SPY KIDS (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action Sequences

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Danny Trejo, Alan Cumming, Tony Shalhoub, Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, George Clooney, Mike Judge & Richard Linklater

The 90’s gave birth to many talented new filmmakers. One of these names was Robert Rodriguez. With two violent westerns and an R-rated vampire comedy behind him, it seemed a bit odd that the next step in Rodriguez’s career would be making a children’s film. However, he wowed audiences and critics alike with SPY KIDS. This is a film that I have fond memories of watching multiple times during my childhood. I saw this film in theaters and owned the VHS tape (back in the day when they were still making those), so I was a bit hesitant to revisit this film with so many years having passed me by since I last viewed it. I was expecting my memories to be overly nostalgic and the actual movie to be a potential disappointment. However, that was not the case at all. SPY KIDS has aged fantastically over time and remains a quality dose of family entertainment that provides fun for both adults and children alike. Color me pleasantly surprised.

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Ingrid and Gregorio Cortez are far from your typical married couple. They were originally rival spies hired to eliminate each other, but they fell deeply in love instead. Soon enough, they got hitched and had two kids. Now raising their children, Carmen and Juni, these married former spies find themselves out of their element in domestic life. Any average filmmaker could have stopped there and called that the plot, but Rodriguez continues by having Ingrid and Gregorio abducted during one last mission by a madman. It’s up to young Carmen and Juni to thwart a super villain’s dastardly plans (which involve robot assassins) as well as rescue their parents.

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There are a number of reasons why SPY KIDS stands high above most of the recent live-action efforts masquerading as family entertainment. The biggest of these is the stunning amount of creativity on display. Robert Rodriguez clearly had a distinct vision of how he wanted to tell this story, when to incorporate humor and how to combine multiple character arcs. Most of the laughs come from good old-fashioned humor on display. I couldn’t point out any moments of innuendo and there was only one potty joke (which is brushed off casually as Rodriguez giving the obligatory obvious poop joke that we all saw coming). In the wrong hands, SPY KIDS could have been an easy, overly familiar kid-friendly spin on 007 (think AGENT CODY BANKS). Instead, this film seems intent on entertaining everyone and it accomplishes that goal in style.

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What makes SPY KIDS even more enjoyable is the talented cast. Antonio Banderas (known for playing typically darker action heroes) and Carla Gugino (who later went on to star in R-rated comic book adaptations like SIN CITY and WATCHMEN) play against their usual characters as two spies who are out of their element as parents. This provides a lot of jokes that adults will latch on to. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, both newcomers at the time, star as brother and sister: Carmen and Juni. Though they can be wooden at times, they come across as likable protagonists worth rooting for. Other familiar faces show up in Danny Trejo (playing their Uncle Machete…get it?), Robert Patrick (as a briefly seen baddie), Cheech Marin (as an undercover agent) and George Clooney (in a brief, but very funny cameo). The best casting decisions come in Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub as the main villains. Cumming plays his evil mastermind as sort of a demented Dr. Seuss type who also happens to run a nightmarish kids’ show (think a cross between YO GABBA GABBA and TELETUBBIES). Shalhoub is the power-hungry Minion who becomes increasingly concerned that his boss is more obsessed with his TV program rather than the actual evil plan at work.

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SPY KIDS runs under 90 minutes and feels perfectly paced as a result. There’s a lot of stuff happening in every scene and not a wasted frame. There are also two story-arcs distinctly aimed at adults and children. The adults will connect more with the two former spies dealing with the stresses of starting a family and kids will connect with the sibling story-arc about the importance of family, though the latter can definitely be appreciated by older viewers as well. The action scenes are brought to life through mostly good effects that combine CGI and practical work (including mutated kid’s show mascots and robotic guards made entirely of thumbs). It’s downright whimsical and enjoyable all the way through.

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I am definitely surprised at how well SPY KIDS holds up over a decade later. The story is creative, the characters are all fleshed out, and the humor is likely to connect with viewers of all ages. While most live-action family fare in the new millennium has struggled to find that nitch for both adults and children, Robert Rodriguez walked that tightrope with 2001’s SPY KIDS. This film manages to bring solid entertainment that can be appreciated by viewers who want something creative and deliberately silly. Give it a look and you’re likely to have a lot of fun.

Grade: B+

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sci-Fi Action and Violence, and for Language

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Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron & William Wisher

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong & Robert Patrick

In the grand scheme of sequels that manage to be better than the originals, TERMINATOR 2 ranks among the very best. The original TERMINATOR was a little sci-fi actioner from the 80’s that managed to surpass the modest expectations of audiences and studio execs alike. James Cameron returned to the script and screen to craft a sequel to his surprise hit in 1991. JUDGEMENT DAY is one of those very rare cases in which a sequel manages to outdo the original in every possible way. Not only that, TERMINATOR 2 has earned reputation for being one of the best action films ever made. It wears that crown proudly and holds up perfectly to this day. This is easily the best entry in the series and, in my humble opinion, the only great TERMINATOR flick thus far.

