Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

My review of Blackbird Theatre's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Meg Roe, Craig Erickson, Gabrielle Rose, and Kevin McNulty star in Blackbird Theatre's production of

Meg Roe, Craig Erickson, Gabrielle Rose, and Kevin McNulty star in Blackbird Theatre's production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Credit: supplied

This Woolf has teeth

George (Kevin McNulty) is a history professor who has been married to the college president’s daughter, Martha (Gabrielle Rose), for 23 years. Fueled by booze, bitter regret, and occasional glimpses of genuine affection, theirs is a symbiotic relationship in which dependence on each other has become the thing they despise most about themselves. After a night of drinking at a faculty party, Martha invites the new professor, young biologist Nick (Craig Erickson), and his wife, Honey (Meg Roe), home for a nightcap, kicking off three hours of emotional slaughter comprised of horrific insults, betrayal, and psychological warfare. George and Martha rip each other to shreds, and by the time the sun’s come up, they may have taken Nick and Honey down with them.

Blackbird’s casting perfectly complements Albee’s genius script. Roe sparkles as the young naif Honey; her infectious giggles as she becomes increasingly intoxicated offer much-needed levity betwixt the numerous moments of tension and verbal violence. Erickson is perfectly at home in Nick’s smug arrogance, but turns up the heat as he and Rose flirt and flaunt their attraction to each other. Rose’s ability to turn on a dime from drunken seductress to tragic clown is absolutely awe-inspiring.

McNulty, though, is the real revelation — he seems born to play George. Every phrase that comes from his mouth, whether spat out in vicious retribution or sliding silkily off the tongue as a thinly-veiled threat, is layered in subtext. Under McNulty’s skillful portrayal, George is pleasantly threatening, whether letting Martha’s emasculating insults seemingly roll off his back, or calmly letting Nick know that he’s lulled him into divulging secrets so that he can be more easily destroyed.

With a running time of a little over three hours (plus two intermissions), this isn’t the easiest play to sit through emotionally, but the time passes quickly, with plenty of laughter to temper the flurry of insults and double entendres. Ultimately, this is a rare night of theatre, in which a flawless cast brings new depth to an already perfect play. It’s weird to say, but this is a welcome punch to the gut, where the audience is left as broken as the characters, but in a good way.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs to Jan. 16 at the Cultch (1895 Venables). Tickets $15-$35 from Tickets Tonight.

Tegan and Sara

My interview with Tegan of Tegan and Sara for WE.

Tegan (left) and Sara Quin.

Tegan (left) and Sara Quin.

Credit: supplied

Tegan & Sara do the write thing

Even casual Canadian music fans know the basic equation of one of Alberta’s most successful exports: twin sisters X gay + indie-rock = Tegan and Sara. What most of them probably don’t know is that after 14 years of playing music together, the 29-year-old duo, as famous for their onstage banter/bickering as for their numerous variations on the fashionably punked-out mullet, has marched into previously uncharted territory: co-writing songs together. The Quin sisters’ sixth studio album, Sainthood, is also a stylistic departure, with many of the songs straying from their tried-and-true folk and rock influences to flirt with electro-pop.

WE spoke with Tegan as she was enjoying a few days back home in Vancouver before heading out on a four-month North American tour.

Sainthood marks the first time you and Sara have co-written songs. How was the collaborative experience?

Tegan Quin: We were really proud of ourselves when we were able to accomplish writing music together, because we’d never done it before and there was this part of us that felt like maybe it would go badly and we’d fight or something. [Laughs] It was actually really fun and enlightening to learn how Sara writes, and we definitely learned a lot from one another. We ended up sending songs back and forth to one another and continued to collaborate... It was cool; it kind of opened a door after 14 years of being a band. We’ve collaborated a lot, but we’ve never written. It kind of made me realize that there’s this whole other part of what we do that we’ve never explored. We were really inspired by the idea that in the ’70s and ’80s bands wrote for each other all the time... I was like, “Fuck, we should be doing more of this!” We should write for other bands and with each other. Sainthood’s by far the most collaborative record we’ve ever done, and that’s really exciting.

Do you have a wish list of future collaborators?

I really like leaving that door open, and every time someone comes to it, I’m like, “Cool, yeah!” Like, we’re writing a song for Margaret Cho right now; she’s putting out a comedy album, but she’s making it with indie-rock artists, and I love that. We just did a Christmas song with Fucked Up, and that was kinda neat. But I just love leaving the door open, because the weirdest people come to it and I’m like, “Yes, we’d love to work with you!”

Do people feel left out of the collaborative process working with sisters, since you obviously have a bit of a shorthand together?

It’s interesting, ’cause Chris Walla [Sainthood producer and Death Cab for Cutie member] was quoted recently as saying we were, like, “hyper-democratic.” We always say that that’s our band: Everyone gets an opinion, always, but that doesn’t mean we’re not running it like a dictatorship. We are creating the illusion that everyone has an opinion. I think that Sara and I have learned over the years how to make each other feel that way. Ultimately, if I want something, I’m going to fight for it. And if Sara gives me at least a little bit of her time to hear me out, and then comes back to me with her thoughts, even if it doesn’t go my way, I’ll go for it because at least she heard me out. And that’s huge for us, because when we first started out, we were teenagers, you know? It was like, “NOOOOO! I want it this way!” We are hyper-democratic, and I think working with us is — well, we try not to make people have to go to therapy afterwards. We try to be respectful and responsible with others.

Neil Young was a really vocal advocate of you two from the beginning, and you’ve had some pretty influential mentors. What’s been the best bit of advice?

The best advice was on our first tour with Neil Young and the Pretenders. One night I was complaining about the press, and Chrissie Hynde was sitting at the end of the table, and she slid over at one point and told this really funny story about seeing Steve Buscemi at a press conference. Every question was stupid, apparently — just really terrible questions — and he kept giving really great answers anyway. And she was like, “Oh, my God. They print the stupid answers, not the stupid questions! I want to go back in time 25 years and do every interview over again.” And I thought, you know, it’s totally true. They print stupid answers, so it was really important to me, you know, with being a twin, being gay, being a woman in indie-rock — we have fucking taken a lot of fuckin’ shit over the years. Like, we have put up with... idiotic questions and ridiculous comments, and I’ve just taken it all in stride. But everyone’s still just doing their job, and if they’re asking stupid questions and you’re bored with it, there’s still a way to get through it without acting like a jack-off, you know?

Theater spotlight 2009

Steven Schelling and I wrote a look back at some of our favourite theatre moments from 2009 for WE.

Ken Macdonald’s breathtaking set for The Constant Wife (left) and Itsazoo’s modern, roving musical take on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (right) were two noteworthy 2009 theatre offerings.

Ken Macdonald’s breathtaking set for The Constant Wife (left) and Itsazoo’s modern, roving musical take on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (right) were two noteworthy 2009 theatre offerings.

Credit: supplied

Dropping the curtain on 2009

This past year might be remembered by the theatre community as the calm before the storm: Established and fledgling companies faced the recession head-on, taking over every stage (and park and beach) they could, only to be hobbled at year’s end with potentially crippling government budget cuts for 2010. But if the last 12 months showed audiences anything, it’s that Vancouver actors, playwrights, and directors aren’t backing down.

From innovative staging, to youthful troupes coming of age, to women reigning supreme, WE turns its spotlight on some of the year’s most memorable stage moments.


