SXSW attendees, you’re our only hope: Immerse yourself in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

By Alyssa Vidales, American-Statesman staff (and resident “Star Wars” expert)

Want to join the Rebellion? Your mission awaits at South by Southwest.

A little piece of the Star Wars universe has popped up at Grimes Studio on 500 E. Fifth St. during the South by Southwest Conference and Festival. The space has been transformed into an immersive experience inspired by 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the latest film in the Force-filled franchise.

“Rebel Mission – Escape from Scarif” is open to SXSW badgeholders and offers the opportunity to channel your inner Rogue One crew member to steal the plans to the Death Star and transmit them back to the Rebel Alliance before time runs out.

No blasters required for this mission— participants need only brainpower to save the rebellion from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday this weekend.

The SXSW installation is an escape room-like experience in which small groups of participants must solve a series of puzzles in order to progress through the course. Sights and sounds from the planet Scarif add to the immersive problem-solving mix.

Be careful not to choke on your aspirations – like all escape experiences, the Rebel Mission is timed. Taking too long to steal the plans to the Death Star just might put you face-to-face with the destiny you weren’t looking for.

Some Rebel intelligence worth keeping in mind before venturing out:

  1. Choose your crew wisely. The tasks aren’t easy and take some teamwork to work though. Don’t get cocky, kid.
  2. Think outside the box. Jedi mind tricks won’t work in this mission, but the cellular one in your pocket just might. That is, if you’re like me and aren’t a math wiz.
  3. Trust the Force. Always.

May the Force of others be with you. You’re gonna need it.

Robert Rodriguez honors Bill Paxton at Texas Film Awards

While the Texas Film Awards Thursday night were about celebrating the many accomplishments of the film industry, organizers paused the celebrations to remember two Texas film industry heavyweights that died in the last year: Debbie Reynolds and Bill Paxton.

Bill Paxton, looking concerned, as Fred Haise in “Apollo 13”

Reynolds, an El Paso native, was honored at the start of the ceremony with a “Singin’ in the Rain” tribute performance by Austin musician Suzanna Choffel, and in the middle of the ceremony, Austin director Robert Rodriguez took the stage to honor his friend, Fort Worth actor Bill Paxton, who died in February. The two worked together on Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (Paxton played Dinky Winks, an eccentric theme park owner). Rodriguez paid tribute to the actor upon hearing of his death, saying working with the Texas actor was a highlight of his career.

PHOTOS: Texas Film Awards red carpet

Rodriguez told a story about Paxton, saying that when they started working together, digital cameras were relatively new and he discovered that he could just “let them run” to catch improvised moments on camera, and Rodriguez thought that would be a perfect scenario for Paxton to improvise funny moments — but when the actor showed up on set, he said, “I’m like an old pony. You gotta walk me around. I need rehearsal.”

Rodriguez was surprised, saying, “You’d think he’s making it up as he goes. He worked very hard at making it look effortless and easy. He was a great man, a great actor, a great friend and a great Texan.”

RELATED: Shirley MacLaine walks the red carpet with Richard Linklater at the Texas Film Awards

RELATED: Wrapping up the Texas Film Awards

Paxton was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Austin Film Society honored him Thursday night by playing his full acceptance speech for the award, followed by clips from two of his co-stars: Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise.

Both actors got teary-eyed as they talked about Paxton. Bacon, who worked on “Apollo 13” with Paxton, told a story about a time Paxton took off his oxygen mask while filming the movie and got giddy with laughter. Cruise, who starred in “Edge of Tomorrow” with Paxton, started his tribute with this: “He entertained me.” That’s something many Texans will remember about Paxton.

RELATED: Versatile Texas actor Bill Paxton’s career was all over the place in the best way

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bill Paxton says he’s no “Super Texan” but he still has state pride

 

Shirley MacLaine walks the Texas Film Awards red carpet with Richard Linklater

Shirley MacLaine, whose legendary film “Terms of Endearment” was honored with the Star of Texas Award at the Texas Film Awards at Austin Studios Thursday night, had someone special on her arm on the red carpet before the ceremony: Austin’s own Richard Linklater.

