Nov 29, 2006

Amazing Screw-On Head Coming To DVD

Speaking of spy shows with unusual historical settings, there’s even more than the setting that’s bizarre about this animated adventure. It’s so bizarre, in fact, that it definitely WAY transcends the spy genre, being more scifi/fantasy, but nevertheless the hero IS a secret agent, so it warrants a mention here.

Amazing Screw-On Head (voiced by Paul Giamatti) is a partially robotic secret agent who reports to President Abraham Lincoln. With the help of his manservant, Mr. Groin (Patton Oswalt), he screws his head onto a different, appropriate body for each mission. Unfortunately, we never got any more missions than the pilot, which aired on SciFi Channel. But presumably, he WOULD HAVE used different bodies for his other missions, since he has a whole collection.

Amazing Screw-On Head is based on a truly unique, truly wonderful one-shot comic book by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. (I STRONGLY recommend that any comics fans check it out if they haven’t already... it’s really one of the very best comics I’ve ever read!) Truthfully, the cartoon pilot doesn’t come close to living up to its printed source material, but it’s still a visually striking, very funny show. Unlike the excellent animated Hellboy movie, Amazing Screw-On Head attempts to translate Mignola’s distinctive visual style to the screen... and does a pretty good job of it! Even though SciFi ultimately passed on the series, its creator, Brian ("Wonderfalls") Fuller is still shopping it around to other networks. Perhaps if sales of the Lionsgate DVD (which streets the same day as the Hellboy animated movie, February 6, 2007) are strong enough, that will help inspire one of them to pick it up!
Jim West Returns

According to TVShowsOnDVD.com, CBS/Paramount has announced a March 20, 2007 release date for The Wild Wild West Season 2. The set will contain all 28 episodes of the first color season. Extras are still to be announced, but if Season 1 is any indication, they should be good! Expect commentaries and episode introductions at the very least.

I’m about halfway through the Season 1 DVDs and I’m really enjoying this show. For those unfamiliar with the series (or only familiar with the Will Smith train wreck), The Wild Wild West is essentially James Bond in the Old West. (Hence the name: James... West! Subtle.)

At the height of the Sixties spy craze, CBS decided to combine the new popular genre with what was still the most reliable old one, the Western. (At the time, all the studios still had Western backlots.) Robert Conrad is absolutely perfect as the tough, suave, debonair US Secret Service agent Jim West. Reporting directly to the President, West travels the West on a luxurious, gadget-laden train car with his partner (and gadget-maker) Artemis Gordon, thwarting the plans of many an Avengers-caliber Diabolical Mastermind. Wild Wild West really is the closest any American spy show came to The Avengers, with its decidedly bizarre plots and eccentric villains, and Jim West is probably James Bond’s closest TV relative. It may be set in the Wild West instead of the Swinging Sixties, but don’t be fooled; Wild Wild West is a spy show through and through. (In its early seasons, at least. According to the impressive bonus features on the Season 1 DVDs, it became a more traditional Western by its fourth season due to budget constraints.) It has everything you expect from Sixties spy television: a catchy theme, a cool hero, impossible gadgets, outlandish plots, beautiful guest starlets every week, and memorable adversaries. I’m very glad that Paramount is going to release more seasons on DVD!

Nov 28, 2006

Double O Section Exclusive: MGM To Release Individual Bond DVDs In February

For everyone who was underwhelmed by the slimcase packaging on MGM's recent Region 1 James Bond sets, or perplexed and dismayed by the weird order they put them in, there's good news... sort of.

MGM will release the titles individually next year! (Presumably in regular DVD cases, since slimcases are seldom sold individually.) The catch is these are single disc, vanilla editions, not the 2-disc Special Editions included in the sets. They'll just be the first disc of each set, with only audio commentaries in the way of extras. But they will, at least, be the new, Lowry Digital remastered versions of the movies.

The first wave hits shelves February 6, 2007 and will include Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, Licence To Kill and GoldenEye. The single discs will retail for $14.98.

I don't know what the artwork will be yet, but I'm guessing it will be the same as the discs in the collections, which is the same as the already available, individual Region 2 DVDs in England (pictured).

Nov 27, 2006

Review: Ring Around the World (1966)

Retromedia recently issued the Eurospy title Ring Around The World as the "B-side" of a Richard Harrison double bill DVD headlined by a sleazy, low budget 80s cop/vigilante movie called Terminal Force. Why that rates primary feature status I don’t know. Yeah, there’s probably not a huge market for 60s Bond knock-offs, but it’s got to be a bigger market than the one for obscure 80s cop movies, right? Maybe I’m just biased. Or maybe they just did it that way because they had a better quality print of Terminal Force. Whatever the case, that movie gets a widescreen presentation and audio commentary from Harrison; Ring Around the World gets a grainy, poorly cropped fullscreen presentation and chapter stops. (Six of them!) Still, that’s enough to make the title worth a purchase–or at least a rental, if you can actually find it–for spy fans.

Richard Harrison starred in quite a few Eurospy movies, but this is the first one I’ve seen. My girlfriend and I spent most of the movie trying to figure out whether he was a doofus or a lug, and I think, in truth, he’s a bit of both here. As Fred Lester (is that a hero’s name or what?), he dons a pair of glasses that may be intended to make us think of Harry Palmer, but end up looking more Clark Kent instead. See what I mean? Lug. (Kind of a Matt Damon-y lug.) Whichever term applies, I mean it in the best possible way. A likeable, somewhat slow-witted, everyman sort of hero who’s never ahead of the audience when it comes to figuring out the plot. He has a great moment near the end when he does actually discover the identity of the villainous ringleader (long after the audience has guessed it) and he pauses to allow himself a congratulatory smile. He’s truly pleased with himself! You can’t help but root for that kind of doofus.

Ring Around the World belongs to that very strange subgenre of Sixties spy flicks, the "insurance investigator movie." Yes, Fred Lester is not a secret agent, but an insurance investigator, just like Bulldog Drummond (Richard Johnson) in Deadlier Than the Male and Some Girls Do. I’m not sure who decided that insurance investigators led the same glamorous, violent lives as spies, and I don’t know if there are actually any other examples of this subgenre (though it wouldn’t surprise me), but three movies is already enough to provoke discussion. (Maybe you can take a class at some film school in the country on "Masculinity in the Heroic Insurance Investigator Film of the 1960s." That would be the greatest film school in the world!) So, anyway, the bespectacled Fred Lester works for an insurance company, which makes him even more of a doofus than previously imagined. (No offense to any insurance investigators reading this blog!)

