Category Archives: Featured

‘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.

Unplanned “Parenthood” could use something extra

By Emma Wojtowicz
ArtsPost Staff Writer

'Parenthood' photo provided by NBC.

NBC’s new drama “Parenthood” premiered and flopped Tuesday night. Created by Ron Howard and based on his hit movie of the same name, “Parenthood” lacks personality and fails to make a good first impression. The show’s concept sounds promising, but the cast lacks chemistry and bores rather than entertains.

“Parenthood” focuses on the Braverman family. Sarah (Lauren Graham, “Gilmore Girls”) leaves her dead-beat husband and moves with her two teen-age children back into her parents’ house. She immerse into the lives of her sibling and their families. Sarah’s sister, Julia (Erika Christensen), a successful lawyer, tries to juggle her career with her family. Sarah’s brother Adam (Peter Krause, “Six Feet Under”) must learn to accept his son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and the affect it will have on his family. The younger brother, Crosby (Dax Shepard, “Baby Mama”), confronts his commitment issues with his current girlfriend and contemplates his priorities. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson, “Coach”), anchors the family while discovering that he must step back and let his children handle their own families.

The cast of “Parenthood” consists of actors from previously successful TV shows. An actor’s success in a previous show does not guarantee success in future shows. Also, actors run the risk of being typecast; Lauren Graham’s character, Sarah, is too similar to her previous role as Lorelei on “Gilmore Girls.” The first scene of “Parenthood” features Sarah talking a mile-a-minute on the phone; fast-talking was one of Lorelei’s character traits.

The cast’s lack of chemistry is “Parenthood’s” biggest problem. It is difficult to tell who is related to whom and who is married to whom. Viewers should look at to learn the family tree. “Parenthood” pales in comparison to ABC’s family drama “Brothers & Sisters.” ABC’s cast members vary in age and look related – there is no confusion.

The creators try to market “Parenthood” as being relatable to parents, encouraging viewers to comment on the show’s blog and interact with other viewers. Each Braverman sibling is given a parent stereotype – the poor, single mother, the career-focused mother and the overly competitive father. The creators exaggerate the stereotypes and make parents look bad. Sarah’s teen-age daughter is arrested for smoking marijuana and the extent of Sarah’s discipline is telling her she is disappointed and that it will take time for her to regain her mother’s trust.

“Parenthood” claims to be a drama, and features previews that make it look like a comedy. But the show is neither funny nor serious. It is not necessary for television to fall into the comedy or drama category, but it is necessary to emotionally enthrall and entertain the audience.

“Parenthood” is on NBC on Tuesday  at 10 p.m.

Movie stars + Hallmark holiday = just OK

By Emma Wojtowicz 
ArtsPost staff writer


Jennifer Garner and Ashton Kutcher in "Valentine's Day". Photo from the Internet Movie Database.

As entertaining as the crowded, all-star cast of “Valentine’s Day” is, skip the theater and wait until it is available on Netflix. Too many story lines create too many plot lines, which results in a shallow movie. The stories intertwine and surprise the audience, but, overall, the movie is predictable.

“Valentine’s Day” takes place from sunrise to sunset on Feb. 14 in Los Angles, and follows the day’s events of the cast of nearly 20 big-name actors. The main character is Reed (Ashton Kutcher), a florist, who is busy fulfilling Valentine’s Day flower orders. He proposes to his girlfriend, Morley (Jessica Alba), but the audience thinks he secretly likes Julia (Jennifer Garner). Reed spends the day driving around in a pink van with his best friend and work companion Alphonso (George Lopez). Now on to the next cluster of characters. Edgar (Hector Elizondo) and Estelle (Shirley MacLaine) have been married for more than 50 years, and they are raising their grandson (Bryce Robinson), whose babysitter is Grace (Emma Roberts), who is friends with Felicia (Taylor Swift), who is dating Willy (Taylor Lautner). Then there are the story lines and appearances of Julia Roberts, Jessica Biel, Patrick Dempsey, Eric Dane, Jamie Foxx, Kathy Bates, Bradley Cooper, Anne Hathaway and Queen Latifah.

