DIE ANOTHER DAY Just as it took Roger Moore a couple of movies to grow into the part of James Bond, so too has it taken Pierce Brosnan a while to satisfactorily pull off the role at the center of the most successful franchise in film history. His newfound conviction (he's become less the Moore playboy and more the Sean Connery hardass) is only one of the reasons that this 20th entry in the 40-year-old series easily emerges as the best of the Brosnan Bonds -- and, in effect, the best 007 outing in well over a decade. Except for one unfortunate "surfing" sequence late in the game (featuring arguably the worst special effects ever produced for the series), the action is tightly orchestrated and thus more exciting, and the various performers -- Halle Berry (the first Bond babe with an Oscar) as the enigmatic Jinx, newcomer Rosamund Pike as the aptly named Miranda Frost, Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith's son) as sneering entrepreneur Gustav Graves, and Rick Yune as the diamond-disfigured Zao -- all breathe vigorous life into their characterizations. Scattered tributes to past flicks in the series also add to the merriment.
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE God bless America. And God bless Michael Moore for caring so much about America. The scruffy guerilla filmmaker who's made a career out of sticking it to the nation's corporate guard on behalf of the little people this time sets his sights on the country's thorny firearm issue. The result is a hard-hitting treatise that offers almost as many laughs as his previous pictures Roger & Me and The Big One but also emerges as a much sadder, wiser piece of filmmaking than its predecessors. Detractors will claim that this film, so skewed that Marilyn Manson ends up coming across as the most logical of all the interviewees, is nothing more than a typical liberal diatribe taking pot shots at easy targets, and they'd probably be right except for one thing. Sure, it's easy for Moore to note that those countries without easy access to firearms don't have our absurdly high murder rate, yet this film muddies the waters by pointing out that Canada, a country also swimming in firearms, has an enviably low murder rate despite the prevalence of weapons, thereby leading Moore (and us) to question whether gun control isn't the issue as much as an arrogant American mindset that feels everything is for the taking for anyone with the means to do so. Bowling for Columbine isn't a subtle film; instead, it makes its case with Magnum force. 1/2
8 MILE At first glance, 8 Mile would appear to be Eminem's Purple Rain, a blatant attempt by a music star to broaden his fan base by appearing before the movie-going multitudes in a ragtag effort consisting primarily of sizzling concert scenes surrounded by tepid melodrama. Yet it's soon clear that this is actually going to be a bona fide motion picture and not just a soundtrack album with cinematic trimmings. Not that this movie, knowingly directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), doesn't have some connection to Purple Rain. Indeed, it harkens back to several films from the late 70s/early 80s (Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Flashdance) that had replaced the traditional glitz of the musical fantasy world with the grit of the real world, a place where creative expression wasn't a luxury but rather a survival instinct, a possible escape from the lower rungs of a manmade hell. Here, the desolate locale is the Detroit of 1995, wherein a young man beaten down by life uses rap as a way to express himself. 8 Mile has its share of potholes along the way, but overall it's a sturdy drama, and it conclusively demonstrates that, for one movie at least, its magnetic star can go the distance.
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB In the tradition of Dead Poets Society and Finding Forrester comes another inspirational drama that champions the power of education while simultaneously providing air time to the sort of shaky, only-in-the-movies scenario that would leave a true academic guffawing at the simplemindedness of it all. Still, this works better than it probably should, thanks primarily to Kevin Kline's committed performance as a Classics professor whose ability to shape the characters of his young charges meets a serious challenge in a rebellious, irresponsible boy (Emile Hirsch) who eventually forces the prof to compromise his own strict moral code. To its credit, the script by Neil Tolkin (who previously penned the anti-education Pauly Shore vehicle Jury Duty), based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief," does acknowledge the reality that some students are simply out of reach of even the most dedicated of instructors. Eventually, though, even the film's thorny issues get buried under the soft gauze of cheery conformity, as all troubles wash away in a sea of grandstanding speechifying and daft plot developments. 1/2