Aug 29, 2008

The Next Eurospy Babe: Transporter 3's Natalya Rudekova

The Eurospy genre is alive and well in 2008! I like the steady stream of neo-Eurospy movies we're getting these days. It's not a glut like there was in the Sixties, with dozens and dozens of titles a year at the height of the spy craze, but there are enough low- to mid-budget action movies from much of the same European crew with cool action, great European locations and hot Euro-babes to satisfy my thirst for the genre.

Last year we had Hitman, before that Transporter 2. Each showcased a somewhat non-traditional beauty sporting plenty of black eyeliner. Transporter 2 introduced the world to American vixen Kate Nauta, and Hitman showcased the stunning Olga Kurylenko. We all know Miss Kurylenko went on to become the next Bond Girl; will Transporter 3's Slavic import Natalya Rudekova find the same success? As of now, there doesn't seem to be any information out there on her. No European Maxim shoots pop up on Google; she doesn't even seem to have an IMDB profile yet as far as I can tell. But the freckled beauty makes a striking (albeit fleeting) impression in the brand new Transporter 3 trailer. Perhaps the new Eurospy movies will prove the breeding ground for the next generation of action heroines? Only time will tell, but Ms. Rudekova has me intrigued. And Transporter 3 looks to offer more of the amazing stunts and fight scenes we got in the first two movies, thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to returning fight choreographer Cory Yuen. Former Bond baddie Jeroen Krabbe also turns up.

Read my full review of Transporter 3–and see more pictures of Natalya–here.




Aug 28, 2008

Upcoming Spy DVDs

Bourne Again... Again

Lots of exciting DVD news today! First up, DVDActive reports that Universal has announced yet another Jason Bourne collection: The Bourne Trilogy. While this one features the snazziest package art yet of their twice-yearly Bourne collections, it's vastly inferior because it's missing the awesome "Ludlum Files" bonus disc included in the previous two sets. This will be out November 4 and retail for $34.99.

The Pink Panther Redux

In the same tradition of milking every last cent out of existing product catalog before releasing the stuff on Blu-Ray, Fox and MGM have announced the ultimate Christmas gift for all Pink Panther fans: The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection. This impressive box set contains a whopping eighteen discs comprising every Pink Panther movie from the original up through the Steve Martin version, including all the weird ones like Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin and Curse of the Pink Panther with Roger Moore as Clouseau, but excluding-of course-one of the series' best films, Return of the Pink Panther. Since that one was financed by Lew Grade and ITC, it's never been a part of the MGM library and is currently available on DVD on a Universal imprint. In addition to all the movies, the Ultimate Collection will also include over 190 Pink Panther cartoons! This includes the first four volumes (previously available as a set), the Ant and the Aardvark volume, and the previously available Inspector volume... as well as the previously unreleased Inspector Volume 2, Roland and Ratfink and a mysterious ninth disc! Best of all, this new set will also include a new Special Edition of Blake Edwards' original Pink Panther film, including over sixty minutes of never-before-seen bonus material, all exclusive to this set. The studio hasn't provided artwork yet, but I'm hoping for a neat package. I wasn't very fond of the "puffy" cases for the previous Pink Panther collections, and will be happy to consolodate all my discs into one set if it's well-packaged. The only real oversight here is not doing a new Special Edition of A Shot In the Dark as well. I'd have loved to have heard a commentary with Edwards, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom.

The Oft-Promised Return Of Fu Manchu

Finally, DVD Drive-In reports that Warner Bros. will at long last make one of the good Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films available in America! Sadly it's not the best one, The Face of Fu Manchu, but it's a close second: The Brides of Fu Manchu, also directed by Don Sharp, and co-starring Douglas Wilmer and two-time Bond Girl Tsai Chin. It will be available as a double feature, paired incongruously with Chamber of Horrors (1966). The latter features a cameo by future Persuader Tony Curtis. Like the recent Warner Sci-Fi double features, this will be a Best Buy exclusive (annoying!), available October 7. That same day, the site reports, the Sci-Fi double features (including Lois Maxwell's pre-Bond star vehicle Satellite In the Sky and the Catherine Schell Hammer flick Moon Zero Two) will cease to be exclusive to the store.

The only Christopher Lee Fu Manchu movies previously available in the States were the later... badder... Jess Franco ones. The first three, superior entries are available in excellent transfers in the UK.
Artwork For McGoohan's Dr. Syn

TVShowsOnDVD posted the cover artwork for Disney's upcoming "Walt Disney Treasures" release of Secret Agent star Patrick McGoohan's only major non-spy TV show of the Sixties, Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. McGoohan fans have been clamoring for years for this DVD, so it's great to finally see artwork... to know it's really--finally--that close to being a reality! The 2-disc set will include all three hour-long TV episodes of the miniseries, as well as the edited theatrical version. Presumably it will come in a silver tin, like previous Walt Disney Treasures releases. Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh hits stores November 11 and retails for $32.99.

