Monday, November 25, 2013

Skyfall (2012) ****

Whenever a new actor is chosen to play James Bond, there’s always a huge amount of discussion among fans about whether or not it’s a good choice.  You could fill a book just with all the online rants about the fact that Daniel Craig shouldn’t play Bond because he has BLOND HAIR!  I think that at this point Craig has laid to rest any doubts.  What this whole argument ignores, however, is that the main determinant of whether a Bond movie will be fun or forgettable is the VILLAIN.  “Quantum of Solace” is widely considered one of the less successful Bond efforts, but Craig was just fine in it.  The villain, though, was just another oily, vaguely evil businessman of the type they have been throwing into forgettable Bond films for years.
What the franchise has been needing is another villain as charismatic as Goldfinger, and they have found him in Javier Bardem’s Silva.  Silva is smart, funny, brutal, and possibly bisexual.  He is also driven not by the usual lust for power or money, but by revenge.  One thing that makes this villain memorable is the personal nature of his mission.  It turns out Silva is a former agent with a grudge against M (Judy Dench).  He lures Bond and M into an elaborate trap, and our heroes have to get creative to get ahead of the evil genius.  The chase ultimately leads to Skyfall, the country estate where Bond grew up, and we get treated to some interesting Bond background.
Daniel Craig and Judy Dench are as cool as ever in their respective roles, but it is Javier Bardem who makes the movie.  From demonstrating how to win a game of “William Tell,” to helicoptering into battle blaring John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” Silva reminds us that the greatest thing in a great Bond film is, and always will be, a great villain.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Parker (2013) ****

They’ve been making movies out of Richard Stark novels since the ‘60s, and mostly screwing them up.  For those not familiar with the name, Richard Stark was a pen name under which Donald Westlake wrote a number of hard-boiled crime novels, mostly about a professional heist-man named Parker.  “Point Blank,” based on the first Parker novel, “The Hunter,“ and starring Lee Marvin as the Parker character, had some noir charm.  Unfortunately, it was full of distracting flashbacks, and they changed the main character’s name to “Walker.”  Years later, Hollywood re-visited “The Hunter” with the Mel Gibson movie “Payback.”  Once again, major changes were made to the story, including changing the character’s name to “Porter” this time, and Gibson didn’t fit the Parker character as well as Lee Marvin did.  “Payback” was not actually a bad movie, but it was another disappointment for fans of the books.  Even French New Wave director Godard dipped into the Stark library with “Made in USA,” which is supposed to be loosely based on Stark’s “The Jugger.”  It is based so loosely that Stark himself wouldn’t recognize the story.
I have read that the reason they always changed the main character’s name in these movies is that Westlake himself wasn’t willing to allow use of the Parker name unless he approved of the movie and the actor was on board to do follow-up films.  In light of that, I would like to say that the latest Stark adaptation is boldly named “Parker” because they finally got it right.  Unfortunately, Donald Westlake died in 2008, so I don’t think any endorsement can be inferred.  Nonetheless, they really did finally get it right.  This may be the best Parker movie yet.
Based on the Stark novel “Flashfire,”  “Parker” finds our titular anti-hero pulling off a robbery at a county fair.  The heist is successful, but afterwards his partners “invite” him to give them his share of the take as seed money for another, even bigger, robbery, and to join them in that job.  Parker isn’t the “go along to get along“ type, and the ensuing confrontation leaves his partners with various injuries and Parker left for dead in a ditch.  Parker is the kind of guy who, if you leave him for dead, you had better make sure he’s dead.  When he gets back on his feet, he sets out to get his money and his revenge.  The quest leads him to Palm Beach, where he teams up with a struggling real estate agent to take on his ex-partners and a Mob hit-man.
It turns out Jason Statham makes a pretty good Parker.  Fans of the books may quibble over his British accent, but I say just go with it.  Parker is methodical, relentless, cool under fire, and an absolute bad-ass, and Statham portrays all that quite well.  Maybe it is essentially the same character he always plays, but who cares?  He totally nails it.  “Parker” also benefits from an excellent supporting cast.  Nick Nolte is perfect as Parker’s gravelly father-in-law and partner-in-crime.  Michael Chiklis is equally good as the double-crossing Melander.  He portrays Melander not as some sociopath or evil genius, but as a crook who isn’t all that different from Parker, except for his willingness to double-cross a partner.  The best surprise in “Parker” is how good Jennifer Lopez is as a desperate realtor, always one big commission away from financial security.  She manages to make it convincing that a pretty woman from the straight world would team up with a crook like Parker.  Lopez has mostly been famous for being famous these last few years, but her performance in “Parker” reminds me of how good she was in the 1998 film “Out of Sight.”
Now for the bad news.  “Parker” bombed at the box office.  For some reason, the movie didn’t connect with critics or audiences.  I loved the film, but it isn’t like a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film, where an outrageous mix of violence and humor helps the movie break out.  “Parker” is the kind of well-done, straightforward crime thriller that needs help from some star power to gain an audience.  In this case, I imagine Jason Statham fans were put off by seeing Jennifer Lopez on the poster, and Jennifer Lopez fans weren’t looking to watch an action movie.  In any case, I don’t expect to see Jason Statham reprise the Parker role, which is a shame.  At least we have “Parker,” which in my mind makes up for a lot of sketchy Richard Stark adaptations over the years.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Middle Men (2009) **½