Lester is assigned to investigate a series of murders around the world in which wealthy victims’ huge life insurance policies benefit the same bank. His investigation takes him from London to Rio to Brasilia to Hong Kong, and the movie actually appears to be shot on location in all of those places, which elevates it at least a notch above certain rival Eurospy flicks that clearly never left Spain, no matter where they were supposed to be taking place. In the course of his journey, Lester gets in several fights, a couple of car chases, and, most impressively, a midair fight over a single parachute while plummeting towards earth. This stunt preceded the similar (though decidedly more impressive) James Bond sequence from Moonraker by more than a decade, and makes for a nice set piece. The movie’s other major set piece comes in the finale, an extended machine gun shootout in a beautiful Hong Kong sculpture garden. It’s a great, exotic location and the film makes ample use of it. (The incredibly informative poster "davidfoster" at the Eurospy Forum says it's called Tiger Balm Gardens, or Aw Boon Haw Gardens.)

Jack Stuart (aka Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is suitably suave and slimy as Lester’s primary adversary, whom he encounters several times throughout his mission, not just at the end. He’s smarter than Lester, and always one step ahead of him, which leads to several genuinely clever plot twists which I won’t reveal.

Unfortunately, Ring Around the World is a letdown in the one category that you can usually count on from even the worst Eurospy movies: sexy spy babes. While Lester does encounter a few attractive distractions along the way, he doesn’t have time to pay them any attention until he meets Mary Brightford, played by Sheryll Morgan (aka Helene Chanel). Not only does Miss Morgan lack significant acting skill (not a requirement for Eurospy stardom), but she’s unfortunately not very sexy either. While Harrison exudes a certain luggish charm in most of his scenes, it sadly evaporates when confronted with Morgan, and their scenes together come off as kind of creepy.

Still, the stunts and the fights are enough to recommend this movie, which is a fun, fast watch. It’s got a good bad guy, great locations, a great Bondian score (by Piero Umiliani), and remains thoroughly entertaining throughout. Furthermore, I like the doofus. I’m keen to see more Richard Harrison spy movies, and I hope he maintains his doltish charm even without the nerd glasses.

The quality of the DVD itself leaves a lot to be desired. It looks like a bootleg-quality print, though I hear it’s actually a better print than the available bootlegs. It’s the kind of movie that might prove a revelation if one were able to see it on the big screen, on a pristine, 35mm film print. Until one of those turns up, though, this DVD is what we’ve got, and, as with whatever Eurospy titles are actually available, we have to be thankful for what we’ve got. Retromedia deserves credit for releasing this, in what is no doubt the best quality possible given their resources.

Nov 26, 2006

"Kommissar X" Coming To Region 1 DVD!

Image Entertainment will release the first three movies in the popular Sixties Eurospy series "Kommissar X" this February. I've long been eager to see these movies, and I can hardly believe that they are actually getting legitimate DVD release in America despite their obscurity. Kiss Kiss Kill Kill (aka Hunting the Unknown), Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick and So Darling, So Deadly will all occupy a single disc (in full-screen, sadly--though I'm not sure about the original aspect ratio) as "The Kommissar X Collection." Unfortunately, it doesn't say "Volume 1" on the cover, but maybe, if these sell at all well, Image will see fit to release further installments? Who cares! At least we're getting these ones, right? The genre bible The Eurospy Guide calls Kommissar X "one of the most entertaining of sixties spy series," which certainly sounds promising. The movies star Tony Kendall and Brad Harris.

I'm not sure why Image opted for that weird, modern, porno-looking photo cover instead of using some of the wonderful poster art the series generated in its day, but that's a very minor quibble. I'm indebted to Image for putting this out, so they can do what they want artwise!

Thanks to the aptly named poster "Kommissar X" for posting this exciting news to the Eurospy Forum.
24 Season 5 Bonus Material Review

Disc 7 of 24 Season 5 contains a pretty impressive collection of special features. Besides the endless assortment of deleted and extended scenes, the meatiest one is a 40 minute documentary entitled "Unsung Heroes: 24 Camera Department." It's quite an interesting look at the technical side of a TV show that's a lot more demanding of its shooters than most. A "Supporting Players" featurette profiles the casting department. The most notable tidbit seems to be that they don't really know if a character is going to end up being good or bad, die quickly or live on when they cast the parts. Various guest stars are interviewed, and the featurette lost me pretty early on when Sean Astin starts talking... and never seems to stop. The guy's a good actor, but he sure does like the sound of his own voice.

There's a "100th Episode Reel" that runs about 7 minutes. Unlike many such reels included on DVDs of long-running shows, this isn't a gag reel and doesn't contain any behind-the-scenes footage. It's an extended clip reel, showing montages of various characters, killings and explosions. It reminds you that Jack sure does kill a lot of people. It's pretty exciting, and showcases the good stuff enough to make you forget about the bad. But the featurette that really made me want to give 24 another chance (I've quit it twice) is one on "Music by Sean Callery." This is a very good short documentary (about 10 minutes) on the series' talented composer and his craft. He demonstrates by scoring one scene several different ways, and the differences in how it plays out are striking. (Two volumes of Callery's tremendously effective score music are available on CD; the second one, containing music from seasons 4 and 5, just came out. His other major contribution to spy music, the score to the James Bond video game Everything Or Nothing, is available as a download only.) If you only watch one special feature on this DVD, this is the one.

Of course, I know the one most people will go straight to is the "Season 6 Prequel." And... it's not really worth it. Like last year's, it's basically a car commercial. Other than glamor shots of a strangely immaculate Toyota SUV, it's mostly Jack being tortured by the Chinese. And he's got a beard, like Brosnan had at the beginning of Die Another Day after being tortured by the Koreans for months. Only faker. Still, it's a good way to pass ten minutes or so for people desperate for a bit of Jack Bauer prior to the Season 6 premiere, and it is cool to see him in non-real time for once. (Or twice.) The final feature is a "24: Behind the Scenes Book Sample" and it's just an ad for the book followed by an extremely brief still gallery.

Still, the 100th Episode Reel and the montage they put together showcasing Callery's score are probably enough to get me tuning in this year, even though Eddie Izzard reportedly quit the show after only a day of filming! I was so looking forward to his joining the cast...

Nov 24, 2006

CHLOE!
24 News Roundup

24 Season 5 comes out on DVD on December 5. This time Fox has opted to go with double disc slim packs instead of the usual gatefold, making this this the slimmest and most shelf-friendly season of 24 yet. This seems to be Fox’s preferred packaging these days, as most of their new shows have it (The Unit, My Name Is Earl) and they've been re-releasing old shows with it (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Personally, I prefer it. It takes up less room, and those gatefolds were awfully cumbersome.

Like Season 4, Season 5 comes with a "prequel" for the new season available only on the DVD.

For those who can't wait until December 5 to get their Jack Bauer fix, IDW’s newest 24 comic book debuted this week. It’s different from their previous comics in that it's a mini-series, not a one-shot, and it abandons the gimmicks (like two pages equal one hour, or whatever) and just tells a straightforward story about the characters from 24. It serves as a prequel to Season 1, telling the story of Operation: Nightfall, Jack Bauer’s first encounter with Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper on the show) under the orders of David Palmer. Issue 1 of 6 of 24: Nightfall is out now; a trade paperback is sure to follow down the road.

Also available for 24 junkies is the recently published book 24: Behind the Scenes and a pricey, limited edition version of same that includes an autographed picture of Kiefer Sutherland, who pens the forward.




