Jun 29, 2007

DVD Review: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

A jetliner lands at night, and is met by a convoy of federal agents. The agents take charge of a high level defector and whisk him away as quickly as possible. But not fast enough. The opposition ambushes the convoy, resulting in an intense shootout. The injured defector is taken to a secret base. Moments later, an American agent is summoned to the same base. His limousine sinks into the ground on a hidden hydraulic lift, taking him into a sprawling underground headquarters to rival some of Ken Adam’s similar sets. There, he meets his superior, who gives him an impossible mission...

Fantastic Voyage is so well known for being an effects-driven sci-fi spectacle that it’s easy to forget that it’s also a spy movie! But the fact that it is really emphasizes the ubiquity of the genre in the 1960s. You want to make a movie about a journey inside the human body; what framework do you use? In the original Bond Age, at the height of the Cold War, the answer was obvious: a spy movie. (According to commentator and film/music historian Jeff Bond, the original plan was to make it a Victorian-set Jules Verne type adventure. But by the time cameras were ready to roll, that wasn’t nearly as hot a genre as spies.)

Assignment K’s Stephen Boyd plays secret agent, com-munications expert and former Navy frogman Grant. He’s the one who got the defector, Benes, out (presumably from behind the Iron Curtain, though specific countries aren’t mentioned), and now his boss, General Carter (Edmond O'Brien), wants him to go along as security on a fantastic scientific expedition to save the man’s life. You see, Benes has vital scientific knowledge about miniaturization that he wants to share with America. The opposition would rather see him die than allow that to happen.

American scientists have come far enough on their own in the field that they can reduce people and objects to an infinitesimal size for a period of one hour. The only way to save Benes’s life is to shrink a submarine and crew and inject them into his bloodstream, enabling them to use a laser to clear a critical clot in the brain. But the General fears there may be a saboteur amidst the crew, and he wants Grant to go along to ensure that nothing goes wrong with the operation. The rest of the crew includes Arthur Kennedy as brain surgeon Dr. Duval and spy veterans Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasance as Duval’s technician and a circulatory specialist-cum-navigator, respectively. The movie plays miniaturization completely straight, and except for Grant whining "But I don’t wanna be miniaturized!" right at first, everyone seems pretty nonplussed about the whole situation.

After all the spy movie set-up, they don’t actually get inside the human body until forty minutes into the movie. Then it becomes more of a straightforward science fiction film, wherein the steadfast crew evade antibodies, take an unplanned detour through a fistula, and find their way back through the dangerous rapids of the heart. At one point they run out of oxygen, and need to harvest some from the lungs. This requires Grant’s frogman skills, and it requires Raquel to finally strip down to a more body-hugging jumpsuit. But all the while the "who’s the saboteur?" spy plot remains, a situation similar to Ice Station Zebra. (It’s really not very hard to guess.)

The special effects are actually very impressive for their era, some even by today’s standards. The movie looks great, with fantastic art direction by Dale Hennesy and Jack Martin Smith. All the sets (full-size and miniature) are terrific, from the cavernous subterranean base with little golf carts zipping around it to the surface of the lung. Richard Kuhn’s opening titles are also quite impressive and very modern, and probably inspired Maurice Binder’s Billion Dollar Brain credits to some extent. None of the performances really stand out, but it’s not a movie about performances. (Stephen Boyd gets points for being tolerable, though, something he couldn’t manage in The Oscar with Elke Sommer.)

Fox’s new DVD of Fantastic Voyage boasts a really amazing transfer. This movie looks great, as if it were just made this year! Fox usually has good transfers, but this one really stands out. There are some nice extras, too. The behind-the-scenes featurette is more of an appreciation than a making-of, with modern-day special effects artists praising the film’s visual trickery and pointing out what works and what doesn’t. Film Score Monthly’s Jeff Bond contributes an informative commentary track full of interesting trivia. He tells us that according to the movie’s press materials, it was supposed to take place in 1997, but there would be no way to know that from what’s on screen, as the cars and plane at the beginning are all very mid-Sixties. Best of all is an isolated score track featuring Leonard Rosenman’s excellent music and commentary on it (during the silent parts) with Bond, John Burlingame and Nick Redman.

Fantastic Voyage certainly isn’t a traditional spy movie, but it serves as a reminder of how popular the genre was in the Sixties and how varied it could be. It will probably be of more interest to sci-fi fans than spy fans, but this new release (in Fox’s typically excellent packaging featuring original poster art) is good enough that it’s certainly worth a rent for any aficionado of Sixties cinema.

Jun 28, 2007

Tradecraft: Crowe, Caterina, Smart

The trades are just overflowing with spy news today!

As The Crowe Spies
It should really go without saying by now that if it's a Ridley Scott film, Russell Crowe will probably be in it. But I guess it does need saying, so Variety says it today. Crowe has joined his old Quick and the Dead co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Scott's Body of Lies (formerly known by the much better title Penetration), based on David Ignatius's novel. The trade says: "Crowe will play Ed Hoffman, the manipulative CIA boss who teams with operative Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) to trap a dangerous Al Qaeda leader by planting a false rumor that the bomber is in cahoots with the Americans." We've been hearing about this movie forever now, since long before the book was published. The Hollywood Reporter adds that shooting is finally (tentatively) scheduled for late August. Oscar-winner William Monahan wrote the script.

What Have They Done To Solange?
Variety says Casino Royale Bond Girl Caterina Murino (Solange, she of the lime green bikini on horseback) has chosen her next project. She'll co-star with Richard E. Grant and Mena Suvari in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden. It's a Jazz Age tale about a pilot-turned-writer and his flapper wife (you know, the standard Hemingway stuff) who "bring a sultry Italian girl (Murino) into their bedroom." They could do a lot worse!

The Hickenlooper Project
Wouldn't that have been a great Ludlum title? Pity he never thought of it. Anyway, director George Hickenlooper (The Man From Elysian Fields, The Mayor of Sunset Strip), whose last movie was the Edie Sedgewick biopic Factory Girl, will next turn his attention to a spy movie. Variety reports that Morning Spy, Evening Spy, based on a novel by Colin MacKinnon, "revolves around an aging CIA officer who is assigned to the Middle East in the days preceding the 9/11 terrorist attacks." The operative becomes obsessed with the capture of Osama bin Laden. "His hunt brings him within meters of Al Qaeda operative and lead 9/11 terrorist Mohammad Atta just days before the attack."

Cuban Intrigue
New Line has optioned the book The Americano: Fighting for Freedom in Castro's Cuba, an Untold Story by Aran Shetterly. It's about William Morgan, a guy who apparently led a life of intrigue so complicated that I won't even attempt to paraphrase. Here's the direct quote from the trade: "Morgan, a high school dropout who was rumored to have been a gangster and a CIA operative, headed to Cuba in the 1950s, and rose to command the legendary Cuban fighting column known as the Tigers of the Jungle. Blond, and wielding a gold-plated pistol, he stood out among rebels. Morgan eventually became caught up among the conflicting agendas of guerrilla leader Castro, U.S. mobsters and the FBI; when he turned against Castro after the Cuban leader embraced communism, Morgan was executed in 1961."

International Audiences Won't Get Get Smart As Soon
Variety also has an interesting online story about how studios are dealing with the 2008 Summer Olympics and other distractions for the public's attention in planning their release strategies for next year. The relevant tidbit for spy fans? "Speaking to Daily Variety Wednesday at exhib confab Cinema Expo here, Warner Bros. international distribution prexy Veronika Kwan-Rubinek said, 'Get Smart is interesting because the domestic release date is June 20 and that falls right in the middle of the (European soccer championship), so we wouldn't want to go day and date on that movie.'" So, unlike most of this summer's blockbusters, which are opening on the same date in most territories around the world, Get Smart will follow the old model and likely roll out a few months later in Europe. Sorry, Europeans...

