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Looking to get out: Eminem in 8 Mile.

Bastard out of Michigan
By Shawn Stone

8 Mile
Directed by Curtis Hanson

The promiscuous comparisons of white hiphop phenomenon Eminem with Elvis Presley are happily not borne out by the Detroit native’s movie debut: While Elvis had no taste or acting talent, and made dozens of awful pictures, Eminem’s film debut is a surprisingly resonant working-class drama.

Jimmy aka Rabbit (Eminem) is a rapper with genius, but without self-confidence. Nothing in his life is right: His mom (Kim Basinger) is a drunken mess, his girlfriend is a lying, manipulative shrew, his dead-end factory job is numbingly boring, and his family is going to be evicted from their trailer. His friends are good guys, but lack any sense of direction. Despite the support of his wise, patient mentor and pal Future (Mekhi Phifer), Rabbit chokes at the big weekly rap competitions. The conflict is simple, but effective: Will Rabbit overcome his fears and get the hell out of Dodge (aka Detroit)?

One of the great pleasures of 8 Mile is director Curtis Hanson’s atmospheric use of place, and the way it contributes to the drama. Detroit has the worst attributes of every dying, abandoned Rust Belt metropolis rolled into one, and the film presents it with an appropriately jaundiced eye. It’s a city apocalyptic in its decay, with haunting relics of a bygone prosperity. For example, when not onstage at their regular club haunt, rappers often square off in a mind-boggling space that used to be the Michigan Theater—picture Proctor’s Theatre gutted and filled in with a multilevel parking garage.

It’s a place in which government is barely relevant. Rabbit and his pals torch an abandoned house without the slightest concern that anyone would care, or notice; that the act is as much a result of civic-mindedness as vandalism only adds to the irony. The film convincingly makes the case that in its postindustrial, corpselike state, Detroit is a hell on earth. No wonder the characters are scheming to escape—and no wonder the audience roots so strongly for Rabbit to succeed.

It’s curious just how far the filmmakers go to make Rabbit like Eminem in most ways—the trailer-park childhood with an emotionally abusive mother, for starters—and distinct from him in others. Slim Shady, Eminem’s rap alter ego, may bash gays and abuse women, but the film’s Rabbit makes a point of defending a gay coworker and not smacking his no-account, cheating ’ho of a girlfriend (though he would clearly love to). It’s a makeover, with Curtis Hanson standing in for Jenny Jones.

That said, Hanson’s key achievement is in the way the film is crafted for—and around—its star. Being a pop star can give someone a sense of how to effectively communicate their presence onscreen; it doesn’t make you an actor. By that measure, Eminem not only isn’t an actor, he’s four or five films away from the level of acting chops displayed by fellow rapper Tupac Shakur before his demise.

Correctly, then, Eminem is never asked to do anything he can’t do—like carry the entire dramatic weight of any given scene. That’s one reason Mekhi Phifer has the best part he’s had in years; without him, the drama would be unconvincing. It’s also a reason why the trailer-park scenes don’t have the impact they should—Kim Basinger is out of her depth.

Crucially, Hanson understands what Eminem can do: perform. His rapping skills are equated with Rabbit’s growth as a character. Thus, the best and most effective scenes showcase Eminem doing what he does best, with powerful results. When Rabbit routs each member of a rival posse, the effect is electric. As the working-class-hero theme is completed with Rabbit’s triumph over his own fears, the film takes on a wistful tone, and sets the stage for a (surprise) sequel. Or sequels—the studio publicists are no doubt encouraging the comparisons with Rocky for a reason.

Double Your Pleasure

Femme Fatale
Directed by Brian De Palma

In the opening of Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, the titular femme (Rebecca Romijin- Stamos) is lying on a hotel bed watching Double Indemnity on TV. She ignores the tuxedoed criminal type who enters the room just as Barbara Stanwyck lays it out to Fred MacMurray. As we will soon realize, it’s her favorite movie—she even dreams about it, in a twisted, existential sort of way. And in a far more violent and sexual way than the makers of that noir classic were allowed, in keeping with the current cultural climate. Lily—as she calls herself—is a femme fatale for the new millennium, and she could eat Barbara Stanwyck for breakfast.

De Palma reveals his favorite movie, too. It’s David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., and the first clue to what the director is up to is the faraway Lynchian gazes of the nameless characters and their loaded, Lynchian silences as they go about their inscrutable tasks. Across the street from the hotel, the hoopla of the Cannes film festival is getting under way. A brunette supermodel sashays down the red carpet, wearing little more than a fabulously expensive gold-and-diamond snake wrapped around her torso. Lily poses as a photographer and lures the brunette into the ladies room for a torrid pas de deux. Before you know it, two men are left bleeding to death on the marble floor. This dreamily sinister sequence ranks with the best of De Palma’s virtuoso setups.

