Tag Archives: Terry Gilliam

Skyfall Countdown Day 5: Tomorrow Never Dies

“Back off, Mr. Bond, or I’ll have Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity do a special on you.”

Happy Monday!  5 days to go and we’re in the home stretch.  Hope you’re getting as excited for Skyfall as I am.

When it comes to dreaming up the new Bond movie, one of the largest stumbling blocks must be conjuring new villains for the hero to fight.  After all, how many variations on megalomaniacs bent on world domination are there – particularly ones whose motivations can be believable to a modern audience increasingly regarding such characters as laughable clones of Dr. Evil?  The concept at the heart of Tomorrow Never Dies tackled this problem head-on.  The game would indeed be world domination, not of territory, but rather of thought and opinion; the very ability to manipulate millions into skewing the course of history.  Even in the mid-90’s the phenomenon of the media baron who could bring down governments with a mere flicker of one of his many-tentacled interests was ripe for discussion, especially in Britain, where winning election to national office seemed to require bending knee to Rupert Murdoch and his chain of newspapers.  The medium was the message indeed, and it did not take a great leap of imagination to suggest that said message could be manipulated for nefarious ends.

A British naval vessel, the H.M.S. Devonshire, is manipulated into straying into Chinese territorial waters, where it is sunk by mercenaries working for media supermogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), whose empire reaches every country on earth except China.  After his men massacre the survivors of the wreck, Carver runs a story in his worldwide newspaper Tomorrow accusing the Chinese air force of murdering the British sailors.  James Bond, who has a prior relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is sent to Carver Media Group headquarters in Hamburg, Germany to try and prove Carver’s involvement to an unconvinced British government, with only 48 hours until the British fleet reaches China for potential retaliation.  When Bond rekindles the romance with his old flame, leading him to discover the digital encoder that allowed the Devonshire’s course to be misdirected, Carver has Paris murdered and attempts to frame Bond for it.  Escaping Carver’s thugs, Bond travels to the coast of Vietnam, where he discovers that a cruise missile has been stolen from the Devonshire’s wreck.  Captured by Carver’s men, Bond gains a reluctant partner in Chinese agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), and following a harrowing escape from his Saigon office tower, the two find that Carver has a stealth boat, undetectable by radar, in the South China Sea that he’s been using as a base to manipulate the two countries towards war.  Carver intends to launch the stolen missile from the Devonshire into the heart of Beijing, giving his fellow conspirator, Chinese General Chang, the opportunity to seize control of the government and negotiate a truce to the engineered war, in exchange for which the Carver Media Group will receive exclusive broadcasting rights in China for 100 years.

The premise is solid; the execution, not so much, and many of the more complex moral questions that characterized Goldeneye’s screenplay have been tossed aside here in favour of balls-out action.  Pierce Brosnan is clearly more comfortable, looking much broader in the shoulders and more able to handle himself in fights.  But he oddly seems a bit bored as well – the nerves he had carrying his first major motion picture are behind him and with them has gone a great deal of energy as well.  To the question of Bond’s emotional journey in this film, it’s regrettable that Brosnan and Teri Hatcher have no chemistry whatsoever; it’s not believable that this woman could have gotten under Bond’s skin as he admits.  Hatcher, who was cast at the studio’s request for a recognizable American name in the credits, tries her best but is completely wrong for the part – the role demands a more tragic, resigned European sensibility, and Teri Hatcher is more effective at sunny, optimistic characters like Lois Lane.  (There’s a rumour that a then-unknown Monica Bellucci was considered for the part but was rejected by the aforementioned studio – she would have been ideal, and totally believable as a woman who could have enraptured James Bond.)  Notwithstanding the weaknesses in the performance, the dynamic of the movie shifts when Paris is killed, and any character development for Bond goes with it, abandoned in favour of elaborate action setpieces.  A trend I have not been fond of in the recent Bond movies, and it will come more into focus when we deal with The World is Not Enough tomorrow, is the seeming requirement to have at least two love interests in each film – I would rather see a focus on one rather than shoving in another for the sake of additional eye candy, with the result being less screen time available to develop the main relationship properly.

