Jul 31, 2008

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Espionage

Network DVD will release all three ultra-rare episodes of the 1963 black and white anthology series Espionage directed by the esteemed Michael Powell. I wonder if any of the other twenty-one episodes of the series survive, and if so whether Network has any plans to release them?

Espionage ran for one season and told a completely different spy tale each week. They were set in all different eras, and ranged from the humorous to the depressingly ultra-gritty. The three Powell-directed episodes included on this release cover that whole spectrum. Network's website describes them thusly:

THE FRANTICK REBEL
This is the story of an American girl in London who tries to smuggle English battle secrets to Dr. Benjamin Franklin in Paris, pitting her wits against famed diarist James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson. Starring Roger Livesey, Stanley Baxter and Jill Bennett

NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON A FRIEND
War forces a harsh test of comradeship on men of different nationalities whose adventures together as a team of saboteurs have cemented a deep friendship. Starring George Voskovec, Donald Madden, Mark Eden and Julian Glover

A FREE AGENT
The story of the bitter-sweet romance of a British spy who marries a lovely Russian agent. Can the two governments concerned allow such a marriage?Starring Anthony Quayle and Sian Phillips

This is very exciting news. I've long wanted to see this series, and while I'd rather have the whole thing, I'll certainly settle for a taste. (And Powell's involvement makes this a particularly enticing taste!) I can't give Network enough praise for what they're doing. They keep digging up long-overlooked programs and music, many of them spyish in nature, and giving them first rate DVD releases. Visit their website for more info.

Espionage is, of course, a Region 2 PAL release, so North Americans will require a multi-region DVD player to view the disc.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: 24 TV Movie

How about following up that jokey 24 news with some real 24 news? TVShowsOnDVD reports that this fall's 24 TV movie (a prequel to January's Season 7) will hit DVD two days after it first airs on Fox! They also offer up the first plot description I've seen for 24: Exile:
On the day of the Presidential Inauguration, Jack Bauer finds himself in the midst of a bloody uprising in the small African nation of Sangala. He must risk his life to transport a group of orphans to the American Embassy and sacrifice his own freedom to ensure that they are evacuated out of the country and make it safely to America.
The DVD will be an extended "creator's cut" and boasts several special features including a commentary, a making-of featurette, a recap of Season 6 and the "first act" of Season 7, as well as a trailer for it. Read more at TVShowsOnDVD.

Meanwhile, Newsarama has a good write-up of Fox's 24 panel at Comic-Con (which I wasn't able to attend), but it still doesn't answer the most burning question about this "movie": will it be in real time, like the show? I was hoping no, because it would be cool to see Bauer in action without the gimmick, but I'm guessing yes...

Jul 30, 2008

24: The Musical

Specifically, it's 24: Season Two: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Jon and Al Kaplan. Which makes sense, because Season Two lends itself particularly well to song and dance numbers. From the songs I've listened to, it's pretty clever. I recommend the track performed by "Kim Bauer and Cougar."
COMIC-CON: S.H.I.E.L.D. Action Figures Galore!

I previously reported that Hasbro had a new Nick Fury figure on the way with alternate heads to turn him into multiple S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but had no information on specifics. Turns out there's a whole slew of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the way! And they're not just alternate Nick Fury heads. On display at Comic-Con were a fantastic Dum Dum Dugan figure (left), and a great Sharon Carter (aka Agent 13, and recently Captain America's girlfriend). I'll post two pictures of Sharon, because thanks to the glass of the display case and my flash, neither one came out great, but together they give a good idea of how cool she looks.
Then we have the whole assortment of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnell, including a random agent with changeable heads (helmet and goggles, or plain face), Iron Man (current Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics) in his S.H.I.E.L.D. garb, Fury (in the background), Sharon, some superheroes, and Maria Hill. You can also see the Ultimate Nick Fury figure in the very back. Unfortunately, my picture of him in his packaging didn't come out at all, but we've already seen good pictures of Ultimate Fury.
Lastly, we've got a clearer view of the new Nick Fury sculpt. I still don't like it as much as the old ToyBiz figure, but he does look much better in person. I'm going to be buying a lot of Marvel Legends figures when these all hit shelves this fall, that's for sure!

Jul 29, 2008

The Bourne Sanction

Eric Van Lustbader's latest Bourne continuation novel, the boringly-titled Bourne Sanction (doesn't have the proper ring of a true Ludlum title) hits stores today, which took me by surprise. These things pop up so fast I can't keep track of 'em! I haven't actually read any of the post-Ludlum Bourne novels, and don't much approve of the continuations on principle, but maybe it will be good?
Official: Jack White And Alicia Keys To Record Bond Theme Song

Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood reports that Sony and MGM have finally put to rest scads of speculation and officially announced that the theme song for Quantum of Solace will be performed by Jack White (of The White Stripes) and Alicia Keys. The song is called "Another Way To Die," (which I kind of feel like they should have saved to use as an actual title to a future Bond movie!) and was written by White, who also plays drums on the track. I'm a little disappointed that composer David Arnold wasn't involved in the composition, since his best scores integrate his own theme songs throughout the movie, but you couldn't really ask for a better songwriter than White. Overall, I'm very pleased. (Although I would have liked to hear an Amy Winehouse Bond theme as well, and I hope she gets her act together in time for Bond 23.) According to Finke (and coming from the official press release), "The soundtrack to Quantum of Solace will be released by J Records on October 28th." Since these announcements were made together, I would assume that means that the song will actually be featured on the soundtrack, like all the other Bond scores up until Casino Royale, which weirdly omitted Chris Cornell's title track from the soundtrack disc. (For contractual reasons, I presume.) Speaking of Cornell's song, "You Know My Name," this now makes two songs in a row that don't share a title with the film. Up until now, that was a pretty rare occurrence!

