Feb 25, 2010

Tradecraft: Mike Newell To Direct Litvinenko Movie

Variety reports (via Dark Horizons) that Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireDonnie Brasco) is angling to direct a movie for Warner Bros. about poisoned ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.  Newell is developing the project with writer David Scarpa, basing it on the Doubleday book The Terminal Spy by New York Times London bureau chief Alan Cowell.  Former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006 with polonium-210, allegedly while eating in a London sushi restaurant.  On his deathbed, he accused then-Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering his assassination.  With it's Cold War overtones and Flemingesque bizarreness, the story generated headlines worldwide and triggered an international investigation and subsequent diplomatic tension between Russia and Britain.  It's since fueled other pop culture spy stories, including Dame Stella Rimington's novel Illegal Action, and was also the subject of a 2007 documentary, Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File.  Michael Mann was developing a rival Litvinenko project at Sony with the ex-spook's wife, but that seems to have stalled in recent months.

For an excellent interview with Mike Newell that doesn't actually touch on this project, but does cover almost all the rest of his career, including his time directing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, visit /Film.
R.I.P. Johnny Dankworth

I'd missed this, but Modesty Blaise News reports that composer Johnny Dankworth passed away earlier this month at the age of 82. Dankworth (more respectably known in later years as Sir John Dankworth) composed several key spy scores in the 1960s.  I'll always think of him first and foremost as the composer of the quite quite fantastic Cathy Gale-era Avengers theme.  (Does anyone know a CD with a good version of this theme?  All I ever find is Laurie Johnson's later, Emma Peel-era theme.)  Most of his Sixties spy music accompanied the judo kicks of strong female secret agents; besides Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale he wrote the scores for Monica Vitti's Modesty Blaise and Raquel Welch's Fathom.  (In descending order of "strong.")  His Modesty Blaise score in particular is a masterpiece, featuring what might be the most infectious of all spy theme songs and easily on par with Burt Bacharach's 1967 Casino Royale score in terms of over-the-top, wacky espionage hijinks.  Dankworth's scores for both Modesty Blaise and Fathom are available on CD from the Harkit label; Fathom only just came out last December (as reported with additional information here).  Dankworth's other significant contribution to Sixties spy music was his score for the Peter Lawford/Sammy Davis, Jr. vehicle Salt and Pepper.  He also worked with Modesty Blaise director Joseph Losey and star Dirk Bogarde on The Servant and Accident, and with Bogarde again scoring John Schlessinger's outstanding Darling.  Other notable Dankworth scores of the Sixties include Morgan and the Michael Caine movie The Magus.  After pursuing other interests for a few decades, Dankworth returned to film scoring in 2000 to lend a suitably Sixties vibe to the British gangster movies Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang) and Gangster No. 1.  I have no doubt that Dankworth will live on forever, because the theme song for Modesty Blaise is indelibly stuck in the heads of anyone who's ever seen the movie!

Feb 24, 2010

DVD Review: Callan: The Monochrome Years: Season 1

DVD Review, Part 1: Callan: The Mono-chrome Years: Season 1

I went directly from watching the fourth season of Callan (just released in the US as Callan: Set 2) to watching the first season in Network’s new Callan: The Monochrome Years set. I’d heard that the early years were the best, so my first reaction was, “hm, this really isn’t so different from Season 4. It’s more Callan. More of the same, but when the same is so incredible, that’s a good thing.” I quickly realized I was in the wrong mindset. Yes, going from Season 4 to Season 1, Season 1 is indeed more of the same. But what I should have done was watched a bunch of Avengers and Saints and Barons from 1967, the year Callan began. Because then it would have hit me harder that when Callan debuted, it was as far from “more of the same” as you could get. It wasn’t like any other regular spy show on television. Even the grittier ITC series, like Man in a Suitcase and Danger Man, were still adventure series first and foremost. Callan is not.  This grim and gritty espionage drama must have knocked British TV audiences on their ears in 1967. David Callan was a wholly different kind of secret agent than people were used to seeing in their living rooms every week.

Edward Woodward made his first appearance as Callan in an episode of the anthology series Armchair Theatre entitled “A Magnum for Schneider,” but it’s clear that the concept was envisioned as a series even at this point. “A Magnum for Schneider” is very much a pilot. All of the regular characters are in place (if not all the regular actors), and even the Callan theme music is already there, following the evocative Armchair Theatre theme. Callan’s boss, Hunter (later established to be a codename assigned to a succession of different people), is played here (quite excellently) by Ronald Radd, who would reprise the role in the first proper season of the show. All of the series dynamics are quickly outlined in a brief (and useful) expositional exchange between him and Callan:

Hunter: What’s my section for?
Callan: Getting rid of people.
Hunter: Exactly. Bribery, frame-ups, deportation...
Callan: Death.
Hunter: If... there’s no other way, yes.

