Sep 30, 2010

Nick Fury Net Cartoon

I'm not really up to date on stuff like this, but apparently Marvel has been posting some online "micro-episodes" (why not calle them "microsodes?") of a cartoon called The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes that picks and chooses from Marvel's regular Avengers comics (again, this is Marvel Comics' all-star superhero squad, not the real Avengers you're usually more likely to read about here) and their Ultimate comics.  The latest micro-episode (the ninth) stars Marvel's eyepatched superspy Nick Fury, and he's quite literaly an amalgamation of the the classic Nick Fury of Steranko's comics and the Ultimate version of the character, based on Samuel L. Jackson and actually embodied by the actor in Marvel's live-action movies (most recently Iron Man 2).  The Fury in this cartoon does not look like Jackson, isn't bald, and doesn't wear a long black leather coat.  He basically looks like Steranko's Fury, complete with classic blue jumpsuit and (by the end of the episode) grey streaks in his hair.  But like the Ultimate Nick Fury, he is black, and apparently voiced by a black actor.  It's kind of weird, but personally I like it a lot better than the version of the character based on Jackson.  This version of Ultimate Nick Fury may be of a different ethnicity than the character's original incarnation, but skin color aside he's pretty much the character Steranko fans know and love. (Unlike the Ultimate version and the movie version, wherin Jackson's larger-than-life persona eclipses any familiar Fury traits.) And that's why this little cartoon is kind of cool, and worth mentioning here.  It's a rare chance to see Steranko conceits in motion, including Nick's flying sports car and stretch underarm wing glider thing.  Give it a look on YouTube, then pick up Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. trade paperback to see Marvel's version of James Bond from the height of the Sixties spy craze.
(Thanks to Josh for sending me this link.)

Movie Review: Flame of Stamboul (1951)

After the defeat of Germany at the end of WWII (and the end of the Forties spy classics that went with it) and before James Bond came along, most spy movies were simply crime movies with exotic settings. But as the Cold War warmed up, a few managed to subtly buck the trend in the 1950s, in some ways presaging the direction the genre would go in the Sixties, following 007's explosive cinematic debut. Columbia’s B-programmer Flame of Stamboul, directed by Ray Nazarro and starring the future governor of Hawaii Richard Denning, is surprisingly such a film. It’s not a very good film or a particularly exciting one, but what’s interesting about it is how many of the B spy movie tropes exploited to their fullest during the Eurospy boom are already in place. Flame of Stamboul has the settings (Istanbul and Cairo, both established via stock footage), has the strip clubs (in both cities) and the beautiful female spy who strips there (Lisa Ferraday), has the Macguffin (the military secrets variety), has the imposters so prevalent in the genre and even has the louche American hero whose traditional, square-jaw good looks are offset by his jerkiness and quickness to rough up a woman. It’s even got (oddly, for the Red Scare Fifties) a non-political villain (former Moriarty George Zucco–bald, naturally, and for most of the movie seen only in shadow and known as “the Voice”) of the sort later embodied by the agents of SPECTRE, THRUSH and CHAOS (“a spy with loyalty to no country, a mercenary selling information to the highest bidder!”). But what it lacks is more telling than what it has for students of the genre.

What Flame of Stamboul lacks highlights the possibly less obvious, but ultimately more crucial, ingredients of the spy movie as we know it in its 1960s-on model: actual location photography, a catchy, propulsive score, car chases, Technicolor, more than one beautiful girl, a smash-up finale and a substantial quantity of action that amounts to more than just fist fights and the odd shooting. Sure, not every Eurospy movie or American poverty row spy movie of the 1960s has all of those things, but the best examples of the genre certainly have at least some of them.

Location filming may be the most important ingredient of an escapist spy adventure for me. Actual shots of Rome, Madrid, Beirut and Istanbul (all of which even the cheapest Eurospy producers clearly had easy access to) really sell that difference from the standard crime movie, which were certainly a dime a dozen in post-war American cinema. After those grainy establishing shots from the film library, Flame of Stamboul is all sets–mostly cheap, indoor ones, with the occasional jaunt across the studio’s generic, single-street middle-east backlot.

Most spy fans have great appreciation for good scores, but it’s impossible to realize just how much those post-Barry beats add until you try to watch a movie of this sort without them. If someone with a whole lot of time on his hands were ever to re-edit Flame of Stamboul to, say, a Riz Ortolani soundtrack, I have a feeling it would feel a whole lot more like a Eurospy movie even though it would still lack all those other elements.

Color on its own isn’t essential (there are quite a few very good black-and-white Eurospy movies, mostly from the first half of the Sixties), but like a great score, it sure does a lot to pass over a low-budget film’s shortcomings. Some of the weakest Sixties Eurospy movies are saved by vibrant or, later in the decade, psychedelic colors. It functions the same as exotic scenery, flashy cars and sexy, scanitly-clad women (huge apologies to women for relegating your sex to set dressing, but rich characterization was not a hallmark of Eurospy babe roles. Hey, I’m not making this stuff up, merely analyzing it!): it draws the eye away from the films’ ample shortcomings. The shortcomings in Flame of Stamboul are on full display, with little in the way of distractions–and only one woman!

The action in Flame of Stamboul is what you would expect from a movie of this budget and this period, which is to say not much. Even the cheapest Eurospy movies learned quickly to put the least expensive stuff up front and pinch their pennies for a slam-bang finale. (See especially: Lightning Bolt, which pulls out all the stops for an underwater bas/rocket launch finale you didn’t think it was capable of.) Flame of Stamboul ends not in a lair of any sort, but a room–one of those cheap reusable sets with a table and some chairs and a lamp and little else. When the action comes, it’s in the form of punching and a single gunshot–and that’s all diminished because the one previous action scene was also punches and a single shot. I really don’t know what changed from a technical standpoint between the early Fifties and the early Sixties that suddenly allowed low budget movies to have car chases, but it was a crucial change. Some hot chrome would have added a lot to this film.

