Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Man From U.N.C.L.E. Movie Update

The LA Times' movie blog, 24 Frames (via Bish's Beat), has a story today about the current status of the long in development Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie.  Last we heard (a few months ago), screenwriter Max Borenstein had been tapped to take a crack at the script and David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights) was attached to direct.  Dobkin was a bit of a surprise as he's most readily associated with comedies like Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus.  Now 24 Frames' Steven Zeitchik reveals that Dobkin will not be directing, only producing.  That means that the search is on for a director.  Zeitchik says that Doug Liman is at the top of Warners' wish list... but of course he is.  The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith director (whose upcoming Fair Game The Hollywood Reporter says "might be one of the best spy movies ever") is at the top of a lot of wish lists, and currently attached to at least two other high-profile projects, so his involvement seems unlikely.  (Too bad.  I'd be happy to see him direct U.N.C.L.E.)  So the big news here is that Dobkin is not directing, and not who is.  The other big news is a report on the tone of the project.  According to Zeitchik, the script is "said to be a commercial action thriller with some comedic touches, but not the other way around."  Excellent!  Exactly how it should be.  More Season 1 than Season 3.
New Spy DVDs Out This Week (Déjà vu)

This story probably looks familiar.  I jumped the gun last week and listed this disc as coming out then, just a week after I'd initially reported on it.  So for the third week in a row now, Night Train to Munich gets a plug on this blog.  And this time, it really is available!  Today finally sees the release (for real!) of one of the terrific spy films of the Forties long absent from DVD, courtesy of The Criterion Collection: Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich, starring Rex Harrison and The Lady Vanish's Margaret Lockwood. Lockwood isn't all that this decidely Hitchcockian comedic thriller has in common with The Lady Vanishes, either.  Besides a train setting, the two movies also share a couple of screenwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat) and the cricket-loving comic relief characters Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who also played the roles in a second feature included on Criterion's Lady Vanishes DVD).  Night Train to Munich (1940) follows Harrison as a dashing British secret agent accompanying a Czech scientist and his daughter across war-torn Europe as they attempt to evade Nazi spies.  Besides the first-rate transfer Criterion is known or, DVD features include a "new video conversation between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington about director Carol Reed, screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and the social and political climate in which Night Train to Munich was made" and a booklet with an essay by film critic Philip Kemp.

It's not a DVD (and not quite even spy), but another release this week that will definitely interest spy fans is Network's soundtrack for the Seventies ITC series The Zoo Gang (featuring music by Ken Thorne and Paul McCartney), available this week from the company's website.  Listen to samples here
FBI Busts Russian Spy Ring

Whoah!  Shades of the Cold War.  The FBI has busted up a Russian spy ring operating in the United States, arresting ten people described by the AP as "Russian secret agents."  Two of them were apparently deep-cover sleepers, posing as a husband and wife.  Read the whole story here.  (Bish's Beat has a story about this today that focuses on a "real life Bond Girl" element I hadn't heard about yesterday.)

Eventos de la Semana

Pemieres "The Killer Inside Me" en París

Jessica Alba me encantó con este vestido verde oscuro de Lanvin Invierno 2010. Llevó zapatos de plataforma con pulsera en el tobillo de Lanvin Invierno 2010.

Premiere de "Love Ranch" en LA

Kristen Stewart llevó un vestido muy bonito de Azzaro Invierno 2010, con escote corazón.

Salma Hayek asiste al Show de David Letterman

Salma llegó con un bonito vestido en color morado, con escote en uve y hombreras marcadas, de Alexander McQueen.

Cena de Diane Von Furstenberg en Londres

Victoria Beckham asistió a esta cena con un vestido negro, con bustier de Giles Deacon Invierno 2009. Llevó también unas botas por encima de la rodilla de Brian Atwood, un poco pasadas para esta época.

Presentación de "Welcome To The Rileys" en el Festival de Cine de Los Ángeles

Kirsten Stewart estaba bastante aceptable con este vestido negro de Preen Invierno 2010.

Premiere "Grown Ups" en Nueva York

Salma Hayek levó un vestido blanco, con cinturón naranja Yves Saint Laurent Resort 2011.

Fiesta Aniversario de Vegas Magazine, Las Vegas

Kim Kardashian llevó un vestido que no me gustó demasiado, en cuero blanco, con mangas asimétricas y tachuelas doradas, de Oriett Domenech.

Inauguración de la Tienda Ferrari en NY

Esta vez Olivia Palermo llegó muy sencilla, con camisa blanca y shorts con tachuelas en color negro. El bolso color nude que lleva es el "Neely" de Mulberry.

Fiesta Bing Creative Minds en Los Ángeles

Zoe Saldaña llevó un vestido gris, ajustado, de Herve Leger by Max Azria Invierno 2010.

Nicole Richie llevó una camisola con mangas anchas, en color blanco, que le sentaba genial, combinada con un cinturón ancho en tonos plata.

Michelle Trachtenberg llevó un vestido corto en color negro, con una chaqueta estampada.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Movie Review: Knight and Day (2010)

Knight and Day features two old-fashioned movie stars (remnants of what seems to be the last generation of actual movie stars*) with great chemistry between them on a romantic adventure that takes them all over the world, from one exotic location to another–and from one thrilling action setpiece to another. It’s the sort of epic spectacle spy movie that we just don’t get anymore–a throwback to the over-the-top late Connery/Moore era of Bond movies. If you like spy movies that feature both tropical paradises and snowy Alpine streets (I do!), then you will enjoy Knight and Day.