But I digress.  For her part, Yeoh is terrific and handles herself in action better than any other Bond girl to date, or since, for that matter.  But character-wise, she’s hardly anything new, yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent.  Pryce, perhaps best known as the meek clerk Sam Lowry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and a slew of other roles where he plays a bit of a wuss, has fun devouring the scenery and establishing himself as a formidable intellectual foe for James Bond, with an ego the size of the planet itself.  Unfortunately the remainder of the supporting players aren’t nearly as colourful – Gotz Otto has one scowling note as Carver’s German muscleman Stamper, and magician/actor Ricky Jay is forgettable as technogeek Henry Gupta (Gupta was originally to be an expert at flinging playing cards, as is Jay in real life, but this element of his character was edited out).  A pure delight in the movie however is Vincent Schiavelli as the “outstanding pistol marksman” and torture expert Dr. Kaufman, who has all the movie’s best lines in one tragically brief five-minute scene.  Fans of 300 will want to look quickly at the beginning of the movie for Gerard Butler who has one line as a crewman aboard the doomed Devonshire (his Scots accent is hard to miss).

In writing about A View to a Kill, I commented on the tendency of the filmmakers to lose the character of Bond when he is plugged as a prop into action scenes that either don’t flow organically from the story or have no consequence other than mere survival.  In Tomorrow Never Dies, the action scenes have great setup and play out effectively, but they still seem rather uninspired, as though there is simply a perceived need to have some running and shooting and fast music for a few minutes.  There is little excitement, or originality, for that matter, in watching James Bond walk around casually machine-gunning anonymous bad guys as he does in the finale; we’ll leave those kinds of scenes to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his ilk, thank you very much.  That, I guess is my core issue with Tomorrow Never Dies and the reason why I can recall sitting in the theatre in 1997 feeling the excitement drain out of me as the minutes ticked by – it’s really just a generic action picture that happens to feature James Bond, and feels even in hindsight like a franchise going through the motions rather than attempting to push the envelope.  It’s a funny phenomenon that plagues sequels sometimes, where so much money is riding on repeating the success of the first movie that there is great reluctance to do anything differently in round two; and inasmuch as this movie could be seen as the sequel to Goldeneye in the new 007 era, the play-it-safe approach is obvious and disappointing, particularly when so much thought has been put in to crafting a believable antagonist.

Tomorrow Never Dies was the first James Bond movie made without any participation from longtime 007 producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who passed away a few months after the release of Goldeneye, and the film is dedicated to his memory.  I have visited Broccoli’s grave in Los Angeles, and I’ll just say that it certainly fits the spirit of showmanship that characterized the big man’s love of bringing entertainment to the masses.  He was a man, who, as Bond puts it in this movie, certainly knew how to “give the people what they want,” and to whom every fan of James Bond owes a lifelong debt.

Tomorrow:  Equal opportunity villainy.

Close encounters of the celebrity kind

Sean Bean, 53 years old today.

It’s Sean Bean’s birthday today – in my humble opinion, one of the coolest actors alive.  For a couple of reasons:  one, that he brings gravitas, dignity and believability to anything he’s in, regardless of the silliness of some of the lines he has to utter; two, that he is such a badass that he was once stabbed in a bar fight and instead of going for medical attention, went back in and ordered another drink; and three, that he happens to be a very nice and genuine person in the flesh.  I met him briefly during the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago, and even though I was some nobody interrupting him on the way back from his smoke break, he was warm, friendly and seemed interested in what I had to say (even if most of it was star-struck fanboy gushing).  One thing you do notice when you do talk with him is how thick his natural Sheffield accent is, and how much he tempers it for his roles.  I’m pretty good with deciphering British dialects and I was having a hard time catching everything when we were chatting.  (Or, it could have just been the rather heavy cigarette breath.)