Hunter says that he’s had ten men killed in the last seven years and Callan did two of them. Those numbers would rise dramatically over the next seven years; I think Callan kills a whole lot more people than that by himself over the ensuing seasons! But despite being good at it, Callan is never happy about killing, and that character trait is in place from the show’s inception here. Evidently, he’s been transferred out of the Section for his scruples. Callan worried about the innocent (which even Hunter must admit was commendable), but he also worried about the men he killed, so Hunter had to let him go. Hunter says he went soft. Callan, however, doesn’t enjoy the dead-end job he was transferred to, and Hunter misses his skill. He wants him back, but first he wants him to prove that he’s got what it takes to come back–that he hasn't gone soft. Hunter assigns Callan to kill someone on his own, with “no help from the Department, not even a gun.”

Hunter gives Callan a red file. Red files indicate those considered a danger–those marked by the Section for elimination. The file in question concerns a man named Schneider. “What’s he done?” Callan wants to know, true to form.

“Never mind what he’s done!” snaps Hunter. “You’re always asking for reasons. That’s what makes you weak. Schneider’s in a red file! That’s reason enough. Well?” Well nothing. Callan accepts the assignment. He may have scruples, but he’s also bored to death at his dead-end accounting job for a horrible, uptight boss. As much as he professes to hate Hunter and the Section and everything that it stands for, and as much as he doesn’t like what he’s asked to do, he does like the challenge such work provides. And so he accepts the mission–provisionally, anyway–and sells his soul, an act he’ll be repenting for the rest of the series. (And, thematically for Woodward, even longer, onto The Equalizer.)

Making matters worse, Callan quickly discovers that he likes Schneider. Schneider (Joseph Fürst, Professor Metz from Diamonds Are Forever) is a fellow model soldier enthusiast, and the two men genuinely connect over this shared hobby. Schneider invites Callan to play a campaign against him sometime. And so, in addition to plotting the man’s death, Callan launches his own investigation into Schneider, determined to pass judgement on his crimes himself before killing him.

The characters are all fully formed and intact at this stage, as is Woodward’s bravado performance, and Callan is already demonstrating his objectionable rebellious side and his annoying (to Hunter) habit of asking questions. But not everything is yet firmly established in the pilot. Callan’s cockney underworld contact and friend, Lonely (Russell Hunter, as always) is as smelly as he ever is, but he dresses nicer–and frequents nicer establishments–than he will on the ongoing series. Hunter’s office in the pilot is a lot more luxurious than later versions of that set will be; it even has windows! The later basement digs seem more befitting the Section’s seedy nature. And, most glaringly, Callan’s eventual cohort Toby Meres is played by a different actor altogether! The character himself is there (Meres is everything that Callan’s not: upper class, psychopathic and utterly incapable of caring), but the face is that of Peter Bowles, not Anthony Valentine. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s seen his stellar work on other shows (he turned up in virtually every ITC series of the time, and his guest spots–usually villainous–on The Avengers were always memorable; personally I think of him first as the diabolical mastermind in “Escape in Time”), Bowles makes an entirely suitable Meres. In fact, had Anthony Valentine not come along, I have no doubt he would have made a definitive Meres; he would have made the character his own completely–and a classic. The guy’s a great character actor. But since Valentine did come along and made the part so thoroughly his own, such speculation is entirely academic. It’s tough to accept any substitutes, so Bowles comes as a bit of a shock to those used to Valentine from later seasons.

The other biggest difference in the pilot is that, while the drama is just as excellent as ever, the pilot doesn’t seem as “in the know” as later season manage to about espionage tradecraft and technique. Perhaps this is because George Markstein, who had an actual intelligence background, hadn’t come aboard yet as script editor. Or perhaps creator James Mitchell simply didn’t have enough time to research before getting the play on the air. Callan’s street cred is most seriously undermined (both in the pilot and the early episodes) by Woodward’s tendency to scratch his head with his pistol, like the cop in Plan 9 From Outer Space. It might be some good “stage business” (as they say) for an actor, but it’s certainly not very becoming of a professional assassin! An arms expert of some sort must have said something to Woodward about it later on, because this distracting habit fortunately goes away.

All in all, “A Magnum For Schneider” does everything a good pilot should. It establishes the main character (explaining his insubordination, Callan recalls his army days: “I was a corporal... twice. I didn’t get on with officers.”), establishes all the crucial supporting characters and makes clear their relationships to Callan, and establishes a very distinctive (and bleak) tone for the series. It also serves its purpose of setting up all of these elements for an ongoing series. By the pilot’s end, Callan and Hunter have come to “an arrangement” securing Callan’s future employment in the Section on his own terms. “A balance of terror,” Hunter calls it. Basically, they have each vowed to kill each other should things go badly–and they each know the other to be capable of making good on their threat. “A Magnum for Schneider” is a crucial stepping stone in the show’s evolution, and I’m very grateful that Network managed to clear the separate rights to include this episode of Armchair Theatre in this set. As it's so tied in to what follows, Season 1 wouldn’t be complete without it. While the otherwise impressive audio has that hiss so commonly associated with videotaped Sixties television, the video quality is remarkably good.