I’ve called the Transporter movies and their neo-Eurospy ilk the heirs to the daffy action of the Roger Moore Bonds. Knight and Day also fits that bill, but on a much larger Hollywood budget. It follows the Eurospy “kitchen sink” pattern of how to imitate 007 (pack in as many exotic locations as possible into a short amount of time, pile on one over-the-top action scene after another, and set multiple factions after the same ridiculous Macguffin), but it’s clearly a Hollywood product. In other words, it offers the best of both worlds when it comes to delivering Bond-like adventure.

Tom Cruise plays Roy Miller. Knight and Day is actually the second Roy Miller spy film of the year (and sadly the second Roy Miller movie to underplay at the box office), following the very different Green Zone (review here), in which Matt Damon played Roy Miller. No, no, they’re two completely different characters, but I find the coincidence amusing. It reminds me of the the Eurospy days when lots of different distributors would all call their hero Agent 077 or 3S3 or something to piggyback the success of another film and try to trick audiences into thinking it was part of the same franchise. This Roy Miller is either a maverick CIA agent who’s been set up by villainous elements in his own investigation or else he’s a crazy person. Carmeron Diaz plays June Havens, an innocent bystander swept up into his permanent maelstrom who’s not sure which story to believe. He certainly has secret agent skills, but he also acts pretty crazy.

The romantic comedy hook at play here is the idea of telling the story from the point of view of a Bond Girl who gets caught up in this kind of action, an ordinary (if beautiful) woman out of her depth. Despite that appealing hook, though, Knight and Day plays like an action movie with comedy and romance rather than an awkward action/rom-com hybrid. It’s not the equal of Charade or North By Northwest, but that’s the tone it’s going for and generally succeeds at. It’s an action/adventure with a light but compelling romantic relationship at its center–and plenty of comedy. It reminded me a lot of James Cameron’s True Lies, which also built a succession of exciting, over-the-top, Bond-inspired setpieces around a central relationship.

I’m a sucker for a good Macguffin, the less explanation the better. Knight and Day is propelled by a classic Macguffin: the perpetual energy source. (How many Eurospies chased the same elusive objective?)  The movie makes no attempt to explain the science behind this device, relying instead on the shorthand of “not your average Duracel” or something like that. (It’s also conveniently battery-sized, yet prone to overheating.) I was grateful for the lack of pseudo-scientific explanation and thoroughly involved with the chase on only the information provided. As Hitch himself said, the Macguffin itself shouldn’t matter at all. The audience shouldn't care about it.  It just has to succeed at driving the plot. Knight and Day thrives on the slightness of its premise, and winks at the audience by not attempting to explain it any more than necessary. We’re complicit in this entertainment. We willingly surrender ourselves to the movie, and it knowingly acknowledges this with a recurring device in which Roy drugs June, and we then cut away and “wake up” with her in an entirely new exotic location with no explanation as to how we got there. While I would kind of like to have seen how Roy piloted them away from a tropical island under attack by a drone in a helicopter, I’m perfectly willing to accept this device–especially if it means more exotic locations, which it does.

Roy whisks June from Wichita to Boston to a tropical island to Austria back to Boston to Spain and finally South America. (More or less.) Maybe I’m even leaving out a few places. The point is, the film packs in the exotic scenery, which is one of my primary requirements from good spy entertainment. Director James Mangold also stages appropriate action sequences in each locale. In Kansas we get a spectacular plane crash in a cornfield, reminding us just how exciting the heartland can be for such sequences, as Hitchcock showed us half a century before. In Boston we get a breakneck highway chase and a warehouse shootout. In the tropics there’s that drone attack, spewing bullets and missiles, and in Austria we get a fight on a train. (Yes! I love trains in spy movies–especially with fights on them!) Seville offers a car and motorcycle chase involving sporty electric cars and–of course!–bulls. Yes, the bulls and the cars interact–in a most satisfying manner. All of the action could be better (and the CGI is painfully obvious in places–but that’s a flaw I’m willing to forgive when I’m invested in the ride), but at least Mangold has the sound mind to allow it to play out largely in wide master shots so that you can actually follow what’s going on and take in the breathtaking scenery at the same time. Such action direction (recalling–if not quite up to the standards of–the great and too often unsung John Glen) is a welcome breath of fresh air at a time when the trend is to shoot and cut action sequences so fast and furiously that the viewer can neither comprehend the action nor savor the location. (I’m looking at you, Quantum of Solace!)

Is the movie without flaws? Not by a long shot. Frankly, I would have been happy if it had ended in Seville; everything after that (about ten minutes) seemed extraneous. And, as I mentioned, while I’m grateful that the action is allowed to play out in a comprehensible manner, it could have been more dynamically directed. (More practical effects and less reliance on CGI also would have been welcome, but the CG certainly wasn’t detrimental.) I’m not really a fan of Tom Cruise anymore (like most of America, apparently), but he puts his all into this roll and delivers a genuinely charming performance. If audiences actually do get themselves into the theaters, they’ll quickly forget whatever issues they have with the actor outside of his movies. (The audience I was with seemed to enjoy the film every bit as much as I did.) The title Knight and Day is never adequately explained. It still beats the awful working title of Wichita, but surely they could have come up with something better! Oh well. Whatever Fox wants to call it, it’s a thoroughly entertaining spy movie that rewards fans of the genre with the genre’s most famous hallmarks: fantastic locations, over-the-top action and a really good time at the theater.

