Dec 31, 2008

Tradecraft: Owen Can't Stop Spying

Apparently, Clive Owen only makes spy movies now. And that's fine with me! Following his two espionage themed films due out in 2009, The Hollywood Reporter says the actor will star as "an undercover agent who gets caught in a complex plot and must elude drug dealers and international agents if he hopes to survive" in Cartagena. "The project is named for a city on Colombia's northern coast that has a colorful history featuring wars, robust economic activity and tourist development." Mark Cuban is producing, and Michael Ross (Turistas) is writing.

Dec 30, 2008


Here's another one I missed that Kees alerted me to (and the Eurospy Forum is abuzz about)... and man is it good! I've previously reported that there's a sequel on the way to what might very well be the best spy spoof of all time, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies. (If you still haven't seen the original despite all the hype I lauded it with here, then do yourself a favor and go rent it right now. Or better still, just buy it already!) What I didn't realize was that the website for that sequel is already live... and the movie comes out in France this April!

Jean Dujardin returns as the titular French agent, OSS 117, and Michel Hazanavicius is back in the director's chair. Louise Monot (who turns 27 today) is the new "OSS Girl." The title is OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus (roughly "OSS 117: Rio Doesn't Answer" or "Rio No Longer Answers," a fantastic Eurospy title that also conjures the opening moments of Dr. No!). And this time, it's set in the Sixties! (The first film took place in the late Fifties.) 1967, to be exact. As the tagline says, the world has changed... but not OSS 117! Browse through stills from the forthcoming film (in the section "OSS 117 Vous Ecrit de Rio") and you'll get a taste of what we can expect: Dujardin stakes his staid chauvinism up against a liberated, Swinging Sixties chick, Dujardin looks perplexed and out of his element amongst hippies, and Dujardin gives Daniel Craig a run for his money in the swim trunks sweepstakes... in Christmas-colored briefs! The stills alone convey loving homages not only to the original (serious) OSS 117 films, but also (obviously) the James Bond films of the era, The Avengers and The Pink Panther. The Rio location is an ideal Eurospy travel destination, recalling classics of the genre like Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die, Dick Smart 2.007 and That Man From Rio. You can even watch the trailer! (In the "Videos" section, naturally.) It's in French, I'm afraid, but it's easy to get the gist of what's happening... and it looks really good.
OSS 117: Rio ne repond plus hits French cinemas April 15. Unsurprisingly, there's no word yet on release dates in other countries. (Consider that it took the first film two years to hit American screens.) Rest assured, though, that I'll keep you updated as any such news becomes available. This is now my most anticipated film of the coming year, hands down.
Ipcress On Blu-Ray

Reader Kees Stam, keeper of the web's definitive Harry Palmer site, has alerted me to a crucial DVD release I missed before Christmas: The Ipcress File has been released on Blu-Ray in Great Britain! This is great news for videophiles. Who wouldn't want to own what's arguably one of the best looking spy movies of the Sixties (boasting truly ingenious widescreen composition) in the best looking format on the market? This is a PAL disc, but supposedly all-region. (I confess, I'm not quite sure myself how regions work on Blu-Ray.) Sadly, none of the fabulous extras from Network's DVD release (or Anchor Bay's long out-of-print Region 1 disc) are carried over, so even if you buy the Blu-Ray for the ultimate in picture quality, you'll need to hang onto your old copies for supplemental features. Right now, has the Ipcress Blu-Ray for half price!

Dec 29, 2008

Christmas Jones

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas. I'm sorry for the lack of posting over the last week--and the lack of a post on Christmas day as I've done for the past couple of years. I was travelling, and found my Internet access much more limited than I'd expected. But I had an excellent holiday, and received lots of nice spy gifts, including that Get Smart set I wanted so much! I hope you all found some nice spy items under your trees as well. I'll be back to regular posting later today. A belated Happy Holidays from the Double O Section!

Dec 21, 2008

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

But today is Sunday, not Tuesday! What's going on? Well, thanks to the Christmas holiday, studios are bumping their new product up a few days to entice last-minute holiday shoppers. Among those titles being released today is Focus Features' Burn After Reading, a terrific new spy comedy from the Coen Brothers. Actually, this is the ideal last-minute gift idea for spy fans! (And it's also available in Blu-Ray.) Read my full DVD review here, and my original review of the film here.

And speaking of Christmas shopping, while I was out doing mine today I stumbled upon an exciting new title that I must have missed when it debuted amongst the Bond-propelled spy glut at the beginning of November: The Persuaders!: 3 Film Collection. This set (which somehow slipped out from LionsGate) collects all three Persuaders! theatrical releases from the early Seventies: Mission: Monte Carlo, Sporting Chance and The London Conspiracy. Bear in mind that each of these so-called "films" is actually two episodes of the TV series edited together for the European theatrical market. Still, this disc will be of extreme interest to American Persuaders! fans because the theatrical versions have never been released in the United States on DVD before. (I believe some of them were included with various foreign DVD sets of the series.) They're notable for featuring different title sequences, though I don't know if there's any actual new footage in the films. (I doubt it.) It's also a good, cheap way for new viewers to sample this incredible Roger Moore/Tony Curtis series (really, one of my favorites ever) without shelling out for the entire sets. Beware, though, because some Amazon user reviews report defective discs. Hopefully this problem has been resolved by now. I think the cover is kind of cool, even though it's a blatant Photoshop creation featuring a cool-looking car that's not even appropriate to the Persuaders! era... but I still can't help wish they'd used some of the incredible poster art that was created for these films! I've spent a long time accumulating them from every country of release, and they're stunning images. Oh well.

