SXSW review: ‘Isle of Dogs’ a treat but hounded by some real problems

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As a movie constructed of tiny moving parts, it’s fitting that “Isle of Dogs” resonates most warmly in its quiet, little moments. There’s the scene where a recently orphaned 12-year-old boy, laid up in traction in a hospital, meets his new guard dog, who licks his hand in silence. Or a later scene when the same boy gives a biscuit to a different dog, a wary stray who’s never tasted one before. The hound is overcome. So is the viewer.

The latest from film auteur (and University of Texas alum) Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” closed out the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival in its North American premiere to a packed house wearing complimentary “PRO-DOG” headbands. Set in the near future in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City, the stop-motion-animated film tells a seemingly simple story at its heart: A boy sets out to find his lost dog, with the help of a pack of mangy mutts.

(From L-R): Edward Norton as “Rex,” Jeff Goldblum as “Duke,” Bill Murray as “Boss,” Bob Balaban as “King” and Bryan Cranston as “Chief” in “Isle of Dogs.” Contributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

The boy, Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin, whom one hopes has a best friend with the last name Bass), is the ward of the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, also with a writing credit), who has exiled all dogs in the city to live on the dumps of Trash Island. The reason why is all explained in an ancient legend prologue. Best not to dwell on the motives too long, but suffice it to say that the Kobayashis are decidedly cat people.

Atari’s beloved guard dog, Spots (a stout-hearted Liev Schreiber), was the first pooch to get the boot. Six months after the mayor’s decree, more dogs have found themselves subsisting on scarce garbage for food on the island, and Atari arrives in a tiny prop plane for a hero’s quest. Guiding him are Rex (Edward Norton, such a delightful drip of a dog), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), that grizzled stray with a chip on his shoulder and nose for a fight.

RELATED: Bill Murray just recited a poem while wearing overalls and a bucket hat on Sixth Street, because SXSW

As you might guess for a movie about man’s best friend, “Isle of Dogs” stands up for loyalty in all its forms: between owners and pets, or between members of a pack, or of young idealists toward their cause. When the movie puts Atari and Chief together, it charms. Cranston imbues the jaded stray with a heart-rending pain through all those bared teeth, as he learns what the most simple kinds of affection feel like. The lack of subtitling of Atari’s Japanese dialogue is also a tidy device to put an English-language viewer in the dog’s, er, paws.

Speaking of Anderson, all the director’s trademarks are here, even in miniature form: the twee musical throwback (an instantly infectious “I Won’t Hurt You” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band), the impeccably curated tableaus, the eclectic cast of favorite players. If you’re going to go animated, why not stock up like winter is coming and beloved character actors are canned goods? Tilda Swinton’s turn as a prescient pug dubbed the Oracle is a gas, and she’s used with remarkable restraint. “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig gives a foreign exchange student/budding journalist/dog rights activist pleasing notes of Lisa Simpson and Leslie Knope. Heck, even Yoko Ono did some voice work in this thing.

RELATED: Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Wes Anderson walk into a theater. Everyone loses their minds.

Much like Anderson’s previous stop-motion film, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the intricacies of the animation are exquisite. The canine characters glow with fur-bound life. The crying effects look so good that you can tell the production team got incredibly stoked and slotted them into the movie wherever they could. You will believe a man’s best friend can cry.

Back to the language barrier. To watch the movie, you’ve got to try to wrap your arms around the cultural politics of “Isle of Dogs,” which features dogs voiced by white actors in a Japanese world and human Japanese characters mostly voiced by Asian actors. Anderson goes to pretty laborious lengths to avoid subtitled dialogue, including translator characters (one is voiced by Frances McDormand). Questions arise: Why did Gerwig’s character need to be a foreign exchange student instead of a Japanese schoolkid, for example? Expressive line readings from Rankin and Nomura constantly made me wonder what the film is like to watch if you understand both English and Japanese. I also wondered if Anderson thought about such a person at any point from concept to post-production.

