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Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Casino Royale, Let’s Go to Prison, & Fast Food Nation

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Navel Gazing with Burns & Dignan: Casino Royale, Let’s Go to Prison, & Fast Food Nation

Andrew Dignan: Hey Burns, judging by the number of comments we’ve generated I think we’ve got worse ratings than Studio 60. How long you think before we get a mercy-kill cancellation or are put on the shelf till after sweeps? Maybe we just need to piggyback off of the almost child-like glow the new Bond film, Casino Royale seems to be evoking in people and hope that captures some attention.

Yes, it’s true: for the first time in my lifetime, James Bond is cool. And not because he has the best toys or beds the most women or drives around in an invisible car (hard to believe someone ever signed-off on that one). This is one hundred percent attitude carrying an agreeably low-key espionage thriller. You got guns, you got girls, you got some truly brutal hand-to-hand combat; Bond feels primal and dangerous again after four over-produced, Pierce Brosnan smarm-fests. The film’s success was not only unexpected, it flies in the face of common sense. As has been pointed out by many others, it’s produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli who are as responsible as anyone for driving this franchise into the ground, the film is co-written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who wrote the last two Bond films, and to direct they’ve brought back Martin Campbell, who is something of an agreeable hack.

So does that mean all of these winds-of-change laurels need to be thrown at the feet of new Bond Daniel Craig? I’ll admit to having been skeptical of his casting (once I had my heart set on Clive Owen it was near-impossible to think of anyone else for the part), but my God is he glorious in this role. I suppose it’s something I should have picked up upon years ago, but Bond is a complete sociopath, a niggling character trait that’s been whitewashed by a steady stream of smirks and cheesy one-liners. But watching Craig, you get the sense that he genuinely enjoys hurting people. With those emotionless blue-eyes and the boxer’s face, he really does come across as a thug with a license to kill. The only thing separating this version of Bond from the men he hunts is he’s on the leash of queen and country (it was inevitable that Bond would begin to resemble his American-television counterpart, Jack Bauer). He’s prone to get beat up or act impulsively or become distracted by a beautiful woman. In other words, he’s a human being.

One of the real stand-out sequences for me in the film is an early, incredibly elaborate chase scene through a construction site, which is mostly a forum for Sebastien Foucan’s gravity defying parkour display, but it’s also the rarest of things: an action sequence that illustrates character through behavior. Time and again we see Bond’s blunt-force-trauma approach in response to Foucan’s graceful aerobatics: Foucan slides through a small window, Bond breaks through the wall. Foucan hops up walls, Bond shoots a ballast and zips up a cargo lift. It saddens me that for the next film we can probably expect a more polished version of 007, no doubt more at ease in the role as a debonair man of mystery. I for one prefer Bond with a few sharp corners.

I could point out that 144-minutes is far too much bloat for what is a fairly sparse plot and that much of the protracted third act rides upon a rather rickety romance between Craig and Eva Green’s nowhere near world-weary enough Vesper Lynd (as anyone who’s seen The Dreamers can attest, Green’s greatest gifts are her naïve self-absorption and her breasts, neither of which are well-represented here), but I’m far too jazzed about this unanticipated turn of events that I really can’t complain.

Sean Burns: Well Andrew, I don’t know what to do about our Studio 60 ratings besides proposing a designated week during which you and I can both stride purposefully down hallways and talk about nothing except the great and vital importance of what we’re doing for the National Discourse, while at the same time taking thinly veiled cheap-shots at our ex-girlfriends. But since we both tend to spend too much time online bitching about our exes, I say we just get back to Bond.

And yeah, I fucking loved it… warts and all. I’m a bit older than you (ahem!) so I grew up renting the Connery Bond flicks on that antiquated VHS format while reading the Ian Fleming novels on my summer vacations and, as such, it was a great relief for me to see James Bond finally back to being a sadistic dickhead. By far the best actor who’s ever donned the 007 tux (anybody see The Mother?) Craig is indeed what M would call “a blunt instrument,” but I appreciated the way he layer-caked his performance, refining his way into the role until the final line that brings down the house. It’s Batman Begins, for 007 fans.

The funny thing about this Bond series is that they’re always trend-chasing and they’re typically a year or two too late. If I remember correctly, For Your Eyes Only was originally scrapped to make way for Moonraker because in the wake of Star Wars, James Bond simply had to get into outer space if he wanted to keep up with the Skywalkers. It’s interesting to me how all our recent prequel craze, plus 24 and Jason Bourne finally brought the series back down to earth and improbably back to the most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel in many decades. What goes around comes around, I guess, and everything old eventually becomes new again.

