Jan 28, 2010

Avatar Passes Thunderball At All-Time Box Office

People are very quick to hail James Cameron's Avatar as the biggest movie of all time thanks to its astounding worldwide gross of $1.86 billion.  Domestically, it currently stands at Number 2 with $558 million so far, and is certain to beat Titanic's $600 million very soon.  But those numbers are just dollars, and as most movie buffs know (and the media is just catching on to), they don't begin to reflect what's truly "the biggest movie of all time" in terms of eyeballs.  People just don't flock to the movies anymore in the numbers they did in the Thirties, Sixties or even Eighties.  But ticket prices have shot up (more than 50% since 1997 alone, when Titanic opened the same day as Tomorrow Never Dies, making the latter the only Bond movie of the Brosnan or Craig era not to hit the Number 1 spot at the Box Office*) and inflation has made the 1965 dollar unrecognizable.  So while Avatar may have made more cash than Star Wars or E.T. in 2010 dollars, it hasn't been seen by nearly as many people.  Box Office Mojo keeps score of the highest grossing movies of all time with their grosses adjusted for inflation, and the numbers are quite different.  It will come as no surprise to Bond fans to learn that Goldfinger and Thunderball both crack the Top 50 on this list.  While Daniel Craig's Bond movies may be the "biggest Bonds ever" in terms of the same dollars that give Avatar the crown, they don't begin to duplicate the utter phenomenon of Bondmania that swept the nation and the world in the mid-Sixties.  While Moore, Brosnan and Craig all set records in their eras, none of their films make the Top 100 list once adjusted for inflation.

Anyway, Avatar has just surpassed Thunderball on that list, knocking the biggest Bond ever down a notch to Number 27 with $558,008,000.  (Yes, that means that Avatar is really only the twenty-sixth biggest movie of all-time, not the biggest.  That undisputed honor belongs to Gone With the Wind, and likely always will, with only the original Star Wars coming close to it for Number 2.)  But Thunderball still remains ahead of such gargantuan modern-day blockbusters as The Dark Knight and Spider-man, which isn't too shabby! Goldfinger clocks in at Number 41, ahead of both the Spider-man sequels.  And both of these Connery come in well ahead of all the Lord of the Rings movies, all the Harry Potter movies and all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  It's just good to put things in perspective sometimes, and good for Bond fans (while certainly not denying the character's undying popularity with contemporary audiences) to reflect on what an unstoppable juggernaut the franchise was at its truly dizzying peak.

*Casino Royale didn't open at Number 1 either, thanks to stiff competition from Happy Feet, but it did manage to beat out Happy Feet for the Number 1 spot over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2006.  Tomorrow Never Dies, while it was a big hit and did very respectable numbers, never managed that feat with Titanic.
Tradecraft For January 28, 2010: Femmes, Fighters And Cold Warriors

Little Nikita

Here's a weird one.  According to The Hollywood Reporter's The Live Feed, the CW has ordered a new series version of La Femme Nikita from Chuck producer McG.  La Femme Nikita was originally a 1990 Luc Besson film about a drug-addled young woman pulled off the streets and Henry Higgins-ed into a glamorous government assassin.  It was quickly remade for American audiences as Point of No Return in 1993 (starring Bridget Fonda), then made into an unrelated USA TV series (called La Femme Nikita again) starring Peta Wilson (and guest-starring Callan himself, Edward Woodward, as her father in the fifth season).  The CW version will be called simply Nikita.  "In this version," says the trade, "Nikita goes rogue and a new assassin is trained to replace her."  It's unclear right now whether or not there will be any connection to the USA series, but I would guess not.  Still, that premise does leave the possibility open...

