Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Royale Screwfly Confidential

CASINO ROYALE (2006, Sony Pictures theatrical)
Producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have jump-started the long-running 007 franchise with a picture that makes all but a select few Bond movies seem trivial. Daniel Craig (pictured) may not be our idea of Bond initially, but this is effectively the story of the birth (or more to the point, the finessing) of Bond, and it's a pleasure to see the hard granite edges of Craig gradually smoothed and polished as he acquires professionalism and as the stakes of victory require a higher standard of him. What's strange about the film is that it's not a completely fresh start; Judi Dench is back as M, and there are also certain (forgive the word) spectres of the past, including the use of a 1964 Aston Martin; also, because the film is not only contemporary but technically cutting edge (if not advanced), this Bond is no longer a Cold War relic but a distillation of ruthless self-interest put into national harness. The formula has likewise been played with; instead of the pre-credits stunt showpiece that's been more or less standard since THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), there's a slow, cerebral simmer to the familiar gun barrel logo, quickly followed by an early stunt showcase at a construction site that's easily one of the series' most breathless and exciting. Several more follow, accentuating hard-hitting realism over fantasy, all the more impressive for never succumbing to profanity or vulgarity. Complementing this new blond Bond are an unusual emphasis of brunette Bond girls, including Eva Green in an appreciably mature performance as Vesper Lynd, whose character arc shapes Bond's future attitude to women and gives this film an emotional resonance not found in the series since at least THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH and perhaps not since ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. To be perfectly honest and unsentimental, I think this film taps into real romantic emotion better than either. CASINO ROYALE embodies such a revolution of thought about Bond that only time will tell how good it truly is, and I'm in no rush to sell out the past. But I can 't think of another introductory Bond film as successful as this one on so many levels -- and when the deliberately withheld Bond theme enters in the final scene, only the most hard-hearted viewer will be able to contain their cheers.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD)
This film reunites artist-screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff for the first time since their remarkable GHOST WORLD (2001), a film I'm proud to have seen probably ten times. For anyone expecting a feature-length exploration of Illeana Douglas' art class in that movie, ASC is bound to disappoint on some level, but it's actually a far more profound rumination on the costs that come with choosing this path in life. We follow protagonist Jerome Platz (Max Minghella, pictured) from his arrival at Strathmore Art College on a course that encompasses naive talent, first love (when the Davy Jones-eyed Minghella first sets eyes on Sophia Myles, we half-expect them to twinkle like stars), the discovery of a topic, the pursuit of a personal style, heartbreak, cynicism, madness, opportunism, ruthlessness, and finally a form of commercial sell-out celebrity that denies him everything but his dream of success and the pleasure of gazing upon that which inspires him. The final shot is one of the ouchiest twists of a narrative knife I've ever felt from a movie, and it strikes me as complete a metaphor for what it means to be an artist as I've seen. For all the pain -- and there's at least as much here as there was in BAD SANTA (2003) -- there's even more humor and intelligence, confirming Zwigoff and Clowes as one of the great teams of American independent cinema. Sony's DVD includes a nice featurette and 11 minutes of deleted scenes, nearly all valuable but which would have darkened the film even more. Producer John Malkovich gets the film's instant classic line: "I was one of the first."

MASTERS OF HORROR: "The Screwfly Solution" (2006, Showtime)
Season Two's reunion of director Joe Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm ("Homecoming") adapts a 1977 story by the late "Raccoona Sheldon," one of the pseudonyms used by science fiction writer Alice Bradley (1915-87, also known as "James Tiptree, Jr."). It concerns the spread of an airbourne virus of unknown but apparently deliberate origin designed to wipe out the human race by turning the aggression of the male reproductive impulse into a homicidal one. Dante and Hamm use the story (which can be read in its entirety here) to illustrate the extent to which dangerous levels of misogyny are already countenanced in our society (like the free use of words like "bitch," and even a commendably we-bad clip from Season 1's "Imprint"), which makes the seemingly far-fetched scenario not so great a leap of the imagination, hence not only shocking but horrifying. Elliott Gould (pictured), in the supporting role of a grizzled gay scientist, gives what may be his best performance since his Altman days. My only complaint -- and I have to precede this comment with a SPOILER flash -- is that it builds to the revelation of an alien cause, with a CGI alien that looks like it stepped out of a SHOWGIRLS variation on THE ABYSS. This twist may be faithful to Sheldon's story, but it cheapens (and, to a degree, contradicts) the long and unflinching gaze into the mirror that precedes it. Nevertheless, this is not only the best episode to yet emerge this season, but one of the very best episodes of either season, and an outstanding work of feminist -- no, make that humanist -- horror.

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