We Can Be Heroes

The young stars of We Can Be Heroes

 

Robert Rodriguez takes the Spy Kids idea for another spin around the block, and crashes on the way.

Spy Kids, if you don’t remember, was about kids stepping up when their James Bond-like parents got waylaid. Here the parents are not spies but superheroes, and after they’ve been captured by evil aliens their progeny band together to free them.

The kids all have superpowers too. Noodles is stretchy, Slo-Mo can move super quickly, A Capella can sing at pitches so high and low that the laws of physics are bent out of shape. Rewind can turn back time. His sister, Fast Forward… you’re ahead of me.

There are more of them, some of them brattier than others, though it’s Rodriguez’s writing that paints them that way not the kids themselves, who are on the whole good at what they do – the acting, I mean, not the super powers. Two names stand out: YaYa Gosselin as Missy, the powerless daughter of a superhero who succeeds by using old fashioned smarts, and Nathan Blair as Wild Card, the cadet superhero who thinks he’s the boss of the outfit but can’t get his skillset in order – he asks for flames and he gets invisibility, sort of thing.

 

Ms Granada
Boo, hiss… it’s Ms Granada

 

Sashaying with such an exaggerated sway that we know she’s a baddie long before the script tells us is Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the adult superheroes’ handler, Ms Granada. And wearing Donald Trump’s hair and sincerity rictus is Christopher McDonald as the US President, who’s also going to be fingered as a bad guy. His name is Neil Anami. There’s a clue in the name.

Who’s it for? Well there are lots of adult names in it – Boyd Holbrook, Christian Slater, Sun Kang, Pedro Pascal among them – as the parents of the superkids. But it’s undeniably a kids movie for kids. Apart from the mystifying decision to repurpose a David Bowie song as the film’s title (the song gets two airings – one half-hearted, the other toe-curling) and an equally bizarrely targeted gag referencing the Chariots of Fire theme music, there is nothing meaty for the adult mind.

In a screenplay lacking ideas there is only one message, one that applies both to the bickering superheroes trying to work out how to get free, and to their bickering kids trying to work out how to free them – if only we could find a way to work together. This point is made and remade and soon wears out its welcome.

There’s a slapdash feel to the whole thing, which is exemplified by the special effects sequences where the green-screen separation is so apparent that the entire effect is ruined. Is that down to a lack of budget? Time? The covid virus?

Rodriguez is a great conceptualist, a stylish director and a fine writer, on a good day. The feeling with We Can Be Heroes is that he’s simply spread himself too thin, and that in his determination to be a one-man Hollywood he’s over-reached – he’s writer, director, producer and cinematographer here. He’s even got his kids involved. Racer (who also co-produces) and Rhiannon Rodriguez have minor acting roles while Rebel Rodriguez is responsible for the score, which has that Doctor Who insistence on urgency when nothing particularly urgent is happening. All those RR names. Self-regard much?

It’s a scene-setter, a franchise opener, so perhaps some of its weaknesses can be put down to the need to introduce a lot of characters and their back stories. But remember Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s contribution to the Grindhouse double-bill. It blew Tarantino’s Death Proof out of the water. No sign of that fizzing, gleeful approach to film-making here. It’s been a long time since I saw anything this spectacularly dull.

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Shorts

Jimmy Bennett and Kat Dennings in Shorts

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

13 June

 

Kat Dennings born, 1986

On this day in 1986, Katherine Litwack was born in Philadelphia to a scientist father and a speech therapist/poet mother. Home-schooled, she graduated high school aged 14, four years after her first acting role in a commercial. By age 13 she’d turned up in an episode of Sex and the City, then had supporting roles in films of increasing weight until she got her own starring role in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, alongside Michael Cera. Bright and feisty, since then she’s specialised in the sort of girl who can go from geek to goddess with subtle shift of eyewear (see the Thor films), which can be put down to her pale skin (she refuses to tan) or to her reluctance to go down the obligatory blonde route.

