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Monday, Apr 14, 2008
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As part of my audio book musings I’d like to note that one series which caught my eye at my local library is Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. l Ladies’ Detective Agency a few weeks back. Four neat installments were smartly packaged in different colors and all neatly lined up in the CD section, drawing my attention. Not yet familiar with the series (turns out it’s quite a popular one) I picked one up and just then a patron came in so I returned to the circulation desk. She coincidentally returned one of the paperback versions of the series so naturally I inquired about it. At her recommendation I found the first in the series and checked it out—the audio versions being of later segments and the first installment being necessary for setting up the background of the series.


These books are sheer fun—set in present-day Bostwana and centering around the practical and clever Precious Ramotswe, a private detective (the only such lady in the whole country, she is proud to say) who is determined to “help people with the problems in their lives.” Of course there are little mysteries that Mma Ramotswe must use her sharp wits to solve, but even better are the frequent comments about particular aspects of Africa in general and Bostwana in particular that she often gives. “She loved her country, Botswana, which is a place of peace, and she loved Africa, for all its trials.” There are constant cups of strong Bush tea to be had while Mma Ramotswe calmly sits and ponders the wonders of the landscape that surrounds her, or the latest scandal involving someone-or-other’s daughter or husband and their misplaced affections or occasionally missing person. So far none of these investigations have taken more than a few days to wrap up, leaving Mma Ramotswe more time to help the reader come to admire Botswana and its people as well.


Equally at home in the governor’s mansion or a witch-doctor’s impoverished hut, Mma Romatswe is a very likeable character, sensible in her morality and practical in her methods. McCall Smith has an easy style of writing and comes across as very authentic in his knowledge of this part of the world. Indeed, on his website he writes that he tries to visit Botswana every year because he likes it so much:


I suppose that the main reason [I write about Botswana] is that I find Botswana a very interesting and admirable country. I respect the people who live there—they have built up their country very carefully and successfully. I admire their patience and their decency.


McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, taught law at the University of Botswana, and more recently Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, the city where he continues to reside though his writing has been so successful that he is able to dedicate himself to the venture full time and no longer teaches. He is currently on a book tour in the US following the March 2008 of the latest installment in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and the Easter release on BBC television of The No.1 film.


I, for one, having just discovered this entertaining living author, will continue to look for his work at my local library. I checked out two of the audio books in the series just this weekend and got started immediately with The Full Cupboard of Life.


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Monday, Apr 14, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-04-14...

In summary:


Three systems (the PS2, PSP, and Xbox 360) have absolutely nothing coming out this week, other than whatever not-yet-announced games will be occupying the weekly downloadable slots.  The PS3’s only release is a game that’s not finished yet, released so that gamers can be offered the “privilege” of playing 1/3 of a game for 2/3 of the price (a detail that will not at all deter the fans of the admittedly killer Gran Turismo series).  The DS features three games that actually feature exclamation points as part of their titles.  The PC mostly gets games that console players have picked up, played through, and forgotten about at this point, along with some expansion sets.  And the Wii…well…


The Wii version of Okami

The Wii version of Okami


My game of the week last week was a re-release, too, so I hesitate to do this, but no matter how many times I look over this list, nothing sticks out like Okami does.


Yes, it’s been out for a year and a half.  Yes, it was all over the best of ‘06 lists when it came to awards and all that.  Still, it’s impossible to ignore a game that many said outshined The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess when it came out, and was certainly pulled off with more originality.  Anyone who loves the Zelda series is nuts if they haven’t tried Okami yet, and now it’s appearing for a system that it seems all but made for, what with the painting dynamic that drives so much of its gameplay.  Add in enhanced visuals (Okami in 16:9 does sound appealing) and a reduced price ($39.99), and you have one of the most appealing Wii purchases yet seen on the system.


Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis for the PC

Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis for the PC


In other games, the newly-enabled capability of the Wii’s Virtual Console to handle Sega Master System titles means that Fantasy Zone can actually be released, so now I may actually play it in a form that goes beyond the easter egg in Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf.  Also, for you puzzle-solving types, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis on the PC looks like it has some serious potential as well, and you probably won’t need a graphics card update to play it.