Female performers, playwrights, and directors made major impressions in 2009. Kicking off the year was Arts Club’s production of The Constant Wife, W. Somerset Maugham’s Roaring Twenties-era comedy of manners. A classy middle finger to the notion that women should be reliant on men, this visually intoxicating, well-acted, and deeply subversive disguised-as-fluff comedy was further buoyed by leading lady Nicole Underhay’s portrayal of the nonchalant wife of a cheating doctor, and Moya O’Connell as her tough-as-nails spinster sister. At the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum — but no less effective — was Toronto-based playwright Linda Griffiths’s Victorian-era drama, Age of Arousal. A Touchstone Theatre Company and Arts Club collaboration, skillfully directed by Touchstone’s Katrina Dunn, Arousal explored feminism, women’s burgeoning sexual liberation, and the delicate balance of power between lovers Laara Sadiq and Susan Hogan. Ruby Slippers Theatre’s A Beautiful View featured a powerhouse Colleen Wheeler and Ruby Slippers co-founder Diane Brown blurring the line between friends and lovers. Capping off a phenomenal year in this area is Blackbird Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (currently running at The Cultch). Meg Roe lights up the stage as Honey, the young wife and comic foil to Gabrielle Rose’s wondrously venomous, gin-soaked Martha.


Well, they’re not really kids, but they are the relatively new kids on Vancouver’s theatre block. The past year offered a stellar showcase of up-and-coming theatre companies defying expectations to put on professional-quality productions that were both thought-provoking and pulsing with youthful energy. Itsazoo Theatre debuted resident playwright Sebastian Archibald’s modernized version of The Canterbury Tales. Entitled The Road to Canterbury, it was an entertaining and sly commentary on our muddy, modern society, with riffs on well-known Bob Dylan songs and jabs at our corporate culture, in much the way Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tales critiqued late medieval England. This was the group’s second summer using Queen Elizabeth Park as the setting for their special brand of roving theatre, hopefully signalling a new annual tradition to replace the summer meanderings of seemingly extinct production company Boca del Lupo. And Fighting Chance Productions — who in 2008 braved the not-so-biblical wrath of Westboro Baptist Church “God Hates Fags” pastor Fred Phelps for their production of The Laramie Project — literally shook the North Vancouver walls of the Presentation House with their brash and bold take on the ’90s Broadway hit, Rent.


Under Morris Panych’s direction, The Constant Wife was an immediate hit, but credit must be shared with Ken MacDonald and his Jessie Award-winning set design. All eyes were rivetted on the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage’s transformation into an Art Deco House & Home centrefold, featuring austere white pillars, rounded walls, and dreamlike sky-high windows. On a more economical and incongruous note, Vancouver playwright Andrew Templeton’s Fringe Fest hit Biographies of the Dead and Dying employed a rusted cast-iron bathtub as the centrepiece of its bare-bones set. Whether director Jeremy Waller envisioned some sort of overarching metaphor for his salvage-yard find or merely picked it up on a whim, watching cast members Heather Lindsay and Simon Driver lug it to and fro across the stage (or simulate violent sexual encounters on top of it) was, to say the least, unforgettable. But sometimes it’s the smallest details that stand out, even when watching an overblown musical comedy. Such was the case with Playhouse Theatre’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which a boardwalk bicycle transformed itself into the roulette wheel of a French Riviera casino. You may have missed the moment if you blinked, and yet, for those fortunate enough to catch it, it encapsulated in miniature all the innovation, wonder, and surprise that live theatre can offer.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Single Man review

My review of A Single Man is online at

Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore
Directed by Tom Ford

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, is a study in contrasts: lusciously arty and achingly overwrought; remarkably assured, but lacking confidence; and heart-wrenchingly real, yet thinly veiled in artifice.

It’s the early 1960s, and George (Colin Firth in the defining role of his career) is a buttoned-up, closeted, gay professor immersed in a quagmire of depression and mourning almost a year after the sudden death of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Having decided to kill himself, he sets about his last day on earth with a renewed yet resigned purpose. He packs his gun, goes to work, cleans out his desk, does the banking, and neatly lays out his burial clothes.

Confident in his decision, George allows himself a few small flirtations and last moments of human connection. He attends a bittersweet dinner party with his best friend Charlotte (a brave and unsparing Julianne Moore), who’s always carried a torch for him, he shares a cigarette in a parking lot with a handsome hustler (model Jon Kortajarena), and flirts with a baby-faced student (Nicholas Hoult, losing the fight against his British accent) who follows him home.

Ford’s vision for his creation is flawless, and his trust in his actors is handsomely rewarded with powerful performances. His belief in himself as a director, however, seems shaky. Ford’s major stumble is his continued insistence on needlessly manipulating the audience’s emotions. The majority of A Single Man is shot in flat colours, but for extended flashbacks or stretches where George is happy, Ford switches to saturated images, often accompanied by swelling strings. In the school of show-don’t-tell, this device has all the subtlety of an instruction manual.

It’s a shame because if the effects were used sparingly, A Single Man would be so much more than a very pretty face. ★★★—Andrea Warner

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New York, I Love You review

My review of New York, I Love You was in last week's Fast Forward Weekly in Calgary.

New York, you’re pretty alright, I guess

Cinematic mash note isn’t quite ready to be loved

In 2007, Paris, Je T'Aime made gentle waves in arty film circles, rightfully congratulated for its collection of Paris-based short films crafted by indie directors and packaged together as a loving ode to the French metropolis.

Americans have answered back with New York, I Love You, a hit-and-miss anthology of love stories. Meant to be a celebration of New York's frenetic energy, the film insists on uniting all of the shorts through a single, stubborn, wisp-thin thread (a quirky artist filmmaker who appears throughout) that ultimately forms a noose around the whole damn collection.

There are some notable standouts to be found. Among the highlights is Yvan Attal's sexy and sad encounter between Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn, who is absolutely stunning as a woman crushed by the distance growing between her and her husband. Anton Yelchin and Olivia Thirlby star in Brett Ratner's allegedly semi-autobiographical ode to an unconventional prom night. The young actors are unpretentious and charming as teens who grapple with an awkward blind date, an ex-girlfriend and wheelchair sex.

Even some of New York's weakest shorts have elements that work, such as Ugur Yücel’s haunting performance as a painter obsessed with a young Chinese herbalist. Drea de Matteo and Bradley Cooper make the most of their weak storyline about two strangers contemplating turning their one-night stand into a relationship, using their incredible chemistry to practically set the screen ablaze when they hit the sheets. Natalie Portman is luminous but miscast as Rifka, a Hasidic Jew resigned to marrying a man she doesn't love, spending the day before her wedding flirting with the Indian diamond dealer in Mira Nair's short.

Ultimately, New York saves its best short for last with Joshua Marston's brilliant, bittersweet vignette about a hilarious and bristling elderly married couple (the incomparable Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach) simply taking a walk. If only New York was comprised entirely of self-contained films, like Paris, Je T'Aime, the two movies side by side might have been the equivalent of the Empire State Building versus the Eiffel Tower. Instead, New York drags on, and becomes almost a parody of itself by trying so hard to make sure the audience gets it. We're hit over the head with a clichéd, feel-good ending courtesy of a rooftop party where that quirky artist screens her film and all the characters come together. If only New York's editors had trusted American audiences to be as clever as the French.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 10 for Charleston

Charleston City Paper asked me to name my favourite albums of the year.


The record industry may be on its last legs, but that hasn't stopped independent artists from putting out innovative and occasionally brilliant releases in 2009. Neko Case offered up new depth in her strong but tortured anthems, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a gutsy choice to take their music in a new direction, and the Decemberists crafted a prog-rock opera. Phoenix and Sondre Lerche soared up the college radio charts, electro-dance friendly efforts by You Say Party! We Say Die! and Telepathe made our feet move, and gems from Land of Talk, Bon Iver, and St. Vincent weaved storytelling gems around catchy hook-laden indie-pop.

Neko Case — Middle Cyclone (Anti)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs — It's Blitz! (DGC/Interscope)

The Decemberists — The Hazards of Love (Capitol)

Sondre Lerche — Heartbeat Radio (Rounder)

Land of Talk — Some Are Lakes (Saddle Creek)

Bon Iver — Bloodbank (Jagjaguwar)

Telepathe — Dance Mother (IAMSOUND)

You Say Party! We Say Die! — XXXX (Paper Bag)

St. Vincent — Actor (4AD)

Phoenix — Wolfgang, Amadeus, Phoenix (Glass Note)

Andrea Warner is a freelance writer, pop culture critic, and a fan of peaceful chaos. She occasionally uses words like "toque" and "toboggan."

