Apr 28, 2011

Tradecraft: Mission: Impossible Writer Tackles Jack Ryan

Another month, another screenwriter on the interminably long-in-development Jack Ryan origin film.  Following a succession of scribes that's included Hossein Amini, Adam Cozad, Anthony Peckham, Cozad again and, briefly, Steve Zaillian (who changed his mind before actually contributing a draft), Paramount has now turned to Big Bucks Franchise Man David Koepp to try his hand at rebooting Tom Clancy's famed CIA analyst in the person of Chris PineDeadline reports that Koepp will be paid seven figures for his rewrite (still based on the Cozad draft), a fee he's earned from contributions to such mega-hit franchises as Jurassic Park, Spider-man, Men in Black and Indiana Jones, to name just a few of his blockbusters.  His most major previous contribution to the spy genre was collaborating on the screenplay for the first Mission: Impossible film with Zaillian and Robert Towne.  (I don't know which one of those writers came up with the brilliant idea of making Jim Phelps a traitor, but I'd like to give that one a punch in the face.)  According to the trade blog, Paramount hopes to start production on the new Jack Ryan movie in January, after Pine finishes with the Star Trek sequel.  (It was previously slated to film before Trek.)  Lost's Jack Bender, who must be a very patient man, is still attached to direct.
Tradecraft: The Balrog Supremacy?

The Saruman UltimatumThe Gondor Inheritance?  Unlikely as each of those titles may sound, Deadline reports that Ron Howard has attached himself to a pitch by Max Landis described as a blend of Robert Ludlum and J.R.R. Tolkien.  That's not very descriptive, but actually opens up a lot of truly intriguing possibilities!  A Bourne-like spy adventure set in a fantasy world?  A real-world spy story featuring an all-powerful One Ring as the MacGuffin?  Or a regular person from our world who washes ashore in a fantasy land with no memories?  You could go in lots of different creative directions with that curious mash-up, and I'd probably pay to see nearly all of them.  Max Landis is the son of John Landis, and previously collaborated with his father on episodes of the spooky anthology shows Masters of Horror ("The Deer Woman") and Fear Itself.  He's also sold a few feature specs, though nothing that's been made yet.  As for this one, it seems unlikely it will be made any time soon with Ron Howard attached to direct. Howard's currently committed to direct about a billion hours of feature film and television based on Stephen King's Dark Tower epic, which also features a mixture of fantasy and technothriller.  What I wonder, though, is what ever happened to that film of undiluted Ludlum that Howard was once attached to direct, The Parsifal Mosaic?  Even if he's no longer involved, I do hope it's still in development.  That's one of Ludlum's most cinematic novels, and a great movie just waiting to be made. 

Oh, and the real title of this spy/fantasy project is Amnesty.  Hm.  Doesn't really get across the premise.  In the unlikely scenario that they do decide to switch to a title more befitting the illlicit marriage of Ludlum and Tolkien, I think my personal choice would be The Frodo Ambiguity.  It has a nicer ring to it than Amnesty, does't it?

Apr 27, 2011

Tradecraft: Ving Rhames Is Black Jack

Well, he might not be in the new Mission: Impossible movie (or so the rumors go), but now Ving Rhames has his very own starring spy gig. According to Deadline, the actor has been cast as the lead in that Comedy Central spy pilot we heard about last month, Black Jack.  This is the one from writer Michael Starrbury and producers David Gordon Green (who's also written the non-comedic remake of Ice Station Zebra) and Danny McBride (the team behind Your Highness), among many others. Green will direct the pilot, which finds the government's top black ops operative (Rhames) forced into retirement. Needless to say, he has trouble adjusting to normal life. Whenever I read about this concept, I picture Jack Bauer in a PTA meeting and I laugh.  I hope the actual product lives up to my unfounded notions...
Lauren Stamile Handed a Burn Notice

Lauren Stamile, who made a memorable impression last summer with her guest appearance on Matt Nix's other show, The Good Guys, will join Nix's Burn Notice this season in a major role.  Stamile is probably best known for her recurring roles on Community (as Joel McHale's love interest, Professor Slater) and Gray's Anatomy (as Rose, the "other woman" who dared to come between the show's heroine and "Doctor McDreamy").  On Burn Notice, TVLine's Michael Ausiello reports that Stamile will play Kim Pearce, "a brilliant, unpredictable and formidable" CIA operative sent by the Agency to investigate the murder of another agent. "She leans on Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) to help her find the killer, only to learn that Michael himself may be involved." Interestingly, Stamile co-starred (playing Kate Jackson) with another former Burn Notice actress, Tricia Helfer (as Farrah Fawcett), in the 2004 TV movie Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Charlie's Angels. (Now they need only find a role for Christina Chambers to collect all the fake Angels!)

Personally, I have to say, I'm thrilled to report this particular news item, because Lauren is a friend of mine and I think she'll make a wonderful addition to the Burn Notice gang. Stay tuned, because I have a feeling I just might be able to finagle an exclusive interview with her around the time her episodes start to air... [Update: Now you can read that interview here.]

As previously reported, after debuting in the last season's finale, The Tailor of Panama's Dylan Baker will also recur this season on Burn Notice. The new season begins June 23 on USA.

Apr 21, 2011

Tradecraft: The Bourne Mantle Goes To Jeremy Renner

The Hollywood Reporter reports what Latino Review scooped everybody on a few weeks ago: Jeremy Renner will star in Tony Gilroy's The Bourne Legacy, a spinoff from the popular Matt Damon series based on Robert Ludlum's novels.  For those keeping count, yes, that means that the Hurt Locker actor will be starring in three potential spy franchises at once.  Is he the new Michael Caine (who must have more spy roles to his credit than almost any other actor), or is he over-extending himself in a mad grab for every franchise dangled in front of him?  Besides The Bourne Legacy, Renner also stars alongside Tom Cruise (another actor with a number of espionage roles under his belt) in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (for which he's been widely touted as a potential successor to Cruise in future installments of the series) and The Avengers.  The latter is not based on the real Avengers of Sixties TV, but on the unrelated Marvel comic book series of the same name.  Yet Renner's role is still a spy one.  He plays Hawkeye, a super-agent of Nick Fury's spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and just the other day Marvel prexy Kevin Feige stated the company's hopes that Hawkeye will prove popular enough in Joss Whedon's movie to spin off into his own series.  So that's a lot of spying for Jeremy Renner.  I don't begrudge the guy taking all the starring roles he's offered (I mean, he's not even a proven star yet!), but as a spy fan I do kind of wish we had more variety to look forward to in our spy heroes.  It seems like Renner, Robert Downey Jr. and Daniel Craig now control a small monopoly on all franchises... so get used to them!

By the way: the guy behind Renner in that picture from The Hurt Locker is Anthony Mackie, who was supposedly also in contention for the new Bourne role.  He might have been a more interesting choice.

Apr 20, 2011

Age of Heroes Trailer

With a big tip of the hat to The Book Bond (the foremost site out there for news on the literary 007, by the way, and an absolutely required daily visit for me as we enter the home stretch toward the publication of Carte Blanche), here's the official trailer for that movie about Ian Fleming's 30 Assault Unit we've been following here since its initial announcement last year.  I have to say, I think it looks fantastic. It may not look particularly big budget, and it might use a questionable font, but that trailer pushes all my movie buttons--from its Ian Fleming-meets-The A-Team opening to the awesome action of a snowbound commandos in white camoflage.  Evidentally, it will receive theatrical release in Britain on May 20--though it's bound to be a limited engagement, since it's already been announced for DVD release in June. Neither venue seems particularly likely right now in America, which is too bad, because I am dying to see it! Age of Heroes stars former Bond villain Sean Bean, and James D'Arcy plays Commander Fleming.

Tradecraft: Missing Finds Its Man

Deadline reports that Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis (Live Free or Die Hard, Colombiana) has been cast as the male lead opposite Ashley Judd in ABC's Taken-with-a-woman series Missing.  Curtis will play Dax Miller, the CIA's London Deputy Station Chief tasked with bringing in former agent Becca Winstone (Judd) when she goes rogue, Liam Neeson-style, using her spy skills to tear up all of Europe in her search for her missing son.  Instead of hunting her down, Dax defies his orders an becomes a grudging ally to Becca.  Sean Bean was previously cast as Becca's late husband (also an agent), who will appear in flashbacks.  (Though when a high-profile actor like Bean is cast as a dead man, you have to wonder how long he'll stay dead...)  I found the pilot script for Missing to be the best of the fall spy pilots, and I'm very curious to watch it come to life this fall.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: More Spies and Spy Stars on MGM MOD

According to pre-order listings on Screen Archives Entertainment, MGM's next wave of MOD titles will include the spy movies The Fearmakers (1958) and The Ambassador (1984), along with the 1973 James Coburn pick-pocket movie Harry In Your Pocket (the only feature from Mission: Impossible mastermind Bruce Geller) and the rare 1962 horror film Burn, Witch, Burn!, one of the few theatrical star vehicles for eccentric TV spy hero Peter Wyngarde (Jason King).

Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn and Rock Hudson (in his final role) star in The Ambassador, in which "an American ambassador, his wife, and her Arab lover are caught up in a dangerous game of intrigue, extortion, and murder, in the explosive Middle East." Jacques Tourneur's The Fearmakers prefigures The Manchurian Candidate, with Dana Andrews starring as a Korean War veteran who may have been brainwashed ostensibly helping the government ferret out Communist subversives. These made-to-order DVD-Rs should all be available around May 3. The last batch of MGM Limited Edition Collection titles, meanwhile (including The Destructors and Cloudburst), is now available for purchase on Amazon as well as SAE. No doubt these ones will be, too, come mid-May.
Upcoming Spy (And Dalton) DVDs: Eighties Miniseries Madness

TV Shows On DVD reports that Olive Films will release the Joan Collins WWII spy miniseries Monte Carlo on DVD this June. Based on the novel by Stephen Sheppard, Monte Carlo follows the rich and famous as they mingle with international spies in the glamorous titular city during the months leading up to the second World War. Joan Collins stars as a cabaret singer who moonlights for British Intelligence; Peter Vaughn plays her German rival (rival spy, that is; not rival cabaret performer), Malcolm McDowell is no doubt someone shady, and George Hamilton is the American playboy novelist mixed up in the middle of it all. I have a secret soft spot for Eighties miniseries and an even more secret (and guilty) soft spot for the ageless Joan Collins, so I'm intrigued by this one. Retail for the 2-disc set is $39.99, but of course it can be pre-ordered for less on Amazon.

Monte Carlo isn't the only Joan Collins miniseries coming from Olive on June 21. That same day, the company will also put out another miniseries of the same vintage which might also interest spy fans. 1986's Sins, based on a Judith Gould novel, is not a spy story, but it does co-star Timothy Dalton (immediately pre-Bond) as Collins' unstable brother who's spent half his life in mental institutions. Lauren Hutton (who's also in Monte Carlo) and Gene Kelly (yes, Gene Kelly) also appear. Sins is also a 2-disc set with the same SRP.

Apr 19, 2011

Paul Gulacy Paints Modesty Blaise

Comic book artist Paul Gulacy, well known to spy fans for his work on James Bond: Serpent's Tooth, Black Widow, Master of Kung Fu, Sci-Spy and some particularly spyish Batman comics, has tried his hand at Modesty Blaise and kindly shared the result on his website.  Unfortunately, this does not indicate a new, Gulacy-illustrated Modesty comic. (How cool would that be?)  It's merely a commission piece, but it's always cool nonetheless to see new Gulacy spy art and new Modesty Blaise art!  For more of Gulacy's fantastic spy artwork, check out the great book Spies, Vixens and Masters of Kung Fu.
New, Vaguely Color-Coordinated Spy DVDs Out This Week

Spyder's Web
The most exciting new DVD release this week is a PAL Region 2 title from the UK's Network, out well ahead of its previously announced May 2 street date. I'm always eager to sample ITV spy shows I've never seen before, and that goes double when they're Avengers imitators from the late Sixties or early Seventies, as is the case with 1972's Spyder's Web! As with so many ITC shows of that vintage, TBC's Spyder's Web focuses on a top secret spy organization reporting directly to the highest levels of government who take on the assignments too hot or delicate or weird for the standard branches to handle. This secret organization, Web, uses a documentary unit called "Arachnid" as its cover. Some of the Avengers-like weirdness encountered by Web's top agents (Patricia Cutts, Anthony Ainley, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Veronica Carlson) includes a nursing home that can arrange almost anything, a romance tour company whose clients fall in love and then disappear, a mynah bird who relays orders to field agents (in an episode that also involves life-size puppets), a mad vicar waging a private war in the middle of Britain and a gadget that instantly ages humans to the point of skeletonizing them. Though the show was originally shot in color, only two episodes survive in that format; therefore the majority of the 13 episodes (that's the complete series) included on Network's 4-disc set exist only as black and white film recordings. Retail is £40.84 but the set is available now from Network's website for £35.74. I'm really looking forward to this one!

