Mike Saulters's blog

Alamo Drafthouse Shares Their Favorite 100 Films

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What are your five favorite movies, the ones you can watch over and over, that you would pick to watch if you were stranded on a desert island with nothing else to do for the rest of your life?  That's what the Alamo Drafthouse asked fans this week in a question that hinted at the subject of a secret event and announcement last night by Tim League and the Austin Alamo programming team.

That announcement was the creation of the Alamo 100, the essential list of films as selected from the top 100 favorites of each of the Drafthouse programmers: Sarah Pitre, Greg Maclennan, Joe Ziemba, Tommy Swenson, RJ Laforce, and Tim League.  Intended as a celebration of the best movies to watch, the list is not bound by genre, nor is it stuffy and limited to "classics."  It begins, alphabetically, with 10 Things I Hate About You and ends with You've Got Mail, but includes many titles one would expect, such as Casablanca, The Godfather (Part I and II) and Pulp Fiction.

As a celebration of the list, Drafthouse theaters nationwide will screen seven of the titles in January -- Brazil, The Goonies, Raging Bull, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sixteen Candles, City Lights and Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- with more to come throughout the year. Those who attend these screenings will receive custom buttons created for each film, which included the secret title from last night's screening, the 1931 Charlie Chaplin film City Lights -- Tim League's #1 pick, which also made the lists of three other programmers.

Review: Frozen

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Disney's FrozenThe movie Frozen may be Disney's best animated film in 20 years. The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is a return to Disney classic form with a few new twists on old tropes.

The pairing of composer Christophe Beck (Pitch Perfect, Burlesque) with lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez recaptures some of the magic of Menken/Ashman from 1989-1992 in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who also shared directing duties with Chris Buck (Tarzan), carefully balances dark subject matter with good-natured humor as it transports the audience into a magical frozen world.

Idina Menzel won a Tony for her Broadway performance in Wicked as Elphaba, the misunderstood "wicked witch" forced into isolation by her appearance and powers. The role of snow queen Elsa she plays in Frozen is not a very far stretch from that character, though she is not the heroine of this tale.

Princess Anna is voiced by Kristen Bell, who also performs her own songs. Who knew Kristen Bell could sing like this? Performing in four tracks that include duets with Santino Fontana, Josh Gad, and Menzel, her voice is flawless.

The most memorable numbers in Frozen, however, are "In Summer," performed by Josh Gad (Jobs, Ice Age) about a snowman's light-hearted musing on dreams of warm weather, and "Let It Go," which inspired youngsters in the audience to sing along with the credits.

After she accidentally injures younger sister Anna while playing with her budding magical powers, Elsa's parents hide her away, isolated from people in order to avoid hurting them. She grows up striving to repress, rather than control, her feelings and thus her powers. After their parents' deaths, Elsa comes of age and must assume her role as queen at a coronation ceremony, resulting in a disaster from which she flees.

Review: Thor: The Dark World

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Thor: The Dark WorldBigger, better and more full of thunder, Thor: The Dark World smashes onto screens this weekend. The sequel to 2011's Thor -- part of the Marvel Avengers movie continuity -- catches up with characters Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) several years after the first installment.

The story by writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne and Robert Rodat was directed by Alan Taylor, who has a few feature credits but has directed episodes of numerous TV favorites including among his credits Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, The West Wing, The Sopranos and most recently, Game of Thrones.

Taylor's experience directing Game of Thrones is immediately on display as the film opens with a battle scene in which Asgardians and Dark Elves do battle using a combination of medieval weaponry and laser fire. In a greatly expanded role, Anthony Hopkins' Odin narrates the battle fought by his father (Tony Curran in an uncredited role) against Dark Elves who seek to kill all other life and return the universe to darkness. Now, the nine worlds are coming into a once-every-five-thousand-years alignment, and the time is ripe for the Dark Elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) to try again.

Comic book fans may be displeased by changes to established details and storylines, but Thor: The Dark World is a crowd-pleaser. More of the action takes place on Asgard where in addition to Hopkins, Rene Russo enjoys a much more involved role as Frigga, Thor's mother. The rest of the gang is back including Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Zachary Levi as Fandral, Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun and Idris Elba as Heimdall, all of whom serve more important roles than the set dressing they provided in the previous film.  A newcomer to the Marvel universe, Chris O'Dowd appears as a matter-of-fact blind date for Portman's Foster, and Alice Krige makes a brief surprising appearance.

Mondo Gallery Illustrates 'Tales From The Crypt'

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Mondo Gallery's latest show, featuring art inspired by EC Comics and Tales From The Crypt, opened recently and will run through November 23. I was able to attend the opening-night preview and take some photos.