Finally, DVDActive has the artwork for the Series 6 Premiere DVD I mentioned the other day.

Casino Royale Magazine Round-up, Part 2

While there haven’t been nearly as many magazine covers devoted to Casino Royale as there were to Die Another Day in 2002, several more have trickled out onto American newsstands. Here are a few to look out for (in addition to those already pictured):
These covers mark Daniel Craig’s second this year for both Entertainment Weekly and Empire. Meanwhile, Tatler, Out and Geek elect to keep him off their Casino Royale covers, perhaps deeming him not photogenic enough. (He’s a great actor and a great Bond... but he doesn’t always photograph so well.) Still, Starlog managed to find a great picture of him for their cover, so it's definitely possible...

It’s the second issue of Tatler in a row for Bond fans to look out for, following the October issue with the Moneypenny story.

The Out, which I’d mentioned before, is an odd magazine for Bond collectors since its most noticeable 007 features are a photo spread with a young male model in gay takes on Bondian situations and a chart (pictured to the right) rating each Bond actor on "shagability" and "gayness." (No offense to any actor or any sexual orientation, but I find it perplexing that Daniel Craig rates the highest in "gayness." I would have thought him the least gay!) Howeverver, it’s unfair to judge the magazine on those two features alone. It’s the only one of these magazines whose theme is entirely Bondian, and there are many other interesting features from top "spy tunes" to recipes for the perfect martini to an interesting article on the Burgess/Maclean spy ring.

The "Connoisseur’s Guide to James Bond" supplement from last week’s issue of the British Spectator has sadly not made it across the ocean with the magazine, so American collectors may want to steer clear of it despite the banner on the bottom half picturing Craig and promising the supplement (which can still be read online, at least).

Ca$ino Royale: License To Print Money

Casino Royale finally edged out Happy Feet to become the Number One movie in America over the Thanksgiving holiday earning $7,625,000 on Thursday and upping its cumulative total to $63,450,000. Their positions are likely to change again over the weekend, when kids' matinees give the edge to animation. The two movies are still neck-and-neck, though, easily fending off newcomers like Deja Vu and The Fountain.

Nov 21, 2006

Spy Shows On DVD: Alias and 24 News

Alias: The Complete Collection hit shelves today in a really nifty "Rambaldi artifact" cube collecting all five seasons of J.J. Abrams' cult spy series starring Jennifer Garner. I haven't got it and probably won't, since I have seasons 1-4 individually already, but DVDTalk has a really in-depth review with lots of pictures of the snazzy packaging. For those of you like me who have been collecting the seasons individually, you can also get Season 5 on its own. (Though you'll still be missing the exclusive bonus disc that only comes with the Complete Collection...)

Alias was a fun series that's well worth checking out for any spy fan, if you haven't already. It was one of the few recent shows to successfully provide a weekly dose of Bondian espionage fantasy, combined with some sci-fi/mystical elements. It's perfect for viewers who like prefer their spy series more "fun" than 24. The first two seasons are truly awesome entertainment, the third one's not bad, and the final two have their moments, though the series had really gone downhill by the time it reached its disappointingly lackluster finale earlier this year. Jennifer Garner made a wonderful, sexy lead, Victor Garber was brilliant as her spy dad, tougher-than-tough Jack Bristow, and Ron Rifkin was deliciously sleazy as bad guy Arvin Sloane. The rest of the primary cast was also great, and the series boasted some stellar guest stars including the one and only Sir Roger Moore (in the first season).

24
In other Spy TV news, TVShowsOnDVD.com has revealed that Fox will release the first four episodes of the new season of 24 on DVD right off the bat when Season 6 debuts in January.
24 - Season 6 Premiere will retail for $14.98.
Anne Hathaway Is The New 99

Variety reports today that Devil Wears Prada star Anne Hathaway is in talks to star opposite Steve Carell in the Get Smart movie. (Though the deal is not yet finalized.) I'm honestly not very familiar with the show (though hopefully that will change when the DVDs are released to retailers other than TimeLife next year), but from the clips I've seen of Barbara Feldon, this seems like pretty good casting to me. Thanks to the American version of The Office and the brilliant The 40 Year Old Virgin, I'm also convinced Carell can do no wrong and he seems perfect for the part. This is one of the spy movies in the works I'm most looking forward to right now!

Unfortunately, Hathaway seems to be the only former Disney starlet who hasn't attempted a recording career, so we might not get to hear a new over-modulated, electronica-tinged cover of Feldon's novelty single "99." What a pity.
"You Know My Name" CD Single Out December 14

Finally, it appears that Chris Cornell's Bond song "You Know My Name" will be out as a CD single! Amazon is taking pre-orders for an import. Jay Leno held the single up last night after Cornell performed the song on his show, so it does seem to really exist. As previously reported, the song is also available as a download on iTunes.

Nov 19, 2006

Classic Spy TV Soundtracks Due Out In 2007

In addition to all their stellar DVD sets of classic ITC spy shows (see below), the UK's Network DVD promises "comprehensive CD soundtracks of THE CHAMPIONS, RANDALL AND HOPKIRK (DECEASED), THE SAINT, THE PRISONER and more" in the coming year! I really, really hope the "more" includes The Persuaders!, whose Ken Thorne episode scores are almost as great as the John Barry theme. As far as The Prisoner goes, I thought Silva's recent discs were pretty definitive, so I'm curious to see what improvements Network can offer.
Network To Issue Return of the Saint on UK DVD in 2007

UK's spy TV savior Network DVD will release The Return of the Saint, the 70s Simon Templer revival series starring Ian Ogilvy, on Region 2 DVD in 2007! Umbrella Entertainment in Australia already released an excellent Region 0 PAL set (pictured) last year, but as with their Saint releases this past summer, Network looks set to one up them. As the Network sets of Roger Moore's Saint contained brand new documentaries narrated by Ogilvy, their Return of the Saint set will feature a new documentary narrated by Moore! Man, I wish I could afford to re-buy all this stuff! I'd just like to see these documenatries.

Network have also announced "definitive new editions" of the classic spy series Department S, Danger Man and The Prisoner for next year. Even though The Prisoner has been released many times in many countries, Network claim their new version "is surely the ultimate release featuring a wealth of new special features including restored high definition transfers, a major new documentary and lots of surprises." Sounds exciting!

Furthermore, the company currently have a bunch of their classic ITC series on sale at huge discounts. It's a great opportunity to fill in the gaps in your spy TV collections. To avoid sounding like a total Network shill, I should give due warning to American buyers: some of the Network DVDs I've bought refuse to play at all on either of my multi-region players. Others play fine. So buy at your own risk if you're not Region 2.

