Jul 31, 2010

CD Review: Jason King: Original Soundtrack

At only two discs, Jason King is among the shortest in Network’s parade of ITC soundtracks. Whether that’s because it had a relatively small amount of original music commissioned for it to begin with or because only a small portion of what was recorded survives, I don’t know. I’m sure Andrew Pixley does and probably says so in his liner notes (if his other, absolutely excellent booklets are anything to judge by), but my review copy sadly didn’t include liner notes. Not being as intimately familiar with Jason King as with certain other ITC shows (I actually adore the quirky but flawed series, but as brilliant as the flamboyant Peter Wyngarde is, I find he’s best enjoyed in small doses), that inhibits my ability to pinpoint exactly where any given cue comes from in the series, so instead I’ll provide my overall impressions of the album.

For a series as irrevocably (hopelessly?) mired in the 1970s as Jason King, its soundtrack is surprsingly not. For composer Laurie Johnson, it would be The New Avengers (and later The Professionals) where he explored his fondness for wah-wah guitars and 70s funk sounds. Jason King sounds more like the louche lounge life embodied by Serge Gainsbourg, which is entirely appropriate for the character, but which I associate more with the late Sixties. After all, this was still only the very beginning of the Seventies, and the loungy score is somewhat akin to John Barry’s loungier tracks in Diamonds Are Forever the same year. Of course, invoking Barry is a bit misleading, because the Jason King music isn’t, for the most part, all that typically “spy” sounding. It’s appropriate to the show. When you think of Jason King, you don’t necessarily immediately conjure up double- and triple-crosses, betrayals and chases, although the series does have all of that. No, the first thing you think of (or I do, anyway) is purple cravats and a general abundance of hair, signet rings and silk shirts unbuttoned far too far for comfort, champagne and beautiful girls in bell bottoms and overstuffed furniture in gaudy colors. And the music does its job; it evokes all of that when listened to. Track 6 on Disc 1 in particular exemplifies the Swinging (early) Seventies lounge life, but pretty much all the tracks get across the appropriate mood.

That said, there are some terrific action cues buried amidst the cool, easy listening material. Tracks 17-20 on the first CD are all action-packed, and could just as easily accompany the suavest secret agent as well as a slick buffoon in a bouffant. And Track 25 is as propulsive an action cue as any spy fan could hope for. In the context of the album, however, these cues become swallowed up by the overall loungy vibe. In general, this isn’t the kind of spy music you put on when you want to speed through traffic; this is the kind of spy music you put on when you want to pour yourself a martini or three, lie back in your most decadent love seat and exchange flirtatious banter with your favorite long-haired, bikini-topped babe or hairy-chested, mustached man. I love both the action and lounge schools of spy sounds, and enjoy being able to select between Jason King and, say, Danger Man as the mood strikes me. Jason King is anything but typical, but it’s a worthwhile addition to a robust spy music library.

Jason King: Original Soundtrack is available in the UK exclusively from Network's website; in America it's available from Screen Archives Entertainment, where you can also listen to samples.

Jul 30, 2010

Moore Plays Lazenby

There is a Roger Moore spy movie opening wide this weekend in North America... yet, shockingly, I don't think I'm going to see it, so rather than reviewing it myself I'll link to The Hollywood Reporter's write-up.  (This line piqued my interest: "The opening-title sequence, easily the best thing in the movie, deliciously mimics those in James Bond movies.")  But it does seem worth mentioning that Moore (or his voice, anyway) plays a feline spy chief named Tab Lazenby.  Perhaps it's revenge for George Lazenby's turn as "JB" in The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. during Moore's official tenure as 007!  Sir Roger recorded his dialogue in Monte Carlo, where he lives.  If anyone sees this, please post a comment and let us all know how it is!

Jul 29, 2010

Tradecraft: Comic Book In Mandeville's Crosshairs

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Mandeville films have picked up the rights to Marc Silvestri's Top Cow comic book Crosshair.  The comic follows a former CIA assassin turned suburban dad who learns that in 48 hours, a Manchurian Candidate-like "suppressed program" in his brain will turn him into a single-minded killer whose target is the President of the United States.  He then has to race the clock to discover who's manipulating him and stop... himself.  "Crosshair is a unique premise in which the main character is both the hero and the villain," producer Todd Lieberman told the trade. "This dichotomy is very unsettling, which makes it a fantastic twist for audiences." It's another one of those movie deals that happens before the comic actually hits shelves, but the book is being written by Jeff Katz and drawn by Silvestri and Allan Jefferson.
DVD Review: Codename: Kyril (1988)

Of all the 80s spy miniseries made for British television that I’ve been watching lately, Codename: Kyril is by far the most enjoyable. That’s thanks more to the cast of well-known actors and first-rate production values than the script (by Smiley’s People scribe John Hopkins, based on a novel by John Trenhaile), though. Fantastic actors, fantastic sets and locations and slick cinematography put it head-and-shoulders above the others, but don’t help it make much sense. The plot is very dense and undeniably muddled, but everything that’s actually going on on screen–from the dialogue to the rather impressive action setpieces–makes it easy to swallow nonetheless. I stopped trying to mentally plug every plot hole and instead just went with it, and let myself be carried by the frequent twists and turns the story takes, savoring the rich performances along the way. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

The version of Codename: Kyril available on Region 2 DVD from Network is not the cut-down movie version that aired on American television and subsequently enjoyed a VHS release. This is the full two part miniseries, totaling nearly four hours. I’m actually a little bit curious about the two-hour cut version, because it would certainly be possible to edit all of this material into a tighter, more streamlined and more cohesive story... but in all likelihood the truncations probably just make it even more muddled. Given a choice, I’d much rather see the full, uncut miniseries, because there’s a lot of globetrotting espionage to enjoy, and the pacing works quite well as it stands, so I would hate to see individual sequences needlessly pared.

Codename: Kyril follows two rival moles working against each other to prevent their exposure–one in MI6's London Station (note the Le Carré jargon) and one in Moscow Centre. This isn’t a who’s-the-traitor? mystery, though, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; the audience is aware of the moles’ identities very early on. Instead it’s about watching the game unfold, as they and their superiors each make moves and counter-moves. The great Edward Woodward plays Royston, the Russian mole very highly placed inside MI6, as a haughty, petulant asshole with a penchant for bow ties. He’s about as far away from Woodward’s career-launching spy role of David Callan as one can get–but a bit closer to Robert McCall gone bad. (Codename: Kyril was made while The Equalizer was still on the air.) He answers to Joss Ackland as C, the head of MI6 who doesn’t realize there’s a traitor within his organization. On the other side, Denholm Elliott plays Povin, the bookish, bespectacled highly-ranking KGB man passing secrets to the British. His performance is somewhat similar to the “complicated man behind a phony, ‘silly ass’ facade” with which he imbued his Smiley in A Murder of Quality. Quintessential Englishman Elliott seems a bit too British to pass for Russian, but then again we’re dealing with an entirely English-speaking, Russian-accented KGB here–an 80s TV conceit that works just fine for me. Peter Vaughn plays the Russian spymaster, Stanov, and unlike his English counterpart, he knows that he has a mole in his organization. It’s his efforts to force that mole to reveal himself that set the story into motion.

Stanov sends a very capable and highly trusted agent code named–obviously–Kyril (Ian Charleson) out into the cold to pose as a defector, thus flushing out the British mole and forcing him to make a stupid mistake. He is bait, and he knows it. The finer points of Stanov’s plan were never totally clear to me (why would a defector take his knowledge of a British mole to the British, who would already be well aware of that?), but of course events don’t go exactly according to plan anyway–and the way that things actually turn out is much easier to follow than the way they were intended to go. MI5, meanwhile, has uncovered a KGB treasurer and armorer operating in London–and makes the mistake of contacting Royston about their discovery. He takes charge of attempts to turn the spy–operating, of course, according to his own agenda. To that end he recruits a patriotic lawyer and sometime MI6 agent named Sculby, played by Richard E. Grant (at his most flamboyantly 80s). The Russian agent, Loshkevoi, meanwhile, is making his way through Europe (to make the defection look genuine), with the eventual objective of hooking up with his London girlfriend, Emma (Catherine Neilson), who has come under Sculby’s observation in the course of his mission. Those are the key players, and it should be clear from their numbers alone that they’re probably better suited to a miniseries than a TV movie. It helps to have so many recognizable actors in the roles, as that makes it easier to keep track of all these characters.

