Aug 31, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: OSS 117: Lost In Rio Found In Region 1 At Last!

Today, Americans are finally able to buy the fantastic spy parody sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio on DVD!  This hilarious follow-up to OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (which I picked as the best theatrical spy release of 2008) is as loving and meticulous an homage to and send-up of Sixties Bond films, the Eurospy genre and of course the original OSS 117 movies (which played it straight) as you could hope for.  Read my review of the film here, and read my introduction to the character here if you're unfamiliar with OSS 117's current or past incarnations.  Suffice it to say, this film is a must-have for spy fans.  Director Michel Hazanavicius not only sets the film in 1967, but also shoots it as if it were made then, with rear projection and stock footage and appropriate lighting and film stock.  It looks great.  Sadly Music Box Films are not releasing this on Blu-ray, even though there was a Region 2 BD release in France, but happily they have included a subtitled version of the 24-minute Making-Of documentary from the French release!  This includes interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. 

The movie is still going strong in theaters, though, continuing its summer-long platform release.  It opens in Cleveland, OH on September 3 and screens in the Milwaukee Film Festival in Wisconsin the week of September 23.

Also debuting today on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray from Sony is the Michael Caine revenge vehicle Harry BrownHarry Brown isn't a spy movie, but any movie in which Michael Caine kicks so much ass at any age should definitedly be on the radar of a lot of spy fans.  That said, please bear in mind that you are not going into a fun, Taken-style old guy revenge movie.  Harry Brown is a gritty and, frankly, depressing character study that bursts into realistic and disturbing mayhem in its second half.  It is very good and Caine deserves an Oscar nod, but it isn't fun.  You can read my full review here

There are also a few notable releases on the other side of the pond today.  UK spy fans finally get a good version of The Protectors: The Complete Series, courtesy (as usual) of Network.  This colorful half-hour ITC series from Gerry Anderson features former Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn as international private detective Harry Rule.  The plots are fluff, but the action is legitimately international, with lots of location filming, and the music is awesome.  The Protectors is a lot of fun.  Also out in the UK is Mark Gatiss' and Steven Moffat's updating of Sherlock Holmes to the present day, Sherlock.  I haven't seen this yet, but I'm dying to.  (Regular readers will be aware of how much I like Gatiss, who penned the terrific Lucifer Box novels.)  The Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray include commentaries from Gatiss, Moffat and the cast as well as the unaired hour-long pilot episode.  Sherlock is due out on DVD and Blu-ray in the United States with the same special features this November, following a telivision run on PBS.

Aug 30, 2010

Tradecraft: RED Director To Take On Ludlum?

It's been a long while since we heard anything about that Summit remake of Robert Ludlum's The Osterman Weekend (which was originally filmed by Sam Peckinpah in 1983). But apparently the project's got momentum again, according to a nugget buried within a Deadline Hollywood story about who's vying to direct Wolverine 2. According to the trade blog, "Robert Schwentke, who created Comic-Con buzz for his film RED, had been in the mix [to direct the Wolverine sequel] but he opted out of the competition. Instead, Schwentke is eyeing projects that include Robert Ludlum's The Osterman Weekend and Universal's Ryan Reynolds-starrer RIPD as possible next pictures." Ludlum's novel follows a reporter, John Tanner, who's co-opted by the CIA into spying on his fellow guests at a weekend getaway with friends, some of whom he's told are KGB agents. There's no word yet on whether the plot would be updated or set in its original Cold War period, like the new movie version of John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but my guess would be updated.  It's worked well (at the box office, anyway) for the Bourne films, and the themes in Ludlum's original story actually hold up well today.  Last we'd heard about this new Osterman Weekend, Simon Kinberg had written the script and was set to direct.  Obviously he's not directing anymore, but the short trade piece doesn't give any indication of whether or not his script is still in play.  Schwentke previously directed Flightplan and The Time Traveler's Wife. Based on the encouraging trailers for RED, I'd be keen to see him stay in the spy genre... and I'm always game for more Ludlum movies!
Movie Review: The Expendables (2010)

Despite a few standout titles like The Wild Geese (starring Roger Moore), I’ve never been a big fan of the mercenary genre. For better or for worse, it’s one that frequently intersects with the spy genre, from TV shows like Saracen that straddle the line to my least favorite episode of Return of the Saint (which tries to cast Simon against type as an out-and-out soldier of fortune) to movies like The Wild Geese and Sylvester Stallone’s new action all-star jam, The Expendables. The Expendables is not a perfect movie (though it’s plenty entertaining!), but it definitely ranks among the better mercenary pictures, in my opinion.

Bruce Willis cameos as an Agency spook who tasks Stallone’s titular soldiers of fortune with overthrowing the government of a small island nation in South America. The island is ruled by a military dictator named General Garza, but the real threat is the guy pulling his strings: rogue agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts) who could prove an embarrassment to the CIA, hence farming out the assignment to mercenaries rather than using American forces. Munroe bankrolls Garza’s junta in exchange for massive quantities of cocaine he can sell back in the States. If that plot sounds right out of the Eighties, well, that’s the point.

The whole movie is a throwback to the sort of Eighties action movies Stallone and his co-stars used to make, like the second two Rambo movies, Cobra and Commando. It takes place today, but other than a brief (and underwhelming) opening featuring Somali pirates, the CIA/cocaine threat is torn from Eighties headlines. There is nary a mention of Iraq, Iran or the War on Terror. Just as American and British Cold War audiences took comfort in reliving WWII victories on screen throughout the Fifties and Sixties, I think contemporary audiences find solace today in the threats of the Eighties: the Cold War itself (as seen on the final season of 24 and in Salt–as well in newspaper headlines this summer) and islands full of drugs led by evil juntas. These are threats that we’ve conquered (to some degree, anyway; I’m not saying there isn’t still a huge drug problem!) and which seem manageable compared to rogue nuclear states and terrorists hiding in caves. Movies that try to take on realistic contemporary threats head-on, like Green Zone or Syriana, tend to falter at the box office. It’s much easier to embrace nostalgic threats.