In related news, massive layoffs are expected at all the British tabloids, each of whom seem to have employed entire departments devoted to making up rumors about who would be singing this theme song!
Richard Chopping Style Cover For Latest Lucifer Box Novel!
Pays Homage To Classic Bond First Edition Artwork

Wow. Fantastic! LuciferBox.com points the way today to newly-revealed cover art on Amazon.co.uk for Mark Gatiss' latest Lucifer Box novel, Black Butterfly. As previously revealed, the third Box novel (following The Vesuvius Club and the phenomenal Devil In Amber) advances Box (who started his career as an Edwardian secret agent) into the 1950s and into Ian Fleming territory. The Vesuvius Club parodied/homaged Conan-Doyle in the early 20th Century; The Devil In Amber lovingly satirized John Buchan and Dennis Wheatley with a 1930s setting. Now a much older (but probably no less vain) Box will find himself in more Bondian situations, and I simply cannot wait!

This cover, of course, appropriately echoes the classic Richard Chopping covers that graced most of the British first editions of Fleming's books from From Russia With Love onwards. (It most directly evokes Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me.) This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for from the Devil May Care cover! The official synopsis also drops some cool Bond references:

LUCIFER BOX. He's tall, he's dark and, like the shark, he looks for trouble. Or so he wishes. For, with Queen Elizabeth newly established on her throne, the now elderly secret agent is reaching the end of his scandalous career. Despite his fast-approaching retirement, queer events leave Box unable to resist investigating one last case...Why have pillars of the Establishment started dying in bizarrely reckless accidents? Who are the deadly pay-masters of enigmatic assassin Kingdom Kum? And who or what is the mysterious Black Butterfly? From the seedy streets of Soho to the souks of Istanbul and the sun-drenched shores of Jamaica, Box must use his artistic licence to kill and eventually confront an enemy with its roots in his own notorious past. Can Lucifer Box save the day before the dying of the light?
Black Butterfly comes out November 3.
Read my review of The Devil In Amber here.
COMIC-CON: Gulacy Does Nick Fury

Comics' quintessential spy artist, Paul Gulacy, will be drawing comics' quintessential spy, Nick Fury, for (amazingly!) the first time ever sequentially. (He's done a few sketches and pin-ups, like the one pictured, over the years.) The catch is, it won't be Steranko's superspy version of Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the WWII version... SERGEANT Fury. And his Howling Commandos. And Captain America. I'm bummed that Gulacy's first stab at the character will be at his soldier incarnation rather than his spy one, but the story (penned - I think he said - by Mark Guggenheim) sounds pretty damn cool nonetheless and I'm sure the artist will knock it out of the park. In the final days of WWII, Cap and the Howlers find themselves stranded in the snowswept German Alps, along with Red Skull and a castle full of Nazis. Soon enough, the bullets start to fly.

Gulacy didn't rule out drawing the spy version of Fury at some point in the future, though, and David Spurlock, moderator on Gulacy's Comic-Con panel, interjected that were such a story to happen, he'd get Steranko to supply the covers... and maybe even the inks! Fans pressed the artist further on this entirely hypothetical project (which seemed to get everyone's mouth watering, as it bloody well should), and he revealed that he'd like to see it written by Guggenheim, Brian Michael Bendis, or his James Bond: Serpent's Tooth collaborator Doug Moench.
Comic-Con Coverage

Apologies for the long delay in updates last week, but when I went down to the San Diego Comic-Con, I ended up unexpectedly internetless. I'll be catching up on the news I missed while I was gone as well as posting stories from Comic-Con over the next couple of days.

Despite some tantalizing rumors swirling beforehand that Daniel Craig would make a surprise appearance at Sony's presentation, the studio didn't so much as show the trailer for Quantum of Solace at their panel. There was very little promotion whatsoever for the film (as was the case with Casino Royale in '06), but they did at least have one impressive guest from the set: 007's Aston Martin DBS. It was just sitting there at their booth, in the middle of the convention floor, not showing off gadgets or squealing its tires or anything... but then again, an Aston Martin doesn't need to do much to draw attention!

Stay tuned for more Bond, Nick Fury, 24 and more spy news from the Con over the next few days...

Jul 23, 2008

Upcoming Spy Music: Department S Soundtrack

Network has announced their newest classic ITC soundtrack (following previous releases of The Prisoner and Man In A Suitcase). This time Jason King's first series, the wonderful Department S gets the Network treatment. According to their site:
Never previously released and compiled from the original master tapes, this three-CD set comprises Edwin Astley’s celebrated music for Department S, containing over 180 pieces which were specially commissioned for the series. Including extensive liner notes from archive television historian Andrew Pixley, this set is an essential purchase for all ITC aficionados.
Right now, it's available exclusively from Network's website. As awesome as this is (and it is awesome; I'll be getting it for sure), here's hoping that Network's next project is Ken Thorne's Persuaders scores!