Works included pieces by artists Ken Taylor, Mike Budai, Francesco Francavilla, Ken Garduno, Alex R. Kirzhner, Jeff Lemire, Drew Millward, Gary Pullin, Ash Thorp, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Jacob Bannon, Kraken, Jim Rugg, Michael Hacker, Luke Drozd, Bruce White, Jason Edmiston, Shawn K. Knight, Jack Davis, Brandon Holt, Florian Bertmer, Scarecrowoven, Eric Skillman, Paolo Rivera, Mark Todd, Chris Mooneyham, Angryblue, Neal Russler, Phantom City Creative, William Stout, James Flames, Shane Hillman, and Graham Erwin.

Review: Ender's Game

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Ender's Game

Opening this weekend, Ender's Game represents something of a puzzle. The movie is based on a novel considered by many to be the greatest work of science fiction ever written, but authored by Orson Scott Card, controversial as a homophobic contributor to the anti-gay marriage movement. Many people have vowed to boycott the film because of Card's views, but Ender's Game is a story that deserves to be told.  

It was a bold move to put such a sizable production for such an important story into the hands of Gavin Hood, director of the much maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The resulting film, however, does manage to hit the important points of an extensive story while failing to completely do it justice.

The premise is a future Earth that has survived an alien invasion through the heroics of one exceptional leader. Seventy years later, the government is seeking a new leader for an attack force who has the ability to understand the enemy and the genius to defeat them.

Children are considered the only viable candidates, and Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) represents the greatest hope for success. Leading his training is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who has some unconventional ideas about instruction. Vilified for being smarter and more successful than his peers, Ender is manipulated by Graff into being emotionally detached from his classmates in order to make him a better leader.

Watching the movie Ender's Game, I had a feeling that never occurred as I read the book -- that it vaguely resembles the Harry Potter books. Ender is no orphan, but is separated from his family. He's everyone's hope for victory, and he's the star player of zero-gravity quidditch. This is likely the result of adapting an involved novel into only 114 minutes. A story that takes place over four years is compressed into little more than a few months. Sweeping plotlines from the source are abandoned, and what remains must be calculated to sell (and therefore pleasantly omits the anti-gay slurs found in Card's book).

Review: The Counselor

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The CounselorThe Counselor is dirty, very very dirty, sexy-dirty. Beginning with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed, to Cameron Diaz being as carnally, carnivorously slutty as you've never seen her before to Javier Bardem's jaw-dropping monologue describing a night with her, this is a pressure cooker of a film, exploding with steam.

It's also a bemusing piece that challenges actors to play a little outside their established roles. Brad Pitt is not the hero but a little bit of a coward, Fassbender's character is directionless, entirely at a loss for what he should do ... and how often is Javier Bardem a sympathetic good guy?

Writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) is at home in west Texas, but director Ridley Scott makes El Paso look a little more glamorous and busy than it really is. (Only pick-up footage was actually shot there, though.)

The story involves Fassbender, credited only as "Counselor" and never called by name, an attorney who has gotten into debt to a criminal element and goes into business with Reiner (Bardem) and Westray (Pitt) in the hopes of making millions selling drugs through a club he and Reiner plan to open.  In a murky plot that becomes only slightly more clear by the end, a third party arranges to kill a key player and steal the drug shipment, leaving Counselor holding the bag.

It is clear that, like the actors, McCarthy was trying to stretch himself and achieve something great with The Counselor. He succeeded, at least, in creating something remarkably unique. Rambling philosophical diatribes from supporting actors create a thoughtful mood but don't ultimately have a clear meaning, their delivery at times reminiscent of David Carradine's lines in Kill Bill.

In spite of the death of his brother and producing partner Tony mid-shoot, Ridley Scott has done a great job assembling a phenomenal cast and directing a noteworthy film that will be worth revisiting and may perhaps gain some cult status.  

Cinema Touching Disability Film Fest Celebrates its Tenth Year

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CTD Film Fest Logo

The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) hosts its tenth annual Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival and Short Film Competition this November 1 and 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village.

The Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival was founded in 2004 by CTD staffer William Greer, with the goal to counter negative stereotypes about people with disabilities and to celebrate positive portrayals of disability culture. Since its inception, the festival has twice been awarded the Barbara Jordan Media Award for Special Contribution by an Organization.

Events from previous years have included a 2005 screening of What's Eating Gilbert Grape preceded by an interview with star Darlene Cates, an exclusive interview with Dr. Temple Grandin screened in conjunction with the 2009 feature Temple Grandin, and numerous other special guests.

You can buy tickets now for Friday, November 1 featuring the documentary Getting Up: The TEMPT ONE Story -- about graffiti artist Tempt One -- and for Saturday, November 2 featuring The Crash Reel -- a documentary about professional snowboarders. In addition to entry, the $10 tickets are vouchers you can redeem for $10 of food and drink from the Drafthouse menu. Both evening events also include short films from the competition and Q&As.

Polari 2013 Dispatch: A Quartet of Films

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In the Name OfThe best of the films I saw last weekend at Polari 2013 was on Saturday afternoon. Polish writer-director Malgorzata Szumowska explores the feelings of a gay priest working in a school for troubled youths in the poignant film In the Name Of.

