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The week’s critic wrangle: “The Promise,” “The Proposition,” and “Art School Confidential.”

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Dong-Kun Jang and Cecilia Cheung.
+ "The Promise": We’d been forewarned about Armond White‘s review of Chen Kaige‘s pricey fantasy epic. But still!

With "The Promise," Chen Kaige joins cinema’s archetypal visionaries from Murnau to Kurosawa, Bertolucci to Boorman. He’s made an action movie rich with adult meaning and paradox—as when the Princess pauses and kisses the General, a kiss that gives orgasmic rest. Chen commits to genre refinement; he shows exactly what you need to see with no excess—but with sudden shifts where dreamlike events take on a realism of supernal clarity. "The Promise" is a corrective to the HK/Peter Jackson trend where action and speed are abused. Even more, it’s Chen’s pledge to preserve what makes movies great by visually revving-up our subconscious. As Kunlun, the liberated slave, is told: “To achieve real speed you must discover your heart’s desire.”

Ah, you’ve really lost us this time, Mr. White. We don’t even know where to begin. Also liking "The Promise," though not at the point of declaring Chen’s place in the canon, is New York‘s David Edelstein, who is unruffled by the film’s extreme dramatics and occasional cartoonishness: "Here, the animation suggests a kind of magical delirium that perfectly suits the emotions of these demigods and -goddesses, whose love gives them the capacity to alter their supposedly fixed destinies."

Less impressed is the New York Times’ A. O. Scott (‘eeey, Tony, welcome back!), who finds that the film "meanders and digresses, alternating moments of genuine loveliness with scenes of lumbering, not always well-executed artifice," but also suggests that it marks "at least a partial comeback for this gifted director." Roger Ebert complains that "the CGI work in this movie looks like it was done with a dial-up connection" and that

The characters are not people but collections of attributes, and isn’t it generally true that the more sensational an action scene, the less we care about the people in it? It’s as if the scene signals us that it’s about itself, and the characters are spectators just as we are.

And least fond of all is the Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson, who congratulates the film for "resembling the Chinese cover art for a vintage Iron Butterfly album," and complains that

More ejaculatory effort has been expended on the knights’ Vegas-style ensembles than on a coherent narrative, and the upshot is a new-millennium wuxia pian that risks all its marbles on nonsensical style and none on storytelling.


Guy Pearce and Danny Huston.
+ "The Proposition": Many good things are being written about John Hillcoat‘s Nick Cave-scripted bleak Western. At the Voice, J. Hoberman calls it "a true anachronism and an authentic lone ranger…as
primal, savage, and downright miserablist as all but the greatest of
Hollywood’s terminal oat operas." That is a recommendation. The NY PressMatt Zoller Seitz echoes the sentiment: "This is not a film about westerns, but simply a western, one that revives the form for a couple of hours instead of embalming it." He also, interestingly, write that

[W]hile Hillcoat’s direction lacks Peckinpah’s splendidly restless energy, it achieves a feat that often eluded the master: It’s graphically violent, often horrendously so, yet it’s never, ever superficially exciting.

With certain exceptions, the violence of "The Proposition" often occurs below or beyond the frame line, or is glimpsed only fleetingly. Yet the before-and-after contrast, combined with reaction shots of horrified onlookers, tells you everything you needed to know. Hillcoat isn’t pretending to be repulsed by the evil men do to each other; he truly is repulsed. That revulsion makes "The Proposition" not just a powerful film, but an honest one.

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis proclaims that "the cast of ‘The Proposition’ is reason enough to see the film," and is particularly impressed by Danny Huston ("There is something heavy and monumental about the way Mr. Huston takes up film space") and Ray Winstone ("Few actors register menace on screen as persuasively as Mr. Winstone, who here directs that menace inward, turning Stanley into one more victim of the land’s unrelenting violence.").

Liking the film, but not fully won over, is the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, who muses that "The Proposition" is "one of those movies—Antonioni’s ‘Red Desert’ being the most flagrant example—that spend so much time brimming with moral and political suggestion that they almost forget to tell us what’s actually going on." Still, he points out that "[a]lthough many viewers will not care for ‘The Proposition,’ with its fevered performances, it’s not a film that wants to be cared for; it wants to drive us into an enforced communion with the blood, the heatstroke, and the drought." Which is good, we suppose.


Max Minghella.
+ "Art School Confidential": Terry Zwigoff‘s fifth film bounces back from bad Sundance buzz to mixed reviews. At the New York Times, A.O. Scott thinks the film is "a dull and dyspeptic exercise in self-pity and hostility" that "grinds its gears, much as [main character Jerome] does, between defiant romanticism and nasty cynicism." He’s also not alone in criticizing the look of the film ("indifferent to the niceties of framing, lighting and narrative rhythm, as muddled and hectic as a student art project pulled off in a single, desperate, caffeine-fueled all-nighter"); at New York, David Edelstein calls the film an "eyesore" and "a curdled mess of self- and other-loathing."

At the Voice, J. Hoberman suggests that "Zwigoff can be as mean to his characters as Todd Solondz—the dramatized painting critiques (in which everyone gets an A) rival the idiocies of the creative-writing class in Solondz’s ‘Storytelling.’ But where Solondz is fastidious in his filmmaking, Zwigoff is indifferent—’Art School Confidential’ can be nearly avant-garde in its tone (deaf) shifts and spatial incoherence." Still, he finds that Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes achieve…something in their bleak assessments of artistic success and failure.

At LA Weekly, Scott Foundas is fond, pointing to a misanthropic rant from Jim Broadbent‘s embittered alcoholic as "the kind of moment of which Clowes and Zwigoff are masters, when we’re
not sure whether it hurts too much to laugh, or whether we laugh to
stave off the hurt." And of this week’s Reverse Shot Three at indieWIRE, Nick Pinterton is won over by the film’s cynicism ("it’s probably the most thoroughly cruel piece of work I’ve seen in recent memory") while Kristi Mitsuda and Leah Churner are disappointed.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.