May 29, 2015

Trailer: American Ultra

The first trailer has dropped for the stoner spy action comedy American Ultra. The Max Landis-penned flick we first heard about a little over a year ago asks the question: what would happen if Jason Bourne were a slacker stoner? Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays the sleeper stoner whose Treadstone-like training is suddenly activated, setting into motion a chain of events that bring government spy agencies down on a small town. Walton Goggins lends some bona fide Bourne experience, and Kristen Stewart (Jumper, Twilight), Bill Pullman (Torchwood, The Equalizer), Topher Grace (The Double), Sharon Stone (Agent X), John Leguizamo (Executive Decision) and Tony Hale (Chuck, Veep) round out the cast. This one looks like it could be fun!

Tradecraft: Henry Cavill Drops Out of Stratton

Variety reports that Henry Cavill (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) has abruptly dropped out of the action/espionage movie Stratton just five days before filming was scheduled to start due to "creative differences." Cavill was also producing the movie through his shingle Promethean, and he seemed very enthusiastic about the movie, envisioned as a potential franchise, last December. He even grew the beard he's been sporting so far on his Man From U.N.C.L.E. press tour for the character of SBS (Special Boat Services, the Naval equivalent of the SAS) operative John Stratton, hero of a series of books by Duncan Falconer. This is all very disappointing. I'd hoped to see Cavill toplining two spy series simultaneously. Financiers GFM films plan to recast as quickly as possible to keep the crew and director Simon West (The Mechanic, The Saint) in place. I hope they're able to find someone of Cavill's caliber. Stratton follows the title character as he chases down an international terrorist cell through Central Asia, Europe and London, all while contending with the damage done by a mole inside MI5.

May 28, 2015

Theme Song and Soundtrack for SPY Channel 007

20th Century Fox debuted the official theme song for Paul Feig's James Bond parody Spy today. The music video (which I suppose may contain elements seen in the film's credits) is done as an homage to the classic Bond title sequences of Maurice Binder and Daniel Kleinman. The song is performed by LA-based singer/songwriter Ivy Levan. While there's no question she's got the powerful vocal chops to belt out a Bond-style title song, I wish the hook came earlier in the tune. It's a somewhat disjointed affair (and nowhere near as addictively hummable as Take That's Kingsman theme, "Get Ready For It"), but still a cool, distinctively "spy" song, and likely to serve its purpose just fine in the context of the movie. In another throwback to the classic Bonds, Levan's song will be included on Theodore Shapiro's original motion picture score album. Remember when the Bond songs were included on the score albums? That's how it should be! Speaking of that album, the retro-style cover artwork is fantastic. I hope the score itself is as good as Henry Jackman's Kingsman score. With all the espionage movies in the pipeline, this should be a very good year indeed for spy music! Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Morena Baccarin and Peter Serafinowicz, opens on June 5.

May 27, 2015

James Bond Returns in Anthony Horowitz's Goldfinger Sequel Trigger Mortis

Last year, Ian Fleming Publications announced Anthony Horowitz as the author of the next official James Bond continuation novel. Today, marking Ian Fleming's birthday (it's already May 28 in England), Horowitz and IFP announced the title. (Via The Book Bond.) This September, James Bond returns in Trigger Mortis. Hm. Okay.... Well, I'll admit, it's not the best Bond title ever. In fact, I think it's probably among the worst, along with John Gardner's Cold. It sounds kind of like one of those titles Ian Fleming ultimately rejected, like Mondays are Hell or The Infernal Machine for what became Moonraker. One certainly couldn't imagine Shirley Bassey belting out those words, which tends to be my own test of a Bond title.

Title aside, though, there are still a lot of reasons to be excited about this book! Foremost among them is Horowitz himself. Horowitz is an excellent choice for a Bond continuation author. For one thing, he created one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Foyle's War (starring Michael Kitchen, Bill Tanner to Pierce Brosnan's 007 in GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough). The meticulously researched period detective show turned period spy show clearly demonstrates that Horowitz has the chops for telling a Bond story set in 1957, which this is. For another thing, Horowitz has already penned two tremendously well received official Sherlock Holmes continuation novels, so he's no stranger to writing about other authors' characters. (In his prolific TV work, he's also written about Hercule Poirot and The Saint among many others.) And finally, Horowitz has demonstrated his clear love of and study of Ian Fleming in his hugely entertaining, bestselling Young Adult spy novels about Alex Rider. Many of the Alex Rider books are clever, direct reworkings of/homages to Fleming's Bond novels. The first one, Stormbreaker, sports a plot, structure and villain based on Fleming's Moonraker. The second one, Point Blanc, takes its queue from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. And so on. But with their teen protagonist, the books do not read like rip-offs at all, but staunchly original loving homages.

Another reason to be especially excited about Trigger Mortis is the time when it's set. IFP's post-Benson continuation novels have all been one-offs, and it's been up to each writer whether to write a period piece set in roughly the timeline of Fleming's novels, or to write a contemporary Bond novel, as previous continuation authors had always done. Both previous period novels about the adult James Bond, however (Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care and William Boyd's Solo) have taken place after all of Fleming's novels in the late Sixties. Trigger Mortis will be the first to be set in the 1950s, the period in which most of Fleming's novels were written and take place. In fact, we now know that it will be set in 1957, fitting snugly into the Fleming timeline two weeks after the events of Goldfinger. According to the press release, "Horowitz places Bond in the middle of the Soviet-American Space Race as the United States prepares for a critical rocket launch, and brings back the most famous Bond Girl of all: Pussy Galore! ... As well as Pussy Galore, the book features: brand new Bond Girl Jeopardy Lane; Jai Seung Sin, a sadistic, scheming Korean adversary hell-bent on vengeance; and breathless, globe-trotting adventure." Locations include London, New York, and Germany's Nürburgring racetrack.

