Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Arcade Fire

My Exclaim cover story: an interview with Win Butler of Arcade Fire!

Features breadcrumbsplit YEAR IN REVIEW breadcrumbsplit Dec 2010

Pop & Rock: Year in Review 2010

1. Arcade Fire The Suburbs (Merge)
Anything you think is great, half the people think is bullshit." As the lead singer and co-songwriter of Arcade Fire, arguably the biggest indie band in the world, Win Butler knows a thing or two about maintaining perspective. "There's been backlash since we put out the first EP," he says. "It's been a normal part of my life for the better part of a decade. I think we learned pretty early on that the way people perceive you is outta your hands."

The few months have done nothing to quell the outraged masses. It's been a phenomenal year for the sprawling, Montreal-based outfit. Their third album, The Suburbs, debuted at number one on all the major charts following its August release, and earned critical raves for its compelling narrative structure and the surprisingly fun sonic left turn towards '80s influences like Depeche Mode. Now Arcade Fire find themselves poised to take the top spot on many year-end lists, as they do here, while on the receiving end of thinly-veiled potshots from bands like Kings of Leon, quoted disparaging large bands with members "doing everything but contributing musically" and being "dicks."

You know, go back and read articles on the Clash and people were slagging them," Butler says. "Almost every record I've ever loved, the band was already broken up or it was ten years removed from reading any press about them. Really, the music has to stand for itself. I love that idea that in ten or 15 years, you hear how it holds up and that the album speaks for itself."

The Suburbs could be one of those that stands the test of time. It speaks to generations of people who identify with the album's varying themes of isolation in commonality and loneliness in superficial communities. It's a perfect actualization of the suburbs as metaphor for the classic North American dream: a smoothly perfect veneer covering up the lush complexity of motivation. It's not just metaphor, but goes a step further to exemplify the quintessential Arcade Fire sound ― a controlled frenzy, pushing and reaching for something more.

The album's visceral qualities are no accident. Until the age of five, Butler lived in a small hippie town outside of Lake Tahoe, but the rest of his childhood was spent in a Texas suburb following his family's relocation to Houston. "I really remember being a little kid and getting off the plane in Houston and feeling this incredible heat," Butler recalls. "It was the summertime, and there it's always like 95 percent humidity and 100 degrees and I really remember ― just the landscape and the feeling of the town and the weather, it was so extremely foreign."

It was a feeling that came rushing back to him just a few years ago. "It would always rain a lot in Houston, but it was this warm rain that doesn't happen much in Montreal. We were down last summer in Louisiana and it started raining and all of a sudden these crazy memories came back that I hadn't thought about in a long time, just because of a similarity in weather. It's interesting, the things you hold on to."

Butler's reluctant to overanalyze his songwriting process, declining to say whether he and his wife and bandmate, Regine Chassagne, dug deep into their own suburban childhoods while writing the record. But he does admit that they found it "interesting" comparing their experiences of growing up.

"Regine grew up on the south shore of Montreal, and I've been to her childhood home over there, and it's dramatically different from Houston, but there are a lot more similarities than you would think. The emotional landscape is very similar at least," he laughs. "There's something similar about growing up in the suburbs. You can have your first kiss in a T.G.I. Friday's, but it's still your first kiss. There's a universality to it you can appreciate."

It's Arcade Fire's ability to capture and translate those moments meaningfully that recently sent fans into an early-grieving process when Butler was quoted saying he couldn't see himself doing "this" in ten years. Butler sighs.

"People take stuff like that pretty out of context," he says. "I can't see us doing exactly what we do indefinitely. Once you lose that connection to the songs, I don't think there's really any point to doing it exactly the same way. The reason people connect to this band is that when we play live, every night we really try to connect to the songs. If the audience connects to the songs, too, we kind of meet in the middle."

Butler alludes back to the Kings of Leon comment, a sentiment he's heard plenty of times before. "Sometimes we get flack for the kind of theatricality to the way we perform, but it comes from a very real place," he insists. "It comes from the music. Our band, we're like sprinters. We put this insane amount of energy into our shows. We can't really tour and behave exactly the same way as other rock bands often do, because it takes so much out of us to do the show."