Terry Gilliam talks The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Heath Ledger

My interview with Terry Gilliam on the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is in this week's WE.

MOVIES: Terry Gilliam honours Heath Ledger’s final performance in ‘Imaginarium’

The journey from storyboard to celluloid is fraught with complications for most filmmakers. But few have experienced the sort of kick-to-the-chest heartbreak that writer-director Terry Gilliam did when Heath Ledger accidentally overdosed and died January 22, 2008, in the midst of filming Gilliam’s grandly dark new fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

“I was lying on the floor in grief,” Gilliam admits, upon finding out that the star, who was also his long-time friend, had passed at just 28. “But then my daughter started kicking me and making me get up again. It was a different kind of pain, but it helped me keep going.”

Shortly before Imaginarium’s North American opening (the much-coveted Christmas Day slot), Gilliam is giving back-to-back phone interviews. Despite the sombre aspects of the film, the former Monty Python member is in good spirits. He jokingly introduces himself as Mr. Repetitive — after all, he’s been fielding the same questions about Ledger for almost three years, and he’ll now forever have the dubious distinction of being the director of Ledger’s last film.

Imaginarium was the pair’s second collaboration, Gilliam having first cast Ledger opposite Matt Damon in his 2005 fantasy-comedy The Brothers Grimm. By the time they reunited, Ledger had evolved as both an actor (his roles in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight had catapulted him to a new level of stardom) and as a person — with a two-year-old daughter, and a dependency on a cocktail of prescription pills to help with sleeping, depression, and anxiety. But he was also more sure of his gifts, and was starting to show an interest in expanding them.

“Even the Joker — you know, he’d just play it and enjoy it and leap fearlessly into whatever the part was,” Gilliam says. “He was ad-libbing a lot on this film, and coming up with lines that were a lot better that what we had written. It was his way of showing he could write as well. This is a pretty extraordinary talent that was only just developing.”

Imaginarium could have shut down production following Ledger’s death — it’s been alleged that financial backers who’d put up money on the strength of the actor’s marquee appeal wanted to pull out. But Gilliam and his cast and crew persevered. The finished product reveals how almost eerily prescient Gilliam’s script proved.

Ledger’s character, Tony, is rescued by a down-on-their-luck band of travellers, led by the immortal Dr. Parnassus, an increasingly decrepit and drunk mystic who performs nightly, showcasing his mind-expanding abilities through a faux-mirror that leads to the Imaginarium, an alternate reality of the entrants’ making. His daughter, Valentina, is about to turn 16, but has been promised to the devil in a bargain made years ago. Tony, on the run from some shady mobsters, and attempting to escape his innately evil nature, keeps ducking inside the Imaginarium. Ledger hadn’t filmed these scenes yet, so Gilliam appealed to a few famous faces — Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell — to take turns playing the alternate-reality versions of Tony.

“Heath’s death didn’t really change my vision at all,” Gilliam says. “Except, of course, having to work with the three hacks who replaced Heath. [Laughs] You know, going down to the actor’s depot in Hollywood, they’re just hanging around, all desperate for work. It’s still the same movie I storyboarded in the beginning.”

Gilliam momentarily ditches his trademark gallows humour when he reflects on what it’s taken to adjust to a post-Imaginarium life. He admits that sometimes even he can’t quite believe he finished it.

“We had a film that really works, basically, because so many people loved Heath and came to the rescue,” he says. “That’s what it’s about. It’s like an ocean voyage where part of the crew died, and other people came to the rescue and we got there. That kind of outpouring of affection for Heath — Johnny, Colin, Jude, everybody involved in the process and the project — is what’s magical about it.”

As for the film’s critical reception, Gilliam confesses that the biggest weight on him has been honouring Ledger legacy. The morbid humour creeps back in, though, and one realizes how crucial it’s been for the filmmaker to keep himself laughing through what’s been one of the darkest periods of his life.

“[Imaginarium] is certainly more emotional for me, and dragged me in more... The biggest sense of responsibility while we were shooting was, ‘Is it going to be worthy of his last work?’ And some critics think it is, and others don’t, because they’re awful people that should die,” he says, beginning to laugh loudly. “But that’s alright; they can have their opinions. But they must also understand that death is swiftly coming their way. Vengeance will be ours!”

Monday, December 21, 2009

La Danse

My review of La Danse appears online at and plays at Vancity Theatre to early January. Go see it!

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
★★★★ —Andrea Warner

Frederick Wiseman's La Danse is an unusual sort of documentary. It drops the viewer deep behind the scenes of the Paris Opera Ballet for almost three hours, without any guidance. The audience is simply offered image after image of the ballet’s inner sanctum: bandaged feet, awkward conversations, and all.

Wiseman pays careful attention to all aspects of the day-to-day running of what is, ultimately, a machine. Maintenance people scrape plaster from ceilings, cafeteria workers serve food, costumers bend over tables to hand-sew intricate bead-work, a weirdly wonderful beekeeper atop the ballet’s roof harvests honeycomb... All this is juxtaposed with scenes of dancers sweating and suffering through intense practices.

Suitably, long stretches of La Danse are devoted to the dancers, but we almost never get to know any of them personally. In fact, at no point does anyone address the camera, nor does Wiseman feel the need to provide viewers with any real narrative structure. We get to know the dancers by watching them practice, seeing how they react to criticism, and their interactions with instructors and choreographers. We then see how the practice pays off, in beautifully rendered dress rehearsal scenes, where props and costumes bring the dances to full and vivid life.

Wiseman’s camera also takes us inside administrative meetings, as the marketing team and the company’s artistic director seek incentives for wealthy benefactors. When one marketer mentions a meeting with Lehman Brothers, the major face of the global financial collapse, it’s a reminder of the number of creative casualties caused by the economic meltdown.

If you can’t tell a plié from a pirouette, you might be tempted to shy away from La Danse, but you’d be missing out on one of the most intelligent and riveting films of 2009.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Beautiful View

If you didn't catch A Beautiful View in Vancouver, head to the Shadbolt in Burnaby and check it out.

Colleen Wheeler (left) and Diane Brown star in Ruby Slippers' production of Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View.

Colleen Wheeler (left) and Diane Brown star in Ruby Slippers' production of Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View.

A Beautiful View

With crippling arts cuts looming and a concomitant debate raging about the “worthiness” of arts funding, it’s easy to forget what the fight is all about. Ruby Slippers’ production of Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View is a gratifying reminder of what’s really at stake: Achingly great creativity.

Moving along at a brisk 75 minutes, MacIvor’s nimble script runs the gamut of emotions without ever exhausting the audience, or exploiting his thoughtfully crafted characters. Two women, Linda (the reliably fantastic Colleen Wheeler) and Mitch (a winning Diane Brown), meet at a camping store, end up having an unexpected one-night stand, and spend 20 years tiptoeing around their love for each other, in all its various forms.

It doesn’t sound like much, but MacIvor’s script is so full of life, and so innovatively structured (he also directed), that every moment Linda and Mitch shares feels both familiar and fresh. View begins with the Linda and Mitch standing in front of the audience, seemingly prepared to be judged in some way, and arguing about how they got to this point. They then take us back, remembering their lives together, recreating key moments from the last two decades — from their meet-cute through to the almost-present. Wheeler and Brown address the audience directly, constantly breaking of the fourth wall. It’s a risky device, but it works here and succeeds at wrapping the audience up in Linda and Mitch’s history. (And, not incidentally, highlighting the viewer’s investment in the play’s ultimate question: Will they ever admit they’re in love?)

