Mar 31, 2010

Tradecraft: Cartoon Network Books More Cartoon Spies

Variety reports that Cartoon Network has signed a major deal with Paris-based Marathon Media for several kid-oriented animated spy projects.  The deal encompasses a renewal of the network's flagship spy toon Totally Spies as well as a spinoff called The Amazing Spiez and the $20 million feature Totally Spies! The Movie (first reported on here in 2008) which opened last year in France.  Totally Spies (the series) focuses on three teenage girls from Beverly Hills who have accidentally become international secret agents.  Totally Spies! The Movie tells the origin story of how those girls came to spy.  And the spinoff, the "action comedy" The Amazing Spiez, will (according to the trade) center on "friends from an L.A. spy school who travel the world solving crimes."  That sounds cool to me!  I've always liked the idea of spy schools.  The trade also reports that each episode of The Amazing Spiez is fifty-two minutes long, which seems quite lengthy for an animated series.  I wonder if that's a typo?  Or if perhaps they're double episodes, telling two stories in single blocks that could also be broken up?  The budget on The Amazing Spiez seems surprisingly high at $21.5 million, but Variety explains that "Marathon's able to pull down higher budgets thanks to its internationally driven business model."

"We produce first for the U.S. market with an emphasis on international storylines and production values," said the company's principal. "That way we're able to finance about two-thirds of each series with international co-productions, and the remaining 30% from France with local subsidies and TV pickups."

It's unclear from the article what distribution channels Cartoon Network will pursue for Totally Spies! The Movie.  Potentially it could be a theatrical film, a direct-to-DVD release or debut on the network.

Mar 30, 2010

A Better Look At The Spies Of Iron Man 2

Aintitcool has an Iron Man 2 TV spot that aired on the Kids Choice Awards and gives us more of a glimpse at the two Marvel Universe superspies who appear in the film: Black Widow and Nick Fury.  Scarlet Johanssen notably doesn't seem to speak with a Russian accent, as one would expect of Natasha Romanoff.  She sure looks sexy, though, as she does on the film's brand new (and utterly horrendous) one-sheet, which gives her Photoshop-enhanced curves to better approximate the comic book character.  (That S.H.I.E.L.D. catsuit makes me think of Uma Thurman in the Avengers movie.)  Samuel L. Jackson?  Well, he looks like Samuel L. Jackson in an eyepatch.  In other words, he looks like he just stepped out of the pages of a Marvel Ultimate comic book.  Personally, I'd greatly prefer seeing Steranko's version of Fury standing there in his blue and white S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit, but what can you do?  You can't argue with Jackson's coolness. 

Mar 29, 2010

Tradecraft: Another Ian Fleming Movie In The Works

We've heard about two potential Ian Fleming biopics in the offing: Fleming, being developed by Leonardo DiCaprio at Warner Bros. and Ian Fleming, from Palmstar Entertainment and Animus Films, based on Andrew Lycett's excellent book Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond.  James McAvoy was briefly linked to the latter project, but quickly debunked those rumors. Now, there's a third Fleming project in the pipeline!  According to The Hollywood Reporter, Age of Heroes "is based on the true story of the formation of Ian Fleming's 30 Commando unit , a precursor for the elite forces in the U.K."  Of course they mean the 30 Assault Unit, which Fleming dreamed up while working for Naval Intelligence.  The elite squad is the subject of Craig Caibell's new book The History of the 30 Assault Unit: Ian Fleming's Red Indians.  The trade goes on to say that "Sean Bean, Danny Dyer and Rosie Fellner are gearing up to star in [the] action drama ... directed by Adrian Vitoria and set to shoot early next month."  The big question, of course, is who will play Fleming, and how large a role will the part be?  Fleming himself didn't actually participate in any of 30 AU's raids (much to his chagrin) as he was deemed to know far too many secrets to risk capture behind enemy lines.  (The 1990 TV movie Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, starring Jason Connery, took creative license and depicted Fleming taking part in one of the raids.)  But if the film really does focus on the formation of the unit, then Fleming should play a pretty big role.  Age of Heroes is said to be the first film in a potential trilogy; presumably the future James Bond author would take on more of an M-like role in the subsequent films.  Personally, I can't quite picture Goldeneye's Sean Bean playing Fleming; he seems more likely to be one of the soldiers.  It will be interesting to see how this turns out.  Personally, I think focusing on this particular period of Fleming's life (clearly the most exciting!) might be a better approach than attempting an all-encompassing biopic.