Aug 26, 2008

Movie Review: A Man Called Dagger (1967)

Movie Review: A Man Called Dagger (1967)
Here’s another movie, like Dimension 5, that can only be described as “American Eurospy.” This low budget Bond ripoff (or, more accurately, Flint or Helm ripoff) is as sluggishly paced as Dimension 5 (I have to confess, it took me three nights to get through its eighty-some minute running time), its hero is less likable, and it doesn’t bring anything new or original to the genre the way Dimension 5 did, but it does offer more memorable setpieces and more humor, putting the two films on roughly equal footing. Director Richard Rush, who would later earn an Oscar nomination for The Stuntman, a bona fide masterpiece with Peter O’Toole, stretches his micro budget very creatively. In the best example of that, he and his art director manage to turn one tiny set into a vast, futuristic underground villain’s lair in one of the movie’s most exciting sequences.

After having rescued a damsel in distress, secret agent Dick Dagger leads her through a corridor that’s actually a series of cube-shaped rooms with large garage doors that slam down behind them as alarms blare. The pair stay one step ahead of each shutting door, and even though this requires only one and a half cube-shaped sets, it gives the impression of a much larger space and maintains a breakneck pace for their escape. When the girl falls behind and a door separates her from Dagger, they both end up sealed in their cubes. Suddenly, a different wall of Dagger’s cube opens up, revealing the villain and his colorful minions waiting in an ornate stateroom. It’s a very clever piece of budget-conscious set design.

Another visually cool moment has Dagger and the villain orchestrating a prisoner exchange from opposite ends of an escalator. Suspense builds as one prisoner rides up the up escalator toward Dagger, passing the other one heading down the down escalator to the bad guys. The camera impressively swirls around this whole spectacle, once again turning a bland scene in a very mundane setting (it’s just an escalator!) into a strikingly executed setpiece–and even adding a new spin to a familiar convention of the genre. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for every scene in the movie.

A Man Called Dagger starts off with a boring fight scene where all the action seems to happen off-screen. We hear gunshots and punches somewhere, and the improbably awesome score by comedian Steve Allen (owing way more than a bit to John Barry’s Bond scores of the period) alerts us that what’s happening is supposed to be exciting... but all we see on camera is star Paul Mantee charging up some stairs in a lame eyepatch disguise.

Mantee is the movie’s single biggest liability. He’s really one of the worst spy heroes of the era. Sporting an awful, awful receding Paul Simon haircut, he simply doesn’t look like a leading man, for starters. Furthermore, he displays none of the animal magnetism called for in a character who prompts one conquest to breathlessly comment, “I’ll bet your women have their work all cut out for them. No hobbies, no pastimes... just you.” Really? Him?

Despite possessing none of the necessary charm, he has no trouble conveying the requisite loathsomeness and misogyny demanded by the genre. In a scene apparently intended to make him look suave but backfiring horribly, Dagger tortures a woman for information by turning up the heat in her shower to excruciating levels and not letting her out. When she finally talks, he turns on the cold and tells her to keep her cool. Nice guy.

Luckily, the hero’s shortcomings are more than offset by the villain’s strengths. Paul Mantee fails to make even a dashing secret agent charming, but Jan Murray manages to conjure up charm to spare playing a Nazi! Now that takes skill! His urbane, wheelchair-bound Dr. Koffman is the sort of villain who happens to keep replicas of famous dictators’ headgear around his office. They make handy props when he gives a speech to his minions about why past would-be world conquerors all failed. (Hitler forgot that “nice guys” finish last.) Koffman holds court with a motley assortment of colorful underlings, including a young–and very funny–Richard Kiel, essentially playing a toothless Jaws. Koffman talks down to his associates with an amusing condescension that prefigures Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor... or echoes Michael Dunn’s Dr. Miguelito Loveless from The Wild Wild West. Yes, Dagger’s rogues’ gallery would be right at home on that show.

Murray still charms even when behaving badly. When his moll successfully seduces Dagger and feeds him the misinformation she was supposed to, she asks Koffman if she did a good job. “No,” he snaps, striking her. “That’s for the three hours it took you to tell him!” And when Dagger asks him point blank how he disposes of the victims of his unsuccessful experiments, Koffman calmly replies, “In a very amusing way.”

Dagger himself could take lessons. His quips leave a lot to be desired (when Koffman tells him he uses a machine to brainwash people, Dagger asks, “Washing machine?” Groan!), and he’s got little patience and an unpleasant temper. Thrusting some sort of doohickey at a woman, he sharply orders her, “Swallow this.” When she’s understandably a tad reluctant and merely asks what it is, he snaps and repeats, “SWALLOW IT!” in a nasty bark. Only after this embarrassing outburst does he take the time to explain that it’s a homing device.