“Isle of Dogs” also doesn’t really spend much time thinking about female characters, whether human or canine. Female dogs are mostly absent: There’s Swinton’s bit-part; a show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson who only exists to service an underdeveloped romance and also get in a really lazy “bitch” joke; and another pooch that’s literally just there to have puppies. Even Gerwig’s plucky agitator has her agency undercut by a crush on Atari that’s a little cute but mostly elicits a “yeah, sure, I guess?”  If ever there was a movie you could tell had an all-male writing team, this is the one.

Actor Jeff Goldblum arrived outside the Paramount Theatre for the Isle of Dogs red carpet premiere on Saturday, March 17. The film screening was part of the SXSW Film Festival. (Photo by Katherine Fan for Austin360.com/A-List)

PHOTOS: ‘Isle of Dogs’ premiere with Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Wes Anderson at SXSW 2018

The tone trends wicked in parts, including a trash furnace cliffhanger that’s left dangling too long for anyone who actually likes dogs. It would also be naive to not view “Isle of Dogs” through a Trump-era lens, what with its executive edicts and themes of exile, press suppression and disinformation, all in the name of power. Anderson also slips in a line about staged political protests that feels scorchingly pointed in 2018 (I heard titters in the theater) but also undercut the fantasy.

Anderson attempts a lot. When its story about dogs and kids goes small, “Isle of Dogs” does quite a few good tricks.

Grade: B

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban

“Isle of Dogs” hits theaters March 23.

‘First Match,’ ‘TransMilitary’ take top SXSW Audience Awards

Olivia Newman’s “First Match” and Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson’s “TransMilitary” took the SXSW 2018 Audience awards for narrative and documentary feature competition respectively.

RELATED: Review: “TransMilitary”

Here are the rest of the winners

NARRATIVE SPOTLIGHT
Audience Award Winner: “All Square”
Director: John Hyams

DOCUMENTARY SPOTLIGHT
Audience Award Winner: “The Dawn Wall”
Director: Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer

VISIONS
Audience Award Winner: “Profile”
Director: Timur Bekmambetov

MIDNIGHTERS
Audience Award Winner: “Upgrade”
Director: Leigh Whannell

EPISODIC
Audience Award Winner: “Vida”
Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios, So Yong Kim

24 BEATS PER SECOND
Audience Award Winner: “Ruben Blades Is Not My Name”
Director: Abner Benaim

GLOBAL
Audience Award Winner: “Virus Tropical”
Director: Santiago Caicedo

FESTIVAL FAVORITES
Audience Award Winner: “Science Fair”
Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

SXSW Film Design Awards

EXCELLENCE IN TITLE DESIGN
Audience Award Winner: #19 – Offf Barcelona 2017
Directors: Eve Duhamel, Julien Vallee

Additional screenings have been scheduled for this evening for all Audience Award winners except Headliners:

Audience Award: 24 Beats Per Second
“Ruben Blades Is Not My Name”
March 17, Alamo Ritz 1, 7:30 PM

Audience Award: Documentary Feature Competition
“TransMilitary”
March 17, Alamo Lamar A, 4:30 PM

Audience Award: Documentary Spotlight
“The Dawn Wall”
March 17, Stateside Theatre, 5:00 PM

Audience Award: Festival Favorites
“Science Fair”
March 17, Alamo Lamar B, 8:15 PM

Audience Award: Midnighters
“Upgrade”
March 17, Alamo Lamar A, 11:00 PM

Audience Award: Narrative Feature Competition
“First Match”
March 17, Alamo Lamar A, 7:30 PM

Audience Award: Narrative Spotlight
“All Square”
March 17, Stateside Theatre, 8:00 PM

Audience Award: Global
“Virus Tropical”
March 17, Alamo Ritz 2, 5:30 PM

Audience Award: Visions
“Profile”
March 17, Alamo Lamar B, 5:15 PM

 

 

For Rachel Bloom and writers of ‘Most Likely to Murder,’ looking back can be cathartic

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Director and co-writer Dan Gregor said “Most Likely to Murder,” which had its world premiere at South by Southwest, came from the idea of high school classmates getting back together for Thanksgiving and noticing a change in one another.

