Feb 28, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Both of my favorite spy movies from last year are hitting DVD in the next few months. We already heard that Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol comes out on April 17, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which couldn't be a more different example of the genre - though both films do begin with missions going awry in Budapest) beats it by almost a month, hitting shelves on March 20 courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment on both DVD and Blu-ray/DVD Combo. According to DVD Active, the DVD release will feature an audio commentary with director Tomas Alfredson and Oscar-nominated lead actor Gary Oldman, along with interviews with Alfredson, Oldman, co-stars Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, and co-writer Peter Straughan. The Blu-ray/DVD Combo release (obviously the one to get) will also include deleted scenes (more Roy Bland, I hope!), a making-of featurette called "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: First Look" (I assume this is the same as the Sky Movies featurette on the UK disc), an interview with author John le Carré, and an UltraViolet digital copy of the film. If these specs are final, that means that North American fans will miss out on several special features (as well as a lot of disposable physical bells and whistles) included on the Region B Blu-ray, but absent here: a featurette on Smiley, an "Inside the Circus" featurette, a "Shadow World" featurette, and a featurette on the UK premiere. Oh well. That's too bad, but hardly a reason not to get one of the best spy movies of the past few decades! (And maybe some of them will turn out to be Easter Eggs, or just aren't listed.)

Retail is $29.98 for the DVD and $34.98 for the Combo Pack, though both are currently available to pre-order from Amazon (via those links) for considerably less.

Read my full review of Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a truly masterful adaptation of my all-time favorite novel, here.

The Avengers' Black Widow Gets Her Own Comic--Inspired by the REAL Avengers' Emma Peel!

Regular readers will know that I'm a big fan of the spies in the Marvel Comics Universe, including Nick Fury and the Black Widow. I'm slightly less of a fan of the spies in the Marvel movie universe, but I'm still excited to see Samuel L. Jackson's Fury and Scarlett Johannson's Widow (both veterans of Iron Man 2, as well as other Marvel movies in Jackson's case), along with their fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Coulson (an original movie character played by Clark Gregg; I still wish they'd just named him Jasper Sitwell, after the comics character) and Hawkeye (played by utility spy franchise fill-in Jeremy Renner, who made his debut as the character in a cameo in last year's Thor) in this summer's Joss Whedon-directed superhero tentpole The Avengers. (I'm not a fan, however, of Marvel's use of the title The Avengers, which to me belongs to John Steed and his various cohorts, who pre-date the Stan Lee comic by two years.) Now, according to Newsarama, the worlds of film and comic book will temporarily merge in a new comics miniseries with a title almost as awkward as my parenthetical-laden mega-sentence above: Marvel's The Avengers: Black Widow Strikes. The three-issue series by Fred Van Lente and various artists will reveal the movie Black Widow's espionage exploits that happened between Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. Coulson and the movie version of Nick Fury (who's based on the Ultimate Universe version of the character, who was actually modelled on Jackson long before he ever signed on to play the role) will also make appearances. But the reason I'm really excited about this series is because Van Lente name-checks the actress who played my very favorite catsuited female superspy, Emma Peel from the real Avengers of Sixties TV! "I am a huge espionage nut," the writer tells Newsarama. "My obsession with kick-ass spy females dates back to my sixth grade crush on Diana Rigg." An Emma Peel obsession is definitely the right background to writing a good Black Widow adventure.

Oddly, this comic will first be serialized in the Russian edition of Maxim, and will consequently be a bit more risque than film tie-in comics tend to be. The Marvel miniseries version then hits stores this May, the same month that The Avengers opens on screens across the country.

For fans interested in getting to know the real Black Widow of Marvel Comics, there are three great hardcover collections that make an excellent introduction: Sting of the Widow, Black Widow: Web of Intrigue (featuring a terrific Paul Gulacy-illustrated story that "guest stars" Michael Caine) and Black Widow: The Itsy-Bitsy Spider (which contains stories written by Queen & Country's Greg Rucka).

It Takes A Thief Box Set Drops to a Reasonable Price

It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series has finally dropped down to a somewhat reasonable price for what you get on Amazon: right now it's just $72.49 for all three seasons of the 1968-70 Robert Wagner spy show. The show itself would easily be worth the usual Amazon asking price of $98.99 (if maybe not the SRP of $199.99) were any effort put into the DVD release. But unfortunately eOne Entertainment's release was far from satisfying. They crammed a few cheap, stupid trinkets that surely nobody wants (like coasters) into an annoyingly chunky, disappointingly flimsy oversize box, and hoped that those things would distract fans from the appalling video quality on the third season episodes. (Season One looks great, though.) Were these seasons released individually for under $30 each, like Image's latest I Spy sets, I would have no complaints. But with a list price of $200, I definitely expected more. (You can read more of my complaints here.) Today's price is more in line with the quality you get. It actually amounts to less than $25 per season, and that's certainly fair. Because It Takes A Thief is, after all, a highly entertaining series that belongs in the library of every Sixties spy fan! So if you've been holding off... now's your chance to finally catch Alexander Mundy.

