Dec 31, 2006

Caprice Coming To DVD This Month

Fox will release the 1967 Doris Day spy movie Caprice on January 30, 2007. It will be part of their "Cinema Classics" line (like their recent "Classic Spy Collection") and, like all those releases, will contain some nice bonus material. Featurettes include "Decoding Doris Day," "The Caprice Look: Coversations with William Creber," and, best of all, "Double-Oh Doris." The disc also boasts a restoration comparison and trailers. Doris goes undercover as an industrial spy at a cosmetics company and then gets caught up in bigger intrigue than she bargained for when she discovers the company isn't all it seems. Richard Harris plays the spy who loves her. I've been wanting to see this for a while, so I'm glad it's coming out.
Happy 2(007) From the Double O Section!

I just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year. Hope it's better than mine, stuck, sick, on the wrong coast. Have fun, but stay safe and don’t forget to call a cab if you’ve had too much Bollinger or one too many vodka martinis as you welcome the year of Double O Seven, even if you did so at the Bond-themed ‘007 New Year’s Eve Party at the W Hotel in Los Angeles. After all, you don’t want to start the year off by wrapping the old Aston around a telephone poll!

2006 turned out to be a truly great year for spies on film, with a trio of great spy movies to close the year (Casino Royale, The Good Shepherd and The Good German). There were also a lot of essential (and, in some cases, long-awaited) spy DVD releases, like the newly-remastered James Bond sets, the first seasons of The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible, the final volume of A&E’s complete release of every surviving Avengers episode (containing the earliest Cathy Gale episodes, as well as some Venus Smith and Dr. Martin King... and Steed’s whippet, Sheeba!), the final season of Alias, the complete surviving series of Adam Adamant Lives! (at last!), Honey West, Operation Crossbow, The Quiller Memorandum, The Ultimate Flint Collection, Ring Around the World and Special Mission Lady Chaplin!

‘007 looks to be just as exciting on the DVD front with new seasons of Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible, the consumer release of all seasons of Get Smart, an extended edition of The Good Shepherd, The Kommissar X Collection, the Espionage In Tangiers/Assassination In Rome double feature, and, of course, Casino Royale (2006). Fingers crossed for Warner Bros. and Anchor Bay untangling the Man From UNCLE rights situation in ‘007, too! In theaters, we’ve got a new Bourne movie on the way, as well as the Get Smart movie with Steve Carrell. Why the Broccolis didn’t arrange for there to be a Bond movie coming out in this of all years is a mystery to me. The marketing guys could have gone home; all their work would be done for them! What’s better advertising than an entire year named after your product??? Oh, well. Happy 2007, everyone!

Dec 29, 2006

2-007 New Year’s Celebration in Los Angeles

Still don’t have your plans figured out for New Year’s Eve? Live in the Los Angeles area? Want an excuse to put on your dinner jacket or evening gown? Willing to drop a hundred bucks a head or more just to get in? The W Hotel in Westwood is planning a Bond-themed party to celebrate the year of 007. See all the info here. If you go, send me pictures for the Double O Section!

Dec 25, 2006

Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?

Merry Christmas and Season's Greetings from the Double O Section! I hope everyone reading this has a freshly unwrapped Mission: Impossible Season One or Alias Rambaldi Cube or one of the James Bond sets to dig into. Or that the area you live in is one of the select cities where The Good Shepherd or The Good German open today. If not, here are a few suggestions for Christmas spy viewing.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service
(Available on The James Bond Collection Volume 3)
The only Holiday-themed Bond movie to date, and the best one to boot! (Best Bond movie, that is, not best Holiday-themed Bond movie...) Features Nina singing John Barry and Hal David's infectious original carol "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown," which is available on the soundtrack CD.

The Avengers - "Too Many Christmas Trees"
(Available in the Emma Peel Megaset)
A holiday clssic! It's not my favorite Avengers Episode (though it is a very good one), but it's probably the one I've seen the most since I put it in the player every Christmas. Black and white Emma Peel with Rigg and Macnee both at their very best. Their fantastic chemistry together simply radiates when Emma muses about a four-poster bed that "I've always fancied myself in one of these." Steed gets that incorrigible gleam in his eye and replies, "So have I." You also can't beat "Too Many Christmas Trees" for creepy, psychidelic Santa imagery. The whole psychic spy plotline doesn't come together that tightly in the end, but who cares when the episode's this much fun?

Billion Dollar Brain
(Availabe from MGM)
No Christmas trees per se, but plenty of chilly, wintry landscapes and beautiful cold imagery (and Pagan imagery, appropriate for the winter solstice!) in Ken Russell's ethereal Scandinavian-set Harry Palmer movie. What could be more season-appropriate than Michael Caine in a big fur hat?

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
(Available from Paramount)
...if you want to warm up. Best watched with loved ones in front of a gently dying fire as a way to come down from the excesses of Christmas dinner.

Die Hard
(available from Fox)
Not a spy movie, but the epitome of Christmas action!

The World Is Not Enough
(Available in The James Bond Collection Vol. 1)
Er, well... It's not a Christmas movie, and it's one of the worst of the Bond series, but it does feature a character named "Christmas Jones." (For some reason.) It doesn't even sound like a proper Bond Girl name, but the name turns out to merely be a set-up for a rather lame double entendre at the end: "Christmas came early this year!" Har har. And she's played by Denise Richards. So... yeah. But my friend Josh keeps urging me to give this one another shot, so maybe Christmas is the time to do it. If you're not feeling seasonably charitable, though, you might be better served if you...

What could be a better way to celebrate Christmas than that?

Dec 21, 2006

007 Days of Christmas Again On Spike

Once again, Spike TV continues the tradition started eons ago by TBS. They’ll be running oodles of Bond movies back-to-back (sure to be sporadically interrupted by wrestling, as always) during their "007 Days of Christmas" marathon event. They’re always on in the background throughout the festivities at my house, even though I own them all on DVD and VHS... many times over, now. It’s a blessing and a curse because as good as it is to walk into the den and catch a few minutes of blissful Bond action while you digest your turkey, some cousin always pops in during one of the more embarrassing bits of Moonraker and reaffirms their professed hatred of 007 for another year. Oh, well. Their loss!

Spike won’t be showing the ‘67 Casino Royale this year, because BBC America currently holds those cable rights and plays it all the time. They do have Never Say Never Again, however, which, being a renegade, didn’t make any of the recent DVD boxsets, and I think they’ve got most of the Brosnans now, too, which weren’t all part of the initial package when they bought it. They won’t have the ‘06 Casino Roayale any time soon (like in the next five years), though, because USA Network recently plunked down $20 million for that privilege!

UPDATE: Looks like they don't have the Brosnans anymore after all. And the movies aren't just interrupted by wrestling this year, either! Spike is continuing to air their regularly scheduled CSI repeats, so the Bonds will be unusually staggered this Christmas.

