Aug 31, 2009

Upcoming Los Angeles Spy Screenings: On Her Majesty's Secret Service And From Russia With Love

The great Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood (my personal favorite movie theater anywhere) will show two of the best James Bond movies on the big screen on Saturday, September 26 as part of their IB Technicolor Festival. That means they will be gorgeous 35mm dye-transfer Technicolor prints. And what does that mean? As the Egyptian explains it on their website, these films "were released using the brilliant, deeply saturated hues of dye-transfer Technicolor (commonly known as I.B. or 'imbibition'). Dye-transfer Technicolor prints are becoming increasingly scarce since Technicolor stopped U.S. production of them in 1974." So it's very rare to see an actual Technicolor print of either of these films, even if you see them on the big screen in 35mm.

I saw OHMSS when it played at the Egyptian's Technicolor festival for the first time about five years ago, and the print was utterly stunning. It was far and away the best presentation I've ever seen of my favorite Bond film, including Lowry's impressive 4K digital restoration on DVD. (The day-for-night fight scene on the beach at the beginning has never been transferred to any home video format as it appears on the Technicolor print, and it's a revelation to see it that way.) In fact, it was that first IB Technicolor screening that solidified Peter Hunt's film as my favorite Bond, as up until then it generally contended with two or three others for the top spot depending on my mood. Hopefully this September's screening will be the same print. Assuming it is, I highly recommend that any local Bond fans make every effort to see this screening!

OHMSS is up first at 7:30, followed by From Russia With Love, which will probably start a little after 10PM. Go to the Egyptian's website for more details.
Ipcress File Blu-Ray Review At DVD Trash

I've been meaning to post this for a while. DVD Trash has one of the only reviews I've seen for last year's UK Blu-Ray release of The Ipcress File. Reviewer Nick Frame says that the picture on this high-def transfer is "probably as good as The Ipcress File will ever look" and that "the colours are strong and vibrant with high levels of detail not previously seen." So far there is no imminent U.S. Blu-Ray release for The Ipcress File (or even an in-print DVD at the moment), so it should come as a relief to American Harry Palmer fans that the ITV Blu-Ray is region-free. It's also pretty much special feature-free, so Nick seems to indicate that you need both the loaded Network special edition DVD for extras, and the ITV Blu-Ray for picture. Not bad. Read the whole review here.

And speaking of Harry Palmer, if you're a devotee of either Len Deighton's nameless agent of the novels or Michael Caine's bespectacled film incarnation, you're doubtless already following Armstrong Sabian's truly exhaustive coverage of every possible facet of the character at COBRAS site Mister 8. But if you're not, be sure to check it out! The latest post examines ads that ran in the New York Times for The Ipcress File upon its initial release. (I told you the coverage was exhaustive!)

Read my review of the third Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain, here.

Aug 28, 2009

Tradecraft: More Details On Cruise's Next Spy Movie

Even though she was sort of awful in the beginning of Taken, Maggie Grace has been cast in another spy movie. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actress (who was much better on ABC's Lost) has joined Tom Cruise's next picture, the one formerly titled Wichita and thankfully retitled Untitled Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz Spy Movie. The latter title, while obviously temporary, certainly tells a lot more about the project than the former! (I think Wichita, while perfectly fetching as the name of a city, would probably be in the running for worst spy movie title ever.) The trade story provides a lot more details on the film's plot than I'd seen previously, and it sounds kind of great!

The project centers on a lonely woman (Diaz) whose seemingly harmless blind date suddenly turns her life upside-down when a super spy (Cruise) takes her on a violent worldwide journey to protect a powerful battery that holds the key to an infinite power source.

Grace is playing Diaz's sister, who is getting married, excited that Diaz will take the place of their late father and walk her down the aisle.

That battery sounds like a very Eurospyish MacGuffin. I like it. The fact that the trade calls the movie a "spy thriller" and uses the word "violent" to describe Cruise's worldwide journey make me curious about the tone of this film. I'd previously assumed it was more of a romantic comedy, but it's possible that it's a full-on action spy movie. Or perhaps a marriage of the two genres, ala True Lies. It's hard to know from the choice of James Mangold to direct, as he's made a point of dabbling in just about every genre over the course of his career. Whatever the case, that little tidbit of plot description has definitely made me far more interested in this project than I was previously! It sounds like it's got potential...
"Psychic Spies"

The trailer is up for The Men Who Stare at Goats, and it looks highly entertaining! Grant Heslov's film is based on the true story of American soldiers in Iraq trained as "psychic spies." Clooney plays such a psychic (with questionable powers), but he prefers to be referred to as a "Jedi Knight." Actual Jedi Ewan McGregor co-stars, along with Kevin Spacey. The Men Who Stare at Goats opens November 6.

Aug 27, 2009

Cool Spy TV Poster Art

The Hollywood Reporter's TV blog The Live Feed has posted some cool poster artwork for a pair of contemporary network spy shows. There's a brand new, stark one-sheet for Season 2 of Joss Whedon's flawed-but-getting-better implanted personalities drama Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku. The best episodes were the ones that focused on the espionage side of things, and this image certainly makes it look like that's the focus they're going for in the second season! But even cooler is this artwork for Chuck, which was apparently debuted at Comic-Con last month but I somehow missed. That's awesome!

Aug 25, 2009

Tradecraft: XXX Director Chosen

Ericson Core sounds like a mobile phone to me. Didn't Pierce Brosnan use one to steer his remote-controlled BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies? Apparently not. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Ericson Core is a cinematographer-turned-director, and he'll be helming the next xXx movie, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. That's the one marking the triumphant return of Vin Diesel to the series after his character was unceremoniously killed off in a DVD special feature on the extra-extreme "uncensored, unrated director's cut" edition of the first movie, paving the way for an "even more extreme" Ice Cube to take over as the NSA's resident extreme sports secret agent. Extreme enough for you? Anyway, it was previously reported that the new xXx movie would reteam the original star with the original director, Rob Cohen. But Cohen has since jumped ship in favor of the medieval action epic Medieval. So now directing duties fall to the Vin-approved Core, who previously served as Director of Photography on The Fast and the Furious before making his directing debut with the Mark Wahlberg football drama Invincible. The trade reports that "John Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator Salvation) wrote the script for Xander Cage. Richard Wilkes, who wrote the original movie, did a recent polish."

Aug 21, 2009

Tradecraft: The Gemini Bourne Contenders

According to The Hollywood Reporter, another writer has been hired to pen the next Jason Bourne movie: Hollywood's go-to spy guy, Josh Zetumer. Zetumer did uncredited rewrite work on the script for Quantum of Solace as well as penned the hot original spy script The Infiltrator, to which Leonardo DiCaprio is attached to star and for which Zetumer has credited The Bourne Identity as a major inspiration. I believe that at one point Zetumer was also in talks to adapt Ludlum's The Sigma Protocol for Universal, but I'm not sure if that happened. Either way, he seems to have cornered the market on spy writing assignments for the time being.