Feb 26, 2012

Missing Hits ABC in March

ABC's Missing (written by Greg Poirier) was my favorite script of last year's network spy pilots (much better, for instance, than Fox's Exit Strategy, which didn't get picked up), and now, nearly a year later, it's finally headed for our television screens! Yes, its ex-CIA agent tearing apart Europe to find her missing son premise is essentially "Taken with a lady," but (at the script stage, anyway) it makes the most of that premise. And, in my opinion, we could do a lot worst than weekly doses of Taken-with-a-lady shot on location in Europe! I'm hoping Ashley Judd and the production team pull this off... and the spots that ABC has been running lately certainly make it look like they have. (I saw a pretty cool ad before a movie recently, too.) This spot is kind of weird (perhaps it was designed for a trade show?), but once you get past Judd's introduction and into the footage, it gives you a good sense of the sort of action in store for us.

Missing premieres on ABC on Thursday, March 15 at 9/8c. 

Feb 25, 2012

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

DVD Active reports that Paramount will release the latest (and by far the best!) entry in the Mission: Impossible film series, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, on home video on April 17 in three configurations: single DVD ($19.99), a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo ($29.99) and a 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo ($34.99). (Those configurations don't quite match up with Amazon's current listings, though, so it's possible they might change, or that one might be a Best Buy exclusive or something.) If you like special features (or if you want the cool cover), that last one's the version you want. It will come with trailers, deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Brad Bird, and 13 featurettes: "The Sandstorm," "Props," "Heating Up In Dubai," "Vancouver Fisticuffs," "The Russian Prison," "Shooting in IMAX," "Art Department," "A Roll of Film," "Life Masks," "Stepping Into the Storm," "Dubai Car Crash," "Lens on the Burj" and "Composer." The DVD will include the deleted scenes and two of the featurettes; the 2-disc combo will include the deleted scenes and four of the featurettes. For me, there's no question: I loved the movie (it tied as my favorite spy film of last year, in fact), and I want to see all the behind-the-scenes material I can! I only wish Bird had contributed a feature commentary as well. I wonder if one of those deleted scenes includes that awesome indoor ski resort in Dubai where we heard they shot, but which didn't make an appearance in the finished film? Hope so!

Feb 24, 2012

Foyle's War Returns... And Transitions Into a Full-On Spy Show

When you run a media blog like this one, you're email in-box tends to fill up with press releases. If your site's as specific as mine, the vast majority of them are largely irrelevant and just amount to spam. But the upside to that is that once in a while you wake up to some truly great and unexpected news in your in-box... like yesterday morning. Yesterday, Acorn Media, ITV and Eleventh Hour Films announced that one of my very favorite TV series of the last decade, Foyle's War, would have another season. And, of particular note to readers of this site, while past seasons have always contained a definite element of espionage, the new season will transition into a full-on spy show!

The original incarnation of Foyle's War focused on the exploits of a Hastings police inspector in wartime England. The great Michael Kitchen (Bill Tanner to Pierce Brosnan's James Bond) played the sublimely understated Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, whose unwavering integrity often put him at odds with his superiors, the military and the intelligence establishment. Unsurprisingly in a time of war and a country under siege, many of his cases involved enemy spies or saboteurs, and he frequently came into contact with members of various British wartime spy agencies. Now that the war is over and Foyle is retired as a police officer, it seems like those contacts will play a big role in the next stage of his career. According to the press release, "Series 8 will be set during the early period after World War II with Foyle focusing his attention on the world of espionage as he gathers secret intelligence in support of Britain’s security, defence and the Government’s foreign and economic policies. The stories will range from Foyle identifying highly placed atomic spies to a true story of government corruption. A world of transition where the values and certainties of the war have given way to austerity, exhaustion and doubts about the direction the new government is taking. In his new role as a Senior Intelligence Officer, Foyle discovers that the British establishment is rife with communist sympathizers and traitors. In this delicately balanced period in history, 1946-47, Foyle will use all his intelligence, guile and intuition to keep the country safe."

At one point, Foyle's return seemed up in the air due to legal issues surrounding the rights. Luckily, Acorn Media (who have distributed the DVDs of all the seasons in the United States) ended up acquiring permanent ownership of the series in November 2010, and made it a top priority to develop another season and get the original creative talent on board. That includes producer Jill Green and writer/creator Anthony Horowitz, well known to spy fans as the author of the Alex Rider novels. Horowitz will pen the first and third of the season's three feature-length episodes. (David Kane, who wrote the 2010 episode "Killing Time," will pen the second episode.) “I have returned to Foyle’s War because there are still some amazing stories I want to tell,” Horowitz said. “The war may be over but Foyle’s career goes on.” Espionage is clearly a long-time interest for Horowitz. Besides creating the Bond-inspired Alex Rider series, he pitted Foyle against SMERSH in one of the Series 7 stories set in 1945, “The Russian House.”

In addition to Michael Kitchen, original series co-star Honeysuckle Weeks is slated to return to the drama playing as Samantha Stewart, Foyle's one-time driver. According to the press release, “Post-war, Samantha is now married and relishing domesticity. Her character also enters a fresh era as she delights in a surprising new working role.” Not mentioned is the third series star, Anthony Howell, who portrayed Foyle's second-in-command in Hastings, Sgt. Paul Milner. Milner had moved on in a logical career direction that made it difficult to shoehorn him into the last season's plots, so it seems unlikely that he'll be back for these new episodes... though it would be nice if Horowitz can at least work in a cameo for him!

The new season is slated to go into production this fall to air in 2013. While all previous editions of Foyle's War have been seen in America on PBS, the U.S. broadcaster for the new episodes has yet to be announced.

