Jul 31, 2007

Spy DVDs Out Today

The Rhinemann Exchange

Universal stokes the Ludlum fires in anticipation of Friday's Bourne Ultimatum by releasing this 1977 TV mini-series adaptation of his novel. The Rhinemann Exchange stars Lauren Hutton, John Huston and Stephen Collins.
Hawaii Five-0: The Second Season

The second season of TV's longest-running cop show offers up more espionage entanglements than the first one.* Dr. No's Jack Lord returns as Steve McGarrett to take on terrorists, assassins, sabateurs and spies, as well as the usual island riff-raff like con-men, murderers and jewel thieves.

McGarrett’s second encounter with his arch-nemesis Wo Fat, Red Chinese spymaster in charge of the Pacific Theater, is much more satisfying than his first. In Season 2's 40 Feet High and It Kills, the sense of history between the two men makes Wo Fat a better adversary this time around. When Fat realizes it has to be McGarrett who’s messing up his plan, he exclaims in front of his prisoner that he should have killed McGarrett when he had the chance (in Season 1). This piques the hostage’s interest, causing him to declare, "I’m starting to like this McGarrett!" So was I! It’s a definite asset if your hero can dominate even a scene he’s not in, as Jack Lord did this one with the mere, far-off threat of his potency.

It also helps that 40 High and It Kills boasts a much more compelling story than Cocoon’s tired Ipcress File retread. Wo Fat works quite a scheme here, every bit as unnecessarily complicated as any super-villain’s should be! In an exciting opening sequence, his men take over a weather observatory and issue a fake tsunami warning. This provokes Five-O to initiate evacuation plans, and in doing so gets the world’s top geneticists off the secure estate (the same one that later played Robin Masters’ estate on Magnum, P.I.!) where they’ve been having a conference and into an unprotected car where they can be easily hijacked.

Director Michael O'Herlihy incorporates some atypically stylish visuals for an American show of this era, including a neat repeated shot through a glass map as McGarrett draws on it from the other side, plotting his moves. Not only does the shot look cool, but it builds the hero up as more than just a man of action, but a master strategist. The whole episode plays out as a chess game between titans, with McGarrett and Wo Fat each moving their pawns (Five-O and Chinese henchmen, respectively) around the island.

The episode is also boosted by some especially fine guest performances, including Khigh Dhiegh as Wo Fat, Will Geer as the brilliant but eccentric kidnapped geneticist and the luminous Sabrina Scharf as his beautiful daughter who holds the key to his release if only she’ll cooperate with Five-O. The always-good musical score also especially stands out in this one, with some memorable variations on the classic main theme. One final tidbit worth noting is the weird coincidence of one of the geneticists (surely a rare profession in 1969) sharing a name with the best-selling author who would write the world’s most popular genetic thriller over two decades later: Professor Michael Crichton. How strange!

I'll post a full review of the season (from the spy fan's point of view) soon. Viewers should beware, however, that there is an episode omitted from this release. The following disclaimer appears in small writing on the back of the box: "The Second Season Episode 'Bored, She Hung Herself' aired only once and is not included in this set. Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions." To my mind, DVD sets are the opportunity to INCLUDE episodes that only aired once! It's weird: originally, I didn't even have ambitions to watch every episode of this set, let alone seek out one that wasn't part of it, but now, because Paramount is saying I CAN'T see it, I'm determined to track down a copy of Bored, She Hung Herself! I want to know what's SO bad that not only could it be re-aired in 1969, but it can't even be issued on DVD nearly forty years later!

*At least, that's what I'm assured by Five-0 mega-fan Brian Flagg on
The Avengers forums. Thanks, Brian!

Jul 30, 2007

Comic-Con: James Bond

I've got lots of spy news from this past weekend's huge San Diego Comic-Con, and I'll start with a few James Bond tidbits.




The James Bond Encyclopedia

Publisher DK had the gallies for their upcoming James Bond Encyclopedia on hand at their convention booth. The large format hardcover book is not organized A-Z like most encyclopedias (including Stephen Jay Rubin's The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia), but divided into sections on topics like James Bond (covering Ian Fleming and the various actors to play the part), Bond Girls, villains, gadgets, vehicles, etc. Within each subject, it is A-Z. I only had a chance to flip through it quickly, but it looked like it focused primarily on the characters rather than the actors, and on things and people that appeared on screen rather than behind-the-scenes. It appeared fairly in-depth (as one would expect from Bond experts like John Cork and Collin Stutz), but didn't seem to offer lots of new, previously unseen photos like Cork's last Bond tome, The James Bond Legacy. (Can there possibly be any left?) Co-author Cork gratefully acknowledges Rubin in his introduction, and says it's impossible to attempt such a work without doing so. He points out some of the differences between the two books, the primary one being that Cork's encyclopedia is officially licensed by EON. That means, he confesses up front, no coverage of the '67 Casino Royale or of Never Say Never Again, both of which were given a lot of attention in Rubin's book. Judging from the other, similar encyclopedias DK had on display (like their Spider-man volume), the new James Bond Encyclopedia should be a top-notch production. It's due out in October.

Sideshow Craig On The Way

Representatives at Sideshow Collectibles wouldn't officially confirm it, but they strongly, strongly hinted that a Daniel Craig sculpt was in the offing. "Check the website," they said after pretending not to have heard of Craig. "Craig fans will be happy." So the Sideshow line-up of official Bond actors will soon, once more, be complete! I can't wait to see their Casino Royale figure. (And I do hope they go with the tux.)

Upcoming Femme Fatales Bond Cover

The magazine Femme Fatales has had plenty of Bond Girl cover stories in the past, but the one gracing an upcoming cover is a bit different. Instead of presenting previously published photos of past Bond beauties, a brand new photoshoot will portray contemporary models in a variety of famous Bond Girl poses, costumes and situations. Look for the issue in the months ahead.

Beckinsale Refused Bond

Apparently Underworld actress Kate Beckinsale is immune to 007's charms. At the Whiteout panel, she was asked if she had ever been offered a Bond Girl role. She said yes, but she couldn't remember for which film, and she had turned down the part. She claimed she didn't want to embarrass her daughter (yet she did Van Helsing!) and cited an unwillingness to appear in her underwear, which she seemed to think was required of all Bond Girls. "I'm getting a bit elderly for that sort of thing," the 33 year-old knockout modestly claimed.

I'll have more coverage of spies at Comic-Con soon, including Get Smart, 24, Whiteout, Hot Fuzz, Chuck, new spy comic books and more Bond!

Jul 27, 2007


Comic-Con: Another 24 Action Figure

McFarlane Toys revealed their second Jack Bauer action figure at San Diego Comic-Con this week, and Action-Figure.com has a picture. As usual with that company, it's more of a statue than an action figure, since it's frozen in a generally un-useful pose, but it's a cool pose at least!

Jul 26, 2007

Reminder: Deadlier Than The Male screens in LA Tonight!!!

The Mods and Rockers Sixties film festival presents my favorite non-Bond spy movie, the greatest of the Golden Age knock-offs, Deadlier Than the Male, starring Elke Sommer, tonight at 7:30 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. It's paired with another ultra-rare Eurospy film, Lightning Bolt, so be sure not to miss this unique opportunity if you're anywhere in the area.
Spy DVDs Out This Week

Renaissance

Many people will have the opportunity to see a fantastic Daniel Craig action/spy thriller for the first time on DVD, since its theatrical run last fall was so limited. The awesomely stylish, stark black and white use of motion capture animation creates a futuristic noir world (well, city, anyway: Paris in 2054) as the backdrop for industrial espionage in Renaissance. Miramax's new DVD includes the original French language audio track, but spy fans will probably opt for the English option, whose impressive voice cast includes Craig in the lead as well as Tomorrow Never Dies baddie Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm and Catherine McCormack. There's also an in-depth half-hour making-of that goes out of its way to establish that the filmmakers began their process well before Sin City stole their thunder, but it really needn't because the two movies actually have radically different styles. Renaissance's is much more high-contrast, eschewing all shades of gray altogether, and ultimately looking more like a page of Frank Miller's famous comic than his and Robert Rodriguez's film of it!