"But what about George Nolfi?" you ask. Wasn't the Bourne Ultimatum co-writer hired last year to concoct the amnesiac agent's fourth adventure? Indeed he was, and his version is still pending. But he's also writing and directing another Matt Damon movie, an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's The Adjustment Bureau. That starts shooting next month, and apparently Nolfi has had to step away from his Bourne endeavors for the time being. "Not wishing to slow development and keen on making Bourne part of its 2011 slate," reports the trade, "Universal hired Zetumer to write a new script. It is unclear what will occur after Zetumer submits his draft or whether his script will be integrated with Nolfi's." So now, like Robert Ludlum's gemini contenders Andrew and Adrian Fontine, Nolfi and Zetumer will compete to see their visions realized as Jason Bourne's next adventure. "Our hope is that Nolfi, a key member of the Bourne team, will return after he is done with The Adjustment Bureau," a Universal spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter, indicating that that the two scripts could in fact be melded together. Such a practice isn't unheard of in Hollywood, though the Reporter says it's unusual. They point out that Wolverine and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer both began that way, but from a more positive perspective it should be noted that so did Spider-man 2. Of course, another possibility is that the studio could find themselves in the enviable position of having two excellent, ready-to-make Bourne scripts in their hands: the raw material for a fourth and fifth movie! Either way, it's clear that they're keen to proceed with another go-round, which is good news.

Star Matt Damon, meanwhile, recently told Entertainment Weekly that he's also eager to do another Bourne–as long as the writers come up with a fresh take. He said that audiences wouldn't stand for yet another movie's worth of his character not remembering who he was, and he's probably right. Ludlum abandoned the amnesia gimmick after his first Bourne novel. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if Universal is really so intent on making a good Bourne movie, they really need look no further than Ludlum's own Bourne sequels, whose titles they've already used, but whose plots remain un-mined!

Aug 20, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Get Smart: Season 5

Even spy parodies were not immune to the awful fashions that plagued the genre as the Sixties became the Seventies, as evidenced by Max's garish wardrobe on the cover of Get Smart's fifth and final season. Get Smart: Season 5 hits stores on December 8 according to TV Shows On DVD. Retail is a mere $24.99 (and sure to be even less at various online outlets, of course), making it a bargain on its own, but if you want all of Get Smart with all the bells and whistles, then it's worth shelling out for the Complete Series. Season 5 finds Max and 99 married and expecting twins as KAOS wreaks its usual havoc and Max wreaks even more. Season 4 was originally announced for September 4, but has since been rescheduled for October 6. Still, by the end of the year, all five seasons will be available on their own from HBO Home Video!

Aug 19, 2009

Meet The Skorpion!

Fellow COBRAS blogger Christopher Mills unveiled some awesome promotional artwork today for his new, very retro, Sixties-styled costumed adventurer Skorpion! As the "k" spelling suggests, Skorpion comes in the tradition of dark European comic book (fumetti neri) antiheroes like Diabolik and Kriminal. In addition to writing the Spy-Fi Channel blog, Mills is an accomplished comic book creator whose credits include the very cool hardboiled crime title Gravedigger with Queen & Country artist Rick Burchett. Burchett is also the co-creator and artist on Skorpion, and the man responsible for that artwork. Be sure to head on over to Spy-Fi Channel to see a larger version of that cool poster and learn more about the mysterious Skorpion!

Aug 17, 2009

Kommissar X Reunion In Germany

A reader on the Eurospy Forum has shared the news that a German film society called The Mysterious Film Club Buio Omega will run a double-bill of Kommissar X films (or possibly, judging from the poster, the spy/costumed adventurer hybrid with the same leading men, Three Fantastic Supermen) at a cinema in Gelsenkirchen next month. According to their website, "The Mysterious Film Club Buio Omega presents three legends of the European cinema live on stage on 9/25/2009. Kommissar X himself Tony Kendall and legendary director Gianfranco Parolini (alias Franc Kramer) will thrill us with their visit. And since he had so much fun the first time, bear-strong Brad Harris will return to our stage in order to make the unbelievable Kommissar X-reunion perfect!" If you're lucky enough to be in Germany next month, head on over to the club's website for more details. Even if you're not, check out the site. This looks like a very cool film society focusing exclusively on European exploitation films of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties and screening in a golden age movie palace. If you don't speak German, click on the "Foreign Visitors" page for information in English. Man, oh man do I wish I could be there to attend this historic reunion!
Read my reviews of several Kommissar X films here.
Network Reveals Artwork For UK Prisoner Blu-Ray

And hot on the heels of last week's artwork for A&E's American Blu-Ray, today we have Network's artwork for the UK Blu-Ray of The Prisoner: The Complete Series due out in September! (Click to view in ultra high resolution.) And, not surprisingly, it's very, very cool! I love to see Number 6's Lotus get some face time.

That box is a limited edition package for the six-disc set, and will retail for £59.99. Not only will it be the worldwide Blu-Ray debut of The Prisoner (hitting shelves a month before A&E's release), but it will also be the first ever Blu-Ray title from Network, whose extensive special features and high-quality transfers of classic spy TV series has made them an international leader–and favorite of spy fans–in the DVD format. (I sound like a press release there, don't I? I can't help it; I genuinely love this company's commitment to not only preserving but celebrating all those Sixties spy shows I enjoy so much, from the classic to the obscure.)

Network's Prisoner Blu-ray contains all of the extensive special features from their 40th Anniversary DVD collection, including the impressive feature-length documentary “Don’t Knock Yourself Out” (boasting loads of interviews with all sorts of key production personnel), the restored original edit of “Arrival” with an optional music-only soundtrack featuring Wilfred Josephs’ complete and abandoned score, audio commentaries from members of the production crew on seven episodes, trailers for all episodes, commercial break bumpers, behind-the-scenes footage (“including much previously unseen”), script and production documentation PDFs, extensive image galleries with music suites and an exclusive book on the making of the series by that font of knowledge on classic British TV, Andrew Pixley. In addition to the high-definition transfer, the Blu-Rays include 5.1 sound mixes on all episodes, taking full advantage of the medium! I'd say this set looks to be the definitive release of the series to date for videophiles. Look for it on September 28!

Aug 14, 2009

Cover Art For A&E's Prisoner Blu-Ray

TV Shows On DVD reports today that A&E has revealed the cover art for their upcoming Blu-Ray edition of Patrick McGoohan's cult classic 1967 spy TV series The Prisoner. And the art's pretty cool! A lot cooler, in my opinion, than the art on A&E's standard DVD version. The Prisoner hits Blu-Ray on October 27, just in time for the AMC mini-series remake starring Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen that debuts the following month. I was kind of dreading this remake until I saw the Comic-Con footage, and now I'm actually excited for it! Of course, we all know there's no way it will be able to touch the brilliance of the original, though, so it's great news that it's being preserved in high definition on both sides of the Atlantic. Network releases the long-delayed, feature-laden UK Blu-Ray on September 21.

Aug 13, 2009

Peter Graves' Post-Mission Career: Where Have All The People Gone? (1974)

Following the conclusion of Mission: Impossible, Peter Graves starred in a string of TV movies with titles like SST: Death Flight, The President's Plane Is Missing and Where Have All the People Gone? Despite a title that sounds like it belongs in Troy McClure’s filmography on The Simpsons, the latter is a fairly effective low budget post-apocalyptic thriller. Graves, playing his actual age now instead of insisting on the ridiculous late-season Mission: Impossible assertions that he’s a “young man” and that his hair is blond and not white, is the patriarch of a California family on a camping trip in the mountains. His wife leaves in their car to head back to their home in Malibu for work, leaving Graves and his son and daughter (a young Kathleen Quinlan) with family friend Tom Clancy (not the writer). While Clancy cooks dinner, the family does a little spelunking. Clancy witnesses a strange flare in the sky. Is it a distant atom bomb? Or is it the sun itself flaring up in an unpredictable fashion? Whatever it is, it’s followed immediately by an earthquake. Graves and his children come clamoring out of the cave, safe. But Clancy, having witnessed whatever it was he witnessed, doesn’t feel so well. Within a few days he’s dead, and his body, strangely, disintegrates, leaving only his empty clothes and a little sand. This–combined with the fact that the radio hasn’t worked since the earthquake–convinces Graves and his kids that it might be a good idea to hightail it home. (They’ve already had the foresight not to eat any food except what was down in the cave with them at the time of the event, lest the rest be radioactive.)

