AUSTIN, TX - With programming ranging from a short look at one scene from Gore Verbinski's psychedelic animated Western "Rango" to an extended 40-minute sneak of "Cowboys and Aliens" to the full-length premiere screenings of "True Grit," "The Fighter," "TRON: Legacy," and "The Green Hornet," this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon was packed with sneak preview material.

It's hard to believe it's been 12 years now that Ain't It Cool News and the Alamo Drafthouse have been throwing this annual birthday party/nerd extravaganza for Harry Knowles.  I still remember the original late night phone calls with Harry talking about his dreams for the thing.  Originally, the idea was that you'd pay a low price of $25 to get in, but as the 24 hours wore on, the programming would become intentionally more punishing, and anyone who wanted out early had to pay, and the earlier you left, the more it would cost.  The original poster for the first festival played into the idea that once we locked those doors, you were in for a wild ride programmed by a dangerous crazy person.  Very quickly, though, BNAT developed into a very special event, a combination of very personal vintage programming, practical jokes, endurance tests, and, yes, sneak premieres of some of the biggest films of the year.

At the very first festival, we premiered Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," and we managed to talk USA Films into giving us "Pitch Black," which they were debating sending straight to video at the time.  Vin Diesel came down to show the film at 3:00 in the morning, and it was a truly great screening of a SF film that both Harry and I believed in, that we felt deserved a shot at being seen.  In that moment, I think one of the great traditions of BNAT was born, the idea that we would try to show things that were absolutely not on anyone's radar but that should be, and in the years since, Harry's kept it up, and it's worth taking a risk on a failure like "Tiptoes" to show something as great as "May."

Showing all three of the "Lord Of The Rings" movies before they were released was a major coup for the fest, and it seems like once Hollywood discovered the BNAT audience, they went a little crazy for them.  Films like "Oldboy" and "Kung Fu Hustle" have screened at BNAT well before they were being written about, and in the case of "Oldboy," before it played at Cannes, where it immediately became justifiably celebrated around the world.  When Mel Gibson showed up with a work print of "Passion Of The Christ," it made headlines everywhere.  My own proudest moment was seeing "Cigarette Burns," a film I wrote, screen during the seventh BNAT in 2005, the same year we showed "V For Vendetta" and "The Descent."

Because of the broad nature of Harry's interests, we've seen premieres like "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls" and "Sweeney Todd" there as well as "Rocky Balboa" and "Undead," while I brought movies as different as "Layer Cake" and "Knocked Up," which screened in a long, loose rough cut.  There have even been presentations in the past of shorter pieces of unfinished movies for things like "Fanboys," "Hostel," "Rambo," "WALL-E," "Watchmen," and "Up."  Last year, we had a disaster in the middle of the screening of a fairly rough cut of "Kick-Ass," and even so, it ended up being one of the best screenings we've ever had at the festival.

This year was a particularly strong year in the premiere department, with the schedule split down the middle.  Six new films, six vintage.  One of the new films has to, for the time being, remain a secret, and with one of them, I can't review it in full yet, but overall, I can offer up my impressions of the full program here, including links to previous reviews of some of the films.

For example, the festival opened with the Coen Bros. take on "True Grit," a film for which I've already declared my love.  I didn't expect that the film would hit me so much harder the second time.  My first viewing, it was the work of the Coen Bros that stood out for me… the beauty of the editing, the joy of language in the writing, the eccentric moments from the Portis text that they chose to emphasize.  But the second time, it was the work between Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon that really got under my skin.  Everyone in the cast, in even the smallest roles, seems to perfectly inhabit these characters, but the three of them together create something very special.  The dynamic is constantly shifting between them, threatening and playful and furious, and in the final moments of the movie, I was overwhelmed by my love for the time we spend with them in this film.  It really is an amazing accomplishment by these already-amazing filmmakers.

"The Fighter" was the second premiere of the evening, and again, I've filed a review already for the film from the AFI screening.  It's an easy film to revisit, and again, much of the pleasure comes from just watching the cast work together.  It's a great example of just how important casting is from top to bottom.  Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale are at their most appealing in the film, and the work by Amy Adams is earthy, sexy, totally unlike anything she's done before.  David O. Russell just bought himself the rest of his career with this one, delivering the big fat mainstream movie that studios hope for with material like this.

