Dec 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

Ever since the Thunderball references in a deleted scene from Pineapple Express, I’ve wanted to see Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg take on a spy parody. They do just that in The Interview (co-directing from a script they co-wrote with Dan Sterling), but take a typically non-traditional approach. Rather than using James Bond as their leaping-off point like so many spy parodies, their touchstone would appear to be The Chairman, the 1969 movie that found Gregory Peck’s scientist interviewing and possibly (inadvertently) assassinating a then sitting political leader, China’s Chairman Mao. The premise to The Interview is very similar. James Franco plays an Andy Cohen-like fluff talkshow host, Dave Skylark, who lands the interview opportunity of a lifetime when it turns out North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a fan of his, and willing to grant him his first worldwide sit-down interview. But as Skylark and his producer Aaron Rapaport prepare for this opportunity of a lifetime, they’re approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate Kim while they’re at it. Whether or not this controversial plotline is in good taste or is even responsible filmmaking is certainly a valid debate, but not one I’ll engage in here. Instead I’ll be reviewing it as a spy movie.

Skylark may be seen as a softball interviewer, but as the film opens he manages to draw a pretty amazing revelation out of Eminem (in a truly hilarious cameo), and coaxes Rob Lowe to make a surprising on-air admission. Be that as it may, Kim and his propaganda team see Skylark as a good candidate to stick to their script of pre-approved questions celebrating the glory of North Korea and invite him to the presidential palace with unprecedented access. The CIA comes calling in the appealing form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who counts on using Skylark in much the same way as Kim. While it seems rather unlikely that the CIA would ever invite a muckraking journalist of all people to help it contravene Executive Order 12333 and assassinate a foreign leader, Agent Lacey certainly has Dave’s number. Aaron realizes what’s happening and pulls Dave aside, telling him, “They’re honeypotting us!”

“What?” asks Dave.

“It’s an attractive spy woman who lures men into doing shit they’re not supposed to do!” Aaron explains, not only providing malapropismic exposition on honey traps, but also setting up one of the movie’s running gags. (Every character seems to be either “honeypotting” or “honeydicking” someone, to use the movie’s amusing, gender-dependent vocabulary. Whether this terminology ends up entering the actual spy lexicon like le Carre’s remains to be seen.) Dave insists that such an insinuation is sexist (because “women are smart now”), a sentiment Agent Lacey herself later echoes, but Aaron enumerates how the sexy agent is playing to Dave’s known predilections: big boobs, bangs and glasses.

“Fake glasses?” asks an incredulous Dave, to which Aaron sarcastically deadpans, “How could the CIA come up with such a thing?” in the first of several clever riffs on spy gadgetry.

The plan calls for Dave to wear a Ricin poison patch on his palm, dosing the Supreme Leader with a twelve hour delay when he shakes his hand.  Along with some conveniently multi-functional wrist watches, the Agency provides the duo with some specially designed luggage in which to smuggle this tiny weapon. But Dave deems their choice of bag far too unfashionable, and makes his own arrangements setting off a series of blunders. After losing the first patch, Lacey’s team races to send their poorly-chosen assassins another one via drone. This leads to one of the movie’s funniest sequences, involving a drone, a tiger, covert communications, night vision imagery, and (this being Rogan and Goldberg) Aaron’s anus.

Besides the initially ludicrous premise, Rogan and Goldberg make the wise choice to keep The Interview’s spyjinks fairly low-key and plausible—but still all too easy to screw up in the hands of two idiots. We’ve seen idiots fumble with over-the-top Bondian stuff plenty of times before, so it’s refreshing to see them fumble something so credible. As in all of this duo’s movies, there is a somewhat half-baked“bromance” at the film’s center (and there are also a lot of funny Lord of the Rings references), but it was this fresh approach to spoofing spy tropes that I found funniest. Less funny was the violence. I’m in no way squeamish about violence in movies, but I do find graphic violence (even of the over-the-top, comedic variety) out of place in a spy comedy, and like Pineapple Express and This Is the End (only moreso), The Interview becomes very, very violent. There is an unnecessary level of gore that I found off-putting as the film careens towards its jaw-dropping and (until it ended up splashed all over the news, anyway) unpredictable denouement. But even at this point, the violence is still laced with plenty of humor—both scatological and satirical. American foreign policy takes a well-aimed jab when one character asks, “How many times can the U.S. make the same mistake?” and Dave replies emphatically and patriotically, “As many times as it takes!”