The trio eventually ambles into suburbia, and finds it completely deserted. No people anywhere! Hence the title. (Strangely, there also aren’t little piles of clothes all over the street as you’d think there would be if they all disintegrated like Clancy, but we won’t worry about that. It is a missed opportunity for some extra creepiness, though.) The spooky, people-free atmosphere leads to a nice shock moment when they discover a living person staring out a window at them. Eventually they encounter some other survivors, but no one has much idea what has happened or why whatever it was didn’t happen to them. We do get an explanation in the end (having to do with solar flares), but it’s so implausible that the filmmakers would have been much better off leaving the entire phenomenon unexplained. Heading for Malibu, where they hope to find their wife/mother, our trio pick up a few traveling companions along the way including a young boy and a woman named Jenny who won’t speak a word. Other survivors aren’t so amicable, having quickly resorted to violence. (The group has their car stolen at gunpoint, and the boy’s parents were killed for their vehicle.) Whatever event transpired, it also made the animals go crazy. Peter Graves fans will get a kick out of seeing him bravely fight a “savage” house cat and a collie not unlike Lassie!

Director John Llewellyn Moxey (a veteran of The Avengers and other ITC spy shows as well as Mission: Impossible) generates a generally creepy atmosphere, but I kept hoping for a different ending. I kept hoping that Anthony Zerbe or someone would pop out and reveal that he was behind some massive con job, making Graves believe that the world had ended and he was the last man on earth as revenge for all the times Graves and his crew played that exact trick on traitors and foreign agents and Syndicate men on Mission: Impossible! Alas, it’s not to be.

Where Have All the People Gone? isn't on DVD, but it does play from time to time on the Fox Movie Channel.

Aug 12, 2009

DVD Review: Man Hunt (1941)

Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt is another propaganda film designed to make the case that America should enter WWII. And, like Foreign Correspondent, it’s a taut thriller as well. The pre-war period was particularly fruitful for the spy genre because a Neutrality Act of the time forbade Hollywood from making films overtly advocating U.S. involvement in foreign wars. Since many filmmakers felt strongly about the subject (including British ex-pats like Hitchcock and Jewish directors who fled Nazi Germany, like Lang), they resorted, quite naturally, to covertly advocating such involvement. And what better vehicle for a covert argument than a story of covert operatives? Espionage films, in which wars could be fought by men in long coats and hats instead of by soldiers, proved the perfect genre for covert propaganda.

Like many a Hitchcock film of the period, the hero of Man Hunt is not a government agent. Instead he is an ordinary English citizen who becomes embroiled in international espionage. Specifically (and this is important), he is a pacifist (reflecting America’s neutral stance on the war) who can’t avoid being caught up in a conflict much larger than himself. At first his involvement is involuntary, because he’s got no choice, but in the course of the film he develops strong ideological convictions leading him to willingly stand up to fascism.



None of which is to say that renowned big game hunter Captain Thorndyke (the thoroughly engaging Walter Pidgeon) has anyone but himself to blame for the situation he finds himself in. You see, he thought, in the name of the hunt, and sportsmanship and whatnot, that having mastered all of Africa and shot every animal imaginable, he would hunt the most dangerous game of all: man. Not just any man, but the most vile and most protected man in the world: Adolf Hitler. And so he creeps into Hitler’s compound shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, and gets the dictator in the sites of his high-powered rifle. He’s then caught in this highly incriminating (to say the least) predicament, and interrogated by top Gestapo man Quive-Smith (a monocled George Sanders). Quive-Smith is also a big game hunter, and familiar with Thorndyke. Thorndyke tries to explain it was merely a "sporting stalk." He doesn’t even shoot animals anymore, he says, because once he’s got them in his site, the outcome is a mathematical certainty. And he wasn’t planning to shoot the Fuhrer. Is he telling the truth? Sanders certainly isn’t convinced, and the audience will have to wait the whole movie to find out. But true or not, Thorndyke naively believes that this excuse will get him out of trouble. It doesn’t, of course. Quive-Smith wants him to sign a document saying that he was acting on the orders of the British government, thus paving the road for the war that Germany so desperately wants. Thorndyke refuses to sign, and actually seems surprised that such a refusal results in torture. (I guess people weren’t as familiar with Nazi methods back then as they are now.) This being a 1941 film, the torture isn’t actually shown, of course (Casino Royale-style), but Lang powerfully implies it by showing only Thorndyke’s shadow, tied to a chair, as Quive-Smith interrogates him.

Thorndyke manages to escape eventually, and ends up on a Scandinavian ship bound for London, thanks to the sympathetic British cabin boy (Roddy McDowall). Unfortunately, a sinister, cadaverous Gestapo agent played by the ever-menacing John Carradine books himself on the same ship, unsatisfied with the police search of the vessel. As soon as Thorndyke gets off the steamer in London’s fog-enshrouded dockland, he’s a quarry. He’s gone from being the hunter in a foreign land to being the hunted in his own land. London’s fog is positively crawling with Nazi agents, all out to get him.
This foggy, unfriendly urban environment, of course, is Lang’s ideal playground, and the director who left such an indelible mark on the film noir genre excels at creating an overbearing atmosphere of dread and suspense. He also orchestrates some very exciting chase scenes as the Nazis remain on Thorndyke’s heels wherever he goes.



Taking cover from his enemies in a dockland tenement, Thorndyke meets Jerry (Joan Bennett), a young cockney woman who helps him out and ends up on the run with him. At this point the movie starts to resemble one of Hitchcock’s "man and woman on the run" pictures, like Young and Innocent. Especially Hitchcockian is the humorous interlude where the pair call on Thorndyke’s brother and his wife, a Lord and Lady who live in a very swanky place–where Jerry clearly doesn’t fit in. As the movie turns momentarily playful and then oddly romantic (laying on the treacle a bit thick, in fact, in the My Fair Lady subplot), the audience is lulled into a very false sense of security. Things may seem like a lark for a bit, but there are absolutely no guarantees here that the hero and heroine will both come out alive. Not when either one of them might prove more useful to Lang as a martyr to the cause of rallying American interest in entering the war. Newspaper stories about faraway deaths in Poland or London may seem remote, but kill off an appealing Hollywood hero or heroine, and you’ll win over some hearts and minds!


As the suspense ramps up, the Gestapo closes in around Thorndyke, the great hunter now very much the prey. (And they use pigeons to communicate with each other as they do so!) "I’m afraid of the city," confesses the hero. "Afraid of people I can’t see." That might as well be Lang’s mantra, as it summarizes a theme prevalent in his work from the very beginning and on full display in his earlier and later masterpieces like Metropolis and The Big Heat. In the Man Hunt’s most thrilling–and visually arresting–sequence, Thorndyke is pursued into the London Underground by Carradine’s menacing enemy agent, who wields a sword stick. Only one of them will emerge from the Tube. Meanwhile, Jerry turns on the light in her apartment to find George Sanders and his minions waiting for her. But the light doesn’t reach Sanders; it can’t penetrate his evil. He remains a silhouette bathed in shadow, except for the light reflected off of his very German monocle! It’s an eerie shot–and portentous.

