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Spy Kids (2001)
writer and director: Robert Rodriguez

review by Amy Harlib

The multi-talented Robert Rodriguez, noted for his success making fast-paced very violent adult action-suspense-thriller type movies on very low budgets, now offers up an equally frenetically-energised cinematic outing - this time a wholly family-oriented James Bond spoof on a much more lavish scale.

The delightfully ridiculous plot of Spy Kids concerns Gregorio Cortez (Antonio Banderas), and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), the world's spiffiest super-spies who fall in love rather than fulfil their assignment to do each other in. Nine years later, happily married and living in the lap of luxury working as 'consultants' and also the parents of two children (who don't know about their Mom and Dad's eventful pasts), the Mr and Mrs just can't quite get the itch for the world of hi-tech espionage behind them. They eagerly leap in action, when their former OSS boss calls upon them to investigate the disappearances of a number of their still-active colleagues.

A little rusty, they soon become the captives of the wacky, demented Fegan Floop (Alan Cummings), and his henchman Alexander Minion (Tony Shalhoub), the true manipulator behind-Floop's-scenes. Floop, like Minion, shares mad-scientist schemes, but unlike his #1 aide, finds his true metier in the role of children's TV show host, broadcasting his #2-rated programme, 'Floop's Fooglies' from his island fortress - a surreally-gorgeous design concept that would do Dr Seuss proud. The mystery of the missing agents soon gets solved, for techno-wizards Floop and Minion have transformed them into the bizarrely costumed, mutated, puppet-like creatures that cavort on-screen in the kiddy-TV broadcast. The villainous pair's plans, just getting started, also include the creation of a super-race of deadly robot children that will aid them in their agenda of world domination while Floop also hopes that the 'Fooglies' will achieve #1 status in the ratings! The Cortez family, it should be noted, became targeted - now in jeopardy from the above-mentioned adversaries, because years before Gregorio invented the miniature brain necessary to enhance the cyber-children's intelligence.

To save their parents, the kidnapped agents and the planet, spunky, resourceful, pre-adolescent Carmen (Alexa Vega) and her lovably dorky younger brother Juni (Daryl Sabara), must quickly learn the family trade and sally forth armed with the likes of a Super Guppy submersible, Buddy Jet Packs, a miniature plane and other cool gizmo help from Gregorio's estranged elder-brother inventor Machete (Danny Trejo).

The two young titular stars deliver amazing performances, always natural and projecting a great sense of fun, going through their paces in the superbly-staged action sequences that include a Thunderball style motorboat escapade and a dizzying rocket-propelled chase above a sprawling city. The grownups hold their own too, especially Cummings playing the zany, ultimately sympathetic Floop; Shalhoub portraying the truly evil genius Minion; Banderas and Gugino, the dashing, romantic and caring parents; and Teri Hatcher, Cheech Marin and Robert Patrick - significant supporting characters who gamely allow themselves to be humiliated, set afire or get beaten up. Spy Kids also serves up plenty of campy fun in the form of weird-looking creatures, an army of super-powered, sinister robot children and the cleverly-conceived team of lumbering hench-things literally all thumbs where the head, arms and legs would be and dressed in snazzy red sweater short-suits! No spy story would be complete without gadgets galore and Spy Kids comes through on that score too with those already mentioned and the ingenious electro-shock bubblegum, the acid crayons, the microscopic cameras and the cyberpunky, computer-screened, wired sunglasses.

Although a moral message lies at the heart of Spy Kids (a subtext about the importance of family and of staying together), the film never condescends to its target audience or cloys with syrupy sentiment. Spy Kids refreshingly wallows in its Latino flavour, from the Tex-Mex locations to the ethnicity of the protagonists - a welcome opportunity to give folk of this background, the spotlight. The movie also delivers the goods in this pure fantasy romp through extreme 007 territory. Crammed with great and goofy gadgets, exciting chase sequences, excellent special effects, loads of laughs and some fabulous sets that look like a cross between Jules Verne and Dr Seuss, Spy Kids dazzles with its charming, colourful live-action cartoon sensibility and lovely score - all this Rodriguez helmed with his considerable creative clout. This movie so delights that we can rejoice that it is the first of a trilogy.

Spy Kids 2: The Island Of Lost Dreams (2002)
writer and director: Robert Rodriguez

review by Amy Harlib

Robert Rodriguez, creative mastermind behind the quirky but reasonably successful violent, action films El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn returns to the family-friendly world of Spy Kids with this sequel. The multi-talented Rodriguez not only wrote and directed this time out; he also deserves a Guinness World Record for doing so many jobs on one project one wonders when the guy ever sleeps! Rodriguez also gets credit for cinematography, editing, co-writing the music, and production design - such creativity evoking astonishment and admiration and although his efforts this go round don't quite equal the freshness and the surprising charm of the first Spy Kids picture, they come very close.