The Bourne Files

Universal repackages the first two Bourne movies in a pretty neat new case as The Bourne Files just in time for the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, to hit theaters. The set also includes a bonus disc with all-new features on author Robert Ludlum and a peek at the new movie, and "cinema cash" to see Ultimatum for free.

Jul 24, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For July 24, 2007

Tradecraft: Tom Cruise Spies Again...

...with a name downgrade. Who wants to go from "Ethan Hunt" to "Edwin Salt"??? I guess Cruise does, because Variety reports that he is in talks to play the title role in Edwin A. Salt, "a CIA officer who is fingered by a defector as a Russian sleeper spy [and] must elude capture by his superiors" while attempting to prove his innocence and reunite with his family. Kurt Wimmer (writer/director of the very cool Equilibrium) wrote the script, and Hotel Rwanda director Terry George is being courted by Columbia to direct.

Tradecraft: Rod Lurie Takes On Valerie Plame
The Contender writer/director, and creator of the short-lived series Commander In Chief, Rod Lurie, will make another foray into political waters, this time writing and directing a movie based loosely on the Valerie Plame case. Variety describes Nothing But the Truth as "a drama about a D.C.-based female newspaper reporter who outs a CIA agent and is imprisoned for refusing to reveal her source." I think the Plame case reads like a Le Carre story already, and should make a fascinating movie one day. But Lurie's taking a far less interesting approach, to me anyway, by focusing on a Judith Miller-like journalist character instead of taking the point of view of the outed CIA agent. Apparently Warner Bros. has Akiva Goldsman writing that version now, so the two takes on the story may ultimately compete with each other. Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Edie Falco, Alan Alda and Vera Farmiga (as the agent in question) round out the cast for the Lurie project.

Nick Fury Masterworks

This September Marvel will finally release an archival-quality hardcover edition of the earliest Nick Fury spy comics! Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Volume 1 includes work by comics legends Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Denny O'Neill, Joe Sinnott and of course the man who made Fury Fury, Jim Steranko. At the height of the spy craze in 1965, when Goldfinger and Thunderball ruled the box office and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ruled TV, Marvel wanted a piece of the espionage action. The solution? To update their WWII character Sgt. Fury to the Bond-Age, making him 20 years older and sporting an eye patch, and, once Steranko got his pencils on him, a cool stealth assault suit. Steranko reprocessed all sorts of cult pop culture, from The Hound of the Baskervilles and King Kong to Will Eisner's The Spirit and the Stan Lee Marvel comics through a fun house mirror of James Bond--both Fleming's and EON's. The results are visually stunning, over-the-top spy adventures dripping with Sixties atmosphere and Pop Art influence. And a classic character who's become one of the most famous fictional spies of all time, the James Bond of comic books. Marvel's hardcover collection, due in September, includes the Fury stories from STRANGE TALES #135-153, TALES OF SUSPENSE #78 and the very first appearance of the "modern day" Nick Fury in FANTASTIC FOUR #21. It'll set you back in the neighborhood of $54.99.

Tradecraft: The Bourne Review
Finally, Variety gives The Bourne Ultimatum an absolutely glowing review. I'm furious at myself for blowing a chance to see this last night, but we'll all catch it soon enough. And from the sound of this review (or what I read of it, anyway, to avoid spoilers), it sounds like we're in for a real treat! I do hope they keep the series going...

Jul 18, 2007

Young Indiana Jones On DVD

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is finally coming to DVD starting this fall, and I couldn’t be more excited about it! George Lucas’s epic series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles certainly isn’t a spy show through and through, but it did feature a good number of fantastic espionage-themed adventures. A teenaged version of Harrison Ford’s globetrotting archaeologist (played to perfection by Sean Patrick Flannery) cut his teeth on cloak and dagger missions in WWI. One episode (written by Carrie Fisher no less) of the historically based series found young Indy crossing paths with (and losing his virginity to!) that most famous of spies, Mata Hari. Another (written by Frank Darabont and later titled "Adventures In the Secret Service" for home video), had him embroiled in Austrian and Prussian court intrigue when tasked with delivering a secret treaty from one European royal family to another at the behest of guest star Christopher Lee. (That one had trains, illicit border crossings, shadowy European alleyways... everything you want from a good spy movie!) There was a wonderfully tragic episode where Indy was assigned as station chief for the British secret service (I think) in Istanbul that reminded me a lot of W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories. Those are some of the spy episodes I remember off the top of my head, but there were even more. I can’t wait to rediscover this childhood favorite on DVD!

According to TVShowsOnDVD.com, the first of three sets comes out October 23 from Paramount. The second batch is due in January, and the third timed to coincide with Indy’s latest theatrical adventure (which is set during the Cold War and rumored to have a spy angle itself) next May. The only problem with that release pattern is that if they go chronologically, most of the first batch will feature the even younger version of Indiana Jones, Cory Carrier, instead of Flannery, and those episodes tended to be not as good and not as spy-oriented. On the upside, Lucasfilm has been busy for years creating hundreds of hours of historical documentaries as bonus material for this release, so it shouldn’t disappoint!
New UK Spy DVDs

Even though Network’s own site has gone uncharacter-istically un-updated for quite some time, cover art for two of their recent and upcoming spy-related series sets has surfaced on Amazon.co.uk. Danger Man: The Complete 50 Minute Series (due July 30) furnishes British viewers with the same fantastic complete series Americans have been enjoying for some time courtesy of A&E. The recently-issued The Zoo Gang: The Complete Series (based on a novel by Paul Gallico) details the adventures of several aging former resistance fighters in the beautiful South of France, where guest stars like Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt turn up. Avengers veterans Sidney Hayers and John Hough direct, and Live And Let Die tunesmiths Paul and Linda McCartney contribute the theme song. I’ve never seen this, but I hope it’s as much fun as that other 70s ITC series set largely on the Riviera, The Persuaders! Finally, Philby, Burgess and Maclean dramatizing the notorious exploits of England’s most famous Soviet spy ring, seems to have missed its July 16 release date. (No cover art available yet for that one.)

Also still no further information on the highly anticipated ITC soundtracks Network promised late last year.

Jul 17, 2007

DVD Review: Stopover Tokyo (1957)

Last year Fox began releasing box sets of some of their classic 1930s pulp fiction-inspired B features, the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. The Mr. Moto movies feature Peter Lorre as a Japanese secret agent/detective character, and they’re as much fun as they are politically incorrect. Moto is more of an action hero than Chan, a judo expert and crack shot who isn’t afraid to kill his enemies. The films manage to keep Moto in constant peril with ingenious traps, outrageous assassination attempts and general B movie mayhem. Fox finished off the cycle earlier this year with Volume 2, but there was still one movie based on a Mr. Moto book by author John P. Marquand that hadn’t been released. Stopover Tokyo (made much later, in 1957) wasn’t included in either box set because it didn’t actually feature Mr. Moto. As I understood it, he had been written out and replaced by an American agent played by Robert Wagner. (The commentary on this disc, however, dispels that notion. The Moto part was reduced and assigned to a random Japanese detective character; Wagner played another role which was expanded from the book.) So when Fox announced earlier this year that Stopover Tokyo would be released as part of their Joan Collins promotion this summer, I was excited. Whether it actually had the Moto character or not, it came from the same source material, so it was bound to be fun, right? Unfortunately, no.

I’m sorry to report that Stopover Tokyo is a slow-moving melodrama that retains none of the thrill-a-minute spirit of the 30s Moto movies. The adaptation may have gained some A-picture prestige with top young studio stars and exotic location photography in Japan, but it lost nearly all of the action and excitement. Still, it’s an interesting curiosity for spy buffs because it came at an odd time, well after the black and white wartime movies about intrepid G-men and reporters cracking nefarious spy rings, but just before James Bond defined the genre for the Cold War, technicolor era.