Spanning, it seems, the early 1980s to the early 2000s, neither Linda or Mitch can fathom owning the “lesbian” label. Fear is View’s third character, a point that MacIvor’s writing brings home eloquently and with dashes of robust humour. The sexual tension between Wheeler and Brown buoys every scene, but never detracts from the fact that we’re also watching two people try to build a life on a shaky foundation of unspoken, almost secret dreams.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Up in the Air

My thoughts on Up in the Air for WE's best movies of 2009

Starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick
Directed by Jason Reitman

George Clooney’s confident smirk and sexy swagger can sell almost any movie. By the knocking of my knees, did he work it in 2009! He had starring roles in The Men Who Stare at Goats and Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it’s his turn as a frequent-flying axe-man in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air where he truly soars.

Clooney’s Ryan Bingham spends over 300 days a year jetting between various U.S. cities, paid by cowardly corporations to downsize their employees. Ryan’s also a wannabe motivational speaker, having perfected a lengthy riff about the ways in which human attachments weigh us down.

Of course, a solitary man obsessed with the manufactured loyalty of frequent-flyer programs is subconsciously looking for people to kick down the door of his detachment. Cue the sexy Alex (the winning Vera Farmiga), a female version of Ryan; and Natalie (a superb Anna Kendrick), Ryan’s tightly-wound, recently graduated protégée. The casting is perfect: Clooney and Farmiga fit together seamlessly, and Twilight backbencher Kendrick sparkles opposite these two heavyweights.

That said, what makes Up in the Air one of the year’s best is its timing. Filmed two years ago, when everyone was trying to scramble down from the precipice of economic collapse, the movie feels eerily prescient. Reitman’s been faulted by some critics for “exploiting” real people recently laid off from their jobs in scenes throughout the film, but in capturing the current global desperation felt by millions of people who are now jobless, and dressing it up with extraordinary performances, we’re reminded just how relevant movies can be. —Andrea Warner

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

My feature on Béla Fleck appears in this week's Charleston City Paper.

Béla Fleck is a banjo virtuoso

The Flecktones leader: no hillbilly picker

When a boy is given a name like Béla, he has one of two options: change his name or grow a thick skin and get used to being different. Couple that with being a New York City teenager with a predilection for banjo instead of guitar in the rock-heavy 1970s, and Béla Fleck got used to operating on society's fringes at an early age.

Now, at 51, Fleck has turned his quirky obsession into an award-winning career spanning 30 years. Blending bluegrass, folk, jazz, and other genres, he is currently considered the world's foremost banjo virtuoso.

"I was certainly a different kid," Fleck says. "No one was into folk or bluegrass in my age group. It's actually surprising to me now how few there were, since this was only a few years after the folk boom. I would think everyone would be emulating the folkies in 1973 ... but nope."

Fleck's first moment of banjo infatuation actually came when he was watching a Beverly Hillbillies rerun. "The sound shocked me, and I always remember that moment, hearing the great Earl Scruggs for the first time," Fleck says. "Then, several years later, when I was 15, 'Dueling Banjos' became a worldwide hit, and my grandfather bought me a banjo."

Fleck's first album, 1979's Crossing the Tracks, was rooted in the progressive bluegrass sound that became his trademark. But Fleck's insatiable desire to push boundaries led him to explore traditional jazz — with his banjo.

"Early on, I got excited about the progressive element in bluegrass," he says. "So it wasn't that big a leap into the big world of jazz. I wanted to actually play jazz, not just be a jazz/bluegrasser. I felt that there was no reason the banjo couldn't work; it was all about whether I'd be a good enough musician to pull it off."

Fleck's extensive catalog boasts over 40 solo or collaborative albums, 14 of which were recorded with the Flecktones, his back-up group consisting of saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who recently returned from a stint with the Dave Matthews Band, and two brothers — pop-and-slap electric bassist Victor Wooten and experimental percussionist Future Man. (Harmonica player and keyboardist Howard Levy is on board for the fall and winter tour dates as well).

The Grammy's have rewarded Fleck's industry: he's been nominated in more categories than any other musician, and as of 2008, has taken home nine of those golden trophies.

Industry awards or not, the banjo itself has long been regarded by some as the proverbial ugly, red-headed stepchild of stringed instruments. But, in the last several years, its popularity has surged. Comedians have proven particularly prolific in the community (Fleck counts Steve Martin, Kevin Nealon, Billy Connelly, and the Spinal Tap guys among his banjo-playing friends), and it's the hipster instrument of choice for indie-folk bands like Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, and Sufjan Stevens, to name just a few.

"I think the hillbilly stigma of the banjo has worn off, these days," Fleck says. "It used to be quite depressing to be a banjo player, with everybody flapping their arms at you and shouting, 'Yee-Haw!' at the top of their lungs when you wandered by. Now people seem to see it as a hip part of America's heritage."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

My Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review is online at

Life's a beach: Josh Epstein as Freddy Benson (left) and Andrew Wheeler as Lawrence Jameson in Vancouver Playhouse's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Life's a beach: Josh Epstein as Freddy Benson (left) and Andrew Wheeler as Lawrence Jameson in Vancouver Playhouse's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Credit: supplied

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
By Andrea Warner

Theatre aficionados are familiar with the ‘makeover’ story. From Pygmalion to the Shape of Things, it’s been done before. But rarely is it handled so deftly as in the cheeky, raunchy, risqué musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Adapted from the classic ’80s comedy starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, the Vancouver premiere of the hit Broadway musical is a bitingly funny and fresh twist on a familiar concept.

Suave con man Lawrence Jameson (Andrew Wheeler) makes a living swindling rich women, but his stranglehold on the French Riviera resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer is threatened when aspiring charlatan Freddy Benson (Josh Epstein) gets wise to Lawrence’s schemes, blackmailing him for a piece of the action. Bolstered by his impressively oversized ego, Lawrence deigns to school Freddy in the finer ways of life (better clothes, better manners, richer targets), eventually forming an unlikely and volatile partnership.

When a promising new mark, Christine Colgate (Elena Juatco), the “San Francisco Soap Queen,” arrives in town, the crooks make a bet: the first person to bilk the innocent girl out of $50,000 wins the right to the Riviera, with the loser vacating the territory immediately. High jinx ensue as the grifters try to outdo each other.

However, complications arise when Lawrence falls for the young Christine and Freddy refuses to call off the bet. A surprise twist ending throws a wrench into Lawrence and Freddy’s careful scheming, which left more than a few audience members seeing infinite sequel possibilities.

Replete with groaners and knee-slappers, Scoundrels’ musical numbers are chock-full of laugh-out-loud moments. Standouts include “All About Ruprecht”, where Lawrence and Freddy scare off a brash Oklahoma socialite who’s grown too clingy. Epstein and Wheeler are terrific, mischievous comedians who look like they know they’re performing once-in-a-lifetime material (hilarious dry-humping and brilliant lyrics), and they nail every gauche moment perfectly. “Nothing is too Wonderful to be True” is the best non-ballad ever, with Christine’s sunshine-y hopefulness countered by Freddy’s dry, sarcastic asides. Juatco, making a strong Playhouse debut, radiates charm, and it’s a testament to her appeal that Christine’s never cloying, but, rather, a woman who could convincingly and unintentionally woo the jaded Lawrence. Epstein, so good in last year’s Producers at the Arts Club, thrives here, offering just the right amount of swagger and swing to the immoral Freddy. Wheeler’s commanding presence and wry line delivery gives Lawrence the necessary nonchalant superiority. Of the three, Wheeler’s voice is the weakest, but he does a good job negotiating Lawrence’s solo, a surprisingly sweet “Love Sneaks In.”

Despite a lackluster opening sequence (which featured ill-fitting costumes for several women in the ensemble, and some amateurish choreography), Scoundrels is easily director Max Reimer’s best effort since joining the Playhouse in 2008 (and that’s saying a lot after last year’s wonderful, Jessie Award-winning production of The Drowsy Chaperone). From the cast to the campy set decorations (including a wondrously inventive roulette table/bicycle hybrid), Scoundrels is one of the year’s best shows, offering a welcome respite from the typical “heartwarming” holiday fare.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ivan Reitman interview

I got the opportunity to speak with director and producer Ivan Reitman last week. I watched Ghostbusters when I was little, I totally never ever thought I'd one day get to talk to the man responsible! I geeked out on this one. I couldn't help it.

