Jan 1, 2009

Year End: The Best And Worst Of 2008

Champagne time! Happy New Year to all; here's wishing you a great and spy-filled 2009. But while we're waiting for that to get underway, let's take a look back...

Best Spy Movie: OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies

Yes, it was made (and released in French-speaking territories) back in 2006, but this sharp spoof reinvention of the classic Eurospy franchise was still the best spy movie released in American theaters in 2008. I’ve sung its praises many times already, but director Michel Hazanavicius’s film deserves ample praise for pulling off a tricky mixture of smart satire and slapstick pratfalls. It’s a movie I’ve liked more and more on every viewing. Star Jean Dujardin combines deft comic timing and studious obliviousness with an uncanny resemblance to Sixties-era Sean Connery. He’s aided in that latter category by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman who ably recreates the technicolor look and feel of spy thrillers of the late Fifties and early Sixties, which OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies lovingly sends up.

Runner-Up: Burn After Reading

Another comedy was my second-favorite spy film of the year. I’ve already reviewed the movie twice, but the Coen Brothers paid as much attention to detail in their send-up of Nineties and early 2000s spy thrillers of the Tony Scott school as Hazanavicius and his team did of their Sixties forebears–and the results are subtly hilarious. "Subtle" may be the wrong word for a movie that features an elaborate sex toy apparatus and two gruesome murders played for laughs, but it was the subtler details that tickled me most, such as the ubiquitous beeping of the text that identified "CIA Headquarters" in the first shot of the movie, a satellite zoom in from space, or Carter Burwell’s dead-on parody of the standard score for this sort of thriller.

It certainly saddens me that neither Quantum of Solace nor Get Smart, the two spy movies I was most looking forward to in 2008 (and 2007, in Get Smart's case!), even came close to being my favorites. However, they were also far from the worst of the year. They were just sub-par entries in ongoing franchises that are sure to rebound from these troughs. I remain as excited as ever for Daniel Craig’s next James Bond movie–and even hopeful for Steve Carell’s Smart follow-up.

Worst Spy Movie: Eagle Eye

Even this I didn’t hate... but it was pretty bad. Eagle Eye recycled scenes from countless better thrillers, but that wasn’t its crime. It’s crime was treating its audience like idiots. Seldom have I seen a movie–even one cut from the summer blockbuster mold that this one is–talk down to its viewers so much, and hold their hands through very simple steps, then immediately remind them of those steps, not trusting their videogame-addled minds to do that. Still, it makes me realize that 2008 wasn’t quite as dire a year for movies as it seemed when even the worst spy movie of the year was still decently entertaining.

Best Spy DVD (Movie): Casino Royale Collector’s Edition
Runner-Up: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold Criterion Edition

Spy fans were treated to an embarrassment of riches in terms of DVDs in 2008. There were many great releases to choose from, but these two rise to the top. DVD producer John Cork (also responsible for some fantastic collections in 2008, like The Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection and The Charlie Chan Collection - Volumes 4 and 5) pulled out all the stops with Sony’s three-disc Collector’s Edition release of Daniel Craig’s James Bond debut. This new edition more than makes up for the previous disc’s failings, retaining all the meager special features of that one and adding a slew more. From the plethora of fact-packed documentaries on all aspects of Casino Royale (and, by extension, nearly all aspects of James Bond, going all the way back to Ian Fleming’s genesis of the character in the early Fifties) to equally impressive–if shorter–featurettes masquerading as things as mundane as "filmmaker profiles" to its very packaging, this is a completely satisfying release. Two fascinating commentaries seal the deal; the Casino Royale Collector’s Edition is quite simply the very best James Bond DVD ever produced. It belongs in every fan’s collection.

Criterion’s new disc of the spy classic based on John Le Carre’s seminal novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is equally satisfying. The stark, black and white picture quality blows the previous Paramount release out of the water... and there’s a whole disc of truly incredible bonus features. All fans of Le Carre are duty-bound to pick this one up, because between his new, lengthy interview and the documentary on him included here, this second disc forms the most informative look at the author’s career yet put to film. And it doesn’t end there. There are also ample contributions on the filmmakers and the star, Richard Burton.

