Enigma

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

One of the most important contributions to the Allied victory in World War II was a code-breaking operation that was so secret it was not revealed until 30 years later. Their deciphering of the Enigma code developed by the Germans shortened the war by as much as a year.

This is the story of the people who worked at a huge and historic estate called Bletchley to unlock the unlockable. They had to solve a puzzle considered impenetrable because it was so complex that it could never have been decoded by the human brain. What the Germans never anticipated was that the British would think up the beginnings of the modern day computer and develop a “thinking machine” to sort through billions of complex computations and find the equivalent of a needle buried in one of millions of haystacks.

The essentials of the story are true, but the characters in the movie are fictional. As he did with “Shakespeare in Love,” screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard brilliantly interweaves the real and the imaginary to illuminate not only his characters’ era but our own.

The central figure in this story is Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), a brilliant mathematician with a stunning grasp of numerical relationships. His grasp of human relationships is a little shaky, however. When we first meet him, he is returning to Bletchley after a breakdown. He was shattered by a brief, overwhelming affair with Claire (Saffron Burrows), a co-worker who seduced and then abandoned him. His superiors do not want him back, but he may be their best hope for breaking the German’s new code, the Shark, before a group of U-boats meet up with American convoys carrying desperately needed supplies.

The reason the Germans are using a new code is that they found out that the British had broken the Enigma. Meanwhile, Claire has disappeared. Figuring out where she is and whether there is a connection between her disappearance and the leak to the Germans is a puzzle that is as important to Tom as decoding the Shark.

He teams up with Claire’s roommate Hester (Kate Winslet) to find out what happened to Claire. As they search for clues, they are watched by Wigram (Jeremy Northern), a sleek secret agent investigating Tom and his team to see if one of them is a traitor.

Stoppard is fascinated with puzzles, wordplay, secrets, and stories within stories, all of which lend themselves very well to the Bletchley code-breakers. The movie brilliantly depicts the desperate atmosphere and heart-breaking dedication of the people who knew that their success – or failure – could do more to determine the outcome of the war than a thousand soldiers with guns.

The performances are excellent, particularly Northern, whose single syllable on entering Tom’s room, “Bliss!” gives us his character’s history from tony prep school through too many compromises. He is a man who has had to sacrifice what he once thought of as honor to serve a greater cause, has had to betray in order to be loyal, and has had to keep too many secrets. Winslet’s only failing is her entirely unsuccessful effort to look dowdy. But she and Scott are marvelous at showing us something we seldom see in movies, really smart people using their intelligence.

Parents should know that the movie has some sexual references and situations (brief nudity). Claire seduces just about every man she meets. There are some very tense scenes, including graphic images of slaughtered bodies in a mass grave.

The movie raises a number of moral dilemmas that are well worth discussion. When it becomes clear that there is no way to save the American supply ships in time, the code-breakers debate whether it is right to use what they know about the ships’ positions to help them calculate the keys to break the code. What are the best arguments for each side? Who was right? The characters lie and there are a number of betrayals in the movie – more than some members of the audience may be able to sort through on the first viewing – and it is worth talking about how people decide whom to trust and how much evidence they need before they change their minds.

Families who enjoy this movie should read about the real key figure at Bletchley, the truly enigmatic Alan Turing. His artificial intelligence test is still the standard used today.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy reading Between Silk and Cyanide, a wonderfully entertaining memoir by Leo Marks, who worked on creating codes during this era. (Fans of 84 Charing Cross Road will enjoy the fact that Leo Marks is the son of man who owned the bookstore at that address.) The complicated issues of uneasy alliances and tragic choices are explored in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Mother Night. You can also see an exciting but highly fictionalized version of the capture of the Enigma machine (in real life, it was the Brits, not the Americans) in U-571.

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Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Spies War

Spy Kids

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: One brief almost-swear word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, mostly comic
Diversity Issues: Strong female characters, several Latino leads
Date Released to Theaters: 2001
Date Released to DVD: August 15, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B004SIPAFK

This week’s release of the fourth in the “Spy Kids” series is a good reason to revisit the original.