"I was so glad that I was allowed to set the book two weeks after my favourite Bond novel, Goldfinger," Horowitz said in a statement, "and I'm delighted that Pussy Galore is back! It was great fun revisiting the most famous Bond Girl of all - although she is by no means the only dangerous lady in Trigger Mortis. I hope fans enjoy it. My aim was to make this the most authentic James Bond novel anyone could have written." While I'm excited for the late Fifties setting, the Goldfinger reference actually gives me another bit of hesitation. I'm a bit surprised to read that it's Horowitz's favorite Bond novel. It's unquestionably my least favorite Fleming novel, a story based far too much on coincidence (even for Fleming, who often relied on coincidence) in which Bond is mostly a passive player. Upon learning Bond's identity, Goldfinger's decision to not only spare his enemy's life but put him to work as his secretary (therefore privy to his entire plan to knock off Fort Knox!) beggars belief too much. And the book has a particularly mean-spirited tone, as if Fleming were in a bad mood when he wrote it. (According to Matthew Parker's excellent biography Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born, he probably was!) It seems either daring or poorly judged to bring back Pussy Galore, arguably the most problematic Bond Girl since Bond "converts" her from lesbianism, and to employ a Korean villain since Fleming's rather racist remarks about Koreans in that book are notoriously controversial. I actually don't think that Fleming was particularly racist, even for his time, and will defend most of his books against those charges, but Goldfinger is pretty indefensible. Furthermore, there's already been one recent continuation novel based on Goldfinger. Sebastian Faulks rather inexplicably chose to model the structure of Devil May Care on Goldfinger, which meant that it suffered from the same weaknesses of an over-reliance on coincidence and, worse, a passive hero. (Even moreso than in the Fleming book.) However, I'm not particularly worried about Horowitz falling into the same traps. For one thing, he's already based an Alex Rider book on Goldfinger (Eagle Strike, review here) and like the writers of the film, he managed to fix many of Fleming's narrative problems in doing so. For another, we have no reason from this press release to believe that Horowitz will be emulating Goldfinger in any way, only that his novel will directly follow the events of that book, and carry over its heroine. (Incidentally, this is not the first time a Fleming heroine has been brought back in a a continuation story. The comic "Light of My Death," published in four installments in Dark Horse Comics in the early Nineties, reintroduced From Russia With Love's Tatiana Romanova.)

Finally, the number one reason to be excited for Trigger Mortis is that unlike any other Bond continuation novel in history, this one will be in part based on an unused story idea by Ian Fleming himself! Per the press release: "Uniquely among latter-day Bond authors, Horowitz has included original Ian Fleming material: a treatment for 'Murder on Wheels,' an episode of a television series that was never made. Fleming’s text sees Bond in the high-octane world of motor racing and it is his never-used plot that kicks off the action of Trigger Mortis. Anthony Horowitz said: 'It was always my intention to go back to the true Bond, which is to say, the Bond that Fleming created and it was a fantastic bonus having some original, unseen material from the master to launch my story.'" Isn't it great to see that bit in the box at the bottom of the cover?! Heck, it's great just to see Fleming's name anywhere on the cover of a new Bond book. He hasn't been credited there since that insulting "Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming" attribution on Devil May Care. (I do miss the days of the Putnam John Gardners, which always blared, "Ian Fleming's Master Spy James Bond in _____ by John Gardner." That was a respectful way to do it.) And speaking of that cover, it's a nice one! It's a very different sort of design than we've ever seen before for a James Bond hardcover, but very much in keeping with other Horowitz books. I can't wait to get my hands on the actual book! Despite my misgivings about the title and the Goldfinger influence, I am very, very much looking forward to this novel.

Trigger Mortis comes out September 8. Pre-order the U.S. edition from Amazon, and the UK edition from Amazon UK.

Check out a short video "trailer" for the book below.

DVD Review: Who’s Got the Black Box? aka The Road to Corinth (1967)


Yesterday I reviewed one Eurospy movie with a mysterious black box as its "MacGuffin" (Alfred Hitchcock's term for the desired artifact motivating the plot, whose specific nature is unimportant); today we have another. Why not? A mysterious black box: perhaps the quintessential MacGuffin by Hitchcock’s definition. It could be anything—and it won’t cost the production very much. The European title to Claude Chabrol’s 1967 Hitchcock homage, The Road to Corinth, has a nicer ring to it, but the U.S. title, Who's Got the Black Box?, proves particularly apt. This movie makes a joke of its MacGuffin and its overall meaninglessness. When a radiant Jean Seberg (Breathless), eager to coax her secret agent husband away on a vacation, tells him that “there are other things in life besides looking for little black boxes,” he replies sagely, “If it weren’t little black boxes, it would be big red ones. You knew that when you married me.” With this, he not only makes an amusing joke about the pursuits of movie spies, but fully acknowledges Hitchcock’s assertion that the Macguffin itself doesn’t matter as long as audiences believe it’s important to the characters. In that light, Who’s Got the Black Box? is really quite a perfect title, succinctly summarizing the primary character motivation in most spy movies of the era. However, it also portends a film that goes for broader jokes at the genre’s expense. Even the back of Pathfinder's DVD case bills Who's Got the Black Box? as a “spy parody,” but the parody aspects are very subtle. In the tradition of the French New Wave, Chabrol more winkingly acknowledges (and freely uses) the genre’s clichés rather than outright spoofing them. Most of the film’s humor is generated organically by the characters and their predicaments, in keeping with Hitch’s frothier fare like To Catch a Thief. That said, the laughs are fairly abundant and quite genuine.

It’s a good sign when something billed as a spy parody manages to elicit a few such genuine laughs before the credits, and this one does. First, from a magician who’s detained at the Greek border when a mysterious electronic black box is found in his car full of rabbits and doves. During his interrogation, the magician manages not only to untie himself (after a lazy guard refuses to do so, snarkily intoning “You’re a magician. Why don’t you do it yourself?”), but to produce first a cigarette (“It’s against regulations,” he’d been sharply reprimanded when he tried requesting one of his inquisitor), and then a cigar out of thin air… when he’s not even wearing a shirt! Before he bites the inevitable cyanide capsule in the cigar, the magician-spy reveals that there are fifteen other such black boxes already in Greece jamming up NATO radar systems and toppling missiles. The second laugh comes from Chabrol’s take on the Eurospy tradition wherein, for budgetary reasons, the boss’s office must have a curtain comprising at least one wall. Chabrol goes one better: yes, there’s a curtain, but another wall is made up entirely of a giant American flag! The CIA honcho who sits in front of it, Sharps (Michel Bouquet), is portrayed as an idiot, and blatantly called as much by his staff.

Our typical Eurospy hero appears to be Bob Ford (Christian Marquand), a CIA agent with a beautiful wife, Shanny (Jean Seberg), a devoted partner, Dex (Maurice Ronet) and the aforementioned idiot boss, Sharps. For some reason Shanny seems prone to performing sexy leg stretches in their hotel room while he’s having discussions with Dex and Sharps, which proves distracting to all concerned. Perhaps enticed by those stretching legs, Sharps sends Ford away from Athens on an assignment more so that the superior can pursue his agent’s wife than so that the agent can find the black boxes. And let it be noted, Seberg is very, very attractive—especially in the bikini that she taunts Sharps with during a little striptease by a swimming pool. But that’s still no excuse for Sharps to behave so utterly boorishly. (That type of behavior is supposed to be left to the Eurospies in the field, not their bosses!) Between pestering his employee’s wife and vetoing any reasonable suggestion his agents make, you’d swear that Sharps must be a double agent out to intentionally sabotage the investigation. But the movie doesn’t even really dangle that possibility as a red herring. He’s just a jerk.

