Movies about music are a natural fit for South by Southwest and for film fans here in the Live Music Capital of the World; here are four that caught our critics’ attention.
“If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.” This documentary from Stephen Kijak chronicles the history of the Southern rock band, including its early days and the 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant and several others. Read Joe Gross’ review of the doc, which is expected to air on CMT sometime this year (just try not to yell “Free Bird!” at your TV when you watch).
“Hearts Beat Loud.” Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) stars as a single father who isn’t ready for his daughter to move across the country for college; the sudden success on Spotify of a song they wrote together adds to the complications. Read Matt Shiverdecker’s review of the movie, in which he writes, “I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career.” The film is scheduled to open in select cities this summer; no word yet on an Austin date.
“Blaze.” This biopic about Austin songwriter Blaze Foley stars Arkansas musician Ben Dickey as Foley and Austin musician Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, under the direction of Ethan Hawke. In his review, Joe praises the stunning performances from non-actors and calls the movie “an ode to the artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies.” No release date has been set, but once it comes out, this one is too good to miss.
Feeling some South by Southwest regret? Wishing you could have been a part of the full film experience? Well, I can’t promise that Steven Spielberg will show up at your favorite cinema anytime soon, but I can tell you when you’ll have the chance to see these big-name movies that played during SXSW.
“A QUIET PLACE”: This horror-thriller directed by John “The Office” Krasinski, starring real-life couple Krasinski and Emily “I’m the next Mary Poppins” Blunt, opens April 6. Read Joe Gross’ review of the movie, which he says “works best as a tense fable, a ‘Twilight Zone’ blown into 90 often-gripping minutes.”
“BLOCKERS”: This sometimes raunchy, sometimes heartfelt comedy about teens trying to have sex (and the parents trying to thwart their plans) will be in theaters April 6. Read Natalie Mokry’s review of the movie,which she says “proves that it is possible for subtle and slapstick to coexist rather nicely.”
“FINAL PORTRAIT”: The story of artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and a writer who once posed for him (Armie Hammer) is scheduled to open in Austin on April 13 (but check your listings; this isn’t a nationwide release, so things could change). Read our review from Charles Ealy,who calls it “a subtle rumination on the creation of art.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban
Actor Bill Murray — comedy legend, voice actor in Wes Anderson’s new film “Isle of Dogs,” ever-looming myth in the firmament of daily American life whose presence just over your shoulder should always be assumed — is in Austin on Saturday.
Murray made an appearance at the University of Texas on Saturday to speak at the Belo Center on campus, as part of a ceremony marking the donation of seven poster boards signed by famous comedians, including Murray, to the university.
The North American premiere of “Isle of Dogs” is scheduled to close SXSW Film Festival at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theater. A red carpet event will precede the screening. The documentary “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man” also screened at the festival earlier this week.
Murray will also appear at the Long Center on Sunday for the show “New Worlds,” a “spirited fusion of spoken word, literary readings, and music.”
But you came here for more pictures of Murray. So here you go.
Let the word go forth from this time and place: Ethan Hawke, director of the excellent Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze,” is apparently extremely good at getting stunning performances out of non-actors.
Ben Dickey, a 40-year-old musician from Arkansas, already has been feted at Sundance for his performance as Foley in “Blaze,” but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it on the big screen. It’s a tour de force of oversized charm and verve, a living ballad of song-writer-as-ramblin’-man (and almost compulsive screw-up).
Gauzy without being cloyingly mythic, Hawke lets us know Foley’s tragic end right up front — he died in 1989 at the edge of 40, shot during an altercation over his friend’s disability check, a death that might have been too strange and pointless and heroic and sad to even make for a good song.
After we meet Foley, in full Duct Tape Messiah mode, screwing around the studio with friend and running buddy Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, equally excellent in a completely different tone than Dickey), we flash back over a decade (we think) and see Foley as a younger man doing construction work in a theater.
He meets Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, earthy and vibrant), a young aspiring actress in … Arkansas, we think. (It is Rosen’s memoir upon which the film is based.)
Soon they are inseparable and living in a treehouse/cabin thing in the Georgia woods (right?). He is working on songs and dispensing almost Zen koans about life and art, she is acting and keeping a sort of vague house — they are Southern, post-hippie bohos of the first rank. Dickey and Shawkat do a phenomenal job embodying a relationship that neither of them really ever got over, such was its perfection.
