All posts by admin

LTH: Storytelling and harmonies rock the night

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

While most musicians get a start by writing their own material, few have the experience of roots-rocker Eric Brace. After spending the first decade of his career as a music critic for The Washington Post, Brace decided to trade his pen and paper for a guitar. Fifteen years later, the blues, pop and country blend of Last Train Home has established a widespread following, thanks mostly to Brace’s smooth-as-silk tenor and unassuming presence.

In their recent performance at Virginia’s Barns at Wolf Trap, a sold-out crowd of mostly middle-aged Americana enthusiasts cheered on the seven-member band, joined for the night by guitarist, vocalist and current fellow music critic Peter Cooper. After writing a favorable review of Last Train Home’s first album for Nashville’s Tennessean, Cooper met Brace in person at a concert, and their collaboration began.

“Playing with Peter brings out the folk singer in me a little more, where we really focus on harmonies and acoustic guitar arrangements,” Brace said in an interview with The News Leader. “The material rocks a little more in [Last Train Home], and the songs can be a little more abstract, whereas the songs I play and record with Peter all have a little bit more of a story to them.”

The duo’s story came across loud and clear on the Barns’ stage as Cooper played an opening set featuring songs that told stories of his early years growing up in the South. As Cooper strummed away on the lonely stage, it was easy to imagine the singer sitting around a campfire playing for friends rather than entertaining a crowd of hundreds. While songs entitled “Dumb Luck” and “Last Laugh” were chock full of  jokes and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, Cooper’s thoughtful chords and tender voice transformed the performance into something much more revealing.

Brace, on the other hand, employed no tricks or gimmicks in his stage show, relying only on earnest songs and a good voice to achieve his band’s richly-layered sound. Cooper returned to the stage with Brace and lent a gentle harmonizing quality to the songs, which, while not particularly necessary, seemed to put Brace at ease.

Over the past years the band has been together, they have done a significant amount of traveling, both domestic and international. As Brace pointed out, their touring van now has more miles on it than the distance to the moon. During their national tours, Last Train Home frequently picks up and swaps out musicians as they go along, resulting in a unique experience at each live show.

“There’s definitely an element of ‘we’re not quite sure how this is going to go off,’ ” Brace said in an interview before the show. “There’s a lot of communicating. It’s hard, but you try to find the right people.”

And communicate they did, as Brace frequently left his position in center stage and walked among his bandmates, giving direction or signaling an impromptu solo. While Brace clearly commanded the group’s dynamic, he was also not afraid to step back and let his band shine on their own. Electric guitarist Scott McKnight stepped out halfway through the ballad “Quarter to Three” and showed off with a solo riff that left even Brace and Cooper smiling.

Though he had played off and on with bands since college, 1996 marked the first time that Brace decided to focus solely on a music career and recruited band members of his own to record a debut album. Nearly overnight, Last Train Home was born. Throughout the next few years, Last Train Home grew in prominence, earning the “Artist of the Year” award from the Washington Area Music Association in 2003. Since that time, Last Train Home has performed more than a thousand shows and has opened for the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Last Train Home will be making its next stop in Winston Salem, N.C., before returning to Virginia at the end of March.

Perfecting “The Liar”

We went to see a tech/dress rehearsal of “The Liar,” a new show opening this week at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. Excerpts from students’ impressions follow:

Photo provided by the Shakespeare Theater Company

Charlie Carroll:

When observing a comedic play, it’s easy to believe that the witty verse, precise timing and hilarious slapstick simply come out of a well-developed script.  After observing a dress rehearsal for David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar,” it became clear just how much work goes into perfecting the tiniest details of a play.

The version of the play presented at the Lansburgh Theatre is what Broadway playwright David Ives describes as a “translaptation,” a translation of the French original, tweaking certain character traits and plot points to adapt the screenplay to modern times while remaining true to the spirit of the story.  “The Liar” tells the story of Dorante (Christian Conn), a smug, French aristocrat who continuously lies to get everything he desires.  Dorante uses his charm and cunning wit to fool his father and friends and win over the affections of the beautiful Clarice (Erin Partin) and Lucrece (Miriam Silverman).  However, for every lie he tells, Dorante must construct at least two more to get himself out of each unfavorable situation created by his tangled web of deception.

