Tag: Ricky Jay

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh take on big media in the fun Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Jonathan Pryce (Elliot Carver), Michelle Yeoh (Wai Lin), Teri Hatcher (Paris Carver), Joe Don Baker (Jack Wade), Ricky Jay (Henry Gupta), Gotz Otto (Richard Stamper), Vincent Schiavelli (Dr Kaufman), Judi Dench (M), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Geoffrey Palmer (Admiral Roebuck), Julian Fellowes (Minister)

For Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film, they knew there was life in the old dog yet. GoldenEye’s success meant Tomorrow Never Dies could be all about bangs and fun, a Moore-esque caper with a modern touch. And fun it certainly is – exciting, amusing and with some top gadgets. This doesn’t re-invent the gun barrel, but it gives us a hell of a ride.

A British Navy ship is sunk in Chinese waters (the navy is always so luckless in Bond films!) and a Chinese MiG is shot down. Each side blames the other: but MI6 believe they are both being played against each other by a third party – media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). There’s 48 hours to find the truth and stop a war. Best send Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to Carver’s HQ to shake things up, not least because he has a past relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher). Soon partnering with Chinese Intelligence agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), the two work to expose Carver’s dastardly schemes to start a war to increase his ratings and secure those lucrative Chinese broadcast rights.

Tomorrow Never Dies sometimes has a by-the-numbers feel to it – probably because the script was written on the go, with only locations and set-pieces decided in advance. Usually that’s a recipe for disaster, but with TND it works. Probably because everyone looks like they are having a whale of a time making it and the tongue is wedged so firmly in the cheek it’s practically touching the ear. And its concept of a mogul using fake news to manipulate the world seems alarmingly prescient today – think how powerful Elliot Carver would be if he ran Twitter (as he surely would today).

You can forgive Tomorrow Never Dies almost anything because it has so many stand-out sequences. The film has a (literally) explosive start, with Bond racing against time to fly some nuclear missiles out of a terrorist trading camp, before a British cruise missile blows the base sky high (and “make Chenoboyl look like a picnic”). Naturally the destruction as Bond lays waste to the camp makes you wonder why they wasted the money on a cruise missile when Bond can destroy the place for free.

Front-and-centre though is the “Bond drives a car through a shoot-out on the back-seat with a remote control” sequence. Which when written down, captures only about 5% of the sequence’s delight. Narrated by an over-cautious sat nav (constantly warning about hazards ahead, while the car is pummelled by bullets), we get all the gadgets we expect (bullet-proof glass, rockets, caltrops, a buzz saw that conveniently rises to the exact height required to cut through a steel wire obstacle) while also watching Bond masterfully steer a car around a multi-storey car-park on his phone from the back seat. Of course, Brosnan knows it’s silly and telegraphs his enjoyment, letting out a chuckle when he reinflates his tyres after driving over his own caltrops (I love this moment).

Tell me he’s not having fun.

There is a cursory sense of mystery, but TND wisely doesn’t have much patience with that. Bond is nominally under-cover at Carver’s HQ as a banker (inevitably using his own name) but, just like his Moore-heyday, Bond’s undercover skills are hilariously bad and his hints clankingly blunt. Fortunately Carver follows Bond villain form, confirming any suspicions by ordering his goons to beat Bond black-and-blue (more fool them, as Bond uses every instrument in a sound proof recording studio to best the baddies).

This was Brosnan in absolutely top form. He’s extremely charming, handles the action very well and gets more than a few grins. He looks like a guy just delighted to be there, living the dream of playing Bond. He’s both self-deprecating and cocksure and manages to be both a believable ruthless killer and a sort of charming little-boy-lost when needed. He loves a pun in a way no other Bond apart from Moore has done (“brushing up on a little Danish” indeed…) and his chemistry with Michelle Yeoh is superb, the two playing off each other like a sort of all-action Morecambe and Wise.

It’s a Bond where comedy is to the fore. An expensive satellite at Carver’s HQ is introduced (“It’s worth $300 million. You break it, you bought it”) solely so Bond can trash it without a second glance. A hitman (hilariously played in a cameo by Vincent Schiavelli) assures Bond he could “shoot him from Stuttgart” and still make it look like a suicide then apologises with embarrassment when he has to delay the hit to ask Bond how to unlock his car (“I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot.”). Moneypenny even calls Bond a “cunning linguist” after she interrupts by phone Bond’s tryst with a Danish professor (a joke which I certainly didn’t get when I first watched the film at a young age).