Last week, I heard The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern review Knight and Day on the radio, and he complained that “Knight and Day woke me up to just how awful some summer entertainments have become.” He went on to call it “harmful... to moviegoers’ wallets and movie lovers’ morale.” After seeing the film, I’m flabbergasted at such comments. If one is truly a “movie lover” (which is a different thing from being an art house snob, as the term “movie” is really quite broad), then I can’t imagine he or she finding Knight and Day in any way harmful to their morale. It’s the very definition of fun summer entertainment. No, it’s not a movie that demands much thought from the viewer, but must every movie? Of course not. (Knight and Day even jokingly acknowledges this conceit, and wears it on its sleeve.) I like a healthy percentage of my movie intake–especially during the summer–to require little to no thought. I like to put myself in the filmmakers’ hands and be entertained for two hours. Now, I’m not saying that I’ll accept just anything. The key is that entertainment. There are plenty of big popcorn movies that fail in that crucial aspect, and those are the films that can damage one’s morale. I really defy anyone (certainly anyone who reads this blog) not to be entertained by Knight and Day. It’s a ridiculously entertaining movie–especially for spy fans.

*Let me clarify my stance on movie stars. To me, a movie star is different from an actor. A movie star can be an actor, but ultimately it is his or her larger than life persona that carries the film and markets the film rather than his or her performance–no matter how good that might be. When I lament that Cruise and Diaz belong to the last straggling generation of movie stars I am not in any way bemoaning the current state of Hollywood or shaking my walking stick and curmudgeonly declaring, “Nothing is as good today as it used to be!” I’m merely remarking on a changing trend. For decades, movie stars sold action movies: Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise. Now the trend has changed, and actors star in action movies. Very good actors like Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, but not movie stars. Of course the poster boy for this trend is James Bond himself. Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan were all movie stars. (In fact, I’d posit that Connery may be the ultimate movie star.) Daniel Craig is an actor, as was Timothy Dalton before him. But Dalton was before his time; the era of the action-actors hadn’t yet dawned. That seems to be the trend now (and I’m not saying it’s a permanent one, just the prevailing one of the moment) and none of these actors seem likely to achieve Tom Cruise movie star status. And looking at Cruise as an example of how that status can utterly backfire with a few bad PR moves, perhaps that’s a good thing. Whew! That's a rant!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mejor Vestida de la Semana 26 del 2010

Esta semana la mayoría de las seleccionadas han sido las chicas de La Saga Crepúsculo, y es que estaban todas guapísimas. Espero que os animéis a votar por vuestra favorita. ¡Gracias a todos!

Premiere de "Eclipse" en Los Ángeles

Kristen Stewart llevó un vestido muy bonito, en color blanco con pequeñas plumas, de Elie Saab Couture Invierno 2010.

Ashley Greene estaba muy guapa, pero el llevó un vestido gris de Alexis Mabile Couture Invierno 2009, que parece una sábana enrollada al cuerpo.

Nikki Reed llevó un vestido precioso de Marchesa Invierno 2010, en color azul pastel con plumas y bordados.

Dakota Fanning estaba estupenda con este vestido color nude de Elie Saab Couture Primavera 2010, con bordados y plumas. Llevó los zapatos "Clou Noeud" con tachuelas de Christian Louboutin.

Me parecía oportuna hacer una mención a la vestimenta de Robert Pattinson por alejarse tanto del típico traje gris, negro o azul. Rob llevó un traje granate de Gucci Invierno 2010 Men. Y pese a tantas fans que tiene, a mi este chico no me parece nada atractivo.

Kim Kardashian llevó un vestido negro, de estilo tubo.

Annalynne McCord llevó un vestido largo por detrás y corto por la parte delantera, en color nude, de Nicole Miller.

Jennifer Love Hewitt llevó un vestido negro, con encaje de Dolce & Gabbana Primavera 2010, no creo que le siente demasiado bien, es un vestido muy corto, y ella tiene unos tobillos algo anchos. Llevó sandalias doradas de YSL.

No creo que le siente nada bien este vestido a Lily Collins, en color arena de Burberry Prorsum Primavera 2010, creo que no le favorece nada ese cruce en el pecho.

Scarlett Johansson Mejor vestida de la Semana 25 del 2010

Es la segunda semana consecutiva que Scarlett Johansson queda primera en la Mejor Vestida de la Semana, con este vestido verde de lentejuelas de Elie Saab, con el 22% de los votos.

En segunda posición con el 20%, muy cerca de Scarlett, está Jessica Biel, con un mono azul marino de Erin Fetherston.
Por último en el tercer puesto tenemos a Lea Michele con un vestido amarillo de Zac Posen.

Eventos de la Semana

Gala de los Premios MuchMusic Video en Toronto, Canadá

Jessica Szohr llevó un vestido muy bonito en color naranja con lentejuelas, de Jenny Packham Invierno 2010. Llevó las sandalias "Romaine" de Christian Louboutin.

Fiesta Celebración del 20 Aniversario de Dolce & Gabbana, Milán

Rachel Weisz me encantó con este vestido negro de lentejuelas, de Dolce & Gabbana, le sentaba genial.

Premiere de "Knight and Day" en Sevilla

Cameron Díaz estaba guapisima con este vestido color marrón chocolate de Lanvin Primavera 2010. Los zapatos que lleva son los conocidos zapatos con cadena de Lanvin Primavera 2010.