Burn Notice Reviews
Finally, both trades review Burn Notice, debuting tonight at 10PM (9 Central) on USA, commercial-free. Variety is pretty enthusiastic. Their reviewer, Brian Lowry, finds it a "pleasant surprise, if only because so little about the concept indicates how much fun the 90-minute premiere is." The Hollywood Reporter is cooler, but ultimately deems it "perfect summer viewing--fun and filled with action and bikinis." Both lavish praises on star Jeffrey Donovan.
Next Bond To Be Funnier?

Daniel Craig tells his friend and interviewer Sam Taylor Wood in the July issue of Interview that "[the Bond producers] just want more gags. The next one's going to be a lot funnier."

"Octopussy kind of gags?" she inquires.

"Yeah. Octopussy. Pussy Galore. They're all great names. But that's the thing; all the Bond jokes have been flipped on their heads, they've all gone beyond..." And then he trails off and talks about food as they're interrupted by a waiter. Was he being serious? Or just kidding around with a pal? The interview is very chummy and presents a much different Craig than the one we saw doing press for Casino Royale. Unfortunately it's impossible to tell his tone here. They've all gone beyond what, Daniel? Was he going to say that they were setting out to reclaim such name gags from Austin Powers-land, or that they were going to abandon them because of that? Only time will tell, I suppose. I think he's being honest, though. And I don't think it's a bad thing.

Casino Royale was great, and had the right tone to counteract Die Another Day, to reinvent Bond when he needed reinventing, as OHMSS and For Your Eyes Only had both done before at crucial moments. But now that he's "begun," Bond must grow into the character we know and love. And that means a little more humor than Royale offered up. I'm not advocating Octopussy levels myself (no Tarzan yells, please!), but a little bit more. After all, Fleming's Bond did have a sense of humor himself.

It's a good interview with some other choice Bond nuggets. Worth reading, for sure!

Jun 27, 2007

Say "U.N.C.L.E."!

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is finally, officially headed to DVD, according to the ever-reliable TVShowsOnDVD.com. It will be released by TimeLife, the same people who put out last year's highly regarded Get Smart set. Unfortunately, that means it will also be distributed like that set, exclusively from the company online and over the phone ("as advertised on TV!"). That means that it will probably be costly, and consumers will have no discount alternatives like Amazon price reductions or DeepDiscount.com, for the first year. It will supposedly be released to retailers in late 2008, just as Get Smart will supposedly be released commercially this fall, after TimeLife's year of exclusivity is up. Still, I suppose it's worth whatever cost they charge to finally have this highly anticipated DVD set! More good news: TimeLife's release strategy means that all four seasons will be released at once, with plenty of bonus material! Stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are both involved.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. originally ran from 1964-1968, and spawned a series of theatrical movies that were made by cobbling two episodes together. (These have been available in Region 2 for some time.) It's had a long and troubled road to American DVD, first being announced by Anchor Bay a few years ago and then cancelled at the last minute when the company found out the party they'd secured the rights from didn't really control them! It was next rumored to be coming from Warner Bros., who will now release it through their TimeLife partner. While there are still some cultier gems out there awaiting release (like It Takes A Thief), in my opinion U.N.C.L.E. is the last absolutely essential Sixties spy series we've been waiting for, now that Paramount has started releasing Mission: Impossible. So this is great news.
DVD Review: Fay Grim

Fay Grim (Parker Posey) is an ordinary single mother from Brooklyn who is unexpectedly thrust into the middle of a crazy Robert Ludlum sort of international double- and triple-cross espionage plot. She’s a character from a darkish family comedy lost in a genre she doesn’t belong in, which is an excellent recipe for comedy. And for it’s first half, Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim is a terrific black comedy.

Fay goes from a meeting with the principal to discuss her troubled son, Ned (who has brought a pornographic Viewmaster into school) to a surprise meeting with two CIA agents in her apartment. She goes from a boring, depressing situation she’s all too familiar with to an extraordinary one in which she has no idea what to do.

We gather from the meeting with the principal that Ned’s estranged father, Henry was a bit of a wayward soul–an inveterate bullshitter at best, and possibly a murderer at worst. Fay is worried that Ned will turn out like his father, especially without a positive male influence in his life. Her brother, Simon Grim (a best-selling poet), is currently incarcerated for aiding and abetting Henry in his escape, much to Fay’s dismay. Fay claims to be over Henry and happy he’s gone, yet she can’t bring herself to say she’s single without adding a bewildered "sort of" to the end. And she finds herself explaining exactly that to Agents Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and Fogg ("you can call him Carl," Fulbright condescendingly adds) in her apartment.

Apparently Henry penned a lengthy manifesto, filling seven notebooks, which may have exposed government secrets–and incriminated Agent Fulbright. At the time, Fay and everyone else dismissed it as incomprehensible, made-up ramblings, but suddenly there’s a lot of interest in these ramblings. Simon’s publisher, Angus, wants to print them because he feels Simon’s readers would be interested in the writings of the person their idol was willing to go to jail for. And now the CIA wants them, too.

Fulbright and the younger Fogg have fantastic interplay between them, and Goldblum excels at this sort of comedy. Fay’s astounded to hear that her former husband may not have been lying when he described wild adventures with mullahs and contras ("the Pope threw a chair at him," Ned chimes in), and crushed to hear that he is dead. The CIA needs Fay to go to Paris and retrieve the notebooks from the French government, because only a widow can claim such property. Fay strikes a deal to get Simon out of jail if she cooperates, and then she’s off to Paris.
In Paris, it becomes clear that there are other parties interested in the manuscripts as well. Fay encounters a strange woman named Bebe (Nadja’s Ellena Lowenstein) in the bathroom where she is to meet her contact, but Bebe is scared off by Fay’s ringing phone. The man she met on the plane isn’t who he seems. Neither are the hotel employees. And neither is her contact.

Meanwhile, back in New York, someone shoots at Angus hoping to get one of the notebooks. Fay finds herself tangled up with British, French, Russian and Israeli agents, as well as international terrorists and the mysterious Bebe, all vying for the notebooks. Confusing matters, the French have created fake notebooks, so there are two sets floating around.

Hartley shoots almost every corner of Paris that Fay traverses at a canted angle, as if he thinks that’s what makes a spy movie. The surprise is: it works, so maybe he’s onto something! The camera angles and gray color scheme, combined with an effective (but in some places strangely inappropriate and intrusive) score really play up the mysterious, Ludlumesque feel to the world. Fay’s wardrobe also adds to the spy mystique; her sexy black coat (a gift from Angus) looks like it could have come from Emma Peel’s closet. But Hartley chokes when it comes to shooting action. In fact, he doesn’t shoot it. Instead, he creates a digital strobe effect, presenting the various shootouts Fay finds herself in the middle of as a series of rapidly changing still images. I suppose this is meant to represent how Fay sees the action herself, unable to fully process it, unable to believe that she’s actually experiencing it. But unfortunately it has the opposite effect, and instead of putting the audience in Fay’s place, it momentarily takes us out of the movie, calling attention to the fact that it is a movie and to the digital video it’s shot on.

Still, when the gunfire dies down and the strobing stops, Hartley continues to effectively build suspense while maintaining the intrinsic humor of the incredible situation this woman finds herself in. Both are aided immensely by the fact that Posey crafts such a believable, realistic and likable main character, so despite the occasional showstopping camera effect, we do relate to her and empathize with her. The director also pulls off one very Hitchcockian setpiece in which Fay, in her iconic black coat, scrambles across the rooftops of Paris to evade the various secret services that are chasing her. As soon as any shooting starts, of course, we go to still frames.

