Feb 28, 2009

Double O Section At Wondercon This Weekend

I'll be at WonderCon in San Francisco this weekend. If any readers are attending, please feel free to stop by the Studio 407 booth and ask for Matt. I should be there a big chunk of Saturday and Sunday promoting my comic book, Night & Fog. The rest of the time I'll be probably be scouring the floor for spy stuff, or haunting Mike Mignola's table...

Feb 27, 2009

Cheap Spy DVDs On DeepDiscount

DeepDiscount is having a limited-time sale offering tons of movies for just $5 (heavy on MGM titles). Some that might interest spy fans include Crossplot, Billion Dollar Brain, Company Business, Get Smart's Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control, The High Commissioner, Classic CIA/KGB Movies, The Holcroft Covenent, Inspector Clouseau, Curse of the Pink Panther, Mata Hari, Operation Amsterdam, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Quiet American, The Road to Hong Kong, Son of the Pink Panther, Taffin, and xXx. Act quickly, though, if you see a title you like, as the website says that titles are subject to change depending on stock and the whole sale is for an extremely limited time. Just throughout today, some titles in the $3 section have changed.
CONTEST: Win A&E's Cult Spy Collection!

This is the ultimate prize for Double O Section readers: a fourteen-disc collection comprising such fantastic ITC spy shows as The Persuaders!, The Protectors, The Prisoner and The Champions... all in one set! All you have to do to win a copy of A&E's luxurious new Spy Collection megaset (more details here) is send an email with the subject heading "SPY COLLECTION" including your name and mailing address to the Double O Section by midnight, Pacific Time on Thursday, March 5, 2009. Winners will be announced in one week's time, next Friday. This is the ideal introduction to all of these great series, as it includes A&E's first set of each of them. (For all but The Prisoner, that comprises half the series.) The Spy Collection is a great way to discover which ones you like (which will probably be all of them!) and then delve deeper later by picking up the second set. Good luck!

One entry per person, please. Double entries will be disqualified. One winner will be drawn at random and announced on Friday, March 6, 2009. The winner's name 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 set 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.

Feb 26, 2009

Tradecraft: Marvel Announces Potential S.H.I.E.L.D. Movie

After a salary disagreement almost led to him not reprising his Iron Man role as Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson and Marvel Studios have kissed and made up. The Hollywood Reporter reveals that the sixty-year-old actor has just signed a deal to play the comic book superspy in nine more movies. That's right, a nine picture deal. As far as I know, such a thing is unprecedented. I'm reminded of Harrison Ford's answer when a reporter asked him at the press junket for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom if it was true he was committed to play the archaeologist in six films. "Not me," he quipped. "They must be talking to Roger Moore." But even Sir Roger never played James Bond nine times! Of course, many of those movies (including Iron Man 2, Thor, The Avengers [Marvel's version, mind you; no relation to Steed and Mrs. Peel] and Captain America: The First Avenger) might amount to just cameos. But the most interesting revelation in the trade is that "also on the table is the possibility of toplining a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, which is in development." Hm. So the long-gestating Nick Fury movie has apparently morphed into a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, presumably because they've now got a star attached too old to topline his own adventure. (Remember, such a movie would still be years away.) In the comics, ol' Nick keeps young by chugging something called Infinity Serum, but I don't think Mr. Jackson has any of that. It does seem a little bit insane to sign a sixty-year-old actor to a nine picture deal! The Hollywood Reporter's Risky Business blog (which offers further commentary on the deal) puts the eventual S.H.I.E.L.D. movie "sometime around the start of the first Sasha Obama administration."

Over the years, potential Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. movies have been set up at various studios, including Lionsgate and Paramount. Scripts have been written, but come to nothing. The closest thing to date is a 1998 Fox TV movie written by David Goyer and starring David Hasselhoff as the eyepatched agent. Jackson's Fury is based on the character as presented in Marvel's "Ultimate" line, which should be easy for the actor as Ultimate Nick Fury is based on Jackson!

Feb 25, 2009

DVD Review: Fury In Marrakesh (Furia A Marrakech) (1966)

For a movie with Marrakesh in the title, I was expecting a lot of deserts and North African rooftops and marketplaces. But while the film does offer those sights, it also offers so many more: tropical beaches, Times Square neon, and snowy Alpine vistas. Fury In Marrakesh takes us to hot spy locations all around the world, and lets us soak up the atmosphere. It’s actually one of the best spy movies I can think of in terms of sheer variety in exciting settings. It’s also one of the most fun Eurospy films I’ve seen, delivering almost everything you could want from the genre: impressive chases, good fights, cool gadgets (loads of ‘em, in fact!), beautiful women (though, surprisingly, not a main one) and, of course, the aforementioned locales. Top that all off with one of the strangest, jaw-droppingly mind boggling endings of any Eurospy flick, and it’s easy to recommend Fury In Marrakesh–highly. In fact, provided they’re not put off by the inexplicable oddness of the ending, this would be a great introduction to the genre for James Bond fans looking to broaden their spy horizons. Maybe the next step into Eurospy waters from the slightly more sure footing of Deadlier Than the Male.