I don’t dare spoil the genuinely surprising action of the third act, but for a film that’s essentially a Trojan horse carrying Lang’s message about the dangers of Nazism in Europe, that message is probably more important to discuss than the plot. The movie abandons all pretenses of "neutrality" by its conclusion, boldly pronouncing–in 1941, mind you, still prior to America’s entrance into the war–that Hitler is "guilty of hatred, intolerance and murder!" Lang knew of what he spoke, having fled Hitler’s Germany himself. The movie concludes with an image of hope–hope that individuals and the world at large can stand up to Hitler. It’s a stirring ending that could only be filmed at that particular moment in time, and it locks the movie firmly into the time in which it was made, making it an essential time capsule for WWII-era history buffs. Like Foreign Correspondent, Man Hunt is fascinating both as propaganda and as cinema in its own right. Neither aspect overshadows the other, and both work in harmony to create a historical document that's highly entertaining to watch. It's well worth seeking out for fans of the spy genre and students of history alike.

Had Fox’s DVD come out a year ago when it was originally supposed to, it might have gotten the "Fox Cinema Classics" treatment, complete with one of those nice, eyecatching slipcases that made those discs so attractive. But now, in this economy and this crappy market for catalog titles on DVD, cardboard slipcases are a luxury the studio apparently cannot afford. Luckily, even without the lavish packaging, there are still a nice amount of special features included. Foremost among them is "Rogue Male: The Making of Man Hunt." This short documentary focuses on author Geoffrey Household’s original novel, Rogue Male (filmed again under that title decades later starring Peter O’Toole), and on Fritz Lang himself. An impressive array of Talking Head experts (including the ubiquitous but always informative Drew Caspar and Kim Newman) brief us on his life and his politics. I had no idea that despite his Jewish ancestry, he had been asked by Hitler to head up the Nazi film project prior to (and thus precipitating) his flight! The experts also do a good job of situating the film historically, which is almost essential for modern viewers. Finally, they situate it within Lang’s own canon as well. "The other thing about it," remarks one of the experts (whose chyron I sadly didn’t catch), "is that it involves spies. Fritz Lang was the pioneer and he was returning to that in Man Hunt really for the first time since he left Germany."

The commentary by Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan is more of a mixed bag. It’s clear that he’s reading his comments (and seems kind of nervous about it), but he does get more comfortable as the movie progresses. In fact, he seems to get a little too comfortable! He makes some surprisingly derogatory remarks about the film, his snarks sometimes slipping into an MST3K level of contempt. And he tends to pick on easy targets, like poor Roddy McDowall’s acting (c’mon, Patrick; he’s just a kid!) or Joan Bennett’s spotty accent. Or else he goes after the elements I liked best about the movie, like the enemy spies who he calls "stock villains" who could have come out of a comic book. When he’s not snarking, though, or making groan-inducing puns ("monocle a monocle"), he does provide some very interesting background material, particularly in comparing the film to its literary source. Apparently the book contained a lengthy flight across Germany before Thorndyke finally made it to the coast, which sounds pretty exciting. McGilligan also provides an intriguing fact that I had no knowledge of which will be of particular interest to readers of this blog: he says that Household himself was a British agent, inconveniently stationed in Romania just as his book was becoming a bestseller! (Then he kind of blows it by attributing that fact to the IMDB.) Despite his odd habit of insulting the movie he’s commenting on, McGilligan clearly knows his material, and the track is definitely worth a listen... but you might want to do some fast-forwarding.

A trailer and three impressive galleries (advertising, stills and production artwork) round out the special features. There’s also the usual Fox restoration comparison, which isn’t quite as impressive as some of them, since the original film for the most part doesn’t seem too bad here. (Still, it’s certainly nice to have it restored!) Overall, Fox has done well by this forgotten classic, not only releasing it, but releasing it with a good assortment of extras. Fans of Lang’s film noir movies–as well as fans of Hitchcock’s spy movies of this era–should definitely check out Man Hunt.

Aug 11, 2009

Tradecraft: Ed Helms Signs Up For Spy Comedy

Variety reports that Ed Helms, who plays Andy Bernard on the American version of The Office and became a movie star this summer thanks to his role in The Hangover, has signed up for spy duty. Universal Pictures has acquired the spec Central Intelligence by Ike Barinholtz and Dave Stassen as a star vehicle for Helms. According to the trade, the story centers on "an accountant who's thrown into the world of international espionage after reconnecting with an old friend through Facebook." Sounds promising. All the male Office stars are spying these days! Steve Carell had Get Smart, Ed Helms has Central Intelligence... Rainn Wilson needs to get himself attached to a spy movie pronto!
Reminder: The President's Analyst Screens Tonight And Tomorrow In LA

The New Beverly Cinema will screen one of the all-time comedic spy masterpieces, The President's Analyst (1967) in Los Angeles tonight and tomorrow night (August 11 and 12). The James Coburn classic is paired with a non-spy satire, Cold Turkey. Tuesday night's screening will be introduced by series curator Joe Dante. On Thursday night the theater will play a John Barry double feature. For full details on these screenings, click here.

Aug 10, 2009

Paramount Announces Final Season Of Mission: Impossible On DVD

TV Shows On DVD reports that CBS/Paramount will release Mission: Impossible: The Final TV Season (Season 7) on DVD on November 3. This is welcome news, as once again I was getting a little anxious as the studio announced title after title for the fall (Hawaii Five-O, The Fugitive, The Untouchables) with no Missions in sight! But at last it's announced, and the announcement is bittersweet. I'm looking forward to seeing the final season and owning them all, but I'll also be sad to see this journey come to an end, as I've loved discovering these original seasons as they were released on DVD. On the plus side, hopefully CBS/Paramount will continue apace with the version of Mission: Impossible I grew up on: the late Eighties revival series, also starring Peter Graves. Of course there is no word on that yet, so we'll just have to wait and see. I'd imagine a Complete Series set is also in the cards (along the lines of their Wild Wild West Complete Series), but will it be ready for this holiday season, or next? Or will they wait until the two seasons of the revival series have been released as well to make it a truly complete bundle? Again, we'll have to wait and see. But for now, we do know for sure that Season 7 will be out in November! The seventh season retains the same primary cast line-up as the sixth, with Barbara Anderson filling in as "the woman" on the team while Lynda Day George was pregnant.
DVD Review: Leverage: The 1st Season

When I first watched the Leverage pilot on TV, I wrote it off as an inferior Burn Notice wannabe... but I couldn’t help tuning in for more. Now I’m hooked. And while it might indeed be TNT’s answer to USA’s Burn Notice, Leverage has really come into its own. You can trace that progress over the course of the breezy thirteen episodes included in Paramount’s Leverage: The 1st Season DVD package. The pilot, while fun and slickly produced, fails to indicate that by the two-part season finale, the show will boast one of the best heists seen on the big or small screen since The Thomas Crown Affair remake! But over the course of the season, you can clearly see that progression unfold.

Let’s talk about these shows in terms of their Sixties counterparts. As Burn Notice is to The Saint, Leverage is to Mission: Impossible. Nate Ford (The Falcon and the Snowman’s Timothy Hutton) was once the best insurance investigator in the business (that curious old spy subgenre again!), but ever since the company he worked for allowed his son to die by denying him proper coverage, Ford has been burnt-out and washed-up–and drunk. His current condition, combined with his unique skill set, makes him the perfect man for an aerospace tycoon to turn to when he needs to go outside the law to steal back some industrial secrets he claims were stolen from him. Nate is at first reluctant to take the job, but ultimately bites at the offer when he realizes it will also be a chance to get back at his former employer, whom he blames for his son’s death. Nate then proceeds to recruit the best criminals he ever tangled with in a variety of specializations. Elliott (Angel's Christian Kane) is a master of unarmed combat; Parker (Beth Riesgraf) is an expert cat burglar; Hardison (Aldis Hodge) can hack into anything and Sophie (Coupling’s Gina Bellman) is a master con artist who can slip into any accent and any role with ease. (She considers herself an actress, but she’s patently terrible in legitimate theater; Nate wisely tells the others, "that’s not her stage.")

