May 31, 2007

DVD Review: The Good Shepherd

DVD Review: The Good Shepherd

I’ve already reviewed Robert DeNiro’s sprawling spy epic in detail when it came out theatrically, but Universal’s recent DVD release of The Good Shepherd gave me a chance to re-evaluate the film. My initial impression was that it was ultimately a bit of a flawed masterpiece, but ever since I’ve been appreciating it more and more in retrospect, slowly forgetting its flaws. Unfortunately, on re-watching it, they’re all still there. In its current cut, it is a flawed masterpiece. There are just too many plot-lines that suffer from apparent excessive cutting, whole, crucial beats that seem entirely missing. Luckily, the first time I saw this the writer, Eric Roth, was there to explain those holes to the inquisitive audience immediately afterward. Had he not been, I might still be in the dark as to exactly what happened with Billy Crudup’s character, or at what point Wilson’s (Matt Damon) son ended up in the CIA. (One moment he’s still in college, expressing that ambition to his father; the next he’s already got a station of his own in some far-flung corner of the world.)

Perhaps at the expense of these missing beats, though, Roth’s script dwells on a number of vignettes about the early days of the CIA, apparently borne of a desire to cram in every great (mostly true) bit of lore about that era he could fit. Many of these are only tangential to the movie’s driving storyline, but I wouldn’t want to see them cut, either, for they are the moments that attract me most in the film, and will probably prove more interesting to anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of the Agency’s history than the (wholly fictional) A-story of uncovering the identity of the mole who leaked crucial details of the Bay of Pigs plot.* For me, it’s fascinating to see these thinly-disguised variations on so many of the wildly imaginative–if thoroughly unethical–covert operations the young CIA engaged in to thwart the spread of communism in Europe and Latin America. I suspect it will prove so for any viewer with a strong interest in real-life espionage, but each time I’ve seen this movie now I’ve been with someone else without that interest–and they were each bored.

For me, the ideal version of The Good Shepherd would probably be the fabled original 4 hour cut, provided that it did, indeed, include both the historical vignettes and all the beats necessary to tell a coherent story. Roth intimated that this version would eventually see light of day on DVD, but that day is sadly not today. This disc includes just the theatrical cut of the movie, and only sixteen minutes’ worth of deleted scenes by way of bonus material. Much to my disappointment, none of these deleted scenes are the ones Roth described, the ones that clarify the movie’s sometimes baffling omissions. Instead most of the ones included here relate to a wisely-cut sub-plot involving Clover’s (Angelina Jolie) brother, John, in an underdeveloped Manchurian Candidate sort of situation. And that’s it for special features.

My hope is that these scenes were chosen because they don’t make it into the longer cut, either, and that down the line we will see a Director’s Cut DVD with all the pertinent material re-incorporated, explaining why it hasn’t been included here. There were many moments in the film’s trailer (mostly violent moments, as the trailer was trying to misrepresent it as some sort of action movie) that didn’t make the final print either, and those are also absent, as is the trailer. Hopefully all of that will appear in the future.

For now, we’re left with a rather bare-bones DVD that presents the film entirely adequately (Bob Richardson’s stunning cinematography looks almost as good as it did in the theater), but only in its flawed theatrical version, and sans bells and whistles. Rent it if you’re a spy history buff (which I assume most readers of this blog are, to some extent), but wait for the (hopefully) inevitable double-dip to buy. Ultimately, it's something you'll probably want to own (I can see myself rewatching it again and again despite its shortcomings), and I really hope Universal delivers an edition worth getting one day.

Click here to read my original review of The Good Shepherd.

*This same fascinating mystery gets another fictional solution in Samantha Weinberg’s engaging trilogy of historical James Bond novels, The Moneypenny Diaries, the first two volumes of which are currently available in England.
New Bond-related Novel

New James Bond website K1Bond007 (whose first three posts so far have all been insightful and well worth reading) has noticed a book that slipped through the cracks for all the big Bond sites. (And frankly the publisher, Touchstone, who created a pretty snazzy website to promote the book, should have seen to it that such sites got the press release way back when. Bond fans will be their bread and butter for this title!) First-time author Mitch Silver's In Secret Service is a Da Vinci Code/Historian-like take on Ian Fleming, a literary adventure driven by secrets in a hitherto unpublished (and wholly fictional, lest you get too excited!) manuscript by Ian Fleming. Sounds enticing. I'll definitely be making a trip to Borders today!

Of course, Silver isn't the first author to use Fleming in his fiction. A few years ago, Quinn Fawcett wrote a series of spy novels featuring Fleming as the protagonist, beginning with Death to Spies (an allusion any Fleming reader should get). I picked all of those up, but have yet to read any of them, so I can't really comment as to their quality. And more than a decade before him, noted mystery writer Stuart M. Kaminsky included Fleming as a character in his Murder On the Yellow Brick Road. (For some reason that one made a bigger splash with Bond collectors than the Fawcett books.)
Blog Update: Comments

I’ve changed the comment function so that it should be easier to leave comments now. You no longer need an account; all you have to do is type the word in the box. So please feel free to join in!

May 30, 2007

Advertising Agent

This story breaks new territory for the Double O Section… advertising. Not a subject I generally cover, but when a spy features so prominently in a national campaign, it’s definitely of interest.

The San Francisco Business Times runs a front-page story this week on an, ahem, advertising agent. “Powered by a sexy cartoon spy and its online-only focus, auto insurance specialist Esurance Inc. is adding customers and premium revenue like crazy… Much of that growth has been spurred by pink-haired Erin Esurance, a super spy who stars in the company’s suddenly ubiquitous advertising campaign.”

I have to admit, those ads have grabbed my attention too. Female spies in catsuits tend to do that, even if they’re cartoons created to sell car insurance! And I guess I’m not the only one. The Business Times story continues: “The curvaceous cartoon character has grabbed the attention of the 20- and 30-something urban male consumers Esurance is targeting—so much so that Internet ad blogs are full of comments from lonely hearts with crushes on Erin.” Well, I’m not going to go so far as to profess a crush, but I guess I’m now among the bloggers giving Esurance free advertising by running this story. (Note: I don’t have Esurance and don’t endorse it in any way!)