The rest of the week’s releases…after the break:


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Monday, Apr 14, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Book: Music for Torching by A.M. Homes because it’s so sad.
Movie: What About Bob because it’s so funny. Ratatouille because it’s so so sooooooo inspiring.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Midori in Haruki Murakami’s book Norwegian Wood. Although I haven’t read it in a while and maybe I’ve changed. I like to think of myself as Holden Caulfield, but that’s just because Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book. I’m prolly more of a Phoebe than a Holden anyway because I changed my name too. Or maybe I’m one of Kafka’s characters since I’m crazy bout coffee.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. I listened to it for a year non-stop. It’s like one long song or a long dream or a long trip on a train through Italy in the rain.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Not really, but if I had to pick one, it would be Star Wars because of lightsabers and Princess Leia’s hair.


Tagged as: 20 questions, jaymay
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Monday, Apr 14, 2008

The St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival, a not-quite-boutique event that now traipses through four cities around Australia, has been buoyed in recent years by increased press attention and a more laid-back, welcoming attitude than some of the country’s larger, summer festivals. It is generally more civilized, and boasts the kinds of smaller indie bands that appeal to a slightly older crowd. Mimicking the urban setting of the original Melbourne location, the setup of the festival is a series of narrow stages placed around one slightly larger Park Stage. None of it is large by any means: maybe that’s why there was a half-hour line to get to the underground stage for the more popular acts. As the sparse late morning crowd began to multiply on Sunday—manifesting itself in longer bathroom lines—the prospect of seeing Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Stars attested to the growth of the festival. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to find decent vantage points for most of the bands, and acts national and international proved their mettle.
—Dan Raper


The Basics

The Basics


The Basics
Playing the 11:30am spot is not easy for any band. This exuberant Melbourne-based guitar-guitar-drums trio has been around for a long time, but has only recently been exposed to a wider audience thanks to one of its members, Wally de Backer, hitting it big with his solo act, Gotye. (In a nice bit of bookending, Gotye actually closed out the festival this year.) But the Basics themselves were a perfect start to the day. “Rattle My Chain”, one of the group’s singles, was tight and polished—a slice of enjoyable, easygoing ska-tinged rock. A song about swimming lessons, it sounded like a more relaxed Holy Ghost. We’re lucky that de Backer, who plays drums, has been so stringent on insisting the group plays on all his bills—even if there weren’t as many people there as they deserved.


The Basics

Ghostwood


Ghostwood
Signed to the hip Modular Records, Ghostwood’s muscular, effects-laden rock degenerated into abrasive waves of dissonance in the live setting. The group had a disinterested-rock-star thing going on, which didn’t work so well in an early slot at a mainly indie-oriented festival. But hey, they’re young, and you get the feeling that the group, as it matures, will find its own inner star and stop imitating others. Ghostwood’s songs were proggy and repetitive and frequently sidestepped the huge chorus; they would have been more effective with a mix that emphasized vocals over the sludgy low-end of the guitars.


Devastations

Devastations



Devastations


Devastations’ latest album Yes U should win the group some new fans with its sophisticated, dark-romantic ballads. Given their oeuvre, it should have been difficult for the band to shine in the mid-afternoon sun. But these three Aussies unleashed a storm of fuzzy chaos that dissolved in a pinch into disco-infused gothic grooves. Gyrating throughout, bass-playing singer Conrad Standish exuded sexuality. “This is a medium-sized-festival song,” Standish said, introducing “Mistakes” as the band grew tighter and more on point. Live, the songs had a floating atonality where vocal and guitar lines seemed to exist in alternate spaces until—bang—everything locked into place. “The Pest”, their new album’s centerpiece, was such a song. “Rosa”, which closed the set, built gloriously from a Nick Cave-styled ballad to a full freak-out: the first real rock group of the day.