PHOTOS: Texas Film Awards red carpet

Both were wearing excellent shirts.

They walked the red carpet together, but are they working together anytime soon?

“That would be wonderful,” Linklater said. “Shirley’s not going anywhere.”

Linklater presented MacLaine with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the awards Thursday, honoring the actress’ illustrious career more than 50 films.

RELATED: Wrapping up the Texas Film Awards

RELATED: Robert Rodriguez honors Bill Paxton at the Texas Film Awards

The Austin director, who worked with MacLaine on “Bernie,” called the actress an honorary Texan. He even paid tribute to her with his outfit: his loud bowling shirt had a picture of MacLaine on it.

MacLaine, accepting the award, said she was glad to be there — “I’m glad to be anywhere,” she joked. In her acceptance speech, she gushed about her love for Austin and how great it felt to be in a creative community.

“I think you should build a wall around this city,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed every time I come back here.”

I watched the ‘Christian Netflix’ for a week. Here’s what I learned.

 

 

Almost three years ago, a little $2 million movie named “God’s Not Dead” opened in theaters. The story of a Christian college student who challenges his atheist philosophy professor’s assertion that “God is dead,” it made back four times its budget in its opening weekend and went on to make a little more than $62.5 million worldwide.

The sequel, “God’s Not Dead 2,” about a fictional legal case involving separation of church and state in schools, came out two years later, again in the spring and again on a shoestring budget. It cost $5 million to make and easily earned that back and then some on its opening weekend, going on to earn almost $21 million worldwide. A third movie in the series is in the works.

The common factor between the two films (besides plots, budgets and profitable box office receipts) is a production studio: Pure Flix Films.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. The studio’s credits include the “God’s Not Dead” franchise, “Do You Believe?” and the 1970s-era high school football movie “Woodlawn.” Upcoming releases include the Lee Strobel biopic “The Case For Christ” and October’s “Same Kind of Different As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the homeless man they befriend.

The company recently got in the streaming business. The Pure Flix app was released in 2015 and is available on Android, iPhone, Roku and Amazon and can be used via Apple TV or Google Chromecast. The streaming service itself is free for one month, then jumps to $7.99 after that. As of this writing, there’s almost 6,000 titles available on the site, all of which boast “no language, sex or violence surprises.” The selection includes most of Pure Flix’s catalog, as well as other faith-based films, TV series, documentaries, sermons, Bible studies and home-schooling materials.

“It’s all based on what the consumers respond to, and it’s all about what we can bring to them through all the different formats,” Pure Flix Digital CEO Greg Gudorf said. “Actually, one of the strongest markets we have is Houston, and Dallas is one of our biggest home-school material markets.”

Last year, faith-based films made almost $137 million worldwide, according to Boxofficemojo.com. Like the horror film genre, the Christian film genre has proven a lucrative formula: Built-in loyal fan base + small budget + reaffirming stories – sex, language and violence = profit.

And this year will see the release of “God’s Not Dead 3” as well as a smattering of other faith-based entertainment. “The Shack” opened at No. 3 last weekend to the tune of $16 million. “The Case For Christ” opens April 7 and is poised to further help Pure Flix’s brand. But what about their streaming service? Is it any good?

The Pure Flix home page on March 2, 2017.

I have watched a pretty steady diet of Christian media along with secular media all my life. I was raised on stuff like “McGee and Me,” “Adventures in Odyssey” and “Psalty the Psalm Book” as well as Disney movies and any action or comedy film I could get my hands on. And I’ve always been fascinated by the divide between secular and Christian media, and why both seem to be diametrically opposed to one another. Is it possible to make good Christian entertainment that appeals to everyone, not just Christians?

I set out to find an answer to this question last week when I picked seven pieces of content from Pure Flix’s streaming service to watch. Some were great, most were OK, and some were really bad — just like any streaming service. A majority of the films and TV shows I watched were produced by Pure Flix, but most of the content on the site is licensed content from other studios.