Dec 19, 2008

Tradecraft: Champions And Clancy... And Some Tourism

Tradecraft: Champions And Clancy... And Some Tourism

Championing Tom Cruise

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen. Since Guillermo Del Toro's bigscreen remake of the Sixties ITC cult classic The Champions is set up at Tom Cruise's studio, United Artists, it was probably only a matter of time before the star attached himself to the project. And that's probably a good thing, as it will give the project a much better chance of actually getting made. And Cruise does look a little bit like Stuart Damon, if you squint... (Though Damon's Adventurer co-star Gene Barry would probably point out that Damon is a good deal taller than Cruise!) But I'm not sure he's right for the part. And he's already got his own spy franchise! But I'm willing to give the star the benefit of the doubt, and I'd rather see a Tom Cruise Champions than no Champions at all. The other big news in Variety's story is that Cruise's go-to writer, Valkyrie scribe Christopher McQuarrie is doing a rewrite on Del Toro's script. Here's what the trade says:
McQuarrie also is writing and producing with Guillermo del Toro the previously announced United Artists project The Champions, penning the script with an eye toward hammering it into a Cruise vehicle. The British TV series transfer concerns a team of government agents rescued from a plane crash in the Himalayas by an advanced civilization and given superhuman abilities.
MGM brass has long felt that the project was UA's strongest chance for a big-ticket franchise vehicle that could star UA co-owner Cruise.
The same article reports that McQuarrie is also polishing up the other spy movie Cruise is currently eyeing to potentially star in, The Tourist:

The Cruise-McQuarrie collaboration with the most urgency is Spyglass espionage drama The Tourist. McQuarrie is rewriting for Cruise to star with Charlize Theron in the Bharat Nalluri-directed remake of the 2005 French thriller "Anthony Zimmer." Julian Fellowes originally scripted the redo.
Cruise just can't stop spying! (Not that I blame him.)

Jack Ryan Version 4.0

Meanwhile, Paramount is at it again with their unceasing attempts to revitalize their long-dormant spy franchise based on Tom Clancy's CIA analyst character, Jack Ryan. Most recently Sam Raimi was tipped to shepherd the newest incarnation of Ryan (played in the past by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck), and before him Fernando Meirelles. Everyone from Ford to Ryan Gosling has been rumored to star. Now The Hollywood Reporter reports that the studio has hired The Wings of the Dove and Four Feathers screenwriter Hossein Amini to tackle a new Jack Ryan movie. After so many false starts at reviving this franchise, forgive me if I remain skeptical until this sucker actually starts rolling! While producer Mace Neufeld remains involved, there's no word yet on a director, but Raimi is definitely out of the picture because "his packed schedule made his involvement unworkable."

Dec 18, 2008

DVD Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

DVD Review: Burn After Reading (2008)
Rewatching the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading on DVD, I think I enjoyed it even more than I did when I saw it in the theater and reviewed the film this past fall. Like many of the Coens’ comedies, it’s one of those movies that gets better with repeated viewings. Little throwaway phrases suddenly become hilarious because of their absurdity, or because of their delivery. The brothers wrote these parts specifically for the actors who play them, and that collaboration clearly shows. Often times, their lines are ones that would be hilarious only in those specific hands. For example, a cocktail party conversation about goat cheese and acid reflux has could be very boring... but in the hands of John Malkovich and George Clooney, it becomes absolutely hilarious, purely thanks to their specific line deliveries. They’re not delivering jokes; they’re just having an average, boring cocktail party conversation. But the combination of the Coens’ dialogue and those particular actors’ deliveries somehow form the perfect comedic nexus. Every performance is perfectly nuanced, and every character ideally conceived.

Since I’ve already reviewed the movie itself, I’m going to focus my DVD review primarily on the disc. The extras on Focus Features’ new DVD of Burn After Reading are minimal–but what’s there is actually really good for these EPK sorts of featurettes! Amazingly, Joel and Ethan Coen themselves actually share some interesting tidbits on the genesis of the project, the making of the film, and their way of working with actors–without turning glib. (Usually, the pair refuse to take anything seriously. The results can be hilarious–like the entire joke commentary track on Blood Simple–or incredibly frustrating.)

On the twelve-minute featurette "Washington Insiders," the co-directors and co-writers discuss how they achieve that perfect comedy nexus with their stars. I expected this to be one of those flimsy fluff pieces where everyone just says nice things about each other, but it actually proved very interesting. The brothers reveal that they wrote this movie for the specific actors they ended up casting–in many cases, their friends who they had worked with before. That meant the shooting schedule was dictated by when those stars’ busy schedules could come together, so they ended up shooting it after No Country For Old Men even thought the movies were written at the same time. (That in itself is interesting to learn, as the stark, Oscar-winning drama and the breezy spy comedy have more in common than might appear at first glimpse. Besides the similar endings–played for totally different effect–they even feature some similar scenes. As I pointed out in my initial review, the scene with Clooney and Brad Pitt in a bedroom plays like the comedic equivalent the the suspense scene in No Country where Josh Brolin finds himself holed up in a dark hotel room. And in both films, main characters seek approval from aged father figures for decisions to retire or quit–with interestingly different results.) The brothers hadn’t worked with Pitt or Malkovich before, but had their voices very much in mind writing the script. They were anxious for Pitt to, as Joel puts it, "embrace his inner knucklehead."

Cosutme designer Mary Zophres has some interesting comments as well, many pertaining to that knucklehead. "How do you make Brad Pitt look like a dork?" she asks, highlighting one of the main challenges of her job. And for people who believe that costume designers don’t have much to do on modern-day pictures, she also provides some pointed insight on the importance of her craft, tracing the arc of Malkovich’s character via his clothes. "It’s the complete demise of a character through his wardrobe," she says, referring to his journey from prim and proper three-piece suits with bowties when he works at the CIA to drunkenly, angrily storming around in his bathrobe and underwear by the end of the movie. "He just lets himself go."