The problem with this movie is not that there are too many top actors; rather there are too many actors, period. Anne Hathaway lucked out with a unique, comical story line that is effective despite her limited time on screen. Jessica Biel was not so lucky; the audience does not understand if a past relationship has made her bitter or if it is just Valentine’s Day. Queen Latifah’s character is pointless. Taylor Swift either needs to be less annoying or have less screen time. On the other hand, Julia Robert’s story line is endearing and deserves more screen time. “Valentine’s Day” could have made the list of best chic flicks if there were fewer characters and more character development.

Director Garry Marshall, who also directed the “Princess Diaries” movies and “Pretty Woman,” fails to successfully incorporate all the stories. “Valentine’s Day” pales in comparison to British film “Love Actually” and the masterful way it weaves stories while creating an emotional connection between the viewers and the characters. The muddled story lines in “Valentine’s Day” prevent the audience from sympathizing or empathizing with any of the characters. Just when the audience is intrigued and questioning what happens next, the characters disappear and are not seen for at least 20 minutes.

The characters’ ages range from a fifth grader to teens to 20-40 year-olds and grandparents. The meaning and stigma of Valentine’s Day is accurately depicted in the story lines of each age bracket, and is the saving grace of this film; without a buffer on each end of the age spectrum, “Valentine’s Day” would be added to the list of movies about 30-somethings complaining about their rough, loveless lives. But like the holiday itself, the movie will have come, gone and been forgotten.

Not just a flower painter: O’Keeffe’s Abstraction opens at the Phillips

by Elizabeth Ward

ArtsPost staff writer

"Poppy" by Georgia O'Keeffe. Fair Use image from Google Images.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of the most over-commodified yet most misunderstood artists of the modern era. Known as the painter of flowers and New Mexico landscapes, O’Keeffe was rarely allowed out of her feminine, representational, artistic box.

The Phillips Collection’s Abstraction frees O’Keeffe from this confinement and reintroduces O’Keeffe as one of the pioneers of abstractionism in the early 20th century – a title for which she is rarely acknowledged or showcased.

A curatorial conglomeration of muscle, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is a three-way alliance between D.C.’s own Phillips Collection, The Whitney in New York City and The Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The traveling show will only showcase in these three venues throughout the 2009-2010 season.

It is fitting that the Phillips is one of the three presenting museum spaces, since Duncan Phillips was the first museum director to purchase works by O’Keeffe back in 1926. The breathtaking exhibit showcases more than 100 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculpture dating from 1915 to the late 1970s. It also includes 14 photographic portraits of O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (photographer, gallery owner, and O’Keeffe’s husband beginning in 1924), which are incredible reflections upon her methods of gestural painting and cropping.

O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1887 and longed to be an artist from an early age. In 1916, after finishing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University, Alfred Stieglitz featured her early charcoal work at his 291-gallery in New York. Within two years, Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York to pursue painting full time. Six years later, they were married and began one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era.

The exhibit unfolds roughly chronologically, opening with a round of O’Keeffe’s revealing visceral charcoal abstractions from around 1915. These charcoals serve as motifs for the entire show – always returning to the expression of the intangible.

The exhibit then progresses into her watercolors, which marks her as a graphic imager willing to portray the rhythms of experience. One truly gets the feeling of “infinity” and “boundlessness” in the midst of her colorful abstractions. Favorites include Tent Door at Night (1916), Pink and Green Mountains (1917) and Music, Pink and Blue (1918).

The exhibit subsequently moves into O’Keeffe’s more well-known “erotic, symbolic, color work” and finally comes full circle with her late abstractions of flat, geometric, expansive planes of color. These mural-sized constructions of space reinvigorated her art in the mid-1940s and provided a precedent for a younger generation of abstract painters.

Yet even within a majority of her displayed abstractions, one can see how O’Keeffe was a misrepresented artist. For most of her career, she struggled with how others perceived her work, being a woman who insisted on expressing herself abstractly. Many have always interpreted her work as Freudian, psychological expressions of her sexuality. In reality, however, O’Keeffe was an expresser of intangible feelings, inspired not by objects but by the dynamic quality of the natural world. She never considered herself a feminist painter.