While the intrigue is pure Le Carré, the action is more Ludlum. The combination of those two makes for ideal miniseries material. Kyril’s defection route takes him from Moscow to Amsterdam, across Europe to London. Along the way he stops to cash out his own stashes of money and weapons and passports that any good agent would have accrued over years in the field, all in order to make the defection look real to both sides. (This deception is crucial, since Stanov doesn’t know who in Moscow Centre he can trust.) That also pits Kyril against his own KGB comrades, whose orders are to stop him using any means necessary–short of killing. This scenario leads to some accomplished action sequences–including a chase across Dutch rooftops ending in gunplay and a large explosion.

The locations themselves–a key element in any spy tale–are phenomenal. East Anglia doesn’t stand in for Russia. This miniseries clearly had a budget. And director Ian Sharp (2nd Unit Director on GoldenEye) makes the most of it. Codename: Kyril was shot on location in London, Bristol, Amsterdam and Oslo. Oslo makes a very convincing Moscow. I don’t claim to have been to Moscow (in the 80s or ever), but I was sold. I would have believed it was Moscow if I didn’t know better. It’s clearly cold enough, and the buildings and trains look distinctive enough that they won’t be confused for British. Even the locations within England are superb, spanning from a very modern looking MI6 office space to a spacious London flat to a sprawling country house–a wing of which the Public Trust makes available to MI6 for use as a safe house.

The prolonged climax in which all the characters finally comes together (or most of them, anyway) takes place at that country house, and I couldn’t help but flash back to Callan while watching Edward Woodward pace around a giant, darkened country safehouse waiting for a supposed defector to appear! It’s “The Richmond File” all over again–only circumstances are somewhat reversed.

The climax that events in that country house build to is inevitable, but the suspense–and the fun–comes in how we get there. You always know that these 80s British spy miniseries are going to try to outdo each other in terms of utterly bleak, existential endings. That was a mark of the genre in those days. You know how it’s all going to end (badly) but the game is guessing why... and how it will get there. And, of course, who will survive. Characters don’t necessarily have to die in order for things to turn out poorly for them.

One of the many things that Codename: Kyril has going for it is that we actually do care about these characters’ fates–on both sides of the equation. Royston is the closest thing to an actual villain on display–but that’s more because of what an utter prick he is than because he’s a traitor. (And despite that, he’s still kind of badass–mainly thanks to Woodward.) The other Russian characters come off pretty well. It’s quite interesting, in fact, that the story is told largely from the Soviet agents’ point of view. Even the assassin who’s dispatched from Moscow late in the game and murders a pivotal–and likable–character is not presented as a bad guy. He’s merely someone with a job to do, like everyone else. And he questions that job for a moment, but ultimately does what he’s paid to do. Most of the spies in Codename: Kyril are just pawns, slaves to the whims and machinations of spymasters and victims of traitors and moles.

Codename: Kyril may not tell a totally cohesive story, but it doesn’t need to. It’s got so much else going for it. Huge stars, fine performances, slick production and great locations all add up to provide everything you could ask for from a spy miniseries of this era. (And of its era it certainly is–from Richard E. Grant’s and Hugh Fraser’s hair to all the neon lights to Grant’s oversized checkerboard linen sports coat, Codename: Kyril screams 80s.) If you, like me, often find yourself wishing that there were more miniseries from this time based on the works of Robert Ludlum and John Le Carré, Codename: Kyril will satisfy you on both fronts.  Right now, the Region 2 PAL disc is available exclusively through Network's website.

Jul 28, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

The streak continues.  Once again, the most notable new spy DVD of the week comes from the United Kingdom... and from the ever-reliable Network.  Their newest release of interest is Codename: Kyril, a late Eighties British miniseries starring a stellar spy cast including Joss Ackland, Peter Vaughn, Denholm Elliott, Richard E. Grant, Hugh Fraser and spy legend Edward Woodward.  Codename: Kyril has been available in a truncated two-hour movie version on VHS, but this Region 2 PAL DVD release marks the first time it's ever been available in its nearly four-hour entirety.  The plot is a tad muddled, but this globetrotting tale of rival moles in British and Russian intelligence boasats just the right mixture of Ludlum and Le Carré that makes for perfect Eighties miniseries viewing. Right now it's available only as a Network exclusive from the company's website for £12.99.

Meanwhile, in America, we get Operation: Endgame from Anchor Bay Entertainment.  This violent spy/assassin comedy (which seems to have shades of Duane Swierczynski's novel Severance Package) may be going direct to DVD (and Blu-ray, of course), but it stars quite a roster of name actors including both spy vets like Ving Rhames and Maggie Q and talented comedians like Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Corddry and the great Zach Galifianakis (who's finally getting his due thanks to The Hangover)... as spies.  Killing each other.  Bloodily.  If that notion alone doesn't have you intrigued, the plot finds rival teams of covert operatives set against each other with improvised weapons inside their (underground) office complex after their boss dies.  Extras include an alternate beginning, alternate ending and 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. The DVD will run you $15.49 on Amazon, the BD $24.99.

Finally, Hannie Caulder deserves a mention.  It's not a spy movie, but any movie pairing Raquel Welch and Robert Culp certainly bears a mention on a site like this... especially when it's one that's been missing in action on DVD for so long!  (In America, anyway.)  Relative newcomer Olive Films has stepped up to the plate where Paramount has so long come up short and finally put this curiously compelling 1971 Western revenge movie on Region 1 DVD.  (It's just a pity they didn't use any of the famously sexy poster artwork featuring Raquel in nothing but a poncho and a holster for the cover!) Christopher Lee, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Strother Martin and Stephen Boyd co-star.

Jul 27, 2010

COMIC-CON: More Bond Girl Barbies

Mattel had all of its Bond Girl Barbies on display at last week's Comic-Con International in San Diego, both the previously announced (and currently available) Jinx, Honey Rider and Pussy Galore who comprise Wave 1, and the forthcoming Wave 2.  Wave 2 of Mattel's James Bond series includes Barbie dolls based on Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die (in the high priestess dress, of course) and Maud Adams as the title character in Octopussy, apparently clad only in that white bathrobe.  Wave 2 cases include three dolls–one Solitaire and two Octopussies.  (So grab those Solitaires when you see them!) The dolls in Wave 1 are currently available through multiple outlets (very reasonably priced, too–at least compared to that expensive FAO Schwartz exclusive James Bond Barbie set from 2002–at just $34.95 a pop); Wave 2 is due out in August.  Cases are currently available for pre-order from Entertainment Earth.

Photos of the dolls in Wave 1 can be seen here.
DVD Review: Glory Boys (1984)

Of the two Gerald Seymour-scripted spy miniseries included in Acorn Media’s Cold War Spy Collection, I was looking forward to Glory Boys less (either because its terrorism angle didn’t appeal to me as much as the straight-up espionage of The Contract, or else because the cover for Glory Boys–as with any cover prominently featuring Rod Steiger–is just uglier), but I ended up enjoying it much more. Glory Boys centers on an assassination attempt on an Israeli nuclear physicist and the Security Service’s efforts to stop it. Although Steiger is featured most prominently on the cover (and is, as usual, excellent), he is not really the central character. The focus is mainly on the alcoholic, over-the-hill MI5 agent Jimmy (played by Anthony Perkins) and the two terrorists–one Irish, the other Palestinian–who mean to carry out the assassination.

