Spy Kids (2001)

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fourhalfstar

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I’m not always on board with what Robert Rodriguez is selling, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, his particular brand of of B-movie absurdity can be quite endearing. I think it might be a question of earnestness. he same intentional throwback-camp aesthetic that can be somewhat tiresome in titles like Planet Terror & Machete Kills work perfectly fine in more original-leaning material like The Faculty. In some ways, then, children’s media might be the perfect arena for Rodriguez’s schtick, since it requires a certain lack of ironic detachment. His first foray into the genre, 2003’s Spy Kids, is a case-in-point example of Rodriguez’s live-action cartoon hijinks & intentional genre send-ups working best without this usual hard-wink irony gumming up the magic. In a lot of ways Spy Kids plays like a feature-length cereal commercial (complete with ad placement for fictional cereal) that takes more than a few dark turns every time it can get away with it. For a quick glimpse into what I’m getting at here, check out htis clip of Alan Cumming singing the barnburner “Floop’s Dream” in one of the film’s more sublime moments. What the what?

In the film, the aforementioned Floop (played by Cumming) attracts the attention of international superspies/sexy parents through the children’s show/criminal operation Floop’s Fooglies. Floop’s evil deeds mostly revolve around genetic manipulation that turns former spies into horrific clown monsters he dubs “fooglies” & similarly ineffective world domination plots & extreme wealth eccentricity. When he abducts the parent-spies & threatens to turn them into fooglies, it’s up to their oblivious children to take up the family business & spring into action. The movie has a great deal of fun pulling humor from the spy industry’s goofier gadgetry (like an underwater SUV or an unwieldy jetpack), but for my money almost all of its best features revolve around Floops’s horror show of a lair. A virtual reality room that’s equal part’s Dodo’s Wackyland, Star Trek‘s holodeck, and the nightmare sequences of Ken Russell’s Altered States gives the movie a nice, surreal touch. Then there’s strange details like the “thumb thumbs” (humanoid flunkies made entirely of thumbs) and the fact that the Floop’s Fooglies theme song, when played backwards, is “Floop is a madman! Help us! Save us!”. And if you have any question of just how weird this movie gets, I’d like to direct you again to the “Floop’s Dream” clip. Go ahead. Watch it a second time. I’ve been practically running it on loop.

What I like most about Spy Kids is how the Floop’s Fooglies horror show is thoroughly mixed with its regular kids’ movie fare, as if it weren’t a nightmare vision of a saccharine hellscape. Regular old kids’ movie standards like poop jokes, McDonald’s ad placement, and goofy one-liners like “My parents can’t be spies! They’re not cool enough!” fit in very inconspicuously with the Floop-flavored terror as if the latter weren’t going to wake the pint-sized target audience screaming in the middle of the night. It’s an absurd, endearing combo that makes for  much more challenging children’s feature that what you’d typical expect from a movie with such heavy reliance on CGI & fake-looking, sanitized sets. I really should not have waited to watch Spy Kids as long as I did. Not only does it stand as an example of Rodriguez at his finest,  but it also gave the world the gift of “Floop’s Dream”, a clip I’m just going to leave right here just in case you haven’t watched it yet. It’s a beautiful thing.

Bonus Points: Besides the Floop insanity, I think Spy Kids is noteworthy for being a high profile film that not only gathering Latino greats Antonio Banderas, Danny Trejo, and Cheech Marin all in one feature, but also for writing in two Latino children as its leads (even if one of the actors they cast’s heritage wasn’t quite in line with that detail in reality). That’s a rare treat indeed. There’s also a great deal of implication that the “Machete” character Danny Trejo plays in the film is the very same Machete he plays in Rodriguez’s Machete franchise. That feature is no “Floop’s Dream”, but it’s a fun little tidbit to chew on, if nothing else.

-Brandon Ledet

D.E.B.S. (2004)

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three star

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I wish that I could have really, really loved this movie. D.E.B.S. is a perennial IFC favorite, and even though there was a period of time where this movie seemed to be on several times a week, I never managed to catch it. It’s a quirky movie with a great cast and a smart concept, and although it has a great stride once it hits it, it takes so long to get there that I can’t give it 4 stars based on the last act alone.