Aware of the public’s lack of sympathy and support for her abstraction and hoping to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe began to pull away from abstraction into the more representational, recognizable images she is so known for. Nevertheless, abstraction remained the guiding principle of her art, even at the most representational.

The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint. –Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

One of the most enlightening examples of O’Keeffe’s brilliant artistic response to the public eye is captured in her Jack-in-Pulpit (1930) series. Five of the six pieces display repeated bulbous forms, taking a single flower and honing in on its many characters. Here, she plays a joke on the critics: She makes them question whether she really is just a “painter of flowers,” while also reminding them of the androgynous nature of flowers. The phallic and the feminine appear together as a tongue-and-cheek retort to the standards placed upon her as an artist and a woman.

At the very least, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit is a refreshing reconnection with an artist that we, after all this time, never knew at all. The Phillips Collection is the perfect venue for this beneath-the-surface experience of O’Keeffe abstraction.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is on view at the Phillips from Feb. 6 to May 9, 2010. From here, it will by on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe from May 28 to Sept. 12, 2010.

The Opposite of a What?!

By Alexandra Wells

ArtsPost Staff Writer

opposite of a train

Opposite of a Train. Courtesy of the band's Myspace page.

More than 10 instruments for only three musicians might seem like overkill, but the band members from The Opposite of a Train know how to handle their equipment. The trio played an hour-long performance on the Millennium Stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which hosts a free performance every evening at 6 p.m.  The three musicians’ instruments created many different textures for the hundred or so audience members.  At various times the band reminded me of a film soundtrack, Middle Eastern dancing, jazz and even an Italian serenade at one point.

The trio write on their album cover that they first came together as “an intimate collaborative dynamic while composing and performing” for a theatre project in early 2008. However, the men say they’ve played “in diverse settings,” including jazz clubs, music venues and Cuban restaurants, and often accompany other bands.

Bill Carson played the electric and acoustic guitars, tenor banjo and bicycle while front man Nathan Koci rocked on the accordion, brass instruments, keyboards and metronome. Ron Wiltrout played the band’s percussion instruments, including the marimba (an African piano-like instrument), the glockenspiel (a metal xylophone), the drums and crash cymbals.

As for the visual aspect of the show, Koci could be seen swaying to the music, as could many audience members who were tapping their feet and bobbing their heads in rhythm. The band members were older than is expected to have just come together as a musical group, and admitted, “shoot, we’re just geeky.” They were sporting bowties, a pageboy cap, thick-rimmed glasses and messy, uncombed hair.

Carson, Koci and Wiltrout all hail from Charleston, S.C., yet have little Southern influence in their music. The band writes of their album, saying it “represents a diversity of compositional styles and arrangements, touching on classic Italian film scores, melodic post-rock, and slightly experimental chamber folk.” One song the band played was titled “Eurydice’s Waltz”, which sounded like it fit in equally well on a carousel or as polka dancing music. Another song, “The Typewriter” reminds me both of a circus act and dinner at an Italian restaurant.

Their self-titled debut album is categorized in the jazz section on the iTunes online store, but I could argue their music falling into almost any category, depending on the particular song. Once I gave up trying to classify their unique type of music, I sat back and simply enjoyed their distinctive and pleasing instrumentals.

Each time they began to play a new song, every band member would switch which instrument he was playing, sometimes even doing so midway through the song again. The constant changing of instruments was a bit overwhelming visually, but sounded seamless to the ear.  The threesome managed to pull off swapping musical instruments without a hitch and not one beat was missed during the plethora of swaps.

Cowboy Mouth brings Mardi Gras to D.C.

By Charlie Carroll
ArtsPost staff writer

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

“At Mardi Gras, everyone loses their minds to find their souls!” yelled Fred LeBlanc as he stirred the enraptured crowd into a fervor that threatened to tear down the roof of the 9:30 Club.  Masks, colorful beads and classic Mardi Gras flags were strewn across the stage, covering amplifiers and instruments alike.  Hundreds of rowdy 30-somethings ardently cheered the singer/drummer of Cowboy Mouth on as he looked over the audience from the throne of his red Slingerland drum set.

