TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, Sexuality and Innuendo

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Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode

Written by: Bruce Feirstein

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Teri Hatcher, Gotz Otto, Ricky Jay, Joe Don Baker, Vincent Schiavelli & Judi Dench

The eighteenth film in the Bond series and the ninth in my 007 retrospective, TOMORROW NEVER DIES wasn’t as well-received as GOLDENEYE by most critics and audiences. Color me surprised, because I absolutely loved this second Brosnan Bond film just as much as GOLDENEYE. In a franchise that has frequently used evil organizations, constant nuclear threats and a noticeably sexist viewpoint towards its female characters, TOMORROW NEVER DIES does something out of the ordinary. It’s so vastly different from the rest of the 007 series (in a good way) that I couldn’t help but appreciate every second of this eighteenth(!) Bond entry.

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After saving the world during an opening sequence, James Bond is saddled with yet another assignment (does he ever get a break?). His latest venture is to investigate narcissistic media mogul Elliot Carver. Carver’s newspaper was the first to report on the mysterious sinking of a British submarine. Bond discovers that Carver is intent on starting World War III in hopes that he’ll gain a stronger hold on the media and more power for his god-like complex. Bond is on a mission to stop the insane businessman, but Carver is also onto 007. A deadly, international game of cat-and-mouse erupts between the two with others caught in the crossfire.

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I already said in my review of GOLDENEYE that Pierce Brosnan wonderfully inhabits the old-school Bond that Connery made his own. That doesn’t change in this second outing with Brosnan in the role. The biggest stand-out is Jonathan Pryce as Carver though. He’s simply a fantastic villain. Though his plan to start WWIII might echo a certain earlier Roger Moore entry, his insanity and motives are wholly unique. The narcissistic attitude and smugness in which Pryce plays the part make Carver into a Bond villain unlike any other. He’s simply a lunatic with a massive complex and a most unusual view of world domination. What’s also notable is a distinct lack of a singular Bond girl for a majority of the running time. If you want to be technical there are two female partners with whom 007 teams up, but they come at different points in the movie and don’t necessarily qualify as main characters in my view. It was nice to see Bond up against a villain who was one step ahead of him for nearly the entire film. Unlike Sean Bean in GOLDENEYE (who served as a wonderful villain due to his familiarity with 007), Carver is just an insane genius who makes some pretty ballsy moves in order to outwit Bond.

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Much like GOLDENEYE, TOMORROW NEVER DIES uses familiar elements from older Bond flicks in a fresh way. A megalomaniac villain exists in pretty much every Bond movie to date. After all, who are you going to pit a seemingly invincible secret agent up against? An average small-scale bad guy or someone who wants to wreak global havoc? I think everyone would agree that the latter option will always be the better one. Besides a killer villain, TOMORROW also uses an extremely fast pace with tons of action. However, it doesn’t feel like it’s doing so merely for the sake of using bombastic special effects. Instead, the story ventures into remarkably darker territory (especially one scene in a hotel room) that older Bond movies wouldn’t have dared to go into. These plot points make for a more sinister and intense storyline. It all worked because I was hooked from start to finish.

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Thus far, the two Brosnan Bond flicks I’ve seen have shaken up familiar 007 conventions. Familiar plot points are adjusted with a modern flare that make for high-octane spy entertainment willing to take more risks than previous efforts. TOMORROW NEVER DIES really stands out as one of my favorite 007 films so far. It has a creative, original story when compared to most other entries in the franchise. Carver stands out as one of the most unusual villains in the series too. I was blown away by this movie and look forward to revisiting it many times in the future. TOMORROW NEVER DIES comes highly recommended as one of the very best Bonds.