Imagine James Bond crossed with “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and you might have an idea of what to expect in “Spy Kids,” the best family movie of the spring. It has just the right combination of giddy fantasy, exciting adventure, wonderful special effects, and sly comedy to be ideal for 7-12 year-olds and their families. It is doubly welcome, after the terrible “See Spot Run,” and especially because it features strong females and characters and performers from the Latino culture.

Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are the children of Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), once the cleverest spies in the world, but now loving parents who make a living as consultants. Or so they say.

It turns out that once the kids go to bed, Gregorio and Ingrid flip a few switches to connect to a command center that keeps them involved in spy missions, though now from a safe distance.

When top secret agents start disappearing, Gregorio and Ingrid call on “Uncle Felix” (Cheech Marin) to watch the kids and climb back into their spy gear to go off and save the world. But then they, too, disappear, and it is up to Carmen and Juni to rescue their parents, and, while they’re at it, the rest of the world, too. But first, they have to learn to respect and trust each other.

They also have to learn how to use a bunch of gadgets that would leave James Bond, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and even Inspector Gadget green with envy. I loved the way that instead of ray guns or other destructive devices the kids use fantasy versions of stuff that kids know best. They fight the bad guys with bubble gum that gives the enemy an electric shock, silly string that turns into cement, and, that ultimate dream, a back-pack-y sort of thing that enables them to fly. Similarly, instead of scary ninjas or soldiers, most of the bad guys are either thumb-shaped robot creatures who are literally all thumbs or a bunch of robot children whose most menacing aspect is glowing eyes and super strength.

Any good adventure story needs a great villain, and this one has the always-great Alan Cummings as Floop, the star of Juni’s favorite television program who is also the mastermind of the plot to create an army of robot children. His sidekick is Minion (Tony Shaloub), who transforms the captured spies into backwards-speaking, silly-looking mutants for Floop’s show. But one of the interesting things about the movie is that nearly everyone turns out to be something different than what they or others thought, even Minion and Floop. The transforming in the movie is not limited to the mutants.

Parents should know that the movie includes a little bit of potty humor (which most kids will find hilarious) and one almost-swear word. Younger children might be frightened by the mutant creatures, but most will find them more silly than scary. Characters are in comic peril and there is a certain amount of head-bonking violence, but no one even gets a scratch except for one villain whose encounter with flames leaves her having a very bad hair day.

Be sure to tell kids that the thumb-robots were inspired by drawings writer/director Robert Rodriguez did when he was 12, and ask them to come up with some pictures of things they’d like to put into a movie someday. Good topics for family discussion include how to know which secrets to share, the challenges of siblinghood (a two-generation challenge in the Cortez family) and the movie’s conclusion that spy work is easy compared to keeping a family together, which is not only more of a challenge, but more important.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

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Action/Adventure DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues Series/Sequel Spies Stories About Kids

Wild Wild West

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

“The Wild Wild West” has the weak, weak script. It is not unusual to see a trailer that is better than the movie, but in this case the music video is brighter, wittier, and more exciting than the movie.

Will Smith may still own the 4th of July, but this year’s entry is much weaker than his 1996-97 one-two punch of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.” His unquenchable appeal goes a long way toward making up for poor plotting and dialogue, but not far enough, leaving us with a summer popcorn movie — impossible to resist at the time, but leaving you a bit queasy afterward.

The 1960s television show starred Robert Conrad in a bolero jacket and very tight pants as a Civil War era secret agent. Like the newly popular James Bond, West was a spy who was infinitely attractive with the ladies and who always triumphed over the bad guys, who were always maniacs intent on three things — total world domination, killing West in fiendishly complex contraptions, and making sure that they conveniently explained all their plans to West in time for him to escape from the fiendishly complex contraptions and save the world again. West’s sidekick Artemus Gordon was a master of disguise and technology. Their most frequent foe was Dr. Loveless, played in the series by Michael Dunn. And the whole thing was very much tongue in cheek.