In related news, I should have already mentioned that Optiumum Home Entertainment recently issued a new set of Region 2 New Avengers DVDs in the UK. This set is notable because it's the first time there have been audio commentaries on any Avengers release, in this case two by Brian Clemens and Gareth "Gambit" Hunt. Not sure if this is enough reason for American viewers to upgrade their A&E sets, but it's certainly cool.
Casino Royale Opens #2 At US Box Office with $40 Million

According to Box Office Mojo, Casino Royale made $42,600,000 at the American Box Office this weekend, which was enough for the Number Two spot, behind the computer animated kids' penguin movie Happy Feet. In comparison, Die Another Day earned $47,072,040 its opening weekend in 2002. So 007's taken a bit of a drop, but that's not surprising given the changing of the guard in the title role and the change in tone for the series. Still, $40 million is quite an impressive opening, and certainly enough to make Daniel Craig officially a movie star! Sony's vice chairman, Jeff Blake, said "I think a $40 million-plus start for a new series of Bonds with Daniel Craig is a great beginning."

Casino Royale also impressively pulled in another $42.2 million internationally this weekend.

In honor of Casino Royale, Box Office Mojo has also posted some relevant box office stats. Check out their list of spy movies' earnings, and of the James Bond series.


Nov 18, 2006

"You Know My Name" Single

Chris Cornell's title song for Casino Royale, "You Know My Name," is now available to download as a single from iTunes. There is still no CD single available, and the Interscope song is not on the Sony soundtrack album. Unfortunately, the single version is not the version that plays over the movie's main titles. Instead, it plays at the end of the end credits. The title version is not currently available in any medium.
Casino Royale (2006) Full Review

I promised a full review soon when I posted my initial thoughts on the new Bond movie a few days ago, and I'm sorry I'm only just getting around to putting this up now. After seeing the movie three nights in a row, this is how I feel about it. Again, I'll avoid heavy spoilers, but I will address certain plot points, so proceed with caution if you haven't seen it yet.

I really liked Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, but I didn’t much care for his last two outings. They were, in fact, pretty awful, especially Die Another Day. Halle Berry’s redundantly pointed delivery ruined double-entendres for everyone for decades to come, the invisible Aston Martin marked a nadir for gadgets, and that blatantly CGI wave crossed the line from the impossible stunts the series is famous for into implausible greenscreen ones. Something needed to change, and I’m glad the producers realized that despite the last movie’s record grosses.

Casino Royale is definitely a change. And for that alone it will reap loads of well-deserved praise from critics and fans who have been craving something different. It’s a good change, too. A change in the right direction. Less cartoony, more down-to-earth and grounded in reality. But it’s not the first time the Bond producers have made this change. They know when to reel their series in, and that’s what’s kept it so healthy and long-living.

After the volcanic excess (and success) of You Only Live Twice, they gave us the personal, emotional, gadget-free On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And the box office took a hit. The movies steadily inflated like a Yaphet Kotto balloon until they reached the out-of-this-world overindulgence of the bloated Moonraker, again a bench-mark box office hit. Wisely recognizing that another spectacle of that size would burst like the aforementioned Yaphet, they brought things back down to earth with the gritty (for Moore), real-world For Your Eyes Only. (Which did well.. but not Moonraker well.) And now they’ve done it again, saving and rejuvenating the series just in time. And the box office may well fail to reach the heights of Die Another Day. But the future of the franchise itself is now safeguarded.

In each of these cases, the solution has been to bring Bond back to the source, closer to Ian Fleming. OHMSS was probably the most faithful adaptation they ever did, FYEO very cleverly blended Fleming’s title story with the lesser-known "Risico," and this time they’ve gone as far back to the basics as possible. All the way back to Fleming’s very first Bond novel, Casino Royale.* In the novel, Bond is clearly not the experienced superspy he will become, but I never got the impression that it was supposed to have been his first mission. Still, it makes sense for the film producers to proceed as if it is, and give the series a thorough reboot.

The result is an undeniable success. We follow the cocky, rough-hewn rookie assassin as he learns by making mistakes. Whenever the Bond we know and love would turn left, this version tries right. It makes it difficult to directly compare Daniel Craig to those who have gone before him, because he is playing 007 at such a different phase of his life and career. Maybe a few movies down, he’ll be at the point that we can make better comparisons. For the time being, he does exactly what the script calls for him to do and gives one hell of a performance. It’s thrilling to see Bond become Bond.

As for the stunts, the dreaded CGI is gone. We’re back to unbelievable, breathtaking physical feats performed by people. (Often, it appears, by Craig himself.) The initial foot chase in Africa is really incredible. Daniel Craig has a physicality that no Bond has had since Connery (or maybe Lazenby), and the fights in those days weren’t done in such a way as to take full advantage of that. In other words, the fights in Casino Royale are brutal, believable... and painful.

These action scenes have, of course, been added on to the plot of the book, which had very little action away from the card table. We expect that from Bond movies, though; even when the movies followed the books fairly closely they beefed up the action (like FRWL’s climactic helicopter chase). Storywise, I have no problem with that at this point. After all, I want action in my Bond movie as much as everyone else!

The main action of Fleming’s novel occurs at the gaming table, and he’s a skillful enough writer to make that quite exciting. In the movie, the card game (which has been changed from chemin-de-fer to the infinitely less Bondian "No Limit Hold ‘Em Poker") is shot well, and played more as bluffs between Bond and Le Chiffre, so you don’t really need to actually follow the action of the game. Which is good, because it’s never explained. Fleming explained the game of chemin-de-fer very clearly in the book, and even the American TV version managed that. So it’s a bit of a shame that a poker novice can’t really tell what’s going on with the cards, but certainly not detrimental. There are plenty of reaction shots on Vesper and Mathis to tell us if the hand was good or not, or to alert dummies that "That's the Tell! He's bluffing!"

Late in the movie, Bond is captured and brutally tortured. This is a scene right out of the book, and one that many readers couldn’t believe would ever be filmed. We’ve never seen 007 put through such anguish on screen before. Sounds unpleasant, and it is... but it’s the moment when Craig really, really shines. His performance in this scene is what will solidify his image as Bond for the Jack Bauer generation. This is one tough Bond. The audience actually cheered when I saw it. It’s horrific, but it’s also the movie’s best scene.

Unfortunately, shortly after that comes its worst. The movie falters in its third act. If only they’d just filmed the book, it would have been great. For the whole first two thirds of the film, the filmmakers have presented a very adult Bond movie and treated the audience as intelligent viewers. Before finishing the movie on that note, they cop out and shoehorn in another, completely unnecessary action scene. The high human drama of Fleming’s book plays out amidst the chaos of a gunfight in a sinking Venice building. (I’m not even entirely clear on why the building is sinking.) Sadly, some of the book's best character moments are lost in the action.
This whole sequence feels out of another movie, a refugee from one of the late era Brosnan films. Even though 007 is still capable of superhuman feats, the previous action sequences in Casino Royale are fairly grounded. This one goes for scale, and it’s worse off for it. It’s also awfully reminiscent of the fight on the sinking submarine at the end of The World Is Not Enough.

Still, the whole "wobbly building affair" manages to conclude on a moment of suitably high-stakes emotional suspense, and this leads us into a very strong coda. All in all, the film only steers seriously off course for about ten minutes, but in a movie of this length you feel every one of them.