Upon entering the Lansburgh Theatre, the beauty of the golden lobby immediately drew me into the spirit of the theatre.  After being greeted by one of the production assistants, our class was led into the actual theatre.  Spread throughout the theatre were a number of soundboards, wires and other logistical instruments with production assistants weaving in and out of the aisles working to make sure the rehearsal ran smoothly.

The director of the play, Michael Kahn, sat directly in the middle, leaning back nonchalantly in his seat with a large microphone sitting in front of him.  The stage was empty, save for the beautifully designed set.  At Kahn’s command, Tony Roach, who plays Alcippe, appeared onstage as the stagehands retracted the balconies overlooking the stage, morphing the set from a pristine plaza setting to the inside of a lavish French house.  As Roach awaited Kahn’s cue, he stood in place mouthing his lines to himself, mimicking sword parries and thrusts in preparation for his short monologue.

Kahn was nothing less than demanding, allowing Roach to recite his lines for no more than 10 seconds before he asked the actor to start over.  This process would continue once Roach had satisfied Kahn’s demands.  The set was returned to the beautiful outdoor plaza, with a poodle-shaped bush, surrounded by a circular stone bench, set as the centerpiece.  For at least ten minutes David Sabin, who plays Dorante’s father Geronte, was asked to re-do his opening, barely making it past his first couple of lines each time.

By the time Conn made his way onto the stage with Adam Green, who plays Dorante’s trusty servant Cliton, the director spent the following two hours going over what amounts to no more than a 10-15 minute scene in the actual play.  Kahn’s direction ranged anywhere from Dorante’s placement and lighting under a balcony to specific hand gestures made between him and Geronte during their conversation.  Although Kahn’s loud commands were made a bit too frequently, the attention to detail and subtle changes made a world of difference.  By the end of the scene the actors perfected their comedic deliveries, hinting at a promising future for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest production.

David Lewis:

The director, of course, is the maestro. But it’s interesting to see the actors themselves suggest ways they can best portray their roles. It is here you get to see the actors at their most vulnerable, pacing around the stage while trying to remember their lines and figuring out what they should do and say to capture their characters and environment.

Though much of the play’s humor will come from the movement and dialogue of the actors, seeing many of these characters walk one by one onto the stage with their over-embellished costumes, especially the men, will also give the audience laughs.  The costumes reflect — and spoof — the exuberance of the period.

Alexandra Wells:

… The director, Michael Kahn, a god of the theater world, embodied everything that I stereotypically conjure when I visualize any brilliant man of the arts. He was extremely attuned to detail, and also knew when to let the actors explore their own characters via poses, ad libbed dialogue or facial expressions.

Tauren Dyson:

Play rehearsals are not supposed to be fun … the process is supposed to feature a bunch of mercurial actors who can’t get along with the director and constantly blow lines. Watching the Shakespeare Theatre Wednesday, it seemed as though the cast and crew weren’t aware of what they were supposed to be doing. That is, they exhibited none of the aforementioned characteristics … and worked well together.

Jeremy Walsh:

… Unfortunately, the adaptation tried to get a little too creative by interweaving classical language and ironic phrasing with hints of the modern world.

For example, Dorante’s beeping wristwatch plays an important role in the scene’s elaborate lie. Hints such as a digital watch are apparently dropped randomly … but the play doesn’t seem to explain why these characters from nearly five centuries ago wear digital watches and send text messages. … Disregarding this misguided attempt to connect modern society should be easy for the modern audiences because the hilarious jokes and beautiful setting will occupy their attention and keep them thoroughly entertained.

Elise Lundstrom:

We observed the inner workings of this scenes, the actors and Kahn going back and forth on what made the most sense on stage and what techniques had the most comedic effect. We were encouraged to laugh if things were funny, and laugh we did.

Elizabeth Ward:

Another reason to get excited is in the show’s details. Set in 17th century Paris, the production is lavish in set and costume. One parlor scene is encompassed by tall, black-and-white Victorian panels and accentuated in chartreuse accessories: a chandelier here and a sitting bench there. This then seamlessly opens up onto a street scene centered on a poodle-shaped hedge and two apartment balconies lined in magenta and yellow daisies.