The interview is part of the coverage for the Whistler Film Festival, which I'll be covering live next weekend for

Ivan Reitman on the set of Twins (1988) with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ivan Reitman on the set of Twins (1988) with Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Credit: supplied

Top of his game

Ivan Reitman, the famed 64-year-old director and producer, often falls into the category of “Really? He’s Canadian?” Hollywood is, of course, chock-full of high-profile northerners often mistaken for American by virtue of the magnitude of their fame, including Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, and Saturday Night Live creator and film producer Lorne Michaels.

But few have been as successful or as influential as the Toronto-raised Reitman, who, over four decades, has directed and produced box-office-smash comedies including Meatballs, Ghostbusters, and, more recently, I Love You, Man. Reitman is being honoured for his cinematic achievements on Friday, December 4, at the Whistler Film Festival — a tribute that comes at the cusp of what seems to be a Reitman revival, what with him having produced two films this year (Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and son Jason’s Up in the Air), and the recent news that he’s set to produce and direct Ghostbusters III in 2010.

“I met with the writers just yesterday morning for breakfast,” Reitman says, over the phone from his L.A.-based office, about the long-rumoured Ghostbusters sequel. “I was giving them notes on some of the pages, and we’re going to try to get a good draft done by the beginning of next year. And once we have that... we’ll be assembling the original cast and the new cast, and [we’ll] make the movie.”

For Reitman, who, according to, currently has at least six movies in development, directing means returning to the lessons he’s learned since the 1973 horror-comedy Cannibal Girls, and his attempt to turn two years of hard work drafting the script for Animal House, the seminal 1978 frat-house comedy starring John Belushi, into his first major motion picture. That directing job ended up going to John Landis instead. “Having made only one $12,000 independent horror-comedy before, Universal was not ready to let me direct, and that was a heartbreaker,” Reitman recalls. “I realized I need to get back and sort of direct another small film and rebuild my career.”

Reitman assumed directorial duties for the comedy classic Meatballs in 1979, the first in a string of hits that included Stripes and Ghostbusters, which were also starring vehicles for Bill Murray, whom Reitman refers to as “genius.”

“I learn something [throughout all my films], but I think the great thing about Meatballs is that I had the opportunity to work with Bill Murray, who’s such a talented writer as well as performer,” Reitman says. “Some of his ideas were so good, I had to be very nimble on my feet. Instead of getting my back up and getting into a fight about just doing what I thought was important, I learned to work faster and make use of good ideas that came to me from others as part of the filming process, and learned to be fast enough to accommodate and still make the kind of schedule we were under. And mostly learning about funny, because funny is really hard. Everyone says so, and it actually really is.”

Figuring out what’s funny has motivated much of Reitman’s career. He’s modest when he talks about his accomplishments, but admits that he was pretty certain he’d tapped into something special when he screened Ghostbusters for the first time, just three weeks after wrapping the production, sans special effects. “It was kind of a gutsy thing to do,” Reitman says, laughing. “I got up in front of the audience and said, ‘Look, some of this isn’t even going to make sense because people are going to open up a refrigerator and there’s going to be a sign that says, ‘SCENE MISSING.’ But it was pretty much as good as any of the screenings we had [after the effects were completed], because I think people get into the story and get into the character, and the comedy interplay between them. It was effective; you get hooked in even if you don’t know all the pieces in between them, and it gave me great confidence.”

Reitman parlayed that confidence into a lengthy career of hits as a producer (Old School; I Love You, Man; Hotel for Dogs), plus some notable misses (he hasn’t directed a hit since 1993’s Dave). He’s responsible for making Arnold Schwarzenegger funny on purpose (Twins, Kindergarten Cop) and he bought the Trailer Park Boys to the big screen.

Reitman’s greatest accomplishment, though, might be his son, Jason, a celebrated writer and director who’s three for three in the filmmaking department, having directed Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and the much-buzzed-about George Clooney feature, Up in the Air, of which the elder Reitman is a producer. “It’s as big a thrill I’ve ever received in the movie business, the success that Jason’s having,” Reitman says, audibly beaming as he talks about his son’s triumphs.

“He’d clearly been paying attention way more than I ever knew,” Reitman continues, laughing again. “In fact, he went to great pains to pretend he was going to do otherwise; he enrolled in pre-med his first year in university, but clearly he wasn’t happy doing that.

“One of the best things I did was tell him a story about my own father: I’d come to my father and said I wanted to open a submarine shop, because they seemed to be doing well in other cities, and there were none in Toronto. Wouldn’t it be a great thing to do? And he said, ‘You know, I’m sure if you wanted to open a sandwich shop, you’d do a very good job, but I don’t think there’s enough magic in it for you.’ And it sort of freed me from that concern about earning money no matter what. And what I told Jason was, ‘You’d be a very good doctor, if that’s what you wanna do, but my concern is there’s not enough magic there for you.’ And he left pre-med, literally within two weeks of that conversation, applied to [the University of Southern California] to the English department, and started working on his first short, which then went on to win about 70 awards all over the world. He was good right from the beginning.”

He’s given the world plenty already, and now Ivan Reitman can be thanked for one of the best new filmmakers of the decade: all worthy reasons to raise a glass in Reitman’s honour, even if he hadn’t brought a little bit of Canada with him to La-La Land.

The Whistler Film Festival’s Tribute to Ivan Reitman takes place Friday, Dec. 4 at the Whistler Conference Centre, 7:30 pm. Tickets $50 from

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Emilie Autumn

My feature on Emilie Autumn's in the Charleston City Paper this week!

Emilie Autumn's musical art is most peculiar

Goth-pop asylum

Emilie Autumn has deemed herself the "innkeeper of the asylum," becoming a de facto real-life poster child for Emily the Strange enthusiasts. A conversation with the goth/glam singer-songwriter and violinist is a strangely happy, if heavy, whirlwind of monologue. She calls over an hour and a half late for our interview, apologizing profusely, but cheerfully, for her long-winded nature.

After a few minutes, it's clear that Autumn's name seems too small to contain her personality: a crashing amalgamation of all the seasons in her world, which is occupied by images of Victorian corsets, pink flamingo hair, and a fiddle almost permanently attached to the 30-year-old's hands. Classically trained, Autumn's been playing professionally for well over a decade, releasing albums, breaking contracts, fighting record labels, and playing with big names like Courtney Love and Billy Corgan. But it was the 2006 release of her rock-cabaret-electronica-glam-goth album, Opheliac, released by her own label, Traitor Records, that earned Autumn acclaim and a large European following.

Now, Autumn and her back-up group, the Bloody Crumpets, are enjoying their first North American headlining tour, playing to sold-out crowds in almost every city, courting controversy at every turn.

"We were told, 'Don't expect too much, and then our fans really pulled through for us," Autumn says. "It's been amazing."

Autumn's relationship with her fans is intense. Her songs are confessional and dark, detailing everything from her stay in a psych ward ("Thank God I'm Pretty") to songs about suicide ("The Art of Suicide") and cutting ("Liar"). She's unapologetic about the subject matter, and with the arrival of her first novel (she wrote and illustrated the whole thing), The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, she's ripping open plenty of old wounds in the hopes that her fans will learn something from her experiences.

"There's so much about the book that's fun and beautiful, but a lot of it's from my diary entries from when I was locked up or during suicide attempts, during bipolar episodes or cutting myself, during those hardcore episodes that nobody really wants to talk about," Autumn admits.