Speaking of weirdness, that's really the only possible way to categorize the 1978 curiosity Sextette. Best known as Mae West's last film, Sextette is also one of Timothy Dalton's earliest spy roles, playing a British agent "even bigger than 007." ("I didn't get his measurements," replies West with an arched eyebrow.) That's actually intended as a surprise revelation, but it's also the critical bit for readers of this site... and this really isn't the sort of movie you can spoil. To call a spade a spade, it's an unwatchable mess... yet a compellingly watchable unwatchable mess for discerning viewers of a certain disposition.  (And if you can stomach it yourself, it's a great film to torture your friends with at a party—provided everyone's suitably inebriated.) Sextette comes to us from Ken Hughes, one of the many directors of another famous unwatchable mess that will be familiar to readers of this site, the 1967 spoof extravaganza Casino Royale. (In the interest of fairness, however, Hughes should also be credited with the wicked James Coburn spy movie The Internecine Project and episodes of the TV series Espionage, as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.)
Octogenarian West plays a serial matrimonist whose titular, all-star harem includes Tony Curtis, George Hamilton and Ringo Starr as well as Dalton. For good measure, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper and Regis Philbin also show up. And it's a musical. It really has to be seen to be believed, and now, thanks to Scorpion Releasing, you can. (Sextette was previously available on Rhino, but that version has long been out of print.  Now I kind of wish I'd taken advantage of that duration to unload my Rhino copy when they were commanding prices  $60-$100!) New extras on the remastered Scorpion version include a long interview with West's vocal coach and the original theatrical trailer. Retail is $19.95, but Amazon's got it for $13.49.
Caine and Lazenby

Michael Caine is famously friends with both Sean Connery and Roger Moore, and there are many pictures out there of Harry Palmer with one or the other of those Bonds.  He's even made movies with each of them (though The Man Who Would Be King has a distinct edge over Bullseye!), and the three memorably teamed up together to present the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1989. (That's a pretty priceless TV moment, in fact; if you've never seen it, be sure to check it out.)  And of course Caine also made a great movie with Pierce Brosnan.  But one Bond I've never seen him with is George Lazenby, which is why I was excited to see this picture of the two together (both sporting scruffy beards) at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival at Quantum of Bond.  I really don't think I've ever seen this photo before, though I supposed it might have gotten lost in the shuffle amidst all the other wonderful images in Charles Helfenstein's exhaustive and fantastic book The Making of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. At any rate, if you're a fan of either actor (and I'm betting that encompasses pretty much anyone reading this blog), you'll probably get a kick out of this picture. Also be sure to visit Quantum of Bond where it was initially posted.  A big thanks to that site's Philippe Lombard, who turned up the image on Allposters.fr.

Apr 18, 2011

Tradecraft: R.I.P. CHAOS

I meant to review CHAOS after its pilot, but didn't have the opportunity, then missed the second episode.  I watched the third one this weekend and hoped to write about those three, but unfortunately fate interjected and the first piece I'm writing about CBS's latest spy comedy since it started airing is a news item... and a bad one for the show's fans, I'm afraid.  Deadline reports that the network has pulled CHAOS from its Friday night schedule because its low ratings were dragging the whole night down.  The show's removal from the current schedule doesn't spell an out and out cancellation just yet... but it certainly doesn't bode well.  Presumably CBS will at least burn off the remaining episodes that were already filmed during the summer or something.  In the meantime, it seems pretty likely that if I ever do get around to writing a full review of CHAOS, it will be a post-mortem.  Overall, I kind of liked what little we got to see of it.  Some outlets have referred to it as a dramady, but that's inaccurate.  CHAOS was a flat-out spy comedy (which just happened to run an hour, evidently confusing some people), as signified by its Get Smart-derived title.  Unfortunately, it was a pretty toothless comedy, not in the league of Maxwell Smart or Sterling Archer.  Still, there were a good amount of laughs in the pilot, and the cast was likable.  It's too bad it probably won't have a chance to grow.  (Especially given the lengths to which CBS went to initially acquire it.)
Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Fall of Sam Axe

Judging from a Deadline story about Burn Notice creator Matt Nix signing a new (and very lucrative) overall deal with Fox TV Studios, Fox has announced the DVD of last night's Burn Notice spinoff telefilm amidst a press release about the deal.  According to the trade blog, Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe will hit DVD on July 26. As previously reported, Burn Notice: Season 4 comes out June 7.  Since this is just a mention in another press release, there is no word yet on extras or Blu-ray prospects. But I'm hopeful that, since they're releasing this one on its own as opposed to lumping it in with the eventual Season 5 DVDs, that we'll get a healthy assortment of bonus material.  It would make sense given Bruce Cambell's DVD-hungry fanbase.  (I don't think any title has ever had as many different DVD releases as Campbell's Sam Raimi collaborations The Evil Dead or Army of Darkness!)  Personally, I've got my fingers crossed for a commentary with Campbell and director Jeffrey Donovan at the very least.  I loved the telefilm, by the way, and would love to see more of these prequels about either Sam or Michael prior to their Burn Notice adventures.  If you can't wait until late July, The Fall of Sam Axe is currently available to view on Amazon Instant Video and Instant Video HD.