You may be asking yourself about this point why American Psycho Perkins was cast as a British agent, and you’d certainly be justified in doing so. But whatever the reasons, Perkins overcomes a dodgy (and intermittently absent) English accent with an edgy, affecting performance stellar enough to make the accent easy to overlook. In fact, so engrossing is his performance, you won’t even notice the accent flaws after the first twenty minutes. Jimmy (who could possibly be Seymour's cynical take on James Bond) proves to be something of a proto-Jack Bauer: a single-mindedly determined operative capable of going to great lengths (including torture and even point-blank execution) to prevent a terrorist attack. But he’s a little too unhinged for the comfort of his superiors, including MI5 director Mr. Jones (The Public Eye’s Alfred Burke, with too little to do), who puts his own job on the line vouching for his agent and friend–then second guesses himself when he discovers Jimmy’s drinking again.

Unlike The Contract, Glory Boys takes full advantage of its miniseries length. The plot moves quickly from Jimmy to Mr. Jones and his secretary Helen (an utterly wasted–but lovely–Joanna Lumley)–who is also Jimmy’s lover–to the scientist Professor Sokarev (Steiger) and his unwanted detail of two Mossad bodyguards to the terrorists. By following all of these equally interesting plotlines, former Sandbaggers director Michael Ferguson keeps things moving quickly, and ends each of the three parts on a nail-biting cliffhanger that leaves you eager to keep watching.

Glory Boys looks great. It’s slickly directed and perfectly captures the era in which it was made. Obviously any TV program can’t help reflecting its era in clothes and cars and hairstyles, but some go beyond that to make excellent time capsules. Whether it was an urgent need to feel contemporary on the part of Ferguson or just pure serendipity, Glory Boys serves as a wonderful document of Britain in 1984 as it actually was then, which is much subtler than what a costume designer or art director would come up with today in trying to replicate the period (see: Ashes to Ashes). I just found all the little details fascinating, from the street level advertising for Risky Business to the coats on whippets being walked by extras to a poster of Alexei Sayle decorating the wall of a college dormitory. Watching now, all that stuff really helped to put me in the setting. That might seem neither here nor there when reviewing a spy series, but part of that setting was the fear of terrorism that hung over London in the early 80s, and heightening that fear (all to easy to relate to today, unfortunately) helps sell the threat of the storyline.

The two terrorists themselves represent a frightening alliance of the two primary groups that Londoners–and MI5–would have feared most back then: the IRA and the PLO (or particularly militant splinter groups within). They are not portrayed as boogeymen, but as believable characters. Seymour’s script certainly doesn’t sympathize with them (in fact it severely condemns their actions), but it does explore their motivations–probably more than those of any other characters in the story. Both young men possess absolute conviction. The Irishman, McCoy (Aaron Harris, who looks rather jarringly like a young Conan O’Brien) is only helping the Arab because such an alliance is politically convenient to his masters, but he identifies with his plight and–perhaps seeing it as an extension of his own cause–is willing to die for his comrade.

Jimmy presents himself as the ultimate expert in counterterrorism and security, quickly schooling the Mossad men in personal protection. (“I would have thought you would want to see the venue in the same conditions as when the professor will be speaking there,” he shrugs, when they’re reluctant to accompany him on an evening sortie of the site of the speech.) However, even with a man like this on the case, the best security measures of Britain and Israel prove inadequate against even a weakened and partially incompetent terrorist duo on more than one occasion. At first I thought, “Come on! All that beefed-up security and they can get some shots off through a window?” Then I realized, yes, that’s probably exactly what would happen–and the point of Seymour’s script. Intelligence operations–both offensive and defensive–may rely heavily on tactics and preparation. But at the end of the day, they come down to fallible human beings and human behavior. Sometimes–as the characteristically downbeat ending underscores–all the best planning and most heroic actions can’t alter a fate dependent on the randomness of human nature.

Glory Boys is available on DVD along with The Contract (reviewed here) as part of Acorn Media’s Cold War Spy Collection. If you’re a fan of the era or of the particular brand of bleak espionage drama to come out of the waning days of the Cold War–or if for some weird reason you ever wondered how Anthony Perkins might have played 007–then the set is definitely worth checking out.

Jul 26, 2010

Movie Review: Salt (2010)

Salt is kind of an odd movie. For its first half, it’s exactly what I expected: a thrilling (if utterly preposterous) spy movie combining the barest bones of a le Carré-esque espionage plot (which is quickly abandoned) about defectors and sleeper agents with breakneck action sequences that come as fast as those in the Bourne movies, but with a refreshing pre-Greengrass 90s sensibility. What I mean by that is not aimed as a slight against Greengrass, who is a master of the quick-cut, shaky camera sensibility he pioneered, but merely a frustration with his many imitators. Greengrass’s influence has been so pervasive that that style has become de rigeur for the genre today–and in less capable hands it often doesn’t work. In Salt, Phillip Noyce (an accomplished veteran of 90s spy movies like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger* who then fled Hollywood to spend the last decade directing artier independent fare, including the terrific spy film The Quiet American) very competently builds action sequences that you can easily follow and allows them to play out in full view. There is very little room for CGI trickery here, and the practical effects and physical stunts are highly impressive. Noyce’s action style reminds me of that of Bond veteran John Glen (perhaps the most underrated action director of all time) in that its genius is the appearance of no style. By that, of course, I don’t mean that it’s actually without style; I mean that the art of the style is to remain unobtrusive. You will enjoy the action for the stunts themselves, and not get distracted by flashy direction. I love this, and found the old-school approach (which nicely compliments Kurt Wimmer's equally old-school spy script) quite refreshing. In its second half, however, Salt veers a tad off the rails.

What begins as a Bourne-ish spy story (and now I’m using Bourne as a story comparison rather than a style one; there’s no denying the Bourne influence in that respect!) goes places you might never imagine from the trailers and becomes a conspiracy thriller involving the President of the United States, the President of Russia, control of America’s nuclear arsenal, multiple assassinations and the fate of the world. Clearly I’m not against such a story, but I was enjoying the first story better and didn’t really appreciate the radical shift in the second half. The conspiracy half (which features one of the least convincing–and dopiest–actors to ever play an American president) strays from Bourne territory into more 24 territory. Personally, I preferred the first half. But my girlfriend felt just the opposite, and thought that the movie really came alive when it went so over the top in the second, so perhaps you’ll find that more your cup of tea as well. I suppose the glass-half-full way to look at it is that there’s something for everyone!

The movie (surprisingly short for a modern spy film) also ends rather abruptly. I recognize that this ending (extremely Bourne-like, by the way) is a set-up for a sequel and I will happily line up for that sequel, especially if the same creative team is involved. But in this movie, I felt a bit ripped off, like someone had turned off the TV before it was over. I wanted to yell, “Hey! I wasn’t done watching that yet!”

What’s odd is that now it seems like I’m giving this film a negative review–and I’m not. I really did very much enjoy the first half–and I did enjoy the movie as a whole, as well, even if I had misgivings about the second half. It’s also impossible to deny that it’s a better movie than Knight and Day, for which I wrote a very positive review, so I suppose that comparison exposes the extreme subjectivity in film reviewing, and the large role that expectations play. (I felt defensive of Knight and Day, a far-from-perfect but highly enjoyable movie that seemed to be under attack on all sides; Salt, on the other hand, seems to be garnering rather favorable notices already, making it seem safer to voice my minor gripes.) Anyway, the action is amazing, and Angelina Jolie is at the top of her game. She is sexy, and that certainly adds to any movie star performance, but the role doesn’t rely on that fact. (In fact, she spends a good chunk of the film in decidedly un-sexy drag, sporting a very unfortunate kd lang haircut!) She’s also an extremely physical actress, and the role does rely on that. Overall, it doesn’t really show that the part was originally written for a man (Tom Cruise flirted with the project for a long time), but that fact may have served to create a tougher female role than we usually see, even today. Tough without relying on sexiness, I mean. (Salt is never pictured in her bra, I don't think... though she does discard her underpants–off camera–in the middle of a rather tense standoff!) There are plenty of strong female roles in the spy genre, but most of them thrive on combining capability with sexuality. (Think Sydney Bristow.) In Salt we get a female agent who doesn’t rely on that crutch in her actions. As when Honor Blackman stepped into a part originally written for a man and in the process forever changed female portrayals on genre TV, I think that might be attributable to the character’s sex change on the page.