It’s not just the clothes, of course, that make the man in a Coen Brothers movie; the hair always plays a key role as well. "We frequently give actors haircuts that they have to somehow disguise during their off-camera moments for the duration of the show," Joel proudly reveals, referring to Pitt’s hideous frosted pompadour. Finally, Frances McDormand answers the question that everybody wonders about seeing this movie: what did she think when her husband, Joel Coen, first showed her the script and she saw that the part he’d written for her begins: "Close up on a woman’s ass. Bare. White. Middle-aged." You’ll have to check out the feature for that reaction, though...

It’s unclear why George Clooney warrants his own featurette rather than being packed in with the other actors in "Washington Insiders," but he gets it, in the form of the two-minute tribute "Welcome Back George." The Coens discuss their relationship with him, and reveal that there are certain actors who just inspire them to write parts for them again and again. "In George’s case, they all happen to be morons." Zophres returns to discuss her similar challenge to making Brad Pitt look dorky in doing the same thing for former "sexiest man alive" Clooney. Hint: it mostly involves hiking his pants a few inches too high.
The brothers (always interviewed in tandem) address the spy angle of the movie more in the disc’s third featurette, the five-minute "Finding the Burn." Ethan describes their film as being about "the CIA and physical fitness, and what happens when the two intersect." Joel, the older brother, adds, "That’s really what makes it a Washington story."

"Yeah," chimes Ethan. "Spy stuff and intrigue. That we really haven’t done before. You know, it’s our Tony Scott/Bourne Identity kind of movie, without the explosions." That’s an excellent description of Burn After Reading. It’s a comedy of Washington manners with a Tony Scott spy plot infused on top of it, accentuated by clever details like the cliched "beepy text" titles I discussed at length in my initial review, and a terrific score by Carter Burwell that manages to perfectly parody the familiar chords of a Scott epic, especially in the films’s opening moments, accompanying the beepy text.

Malkovich disagrees slightly, explaining that "the character I play is not a spy; he’s an analyst. So I wouldn’t really say it’s a spy movie. It’s just more about the real world colliding with some tiny part of that world." The collision, of course, is where the real humor comes from. (Well, that and Pitt’s wonderfully exaggerated idiocy!) And that’s what the Coen Brothers thrive on. It’s great to have an intelligent spy comedy from these filmmakers, and even better that it turned out to be so good. I’d rank Burn After Reading among the brothers’ top three films... and among my own favorites of 2008.

Dec 17, 2008

The Spy Fan’s Holiday Shopping Guide

Some people might call such a list a "last minute holiday shopping guide" or something, but if you’re like me, then last minute isn’t until the stores close on Christmas Eve! Personally, I’m planning to get an early start on my Christmas shopping this weekend... So for those in the same boat who have spy fans on your list, here’s a roundup of the many things available this holiday season for espionage enthusiasts...


Several snazzy complete series box sets have been released just in time for the holidays. At the top of my own list is HBO Home Video’s Get Smart - The Complete Series. True, it’s been available for a few years now–but only as an online exclusive from TimeLife, which may have made it a tad prohibitive as a gift in Christmas Past. This year, it’s available for the first time from retailers and etailers at deeply discounted prices. The twenty-five disc set includes not only every season of the classic Sixties spy comedy starring Don Adams, but also loads of bonus material like interviews, commentaries, documentaries, commercials featuring cast members and even pertinent excerpts from awards shows.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Complete Series is another, equally feature-laden former TimeLife exclusive that recently got retail release–and the price drops that go with that. This is a truly fabulous collection of all four seasons of action-packed spy adventure, from the gritty, black and white premiere season to through the technicolor high camp of Season 3 to the somewhat more grounded swan song. The only reason this one isn't at the top of my personal wish list is because I already got it for Christmas last year; I couldn't possibly wait for America's answer to James Bond to end its window of exclusivity! Speaking of Bond, the extensive documentaries cover Ian Fleming's involvement in the conception of the series, including the entirety of his original memo to ABC.

Paramount has collected all four previously available seasons of the classic spy western starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as The Wild Wild West - The Complete Series. Sweetening the deal, they’ve also included the two Wild Wild West TV reunion movies (from 1979 and 1980) on a bonus disc available exclusively in this set. The packaging’s kind of weird on the inside (collecting all the discs in their own little cardboard file folders in some flimsy cardboard "saddlebags"), but the attractive box would wrap up nicely and makes for some satisfying opening come Christmas morning.

A&E has created an interesting box set this holiday season that makes the perfect sampler for spy fans into British adventure series with their Spy Collection. This set features the first sets (of two each) of The Protectors, starring Robert Vaughn, and The Persuaders!, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis along with half of The Champions (the cult show about secret agents with superpowers that’s currently being remade for the big screen with a script by Guillermo Del Toro)–which is all that A&E has released of that show to date, unfortunately. In addition to all that, you also get a taste of the ultimate cult spy series, The Prisoner with the first two discs of the renowned Patrick McGoohan vehicle (amounting to three episodes). If the spy fan in your life doesn’t have The Persuaders! yet, then this set is worth its price for that alone–and everything else makes it a great bargain! The whole bundle is much cheaper than what the individual volumes of these series originally retailed for. It's currently available exclusively from A&E's store, but hits Amazon in February.

If you’re looking to spend a little bit less (and who isn’t this Christmas?), there are plenty of individual TV seasons available as well. Paramount’s Mission: Impossible: The 5th TV Season presents a top-notch collection of episodes, every bit equal to the earlier seasons. This one gets a bad rap, but that’s unfair. It’s classic spy TV, and an essential stocking stuffer for every spy fan. Previous seasons (including this year’s Mission Impossible: The 4th TV Season) are also available individually, as well as in bundles from Amazon. Spy seasons worth getting from earlier in the year include the first season of Get Smart on its own (and sans extras), all three seasons of I Spy (starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) at ridiculously low prices, the sole season of Honey West (America’s delectable answer to The Avengers in the shapely form of Anne Francis), and the Canadian spy drama Intelligence.