Book Review: THE MONEYPENNY DIARIES: SECRET SERVANT by Kate Westbrook (2006)

Review: The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant

Samantha Weinberg’s second James Bond novel (writing as Kate Westbrook), The Moneypenny Diaries Vol. 2: Secret Servant, is even more fun than her first. Yes, despite that misleading cover that doesn’t even mention the main commercial attraction, this is a Bond novel. 007 just doesn’t happen to be the main character. Instead, as with the first volume, Ms. Weinberg uses the supporting character of Miss Moneypenny to examine the world of Bond’s Secret Service, and how M, Bond, Tanner and the others weathered the spy scandals that rocked real life England in the early Sixties.

I really like the way Weinberg has integrated real, historical events into Fleming’s world. Obviously, he couldn’t deal with issues so contemporary and scandalous when he was writing the books, but by placing Bond in a historical context (a good decision on the part of the new regime at IFP), Weinberg can. And forty-odd years later, she has access to information that Fleming couldn’t possibly have known, and a historical perspective. (In one retrospectively embarrassing attempt at injecting current events into his fiction, in the short story "Quantum of Solace," Fleming had 007 aiding Castro’s Cuban rebels against Batista! Who knew where that would lead?) It’s fascinating to see M and his team (usually glimpsed only in a single chapter of each Fleming book) grapple with these events. After all, a Soviet mole in the heart of British Intelligence poses a much greater threat to a man like M than a madman sending missiles off course from his private island! (And, lest one think that Soviet moles could never penetrate M’s Secret Service they way they did the real one, remember that Fleming himself mentions Burgess and Maclean in From Russia With Love, in which Bond is assigned to a Committee of Inquiry on the matter!)

While the first novel dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis, this one revolves around Kim Philby’s defection. It works better, because the Cambridge spy ring was an espionage event that involved MI6 much more directly than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Possibly because of that, Weinberg also works Moneypenny (or Jane, to use the first name she’s given her), into the action much more organically. The first book’s greatest weakness was the barely credible way Moneypenny ended up in Cuba with James Bond. The way she gets caught up in the Philby affair is far more convincing. Really, how could she not? The secretary to the head of MI6 at the time would have been right in the thick of it all. It’s still impossible to believe that M would risk sending someone with as many secrets as Moneypenny into the heart of the Evil Empire–Moscow–for any reason, but the reason Weinberg comes up with is the most plausible I can think of. And it’s never been a requirement for any Bond novel to be entirely grounded in realism.

Secret Servant also revisits a particularly interesting period in Bond’s own fictional history. It begins following the events of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, when Bond is presumed dead, and continues through his dramatic return in the opening of The Man With the Golden Gun. (For those a bit rusty on their Fleming, an amnesiac Bond comes back brainwashed by the KGB and attempts to assassinate his boss!) Witnessing these events through Moneypenny’s eyes gives us a unique perspective on a unique situation in the Bond canon, and allows Weinberg to fill in a few gaps from Fleming’s final novel, which he never had a chance to fully finish. (Bond’s "de-programming" is fleshed out somewhat more, for one thing.) Secret Servant ends just about where TMWTGG does, so the third (and supposedly final) Moneypenny Diary will give Weinberg quite a bit more freedom in how she uses 007 himself as a character.*

Fleming never gave us much detail at all on Moneypenny. She rated a few sentences in most of the books, but managed to make enough of an impression that the filmmakers, and actress Lois Maxwell, were able to turn her into the iconic figure she is today. Weinberg goes even further, though, fortunately. Her Moneypenny is a fully realized character, very occasionally in contradiction with Fleming’s version, but that’s excusable since she really belongs to Weinberg now. (That sentence may shock purists, but it’s true. Moneypenny is the main character of these books, and for their sake the author has the right to tweak a date here or there if it serves her version of the character better.) I found myself really caring about the character, and eager to get back to Moneypenny’s world, not Bond’s, while reading the books. Furthermore, since reading the first Moneypenny Diaries, I’ve enjoyed her brief appearances in the Fleming books even more as I’ve been re-reading them!

The novel isn’t perfect. The character of Bond still seems just a little off, but that’s really hard to judge since both Moneypenny Diaries have presented him in very difficult and uncharacteristic stages of his life (dealing with the death of his wife, recovering from KGB brainwashing). Still, there’s no excusing his incredibly forced interplay with Moneypenny, which is even worse than some of the scenes written for Brosnan and Samantha Bond (who took on the role in the last four films)! On his way to Casablanca, James says, "Come with me, Penny, please. We could make whoopee in the sand dunes." Ugh! Luckily, that’s about the worst line in the book and not representative of Ms. Weinberg’s generally top-notch prose.

The storytelling itself is also first rate. The Moneypenny Diaries are told on two levels. There are the "diaries" themselves, a narrative taking place in the early Sixties. Then there are the chapters at the beginning of each diary month featuring "Kate Westbrook," the supposed author/editor of the books, who is actually a character/narrator herself, and Moneypenny’s niece. In the first books these served mainly to contextualize the events in the diary, and reinforce the ridiculous conceit that the books were real. In Secret Servant, Kate Westbrook becomes more of an active character as she follows in her aunts footsteps, attempting to solve the decades-old mystery of another, undiscovered mole at MI6. She does this by following "clues left in her diaries... some unwitting... Others, I believe, she deliberately hid within her words, wary as always of the possibility that her secret diaries might someday be read." Unless they turn out to be red herrings, the clues seem rather obvious. Still, though, the mystery is left unsolved at the end of this book, and Westbrook begins receiving threats on her own life if she continues her digging. It’s an exciting cliffhanger in the framing story (even as the Philby story in the diaries is neatly wrapped up) that leaves me eager for the final volume next year.

*For better or for worse, she appears to be ignoring the events of Kingsley Amis’s 1968 follow-up novel, Colonel Sun. She makes reference in Secret Servant to M’s guardians the Hammonds being alive and well years after they were murdered in that book. Bond continuation authors have always had the option to use or ignore what they chose from the others who came before them (and after Fleming). Raymond Benson dispensed with a lot of the changes that John Gardner had made in the organization of the Secret Service (Gardner had done away with the Double O Section and had Bond reporting to a committee by his next-to-last novel, SeaFire) and 007's choice of weapon, but at least made a concession to continuity nuts by trying to explain things like how Marc-Ange Draco could be alive again after Gardner had killed him off. Now that the clock’s been reset on the literary James Bond back to the Cold War, it stands to reason that everything from the 80s and beyond (Gardner and Benson) would be out of the picture. Personally, though, I do wish that Colonel Sun was still regarded as in-continuity, since it was written so shortly after Fleming’s adventures. Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books do appear to fall within the Weinberg continuity. Of course, Bond’s all fiction anyway, and the only books that really count are those by Ian Fleming, so all of this is me just being a nerdy, nitpicky fan. The fact that Weinberg doesn’t adhere to Amis’s or John Pearson’s Bond chronology certainly doesn’t affect my enjoyment of her books one little bit.

