Thursday, July 31, 2008

Movie Review: Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over


The kids and I watched this movie, again, the other day. We have all three Spy Kids movies and have enjoyed them.

It is always gratifying to see strong female lead characters in kids' movies, and Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) fits the bill. Carmen is smart, funny, aggressive, self-confident, bad-to-the-bone and all the things I want my daughter to know SHE can be.

In these movies, Carmen works with her younger brother, Juni (Daryl Sabara), to save the world from various villians. She and her brother, while they bicker and often don't get along, just like siblings IRL, consistently end up complementing each other's skills and saving the day together. In Spy Kids 3-D, the story focuses mainly on Juni, but Carmen gets to exhibit her special brand of kick-ass in the last third.

The Cortez family is a family of spies, and one of the pivotal messages of the films is the strength of intergenerational family ties and friend networks.

Spy Kids focuses on both the conflict between Carmen and Juni as siblings and that between the two and their parents, very nicely played by Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas. There is also an estranged uncle, Machete (Danny Trejo), who must be enlisted in the quest to save the day, and a bogus uncle (Cheech Marin), whom they must foil early on in order to search for their parents. Other actors who appear in the three films include Tony Shalhoub, Bill Paxton, Teri Hatcher, Alan Cumming, and one of my very, very favorite actors, Steve Buscemi.

In Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams, there is conflict between kids and parents, as well as conflict and competition between other spies within the network, but now we meet the grandparents (Ricardo Montalban - yay, Mr. Roarke -, and Holland Taylor, whom I remember mostly from her fantastic role as Ursula's mother in George of the Jungle), who have conflict with the parents, but everyone, including the other spy kids and outside supporters in the network of friends, has to work together to meet the final goal.

In Spy Kids 3-D, Juni enlists the help of his grandfather to save Carmen and the world from a diabolical video game designer, The Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone!). Again, family and friends must cooperate in order to defeat The Toymaker. There is a cute Moonstruck reference at the very end, when all of the characters whose work made it possible for the good guys to prevail put their hands together, saying, "To family!" Whether or not it was director Robert Rodriguez's intention is not clear, but like in Moonstruck, the last voice is that of Uncle Machete, who says the line in Spanish, similar to Moonstruck's Johnny Camareri saying the final line in Italian.

Our family has enjoyed all three of these films. The special features include some fun sections by director Rodriguez instructing kids on how to make their own home movies, complete with special effects and sound effects. He mostly uses his son to illustrate this, and it looks fun and entertaining. Unfortunately, my kids are not yet allowed to mess with our video camera, mostly due to the fact that our NEW camera replaced our OLD camera, which worked perfectly until one of the kids decided to use it.

Another special feature is a "making of" section, which, for Spy Kids 3-D especially, is fascinating in that most of the sets are simply green screens and the final product is computer generated. Our kids were amazed to see what this entailed and Rodriguez includes enough well-explained detail to make it clear to them how it was done. They were astounded to learn that Ricardo Montalban is wheelchair-bound IRL, not just as the grandpa character, and to see how Rodriguez used CG to allow the character full mobility and super-powers as well.

Now, to my caveat: Since I've become more aware of sexist crap, I notice little things more often that are, perhaps not deliberate, but still quite annoying. For example, in Spy Kids 3-D, there is a female character, Demetra, within the game (the kids are INSIDE the game, a la Tron) who teams up with Juni and some male characters to reach a certain level to find Carmen, who is trapped in the game. At the time they decide to team up, each character says what his particular strength is, a la Aragorn's "You have my sword," Legolas's "and MY bow," and Gimli's "and MY axe!"

Here are the statements of the Spy Kids 3-D characters:
Male 1: I will use my strength!
Male 2: I will use my intelligence!
Male 3: I will use my coolness! (or something to that effect)
Female: I will use my (pause) intuition?

But this is not just an arbitrary thing. Later in the game, Juni is challenged by The Toymaker to defeat one of the comrades or be taken out permanently, ruining any chance he might have to find Carmen and foil The Toymaker. When it looks like Game Over for Juni, Demetra sacrifices herself so that Juni can continue. The male characters just look at him and shrug. WTF?

Later on, Demetra reappears and it is discovered that she is simply a construct, a tool of The Toymaker, sent to lead Juni astray. But with an electronic tear and an exhibition of remorse and love for Juni (oh, those darned feminine emotions!), she is able to overcome her programming and, AGAIN, sacrifice herself to further Juni's goal. WTF?

So, Demetra is The Self-sacrificing one. Natch. But she is also The Siren, The Jezebel, The Traitor Eve. Natch. But she redeems herself by ANOTHER self-sacrifice, (oh, she's a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold!) and is never seen again, leaving Juni to complete his mission and eventually return to his family and his true love-interest. Fucking natch!

Thank goodness for Carmen.

Sadly, though, for Carmen fans, there are three music videos in the special features starring Alexa Vega, the actor who plays Carmen. These videos were filmed in front of a live audience of mostly preteen kids and their parents at the film premier in Austin, TX. Ms Vega, a young woman with a nice voice, gyrates and shimmies and pole-dances-without-a-pole through three songs. Augh!

There are also a couple of instances of nerdism in this movie. Upon being caught using cheats in the game, Juni and Demetra are saved by Juni's grandpa, who exposes the "Designers", who are going to throw Juni and Demetra out of the game, by exposing their IRL selves. Oh, no! They are really Computer Nerds! Below contempt! They scramble away, chittering like little mice. Later, we see the male game-player characters IRL. Turns out they are regular guys, albeit with exaggerated myopia, pocket protectors, and slicked down hair. They confess that they are:
"Not really strong."
"Not really that smart."
"Not really cool."
And they disappear forever, not even getting to join the "To the Family!" cheer at the end, though they were pivotal in getting Juni where he needed to go.

So, as long as I can keep my kids out of the Alexa Vega music videos, and can keep the focus on the Carmen character instead of the Demetra character, and can instill in my kids a strong respect for nerds, we will continue to watch these movies and enjoy the fun, the effects, and the family.

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