Intelligence would make an especially nice gift for the die-hard spy fanatic who has all that other stuff, because this series probably slipped under the radar of even those die-hard fans. Playing like a cross between MI-5 and The Sopranos, Intelligence follows agents of Canada’s domestic service (and the criminals they’re spying on) as they attempt to form the nation’s first foreign spy agency. It’s compelling television, and I certainly hope further seasons are forthcoming in 2009.

24: Redemption, the TV movie based on the hit Fox series not only makes a great stocking stuffer, but also the perfect segue from TV DVDs into movies...

The absolute must-have disc of the holiday season for any spy fanatic is Sony’s luxurious new three-disc Collector’s Edition of Daniel Craig’s James Bond debut, Casino Royale (2006). This is a thoroughly classy production, inside and out. The packaging is downright beautiful, with a satisfying heft to it that will keep Bond aficionados guessing as they shake their presents the night before Christmas. And what we have inside is quite simply the best James Bond DVD ever produced. The first disc boasts not one but two amazing commentary tracks that manage to remain informative and entertaining all the way through while the second ports all of the special features from the original two-disc release of the title. The third, though, is the main course. Here you’ll find a series of amazing, in-depth documentaries on every aspect of production that go off on fascinating tangents covering the entire history of James Bond 007. Producer John Cork boasted that even the most well-versed Bond fans would learn at least one thing they didn’t know from each documentary–and he’s right. There’s a trove of knowledge here that will delight the 007 fanatic in your life. This is the must-have disc of the season. And it's also available on Blu-Ray!

It’s not the only Casino Royale Collector’s Edition, though. MGM has rather confusingly called their newest release of the 1967 spoof version a "Collector’s Edition" as well–but you’re not likely to mix up the two movies. The new MGM disc also comes in a nice package, utilizing the film’s original poster art and including reproductions of the famous door posters on the inside. I’ve always contended that the behind the scenes story of making this movie was far more compelling than the movie itself, and that story is well told in a five part documentary produced by Bond luminary Steven Jay Rubin. Rubin and Cork also provide an informative commentary track.

The seemingly ubiquitous Cork also produced the special features on another one of the season’s classiest releases, MGM’s new Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection. Included are the spy titles Sabotage and Notorious (the latter long out of print as a Criterion Edition) as well as Spellbound, Lifeboat, Rebecca, The Paradine Case, The Lodger (looking better than it ever has before) and the little-seen gem Young and Innocent. Not only is this a wonderful assortment of movies, but the special features are every bit as gripping and educational as we’ve come to expect from Cork’s Cloverland Productions. Best of all, Amazon is offering this set at half price right now!

Another appealing MGM collection out in time for the holidays is The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection, which collects (almost) all the movies (even the one where Roger Moore played Clouseau!) as well as seemingly every Pink Panther and Inspector cartoon ever produced, along with a hardcover book on the series.

If you’re not after box sets, try the individual James Bond Blu-Ray discs (for the most technologically up-to-date spy fans on your list) or a pair of recent theatrical hits out on DVD just in time for Christmas: Traitor and Burn After Reading. Anchor Bay’s Traitor, starring Don Cheadle, is a slight but enjoyable post-Bourne "War On Terror" spy flick that makes excellent use of its globe-hopping exotic locations. The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, from Focus Features, is easily one of my favorite movies of the year and another must-have for fans of the genre. The brothers delightfully send up the entire CIA genre in a comedy about intelligence... and lack thereof. The DVD is a little short on features, but the ones included are surprisingly good for their brevity.

There's also a revered cornerstone of the genre that's just been given the Criterion treatment: Martin Ritt's 1965 film of John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. This amazing disc not only features a stunning new transfer that blows the old Paramount release out of the water, but also some of the best supplemental material you could hope for. The second disc contains a lengthy, brand new interview with Le Carré as well as an insightful hour-long documentary on the man. Between the two of those things, it's the best portrait we've got on film of one of the towering figures of the genre. There are also ample features focusing on the filmmakers.


The book that better be under every Bond fan’s Christmas tree this year is Roger Moore’s new memoir, My Word Is My Bond. The star of The Saint, The Persuaders! and the most James Bond films of anyone is also a great raconteur–as anyone who’s ever heard one of his DVD commentaries already knows. You can open up to any page of this book and find a great behind-the-scenes story that will have you laughing out loud thanks to Moore’s self-deprecating sense of humor. Even if Sir Roger isn’t your favorite 007, his book is sure to entertain.

‘Tis the season for actor memoirs, apparently, and other secret agent stars with autobiographies out this winter include Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Robert Wagner (It Takes A Thief) and Tony Curtis (The Persuaders!). For some reason, all of these books have remarkably similar covers (especially Moore’s and Wagner’s), so you might not want to give too many of them to the same person...

DK released two very nice gift books in conjunction with Daniel Craig’s current theatrical Bond outing: the behind-the-scenes photo book Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace, and the all-ages-oriented James Bond: The Secret World of 007 in a brand new updated edition. The latter would make a great gift for the younger Bond fans in your life; the former is essential supplemental material for fans of Craig’s 007.

Digging back to earlier in the year, Robert Sellers’ The Battle For Bond is the best book about the Bond movies to come along in quite some time. Every year a new movie hits cinemas, there’s a slew of books riding its coattails–and many of them are very good–but rarely do they offer truly new insight for the seasoned Bond fan who’s read them all, including the staples like The James Bond Bedside Companion and The James Bond Legacy. The Battle For Bond is the rare tome that actually offers all sorts of new information, mainly thanks to its steady focus. Sellers’ book tells the whole thorny story of the Thunderball lawsuit. Of course, that case ends up encompassing a good chunk of Bond’s cinematic history, from Fleming’s first attempts to get a movie off the ground with Alfred Hitchcock directing up through Sean Connery’s Bondian comeback, Never Say Never Again. Absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the Bond films, the entertainment industry or copyright law. And it's now available in a new, more affordable (if slightly censored) version.