The nostalgia in The Expendables is not limited to the bad guys, however. The whole movie is an unabashed throwback, both in its cast and its direction. Eighties and early Nineties icons like Stallone, Dolph Lundgrun (who many forget began his career as a Bond baddie in A View to a Kill) and even Arnold Schwarzenegger (who pops up extremely briefly in the same scene as Willis, which was my favorite scene in the movie) mingle with the most old-school action stars of today, like the great Jason Statham, whose Transporter series is one of the last vestiges of the pre-Bourne action movie. The Expendables itself is defiantly pre-Bourne (or anti-Bourne?) in its approach; Stallone directs action the old way, without an abundance of confusing quick cuts or an over-reliance on obvious CGI. In one of the coolest touches, the general’s army all paint their faces like Aladdin Sane, with yellow bolts cutting across black greasepaint. This not only makes them easy to differentiate from the heroes in the battle scenes (which is kind of necessary since there are so many heroes packed into this flick), but also successfully dehumanizes them, turning them into something more akin to robots or monsters than men, and making the ridiculously high body count easier to accept. Yes, there’s an Eighties level of violence, with death tolls reaching and probably exceeding Commando levels. There’s also a certain exuberance to the violence only found in the films of that era–especially Commando, Cobra and Rambo III. Obviously a film that so gleefully celebrates violence isn’t for all tastes, but if you check any PC inhibitions at the door and let yourself be transported back to a past era of action movie, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Aug 27, 2010

Mission: ... Something

Last week it was John Le Carre; this week it's Mission: Impossible that just won't stop generating headlines.  Yesterday we learned from Deadline that Jeremy Renner will play another agent alongside the returning Tom Cruise, with a view to a possible torch passing in subsequent installments.  Today, Variety has a story that suggests that this outing will be much more of a reboot than previously suspected.  In fact, it won't even be called Mission: Impossible 4.  Weirdly, it might not even be called "Mission: Impossible" anything!  According to the trade, "insiders" disclosed that "it's possible that the title won't even include any variation on the familiar moniker (much as Christopher Nolan's Batman sequel was simply titled 'The Dark Knight')." To which I say... huh?

As I've stated many times on this blog, the film series has basically ignored the premise of the superior TV show on which it's based, going so far as to make the show's hero, Jim Phelps, a traitor in the first film and then kill him off.  That left them with more of an imitation James Bond series (not that we have anything against Bond imitators around here, mind you!), focusing mainly on a single maverick secret agent played by Tom Cruise with occasional support from others.  Fine.  So that means that the studio was paying royalties to someone for what basically amounted to a title and a musical theme.  Again, nothing wrong with that.  It's a great title, and possibly the most recognizable theme music in the world.  But to lose the title part, after long ago abandoning any vestige of the TV series... well, then they're just paying for the theme!  Which is honestly kind of weird.  And what are they planning to call it, anyway?  Batman has long been known as "The Dark Knight" in other media, so that title made perfect sense.  What else is Mission: Impossible known by?  "Lit Fuse?" I suppose Tom Cruise's character's name, Ethan Hunt, is pretty recognizable by now, but when the whole point of this reboot is to phase out Cruise in favor of Renny, that means you can't call the new sequel "Ethan Hunt!"  (The only title I can think of that would really fit these cryptic clues would be Mission Accomplished, which isn't bad but sounds very final.)

Many times I've suggested here that the simple solution to Paramount's dilemma would be to return the franchise to its roots; to go back to a team concept rather than a single lead.  Then they're not so dependent on any one star's box office draw. But the Variety story makes it clear that they're not going in that direction.  In fact, they seem to be going in the exact opposite direction!  And lest fans of the TV series think that it wouldn't be possible to get any further away from it, well, Variety seems to feel that they've hewn closely so far: "In the first three installments, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) worked with a team of agents, reprising the premise of the '60s TV series.  In [director Brad] Bird's film, there will be only two agents, played by Cruise and Renner, who will have a role as big as Cruise's.  While Paramount envisions Cruise returning for subsequent films, Renner could play the central character in future installments."  Again: huh? Will they be seguing Cruise into more of an M role?

While this "only two agents" business doesn't seem to jibe with Deadline's story today that casting was underway for someone to play a young female agent, it's kind of alarming that the project seems to have undergone such a radical shift since Cruise's Knight and Day flopped at the box office.  (And it wasn't even as huge a flop as everyone seems to want it to be; the film has earned $222 million to date, which is hardly a blockbuster, but also nothing to sneeze at.) But when Alias writers (and frequent J.J. Abrams collaborators) Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum first turned in their script, there was no report about its being a radical reinvention of the franchise.  In fact, Paramount seemed quite pleased when it was able to lure Cruise back after such a messy public split following the release of M:I-III.  So has the script been radically re-worked to introduce another agent with a role as big as Cruise's in just the last few months?  With shooting set to begin soon?  And if so, is that a good thing?  As a fan of the brand, I really hope so.  I just don't understand what we're hearing. 

The trade also reveals that "the story brings a fresh perspective to the action-spy franchise and does not pick up where the last film left off."  That also seems a little weird, considering J.J. Abrams really steered that one in the right direction, and since he's producing this one, I would have expected it to continue in that direction.  (Plus, Ethan Hunt was left with a wife or a fiance or something.  Hopefully they'll explain why if she's not in the new film.)  I just can't help but wondering if the Knight and Day situation sent people into panic mode desperate to fix something that wasn't all that broken.  Or at least wasn't broken in the way they thought it was. 

