Jan 31, 2007

Whiteout Movie Is A Go

The long-in-development film adaptation of Greg Rucka's graphic novel Whiteout is finally happening, according to Dark Horizons. Whiteout tells the story of U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko. While investigating a series of homicides in Antarctica, Stetko crosses paths with British Secret Service agent Lily Sharpe, who is on the trail of missing uranium. "Lily Sharpe" was later revealed to be an alias of Tara Chace, who went on to star in her own comic book series by Rucka, the sublime Queen & Country, as well as two novels (so far). The character's name was changed so that the movie rights to Chace and Q&C wouldn't be tied up with the rights to Whiteout, which makes sense. A seperate Queen & Country movie is also in development.

The Whiteout movie will be produced by Joel Silver through his Dark Castle Productions. Beautiful Kate Beckinsale will star as Stetko, who's supposed to be a Plain Jane (she seems miscast, but maybe she'll surprise me), and Dominic Sena, who made the forgettable Swordfish and Gone In Sixty Seconds, will direct. Too bad. In the hands of a great director, this snowbound thriller would make a very interesting movie. Like Beckinsale, I hope Sena surprises me. Filming begins in March in Manitoba. As of an older draft of the script, the British agent character had been changed to a man, the feeling at the time being that two women couldn't carry a movie. (Yes, that's how they think in Hollywood!) I don't know if that's still the case. Come to think of it, Beckinsale would make a much better Lily Sharpe than Carrie Stetko...

Queen & Country, meanwhile, is not cancelled, as has been rumored, but merely delayed. Again. Rucka himself confirms this on his message board. Issue 32 (and hopefully more thereafter) is still in the pipeline, as is a third novel.

You can read a free sample of the Whiteout graphic novel here.

Jan 30, 2007

Eurospy Titles Out Today

Dark Sky Films, who have a pretty good track record with releasing quality product (including a trio of very nice Amicus releases, some excellent gialli, and the British spy series H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, which one day I shall get around to reviewing), release a Eurospy double bill DVD today featuring Assassination In Rome and Espionage In Tangiers. I haven’t seen either one, but any legitimate Eurospy release at all is a rare treat, and the latter features George Lazenby in a very small pre-007 role! (His first, I believe, excluding the Big Fry ads.) The indispensable Eurospy Guide says Espionage In Tangiers is "never boring" and "you could actually do a lot worse than this little adventure," so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing it.
New Sixties Spy Soundtrack CD

Film Score Monthly has just announced their latest Silver Age Classics soundtrack release. It's a compilation CD featuring two crime movies (The Last Run and Crosscurrant, both scored by Jerry Goldsmith) and one spy movie I've never heard of: The Scorpio Letters, scored by Dave Grusin. Here's what Screen Archives (FSM's store) says about it: "The Scorpio Letters (1967) was a TV movie starring Alex Cord as a secret agent uncovering a blackmail ring in London and Paris. The project was the first feature-length assignment for Dave Grusin, who provided jazzy, moody music often resembling his work for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The score features Grusin's gift for melody and subtlety, foreshadowing his great 'noir' scores of the 1970s." You can order the CD here.

Jan 28, 2007

Brosnan's Still Got It

Years and years ago, when Timothy Dalton was James Bond and blogs were still undreampt of, I remember flipping through a People Magazine "50 Most Beautiful" issue and there was Pierce Brosnan with the headline, "Oh what a mighty might-have-been." The meager chunk of text recounted the oft-told, familiar story of how he was almost James Bond, only to lose out to Tim when NBC un-cancelled Remington Steele and held him to his contract. Without 007, he'd ended up banished to the realm of USA movies of the week like Murder 101. Fortunately for Pierce, he got the rare second chance, he got to be Bond, and the revived the franchise. And then he was rather unceremoniously dumped in favor of the younger model.

Well, we all know now that worked out fine for 007, but how did it work out for Brosnan? Not bad, as it turns out. Last year he got a Golden Globe nomination for one of the best performances of his career in The Matador, and this year he's made another good movie, Seraphim Falls. We all knew he was filming it since he did loads of talk shows last year with that weird beard, but now that it's in theatres, there's no publicity whatsoever, which is too bad.

David Von Ancken's Seraphim Falls is a beautifully shot (by cinematographer John Toll) western in the Sam Peckinpah vein, a man-on-the-run adventure that turns surreal as it moves out of the mountains and into the desert. Liam Neeson plays the remorseless, single-minded leader of a posse pursuing Brosnan's character. The film begins mid-chase, and doesn't let us know why Brosnan's on the run for quite some time, which worked well for me. There are moments of brutal violence, and plenty of exciting escapes, but like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or Once Upon A Time In the West, there are also quiet, medatative moments, and dream-like encounters with unique characters. In the very end the movie may get a little too surreal for some tastes, but the journey getting there is one well worth taking if you're a fan of the genre or a fan of Brosnan. He may lack a Daniel Craig-like physique (as he demonstrates in some shirtless scenes), but he's still a hell of an actor, and still getting better with every role. Hopefully becoming un-Bonded will open up even more interesting parts in his future.

Brosnan recently announced he would be starring in and co-producing a movie about high-stakes gambling currently saddled with the astoundingly forgettable title "The Big Biazarro." (Hopefully that will change.) According to Variety, "Brosnan will play an elusive veteran card player who mentors a headstrong but talented protege." Can I make a suggestion for the role of the protege? How about Daniel Craig? I'd pay to see that!

After that, he's still got his Thomas Crown sequel in the pipeline, currently titled The Topkapi Affair, and incorporating elements of Jules Dassin's classic 1964 heist flick Topkapi and the Eric Ambler book upon which it was based. Brosnan recently said that Rene Russo will not be in it, which is too bad if you ask me. She was as much responsible for the success of the first movie as he was! Oh well. Speaking of The Thomas Crown Affair, I checked out the Magritte exhibit at LACMA today. Surprisingly (but appropriately), Brosnan narrates the audio tour! And, naturally, makes reference to the crucial role Magritte played in that movie.

So Pierce is keeping busy post-007, and in no risk of returning to that "mighty might-have-been" status People so cruelly hung on him all those years ago.

Jan 27, 2007

Review: Our Man In Havana

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see Carol Reed’s Our Man In Havana on the big screen, at the excellent Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. I’d only seen it on TV before–and even then, I missed the first half hour. Since the movie is shockingly unavailable on DVD (in America) at this time, the recent screening provides the perfect opportunity to review it.

Adapted by Graham Greene from his own novel, Our Man In Havana is a darkly comic spy masterpiece. The incomparable Alec Guinness plays Jim Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman living in pre-Castro Cuba. All he wants is for his teenage daughter (Jo Morrow) to be happy, but since her tastes run rather expensive (horses, country club membership), that means spoiling her rotten. He can’t afford to spoil her on a salesman’s salary, so when Noel Coward’s ever-so-British spymaster, Hawthorne, recruits him to be MI6's man in Havana, Wormold says yes. He even gets the Secret Service to pay for his country club membership, which Hawthorne’s boss, C (Ralf Richardson), happily approves despite the exorbitant cost because that’s where he’ll meet "just the right sort of people" MI6 wants for agents. But Wormold neglects to recruit any sub-agents, resulting in a sharply worded signal from London. His friend and confidant, Dr. Hasselbacher (Burl Ives) counsels him to invent some agents, which he does. He also invents some intelligence, supposedly gathered by his fake agents.

The intelligence is close-up drawings of vacuum cleaners, re-scaled to tower above a man. Wormold says they’re installations in the mountains of Cuba, and this worries British Intelligence very much. The Prime Minister even comments that they look like giant vacuum cleaners, which sets his military advisors shuddering at the possibility of such a super-weapon. Eager to learn more, London sends a secretary (Maureen O’Hara) and a radio operator to assist their man in Havana. The "other side," meanwhile, apparently just as convinced of Wormold’s competence, sends an assassin to kill him. And on top of all this he must contend with the sleazy, corrupt captain of the Cuban police (Ernie Kovacs), who is wooing his daughter.

The lush, widescreen black and white photography and Cuban-tinged soundtrack, coupled with outstanding performances by a superb cast lend Our Man In Havana all the ingredients of a classic. So why isn’t it considered one?

Audiences at the time, particularly in America, may have been thrown by its forward-thinking genre-bending. Perhaps they didn’t want to see bodies piling up in their comedies (although Guiness, at least, was used to that after The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets) or laugh during their thrillers. Too bad, because this film blends the two together sublimely, as evidenced during a scene in which Wormold must give a speech at a trade lunch (vacuums, not spying) where he knows one of the other attendees is trying to poison him. The scene succeeds ably as both comedy (aided by John LeMesurier as the head waiter trying desperately to keep the wrong person from getting the possibly poisoned plate) and suspense (who is the killer and will he succeed?). Although it’s certainly very funny, the comedy runs black enough that we never feel safe for Wormold, and in that way it actually adds to the suspense, rather than playing against it. Few movies manage that trick, but Reed and Greene are both at the top of their game here and pull it off masterfully.

Our Man In Havana is one of the great spy movies, and a must for Alec Guinness fans. Set your Tivos to catch it in case it airs in the middle of the night on TCM or some such network, as it sometimes does. It’s a crime that Sony hasn’t issued this on Region 1 DVD yet (if they still own the rights; it’s a Columbia film). Fortunately, there is a disc out in the UK for those of you with multi-region players.
Review: MI-5 Season 4, Part 2

I couldn’t get to the DVD bonus material when I reviewed Season 4 a few weeks ago, so here we go...

The big disappointment is that there is far, far less bonus material on Season 4 than there has been on the previous seasons. Gone are most of the regular features, including the deleted scenes and my favorites, the individual episode documentaries. And there were plenty of episodes this season that I would have liked to delve deeper into after finishing them. In fact, discs 3 and 4 don’t have any bonus content at all, which is a first for this series. (It’s also confusing, since the still-annoying "computer screen" menus address this issue by saying "Error" where they normally say "Extras," making you think the disc’s defective. See picture above.) But the bonus material that is present at least more-or-less lives up to the generally high standards set by the previous releases.

Without the individual episode documentaries, the centerpiece of this set becomes the overall Season 4 documentary, called "Spooks 4: An Elusive Peace." It’s long, running over 35 minutes. (A lot of that, however, is taken up with lengthy clips from the series you’ve presumably just watched.) All the actors talk about why the decided to come back to the show (which certainly isn’t a given like it is with American shows) and why they like their roles. Nicola Walker (Ruth) seems to be getting more comfortable; she says it used to be the first thing actors looked for when they got the newest script was whether or not they were still alive at the end of it; now they look for juicy little character moments. Between her and Peter Firth, there’s more screen time here devoted to the relationship between Ruth and Harry than there is on the show! Hugh Simon and Rory MacGregor (Malcolm and Colin, who are also funny out of character) lament being stuck on the grid most of the time, and reveal that the technical jargon they’re required to spout is "difficult to get your mouth around." All of the actors also take us through an average day on set. We also learn that Spooks (MI-5 in the US) was nominated for a BAFTA in its 3rd season, which is apparently rare.

Unlike previous seasons that featured lots of talking heads professionally and artistically shot against plain black backgrounds, this documentary favors tandem interviews shot on the fly in outdoor locations with lots of wind noise. Having worked on such projects, I can say it must have been a bitch to edit. It mostly consists of these interviews and scenes from the show; there’s very little behind-the-scenes footage.

For that, you have to watch "The View From the Grid," which is basically a lengthy interview with director Julian Simpson, who’s frankly not very engaging, spliced in with on-set B-roll. It runs about 18 minutes.

Finally, "Ragnum Defende: An Interview With Andrew Woodhead" is just that, and he is a producer on the show. He says that since Spooks is such a visual show, it’s hard to keep directors around, because they tend to get offered bigger stuff after shooting an episode. He also says that they have the longest shoot in British television, doing all ten hours back to back. (Maybe that’s why they also have trouble keeping their actors around!) Overall, his interview is a lot more interesting to a fan of the series than Simpson’s.

And that’s it. That’s all there is. It’s certainly enough to seem generous compared to many TV shows, but we’ve been so spoiled with extras on all the other seasons of MI-5 to feel seriously let down by the bonus content here. Let’s hope the next season offers more!

Jan 25, 2007

Review: Secret Agent Superdragon (MST3K Version)

My girlfriend got me a bootleg DVD of the "Secret Agent Super Dragon" episode of Mystery Science 3000 for Christmas. The movie is not currently available on DVD, and is even hard to find on the so-called "gray market" (for me, at least; the Eurospy Guide says it’s easy), so this seemed the closest I’d come to seeing it legitimately. I think MST3K is a hilarious show, and I have many fond memories of watching The Mystery Science Theatre Hour following Hercules: The Legendary Journeys late at night in high school, but I do get annoyed when they do a movie that doesn’t deserve the ‘bots’ treatment. The most obvious example would be Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik. That’s a great movie, one of my favorites. I don’t like watching the MST3K version because 1) I get annoyed with the quips, like their distracting me from watching a movie I like, and 2) I think the movie is too good to give them any great bits of humor anyway. The show is definitely best served by baaaaaad movies, which fuel their incessant quipping. When it’s not so bad, it doesn’t give them many good things to say. So it was with a little trepidation that I watched a Eurospy movie I’d never seen get the MST3K treatment.

Luckily, it all worked out. I feel that I got the gist of the movie amidst the comments, though I’d still like to see it on its own. (For one thing, as is often the case, their print seems to be cut. Most reviews of Super Dragon mention a scene in a bowling alley, and there’s none to be found in this version.) But the comments weren’t too distracting, and most were quite funny. As far as I can tell, Secret Agent Super Dragon is not a terrible movie, but it certainly offers enough to make fun of if you’re looking for it. (Most Eurospy titles do.)

Bryan Cooper (Ray Danton) is a secret agent code-named "Super Dragon" for some reason. (Leading to the best quip of he episode, when he disappears, apparently into the bathroom: "Gotta drain the super dragon.") The 1966 movie seems to use The Silencers and, particularly, Our Man Flint (also 1966) as it’s starting point, rather than Bond. However, it doesn’t have the satiric edge that Flint does, and Superdragon takes himself pretty seriously. Like Flint, he’s great at everything, and, like Flint, he lives, retired, in luxury. (Though Super Dragon’s luxury is rather modestly budgeted.) Also like Flint, he practices putting himself into a state of hibernation so that when he’s later locked in a coffin (like Fint), he can shut himself down until he’s rescued (um... like Flint). This moment leads a ‘bot to joyously exclaim, "Something in this movie has something to do with something else in this movie!" Ray Danton lacks the effortless charisma of James Coburn, and since the character takes himself so seriously (unlike Flint!), he comes off as a bit of a jerk. Imagine Flint without Coburn’s charm and he’d be pretty obnoxious, right? That’s basically what you get here, except that Danton still manages more charm than he will nine years later when he gets his chance to actually, disastrously play Derek Flint in the TV movie Our Man Flint: Dead On Target.

One hallmark of the Eurospy genre is that the hero is often (at least viewing these movies today) rather loathsome. Personally, I don’t mind this. I accept it, and even appreciate it, as part of the genre, and get some laughs out of it. I’m sure in some cases it was intentional (as Flint was intended to expose Bond as something of a jerk), but in many others it wasn’t. It’s certainly an aspect that bears making fun of, and the MST3K crew latch onto it here. Other Eurospy cliches worth making fun of that they don’t miss include the dopey sidekick (check!), the casual misogyny (check!) and the absolutely baffling plots (check, check!). Secret Agent Super Dragon also has its share of pacing problems, and the Satellite of Love’s crew’s remarks help pass the time when the going gets slow.

But does the movie have any good points? Yes. For one thing, it’s got spy veterans Margaret Lee and Marisa Mell as eye candy Comfort and Charity. For another, I said it’s got Margaret Lee and Marisa Mell as eye candy Comfort and Charity. Yes, a spy movie that names its women Comfort and Charity is always going to win some favor with this viewer. Although the make-up department went a little crazy with the hair for both ladies. Beautiful Marisa is much more beautiful as a blonde than a redhead. (See Diabolik!) It’s also got some great Amsterdam scenery, although it seems to be more famous for its lackluster "Dearborn, Michigan" locations. And it sports an appropriate Eurospy soundtrack, which Joel and the ‘bots pay tribute to in one of their sketches. (Is "tribute" the right word?) In fact, this MST3K episode features several good spy-related sketches, so fans of the genre might want to check it out just for that.

I enjoyed watching Secret Agent Super Dragon with the sarcastic commentary, and I enjoyed the movie enough on its own merits (such as I could measure) that I would definitely like to see it again without the comments, which certainly can’t be said for all MST3K titles.