Members of the cast and crew of “Most Likely to Murder” at the Highball in Austin on March 13. From left are producer Petra Ahman, co-writer and actor Doug Mand, actor Adam Pally, actor John Reynolds, co-writer and director Dan Gregor, and actor Rachel Bloom. JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Co-writer “Doug (Mand) and I were kind of obsessed with that ‘night before Thanksgiving,’” Gregor said in an interview at the Highball on March 13. “Where everyone goes to the local bar, everyone’s back in your hometown … and you are just sort of seeing all of these people from your past.”

Mand noted the vulnerability of the situation.

“You’re going there and you’re like, “What am I now?” he said. “You’re very exposed in that moment, and you’re watching everyone else. And you’re checking in on how everyone’s changed.”

“Most Likely to Murder” is a thriller comedy that follows Billy (Adam Pally) as he returns home for Thanksgiving, prepared to relive the glory days. Instead, he ends up discovering that his friends have changed and his ex-girlfriend, Kara (Rachel Bloom), is dating the high school geek, Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser), whom everyone, especially Billy, used to pick on. As a way of setting things straight, Billy attempts to prove that Lowell is a murderer.

Gregor and Mand’s decision to combine the comedy and thriller genres derived from their interest in noir and Alfred Hitchcock films, with the goal to make the emotions in this movie more intense.

REVIEW: Trying to hold onto the glory days of high school? That’s funny and scary in ‘Most Likely to Murder’

Gregor talked about his own experiences being both a bit of a nonviolent middle school bully and the subject of bullying in high school, and said the film was one way for him to express what he wishes he knew then.

“This movie in a lot of ways is a way for me to express that regret and that apology, too,” Gregor said. “I wish I could go back and talk to my former self and teach him empathy even younger. And just say people are people.”

Bloom, best known for her work on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” said her experience playing Kara gave her former teenage self some release. During one scene, Kara gets to tell Billy off, years after he broke her heart.

“The ability to act that out in a scene, I really, really related to it. It was very cathartic,” Bloom said. “And I think a lot of girls feel that you look back on that guy that you were in love with in high school, who seemed so cool. But then you think about it in hindsight and think, he wasn’t cool. He just quoted ‘Family Guy’ a ton.”

Gregor said they wanted to give Billy an appropriate ending, one that didn’t fall into the male fantasy trope that one decent act can undo all the bad things done over a lifetime.

PHOTOS: Celebrities in Austin at South by Southwest

Bloom said that one of the things she admires most about Gregor and Mand’s comedy writing is that they are able to incorporate emotion and heart that explores the human condition in their jokes.

“I really love how emotionally deep the movie gets,” Bloom said. “Something that really sets them apart as comedy writers is that a lot of guys who write comedy write it very mathematically. And they write it very like it’s all about the premise, and that it’s mathematically hitting the best jokes possible, and the sensibility tends to be kind of mean with that.”

“Most Likely to Murder” is Gregor’s feature film debut. He and Mand have previously written and produced for TV shows such as “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

Gregor spoke to the differences of working on a film versus working in TV, noting that while TV directors are immensely talented, the job of a TV writer more closely resembles that of a film director.

“The writers on a TV show are much more the auteur voices and shepherds of the whole project,” Gregor said. “So in that regard, as writer-producers on TV for many years, Doug and I, that was really a vast majority of training for directing film. In film, the director is sort of the shepherd of the process.”

Pally, who has acted on shows such as “The Mindy Project” and “Making History,” said he was excited to have the premiere at SXSW.

“I love South by,” he said. “Everyone’s been so nice to us, and it’s really cool to have a festival where the fans can get in and see the movie, and it’s not just industry. It’s great.”