Ford, however, is no slouch, and his mission (with the aid of some binoculars that look like ordinary sunglasses) quickly yields some vital information about the black boxes from an informant who works at a marblery. (That’s right, I said a "marblery." It’s a unique enough setting for a spy operation!) It also yields one of the film’s most memorable shots: an extremely wide view of stairs leading down to the waterfront as villainous henchmen pursue Ford and his informant. (It’s visually interesting here, but Seijun Suzuki did it much better thirty-some years later in his underrated Branded to Kill follow-up Pistol Opera.) Ford returns with his findings to Athens, but unfortunately he’s picked up a tail along the way: a fastidious henchman who wears a white suit, white gloves, white shoes with red spats and a white boater hat with a red ribbon.

The character may be American (supposedly), but the film is French, as reflected by Ford’s priorities. Rather than immediately rushing his vital intelligence to Sharps (who would probably disregard it anyway), he first stops by his hotel to make love to his beautiful wife. When she goes to refill the champagne, the white-suited assassin slips into the hotel bedroom. Shanny returns to find her husband dead on the bed. Okay, I guess Bob Ford wasn't the hero of this film after all! Shanny now takes center stage, but unfortunately the first thing that happens to her is she gets knocked out by the assassin, who duly plants his gun in her hand to frame her for her husband’s murder. Sharps is no help, either, for some reason telling the police that the couple weren’t getting along and that Shanny is prone to violence. (I guess this is because she wouldn’t sleep with him? I’m not sure; his motivations are unclear... or perhaps just unmotivated.)

Luckily, the informant Bob Ford met with before he died has the audacity to visit Shanny’s prison cell, disguised as an Orthodox priest… in order to demand the $1,000 Bob had promised him from his jailed widow! But that gives her the lead she needs to follow up and solve her husband’s murder. Sharps changes his mind and gets her out of the slammer, but only to put her onto the first plane back to the States. He has no interest in following up her fresh lead, condescendingly telling her at one point, “You have been courageous, but naïve as a child.” Naturally, Shanny slips away at her first opportunity, evading both Sharps and Dex, who he’s assigned to keep an eye on her. This becomes the pattern for the rest of the film: Shanny gets away, does some investigating, and then gets found again by agents who don’t believe her progress and want to ship her off to America. It gets a little old, but there are some nice moments along the way, like a murder in a cemetery perpetrated by three bogus Orthodox priests with knives that plays out like the climax of "Julius Caesar." There’s also that classic Hitchcock staple (ala North By Northwest, among others) where she finally convinces Sharps to call the police and the army to search the marblery, but the bad guys, having been tipped off, have cleared it of any evidence of wrongdoing so the good guys look foolish.

At one point, the fastidious henchman in the boater hat parks himself for a long time in Shanny’s hotel room, aiming his gun at the door as he reads a magazine called “Women.” Chabrol generates some good suspense from this set-up as numerous people (including Shanny, Dex and a hapless bellboy) almost open that door to certain death at different times.

A late blooming romance with Dex seems to come too soon after Shanny’s beloved husband’s death, but this is froth so we’ll let it slip. Less forgivable, unfortunately, is a final change of hero in the third act. If the first act was Bob’s and the second act Shanny’s, the third act belongs to Dex, and he’s disappointingly the least compelling hero of the bunch. (And far less easy on the eyes than Seberg.) He does get to navigate a Scooby Doo-style tomb filled with secret passages and even a painting with the eyeholes punched out for someone to peer though, though, so there’s enough happening to generate interest even while Shanny’s kidnapped.

Even kidnapped and tied up, Shanny still proves the most compelling character. When the villain (usually seen eating meals… even if he’s in the middle of a ruined temple, where’s he’s got a whole suckling pig spread out!) chains her up for sacrifice like Andromeda of Greek mythology in a rock-filled mine cart ready to be pushed over a cliff into the sparkling Aegean, the intrepid Shanny still doesn’t lose her nerve. She cuts off his big Talking Villain speech, saying, “No talking. Please, finish it.” This defiance in the face of death reminded me of Diana Rigg in The Avengers (particularly “A Surfeit of H20—“You diabolical mastermind, you!”). Luckily, Dex is fast approaching by helicopter (affording us some beautiful, scenic aerial shots of the picturesque Greek coastline) like Theseus on a latterday Pegasus.

Who’s Got the Black Box? drags a bit because of its somewhat awkward three-hero structure (and it’s got a somewhat disorienting and at times oddly atonal score that’s serviceable, but certainly not among the genre’s best), but overall it plays out as a pretty and passably entertaining imitation of frothy Hitchcock elevated by an engaging lead performance from Jean Seberg. It’s certainly not Chabrol’s best go at the Eurospy genre (that would be Marie-Chantal vs. Dr. Kha), but it’s still a beautifully shot film with beautiful locations and a beautiful leading lady. It’s also available on Region 1 DVD, which gives it the edge over the hard-to-find Marie-Chantal. Pathfinder’s anamorphic DVD seems slightly misframed (evidenced in the opening credits), but otherwise manages to convey all that beauty quite well. The English subtitles are kind of weirdly done, though; they seem like fansubs, translating every word literally (rather than poetically providing the gist of the dialogue, the way most subs do) and therefore often disappearing during rapid conversations before the viewer even has a chance to read them. That’s a shame, because you definitely want to be enjoying the beautiful Greek scenery and the beautiful Ms. Seberg rather than constantly reading quickly evaporating subtitles! Still, I’m glad the DVD exists. Fans of glossy Hitchcock imitations like The Prize or Arabesque (I’m not going to put this in the same league as Charade!) will probably find Who's Got the Black Box? worth a viewing.


May 26, 2015

Movie Review: The Black Box Affair aka Il Mondo Trema (1966)

Okay, here’s the story with this one: someone had access to a funfair and so they decided to make a spy movie. That story could end a lot of ways (like the one about the guy with access to California scrubland who decided to make a spy movie), but surprisingly, the product ultimately cranked out by director Marcello Ciorciolini (Tom Dollar) under the name "James Harris" turned out pretty darn well, all things considered! It’s true that at least three crucial (and lengthy) scenes take place at said funfair (though in the film it’s supposed to be a couple of different funfairs in Hamburg and Vienna), but the real surprises here are—shockingly, for a totally formulaic Eurospy movie—the character moments.

The Black Box Affair is an incredibly low-budget Italian riff on the German buddy Eurospy formula perfected by the inseparable Tony Kendall and Brad Harris in the Kommissar X series and emulated in movies like Scorpions and Miniskirts. (Even the Jerry Cotton movies employ this two-hander strategy to some degree, though there’s no question that Phil is subservient to Jerry rather than an equal partner.) Here, the lead spy guy is John Grant, played by American actor Craig Hill (The Swinger). The producers were incredibly lucky with this casting, because Hill has not only charm and credible fight moves, but also the acting chops to make us care about a Eurospy hero who is, quite atypically for the genre, a tad more fleshed out than usual. (By which I mean that he is not just a stick figure... though I wouldn’t go so far as to call him exactly full-figured.)

