DIE ANOTHER DAY
In lieu of trying to detail the plot of the latest James Bond vehicle, Die Another Day - really, does it matter? - let me instead run a short list of what makes Lee Tamahori's outing my favorite Bond flick in, I dunno, at least 20 years:
• The opening scene, which is almost guaranteed to be the most socko sequence in any Bond film, and which comes to an enjoyably over-the-top finale and concludes with ... Bond getting the crap kicked out of during him during the entire opening-credits montage. A welcome change-of-pace, insinuating that events will transpire a little differently in this installment.
• Director Lee Tamahori, bringing more tension and realism to the enterprise than it probably deserves, but not more than those familiar with his action films - Once Were Warriors, The Edge - would expect.
• Pierce Brosnan as Bond, who is not only more authoritative and committed here than he has ever been as Bond before, but than he has ever been onscreen before.
• A marvelous über-villain, in the form of Toby Stephens' Gustav Graves, and marvelous über-villain-assistants, including one who, as a result of an explosion during an illegal trade in that opening scene, has diamonds permanently embedded in his face. Quickly: Can you name the last truly memorable Bond nemesis? Are you going with Richard Kiel's "Jaws" - last seen in 1979's Moonraker - too?
• Not one but two bitchin' Bond babes. (Most viewers say that a Bond film is made or broken on the strength of its evildoers, but I think a case could instead be made for Bond's female co-stars.) Halle Berry, sexy and whiplash-quick, is one; newcomer Rosamund Pike, cool and beguiling, is the other. One is a bad-turned-good-turned-bad type, one is good-turned-bad-turned-good. Both are fantastic.
• Judi Dench as the fastidious "M" and John Cleese as the gadget-minded "Q." Need I say more?
• Some sensationally effective action sequences, including those involving a fencing-turned-swordplay match that becomes a comedic game of whose-dick-is-bigger?, a pyrotechnically destructive sunbeam chasing after Bond on a land-jet (I told you the plot wasn't worth discussing), and a climactic battle aboard a plummeting plane that features two sets of heroes and villains duking it out in grand fashion.
• A gratifyingly hilarious final gag involving the ever-loyal Moneypenny (Samantha Bond).
I do have some grumbles. While the filmmakers do blow things up impressively, the computer-generated effects, particularly during an Icelandic windsurfing scene, are borderline embarrassing. The art direction in the movie's ice-palace hotel is tacky beyond measure. And although I know a lot of people get a kick out of them, the tired, intentionally cornball, sexual double-entendres that Bond and his ladies engage in continue to make me wince - the film found a great director with Tamahori, so would hiring an equally adept screenwriter have put the studio over budget? But these are quibbles. Die Another Day is a terrifically confident and more-than-competent entry in the Bond series; there's life in this old warhorse yet.
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB
You might feel a sharp tightening in your gut, a foreboding, when confronted with the opening 15 minutes of The Emperor's Club. The time is present-day. Kevin Kline, made up to look about 65, appears, playing William Hundert, the beloved teacher of ancient history at a New England-based prep school. He has just arrived at some sort of extravagant bed-and-breakfast where some sort of preppie reunion is about to commence, and as he stares through the windows of his suite, Hundert's voice-over begins, detailing with perfect, condescending, Kevin-Klineian elocution, how this particular story began, lo these many years ago, back in 1976. Cue the flashback.
The autumnal colors. The tweeds. The blazers. The "Go forth, young men, and make your mark" speeches. The dazzled young pups basking in the life-affirming genius of their mentor. Oh God, you think: We saw Dead Poets Society. Must we endure this again?
And then the damnedest thing happens. A brash, petulant youth named Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) enters the classroom, and proceeds, through a combination of recklessness and apathy, to subvert the moral pomposity of both Hundert and the school, and as he does, director Michael Hoffman and screenwriter Neil Tolkin simultaneously subvert the clichés of the genre to which The Emperor's Club belongs. The movie doesn't completely abandon the staples of its many forebears - there are Moral Dilemmas to be faced, requisite lump-in-the-throat moments in which teacher and students bond, and, you know, there are a lot of blazers - but it deals with its themes of Ethics and Character in tricky, narratively surprising ways, and the film has the welcome audacity to regard its leading character as, on occasion, self-aggrandizing and morally weak. (It's the rare Prep School Movie with plot turns you don't see coming a mile away.)
The Emperor's Club is based on a short story by Ethan Canin and, unfortunately, feels like a short-story adaptation; despite the twists, it employs a very rigid two-part structure - half the film is set during a semester in 1976, the other half 25 years later - that doesn't have the gravitas to justify feature-film length, so its unnecessary scenes involving Sedgewick's antics and Hundert's flirtation with a married colleague (Embeth Davidtz) feel more like padding than they probably should. Yet the film also has much of the juice you can get from a really good short story. The moral and ethical avenues it explores are thought-provoking - especially when a typical moral crisis in current film involves deciding whether to save your girlfriend from the collapsing bridge or the busload of screaming children - and director Hoffman keeps the film's pacing on track; amazingly, it's never dull. (It must also be said that even those of us who might dread another Inspirational Teacher movie might secretly love their genre trappings, mostly because truly marvelous teachers are inspirational, and any movie that encourages a quest for knowledge - or, best situation, encourages someone to be a teacher - is worthy of at least a modicum of respect.)
Because Kline has already portrayed a sitcom version of this character in In & Out, he might a bit too well-cast here - there's little surprise in his performance - but there's no denying he plays Hundert's self-satisfaction and smarts awfully well; Emile Hirsch has some of the androgynous insouciance of a young Leonardo DiCaprio; and topnotch actors such as Steven Culp, Edward Herrmann, Roger Rees, and (best of all) Harris Yulin go at their roles with gusto. The Emperor's Club is no great achievement, but it's a noble one, and in a wonderful break from tradition, it's far better than its ads (and its first 15 minutes) would have you think.