“Most Likely to Murder” will be available on digital, VOD and DVD on May 1.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (and more): The documentaries of South by Southwest

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The documentary slate is always strong at South by Southwest; here are a few that our critics felt stood out this year.

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution.”

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” comes from Oscar-nominated “Murderball” director Dana Adam Shapiro. The film, Matt Shiverdecker writes, “tackles our country’s evolving morality in the 1970s through the lens of one of the most overtly sexual icons in American popular culture at that time.”

Review: ‘The most sexed-up cheerleaders anywhere’: Documentary looks at early days of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

Charles Ealy says “Weed the People” makes a powerful argument for marijuana’s medicinal uses. The film looks at “cannabis and its anti-cancer properties – and at how everyday people are making all sorts of efforts to get it to help themselves or their children.”

Review: ‘Weed the People’ makes powerful, poignant case for medical marijuana

“If I Leave Here Tomorrow.”

SXSW is the ideal place to screen a music documentary. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” chronicles the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including its early days and the 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant and several others. Joe Gross says the doc is moving and well made.

Review: The moving ‘If I Leave Here Tomorrow’ chronicles Lynyrd Skynyrd

Shiverdecker calls “TransMilitary” “a provocative and timely documentary … that looks at the difficulties faced by the estimated 15,500 active duty troops in the United States military who identify as transgender.”

Review: Transgender service members fighting to change U.S. military policies

Looking for some gentleness in the world? “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” explores the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Natalie Mokry writes, The documentary makes sure we never forget those beautiful days in the neighborhood.

Review: When the world seems cold, the spirit of Mister Rogers still shines through

“People’s Republic of Desire.”

“People’s Republic of Desire” won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award at SXSW 2018. Gross writes that the film about live-streaming performers in China who vie to make millions from online fans is “a completely bonkers William Gibson sci-fi story come to life.”

Review: The future is now in the terrific ‘People’s Republic of Desire’

Austin loves Bill Murray, and Bill Murray seems to really love Austin. “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man,” which had its world premiere at SXSW, “traces the origin stories of the many legendary tales of Murray popping into other people’s lives,” Matthew Odam writes.

Review: ‘The Bill Murray Stories’ taps into the joy of post-modern America’s spirit animal

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Photos: ‘Daughters of the Sexual Revolution’ red carpet
Find more reviews, interviews and celebrity videos from SXSW Film 2018

It’s not easy being a teen; these South by Southwest movies show us why

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Hormones. Acne. Bullies. School violence. Being a teen is tough (though raising a teen is no walk in the park, either).

Looking back at all the movies our critics reviewed during South by Southwest, I was struck by how many had to do with teens trying to find their place in the world, or parents having to learn to let go.

“Eighth Grade.”

In “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, we follow Kayla (Elise Fisher) as she tries to navigate the last week of that pivotal year. Natalie Mokry says the movie “is incredibly painful because the story is told well and hits so close to home.”

Review: If you hated middle school (who didn’t?) you’ll appreciate ‘Eighth Grade’

“Lean on Pete” tells the story of Charley (Charlie Plummer), a lonely young man looking for a safe home for himself and his horse. Charles Ealy says this movie stand out because of Plummer, “who appears poised to become one of our most versatile young stars.”

Review: ‘Lean on Pete’ shows by Charlie Plummer is destined to be a star

Want to know how social media could be influencing your teens? The documentary “Social Animals” examines the lives of three young Instagramers and how the platform has taken over their lives. Mokry says the film “dives into this generation’s desire for validation” and “will stand as a great documentation of the problematic role social media plays.”

Review: ‘Social Animals’ delves into power and pressures of social media stardom

“Jinn.”

We’ve established that it’s tough to be a teen; now, imagine you’re a black Muslim-American teen. That’s the premise of “Jinn,” which won SXSW’s Special Jury Recognition for Writing award in the Narrative Feature Competition. Ealy says the movie is “about how a young spirit can break through the various cultural restraints teens face.”