The Black Box Affair begins in media res, with Grant gallivanting in some truly gorgeous Italian lakeside scenery. He heads for a big country house, but before he can even get in the door—before we even know his name, no less!—he finds himself attacked right off the bat by some gardeners working the grounds. He fights them off, makes his way inside, fights some more assailants… and discovers that his old spy boss, Mr. X, has commandeered his friend’s house where Grant was hoping to spend a peaceful vacation. All the fighting was a test to see if he was still up to snuff after being out of the spy game for two years. You see, John Grant’s carrying a bit more baggage than your average Eurospy hero. He’s been retired ever since his last assignment got his wife killed. (His general attitude is still overall Eurospy Guy though, meaning grief doesn’t place him above leering at the odd beauty.) Luckily for us (since we are here for spy action, not grief drama), he’s lured back in when Mr. X reveals that the man responsible for his wife’s death, top KGB agent Fabian, has resurfaced. Yes, Grant wants the assignment! And with Grant’s reactivation, he’s re-teamed with his old partner, Pablo (Luis Marin), in keeping with the typical German buddy formula.

Pablo, unfortunately, is kind of annoying. His “thing” is that he’s a ventriloquist—and not really a great one at that. This skill isn’t used for any cool spy moments, but instead for a few lousy attempts at comic relief. It was apparently a big part of Pablo and Grant’s past partnership that they called each other “Apache” and “Paleface,” respectively. This leads to far too much cringe-worthy “Apache”/“Paleface” dialogue between them—as if Jerry Westerby had maintained his annoying “Red Indian” banter with Smiley from his brief scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy throughout the duration of The Honourable Schoolboy as well, if I may bring a highbrow spy reference into a lowbrow spy review. These partners are far more interesting—and funnier—when they reminisce about a fellow agent who was “so caught up in James Bond he changed his name to Sean.” (He was killed in a gadget-related accident.)

Grant quickly manages to flush out Fabian, but the two enemies discover that they may be on the same side of this odd black box affair. The titular black box in question is a randomly assigned MacGuffin that is never actually seen, but which allows a nefarious third party (probably the Chinese, Grant quickly concludes—in part, probably, since the German Eurospy movies always seem to have an odd racist agenda against the Chinese and this Italian movie is trying to be German) to pit the Americans and Soviets against each other by sending and verifying fake nuclear strike orders to their planes. For the sake of the mission the two will work together for now in an effort to prevent a war between their countries that’s in the interest of neither. They may even be more alike than either realized. “You can’t forgive yourself for involving the person you loved in our dirty business,” says Fabian sensibly between puffs on his cigarette. “Many years ago something similar happened to me.” Despite this bit of free psychoanalysis, Grant vows to kill Fabian as soon as the assignment is over. But, crucially, not yet.

It’s a good thing The Black Box Affair has this surprisingly strong character dynamic, because its pitiful budget limits it in other departments. Far too much time is spent, for instance, with Grant and Pablo following people around in cars while explaining why—and where these people are going—via voiceover dialogue like in Joseph Losey’s messy Modesty Blaise. (At least the Lake Garda scenery is uniformly beautiful in these long and pointless drives.) Furthermore, much of the action happens on the soundtrack rather than on film. When Grant cleverly books a decoy ticket to Istanbul to throw his pursuers off the track, for example, he and other shocked onlookers at the airport watch as the plane he would have been on explodes on takeoff. The filmmakers couldn’t even afford to stick a firecracker in a toy jet, though, so we the audience only hear the explosion, while watching the onlookers. (The really disturbing thing, though, is how unconcerned Grant seems about inadvertently getting a whole commercial airliner blown up! Instead, he plays it cool when an airline rep tells him he was lucky he missed his flight.)

Likewise, we only hear rather than see a major shootout toward the end of the movie. Clever, that. Even the final final shootout, which takes place in some very dark woods, happens mainly aurally (although they do crush a real car with a crane). In fact, it sounds like the sound mixer simply spliced on the audio from a war movie. We hear scores of continuously firing machine guns over a small group of spies in the forest shooting at each other with pistols!

The best trick with the soundtrack, however, is the score by Gianni Ferrio (Danger!! Death Ray). Either the producers spared no expense on the music in order to elevate their cheapo film, or else Ferrio delivered far above and beyond what he was paid for. A great score makes even a low budget movie like this one seem much more expensive, and Ferrio delivers one of the best Eurospy scores here, from the catchy title song about black boxes to the hero’s theme to some particularly moody underscore for the more dramatic moments. (And, happily, it’s available on CD!)

And those dramatic moments, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, are indeed effective. Grant gets his final showdown with Fabian, and the outcome is surprisingly mature for this genre. In fact, the dramatic climax actually works much better than the action climax, and I really can’t believe I’m typing that about a Eurospy movie. I’m not saying it’s perfect, mind you. The parallels between Grant and Fabian could have been explored in more detail and been even more satisfying, but I was just so taken aback to find them there at all that that was enough for me. And on top of the drama, the film’s got some good comedy, too, like a pair of agents who greet each other by saying, “That sounded like an agreed dialogue between two secret agents in a thriller movie,” and, “Oh, but I hate secret agents!” Amusing dialogue, a great score, and an unexpected emotional throughline elevate The Black Box Affair well above its overall cheapness and transparent “we have access to a funfair” origins. It’s worth seeking out. (And the carnival setting also guarantees us the requisite hallucinatory funhouse sequence, which is always worth the price of admission!)

As for black boxes, tomorrow I’ll review another Eurospy flick that uses the same particular MacGuffin in its title as well. Stay tuned…

May 25, 2015

Agent Carter Expands in Second Season

Agent Carter star Hayley Atwell appeared at a comic convention in Houston this weekend, and MCU Exchange (via Dark Horizons) has the whole Q&A on video. The big news she revealed is that the second season of Agent Carter will run for ten episodes instead of eight, like Season 1. Asked if Lyndsy Fonseca (Nikita) would be returning for this season as Peggy Carter's actress roommate Angie, Atwell said that she was not yet confirmed, but Fonseca was a pleasure to work with and she hoped she'd be back. She also confirmed what we already knew, that the second season would be switching coasts, relocating from New York to Los Angeles. Once again Agent Carter is expected to bridge the two halves of the season of ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. More Agent Carter is a great thing! The first season was a wonderful period spy show.