Supposedly Fury In Marrakesh is the third in the "Bob Fleming" series that began with Secret Agent Fireball, but it’s so hard to actually delineate Eurospy series since the movies and their characters had so many different names in the various countries they were released in. (Based on the popularity of the three genuine "077" movies starring Ken Clark, that number was ascribed to just about every Eurospy hero in one country or another at various times!) The marketing campaigns for Fury In Marrakesh showcased in the poster gallery on Fin de Siecle’s new Region 2 DVD call the movie by many different names (Death Pays In Dollars is a good one) and identify the hero as, variously, Bob Fleming, Joe Fleming and Bob Dixon, among others. On the English language dub included on this disc, Bob Dixon is the name they go with. But the movie is from the pen of Ernesto Gastaldi, writer of the two previous Bob Fleming movies, and directed by the team responsible for the first one as well, so it’s reasonable to assume that it is meant to be a Bob Fleming adventure. If it is, though, then it’s a Casino Royale-like reboot of the brief series–and only a year after it began! Fleming is now played by the younger, lither Stephen Forsyth, stepping into Richard Harrison’s shoes. And when we meet him, he’s still in spy school. Fury In Marrakesh is the story of his first mission. (His boss even worries it’s "too complex a mission " to send so green an agent!) And Forsyth (coming off as sort of a cross between George Lazenby and John Phillip Law) is better suited to playing a neophyte agent than the more world-weary Harrison. So is this a carefully constructed and deliberately recast prequel revealing all the complex motivations that drive Fleming in his subsequent adventures, explaining how he became such an arrogant chauvinist? Actually, it kind of works along those lines–but, no, clearly not. No Eurospy adventure was ever that thought through. It seems clear that it’s supposed to be a different character entirely, so I’ll call him by the name he’s given in this print: Bob Dixon.

For what it ultimately becomes, Fury In Marrakesh opens quite inauspiciously, with a girl drugging a man and then robbing his safe... which is hidden inside an awfully fake-looking television set. (What happens if someone wants to watch TV?) After this action-free, single-setting pre-title sequence that clearly has nothing on James Bond, we’re into the credits and the zippy theme music. Then the SPECTRE-like villainous organization assembles, and their perpetually sunglasses-wearing leader addresses them, dramatically revealing, "My real name is Karl Kuntz!" with a louder, obviously different voice than the rest of the dub. What could be the reason for that? Judging from the non-removable Swedish subtitles, the Swedes think he's called Charlie Clark. His objective? To spread Nazi counterfeit dollars and pounds ("Hitler's treasure," found in a hidden vault), flooding the market, making him and his men rich and ruining the American economy! (And presumably the British one as well, though he doesn’t mention it.) But there’s a problem. Someone in his own organization has already stolen some of the counterfeit money. The girl from the opening! She’s called Monique on the English track and Dora on the Italian one and in the Swedish subtitles, and she’s played by Dominique Boschero (Secret Agent Fireball, Fantastic Argoman).

The action moves to New York City, represented in 1965 by the World’s Fair... a place apparently teeming with spies! An American official says that Monique " was spotted by one of our agents at the Fair." One of them! Apparently, it was seen as a wise allocation of government funds to deploy lots of agents to the World’s Fair! I guess it was cheaper than really sending them to all those countries... and, hey, it paid off! Hearing that intel, the suited American officials determine, "We’re going to need the most discrete agent the CIA can assign to this mission." Cue Bob Dixon.

We meet Dixon in the Caribbean. He’s retrieving a "formula" of some sort from a beautiful bartender with piercing blue eyes–and he's anything but discrete. Two baddies are after him, so he makes his getaway on a motor scooter as they pursue by car across road and field and dirt alleyways between shanties. Some shanties even get destroyed in the chase, although probably not enough to make Michael Bay happy. The chase goes onto the beach where Dixon manages to lose the pursuing car in the surf as it submerges where his scooter traveled easily.
Unfortunately, he then gets caught on a motorbike level tripwire in some trees. How on earth, you ask, did his enemies know to plan an ambush in that particular copse, where he had randomly fled to? Because it’s all just a training course! And he didn’t complete it quickly enough to impress his instructors. "No one could do it that fast," Dixon protests, "not even Batman!" (Or, in the Swedish version, "not even James Bond!")
But that’s it for training, because Bob’s needed elsewhere. He’s off to New York, where Monique is luckily still hanging around the World’s Fair. He trails her from there into the city–specifically Times Square at its neon, sleazy peak. (Which is a cool location to see.) There, he mountaineers around fire escapes above a neon sign for "BOND Clothes." It’s hard to believe this location material was filmed legally! But the idea of stolen shots only makes the setting more authentic. Peering into her hotel from a fire escape, Dixon sees that Monique’s former employers have caught up to her–including the beautiful Greta (Cristina Gajoni in a fantastically Sixties blond wig). Dixon ends up on the losing end of the ensuing fight, and they whisk his only lead back to Marrakesh.

Before giving chase, Dixon stops by Q Branch for equipment. Well, it’s not actually Q Branch, of course, but it’s a Q Branch-like area designated with giant neon sign that reads: "DANGER Technologycal Equipment." What follows is not only the best scene in the movie, but the best imitation Q scene ever! Really, it could almost be dropped into an actual Bond movie–except that it goes on longer than any of 007's visits with Q ever do. Dixon’s Q is called Sergeant Lester. Dixon greets him, "Hey Sargent! Reporting for equipment! Bob Dixon, special agent."

To which the droll Lester, perched up on a balcony, replies, "You’re all special, Mr. Dixon. I’m coming." Then he proceeds to jump down from the second-storey balcony, his fall arrested by a big orange balloon that "inflates" out of his back! What an entrance!

The balloon's hard to top, but all of Lester’s gadgets are pretty neat. He’s got a pen that shoots around corners. (Supposedly it "senses body heat and goes smashing into it," but the dummy he demonstrates with doesn’t appear to generate any body heat. Oh well.) There’s also a pocket flame-thrower that doesn’t work because he forgot to put a flint in it, a shoe that contains a bomb, and "radio capsules for your teeth" that transmit Morse Code! (And also contain cyanide.) We’re even treated to one of the better variations I’ve seen on the classic, sleazy Eurospy (and eventually Bond, in one of his less-inspired moments) gag of looking at girls through X-ray glasses. (And the glasses in question look like a giant cheese grater for some reason.)

"Oh Eileen!" calls Lester to one of his comely assistants. "Come into the lab for a minute, will you?" Eileen dutifully does as she’s asked, only to find Dixon with the X-ray specs. She gives a squeal and hides behind a pillar–presumably lead.

