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Clueless: (l-r) Minghella and Ethan Suplee in Art School Confidential.

The Artist as Young Dope

 

By John Rodat

Art School Confidential

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

In Art School Confidential, graphic novelist-screenwriter Dan Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff (who previously teamed on Ghost World) present a satire of artistic ambition, as viewed in a fishbowl. In their version, the art-school experience is one of the washed-up and burnt-out instructing the pretentious and self-deluding. It’s by no means a savage movie, though. Dismissive as the film is of certain art-school stock characters (the vegan holy man, the boring blowhard, the angry lesbian, the empty-nest mom, the crazy neo-beatnik chick, the Audrey Hepburn-obsessed waif, etc.), the humor is more fond than fierce. And the protagonist is as much the butt of the joke as any of his clichéd classmates.

Jerome (Max Minghella) is a sensitive, sheltered suburbanite attending the Strathmore Institute, an art school modeled loosely on Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (which Clowes attended). Jerome’s ambition is, simply, to become the “greatest artist of the 21st century.” Though, as we learn in early flashbacks, his drive to become the new Picasso may have as much to do with that painter’s legendary amorous accomplishments as with his artistic achievements. In fact, he seems to have chosen Strathmore primarily for its catalog depiction of a figure model. It’s probably needless to say that things don’t quite work out the way Jerome expects.

His technically proficient work fails to impress either his classmates or his drawing-and-painting instructor. John Malkovitch gives a nice performance as the teacher, a passive-aggressive and competitive geometric minimalist quietly resentful of his obscurity: “Do you know how long I’ve been doing the triangles?” he asks Jerome proudly. “I was one of the first.” The filmmaker’s own regard for the paintings isn’t tough to infer.

Jerome’s single-mindedness in regard to capturing the heart of the figure model cuts him off from other experiences. He seems to be learning little in class, growing closed-minded and competitive himself, and he is nearly oblivious to the on-campus murders that fascinate his film-student roommate. But he does get the girl—only to lose her, of course. In the course of so doing, he encounters: the celebrity-asshole painter; the unknown-but-talented, bitter alcoholic painter; and the uncultured and naive but frustratingly popular newcomer. As befits a kind-sorta murder-mystery, some of these people are not at all what they seem.

Clowes and Zwigoff use the guy-gets-girl-loses-girl story and the murder subplot (yes, murder subplot) to comically exaggerate their criticism of art-world fatuousness and faddishness; The result is a movie that is in equal parts sweet and funny and sharp-eyed and mean—which is exactly what a movie should be.

Sensible Cinema

Kinky Boots

Directed by Julian Jarrold

Wouldn’t it be great if the proprietors of the Northeast’s dying industries could take a note from the British comedies? That is, refigure their product, or their niche market, and along the way, learn valuable lessons about compassion and respect and, of course, regain that corporate edge. From The Full Monty and others of its ilk, it would seem that adversity, particularly in the form of impending bankruptcy, is just the ticket that those plucky islanders need to put things in order, both personally and professionally.

So it will come as no surprise to anybody who sees it that Kinky Boots is, in fact, another of the same sort of story. Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) is forced to forego his career in marketing when his dad, the head of Price Shoes, dies. Going back to the factory, Charlie is shocked to learn that the business is on life support—the big order the crew has been working on is a sham perpetuated by the late Mr. Price in order to keep up morale. While Charlie’s hard-as-nails fiancée Nicola (Jemima Rooper) encourages him to board up the place, he has second thoughts when a plucky about-to-be-laid-off worker named Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts) advises him to get creative. Inspiration comes on the unlikely, wobbly heels of drag queen Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who complains that women’s shoes just don’t have the right support for bigger, er, gals.

The script, written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, has zero surprises, preferring to deliver the expected in much the way that Lola’s elderly landlady ladles out tea at proper intervals. Nice and easy, almost cozy, with the requisite number of witty one-liners and, especially, “aww” moments. Those latter generally involve Charlie’s and Lola’s respective struggles to come to terms with their life choices, but especially Lola’s struggle to gain acceptance from the shoe workers. In particular, bully Don (Nick Frost) causes some hellacious moments, until Lola lets him win at arm wrestling in exchange for him changing his mind about somebody.

Interestingly, despite the title, there is little that is either kinky or sexy in this sleepy charmer, a status that is particularly weird with respect to Lola. As a sexual being, even when performing onstage in heels and sequins, she comes across completely neutral. As a person, be it a man or a woman, he/she has no relationships, except for the budding friendship with Charlie and Lauren, a friendship that takes a backseat to their romance. The effect is ultimately weird, as if the filmmakers sought to desexualize Lola to such an extent that she comes across as just one of the guys from the factory. Granted, an underlying theme of Kinky Boots is the humanity of each of us, but by defanging its central character, it hedges its bets, as if the filmmakers couldn’t be sure that we’d relate and accept Lola as she really wants to be.

—Laura Leon

Redeemed

Poseidon

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

You may not believe this, but Poseidon is pretty good. There’s a huge problem with this tale of a ragtag group who survive a catastrophic cruise-ship disaster, but if you can get past it, this remake of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure is tense, exciting and exceedingly well-directed.

First, the problem. After an unbelievably brief introduction to the key characters, a gazillion-foot-high “rogue wave” thumps the massive Poseidon in the middle of the ocean on New Year’s Eve, causing it to flip over. The CGI wave is impressive; the carnage, as almost everyone on board is drowned, roasted, smashed, blown up or otherwise obliterated, is horrifying—too horrifying.

Even if you thought Titanic had lousy dialogue or the original Poseidon Adventure was corny as a corn dog, filmmakers James Cameron and Irwin Allen took time to introduce us to a variety of characters. Some lived, but many more died; by giving the victims some humanity, the filmmakers respected both the characters and the audience. Poseidon, however, is brutal and unfeeling in its use of mass slaughter.

I don’t think this was director Wolfgang Petersen’s original intent. The running time of Poseidon is 108 minutes; Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, Troy) is a big shot, and hasn’t made a film this short since The NeverEnding Story. I suspect that there was a longer back story, but it wasn’t very good—so it was cut.

Bad mistake. Even if it sucked, the back story is necessary to build suspense and sympathy.

However, if you can adjust to this shock, Poseidon turns into a terrific action thriller about survival. The dialogue is thin, but the picture really moves. The desperate survivors squeeze through air vents, swing across lakes of burning fuel, nearly drown in ballast tanks, dodge live electric wires and avoid flash fires on their journey to the bottom of the upside-down ship, while sea water steadily fills the wrecked vessel. Petersen does an excellent job of keeping the audience aware of how, and how fast, the ship is sinking, which ratchets the tension exponentially.

The experienced character actors and effective newcomers bring their stereotypes to life: the savvy gambler (Josh Lucas); the hero ex-mayor and concerned dad (Kurt Russell); the dewy daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her annoying fiancé (Mike Vogel); the unhappy gay architect (Richard Dreyfuss); the Latina stowaway (Mia Maestro); and, as the original Gilligan’s Island theme went, “the rest.”

By the time some of them manage to escape—some, not all—the film has transcended its opening failure. Which is quite an escape in itself.

—Shawn Stone


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