Her Parisian adventure not only terrifies Fay; it also invigorates her. A character who started out so passive that she locked herself in the bathroom for a long, hot bath rather than dealing with her troubles (an expelled child, would-be suitors) finds the passion required to elude all the world’s spy agencies and slip away to Istanbul on a fake passport with Bebe in tow. Fay’s discovered that they’re in love with the same man (even if Fay herself won’t admit she still loves Henry), and she seems as much driven to protect Bebe as to find Henry, who Fay’s come to believe is still alive, no matter what Fulbright told her. Unfortunately, Fay’s little sojourn to the Bosporus gets her labeled a traitor by the CIA, and soon Fulbright himself is on her trail as well as everyone else.

Istanbul is another great, exotic spy location that evokes plenty of Cold War thrillers, but it’s also where the movie starts to go downhill. Because in Istanbul, we meet Henry. Henry as we see him here is a pretty unlikable, off-putting character, not the charismatic enigma we think we know from the way people talk about him in the first half of the movie. He’s also aiding a Bin Ladin-like terrorist named Said Khan, which doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. Overall, Fay Grim works without having seen Henry Fool (to which it is a nominal sequel), but not at this point, because we can’t know why this intelligent character (Fay) would be in love with such a man. Presumably the first film makes that clear.

Without understanding Fay’s love for Henry, it’s impossible to fully comprehend why she makes the choices she makes in the third act, or even, necessarily, what those choices are. Everything becomes murky at the end. This may be a commentary on the espionage genre as a whole, and on the real-life business of spying, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion, to my mind anyway. Fay has a satisfying arc as a character, but I would have really liked to know more about her motivations at the end, and have a better understanding of what actually happens in the plot.

Luckily, Hal Hartley sums that up for us in one of the disc’s special features, Making Fay Grim. He says Fay is a "representative American who’s a well-intentioned, decent person who’s a bit naive about how the world is." Well, that part I see. "Not given the opportunity not to confront the violence in the world, she must acknowledge it... and she beats [the spooks] at their own game." This is the part I’m less clear on. It sounds great, but I didn’t really get that from the movie. I won’t go into details because I want to avoid potential spoilers, but I wasn’t sure that Fay had even won in the end, let alone beaten anyone at their own game!

Apparently no one involved in the first film expected the sequel to be a spy movie, judging by their comments in the "making of" featurette. Posey was surprised, and Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays Henry, says that he would have played the part completely differently in the first movie if he’d had even an inkling that any of Henry’s yarns were the truth! The featurette is well-done, and complements the movie nicely, filling in some holes on screen. But it focuses much more on interviews with the cast and director than on the actual filmmaking process. Another feature is an episode of IFC’s Higher Definition focusing on the movie, in which a pompous hipster-type who has no business hosting a TV show (even on IFC!) interviews most of the same participants and gushes over the film. The host is so annoying I stopped watching halfway through, but it was definitely good of Lionsgate to include this feature anyway. There’s also an intriguing trailer for the film that would have gotten me to see it in the theater had I ever actually seen the trailer.
Despite my misgivings about the end, I still recommend Fay Grim. There’s enough espionage going on to hold any spy fan’s interest, and the performances are all first-rate, especially Posey and Goldblum. It’s a shame that the final product is flawed, but not a detriment. The disc also boasts a nice array of bonus material for an indie film, which are often movie-only affairs.

Jun 23, 2007

James Bond Screenings In LA This Weekend

The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles is showing a double feature of rarely screened Bond movies this weekend, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and The Man With the Golden Gun. $7 gets you into both movies, at 7:30 and 10:10 respectively, this Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, June 24-26. OHMSS is my personal favorite (and readers' favorite, judging from the recent contest poll), and it's always even better on the big screen. Which used to be a pretty unusual occurrence, but seems (happily) to be becoming more frequent these days, with recent play dates in L.A. and New York. I'd love to see it become a yearly tradition, so I hope this screening does well. Any Roger Moore Bond film, on the other hand, is still pretty rare. For some reason whenever revival houses show 007, they figure people want to see Sean Connery. And of course they do, but this Bond fan also wants to see Moore and Dalton! So even if TMWTGG is one of Sir Roger's weaker entries (despite the awesome presence of Christopher Lee), it's also well worth attending.

Jun 22, 2007

Classic Eurospy Screenings In Los Angeles

As part of "Mods and Rockers," their awesome annual festival of Sixties movies, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA will screen the greatest Bond knock-off of all time, Deadlier Than the Male on Thursday, July 26. It will be a double bill with the ultra-rare 1966 Eurospy flick Lightning Bolt. Deadlier Than the Male (1966) stars the luscious Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina as a pair of bikini-clad assassins and Richard Johnson as a Sixtified (or Bondified) Bulldog Drummond. Nigel Green (of Ipcress File fame) plays the villain. Lightning Bolt (like Thunderball... get it?) stars Anthony Iseley and is directed by Antonio Margheriti. I've never seen it, so I can't comment on it, but I'm eagerly looking forward to the opportunity!
Tradecraft: Champagne and Infiltrator

There are a couple of spy items in the trades today. The Hollywood Reporter, er, reports that Israeli writer-director Nadav Schirman has signed a deal to turn his documentary The Champagne Spy into a fictionalized English language feature. The Champage Spy "is a portrait of Wolfgang Lotz, an Israeli spy who became addicted to his covert identity as ex-Nazi playboy and millionaire horse breeder in 1960s Cairo."

Variety, meanwhile, profiles writer Joshua Zetumer as one of its "10 Writers To Watch." Zetumer is currently writing The Infiltrator, "a story about British soldiers going undercover in the IRA, based on an article in Atlantic Monthly. [The movie] is set up at Warner Bros with David Benioff producing and Leonardo DiCaprio [you know, that famous British actor?] attached to star." The project sounds somewhat similar to DeCaprio's other gestating spy flick, Penetration. Zetumer name-checks all the big espionage touchstones for Variety: "The Infiltrator is a thinking-man's action movie. It's got these big set-pieces, but at the same time it's kind of an anti-James Bond film. It's inspired mainly by John le Carre, but with a good dose of The Bourne Identity thrown in."

Jun 21, 2007

Bruce Campbell On Burn Notice

The official website for USA's upcoming spy show Burn Notice has been updated with character information and interviews with co-star Bruce Campbell and series creator Matt Nix. Nix says that his espionage inspiration comes more from non-fiction books than fiction, and Bruce says... a lot of stuff, as only Bruce can say it. His character, Sam Axe, is a retired spy himself, an outmoded Cold Warrior now living off rich widows in Miami. When the main character, Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan), is "burned" by the CIA and trapped in Miami, his old colleague Sam is the only guy he can rely on. Burn Notice premieres next Thursday, June 28 on USA.
DVD Review: Breach

Whereas re-watching The Good Shepherd on DVD did more to reaffirm my misgivings about the somewhat uneven film than validate my initial praise, re-watching Breach fully solidified my first reaction. This is a tight, taut, top-notch spy drama anchored by fine performances all around, particularly by Chris Cooper in the showcase role. While there are no major stars in the movie, every part is played by a fantastic character actor like Dennis Haysbert, Laura Linney, Gary Cole and Caroline Dhavernas. I may not have lauded lead actor Ryan Phillippe enough in my first review; while I never would have considered him in the same league as his co-stars, he more than holds his own amidst this intimidating crowd, especially in difficult scenes with Cooper, which can’t have been an easy task. Overall, though, I fully stand by what I wrote when this was in theaters, so rather than revisiting the movie, I’ll focus on the impressive special features the DVD boasts.

Another contrast to The Good Shepherd (also a Universal release, from a few weeks ago), is how many extras they include here. While that was a pretty bare-bones affair, Breach is about as packed as a single disc release can be. And all of the bonus content is good!