Jul 22, 2008

Saint Books Back In Print

Well, after yesterday's bad Saint news, here's some good Saint news to even the scales! LeslieCharteris.com, official site of Saint creator Charteris, reports that some of Charteris' best Saint stories will come back into print this November, as two volumes of The Best of the Saint. Volume 1 features an introduction by Ken Follett, and Roger Moore introduces Volume 2. Head on over to LeslieChareteris.com and check the "news" section to see the cool cover art (in keeping with recent art for the Moore DVDs) and read which stories are included in each volume. It's great that The Saint will once more be readily available in bookstores, and I like the "Best Of" format. Now, if only the new TV version could get back on track...

Jul 21, 2008

Casanova Movie Deal

If Jim Steranko's seminal Sixties run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is colloquially labeled "James Bond on acid" (which it is--month after month Steranko came up with new reasons for Fury or his enemies to hallucinate so he could create brilliant, mind-melting psychedelic collages; my favorite was Fury's hallucinogenic hand grenades), then Matt Fraction's superspy comic Casanova has to be Nick Fury on acid. Fraction's warped take on the S.H.I.E.L.D./Bond mythos (and Gabriel Ba's deliciously trippy art) is so convolutedly meta that I wasn't really able to make heads or tails of it, and dropped it after a few issues despite my wholehearted appreciation for Fraction's desire to deconstruct and repackage the best of Sixties popular spy culture. But the book is a hit, so other readers must have more patience with it than I did, and perhaps I was too hasty in dismissing it. And now... it's gonna be a movie.

Newsarama links to an EW piece reporting that Fraction has signed a deal with producer Rick Alexander to develop Casanova into what Alexander promises will be a "mega-budget, effects-intensive action spectacular." The producer sees it as "a Bond-type franchise," one-upping the changing faces of 007 by casting a different actor as Casanova in each installment. Newsarama says a major A-list star is already mulling the first film. The plan is to attach an actor and director before hiring a screenwriter.
Tradecraft: Purefoy's Saint Series Dead?

Here's some truly disappointing news to start off the week. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Barry Levinson-directed revival of The Saint, which was set to star the perfectly-cast James Purefoy as Simon Templar, "didn't go forward." Apparently Purefoy is instead opting to star in a different show with a very similar premise, The Philanthropist. (It really could have been an ITC title in the late Sixties; I'm surprised they didn't think of it!) Says the trade, "Philanthropist centers on a renegade billionaire (Purefoy) who uses his wealth, connections and power to help people in need no matter the risks or costs." That's pretty much what Simon Templar does, the only real difference being that his wealth is ill-gained. The Reporter ends its report on The Philanthropist with this brief statement on The Saint: "Earlier this year, CAA-repped Purefoy was attached to The Saint, an independently produced two-hour backdoor pilot with Levinson on board to direct, but the project didn't go forward."

"Didn't go forward?" So what does that mean? Is the project dead? Will it still go forward in the future, but with another star? All LeslieCharteris.com (the premier site for Saintly information) can add at this point is that shooting on the pilot has been delayed until "at least August" because of a possible actors' strike. (Such a strike seems very unlikely at this point.)

Muddying the waters further is how incestuous this whole Saint/Purefoy/Philanthropist triangle really is. The original producers on The Philanthropist were Levinson and Tom Fontana, both of whom were also on The Saint! They've now been replaced, however, by Battlestar Gallactica and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys producer David Eick. So were Levinson and Fontana really developing such similar projects simultaneously? Or did The Saint somehow morph into The Philanthropist? That seems an unlikely scenario, given that the trade states The Philanthropist got a 13-episode order from NBC nearly a year ago. More likely, the shows aren't really as similar as they sound in loglines.

Whatever the tangled web behind the scenes, this story saddens me. As I was just saying earlier this month, I was really looking forward to this newest incarnation of The Saint--and primarily because of Purefoy's involvement. I hope that the matter is not yet said and done, and that we still might somehow see a James Purefoy Saint series sooner or later.

Jul 17, 2008

His Name Is Wayne, Bruce Wayne: James Bond And The Dark Knight

There’s a long association of Batman and spies, especially in the caped crusader comics drawn by Paul Gulacy. Christopher Nolan seems to share that viewpoint; he’s said as much in countless interviews, and it certainly shows in his films. I felt his Batman Begins owed a lot to the Roger Moore Bond movies (in scope, not tone), and Nolan turned Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox into Batman’s Q. (Clearly, he felt a need to answer Jack Nicholson’s famous rhetorical question, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?")

Nolan’s latest Bat opus, The Dark Knight, continues this trend. It’s not only the best Batman film ever, but chock full of spy references! For starters, there’s an even more direct riff on the classic Q scenes ("Try reading the instruction manual first," snaps Fox at an overcurious Bruce Wayne), which is nice to see somewhere, since EON seem to have abandoned that crucial element from the current cinematic 007. There are several blatant Bond nods, including Batman’s method of exfiltration when he travels overseas for more exotic (and Bond-like) adventure outside of Gotham City. Fox says it’s borrowed from the CIA, but astute viewers will know it’s really borrowed from Thunderball! Largo’s yacht from the same movie would seem to provide inspiration for a cool new Bat gadget, as well.