Manchester Orchestra
This fairly new Atlanta-based band has built some buzz on the back of the 2007 re-release of their 2006 debut I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child. Their recordings hold a few charms, adding organ to an otherwise straightforward alternative rock sound. Somehow I had gotten the impression that they were somewhat Arcade Fire-esque with orchestral arrangements. It turns out the live show was just as unsurprising as the recording. At least frontman Andy Hull radiated goodwill, and the band was tight. The group put its all into its short, punchy songs—which suited the flitting festivalgoers’ attention span, I suppose. When they slowed things down, however, they struggled to hold the crowd’s attention. It was as the group was playing a slower song that I turned around to see a guy wearing exactly the same sunglasses as me (they’d been my grandfather’s, and retro, so I was surprised). But he was also wearing a rug on his shoulders, and my friend said, “Never trust a man wearing a rug.” I then decided to re-think those sunglasses. Did I mention that Manchester Orchestra struggled to hold the crowd’s attention in that slow song? It’s unfortunate, because in snatches, I got the feeling that it could have been a compelling one.


The Panics

The Panics


The Panics
Winners of last year’s J Award for best Australian album, the Panics are often referred to as the nicest guys in the Aussie music industry. Trouble is, sometimes the group seems to ride the wave of pleasant, atmospheric pop without the backbone of melody that could make one of their songs season-defining.


Nevertheless, the band members are consummate professionals, and their set on the Park Stage bobbed along from hit to hit (albeit slightly hampered by a mix buried in too much bass, not enough vocals). The Panics have moved on from the country guitar-tinged older material, which had a certain charm, to more mainstream song structures that still rely on that breezy guitar sound you hear so often from West Australian indie pop acts. The group’s newer material is almost apologetically easy-going, but it has become quite popular. “Don’t Fight It” is now ubiquitous, and its horn loop is instantly recognizable. They could be the next Powderfinger.


Okkervil River
Probably the best band all day, Okkervil River was incredibly tight, jetting through tried and tested songs with enough feeling that the crowd was blown away. Although I only caught half the set, the band upped the tempo on familiar songs from The Stage Names, which suited the festival setting. “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” was rousing, while “For Real” and “Plus Ones” were absolute highlights. Ending with the older track “Westfall”, Will Sheff and company worked themselves up into an awesome, Pixies-inspired fury.


Stars

Stars


Stars
If the vibe of the Reiby Place Stage was generally upbeat rock, the Park Stage continued its unhurried good-time feeling with Stars. The first of the one-two-three Canadian collective lineup (Stars, Broken Social Scene, and Feist), Stars were both powerful and smolderingly beautiful. Frontman Torquil Campbell was full of unbridled energy, pumping up the crowd with a heartfelt delivery that more than made up for his imperfect voice. In contrast, frontwoman Amy Millan was surprisingly fragile, her voice reticently floating over the layers of synths. Of course, “Ageless Beauty” was beautiful, but the highlight of the set was “Take Me to the Riot”, its oddly combative lyrics subsumed by the full band’s surging wall of sound.


Dan Deacon
I have been aching to see Baltimore electro wizard Dan Deacon play since reports first surfaced of his sweaty, inclusive, and ecstatic live performances. Having seen him with my own eyes, I can definitively say that everything I’ve read is true. He babbled about Ethan Hawke and Gattaca, got us to sing to a couple of onlookers in the window of a nearby Japanese restaurant, and made us dance through an arch of people. One guy even crowdsurfed for what must have been five minutes straight. It’s a wonder I’m able to remember any of this, as I was too busy dancing to take notes.


Bridezilla

Bridezilla


Bridezilla
Throughout the festival itself and in the days leading up to it, the anticipation for this super-young Aussie group was palpable. Bridezilla is a quintet of high schoolers (the drummer is the only guy) with a reputation for being genuinely cooler than you. And in their vintage (and I mean Jane Austen vintage) dresses, the group certainly projects cool. The guitar-guitar-saxophone-violin-drums setup is certainly more ambitious than most high school bands, and the layered, unconventional songs are also quite sophisticated.  The star of the group is Daisy Tulley, the violinist, whose blank porcelain doll visage belies a dervish of virtuosity. She’s as likely to perform around the corner, with her back to the audience, or off in her own world, but it’s completely compelling.