Katie Holmes acompañó a su marido Tom, y vistió un vestido en color crudo de Azzedine Alaia Primavera 2010, con sandalias también del diseñador.

Premiere de "The Illusionist" en el Festival Internacional de Cine en Edinburgo

America Ferrera estaba muy guapa y luciendo este maravilloso vestido negro, con escote asimétrico de Alice + Olivia. Los zapatos que llevó son los "Snake Stripe" de Guissepe Zanotti.

Premiere de "Jonah Hex" en Los Ángeles

Que impresión me ha dado Megan Fox en este evento, ya comprendo porque ha estado un tiempo sin salir en ningún acto público, cirugía plástica, y se ha desgraciado la cara, ahora parece una caricatura, y ese precioso vestido rojo de Armani Privé no evita que no pueda apartar la vista de esos labios y esos pómulos... que horror...

41 Edición de los Songwriters Hall of Fame, NY

Taylor Swift estaba muy guapa con este vestido corto en color lila de J. Mendel Primavera 2010.

Lily Collins llevó un vestido en blanco y negro que le sentaba muy bien.

Gala Benéfica del Institute for Civic Leadership 2010, NY

Olivia Palermo llevó una blusa blanca con estampado de flores rosas y violetas, junto con un short blanco, y sandalias color salmón de ALDO.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Zoo Gang Soundtrack Preview

Network has provided a suite of Ken Thorne score music from The Zoo Gang, previewing their latest (previously announced) ITC soundtrack due out next week.  This is fantastic!  I didn't remember the music from this show being so good, but I generally love Thorne's work, so I shouldn't be surprised.  It's Seventies easy listening lounge funk Nirvana!  Check out that really funky action groove that pops up about halfway through the YouTube selection!  Beatles fans might prefer to skip to the very end, when Paul McCartney and Wings' cool title music kicks in.  I think there are several variations of it on the CDs. 

DVD Review: The Sentimental Agent

When it’s good, The Sentimental Agent is very good. And when it’s bad, it’s very bad. This early ITC effort is a wildly uneven series based on a fairly tenuous premise, but it’s still absolutely worth buying for one particularly great episode. More on that in a minute. First, let’s focus on that tenuous premise. Honestly, I’m not sure why Harry Fine or Lew Grade or whoever came up with the show decided it would be a good idea to make a series about a debonaire import/export agent. Imports and exports? Really? That’s a profession so nebulous, so bland, so boring that Ian Fleming thought it would make the perfect cover for the British Secret Service in his Bond novels! Of course, those are exciting because it’s just that, a cover. Sadly not so in the case of The Sentimental Agent. Unlike James Bond, Carlos Varella (Carlos Thompson) really is in imports and exports. I suppose that there was still a certain bit of glamor attached to the profession at the height of the Jet Age, since it inherently meant dealing with far-flung regions of the world, but the glamor wears off quickly when the viewer realizes that Varella’s office (housed in a decidedly unglamorous warehouse) is basically just a big mail room. “Transport these goods to America, ASAP!” “Arrange insurance on this shipment!” “Oh no, this product is held up in customs! Quick, fill out a form! In triplicate!” Yes, if you’ve ever wondered how the mail room in your office building works (granted, on a slightly larger scale), then this is the show for you. Personally, I’ve spent a bit too much time working in such a mail room myself to find calculating insurance for an international package all that exciting.

Luckily for us, that’s not all that the show is limited to. You see, the basic formula for pretty much all ITC series at this time (all the contemporary ones, anyway), no matter what the hero’s occupation was, was for the writer to say, “Oh, he’s a ________ [insert import/export agent/international photojournalist/jet-setting playboy/antiques dealer/invisible man/whatever, as needed]? Okay, I’ll just write a story where he’s mistaken for a secret agent or somehow falls in with spies.” And that mentality suits this viewer just fine! In fact, I find it amazing that the same stable of writers managed to generate so many new plots spread out over so many series for what was essentially the same show over and over again. (I know, I know; sometimes they repeated themselves. Still!) Anyway, the basic formula was some guy with a somewhat exotic profession (or pointed lack of one) gets into adventures featuring international intrigue week after week. What the profession is generally doesn’t matter. So as long as the writers stick to the profession not mattering and just put appealing leading man Carlos Thompson in an interesting scrape of the week, the results tend to turn out pretty well. When they focus instead on his boring profession... not so much.

The Sentimental Agent was spun off from another black and white early Sixties ITC series, Man of the World. That show starred Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn himself) as Mike Strait, a globetrotting photojournalist who–you guessed it–got mixed up with spies and kidnappers week after week. (To be honest, that one didn’t have a super great premise either, but it at least sounded a bit more exciting than “import/export!”) Stevens must have wanted some time off one week, so in the episode “The Sentimental Agent” (which really should have been included as an extra on Network’s Sentimental Agent set, but is appallingly absent), his character gets arrested in Havana at the very beginning. His assistant, Maggie (Tracey Reed), turns to the suave rogue Carlos Barella (yes, they later changed his name), an import/export agent based (here) in Havana and Panama City. (Evidently, he relocated to London when he got his own series.) Not an altruistic do-gooder by nature (the “sentimental” moniker is at first intended ironically), he agrees to help but charges $5,000 for his services. He also conspires to profit from the situation on top of that. Straight is suspected of being an American spy, and soon Barella is caught up in a full-on spy plot involving kidnapped scientists, faked deaths and the beautiful Shirley Eaton (playing an American). It’s a pretty great episode–classic ITC–and in many ways the unscrupulous Barella makes a more interesting lead than the straight-edge Strait anyway. It’s easy to see why Grade greenlit his own series based on this very obvious backdoor pilot.