For a background on the unit and perhaps some idea of what we can expect from the film, here's Amazon's description of Cabell's book:
The Second World War spawned a plethora of crack special forces units (Long Range Desert Group, SAS, SBS, Phantom and Commandos) but 30 Assault Unit remains, even today, far more secretive and exclusive than the others. Formed by Ian Fleming, who was working for Naval Intelligence, 30 AU's mission was to penetrate and operate behind enemy lines, capture by whatever means necessary vital intelligence and feed it back to London where it could be assimilated and acted upon. This crack team of commandos included mavericks such as Patrick Dalzel-Job (generally regarded as the model for Fleming's fictional secret agent 007), and less well known (despite their conspicuous bravery) figures such as Captains Huntingdon-Whiteley, Captain Martin-Smith, Lieutenant Commander Curtis and Lieutenant McFee. The author has trawled archives and interviewed veterans in order to piece together the history and record of this elusive special forces unit who fought with great distinction and achieved results disproportionate to their size.

Mar 26, 2010

DVD Review: Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season

Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which ran on CBS from 1983 to 1987 may well be the only bona fide hit spy show of the entire decade, making it a fairly important entry in the canon of spy TV. It’s taken a long time to appear on DVD, sought after by nostalgic fans and by curious viewers like me, who missed it in its day, but now, thanks to Warner Home Video, The Complete First Season is finally available. And thank goodness, because it’s a lot of fun!

Not having seen any episodes, I was never sure how much of an actual spy show Scarecrow and Mrs. King was. Did its storylines lean heavier toward the spying of professional secret agent Lee Stetson (Bruce Boxleitner), codenamed “Scarecrow,” or toward the domestic comedy and romantic aspirations of housewife Amanda King (Kate Jackson)? I was happy to discover that it is very much a spy show—and an action-oriented one at that, with lots of gunfights and helicopter chases. Amanda is an ordinary person living an ordinary life (the producers go out of their way to make it as ordinary as it can possibly be–the epitome of 1980s suburban mundaneness) who one day (through a rather awkward contrivance) finds herself thrust into a secret world of espionage and adventure–and never looks back. The series is aggressively of its time, immediately bombarding the viewer with a plethora of Eighties fashions (lots of knitwear!), which enjoy neither the timeless style of the Sixties duds seen on shows like The Avengers and the early seasons of Mission: Impossible, nor the appreciable hideousness of the Seventies wardrobes found on The Adventurer and the later seasons of Mission: Impossible. Occasional pop culture references pop up as well (namechecks ranging from Nancy Reagan to Ralph Nader to Mr. T), adding to the nostalgia factor, while the Reagan era mentality of The Evil Empire pervades the plotlines. Scarecrow and Mrs. King doesn’t use made-up countries as its source of bad guys (well, for the most part anyway), and doesn’t refer vaguely to “Eastern powers” or anything like that, like most of the Sixties spy shows did. Most of the foreign spies haranguing our heroes come from Russia or other real Eastern Bloc nations, which is a refreshing change of pace from what’s come before.

Speaking of what’s come before, though, the basic formula borrows very much from that. The romantic escapism of a regular housewife becoming whisked off by a handsome, debonair secret agent and embroiled in mystery and adventure in exotic settings borrows heavily from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which usually paired agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin with an ordinary woman week after week. But Scarecrow and Mrs. King, somewhat surprisingly, owes far more to The Avengers. Like that show, it follows the exploits of an experienced male secret agent (Stetson instead of Steed) paired with an amateur female partner (King instead of... King. Or, more famously, Mrs. Peel or Mrs. Gale). Beyond that, though, it also follows The Avengers’ successful template for generating exciting domestic spy storylines. The Avengers drew on all the oh-so-very British institutions of everyday life in England (particularly as perceived by Americans, in a canny move) such as milkmen and nannies and butlers and public schools and the RAF and found evil plots lurking in these noble institutions. Scarecrow and Mrs. King does the same thing with all the institutions of Eighties America: suburbia, Winnnebagos, the Army, Avon ladies and football, to name a few. As on The Avengers, enemy agents always lurk just below the surface of all of these things. Scarecrow and Mrs. King exposes these dangers in plain sight, tapping into storylines that their audiences can relate to and providing escapism for all viewers, not just housewives.