Feb 23, 2012

Tradecraft: Archer Renewed For Season 4

According to the Hollywood Reporter's Live Feed, FX has renewed its hit animated spy comedy Archer for a 13-episode fourth season. FX Productions has also signed a deal extending Archer executive producers Adam Reed and Matt Thompson's deal for another two years. Their extended deal guarantees their involvement in future seasons of Archer if it ends up renewed again, which seems likely, given that it keeps rising in the ratings. “It was an easy decision to order more Archer,” FX EVP of Original Programming Nick Grad told the trade. “Adam, Matt, and our amazing voice cast are delivering one of the funniest and smartest shows on television. It has deservedly grown beyond its initial cult following to become both a critical and ratings success. It is a true asset to the FX comedy roster.”

Tradecraft: Skyfall Goes IMAX

Sony and MGM announced today (via Deadline) that Skyfall, Daniel Craig's third outing as James Bond, will be the first 007 film released simultaneously in IMAX theaters. (It comes out October 26 in Britain and November 9 in America.) Though the press release promises that "The IMAX release of Skyfall will be digitally re-mastered into the image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience® with proprietary IMAX [Digital Re-mastering] technology," it's important to note that the film is not being shot or partially shot with IMAX cameras, which is what made action sequences in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and The Dark Knight so memorable. (For those sequences, the image would actually expand to fill the entire IMAX screen from top to bottom. Because films tend to be shot in widescreen aspect ratios, most mainstream releases don't fit to vertically fill out an entire IMAX screen.) However, there is still a serious upside to an IMAX release. Back to the press release: "The crystal-clear images coupled with IMAX’s customized theatre geometry and powerful digital audio create a unique environment that will make audiences feel as if they are in the movie." Plus, it will be cool to see a Bond movie so damn big! (Provided you're watching on a proper, larger-than-life IMAX screen, and not one of those disappointing mini-IMAXs that frequently confuse consumers at shopping mall theaters.) I remember watching Goldfinger on the IMAX screen at Navy Pier in Chicago back when I was in college, and that was pretty amazing even without being custom-formatted for the technology. Personally, when it comes to gimmicks to get audiences back into theaters, I greatly, greatly prefer IMAX to 3D.

Feb 22, 2012

Skyfall Videoblog

Today director Sam Mendes released his first videoblog (on 007.com) from the set of the 23rd official James Bond movie, Skyfall. (Or is that SkyFall? I'm still not sure, because every time it's mentioned in an official studio release, it's inevitalbly all capitalized.) Anyway, I can't wait for this movie!

Feb 21, 2012

Tradecraft: RED 2 Director Hired

The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision blog reports that Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) has been tapped to direct the sequel to Robert Schwentke's 2010 hit RED (review here) for Summit. According to the trade, original cast members Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman are all expected to return - even though at least one of them died in the first movie! They're not mentioned, but I really hope that Brian Cox, Mary Louise Parker and Karl Urban also return. Urban's a great actor who despite roles in big movies perpetually seems to hover in the realm of the almost action hero, and RED showed he has what it takes for the big leagues. (I'd love to see him headline his own spy movie one day.) As previously reported, the writers of the first film (which was loosely adapted from a DC comic book), Erich and Jon Hoeber, penned the sequel. Summit, now owned by Lionsgate, hopes to start rolling on RED 2 by the end of this year, once Willis wraps Die Hard 5.

Feb 20, 2012

New Spy DVDs Out Recently

This catch-up post keeps growing longer and longer the more it keeps getting put off. I missed quite a few weeks of new spy DVDs in January and February, and in hopes of getting back on track for weekly Tuesday posts, here's a great big roundup of some choice titles from the past month and a half.

The Michael Brandt/Derek Haas spy thriller The Double, starring Richard Gere, Topher Grace and Quantum of Solace's Stana Katic, received a limited theatrical release last fall on its way to a DVD debut at the end of January from Image Entertainment. Consequently, it's probably new to most spy fans on DVD, and comes with an impressive pedigree: The Double was penned by the writers of 3:10 to Yuma and Wanted (as well as the as-yet-unproduced spy movies The Matarese Circle and Matt Helm).
The DVD and Blu-ray hit stores a few weeks ago. Extras include a commentary with writer Haas and writer/director Brandt, producer interviews, and a reportedly spoiler-filled trailer. Here's the studio's description of the film:
When a United States Senator is brutally murdered, the evidence points to a Soviet assassin code-named Cassius, who was long-thought to be dead. Two men who know Cassius best are thrown together to catch him. Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere, An Officer and a Gentleman) is a retired CIA operative who spent his career tracking Cassius around the globe. Ben Geary (Topher Grace, Spider-Man 3) is a hotshot young FBI Agent and family man who has studied the killer's every move. Ben thinks he knows Cassius, but Paul knows he is dead wrong. Now, time is running out to stop this merciless killing machine before he finds his next target. Martin Sheen (The Departed), Odette Yustman (Cloverfield) and Stana Katic (Castle) costar in this tense thriller from the co-writers of Wanted and 3:10 to Yuma that will keep you guessing until the very last shot.
Retail is $27.97 for the DVD and $29.97 for the Blu-ray, though of course both are available much cheaper on Amazon.

