Movie review: The Tailor of Panama (2001)

I really want to like John le Carré movies. I found Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy confusing (though the 2011 version is supposed to be one of the best le Carré film adaptations). I did like The Spy That Came In From The Cold and A Most Wanted Man. But The Tailor of Panama….not so much.

The plot wasn’t all that confusing, but I found at one point that I thought I had missed something vital. I had to stop and think through it. And I found the spy in the center of the story, well, revolting.

The ending is different from a “typical” spy story. I wasn’t expecting things to end tidily like they did. Cold War spy stories never do. But then again, this story doesn’t take place during the Cold War.

The Tailor of Panama takes place in 2001, a mere two years after the US handed over the Panama Canal to Panama. A British spy is banished to Panama after some mishap during a previous mission. He ferrets out a British ex-pat who is laying low but has good contacts among the political elites in Panama: a tailor.

The tailor of course is not whom he appears. He has a past. A past that the British spy uses against him. After a stint in prison, the tailor moved to Panama and reinvented himself. He is now a successful, posh tailor for all the elites in Panama. He is married to a woman who works high in the government. Every day he cooks breakfast for their kids and takes them to school. Life is idyllic. Until the British spy enters the picture.

He wants dirt. He wants to know what is going on behind the scenes in Panama and pressures the tailor to introduce him to the political elites that he rubs elbows with in his trade. Nothing really is amiss. Sure, Panamanian society and politics is corrupt. But Noriega has long been removed from power. Nothing is really going on in Panama. At least nothing that other spy organizations know about.

And yet here is this British spy pressuring the tailor to bring him dirt. If he doesn’t, he will reveal the tailor’s past and stop payments that the tailor needs to pay off his debts. What to do? Well, feed him a line: the government is looking for someone to sell the canal to. The British spy is very interested.

He wants this information not so much to get himself out of exile with the British spy agencies but to line his pockets with money so he can disappear into retirement.

Only things take a dramatic turn. This charade—a lie from the tailor to give the spy what he wants and bribery from the spy so he can disappear into a life of comfort—set in motion a US invasion of Panama. The Panama Canal being sold—quite possibly to China—is a security threat that must be stopped.

Suddenly the tailor and his wife through her connections in government are trying to stop everything set in motion. The spy pays off the British ambassador to Panama and leaves the country with millions of dollars. The shady immorality of the spying world is alive and well.

Although made in 2001, the movie had a 1980s or 1990s feel to it for me. It is definitely not a good spy vs. bad spy movie—the so-called good spy is actually a very, very bad spy. Lives and almost an entire country are ruined for profit. Morality is ambiguous or non-existent.

Movie review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

Often sequels are a bad idea. Incredibles 2 is not one of those bad ideas. The movie is quite engaging and entertaining. I loved the expressions on Baby Jack-Jack’s face, the ways he kept his dad up all hours of the night, and his stay with Aunt Edna—the family’s designer of their superhero suits. I liked Aunt Edna (aka Edna E Mode) too.

At the opening of the movie, our superhero family is in the midst of saving the world: father Mr. Incredible, mother Elastigirl, daughter Violet, son Dash, and baby Jack-Jack. (In all fairness, Jack-Jack wasn’t involved in any world saving. Yet.) They, of course, save the day. But the villain gets away. And the world doesn’t rejoice.

In fact, supers—as superheroes are called—are illegal. Throughout the world. They are banned due to the damage they inflict on the world.

But a billionaire businessman of a telecommunications company approaches them, offering to be their sponsor of sorts. His late father loved superheroes and had phones with direct lines to them. This is before the supers were banned. According to this businessman (Winston Deavor), all supers need is good PR. Then the public would come to their senses and make supers legal again.

How to run this PR campaign? Well, Mr. Incredible is all gung-ho to get started. But no, no. As a man, Mr. Incredible would not do as the face of the campaign. But his wife, Elastigirl, would. An interesting twist of events that parallels the rise of female superheroes in other recent movies, female politicians in the US, and women actors. Yes, 2018 was the year of the woman, even cartoon women.