Butler says he's excited to find new ways to relate to the material and the other musicians, evolving as they go. But, the longevity of Arcade Fire remains a question that's never fully answered. "It's not like there's an expiration date on doing it, but it's like being an athlete. People stop playing hockey at a certain age. You can't be getting punched in the face forever," he jokes. "That being said, it's been really inspiring seeing Springsteen playing and he's probably in the best shape of his life... But our band is busting our ass a lot harder than the E Street Band, you know what I mean?" he asks, laughing.

With no plans to call it a day in the immediate future, Butler hopes to spend the winter writing, giving Arcade Fire a chance to break up the touring cycle. "The greatest thrill in the world is the first time you play a new song, bringing a new song into the world," Butler says. "I'm really excited to get into that head space again." Excited but guarded, of course. Asked if he can offer a sneak preview of the fourth album's direction, Butler's reply is succinct but perfectly pleasant.

"Hell, no."
Andrea Warner

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Atom Egoyan

My interview with Atom Egoyan is this week's cover story.

Director Atom Egoyan returns to the Whistler Film Festival for its 10th-anniversary edition.
Director Atom Egoyan returns to the Whistler Film Festival for its 10th-anniversary edition.
Credit: supplied

Atom Egoyan — in praise of Whistler film fest

Atom Egoyan, one of Canada’s most celebrated filmmakers, never went to film school. Instead, he went to film festivals. “I wouldn’t have had my career if I hadn’t gone to film festivals,” he says, on the phone from his adopted hometown of Toronto. “That’s where I met the people who became my crew eventually, and the actors I work with... The festivals were my film school.”

It’s evident from the B.C.-raised Egoyan’s lengthy history of award-winning films that the decision to eschew traditional education for on-the-job learning paid off handsomely. He garnered international acclaim with 1997’s Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter, and has continued to craft intelligent, acclaimed art-house fare.

It’s Egoyan’s belief in the important role festivals play in fostering Canadian cinema that’s made him a prominent supporter of the Whistler Film Festival (WFF). Since its inception, he’s been a regular jury member and has used the fest to host advance screenings of new works, such as last year’s Chloe. Egoyan returns this year for WFF’s 10th-anniversary edition, facilitating a discussion with celebrated cult director — and Quentin Tarantino mentor — Monte Hellman, best known for early Jack Nicholson vehicles The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, as well as the 1971 drag-race drama Two-Lane Blacktop, starring singer-songwriter James Taylor.

According to Egoyan, who calls Hellman “a hero of any independent filmmaker,” it’s these kinds of events, where emerging filmmakers can learn from pillars of the community, that make WFF uniquely positioned to pick up where the Toronto International Film Festival — which began as a scrappy upstart but is now a key part of the Hollywood mainstream’s social calendar — left off. “These [emerging Canadian] filmmakers get lost in the bigger events, where it’s about a certain type of glamour,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again in Toronto and the other big festivals: The young filmmakers get really excited to be invited, and then it’s not what they expected; they kind of feel lost once they’re there.

“There was a time when Toronto really served emerging filmmakers, but that was before Toronto became what it is now. Whistler has the opportunity to really brand itself where emerging filmmakers working in new technologies will have attention, will really feel they’re the focus.”

Egoyan has witnessed firsthand how TIFF has changed over the years, and his hope is that WFF stays true to its focus. “[WFF]’s been able to do an extraordinary job of keeping a specific identity, and my hope is that it doesn’t become a victim of its own success,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy now in Toronto. Because of the accumulation of press and attention here, it’s being used by the industry for junkets for films that aren’t even in the festival. It’s so absurd. There’s a whole buzz around films that haven’t even been invited into the [festival] that are just being screened at the same time!”

But TIFF has played a significant role in what Egoyan calls an “incredible revolutionary shift” in attitudes toward Canadian cinema over the last 15 years. With TIFF now taken over by bigger-budget fare, WFF is stepping up, but Egoyan knows there are still plenty of challenges facing Canadian films.

“There are a number of filmmakers who have established there is a Canadian identity, and when you look at our best films as a group, we’re as good as the output of any country, really,” he says. “If you make a list of the most important and most lauded Canadian films, it’s a pretty impressive list. And these are films that have been made under very difficult circumstances. We’re neighbours with the most aggressive film industry in the world, so for us to hold our own — and I think we have — I find it really astonishing.

“We have a great industry... but we will always have the problem of being able to create as much of a marketing presence for our domestic product as the American product that’s also being shown in our theatres. It’s something we’ll always have to contend with, and it’s a fight that becomes harder as traditional audiences have changed.”

