Opening Night at Alamo Ritz: Nick's Story

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We have a home again.

Since the last night of the original Alamo Drafthouse, the hardest of the hardcore Alamo regulars have been, well, on the streets. Sure, there's South Lamar, which had some great events like Fantastic Fest and guests like ­Donkey Kong Champion Steve Wiebe, kept Weird Wednesday going and featured a lot of great stuff and good times.

But it's just not the same. It's not quite the same waiting in line for a Weird Wednesday screening of a long forgotten sexploitation film and seeing the people from the latest Superbad screening coming out.

Of course, nothing can ever truly replace 409 Colorado, but the new Alamo Ritz is definitely a worthy place to carry on the tradition of badass cinema.

One note before I continue on: October 31 was the target date of the opening of Pangaea, the exclusive club that took over the original Alamo location. On Halloween I checked -- their doors are still completely boarded up and they're far from­ completion.

So, how is the new Alamo?

The Alamo Ritz is a hybrid. The lobby is a cozy space that fits the name of the place -- rich carpeting, fancy wallpaper. It gives the feeling that theaters once had -- that going out to see a movie was something special, that it was an occasion that meant something, a treat, a reward, something that you dressed up for. The small theatre (which I got a brief tour of) really reminded me of 409 -- a slight slant, the original screen, but everything (especially the screen) has been cleaned up. The seats are new, some of the fixtures are the same. It's smaller than the original Alamo (both theaters house less) but you can get a real intimate experience in this one. The largest house feels like a spacious South Lamar theatre. I think the screen is bigger (it seems that way) the drop is more, and it just feels huge. It's hard to believe that it holds less than 409, looking at it I just don't believe it.

The opening of the theatre was quite an event -- reportedly after the unrolling of the red carpet, one of Sixth Street's more eclectic of residents looked it over and then told programmer Zack Carlson, "Red carpet lesbian witch toilet" and promptly left. That's how we open a theatre in Austin! The media came out to do their live reports, to take pictures (there's a lousy one of me and a friend on the Statesman's A-list blog), the Alamo regulars returned and everything went great. For about 15 minutes. Then the air conditioning got stuck on. I've always been cold in movie theaters (carrying around a jacket in July always felt dumb, but necessary) but this was like nothing else.

To inaugurate the opening, Owner, Founder and Hero Tim League came out and jumped on the the large theater's six-foot-high stage, showing that it wasn't going to collapse -- that truly the Ritz was done (mostly - the stairs to the stage were made out of zip-tied milk crates). Tim thanked a long list of people who made all of this possible and gave us a little history of the Ritz as a "cowboy theatre," which showed Westerns to real cowboys who would sometimes fire their guns at the screen. The spirit of guns-blazing cinema will continue at the Alamo Ritz.

Tim then brought out head chef Trish Eichelberger who explained some of the menu (mostly how the new Mac'n'Cheese wasn't ready yet) and how for the mushroom feast she ordered over 60 pounds of mushrooms. Which is even more than it sounds. The Ritz has a number of new menu items, ranging from a new pizza, to tacos, to steak. As a heavy Alamo enthusiast, I'm always very happy to see a new item or a specialty item on the menu, probably because I eat there too much.

Mantango aka Attack of the Mushroom People

The first movie of the Ritz is one of Tim's favorites, but one that he never thought would attract people, so he put it in a place where they'd have to see it! The print of this movie is absolutely stunning. Vibrant, colorful, rich. The combination of the Japanese film stock and the Sixties neon made the opening shots of this movie absolutely beautiful.

The movie is quite a surprise: Instead of being a standard somewhat cheesy "monster comes and attacks people" movie, this one takes a whole different dynamic. A group of people become shipwrecked and wash up on an island. There's very little food and what little evidence there is of previous human life has been overrun by fungus. It's quickly discovered from old records that eating the mushrooms will give you a large dose of a deadly toxin and make you go insane and die. Giant mushroom people are involved, but that's most of it. Instead of taking the premise of killer mushrooms, the movie decides to take a look at the characters and how they cope with the situation presented to them. There's a lot of group dynamics involved and a pretty intelligent screenplay. I'm willing to bet that a lot of people were as surprised by this movie as I was.

After a short break to warm up, we got underway with a second introduction for the night. This time Tim presented us with some montages of the Ritz's past. In the early Eighties, the Ritz became THE place for the Austin punk scene, attracting bands like Minor Threat and Fugazi. I particularly liked this montage because it featured a bit of a rant from Jello Biafra before his Dead Kennedys launched into "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!" Those who knew the words joined in. The first sing-along at the Ritz.

We then were shown a photo montage from Afsheen Nomai's photo chronicles of the construction of the Ritz, culminating with the ill-fated champagne christening during Fantastic Fest that left many scarred for life. However, in that spirit we toasted the new Alamo, declaring it to be awesome.

Tim then started hyping us for No Country For Old Men, giving us the security lowdown -- no cameras, recording devices or cordless phones. Yeah, he was a little bit tired.

No Country For Old Men

I'd seen No Country before and I originally really loved it up until a point where it just seemed to run out of gas. This time I liked the ending a bit more, and everything else a bit less. Surprise seems to be a big factor in this one, the performances are great, but it's not the great film that all the early reviews from Cannes and the like were promising. I will, however, note that the performance by Beth Grant, who plays the mother, is the best performance I've seen this year that wasn't in a Paul Thomas Anderson film.

It's a good film, but not a great one.

Before the third (and final) film of the night, the Alamo staff set up a model of the city of Austin. From under the stage a man in a black gorilla costume came out and started parading around like King Kong. Afterwards a man in a pink gorilla costume came out and fought him, destroying the model city in the process. Tim explained, saying that they had perhaps the best "destroy Tokyo" movie around, but he didn't want to explain too much and introduced a very good friend of the Alamo, Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin gave an introduction that showed why he is so great at them. He gave just the right amount of information to show his enthusiasm: a little bit of trivia and detail behind the making of it, but also to pique our interests, bits of things to look forward to during the movie. I couldn't possibly go into the various points-of-interest that he got into, it was great to see him introduce a movie at the Alamo again.

War of the Gargantuans

I will have to say, this movie starts off a little slow, but that's because of the trappings of the giant monster genre. They all start with about two people discovering the monster and then nobody else believing them, and about a reel of questioning its existence. Once we get past that, the movie does a lot of great things. The Gargantuans are twin monsters (one brown, one green) that have completely different demeanors (one peaceful, one violent). The movie addresses people struggling to save the peaceful one instead of letting it be killed along its vengeful brother.

What's really great is that they allowed the characters some dynamic range -- instead of being just "Smash, kill, destroy," they let them learn and to try settle their differences other ways. The effects are also top-notch for the time. There's some early blue-screen stuff and some great trickery all around. Some of it I'm not sure how they did it. But what's really great is the detail they put into the film. During the "smash Tokyo" sequence, buildings come open and you can see the details inside. I can't imagine the hours somebody spent on those models just to have them crushed.

But the true gem from the movie? An utterly out-of-place and bizarre song called, "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat" -- and we get to hear the whole song. It's not a good song, but then they have lyrics like "If there was a secret microphone hidden in my heart/ it would amplify my love for you." An instant classic.

After the movie Tim gave us a quick "thanks for coming" and those remaining filed out into the lobby, where we talked and laughed and had fun.

It was just like old times.

We have a home again.

[Ed. Note: Nick wants to make sure you know that Slackerwood received this article before the Writers Guild strike began, so he did not violate his vow to avoid writing in sympathy with the strikers.]