Martin Campbell, who directed Brosnan’s spectacular debut in GoldenEye in 1995, has managed to make another stellar Bond movie. His direction may not be flashy, but it’s exactly what the series calls for. Despite the radical departure Casino Royale takes with Bond himself, it still looks and feels like a classic Bond movie. Much moreso than Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day or Michael Apted’s The World Is Not Enough. I’m thankful to Campbell for restoring the beautiful "travelogue moments" that used to be hallmarks–and highlights–of the series. The locations are all stunning, from the Bahamas to Europe. And the camera takes a moment to linger on them as David Arnold’s excellent score (his best since Tomorrow Never Dies) fleshes them out. The Art Direction team has done a fantastic job with interiors as well as exteriors. The casino itself looks exactly how I always imagined it, and its colors are particularly vibrant.

All the performances are first rate, with special attention going to Giancarlo Giannini, who embodies Fleming’s Bond ally Rene Mathis perfectly, and Eva Green as Vesper. Vesper is not a cardboard cutout; she’s a rich, believable and very complex character. I’d say she’s the best female part Fleming ever wrote, and Green really conveys that. Whereas some Bond girls become mere decorations the moment they stop delivering their lines, Green is constantly acting. Even if Vesper is, as Bond puts it, "unreadable," we’re still aware that she’s constantly thinking, conflicted, emotional. As much as I love Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, I have to say that Eva Green gives the best performance as a Bond girl since Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Casino Royale is a successful reboot of the Bond franchise, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here. Hopefully we will see Craig’s Bond remain an interesting character, and over several films gradually develop into the suave, cool-as-ice "gentleman spy" who first introduced himself to the world 44 years ago at a gaming table, in the guise of Sean Connery, as "Bond. James Bond."

*This is the third version of that book. Fleming sold the film rights to that title early, resulting in the black and white American TV production starring Barry Nelson as "Card Sense Jimmy Bond" of the CIA. After Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the rights to the rest of the series from Fleming, producer Charlie Feldman managed to acquire the Royale rights. Realizing he couldn’t make a straight version of the story without Sean Connery at the height of Bondmania, he instead produced a disastrous all-star spoof. Broccoli’s heirs finally acquired the rights, along with MGM, from Sony, as part of some serious legal wrangling that also allowed Sony to make Spider-man. (Then, of course, Sony bought out MGM, so none of that really mattered.)
Pierce’s New Spy Role

Either Brosnan’s still really bitter about being dumped by the Broccolis and eager for further revenge (a strong possibility, given the timing of this announcement), or else he’s totally over it and game for anything. Hard to tell from his newest role... in which he’ll be sending up 007... again. Whatever his motivations for doing it, I’ll be looking forward to the movie. It sounds like a potentially funny premise, and, as I’ve said before, I always like it when Brosnan sends up his Bond image. (His best performances to date are doing just that in The Tailor of Panama and The Matador!)

According to Hollywood Reporter, Brosnan is set to star in and produce a movie for New Line called Spy Vs. Stu. When regular guy Stu takes his girlfriend to a Caribbean island for a romantic getaway, he doesn’t realize that on the other end of the island is a superspy (Broz, naturally) recovering fresh off saving the world. And when that certain suave spy (who has an eye for the ladies, it seems) takes a liking to Stu’s girl, it’s war between the two men. Like I say, could be fun. I’ll be keeping an eye on this one.

(Shame about that title, though...)

Nov 16, 2006

Initial Thoughts on Casino Royale (2006)

Well, using my best undercover operative techniques, I did manage to infiltrate one of the secret, high security Hollywood press screenings! I'll probably need to see the movie again before I can actually review it, but I'll try to post a "rough draft" review tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some initial post-screening thoughts. I'll definitely give away some little stuff, so if you want to remain totally pure, don't read it. But I will definitely avoid any major spoilers.

One thing that I never considered, in all of my fevered excitement for this movie, was that it would be a different viewing experience than any other Bond movie I'd ever seen. The first Bond movie I saw in a theater was Licence To Kill in 1989. That was around the time I first started reading Ian Fleming, too. I'd seen all the others already on video or on ABC. (Remember when they used to air them on Sunday nights during the summers every year? Those were the days! Sigh. Whiffle ball in the front yard until the sun started to disappear, and then running inside for Bond on TV... OK, nostalgia attack over.) So, the point is, in all the cases where there was a movie based (to whatever degree) on a Fleming book, I'd already seen the movie. Usually they were such different animals that having seen the movie had little effect on reading the books, and even when the stories were the same, they were never ruined. And from LTK on, the movies themselves were all original stories, made up for the screen.

So, the point is, this is the first time I've ever gone into a new Bond movie not only as the latest installment in my favorite movie series, but also as a screen adaptation of one of my favorite books. (And Casino Royale is one of my favorites.)

That thought had never occurred to me prior to seeing the movie. So it produced some conflicting emotions during the screening. "Holy shit! This is awesome!" / "Wait! That's not how it is in the book! Aww." I still haven't quite reconciled those thoughts, and it may take another viewing (knowing exactly what to expect) to do so.

Yes, this is the most faithfull adaptation of Casino Royale put on screen yet (though, honestly, that's not saying much considering the two previous attempts). Yes, this is actually "based on the novel by Ian Fleming" according to the credits! Yes, this is the closest Movie Bond has come to Fleming since the days of Dalton. But is it my Casino Royale? The version I've carried around in my head ever since reading it for the first time? No, and it won't be yours either, so remember that when you're going into the theatre and adjust your expectations accordingly. That's a basic caveat for all movies based on beloved books, but I'd forgotten to heed it tonight. But the BIG question, that everyone's asking, and tons of critics have already told you the answer to (94% positive on Rotten Tomatoes right now!) is, "Is the movie any good?"

Unequivocally, yes.

It's a great movie, and a great Bond movie, too. Definitely the best since Goldeneye. Will I go back as far as On Her Majesty's Secret Service as some critics have? I'll need to see it again before I let you know. And How's Danny Boy? He does a great job. It's hard to compare him with those who have gone before, because he's playing Bond at a different point in his career than they did. Maybe in the next movie, or the one after that, we'll finally be able to tell where he stands in the pantheon of Bonds. But he's a great actor and he delivers exactly what the script calls for. And he's SO good in the infamous torture scene, that in that scene alone he will win over any who doubted him and seal his place as THE Bond for the Jack Bauer generation.

Random thoughts:
The Danny Kleinman credits sequence is fantastic, and without even one dancing girl! Yes, I wouldn't have thought it possible to have a great bond title sequence without any girls, but it comes off as one of the very best. VERY retro.

The song over the titles is a different version from the one that's been making the rounds on the net and on the radio (presumably the single version). Maybe this one?

The traditional "pre-credits" sequence is about 40 minutes this time... and it's not before the credits. Yes, there is a short "pre-credits" bit in black and white, but that's basically prologue. After the credits come two long (and amazing) action sequences pretty much back-to-back. Then it's into the book's main plot.