"Sargent Lester!" she rebukes her employer sternly, "I’m getting pretty tired of you and your electronic Peeping Tom!"

Undaunted, the inventor reminds her that "female personnel are expected to cooperate in scientific experiments."

"I didn’t expect to be working for people with X-ray eyes!" she retorts, before exclaiming, "Men!" and retreated in an exasperated huff.

"All I get are complaints!" sighs the Q imitator. Nothing like a bit of Sixties-style workplace sexual harassment to enliven a Eurospy movie!

So that’s just the first thirty minutes. Armed with the requisite gadgets, it’s off to the titular Marrakesh for all the deserts, street bazaars (complete with performing monkeys) and, of course, belly dancers that you would expect–as well as more chases, more explosions, more gadgets... and even someone falling for the old poison cigarette trick. Oh, and poor Monique gets tied up in a skimpy dress and tortured with electrical shocks to reveal what she did with the rest of the money.

In Marrakesh, Dixon meets his own local contact, a Kerim Bey-type CIA station chief who "loves life" and who has adopted the local customs and taken four wives. He doesn’t want Bob to bring violence or bodies to his city. He likes his cover life as a stamp collector too much. Therefore, of course, we know that he’s doomed. He also meets his British contact, "Alex Keene, Special Branch." (Keene first sneaks in on him while he’s in the shower, so that’s a bit awkward. ) When Dixon seems a little more preoccupied with ogling the local ladies (or "examining the merchandise," as he puts it), Keene questions his commitment. "You came here on a vacation? Or a mission?"

This gives Dixon the opportunity to typify the Eurospy hero’s attitude: "Getting away from that drill sergeant and coming abroad with an unlimited expense account is a vacation!" he tells Keene, adding, "What a wonderful spot this is! Sure was lucky to get to come to Marrakesh on my first mission." That’s what it’s really about, isn’t it? Traveling to exotic locations, ogling exquisite women and occasionally taking a bullet for the privilege. One particularly exquisite woman who would be happy to provide the bullet is Greta, who Dixon finally meets formally after watching her rather unenthusiastic strip routine. (She moonlights at nightclubs for ostensible networking purposes. Seriously, that's what she claims.) When she responds a little too eagerly to his brash seduction attempts (he claims to be a poet–a first for a Eurospy, I think), Keene cautions him with the obvious admonition that it may be a trap. "So?" asks Dixon. "What if it is? With that kind of bait, I’ll take the hook!" (I’m inclined to agree with him on that one.)

It is a trap, of course, with thrilling consequences that lead to another shift in scenery, this time to the beautiful Alps–where the bunker containing "Hitler’s treasure" of counterfeit bills is supposedly hidden. Bob Dixon flies in on a plane with skis, parks it atop a mountain, and promptly bumps into another beautiful woman (Mitsouko) in the middle of snowy nowhere! Abandoning his plane, he gladly accepts a ride down the slope on the back of her skis. "Follow every movement I make," she instructs him, to which he suavely replies, "Nothing could turn me away from you except centrifugal force!"

The finale takes place atop, above and inside the Matterhorn–and the production doesn’t skimp on the hardware! We get a thrilling Licence To Kill-like prop plane/helicopter chase, complete with Dixon clinging to a strut of the prop over the snowy peaks. We also get some sort of mean-looking large snow vehicle on treads, and machine guns sticking out of each of the vehicles. On a more personal scale, we’re also treated to betrayals, Mission: Impossible-like mask effects and vague explanations of things that happen along the lines of, "This emits an electron stream. Heart attack." Also, many of the aforementioned vehicles explode. It’s quite a spectacular, large-scale ending for a Eurospy movie, and further evidence that Fury In Marrakesh has to be one of the bigger budget entries in the cycle.

Now, I could wrap up the review right here by saying, "What are you waiting for? Go buy this DVD already! It’s terrific!" All that is true, but I simply cannot sign off without discussing the film’s fascinatingly bizarre coda. On the one hand, I hate to spoil an ending, but on the other it’s simply too weird not to discuss. And if there are people out there who still need further convincing that this movie is a must-see, the sheer oddness of it might put them over the edge. So I’ll put out a mild spoiler warning right here. If you’re already sold and definitely going to see it, then you might want to be surprised and stop reading now. But the ending is so strange that it may not really be capable of being spoiled anyway, so don’t run away too quickly.

In the typical Bondian fashion, Dixon finds himself victorious (no, that’s not the spoiler; you knew that already!) atop the mountain alone with the girl, Mitsouko (I'm not sure her character is ever named)–who has come to his rescue with guns blazing. It’s clear that she’s not just a local girl who likes to ski as she first presented herself. She must be an agent. Bob decides to call her on this as they ski down the slope, this time with him doing the skiing and her riding behind. "You’re one of our lady agents, aren’t you?" asks Bob, proud of his deduction.

"Yes," she says, "only that’s not quite all of it. I’m not really one of your lady agents. I’m..."–as she tears off her wig–"one of your... fellow agents." It’s still Mitsouko, but with short hair, now playing a man. "Will Takamura, at your service." Bob is (rather understandably, I suppose) horrified at the deception. "A man?" he practically shrieks, "Nooooo!" And he falls off his skis and rolls down the mountain in shock. The End. Or, "Fine," as they say in Italian.

Wow! What an ending. Bob doesn’t end up with any girl! There isn’t even a girl! (Bear in mind, too, that there is no reason given in the script why a male agent would have to dress in drag for that assignment!) It’s... just... so... weird! What could have prompted Gastaldi, Martino and Loy to end their picture this way? Why would Mitsouko agree to it? It seems almost as if someone suggested the joke on the last day of filming, and they all shrugged their shoulders and said, "Sure! Let’s film it!" Whatever the real cause, I’m choosing to believe that is what happened, because it just seems so in keeping with the fun "let’s put on a show!" attitude of Eurospy cinema. But whatever the reason, the ending is so utterly bizarre and out of left field that it made me go from loving the movie to considering it one of my very favorite Eurospy entries ever. It’s exactly that sort of "what the hell?" moment that I love about the genre, that you would never (thankfully!) find in the mainstream spy pictures like James Bond.