Okay, rant over.  Now I'm going to go do what everyone at Paramount should do: fire up the DVD player and watch some good old Peter Graves Missions...
Tradecraft: T-Dalt Joins Chuck

According to Deadline Hollywood, the great Timothy Dalton will continue his 2010 career resurgence (begun in Toy Story 3 and continuing this winter in The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie) by appearing on the NBC spy series Chuck.  The trade blog reports that Dalton will play "a mysterious stranger who has a history with Chuck’s mom (Linda Hamilton)." Wow, this is great news!  As cool as when Roger Moore turned up on Alias! I'm definitely going to have to start watching Chuck again.  (I confess, I fell behind and eventually gave up during this last season.)  Not only was Timothy Dalton one of the very best Bonds, but he's also one of the best actors working today (just watch Hot Fuzz if you need any further proof!), and it's a shame he hasn't gotten more high profile roles these past few years.  Hopefully this year marks a full-on comeback.  I want to see T-Dalt everywhere come 2011!  (Watching The Expendables, I felt like he would have been a good addition to the cast as a wrongly overlooked Eighties action star.)  Deadline adds that this is Dalton's first TV series role since a guest spot on Charlie's Angels way back in 1979.

Aug 26, 2010

Tradecraft: IMF Recruits Jeremy Renner

The Mission: Impossible franchise is being Daniel Craiged up.  Deadline Hollywood's Mike Fleming reports Hurt Locker star and Best Actor nominee Jeremy Renner has been cast as a new IMF agent opposite returning series star Tom Cruise, who will reprise his Ethan Hunt role, in the Brad Bird-directed Mission: Impossible 4.  This news comes days after Fleming reported that the studio was looking at young actors like Anthony Mackie (Renner's Hurt Locker co-star), Kevin Zegers (Gossip Girl) and Christopher Egan (Letters to Juliet).  Renner, who next stars in Ben Affleck's crime thriller The Town, is almost 40.  The trade blog reports that their screen tests have been cancelled, but it's still unclear whether Renner's been cast in the same role that the younger actors were up for, or whether that's a separate part still up for grabs.  At any rate, the casting of Renner clearly recalls the casting of another rugged, very serious blond actor pushing forty (with similar looks, even) cast to anchor a major spy franchise: Daniel Craig.  (Fleming even quotes a top Paramount executive as citing Renner's "Daniel Craig quality.") I'm not sure the super-serious Daniel Craig route that's been so successfull for the James Bond series is the right way to go for Mission: Impossible, but as for Craig, I have a lot of respect for Renner as an actor, so I'm game to see what he brings to the table.  I'm also elated to see that the Bond movies are now back on top when it comes to leading the way for other spy franchises!  (Renner is not a "Matt Damon type.") 

Paramount have been keen to cast a marketable co-star ever since Cruise's entertaining spy parody Knight and Day (review here) failed at the American box office.  So does Jeremy Renner have what it takes to accept the torch from Cruise and carry on the franchise?  Perhaps, but he's unproven as a box office star.  (Despite winning the Oscar for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker was not a big financial hit.)  I still stand by what I said then: the studio should steer the film franchise back towards its TV roots, and make it more of an ensemble series.  Good Mission: Impossible stories depend on a team of experts in various fields working together to pull off miraculous heists and cons against enemies of the state.  J.J. Abrams brought more of that aspect to his Mission: Impossible III than either of the previous two films had, and it was a step in the right direction.  But while that team worked, we've only heard about Simon Pegg (who had a small, deskbound role) and Ving Rhames (who's been in all the M:I movies so far) signing on to return, not Jonathan Rhys-Meyers or Maggie Q, both of whom had much more to do in the field.  Whether those two return or a whole new team is brought in, I would still love to see Abrams and Bird return the series to the team formula.  That way, Renner will have lots of familiar faces to back him up next time, and Cruise can be easily shuffled out the way Steven Hill's Dan Briggs made way for Peter Graves' iconic Jim Phelps on the TV show.

This is Renner's second high-profile spy casting since his Hurt Locker Oscar nomination.  As previously reported, he will also play S.H.I.E.L.D. agent "Hawkeye" in Joss Whedon's Marvel superhero jam The Avengers (no relation to the real Avengers). Today's  Deadline Hollywood story also reveals (for the first time, I think) Mission: Impossible 4's shooting locations, which show a lot of potential: according ot the trade blog, "The film will shoot in the U.S., Vancouver, Prague and Dubai." And, presumably, the Paramount backlot, if they want to show any deference to the TV show!

Read Deadline Hollywood's whole story on Renner's casting here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.
Latest Avengers Special Features Announced

The Avengers Declassified has revealed the special features on the latest volume of remastered Avengers Special Edition DVDs in the UK from Optimum Entertainment, and once again it's a mouthwatering assembly of goodies. Besides a beautiful remastered picture looking better than ever (if previous installments are anything to go by), The Avengers: The Complete Series 5, a 7-disc set comprising the color Emma Peel episodes, will include multiple audio commentaries, episode introductions, cut scenes, archival television presentations and more.  Brian Clemens contributes a commentary track for "Murdersville," as does scriptwriter Richard Harris on "The Winged Avenger." Diana Rigg sadly doesn't do a commentary, but her stunt double, Cyd Child, does, on "Return of The Cybernauts." And possibly best of all, we get a commentary from scene-stealing guest star Peter Wyngarde on his greatest, most scenery-chewsing Avengers role in the classic episode, "Epic," one of my personal favorites! But that's not all... 