I have always found the experience of meeting celebrities a bit weird.  You have a kind of ersatz relationship with them going in, a sense of who they are based on the characters you’ve seen them play, or how they’ve been in interviews you’ve watched; you become acutely aware of their quirks and this creates a sort of false familiarity that part of you expects to be reciprocated, even though you know they have no idea who you are, nor should they for any reason.  Call it a substantially less-psychotic version of stalker syndrome, I suppose.  It can be tremendously disappointing if the celebrity happens to be in a bad mood that day, if they are sullen and withdrawn, in contrast to the larger-than-life wisecracking persona they display in their work.  Christopher Guest, of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame (or the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride), says that people are often shocked when they meet him and find that he is a very serious, somewhat humorless man offstage.  For Guest, being funny is his job, not his personality.  That dichotomy between the public persona and the private life is hard to reconcile when you’re a fan.  I suppose a way to articulate how it must feel for the celebrity is to imagine you’re out shopping at the mall and a random individual approaches you and starts gushing about how much they loved your last PowerPoint presentation and how your reports are worded and what it must be like to work with your immediate supervisor – who you think is an absolute douche.  Now try feigning interest in that.

Of the celebrities I’ve met, some have been terrific – Bean, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Uther on Merlin), Chase Masterson (Leeta on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine).  Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, was an incredibly nice bloke who seemed like he would have loved to have gone for a pint with us if there weren’t myriads more autographs to sign.  I also have it on good authority that Hugh Jackman is a pretty amazing fellow.  Others, for whatever reason – bad day, headache, any one of a thousand things that are none of our business – have been far less genial in my brief encounters with them:  Terry Gilliam, William Shatner and most recently, Dean Stockwell.  I met Mr. Stockwell this past weekend and immediately stuck my foot in my mouth when I asked him excitedly about Gentleman’s Agreement and what it was like to work with Gregory Peck (who played his father in the 1947 Best Picture winner).  He became very quiet and muttered that Peck was cold, that he was one of those actors who did not enjoy working with children or animals.  Stockwell then sort of looked away, conveying quite clearly that he was done with this conversation.  I made my excuses and wandered off.  I of course had no way of knowing that only a few days prior he had given this interview indicating how miserable an experience that movie and indeed much of his childhood was.  Oops.  Should have asked about Blue Velvet instead.

Celebrity worship is one of the strangest behavioural phenomena, and one suspects it derives largely from a sense of inadequacy and lack of fulfillment that many of us carry.  Some are disappointed in how (relatively) little their lives have amounted to, and look up with awe at those who have achieved what they perceive as greatness.  Yet greatness and renown are not necessarily the same thing.  More often than not these days it seems that celebrity is achieved for all the wrong reasons – from national or worldwide embarrassment, or for utterly hollow pursuits.  One wonders why we cannot simply appreciate the work being done without raising the person behind it to godlike heights.  I’ve enjoyed Sean Bean’s performances, it was nice to have the opportunity to thank him for them, and that’s more than enough.  To treat any of these people with the reverence accorded to kings is diminishing our own sense of self – they are, after all, simply human beings, and neither of us is fundamentally any different from the other.  Just different ships sailing down the long and often stormy river of life, all equally vulnerable to the rocks and shoals.