Some of his cohorts on the side of the angels aren’t much better. When a beautiful woman named Joy sneaks into Dagger’s hotel room (seeking his help), her magnificent decolletage is sadly offset by the fact that she appears to be... mentally challenged. I suppose she’s meant to be a bimbo, but Maureen Arthur’s utterly childlike delivery gives the impression of a serious handicap. The notion that the slimy Dagger is about to take advantage of such a person is enough to make the skin crawl. And her apparent condition makes it weird that when he turns around she’s suddenly naked, in the shower. “I like showers,” she explains simply, and it doesn’t sound seductive; it sounds childlike. Like she really does just like showers, and routinely gets into random people’s showers because she doesn’t know any better.

Despite setbacks like this, though, the movie builds to a pretty cool finale. Once he starts kicking ass to the chords of some great spy music, even Dick Dagger starts to seem kind of cool. And his showdown with the toothless Jaws (during which he makes the same mistakes 007 makes a decade later, finding that his punches have no effect on the human giant) is nothing compared to his showdown with the crippled Koffman! Koffman’s wheelchair comes equipped with flame throwers, extend-o-spears and all sorts of cool stuff normally reserved for Aston Martins. On top of that, though, it turns out he doesn’t even need the chair! He was faking, leaving him free for a terrifically surreal knife fight in a meat locker, in which the urbane, tuxedoed Koffman slashes at Dagger with a meat cleaver! (Dagger himself sports a dagger, naturally enough.)

The movie eventually comes to a spectacularly sleazy conclusion, in which Dagger ends up with not one, but two of the movie’s buxom babes. We zoom in on their bikini-clad bottoms, the words “The” and “End” stamped on each one, and sub-Bassey wailing about “A Man Called Dagger” kicks in on the soundtrack. And it’s exactly the song I’ve been hearing in my head ever since I first laid eyes on the movie’s incredible poster a decade ago!

Overall, the movie you get isn’t nearly as awesome as the movie promised on that poster (how could it be?), nor as the movie you’d see in your head listening to Allen’s jazzy score. (I still can’t believe Steve Allen wrote a great spy score!) But it is entertaining, with flashes of brilliance in the direction. And a splendid villain and villainous entourage more than make up for a less-than-beguiling hero and a total lack of chemistry between him and his ladies.



For another (altogether less favorable) opinion on A Man Called Dagger, check out David Foster’s recent review. You can also watch the trailer on his blog, Permission to Kill.
Random Intelligence Dispatches For August 26

Secret Agent Man DVDs

Only last month I was speculating about the defunct UPN's 2000 half-season TV show Secret Agent Man, and lamenting the fact that it was unlikely ever to surface on DVD. Well, it turns out that it's actually been available on DVD for several years in Australia! I only just became aware of that thanks to David Foster's excellent blog, Permission to Kill, where he reviews the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed pilot episode. Secret Agent Man featured the adventures of Monk and Holliday, agents of P.O.I.S.E. and attempted to recapture the feel of Sixties spy shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The three-disc Australian DVD contains all twelve episodes and is available from EZYDVD.

More On The Family Bond

We've got some more information on The Family Bond, the comedic spy spec picked up by Universal in June. Writer Jeff Lowell dropped by and left a comment answering some of my questions about the project, asserting that it is a "family action comedy" and revealing what sounds like a promising setpiece in which the superspy father teaches his sixteen-year-old daughter how to drive amidst a car chase. Sounds great--a bit like Tom Courtenay's hilarious car chase during his driving exam in one of my favorite spy comedies, Otley!

Bond On Kindle

Reader Chris Wright sends the alert that all of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are now available for Amazon's next generation book format, Kindle. He's got more information (including an in-depth review of the product) up on his blog at FelixLeiter.com. Unsurprisingly, Sebastian Faulks's recent high-profile pastiche Devil May Care is also available for the device.

Kim Possible At Epcot

Reader Daniel Hurlston, always a great source for Kim Possible news, wrote in to tell us about a new, interactive spy adventure based on KP characters at Disney's Epcot Center. It sounds great, and like a great way to make Epcot more... fun. Families will simulate a globetrotting espionage escapade by finding clues in the various "countries" throughout Epcot Center. (Various pavilions represent different countries and cultures of the world.) Guests will be guided by their very own "Kimmunicator," based on Kim's unique communication device from the show. Furthermore, they'll get to interact with Kim's villains and allies in the various locations while attempting to save the world. There will be over fifty possible interactions and top secret devices hidden in the World Showcase pavilions at Mexico, Norway, China, Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. There are seven specific missions to go on, each one taking about forty-five minutes. This actually sounds really cool! The Kim Possible World Showcase debuts late 2008.
Thanks to Daniel for the pictures!