Clemens provides filmed episode introductions to "The Bird Who Knew Too Much," "The Living Dead," "Epic," "The Correct Way To Kill," "The Superlative Seven," (love those two!), "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station," "The Joker" (oh, another favorite!) and "Murdersville." There's also a German TV interview with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, ATV newsreel footage of Rigg receiving a TV Award, "film trims" (short cut bits) from "The Fear Merchants," "Escape in Time," "From Venus With Love" and "The See-Through Man," a "They're Back!" archive trailer, original Sixties German titles, "Granada Plus Points" for each episode (previously released as "Follow the Hat" on the old UK Contender DVDs), stills galleries, copious PDF material (scripts, TV Times, etc.), an insert reprint of the original Series 5 promotional brochure, more painstaking "episode reconstructions" for lost Series 1 episodes ("One For The Mortuary," "Death on The Slipway," "Tunnel of Fear" and "Dragonsfield") and the 1993 documentary presented by Patrick Macnee, "The Avengers – A Retrospective." Whew! Just typing all those episode titles gets me really excited to watch them again.  The Avengers is my very favorite spy show (and Rigg's tenure my favorite era on it), and it's been a long while since I've watched it.  I've been vacationing, exploring all the other British adventure shows of the era, for pretty much the duration of this blog, and I look forward to returning to my spy fan roots, so to speak, just as it's always refreshing to go back to Bond after long stints of Eurospy watching. I just wish these sets weren't so expensive to import.  Hopefully some enterprising American company will pick up the rights abandoned by A&E, port the features from Optimum and re-release the show Stateside on DVD and Blu-ray. 

The Avengers: The Complete Series 5, a PAL Region 2 DVD set, comes out September 27.  SRP is £59.99, but it's currently available for pre-order from for £42.99.

Aug 25, 2010

New Spy CDs: Assignment: Vienna

Well, this is an obscure one!  Film Score Monthly has announced their latest Silver Age Classics soundtrack CD release, and it's a box set of rare TV music from the Sixties and Seventies, including the score music to a few made-for-television spy movies and an eight episode Robert Conrad spy series so obscure it's not available on DVD.  I've never seen Assignment: Vienna, although I've wanted to ever since I got into The Wild Wild West (if anyone has it, please shoot me an email!), so I can't really speak to its music, but I certainly never expected to see a soundtrack released.  Assignment: Vienna music by Dave Grusin (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and John Parker (CHiPs) takes up the better part of two CDs out of the five that comprise the box set TV Omnibus Volume One (1962-1976).  Among the tracks included are some vocal tracks (available for the first time in their entirety) performed in the bar that Conrad's chracter runs as a cover. A George Romanis track from the TV pilot movie that spawned the series, Assignment: Munich (not only was the city different, but so was the star; Roy Scheider played American spy Jake Webster instead of Conrad) is also included. 

But that's not the only spy music in this collection!  There's also the soundtrack by Billy Goldenberg to a possibly even more obscure TV movie called High Risk.  This was a failed pilot for a Mission: Impossible-style show about a group of former circus performers recruited to pull off daring heists for the U.S. government.  Victor Buono and Don Stroud starred.  The composer of the actual Mission: Impossible, Lalo Schifrin, is also represented, via his score for the sci-fi pilot Earth II.  Other composers featured on TV Omnibus Volume One inlcude John Williams, Gil Mellé, George Duning, Jerry Fielding and Leonard Rosenman on such short-lived series and TV movies as Then Came Bronson, The Deadly Tower, The Phantom of Hollywood and The Eleventh Hour.  The set comes with a 32-page booklet including "extensive background notes by film and TV music historian Jon Burlingame, plus stills and artwork."  And because even a booklet that generous couldn't contain all the liner notes they wanted to include, FSM has also made additional notes available online!  These detailed notes are well worth reading for some further background information on these shows and to better guage if this is a release you'd be interested in getting. 

TV Omnibus Volume One (1962-1976) is available from Screen Archives Entertainment for $59.95.  The edition is strictly limited to 2000 units.  You can listen to clips from many of these shows (including Assignment: Vienna) on SAE's website.
Tradecraft: The U.N.C.L.E. Rights Affair

Remember just a few scant years ago when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was still conspicuously absent on DVD?  Fans clamored for it forever, it seemed, before we finally got word that it would come out in season sets from Anchor Bay, and that Robert Vaughn and David McCallum had recorded new commentary tracks for the release.  It was very exciting.  Then that excitement was quickly dashed when Warner Bros. took the wind out of Anchor Bay's sails by issuing a cease-and-desist on the project, and asserting that they owned the rights to the classic spy series.  (It was particularly frustrating at the time, because then they didn't seem to have any plans to actually do anything with those rights.  Obviously that situation changed when they put out a really excellent and feature-laden collection through Time-Life a few years later.)  Well, all's well that ends well, and we all kind of forgot about that Anchor Bay situation when the official release happened.  But I always kind of wondered what went on there, and how a major distributor could be duped into thinking they had the rights to such a major license when they didn't.  (And what happened to those commentaries!)  Now we have some of those answers, thanks to a story in yesterday's Hollywood Reporter

According to the trade, "a Los Angeles jury has awarded $7.3 million to Anchor Bay Entertainment from a woman who was accused of selling rights to the classic TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that she didn't own. Lindsay Dunlap and her Ember Entertainment were on trial for fraud and breaching a 2005 contract with Anchor Bay."  Apparently the fact that she could produce the masters and "footage for DVD extras" was enough to convince Anchor Bay she was on the level, and the company paid her $625,000.  Obviously, they've now been recompensated and then some.  But my biggest question remains: what happened to those commentaries that Anchor Bay recorded, and will they ever see the ligh of day?

Aug 24, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week: The Sandbaggers

This week BFS bundles their remastered Sandbaggers sets that came out to little fanfare last winter into the handy set The Sandbaggers: The Complete Collection.  While I can't fathom why the company chose to divide three seasons into five extra-chunky sets, I can attest that the remastered discs are actually a marked improvement over BFS's previous editions (which were available in three traditional season sets).  They don't add any new special features (though they do retain the scant but welcome ones from the original releases), but the picture quality is noticeably better... within the limits of Seventies British television with videotaped intereriors and exteriors shot on 16mm film, anyway.  But more important than the improved quality is the improved availability.  The Sandbaggers: The Complete Collection is a bit pricy with an SRP of $160, but consider that this is, along with Callan, one of the two best serious spy shows ever made.  The Sandbaggers is absolutely essential viewing for fans of the grittier, more realistic side of the genre.  That "custom-crafted, red presentation chest with gold foil lettering on the flip-top lid" doesn't look like much to write home about, but the "twenty digitally re-mastered and color corrected episodes" contained within are worth their weight in gold.  The individual sets (beginning with First Principles) are still available on their own, and may be a better buy.  However you choose to get them, though, no spy DVD library is complete without these remastered Sandbaggers sets.