Robert Wagner plays American Counter-Intelligence agent Mark Fannon, sent to Tokyo to prevent the assassination of the U.S. High Commissioner in Japan. He quickly becomes involved with airline ticket agent Tina (a young and beautiful pre-Dynasty, pre-Hieronymus Merkin, pre-Bitch goddess Collins), who just happens to also be involved with his colleague, fellow Counter-Intelligence man Tony Barrett. Yes, just happens. I kept waiting for one of them to be a double agent, for her to be revealed as a spy, anything like that, but they don’t even dangle the possibility as a red herring. This is essentially a love-triangle melodrama in which two of the participants happen to be spies, and not a story driven by espionage.

Fannon’s investigation proceeds slowly (it’s not even clear what he’s investigating until one of his Japanese contacts is shot dead in a phone booth in one of the film’s better scenes) and hits a lot of stumbling blocks. Unlike Mr. Moto, who found himself in danger at every turn, the only moment of any real jeopardy Fannon finds himself in comes when someone locks him in a steam room and nearly kills him. He doesn’t get out of it through any ingenuity; he just happens to be saved by a spa employee before the scene has even managed to generate any real suspense. Instead of thrills, our hero gets saddled with a young Japanese orphan girl named Koko who constantly refers to herself in the third person and speaks appalling pigeon English. Even though the actress is actually Japanese and the intentions of the American filmmakers are noble, this character comes off as far more racist than Lorre’s respectful portrayal of Moto! The movie hits a low point when Koko performs a long Japanese folk song about a snowflake. (A really long Japanese folk song about a snowflake!)

Wagner doesn’t help matters either. In fact, he’s awful. It’s amazing he ever got the chance to become a real star after this picture. If I didn’t know that he were capable of much better work, I probably would have written him off entirely based on this performance. His delivery is monotonous and mumbled. Perhaps he was attempting a Jack Webb-like, Joe Friday tone, since his character is similarly straight-edged and dedicated to his work, but he just comes off like a jerk. Not a fun-to-watch, hit-on-all-the-ladies Eurospy kind of jerk, the kind you’d do anything to get out of having a drink with. His partner isn’t much better, and it’s impossible to see why Collins falls for either of them, let alone both!

The moral of the story is that spies can’t have relationships; they must sacrifice that luxury for dedication to country. "Even if you ever found a girl and really fell in love," Collins tells her two disappointed suitors, "you’d cheat on her. With your job." It’s not a bad theme, but one that would be explored to much better effect in countless spy movies yet to come.

Stopover Tokyo’s only real asset is its scenery. I’ve always been a sucker for the travelogue element of the Bond films (and miss it in some of the recent, more relentless entries that don’t take the time to revel in their locations) and it’s cool to see technicolor footage of Japan at that time. But the movie is so stodgily directed that even the most exotic locations lack any majesty as presented. As excited as I was to finally see this movie, I’m sorry not to be able to give it a recommendation, but it’s not even worth it for Mr. Moto completists.

Still, no matter how mediocre the film, Fox does another outstanding job with its Cinema Classics line of DVDs. The now-standard restoration comparison proves how much work they put into the picture quality, and they even throw in some nice extras.

The commentary track by film historian Aubrey Solomon is only a partial commentary, and that proves a really good choice. Apparently Solomon didn’t have a whole movie’s worth of comments to share about Stopover Tokyo (and who can blame him?) so he only talks about select scenes. Fortunately, you’re able to skip directly from one bit of talking to the next with the chapter button, so it’s easy to hear the entirety of his discussion fairly quickly. And everything he does say is interesting and apropos. In my opinion, this is vastly preferable to sitting through a meandering feature-length track and hearing a lot of rubbish only to get the same amount of worthwhile information!

Other features include a trailer, an animated stills and poster gallery and an "interactive vintage press book," which re-presents the original press notes in their entirety. You can highlight a certain part of the page and enlarge it to read the blurbs or see the art up close. It’s a neat feature, and one wonders why we don’t see more of this. There’s also a "Hollywood Highlights" segment, featuring newsreel coverage of Collins at the time. Stopover Tokyo is a bad movie, but a pretty good DVD, thanks to these features. Still not one I can heartily recommend, though.

Jul 13, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For July 14, 2007

Dame Stella Issues Intelligence Briefing
Former MI-5 chief Stella Rimington is making news today (albeit with her name misspelled), and not for her newest spy novel. Rimington proves that she hasn't completely traded in real life intrigue for fiction by chiming in on the terrorist threat currently facing Britain. "I don't think we should take a great deal of comfort from the fact that these latest bombs were botched," she warns. "Creating homemade explosives is difficult and they will get it wrong, but they will get it right as well." In a point of view contrary to Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's, Rimington believes that the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make Britain even more of a target. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who's read her excellent debut novel, At Risk, which features a terrorist created by a British operation in Afghanistan.) "Terrorism was around from this source before we went into Iraq or Afghanistan," she acknowledges, "but there is no doubt it has acted as a recruiting sergeant for a lot of these young men because of this sense of grievance about foreign policy." Rimington's newest book, Illegal Action (echoing recent events with Russian spies operating in London), is due out August 2 in England. Her last one, Secret Asset, was just released last month in the Unites States.

"The Thriller Writer With The Golden Touch"
CommanderBond.Net posted a link to an excellent article by Ben Macintyre in the London Times about the selection of Sebastian Faulks as the new James Bond author. The article is more about Ian Fleming than Faulks, and about Bond's place in the Western Canon. It makes some good comments about the whole high brow/low brow argument, and whether popular culture equals "literature." Lengetivity seems to be on 007's side. A taster:

Bond has demonstrated an astonishing capacity for literary survival. Some of the author’s more perceptive contemporaries predicted as much. Fleming will still be read, observed Noël Coward, “long after the Quennells and the Connollys have disappeared”. (Peter Quennell was a prominent critic of the 1940s and 1950s; none of his books is in print today.) Bond has seen off every rival. Bulldog Drummond was put down two generations ago; John Buchan creaks with age; Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu has not survived the passage of time and the evolution of racial attitudes. But Bond still lives and breathes, without wheezing.

Fleming’s vivid descriptions fire off the page; his plots still cruise along at souped-up Bentley speed and he writes with a tensile beauty. Above all, Fleming’s imagined universe remains believable, though the purest fantasy. As John Betjeman wrote to Fleming shortly before his death: “The Bond world is as real and full of fear and mystery as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street . . . This is real art. I look up to you.”

Read the whole Times article here.

Get Smart Gets Trailer!
Anyone who saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this week knows that there's a trailer out for the Get Smart movie! I think it looks hilarious. I suppose the argument could be made that it looks more like a standard spy spoof, playing off the classic Bond iconography, than a faithful update of the beloved TV show, but it definitely made me laugh. See for yourself here.

Tradecraft: Bourne Imitates Bond
Variety reports that "The Jason Bourne franchise is going the route of James Bond." Following in the footsteps of the 007 product placement extravaganzas, Universal has lined up $40 million worth of free advertising from promotional partners Volkswagen, MasterCard and Symantec for The Bourne Ultimatum. Apparently, the Volkswagen Touareg 2 (which just happens to be rolling out now in America) features prominently in the film, along with the new VW Golf, which is being pushed in European markets. What do you want to bet Matt Damon whines about the product placement in an interview soon?

In other Bourne news, there's a great cover story on The Bourne Ultimatum in this month's Empire Magazine. It reveals a lot more plot details than I've seen elsewhere, including in the trailer.
Theater Review: "The Burlesque Of Bond"

Last weekend I finally made it down to Orange County to see director Brian Newell’s "Burlesque of Bond" show at the Maverick Theater. The concept ("Bond Girls" per-forming burlesque numbers reminiscent of the opening titles of the films to their theme songs) is an excellent one, but could have easily gone either way in execution. I’m happy to report that Newell and his per-formers pulled it off!