Garth at Dark Horizons recently asked Nolan, "You've said you're a big fan of James Bond. Did you purposely put in some of more of that secret agent stuff into this film because of that?" and the director gave an interesting reply: "Well, we certainly did in both films. We started it in Batman Begins, and I think the Bond films are a big influence tonally. In terms of trying to explain to the studio, you know, if you look at the early Bond films you've got extraordinary things happening. But there's an overall tone you can buy into as a regular action movie. You're not completely stepping outside the bounds of reality."

Beyond Bond, there are other spy themes running through The Dark Knight. Alfred’s (Michael Caine) mysterious past is alluded to obliquely, although the reference seems more likely to be to army days than those at MI6. Finally, the movie addresses very contemporary issues of personal privacy, and to what ends Batman should go in spying on the public in order to protect them. Where are the limits? It’s a key theme of Nolan’s film, and one very applicable to the domestic spy bills recently voted on in Congress. While it only makes sense to comment here on the spy aspects of the film, I will say that The Dark Knight actually lives up to all its considerable hype. It’s a bona fide masterpiece, and even manages to make vast improvements on its not unimpressive predecessor.

Christopher Nolan appears to be a real Bond aficionado, and I’d love to see what he did with an actual Daniel Craig Bond film! (When asked if he'd like to helm one, the director is quick to reply, "I'd love to!" Likewise, according to MI6, Dark Knight co-star Gary Oldman has nominated himself to be the new Q.) In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Nolan’s take on The Prisoner more than ever, and I really hope he manages to squeeze it in next, between Batfilms. (According to the same Dark Horizons interview, he hasn't decided what film to tackle next.)

Jul 16, 2008

Tradecraft: Midnight In Tehran, Chuck & Pierce

Midnight

"Fox 2000 has acquired screen rights to One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, according to Variety. The film will focus on U2 spy pilot Charles Maultsby who drifted off course into Soviet airspace and nearly provoked WWIII. "Buried in [Michael Dobbs']book is this white-knuckle four-hour flight that frames out the most dangerous moment in the history of the world," says producer John Davis. The incident provides a fresh point of view on the tensest moment of the Cold War.

Tehran

Variety reports that Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment have picked up a spec script called Tehran by Richard Regen. According to the trade, "the drama revolves around an American professor who is contracted by the federal government to observe tensions in pre-coup Tehran in 1977. He realizes that Iran is rife with political danger and his viewpoint is backed up when he falls in love with an Iranian girl whose brother is a member of the secret police." 1977 Tehran is a great, underused backdrop for tense spy drama, so this one sounds pretty exciting. Regen is no stranger to espionage, having created the 2000 UPN series Secret Agent Man, a modern-day take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. concept that featured the secret agent duo Monk and Holiday, stylish agents of P.O.I.S.E. Somehow I missed that one. Cancelled after twelve episodes, it sadly aired just a few years before it became commonplace for failed series to automatically turn up on DVD. Too bad, because it sounds kind of awesome!

Brewster Chucked

EW's Michael Ausiello reports that the ethereal Jordanna Brewster (pictured) will appear on a multi-episode arc of Chuck this fall. Brewster will play Jill, the infamous college girlfriend who came between Chuck and his future spy roommate, Bryce Larkin, back at Stamford. After starring in the cult hit D.E.B.S., Jordanna Brewster had another near-miss with the spy genre in 2007 when she took on Angelina Jolie's role for a TV version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Sadly, the pilot never went to series. It was a show I was anxiously looking forward to. But I'll be glad to see her pop up on Chuck!

Cap'n Pierce

Ahoy there! The same week he's shaking up his spy-guy image by singing and dancing to Abba songs in Mama Mia!, Pierce Brosnan is in the news again. Variety reports that the former Bond will play a swashbuckling sea captain in director Danny Devito's movie of Avi's classic young adult novel The Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. They describe the character as "charismatic but ruthless." Sounds perfect for Pierce! Morgan Freeman plays the ship's chef and Atonement's Saoirse Ronan plays the title character in the 1830s-set adventure.
More Wild Wild West This Fall

Well, CBS/Paramount may have wrapped up the series with their recent release of The Wild Wild West - The Fourth Season, but they're still milking the franchise. TVShowsOnDVD reports that they'll release The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series on November 4. The good news is that, in addition to all four previously released seasons, this release will also include the two much-hoped-for TV reunion movies, Wild Wild West Revisited and More Wild Wild West on an exclusive bonus disc! The bad news is that there are no plans to release this disc on its own. So if you've already bought all four seasons (which most fans probably have) and you want to have everything (as most do, I'd imagine), Paramount's got you in a stranglehold. Annoying, but at least those movies are coming out! Package Artwork isn't available yet, but I sure hope it's cool enough to justify that forced re-buying...

Jul 15, 2008

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Today sees the release of Lionsgate's The Bank Job on DVD. The Roger Donaldson films stars Jason Statham and Saffron Burroughs and tells the fascinating true story (or as true as the writers can guess, since many of the facts have never been released) of a 1970 London bank robbery that was hushed up by the government. The movie postulates a credible conspiracy involving crooked cops, local gangsters, black power, MI5, and even the Royal Family. It's not just a heist movie. The heist, while interesting, is over halfway through the film. Then things really get going with the cover-up and conspiracy angles of what's really a spy movie. The Bank Job is available in single-disc and double-disc (marked up for that useless "digital copy," but also including extra bonus features) editions.