I live-tweeted my experience @jakeharris4 every night, and I detailed the first night of my #PureFlixWeek in a previous blog post. “New World Order: The End Has Come,” the first film I watched, was a low-rent “Left Behind”-type film rife with inconsistencies and a blindsiding ending. It’s in the “most-watched” category, and it was not made in association with Pure Flix. Its “most-watched” status leads me to wonder if the target audience is indeed preparing for the end times. If so, they would be better off reading the Bible than watching this film, which implies that the Mark of the Beast will look like the Wu-Tang symbol and the Antichrist will be Hispanic.

More: Is Pure Flix, the ‘Christian Netflix,’ any good? I’m about to find out

About that target audience — Gudorf told me the company’s main audience is evangelical Christian-focused.

“Our bullseye is typically an evangelical Christian household, yes. But the command we were given was not to just minister to evangelicals; it was to minister to all. And so we have a pretty interesting mix, not just the single view of one particular denomination. And our customer information reflects that kind of broad basis, from people who are Catholic, Protestant, even Jewish. Yes, it’s faith content, but it’s also family content.”

That target audience was clearly in mind for the second film I watched, the Pure Flix produced and distributed “Do You Believe?” In this Christian version of “Crash,” the paths of 12 people all collide together after a pastor meets a sidewalk preacher played by Delroy Lindo (here in the “mystical Negro” trope) who helps him clarify what exactly he believes about Jesus. Other characters include Sean Astin as an atheistic doctor who could have only been written by someone who has only been around angry atheists (“I’m the one who saves people, yet they thank Jesus”), Brian Bosworth as a reformed convict, Lee Majors as a man grieving the loss of his daughter and Shwayze as a gangster trying to do the right thing (side note: there are four black main characters in this movie; half of them begin the film as criminals).

Oh, and if you thought “Crash” didn’t have any subtlety, consider this: Sean Astin’s doctor is named Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. He refuses to believe it when Bosworth comes back to life after flatlining for eight minutes. And in a movie that insists on spelling out its themes for its viewers, Thomas is the only character left with an ambiguous faith at the end.

That’s not to mention the many ways “Do You Believe?” cribs from the “Crash” playbook, including an end sequence that calls to mind the Matt Dillon/Thandie Newton crash scene from that movie. It’s even worse when you remember that Dillon’s cop sexually assaulted Newton earlier in that film and he’s rescuing her later not out of any compassion but because it’s his job. This theme is handled in “DYB?” by allowing a Christian paramedic to rescue the lawyer who previously prosecuted him for administering the sinner’s prayer to a dying patient instead of any sort of aid.

Lest I sound like I’m relentlessly bashing the film, it did make me think hard about the ways I portray my Christian faith to the world and inspired me to live it better. That’s the point of the film, but I could have gotten that message without seeing multiple characters die simply as a service to the film’s convoluted plot and to the film’s main (Christian, mostly white) characters.

So, as Day 2 of Pure Flix Week came to a close, I was impressed with the app, but I wasn’t feeling too impressed with its content. But then I watched “The Encounter.”

“The Encounter” is one of Pure Flix’s first original series. It’s based on a series of films that share the same name. In them, a mysterious man simply referred to as “The Man” shows up to help people out of whatever bind they may be in. It’s later revealed that the Man is Jesus.

The pilot episode is about an amateur convenience story robbery gone wrong, carried out by two brothers and some friends. “The Man” here appears as the store’s clerk. He helps one of the brothers realize the error of his ways,  and that influence spreads to the rest of the robbery crew. The 30-minute episode ends with one of the brothers preaching about his conversion to Christianity in a prison chapel.

On Day 4 I watched a second episode, “U-Turn,” which established “The Encounter” as an anthology show. In this episode, a high-profile lawyer attempting to leave her small hometown after an argument with her mom at her dad’s funeral ends up on a car ride with the Man and someone who I think the audience is supposed to believe is the devil. During the car ride, the lawyer comes to grips with her father’s loss and her mother’s grief at losing a husband and a daughter (to the big city). It also ends on a happy note, with the lawyer and her mother reconciling.