In finding the show’s place in spy TV history, of course–and in popular culture at large–it’s equally enlightening to examine its differences from The Avengers. For starters, feminism has apparently taken a major step backwards between the Sixties and the Eighties, contrary to what history books tell us about the women’s rights movement of the intervening decade! Mrs. Peel and Mrs. Gale were both referred to as “talented amateurs.” They were experts in all number of fields and made important investigative deductions based on this expertise, they spoke foreign languages and most importantly they could fight. Cathy and Emma (Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, respectively) always handled more of the combat than John Steed (Patrick Macnee). And they were permitted to indulge in all of these traditionally male arenas (on TV anyway) in style, thus preserving their undeniable femininity while staking their places in what had been up until that point a man’s world. Poor Mrs. King, however, almost two decades later, has dropped the “talented” from “talented amateur.” She’s hopeless in a fight, and leaves the combat to Lee. She does draw on her areas of expertise, but those areas have reverted to 1950s ideas of gender. In the pilot, she solves the case by using her knowledge of recipes and cookbooks. In another episode, she makes a crucial connection by postulating that a woman whose hairdryer conked out would immediately turn to the nearest potential replacement rather than risking a frizzy coiffure. And again and again she draws on knowledge accumulated as a parent or den mother. In other words, she’s allowed to excel, but only in traditionally female arenas. And unlike her trail-blazing forebears, she’s not at all stylish in what she does. Again and again, Amanda is presented in the frumpiest attire imaginable to Hollywood costumers (sweatshirts, headbands and all manner of horrible sweaters) in an attempt to make housewives the nation over identify with glamorous former Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson as one of them.

Style and glamor (such as they exist in 1983, anyway) are the purview of Lee’s fellow agent Francine Desmond (former Playboy centerfold Martha Smith). Francine follows more in Mrs. Peel’s footsteps as a capable, accomplished female agent. Unfortunately, she’s very clearly presented as the bitch. She is Amanda’s nemesis at the Agency. She looks upon Mrs. King with disdain, and reserves particular disdain for the institution of motherhood. A professional woman, apparently, who’s serious about her career, can have no time for or interest in that. Making matters worse, it’s frequently implied that Francine has achieved her position of professional success by sleeping her way to the top. So for an action show with a female lead, Scarecrow and Mrs. King is definitely not very feminist, and represents an unfortunate step backwards from the 1960s.

The other major difference between this series and The Avengers is in the tone. The Avengers reveled in weirdness and the outré; Scarecrow and Mrs. King sticks with less spectacular, more down-to-earth plots. There are, however, a few glorious moments of Avengers-like weirdness updated for the 1980s, such as an ice cream truck that slowly makes its way down a suburban street playing its eerie tune as its occupants fire Uzis. So while it’s instructive to compare the two shows, I’m not saying that you’ll automatically be a fan of the latter just because you like the former. I’m also not saying you won't, however, for despite its lack of social progress, Scarecrow and Mrs. King is quite a fun show, with compelling lead performances and likeable characters with good chemistry. You might not get all that from the pilot, but it becomes evident in subsequent episodes.

The main problem with the pilot is that its primary job is to get these two disparate characters together. The show’s title sequence, set to a terrific musical theme, does a better job of setting up the premise than the pilot does. In the credits, we’re treated to a quick succession of stock shots of Washington D.C. landmarks, thus establishing the series’ locale. (The surprising amount of actual D.C. location photography makes a welcome change from the same recycled LA locations we’re used to filling in for anywhere and everywhere, and gives the show a unique setting.) Next we get a montage of Amanda doing housewife stuff (apparently best represented by counting kids’ shoes and assembling those cardboard Halloween skeletons with brads for joints), thus establishing her vocation, and a quicker montage of Lee doing heroic spy stuff establishing his. Finally, we see some shots of them together in harrowing situations, and we get that they’ve teamed up. That’s all one really needs to know to enjoy the show, but audiences tend to like a bit more information, so the pilot shows us how it happened.