Awesome Albums 2: All Things Must Pass

In the mind of the spiritual man, God and the Father are interchangeable.  Questions of the nature and meaning of our existence are often posed to both the visible parent and the unseen creator; or, if the parent has passed, to both as one.  These questions are what drive us to grow, to pursue, to create, even if we know, instinctively, that the answers will remain forever elusive.  Questions are a great gift; the capacity to ask, to be curious, is the beginning of the journey to become greater than we are.  All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s 1971 solo debut, is an album full of questions – questions, perhaps, that he had never felt comfortable asking in the company of John, Paul and Ringo.  The songs contained within are not the boy George who complained about the government on “Taxman,” or who idolized Pattie Boyd in “Something.”  These are the cries of a man deeply in tune with his spiritual nature, who is looking both above and within for the answer, and challenging the rest of us to do the same.  George Harrison’s gift was the ability to blend the spiritual with the spirit of rock and roll, and as hard as the album rocks from track to track, even couched beneath producer Phil Spector’s reverb-drenched Wall of Sound, the thread of the pilgrim remains potent and strong – the road ahead clean and clear.  Rarely has a journey inside a man’s soul ever sounded so good.

Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam, interviewed for the Concert for George film that documented a tribute put on by Harrison’s best friends one year after his death, described with glee the show’s juxtaposition of Indian ragas and the surviving Pythons’ rendition of “Sit On My Face,” calling it a perfect reflection of the heights and depths of George’s tastes.  I’ve written about my fascination with the contradiction in the human heart, and George Harrison is another shining example – a retiring, quiet soul most at home working in the garden who nonetheless chose a career that made him one of the most famous men in the world.  Gardens are a potent metaphor for George’s solo career; his songs can almost be thought of as seeds of thought he plants in your mind, that grow with care and attention each time you give them a listen.  From the gorgeous “I’d Have You Anytime,” his collaboration with Bob Dylan that opens the album, the beseeching mantra of “My Sweet Lord,” the electronic wail of “Wah-Wah,” the gently cautionary “Beware of Darkness” and the lush title track to name but a few, the music here is deep, layered and elegant.  “Stripped-down,” a favourite label among rock critics, does not apply here – some of the tracks even verge on operatic.  But that is only because of the sheer substance in each.  The album has been described elsewhere as an outpouring of material that George had been unable to showcase in his time with the Beatles because of the wattage of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue – an Old Faithful eruption of creativity, if you will.  Yet the songs are polished and crafted with a great deal of care, George having recruited many good friends, the best in their game (including Eric Clapton) to assist him in preparing his long-gestating message to the world.

John Lennon asserted that all you need is love.  George Harrison agrees, but he views love differently.  To George, the love between a man and his god is just as important as the love between a man and his partner, while never suggesting that one should exceed the other.  “Awaiting On You All,” while superficially a rocking celebration of the perceived power of mantra, dares the listener to break free of the ritualistic trappings of religion and experience the purity of untethered spiritual love.  You come to realize as the album draws to a close that the questions George has been asking throughout are not necessarily directed at God, or a father – but at you.  Of course he still has doubt – “My Sweet Lord” and “Hear Me Lord” are cries of faith in crisis – but George is forcing you to confront your own as well.  In “Run of the Mill,” he sings that “With no one but yourself to be offended, it’s you that decides.”  He can’t answer the question for you, all he knows for certain is that you should be asking it.

Paul McCartney once said that one of the things he was proudest of about the Beatles was that their music was positive; that it never called for anger or violence, but rather repeated, like a mantra, the need for and the power of love.  George Harrison ran with the torch following the split of the Fab Four, singing of the essence of love on a much more philosophical plane.  Throughout his life, George looked for answers in India, in the humor of the Pythons, and in the very fabric of creativity.  Yet he was aware of the transitory nature of existence, that seasons are forever changing, that the world remains in motion, and for him, it was a source of optimism.  “All Things Must Pass” says that “it’s not always gonna be this grey.”  Indeed, we may not find all our answers in this life.  The Greek philosopher Zeno postulated a theory of motion whereby one crosses a distance with each step exactly half the span of the step before, so that even though you never arrive at your destination, you are always moving forward towards it.  That was the life and career of George Harrison, forever questioning and somehow being okay with not ever truly learning what it’s all about – the sort of ego-free humility before the wonders of the universe that marks the purest, the most transcendent of souls:  the poets.