One of the weirdest and coolest corners of the spy genre has to be the decidedly odd fumetti and fumetti neri subgenre of the mid-to-late Sixties, an offshoot of the Eurospy movement which found the Italian James Bond wannabes dressing up in tights and masks. (The Fantastic Argoman and Diabolik are prime examples; you can read all about them and others of their ilk in my Costumed Adventurer Week recap.) Hollywood stunt man-turned-director Scott Rhodes very obviously shares my affinity for this unique marriage of spy and superhero, and as I first wrote about last summer when the series debuted, he's single-handedly revived it with his web series homage to the likes of Superargo and Argoman, The Adventures of Superseven! (No direct relation to the eurospy Super Seven - two words - who liked to call Cairo.) Hopefully you've already seen Superseven in action on YouTube, but if you haven't, the web series' entire first season is now available on DVD! And it's brimming with special features, too, including interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers, and even a gallery of artwork designed in the style of Sixties lobby cards by my fellow spy blogger, Permission To Kill's David Foster. Superseven is a very entertaining series with impressive production values and acting, sure to thrill fans of Sixties Eurospy and costumed adventurer movies. The 2-disc set can be ordered for $14.99 plus $3 shipping and handling directly from the Superseven website. Stay tuned in the coming week or so for an interview with Scott Rhodes and a chance to win this DVD!

Disney has released the cult favorite 1983 Margot Kidder spy movie Trenchcoat on DVD as part of their made-on-demand "Disney Generations" line. Trenchcoat, which also stars Robert Hays and features Raiders of the Lost Ark's Ronald Lacey and Poirot's David Suchet in smaller parts, caused a bit of controversy when it came out in 1983, as it was the first film Disney had aimed specifically at the adult market. (Not that it's that adult, but it's not designed for kids.) Ultimately it led to the creation of the Touchstone brand so the studio could differentiate such fare. Kidder stars as a mystery writer who goes on vacation in scenic Malta (another undeniable star of this show) and finds herself caught up in a web of international espionage and terrorism, where no one is who they seem to be. It's long been demanded on DVD by its fans, so this release is sure to please quite a few people. Now I hope Disney uses their Generations label to put out a few more of their 80s spy capers, like the 1987 Walt Disney's World of Color TV movie Double Agent, starring Michael McKean (which I saw on the same day I first saw Thunderball - and I preferred the Disney movie!*), or perhaps a reissue of the long out-of-print latter-day fumetti Condorman, with Bond Girl Barbara Carera.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 spy masterpiece Notorious made its Blu-ray debut a few weeks ago courtesy of Fox and MGM. Besides an impressive HD transfer (really, I don't know what some Amazon reviewers are complaining about), the Blu-ray boasts two commentaries by film historians, an isolated music and effects track, "The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious" featurette, "Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster" featurette (a must-see for fans of the genre), an AFI Tribute to Hitchcock, a 1948 radio play starring Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman, a Peter Bogdanovich audio interview, a second audio interview with François Truffaut quizzing Hitch on a number of subjects including both Notorious and the auteur's earlier spy movie Sabotage, a restoration comparison and a still gallery. Retail is already a bargain at $24.99, but, unsurprisingly, it's significantly less on Amazon.

After an extraordinarily prolonged drought, another James Bond movie materialized on Blu-ray a few weeks ago... but not, I'm afraid, one of the titles that many fans have long been hoping for, like The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice or On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (We'll finally see those in high-def as part of a massive 50th Anniversary box set this fall.) Instead, Fox and MGM have made the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale widely available. The title was previously available on Blu only as a Best Buy exclusive. Casino Royale '67, starring David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Orson Welles (among many others), can now, at last, be found everywhere (including Amazon). The SRP is $19.99, and the disc contains the same extras available on the last DVD edition: an audio commentary with Bond historians Steven Jay Rubin and John Cork, the original theatrical trailer, and a five-part documentary produced by Rubin on the unbelievable behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went on during the making of Casino Royale.

The latest in Shout! Factory's series of multi-DVD set reissues of out-of-print Roger Corman exploitation movies, Lethal Ladies Collection: Volume 2, includes the low-budget Seventies spy movie Cover Girl Models. According to the studio copy, "a fashion photography assignment teams three American models and inadvertently plunges them into the mystery and danger of international espionage. When an invaluable roll of microfilm is sewed into one of the girls’ fashion gowns, they are drawn into the violence and intrigue of a spy-vs.-counterspy conspiracy." It's all just an excuse for T&A in cheap Manila locations, of course, but that's the Seventies for you. Cover Girl Models was previously issued on a Region 1 disc from Televista for Latin American companies. The Shout! set also includes the stewardesses-vs-hijackers movie Fly Me and a most welcome reissue of the long unavailable (and very pricey on the collector's market) Pam Grier gladiator classic The Arena. Extras include trailers and TV spots as well as all the Arena special features from the out of print New Concorde DVD, plus a new director's commentary on that one. Retail is an affordable $24.97 for the 2-disc set.

*Of course I was 10, and haven't had the opportunity to see it since. It's probably terrible.

Feb 17, 2012

Tradecraft: Syfy Buys Sci-Spy Pi(lot)

Deadline reports that cable network Syfy has bought an action drama pilot from Covert Affairs writer Brett Conrad that's sci-fi with a spy twist--or possibly spy with a sci-fi twist. According to the trade blog, The Dover Agenda (nice Ludlumesque title there!) follows "a young man who is recruited by a future version of himself to work for a secret branch of Military Intelligence specializing in parapsychology and future tech." Sounds like a pretty cool premise to me. It's currently being rewritten to fit Syfy's 90-minute pilot formula.