If the movie piques your interest in the actual spy played by Cooper, Robert Hanssen (estimated to have caused, as the movie’s tagline puts it, "the greatest security breach in U.S. history"), then the original Dateline story that aired soon after his capture is the first place to go. It seems amazingly informed for being put together just two weeks after Hanssen’s arrest; the FBI must have made public a surprising amount of their case very quickly. In spite of the smug Dateline delivery and random insert shots of roulette wheels to illustrate the high risk of spying, this is a well-constructed bit of TV journalism that offers candid insights into Hanssen’s character. While the movie itself leaves you guessing as to the true motivations of this highly complex man, the agents interviewed reach a consensus. He was "in it for the game, not the gain," one speculates, and another concludes that Hanssen was "trying to commit the intelligence equivalent of the perfect crime." This is an excellent supplement to the main attraction.

"Anatomy of a Character brought to you by Volks-wagen" (yes, DVD features now have sponsors, apparently) offers more speculation on Hanssen’s motives, this time from the actors. It’s strange to see Cooper speaking so openly about the role right after watching the film, since in the movie he’s so reticent! Director Billy Ray says he cast the part by thinking, "Who would I not want to have thinking of me as an idiot?" and came up with Chris Cooper. And it was a great choice. Eric O’Neill, the real life agent Phillippe plays in the film, offers his insights on Hanssen as well, and we see footage of him briefing Cooper on set. (Cooper reveals that he asked O’Neill to do his best Hanssen impression when they first met.)

The same interviewees turn up in "Breaching the Truth," a solid, 10-minute making-of featurette. Some of it is fluff, with the actors singing each others’ praises, but there’s good information here too. Best of all is the opportunity to see how exacting the crew was in recreating the specific locations where the actual events took place.

There’s a very good commentary with Billy Ray and Eric O’Neill. Ray is a good speaker who provides lots of relevant information, but he does have a tendency to cut O’Neill off when he’s about to tell what sounds like an interesting anecdote. On several occasions, O’Neill is about to talk about Hanssen’s religious beliefs, which I would have liked to hear more about. I assume it’s just a coincidence that he never gets to share this. I guess O’Neill is used to being cut off anyway, since he does manage to reveal that Hanssen actually did walk at an angle to drive him and others into walls in the FBI hallway! (I had wondered if this was a touch Cooper added to the character himself.)

O’Neill’s presence on the track is a welcome one, because he fills us in on what’s true and what isn’t. He confirms some of Hanssen’s traits that seem like they could have been made up by screenwriters, like the walking, the constant, bitter complaining about not getting a window office, the hatred of Hillary Clinton and lust for Catherine Zeta Jones, the annoying clicking of his pen, and ordering O’Neill to steal a painting for his office! He sets the record straight on one big issue, though: in real life, O’Neill knew from the start that he was investigating a spy. Ray explains that it was important that he be lied to in the movie by the Laura Linney chracter (who first tells him he’s investigating Hanssen for sexual deviancy) because the whole theme of the film is deception.

Finally, there is a whole slew of deleted and alternate scenes, each with commentary explaining why they were cut or changed. A lot of these are very good scenes, some of which would have added to the film, but overall their reasons for cutting are sound. The best one has Hanssen calling O’Neill while O’Neill is searching his office and berating him for not answering the phone correctly. It generates suspense and comedy (of the boss-from-Hell variety), but Ray felt it was hitting redundant beats. Some of the cut material involving Cooper and Cole would have emphasized that Hanssen was actually good at his job, even if he was condescending and, um, a traitor. One scene goes into more detail about Hanssen’s membership in Opus Dei, and several focus on O’Neill’s wife, Julianna. It’s too bad these were cut because Caroline Dhavernas is wonderful and could have used more screentime. Dhavernas also features prominently in the longest alternate scene, which was completely rewritten in the course of filming and re-shot during pick-ups months later. Usually I find alternate takes a waste of time, but this particular one is a very interesting inclusion as Ray explains why he changed it, and the (sometimes subtle) changes bear him out.

Breach is a terrific spy movie that will undoubtedly come to be regarded as a classic of the genre, and Universal’s special edition DVD does it justice. Highly recommended.
Dalton's Hot Fuzz On DVD Next Month

Universal has announced a July 31 release date for Hot Fuzz, this spring's action movie spoof from the creators of Shaun of the Dead which co-starred Timothy Dalton. A mustachioed Dalton has a great time making the audience believe he's a villain, whether he is or isn't in actuality. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost lead a truly fantastic cast including Jim Broadbent, Steve Coogan, Martin Freeman and Callan himself, Edward Woodward. Special features are a little bit different from the Region 2 disc, and they sound great. There's a commentary with director Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, twenty minutes of deleted scenes (hopefully with more Dalton!), a documentary on the stars' U.S. promotional tour and, strangest of all, a feature called "The Man Who Would Be Fuzz." Let's go to the press release for details on that one: "Simon Pegg and Nick Frost hit their marks as Sean Connery and Michael Caine playing out a scene from the movie." Wow! Odd, but... I can't wait to see it!
Sam Jackson Is Nick Fury

Yes, I was just the other day complaining about how I'm not a fan of Marvel's "Ultimate Universe" version of eye-patched comic book spy Nick Fury, whose likeness is based on Samuel L. Jackson. Well, now Jackson will forever be identified with the character in the public eye, as AintItCool reports he'll be playing him in next summer's Iron Man. Since he is, undeniably, one of the coolest actors on the planet, he's sure to become the Sean Connery of Nick Fury, and will prove a very tough act to follow. Marvel had been developing a Nick Fury movie on its own, and presumably Jackson's Iron Man cameo is laying the groundwork for him to reprise the role in that movie as well. I question the logic of casting an actor who's pushing sixty in terms of potential franchise longevity. I guess it means that the Fury of the movies will play more the M role that he does in the Ultimate Universe than the Bond role he did in Steranko's classic Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. Will Smith, who was previously rumored for the role, probably would have been more of the latter.

Still, Ultimate Fury is pretty cool, even if he's not the real Nick Fury. And everything else about the Iron Man movie (including the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the title role) sounds awesome, and the mere idea of Fury popping up in the movie is neat. And I'd hate to sound like one of those "CraigNotBond" whiners, so I'll shut up for now and give Jackson the benefit of the doubt until the movie comes out.

Jun 19, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For June 19, 2007

On DVD Today: 009-1
The apparently Ian Fleming-inspired anime series about a futuristic female cyborg agent, 009-1, Vol. 1 is in stores today... Since I've never seen the show, I'm going to quote the intriguing product description for Vol. 2 from Amazon: "In a world where the Cold War never ended, East and West continue to battle for technological and political supremacy. Mylene Hoffman, field commander of the elite Double Zero intelligence division, exists in this world with her eyes open and her body always ready to do battle. There’s no problem Mylene can’t solve that doesn’t use the proper application of high explosives, fast-talk, deceptive jewelry, make-up and the right moves behind closed doors!" Definitely sounds worth checking out!

Danger Mouse Megaset
Another animated spy show is due for the complete series treatment from A&E this August. TVShowsOnDVD reports that the classic British kids' show about an eyepatched agent who happens to be a mouse will be released as a megaset (containing all ten seasons, which were previously released individually) on August 28. Billed as "the world's smallest secret agent," Danger Mouse promises to "send up everyone from 007 to Sherlock Holmes," according to A&E's press release. Let's hope it's as good as the last "Danger" megaset the company put out...

The Unit
Fox will release the second season of The Unit on September 25. The series, produced by David Mamet and The Shield's Shawn Ryan and starring 24's Dennis Haysbert, follows the exploits of a US military covert ops team. TVShowsOnDVD reports that unlike the rather bare-bones first season, Season Two will be loaded with featurettes and commentaries.

Hurricane Gold Final Cover
The Young Bond Dossier revealed the slightly different final cover art for Charlie Higson's next Young Bond adventure, Hurricane Gold, last week. It's now up on Amazon.co.uk.