Dec 19, 2006

Review: THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006)

Review: The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd is certainly not a perfect movie, but it's a real treat for spy afficionados. If you know anything about CIA history, you'll be rewarded with lots of nods to actual people and events, and if you don't, you'll probably be inspired to learn more. The film chronicles the history of the CIA from the formation of the OSS at the outbreak of WWII to the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Despite its length (nearly 3 hours), I remained fascinated the whole time. Director Robert De Niro's pacing was mostly spot-on, and the flashback structure he and writer Eric Roth employ works well to continue driving the narrative forward even though the story takes place over a long period of time.

The framing story, about the aftermath of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, takes place in 1961, and is a fairly conventional spy thriller. (Of the Le Carre variety, not the Fleming sort.) The flashback story--and the heart of the movie--is not a thriller, but a sprawling, historical family drama. Even in these segments, though, De Niro skillfully uses many of the trappings and visual tropes of the spy thriller to keep the plot moving along quickly and maintain a tone in keeping with his subject matter. Master cinematographer Bob Richardson (Kill Bill) aids the cause by making sure the movie looks like a spy movie, lighting the men in hats lurking in dark alleyways with impressivly moody effect. The brooding score by Marcelo Zarvos and Bruce Fowler also helps.

What we end up with is a successfull combination of the two plotlines: a family drama that looks and feels like a spy thriller. In this respect (and in the main character's journey), the movie echoes The Godfather, which was a family drama disguised as a crime movie. (Not that The Good Shepherd is in the same league as The Godfather... although it is produced by Francis Ford Coppola.) By the time the flashback storyline has caught up with the framing story, both are very successfully melded as one leading to an exciting and emotional climax.

Matt Damon is quite good as a spy of a very different sort from Jason Bourne, but at times he seems almost too introspective under De Niro's direction. His character, Henry Wilson, displays very little outward emotion, due to the nature of his business.

Damon is a good actor and has the ability to convey a lot in a brief expression, but since he never breaks down (outwardly, at least), it’s difficult to feel like we ever truly get to know the character. Which is the idea, of course, but it’s a bit frustrating. Going the Brokeback Mountain way rather than risking the appalling old age make-up of A Beautiful Mind, no real attempt is made to age Damon, so make sure you pay attention to the helpful captions letting you know what year a given scene is set in. Angelina Jolie, on the other hand, they do manage to age, and very convincingly.

Jolie does a great job cast against type as a long-suffering and unloved CIA wife. Michael Gambon and John Turturro are both excellent, as always, in supporting roles. Alec Baldwin, who's become one of the most reliable supporting actors working, does what he can to spruce up a very small role, but for once he doesn’t end up stealing the show since there’s just not enough there for him to work with. William Hurt, like Damon, plays his spook character as a cypher, delivering every line as if he’s speaking in code. Again, I would have liked to get behind that facade just once. Billy Crudup is horribly miscast as the British agent Arch Cummings (a Kim Philby analogue, originally called "Kip Wiley" by Roth). I can’t tell if his accent itself was actually bad (although I suspect it was), but every time he opened his mouth it was distracting to hear him speaking that way. Why not just cast a British actor?

Speaking of Philby, all of the historical figures referenced in The Good Shepherd are fictionalized. Damon’s Edward Wilson is based on several figures, but most recognizably James Jesus Angleton. (The character’s different enough, though, that I’d still love to see a straightforward Angleton biopic one day!) The legendary founder of the OSS, William "Wild Bill" Donovan has become William Sullivan, played by De Niro. You’ll recognize a slew of other real life personalities peering through their fictionalized analogues, as well. On the one hand, it’s fun to slowly realize who’s supposed to be who, but on the other, I found myself occasionally frustrated when the fictional version didn’t turn out to be as interesting as the real thing, as in Donovan’s case. (Of course, fictionalizing these characters enables Roth to use them to serve his story, and not get bogged down in being factually true to the historical personages.)

The first cut of The Good Shepherd reportedly clocked in at over four hours (and the script was even longer), so it’s understandable that the movie occasionally feels like it’s been cut down from a mini-series. What’s surprising is how little it feels like that. Key moments have obviously been cut out of Crudup’s storyline and out of Wilson's son's storyline, leading to some confusion. But overall, the movie is still coherent. (A longer cut is planned for DVD.) Apparently a subplot involving the brother of Jolie’s character was cut out, probably wisely because it doesn’t seem missed. It’s surprising that a scene with Joe Pesci was left in the movie instead of some of the aforementioned bits that would have clarified story points. It may be because De Niro didn’t want to cut his old Goodfellas buddy out of the picture, but it’s also probably because it’s one of the only times Wilson clearly states his motivations. For a movie that usually veers toward being overly subtle, having a character outright state his convictions like that is remarkably unsubtle, and also unnecessary. The scene could have easily been discarded.

The Good Shepherd has enough problems to likely prevent it from winning any Oscars, but overall manages the momentous task of packing a huge amount of history into a digestible storyline. It’s certainly an unmissable movie for spy fans, and likely to spark an interest in the subject in casual viewers, especially coming as it does amidst all sorts of real life spy drama going on in the world.

Dec 18, 2006

You'll Be Seeing The Prisoner Remade On TV

The oft-mooted TV remake of the classic Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner is at long last actually happening, according to Variety. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but the original is such a sacred text that I'm going to remain steadfastly pessimistic until a see a reason not to be. (But I do hope they give me such a reason!) I don't think it can't be done; I just think it will be very, very difficult to do right.

According to the Variety story, the new series is being co-produced by Sky One in Britain and AMC in the US, along with Granada International. The mastermind behind the new version is Bill Gallagher. I'm not familiar with any of his work, but apparently his biggest splash to date is a UK show called Conviction. The trade calls it "a modern-day reimagining of the TV series classic" and says that "production will begin next spring for a debut in both the U.S. and the U.K. in January 2008." AMC has committed for "at least" six episodes.

This TV series has nothing to do with the movie remake that Universal is planning (announced last summer), to be written by Twelve Monkeys scribed David and Janet Peoples and directed by Christopher Nolan as a follow-up to his upcoming Batman sequel.

That's right, both projects are currently moving forward. There's been some speculation as to whether the movie announcement meant that the rumored series was off the books, but that's not the case as it turns out. Apparently, Universal has the film rights while Granada has the TV rights to the original.

What can we expect from the TV series?

Variety says: "AMC execs were tightlipped regarding details of the updated version but said it will similarly involve themes of paranoia and deal with sociopolitical issues. What the new show won't be is an exact replica of the original. 'The show isn't just a re-creation,' said Rob Sorcher, AMC exec veep of programming and production. 'What we're doing is an entirely new reinterpretation that stays true to the components of the McGoohan's vision.'"