The fan devotion is definitely a response to Autumn's overwhelmingly confessional-style writing, and her unwavering commitment to what she earnestly refers to as her "brand." Autumn has her own clothing label and design house, makes her own business decisions, and writes the music she wants to hear. Her earlier music industry experiences could have soured her indefinitely, but she's opted to learn from those mistakes.

"Working with Courtney Love, for example, now I can deal with anything," Autumn says. "I went from being a terrified little girl to being able to handle anything, so, like, thank you. And, working with Corgan, to see how long somebody's been around, how they've grown up in the industry, and yet to see how they can still be dictated to by their labels. I swear that's never going to be me. I had to learn that very quickly in order to survive those people. I will live on the streets and be a busker and make music for nobody. I will never let that happen. I will never care that much that anybody listens to me or that I'm popular. I don't give a fuck ... that was something to really, really learn. No matter how long you've been around or how many records you've sold, there's that desperation among some very, very famous people to keep repeating it, to not get old, to worry when you lose your hair."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Twilight Saga: New Moon review

My review of New Moon appears online at

Vampires love necking. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Vampires love necking. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Credit: Supplied

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner
Directed by Chris Weitz

A sequel is rarely better than its predecessor, but new blood, new bodies, and the relative absence of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) make this second installment of the Twilight Saga a marked improvement over the first.

New Moon picks up where Twilight left off. Moody and broody vampire Edward is professing his eternal love for the equally besotted high-school senior — and mortal — Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Thankfully, the declarations of devotion (it seems every sentence was lifted from a 14-year-old girl’s diary) only last a few minutes before Edward decides the only way to keep Bella safe from harm (that is, his family’s blood-lust and his own brute strength) is to abandon her — so that the vampires who swore revenge in the first film can come back to try to kill her like they promised. Yes, logic is a limited commodity, it seems, in the Twilight world.

Lonely and depressed, Bella turns to her friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and there’s some lovely chemistry between the two as they forge a friendship that presses the “Will they or won’t they?” question, which is interrupted when Jacob pulls an Edward and tells Bella to stay away from him for her safety because he’s now a werewolf and part of a secret wolf pack. That doesn’t really deter Bella, though, since she has a new addiction to danger, But when Edward mistakenly believes Bella has died, he goes to the Volturi, the leaders of the entire vampire race, and begs them to end his life. Bella rushes to save him, and they’re forced to fight against head honcho Aro (a wonderfully campy Michael Sheen).

Though the storyline and dialogue are woefully inept, new director Chris Weitz brings a measure of sophistication to New Moon. A bigger budget certainly helps (particularly with regard to the CGI effects), and it’s to his credit that New Moon feels like a real big-screen event, and not just a movie of the week from the Sci-Fi channel.

Stewart is a good actress who’s often relegated to expressing Bella in one of two ways: quivering breaths to signal distress or saucy defiance to show rebellion. Lautner is charming and proves he’s more than just eye candy, though he spends much of New Moon showing off his crazy new physique (when not in full snarling, furry fury, his wardrobe mostly consists of cut-off jean shorts and that’s it). Pattinson, who’s out of his acting league next to Stewart and Lautner, isn’t given much to do except smoulder and glower. Amusingly, he’s filmed almost exclusively in either slow motion or whip-fast fight sequences.

At 140 minutes, New Moon does start to wane during the last half hour — incidentally, when the vampire action kicks into high gear. The fangs just aren’t sharp enough this time around, but the canine claws prove this franchise has a few hidden pleasures in its cheesy, Harlequin-lite depths. ★★

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox review

My review appears in WE this week!

George Clooney voices the title character in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

George Clooney voices the title character in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Credit: supplied

Anna Kendrick and Kellan Lutz talk Twilight: New Moon

My interviews with Anna Kendrick and Kellan Lutz appear in this week's WE.

Undying and undead love: Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) in Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Undying and undead love: Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) in Twilight Saga: New Moon.

Credit: supplied

New Moon Rising

By Andrea Warner

Twilight fan or not, chances are you know that vampire Edward Cullen’s (Robert Pattinson) undying love for mortal Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) gets the sequel treatment this Friday, November 20, when The Twilight Saga: New Moon hits a full fifth of all the movie screens in Canada.

It’s been just four years since the first book in Stephanie Meyer’s four-part Twilight series was published, and one year since the first Twilight film opened and became an instant blockbuster. In that time, the film’s leads have become part of Hollywood’s elite. Even supporting cast members became overnight celebrities, with other film and television offers pouring in.

Kellan Lutz, who plays Edward’s vampire “brother” Emmet Cullen, has parlayed his success into a role on 90210, and has several other projects in the works. But even he admits he had no idea what he was getting into when he signed on for Twilight.

“I didn’t know it was a book series,” Lutz laughs, in an interview with WE. “I thought the script was cool. They wanted me to audition for Edward, and I was like, ‘No, he’s too depressing.’”

Anna Kendrick, who plays Jessica Stanley, Bella’s best friend, is generating early Oscar buzz for her role alongside George Clooney in the forthcoming feature, Up in the Air. She has certainly benefitted from the Twilight exposure. But, due to the first film’s popularity, filming Twilight and New Moon was like night and day. It wasn’t just the locale changes (New Moon filmed in Vancouver, Twilight in Oregon) or the upheaval when Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke was replaced with Chris Weitz; it was that everyone associated with Twilight was suddenly super-famous.

“There were logistical problems,” Kendrick says to WE. “The added presence of fans and paparazzi made it interesting. Filming scenes where what you see is just Kristen and me walk down a street, but right outside the frame is just hundreds of girls watching — it made it a little tricky to get over that for the first couple of takes.”

Twilight fans have been among the most vocal and loyal in pop culture recently, calling themselves Twihards and starting Twilight conventions (or, according to many fanboy complaints, taking over established conventions altogether). Advance ticket sales for New Moon’s opening day have, as of press time, reached $1.5 million, and fans are clamouring to see how the film’s central plot — a brewing love triangle between Edward, Bella, and werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner) — unfolds.

Even the film’s stars have found themselves caught up in the ‘Who Should Bella Choose?’ conundrum.

“I’m hardcore Team Jacob,” Kendrick says. “Obviously, Edward Cullen is kind of too perfect to exist in real life. It’s a fantasy, an escape for these girls.”

“I can’t really say much about [what draws women in], because I’m a guy, and I don’t really understand women 100 per cent,” Lutz laughs. “But I think anyone can relate. You want what you can’t have, in a way. The Jacob character — everyone thinks that’s great in the beginning, but it gets too old when someone’s like, ‘Oh, I love you, you’re amazing.’ You want the bad boy.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who Bella chooses, as the fans have already devoured the books, and simply want to see how their favourite characters come to life. And those fans will be right back in the same place six months down the road, when Twilight: Eclipse opens — to likely decimate box-office records again. See you then.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Land of Talk

My interview with Elizabeth Powell's Land of Talk is online at

Land of Talk's Elizabeth Powell spares no expense on the photography budget.

Land of Talk's Elizabeth Powell spares no expense on the photography budget.

Land of Talk finds its voice again

Three years ago, former Ontarian Elizabeth Powell was hanging out in a Montreal coffee shop, surrounded by day-job haters: people who slaved all day and spent their downtime waxing poetic about how they’d rather be artists.

Determined to turn her own words into action, Powell founded Land of Talk. Since then, the indie-rock group — which has drawn comparisons to Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey — has experienced all the ups and downs of buzz-band hype: Their debut EP earned critical acclaim and the attention of famed Omaha indie label Saddle Creek (co-founded by Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst), and opened for high-profile bands on both sides of the border, including the Decemberists and Broken Social Scene.

But then, the band was halted in mid-stride by what Powell now calls burnout. Her voice literally gave out, forcing the cancellation of the 2008 tour in support of Land of Talk’s first Saddle Creek album, Some Are Lakes.

A year later, Powell’s voice is back in shape, and the band is celebrating its new EP, Fun and Laughter, with a tour that hits the Biltmore this Saturday (Nov. 7).

