• Cold War thriller "The Americans"could be FX's next flagship show

    A lot of shows spend their first season figuring out what they do well, but when “The Americans” debuted last year, it was more or less fully-formed, and if not for “Orange is the New Black,” it would have easily been the best new show of the year. In its second season, which premiered Wednesday night, “The Americans” irons out the few kinks it has, continues to spotlight complex, unexpectedly sympathetic characters, and returns with remarkable confidence and intensity.

    The 80’s-set drama takes place in the throes of the Cold War, and Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, respectively) are walking justifications to American paranoia, a pair of KGB sleeper cell agents who’ve built a life as an American family. Last season found the couple struggling to determine just how real their arranged marriage had become, while trying to keep their identity under wraps from Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent across the street. This year, Phillip and Elizabeth have to confront brutally heightened stakes after some of their colleagues are eliminated, while trying to throw their increasingly inquisitive daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), off the scent of their illicit activities.

    The increased focus on Paige gives Taylor an opportunity to shine in a role that was previously thankless, and the young actress makes her early stages of rebellion sing with authenticity, selling her curiosity as she begins to wrack up a few secrets of her own. Russell and Rhys continue to impress as they try to find the balance between their all-American image and their all-Russian allegiance. While the show isn’t afraid to paint the characters as ruthless killers (and does, often), Phillip and Elizabeth’s horrific actions are always filtered through an unflappable determination, making these complex, ostensibly villainous characters sympathetic and even admirable. Rhys in particular does a great job finding the small complexities in his character, his seething rage as he hands out a little parental discipline contrasting with the cool efficiency he displays as he kills a restaurant full of people – including a teen not much older than his daughter.

    Perhaps the best performer in the cast, however, is Noah Emmerich, whose FBI agent is currently embroiled in an affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Russian asset who’s milking him for information. Beeman is the show’s most conflicted figure, the weight of his job slowly disintegrating his personal life, and Emmerich brings tinges of regret and resignation to every bad choice his character makes. Though Nina is trained to hide all emotion, Mahendru makes the smallest gestures and moments count with her marvelously restrained performance.

    It’s impressive that “The Americans” is able to root itself in the 1980’s without pointing to the obvious aesthetic signposts, and the show’s soundtrack choices are often inspired, using off-the-beaten-path choices to underline character moments and emotional beats. This season also finds the show brutally upping the stakes, a twist towards the end of the first episode adding a welcome urgency and sense of danger to the Jennings’ adventures. “The Americans” has always been great at using its period and characters to build suspense, and even lingering threads like Beeman and Phillip’s budding friendship have moments of tension based in the inevitable discoveries to come.

    “The Americans” debuted last season as one of the year’s most exceptional shows, and teetered on the edge of greatness throughout its freshman year. With tonight’s second season premiere and the impressive episodes that follow, “The Americans” follows through on that promise, telling stories that beautifully use the dueling lives the Jennings lead to add tension to every scene and giving its strong roster of performers plenty of dramatically taut notes to play. If the rest of the season continues on such a strong note, viewers may be looking at FX’s next flagship show.

    Creator: Joe Weisberg
    Network: FX
    Airtime: 9PM, Wednesdays

  • Folk musician Angel Olsen plays her first show in Austin

    With her critically acclaimed third album Burn Your Fire For No Witness released last week, folk singer Angel Olsen is coming to Red 7 to play her first ever show in Austin.

    Unlike her first two albums, which were full of lo-fi, sparse folk songs, Olsen’s latest finds her delving into rock and roll, recording it with a full band that she is now touring with. The songs hit harder, with more energy than the tender ballads that fans of hers had grown accustomed to. 

    “I just started writing differently,” Olsen said. “I wasn’t working on being a solo musician anymore so it gave me more opportunities to express myself. I wrote songs that I thought would go really well with a rock band.” 

    Previously, Olsen played as a member of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s band, and through that met musicians that she collaborated with such as Emmet Kelly of The Cairo Gang. Working with Kelly and other musicians led her to want to find a group of people to tour with.

    “I feel like I met the right people,” Olsen said. “All this stuff happened at once. I met my band, introduced them to the old stuff and then introduced them to the new stuff I had been writing over the fall and it made sense to them.”

    Olsen plays with a four piece now, and while she will occasionally play solo sets, the addition of a full band allows her to open up her old material on tour without dramatically changing any of the songs.

    “There have been some parts on old songs, like “Tiniest Seed”, where we have someone who can play another guitar and there might be an extra guitar break instead of just lyrics all the way through,” Olsen said. “ I think that’s more fun to play.”

    Another change for Olsen, besides the addition of a band, was that last year she moved away from her home of Chicago to Asheville, North Carolina.

    “I was just ready to go somewhere else,” Olsen said. “I had been living in Chicago for 6 or 7 years and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I was ready for something new, I had some friends who owned business in Ahseville, and when we recorded there, it felt like someplace I might want to stay, so I decided why not?” 

    Asheville may not seem like the ideal location for a rising musician to settle down, but Olsen insists that a strong artistic scene is budding there, thanks in part to Jon Hency, who produced her first two records.

    “Jon runs a venue there called Mothlight and he’s been opening up a space for people who play abstract and atmospheric rock, not your usual country bands you get in Asheville,” Olsen said. “He’s cultivating a scene there and it feels cool to step in when that’s starting to happen.”

    Olsen’s new home of Asheville was also featured prominently in the music video for single “Forgiven/Forgotten,” which contained grainy 16mm footage of a suburb where Olsen was living. 

    “My friend and I had been working with 16mm for a while and and honestly we didn’t have any vision for the video,” Olsen said. “She came to town and was like ‘Act like you’re in Freaks and Geeks and you’re really angsty and upset with your dude.’ It was two minutes long, so we didn’t need that many shots. I honestly feel like those projects work best when you have no plan. I like the way the video turned out though.” 

    While Olsen will play her first Austin show at Red 7, she will finish up her tour by coming back for SXSW. She skipped the festival last year, but feels like her new material lends itself to a festival setting more than it used to. 

    “It’s going to be a shit show, but I hope we’ll have a good time,” Olsen said. “We’ve never experienced it before. I think we’re playing in a couple of cool venues while we’re there. Maybe it’ll be really fun, who knows.” 

  • '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.”