So it looks like we'll be getting more Number 6 on the large and small screens, even though he only lasted seventeen episodes when the show originally debuted almost 40 years ago. Wow. But what is Number 6 without Patrick McGoohan? How does he feel about these new versions? If one of these productions gets him aboard in some creative capacity, then that's the horse to back. Right now, I have to say that I'm more interested in Nolan's version, since he did a great job reinventing Batman and made a fascinating movie in The Prestige. We shall see...

And if, for some reason, you haven't seen the original (not only one of the best spy shows of all time, but one of the very, very best TV shows of all time period!), I implore you to do so before the remakes attack!

Dec 17, 2006

Review: Alias: The Complete Fifth Season

It’s unfortunate that my first Alias review on this blog is of its stumbling final season rather than its infinitely grander beginning, but the latest DVD release is indeed Alias: The Complete Fifth Season. And it’s not as bad on DVD as it was on TV. In fact, it’s a serviceable collection of entertaining episodes. Definitely not the thing to buy if you’ve never seen Alias before, but still an integral part of any fan’s collection.

One of the major problems with the fifth season was that Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy meant that she would be out of action for a while, so new characters had to be written in to solve the ensuing fight deficit. Unfortunately, none of the three new regulars had enough time to be developed into interesting characters. (Well, actually Angel veteran Amy Acker managed to make an impression as Kelly Peyton, but she was a villain, not a good guy.) Luckily, on DVD you can easily fast forward through all of Balthazar Getty’s plotline as Tom Grace, knowing in retrospect that it ultimately goes nowhere. (And if you didn’t know that, I’m telling you now: there’s no payoff, so don’t bother.) Rachel Nichols’ character annoyed me while watching the show on TV, but on second viewing on DVD her character definitely improves. She actually does have an arc during the season, even if it’s essentially the same one Sidney went through in Season 1.

The other major problem with the final season actually started to hinder the show as early as Season 3. Milo Rambaldi, a DaVinci-esque Italian alchemist, wrote Nostrodamus-like predictions and created fantastic bio-weapons centuries ahead of their time, then hid the pieces around the world. These inventions made great Macguffins to be sought by nearly all of Alias’s characters, but sadly Season 5 is what happens when Macguffins run amok. What started out as a great premise that drove the first few seasons turned into a burden when it became clear that the writers hadn’t planned out what to do with it. Rambaldi’s much talked about "Endgame" changed so many times that it no longer made a lick of sense and, frankly, it’s hard to care about it too much. My solution? Don’t.

Watching the show on TV I was eager for the arc to play out and disappointed that it didn’t. Re-watching on DVD, I was able to just watch the episodes on their own and found nearly all of them thoroughly enjoyable. When it comes down to it, Alias is a fun show, not a serious one. Even though some of Rambaldi’s inventions recalled the sci-fi trappings of The Prisoner, a much better Sixties comparison for Alias is The Saint. Certainly not high art, but each episode is just a lot of fun. And there are many days when I’d rather watch a Saint than a Prisoner. Same goes for Alias. Season 5 works just as well as any of the others if you just decide you’re in the mood for an Alias and watch a single episode rather than trying to follow the whole arc.

"Bob" stands out as a particularly great stand-alone episode, and makes the best use of Rachel Nichols’ newbie spy when she sleeps with recurring villain Sark (David Anders) only to learn later that he’s a bad guy. There are a lot of humorous moments, the best of which has to be super-serious Victor Garber’s deadpan delivery of the line "thong."

The Alias humor is on display throughout the season. The Joe Friday-esque agents/babysitters in "There’s Only One Sydney Bristow" are hilarious, and seem to have walked right out of a Joss Whedon show. ("Oh, no, ma’am. The mother/child bond is impossible to replicate, even by Agent Dalton and myself.") That episode (the series’ hundredth) also serves up some great Alias action and the return of old favorites Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) and Anna Espinosa (Gina Torres). It also uses the same device (literally) as series creator J.J. Abrams’ M:i:III when a tiny bomb is inserted in someone’s head. (Unfortunately that episode aired just a week before the movie came out.)

The finale, "All the Time In the World" (nice Bond reference!), doesn’t wrap up the Rambaldi plot with any satisfaction, but it’s still a good episode. The fate of series villain Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) is priceless, and provides Garber’s Jack Bristow with a final badass moment to rival any of Jack Bauer’s. ("You may have beaten death, Arvin, but you can’t beat me!")

Alias: The Complete Fifth Season comes packaged in a bottom-loading plastic slipcase that’s too loose so that the cardboard gatefold that holds the discs falls out when you pull it off the shelf. It’s a bad design. The four single-sided DVDs are double stacked in the gatefold.

Disc 4 houses all the extras except the commentaries. First up are several forced trailers for other Disney products that have nothing to do with Alias like Apocalypto, Pirates and that Mark Wahlberg football movie. You can also access some more appropriate trailers from the main menu for things like the Alias "Rambaldi Cube" that houses the complete series and J.J. Abrams’ other (even better) show, Lost: Season 2.

The first legitimate extra is called "The Legend of Rambaldi." I was expecting nothing more than a clip montage and pleasantly surprised at what I got instead. It begins like a History Channel special on a real alchemist. This bit is very well-done, with a pitch-perfect narrator (probably a veteran of many such specials), nice motion control shots of Rambaldi artifacts from the show, and good B-roll of the Italian city where the inventor was supposedly born and old paintings of historical figures who apparently interacted with Rambaldi. I don’t remember if we once saw bits of this on the series, but if it was originally produced for this DVD, then it shows that a lot of time and effort was put into these extras.

The featurette nicely segues (via Marshall) into Abrams talking about Rambaldi and admitting that he’s nothing more than a Macguffin. Then we get a peak inside the "Rambaldi vault" where the show’s prop guy talks about all the various devices they had to make. Pretty neat. Spliced in is Rachel Nichols (who’s all over these DVD features) talking about "her favorite Rambaldi artifact" which doesn’t make much sense. Michael Vartan puts it well when he says "Fuck Rambaldi." (It’s bleeped.) Less convincing is the story editor, who tries to tell us that Rambaldi has become a spiritual underpinning for the series, although Ron (Sloane) Rifkin makes sense when he says it’s "purely religious." Abrams pretty much negates all that hokum by saying Rambaldi himself is far less important than what he did to motivate our characters and move our story. True, and I'm glad to see them admit it. Still, they could have had the courtesy to their audience to wrap it all up in a way that made sense!

The next featurette is on the 100th episode and contains a lot of behind-the-scenes footage on set. It’s got interviews with the prodigal Bradley Cooper (who says Will’s back "to get tortured some more") and the ubiquitous Rachel Nichols. Finally, there’s some party footage hosted by her, in which we see just about everyone who’s ever been on the show milling about. Even J.J. Abrams, who by all accounts abandoned his series outright during it’s final season, drops in, although he doesn’t seem to know a lot of the crew. The highlight is Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin clowning around, in stark contrast to their dour characters.

"The Music of Alias" puts the spotlight on the amazing scoring of Michael Giacchino, but unfortunately isn’t nearly as in-depth as the similar feature on Sean Callery on the latest 24 DVD set. It’s mostly lots of people saying nice things about Giacchino and each pronouncing his name slightly differently. More interesting is some footage of a scoring session intercut with clips of the finished scene they’re working on. Giacchino himself is interviewed, and reveals that "Alias at the beginning relied a lot on these techno rhythms that were layered on top of an orchestral track, but as the show progressed it became more about these people, it needed to be more emotional... And so I found myself, over time, using that techno less and less. Now it’s a completely orchestral show." Fascinating. I didn’t really notice the change! Whatever the style, his music has been the most consistently fantastic element of the show from start to finish.

There’s a blooper reel cut in with a silly, newly shot "recreation" of the first phone call from J.J. to Jennifer full of irony. The reel puts the funniest bit up front, with Michael Vartan being chased out of an ice cave by a pink Yeti, then descends into humor of the Balthazarr Getty talking on a banana phone variety. Har, har! Also in here, for some reason, is a short clip reel of Sidney in skimpy clothes, which certainly makes pleasant viewing.

Things wrap up with "The New Recruit: On Set With Rachel Nichols," which turns out to be a lot more interesting than I was anticipating. It’s mostly behind the scenes of "Bob" (in which the Renaissance Hotel at Hollywood & Highland sat in for Brazil), and contains funny bits of Nichols and Anders cutting up during their sex scene.

Nichols and Anders also contribute the best of the season’s four commentaries on that episode, along with writers Monica Breen and Alison Schapker. The track is jokey, but also informative, and covers all aspects of the episode from writing to production. Everything a good commentary should be. It’s much better than the more testosterone-laden track on series premiere "Prophet 5" by Victor Garber (who is funny) and producers Jeff Pinkner and Ken Olin (who really seems like a dick, even though he didn’t on previous seasons’ commentaries). The other commentaries are on "Horizon" and "There’s Only One Sidney Bristow," with the latter being by former production assistants who present a slightly different view of the show. They’re pretty frank. When one marvels how amazing it is that the staff keeps coming up with new, original ideas, another cuts in and says, "What do you mean?" She goes on to point out how Prophet 5 is exactly like The Covenant and K Directorate and all the other Evil Organizations led by Councils of varying numbers that have popped up on the show in the past.

If you’re a fan of the show and on the fence about buying this season because it was sub-par, I’d say go for it. It’s not a satisfying conclusion to a series viewers have invested a lot in, but it is a collection of above average TV episodes that are each enjoyable in their own right. And the extras are pretty good. Again, this isn’t the place to start if you’re new to the show, but it’s definitely worth having for dedicated followers of Sydney Bristow. (And it’s pretty cheap compared to the other seasons!)

Dec 16, 2006

Los Angeles Bond Screenings Coming Up

The American Cinematheque will be holding a Bond tribute in January at their Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, and possibly at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as well. There are no details yet on how many movies (or which ones) they will show, or if there will be any special speakers. Expect that information closer to the end of the month. I just hope "tribute" means there will be some movies by Bonds other than Connery. Yeah, he's the best, but Goldfinger plays like four times a year in LA theatres! How about something else??? The Cinematheque is known for showing pristine 35mm prints acquired directly from the studios, and often having directors or actors speak after their screenings. About five years ago I saw an abolutely gorgeous dye-transfer technicolor print of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and it was the best I've ever seen that movie look, including the new DVDs. So I hope for more revelations from this upcoming series!

Dec 15, 2006

More U.N.C.L.E. Music On CD

Following their recent release of Lalo Schifrin's score to The Liquidator, Film Score Monthly is staying in the spy game by releasing a compilation of music from the Man From U.N.C.L.E. movies (1965-68). Titled "The Spy With My Face," the collection will feature music from that movie as well as To Trap A Spy, One Spy Too Many, One of Our Spies Is Missing, The Spy In the Green Hat, The Karate Killers, The Helicoper Spies and How To Steal the World. While all of these "feature movies" are really just two episodes of the series edited together for European markets, some of them featured original score music by such composers as Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Fried, Nelson Riddle and others. It is this music that the compilation will focus on. It will also contain some of the original series music from the movies, but will not heavily duplicate what's already been released on FSM's previous four volumes of music from the series. You can hear clips from the new CD here.

Dec 13, 2006

Mr. Moto Returns

According to DVDActive, Fox Home Entertainment will release Volume 2 of their Mr. Moto collection on February 13. Mr. Moto, like Charlie Chan, is an Asian (Japanese this time) hero played by a white guy (the incomparable Peter Lorre), in a series of 1930s B mysteries. Unlike Chan (and based on the few movies in the series that I’ve seen), Moto isn’t an offensive caricature (other than the whole "played by a white guy" thing), but a highly competent, martial arts-trained man of action. Also unlike Chan, Moto is more of an adventurer than a detective, and his adventures are often borderline spy thrillers. But what really justifies this news item on a spy blog is that this collection also includes the 1965 Return of Mr. Moto, starring Henry Silva, in which Moto was re-conceived for the Bond Age. Once again (as with the barely tolerable but still-great-to-finally-have Flint TV movie) Fox has included an obscure spy curiosity that otherwise would have remained unseen as a bonus feature with a box set.

Dec 11, 2006

Site News... and More Royale

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve updated. It’s been a slow week for fictional spy news (though a fascinating, if sad, week for the real stuff...), but I’ll try to make it up to you this week with lots of new reviews. Keep checking back this week and next for reviews of Alias: Season 5, the Daniel Craig vehicle Archangel (not to be confused with the Alex Rider adventure of more or less the same name!), Volume 2 of Kate Westbrook’s Moneypenny Diaries series, and, hopefully, The Good Shepherd.

Bond collectors should also keep their eyes peeled, because I’ll be posting a lengthy third Casino Royale Magazine Roundup shortly!

Speaking of Casino Royale, I saw it a fifth time this past weekend, and it really holds up. Die Another Day got worse each time I saw it (which was only twice in the theater); Casino Royale, thankfully, gets better. I first saw DAD at the premiere, with Pierce and Halle and Michael and Barbara in attendance (yeah, I did it. I used first names. That’s just the kind of experience it was!), with a million dollar afterparty that converted the Shrine Auditorium into an ice palace complete with ice sculptures, Bond Girl go-go dancers, open bars and more. I’ll admit, the spectacle of the evening did make me see the movie through slightly rose-colored glasses the first time. (Although even at the party, I was conceding to my friend that we had slipped dangerously into Moonraker territory.) It could only be downhill from there, and with that particular movie, it was a treacherous, icy slope... if you'll forgive the pun.

While I missed out on the spectacle of a Casino Royale premiere, it was exhilarating sneaking my way into a press screening and seeing it in advance, so I was still mistrustful of my own first impressions. Luckily, subsequent viewings over the next two consecutive evenings allayed my fears, and I still stand by the review I wrote at that point. Having seen it twice more still, each time with at least a week in between screenings, if anything it’s getting better. The gripes I had then no longer bother me so much. Casino Royale is a damn good Bond movie, and Daniel Craig is a damn good Bond.