Aug 25, 2008

Random Intelligence Dispatches For August 25

Young Bond Cover Leaked

It may be officially embargoed until the book's publication on September 3, but if Penguin was really keen on keeping the cover for Charlie Higson's upcoming Young Bond finale By Royal Command a secret, then they probably shouldn't have put copies of the book on sale more than a week early at the Edinburgh Book Festival! (See details on the Young Bond Dossier.) I won't spoil their fun by posting it here, but the cover is very easy to see on Ebay. And, unsurprisingly for a series whose last volume was all gold, it looks amazing. We're coming right up on the publication date, and I can't wait to see what Higson's cooked up for us! Pre-order By Royal Command at Amazon.co.uk (no U.S. release date yet) and be sure to check out YBD for all the exciting things going on in the world of Young Bond in conjunction with the book's debut.

Craig's Flashbacks In U.S. Theaters This September

It looks like Daniel Craig's Flashbacks of a Fool will indeed get a U.S. theatrical release--albeit a brief, limited one designed as promotion for its impending November 4 DVD debut, timed to coincide with the opening of Quantum of Solace. DVDActive has the artwork for the Anchor Bay DVD--and the press sheet, which reveals that the company plans a theatrical release in September "to produce awareness and buzz." Flashbacks of a Fool, which features a soundtrack heavy on Seventies glam like Roxy Music and David Bowie, came out in British theaters this past spring. It's been something of a passion project for Craig, eager to balance his big budget Bond work with more personal, independent films like this.

Aug 24, 2008

Limited Edition Of Roger Moore's Autobiography Available For Pre-Order

Also Higson's Hurricane Gold

Hatchard's, the UK online bookstore that specializes in signed and limited editions, now has a limited edition of Roger Moore's upcoming memoir My Word Is My Bond available to pre-order. The book, limited to a numbered print run of 1,000, comes in a slipcase signed by the actor. The website doesn't offer any artwork for the limited edition.

Hatchard's also has the signed, numbered and slipcased limited edition of Charlie Higson's latest Young Bond novel, Hurricane Gold, available for pre-order. Both books will ship in October.

Regular editions of My Word Is My Bond come out in the UK in October and the US in November.

Aug 21, 2008

Movie Review: Dimension 5 (1966)

Contradictory to the geographical implications of the word, there were actually a few "Eurospy" movies made in America during the Sixties. Sure, purists might argue that a true Eurospy flick should boast some sort of Italian or Spanish or German or, better yet, Franco-Italian-Spanish-German pedigree, but I prefer to categorize films generically rather than geographically. And Dimension 5, though produced with American dollars (albeit very, very few of them!), fits quite nicely into the Eurospy genre. James Bond ripoff plot? Check. Low budget stretched creatively? Check. Second-rate gadgetry? Check. Babes aplenty? Check. Loathsome, misogynist hero? Big check! Dubbed villain? You got it. And, for bonus points, former Bond baddie playing said dubbed villain? Another big check! The only crucial Eurospy element Dimension 5 is lacking is the fabulous European locations (cut-rate Los Angeles landmarks like Long Beach Harbor and Ontario Airport are poor substitutes), but it fulfills enough of the other prerequisites to let that one slide. Most importantly, it has that Eurospy sense of low budget fun going for it, which counts for a lot.

In true Eurospy tradition, we’re introduced to our hero, Justin Power (Star Trek’s original captain, Jeffrey Hunter), just as he’s showing off what a jerk he is. In his first scene, he kisses one of those aforementioned babes, then proceeds immediately to punch her out. True, she was fingering a gun in her purse while they were snogging, but it’s still a little crass. Besides punching women, the opening sequence features a speeding sports car, a helicopter, armed Chinese soldiers and lots of running, but all disparately. In fact, it's possible that none of those formulaic elements were ever even in the same shot! Still, they’re clearly meant to give the impression of excitement and budget, so we’ll award points for trying. Amidst all these familiar elements, however, we’re also introduced to the movie’s one major stroke of originality. Pursued by the soldiers (again, not actually in the same shot, I don’t think), Justin Power touches his belt and, momentarily sporting a glowing red outline, disappears. Like he was just beamed up by Scotty. The soldiers are understandably confused, and Power handily re-materializes somewhere behind them, gives them the slip, and gets away in the helicopter. (At least a shot of him running off is cut together with a shot of a helicopter, creating the implication.)




















What happened? What was that device? Did he teleport? No, in fact he time-traveled. Which is later explained as travel to another dimension, "the fifth dimension." Not explained: why they skipped the fourth dimension, or how dimensional travel equals time travel. Nor any of the science behind this fantastic device, but who cares? The screenplay is credited to Arthur C. Pierce, not Arthur C. Clarke. We’re not here for the latter’s style of "thinking man’s sci-fi"; we’re here for the former’s brand of inane spy adventure, and this one just happens to have a time travel device. The device is surprisingly ignored for long chunks of the film, but that’s okay. If someone gave me a time travel device, I’d probably be using it all the time, or at least constantly asking questions about how it worked. Luckily for us, not so Justin Power. He’s content to accept it at face value and use it only when it suits the mission, as he might any other spy gadget. Which is a good thing, because if he did ask those questions or use it all the time, the film would become a time travel movie with spying and not a spy movie with time travel, and it’s really the spy factor I’m in the theoretical theater for.