May 24, 2015

From U.N.C.L.E. to Bourne? Alicia Vikander Sought for New Matt Damon Bourne Film

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. star Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate) may soon be defecting to another spy franchise. Deadline reports that the in-demand Swede is being sought for the female lead in Paul Greengrass's new Bourne film, the one that sees Matt Damon return to the fold in the title role. Greengrass and Damon are currently writing the script with Christopher Rouse (who edited Greengrass's two previous Bourne movies, as well as Green Zone), and Universal is eyeing a July 29, 2016 release date. Damon and Greengrass are also producing, alongside franchise newcomer Gregory Goodman (X-Men: First Class) and Bourne veteran Frank Marshall. But Vikander, who stars in eight films this year and is already generating Oscar buzz for her terrific turn in the A.I. hit Ex Machina, is apparently wanted by everyone. According to the trade, she's also in talks for Assassin's Creed, opposite Michael Fassbender, and The Circle, opposite Tom Hanks. Right now it's looking like she'll have to walk away from the latter, but her Bourne involvement is not yet confirmed.

May 21, 2015

Tradecraft: Epix Greenlights Olen Steinhauer Spy Series Berlin Station

Premium cable network EPIX, until now a movie channel, has ordered a new 10-episode espionage series called Berlin Station created, written and executive produced by Olen Steinhauer, according to The Hollywood Reporter. This is super exciting news! For my money, Steinhauer is one of the very best contemporary spy novelists (along with Charles Cumming and possibly Jason Matthews, if his second novel is as strong as his debut). His Milo Weaver trilogy (beginning with The Tourist) is a surefire hit film franchise waiting to happen. It's kind of insane it's taking Hollywood so long to get that going; right now it's just money sitting on the table for some lucky studio! (Last we heard Covert Affairs' Matt Corman and Chris Ord were adapting for The Bourne Identity helmer Doug Liman to direct, but that was back in 2012.) The idea of Steinhauer penning an entire TV season (as crime novelist Nick Pizzolatto did so successfully on True Detective) is pure catnip for this spy fan. He's also got  very strong collaborators. Eric Roth (writer of The Good Shepherd and Munich) and Michaël Roskam (director of The Drop and Bullhead) will also executive produce, and Roskam will direct the first two episodes. No casting has been announced, but it sure would be great if Roskam recruited his frequent go-to star Matthias Schoenaerts for a role.

According to the trade, the hour-long contemporary espionage drama from Paramount Television "follows a new CIA case officer in Berlin, Daniel Meyer, who is on a secret mission to find who leaked information to now-famous whistleblower Thomas Shaw. As he investigates further, guided by jaded veteran Hector DeJean, he uncovers the threads of a conspiracy that leads back to Washington." A mission to find out who leaked information from the Berlin Station also formed the basis for Len Deighton's masterpiece Berlin Game, but Berlin Station clearly puts a Snowden-era twist on the classic premise.

"Olen is among the most respected espionage voices of our time, and Michaël has a seasoned and distinct command of noir. Together, they make the ideal creative team to collaborate with on this sophisticated and gritty modern day spy thriller," Paramount Television president Amy Powell said in a statement released to the trade. "We also take great pride in partnering with the distinguished and prolific storyteller Eric Roth and the talented team at Epix on developing an inspired original series that is reflective of the network’s commitment to high quality entertainment."

Production is set to begin this fall, and Berlin Station will premiere in fall 2016. This has suddenly shot to the top of my own most anticipated television.

As reported in March, Steinhauer's latest novel, All the Old Knives, is currently in development with The Mark Gordon company, with Neil Burger (Limitless) set to direct and Steinhauer scripting. Promoting that novel, Steinhaur recently picked his own favorite fictional spies for Amazon's Omnivoracious blog, and proves that he has impeccable taste with the likes of David Callan, George Smiley, Neil Burnside and John Drake. Read his reasons why here. He also discussed his reading habits (including a healthy—and quite obvious—admiration for John le Carré) with The New York Times in another worthwhile read.

May 19, 2015

Bargain Alert: Get Smart Complete Series for Under $40

Would you believe... you can get Get Smart - The Complete Series (that's all five seasons, plus bonus content!) for just $39.96 this week on Amazon? That's cheaper than buying each bargain-priced season individually! The massive 25-disc box set also includes copious bonus features not available in the individual season sets. This collection cost hundreds when it first come out! This is quite a deal for one of the funniest spy comedies ever, and an essential part of any comprehensive library of spy TV. I recommend acting now and not missing it by that much!

May 14, 2015

TV Review: Wayward Pines (2015)

Fox offers a better Prisoner remake than the actual Prisoner remake in its new event series.

A government agent arrives in a small town surrounded by pine forests where he meets the local sheriff and discovers everyone in the town is, well, weird. Sound familiar? Wayward Pines is only Twin Peaks in its ephemeral trappings, however. Let me rephrase the premise. A government agent wakes up in a mysterious village uncertain of how he got there or who put him there. He soon comes to realize that he's a prisoner in this weird village, and that it's very difficult to tell his fellow prisoners from the jailers among the village's eccentric inhabitants. Oh, and he's apparently been given a number, though we don't dwell on that. Again, sound familiar? It's a very clever trick disguising a rip-off of one thing as a rip-off of another!

"Rip-off" may be a harsh word. Regular readers will know that I'm a pretty big fan of rip-offs, in fact. And the basic conceit of "what if, instead of waking up in The Village, Number 6 wakes up in Twin Peaks?" is pretty tough to argue with! It's a good idea (adapted from a novel by Blake Crouch). And the pilot overall acquits itself far less embarrassingly than AMC's officially licensed Prisoner remake a few years ago.

Unlike the AMC remake, most of the changes that director/producer M. Knight Shyamalan and writer/producer Chad Hodge make to the premise make sense for a contemporary update of The Prisoner. Instead of the supremely self-assured agent played by McGoohan, Matt Dillon's agent, Ethan Burke, has suffered past mental trauma and isn't at all confident in his own sanity. Is he hallucinating everything? We're fairly certain he isn't, because unlike The Prisoner, Ethan has family on the outside who are searching for him, and we cut back to them throughout the episode. (His wife is well played by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's Shannyn Sossamon.) He's also got a former partner, Kate, played by Carla Gugino (Spy Kids) who turns up in Wayward Pines as one of its fully integrated residents. There are certainly shades of the Prisoner episodes "A, B and C" here, but taken to its logical, more continuity-heavy conclusion. Demonstrating that Wayward Pines isn't just a rip-off, there's also a very interesting and potentially sci-fi twist to Gugino's character. While she's only been missing for a few months as far as Dillon's character is concerned, she has apparently aged a lot in that time and tells him she's been living there for years. Intriguing!

The changes from The Prisoner's format that don't hold up so well tend to be cases of intellectual properties they don't have the rights too. A big electrified fence is simply no replacement for Rover! And obviously Ethan can't go around declaring that he's not a number; he's a free man... though I'm sure the sentiment must occur to him.