From beginning to end, Fury In Marrakesh is incredibly fun, top-notch entertainment. And as I mentioned at the beginning, it would make a great choice as an entry-level Eurospy movie for Bond fans ready to broaden their spy horizons. Let’s call it "Gateway Eurospy."

Fin de Siecle’s Region 2 PAL DVD is another fantastic transfer, as I expected based on their impressive freshman Eurospy effort, Secret Agent Fireball. There were one or two jumps in the forty-year-old print, but they can’t be blamed for that. Overall, this widescreen disc looks as good as you can dream of for a Sixties Eurospy movie. Once again (as I already mentioned), there’s an extensive poster and still gallery included as a bonus feature. If you’re a fan of the genre, or just looking to get into it, Furia A Marrakech is a must-purchase DVD!

Furia A Marrakech is available from Fin de Siecle's website for 129 kronar (just $14.40), and from DiabolikDVD in America for $24.95.

Feb 24, 2009

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Lightning Bolt

The excellent cult movie blog DVD Sleuth reports that Antonio Margheriti’s ridiculously fun 1966 Eurospy movie Lightning Bolt (aka Operation Goldman) will be released on DVD from Media Blasters as part of their next "Rare Flix" triple feature set. This is great news, as it's one of the better Eurospy entries and a movie that deserves a wider audience! The only downside is that it probably won't be widescreen, as previous "Rare Flix" releases have been in fullscreen only. Furthermore, the distributors don't seem to have much respect for the film. Their press release calls it "a spaghetti-spy film full of enough bad James Bond rip-offs to inspire a drinking game--and hilarious dubbing to match." So it seems doubtful that they'd put too much effort into remastering it or anything. But at least they're putting it out! For that, I'm grateful. The other movies included on the triple feature will be a Fred Williamson martial arts flick called Transformed and some sort of psychedelic grindhouse movie called Boogievision. I'm sure they're all well worth having! The disc hits stores April 24. Head over to DVD Sleuth to see the artwork.

Read my full review of Lightning Bolt here.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week: A&E Sampler

This week brings the perfect box set for American spy enthusiasts looking to dip their feet into the vast pool of ITC adventure series, eager to expand their cult TV horizons beyond The Avengers and The Saint. A&E's The Spy Collection Megaset features the first sets (of two total each) of The Protectors, starring the man from U.N.C.L.E. himself, Robert Vaughn, and The Persuaders!, starring Tony Curtis and an immediately pre-Bond Roger Moore, 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 just three episodes). The whole bundle is a tad pricey... but much cheaper than what the individual volumes of these series originally retailed for. It's really the ideal sampler for discovering the wonderful world of ITC series. And if you like what you see of The Prisoner or The Persuaders! (which you will) or The Protectors (which you might), you can still go out and buy the rest separately. If you like what you see of The Champions (which you will), well then you're kind of out of luck (at least until the movie gets made) because that's all that's available from A&E so far. But at least you'll have it all! If you've already got these, then obviously there's no reason to get this set. But if you don't... then, trust me, this the coolest release imaginable, and a must-have!

While that's the only major spy release out this week, as long as I'm talking about new discs I'm compelled to also point out that my favorite Dario Argento movie, the ultra-rare, previously near impossible to see Four Flies on Grey Velvet makes its American DVD debut today! There's nothing spy about it, but if you're into gialli, make sure you pick this one up. You won't regret it!
Tradecraft: Plame And Salt

Watts and Penn Play the Plame Game

Doug Liman has switched Antipodean actresses in his Valerie Plame movie: According to Variety, Naomi Watts and not Nicole Kidman (as previously reported) will be starring as outed CIA agent Valerie Plame in The Bourne Identity director's movie based on her story, Fair Game. (Wasn't that the title of a disposable Cindy Crawford action movie in the 90s?)Furthermore, newly-anointed Best Actor Sean Penn is in talks to come aboard as Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson. The trade reminds us: "Wilson watched his wife's CIA status become compromised after he wrote op-ed columns that accused the Bush Administration of manipulating intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq."

Penn is an excellent actor (who completely disappeared into the character of Harvey Milk in a wonderful performance... even though I was rooting for Mickey Rourke), but he is so instantly associated with his very public political stances that his casting instantly politicizes the film, which I think is too bad. By its very nature, the story instantly became a divisive political one, when at its heart its the stuff of classic spy fiction: an agent in the field is betrayed and compromised by her masters for reasons of petty bureaucracy that have nothing to do with her directly. John Le Carré could have made it up. But it's real, and it's a fascinating tale of a wronged spook, and I hope that Penn's casting doesn't alienate a potential segment of the audience for what should be a top-notch real-life spy movie. Then again, as I said to begin with, he's a fantastic actor and an Oscar winner, so hopefully none of that will matter. His presence probably does more good for the film than harm.

Chiwetel Joins Salt

First-rate British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is the latest to come aboard the Angelina Jolie (formerly Tom Cruise) spy thriller Salt, directed by Patriot Games' and The Quiet American's Phillip Noyce. He will play the Gerard to her Kimble, the Javert to her Jean Valjean. (Or, more appropriately, I suppose, The Operative to her Mal.) Variety puts it less obliquely: "Ejiofor will play Peabody, a young CIA agent who works for Winter (Liev Schreiber), the mentor of Evelyn Salt (Jolie), an agent fingered as a Russian sleeper spy. With Peabody in hot pursuit, she must clear her name and figure out the identity of the real spy." I think I know that identity...