We’re never fully aware of Evelyn Salt’s true motivations (Who Is Salt? indeed!), but that doesn’t alienate us from the character–largely thanks to Jolie’s compelling performance. Pretty much off the bat her character’s world is thrown into chaos when a walk-in defector accuses her of being a Russian sleeper agent, and we’re plunged into that chaos along with her. Her performance and Noyce’s slick direction (along with Wimmer's equally slick dialogue) were strong enough that I didn’t really stop to ponder the utter preposterousness of the spy plot until after the movie was over. If she is really a sleeper agent, though, then how on earth would it benefit the Russians to expose such a successful mole right before they really needed her? It makes no sense whatsoever, but such questions of logic are easy to ignore amidst a fast-moving action plot. (Once you do start asking those questions, however, you might also ask yourself exactly why “the world’s foremost arachnologist” has unprecedented access to the North Korean border. Is the North Korean border just crawling with exotic spiders?) Instead of wasting time contemplating the logic of it all (or occasional lack thereof), we’re breathlessly following Jolie’s daring escape from a CIA tactical team. Along the way she improvises with tactics equal to Jason Bourne’s, mountaineers along precarious ledges, leaps from moving truck to moving truck, and–when the situation dictates–ruthlessly mows down whole cadres of enemy agents. Salt is a truly exciting movie with refreshingly old-school action, and for that it deserves to be a hit. I just can’t escape the feeling that it could have been a little bit more. Oh well. We have the inevitable sequel to look forward to for that! (And I will be looking forward.)

*To protect his dignity, we’ll say nothing of The Saint.

Jul 22, 2010

COMIC-CON: Bruce Campbell To Star In Burn Notice Spin-Off

It was announced during today's Burn Notice panel that fan favorite Bruce Campbell will star in a Burn Notice spin-off movie which will tell the story of his character's final mission and retirement to Miami, events taking place prior to the series. Creator Matt Nix joked that he might even put a chainsaw in the Evil Dead star's hands. Presumably this prequel will be a TV movie, though that wasn't specifically stated.

Jul 21, 2010

More Extras For Network's Protectors

Network's recently announced UK release of The Protectors has been delayed by a few weeks... but it's for a good reason: so that the company can add some extra features.  Now don't get too excited; it's nothing huge, but the point is it's somethingThe Protectors: The Complete Series will now come out in the UK on August 23, and feature French and Spanish title sequences in addition to the previously announced photo galleries and PDF features.  I don't know if that means Tony Christie singing in other languages or not, but I'd be curious to see...  It's still not a slew of bonus material, but I'm happy the company is so dedicated to putting on whatever they've got, even if it means a delay.  Read all about Network's Region 2 Protectors release here.

Jul 20, 2010

The Spy's Guide To Comic-Con 2010

Well, it's that time of year again!  If you're a spy fan headed out to San Diego tomorrow for Comic-Con International, here are some panel highlights that caught my eye that might be of particular interest to you, too.  (Please post a comment if I've missed anything crucial.)  The copy is mostly taken directly from the Comic-Con website, which allows you to create your own schedule this year.  (Not that you'll actually get into all the things you plan to do.  Remember to allow plenty of time for waiting in lines!)  I'll be checking out as many as I can, and hopefully blogging about them, depending on my internet access...

Thursday, July 22

Right from the start, there are tough choices to make (as usual).  Spy fans must choose between Burn Notice and Salt on the first day!

1:00-2:00 Salt -- Opening in theaters everywhere tomorrow, Columbia Pictures brings an exclusive and surprising look at Salt to Comic-Con today, featuring some very special guests. [Yes, Angelina Jolie is scheduled to attend!] As a CIA officer, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) swore an oath to duty, honor and country. Her loyalty will be tested when a defector accuses her of being a Russian spy. Salt goes on the run, using all her skills and years of experience as a covert operative to elude capture, but her efforts to prove her innocence only serve to cast doubt on her motives as the hunt to uncover the truth behind her identity continues and the question remains: "Who is Salt?" Hall H

1:00-2:00 Bruce Campbell (Sam Axe), Matt Nix (creator and executive producer), and Alfredo Barrios, Jr. (executive producer) host a panel discussion and answer questions about the creative process of evolving an embryonic idea into a finished episode of cable's #1 show. Fans will gain an intimate look inside the world of Burn Notice, complete with war stories from the writer's room and filming on location in Miami. Exclusive video content will include tips on how to survive Comic-Con from your favorite burned spy, Michael Westen (played by Jeffrey Donovan), highlights from all four seasons and an exclusive sneak peek at upcoming episodes. Ballroom 20

2:15-3:15 Summit Entertainment: RED— Summit Entertainment presents a sneak peek of exclusive footage from RED. They used to be the CIA's top agents -- but the secrets they know just made them the Agency's top targets. Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren star in RED, an explosive action-comedy based on the cult DC Comics graphic novel by Warren Ellis. Join him, director Robert Schwentke, and the film's stars as they share footage from the film and debut the final trailer before it's ever in theaters. Hall H

3:30-4:30 Entertainment Weekly: The Visionaries— A discussion with geek gods J. J. Abrams (Alias, Mission: Impossible III) and Joss Whedon (Dollhouse) on the future of pop culture. EW presents an in-depth conversation with these two creative geniuses about how technology, gaming, and global culture are reshaping how we tell and consume stories on television, film and the web. Plus: Is the superhero movie waning, or is it on the cusp of reinvention? And what do they think the pop culture universe will look like a decade from now? Moderated by Jeff "Doc" Jensen. Hall H

Friday, July 23

6:00-7:00 Archer— Creator and executive producer Adam Reed (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) screens selected scenes from the FX animated series Archer, which recently won a NowNewNext Award for "Best Television Show You're Not Watching" from cable's Logo network. He will take questions from the audience along with Aisha Tyler, who provides the voice of Agent Lana Kane, the strong, voluptuous, and often exasperated secret agent. Adam and Aisha will discuss the evolution of the series as well as the voice-over process. Room 7AB

Saturday, July 24
 
10:00-10:45 Chuck Screening and Q&A— Chuck executive producers and co-creators Josh Schwartz (Gossip Girl) and Chris Fedak appear along with series stars Zachary Levi (Alvin and the Chipmunks), Yvonne Strahovski (upcoming The Killer Elite), Joshua Gomez (Without a Trace), Ryan McPartlin, Mark Christopher Lawrence (The Pursuit of Happyness), Vik Sahay (Good Will Hunting), Scott Krinsky (The O.C.), Sarah Lancaster (upcoming The Good Doctor) and Adam Baldwin (Serenity) for their usual hijinks -- a Q&A to discuss the upcoming season four (made possible by the devoted fanbase) and a special video presentation. Produced by Fake Empire, Wonderland Sound and Vision in association with Warner Bros. Television, Chuck airs Mondays at 8pm ET/PT on NBC, and Chuck: The Complete Third Season will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7. Ballroom 20
 
11:00-12:00 Hollywood and Ghost Recon Join Forces— Little Minx, a company of Ridley Scott and Associates (RSA), presents Oscar-winning director François Alaux (Logorama), associate producer and technical advisor to all RSA films Harry Humphries, and a feature actor from the short film, who will be joined by Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Solider video game studio associate producer Adrian Lacey in a panel discussing the upcoming short film, as well as connections between the film and the game. Attendees will be treated to the world premiere debut of the film trailer, as well as a live demo of the upcoming video game. Room 25ABC

11:00-12:00 Leverage— Join the stars of the TNT hit series Leverage -- Academy Award winner Timothy Hutton, Aldis Hodge, Christian Kane, and Beth Riesgraf -- along with the show's executive producers, John Rogers (Transformers, Cosby) and Chris Downey (King of Queens), for a panel and Q&A session. Don't miss a special sneak peek of an upcoming episode too! Moderated by Anthony Ferrante. Indigo Ballroom, San Diego Hilton Bayfront
 