New James Bond Encyclopedia
The next officially-licensed, large format book on Bond films (following The James Bond Legacy, Bond Girls Are Forever and last fall's Art of James Bond) will be The James Bond Encyclopedia by John Cork and Collin Stutz. All of these books have been beautifully produced, but they seem to be coming a bit quick now... My bookshelf's starting to sag, and I still have yet to crack open The Art of James Bond, which got buried at the bottom of a pile of new Bond books that came out around the time of Casino Royale! I never though I'd complain about too much James Bond product, but I'm starting to look back fondly my childhood days when the only readily available books on 007 were Stephen Jay Rubin's The James Bond Films and Raymond Benson's The James Bond Bedside Companion! I kind of wonder what this new book will have to add since Rubin's Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia is pretty thorough (if occacionally erronious) and even covers Never Say Never Again and the '67 Royale, which this one may not, since it's licensed by EON. There can't be that many new photographs left unseen in the archives at this point, can there? Still, Cork always does a great job with any Bond project he contributes to, be it book, Special Edition DVD or the now defunct, sorely missed Goldeneye Magazine.

Fuller Report Soundtrack Ready To Order
Following last month's teriffic release of the Special Mission Lady Chaplin soundtrack, another classic Eurospy score has been unearthed! Screen Archives is now taking preorders for Rapporto Fuller Base Stoccolma (The Fuller Report) for $17.99. The score, by Armando Trovaioli, is coming out on Beat Records. The 1967 movie, starring Ken Clark, is currently being restored by Dorado Films for a DVD release in the (hopefully) near future.

Actor News: Ian Ogilvy Records New Commentary
DVDDrive-In reports that Return of the Saint star Ian Ogilvy will participate the in the commentary track on MGM's long-awaited Region 1 DVD of Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price. The classic horror film will be presented as a Director's Cut, and be loaded with special features including the commentary with Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove. Anyone who's heard Ogilvy's commentaries on Umbrella's Australian Return of the Saint DVDs knows that he's a very entertaining commentator, so this should be a treat. The disc comes out September 11 and marks the welcome return of MGM's long dormant Midnight Movies line.
UPDATED: Marc Forster To Direct Bond 22

Variety reports that a director has been signed for the next Bond movie--Marc Forster. Forster was widely rumored to be in the running, and now he is signed. Forster previously directed Bond Girl Halle Berry in her Oscar-winning turn in Monster's Ball. Personally, I hated Monster's Ball, and wrote Forster off at the time. Since then he's thankfully improved considerably. Finding Neverland was better, although he still relied on the same tricks of shooting people reflected in mirrors and through doorways, and sometimes through doorways reflected in mirrors. Stranger Than Fiction was his best movie yet, and he expanded his playbook considerably. Still, I'd hazard a guess that we'll see Daniel Craig's reflection quite a lot in the next movie. (Possibly through a doorway.) As long as he doesn't bring Halle Berry back!

What's most interesting about this move is that Forster is a Name Director, even Oscar-nominated. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have traditionally steered away from big directors, fearing that they would demand too much control in a franchise notoriously, tightly controlled by the producers. For this reason, they've reportedly turned down offers from Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino in the past. Sure, Michael Apted was famous, but for a different kind of movie. When he does big studio movies, it's generally as a gun for hire. Forster has been treading in as many genres as possible, so it's not too surprising that he would want to do a Bond. But he seems more powerful than any previous Bond director. I think it's a good sign that the producers are finally willing to trust a director with a strong personal vision, even if that vision is usually... you guessed it, through a doorway. I have faith that Marc Forster will do a good job. I just hope he can do action scenes! (Apted couldn't.)

Forster himself is looking forward to the assignment, naturally. He tells Variety: "I have always been drawn to different kinds of stories, and I have also always been a Bond fan, so it is very exciting to take on this challenge," and adds that the latest direction of the Bond character opens up "a host of new possibilities" for him as director. Well, I'm glad to hear him describe himself as a fan! That's promising.

*Whoops--my mistake. Forster was nominated for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a DGA Award for Finding Neverland, but not an Oscar. Maybe for Bond 22, eh?

Jun 18, 2007

G-Man Jerry Cotton Recalled To Active Duty

Following the success of France's OSS 117 revival, another classic Eurospy hero is getting reactivated. "G-Man Jerry Cotton," who appeared in a string of German Bond knock-offs in the Sixties, will return to German screens next year. Variety is unclear on the matter, but it seems likely that, like 0ss 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, this will be a parody revival and not a serious franchise reboot. Rat Pack Filmproduktion is producing, and they gave a similar treatment to Edgar Wallace Krimi mysteries last year in The Wixxer. Wixxer was shot in black and white, and--I believe--set in the Fifties or early Sixties. But it was a send-up of the endless German Krimi movies (basically their version of the Italian giallo) based on Wallace's pulp novels made from the late Fifties to the mid-Seventies, and mostly starring Joachim Fuchberger. Presumably the new Jerry Cotton movie will follow the same pattern, although apparently serious Jerry Cotton adventures are still published in Germany, so perhaps not.

The original Jerry Cotton cycle began as a Krimi series itself, and then morphed into a spy series as the Bond movies took off. American beefcake actor George Nader (banished to Europe when a tabloid threatened to out him in America) starred as Cotton. I haven't seen any of them yet, though I did find Nader rather off-putting as a secret agent in the atrocious Million Eyes of Sumuru. DVD collections are available in Germany, but without English subtitles.

Jun 17, 2007

Bendis To Tell Ultimate Nick Fury's Secret Origin

Writer Brian Michael Bendis revealed this weekend at the Philadelphia Comic Con that he will write a mini-series revealing the secret origins of Marvel's "Ultimate" Universe, focusing heavily on that universe's version of Nick Fury.

To comic book neophytes, that sentence probably made no sense. About seven years ago, Marvel decided to create an alternate universe to that in which their primary comics take place so that they could tell stories about Spider-man when he was still a teenager and the X-Men before they got bogged down in decades' worth of impenetrable continuity. In other words, comics that someone who had just walked out of one of those movies could pick up and make sense out of. It was a good idea. Some characters were similar to their regular Marvel Universe versions; some were wildly different. Nick Fury was the only one I know of to change race. Marvel's famous eye-patched superspy (pictured below as drawn by spy artist extraordinaire Paul Gulacy) is white in the classic titles, and black in the Ultimate Universe. Furthermore, he's modelled on Samuel L. Jackson. (Personally, I've never approved of the Jackson "casting.") The character has played an even bigger role in the Ultimate Universe than he does in the regular Marvel titles, and Bendis' origin tale will focus largely on him.

"It will definitely show how Nick Fury got to his place in the Ultimate Universe, which has not been revealed," Bendis tells Newsarama. "It’s been hinted and tickled at through little vignettes here and there, but he’s got quite a whopper of a story." Sounds intriguing! Newsarama goes on to ask Bendis to clear up one of the Ultimate Universe's longest-standing mysteries: why Fury was apparently white in his first Ultimate appearance, Ultimate Team-Up #3, drawn by the great Mike Allred. "He was never white," Bendis declares. "He was black in Ultimate Team-Up. It was colored so blueish, there may have been question, but in the script, he was African American with a half-fro, and then [artist] Bryan Hitch gave him the shave off. So, if anything, he was balding versus Sam Jackson cool."

Ultimate Origin is due later this year.

It's not the first time Ultimate Spider-man writer Bendis' name has been connected with a Nick Fury project. Bendis himself got fans' hopes up a few years ago by hinting that Fury's artistic father, comics legend Jim Steranko, would be joining him on a Fury book. Sadly, Steranko himself told me that wasn't true. Bendis was also scheduled to write an ongoing Spider-Woman series featuring the eponymous heroine as an agent of SHIELD in which Fury would play a large role. That too has yet to materialize, perhaps pushed aside by the events of last year's Civil War storyline. Although Bendis has proven himself an excellent writer again and again over 100+ issues of Ultimate Spider-man, one should remember that he also penned the hands-down worst Fury story of recent memory, Secret War, which started out very promising but then fizzled out after interminable delays, and resulted in Fury's prolonged (and ongoing) exile from the regular Marvel Universe.
DVD Review: Modern Marvels: James Bond Gadgets

Made for television as an hour-long segment of the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series, James Bond Gadgets was recently released by A&E on Region 1 DVD to cash in on the home video debut of Casino Royale. But whatever the motivations for the release, this documentary should not be dismissed by spy fans as just another knock-off. It’s actually very well done: an informative program with lots of visual treats for Bond fans and technology enthusiasts alike.