Unfortunately, Barella is not only stripped of his “B” in favor of a “V,” but also loses some of his rogueishness when he makes the transition to leading man. Still, Thompson is a charismatic actor, and clearly had the chops to carry a series–especially with the able assistance of an Aston Martin DB5! That’s right, Varella drives the coolest car of the decade–the same year that James Bond made it famous in Goldfinger. Varella’s DB5 logs most of its weekly mileage in the title sequence, unfortunately (accompanied by a strange–but catchy–theme song that manages to evoke neither the adventure nor the Latin flavor it clearly intends to), and never gets a great chase all its own or anything. In fact, in the first episode (presumably filmed before the title sequence), he actually drives a DB4. But after that, the DB5 lights up any episodes it turns up in, no matter how briefly. And it adds to the series’ spy cred. Not that it really needs adding to, as the very first episode is a full-on spy adventure.

In “All That Jazz,” Varella’s company, Mercury International, is importing a modern jazz quintet. Personally, I found this eye-opening, because I had no idea that you could actually import people–but apparently that’s one of the many exciting components in an import/export career! Anyway, Varella’s muppet-voiced assistant, immediately has trouble doing so, and has to call Varella to come to the airport himself. Apparently the band, The Arthur Rodgers Modern Jazz Quintet (“What extraordinary names these people do think up!” blusters the old MI5 man, demonstrating that he and I must subscribe to very different definitions of the word “extraordinary.”), are considered “undesirable aliens.” Aliens from where, exactly, isn’t entirely clear, since, like most jazz quintets, they’re comprised of white cockneys very clearly not alien to Britain. (I think they’re actually supposed to be American cockneys.) The undesirable part is far easier to understand. You see, wherever they go, Western secrets seem to leak in their path–and tonight they’re scheduled to play for the “Friends of Progress” or something equally Commie-sounding. Very suspicious indeed, as is their mysterious arranger who only sends the arrangements by Express Delivery at the last minute to whatever exotic location they’re playing in.

Varella shows up to do what must be done to get them into the country (one has to keep Special Branch well greased with Scotch) and the muppet-voiced assistant, Bill (Riggs O'Hara) prepares him. “Wait’ll you get aload of them!”

Varella furrows his eyebrows. “Beatniks?”

“The mostest ”

Ironically: “Can’t wait.”

Major Nelson of MI5 (Anthony Bushell) shares his department’s suspicions (and those of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency) with Varella, recruiting him to keep an eye on the band and help MI5 figure out how the secrets are being smuggled. (You will have guessed already.) When Special Branch then releases the shaggy beatniks (including a young Jeremy Bulloch) into Varella’s custody, they launch an onslaught of hip slang (like “Hey, cats! Case the threads!” and “Knock off!” which Varella finds particularly bizarre) and irreverent humor. Only the attractive female xylophonist “Ms. Sarah James” (ITC mainstay Annika Wills) seems at all grown-up, and she flirts with Varella instead of cracking wise.

The first part of Varella’s undercover assignment is to accompany the band to their Friends of Whatever gig at the local Communist embassy that night. Varella requires a lot of briefing for a night out. First, his Chinese Jeeves, Chin (the great Burt Kwouk, who enlivens every scene he’s in), who is more attuned to English traditions than the non-specifically Latin Varella, briefs him on what color carnation to wear to this sort of event. Then Major Nelson gives him a code phrase to identify his MI5 contact: “I’d have thought classical music was more in your line.” To which Carlos is supposed to respond, “One tries to get with it.” Simple enough, right?

“Don’t you worry now,” the Major assures him. “Your contact is one of our very best girls.”

If you can’t predict Varella’s alarmed reply, “Girls?!” then you must not have ever seen any Sixties movies or television.

In keeping with the time and the same appalling attitude, Nelson mollifies him by with some further crucial information. “36-24-34. Don’t say we have your best interests at heart ”

Carlos retorts, “You certainly try to get ‘with it’” and seems very pleased with himself for doing so. Oh, he's "with it" alright!

Unfortunately, everyone at the concert seems more "with it" than Varella, and everyone thinks that classical music would be more in his line! Two girls and one guy tell him that, and he keeps saying “one tries to get with it” without knowing which one is the real contact. Too bad he didn’t bring his measuring tape with him. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have helped. When he finally meets the tiny brunette Tanya, she doesn’t really seem to measure up to the Major’s description.

When I mentioned an arranger who express ships the arrangements at the last minute before each gig (leaving poor Sarah “headed for Crackupville, USA unless this schnook gets hip enough to send the arrangements in time for me to learn them!”), you figured out how the secrets were being smuggled, didn’t you? Of course you did. So does Varella. In the course of the evening, he is able to use his knowledge gleaned from years of importing and exporting pianos to realize that “The middle register’s been re-tuned!” on one in the embassy. “Don’t you see? Musical notes are like the letters of the alphabet. Except that in this baby here, the order in which they run has been changed around. They must be using this instrument to decode the music those kids are playing this very minute! That's how the information is being passed.” So all the intelligence services needed this whole time was to hire an import/export guy with an ear for music!

