Every year, the True/False documentary film festival transforms the typically tame college town of Columbia, MO, home of the University of Missouri, into something out of Alice in Wonderland, as participants are dropped down, down, down a rabbit hole and into a land of endless films and parties. Handmade clouds float above ticket buyers at the box office, brick-lined alleyways between streets around town are painted with installation art projects, and coffee shops overflow with legions of filmmakers and the critics who write about them. With over 40 films, 35 different musical performances, eight panels, a parade, a masked ball, storytelling events, and even a 5K, it’s difficult to tell what’s running faster: film reels, the viewers darting around to see said reels, or the artisanal beer taps that are seemingly the only source of hydration for the weekend. The truth about True/False is that there’s too little time and too much to see.
Alice In Wonderland (#1–10 of 7)
As a Southern-gothic fairy tale about post-Katrina New Orleans, Beasts of the Southern Wild could have easily turned out to be a crass and unwittingly exploitative work. Co-writer/director Ben Zeitlin’s fanciful approach to his understandably touchy subject matter theoretically seems glib. Thankfully, every time Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar threaten to oversimplify their story with mawkishly twee sentimentality, they steer the film’s elemental narrative in another direction. The hopefulness that viewers take away from the film, the most buzzed-about title at this year’s Sundance, feels earned thanks to Zeitlin and Alibar’s focus on their characters’ fears of imminent abandonment and annihilation. As a film about the seductive and essential power of hope, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a warm, accomplished, and fitting tribute to the fighting spirit of New Orleans.
This is the film you might get if Terry Gilliam conflated David Gordon Green’s George Washington with Alice in Wonderland. We follow Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl that lives with her single father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in a remote region of New Orleans only referred to as “The Bathtub.” Since Hushpuppy spends much of her time by herself, all of her fears are filtered through a convoluted system of icons and symbols. This proves that she’s a product of her environment. She listens to animals and people’s hearts because her father has a heart condition, fears cannibalism after a Bathtub resident teaches her that all living things are “meat,” and even fantasizes about wild rampaging boars because Wink has a big fat black hog on his farm.
You should probably cross Sandy Powell off the list right off, no matter how much her choice to wrap Russell Brand up in something that resembles a CB2 wall mural imitating a Slumdog Millionaire sarong might seem like can’t-miss Oscar bait. Her designs for The Tempest keep director Julie Taymor batting 1.000 in this category (four feature films, four nominations), but there’s little reason to think she’ll break Taymor’s perfect 0.000 when it comes to tallying actual wins. Not when Powell just won last year. Correction: Not when Powell just won last year and rather snidely dressed down the Academy for always opting for “dead monarchs or glittery musicals.” If her tone was haughty, her very valid overriding point was that the Academy could stand to do better to recognize the excellence of costumers working to help define characters in our current era (i.e. Tracy Flick’s tweed ensemble in Election, The Bride’s yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill). But apparently her plea fell on blind eyes, because there isn’t a single legitimately contemporary nominee in this bunch, not even Black Swan. The costume designers’ branch couldn’t bring themselves to tolerate the year’s one overwhelmingly Glitter-y musical, Burlesque, so there’s nothing to really stand in the way of the category’s only dead monarch. Colleen Atwood’s work almost manages to cut through the digital noise running throughout Alice in Wonderland, and she could viably spoil if voters start counting stitches, but take a look at this category’s last four winners and tell me you don’t see who’s wearing the crown.
A category that seems almost too easy to call. Some said that Alice in Wonderland’s visual effects were more like human-rights offenses, that Iron Man 2’s visual F/X team phoned it in after the first film, and that Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear didn’t need to take a swim in Hereafter’s impressive tsunami. And though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was strongly reviewed, is there anyone who expects the film to break the franchise’s always-a-bridesmaid status at the Oscars so far? Yeah, for its Paris-bending-back-on-itself and zero-gravity scenes alone, Inception shows off the sort of iconic craftsmanship that usually takes this prize in a walk. I gather Inception is so far ahead of the pack that the only thing that can prevent it from winning is a write-in nomination for The King’s Speech or the world finally waking up from this horrible nightmare where the Christopher Nolan film actually exists.