The premise of the film is that there is a secret test within the SATs that measures a person’s aptitude for espionage. Women who pass the hidden aptitude test are recruited into the D.E.B.S. (Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength), a clandestine spy academy where everyone dresses like Catholic schoolgirls and learn to be superheroes. Amy Bradshaw (Sara Foster) is the posterchild of the D.E.B.S., as she made the “perfect score” on the D.E.B.S. test, but she dreams of going to art school in Barcelona. Max Brewer (Meagan Good) is the trigger-happy leader of their quartet, joined by chain-smoking French sexpot Dominique (Devon Aoki) and perpetually ditzy Janet, who has yet to earn her stripes. Amy has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Homeland Security agent Bobby (Geoff Stults), a bro who refuses to accept that it’s over, when the D.E.B.S.’s handler Mr. Phipps (Michael Clarke Duncan) assigns the squad to surveil notorious supervillain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), in whom Amy has an academic interest.

Lucy is a criminal mastermind, the last scion of a syndicate family who loves to steal, with diamonds, naturally, being her speciality. She’s back in the states and meeting with “former KGB” assassin Ninotchka Kaprova (Jessica Cauffiel); unbeknownst to the federal agencies tracking her, Lucy’s rendezvous is actually a blind date engineered by her bodyguard and adorably-devoted BFF Scud (Jimmi Simpson). When Bobby’s pettiness accidentally reveals the D.E.B.S. and other agencies to Lucy, a shootout ensues and she escapes, running into a warehouse where she and Amy have a pistol standoff/meet cute. Amy lets Lucy get away, and the latter realizes she’s falling for the enemy. After a few more encounters, Lucy stages a bank heist to meet Amy again, and the two abscond to be together. The rest of the D.E.B.S. organization (minus Janet, who knows Amy went willingly and begins a cyber-friendship with Scud) goes into scorched earth mode scouring the world for Amy, who’s happily shacked up; when they eventually discover the two and retrieve Amy, the D.E.B.S. Boss (Holland Taylor) agrees to cover up the incident to maintain the agency’s reputation, forcing Amy to denounce Lucy publicly at the senior prom, er, “Endgame.” Meanwhile, Lucy realizes she would rather live without crime than Amy, and sets to righting her wrongs and winning her back.

D.E.B.S. is often described as a spoof of Charlie’s Angels, but that comparison doesn’t track very well for me. The Angels were more like private detectives than spies, for one thing (at least in the original show). D.E.B.S. has more in common with Austin Powers than either the 70s Angels TV series or the godawful 2000 film adaptation (or its somehow-worse 2003 sequel) and, despite having a cast full of beautiful women, never feels like it was made with the male gaze in mind. The relationship between Amy and Lucy feels organic, if a little corny, and is never played for titillation or exploitation. There’s also a little bit of Josie and the Pussycats thrown in for good measure, with lots of colorful visuals and the third-act-squad-breakup plot development that was so popular from roughly the mid-nineties through the early-aughts, although it lacks that film’s subtlety and social commentary. As much as I enjoyed the movie once the romantic plot got rolling, overall, the film is ultimately too inconsistent to really leave a mark. As it turns out, combining clunky gags (there’s a callback joke about what Max and Amy said to each other on the first day of training as well that really thuds, as well as a one-liner about Amy going off book in her final speech) with sublime ones (Lucy and Scud lip-synching to Erasure’s “A Little Respect” over a montage of them returning stolen goods is a treasure, and the D.E.B.S.’s house’s security field having the same tartan pattern as their uniforms is a good visual joke) doesn’t work. And that’s not even getting into the inexplicably odd things that happen in this movie. Why do the D.E.B.S. top brass teleport in and out of every scene? Are they teleporting, or are they holograms?

The movie performed abysmally, making less at the box office than the average twentysomething owes in student loans. It didn’t even break six figures! But what can you really expect when you release a film that’s this uneven? Still, it’s definitely worth a watch. The soundtrack is great (there’s even a Postal Service track playing when Lucy decides to give up her life of diamond theft and doomsday lasering), which is always a plus. Brewster and Simpson make a really great on-screen pair with believable chemistry and comic timing, even if the D.E.B.S. (Amy included) are one-dimensional and kind of bleh. If you can get past some of the worst CGI gun sparks ever committed to film, this is a refreshing twist on the indie-tinged lesbian love story that was such a big draw ten years ago, just make sure you see it through to the cliché but cute conclusion.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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fourstar

I’m not sure exactly why Guy Ritchie’s latest foray into highly stylized action cinema, a big screen adaptation of the 1960s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., has more or less flopped at the box office. Personally, I might at least be able to attribute my own reluctance to catch up with the picture to a little bit of superspy fatigue. So far this year the cinemas have been bombarded from the superspy likes of Kingsman: Secret Service, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, American Ultra, and a spoof of the genre simply called Spy. That’s not even taking into account the upcoming Stephen Spieldberg/Tom Hanks collab Bridge of Spies & the latest James Bond feature Spectre. If 2014 was the Year of the Doppelgänger, 2015 is certainly the Year of the Spy & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s returns may have suffered somewhat from a crowded market. It’s by no means been a devastating financial blow like Ritchie’s disastrous Madonna vehicle Swept Away, but it has struggled to earn back its $75 million budget, earning less than half of that sum in its U.S. theater run. What’s even more difficult to account for, however, is it the film’s middling reviews. I’m no Guy Ritchie fanboy, having seen less than half of the films that he’s released, but U.N.C.L.E. was easily the most fun I’ve ever had with the director’s sleek action movie aesthetic, however delayed my trip to the theater may have been.

