‘Casino Royale’ – James Bond Reborn and Reinvigorated

I came into “Casino Royale” with guarded expectations. When it came to the James Bond films which starred Pierce Brosnan, I found they were best enjoyed with lowered expectations as they veered to the more openly ridiculous films of the Roger Moore era. But once this particular Bond film started with something other than the standard gun barrel sequence, I quickly realized how serious the filmmakers were about reinventing and reinvigorating this long running franchise.

To put it mildly, “Casino Royale” proved to be the best Bond filmI have seen in years, and it was far and away one of the best movies of 2006. For once, we had a 007 movie which actually bothered to take itself seriously, provide us with a villain who was not going after world domination, and a Bond woman who is not just here for display. After seeing the franchise descend into self-parody for far too long, I was stunned at how much effort the filmmakers and producers put into this installment

This film also marked Daniel Craig’s debut as 007. These days, it is hard to believe many were quick to write him off and say how wrong he was for the role of Ian Fleming’s iconic character. What a joy it was to see him have the last laugh on everyone. Right from the start, Craig makes this character is own and gives Bond an edge I felt this British spy had been lacking after Timothy Dalton departed the franchise. But moreover, Craig gives Bond a shocking vulnerability to where it seemed criminal he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Seriously, he was that good.

“Casino Royale” also marks the return of director Martin Campbell to the Bond franchise as he previously directed Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as 007 in “Goldeneye,” a film I did not give enough credit upon its release. Rather than simply repeat what he did before, Campbell paints a whole new canvas for Craig to work with, and he gives us a number of thrilling actions set pieces throughout which quickly prove to be the most thrilling this franchise has seen in some time, and they get extra support from the enthralling music score composed by David Arnold.

As I said earlier, this Bond film does not contain a villain bent on world domination, and I was thankful for this as those villains had long since become overused in this or any other franchise. Instead, we get Le Chiffre who is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who has since become famous for his own interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Le Chiffre may have an Achilles heel or two with his asthma and an eye duct which lets out tears of blood, but he is a formidable foe with his mathematical genius and brilliance at playing chess. Mikkelsen also dares to make Le Chiffre an especially vulnerable Bond villain as his immense ego gets pierced as easily as Bond’s does, and this leads to a scene of painful torture which we have not seen since “Licence to Kill.”

I also have to say how “Casino Royale” does a great job or making Poker such an exciting game to watch. Playing cards in a movie does not sound like something which would lend itself much to cinema, but Campbell milks Poker for all it is worth here to where seeing Bond stare Le Chiffre down is such an immensely satisfying delight.

Now let us go to the Bond woman of this piece as calling her a Bond girl would be an unforgivable insult. She is Vesper Lynd, and she is played by an actress as wonderful as she is beautiful, Eva Green. So memorable in “The Dreamers,” she quickly makes her strong presence known upon her first meeting with Craig on a train speeding to Montenegro. Seeing them stare one another down is a terrific sequence as this Bond film presents us with the first real love story it has had since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this is saying a lot.

If there is a holdover from the Brosnan era, it is Dame Judi Dench who gives audiences the most intimidating version of M yet. She never took it easy on Brosnan, but she goes ballistic when it comes to Craig as his Bond just reached 007 status. Dench makes M a tough nut to crack and a superior who truly means business. If there are any vulnerabilities to this character, we do not see them here as she makes clear to Bond she is not one to be trifled with. Dench is a thrilling presence in “Casino Royale” as a result, and it made me glad she would continue to inhabit this role for a few more films.

In a sense, this franchise has come around full circle with “Casino Royale” as the producers finally got the rights to Fleming’s book after so many years. But more importantly, they came to realize that this franchise needed a serious reboot even though “Die Another Day” was an enormous hit at the box office. While I am not always a big fan of origin stories, movies like “Casino Royale” and “Batman Begins” remind me of how necessary they are and of just how good they can be.

We don’t hear Craig utter the words “the name’s Bond, James Bond” until the very end, but this is perfect as it shows how we have many great adventures to look forward to from here, and we certainly did.

* * * * out of * * * *

Gregg Araki Grows as a Filmmaker with ‘White Bird in a Blizzard’

White Bird in a Blizzard movie poster

With “White Bird in a Blizzard,” Gregg Araki deals with the life of an adolescent once again. Based on the book of the same name by Laura Kasischke, it takes place in the 1980’s and stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mother ends up disappearing from her life. This happens at the same time she is discovering her sexuality with the next-door neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and she doesn’t seem too phased by her mother’s sudden absence. Her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), has long since become a complete wimp, and his emotional repression prevents him from dealing with this situation in a rational manner. We follow Kat as she goes from high school to college, and eventually, she comes to see just how deeply affected she was by her mother’s disappearance and becomes determined to find out what happened to her.

Many of Araki’s films deal with the lives of teenagers, and he deals with them in a way which feels both honest and emotionally raw. “White Bird in a Blizzard” is the latest example of this, but while it deals with similar themes, it also feels somewhat unique to what Araki has given us before. He appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the movie’s press conference, and I asked him if his view of adolescence has evolved much from one movie to the next. Araki replied it definitely has.

Gregg Araki: Back in the 90’s I did a series of three films (“Totally Fucked Up,” “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere”) that I have become sort of famous or infamous for that were kind of a trilogy about being a teenager. It was called the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” and they were very unhinged in a way and a little bit chaotic. I made those films 20 years ago and I definitely feel like in that time I’ve become older for sure and I think more mature and I’m more developed. I don’t really think I had a film like “White Bird” in me then. The analogy I make is that in this film I did called “The Doom Generation” which is also about young people, those kids have no parents. They have no house and they have no family; it’s just these kids doing crazy stuff. And in this movie Shailene does play somebody who is 18 and Shiloh (Fernandez’s) character is 18, and so they have their teenage moments and they meet in a Goth club and dance and they have that sort of carefree youth about them. But at the same time, this film is so much more about the family. Kat’s relationship with her mother or father, her parents’ marriage and just that whole world that, to me, like “American Beauty” or “The Ice Storm,” is about the world of the American dream and what is underneath the surface of it all. To me, that’s much more this film than my earlier movies about young people.

It’s always great to see a movie which takes adolescence seriously, and “White Bird in a Blizzard” does qualify as one. It also allows Woodley the opportunity to give another great and honest portrayal of a teenager just like she did in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” and it shows how Araki, even at the age of 54, still truly understands what teenagers go through. But moreover, it shows how far Araki has come as a filmmaker, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

“White Bird in a Blizzard” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Here is a video interview I did with Araki, Woodley and Chris Meloni which I did for the website We Got This Covered.