Lee’s on the run from enemy agents in one of those classic spy sequences that’s cheap to shoot as he dodges beneath parked train carriages and crosses the tracks. He’s even wearing a dapper white dinner jacket, thanks to an undercover assignment as a waiter the night before. (Everyone back at headquarters makes fun of him for that, in a nice jab at a spy convention established by 007. Of course, the show thrives more on reinforcing conventions than flaunting them, so as the series progresses we’ll see Lee in more tuxedos and dinner jackets.) He’s clutching a package containing critical information. What can he do? Escape in the bustling crowd? No. He’ll hand off the package to the a frazzled stranger wearing a coat over her nightgown: Amanda. (She’s just deposited her boring weatherman boyfriend, Dean—whose face we never see—on a train.) “Board that train and give this to the man in the red hat,” he instructs her. If that were it, his maneuver might make sense. But of course Amanda is reluctant to do the bidding of a complete stranger, so he has to plead with her and spell it out. In the time that took, the enemy agents still haven’t closed in, and any secret agent worth his salt could have made an easy escape. But no matter; the sequence was awfully contrived, but at least we’ve gotten our heroes together. Amanda boards the train to find it full of people in red hats: a Shriners’ convention. Therefore, she keeps the package. Just as well, because the agent she was supposed to hand it off to soon turns up dead.

Lee enters his spy headquarters through a Georgetown brownstone (like any good spy HQ) and gets in the closet, which turns out to be an elevator which he rides down into a cavernous underground base with little airport-like transport vehicles ferrying people about. This is “the Agency.” It’s never referred to as the CIA, but that seems to be the implication. And, if so, this Agency does an alarming amount of work on US soil, something the real CIA is forbidden to do. But we forgive such things in escapist TV series. HQ owes something to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, and as in that series everyone has to wear a badge in the base.

At headquarters we meet Francine, and Scarecrow’s boss, Billy Melrose (Mel Stewart), a fairly typical spy boss. Naturally, Melrose orders Scarecrow to track down this civilian housewife and reconnect to retrieve the package, and also naturally circumstances force Amanda to tag along on the rest of the adventure. Good thing, too, because she cracks the case with that recipe knowledge and saves Lee’s life in the process. There’s also a fancy dress costume party (another Avengers touch), but it’s happening in the middle of the day and not very glamorous. It’s also full of remarkably weird-looking and weirdly dressed people: pig masks and pope hats and alien antennae. One of the supposedly “hot” ladies who Lee knows scoffs derisively to Amanda, “Oh, you came dressed as a housewife!” setting the tone for the many, many derisive housewife comments she will have to endure from Francine and others throughout the series.

In the early episodes, Lee is for some reason adamantly opposed to being partnered with Mrs. King. “A partner’s a guy who laughs at your jokes, he loans you his socks and one day he takes a bullet through the head for you,” he declares, lamenting the past. The Scarecrow works alone! But not for long. Week after week, Billy Melrose will find excuses to pair his top agent with a housewife. First up, in “There Goes the Neighborhood,” it’s a mission in suburbia.

“Billy wants us to pose as a run-of-the-mill suburban couple, see if anything is going on. And he thought it would be nice if at least one of us were authentic,” explains Scarecrow to a skeptical Mrs. King.

“Oh,” she says, “Well, I don’t have to ask which one of us that might be!”

“Look, I have spent years operating in places like Morocco, Istanbul; I’ve mastered French, Dutch... a little Urdu... but what the heck do I know about everyday life? So how ‘bout it?” he presses.

“Three days,” she bargains. “Time off to see my boys?”

“Sure, sure,” he promises. “And when this is all over, you never have to see me again!” Of course, that’s not true. And the kicker is that, for security reasons, she can’t mention one word to her friends or family, including her live-in mother, Dotty (Beverly Garland), or her two sons. As for her lack of training, well, that’s handled with another quick line from Scarecrow: “Amanda, you don not need training for this one. It is a simple case. I mean, nothing bad ever happens in the suburbs!”

That’s quickly proved incorrect (as it was again on a Season 2 episode of Chuck), of course, as one of their neighbors soon turns up dead. This episode actually does quite a good job of cleverly subverting Eighties suburban conventions and finding that Avengers-like danger lurking in the mundane, thus establishing an effective template for the series. The neighbor’s death is part of a conspiracy to smuggle arms in Avon-like “Connie Beth” cosmetics. There’s nothing scarier than a horde of housewives singing creepy songs at a Connie Beth meeting! All the housewives happily warble, “She’s a Golden Circle Girl, yes she is!” as Amanda is ushered at gunpoint (invisible to the singing women) through the “Golden Circle” gate. While Amanda is limited to housewife fight moves like spraying a bad guy in the face with hairspray, Lee gets to show off his spy moves in a swordfight using the spiked end of pink yard flamingoes!