Opening with a traditional James Bond credits sequence populated with sultry soul music, harsh red hues, and Cold War/Atomic Age stock footage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. maintains a distinct sense of 60s-tinged, smart mouthed swank throughout its entire runtime. Sometimes its modernizing of the 60s superspy genre feels true to its sources. CGI-aided car chases work similarly to the manually sped-up action scenes of yesteryear. The classy noir lighting of 60s fare is brought into the 2010s with rainbow-colored lens flairs. Throwaway lines about “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist”, enriched uranium, and smuggled Nazi gold all feel native to the era it’s evoking. At other times this modernization can work a little too much like borrowed Tarantino cool, especially in small details like the yellow grindhouse subtitles and the pop music & whistling on the film’s soundtrack, but even Tarantino borrowed those elements from older sources, so the similarities are more than forgiveable. What most distinguishes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from, say, an Inglourious Basterds, is its calmly restrained chase of a smarmy, handsome aesthetic instead of Tarantino’s cartoonishly over-the-top tendency towards excess (which, of course, has its own distinct set of charms).

Speaking of calm restraint, just as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains poised & smugly handsome throughout its runtime, its American spy lead Solo (expertly played by Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill) prides himself on never losing his cool. As the CIA operative/international playboy Solo butts heads with quick-tempered KGB agent Illya (Armie “Winklevoss Twins” Hammer) & sexy German mechanic Gaby (Alicia “Ex Machina” Vikander) on a multinational mission to prevent a Nuclear Holocaust, he tries his damnedest to remain as coolly suave as if he were simply enjoying cocktail hour. A lot of humor is derived from watching Solo & Illya try to out-macho each other in activities as disparate as fistfights in restrooms to arguing over women’s fashion. Most of the film’s comedy, however, is dependent upon the sexual tension between all three leads & their escaped Nazi enemies (including a young married couple who look like an evil combination of Jason Schwartzman & Freddie Mercury and a character Tilda Swinton could play in her sleep). There’s an onslaught of innuendo in the film’s script, like when the art thief Solo offers to “fill the gaps” in a woman’s collection or to “take bottom” when divvying up which locks he & Illya will pick. By the time characters are nonchalantly delivering lines like “Want to have a go?” & “I wish I could stay to finish you off myself” the film’s earned enough goodwill to evoke full belly laughs instead of the light chuckles the first couple sexual quips elicit. Armie Hammer also gets great comedic mileage from the KGB hothead Illya, especially in the way he sweetly refers to mechanic Gaby as his “little chop shop girl” & the comically American Solo as “cowboy.”

No matter what the reasons for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s muted reception, I do feel the film has been a little shortchanged & I regret waiting so long to catch it in the theater. It has a distinct sense of smart, sexy glamour to it that suggests an alternate universe where Mad Men was an action-packed world of superspies instead of a slowburn of an existential crisis. The film’s sexual quips, use of wrestling as foreplay, gender reversal of the damsel in distress trope, and genre-faithful plot riddled with doublecrossings & double-doublecrossings all make for a fun, sleek picture that I’m sure will have a second life on Netflix & the like even if it’s not currently doing so hot in the theater. On top of these surface pleasures, Guy Ritchie makes some satisfyingly unique visual choices such as mounting cameras to the bows of boats, the fronts of safes, and car door mirrors for a effect that feels highly stylized, but genuinely earned. He’s also confident enough in his screenplay to imply offscreen action instead of showing every little explosive detail & to allow certain scenes to breathe for maximum effect, such as a particularly sublime moment when Solo is enjoying a picnic as his partner fends for his life in the background. As far as 60s throwback action & Nazi-killing revenge fantasies go, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is about as handsome & as confident as they come. If you’re like me & have been putting it off due to superspy fatigue, I’d suggest giving it a shot somewhere down the road. It has enough universal appeal that you’re likely to enjoy yourself.

-Brandon Ledet