Further establishing Wayward Pines as clearly its own thing is the eccentric cast of characters both in and out of the pine-shrouded village. There is no Number 2, but there are a lot of Number 2 surrogates. Terrence Howard (Iron Man) plays the town's ice cream cone licking sheriff who's slow to investigate a murder Ethan tells him about, but quick to keep Ethan from leaving town. Melissa Leo (The Equalizer) plays a nurse in the nightmarish hospital Ethan wakes up in who also doesn't want him to leave, and seems quick with a hypo. Like so many Number 2's on The Prisoner, she shrouds her antagonism in obsequious politeness—up to a point, anyway. Most intriguing of all is Toby Jones (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as the doctor in the hospital. Jones is an actor who would certainly have played a Number 2 had he been active in the Sixties, and his sinister character is the only one we see both in and out of Wayward Pines in the premiere. Out when he interacts with some of Ethan's Secret Service colleagues. Again, that's a fresh and logical direction to take from a Prisoner starting point. We never saw any Number 2's outside of the Village, but what if he had—and they were talking to Number 6's former superiors? This twist more than any demonstrates the possibilities of Wayward Pines.

The AMC Prisoner didn't feel remotely beholden to the original Prisoner, but of course it was to a point. It also didn't feel remotely original. Wayward Pines, on the other hand, so clearly inspired by The Prisoner, but in no way beholden to it, has plenty of leeway for an original spin on the concept. There's a good chance it could still drop the ball as disastrously as the AMC Prisoner did (Shyamalan's recent track record with his trademark twists isn't working in its favor), but I'm invested enough to take the ride and find out. I think a lot of open-minded Prisoner fans will also find plenty to enjoy.

Wayward Pines airs Thursdays at 9PM on Fox. The pilot has also been available On Demand for a few weeks already.

Read my TV Review of The Prisoner (2009) here.
Read my DVD Review of The Prisoner (2009) here.

Tradecraft: CNN Announces Spy Documentary Series Declassified

Even CNN participates in the upfronts, announcing their new programming for the coming season. And among those programs announced, according to Deadline, is a new documentary series about covert operations called Declassified. Here's how the trade describes the series:
Declassified is an eight-part series that looks at America’s covert operations around the world. This morning at Turner’s Upfront presentation to media buyers, CNN will announce that the series will be hosted by former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, also the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Each episode will feature a newly declassified mission told firsthand by the agents involved, giving CNN viewers “unprecedented access to world of espionage.” Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Stephen Lambert and Rogers serve as executive producers on the series from All3Media America.
Declassified will premiere in 2016.

May 13, 2015

Sicario Poster

Lionsgate has released the atmospheric first teaser poster and some stills for Dennis Villeneuve's dark cartel thriller Sicario, which premieres this month at the Cannes Film Festival. "Dark" almost feels like an understatement for this pitch-black look at inter-agency cooperation in the ongoing war on drugs seen through the eyes of idealistic FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) on what the official synopsis describes as a "conflicting journey that descends into the intrigue, corruption and moral mayhem of the borderland drug wars." Rounding out the alphabet soup of government agencies, Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice) plays a CIA agent of dubious morality; Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) plays a DEA agent; Victor Garber (Alias) plays an FBI boss; and Benecio Del Toro (Licence to Kill) plays what that official synopsis describes as "an enigmatic consultant with a questionable past" who leads the team on "a clandestine journey forcing Kate to question everything that she believes in order to survive." Villeneuve re-teams with his Prisoners D.P. Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to ensure that no matter how ugly things get for Kate, it all looks great on screen. Sicario (which means "hitman" in Mexico, according to the press release) opens in select theaters on September 18, and nationwide on September 25.

Poster For Pierce Brosnan's No Escape

We've seen a couple of posters for Pierce Brosnan's upcoming spy thriller Survivor with Milla Jovovich; now here's a 1-sheet for his upcoming spy thriller with Owen Wilson, No Escape. It's good to see Brosnan so back in the spy game! In No Escape, Wilson plays a father trying to get his family to safety when a violent coup breaks out in the Southeast Asian country they're living in. Lake Bell plays his wife, and Brosnan plays a government agent named Hammond. No Escape, formerly titled The Coup, opens September 2 in the United States. Watch the trailer here.

May 12, 2015

New Details on Agent Carter's Upcoming Second Season

Only days ago we learned, happily, that Marvel's excellent period spy series Agent Carter had been renewed for a second season on ABC. EW has more details on that second season. Once more, it will be an 8-episode arc, bridging the fall and spring halves of the contemporary-set Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, Restless) will be relocating in her second season from New York to L.A. What this means for the supporting cast from S.H.I.E.L.D. predecessor SSR's Big Apple office remains to be seen. Personally, I would hope to see at least some of Peggy's surviving colleagues return. There were some good characters in the group (particularly Enver Gjokaj and Chad Michael Murray). It might make sense for Peggy's roommate Angie (Nikita's Lynsy Fonseca) to move to the City of Angels with her, pursuing her acting career. I'm sure Howard Stark has West Coast residences, so it's possible his loyal butler Jarvis (James D'Arcy) could continue aiding Peggy, though it's probably unlikely that Stark himself will show up this year as Dominic Cooper (Fleming) has been cast as the lead on the AMC series Preacher. One familiar face I'm fully expecting to see return is Bridget Regan (Legend of the Seeker) as Peggy's Soviet counterpart and presumable forerunner of Black Widow from the USSR's assassin factory the Red Room. But I suspect that with the change of locale will come a pretty big shake-up in the supporting cast. While we might not know the cast, here's what we do know about next season from EW:
Dedicated to the fight against new atomic age threats in the wake of World War II, Peggy must now journey from New York City to Los Angeles for her most dangerous assignment yet. But even as she discovers new friends, a new home — and perhaps even a new love — she’s about to find out that the bright lights of the post-war Hollywood mask a more sinister threat to everyone she is sworn to protect.

Tradecraft: Mace Neufeld Options Stephen Besecker's Novel The Samaritan

Deadline reports that powerhouse franchise producer Mace Neufeld (of the Jack Ryan series and The Equalizer fame) has optioned the 2011 debut novel by Stephen Besecker, The Samaritan. The bestselling thriller is the first in a series of at least three books. Scribe Mike Maples (the forthcoming Padre) has been hired to adapt. The Samaritan is about the half Seneca Indian Kevin "Hatch" Easter, who grew up on New York's Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, raised by his shaman grandfather before becoming a "highly skilled tracker" for the CIA. But Hatch's peaceful life is interrupted when his beloved wife is killed in a mob hit. When everyone involved (or possibly involved) in the assassination starts turning up dead, DDI Jack Slattery assigns his top field man Gray Taylor to investigate Hatch. Has he gone rogue? Is he using his Native American tracking skills and CIA spy skills to avenge his wife's death? Or someone else responsible? Hatch, fighting to clear his name, forms a bond with Gray as the two men work to uncover a conspiracy. Neufeld, who's historically shown a good eye for franchise-worthy material, envisions this as the start of a potential film series.