Upon making this discovery, Varella awakens poor Bill with the perhaps the greatest urgent exclamation ever to awaken a sleeping assistant: “Bill! Get me a piano tuner right away!” It sounds even better in Thompson’s vaguely accented delivery.

When Tanya is kidnaped, Varella’s appalled when Major Nelson doesn’t lift a finger to help his agent, and for an episode with so many musical performances (even Carlos gets a solo), it takes a surprising turn into dark, Le Carré spy territory. “She’s a national of their country,” he explains cooly. “They have a perfect right to hold her, even send her back where she came from.”

“She works for you!” protests Varella. “Rather loyally I’d say.”

“Not anymore,” the spook reasons. “Her cover’s been broken; she’s no further use to us. Unfortunately, my job is security, not sentiment.”

Varella is, of course, a more (ahem) sentimental agent, so he disagrees. “Do you sleep well at night?” he asks.

“The day this job can be taken over by machines, I for one shall give three rousing cheers! We didn’t draft her into this you know. She came into it, with her eyes wide open.” I was surprised to see this otherwise lighthearted series make a left turn into Deighton territory so early, but sadly it’s not representative of what’s to come. Major Nelson has turned out to be a great spymaster character, but unfortunately he doesn’t recur. That doesn’t mean we don’t get some more healthy doses of espionage, though.

“Express Delivery” is a really great, old fashioned spy story through and through. Do you like that Man From U.N.C.L.E. where Napoleon is trapped behind the Iron Curtain and has to escape with a busload of school children? Or that Saint where Simon finds himself trapped in East Germany and has to run for the border? I do. I love border-crossing spy stories, and I love episodes of TV shows that put the main character in such a predicament. This is Varella’s turn, and it doesn’t matter if he’s an import/export agent or what; he’s simply got to get out.

Unlike many ITC shows, The Sentimental Agent uses real countries (usually). Varella is traveling in Poland, an Eastern Bloc country crawling with secret police and CIA agents and defectors and would-be defectors and phony defectors. He meets a beautiful blonde in a hotel bar who implores him to aid her in an escape to the West. But who does she work for? Varella knows he can’t trust her, but he opts to help anyway. Their escape plan puts them on a train ride with sinister sorts sharing the compartment (a shady priest who packs a gun, a seemingly obvious secret policeman, military types, etc.), fulfilling another of my favorite spy tropes: the train story. On top of all those shady characters, we have disguises and quick-changes and more wonderful genre staples at their best. Varella is caught up in the middle of all this, and ends up a pawn of both the secret police and the CIA in either helping a defector escape or else helping a fake defector be planted in Western intelligence. Great art direction with obvious backdrops on cobbled, Eastern European-feeling streets adds to the mystique making “Express Delivery” a standout example of the Cold War spy genre irregardless of the show it’s part of.

Even when not fully spy, we get plenty of the sort of mystery and intrigue typical of ITC series. “The Beneficiary,” for instance, follows a Maltese Falcon plot, wherein lots of mysterious parties including a Fat Man, an effeminate Peter Lorre-type (who Varella repeatedly disarms, recalling Bogie’s treatment of Elisha Cook, Jr.) and a femme fatale chase after a mysterious Macguffin. (Bringing a spy element to the table, the Macguffin turns out to be some sort of metallurgical formula that’s the key to creating a death ray!) Varella gets in on the action when his old Korean War buddy calls him up out of the blue from Lisbon, then gets himself shot while he’s on the phone (as happens). Naturally, Carlos hops the first flight to Portugal to avenge him. There’s no import/export plot in this episode, but Carlos does keep trying to sell people cases of stuff when he meets them. (He successfully interests the Lorre-like character in some sort of allergy medication and even tries to line up shipment of two crates as the guy’s trying to kill him!) “The Beneficiary” is a really solid example of great ITC-style entertainment.

The best episode of the bunch, however, and the one that makes this a must-buy set for spy fans (or at least for Avengers fans) is “A Very Desirable Plot,” written by Brian Clemens. This is the episode that marks the screen debut of Diana Rigg, and she’s absolutely riveting–no mean feat in such a throwaway series! Seriously! In a show as lightweight as you can get (sorry, Carlos), Rigg manages to elevate the material to the level of, well, The Avengers. (And that is high praise indeed!) You can absolutely tell during every moment she’s on screen that this beautiful young woman is going to be a star. Watch, for example, her subtle movement as she jumps back a little, sharply intakes her breath and straightens herself up as Varella passes by to leave in an early scene. It’s fantastic, seemingly spontaneous body language that adds a trillion more layers to her character than what’s written.

It’s a good part for her, too. Rigg plays Francy, an inquisitive, unstoppable young British woman and the daughter of a land buyer who’s been ripped off in a Bahamian land scheme blamed on Varella. She stands up for herself and for her father, and she’s disinclined to let poor Carlos off the hook even when he insists that he has nothing to do with this villain who’s been billing himself as his partner. In fact, her cat-like curiosity nearly derails Varella’s intricate, Mission: Impossible-like plan to out-con the bad guy and see all the swindled landowners become rich in the process.

NOTE: I would love to provide illustrative evidence of Diana Rigg's lovely presence, but I've been having trouble with my screen cap software and wasn't able to get any from that disc. 

Burt Kwouk gets a lot to do in “A Very Desirable Plot” as well, even if he has to talk like Charlie Chan to earn some extra screen time. Actually, that’s all part of the con. Varella instructs his able assistant, Miss Carter, that Chin should “wear what Charlie Chan would wear” when posing as a Chinese investor. The villain’s secretary notes the resemblance as well, and asks him, “Who are you? Charlie Chan?”