Worst Spy DVD (Movie): Get Smart (2008)

The movie was no masterpiece, but it certainly wasn’t terrible either. It wasn’t Get Smart, but it was entertaining. But the DVD itself is one of the worst I’ve ever seen thanks to its "62% more laughs" gimmick. I’m not sure what mathematical calculations were used to come up with that percentage, but I would argue that they are certainly faulty. This extremely annoying device (having humongous icons pop up throughout the film which the viewer can click on to see alternate takes or deleted scenes) ruins the movie’s pacing and the comic timing of the jokes, thus rendering the movie (which had nowhere near as many laughs-per-minute to begin with as, say, OSS 117) not only unbearably interminable, but stupefyingly un-funny. I really can’t imagine how anyone could ever get through the movie watching it like this–and I’d hazard a guess that no one actually has. This ploy seems like something that would have been tried (and quickly abandoned) in the nascent days of DVD (when everyone was still "following the white rabbit" on The Matrix), not as a desperate last grasp in the format’s waning years. I like deleted scenes, and find that on comedy discs they can often be quite funny seen on their own–or even (though less frequently) edited into a longer cut of the movie. But there’s no faster way to take all the air out of a joke than to make the viewer jump through hoops to see it. Since there are no other substantial extras on this disc, I would deem it essentially a faulty DVD and not recommend that anyone ever buy it unless you’re content to just watch the movie itself and completely ignore the gimmick. (Unfortunately, the obnoxious "corner flip" graphic on the cover makes that hard to do.) If Warner Bros. ever revisits this title and delivers a legitimate Special Edition DVD without the gimmick and with the ability to watch the deleted scenes independently, then I would gladly buy the movie.

Best Spy DVD (TV): Burn Notice: Season One

Not only is the show itself incredibly fun spy entertainment of the sort we simply don’t get anymore, but Fox also put together an unexpectedly stellar DVD package. In addition to the episodes themselves, we’re treated to deleted scenes, a better-than-average gag reels, some disposable-but-worth-watching featurettes, and–best of all–select commentary from the cast and crew. I like this technique; in only talking about certain scenes, it prevents the commentators from ever becoming dull. Every moment is worth hearing.

Runners-Up: State of Play, Mission: Impossible: The 4th TV Season, Honey West...

(The awesome complete series sets of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart don’t count because they have been available for a few years through exclusive outlets.)

There were too many great spy TV releases this year to pick just one runner-up. Paramount continues to release quality presentations of Mission: Impossible seasons, and despite the cast changes and the show’s reputation as declining in its later years, they continue to be fabulously entertaining. Both seasons released this year (four and five) are more than worth the price of admission. The BBC DVD of State of Play finally delivered to Americans the most compelling TV mini-series of the past decade. It’s a taut, well-acted thriller that you won’t be able to turn off after one episode. You’ll blow through them all... and then wish you hadn’t so you’d still have more to watch. And MPI deserves credit for finally bringing Honey West, an American Avengers imitator that entertains almost as much as the real thing, to DVD in this country.

Worst Spy DVD (TV): The Wild Wild West: The Complete TV Series

As with the Get Smart movie, I’m not judging the show itself here, but its DVD presentation. The Wild Wild West is a wildly entertaining series, and one that deserves a place on every spy fan’s shelf. But Paramount handled the Complete Series box set poorly. First, they angered consumers by only including the two Wild Wild West reunion movies in this set, forcing people who had already bought every season of the show in good faith to either re-buy them all... or live with an incomplete collection. (I remain hopeful that the studio will rectify this by releasing these two movies on a disc by themselves eventually.) Second, the packaging itself is simply awful. Instead of fitting all the slim cases from the original releases into this awkwardly-sized and cheaply-produced rectangular box, the discs are crammed into two tiny cardboard "saddlebags," separated from each other only by flimsy paper membranes. It’s next to impossible to easily select the specific disc you’re looking for, and the discs are bound to get scratched and scuffed in attempts to do so. I love "Complete Series" sets, but more thought must go into the packaging. It should be visually appealing and user-friendly. I hope studios go back to the drawing boards on unwieldy collections such as this one.