Jan 24, 2007

R.I.P. Tudor Gates

I'm saddened to report that screenwriter Tudor Gates has passed away at the age of 76. While he's much more famous for his work with Hammer on their lesbian vampire trilogy comprising The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil (the former and the latter excellent; the middle one middling), he was also responsible for Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik. Purists will argue just how much of a spy movie Diabolik is, since the hero is actually a criminal, not a spy, but I certainly count it as one--and one of my very favorites at that. It features all of the elements of a great Sixties spy movie: a dapper hero (John Phillip Law) with a beautiful, voluptuous girlfirend (Marisa Mell), cool gadgets, fast cars (a fleet of E-Type Jaguars!), daring escapes, a teriffic, swinging score (courtesy of Ennio Morricone), an infectious title song (natch), and Thunderball's Adolfo Celi as the bad guy. All that, and Terry-Thomas, too! A great, great Sixties spy classic from a masterful director. But Gates' spy connections don't end with Diabolik!

Tim Lucas reports on his blog that Gates revealed another spy-related project to him while he was researching his forthcoming book, Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (years in the making and sure to be a masterpiece when it finally comes out). Apparently Gates wrote a screenplay based on an idea by Bava for a giallo called Naked You Die, which was eventually made by Antonio Margheriti. Writes Lucas: "[Gates] sent me a copy of his original script, which contained scenes not included in the English version, but which I found present in the Italian cut of the film -- notably the tongue-in-cheek ending in which a spy-crazed teenage girl (played by Sally Smith) is revealed to be the daughter of 007." Dark Sky Films claims that their forthcoming DVD of the film (due in April) is complete and uncut, so hopefully that means it will include this bit!

Gates' other spy-related work included writing for the British television series The Sentimental Agent, in which Diana Rigg made her first screen appearance and writing the The Sex Thief, a vehicle for Bond runner-up David Warbeck. (He wisely used a pseudonym for that one.) He also wrote books about screenwriting.
Back Cover Art For Casino Royale

DVDActive has posted the back cover art for Sony's Casino Royale DVD, due March 13. While I'm obviously looking forward to owning this movie, I can't help but be underwhelmed by what we're seeing so far. Those bonus features look awfully meagre as written on the back of the box. And no commentary? This makes the first Bond movie since the advent of DVD to debut without any commentary track whatsoever. Hopefully Sony is just saving the good stuff for a double-dip special edition down the line. It'll have to come soon, though, because I think the rights revert back to MGM (who distributes their DVDs via Fox) in a few years.

Jan 21, 2007

DVD Review: Caprice (1967)

Review: Caprice

Caprice is an odd bird, because it’s both a Doris Day movie and a Sixties Spy movie. I don’t even think of those two genres (because Day was a genre unto herself) as being contemporary! And they really weren’t. Caprice was one of Day’s last movies, and the first to reinvent her wholesome Fifties/Early Sixties style as Carnaby Street-inspired mod. But despite its confused pedigree, Caprice succeeds overall as a light, fluffy, fun spy movie.

Despite the romance and comedy that come standard-issue with any Day picture, the spying is not played for laughs. There are genuine, Bondian stunt sequences, thrills, and a few killings-one kind of brutal. The obvious model for Caprice, rather than 007, is Charade, and the result is certainly a sub-Charade confection, but shares a similar mixture of intrigue, humor and romance.

Caprice is not the name of Doris Day’s character in the film, as I always assumed it was. Rather, Caprice is a cosmetic product of some sort. I think. Or, as the announcer says in the ads, Caprice is "a kicky little word that means something truly modern in motion picutres!" Okay... Or as Doris sings in the theme song, Caprice is a "whim." I guess it doesn’t really matter what Caprice is; it sounds like both a spy title and a Day title, so it serves its function. Day plays Patricia Foster, an industrial spy for rival cosmetics companies. (Yes, "companies;" she’s sort of a double agent.) That’s an interesting angle in itself, because Sixties spy films rarely focused on industrial espionage. Of course, in the end, the villain’s plot turns out to be a little more sinister than stealing the Macguffin of a water-proof hairspray.

The Cary Grant to Doris’s Audrey Hepburn is Richard Harris, as a rival agent of dubious allegiance. Despite the bad rap he tends to get for this film, Harris is quite good, in what was probably his only spy movie and his only comedy at the time. Doris herself is also good, but not the most appealing heroine. I know, I know, she was "America’s Sweetheart" and everyone loved her, but I’ve never totally bought into her mystique. Then again, I haven’t seen very many Doris Day movies. She was 43 when Caprice was made and certainly still looked great, but her character seems intended to be much younger, and the mod wardrobe reinforces this notion. That, combined with a really bad platinum wig (also mod) and orange skin (presumably the result of a bad fake tan), keeps her from being at her most appealing as a leading lady. But you can’t deny her gift for comedy.

Director Frank Tashlin came from a background in cartoons (Looney Tunes and Disney), as the commentators point out frequently, and that’s constantly in evidence. Many of the gags are timed with cartoon-like precision, and even sound effects. This style suits Doris’s talents well. In one of the featurettes, the costume designer reveals that his designs were also supposed to be cartoon-like. That makes sense, and the art direction seems to be following a similar mandate. Some of the sets are almost Modesty Blaise-like in their mod, pop art design, and colors all pop.

Many other spy tropes of the time are also intact. There are young, beautiful women in various states of undress (including a scene with lingerie models and go-go dancers posing for photo-shoots), exotic locations (France, Switzerland... California), double-crosses and triple-crosses, and exciting action sequences.

One of the best sequences, which combines comedy and suspense, finds Doris infiltrating a secretary’s giant house with a balcony in the Hollywood Hills. (The commentators say it’s Santa Monica, but it sure looks like the Hills to me. And how, exactly, did secretaries manage to afford houses in the Hills with pools and porches back then? As in this and Don’t Make Waves, among other things. Maybe that was only in the movies...) Anyway, the secretary, Su (Irene Su), sunbathes with her hair hanging over the edge of the balcony, which juts out over the cliffside. The plot calls for Doris to steal a lock of her hair (don’t ask), so she needs to climb around (rather unconvincingly) underneath the deck to get it, while a giant Great Dane tries to stop her. Other good sequences include a madcap escape from police through the apartments of crazy tenants in a high-rise, Doris thwarting Harris’ attempts to bug her conversation in Century City, and what is possibly Doris Day’s only ever fight with a shark. (Though it turns out to be more of a dolphin.)

The best sequence, however, and the one you’ll remember from this movie, is an elaborate Swiss ski chase. Day (or rather her double), in a fashionable yellow ski parka, is pursued down a mountain by a masked assassin in black with a high-powered rifle. As she nears the edge of a cliff (presaging The Spy Who Loved Me), Harris lowers himself from a low-flying helicopter in an attempt to save her. Despite the obvious rear projection when the stars themselves are spliced in, the stunt is quite impressive. There’s some exciting on-the-go ski photography quite reminiscent of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which came two years later. (John Cork even postulates on the commentary track that it was Willy Bogner, Jr. who shot this, too, although there is no proof of that. His backwards-skiing photography technique is clearly used, though, and it’s hard to imagine who else could have pulled it off.) This is definitely the movie’s crowning achievement, and pulled off with the skill of a seasoned action director, not a comedy man with a background in cartoons.

The film wraps up with just about everyone turning out to be something different from what they were presenting themselves as, but none of these twists are very convincing. Indeed, the plot itself doesn’t make much sense at this point, but Caprice isn’t really a "plot" kind of movie in the first place, if you know what I mean. There’s even a bit of Psycho gender-bending (don’t worry about spoilers; you’ll see it coming a mile away) which is kind of silly. But overall, Caprice is the lightest of the light, and has the feel of some of the Eurospy Bond knock-offs. It’s definitely a recommended rental for spy fans, if not a necessary part of your collection.

Fox’s new Caprice DVD is a full-blown special edition, produced by John Cork and Bruce Scivally, the men responsible for the excellent documentaries on the Bond DVDs. First, there’s a commentary by Cork and Doris Day expert Pierre Patrick. It’s got some interesting nuggets, but has a tendency to drift off topic. (Some unrelated facts you’ll pick up include the history of the Eiffel Tower and a lengthy discussion of the dangers of sodium pentathol.) Patrick even makes an inane comment at one point, saying Caprice is similar to movies like Austin Powers, Naked Gun and Pulp Fiction. (???????!) I was fascinated to learn the origins of LA’s Century City, though, which mercifully had something to do with what was going on onscreen. The commentary also serves to decipher the plot for the viewer, as the commentators helpfully tell us important details from the script that were left out of the final product. It’s certainly not a good sign that you need a commentary to tell you this sort of thing, but as I said, it’s not really a "plot" movie anyway. Overall, Cork and Patrick are a good pair for this movie, since one is a spy expert and one is a Day expert.