Apr 16, 2011

More Bond Memoirs From Roger Moore

The Book Bond points the way to a very exciting news item on 007 Magazine Online revealing that Sir Roger Moore is writing a follow-up to his fantastic 2008 autobiography My Word Is My Bond. Whereas that one covered his whole life to date (and comes highly recommended!), the new volume will focus specifically on his tenure as James Bond. Since the actor's years in Bondage only amounted to three chapters in his autobiography, it seems reasonable to expect that he's got plenty more anecdotes worth reading on the subject. The new book, Bond on Bond, will be published in September 2012 by Michael O'Mara (publisher of My Word Is My Bond) to celebrate the cinematic 007's 50th anniversary.  In addition to Sir Roger's recollections, Bond on Bond (and I personally love that a Roger Moore book about James Bond references Bob Dylan) will also feature lots of color photographs (many presumably never before seen) from the actor's personal collection. Said the inimitable Sir Roger: "I'm greatly looking forward to delving into my memory box again and rummaging through the photo albums to admire my great physique, dashing good looks and full set of teeth." Go read all about it on 007 Magazine Online.

Between this and George Lazenby's autobiography, 2012 is shaping up to be a very promising year for books on and by Bond actors! In other Roger Moore book news, the actor recently revealed on his website that there is also a new book in the works on his classic TV series The Persuaders! to celebrate that show's 40th anniversary later this year.
The Saint Reborn: James Purefoy Re-Canonized

Last weekend, Saint.org called attention to this enticing nugget on Sir Roger Moore's website hidden amidst his regular monthly Q&A: "I am told The Saint will film in July in New Orleans. I’m booked there from mid-July. More news as I get it." As far as I'm aware, the Saint to which he's referring is the latest incarnation of the ongoing attempt to launch a new Saint TV series, this time through a TV movie (and potential backdoor pilot) called The Saint in New Orleans. (This per a statement last December from sometime Saint continuation author and collaborator on the new project, Burl Barer, also reported on Saint.org.) But we've had so many false starts on this project over the last couple of years that I was hesitant to write about any of this until we heard something more concrete. Well, today there's finally something worth reporting on this very exciting project! On the CommanderBond.net forums where he's been carefully dispensing tidbits of information over the course of developing a new Saint show, Saint expert and co-producer Ian Dickerson has revealed the actor who will play the part—and it's a name halo-heads have heard before: James Purefoy!

Longtime readers will recall that Purefoy (Rome, Solomon Kane) was originally cast as Simon Templar back in 2007, when Barry Levinson was set to direct the TV reboot. That version of the project fell apart, and Purefoy moved on to the somewhat Saint-like series The Philanthropist instead (review here), rendering him unavailable for further attempts to get a new TV Saint off the ground. Dougray Scott's name was bandied about in conjunction with a later version, but in time that too collapsed. Now, years later, at last the stars have aligned and schedules have freed up, and it looks like Purefoy is once again attached to the project. Granted, it still has a long way to go before becoming a reality. Perhaps there's no cause for celebration until cameras are actually rolling (and Roger Moore possibly cameoing?), but, personally, I'm thrilled that Purefoy is back on board. That casting seemed so perfect. To me, he always seemed like not only the best but the only legitimate candidate to interpret Leslie Charteris' immortal adventurer in a new TV series. I hope everything comes together this time, because I can't wait to see his take!

And for Roger Moore fans, there's one other tantalizing tidbit buried in that March Q&A as well: Sir Roger reveals that in addition to the Blu-ray set from Network, there is also a new book on The Persuaders! in the pipeline to commemorate that series' 40th anniversary! Something else to look forward to.

Apr 15, 2011

Tradecraft: Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko Signs On For Another Spy Mission

Olga Kurylenko, arguably the best thing about Quantum of Solace (and definitely the best thing about Hitman!), has signed on for another spy movie. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the former Bond Girl will play an active CIA agent and former lover of Aaron Eckhart's former operative (that's a lot of formers) in The Expatriate.  As previously reported, Eckhart will play a retired spy who hopes to make a fresh start with his estranged 15-year old daughter in Belgium, where he takes a job as a security expert for a multinational corporation. One day he arrives at work to find that the corporation no longer exists, his coworkers are gone, and his assistant is really an assassin out to kill him and his daughter. Father and daughter go on the run together and learn to trust each other as his shadowy past comes to haunt them (as it always does for ex-spies in this sort of movie). The trade also reports that Liana Liberato (Sons of Anarchy) has come aboard to play the daughter. The Expatriate is currently filming in Montreal. I was already excited to see Eckhart venture into neo-Eurospy territory, but with Kurylenko involved, now I'm really excited to see this movie!

Apr 14, 2011

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Nikita: The Complete First Season (2010)

TV Shows On DVD reports that Amazon has begun taking pre-orders for Nikita: The Complete First Season on DVD and Blu-ray, although there's still been no official announcement of the title from Warner Home Video.  Amazon has artwork, though, and while it might not be final it's pretty neat.  It's based on the eye-catching publicity campaign that led up to the show's premiere last fall... a campaign that, while sexy enough to get banned in certain public places, really turned out not to represent the show that well.  Despite a less than promising pilotNikita has steadily improved and proven to be one of the year's most satisfying spy shows—certainly much moreso than J.J. Abrams' cancelled Undercovers, and who would have thought that last summer?  Nikita is the latest iteration of the female assassin character originated in Luc Besson's 1991 film La Femme Nikita, perpetuated in the American remake Point of No Return, US/Canadian TV series La Femme Nikita (currently available at a great discount on Amazon) and a pair of unofficial Hong Kong remakes. This one, which airs on The CW, stars Maggie Q as the titular character. Sine this DVD has yet to be officially announced, there's no word yet on what extras, if any, it will contain.
Tradecraft: Sony Cinches Up Bond Deal

Even though we already knew it, Sony and MGM officially confirmed yesterday that Sony, who previously partnered with MGM on Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, will once again distribute the next James Bond movie (the 23rd official entry in the series), which is due out on November 9, 2012.  The official press release, which can be read on Deadline, also adds that the deal includes Bond 24 as well.  Frankly, I'm surprised that Sony didn't manage to finagle a few more Bonds out of MGM in this agreement. I guess we'll go through all this again for Bond 25. In the meantime, I think this is probably good for the series. Sony knows what it's doing with Bond (even if Quantum of Solace was bad), and Barbara Broccoli has said many times how much she liked working with Sony's Amy Pascal, so I think 007 is in good hands.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week and Last

I was very curious about this fact-based French spy film when it got limited theatrical release late last year, but I didn't have the opportunity to see it.  I look forward to rectifying that now that it's available on DVD and Blu-ray from Terra. Director Christian (Joyeux Noël) Carion's film traces the true story of a KGB defector who enlisted the unwitting aid of a French engineer working in the Soviet Union during the 1980s to smuggle secrets (including ones pertaining to American national security) out of the country to French intelligence. The DVD retails for $24.98 and the Blu-ray for $34.98, though both are significantly cheaper on Amazon, as usual.

