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

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.

Bill Murray is officially in Austin for SXSW. Thought you’d want to know.

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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.

Actor Bill Murray waits to speak in the Belo Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Murray made an appearance with Cappy McGarr for a donation ceremony of seven poster boards signed by famous comedians including Bill Murray to the university. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

This means you should keep your eyes peeled this weekend. The “Groundhog Day” actor is known to appear in Austin when you least expect it: like at a Lupe Fiasco show last year at the Belmont, or at Franklin Barbecue. You never know who you might run into.

RELATED: SXSW: ‘The Last O.G.’ star Tiffany Haddish loves Lucy (and Jackée)

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.

Actor Bill Murray speaks in the Belo Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Murray made an appearance with Cappy McGarr for a donation ceremony of seven poster boards signed by famous comedians including Bill Murray to the university. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
After a donation ceremony, Actor Bill Murray exits the Belo Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Saturday, March 17, 2018. UT alumnus Cappy McGarr donated seven poster boards signed by famous comedians including Bill Murray to the university. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Actor Bill Murray with Department of Communication Studies Dean Jay Bernhardt and UT alumnus Cappy McGarr in the Belo Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Saturday, March 17, 2018. McGarr is an executive producer and creator of The Kennedy Center?s Mark Twain Prize which is the nation?s highest honor for humor. Cappy donated seven poster boards signed by famous comedians including Bill Murray to the university. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Actor Bill Murray and UT alumnus Cappy McGarr tie on ribbons after a ribbon cutting during a donation ceremony of seven poster boards signed by famous comedians including Bill Murray to the university from McGarr in the Belo Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Saturday, March 17, 2018. McGarr is an executive producer and creator of The Kennedy Center?s Mark Twain Prize which is the nation?s highest honor for humor. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Actor Bill Murray speaks in the Belo Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Murray made an appearance with Cappy McGarr for a donation ceremony of seven poster boards signed by famous comedians including Bill Murray to the university. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Alamo Drafthouse hosting women-only ‘Wonder Woman’ screening

Amazon sisters, this one is for you. Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse announced a women-only screening of “Wonder Woman” at the downtown Ritz theater on June 6.

GAL GADOT as Diana in the action adventure “WONDER WOMAN,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“The most iconic superheroine in comic book history finally has her own movie, and what better way to celebrate than with an all-female screening?” the screening announcement on the Drafthouse website reads. The one-night-only event is for “Women (and People Who Identify As Women) Only,” and that includes the theater staff. According to the Drafthouse, the venue staff, projectionist and culinary team for the screening will also all be women.

RELATED READ: Some Austin movie fans’ screams might be in the next ‘Star Wars’

Unfortunately, the screening is now sold out. But stay tuned, Themyscirans, in case the theater decides to lengthen its lasso for additional dates. According to a comment from the Drafthouse on Facebook, more Amazons’ nights out are on the way.

At SXSW, intricate, hyperviolent ‘Free Fire’ makes bloodshed fun again

You know what they say about men and guns. The longer the rifle, the … well, you finish that however you please. Ben Wheatley’s stylish and adrenaline-soaked shootout flick “Free Fire,” which hit South by Southwest on Monday night at the Paramount Theatre, also lets you draw your own conclusions about toxic masculinity. It also draws blood. So very much blood — 7,000 bullets’ worth, in fact.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in “Free Fire.” Contributed by Kerry Brown

Without spoiling the central conceit of the film too much — because it’s worth it to mutter “WHAT IN THE NAME OF MARTIN SCORSESE IS HAPPENING HERE” to yourself organically — the British director’s wry, sometimes slapstick action comedy concerns an arms deal gone bad very quickly and very hyperbolically.