Feb 23, 2009

Champions Soundtrack Coming From Network

As I mentioned briefly in my article about their upcoming DVD set of Espionage, UK distributor Network continues their superb releases of soundtracks to classic Sixties ITC series in March with The Champions! The three-disc set includes original music by Prisoner and Danger Man veterans like Robert Farnon, Edwin Astley, Albert Elms and Tony Hatch. The Champions was a 1968 series in the Avengers mold about a trio of secret agents imbued with superpowers by an Eastern mystic when their plane crash-landed in the Himalayas. Okay, so it's very 1968, but it's a pretty awesome show. It starred Stuart Damon, William Gaunt and the drop-dead gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (Casino Royale '67). Half of the episodes are available on Region 1 DVD from A&E in the United States; all of them are available in a features-laden Region 2 set from Network in the United Kingdom. As has been widely covered here, there is a movie remake in development originated by Guillermo Del Toro. Tom Cruise is tentatively attached to star. Should that movie go forward, I have assurances from A&E that they would release the rest of the episodes.

Network's soundtrack set (and this series had some great music) will be available in March as a web exclusive. There's no listing for it yet on their site, but look for it soon! I also have it on good authority that we can look forward to some more oft-requested ITC soundtracks from Network before the year's out (think halos)... and that I may even get my frequently-stated wish in the form of a Persuaders! set!

Feb 22, 2009

Spying On The Oscars - Live

I hadn't planned on live-blogging the Oscars, but there have already been a couple of spy moments, so I guess I might as well... just mentioning the spy-related stuff. Everyone's live-blogging, but I doubt anyone else is taking that approach! Keep refreshing.

Saw Daniel Craig lurking in the background on the red carpet, so he'll probably be a presenter...

I loved the inclusion of Eva Green as Vesper Lynde at the end of that montage of accountant clips introducing the Price-Waterhouse guys (or wherever they're from this year).

There was just a TV spot for the Nicolas Cage movie Knowing. Hasn't he already made this movie like six times before? It's kind of like a "Best of Nicholas Cage" movie: part National Treasure, part Next, part everything else...

Hugh Jackman looks good in a tux. I think he could have been Bond in another reality.

It's good to see Eva Marie Saint, who still looks good 50 years after North By Northwest, but not good enough to justify not showing clips of the nominated performances! What's up with that? If the whole night is going to be past winners describing scenes from the nominated movies instead of actually showing them, then we're in for a really long night... I hate that.

Here's Daniel! Looking very Bondian in his tuxedo. Presenting the Oscar for Art Direction with Sarah Jessica Parker. The one category that Quantum of Solace really should have been nominated for! Still, a lot of good candidates.

They're also presenting costume design. And make-up! The Academy's getting a lot of mileage out of 007 and Carrie Bradshaw. "We don't have to tell you what a make-up artist does," says Sarah.

"Just look at us," deadpans Daniel. I love hearing James Bond talk about Hellboy! (Hellboy II is nominated for make-up. Too bad it didn't win.)

There's some Pierce Brosnan in the romance montage, from Mama Mia. I wonder if he's there? I wish they'd had Brosnan and Craig present together. That would have been cool! And Michael Caine could have united them, the way he did with Roger Moore and Sean Connery when the three buddies appeared as co-presenters back in the Eighties...

Seth Rogan and James Franco (in their stoner characters from Pineapple Express) mentioned Bond in their hilarious short film about comedies that weren't nominated. They're getting stoned and watching bootlegs, including Mama Mia. "It stars James Bond and that chick from Doubt," says Rogan. Then Spielberg's go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shows up in their apartment and things get really hilarious. This is so weird! And awesome. Then the three of them take the stage together. What an odd combination!

Lots of Bond clips in the action montage, along with Indy and even Transporter 3! Really, who thought we'd be seeing Tranporter 3 in an Academy Awards show? Cool! I actually found the clips from the opening car chase in Quantum of Solace easier to follow here, in this quick-cut clip montage, than they were in the actual movie! Now that says something. And that was all leading into the Visual Effects Oscar, presented by Will Smith. 007's special effects coordinator Chris Corbould is nominated for The Dark Knight... but he doesn't win.

I love Alias's Michael Giacchino, who's serving as the musical director for tonight's awards show, but I miss hearing the themes of the winning films accompanying the winners to the stage!

Liam Neeson is presenting Best Foreign Film and starts off by speaking French. Is that sort of an apology for tearing up Paris and urging Americans never to go there in Taken? They introduced him as "Academy Award Nominee," so I guess that means he's never won an Oscar. That's weird!

Time for the memorial reel... Lots of spy stars here, sadly... BUT THEY'RE NOT SHOWING THEM! What the hell? There's Quiller Memorandum writer Harold Pinter... and Paul Newman, of course (where's that DVD of The Prize Warner promised two years ago?)... but where's John Phillip Law??? Where's Patrick McGoohan? Yes, he died this year, but Ricardo Monteblan died the same day and they showed him! And, yes, he's better known for TV, but he did plenty of movies! Seriously, what the hell? That's an outrage. Not only that, but the whole thing was handled unbelievably badly. Queen Latifah did fine and "I'll Be Seeing You" (which would have been so appropriate for McGoohan!) was a good choice of song, but they should have just shown the tribute reel on screen, not her performing. It was nearly impossible to read some of the names on a TV screen! That's really offensive. What's normally a really moving part of the ceremony was just annoying instead. It's a huge failure on the part of this year's producers all around. Frankly, I'm disgusted. This puts a cloud over the whole broadcast.

Sophia Loren always looks great, even 40+ years after her spy role in Arabesque. And she's always classy. But I still don't like this past-winner-talking-about-the-nominated-performance thing instead of showing clips of the performances!

It's tough to end the show with soundless clips of next year's movies. Montages like this work well for movies we've already seen and know from the previous years, but it's a tough way to promote upcoming ones. That said, those brief glimpses of Sherlock Holmes looked pretty to me! But... are there no big spy movies coming out this year? I guess not, really. Unless you count State of Play. That's surprising, what with everything that's in development for the next year!