Moving from harrowing true spy stories to fluffy ones of the most escapist variety, we come to the mod, ultra-Sixties confection Arabesque. Though it's been available for some time as part of the boxed set The Gregory Peck Collection, Stanley Donen's 1966 follow-up to Charade was finally issued on its own last week (along with a Peck mystery of similar vintage, Mirage). Try as it might, Arabesque doesn't quite recapture Charade's particular magic, but Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren make charming and attractive stand-ins for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and the story of a college professor caught up in psychedelic intrigue involving a beautiful spy and Middle Eastern politics is still plenty of fun. And "psychedelic" is the operative word, even if you wouldn't expect it to be used in the same sentence as "Gregory Peck." Donen gleefully taps into the zeitgeist of the moment, and that wonderfully dated view of Swinging London is a big part of what makes the film so appealing today. (You can see plenty of examples in this article on SpyVibe.) Universal's single-disc release of Arabesque (on DVD only) is a steal at the MSRP of just $14.98... but it's even cheaper than that on Amazon.

Thanks to Collin for the heads-up on that one... and I'm sorry I took so many weeks to finally act on it!

Any Human Heart
Any Human Heart based on the acclaimed novel by William Boyd, is only partially a spy story, but it does involve James Bond creator Ian Fleming as a character.  The miniseries, which recently aired in American on PBS' Masterpiece, follows a writer named Logan Mountstuart as his life intersects with a number of famous figures, including Fleming (played by Casino Royale's Tobias Menzies), Ernest Hemingway (Foyle's War's Julian Ovenden), Wallis Simpson (Johnny English Reborn's Gillian Anderson) and her husband the Duke of Windsor (Hanna's Tom Hollander). Mountstuart is played at different points during his life by Sam Claflin, Spooks/MI-5's Matthew Macfadyen and Jim Broadbent.  Hayley Atwell (one of the few highlights of the 2009 Prisoner remake) also stars.  Menzies' Fleming only appears in a couple of scenes, though one is a key moment when, as assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, he assigns Macfadyen's Mountstuart to a wartime spy mission involving Wallis and Edward. The DVD, from PBS, contains all four episodes as they originally aired in the UK, not the re-edited 3-episode configuration seen on American TV. It also includes a wealth of special features, including interviews with Boyd and the actors, an On Set featurette, and deleted scenes. Retail is $29.99, though it can currently be had for half that on Amazon.

Callan: Wet Job
The most exciting spy release of the last few weeks, however, has to be the 1981 Callan reunion telefilm "Wet Job," which is finally available on DVD! (In the UK, anyway, as a PAL Region 2 release from Network.) It didn't get included as a bonus feature in Network's Callan: The Colour Years, but now it sees its first ever legitimate home video release as a standalone.  Despite being scripted by series creator James Mitchell, "Wet Job" doesn't have a very good reputation.  (Even Edward Woodward disparaged it in his commentary on the Acorn release Callan: Set 2.) That said, fans of the series (and, really, any spy fan should be a fan of this amazing series) will still rejoice to be able at last to own this elusive postscript to one of the best serious spy shows of all time.  Retail is £14.99, but it's currently much cheaper on Amazon.co.uk. Bear in mind, though, that next Ocotober the company will issue Callan: The Definitive Collection, a 12-disc megaset collecting every surviving black and white episode from seasons 1 and 2, every color episode from seasons 3 and 4, the original Armchair Theatre pilot play, "A Magnum For Schneider," "Wet Job," a brand new Callan documentary and a definitive book on the series by Andrew Pixley. That will retail for £99.99 (though it's currently available to pre-order for £69.99). It's great that Callan will finally get Network's usual special feature treatment, but at the same time no doubt annoying to fans who have already purchased The Monochrome Years and The Colour Years on their own. Hopefully the company will make the documentary available individually as well, as they have done in the past with their Prisoner and Saint documentaries. Fingers crossed! In the meantime, I'm absolutely thrilled that I'll finally be able to see "Wet Job," even if I know it won't be up to the standards of the show itself. This is the spy release of the spring!

Apr 13, 2011

Paul Revere, Spy

The LA Times' 24 Frames movie blog (via Dark Horizons) reports that the production company behind Robert Redford's new Lincoln assassination movie, The Conspirator, is developing a Paul Revere movie next.  Why is that news on a spy blog?  Well... Paul Revere was essentially a spy, and according to the blog, this movie "will concentrate on the espionage elements of the event; while almost any schoolchild can tell you about Revere's ride, few of us know how he knew what he did, and the challenges he and [fellow rider William] Dawes faced in obtaining that information. 'For people who grew up mainly with the [Longfellow] poem, it's a far more interesting story,' said the [producer] Rob Stone."  The production company's mission statement is to make movies about American history, and to that end they've optioned the book Paul Revere’s Ride by Pulitzer Prize winner David Hackett Fischer. Intolerable Cruelty screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone will pen the script, but change the title to Midnight Riders. Producer Brian Falk describes the film project to the LA Times as "a historically accurate swashbuckler about the spark of the American Revolution, with horses, gunfights, swords and a little bawdiness." Sounds good to me! I've long been interested in Paul Revere's spy career, and even wrote a script on the subject myself quite a while ago. (Obviously, this project is entirely unrelated to that one, which, needless to say, went nowhere.)