12:00-1:00 The Venture Bros.— Creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer host a laissez-faire chat about -- what else? -- The Venture Bros. They'll be joined by Patrick Warburton (voice of Brock Samson) and James Urbaniak (voice of Dr. Venture) as they screen sneak preview clips from the upcoming season, shamelessly plug their new DVD and line of action figures, and take questions from the audience. Indigo Ballroom, San Diego Hilton Bayfront

4:45-5:45 Universal: Cowboys & Aliens -- Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man series) discusses what's happening behind the scenes of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks' action-thriller Cowboys & Aliens, based on Platinum Studios' graphic novel. Currently shooting in New Mexico, Cowboys & Aliens stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and takes audiences into the Old West, where a lone cowboy leads an uprising against a terror from beyond our world. Q&A session to follow. [Will Daniel Craig actually be there?  I'm guessing not, but you never know, so Bond fans might not want to miss this one...] Hall H
 
5:15-6:15 Nikita Pilot Screening and Q&A— Comic-Con has gone rogue! International action star Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible III) stars in this sexy and suspenseful series as an agent who has escaped from the ultrasecretive and corrupt government agency that trained her to be an assassin...and then betrayed her. Catch a sneak peek screening of this action-packed thriller, and join Maggie, series stars Shane West (ER) and Lyndsy Fonseca (Kick-Ass), and executive producer Craig Silverstein (Bones) for an inside look at one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall season. From Wonderland Sound and Vision in association with Warner Bros. Television, Nikita will air Thursdays at 9pm ET/PT on The CW. Room 6BCF

6:00-7:00 Marvel Studios: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger— Producer Kevin Feige and special guests give you an inside look at the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hall H

6:15-7:00 Human Target Screening and Q&A— Based on the DC Comics title, Human Target is an action-packed thrill ride about a mysterious private contractor who will stop at nothing to keep his clients alive -- even if it means literally becoming a "human target." The series moves to a new night this fall -- Fridays at 8pm ET/PT on FOX -- and executive producer Matthew Miller (Chuck) joins series stars Mark Valley (Fringe), Chi McBride (Pushing Daisies), and Jackie Earle Haley (A Nightmare on Elm Street) for a Q&A with fans and to screen a special video presentation. Human Target is from Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Wonderland Sound and Vision, DC Comics and Warner Bros. Television. Human Target: The Complete First Season will be released on Blu-ray and DVD September 21. Room 6BCF

Besides all that, of course, there will be plenty of other spy personalities both in non spy-related panels (like Michael Giacchino) and on the floor, signing autographs.  And speaking of the floor... well, I'm already salivating at the thought of all that movie memorabilia and old comic books waiting to deplete my wallet!  Have a great time at the Con.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week

The biggest DVD release this week is once again across the pond, where Network unleashes the truly bizarre surreal Sixties spy series The Corridor People.  No, I had never heard of it either prior to Network's announcement about this release a couple of months ago!  I can now assure you, though, that this one is definitely worth picking up for Sixties culture buffs.  It's very, very weird—and not just in the ways you expect a typical Sixties spy series to be weird.  This is very intelligent, challenging television, wrapped up in the tropes of an espionage show.  Fans of The Prisoner are likely to appreciate it.  Read my full review below (and check out a clip) to get a better sense of whether or not this weirdness is for you. The Corridor People: The Complete Series is a PAL Region 2 DVD  containing all four black-and-white episodes.  That's right: only four of them.  (Clearly, the viewing public was not ready for this level of weirdness, even in 1966!)  It's available as a Network exclusive directly from the company's website.  Retail is £12.99, but right now it can be had for just £10.99.

Here in the USA, we get The Losers from Warner, on both DVD and Blu-ray.  I thought the trailers for this story of burnt covert operatives taking revenge on the CIA agent who betrayed them looked like a lot of fun, but I missed it in theaters, so I can't really say too much about it.  (Yet, anyway.  I'll definitely be checking it out now!)  It's based on a DC comic book, but I'm not really familiar with the particular incarnation of that title that the movie is drawn from.  The Losers stars Watchmen's Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Star Trek's Zoe Saldana and future Captain America Chris Evans.  The DVD retails for $28.98, the Blu-ray (which also includes a standard def DVD and a stupid digital copy) for $35.99, but both can be found for nearly half as much on Amazon right now.  As usual with Warner titles, the meat of the special features is reserved for the Blu-ray.  DVD buyers get a featurette called "Zoe and the Losers;" Blu-ray buyers get that, two more featurettes ("Band of Buddies: OPS Training" and "The Losers: Action-Style Storytelling") and deleted scenes.

There's also a new version, courtesy of Lionsgate, of the 1981 Jean-Paul Belmondo spy/revenge classic The Professional, in which Belmondo is deployed by the French Secret Service to assassinate an African dictator only to be sacrificed by his masters when the dictator is deemed more useful alive.  This was previously available in the United States on a long out-of-print and poor quality DVD from Image.  I haven't seen Lionsgate's version yet so I can't comment on its transfer, but it is at least widescreen (1.66:1).  The only extra is a trailer. 
DVD Review: The Corridor People: The Complete Series (1966)

Huh-wuh? The Corridor People is truly the strangest British show I’ve seen from the Sixties–spy or otherwise. And Sixties Britain produced some strange shows. I didn’t glean too much from Network’s publicity for their DVD release of the series, which resorted to describing the characters rather than the show’s premise. I thought that was odd, but now I can see why they did that. The premise, if there really is one, would be very difficult to describe; the eccentric characters much easier. I also thought it odd that I couldn’t tell from their copy who was the hero or heroes of the show, and I’m not much clearer on that after watching every episode. (All four of them!) There is one character who more or less emerges as the closest thing the series has to a hero, but that definitely isn’t clear in the first two episodes. So what else did Network offer? A comparison to The Avengers (that certainly intrigued me) and an unattributed quote calling The Corridor People “akin to a lost Harold Pinter play with an added dash of Monthy Python.” The Avengers comparison didn’t prove very apt, and the quote smacked of hyperbole to me, but in retrospect, I have to concede that it’s actually the best description of the show I can think of, too–although the pendulum swings much closer to Pinter than Python.

Imagine if “Fallout” had been the first episode of The Prisoner instead of the last. How confused would audiences have been then? That’s essentially the case with The Corridor Peopole. I would put its premiere episode, “Victim as Birdwatcher” on par with The Prisoner’s finale in terms of sheer strangeness, if not artistic quality. Let me attempt to set the scene. There’s a secret branch of British Intelligence called Department K, or, later, K Department. It’s sort of like the nebulous Ministry that John Steed sometimes reports to crossed with The Section for which David Callan works. It handles cases with the oddness that The Avengers encounter, and deals with them with the ruthlessness required of Callan. A wily, overweight old spymaster named Kronk (John Sharp) is in charge of Department K and he spends most of his time behind a desk. At first, it appears that he is the closest thing the show has to a hero, but his morals prove far too compromised for that to be the case. At Kronk’s disposal are a pair of trenchcoated, comic relief policemen named Inspector Blood and Sergeant Hound, who regularly enter and exit in unison as if they’re part of some vaudeville routine, and Miss Dunner, an older, unassuming, Susan Boyle-like personage who at first appears to be an administrative assistant, but proves instead to be Department K’s Toby Meres: a ruthless and at least partially psychotic assassin who takes far too much pleasure in her work. So there I’ve gone and fallen into the same trap that Network did; I’m just describing characters. What do they do?