You’re back on the road again after having some time off. How are you enjoying it?
Elizabeth Powell: I think it’s more about who you’re actually touring with. Not to say we haven’t had a really good team in the past, but on this one we’re all good buddies.

What kind of stuff do you do to pass the time on the road?
We’re all kind of obsessed with sketch comedy and Zach Galifinakis and all those comedy shows, and YouTube and stuff. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show Great Job or The Office. We always just end up being totally goofy, and that’s how we pass the time. Sometimes we end up spending two hours on a ridiculous top and impromptu — like yesterday, we ended up in San Diego, and just out of nowhere the drummer started beat-boxing on the street, and we broke into a really bad break-dancing routine and we videoed it. We’re good at entertaining ourselves. It’s actually pretty appropriate, since the EP’s called Fun and Laughter. Maybe that’s self-fulfilling prophecy and I should call all the albums something super-positive, like some super-positive projection and it will come true!

That sounds like so much fun. Better than those people who are like, oh, I’m reading War and Peace.
Well, I’m reading Infinite Jest, but it’s taking me two years to finish that book.

Was that in response to the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy reading it? He was Twittering about it all summer, and a bunch of his fans were reading it and trying to keep pace with him.
We toured with them! What? Are you serious? Oh, my gosh. I don’t even — sorry, I’m ignorant about Twitter. Does that come to your cellphone or something? That’s awesome! It’s kind of like a cult or a religion; as soon as I find people who are reading it, or have read it, or were deeply effected by it — actually, the last song on the EP, “A Series of Small Planes”, is the title of the protagonists father’s film cartridges. I’m totally nerding out over it. It’s all over everything I’m doing right now.

What’s the difference for you between recording your first studio album last year and doing the EP this year? Was there more pressure for the studio album?
I had to do a lot of attitude-changing because I lost my voice last year, and it was really just a symptom of burnout — it’s how my body manifested the burnout and just shut down, and obviously my voice was the first thing to go... I don’t know what happened. I think it was a survival mechanism; I just kind of switched gears, and Fun and Laughter was way more fun to make than any other record. Well, except the first EP because there were no expectations, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. But, yeah, a lot less pressure.
And maybe after touring with such a successful band like Broken Social Scene, it took a lot of pressure off, ironically. It kind of demystified the whole idea of critical acclaim, because they’ve been through that whole gauntlet and they’ve come through it as completely normal people. It brought it all the way back to the original conception — the music — and just doing it for yourself because there’s really no other reason to do it. The music really becomes the footnote in this industry, so it’s better to bring it all back, and I try to cut out all the bullshit and the drama.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Interview with St. Vincent

My interview with St. Vincent was published in the Charleston City Paper while I was on holiday.

St. Vincent embraces the excitement

Magic, charm, and the collaboration of music-making

Her alter ego may have plenty of hipster, too-cool-for-school fans, but behind the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter St. Vincent is Annie Clark, a charmingly unassuming young woman who conducts phone interviews from her mom's mini-van.

Clark's professional pedigree as a musician is a veritable who's who of indie rock icons, from her stint in the Polyphonic Spree to her role in Sufjan Stevens' backing band. In 2005 she released her debut solo album, Marry Me, as St. Vincent, and introduced the world to her brand of quirky, layered, atmospheric indie-pop. Now, four years later, Clark's about to embark on a cross-country tour with the violin-based folk-pop musician Andrew Bird, as she plays in support of her second St. Vincent release, Actor.

"Andrew's a fantastic human being," Clark enthuses. "We ended up in Paris at the same time in April. We have some mutual friends who do a French website called the Blogotheque. We ended up performing a couple songs together in an apartment in France. It was pretty haphazard, but it was really fun. Moments like that, you're like 'Yep, livin' the dream.'"

The dream has been a long one in the making. Clark started playing guitar when she was 12 years old, and thanks to her stepfather's love of computers, she got a huge jump on the digital recording process, which explains the deftly crafted, lushly textured sonic arrangements that have become St. Vincent's trademark.

"My stepdad had a bunch of spare computer-y parts lying around, and he helped me build a makeshift studio," Clark explains. "And this is before Macs with Garage Band. You had to vaguely know something about computers, and it was on a PC using digital systems that were just starting to be user-friendly. I would spend a lot of hours multitracking my own little songs and coming up with little arrangements, and that's how I learned to make music, a very layered and kind of controlled manner. And I think that's kind of still how I'm most comfortable writing."

Clark also seems to have a keen instinct for identifying clever ideas. The first single and video clip from Actor, "Actor Out of Work", seemed to single-handedly make music videos relevant again. It was a simple premise that showed Clark auditioning actors who could cry, but it went on to become a viral sensation, receiving almost 150,000 viewings on YouTube, and was embedded on countless pop-culture websites, from New York Magazine to The Onion.

"I was really surprised how powerful it was to me," Clark laughs. "When I read the treatment for it, I was like, 'Wow, this could be really bizarre and cool. Let's do it.' So I showed up on set, and it was like, 'Okay Annie, we've got the cameras set, you go sit in that chair and watch Actor A cry.' I was just sitting there, and at first I wanted to laugh just to ease my own tension, and then by the 12th hour of watching people cry, I broke down and lost it. I was weeping."

For now, Clark's solo career as St. Vincent is her primary job, but she calls collaborating a "crucial" part of her life, and credits her previous experience in bands with helping her develop musically.

"There's nothing more exhilarating when you're 13 or 14, or fuck it, when you're 32, than playing music with other people," Clark says. "That's super-exciting, like, 'Holy cow, we're making magic.' It's like 'Whoa, we build this little plane, and we're all flying it.' It's awesome."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Amy Millan

My interview with Stars' Amy Millan runs this week in WE.

“What, me morbid?”: Amy Millan dismisses accusations of death obsession in her songs.

“What, me morbid?”: Amy Millan dismisses accusations of death obsession in her songs.

Lone Star
By Andrea Warner

The glass of wine in Amy Millan’s hand is as trademark as the sexy coo that is her singing voice — that of a little girl who’s seen too much, who grew up too fast. The Montreal-based Millan, in addition to her best-known role as singer and co-songwriter in Stars, seemingly has her hand in every major indie act in the country, from a permanent guest spot with Broken Social Scene to occasional backing vocals for Apostle of Hustle.

But right now, the 35-year-old is deep in the midst of the first round of publicity for her second solo album, Masters of the Burial, a gorgeously moody collection of pop songs that takes plenty of detours into folk and alt-country territory, and even finds Millan crafting an uptempo cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s evocative downer, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

WE spoke with Millan over the phone just as she was melting into a chair with a bottle of vino, after a long day that started before the sun rose.

You’ve had back-to-back interviews all day, I hear.
Millan: It’s been quite a day, but coffee and wine make it all better now.

Just alternating mouthfuls? Double-fisting?
You know, start out with a coffee to jack you back up, and then even it up with a nice glass of red wine.

I’ve been listening to Masters of the Burial pretty much non-stop, and a lot of the songs seem to be quite hopeful, even when they’re incredibly sad.
I appreciate that you got that. I definitely never want to be maudlin about anything. I think it’s importance to have a balance of everything. And it’s funny: With Masters of the Burial and Honey from the Tombs [her first solo album], everybody’s like, “What’s with the whole death thing, man?” And it’s not. Honey from the Tombs is from a Tom Waits song about how the mummies were buried with honey, and [the honey] preserved and still tasted as sweet as when it was buried. And Masters of the Burial is a comment on the human condition, and that in our lives we all suffer horrible embarrassment and betrayals and tragedies and loss, and in order to continue living and seeking out hope, we have to bury a lot of things we’ve been through. It’s kind of a tip of the hat to the human, really, and about being alive and not being dead. With these songs, I’m trying to poke at these places that maybe people are trying to forget, and liberate them in a way that maybe won’t lead them down a road of depression, but feel comfort that everyone’s going through similar things.