“Most flattered by resemblance to illustrious detective,” Kwouk replies in a perfect Chan cadence, “but regret cannot claim relationship.”

“A Very Desirable Plot” is not only the best episode of The Sentimental Agent, but an episode that could stand against the best of any ITC series. Strong, witty writing, a clever plot and solid performances all around are catapulted into the stratosphere by Diana Rigg’s barnstorming, force-of-nature television debut. If you’re an Emma Peel fan or a Diana Rigg fan, you simply must track this down!  (Also watch for a very young Donald Sutherland in a blink-or-you'll-miss-him role as a hotel receptionist.) 

Unfortunately, despite such strong episodes as I’ve so far discussed, The Sentimental Agent slides into mediocrity in the second half of its single season. The problems are twofold. Firstly, the plots start to focus less on con jobs and international intrigue and more on freight jobs and international trade–the very things you would expect of a show with this premise. Secondly–and probably more detrimentally–the charismatic Carlos Thompson ceases to be the lead of his own show, replaced in most of the later episodes by John Turner as Bill Randall, one of Varella’s employees. (Not the same character as his wonderfully muppet-voiced assistant Bill in the first episode.) Turner is weird-looking and generally less appealing. He’s also a terrible television actor. Perhaps he was a good stage actor, but those skills don’t always translate directly to other media. Performing as if he’s in a West End theater, Turner punctuates every line he utters (delivered stagily, from the diaphragm) with some sort of larger-than-life facial expression or stilted gesture. He might have made a decent ITC sidekick, but a TV lead he is not. (Decades later, however, he did an excellent job and made me laugh quite heartily as the very theatrical supporting role of Roderick Spode on Jeeves & Wooster.) It’s a pity that the estimable Mr. Kwouk wasn’t promoted to lead in Thompson’s absence instead, but apparently Britain wasn’t ready for an (actual) Asian television star. Kwouk does, at least, get to do more in these Varella-free episodes, which makes them bearable.

“Meet My Son, Henry” is a decent–if utterly unoriginal–spy story with the ever-reliable Vladek Sheybal as the baddie. The episode guest stars a kid in a leading role (the titular son Henry), which would usually spell doom for viewers, but this kid actually turns out to be far less annoying than he could have been (even if he is a big nerd) and a better actor than one would expect. Unfortunately, it features Bill as the lead, with Carlos only appearing in brief segments at the beginning and end. The plot is one you’ve seen a hundred times (a Scarecrow and Mrs. King comes readily to mind for me, since I watched that fairly recently); it’s the one where someone accidentally buys an obscure book at a bookstore that was actually a dead drop for foreign agents. In this version, the book is a rare first edition of a calculus book, the wrong person who picks it up is the kid (told you he was a big nerd!), and the secrets it contains are jet plans recently stolen from the “space agency.” (Did Britain really have one of those?) It’s up to Bill and Miss Carter to save the day. Along the way, we’re treated to lots and lots of filler footage of an “air ferry,” a giant cargo plane that transported people and their cars across the English Channel. It’s actually a pretty cool thing to see filler footage of today–and the second best thing about the episode, after Sheybal.

At least “Meet My Son Henry” had espionage. The same can’t be said for most of the Bill episodes. The title “Not Quite Fully Covered” unfortunately doesn’t apply to lovely guest star Imogen Hassell (who remains fully covered the entire time, unlike her memorable bikini-baring appearance on the first episode of The Persuaders! years later), but to a collection of art that her character wishes to insure for transportation from Beirut to London insured. “In order to do this,” one character remarks, “they need knowledge. They need someone with an expertise in... import and export.” Why, that’s Bill! Yep, this episode is about getting insurance coverage for an art collection. Really. Yay! Insurance agents! And not even the Bulldog Drummond/Eurospy variety. Just plain old, run of the mill insurance agents doing insurance things. Here’s a sample of some actual dialogue:

“But it is a legal point! The policy must be under the name of the owner of the property! It doesn’t matter who pays for the premium!”

And there’s lots more like that. Lots. The Sentimental Agent reaches its premature nadir as we watch Miss Carter aid Bill in navigating the ins and outs of the Sixties insurance racket as it pertains to international boat shipments. This one really reminded me of an average day in the corporate mailroom. (Which isn’t exciting.) Actually, just using the word “racket” makes the episode sound more exciting than it is. I should say “insurance bureaucracy.” At least writers Leslie Harris and Roger East managed to work in a punch-up in an underground chamber involving Burt Kwouk and dynamite to somewhat salvage this episode at the last minute. But if you think insurance sounds dull, just wait until you hear the plot of the series finale, which manages to be both dull and downright unethical at once

“Box of Tricks” finds Bill having a limited amount of time to bribe a certain number of officials in a small Mediterranean country in order for Mercury International to get a big contract. Yes, really; that is the plot. We are rooting for our unappealing lead to successfully grease the wheels for a shipping contract. At least he encounters a number of spy veterans in the process, including the beautiful Zena Marshall (Dr. No) and a young and much more hirsute Walter Gotell. The best part is when Bill is captured and Chin gets to take center stage (literally) for a bit–performing a magic show.

