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By Gokhra and Mood Dude

Audi finally takes on supercar giants like Porsche and Ferrari. The car doesn't look all that special though. Not even bigger, more experienced rivals like Mercedes-Benz and BMW have managed to achieve success despite a number of serious attempts with cars like the McLaren SLR and M1. So what makes Audi think it can do it?

(G): Well, this car is armed to the teeth with dramatic design and advanced technology. Under the skin is an aluminum space frame, a mid-mounted 4.2-liter V-8 that delivers 100hp-per-liter without supercharging, all-wheel drive, and sophisticated aerodynamics.

(DM): So that means it can go fast eh?

(G):Dull interior. You go fast in comfort but not necessarily in style. Supercar interiors are supposed to exude freaky showcar style. There's familiar stuff all over the place. Partsbin effect for a supercar is not cool. There is Audi hardware - instruments, switchgear, even the MMI user-interface system - lifted from the sedans. Although not bad they detract from the exclusivity such a car entails.

(DM): C'mon dude, it's beautifully finished and tightly assembled. Apparently the cabin is really roomy considering it's a supercar. The seats slide waaay back and there's enough headroom for an NBA player.

(G):The impressive bits are under the skin. Pop the hood and there is a 420hp V8 - fundamentally the same engine as used in the RS4, though with a dry-sump to get it lower in the car and cope better with high-G cornering.

Two six speed transmissions will be available for the R8 when it goes on sale here in the U.S. later this year, both shared with the R8's close cousin, Lamborghini's Gallardo. Local Audi execs predict 50 to 70 percent of U.S. R8 buyers will choose the automated manual (an updated version of the Lambo's E-gear system called R tronic) over the regular version (which has the same metallic gate as the Gallardo). If you're smart, though, you'll choose to be in the minority - although improved, R tronic is nowhere near as crisp and responsive as Ferrari's F1 automatic manual, and nowhere near as smooth and refined as VW Group's own twin-clutch DSG (which is only available with transverse-mounted engines for now).

(DM): The R8 spins right to its 8250rpm redline with a velveteen growl. Yep, heard it on TV. Some 90 percent of the engine's peak torque of 317lb-ft is available between 3500 and 7500rpm, which is good news because you don't need to be constantly muscling the somewhat deliberate shifter to keep the R8 on the boil. You can simply overtake rickshaws with absolute ease.

(G): It's got neat rolling stock and apparently rides effortlessly on low profile tires (19 inch rims fitted with 235/35ZR19 Pirelli P Zeros up front and 295/30ZR19 boots at the rear). It's also got optional magnetic ride shocks that provide greater damping that is not quite so readily apparent. But it is sure good to have for bragging rights.

(DM): The R8 shares its basic layout, aluminum space frame construction, and a number of components with the Lamborghini Gallardo. But it's a very different car, and not just because of a wheelbase that's 3.5 inches longer than the Lambo's.

Audi engineers say they wanted the limits of the R8's chassis to be more approachable than those normally associated with a mid-engined supercar, or the tail heavy Porsche 911. "It starts to rotate [from understeer to oversteer] earlier than a 911," admitted one, "but it's much more controllable."

(G): So what's the performance figures?

(DM): Audi sources claim that with a lap time of 7min 55sec, the R8 is only 11 seconds slower around the legendary 14 mile Nurburgring Nordschliefe than the Lamborghini Gallardo, which of course has 100hp more.

It stops well, too, thanks to the vented and cross-drilled disc brakes all round. Audi offers ceramic brakes as an option. The front rotors are a massive 15 inches in diameter, that's bigger than most car wheel found on many sports cars. The ceramic brakes are clamped by eight piston calipers, and can be dynamited lap after lap without inducing the merest hint of fade. These are overkill for the street, thoughand at about $10,000, they're not cheap.

(G): Final pricing has yet to be determined, but it's expected the R8 will retail for $110,000 to $120,000. That puts it in well-specced 911 Carrera 4S or base 911 Turbo territory, but well under F430 and Gallardo. Testers have commented that it's not as raw as the 911, nor as surgical as the F430; if anything, it comes across as a mid-engine GT you can use 24/7 like a Porsche, with a user-friendliness that recalls an Acura NSX.

The Dixie Chicks completed a defiant comeback on 11 Feb, winning five Grammy awards after being shunned by the country music establishment over the group's anti-Bush comments leading up to the Iraq invasion.

The Texas trio won record and song of the year for the no-regrets anthem "Not Ready to Make Nice." They also won best country album, which was especially ironic considering the group says they don't consider themselves country artists anymore.

"I'm ready to make nice!" lead singer Natalie Maines exclaimed as the group accepted the album of the year award. "I think people are using their freedom of speech with all these awards. We get the message."

Mary J. Blige's comeback also was richly rewarded: She received three trophies for her double-platinum album "The Breakthrough." The Red Hot Chili Peppers won three for their double-disc "Stadium Arcadium," which also won a package-design award.

The Dixie Chicks won all five awards they were nominated for, sweet vindication after the superstars' lives were threatened and sales plummeted when Maines criticized President Bush on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003. Almost overnight, one of the most successful groups of any genre was boycotted by Nashville and disappeared from country radio.

With "Taking the Long Way," the women relied on producer Rick Rubin's guidance for an album that was more rock and less country. (Rubin, who also produced "Stadium Arcadium," was honored as producer of the year.)

The standing ovations the Chicks received Sunday illustrated how much the political climate has changed regarding the Iraq war, and even Bush.

