Film is art, but it is also an item of consumption, and the James Bond franchise illustrates it more baldly than any other cinematic series -- Ian Fleming's sardonic super-spy rose out of the 1960s, but the undimmed demand for svelte immorality (not only a license to kill, but a license to luxuriate in jazzed-up, sadistic titillation) has kept it afloat into the new millennium. Die Another Day in 2002 had the series running on fumes, so the thrilling, unexpectedly excellent Casino Royale is Bond Year Zero, both questioning and reinforcing the appeal of its mystique. Back to basics in more ways than one: The first thing we're reminded of is that 007 (played by Daniel Craig) is a killer, less the soigné playboy of the later, swanky blockbusters than Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, a thug in a tux. A recent addition to the secret service presided over by "M" (Judi Dench), this Bond is rough around the edges, and, when there's a possibility of fiend Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) walking away from the poker game, the agent isn't too cool to grab a knife from a nearby table. The Schwarzenegger-Stallone school of quippy violence always had its roots in the series (Thunderball: "I think he got the point" follows harpoon to chest), but Bond's tussle with a couple of thugs here leaves his undershirt messily bloodied, he has a glass of whiskey to steady himself. (He's also much less hooded in the pleasure he gets from the brutality -- see the screen-filling smile as a villain explodes offscreen.)
The pop-art opening credits suggest Saul Bass with an Xbox, a detour into genital torture (out of Hostel and Abu Ghraib) specifies Casino Royale as a modernized update more than its panoply of cellulars and laptops and "freedom fighters" talk; Goldfinger's iconic gag (Ursula Andress as Venus) is wittily recontextualized, Le Chiffre's glassy peeper leaks blood, and "M" sighs for ye olde Cold War days. Director Martin Campbell plays his cool game of poker, setting up elegant visual jests (i.e. Caterina Murino on horseback) until it's time for the set-pieces: the ease with action (ingenious things done with the skeleton of a skyscraper, an airport runway, a crumbling Venice building) shows just how TV-sized Mission: Impossible III was. The fate of the world hangs on the outcome of a high-stakes card match, but the real danger stands in emotions -- Bond falls for treasury agent Vesper Lynd (the splendid Eva Green), and the humanity required to be ironed out by insouciance is suddenly, vulnerably foregrounded. By showing what's underneath the armor, Casino Royale reminds me why On Her Majesty's Secret Service remains my favorite Bond picture, the only one where feelings complicate the nihilist cocktail. It's interesting to note that Craig (who is amazing, by the way) was also in Munich, another lacerating chronicle of how violence hollows out the protagonist even as it makes him a "hero." That the film is a thoroughly commercial confection only heightens its troubling intimations -- when audiences cheer at the agent's famous introduction phrase, they're celebrating the death of a soul. A Bond for our times, indeed.
Despite the ubiquitous Paul Haggis's presence amid the writing credits of Casino Royale, this week's rank Stanley Kramerisms fall to Richard Linklater with Fast Food Nation, a granola muckraker packing the flabbergasting revelation that hamburgers are bad, mmmkay. Seriously, where's the beef? The movie lays the meat flat on the table right away, a grilled patty floating in ominous slow-mo to a smiling clan at the designated McDonald's stand-in (here tagged Mickey's): that the barbecue scent comes out of a chemical vial is just the first of the purposely unappetizing revelations stashed throughout the narrative. Greg Kinnear, a naïve company marketer, is proud of having created the "Big One," Mickey's main artery-clogger, but tests show something off about the burger -- "shit in the meat," literally, so it's off to Colorado for Kinnear to check out the meat-packing company. The expanses of beef-to-be are glimpsed in a helicopter shot of the pastures, though the beatific cows being lead to the slaughter might as well be the noble Mexican immigrants illegally crossing the parched border, cramming into Luis Guzman's van, and hiding out in a motel room until getting paid $10 an hour to get their asses felt up or their legs ripped apart at the meat factory. America to newly arrived Wilmer Valderamma is a neon-furnished sprawl where the ultimate success is treating his bride (Catalina Sandino Moreno) to a food-franchise meal; tentative revolt falls to register girl Ashley Johnson, whose burgeoning activism is but one step ahead of pimply fast-food drones who fantasize about holding up the place.
Fast Food Nation is a fictionalized adaptation of Eric Schlosser's bestseller; it is also the first Linklater film I've actively disliked. The synthetic consumerism at the heart of capitalism would have given Eisenstein frenzy-edited joygasms, though montage here extends to cutting from Kinnear watching porn in a motel to tremulous immigrants huddled on the floor of another room -- slack filmmaking, humorless satire, hectoring politics. Linklater's misunderstood A Scanner Darkly earlier this year had people caught in a system where heavy cartoon outlines hemmed in the ideas that had floated so freely in Waking Life; the director himself handles the oppression this time, wrangling the characters into slogan-studded cubicles for point-making as condescendingly reductive as anything in Crash or Babel. Except for Johnson's scenes with Patricia Arquette (but not including the ones with Ethan Hawke, who brings an extra dollop of late-night barroom hipster stink), the patronizing decision to educate audiences leaves no room for Linklater's usual generosity. Bruce Willis and Kris Kristofferson pop up to make fun of Kinnear, who is grossed out as Kristofferson's old maid rattles off slaughterhouse minutia: "Anything else you'd like to know," she stings, but a project of such oozing intentions as Fast Food Nation couldn't possibly afford to respect the public's intelligence, thus sacrificial lamb Moreno is sent on a Dantean tour of the gory abattoir for our allegedly enlightening privilege and Franju's terrible poetry in The Blood of the Beasts becomes a punchline for baiting, alt-weekly defeatism. Poor cows.
The lamb in Stranger Than Fiction is Will Ferrell, an IRS agent who gradually awakens to the notion that his existence is following the narrative arc of the new book by novelist Emma Thompson -- her musings become the disembodied narration in Ferrell's head, and how long he has to live becomes a matter of how long she will take to kill off her character (Ferrell is thus "already dead, just not typed"). A premise aping the corkscrewing meta-handjobs of Charlie Kaufman, yet I liked Marc Foster's film more than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind precisely because it suggests how cleverness can suffocate people. Frankenstein is ruled out early on by lit professor Dustin Hoffman as one of the possible texts driving the protagonist's life, but the movie really is about creators and creations, how artists can play God with their characters, how life is an ongoing rough draft for a novel, or a screenplay for a picture. Foster has previously fumbled messagey drama (Monster's Ball), Merchant-Ivory prestige (Finding Neverland), and artsy obscurantism (Stay), but here finds the right sweet-deadpan touch to accept Ferrell falling for Maggie Gyllenhall over cookies as well as an out-of-nowhere tractor tearing through an apartment. (Foster's attention to detailed performances is evident with Thompson, Gyllenhall, Hoffman, and Queen Latifah; Ferrell plays at half of his usual speed for "restraint," meaning he doesn't take off his shirt while yelling.) Stranger Than Fiction deprives itself of depth by playing into the expected happy ending, but that's the point -- like Casino Royale, it subversively dramatizes the toll of providing what moviegoers want.
Reviewed November 16, 2006.