After the titles, we follow Power to the bargain basement U.N.C.L.E. where he works, a Los Angeles outfit cleverly called Espionage, Incorporated. Although its exterior is a shiny skyscraper, the wood-paneled rooms inside look suspiciously like someone’s basement. At least it’s populated by a bevy of gorgeous secretaries, taking another page from the U.N.C.L.E. playbook. Here, Power gets briefed by his boss, Mr. Kane. The briefing goes on forever, which sets a trend in this film: most scenes last about twice as long as they need to (especially the ones in the cheapest locations) in an attempt to pad the movie and stretch the budget. Kane says the bad guys are a group called the Dragon Agency, and mentions "gravitons" and "anti-gravitons" and how dangerous it might be if some Dragons got their hands on one or the other. All that turns out to be entirely beside the point though, as the Dragons’ real plan is to destroy Los Angeles "unless all allied forces are withdrawn from Southeast Asia." This plot is surprisingly topical for a Eurospy movie, as most escapist Sixties spy fare studiously avoided any hint of the war in Vietnam. The Dragons’ means of achieving their goal is also impressively forward-thinking (and much more practical than anything actually involving anti-gravitons); they’ll smuggle a hydrogen bomb into the city in pieces. Unlike, say, launching spaceship-eating spaceships from a phony volcano, this plot is essentially the very thing that Western intelligence agencies really do strive to protect against today. Perhaps Arthur C. Pierce had one of those time belts himself!

The only other important information to come out of the briefing is that Power will "have an associate on this assignment," and that Kane goes to great lengths not to use any gender pronouns in describing this associate. Later, when Power receives his associate’s time travel belt, he marvels at how small it is and seriously guesses that the mysterious associate might be either a "small boy" or a "dwarf" before any more logical conclusions occur to him. Even with this clue, he’s still astonished when she turns out to be [gasp!] a woman! A woman named Kitty, played by France Nuyen. By 1966, shouldn’t even the most sexist of secret agents have caught onto the sexual revolution that seemed (if movies are anything to go by) to be happening even faster in their profession than anywhere else at the time? Not Justin Power, who immediately upon discovering her gender instructs his new associate, "Lesson number one... when you work for Justin Power, you do as he says."

But before we even meet Kitty, though, the film takes a detour to Manilla, where two American Espionage, Incorporated agents are guarding a Dragon prisoner while transporting him back to Los Angeles for interrogation. The Dragon agent complains how his fellow Dragons will kill him rather than risk his talking, and the Americans laugh that he’s better protected than the U.S. president. Then one of them gets up to go to the bathroom, leaving only his friend protecting the prisoner. Better protected than the U.S. president, really? Naturally, that’s when the dragons move in. Perhaps this was intended as a commentary on U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia at the time? (Probably not.)

Somehow (well, with some unexpected outside help), the agents manage to fend off the first attempt and get the guy to California. But there’s another assassin (improbably wearing a cowboy outfit as ridiculous as it is conspicuous) waiting at the airport to finish the job. It’s true that Power should be able to identify this suspicious character on sight, but instead he uses his time belt in a pretty cool way. Our hero sits back and allows the assassination to take place, then travels back a few minutes earlier and, with full knowledge of all the players, successfully prevents the inevitable.

Espionage, Incorporated manages to interrogate the prisoner and learns that a Dragon operative named "Big Buddha" is masterminding the operation. Power and Kitty set off to discover Big Buddha’s true identity, but not before having a leisurely dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a waiter who speaks in Charlie Chan epigrams. The dinner conversation takes a full ten minutes of screen time, but reveals nothing. Charlie Chan gives Power a gift, which Kitty (who’s quicker than Power to catch onto things) tries to warn her partner is really a bomb. Power shuts her up by telling her to "forget that fortune cookie stuff!" even though she’s making perfectly logical sense. (I’m not sure if he’s judging her because she’s Asian or a woman, but he clearly doesn’t put much stock in either.) Then he gets lucky when a stop for cigarettes (a carton, not a pack) conveniently saves him from the ensuing explosion. One hopes the experience enlightens him somewhat.

Power teaches Kitty how to time travel with the belt, and lays out some interesting rules: only use tranquilizer guns in the past, because killing anyone then could cause chain reactions affecting the present; make sure you do your time traveling in areas that will still be there in the future, like beaches. Since shorelines change fairly drastically over time, I’m not sure the latter rule is really the best piece of advice, but the reasoning behind it is sound, and the first rule certainly makes sense! After all that buildup, the time travel device (both in a physical and narrative sense) isn’t really used all that well in the climax. It enables the heroes (and, mercifully–surprisingly–us) to skip three weeks of waiting for a ship to come in, and gets them out of a few tight situations. But it does beg the question: if the good guys have a time travel device, then what’s the point of any of Power’s investigation? Couldn’t he just jump forward, see how Big Buddha’s plan pans out (like he did with the assassination), and then go back and use that knowledge to keep it from happening? Oh well, best not to worry about that sort of thing.