Due to the frustrating practice at the time in British television of “wiping” old episodes once they’d aired (and served their entire purpose, as envisioned by the shortsighted programming executives of the time who thought of TV as a disposable medium and could not possibly foresee DVD or home video), most of Callan’s first season no longer exists. Luckily, though, all of these episodes are generally standalone, and we don’t miss out on crucial installments of a serial plot. (Just imagine if half of Lost’s episodes were wiped and unavailable to future generations?) And quite fortunately, the very first episode does still exist, so as armchair television historians, we can watch the series spring out of the pilot!

Stylistically, “The Good Ones Are All Dead” continues as a piece from “A Magnum for Schneider.” Hunter’s office is now gloomier and Meres is now Anthony Valentine, but the same theme music and same bleak videography are firmly in place. Also carrying over from the pilot are Callan’s internal monologue voiceovers. These are later dropped (and later unnecessary, I would say, as Woodward conveys it all with his expressions), but they are helpful in establishing this antihero character early on. The audio on the DVD has improved (the hiss is gone), but the video isn’t quite as sharp as on the pilot. Such variances are to be expected when dealing with old elements, and overall Network has done a thoroughly commendable job with their remastering and preservation. (The company has even restored a previously lost episode in Season 2 by recutting its surviving, unedited footage!)

When the series proper begins, the arrangement between Callan and Hunter seems to be working well–even if it horrifies Meres. Callan’s new mission is to go undercover as a bookkeeper for a man Hunter assures him is a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity and wanted by the Israelis. There’s no killing required, Hunter assures Callan; he just needs to turn the man over to the Mossad. Once more, though, Callan feels the need to prove to himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that his new, kindly employer is indeed who Hunter says he is. To do so, he enlists Lonely’s help, cracking the man’s safe and examining its contents. Those contents quickly bear out Hunter’s briefing, but Callan still has trouble reconciling the kindly man (who, when confronted, admits to years of guilt and penance) he knows with the monster he supposedly was. I can’t help but think that Hunter might be right, and that Callan might indeed be a little too soft if he even feels sympathy for a Nazi!

The Mossad agent involved doesn’t like Callan’s methods and doesn’t like Callan, but Meres actually defends him. “I despise him,” he admits, “but he’s very good at his job.”

From the existing opening episode, we jump forward to the next existing episode, which happens to be the season finale! (Luckily, it was a very short season, so there are actually only four episodes missing.) This episode, "You Should Have Got Here Sooner," focuses on Lonely, and his relationship with Callan is already getting Callan into trouble with his colleagues, as it will for years to come. Lonely has coincidentally stumbled onto a Section operation in the midst of one of his rather clumsy burglaries, and the Section sends round a man to beat him up. This doesn’t sit well with Callan, who considers an attack on Lonely akin to a direct attack on himself. He swings by the office (as his casual employment arrangement entitles him to do) and demonstrates his tough guy coolness that would make even Jack Bauer cower in terror by deducing which new recruit bat up lonely and responding in kind, in full view of Hunter. The is the first salvo in a game of oneupmanship between the two men, as Hunter and Meres attempt to extract the location of a deadly nerve gas formula from a Russian spy they’ve allowed to escape, and Callan basically tries to derail their game as revenge for what they did to Lonely. Callan and Hunter always have a tense relationship on their best days, and every meeting between them is a verbal chess match, but it’s great to see them actually working against each other, plotting move and countermove.

Innocents caught up in espionage without their knowledge (and usually being damaged or destroyed by it) is a favorite theme on later seasons of Callan, and it’s already in place in the first season. The innocent in this episode is the escaped Russian spy’s former girlfriend, a Party Member who’s foolish enough to believe that he loved her. He was of course using her, but no more than Meres or Hunter or even her own mother are also trying to do. It’s a real pleasure to watch Callan figure out what’s going on and then figure out what he’s going to do about it. And it’s almost as much of a pleasure to the audience as it is to him that his solution involves Meres ending up in the hospital.