There’s new spy fiction out from John Le Carré (A Most Wanted Man), Stella Rimington (Deadline) and Mark Gatiss (Black Butterfly, a hilarious Bond send-up with a dead-on Richard Chopping style dust jacket). There’s also that much ballyhooed Centenary James Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks, but it turned out to be pretty lousy, unfortunately. So instead of saddling the Bond fan in your life with a subpar read, how about stuffing their stocking with a far more interesting, more unique take on Ian Fleming’s world with Samantha Weinberg’s The Moneypenny Diaries? While the whole trilogy is out in England (Final Fling hit paperback this fall), we’re only at Volume 1 here in America–and that’s the perfect place to start. These Bond novels from the point of view of M’s famous secretary really transcend what admittedly sounds like a gimmicky premise, and deliver first rate spy reads. Alternatively, the other series of Bond spinoff novels, Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books, also deliver the goods much better than Mr. Faulks’ pastiche. By Royal Command closed out the initial cycle in style in England this year; America is again behind, with the third volume, Double or Die, still being the most recent.

Finally, for the avid spy reader who’s already burned through every Bond book, ever Ludlum and Le Carré–and everything else in between–get them started on Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country. This series may have eluded even the most voracious spy fiction readers merely because it happens to be primarily comprised of graphic novels. As I’ve said before, Rucka’s tales of SIS operative Tara Chace and her Director of Operations, Paul Crocker, are still the best spy story going in any medium, so they’re sure to please even readers who normally turn up their noses at books with pictures. (They’re also a good way to enlighten such people!) Oni Press have handily collected the entire series into three volumes (with a fourth due in 2009) of Definitive Editions. Each one contains several of the original graphic novels together, making them the ideal way to hook new readers. If you know someone who lives and breathes spy novels but hasn’t yet opened their mind to comics, the Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 1 is the ideal stocking stuffer.


There's plenty of new spy music available this holiday season as well. Foremost amongst it has to be Network's fantastic box sets of score music from classic Sixties spy shows. Most recent are two boxes worth of Edwin Astley music from Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) one comprising the soundtracks to the half-hour episodes, the other the hour-long ones. Also available are sets for The Prisoner, Man In a Suitcase and Department S.

If you're just looking for stocking stuffers, try Varese Sarabande's recent single-disc release of Dave Grusin music from The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Or pick up David Arnold's stellar score for Quantum of Solace, one of the movie's most successful elements. If you prefer Jack White's theme song, "Another Way To Die" (performed with Alicia Keys), you can also get that as a single with a cool instrumental-only version as a B-side.

Happy shopping–and Happy Holidays as well!
Tradecraft: When Is A Saint Not A Saint?

What if Roger Moore had turned down The Saint, but gone on to star in The Baron instead? That's essentially the scenario happening with the might-have-been Saint, James Purefoy. Through no fault of the actor's, that project imploded (although Roger Moore says it's still going ahead in a different incarnation), but now he's starring in what sounds like a Saint imitator instead from one of the producers of his intended Saint series. (The Baron, you'll recall, was a Saint imitator from one of the producers of the Roger Moore series.) The new non-Saint is called The Philanthropist (even a resonant title!) and centers around what The Hollywood Reporter calls "a renegade billionaire (Purefoy) who uses his wealth, connections and power to help people in need." This renegade billionaire travels the globe to do his helping. So... he's basically Simon Templar, but instead of acquiring his wealth by stealing it, he just has it. So a slightly less cool version of The Saint instead of the real thing. (Maybe I'm being too hopeful. I suppose that description could also lend itself to something more akin to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition... but here's hoping not!)

The would-have-been Saint producer in question is Homicide: Life On the Street's Tom Fontana, who initially developed The Philanthropist for NBC with Barry Levinson (who was also involved in The Saint), then left to work on The Saint, and has now come back to The Philanthropist. (Levinson will not return.) Variety enlightens us: "According to reports at the time [he left], Fontana wanted to make a grittier, more authentic show, while NBC execs were looking for more escapism and wish fulfillment." Battlestar Gallictica producer David Eick stepped in to develop NBC's version (which, frankly, sounds like more fun to me), but now he's out with Fontana back in. Only the pilot has been shot so far, and Fontana and his team will rework the rest of the scripts. Meanwhile, the network has reduced their original order from thirteen episodes to eight. Unlike the original Saint, The Philanthropist is actually shooting around the world, in London, South Africa and the Chzech Republic. So, points for that!

Neve Campbell recently joined the cast as the wife of Purefoy's character's friend, who has "strong chemistry" with the titular billionaire as well.

The Hollywood Reporter adds that "during the filming of the pilot, Purefoy pulled a hamstring and is being evaluated by a doctor. His injury could lead to a delay in production."

Dec 12, 2008

Movie Review: Foreign Agent (1942)

Some propaganda movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, rise above their intended function and manage to be great movies in their own right. Not so Foreign Agent. This wartime relic is only worth watching as a time capsule of America in 1942. As a time capsule, it’s mildly interesting, but somewhat unpleasant. As a spy movie, about all it has going for it is it’s mercifully short 59-minute running time. The movie’s goal is to remind Americans not to blab about troop movements or defense matters, and to be suspicious of foreigners, because spies are everywhere. In an effort to have its cake and eat it too, it also contains a brief scene where a Russian immigrant proves himself to typify American values better than a someone who claims to be a pure American ("Were your ancestors Indians?" the Russian taunts), but in fact turns out to be a Nazi sympathizer. But such socially conscious touches are negated by the rather appalling casual racism and even more appalling casual advocation of genocide! The leading lady is a nightclub singer, and in one of the songs we’re forced to endure her performing, "It’s Taps For the Japs, Buddy," she sings, "that sneaky race is gonna diminish/’cause what they’ve begun we’re prepared to finish!" Ouch! It’s hardly surprising, but it is disappointing to be reminded of the rather extreme intolerance America is capable of in the face of adversity. (To be fair, though, Pear Harbor was one hell of an adversity!) As long as you’re not the sensitive type, though, that song is also the movie’s biggest laugh for a modern viewer.