Big Buddha turns out to be none other than Oddjob himself, Harold Sakata. For some reason he’s wheelchair bound, making him somewhat less of a physical threat than he was to 007, but he does sit around shirtless in his wheelchair, showing off his glistening, muscled torso. I guess that’s sort of imposing. At least he gets some great dialogue (dubbed by Marvin Miller) like, "I desire to know more about you and your Espionage Organization, Mr. Power!" The finale gets a little heavy for Eurospy fare when Kitty reveals that she wants revenge on Big Buddha because he "tortured her, used her, and then left her to die" as a child after forcing her to watch him execute her parents and sister.

Besides that (and the casual misogyny, of course–par for the genre), the overall tone of Dimension 5 is one of fun. Luckily, unlike some Eurospy leading men, Hunter actually has enough charisma to help us overlook the character's less endearing traits. The rest of the acting is pretty decent too, and everyone’s game for the B spy movie shenanigans. Furthermore, the time travel aspect, while oddly handled, is an interesting enough twist on the genre to elevate this film above some of its low-budget brethren. I really like that such an outlandish device is treated as just another spy gadget, and it doesn’t stretch credulity much further than James Bond’s invisible car. But the movie’s pacing is rather unforgivable. There isn’t much action at all (I made that note several times while watching), and every single scene lasts longer than it ought to, desperately stretching the budget... and the audience’s patience. Your enjoyment of Dimension 5 will ultimately depend on your tolerance for this. There’s enough there, though, to make it a worthwhile watch for Eurospy or Grindhouse aficionados.
Tradecraft: Quantum Postponed

God damn Warner Brothers. It was bad enough when they delayed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince eight months from Thanksgiving until next summer just to even out their quarterly earnings reports because The Dark Knight has made so much money. I was really looking forward to that Bond and Potter one-two punch this fall. But it just keeps getting worse. Now, according to Variety, Sony have responded by pushing Quantum of Solace back a week in the U.S., filling in the November 14 gap. True, it's a more traditional Bond release date, and it's closer to the holiday, but it's still a week later... and two weeks later than the UK opening! Mostly, though, this hits me at a personal level. I've already made travel plans around the original Quantum opening date! And I'm the best man in a wedding on November 14. Oh well. I'm sure their union will be especially blessed, coming on a James Bond date, so that's good. But... God damn Warner Brothers!
Decemberists To Release "Valerie Plame" Single

Not only is she the subject of a upcoming movies from both Doug Liman and Rod Lurie, but former spook Valerie Plame is also the subject of an upcoming single by indie rock outfit The Decemberists. (I should assert that they're an awesome band and I'm doing them a disservice by calling them an "indie rock outfit," but it just felt right in the newsreel announcer clip of that sentence...) Pitchfork quotes the band's press release describing the song as "an amorous tribute to the onetime CIA operative... written from the point-of-view of one of Plame's inside contacts upon discovering her true identity." The single "Valerie Plame" (Volume 1 of Always the Bridesmaid: A Singles Series in three volumes) will be backed by B-side "O New England" and available exclusively as a digital download and on 7" vinyl October 14. The band will perform it live on Conan O'Brien on November 3 (election eve).

Aug 20, 2008

Connery's Anderson Tapes Gets Region 1 DVD Release At Last

Sony will release Sean Connery's 1971 heist movie The Anderson Tapes on DVD September 23 as part of their "Martini Movies" promotion. While it's been available for quite some time as a Region 2 disc in Britain, this will be its U.S. debut. Directed by Sidney Lumet and adapted from the novel by Lawrence Sanders, The Anderson Tapes co-stars Dyan Cannon, Ralph Meeker and a very young Christopher Walken. A remake is currently in the works.

While you would think that a "Martini Movies" wave would include a lot of spy-type flicks, that's not really the case. In fact, the promotion doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Supposedly each title will boast a featurette on how to mix certain drinks cut to clips from the movies of people drinking. Also, each title (particularly this one) will feature ugly cover art. One other title of interest in the collection is $, another 1971 heist movie starring Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn and Gert Frobe.
Tradecraft: Bond Producers Snub Devil

It hardly comes as a surprise–since the producers have exclusive film rights to the character and the right to make up their own stories, and have consequently never optioned any James Bond continuation novels–but, according to Variety, EON Productions has officially passed on acquiring Sebastian Faulks' Centenary James Bond pastiche Devil May Care. This despite the author's obvious attempts to make the book cinematic–even at the expense of its fidelity to its literary origins. Producers cite the novel's 1960s setting as their reason for passing, although since the book doesn't really take advantage of the time period, that could actually be updated as easily as Ian Fleming's Casino Royale was updated for 2006. Faulks, however, along with Ian Fleming Publications (the book's co-copyright holders), remains hopeful that one day the book may still be filmed, says the trade. Interestingly, the story also mentions that Charlie Higson's Young Bond stories "would appear ripe for cinematic adaptation," but doesn't discuss the fact that they're also period pieces.