Only three episodes of Callan may survive from Season 1 (counting the Armchair Theatre pilot), but they are three stellar episodes, proving that the show had all the elements that made it great from the very beginning. And they’re three more than we had before, excepting expensive and hard to find bootlegs. Spy fans the world over are indebted to Network for releasing these episodes legitimately for the first time ever. Callan is as good at its beginning as it is at its end, and its great that fans can now actually see that beginning. Of course, this isn’t a DVD set containing only three episodes. Network has also included every surviving episode from Season 2 (which features a new Hunter and even more doomed innocents), and those will be covered in Part 2 of this review later this week.

Callan: The Monochrome Years is currently available to buy through Network’s website at a remarkable discount. If you have the means to pay PAL Region 2 discs, be sure to get it! You won’t regret it.

NOTE: For some reason I am unable to take screen captures from Network DVDs, and therefore could not provide my usual illustrative accompaniment for this review.  But, fortunately, you can see what the discs look like for yourself; Network has uploaded the whole beginning of "The Good Ones Are All Dead:"
Breath Control: Bond Girl On Ice

Spies are everywhere—even at the Olympics!  South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-Na (Kim Yuna) took the lead in the women's short program with a "Bond Girl"-inspired routine to the sounds of John Barry's distinctive 007 music (with assists from Monty Norman and David Arnold).  Most mainstream news reports erroneously say she skated to "The James Bond Theme," but Bond fans know differently.  It was definitely a medley of Bond music, beginning with what sounded to me like some of the underwater cues from Thunderball before going into bits of From Russia With Love and (maybe?) You Only Live Twice and concluding with some David Arnold music and an Arnold-era verison of the Bond theme.  (If anyone identified the exact tracks, please comment below!)  Sadly, she didn't work in any of Bill Conti's score from For Your Eyes Only, in which ice skating features in the plot.  Oh well; Conti's music wouldn't have fit in very smoothly with the more classic stuff.  The 19-year-old sensation incorporated the Bond mystique into her routine as well, pulling off a convincing "Bond Girl" look with her choice of costume and ending up in a gun pose after "firing" at the audience—or the competition. See this real-life Bibi Dahl for yourself on YouTube.

Yu-Na is not the first skater to perform a routine to Bond music; I remember Brian Boitano doing a similar program (I think in Lillehammer) and even ending it with a traditional gun barrell pose.  French skater Eric Millot and Russian Tatiana Rachkova have also used Bond music.  Personally, I'm not that into figure skating, but I am into that music, and I'll always root for anyone who chooses it!
New Spy DVDs Out This Week

Well, the biggest spy DVD release this week (and certainly the biggest spy DVD release of the year so far–and, frankly, not likely to be surpassed in that capacity) comes from England, where Network unleashes the surviving episodes of the first two seasons of Callan–for the first time ever on home video.  Callan: The Monochrome Years marks the first time that these early, black and white episodes of this seminal spy series have been legitimately available to see since the Sixties.  I've talked a lot about how great the later, color seasons of this Edward Woodward espionage drama are, and these earlier episodes are no different.  They're every bit as good and every bit as gritty as the subsequent seasons.  That grittiness must have been a jolt when Callan first aired on British television in the late Sixties amidst must more fantastical spy fare like The Avengers, The Saint and Department S. Now, don't get me wrong; I love those shows too.  But I want to illustrate what a radical departure Callan must have been when it debuted!  While James Bond and his escapist cronies like Derek Flint and Matt Helm (and all the Euroguys, of course) had grittier, more down-to-earth competition on cinema screens from the likes if The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, there simply weren't many realistic alternatives on TV.  Danger Man and Man in a Suitcase were both serious spy dramas, but still ITC adventure series first and foremost.  Callan alone positively thrived on the seedier side of spying.  While it's a huge shame that so many episodes from these early seasons are lost, it's an even huger bit of luck that so many actually survive–and a gift to spy fans everywhere that Network has released them.  The company even secured the rights to include the show's de facto pilot, an episode of Armchair Theatre called "A Magnum For Schneider."  This is truly great television preserved on truly great DVDs from one of the best companies in the business.  Every time I mention Callan, I also mention "essential," and I promise you it's not an exaggeration.  These DVDs are essential.  And, luckily, they're also currently available at nearly half price on Network's website.  If you have the capability to play Region 2 PAL discs, get them! 

Here in America, we get another long-awaited spy drama on DVD: The Internecine Project, starring James Coburn as a decidedly un-Flint-like secret agent.  This has been available in England for a while, but not in a new, high-definition animorphic widescreen transfer, and not with extras like a half-hour interview with writer Jonathan Lynn, an audio interview with James Coburn's daughter and the film's original theatrical trailer.  The Internecine Project was first announced by Code Red way back in 2008; now almost a year and a half later it finally materializes courtesy of Scorpion Releasing, who I believe are somehow affiliated with Code Red.  Surprisingly, this extremely dark and brutal suspense thriller comes from Ken Hughes, one of the many directors on the 1967 version of Casino Royale.