Leslie Byford:

Whether it was how something was said, or how they entered or exited, Kahn seemed to value their opinions (something I’m not sure many directors take into consideration) … no matter how many times he stopped and started a scene over, the actors and the rest of the production team didn’t seem to mind. He managed to keep things light with his own brand of humor …

Arrien Davison:

With every punchline, the director would stop the performance … that line would be funnier if you lean against the wall, he would say. I initially thought he was just being picky … but after the actors took his suggestions and made those changes, it was, indeed, funnier.

‘Alice’ worth the trip down the 3-D rabbit hole

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

Bringing together the fantastical tales of author Lewis Carroll and the creepy-cool of director Tim Burton, “Alice in Wonderland” is a treat for fans of the original creation as well as newcomers looking for an enticing 3D experience. Memories of Disney’s animated classic from the 1950s quickly fade away as Burton’s saturated colors and other-worldly creatures fly off the screen and invite viewers to join in the proportion-bending fantasy.

In this latest recreation of Carroll’s fantasy, a Victorian-era, 19-year-old Alice returns to the mystical world that has haunted her dreams for the 13 years since her last visit. After experiencing strange and vivid nightmares as a child, Alice asks her father if these visions mean she has gone mad. “I’m afraid so,” her father responds. “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” And so begins the quirky trip into a land that at once defies reality and provides a genuine sense of self for the lost teen.

Going Under

Alice’s return to Wonderland coincides with a marriage proposal from a lackluster lord with digestive problems, a proposal that everyone, except Alice, supports. When Alice, played by the demure Mia Wasikowska, spots a familiar hare donning a blue waistcoat, she leaves her suitor kneeling in front of friends and family to dash after the animal into a forest, where she falls down a rabbit hole. Upon reaching the strange world, Alice learns that she is in fact in Underland, a place now ruled by the beheading-fanatic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), and is informed by Abosolom the caterpillar (Alan Rickman) that she is destined to overthrow the terrible queen by doing battle with her Jabberwocky.

Burton went so far in this film as to skip the opening credits altogether in favor of delving directly into the back-story of Alice’s childhood nightmares. Employing the same eerily disturbing atmosphere that served him well in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Beetlejuice,” Burton has created an environment that lends itself to the eccentricities of those inhabiting it. While the set design and intensive greenscreen work resulted in a stunningly beautiful world of desolate landscapes, adding 3D effects into the mix creates a truly engaging experience that is rarely captured on a flat screen. Though the movie will be just as entertaining to watch on DVD at home, the final battle scene alone makes the movie worth a trip to an IMAX theater.

Unlike other movies that have jumped on the 3D wagon well ahead of their time, “Alice” forgoes cheap gimmicks in favor of a subtle approach that adds layers of meaning to the storyline, leaving viewers with the distinct impression that the past two hours could have indeed been a vivid dream they had.

Familiar Faces

Johnny Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton, appears as the larger-than-life Mad Hatter, sporting heavy costume makeup, beady yellow contacts and a frizzy orange wig that makes even Gene Wilder’s hair look tame. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the Hatter posits throughout the movie, in reference to Carroll’s original, and much to the puzzlement of Alice. The rambling, riddling Hatter joins the Cheshire Cat, Dormouse and Bayard the dog as well as Tweedledee and Tweedledum in their quest to restore the crown to ghostly White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

While viewers root for the fairer queen’s return to the throne, Bonham Carter’s character provides a far more interesting and entertaining performance, complete with a bulbous cranium and screeching cries of “Off with their heads!” Her penchant for “a warm pig belly for my aching feet” and frequent use of animals as furniture might make animal activists cringe, but what the Red Queen lacks in compassion she makes up for in determinism. After collaborating with Burton, her fiancée, on five previous films, Bonham Carter has explored many levels of deranged characters and brings a delightfully twisted arrogance to the table.

Wasikowska, on the other hand, shapes an Alice who is at once timid in action and firm in beliefs. The 20-year-old Australian actress was little heard of until being cast as Sophie in HBO’s “In Treatment” and later appearing in “Amelia” with Hilary Swank.