Read my review of The Bank Job here.

Jul 14, 2008

Tradecraft: Burn Notice Burns Up The Ratings

Variety reports that Burn Notice scored big ratings with its second season debut last week. In addition to being the top-rated cable program Thursday night, Burn Notice also managed to "top its firstrun ABC and CBS competition in key demos," according to the trade. It was the second-best score for a scripted cable series this year, behind USA's own Monk finale in February. Here are all the stats, including some that will probably mean nothing to anyone outside the TV industry: "According to Nielsen nationals, Burn Notice averaged a hot 1.8 rating/6 share among adults 18-49 and 5.39 million viewers overall, a 20% gain in the demo and a 35% improvement in overall audience vs. its series debut of last summer."
Tradecraft: The Echelon Vendetta

Just say it: "The Echelon Vendetta!" I don't even need to know what it's about to get excited by a title like that. It's sort of the ultimate Ludlumesque three word spy title. It's terrific because it means absolutely nothing (outside the context of the story, at least), but sounds awesome and tells any seasoned spy reader/viewer exactly what to expect. Furthermore, the last two words could just as easily be interchanged, which goes a step beyond The Ludlum Formula, which generally requires a proper name up front. You couldn't have a book titled "The Inheritance Scarlatti," but you could just as easily have "The Vendetta Echelon," although it doesn't have quite the same ring. But I digress. Please forgive me; as regular readers of this blog are sure to know, I just love titles like this. I'll be saying it all day. "The Echelon Vendetta." So what is it?

Reader Bish88 gave me the heads up on this story I'd missed in last week's Hollywood Reporter, then filled in some more details. According to the trade, The Wackness director (that's a movie, by the way) "is penning the screenplay for The Echelon Vendetta, an espionage thriller based on David Stone's novel; the project has been set up at Sony." They go on to say the story "centers on a 'cleaner,' a CIA operative in charge of keeping dirty laundry from being aired in public, who after the death of a friend begins to investigate the mysterious deaths of several agents."

Bish supplies this further plot description:
Micha Dalton is not paid to ask questions. He's the man the CIA sends to clean up the mess when something goes wrong-an agent gets in trouble, or worse. But when his colleague and friend Porter Nauman turns up dead in an idyllic Tuscan hill town as a result of an apparent and unimaginably gruesome suicide, Dalton can't help but ask questions. And when Nauman's family is subsequently slaughtered back home in London, Dalton can sit back no longer.

Moving from Venice to London to Washington, D.C., to the unbearably beautiful mountains of the American West, Dalton tracks the specter who, with a penchant for intricate knifework influenced by Native American mysticism, is killing a disparate group of agents, former agents, and contract men-all of whom seem to have a connection to ECHELON, a mysterious company operation. The murders appear to be acts of retribution, but for what?

David Stone is a pseudonym for a former military man who has worked in intelligence and law enforcement around the world.
Sounds good, and with a title like that, you know I'm there!

Jul 11, 2008

Burn Notice Season Premiere

So Michael Weston is back! And how’s his return? Well, the season premiere cheats a little on last year’s cliffhanger. It looked like he was on his way well out of Miami and headed for some serious answers as to the burning question of who burned him, but now we discover that that elaborate setup merely led to another case–and more questions. While that’s a little bit frustrating, the truth of the matter is that audiences don’t really want a radical change in the series, so the writers are certainly better off in devising a way for him to stay in Miami. And the new premise (which finds Michael reluctantly working for the unknown forces who have been pulling the strings all along) should at least alleviate last season’s over-reliance on friends of his mother who get into trouble and then need help. But Matt Nix & Co. are going to have to give us some answers eventually as to the whole “burn” issue, and then find a way to make those answers mesh with keeping Michael in Miami!

Besides the cheat, the Season Two opener is a great episode. Solid writing, good action and an expanded role for Bruce Campbell. What more could you ask for? Michael executes another exciting, Mission: Impossible-style break-in, and an equally exciting–if unplanned–breakout. There are some wonderful comic moments, such as Sam (Campbell) teaching the client to play cards rather loudly and distractingly as Michael tries to plan his heist, and Fiona’s priceless expression as she shows off her expert marksmanship by missing Michael by mere inches.

I found Michael’s British accent to be a little dodgy, but maybe that’s a throwback to Fiona’s disappearing Irish accent in last year’s pilot? If so, does that mean next year it’s Bruce’s turn for an accent? (Maybe Scottish?) Hope so! Anyway, if the pilot’s anything to judge by, it looks like we can expect the same high quality and exceptional entertainment value out of the second season as we got from the first.

Jul 10, 2008

Reminder: Burn Notice Returns Tonight!

The second season of the best spy show currently airing, Burn Notice, starts tonight on USA at 10PM Eastern/Pacific. The season premiere is repeated at 1AM and likely to be rebroadcast many times throughout the weekend. Check the schedule on USA's website.