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Covert Affairs - Season Two

TV Shows On DVD reports that Universal will release Covert Affairs - Season Two, a 4-disc, 16-episode set, on DVD on May 1. This USA spy show starring Piper Perabo, Christopher Gorham, Kari Matchett and the great Peter Gallagher (though not quite enough of him) got even better in its second season, and one impressive Berlin-set episode made my Best of 2011 list. There are even more actual foreign locations in Season 2, from Istanbul to Paris to Stockholm, and their presence really elevates this series above other spy shows that dress up Burbank as whatever locale that week's script calls for. There are no extras listed yet, but the first season had some so I'm hoping Season Two does as well. SRP is $39.98, but the set is already available to pre-order for considerably less than that on Amazon. The artwork provided by TV Shows On DVD is temporary, but probably a good indication of what we'll eventually see on the shelf.

Feb 16, 2012

New Spy DVDs Out This Week

I never expected to see a Region 1 release of the 1989-90 ITV series Frederick Forsyth Presents, but thanks to Timeless Media Group, here it is! That awkwardly Photoshopped cover isn't representative of the six classy TV movies contained on 3 discs within. These movies are mostly based on novellas contained in Forsyth's book The Deceiver. Alan Howard (best known as the voice of the Ring in the Lord of the Rings movies) plays unorthodox spymaster Sam McCready, Forsyth's answer to George Smiley. McCready generally takes a backseat, however, to the people he's manipulating in each story. This formula enabled the producers to bring in big guest stars for each film, including Elizabeth Hurley, Lauren Bacall, Brian Dennehy, Beau Bridges, Chris Cooper, Phillip Michael Thomas, David Threlfall and Peter Egan. The ones I've seen are solid productions, and I'm not sure why this series isn't better known. It deserves a place beside other solid Forsyth adaptations like The Day of the Jackal (indeed, one of these stories concerns Carlos, the international terrorist the media dubbed "the Jackal" after Forsyth's book!), and especially the Pierce Brosnan and Michael Caine starrer The Fourth Protocol. (Fans of that film should definitely give this release a try.) This budget release, priced at just $14.98 (and even less on Amazon) will no doubt prove to be one of those nice little cheap gems for spy fans eager for more serious espionage dramas in the serious vein of le Carre. Since it's Valentine's Day, why not pick it up today for your spy-loving sweetheart?

You've probably seen, or at least heard of, last year's John Madden-directed, English-language version of The Debt starring Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain. Maybe you've even picked up the recent Blu-ray. But have you seen the original Israeli film on which that one was based? If not, now's your chance. American spy fans can now see the 2007 version (originally titled Ha-Hov) of this spy thriller about Mossad agents on the trail of a Nazi war criminal in Cold War Berlin, and the present-day ramifications of their mission, on DVD thanks to MPI. This version is in German and Hebrew with English subtitles. I wasn't crazy about the remake, but I've heard good things about the original and I'm curious to see how the compare. Retail is $24.98, but it's only $14.49 on Amazon right now.

Additionally, the Warner Archive unleashed a wave of MOD spy fare this week.

British Agent is Michael Curtiz's epic 1934 spy romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Leslie Howard is the titular British agent, and Kay Francis is a dedicated Communist who happens to love him... yet has orders to gather evidence against him that will surely lead to his death. Though this airs from time to time on TCM, I've never seen it. That cover, though, is pretty awesome, and makes me want to. British Agent is already available directly from the Warner Archive for $19.95, and available to pre-order from Amazon.

Forgotten funnymen Wheeler and Woolsey get up to 1930s-style antics in Diplomaniacs. The studio copy gives you some idea of exactly what those antics entail: "Whisked away by the oil-rich Oopadoop Indians, the pair are offered a million dollars by the chief of the tribe to represent them at the Geneva peace talks. What ensues is madcap hilarity on a steamship that goes in endless circles due to a drunken captain. The pair dodges assassination attempts and is spied on by the team of Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen and Puppenpuppen!" If that sounds up your alley, Diplomaniacs is available today from Warner Archive and for pre-order from Amazon.

Straight-edge Efram Zimblast, Jr. leads the chase in the deadly serious 1960s Quinn Martin show The FBI, and The Second Season is available this week from the Warner Archive, split into Part One and Part Two, available this week from Warner Archive and to pre-order from Amazon. Part One features Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves as a guest star, along with Octopussy villain Louis Jourdan, On Her Majesty's Secret Service villain Telly Savalas and Archer's mom, Jessica Walter. A fact-based series, The FBI drew story ideas directly from the Bureau's actual casefiles, and J. Edgar Hoover himself served as a creative consultant up until his death in 1972. Like Dragnet, it's all a bit dry, but unlike Dragnet, the show frequently deals with espionage, since that falls within the Bureau's purview. You can actually watch one of those espionage-themed episodes, "The Courrier," guest starring a young Gene Hackman, for free right now. Warner Archive is streaming the episode here through February 17th.

Feb 15, 2012

Tradecraft: Ali Larter Flaunts Her Asset

Deadline reports that Heroes alum Ali Larter has scored the lead role on the Fox spy pilot The Asset. Larter will play photojournalist/spy (it's not just a cover; she's really passionate about her pictures) Anna King, billed as a "Human Intel Specialist" with behavioral insights similar to those of House or the Mentalist. But the far more interesting aspect of her character, and what separates her from similar TV spy heroines like Sydney Bristow or Annie Walker, is that she doesn't merely seduce her targets up to a point and then overpower them; she actually sleeps with them... and develops very complicated feelings about that. My pun may be lame as a headline, but I actually think the title Assets would better describe this show, since King herself (as she's always referred to) is an agent rather than an asset, and it seems like she'll recruit, run and otherwise use a number of individual assets (plural) over the course of the series. And, of course, she uses her own God-given assets to do so. And it's Fox, so puns like that should be par for the course! Limitless director Neil Burger is helming this pilot, from a script by Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles' Josh Friedman. Read more about The Asset here.