The story claims that Erin’s creator, Kristin Brewe (Esruance’s Director of Brand and Public Relations) gets hundreds of emails asking for autographed 8x10s of Erin, leading the business trade to conclude that, “Getting its target market excited about insurance is a feat in itself.” (Of course, insurance and spying have long been linked...)

“What’s interesting about what they’ve done,” the story quotes Mya Frazier, who covers auto insurance for Advertising Age Magazine, “is they’ve created an image that’s so young in an industry that’s so old… They’ve created a fresh, hip image that’s so appealing.” To comment on a commentator, I find it interesting that Ms. Frazier sees the 40-year old Emma Peel image of a sultry, empowered female agent in a sexy catsuit as “young” and “fresh.” I think that point of view in the business marketplace bodes very well for the immediate future of spies in popular culture, and speaks to the enduring image of the superspy, male or female.

According to the article, the campaign is working. “Premium growth is keeping pace with interest in Erin’s latest televised escapades. [Esurance] expects volume this year to reach more than $900 million,” a fifty percent growth over 2006. So Erin Esurance isn’t going anywhere. Twenty-six segments featuring the character have aired so far, and there are more in the pipeline. “Indications are that Esurance will spend considerably more than $100 million on an expanded national marketing campaign.”

The Business Times also hints at other avenues of media saturation for the pink-haired spy. Tie-ins are planned with the USA TV show Characters Uncovered (no idea what that is) and SciFi Network’s Stan Lee-created Who Wants To Be A Superhero? Rival insurance company GEICO’s cavemen characters recently graduated from commercials to their own network sitcom; I’d say the possibility certainly exists for Erin as well. Cartoons, comics… there are a lot of possibilities. If any of that comes to pass, I’ll cover it here.

Esurance even has a webpage devoted to Erin fan art. Apparently Erin’s fans also create their own scenarios for her and post them on YouTube, adding to Esurance’s free exposure. All this has led to the company being the third most recognized name in car insurance, “after Progressive and GEICO but ahead of major players like State Farm, Allstate and Farmers.”

It’s great to see that spies remain popular enough in the public consciousness nearly half a century after James Bond set off the initial spy craze of the 1960s!
24 Season Six On DVD In December has a report that 20th Century Fox Home Video will release the sixth season of 24 on DVD on December 4, 2007, roughly a year after Season 5. Apparently a listing has already gone up on the online FoxStore, suggesting a retail price of around $59.98. Head on over to TVShowsOnDVD for a few tidbits on the discs' content and a glimpse at the cover art.

May 29, 2007

More Bond From Bassey!

Dame Shirley Bassey (yes, she's insisting on the full title these days) is finally recording the best female vocal Bond theme she didn't sing to begin with: You Only Live Twice! The Dame's forthcoming album is mostly remixes, along with her new single, the thoroughly Bondian The Living Tree (which I quite like) and the titular "Get the Party Started" (a cover of the Pink song????), but one of those remixes is very exciting for fans of James Bond music: You Only Live Twice (Mark De Clive Lowe Mix). I have no idea who Mark De Clive Lowe is, but what is the source that's being remixed? Is it a new Bassey recording of the song? Is it a previously unreleased demo version? (The demo on the absolutely essential Best of James Bond 30th Anniversary double CD was widely speculated to be Bassey at one point, but has since been attributed to someone else.) A new recording? Or her version from Bassey Sings Bond, the notoriously hard to come by album of Bond covers she put out very briefly in the early 90s, but quickly pulled because of the allegedly atrocious synth backing? (The album was once rumored to be due a reissue with new orchestral backings, but sadly that never came to pass.) Whatever it is, it will be the first widely available Bassey cover of that song to my knowledge, and that's worth celebrating! Get the Party Started is due out June 25 in the UK, an is currently slated only as an import in the US. You can hear The Living Tree, which just entered the British charts at an impressive Number 35, on Dame Shirley's MySpace page, of course!

May 25, 2007


Casting Queen & Country

This isn’t a news item; it’s just me fantasizing. Sometimes it’s fun to think about who should star in the movie version of your favorite books or comics, should they ever be filmed. A film version of Greg Rucka’s top-notch spy series Queen & Country (comprising both comics and novels) has been long in development (John Rogers was adapting as of several years ago; I have no idea if his script is still the one of note), and here’s who I would cast, were I making it...

Paul Crocker - Hugh Laurie. Definitely Hugh Laurie. Not only is he tall and skinny like his comic book counterpart (and more angular with age), but he’s demonstrated the perfect disposition for the role on House. He’s already played a spymaster on MI-5 (Spooks in Britain), but Crocker’s both more serious and, ultimately, more compassionate than Jules Siviter.

Tom Wallace - Clive Owen. He looks the part, he’s the right age, and I’d still like to see him play a British spy. He’d probably be better suited to the gritty, realistic world of Queen & Country than to James Bond anyway.

Tara Chace - Well, Tara’s the hardest to cast, isn’t she? Cate Blanchett could certainly do a good job if they went with the slightly older Tara of the most recent novel and the upcoming second volume of comics, but Tara should probably be a bit younger. I’ve always thought that Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (of Trainspotting and The Girl In the Café, whose spy cred includes an episode of Alias), really looks the part, and she’s a good actress, if not very well known. She’d need some blonde dye, of course, but that’s certainly doable. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a big star who’s more suited to the part than her, and maybe Owen and the suddenly, finally big-in-America Laurie would be big enough names to cast a relative unknown in the lead...

And as long as I’m playing the part of producer on this movie, I’ll go ahead and say what I’d adapt, too. I’d either start off with a script based on the first two arcs of the comic book, Broken Ground and Operation: Morningstar, or else shoot the first novel, A Gentleman’s Game. If all this is Greek to you and you have no idea who Tara Chace is, that’s probably the place to start!
The Bourne Conclusion?

Matt Damon has said The Bourne Ultimatum will be his final Bourne movie. According to Variety, he told a press conference in Cannes, "We have ridden that horse as far as we can," when asked about the prospects for a fourth Bourne. He went on to say that he felt like "a bit of a prostitute for putting out two number threes in one year" (referring to Ocean's 13, whose out-of-competition screening was the occasion for the conference). So maybe he's just fed up with sequels right now, but will change his mind in a few years when presented with a decent script and suitcase full of cash? After all, Sean Connery hemmed and hawed about doing another Bond film all the way back in 1966...