The PR campaign is rather a commentary on the role of women in movies. Once upon a time, a lead role by a woman, especially in action movies or ones involving heroes that save the day, was unheard of. Strong women were not seen as good box office draws—until actually it turned out that they were. Incredibles 2 clearly pokes fun at this with the PR campaign that focuses on putting Elastigirl front and center.

It really isn’t all that radical for a wife and mother to be working or the sole breadwinner. This is the late 2010s. But I felt that I had fallen down a wormhole back to the 1980s. (In fact, I had. The Incredibles movies are set in the 1960s/1970s.) Mr. Incredible was crushed that he wouldn’t be out there battling villains. He had to take second seat to his wife and relinquish the limelight to her.

He belatedly offered to stay home and take care of the kids: helping them with their new math homework, fixing relationship problems, and watching the baby constantly. He seemed to be a bit insecure and nurse a fragile ego. And, of course, there were jokes about the work to care for kids as not being hard work (until he actually had to do it).

The daughter Violet deals with her own relegation to the stereotypical lesser female role. She and her brother Dash are left to care for the baby. And then Dash leaves her to babysit. (Later she arranges things so he has to look after the baby while she goes off to fight the bad guys.)

All in all, Incredibles 2 was an enjoyable watch. I already miss Elastigirl answering a call from Dash about where his shoes were while she was on her motorcycle chasing bad guys, or Mr. Incredible staying up all night to learn new math so he could help Dash do his homework.

And I miss the artistic Edna Mode with her large glasses, pageboy haircut, and kimono. She is the quintessential creative designer type.

She causally notes that Mr. Incredible’s way of placating Jack-Jack and preventing him from transfiguration by giving him a cookie is not a good solution. “Any solution involving cookies will inevitably result in the demon baby.”

Her solution is a creative one. Whenever Jack-Jack bursts into flames from anger, his superhero suit encases him in a fire retardant. “The fire retardant is blackberry-lavender, darling. Effective, edible, and delicious.”

I am already looking forward to another sequel. I hope it doesn’t take as long as the last one (fourteen years). I need more Edna in my life.

Movie review: The Incredibles (2004)

Action movies. Animation. The two come together in The Incredibles. Either genre has die-hard followers—think of the influx of action movies in the past decade or the movies of Hayao Miyazaki such as Spirited Away. I occasionally enjoy a well-made action or animated movie, but I am not a rabid fan of either. (Well, Spirited Away might be the exception.)

But I LOVE The Incredibles.

I am not sure why it took me so look to watch this 2004 film. Perhaps because of the oversaturation of action, super-hero movies and the fan-base that goes with them. (I do tend to shy away from the latest fads gripping popular culture until years after the hubbub has died away.)

The Incredibles is set in the 1960s—home décor screams the colors and designs of that era and the division of labor by sexes suggests it too. Superheroes abound in the world but after the destruction that accompanies them saving the world, they are banned. Outlawed. The supers are relocated in witness protection programs. They start their lives over as ordinary people, blending in as much as possible.

Sandwiched between saving the world and this ban, Mr. Incredible marries Elastagirl. They fully embrace their non-superhero identities as The Parrs.

The movie fast forwards fifteen years. The ban has long been in effect. Bob (Mr. Incredible) is slowly being crushed under the weight of being a normal Joe, a cog in the corporate wheel. Helen is a stay at-home home with three kids in a house with avocado-colored décor. (Yes, the 1960s.)

Bob occasionally gets together with his former superhero colleague Frozone. The two friends go bowling, which is actually code for listening to police scanners. They try to respond to dire situations without getting caught. Sometimes they are not so lucky.

Bob ends up fired from his job where he approves or rejects insurance claims—he is suppose to reject all but finds ways to help customers get approval. (Probably a background in helping others is NOT good for excelling at rejecting insurance claims.) His firing isn’t the only secret he keeps from his wife Helen.