"The Burlesque of Bond" is an impressively mounted production. Four female dancers (the night I saw it, anyway; five are credited in the program: Amanda Hatch, Lisa Stier, Alyssa Marie Webb, Lisa Marie Crisci and Whitney Finell) perform well-choreographed, tasteful stripteases (no actual nudity here!) inspired by the film whose song they’re dancing to. None of the women appeared to be professional burlesque dancers, but all of them were certainly game and gave it their all. The choreography may not have always been in perfect synch, but the performances were nonetheless uniformly praiseworthy, aided by top-rate production design.
Some of the numbers were performed behind a semi-opaque screen with video images projected on it. (Make sure you select a seat at a middle table for optimal view.) The Maurice Binder-inspired video was so expertly shot that for a moment I wondered if they were actually using snippets from one of Daniel Kleinman’s recent title sequences! The dancers on stage interacted perfectly with the foreground video elements and sparse-but-appropriate sets and costumes to create a vibrant, live action version of a James Bond title sequence. Of course, none of that would have worked were the singers not up to the unenviable task of belting out the very difficult vocals made famous by the likes of Shirley Bassey and Duran Duran... and, fortunately, the were! Two vocalists–a man (Ryan Coon) and a woman (Rebecca J. Hyrkes)–sat in with the band mostly out of sight on a platform raised above the stage. Hyrkes was especially impressive, coming up short only on Goldfinger, a song so difficult–and so identified with one inimitable voice–that few have ever attempted to cover it. Her best performance of a stellar batch came on that other "gold" standard, Goldeneye. (The Man With The Golden Gun was omitted, so we didn’t get to see any dancers interpret the inane lyrics, "Who will he bang? We shaaalllllll seeeeeeeee!")

In true burlesque fashion, the whole evening was hosted by two goofy secret agents in tuxes (Nathan Makaryk and Sean Coutu) with over-the-top British accents of the Bertie Woosterish "jolly good show!" variety. Their jokes consisted mostly of intentionally terrible puns, and the fact that about half of them hit and half fell flat felt perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Highlights included a routine about ordering drinks ("I’ll have a Smirnoff Ice... open, not closed. You don’t want to shake this! I’d end up with sweet but delicious beer all over me.") and a lengthy dialogue utilizing every Bond title, chronologically, in increasingly tedious puns ("Make sure your gun is cocked..." "Oh, pussy!"). Low points included a joke about a tuxedo designed by Q that enabled its wearer to urinate without removing it. This music hall banter came in mercifully short segments between the dance numbers.

The show opened with the four Bond Girls (each given a name that leaned more toward the burlesque than the Bond (but could fit either in a pinch), like Keena Klimax or Ida Luvlong) firing at the audience and then removing some clothing to the Parodi/Fair version of the James Bond Theme from the Goldeneye trailer. After that, some numbers used all four; others showcased just one or two. A View To A Kill found them following the lyrics quite literally and dancing into the fire, which was projected on the transparent screen. (Only a few of the numbers used the screen.) For Your Eyes Only incorporated underwatery projections and Moonraker was a solo ballet in front of a huge full moon. Goldeneye switched spy allegiances to Alias, with each of the girls sporting Sidney Bristow-ish wigs and performing sexy dances involving chairs. Goldfinger started off strong featuring a girl in a skin-tight gold bodysuit (I guess they bought into the rumors of Shirley Eaton’s skin suffocation and chose to avoid gold paint–or maybe they just needed a quick change!) but got kind of weird at the end with the Golden Girl basically doing the Egyptian and the Robot. (Not a high point in the choreography.)

Tomorrow Never Dies took a fresh approach, with the dancer herself performing the song. (She did a good job, and I wish I could give her due credit, but the program doesn’t make it clear which dancer was singing.) Lyrically, this makes sense, with the mournful opening, "Darling, I’m killed/I’m in a puddle on the floor/waiting for you to return." She’s joined by a Bond (Ryan Joseph), who she pines after throughout the number but whose eye is always easily turned by the other dancers. It was really a very good interpretation of the song. Bond appears Casino Royale poster-style, in a tux with his tie undone, but the tux has a wing-tip collar, which isn’t very Bondian. (I’m guessing Clint’s Tux, who earns the costume credit, doesn’t stock Brioni.) He’s also wearing a vest, which looks kind of lame when he strips off his coat midway through. (Don’t worry; 007 doesn’t get any nakeder than that!)

Act One concludes with a very nice arrangement of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and 007 (both instrumentals), followed by You Know My Name. Coon does a good job standing in for Chris Cornell on the blustery vocals, with Hyrkes contributing the "Spin of the wheel!" echo in a nice touch. This number included the least Bondian costumes, mostly of the leather variety. (I don’t think we’ve ever seen a Bond Girl in buttless chaps!) It also, bizarrely, featured a poncho. (Perhaps an obscure reference to Moore’s silly undercover get-up in Moonraker? Newell proves himself a big enough Bond fan that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt!) Despite the strange costumes (and don’t get me wrong–I’m not complaining about beautiful women in leather!), You Know My Name was truly a show-stopping routine, with the girls firing large guns (shooting blanks, of course) at the audience and then at a Bond silhouette target (ala the opening gun barrel). The projections (behind them, this time) were so well timed that their shots even left "bullet holes"!)

After more banter from the hosts and an intermission, Act Two upped the ante with more risque routines. You Only Live Twice (with Dr. Shatterhand’s pagoda castle AND Blofeld’s volcano forming the background in silhouette!) saw the dancer finally shrug out of her skimpy kimono, ending up topless, but facing away from the audience in classic burlesque style, and faithfully preserving the "tease" in "striptease." Similarly, the dancer performing the Vegas showgirl-inspired Diamond Are Forever also lost her top, only to playfully cover up with giant white feathers. Exiting the stage, she tossed the feathers aside... as she wrapped herself up in the curtain.

The same girl who sang Tomorrow Never Dies also performed The World Is Not Enough on stage, in the same costume, seemingly inspired by the belly dancers in From Russia With Love. Again, she did a great job. From Russia With Love itself featured the only musical gender reversal, with Hyrkes impressively handling the vocals in a manner similar to Natacha Atlas’s cover version on Shaken And Stirred. The dancer stripped out of a Russian army uniform and large fur hat in an especially sultry routine. Hosts Makaryk and Coutu returned for another kind of gender reversal, doing a comedy striptease of their own to an instrumental version of Thunderball. They actually got more naked than any of the girls ever did, but fortunately managed to keep things JUST the right side of the fine line between "comical" and "disturbing." Again, it was a scene that would have been right at home in an old time burlesque show.

Nobody Does It Better rounded out the second act, and Live And Let Die served as a grand finale as big as those of the films themselves. Bond returned (with tie this time) and took on a succession of spear-toting girls in costumes inspired by Octopussy’s circus girls. This was very much an "action dance," with one woman wielding a whip against 007. Another stripped down to a Honey Rider bikini to audience applause, only to fight Bond with a knife as the columns that formed the set for this number began collapsing all around them in explosions as smoke filled the stage!

"The Burlesque of Bond" is a loving tribute to Bond movies and a successful, original staging of what could be unfilmed opening title sequences. It’s also an entertaining burlesque show, sexy and risque, but completely tasteful, with healthy doses of cheesy humor. Los Angeles area Bond fans shouldn’t miss it. It’s worth braving the 5 at rush hour for. The bad news, unfortunately, is that it closes tomorrow (July 14) in its current incarnation; the good news is that the Maverick Theater hopes to keep it running on a weekly basis in a slightly truncated, hour-long format, with a few different numbers, Saturday nights at 10. Be sure to check their website for updates.

Jul 12, 2007

DVD Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

While I’m a big admirer of the director, I had never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent before. I’m not as familiar with his earlier work, and I wasn’t sure what to expect of this 1940 espionage thriller. What I should have expected was a Hitchcock movie, through and through–and a very good one, at that! Foreign Correspondent delivers all of the thrills and signature humor of his later genre classics like Notorious and North By Northwest (to which Foreign Correspondent is a direct antecedent), and more importantly, just as many spectacular setpieces.

After a forgivable slow first fifteen minutes or so in which New York crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is assigned to be his paper’s new correspondent in Europe and give a fresh perspective on the gathering storm of war, the movie moves speedily from one of these impressive setpieces to another. The first highlight is an expertly-staged assassination on a rain-drenched Amsterdam square (a huge set that could easily be the real thing). The assassin flees the scene of his crime through a sea of black umbrellas, and we watch him push through them from above. The sequence is just as iconic as some of Hitchcock’s more famous ones, like the shower scene in Psycho, the crop duster attack in North By Northwest or the gas station sequence in The Birds, and I’m surprised it’s not mentioned in the same breath as those more often.