Read my review of Devil May Care here.

Aug 19, 2008

It Takes A Thief On Hulu

Now that we've finally got The Man From U.N.C.L.E., It Takes A Thief is one of the final Sixties spy TV classics remaining unreleased on DVD. That hasn't changed (although I wouldn't be surprised if it became another TimeLife exclusive like U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart), but reader Bish points out that it's recently popped up on NBC/Universal's awesome free streaming media site, Hulu. There, you can watch fourteen episodes from the first season of the Robert Wagner series about a cat burglar named Al Mundy who's forced to use his skills for Uncle Sam's spy organization. This is great news; it's a series I've never seen but read a lot about and long wanted to check out; now I can! Unfortunately, the episode in which Peter Sellers plays dual roles isn't one of the ones available, and nor are any of the ones in which Fred Astaire appears as Mundy's father, also a thief. Worst of all, neither is the series pilot! Oh well, this is still a great way to get a taste of the show in high quality. I certainly hope it's a precursor to an eventual DVD release, the way The Man From U.N.C.L.E. DVDs were preceded by streaming downloads from an ABC site.

Aug 17, 2008

DVD Review: Noble House (1988)

When Pierce Brosnan had to pass on James Bond because of his Remington Steele contract only to have the show cancelled, he drowned his sorrows in this 1988 miniseries adaptation of James Clavell’s epic novel Noble House–and he could have done a lot worse. Noble House, co-starring Brosnan’s would-have-been Living Daylights co-star John Rhys-Davies, is great entertainment and enormously fun to watch–despite a disappointing conclusion. I never realized that I loved miniseries until I saw Noble House, but it leaves me wanting to see more. Yes, the miniseries (particularly in its 1980s incarnation) is not only a format (what used to be called "long form"), but a genre unto itself. It’s typified by bombastic theme music, lavish sets, high production values (for 80s television, anyway), a whole season’s worth of over-the-top soap opera drama (twists, turns, reversals and betrayals galore!) packed into several nights’ viewing, and a slew of high-profile guest stars who wouldn’t normally do TV. Furthermore, it gives those actors a license to perform Miniseries Acting, which is an acceptable prime-time variation on Soap Opera Acting befitting the material, usually involving lots of clenched teeth and raised eyebrows. (Come to think of it, that’s a lot like Eurospy acting!) This is definitely not a criticism. It gives the material the kind of exaggerated dramatic weight associated with Greek Tragedy or silent movies, and that makes it an ideal format for adapting dense, convoluted novels like Clavell’s or Ludlum’s. It sucks the viewer in.

Noble House sucked me in from the very start, introducing us in the first episode to a cast of fascinating characters so huge that it could never exist in a movie. Another advantage that a miniseries has over a regular television show is that the shorter production schedule and higher profile attracts a higher caliber of actor to smaller parts, and consequently every single role is populated by a recognizable face–especially to spy fans! Everyone in the cast is familiar, and they’re all from other spy things as varied as Bond, True Lies, The Avengers, The Saint, The Professionals, The Wild Wild West, Department S, No. 1 of the Secret Service, Tiffany Jones, Wonder Women and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, to name but a few. I could go on, but that would take away some of the fun of watching: pausing the DVD every five minutes to check the IMDB and figure out where you recognize "that guy" from.

Playing powerful Hong Kong business rivals, Brosnan and Rhys-Davies are excellent anchors for the starry supporting cast. Brosnan, as Tai-Pan (supreme boss) of the Noble House Ian Dunross, gnashes teeth and raises eyebrows with the best of ‘em and, in playing a character far more ruthless and conniving than Remington Steele, demonstrates that he actually would have made an excellent 007 even back then. (Nothing against Dalton, mind you, who also made an excellent 007!) Rhys-Davies, whose presence in supporting roles has elevated many a mainstream feature, relishes this rare starring role. In the sublimely-named Quillan Gornt, he creates a complex antagonist who truly believes he’s in the right (and, frankly, could be–if the story were told from a different point of view). Unfortunately, the script betrays him in the final part, transforming the character into a mustache-twirling Villain who inexplicably assaults the leading lady. Even then, though, Rhys-Davies makes the most of it. Under no circumstances should his fans miss Noble House.

