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."