Jul 29, 2013

Tradecraft: BBC and Sundance Channel Team on Spy Miniseries The Honourable Woman (UPDATED)

The Hollywood Reporter reports that a stellar ensemble has been assembled for The Honourable Woman, a new eight-part spy thriller co-produced by BBC2 and Sundance Channel. Maggy Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight) plays the titular woman, Nessa Stein. She's joined by Stephen Rea (The Shadow Line), Janet McTeer (Parade's End), Tobias Menzies (Casino Royale), Lindsay Duncan (Spy, MI-5), Andrew Buchan (The Fixer), Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd) and Lubna Azabal (Body of Lies) in a cast said to include nearly 100 parts. The Honourable Woman is written by Hugo Blick, creator of the 2011 quasi-spy conspiracy thriller The Shadow Line. According to a previous Hollywood Reporter article, the story follows Nessa Stein, "daughter of a Zionist arms procurer who as a child witnessed his assassination. Now an adult, Nessa inherits her father's company and changes course from supplying arms to laying data cabling networks between Israel and the West Bank." The Independent takes up the synopsis, adding that Nessa "enters the House of Lords after years of charity work in the Middle East, only to become caught up in an international conspiracy with the secret service at her heels." The Honourable Woman is scheduled to be broadcast in the UK on BBC2 and in the U.S. on Sundance Channel in 2014.

UPDATE: Deadline has additional information on the spy roles some of these actors will be playing, plus further casting announcements. According to the trade blog, Rea co-stars as Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, "a top MI6 spy on the verge of retirement, digging deep into the family of Nessa Stein." Duncan plays Hugh's bitter ex-wife Anjelica. McTeer plays the head of MI6, Julia Walsh, "who has a personal hold over Hayden-Hoyle." Eve Best (another Shadow Line vet not previously announced) is Monica Chatwin, "a key MI6 agent from the Washington Bureau – spoiling for a fight with her UK counterparts." Buchan is Nessa's brother Ephra Stein ("seemingly overshadowed by his sister within the family business"), and Parkinson plays Ephra's "highly strung pregnant wife Rachel Stein."  Azabal plays Atika Halibi, "nanny to Ephra and Rachel Stein’s two young daughters and close friend to Nessa." Menzies (who also played Ian Fleming in Any Human Heart) plays "Nessa’s trusted personal body guard Nathaniel Bloom." Finally, Deadline adds that Genevieve O’Reilly (MI-5) plays "Nessa’s loyal personal assistant Frances" and Israeli actor Igal Naor (Green Zone) plays Shlomo Zahary, "a close long-time ally of the Stein family."

Thunderball Music Video

I had no idea there was ever a music video for Tom Jones' Thunderball title song! There wasn't one in the Sixties, but there was, apparently, in 1987. It seems to be a (lip-synched) clip from a live performance. Does anyone know if this is from one of the many Tom Jones DVDs available on Amazon? Whatever its origins, with leather-clad Bond Girls, an Aston Martin DB5 and Jones in a white dinner jacket (plus a healthy dose of 1980s cheese), it's well worth watching!

Jul 25, 2013

The Avengers Return to DVD in America!

Here's the news American spy fans have been longing to hear for years! After way too long out of print (and commanding super-steep prices in the second-hand market), the greatest spy show ever, The Avengers, is returning to DVD in Region 1. Well, some of it anyway. On October 8, A&E will reissue their Complete Emma Peel Megaset. While the 16 discs themselves appear to be identical to the previous incarnation of this set, the packaging is substantially slimmer (a major plus on any shelf buckling under the weight of too many spy shows) and the retail price substantially more affordable. According to TV Shows On DVD, the new release containing all 51 Avengers episodes featuring Diana Rigg will cost just $49.98. (The out of print edition currently goes for as much as ten times that price!) So that's the good news, and it's very good news indeed. Now for the inevitable gripes.

I had hoped that when The Avengers was eventually re-released Stateside, American fans might be treated to the same stellar remastered picture and fantastic extras that graced Optimum's Region 2 UK releases (though ideally without all the glitches that plagued those sets). While this set does indeed co-opt Optimum's attractive cover scheme (albeit slightly altered), it doesn't appear to port over the wonderful bonus features. Since the article makes no mention of bonus content at all, I suppose it's possible that I could be wrong (and in this case I'd be delighted to be proven so!), but basic math indicates otherwise. The two Optimum Emma Peel sets added up to a total of 14 discs (and didn't include Rigg's swan song, "The Forget Me Knot," which appeared on the R2 Tara King set), and this A&E set promises 16 discs, the same as were in the previous R1 Emma Peel Megaset. So I'd say it's likely that this is simply a repackaging of that collection. Still, it's excellent news that any seasons of The Avengers will be back in print in the USA! Hopefully this release will sell well and pave the way for a Complete Cathy Gale Megaset (incorporating what survives of the earlier material as well) and a Complete Tara King Collection and eventually a Complete New Avengers Megaset... and maybe even some Blu-rays down the road. (A&E reissued the same DVD set of The Prisoner in new packaging when they put out the feature-laden Blu-rays of that show, but in that case Network had already paved the high-def path in Britain.) Fingers crossed, anyway!