"The Caprice Look: A Conversation With Costume Designer Ray Aghayan" contains the aforementioned insight about the cartoon look for the movie. "Double-O Doris" nicely situates Caprice amongst the mid-Sixties spy craze, and tells how Doris Day came to make a full-fledged spy movie. I haven’t heard of any of the experts interviewed (who the hell is "Doktor Goldfinger"?), but their sound bites are well-chosen and this featurette is certainly the thing of the most interest to spy fans on the disc. Wait till after you watch the movie to see it, though, as it spoils the helicopter/ski climax.

"Doris and Marty," on the other hand, is of very little interest to spy fans, but certainly informative for someone new to Doris Day. It focuses on her career, and how it changed when her third husband, agent/producer Martin Melcher, took control of it. Poor Doris! Apparently he spent all her money ($20 million!), didn’t pay her taxes, and even sold her art collection and replaced it with imitations! And he signed her to a TV show without her knowledge before he died! This is another example of the well-produced, informative sort of documentary we’ve come to expect from Cork’s Cloverland Productions.

The radio interviews (with Day and Harris) are also well-produced. Not the standard audio over a blank screen (ala WB) or even audio over a still gallery we’ve come to expect of radio interviews on DVD, this is a well edited segment with the audio playing over stills and video (appropriately selected scenes from the film) turning the radio interviews into two more featurettes, with comments from the stars. Finally, there are several trailers, in English and Spanish, and a still gallery, which includes some nice posters in the Sixties spy tradition.

Caprice is a very impressive special edition. I’m glad Fox continues to treat its back catalog with such respect, and give us little gems like this with loads of great features.

Jan 19, 2007

Classic Bond On The Big Screen In LA

Those Bond screenings at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica that I mentioned back in December are finally scheduled, for Feb. 1-3. And it sounds like a great weekend! Their website promises "new, restored prints" of five early Bond movies: On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Dr. No and From Russia With Love. In my opinion, that's a really great line-up! Mainly for two reasons: 1. It does include OHMSS, my favorite Bond, which is rarely screened in theaters, yet plays best there, and 2. It doesn't include Goldfinger, which is obviously a fantastic movie, but plays every time any revival theater does a Bond night! I try to go every time Bond plays in LA, but I'm getting pretty sick of seeing Goldfinger. If, however, you haven't managed to catch one of its many, frequent screenings, fret not. It's playing at the New Beverly Cinema along with From Russia With Love Feb. 12-13. (The New Beverly is also showing the 1967 Casino Royale Feb. 25-27, appropriately paired with What's New, Pussycat?)

At the Aero, things kick off on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 with OHMSS. Friday is a double feature of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, also starting at 7:30. Saturday at 4pm, there's a free, three-hour Bond trivia contest hosted by Steven Jay Rubin, author of The James Bond Films and The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia. That's followed, at 7:30, by a double feature of Dr. No and From Russia With Love.

If you're in the area and any sort of Bond fan, I really, really recommend catching the OHMSS screening. I saw this a few years ago at the Egyptian in Hollywood, and it was an amazing experience. It's a great movie, but it was even better projected on film (a dye-transfer technicolor print) on the big screen. A great experience. Hopefully, the Aero will have just as great a print.
Brosnan's Seraphim Falls Opening Next Week

This came as a surprise to me, since I haven't seen a single ad for it. It seems like Sony has decided to dump Pierce Brosnan's new movie, Seraphim Falls (the Western he grew that weird beard for) in the box office doldrums of late January. The post-Civil War manhunt movie, co-starring Liam Neeson and Angelica Huston, opens in select cities and with little fanfare on January 26.

Jan 18, 2007

Double Or Die Now Arriving In America...

...if you pre-ordered it from Amazon.co.uk, at least. As you probably know already if you surf the James Bond sites, Charlie Higson’s third Young Bond novel, Double Or Die, came out January 4 in England, where it debuted at #1 on the children's bestseller charts. The publishers tried to stir up further public interest by making a secret of the final title, which was voted on by readers. (The other options were the Ludlumish The Deadlock Cypher and the G.I. Joeish N.E.M.E.S.I.S.) So secret was the title revelation, in fact, that the very first batch of books were shipped in protective foil wrappers, hiding it. These foil-wrapped copies are labeled "Limited Edition," though I’m not sure quite how limited. My guess is that the entire first printing came in wrappers. And, of course, if you want your first edition to be worth anything down the line (as the first two Young Bond novels already are), then you’ll need to save the wrapper. With this in mind, I had ordered two, but I’m happy to report that that was actually unnecessary. The wrapper opens easily (if you’re careful) and proves to be resealable. So as long as you read your book gingerly and save the bag in a safe place while you do so, you needn’t waste your money on extra copies. Which is good news, because so far the book is only available in the UK (although Amazon.ca lists a January 30 Canadian release), and importing it can be kind of expensive.

The first two Young Bond novels, after coming out as paperback originals in Britain, were released as hardcovers in America by Miramax Books several months later. Miramax, however, has yet to announce a US release date for Double Or Die, or even if they will, in fact, be publishing it. (Their initial deal with Ian Fleming Publications was apparently for only two books.) They have announced an April 1 street date for the BloodFever paperback. And it's promising that Amazon lists a June release for the "Young Bond 3" audio book, but that comes from a different publisher, and early listings on Amazon are often dubious. To my knowledge, the series hasn’t achieved the break-out success here that it has in the UK. Still, hopefully Miramax will continue to release this surprisingly good series, and it won’t suffer the same fate as IFP’s other Bond spin-off, The Moneypenny Diaries, of which neither book has yet seen US publication.

Jan 13, 2007

DVD Review: MI-5 (SPOOKS) Season 4

Review: MI-5 Season 4

MI-5 Week concludes with Part 1 of a review of Season 4, available this week. Again, it’s impossible to write about this season in an entirely SPOILER-free context, since it’s so dependent on what’s gone before. But the basic, overall spoiler is nothing that you couldn’t tell from the front of the box: the cast has entirely changed. Don't worry, though; I wouldn’t dream of revealing WHY that’s happened! You could actually pick up the show with this season pretty easily, because the new team is really just coming together, and the characters who were introduced in Season 3 haven’t had a chance to collect a lot of baggage yet. Of course, if you did that, you’d be depriving yourself of the three excellent seasons that preceded this one, so I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

The fourth season certainly begins with a bang, which is a good idea. It hits the ground running so fast that you don’t even have time to notice that none of the main characters who started the series are still in it. And it’s a two-parter, so by the time it’s over, you’ve been through an intense experience with the new characters, and you’ve spent enough time with them that you like them. Good strategy. The two part season premiere is a bit more action-heavy than most MI-5 stories, but again, that makes it easier to adjust to the new faces. It’s basically an action movie, complete with spunky civilian heroine (Love Actually’s Martine McCutcheon) along for the ride–and in danger when the plot requires. Officers carry guns, get in physical fights, and even veer perilously close to a car chase at one point.

I began my review of MI-5 stating how different it was from 24, but the opening of Season 4 is basically a 24 clone, albeit a well executed one. The series has definitely changed its skin along with its cast. At one point, Adam Carter even dangles a terrorist over a roof to get him to tell where a bomb is, which is a very Jack Bauer maneuver. Unfortunately, along with 24's urgent action and pacing come some of its cliches. An old flame of Harry’s, Juliet (played by Anna Chancellor–"Duckface" from Four Weddings And a Funeral) enters the Grid (as they refer to the Ops room), generating sparks, and the Service is beset by a "two-episode mole," something Bauer’s CTU seems absolutely rife with. Worst of all (and decidedly unlike 24), we’re treated to the least convincing American accent since Mary Kane in the series pilot courtesy of guest star Corey Johnson. (He looks a little bit like Tony Soprano, so I guess they thought he’d make a plausible Yank.) On top of that, the actor who plays the mole chews up scenery, grinds his teeth, and if he had a mustache I swear he’d twirl it. A surprising lapse for a series that normally features such stellar actors in guest roles. (And, sure enough, there is a stellar guest performance here–Nigel Terry as a misanthropic professor with possible ties to the terrorists.) Still, the episode moves along so rapidly that these grievances only occurred to me afterwards, and the MI-5 action movie serves its purpose of acclimatizing the audience to its new starring cast.

