• 'Pompeii' is an easy, enjoyable but admittedly predictable action movie

    The period from January to March is generally considered a terrible time for new releases. Instead of seeing the last dregs of the studios’ relases, most filmgoers take the time to catch up on Oscar nominees or stay away from movie theaters altogether. “Pompeii” is not going to change the stigma about mediocre first quarter releases for anyone, but if you’re in the mood for a visually impressive, if predictable, action movie, you could do a lot worse.

    “Pompeii” follows a mysterious, brooding gladiator called “The Celt” (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones”) as he is taken from Brittania to Pompeii shortly before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. While he’s busy learning the gladiatorial system from veteran fighter Atticus (a surprisingly effective Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), he’s also plotting his revenge against the corrupt Senator Corvus (a gleefully sinister Kiefer Sutherland), who killed his family. Corvus comes to Pompeii with plans of his own, which mostly consist of forcing Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a local merchant, to marry him and being really, really evil. All this action comes to a head on the day of the fateful eruption, and that’s when “Pompeii” really takes off. Clouds of ash drift through the air as tidal waves and jettisoned lava wreck the city. The visual effects and some surprising performances make the destruction feel simultaneously real and fantastical. 

    That said, the action is stunningly predictable. Of course The Celt (his real name is a secret, otherwise I’d tell you how dumb it is) and Cassia fall in love. Of course he and Atticus become friends in the arena. “Pompeii” and director Paul W.S. Anderson are dealing in tropes, but you’ll be surprised how well these tropes are executed. Almost every actor sells his or her part completely, especially Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Sutherland. The former ticks every box on the “Badass BFF” checklist with aplomb, and the latter has the time of his life doing all necessary bad guy things. Browning effectively channels whatever emotion she needs to convey in every scene, an impressive feat considering how much green screen she was undoubtedly acting in front of. Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris bring exactly what’s required to their parts as Cassia’s parents. Everyone in the ensemble is having a great time...except Kit Harington. Harington broods and smoulders on “Game of Thrones” like no other, but whereas his character there has a lot of non-verbal processing going on at all times, “The Celt” doesn’t have a single shade of nuance, or even uniqueness. He’s a walking, talking, action-movie stereotype that would be as welcome in any of the interchangeable sci-fi or fantasy adventures of the past few years as he is in “Pompeii.”

    I find it hard to blame Harington so much as the screenplay and the direction. “Pompeii” feels as if it were made by a college film student with an unlimited budget whose two favorite movies are “Gladiator” and “Titanic,” and who thought “Boy, combining these two things would make the greatest movie ever, right?” Wrong. What results is almost two separate movies starring the same characters: first, an ineffective and plagiarizing revenge film that feels like an episode of “Spartacus” cut for children’s television, and then, a CG-heavy disaster movie that knows its audience is there to watch stuff blow up. The PG-13 rating in particular really holds the movie back. It seems so preoccupied with showing its characters slitting throats and throwing axes that it mystifies me why there is so little gore in it. The violence is usually stakeless and often boring, especially in comparison to the well-animated and legitimately thrilling disaster sequences.

    Despite these complaints, “Pompeii” is a fun adventure. The CG is, for the most part, visually striking, and the 3D is self-aware enough to use the obligatory and cheesy “flaming debris coming at you” effects well. This is not a great time for new movies, but if you’re looking for something fun and entertaining, albeit predictable, check out “Pompeii.” It’s a blast.

  • Dr. Dog 's "B-Room" tour comes to Austin

    After spending this past summer opening for The Lumineers, Dr. Dog is on the road for the second leg of their tour with their new album, B-Room, released in October of 2013. 

    From his current home in suburban Groton, Connecticut, guitarist and vocalist Scott McMicken said that when the band isn’t together, it makes sense to be wherever is most convenient.

    “After being on the road a long time I would have to come back to the city,” McMicken said. “But I kept craving a quieter more remote existence.”

    The six-member outfit made their stop in Austin on Friday, February 21st at Stubb’s outdoor stage. With more than 20 tour stops planned throughout the U.S., McMicken said Austin was a bright spot on the band’s map.

    “We may have performed more times in Austin than any other city,” McMicken said. “Stubbs is just one of the finest places to play. I think that outdoor at night is the best environment to play in, the sound is incredible. Austin is just a great place to play music.”

    Dr. Dog’s sphere of influence has certainly grown much wider since the last time they came to Austin, with their 2012 album release, Be The Void, ranking in the Billboard 200 chart at number 45 in 2012.

    With the release of B-Room, however, McMicken explained that gauging their popularity as a band continually proves to be less about the industry and more about the fans.

    “I feel like it’s an interesting window in the commerce of the music business,” McMicken said. “On the charts, our current record has sold less than any album we’ve ever made. But on Spotify there’s all these plays. Clearly people are listening to it, but in the business sense it would appear far less are.”