Well... that's it. No Pierce Brosnan. Not even Judi Dench amidst all those previous winners. (There was Halle Berry, though.) Not as much spy stuff as I thought there might be. As for the show? Well, I admire the desire to do something different, but this wasn't it. Hugh Jackman was OK, and I did like how they demonstrated the screenwriting, but the whole show was pretty poor. They definitely need to bring back clips of the actors next year, and they need to do the memorial reel right!
Movie Review: The International (2008)

Here’s another modern movie that fits all the criteria of the Eurospy genre–rugged agent, beautiful blonde, fantastic European locales and slam-bang action–but one of a slightly more respectable pedigree than Taken or the Transporter films. The International is a suspenseful thriller about a disgraced Scotland Yard detective turned agent for Interpol (Clive Owen) who teams up with the New York City District Attorney’s Office (in the very appealing form of Naomi Watts) to take down a powerful international bank that dabbles in arms dealing, assassination and revolution in their greed-fueled quest to control the debt that such ventures create. It’s directed by Tom Tykwer, the director of such myriad visual spectacles as Run Lola Run, Winter Sleepers and Perfume. The International is the most straightforward movie he’s ever done, but his touch is certainly felt in the arresting compositions and perfectly-constructed setpieces.

The movie opens with Agent Louis Salinger (Owen) witnessing the gruesome death of his partner. When he tries to save him, Salinger himself is cut down by traffic, resulting in a recurring ringing in his ear (that happens to poor Clive a lot in his movies). Salinger awakes in the hospital and immediately demands to see his partner’s body. Performing his own examination of the corpse, Salinger concludes that the man was poisoned by a minute prick to the back–despite the coroner’s official ruling of a heart attack. He makes his case to his boss back at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, and accuses the bank that they were investigating of the murder. When Salinger flies to Luxembourg to question the bank’s CEO, he instead encounters his smarmy lawyer (the British Office’s Patrick Baladi) and discovers that they’re one step ahead of him. Sure enough, he finds listening devices in his office, his flat and his boss’s house.

The only person he can trust is the New York prosecutor whose office first alerted Interpol to the case: Eleanor Whitman (Watts). The two of them pursue their investigation in Milan, Italy, where they’re once again awestruck by the bank’s capabilities, witnessing a political assassination orchestrated by the omnipresent financial institution. The assassination itself is wonderfully shot, utilizing the birds-eye view camera angles that Tykwer is so fond of to invoke Hitchcock–specifically the assassination sequence from Foreign Correspondent, also set in an exotic European city. It’s not the last Hitchcockian moment in The International, either. The entire movie appears to be something of a tribute to the master, although Tykwer is more subtle than other acolytes, like Brian De Palma.

Salinger spots the assassin escaping by car and gives pursuit on foot in a thrilling chase. Further investigation earns the ire of local authorities, but leads Salinger and Whitman to her home base of New York City. It’s here that Tykwer stages the movie’s ultimate setpiece, a ten-minute-long shootout at the Guggenheim Museum between Salinger and a hit squad armed with submachine guns. Ever since watching Run Lola Run I’ve wanted to see how Tykwer staged a traditional action sequence, and the director doesn’t let me down. (I still think he’d be a great choice for Bond–much more appropriate than Marc Forster!) This is really one of the best shootouts ever filmed, and a terrific synthesis of location and scene. The building’s unique architecture also suits Tykwer’s style and favorite visual themes, allowing for plenty of shots of concentric white circles from above and below as Owen attempts to make his way down the museum’s famous spiral ramp, past the gunmen and out the door to safety. I'm surprised that this awesome location hasn't been used for such a scene before. The only other director to use it that comes immediately to mind is Matthew Barney, and The Cremaster Cycle is hardly comparable! I'm glad that the location has somehow eluded other action movies over the years, because Tykwer clearly makes it his own.

Despite this awesome gunfight, though, traditional action fans still might not get quite what they want out of The International–because it isn’t a traditional action film. Several superbly-staged sequences of intense action notwithstanding, this is overall a character-driven thriller–and a fairly talky one at times. And after the exaggerated scope of the museum shootout, things don’t get bigger, but smaller and more introspective. Those expecting a grand, Bondian finale to top that will be let down. Instead the scale diminishes, down to a mano-a-mano standoff between Salinger and the bank’s chairman, Jonas Skarssen, impeccably played by The World Is Not Enough’s Ulrich Thomsen (whose neo-Eurospy credits also include Hitman). That’s fine by me, though, especially since there are still more thrilling locations to fill the screen with ample eye candy–including what looks like the same Italian coastal road as featured in the pre-credits sequence of Quantum of Solace, only shot in a steady and confident manner that allows the viewer to actually view it.

The finale itself takes place in Istanbul, which instantly buys a film infinite good will on my part. From From Russia With Love to That Man In Istanbul to Fury On the Bosphorus, the city is a classic Eurospy location. Here, its crowded terra cotta rooftops (reminiscent of the Tangier sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum) and the unique sidewalk that runs along them provide the perfect setting for the film’s finale.

Ultimately, Tykwer is much more interested in Salinger’s journey as a character than in the mechanics of his thriller plot. (Another similarity to Hitchcock, who repeatedly stated that the "MacGuffins" that propelled the action in each of his films ultimately met nothing.) Like the rest of the film, the conclusion is character-driven. Again, it might not necessarily satisfy action fans thirsting for a crowning setpiece... but it aptly brings to a close the story Tykwer set out to tell–and does so in typical style. If you’re a fan of Clive Owen–who does a dependably fantastic job in yet another secret agent role–of Tykwer, of Eurospy movies, of Hitchcock movies or of exotic locales, you’ll find plenty to love in The International. And the title rings true; this is the best "travelogue" spy movie since The Bourne Ultimatum. I only wish the modern Bond films spent as much time soaking up their settings as The International does! Again, I reiterate my nomination for Tom Tykwer to direct a Bond movie. And I present The International–and particularly its stunning Guggenheim shootout–as Exhibit A in this case.