Scarecrow and Mrs. King revels in all the conventions of every other Eighties adventure series, but instead of detectives going undercover on a football team or a dude ranch, it’s spies. By its third episode, “If Thoughts Could Kill,” the series is already resorting to brainwashing the main character (and a few episodes later Mrs. King will have amnesia), but that old chestnut is at least well executed. This one examines the evil lurking in hospitals, another suburban institution. Lee hates hospitals, so the contrivance to involve Mrs. King this time has Billy lining up a hospital volunteer to help him through his stay. And guess who happens to volunteer at the hospital?

The excuses don’t get much better. In “Magic Bus,” Billy needs an ordinary housewife to embark on a cross-country journey in a Winnebago that’s really an armored weapons system. Unfortunately, the RV doesn’t even make it out of Amanda’s driveway before its commandeered by bad guys, but for Amanda still has to stick along for the ride because only she can identify the culprit. Or something. As you’re probably gathering, the excuses are lame, but they certainly aren’t detrimental to enjoyment of the episodes. That comes not from the thin premise, but from the chemistry between the actors. Despite Amanda’s faceless boyfriend, there’s a clear screwball comedy sexual tension developing between her and Lee, and Francine’s competition with and outright hatred of Amanda is pretty funny. (In Francine’s defense, Amanda does get kind of annoying with her endless homespun “aw shucks” stories about her kids week after week!)

They’re really stretching stretching thin the housewife involvement excuses by “The ACM Kid;” now there’s a kid computer expert who witnessed an abduction and Lee needs him to cooperate with the Agency... but what does he know about kids? Francine, as a modern, professional woman, is equally helpless. So Lee calls up Mrs. King and says he’s got a problem that’s not in his area of expertise, but that she’d be good at

I like the conceit in “Gift Horse” because it’s so utterly random. A visiting Middle-Eastern princess wants to tour an ordinary American school for ideas on improving her country’s education system, and she wants an ordinary American PTA mom as her guide! Guess who they pick? (Hint: it’s not Francine, who offers to “frump it up” for the part.) It’s even annoying Amanda by this point that the Agency doesn’t just go ahead and make her a regular agent. She wants to be trained!

“Amanda,” reasons Billy, “Surely you realize that your value to us is that of a civilian. I don’t need another agent.”

Francine gleefully adds, “Were you to become a known operative, your usefulness would be over!”

“Yeah, it’s great that you don’t know anything!” Lee chimes in. “Hell, the enemy could torture you for weeks and not get a thing!”

Amanda holds her own: “Oh, well, I appreciate that, but I... I don’t think staying alive would compromise my usefulness too much, do you?” The lady’s got a point, but it won’t be addressed this week. Still, at least the housewife excuses appear to be done with. Henceforth, Billy’s excuse for using Amanda will be that she’s an unknown operative. Apparently, all of his regularly agents are utterly useless because the enemy knows all of them. This means that, still lacking any formal training, Amanda finds herself in the Cinnamon Carter role of seductress in “Service Above and Beyond.” Lee is her handler, leading to a Notorious scenario as she gets herself into trouble with foreign spies. As a special treat for fans of the genre, Walter Gotell shows up as a KGB agent far less friendly (and more dangerous) than his Bond persona of General Golgol.

They don’t really try to shoehorn a housewife angle into “Saved By the Bells,” either; instead Amanda becomes involved because she’s mistaken for Lee while feeding his fish. (These particular foreign agents don’t know the gender of “Scarecrow.”) You can be pretty sure this is going to turn out to be one of the season’s best episodes when it begins with Lee fighting a nun, who of course is really a male Soviet agent in drag! He takes the fake nun prisoner, but unfortunately the Russians demand him back in exchange for Amanda, who they believe to be Scarecrow. The Agency naturally disavows her, but Lee goes rogue and takes his prisoner, Rostoff, to a very creative suburban version of a Checkpoint Charlie exchange. They meet on a golf course, and each prisoner is handcuffed or bound to their golf cart, sent towards each other. A regular elderly golfer ends up in the middle of this, with comical consequences. If you want to choose one episode from the first season to gauge your enjoyment of Scarecrow and Mrs. King, definitely give “Saved By the Bells” a try. It’s fun, purely spy stuff!