Review: In ‘Jinn,’ a young, black Muslim woman finds her spirit

In “Family,” Kate (Taylor Schilling) must step away from her busy corporate life to connect with her awkward niece. Lest you think that sounds like a sickly sweet plot, Matt Shiverdecker says “the true highlight of the entire film is watching Schilling, in full face paint, on stage with the Insane Clown Posse at the Gathering of the Juggalos.”

Review: Family ties and Juggalos combine for funny film starring Taylor Schilling and Kate McKinnon

You think you had it hard as a teen? Try being a young girl who transforms into something wild — and potentially dangerous — at puberty. That’s the premise of “Wildling,” which Ealy says is “a parable, with supernatural and horror undertones. But it’s also a metaphor for being yourself.”

Review: In ‘Wildling,’ puberty can be quite dangerous

“Sadie” is another story of a teen on the dark side. In this movie, a 13-year-old is willing to go to great lengths to try to reunite her parents. Shiverdecker says that director and writer Megan Griffiths “nails the dynamics of her young characters, and both of the young leads give boldly natural performances.”

Review: In ‘Sadie,’ teen goes to dark places to try to keep her family intact

“Blockers.”

OK, let’s give the parents a little time here. “Blockers” takes a comic look at adults who can’t come to terms with the idea of their little girls growing up and exploring their sexuality. Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz bring heart and sometimes raunchy humor to the film as they attempt to foil prom night plans. And as Mokry says, “One of the best things about the movie is how strong and uninhibited its female characters are, especially where the three teens are concerned. Much like their male counterparts, they are young and hormonal, and they don’t shy away from expressing it to one another. ”

Review: Teen sex comedy ‘Blockers’ balances raunchy humor with some heart

Music and family come together in “Hearts Beat Loud,” which stars Nick Offerman as a single father who isn’t ready for his daughter to move across the country for college. Shiverdecker says, “I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career. He brings this character to life with a raw vulnerability and hopefulness that makes you want to root for him no matter the odds.”

Review: Nick Offerman gives what may be his best performance ever in film about power of music

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Photos: ‘Blockers’ red carpet at South by Southwest
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Find more reviews, interviews and celebrity videos from SXSW Film 2018

Daryl Hannah on ‘Paradox,’ her ‘spitball production’ with Neil Young

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Daryl Hannah really likes the term “spitball production.”

“Paradox”

We’re sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons discussing her new movie, “Paradox,” starring Neil Young and some of the folks in Promise of the Real (with whom Young has been touring and making albums for a few years now). It premiered March 15 at South by Southwest, then heads over to Netflix on March 23.

Hannah is joined in this conversation by Promise of the Real’s Micah Nelson (son of Willie) and his girlfriend, Alex. Nelson has been telling me about his middle-school hobby of making stop-motion animation with clay and action figures. This eventually turned into the band/art collective Insects vs. Robots and the “spitball and duct-tape production” he does for that group.

Daryl Hanna on the “Paradox” red carpet at South by Southwest. Scott Moore for American-Statesman

“‘Spitball productions … I like that!” Hannah says, her face lighting up. It’s clearly the ideal term for “Paradox,” a not-really narrative, 72-minute Western that blends some fictional characters played by “Neil and the band, Neil’s mangers, the road crew and our caretakers and friends” with live footage of the band in full flight.

Shot over three or so days on Hannah’s Colorado ranch, “Paradox” came together in September 2016, when the band was taking some time to get used to the altitude in Colorado before playing a show in Telluride and embarking on a short fall tour that included the Desert Trip festival (aka Old ‘chella).

RELATED: Neil Young talks about “Paradox,” his archives and more

The band had a little rehearsing to do, but Hannah knew “they would eventually end up in this beautiful natural setting, sitting around the campfire, making jokes and singing songs. So I said, ‘Let’s catch that! Not make a doc about them sitting out there, but let’s make a little movie.”

