Dec 20, 2012

The 2012 Spy Fan's Guide to Last Minute Holiday Shopping, Part 1: Movies

So Christmas is in a few days. Perhaps you're one of those people who gets all their shopping done in October. If so, I envy you. But then again, perhaps you're like me, and you've waited until the last possible moment to get started. In that case, I can help you shop for spy fans on your list easily and quickly! (And you've still got through tomorrow to get free 2-day shipping with Amazon Prime, and through Saturday to order with 1-day shipping in time for the holiday.) It's a bit of a tradition at the Double O Section that the Holiday Shopping Guide, no matter when I start writing it, ends up as a last-minute one. But, honestly, that serves most of us just fine. Because the majority of the people reading this list are the spy fans themselves, and in that case I'm here to help you decide how to spend the gift cards you're sure to reap this holiday season! There have been a lot of fantastic spy releases on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012. Here's a recap of the movies.

The biggest item on spy fans' radar in terms of movies this Christmas is undoubtedly MGM and Fox's massive Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection, the year's most anticipated spy BD release. This 23-disc collection collects all 22 official EON James Bond films (rogue productions Casino Royale '67 and Never Say Never Again are already separately available on the format, though the latter is now out of print) in two attractive hardcover book-style disc holders, both of which slide inside a larger, glossy, durable slipcase. It's a very handsome package. On top of all that, there's an extra slot reserved for the Skyfall Blu-ray, when that comes out next year, and another containing an exclusive bonus disc. If the spy fan on your list doesn't already own these movies on BD (and nine of them make their high-def debut in this set), then trust me: they'll definitely be thrilled to find this one under the tree come Christmas morning!

Of course, big ticket box sets aren't in everyone's budget, sadly, but 2012 was a big year for spy movies on DVD and Blu-ray, so there are plenty of cheaper options to choose from!

Action fans everywhere will probably be craving The Bourne Legacy (review here), which hits DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo on December 11 (meaning they'll be unlikely to already have it by the holiday!). Heck, I didn't even like the movie that much, and I still want it—largely for the copious extras found on the combo version, which is the one all hardcore Bourne fans will desire. The combo set includes an audio commentary (with director Tony Gilroy, his brother and co-writer Dan Gilroy, editor John Gilroy, D.P. Robert Elswit, Second Unit director Dan Bradley and production designer Kevin Thompson), deleted scenes, and the featurettes "Re-Bourne," "Capturing Chaos: The Motorbike Chase," "Enter Aaron Cross," "Crossing Continents: Legacy on Location, "Man vs. Wolf,­" "Wolf Sequence Test," and "Moving Targets: Aaron and Marta"), as well as a digital copy. The DVD on its own just has the commentary, deleted scenes, and the first two featurettes.

Then there's the matter of the biggest hit of the summer, Marvel's The Avengers. Obviously it's not the Avengers that spy fans think of first, but this relentlessly enjoyable superhero jam is still noteworthy for espionage aficionados (and probably just about anyone you're shopping for this holiday season). In addition to costumed adventurers like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man, Marvel's The Avengers also puts the spotlight on the comic book spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its agents like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Marvel's The Avengers is available as a single-disc DVD, a 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD combo, and a 4-disc Blu-ray/Blu-ray 3D/DVD/Digital Copy combo.

The two best spy movies of 2011 both hit DVD early this year, but that doesn't mean everyone has them already, and you couldn't ask for better stocking stuffers than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film adaptation of the John le Carre classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (review here), starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, is available on both DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo. As with all Universal releases, the combo pack is the version to get if you care about extras, and it's likely that fans of this complex masterpiece will. While you're at it, why not go ahead and buy them the book, as well? It's my all-time favorite spy novel (review here), and spy fans who enjoy the more cerebral side of the genre are likely to love it.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the latest and by far the best film in the movie series based on the classic TV show, and is available as a single DVD and a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo. Once again, if the person you're buying for likes special features, the combo's the version to go with. It comes with trailers, deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Brad Bird, and 13 featurettes. You can't go wrong with one of the most entertaining spy movies of the last decade!