Cold Warrior

Remember that Shane Black movie we heard about way back in 2008 about a Cold War spy coming out of retirement and teaming up with a younger operative to face a domestic terrorism threat orchestrated by Russia?  No?  Well then hopefully that exposition-filled sentence filled you in on all the vitals.  Shane Black is a screenwriting god who wrote just about all the big action movies in the Eighties, including Lethal Weapon, as well as the Nineties spy movie The Long Kiss Goodnight.  Most recently he wrote and directed the utterly fantastic private eye meta-spoof Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the movie responsible for Robert Downey Jr.'s career resurgence.  Now he's planning to direct this spy movie, but it's (surprisingly) not one he wrote; the script is by Charles Mondry.  This is one of the spy movies in development that I'm most excited about, but there's been no public movement on it for quite a while... until today.  Now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, it's got a title (a great one) and potentially a star.  Mel Gibson, dreaming of his own Downey-style comeback, is in talks to star as the titular Cold Warrior.  Gibson previously worked with Black on Lethal Weapon.  He'll soon be seen in Martin Campbell's remake of his own classic spy-tinged British miniseries Edge of Darkness

Soderbergh Knocks Out Two More

Variety reports that two more actors have joined the cast of Steven Soderbergh's action spy movie Knockout: Bill Paxton and Antonio Bandaras.  Knockout stars mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano as a spy who goes rogue to prove her boss set her up.  Paxton, once the ubiquitous "other guy" (perhaps most famously in James Cameron's ode to Bond True Lies), has now apparently reached that purgatory for character actors of a certain age: fatherhood. Hence, he will play Carano's dad. Bandaras is "a foreign operative drawn into the mission of revenge" whatever exactly that means.  Soderbergh is certainly standing by his pledge to surround his non-actor star with lots of big names; so far the all-star line-up includes Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Micahel Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Dennis Quaid.

Jan 27, 2010

Ian McKellen To Play Auric Goldfinger!

...on the radio.  Remember that news item last October when we first heard that EON Productions had sanctioned a follow-up to the "Dr. No" radio adaptation that aired on the BBC in celebration of Ian Fleming's Centenary?  Well, now there's a press release from Ian Fleming Publications revealing the spy star-studded cast of the new radioplay!  (Thanks to CBn for spreading the news on this.)  The great Ian McKellen (most recently seen as Number Two on AMC's remake of The Prisoner) will star in the title role, while Die Another Day alumni Toby Stephens and Rosamund Pike will reunite as James Bond and Pussy Galore, respectively.  (Stephens is reprising the 007 role from the "Dr. No" radioplay.)  Tim Piggot-Smith (Quantum of Solace, Spooks, Johnny English) plays Mr. Solo, and we'll get to hear former Saint Ian Ogilvy deliver the lecture on gold as Col. Smithers.  Lloyd Owen, who essayed Sean Connery's role of Professor Henry Jones, Sr. on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, will play Felix Leiter, and Tom Hollander and Hector Elizondo round out the cast.  Quite a line-up!  The radioplay (a dramatisation of Ian Fleming's novel, not the film) is from producers Jarvis & Ayres, the same people behind "Dr. No."

I'm really excited to hear McKellen as a Bond villain.  Surely they'll keep the famous film line, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" even though it's not from the novel?  I can hear his delivery already!  I really wish the filmmakers would cast McKellen or someone of his ilk as a villain.  I miss the day of older, distinguished villains who could really relish their villainy.  I know that in the Brosnan era it was decided that younger villains, more equal physical matches for 007, were better, but I don't wholly agree.