I didn't do a DVD post last week because the only major release was Network's Region 2 PAL Mr. Palfrey of Westminster in the UK, and I'd just blogged about that the day before.  But Mr. Palfrey is another great serious spy show, and likely to appeal to fans of The Sandbaggers or, especially Callan.  A Region 1 version comes out stateside from Acorn next month.
New X-Men Movie To Evoke James Bond, Avengers?

Harry Knowles has posted some major updates about the new X-Men movie on Aintitcool.  I know, I know: who cares about the X-Men on a spy blog?  I, for one, haven't really cared about an X-Men movie since Bryan Singer's X2 (which was awesome).  But some of the things that Singer (who's producing this new movie) told Knowles have my interest decidedly piqued.  X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (who was at one time attached to direct a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie), will be a prequel set in the 1960s rather than a modern-day reboot of the superhero franchise.  More than once, Singer refers to the "James Bond vibe" of that era that he and Vaughn hope to capture in the film, and he mentions that Vaughn is inspired by Bondian technology.  A superhero movie set in the Sixties with Bond gadgets and style? Okay, now I'm intrigued!  Let's hope for Incredibles-like Ken Adamish sets as well!  But that's not all.  Singer also reveals that the storyline includes The Hellfire Club, a group of baddies introduced into the X-Men comics by Chris Claremont in the early 80s inspired by the infamous Queen of Sin episode of The Avengers, "A Touch of Brimstone." X-Men's Hellfire Club storyline included a Black Queen (whose costume was based on Diana Rigg's Queen of Sin), a White Queen named Emma (after Peel) Frost, and a character based on guest star Peter Wyngarde's role (and likeness!) named "Jason Wyngarde" (in homage not only to the actor but also to his famous bouffanted character Jason King).  Provided that the set and costume designs are as Avengers-inspired as the artwork in the comics, this could be pretty great.  (Or not.  We'll see.)

CD Review: The Zoo Gang: Original Soundtrack

I can’t remember if I’ve ever said this before in reviewing one of Network’s comprehensive ITC soundtrack sets, but one of the reasons I find these scores so appealing is because, being TV scores, they serve as sorts of digests for everything cool that’s happening in film music in their given era. Let me be clear: I do not mean this as a slight! That they are derivative does not mean that they aren’t creative. Quite the opposite, in fact. If the producers had merely slated in bits of existing movie scores or used total sound-alike bits, then they wouldn’t be fun and would probably detract from the shows in question. Instead, they hired very talented composers (including the great Ken Thorne, responsible for the music for The Zoo Gang) to synthesize what was popular, distill it to its essence, and regurgitate it in exciting and unexpected new ways, greatly enhancing the programs it accompanied. Because the ITC shows themselves were often reflections of big screen entertainment that was popular at the time (obviously Bond, but plenty of other influences as well), it’s only right that their music reflect that. There is no better capsule of an era in film music than an ITC soundtrack; what's going on in movies inevitably trickles down to television as well.

Case in point: The Zoo Gang. This short-lived series about a group of wartime resistance fighters now well past their prime but reunited first to bring to justice a traitor who betrayed them decades earlier and then to right new wrongs lasted only six episodes in 1974, but the incidental music for those episodes plays like “Now That’s What I Call Film Music 1974.” From the bold staccato track that opens Disc 1 and will instantly evoke George Martin’s first cue in Live And Let Die for Bond fans to the funky Paul McCartney theme tune this disc (like that Bond soundtrack) segues into, to even more funky, Roy Budd-ish action music to even the occasional T-Rexian riff, The Zoo Gang represents the very best in music of its era. The mere fact that Paul and Linda McCartney were hired to compose and perform (along with Wings) the theme bespeaks an ITC much more attuned to its era–and particularly the youth culture of its era–than the last time the company mounted a show about reunited war veterans more than a decade earlier in The Four Just Men.  That series about older heroes offered no concessions to the younger generation who would become television's biggest market; in fact there was an episode about how the remarkably out-of-it heroes couldn't even understand them.  A show with leads all in their fifties or above might seem like a strange match for a Wings song, but I think that was actually a canny strategy on ITC's part to lure younger viewers.  (Sadly, it seems to have failed.)

Disc 2 offers an equal variety of musical influences to that on Disc 1. Track 21 is a somber, even mournful orchestral piece that evokes Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather. The suspenseful, exciting track 24 (and tracks 36-38 of alternate versions) sounds like it could easily be torn from one of those great, funky Hammer scores of the early Seventies like Dracula AD 1972 or The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Other tracks offer the perfect cocktail of smooth, Seventies lounge music, akin to Laurie Johnson’s Jason King music (or John Barry’s 1971 Diamonds Are Forever score, to which I also compared Johnson’s music).

While there’s something to please every musical taste (well, at least every Seventies-leaning musical taste, anyway) on The Zoo Gang soundtrack, it’s by no means a hodgepodge. Ken Thorne (Help!, Inspector Clouseau) brings all of these disparate sounds together and skillfully blends them in service of the show. While I obviously appreciate the many different musical genres he touches on, the end result is very much his own. In fact, I think it’s the best representation of Thorne’s work I've heard on CD. (I have most of his officially released soundtracks save for that awesome-looking, super-expensive Superman box set that includes his music and his arrangements of John Williams’ music for Superman II and III.) It’s great original music, great arrangements of the McCartney theme and great music for the show itself. (To me, nothing better evokes the South of France as the ultimate Seventies vacation destination!) Furthermore, it all sounds great on Network’s release. (Even the alternate takes, amidst which Thorne can occasionally be heard talking to the orchestra–but far less detrimentally than the frequent vocal intrusions on the Laurie Johnson Avengers CDs–sound terrific, and don’t get as repetitive as some of Network’s sometimes frustratingly thorough compilations.) And none of these ITC shows sound cheap*; the studio didn’t skimp when it came to recording stellar scores.