Apr 12, 2011

Tradecraft: Homeland Goes To Series

The Hollywood Reporter reports that 24 showrunner Howard Gordon's new spy pilot Homeland, starring Claire Danes, has been picked up for a full twelve-episode season by Showtime.  In case you've missed all the previous Homeland coverage here, the trade handily describes the show as "a psychological thriller from Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and Gideon Raff [telling] the story of a CIA officer (Danes) battling her own demons who becomes convinced that the intelligence that led to the rescue of a U.S. soldier (Lewis) was a setup." A short clip popped up online today featuring Danes and Mandy Patinkin (looking a lot like Steven Spielberg, for some reason), who plays her mentor.  I think it looks pretty cool.  It's very classic spy stuff, basically the Cold War question of identifying whether a defector is for real or not updated for the War on Terror era.

Anthony Horowitz To Pen Tintin Sequel

/Film reports that Alex Rider and Foyle's War creator Anthony Horowitz will pen the second movie in Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's projected Tintin trilogy. The film will be based on Hergé’s classic graphic novel Prisoners of the Sun, an Incan adventure. I guess that puts to rest the previous rumors that Jackson would choose one of the more spyish Tintin adventures, like King Ottokar's Sceptre or The Calculus Affair, for the film he's supposed to direct to follow up Spielberg's first entry. So spy fans lose a spy story but gain a spy writer on the sequel. "I’m writing a feature film even as we speak. I’ve been hired to write Tintin," he told BBC Radio 5 according to the website. "The Secret of the Unicorn is being directed by Steven Spielberg and was written originally by Steven Moffat, of course the writer of Doctor Who in this country. He did a couple of drafts, then it was taken over by Edgar Wright." Joe Cornish also contributed to the final script. "They’ve got [that] coming out at Christmas and if that film is a success and works and gets an audience, I’m writing the sequel to it, Prisoners of the Sun, which Peter Jackson is going to direct." Of course with Jackson tied up on The Hobbit for the next few years, that puts the sequel a long way off.

Horowitz is certainly keeping busy following the end of his lucrative Young Adult spy series earlier this month.  Besides Tintin, he's already been announced as the first ever officially sanctioned Sherlock Holmes continuation novelist, with a book due this fall. Personally, what I'd like to see from him more than anything is another season of Foyle's War, though there's a sticky rights situation making that difficult.
Tradecraft: USA Announces its Summer Spy Schedule

Two of my favorite spy shows are on USA, and both return this summer.  According to Deadline, USA announced their summer programming today, and revealed the premiere dates for new summer seasons of Burn Notice and Covert Affairs.  The surprisingly good Piper Pearabo CIA dramady (review here) returns on Tuesday, June 7 at 10PM, while the ever reliable Jeffrey Donovan hit (which will be coming in fresh off of a Bruce Campbell-powered spinoff telefilm, The Fall of Sam Axe) comes back on Thursday, June 23 at 9.  I'm eagerly looking forward to both dates!

Apr 11, 2011

Tradecraft: Sean Bean is Missing

Deadline reports that 006 himself, Sean Bean, has joined the cast of ABC's forthcoming Takenesque spy series Missing.  Unfortunately, he's not playing one of the meatier male roles in the pilot script.  (The best male part in that is an Italian Interpol agent, and I'm really curious to see who gets cast in that part!)  Instead he's playing the husband of star Ashley Judd's character, a character who dies in the show's opening minutes—but apparently (according to the trade blog) "will appear throughout the series in flashbacks."  Bean, who not only menaced James Bond, but also Jack Ryan, can be seen in a few weeks starring in HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones.  His next spy role will be in Age of Heroes, a fact-based adventure about James Bond creator Ian Fleming's secret WWII commando unit 30AU that's due out on DVD in Britain this June. As previously reported, James D'Arcy plays Fleming in that.
Upcoming Spy DVDs: Age of Heroes

Age of Heroes, the movie we first heard about last year about "Ian Fleming's Red Indians," the 30 Assault Unit created by the future Bond author while he served in Naval Intelligence during WWII, will come out on Region 2 PAL DVD and Blu-ray this June from Metrodome Distribution. The film stars former Bond baddie Sean Bean, and James D'Arcy plays Commander Fleming. If the film proves at all historically accurate, then Fleming himself will remain deskbound, since as much as he may have wanted to, he did not go on missions with the 30AU. (That hasn't dissuaded other movies, though, like Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming with Jason Connery, from portraying him in the field.) 

According to the official copy, "Age of Heroes is inspired by this incredible true story, the little told story of how James Bond creator Ian Fleming oversaw the activities of an elite and supremely well-trained commando unit during World War II, and about the danger and adventure that the 30 Assault Unit faced in their brave efforts to extract the most crucial Nazi-Axis secrets with their pioneering stealth techniques." Age of Heroes was supposed to have a theatrical run in Britain last month, but I don't know if that actually happened. There is still no US release date. For more on Fleming's involvement with 30AU, check out Craig Cabell's books Ian Fleming's Secret War and The History of 30 Assault Unit: Ian Fleming's Red Indians.

Apr 10, 2011

Sam Axe Trailer

USA has posted a trailer for next week's TV movie Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe starring Bruce Campbell. It's got lots of fantastic Bruce Campbell moments and looks great! Here's the official synopsis:
Before Sam Axe teamed up with Michael and Fiona, he was Commander Axe, U.S. Navy SEAL. The Fall of Sam Axe tells the story of how Sam went from respected Naval Commander to the man of mystery we’ve come to know on Burn Notice. On what will turn out to be Sam’s last military mission, he is sent to the jungles of Colombia to investigate claims of a vicious terrorist organization known only as the “Espada Ariente” (Flaming Sword). His mission: to determine whether U.S. military aid is necessary to deal with the threat. But when he arrives, things are more complicated than he’d imagined. He receives word that the rebels have targeted a small civilian clinic deep in the jungle. Sam must now save the clinic’s doctors and patients from certain death. However, nothing is as it seems and the Espada Ardiente may not be the biggest threat Sam Axe faces.
Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe, directed by series star Jeffrey Donovan, airs next Sunday, April 17 at 9 Eastern. The regular series returns this summer.