Alice in Wonderland can be seen in IMAX 3D at Tyson’s Corner, VA. Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.

‘Caprica’ not your ordinary sci-fi

By Charlie Carroll

ArtsPost staff writer


A scene from "Caprica" of Daniel Graystone and his daughter Zoe. Photo from Syfy.

While fans of the critically acclaimed hit series Battlestar Galactica might be a bit put off at first, the new SyFy series Caprica is a promising insight into the world that started it all.  Despite an unfortunate 9 p.m. time slot on Friday nights and scant promotion leading up to the show’s premiere, Caprica shows significant promise and beautifully melds science fiction with modern day relationships and social issues, grounding the back story for galactic battles and robot armies in a world much like our own.

For some, the idea of creating a sci-fi/fantasy prequel is brand suicide, ruining all that was good about the original work and tainting its memory with unnecessary and migraine-inducing characters (here’s lookin’ at you, Jar Jar).  However, Caprica allows Battlestar producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore to reimagine the universe in a way that is distinct from, yet as richly layered as, its predecessor.

Set 58 years before the fall of man, the series takes place on the planet Caprica, capital of the 12 human colonies.  In this alternate polytheistic reality, humans worship the ancient Greek gods and those who espouse monotheistic beliefs are considered to be religious radical outcasts.  The plot follows the interconnected storylines of two families, the Adamas and Graystones, in their quest to make peace with the deaths of their loved ones while simultaneously shaping the fate of humanity.  Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz), a smug, computer genius and corporate tycoon skyrocketed to the upper social strata after inventing the holoband, a device that allows people to connect to a virtual reality version of the Internet through life-like avatars.  Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a lawyer from the planet Tauron who constantly struggles to reconcile his Caprican life with the traditions of his homeland and his connection to the Tauron mafia, known as the Ha’La’Tha.

The lives of both men are thrown into disarray after Daniel’s daughter, Zoe (Alessandra Torresani), and Adama’s wife and daughter are killed in a terrorist attack.  The attack, executed by Zoe’s boyfriend, was organized by the monotheistic organization Soldiers of the One, to which Zoe also belonged.  Following the suicide bombing, Graystone searches for a way to bring his daughter back and, consequently, save his company from ruin using a free-thinking, self-aware avatar which Zoe created in her own image.  This avatar goes on to become the first Cylon, a race of cybernetic beings that eventually destroys most of humanity in Battlestar Galactica.

This past summer the Sci-Fi channel changd its name to SyFy in an attempt to broaden its audience and steer away from the nerdy, male-centric fan base.  Caprica exemplifies this new brand strategy, contrasting Battlestar’s dark, somber world of space battles and robots with a more vividly colorful human drama.  Caprica clearly focuses on underlying themes more akin to a soap opera than your traditional sci-fi series, emphasizing human relationships and connections.  The show functions more as a drama with sci-fi elements than a clear-cut sci-fi show.  It explores modern themes of racism, terrorism and corruption in a world rife with decadence and excess in the wake of its exponential technological progress.  However, the social commentary can be a bit heavy handed, bordering on moral preaching and blatant cliché.

Although Caprican society is, for the most part, a reflection of modern American society, it distances itself enough from being a mirror image.  Stylistically, it carries an air of nostalgia by mixing 1950s-style fashion with a society much more technologically advanced than our own.  While the mobsters might don their fedoras and drive around in what looks like a 1951 Buick Roadster, their children text each other constantly and use computers that look like nothing more than sheets of paper.

The casting is superb, with Stoltz and Morales giving their best performances as morally conflicted men coming to terms with their grief and the consequences of their actions in the wake of tragedy.  Behind Stoltz’s cool, contemplative demeanor lies a man interrupted by occasional flashes of ruthless arrogance and human frailty.  The chemistry between Stoltz and Paula Malcomson, who plays Graystone’s wife, is palpable, allowing the characters to perfectly complement one another.  While Stoltz may appear more quiet and reserved, Morales shines in the moments where Adama wears his heart on his sleeve, struggling to cope with the longing he feels for his wife and daughter while losing his 11 year-old son to the influences of his Mafioso brother.