May 11, 2015

Tradecraft: Agent 13 Returns in Captain America: Civil War


One of the Marvel superspies we haven't seen too much of so far on screen is Sharon Carter, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Agent 13. She had a small supporting role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but apparently we'll be seeing more of her in the next movie, Captain America: Civil War. And Revenge actress Emily VanCamp will reprise the role, Deadline reports. In a separate story, the trade also confirmed that Paul Rudd (reprising his role from this summer's Ant-Man) and Martin Freeman (Sherlock) had joined the cast. That cast also includes just about every superhero in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, plus some new ones like Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). I'm just hoping there's some room for Captain America in this "Captain America" movie! It sounds more like another entry in Marvel's Avengers franchise. I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier so much that I would really, really like to see a real sequel to it, but instead it sounds like we're getting a big prequel to Marvel's The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1. I hope I'm wrong about that. I do have faith in directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo after their stellar work on Winter Soldier. Weirdly, one name I haven't heard mentioned in connection with Captain America: Civil War is Samuel L. Jackson. That's pretty surprising, since Nick Fury really should be in a Captain America movie! (And enjoyed his largest role to date in Winter Soldier.) Marvel's other famous superspy, Black Widow, is confirmed to be a part of Civil War, once more in the guise of Scarlett Johansson.

In the comics, Sharon Carter is the niece of Cap's wartime squeeze Peggy Carter. If that relationship (or one suitably adjusted for the extra generation that now exists between the two women) exists in the movies, it hasn't yet been made clear. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy on the fantastic early Cold War era-set TV series Agent Carter (one of the best of the current crop of spy shows), which has just been renewed for a second season. Now that Revenge is over, I would love to see VanCamp turn up as a new regular on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That show could really use some Agent 13!

Tradecraft: Lily James and Christopher Plummer Topline WWII Spy Thriller The Kaiser's Last Kiss

Deadline reports that Downton Abbey's Lily James has joined Oscar winning veteran Christopher Plummer (Triple Cross) in a fact-based spy thriller set during the early days of WWII, The Kaiser's Last Kiss. David Leveaux, a veteran theater director with five Tony nominations under his belt, will make his film debut. Set in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, The Kaiser's Last Kiss tells the story of Dutch resistance fighters working covertly with Winston Churchill to infiltrate an agent into the household of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the former German emperor who has lived in exile in Holland since his country's defeat in WWI. "A lethally dangerous love affair ignites between a German officer and a young Jewish Dutch woman (James) with devastating consequences as the Nazis race to identify and eliminate the agent behind the potentially disastrous defection of their former Emperor to England." Producer Judy Tossell told the trade, "It’s about loyalty, duty and a forgotten pocket of history. It’s also a really exciting spy thriller with a love story running through the middle of it." She's right about that forgotten pocket of history. I've long been fascinated by the the Kaiser's days in exile, his contradictory relationship with Hitler, and his rejection of Churchill's offer of asylum in England. I'd definitely be interested in learning more about all that, especially if it involves a good spy story—real or fictional.

Coming off the worldwide success of Disney's Cinderella, James has become one of the most in-demand female leads out there. She's already got Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the television epic War and Peace in the pipeline, and Edgar Wright's contemporary musical Baby Driver coming up. According to Deadline, she will fit in The Kaiser's Last Kiss prior to shooting Baby Driver. Filming is expected to commence in the fall "somewhere in Europe."

Tradecraft: Liam Neeson in Talks for Spy Thriller A Willing Patriot

In interviews for each successive action movie he makes (recently Taken 3 and Run All Night), 62-year-old Liam Neeson intimates that he's on the verge of retiring from the genre. But thankfully for his fans, he keeps signing on to new action and spy projects nonetheless. His latest will be A Willing Patriot, for MadRiver Pictures and Hollywood Gang. According to Deadline, Neeson is in "final negotiations" to play a CIA agent racing the clock in a desperate bid to outsmart and capture a terrorist planning an imminent attack in this dark, gritty, violent espionage thriller that the trade describes as "a cat-and-mouse film." I say bring it on! I never get sick of seeing the perpetually cool Neeson in this sort of role, and despite the preponderance of action roles he's taken in the last decade, it's pretty rare for him to play a straight-up spy. Taken's Bryan Mills is a retired CIA agent, and the most recent film in the franchise didn't really have any spy elements in it other than Mills making use of his famous "very particular set of skills" honed in his Agency days. In Run All Night he was a drunken former gangster; in A Walk Among the Tombstones (the best of his recent efforts) he was a formerly drunken private detective; in Nonstop he was a drunken air marshal. Even in Unknown (review here), which was a spy movie, Neeson himself didn't play an agent of any intelligence service. (Nor was he a drunk for whatever reason.) So I look forward to finally seeing the "aging action star"-era Liam Neeson playing an active secret agent. Danish director Martin Zanvliet, who is best known in Europe for his behind-the-curtain show biz dramas like Applause and A Funny Man, but has also helmed the anticipated POW drama Land of Mine, will make his English language debut on A Willing Patriot. Jason Keller (Escape Plan) penned the script. The trade reports that the project was originally developed at Warner Bros., and subsequently moved over to MadRiver. "A wide domestic release deal is expected to be announced during the Cannes Film Festival."

James Bond Returns to Radio in Diamonds Are Forever Adaptation

Website Bond Miscellany has scored a scoop via Twitter that the next James Bond adaptation for BBC Radio will be "Diamonds Are Forever." Lucy Fleming confirmed that to the site. In her Tweet, she teased "an amazing cast" and a possible July airdate. Presumably, this radioplay will once again star Toby Stephens (Die Another Day) as 007 and hail from Jarvis & Ayers Productions, like the previous radioplays of "Dr. No," "Goldfinger," "From Russia With Love," and "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." I have to admit, as happy as I am to learn that the series (which began as a one-off to celebrate Ian Fleming's Centenary in 2008) will continue, I'm a bit disappointed in the choice. For me, Diamonds Are Forever (along with Goldfinger, which they've already adapted, and The Man With the Golden Gun, which they haven't) ranks among Ian Fleming's weakest novels. With five radioplays to date, it's a bit of a shame that two of them will be of weak books. I was hoping they would follow up their excellent "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" chronologically with a new adaptation of You Only Live Twice, following James Bond's mission of revenge after his wife's death at the hands of Blofeld. You Only Live Twice has, however, already been adapted for radio, back in 1990 starring Michael Jayston (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) as James Bond. So maybe that's why they didn't opt to do it again? Whatever the case, Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Thunderball and Moonraker all would have ranked ahead of Diamonds Are Forever as my personal next choice. But I'm sure the amazing cast Fleming teases will knock it out of the park (as Ian McKellen & Co. did with "Goldfinger") and make "Diamonds Are Forever" a terrific listen! I look forward to hearing that cast announced in the coming months.