Also out today on DVD and Blu-ray is one of the best of the surprisingly few spy movies released in 2009, Steven Soderbergh's industrial espionage comedy The Informant!, in which Matt Damon plays a spy as unlike Jason Bourne as imaginable.  He's Mark Whitacre, a delusional corn executive turned at times unwilling and always incompetent undercover man for the FBI.  (He asks to be called 0014, boasting that he's "twice as smart as James Bond.")  There's actually less spying and less comedy on display here than the trailers would have you believe, but the resulting film is nonetheless excellent.  I found Soderbergh's intentionally underlit (was it natural lighting?) cinematography annoying at times, but the clever script by Scott Burns and perfectly-utilized Seventies spy score by former Bond composer Marvin Hamlisch (not to mention a stellar performance from Damon) more than make up for that.  As is so often the case with Warner Bros. releases, DVD buyers get screwed out of an extra feature. The standard DVD features only deleted scenes; the Blu-ray features those and a commentary track with Soderbergh and Burns. 

Finally, I must mention an item crucially overlooked last week: another one of the best spy movies of 2009 (in fact, it might well have been my surprise top pick of the year had I ever gotten around to my best of list), the hilarious blaxploitation comedy Black Dynamite.  Michael Jai White plays a former CIA agent pulled back in by the Agency to investigate the murder of his brother at the hands of drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles.  What is the CIA's interest in a drug murder?  You'll have to watch the movie to find out, as I wouldn't dare spoil the absolutely hilarious directions the conspiracy leads our hero.  Just as the new OSS 117 movies are to the Eurospy genre of the Sixties, Black Dynamite is in equal measures a parody of and a loving tribute to the Seventies blaxploitation genre, fetishistically recreating the period and the style of filmmaking, right down to intentionally visible boom mikes in a few shots.  While it's not a traditional, straight-up spy movie, anyone who appreciates the blaxploitation genre or good comedy in general should definitely check out Black Dynamite, which came out last week on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony.

Feb 23, 2010

Tradecraft: Archer Reloads

The Hollywood Reporter reports that FX has ordered a second season of Archer, the animated spy parody/workplace comedy.  I haven't written about Archer yet, but I really like it, and I'm glad it's coming back.  The order for the second season is larger than the first, too.  This time, the network has greenlit 13 episodes.

Feb 19, 2010

Tradecraft: Maggie Q Goes Femme

Mission: Impossible III's ultra-hot Maggie Q has been cast as the new La Femme Nikita in the CW's previously reported Nikita pilot, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "The casting of Maggie Q is particularly significant," says the trade, "as it jumps off an iconic character historically portrayed as Caucasian, first by Anne Parillaud in Luc Besson's 1990 film, followed by Bridget Fonda in the 1993 redo Point of No Return and Peta Wilson in the 1997 USA Network series.."  That's not entirely true, though; we've already learned that this Nikita is a brand new agent, recruited to replace the original Nikita, who's gone rogue.  Nevertheless, it's still notable that this casting marks "the highest-profile series role for an Asian actress on a broadcast drama series and the highest-profile CW minority casting in the network's four-year history."  According to the trade, this is a landmark pilot season for minority casting--and it seems to me that spy shows are leading the charge!  We've already seen Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe cast as the married spies in J.J. Abrams' Undercovers, and the Hollywood Reporter also mentions that Freddy Rodriguez has been tapped to star in Chaos for CBS.  I hadn't heard of Chaos before, but the trade's description sounds right up my alley: "Chaos revolves around rogue CIA operatives who combat bureaucratic gridlock, rampant incompetence and political infighting. Rodriguez will play a dedicated and naive agent who believes he can make the world a better place."  Brett Ratner directs the pilot.

As for Maggie Q, I'm kind of (pleasantly) surprised that the CW cast a 30-year-old; I'd assumed they were going to reboot the franchise for a more Gossip Girl-aged star, considering the network's regular demographic.  I loved Maggie Q in both M:I:III and the last Die Hard movie, and I look forward to seeing her star in a spy series.  She's certainly got the fight moves to match the beauty as a convincing Nikita!  The biggest question remaining right now is who will play the original Nikita?  Will she even be a character, or just mentioned in passing?  And if she is a character, will Peta Wilson or Anne Parillaud do a cameo?