In the beginning, Torresani’s portrayal of  Zoe Graystone/Zoe the Cylon paralleled the feel of the pilot episode: drawn out, overdone and exaggerated.  However, as the show approaches its eighth episode, much of the long character development has been replaced with a quicker-paced story arc format.  Torresani, like the screenwriters, has become more comfortable with her character and the flow of the show.

While diehard fans of Battlestar may worry about the focus of Caprica, the prequel remains true to the world it has created while reaching out to a new audience to make a frakking fun time.

Last Train Home brings down the Barns

Last train home

Eric Brace on acoustic guitar. (photo courtesy Wolf Trap)

By Anna Sebourn

ArtsPost staff writer

Last Train Home with Eric Brace, left, dubbed “one of the country’s most formidable roots-rock bands” by the Tennessean, returned to its first home — the Washington area — to perform to a sold-out crowd Feb. 27 at the Barns at Wolf Trap.  Fans of all ages, many of them  long-time supporters, also cheered the opening act, singer/songwriter Peter Cooper, who performed alongside his friend Brace in several numbers in the set.

Brace’s ties to the District run deep, starting with his 10 years as a music critic for The Washington Post while moonlighting in local bands before creating LTH in 1996.  The group’s success has progressed from performing in area venues to  earning the 2003 “Artist of the Year” award by the Washington Area Music Association.  The band has since moved to Nashville and released an astouding 11 albums.

The atmosphere at The Barns at Wolf Trap is a relaxed, lodge-like setting, perfect for what Cooper had in store for eager fans.  Cooper is a journalist as was Brace; he’s the music critic at the Tennessean. Though he only has one full-length solo album under his belt, his writing skills were apparent in his thoughtful, fluid lyrics.  He’s an exceptional performer who crafts his songs  with a storyline and a plot (which seems almost a lost art with today’s billboard toppers).  He moved effortlessly from light strumming on his guitar to adding humorous or touching words, and finally incorporating the music and story together into harmonious tales that filled the auditorium.  I caught myself closing my eyes and soaking in the musical stories, and it became an experience more than a concert.  The highlight of his set, “715 (For Hank Aaron),” told the struggle of race relations and Hank Aaron.  The lines, “Young man rising from the hard hot South, speaking his mind with a bat and not his mouth.  Holdin’ it inside, striding to the ball, turn of the wrists.  Crack, jog and touch’em all,” carry so much weight, yet he has such an innate sense of rhythm in the lyrics and composition that the listener is drawn in, waiting to hear the next story unfold.

Brace and his posse of musicians (including several top area musicians just for this performance) then took the stage amid wild applause and shouting from the crowd.  The timing seemed a little off, the energy low, before band members looked comfortable with each other onstage.  Brace managed to corral them into a cohesive unit, and the energy level rose considerably after playing an audience favorite, “Can’t Come Undone.”  The real turning point in their set, though, was “Last Good Kiss,” during which the balcony began shaking with all the toe-tapping, which continued through the set.  The audience cried out song names in the hopes of hearing personal favorites, and Brace apologized for their inability to play certain high-energy songs — no standing and dancing allowed in the Barns.

Vocals and acoustic guitar were tended to by Brace. Michael Webb was on the keyboard and accordion; Scott McKnight (dressed in a suit as if he just came from the office) performed on the electric guitar; David Coleman was also on electric guitar; Jim Gray played bass; and Paul Griffith was on the drums.  All played solos at some point, but steel guitarist Dave Van Allen, referred to as the “hillbilly scientist” by Cooper, added most of the flavor to this folk/country/bluegrass/jam band’s sound.   McKnight also showed his ability to rock despite the suit with a stellar solo on “Last Good Kiss.”

Cooper performed several songs from his duet album with Brace, “You Don’t Have to Like Them Both.”  Fortunately, I did happen to like them both, including their cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and their original song, “I Know a Bird.”  Brace was more successful in this small venue with Cooper than with his own band.  There wasn’t a moment onstage together when I didn’t sense their strong connection with both each other and the audience.