I’ve said many, many times before that my own personal Soundtrack Holy Grail is Thorne’s music for The Persuaders!, of which we received one meager incidental cue on Network’s Best of ITC collection. It’s been said that the music is lost; it’s also been said that it’s been recently found. I choose to remain optimistic and hold out hope that one of these days, Network will release a set as wonderful–and hopefully at least as complete–as this one. In the meantime, though, The Zoo Gang: Original Soundtrack is as close as you can get. Even if you’ve never seen the series, if you enjoy Thorne’s work on The Persuaders!, you’ll enjoy this too. (Despite its older heroes, The Zoo Gang shares a similar tone and French Riviera location with The Persuaders!The Zoo Gang is Seventies television music at its very best, and probably my favorite release yet in Network’s ongoing series of ITC soundtracks. This is essential spy music–essential for fans of the show, for fans of Thorne, for Beatles fans and Paul McCartney completist, and essential for fans of the studio and the genre at large. The Zoo Gang itself is a fun series, but by no means essential. Its music, however, is!

In Britain, The Zoo Gang: Original Soundtrack is available for £15.99 as a Web Exclusive from Network's site. In America, it can be ordered from Screen Archives Entertainment for $29.95. You can listen to a good representative sampling of the music here.

*A lot of Thorne’s best music is besot by cheap-sounding recordings. He wrote some wonderful themes for Lassiter–and I’m grateful to have that obscure score on CD thanks to BSX–but it sounds like it was recorded by a three-piece orchestra. The same can sadly be said of his Superman work (at least compared to The London Symphony Orchestra’s bombastic and enthusiastic performance of Williams’ score to the first movie), though I hear FSM has worked wonders to make it sound better than ever on that box set.

Aug 23, 2010

Tradecraft: All The Time In The World

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Robert Rodriguez's previously announced reboot of the Spy Kids franchise (the one he compared to Casino Royale) has undergone a title change that should either please or infuriate James Bond fans: instead of the lame Spy Kids 4: Armageddon, it will now be known by the much more awesome title Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World.  But the question is: is that On Her Majesty's Secret Service-derived moniker too awesome for Spy Kids?  It would make a pretty awesome proper Bond title, in the vein of The World is Not Enough, would it not?  Oh well.  It's Spy Kids now.  Unsurprisingly (given the kiddie franchise's history of wild sci-fi villains from outside the genre), in these hands that title means that the bad guy ("the Time Keeper") is out to stop time.  Also, Jessica Alba will star as the new spy kids' step mom.  The $30 million 3D movie starts shooting in Austin next month.

Aug 20, 2010

Tradecraft: Burn Notice To Return Sooner Than Expected

In more USA spy series news, The Hollywood Reporter reports that Burn Notice, which goes on its yearly fall hiatus next week, will resume on USA in November instead of January this year.  USA, like many cable networks, presents its seasons in two batches: one in the summer, and another in the winter.  The winter edition of USA's signature spy series starts up on November 11 this year (James Bond's birthday!), meaning viewers won't have to wait that long for more Michael Westen after the summer edition wraps up on August 26.  Does that timing mean we'll get a very special Burn Notice Christmas episode this year?  (If so, please make Bruce dress up as Santa!)

Aug 19, 2010

Tradecraft: USA Engages In More Covert Affairs

Deadline reports that USA has already renewed its freshman spy series Covert Affairs for a second season.  The pilot for the Piper Perabo CIA drama drew 4.9 million viewers, (including 2.1 million of them in the crucial "Adults 18-49" demographic), making Covert Affairs "the highest-rated scripted cable premiere this year" in that key demo. "It has remained the No.1 cable series of the year among 18-49," reports the trade blog, growing to 2.52 million viewers in that group as of the most recent episode.  I'm a few episodes behind, but I loved the pilot and the subsequent installments I have seen have continued to impress me.  Read my full review of the series premiere here.
Trailer For Doug Liman's New Spy Movie, Fair Game

Yahoo has the trailer for Fair Game, the film The Hollywood Reporter said "might be one of the best spy movies ever." And so does YouTube!  The trailer seems to confirm that while clearly in a different league from his earlier spy films, The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith,  Doug Liman's latest is clearly a spy film, and not mired in political diatribe as some had feared.  To me, Valerie Plame's story (an intelligence operative exposed and hung out to dry at the whims of politicians in her own government) sounds like it could be ripped out of a Le Carré novel.  It may have gotten lost in the ensuing blather of political pundits on both sides, but at its heart this is a great spy story, and it looks like that is the aspect that Liman has chosen to play up.  Judge for yourself:

Reminder: Last Night To See Bond And Palmer On The Big Screen In Los Angeles!

As reported a few weeks ago, Los Angeles' awesome New Beverly Cinema (recently purchased by Quentin Tarantino) is screening You Only Live Twice and Billion Dollar Brain this week.  The double bill played last night, and will again tonight (Thursday). 
You Only Live Twice starts at 7:30; Billion Dollar Brain follows at 9:50. You can purchase tickets online here.

For more details, see the original story here.

Read my review of Billion Dollar Brain here.
New Spy CDs: From Russia With Love Video Game Soundtrack Offer

Buysoundtrax is offering another exclusive James Bond score CD as a premium when you spend $100 or more.  Once again, I'm really bummed that that's the only way to get this CD, but it is.  And I never happen to have $100 extra cash lying around.  But if you do, spend it at the soundtrack site and you'll get composer Christopher Lennertz's score for the 007 Electronic Arts video game From Russia With Love for free!  (Er, free plus $100, that is.)  This is a factory-pressed promotional CD, not available in stores.  And it's got such cool cover artwork!  You can sample tracks at BSX or on the composer's website (which also offers some cues from his Quantum of Solace game score).  I really wish they'd officially release these Bond video game soundtracks.  I certainly hope they do when David Arnold scores the new GoldenEye game this fall.  I'd love to be able to add an Arnold GoldenEye soundtrack to the Pierce Brosnan section of my Bond CD shelf (even if the new version of the game weirdly stars Daniel Craig in his stead).