Trapped by the requirements of his faith with nobody to whom he can turn for a human connection, Adam (Andrzej Chyra, who bears a strong resemblance to Daniel Craig) longs only for the comfort of human embrace. A good man who always has a positive influence on his charges, Adam never does anything wrong, though almost completely unfounded accusations repeatedly result in his transfer to other parishes.

Szumowska peels back the stoic exterior to reveal the depths of longing and loneliness suffered by a man striving to set the highest example of godliness and the tragic unfairness that can result from unfounded suspicions. In the Name Of is a moving bittersweet story that treated a delicate subject fairly but with tenderness.

While most of the Polari screenings were downtown, Friday night brought a detour to the Marchesa to take in a screening co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society.

Animals is a Spanish film by director Marçal Forés about a troubled teen dealing with feelings for a new classmate with a dark secret. In a failure of mood over substance, the film is beautiful to look at, with an attractive cast acting against the mountains of northern Spain but following an aimless story with little payoff.

Forés oversells the teen angst in an attempt to establish a feeling akin to Donnie Darko and then fails to follow up on numerous hints of deeper backstory to which he has alluded. There is no clear motivation in Animals for just about anything any of the characters do including -- and especially -- a tasteless display of school violence.  

Unfortunately, on Saturday I caught the most boring movie I have ever seen. Shot in Austin, Pit Stop -- directed by Yen Tan, who co-wrote with Dallas filmmaker David Lowery -- stars Bill Heck, Marcus DeAnda and Amy Seimetz in two stories of heartbroken men who converge when they meet for a sex date arranged online. Nothing ever happens to indicate why these two might be right for each other. They don't appear to have much in common, and neither displays any appreciable personality.

Polari 2013 Dispatch: Five Dances

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Polari 2013

The first day of Polari (formerly aGLIFF) happened to coincide with the birthday of the Paramount theater last night.

Opening night found a nearly full house at Stateside Theatre for Alan Brown's award-winning Five Dances. First, however, creative director Curran Nault took the stage to open the fest and along with interim executive director Aaron Yeats and board Vice President Paul Soileau (aka Rebecca Havemayer, aka Christeene), reminisced on the contributions aGLIFF founder Scott Dinger. They announced that henceforth the festival's audience award will be officially known as the Scott Dinger Audience Award.

Five Dances is a sultry, sexy meditation on familiar themes of a rural boy coming to terms with his sexuality after leaving home for the city. Set to a soundtrack rich with cello by Private Romeo composer Nicholas Wright, and interspersed with crooning jazz tunes by Scott Matthew, Gem Club and Perfume Genius, five young attractive supremely talented modern dancers practice and perform a composition in five movements by choreographer Jonah Bokaer as Brown's camera lingers, capturing every form, every curve, the subtle shadows cast by every muscle.

Fantastic Fest Review: The Congress

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The Congress

My favorite selection from Fantastic Fest 2013 combines the best aspects of all genres represented at the fest. It is a powerful science fiction story with an element of horror in biting social commentary played out in a half real, half animated Bakshi-esque environment. Loosely adapted by director Ari Folman from the Stanislaw Lem novel The Futurological Congress, The Congress expands on the story set down by Lem in a production of which he would likely approve.

Robin Wright won a Fantastic Features best actress award at the fest for her role as Robin Wright, a fictional version of herself who is encouraged by her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) to sell her digital likeness to the studios. In exchange for a small fortune that will allow her to spend her life with her ailing son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), she can never perform again even in something as small as a church play.

Wanting to maintain the illusion of control, she consents to a 20-year contract with stipulations that her likeness would not be performing in various kinds of roles to which she would object. Unable at first to get comfortable with the scanning apparatus, Robin displays the full range of her emotions as Al relates a story to her that is alternately happy and heartbreaking. Perhaps as a result, at the end of her contract 20 years later, the studio (cleverly called "Miramount") is pushing for a renewal as her digital image has become the most popular actor in their stable.

This is where the story in The Congress more closely resembles Lem's novel, as Robin travels to the "animated zone" to meet and sign her new contract. A chemical cocktail alters her perceptions, and the world takes on a look as if it were animated by Tex Avery, Max Fleischer, Moebius, and Ralph Bakshi in a shared dream. Desert sands assume psychedelic colors, planes undulate like lazily-swimming whales -- in an aquarium, penis-fish swim around while others have mouths resembling vaginas sucking the glass like algae-eaters.

After a lifetime of making bad choices, Robin still seems to be making them, and she is plunged into a situation that may forever separate her from her family. The Congress spells out thematically a powerful update to Lem's commentary on the role of drugs in modern society and adds to it some statements on the monetization of Hollywood as well as making a critical point about the short attention span of modern audiences. Demonstrating the horror that can lay behind "truth" and the vast loneliness inherent in hiding within a world of dreams and fantasy, Folman presents a world that is simultaneously utopian and dystopian, where actors are reduced to a chemical commodity that can be eaten or drunk, and a shared hallucination allows anyone to be anyone or anything they desire.

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