Of course complaining about all of its shortcomings (which is intended as analysis, and not just bitching about what really couldn’t be, given the limitations of the budget and the period) neglects the film’s more impressive attributes that I cataloged up front. It really is surprising how many of the familiar Eurospy hallmarks are present in a film of this vintage. It plays like a Eurospy movie that’s been stripped of all of its color and pizzaz. Flame of Stamboul isn’t a bad spy movie and it isn’t a particularly good one either. Unless you’ve got a special affinity for B-pictures of that era, it’s not necessary to seek out. But it IS instructive in studying the elements that will cement the genre into the state that we know and love in the 1960s. It will make you long for Technicolor Jet Age magic–and in its way, with its crude use of an old-school burglary plot as a cover for its new-age espionage shenanigans, it played a small part in delivering that, functioning as a stepping stone between film noir crime movies whose plots happened to concern Communist cells and bona fide spy movies of the Swinging Sixties.

Sep 28, 2010

Tons Of New Spy DVDs Out This Week: OtleyIron Man, Danger Man And More

Woo-whee! (As Sheriff J.W. Pepper might exclaim.)  There are a lot of new spy movies out today!  It's an embarrassment of riches that makes me embarrassed by my lack of riches, because I want them all but my poor wallet just can't handle it.  It's time to start making my Christmas list...  The flashiest new spy title is Iron Man 2, featuring Marvel's two top superspies, Nick Fury and Black Widow, but the best is Otley (1968), one of my very favorite spy movies of all time.  (And yes, as I've often threatened, I will eventually get around to writing a "My Favorite Spy Movies" piece about it, and now I can hopefully illustrate that with screencaps from a lovely new transfer.)  But Otley, unfortunately, isn't a straightforward DVD, and you can't buy it in stores.

With the market for catalog titles on DVD apparently and lamentably dead (thanks as much to the advent of Blu-ray as to the downturn in the economy if you ask me), more and more studios are noticing the success of Warner Brothers' burn-on-demand DVD-R program, the Warner Archive, and emulating it.  We've seen Universal and MGM launch similar (if far less extensive) programs through Amazon, offering movies on DVD-R burnt to order. There are a lot of drawbacks to the formula: while they do generally look pretty good (with the occasional exception, like MGM's pitiful House of Long Shadows), most of the catalog titles released this way are not remastered with anywhere near the precision that a studio puts into a regular DVD catalog release, and they never offer any of the special features like making-ofs or commentary tracks that consumers became accustomed to in the heyday of the DVD format. Then there's the little matter that they're on DVD-R, and not real DVDs. And, worst of all, there's the price point, which remains awfully high for a featureless, sometimes un-remastered DVD-R. But the upside is a big one: programs like the Warner Archive mean that we get to see titles released that might never even have made the cut in the halcyon days of deep catalog releases. And while the quality might not be up to the standards of the few big prestige catalog titles that still come out (like The African Queen earlier this year), it's generally a far sight better than the gray market alternatives.  These DVD-Rs are like legitimate bootlegs, using the best available elements. Overall, they're a good thing in this marketplace, and I'm glad that more studios are jumping on the bandwagon.  Sure, I miss the past, when even obscure catalog titles would get the Special Edition treatment, but the realist in me knows those days aren't coming back, so fans of classic films have no choice but to embrace the DVD-R programs.  Well, there is a choice, but it amounts to those titles never coming out at all, and that's not acceptable. 

The latest studio to launch a Warner Archive-like program is Sony.  A little over a month ago, pre-order listings quietly started turning up on Critic's Choice Video and (more cheaply) their sister site, Deep Discount. (Sadly this post has existed in some unfinished form since then, when it was an "Upcoming Spy DVDs" post!) A press release finally materialized a few weeks later announcing "Screen Classics by Request" from the website  (Listings for some of them finally materialized on Amazon as well, although Deep Discount seems to remain the best bargain.) The first batch officially becomes available today, and included in the hundred-odd titles are several spy movies!

Foremost among them is Otley. The great Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who would later become Sean Connery's go-to script doctors, making uncredited but integral contributions to the scripts for Never Say Never Again and The Rock) wrote this 1968 counter-culture comedic spy caper starring Tom Courtenay and a host of faces familiar to Sixties spy fans, including James Villiers, Leonard Rossiter, Romy Schneider and Ronald Lacey.  This is a fresh take on the classic "wrong man" subgenre of spy movie, starring Courtenay as Otley, a drifter adrift in Swinging London who (thanks in part to a beautiful woman) becomes accidentally embroiled in complex espionage plot and finds himself relentlessly pursued by eccentric characters representing several different mysterious groups with different goals.  The standout scene is a driving exam that turns into a wild chase through busy streets and even the green of the Goldfinger golf club.  It's absolutely essential spy viewing, especially for fans of that era.  (And who isn't?) 

Other spy titles available from the Columbia Classics website include The Executioner, Man on a String and DuffyDuffy (also '68)is another incredible document of the late Sixties, again embracing the counter-culture.  James Coburn is the title character in this one, and the setting is the French Riviera.  The Executioner, starring George Peppard, Joan Collins and Charles Grey, represents the more serious side of the Eurospy genre.  It's a gritty and violent tale of double agents, double crosses and flawed heroes.  1960's Man on a String stars a pre-OSS 117 Kerwin Mathews in his first major spy role, as the handler of a real-life double agent played by Ernest Borgnine.  Borgnine's character is called Boris Mitrov in the film, but the real story is that of film producer and musical director (and spy) Boris Morros, whose extensive credits included a number of Bulldog Drummond movies in the 30s. 

Other Screen Classics by Request that excite me and are likely to excite most fans of Sixties spy stuff include Fragment of Fear, a mod psychological horror film written by Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold scribe Paul Dehn, the awesome Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper movie A Study in Terror and the campiest, craziest, trashiest American vehicle for Diabolik star John Phillip Law, The Love Machine.

But not all the spy titles out this week are made to order.  Iron Man 2 is not only available everywhere as a regular DVD, but also as a Blu-ray and in a confounding number of configurations on each format (single discs, double discs, combo discs, digital copies, etc). Spy fans will want to opt for the 2-disc Special Edition DVD or the 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo (also available in special metal packaging exclusively from Target), which include the special features "Spotlight on Nick Fury" and "Spotlight on Black Widow," as well as "S.H.I.E.L.D. Files," whatever those are. 