Feb 17, 2010

Win Double Identity At Spy-Fi Channel

Chrisopher Mills at fellow COBRAS site Spy-Fi Channel is running a contest giving away copies of Val Kilmer's latest direct-to-DVD spy movie, Double Identity.  Val plays a doctor mistaken for a secret agent.  The beautiful Izabella Miko, who grabbed my attention a decade ago in Coyote Ugly and The Foresaken, then seemed to drop out of sight, plays the girl.  What are you waiting for?  Head on over to Spy-Fi Channel to enter!
Modesty Blaise Short Story Collection Back In Print

Modesty Blaise News reports that Peter O'Donnell's long out-of-print collection of Modesty Blaise short stories, Pieces of Modesty (surely one of the greatest titles of all time, I've always thought), is finally available again!  The title has been issued at last by Souvenir Press, who have reprinted all the other Blaise books (including O'Donnell's only other story collection, Modesty's swan song Cobra Trap), but took a few extra years in getting around to this one.  This edition will be of particular interest to collectors because of its cover art.  All of the other current Souvenir trade paperbacks reprint the cover art from the original Souvenir editions, but Pieces of Modesty was for some reason the only Blaise book that Souvenir didn't originally publish in England.  The artwork they've used is certainly of a piece with the covers for some of the previous books (including the UK first edition of the first novel); what's unknown is whether or not it's original artwork that's been on the shelf for years, or a newly commissioned work in the same style.  Modesty Blaise News has a fascinating publication history of this title, as well as a great gallery of all the covers

Collectors certainly aren't the only ones likely to be interested in this new edition, however.  Even casual Modesty Blaise readers–or those who have never read one of O'Donnell's books, but are curious about them–should rejoice!  In my experience, Pieces of Modesty has always been by far the scarcest Blaise title, which is too bad, because it's got some great stories and actually makes a wonderful introduction to the character.  When I was first tracking down all of these books (prior to Souvenir's current line of reprints), it took me a long time to find Pieces of Modesty.  I eventually lucked into the Mysterious Press hardcover first edition at remarkable bargain price, and subsequently acquired a couple of paperback versions–but paid a fair amound for them.  I'm really glad that this book will now be available in print for new readers to discover without having to go to the ends of the earth–or pay exorbitant prices–to own.  As I say, it's a great introduction to the literary incarnation of the character.  If you only know Modesty through Titan's excellent comic strip reprints, or through Joseph Losey's highly entertaining but also highly flawed–and utterly unfaithful–film adaptation, this is the book to get!

Souvenir Press's new edition of Pieces of Modesty is available now from Amazon.co.uk and due out at the end of March from Amazon.ca.  There's no US release date yet, but I'm sure if we're patient it will turn up on these shores soon enough.  All of the other Souvenir reprints are available through US Amazon. 
More New Young Bond Artwork

Hot on the heels of giving us our first glimpse at Kev Walker's awesome cover art for the upcoming UK paperback edition of Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier, today the our friends at the website the Young Bond Dossier (as opposed to the book) deliver the cover artwork for the forthcoming American hardcover edition of the final book in Charlie Higson's first cycle of James Bond novels, By Royal Command.  And... I'm afraid this one's kind of a letdown.  For some reason, publisher Disney/Hyperion has not hired Walker to do the final cover in the series.  (To date, Walker has handled all representational artwork for this series, on book covers, promotional pieces and even a graphic novel adaptation of the first novel, Silverfin.)  Instead, we get perfectly serviceable cover art by Owen Richardson–but it's not the same.  It doesn't match the rest of the series.  Not only does it not look like Kev Walker's art; it looks too much like it's trying to look like Kev Walker's art!  Once the publisher opted to go with another artist (for whatever reason; perhaps Walker was unavailable), I think they should have let him do his own thing and the results might have been better.  Instead, this piece echoes the composition of Walker's covers... but it's slightly off.  I really don't understand why the same publisher that rejacketed the first two books so that they would have uniform paperbacks for the whole series would change things up with the final entry!  I was looking forward to a matching set of Walker-jacketed books.  Oh well. 

To focus on the positive, Richardson's artwork certainly isn't bad; it's just not what we're used to.  I really like the artist's style (although it seems to have been somewhat altered in a vain attempt to match Walker's); it's very pulpy.  I like that this Young Bond looks decidedly older than he did on the last cover (appropriate, given his age and what he's been through in the course of the series) and I like that Richardson's depiction of Bond Girl Roan Power reminds me of the Bond Girls on the classic Pan paperback covers of the 1950s. 

Anyway, head on over to the Young Bond Dossier to see the full cover for yourself, in all its high-res glory. 

By Royal Command comes out in the US on May 18, and can be preordered on Amazon.

Feb 16, 2010

I Love You, Joe Walker

Reader Mark has left a comment alerting us to the fact that Gino Mainuzzi Jr.'s score for Kommissar X: Operazione Tre Gatti Gialli (better known to the English speaking world as Death is Nimble, Death is Quick) has been issued on CD by Columbia Japan (catalog number VQCD-10128).  It's available to order from CDBANQ and CDJapan. You can even listen to generous 45-second samples of all nineteen tracks at the latter site! (Try tracks 17 and 4.)  Great as this soundtrack sounds, though, it apparently doesn't include the ubiquitous and catchy theme song "I Love You, Joe Walker."  So let's hope this is the just beginning of a whole series of Kommissar X soundtrack releases!  The Kommissar X movies are among the best (and sleaziest) of the Eurospy genre.  They all have great scores, and I, for one, would buy every one of them.