If you squint just a little, you can plainly see that these are all analogues of the classic Mission: Impossible line-up. Barney, the "electronics whiz" has become a hacker in the 21st Century, and Willy, the "strong man," has become a fighter. The mastermind (Jim Phelps then; Nate Ford now) and the actor (Rollin; Sophie) remain the same. The cat burglar is a new addition and a good touch. Each character is introduced with a too-cute little flashback, blatantly aping the Italian Job remake. Elliot’s so-fast-you-don’t-see-him-move tactics against a roomful of gunmen unfortunately brings to mind another movie in another genre, Blazing Saddles (making it laughable instead of impressive), and a flashback to Parker’s childhood makes it appear that she killed her family! (She didn’t; more on that later.) Despite the clunky introductions, though, all of the characters are interesting and the actors demonstrate great chemistry together right from the start.

The extended version of the pilot on the DVD includes a lot of good scenes not found in the regular 42-minute broadcast version that I initially saw during the season–but it’s still mainly an excuse to get this team together. In the end–after a double-cross and some good slight-of-hand–these former lawbreakers realize they actually enjoy doing good, and Nate convinces them to permanently team up. They’re going to stand up for the little guy, right the wrongs that slip through the legal system, provide leverage. All the stuff that Michael Westen does weekly on Burn Notice, but they’re going to use Mission: Impossible tactics. With the introductions out of the way, subsequent episodes jump straight into the con jobs. Some (like "The Mile-High Job," which takes place almost entirely onboard an airplane flying to South America) are better than others (season low point "The Wedding Job," finds the gang undercover as wedding planners for a mobster’s daughter), but they all boast impressively clever cons and good heists.

Like Burn Notice, Leverage remains primarily episodic rather than serial, but thanks to the changes in TV storytelling in the last three decades, the characters become much more fleshed out than those on Mission: Impossible. Even though we got to see Jim’s hometown in one episode, we never really got to know him–and we certainly never explored his flaws. Nate is a flawed mastermind. He’s a highly functioning alcoholic ("let’s focus on the ‘functioning’ part," he tells his people, acknowledging his problem but refusing to rectify it), and his dependency issues worsen throughout the season. He’s forced to confront them when he must go undercover at a rehab facility in the penultimate "12-Step Job," but even then the series has the courage not to suddenly cure him in a forced manner. He even rejects an attempted intervention led by Sophie, who harbors long-unrequited feelings for Nate.

Parker is a complex character too, but her flaws are generally played more lightly than Nate’s. (Not that Leverage ever gets really dark; it is a fluffy, escapist show, after all!) A childhood in and out of foster homes has left Parker with an extreme social anxiety disorder. Despite being an attractive blonde, she fails Sophie’s seduction lessons because she has no sense of how to act in the world, let alone how to use her God-given charms. The socially awkward hottie with no filter is a character lifted unappologetically from Joss Whedon’s world (Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Ilyria on Angel; River in Firefly), but it’s such a good character that that doesn’t matter. And Riesgraf is a good actress who pulls it off well. Parker is much more comfortable rappelling down the side of a building than attending a cocktail party, and the writers clearly have fun inserting her into social situations where she can be awkward. (She lacks any sort of filter and constantly laughs at inappropriate moments.) The audience has fun with that too! As on Mission: Impossible, every character gets his or her own spotlight episode, and Parker’s is "The Stork Job" in which her own past motivates her to put herself at risk to save a group of war orphans. It’s actually a lot better than I make it sound!

Season highlights include "The Miracle Job," in which the team fakes a miracle by lifting a giant statue from a church while the whole congregation is present without anyone noticing, "The Snow Job," in which Nate’s alcoholism complicates what should be a straightforward fake property scam (and in which Sophie gets to be particularly sexy) and "The Bank Shot Job," in which Nate and Sophie end up in the middle of a bank robbery hostage situation while in the course of one of their cons, and Parker then has to break into a bank that’s already being robbed and is surrounded by police! In each case, the writers ingeniously find ways to depict classic con jobs, but still leave us rooting for the scammers because the people they’re scamming are always so deserving of it. Does that justify Nate & Co’s vigilantism? The series doesn’t really explore that, but things do get a little uncomfortable from a constitutional standpoint if viewers think too deeply about the highly entertaining "Juror #6 Job," in which the team manipulates the outcome of a trial. (That episode showcases some delicious guest turns from Brent Spiner and Lauren Holly–who seems to be morphing into Joan Allen.)

The best episode of the bunch, however, is the two-part season finale, "The First David Job" and "The Second David Job." Nate finally gets his chance for revenge on the head of his old company, Ian Blackpool (Lost’s Kevin Tighe) the man he blames directly for his son’s death and everything that’s gone wrong for him since. Blackpool is an art collector, and he’s determined to collect both maquettes that Michelangelo created in designing his "David." Furthermore, he wants to debut them to the world in a museum exhibition being underwritten by his firm. His lackey (and Nate’s former partner), Jim Sterling (Burn Notice alum Mark Sheppard), proves a more than worthy adversary for Nate, anticipating his team’s every move. After a truly unpredictable sequence of double-crosses and triple-crosses and a thoroughly-orchestrated splintering of the group, Nate finally turns that to his advantage by telling his opponents exactly what he plans to do: he will steal the Davids on the night the museum opens to the public. This bold challenge leads to that truly impressive, thoroughly entertaining heist sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this review. The twists come fast and furious, and this episode is as good as anything in any of the Ocean’s movies! The exceedingly appealing guest star Kari Matchett adds further sparks as Nate's ex-wife, Maggie, whose presence creates a bit of a love triangle with him and Sophie amidst all the heisting.

Leverage updates a formula that was great to begin with, and adds rich characterizations in the hands of highly capable actors with terrific chemistry together. It's also got great, jazzy heist music by Joseph LoDuca. Sure, it’s fluffy; it’s lighter than air, but I love that! If you enjoy the con and heist-based escapism of the old Mission: Impossible series, you should really investigate Leverage on DVD. Sure, it’s not quite as good as Burn Notice, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s its own show–and a highly entertaining one at that. (TNT should really think about programming it in the fall and spring, however, when Burn Notice is off the air, as opposed to trying to take on Michael Westen directly!)

In addition to quality programs, the DVDs also boast an impressive amount of extras. Foremost among them are the entertaining, informative commentary tracks on every single episode with series co-creators John Rogers (who at one point was writing a Queen & Country movie, but I suspect that particular version of that project is long dead now) and Chris Downey and executive producer Dean Devlin. These guys are never boring, and their commentary tracks are full of interesting anecdotes. They point out a lot of parallels between the series pilot and season finale (in each respective commentary) that I hadn’t picked up on. A lot of times they joke that "it’s almost like we planned this." That particular joke gets old fast, but self-deprecating or not, the remark does highlight how much careful planning goes into the series. It’s that kind of thinking, in fact (along with the character dynamic) that really justifies the show’s existence; sure, what they’re doing might be a retread of the Mission: Impossible formula, but this is a very contemporary take on it. With no disrespect meant to Bruce Geller and his talented team, writers simply weren’t thinking that way about TV back when that series was being broadcast.