Feist
There’s no way you were going to get a good spot to see Feist. I caught a glimpse of her only once or twice, but that was enough. The Canadian singer-songwriter was as charming singing her own confluent pop as jamming on her guitar with Broken Social Scene, and even the young, macho Aussie guys were bouncing and singing along to “1, 2, 3, 4”. A continuing problem on the Park Stage meant that, from my position towards the back of the crowd at least, the sound was a bit muddy—nobody seemed to mind, though. Apart from the obvious hits, it was “Sea Lion Woman”, performed with a crowd of Canadian friends, that stood out most. The bouncing reinterpretation of Nina Simone’s classic built up to a hectic climax of reckless goodwill.


Gotye
The festival closed with a difficult choice—Gotye or the Presets. Though the sound of the Presets’ growling electro and the crazed chant of the crowd during “All My People” were tempting, I wasn’t sorry that I chose to end the festival watching the same musician I’d seen almost twelve hours earlier. Wally de Backer—who also plays drums in the Basics—always puts on a good show. Combining synchronized lights with videos run off his MacBook Pro, he jumped between a number of drum sets and keyboards, even a piano. Following the crowded love-in of Feist’s set with essentially a one-man show was a difficult task, and I occasionally felt like I was watching Gotye karaoke, since the electronic portions of the songs were all pre-programmed. (The musician has toured with a full band in the past, which I think would have greatly added to this show.) Nevertheless, de Backer’s good-natured approach and impeccable voice—I thought he might have been lip synching, he was so in tune—made it impossible to grumble. The graceful re-workings of familiar songs from 2006’s Like Drawing Blood provided a loungey, relaxing end to the evening. “Thanks for Your Time”, with its accompanying video, was funny and compelling, and “Heart’s a Mess” reminded us again why this guy’s such a hot prospect.


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Sunday, Apr 13, 2008


It’s never a good idea to piss off a possible demographic - especially when that potential audience pool is over one billion strong. But that’s exactly what former SNL-er/current Shrek Mike Myers did when the trailer for his return to live action comedy, The Love Guru, appeared last month. In the upcoming summer release, the artist formerly known as Wayne Campbell plays an American Born, India raised man who returns to the US. Overnight, he becomes a self-help and spirituality superstar. Just call him Geek-pak Chopra.


Taking the low brow tone of the entire Austin Powers series, and setting its sites on specific Hindu philosophies and practices, The Love Guru proposes to be a comic clash of cultures. The trailer can testify that, when it comes to sensitivity and pro-PC protections, Myers and crew knows no limits. Some have supported the film, claiming that the comedian’s twisted turn here is no more offensive than Peter Sellers’ performance as Hrundi V. Bakshi in Blake Edwards’ dated ‘60s farce The Party. Yet the notion of a non-native using another country and religion’s foundation for funny business smacks of a strange, almost surreal tactlessness.


Forty years ago, when that famed former Goon put on the brown face and ratcheted up his New Delhi dialect several skittish notches, there was much less concern about defaming race. True, the already turbulent black/white dynamic dividing the US was treated with some amount of respect (shockingly, minstrel shows had still been popular as recently as the ‘50s), but picking on other ethnicities - no matter how light or lovingly - was viewed as fair game. The British particularly enjoyed this practice. It was perhaps part of their reaction to the post-colonial collapse and conquered country independence, some sloppy satire as shuttled through a stiff upper lip, perhaps.


It’s no surprise then that Myers, as UK-ccentric as they get, would wander into such suspect territory. His turns in the unfathomably popular Powers films have always been based in the most hackneyed slams and social insensitivity. This is a man who plays fat as a fallacy, Scottish as stupid, and his beloved British as a bad toothed, thick headed horn-dogs forever stuck in the Carnady Street ‘60s. It may have seemed funny the first time around, but Myers has already proven that he can take the most unusual of premises (the actor as a live action version of Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat?) and pervert it to suit his own idea of wit.