    In terms of how this change is shaping Dr. Dog’s live tours, McMicken said despite the hum-drum reactions from critics like Pitchfork, the amount of people coming out to shows is at an all-time high.

    “It’s always kind of served us well,” McMicken said. “We don’t give a shit what people think really. We appreciate support, it’s not like we’re indifferent to support. We do what we do for the merits of what it brings us. At the end of the day, the only benchmark of quality is how we feel about what we play.”

    “B-Room” drifts aesthetically in a simpler direction from Dr. Dog’s previous albums, in an attempt to produce a record with a heavy emphasis on live shows.  According to McMicken, the best moments spent on stage are these raw, sparse songs that make “B-Room” so rewarding to play live.

    McMicken, along with vocalist-guitarist Toby Leaman, play together on "Too Weak To Ramble," one of the album’s less accompanied tracks.

    “There’s no groundbreaking going on – it’s just two guys with a guitar. But you realize that it’s in that more central context that the true challenge is expression. To make something feel complete with so few tools at your disposal is a really inspiring direction for the band.”

    After more than a decade spent playing together, McMicken said it’s important to keep things fresh and new while building off of previous experience – in the case of Dr. Dog, that means spending less time consistently re-recording a track in the studio and more time on stage.

    “It’s an interesting paradox, the more you try to dial your experience in and stay consistent, you also want to be creative and confident,” McMicken said. “There’s a much stronger emphasis on the gear, equipment, and crew – but we need the tension of the fact that things can train wreck at any moment. It has to feel new every night. The more you foster the environment of consistency the more you play with ultimately keeping the show inspired and spontaneous.”

     

  • 'Almost Human' premieres on VOD

    “Almost Human,” a gratuitiously gory alien riff with its heart squarely in the 1980s, premieres on VOD today. The film did a great job grossing audiences out at last year’s Fantastic Fest, and writer/director Joe Begos brings a retro eye to his unnerving alien abduction story.

    The film opens with Mark (Josh Ethier) disappearing under strange circumstances as his best friend Seth (Graham Skipper) and girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) are incapacitated inside. Two years later, no one’s really sure what happened to Mark, which makes his reappearance an awkward moment for Jen, who’s moved on, and a terrifying one for Seth, who realizes that something isn’t right with his friend 

    Begos, making his feature debut here, conveys a charming DIY vibe that carries “Almost Human”’s thin story. While the film occasionally struggles to build momentum, convincing performances from Texas native Graham Skipper and the surprisingly charismatic Josh Ethier help sell the many improbable or ill-explained moments of the story. Clocking in at a breezy 80 minutes, “Almost Human” relies on its impressive special effects to leave an impression, and there are plenty of gross, memorable moments throughout the film. Begos admirably blends sci-fi concepts with slasher-film levels of bloodshed, and viewers looking for a cheesy, retro slice of visceral fun will find plenty to like in “Almost Human.”

  • Comedian Wyatt Cenac comes to the UT SAC

    On Wednesday, writer and comedian Wyatt Cenac brings his stand-up routine to UT. Cenac is renown for his humorous reporting and writing for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He covered political issues for the presidential campaign as well as African American issues, creatively weaving awareness and comedy into his pieces.

    The Daily Texan spoke with Cenac about "The Daily Show" and his comedy routine.

    The Daily Texan: When working with "The Daily Show," did you have enough time to also work on your stand-up routine?

    Wyatt Cenac: I was a stand-up before I was working there, so stand-up was the thing that I continued to do even when I had time off. I would go off — even when we were doing the show — I would perform in the city when I had time.

    DT: What made you want to continue your stand-up even while working with "The Daily Show?"

    WC: My stand-up is sort of my perspective and my view on things, and I think that, with "The Daily Show," you’re kind of speaking through the show’s voice and Jon’s voice. For me, stand-up has been a great opportunity and way for me to talk about the things I wanted to talk about. It’s ultimately his show — you’re working to help him produce the best version of what he’s got in his head. So for me again I think stand-up and individual projects were my way of producing what I’ve got in my head.

    DT: Why did you leave "The Daily Show?"

    WC: I felt it was time — I felt like I had kind of done everything I wanted to do there and said everything that I had wanted to say.

    DT: What did "The Daily Show" represent for you, as far as your career is concerned?

    WC: The show, I think was a learning experience. On some levels it was like going to a kind of a graduate school, where there was a lot of stuff I had to learn. I wasn’t the most politically interested person when I started at the show, so I had to learn so much and watch and digest so much of kind of the news of the day. 

    DT: What was the best part of working with "The Daily Show" team? Was it the people, the locations and events you got to cover, or the writing you got to do?