With eyes closed and hands in the air, Fred LeBlanc humbly requested that everyone hug and get to know the person next to him or her.  With all the passion of a Louisiana minister preaching to the congregation, he declared the crowd a community with the sole purpose of celebrating life.  He followed with a countdown from four that culminated in an explosion of energy from the crowd, hands in the air, screaming away their troubles.  Welcome to a Cowboy Mouth show.

After more than 15 years, 2,000 live shows and at least seven lineup adjustments, Cowboy Mouth still has all the raw energy of any younger, up-and-coming band.  The four-piece hails from New Orleans and represents their hometown with all the pride in their hearts.  If LeBlanc were to somehow cut his arm on a splinter from one of the hundred drumsticks he tosses around throughout the performance, it would surely bleed Mardi Gras yellow, purple and green.

The band got its start in the early ’90s, releasing its first album, “Mouthing Off,” on Viceroy Records in 1993.  They hit it big with their 1996 release of “Are You With Me?”, the group’s first major label release on MCA Records.  Since then, Cowboy Mouth has moved from label to label due to some albums’ low record sales.  Despite this, the band has steadily persevered because of the passion of its members and a thriving, dedicated fan base that make album sales insignificant.  Having sold more than 8 million tickets over the course of their careers, they show no signs of stopping.

Their Friday night show at the 9:30 Club opened with a set by country singer Junior Wilson, strutting with his white cowboy hat and double-neck guitar, and singing his brand of good ol’ country blues.  Supported by his clean-cut, gray-suited bassist and drummer, Junior Wilson mumbled out his rolling, bass vocals about troubles with the law, women and the Lone Star state.  Wilson seamlessly mixed his Johnny Cash voice with the intricate guitar work of Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose “Pride and Joy” he covered at the end of his set.

Although Wilson’s performance was appreciated (even with the sometimes ear-splitting high guitar notes and simple, repeated bass line), the crowd only really came alive once the lights went out and Cowboy Mouth took the stage.  LeBlanc’s drum set sat front and center, clearly positioning him as king for the night.  To the left stood lead guitarist John Thomas Griffith in a brown fedora, and to the right rhythm guitarist Jonathan Pretus and bassist Regina Zernay, whose pigtails playfully bounced side-to-side throughout the night.

The group opened with a Fats Domino cover, then into “This Much Fun,” during which LeBlanc stirred the crowd into a frenzy.  Throughout the entire night, his dominance over the audience was unwavering, constantly working the crowd up with hand clapping and screams of “I can’t hear you!” followed by deafening shouts from the audience.   One fan captured the mood perfectly.

“He’s got so much charisma he can command the whole f****** crowd,” he panted after the crowd favorite “Belly.”  “Obama thinks he’s got charisma, but it’s nothing compared to this guy.”

The president could only dream of having the support that Cowboy Mouth had that night. The group’s brand of poppy, alt punk party rock kept everyone on their feet, jumping and dancing for the entire set, begging for more.  With his tongue lapping more furiously than Gene Simmons, LeBlanc beat away at the drums, belting out the lyrics to classic, energetic anthems of “I Know it Shows,” “Joe Strummer” and “Jenny Says.”  During “Everybody Loves Jill,” the crowd ceremoniously threw a barrage of plastic red spoons on stage at the end of the last verse.

The night’s festivities could be summed up as an intimate tribute to the city of New Orleans and the turbulent, carpe diem spirit of Mardi Gras.  In between the tumult of their faster-paced songs, Cowboy Mouth fit in the hometown anthems of “New Orleans” and “I Believe,” the band’s faith-inspiring dedication to the New Orleans Saints, who LeBlanc confidently proclaimed the soon-to-be champions of the 2010 Super Bowl.  He also told the audience why their beloved hometown deserved Mardi Gras with a spot-on cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”

By the end of the night, despite all the sweat and hoarse voices that were sure to come, fans demanded an encore, unwilling to call it a night.  LeBlanc capped the show with “Follow Me” and “Disconnected.”  For the audience, the performance amounted to nothing less than a cathartic, religious experience.  In the span of only an hour and a half, the raucous Cowboy Mouth chewed up everyone’s troubles and spit out a masterful live performance, reinventing Washington as the nation’s party capital for the night.

“The Name of the Band is: Cowboy Mouth!”