The season that follows is not as solid as Season 3; it’s got peaks and troughs like Season 2. The problems that beset it are really problems that television shows usually face during their first seasons: finding their voice, deciding just what kind of show they want to be. Growing pains. That’s because Season 4 is so different, MI-5 is basically reinventing itself. The first two episodes were no fluke; MI-5 becomes something closer to an American action/spy series this season. There are more action scenes involving the main characters, and more moments that seem a little bit fantastical. MI-5 no longer sits back and lets Special Branch handle the gunplay; our officers get down and dirty themselves more often this season, participating in more shootouts than the whole series had up to this point. But none of this is actually a bad thing. While I personally preferred the more realistic cloak and dagger bureaucracy of the early episodes, the producers pull off the new, more action-oriented MI-5 with great aplomb. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a tense, action-packed spy show! (I still like the new MI-5 better than 24.)

The show still explores the same hard-hitting topics of security versus liberty, but those issues don’t always arise as organically in its retooled version as they did at first. More and more, Harry is used as a liberal mouthpiece, which is odd, considering his job. Juliet is brought in as a far-right conservative for him to clash with over ideological differences. Harry shows reservations about assassinating potential security threats (which Juliet is prepared to sanction in a heartbeat), and stands up for a wrongfully-imprisoned terror suspect, who she would just as soon toss back in prison to avoid embarrassment. It seems like only yesterday that Tom was making similar arguments against Harry! Increasingly these arguments (between Harry and Juliet) are told instead of shown, as they used to be. But that doesn’t mean the series can’t still show them brilliantly, from time to time. Episode 3 is probably their most successful take yet on the subject of covert agencies in democratic societies.

When a local political body is taken over by the British Way, a neo-fascist party, they establish a "whites first" policy in the estates (Britain’s version of projects) and mobs begin chasing immigrants out of their homes before the legitimacy of the law can even be addressed. William Sampson (Rupert Graves, from V For Vendetta), a popular member of parliament, takes advantage of the situation to resign and stand for re-election as a member of the British Way party, and attempts to sway other MPs in the same direction. MI-5 take it upon themselves to destroy the candidate’s credibility, ruin his campaign and turn the party against itself. It’s against everything democracies stand for, but for the right cause. The characters themselves are fully aware of this, and openly question what they’re doing. I have no illusions that this very thing hasn’t been done in real life, by MI-5 and the FBI, and in all likelihood for much less noble causes in some cases. The officers pull off a perfect, realistic intelligence operation, and it’s both fun to watch and thought-provoking at the same time. In other words, it’s MI-5 at its best.

The less credible, more action-heavy episodes are also lots of fun to watch. Whereas in the first season the rivalry between MI-5 and MI-6 played out in witty, condescending banter between Hugh Laurie and Peter Firth, now (indicative of the transformation the series has made as a whole) it plays out in bullets. Episode 5 actually manages to contrive a shootout between officers of the two services in a London apartment. And it’s a great shootout, shot moodily in a dark apartment, lit up, strobe-like, in staccato bursts of bluish gunfire. That episode also features a plucky civilian heroine, Jo, which is starting to become a trend, but the character is so well played (by Miranda Raison) and so plausibly written that it doesn’t seem out of place. (In fact, she’s recruited by Adam in the next episode to become a part of the team, and a series regular.)
What doesn’t work as well is an episode focusing on Adam and Fiona’s dangerous past. When old enemies return to haunt them, and her presumed-dead ex-husband reappears, it seems overly soap opera-ish, and out of character for the series. Technically, the episode is just as impressive as the rest, with the same great setpieces (although it’s largely told via flashbacks, like the Zoe on trial episode from Season 3), but the plot pushes credibility.

As far as the new leads go, Olga Sosnovska is likeable as Fiona, but her character still isn’t as interesting as Zoe. Raza Jaffery does a good job as Zaf, a charming young spook whose sense of humor sets him apart, and makes him a good foil for the more serious Adam. But Zaf doesn’t get any truly meaty episodes this season, and one feels that the character’s best moments are ahead of him. When Zaf and Jo discuss moving in together as flatmates, it seems like the producers are trying too hard to duplicate Zoe and Danny’s relationship. Hopefully, they’ll end up going in a more original direction with this plot line. Finally, perky Sam Buxton has disappeared entirely this season without an explanation, unless I missed something! Most characters who leave the show get rather grand exits, but not Sam. It makes sense that her character might have left MI-5 after the events of last season, but that’s never explained. I want to know what happened to Sam!

Overall, MI-5 Season 4 is a great, glossy spy show, but I can’t recommend it as enthusiastically as the previous seasons. As nobly as they try to acclimatize viewers to the new cast, I don’t yet respond to any of these characters as much as I did to Tom, Danny and Zoe. And I preferred the original, lower-key take on espionage to the 24-influenced, action-heavy style the show has adopted along with its new leads. Perhaps coming in fresh to this season that wouldn’t be an issue, but watching them in order I can’t help considering it. Still, I’m very much looking forward to future seasons, and eagerly awaiting the resolution of the season-ending cliffhanger! Regardless of how one season compares to what’s come before it, MI-5 remains at the forefront of the current crop of spy shows.

I’ll be back at a later date to review the extras on the MI-5 Volume 4 DVDs.
MI-5 Season 3 Review Part 2: The Extras

I didn’t get to the bonus features in the first part of my Season 3 review, so I’ll address them now.

The long, creative but ultimately irritating "menu story" about a spook breaking into an office is finally gone this season... only to be replaced by another long, irritating sequence (fortunately skipable)! This time it’s an agent setting up a laptop in a dark alley and then being shot at. (No, it doesn’t make much sense.) The good news is that the menus themselves are now easier to navigate than the desk menu, but they still have that bright "computer screen" font that makes them very difficult to read. Also, make sure you don’t miss the "more" option on the bottom right of the "Extras" menu on each disc, because it’s easy to overlook, and the deleted scenes are among the "more." The show is edited awfully tightly, and nearly everything that really matters finds its way in. The deleted scenes are usually just snippets, and rarely add anything. (The main exception, found on Disc 4, is a long scene at a café between Danny and Adam following Zoe’s departure.) Still, it's nice to have them included. And if you're a big fan of techies Malcolm and Colin, a lot of their comic relief moments end up here.

There are again interviews with directors, writers and actors. Something for everyone no matter what aspect of the series interests you most. They err to the side of including too much rather than too little, and while I was dismissive of that tack in my Season One review, I’ve come to admire it. Not every featurette or interview will appeal to every viewer, but chances are at least one of them covers what you want to see. I should note that the featurettes on MI-5 in general tend to be interview-heavy, mostly talking heads against a black background interspersed with occasional footage from the series. There is not a lot of behind-the-scenes material to be found, but the heads usually have something interesting to say, and it’s a relief to see bonus material that respects the audience enough to just let someone talk, and not interrupt them with cheesy animations or MTV-like graphics. (I’m looking at you, Ultimate Flint Collection!)

The best of the many featurettes are the general "Season 3" documentary, which discusses the effect of various actors leaving on the writers, and how that shaped the season, and a "Hellos and Goodbyes" segment focusing on the same thing, this time primarily from the actors’ perspectives. That one’s somewhat cathartic to the viewer if you find yourself saddened by any of the exits! Go straight to "Hellos and Goodbyes" and listen to the actor or actress talk about leaving, and it softens the blow a bit. Also interesting is a segment in which the writers discuss "Relating to the Real World;" how much they bring in from actual headlines, and how often they eschew fact for fiction. Finally, the individual episode documentaries are carried over from Season 2, and they’re still the most essential feature on the set. Easily digestible in nine minutes or so, they’re good to watch immediately following an episode to delve a little deeper into its themes and get a sense of what went into making it. They’re also good if you don’t have time to sit through the entire commentary track–most of which are interesting and informative.

MI-5 Volume 3 continues the series’ high-quality presentation, offering more bonus content than you could possibly hope for.