Best James Bond Book: By Royal Command by Charlie Higson
Runner-Up: The Moneypenny Diaries: Final Fling by Kate Westbrook

(Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories by Ian Fleming is not eligible because it merely collects previously released short stories... but the presentation of the UK hardcover is awfully nice!)
Charlie Higson concluded his (first?) cycle of novels chronicling the adventures of James Bond as a boy in impressive fashion with By Royal Command–and, physically, the book looked great as well. When the series was first announced, I was as dubious as everyone else about the notion of creating Bond books for children–or exploring 007's youth. But Higson proved the right man for the job, and By Royal Command is evidence of this in the way it strikes the perfect Boys’ Own adventure tone. I was reading Ian Fleming when I was the age that these books are intended for, but reading By Royale Command gave me the same jolt I experienced back then–and even brought back the smell of those old Signet paperbacks I devoured under my sheets at summer camp.
Samantha Weinberg, writing as Kate Westbrook, achieved the same distinction with Final Fling, the finale to her trilogy of "Moneypenny Diaries" novels chronicling the Secret Service of Fleming’s novels from the point of view of M’s secretary. She stays true to Fleming’s characterizations of both James Bond and the staffers at MI6, but fleshes out the latter and makes them her own as well. This series presented an exciting new way to look at Fleming’s world, and a very interesting follow-up to his own novels.

Worst James Bond Book: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks

The official Centenary continuation novel (the one that played things straight) unfortunately failed on all accounts to capture the flavor of Fleming’s novels in the way that Higson and Weinberg managed to achieve even in such radically different approaches to the material, making it the biggest spy disappointment of 2008. I feel like I’ve already vented so much about this book that doing so anymore would not only bore readers–but have roughly the same effect as flogging a dead horse. Or firing extra shots into Professor Dent once he’d already hit the floor.

Best Bond-Related Book: My Word Is My Bond by Roger Moore

In any year that a Bond movie comes out, it’s automatically accompanied by a bevy of books cashing in on the 007 publicity. Some are "official," some are unofficial; some are good, some are bad... and some are great. Roger Moore’s long-awaited autobiography falls into that last category. Whether you’re a fan of his take on James Bond or not, any spy aficionado would be hard-pressed not to be won over by Moore’s often hilarious behind-the-scenes anecdotes about making The Saint, The Persuaders and of course his Bond films. You can open randomly to almost any page in the book and find a passage that makes you laugh out loud, but my favorite is probably Moore’s account of a meeting he set up between Sean Connery and Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, attempting to make peace between the notoriously antagonistic parties:
Some years previously, I had attempted to bring Sean and Cubby together at a party at our house in LA, hoping they might settle their differences. I should add that, a couple of weeks prior to the party, there had been a newspaper article in which Sean was quoted as saying that if Cubby Broccolis's brain was on fire, he 'wouldn't piss in his ear to put it out'.

At the party, I sat them both down with a drink. I heard Cubby - who was very much a gentleman Don Corleone - say, 'Sean, did you really say if my brains were on fire you wouldn't piss in my ear? I found that very upsetting.'

'Cubby,' replied Sean, 'I'd gladly piss in your ear any time.'

End of conversation!
As a bonus treat, Moore did a lot of press for his memoir, giving countless interviews that were almost as funny as the book itself. To be honest, I often find actor autobiographies to be dull and tedious. Not so Roger Moore’s! This book belongs on every Bond bookshelf.

Overall, 2008 was an interesting year for spy fans. It was a good year–just not in the ways I had expected it to be good. I was disappointed by both Devil May Care and Quantum of Solace, as well as the promising reinvention of Get Smart, but rewarded by many great DVD releases and a pair of terrific spy comedies in the theaters. I feel like the disappointments weighed heavily on this blog, and made it a bit more negative a place than I ever intended it to be. But I think it’s clear from everything I write that I truly love the spy genre–and James Bond–and often love even those things that disappoint me to some degree. Still, my passion for the subject forces me to be honest about my feelings. But that’s why I decided to include "worst of" entries as well as "best-of" ones for 2008: in an effort to put any such negativity behind me. Now I can dwell fully–and positively–on my hopes for 2009 and beyond. I’ll deal with those hopes in my next post. For now, though, I hope everyone has a happy New Year, and I wish only the best for my readers and the genre we all love so dearly in the coming year!

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