There are spy movies out there to meet all tastes! Shopping for someone who likes spies and romantic comedies? Try This Means War. McG's action comedy about two agents competing for the love of the same woman wasn't totally to my taste (review here), but  romcom fans are likely to enjoy it more. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play the spies; Reese Witherspoon is the woman. It's available on Blu-ray and DVD, and the former includes an extended cut of the film along with a wealth of bonus material including (perhaps tellingly) three different alternate endings. (I'm still curious to see those.)

If you're looking to turn on spy fans to something they might not have seen, Steven Soderbergh's action spy movie Haywire would make a great gift on DVD or Blu-ray. It didn't really find its audience in theaters at the beginning of the year, but in some ways that makes it even more attractive as a Christmas gift! And if the person you're buying a gift for is a fan of Bourne or Bond, or likes strong action heroines, then it should be right up their alley. I was a big fan. (Read my review here.) MMA fighter Gina Carano makes a star-making debut (thanks largely to Soderbergh, who tailored the entire movie to her talents) as Mallory Kane, a freelance secret agent hung out to dry by her superiors and caught up in an international conspiracy involving private security companies, the CIA, MI6 and Chinese dissidents, among others. Haywire a whole lot of fun, and Soderbergh concocts one action scene after another that you haven't seen before. Co-stars Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas and Antonio Bandaras are all fantastic, but it turns out Carano didn't really need that kind of back-up, because so is she.

Another recent title that might prove a surprise to people who missed it in the theaters late last year is Johnny English Reborn, an unexpected eight-years-after-the-fact follow-up to the 2003 Rowan Atkinson spy spoof Johnny English. It's also available on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo, and it's a very funny spy send-up, and the only one so far to successfully spoof the Daniel Craig-era James Bond. If you're looking to make a spy fan laugh, this is a good choice. (So is the original Johnny English, which made its North American Blu-ray debut this year as well.) The DVD release includes a commentary track with director Oliver Parker and writer Hamish McColl, deleted and extended scenes with director intros, a gag reel, and a featurette on "The Wheelchair Chase." The Blu-ray/DVD combo has all that plus four more featurettes ("The English Files: The Making of Johnny English Reborn," "Working With Rowan," "Gadgets" and "English in Hong Kong"). So that's the one to get.

Here's another comedic spy that a lot of fans might not have heard of, but will definitely entertain people with a love of Sixties spies and superheroes and a silly sense of humor. The entire first season of the hit web series The Adventures of Super7even is available on DVD from the show's official site with all sorts of cool extras, 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. 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 he's single-handedly revived it with his web series homage to the likes of Superargo and Argoman, The Adventures of Super7even! (No direct relation to the eurospy Super Seven - two words - who liked to call Cairo.) If you've never seen Super7even in action, you can sample his adventures on YouTube. But if there's a spy fan on your shopping list who loves the distinctive fromage of the Eurospy genre, they're sure to get a kick out of this highly creative series. This unique gift, a 2-disc set, can be ordered for $14.99 plus $3 shipping and handling directly from the Superseven website.

Luc Besson is always reliable for a neo-Eurospy actionfest each year, and this year he actually gave us two. Taken 2 won't be out on DVD until after Christmas, but the high concept spy/sci-fi mash-up Lockout is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (And dirt-cheap right now on Amazon!)Both formats contain an unrated cut of the movie and the featurettes "Breaking Into Lockout" and "A Vision of the Future: Production Design & Special Effects." The gimmick with Lockout was that this time the neo-Eurospy action takes place... in space! And Guy Pearce is just the guy to pull that off. He makes a great wisecracking badass (sort of a cross between Burn Notice's Michael Westen and Escape From New York's Snake Plissken), and it's really too bad that this movie didn't catch on and do for his career what Taken did for Liam Neeson's. Once again, though, that makes it a good find for fans of this sort of daffy action.