Proceeding with a 10-page script for a short, Hannah said the characters started improvising. There’s some performance footage from a few shows and some actual songs and some recordings of playing guitar in the woods. But the most striking musical element is the stuff that sounds like an original score: feedback, enormous-sounding drums, fragments of melody — think Young’s landmark collage “Arc” as a movie score.

REVIEW: Are you a maniacal Neil Young completist? Fantastic. Enjoy “Paradox”

“We got these giant skin drums, and we were just trying out different stuff in the studio,” Nelson said. “We’d look at footage and say, ‘Oh, we need something for this section, let’s jam and record it, and that was it. I think we did that for about a day.”

They even shot a scene out in Luck in “Willieville,” the Western town set from “Red Headed Stranger,” wherein Willie meets Young’s man-in-black character.

“I used to play out there as as kid,” Micah Nelson says. “I was stung by many hornets.”

Eventually Hannah says she would like to make “a real film that is properly made according to traditional norms but still with an imaginative and creative story but also I’m sure I am going to keep making spitball productions. It is very liberating to make art without asking for anyone’s permission.”

Are you a maniacal Neil Young completist? Fantastic. Enjoy ‘Paradox’

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A voice-over fills the first minute of “Paradox,” which screened March 15 at South by Southwest and will be available March 23 on Netflix. Over a shot of a night sky filled with stars, said monologue is read by one Willie Hugh Nelson of Luck, Texas; a green oscillogram on the bottom of the screen maps his dulcet tone:

“Many moons ago, in the future, when the womenfolk had rightfully just about given up on us, a mangy group of outlaws hid out by a precious water source while the real bad guys quietly stole the seeds of life. Thankfully, music still helped our spirits fly.”

So, yeah, that’s what we’re dealing with here.

“Paradox.”

Shot over three or so days in fall 2016 while Neil Young (who has directed movies under the name Bernard Shakey) and the Promise of the Real (his backing band of late that stars Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of the above mentioned Willie) got used to the altitude in Colorado before a short tour, “Paradox” was written and directed by actress Daryl Hannah, Young’s romantic partner since 2014.

RELATED: Neil Young talks about “Paradox,” his archives and more

Shot quick and cheap, “Paradox” blends a vague, possibly improvised Western narrative with a terrific instrumental score and a few new and old songs.  Young has a roles as the enigmatic Man In Black; Lukas and Micah are Western-ish outlaws called Jail Time and the Particle Kid. Sample dialogue: “Those two fellas are the Nelson brothers. The older one, the one on the left, he’s a gunslinger. They call him Jail Time. The other one? The Particle Kid. Nobody knows what planet that boy’s from. The man in the black hat, they all steer clear of him. I heard he can be kinda … shakey.” Oy gevalt.

RELATED: Daryl Hannah on “Paradox,” her “spitball production” with Neil Young

Ever wanted to see Young’s legendary manager Elliot Roberts as a cowboy? He’s in there! There seems to be some mining going on, also plenty of guitar playing. Willie himself pops in for a scene as Red (a scene shot in Willieville).

This was during Young’s anti-Monsanto period, so there are lines such as “Y’all are excited for flowers, but you haven’t yet sowed the seeds. Protect the seeds” and “When saving the seeds is outlawed, it’ll be the outlaws who saved the seeds.”

The guitar playing is, naturally, a highlight. Young and the band run through a song or two, and there’s a furious jam (that feels like the end of “Cowgirl in the Sand”) recorded at Desert Trip, aka Ol’ Chella. And the soundtracky bits — all guitar feedback, vague chordings and massive toms — are totally great, as is the acoustic ramble that floats around here and there.

It is exactly the sort of flick that everyone involved will say was a lot of fun to make. Is it a lot of fun to watch?

Well, how many Neil bootlegs do you own?

Nick Offerman gives what may be his best performance ever in film about power of music

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In “Hearts Beat Loud,” a film absolutely tailor-made for South by Southwest, director Brett Haley (“The Hero”) delivers a heartwarming ode to the healing power of music.