Is the heist a Hitchcockian double cross? Or a Lynchian example of how anything that can go wrong will go wrong? Or is it, as Lily later says, that “no good deed ever goes unpunished”? She will say this to Nicholas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), a Spanish photographer working in Paris as a paparazzo to support his art photography. He loathes invading other people’s privacy, but is not averse to bending his integrity to get what he wants. The ruthless Lily meets him seven years after her escape from Cannes, during which she encounters a suicidal French woman who looks exactly like her. Like Mulholland Dr., Femme Fatale uses dream states to riff on identity, fate, and the fact that life is a game of chance. The film does not have the genius of Mulholland’s surrealist conundrums, but neither is it burdened with Lynch’s self-indulgent symbolism. De Palma’s alternate reality is a noirish tale of greed, lust and cinematic razzle-dazzle, unabashedly paying homage to whatever strikes the director’s fancy, including his own films, particularly Dressed to Kill and Body Double.

What will most strike audiences is Romijin-Stamos (X-Men). Whether she can actually act has yet to be proven, but there’s no doubt that she can carry a movie. Her femme is so tough that an extended seduction scene comes off more like a throwdown than a reworking of De Palma’s trademark voyeurism. The mix of Hitchcock’s sardonic humor and Lynch’s surrealism doesn’t amount to much, and it’s likely that audiences won’t much care. Sexy, clever, and sensationally pulpy, Femme Fatale is enthralling from start to finish to its start again seven years earlier. This guilty pleasure has a delectably palpable sense of guilt.

—Ann Morrow

We Don’t Feel Your Pain

Frida
Directed by Julie Taymor

Watching Frida, the biopic of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one would deduce that were it not for the tempestuous Latina, Leon Trotsky would not have been assassinated. Who knew?

This is just one of many instances of weird facts played fast and loose in Julie Taymor’s movie. To be fair, Taymor is aided and abetted by coproducer and star Salma Hayek and a team of no fewer than six screenwriters. As is often the case, the mix of too many cooks and an intense passion for the subject (Taymor and Hayek tried for years to get this movie made) has led to an uninspired mishmash that, even by Hollywood biopic standards, seems weak and unsatisfying.

A brief sketch: Kahlo was an artist, a cripple, a Communist, an impassioned lover and an all-around enthusiast. As her stepdaughter Guadalupe Rivera wrote in her remarkable cookbook/memoir Frida’s Fiestas, “The world around her was more than enough cause for permanent rejoicing.” Nevertheless, there was a dark underside to this passion for living: Kahlo was wracked with pain, both physical and emotional, and her demons underscore much of her work. Taymor’s movie comes close only once to evoking the artist’s torments, and ironically, this is courtesy of the Quay brothers’ stop-motion sequence, featuring talking skeletons and depicting Kahlo’s fever dreams following the horrific trolley accident that broke ribs, collarbone, right leg, spine and pelvis. Contrast the chilling hallucinatory effect of this emergency-room montage with the director’s take on the accident, which begins in slo-mo and ends with Hayek, picturesquely lying amid a mass of rubble and twisted metal, with just a touch of nudity peeking out, flecks of gold swirling in the air.

To Taymor, Kahlo is all beauty and “art,” whereas in reality, Kahlo and her art were rooted in immense pain, even horror. Hayek plays her part with the reverence of a true fan paying homage to her teen idol, but the most intense reading she gives merely conveys a sort of mild confusion at her circumstances. Alfred Molina plays Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera as a gruff teddy bear, and other performances, namely Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Ashley Judd as a vaguely Russian Tina Modotti, are just plain weird. The filmmakers shy away from explaining any of the political context against which Kahlo and Rivera lived and worked, and from which they derived much strength and inspiration, choosing instead to have characters toss out names like Spengler and Hegel and tip back toasts to “la revolution.”

Kahlo’s art is seen as resulting from a series of women’s-film misfortunes, which are laid out in an almost mathematical precision: There’s the meeting of Kahlo and Rivera, the infidelity, the miscarriage, the disillusion, etc. . . . And look, here is a painting that represents that calamity. The best that can be said of Taymor is that she is a brilliant production designer: Her sets and scenes are lush with color and textures that, again, are reminiscent of Guadalupe Rivera’s book. But as a director, she lacks the guts—or is it balls?—that Kahlo had in ample supply.

—Laura Leon


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