In 1970s Boston, “in it for myself” Justine (Brie Larson, quietly suffering fools but also visibly rolling her eyes) brokers an arms deal between two gangs in a wrecked warehouse. On the gun-buying side, IRA operative Chris (a noble and surprisingly uncreepy Cillian Murphy) and his associates, including a raw-nerved and recently jumped junkie (Sam Riley). On the gun-running side, flamboyant boss Vernon (“District 9’s” Sharlto Copley, having a hoot as a flamingo who thinks he’s a hawk but who’s really a turkey), smooth-talking Ord (Armie Hammer, visibly in the throes of an endorphin rush) and their partners. When an unfortunate and unrelated coincidence leads to gunfire for non-commercial reasons, a madcap ensemble shootout ensues.

If that makes you think of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction,” it’s no stretch of the imagination that Quentin Tarantino and Wheatley watched a few of the same movies growing up. Technically speaking, “Free Fire” is a Swiss timepiece spinning until its hands fly off. The cast spends most of its time crawling and rolling and scooting behind crates and rubble, hobbled by bullets and any number of gory indignities. It’s a cartoonishly bloody ballet with constantly rising stakes and continually bruising egos, though sometimes at the expense of clear motivation. One can only imagine what the set looked like from above during filming. Wheatley, for his part, confirmed during an audience Q&A alongside Hammer and Copley that the blocking was a well-considered affair, despite any illusions of control cast members like Hammer might have had.

Armie Hammer and Ben Wheatley at the “Free Fire” screening at SXSW on March 13 at the Paramount. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW

RELATED: See photos from the “Free Fire” red carpet and premiere at SXSW 2017

Speaking of Hammer, he’s made a career out of playing hunks of varying preppiness. He’s never been better served than here as an affably arm-draping bear of a bohemian, simultaneously above the rat-infested world he moves in but equally capable of holding his own within it. Larson, who looks so very at home in Cheryl Ladd finery, is criminally underserved, though. One could read that as a metatextual statement on fiercely intelligent women forced to look out for No. 1 in a system run by insecure cavemen with itchy trigger fingers. That might be too charitable to the script. She shines amid grime, but would it have killed Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump to throw her a little scenery to gnaw on, too?

It’s Copley, odious and charismatic, who steals the show, which is obviously the point of casting Sharlto Copley in your hyper-stylized shoot-em-up. Guy Ritchie wishes he had him in his stable. Copley, in the tackiest suit of ever tailored, swans about in (mostly) impotent rage, hiding a nigh unstoppable drive that leads to one scene straight out of a horror movie.

Wheatley at one point compared his characters to Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company, a motley crew of 1960s DC Comics soldiers, and said he would be game to direct a movie about the good sergeant. After a dangerously fun game of checkers like “Free Fire,” a ragtag comic book war game seems like a natural progression.

If the film has a glaring flaw, it is in the chaos that it so gleefully embraces. The endpoint of the melee is constantly obscured. Is it the money? Escape? Victory? Revenge? Making a well-timed phone call? Keeping senses of masculinity fully intact? It’s easy to hand-wave but makes for a plot with a few hollow bones. Similarly lost in the frenzy are the characters’ relationships, including a burgeoning flirtation between Larson and Murphy that only seems important when the script tells us it should be. Also lost: a couple entire characters, truth be told.

The head-spinning is ultimately worth it. As an entry in the genre canon, “Free Fire” rides its inventive premise into the sunset with snarky sadism and plenty of disco-era hair and flair. When boys love their toys a little too much, someone always loses an eye.

Jon Hamm reveals his favorite breakfast taco on SXSW red carpet

Actor Jon Hamm, in case you forgot, attended the University of Texas at Austin between 1989 and 1990. On the red carpet for the new Edgar Wright film “Baby Driver,” we asked him about what he remembers from his college days.

Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro

The “Mad Men” star waxed nostalgic for Kerbey Lane Cafe and a more modest Austin skyline. He also revealed his breakfast taco of choice.

REVIEW: The insanely fun “Baby Driver” celebrates turning up the tunes and hitting the gas

 Watch the full video to find out what Hamm puts in his tortilla. (It’s not ham.)

Hamm left the university in the fall of 1990 after being implicated in an alleged hazing incident, according to reports.