Jan 26, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Callan: Set 2

The last week in January is a huge week for new spy titles–especially spy TV.  Foremost among today's many releases is Callan: Set 2 from Acorn Media.  As I stressed in my review of Set 1, Callan is one of the cornerstones of the "serious" side of the spy genre.  Simply put, it's essential viewing.  What Acorn has released as "Set 2" actually comprises Season 4 of the show, but Acorn opted to begin with the first color season, which was Season 3, as Set 1, so now we have Season 4 as Set 2.  That was only really an issue with the first episode of Set 1, which could prove a bit confusing to first time viewers as it resolves some cliffhangers from the end of the previous black and white season, which itself isn't included.  (The surviving episodes of the black and white seasons are due out in England from Network next month, so maybe there's hope of seeing them here in American down the line.)  Anyway, Set 2 is no less essential than Set 1.  Edward Woodward remains a commanding presence in the lead, turning in some of his best work.  All the essential supporting players from Set 1 return, including Russell Hunter as Callan's dimwitted chum Lonely, Patrick Mower as his calculating colleague Cross and William Squire as his reptillian boss Hunter.  They're joined by Anthony Valentine as fellow agent Meres, a major presence in the black and white series who sat out the first color season.  All of the acting is stellar, as are the tight, downbeat plots.  This time around Acorn provides a valuable extra feature, as well, in the form of two audio commentaries by the late Woodward.  Oh, and Callan kills someone with a speargun!  Indoors, no less.  Yes, I know I just established this as very much part of the "serious" spy tradition, in keeping with The Sandbaggers and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and speargun deaths reek of the more fantastical sort of espionage adventure, like Thunderball or Deadlier Than the Male.  But I assure you, the speargun death in Callan is not only credible, but also gruesome.  The speargun as spy weapon is thoroughly deromanticized.  Callan: Set 2 is just as essential to a thorough spy collection as Callan: Set 1, and should be the first thing you buy out of this week's batch.  (It's also currently on sale as part of DeepDiscount's Acorn sale.)  Check back soon for a full review.

MI-5: Volume 7

One of the best contemporary spy shows (though it's got nothing on Callan) also returns today, with BBC Home Video's release of MI-5: Volume 7.  (Or Spooks, as its known in its native country of Britain.)  Season 6 was a real return to form for MI-5, and I can't wait to dig into the seventh season of this addictive drama.  No character, no matter how beloved, is ever safe in this ever-changing cast, but at least right off the bat Rupert Penry-Jones returns once more as Adam Carter.  Hermione Norris and Miranda Raison also reprise their roles from previous seasons, and Richard Armitage joins the cast as agent Lucas North.  (Uh-oh! Longtime viewers will be aware the the addition of a new cast member usually signals death for one of the existing ones.  Who will it be?)  It's Peter Firth's crusty spy boss Harry Pearce, however, who has emerged as the series' true hero, and one of the only ones at this point who's been around since the very beginning. Just as Season 6 focused on Iran as the primary enemy in a season-long arc, Season 7 turns its attention towards Russia... and a rekindling of Cold War tensions.  Special features on MI-5: Volume 7 include commentaries and various featurettes.  Read my reviews of previous seasons of MI-5 here.

Action Man Collection

The Action Man Collection from VCI unites four near-lost gems of Sixties and early Seventies spy and caper action featuring such stars as Robert Stack, Jean Gabin, Stephen Boyd, Cameron Mitchell, Edward G. Robinson, Ray Milland, Martha Hyer, Jan Murray and Eurospy goddess Margaret Lee.  Colorful heist movies Action Man (1967) and Day of the Wolves (1973) will likely appeal to Sixties spy fans just as much as spy movies The Big Game (1972) and Peking Blonde (1967), although the latter, a Eurospy entry from the writer of Help!, is undoubtedly the (ahem) spylight of this collection. 