True, there aren't one-liners per se, but Craig NAILS the humorous lines that are there, often with a threatening undercurrent.

Eva Green is great. So is Giancarlo Giannini, though Bond's relationship with Mathis is changed from the book in a way I didn't entirely approve of. So is Jeffrey Wright, though Felix doesn't have too much to do in this movie. I hope they keep him around and really develop the great friendship he and Bond enjoy in the books.

Crying tears of blood is a cool quirk for a villain to have.

The torture scene IS there, basically intact, and, as I mentioned before, plays even BETTER than it does in the book, mainly thanks to Craig.

I still wish Moneypenny had been in it. The "Villiers" character played by Rome's Tobias Menzies is kind of a combination Tanner and Moneypenny. He even answers M's phones. (I thought he was going to be more Tanner, and that "Villiers" was a tribute to James Villiers who played the part in For Your Eyes Only. Michael Kitchen made the best Tanner to date in Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough.)

I didn't really like the ending. I can't say too much about it without spoiling, but the book was much better, and much more economical storywise. This adds another final, unnecessary action sequence set in a sinking building in Venice. It felt like the end of another Bond movie, a relic from the late Brosnan era. The drama happening inside (from the book) almost got lost amidst the chaos, which was too bad, because it was more in keeping with the rest of this movie.

The famous last line from the book is in the movie... sort of. It's not quite the same, and it's no longer the last line. (The last line of the movie, however, is a good one, and had the audience cheering...)

Anyway, it's a great movie, well worth your precious box office dollars. Go see it this weekend!

Nov 13, 2006

Stormbreaker on DVD in UK

The movie version of Anthony Horowitz’s first Alex Rider novel, Stormbreaker, hits Region 2 DVD in the UK this week. Which gives me an excuse to talk about this movie.

Stormbreaker actually got a legitimate release in England, so they’re making a big deal out of the DVD. Here in the US, it was horribly mishandled by The Weinstein Company, and barely saw any kind of release at all.

After two amazing international trailers, which appropriately played up the action in Horowitz’s young spy saga, the eventual US trailer instead played up the jokes, dubbed a couple of the British actors, and tried to look a lot more like a kids’ movie. Worse still, the American poster was a truly hideous thing, with the horrible tag line "Rule the school. Save the world." (Ruling the school has absolutely nothing to do with either book or movie.) It changed the title to the unwieldy Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, despite the fact that the book was a bestseller under its own title. And it sold the movie as an Agent Cody Banks clone.

Now, one of the primary selling points of Horowitz’s series is that he doesn’t talk down to his young readers. Yes, they are kids’ books ("young adult," actually), but they aren’t the Bobsey Twins. They feature a young hero, but they have death and violence and suspense. They’re written for young teenagers, and they’re books that a middle-schooler can feel cool reading. They feature a hero the same age as the target audience.

Agent Cody Banks was a movie aimed at much younger kids, featuring a kid hero slightly older than them. Stormbreaker is a legitimate action movie that teenage boys would actually enjoy; Cody Banks is a joke. What I’m saying is, it was a terrible mistake to label this movie as something it isn’t. The Weinstein Company had a much cooler property on their hands than they realized. They may be a bigger phenomenon in Britain, but the books are New York Times bestsellers over here! They had a built-in audience and they didn’t even use it!

Other than the horrible poster, the movie was not marketed at all in the US. No TV spots, no print ads (that I saw, anyway), nothing. The release date was changed twice, and when it finally dribbled out in the box office dead zone of early October, it was only to a very few theaters. I saw it with my girlfriend in one of only two it played at in the Los Angeles area (and LA is a fairly large market), and there were four other people in the theater. If kids who read the books somehow realized the movie existed and wanted to see it, they probably couldn’t find it.
The one place it was actually marketed was in bookstores, and that was by the publisher, not the film company. In Borders at that time you could find front-of-store displays full of Alex Rider books, including a making-of the movie book, the published screenplay by Horowitz, the movie tie-in edition of the novel, and a comic book adaptation of the movie. But the movie itself was nowhere to be found.

Perhaps it will find its market on DVD here in the US, whenever it comes out, but I doubt it. I hear rumors that TWC is planning to release it exclusively at Walmart. Which means it will actually get a lot of shelf space at America’s largest retailer... but none whatsoever at all the others.

It’s all too bad because the movie itself isn’t bad. It’s better than a lot of dreck that got legitimate theatrical runs this year. It doesn’t quite live up to the full potential of an Alex Rider movie, but the kid in the lead does a good job and the supporting cast is made up entirely of wonderful, mostly British, actors, like Ewan McGregor, Stephen Fry, Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis. All do predictably good jobs.

I hope this British DVD performs wonderfully. It will have to if there’s any hope of seeing a sequel, since Stormbreaker never had a chance in the crucial American market. And the best books in the series are yet to come, so a sequel would be good news.
Casino Royale Soundtrack

Tomorrow’s the big day for fans of spy music: the release of a new James Bond soundtrack! David Arnold’s score for Casino Royale comes out as a CD from Sony, and as a download on iTunes. The iTunes version is considerably longer than the CD version, presenting what Sony’s calling a "complete score." It’s a nice change for Bond fans who are used to getting only half of Arnold’s scores. (Most of the best music was left off the CD for Die Another Day, and the resulting album was the most unlistenable Bond disc in quite some time.) Strangely, though, neither the CD nor the iTunes album features the title track performed by Chris Cornell, even though the tune is said to recur throughout the score. Presumably this is because Cornell is on Interscope and Sony is releasing the soundtrack. According to the movie posters, there will be a single on Interscope, though there’s no sign of it yet...

Those who haven’t red the book Casino Royale should also be well warned: there are MAJOR SPOILERS on the tracklisting for the soundtrack album, so you may want to hold off on buying or downloading until after you’ve seen the movie.

Nov 11, 2006

Random Intelligence Dispatches

Real Life
Of course the big real world spy news this week is that former CIA Director (1991-1993) Robert Gates has been appointed to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. So now there’s a military man in charge at the CIA, and an Agency man running the military. I hope that combo makes for better cooperation and communication, and, most of all, better intelligence! But there’s lots of places where you can read about that in much more detail than here...

The Bourne Antagonist
Edgar Ramirez has been cast as the baddie (described in the Hollywood Reporter as a "superkiller") in The Bourne Ultimatum. Could this "superkiller" finally be Bourne’s sworn literary enemy, Carlos the Jackal? I don’t expect Ultimatum to resemble the book of that title any more than Supremacy did (or Moonraker did, for that matter) but it would be cool to see Carlos appear in the Matt Damon series. Producers had been in discussions with Gael García Bernal, which would have been awesome casting, but couldn’t come to a deal.

See the new Bond early...
Advance screenings of Casino Royale are going on all over the place! (Press screenings mostly, and some contests.) Arrrgh! Why can’t I get into one??? If you know of one, please let me know! (Thanks.)