We flash forward and back over the years as Hawke loosely braids a few plot threads. We see Townes and Zee (Josh Hamilton) conducting a myth-building radio interview about Blaze. We see Foley as a near-constantly drunken troubadour, small band in tow, cutting a live album at the Austin Outhouse that he cannot help but interrupt by getting into a fight.
We see Blaze and Sybil meet her parents (it seems entirely possible Sybil is the first Jew Blaze ever encountered; during the hang with her folks, the only one he can think of is Zero Mostel). We see them head to Austin, then Chicago, wherein their relationship reaches a point of untenability. Then Blaze heads back to Austin (right?) and the legend builds.
We see the start of the fight where Blaze died. We see his pals try to convey his epic character to a barely interested radio host. We see record execs try to make Blaze a star. We see him die (but, cannily, not shot). We see him missed by those who loved him.
Again, Dickey is luminescent throughout. He is almost never not on-screen and it’s the sort of part that gives veteran actors the shakes. But Dickey gives Foley a bearish charm, self-medicated instability and a swaggering desperation.
If the film has one constant frustration, it is that, in the possible service of timelessness and tonal ramble, Hawke is really vague about when and where things take place. Unless you know Foley well — and most don’t — you have to head to Google to know that his career ran from at most, around 1977 to his death in 1989. A few dates popping up on the screen would not have lessened the mood, Ethan.
But then, this is not a soup-to-nuts biopic. It’s an ode to the artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies. At one point, Foley tells his then-wife Sybil that he wants to be a legend rather than a star. Bullseye.
“You can make out the silhouettes of our past in the morning light,” the title card reads at the beginning of Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri’s documentary “Agave: The Spirit of a Nation,” which made its world premiere at South by Southwest last weekend and screens again Saturday afternoon.
Combine the vague quote that touches on cultural history and naturalism and blend it with the dark images of workers starting pre-dawn days in agave harvesting, and you get a nice encapsulation of the tone and message of this 75-minute documentary.
As an spirit lover knows, over the past several years, mezcal production has skyrocketed. It lags behind tequila in popularity, but the explosion of that spirit led to a watering down, as corporations used to diffusers squeeze the last drop of juice from the plant and the distilling process introduced non-traditional ingredients like sugarcane to stretch the production and increase profit.
Mezcal, made from more than 200 varietals of agave as opposed to the single-source blue agave that fuels tequila, has traditions that extend centuries. The harvesting of agave, the artisanal production methods of harvesting, roasting and fermenting the product has long connected thousands of Mexican families to their land and to history.
As demand has increased in recent years, many of these families fight to preserve their traditional approach, hoping to protect their families’ legacies. The film traces the stories of mescal producers Carlos Camarena, Graciela Angeles Carreño of Mezcal Minero Real and Aquilino García Lopez of Mezcal Vago in Jalísco and Oaxaca, as the trio reveal their personal histories with the spirit and elucidate its importance in establishing and growing their families and businesses.
The movie, which at times uses a somewhat corny voice-over you’d expect at a museum instillation, touches briefly on mezcal and tequila’s history, glossing over periods of colonialism and the corporate tequila boom of the last few decades, but it mostly tells the general story of mezcal by focusing on the three main characters’ person stories.
We learn of Camarena returning to lead the family business at the behest of his father, of Angeles Carreño playing the role of business leader and caretaker for her family’s legacy, and of García Lopez, whose sections of the movie give the most visceral sense of the artisanal nature of the back-breaking work involved in producing mezcal the traditional way.
Questions arise about the role of global climate change on agave cultivation and the conflict of trying to keep children at home working with mezcal when greater opportunity awaits beyond their hometowns, but the true crisis that agave faces or how these families will be able to stem or fit into a more global and industrialized world never feels completely fleshed out.
While that bigger overhead view of the situation in Mexico is lacking, the passion and heart of those featured rings true. So, when García Lopez says, “People have been selling mezcal like it is only an alcohol, but in its essence, it is truly so much more,” you understand that, as she says, mezcal is part of her genetic makeup.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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. ”
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.”