Read my review of the Burn Notice: Season One DVD here.
Michael Caine To Be Honored In Hollywood

Sir Michael Caine, star of countless spy movies over the decades (including the fantastic Harry Palmer series from the Sixties), will be honored in a hand and footprint ceremony at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood tomorrow morning. Angelenos take note: the ceremony will occur at 11:30 AM on Friday, July 11, in recognition of Caine's upcoming role as Alfred in The Dark Knight as well as a career's worth of brilliant performances. I really, really wish I could go (the Roger Moore star ceremony was a lot of fun), but I don't think I can swing it on such short notice this time. If anyone does go, please send some pictures! Some of Caine's many notable spy movies include The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain (my personal favorite), The Fourth Protocol, The Holcroft Covenant, The Jigsaw Man, Blue Ice, Austin Powers in Goldmember and The Quiet American. (Not that I need to remind anyone who reads this blog, I'm sure!)

All the details on the ceremony can be found at Reuters.

Jul 9, 2008

Update On Guillermo Del Toro's Champions Movie
It's Still Happening!

I had a chance to speak with Guillermo Del Toro last week while he was on his Hellboy 2 press junket (great movie, by the way; check it out this Friday!), and asked him about the status of his movie version of the cult Sixties ITC show The Champions (which still strikes me as one of the more surprising TV remake announcements ever!). I was afraid The Champions was doomed when Del Toro committed to spend the next half decade in New Zealand directing The Hobbit, but he assured me it's very much still in the works. He will not direct it, however, just write. He said that he's finished a treatment and will be turning in his script draft shortly. He also revealed that the characters remain the same, though he has an interesting new twist on the material. I concluded our conversation by asking him if he thought he'd be able to cast anyone as beautiful as Alexandra Bastedo as Sharron, and he responded, "I don't think there is anyone as beautiful as Alexandra Bastedo!" Well said, Guillermo, well said.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I can't wait for this movie! It will be interesting to see who Cruise/ Wagner and United Artists select to direct it.

Jul 8, 2008

Tradecraft: Ripped From The Headlines

Variety reports that Hollywood producers are moving quickly to get last week's exciting news story of the Colombian hostage rescue on the big screen as quickly as possible. Colombian officials went out of their way to describe the rescue mission as an "intelligence operation," and not military. While various studios, agencies and producers are courting the hostages themselves to secure their stories, others are pursuing the spy angle more directly. The trade reports:
Scott Steindorff and Las Vegas-based Phil Maloof are negotiating to get the rights to the Colombian government's story of how it pulled off the bloodless liberations.

The operation included infiltrating [rebel hostage-takers] FARC's intelligence network and employing acting teachers and speech therapists to fool the kidnappers into thinking that the helicopters that landed deep in the jungles were sent by a humanitarian group.

Steindorff filmed Love in the Time of Cholera in Cartagena, Colombia, and became friendly with government officials during his work there.
Acting teachers and speech therapists? Sounds like a team Jim Phelps would assemble! The secret nature of intelligence work dictates that most successes remain unsung, while failures become widely known. It will be nice to see a successful, real world intelligence operation celebrated on screen for once.

Jul 7, 2008

Tradecraft: De Niro Wants More Shepherds

Robert De Niro spoke this past weekend at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic and revealed that he still harbors hopes for following up 2006's The Good Shepherd, even though that film failed to light up the box office. Variety reports that "De Niro said he would like to make two sequels to CIA Cold War drama The Good Shepherd -- one bringing the action forward from 1961 to 1989, the other following its hero, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), up to the present day. Although he is not working on research for the concluding parts of the hoped-for trilogy, De Niro said being in central Europe offered a good opportunity to begin thinking about the material."

It was always the intention of director/co-star De Niro and writer Eric Roth to make a trilogy of films tracing the history of the CIA, following Matt Damon's James Jesus Angleton-inspired character from the inception of the Agency all the way up to the present day. Personally, I really hope De Niro is able to realize his dream. I enjoyed every minute of The Good Shepherd, despite the film's many flaws. And I still believe that most of those flaws would be ironed out by a longer cut, and hope that we see that cut one day on DVD. (Roth said the first attempt clocked in at over four hours.)

Read my initial review of The Good Shepherd here.
Read my re-appraisal of The Good Shepherd on DVD here.
New Quantum Of Solace Poster?

A new UK quad poster for Quantum of Solace has popped up online. It apparently appeared initially on Ebay (hence the low quality of the image), and was spotted by IMP. From there, Dark Horizons picked it up. So that's the history of it. Is it real? Probably. It seems line line with the way Sony are marketing the film, and it's neat that it could be the "other side" of the teaser image. Of course, it could also be a fake made from combining the final shot of the trailer with elements from the teaser poster and the website... But I suspect it's real and we'll see a higher quality version shortly.

Jul 5, 2008

DVD Review: The Wild Wild West - The Fourth Season

After the surreal, mod genius of its incredible second season, The Wild Wild West reigned itself in with Season 3, and perhaps wisely so. The fantastic, over-the-top scenarios of Season 2 were great while they lasted, but may not have been able to sustain the show much longer. Still, even if a return to more realistic (and more standard Western) stories was a good move in the long term, it did make the third season a bit of a disappointment after the way-out second season. I’m happy to report that Season Four (the final one, sadly) is something of a return to form for the show. This time around, the producers strike a compromise similar to that of the black and white first season: a good mixture of believable secret service exploits, traditional Western plots and fantastic Jules Verne-style sci-fi. It doesn’t go overboard with the fantasy like Season Two may have, but it does offer enough of those episodes to make the series stand out from the glut of other Westerns that still clung to life in 1969.