“Hearts Beat Loud.”

Nick Offerman stars as Frank, a single father and occasionally cantankerous record store owner in Brooklyn. He’s having difficulty accepting the fact that his only daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is about to go away to college in the fall. To add insult to injury, she’s taking off across the country to attend UCLA. The father/daughter duo have always casually made music together for fun with impromptu jam sessions at home, but one particularly creative night results in a perfect little song that just so happens to provide our movie with its title. When Sam informs her father that she is not looking to do anything more than make some music in their living room, he’s disappointed but determined to change her mind.

Frank takes a recording of “Hearts Beat Loud” and does an internet search to find out how to release a song on streaming sites. A few clicks of the mouse later, their little home recording is uploading from TuneCore to Spotify under the name We Are Not A Band. A few days later, out at a local bakery, he hears their song playing in the store. Incredulously asking the cashier what is playing, he discovers that the song has already been placed on the curated “New Indie Mix” playlist on Spotify. “We’re on a playlist with Iron & Wine and Spoon!” he says. It’s a plot twist that, especially for struggling indie musicians, might seem a little far-fetched, but isn’t that the promise and magic of the movies?

PHOTOS: “Hearts Beat Loud” red carpet at South by Southwest

In the meantime, Frank’s landlord Leslie (Toni Collette) has been forced to raise the rent on the record store location, and Frank makes the decision to close down after 17 years in business. Not only does he have the expense of Sam’s impending college days to worry about, but his mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner), is slowly beginning to show signs of memory loss and has already been arrested for shoplifting in a local bodega. It’s clear that more time and resources will soon need to be devoted to her care. These are harsh realities to face, but Frank’s excitement over the possibility of success for We Are Not A Band takes precedent in the short term.

SXSW Film review: Toni Collette stars in the truly terrifying “Hereditary”

Now, I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career. He brings this character to life with a raw vulnerability and hopefulness that makes you want to root for him no matter the odds. And Clemons, who starred in the movie “Dope” and has spent some time on Amazon’s “Transparent,” is a revelation here. As Sam, she perfectly expresses the hopeful uncertainty of that transitional time in your life between high school and college. In supporting roles, Texas native Sasha Lane (“American Honey”) is terrific in her few scenes as Sam’s love interest, Collette gets in a raging karaoke cover of Chairlift’s “Bruises,” and it’s a real delight to see Ted Danson behind a bar again as Frank’s best friend Dave.

Just like with “Sing Street” a few years back, this is a movie where I wanted to own a soundtrack the nanosecond it ended. The brilliant original songs as performed by We Are Not A Band were written by Keegan DeWitt, who composed the score for Haley’s last two films. Hopefully, we’ll get them all on vinyl when distributor Gunpowder & Sky begins to release the film in select cities later this summer.

“Hearts Beat Loud” screened March 14 at SXSW; there are not other showings scheduled during the festival. Grade: A-

If you hated middle school (who didn’t?), you’ll appreciate ‘Eighth Grade’

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If you’ve ever wanted to relive the horror of your middle school days, look no further than Bo Burnham’s directorial debut film “Eighth Grade.”

“Eighth Grade.”

Following Kayla during her last days of middle school, we experience her day-to-day struggles with loneliness and crushes. At school, she’s quiet and shy, but at home, she’s a lovable teen who yells at her dad for being lame and makes inspirational “how-to” YouTube videos. Everything she talks about online, she seems to lack in person. Her social media accounts, Snapchat especially, allow her to build an  ideal life, one where she wakes up with flawless skin and makeup on.

This film is incredibly painful because the story is told well and hits so close to home that at certain points it will have you in tears, or make you cringe in your seat.

The use of social media time-stamps it a little bit. A non-millennial or even a teen who doesn’t use social media may not feel as close to it, but at this point, there’s no way to make a coming-of-age film set in this generation without giving Snapchat and Instagram a lead role.