In the first episode, an innocent young man with a passion for birdwatching is abducted by the Persian millionairess-cum-villainess Syrie Van Epp (she collected the surname from a late Dutch husband). Syrie, played in greasy skin-darkening make-up by British actress Elizabeth Shepherd, whose strongest claim to spy fame is for a role she didn't play (she was originally cast as Emma Peel before being replaced by Diana Rigg), may be the closest thing The Corridor People has to a main character, but she is certainly not a heroine. In “Victim as Birdwatcher,” she is a pure villain, although in other episodes she occasionally proves perhaps a tad more morally responsible than Kronk–or at least on equal footing. Syrie favors white Lawrence of Arabia garb when she goes out (complete with goggles), but is also known to wear haute couture getups like a sheer black dress with a sequined bra on the outside, or–in more intimate settings–a large gold sheet with a hole in the middle for her head. Her interest in the hapless birdwatcher stems from his claim to a single crucial share in a cosmetics company that has accidentally hit upon a formula for a potentially deadly fragrance. Naturally, Kronk prefers that the British government gain control of that formula, though it’s by no means clear that it would actually be in better hands. As for Syrie’s methods, well, a British agent puts it best when she says she’s "a horder" and he wryly replies,“There’s a syllable too many."

Also mixed up in all this is a Bogart-worshiping private eye (and sometime British agent–or double agent) named Scrotty, played by Gary Cockrell. I’m not certain whether he’s supposed to actually be American or merely supposed to be putting on the accent out of his love for Bogie, but in either case Cockrell’s accent is particularly impressive for British television, which traditionally thrives on terrible American accents. Cockrell (who actually bears a slight resemblance to Sean Connery) is a very appealing actor, too, and his charisma helps the character overcome the same loose morals as everyone else on this show to really emerge in the end as the closest thing it has to a conscience.

So there’s the basic set-up of a traditional hour of British spy television there. The killer fragrance plot is the sort of thing you might come across on The Avengers, or any number of ITC shows. But there all similarities end. The Corridor People is not particularly concerned with plot. What there is of one in any given episode (and in attempting to make it relatively succinct, I’ve actually made it seem far more coherent than it really is) is merely a peg on which writer Edward Boyd and director David Boisseau drape existential musings (often delivered as monologues directly at the camera, interrupting whatever there is of a plot and breaking the 4th Wall), biting social satire and copious theatrical surrealism. Between the monologues, the themes, and the intentionally sparse sets (Boisseau makes the most of his evidently minuscule budget with minimalist sets that suit the series' style: when Syrie exits Kronk’s office through a freestanding door, for example, she then turns and walks out through the back of the same set, clearly visible behind him–and just adding to the weirdness), The Corridor People plays much closer to theater than television. Specifically Theater of the Absurd, owing debts to Ionesco, Beckett and even Satre as well as Pinter. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, when viewed in that light (although it is when you’re watching it!) that in its third act “Victim as Birdwatcher” suddenly abandons all pretext of spy television and becomes a play.

At its close (which must have baffled viewers used to seeing Simon Templar round up all the bad guys at the end each week's adventure with some feat of derring-do), one character is put before a tribunal of old, white (natch) members of the British establishment. The accused is placed on a pedestal (literally) and stares straight ahead; his accusers also stare–in different directions–and don't make eye contact with him or each other. All of this unfolds against an entirely black background with very stage-like lighting, so that only the actors pop out. They then deliver their verdict in the form of a poem, each one reciting a verse from Sir Walter Scott’s “Breathes there a man...” concluding–appropriately but also perplexingly–by condemning the accused “To the vile dust from whence he sprung/unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” Which amounts to his execution at the hands of Miss Dunner, the Susan Boyle-like “specialist.”

Many characters die in the brief span of these four episodes, some shockingly and permanently, others only to be revived. Yes, again dipping its toes into Avengers sort of waters before darting off in a completely different direction, the second episode, “Victim as Whitebait,” deals with the reanimation of the dead. This is not, by the way, treated as anything particularly unusual, but taken in stride.

The show is surprisingly serial for its era, when most others (in this genre, anyway) were purely episodic. It’s Syrie Van Epp who’s dabbling in the reanimation business, in league with a mad scientist and a squeaky-voiced midget named Nonesuch. In an early scene typical of The Corridor People as a whole, Nonesuch runs around chanting things, then puts on a Kabuki mask as the drunk mad scientist pleads with him to bring the dead back to life. Eventually the midget pours alcohol all over the grateful scientist’s face. And that’s just the way things are. In addition to direct address and weird interstitials, the dialogue is laced with non-sequiturs like:

“Can’t you remember anything about him?”

“Something to do with fish.”

Syrie’s motley crew is under constant observation from an ever-present Swedish film director who’s “attached himself to the Van Epp outfit for the purposes of studying the darker manifestations of the human soul.” (Miss Dunner’s orders regarding him are, “Leave him alone.”) As the gang ponders the problem that “one of the bodies escaped,” Kronk’s rain-coated coppers worry about being replaced by a computer. (“Not until they make a computer that can plant bricks in pockets!” they happily conclude.) No scene ever ends quite how you expect it to. Hysterical that someone she killed now appears to be back to life, Miss Dunner tries to resign, and Kronk lures her back by enticing her, “Have you ever shot a midget?”

The midget in question (“He’s very, very dangerous. Watch out for him.”) is prone to tantrums. He also, at one point, puts on a false nose for no apparent reason while carefully enunciatinging the word “perambulator.” And, yes, the midget ends up inside said perambulator. (Of course he does! Check out the clip at the bottom to see for yourself.) That leads to the curious visual of a nursemaid (really Syrie) pushing a stroller with smoke coming out of it, as the murderous Nonesuch (in a bonnet, naturally) puffs away at a cigar like a proto-Baby Herman, waiting to shoot someone from the safety of his baby carriage canopy.

The Corridor People isn’t always weird, though. It can be fairly realistic for a while, as when the murderous midget and his henchman track down a target and threaten him, and then suddenly turn very un-realistic on a dime, as when the policemen show up there, flank the guy, do a choreographed about face and the three of them march out together as if they were part of a vaudeville act. To describe it might make the tone sound wildly uneven, but it all somehow works. Vaudeville, arguably the broadest possible form of comedy, is mixed with the most cynical black humor. The gleeful anarchy of it all actually reminds me a bit of The Young Ones. One character, a former corpse now reanimated to a life and a wife that don’t want him, sits down on a park bench next to a stranger and begins a lengthy lament with, “Where did I go wrong? Was there a point where I made the wrong choice? Is there such a thing as choice?”

As soon as he finishes his soliloquy on an upbeat note with a resolution to change his ways, he falls victim to the gleeful, murderous midget, who shoots him and then cackles maniacally and runs off.

It’s still sounding sort of Avengersy, I guess, but that’s not right. The Avengers always had a plot, and even The Avengers, frankly, wasn’t this weird. The Corridor People is much more Twin Peaks weird–or Wild Palms weird–than Avengers weird. Nothing on this show stays remotely normal for long. A fairly normal conversation between Scrotty and Syrie, for instance (well, other than the fact that she starts riding a rocking horse while smoking in the middle of the conversation), takes a turn for the strange when they both put on giant oversized Punch and Judy masks for no discernable reason (well, no narratively-driven one, anyway) and then stare together into the camera with these blank-faced, expressionless masks.

The third episode, "Victim as Red," proves to be the most straightforward plotwise (in that it actually has one) and, as such, also proves the least interesting. It is a pretty classic spy plot, though; but that doesn’t quite cut it after where we’ve already been with this series. It concerns one Colonel Lemming, who went missing seven years ago. He was widely believed to have defected with missile secrets, and even reported seen in Moscow. His brother hires Scrotty to find him at the same time that Kronk sniffs the case at the same time that the Colonel randomly ends up crossing paths with Syrie. Keeping things on the somewhat strange side, there’s still room for an even longer vaudeville routine involving both policemen and Scrotty, who manages to keep it up throughout his ensuing briefing with Kronk. (That makes for an odd briefing.) Syrie also proves herself to be a kindred spirit with another more famous criminal antihero still a few years away from his screen debut when she and Scrotty indulge in a little Diabolik-style hanky panky on a big rotating bed covered in cash.