Jan 12, 2007

Casino Royale Nominated For 9 BAFTAs

Casino Royale has been nominated for 9 BAFTA Awards (British Academy Awards), including Best British Film, Best Actor (Daniel Craig), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Score (David Arnold). Check out the full nominations list here. I believe this is the first time an actor playing James Bond has been nominated for a BAFTA. (It's never happened for an Oscar.) The Awards ceremony will be held February 11. Unfortunately, the great Stephen Fry won't be hosting the show this year. It usually airs in the US on BBC America.
Official Casino Royale (2006) DVD Artwork

DVDActive has posted Sony's cover art for Casino Royale, due March 13 as a two-disc special edition. They've also got the artwork for a Sony trade ad, so head over there and check it out. Nope, it won't match the spines of your MGM or Fox DVDs, but that shouldn't be expected since it's from a different studio anyway! It looks pretty nice, but I wish they'd gone with the teaser poster artwork--with Craig alone at the gaming table--instead of the international hodgepodge art. (I still think it looks kind of like Bond casts a sexu female shadow, rather than a sexy female shadow looming over him!)

DVD Review: MI-5 Season 3

Review: MI-5 Season 3

MI-5 Week continues at the Double O Section, and following up on my reviews of Seasons One and Two, here’s Season Three. Remember how I mentioned big cast changes in my series overview? Well, Season Three has plenty of them, and as a result it’s impossible to discuss it without treading into at least minor SPOILER territory. I promise to tread lightly, though!

As a number of series regulars make their exits throughout the season, a new team slowly takes over. Replacing Tom at its head is Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones), seconded from MI-6. As the writers point out in some of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, Carter is a very different sort of spook than Tom. Where Tom was very cool (on the job, at least) and internalized, Adam is more human, and more external. Tom thought the job required him to be emotionless, and bottling up his feelings for the sake of his country for too long ultimately led to his downfall. Adam, on the other hand, has apparently managed a better job of balancing his personal and professional lives, largely by marrying within his profession. His wife, Fiona (Olga Sosnovska) is also an MI-6 agent, and before the season’s out she, too, will transfer to Five, making them colleagues. Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), who became the team’s intelligence officer in Season Two, takes on a larger role, as does bubbly new recruit Sam Buxton (Shauna Macdonald). Zoe and Danny each finally get to take center stage, and techies Malcolm and Colin get more screen time, often serving as comic relief. I can’t say I ever grew to like Adam as much as Tom, but Penry-Jones does a good job with the daunting challenge of taking over from a popular and established lead.

The season picks up where the last one left off, with Part 2 of an Aliasy tale of rogue agents and government conspiracies. Tom has been framed for an assassination, and must prove his innocence, Richard Kimble-style, without the aid of his team. (His fellow agents, in fact, seem a tad quick to believe their colleague has gone rogue!) Tim McInnerny’s Oliver Mace (seemingly a replacement for Hugh Laurie’s Jools Siveter character, subbing one former Blackadder star for another), backed by shadowy government figures, sees this as an opportunity to clean house, and quickly puts all of MI-5 under investigation. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Season 2 cliffhanger, feeling that it strayed too far from established MI-5 territory into that of Alias or 24, and the same rings true for the conclusion. Luckily, once last season’s cliffhangers are resolved, it’s all up hill from there for another terrific season.

Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid, guest stars in one episode as a Nobel Prize winning professor who, decades ago, sold his soul to the devil (or, more accurately, to his government, as Harry happily points out, asking, "Is that such a bad thing?"), becoming a sleeper agent for MI-5. He’s horrified to learn that Five has been helping him ever since, directing his career and even putting him on the path to his Nobel. When Harry finally needs him, he "activates" him as an agent, a day McDiarmid’s Professor Roberts hoped would never come. Harry and Tom require Roberts to pretend to have invented "red mercury," a radioactive super-weapon, and market his product to terrorist organizations to pay off gambling debts. Tom runs Roberts ruthlessly, allowing the professor’s new spy life to take a heavy toll on his family life. Until Tom starts to see the parallels to his own life, and finally question what he’s doing and what he’s become, and whether noble motivations are really worth the price, as Harry believes they are. This puts him at odds with Harry once more, continuing his arc from last season. The episode serves as a nice companion piece to the Season Two episode about the drug dealer’s girlfriend, again examining the strains MI-5 puts on their agents, and the heavy price those agents must pay. MI-5 is at its best exploring these themes, and not aping American action shows like in the season premiere.

Another rather downbeat highlight of the season finds Danny assigned to protect a rare book dealer who witnessed an assassination attempt on an prominent Muslim novelist with a fatwa on him. This is a very LeCarre-esqe episode, involving betrayals and deception within England’s own intelligence community as old enemies become new friends and old friends lose their political value. It’s interesting–and sadly true, I fear–how much spying on MI-5 is merely keeping tabs on their sister service and vice versa. Throughout the series, various politicians align themselves with Five or Six or other Intelligence branches, using them to their own ends. Harry seems to hate this, but he’s not above playing the game himself, sometimes using (even blackmailing) politicians to serve his needs.

In this episode, a certain politician wants to meet secretly with Adam and pass him information that MI-6 decidedly does not want Five to possess. Adam sets out for the meeting hours early, traveling all over London and shedding various layers of clothing as he goes to lose potential tails from Six. The teams–Five under Harry, Six under Mace–watch this cat and mouse game play out on CCTV monitors, directing their pawns in the field on how to proceed. The sequence is nearly ten minutes long, and very exciting. It showcases textbook spy tradecraft (how to lose a tail, how to tail in huge teams, alternating followers at every opportunity, using cars and pedestrians, etc.) in an elaborate, suspenseful setpiece worthy of a Brian DePalma movie. I mentioned in my Season One review how adept the directors of MI-5 are at setpieces, and this sequence is another great example. There are no guns, no squealing tires, just pedestrians following each other and chess masters scrutinizing it all on TV, yet it will have you glued to your set. Great stuff.

In another episode, MI-5 takes on the controversial issue of Israeli/Palestinian relations from a seldom seen perspective. The team must do whatever it takes to prevent a dangerous, fanatical group of pro-Israeli extremists from railroading peace talks through assassination. To make matters worse, one suspected agent in the plot is Harry’s estranged daughter. This subplot leads to some very nice personal moments for Harry, a character whose private life is seldom explored. It also leads to comedy when Harry’s daughter falls hard for Danny, who’s been assigned to keep tabs on her. Needless to say, this puts Danny in a very precarious position professionally!

In my initial series overview, I mentioned that things we take for granted in James Bond movies or on 24 are given more weight on MI-5. Sure enough, Season Three devotes two entire episodes to the moral dilemmas concerning Bond and Bauer’s respective favorite pastimes: killing and torture. Fine entertainments that they are, the Bond movies (Casino Royale excepted) seldom take time to consider the human implications faced by an officer required to kill. And by Season Six, Jack Bauer has tortured so many people in so many dire situations that the act has lost all shock value, and viewers take it for granted. In these episodes, Danny finds himself suddenly ordered to assassinate in cold blood a scientist who’s selling germ warfare to the North Koreans. Trouble is, the scientist seems like a kind of decent guy, and Danny’s never killed before. Can he do it? If so, will it change him? We get another grand cinematic setpiece leading up to the killing, this time homaging Francis Ford Coppola as the prelude to violence is intercut with Ruth’s night out at an elegant chorale concert.

Adam, in the other episode, is charged with getting crucial information out of a military-trained suspect in a very limited amount of time in order to stop a guided missile attack on London. How far will he go? And how will memories of his own brutal torture years ago inform his interrogation? Will he be too lenient, or will he go too far, exorcizing his own pent-up demons on his unwitting subject? MI-5 raises the questions, but leaves it to the viewer to formulate his or her own conclusions. It’s a smart show for our times, constantly revisiting the theme of security versus liberty.

There’s a fun, clever, straight-forward Die Hard-type of story when a hacker holds Britain for ransom, turning over-the-counter medications deadly and playing hell with traffic signals. Ruth gets to take center stage in that episode, and it’s a damn good one. Another episode sees Zoe–identified publicly as "Officer X"–on trial for manslaughter. The storytelling is a bit disorienting, because it breaks with the standard MI-5 formula so dramatically, jumping around in time. The timeframe of events is never totally clear, but the mission she flashes back to would have had to have happened months prior to the court case, I would think, unless British justice is infinitely swifter than American. The story comes together in the end but not entirely satisfactorily. Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, gets to have fun as a recently-knighted rock star who seems to be a cross between Kurt Cobain and Noel Gallagher. MI-5 are out of their element when tasked to recover the kidnapped baby of the rock star, Riff, and his wife, B. ("Riff and B" are Beck and Posh type celebrity couple, beloved by tabloids and their readers.) The premise and setting make for a nice change of pace from the usual sorts of threats on the show, but it’s hardly a light and upbeat affair.