Feb 21, 2009

Tradecraft: Gaghan Writes Dead Spy

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Syriana writer Stephen Gaghan will soon be returning to the spy genre when he pens the previously announced Dead Spy Running for director/producer McG at Warner Bros. "Based on a book by British author Jon Stock, the film is meant to be the first in a trilogy and aims to reinvent the spy genre by telling the origin story of a newly trained spy in a tone that mixes the grittiness of The Bourne Identity with the wittiness of John Le Carré's oeuvre." Every time this movie is reported on, that's the go-to line: Ludlum meets Le Carré. While Le Carré's tales are, in fact, plenty gritty on their own, and while Ludlum is capable of wit, I assume what they're really trying to say is that this will be like John Le Carré only with lots of action. Which, of course, isn't really like John Le Carré at all, so what's the point of the comparison? Then again, I love both Ludlum and Le Carré, so while I can't imagine two more disparate spy writers, any project that namechecks them both sounds intriguing to me. The book will be published in June, and the trade has a description of its opening: "[Dead Spy Running] begins with the protagonist running the London Marathon, where a fellow racer is strapped with explosives. The scenario leads to a globe-trotting adventure to clear the name of the man's father." It's foreseen as the first in a trilogy. McG is only attached to direct this one so far, but would presumably produce the sequels should the first film be a success. Combined with all the Ludlum stuff currently in development, there's a whole lot of this sort of thing in the pipeline... and I couldn't be happier about it!
Mister 8 Online Spy Comic Strip Up And Running

Armstrong Sabian over at the impressive new spy site Mister 8 (which you may have noticed in the links to the right) has a terrific twist on the spy site concept: he plans to run an ongoing adventure strip featuring a secret agent hero of his own creation, Martin Queen. That comic strip debuted this week, with another entry planned for each Monday. It's a very sleek, very professional, beautifully stylized strip–and it's set in the Sixties, so basically it had me at hello–and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of it in the future. Check it out here. And if you like Armstrong's style, you'll also get a big kick out of his portraits of Patrick McGoohan and Michael Caine, which he shares here.
Dr. No Radio Adaptation At Permission To Kill

David Foster over at Permission To Kill has done all spy fans a huge favor by posting last year's specially commissioned BBC Radio adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel "Doctor No" in its entirety! Die Another Day villain Toby Stephens plays James Bond, and TV's Poirot David Suchet assays the title role. The radio play was originally aired as part of the Ian Fleming Centenary celebrations last year, through special permission of EON Productions, who control the character's radio rights. Hurry, though; the download is only available for a limited time. Now you don't happen to have that excellent "Ipcress File" adaptation that BBC Radio did a few years ago up your sleeve, do you, David...?
REMINDER: Funeral In Berlin Screening TONIGHT In L.A.!
Saturday, February 21, 2009

As previously reported, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will screen Funeral In Berlin in their fantastic theater on Saturday, February 21 (that's tonight!) at 9:15PM as part of their series "Torn Curtain: The Two Germanys on Film" examining films set in Cold War Germany. The Guy Hamilton-directed middle installment in the Sixties Harry Palmer trilogy will be paired with Robert Siodmak's Escape From East Berlin. (That one starts at 7:30.) I haven't seen the latter, but it doesn't appear to be a spy movie. Nevertheless, the 1962 movie (which concerns twenty-nine East Germans who fled Communist rule by tunneling under the Berlin Wall) does sound pretty cool! The whole film series ties in with the museum's current exhibit "The Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures." That's a good exhibit, and well worth checking out if you're interested in the Cold War.

LACMA's got a great screen, so if you're in the area tonight I definitely recommend taking advantage of this opportunity!
Thanks to my friend Phil for first alerting me to this screening!

Feb 20, 2009

More Espionage From Network...

Quite literally, in fact! The UK DVD distributor extraordinaire will release The Complete Series of Espionage, the 1963-64 ITC anthology series. Network previously released a standalone disc containing the three episodes directed by Michael Powell (Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes). I picked that one up in their recent sale, but haven't had a chance to watch it yet. Even so, I'm excited about having the chance to see the entire series, which to the best of my knowledge was never re-broadcast and very difficult to see. Individual black and white episodes each told a completely different spy tale each week. They were set in all different eras, and ranged from light comedic depressingly ultra-gritty in tone. Settings ranged from London to Moscow to New York to Kenya. (According to Network, the New York episode even shot on location–a real rarity for ITC at the time!) Guest stars included Anthony Quayle, Donald Pleasence, Patrick Troughton and, strangely, Dennis Hopper. The six-disc set, containing all twenty-four episodes, will be available March 3 for £58.99 (but will be available for less, naturally, on Amazon and Network's own site). Extras include script PDFs and color still galleries.

Network's also got more espionage in store for March, including the previously announced Patrick McGoohan movie The Hard Way and a soundtrack set for The Champions! (More on that one soon... )

Feb 19, 2009

Tradecraft: Cruise Still Championing Champions

Tradecraft: Cruise Still Championing Champions

Variety today has an article that provides an overview of the many, many projects that Tom Cruise has attached himself to lately–most of them spy movies. Five different studios are trying to get the actor to commit to their films. While most of these have been covered previously on the Double O Section, the article does mention one new relevant project in which Cruise would play "an undercover agent who gets thrown together with a woman who has man trouble." That movie, Wichita, is being eyed as a possible team-up with Cameron Diaz. The article also recaps old information on The Matarese Circle and The Tourist, as well as mentioning Cruise's possible involvement with Motorcade (the Secret Service thriller written by Breach's Billy Ray). While the star is attached to all of them, he isn't yet firmly committed to any. The most interesting bit, however, pertains to the long-percolating bigscreen revival of the ITC cult classic The Champions:
Studios expect that Cruise will do two films this year, and while some questioned his enthusiasm for finding a big project, sources said that he will likely star next year in The Champions, a feature adaptation of the British TV series about a team of government agents rescued from a plane crash in the Himalayas by an advanced civilization and given superhuman abilities.