I really dug how much the killings hurt in this picture. They’re messy and bloody and they leave a mark… and that close-quarters stairwell machete beat-down is one of the most intense and visceral things I’ve seen in quite a long time.

Of course, the picture is at least a half-an-hour too long (as all Bond films are) and don’t even get me started on the horrid Chris Cornel theme song, or the fact that the movie has such ass-backwards 2006 priorities that not only does James Bond show more skin than all his leading ladies put together, but there aren’t even any of those undulating, shimmering naked chicks in the opening credit sequence! It’s one thing to give a franchise a makeover, but some traditions should be preserved, dammit!

SB: I’m really interested in talking with you about Let’s Go To Prison, which was abandoned by its distributor with no press screenings and is already on it’s way out the door in most markets, but I found it to be an uneven, though genuinely subversive piece of work. (Every gay man I know is over the moon about it already, and a couple claim it’s even better than Brokeback Mountain!) For those who weren’t lucky enough to see the trailer attached to Snakes on a Plane, this movie is about a layabout career criminal (played with great lackadasical charm by Dax Shepard) who tries to take revenge on the long-dead judge who first sentenced him to jail at the tender age of eight by framing the judge’s son (Arrested Development’s genius “illusionist” Will Arnett). The plot convolutions are rather annoying and frankly secondary to the healthy spirit of outrage that makes the audience squeamish and uncomfortable throughout this erratic, weird, ugly little picture. Like Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (which we’ll get to in a minute) the movie is largely a delivery system for alarming statistics and inconvenient truths, only here they’re disguised behind a lot of excretory, ass-fucking humor. In fact, I’d wager 99 percent of this movie’s jokes revolve around male panic regarding anal penetration.

But then a funny thing happens, as this film is the first mainstream Hollywood production I’ve ever seen that actually endorses an interracial same-sex union—and then shrugs like it’s no big deal when these two giddy fellows live happily ever after. Don’t get me wrong, Let’s Go To Prison is a very sloppy comedy that misses more often than it hits. But I’ll be damned if the genuine, improbably touching love story between Will Arnett and Chi McBride isn’t just a little bit revolutionary. No wonder Universal dumped it!

AD: Was this film even released? Judging by the half-dozen stoners and confused elderly people populating the screening I was at, I think Universal’s burial at sea tactic worked.

Let’s Go to Prison bears the fingerprints of numerous historically funny people all operating well below their personal bests. The film was directed by Bob Odenkirk (who makes an unfunny cameo as Arnett’s slimy lawyer) who co-created and co-starred in HBO’s Mr. Show and the film was written by The State alumni Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Michael Patrick Jann who seem to be working through the litany of “I will cram (blank) up your ass” jokes they couldn’t work past the censors. I had unrealistically high hopes for the film perhaps, but your assessment of the film being “hit or miss” is a charitable one. I’m not quite the card-carrying Dax Shepard fan you are; I always find him to be something of a dead-eyed, charisma-free vacuum from the Ashton Kutcher school of acting (not surprisingly, he got his start on Punk’d) and placing the narrative on his slacking shoulders pushes the film along at a crawl. Arnett’s also done no favors by a thinly-conceived character who really only gets two modes to play: boorish and sniveling.

If there’s a performer in the film who clearly understands the material it’s Chi McBride, who not only gets most of the best lines, but appears to be having the time of his life playing top bitch to Arnett’s sissy. There’s a scene in a bathroom that segues from rape attempt (“Is that how you treat the people you love? By choking them?”) to tender reconciliation—complete with guy in a nearby toilet mouthing “go to him”—to assault by the Aryan brotherhood that’s as moving as anything in the aforementioned Ang Lee film. The film plays their relationship totally straight (no pun intended), never letting the snickering teenage boys in the audience off the hook with its in-your-face man-on-man love, which is some sort of accomplishment I suppose, but the film’s never invested enough in its own premise to really be all that funny. I have no idea how the film will be remembered by queer theorists in years to come, but as a comedy it’s fairly disposable.

SB: Well now, calling me a card-carrying Dax Shepard fan might be stretching things a bit, but between Let’s Go To Prison and Jon Favreau’s terribly underrated Zathura, I’ve really come around on his drawling, lazy performance style. Take for instance his causal non-reaction after fingering Will Arnett: “It happened,” he shrugs.

It’s also worth noting that the film is based on Jim Hogshire’s non-fiction book, You Are Going To Prison, which would account for the countless unsettling factoids in Shepard’s narration (knowledge he attributes to “being on a lot of weird mailing lists.”) For a filthy little disposable comedy, this flick sure tells the audience a lot of things they don’t want to hear about our broken-down penal system.