Picking up where the predecessor film left off, Spy Kids 2 features the Latino-American Cortez family all firmly involved in the espionage business with the two protagonist children, 13-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega), and 10-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara), new members of the just-created junior division of the government's OSS secret agent organisation to which their parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) belong. A freshly-instituted, burgeoning, worldwide programme, recruiting and training young spies means competition and increasing desire for more responsibility and bigger missions in store for Carmen and Juni while the parents worry they may no longer be needed.

Sure enough, the Cortez kids face rivals, the Giggles siblings: teenage go-getter Gary (Matt O'Leary), on whom Carmen has a secret crush; and sassy, young Gerti (Emily Osment, Haley Joel's younger sister). Flaunting the newest gear and the trendiest outfits, the Giggles kids' oneupmanship no doubt being possible thanks to their dad Donnegan's (Mike Judge) parallel rivalry with Gregorio Cortez in the adult department of the OSS.

Spy Kids 2 opens in a humorous parody of an amusement park (sharing name and logo with Rodriguezs's production company Troublemaker, Inc.) where the very Texan proprietor Dinky Winks (Bill Paxton) delights in showing off his diabolically designed rides (The Vomiter, The Whippersnapper, The Juggler and more) to the President's (Christopher McDonald) daughter Alexandria (Taylor Momsen). Upset that her dad doesn't have enough time for her, Alexandra, to attract attention to herself, has lifted the super-secret 'Transmooker' device from his office, unconcerned that the highly coveted, powerful object might fall into the erstwhile 'wrong hands', dooming the world. When the wayward Alexandra, threatening to set the thing in question off, gets calmed down by the quartet of spy kids we know, the consequences of the President's offspring's actions starts a concatenation of events that leads to the Transmooker being stolen and then traced to the eponymous, tropical Island of Lost Dreams.

This locale, a sly, satirical nod to the abode and story of a certain Dr Moreau from H.G. Wells' classic novel and its cinematic adaptations, has one sole human inhabitant, Dr Romero (Steve Buscemi), pleasing in the role of a gently demented (not a real villain) genetic scientist, creator of all kinds of imaginative and wondrous creatures many of which are embodiments of puns (the spidermonkey, the catfish, the slizzards, the horsefly, the delightful spork - a flying pig with sparrowlike wings, and many more). Here the connection between Donnegan's strange behaviour; the Transmooker and its real function; the Island and its eccentric denizens all becomes clear after much comical excitement and derring-do.

Along the way the audience gets treated to cameos by first-film veterans Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), Alexander Minion (Tony Shaloub), Machete (Danny Trejo) and Uncle Felix Gumm (Cheech Marin), and introduced to new characters, most notably Ingrid Cortez's parents portrayed by Holland Taylor and the ever elegant and charismatic Ricardo Montalban. Viewers also get real enjoyment from the excellent, intentional, fond homages to classic fantasy filmmaker Ray Harryhausen in scenes involving the imposing centaur-like spidermonkey and an equally formidable slizzard. In addition, a crew of animated skeletons, some of which duel with Juni Cortez in a Jason And The Argonauts pastiche, offer that and more original, interesting antics. Clever references to Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Jurassic Park can also be spotted. Rodriguez manages to painlessly include his edifying subtexts celebrating the centrality of family togetherness; the way simple things like a rubber band can be more helpful than the latest nanotechnology; and the importance of maintaining a sharp mind and keeping your wits about you in the face of unreliable devices - and even waxes philosophical when Dr Romero, hiding from the monsters he made, ponders, "Do you think God stays in heaven because he's afraid of what he has created?"

Spy Kids 2, while maintaining much of the wit and charm of its predecessor, disappoints a bit by being so crammed with new characters, new gizmos galore and frantic-pacing, the delightful grandparent and parent spy couples get not nearly enough screen time; ditto for Machete, Uncle Felix and Fegan Floop. Rodriguez's fecund imagination piles on so many gadgets and cuts so quickly from scene to scene that the engaging characters frequently get overwhelmed. Despite this, the movie possesses many virtues besides the ones already mentioned: dazzling special effects that recapture the odd appeal of good, old-fashioned, laborious, stop-motion animation; snazzy costumes; lovely music; that refreshingly pervasive Latin flavour; great scenes and outtakes during the end credits; and ingeniously funny concepts for many of the innumerable thingamabobs (especially Ralph the robot-like AI miniature bugging device and all-purpose personal helper shaped like a large beetle). This sequel film does not fail to continue the respect for young ones Rodriguez demonstrates by his earnest yet light-hearted depiction of the universal fantasy all children have - to be powerful and cool like the spy kids - saving the world with competence equal to if not better than the grown-ups. Flaws aside, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams can give Austin Powers and James Bond a run for their money while many of us just might find some of our dreams there, waiting to enchant and thrill and simultaneously tickle the funny bone.

Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (2003)
witer and director: Robert Rodriguez

review by Amy Harlib

The multi-talented, multi-tasker Robert Rodriguez who indefatigably directs, writes, photographs, edits, designs and composes for his trilogy of family-oriented films, presents the third in his spoofy SF series: Spy Kids 3D: Game Over - alas, the most disappointing so far. This effort fails to equal the charm of its two predecessors due to over reliance on nostalgic, 3D technical gimmickry, action and special effects at the expense of the lovable and interesting characters and story.

The plot starts off engagingly enough with the rapidly maturing Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) deciding to quit being a spy kid, ditching his OCC ID, and setting up shop for himself in the small-time, freelance gumshoe PI business (literal pun when the kid steps, at one moment, in a wad of the gooey, chewy stuff). Juni's new-found independence proves all too fleeting when OSS Agents Cesca (Salma Hayek) and Donnegan Giggles (Mike Judge) and President Devlin (George Clooney) inform the young protagonist that the organisation greatly needs his talents once more. The reluctant Juni becomes persuaded when he gets informed that his beloved older sister, Agent Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) has gone missing and faces great peril.

Carmen's mission involved thwarting the nefarious, inventive genius, The Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone) from achieving his fiendishly clever plan to get youngsters worldwide addicted to his new electronic recreation, 'Game Over', by taking over their minds through the virtual reality interface they would use to play in the scenarios. The Toymaker thereby would ensure his domination of the planet by controlling the minds of the vast numbers of players in the next generation coming up. Carmen had entered the Game Over world along with a team of beta testers, hoping to infiltrate it and sabotage it from within but she became trapped on level four. Now everything depends on the resourcefulness of Juni who must also submerge himself into the VR of Game Over to free Carmen, and foil The Toymaker, with the capable assistance of Grandpa Cortez (the ever elegant and inimitable Ricardo Montalban) and the friendly rivalry of beta tester gamesters: Rez (Robert Vito), Arnold (Ryan Pinkston), Francis (Bobby Edner), and Demetra (Courtney Jines).

To portray the VR cosmos of Game Over, Rodriguez resurrects the 3D cinematography of the 1950s complete with red and blue plastic spectacles, bringing an odd nostalgic ambiance to his up-to-the-minute, dead-on visions of computer gaming scenarios. The result becomes paradoxically amusing and irritating for the distortions of the 3D effects turns all the colours into a sort of grey-green dullness while simultaneously making all the throw-everything-possible-at-the-audience gags fun (especially the pie, at one point).

Allowing for the weird, faded colour, the Game Over visuals prove exceedingly dazzling. Exciting and witty in-joke references to popular electronic past-times abound while the protagonists cope with: a Tron-homage, souped-up cycle race; a Japanese anime type giant robot fight; oceans of molten lava and a balrog-like creature made of same and more - all rendered in intricate, eye-filling detail which would have been more colourful and beautiful without the 3D warping. While these adventures have a roller-coaster thrill to them, this occurs to the detriment of the character development, although when Carmen finally gets liberated, she holds her own quite ably thank goodness. But I missed her interactions with Juni that were a large portion of what made the earlier Spy Kids episodes so charming.

Most disappointing of all - beloved performers from the first two pictures in the series only make all too brief appearances at the very end to put in a good word for family values and the benefits of teamwork while they bravely pitch in during the climax to combat The Toymaker's greatest threat yet. Stallone makes a fine villain with a big, juicy part where his character's split personality amusingly manifests in the VR game dimension fourfold as a Nazi-type officer, and aged hippy, a scientific nerd and in his own likeness lording over everything. However, we only get fleeting cameos of the spy kids' parents Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and Gregorio (Antonio Banderas), so delightful in the past two instalments. Ditto for Felix Gumm (Cheech Marin), Uncle Machete (Danny Trejo), Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming who had a rather nice bit introducing the whole film), Alexander Minion (Tony Shaloub) and from episode two - Dinky Winks (Bill Paxton), Gary Giggles (Matthew O'Leary), Gertie Giggles (Emily Osment), and Grandmother Cortez (Holland Taylor), plus - for the first time - a pleasing appearance by Elijah Wood as The Guy.

Spy Kids 3D: Game Over features a wonderful score with Alexa Vega's lovely vocals for the closing credits song indicating great singing talent; dazzles with the VR visuals even when the 3D effect annoys as much as it functions; and gives the characters of The Toymaker, Juni Cortez and Grandfather the only meaty roles, especially the last when CGI effects give him an able, wheelchair-free body. But so many great personalities on hand were so under-used, subsumed by a merely serviceable plot when Rodriguez could have done so much more. Rodriguez's talents and imagination are so prodigious; let's hope that while the Spy Kids' game seems to be truly over with this weakest chapter in the trilogy, he puts his remarkable creativity and energy into more fantasy genre film fun in the future. We would all be the poorer if he abandons the sense of wonder for the mundane.
Spy Kids DVD boxset

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