...and sing its praise!
Speaking of Casino Royale, Variety and Hollywood Reporter both gave it very positive reviews! (Although both noted that it ran a bit too long.) Be warned, though, both reviews are a bit spoilery, especially the Variety one. Here's a taste from the Reporter's review: "What a relief to escape the series' increasing bondage to high-tech gimmicks in favor of intrigue and suspense featuring richly nuanced characters..." The British press has also been lauding the movie... and new Bond Daniel Craig.

Luciana Paluzzi DVD
The 1967 Eurospy rarity One-Eyed Soldiers starring Thunderball’s femme fatale Lucianna Paluzzi has been available on DVD for a while, but it’s suddenly much easier to find. It’s from a tiny distributor, though, and the transfer is as bad as you would expect from the bootleg-quality low-res box art.

Huge DVD sale
You can get that and tons of other spy movies (well, and non-spy movies also for people who are into that sort of thing...) at DeepDiscountDVD.com’s twice-a-year 20% off sale! I find that this sale is really the way to get the very best prices on just about anything, and the shipping’s all free. The primary coupon code is SUPERSALE although there are usually several others enabling you to place a few separate orders. DDD always seem to have especially good prices on A&E DVDs, and A&E puts out a lot of spy shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Persuaders!, The Saint, Danger Man, Secret Agent, The Champions, The Protectors and Randall & Hopkirk, Deceased (though that one’s really more detective than spy). If you’ve been meaning to check out one of these series, now’s a good chance to get a good buy!
New Modesty Blaise Shipping Now

The latest in Titan's supurb series of Modesty Blaise comic strip reprints is now available. Modesty Blaise: Cry Wolf is currently shipping early from Amazon.com or available at your local comic book store. In addition to the title strip, this one reprints the strips "Take Me To Your Leader" and "Highland Witch." Bonus material includes the usual introductions to each story from Modesty creator/author Peter O'Donnell, an interview with him from the 70s, character sketches by illustrator Enric Badia Romero, and an introduction by Russell Mael of the glam/new wave band Sparks. Yeah, that last bit seemed a bit weird to me, too. But then, I didn't know the very interesting connection Sparks turn out to have to Modesty!

Mael explains that they were contacted to write the theme song for the proposed Modesty Blaise American TV series in the early 80s. (I believe this is the one that was to have starred miscast American blonde Ann Turkel as Modesty; only a pilot was ever filmed.) They wrote the song, their record company liked it... and then the series wasn't picked up. But the label wanted to release the single anyway, so they changed the name (but didn't actually re-record the lyrics!) to "Modesty Plays" for legal reasons and released it anyway!

Well, this was very intriguing to me. It meant there was another Modesty Blaise theme song out there that I had never heard! (Johnny Dankworth's infectious theme from the gloriously awful 1966 film is a real guilty pleasure of mine.) I went to iTunes and, sure enough, there it was, "Modesty Plays" by Sparks. You can listen to some sound clips for free, but I went ahead and downloaded it. If you're a big Modesty fan, I recommend you do, too. It sounds very, VERY 80s, and a little too "remixy" to be a TV theme, but it's definitely a Modesty Blaise song!
Casino Royale Magazine Roundup

Here, FINALLY, are the covers for High Roller and Empire I promised to post so long ago.


007 (but not Daniel Craig) also made the covers of Arena (British, with Eva Green on front) and Out (American, with a random model in a Bond pose on front). The latter’s quite a strange piece of Bond coverage, only for die-hard completists or gay Bond fans. Articles include one rating each Bond actor on his "gayness" and "shagability," a 16-page photo spread of a model in various Bondian scenarios with a gay twist (such as framed by a man’s legs, ala the famous For Your Eyes Only poster) or at a casino table surrounded by lots of pouty young men, and the requisite story analyzing Fleming’s text for coded gay content. I’ve read plenty of essays that do a pretty good job addressing that topic academically, but this one loses all credibility with me with some factual errors right off the bat. Take the time to do your research!
Hugh Jackman Spying After All?

Variety reports that Tony-winning Wolverine actor, singer, dancer and self-proclaimed James Bond candidate Hugh Jackman will produce and star in a new movie of Robert Littell's 1981 spy novel The Amateur. Evan Katz, an executive producer on 24, is writing.

"Jackman will play a CIA cryptographer whose fiancee is killed in a suspicious plane crash. When he discovers that the plane was broughtdown by terrorists, he finds the leverage that forces his bosses to train him to exact revenge."

There was a previous movie of the book made in 1981, but apparently it differed greatly from the book. According to the trade, the new version will be based on the novel, and not a remake of the movie. But they will update it, as Universal did with Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity. The new movie will have a contemporary setting.

I'm not familiar with either the book or the original movie (though it is on DVD), so I can't really add anything to the report. But any potential new spy franchise is a good thing, I think, and I like Hugh Jackman. I don't know if the character is a one-off in the book, or if he features in a series. The implication is that Jackman is hoping the movie will be the first in a series, though.
Another New Bond/Moneypenny Short Story!

The always on-the-ball Young Bond Dossier reports that a SECOND brand new James Bond short story by Moneypenny Diaries author Samantha Weinberg (again writing as Kate Westbrook) has been published! This time it's in the UK weekly The Spectator, which has a special Bond supplement this week in conjunction with the imminent opening of Casino Royale. It looks like quite an interesting supplement, with additional articles on 007 by Weinberg (this time under her own name), Young Bond author Charlie Higson, and even Old Bond author Ian Fleming! I'm not sure how easy it is to get ahold of The Spectator here in the USA, but at least they've made the new Bond/Moneypenny story and other Bond articles available online to those who register. Registration is free and painless. (Still, I'll need to track down that hard copy for my collection eventually...)

This makes the second new Bond short story in as many months after Ms. Weinberg's previous story in the November issue of Tatler. That's rather historic since before that one it had been seven years since we'd had a Bond short story see print (by Raymond Benson), and even a couple more years between that one and Benson's first short story! (None of these stories have been collected.)

Weinberg/Westbrook's latest appears to be titled "Moneypenny's First Date With Bond," which makes the awkward and overly derivative "For Your Eyes Only, James" seem as good as Live And Let Die in comparison! Fortunately, the story is much better than the title.

Moneypenny Review
It's extremely short, less than three pages. And it will play hell with continuity buffs! It tells the story of Moneypenny's first meeting 007, and appears to take place immediately prior to the events of Ian Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale. There is no date given at the beginning of this one, like in the Tatler story, but Fleming's novel was published in 1953. And according to Weinberg's first Moneypenny Diaries, Moneypenny didn't even join the service until, I think, 1956. She also hints that M wasn't yet at his post in '53. Furthermore, this story implies that Bond was sent on his Casino Royale mission immediately after receiving his Double-O status, which was not the impression I ever got from the book. It is, I think, the premise of the new Casino Royale movie, though. Which doesn't feature Moneypenny. So this story doesn't seem to quite fit into any currently established Bond timeline, but sort of works in all of them. My guess is the intention is for it to serve as a complement to the new movie, filling in the Moneypenny scenes we'll wish were there. But also work in the 007 literary canon, thus requiring M to be a man rather than a woman. Make sense? Sort of?