“The Long Christmas Eve” finds Amanda trying out her homespun housewife wisdom on the KGB as well as the Agency, and her speech about the holiday spirit gets CIA and KGB agents to spend Christmas Eve together in a remote cabin in the woods and call a truce from trying to kill each other. Good thing, too, because WWIII seems about to break out with a whole unit of Russian soldiers on US soil vs. American agents! Lee’s reaction to waking up to find Amanda serving hot chocolate to his enemy is priceless. This episode also gets points for another moment of Avengers-like weirdness when an assassin dressed in a Santa suit blows up a phone booth.

“Remembrance of Things Past” pays tribute to the Sixties spy series that influenced this show. The plot finds a former TV spy turned Agency janitor after a big screen flop killing off the real dashing, handsome young agents because he’s been disfigured. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s a fun idea. Doug McClure plays the former TV spy, which is cool to see, but it would have been even cooler had it been one of the actual Sixties spy heroes. The late, great Robert Culp would have knocked this part out of the park. Oh well.

Another trope of Eighties television is the lookalike, where this or that character has a double who afford the actor or actress to do a funny accent for one episode. “Dead Ringer” is that episode for Season 1 of Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and it’s Francine who has the double—a dark-haired Hungarian agent eager to defect. The Commie Francine doesn’t get along with Amanda any better than the American one, so she causes problems with Dotty and the boys when forced to stay in the King household. This episode also gives Lee a chance to show off his love of hanging from helicopters, which he does a lot. Amanda also gets a good car chase of her own when she takes her station wagon careening across Georgetown lawns.

Amanda eventually breaks up with Dean, putting her back on the dating scene, but that just opens her up to be picked up by a bad guy who gives her an ostentatious jewel with a bug in it in “The Artful Dodger.” So much for Billy Melrose’s excuse that nobody knows her! It seems like all their enemies do if they can pull crap like this.

The ongoing farce of Amanda hiding her spy work from her family starts to wear out its welcome as the season winds down, but we don’t get a reveal this year. Dotty remains blissfully ignorant even when she herself becomes entangled in an espionage plot in “Fearless Dotty.” (Hey, it’s bound to happen eventually if you live in Washington long enough, right?) We also don’t get any payoff in the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Lee and Amanda this season, but as The Avengers proved, that’s probably for the better. We do get to see them undercover as a married couple at a resort in “Weekend,” and that scenario yields more helicopter dangling on Lee’s part.

Scarecrow and Mrs. King typifies an era that had no other spy shows to typify it. If you’re a student of spy show history, then this DVD set is obviously a must-buy. But even if you’re not, it’s likely to appeal to most fans of Eighties television in general, and it’s got more than enough spying and action to satisfy fans of earlier spy shows. The premise comes from The Avengers; just don’t expect the panache or progressive gender politics of that masterpiece.

There are no extras on Warners’ Scarecrow and Mrs. King: The Complete First Season, but it earns points for its packaging. A single-width five-disc flipper slides snugly into a nice slipcase. The slipcase is a good addition to this Paramount-style packaging, because it gives you the title on the top of the box, which helps if you store your TV DVD sets end-out. It’s also classy, as is the rest of the packaging, from the tastefully revamped title treatment (a vast improvement on the Eighties original) to the full-size picture on the back of the case. The stock shots in the opening credits appear noticeably grainy, but they really only serve as a basis of comparison to demonstrate how good the rest of the video looks for Eighties television. This transfer has the Universal Eighties series easily beat. Altogether, Warner has assembled a very nice package, and I hope it sells well because I’m eagerly awaiting Season 2! (And I don’t want it to come out on Warner Archives after enjoying this snazzy packaging for Season 1!)
Tradecraft: Potential Mission: Impossible 4 Directors Emerge

The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blog reports that producers J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise have narrowed their search for a director for the next installment of the Cruise-powered Mission: Impossible film franchise.  According to the trade, there are some intriguing contenders.  Apparently the short list includes director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles).  I liked Zombieland and thought it has some interesting directorial flourishes, but I can't quite make the leap from there to Mission: Impossible.  I'd rather see Fleischer get some more films under his belt before tackling something like M:I:4.  I love Edgar Wright and I loved Hot Fuzz, and I have no doubt that Wright would do a great job with this film (which could potentially reunite him with his Spaced/Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz leading man Simon Pegg, who played a Q-like character in Abrams' M:I:III), but honestly I'd rather see him tackle the spy genre on his own–or with Pegg.  I bet he (or they) could concoct something amazing. 