“Play all night, Eric!” yelled a fan from the back.  But after almost three hours the show had to end, and it did so on a good note with some of my favorites: a tribute to Neil Armstrong in “Tranquility Base,” the soulful “I Know a Bird,” and “Soul Parking,” named for an old sign on 14th Street in the District.  Cooper, Brace and Last Train Home met with a standing ovation, the open arms of welcoming the Tennesseans back home to the District.

Pride & Prejudice: Long overdue

By Rebecca Campbell

ArtsPost staff writer

As a 30-year-old English major I am sad to say it took me this long to see the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice. For years I’ve heard friends swoon over Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, in fact for this very role he has been on the top 5 list for several of my friends. I’d seen the Keira Knightley 2005 version by Joe Wright more times than I can count. I’ve read the book. I’ve visited Jane Austen’s house. But I had missed an important rite of passage that most of my girlfriends experienced in high school. I had yet to see the five hour long, made for TV miniseries produced by the BBC.

Maybe it was the length that had intimidated me. Or my love for Colin Firth as, not so ironically, Mr. Mark Darcy, in Bridget Jones’ Diary. (You would think Helen Feilding’s shameless drooling over Colin Firth starring as the Jane Austin Mr. Darcy in her iconic novel about the lovable Miss Jones would have gotten me to see the miniseries, but alas, I did not succumb.) Or maybe it was the difficulty of renting the seven VHS tapes or later finding the 3 DVDs. Or maybe I liked the thought of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy the First and was afraid the series couldn’t POSSIBLY live up to the expectations.

Was I ever wrong.

Um, hello genetic engineering, will you please make me a Colin Firth Mr. Darcy?

Ok, stop drooling. Focus on the quality of the series (and Mr. Darcy’s jawline…).

Maybe I was afraid that this couldn’t be as true to the book. Again, was I ever wrong. Throughout the movie, I almost felt that I could be reading along. Yet I never felt the lines, setting or staging were unnatural or too posed. The BBC was more true to Jane Austin’s writing than the 2005 movie. Granted, having an extra 3 hours had to allow for more detail. But there were specifics about the book that I had forgotten by only watching Keira Knightly. Nuances of the youngest daughter’s childishness (and selfishness), the love a father has for a daughter, the unfairness of the feudal system, the distain for Mr. Darcy and the simple way it turns into undying love. The forgotten language of courtship and a sense of pride.

From costumes to screenplay, to accents and actors, to settings and setbacks, to the progression of emotions of love to hate for Mr. Darcy, the BBC got this one right.

Mr. Darcy will be frequenting my living room from now on.

Pride and Prejudice

Produced by the BBC (1995)

Taking Broadway in as a theater-lover: USA TODAY’s Elsya Gardner talks about her job

Elysa Gardner’s love of theater and writing takes her to Broadway two or three times a week, but she sees herself as an audience member as much as she does as a critic for USA TODAY. “I try to be as much a theater-goer as much as I can be,” said Gardner, explaining she tries to determine if a show “affects me on a gut level or really makes me think or feel,” in trying to describe being able to walk out of the theater with a sense of emotion — high or low, funny or sad.

What qualities does she look for in a Broadway show? “I try really really hard not to over-analyze … it has to be about the experience. It has to be a visceral experience: ‘Wow, that’s really smart or that’s really clever,’ doesn’t mean as much as if something really moves me,” she said in a recent interview via Skype with the AU arts criticism class. Gardner sees an average of three shows a week, usually in New York though she does some limited reviews or advances on regional theater around the country and has also written about the London stage. In addition, she writes features about actors and playwrights, and is on a team of staffers who write music reviews for the national newspaper. She hopes to institute an off-Broadway/regional column at the paper soon.

But she keeps her own work in perspective. “My opinion really holds no more weight than anyone else’s … I take it (my job) seriously, but these are all opinions,” she said. Her background in college was in English, with an emphasis in theater. Her mother was a professional singer, and Gardner herself performed in some theater productions.

After college, she got an internship at Spin magazine, and from there was hired as an assistant editor at Entertainment Weekly. “And from there, I was able to sort of meet people, and I … had access. You can promote yourself … there any freelance opportunities … I always loved music and theater … I loved this opportunity to cover it about 10 years ago.”