Hopefully, this is what festivals like WFF will continue to do: help filmmakers find audiences. And if the past does in fact repeat itself, festivals will also help build beneficial relationships between emerging artists and influential people already established in the industry — the way Egoyan did over two decades ago. In 1987, filmmaker Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire won the top prize at the Montreal Festival for New Cinema. Wenders promptly insisted the cash be given to Egoyan instead, which allowed the budding filmmaker to create his second feature, Family Viewing.

“It changed my life,” Egoyan says, laughing like he still can’t believe it. “He was my mentor, and certainly kind of a hero. That’s the classic festival dream-come-true experience.”

The 2010 Whistler Film Festival runs Dec. 1-5. Visit WhistlerFilmFestival.com for more details and a complete schedule, and see next week’s WE for more coverage.


My review of Burlesque is in this week's WE.

Christina Aguilera stars in
Christina Aguilera stars in "Burlesque."
Credit: supplied

‘Burlesque’ good, campy fun


Starring Cher, Christina Aguilera
Directed by Steve Antin

Those hoping for an epic Showgirls-meets-Glitter type of flop can move along. Like Cher herself, Burlesque is Teflon-smooth, buffed to a shine, and compelling beyond reason.

Fresh out of Iowa, Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a wannabe singer-dancer looking for her big break in L.A. Wide-eyed, she stumbles into the Burlesque Lounge, a financially troubled club owned by Tess (Cher). Ali talks her way into a job, and eventually moves into the spotlight, bumping out bitchy lead dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell). When Ali finally gets the chance to belt out her own song (rather than lip-sync like the others), a star is born.

Aguilera acquits herself well enough, particularly compared to the woefully miscast Bell. Cher is also well-served — and is obviously well-preserved. Her Tess looks barely 10 years older than Aguilera’s Ali, despite the real-life 30-odd years’ difference between them. The drawback, though, is that her face can’t register emotion, which is especially problematic when she acts opposite the great Stanley Tucci, who gets some fun moments as Sean, Tess’s longtime friend and stage manager.

Burlesque is director Steve Antin’s first major feature, and he also wrote it. He fares better as a director than as a writer: Some of the dance sequences are fantastic, while others are merely fun punctuation marks that relieve the often terrible dialogue. The plot is formulaic and chock full of contrivances, but Antin does one thing that feels almost revelatory: Ali wants to be on stage, so she doesn’t just practice her dancing — she studies the history of burlesque. It’s a short scene, but she reads. Moments like this ground Ali’s ambition in reality, even if Burlesque never goes more than skin deep. —Andrea Warner

Friday, November 19, 2010

Arcade Fire

My online news story on Arcade Fire can be found at Exclaim.ca

Win Butler Sheds More Light on Arcade Fire's "Expiration Date"

Win Butler Sheds More Light on Arcade Fire's "Expiration Date"
By Andrea Warner

It's been a big year for Arcade Fire. The Suburbs, the band's third album, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in August, and lead singer Win Butler immediate freaked out the masses with his Spin magazine quote about "pop being a young man's game," saying he couldn't see doing this in another ten years. But as Butler recently explained to Exclaim!, people like to blow things out of proportion.

"People take stuff like that pretty out of context," he says. "I think what I mean is that I can't really see us doing exactly what we do indefinitely. Once you lose that connection to the songs, I don't think there's really any point to doing it exactly the same way."

The physicality of Arcade Fire's live shows have won them legions of adoring fans, but it's that very factor that Butler's alluding to.

"It's not like there's an expiration date on doing it, but it is like being an athlete," Butler explains. "People stop playing hockey at a certain age. You can't be getting punched in the face forever."

Now Butler's looking back at the year that's passed, though one foot's already planted in the future.

Butler admits, "2010's a big blur. When I'm writing the date on a cheque, I still have to always check the year. This next year, I'm really hoping we'll do a bunch of writing this winter and break up the touring cycle a little bit. For me, the greatest thrill in the world is the first time you play a new song and bringing a new song into the world. I'm really excited to get into that head space again.

"We're writing all the time. If I get a couple days off, we've been kind of taking little chunks of time off in between tours, and usually the first couple days I just sleep all day and it's kind of like this recovery period. Then by day three I'm like, 'Okay, I'm bored now. Let's play music.' It's nice to still be bored."