Act of Valor is another pretty daffy action movie, but the hook here is that the action itself is real. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh had the impressive idea of filming actual Navy SEALS on training maneuvers, thus giving them action sequences worthy of Michael Bay at a fraction of the budget. Unsurprisingly for a film starring non-actors, this is no timeless piece of cinema, but it is entertaining and exciting. Writer Kurt Johnstad deserves a lot of credit for generating a decent story (about SEALS rescuing a captured CIA agent, which leads to intel on an imminent act of terror) out of the various training maneuvers he had to work with (raid at sea, firefight in the jungle, etc.)! Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox, this one should appeal to action fans and military buffs.

Cleanskin is a new spy movie starring Sean Bean as a British agent hunting terrorists in London that got a decent release in the UK, but hit DVD and Blu-ray here in America with little fanfare. I haven't seen this one, but it's supposed to be good. (Reviews indicate an intriguing mix of 24ish action and downbeat, le Carré-esque themes.) And if there's one thing I like finding in my Christmas stocking, it's good spy movies I haven't seen! So this might prove a good surprise stocking stuffer.

Here's another cool Sean Bean movie that a lot of people might not have heard about, but is likely to appeal to fans of James Bond and Ian Fleming. Age of Heroes is a 2011 UK movie about "Ian Fleming's Red Indians," the 30 Assault Unit commando team created by the future Bond author while he served in Naval Intelligence during WWII. Thanks to eOne Entertainment, we finally got it in America this year on both DVD and Blu-ray. The film stars former Bond baddie Bean, and Cloud Atlas's James D'Arcy plays Commander Fleming, so Age of Heroes is likely to prove a nice surprise for the hardcore Bond fan on your list! (And if you want to dig deeper into that fascinating bit of history, you might also consider getting them Craig Cabell's books Ian Fleming's Secret War and The History of 30 Assault Unit: Ian Fleming's Red Indians, as well as Nicholas Rankin's somewhat more accessible Ian Fleming's Commandos: The Story of the Legendary 30 Assault Unit.)

Speaking of real stuff, how about an honest-to-goodness spy documentary? For the historically-minded spy fan, you can't go wrong with The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby (review here). Available on both DVD and Blu-ray, this personal film tells the fascinating story of a man who fought the Cold War on the front lines through the eyes of his son. From his earliest days in the OSS, to his turbulent tenure running the CIA during its most publicly embarrassing era (when it came under the unwelcome spotlight of the Church Committee), to his eventual death under mysterious circumstances, this enigmatic man comes under the microscope from someone who should have known him better than anyone, but didn't. Luminaries as diverse as Bob Woodward and Donald Rumsfeld weigh in with their impressions of Colby, contributing to a fascinating, if necessarily incomplete, portrait.

This year, Criterion finally revisited Alfred Hitchcock's seminal prewar spy movie, The 39 Steps, with new Blu-ray and DVD editions. At the very least, that one was in dire need of an artwork update, and indeed this new cover is far more stylish and in keeping with the company's current Lady Vanishes disc. In addition to a new high-definition transfer, the Blu-ray sports a typically impressive array of new and old supplemental material an audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, a 2000 British documentary covering the director's prewar career called Hitchcock: The Early Years, original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock, the complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, performed by Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery, original production design drawings, excerpts from François Truffaut’s (deservedly) ubiquitous 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock, and a new "visual essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. Don't be misled by any of the many public domain versions of this title that are floating around out there; this Criterion edition is definitely the one you want.

Some of the most exciting spy releases of the year weren't on Blu-ray, however, or even traditional DVD. Following the success of the Warner Archive, just about every studio now has a program for made-on-demand (MOD) discs, enabling them to make deep catalog cuts available on a print-to-order basis.