I’ll aim to see the movie at least twice more in the theater.

It’s holding up at the Box Office, too. While it’s a shame CR never got to enjoy a weekend atop the chart, it consistently hit Number 1 on weeknights during its first three weeks. (And even on one Friday, right after Thanksgiving!) It may not have opened quite as strongly as DAD in America, but it’s holding on better. CR has shown less weekly erosion than its predecessor, and managed to hold the #4 spot despite the onslaught of four new major releases this past weekend. It’s a long shot, but it just may yet equal or overtake DAD at the American Box Office if it manages to stick around long enough. And internationally, it remains the movie to beat. (Yes, even those pesky penguins can't touch it overseas!)

Dec 4, 2006

Review: Mission: Impossible Season 1 DVD

Tomorrow one of the glaring omissions in many a spy DVD library will finally be corrected. Tomorrow, CBS/Paramount at long last issues the first season of Mission: Impossible on DVD! (Now if only somebody would do something about The Man From UNCLE...)

When J.J. Abrams said during the press tour for M:I:III that Mission: Impossible was his favorite TV show, he wasn’t just saying that to pimp his new movie. Watching Season 1 on DVD, it’s clear that Abrams’ Alias owed more than a small debt to the original M:I. Basically, what wasn’t borrowed from Bond in Alias comes directly from Mission: Impossible. Both shows were essentially heist or con shows masquerading as spy shows in order to justify the heists, to make the heroes good guys. (If you’re stealing from the East... or from some cryptic enemy organization, then it’s okay!) Both featured teams of uniquely qualified individuals who came together week after week to extract some enemy-held Macguffin from an exotic location. And both were structured similarly, beginning with mission briefings in which the team were assigned their roles. So if you’re a fan of Alias, you’d do well to check out M:I.

Outside of James Bond, Mission: Impossible is probably the most iconic spy title in any medium. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you know its distinctive theme music, you’re aware of its famous "lit fuse" opening titles, and you’re familiar with the phrase, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." Mission: Impossible contributed all of these vital elements to the modern spy lexicon. All are present and accounted for in the first season (1966-67).

More or less, Mission: Impossible seems to have been fully formed from inception, unlike some shows which take a season or two to find their true identities. (Like The Avengers.) The "less" comes only from the absence of staid series lead, Jim Phelps (silver-haired Peter Graves, also iconic), who wouldn’t come aboard until Season 2. The team leader in the first season is Dan Briggs, played unremarkably by Steven Hill. He’s a pretty boring leader, but that doesn’t really matter because this series really belongs (in this season, anyway) to Martin Landau, who is fantastic. (Strangely, Landau is billed as a guest star or "special appearance" week after week, even though he’s in every episode.) Barbara Bain (as Cinnamon Carter) and Greg Morris (as Barney Collier) also manage to find more screen time than Hill, and use it well. Including strong man Willie Armitage (Peter Lupus), the whole team is in place except for its leader. And the episodes are mostly really great, so I’m glad that Paramount had the courage to begin with Season 1 rather than starting with the debut of the more famous lead, as some shows do. (The Avengers and Dark Shadows come to mind, though both have since gone back to the beginning.)

From the few episodes of Mission: Impossible I’d caught in syndication over the years, I had the impression that the show was rather dour and slow-moving. I’m not sure why I thought that; I guess I must have just caught some sub-par episodes. I’m happy to report that M:I is actually lots of fun. While it’s certainly not as light as The Avengers could be, it’s far from humorless. But any humor comes from the likeable characters rather than bizarre or surreal situations. And far from being slow-moving, most episodes are tightly-plotted and exciting. (That music sure helps, too, every time it kicks in.) Compared to Sixties spy shows already available on DVD, I’d say Mission: Impossible is closest in tone to Patrick McGoohan’s Danger Man (aka Secret Agent). However, being a team show rather than following a solitary agent, it is obviously a much different program.

Scenarios in the first season tend to be down-to-earth and realistic. A number of missions involve discrediting or removing left-leaning leaders from foreign countries, and we know the CIA did its share of that during the Cold War! Other plotlines hinge on protecting American overseas industrial interests, including oil. It’s interesting that these stories could be played unironically back then, without a hint of murkiness or moral dilemma. Sixties audiences must have been more willing to buy into blind patriotism.

Speaking of the Cold War, I’m surprised at how good life in Communist countries is presented! I would have expected a more propagandist (or at least realistic!) approach, showing miserable living conditions and tiny dwellings. Instead, every time the team goes behind the Iron Curtain (which is frequently), it looks just like America. In one episode ("A Spool There Was"), Cinnamon goes to the house of a typical, poor Communist family and it’s a huge, luxurious two-storey affair decorated just like an American house. (It’s probably the set from a CBS family sitcom, but surely there were other, smaller sets available!) And the lakeside town in which this family lives is full of vacationers having a good time, and balloons... lots of balloons. It looks like Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva with secret police. Overall, Communism looks pretty fun. (That comes in handy, however, in the ubiquitous episode in which the team infiltrates a fake "American" town in the middle of the Eastern Bloc where foreign agents are Americanized, like John Travolta in The Experts.)

Unlike so many spy movies and TV shows at the height of Bondmania, Mission: Impossible doesn’t play like a 007 ripoff. In fact, it’s different enough that you definitely notice when they do their "Bond episode;" that one doesn’t just feel like one of the others. It’s well done, though, and probably my favorite of the first season. "Odds On Evil" borrows its plot from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, and after watching Bond play poker in the new movie of that title, it’s nice to see baccarat played in M:I, as it was in Fleming’s book. And cool to see Martin Landau in a tux, "being Bond!" The Le Chiffre-surrogate villain our heroes need to defeat at the gaming tables is a cross between Monaco’s Prince Ranier and Saddam Hussein. He is the leader of a tiny European principality whose primary revenue comes from their famous high stakes casino who plans to invade his oil-rich neighbor. And just in case you haven’t already figured out they’re tipping their hat to James Bond, the producers even throw in a snazzy red Aston Martin DB5 near the end! (Amazingly, all five IMF team members manage to pack themselves into it, rather uncomfortably.)

As I mentioned, Landau is thoroughly fantastic as the team’s "man of 1000 faces." Even though that’s initially his speciality, he quickly becomes more of an all-around spy character. Greg Morris is charismatic and likeable as the serious-minded electronics expert (who sometimes plays M:I’s version of Q, and is also capable of MacGuyver-like feats such as rigging a perfume bottle into an I.V.). Barbara Bain does a good job as the team’s honeytrap, ex-model Cinnamon Carter. It’s a good thing she’s a fine actress, though, because, frankly, Bain looks a bit past it to play a believable sexpot. She was already 35 in the first season, and looks even older with her yellowed smoker’s teeth. (She smokes pretty constantly throughout the season.) Physically, it’s hard to buy her as an ingenue (who’s consistently referred to as a "young woman" and sometimes called upon to go-go dance!), but her performance is engaging enough that she somehow pulls it off.