Mind you, I certainly don’t require a movie to be politically correct in order to enjoy it; I don’t think any admitted fan of the Eurospy genre could! But Foreign Agent’s lack of political correctness is nothing compared to its lack of any sort of quality. I don’t require a movie to have a high budget to enjoy it either (again, Eurospy fan here!), but I’ve seen plenty of other B movies with even less money manage to create a lot more entertainment than this cheap, passionless quickie. (The director, William Beaudine, was notorious for seemingly shooting everything in just one take, no matter how badly it turned out. Apparently it wasn't true, but you can certainly see how he earned that reputation!)

The movie opens with the murder of a Hollywood lighting technician. Apparently he was working on a new kind of spotlight filter which would make American spotlights impossible to pinpoint and target for enemy bombers. A well-organized coalition of German and Japanese spies and traitorous American Nazi sympathizers is behind the murder, but they don’t find what they’re looking for.

On the Hollywood lot where the technician worked, we meet his daughter, Mitzi (the attractive Gale Storm, whose unremarkable performance still manages to tower above anyone else’s in this film), a struggling actress who really doesn’t seem all that shaken up by her father’s death. We also meet her square-jawed love interest, Jimmy (John Shelton), who’s found a way out of his draft exemption so that he can join up. When we meet him, Jimmy’s already in uniform–but only because he’s an extra in a navy picture. "Why do they give all the American military movies to foreign directors?" he whines. The plot wallows in their weak love story for a tad too long (mainly as an excuse for Mitzi to perform a few interminable musical numbers in her night job as a lounge singer) before returning to the titular foreign agents, who are busy plotting to create as much havoc as possible when the Japanese bomb Los Angeles. (It is interesting to get an understanding of the palpable fear at the time that such a bombing was inevitable, but that’s thanks to reading between the lines and not the movie’s script.) They marvel at how America’s stupid laws to protect its own citizens will enable them to get away with it: "Ve couldn’t have written ze laws better ourselves!"

When Jimmy goes to the recruiting office, instead of posting him overseas, they explain that there are a lot of ways he can help his country right here at home. They assign him to help out crusading radio man Bob Davis, who’s been speaking out against prominent Nazi sympathizers. Jimmy goes to his office and somehow gets lured into the worst screen punch-up this side of The Terror of Tiny Town–only to be laughed at by Bob Davis. Turns out Bob Davis isn’t just a patriot; he’s also an asshole! And he staged this fight to test Jimmy’s scrappiness. And the audience’s patience, as it clearly pads the movie.

Jimmy never gets to use his fists against the enemy, though. Instead we spend way too much time with a pair of really, really awful comic relief characters–Mitzi’s obnoxious actress roommate (named "Joan Collins," interestingly enough!) and her dumb lug of a fiancé. Every time something resembling a plot starts to creep up, we cut back to these two oafs arguing like they’re in a sitcom. Or to a shameless propaganda insert, like a mopey starlet at a bar complaining that her boyfriend just shipped off for Australia, leading the bartender to point at a poster that warns against loose lips: "Somebody blabbed!" it states, with a picture of a dead man’s hand.

Jimmy and Mitzi play around with one of Bob Davis’s recording machines, speaking in terrible German accents (typical actors!), and decide they’d be good in Nazi movies. "Everybody’s making them these days!" Then they think again, and decide they don’t want money badly enough to play Nazis! Of course, their phony German accents prove authentic enough to fool the bad guys into thinking their boss is planning to double-cross them at the end, saving the day. (They’re just lucky the Nazi spymaster in the movie speaks with the same sort of phony baloney German accent they employ!)

The idea of spies operating on Hollywood studio lots is a good one (though I’m sure it was employed as a cost-saving device so they wouldn’t have to build any sets), but it doesn’t pay off here. The only other reason to watch Foreign Agent is from a historical perspective, as that time capsule I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, even the historically-minded will be bored to tears by a poorly thought-out story, bad acting and shoddy production values. And at the end of the rather lengthy hour, most spy fans will realize they could have just watched an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Avengers instead and regret their decision. I did come away having learned an important lesson, though: not every rare spy movie is worth seeking out!

Dec 11, 2008

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Si, Baroni!

The Baron Comes to America!

I’m so happy that other distributors have finally picked up the slack that A&E left dangling when they stopped distributing Sixties ITC classics in America. Last year we got Jason King from Image, and early next year (March 10, as reported by TVShowsOnDVD) Koch Media will release The Baron: The Complete Series in Region 1. Now if only someone would step up to distribute Man In A Suitcase and Department S (and if A&E would give use the long overdue second volumes of The Champions and Randall & Hopkirk, Deceased), we Americans would have a pretty thorough library of classic ITC adventure series! The Baron stars American Steve Forrest (who would go on to star in S.W.A.T. in the Seventies) as John Creasey’s titular antiques dealer-cum-spy (here reimagined as a cattle baron instead of a member of the peerage to accommodate Forrest’s accent) in this entertaining Saint imitator from one of the producers of the Roger Moore hit. The series was pretty uneven in terms of quality, but the good episodes make it well worth seeing for fans of The Saint. It even spawned a feature film in Europe, made by editing together two of the series' best episodes. The Ipcress File’s Sue Lloyd co-starred in The Baron. There’s no word yet on extras, but I’d expect this to follow the typical American pattern and be bare bones. Network’s UK version and Umbrella’s Australian release both contain the same fantastic assortments of extras usually associated with those companies. TVShowsOnDVD reports that the price is expected to be in the $55-$75 range, but Amazon has the series (rather creatively listed) available to pre-order for just $41.99.