The final episode, “Victim as Black,” is the most interesting–and best–of the bunch, with the social commentary reaching particularly acerbic new levels in a story that explores themes of race and fairy tales. Just as a well-dressed African named Theobald Aboo (a smooth-talking Calvin Lockheart, whose long and varied career actually encompassed Twin Peaks near its end) turns up to consult him, Scrotty is approached and carried off by two Teutonic body builder types who identify themselves as “The Brothers Grimm” and speak in Germanic accents. Fortunately, Aboo is patient. “We Africans have learned to be patient,” he explains, helping to remind modern viewers that Colonialism wasn't such a distant memory back in the Sixties. Coincidentally (you'll notice a lot of coincidence in The Corridor People, and this episode actually explores that), the Brothers Grimm take Scrotty to someone else who hires Scrotty to find the very same beautiful black girl that Aboo was going to ask him to locate, Pearl. The someone in question is King Ferdinand of Morphania (“Population about 5000. It’s climate is reckoned the worst in Europe. Its agriculture’s primitive, its industry nil. Its inhabitants exist mainly on food parcels. It has no culture, no politics, none of the most rudimentary religious beliefs.”) The king gives Scrotty a shoe belonging to the girl, whom he saw briefly in a club and wants to make his queen.

There’s more direct address in this episode than any other, with pretty much every character–new or recurring–getting an opportunity to share his or her thoughts with the audience. Pearl herself remains removed from the other characters, and only delivers her lines directly to us, the audience. It’s a very theatrical part, and actress Nina Baden-Semper (who later turned up on Callan) does an excellent job building a plausible character we can actually care about through these monologues.

Syrie is also involved, of course, since she’s always involved in everything, and Kronk tries to make sense of all the coincidences that are going on with a weird machine on his desk that looks sort of like a dead metal plant with lightbulbs on the ends of all its branches. He barks at it, “Acknowledge!” at the end of each of his agents’ reports, and its lights all flash and it makes a sort of burping sound, digesting the information. The computer’s job is to find a pattern in all the chaotic information being fed into it. (Though you wouldn’t glean that from the control panel, whose buttons read “On, Off, Vol, Tern, Untern.”) After come clucking sounds while it processes all of this data, the machine suddenly starts enunciating like Noel Coward in a refined yet catty English accent. “The mere thought of the place,” it begins, talking about Morphania, “makes one want to cower like a wild thing or indulge in a passionate fit of weeping.” That’s one emotional computer! The erudite machine appears to unravel the whole sinister plot behind these random goings on and explains it in an apocalyptic monologue about race war and fear. All of the random events do indeed fall into place, according to the machine: Aboo is behind a plot to ensnare King Ferdinand with a black seductress for a Queen. His horrifying goal (to the white Europeans listening)? To establish a black foothold in Europe from which to wage war on the white population! “Keep Morphania white!” it pleads, as near to tears as a machine that looks like a dead plant can get. “At any cost Keep Morphania white! Keep Cinderella white!” Who would have guessed such an innocuous looking apparatus would prove so racist?

Of course, it’s not the machine that’s racist, really, but those who programmed it. Syrie follows its ranting with a monologue of her own (in front of a peacock with its tail feathers spread–and dressed as one, herself), providing another, entirely more plausible explanation for events. “There are no patterns,” she states, in opposition to the machine. “Only madmen and gamblers believe in patterns.” The king was just as he appeared: a lovesick fool. Aboo merely wanted to locate the sister of a friend. There was no conspiracy. “A pattern was made: of hatred and prejudice and fear and suspicion. It was fed into a machine. And the machine gave back what it was supposed to give.” Not only did it give it back; its misinterpretation is immediately acted on–with tragic results.

“There are no mad like the sane mad,” Syrie concludes, segueing into a drugged Scrotty’s delirious rants. “Time is the width of a street divided by the speed of a bullet, what we all have the least of. A child’s long summer day, an old man’s breath in winter,” he mumbles. “Honesty is not the best policy. It’s just being retarded. Charity is a name for debutantes. Faith a synonym for failure. And hope, hope... somewhere, someone’s waiting to betray you ”

Cut to Kronk picking up his phone and barking, “Duty assassin I have a job for you.”

Aboo gets his own monologue, too, against a stark black background. And he proves to be just as racist as the English establishment characters, decrying mixed marriages. (From which he wished to "save" his friend's sister.) The king then monologues about everything the English have promised him to keep his country from becoming a black kingdom, including his own bomb and a doomsday device and a whole new vocabulary. And, in the end, the only innocent character of the batch ends up staring into the pistol of the duty assassin.

The Corridor People is a bleak, bleak show, despite its mod style. To merely look at it, you might easily lump it into a category with The Avengers or other mod television of the era, but to hear it, you can’t help but recognize a larger grim agenda. This crazy world of Kabuki masks and little men in perambulators is our own world, and there is no hope for it. The series takes on all the hot topics of its day, from gender to race to Cold War politics. Like the machine, it finds a pattern, and the pattern is chaos. In the beginning, there was no clear hero, just a clear villain. By the end, that villain seems like the sanest person, because she at least remains true to her ideals. “I have only one commitment to anything,” she informs us. “To money. But that commitment is total.”

Ultimately, The Corridor People is sort of like The Avengers meets Callan, if that’s possible: the light surrealism of the former mixed with the dark themes of the latter: innocents destroyed by espionage and governments and politics and hate. Add to that a heavy dosage of Pinter.  It makes for an odd but compelling combination–and equally compelling television. This is a real curiosity that Network has unearthed. I would have loved to see some extras on such a strange program–some interviews or commentaries or something. But I suppose it’s a small wonder that all four episodes of this short-lived series even survive, and that Network has seen fit to make them available for rediscovery on DVD. (Right now, The Corridor People is a PAL Region 2 web exclusive, available through Network's website for £10.99.)

The Corridor People is not for everyone. It’s weird, and it’s not fast-paced weird, either. It starts out like a fever dream, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering what on earth you’re watching. But by the end, it proves itself to be a fascinating art project in the guise of a Sixties spy series. This is something special–and I’m already keen to watch it all again.

Network has provided a clip that fairly accurately conveys the general weirdness:

Jul 19, 2010

Tradecraft: Simon Pegg Accepts Another Mission

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Simon Pegg is set to reprise his Q-like (or, given the involvement of producer J.J. Abrams, perhaps it's more accurate to say Marshall-like) role as Benji Dunn in the Brad Bird-directed Mission: Impossible 4. The trade reports that, "although not officially greenlighted, the movie is tracking for an early-Sepetmber start, and Bird was reading actors last week." Tom Cruise is set to reprise his role as IMF super-agent Ethan Hunt, although the size of that role has been the subject of keen debate over the last few weeks, since Cruise's latest spy movie, Knight and Day (review here), opened poorly in the US. (It does seem to be performing better overseas; it took the top spot at the Australian box office this past weekend.) The casting of Pegg marks the first character confirmed to recur from the Abrams-directed Mission: Impossible 3, which was probably the film series' best entry to date. (I would love to see the other surviving members of Abrams' IMF team return as well, possibly boosted to larger roles. They showed hints of fulfilling the team formula that drove the original TV series, but which the movies up until that point had steadfastly ignored in favor of a one-man, Bond-like formula instead.) Pegg also worked with Abrams on his last film, playing Scotty in 2009's Star Trek.

Jul 16, 2010

The Spy Story As Workplace Dramady
TV Review: Covert Affairs

Judging from the pilot, USA has another winning spy series in their line-up–a worthy stable mate for Burn Notice. I really enjoyed the first episode of Covert Affairs. There’s a lot of Alias in it–and a dash of Sex and the City for the ladies, in the form of name-dropping high end fashion and shoe brands–but Covert Affairs’ unique contribution to the genre is that it begins at the beginning, on rookie agent Annie Walker’s (The Prestige's Piper Perabo) first day on the job. We get a brief taste of her training on the CIA’s famous “farm,” but then she’s pulled out early for mysterious reasons and put straight on the job. This way, the audience is introduced to the CIA the same way as Annie. She’s got first day jitters, and messes up matters of basic routine, like trying (and failing) to pass through the turnstyles before she’s gotten her access badge. She meets an intimidating new boss, engages in exploratory flirtations with co-workers, tries to find her (Louboutin-clad) footing in an unfamiliar and intimidating environment–all the trials and tribulations of starting a new job that any viewer can relate to, only moreso, because she’s working at the CIA!

