performing as his banjo-playing alter ego, J. Karjalainen quickly won the crowd over with his gravelly voice and funny stories. Plenty of people in the Minneapolis audience understood Finnish, and sang along loudly enough for the rest of us to hear them. The trio were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the Festival, and the fact that they had sold all the CD's they had brought with them on this tour before they even arrived in Minneapolis indicates that the Festival audience was not alone in liking them.

most of Den Fule

The Sunday night show began with a reunion performance by the Swedish group Den Fule. The first group to release a CD on the NorthSide label back when Rob Simonds began the process that ultimately led to the Festival's creation, Den Fule had not played together for nearly ten years before recently reforming. The quintet mixes jazz and hard rock in with their folk music, and had a few new tunes to go along with their old material. Their jazzy style probably wouldn't appeal to everybody -- then again, folk purists wouldn't go for the loud electric guitar either -- but Den Fule displayed some strong musicianship and really seemed to be enjoying playing together again after a long hiatus.

three fourths of Harv

Harv, frequent performers in the early years of the Festival when they were a very young band just starting out, returned this year as the Festival headliners. The Swedish quartet had a run of bad mishaps with their luggage both on the way to Minneapolis and in the hotel, but they played a blistering set nonetheless, and somehow managed to maintain their sense of humor. While I didn't like their latest CD Polka Raggioso quite as much as their previous album Töst, they are clearly only getting better as a live act, and more than lived up to their top billing.

Next year's Nordic Roots Festival will be significant for two reasons. First, it will be the tenth Festival, no small accomplishment given the enormous amount of legwork and the lack of steady funds. Second, while the Festival will continue after next year, it will become a more global affair, and Scandinavian music will no longer be showcased on an annual basis. Given the lack of big draws this year and the noticeable drop in attendance, I could see that something like this was coming. Hopefully the organizers will pull out all the stops next year, and the Nordic Roots Festival will get the glorious send-off it deserves.

Review and pictures by Scott


Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises, the latest film from director David Cronenberg, uses the Russian underworld as a starting point for exploring family and loyalty, involvement and indifference, and ultimately life and death.

The film opens with two significant events: a killing at a Russian barber's in London and a 14-year-old Ukranian girl, Tatiana, giving birth then dying. Midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), a little fragile after losing her own baby, is determined to find the newborn's relatives. Tatiana has a diary written in Russian, so she enlists her Russian Uncle Stepan (a sometimes comic, sometimes racist character played by Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate the diary, which leads to the Russian mob.

The head of the mob is Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man who appears familial and a follower of tradition in public, but lethal and unforgiving in private. (His attempts to appear casual while finding out where Anna lives and works are unnerving.) Seymon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is a borderline psychotic drunk on power he inherited rather than earned. Kirill is watched over by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a largely silent chauffeur who cleans up Kirill's messes and quietly suffers the abuse and lack of respect from those above him.

Nikolai finds himself helping Anna, while urging her to let it go and warning her of the danger. As Anna learns more about Tatiana's incredibly rough life, she finds her situation becoming more perilous for herself, her family, and the baby she tries to help. Meanwhile Seymon has more and more difficulty because of Kirill, while Nikolai is torn between protecting Kirill, helping Anna, and obeying Seymon.

Eastern Promises is a bleak look at a world where public respectability masks private horrors. Cronenberg directs his cast with a steady hand, leading his actors to combine their desperation and their convictions. This is a very unglamorous look at crime and a hard look at ethnic culture in a foreign land -- Seymon's success is in stark contrast to Tatiana's horrors -- and Eastern Promises is finally a powerful, thoughtful film.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Kiln People - David Brin (2002)

David Brin is a consistently entertaining and thought provoking author, one who is not afraid to tackle the big issues. In Kiln People he takes on race, religion, immortality, what it means to be human and the nature of the soul. No small task, that, but Brin accomplishes it with great aplomb and very nearly no missteps.

The book is set in a moderately near future world, albeit one that has been completely transformed by "dittotech" the ability to literally imprint the psyche, or perhaps the soul, onto a clay golem which can then go and perform for a day, returning to "inload" the experience into the organic original. In this world, people can live their lives in parallel. Brin clearly spent time and effort speculating what effect this would have on society and culture, with the result that the world is internally consistent and believable, once that initial postulate is accepted. One central shift is that with cheap(ish) mass duplication possible, second best is obsolete. If you want to hire the best, say, carpenter, you can. So can I, and so can everyone else. All at the same time. Most people therefore are on the public dole in one way or another. Those with unique skillsets are the only employed.

One such is Albert Morris, a private detective (or "ditective") who brings his unique talents to his specific niche. Drawn into a spiralling conspiracy by his pursuit of a "ditnapper" and copyright violator, he finds himself facing off against crazed idustrialists and mad scientists in up to five or six bodies at a time, each of whom wrestles in his own (one can't say its own, even if they are clay) way with issues of individuality and mortality - and morality.

The plot swoops and turns diving into corners of a society which isn't ours, but mirrors it in many ways. The final resolution is suitably epic, if faintly unsatisfying in one or two small ways. The journey, however, is eminently satisfying.

One of the great things about science-fiction is that by positing worlds which can be as "unrealistic" as the author wishes, he or she can look at deeper truths from a different perspective and without some of the emotional baggage that accompanies more realistic fiction. Sure, in Kiln People the underclass is artificial and explicitly non-human, but that non-human argument has been used many times before (and is to this day) to excuse the oppression of races or religions or nationalities. By twisting issues from their normal orientation, prejudice is avoiding, allowing tolerance to slip in undetected. That is why science-fiction, good science-fiction at least, is almost always subversive - it challenges the status quo by changing the perspective.

And this is good sci-fi.

Overall Grade: A-


Paperweight - Stephen Fry (1992)

Stephen Fry may be most familiar to American audiences as Jeeves in the recent Jeeves and Wooster series (also featuring Hugh Laurie, now famous from and as House) or his many appearances on various Britcoms, notably Blackadder, but he is also a writer of no little skill. This book is a collection of essays originally written for newspapers or periodicals and transcripts of short pieces aired on BBC radio. Fry himself describes the collection "a kind of literary guacamole into which the reader may from time to time wish to dip the tortilla chip of his curiosity." While admirably phrased, I suggest the book is more like a box of assorted, unlabeled chocolates where one may find an orange cream of delightful whimsy or a firm caramel of social commentary both wrapped in a smooth chocolate coating of persiflage. Sometimes however, beneath that some coating one finds the disgusting nutty-nougaty stuff of a "clunker" or the stale, unidentifiable goo of an overstretched metaphor.

Having said that, the bits that are good are very good indeed, and outnumber the poor bits by a huge margin. There are a few turns of phrase that are positively brilliant, and the short play Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is an obscene riot. The essays are all short, which does reward the sort of intermittent reading-style Fry himself suggests. I find that I prefer his novels, but the jewels in this collection are well worth the overall unevenness.

Overall Grade: B