Dunross and Gornt run rival Hong Kong trading companies with long and well-remembered histories; their families have been rivals for generations. Dunross’s firm, Struan’s, is the largest–and therefore known as the "Noble House." Gornt would kill (perhaps literally) to take that title from him. Into this small and incestuous world of Hong Kong business come two Americans, Linc Bartlett (Ben Masters) and KC Tcholok (Deborah Raffin, as the only woman on the playing field at this level of the corporate ladder), with their own aspirations on the Noble House. The plot unfolds at a deliberate–but never slow, despite some of the requisite miniseries padding–pace, as we meet a number of other characters who will play pawns or would-be kings in this struggle of corporate titans. These include bankers, tycoons, kept women, cops (the always reliable Gordon Jackson as Superintendent of Police), crooks (Hawaii Five-O’s Khigh Dheigh in a stellar, subdued, multi-layered performance) and spies–of both the corporate and professional variety.

As the various players cross and double-cross each other, the inevitable love stories develop as well. Linc’s romance with a Hong Kong socialite is trite, with all the lingering glances and sappy, swelling music you could ask for. These are the moments to fast forward. Ian’s relationship with KC is more interesting and more complex. Raffin is actually a very gifted actress, as well as very beautiful, and I’m amazed she didn’t go on to have a bigger career. She and Brosnan share great chemistry together.

Amidst the romance, the business, the blackmail and the rest of the high-stakes shenanigans, the miniseries hits a tremendous crescendo at its midpoint with a spectacular fire on a multi-tiered luxury boat. The boat is hosting a party that all the main characters are at, which is no stretch of the imagination because, as presented in Noble House, that’s the insular nature of Hong Kong business in the 1980s. This exciting scene is really a remarkable setpiece for any television production. It also provides fantastic character moments for both Brosnan and Rhys-Davies. By putting their characters in such a life-or-death scenario, it allows them to show their true natures which, rather surprisingly, turn out to be worthy of the title: noble. Despite their daily struggle to ruin one another in games of high finance, both men quickly work together when they find themselves and others in real peril, and both behave courageously. The next day, of course, it’s back to business as usual, but having witnessed this revealing moment, you realize that they really do view their business battles as a bit of a game. For me, this makes things even more exciting.

The intrigue, politics and constantly changing alliances are actually enough to make a story about big business thrilling on its own (I imagine that’s Clavell’s gift), but on top of all that, there’s also a legit spy story. When Superintendent Armstrong discovers that one of his officers (and a trusted mutual friend of his and Ian Dunross’) is really a sleeper agent placed by Communist China, his Commissioner orders him to break the man. This leads to an Ipcress File-like sequence in which Armstrong reluctantly puts his friend on a two-hour sleep cycle in a psychedelic red room with moving, angular floors in order to make him lose track of the days and confess. Meanwhile, Dunross crucially needs financing from a Chinese bank, and the Chinese need their agent back. Commerce and politics (inextricably entwined) converge explosively as the drama reaches its conclusion...

While the spy aspect pays off nicely, other storylines unfortunately don’t in the miniseries’ lackluster finale. In a major cop-out, a natural disaster suddenly derails a terrific, tense, high-stakes business/espionage/crime plot by conveniently killing off primary antagonists and eliminating the threats they pose in what can only be described as a dramatic cheat. No matter how impressive the disaster was supposed to look (and, frankly, on a TV budget, it’s not great–and the model work is painfully obvious, especially compared to the excellent boat fire earlier), it shanghais the plot (wrong city, I know) entirely. Instead of satisfying resolutions to the complex scenarios that had been set up, we get standard-issue survivor rescue not nearly as dramatic enough to live up to the wonderfully dramatic score. And, somehow, Dunross manages to instantly hone in on the exact person he’s looking for in the mangled wreckage of an entire skyscraper without coming across any other survivors!

One of the several storylines sacrificed for these disaster antics is Burt Kwouk’s, which is a shame because the prolific actor turns in a very good performance, and gets to be a lot more dignified than the 80s and 90s Pink Panther efforts ever let him be! Not having read Clavell’s brick of a book, I can’t say how faithful all this is to the novel, but it certainly feels like a rushed TV ending meant to wrap things up quickly because the production was running low on time and money.

As much of a letdown as the ending is, however, its not nearly enough to ruin the excellent hours of entertainment that have led up to it. In addition to its compelling story and first-rate cast, Noble House is packed with great subtleties that would never fit into a movie, but really convey both the world of high finance and the exotic setting of 1980s Hong Kong well. Furthermore, there are great travelogue shots of both Hong Kong and Macau, taking full advantage of the location shoot. There’s plenty of time for sightseeing in a miniseries, and I like my spy entertainment to transport me to foreign lands! In fact, these locations really made me wish that Richard Chamberlain had followed up his Bourne Identity miniseries with one of The Bourne Supremacy, also largely set in Hong Kong.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Noble House; it opened my eyes to a whole genre I was largely oblivious to. I’ll be checking out more 80s miniseries now, and I hope they all turn out to be half as rewarding as this terrific Pierce Brosnan vehicle.