Unfortunately, the Fourth Season suffers one flaw beyond anyone’s control: the loss of co-star Ross Martin from about a quarter of the episodes. Martin had a serious heart attack during this season, and had to take it easy, sitting out a number of shows. I’ll admit that Martin’s Artemus Gordon took a while to grow on me (during the first season I kept wishing West had a female partner), but he and Robert Conrad clicked so well that ultimately their chemistry was a key ingredient in the series’ success. A parade of able guest stars including Alan Hale, Jr., Steve Carlson and, most often, Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike, take on the unenviable task of attempting to fill Martin’s shoes. All acquit themselves admirably, but none of them kept me from wishing Arte were there instead. Sadly, Martin even had to skip his show’s finale.

Arte is around and well, however, for the season premiere, "Night of the Big Blackmail." This fantastic episode eschews the Western setting altogether for intrigue in Washington D.C. instead. It’s an homage to/parody of Mission: Impossible, on which Wild Wild West star Robert Conrad guest-starred several times. When a Slavic ambassador (par for the M:I course) plots to discredit President Grant by exhibiting a kinotype of him (really a double) signing a treaty with an unpopular foreign power, Jim (sporting a new haircut that takes some getting used to) and Arte get the opportunity to engage in all the same sort of Impossible hijinks Jim Phelps and his team usually get up to. This Mission requires disguises, quick changes, blackmail, infiltration of an enemy embassy, an elaborate heist and manipulation of media (as well as the usual fisticuffs), all to the ends of discrediting the episode’s villain in front of his boss. Even without the usual Western scenery, it’s as fine a season premiere as an audience could hope for, and things are off to a good start. A terrific, unusually jazzy and Schiffrin-esque score solidifies the whole M:I tone.







Subsequent episodes find the Secret Service’s finest agents back in their more familiar environment, but forced to contend with the unusual, anachronistic technology and eccentric villains fans of the series have come to love. (As well as the occasional sea monster or erupting volcano!) As with Season 3, these elements are often injected into the sorts of standard Western plotlines featured on other cowboy shows. In "Night of the Juggernaut," for example, it’s the story we’ve seen dozens of times before of home-steaders being chased off their land because some tycoon wants it all for himself. Instead of being chased off by standard-issue gunmen in black hats and bandannas, however, they’re chased off by a fantastic tank-like vehicle concocted by an evil would-be oil baron ahead of his time. The tank itself looks like he got ahold of Dr. No’s "dragon" and painted it orange, and has the same destructive capacity. It’s a story we’ve seen before, yes, but the futuristic technology combined with a great villain lifts this telling well above average. Plus, we get one of Arte’s most flamboyant disguises!

Another superlative techno-heavy outing, the intriguingly-titled "Night of the Kraken," begins like Jules Verne and ends like James Bond. Jim and Arte investigate an eerie waterfront (a set that gets a lot of use this season) where Portugese fishermen have been disappearing–supposedly the work of a giant, tentacled kraken! It isn’t long before Jim is fighting the beastie, and its true mechanical nature is revealed. But what’s its connection to the local Naval station? Before the episode’s conclusion, we’re treated to a very Ken Adam-ish underwater base (a sort of proto-Atlantis from The Spy Who Loved Me, presided over by the impressive Branjalina of the supervillain set) and lots of shirtless Jim for the ladies. (He spends a lot of time underwater, including testing a prototype diving helmet.)

"Night of the Gruesome Games" deserves mention as a decidedly Avengersy affair. An eccentric millionaire hosts a fancy dress party for the rich and famous where the entertainment is a series of deadly parlor games. As each guest tires of putting his or her life on the line for amusement, the host keeps them going by appealing to their greed, dangling exactly the sort of precious trinket that would appeal most to that individual. The winner (that is, survivor) stands to become very rich, and most of these guests are ready to shed their dignity at a moment’s notice to achieve that prospect. Into this hedonistic backdrop come Jim and Arte, hot on the trail of a deadly disease stolen by a nefarious doctor. One of the guests is clearly his accomplice, and it’s up to them to divine who before the host’s unique brand of entertainment kills them all!
The season hits its high point in "Night of the Egyptian Queen," an all-around classic. This episode has it all: a great villain (in the person of the memorable Mr. Jason), a great girl (who spends the duration in her skimpy belly-dancing attire), secret societies, cool fights, waterfront settings, Arte in disguise as an Australian sailor, and an Indiana Jones-ish treasure plot complete with an ancient mechanism that depends on moonlight hitting a gem at the perfect angle. A highlight finds Jim and the girl trapped inside an icehouse and slowly freezing to death. It’s pure adventure, with Robert Conrad at his very best.

"Night of the Pelican" is a terrific quasi-serious spy episode. Largely set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it’s got enough murder, disguises and conspiracy to pass for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Charles Aidman ably fills in as frequent Arte surrogate Jeremy Pike. Aidman is good at disguises (more convincing than Martin at times) and makes the most of a losing situation in filling in for the much-missed regular. He also makes a surprisingly convincing "Chinaman!" The plot is basically that of The Rock: a great Chinese villain played by Steve McGarrett’s Hawaii Five-O nemesis Khigh Dheigh (who sadly spends too much time in disguise) teams up with a much less memorable French baddie to take over Alcatraz (then a prison fort for reprobate soldiers) to use as a platform from which to launch rockets! They’re not aimed at San Fran this time, but at the American fleet preparing to make port there. Jim goes undercover as a prisoner at Alcatraz in order to expose the scheme, and once again spends a lot of time shirtless.