I found both episodes to be immensely watchable and not too preachy. Despite some casual sexism in the second episode (why is it always female characters who are punished for having jobs “in the big city” in Christian entertainment?), both were well-done and executed their premises in challenging ways. At one point, the Man offers a riff on Mark 8:36, emphasizing the importance of treasuring human relationships.

Both episodes also dealt with the question of “If God is a loving God, then why is there evil in the world?” by emphasizing humanity’s free will.

For Day 5 of Pure Flix Week, I watched a game show. “It Takes a Church” is a Game Show Network-produced series hosted by Christian singer Natalie Grant. Grant travels to different churches across America in search of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. The catch? All of the potential matches for each contestant must come from their church.

I could write an entire thesis on this concept and how, in attempting to create  “‘The Bachelor,’ but for churches!,” the show ends up being no better than the reality TV it’s trying to ape. But I will leave that for another time.

Day 6 saw a sermon from Bayless Conley, a pastor at Cottonwood Church in Orange County, Calif. Pure Flix’s streaming service offers several Bible studies and sermons from a variety of sources. This sermon focused on ways to improve your relationship with God if you feel stuck. It was a great way to start my morning, and I found the message to be inspirational and challenging as well as biblically sound.

I watched that sermon on the Pure Flix iPhone app, which worked better than Netflix’s iPhone app at some points and was extremely user-friendly. That’s thanks to Gudorf, who said the company just revamped the app a few months ago and worked out a lot of bugs.

On Day 7, the final day of my week with Pure Flix, I watched “Woodlawn.” The film was produced and distributed by Pure Flix and brought in a little more than $14 million on a $12 million budget, according to Boxofficemojo.com.

The inspirational sports film centers on the true story of Birmingham, Ala.’s Woodlawn High School in the early 1970s. Integration was just starting to take effect, and head coach Tandy Gerelds is tasked with coaching his first integrated football team. Superstar black tailback Tony Nathan ends up becoming the team’s secret weapon on the field, and Sean Astin’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chaplain becomes the secret weapon off the field. Oh, and Jon Voight shows up as Bear Bryant.

This film could very easily have become a “Remember the Titans”-meets-Christianity mashup (indeed, the similarities between the two films are numerous), but it succeeds because the message that unity through a shared belief in Christ crosses through all color lines is deftly dealt with. It doesn’t preach, and it lets the Christian actions of the characters come naturally through their actions, unlike in “Do You Believe?” And Astin’s chaplain is just as convincing as his atheist doctor.

Throughout this experience, I kept thinking about the Christian music genre in my teenage years. The common refrains of “Oh, if you like Blink-182, you’ll love Relient K,” or “Switchfoot is a great band, but they’re also Christian, so that’s better!” rang hollow to me then, and they still do today. I was always confused: Why can’t we have both/and, not either/or? The divide between secular and Christian media was meant to offer a safe haven from the perils of the world I was supposed to be of, but not in. Instead, it turned many people of my generation away from the saccharine messages of Christian media and caused us to search for something that felt real and not merely an attempt to Christianize what Hollywood was doing.

More: ‘Silence’ scholar: Tough film ‘should challenge Christians’

So, for this experiment, the parallels became clear the more I watched. Do you like “Left Behind” or other post-apocalyptic films? Watch “New World Order.” Did you enjoy “Crash” but don’t want to deal with the racism or the explicit language? Then “Do You Believe?” is right up your alley. Does “The Bachelor” make you squirm, but do you still want to see a representation of what love should be? “It Takes a Church” it is, then.

And yet, there are still great strides being made in Christian media. The primary purpose of films like the ones Pure Flix offers is to be reaffirming to the faithful. And those films are doing that in a number of ways. “Woodlawn” makes a point about sports being a unifier, and “The Encounter” encourages Christians to look in the mirror and confront their own selfish choices. As a streaming service and app, Pure Flix is top notch, and better than its competition in some regards (looking at you, HBO Now app).

