By • Jan 1st, 2007 •

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On Thursday, September 21st, I boarded Jet Blue flight 1069, stocked up with socks and undies, pills and drops, my STREET TRASH belt buckle (created by a Navajo Indian in Tucson) and STREET TRASH t-shirt, some Levitra – just in case…, my airline ticket, and a copy of “I Wake Up Screening’ a fun read by John Anderson and the lovely Laura Kim (marketing and publicity exec at Warner Independent Pictures) , and flew uneventfully down to Austin, Texas for the 2nd annual Fantasy Film Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which my friend Oren Shai, who’d had a film (HEAVY SOUL) in competition at South By Southwest, also held there, claimed was the best movie theater he’d ever seen, and insisted I had to go down if for no other reason than to experience it.

I’d been invited primarily by Kier-La Janisse, one of the Alamo’s four programmers, formerly the founder of Canada’s Cinemuerte, who harbors a particular fondness for STREET TRASH, and persuaded (without too much persuading, I’m told) her fellow programmers that it should be included as a retro piece, a popular concept at most major fests.

The Original Alamo Drafthouse, which I visited, had been a parking garage, which Tim and Karrie League purchased, thereafter implementing their grand design: every other row of seats was torn out, to be replaced by a long table on which movie patrons would drink the beer and food they ordered, and have a rousing good time with whatever (often audience interactive) flick was playing (the night I dropped by it was THE TERMINATOR – with a ‘Mystery Science Theater’ styled trio ribbing the film mercilessly). It was a fabulous idea and a real labor of love of cinema, bringing, as I saw instantly, a sense of grand fun back into movie-going in these far-too-expensive movie-going times. And though eating, boozing, and participating in screen/stage activities are enthusiastically encouraged, annoying ‘living room’ chatter is not, and patrons can summon bouncers who will instantly put a stop to that kind of counterproductive behavior.

That was in ’97. The New Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where the Fantasy Fest was held, opened in 2005, and was formerly a supermarket. Austin is a youth-dominated city, an art-conscious, film-lovers’ city, and this kind of venue, and this kind of film fest, was right up Austin’s collective alley. (Surprising, therefore, that attendance at the STREET TRASH and THE MELTDOWN MEMOIRS screenings were a bit thin…but those who showed were a knowledgeable batch who asked interesting, and sometimes loaded, questions). There was a Portland, Oregon precedent to this kind of architecturally revisionist movie theater, but it’s the first I’d seen of its kind, and the food was great – prepared and delivered by a staff which, at any given time, numbered perhaps fifty. In all, 130 people are employed by the theater, and I was truly impressed by their uniform professional, friendly, and courteous demeanors I’ll never forget Justin (one of the theater managers)’s kindness for that bowl of Amy’s Mexican chocolate ice cream with Ghiradelli sauce…truly beyond the call of duty. Mike & Eddie were swell shuttle-bus commanders. And while at the Hotel, I got to see tens of thousands of bats swirl out into the twilight sky. The bridge under which they hang, dormant, by day was lined with tourists like myself, eager to witness the spectacle. On that particular day, the wind was fierce, and blew the acrid cloud of bats back into our faces! What an experience!

I had been told there was no ‘fine’ dining in Austin, but plenty of ‘good’ food. Maybe that’s true in Austin, but within an hour radius, I must tell you, their modesty is revealed to be merely a myth. Among the delirious delights of which I partook (with the fest organizers’ generous assistance) was a little trip to Lockhart, Texas, to visit Smitty’s Market, said to serve the best barbecue in the state. I’m a barbecue aficionado, if not a barbecue gourmet, and I was utterly thrilled to be driven to this small, unassuming, extremely quiet town, and once there to be taken into an equally unassuming building, down a long corridor, assailed by the smell of barbecue, and the heat of the ovens. The cooks, who I glimpsed in their natural habitat, were straight out of central casting. I couldn’t help but think of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

There was a bright, air-conditioned room where families sat at picnic-type tables and gorged themselves on barbecue, but our host (Karrie League), always pushing for the most authentic experience, insisted on a communal table right next to an open, blazing oven/kiln. This seemed ultimately a smart maneuver, since we were instantly sweating off all the fat and grease that was sliding down our gullets. A mounted antelope-head shield with a baby alligator skull on top adorned the wall. The plates were not plates, but greasy wax paper. I devoured some pop-in-your-mouth sausage, followed by some of their renowned, superb brisket. There were also ribs and prime rib, which I sampled…and no utensils – just white bread, a kind of variation on eating Ethiopian. Beer and RC cola washed it all down.

It was also a nice opportunity to meet some of the other filmmakers, who took the journey to Lockhart with me, an eclectic bunch from as far away as Germany and Sweden. The social environment at the Fest was definitely five star.

Multiple auditoriums were screening horror and sci-fi flicks all evening long at the new Alamo. Resident film critic (for Ain’tItCoolNews.com)/co-programmer Harry Knowles was either holding court in the lobby, or just outside the entrance to the theater. The night STREET TRASH played, a sci-fi flick called GamerZ out-drew us attendance-wise, and I heard it was quite good. One I caught and liked was ISOLATION, which everyone felt was ALIEN on a cow farm, a dark and creepy idea, well-made and well-acted.