The Interview also scores well in its production design. Production Designer Jon Billington (World War Z) creates a truly imposing and thoroughly Communist edifice in Kim’s luxury bunker compound. There are lots and lots of greys in this North Korea, and all feels very real, even if these locations also boast a decidedly Ken Adam spin.

I enjoyed the first half of The Interview, but the violent excesses of the third act ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. Spy fans who come across it on TV in the future should certainly watch at least the first half, and will be rewarded with an interesting take on the spy parody subgenre and quite a few genuine laughs. But anyone expecting more from this movie thanks to its dramatic will it or won't it be released? controversy will probably find themselves let down, and wishing that if this sort of brouhaha had to be stirred up, it had been over a better film. Because ultimately, The Interview is a wildly uneven movie, and at best a mixed bag.

Dec 24, 2014

Tradecraft: Gary Oldman Joins Kevin Costner Spy Movie

They played similar spymasters, one British, one American, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Now Gary Oldman and Kevin Costner will star in a spy movie together, according to The Hollywood Reporter. When Millennium Films first acquired the script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock) last year, Deadline described it as "an action movie about the right man in the wrong body. In a last-ditch effort to stop a diabolical plot, a dead CIA operative’s memories, secrets and skills are implanted into an unpredictable and dangerous prison inmate in hopes that he will complete the operative’s mission." Because, of course, a dangerous prison inmate is exactly who you'd transfer those memories into, not, say, a CIA volunteer who has had the same spy training himself. Oldman will play the director of the CIA. Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) directs. The cast also includes Ryan Reynolds (Safe House), Tommy Lee Jones (Yuri Nosenko, KGB), Gal Gadot (Fast Five) and Alice Eve (Men in Black 3). Criminal is produced by Millennium and will be released by Summit in August 2015.

Tradecraft: Malkovich, Douglas, Bloom and Collette Join Noomi Rapace in Michael Apted's Unlocked

We first heard about the Noomi Rapace spy thriller Unlocked last April, when Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan) was attached to direct. Since then, Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough, Enigma) has replaced him, and several more actors have been cast, according to Deadline. John Malkovich (RED) and Toni Collette (Hostages) will co-star, along with Michael Douglas (Haywire) and Orlando Bloom (Black Hawk Down) in what the trade describes as a female-driven, "Bourne-esque" thriller. (Of course, as we know, every spy movie nowadays is described as "Bourne-esque.") According to the trade, Rapace (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) plays "a CIA interrogator who unwittingly gives info to terrorists and must race against the clock to stop their biological warfare attach on London." Lorenzo Di Bonaventura (RED, Salt, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) produces, from a Black List script by Peter O'Brien (Halo: Reach). I'm a big fan of Rapace, and I can't wait to see her topline her own action spy thriller. This could be good!

Dec 23, 2014

Tradecraft: Henry Cavill Keeps Spying After U.N.C.L.E.

When he's not Superman, he's a spy. It looks like Henry Cavill plans to keep right on spying after playing Napoleon Solo in the upcoming Man From U.N.C.L.E. feature. Through his production shingle, Promethean, the actor has optioned a series of action-oriented espionage novels by Duncan Falconer. According to Deadline, "John Stratton is an operative of the SBS [Special Boat Service, the Naval equivalent of the more famous SAS] who works with the Intelligence Detachment in Northern Ireland." The movie, envisioned as the first in a franchise, is simply titled Stratton, but according to Falconer (via is based on his novel The Hostage. The plot of the novel involves the IRA, a mole in MI5, a captured U.S. Navy SEAL and a deadly terror plot against London. For the movie version, according to the author, the antagonists have been changed to Islamic fundamentalists and Paris to Rome. Surprisingly, that means Cavill will limit his spying to the same locations he covered as Napoleon Solo. According to the trade, Stratton will shoot in Southern Italy, Rome and London, all locales seen in Warner's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Shooting is scheduled to begin in the spring.