But if the film studio is to expand to become one that can minister to non-Christians, the programming must get better at creating its own original stories and stop simply mining secular entertainment to create pale imitations of other films. Christians, especially young ones, can spot that type of in authenticity a mile away. For Christians looking for a service that promises family-friendly entertainment that will lead to conversations, Pure Flix is a great investment. If you’re not in that target market, however, you might not want to wade into these waters. But that’s a shame, too, because there is some genuinely entertainment here. You just have to know where to look. Just like Netflix.

Final rankings:

  1. “Woodlawn”
  2. Bayless Conley sermon
  3. “The Encounter” pilot
  4. “The Encounter” Episode 2
  5. “New World Order: The End Has Come”
  6. “It Takes a Church”
  7. “Do You Believe?”

 

Need a place to stay at SXSW? If you’re Lee Daniels, you might turn to Matthew McConaughey

Director Lee Daniels. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Lee Daniels is a TV and movie powerhouse — co-creator of “Empire” and “Star,” Oscar-nominated director of “Precious” and other films — but this year is only his first visit to South by Southwest. And he’s starting the SXSW experience in a big way — he’ll be delivering a keynote address Sunday.

Daniels talked with Charles Ealy about some of the issues he’ll touch on in that speech and some of the stars he’s worked with in the past, including Austin’s own Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey. Gravitas Ventures

Asked if he would be getting in touch with McConaughey while in town, Daniels said: “Will Matthew be there? I think I’ll call him right after this to see if he can maybe find me better accommodations than a hotel.”

RELATED: READ THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR LEE DANIELS

Here are the musical cameos to look for as ‘Song to Song’ opens SXSW Film

The Terrence Malick-directed, Austin-filmed drama “Song to Song” will open the South by Southwest Film Festival on Friday with its world premiere at the Paramount Theatre.

The movie is described as a “modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene” and stars Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman.

RELATED: The trailer for ‘Song to Song’ features plenty of Fun Fun Fun

But — because it was filmed in part during several Austin music festivals — there is no shortage of musical artists who made the final cut of the film. Online magazine Pitchfork ran down what cameos you should look for as SXSW gets underway:

Lykke Li plays Ryan Gosling’s ex-lover and the two of them perform Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “It Hurts to Be Alone” together, in a version produced by Nigel Godrich. The Black Lips play Rooney Mara’s band, and, yes, that scene where Val Kilmer chainsaws an amp while Mara plays guitar on stage with them at Fun Fun Fun Fest is in the movie. (Austinite) Dana Falconberry plays Rooney Mara’s sister. (Austin band) Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears play a band getting their record produced by Michael Fassbender.

Other musical artists in the film include:

  • Legends Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and former Sex Pistol John Lydon
  • California’s Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Alan Palomo, whose band Neon Indian is from Denton
  • Bounce queen Big Freedia and rapper Spank Rock

Not surprising for a Malick film, several big names were filmed, but didn’t make the movie. Pitchfork mentions Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine as among those to hit the cutting room floor.

Alamo Drafthouse celebrating 20 years of ‘Selena’ film with movie party

Twenty years after the debut of the “Selena” film, movie-goers can celebrate the late singer’s legacy in a place familiar to fans of the Queen of Tejano music.

Later this month, the Sunset Station in San Antonio will serve as the spot for Alamo Drafthouse’s next Rolling Roadshow, a two-day movie party, featuring the iconically Texan film “Selena.” The movie chronicles the singer’s short life, and Jennifer Lopez stars as the Corpus Christi native.

RELATED: Tejano music star’s legacy lives on 20 years after her death

Guests can buy tickets for the Friday, March 24 or Saturday, March 25 showings inside the extravagant Depot building or under the nearby covered Lone Star Pavilion.  

RELATED: Selena to receive Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2017

Ticket holders will have access to bars and food from Frank. Visitors can also stroll down the steps inside the Depot building where Selena herself filmed the music video for “No Me Queda Más ” and Lopez walked during the fashion show scene.

The cover band Bidi Bidi Banda will also perform, and attendees are encouraged to dress in Selena-inspired attire for a lookalike contest.