McCrea pursues the assassin, leading directly into an exciting car chase. The chase features a bit of Hitchcock-ian humor that would later be echoed in countless other car chases, including The Pink Panther and For Your Eyes Only. An old man ambles out of a pub on a quiet Old European street only to jump back as a car speeds by. He tries again to cross the street, but another careening automobile forces him back. This goes on until he gives up and heads back into the bar.

Jones somehow loses his quarry and ends up alone in a field full of windmills where the fleeing car disappeared. There is no music, and the only sound we hear is that of the sails slowly turning on the mills. It’s very similar to the build-up to the crop duster sequence in North By Northwest, and the first of several scenes that prefigure that classic.

The eerie image of a single windmill spinning against the wind signals a Nazi plane to land and a meeting of German spies. Jones sneaks in and observes this. He’s forced to find a new hiding spot every time the spies move, and the camera moves with him all over the impressive interior windmill set, the constant movement building tension. Eventually Jones is cornered, perched in a window just behind the gears of the mill as the enemy confers below. His raincoat gets caught in the gears, and he has to take it off one arm at a time as it’s pulled through. Will the giant apparatus dump the coat right on top of the Germans? It’s an excellent device to build suspense, almost as good as the brilliant champagne scene in Notorious.

Even though Foreign Correspondent is of the old, pre-Bond school of spy movies (in which the actual spies aren’t usually the heroes, but the villains) and the protagonist is a reporter, not an agent, it might as well be a blueprint for the Bond-Age spy film. It’s got exotic locations around Europe, luxurious hotels and beautiful women, and every imaginable sort of setpiece: car chases, foot chases, fist fights, hand-to-hand combat high above the ground (resulting in a bad guy’s deadly plunge off a cathedral), assassination, torture, and even plane crash. And true to the formula, each one tops the last, culminating in the biggest one of all.

Along the way, Johnny Jones demonstrates some clever tricks of the trade. When two fake policemen arrive in his hotel room to kill him, he escapes out the window, along a ledge and into the room of the woman he loves, all in a state of undress. This awkward social situation results in some of the same humor generated by Cary Grant’s similar predicament in North By Northwest, and also leads to a humorous resolution. Jones telephones for room service, bellboys, shoe shiners, maid service and anything else he can think of to come to his own room, trapping the phony cops in a sea of people as he makes his escape. It’s easy to imagine James Bond doing the same thing.

Providing even more Bondian moments is George Sanders as Jones’s very Bulldog Drummond-ish British counterpart, Scott ffolliott ("two small f’s"). ffolliott gets into–and out of–his own scrapes with great aplomb (exiting one close-quarters brush-up by jumping out of a third story window onto a awning way back when that gag was still fresh!), and proves far more ruthless than Jones in his efforts to trap the spies. Robert Benchley provides a lot of comic relief and Laraine Day makes a plucky heroine who’s not afraid to think for herself.

Foreign Correspondent also contains what the trailer boasts as "the most thrilling scene ever filmed!" and in 1940 it probably came close. It still comes surprisingly close today! The sequence in question is a spectacular plane crash. Shot out of the sky by a German destroyer, a passenger airliner plunges into the sea. And it’s not just one wide shot of a miniature, either. It’s an incredibly elaborate sequence, seen from many angles both inside and outside the plane. Chaos erupts inside the cabin as panicked passengers scramble toward the tail section in hopes of avoiding impact. Heroic pilots try their best to keep the craft in one piece, and we’re inside the cockpit with them as it hits the water head-on! Glass shatters, and the ocean pours in, all in one amazing shot. Suspense continues to build as the whole plane rapidly fills up with water and survivors struggle to get out. It’s a scary, harrowing sequence, whose effects still hold up today, and one that will stay with you long after the movie has ended.

Warner Bros.’ DVD contains a good half-hour making of featurette produced by Laurent Bouzereau packed with interviews (Day, Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia and of course the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich) stills, and rare footage. The documentary spends a long time on the plane crash, giving excellent details on how it was accomplished. It also offers some fantastic shots of Hitch clowning around on set! The DVD also includes the original trailer, which, as with most trailers of the era, is best viewed after the movie as it gives a lot away. One serious drawback to the disc (or to mine, anyway) is that for some reason it automatically skips to the second chapter when you select "Play Movie," which may leave viewers puzzled by the very abrupt opening and missing the main titles altogether. The only way to see the movie from the beginning is to backtrack on play. That serious flaw aside, this is a wonderful spy film on a well-produced DVD. If you’ve seen all the "A list" Hitchcock titles and want to venture into some deeper cuts, you could do a lot worse than Foreign Correspon-dent, which really belongs on that A list.
The Spy Who Came Out Of The Closet

Here! Network is set to air a series of telefilms centered on a gay secret agent. Today's Variety reports that Shannon Doherty has joined the cast of Kiss Me Deadly: A Jacob Keane Assignment, described as "the first installment in a series of feature length thrillers set in the world of international espionage." A little digging turns up this press release, which reveals more plot details: "Jacob Keane ([Queer As Folk's Robert] Gant) is a photographer living the family life in Milan with his loving boyfriend, Paolo, and Julia, the daughter he shares with his lesbian friend, Kyra. When a young woman, Marta (Doherty), arrives from his past life, he is pulled back into the high-stakes world of international espionage. Together they must elude a mysterious enemy threatening to disrupt their now-quiet lives. Out actor Ian Roberts (Superman Returns) co-stars as the villainous Vigo, while John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings trilogy) plays the heroic Yale, a former colleague of Jacob and Marta." Rhys-Davies' extensive spy filmography, of course, includes a memorable role in The Living Daylights.

Too bad the producers of the new Kiss Me Deadly (no relation whatsoever to Mickey Spillane's novel or the Ralf Meeker film version) couldn't think up a title that hasn't already been (quite famously) used!

Jul 11, 2007

Left On Mission #3 In Stores

Ever since I read the first issue of new spy comic Left On Mission and enjoyed it so much, I've been eagerly awaiting its continuation. Yet week after week, it hasn't appeared at my local comic shop. I'm unfortunately so used to lateness in the comic book industry these days that I just assumed the book was held up for some reason... until I saw #3 out today! So I somehow missed #2. I guess I have a mission of my own now, to hit all the comic book stores in town this weekend in an attempt to track it down. Don't miss #3!
Tradecraft For Wednesday July 11, 2007

After a slow week for spy news, when it rains, it pours! There are a couple of stories of interest in today's trades.

Steve Martin Spy Project
I guess teaming up with Clive Owen's 006 in the fake Pink Panther wasn't enough for Steve Martin; he craves more spying! This time, though, he's serious. And he's writing, not acting. Well, not quite. The script is by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who's also directing, "based on an original idea from Steve Martin." Guy Pearce and Don Cheadle have signed to star. The Hollywood Reporter says: "The story centers on a CIA operative working undercover with a terrorist group who becomes a terrorist suspect. Cheadle is the undercover agent, while Pearce is an FBI agent investigating terrorist activities." Interesting premise. And the approach is relatively fresh as well. Producer David Hoberman tells the trade, "The movie deals with the subject of terrorism evenhandedly. It's not black and white but gray and religious-based."

Goldfinger Back In Theaters
As was widely reported earlier this summer, Goldfinger will get a theatrical re-release in Britain later this month. Variety says it's the first in a series of classic British films being released digitally on 136 screens starting July 31. Other excellent titles in the series include Billy Liar, The Wicker Man and Brief Encounter. I love the idea of wide, full-blown theatrical re-releases for such classics. If you're in England this summer, be sure to enjoy it!

