November 20, 2006
This weekend's new movies
It's the time of year when it starts to get tough to keep up with all the worthwhile movies coming out. I went to see a couple this weekend.
Casino Royale [official site] is the best thing that ever could have happened to the James Bond franchise. Pierce Brosnan was great as a spy/playboy driving around in sports cars with an eyebrow cocked, and he was funnier than other Bonds, but that particular formula got stale fast. This new movie is the first time I've seen a Bond movie that came close to having more substance than style, even if the plot still doesn't make any sense. Daniel Craig's Bond is less about flashy gadgetry and slick one-liners than he is about breaking people's necks with his bare hands.
It was also cool to see the early days of the character when he's first become 007 and is still a little clumsy. The first big action sequence at an African construction site (not so many cheesy glamorous chase scene locations in Casino Royale, which is a nice change--another big one takes place on the tarmac at Miami airport) involves Bond being totally out-maneuvered by a bad guy with some awesome parkour moves who nimbly leaps from crane to I-beam to cement truck while Bond is slipping all over the place.
Daniel Craig is great too, I don't know what all that complaining among "fans" was about. His ripped body makes Roger Moore look like a scrawny little weed, but it goes with his version of the character, which as Manohla Dargis notes is closer to the “ironical, brutal and cold” description in the Ian Fleming books than any other recent Bond. And Eva Green is good--nowhere near as fun as the hilarious evil maneater that Famke Janssen (my favorite Bond girl) was in Goldeneye, but she's quick and tough and still has some of that same adolescent gawkiness that she had in The Dreamers.
I was impressed with a few complicated set-ups that we got to watch unfold and figure out for ourselves, but as smart as the audience was allowed to feel at some points, we also get spoon-fed a lot of idiot narration at other times. During one of the (many) (long) poker scenes, there's a lot of really dumb commentary: "The pot is now at $120 million!" or "a straight flush beats a full house!" as if the actual workings of the game make any difference to the movie.
Fast Food Nation [official site] was a big disappointment. The nonfiction book may have opened a lot of people's eyes about the gross realities of high-volume meat production, but the movie examines the industry through some not very well-developed fictional characters. As Stephen Hunter writes in his review, "it works far better as journalism than as drama and it really doesn't work very well as journalism."
The characters are more like sketches, and many are obvious stereotypes (the teenage burger-flipper who spits in food, the asshole plant floor manager who gropes employees, the idealistic but clueless college students.) Even the scenes that are supposed to be shocking are so obviously foreshadowed that when they finally happen they have little impact. And where was the scene that the whole movie was clearly leading up to that never came--cow poop getting splattered all over a whole side of beef, which then gets made into hamburger patties? Isn't that what the whole movie is supposedly about?
Even the bad things that happen to some characters are more like lame-brained lessons than revelations about the meat industry. Like, "don't operate machinery while on drugs" or "don't sleep with your boss." I would have watched a whole movie about Luis Guzman, the coyote. Or Kris Kristofferson, the crusty old rancher, and how other local ranchers had lost their land which got subdivided and turned into exurban blight. That would be an interesting story. Instead I guess we're supposed to be surprised to learn that working in a meat-packing plant is gross, that migrants get exploited and have really hard lives, and that fast food companies use chemicals rather than real ingredients to add flavor to the food. Yeah, shocking. Linklater, I know you can do better than this.
I was a little shocked, however, to see how handsome Wilmer Valderrama is all of a sudden. Look, I know, I'm just saying.
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