He is contacted by Mirage, a former superhero, about a new gig—capturing a robot gone rogue. He jumps at the chance to be Mr. Incredible again. All is well until it turns out that the guy behind the request is a former fan that he spurned—a geeky kid now all grown up with technological toys.

Meanwhile, Helen has discovered that Mr. Incredible’s old suit had been repaired. Curious she calls up Edna Mode, the ultra-hip designer of their suits, to have a chat. Helen learns that Edna designed new suits for the entire family. With a tracking device linked to the suits, Helen finds Mr. Incredible, now a captive on a volcanic island owned by the formerly spurned fan. (Could this be a more 1960s action movie plot? James Bond anyone?)

The family unites to battle the foe, which spills over from the island to the mainland. Clearly, they are violating the ban on superheroes. In the end, they vanquish the foe, only to have another one appear. But that foe, it appears, is for another movie.

My favorite part of the movie? Edna Mode. Her character is such a delight. (She does kind of have a cult following it seems.) She has some of the best lines. “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” She is adamant on her designs. Capes are out. She calmly lists all the superheroes who died thanks to capes that got caught in something or other. And you do not argue with Edna. When she asks you to stop by in an hour, you stop by in an hour. To do otherwise is unthinkable.

The benefit to watching a popular movie years after it released? The sequel is already out. No fourteen years of waiting for it. More Incredibles and Edna Mode awaits.

Movie review: Wonder Woman (2017)

The depiction of females in movies is shifting, if only incrementally. On occasion a movie shows women as powerful, independent figures. Woman Wonder is one of these movies. But well-worn cultural messages remain.

I read that Wonder Woman had a positive impact on young girls but then also read reviews bemoaning that the female star could still not lead a movie on her own—Diana shares the screen with a male hero.

That is true. Diana has a love interest in Wonder Woman. The story in many ways is backwards from the typical action movie. Instead of a man saving a woman, a woman saves a man. Rather than the woman dying and the man living out his life, a woman survives to live (and fight) another day. But one could argue, it is the same old tale, just now in reverse. The real liberation? Perhaps when no one dies, when no one needs to be saved.

Diana was raised in a world full of warrior women and dreamt of being a warrior herself. Finally after cajoling and subterfuge she was trained against her mother’s wishes for the inevitable battle that would come to their paradise island.

She was kept in the dark about her heritage and given half-truths through mythical tales. The (Greek) god Zeus created man and then the Amazons. Ares, the god of war and one of Zeus’ offspring, saw the evil in man and wanted to destroy them. To do so, he first had to battle the other gods. Before his death, Zeus sought to save the Amazons by hiding them on a veiled island and giving them gifts to battle Ares when he returns to finish the destruction of man.

For reasons unexplained, one man broke through the veil unknowingly, unintentionally. Steve Trevor was an American spying for the British and running from the Germans during WWI. The Amazons battled the Germans who broke through the veil. When Diana heard of the war, she rose to the legendary duty bestowed upon Amazons: to save the world and to destroy Ares.

She leaves paradise (presumably never to return) with what she thought was the god-killer (the weapon that Zeus left with the Amazons to use in battle with Ares). She tracks down and kills whom she thinks is Ares. But nothing changes. The war does not stop.

She discovers that she did not kill Ares. Ares was disguised as an appeaser. (Hints of the British appeasement of Hitler during WWII.) Diana discovers from Aries her true identity: as a daughter of Zeus, she is the secret weapon against Aries, not the sword that Ares so quickly destroyed. The two gods battle while around them the war continues.

Wonder Woman is empowering, reflecting the motto of the last decade or so that strength is the new beauty, the new skinny. Women are expected to be strong, a welcoming message after decades of the damsel in distress. But the stereotypes are still disturbing. Diana is not only strong and more than capable of taking care of herself (and the men around her), but she is beautiful and desirable. She is still an object to be possessed. Jokes in the movie underscore this point, such as after a bar fight (which she won). An observing male commented that he was both afraid and aroused. Men of this generation see strong women as erotic objects.