Finally, A&E is re-releasing Secret Agent AKA Danger Man: The Complete Collection.  This seminal Sixties spy series starring Patrick McGoohan (really the cornerstone of the genre on television) has been available before, but now A&E has shrunk the price and shrunk the size of the box, both welcome changes.  The previous set housed each disc in its own slim case; I haven't seen the new one but I'm presuming that it fits two discs per slimline, like TV shows from most other companies.  This set is excellent, and you can read all about it in my review of the its last incarnation here.  (The content has not changed.)  Suffice it to say, Danger Man has gotten lost in the shadow of McGoohan's less successful (at its time) but more enduring follow-up, The Prisoner.  It's much more than just a potential prequel to the later show; Danger Man is the first serious espionage drama of the modern era, and set the template for just about everything to follow. Retail is $99.95, but as with many A&E titles you can find this 18-disc set (containing every single episode from both the half-hour and hour-long series) for nearly half that at a number of online retailers.
Tradecraft: More M:I-4 Casting

Last week we heard that Michael Nyqvist would play a villain in Mission: Impossible 4; now comes word from The Hollywood Reporter that Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost) has also joined the cast as another member of the Impossible Missions Force.  That's more like it!  So much for all that talk about this one being a "two-hander" instead of a team movie; with all these team members it's got to be at least somewhat of a team movie...  Anyway, if they're looking for hot young stars to counter what Paramount apparently perceives as Tom Cruise's fading appeal, I think Holloway will bring more potential star appeal to the table than Renner, who is an excellent actor, but seems a bit less likely to bring in the ladies. 

Sep 25, 2010

TV Review: Undercovers Pilot (2010)

To be honest, I was expecting very little of Undercovers, NBC’s new romantic action series about married spies. True, it’s J.J. Abrams directing (and co-writing), which is a rarity on TV these days (now that he’s a fancy-schmancy film director), and it’s J.J. Abrams directing spies, which usually warrants outstanding results. (Alias pilot, anyone?) But the print ads were boring (I liked James Hibberd’s dismissal of the campaign in The Hollywood Reporter: “Let’s have a dangerous espresso!”), the extended trailer shown at upfronts was dull, the regular trailers looked unoriginal, and for the most part reviews were negative to lukewarm. So I went in with very low expectations... and I actually kind of enjoyed what I saw. (Don’t stop reading now, though; there are some huge qualifiers coming up ) Is it as good as Alias? Certainly not. Is it as good as Mission: Impossible III? No. Is it... good? Um, well, no, not really... but it’s still entertaining (especially if you have a very high threshold for what entertains you when it comes to spies, which I do), and sometimes entertaining is more important than good. This is a lighter-weight fluff than we’ve ever seen before from J.J. Abrams. It’s so derivative (including from his own Alias) that you literally know everything that’s going to happen before it happens. There are no surprises. And I kind of like that. I’d call it a guilty pleasure except that both words feel a bit extreme: it’s not bad enough to prompt any guilt, but it also probably won’t generate that much pleasure in most viewers.

Other than Alias, the shows that Undercovers feels most derived from are 80s shows: Remington Steele, Hart to Hart and, to my personal pleasure, Scarecrow and Mrs. King (review here). These shows were also light and fluffy and certainly aren’t critical milestones, but there’s really nothing else like them on TV anymore, so I found the totally unoriginal Undercovers fairly refreshing. It is to those romantic adventure shows what Human Target is to the male-dominated action hours of that era, like The A-Team or my favorite 80s television series, Magnum P.I.: not as good, but good enough to evoke nostalgia. So I don’t mind Undercovers’ lack of originality, but it does have some other faults that can’t be as easily excused.

What passes for a romantic plot often gets in the way of what passes for the spy plot. For example, the couple risks exposing themselves by pausing for what’s supposed to be a sexy dance in the middle of their mission. One might expect a writer of Abrams’ caliber to use that moment to inject some conflict between the characters’ romantic and professional goals, and have the romance-based decision cost them on the spy front. He doesn’t, however; they’re not exposed and they don’t pay for their choice at all. Instead, all the audience gets out of it is a dance–and not even a very good one. As far as big spy dance scenes go, these two can’t compare with Sean Connery or even Arnold Schwarzenegger and their respective tango partners Worse still for a romantic spy comedy, while the leads generate decent chemistry, their dialogue fails to sparkle like the exchanges between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan or Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner. For this series to work, they will require some genuine banter, not lame jokes about “sexpionage” (a word that Abrams and his co-writer Josh Reims seem to think that they made up–and also seem to think is much funnier than it is–which, here, is not at all). “You look pretty hot yourself” simply doesn’t cut it as romantic repartee; the writers of Undercovers need to brush up on their Thin Mans if they want to figure out how to generate genuine romance between married adventurers.

Undercovers’ Nick and Nora are Steven and Samantha Bloom, played by Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. (Nice try, guys, but it takes more than alliterative names to equal Mr. and Mrs. Charles!) They met and fell in love while both working for the CIA, but quit the secret agent biz because they worried that the secrecy and deception would be bad for their marriage. Five years later they run a successful catering company. What is J.J. Abrams’ obsession with attractive black women running catering companies and restaurants? Remember the fabulous first season episodes of Alias, and how the only really boring parts were when the show cut away to Sydney’s friend Francie trying to start–and later running–her own restaurant? Did you ever say to yourself, “I wish there were a whole show just about Francie’s restaurant?” No, nobody did, but that’s almost what Undercovers gives us. Luckily, we’re mercifully saved by the appearance of 80s TV vet Gerald McRaney (Simon and Simon).

McRaney shows up as a grizzled, all-business career CIA agent, Carlton Shaw (great name!), and implores the two former agents to return to the fold. His deadpan delivery alone is nearly enough to grant this series a season pass on your TiVo. McRaney only gets a few scenes in the pilot, but he’s awesome in them and steals the show out from under its leads. They hem and haw and refuse and then, as you already know from the trailers, they both turn up at his office independently and behind the other’s back. When they realize they were each thinking the same thing, they say yes, they’ll take him up on his offer and spy again. (His office, by the way, is one of those CIA offices based in sunny SoCal that bothered me so much on Alias. It just makes me thankful once more for Covert Affairs, a spy show actually set in Langley and Washington!)

