With "The Promise," Chen Kaige joins cinemaâ€™s archetypal visionaries from Murnau to Kurosawa, Bertolucci to Boorman. Heâ€™s made an action movie rich with adult meaning and paradoxâ€”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 excessâ€”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, itâ€™s Chenâ€™s pledge to preserve what makes movies great by visually revving-up our subconscious. As Kunlun, the liberated slave, is told: â€œTo achieve real speed you must discover your heartâ€™s desire.â€
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.
+ "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 Press‘ Matt 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 Hillcoatâ€™s direction lacks Peckinpahâ€™s splendidly restless energy, it achieves a feat that often eluded the master: Itâ€™s graphically violent, often horrendously so, yet itâ€™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 isnâ€™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 moviesâ€”Antonioniâ€™s ‘Red Desert’ being the most flagrant exampleâ€”that spend so much time brimming with moral and political suggestion that they almost forget to tell us whatâ€™s actually going on." Still, he points out that "[a]lthough many viewers will not care for ‘The Proposition,’ with its fevered performances, itâ€™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.
+ "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 Solondzâ€”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 indifferentâ€”’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 weâ€™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.