I’ve always responded to the “workplace drama” (or, in this case, “dramady”) side of the spy genre. Many of my favorite genre entries focus as much on office politics and the hurdles of petty bureaucracy as they do on the formalities of espionage: The Sandbaggers, Queen and Country and the entire oeuvre of John Le Carré, to name but a few. I think the secret of Le Carré’s popularity, in fact, is that he hit upon a unique way to make workplace drama and office politics exciting. Everyone in the world can relate to the machinations of nefarious co-workers, but they’d be boring to read about if the stakes weren’t as high as the very fate of the nation. Covert Affairs is much, much lighter fare than Le Carré, but taps into that same vein of spy story as workplace dramady.

The stellar production design by Production Designer Franco De Cotiis, Art Director Aleks Marinkovich and Set Decorator Zeljka Alosinac further reinforce the notion of Covert Affairs as foremost a workplace series. I loved their CIA sets, which manage to seem very “workplace-y” as well as spy-ish with the requisite futurism, but not too much of it. This steel cubicle-filled CIA interior looks like a place where people would actually work, with just a hint of Ken Adamish spy vibe lurking in the details.

Even the requisite office entanglements of a workplace dramadey that can easily go so wrong (see: 24) are handled well in the pilot. I was amused and engrossed by the rocky and competitive relationship between two married CIA officers and rival department heads, Joan (Kari Matchett) and Arthur (the great Peter Gallagher) Campbell. She’s convinced that he’s cheating on her and uses Agency resources in an attempt to prove it, but the talented actors play that in a believable and humorous way, so it doesn’t stretch credulity the way that everybody sleeping with everybody else does at CTU. In fact, the writing is quite clever when Arthur calls Joan on her dubious tactics:

“You’re using valuable Agency resources to track me.”

“That’s not a denial.”

“Why can’t you be a good CIA wife and just trust me?”

“Because I’m not a CIA wife. I’m a wife who works for the CIA.”

Of course, there’s still leeway for everyone to sleep with everyone else in future episodes, but based on the pilot I have faith in the writers and actors to handle it well. The groundwork for a young, attractive, oversexed CIA is carefully laid out here when Annie’s Dixon (which is to say the man on the other end of the radio when she’s on missions), Auggie (Christopher Gorham), informs her that the CIA was on a hiring freeze before 9/11, so now half the employees have under five years' experience (or something like that). Furthermore, the Agency encourages dating within for security reasons. How convenient! But it rings true. In fact, many details about this CIA ring fairly true, by television standards. This may be because one of the Agency’s most famous former employees, Valarie Plame-Wilson (to whom Matchett actually bares a more than passing resemblance), serves as the technical advisor, no doubt through her connection to executive producer Doug Liman, who made a movie about her life. (I’m frankly surprised that the network’s publicity didn’t play up this angle more.) Of course, no espionage television series is ever going to do much more than pay lip service to the reality of the job before moving onto the sort of shoot-em-up hijinks that we’re all clamoring to see. I now present said lip service verbatim, which comes after Annie has been fired upon by a sniper while on her very first assignment.

Joan: You know, some operatives go an entire career without seeing a bullet fired.

Annie: Is that supposed to make me feel better?

Joan: It’s supposed to make you realize this is unusual.

We’ll see just how unusual such occurrences prove to be in subsequent episodes, but I’m guessing they happen at least weekly. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course. After all, I do want escapist action from my spy TV as well as relatable office intrigue!

When it comes, that action is generally well-handled. The scene in which the sniper shoots up a hotel room–with Annie in it–is visceral enough to belie the show’s Bourne pedigree (again through Liman), and a car chase is excitingly shot as well. (During it, however, Annie mutters things to herself like, “D.E.C. Method: Determine, Evade, Counterpursuit,” which kind of made me long for Michael Westen’s voiceovers instead–a much better delivery mechanism for such tradecraft secrets.) A skydiving sequence amidst which the opening titles unfold is particularly breathtaking, with aerial footage as good as any I’ve ever seen on TV.

Covert Affairs certainly isn’t without cliches, but it gets most of them out of the way right up front, intercut within a lie detector test framing device that (quite cleverly, actually) tells us all the backstory we need to know about Annie. We see a three-week romance with a mystery man who’s bound to play a big role down the line (in fact, we glimpse him again later, in a very different context), and it unfolds in nothing but cliches: running on a beach, candle-lit sex, a parting note explaining little. Auggie is blind and that’s every bit as precious as you fear it will be, but the story behind his blindness isn’t bad (he already worked for the CIA when he was blinded by an IED in Iraq) and Gorham sells it well enough (even all those tired Daredevil tropes like identifying a woman by her perfume) that by the end of the episode it just seems natural. The producers carefully avoid my least favorite spy show cliche, typified in Alias with everyone important working out of “the CIA’s Los Angeles branch.” No, Annie’s CIA is actually in Langley, and the show is set in and around Washington DC (or at least Toronto’s decent approximation thereof, mixed in with some establishing shots of key landmarks) rather than asking us to believe that the real epicenter of America’s intelligence community is LA or, in the case of USA’s other spy hit, Miami. However, they still contrive a way for Annie to undertake assignments right here in the US of A, despite the CIA’s mission statement to the contrary: she works for a made-up section called the “Domestic Protection Division” which operates on American soil and is so top secret we’re not meant to have heard of it. Oh well. For the sake of the show, I’ll buy it. And I don’t think we’ve had a regularly Washington-set spy series since Scarecrow and Mrs. King (excepting, perhaps, the extremely short-lived 1991 series Under Cover), so it’s still pretty original.

Perhaps owing to the current incarnation of 007 himself, the same trendsetter who made gadgets ubiquitous in all spy series for decades, there are no gadgets present in Covert Affairs’ pilot (and no Q or Marshall character), but Annie’s blessed with Jason Bourne’s talent for improvising, and using everyday objects to her advantage. She uses her compact against the sniper, and it’s not the kind of compact that doubles as a transmitter or anything. She also uses a Listerine breath strip to trick a thumbprint reader, and then sticks it in her mouth, which struck me as being more gross than cool. (You know how many people must stick their germy thumbs on that thing every day? Never mind that this particular facility was a morgue!) And she even manages to find a spy use for those Louboutin platforms that are so frequently mentioned by name and focused on. (This show has all the product placement we expect of our spy entertainment: Starbucks, Opentable.com, BMW and all those brand name fashions and fragrances.) Yes, Annie’s a pretty capable gal, and she even finds a use for her language skills that were ostensibly the reason she was pulled out of training and activated early. I do wish that the linguistic “clue” she picks up on that advances the spy plot in the 3rd Act had been more clever, though. The one they use smacks of the sort of lazy writing you might be able to get away with in the middle of the second season, but not in your pilot! I’ll give it a pass, though, since it was embedded amidst so much commendable material.

Also commendable is the topical plot device of Russians carrying out assassinations of their own on foreign soil, Litvinenko-style (although like most modern spy shows, they seem to mix up the Russian intelligence services FSB and the SVD). I like that, and the pilot gives every indication that we’ll continue to see topical, ripped-from-the-headlines sorts of spy plots rather than shadowy cabals in pursuit of mystical artifacts, further differentiating this series from Alias.

As is no doubt evident, I was fully hooked from the pilot for Covert Affairs. It’s a light spy dramady that manages to separate itself from its obvious influences by the means of a fairly unique premise focusing on the CIA as a workplace. It’s a story about a somewhat naive, but capable when it counts (not to mention fashion-savvy) young woman navigating the difficult waters of a new job, and that job just happens to entail posing as a prostitute and getting shot at. And it takes its spying pretty seriously for the most part, which isn’t really that common in the light and fluffy school of espionage television. Covert Affairs is a welcome addition to an ever-growing current roster of spy shows on the verge of equaling the genre’s Sixties preponderance. USA is sure to re-run the pilot throughout the weekend, so set your DVR and give it a try if you haven’t already.