[Christopher] McQuarrie is writing that project, and producing it with Guillermo del Toro, who originated it with intentions to direct before he committed five years of his life to two Hobbit films for MGM and New Line.
Interesting! I'd speculated that Cruise's interest in The Matarese Circle precluded his involvement in The Champions, but apparently not. In fact, the Variety article makes that one sound like the closest to a sure thing! I've definitely come around on the idea. Cruise even looks appropriately like Stuart Damon. I'm very excited for that one, so I hope it happens!

Schreiber Salted

Meanwhile, Daniel Craig's Defiance co-star and former Mr. Clark Liev Schreiber has come aboard a high-profile project famous for not starring Tom Cruise: Salt. Formerly titled Edwin A. Salt, Cruise had been attached to this project in the title role for quite a while. But he dropped out late last year only to be replaced by Angelina Jolie (which obviously necessitated a change in the character's first name and title). Variety reports that "Schreiber will play Salt's boss and friend on the Russian desk at the CIA." For those who haven't been paying attention, the trade also provides a nice recap: "The story centers on Evelyn Salt, a CIA officer who is fingered as a Russian sleeper spy. She eludes capture by superiors who are convinced she is out to assassinate the president. While trying to reunite with her family, she struggles to prove someone else is the traitor." Without knowing anything more than that (and therefore not in a position to provide any real spoilers–so don't worry and take this with a grain of, ahem, salt), I predict that Schreiber turns out to be the traitor!

WB to Distribute Darkness

Variety also reports that Warner Bros. has acquired North American distribution rights to Martin Campbell's bigscreen remake of Edge of Darkness. Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) directed the original British mini-series, which followed a detective (Bob Peck) getting caught up in a conspiracy involving the security services while investigating the death of his daughter, and he's also directing the movie, which stars Mel Gibson.

Feb 17, 2009

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Body Of Lies

The only major new spy release this week on DVD is last fall's Ridley Scott thriller Body of Lies. This is actually the rare spy movie that I never got around to seeing in the theater, so I'm looking forward to checking it out on DVD. Leonardo DiCaprio and Scott's ubiquitous collaborator Russell Crowe star as a CIA field agent in the Middle East and his manipulative Langley handler, respectively. Body of Lies is available from Warner Home Entertainment in single-disc, double-disc (with that annoying "Digital Copy" thing that just won't go away) and Blu-Ray configurations. The two-disc version comes with a making-of documentary and some other features, and the Blu-Ray offers even more features, including a commentary and some sort of picture-in-picture documentary; the single-disc one is bare-bones.
Wild Wild West Contest Winner

Congratulations to Leigh Chan of California, USA for winning The Wild Wild West - The Third Season (review here) on DVD. Leigh, your set is in the mail! Enjoy it. Thanks to all the other entrants; if you didn't win this, you'll have another chance coming up to win some really cool DVDs! Be on the lookout for the next Double O Section contest soon. It's a good one!

Feb 13, 2009

Spy Night!

For some reason this Friday the 13th is a big spy night in the US. Tonight not only sees the release of Tom Tykwer's spy thriller The International (in which Clive Owen apparently once again makes the case that he could have been James Bond), but also the TV premiere of Joss Whedon's new sci-fi spy series Dollhouse, starring Buffy's Eliza Dushku as an operative who can be anyone, and has her memory wiped after each mission. Watch an awesome, grindhouse-style trailer for Dollhouse here. It airs at 9/8C on Fox.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Patrick McGoohan In The Hard Way

The UK's best and most prolific distributor of spy DVDs is at it again! Network has announced the 1979 Patrick McGoohan rarity The Hard Way for release on Region 2 DVD on February 18, 2009. In the dark TV movie The Hard Way, McGoohan (in between Silver Streak and Scanners) plays an Irish assassin named John Connor who wants out of the business. He tries to quit, but his controllers won't let him leave the game. Sound familiar? It's certainly a recurring theme in the actor's career. This time, however, instead of being whisked away to some mysterious Village, McGoohan's brooding character is pursued across Ireland by Lee Van Cleef. (Spaghetti Western fans my find it interesting to note that McGoohan worked with Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood, in Escape From Alcatraz, in the same year.) Extras include a trailer and a stills gallery. Network's website also points out that the movie features a score by Brian Eno–or rather ready-made selections from his sublime album Music For Films.
Tradecraft: More Ludlum News!

We truly live in a Golden Age. All through my middle school years, I tore through Robert Ludlum's million-page spy thrillers and wondered why there weren't movies of all of these books. And I desperately wanted those movies to exist. And now... they do! Or they will. Nearly twenty years later and sadly well after Ludlum's passing, Hollywood has finally discovered the potential of the late author's oeuvre. Today, his name is splashed across the front of the trades for the second day in a row!

Just a few months ago, Bourne producer Frank Marshall was saying that they planned to use Ludlum's The Parsifal Mosaic as the basis for a fourth Bourne film, having run out of actual Ludlum Bourne titles (but not plots, it should be noted, since the last two movies didn't follow the books at all). And I was a little torn about that, because while I liked the idea of The Parsifal Mosaic being filmed (it's a great book), I felt that it should be filmed on its own and not turned into a Bourne story. Well, now it appears that's exactly what's happening! (Although I had since come around on the idea, realizing how it could potentially be used to bring Franka Potente's Marie back from the dead...)

Both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are reporting this morning that Universal is exploiting its overall deal with Captivate Entertainment (formerly Ludlum Entertainment; not sure when that changed) by fast-tracking a legitimate film adaptation of Parsifal with Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment on board to co-produce. Fantastic! Bring on all the other Ludlum titles!