As soon as the spy couple are back in the game, we get the genuinely horrible opening title sequence: clips of them in action in the middle of a spinning wedding ring. The ring then somehow turns into the "C" in UnderCovers, the title itself in a particularly bland and generic–if shiny–font. It could easily be lifted straight out of the 1991 married spy series Undercover (no "S"); it certainly doesn’t look any more modern than that. But you know what? I’m going to cut the show some slack on this front, too. As with its premise, I found the dated nature of its titles kind of charming.

The spy hijinks are the usual stuff: breaking into a bank in Madrid, jumping out of a plane to infiltrate a wedding (huh?), then revealing themselves to be wearing a suit and dress, respectively, under their jump suits like Sean Connery in Goldfinger, getting into fights on Paris rooftops. Not one sequence will surprise you, but they’re all slickly directed by Abrams–particularly Kodjoe’s Parisian roof battle. You can see everything coming in both the spy plot (“Are they aware of the real reason they’ve been reactivated?” “No!”) and the romantic plot (“How do you know so much about this agent we’re supposed to be saving?” “Because we used to date!”) I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

What works well is the comedy. Bits with a comic relief backup agent named Hoyt (Ben Schwartz) who hero-worships Steven but ignores his wife could have so easily played as grating, but Schwartz and Abrams somehow make them hilarious. The lackey constantly compliments Steven throughout the mission, both in person and in his ubiquitous earpiece. (“Great work with that camera, Mr. Bloom!”) He also runs through a catalog of Steven’s past successes (he’s studied his file), and he’s particularly impressed by “the Senegal incident.” (“Are you a robot? Are you half robot?”) Between Schwartz and McRaney (who manages to maintain the dignity of his character while providing top-notch comic relief–even when not wearing pants!), the comedy angle is well covered, which is a good thing in a show this lighthearted.

The production values are also praiseworthy. I’m sure even J.J. Abrams didn’t really fly around the world to film this pilot, but he did find good locations and mixed them well with stock establishing shots to at least achieve this effect. If it’s the old Alias “Burbank as Barcelona” routine, then it’s handled very well. In a variation on the Alias captions introducing each city its spies visited, the foreign locales on Undercovers are introduced with a whole CGI postcard image listing their names in two languages. It’s not quite as effective as the cool place names in Quantum of Solace (one of the very few areas in which you’ll ever catch me praising that movie), but it does the job well for television. These postcards are of course accompanied by raps in whatever language/dialect is appropriate to the locale, which is the new favorite cross-media method of establishing a foreign location for American audiences.

The finale comes in Moscow–in a warehouse, no less–of course–and the bad guys shoot a whole lot of rockets around that warehouse without ever injuring (or even really posing the threat of injury to) our main characters. Samantha grabs one of the rocket launchers for herself and shoots it out of a taxi she’s stolen while driving, exploding a fleeing villain’s car but naturally not killing him. If that’s not the modern equivalent of Scarecrow and Mrs. King (pretty much the same exact scenarios, simply upping the ante in the armament department), then I don’t know what is. The espionage, it should probably go without saying, is also on about the same level of realism as Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Which is to say, not at all real. This is pure fantasy–even moreso than Alias, and that had actual fantasy in it!

In the end, it’s set up so that the Blooms can still have their catering company, but also work for the Company on the side, taking on assignments that the CIA can’t afford to be officially associated with. This freelance arrangement gives Abrams the scenario that he strived for in the first season of Alias but ultimately abandoned: a chance to explore spies balancing personal lives with secret ones. That’s not a very fresh notion anymore, and Covert Affairs is handling it much better than Undercovers at the moment, so if this show somehow makes it to another season, I’d expect Steven and Samantha to probably become full time spies again. (Although I doubt Samantha’s annoying sister will end up shot dead on the kitchen floor and replaced by a deadly double. This really isn’t that sort of show!)

You can predict everything that happens on Undercovers before it happens (you just know the bad guy is going to shoot the henchman who delivers him bad news...) and the show delivers no surprises. But as I said in my intro, I sort of like that. It’s like watching a favorite movie, where you know all the scenes already, or singing along with a favorite song when it comes on the radio. It’s comfort food. And in that regard, even though it’s exactly like plenty of spy shows that have come before it, it still manages to be unlike anything else currently on the air. If the writers manage to make the currently tepid romance sparkle a bit, and better integrate it with the action (ideally creating at least a bit of non-rote conflict between the lead characters’ romantic and professional ambitions), then it might even grow into a great show in its own right. The voiceover announcing, “Here are scenes from next week’s Undercovers” at the end embodies the tone of the show fairly nicely. “If anyone asks... you haven’t seen them.” It’s an old joke, but it still works. If that appeals to you, give the show a try.
Tradecraft: The Swedish Daniel Craig Plays M:I Villain

Well, that's not really accurate.  But Michael Nyqvist, the actor who plays crusading financial journalist turned amateur detective Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish movie of Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will be playing the villain in Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible 4 (or whatever it's called), and Daniel Craig will be playing the part of Blomkvist in David Fincher's American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, so he's sort of the Swedish Daniel Craig...  The Hollywood Reporter reports that Nyqvist will join the illustrious pantheon of memorable villains from past Mission movies including Phillip Seymour Hoffman and... and... whoever played the villains in those other two movies. (No, of course I remember who played the villain in the first one. It still pisses me off to this day!)  Actually, the trade's specific quote is that he will play "one of the lead villains." Hinting either that there are still others left to be cast, or else that one of the good guys we already know about (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner or Paula Patton) turns out to really be bad.  Anyway, I really liked Nyqvist in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, so he seems like a good choice to me.  As for those mysterious and possibly imaginary other villains, may I suggest Antony Zerbe?  He played all the best villains on the TV show!  (Or maybe Ed Asner?) 