SB: Which is just about as easy a segue as I can imagine into Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, another dramatic adaptation of a non-fiction tome that’s chock full of stuff I never, ever wanted to know. It’s also another movie I liked just enough to wish it was better. Linklater and co-screenwriter Eric Schlosser (who penned the book) zoom in on one sleepy little Colorado town as a microcosm for the strip-mall rot that’s currently plaguing most of America. The rather transparently named Mickey’s burger chain is having a little PR problem, as independent studies recently discovered there’s there’s an unacceptable level of fecal matter in their meat. (I love that it’s not simply the presence of shit that raises worry—it’s that there’s just a little too much of it.) Greg Kinnear stars as a hotshot exec dispatched to investigate, but really he’s just there to facilitate conversations amongst folks up and down the entire fast food chain.

To be honest, I found the filmmaking sub-par. The visuals were workmanlike at best, the lighting crappy, the script full of dramatic dead ends, and some of the acting suspect. Yet Fast Food Nation has stuck with me over the past few weeks in ways that more accomplished, less ambitious movies sure haven’t. There’s a larger discussion here worth having, one about the emptiness of our crap franchise culture and how every main drag in every American town now looks almost exactly identical, with interchangeable register jockeys slinging the same corporate office-approved scripted greetings like robots. I was quite taken with Ethan Hawke’s small role as something of a self-styled conscientious objector and I appreciated the way he addressed the nagging question of what on Earth you’re supposed to do with all this information after you’ve been shocked out of your stupor. It’s telling that Kinnear simply throws up his hands and walks out of the movie somewhere around the halfway point, and his final interaction with that chirpy, blank hotel clerk hit a note of despair that’s haunted me far more than any of the graphic slaughterhouse sequences. (Although I’d be lying if I said I could bear to eat a hamburger for couple days after seeing this flick.) Also, that Bruce Willis cameo is one for the ages.

AD: Man, I’m glad you found a unifying theme to all this unfocused muckraking as I’m still not certain of why the film was even made. My problems were less with the film’s aesthetics than with the self-congratulatory tone that permeated much of the film’s second half (when, as you pointed out, Greg Kinnear’s storyline comes to an abrupt halt). Linklater’s meandering, just shootin’-the-shit style of presenting half a dozen different storylines plays a lot better when all that’s on the line is the squirm factor of how many microbes of cow excrement are in your hamburger meat or just how disgusting the oily-faced slacker kids behind the fry cooker really are. That Willis scene is as effective as it is because it lays out the situation in terms that are repulsively callous, but also a little pragmatic. Basically, it’s always been this bad; the only difference is we just we know about it now. Watching Kinnear’s character abandon his short-lived social consciousness to avoid making waves and go promote a new hamburger is the sort of commonplace, stinging defeat that keeps these corporations bringing in billions every year. The closer the film hews to this sort of death-by-a-thousand-pinpricks pessimism, the more effective it is.

But of course, this can’t just simply be a film about how horrible fast food is for you (I think Morgan Spurlock covered that one already), so it casts a super-wide net around every troubling issue that Linklater’s currently working his head around these days, including drug abuse by immigrant workers, unsafe conditions at the meat packing factory, the disappearance of the American rancher, and selling-out your beliefs. By the time we get to Catalina Sandino Moreno bartering with her body in order to get an extra shift at the meat factory you realize we’re a long way from spores in the chuck. Employing documentary footage of a real slaughterhouse as a backdrop for the further indignities suffered by the film’s illegal immigrant characters is exploitive and after-the-fact, a clumsy stab at sweeping relevance for a film that just doesn’t have the legs to support it. Fast Food Nation feels like it was made by Avril Lavigne and Lou Taylor Pucci’s know-it-all, activist college students, wedded to the notion that flailing about in a misguided effort for change is the same thing as actually accomplishing something. This isn’t filmmaking; it’s an op-ed column in an Alt-Weekly.

SB: You’ll find no argument here on the Mexican laborer storyline, which felt so diagrammatic and forced that I could call every tragic event that was going to occur three scenes ahead of time. The only angle that really worked for me was the sadness of how tacky and empty their dream-vision of America was, culminating in a romantic night out at a lousy chain restaurant eating crummy frozen food.

But I did breathe a big sigh of relief at the Lavigne and Pucci sequences simply because these kids didn’t, in fact, know it all… they only thought they did, in some terribly amusing ways. Was the “the most patriotic thing we can do right now is violate the Patriot Act” line actually supposed to be taken seriously? I doubt it. Remember, their grand dorm-room scheme to “liberate” the cattle provides the movie’s most hilarious moment, as well as the kind of potent visual metaphor that sums up the picture: floundering helplessly before nation of cows who would prefer to remain in their pens.