Grade: A

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+

PLANES (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Action and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Klay Hall

Written by: Jeffrey M. Howard

Voices of: Dane Cook, Stacey Keach, Danny Mann, Priyanka Chopra, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Cedric The Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Roger Craig Smith, Gabriel Iglesias, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards & Sinbad

From above the world of CARS. That’s the tagline front and center on the poster of PLANES. It’s a bold-faced marketing trick that suckered enough of the unsuspecting public to believe that this film is actually Pixar creation. This is not true. PLANES is from Disney and the reason they could even use the CARS world is because the company owns Pixar. If it sounds like I’m bitter, it’s because I am. There weren’t any preconceived notions about this one. If anything, there may have been a lingering sense of hope that it might be a fun little piece of family entertainment. I was so very wrong and am firing both barrels at this thing, Let me lay down the premise for you…

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Dusty Crophopper is a plane dreaming of competing in aerial races. His role as a cropduster keeps him in the same boring routine day after day. Despite his low-class job, Dusty does go to a qualifying tournament for the prestigious Wings Across The World race. Due to a technicality, Dusty does qualify for the global race. There’s a quirky twist though. Dusty is afraid of heights (a plane afraid of heights, I’d dare call that idea wacky), so begins training under a war veteran named Skipper. Of course, his fierce competitors don’t take too kindly to a lowly farm plane competing with the likes of them. Dusty must overcome his fears, beat his rivals, and make some new friends to win this race.

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One might call PLANES an easy target for criticism, because it was intended for children. However, I will use my favorite rebuttal when reviewing films like this. Good family entertainment is entertaining for the whole family! Using the excuse of “Well, the kids liked it. Wasn’t that the point?” is not a valid point. Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, and even Sony Animation all have their fair share of hits and misses, but the hits go on to become memorable classics to be cherished because they were absolutely GOOD films. I’m not intentionally searching out direct-to-video kiddie films to bash on. I know those are dinky little cartoons, but PLANES was released theatrically from a studio well-known for delivering fantastic entertainment. I was at the very least expecting something serviceable, but PLANES fails in every single respect.

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There’s a big difference between crude humor and adult humor. PLANES continually mistakes the former for the latter. The film is full of some sexual humor (planes remarking on the back propellers of female planes). Pop culture references that already seem dated are sprinkled in. There is a poop joke thrown in at the end for good measure and even a little offensive religious humor. This is found in the offensively stereotypical character of a plane from India that believes in recycling (instead of reincarnation, get it?) and finds tractors (instead of cows) sacred. Plenty of children’s entertainment (plenty from Disney) have showcased intelligent jokes thrown into their sweet tales of overcoming incredible odds and learning what’s truly important in life. PLANES isn’t one of these films.

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Dane Cook provides the voice of Dusty Crophopper and that alone speaks volumes to this films quality. The man can act (e.g. MR. BROOKS), but Cook sounds like he’s just reading lines with a quick paycheck being waved in front of him. In fact, that’s possibly how the recording sessions went. Other washed up comedians populate the side characters, including Gabriel Iglesias and Sinbad. Everybody speaks as if they’re baby-talking the characters for the kids. Fun fact is that this film was originally intended for a direct-to-video release. It was produced by the DisneyToon Studios portion of Disney. DisneyToon has been responsible for every terrible sequel Disney has produced, along with all those cheap-looking CGI films. The animation of PLANES looks about on the same level as these bad films. This more than deserved to make a quick buck on the home video market. It’s insulting and underhanded that Disney put this abomination out in nationwide theatrical release.

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Surprisingly, PLANES also never seems to nail precisely what kind of tone it want to use. It’s overly cutesy and familiar, but there’s also a bit of a misguided serious edge in parts. A perfect example of this is a war flashback that comes out of nowhere and involves other planes being blown up and killed. It takes a skillful hand to balance wonderment and a darker side. THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER is a good example of this done right. On the other hand, PLANES is a film that babies its audience for a majority of the film. It makes things a bit startling when the story decides to launch the viewer into this impromptu scene of destruction that feels so radically out-of-place, it’s almost shocking.

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The tagline of PLANES shouldn’t read “From above the world of CARS.” It should say “From the director of TINKERBELL AND THE LOST TREASURE and the studio line that gave you all those terrible direct-to-video sequels to beloved classics, comes PLANES. This film was originally slated for a direct-to-DVD release but somehow got put into theaters everywhere.” I also have written what should be the tagline for the upcoming sequel “The first one made money and your kids will drag you to see this one too. See you during next few years for BOATS and TRAINS.” Enough said!

Grade: F

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