Back from Butt-Numb-a-Thon

So last weekend I attended the 13th Annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon (also known as BNAT), a 24-hour movie marathon produced in partnership between Harry Knowles of the Ain’t it Cool News website and the Alamo Drafthouse. The event is held in Austin, Texas and is a celebration of Harry’s birthday and proceeds from the event fund the Saturday Morning Kids Club, a monthly free movie series at the Drafthouse which screens family-friendly classics on the last Saturday of every month.

The Alamo Drafthouse, by the way, happens to be the best movie theater in the world. When BNAT began it was held at the Drafthouse’s original location. Now the Drafthouse has multiple locations in Austin, plus franchised outposts in Houston, San Antonio, Denver, and Winchester, Virginia. Not only have they perfected the concept of the cinema grill and have fantastic special programming and events, they do things like this:

Close Encounters at Devil's Tower

Close Encounters at Devil's Tower

Yes, that’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind being screened in front of the actual Devil’s Tower as a Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow event.

This year’s Butt-Numb-a-Thon was the BNAT13WOLF edition, a reference to the long-running gag of promising to play the 1985 Michael J. Fox comedy Teen Wolf in honor of attending Teen Wolf uber-fan Jeff Mahler, but each year the film somehow self-destructs and isn’t shown. This year Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League announced that the film would be screened at BNAT13WOLF, but that due to scheduling demands the pristine 35mm print they had found had to be cut into “literally thousands of pieces” and edited into the program whenever time was available. Clips that highlighted the entirety of Teen Wolf were then inserted into the sequences of themed trailers that preceded all of the feature films. The actual clips were usually only a few frames in length. The joke should have gotten old but didn’t. Every so often between previews, an image from Teen Wolf would flash on the screen and then be gone.

So what did we see this year? The full rundown of the feature films, trailers and other snippets is here, but I wanted to offer some quick thoughts on the main features and a few of the trailers and special clips we saw.

BNAT 13 Montage

BNAT 13 Montage

The opening video message from Eric “Quint” Vespe was typical of the kind of shennanigans that go on at BNAT. Quint has been AICN’s “embedded reporter” on the set of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, filing video diary reports on the filming. It had been widely reported that because he was in New Zealand on the set of The Hobbit, Quint would be absent from BNAT this year. BNAT opened with a video from Quint saying hello from the Hobbit set and wishing Harry a happy birthday. Quint then gave is a quick, exclusive tour of the Hobbit set and introductions to members of the cast and crew, complete with appearances by Peter Jackson, Orlando Bloom, and Andy Serkis, with much of the interactions played for laughs. Finally Quint returned to where the video had begun, standing with Peter Jackson in front of a majestic New Zealand landscape. Peter indicated that there was one more treat for Harry and BNAT, and called in Ian McKellen who appeared in character and in costume as Gandalf, and used his magic to make Quint disappear from the video. Some small pyrotechnics went off at strategic locations in the Drafthouse theater, and Quint stepped into the room to be greeted with cheers and applause from the audience. After Peter Jackson said his farewells on screen, Gandalf leaned in close to the camera and indicated conspiratorially that there was one more gift in the bottom of the bag that Quint was carrying – the Hobbit trailer! Quint produced a small hard drive from the bag and the audience went predictably berzerk. But now the hard drive needed to be taken quickly to the Drafthouse projection room. A Trailer Bearer was needed, but who? “I shall carry it!” called out regular BNAT attendee Elijah Wood from his seat near the back of the theater. He bolted down the steps, grabbed the drive and sped off towards Mount Doom the projection room. The theater darkened, and the we waited for the trailer (in 3D no less) to be played, but eventually we were informed that an apparently Gandalf magic corrupts hard drives. They would try to repair the drive and play it later in the schedule!

So after the trailers for Stunt Rock (an annual BNAT tradition), the first of the Teen Wolf fragments, the full trailers for Teen Wolf, Too, and An American Werewolf in London, we watched Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. This frustrated me slightly as the inclusion of a film currently in release was unprecedented for BNAT and I had just paid to see the film the day before, but I can’t argue with the choice, as the film perfectly set the tone for the slate of films to follow.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been such a surprise as Harry had been raving about the film since having seen it a few weeks before at a pre-release screening. I felt that I’d been put in the odd position of debating the merits of the film with other attendees, as I really liked the film quite a lot, but I’d rate it a 9 on a scale of 10 and I felt like I was discussing the film with people who’d rate it an 11. Because of this I kept talking about the few things I *didn’t* care for about the film instead of the many, many things I loved, and then followed with “but I really liked it!”

We next saw Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) with live organ accompaniment by Graham Reynolds. I’d seen the short, silent film before but never in a theater, and the film was the perfect dessert to follow Hugo.

After more trailers and another fraction of a second of Teen Wolf we saw Just Imagine, a big-budget science fiction musical from 1930. Yes, you read that right. No, I’d never heard of it either, but we enjoyed the heck out of it. The special effects and sets were surprisingly ambitious and epic for the era, the songs were amusingly bad, and the 1930 film’s depiction of the futuristic world of 1980 was endlessly entertaining!