To me, though (and clearly to The Hollywood Reporter's Borys Kit as well), Brad Bird is the most intriguing choice.  My love for Mission: Impossible is (obviously) rooted not in the Cruise films but in the Sixties and Seventies TV series.  So far, all three of Bird's feature films (all animated) have been love letters to Sixties pop culture.  Iron GiantRatatouille(consider the 2D credits animation!) and most especially The Incredibles are all products of a mind positively steeped in that era!  From the Ken Adam-esque lairs and art direction to the John Barry-ish score to the Jack Kirby-style heroes and robots to the Robert McGinnis (not -ish or -esque; it's the real deal!) poster pictured, The Incredibles is one of the most (forgive me) incredible homages to Sixties adventure entertainment I've ever seen.  Now, I don't for a second believe that Bird would somehow shift the whole franchise back into the Cold War; I know that isn't going to happen.  But I think he would probably look back to the formative years of the TV show for inspiration.  It's certainly possible to make a very Sixties-like spy movie without setting it then, and I would love to see a Mission: Impossible film with a true Sixties flavor!  It's true that Bird has never helmed a live action movie before, but why should that matter?  He's a great visual storyteller, and those skills are the same in live action or animation.  As Kits points out, he's been praised again and again for his "strengths in staging thrilling and intricate action set-pieces..."  And isn't that exactly what a good Mission: Impossible story comes down to?  Yes, I would love to see what Brad Bird did with this film.  I hope he gets the job.  Previously I was rooting for Abrams to return to the director's chair as well as produce, but now I think Bird is my own personal frontrunner. 

These director possibilities also raise some interesting score possibilities.  Wright worked with David Arnold on Hot Fuzz.  Would the resident James Bond composer ever consider defecting (if only briefly) to the competition?  Why not?  John Barry certainly scored plenty of other spy movies amidst his Bond work.  Arnold has worked magic with exciting new reinventions of "The James Bond Theme" and Barry's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."  He's comfortable building a score around an iconic piece by another composer and making it his own, and he's skillfully put his own spin on the Barry sound and updated it for our age.  I'd be thrilled to see him do the same for the second most famous spy tune of all time, and to watch him play in Lalo Schifrin's sandbox!  That possibility alone makes me give Wright a second thought.  But Bird, on the other hand, collaborates with Michael Giacchino.  And Giacchino has already written the best score for any of the Mission: Impossible movies to date.  He's already demonstrated his clear affection for Schifrin's music, adapting not only the M:I Theme, but also Schifrin's "Mission Accomplished" composition.  And I have a feeling that Bird could draw out of him an even more ambitious take on that music than Abrams did.  After all, when John Barry himself wasn't comfortable with writing a Sixties John Barry score for The Incredibles, Giacchino stepped up to the plate and turned in the best Sixties John Barry score since the Sixties!  I suspect he could easily outdo his outstanding score for M:I:III given a second go.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Paramount set a May 27, 2011, release date for the movie and is eyeing a summer start."  So hopefully we'll know fairly soon who the new helmer is... and be able to make a pretty informed guess as to the composer.  I only regret that the great Peter Graves won't be around to do the cameo that J.J. Abrams had mooted last fall.

Mar 25, 2010

Movie Review: Countdown To Doomsday aka Inferno a Caracas (1966)

Maybe it was just because I hadn’t watched a Eurospy movie in a while when I put on Countdown to Doomsday, but the movie struck a chord with me. It’s really in no way remarkable, but it’s just a very solid entry in the genre, smack in the middle of the road. I don’t mean “middle of the road” in a bad way, either; I mean if you want to show someone who’s never seen a Eurospy movie before an example that checks all the boxes in a thoroughly competent manner, then Countdown to Doomsday would fit the bill. (It’s not the movie to start someone on the genre, though, if you want them to get hooked; merely if you want a demonstration that makes clear exactly what the genre is.) When watching these low budget European Bond knock-offs, sometimes familiar is exactly what I want. A tried and true genre entry that doesn’t stray from the lighted path is like comfort food for me. Sometimes I don’t want originality; I just want well-done cliche. Countdown to Doomsday certainly delivers on that account.