The lighter side of the script works more successfully than some of the attempts at emotion. The script bluntly states Bond had deep feelings for Paris Carver, but this never comes across at all in the performances. Probably because the emotions were torpedoed by the blatantly obvious lack of chemistry between Brosnan and Hatcher (allegedly they couldn’t stand each other). This is made all the more obvious by contrasting it to the delightful chemistry between Brosnan and Yeoh (watch the motorcycle chase with them handcuffed together – brilliant stuff, and Yeoh is excellent in this). When Paris is dispatched early in the film, Bond is cut up about it for literally 10 seconds before he’s having a whale of a time in that car park chase.

“There’s no news…like BAD news!”

Like many Bond films you can see how the franchise had become besotted with the latest “cool thing” in cinema. In this case, the film seems deeply in love with John-Woo-Hong-Kong-action gunplay. Bond probably fires more automatic machine guns in this film than he does in all the rest of the franchise put together, and the film’s finale (the dullest set-piece) is a run-of-the-mill shoot-out on a stealth boat, that feels pretty familiar from the series’ countless “face off in a sub” endings.

Spottiswoode directs with a straightforward lack of flair. Pryce has fun going OTT (and channelling Gus Hedges from Drop the Dead Donkey) as Carver even if the part is a bit under-written. But the main joy is in watching Brosnan have a huge amount of fun running around, blowing things up and shamelessly smirking through some dodgy puns. His Bond may never have been the most complex interpretation, but at his best I’m not sure anyone else was as purely enjoyable. Much like the film.

Magnolia (1999)

Family dramas come together in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beloved Magnolia

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Tom Cruise (Frank TJ Mackey), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luiz Guzman (Luiz), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), William H Macy (“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Michael Murphy (Alan Kligman), John C. Reilly (Officer Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Patridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson Gator), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), Eileen Ryan (Mary), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector)

After the success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson landed a terrific deal: he could make what he wanted, about anything at all, at any length he liked. “I was in a position I will never ever be in again” is how Anderson remembers it. And thus was born Magnolia, a beautifully assembled labour of love, an imaginative remix of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts with biblical imagery. A sprawling collection of short stories, which leans into high tragedy and melodrama, Anderson’s Magnolia is the sort of film that is always going to find a special place on a film buff’s list of favourite films.

The film follows the lives of several people over a single day in LA. Legendary host of long running quiz show What Do Kids Know? Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is dying of cancer and desperate to reconcile with his traumatised daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia is tentatively starting a relationship with devout and kindly police officer Jim Kurring (John C Reilly). Former champion of Gator’s show, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith’s (William H Macy) life is a disaster after his parents stole his winnings, and he’s struggling to hold down even the most basic of jobs. Former producer of the show Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is also dying  of cancer, cared for by his dedicated nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is wracked with guilt, while Earl himself is desperate to reconcile with his estranged son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), now a self-help guru who coaches men on how to pick up women. 

If you can’t see the links between the works of Robert Altman here, then you clearly need to look again. But it’s well worth it, as Anderson is a worthy successor to the master. He directs with a fluid confidence that comes from a director making a picture to please himself. Magnolia is frequently self-indulgent in its style and quirks, but it doesn’t matter when the effect of watching the film is so rewarding. From long takes to having the characters (all of them in different locations) sing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” at a key moment in the film, there are flourishes here that will annoy some but will be precisely what others fall in love with the film for.

And that love is deserved as this is a thoughtful and intelligent film about the impact the past (and specifically our parents) can have on us. As the man said, “they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”. Certainly the case here. From “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith to Claudia Gator, the film is crammed at every level with children (young and old) who have had their lives negatively affected by their upbringings. The past is a heavy burden, and it’s near impossible to shake-off – and in the cases of Donnie and Claudia brings with it a heavy dose of self-loathing. 

But what’s striking is that problems with the past don’t result in the same outcomes for people. Who would have thought that seemingly misogynistic motivational speaker Mackey’s beef with his dad is that Earl walked out on him and his dying mother when Mackey was a teenager? Part of the fascinating psychology of the film is how a son who loved and cared for his mother grew up to encourage men to treat women just as his father treated his mother. Is this some sort of perverse way to feel closer to the father who abandoned him? Perhaps Mackey has defined his life around hatred for his father, along with a deep longing for love – and perhaps his inability to deal with these feelings led to a professional career espousing the exact opposite? One of the neat things about Anderson’s film is that it largely avoids pat answers to this sort of thing. It’s left up to us to decide for ourselves – and perhaps reflect on how every person is an unanswerable riddle.