Assignment K (1968) is one of those elusive spy titles I've been waiting forever for and never actually expected to see released. It's a great rarity from the golden age of the genre sporting a stellar cast including Stephen Boyd, Camilla Sparv (Crossplot), Leo McKern (The Prisoner) and, in a small part, Catherine Schell (On Her Majesty's Secret Service). Furthermore, it's set in the snowy Alps. Really, what more could you want from a spy thriller? Oh, how about this: Sony actually remastered the widescreen print for this MOD release. This is the key to making many a spy fan's holiday very happy indeed!

Another one I've been waiting years for an official release of is The Liquidator (1965), and thanks to the Warner Archive, we got one this year on MOD! The Liquidator is Boysie Oakes, John Gardner’s pre-Bond anti-Bond. Gardner's Oakes books were sort of a direct response to Fleming’s Bond books, and parodies of them. Jack Cardiff's film version certainly latches onto that, firmly hitching its wagon to 007, but feeling more like Flint. (It's got that lavish, widescreen studio feel of a Sixties Fox movie, even if it was made by MGM... and now released by Warner.) It never quite lives up to its amazing Bob Peak poster, or its classic Lalo Schifrin-penned Shirley Bassey theme song, but it's nonetheless a real treat for Sixties spy fans! Rod Taylor (who also starred in the enjoyable Eurospy flick The High Commissioner) stars as Boysie, and Jill St. John’s along for the ride looking great and maybe even contributing just a little bit more to the plot than does her useless Tiffany Case character in Diamonds Are Forever. Warner's manufactured on demand release is completely remastered and anamorphically presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The trailer is also included, and it's one worth watching!

Sixties spy icons Patrick McGoohan and Robert Vaughn (along with Max Von Sydow, Sophia Loren, George Kennedy and John Cassavettes) are among the star-studded cast of Brass Target, an espionage-tinged post-WWII heist thriller now available from the Warner Archive. I'm afraid I haven't seen it, which means I can't tell you much about it... but also means it would make a great present for me, if anyone I know is reading this!

Another rarity that I've long sought after despite its decidedly poor reputation is The Day the Fish Came Out, which made its home video debut (I believe) on Fox's new Cinema Archives MOD program. This 1967 farce from the director of Zorba the Greek follows two pilots, an assortment of secret agents and a lot of locals as they hunt for two nuclear bombs which have gone missing somewhere along the Greek coast. The cast includes Tom Courtenay (Otley, A Dandy in Aspic), Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), Candace Bergen and future Saint Ian Ogilvy. Unfortunately, as Fox is new to the MOD game, they're not yet producing product of the same quality as Warner, Sony and MGM. As a result, this rare film is presented in a shoddy full-screen TV print. Oh well. When a movie's this rare, I'll take that over nothing.

Speaking of rare spy movies with bad reputations... The Phynx is so rare that until this year, practically nobody had ever seen it, even though it was originally released in 1970, albeit for just a few weeks. For some reason, Warner pulled it after those few weeks and never put it out again in any form until now. Why was that? Is it truly that bad, or a lost gem worthy of rediscovery? I haven't seen it yet myself, so I can't say, but I can say that the clip on the Warner Archive website showing Harold Sakata (complete with his Oddjob hat) instruction new spy recruits makes it a must-see for hardcore Bond fans. It's intended as a zany Sixties-style send-up, and the plot (which I imagine is a loose term to apply) involves the U.S. government creating a Monkees-like pop group and training them as spies to rescue notable American icons like Johnny Weissmuller and John Hart (the Lone Ranger) from Albania, where they've been kidnapped. This is for people who like Sixties Youth Culture extravaganzas made by people very out of touch with Youth Culture, like Skidoo or Wild in the Streets. If you're looking to get a spy fan something that's just plain odd, chances are this is your best bet.

...which isn't to say that the Dr. Goldfoot movies aren't odd, but they're odd in a much more comfortable way. This release (an actual DVD, not MOD) came as quite a surprise this year. With no fanfare whatsoever, a double feature disc of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and its sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (both starring Vincent Price), stealthily showed up on Walmart shelves. While the first film was available years ago (in a non-anamorphic transfer) as a Midnight Movies DVD, this budget release marks the DVD debut of the Mario Bava-directed sequel. And both movies sport anamorphic widescreen transfers! No longer a Walmart exclusive, this double feature disc has now become available on Amazon as well.