— Lynne Perri

A few of Elysa Gardner’s recent reviews:

Best and most overrated of 2009:

Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music:

David Mamet’s Race:

Scarlett Johansson on Broadway:

Writing passion leads to writing about movies: Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday talks about her growth as a critic

Film critic Ann Hornaday likes to take a notebook with her into the theater, and then “let the movie happen” to her, “but I don’t write right away.” She likes to see how a movie sits with her a day or two later, and contemplate whether  she remembers it fondly and could see it again, or not, although she rarely gets the time to do so. She sees two or three movies a week — and two or three a day during the Christmas season.

How did The Washington Post’s film critic learn to do reviews? “The best piece of advice I ever got .. What was the artist trying to do? Did he or she achieve it? And is it worth doing?” she recently told the arts criticism class at American University. And answering those first two questions “lets you judge a film on its own merit,” and the third “then gets into your own sense of aesthetics,” she added.

She said her background as a magazine fact-checker and researcher, as well as her constant reporting for  news-features, “feeds the critical eye always,” adding that many people may not realize how much reporting a reviewer does.

A long-lasting point she gleaned from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) is that the most important thing any director can do is to establish the tone of the movie. That overarching goal was, for her, the reason The Lovely Bones did not succeeed: “I felt like I never knew where I was emotionally,” she said of the recent release of the movie. In contrast, she cited Sophia Coppola’s skill at creating tone, a sense of place and “an world that was utterly convincing” in her movies, including Lost in Translation. Hornaday’s favorite movie of 2009 was The Hurt Locker, the story of an elite Army bomb squad, and movies she recommends this spring include Goodbye, Solo, and Sugar. (See her spring preview  here.)

Hornaday was a government major at Smith College, and not a film buff. But “what was a great passion  was writing,” she said. And to that end, she decided after graduation to follow her heart to New York City, where she did a round of information interviews, which eventually led to an opening as a fact-checker at Ms. magazine. She stayed for several years, but after being laid off, she was “spurred to become a freelancer,” a role that, in turn, led her to do New York Times’ book reviews and a variety of features for women’s magazines.

When Premiere magazine was looking for someone to help set up their research department, she took the job, which also became another source for building contacts as the editor also hired her to write stories. Jump ahead to a meeting with director Joe Berlinger that led to her writing about his 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper, which in turn led to  the start of a long-term relationship with the Times’ Arts & Leisure section. Her various writing outlets and assignments led her to see herself as “still very much a generalist,” but increasingly she was writing about film. So she applied for and received a Pew Fellowship in arts journalism that took her to the University of Georgia and a year to study films and film history. Even now, “I’m constantly feeling I need to educate myself,” she said, “looking at a movement or historical chapters I don’t know about.”

In 1995 she became the movie critic at the Austin American-Statesman in Austin, Texas, where she stayed for two years before moving to Baltimore to be the movie critic at the Baltimore Sun until 2000. She has been at The Washington Post since 2002 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 2008.

Influences include the legendary Pauline Kael of The New Yorker and her former Post colleague Stephen Hunter. “He wrote with such gusto,” she said, “and sort of looseness. He had a really unguarded, unaffected” writing style. “He taught me to loosen up,” Hornaday said. She said she learned from him “not to be so precious about your own voice.”

— Lynne Perri

Some of Hornaday’s recent reviews and features:

Profile of Alec Baldwin:

Review of The Lovely Bones:

Review of Crazy Heart:

Review of Youth in Revolt:

Review of A Single Man:

Best of the decade:

Why do we need a class to write what we think?

Image from the Studio Theatre.

Photo from 'In the Red and Brown Water', Studio Theatre.

Having fun, learning a lot, documenting our insights and analyses — these could be goals of any teacher for any class. But in my arts criticism class now under way at American University, we also have to put ourselves and our opinions on the line for all to see. And having confidence that your opinion is valid and sound can be hard to come by. To that end, we are reading reviews and various arts articles as well as setting up meetings with performers and directors, as well as people who make a living writing about arts and entertainment. Check back soon for examples of the work being created by the 20 graduate and undergraduate students in this new course.