Anyway, it's certainly not worth spending too much time thinking about all that. The story is well-written (though, I suspect, greatly cut by the Spectator editors) and serves as a quite plausible origin story to Bond and Moneypenny's relationship as seen in the film series, and, to a lesser extent, the books. It really does feel like exactly the scenes I would want to see in the "Bond Begins" Casino Royale!

As with all of Ms. Weinberg's Bond work, intelligence professionals constantly tend to blurt out highly secret information in public places to people they would probably not really reveal it to. (By "really," I suppose I mean in Fleming's world, as well as the real world.) But she presents a logical reason for the instance that occurs in this story, and it is the crucial moment of the story.

Her descriptions of Bond here are dead-on with Fleming's, and she does a better job of showing him through a woman's eyes than he did in The Spy Who Loved Me. "I found myself looking into a pair of blue-grey eyes that appeared to be at once cold and inviting, like the Atlantic Ocean in mid-summer," she writes. That's really a nice turn of phrase, and a good way of summing up the dichotemy of Bond's eyes that IF is always describing as being cold and cruel with a touch of warmth or warm with a shade of cruelness. (Sounds like a weather report the way I say it!) It's been a while since I've read TSWLM, but I don't think the Atlantic Ocean comparison comes from Fleming.

"Moneypenny's First Date With Bond" strays even further away from the diary format than "For Your Eyes Only, James." There's no mistaking this for anything but a short story, narrated by Moneypenny. I've been impressed with both of Ms. Weinberg's Bond stories so far, and I hope we see more. (Furthermore, I hope they're eventually collected!) I'd even like to see her try her hand at a straightforward Bond story without Moneypenny, just for once. It could be interesting!

I'm also very impressed with the publicity IFP and publisher John Murray are giving to this latest volume of The Moneypenny Diaries, since the first one had none but that ill-conceived and half-hearted attempt to dupe some papers into thinking the diaries were real! (That backfired and resulted in almost no coverage or reviews in major papers.) By getting these short stories out there in various publications, hopefully they're churning up some serious reader interest. They've done a women's magazine and a news magazine; I'd say the one remaining market to tap would be a men's magazine. I know this series started out as an explicit attempt to lure female readers, but since the core audience are probably men (who would like these books if they could get past the, er, girlie covers!) the next step should probably be to publish another short story in Playboy, the traditional home of new Bond stories since Fleming's days. Or, if they were afraid that might alienate the female audience they're so desperate for, then maybe something a little more "acceptable" in the current climate like Maxim or Stuff. (Trashier magazines, but less nudity!)

Nov 10, 2006

The Gun Seller

This has been out for a little while now, but it still bears mentioning that actor/author Hugh Laurie’s classic 90s comic spy novel The Gun Seller is back in print at long last. (Can a novel from the 90s be classic already? Read it and decide for yourself! I say yes.)

I loved Laurie as the vacuous P.G. Wodehouse hero Bertie Wooster on Jeeves & Wooster, and when he followed his esteemed co-star Stephen Fry into fiction (a spy novel, no less!) I was eager to read the result. I think it got described at the time as "Wodehouse meets Fleming," which is near the mark, but it might be more accurate to call it a Robert Ludlum thriller as written by P.G. Wodehouse. It’s a legitimate Ludlum-style globetrotting thriller, with a hapless hero accidentally thrust into the world of international intrigue and arms dealing, written in a deft comic style surely inspired by Wodehouse, which makes for a hell of a lot more fun a read than Ludlum’s own rather artless prose. The hero is certainly smarter than Bertie (who isn’t?) but his winking narration as he tries hopelessly to understand each new predicament he finds himself in really elevates The Gun Seller above the perfectly acceptable category of "entertaining beach read." It’s been too long since I’ve read it. I should really go back and read this one again, and if you missed it the first time and you’re a fan of spy novels, or Hugh, or both, definitely pick it up!

If you’ve seen his British comedy stuff, then you won’t be able to help picturing Laurie in the lead role as you read the novel. (If you only know him from House, maybe not.) It was originally optioned as a film to be written by Laurie and star (I think) Hugh Grant, since Laurie wasn’t a big enough name at the time to sell a movie. Then September 11 happened, and it was scrapped along with any other script concerning terrorism. Now that we’ve moved on a bit from then, and now that Hugh Laurie’s finally the huge star in America that he deserves to be, thanks to the success of House, maybe it will finally get made. Laurie’s a bit old to play the lead now, but he can probably rework it appropriately. He did mention that he was working on the script in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, though he didn’t mention if he intended to star or not. I hope so. And I also hope he gets around to writing a sequel someday!

Nov 7, 2006




















The Liquidator

Fantastic soundtrack news! (If a bit old, now.) SpyBopRoyale reports on the Eurospy Forum that Film Score Monthly will release Lalo Schifrin’s complete score to The Liquidator (including Shirley Bassy’s Bassytastic title song: "The-Li!-Qui!-Day!-TOOOOOOOOOOR!") on CD for the first time ever. In fact, it’s available NOW from FSM!

FSM puts out a wonderful series of "Golden Age Classics" and "Silver Age Classics" releasing long out-of-print and highly sought after film scores, remastered, on CD, usually with extensive liner notes and often bonus tracks. They’re kind of hard to find in stores (I still haven’t been able to track down a copy of John Barry’s Alice/Petulia they issued early this year) and tend to go out of print quickly, so you might want to order directly.

The Liquidator, of course, is Boysie Oakes, John Gardner’s pre-Bond anti-Bond. His Oakes books are sort of a direct response to Fleming’s Bond books, and a parody of them. The US paperback covers were suitably lurid in a Sixties way, and some of them are worth reading. None of them, however, scream out "PICK ME TO WRITE THE JAMES BOND CONTINUATION NOVELS IN THE EIGHTIES!"

While there was a whole series of books, there was sadly just one movie, and it didn’t really live up to its amazing Bob Peak poster, or its classic Schifrin score. Still, it’s worth a look, for sure. And I would scoop it up in a second if someone put it out on DVD! Rod Taylor of The Birds fame stars as Boysie, and Jill St. John’s along for the ride looking great and maybe even contributing just a little bit more to the plot than does her useless Tiffany Case character in Diamonds Are Forever! (The film, that is. Tiffany was actually quite an enjoyable character in the novel.) I guess it didn’t do well to warrant a series, which is a shame.

Taylor did, however, go on to star in another Eurospy treat called The High Commissioner (aka Nobody Runs Forever), which is, surprisingly, on DVD, courtesy of MGM. It plays like an overlong episode of an ITC series, and I think Dahlia Lavi is supposed to be Vietnamese(!), but Taylor and Christopher Plummer each do a great job and the fairly realistic (for a Eurospy movie, anyway!) plot is pretty good.