Social media has definitely changed the middle school experience — mostly for the worse, the film argues — making it harder for kids to connect with one another or making it too easy to do so. Every generation has mean girls and guys who are hormonal jerks, but they don’t all have Snapchat stories and Instagram posts to heighten the pain.

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The manner in which Burnham uses Kayla’s reliance on social media to build character is smart. The film devotes a lot of time to scenes without dialogue, focused on just watching Kayla scroll through her accounts, showing us the kind of content she encounters. It could have felt either boring or excessive, but the fact that those moments helped push the story forward all while giving us insight into her character show that Burnham really understands the medium he’s working with and the story he is trying to tell.

In the film, there are definitely more than a few awkward, uncomfortable moments, but thankfully none that goes too far.

Kayla frequently worries about having no friends and girls not liking her at school, but it’s not because everyone is talking about her. It’s the fact that no one is talking about her that worries her. But as she finds out, being noticed or in the spotlight is not as desirable as it may appear.

Kayla’s YouTube videos often serve as her own internal monologues. The voice-over from those is often intercut with scenes where we see her either doing the opposite or following through on the advice she’s giving in the video. They signal her growth in the story without having her just say it all through exposition.

The things you experience in middle school often mark you for life, but they don’t define you, as Kayla learns. In that experience, there’s hope that the future will be better.

“Eighth Grade” premiered at South by Southwest on March 9. It will screen again at 8 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South Lamar.
Grade: B+

Jim Gaffigan’s two-timing ways will make you laugh and cry in ‘You Can Choose Your Family’

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All families have their issues, but most are not as problematic as the one in “You Can Choose Your Family.”

“You Can Choose Your Family.”

The film takes place in the 1990s and centers around Philip (Logan Miller), a high school senior getting ready to graduate and go off to pursue a career in music. His father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), is hard on him. Like, really hard on him. Philip gets into NYU, but Frank tells him he’s not ready for New York City. Philip wants to be a musician, and his father looks down on it. Philip wants to go out with his friend Lewis (Daniel Rashid) for spring break, and Frank forbids it. So, after years of dealing with Frank’s rules, Philip rebels, heads out with Lewis and comes across something that he certainly will come to regret.

During his travels, he discovers his father has a whole other family; a wife, daughter and son, just like his own family. Posing as a son of Frank’s friend, Philip integrates himself into his father’s other family, much to Frank’s dismay, as the two of them attempt to figure out how to deal with the situation.

Immediately following Philip’s discovery and Frank’s knowledge of Philip’s discovery, the film moves at a fun and fast pace, setting up all of the reveals you know are coming. It is consistently exciting, and the story heads in directions that are sometimes unexpected.

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How is Frank going to continue his double life? Will Philip tell his mother and sister? Why is Frank doing this in the first place? The film raises loads of questions and such perfectly thought out answers to them.

For such heavy material, “You Can Choose Your Family” handles the story in a light way, balancing comedy and emotion so that the true stakes are not lost. Gaffigan’s performance is so great, you’ll find yourself forgetting that Frank is a man who’s hard on his son and has kept up two families for a good portion of his life. Ultimately, he’s deceived two women who love him in the name of love itself. For all that the film asks you to take in, it doesn’t ever make you completely justify what Frank’s doing, but there are moments when you’ll feel sympathy.

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Despite the film’s conflict being set in motion by Frank’s deception, the story follows Philip, and it’s his journey for validation from his father that we embark on. There are moments when he feels like a kid who just wants to appease Frank, but he’s a teenage boy, after all, raised by a strict dad. There are going to be plenty of times when he fights back, too, even when Frank is at his mercy.

For such an incredulous premise, nothing in the story feels forced. It’s clear director Miranda Bailey understands family dynamics very well and put in great effort to make them feel genuine rather than idealistic in this film.

“You Can Choose Your Family” is an absolute emotional joy that will have you crying one moment and laughing the next.

“You Can Choose Your Family” premiered at South By Southwest on March 11; there are no more festival screenings. Grade: A