Whatever the answers are, it’s clear that parental problems are being paid-forward. The new Quiz Kid champion Stanley Spencer is a precocious child genius, being treated as an ATM by his father, who brags about his son while passive-aggressively demanding Stanley keep winning to continue funding his failing acting career. Stanley is a desperately unhappy child, more than smart enough to realise he is a performing monkey but unable to escape. And how can you get out of knots like that? After all, the film shows us one possible future for Stanley with Donnie – but walks a deft tightrope on whether the same life of loneliness and disappointment is inevitable for Stanley or not.

These familial clashes are introduced in the first hour and then simmer with exquisite timing during the film’s second hour. Anderson’s brilliant decision to build the film around a live recording of Gator’s quiz show means we are constantly reminded (as the show plays in the background throughout other scenes) that everything we are seeing is happening at the same time. The second hour of the film is a superbly deft cross-cutting from storyline to storyline, each building in tension. The desperation and entrapment in each scene beautifully spark off and contrast with each other. The sequence is at times marginally undermined by a slightly oppressive music score, but it’s beautifully assembled and shot and carries a real power – a superb balancing act of almost real time action that plays out for a nearly the whole of the second act. 

And Anderson knows skilfully to balance the gloom with real sparks of humanity and decency. Two characters in the film – Reilly’s cop and Hoffman’s nurse – are decent, kind and generous souls who have an overwhelmingly positive impact on every character they encounter. Both characters – and both actors are superb in these roles – are quiet, low-key but humane people who offer a quiet absolution to a host of characters, and opportunities to move on from the burdens of the past. Hoffman’s Phil is a genuinely kind person, who puts others before himself while Reilly’s Jim (surely the best performance of the actor’s career) is such a sweet, well-meaning, honest guy, that you understand why so many people feel bound to unburden themselves to him.

There is a lot to unburden in this film, and some of these moments tip over into melodrama at points. There are tear stained deathbed confessions, and angry, tearful moments of resentment and guilt bursting to the surface. At times, Magnolia is a little in love with these big moments, and indulges them too much, but it offers so many moments of quiet pain that you forgive it.

Not that the film is perfect. Today, even Anderson says it’s too long – and it really is. Unlike Altman, Anderson is less deft at pulling together all the threads in an overlapping story. This is effectively a series of short films intercut into one – the plot lines don’t overlap nearly as much as you might expect, with only Jim moving clearly from one plotline to another. It’s also a film that is driven largely by men. Of the few female characters, all are defined by their relationship to a man (and an older dying man at that), and not one of the female characters isn’t some form of victim. 

Anderson’s failure to really wrap the stories together means you can imagine unpicking the threads and reducing the runtime. Julianne Moore’s role as Earl’s guilty, unfaithful trophy wife (is she unaware of Earl’s own past of infidelity?) could have been easily shed from the film. Moore, much as I like her, gives a rather hysterical, mannered performance that feels out of touch with some of the more naturalistic work happening elsewhere in the film. The most melodramatic of the plots (every scene features Moore shouting, weeping, shrieking or all three), it also ends with the most contrived pat “hopeful ending”. It’s a weaker story that lags whenever it appears on screen.

Magnolia starts with a discussion of coincidence, but it’s not really about that – and the coincidence of all these people seems largely in the film to be reduced to the fact that they are all living in the same city with similar problems. It’s a slightly odd note to hit, as if Anderson slightly shifted the focus away from lives moving into and out of each other, in favour of a series of more self-contained linear stories. (That opening montage discussion of three (fictional) moments of fate and chance, while beautifully done, could also easily be trimmed from the film).

But then, these tweaks wouldn’t change the fact that Magnolia is a superbly made film, or that Anderson is a great filmmaker, even if he doesn’t quite manage to create the sprawling, interweaving, state of the nation piece he’s aiming for here. But as a collection of beautifully done short stories, it’s great. And the acting is superb. Tom Cruise drew most of the plaudits for an electric performance of egotism and triumphalism hiding pain and vulnerability near the surface, Anderson using Cruise’s physicality and intelligence as a performer better than perhaps any other director. Among the rest of the cast, Hall is superb as the guilt ridden Gator, Macy very moving as the desperate Donnie and Melora Walters heartrending as the film’s emotional centre, who ends the film breaking the fourth wall with a tender smile, that is perhaps one of the most beautiful final shots of modern cinema.

All this and it rains frogs at the end as well. But that introduction of biblical bizarreness is both strangely profound and fitting for Anderson’s stirring and inspiring film.