The Suburbs is out now on the band's own Sonovox records in Canada.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dan Mangan

My feature on Dan Mangan appears in this week's WE.

Dan Mangan: “I feel like I wrote 100 terrible songs before I wrote anything that was worth keeping around.”
Dan Mangan: “I feel like I wrote 100 terrible songs before I wrote anything that was worth keeping around.”
Credit: supplied

Dan in real life

By Andrea Warner

Dan Mangan knows plenty of people were blindsided by the critical acclaim and popularity of his second album, 2009’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Suddenly, the 27-year-old Vancouver singer-songwriter was virtually inescapable, on radio and in print. But in reality, Mangan’s been toiling at his craft for 10 years — essentially, this city’s version of an overnight success story.

“I can see that to someone just hearing my name, [my success] would seem very sudden,” Mangan says with a laugh, over the phone from his Kitsilano home. “But it’s the same with anything. By the time there’s a really hip, successful restaurant that everyone knows about, it’s been there for six years, or by the time you’re a really great plumber with tons of referrals... you’ve been at it for six to eight years.”

Mangan’s comparisons are perfectly in keeping with his reputation for being confident yet humble, with a good-natured streak of self-deprecation. These qualities have also helped shape his sound and his storyteller lyrics, though Mangan admits that developing his own musical identity was a lengthy process. “It took me a long time to really figure out what my voice was and feel like myself inside of the songwriting and performing,” he says. “I think for the first number of years anyone is a musician, they just emulate their heroes... I feel like I wrote 100 terrible songs before I wrote anything that was worth keeping around.”

Following the break-up of his high school band, Mangan played around town for a few years before deciding the solo route was his best option. He laughingly refers to the experience of recording his 2003 demos as “a humbling process,” after which he embarked on six to eight months of touring, every year for almost five years. Often it was just him, his train pass, a guitar, and his luggage. “I did tours through Europe, the States, across Canada, even Australia — and, you know, just barely scraping by, going further and further into debt,” he says. “But I always had this blind optimism, this naive confidence that if I kept going, the ball would start rolling downhill as opposed to being pushed uphill.”

Mangan’s first glimpse of success was breaking even on his debut album, Postcards & Daydreaming. He then decided to go for broke, extending his line of credit to record Nice, Nice, Very Nice. The result? A string of sold-out dates, an extended tour, awards, and a coveted spot on the Polaris Prize shortlist. And after years of struggling alone, he’s now signed to Arts & Crafts, longtime home to Broken Social Scene, Feist, Stars, and other indie-rock giants. It’s a move that means he can continue to stay true to his roots.

“I grappled with the idea of moving to Toronto for ages and ages, and always thought that eventually I’d have to,” Mangan admits. “I know tons of musicians who have all, one by one, moved to Toronto or Montreal... [Signing] to Arts & Crafts, which is based in Toronto, was a big sigh of relief, like, ‘Okay, I don’t need to go anywhere.’ They’re on the ground fighting for me in Toronto, so I can just relax in my temperate, beautiful, lovely city that I adore to no end.”

The affection is mutual. Hometown support has helped Mangan from open-mic nights to this week’s two sold-out shows at the Vogue, and his long-held dream of performing at the Orpheum is poised to become reality. And, come December, he’s set to begin recording his third album. According to Mangan, moments like these feel simultaneously earned, phenomenal, and bewildering — just how Vancouver likes its “overnight” success stories.

Dan Mangan performs Nov. 11 & 13 at Vogue Theatre (918 Granville), 8pm. Sold out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Due Date

My review of Due Date appears online at westender.com


Starring Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis
Directed by Todd Phillips

The road-trip movie has been done to death, and yet with the right ingredients, two people confined to a compact space and forced to work out their issues can be great entertainment. It’s territory director Todd Phillips has mined all too frequently, with varying results, and his latest addition to the canon lands with a thud somewhere between two of his previous efforts, The Hangover and Road Trip.

Peter (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ethan (Zach Galifianakis) are total opposites who, of course, are thrown together through a series of unbelievable and ridiculous circumstances. The former is a straight-laced, tightly wound architect trying to get home to California for the birth of his child. Ethan is a flaky pot-head actor headed to Hollywood to try to make it big, carrying his recently deceased father’s ashes in a coffee tin in one hand and his French bulldog, Sonny, in the other. They both end up on the U.S. government’s No-Fly List and are forced to travel cross-country together. Hijinks ensue, as does the push-pull between Peter and Ethan as they plant the seeds for the inevitable friendship that blooms out of cinematic conflict.