Robert Ludlum only wrote the three Bourne novels, but since the filmmakers have totally eschewed his plots anyway, that shouldn't really stop them from continuing the series. Eric Van Lustbader wrote a poorly-received continuation novel a few years ago entitled The Bourne Legacy (which would make a fine movie title if they continue to generate their own plotlines), and has another one due next month called The Bourne Betrayal. Publishers Weekly says: "Lustbader is less successful than Ludlum in dramatizing Bourne's inner torment—a feature that distinguished the character from many similar thriller heroes." For those still curious, though, the book is due June 5 for a list price of $25.99.

And even if Matt Damon doesn't want to spy anymore, that's not stopping his Bourne Supremacy co-star, Karl Urban (Eomer in The Lord of the Rings). Urban has signed on to play the lead in John McTiernan's next action movie, Run. Urban will play an Interpol agent in a movie whose script, Variety says, "reportedly has 100 pages of car chases." Wow! That's, um... a lot of chasing. With Clive Owen playing an Interpol agent for Tom Tykwer in The International, Interpol seems to be the new NSA. That is to say, the new agency all movie spies work for as an alternative to the increasingly less popular CIA.

May 23, 2007

New Bond Title!

New Bond book title, that is. (Sorry to mislead Bond 22 news seekers.) The Young Bond Dossier has struck again with another fantastic scoop! They report that the title of Samantha Weinberg's next James Bond novel, the third in the Moneypenny Diaries series, will be Final Fling. According to Bond And Beyond, the hardcover will come out in the UK on July 10, 2008. This is the third Bond novel now slated for that year, the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth, assuming that Charlie Higson's final Young Bond comes out then, as well as the highly anticipated centenary Bond novel.
Bond Villain Vants To Suck Your Blood

Christopher Lee wasn't the only Bond villain to sink his teeth into the occasional virgin's neck. Octopussy's Kamal Khan, Louis Jordan, played the notorious undead Count to great acclaim in the 1977 BBC miniseries Count Dracula. Oft-bootlegged and long sought after by collectors, this version of Bram Stoker's novel (said to be the most faithfull to date) was previously only ever officially available briefly in England as a limited edition Region 2 PAL disc. According to DVD Drive-In, Warner Home Video/BBC Video will rectify that this September by releasing a Region 1 disc for $14.98. Head on over there to see the cover art.
The Satan Bug Score Coming To CD

Film Score Monthly has announced Jerry Goldsmith's score to John Sturges' 1965 spy flick The Satan Bug as one of their newest CD releases. They're billing it as an "Archival Edition," which unfortunately means that some of the tracks include sound effects. Their feeling was basically that that's better than nothing, and I'd say they're right. The project apparently came about when thirty minutes' worth of master tapes, long thought lost, turned up in a private collection. Sadly they didn't include any of the "large-scale action cues," so FSM decided to augment the tapes with music from a surviving "music and effects" track, meaning those cues include car noises, punches, grunts, etc. Glancing at the track list, it appears to actually be relatively few tracks that feature effects, but FSM still go out of their way to make it clear what they are selling to ensure that no one is disappointed. If you're a fan of this movie or this score, it sounds like a definite must-buy.

Now... how about a DVD?

May 22, 2007

CD Review: Missione Speciale Lady Chaplin

Digitmovies’ brand new CD release of Bruno Nicolai’s score to the Eurospy classic Special Mission Lady Chaplin is a godsend for fans of the Sixties spy sound. Nicolai is more in that mode here than on some of his other spy scores, like his carnivalesque contribution to Jess Franco’s Lucky the Inscrutable, where he happily eschews the John Barry-defined tropes of the genre for a more unique aural experience. I like Nicolai’s off-beat offerings, but here I’m glad that he stuck to a more familiar sound, one that sits well in the company of Barry and Schifrin, the fathers of the genre. Special Mission Lady Chaplin is one of the Eurospy movies to come closest to the touchstone they were all aiming for, 007, so it’s only appropriate that the score reflects that.

I’m going to reference Barry a lot in discussing this score, but it’s not because I think Nicolai lacks originality; it’s merely to provide a frame of reference most spy fans are intimately familiar with. Let’s face it; you can’t really talk about Sixties spy music without referencing Barry, and I’m sure Nicolai felt the same way writing his Eurospy themes!

The opening track reveals another source of inspiration: contemporary pop music. Monastero de Costa del Sol (Prologo) echoes the famous refrain of Nancy Sinatra’s Lee Hazelwood-penned hit "These Boots Are Made For Walking," infused with just the requisite amount of Barry’s James Bond Theme.* Track 6, Inseguimento, particularly showcases a Barryish bombast that I’m not used to from Nicolai (though I don’t profess to be anything of an expert on the composer, who scored close to 100 films), with the kind of horn section we fully expect from a Sixties spy soundtrack worth its salt. That continues into Track 7, then slows down into a suspenseful cue akin to Barry’s Thunderball track accompanying James Bond’s break-in to Largo’s shark-infested Palmyra estate. I’m also reminded here of another Barry piece, his theme for Richard Lester’s The Knack.

Special Mission Lady Chaplin’s respectably Bondian main title theme, with a vocal by Bobby Solo, sadly isn’t included here. (The liner notes cite contractual restrictions and missing master tapes, but the spy music guru at Spy Bop Royale has come up with a solution on his site...) Luckily, the theme is present in many instrumental incarnations throughout the album. Track 11, Aggressione e Rizoluzione, offers the fastest, loudest, most bombastic version (segueing into some nice fight music reminiscent of Barry’s Kobe dock sequence in You Only Live Twice–but predating it by three years!), while Track 20, Night Club, provides a light jazz variation. Tracks 15 and 16, Lady Chaplin In Azione and Agente Speciale Dick Malloy are both great tracks, incorporating the theme into terrific action cues (the latter sounding like a sort of Spaghetti Western spy anthem–very appropriate for Nicolai!), but the best use of the theme comes in Lady Shake, Track 9. This is the ideal synthesis of the Barry style and the more common, groovy Italian brand of spy music that dominates the Eurospy genre. Lounge with kick. (For softer, moodier lounge music, try Track 8, Sensuale, Ma Letale.) 21 and 22 (Attesa e Attacco and Spy Chase) give us a sweeping, "007"ish action cue, topped off with a cool, Mancini-flavored snare.