The season concludes with another powerful mini-movie. Iraqi insurgents attack on British soil, kidnapping two MI-5 regulars and threatening to kill them unless Adam helps them stage an assassination. The premise may be similar to the first season of 24, but the execution is not. This isn’t an action-packed episode, but it’s a very, very intense one, and a good conclusion to the season that’s sure to shake even the most implacable loyal viewer.

I think I’ve touched on nearly every episode in the season, something I rarely do. But they all had something interesting enough to make them worth mentioning. The whole season explored tough themes with hard-hitting storytelling. After a rocky start, MI-5 Volume 3 avoids the missteps that made Two a little uneven, and delivers a very solid batch of episodes.

I’ll continue tomorrow, with a look at the season’s ample special features....

Jan 11, 2007

McFarlane To Make Jack Bauer Action Figures

McFarlane Toys announced today a licensing deal with 20th Century Fox to produce action figures based on 24. For those in the dark about action figures, McFarlane are famous for producing incredibly detailed figures with great likenesses and zero posability. They're usually sculpted into some unweildly pose (although it looks like Jack may have escaped that fate), like hanging upside down or something, and might have a moving wrist and neck. So if you want to play with them, you're out of luck. But they do make good display items, and this Jack Bauer looks cool. Already in production are two separate Jack figures in different diorama environments from the show. The first one is due in August, the second around Christmas 2007.

Now if only someone would put out a decent JAMES BOND action figure! (Yeah, the Sideshow figures are great, but they're dolls, not action figures...)

Jan 9, 2007

DVD Review: MI-5 ("Spooks") Series 2

Review: MI-5 Season 2

Continued from my earlier review of Season 1...

Season 2 of MI-5 (Spooks in the UK) continues Tom’s ongoing story arc, as the myriad pressures of his job play hell with his social life and begin to destroy him as a person. He’s keen enough to realize what’s happening, and by the end of the season finds himself questioning Harry’s authority more and more, disagreeing with many of the actions he’s asked to take. (This storyline, however, doesn’t reach its climax until Season 3.) With four more episodes than the first season, there’s a bit more breathing room and Zoe and particularly Danny get more opportunities to shine. It’s not quite as solid overall as Season 1 (you’re bound to get a few clunkers with a longer season), but contains some of the best individual episodes of the entire series (to date, anyway).

Once again, MI-5 doesn’t shy away from controversial issues. This isn’t fantasy spying like Alias; MI-5's officers deal with realistic, modern-day threats. In Episode 2, they face a mosque in Birmingham whose chief cleric is indoctrinating Muslim youth as suicide bombers. Tom’s only asset inside the mosque is tortured into brain damage, leaving the team with a dilemma faced too often by American and British intelligence agencies in the past six years. As Tom puts it, "We don’t have the personnel of the right culture."

"You mean color," clarifies the Algerian operative he’s trying to recruit, impressively played by Syriana’s Alexander Siddig (better known for one of those Star Trek shows, I think...). He hits the nail on the head, and Tom needs him badly enough to use him despite the strong possibility that he may be a double agent. The drama builds to the powerful and shattering climax we’ve come to expect of MI-5.

In the show’s most entertaining episode yet, Danny goes undercover at a bank that’s being used to launder money for the Russian mafia. He finds himself adept at high finance, and starts to enjoy the assignment a little too much. The writers aren’t afraid to let their characters have flaws, and Danny’s easily dazzled by dollar signs. (We’ve already seen him attempt a credit card scam in Season 1.) It’s a sign of humanity in a profession that can easily dehumanize its practitioners, and it puts Danny in contrast with the cool, aloof Tom, who is in danger of becoming an automaton. But the episode isn’t all warm character moments. There’s danger, political skullduggery (courtesy of Hotel Rwanda’s Sophie Okonedo as a Downing Street rep who clashes hard with Harry) a brutal villain (Rade Serbedzija, from The Saint and Eyes Wide Shut) who likes to crucify his enemies, and a sexy femme fatale (Julie Cox). Like all the best MI-5 episodes, it’s a mini-movie, and a thoroughly satisfying espionage yarn.

Another highlight of the season is the penultimate episode, in which Tom and Zoe go undercover to turn the girlfriend of a ruthless Columbian narco-terrorist into their agent. As with all the episodes that focus on this aspect of spying, it’s heartbreaking. They do whatever is necessary to appeal to a lonely woman in a dire situation, seducing her with much-needed friendship and ultimately putting her in grave danger. These MI-5 officers find themselves having to do repulsive things, but all in the defense of their country. To what ends are they willing to go? This episode serves as another touchstone in Tom’s ongoing soul-erosion, to borrow an appropriate term from Ian Fleming.

I did mention that this season was a bit uneven. Amidst these very strong episodes are some weaker ones, two of them having to do with kids. One deals with a vengeful teenage hacker who manages to bring MI-5 to its knees from his laptop, and another finds the team recruiting a teen with a photographic memory to break into a high security facility for them, maintaining their own deniability in a plot worthy of Alex Rider. I suppose both stories are somewhat plausible, but putting them so close to each other hurts both. Even though the main plotlines of these episodes are flawed, both contain plenty of good character development, the former with Zoe and the latter with Tom. The storyline about Zoe going undercover as a teacher is particularly effective, because she enjoys it too much. She enjoys living a "normal" life, and Tom cautions her about the dangers of disappearing too far into her cover.

Like Season 1, Season 2 ends with a cliffhanger. I found it somewhat less effective than the first one. For me, the episode drifted a little too far into Alias/24 territory, with vengeful renegade CIA agents and vast government conspiracies. That took me out of the more realistic realm of MI-5 that I’ve grown comfortable in, and thus the climax was not as edge-of-your-seat suspenseful as the final moments of the first season. Still, the episode continued effectively unraveling Tom’s character, following up on seeds planted in the prior two episodes. It’s an interesting character arc to see in this sort of show, one we don’t see too often in spy series, but that must be quite common in real life. It doesn’t seem like there can possibly be much new ground to tread in the genre, and it’s a credit to the writers of MI-5 that they manage to find it. Season 2 is just as much essential viewing as Season 1.

Again, there are numerous special features. And, again, they are wrapped up in that same annoying menu. Features are found in different sections of a desktop, and it seems arbitrary where they’re placed. I thought I’d exhausted all the features on one disc, only to find a short documentary on scoring the series tucked away in an unexpected place. I guess this can be rewarding if you really like exploring DVDs, but I prefer a well-organized menu with easily accessible features. If you’re willing to do the work, though, you’re rewarded with loads of fascinating behind-the-scenes information.

Again, there are extensive actor interviews. They still run the gamut, focusing on the actors’ entire careers rather than just MI-5, but they’re shorter and seem more to-the-point. Perhaps I was too dismissive of this feature in my first season review; it is interesting to find out what else the actors on the show have done, and you really can’t have too much bonus content.

There is an overall documentary on Season 2, but the most interesting featurettes are short documentaries on each individual episode, containing interviews with writers, directors and actors. Especially interesting is that these documentaries aren’t propaganda; they’re "warts and all." The subjects give their genuine opinions, being quite frank if they didn’t like how the episode turned out. Writers also freely admit where they have embellished the truth for the sake of their fiction, doing their research but then ignoring it in order to tell a better story. These featurettes supplement the commentary tracks nicely, and stand on their own just as well. It’s a good feature that continues on subsequent seasons.

Overall, MI-5 Volume 2 (as it's officially called) is an impressive package, and worth the rather hefty price tag. You get a supurb season of television, and hours and hours of well put together bonus features.
Bond Changing Brands To Jaguar?

MI6.co.uk has an interesting report that 007 may be dropping his Aston Martin for a Jaguar in the next movie. I hadn't really thought about it amidst all the talk about Ford trying to sell off Aston Martin, but the article points out that the Bond producers still have a deal with Ford for Bond 22. Obviously, if Ford no longer own Aston Martin, that won't be the car they choose to showcase in the movie. I heard on the radio today that Ford have no plans to sell Jaguar any time soon, so the story holds water. I'd much rather see Bond stay in an Aston, but if he has to switch, then Jaguar is a good option. Certainly better than BMW! I know all these companies are owned by foreign conglomorates, but for me Bond has to be in a car that's essentially British. And Jaguar is, and they have some nice models on the market.