Dec 22, 2014

First Image From Warner's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Movie

We saw a small, blurry version of this still last fall, but now Warner Bros. (via Dark Horizons) has released a great big, high-res version of the first official photo from their forthcoming feature version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Stars Henry Cavill (who plays Napoleon Solo), Armie Hammer (as Illya Kuryakin) and Alicia Vikander are pictured in a lush Roman setting showing off the movie's Sixties fashions. (I love that director Guy Ritchie chose to retain the TV series' Cold War setting!) The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens in August.

Sutherland on 24's Future

24 star Kiefer Sutherland talked to The Telegraph (via Dark Horizons) about the future of his iconic character Jack Bauer. And, to hear Sutherland tell it, that future doesn't look too bright. Then again, he's got a history of being a bit of a downer on the subject. When the cancelled show returned to Fox as a summer "event series," 24: Live Another Day, there were rumors that it could live on as a series of miniseries. (And it worked way better as 12 episodes, in my opinion, so I hope it does.) Or even that the long-gestating 24 movie, which had gone through a series of fits and starts since the end of the eighth season, was still in the cards. Sutherland seems to shoot down those ideas, telling The Telegraph, "Me, I don't see going back to it. We had set out to do 12 episodes [of Live Another Day] to end the show and deal with some of the past history of the show. It was also an irresistible opportunity to go shoot in England. So for all of those reasons it made sense to do that last season." But even the actor himself realizes that when it comes to reprising iconic spy roles, it's best to listen to Micheline Connery and never say never, admitting, "I think I said the same thing at the end of Season 8. So I would hate to be held to that." Hopefully he can be convinced to return again, either for another limited series or a movie. Jack Bauer is such a great character that it makes a lot of sense to revisit the format every couple of years during the summer. Plus, fan-favorite supporting character Tony Alemeida (Carlos Bernard) was frustratingly absent from Live Another Day, but made a surprise appearance in a DVD and Blu-ray bonus feature that seemed to portend his return should the series come back in any form, and many fans would love to see that happen. So let's hope Sutherland changes his mind....

Dec 18, 2014

Tradecraft: Fox Films Littell's Defection

Deadline reports that screenwriter Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) has sold a spec script called Defection, based on a Robert Littell spy novel, to Fox. The trade doesn't happen to mention which Littell novel in their story, but Coming Soon has reached the very reasonable conclusion that it's the author's first spy novel, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter. But that Cold War tale has been updated for our times. The script made the prestigious Black List, which offers a plot summary: "After the Edward Snowden affair, an intelligence contractor defects to North Korea, taking a mysterious bag with him, and the CIA hires an expert trained during the Cold War to help with the case." (Let's see if it's still North Korea by the time the film gets made since studios seem to be scared of them right now.) Last month, The Tracking Board reported that Brad Pitt was attached to star in and produce Defection. I'm not sure if he's still in the picture, or if that deal fell through and the Fox one supersedes Pitt's involvement.

Dec 11, 2014

Trailer: The Gunman

Sean Penn (Fair Game) throws his hat quite aggressively into the "over-the-hill-actor-reinvents-himself-as-an-action-hero" sweepstakes in the trailer for the latest neo-Eurospy movie from Taken director Pierre Morel, The Gunman. And the results look pretty stunning to me! Almost as stunning as the heavy-hitting cast, which also includes Javier Bardem (Skyfall), Idris Elba (Luther), Ray Winstone (Edge of Darkness) and Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall). Morel (who also directed From Paris With Love) is a master of this genre, and I cannot wait to see this movie! It seems like we've been hearing about it forever, but I guess it's really only been about two yearsThe Gunman (based on the Jean-Patrick Manchette novel Prone Gunman) hits theaters in March.

Dec 9, 2014

Tradecraft: Showtime Buys Corporate Espionage Comedy From Marc Webb

Deadline reports that Showtime has bought a half-hour corporate espionage comedy pilot from Amazing Spider-man and (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb and writer David J. Rosen (I Just Want My Pants Back). Titled Professionals, the trade reports that the potential series "centers on two partially-broken mid-level employees who become ensnared in a dangerous game of corporate espionage." The cable network has ordered three scripts, designed to serve as the first three episodes should it go to series, but will still go through a pilot phase before making a final decision on the project.