While a strong woman, Diana is portrayed as a naïve, trusting woman. She believes in the good in all people and fights for them. Through Diana, in the movie women are still depicted as the nurturers of mankind and men the destroyers. Before she leaves her home for good, Diana tells her mother, “I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” “Be careful in the world of men,” her mother warns her. “They do not deserve you.”—a message that any mother could tell her daughter when she leaves home.

Wonder Woman is clearly meant to be the first in a series of movies. Bookending the story is a photo delivered to Diana from Bruce Wayne (aka Batman). Expect more from Wonder Woman. After all, evil was not just Ares but is in each man. So her work to save the world never ends.

Movie review: Black Panther (2018)

For those who enjoy action movies or the Marvel comic heroes, Black Panther will likely dazzle you. The movie was well enough made and entertaining, but full disclosure: I am not much for movies centered on comic book heroes.

However, Black Panther can dazzle for other reasons. The movie upends…storylines, location, and cast. Instead of Africa being the dark, backwater continent, it contains a utopian, well-run country. Instead of blacks being portrayed as drug addicts or criminals, they are upstanding, intelligent, strong role models. Instead of blacks being a supporting character or two, they are the majority of the cast. (Two white standouts are a CIA agent and a master criminal.)

Everything was flipped on its head, which was both refreshing and confusing. The blurring of lines was not just white as good and black as bad flipped to be white as bad and black as good, but because the cast was almost entirely black, most characters were good, some were bad.

The storyline blurred this line further. The bad guy was actually fighting for good. The good guy had to be brought around to fight the same fight that the bad guy was fighting. So wait, that black guy good? That black guy bad? It was interesting to notice my internal confusion over who to root for mixed up with implicit societal judgements and views.

Throughout the movie, characters made statements obliquely or directly referring to historical or societal racism. Slavery was referenced. Helping black brethren around the globe stand up to oppression was the raison d’etre for the master criminal. (How could you really not take his side when he was fighting against historical and current oppression of black people?)

The movie causes just enough uncomfortableness but not enough to turn off white movie goers. The master criminal seeking to help his fellow blacks was angry but not enough to scare whites. (His foil was the black hero who came around to help fellow blacks worldwide without attacking or scaring whites in the world.)

The Black Panther was the prince and then king of a country in Africa, seemingly impoverished but actually a rich vibrant country hidden from the rest of the world. Due to a particular mineral abundant in Wakanda, they were quite advanced technologically, medically, and societally. Wakanda kept to themselves rather than help the rest of the world.

The king of Wakanda died in a bomb explosion and his son, the Black Panther, became the king in a ritual ceremony that brought various tribes together. In theory, anyone could physically challenge him for the kingship but no one did.

Until his previously unknown cousin showed up. His cousin was a product of a Wakandan (the Black Panther’s uncle) and an American. The uncle was killed for smuggling the secret Wakandan mineral out of Wakanda; his reasons were noble: to help the rest of the world. For that he was killed. For that his son—the Black Panther’s cousin—grew up bitter, preparing his whole life to return to Wakanda to fight for the kingship and then arm blacks globally with the technology from Wakanda so that they could rise up and destroy their oppressors. (This is where the uncomfortableness comes in…as a white woman, I share the skin color of the oppressors and those being targeted for destruction.)

As a comic book hero movie, there is lots of whiz-bang fighting. Of course, the hero wins the day. Besides the racial themes in the movie, there was a slight coming-into-one’s-own theme. In a ritual hallucination, the Black Panther ingests a special liquid, which allows him to visit his dead father. On the first visit, he is full of love and reverence, seeking reassurances about ruling without his father. On the second visit, he still loves his father but tells him he was wrong to keep Wakanda isolated and to refuse to help other blacks in the world. In his own journey, the Black Panther has discovered himself and separated from his father. He has truly become a king.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the costumes, some of which were rather stunning. I also was smitten by the strong female roles in the movie—the Black Panther’s mother, sister, love of his life, and the elite female guards that served to protect the throne and country. It was refreshing to see the strong roles given to women and blacks…and the themes that perhaps made some movie goers stop and think about history, society, and race relations.