Although James Bond has never driven a Jaguar in the movies, the brand has had some interesting connections with 007 over the years. In Fleming's Goldfinger, Bond opts for the Aston Martin DBIII over a Jag when choosing from MI6's motor pool. In 1986, die-cast toymakers Corgi (producers of the famous Aston Martin DB5 model with working ejector seat, among many, many other Bond cars over the years) took matters into their own hands and designed a Bond car to present to the film producers. Their car? A Jaguar XJS with a rear ejector. The entire back section separated from the car, like Largo's yacht. The producers, of course, went with an Aston Martin instead for The Living Daylights. You can see pictures of the concept car in Dave Worrall's book The James Bond Diecasts of Corgi. When Raymond Benson took over as author of the Bond novels, he put Bond behind the wheel of a Jaguar XK8 with loads of Q-Branch features. The car debuted in his second 007 adventure, The Facts of Death. So if Daniel Craig drives a Jaguar in Bond 22, it won't be the first time Bond's been in a Jag!
Real Life Moonraker Mission?

Yahoo! News reports that Britain is considering a mission to the moon--or two. The second mission, if it happens, will be named "Moonraker." The purpose will be "sending a spacecraft to the surface of the moon in search of suitable sites for potential manned bases." It's a nice homage, and appropriate for the first British moon shot, but don't the namers know the history of "Moonraker" missions? They failed dramatically both in Ian Fleming's book and in the film!

DVD Review: MI-5 ("Spooks") Series 1

Review: MI-5 ("Spooks") Series 1

With Season 4 of BBC’s MI-5 due out on DVD in America today, it seems like a good time to take a look at that series. Known in the UK by the more evocative title "Spooks," MI-5 falls more or less into the "realistic" school of spying, closer to LeCarre and Deighton than Fleming and 24. The show focuses on the lives of several agents in Britain’s eponymous Security Service, and their missions are usually ones more of old-school spying than licensed killing like 007 or wanton torturing like Jack Bauer. (And when one of those subjects comes up, which both do in the course of the series, it presents enough of an ideological quandary that each gets a whole episode devoted to it.)

MI-5's officers, especially in the show’s early seasons, focus primarily on recruiting agents, ie "turning" people already inside or close to terrorist groups to inform on their masters. They find whatever weaknesses they can and exploit them, playing on potential agents’ fears and loyalties, and often putting them at considerable risk. To do this, the officers themselves must frequently go under cover and assume different identities, which takes its toll on their mental well-being over the course of the series. From what I’ve read, this seems to be a fairly accurate reflection of what officers of MI-5 actually do in real life, which makes the show more interesting. When there’s serious violence to be inflicted, these guys generally call in SAS or Special Branch to handle the gunplay rather than themselves strapping up and going outside to play Rambo. Yet that somehow doesn’t lessen the excitement of the action at all.

MI-5 is one of those rare fictions (like Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country or the best LeCarre) that manages to make bureaucracy exciting, and a lot of the tensest moments unfold in the political maneuvering of team leader Harry Pearce (Peter Firth). Furthermore, just because they’re not carrying Walther PPKs doesn’t mean that the officers in the field aren’t in danger. Far from it. MI-5 is a show that manages to convey a real sense of danger and generate genuine suspense over its characters’ fates. It does this largely by frequently reminding the audience that none of the characters are ever safe. Early on, horrible things happen to one main character, and lives aren’t worth any more on this show just because someone happens to have star billing. (Actually-and strangely–there’s no billing at all. There is no cast at the beginning or end of the American DVD version of MI-5, which lends further credence to the notion that every character is expendable.) Just when the viewer starts to feel safe, another lead character meets a sudden and surprising demise. Needless to say, the show has its fair share of turnover among the cast. But in the time they have, each character is well-drawn and given time to develop, so you really feel it when they do leave. I should also note that not every departure is violent. Spying, and constantly living lies, is a business conducive to burnouts and betrayals. There are other ways–disgraceful and graceful alike–that a spy can be undone and a character can leave the show.

While it’s an altogether different type of show from 24 (and couldn’t begin to compete with that on a pure adrenaline level), it’s also a better one. Any regular reader will be familiar with my gripes about 24, but I can’t help bring them up again because MI-5 manages to succeed so well in just the places 24 fails. Where 24 resorts to ridiculous soap opera scenarios to create tension in the workplace (CTU), MI-5 relies on legitimate politics–of both the office and government variety–to generate much more effective suspense. It also explores similar ground to 24, with regard to how far a government should be willing to go to prevent terrorism in the current global climate. Again, in my opinion, it succeeds better. While 24 might raise an interesting issue, it's lost all impact by the time Jack tortures his tenth person in a day. MI-5 credibly explores what effect participating in torture, or assassination, or subterfuge, or any of the other questionable-yet-sometimes-necessary methods governments use to prevent catastrophes, can have on the human beings whose job it is. Then again, 24 is primarily an action show, and generally delivers on that count, and MI-5 is primarily a drama, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. Still, if you’re looking for a program that delves more cerebrally into some of the interesting issues 24 raises, MI-5 is the show for you. It’s a smart show about the act of espionage, and the toll that takes on the personal lives of the men and women who practice it.

Season One

Seasons One and Two primarily form the arc of Tom Quinn, played with Clive Owenish stoicism by Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy from the Keira Knightly Pride & Prejudice). Tom runs the operations, under Harry who appears to run the section. (The show never makes the exact structure of the organization very clear. Like many spy shows, it boils down a giant organization that employs thousands into just a few faces. Still, what I gather is that Harry is the Director of Operations, and Tom is the head spook who runs those ops.) The spy storylines in season one are different each episode (a "threat of the week," so to speak), but Tom’s personal life (and, to a lesser extent, those of his team members) forms an ongoing, serial story. He starts out trying to keep his personal life very separate from his professional life, but the more serious he gets about his girlfriend (who has a young daughter, complicating matters), the more questions she has about where he disappears to at all hours. His private and professional lives become inexorably more intertwined, with tragic consequences.

Tom’s team consists of Danny (David Oyelowo) and Zoe (Keeley Hawes, who co-starred with Rachel Stirling, daughter of the all-time greatest TV spy, Diana Rigg, in BBC’s Tipping the Velvet). Both are excellent actors who bring a lot to their characters. While they get more to do in subsequent seasons, this pair is electrifying every time they’re on screen.

I originally watched the first episode when MI-5 debuted on A&E. I remember being put off by a guest star's atrocious American accent, and slightly confused by a kind of messy plot. While the accent is still inexcusable (but thankfully around just for the one episode), the plot makes a lot more sense on DVD. Why? Because MI-5 is a 60 minute show, cut down to a mere 45 for its A&E airings. Cutting fifteen minutes out of such a tightly-plotted spy show simply isn’t possible. Already convoluted storylines become impenetrable, and crucial character moments are lost. Watching the full British version on DVD, I felt like I was watching a different show. The pilot is fast-paced and does a good job of introducing the characters. It doesn’t feel like a pilot, but it does all the jobs a pilot needs to do, setting up the world and its people.

There’s not a bad episode in the lot for Season One. This is definitely the season to start with, and chances are you’ll be hooked by the end of its six segments. Guest stars include Buffy’s Anthony Stewart Head, Tim Piggot-Smith and Hugh Laurie, among others. Laurie steals the show in his two-episode stint. He plays a condescending MI-6 officer, who wears school ties and looks snobbishly down on his colleagues at 5 and refers to them as "the children." The character is basically a dry-run for his House character, but more fun because he delivers his withering insults in his own British accent. It’s too bad his House success ultimately kept Laurie from returning to the show.

The final episode of the first season, in which Tom’s professional life collides irrevocably with his personal one, is especially first-rate television. Over its run, MI-5 creates some tour de force set-pieces, but the most nail-biting of all has to be the cliffhanger that concludes this episode. It’s a truly Hitchcockian bit of suspense, and one of the best variations on the old "ticking clock" ploy I’ve ever seen. A word of caution: have the first disc of Season Two ready to go when you watch the conclusion on Season One!

Season One (or "Volume 1" as it's officially labelled) comes with enough bonus features to satisfy any fan. There are deleted scenes (all interesting, if not crucial, and worth watching), commentaries, featurettes and a number of lengthy cast interviews. Frankly, these interviews tend to go way off the topic of MI-5 and could have used some more judicious editing, but if you're obsessed with Jenny Agutter's early career, there's plenty here to enjoy. The menus, it should be noted, are... elaborate, to put it nicely. The first time I put Disc 1 in, I thought they were really cool, but they get old fast. Luckily, you can skip the little mini-stories the disc likes to tell every time you select something by pressing the chapter skip button on your DVD remote. The "digital" font the selections are written in is also very hard to read, making navigating the features a difficult experience. Still, problematic menus are a very minor quibble in what is, overall, a very impressive DVD package.