"That's interesting," Maines crowed from the podium after the country award was handed out earlier in the night. "Well, to quote the great 'Simpsons' 'Heh-Heh.'

"Just kidding," added Maines. "A lot of people just turned their TVs off right now. I'm very sorry for that."

Bandmate Emily Robison noted, "We wouldn't have done this album without everything we went through, so we have no regrets."

All the trophies collected by the Dixie Chicks, Blige and the Chili Peppers contributed to the evening's old-school feel.

The show often derided as The Grannys embraced its baby boomer status in its 49th year. Maybe the Recording Academy was trying to relive the industry's glory years 2006 saw a sharp downturn in record sales, a decline that seems to grow each year as fans flock to the Internet and even ringtones to experience their tunes.

The Grammys tried to tap that new technology with its "My Grammy Moment" contest, in which three unknown singers vied for the chance to perform on stage with Justin Timberlake. Viewers determined the winner by voting on the Internet and text messaging, but the winner's performance was forgettable.

The "Moment" also incorporated a bit of "American Idol" into the telecast. Last year the Fox talent contest crushed the Grammys on a head-to-head Wednesday night. So it was no surprise when the Grammys returned to Sunday this year.

Though the show featured a medley with bright new stars such as John Mayer, John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae, it relied heavily on the classics: Nominee Lionel Richie sang his '80s hit "Hello" and Smokey Robinson sang the Motown classic "The Tracks of My Tears" in a tribute to R&B. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Police, who split in 1984, reunited to kick off the show with their rendition of "Roxanne" even though they were not nominated for anything.

Soon afterward, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder's duet on a remake of Wonder's "For Once In My Life" beat out two of the year's biggest songs Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's "Promiscuous" and Shakira and Wyclef Jean's "Hips Don't Lie" for best pop vocal collaboration.

Even some of the more contemporary artists were relegated to singing songs that weren't their own. Christina Aguilera sang the late James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" instead of her own nominated songs, while Carrie Underwood, the newcomer with one of last year's most successful albums, crooned "Desperado" and "San Antonio Rose" instead of her signature tune "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which was nominated for song of the year.

For a while, it seemed as if VH1 Classics had taken over the show's production.

But new artists were celebrated, a bit. Chris Brown injected some hot-footed funk with his "Run It," while Underwood was celebrated as the best new artist. And double winners included youngsters John Mayer, T.I. and Ludacris.

Blige was the overall nominations leader with eight. She won best R&B album for "The Breakthrough," her double-platinum triumph, plus best female R&B performance and R&B song for "Be Without You."

A tearful Blige said her album "has not only shown that I am a musician and an artist and a writer, it also shows I am growing into a better human being."

"Tonight we celebrate the better human being because for so many years, I've been talked about negatively," said Blige, who during her 15-year career has often discussed her past substance abuse and self-esteem problems. "But this time I've been talked about positively by so many people."

Reviewed by Gokhra

The Cast: Ofelia-Ivana Baquero,Capitan (Capt.) Vidal-Sergi Lopez, Mercedes-Maribel Verdu, Carmen-Ariadna Gil, Pan/Pale Man-Doug Jones, Dr. Ferreiro-Alex Angulo, King-Federico Luppi

Pan's Labyrinth" is a narrative maze, with multiple stories that branch out and come back together like a disjointed stream.

The movie is based in Spain, 1944, where resistance fighters are battling it out with a fascist regime. It quickly moves on with the chilly deadpan voice of Pan (a faun, whose name "only the wind and the trees can pronounce") who tells the fable about a dead princess whose kingly father waits for his daughter's soul to return in another form.

The movie begins with a plunge into the turbulent imagination of Ofelia, a bookish 11-year-old girl who is traveling with her pregnant mother Carmen. They are going to meet up with Ofelia's evil-stepfather-to-be, Capitan Vidal, who commands a fascist outpost. Right nearby is an ancient stone labyrinth with ominous mysteries waiting to unfold.

The cold-blooded Capitan gives off a considerate appearance to Ofelia and mother. The night of their arrival, Ofelia clings to her mother in bed as the creaky old house moans and Ofelia's unborn brother restlessly kicks. Carmen asks her daughter to tell the baby a story, to calm his nerves (as well as Ofelia's). The girl rests her head on her mother's belly and the camera, positioned at the foot of the bed, descends into Carmen's womb, where we see the fetus suspended in warmly glowing amniotic fluid.

Ofelia tells of a rare and beautiful night-blooming blue rose with powers of providing immortality. It once grew on a mountaintop, surrounded by poisonous thorns that made its mysterious beauty inaccessible. Bugs and monsters shuffle in her forest along with Pan, a creature with the head of a goat. Pan believes that Ofelia herself is the reincarnation of the dead princess, and gives her a series of tasks to prove she is indeed the lost royal.

Ofelia's challenges turn out to be quite demanding with heavy prices to pay for failing. She needs to trust her own instincts about right and wrong. In order to find her true self, she must also find the strength to break the rules imposed by authority.

Whole worlds open before our eyes in spectacular CGI sequences. This movie is a spectacular special-effects fantasy and as a psychological drama. To top it off the actors are also fantastic. Vidal, especially, is an excellent blood-chilling movie villain, a portrait of true evil, ruling over a domain where anyone can be tortured or shot at a moment's notice.

It's an excellent tale merging fantasy and real life. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a great cinematic fantasy providing a fairy tale for adults.


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