Lion Roars Again For James Bond
An article on franchises in The Hollywood Reporter clarifies the unusual rights situation between Sony and MGM regarding Agent 007. "As it stands, Sony has the right to distribute the upcoming Bond film theatrically, with MGM set to handle the film's release on cable and home entertainment." The article says that the two studios share a 50/50 financial stake in the film, but that MGM has the right to buy back Sony's half ownership after five years. That means that MGM, and not Sony, stands to profit for decades off the films' lucrative TV and home video sales. It really sounds like Sony got the short end of the stick! They did a great job with Casino Royale, but I'm a traditionalist so I like the idea of Bond movies being distributed by MGM. The story continues: "Indeed, MGM holds the rights to all future outings, and the resurrected studio is equally determined to make the most of Bond. Executives recently renegotiated the company's deal with star Daniel Craig to continue as 007, significantly upping his salary though declining to give him a share of back-end." So, ultimately, it looks like the Sony chapter will be a brief one in Bond history.
Bond Is Back!

I get swept up in Harry Potter mania for one day (the new movie is very good, but not quite as good as Prisoner of Azkaban) and I miss the biggest James Bond news of the year! As has already been reported everywhere at this point, the formerly shrouded-in-secrecy Centenary Bond novel has been announced! Sebastian Faulks will write the stand-alone 007 novel Devil May Care, due out in May of 2008 in celebration of Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday. Like many fans were hoping (including myself), the novel will be set during the Cold War, in 1967 to be specific. According to Faulks it will pick up where Fleming left off, with a “damaged, aging” Bond who “has been widowed and been through a lot of bad things... [like being brainwashed by the KGB in The Man With the Golden Gun!] He is slightly more vulnerable than any previous Bond but at the same time he is both gallant and highly sexed, if you can be both.” So it sounds sort of like the depressive 007 of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and Weinberg’s Secret Servant (set during the same period). I got the sense that Bond overcame some of those demons in the course of The Man With the Golden Gun, but I’m sure Faulks will address that. What probably won’t be addressed are the events of Kingsley Amis’s continuation novel (the first not written by Fleming), 1968’s Colonel Sun, which the current board of Ian Fleming Publications seems inclined to ignore, and Weinberg directly contradicts it in Secret Servant. (Too bad.) Devil May Care (I love the title, by the way!) will be published simultaneously in Great Britain and America by Penguin and Doubleday respectively. Yesterday’s press release is most likely the first volley in a major publicity push for the book, which is exciting in and of itself as Raymond Benson’s continuation novels sadly didn’t get any promotion whatsoever from their publishers.

I've never read anything by Faulks (though I saw the slightly disappointing movie of his Charlotte Gray starring Cate Blanchett), but he seems very well-regarded, especially for his attention to historical detail. The author rumor I was most keen on was the Stephen Fry one, but Faulks sounds like a good choice. The publisher claims she gave Barbara Broccoli a copy of the manuscript to read and Broccoli said she would have believed it if she had told her the family had found an old manuscript of Ian’s in the basement. Sounds promising.

Catch up with full coverage of Devil May Care at the preeminent site for all things literary 007, The Young Bond Dossier.

Jul 10, 2007

TV Review: Burn Notice

Burn Notice is off to a good start. The pilot presented a fairly lightweight spy yarn of the James Bond variety (complete with the requisite bikini-clad eye candy, thanks to the Miami setting), something we haven’t seen on the small screen since Alias went off the air. I wasn’t immediately drawn to leading man Jeffrey Donovan as "burned" spy Michael Westen (his Agency cut him loose with no explanation, hence the "burn notice"), but he grew on me by the end of the pilot. There’s a lot of voice-over, but it’s peppered with some nice, dry humor and the sort of spy advice that sounds just plausible enough to make it compelling. Some of it makes a lot of sense, like pointing out that bathrooms are good places to fight people because of all their hard surfaces, while other bits (recommending you grab a yogurt out of the fridge if you break into someone’s house so you can look like you belong) seem dreamed up by a writer who wanted it to sound good. But, unless you give it too much thought, it does sound good, and that’s all that really matters. It presents spying and cons as a procedural, but keeps it all fun.

Like Mission: Impossible and Alias, it’s as much a con show as a spy show. "A spy is just a criminal with a government paycheck," says Michael’s sometime paramour Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar, whose prior spy pedigree includes the femme fatale role in If Looks Could Kill!). Of course Fiona is a former IRA operative, so her moral compass may be a little out of whack. And since the main characters are all ex-spies, who don’t receive government paychecks anymore, I guess that makes them all criminals! But Michael is certainly a well-meaning criminal, sort of a Robin Hood figure. His delivery may be cool and off-handed, and he does his best to remain removed, but in each episode so far he’s ended up helping the weak and preyed-upon for very little compensation. In fact, his clients are so weak and helpless (an old woman bilked out of her life savings, a single immigrant father trying to raise a kid and make an honest buck) it borders on the sappy... but Donovan’s wry comments always pull us back from the edge, fortunately. Just when the single-father’s bullied son risks becoming too precious, he presents Michael with a comically violent drawing of him spraying bad guys with bullets, to which the ex-spy only says, "You really want me to shoot somebody, don’t you, kid?"

Michael does shoot people, but rarely kills them. There’s enough gunplay to be exciting, but not enough serious violence to mar the show’s light tone. (Even on Alias the heroes rarely killed anyone, always loading their guns with some sort of "stun" bullets or something!) For example, it’s a joy to watch him repeatedly disarm (ala The Maltese Falcon) a local drug dealer and then use his vastly superior training to put him out of business.

The problem with the first episode was that it didn’t really give the supporting cast enough to do. They’re all basically comic relief, with Fiona being an oversexed, Xenia Onatopp type for whom "violence is foreplay" (not for Michael), Michael’s slightly overbearing, hypochondriac mom, Madeline (Sharon Gless, blessedly much better here than she was in The State Within!) being a mild annoyance and his ally and fellow former agent Sam (Bruce Campbell) always eating or drinking in every scene he’s in.

Fortunately the second episodes rectifies this problem, and gives them all more to do. Madeline is worked better into the story, since she has some information Michael wants pertinent to his burn notice, and she’s humanized more in their interactions rather than being just a caricature. The same goes for Sam and Fi, who benefit greatly by being teamed up together and bickering the whole time. Campbell still seems underused, given his extraordinary comic gifts, but it looks like we’ll be seeing him do a lot more as the series progresses. Fiona’s homicidal streak is played again to good comic effect when she’s tasked to install a device on a con artist’s car that will neutralize it at the touch of a button, and instead she rigs a bomb. ("That will neutralize it!" she argues.)

Burn Notice debuted two weeks ago to solid ratings, and accomplished the highly impressive feat of actually improving upon its debut in Week Two! (Usually even the biggest shows decline after the premiere.) So hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of Burn Notice. If the quality remains, I’ll definitely be along for the ride. Plus, I’m intrigued by the ongoing storyline. While every episode is pretty much stand-alone, Michael’s quest to discover who burned him and why is compelling. It’s really nice to have a fun weekly spy series to tune into again (as opposed to the overly-intense sturm und drang of 24 or MI-5).

Jul 9, 2007

DVD Review: Shooter (2007)

The perfectly symmetrical final shot of Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter shows an some sort of classic American muscle car straddling the dotted yellow line as it zooms away down the exact middle of the road toward the mountains on the horizon. The shot is an exercise in perspective, the sort children learn on the first day of art class. It’s perfectly composed, and it looks neat. But why is the car straddling the yellow line? Why isn’t it driving in the proper lane? Is the driver drunk? No. The director simply doesn’t want logic to spoil his pretty composition. And that’s exactly how the whole movie feels. Things like logic and story are never permitted to obscure lingering, Michael Bay-inspired shots of hardware, or fancy Bruckheimeresque bursts of action.

Unfortunate-ly, these bursts are too few and far between to enable viewers to just turn their brains off and enjoy it like a Bay spectacle. Shooter wants to be a thinking man’s action film, yet it paradoxically defies the logic that thought provokes at every turn. Fuqua and writer Jonathan Lemkin seem to believe that long, boring stretches between action scenes make the movie thought-provoking, or "like a 70s film," as Fuqua says again and again on the commentary track. No, they make the movie long and boring.