Arte sits out Dr. Loveless’s final scheme as well, the aptly-titled "Night of Miguelito’s Revenge." Pike fills in again. Jim goes in for a shave from a barber named Delilah, but refuses a haircut. (Maybe he shouldn’t have, considering his ‘do this season!) As you set yourself up for when frequenting a barber named Delilah, he finds himself drugged by Loveless and stuck in a funhouse full of scary clowns. Yes, we’ve seen it before on the show, but it still works... and it’s nice to see again!

Perhaps taking a page from the Joker’s playbook, Loveless is kidnapping various people he wants revenge on in order to put them on trial before a jury of clown puppets. As you do if you’re a supervillain, even a diminutive one. He’s also created a steam-powered robo-man that he controls by playing a pipe organ, but he doesn’t really use his steambot for anything other than fighting Jim. As usual, Dr. Loveless manages to escape at the end, shooting himself out of a cannon. Sadly, that means there’s no real conclusion for the villain (Michael Dunn had sadly passed on by the time of the first reunion movie, leaving Loveless’s son to carry on his legacy of lunacy), but at least we’re treated to an episode that not only works on its own, but serves as a good tribute to the mad genius’s past plots as well. And, dependably, Dr. Loveless brings the weird, making sure that the final season isn’t altogether without its share of steam-powered robots and the like!

Speaking of disappointing character conclusions, poor Arte (as I mentioned) even misses the show’s series finale! He makes his own swan song in "Night of the Plague," but sits out the season capper, "Night of the Tycoons."

"Night of the Plague" is one of the most conventional Westerns in the series, but still off-kilter enough to make it fun. Jim and even Arte may wear regular cowboy duds in this episode, but they still pack gadgets in their leather chaps! (Wow, that sentence came out sounding way dirtier than I intended.) Jim uses one such device to rappel down a steep cliff, giving him the edge over other TV cowboys. Furthermore, the villains aren’t your standard Old West badmen; they’re a band of Shakespearean actors who mix treading the stage with robbing the stage (as in coach).

It’s a perfect opportunity for Arte to flex his Acting muscles once again (recalling Season 1's "Night of the Casual Killer") in order in infiltrate the gang, giving Ross Martin an appropriate curtain call for the series (even if it comes an episode too soon). As an added plus for spy fans, Lana Wood turns up as another treacherous child of entitlement (similar to her role in "Night of the Firebrand"). And rounding out the appropriate Wild Wild West weirdness, there’s the little matter of the deadly plague the gang have unknowingly contracted, a pressing enough matter to eclipse the stage robberies.

The series wraps up, appropriately, in the vein in which it began: with a very Avengers-ish plot about board members of a large corporation being bumped off one by one. Unfortunately, "Night of the Tycoons" lacks the originality of the best Avengers, or, worse yet, the best Wild Wild West. The rather mundane story isn’t very spy and isn’t very Western either, but it does, however, have a monkey assassin dressed in a Civil War uniform, so that counts for something!

Jim has no Secret Service partner on his final regular mission, just young corporate brat Lionel, played by Deadlier Than the Male’s Steve Carlson. Carlson and Conrad do manage to form a good rapport by the episode’s conclusion, though, and along the way we’re treated to a circus-themed nightclub with trained killer animals and a freaky group of mannequins who suddenly open their eyes revealing themselves to be people, looking like Fantomas in their mannequin get-ups. That’s a good shock moment, and a good bit of Prisoner-like imagery. Jim and Lionel face an old-fashioned "candle-burning-through-leather-thong" type deathtrap, and on the gadget front, Jim gets a lot of use out of his phony shoe heel. Disappointingly, the final tag scene doesn’t even mention Arte this time (some of the Ross Martin-less episodes did), and instead the series ends forever on an uncharacteristic and unpleasantly sexist note, with Jim advising Lionel’s new fiancé to "get some practical experience... in the kitchen" before adding to his newfound protégé, "Lionel, we’ve got to break these women in right."
As has become the practice with these seasons following the fantastic, feature-laden first one (which boasted introductions by Robert Conrad with every episode!), there are no extras. That’s too bad, because I had really hoped that the two TV reunion movies would be included with the final set. Hopefully their absence just means that Paramount wants to squeeze one last DVD release out of The Wild Wild West, and we’ll see them sometime down the road (if Paramount even owns the rights). The video quality is also not quite as good on Season 4 as it was on previous releases. It’s a little darker and grainier. (Not enough so to make any substantial difference, though.) And, as long as I’m nitpicking, Arte’s name is consistently misspelled ("Artie") on the packaging! Overall, I would rank the final season as my third favorite, after 1 and 2. If you’ve already got the others, then by all means get this one too; there are plenty of great episodes. If you haven’t yet plunged into the wild, wild world of The Wild Wild West, though, definitely start at the beginning.

Read my review of The Wild Wild West - The Second Season