Dec 4, 2014

Tradecraft: TNT Renews Legends

Well, here's some good TV news to offset Monday's disappointing announcement about the cancellation of Matador. Deadline reports that TNT has picked up Homeland and 24 producer Howard Gordon's latest spy drama Legends for a 10-episode second-season. Based on the Robert Littell novel, Legends stars Sean Bean (GoldenEye) as FBI Special Agent Martin Odum, a deep cover operative who has lived so many legends he can no longer be sure of his own identity. The first season ended with a paradigm-shifting cliffhanger involving MI6, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, an assassination and of course a vast conspiracy, so fans will be relieved to learn of the pickup. I was seriously fearful it wouldn't happen when TNT cancelled Dallas a few months ago, and Sean Bean committed to another TV show. (UK period drama The Frankenstein Chronicles is also a short season show, so the industrious actor can do both.) So this is most welcome news! The first season started off a bit rough, but quickly evolved into the terrific sort of spy TV we expect from Gordon. According to the trade, "there could be some supporting cast changes going into Season 2." That's not surprising considering how radically the events of the first season finale shook up the show's infrastructure.

James Bond Will Return in... SPECTRE!!!

EON Productions, MGM and Sony announced this morning that the next James Bond movie, once again starring Daniel Craig as Agent 007, will be called SPECTRE! Obviously that title holds enormous ramifications for the film's plot and the series. Thanks mainly to legal issues, now resolved, the eponymous villainous organization hasn't officially been heard from since Diamonds Are Forever back in 1971.

Joining Craig will be returning cast members Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, and Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner. This time around they'll be joined by Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), Monica Belucci (Agents secrets) as Lucia Sciarra, David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the unfortunately named henchman Mr. Hinx, Léa Seydoux (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) as Madeleine Swann, and Andrew Scott (Sherlock) as Denbigh, who director Sam Mendes described as "a new addition to the Whitehall family." The producers remained enigmatically cagey about exactly what the rest of those roles entail, and Waltz's character name, perhaps tellingly, was not revealed. The stunning Belucci was first rumored as a Bond Girl way back in 1997 for Tomorrow Never Dies, when Pierce Brosnan strongly advocated her for the role of Paris Carver.

Perhaps more anticipated than any human actor in the film, the new Bond car was also revealed. And it's nearly as stunning as Belucci. It's the all-new Aston Martin DB10, which Mendes claimed the Bond team had designed together with the car company.

As previously reported, Skyfall's Mendes will once again direct, this time joined behind the camera by editor Lee Smith (X-Men: First Class, Inception) and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, HER, Interstellar) stepping in for Roger Deakins. Van Hoytema previously indicated that while Deakins shot Skyfall on digital, he will shoot on film. Thomas Newman will return to score once again, as will production designer Dennis Gassner, 2nd unit director Alexander Witt, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, costume designer Jany Temime (no word yet about Tom Ford, but I would assume he'll be providing Craig's suits again) and stunt coordinator Gary Powell. The twenty-fourth official James Bond movie begins its seven month shoot on Monday, and opens worldwide on November 6, 2015. (It was previously slated to open in the UK two weeks prior.) Less than a year to wait! You can see more pictures from the event at and watch the video of the press conference below:

Dec 3, 2014

Watch the Official Bond 24 Title and Cast Announcements Early Tomorrow Morning

While rumors about the likes of Kristoff Waltz, Monica Belucci, Dave Bautista, Léa Seydoux and Andrew Scott (as well as Fiat 500s) have been swirling, EON, MGM and Sony will officially announce the cast of Bond 24 along with the film's title early tomorrow morning or late tonight, depending on where you live. The press conference will be live streamed at 11am Thursday, GMT, which works out to 6am for Americans on the East Coast and 3am for West Coasters like myself. Will the title be one of the remaining unused Fleming titles, like Risico or The Property of a Lady? Will the rumors be confirmed? Debunked? Are there any surprises left? Watch here when the moment comes!