I’m proposing a rule for movies “based on a true story.”  The movie shouldn’t be completely initiated and financed by the guy the story is about.  “Middle Men” purports to tell the story of real-life entrepreneur Chris Mallick, who, along with some partners, developed the online credit card payment sites that allow people across the world to discreetly pay for internet porn, online gambling, and so on.  Mallick ultimately had fallings-out with his partners and customers, but you won’t see their side of the story in “Middle Men.“  The film is Mallick’s brain-child, financed out of his personal fortune, and it is very much his version of things.  That’s not to say that “Middle Men” is a bad movie.  I actually found it quite enjoyable.  The problem is that once you read the history of this film, you realize it is just a dodgy businessman’s attempt to whitewash his reputation, and the whole movie starts to look like a joke.
In the film, Mallick is represented by the character Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), an honorable family man with a history of organized crime connections, but a heart full of good intentions.  His specialty is “solving problems,” because he is so astute and so good at listening to people that he is able to find solutions to seemingly hopeless situations.  He helps a friend keep an L.A. nightclub afloat, and somehow the club ends up becoming his.  Then he meets Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck (Gabriel Macht), a couple of idiots who have written the first program to allow credit-card payments over the internet.  They are using the program to run a successful porn site, but they are in trouble with their Russian-mafia partners.  Jack sorts out their problems, then helps them take the business to the next level as an international clearinghouse for porn subscriptions.  As the money comes rolling in, Jack struggles valiantly to keep himself clean and straight amid the sleazy porn industry.
Luke Wilson is pretty good in the role.  His good-guy charm is a perfect fit for the perpetually agreeable Jack Harris.  At some point, however, you have to stop and ask why this character is so squeaky-clean, so perfectly decent.  The answer, of course, is that the man on whom Jack is based is the man financing the film.  For the story behind the movie, see this link for an interview with Chris Mallick.
Standing on its own, “Middle Men” is pretty entertaining, although I did start to find the knight-in-shining-armor version of Jack to be unbelievable.  After reading up on the background of the film, I find I can’t take it seriously as anything more than the deluded revenge fantasy of an unscrupulous businessman who has sacrificed a lot of relationships to make his fortune, but can’t give up on his good-guy image of himself.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Bruges (2008) ***

“Maybe that’s what Hell is.  You just spend Eternity in Bruges.  If so, I really don’t want to die.”  These are the words of Ray (Colin Farrell), a hit-man stuck hiding out with his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) after a job causes the accidental death of a young boy.  Why they are lying low in Bruges, Belgium is one of the many droll highlights of the movie, as their boss apparently thinks that the medieval buildings and history of Bruges make it “like a f--ing fairy tale” and a city that everyone should see at least once.  Ken actually agrees, and enjoys seeing the sights, but Ray sulks about and tries to avoid facing his crushing guilt over killing an innocent child.
“In Bruges” manages to maintain just the right balance between farcical hilarity and dark subject matter.  Ray is charmingly dense when he hits on a girl by making well-intentioned but un-PC banter about a dwarf.  When the dwarf turns out to be a whoring druggie with racist theories about the coming race war, the joke just gets funnier.  Farrell plays Ray with the perfect mix of melancholy and cluelessness.  Ralph Fiennes is chilling, yet hilarious as their boss Harry.
There are plenty of movies cast from this mold:  wisecracking, double-crossing cockney thugs being by turns hilarious and murderous.  “In Bruges” isn’t the best of the bunch, but it’s pretty good, and of course the setting is “like a f---ing fairy tale.”

3 stars out of 5