Despite my abundance of comparisons, the Special Mission Lady Chaplin album is a thoroughly original piece of music, consistent throughout to its own style. But being as influenced as it is by the Barry sound (as the movie is by Bond), it makes a great purchase for spy fans who have exhausted all the Bond scores but still yearn for more good music in a similar vein, more music to transform practically parked LA traffic into a speedy Aston Martin drive through winding Cote d’Azur roads... Hearing this style from a master maestro should also be a treat for Nicolai fans who might be more familiar with his more famous giallo and Western scores.

The packaging is also excellent. Housed in a standard, clear CD jewel case (as opposed to a digipak), we get a lavishly illustrated booklet that collects more artwork for this movie than I’ve before! Even Dorado Films seems to have had trouble coming up with good artwork to use for the cover of their otherwise excellent DVD release of the movie, so it’s a treat to see all this very rare marketing material in one place. The folks at Digitmovies have tracked down posters, lobby cards and even rare video cover art from various countries to create a colorful and attractive insert. The liner notes themselves take up just one page, but are quite informative.

*Or Monty Norman’s James Bond theme if you like. The two composers have each laid claim to the tune, though Norman receives the official credit. Truth to tell, I think it’s probably a collaboration, since Barry’s "orchestration" of Norman’s theme for Dr. No seems to have gone well beyond the parameters of orchestrating while still retaining some of Norman’s piece. Both musicians can point to something in their back catalog that could easily be seen as a precursor to the Bond Theme; Norman to the Hindu-flavored "Bad Sign Good Sign" and Barry to the rock number "Bee’s Knees."
New Spy DVDs Out Today

There are two new spy DVD releases of note due on Tuesday, May 22, 2007. First, there's Warner Bros.' release of Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, one of the best movies of last year that no one saw. It explores the labyrinthine world of postwar Berlin, crawling with American and Russian agents already playing Cold War games in the immediate wake of the hot one. Second, Magnolia Films puts out Hal Hartley's Fay Grim, a spy movie sequel to the director's well-regarded 1998 film Henry Fool, which wasn't a spy movie. Make sense? Who cares! If you're anything like me, the prospect of seeing Parker Posey tangled up in a web of espionage will be enough to lure you to this one.

May 21, 2007

Comic Book Review: Left On Mission #1

Despite the somewhat perplexing title, this low key spy story (enterprisingly billed by publisher Boom! Studios as "a gritty, dark espionage thriller like Casino Royale") turned out to be a pretty good read in its first issue. Eric Westfall is an agent pulled out of retirement (and a seemingly happy family life) in order to track down and, if necessary, kill, a former colleague–and former lover–who has gone rogue. Westfall’s ex, Emma, for whom he clearly still harbors feelings, is holed up in Cuba with a laptop full of field agents’ names that she apparently plans to sell to the highest bidder. Our hero is unhappy to discover that his agency has sent another operative, a borderline psychopath named Painter, to babysit him on his mission. But when the two agents pay a visit to Emma’s alleged Havana hideout, they get more than they bargained for.

A lot happens in the first issue, but it doesn’t turn out confusing like so many ambitious comic book debuts these days. Writer Chip Mosher is an economical storyteller, letting just a few effective flashback panels tell us everything we need to know about Westfall’s wife and home life, rather than waste unnecessary pages developing this background. Some of the dialogue’s occasionally a little clunky, but the plot unfolds at a good, brisk pace. Mosher is aided immeasurably by artist Francesco Francavilla (somewhat reminiscent of Guy Davis or Leo Duranona), who imbues his characters with visible, believable emotions, and makes those flashback panels work. Along with the equally impressive colorist, Martin Thomas (whose work reminded me of the coloring on '80s Tim Truman stuff, leading me to realize that it was Thomas who colored Truman's Grimjack!), he manages to convey a consistent mood and a great sense of place. I’ve never been to Havana, but this is exactly how I imagine it.

I bought this book on a whim, eager to sample a new spy comic, but not really expecting to come back for more. The first issue turned out to be intriguing enough to ensure that I will, though, leaving me invested in the main character and curious to see what happens next. Plus, it ends with the promise of another exotic location, and I’m excited to see how Francavilla and Thomas depict it! Like most intricate spy thrillers, Left On Mission will probably work best read as a trade paperback (if sales are good enough to merit such a collection), but if every issue is as well constructed as #1, then it should make for a great serial read as well. I'm in for the long haul.

They've posted 14 pages of this issue as an online preview here and you can watch a "trailer" for the comic here!

May 18, 2007

Smith Lives Again?

Dark Horizons reports that there may yet be hope for the Mr. & Mrs. Smith TV show that ABC failed to pick up for its fall schedule. Apparently Regency TV, who produced the pilot, "were granted an early release" on it, which means that they are free to begin shopping it to other networks "as early as next week"! Best of all, producers Simon Kinberg and Doug Liman (writer and director of the Pitt/Jolie movie) and stars Jordanna Brewster and Martin Henderson all remain attached. So keep your fingers crossed. While all the majors have already announced their fall line-ups by now, there is a chance that one of them could pick up Smith for mid-season. There's also, of course, the chance that a cable network like HBO or FX could grab it. That might make things more interesting!

May 16, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For May 17, 2007

New Casino Royale Magazine Cover
Agent 007 isn't done getting media coverage for his last outing yet. Publisher Tim Lucas reveals on his blog that the cover for the next issue of Video Watchdog will feature Daniel Craig in Casino Royale! (And a nice card motif in the background reminiscent of Danny Kleinman's spectacular title sequence.) Apparently the June issue will ship on May 29. Video Watchdog has done good pieces on Bond DVDs in the past, so I expect this one to be no exception.

More Modesty
Titan’s latest volume of Modesty Blaise comic strip reprints, The Inca Trail, hit U.S. comic shops yesterday, even though it won’t be available from Amazon until July 3. In addition to the title story, this collection includes "The Reluctant Chaperon," "The Greenwood Maid" and "Those About To Die," each introduced with the usual excellent commentary from author Peter O'Donnell. I was a little bit alarmed that they didn’t include the preview for the next volume in back this time around, but reassured that Amazon already lists Death Trap for a November release, and even has cover art already, so the series appears to be continuing!