The rest of the premieres were held until the end of the festival, but we had special presentations by Universal and Paramount in the middle of things.  Jon Favreau, Bob Orci, and Ron Howard came rolling in, and they brought a full 40 minutes of footage with them for next summer's "Cowboys and Aliens."  I'd actually seen this at a recent visit to the editing room, just before the release of the trailer for the movie, and I'm impressed with it.  Starting with Daniel Craig waking up alone in the desert, confused, his wrist wrapped in some sort of mechanical device, no memory of who he is or how he got there, the film moves quickly.  Even before the main title comes up, we get a look at Craig in action, taking out a group of armed men, even tackling one of them off a horse.  Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, and Adam Beach all show up in interesting roles as townspeople who have to struggle with the iron fist of Col. Dollarhyde, played with appropriate grizzle by Harrison Ford, and his idiot son Percy, played by Paul Dano.  One of the best things about the footage is the near-constant abuse that Dano takes, and I hope it's a running thread in the film.  Craig and Ford both come across as big giant alpha males, and the idea of the two of them having to work together to sort out the mystery of what happened to Craig and what happened to the townspeople that are abducted in the action set piece that wrapped up the sequence we saw.  I like the slow burn in the 40 minutes we saw, the emphasis on character, the Western tropes played just right.  Olivia Wilde plays a local woman who seems to know something about Craig and his troubles, and we saw some footage that hinted at a larger mystery involving her.  Favreau seems cautiously optimistic about the film so far, excited by what he's doing, and Ron Howard couldn't have been more effusive in his praise right before it played.  They were smart to show an uninterrupted chunk of the movie like this, because it demonstrates exactly what the tone is, and how the genre mash-up will work when it's finished.  I can't wait for the film to open on July 29, 2011.

There was a secret film at the festival, one that we'll be able to discuss next month, and it was probably the most outrageous and extreme moment of the festival.  I look forward to getting into the conversation about it at the appropriate moment, but for now, I'll sit on my hands as requested.

Although we didn't see it in 3D, we did see a mostly finished print of "The Green Hornet," and my main reaction to the film is one of pleased relief.  It is a big fat pleasure, a knowing tweak of the superhero genre that coasts along on the very-real chemistry between Seth Rogen and Jay Chou through a less-focused first half before finally clicking into focus with a wild and entertaining second half.  The film plays it straight at times, and at other times it's pure unhinged comedy, and the combination works.  Michel Gondry turns out to be an inspired choice for the material, and even his genre-standard montages have a loony energy that's all his.  The action is fun, Christoph Waltz chews some scenery as the bad guy, and by the end, I was eager for a next adventure with the Green Hornet and Kato.  I'll have a full review of the film as we get closer to release, but suffice it to say it will be an enthusiastic one.

By the time I got up to introduce "Drive Angry 3D," we were hurrying to finish the festival by the specific time that was tied to the evening's final surprise.  I moderated the "Drive Angry" panel at Comic-Con this summer, and that was my first look at footage.  I was encouraged by what I saw there, but I didn't expect it to be quite as much wacko wicked fun as it is now that it's finished.  I'll have my full review for the film up a little later tonight, after I recap the BNAT vintage line-up for you.  I'd like to thank director Patrick Lussier and screenwriter Todd Farmer for making the trek to Austin, and I hope they know how much we all appreciated the movie even though we didn't have time for a Q&A.  This was their second time at BNAT, and so far, they've been a big part of the fun every time they've shown up.

We wrapped up exactly on time and the audience was asked to exit through a specific door, where there were waiting buses that drove us across Austin to the local IMAX screen.  Sitting through "TRON: Legacy" a second time, I'm even less enthusiastic about it.  I can't really justify telling people to see it for the production design, and as much as I like the Daft Punk work as music, the movie is overscored much of the time, with music that's far more dramatic and portentous than anything actually happening onscreen.  It's a case of sound and fury in service of nothing, and the things that I disliked about the film were only magnified by the amazing presentation in the IMAX format.  Yes… Joseph Kosinski did reconfigure some of the scenes for the large-frame opportunity, and the 3D is so clear you feel like you could fall in, but if there's ever been a case of a movie where you have to overlook some fundamental flaws to be able to tolerate it, this is the one.  Then again, I thought "Alice In Wonderland" was a crime against decency, and it earned a billion dollars, so obviously Disney shouldn't be upset by anything I wrote in my original review.

I did think it was suspicious that Harry handed out actual Fleshlights to everyone at the festival.  They didn't tie in directly to any of the movies, but I'm going to just assume it's Harry's way of acknowledging that my review of the film is right and he knows how terribly, terribly wrong he is about the movie.  Message received, Grande Rojo, and thanks for throwing the best party of the year every year for the last 12 years.

More on BNAT as the night continues, and more on "TRON: Legacy," "Drive Angry," "The Green Hornet" and more as I settle back in and we start counting down to the Ten Best of the Year list here at Motion/Captured.

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