Returning to MOD titles, The Scarlet Coat (1955) is a very different sort of spy story: a Revolutionary War swashbuckler about that most infamous spy of all, Benedict Arnold, and the American double agent trying to root out his treachery. Cornel Wilde stars alongside George Sanders and Honey West herself, Anne Francis.
The 5-Man Army (1969) is another historical MOD title, set not during the American Revolution but the Mexican Revolution. It's not really a spy story though. It's a Spaghetti Western and a heist movie, but it also amounts to an Old West Mission: Impossible! The inimitable Peter Graves himself plays the team leader, just as on that show. Unfortunately there's no sign of Greg Morris or Peter Lupus, but You Only Live Twice's Tiger Tanaka, Tetsuro Tanba, and Spaghetti regular Bud Spencer make more than adequate surrogates! On top of that, future giallo master Dario Argento co-wrote the screenplay. This is a must-see for fans of Graves and Mission: Impossible.

Terence Young's Thunderball follow-up Triple Cross is another classic Sixties spy yarn too long absent on DVD that made its Region 1 debut this year thanks to the Warner Archive. Triple Cross tells the true story of Eddie Chapman, a charismatic British thief who signed up to spy for the Nazis so that he could in turn offer his services to the British as a valuable double agent. His life also inspired Ben MacIntyre's bestseller Agent Zigzag, which is in development now as a movie from Tom Hanks' company. Christopher Plummer stars in Young's version, along with James Bond veterans Gert Frobe and Claudine Auger, and fellow spy regulars Romy Schneider (Otley) and Yul Brynner (The Double Man). This is another one Bond fans will no doubt want.

This year's catalog titles weren't all on MOD, however. One of my favorite 80s movies and one of my favorites of the cat burglar-forced-to-spy subgenre, Lassiter made its long-awaited (by me, anyway) DVD debut in 2012! Hen's Tooth Video, a company who specializes in obscure but brilliant films (and to whom I shall be forever indebted for their Region 1 release of my favorite Eurospy movie, Deadlier Than the Male), released this 1930s-set Tom Selleck adventure (along with another one, High Road to China, which made it to not only DVD, but also Blu-ray). Selleck plays the suave titular cat burglar, operating in prewar London. When British and American Intelligence get wind of a major diamond shipment moving through the German embassy, the spooks force Lassiter to pull another job—for them, It Takes A Thief-style. As he plots the heist, he finds himself between two beautiful women: his sweet, long-suffering girlfriend, played by former Bond Girl Jane Seymour, and sexy femme fatale Lauren Hutton. Persuaders! composer Ken Thorne provides the jazz-heavy, period-appropriate soundtrack. It's a really fun movie, and for my money Selleck's best theatrical effort. This one would make not only spy fans happy, but also caper enthusiasts and Magnum aficionados.

Another good catalog title came out from Scorpion Releasing: the ultra-Bondian 1971 Alistair Maclean thriller Puppet on a Chain. I never expected to see this one turn up in Region 1 except maybe on MOD, but the Scorpion disc is an actual DVD. Maclean's action-packed plot follows American agent Paul Sherman (Sven-Bartil Taube) to Amsterdam on the trail of an international drug cartel. His investigation leads him to the drug syndicate's island castle owned by an offbeat religious group, and into one of the most exciting speedboat chases ever filmed. (Comparable to Live and Let Die!) This release boasts not only a new 16x9 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, but also an audio commentary by Cinema Retro's Lee Pfeiffer and Todd Garbarini and film historian Paul Scrabo, an alternate scene, and the theatrical trailer.

Stay tuned for another post coming up very soon about all the great spy television there is to choose from this year...

1 comment:

Delmo said...

Carmilla Sparv was in Murderers' Row, not Crossplot.