Danger Man

The spy gods at Network unleash one of the seminal Sixties spy series this week with their release of Danger Man: Series 1, starring the great Patrick McGoohan as John Drake.  This set comprises the black and white, half-hour episodes.  The subsequent hour-long episodes (known as Secret Agent in the US) have been available for a while in the UK on another Network release, but the half-hour series has long been out of print in its native land. Danger Man was the true beginning of the Sixties spy boom–and it's excellent. The half-hour episodes are my favorites. It was also the first Sixties spy work for such integral contributors to the genre as Ralf Smart (who created the series), Brian Clemens, Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasence, Honor Blackman and, of course, McGoohan. Network's six-disc set is a bit light on extras compared to some of their other ITC offerings (including their version of the later, 1964-68 hour-long series of Danger Man), but still pretty good: you get trailers, image galleries and, best of all, a "commemorative booklet on the making of the series by Archive Television Historian Andrew Pixley." If Pixley's previous "booklets" are anything to judge by, chances are good that this will be considerably more than a "booklet." Pixley's exhaustive histories included in sets like Adam Adamant Lives! or the hour-long Danger Man are full-fledged books, and the definitive word on the series in question. Danger Man: The Complete First Series fills in a crucial gap in Network's fantastic line of ITC titles.  In America, the entire run is available in A&E's Secret Agent aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection.  You can read my review of that set here.


This was actually out last week, but I missed it!  Hot on the heels of a recent Region 2 release from a company called Second Sight comes an unexpected American release of the classic Michael Caine caper movie Gambit.  That's right, it's not a spy movie at all, but fans of Sixties spy movies generally tend to be fans of Sixties caper movies, and this really is one of the best of them, ever.  Plus, I would imagine most readers of this site also enjoy a good Michael Caine movie, so this rarity definitely bears a mention.  Gambit is out in America as a Universal Vault Series DVD-R, burnt on demand in the style of the Warner Archives and available exclusively through Amazon.  I'm not quite sure how I feel about this burnt-to-order trend.  I was very excited when the Warner Archive began, because it created the opportunity for obscure catalog titles to be made available in high-quality transfers that we never would have seen otherwise.  But now I feel like Warner and the studios who have emulated them are simply using the technology as an excuse to put out all of their catalog titles in lower quality versions than we would have gotten had they been released as legitimate DVDs.  But maybe that's an overly pessimistic view.  The fact is, the Home Video market absolutely sucks right now, and I'll take Gambit however I can get it! The ingeniously-plotted caper co-stars Shirley MacLaine and the great Herbert Lom.  Buyers should be aware, however, before buying the Universal Vault version, that the Region 2 release includes a commentary track with director Ronald Neame.
From Paris With Love Poster Art

This is a weird one.  That first, awesome teaser poster that we saw last summer, coupled of course with the intentionally evocative title, certainly lead the audience to believe that Taken director Pierre Morel's latest neo-Eurospy offering, From Paris With Love, will be in the James Bond vein.  But the underwhelming trailers and the kind of awful TV spots tell a different story.  It's clear that John Travolta's super-agent Charlie Wax is about as far from 007 as you can get and still be a super-agent.  Furthermore, based on the trailers, the film itself seems aggressively un-Bondlike.  Which is a bold and interesting direction for a Eurospy flick, neo- or otherwise, since the genre's entire raison d'etre comes down to emulating Bond movies. Of course, the idea of plugging a decidedly un-Bondian figure into the middle of such a plot is hardly new.  The xXx movies attempted to make a franchise out of it.  But this one is odd because it appears to deliberately flout the conventions of the genre while at the same time trading on them in its title and poster iconography.  Curious.  It could be that there is more to this film than can be demonstrated in the all-audiences trailers.  Or it could be a case of a bad movie with a misleading marketing campaign.  But despite the trailers, the print campaign has certainly intrigued me enough to find out! 

The international one-sheet (above) isn't nearly as clever as the teaser poster, nor is it Bondian, but it is at least fairly striking.  Not as much as the French poster designs, however, which still do trade a bit on Bondian iconography:

It's interesting that the French posters very boldly state the title in English.  From Russia With Love itself was originally released in France as Bons baisers de Russie.  So even in France, the title has been deliberately Anglicized, further trading on the 007 brand.  Again: curious! 