Not quite an Oscar, but close: Octavia Spencer gets Franklin Barbecue sauce at SXSW

Not only did Octavia Spencer not have to wait in line for a taste of Franklin Barbecue. They rolled out the red carpet for her at South by Southwest on Saturday.

Well, not quite. But as the Oscar-winning actress made her way into Austin’s Paramount Theater for the world premiere of her thriller, “Small Town Crime,” she was awarded a bottle of the Austin joint’s signature espresso sauce. The gift-giver said he heard she was a fan.

Spencer gave her best spokeswoman audition for the barbecue favorite, posing with the bottle like she was Florence Henderson with a bottle of Wesson. The “Hidden Figures” star assured the slightly soggy SXSW attendees surrounding her that the sauce is indeed the good stuff.

Want to eat like Octavia Spencer while you’re in town? We can show you the way to Franklin and a few other local favorite eateries.

On Friday night, the cast of Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song” also walked the SXSW red carpet. Watch footage below.

New Ryan Gosling movie trailer full of Austin spots; help us ID them all

One of the most thrilling manifestations of Austin’s regional narcissism: trying to identify local haunts in every movie filmed here.

Whether it’s Bass Concert Hall in “Miss Congeniality,” the Georgetown High School stadium in “Varsity Blues” or a liquor store on Brodie Lane in “Boyhood,” we love to see our geography looming large on the big screen. That’s one reason we were so stoked for the “Song To Song” trailer, released last week.

From left, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling star in Terrence Malick's "Song to Song." Contributed by Van Redin / Broad Green Pictures
From left, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling star in Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song.” Contributed by Van Redin / Broad Green Pictures

The first substantial peek at Terrence Malick’s new movie — starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman and set to debut at South by Southwest this year — is chock full of familiar sights. Luckily, Statesman multimedia producer Alyssa Vidales is the human equivalent of the “COMPUTER, ENHANCE” scene from every episode of “CSI,” and she’s identified lots of Austin landmarks in the clip. Now, we’re not 100 percent on some of these, and there are few we still need help identifying. See if you can help.

First, we’ve got what is obviously Sixth Street heading west toward Congress Avenue, a drive we’ve all made many times but never with Gosling at the wheel.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

There’s plenty of Austin City Limits Music Festival to be seen, including a shot of Mara outside some fences near what appears to be Lou Neff Road (though we had guessed Barton Springs Road earlier) …

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

… and a lingering scene of the actress and Fassbender canoodling in the middle of Zilker Park. Scope that pop-up festival bar.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

Speaking of canoodling, if Fassbender is not your choice of fantasy ATX makeout partner, we peeped a Gosling smooch at now-shuttered ElevenEleven on South Congress Avenue.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

We’re thinking this is somewhere on U.S. 290. Can you identify the exact location from the sign that says “____ Star”? (UPDATE: A commenter suggested that this is The Rustic Star furniture store in Fredericksburg, and the Google Maps investigation checks out.)

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

There’s only one place that this string of pride flags could be: West Fourth Street. Looks like just outside Hangar Lounge and just east down the block from Oilcan Harry’s.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

For comparison:

(Alyssa Vidales/American-Statesman)
(Alyssa Vidales/American-Statesman)

Now this one is a big ol’ stab in the artfully illuminated dark, but could this glowing spot be the Architects of Air exhibit that was in Austin in 2015? Or maybe it’s the James Turrell installation at the University of Texas. The artist and Malick are known associates, even if the colors and lines are wrong. But the filming time frame wouldn’t necessarily match up. We know Malick shot some of “Song To Song” in Austin between 2011-12.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

Oh, and that time frame is when we know the cast was filming at Fun Fun Fun Fest, clearly seen here in the trailer.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

Back to the subject of lights, could this festive scene perhaps take place at the Trail of Lights?  UPDATE: Austin360 producer Katey Psencik points out that this holiday tableau is most likely Mozart’s Coffee Roasters famous light display!