Aug 18, 2010

Tradecraft: Ryan Reynolds Seeks Refuge In Safe House

Deadline reports that the utterly ubiquitous Ryan Reynolds has snagged the highly-coveted lead role in Universal's spy thriller Safe House.  As previously reported, Denzel Washington will play a dangerous prisoner who Reynolds, playing a young CIA agent and the sole survivor of an attack on a supposed safe house, must transport across hostile territory.  Nefarious forces are out to kill them both along the way, presumably forcing them to team up.
Tradecraft: Still More Le Carré Adaptations On The Horizon

Wow, this blog has become the 24-hour John Le Carré movie news site all of a sudden!  Well, that's not just me; it's only because the Hollywood trades are spreading a lot of Le Carré news these days.  Even in his late seventies, the author is a deservedly hot property.  This Deadline story about a non-Le Carré script pickup may explain why.  The author's son, Stephen Cornwell (Le Carré's real name is David Cornwell) has recently teamed up with Oliver Butcher to form a production company called White Hare Films, and according to the trade blog, "part of the company's mandate is to package his father's works into movies. That includes an adaptation of A Most Wanted Man, as well as the upcoming Our Kind of Traitor, the latter of which is being adapted by Hossein Amini."  Amini (The Four Feathers) is making quite a name for himself as a spy writer.  Besides the upcoming Shanghai (a period spy thriller starring John Cusack, Chow Yun Fat and Franka Potente), he's also written the script for the next Jack Ryan movie we've been hearing so much about, Moscow.  (Perhaps it's not too late for Le Carré to change the title of his upcoming novel from Our Kind of Traitor to the name of some city?)  Our Kind of Traitor, which comes out on October 12, tells the story of a vacationing couple caught up in a global war of wits between the Russian mafia and various unscrupulous factions within the British Secret Service.  A Most Wanted Man (another one I haven't read, from 2008) examines the friction that still exists between "friendly" intelligence services in the modern-day context of the Global War on Terror.

The main point of Deadline's story, however, is not about the father, but the son, who's gaining quite a reputation as a writer in his own right.  His script with Butcher, Message From the King, has just been acquired by FilmNation.  The pair also penned the upcoming Liam Neeson thriller Unknown White Male.

Aug 17, 2010

Tradecraft: Purvis And Wade Pen New International Thriller, Le Carré Adaptation

Variety reports that James Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have contributed to every 007 script since The World Is Not Enough, have signed a deal to develop an "untitled international action thriller" with Parkes MacDonald/Imagenation.  (That's producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald teamed up with Abu Dhabi financer Imagenation.)  The project is based on a concept by Parkes and Michael Lieber, and "centers on an American anthropologist who travels back to the Sahara to come to the assistance of one of his former research subjects - a young man who has been accused of a terrorist attack." According to the trade, "Story will be set amongst the Taureg tribes of the Sahara West Africa, a nomadic people whose uranium rich land has become a focal point for both energy companies and terrorist states." 

The story also mentions that Purvis and Wade, like their Bond 23 co-writer, Peter Morgan, have adapted a Le Carré novel, in their case The Mission Song.  I had actually reported on this before, but forgotten about it! Anyway, a little digging reveals that Susanna White (who most recently made, um, Nanny McPhee Returns, but has also helmed episodes of critically acclaimed TV series like Generation: Kill and Bleak House) is attached to direct.  I haven't read The Mission Song, but I always welcome more Le Carré adaptations.  The story centers on a Congolese translator of mixed Congolese/Irish parentage and British citizenship who works part time for an MI6 evesdropping operation known as "the Chat Room" and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving governments, arms dealers, bankers and warlords.  According to The Daily Mail, it's set to start shooting next spring, but of course there's always a huge grain of salt to be taken where British tabloids are concerned.
Sherlock Holmes Assists George Smiley

One of fiction's greatest minds will soon assist another.  According to Dark Horizons, the (London) Sunday Times has revealed that Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the titular detective on the BBC's new modern day-set Sherlock (co-created by the great Mark Gatiss) will play George Smiley's right-hand man Peter Guillam in the new feature adaptation of John Le Carré's spy classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As previously reported, Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, Bond 23) has penned the script and Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) will direct; Gary Oldman plays the latest screen incarnation of Le Carré's peerless spymaster George Smiley.  I'm not that familiar with Cumberbatch's work yet, but Sherlock is my most anticipated TV show of the year... and the wait for it to come to PBS in America this fall after a successful summer run in England is killing me!  I'm a tad surprised by this news, though, as I'd pegged Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) for that role.  Now I'm not sure who he'll be.  Fassbender, Ralf Fiennes, David Thewlis and Colin Firth have all previously been connected with the film, though none have been confirmed.  My guess would be that Firth will play Hayden, Fiennes Estherhase, and Thewlis Alleline (which I guess would leave Fassbender as Bland, which seems kind of odd; he's too young to be Prideaux... oh, maybe he's Ricky Tarr?), but all of those actors are chameleon enough that each of them could pretty much play any of those guys.  (Fiennes may well turn out to be Hayden; it's a toss-up as to whether he or Firth more quintessentially embodies that particular breed of upper class English gentleman.) Anyway, those are pure speculation; I'll be very curious to see how it all pans out.  This film remains foremost among upcoming spy movies on my radar!