Shout! Factory's Next MST3K Set to Include Agent For H.A.R.M.

According to Shout! Factory's website, Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIII will include the 1966 poverty row spy flick Agent for H.A.R.M., starring Peter Mark Richman (a frequent guest star on Sixties spy series like Mission: Impossible and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as sweater-fancying not-so-special agent Adam Chance and Barbara Bouchet (Casino Royale) as the requisite professor's daughter. Agent for H.A.R.M. was reportedly a failed TV pilot (an attempted U.N.C.L.E. rip-off) turned into a sort of "American Eurospy" movie and released to drive-ins. Unlike Mario Bava's brilliant Danger: Diabolik (review here), which I will probably never forgive MST3K for riffing, Agent for H.A.R.M. definitely deserves this treatment. In fact, there's a good argument that Mike and the 'Bots (it was a 9th season episode) make it far more watchable. Which is just as well, since it's never been officially released on DVD on its own, making this MST3K set will be the only way, for now, to see it easily at home. (Weirdly, it does sometimes turn up on Time Warner's On Demand movie listings, though.) Among the special features (including the hilarious Mystery Science Theater Hour host wraps) is the new interview "Peter Mark Richman: In H.A.R.M.'s Way," presumably featuring the actor discussing Agent for H.A.R.M. (Perhaps he'll confirm that it was indeed shot as a TV pilot.) I think I'm probably safe in supposing that this is the only documentary material that's ever been devoted to this particular title. The DVD set also includes original theatrical trailers for all the films skewered, and the usual exclusive mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. (I look forward to seeing Vance's H.A.R.M. artwork.) This is a pretty great set overall; besides Agent for H.A.R.M., it also includes the classic episodes Daddy-O and Earth Vs. The Spider, as well as Teen-Age Crime Wave.

While Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIII is available at a substantial discount from Amazon, if you order directly from the Shout! Factory website, then you'll get your discs two weeks earlier than everyone else and you'll also receive an exclusive set of MST3K coasters.

Read my review of Agent For H.A.R.M. here.

And, if you're so inclined, also check out my reviews for similar "American Eurospy" poverty row spy flicks like A Man Called Dagger and Dimension 5.

May 9, 2015

Tradecraft: Charlize Theron to Star in The Coldest City, Based on Antony Johnston's Graphic Novel

Well, this is cool! Deadline reports that Focus Features has bought the North American rights to a film version of Antony Johnston's Cold War Berlin-set graphic novel The Coldest City (review here), and "has committed to a wide release." The graphic novel (and I hope the movie as well) is set in the final days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Personally, I feel like divided Berlin was just as interesting in the 1980s as the 1960s, but we get far too few period pieces taking advantage of that fascinating time, so I'm particularly looking forward to this one! Charlize Theron will star as British agent Lorainne Broughton, who's got a ticking clock to solve the murder of a fellow agent and recover some vital intelligence before the climate in Berlin thaws forever. John Wick's David Leitch and Chad Stahelski will direct, and Kurt Johnstad (300) will pen the script. That behind-the-scenes team would seem to bode a more action-oriented tale than the refreshingly cerebral story of Johnston's graphic novel (more in the Len Deighton tradition than Ian Fleming), but it's a talented group of people, so I'll give them credit for more than just what we've seen them do before. Johnstad really impressed me with Act of Valor. In that movie, he managed to assemble a serviceable spy plot out of what basically amounted to footage of Special Forces teams training, so just imagine what he'll be able to do with source material of this caliber! Johnston is a longtime spy fan whose other comic book credits in the genre also include an arc of Greg Rucka's stellar Queen & Country and adaptations of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider graphic novels.

May 8, 2015

Tradecraft: Agent Carter Renewed for Second Season; S.H.I.E.L.D. Spinoff Not Going Forward

Good news all around for fans of ABC's Marvel Universe spy series! Most importantly, according to Deadline, the network has renewed the terrific Agent Carter, starring Hayley Atwell, for a second season. They've also renewed Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Season 3. Who knows? If it continues to improve exponentially the way it did from its first to second season, it might earn itself a positive adjective one day as well. And one sign of improvement is the fact that the network has, the trade reports in a separate article, decided not to proceed with the mooted spinoff we heard about a few weeks ago. The proposed series would have neutered the mothership series by spinning off its two best new characters onto a show of their own... and leaving Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with only its far less interesting original cast members. Since there won't be a new spinoff series, Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood will remain on the original show, now as regulars. Perhaps in another season or two it might make sense to spin them off into a second series, but to do so now would have been premature. It's possible that the ideas for the spinoff concocted by Agents executive producers Jeffrey Bell and Paul Zbyszewski could end up incorporated into storylines on the flagship series next year.

Agent Carter, which ran as a limited, 8-episode series to bridge the fall and spring halves of the season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is set in the same universe nearly seven decades earlier. The period spy show follows Captain America's wartime girlfriend, Agent Peggy Carter (Atwell), in the early days of the Cold War. In its first season it delivered everything fans could hope for from a period spy series with over-the-top, comic book elements. The blend of history and mild science fiction was perfect, and Atwell made a more compelling lead than any of the contemporary TV Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While the first season ended in a conclusive enough manner that it could have wrapped things up altogether, I am thrilled that we'll be getting more Carter next winter! (Once again, it's expected to serve as a bridge while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes on its winter hiatus.) Before that happens, Atwell will next be seen in the role of Peggy Carter in this summer's Ant-Man.

May 7, 2015

Tradecraft: Kevin James Mistaken for an International Assassin

I think the headline really says everything. I'm not sure you're even reading beyond that. I'm really not sure why I'm writing beyond that! But there is a little more to the story, and some hints that maybe, just maybe, this project might be something better than Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Maybe. (But probably not.) Deadline reports that America's favorite fat man Kevin James will star in The True Memoirs of an International Assassin. Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2, Never Back Down) will direct. But remember that part where I just said that there are some signs that it might actually be better than the Blart stuff? Well, here's why. According to the trade, the script for this project by Jeff Morris was actually on Hollywood's prestigious Black List! And it sounds kind of like a riff on the 1973 Jean-Paul Belmondo spy classic Le Magnifique. "James [plays] a mild-mannered accountant and would-be author who gets mistaken for a killer-for-hire when his fictional novel about an international assassin is published as a true story. He heads to Belize to escape his sudden celebrity, but gets entangled in an assassination plot. Thrown into a world of real danger, he must find a way to channel his lead character Colt Rodgers and save the day." Congratulations! Now you've read your Kevin James news for the day. Please proceed with the rest of it.