In the pilot commentary, the writers talk about all the Italian Job-like character intros (while failing to credit that movie) and mention that often in pilots you do things so large that you have no choice but to dial back later. One of the commentators (it’s very tough to tell them apart) says that when he saw Elliot’s set up (that terrible bit in which he supposedly takes out a zillion bad guys with guns in a matter of seconds without getting a scratch), he thought, "what’s he gonna do next week, fight a bear?" Luckily, since it would have been fairly ridiculous to go in that particular direction, they did dial back the less than credible aspects of his fight sequences, and the series was better off for it. Still on the subject of the cute flashbacks introducing the characters, they also debate whether or not Parker, seen as a little girl, killed her family when she blew up their house. Even though it’s totally cut to indicate that, they argue that she didn’t. After going through a series of foster parents, they reason, she blew up one of the houses when the unbearable foster family wasn’t home. One of the commentators then jokes that it works that way because they cut out the bit with her foster father running out of the house on fire!

While they site a number of influences in discussing the pilot, they strangely don’t mention the most obvious: the aforementioned Mission: Impossible. Yet when they comment that "only Nathan Ford can see the big picture," his debt to Jim Phelps couldn’t be more obvious. They also sadly don’t remark on Christian Kane’s atrocious hairstyle (pictured to particularly awful effect on the back cover of the DVD), but they do call out an equally obvious reference to the hilarious Britcom The IT Crowd, giving credit where credit’s due. The only annoying thing about the commentaries is that during one of them (I think it was on the finale), they mention some storyboards and pre-vis that should be on elsewhere on the DVD, but as far as I can tell, they're not. Oh well. There’s plenty of other stuff as a consolation prize!

"Leverage Behind-the-Scenes," hosted by Dean Devlin, and more giving an overview of the series than revealing its secrets, was obviously created as an EPK to promote the show before it aired. That said, it’s still interesting, which is more than can be said for the usual EPK stuff. Rogers and Downey discuss how when they conceived Leverage, there was no fun con show on tv "the way there was back on the Seventies." They have to mean Mission: Impossible, but for whatever reason they don’t mention it by name. (And this is a Paramount DVD, the same as the Missions, so I can’t imagine why!) Christian Kane name-checks some other influences, including Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12 and The A-Team. The comparison to the latter is certainly apt: Kane points out that both shows center on a group of reformed lawbreakers who, because of one man with a plan, decide to use their specialized skills for good. We also learn that the producers hired an actual con man as a consultant: Apollo Robbins, a professional pickpocket who, like Nate Ford, uses his talents for good. Robbins, in turn, recruited some actual thieves and cons out of prisons to lend their expertise! Robbins and the producers reveal that Beth Riesgraf had the best natural ability for pickpocketing and thievery, with Gina Bellman coming in second.

Most episodes feature a few deleted scenes, and as with most deleted material, they vary in quality. Some of them are quite enjoyable, like a rejected opening for the pilot wherein a drunk Nate interviews for a job at a hardware store, while others seem unnecessary–even as deleted scenes–like the multiple improvised takes of Hardisson trying to stall the security guards from searching his truck in "The Homecoming Job." Overall, though, the deleted material is a welcome inclusion. The rest of the extras are basically filler, but Beth Riesgraf’s "Crazy Actress" parody is a pretty funny little spoof video with Riesgraf presenting her "ideas" to the writers while freaking out when they dare to make eye contact with her. Her ideas include things like Parker morphing into a shark and being called "Sharker," which she illustrates with some humorous finned swimming pantomime.

Less humorous is "Leverage Gets Renewed," an unappealing slice of network publicity in which Devlin tricks the actors into meeting early one morning (some via videophone) to be told by a network exec (also via videophone) that the show is renewed. Then it’s a love-fest with everyone saying great things about the network, the show and each other for the benefit of the TV cameras. Luckily it’s just a few minutes.

Are you a working or budding Director of Photography or Cinematographer? If so, then the final featurette, "The Cameras of Leverage," is for you. If you’re not, well, I can’t imagine anyone else who would be into this. It’s a two-minute montage of pure camera porn: lingering beauty shots of fancy digital cameras set to music, with no narration or explanation from a DP or anything. I suspect it was created as a promo reel for the company that provides the cameras for the show to use at trade shows or something.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the packaging. Regular readers know well that packaging is important to me, in books, DVDs, everything. From time to time I fly in the face of the old adage and review books by their covers, and I occasionally mention packaging in my DVD reviews–though usually only when it’s bad. But I haven’t really done enough of that lately, and Paramount’s release of Leverage: The 1st Season gives me the opportunity to talk about what I see as a very good trend in DVD packaging: "flippers." I love flippers! Paramount was the first studio to embrace these cases, which manage to pack three to six discs inside a case the width of a standard DVD. This ingenious innovation has changed the face of television DVDs. As someone who owns thousands of them, I am big on space-saving techniques. The unnecessary size of regular DVD cases has always annoyed me (I wish studios had been brave enough to use slimpacks as the standard size to begin with), and the bulkiness of old TV-on-DVD packages is infuriating. Look at the original release of Alias: Season One, which packs three full-size DVD cases into a box. Or the early, ultra-clunky gatefold packaging on 24! You could fit four of 24: Season 6 (mercifully packed in a flipper) in the space occupied by the original release of Season 1!

Anway, Leverage comes in a four-disc flipper and it’s very well packaged. All of the discs are on the flippers themselves, leaving the clear interior walls of the case free and clear so it’s possible to read the episode descriptions written on the reverse of the jacket. You don’t have to lift any discs out to find out what episodes are on them; it’s all right there. The whole flipper is then packed into a cardboard O-Ring sleeve, which doesn’t take up any extra space, but does make the set stand out as something special. Well done, Paramount! This is textbook TV-on-DVD packaging. I wouldn’t want the series to change design midway through, but I do wish that they’d come up with these designs prior to releasing Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O and The Wild Wild West! That would have saved quite a lot space on my shelf. The only downside to this series’ packaging is that for some reason the list of bonus features on the back neglects to mention the real meat of the set: the audio commentaries on all thirteen episodes! Odd.

Inside and out, from the show itself to the bonus content to the packaging, this is a high-quality release of a really fun show. And it’s a bargain at less than thirty bucks on Amazon. If you’re a fan of Mission: Impossible, or you enjoy the way that Burn Notice has reinvented an old formula for the 21st century, then you should definitely give Leverage a try as well.

Aug 8, 2009

Cat Among The Pigeons
DVD Review: Poirot: The Movie Collection Set 4

Agatha Christie may not be a name readily associated with spies, but when you consider how many mysteries the incredibly prolific author penned–and how many motives she had to come up with–it’s not surprising that more than a few featured espionage. One such novel was Cat Among the Pigeons (written in 1959), a title adapted for TV this year and featured in the latest set of Poirot mysteries from Acorn Media, Poirot: The Movie Collection - Set 4. Personally, I love a good mystery and I love Poirot, and the addition of spies sweetens the deal even more. On top of that, this story was adapted by Mark Gatiss, one of my very favorite contemporary spy writers! (Although he’s probably better known for his acting and for being a member of the darkly hilarious comedy troupe the League of Gentlemen.) Gatiss is a self-described fan of the Grand Dame of Mystery, and having previously appeared in another Poirot (and a Marple), as well as having sent up Christie in the endpapers of his novel The Devil in Amber, it’s high time he penned a Poirot. With its inclusion of secret agents and allusions to adventures in far-flung corners of the Empire–combined with its girls’ school setting–Cat Amongst the Pigeons is a good match for Gatiss’s sensibilities. Despite the ripe ingredients, Gatiss resists the path of camp, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read his Lucifer Box novels. Yes, they are parodies of a genre he clearly loves, but what makes them so enjoyable is that they manage to be at the same time exemplary of that genre. They’re not send-ups of pulpy adventure novels; they’re bona fide pulpy adventure novels with lots of humor. "Cat Amongst the Pigeons" may lack most of that humor, but Gatiss latches onto and plays up the hints of pulpy adventure in Christie’s novel.