But the series does come to a happy ending: Bill and Miss Carter are going to get married! Yay! That’s what we care about! No, it’s not. We care about Carlos Varella, who is relegated to a terribly rear-projected boat with a beautiful girl at the beginning, then brief phone contact at the end to wish the happy couple well. Then we segue into the remarkably silly end credits, in which the same image of Carlos Thompson’s face (Panama hat and ever-present cheroot included) dances and flips around the screen, being squashed and distorted to accommodate the accompanying credit. It’s hilariously odd on every episode, but particularly out-of-place tagged onto the ones that don’t even star Thompson.

The Sentimental Agent is perhaps the most uneven show ITC ever produced. It goes from truly legitimate highs like “Express Delivery” and “A Very Desirable Plot” to nearly unbearable lows, like pretty much all of the Bill episodes. Overall, however, the highs do make the series worthwhile for ITC afficionados–and the lows are skippable. Some of the early episodes are truly among the studio’s very best output, and the stellar “A Very Desirable Plot” is a lost gem that every Avengers and Diana Rigg fan owes it to themselves to see. In the opinion of this self-confessed Rigg devotee, that alone makes purchase of the entire set worthwhile–and the other good episodes make a nice bonus!

As for actual bonus features, Network's DVD set may not include Carlos's introductory episode from Man of the World, but it does include a very nice interview with Burt Kwouk (Cato from the Pink Panther films) entitled "With This Face."  This is a very well-produced featurette, with interview footage interspersed with scenes from ITC shows.  Kwouk was in so many of these series (whenever they felt the need for an exotic Eastern setting, as he points out) that the featurette ends up doubling as a de facto introduction to ITC output.  He doesn't really offer any behind-the-scenes dirt (even on Gene Barry!), but he does share his generally positive recollections of each series and its stars.
Tradecraft: Will Knight & Day Box Office Affect M:I-4?

Bear in mind: this is only speculation.  There doesn't seem to be anything definite to this story, but Deadline has raised the possibility that this weekend's box office performance of Tom Cruise's latest spy movie, Knight and Day, might somehow affect the actor's next spy movie, Mission: Impossible 4.  The box office prognosis for the film doesn't look good; apparently the film took in just $3.8 million dollars on its opening night Wednesday.  Personally, I don't understand this, because I think the marketing campaign has been pretty great.  The posters and the trailers all look fantastic to me.  But perhaps Cruise's off-screen personality has finally caught up with his box office.  Anyway, Deadline's Mike Fleming reports that Paramount executives will be watching Knight and Day's box office very closely this weekend.  In some spectacularly bad timing, it's the same weekend they'll be reading the latest script for Mission: Impossible 4, which has just been turned in by Alias writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec.  While the alarmist possibility that the studio will scrap the next franchise entry altogether seems highly unlikely (although it is yet another reason to go see Knight and Day this weekend, I suppose), Fleming floats another intriguing prospect: "I'm hearing the most likely course of action is for the studio to beef up the subplot that introduces a new and younger agent who becomes Hunt's protege. The studio could then turn the franchise into more of a two-hander than the Mission: Impossible films traditionally have been."

Here's an even better suggestion, Paramount: look to the TV show.  Instead of just making it a "two-hander," make it a team movie, the way the show was.  That's what Mission: Impossible should be!  And J.J. Abrams started to take it in that direction with the introduction of characters played by Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.  (We still haven't heard any word on whether any of those characters will return for the next installment.)  But at least a two-hander is a step in the right direction.  I do hope that the studio doesn't interfere too much, though, with whatever producer Abrams and director Brad Bird have cooked up for M:I-4.  They're two of the most creative people in the business, and I can't wait to see what they've got in store for Ethan Hunt.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Red Trailer Debuts

The first trailer is out for Warner Bros.' all-star, comic book-based spy movie Red.  Go to Yahoo to see Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman in action as retired CIA operatives forced back into the fray.  Karl Urban is the younger agent gunning for Willis.
Connery Back In A DB5 In New Film

Sir Sean Connery is back behind the wheel of a familiar Silverbirch Aston Martin DB5 in his new film... or rather, a videogame-ish animated approximation of the actor is, in a scene from the computer animated Scottish film Sir Billi, for which Sir Sean emerged from retirement to lend his voice (and likeness).  /Film points the way to a YouTube video of a sizzle reel (not an actual trailer) for the film, which is still a work in progress.  They also have a commentary that's worth reading.  It's certainly an oddball project.  Despite whatever faults Sir Billi may have, it's notable to Bond fans for reuniting three iconic elements of Goldfinger: Connery, an Aston Martin and Shirley Bassey, who provides the theme song, as previously reported.)

Kristen Stewart en el Tour Mundial de Eclipse

Photocall en Estocolmo

Kristen llevó un vestido en color verde metalizado de Oscar de la Renta Invierno 2010, con detalles de lentejuelas y pedrería.

Aquí la vemos saludando a los fans, con un vestido muy bonito en tonos naranja y coral de Zac Posen Invierno 2010.

Premiere de Eclipse en Berlín

Kristen no me gustó nada con este look, y no tiene nada que ver con este precioso vestido de Versace Invierno 2010. Me encantaron las sandalias que llevó, son de Camilla Skovgaard.

Premiere en Roma

Aquí la vemos con un increíble vestido negro, con volantes de Marchesa Invierno 2010.

En el photocall llevó un vestido de J. Mendel Invierno 2010.

Promoción de Eclipse en el Show de Jimmy Kimmel

Kristen llevó un vestido gris de Herve Leger by Max Azria Invierno 2010.