Tradecraft: New Universal Spy Franchise Born Out of Ludlum Collaboration

When Ludlum Entertainment changed its name to Captivate Entertainment, the intention was always to open up their production slate beyond just movies based on the novels of Robert Ludlum, but still in the same general tone and action-packed genre. At least one such project made it as far as a director attachment a few years ago, but has yet to materialize. Today, Deadline reports that another is moving forward. According to the trade blog, Universal has shelled out "high six figures" (against seven should the project come to fruition) for an untitled spy thriller pitch from writer Josh Zetumer, with Captivate's Jeffrey Weiner and Ben Smith attached to produce. The studio hopes the pitch can lead to a lucrative new spy franchise. Zetumer's collaboration with Smith and Weiner began in 2009 when the scribe was hired to pen one of two possible scripts for a fourth Matt Damon Bourne movie. (Series veteran George Nolfi was working on the other one.) Of course, when first Paul Greengrass and then Matt Damon exited the film, neither sequel script was produced, and instead the studio went a different direction, commissioning the "spin-off" movie The Bourne Legacy from Tony Gilroy (the teaser trailer for which was released last week). But Zetumer evidently impressed Captivate, leading to this new collaboration. In addition to writing a Bourne script and doing uncredited rewrites on Quantum of Solace, Zetumer also has an original spy script, The Infiltrator, set up at Warner Bros. with Leonardo DiCaprio attached.

Feb 11, 2012

Tradecraft: More Directors Board Spy Pilots

Earlier this week, Brett Ratner signed on to direct Fox's untitled teen spy pilot from Karyn Usher. Today, Deadline reports that feature directors Gavin O'Connor (Warrior, Miracle) and Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) will also helm spy pilots this season. According to the trade blog, O'Connor will direct The Americans for FX, and Burger will direct Fox's The Asset.

The Americans, first reported on back in December, is one of two spy scripts currently in pilot contention penned by Joseph Weisberg... which just happen to be the two spy shows in development that I'm most excited about and hopeful for. Weisberg himself is a former CIA officer turned writer, and author of the espionage novel An Ordinary Spy. His other show is that drama following assistants at various agencies in the Intelligence Community that Paul Greengrass is attached to produce and possibly direct. The Americans is a 1980s-set Cold War period piece that sounds positively fascinating. Newly relevant again after the 2010 bust of the Anna Chapman spy ring (so known because she was the hot redhead, not because she was the mastermind), it's about two KGB spies living as husband and wife in a Washington suburb. Here's how Deadline described it:
The arranged marriage of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings grows more passionate and genuine by the day but is constantly tested by the escalation of the Cold War and the intimate, dangerous and darkly funny relationships they must maintain with a network of spies and informants under their control. Complicating their relationship further is Phillip’s growing sense of affinity for America’s values and way of life and the couple’s two children, who know nothing about their parents’ true identity.
That sounds positively fascinating to me. I really, really hope that O'Connor nails the pilot and FX picks it up. Incidentally, Weisberg is not the only name that might be familiar to spy geeks on this project. It's produced by Graham Yost, who today is probably most famous as the showrunner of FX's terrific neo-Western Justified. But to me, as a spy fan who came of age in the late 80s/early 90s, he'll always be the author of Spy-Tech, a kid-friendly non-fiction resource about the real-life tools of the spy trade, which I had on near-constant loan from the Waterford Library. (Eventually I got a copy of my very own, which I'm pretty sure is kicking around my LA apartment somewhere. I should dig it up.)

The Asset is more of a mystery as far as the information that's been put out there so far. According to its official, trade-quoted log line, it's "a character-driven drama set in the New York office of the CIA, which centers on a female agent." As I noted when I first reported on it last August, there's nothing in that description to differentiate the this show from countless others, most notably Alias and Covert Affairs. However, I recently read the script for the pilot by Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), and those comparisons sell it short. While the first act is shockingly similar to the Covert Affairs pilot (from the female agent's mysterious former boyfriend right down to the polygraph test), The Asset is actually a closer cousin to Homeland. Its protagonist, globetrotting photographer-cum-spy Anna King (usually known just as "King") shares a lot of issues, not to mention a 9/11 connection, with that show's Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). But the twist I was wondering about, the thing that sets it apart from Alias and Covert Affairs, is not an easy one to express in a succinct log line, which is probably why we haven't heard it yet. Put simply, The Asset goes where those shows always stop short. While Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow certainly used her sexuality a lot on missions, that was usually limited to modelling bikinis and lingerie. Once the target was put off his guard by the vision of her in a teddy, she would knock him out and steal his microchip. King, however, is a slightly more realistic character who... goes that extra step. The Asset explores the psychology of a woman who sleeps with strange men for her country, her complicated emotions about that, and why she does it. We'll see if this bit makes it to the network broadcast, but in the script she's also bisexual. It's rare that we see female spies in popular culture (good ones, that is) allowed to sleep around as much as their male counterparts (Salt, for instance, was practically a neuter), let alone see that subject explored in an adult manner. I just have to wonder how this will all work for a network like Fox. It seems thematically better suited to cable. I'm certainly rooting for Burger to pull it off, though, because it's a solid spy script and I'd like to see where this series goes.