Such adventure starts things off in a prologue set somewhere on the subcontinent as two strapping, stiff-upper-lip Englishmen make a heroic last stand against the vile revolutionary hordes overrunning a palace. Evidently, they’ve seen to it that someone or something got safely out before the fortress fell. What all this has to do with the plot, of course, we’ll have to wait to find out, as instead we join Belgian sleuth extraordinaire Hercule Poirot (still played to perfection by David Suchet after inhabiting the role on television for twenty years) as he visits a girls’ school to give a speech. Detectives giving speeches at schools is an odd theme in Golden Age British mysteries and the TV adaptations thereof, and I’m jealous of those schoolchildren. I certainly never had any famous detective make a speech at my school! (Well, unless you count the DARE officer, I guess.) Anyway, Poirot’s there to make a speech, but of course a murder occurs, as always happens wherever he goes. Naturally, he’s asked to stay on to investigate, working in full cooperation with the local police. And of course, everything is not what it seems at this school.

For starters, the hunky young gardener who all the girls are into is really an agent of His Majesty’s Secret Service, tasked with looking after a princess in their midst. The princess is the rightful heir to the throne of that faraway country where the revolution’s just occurred. His Secret Service credentials, however, don’t eliminate him as a suspect. After all, MI6 could have ulterior motives here, playing out their games of international politics on the soil of a British girls’ school! And the gardener’s not the only spy in the mix anyway. Poirot quickly discovers that there’s also a mysterious, deadly female agent among the students or the teaching staff, codenamed "the Angel." But who is she? Finally, there’s also the strong possibility that one of the girls’ mothers is a spy as well! Far-fetched? Not at all! "The secret service recruits from all walks," notes one character. "It’s quite possible that Mrs. Upjohn was a part of them. Without her being some sort of female Bulldog Drummond or something!" If only Mrs. Upjohn were around, perhaps she could shed some light on the identity of the Angel (a former British agent turned double turned independent operator and now presumed dead) and the increasing number of murders happening around the campus! But she’s not; she’s off in Europe.

As the body count builds, the princess is kidnapped, secrets are exposed and a Royal treasure comes into play (of course!), the girls (including Harry Potter’s Cho Chang, Katie Leung, in a small role) are all atwitter about the goings on: "I think I might swoon if anything else happens. It’s just too too thrilling!" Indeed it is thrilling. This is the ideal playground for Mark Gatiss to operate in, and he has a great time translating Christie’s various clues and misdirects to the screen. Despite all of these exciting trappings sure to please the spy fan, however, it’s simply not one of Poirot’s most devious mysteries. If that’s what you seek, you’re better off with the second feature-length episode included in this package, "Mrs. McGinty’s Dead."

"Mrs. McGinty’s Dead" has nothing to do with espionage, but as long as you’ve gotten the set for "Cat Among the Pigeons," you might as well watch it! It’s got the cleverer plot of the two, and it’s almost as much fun. This is Poirot in his more familiar milieu, solving a murder at the behest of the police in a small English country village. Everyone in the village has secrets, naturally, and Poirot quickly deduces that one of the women in town is either a murderess who escaped to Australia decades ago, now come back with a new identity, or else her daughter. It’s likely that the titular Mrs. McGinty recognized said person, and that that knowledge led to her titular state. Now it’s up to Poirot to divine who it is, and true to the Christie formula, there’s bound to be at least one more murder along the way...

"Mrs. McGinty’s Dead" sees the return of Poirot’s sometime sidekick mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker), whose welcome presence affords writer Nick Dear the chance to poke the same fun at those who adapt classic mystery novels to other mediums as Christie did at mystery novelists themselves. Ariadne is in town to collaborate with a successful playwright on a play about her foreign detective hero, the not-un-Poirot-like Sven Hjerson. The playwright, of course, wants to sex it all up, much as the TV producers have been accused of doing to the latest incarnation of Christie’s Marple. And he wants to turn the sixty-year-old Sven into a skiing action hero, much to Ariadne’s dismay. "He’s sixty!" she protests, to which the playwright tells her that he’s now much younger, as otherwise his sexual relationship with the teenage girl he’s helping would seem inappropriate. She tries to insist that there is no sexual relationship, and that Sven has never shown any interest in women, but the boxoffice-savvy playwright says that simply can’t be. I’m not sure how many of these objections come directly from Christie, but even if they do, they still play perfectly as contemporary in-jokes. Everything builds to a classically Poirot denouement in this thoroughly satisfying entry in the series.

Unfortunately, two scant ninety-minute episodes aren’t enough to fill Acorn’s standard three-disc Poirot set, so the company pads out this release with a third disc containing an hour-long TV special "Super Sleuths: Poirot". Although built-in teasers for ad-breaks belie its TV origin, this special is a decent overview of the character containing enlightening interviews with Suchet and some of the other regular actors from the series’ earlier seasons (it’s honestly refreshing to see Captain Hastings back in the form of actor Hugh Fraser; I do miss him from the current adaptations, even if his absence is true to the books) as well as writers and producers. Most interesting to spy fans among the latter is Alex Rider creator Anthony Horowitz, one of the original creative forces behind the series. Horowitz calls Christie out on her over-reliance on "in your face" clues, but says she has a fantastic ability to construct different solutions to murders; he loves her endings. The documentary mercifully doesn’t give away any of those endings, but it does talk a lot about Curtain, Poirot’s final adventure, and any significant mention of that story is bound to contain certain spoilers. "Super Sleuths" is a worthwhile bonus feature (though one with limited rewatchability) and a pleasant inclusion in the set, but its presence hardly justifies the steep fifty dollar price point. Luckily, the set can be readily found for much less at various online retailers, and the two actual mysteries make it a worthy addition to any Poirot collection–as well as an entertaining rental for spy fans curious to dip their feet into the related mystery genre.

Aug 7, 2009

Tradecraft: Alias Writers Accept New Mission

Variety reports that producer J.J. Abrams has hired two of his Alias writers to pen the next Mission: Impossible movie. Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec will write the script for M:I:IV based on a story they concocted with Abrams. While "the only other commitments so far are for [Tom] Cruise and Abrams to produce the film together," (and only produce at this point), the trade asserts that "sources said that Cruise's character, Ethan Hunt, will certainly be involved in an onscreen capacity." Applebaum and Nemec follow in the footsteps of red hot scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III) and Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) as alumni of an Abrams TV show now writing blockbuster movies.

Aug 6, 2009

Upcoming Los Angeles Spy Screenings: The President's Analyst And John Barry

Popular revival house The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles is currently running a film festival curated by director Joe Dante. Dante (who directed Patrick Macnee in The Howling) has hand-picked some of his favorite films to screen, and he will be introducing certain nights in person. One of my own very favorite spy movies, James Coburn's post-Flint satire The President's Analyst, will play on a double bill with Cold Turkey on August 11 and 12; Dante will be there to introduce the films on Tuesday, August 11. Theodore Flicker's 1967 film casts Coburn as a shrink selected to be the President's personal analyst, but having all those secrets suddenly in his head (and being on constant call) starts to make Coburn a tad paranoid. Of course, it's easy to be paranoid when spies from all the world's intelligence services (even Canada's) really are out to get you! The film is a brilliant mixture of smart satire and expertly-orchestrated slapstick–the same blend that makes the OSS 117 parodies so successful today. Even though the movie is firmly rooted in the 1960s counterculture, its satire–for better or for worse–is just as applicable today. Coburn is brilliant in the very best role of his career, and Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden both turn in standout supporting performances.

