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Beating the Rap? 

While Fellerath embraces De Palma's Femme, Morrison remembers Eminem's old neighborhood didn't look like 8 Mile

8 Mile
Eight Mile is the road that defines the perimeter of Detroit. From the city's center, worn boulevards and avenues radiate like the spokes of a wheel; every mile from the center another road cuts in, running perpendicular, to tell you how far you've gone--Six Mile, Seven Mile, Eight Mile. Above Eight Mile you're outside the city limits, and the blight lessens as the miles increase. It's a very different model of design from an ordinary city's blocks: Apparently no one ever expected to traverse Detroit by foot.

In the movie 8 Mile, Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr., a white boy with a gift for rap. Early on, Jimmy, who's nicknamed Rabbit, freezes up in a competition and his opponent mocks him: "Pack your baseballs and your bat away/This is Detroit--Sixteen Mile's that-a-way!"

In the film, Jimmy lives with his beer-swilling mother (a bleary-eyed Kim Basinger) and his pure, innocent little sister in a trailer park off the titled street.

But in truth, Marshall Mathers actually grew up in Sterling Heights, a comfortable suburb of Detroit nearer Sixteen Mile, where he still has a house.

I grew up in the same suburb. It has a nickname, too: Sterile Whites.

You go into 8 Mile expecting it to be something like Eminem's Purple Rain--or better yet, his Under the Cherry Moon. But 8 Mile comes closer to doing for rap what Saturday Night Fever did for disco, except for one main difference between the two: There was too much disco in Fever. There's not enough rap in 8 Mile.

Probably this is calculated to let the last scene soar, which it does. With only a few raps before it, the long last showdown feels like it's finally giving the audience what they came for, and it blows the lid off the joint. Before that you might spend a lot of time wondering if the people who made the movie knew what they were doing. After, you could almost concede they did.

Despite its superficial up-to-the-minute appearance, 8 Mile is a remarkably old-fashioned film. The drunken mother and the pure little sister come straight out of a Dead End Kids movie. The gangs have a West Side Story quality to them, down to the names--though the movie tells so little about Detroit it doesn't seem to know its East Side from its West Side.

Jimmy is the sensitive but tough and pissed-off type that's been exploited from Golden Boy to Travolta's Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. The romance of poverty in 8 Mile is pure Hollywood, trying hard to look gritty. Being shot in Detroit it mostly succeeds, at least on the surface. But the lyrics of Eminem's new song run something like this: "Lose yourself in the moment/It's just like you own it." But for the spasmodic rhythms it might as well be Whitney Houston singing "One Moment in Time."

When the drunken mother has an abusive boyfriend and Jimmy's homie has sex with his girl, he kicks both their asses in two long consecutive sequences. Eminem sports a scrawny buffness here on the order of Jake Gyllenhaal in Moonlight Mile. Still, the idea that he could beat up both the strapping boyfriend and the robust homie is as convincing as the conceit that he lives off Eight Mile rather than near Sixteen. In turn, when Jimmy gets his ass kicked, the pure innocent sister has to watch from a window, shrieking in horror. She is forced to witness many similarly dire events, and we are encouraged to mourn the corruption of her innocence. Things take a turn for the better only when the drunken mother wins at bingo and Rabbit gets extra shifts at the stamping plant.

It's always a little creepy when people play themselves in movies based even loosely on their lives: I may never again be able to take Joan and Melissa Rivers seriously as artists. Eminem isn't exactly a natural movie star, but he's not meant to be. The point is that he has entered a highly stylized form of ritual improvisation that turns out to let him express himself in some unfathomed way. His hooded eyes look both scared and aggressive--he is a little rabbity. The plain knit cap he pulls down leaves just his earlobes showing, and makes his beetling eyebrows look askew, especially since the right one has a funny glitch in it. He always seems withdrawn, but never interior, and his hectoring raps are at their best when they realize that strange mixture of torpor and beatitude. In these rare moments 8 Mile's almost great.