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

Cowboy Mouth, a band renowned for its live performances, performed Friday at the 9:30 Club and from the moment the band members took the stage, they electrified the crowd with their presence.

Cowboy Mouth began the show with the fury and rowdiness of a true rock band.   Fred LeBlanc, lead vocalist and drummer, dressed in a black Dickies shirt, athletic shorts and no shoes, started out not with music but a back-and-forth chant: “The name of the band is?!” “Cowboy Mouth!” the packed house responded. “The name of the band IS?!” “COWBOY MOUTH!”

The crowd, made up mostly of fans who knew the lyrics and sang along with gusto, was at LeBlanc’s command.  If he asked them to sing, they sang. If he asked them to scream, jump or “go crazy,” they did, and happily, because as you find out: you get what you give at a Cowboy Mouth show.  Rewards came in tossed Mardi Gras beads, picks from the guitarists, thrown drumsticks and, most importantly, great music.

Along with LeBlanc, lead guitarist John Thomas Griffith sang lead on a few songs, the  most memorable being “Everybody Loves Jill.” The song is a list of red things that Jill likes, and during a cult line, “Fred eats with a red spoon!” the audience throws red plastic spoons at LeBlanc onstage.

On bass, Regina Zernay twirled around the stage in her white go-go boots and red pigtails, and  back-up guitarist Jonathon “JP” Pretus played quietly and skillfully on the side, and added a softer back-up voice to many of the songs.

Throughout the performance, LeBlanc stressed the importance of a Mardi Gras mentality intertwined with strikingly insightful messages about life and love.  “Belly” is a song about loving a woman with curves while “all the skinny girls are standin’ in the back of the line,” and “I Believe” has a message about “the power of love” and believing that life can be all that you want it to be.

Cowboy Mouth has a devotion to New Orleans and consequently the Super Bowl- bound Saints.  They sang a version of “I Believe” that is a tribute to the NFL team.  The singers interjected the Saints and their quarterback Drew Brees into many of the songs, which had the audience laughing and cheering all night.  Peyton Manning of the opposing Indianapolis Colts, and originally from New Orleans, got due attention with LeBlanc stating “he better remember where he f***ing came from!”

The pounding and upbeat music kept everyone on their feet, singing, dancing and chanting along, giving LeBlanc the “energy” and “rhythm” that he regularly demanded.  The audience took many of the band’s messages to heart, letting everything go and embracing Mardi Gras in January.  As LeBlanc observed, “You come to a Cowboy Mouth show to cut loose, don’t cha?!”

Junior Brown, renowned for his invention of the “guilt-steel,” a double-necked instrument, half steel guitar, half traditional guitar, opened for Cowboy Mouth.  His husky baritone voice, which at times dipped into bass, was secondary to his masterful guitar work.  Junior switched seamlessly from strumming the top half of the instrument to playing the bottom steel strings. At one point the notes were so high that dogs must have been howling somewhere.

His music was lively, with lyrics mostly about romance. “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” and “Long Walk Back to San Antone” warn about dangerous love and lament love lost.  However, “Highway Patrol” kept the audience amused with its unapologetic words about the duties of a patrol officer.  His mastery of the instrument he invented was apparent and the audience was appreciative.  Every particularly complex set was applauded and cheered and people seemed genuinely awed by his finger work.

Though the pairing of the suit-and-tie wearing, traditional Southern drawl of Junior Brown and the more contemporary rock star qualities of Cowboy Mouth seem odd at first, they complemented each other.  Junior Brown symbolized the traditional Southern music that Cowboy Mouth took inspiration from.  They shared a sense of humor and playfulness in their music that made Junior a great opener for the headliner.

The show was a rousing success, with the audience demanding extra songs from Cowboy Mouth and then an encore following the last number, their best known song, “Jenny Says.”  Cowboy Mouth brought the care-free attitude of Mardi Gras to the audience, while encouraging them not to “sweat the small stuff,” “let go of the things that bring you down,” and to “tilt your head back and scream!”

Cowboy Mouth’s next show is in Newport, Ky., at the Southgate House on Feb. 3. The band continues their tour with Junior Brown until Feb. 10. Fearless, Cowboy Mouth’s most recent album, was released in September of last year.

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.