On Thursday, August 12, Dante will host another screening of interest to spy fans. The movies aren't spy movies, but they are a tribute to one of the key personnel behind James Bond's screen success. It's a John Barry double feature of The Last Valley (1970, starring Michael Caine) and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972, starring future Bond Girl Fiona Fullerton and featuring Peter Sellers as the March Hare). "The composer has written many more celebrated music scores than these," writes Dante in his description on the New Beverly's webpage, "but to my mind these haven't received the attention they deserve, probably because both were major boxoffice flops." While James Clavell's The Last Valley is available on DVD from MGM (though not anamophically), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is only available in a poor-quality, pan-and-scan public domain version. Dante promises a rare opportunity to see the movie in its original 2.35:1 aspect ration–if in a slightly faded scope print. Frequent James Bond lyricist Don Black collaborated with Barry on this musical version of Lewis Carroll's classic story.

Dante discusses the festival an a lengthy and awesome interview at the blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. The New Beverly does not sell advance tickets, so you'll need to line up early to be assured a seat.

Aug 5, 2009

COMIC-CON: Movie Review: The Diabolikal Super-Kriminal (2009)

Director SS-Sunda's documentary The Diabolikal Super-Kriminal enjoyed its U.S. premiere at the San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday night with producer Mort Todd in attendance. Todd explained how he came to be involved with the project. After attempting to secure the license to publish Diabolik fumetti (Italian comic books) in English and failing, Todd looked into what other Italian fumetti sensations were available. He discovered that the skeleton suit-clad sociopath Sadistik (also known as Killing) was available, and ended up buying the character outright. An Italian company then approached him about doing a documentary on the character, and the project was born.

The Diabolikal Super-Kriminal isn’t just a movie about Sadistik (himself a rip-off of–er, variation on the original skeleton-suited sociopath Kriminal, who was in turn a Diabolik rip-off), but about the entire fumetti neri genre so popular in mid-Sixties Europe. Fumetti neri simply means “dark comics,” but it’s great to learn the technical term for all these masked criminals like Diabolik, Sadistik, Kriminal, Mister X, etc. When I reviewed a bunch of these movies in April, I used the term “costumed adventurer” as it was less specific about the characters’ motivations than “superhero.” Whereas Americans preferred their costumed adventurers to be heroic, Italians and Germans gravitated instead toward shadowy figures operating outside the law, taking on the system and getting away with it. Todd speculates that this identification with the “bad guys” is the result of losing two world wars, and he may be onto something there. The movie focuses on the ways in which the comics pushed the boundaries of sex and violence (not to mention good taste) in a predominantly Catholic country subject at the time to Draconian censorship by Church-sponsored morality police. Indeed, the lurid covers and interior artwork showcased in the film are positively dripping with both eroticism and sadism. Unfortunately, the images flash by so rapidly that it’s a bit tough for a non-Italian-speaking viewer to take them all in while also keeping up with the subtitles. (Luckily you can see a bunch at the film's official website!)

Diabolik was the first (and by later standards also one of the tamest–or classiest) of these fumetti neri, and the movie makes interesting points about his creators, the Giussani sisters, using the character to not only embrace the anarchic spirit prevalent in post-Mussolini Italy, but also to overcome–through their escapist male creation–the rampant sexism of the era. The huge success of Diabolik quickly spawned countless imitators who pushed the boundaries of taste as far as they could go. Too far, in fact, resulting in a sudden tightening of censorship on comic books following the brief period of greater creative freedom. Unable to meet the public’s insatiable desire for sex and violence with drawings, director Rosario Borelli and his editor decided to take their latest character, Sadistik, in new directions–as a photo comic. (I'm simplifying here; the documentary goes into fascinating detail about the various iterations of this character prior to the photo novels, as does the producer's website.)

Photo comics were exactly what they sound like: a series of sequential panels of photographs of actors and actresses–complete with costumes and props–telling a story. They were movies on paper, and they were for the most part shot and created by veterans from the world of film. Even the actors came from that world. Future giallo mainstay George Hilton portrayed Sadistik’s relentless adversary, Inspector Grant, in the first eight issues, and other familiar faces from the Eurospy and Spaghetti Western genres popped up again and again. (The actor who played the gangster who casually stops the bullet hole in Valmont’s plane with chewing gum in Danger: Diabolik played one of the main roles in the Sadistik photo comic.)

The considerable section of the film dealing with photo novels is fascinating, since the whole genre is pretty much alien to American audiences save for the occasional film-based paperback. (I think I have a photo novel of Star Wars buried somewhere in my parents’ basement.) Many actors are interviewed, and some took their work quite seriously and remember it fondly, while others scoff at the whole fad and pretend to have forgotten it, as they clearly don’t appreciate a documentarian dredging up that embarrassing part of their career! Sadistik himself is always pictured in his mask except when seen in bed with his girlfriend, Dana–but even then his face is turned away. Therefore, the filmmakers try to build up a big mystery over who it was behind the mask. This bit may play well in Italy if these potential candidates are well-recognized there (the producer said that one of them went on to become the Italian Regis Philbin), but since American audiences have no vested interest in these people and presumably just met them on film, the whole mystery angle fails to generate much intrigue and plays rather tediously. Todd mentioned that the film would be re-cut for American audiences before its release, and hopefully this sequence is one that will be tweaked.

When public disapproval grew for the utterly amoral Sadistik, the producer behind the photo novel attempted to recreate its success with a different genre: a more traditional spy formula. But the James Bond-inspired series (“Don” something... I wish I could remember the full title) failed to catch on the way Sadistik did, and folded after seven issues. This brief snippet of the film really caught my attention though! If these play out like Eurospy movies on paper, then I would love to get my hands on some of them!

Overall, I learned a lot from The Diabolikal Super-Kriminal. It covers a little-known pocket of Sixties pop culture, and for that I found it fascinating. It could have benefited from the inclusion of Kriminal or Kilink film footage, but presumably there were rights issues precluding that. (A potential sequel teased at the end looks like it will focus more on the films.) The filmmakers make a valiant effort to make up for the lack of clips by staging their own filmed recreations of scenes from the photo novel, and their success at creating a suitably vintage feel for these clips is aided immeasurably by the soundtrack (featuring contributions by El Reverendo M, Neuropa and the Charles E. Hall Band), which has an appropriately Sixties Euro vibe to it. If the idea of a masked antihero in a skeleton suit (which is revealed to have been designed by Carlo Rimbaldi!) holds any appeal to you, then you should not pass up any opportunity you have to watch The Diabolikal Super-Kriminal.

Todd hopes for a limited US theatrical distribution (probably at midnight showings) before releasing the film on DVD. In the meantime, fans can slake their thirst for Sixties Euro-sleaze by purchasing reprints of the photo novels through Comicfix, available in English for the first time ever! Todd plans to license the character further. He had with him the prototype for a twelve-inch Sadistik doll (similar to Sideshow figures) complete with skeleton suit and distinctive Sadistik pistol! The doll should be available later this year, and Todd hopes there will be variations in the future with different versions of the suit, including those worn by Sadistik’s unauthorized imitators like Kilink. There are also plans for the aforementioned second documentary, focusing specifically on all those imitators around the world. Apparently the character lived on in South America into the 1990s! Thanks to The Diabolikal Super-Kriminal, he’s likely to live on still all over the world.