The first segment covers flying machines, and focuses on two of my very favorite 007 gadgets, the Thunderball rocket belt and "Little Nellie" from You Only Live Twice. The producers have dug up some really good footage of early tests of the actual, working Bell rocket belt, and interview several aerospace engineers and test pilots who worked on its development. One of those pilots also doubled for Sean Connery and flew the device in the movie. All the b-roll here is really amazing, including shots of a test pilot soaring over trees and shots from the pilot’s point of view.

We then move on to Ken Wallis, an energetic octogenarian familiar to Bond fans as the inventor and pilot (also doubling for Connery) of Little Nellie, 007's heavily-armed autogyro. Wallis shows off a hanger full of nineteen of autogyros he’s built over the years, including the one from the movie (whose prop machine guns still "fire") and more practical models made for the military and police (including a sleek looking machine with a covered cockpit). Wallis is erudite and interesting, and gives a concise explanation of how autogyros work, comparing them to sycamore seeds. He estimates that his autogyro is one of the safest aircraft there is to fly, which came as a surprise to me. It doesn’t look safe, but it sure looks fun, and there’s plenty of film of Wallis flying his various models. This footage rekindled my childhood desire for a Little Nellie of my own! (For now, though, I’ll have to make do with my Corgis...)

The focus then shifts from aircraft to boats, and we visit renowned Bond collector Doug Redenius in Illinois. Redenius owns the Q-boat from The World Is Not Enough, which he proves actually works by taking it for a spin on the river! (He says it’s only the second time the tiny craft has been in the water since filming on the Thames.)

At his home, we briefly see a few other Bond boats, like the speedboat from Moonraker and mini-sub from For Your Eyes Only, and get a tantalizing glimpse at his vast collection of 007 memorabilia. Doug has my dream basement, filled floor-to-ceiling with pristine props and toys, many in their original packaging. I paused the DVD and zoomed in several times, identifying the many items and sighing more than once with jealousy. He shows off a few prop replicas, which segues nicely into interviews with the special effects men who created the originals. (We get the oft-told but always amusing story of how a government engineer called up a prop designer and inquired as to how Connery’s Thunderball rebreather actually worked, only to be humiliated when told it was movie magic!)

The program next turns to cars, and footage taken at a 2001 exhibition in England offers a look at many of Bond’s best, including Goldfinger’s Rolls, a submarine version of the Lotus from The Spy Who Loved Me, the Aston Martins from Goldfinger and The Living Daylights (a personal favorite), and some relics of 007's ill-advised flirtation with BMW. We’re treated to shots of the then-new Vanquish out for a road test, and a gorgeous red DB5 owned by a West Coast collector who sought the car out because of its indelible Bond connection. The ubiquitous Dave Worrall pops up briefly, and it’s a pity there isn’t more of him since he’s probably the expert on all of James Bond’s wheels.

James Bond Gadgets stumbles a little when it segues into "real life" gadgets near its conclusion, as such devices tend to pale in comparison with the ones dreamed up for the movies. The owner of the Counterspy Store in Beverly Hills shows off a briefcase he says is like the one in From Russia With Love, but it fails to live up to 007's version. All it really seems to offer is the ability to remotely shock anyone who’s stolen it! Neat, I guess, but where are the knives, the hidden gold coins, the stun gas? We also get a peek at a thermal imaging scope on a rifle at the Special Tactical Services training facility in Virginia (a school for body guards and private security), but this too fails to generate much excitement. I know from experience in television documentaries that cable networks often want a "real life" component to movie-based shows, and it can be difficult to work in. Maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed the drop in quality in this section if I didn’t empathize with the writers and segment producers desperately trying to shoehorn it in as best they could to please faraway bosses. Luckily, James Bond Gadgets is more successful than most programs of this nature at integrating this aspect, and the show rallies with a good recap.

Overall, James Bond Gadgets should prove highly satisfying viewing for Bond fans and particularly fans of Q’s inventions. The rare footage of the rocket belt in action and brief archival video of Redenius’s impressive collection alone make it a necessary purchase for completists, and the additional footage of Little Nellie and her sisters in action will certainly please viewers like me who play that chase in You Only Live Twice again and again, and can’t get enough of the tiny autogyro. The SRP of $24.99 seems a bit steep for a 42 minute (not 50, as the box indicates) documentary, but it’s well worth the lower prices at online retailers like DeepDiscount. For more casual spy fans, I definitely recommend at least a rental.

Modern Marvels: James Bond Gadgets is a well-crafted program that makes a solid companion piece to the excellent documentaries included in MGM’s 007 DVD sets. I hope it portends the release of other cable shows about Bond that always air around the time a new movie comes out; every channel from MTV to TLC has done one, and it would be nice to have a whole collection.

Jun 15, 2007


The image speaks for itself, I think. No need for a headline. Dark Horizons posted the link to Impawards for the pretty awesome new Bourne poster.

Jun 14, 2007

Invisible Agent

Variety reports today that Universal hopes to revive its old Invisible Man franchise with a spy movie. David Goyer (co-writer of Batman Begins and writer of all three Blade movies) has signed on to write and direct, with Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer producing. The trade paper says, "Conceived as a sequel to [H.G.] Wells' original tale, the story centers on a British nephew of the original Invisible Man. Once he discovers his uncle's formula for achieving invisibility, he is recruited by British intelligence agency MI5 during WWII."

The article calls this "a new take" on the Wells classic, but the idea of an invisible spy has actually been done before, even in that same era. Universal's own fourth entry in its original Invisible Man series was called The Invisible Agent (1942) and featured the first Invisible Man's grandson volunteering to use his formula and aid the Allied cause during WWII, as a spy behind German lines. Then in 1958 future Danger Man/Secret Agent creator Ralf Smart cut his teeth on the espionage genre with a television series called H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, in which the character (very unlike Wells' version, despite the titular possessive) worked for British Intelligence in a contemporary Cold War setting. (It's an enjoyable show, featuring a number of familiar spy faces who would go on to appear in Bond movies, The Avengers, Danger Man and other Sixties spy shows.) The 1992 Chevy Chase take on the character, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (directed by John Carpenter!), also had an espionage element, with Sam Neil as an unscrupulous CIA agent.

So Goyer's concept is hardly a "new" take, but it's certainly a welcome one. I love the old Invisible Man movies, and I think a spy story makes the most sense for a character with such powers. The WWII setting intrigues me as well. I hope this gets made!

Jun 13, 2007

A Longer Kiss Goodnighter?

According to Dark Horizons, Samuel L. Jackson recently told MTV News that he hoped to revisit his Long Kiss Goodnight character Mitch Henessey in a sequel. The 1996 original (for which screenwriter Shane Black made a record $4 million payday) didn’t make that much money, but MTV says its become a cult hit since.* (If it’s such a cult hit, why hasn’t WB revisited the title with a Special Edition DVD, hmm?) Jackson says it’s one of his personal favorites, and he’s been working with director Renny Harlin to develop the sequel, elaborating, “We’re talking to writers, you know, getting it together.” Talking to writers? So I guess Shane Black’s not a given? That’s too bad, considering his “comeback” movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the best thing he’s done yet!

