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.
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 moviegoing 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 bonafide 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
FAR FROM HEAVEN While many films sacrifice emotional investment for the sake of stylistic innovation and vice versa, this one fearlessly tackles both facets and emerges a winner on both fronts. In crafting what turns out to be one of the best films of the year, writer-director Todd Haynes (Safe) has made a glorious-looking picture that's almost fetishistic in its desire to replicate those Technicolor-soaked melodramas from the 50s, in particular the ones from cult director Douglas Sirk. Haynes pulls off this verisimilitude -- everything from the colorful costumes to the dialogue to Elmer Bernstein's score smacks of "old-school" Hollywood -- yet he also nails the oversized emotions and barely repressed attitudes, resulting in one of the most affecting "weepies" of recent times. Julianne Moore, in what may endure as the performance of 2002, stars as a content housewife in 1957 Connecticut whose life starts to unravel once she discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual and that she's feeling an attraction for her gentle black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Foregoing any semblance of irony or camp or even dreamy nostalgia (traits that invariably affect any 50s-set flick made today), Haynes has instead come up with a straight-faced triumph that works as both a poignant love story and a piercing social commentary. 1/2