After such recent "satirical" floaters as Thank You for Smoking and American Dreamz, pusillanimous comedies whose nominal targets got handled with oven mitts, the undiluted depths of misanthropy in Art School Confidential make for a gust of fresh air. Arsenic-sprayed air, but still. Terry Zwigoff introduces pricey Strathmore Institute as a brochure pic, resplendently Gothic until a dissolve to the actual college reveals the "frame" of scattered trash and rusted auto carcasses. Having learned about art and criticism early on in life (drawings get his ass kicked by bullies in grade school), young Max Minghella decides to enroll and follow the artist's dream per Picasso (i.e., get rich and get laid). Art school's filled with "living clichés," each a sour sketch by comic-book artist Daniel Clowes splashed in energizing staccato by the cantankerous filmmaker: Ethan Suplee as a film major molding a series of campus murders (courtesy of the "Strathmore Strangler") into an exploitation epic, Joel Moore as the presiding wiseass, and John Malkovich as the professor who pioneered triangle drawings and suggests the pupils go to "banking school or website school" if they want to be successful. But what is success? Adam Scott, a former student now boasting fame and fortune, returns to play the prick for the faculty, his assholism utter proof of the artist's "truth and freedom." Too meek to rise to full-blown asshole, however, Minghella is happy to settle for plagiarist creep, especially if it nets him Sophia Myles, the nude model of his dreams.
Zwigoff is no cheap cynic -- his vitriol is fully felt, and aimed toward himself as much as toward the phonies of the world. Contempt isn't an attitudinizing cap his heroes wear but a full, pensive-growly worldview, or a defense, rather, against life's crushing sides; remember the cartoonist forcing creativity out of misery in Crumb or Enid's adolescent disdain in Ghost World. Art School Confidential is his darkest film, as well as his most self-reflexive, with the notion of art the main ongoing debate. Are Minghella's decent but unremarkable drawings art? Or the deliberately flat pictures by jock Matt Keeslar, hailed as a new form of primitivism by tastemaking poseurs? Or the scabrous works stacked in the disheveled flat of puke-stained, embittered Jim Broadbent? Hell, the killer's slaughtering? The joke is that the director himself is mulishly indifferent to the elements of filmic aesthetic (space, tone, tempo), as if prettifying the screen would thin the bile. Nevertheless, the formless frame is Zwigoff's canvas, and he fills his sordid, splenetic works d'art with a more varied type of vulgarity than the [crassness + classical music] equation of Bad Santa. The hero appropriates other people's ideas to reach the top, only to reach the Zwigoff-Clowes thesis of success stinking as much as failure, of integrity melting when faced by commerce, etc. "What's so great about humanity," someone asks, yet, if nothing else, this messy, squalidly funny movie respects the artist's need to find the muse. The final shot is a goof on Bresson, "What a strange way I had to take to meet you" as if directed, appropriately, by Suplee's Kevin Smithesque blowhard.
The Promise suggests an assignment by one of Malkovich's clueless pupils, the student barely looking at the board he's smearing with paint. The student is Chen Kaige, sadly, trying to copy Zhang Yimou's recent art-house resurrection of the wuxia genre with Hero and House of Flying Daggers the way Minghella's "sensitive" worm apes the toasted flatness of Keeslar's pieces. The flatness of Chen's film, however, is all his own, the result of unrelenting CGI bombast, slapdash whoosh, and utterly homogenized exoticism, all ready to be packaged and sold to Western audiences. The mythology on display is specifically Chinese, yet the handling is McDonald's-generic all the way, academic and unwieldy where Zhang's was delirious and heartfelt. Folkloric chintz is set early on, a phosphorescent goddess floating down from the skies to offer the orphaned heroine eternal wealth and beauty in exchange for a curse -- "to lose every man I love." Sweet deal, she ponders, so she grows into the willowy Cecilia Cheung, kept by the Emperor while waiting for her spell to be broken by "snow falling in spring and the dead coming back to life." Impossible? Not in Chen's wacky fable, where the Emperor's forces, led by vain general Hiroyuki Sanada, defeat an army of barbarians virtually ten times its size. Dong-Kun Jang, a slave whose subjugated role doesn't allow him to stand, bellies his cannon-fodder status with Tex Avery swiftness, and his feet-don't-fail-me-now zip wins the day by outrunning a stampede of bison in the middle of the battle.
Whoa, still got a lot left. Jang dons Sanada's glittering armor to rescue the Emperor from the siege held by the fancy-pants villain (Nicholas Tse), who wants yummy Cheung all for himself; disguised as the general, Jang rescues the princess, who falls for him... only she thinks he's Sanada. Since the basic mistaken-identity romance doesn't give the eager-beaver computer technicians much to animate, in comes Ye Liu wrapped in a dark cape as Snow Wolf, Tse's doleful assassin who, like Jang, comes from the Land of Snow and has super-powers of his own to contribute to the garish orgy. From Yellow Earth and Life on a String to Farewell, My Concubine and Temptress Moon, Chen always nursed a sweet tooth for visual braggadocio, and now his eye turns gluttonous in the age of facile digital décor -- why save the fireworks for a dive down the waterfall when you can just turn the spectacle-lights all the way up for a silky robe sailing through the air? Pounding psychedelia, red the main crayon of choice, whether for armors or horse manes; seasons change from chilly white to grassy green via a single CGI circular pan; Cheung is dressed in feathers and locked away in a gargantuan bird cage, so that Jang can whisk her away like a plumed kite; a duel between Tse and Liu has to be staged in a hall of sliding screens; and so on and on. You could say there are no "ugly" shots in The Promise, yet the inundation of effect, in any case more risible than poetic, becomes oppressive instead of splendiferous. Beauty is its own justification, but when it is this devoid of resonance, I'll take Zwigoff's grubbiness.
How suffocating does The Promise have to be to make the all-business blockbuster efficiency of Mission: Impossible III actually come off as sane? Tom Cruise's megastar persona, interestingly investigated by Spielberg in War of the Worlds, is here safely back in callous, swashbuckling mode as Ethan Hunt, swinging from building to building, sprinting through Shanghai streets, and performing cranial surgery inside a copter while dodging missiles through revolving windmill blades -- the usual Secret Agent Man jazz. The series has allowed De Palma and Woo to mine auteurist subtext under the ridiculously pumped-up action surface, but mechanical flair for shootouts and fireballs is all J.J. Abrams, the TV-sized speedster (Alias, Lost), has to offer in this installment. Cruise's globe-trotting spy is about to settle down with Michelle Monaghan, but duty calls and soon he is tracking down tuxedoed arms-dealer Philip Seymour Hoffmann, who, newly Oscar-plated, mumbles here for his paycheck. Had a pop artist handled this, the franchise could have had its On Her Majesty's Secret Service; with machines directing machines, however, it's closer to its Live and Let Die.
Reviewed May 11, 2006.