Also not returning for the sequel would be Geena Davis, the star of the original, a female take on The Bourne Identity. I guess audiences are okay with aging male action stars, but not female ones? Tut, tut! Jackson says the plan is to bring in a younger actress to play Caitlin, the now grown-up daughter of Davis’s character, amnesiac spy Samantha Caine, who has inherited some of her mother’s special skills. “Her mom gets killed and we want to find out who did it,” Jackson explains. “She comes to me because I’m the only connection to her mom, and I might know the people that have done that.”

*It’s certainly popular among grad students. Several years ago I attended a conference on feminism in action films, and nearly everyone gave papers on that movie! It just seems so obvious, what’s the point? My partner and I decided to challenge ourselves a bit more and try to make a case for the Bond movies being feminist. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well. But our arguments were definitely more creative than “Um, Geena Davis is a spy and, uh, look—she’s also a woman!”

Jun 10, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For June 10

New Spy Books
The Pinewood Story, Gareth Owen's engrossing history of the studio where most of the Bond movies were filmed (as well as other spy pictures), was recently reissued as a glossy trade paperback, revised and updated and with an eyecatching new Bond-centric cover. I can't comment on the content, but that cover sure makes it a lot more attractive than the last edition! I might just have to re-buy it... (Grumble, grumble.)

There are also a couple of new spy-related books on the horizon to be aware of. A new Avengers book called The Avengers On Location by Chris Bentley will be released in September... supposedly. Publisher Reynolds and Hearn generally put out excellent books, but in my experience they rarely hit their intended street dates! This book is unfortunately arriving under a bit of a cloud, as it's stirring up some controversy in the online Avengers community. While I haven't managed to find an official description on Amazon or on the publisher's website, the title would seem to hint at this book being about the locations around England in which the show filmed... a subject already covered in great depth by the fantastic Avengerland website. For now, I remain hopeful that this is just a coincidence, and no one has been ripped off. The website, it should be noted, covers a great deal more than just The Avengers. It's an excellent resource to find British locations used in The Saint, The Persuaders, The Champions, The Baron and tons of other classic British series.

The other book to look forward to is a reissue of John Pearson's James Bond: The Authorised Biography of 007 (although the new edition seems to omit the "of 007"). This reissue has been in the pipeline for a long time now, and a few release dates have come and gone, but the ever-vigilant Young Bond Dossier recently spotted some cover artwork on Amazon.co.uk, so it looks like it's finally creeping toward actual publication. This should come as welcome news to Bond fans who have had trouble tracking down this elusive Bond entry, the only continuation novel published between Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun and John Gardner's debut, Licence Renewed.

Spy Hunter Movie Still Alive
Spy Hunter, based on the popular 80s videogame about the gadget-laden car, the Interceptor, is still in active development at Universal. For a while, John Woo was attached to direct The Rock in the lead role. Now, according to Variety, Alien Vs. Predator director Paul W.S. Anderson has come aboard, replacing Woo. He's also having the script rewritten. Anderson is widely hated by a lot of online film sites and fans. I can't really comment on that, not having seen any of his films, but he does seem like a step down from John Woo. Then again, the last time Woo directed a spy movie, he churned out the execrable M:I-2. So I'll give Anderson the benefit of the doubt, for now... There's on word on whether or not The Rock is still committed to the project.

Even The Losers Get Lucky Sometimes
Tim Story is another director with a pretty bad reputation in the fan community whose work I haven't really seen. Well, I've seen Taxi, and that was pretty awful and visually uninspired, but everyone's entitled to a weak freshman (action) outing, right? Still, the Fantastic Four movies don't look very good, and some of my friends are pretty hard on them. Anyway, Story is now aboard another comic book project... a spy comic. According to Variety and Comic Book Resources, Story will direct The Losers, based on Andy Diggle's espionage series. I haven't read the comic (I would have if I knew it was a spy story; I just assumed it was a war comic like the original incarnation of The Losers!), but Diggle described it to CBR as such: "The Losers were a covert U.S. Special Forces unit seconded to the CIA. When they stumbled across one of the Agency's dirty little secrets and refused to play ball, the Agency had them assassinated. Except the Losers survived. Now they've gone rogue, and have declared war on the Agency which stabbed them in the back.” Sounds gritty, right? Apparently the comic is. But Story tells Variety: "I was looking for a vehicle that would have that edge, but I didn't want to lose my personality, which is a bit tongue-and-cheek, where the characters have a little fun with each other." So, yeah. He's probably not the right guy for the job. Sigh.

Breach On DVD Tomorrow
Last winter's solid spy movie Breach (review here), showcasing the brilliant Chris Cooper as American traitor and Russian spy Robert Hanssen, comes out on DVD tomorrow courtesy of Universal Home Video. They're putting on a pretty neat "Are You Spy Material?" contest to promote that release, too, in which you can win other Universal spy titles like The Bourne Identity or Spy Game. Follow any of these links to play. Increase your chances of winning by playing each one, and get a taste of the DVD's bonus features at the same time! Watch footage from the disc (including deleted scenes), then test your attention to detail and find out if you're spy material.


Also out on DVD tomorrow is the second Hellboy animated movie, Blood & Iron. This has nothing to do with spies whatsoever, but director/producer Tad Stones has done such a good job with these animated adaptations of Mike Mignola's comic that I feel compelled to mention it! If you're a fan of quirky horror with a sense of humor, check this one out.

Jun 8, 2007

Funeral In Berlin DVD Back In Print

This may be old news for most readers, but it had slipped by me, so perhaps it slipped by others who are interested as well. Paramount's Region 1 Funeral In Berlin DVD, which had been out of print for a number of years and commanding high prices on Ebay (I know; I sold an extra copy there myself!) has quietly crept back into print some time in the last year. I'm not sure when, because Amazon still lists the original 2001 release date, but it's currently in stock at both Amazon (for $26.99) and DeepDiscount, where you could use that coupon and take it home for just over eleven bucks! (And I still see this priced at sixty in some used disc shops.) For the uninitiated, Funeral In Berlin is the second in the superb trilogy of Harry Palmer spy movies from the 1960s starring Michael Caine. Based on Len Deighton's books (wherein the hero went unnamed) and produced by Harry Saltzman as the antithesis to his other spy franchise hero, all three Palmer movies are absolute essentials for connoisseurs of the genre. The original, The Ipcress File, remains out of print in the United States and fetches upwards of $70. The last (that's right, I'm not counting the lacklustre '90s revivals), Billion Dollar Brain, finally became available a few years ago, albeit slightly edited; it's missing a brief snippet containing Beatles music due to famously exorbitant licensing fees. Still well worth it though!

Jun 6, 2007






Colon Bonanza: DVD Review: Mission: Impossible: The Complete Second Season

The second season of Mission: Impossible is sublime spy entertainment. The first season was incredibly solid already, but when Peter Graves replaced Steven Hill as team leader, things really clicked into place. There was nothing particularly wrong with Hill’s Dan Briggs; most of the First Season episodes are top-notch, and Hill is a fine actor. But his performance was too understated for my taste, and Graves brought an extra dose of charisma to his team leader, Jim Phelps. That was exactly what was needed to really cement the team together, a charismatic leader instead of a wallflower.