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

No confusion about this tasteful architectural shape. It’s the Long Center, baby.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

This is almost certainly not in Austin, unless there’s a hidden European micro-village hidden somewhere. (UPDATE: A commenter points out that this is Izamal, Yucatán, in Mexico, which is pretty dang far from Europe.

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

On a more certain note, Austin360 restaurant critic Matthew Odam is pretty sure this dining scene takes place at Asti Trattoria:

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

Compare the wall decoration and the seating with this photo:

Asti, a restaurant in Hyde Park. (American-Statesman file)
Asti, a restaurant in Hyde Park. (American-Statesman file)

However, being the non-millionaires we are, the identity of this high-rise window still eludes us, but it sure looks Austin-y. (UPDATE: One commenter suggests this might be a view from the Four Seasons Residences, which a little sleuthing of condo listings reveals as a distinct possibility. Check the view.)

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

So, Austin cinephiles and archaeologists alike: Can you help us confirm the identities of any of these local sights or any others in the trailer? Watch the full trailer, leave a comment on this post and we’ll update our findings.

Some Austin movie fans’ screams might be in the next ‘Star Wars’

Just this weekend, in a galaxy that’s real, real close, some movie fanatics learned their voices were more powerful than they could have possibly imagined.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Butt-Numb-A-Thon — that’s the off-the-wall film marathon masterminded over the years by film buff Harry Knowles, Drafthouse founder Tim League and Kristen Bell — was held this past weekend at Alamo Drafthouse. According to Knowles, attendees at this year’s 18th edition unwittingly attended a voice-over session Sunday for the eighth episode of the “Star Wars” franchise.

RELATED: Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ ‘Batman v Superman’ and the limits of fan service’

Apparently, director Rian Johnson, who’s helming that upcoming film and is a longtime BNAT supporter, showed up this year with something special in mind.

That’s right: Johnson asked a bunch of film geeks to scream into his phone and said the noises will make their way into the next intergalactic “Star Wars” adventure. (Besides “Rogue One,” of course.) Plenty of folks in the audience backed Knowles up on Twitter, too.

No clues about what the sound will be used for, however. Johnson was mum on Twitter.

Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to Kristen Bell as an actress. The Butt-Numb-A-Thon organizer is also the director of Fantastic Fest, not the star of “Frozen.”

Watch Melissa McCarthy’s new Alamo Drafthouse ‘don’t talk’ PSA

Actress/physical comedy dynamo Melissa McCarthy has provided her services to Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse for one of their signature “don’t talk” PSAs. The results are … beefy.

Credit: Alamo Drafthouse via YouTube
Credit: Alamo Drafthouse via YouTube

In the clip uploaded to YouTube on Monday, the “Bridesmaids” star takes a break from her fitness regimen to explain why patrons should keep their screens to themselves. Also, she pumps iron (ish) with fitness models.

Watch the PSA below.

Also coming to a theater near you, Drafthouse or otherwise: McCarthy in the “Ghostbusters” reboot.

Readers: Show us your ‘Star Wars’ photos!

Is your desk so crowded with Stormtrooper action figures that it looks like the Death Star? Have you dressed like Han Solo every Halloween for ten years straight? Does your dog bear an uncanny resemblance to Yoda? Then show us, and we’ll show the rest of the world!

The Statesman, in celebration of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opening this week, wants photos that show the utmost of fandom from our readers. Costumes, souvenir collections, themed Christmas light displays? Bring ’em on. Send your pictures to, and we will collect the best ones in a photo gallery.

John and Niki Powers dress as Star Wars characters Princess Leia and Bobafet on the first day of Wizard World Austin Comic Con at the Austin Convention Center on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. (ERIKA RICH / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Josh and Niki Powers dress as Star Wars characters Princess Leia and Boba Fett on the first day of Wizard World Austin Comic Con at the Austin Convention Center on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. (ERIKA RICH / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

May the Force of excellent lighting be with you.