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Years have passed since Sarah Connor first encountered the Terminator. Since then, she has wound up in a mental institution, because who would ever believe crazy stories about killer robots from the future? While his mom wastes away in the loony bin, future resistance leader John Connor is a troubled 13-year-old in foster care. Skynet has decided that if at first you don’t succeed, then give it a second try and send the advanced T-1000 back in time to off teenage John. Luckily for John, a reprogrammed Terminator (once again played by Arnie) has also been sent back to protect him. It’s Sarah, John and the Terminator vs. the T-1000 in a new game of cat-and-mouse.

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TERMINATOR 2 finds James Cameron using a duplicate plot device to a much greater effect. Besides bringing in the time-traveling robots trying to off a future leader in the past, Cameron and co-writer William Wisher use every available opportunity to their advantage. This is a far more ambitious film than the first one was. Besides the obvious Terminator vs. Terminator conflict, John forms a friendship with robo-Arnie. While this might have come off as cheesy in any other movie, their bond has real emotion placed into it. Then there’s Sarah Connor struggling to accept that a Terminator identical to the one that caused her so much grief is actually there to protect her and John. Finally, there’s an attempt to stop Judgement Day from ever happening and this subplot takes the movie into a number of bold places (including a heart-pounding hostage sequence).

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This would all be a bit meaningless if the performers came off as dull as they did in the first movie, but everyone plays a well fleshed-out character. Sarah Connor is brought to life as one of the best bad-ass heroines to ever grace the silver screen (alongside Ripley from ALIENS and Furiosa from the latest MAD MAX). In any other movie, teenage John Connor’s childish attitude might come off as annoying, but it works perfectly as Furlong brings the character to believable life. Arnold Schwarzenegger is given more wiggle room to develop as this good Terminator shows more of an emotional range (all explained through various plot points), even if he still delivers his lines in appropriately mechanical fashion. So while Arnie gets to play the hero this time around, Robert Patrick plays the chilling T-1000. This silent, intimidating villain dispatches his prey in gruesome fashion with razor-sharp elongated fingers.

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While 1984’s TERMINATOR didn’t skimp on action, it was definitely focused more on the chase than actual conflict between man and machine. That’s not the case in this sequel as the conflict happens to be between a machine aided by a mother and son vs. an even deadlier machine that happens to be aided by naïve authority figures wielding very big guns. The stakes are increasingly heightened as the running time moves along. It certainly helps that special effects bringing each action scene to life hold up flawlessly. Before James Cameron was wasting his time on clichéd romances (TITANIC) and expensive blue aliens (AVATAR), he helped pioneer the technology that brought a liquid-metal T-1000 to life. Every car chase, shoot-out and conflict sticks out in its own way. No frame is wasted and no scene is pointless.

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There are a number of movies that I wish I could have experienced on their opening weekends, but TERMINATOR 2 is near the top of that list. This movie must have been even more spectacular, mind-blowing and exciting with a packed audience of fans who didn’t know what they were in for. TERMINATOR 2 is not only among the rare breed of sequels that outdo their predecessor, it’s among the very best action films ever made!

Grade: A+

COP LAND (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Strong Language and brief Nudity

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Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: James Mangold

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick & Michael Rapaport

COP LAND is a film that I discovered by accident. I was surfing the web through various movie pages and stumbled across this forgotten crime-drama. Seeing this stars the likes of Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, you might initially guess that this movie would be filled to the brim with gunfights, car chases and explosions. You would actually be very wrong, because this tense little film takes it’s time with a thriller approach to what easily could have turned into a bombastic over-the-top B-flick. COP LAND is one of the better surprises that I’ve had in quite some time.

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The time is the late 80’s and the place is New Jersey. Freddy Hefflin is a wannabe cop who’s been regulated to the position of small town Sheriff due to him being deaf in one ear. Freddy really doesn’t have much to do seeing as most of the residents of his small town are NYPD cops who he idolizes day in and day out. When a mishap on a highway lands one of these officers in hot water, Freddy is enlisted by an Internal Affairs investigator to dig deeper into the façade of “Cop Land” that is actually hiding a whole lot more than one small cover-up. Freddy finds himself pitted against the very heroes that he idolized as he realizes just how deep police corruption cuts through his own territory.