The rest of the Season One crew are still in place, and Martin Landau has been promoted from "Special Guest Star" status to full-time cast member. His Rollin Hand remains the scene-stealing performance, the flashiest and–at this point–most indispensable IMF member. Greg Morris is again excellent, and his character of Barney Collier becomes more fleshed out in Season Two. Peter Lupis is still generally under-utilized as strongman Willy Armitage, but ably handles whatever little business the episode demands of him. Barbara Bain remains a joy to watch as she inhabits dozens of different characters to seduce and con dozens of foreign generals, diplomats, arms dealers and crooks. She also looks better this season, though she’ll still never convince me as the sex bomb her character of Cinnamon Carter is supposed to be. This classic line-up would only be together for two of the show’s seven seasons, and the cons are all still relatively fresh at this point (except for the one where Bain plays some sort of psychic/astrologer/swami. That one’s already kind of been done to death...) so I can’t imagine that Season Three manages to top Two.
Mission: Impossible follows a very strict model for each episode and, after working out a few kinks in the first year, the writers and directors have it down to perfection this season. This is precision television making. Every episode starts with a series of clips specific to that episode cut together quickly to the heart-pounding sound of Lalo Schifrin’s famous theme music. In an era when film trailers were still frequently slow and laborious, it’s amazing how exciting M:I’s editors managed to make these shows look. From there we’re into the familiar sequence in which Phelps gets his mission (if he decides to accept it!) via a tape that usually self-destructs, but sometimes he’s politely asked to "please destroy the tape in the usual manner" himself. In such a rewarding show with so little to disappoint, I’m always slightly disappointed when the tape can’t be bothered to destroy itself and Jim has to do it. Call me shallow.

The tedious team selection comes next, and it’s not really necessary this season, as Jim almost always selects the same four members! (It is kind of funny to see who he rejects each week though. I wonder if those 8x10s are of network execs or producers’ pals or some sort of inside joke?) Then we get Jim’s briefing to the team, and they concoct the elaborate scam or heist they’ll be running this week, giving us enough glimpses of it to tantalize, but not enough to figure it out. As I said in my First Season review, Mission: Impossible is more a heist or con show than an espionage one, but these unsavory jobs are sanctioned by "the Secretary," so it’s alright. Today, with shows like Thief and Hustle, audiences no longer demand the same moral high ground of their television heroes that they did in the Sixties, but back then, the guise of a spy show was pretty much the only way to watch and root for basically criminal activities week after week (see also: It Takes A Thief, in which Robert Wagner was a cat burglar pressed into service by the US government). In its time, it was an ingenious concept.

The planning stage usually involves electronics wiz Barney showing off some sort of Q-like gadget, and Rollin rehearsing an ingenious slight of hand. Everyone learns their roles and we’re off on the impossible mission, which usually begins with Cinnamon using her feminine wiles to ensnare some evil sad-sack schlub.

Despite such a stringent structure, such a predictable formula, the writers were amazingly adept at keeping each episode fresh and interesting. While you always know they’re going to pull it all off somehow, you’re on the edge of your seat as to how. And the actors make the how a joy to watch.

In the season opener, "The Widow," for example, the team turns a cartel of major drug buyers against their suppliers in Marseilles. They first remove one of the dealers from the picture by staging a really neat elevator accident. They use vibrations, pre-recorded sounds and strobe lighting to make the man believe that the hotel lift is plunging twenty floors. Having him out of action enables Cinnamon to step in as his "widow" while Rollin sets up shop as "the competition." All of this leads to a surprisingly brutal conclusion in which the team actually engineers the dealers’ executions at the hands of their buyers. Subsequent missions often, in their course, lead to the villain’s demise, but "The Widow" is a rare example of the IMF agents actually, intentionally manipulating the deaths of their enemies. For a show where the Paramount backlot (often the same exact buildings!) subs for every city from Paris to Cairo, this episode does an especially good job presenting Southern California as the South of France. There aren’t too many exterior shots, but the ones there are are effective.
"Trek" finds the heroes hunting for missing gold (crucial in the fight against Communism, of course) in another exotic location, this time a South American desert as played by... you guessed it, SoCal! (Also effectively, though.) There’s lots of action in this one, making it closer to the film series the show inspired. We get several violent shootouts (rare for M:I), close-quarters fisticuffs and even Jim dangling from the runner of a helicopter piloted by Barney! Again, it’s a bit more violent than the show will become, with one nefarious character enduring some rather horrific torture (resulting in blindness) at the hands of another.

Most episodes are tamer than that, though, focusing on elaborate schemes instead of physical contact. In "The Emerald," for instance, the team builds a phony ship cabin to trick a foreign agent into believing he’s on a tramp steamer. In "The Survivors," they concoct one of their largest scale cons yet: staging a fake San Francisco earthquake in order to resolve a hostage situation and trap enemy agents. The means they use are just as clever, fun to watch and utterly far-fetched as those to fake the elevator plunge, only on a larger scale.

They go on to reach the largest possible scale when they stage a whole nuclear apocalypse in "The Photographer," arguably the quintessential Mission: Impossible episode. In this one, the team creates a 360 degree panorama of burnt sky destruction to surround the periscope from a bunker, so that guest star Anthony Zerbe (Licence To Kill) sees a barren wasteland when he peers through. It’s a bit tricky to explain exactly how that benefits them, but Zerbe turns in a fantastic performance as a fashion photographer with complex motivations for becoming a spy. (The actual Blow-Up-inspired photo shoots on their very mod sets inject a rare sense of period into the series; whereas The Avengers and The Prisoner reveled in the Pop Art styles of their times, M:I rarely dabbles in psychedelia, which would make it rather timeless if it weren’t for its hopelessly Cold War political setting.) Most of the team has to "die" in this one too, feigning a realistic gunshot wound complete with squibs. The deaths look awfully well rehearsed, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise with the amount of times each agent has had to fake their own death. (Martin Landau gets the prize for taking a tumble over a cliff-side in "Trek" only to grab hold of a carefully-positioned net while a realistic dummy makes the actual plunge!)

Even without a scheme as elaborate as staging the end of the world, other episodes manage to capture our attention with interesting locations or impressive directorial touches. "The Astrologer" has both, presenting Cinnamon’s paparazzi-covered airport arrival in a surprising, hand-held "cinema verite" style and setting most of the action in the limited confines of an airplane, mid-flight. (Unfortunately it’s one of those already-overused Cinnamon posing as an astrologer stories.) "The Emerald" (a gambling scenario reminiscent of the first season’s standout "Odds On Evil") is set nearly entirely aboard a cruise ship. And another standout, "Echos of Yesterday," offers super-quick, almost subliminal sepia-toned flashbacks to show an old Nazi remembering his murdered wife when he sees Cinnamon made up to look like her. (That episode also contrives a scenario in which it makes perfect sense that Rollin needs to impersonate Adolf Hitler!)

Even episodes without such gimmicks remain entertaining, often thanks to the strong performances from all involved. "The Bank" calls for them to pull off a bank robbery (totally justified because the bank’s corrupt manager is both an East German Communist and a neo-Nazi for good measure!) with a scheme that reminded me somewhat of Spike Lee’s Inside Man. "The Seal" similarly justifies pulling a heist on a J. Paul Getty-inspired millionaire industrialist art collector (J. Richard Taggart, played by Darren McGavin) by setting it up that the collector has illegally acquired a jade seal stolen from a small "Asiatic nation" of political importance to the United States. (Wrongfully acquired Getty artifacts creating diplomatic problems with the countries from which they were plundered? The writers must have been listening to some of Cinnamon’s Nostrodamus-like predictions!)

Taggart’s penthouse vault is protected with all the latest security wonders, including a pressure-sensitive floor. But rather than dangling from the ceiling like his cinematic spawn, Jim finds a more unusual solution: he uses a trained cat to retrieve the seal! Unfortunately, the feline team member did not get his own 8x10 in the dossier at the beginning.

Whether outlandish, down-to-earth, or somewhere in the middle, every episode of Mission: Impossible - The Second TV Season is a skillfully-crafted, highly watchable piece of spy escapism. This is a hugely entertaining collection of one of the most deservedly famous spy shows of all time. The presentation is great across the board, although chapter menus for the individual episodes would have been nice. The packaging matches that of the first season, and again it’s well done. It may have taken Paramount a long time to finally get around to taking their classic TV library seriously as a DVD commodity, but now that they’re releasing shows like Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West–and doing such a great job with them–they deserve a lot of praise.

Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.
Read my review of Peter Graves in Whiplash: The Complete Series here.