    WC: At the end of the day, it’s always the people. There are a lot of really talented people that work at that show — from the PA’s to the writers, to the correspondents to the producers — there are so many talented people working behind the scenes that are not just talented, they're wonderful to be around. I think those relationships are things I will always cherish and hold dear. I am always happy when I get to reconnect with people form the show, whether it’s going to grab a beer or eat some food, or just getting together for anything. I think to me that’s probably the thing that means the most from the show. There are definitely pieces and things I’ve done that I’ve enjoyed or had fun doing. But it’s the relationships and things that came from the show that will mean the most.

    DT: How has working at "The Daily Show" changed your stand-up routine, if at all?

    WC: Jon had nothing to do with my [stand-up] comedy. They’re two very different things. There are definitely times where I’ve done shows where people come in with the expectation that I’ll do a one-man version of "The Daily Show." That’s not what I did when I was at the show and that’s not what I’m doing now. If anything, any evolution that’s happened from a stand up perspective I would attribute to the New York comedy scene and its various venues.

    DT: How would you describe your comedy routine and the subject matter it deals with?

    WC: You know, I always find this an odd question because it’s kind of weird to step out of myself and say “that’s what my comedy is — it feels like this.” Whenever I watch "Top Chef," and they describe their genre, the only question I’d ask is “Does it taste good?” That’s all I give a shit about. “Does it make you laugh?” That’s the point. There is enough of me telling jokes on the Internet that someone else can watch and they’re more than welcome to describe it.

    Who: Wyatt Cenac
    When: Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m.
    Where: SAC Auditorium (SAC 1.402)
    Cost: Free with a UT student I.D.

  • Experimental London Musician Helm Plays First Ever Show in Texas

    Alongside traditional artistic hubs in the U.S. like New York or Los Angeles, Austin has recently become a destination for rare performances by experimental electronic musicians. In the past year, many European avant-garde artists like The Field & Demdike Stare have played Austin in one of their only U.S. stops in addition to major cities like NYC or Chicago. The city has become a hotspot for these infrequent performances, the latest of which is a show tonight by European experimental artists Helm from London and Damien Dubrovnik from Copenhagen. 

    Helm is the musical project of Luke Younger, a British artist who creates abstract pieces of ambience and noise that are often unsettling. His work has been covered by music websites like Pitchfork and Fact Magazine, and he has been releasing albums since 2006 on various labels, including Alter, one he runs himself. This past winter, he released his latest EP, The Hollow Organ, which contains four tracks of haunted and complicated music that marks his third release on the British label Pan Records. Compared to the methodical approach he utilized before, the recording process behind his latest record was much more spontaneous and fluid. 

    The Hollow Organ came from sessions where I was essentially experimenting and messing around with equipment that I had in hand and ideas that came to me in the moment.” Younger said. 

    For his new tour, Younger has adapted his set-up from prior live performances to include equipment necessary to play the new songs, making for a very different live experience. 

    “My set up has minimized slightly, but the new equipment I’m using has enabled me to become more involved with my material and versatile in the way I present it.” Younger said. “I’m using less, but able to get more from it.” 

     Tonight’s show at the North Door, presented by Chaos in Tejas and Houston booking agency Odd Hours, marks Younger’s first show in Austin as well as his first time ever coming to Texas. A big part of that is because of Timmy Hefner, the founder of Chaos In Tejas. 

    Chaos In Tejas is an annual Austin festival that specializes in metal, punk, and hardcore bands, often featuring reunions and special appearances by cult favorites like Framtid, Youth of Today, and Moss Icon. Hefner also puts on one-off shows throughout the year that are presented by Chaos. In the past two years, Hefner has expanded Chaos to include shows by European experimental musicians like as Helm. While Hefner describes these types of shows as “hard sells”, these experimental shows draw a steady audience of fans across the state. Hefner explains that each of these shows typically draw around 75-100 people that make up a close-knit community. 

     “It’s not going to be a huge show, but there’s definitely people in Austin that are excited about it and it’s starting to spread.” Hefner said. “People know these shows are rare and the artists aren’t going to come back soon, so they travel from Houston and Dallas.” 

    This expanding scene in Austin is partly what drew Younger to play tonight’s show. 

    “I have been in contact with Timmy over e-mail and admired his diverse and ambitious programming of the Chaos in Tejas festival from England.” Younger said. “I am definitely excited to play in Austin for him and am glad there was the interest.”

    In addition to these touring acts, a group of talented electronic and noise artists like Survive, ssleeperhold, and Troller have been developing in Austin, releasing music on local labels like Holodeck and opening for international touring acts. While they don’t get as much attention in Austin as indie rock and folk bands, that style of music is steadily growing a fan base in town. At the least, they have people like Hefner supporting them. 

    “I think a lot of the local bands like Survive and ssleeperhold should be way more popular than they are, especially locally.” Hefner said. 

    Between European experimental musicians playing rare shows like Helm and a variety of avant-garde local acts, Austin has emerged as one of the premier U.S. cities of showcasing experimental electronic artists. 

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