The Ipcress File was originally touted on its American poster as "a thinking man’s Goldfinger." It goes even longer stretches without action than Shooter, and its infrequent bursts of it are far less spectacular. Yet it’s never boring, because director Sidney J. Furie used the slow pace to build suspense, to move the "who’s the traitor?" storyline forward and to develop the character of Harry Palmer. And Michael Caine oozed so much undeniable charisma even as a sad-sack, working-stiff schlub of a spy that it was fun just to watch him cook a meal–and his actions in doing so informed the character. The long, actionless stretches in Shooter fail to do any of that, and the movie just flounders.

Furthermore, star Mark Wahlberg lacks the charisma necessary to make us want to watch him stitch his own wounds, let alone make breakfast. (Fortunately we’re not subjected to that.) Now, I actually think that Wahlberg is a terrific actor in the right part (see his deservedly Oscar-nominated turn in The Departed, for example), but he’s an Actor, not a Movie Star. Movie star charisma isn’t his strong suit, so while he may have the ability to totally inhabit a well-written character, he doesn’t really carry enough external charm with him to bring an underwritten part to life. (As evidenced when he attempts to fill the shoes of charm-dripping Movie Stars like Caine, Cary Grant and Charlton Heston in the remakes he’s so inexplicably drawn to.)* In one of the featurettes on the disc, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says that the character of Swagger is "essentially a John Wayne character, which has been missing from movies for a while." He’s right, but Wahlberg is not the actor to embody that character. He’s a better actor than Wayne, but totally lacks the Duke’s larger than life persona.

John Wayne didn’t need too many character traits to make a role his own, but Wahlberg does and sadly all he’s given to work with is a bad ponytail and a five-day beard. Those are the things that tell us that his character, former Marine sniper Rob Lee Swagger, has turned his back on civilization after a failed mission that got his spotter killed. Swagger has since retired to the backwoods of some godforsaken mountaintop to wear flannels and live with his dog and ignore the world around him. Until the CIA comes knocking, in the person of Danny Glover as Col. Isaac Johnson. Johnson does have charm, and he uses it to convince Swagger to come out of retirement to prevent the assassination of the U.S. president. Here the movie takes a moment to assure us that it’s staunchly apolitical, lest it offend either portion of its potential audience. "I don’t much like the president," Swagger says. "Didn’t much like the one before either." Still, he likes his country enough to come help Johnson look for an assassin at a presidential speech in Philadelphia, only to be set up as a patsy when the killing actually takes place. (But not of the president himself.)

Yep, Glover’s a bad guy, and he clearly relishes the journey from fatherly patriot to tooth-gnashing villainy. The problem is, he picked the wrong guy. Rob Lee Swagger (obviously chosen for his assassin-like three part name) takes two bullets but gets away, and becomes a man on the run out to prove his innocence. This leads to a lengthy, unpleasant sequence in which the wounded Swagger bleeds a lot, breathes heavily and slurs his speech. Amidst all this he somehow hooks up with the requisite Girl (Kate Mara), enabling her to later be endangered.

Meanwhile only one FBI agent, a rookie improbably named Nick Memphis (Michael Pena), sees any of the highly obvious clues that Swagger wasn’t the real shooter, and no one else believes him and everyone thinks he’s crazy even though he doesn’t say anything that crazy. As far as I can tell, he’s just conducting a normal investigation into a shooting, as presumably the FBI is supposed to do. The appealing Pena does the best he can with another underdeveloped role, eventually teaming up with Wahlberg.

Halfway through the movie, former Band drummer Levon Helm turns up as a Kentucky gun-maker and conspiracy nut and injects some brief life into the proceedings. He puts Swagger and Memphis on the trail of the real assassin, which leads to a huge shootout at a farmhouse in which the two of them take on a whole army of mercenaries. This is the stuff that Fuqua does well (there should be more of it in the movie), and the director stages a pretty spectacular shootout ending in lots of explosions. Then things get boring again as the tedious conspiracy plays out (apparently there’s one senator responsible for all the Bad Stuff the CIA does, and he’s Ned Beatty) and we wait for the cool arctic showdown we all know is coming from the preview.

Sure enough, Swagger eventually lures Johnson to a remote glacier, where a cool all-white suit helps him blend into the snow. (More on that in a moment.) But not even this sequence wraps things up! There are still another twenty minutes after what seemed to be the climax, and finally another climax that seems tacked on as an after-thought. (And was, Fuqua reveals on the commentary.) The moral is that CIA covert operations are generally bad, but it’s sometimes OK for former snipers to mete out frontier justice at home when the justice system fails.

I didn’t really relish sitting through eleven minutes of deleted scenes after the seemingly interminable movie finally ended, but the first one actually would have helped. It’s the introduction of Nick Memphis, and it sets him up a much more sympathetic character. As it is he just turns up in the middle of the action during the assassination and it’s not clear until later that he’s a main character. Pena’s character also would have been developed more if they’d kept a brief scene where he’s feeling shaky after making his first kill. The rest of the scenes were wisely cut, but it’s a pity they stopped there. I could have easily done with another twenty minutes’ worth of deleted scenes if it meant a shorter movie.

Things really perk up with a fantastic twenty minute making-of featurette called "Survival of the Fittest: The Making of Shooter." It features interviews with Stephen Hunter, author of the book on which the movie is based, Fuqua, Wahlberg and others. (Wahlberg actually doesn’t contribute too much, leaving that task to Pena and Mara.) Fuqua discusses the logistics of filming the farmhouse shootout, which is pretty interesting, but not as much as what technical advisor Patrick Garrity has to say. Garrity, a former Marine sniper himself, clearly knows his stuff. He introduces all of the guns involved in that scene, and explains their use and why they were chosen. He also talks at length about the art of sniping. I had no idea how much math was involved in shooting someone! Helpful onscreen diagrams reveal how everything from distance to the curvature of the earth factors into a good shot.

Listening to everything Garrity said, I couldn’t help but think, "this is fascinating; this would make a great movie!" Unfortunately, none of it went into the movie I had just watched! For example, in the film Wahlberg turns up on the glacier clad head-to-toe in a white camouflage get-up, with only his eyes showing. For some reason there are huge white feathers attached to the suit, which comes off as unintentionally comical as it makes him look a little bit like Bjork at the Oscars. Garrity, however, explains the feathers, and the explanation makes a lot of sense. He shares that the outfit is called a "Gillie suit," and its intention is as much to break up the sniper’s profile as to blend him in to the colors of his environment. Rival snipers know to look for the curves and lines of a human form, which stand out from nature. The feathers, therefore, serve to obscure the prone shooter’s human silhouette on the snowy terrain. Had that bit of exposition been cleverly worked into the movie instead of just popping up in the bonus features, it not only would have diminished the comic effect of the feathers; it would have piqued my interest in seeing how the character employed them and made for a more effective scene.
We’re also treated to footage of Wahlberg on various firing ranges, learning the ins and outs of sniping from Garrity. Garrity says he was a quick learner, and was soon hitting man-sized targets at an impressive 1100 yards. I suppose this training lent verisimilitude to the film for professional snipers; again, the rest of us could have appreciated it more with a bit of exposition.

There’s another short featurette on Independence Hall. This is kind of strange because the location only figures briefly in the movie, when it serves as the site of the assassination. Park rangers talk about the history of the Hall, and share facts about the Liberty Bell and various historical tidbits. I like educational featurettes on DVDs that teach the viewer more about something the movie dealt with (like the Dateline segment on the Breach disc), but this one’s sort of strange since it really doesn’t have much of a direct connection to Shooter whatsoever.

Finally, there’s a feature commentary from Fuqua. He’s very affable and comes off as a guy you’d like to spend time with, which always makes for a good listening experience. He spends a lot of time praising every actor who appears however briefly in the movie and saying that he wishes he could have used him more. It doesn’t make for killer listening, but it makes me like the guy. He very earnestly explains the intention of every scene in the film, and explains why he made a lot of the shot choices he did and what he was trying to say with them. This made me appreciate the movie a little bit more, but it would have been better if it had spoken for itself without the director having to spell it out. At least the filmmakers had good intentions, though. Fuqua clearly has a lot of ideas, and I suspect he’s got a better movie in him than we’ve seen yet.