I should be asking, then, what your most embarrassing moment is...
Oh, I could never tell! (laughs)

So, instead I’ll invite you to talk a bit about what your influences were when you were writing the album.
Welllll... Uhhhhh.... I saw some people suffer in their relationships, who were close to me. That really broke my heart to watch somebody who had been in a relationship for quite a long time and have it dissolve in front of their eyes, and then not really knowing how to maintain it, but knowing that it can’t be maintained... It’s so difficult sometimes to cut the cord when you’ve been in a relationship for a really long time. I just find it so sad to watch, something turning into ash that was a big fire at one point.

I heard Stars is recording, and you’re obviously in the midst of promoting Burial. How are you coping?
It’s busy. On top of everything, I’m doing a complete gut of my house. (laughs) I just thought it wasn’t enough, you know? But as busy as I am, it’s the longest period of time I’ve gone without touring, because Broken [Social Scene]’s been recording, and Stars are recording, and my record’s just come out now. Stars hasn’t played a show since February. It’s been one of the calmest times of my life, actually, because when you’re travelling every day, your soul is kind of far behind, and it takes a while to catch up to you. I’ve been literally around the globe in a six-week period at one point. The fact that I’ve been still and enjoying my city and really discovering Montreal — because I hadn’t been able to do that, I’ve just been on tour since I’ve moved there.

Do you have a fair bit of anonymity in Montreal?
Oh, they don’t care about indie-rock in Montreal. The French people could care less about Arcade Fire, even. It’s really refreshing, you know, and I think that’s why so much good music comes out of Montreal. There isn’t the industry there, and the pressure.

Amy Millan performs Saturday, Oct. 24 at Biltmore Cabaret (395 Kingsway), 8 pm. Tickets $13 from Ticketmaster, Zulu, and Red Cat.

Jeff Lemire

My WE cover story on Jeff Lemire from Oct. 3

Portrait of the artist: Graphic novelist Jeff Lemire, and a frame from his acclaimed Essex County Trilogy, named after the region in southwestern Ontario where he grew up.

Portrait of the artist: Graphic novelist Jeff Lemire, and a frame from his acclaimed Essex County Trilogy, named after the region in southwestern Ontario where he grew up

Comic Instinct

By Andrea Warner

About four hours southwest of Toronto lies Essex County, a region that, until recently, was best known for two things: the city of Windsor (its county seat), and its spitting-distance proximity to Detroit.

But in 2008, Jeff Lemire’s Tales from the Farm, the first installment in his Essex County Trilogy, quietly burst onto the international comic/graphic-novel scene. Ghost Stories followed a few months later, and then The Country Nurse, inadvertently launching Lemire’s tiny hometown of Woodslee (pop. 5,000) out of obscurity and into the imaginations of readers around the world. At the time of this writing, Lemire is the sole “notable person” on Essex County’s Wikipedia page.

Lemire’s rise to fame is part of Canadian cartoonists’ growing role in the comics industry, according to Robin McConnell, host of the comics-based CITR radio show, InkStuds. Lemire’s success continues to raise the profile of Vancouver artists as well.

“Vancouver has some great talents, like Brandon Graham and James Stokoe,” McConnell says. “Jeff exemplifies the work of a Canadian cartoonist, not succumbing to any form of Hollywood or genre-specific pressure for light and easy fare.”

Lemire’s trilogy covers vast narrative terrain, but is consistently rooted in its fictionalized version of his hometown, a rural community where everyone’s histories are neatly and inextricably weaved together through complicated backstories, expressed through sparse but evocative drawings that perfectly capture the books’ themes of loneliness and family. Tales from the Farm focuses on a young comic-book-obsessed boy who wears a superhero cape everywhere he goes, and is forced to move in with his uncle after his mother dies. Ghost Stories best shows Lemire’s innovation as a storyteller as it details an old man’s backward glances at his troubled life, his thwarted hockey career, and the complicated history he shared with his brother. The Country Nurse ties the first two stories together, and follows a tireless woman with her own troubles as she tries her best to tend to the emotional and physical issues of everyone around her.

Top Shelf Comix, the Portland-based independent publishing company that discovered Lemire, recently released The Collected Essex County.

“In some ways, it’s a romanticized view of where I grew up,” Lemire says. “In other ways, it’s a colder, starker version as well. Essex County is flat, with family farms spread out along very flat land. My closest neighbours were miles away, and that led to a lot of time playing alone on the farm, and a lot of time in my room reading and drawing comics.”

Lemire’s early artistic training came from those hours in his room, during which he devoured comics and observed the various styles used by different artists, particularly those featured in DC Comics’ Who’s Who directories.

“That was a real turning point for me,” Lemire says. “It was like an encyclopedia of all of their characters, featuring artwork by every comics artist working at the time. I copied different entries in the styles of [my favourite] artists. I remember my Mom and Dad would sit and go through the books with me; they would cover the artist credit at the bottom of the page and I would tell them which artist drew each page. I got them all right, and they couldn’t believe it, because to their untrained eye all those drawings just looked the same. But I had studied and poured over these drawings and knew the way every different artist created lines and shadow.”

Visually, Essex County’s illustrations offer up starkly contrasted images of people in varying states of despair, discovery, or delightful escape, usually interacting with some element of nature. Long country roads, a frozen river, the high-stakes hockey game — all are rendered with varying intensity. Hazy memories are represented by loosely penciled renditions, while present-day confrontations are liberally shaded with rich black ink. These drawings, more than the stories themselves, fulfill the mission that Lemire set for himself with the Essex County Trilogy.

“I never really sat down and wrote,” Lemire says. “I still rarely do. For me, it’s always been about the drawing first. It all starts visually, and story and character and plot all evolve out of my drawings. In a way, my drawing is my writing. I don’t see a separation between the two when it comes to making comics; they’re all part of the same process... I took the things I loved the most about the Essex County landscape — old rusted farm equipment, tattered wooden barns, vast open fields, endless telephone lines running off into the horizon — and focused on creating an idealized, timeless visual shorthand for the setting.”

Lemire’s ascent has been both arduous and breakneck. The 33-year-old former film student self-published his first book, Lost Dogs, in 2005. Flash forward four years, and he’s now part of DC Comics / Vertigo, one of the biggest players in the comics market. Lemire’s first novel for DC, The Nobody, came out this year, and he’s now working on a monthly series called Sweet Tooth, and another book for Top Shelf about impending fatherhood (Lemire himself is a proud new dad). Ultimately, he says, it was self-publishing that was key in launching his career.

“There is just no other way to get started,” Lemire says. “Who’s going to publish someone who’s never been published before? I mean, of course that happens on the rare occasion, but really most publishers need to see a published — or at least a finished — work to be able to get a sense of who you are and if it’s something they want to take on. In comics we’re lucky that it’s seen as cool to go the DIY route, and there’s actually grassroots support for that.”

And taking chances on new writers is continuing to pay off as the audience for graphic novels continues to widen. According to Publishers Weekly, North American graphic-novel and comic-book sales is one of the few areas of growth in the publishing industry, up to 715 million in 2008, versus 705 million in 2007. It’s a relatively small increase, but in an industry on the decline, any growth is deemed a success. Lemire’s view of his industry’s future is decidedly similar to the tone of his work: realistic with a dash of hopefulness.

“Eventually, it will all be digitally distributed and viewed, and only a few really high-end print editions will be done as collector’s items,” Lemire predicts.

“In terms of the medium itself, it’s really limitless.There are going to be more and more interesting young voices coming up in the comics, telling really diverse stories. It’s not just going to be white boys bred on superheroes like me anymore. I also think we’re seeing more and more female cartoonists emerging each year, and that’s really going to change a traditionally male-dominated medium for the better. The more diverse comics get, the more the medium can continue to grow and evolve... There are a lot more women coming up to me at shows and getting their books signed. It’s not just 18- to 40-year-old men with Batman T-shirts anymore.”