Apr 9, 2011

Last Day To Hear "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" Radioplay Online

Following their very cool adaptations of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels Doctor No and Goldfinger, BBC Radio 4 has aired yet another Fleming-based radioplay.  This one's adapted (by Sherry Ashwell) from his classic children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Imogen Stubbs and Alex Jennings star. You can listen to it online with the BBC's iPlayer, but it's only available through this weekend, so listen quickly! In other Chitty news, The Book Bond recently reported that author Frank Cottrell Boyce will pen new adventures for Fleming's magical car... though she'll be transformed into a rather dubious minibus.
Lucifer Box Returns On the Radio

Mark Gatiss' dandy secret agent Lucifer Box is back!  Not in a new novel, unfortunately, but in a new BBC Radio recording of the author's second (and best) Box novel, The Devil in Amber.  (Read my review of the book here.) It's actually not really an adaptation, unfortunately, but Gatiss himself reading his own novel.  Still, with a performer as talented as Mark Gatiss (who played a litany of characters on The League of Gentlemen), that's the next best thing.  It's also notable because although an abridged, Gatiss-read audio version of his first Lucifer Box book, The Vesuvius Club, was issued on CD, no audio version of The Devil in Amber ever came out. So now's your chance to hear it, in six half-hour segments. The first one can be heard here on the BBC's iPlayer right now... but only for a few more hours, I'm afraid. The second episode begins tomorrow and will be available for a week.

Apr 8, 2011

DVD Review: Agatha Christie's Marple: The Geraldine McEwan Collection
Featuring one of Timothy Dalton's best TV roles!

Miss Marple is in the news right now thanks to a new project at Disney that apparently recasts the famous spinster detective as, well, Jennifer Garner. I’m not sure if the message to take from that is that 38 is actually Hollywood’s current idea of “old,” or that Disney is shelling out a huge amount of money to the Christie estate in order to buy a brand that younger audiences have zero awareness of and then alter it in such a significant way so as to completely alienate the older audiences who do know the character. The former is depressing and the latter seems just ludicrous, yet it’s still the more logical conclusion. Personally, I’m kind of curious. I’ve been a big fan of Garner since Alias and of screenwriter Mark Frost since his fantastic novel The List of 7 back in the 90s, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and at least see where this goes, even if I’m scratching my head as to why they didn’t just set Garner up with a different female investigator more appropriate to her age and image. (Honey West, perhaps?) Anyway, in the face of a contemporary, thirty-something American version of the character, surely Christie purists must be reconsidering their outcry over the comparatively subtle changes enacted upon Miss Marple for the current ITV series!

ITV’s latest take on Agatha Christie’s evergreen sleuth might annoy such purists with the way it shakes things up a bit, but if you’ve always responded to Christie’s pulpier sensibilities, as I have, then you’ll probably enjoy it. Marple (as its simply called), starring Geraldine McEwan (in its 2004-2007 seasons anyway; she was later replaced by Julia McKenzie), takes Christie’s least pulpy detective, the aged Jane Marple, plays up the most lurid and sensational aspects of her cases and then (and here’s the genius bit) doesn’t have Miss Marple bat an eye at any of it. In any version, Miss Marple was always pretty unflappable when it came to the dead bodies that always seemed to pop up in her life (even when they were charred beyond recognition), so why should she raise an eyebrow at some of the more lurid liberties this series takes? The murderous pair of illicit lovers from one story, for example, are transformed from heterosexual adulterers into lusty lesbians. Would the Grand Dame of mystery fiction have written it that way? No (not at the time when she was writing, anyway), but that doesn’t mean that such a twist isn’t right at home within the plot of her novel!

Miss Marple herself remains the prim and proper picture of post-war British class and manners, yet she still gets her hands dirty by investigating murders–an act in itself a most inappropriate breach of accepted behavior. Likewise, Christie’s mid-century readership could satisfy their own literary bloodlust by tucking into the adventures of such a lady in pages written by a bona fide Dame! Yet all this lip service to decorum hid a thirst for the macabre and the sensational just as insatiable as that of American readers devouring the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which didn’t bother to disguise their lurid, pulpy roots. Indeed, Christie’s books barely disguised them themselves. The covers may not share the spattered blood, drawn guns and heaving breasts of American pulp magazines, but they did share the fonts–and at least the hint of blood. Each episode of this 21st Century Marple series also shares those fonts. The 1950s typefaces (ripped straight off a paperback!) that open each feature-length mystery set the tone for the adaptations to follow. They may change the details and they may sex things up, but they’re true to one aspect of Christie: they appeal to their audience’s basest instincts.

As in any British mystery series, espionage elements are bound to pop up in the odd episode of Marple. But more of what makes this series of interest to spy fans will be the guest stars. Practically every episode is packed full of familiar faces from the worlds of James Bond, The Avengers, Spooks, The Saint and other series well known to readers of this site. The debut episode in Acorn’s box set, “Murder At the Vicarage,” offers both spy stars and spy plot elements. (Though with Christie, it’s always possible such elements could prove red herrings.) Herbert Lom, for example (certainly no stranger to Sixties spy fans; he even issues a very Drefuss-like wheeze at one point that you expect to be accompanied by an eye tick and the exclamation, “Clouseau!”) plays a character named Augustin Dufosse who was a French resistance fighter during WWII, as was his grandson. (Unlike the eternal pre-war setting of Poirot, Marple is situated to great effect in post-war Britain.) Furthermore, another character turns out to have been an SOE operative engaged to that grandson. The Colonel who gets killed (and that’s no spoiler; Colonels are always getting killed in this sort of thing) commanded a desk in London during the war and saw to it that a supply drop meant for them went instead to his confederate so they could split the proceeds after the war. That background provides Lom and his confederate with suitable motives to murder him, but of course the intrepid Miss Marple (more frequently referred to in this series as "Jane") soon discovers that practically everyone had a motive for murder, so that’s really not much help. I’m just illustrating some of the spy connections. Other spy celebrities in the cast include Lucifer Box creator Mark Gatiss as a suspect assistant vicar, Saint veteran Jane Asher, Hannay star Robert Powell as a doctor, Spooks’ Tim McInnerny as the head vicar and Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachael Stirling, as his wife.

I like the way director Charles Palmer (Doctor Who) handles the reveal as Miss Marple pieces together what actually happened at the episode’s conclusion: a montage of pans against a great, swelling bit of score as all the right images whirl around in her head. This sequence sets the tone for the very stylish series to follow. Every aspect of the production, from the direction to the opulent set design to the sweeping score to the lush cinematography is flashy, which might at first seem inappropriate for Miss Marple, but which really livens things up for modern audiences while at the same time serving to accentuate her overriding ordinariness amidst all this flash. And, similar to George Smiley, it is this apparent ordinariness, this unassuming quality, that enables Jane Marple to quietly unravel the most tangled murder mysteries to everyone else’s amazement.