The best nugget of information on the commentary is another bit that would have improved the film had it ended up in the script instead of in a supplement. He describes an aspect of Lemkin’s script that Garrity changed. Originally, Lemkin had Swagger and his spotter eating Pop Tarts while they waited, well hidden, for their targets to arrive. Garrity said that a sniper would never eat sugar or caffeine in this situation because he wants to lower his heart rate, not raise it. He wants to be perfectly calm, in an almost Zen-like state, when he takes the shot. So they changed it to Beef Jerky.

Shooter is a perfectly competent movie technically, not terrible but not very good either. Ultimately it’s just mediocre, and that makes it seem very long. In the 80s it would have been a typical Steven Seagal revenge flick. The fact that it somehow ended up as a big studio action movie from an Oscar-nominated director and star instead unfortunately doesn’t elevate it much beyond that. But Paramount has put together a pretty good DVD, though, with bonus features far more engrossing than the film itself. If you’re interested in a sniper’s routine, the disc is worth Netflicking for the featurette alone. Otherwise, it’s a pass.

*Actually, I quite like the Italian Job remake, and Wahlberg is good in that one because his Charlie Croker isn’t Caine’s. Caine’s Croker was all flash; Wahlberg’s is understated and introspective. The flashy, showy characteristics are instead doled out to supporting players on the team like Jason Statham, Mos Def and Seth Green, all of whom handle them with charm and ease. The remake will never hold a candle to the original (which is one of my favorite movies), but thankfully it doesn’t try to tread the same ground and invents a clever new heist plot, with only the names and the Mini Coopers remaining the same.

Jul 5, 2007

DVD Review: The Manhattan Project (1986)

Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project isn’t a typical "teen spy" kind of movie. It’s not about a teenage James Bond kind of spy, like Alex Rider or the Richard Greico character in If Looks Could Kill. No, Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet), the hero of The Manhattan Project is a teenage atom spy. As in the Rosenberg sort. As in someone who steals nuclear secrets (or material) from the United States government. As in what we would probably call today a terrorist. Yes, it’s a very unique fantasy: the teen terrorist genre. It’s a weird movie. But it’s not bad!

Paul is a high school science wiz. And, like most teenage boys with scientific minds, his seems to turn frequently toward exploding stuff. When we first meet him, he’s just created an Ammonia Tri-Iodide explosive (a recipe right out of the Anarchist Cookbook), a substance that blows up on contact. And what does he use it for? To play a prank on the class prat, much to the delight of fellow students (and future TV stars) Cynthia Nixon and Robert Sean Leonard. Even the teacher seems to find it amusing, and nobody chastises him for dabbling in bomb-making. So he seems to have experienced a pretty permissive upbringing, which goes a long way in explaining his actions to follow.

Paul is a bright boy, and he spots plutonium right away when his mom’s new suitor, Dr. Mathewson (John Lithgow), gives him a tour of the (secret) lab where he works. Paul then proves his suspicions to himself and his girlfriend, Jenny (Nixon), when he discovers a plethora of five-leaf clovers growing outside the facility, a rare mutation. Paul is mad that there’s a secret nuclear facility in his town, and convinces aspiring journalist Jenny to help him break into the lab to expose it. In an elaborate (and mostly silent, Rififi-style) break-in sequence, Paul scrambles the closed-circuit cameras, tricks the motion detectors, uses a robot arm to steal a canister of translucent green plutonium and replace it with Prell, drills a hole in the wall with a powerful laser beam and guides the plutonium around the radiation detectors on the back of a remote-control truck while Jenny distracts the only two guards. It’s quite a scene, and it fulfills a number of teenage boy heist fantasies. (I know it wasn’t just me who dreamed of such hijinks!)

So he’s got the plutonium, he’s proved his point, Jenny can write her story and expose the whole thing, right? Wrong! Paul decides (and somehow convinces his generally more practical girlfriend) that it would be better for him to use the plutonium to build a nuclear bomb, and then expose the operation! Basically, he just wants to prove that he can do it. But by the time the big science fair rolls around, the government’s onto him and the army and the FBI are on his trail. Paul becomes a fugitive. A desperate fugitive with a working A-bomb, which he decides to arm in order to put himself in a better bargaining position during the final showdown in the lab. His very own "mutually-assured destruction" policy... and, frankly, an act of terrorism. In the end, you’re supposed to be rooting against the FBI snipers trying to prevent mass destruction and for the kid with his finger on the trigger. The Manhattan Project could never be made today! (Not only does the teen hero engage in terrorism; his [also teenage] girlfriend actually smokes in one scene! See what I mean? It could never be made today!)

But despite its extraordinary premise, its hero’s shaky motivation (he really built that bomb just because he could?) and its questionable moral, The Manhattan Project is a pretty awesome kid’s movie. I don’t know how I never saw it growing up in the 80s; I would have loved it as a kid. As I said before, it’s complete boy’s wish fulfillment, with a young hero who not only breaks into secure facilities and builds the ultimate bomb, but wields the mightiest power in the universe, a power that’s wholly the domain of grown-ups in real life.

It presents a very realistic (aside from the afore-mentioned permissive-ness) vision of 80s suburbia and of childhood, reminiscent of Spielberg’s. In fact, the story is really "E.T. with a bomb." And it also presents a fairly believable teenage relationship between Paul and Jenny, a rarity in this sort of 80s teen movie. Cynthia Nixon is fantastic, and very cute, too. Had I seen this as a kid, I’ve no doubt I would have developed a crush on her big enough to make me actually watch an episode of Sex In the City by choice when I grew up! The acting, in fact, is solid all around. Collet makes an appealing lead (wonder where he disappeared to), Jill Eikenberry is a good single mom in the Dee Wallace vein, and John Lithgow and a pre-Frasier John Mahoney (as the Army colonel leading the chase) both play up the fact that there are no real bad guys in the movie, just adults who make national security decisions that a kid can’t really understand. Like Spielberg’s 80s movies as opposed to John Hughes’s, it’s surprisingly undated with regards to hair and fashions, so that’s also a factor in how well it holds up.

Lionsgate’s new Special Edition DVD offers several bells and whistles. Brickman provides a commentary, but sadly it’s one of the worst I’ve ever heard. He spends a lot of time saying "I don’t know what to say," or, "You probably want me to say something here..." or saying nothing at all. A moderator occasionally prods him, but rarely with much success. At one point the affably self-conscious Brickman asks him, "Do [other] people freeze like I’m freezing?" Making matters worse, he doesn’t seem to remember a lot about the production. When the slightly embarrassed-sounding moderator helpfully asks him if being a father had any bearing on how he worked with or presented children in his film, the director says no, because he wasn’t a father yet at that point. But apparently he’s temporarily forgotten his daughter, who he later says visited the set! We do get occasional nuggets like the fact that they made the translucent green "plutonium" by emptying the glowing green liquid out of hundreds of glowsticks, and later by actually using the shampoo Paul switches it for. But it’s not really worth investing much time in this track just to hear that stuff. Still, Lionsgate deserves credit for including it, no matter how lousy it turned out. It's still an extra.

Fortunately, Brickman is much more eloquent in the making-of featurette, offering interesting insight into his writing process, which he says was most inspired by Bach. (He gives a very good explanation of that seemingly peculiar statement.) He also dishes a bit of behind-the-scenes studio gossip, and we’re treated to some nice on-set footage. Special effects supervisor Bran Ferren also contributes, and shares how he created the lab facility out of used parts sold off by Los Alamos! Ferren is also all over the other featurette, "Homemade Apocalypse," which focuses on creating a realistic nuke. Brickman is a lot more impassioned over how accurate their technology was than he is over his filmmaking, but Ferren sums it up nicely by saying that he didn’t feel the need to design a bomb that would actually work, just one close enough that the military in the movie would believe that it worked. That really highlights the MacGuffin nature of the bomb; it’s ultimately irrelevant to the plot whether or not it’s actually real! But if you can pull it off, why not make E.T. with a bomb?