The big-screen version has Will Smith as West, all bolero jacket, tight pants, and attitude, with Kevin Kline as Gordon, Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Loveless, and Salma Hayek as the lovely Rita Escobar, who flirts with all three men and spends much of the movie in fetching 19th century lingerie with a brief detour into a union suit with the trap door open. The plot remains the same — Dr. Loveless, vowing revenge for losing his entire lower half in the Civil War, seeks total world domination, and West and Gordon have a week to stop him. There is some attempt to deal with the fact that West is a black man at a time when most black people had only recently been freed from slavery, but the fact is that the entire movie is so completely preposterous that the effort is awkward and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film.

Indeed, the overall tone of the film is awkward, not giving Kline or Hayak much to do, though Kline has a nice turn as President Grant and Hayak looks fetching in her undies. Branagh is happily over the top as the bad guy, there are some cool special effects, and Smith’s charm and grace carry it a long way, but not far enough to make it anything more than a pleasant diversion less raunchy than “Austin Powers.” Parents should know that there are some PG-13 sexual references, including prostitutes and Loveless’ impotence and a lot of cartoon-style action- violence.

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Action/Adventure Based on a television show Comedy Remake Spies

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This movie is only slightly behind “Phantom Menace” in anticipation and excitement among kids, but parents need to know that it is very, very, very raunchy, with incessant and prolonged sexual humor. Because it is a comedy, the rating system gives it a PG-13, but the material would clearly get an R if it appeared in a drama. Do not kid yourself that some of these jokes are “over their heads.” Those kids who do not see it — or who do see it and miss some of the jokes — will hear detailed explanations from those who do of references like Powers asking one woman “Which is it, spits or swallows?” and pretty much every woman “Do I make you horny?” In addition, the movie features character names Felicity Shagwell and Ivana Humpalot, a rocket shaped like a penis (described by a series of characters with every imaginable euphemism), references to a one-night stand “getting weird,” an extended sequence in which it appears that a number of objects are removed from Powers’ rectum, and Powers’ inability to perform in bed due to his missing “mojo.” There is also a good deal of potty humor, including Powers mistaking a stool sample for coffee.

The movie is very funny at times and always genial enough to inspire generosity toward the jokes that don’t work. Spy boss Basil Exposition (Michael York) wisely advises both Powers and the audience not to think too much about the plot. So we are left with a series of skits as Austin Powers (Mike Meyers) loses his wife (Elizabeth Hurley from the first movie, who turns out to be a killer robot), meets up with CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (deliciously pretty Heather Graham) and goes after Dr. Evil (also Mike Myers), still plotting world domination, with the assistance of Number Two (played by Robert Wagner in the scenes set in the present and Rob Lowe doing a great Robert Wagner impersonation in the scenes set in the past). Dr. Evil goes back in time to 1969 to steal Powers’ “mojo” with the help of a huge Scot called Fat Bastard (also Mike Meyers) and Powers goes back to 1969 to retrieve it. Meanwhile, Dr. Evil is still struggling with his dysfunctional relationship with his son (Seth Green), who goes on the Jerry Springer show to talk about it with other children of fathers plotting world domination. Dr. Evil becomes very attached to a tiny clone of himself, christened “Mini-Me” and takes time out from extorting billions of dollars from the President (Tim Robbins) to sing “Just the Two of Us” with him. And somehow everyone ends up on the moon.

This is silly fun for its core audience of college kids. They will find the jokes about the 1980’s wildly funny, though they may miss some of the jokes about the 1960’s. Parents should be very cautious about allowing children or young teens to see the movie, and should be prepared to talk with kids who see or hear about it, to answer questions, explain family standards on the use of the language in the movie, and to provide reassurance.

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Action/Adventure Comedy Satire Spies
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