Feb 9, 2012

Video: Jean Dujardin Auditions for Various Spy Villain Roles

This Funny or Die video is pretty hilarious, and ably showcases Oscar nominee Jean Dujardin's ample comedy skills. Of course, spy fans (like French people) already knew those talents well from his two fantastic OSS 117 movies. But please bear with the rest of the world while they finally catch up, thanks to The Artist. I hope this video proves prophetic, and Dujardin enjoys thriving global stardom... but I hope it doesn't prove too prophetic, because I don't want future Bond or Die Hard roles to get in the way of another OSS 117 movie!

Read my review of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies here.
Read my review of OSS 117: Lost in Rio here.

DVD Review: The Impossible Kid (1982?)

DVD Review: The Impossible Kid (1982?)

I promised something silly to break up all this serious John le Carré blogging of late, and here it is. I just couldn't resist the opportunity to jump from le Carré to Weng Weng, illustrating the unbelievably wide spectrum of the spy genre! Diminutive Filipino star Weng Weng, for those who don't know, managed to stretch the simple high-concept gag of “a midget James Bond” into possibly as many as five films in the early Eighties. (I reviewed the first one, For Your Height Only, a couple of years ago, here.) I say “possibly” because records of such things are apparently poorly kept in the Philippines, and as far as I can tell only two (maybe three) such movies actually found release in the United States. So nobody seems to be really sure—not even Andrew Leavold, the guy who’s writing his doctoral thesis on Filipino exploitation cinema and seems to be the West’s foremost authority on all things Weng Weng. He penned the actor’s mini biography on the IMDb, and if that’s to be believed, then it’s a biopic waiting to happen! (Or waiting for the right actor; the physical demands of playing a 2' 9" Filipino are fairly specific.) Apparently after the country finally tired of the one-gag film series, the movie roles dried up for Weng Weng, so the general in the Marcos regime who had made him an honorary secret agent years earlier decided to tap the former star to be a real secret agent, sent him to paratrooper school, and used him on actual infiltration missions where his tiny size was an advantage. If that story’s true, I think Weng Weng might be the only franchise spy star to later graduate to actual spying… which is pretty awesome.

I'll let Weng Weng's extraordinary hairdo remain the elephant in this room
Leavold tried to get a documentary about Weng Weng off the ground, but the project ultimately morphed into something else, expanding its admittedly narrow (yet awesome) scope and, presumably, its audience. Weng Weng sadly only warrants a few minutes of coverage in the final product, Machete Maidens Unleashed. Machete Maidens Unleashed is a documentary about the wider world of Filipino exploitation films in the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties (with particular emphasis on Roger Corman’s New World productions) from Mark Hartley, the creative force behind the excellent “Ozploitation” documentary featuring George Lazenby, Not Quite Hollywood. While Machete Maidens Unleashed feels a tad less comprehensive than his first film (and neglects altogether my favorite spy movie to come out of the Philippines in the Seventies, Wonder Women), it’s still compelling viewing for those predisposed toward the low budget genre pictures of that era, and easy to recommend. (It’s also available streaming on Netflix, which makes it easy to watch as well.) Anyway, Weng Weng’s brief appearance in Machete Maidens Unleashed inspired me to revisit his oeuvre, so I dug out my budget DVD of The Impossible Kid and convinced (coerced?) my long-suffering girlfriend and two of our friends to watch it with me.

Two examples of Weng Weng's signature move
Those who have seen For Your Height Only or remember my review of it will recall that Weng Weng plays Interpol’s Agent Double-O (Get it? Because he’s short!), a superspy whose specialties are fitting into small spaces and punching or kicking bad guys in the balls. I’ll say up front that if you’ve seen For Your Height Only, then you really don’t need to see The Impossible Kid, because it’s pretty much just more of the same (only possibly on an even tighter budget), so whether or not you choose to accept this particular mission will depend entirely on your threshold for watching stuntmen get kicked in the balls. Fortunately, my own threshold for that gag is fairly high.

Gadgets, Weng Weng-style: a handy pole
This pole enables Weng Weng to injure two sets of testicles at once
Of the three times in The Impossible Kid that a suitcase is opened, on one occasion it doesn't contain Weng Weng ready to sprout out and kick balls. That moment doesn’t play as clever misdirection, however; it just plays as lazy—and, frankly, a missed opportunity. I don’t think anyone thought, “Hm, we already had him do that once and we’re going to have him do it again in the third act, so maybe we shouldn't do it here.” I think it just didn’t occur to them. Or maybe Weng Weng wasn’t on set so they just shot the moment without him. In both other instances, he disguises himself as ransom money, is dutifully dropped off at a pre-arranged location, and when the bad guys open their bundle he pops out and punches them in the balls. You know the drill. Personally, I was amused both times, though it did strike me as a little odd that the bad guys didn’t cotton to this strategy after the first instance. Even the time Weng Weng doesn't pop out, they’re not all circled around the case pointing their guns at it just in case he does, which seems like poor planning even if they somehow lucked out.