THE MELTDOWN MEMOIRS, which I’ve seen projected theatrically several times, never looked as good as it did that day. Most of the myriad fests and horror cons that have sprung up around the country throw together makeshift screening rooms which miserably represent one’s work, but it’s accepted as more or less the nature of the beast. To their credit, the Alamo’s projection systems are superior set-ups, an indicator of the pride the organizers take in their work.

A surprise screening was APOCALYPTO, unfinished, with Mel Gibson in attendance. It was his first public appearance, I was told, since the scandal (check Victoria’s review of APOCALYPTO elsewhere on the site), and a feeling of dread was circulating among the staff that someone would bring up his recent faux pas during the Q & A. But it never happened – Austin was well-behaved. The film, several steps from being fully edited, timed and scored, was more commercial than I’d expected (not a negative thing) and featured the most incredible casting in years. I can’t imagine how long the process took. Art direction was almost equally memorable. An audience member invoked ROAD WARRIOR as a comparison in that regard, not a bad link to have made.

I had such a good time that I’m considering speeding up my usual snail’s pace and completing THE DEFINITIVE DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD in order to qualify for a possible invite back next year…


Some day there may only be IMAX. Some day, when home theaters reach their greatest potential, normal theater going will hold no attraction to us, but the IMAX experience will still be something we cannot replicate in our living rooms. It will still be a reason to shell out the bucks for a ticket, the mool for a baby-sitter, the dough for a soda.

And so, in recent years, possibly with just that in mind, IMAX has been dabbling in the presentation of Hollywood feature films. The cartoons are phenomenal, particularly in IMAX-3D. The features vary – SUPERMAN RETURNS was powerful but the 3D sections didn’t deliver the impact that I was expecting – they seemed a bit thin and green-screened. And now, for the Xmas season, we have NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM.

First the film itself, since IMAX can’t rescue the irredeemable. I’d heard nothing about this film prior to the appearance of its ads. I’m not a Ben Stiller fan, and the thought of seeing him on that monster screen, every pore and makeup stroke staring down at me, several stories high, was not getting my adrenalin up. And the concept seemed… confining.


The first act is weak – both the director (Shawn Levy) and screenwriters (Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon) couldn’t seem to side-step the clichés of the dreamer-father who disappoints his child. Been there, many a time. And the three night-watchmen at the museum were (initially) less than inventively played by Dick Van Dyke (still in fine form, however), Mickey Rooney (great to see him ambulatory, but he was awful – one- note, abrasive, never funny), and Bill Cobb (adequate, but with the least to do).

However, when the second act kicks in, and the pandemonium starts, things begin to look up. Sequence by sequence the narrative gains power, the script becomes complex and genuinely witty, and by the third act, it was a wonderful experience. It’s true, audiences forgive a bad first act if they’re given a great third act. Unfortunately critics can’t. But I ended up really liking the film in balance, and with the caveat of enduring act one, I’m recommending it. Also, the kids in the audience seemed happy, and I think it has a sincere message for families to share.

Stiller, despite my reservations about him, is quite good. Robin Williams is even better than that, a positive-yet-tentative Teddy Roosevelt – playing off the fact that he is, after all, just wax. Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), playing the bulk of her Indian guide exhibit role without dialogue, gets through to our hearts from frame one. And the secondary and tertiary roles are not neglected – Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), for instance, or the female tour guide at the museum (Carla Gugino), are written and directed into endearing, full-bodied performances.

And then there’s the IMAX presentation itself. The (35mm) transfer to IMAX is glorious. It’s a very busy film – scores of little people (as in six-inches-tall) running around, lots of out-of-focus exhibits stomping about in the background – and on that screen, while you may be a little overwhelmed by it all, you definitely get to see it all. Perhaps I didn’t have to witness the imperfections in Mickey Rooney’s skin so microscopically, but them’s the breaks when you get all the other elements displayed in such remarkable relief. The layering and sharpness of the sound is also a joy to bombarded with.

In terms of structure, in terms of anticipating and giving the audience everything it could possibly want, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is one of the best screenplays of the year. And editor Don Zimmerman deserves nearly equal praise. This thing really moves.


Coming up is the Annual NBR event, to be held in a new venue this year – Cipriani’s restaurant – on January 9th, 2007. Eli Wallach is our Career Achievement honoree. Other winners or recipients are LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (Best Film), Martin Scorsese (Best Director), Forest Whitaker (Best Actor), Helen Mirren (Best Actress), VOLVER (Best Foreign Film), AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (Best Documentary), Irwin Winkler (Career in Producing), Ryan Gosling (Breakthrough Award – Actor), Jennifer Hudson and Rinko Kikuchi (Breakthrough Performances – Actress), Jonathan Demme (Career in Directing), and THE DEPARTED (Ensemble Performance), WATER and WORLD TRADE CENTER (Freedom of Expression). Tickets are available as of this writing, and it’s going to be a great evening.

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