But in its drive to be gritty, it misses its real subject. Eminem's a fascinating self-creation, but moving him down from Sterling Heights to Eight Mile neutralizes the excitement, and turns the movie into a standard rags-to-riches tale. The movie knows enough not to alienate its audience by portraying the riches. Still, we might as well be watching Mario Lanza playing Enrico Caruso. We don't get to see the process of self-creation, nor what draws a suburban white boy into an intensely urban black culture, a question of special interest since Eminem's audience is largely composed of suburban white boys.

Made by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), the movie has some of the primitive kick, and a little of the conviction, of the films of Samuel Fuller, Hanson's mentor. It is the first of Hanson's films to show Fuller's influence, but it has little of Fuller's complexity. The director's point seems to be that we need not think of cultural movements like rap as racially stratified, though racial tensions remain a theme. This may be true, but the point needs something more than brute force to make it pass for real.

And the fact is, there are no trailer parks on Eight Mile. --James Morrison

Femme Fatale
Maybe Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale is mostly trash. Still, it's thrilling trash, made with love by a consummate craftsman. In the hands of a hack like Luc Besson, it would be halfway to the video store by now, but De Palma makes of his own script a grand, exuberant caper, an entertainment for its own sake.

As the film opens, Règis Wargnier's film East-West is making its premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival--and a major jewel heist is about to get underway.

In a mixture of fiction and documentary footage, the stars get the red-carpet treatment. Among them is a supermodel wearing little more than $10 million in diamonds. Away from the klieg lights, the carefully planned heist takes place: Dialogue falls away, the soundtrack swells with a knock-off of Ravel's Bolero and De Palma cuts between the players in a sequence that lasts at least 10 minutes. At its climax, two beautiful women, one wearing the diamonds, the other one (Laure, the femme fatale) about to steal them, are locked in the bathroom in an amorous embrace.

Of course, on the face of it, the idea that jewel thieves could hinge a public, precisely timed heist on a thief's ability to seduce a victim in a bathroom stall is ridiculous. But, at his best, De Palma is so good at orchestrating spectacle that we have no disbelief to suspend. Indeed, it's the trademark of his glorious set pieces.

After the film's opening, Laure gets away with the loot, leaving behind a pair of bitch-slapping Afro-Frenchmen who were her co-conspirators. (The ringleader is Eriq Ebouaney, most recently seen in the title role of Lumumba.) She arouses the interest of a jaded paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) while hiding out in Paris. Taking cover in a church, Laure runs into a middle-aged couple wearing mourning clothes, who mistake her for their daughter.

As it turns, Laure has a double named Lily, an ordinary middle-class Frenchwoman. Lily's husband and child have recently been killed, and she's on the brink of suicide.

What follows is a sexy tale of doubles and double-crosses, with alternate lives and alternate endings. Though Femme Fatale isn't up to the level of Vertigo or Mulholland Drive, it's a heady, cinematic trip all the same.

Former model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays Laure and Lily. She's the kind of sleek, oppressively toned and vaguely transnational mannequin that gets cast in brain-dead action films like The X-Men, in which she wore a suit of body paint as Mystique. Romijn-Stamos doesn't have a great reservoir of histrionic resources, but she's a perfect fit for such a shallow role.

Besides the considerable technical facility De Palma brings to the project, what makes Femme Fatale such healthy fun is its a sense of history. It's a film made by a man whose film knowledge clearly predates recent entertainments all but ruined by nihilistic violence and undisciplined F/X wanking. De Palma has been criticized for appropriating the work of other filmmakers; here, his influences appear to include Bertolucci, Kieslowski, Hitchcock (as always)--and Melville. But in an age when Red Dragon director Brett Ratner is on record as sneering at the notion of film history, De Palma is no rip-off artist; he's a conservator and a torchbearer for classic cinema. --David Fellerath EndBlock

  • While Fellerath embraces De Palma's Femme, Morrison remembers Eminem's old neighborhood didn't look like 8 Mile


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