The same article also reveals that Vladimir Mashkov (who guest starred on a couple of episodes of Alias) has joined the cast as well, but provides no details on the nature of his character.
Tradecraft: No New Spy Shows Announced Or Greenlit Today

After a week like this averaging two a day, it seems like news to report that as far as I could tell, there weren't any today.  Perhaps the networks were just resting.  It seems easier to report days that new spy series aren't picked up than when they are, spies are so popular this season... Keep 'em coming, Hollywood! If ten make it to air next year, then by the law of averages we're bound to get some good ones, right?

Sep 24, 2010

Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Prisoner: The Ultimate Set

Network has announced yet another UK DVD release of The Prisoner, this time as The Ultimate Set.  In addition to all of the truly wonderful features included on the company's 40h Anniversary EditionBlu-ray set and current DVD set, The Ultimate Set also includes Network's 3-CD Prisoner soundtrack set and the 2009 remake of the series starring Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel.  (The latter is also available on its own on DVD and Blu-ray from ITV Studios, and includes all the special features from the American DVD. It's not available on Blu-ray in the United States.)  I suppose the remake is the main selling point, but it doesn't really deserve that honor.  However, I kind of like that it's included, because it's basically found its proper place: as a DVD extra on the real series.  From that standpoint, it's easier to appreciate the remake.  It's a curio that one can watch after watching the Patrick McGoohan series.  It's for completists, and this Ultimate Set is a completist's dream.  While I'm sure most Prisoner fans who want them already own both series and the soundtrack, this is a good way for future fans to pick up everything at once.  The inclusion of the soundtrack music is much more attractive than that of the remake; again, its meticulous archival nature makes it a perfect DVD feature.  The set, packaged in an eyecatching if unweildy box, also includes the booklets originally available with Network's DVD and CD sets (by Andrew Pixley and Eric Mival, respectively).  I'm not sure if it includes the special features associated with the new version of the show, but I would assume so.  Overall, there's no reason to get this if you've already got the stuff it includes, but it's a pretty good archival collection for future generations.  Or Christmas present for this generation, which I'm sure Network's banking on!

The Prisoner: The Ultimate Set, a Region 2 PAL DVD release, will be available on October 25, 2010.  It will retail for £99.99, but is available to pre-order from for £74.99 and will be available from Network's website for just £62.99.

Read my original TV review of The Prisoner 2009 remake here.
Read my review of the 2009 Prisoner remake DVD here.

Sep 23, 2010

Tradecraft: Finally, A Series About High School Spies

Today's Second New Spy Show: I'm not kidding with that "finally."  I can't believe it's taken this long for a series to materialize about high school secret agents!  The clock's really been ticking since Buffy the Vampire Slayer took off in 1997.  A friend of mine developed a really cool series about teen spies that was basically The OC meets Alias at the height of those shows' popularity, and frankly I couldn't believe it didn't sell.  It was a great premise, as clearly evidenced by the popularity of Alex Rider and the slew of teen spy and spy school related Young Adult book series that followed in his wake.  "Spies in high school" just seems like such a no-brainer premise that I can't believe it's taken this long for such a series to materialize.  And now, it's not really a TV show, unfortunately, but a "multi-platform digital series."  To be honest, I'm not really sure what that even means.  I can't keep up with the platforms available for digital content.  But, basically, I think it amounts to a web series, although it's coming from Warner Premiere, who I know mainly as Warner's direct-to-DVD division, so I guess eventually we'll see it on that format as well. 

Deadline reports that Warner Premiere has committed to co-finance and co-distribute Aim High, a digital series about a high school secret agent. According to the press release, "Aim High is the story of a young man leading a double life - juggling his studies by day and serving as a government agent by night. This series chronicles the life of Nick Green, a sophomore who’s just starting a new school year as one of the country’s 64 highly trained teenage operatives. When he’s not handling international spies, Nick is dreaming of Amanda Meyers, the most popular girl in school who’s cool, intelligent and very alluring." McG produces (with Lance Sloane), which is good news as far as I'm concerned.  Who better to produce a series about spies in high school than the man who produced The OC and Human Target - not to mention Chuck? (Er, and Nikita.) The series is written by Heath Corson and Richie Keen, who will executive produce along with Peter Murrieta.  Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) directs. Aim High is already in pre-production will start shooting in Los Angeles next month.
Tradecraft: J.J. Abrams' Lost Spies Defect To NBC

Today's First New Spy Show: Remember that J.J. Abrams-produced series we just heard about a few days ago that would pair awesome Lost alums Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson as former covert operatives?  Well, unlike one of their characters, that talk has turned out to be more than just smoke.  Yesterday NBC won a fierce bidding war and narrowly beat out Lost network ABC for the show, Odd Jobs, according to The Vulture (via The Hollywood Reporter).  Since they made this move before their current Abrams spy series, Undercovers (which I found nearly as enjoyable as it was unoriginal, despite the reviews), debuted to a lacklustre 8.6 million viewers, perhaps NBC wanted a second comedic Abrams spy show to pair with their first?  Or perhaps they had an inkling as to how Undercovers would perform (maybe thanks to their own botched marketing campaign) and were shopping for a replacement Abrams spy show.  Either way, they've got it now.  Seems kind of weird that this Lost reunion will be on a network other than ABC, but there you have it.  NBC has committed to a pilot, as you do with J.J. Abrams shows.  Stay tuned for the second new spy series of the day...