RELATED: Selena influenced style, beauty

Make a weekend trip out of the show too and go on a scavenger hunt for more places where the film was shot. On the other side of the highway sits the Alamo, along with that very romantic pedestrian bridge on the Riverwalk. The public library also served as a stand-in location for Selena’s visit to Mexico in the film.

RELATED: Austin Selena fans wait hours in line to purchase limited-edition makeup

RELATED: Selena Quintanilla to be honored with Madame Tussauds wax figure

 

Is Pure Flix, the ‘Christian Netflix,’ any good? I’m about to find out

 

What would Jesus watch? Maybe Pure Flix, dubbed the “Christian Netflix” by many viewers.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. The company’s biggest hit to date is “God’s Not Dead,” which made almost $61 million on a $2 million budget, according to IMDb.

Pure Flix is also the studio behind that film’s sequel, as well as “Do You Believe?” which could be described as a Christian version of “Crash” starring Sean Astin as a cynical doctor. Upcoming releases include the Lee Strobel biopic “The Case For Christ” and October’s “Same Kind of Different As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the homeless man they befriend.

The Pure Flix home page on March 2, 2017.
The Pure Flix home page on March 2, 2017.

Pure Flix also offers a streaming service not unlike Netflix, or Hulu, or HBO NOW. The service is free for one month and then jumps to $7.99 after that. It’s available on Android, the Apple App Store, Roku and Amazon. The site advertises “thousands of titles” with “no language, sex or violence surprises” in any of its content, which includes movies and TV shows in genres like faith, education, shorts, kid’s choice and sermons and ministry. Sample titles include the aforementioned “Do you Believe?,” “Saved By Grace” and “Revelation Road.”

The service allows Christian parents the ability to control what their kids are watching without worry, and that’s a big deal in today’s cord-cutting world where entertainment is available at the click of a button. And for those so inclined, many of the films offer an opportunity to discuss matters of faith with your family.

But many of these films have very low or nonexistent Rotten Tomatoes ratings and (at least in my case Wednesday night,) look to be made on shoestring budgets in an attempt to relate a message that would comfort the intended audience but alienate possible converts. I’m a Christian, and I have always been curious about why there has to be a divide between “Christian” film and “secular” film, and why there’s such a tension between the two.

More: ‘Silence’ scholar: Tough film ‘should challenge Christians’

For a week, I’m going to be watching one movie or TV episode a night from Pure Flix’s streaming service, and will be live-tweeting my experiences on Twitter @jakeharris4. I started my journey last night with a screening of “New World Order: The End Has Come,” a poor man’s “Left Behind.” It was made for $50,000 and wasn’t released in theaters, according to IMDb.

The movie paints a not-very-bleak picture of a post-Rapture America as a place where the Mark of the Beast looks a lot like the Wu-Tang Clan logo, the Antichrist is the only Hispanic man in the film and people pronounce the final book of the Bible as “Revelations” with an “s” (if you’re going to make a movie about the book of the Bible that talks about the end of the world, at least copy edit).

The plot follows young Demi and Christen, two friends who were not raptured with everyone else and are living out the earth’s last days after Supreme Chancellor Lord Aldo Deluca has been Satan-resurrected after he is assassinated while trying to broker a peace treaty in the Middle East. Or something. The movie’s explanation for the Rapture is never too clear, content to throw around words like “Iran” and “assassination-by-hire scheme” to explain why the bad guys are here.

By the end of the movie, Demi and Christen must choose whether to be branded with the Mark of the Beast or be martyred for their beliefs. There’s not a lot of room for subtlety in this movie, so you can guess which one is martyred and which one takes the easy way out. I don’t recommend it unless you want to relive your childhood memories of watching really bad Tribulation-themed movies in Sunday School (or maybe that’s just me, I don’t know). It would make a great candidate for the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast. If you really want to find out what happens, check my Twitter feed.

So while my first viewing experience with Pure Flix wasn’t pleasant, I’m keeping an open mind. I’ll be watching and live-tweeting “Do you Believe?” tonight, using the hashtag #PureFlixWeek. And if you or someone you know uses Pure Flix’s streaming service, send me a message or comment on this article- I’d love to know your thoughts!