Of course, the minute the Indian community caught wind of the performance, they started complaining and piling on. The nonsensical trailer, made up of blithering buzzwords and watercolor friendly phraseology, was barely out of the YouTube gate and Hindu leaders suggested a boycott. They had every right to, from what one could see, but it’s never good to jump onto a bad mouthing bandwagon before the final fiasco has unreeled. In this case, there’s much more to the narrative than Myers playing the goony guru for laughs. There’s a hockey subplot, and something to do with romances mended and relationships guided. Still, the particular powers that be wanted to see the final result before castigating the comic further.


Paramount, hoping to avoid scandal, obliged. If one looks across the Internet rumor mill, it seems that appeasement was not the final result. Indeed, what most fear is something already inherent in The Love Guru‘s release. Put it another way, Westerners know very little about the ways of the East. Most information comes in the form of flashy travelogues, Discovery Channel dissertations, and the occasional interaction with members of the since immigrated citizenry. Perception is typically borne out of experience, and the more entertaining and repetitive the better. Now, the more learned in the crowd might not fall for Myers as a representation of everything Hindi. But amongst the popcorn and Pinkberry members of the adolescent audience, he’s a first - and very flawed - frame of reference.


Hollywood has always been pegged with the isolated insensitivity tag. Back in the ‘80s, Cuban émigrés were livid that Tony Montana of Scarface fame might be the only example of the members of the Mariel Boat Lift to a country already reeling from the political and policy consequences. Similarly, more mainstream ethnicities like Italians and Arabs have long argued that film falsifies the truth about their people’s heritage and heart. Not every Mediterranean is in the Mafia, they argue, and not every Middle Eastern wants to terrorize the innocent. Yet America is an innately insular nation, and therefore narrow-minded. Show them an actor putting on a cutesy curried brogue and they’re bound to believe it’s the truth.


Film has that kind of influence. Unlike other forms of media, which tend to traverse their subjects without a similar level of staying power, a motion picture can rewrite history and revise awareness. Oliver Stone’s JFK did just that. So did Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. It may not be fair to pigeonhole The Love Guru among these famed historical dramas, but if Myers plays his character as a kind of quick witted quip machine, using his background and speaking style as a means of malapropism-prone humor, there will be those who believe all Indians similarly stricken. If his teachings come across like Zen meshed with a more eccentric Tony Robbins, this is the impression most people will have of the Hindus.


Naturally, no one is asking Myers to be perfectly faithful to the religious and cultural situations at hand. He’s creating comedy, and free speech protects even the most ludicrous of lampoons. But there is something to the Indian’s complaints. While they remain a vital and virtually impossible to ignore faction of modern America, not much is known about the country aside from its cuisine. Why The Love Guru had to tap into this particular aspect of the world will always be suspect. After all, the character Myers plays - Pitka - didn’t have to come from an Eastern Ashram. Any number of new age California quasi-EST belief systems could have worked. Clearly, the man likes working in accents - thus, the move to a more Madras-oriented identity.


And Bollywood’s been no help. As the largest film industry in the world, Indian cinema is notorious for dealing in caricature, stereotypes, and outright individual insult. Sure, it is always done within the context of a consenting community (kind of like Caucasians and Larry the Cable Guy) but that’s still no excuse for dealing in debasing imagery. Myers may not be going so far as to cast aspersion on certain elements of Eastern society, but one cannot forget that he’s following in a long line of less than sympathetic representations. Apparently, as long as they are home grown, they’re perfectly OK.


As the groundswell against the film continues, as more and more members of the Hindu faith and Indian community come out against what Myers is attempting, Paramount has its work cut out for it. Selling this movie will not be hard at all. Simply show the amiable A-lister, remind everyone of his connection to a big green ogre and a goofball UK spy, and hope that the protesters get the post-commercials middle story slot on Extra. You’re average teenage moviegoer, unfettered by controversy or matters of moralizing, won’t care anyway. They’ll line up to give Myers their money, hoping he delivers another punchline powered popcorn time at the Cineplex. Who cares if on 20 June the rest of the world views us as the ugly Americans that we truly are. It was some Canadian’s fault, after all.


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