Sep 22, 2010

Tradecraft: Fox Picks Up Spy Show From Kurtzman And Orci

Yep, it's another one.  If I were smart I'd just create a generic post template for this kind of tradecraft story, like "    [insert network]     Picks Up CIA Series From     [insert name]     " and leave it at that.  But I don't, because I'm glad that there are all these new spy shows in the pipeline, and I do want to give each one its due, even if it's tough to tell what will ultimately differentiate them all from the capsule synopses provided in the trades.  Anyway, this time it's Fox who would fill in the first blank, and Deadline reports that they've picked up a new spy series called Exit Strategy from the powerhouse TV factory of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.  Kurtzman and Orci's extensive spy resume includes stints on the underrated Jack of All Trades, Alias, and the new Hawaii Five-0 (which I actually enjoyed, even if Alex O'Laughlin is clearly no Jack Lord and the remake will obviously never equal the original), as well as penning the script for Mission: Impossible III with frequent collaborator J.J. Abrams (they also wrote Star Trek together) and producing the forthcoming Matt Helm.  Created by David Guggenheim, writer of the hot spy spec Safe House (now being made with Denzel Washington and the ubiquitous Ryan Reynolds), the trade blog describes Exit Strategy as "a high octane procedural set in the world of CIA agents who are sent in to 'fix' operations gone bad."  So... that really doesn't tell us very much.  I'm sure we'll learn more, though; the show has received a "put pilot commitment" from Fox, meaning (I think) that the network guarantees that it will actually shoot the pilot or face a stiff penalty.
Night & Fog Signing Tonight; Trade Paperback Available For Pre-Order

This is last-minute notice, but I'll be signing copies of my comic book, Night & Fog, at Golden Apple Comics in West Hollywood tonight (Wednesday, September 22) from 6-8.  If you're in the LA area, be sure to stop by and say hi! 

If you've got no idea what I'm talking about, Night & Fog is an action/horror comic book I co-wrote (under my real name, as Matthew Bradford, not Tanner!) a couple of years ago.  Three issues came out in "floppies" (regular comic books), but the series never properly wrapped up.  (That didn't stop it from being optioned for a film, though, at the end of last year; I'm afraid there's no significant movement to report on on that front at the moment.)  While issue 4 has been available on the iPad for a little while now (and 5 should appear soon), the upcoming trade paperback will mark the first time that the complete mini-series has been printed in a traditional, tangible format.  (Personally, I will never surrender my physical books in favor of downloadable content!) 

If you've already pre-ordered the trade paperback on Amazon, you've probably been frustrated by the repeated delays.  However, I'm happy to report that those are all over, and the book will be out for real in November!  (On November 17, in fact, the auspicious 15th anniversary of GoldenEye, which suits me just fine.)  If you haven't pre-ordered it yet, and you're interested in a Hammer Horror meets Aliens tale of monsters and soldiers and dead Nazis and, yes, even a few spies, then I heartily encourage you to either pre-order the book on Amazon (ideally through this link, natch!) or, better still, support your local comic shop by going in and ordering it there.  Tell them it's listed in the current issue of Previews from publisher Studio 407.  And if you happen to work at such a comic shop, then go ahead and order a bunch!  They'll sell like gangbusters!

A limited number of advance copies of the trade will be available at the signing event tonight, and we will also be giving away some free sampler issues.  I'll be there, at Golden Apple, from 6-8PM.  Find more details on the signing on Golden Apple's website, and more on the comic at the Studio 407 website.
Spywatch: J.J. Abrams' Undercovers Premieres Tonight

The 2010 spy season continues! Remember to set your DVRs or even (gasp!) tune in live at 8/7c tonight to catch J.J. Abrams' latest spy series, Undercovers, on NBC.  Those ads really don't do much for me, but I'm not going to miss Abrams' first TV directing gig since the Lost pilot, and the guy has a good track record with spies in my book, having directed the best entry in the Mission: Impossible film series and created Alias. Let's hope Undercovers can live up to that CV... Abrams co-wrote the married spies pilot with Josh Reims; Boris Kodjoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gerald McRaney star.
More Tinker Tailor Spies Cast

Empire Online reports (via Dark Horizons) that Mark Strong and Svetlana Khodchenkova have joined the cast of Tomas Alfredson's feature film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Strong (Syriana, Body of Lies and Holywood's go-to Brit villain of the moment) will play British agent Jim Prideaux, whose disasterous mission behind the Iron Curtain, Operation Testify, sets the story's events in motion (though not chronologically), and Khodchenkova, a prolific Russian actress and Playboy cover model, will play Irina, the Russian spy Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) meets in Hong Kong whose information proves equally vital to the plot.  As previously reported, Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, Benedict Cumberbatch plays his Watson, Peter Guillam, and Jared Harris, Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds round out the cast (to date, anyway) of this John Le Carré adaptation.  Ralf Fiennes and David Thewlis were at one point linked with the project, though their names haven't been mentioned officially.  Empire also gets reassurance from producer Tim Bevan that this new version of the great spy novel (first filmed for the BBC as a miniseries starring Alec Guinness in 1979) will indeed retain its Cold War period setting.  Le Carré himself will be on set as a consultant.

Sep 21, 2010

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

There are quite a few notable spy titles out this week.  Foremost for its obscurity is the low-key, thoroughly enjoyable 1980s UK TV series Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: The Complete Series, making its North American DVD debut courtesy of Acorn Media. Mr. Palfrey of Westminster originally aired in the United States on PBS, and stars Alec McCowen (Never Say Never Again) as a spycatcher who works for an unnamed branch of the British Security Services.  He's sort of George Smiley and Jim Phelps rolled into one, though better dressed than either.  McCowan is a hugely compelling lead, and if you're a fan of the more serious "desk man" side of the genre, you'll definitely want to check out this series.  Spy veterans Richard Johnson and Julian Glover are among the many excellent guest stars.  Unlike Network's Region 2 release of this title which boasted the show's pilot and postscript from UK anthology shows, Acorn's version includes no extras other than English subtitles for the hearing impaired.  As usual with Acorn, retail is a bit steep at $49.99, but also as usual it's available much cheaper than that if you look around.  Check back for a full review soon. 

Also today, Criterion issues one of the most entertaining spy movies of all time, Charade, on Blu-ray for the first time. (And with a stunning cover!) In addition to a stunning new high-def transfer that makes Stanley Donen's classic and its stars Cary Grant and Audrey Helpburn look better than ever (and way better than all those public domain versions floating around on DVD), this release ports over all of the special features from Criterion's outstanding standard-def DVD including an audio commentary with Donen, the theatrical trailer and a booklet.  There are many versions of Charade out there, but Criterion's is the one to have.  Criterion's another company that generally means a steep SRP ($39.99), but the Blu-ray is currently on sale on Amazon, making it cheaper than the DVD!