More vintage trailers and (very little) more Teen Wolf was followed by the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, preceded by video introduction by director Tomas (Let the Right One In) Alfredson and star Gary Oldman. Oldman delivered the best pronunciation of “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” ever! TTSS was an excellent spy drama, more of an intellectual exercise than an action movie, the film has a remarkable cast led by Oldman and Benedict (Sherlock) Cumberbach!

Trailers for The Cheap Detective, Less Than Zero, and Young Sherlock Holmes and a video introduction by director Guy Ritchie preceded an early look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. I enjoyed the first Sherlock Holmes film in this series quite a bit, but this one surpassed. I LOVED this film’s version of Professor Moriarty, and Steven Fry as Mycroft nearly steals the film with his handful of scenes. I squeed aloud at our first proper view of Reichenbach Falls (you’ll know it when you see it) and I adored Holmes’ climactic battle with Moriarty.

Next up was another vintage film, The Beast with Five Fingers starring Peter Lorre. I’ve characterized the film as a lesser work by some favorite artists. I love Peter Lorre and horror films of this era, and while not a great film, I hadn’t seen it before and greatly enjoyed seeing it at BNAT.

Finally the trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was shown. It looks fantastic, and no one complained when Harry called for the trailer to be shown a second time. And a third. The footage seen in the trailer blends seamlessly with what we saw in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but now it’s 3D.

The next premiere was actually a trailer – specifically the trailer for G.I. JOE: Retaliation. I never saw the first G.I. Joe film, which looked so awful that the presence of Christopher Eccleston wasn’t enough to lure me, but this trailer has an entirely different feel, and the addition of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis to the cast certainly kick things up a notch.

The 3D extravaganza continued with The Adventures of Tintin, an animated film directed by Steven Spielberg, co-produced by Peter Jackson, co-written by Steven Moffatt, and based on the comic series by Hergé. It was a great deal of fun, and was occasionally so in Indiana Jones mode (with help from a John Williams score) that we were speculated that this was Spielberg’s way of making another Indy film without having to involve George Lucas. There was still some oddness to the photo-realistic cartoon characters, but the uncanny valley issues were largely absent.

We next saw the classic Miyazaki anime Porco Rosso. I’d seen the film before and intended to use the film as an opportunity for a bathroom break when I wouldn’t have to fight for the crowds trying to do the same thing during the 10-minute between-feature breaks, but Porco Rosso was so charming I was sucked in and didn’t get to the men’s room.

Next up was The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard, and co-written by Goddard and Joss Whedon. I’m not going to talk about it other than to say it was amazing, and was many attendee’s favorite film of BNAT. Avoid spoilers. This film doesn’t come out until April, and if you have a chance to see an advance screening, go. Seriously, AVOID SPOILERS!

We next saw Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, followed by a Q&A with co-director Brian Taylor. I never saw the first Ghost Rider film as it didn’t look particularly good and I’ve never been fond of the Ghost Rider character. I can’t offer an objective opinion on the sequel as it was shown in the middle of the night and it was enough “not my kind of thing” that I was having a hard time staying awake and attentive, but I came away with the impression that this sequel was an improvement on the original. There’s certainly more of Nicholas Cage being Nick Cage-y, and that’s always a good thing.

After vintage previous for Wolf, The Company of Wolves, Wolfen, and not one but TWO Teen Wolf fragments, we saw the new film The Grey (followed by a Q&A session with producer Jules Daly). This is a remarkable drama/thriller with Liam Neeson fighting to survive in the frozen wilderness with a handful of other men and being stalked by wolves. The performances and character work were remarkable and I found the film much more powerful than I expected at the outset.

For the final film of BNAT, we were all marched out of the theater, put on buses and driven to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum IMAX theater to see Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in IMAX 70mm. The film is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and is the first live-action film directed by Brad Bird, whose previous efforts include The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles. For reference, I thought Mission: Impossible 1 was pretty good, but I had some problems with it. I thought M:I 2 was awful, and I thought the J.J. Abrams-directed M:I 3 was great and easily the best of the three. Mission: Impossible 4 blows them all out of the water. It’s amazing. If possible, see it in IMAX. It’s worth it. Holy crap was this thing good.

And that was it! Another BNAT had run it’s course. Many of us thought this was the strongest overall lineup in a number of years and I’ll certainly be hoping to return in 2012.

It’s always a treat getting to see great movies a little early, but that’s not why I love BNAT. I love the trip because I enjoy visiting Austin and it’s great seeing friends I know from there – many of whom I see only at BNAT. But the best thing about BNAT is seeing movies – old and new – with the best movie audience EVER. Not only is it a respectful audience, but it’s an audience that laughs in all the right places, that cheers a truly great line of dialog, and bursts into applause when a film attempts a great musical number or action scene and nails it and sticks the landing! It’s a place to see great films and have the best time you’ll ever have watching them. To attend you have to be chosen by Harry after filling out an elaborate application and answering questions that illustrate what kind of film fan you are. It’s worth applying for and I urge you watch AICN in November for next year for the BNAT2012 application.

Just don’t take MY seat!

BNAT13WOLF!

BNAT13WOLF!