 

 

 

Shorts (2009, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

A nerdy kid called Toe Thompson finds a magic wish machine, possibly left on earth by an alien civilisation, and sets about improving his life, starting by messing with the kids of his parents’ awful employer (played with a cackle by James Spader). Made by Robert Rodriguez in an ADHD style familiar from the Spy Kids films, this CG-heavy fantasy with a strong 1960s Disney vibe is aimed squarely at young teenagers, or younger, and also has something for any adult who occasionally just enjoys watching someone work who loves what they do. Rodriguez is having tons of fun with the technology, as our tweeny hero discovers what his wishing rock (The Adventures of the Wishing Rock is the film’s alternative name) can do – giant frankfurters, pterodactyls, crocodiles on their back legs, snot that grows to giant size. It’s not so much a story, more a series of sketches, which Rodriguez further fractures by shifting the chronology. This allows him to concentrate on (special) effects, rather than consequences, as the wishing rock is passed from hand to hand, wreaking magical havoc as it goes. There’s also a loaded critique of modern life – it’s all set in a wealthy suburb where parents don’t communicate with their children, where the local employer is a Steve Jobs-like computer tyrant determined to find the ultimate upgrade for his all-purpose black box called the Black Box. Meanwhile, lurking, is William H Macy as a scientist so obsessed with germs that he’s brought his son up in a bubble. Is this what we were trying to build? Is this how we want to live – isolated, obsessed with gadgets, risk averse, out of touch with our natural environment? The fact that Rodriguez is delivering this message via the medium of a massively technological film that must have been made almost entirely in post production is something the viewer is going to have to deal with. And it’s true that there’s very little characterisation here, beyond the level you’d find in your average cartoon, and the storyline is so thin it isn’t really there at all. But at the level of fun and mad ideas, Shorts works entirely, with Rodriguez using his adults (Macy and Spader are joined by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) well, his children better – look out for Jolie Vanier in a “watch this face” mini-me Christina Ricci performance as a girl called Helvetica Black (Hell for short). As I write, Shorts is pulling a majestic 5.0 on the imdb ratings, less than the pointless fantasy flick Eragon or the cringe-inducing Cats & Dogs. That’s just wrong.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The good cast includes Kat Dennings, James Spader and Leslie Mann
  • The ker-ay-zee CG effects
  • That Robert Rodriguez energy
  • It’s for the inner eight year old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shorts – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Spy Kids

Daryl Sabara, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega and Antonio Banderas in Spy Kids

 

 

Ever since he’d arrived in 1992 with his made-for-nothing El Mariachi, director Robert Rodriguez had been readying himself for Hollywood primetime. His 1996 grindhouse vampire comedy From Dusk till Dawn had allowed him to play with a big name cast (Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek and a new-to-movies George Clooney) and special effects, and boasted a script by Quentin Tarantino. Following on from that The Faculty gave him a sexy gang of newcomers (Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster), a smart script by Kevin Williamson and a bucket of attitude. Both films were, by Hollywood standards, fairly low rent. With Spy Kids he finally got what he wanted – lots of cash, nearly all of it on screen, and this time he wrote the screenplay himself. It’s a film in which Rodriguez gets to show what he can do. And he succeeds at pretty much everything. His jokes are actually funny, his action sequences are actually thrilling. As for his plot, well that’s fairly fresh too. It tells the story of two sleeping secret agents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) who are kidnapped, forcing their kids to come and rescue them. Its triumph is not the performances of its stars (fine), nor the gadgetry (believably intricate), nor the locations (punishingly glamorous), nor the villains (British and dastardly) – it’s the kids. Somehow Rodriguez has managed to extract performances from Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara that are believably child-like (unusual in child actors) yet robust and self-assured enough for us all to believe that they can operate as mini James Bonds and win through. It’s a perfect fantasy, done at lightning speed, with the colour turned all the way up, bursting with ingenuity and fun. Has Rodriguez made a better film since?

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Spy Kids – at Amazon