From Warner Home Video comes the very spyish Fox action show Human Target on both Blu-ray and DVD, retailing for $49.99 and $39.98 respectively.  Personally, I find the return of the mindless action hour so popular in the 1980s refreshing.  Human Target is definitely light fare, but entertaining nonetheless, the television equivilent of a popcorn movie.  If you want thought-provoking espionage stories full of twists, opt for Mr. Palfrey.  But if you want to turn your brain off and watch shootouts and explosions (and there's nothing wrong with that!), you could do a lot worse than Human Target.  I particularly recommend Episode 3, "Embassy Row," a full-fledged spy story.  Extras on both versions include two making-of featurettes ("Confidential Informant" and "Full Contact Television"), deleted scenes and a commentary track on the pilot with producers and stars Mark Valley and Chi McBride.

Finally, there's a title that's not really spy, but that might interest spy fans.  I know I'm curious about it!  Kino International offers Fantomas: The Complete Saga on DVD for the first time in North America.  Now, this complete saga does not comprise OSS 117 director André Hunebelle's Sixties costumed adventurer movies starring Jean Marais and Louis de Funes, which definitely have one foot in the Eurospy genre.  Those remain officially unavailable in Region 1.  This set instead contains the five original Fantomas silent films directed by Louis Feuillade, who also made the original versions of Judex and Les Vampires.  I've never seen these originals, but I do love the Sixties ones, so I'm excited to check them out.
Tradecraft: Robert Littell's Legends Comes To TV

Another day, another CIA show.  I know, I know.  I'm reporting these trade stories with such frequency these days even I'm getting a bit sick of new spy show announcements.  But this is a good one... potentially much better than some of the others we've been discussing lately.  According to The Hollywood Reporter, "NBC has picked up a pilot about a CIA agent."  Yes, with that lead (it's the whole first paragraph), I suspect someone at the trade had their tongue in their cheek. Luckily, the article then goes into a little bit more detail and reports that this show is called Legends, and it's based on Robert Littell's well-reviewed 2005 novel of the same name.  Sadly I haven't read it, but it's been on my Amazon wish list for half a decade now.  Which is to say, I've long meant to read it, and I'm a bit surprised to learn for just how long.  Time flies.  Anyway, the intriguing premise as recapitulated by the trade is that "the 20th Century Fox TV project is about a government operative with an uncanny gift for 'legends' -- what spooks call false identities -- and is sent on a variety of missions while simultaneously coping with the possibility that his own identity may be a 'legend' too."  It's a good idea for a show and it springs from a good author, and the people behind it have experience in the field.  Producer Howard Gordon is a 24 veteran and the same Howard Gordon we just read about yesterday who set up Homeland, another CIA-themed show, at Showtime, and writer Mark Bomback penned Live Free or Die Hard and is currently adapting Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag, as reported last year.

This isn't Littell's first brush with television.  His epic historical spy novel The Company was adapted into a miniseries for TNT in 2007.

Sep 20, 2010

Locke And Linus, Secret Agents?

The Vulture reports (via AICN) that J.J. Abrams is collaborating again with Alias writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (the team behind the Mission: Impossible 4 script) on yet another spy TV series.  The twist on this one, which Lost fans will relish, is that it pairs the two coolest actors from Abrams' cult phenomenon Lost! The blog reports that the trio "began pitching a comedic drama to the networks that would have Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn — a.k.a. Benjamin Linus and John Locke — playing former black-ops agents."  The blog adds that the series would be called Odd Jobs and contain a healthy dose of humor.  It's not clear if this is the same concept that O'Quinn floated last spring in which he and Emerson would play suburban hitmen.  The two concepts certainly could blend together: former covert operatives turned suburban hitmen.  Whatever it is, those two actors have demonstrated an amazing chemistry together, so I'll be on board!
Tradecraft: 24 Producer's Latest Spy Show Lands At Showtime

Howard Gordon's Homeland has found a home of its own on cable, reports Variety.  According to the trade, the Manchurian Candidate-esque project, which is based on an Israeli show called Prisoners of War, "revolves around the aftermath of the release of a U.S. soldier after a long period of captivity as a prisoner of war.  He's been presumed dead, which heightens the surprise when he is set free.  But after he returns home, a female CIA agent becomes convinced that he has become a rogue agent now focused on aiding the enemy."  The CIA agent becomes obsessed with preventing the next 9/11, which is familiar territory for writer/producers Gordon and Alex Gansa, both veterans of 24.  Gordon sees cable as the ideal home for his series, saying that the 10-12 episode season format works perfectly for its serial plotline.  The trade also adds that former Jack Ryan Ben Affleck (a hot commodity after his number one opener The Town) is rumored to be in talks to direct the pilot. 
Tradecraft: Another Writer Takes A Crack At Jack

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Paramount has tapped Anthony Peckham to have a go at their Jack Ryan reboot starring Chris Pine.  Lately the movie has been known as Moscow, but I'm not sure if that's still the case.  Adam Cozad and Hossein Amini previously worked on this script, which is not based on a Tom Clancy novel and focuses on the author's hero as a young man before he ever joined the CIA.  According to the trade, "the studio hopes to begin shooting this year or early next year and is hiring Peckham to prep the project for take-off."  Peckham's previous writing credits include Invictus, The Book of Eli and Sherlock HolmesLost's Jack Bender was previously announced as the director. Pine will be the fourth actor to play Jack Ryan after Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. Jack Ryan also returns to bookstores this winter (in his older and more familiar post-Presidential incarnation) in Dead or Alive, Clancy's first novel in years–co-written this time with Grant Blackwood.