Guillam is the head of "the scalphunters," the dirty tricks branch of the Secret Service, roughly equilivant to the Sandbaggers or the Section or the Minders or the Double-O's in various other fictions.  He becomes Smiley's ally in ferreting out the mole inside The Circus (as MI6 is referred to in Le Carré's world) by virtue of being young enough to rule out as a suspect himself.  (At 34, Cumberbatch might be just a tad too young... but certainly close enough.)  Michael Jayston (who went on to play 007 in a BBC radio adaptation of "You Only Live Twice") played Guillam in the 1979 mini-series version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness; Michael Byrne (Saracen) stepped into the role for the 1982 follow-up, Smiley's People

Cumberbatch, who also made another movie about a mole hunt at MI6, The Cambridge Spies, looks on track for Hollywood stardom. Besides this, he's also been cast in Steven Spielberg's next movie, Warhorse.  Let's hope Gatiss and Steven Moffat and the BBC have him locked down for at least a few more seasons as Holmes!
Mark Gatiss Tweets About Bond

There is no news here; only me geeking out that someone I admire so much geeks out about the same stuff I do.  Mark Gatiss was in Los Angeles recently to promote Sherlock, and according to his Twitter account he had a very Bond-filled trip.  (Or Licence To Kill-filled, anyway.)  These tweets made me like the Devil in Amber writer even more:
Bugger me! Just met Felix Leiter on the street. That's what LA is for. David bloody Hedison! Although name's is for tombstones, of course.

In restaurant last night, turned to see Robert Davi at nearby table! After yesterday's Felix Leiter, this is Bond heaven!

If Anthony Zerba  isn't at breakfast I'll be very disappointed.
Sounds like Mr. Gatiss had a wonderful trip.  I live in this city and never see that many Bond stars in a two-day period!

Aug 16, 2010

Tradecraft: Michael Vartan Reports For Eurospy Duty

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alias co-star Michael Vartan is the latest actor to board one of Luc Besson's EuropaCorp-produced neo-Eurospy movies.  But I'm not quite sure how to frame this story: is he the latest Eurospy hero, or is he the next Eurospy babe?  Most (but not all) of these Besson-produced mid-budget action movies feature both, and I always try to cover that casting.  Despite Vaughn's occasional action heroics on Alias, Vartan seems a little soft to carry an action movie on his own.  And he won't.  Once more, he'll play second fiddle to a much stronger female lead.  The movie he's joining is Columbiana, the one we heard about earlier this year set to star Star Trek's Zoe Saldana as the first woman action hero in one of these neo-Eurospy movies.  So if she's the hero, then perhaps Vartan is merely the babe.  It sure sounds like it: "Vartan will play Saldana's boyfriend, an artist with no idea what she does for a living who is her only link to normalcy."  What she does for a living (in case you've forgotten) is killing people, all the while hoping to take revenge on the gangsters who murdered her family when she was a child.  Besson (who created another enduring female assassin character two decades ago in La Femme Nikita) co-wrote the script with his Taken collaborator Robert Mark Kamen; Transporter 3's Olivier Megaton is directing.

The trade reports that "production will begin in late summer in Chicago, New Orleans and Mexico City. The action thriller is set to be released Sept. 2, 2011."

Aug 15, 2010

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Mr. Palfrey Arrives On Two Continents

Mr. Palfrey of Westminster will soon be paying a visit to DVD stores in both the United States and England, courtesy of Acorn Media and Network, respectively.  Who is Mr. Palfrey?  Embodied by Alec McCowan (probably best known to spy fans as Algernon, Never Say Never Again's Q), Mr. Palfrey would describe himself as "just a civil servant."  Others might see him as a bespectaled, somewhat Smiley-esque (in his unassuming appearance, anyway, if not his rather smug manner) master of counter-espionage and spycatcher extraordinaire.  Week after week, he devises elaborate schemes to ensnare moles and plug security leaks.  Palfrey is aided by a capable legman, or "plumber" ("I plug leaks.") named Blair and a secretary named Caroline (Briony McRoberts), and reports to a Thatcher-esque female boss known only as "the Co-Ordinator" (Caroline Blakiston). It's sort of like Mission: Impossible meets Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Network's Region 2 release is an Amazon exclusive, available only from (where it comes out tomorrow, August 16, and can be pre-ordered for £18.69).

In addition to both regular seasons of the show (originally broadcast in 1983 and '84), Network's release includes the pilot, an episode of Thames’ anthology series Storyboard, and a 1989 "postscript" featuring Clive Wood's character. 

Acorn's 3-disc Region 1 release, due out on September 21, includes every episode of the regular series (both seasons), but sadly not the pilot or postscript.  However, that shouldn't stop American spy fans from picking it up.  I've just watched the first proper episode on Acorn's set, and it sets up all of the characters and their relationships.  In fact, Mr. Palfrey meets his new boss and his regular associates for the first time, so I'm not sure what that Storyboard episode could have entailed. 

That first episode is written by George Markstein, a man with some experience of his own in the intelligence world well known to fans of the genre for his contributions to The Prisoner and Callan, among other series.  His script actually pays homage to Callan and places Mr. Palfrey of Westminster firmly in the same world as that great show.  (In a tale of inter-agency miscommunication, Mr. Palfrey comes up against an assassin from "the Section," Callan's shadowy branch of the intelligence community.) Another frequent spy writer, Philip Broadley (The Avengers, Department S) also contributes scripts, and guest stars include genre alumni like Richard Johnson, Julian Glover, Ronald Hines and Martin Jarvis.

I started writing this post nearly a month ago when both companies first announced the show, and it got buried for a while.  But reading about it then triggered some important connections in my brain.  For some reason, I had long believed as a kid that Alec McCowan played Smiley.  Now these memories aren't actually based on my own viewings of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Mr. Palfrey of Westminster (both of which aired on PBS in the US), but on memories of my parents watching them when I was far too young to appreciate such political skullduggery.  Anyway, I was always sure that I wasn't merely mising up Alecs McCowan and Guinness; my memories seemed too concrete.  And now I finally realize why I thought that; I was mixing up Smiley with Mr. Palfrey!  It's good to put that together.  At any rate, I'm very excited to discover Mr. Palfrey's adventures in Whitehall.