Part of what prevents Due Date from triumphing over its tired plot conventions is its main characters. From the outset, Peter and Ethan are both fairly annoying dicks, thus negating the surface differences between them that are supposed to be the primary joke. And while there are a few hilarious moments, there’s a mean-spirited undercurrent perpetuating Due Date’s humour that falls a bit flat.

The movie’s advantage, though, is the somewhat inspired pairing of Downey and Galifianakis. They have a believable tension that gives way to a few genuinely touching scenes in which you may find yourself overcome with the sensation of actual tears. It’s director Phillips’s one new trick here, and it’s a clever one that staves off Due Date’s early expiration. —AW

Thursday, November 4, 2010


My review of Megamind appears in this week's WE and online at westender.com



Starring Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey
Directed by Tom McGrath

Following in the spindly-legged footsteps of Steve Carrell’s evil Russian genius from Despicable Me (an unexpected summer blockbuster) comes Will Ferrell as the titular anti-hero of the delightfully clever Megamind.

Megamind is a blue, bulbous-headed alien sent to Earth as a baby after his home planet implodes. His path to evil is paved by circumstance: he lands in a “home for the criminally gifted” and is raised by prison inmates. Conversely, another baby boy simultaneously launched from space lands in a wealthy, loving home and becomes Metro Man (Brad Pitt), Megamind’s lifelong rival, a square-jawed superhero adored by the citizens of Metrocity.

After Megamind realizes his dream and defeats Metro Man, he faces an existential crisis: What’s his purpose? To break out of his depression, he hits on the idea of transforming a down-and-out regular citizen, Hal (Jonah Hill), into a new superhero foil for him to fight. Also reinvigorating our anti-hero is his budding love for TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey).

The plan, of course, backfires, and Megamind must assume the role of the hero when his creation goes from good guy to thug. Under the glossy, wickedly funny veneer of sight gags and jokes both low- and high-brow. Megamind fully embraces its deeper philosophical theme of nurture versus nature. There’s also a tremendous amount of heart packed into a dense 90 minutes. Artistically, the flick’s animation is expressive and lively wrought, while the well-executed 3D effects integrate seamlessly into the action.
If 2010 is any indication, a new sub-genre of animated film is putting conventional cartoon heroes on notice: the bad guys are in it to win it. —AW


My review of Howl appears in WE this week, and online at westender.com

James Franco (right) takes on the role of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the biopic, Howl.
James Franco (right) takes on the role of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the biopic, Howl.
Credit: Supplied


Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm
Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

By all accounts, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s life was like his writing: rebellious, funny, and incisive. Howl, the highly anticipated quasi-biopic about the controversy surrounding Ginsberg’s most famous book of poems, attempts to pay tribute to its subject’s legacy. Unfortunately, it just can’t get past the roadblock that is its star, James Franco.

The story unfolds in non-linear fashion, bouncing between four distinct eras in the poet’s life: his student days at Columbia University; his debut live performance of “Howl” in 1955; the 1957 obscenity trial for his first published collection, Howl and Other Poems; and as the subject of an interview later in his life (the bulk of which narrates the film).

Franco’s take on the elder Ginsberg is restrained and relatively believable, unlike the hammy exuberance that threatens to derail the scenes surrounding the poet’s debut performance. Here, Franco seems to be doing an impression of Ginsberg, and a bad one at that. It doesn’t help that large sections of the actor’s reading are illustrated with an extended animated sequence. Poetry’s purpose is to evoke images. Someone else’s literal, visual translation is unnecessary and annoying.

It’s telling that the film’s most dynamic and interesting moments — the obscenity trial — don’t feature Franco at all. Instead, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn go toe-to-toe as opposing council, fully exposing the ridiculous nature of such censorship hearings. There’s an extra jolt of fun seeing the host of high-profile actors, from Jeff Daniels to Mary-Louise Parker, in cameos as experts testifying for or against Howl’s literary merit.

Ginsberg’s life is rich with cinematic possibility, but writers-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman sacrifice their subject for camera tricks and art-house indulgence that never feel genuine. If Ginsberg’s Howl was about a generation crying out, this Howl is a strangled whimper. —Andrea Warner