May 18, 2017

R.I.P. Chris Cornell

Singer Chris Cornell died yesterday at the age of 52. Numerous outlets report that his death is being treated as a possible suicide. A superstar of the Nineties grunge scene, Cornell rose to fame as the front man of the band Soundgarden. He found similar success with another group, Audioslave, and as a solo recording artist. It’s in the latter capacity that he is probably best known to James Bond fans, for co-writing and performing “You Know My Name,” the theme song to Daniel Craig’s debut 007 movie, Casino Royale, in 2006.

As much as I love Adele’s “Skyfall,” for me “You Know My Name” is easily the best Bond song in the last 30 years. It’s also the last one, to date, to be co-written by the film’s composer—in this case David Arnold. Arnold and Cornell achieved a perfect creative symbiosis with this track, which boldly introduced Craig’s new, younger, rawer Bond with aggressive first-person lyrics. According to John Burlingame’s The Music of James Bond, Arnold wanted the song to serve as an alternative theme for the less mature Bond, who wouldn’t “earn” the classic Monty Norman/John Barry version of “The James Bond Theme” until the end of the movie. Therefore, he wanted it to have “the same genetic material as the Bond theme, but in a different order and in a different shape.” Indeed it does, and it makes for a truly fantastic substitute theme as Arnold weaves the melody throughout his score. Yet it’s Cornell’s powerful vocals (at the time the first male vocals on a Bond song in nearly two decades) that really cement “You Know My Name” as one of the all-time great Bond themes.

Incredibly, given that he is one of the youngest and most recent, Cornell is the first James Bond main title vocalist to leave us. (The songs performed by Matt Monro, Louis Armstrong, and Dusty Springfield did not play during the main titles of their respective films.) Cornell had battled addiction for most of his life, but seemed to be doing better in recent years. In his final performance, with Soundgarden, earlier last night, CNN reports that he substituted the planned encore with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.” Cornell’s death so young is a tragedy, but in addition to his lasting impact on popular music, he left an indelible mark on the Bond series with a terrific theme song for one of the franchise’s best films.

May 9, 2017

Tradecraft: NBC Renews TAKEN TV Series

Variety reports that NBC has renewed Taken, the TV series based on the hit Liam Neeson movies, for a second season. Though it wasn't a ratings smash, the show proved popular internationally, living up to its neo-Eurospy pedigree. Clive Standen stars as a younger version of Neeson's character, Bryan Mills. A prequel to the films, the first season chronicled Mills' initial recruitment into the CIA. I only saw the pilot and was less than impressed, but if it was popular enough to be renewed, I should probably give it another try. While the first season was only ten episodes (which currently fill up my DVR), the second will be sixteen. Europacorp has a pretty good track record with TV series based on their spy movies. Transporter: The Series (a truly entertaining action show) lasted two seasons, and Luc Besson's 1990 film La Femme Nikita spawned not one but two successful shows to date.

May 5, 2017

Tradecraft: Ruth Wilson to Star in Miniseries About her Own Family's Spy History

This is fascinating! Deadline reports that Ruth Wilson (The Prisoner) will star in the three-part drama The Wilsons for BBC One about her own grandparents, in which she will play her grandmother, Alison Wilson. When Alison's husband, Alec, dies suddenly, she discovers that she wasn't his only wife. It turns out that he had several wives and several families! And that he was a spy for MI6 in the years between WWI and WWII. I'm honestly quite surprised I've never heard of Alexander Wilson, because not only was he a contemporary of Sidney Reilly's as a British agent, but he was a prolific and apparently popular spy novelist! Writer Tim Crook published a biography of him in 2010, The Secret Lives Of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, and that led to a rediscovery of his fiction, which has been rediscovered and reissued in recent years. Based on his own experiences, his "Wallace of the Secret Service" series spanned nine volumes between 1928 and 1940 (beginning with The Mystery of Tunnel 51) and is said by some to be a precursor to the James Bond books because of the 007/M-like relationship between the Wilson-like field agent and a spymaster who closely resembled real-life C, Sir Mansfield Cumming. (Of course all spy fiction is discussed today in relation to James Bond!) I really am shocked that I've never come across his books, because I've explored a lot of spy fiction from that era and read a lot about Cumming. I will need to make up for this post-haste! The Wilsons will be set in 1940s and 1960s London, and 1930s India.

Tradecraft: Chris Pine and Michelle Williams to Star in Olen Steinhauer Adaptation ALL THE OLD KNIVES

The film rights to Olen Steinhauer's most recent novel, All the Old Knives, were sold a year before the book even came out. When it was published, it was reported that Neil Burger (Limitless, The Asset) would direct, but that never came to pass. Today Variety reports that the project is still alive and well, now in the hands of The Theory of Everything and Shadow Dancer director James Marsh. Chris Pine (Wonder Woman, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) will star. They're a bit younger than I pictured the characters in the book, but both terrific actors who I can't wait to see in those roles!

The brilliant concept, indicated in the text itself (Steinhaur often tips his hat to his influences in his novels), is Christopher Reid's The Song of Lunch meets Len Deighton's Berlin Game. It's the search for a mole (as in the latter) played out in flashbacks over the course of a dinner between two ex-lovers (as in the former). A man and a woman meet in Carmel by the Sea to relive old times and go over an intelligence debacle in Vienna they were both party to six years prior. The novel trades off first person narration between the two of them. Each is apparently suspicious of the other, and both are potentially unreliable narrators. It's a complex spy game formulated by a writer at the top of his craft and played out in a relatable and intensely emotional scenario. It should make a great movie if Steinhauer (who wrote the screenplay himself) has found a way to make the flashbacks and framing structure cinematic. He's gotten a lot of practice lately on visual storytelling, having created and penned several episodes of Berlin Station on EPIX. (Berlin Station was recently renewed for a second season.)

Now if only we could get some movement on the long overdue adaptation of Steinhauer's masterpiece, the Milo Weaver trilogy! Last we heard, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) was attached to direct the first novel, The Tourist, with his Covert Affairs partners Matt Corman and Chris Ord penning the script. But that was way back in September, 2012. There haven't been any developments reported on the project since then, and Liman keeps adding movie after movie to his schedule that aren't The Tourist. Hopefully All the Old Knives is a huge hit and kick-starts that franchise.