The seven single-sided discs are divided among four double slimpacks housed in an attractive outer box, very similar to CBS/Paramount’s Wild Wild West packaging. The cover art may be of the Photoshop montage school, but it’s a well done one. And it’s shiny, too, so points for that! The font makes no sense, though; I don’t know why they didn’t use the show’s famous title treatment.

Unfortunately, there are no extras on this set. That’s a little disappointing after the wonderful array of commentaries and introductions on The Wild Wild West. I hope Paramount will offer some of that with the next season, once Peter Graves comes aboard. Sound and picture, however, are exemplary. The show looks great, exactly how a Sixties spy show should, full of vibrant colors but never looking "old." It’s also (surprisingly) been remixed in 5.1 surround sound, though the original mono track is also present for purists and Luddites.

Watching these episodes makes me want to watch the original DePalma movie again. I never realized how many homages to the series it contained. Besides the incredible credits sequence, there are some bits that are taken directly from the show. In the second episode, "Memory," for example, the IMF team fake a fire at a prison. They then go in disguised as firemen. Sound familiar? Tom Cruise’s buddies do the same thing to break into CIA headquarters in the film.

Mission: Impossible may be long overdue on DVD, but it’s finally here and it’s one of the essential purchases of the year for spy fans. Season 1 is a great set, and I can’t wait for the next batch!

Dec 1, 2006

UK Spy DVD Release Dates

Network's Region 2 Return of the Saint DVDs I mentioned earlier are due out January 29, 2007 in England. Network will also release the third season of The Sandbaggers on January 15, the Julie Andrews spy movie The Tamarind Seed on March 12, and the complete series of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) on March 26.
James Bond Ultimate Edition DVDs Vols. 3 and 4

The final two volumes of the Region 1 Ultimate Edition James Bond DVDs come out December 12. The packaging is identical to the first two volumes, but in red and silver. Again, the discs are in slimcases (which I like), saving room on your shelf. They are housed in "magazine holder" cardboard sleeves which slide into the outer boxes. If you don't appreciate the slimcases or the weird grouping MGM has chosen to collect these in, then you can always hold out for the individual single discs coming in February!

New Jarvis Cocker Album!

This item is an anomoly because it's not spy-related at all (well, if pressed, I guess I could make a connection or two...), but Pulp's former frontman Jarvis Cocker has a new self-titled solo album out and that is great news indeed. It definitely sounds different from a Pulp record (far fewer guitars, for one thing!) but it's brilliant in its own right. I just love Pulp and Jarvis so much that I had to mention that, even if it's utterly irrelevant to the topic at hand!

Movie Review: The Good German (2006)

Review: The Good German

Now that Casino Royale has opened, we have two big spy movies remaining to look forward to this year, with very similar titles: The Good German and The Good Shepherd. (Put them together and one might say you’ve got a damn good pooch, but not even Groucho would stoop so low.) I’ve yet to see the latter, but the former is quite a treat, and one of the best films of 2006.
The Good German is Steven Soderberg’s best movie in years, probably since The Limey. Some might balk at calling it a spy movie, since none of the main characters are actually spies, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s about the origins of the Cold War, it features suspenseful intrigue and double-crosses and betrayals, and it takes place in that favorite spy movie city, Berlin. George Clooney stars as an American military journalist assigned to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference after Germany’s surrender in 1945. Toby Maguire is his driver, and the incomparable Cate Blanchett is the woman they’re both obsessed with. And so are American and Russian Intelligence, for some reason. Clooney tries to discover why–and who’s pulling the strings–and finds himself caught between Nazis, Nazi hunters, atom scientists, and the American and Russian armies.

The movie deals with subject matter I’m hesitant to reveal, because each new revelation is part of the enjoyment. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t very familiar with the subject, and I found it fascinating.

Equally fascinating is Soderbergh’s directorial style. He chooses to shoot it in black and white, emulating movies of its period, most obviously Casablanca. (Just take a look at the wonderfully evocative poster!) At a Q&A following the screening I saw, he revealed that he forced himself to shoot it as Casablanca director Michael Curtiz would have. For one thing, that meant not leaving LA (Potsdam is in Pasadena!), which certainly surprised me. Even though there’s evident stock footage of the bombed-out city, I assumed they had done at least some location work in Berlin. For another, it meant using only the five camera lenses that Curtiz used, according to his continuity scripts in the Warner Bros. archives. Evidently Soderbergh is used to using a lot more. Finally, it meant a different acting style than we’re used to seeing today.

Soderbergh said he had his actors study films like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and Mildred Pierce to get an idea of the style he wanted. He forced them to "externalize" their performances, as opposed to the "internalized" performances prevalent today. No method acting allowed. The results are somewhat mixed, but fascinating to observe. Tobey Maguire is the least successful of the three leads, though he appears to be channeling a young James Cagney. George Clooney is basically George Clooney, and that’s exactly what the role calls for. I can’t imaging he changed his usual performance style too much; he already emulates Carey Grant. Clooney is in some ways the last genuine, Golden Age movie star, two generations removed from his time. That’s perfect for this film. But the movie belongs to Cate Blanchett, in a tour-de-force performance (and a black wig) containing more than a hint of Marlene Dietrich. Her character is the most complex, and she conveys more with a single look than most actors manage in a monologue. The Good German should easily earn her another Oscar nomination.

But the movie is no mere pastiche. It’s power lies in the one way (actually, there are two ways*) in which it deviates from Soderbergh’s "shoot like Michael Curtiz" ground rules. Unlike Curtiz, Soderbergh is not bound by the Hayes Code, the censor of the time.

This means that Soderbergh is able to deliver a modern, R-rated adult drama in the trappings of a more innocent era of film. The "of film" is important, because the era itself was far from innocent. Since my generation’s main frame of reference for the 1940s is black and white Hollywood product, that tends to color my perception of the era. Sure, I know it wasn’t really like that, but logic won’t stop me from picturing it that way. Therefore, strong language and brutal, bloody violence have more impact in a black and white film that lulls your expectations into Casablanca territory. Soderbergh and screenwriter Paul Attanasio are also able to be more frank about the atrocities of the Holocaust than an actual 1945 movie could have been, and that too gives the film more impact. The decision to shoot in the style of that period isn’t just to be cute (although it does make it more fun for movie buffs); I don’t think The Good German would be nearly as powerful were it presented as just another modern, color film set in the past.

*Even though Soderbergh had intended to use old-fashioned rear screen projection for the driving scenes, he abandoned that idea when he found out how complicated and time-consuming the process was. Therefore, the rear projection is faked with modern greenscreen technology instead. In order to key the green, that meant shooting in color. The color was de-saturated in post and printed on black and white stock, but looks just as rich as the most high contrast film noir. Even though Soderbergh didn’t discuss it, it was also clear that he’d primarily used greenscreen instead of matte painting, most notably in a direct homage to Casablanca’s most famous matte.
Review: Stormbreaker Region 1 DVD

In my earlier diatribe about The Weinstein Company’s mishandling of this movie’s theatrical release, I never actually reviewed the film. Now I’ve received the forthcoming Region 1 DVD, so it seems like an appropriate time to do that.