So what’s the plot? Well, that’s not easy to say. I don’t imagine it was ever very coherent to begin with, but the English language dubbing crew didn’t do it any favors, either, embracing (and extending) the silliness of the whole endeavor rather than trying to make sense of it. For all their effort, it might as well not even be dubbed. Watching The Impossible Kid and trying to follow its plot is just like watching an un-dubbed foreign exploitation film and trying to figure out what’s going on without the aid of subtitles. In the case of The Impossible Kid, it doesn’t really matter what language is being spoken on screen; confusing is a universal language. But here’s what I could discern: in a nutshell, there’s a bad guy in a white Klan hood (he looks sort of like the Hate Monger from Marvel’s Sixties Nick Fury comics) who delivers ultimatums like “he will die and then you all will die!” over a TV. I’m not really sure how he manages that in the pre-Skype era, but somehow he also manages to make the TV itself self-destruct afterwards to some Casio keyboard music that vaguely recalls the Mission: Impossible theme. At a certain point, the Casio player abandons attempts at flute-heavy James Bond or M:I music and instead starts ripping off the Pink Panther theme, which recurs throughout the rest of the film whether appropriate or not. (Alright, never appropriate.) Weng Weng’s boss responds to the threat by ordering his pint-size agent to “take his time,” and, as my friend pointed out, that’s exactly what he does. And it’s a strategy that's not really ideal for action movie pacing. There certainly aren’t enough turning points to satisfy Robert McKee. Rather than plot points per se, in fact, things just sort of happen. In that spirit, I’m going to get lazy with this review and just list some random observations:

• At one point, the bad guys throw a cobra at Weng Weng, and the actor, who usually remains impressively expressionless in any scenario, looks terrified. That sudden fit of acting leads me to believe that the Filipino production team really did toss an actual cobra at their tiny star.

• When a shoeless villain barks orders from the comfort of his luxurious home, it occurred to me that we don’t often see villains hanging around in their socks—much less indulging in maniacal laughter in their socks!

• At one point, Weng Weng’s interpretation of the order to take his time takes the form of kicking back and watching go-go dancers in a club, just like his regularly-sized poverty row spy brethren all over the world.

• People are always mistaking Weng Weng for a child, which is odd, because despite his height, Weng Weng does not look very youthful at all. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” exclaims an obsequious brothel proprietor when he realizes his mistake. “I didn’t know you were an adult!” To make up for trying to throw him out, he offers Weng Weng his pick of the girls, and they all swarm the poor munchkin, cooing excitedly. Weng Weng gets the same look on his face that the cobra induced, and then runs away like Short Round fleeing the harem in Temple of Doom.

Amusing though I found them, none of those moments really differentiate The Impossible Kid from For Your Height Only in any significant way. What that difference comes down to is this: For Your Height Only is the one with a jetpack. (Do yourself a favor and go take a look at the screengrabs of Weng Weng suspended from a cable in his little jetpack with that same look of cobra terror plastered on his tiny face. It’s easy to think of the poor guy as a human version of the Muppet Beaker, allowing himself to be subjected to stunt upon life-threatening stunt in a constant state of disquiet and agitation—all for the sake of his art.) The Impossible Kid is the one with the mini motorcycle. Yes, it’s a scooter of some sort specially built for someone of Weng Weng’s stature. Or maybe it’s a kids’ toy. Whatever its origin, it’s just fast enough to keep up with the junky trucks the bad guys drive, and those mischievous sound engineers have seen to it that the minuscule vehicle emits a hilarious buzzing noise that makes it sound like a wind-up toy. In this movie’s big stunt (one which really doesn’t compare to the great jetpack flight), Weng Weng jumps over a wide ravine on his pocket crotch rocket. That’s the stunt you’ll remember this film for—and not because it’s pulled off with any particular success.

Actually, there's another stunt that stands out too: at one point, Weng Weng makes a daring escape from one of the many bland, generic Manila tenements his missions tend to take him to by improvising a parachute out of a bed sheet. It's a good spy trick, oft-used, and perhaps a tad more believable with an agent of Weng Weng's height. While I sincerely doubt that Weng Weng jumped from the height depicted in the film, it's clear from the sheer terror etched on his minuscule visage (reminiscent once more of that "jet pack" expression) that the director made him jump from some height!

The other thing you might recall a day or two after seeing this movie is the indelible image of Weng Weng imprisoned in a bird cage on bad guy’s yacht. It’s funny, yet kind of degrading, and makes you feel a little sorry for the murderous Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), who suffered a similar fate at the end of The Man With the Golden Gun. But what will stick with you longer than any image is the infectious theme song, in which female vocalist Ruby Tia (the Phillipines' answer to Shirley Bassey, no doubt) croons, “Weng Weng, I love you, my Weng Weng!” over and over again. Unless my hearing was playing tricks on me, I think another lyric is, “he does some things.” And that pretty much sums up Weng Weng’s approach to spying. He does do some things. Sometimes.

Digiview Entertianment’s DVD delivers exactly what you’d expect of the slim-packed bargain titles you find in bins at drug stores (which is where I found it). The print is panned and scanned, and the picture is muddy at best, as you can see from these screencaps. Needless to say, there are no special features—though there is, surprisingly, a menu! For these reasons, I’d recommend Mondo Macabre’s DVD of For Your Height Only over The Impossible Kid to any spy fan looking to expand his or her horizons by viewing one Weng Weng movie—but not quite prepared to commit to two. That disc, while still full-screen (which may well be how these were shot), had a better picture, and the movie had a better centerpiece stunt. But for fans of midget secret agent cinema, The Impossible Kid delivers exactly what you expect from it: more of the same, and slightly cheaper.

One more advantage of being small: fire hydrants make great cover