Jul 12, 2013

Bond 24 Officially Announced for 2015; Mendes Confirmed to Direct

Yesterday, EON Productions, MGM and Sony jointly announced the official release date and primary creative team for the next James Bond movie, the 24th in the official series. Bond 24 (utilizing the usual working title nomenclature for these films) will open in the United Kingdom on October 23, 2015, and in the USA on November 6. Once again, 007's homeland gets a significant advantage (two whole, unbearable weeks!) on America. As previously speculated, Skyfall director Sam Mendes will return to direct the next Bond adventure, becoming the first director to helm two in a row since John Glen departed the series following Licence to Kill in 1989. (We've known for a while that John Logan, who co-wrote Skyfall, is penning the script, and Daniel Craig will once again star.) Bringing Mendes back meant that EON and the studios had to work around his busy theatrical schedule. The result amounts to another longer than average break between Bond films: three years instead of the standard two. At least that's not as bad as the interminable four years separating Skyfall from Quantum of Solace, but it's still pretty vexing! And at this rate, Craig will be as old as Roger Moore got in the role by the time he's done! Oh well. I loved Skyfall, and I fully expect Mendes to once again deliver the goods. Here's hoping he recruits cinematographer Roger Deakins to retun as well! Deakins shot what may well have been the most beautiful looking Bond film ever in Skyfall, and I'd love to see what he does next with 007's world!

Jul 8, 2013

Upcoming Le Carre Blu-ray Titles

In the coming months, spy fans will be able to greatly expand their Blu-ray collections of John le Carré titles. In September, The Criterion Collection will issue The Spy Who Came In From the Cold on Blu, while this August Image will release The Tailor of Panama on BD and Acorn will release their long awaited Smiley's People Blu-ray.

Acorn's Blu-ray of the 1982 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness (in my opinion the finest le Carré adaptation yet produced—despite some really tough competition!) will not only mark the high-definition debut of Smiley's People in any region; it will also be the first time American viewers are able to see the additional hour of material cut from the original U.S. broadcast and all subsequent home video editions in this country! Like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy before it, Smiley's People was reconfigured from seven episodes (as broadcast in Britain) to six for transmission on PBS's Masterpiece Theater. Since it would have been impossible to just drop an entire episode of this highly-complex spy story, this was done by shedding footage here and there from every episode. In the case of Tinker, Tailor, I feel that the trims actually streamlined the storytelling and improved the miniseries. (I would actually recommend the U.S. version over the British one.) However, in the case of Smiley's People, I feel that essential material was excised (including some of the miniseries' best scenes), and strongly prefer the UK broadcast version. The Blu-ray will not reinstate the missing footage into the narrative, but it will include all 62 minutes of it as deleted scenes, which is almost as good. These are deleted scenes well worth watching, and a special feature which will truly enhance the viewing experience! The Blu-ray will also include all of the extras from Acorn's previous DVD edition: a 20-minute interview with le Carré and text-based features like production notes, biographies and a useful glossary of the author's sometimes confusing spy jargon. This all-star sequel finds George Smiley (the incomparable Alec Guinness) once again coming out of retirement to take on his old Soviet nemesis Karla (Patrick Stewart) in a final battle of wits spanning Europe. It was filmed on location in London, Paris, Hamburg, and Bern, and co-stars Bernard Hepton (The Contract), Vladek Sheybal (From Russia With Love), Eileen Atkins (the Avengers movie), Michael Gough (the real Avengers) Anthony Bate (Game, Set and Match), Ingrid Pitt (Jason King), Andy Bradford (Octopussy), Curd Jürgens (The Spy Who Loved Me) Michael Lonsdale (Moonraker), Michael Byrne (Saracen), Lucy Fleming (Cold Warriorand, yes, that's Lucy Fleming as in niece of Ian, whose best scene can be found amongst that deleted material), and a scene-stealing Beryl Reid (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). It's absolutely essential viewing, and this Blu-ray will be a requirement in any spy collection worth its salt! Retail is $59.99, but luckily Amazon has it for pre-order for much less. It streets on August 6.

Also out in August (August 20 to be precise) is Image's new Blu-ray of John Boorman's vastly underrated 2001 film of The Tailor of Panama starring Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush. The film mines unusually (though naturally dark) comedic territory for le Carré, and does a damn fine job of it. (It's really the author's variation on Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.) It also features my favorite Pierce Brosnan performance ever. Really, he's unmissable in this, making it a must for Bond fans as well as le Carré fans. The Blu-ray from Image will carry over all of the special features from Columbia's DVD, including a Boorman commentary track, an alternate ending with optional commentary, theatrical trailers, and the featurette "The Perfect Fit: A Conversation with Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush." Unfortunately, the Blu-ray utilizes the same slapdash cover art as the DVD instead of the film's fantastic illustrated poster, but that's to be expected these days. Retail is just $17.97, and you can pre-order it from Amazon for even less.