The DVD release strategy may not be much better than the theatrical one (releasing it exclusively to Walmart and Blockbuster and neglecting popular online vendors like Amazon and Netflix seems to insure that this movie will never reach the wide audiences it deserves in the United States), but at least the folks at Genius Home Entertainment seem to understand the film (no more cheesy "Rule the school!" tagline) and present it on DVD with some decent special features. (Although they strangely omit the director’s commentary track available on the Region 2 DVD in England.)

Most importantly, the presentation of the film itself looks good. It still has the American version of the title up-front (the cumbersome "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker"), but doesn’t appear to be cut in any way and isn’t relegated to the miserable "full screen only" fate that sometimes befalls DVDs aimed at family audiences. The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks and sounds good.

Stormbreaker (the movie) is, as its cover blurb announces, "an exciting spy adventure for the whole family," but it will probably disappoint fans of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels. As far as its place in the whole "teen spy" genre, it’s much more original and adult friendly than the Agent Cody Banks movies, and it’s more of a spy movie than the visually exciting "Spy Kids" fantasy series. As the participants make clear in the DVD featurette about comparing the book to the movie, Horowitz’s books succeed because he never patronizes his readers. They aren’t the kind of "kids’ books" that middle schoolers would be embarrassed to read. They’re essentially adult novels for kids, if that makes sense, and fairly dark in tone. The book series is definitely in PG-13 territory, but the movie is defiantly PG. The movie is jokier in tone, with silly bits like a runaway wheeled house full of bumbling, wailing soldiers undermining its action a bit. I’ll put it this way: it’s much more Roger Moore than Daniel Craig.

If devoted readers manage to get past that initial disappointment, though, they’re likely to enjoy the movie. Luckily it is faithful to the Horowitz books in that it remembers to be an action movie first and foremost. Unlike the aforementioned Spy Kids and Cody Banks, which are kids’ movies with action, Stormbreaker is an action movie aimed at kids, with plenty to enjoy for adults as well. It’s basically after the same audience as James Bond (well, up until Casino Royale, anyway), which is appropriate. When I was 13, I was already a huge Bond fan, and definitely fantasized about being like Bond and liked the idea of a teenager plunged into that kind of adventure. Unfortunately, the only thing out there for me at that time was If Looks Could Kill with Richard Greico (which I do actually have fond memories of). I think I would have loved Stormbreaker back then, and I hope that the millions of kids today who love Bond movies and video games manage to thwart the Weinsteins’ best efforts and actually see this movie!

Crucial to its success is lead actor Alex Pettyfer. He’s a very likable lead, and a good Alex Rider. He’s backed up by an amazing cast of mostly British actors. Ewan McGregor, though top-billed on the American DVD cover, has a cameo as Alex’s doomed spy uncle, Ian Rider. It’s basically McGregor's take on 007, which is interesting to see, since he was widely rumored to be a strong contender for the role. Bill Nighy is reliably entertaining (in a comedic take on the "sinister bureaucrat" role he’s perfected) as the unscrupulous head of MI6, who has little regard for Alex’s safety. Stephen Fry (one of my favorites from his days as Jeeves) basically does his best Desmond Llewellyn as the Q-like character, Smithers (though he’s a far cry from the book’s jolly, morbidly obese gadget master). Andy Serkis, Robbie Coltrane and a grotesque, villainous Mickey Rourke round out the talented cast. Even Alicia Silverstone does a good job as Alex’s housekeeper and guardian, Jack Starbright.

The villains (Rourke as the Americanized Darius Sayle, changed from the book, and Missi Pyle as his Teutonic lieutenant, Nadia Vole) are broad caricatures played more for comedy than threat, which lessens the tension of the book. But the action scenes are played straight for the most part, and are quite exciting. There are some very impressive Bondian stunts, but they’re slightly marred by the rather generic, two-years-ago electronica music that kicks in just early enough to spoil any surprise and alert you that a fight is coming up.

Basically, I was disappointed that most things were played a little more comedically than in the book, but thanks to the superlative cast, the comedy is good, so that shouldn’t bother anyone who hasn’t read the book. Stormbreaker is more or less the teenage spy movie I always wanted as a kid. Most adult James Bond fans (especially those who enjoy Roger Moore’s 007) will also appreciate it as a good, light action movie and a loving homage to the series that inspired it.

The best featurette on the DVD is called "From Page To Screen" and focuses (naturally) on the adaptation process. The actors and producers cite the very darkness and un-patronizing tone of the books that I responded to as the reason they were attracted to the project, so it’s a mystery why those things are largely absent from the final product. Perhaps the responsibility lies with Horowitz, who adapted his own novel into a screenplay. He certainly appears proud of his product. Horowitz is interviewed a lot for this featurette, and he seems very excited about the movie. Despite the fact that he’s responsible for many produced TV series (like Foyle’s War and Poirot), he seems to genuinely regard Alex Rider as his best work. His enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s easy to see how he could have gotten so caught up in the thrill of the movie process that he compromised his original work a bit more than he realized. Or maybe he’s just less demanding than I am and allows himself to enjoy what is a very fun, humorous movie and not care about the differences. The featurette does explain why certain things were changed from the book, and does a good job of it.

"Casting Alex" consists mostly of other actors saying nice things about Pettyfer, and a little bit of Pettyfer saying nice things about himself. That’s not really fair, because he doesn’t come off as egotistical at all, merely excited to have the greatest job a 15 year old kid could have. There’s a good featurette on the stunts, which were surprisingly mostly physical and not computer-generated. Watching this really reinforces my assertion that Stormbreaker is an action movie above all else. There are some really cool stunts.

A few other featurettes focus on shooting and designing specific scenes and locations. Played back to back, all the featurettes form a pretty comprehensive making-of documentary. (Unfortunately, there is no "Play All" option.) Also included is the theatrical trailer (the inferior American one, not the awesome international one). Missing from the British disc are the music videos by pop bands no one cares about over here, and that’s no great loss.

I realize that I sound pretty negative, but that’s only comparing the existing movie to what could have been, to an imaginary paradigm that it couldn’t possibly live up to. It’s a very entertaining action/spy movie in the tradition of Roger Moore Bond movies. Fans of those movies would be well served to track it down from whatever limited, exclusive vendors it ends up being available from. This movie deserved a legitimate American theatrical release, and I hope the audience who missed it there finds it on DVD. I also hope the DVD manages to overcome the odds Genius has stacked against it and become enough of a hit to warrant a sequel, since Point Blanc, the second book in the series, is actually much better and has a lot of potential as a movie!