Read my review of Death is Nimble, Death is Quick here.
Read my review of The Kommissar X Collection here.
Read my obituary of Kommissar X star Tony Kendall here.
Order The Kommissar X Collection on DVD from Amazon.

Feb 15, 2010

New Young Bond Paperback Artwork Revealed

The always-on-the-ball Young Bond Dossier has revealed the cover artwork for the upcoming UK paperback edition of Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier.  Personally, I love it!  YBD points out that this cover, depicting young James Bond in action as drawn by Kev Walker, breaks decades of tradition not only for Young Bond, but for any British James Bond book since the Eighties.  All UK editions of the last twenty plus years have shied away from any pictorial representations of 007 himself up until now.  Well, I'm glad they made the change.  While certain past cover depictions (ahem) don't age so well, this is a classy, classic image of young James, and a very dynamic pose befitting a dossier called "Danger Society."  (It's also reminiscent–though I'm sure unintentionally–of the fantastic OSS 117: Murder For Sale poster, as well as a great Italian Persuaders one.) The paperback comes out June 3, and can be preordered on Amazon.co.uk

I'm rather tardy on my review of the hardcover edition, which came out last fall, but suffice it to say that this is an excellent volume and a definite must-have for fans of Charlie Higson's Young Bond novels.  It also contains quite a lengthy James Bond short story.  For now, click here for more information on the book.

And be sure to head over to the Young Bond Dossier to see a much larger version of this very cool cover!

Feb 13, 2010

Tradecraft: Jack Bauer Storms Europe–And The Big Screen

Mission: Impossible, The Saint, The Avengers, The Wild Wild West, I Spy, Get Smart... all great shows; most pretty awful movies. And now, yet another spy TV show is being recycled as a film.  The twist is, this one's still on the air–and the movie will feature the show's original cast!  Variety reported earlier this week that Jack Bauer is finally coming to the big screen–and courtesy of Billy Ray, no less, writer (and director) of one of the better "realistic" spy movies of the past decade, Breach (DVD review here; movie review here). According to the trade, the movie will see CTU's top field agent traveling to Europe. 

A 24 movie has been mooted for years, and apparently Ray's pitch impressed Fox execs as well as Kiefer Sutherland and Brian Grazer, both of whom would produce the film.  Presumably, a theatrical film will be significantly better than the TV movie, 24: Redemption, that served as a prequel to the show's seventh season. 

Personally, I've long wanted to see Jack Bauer make the leap to the big screen, and hoped for a drastic change of location–ideally Europe.  The super-intense Bauer is a strong enough character in Sutherland's hands to easily carry a film franchise.  I hope that Ray's script drops the real time conceit altogether; Bauer is also a strong enough character that he doesn't require that gimmick. It seems likely that the movie won't stick to the TV show's famous digital countdown but will still feature a ticking clock element; Sutherland told Entertainment Weekly last month that a 24 movie "would be a two-hour representation of a day."  That's fine.  I don't think the movie even needs that, though.  I'd pay to go see Jack Bauer jet off all around the world like James Bond or Ethan Hunt, getting into actiony scrapes and demonstrating his trademark badassery wherever he goes.  (Obviously, intercontinental air travel doesn't work in a real-time TV format; one flight would last half the season.)

Meanwhile, as Agent Bauer prepares to make the leap to the big screen, is his small screen time finally running out?  The Hollywood Reporter thinks so.  The trade speculates that the movement on a possible feature signals that "this might be the Bauer’s final real-time day-long adventure." While the show still performs well in its eighth season (down ten percent from last year, it's still the third-highest rated drama on Fox), "24 is pricey to produce and has little syndication value."  The Reporter's James Hibberd gives it 40% odds of returning for a ninth season.

Feb 12, 2010

Tradecraft: Waterworld Principals Reteam For Spy Comedy

Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood reports that star Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, who haven't worked together since their spectacular clash on the set of their 1995 collaboration Waterworld.  Costner's brand-new agency WME will immediately begin trying to put together financing for the actor to star in a spy comedy for Reynolds called Learning Italian.  According to Fleming, "Costner will play a CIA agent who has been stationed in an idyllic coastal town in Italy to keep an eye on a KGB agent there -- until both secret agencies order the two spies to return to their respective countries."  In order to justify their continued stay in this Mediterranean paradise, the two rival spooks team up to concoct an Our Man in Havana/Tailor of Panama-style phony threat.  I like the sound of that, and particularly the apparent Cold War setting.  (Unless, of course, Fleming is mistaking KGB for Russia's contemporary security servise, the FSB.)  Prior to Waterworld, Kevins Costner and Reynolds teamed up on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Killers Trailer