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COP TOWN moves at a slow, deliberate pace in order to build up its characters. I cared about every single one of these people in one way or another. The heroes are complicated and the villains are fleshed out into the two-faced criminals that they really are. I really can’t throw enough praise at just how good this whole screenplay is. There are plot twists throughout that did surprise me and the movie never once treats its audience like idiots. A natural progression of good vs. evil fuels the story in a way that feels entirely fresh. It’s all fantastically entertaining and intense. Some of the plot points do seem a tad rushed, but that’s not exactly a huge complaint seeing how well the rest of the story plays out around it (including a phenomenal final act that felt like an old-school Western was taking place on the streets of New Jersey).

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I don’t think it’s overhyping this film to say that Sylvester Stallone easily gives his best performance as Freddy. When most people think of Stallone, they immediately picture Rocky or Rambo. Though he’s carved out a place in the cinematic world for his rough and tough action heroes, the role of Freddy is far from any of those characters. This is a shy, soft-spoken guy who feels like he’s constantly in the presence of Gods when he’s among his NYPD residents. Stallone is fantastic in the part and plays every emotion in a very subtle fashion. I’d be remiss not to mention just how fantastically the corrupt cops are portrayed by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick and Arthur Nascarella. Ray Liotta shines as Freddy’s best friend who may or may not also have a dog in the corruption race around town. Though Robert De Niro is underutilized as the Internal Affairs investigator, he makes the most of what little screen time he’s given (about a total of four scenes).

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COP LAND uses gritty atmosphere and a dark tone to its advantage. The small town setting really lends to the suspense of this film. It feels like the fictional Garrison, New Jersey might as well be in the middle of nowhere, even though New York City is one bridge away. The finale is absolutely perfect and satisfying beyond words. Some have criticized the film for taking an easy way out. I disagree as the entire story feels like a long suspenseful fuse that’s intensely burning towards a giant powder keg. The final 20 minutes of this story are the explosive results of that keg going off.

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COP LAND is an underrated crime-drama that really sees Stallone take on a role unlike any other in his career. What’s even more impressive is the unlikely production of this film altogether. It was made on a small budget and all of the actors worked for scale. It’s clear that they read the script and knew there was a good story to be told here. Though there are a couple of slight flaws (a few rushed plot points and Robert De Niro being wasted in a very small role), COP LAND is well worth recommending. Check this one out!

Grade: B+

HELLIONS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Bruce McDonald

Written by: Pascal Trottier

Starring: Chloe Rose, Robert Patrick, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson, Peter DaCunha & Luke Bilyk

There’s no easy way of saying this. HELLIONS is a painfully bad movie. Not only is it a scare-free experience, but the film is inept at everything it tries to do. This is a pity because there was quite a bit of potential built up for this Halloween-centric horror story. Bruce McDonald previously directed the highly unusual PONTYPOOL and the idea of his new movie revolving around demonic trick-or-treaters sounded like a crazy good time to begin with. Unfortunately for everyone (both those involved and the poor viewers suckered into watching this crap), HELLIONS winds up laughably bad in spots. When it’s not unintentionally funny, the film is just plain frustrating for the remainder of its endurance-testing 80 minute running time that feels like an eternity.

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Dora Vogel is a newly pregnant 17-year-old coming to terms with the life growing inside of her. She has yet to reveal the news to her mother and simply wants to forget her current situation by partying with her boyfriend on Halloween night. Dora puts on her angel costume and waits for her future baby daddy to arrive. Instead, a group of monstrous trick-or-treaters come knocking with intentions of taking the unborn life inside of our teenage protagonist. Something strange happens and Dora is cut off from the outside world. An endless army of these Hellions are upon her and the pregnancy is moving along at a ridiculously fast pace. Dora must fight off these Hellions in order to survive the night and protect her unborn baby.

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Going into HELLIONS, I was basically expecting a feature-length version of the final story from TRICK ‘R TREAT. The plot didn’t need to be exceedingly complicated and wasn’t. In a sense, this did feel like someone saw the Sam storyline in TRICK ‘R TREAT and thought to themselves “Hey! I could do that for an entire movie.” The whole thing is messy as little to no effort seems to have been put into this movie on both the screenwriting front and the technical side of things.

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An unbelievably wooden performance from Chloe Rose and the intellectually challenged character of Dora make this movie hard to like from the beginning. There are no discernible features to separate Dora from a variety of other final girls. In fact, the way in which Dora is introduced almost ensures that no viewer will easily sympathize or root for her to make it through the night in one piece. The only other cast member of note is Robert Patrick as a grizzled police officer. He shows up for a couple of brief scenes and provides the only enjoyable moments in the film (one of which is unintentionally hilarious). However, his character isn’t on-screen nearly enough to save this movie from devolving into a pile of tired horror clichés, poor writing, bad acting, and over stylized visuals.