Meanwhile, Criterion's Spy Who Came in from the Cold Blu-ray includes a new, high-definition digital restoration of Martin Ritt's seminal 1965 Richard Burton movie with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack along with all the excellent special features found on the existing DVD edition: a wide-ranging video interview with le Carré (thoroughly engrossing, but beware of spoilers for some of his other works), a selected-scene commentary featuring director of photography Oswald Morris, the 2000 BBC documentary The Secret Center: John le Carré (while essential viewing for fans, this is also a bit spoilery, as it contains extensive clips from the BBC le Carré productions Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpySmiley's People [including the very end] and A Perfect Spy), a 1967 Richard Burton interview, an audio conversation from 1985 between director Martin Ritt and film historian Patrick McGilligan, a gallery of set designs, the trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Sragow. The gritty, black and white adaptation of le Carré's most famous novel reunited Burton with his Look Back in Anger co-star Claire Bloom and featured Rupert Davies as the screen's first Smiley. The disc is out September 10 and retail is $39.95, though again it's significantly less to pre-order on Amazon.

Since as of now The Deadly AffairThe Looking Glass War and The Little Drummer Girl are only available as MOD discs, I can't envision any of them becoming available in high-def editions any time soon. But for the time being, these three new titles should make excellent additions to any le Carré Blu-ray collection, and look great alongside your Blu-rays of the two versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC  and 2011 feature) and maybe your region-free import copy of The Constant Gardener.

Read my "Introduction to George Smiley" here.

Jul 6, 2013

Shout! Factory Slates Roger Moore and Michael Caine Blu-ray Rarities

This October, Shout! Factory will release two 1970s titles sure to be of interest to American spy fans: Roger Moore in the WWI-era African adventure Shout at the Devil and Michael Caine in the WWII spy saga The Eagle Has Landed. At this point UK readers are no doubt groaning, "What's the big deal?" as those titles have been available there on DVD and even Blu-ray for years in various editions. But surprisingly, neither one has ever even been available on DVD before in Region 1! To make up for that, the Shout! Factory releases will be DVD/Blu-ray combo sets, so those who haven't yet upgraded to high-def will still be able to enjoy these titles at home for the first time. I believe both of these titles come from the ITV library (I know The Eagle Has Landed does), and I hope their release portends further titles from that library in the U.S. for the first time. Particularly, I hope Shout! has another Moore and another Caine up their sleeves. Both Escape to Athena and The Fourth Protocol are long overdue in this country! There's no word yet on special features on the October releases, but I certainly hope that some of the special features from the UK DVDs make an appearance—and that both films materialize in their extended versions. The Eagle Has Landed (co-starring Donald Sutherland) lands on October 15 with a retail price of $24.97, while Shout at the Devil (co-starring Lee Marvin) arrives a week earlier, October 8, with the lower price point of $19.97. Both are available to pre-order for cheaper, of course, on Amazon.

James Bond Covers Video Watchdog

Agent 007 makes another cover appearance on the latest issue of Tim Lucas's Video Watchdog, the best DVD review magazine out there. Issue 174 features a Skyfall cover, and a review inside of the MGM Blu-ray. You can read a short preview here. The issue also features an article of the fascinating and prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, who dabbled in the Eurospy genre (with contributions including Two Undercover Angels and Attack of the Robots)presumably an obituary (depending on the lead time required before printing), as Franco sadly recently passed away. Bond and Eurospies? And Hammer to boot! I'll definitely be picking up this issue! James Bond has graced the cover of occasional past issues of Video Watchdog, always promising a highly insightful article within. I'm sure this one will be no exception.

Jul 1, 2013

First Fleming Teaser

Sky Atlantic has released the first teaser trailer for their upcoming miniseries Fleming, starring Dominic West as James Bond creator Ian Fleming. They've also released some images. The stills look good. The teaser... well, it's not really fair to draw to many conclusions from a 30 second teaser, but I'm going to go ahead and do it nonetheless. The imagery will look awfully familiar if you've seen Skyfall, and that's hardly surprising. They'd be crazy not to capitalize on the biggest Bond film ever! But I'm hoping this is some sort of fantasy sequence. Because if there's actually a scene like this in the miniseries, then it looks like it will be another along the lines of the 90s TV movies about Fleming, presenting the author as a stand-in for 007 himself allowing the filmmakers to tell a Bond-style story. And of course there's really nothing wrong with that. Except that it wouldn't be accurate, and Fleming's real life story is far more interesting, I think, than that approach. I'm still hoping this miniseries will attempt to tell the true story. Anyway, here's the teaser: