• Neil Young's Pono player puts quality first

    Rock musician Neil Young introduces his high-quality digital audio player Pono at the Austin Convention Center SXSW keynote on Tuesday afternoon. Young has been working on Pono for more than 2 years and is currently using Kickstarter to fund the project. 
    Rock musician Neil Young introduces his high-quality digital audio player Pono at the Austin Convention Center SXSW keynote on Tuesday afternoon. Young has been working on Pono for more than 2 years and is currently using Kickstarter to fund the project. 

    To a packed house at the Austin Convention Center’s Ballroom D, iconic singer-songwriter and rock legend Neil Young fleshed out the details of his quality-focused music player called Pono. 

    Young started his presentation with an explanation as to why he is doing what he is doing. He commented on the collapse of different areas in the music business because of MP3 files.

    “This old culture started to go away, and it was because of the MP3, and the cheapening of the quality to a point where it was practically unrecognizable,” Young said. He intends to reverse the depreciation in music quality with Pono. 

    Meaning “righteous” in Hawaiian, the Pono player is capable of playing high-quality music files that far surpass the potential quality of MP3 files. Young, an artist who grew up in the age of vinyl records — when quality reigned king, he said — impressed upon the audience the importance of music files’ quality. 

    “The human body is unbelievable,” Young said. “It’s so sensitive. When you give it something, it loves it. When it sees great art, it feels good.”

    In an era ruled by the ubiquity of lower-quality MP3 files, Young implored the audience to consider quality. He said the world is content with listening to music that is 5% of the quality it could potentially be, and that it shouldn’t be.

    “People [are] buying wallpaper — they [are] buying background sounds. They [are] buying Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa,” Young said, commenting on the instant, track-by-track download culture that exists today. 

    Young played a video for the audience made up of testimonials from famous musicians, all of whom spoke towards the quality of Pono’s sound. Elton John, Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, Marcus Mumford and Tom Petty all spoke out in favor of Young’s project with glowing reviews about the sound quality. 

    Pono has a Kickstarter page and has quickly raised over 50 percent of its monetary goal as of  March 11. The Kickstarter is open until April 15. When asked about the triangular prism design of the player, Young said it helps people operate it while it’s on a flat surface. 

    “It can sit on your desk and sound like God,” he said. 

  • Haunted mirrors, Mark Duplass, and "No No" make strong debuts at SXSW

    While SXSW always has an extensive program of narrative features, they’ve got an equally impressive roster of documentaries. Documentaries aren’t normally my priority, but there are a few each year that are absolutely worth seeing. “No No: A Dockumentary,” a moving, often hilarious sports documentary, is high on the top of the pile.

    The film chronicles the life of Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who famously threw a no-hitter while high on LSD. Though it starts a little slow, “No No” is at its best when it’s indulging in small anecdotes about Dick. Stories about him impulsively picking a sparring session with Muhammed Ali or reading a letter of support that Jackie Robinson wrote him are highlights of the film. These moments also have a vice grip on a slippery tone, breaking up heavy emotional moments with a perfectly timed joke, or vice versa. “No No” also makes smart use of archival footage, letting damage or distortions to the picture reflect Dock’s oft-elevated mental state.

    “No No” ends with an unexpected redemptive arc sneaked into its final half hour, and the tearful interviews with the people Ellis helped in his twilight years are genuinely powerful. “No No: A Dockumentary” is a snapshot of a sports icon’s life, painting an even-handed picture of the pitcher while telling the story of his legacy in emotional fashion.

    Saturday night also saw a double feature of films produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions: “Creep” and “Oculus.” Blum is notorious for his high-speed, high-intensity horror productions, and the haunted mirror story “Oculus” is no exception. “Creep,” on the other hand, is an entirely different beast, mixing Blum’s sensibilities with those of lo-fi indie king Mark Duplass.

    Duplass, an Austin native, has made a name for himself with the mumblecore films he and his brother Jay have co-written and directed. Duplass often stars in his work, along with a starring role on FX’s “The League, and he’s an incredibly likable presence on screen – easygoing, affable and hugely charming. Duplass brilliantly subverts his image with “Creep,” playing Josef, an ostensibly friendly loner who hires Aaron (Patrick Brice) to document him for a day. Josef is dying of cancer, and wants to leave a video diary for his unborn son to view someday.

    At first, Josef is your typical Duplass character, full of incredible enthusiasm and effortlessly sympathetic, but there’s a persistent uneasiness to him that Aaron slowly starts to pick up on. As “Creep” starts to earn its title, Duplass’ performance remains uneasily charming, never losing sight on his earnest demeanor even as his character’s actions are increasingly nefarious. Duplass plays very well off of director/co-writer/co-star Brice, who spends most of the film behind the camera – the film is a found footage exercise, like many of Blum’s productions. Brice shines in his rare moments on-screen, and does a great job selling every unsettled reaction to Josef’s actions.

    Before Josef’s façade starts to crack, “Creep” is often very hilarious, and its indulgence in horror staples later in the film is basically a game of tonal Russian roulette. Thankfully, “Creep” makes a major break in format about an hour into the film, and it handles its shift into creepier territory with wit and grace. The film really only has one method of scares: Josef popping out from behind stationary objects. While the jump scare is one of the cheapest in the genre, “Creep” is slyly self-aware, and attempts to comment on the horror genre through its one-note execution. While the film doesn’t fully succeed on that front, it’s funny enough to keep viewers engaged through its brisk 80-minute runtime, and is ultimately an entertaining, worthwhile experiment.

    “Oculus,” meanwhile, is a more traditional ghost story, told with thrilling momentum. Karen Gillan stars as Kaylie, an antiques dealer who’s spent her entire life trying to track down the Lasser Glass, a haunted mirror that caused her father (Rory Cochrane) to kill her mother (Katee Sackhoff, effectively terrified and feral as the film’s principal punching bag). Just as she finally finds the object, her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the mental institution he was sent to after killing their father in self-defense, and she brings her reluctant sibling in on her plan to avenge their parents.

    One of my favorite things about “Oculus” is that 15 minutes in, it’s already at what seems like the climax of the film: Kaylie and War going to war with the Lasser Glass. After a grimly determined, powerful introduction from Gillan, the film hits the ground running. It’s set almost entirely in the house where Kaylie and Tim’s parents were killed years earlier, and while the concept of having a standoff with a haunted object may seem silly, the execution is anything but. “Oculus” is relentlessly spooky, and while it only has a few moments of pure visceral terror, there’s a lot to be said for the sensation of overwhelming dread it constantly evokes.

    In telling the story of the siblings’ battle with the mirror and their parents’ demise simultaneously, “Oculus” pulls a great trick, switching back and forth between the present day and the past, where Kaylie and Tim are played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, respectively. As the film picks up speed, the lines become blurred both for the viewers and the characters, and director Mike Flanagan (who also edited the film) does a great job with the disorienting shifts between time periods. Every transition is incredibly smooth, and though the narrative trick does become a bit overbearing in the finale, it’s a clever way to establish the mirror’s terrifying capabilities while fulfilling lofty narrative goals.

    If there’s one bone to pick with “Oculus,” it’s the ending, which underserves Gillan, who gives a fierce, likable performance and gets one sublime moment of terror, in favor of her admittedly effective younger counterpart. The film’s resolution is ultimately unsatisfying, derailing promising character arcs in what feels like a ploy to leave the door open for a sequel down the line. Nonetheless, “Oculus” is a fun ghost story with enough originality, memorable scares, and narrative backflips to keep its lackluster finale from sinking the ship.

  • 'Two Step' is a brutal, successful character drama

    “Two-Step” is a brutal movie about desperation. Taking place in Austin, the film from director Alex R. Johnson follows Webb (James Hebert), a two-bit failure of a con-man. Webb is in jail for breaking his girlfriend’s nose, and spends his time in jail conning the elderly by cold calling and pretending to be a grandson in need of cash. Webb is released from prison only to discover that his girlfriend has fled and the local big-shot Duane (Jason Douglas) is angrily waiting for the ten grand that Webb owes. Webb has the choice to pay up or get out of town, so he doubles his efforts with the con and inadvertently is found out by James (Skye Moore), the grandson of one of his victims. Webb has to take quick action, and the result is a dark, violent descent filled with torture and murder.
     
    The movie adopts a slow pace, taking its time setting up the characters and situation before things take a turn for the worst, but the dramatic arc is ultimately rewarding when the dust and blood has settled. Hebert is the stand out of the cast, playing up Webb’s preference for violence while also showing the weakness behind the character. Beth Broderick also impresses as Dot, an eccentric dancing teacher who forms an unlikely bond with James after his grandmother passes. The emotional development between the two characters is the counterpoint to Webb's descent to darker actions. The film succeeds in balancing the two sides of the story while also feeling like a singular narrative. Ultimately, "Two Step" is about the flaws that hold people back, and what happens when a person chooses to defy those flaws or succumb to them.

  • 'Arlo and Julie' is a pleasantly quirky comedy

    A lesser film than “Arlo and Julie” would be eye-roll inducing in its attempts to be quirky. The dialogue is reminiscent of “Juno,” with every character adopting an elegant but unfiltered stream-of-consciousness observations about the world around them.
     
    The key plot point revolves around a mystery puzzle, delivered piece-by-piece by an unexpectedly wise mailman. The main characters, Arlo (Alex Dobrenko) and Julie (Ashley Spillers) are a live-in couple stuck in an emotional rut after years together. When the puzzle pieces start arriving, they become obsessed with their daily delivery, even as they begin neglecting everything else in their lives — including each other.
     
    The film succeeds because of the strong performances at its core. Alex Dobrenko as Arlo and Ashley Spillers as Julie are adorable and believable in their portrayal of a couple whose passion is cooling. Director and UT Lecturer Steve Mims captures the hilarity of the neurotic situation while still showing the emotional core of how the characters’ relationship is strengthened and weakened over the mystery of the puzzle. The strong script — which Mims also wrote — and lead performances make “Arlo and Julie” a pleasant surprise.

  • Richard Linklater's 'Boyhood' is a SXSW masterpiece

    Richard Linklater’s crowning achievement is the “Before” series, a trilogy of snapshots of a couple at different points in their life, taken roughly every nine years. “Boyhood” is a project of similar scope, filmed over 12 years as it follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to his first day of college. Watching Mason grow up allows for the small details of his life to accumulate, and as Linklater’s sprawling chronicle of adolescence reaches its end, it makes a powerful impact through its quietly masterful wisdom and authenticity.

    The film doesn’t follow the arc of any traditional plot, and it steers free of the traditional signposts that populate most coming-of-age films. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, and he happily skips prom. Nonetheless, there are sequences built into Linklater’s epic tale, like the harrowing dissolution of his mother’s (Patricia Arquette) second marriage, or a weekend trip to Austin with a girlfriend. The film doesn’t just follow Mason, either – Arquette and Ethan Hawke play Mason’s divorced parents and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, plays Samantha, Mason’s sister.

    Hawke is a frequent Linklater collaborator, and while his character initially seems to be a riff on the lovable loser role he’s perfected, Hawke brings a dimensionality and compassion to the role. Patricia Arquette shines as Mason’s mother, who has a more consistent presence in her children’s lives, and watching the slow reality of her impending empty nest settle in over the last few years of the film gives “Boyhood” its most devastating moments.

    Ellar Coltrane starts off hitting the occasional false note, but the power of watching him grow up over the years, shooting up like a weed between scenes or suddenly sporting a thin line of peach fuzz on his upper lip, is undeniable. Coltrane grows into an understated, skilled performer with time, and in the later stretches of the film, he ably delivers Linklater’s trademark philosophical musings, speaking with the equally confident and awkward lilt of a teen trying to comprehend the implications of his words as they spill from him. Lorelei Linklater, on the other hand, is a natural screen presence from the start, and there’s a welcome wit to Samantha that makes Mason’s teen angst years go down a little smoother.

    Linklater builds some smart time markers into the narrative, often signaling that we’ve changed years with “modern” pop songs, carefully selected to both ground us in a year and evoke nostalgia. “Boyhood” is full of small, effective details like that, honestly observed and combining to present a moving scrapbook of a childhood. It’s Linklater’s measured, authentic approach that makes the film’s low-key climactic moments, a loaded conversation between Mason and his father and his mother’s reaction to Mason’s departure for college, land with meaningful impact.

    Innovative may be the most overused word at all of SXSW, but it’s also the absolute best word to describe “Boyhood.” Linklater tries something that’s never been attempted on film before, and succeeds with flying colors. “Boyhood” tells the story of its young hero with an attention to detail that makes Mason’s life ring with familiarity, and there’s such authenticity and power to Linklater’s approach. Maybe there is another word to describe “Boyhood:” Masterpiece.

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