Five Killers, the Ashton Kutcher/Katherine Heigl spy comedy first reported last year, has dropped the "Five" and gotten a trailer.  I read this script a long time ago, and it was fairly entertaining--but it clearly called for a very Bondian leading man to work right.  Kutcher may be many things, but he is not Bondian.  I don't buy him for one second as a deadly spy, but I do like his mumbled line in the trailer about working for the "blah blah blah" and having a "license to blah."  Judge for yourself:

The story follows a single girl who meets a suave guy named Spencer while on vacation in Europe with her parents.  They hit it off and get married, but he never bothers to tell her he's a government assassin.  Not until a time-delayed hit on him suddenly pays off, and suddenly everyone in the couple's quiet, suburban neighborhood seems to turn out to be a sleeper agent gunning for Spencer and his new wife.  Killers hits theaters on June 4, 2010.

Feb 11, 2010

New Eurospy Book Available Now

Screen Archives Entertainment is now carrying imported copies of the new Italian book on the Eurospy genre, Segretissimi: Guita Agli Spy-Movie Italiaini Anni '60 (Top Secret: A Guide to Italian Spy Movies of the Sixties) by Daniele Magni.  English-speaking readers, beware: the text of this book is in Italian only!  If you want a great introduction to, exploration of and all-around bible for the Eurospy genre, look no further than Matt Blake and David Deal's The Eurospy Guide.  It's absolutely essential!  But if you've got that already and you love the genre, there are so few books on the subject that you might want to snap up Segretissimi even if you don't read Italian.  (I hear it also has a lot of pictures!)  Here's the publisher's blurb:
Text is in Italian!

228 pages in Italian Language containing the Plot, the Cast, the Foreign Title of hundreds of movies. LIMITED EDITION OF 500 HAND NUMBERED COPIES.

Also includes a black and white Poster or Playbill for each movie listed.

Everyone knows James Bond, Agent 007. But how many remember Agent 077, or agent Joe Walker, or Agent 3S3, cheap copies of Ian Fleming's celebrated character made in Italy? Yet each of these characters was so successful that they were the protagonist not only of one, but a series of films. Within a few years, between 1965 and 1968, Italy produced (or rather co-produced) just under two hundred films in the espionage genre, in the wake of success of the 007 films. By the law of numbers, at least some of these films are worthy of rediscovery. Follow us on this journey into one of the less popular genres of Italian film, and you will be surprised to find how many Agents licensed to kill by Cinecitta' conquered the world. Dictionary of all the Italian Spy Movies of the '60s, written by Daniele Magni. Foreword by Stefano Di Marino.
Smith & Smith Redux?

New York Magazine's surprisingly well-informed entertainment blog The Vulture reports (via /film) that Fox is plotting a new Mr. & Mrs. Smith film–without star couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The Vulture calls it a reboot, which certainly fits the current mania, but the actual concept, as described, doesn't really sound like a reboot to me.  The non-sequel would be called Jones and, according to the blog, would focus on a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-like "pair of twentysomething spies are set up as a fake married couple when they graduate agency training."  Of course, the original Mr. and Mrs. Smith weren't technically spies; they were assassins, but it's ultimately the same difference, right?  Akiva Goldsman, who produced the original and mentored its screenwriter Simon Kinberg, will once again produce.  There is no mention of Kinberg's or director Doug Liman's involvement. 

Everywhere I look I see a tabloid screaming that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are breaking up. While I normally pay little heed to celebrity gossip, I do get a pang every time I see those rumors and think they mean we'll never see the Mr. & Mrs. Smith sequel (the idea, for better or for worse, was that they'd have a kid) that was mooted as soon as the first movie proved a hit.  According to The Vulture's Claude Brodesser-Akner (formerly of Variety and still the host of NPR's "The Treatment"), a rocky relationship between the stars (true or false) isn't the only reason we'll never see that sequel.  "The real reason," he says, "is economic. One of the root rationales behind Hollywood's reboot fever is that by ditching pricey talent but extending popular name-brand franchises, they get the best of both worlds: a title people know and like, with stars they can afford." 

It should be noted that this is not the first time Fox has attempted to extend this particular franchise with younger, more affordable stars.  In early 2007, a TV pilot was shot with Martin Henderson and Jordanna Brewster playing John and Jane Smith.  (Full details here.)  That pilot was written by Kinberg and directed by Liman, and was sadly never picked up (despite brief, renewed hope).  Perhaps it may yet show up as a bonus feature on a future Blu-ray reissue of the original film; I hope so, as I'd love to see it!