Here’s one of those categories where the spoils usually go to whoever shows us the “most” of whatever it is they’re nominated for. So we thought this was going to be a slam dunk for Alice in Wonderland, whose maker, Tim Burton, has seen three of his films previously take this award: Batman, Sleepy Hollow, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It seemed so easy, especially since we didn’t need to have the conversation about whether voters care if an art director’s vision is realized via nails or keystrokes, what with Avatar having won this award last year. But then Alice in Wonderland lost to Inception with the Art Directors Guild, at which point we had to ask ourselves: Does AMPAS even like Burton’s latest? Yes, we know the putrid Memoirs of a Geisha was a winner here in 2005, but that film’s six nominations suggested wider AMPAS support. Also, the Rob Marshall film didn’t have to compete with a Best Picture nominee, let alone three, including one that stands a reasonable chance of sweeping on Oscar night in a more spectacular than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did in 2004.
When New York Press critic Armond White panned the universally admired Toy Story 3, the disapproval he expressed and the backlash it inspired were so “predictable” that they were, well, predicted. Bumping TS3 from its briefly “100% Fresh” standing at the critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, White’s piece (entitled “Bored Game”) channeled a steady stream of pissed off Pixar loyalists to the Press website. “Registered just to say I think you are a massive twat and I feel really sorry for you,” user woahreally weighed in. “Whoever ur boss is should be slapped for allowing you to publish this disaster of a review,” opined the inventively pseudonymed usuckballs.
The comments-section calls for White to be fired are occasionally hilarious in their venom and vulgarity, all the more so for being so spectacularly self-defeating—could the Press have mounted a more successful campaign to increase their web traffic and user registrations? And there’s the rub. White’s detractors accuse of him being a “contrarian,” someone who bucks the critical establishment and defies popular taste out of little more than cynical self-promotion and antisocial perversity. (This highly circulated chart of Armond’s pans and praises has been offered as definitive “proof” that his opinions are reflexively reactionary.) But if this is true, any principled stand against White paradoxically rewards and enables him. “Don’t feed the trolls,” as the saying goes.
Coming up in this column: Tales from the Script, Waking Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Ambush, Fort Worth, No Questions Asked, The Las Vegas Story, Some Spring 2010 Television, but first:
Fan mail: Matt Maul in his comments on US#44 obviously did not like You Only Live Twice (1967) as much as I did, and he is in some good company with several critics of the time and since. He did help me make my case for the Bond films being producers’ films, whether he intended to or not. He mentions that one of the Bond films he liked least was Never Say Never Again (1983). It stars Sean Connery of course, but it is not one of the Broccoli family-produced Bond films, which is one reason why it does not work as well as the others. Matt also mentions that he liked On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) which does not star Connery, but is produced by the Broccoli family. Aside from George Lazenby as Bond, it is one of the best made of the Bond films, and I think Matt is right to give some credit to the former editor of the series Peter Hunt, who directed it. He obviously understood what the Bond films were all about, even if he could not do anything about Lazenby. But then no other director has been able to either.
I also go along with Matt’s admiration of Ken Adam’s production designs, and as much as I love the volcano in You Only Live Twice, I would be hard put to say it was better than the war room in Dr. Strangelove (1964). My point about the volcano is that unlike a lot of big sets directors have built, this one is used, as opposed to say the forecourt of Babylon in Intolerance (1916), which Griffith never quite figured out how to use. And when is somebody going to find the footage of the food fight in the war room that originally was the end of Strangelove?
Thanks to “Agor” for saying this column is one reason he comes to the House Next Door. I myself read HND for all the stuff, since as Matt Zoller Seitz once said, you never know what is going to show up. And in answer to his question, I will be dealing with Treme in US#46. Meanwhile…