George Ardisson, a sort of blond, Italian Steve McQueen–and a pretty compelling leading man–plays Jefferson Merlin, or, in some versions, Jeff Milton. Merlin/Milton isn’t actually a spy; he’s an international private detective. But anyone who’s seen even a few of these films knows that the actual job title doesn’t matter: agent, detective, insurance investigator; it all amounts to the same thing. When a beautiful blonde is kidnapped on the beach in Caracas, her billionaire daddy hires Merlin to go down there and find her. Merlin’s investigation naturally begins at a strip club, where pretty much all Eurospy investigations begin. Remember that computer game, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? You would go from city to city around the world and then have a choice of three places to go: airport, train station, shipyards, etc. If “strip club” were an option there, a Eurospy hero would always opt for it first. And nine times out of ten, he’d be right. (The term “strip club” itself may be a misnomer, though; it seems that in the Sixties–in Eurospyland, anyway–all nightclubs had striptease acts. So these are classy places!) Anyway the strip club reconnaissance usually pays off, and this is no exception.

It seems the millionaire’s daughter, Helen, was working as a dancer at the club, under an assumed name. A lovely dancer named Gloria (Marion Grant) fills Merlin in on this, until her suspicious, sharp-eyed boss puts a stop to it. Apparently the club is a front for drug smugglers (the drugs are sewn into the dancers' bras and panties, of course), and Helen was an undercover journalist writing a story on it.

A late night visit to Gloria’s apartment (under the auspices of seeking more information) results in kicking and punching and Merlin unconscious on the floor and Gloria dead. Obviously, Merlin's been framed as the lead suspect, and he’s soon hauled into police headquarters, where the eager captain and shady police doctor (Horst Frank) try to pin the whole drug ring on him. Luckily, Merlin's busted out by a pair of Interpol investigators who know better. Pipe-smoking, Saint Volvo-driving Shepperton (Harald Leipnitz) and oddly domestic (for a secret agent, anyway) Florence (Pascale Audret) seem like a couple, but conveniently for Merlin they’re not, leaving Florence free for him.

As Merlin conducts a rogue investigation while still wanted for murder, Shepperton pursues more official channels. Merlin’s investigating involves lots of swimming and running around shirtless in the bad guys’ hideout and leads to more punching and kicking and eventual shooting and explosions, but Shepperton’s lower-key detecting turns up more actual clues. Leipnitz has an appealing, easygoing style (especially compared to Merlin’s shoot first/forget to ask questions approach), and he proves the more likeable lead. But there’s no question that Merlin gets to have more fun. His own investigation doesn’t actually get anywhere, but it does involve a big machine gun shootout against a whole cadre of henchmen inside a cave, getting buried under a heap of sand, some genuinely impressive fight moves and a pretty cool car chase.

The kidnapping and drug smuggling plotline somehow leads to a larger scheme to destroy all the oilrigs in Caracas in a manner that will somehow enrich our villains. It doesn’t really matter how A leads to B; in a movie like this you just go with it. B is more fun, anyway, and involves Helen being stuck in a scuba suit and tied, underwater, to one of the oilrigs that’s set to explode. So, just to recap, there is no countdown to any doomsday.  There is a countdown to a debutante getting blown up with some oilrigs, but definitely not doomsday.  That's pure hyperbole.  Still, it's fun.  Unfortunately, the bad guys are all dispatched with almost ten minutes left to go in the movie. Those minutes become devoted to saving the girl and defusing the bombs, but those tasks simply aren’t as suspenseful without any villains lurking around to thwart the hero in their completion. Oh well. It’s still fun... especially when there's lots of frogmen dropping out of helicopters!  (Including Merlin.)

Countdown to Doomsday is unique, I think, in that it demonstrates the dangers inherent for a spy in making out with a girl while operating a vehicle at the end of his mission. Most spy missions end this way (in Murder For Sale, OSS 117 finishes the day making out in a helicopter as he’s still taking off, with no eye on the controls!), but rarely does the hanky-panky cause the hero to drive his jeep smack into a nearby building, as happens here. Let that be a lesson to all Eurospies out there! Keep your eyes on the road.

Countdown to Doomsday isn’t particularly special and certainly shouldn’t be your first foray into the Eurospy genre, but it is a perfectly competent movie (well, save for one especially dodgy special effect, but hey, every Wolfgang Peterson movie has one of those too, and they’re generally forgiven). It’s perfectly entertaining, and there’s really no reason that it should be relegated to an unrestored pan-and-scan gray market transfer (through Something Weird). This is the kind of thing that should be shown on late-night or Sunday afternoon television. With more channels now than ever, why on earth isn’t there one left that shows this sort of movie? There should be. It’s an agreeable way to waste an hour and a half.