Get Smart Cheap

For spy fans on a budget (or comedy fans who love Don Adams–but only in smallish doses), HBO Home Video continues their release of single seasons of the beloved series that same day, March 10, with Get Smart: The Complete Second Season, reports TVShowsOnDVD. Like their standalone release of the first season, this set will not include the feature-laden bonus disc that come in The Complete Series Gift Set. It should, however, contain the episode introductions from Barbara Feldon, so you do get a lot of value for your dollar at the bargain price of $24.99. (Cheaper, of course, on Amazon.)

Dec 10, 2008

Casino Royale Contest Winner

Congratulations to Ari-Pekka Sihvonen of Helsinki, Finland, winner of the new Collector's Edition of the 1967 Casino Royale spoof from MGM! Thanks to everyone else who entered, too. You'll have another chance to win some cool spy DVDs before Christmas, so keep checking back!
Daniel Craig In Defiance

One interesting thing about the six actors who have officially portrayed James Bond is that there are few other roles that these guys would ever compete for. Roger Moore couldn’t have been Indiana Jones’ father–or broken into The Rock. Sean Connery would never send himself up in a Cannonball Run. Even the great Daniel Craig couldn’t have pulled off The Matador, and likewise it’s impossible to picture Pierce Brosnan as a rugged Jewish rebel hiding out in the woods and leading a band of partisans to stand up against the Nazis in a gritty Holocaust drama like Defiance.* Why is that? Does the public perception of Bond change so much every decade that the role calls for a completely different type, or do each of these men embody a different facet of 007? I suspect it’s a little bit of both, and thus every new actor to take on the role enhances it, each leaving his own indelible mark on the public’s perception of Her Majesty’s top agent.

Craig turns in a characteristically outstanding performance in Defiance, and, thanks to Casino Royale, may be the first actor ever to be taken more seriously by critics, be more likely to get an Oscar nomination for a dramatic role like this due to his performance as James Bond. Critics and audiences alike were smitten by his reinterpretation of 007, he doesn’t face the same unfair typecasting prejudices that handicapped his predecessors when it came to Awards season.

Unfortunately, despite stellar performances all around–especially from Craig, former Mr. Clark Liev Schrieber and (perhaps most of all) Jamie Bell as the three fighting Bielski brothers–Defiance is a wildly uneven movie. And that’s disappointing, because the true story it tells is an amazing one that stays with the viewer long after the lights have come up. It contains some of the most powerful scenes put to film this year (actually bringing me to tears–a rarity in itself–twice), but unfortunately they alternate with cringe-inducing scenes riddled with cliché–or lifted wholesale from other movies (Children of Men, The Godfather). There’s nothing wrong with homage (I love Tarantino), but such moments seem inappropriate here, and distract from the story. It happens too often to count, but I remain perpetually amazed at the audacity of filmmakers to intercut weddings with machine gun battles three and a half decades after Coppola did it.

Towards the end of the movie, I let myself relax and just ride with the clichés as I would in a Transporter movie, and I did indeed become more swept up in things. But I don’t expect to view prestige pictures like this–released in the heart of Oscar season–in the same way I view Transporter movies. Similarly, I wouldn’t expect Transporter 3 to move me or raise such thorny moral issues as Defiance does. The movie’s most successful moments question how much inhumane treatment people can take before resorting to inhuman behavior themselves. Early on, Craig’s character murders three men in cold blood in front of their family out of revenge for the atrocities they’ve carried out against his own family and his people. (Between this and Quantum of Solace, Craig must have spent the bulk of 2008 weighing the merits and morality of revenge–the same theme he and Eric Bana wrestled with in Munich.) In another extremely effective moment, the frail Jewish refugees–old and young, male and female–attempt to find collective catharsis by beating to death a terrified, unarmed Nazi they’ve taken prisoner. These scenes are so gut-wrenching that it’s too bad that others simply recycle all the old favorite war movie conventions in shockingly predictable ways.

Ultimately, the good moments are worth seeing the movie for–as is Daniel Craig’s tremendous performance. But too many bad moments prevent the film from being the success the performance deserves. Now I know how teachers and guidance counselors must feel about gifted students who squander their abilities. In some ways, a film that shows such great potential but fails to persevere is more disappointing than an out and out failure.

*Timothy Dalton, on the other hand, could probably play anything, but sadly no one ever gives him the chance. That’s counterintuitive to my argument, however, so I’ll relegate poor Tim to a footnote for the moment.

Dec 9, 2008

Last Day To Win Casino Royale '67

Remember to get your entries in by midnight (Pacific Time) tonight for a chance to win the new MGM Collector's Edition of the 1967 all-star spoof version of Casino Royale on DVD! The contest ends tonight, and the winner will be announced tomorrow. Good luck!

Dec 8, 2008

The Bourne Mosaic?

The Bourne Mosaic?

So first, the good news: there's apparently yet another new Robert Ludlum adaptation in the works--of one of his very best books, The Parsifal Mosaic! Now the bad: instead of being filmed as The Parsifal Mosaic, whose main character is U.S. spy Michael Havelock, it's being adapted as the fourth Bourne film. Is that bad? I'm not sure. Maybe it's good news.

I do like that they're going back to Ludlum, since they haven't really filmed anything he wrote since the opening act of The Bourne Identity... but why not film the actual Bourne books? Ludlum's The Bourne Supremacy was a great book, and since the filmmakers used absolutely nothing of its plot in the movie of that name, they could easily put elements of it in a new Bourne movie with a made-up title. The Hong Kong setting would be a great change of scenery for Matt Damon's Jason Bourne. Then why not use the whole Carlos the Jackal storyline from Ludlum's The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum, and make that into its own movie for the fifth entry in the series? (They could easily change the name of the assassin, since Carlos was a real person.) There are enough unused ideas in those three books alone to sustain quite a lengthy cycle of films.

