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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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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