The Condor Flies Again

Thirty-seven years after he last wrote about the character, James Grady is revisiting his most famous creation. Ronald Malcolm, hero of the classic 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor and its 1978 sequel, Shadow of the Condor, will return next year in the provocatively titled Last Days of the Condor. According to the publisher's copy, "Last Days of the Condor is the bullet-paced, ticking clock saga of America on the edge of our most startling spy world revolution since 9/11. Set in the savage streets and Kafkaesque corridors of Washington, DC, shot through with sex and suspense, with secret agent tradecraft and full-speed action, with hunters and the hunted, Last Days of the Condor is a breakneck saga of America’s secrets." Grady previously explored the post-9/11 intelligence world with the Condor concept in an odd "reimagining" of his classic novel, a short story entitled "" That tale was about a new, young Condor; this one is about the original Condor in his old age. The Kirkus Review provides a few more details about the plot of the new novel:
All these years after achieving notoriety as a CIA whistle-blower, the silver-haired Condor lives on the edge of reality. Put on meds for every conceivable kind of post-traumatic disorder following a heart attack, he's visited by ghosts and gets "lost in time." When a distrusting federal agent assigned to monitor his recovery is found brutally murdered in Condor's apartment, [Condor] is the prime suspect.
That kind of makes it sound like more of a sequel to the movie version, 3 Days of the Condor, than the book. In the movie, the hero (rechristened Joe Turner and played by Robert Redford) ultimately blows the whistle on the CIA, an iconic finale both in keeping with its own post-Watergate, post-Pentagon Papers, post-Church Committee times (in which the country was deeply distrustful of the government and its intelligence agencies) and uncommonly prescient regarding our own (countless contemporary spy movies including Green Zone and Safe House have copied that ending, and supporters of Edward Snowden constantly compare him to Condor). In the book, there is no whistle blowing. Perhaps Kirkus Review is referring to something that happens in Shadow of the Condor, I suppose; I haven't read that one. But one could hardly blame Grady for incorporating the mythology of the film into his literary Condor world. While the book is inarguably one of the cornerstones of the modern espionage genre, there is little doubt that today more people are familiar with the story through the Sydney Pollack-directed movie. As a fan of both versions, I just hope he goes to the trouble of reconciling the two. According to Grady's publicists, the forthcoming sequel has already been optioned for a film itself, by MGM. (It would be quite cool if Redford could be lured into reprising his famous role.)

Last Days of the Condor hits shelves on February 17, 2015, published by Forge, and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Dec 2, 2014

Tom Cruise Performs More Crazy Stunts in Mission: Impossible 5

In each Mission: Impossible movie, Tom Cruise seems to like to top whatever crazy stunt he performed in the one before it. Dangling from the side of the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol seemed pretty hard to top—terrestrially, anyway. Obviously once you've scaled the tallest building, if you still want to go up, you've got to dangle from an airplane. Or at least cling to one. And that's exactly what Cruise did last month while filming in the UK. ABC News reports (with pictures and video) that the 52-year-old actor had himself strapped to the side of an Airbus A4005 and clung to fuselage of the massive transport plane as it took off and reached an altitude of 5000 feet (putting him almost twice as high off the ground as he was in Dubai) at a speed of 340mph. So, yeah, maybe that tops running down the Burj Khalifa. And earlier today, according to the London Evening Standard, he filmed a chase scene in London's Piccadilly Circus shoving his way through real crowds. Okay, so that one's not quite as death-defying, but it does sound pretty harrowing if you happened to be stuck in traffic in the area. As previously reported, Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) is directing, and Cruise is joined by returning team members Jeremy Renner (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Bourne Legacy), Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible III and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) and (per Dark Horizons) Ving Rhames (veteran of all the Mission: Impossible films to date), along with newcomers to the series Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen) and Alec Baldwin (The Hunt For Red October). Mission: Impossible 5 opens Christmas Day next year.

Additionally, The Mail Online posted this amateur video of the stunt in progress. (McQuarrie, obviously, will make it look considerably more exciting, no doubt with the aid of Lalo Schifrin's famous theme music!)

Dec 1, 2014

Tradecraft: Matador Cancelled

This is very disappointing news! After initially announcing that it was already renewed for a second season before the first one even started airing, El Rey Network have changed their minds and cancelled their entertaining spy series Matador. Deadline reports that the series, billed as a "Latino James Bond" (but really more of a Latino Alias) did fairly well in America, but failed to find international buyers. That's really too bad, because Matador was a lot of fun. It was an entertaining, action-oriented, somewhat fantastical throwback spy series. And it came from a roster of heavy hitters, including Alias producers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who recycled some of their Alias mythology by mixing spies with mystical artifacts) and El Rey founder Robert Rodriguez. The news of its cancellation comes on top of the sad news of the premature death of one of its stars, Elizabeth Pena. I will miss Matador.