In an interview with Coming Soon (linked from Dark Horizons), Bourne producer Frank Marshall revealed that since he and previously announced writer George Nolfi now have access to the whole Ludlum library (thanks to Universal's recent deal with Ludlum Entertainment), they plan to use The Parsifal Mosaic as the basis for the next Bourne movie, to turn it into a Bourne story. I suppose that Ludlum heroes are usually pretty interchangeable, but Bourne is the exception, and I don't quite see Matt Damon's version of him meshing with the Havelock character, who's certainly more of a romantic.

The Parsifal Mosaic concerns an American spy who discovers that his lover is a double agent, and sees her killed for her betrayal. Much later, he glimpses her alive in Europe, and resolves to get to the bottom of the mystery. It's like the recent French thriller, Tell No One, but with more international intrigue and explosions. I can't quite see Bourne fitting in.

Marshall also reveals that they have no plans whatsoever to adapt the Eric Van Lustbader-penned Bourne sequels, like The Bourne Betrayal. "We want to stay true to the original character," says the producer, which is a bit ironic since the second two movies stray so far from their source material!

So, in short, I'm happy that the Bourne movie producers are going back to Ludlum, and I'm happy that The Parsifal Mosaic will be filmed (if, indeed, the movie does develop along those lines; it's very early in the process right now), but I wish that those things would happen separately, and they'd use Ludlum's unused Bourne material for future Bourne movies!

Meanwhile, Variety reports today that agent Ben Smith will leave ICM to become president of the production arm of Ludlum Entertainment, so it looks like Ludlum CEO Jeffrey Weiner is making good on his recently announced plans to "hire development executives as the company takes an active hand in developing projects, including some not based on books by Ludlum." Ludlum Entertainment is quickly turning into a serious production entity... which is awesome! I'm just surprised they're relinquishing one of their most primo assets to turn into another Bourne movie!

The trade says, "Along with lit agent Henry Morrison, Smith represented the Ludlum estate in ICM-brokered film deals since 2002, most recently making a $3 million MGM deal for The Matarese Circle... ICM will continue to represent Ludlum Entertainment."

Dec 5, 2008

Clive Spies Twice

Boy, Clive Owen sure is making the most of not being James Bond! He's cornered the market on non-Bond British spy roles. Looks like we've got not one but two cool Owen spy projects to keep our eyes on in 2009! Yahoo has a brand new trailer up for The International (the Tom Tykwer thriller with Bourne potential that I've been excited about for quite some time) as well as the first one I've seen for Duplicity--and that looks pretty awesome as well. Owen plays a former MI6 man gone corporate, reteaming with his Closer co-star Julia Roberts as his ex-CIA counterpart in what looks to be a glamorous, comedic industrial espionage caper from Bourne writer (and Michael Clayton writer/director) Tony Gilroy first reported on back in April.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: More Information

More information has become available on several of the exciting upcoming spy DVDs I've reported on recently. TVShowsOnDVD has some preliminary cover artwork (bland and generic--but still pretty cool because of what it is!) for Paramount's Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. The website reports that the DVD will include a trailer and restored color. And Amazon already has a listing.

Code Red DVD's official blog has some more enticing information on the company's upcoming discs of The Internecine Project and Who?, both due this summer: "Both will be from HiDef masters. We are planning on some extras for these titles as well." Can't wait!

I also have some answers to some questions I raised in my report on Acorn Media's forthcoming Region 1 release of the classic Sixties Edward Woodward series Callan. The plan is to follow A&E's model on The Avengers, and start with the first color season (which was actually the third season of the show, which ran for four). Subsequent releases will depend on sales of that one, but assuming it does well, presumably Acorn will follow it up with Season 4, then release the black and white Season 1 and Season 2, as A&E filled in the blanks by putting out the earlier, black and white Avengers episodes after releasing all of the color Diana Rigg episodes. Still no word on how the pilot, "A Magnum For Schneider," the theatrical film or the TV reunion movie will fit into the release pattern, if at all. Look for Acorn's first Callan set sometime this spring.

Dec 3, 2008

CONTEST: Win The Collector's Edition Of The 1967 Casino Royale On DVD!

Well, I know I promised this contest two weeks ago, and I'm sorry for the delay, but yesterday's Double O Section milestone seems like a good occasion for running it now anyway! Here's your chance to win the 1967 version of Casino Royale, in a brand new Collector's Edition. This all-star spoof version of Fleming's first novel may be pretty awful, but it's also awfully entertaining. You can tell it was directed by five directors, and some sequences work better than others, but boy does it look great! Lovers of Sixties pop culture (and Sixties women), especially, will find much to admire. But the story behind Charles K. Feldman's three-ring circus of a production has always fascinated me more than the movie itself, and the best part of this Collector's Edition is a new five-part documentary on exactly that, produced by The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia author Steven Jay Rubin. A surprising number of Casino Royale survivors (and that does seem the appropriate term) give interviews, and Rubin and all-around Bond expert John Cork fill in the rest on an informative audio commentary. For a chance to win, simply send an email with the subject heading "CASINO ROYALE" including your name and mailing address to the Double O Section by midnight, Pacific Time on Tuesday, December 9, 2008. Winners will be announced in one week's time, next Wednesday. Good luck!

One entry per person, please. Double entries will be disqualified. One winner will be drawn at random and announced on Wednesday, December 9, 2008. Winners’ names will be posted here and they will be notified via email. All entries will be deleted immediately after the contest’s close, and no personal information will be retained or transmitted to any third parties. The contest is open to anyone, in any country, although this DVD is NTSC Region 1, so make sure that you have a compatible player. Unfortunately, the Double O Section cannot assume responsibility for items lost or damaged in transit.