Craig Goes To War
Variety reports that Daniel Craig has chosen his next project. When he's not playing James Bond, he's avenging atrocities against Judaism. After playing a member of a Mossad-sponsored assassination team in Steven Spielberg's Munich, he'll now play a Polish Jew who fought back against the Nazis in Defiance. The trade says: "Storyline follows four Jewish brothers living in Nazi occupied Poland who escape into the forest, where they join up with Russian resistance fighters in battling the Nazis and trying to save the lives of other Jews." The movie is directed by Edward Zwick, who has turned out excellent war movies like Glory and Legends of the Fall... and not so excellent ones like The Last Samurai and Courage Under Fire. Here's hoping this turns out to be one of the former! The article goes on to give us a few hints about when the next Bond will film. It claims Defiance "is set to begin lensing in early September, meaning Craig will shoot [it] before he begins filming the next James Bond installment.... Bond 22 is eying a winter start date. Release is set for Nov. 7, 2008."

Pierce Is 54
A belated Happy Birthday to James Bond Number 5, Pierce Brosnan, who turned 54 yesterday. He's still younger than Roger was in A View To A Kill!

New Animated Spy Movie
Speaking of Sir Roger, reports that the actor is set to voice an M-like character in a new computer animated feature about a futuristic, Bond-like spy (voiced by Ioan Gruffudd), Agent Crush. They link to the film's official website where you can view the trailer (though it didn't work for me) and see some pictures. Bond set guru Peter Lamont is credited as "design consultant," and some of the designs do look neat, like the Aston Martin of tomorrow, but how much can we really expect from a film with a villain named Boris Goodfarter? Still, it's clearly 007-inspired enough to remain on my radar...

Hurricane Gold In Paperback Down Under
The Young Bond Dossier reports that Charlie Higson's next Bond novel, Hurricane Gold, which is coming out in hardcover in the UK this fall, will get a paperback release in Australia and New Zealand. I assume this means at the same time, but no release dates are mentioned.
Book Review: The Young Bond Rough Guide to London

The Young Bond Rough Guide to London was issued as a free giveaway with copies of The Guardian purchased in the London area the first weekend of April, 2007. Bond fans around the world subsequently paid through the nose to get copies on Ebay, and their money was well spent. The Young Bond Rough Guide to London is no mere pamphlet, but a full, squarebound, 64 page book the size of other Rough Guides, like the full-length Rough Guide to James Bond. I’m not sure how big the print run was (but I’d be curious to know!), but due to the limited area in which it was available, and due to the perceived disposability of such material (many Guardian readers no doubt threw it out with the trash come Monday), it’s likely to become one of the rarer modern titles sought after by James Bond collectors, perhaps even moreso than the limited editions of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novels. It’s also the first published guide of any sort to Higson’s contributions to the Bond canon, edited by Paul Simpson, editor of The Rough Guide to James Bond and co-author of The Bond Files, one of the more comprehensive texts on 007 in all his incarnations.* And, as a final note for collectors, it is the first English language book to depict Young Bond himself on the cover, using an illustration by Kev Walker previously available on the website and on promotional items.

Beneath the attractive but incongruous cover depicting Walker’s version of young James Bond in his 1930s attire standing in front of a stylized, modern-day London cityscape, the Guide is a quick and informative read. Like all Rough Guides, it’s divided into sections. The first, "The Back Story," contains a short overview on Ian Fleming and his creation of James Bond, then outlines how the Young Bond series came to be and briefly profiles Charlie Higson, including some choice quotes from the author. There’s an interesting one-page interview with Higson in which he reiterates some thoughts he’s shared fairly frequently (like not wanting all of his villains to be deformed so as to avoid unfairly stereotyping disfigured people as evil) and shares a few thoughts I hadn’t read before.

Next come synopses of the three extant Young Bond novels (similar to the ones given of Fleming’s books in The Rough Guide to James Bond), with the most space devoted to SilverFin. There are some misprints, such as a line that implies that Bond’s schoolmate George Hellebore is "horribly deformed," rather than his benevolent uncle Algar, but there can’t have been too much time for proofreading this project, so to me such infrequent oversights are forgivable. The most essential trivia is cited, like how the opening of SilverFin echoes Fleming’s famous opening lines of Casino Royale, or how young Bond briefly encounters the strongman father of his later From Russia With Love adversary, Red Grant. There will probably be nothing new to true Young Bond experts, but I, for one, didn’t realize that SilverFin’s villain, Lord Hellebore, was named after a poisonous buttercup! Very appropriate, if you’ve read the novel.

The first section closes with two pieces on London, one giving an overview of its more famous espionage incidents, the other outlining the explosive social conditions that gripped the city in its prewar years. This part is actually quite fascinating, and, with further contributions from Higson, makes a great companion to Double Or Die, in which he paints a fairly vivid portrait of the extreme gap between rich and poor, between London’s posh Cumberland Terrace and poverty-stricken East End docklands at the time. Some of the political background given here may go over the heads of Young Bond’s youngest readers, but like the novels themselves, the Guide for the most part works as an all-ages resource, and should prove equally readable to fans young and old.

The bulk of the book is formed by the middle section, "On The Trail," which retraces James’s Double or Die journey through London for the benefit of a modern-day tourist. Like most of the Rough Guide travel books, it makes an entertaining and informative travelogue. The writers do a great job of mixing specific references to and even quotes from Higson’s book with pertinent historical facts and tips for today’s tourists. It’s even up-to-date enough to mention the gravesite of poisoned Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in Highgate Cemetery, surprisingly located just "a stone’s throw” from Karl Marx’s final resting place!

Helpful sidebars highlight specific places of interest or historical events, and all prove captivating. Reading Double or Die, I wondered if the 1917 Brunner Mond docklands explosion Higson mentions was real. I assumed it was, but I’d never heard about it. This book answers all my questions on the subject! In fact, the whole Young Bond Rough Guide to London serves as much as an especially readable set of notations to Double or Die as it does a travel guide. You could easily refer to it again and again while reading the book.

I expected to flip around, as you do with most guides of this nature (or with annotations), but I found all the entries intriguing enough that I quickly ended up reading the entire thing straight through. On top of the London locations, it goes on to outline "Day Trips" to nearby Young Bond locations including Eton, Cambridge and Bletchley Park. Interestingly, it also includes Windsor, to which James hasn’t yet traveled in Higson’s books (I have, and hold fond memories of the place), but may soon, it seems! "The visitor is more likely to be struck by the lonely, grey splendour of Windsor Castle, the world’s largest inhabited castle which will play a key role in the fifth Young Bond novel." I guess Paul Simpson knows something we don't! Nice of him to share.

The final portion of the book is entitled "Time Off" and identifies London locations that don’t directly pertain to James Bond, but that a fan of the books might be interested in. It’s mostly the regular touristy stuff, like Madame Tussaud’s, the British Museum and London Dungeon, but still with a clever Bondian spin. The Guide duly notes, for example, that the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum "wouldn’t be Bond’s cup of tea – he loathes the stuff – but he might have appreciated this museum’s intriguing coffee exhibits." And special attention is given to a Q-like gun designed to shoot around corners on display at the Imperial War Museum. Clearly, this information isn’t merely rehashed from the regular Rough Guide to London; it’s been carefully selected and edited.

The Young Bond Rough Guide to London may have been intended as just a piece of publicity material, but it’s really so much more than that. It succeeds both as a travel guide (it really makes me yearn to see London again) and as a compelling companion to the Young Bond novels–particularly Double or Die. Since it’s a little bit surprising so much work and obvious dedication would go into such a slight publication, I sincerely hope this turns out to be a sampler for a full-length Young Bond Rough Guide, which provides the same sort of information for all the locations James visits in Higson’s ultimate five book cycle. That way, all Bond fans would eventually have easy access to this great material (and more!), and not just the ones willing to pay foolish fortunes to savvy speculators. Such a reference book would also be a great way to create a fun educational tie-in to the popular young adult series, which has to be appealing to Penguin. (Anything to get it in more classrooms and school libraries, I would think, and hook more readers, maybe even in America!)

*Despite its unimpressive appearance and total lack of illustrations, this mass market paperback is highly recommended to all Bond fans. Covering Bond in print, films, comics and more, it’s in-depth enough to satisfy even the most knowledgeable readers, but also easily organized enough to serve as a good primer for the uninitiated. Granted, it owes a lot to Kingsley Amis’s trail-blazing The James Bond Dossier and Raymond Benson’s definitive work on the subject, The James Bond Bedside Companion, but it covers enough new ground to still be worth getting for people who have both of those. (After all, the Bedside Companion is now twenty years old, and neither Benson nor Amis covered Bond in comics.) It may contain a few errors, but I’ve yet to see a Bond tome that doesn’t. And while some fans complain about how opinionated Simpson and co-author Andy Lane are, I find that refreshing. There are more than enough books out there that simply list the girls, the gadgets, the cars, etcetera, that to me it becomes the opinions that make any book on the subject worth reading. Consequently, books like The James Bond Files and Deborah Lipp’s Ultimate James Bond Fan Book rise to the top of a very crowded field. I also recommend The Avengers Dossier in the same series (from Virgin Books), for the same reasons and with the same qualifications, which I know is a rather unpopular stance in the Avengers fan community.
Jarvis Does Barry? has posted a link with a headline that made my jaw drop and then made me curse aloud for not living in London: "Jarvis Cocker and John Barry Concert - 21 June 2007." Following the link, it seems the headline is a tad bit misleading; the actual billing is the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by frequent Barry orchestrator Nicholas Dodd and featuring "special guests" John Barry and Jarvis Cocker on a program of Barry music as part of the Meltdown festival. Still, that's two of my favorite musicians of all time, the definitive James Bond composer and the erstwhile Pulp frontman together! Cocker (with Pulp) has previously covered the Barry tune "All Time High" from Octopussy on the David Arnold-produced Bond tribute album "Shaken and Stirred," and Pulp wrote a title song for Tomorrow Never Dies which was rejected by the producers but later turned up as a B-side. Will he just be lending his vocals to "All Time High," or doing more? I'm sure Cocker could handle most of the John Barry songbook. I could certainly see him doing "Born Free" and "From Russia With Love," and I've no doubt he'd put a nice spin on "Thunderball." Plus, some of his own songs have a Barry sound to them. My mind boggles at the possibilities! I wish I could be there. Maybe there will be a live album of the concert? I can dream...
More Whiteout This Fall

A few weeks ago, on Free Comic Book Day, Oni Press put out a free reprint of Whiteout #1 by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. At the end, Oni Editor-in-Chief James Lucas Jones explained that the freebie was to promote a new, re-mastered Whiteout trade paperback collection. "We’ve gone back to all the original artwork from the book and given it some extra loving," he wrote. "We’ve upgraded the paperstock to one that’s as white as the snow raining down on Carrie. And we’ve added a new afterword to boot!" He goes on to announce that there will also be a new definitive edition of the sequel, Whiteout: Melt and, most excitingly, an all-new miniseries this fall, Whiteout: Thaw. He doesn’t actually state that the third story will be written by Rucka and drawn by Lieber (whose unique, retro artwork is as integral to the comic as Rucka’s sharp writing), but I can’t imagine they’d do one without those two key creative forces.

While the heroine of Whiteout, Carrie Stetko, is a U.S. Marshall, and not a spy, so far both Whiteout stories have included a good deal of espionage. (Carrie joined forces with a British agent in the first one, and a Russian one in the second.) I think it’s safe to expect the same from the third, and if not, the character and the setting are more than enough to make a worthwhile read. Stetko is the lone American law enforcement officer stationed in Antarctica, and the crimes she investigates tend not only to put her in serious personal peril (wait till you see what the title actually refers to!), but to spark international intrigue amongst the various nations with bases on that icy continent.

The first Whiteout miniseries also introduced a tall, blond MI-6 officer named Lily Sharpe who is to Queen & Country’s Tara Chace at least what John Drake is to Number Six, and probably more. Queen & Country was initially announced as a spinoff from Whiteout, but Sharpe’s name was changed to Chace, presumably to create enough deniability that the character wouldn’t be tied up in the Whiteout movie rights, and could be optioned separately. As it stands, the Sharpe character appears to have been completely cut from the Whiteout movie anyway, or possibly turned into a male character. Whiteout is currently filming in Canada starring Kate Beckinsale.

May 14, 2007

And The Winners Are...

The Wild Wild West: The Complete Second Season
Kimberly Merlo-Lindbergs, USA, whose favorite spy movie is Modesty Blaise


Drive-In Double Feature: Assassination In Rome/Espionage In Tangiers
Chris Delloiacono, USA, whose favorite spy movie is On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Thanks to everyone who entered, and thanks to CBS/Paramount Home Video and Dark Sky Films for providing the prizes for this contest. Prizes will be mailed out to the winners at the addresses provided, and winners will also be notified via email.

Both winners show excellent taste in their spy viewing, as did everyone who entered. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was by far the biggest favorite, which makes sense since it is the best Bond movie ever! Right? The Living Daylights and The Spy Who Loved Me were also very popular, also understandably. Interestingly, the only Connery anyone mentioned was From Russia With Love, which a few people listed. Well, those are all great choices. It's so hard to nail down one favorite Bond film, and chances are Bond will trump most others when it comes to spy flicks anyway. An enterprising few listed a favorite Bond and a favorite non-Bond separately, which might be the best way to do it. Other entries ran the gamut from The Ipcress File to, ahem, Spy Hard. (But I think that was a joke.)

Congratulations to both winners, and to the rest of you, there will be other contests, so please try again in the future!

May 13, 2007

Last Day To Enter The Contest

Just a reminder that today is the last day to enter the Double O Section contest for DVDs of The Wild Wild West Season Two and Assassination In Rome/Espionage In Tangiers. All entries must be received by midnight tonight, May 13, Pacific Time. Good luck!

UPDATE: The contest is now over, and winners have been announced.

May 11, 2007

No Mr. & Mrs. Smith TV Show?

Aintitcool reports that ABC has not picked up the Jordana Brewster-starring Mr. & Mrs. Smith TV show from the movie's writer and director, Simon Kinberg and Doug Liman, respectively. That's too bad. I really liked the movie, and I like Jordana Brewster (although I'm not as crazy about The Ring's Martin Henderson, who was playing Mr. Smith), so I was curious to see what Kinberg and Liman had cooked up for the TV version. The Hollywood Reporter article AICN cites lists only pick-ups, not rejections, and Smith is not on the pick-up list. But that does leave the possibility that it might still in contention for a mid-season pick-up. If not, there may still be hope of seeing it one day. Unsold pilots have been turning up more and more, whether as iTunes exclusives or on DVD. I imagine Fox is eager to give the movie a triple-dip one day, and the unaired pilot would certianly make an enticing extra if they ever want fans to buy it yet again.
More Austin Powers?

There's a rumor going around the web that Mike Myers is prepared to inflict more Austin Powers upon us. Let's do an anatomy of a rumor here: DarkHorizons links to a story at that quotes from an interview Myers did with RottenTomatoes (and my cousin's girlfriend said her mother's college roommate heard from her sister's ex-fiance...) where he mentions the possibility. And now I'm doing my duty as a spy blogger and reporting it here too, thus contributing to that morass of potential misinformation. Anyway, there isn't much meat to the actual story. Basically, when asked while doing press for Shrek 3 if there would be another Austin Powers movie, Myers said “There is one that we have an idea about. The only thing I will say is that it's entirely from Dr. Evil's point of view." It's unclear just how serious he was being; FirstShowing thinks he could have been joking.

When the first movie in the series, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery came out, I loved it. It put the spotlight on a genre I (clearly) love dearly: the Sixties spy movie. He borrowed and stole from everywhere, and I loved seeing all the references to even some really obscure spy flicks. And it was genuinely funny. Then the two dreadful sequels came along, each one worse than the last, continually shifting the focus from clever spy parody to stale potty humor. And then the impressions started, and soon you couldn't turn around without some idiot saying, "Yeah, baby, shagadelic!" or some such nonsense, and that really killed the franchise for me. It's even, sadly, impacted my enjoyment of the original. So would I want to see another? Not really. But if you're gonna do it, focusing on Dr. Evil is probably the best way to go. Austin's kind of been done to death, and Dr. Evil was always the best character, so that could actually be interesting. If it happens, I think the idea could have the potential to actually be good and outshine the execrable The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember.

May 10, 2007

Random Intelligence Dispatches For May 10, 2007

Renaissance On DVD
The fantastic French animated sci-fi noir Renaissance, starring Daniel Craig (in the English language version, anyway) arrives on Region 1 DVD at long last on July 24 courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Amazon lists a steep retail price of $29.99 and The Film Asylum reports that special features will include a making-of documentary. No word on whether the original French audio track will be included. Renaissance is a really incredible action movie, similar in look to Sin City, but still fiercely original, that deserves a wider audience that it got during its brief theatrical release last fall. It’s worth seeing for one setpiece alone, an exhilarating foot chase through a futuristic two-storey mall in which the pursuer (Craig) is downstairs, following a fleeing suspect on the upper level, visible through a transparent, all-glass floor. And of course there's some shooting... Great stuff.

The Rimington Conundrum
No, that’s not the title of yet another previously unpublished Robert Ludlum manuscript; it’s the mystery surrounding Dame Stella Rimington’s next Liz Carlyle spy novel, Secret Asset. Based on Amazon listings, I previously reported that the former MI-5 chief’s book (a follow-up to her compelling first novel, 2005's At Risk) would make its American debut in paperback this month. Well, not only has that not come to pass, but Amazon has pulled the listing entirely. However, Borders lists a June 19 release date... for a hardcover, at $24.95. This makes a lot more sense as Advance Readers Copies are already circulating (rare for a paperback original), and At Risk was released in hardcover by Knopf. I suspect that the erroneous Amazon listing was really the Canadian paperback, which hit shelves at the same time as the British paperback. (The book came out in hardcover in Britain last year.) still lists the third title in the series, Illegal Action, for an August 2 UK release.

NBC Ups Chuck
TV Guide reports that NBC has picked up OC creator Josh Schwartz's show about twenty-something spies, Chuck, for next season. Chuck stars Zachary Levi, Everwood's Sara Lancaster and Firefly favorite Adam Baldwin. Too bad it doesn't have a better title! Variety describes Chuck as "a spy comedy/drama [about] a regular guy who accidentally learns government secrets." McG executive produces along with Schwartz.

Contest Reminder
The Double O Section’s first contest is still running! You have until midnight, Pacific Time, on Sunday to enter to win copies of The Wild Wild West Season Two and Assassination In Rome/Espionage In Tangiers on Region 1 DVD.

May 8, 2007

The Bourne Files

As previously reported, Universal will release a set of both previous Jason Bourne movies to promote this summer's The Bourne Ultimatum. The set will be called The Bourne Files, and now DVDActive has scored several detailed pictures of the elaborate packaging. I really like the overall design, and I'm impressed that Universal Home Video bothered to get creative with a quickie cash-in repackaging like this. But I can't help but wish they'd gone just a tiny bit further to make it really cool. If they'd only used some good stills from the movies instead of the original DVD artwork for those "photographs" on the "file," it would look like less of a rush job but could still be as dynamic as they wanted... Sigh. Oh well. This is still some pretty neat packaging. As I mentioned before, a third bonus disc will include the intriguingly aurhor-centric new extras "The Ludlum Supremacy", "The Ludlum Ultimatum" and "Who Was Robert Ludlum?" Retail will be just $22.98, making this a good buy for anyone who doesn't yet have the movies...

Movie Review: STONER (1974) Starring George Lazenby

Review: Stoner (1974)
One of the final nights of Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse festival at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles was an Angela Mao double-feature that included Stoner, starring George Lazenby. Stoner was one of a handful of kung-fu movies Lazenby made in the Seventies, a rather weird legacy for the one-time 007. It’s possible to find on import DVDs of dubious legality, but the transfer quality is generally poor. The print screened at the festival (from Tarantino’s personal collection) was as pristine as grindhouse prints ever come.

Stoner begins in true exploitation style, with a half-naked woman writhing on an altar at the feet of a sadistic cult leader as his red-robed followers look on. None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the plot to come; it merely sets the tone. What does inform the plot is how strung out she is, and how desperate she is for another "happy pill," the new designer drug only the swami can give her. The evening’s drug-fueled orgy leaves the blonde dead or near-dead (depending on which version you see) on the temple floor the next morning as a blustery, mustache-y and unmistakably Seventies Lazenby (considerably bulked up from his Bond days) storms in shouting her name, Melanie. Apparently she was his girlfriend. (Or maybe his sister.) And, apparently, he’s a Sydney narcotics cop ironically named Stoner.

Stoner is a loose-cannon, tough guy cop in the Dirty Harry mold, and his punch-first-ask questions-later style investigation/mission of revenge quickly takes him through the phony cult leader, his Chinese connection, a gang of motorcycle thugs, and finally out of Australia entirely, to Macau.

Meanwhile (and entirely coincidentally), Taiwanese detective Angela Li (Angela Mao) is assigned by her chief to the same investigation from a different angle. The supplier of the happy pills, Mr. Big (I think... no relation to Yaphet Kotto!), has been smuggling his product from Macau to Taipei (or perhaps vice-versa; I can’t quite recall) via retired ships bound for the scrap yard, which he then bids a fortune for at auction on the other end. Both Lazenby and Mao follow their respective trails to a Buddhist temple on an island in Macau. There, frustratingly, they don’t meet, but each pursue their own plan of attack.

Lazenby’s brusque approach draws the attention of the gang, who send first some street thugs to beat him up, and then a rather lacking femme fatale to seduce him and take compromising pictures. I’m not sure why they do that, other than to justify a very tame sex scene, because the bad guys proceed to do nothing at all with the pictures.

Mao has more entertaining adventures, disguising herself as a local street vendor outside the temple and incurring the ire of Mr. Big’s men, who run a protection racket on the vendors. At night she sneaks onto one of the villain’s boats, creating the opportunity for some very welcome (but sadly brief) kung fu action showcasing the actress’s considerable martial arts abilities.

After discovering that the sacred herbal concoction Mr. Big dispenses at his temple to heal the sick contains heroin (as to why, I’m really unclear. He doesn’t seem like a very philanthropic kind of guy, but the drug appears to have medicinal effects on those who drink it, who all seem too poor for the old "hook ‘em on free samples" ploy that other Mr. Big used!), Mao plots to infiltrate the temple at night via an underground cave.

Good ol’ George, meanwhile, hires a boat to take him there. For some reason (perhaps dictated by the alopecia Lazenby allegedly suffered while making the film) his plan calls for him to alter his appearance by shaving his mustache en route, an act which earned a hearty cheer from the audience. For obvious reasons, I can’t say that his ‘70s facial hair was the biggest mistake of Lazenby’s career, but it certainly wasn’t his best choice, either. Unencumbered by upper lip growth, he not only looks more like his Bond-self that spy fans are familiar with, but transforms into a different person. He relaxes a bit, and his performance becomes looser, the character more fun. His line delivery even changes for the better (could the mustache have been muffling his delivery, or somehow making every line sound like a snarl? Unlikely, I guess, since I’m not convinced it’s his voice we’re hearing on the English-dubbed print, but still perplexing!), and Stoner suddenly develops a sense of humor.

Clean-shaven, Lazenby finally encounters Mao as they both break into the temple. It is a huge problem with Stoner that the hero and heroine don’t meet until the third act, but once they do things really come alive. Lazenby and Mao work pretty well together, and she brings out the best in him. The villains capture our would-be heroes and force-feed them happy pills, giving Stoner a chance to act his name, and resulting in some funny Lazenby moments. There’s a big final fight, naturally, in Chin’s wonderfully Seventies, disco-lit secret pad, complete with a rotating floor and desk. Mao is the expert and she gets the best fighting here, but Lazenby holds his own and gets some good action too as the duo takes on dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of henchmen.

Stoner is absolutely worth tracking down for fans of Mao and especially Lazenby, considering there aren’t that many places to see him play an action hero, but kind of hard to recommend to anyone else. As you may have gleaned from my rather uncertain recap, the plot was never entirely clear, and to call it disjointed might be giving it too much credit. See it if you have an opportunity, and if you’re prepared for some mindless kung fu antics, but don’t waste time and money seeking it out. Unless, of course, you're just dying to see waitresses (serving the villain's guests) in uniforms with holes cut out for their bare breasts, and you have no other place to see such a thing. I couldn't end this review without mentioning that little detail.