“The Body in the Library” introduces former Avenger Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantry, Miss Marple’s Watsonish sidekick. She returns to the series much later (after Julia McKenzie has inherited the role from McEwan), but her repartee with Jane is so good that I found myself wishing she were in all of them. As long as you’re shaking things up from the books this much, why not introduce a permanent television sidekick, like Captain Hastings in the early seasons of Poirot?

Here, Lumley is decidedly more Edina than Purdey, but she’s fantastic, and her New Avengers fans will enjoy her nonetheless. James Fox and Ian Richardson lend further gravitas to the formidable guest cast, and the tight Christie mystery plot (complete with her signature misdirection) remains intact even if the culprit or culprits themselves are slightly altered. McEwan’s Miss Marple is shown to be more knowingly worldly than the usual portrayal (wherein she at least pretends to be less so, for the sake of propriety), and things that might have shocked more classic incarnations of this sleuth roll right off of the Teflon-coated McEwan. (Um, but she’s still not a thirty-something American!)

There really isn’t a bad episode in the lot here, but far and away the highlight for spy fans has to be “The Sittaford Mystery.” (Despite the fact that Christie’s novel of that name didn’t even feature Miss Marple as a character, she’s been worked into the plot reasonably enough for the sake of television.) Personally, I was sold from the very beginning when we’re treated to a title reading “Egypt, 1927” over an image of Timothy Dalton in khakis and a pith helmet. And a mustache! In an Egyptian tomb! Even if you’re not a fan of Agatha Christie (in fact, possibly moreso if you’re not), if that’s the sort of thing that excites you, you need to track down this episode!

After some thoroughly satisfying archeological shenanigans, we cut to twenty-five years later, when Dalton’s character, Clive Trevelyan, is a successful politician meeting in consultation with none other than Winston Churchill (not a character in Christie’s novel, but played here by Robert Hardy… of course). We learn that Trevelyan is very likely his successor as Prime Minister… so long as nobody murders him, of course. Lots of newspaper headlines and newsreel footage stylishly fill us in on the character’s career in the interceding years as an Olympic skiier, adventurer, war hero and now politician.

As you might surmise from its sensational tomb-raiding beginning, “The Sittaford Mystery” plays up the pulpiness of the story more than any other. The direction goes overboard (in the best possible way) right from the start with canted angles galore. I honestly don’t think there’s a single level camera shot in the entire episode. It might get a little annoying, but at the same time it serves to appropriately sensationalize the proceedings and up the pulp ante that comes automatically with a story that begins with a mustachioed Timothy Dalton in an ancient tomb! The same gleefully over-the-top approach goes for the art direction and costumes and cinematography. We’re treated to great pulpy colors and purposefully studio-bound sets, like a taxi that Dalton and McEwan share in a snowstorm which doesn’t actually move. Only the camera does (canted, of course), in a motion to suggest movement of the stationary, studio-bound cab as artificial snow whirls all around.

Even though it’s stylized in a BBC-style, digital sort of stylized, “The Sittaford Mystery” still resembles nothing so much as a Hammer Gothic. And if Hammer and Miss Marple previously didn’t go together and still don’t sit well with some fans, well I’m sorry; I never knew it, but apparently that’s exactly what I wanted to see! (Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll say the same thing about Jennifer Garner playing Miss Marple.) Director Paul Unwin plays up the Gothic side of the story further by having Dalton brood alone in his study in his castle (Oh yes! Dalton lives in a castle. A snowbound castle, no less! How cool!), haunted very literally by the ghosts of his past, presented in the flesh (so to speak) in stark white video effects. The implication is certainly there, even, that these ghosts are literal, but Christie purists can easily choose to view them as figments of Trevelyan’s imagination, too. Besides living in a castle and talking to ghosts, Dalton goes for walks “out on the moor” to think (even Christie’s novel, which also features an escaped convict, owed a debt to The Hound of the Baskervilles—a connection the filmmakers waste no opportunity to drive home) and keeps a falcon.

If you’re thinking al this (plus a golden scorpion purloined from that Egyptian tomb said to carry a curse) surely foretells a bad death in a mystery of this ilk, then you’re right… but the good news for Dalton fans is that it doesn’t come until more than halfway through the story, and even then Trevelyan is still very much a presence via flashbacks. Despite a reliable ensemble (including a pre-Education Carey Mulligan), this is truly Dalton’s show here, and he makes the most of it!

If “The Sittaford Mystery” has a downside, it’s just that Miss Marple herself doesn’t really have that much to do in it—certainly not until the second half, at least. Instead, beautiful potential couple Charles Burnaby (Chaos' James Murray) and Emily Trefusis (Sherlock’s Zoe Telford, who is excellent) lead the on-site investigation, belying this story’s origin as a non-Marple novel. (The couple are the only detectives in the book.) But what it lacks in Marple herself, it makes up for in trains, castles, snowstorms, Lagondas, deaths foretold on Ouija Boards, Evil Dead-style zoom-ins on creepy cuckoo clocks at canted angles and Winston Churchill to boot! It’s all more Hammer than Christie (driven home by the controversial final shot), which might drive the great Dame’s fans a bit nuts, but is frankly fine with me. (And maybe after contemplating Jennifer Garner as their heroine, it will seem fine to them in retrospect, too.) I’ve seen and read enough Christie in my time to appreciate a slightly atypical take on the material, and for Timothy Dalton fans like myself, “The Sittaford Mystery” really can’t be beat.

While nobody can beat T-Dalt, there are still more spy stars to turn up in Marple. Other episodes include Live and Let Die’s Jane Seymour (in a meaty role), Keeley Hawes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Richard Armitage. All in all, there’s a lot to like in Marple: The Complete Geraldine McEwan Collection, and it certainly proves that you don’t have to be entirely faithful to the text to make good entertainment. With that in mind, I think I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about the next incarnation of the character to feature a TV spy—Ms. Garner.