The coolest graphic for this film outside of that initial teaser image has to be these awesome busstop ads in Los Angeles.  I couldn't find any official pictures of these ones, so I decided to go outside and take my own.  We've just had a week of heavy rain in LA, so that's why the posters are streaked and gross.  I really like this design, though, with the Parisian cityscape making up the top of the gun and the Eiffel Tower serving as its sight.  I'm including pictures from different distances, because I like the effect the artwork has from a distance and as you get closer.  As of now, the movie itself remains an enigma to me.  (I hope, of course, that it will be good, and producer Luc Besson's track record with neo-Eurospy films like Taken and the Transporter franchise stands in its favor.  But I fear that it won't be.)  The print campaign, however, is impressive. 

Jan 25, 2010

New Spy DVDs Available This Last Week: Golden Boy And Bourne

Before the onslaught of all the awesome spy titles coming out tomorrow, I need to catch up on the ones that came out last week.  Most excitingly, the Turkish Eurospy gem Altin çocuk (Golden Boy) is (first rumored last summer) is out now and available to order directly from distributor Onar Films!  This is an all-region PAL release, which means that it should be playable on most computers with DVD drives at the very least, but American spy fans should be sure to check your player specs.  If you do have the means of playing this, though, I highly recommend ordering it!  The productions values on this 1966 black and white Bond homage appear far superior to certain other, wider known Turkish ripoff films you may have seen.  I don't even want to call Golden Boy a "ripoff" (a term I always use with affection, anyway) because unlike other copyright-violating Turkish ripoff films, this one is fully its own thing.  It's no more of a Bond ripoff than any continental Eurospy movie.  (Well, except for the bits of John Barry score music rather liberally borrowed...)  And it's got a great beginning involving a speargun.  You can watch the trailer here for a good idea of what the film's like, but be warned that it spoils that opening (which works much better in the context of the film).  Altin çocuk is available only through Onar's website.  See more info at DVD Sleuth.

For more contemporary spy tastes, out Stateside this week (er, last) are new editions of the three Jason Bourne films. The most influential spy movies of the new century, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (movie review here) have all been reissued (yet again) by Universal, this time pioneering a new form of old-school double-sided "flipper" technology that the studio is touting.  They are Blu-ray/DVD combos: BD on one side of the disc, standard-def DVD on the other.  While there are some people who hate flippers and claim that it increases the chances of scratches on the disc surface, defects, etc, I've never had that particular opposition.  Just handle all your discs carefully, and you shouldn't scratch them.  I whole-heartedly embrace the Blu-ray/DVD combo model.  There are still lots of people (lots, though the blogosphere probably doesn't reflect that) who have not yet adopted Blu-ray technology (or don't even have the TVs that can take advantage of it), and I think the mere existence of Blu-ray is probably slowing DVD sales to these people.  Personally, I know I bought far fewer DVDs in the days between the advent of hi-def formats and finally acquiring a Blu-ray player.  It seemed pointless to get an old technology when there was a new one out there, and yet DVD is still a perfectly good technology, so I felt no particular impetus to upgrade.  I bet there are more people in that boat.  And a package that offers both DVD and Blu-ray in one go is a good way for studios and consumers to hedge their bets.  While Blu-ray is a fantastic technology, I do put a hefty percentage of the blame for the bottom falling out of the Home Video market on the format, and on the greedy studios who felt the need to force a new format on consumers before its time.  Hopefully this sort of release will help to mitigate that damage.  Believe me, an improving Home Video market, however it happens, would be a great thing for cult movie enthusiasts of any genre.  Right now, many studios aren't even releasing catalog titles! (I'm looking at you, Fox, who is still sitting on a long-ago produced Blu-ray release of the Flint films, as well as the remainder of the Bond movies on BD.) Of course, since most spy fans already own the Bourne movies, a combo release of a brand new film will be a better test of the market.  Even if you do already own all three Bournes on DVD, however, these releases are a good way to upgrade to Blu-ray cheaply.  On sale for half price right now on Amazon (just a few dollars more than the standard-def DVDs, in fact), you can actually get all three movies on BD for considerably cheaper than buying the previously-issued box set.

Stay tuned for this week's new spy releases coming tomorrow...