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A decision was made that could have provided a lot of a creepy atmosphere in HELLIONS, but is overused to the point of becoming downright annoying. Bruce McDonald shoots Dora’s encounter with the Hellions in infrared. This means that there’s a red tint over most of the scenes as well as some odd color contrasts. While this technique could have potentially been a successful mood-setting decision, HELLIONS definitely suffers from it. Cheap digital effects, a seemingly endless montage (that had everyone in the audience checking their watches), and multiple dream sequence fake outs make these 80 minutes feel far longer than they should.

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The biggest sin that HELLIONS commits is in the title creatures themselves. With a plot centering on a teenage girl trying to survive Halloween night against demonic trick-or-treaters, one might expect the monstrous trick-or-treaters to look and act…well, menacing! Instead, the Hellions are not even slightly frightening and wear cheap looking Halloween masks. That’s not meant to detract on creepy old costumes, but I expected more effort to be thrown into the appearance of the Hellions. Is it too much to ask that the would-be creature design doesn’t reveal the child actor underneath the costumes or speed up their movement in an half-assed effort to be scary?

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When HELLIONS started off, I was getting a decent vibe from it. As it progressed, I was getting the slight sense that this might be a disappointment. As soon as I saw a dollar store quality bit of a make-up that was intended to be taken seriously, I began bracing myself for the possibly of a bad film. HELLIONS becomes an endurance test of the worst order as I (and those around me) found myself struggling to make it to the end credits. It’s a cheap, poorly written, badly acted, and infuriating piece of would-be horror filmmaking that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. HELLIONS is the cinematic equivalent of receiving a toothbrush as opposed to candy while trick or treating on Halloween night.

Grade: D-

KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Written by: Peter Landesman

(based on the book KILL THE MESSENGER by Gary Webb & Nick Schou)

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick & Michael K. Williams

There are plenty of reasons why KILL THE MESSENGER is a “good” movie. It addresses huge important issues and features a standout performance that ranks among Jeremy Renner’s best roles. Other talented faces pop in and out of the story as well. There are plenty of great moments as well. It’s a shame that bad pacing fumbles up the overall experience. For those interested in corruption, ignored history, and one of the earliest whistleblowers before Snowden, then MESSENGER is a worthwhile watch.

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In the mid-90’s, Gary Webb got an interesting tip that led him to publish a series of three articles known as “Dark Alliance.” Webb interviewed many drug dealers and criminals in order to unveil a conspiracy that led to a discovery of CIA officials who knew full well about cocaine being used to fund Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980’s. It was a crooked way of fueling a conflict that wasn’t getting full support from Congress. Obviously, Webb shedding light on a top-secret story wasn’t exactly what the CIA wanted. A massive smear campaign was launched against the man to discredit him rather than focus on genuine points in his articles. KILL THE MESSENGER is based on Webb’s entire ordeal with a conspiracy thriller vibe thrown into it for good measure.

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The two biggest reasons to see KILL THE MESSENGER are the true story behind the film and a knockout performance. If there’s anything this film gets completely right, it’s that I wanted to read up on the actual story about Gary Webb’s articles and get multiple points of view. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this plot though. Sometimes, it feels as if certain angles were prettied up in order to automatically see Gary Webb as a perfect hero figure (despite his past sins). It’s a tad manipulative and offering a more complex/flawed view would have made for a more challenging/realistic movie. Jeremy Renner knocks it out of the park as Webb! The actor pours so much emotion into his role that it’s great to watch him pretty much carry a decent movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Webb’s editor), Oliver Platt (Webb’s boss), Robert Patrick and Andy Garcia (drug dealers), Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta (government agents) all deliver in their scenes, even if they only appear for a mere five minutes of screen time.

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The biggest killer of momentum in the film is the pacing. There are interesting scenes that totally work within the context of the movie, but also a couple of godawful stretches that border on tedious. There’s not a solid reason why this movie should run at nearly two hours. 20 minutes could have easily been snipped out for a tighter flick. Some of these include family dynamic clichés that failed to flesh out the story further or give any emotional weight to this movie version of Webb. Also, the insertion of clips (interviews with government officials or stock footage) as montages feels like a cheap technique of transitioning from scene to scene. It’s almost like a documentary approach was inserted into an otherwise traditional narrative and it’s as jarring a decision as it sounds.

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KILL THE MESSENGER did a good job of pissing me off and rightly so about at the upsetting true story at the core of the film. Jeremy Renner almost single-handedly makes the movie work with a great performance, while other capable actors make their presence known. Bad pacing really kills the building momentum. There are definitely standout plot points that needed to be kept, but a few unneeded clichés felt cheap. I am glad I watched KILL THE MESSENGER if only because it shed some light on a troubling story and got me interested enough to read up more on the facts behind the film. I can’t imagine ever watching it again, but it’s a decent flick.

Grade: B-

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