Sep 17, 2010

New Italian Eurospy Book

Eurospy Guide co-author Matt Blake reports on The Wild Eye that there's a lavishly illustrated new book available on the Eurospy genre... in Italian. 007 all'italiana ("Italian 007"), a massive 299-page book by Marco Guisti, explores the often overlooked genre of Italian James Bond knock-offs produced rapidly and prolifically at the height of the spy craze from 1964-1967. Guisti draws from extensive interviews with directors and other personell involved in these productions. Matt sings the praises of the author and his previous book about spaghetti westerns, so if he's excited about this, then I'm excited too!  Matt's also translated the publisher's blurb, which promises "numerous archive images and original posters," so perhaps there's something there even for non-Italian speakers. Go read the whole description on The Wild Eye, but here's a tantalizing sampling:
Using wonderful images and original posters, Marco Giusti outlines the history of this fantastic pop imagery: “movies made in a matter of months, written in a few weeks”, with “minimal costs, small crews, sure bargains”. An important piece of Italian film history, full of madness, creativity and original ideas: a genre worth reviving and appreciating.
I really hope this is eventually translated into English or at least offered in a multi-lingual edition!  (I know, fat chance.)  But as fantastic as The Eurospy Guide is as an introduction to this world and a comprehensive guide to these films (and it is fantastic), I've always dreamed of a book that interviewed some of the talent and detailed the production histories of some of these fantastic films.  And this sounds like it.  007 all'italiana is available to order for €35 from the Feltrinelli website.
Tradecraft: ABC Books Cameron's True Lies TV Show

Earlier this week we learned that James Cameron was shopping around a new TV series based on his 1994 action romcom True Lies; today Deadline reports that ABC has snatched it up.  With Cameron attached to exec produce, it's not surprising that a network bit so quickly, nor is it surprising that the "premium deal" includes a "large penalty." That means that ABC will pay dearly if the project doesn't go to pilot or series, making it even more of a sure bet than it already was based on name recognition alone.  So this is actually happening!  Deadline points out that ABC hasn't had a significant spy series since J.J. Abrams' Alias went off the air.  Booking True Lies is obviously a direct challenge to Abrams' similarly themed spy show as marital comedy Undercovers, debuting next week on rival NBC.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Six Million Dollar Man And The Bionic Woman

Reader Delmo pointed out in a recent comment that The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-1978) was as much a spy show as a sci-fi one, as bionically-enhanced Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) worked for the top-secret organization OSI (Office of Scientific Investigation).  Another friend of mine had just made the same point recently, saying that the pilot movie (I'm not sure which one he was talking about; apparently there were three) was a much more serious, even gritty, spy story than the TV show ever was.  I'll take their words for it, because I don't think I've ever seen an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.  Instead, my awareness of the series is reflected through popular culture and parody.  (I know, for example, that Oscar Goldman was Austin's boss from The 40 Year Old Virgin!)  Now I guess I'll have the chance to rectify that gap in my pop culture knowledge because TV Shows On DVD reports that the complete series is coming out on DVD for the first time in Region 1, from Time-Life. Time-Life previously created the feature-laden (but expensive) Complete Series sets for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart, and The Six Million Dollar Man Gets the same lavish treatment - and the same exhorbitant price, at $239.99.  But the extensive features (and possibly the deluxe packaging with 3D lenticular images and a sound chip) just might make it worth that much... and it's still better than paying $6 million, right?  Here are some of the features, from the press release at TV Shows On DVD:
Enhancing the series long-awaited release are countless hours of bonus features, including intimate interviews with the cast and crew, including Lindsay Wagner (Jaime Sommers), executive producer Harve Bennett, and writer Kenneth Johnson. Also featured are a staggering seventeen original featurettes, on everything from "Real Bionics: How Science Fiction Is Becoming Science Fact" and "The Bionic Sound Effects", to "The Search for Bigfoot" and "The Six Million Dollar Man's Best Villains, Best Fights"; the two-part featurette "TV Goes Bionic: The Untold Story of The Six Million Dollar Man" (which goes behind the scenes to explore the series like never before), and several featurettes celebrating the series V.I.P. guest stars such as Lee's then-wife, Farrah Fawcett-Majors (who made four guest appearances), Andre the Giant, Kim Basinger, Sonny Bono, Lou Gossett, Erik Estrada, Stefanie Powers, John Saxon, Cathy Rigby, William Shatner, Suzanne Somers and many more. Additionally, there's audio commentary on six episodes by writer Kenneth Johnson and director Cliff Bole, and an interactive bonus entitled "Bionic Breakdown" that will allow fans the ability to click on Steve Austin's eye, arm or legs to learn more about each one of his bionic enhancements; from night-vision to cauterizing veins to running speeds that exceed 65 miles per hour, "Colonel Austin's" skills and abilities are catalogued here with episode clips as a visual reference.
For now, The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Series (a whopping 40-disc set, containing all five seasons, all three pilot movies and all three reunion movies) is only available directly from Time-Life at  That's annoying, because it means consumers are hostages to their pricing.  (Although the company does offer occasional coupons, if you search for them.)  In a year or two, after the window of exclusivity is over, I'm sure the complete series and possibly even individual seasons will become available in stores and from the usual online retailers at much more competitive prices.  That's what happened with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart.  In the meantime, be sure to check out the full press release at TV Shows On DVD to read about all the special features.  (There are way more than those mentioned above!)

Steve Austin isn't the only bonic person coming to DVD this fall, though.  TV Shows On DVD also recently reported that the 1976 spinoff show The Bionic Woman, starring Lindsay Wagner, will debut on October 19 with The Bionic Woman: Season One.  The 4-disc set from Universal includes all 13 episodes from the first season as well as five crossover episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, episode commentaries, a gag reel, a photo gallery and the featurette "Bionic Beginnings," featuring an all-new interview with Wagner.  Retail is a much more reasonable $39.98 (though it's available for pre-order right now for just $27.99), but you'll have to shell out again for two more seasons down the road.  Still, much cheaper than Time-Life's Six Million Dollar Man set!
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Cats And Dogs

Not that anyone cares, but according to DVD Active, Warner Home Video will release Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, this summer's pets-as-spies flop featuring the voice of Roger Moore, on DVD and Blu-ray on November 16.  As usual with Warner titles, the real extras are reserved for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  All you get besides the movie on the regular DVD is a Loony Toons short featuring Wile E. Coyote; the Blu-ray also includes the featurettes "Dog Dishing: Tails from the Bark Side of Hollywood" and "The Best of the Best Cat vs Dog Animated Showdowns" as well as outtakes and a digital copy of the film. You know, in case you want to be able to play Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore on your telephone.  As you probably do.  Retail on the DVD is $28.95; the Blu-ray/DVD combo goes for $35.99.  For more on Roger Moore's role as a kitty spy boss named Lazenby, click here.