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Get To Know Your Rabbit

When word first came out that Eminem -- the most galvanizing figure in American pop culture -- was starring in a Hollywood movie, the big question was whether the real Slim Shady was going to stand up. After all, nothing could kill a rapper‘s credibility faster than doing Elvis’ corny Blue Hawaii thing, or twittering cutely like the Beatles in A Hard Day‘s Night, or acting with the woodenness of Madonna, dialogue clattering from her lips like clothespins. Eminem obviously knew all this -- he’s a master at manipulating his persona -- and has taken care to make it real for “Eric and Erica.” Equal parts teen flick and family psychodrama, this semiautobiographical hip-hop creation myth gives us Eminem as he‘d probably like us to see him.

The story takes place in 1995 Detroit, a rapidly declining city whose 8 Mile Road marks the borderline between the urban and the suburban, the black and the white. Rabbit (Eminem) hopes to cross that line, and when we first see him, he’s entered a face-to-face rap-off at a local club. He chokes, and the rest of the movie is about getting him back to the club so he can win the next contest (he is, after all, Eminem). Along the way, 8 Mile shows us Rabbit‘s art being forged in the cauldron of his daily life. He works at a metal-pressing company and lives in a trailer with his mother (Kim Basinger), a dim, selfish woman who first appears straddling one of Rabbit’s former high school classmates. Along with his predominantly black posse, Rabbit drives around aimlessly in his battered car, firing paintballs at police cruisers, getting into meaningless fights and engaging in scads of talk about getting out of the 313 Area Code. Predictably, he meets his muse, an aspiring model played by revved-up Britney Murphy, who seems as loony here as she did at the MTV Music Awards -- her eyes spin like cherries in a slot machine.

8 Mile was directed with muscular verve by Curtis Hanson, who, like Eminem, is eager not to be pigeonholed. After years of chasing Hitchcock‘s shadow in thrillers like The Bedroom Window and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, he scored a huge critical hit with L.A. Confidential. Hanson has a feel for fading cities (his last film, Wonder Boys, vividly evokes the tawdry splendors of Pittsburgh), and here his gritty shooting style makes us feel the oppressive physical and psychological truth of Detroit’s collapse. Rabbit inhabits a landscape of trailers, gutted houses, liquor stores, cheap nightclubs, glorious old buildings grown encrusted with failure. The only way out is through artistic self-creation.

That‘s how Eminem did it, and he plays Rabbit with riveting, flamboyantly expressive intensity: His eyes go from hooded to eerily wide, each pang of emotion flickering across his features, and beneath that stocking cap he can look almost feminine. He’s not a great actor, but as you‘d expect of one who pushed rap to new levels of psychological revelation, he’s not afraid to lay himself on the line. In fact, for all his skill at putting on masks, his real genius is for self-exposure, for transforming anger and self-pity (boy, he has plenty) into incandescent language. The same is true of Rabbit, who doesn‘t deny his own white-trash background (as a wonderful send-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” makes clear) or try to be black. Rather, he takes his underclass roots and unhappy past, and uses them as a source of power and authority.

It would be nice to say that this movie matches the ferocious inventiveness of Eminem‘s CDs, but today’s studio films take far fewer artistic chances than their mainstream music counterparts. Beneath its streetwise surface, 8 Mile lays on the old Hollywood hokum, giving us an idealized Eminem who is devoted to his little sister, defends the gay guy at work, gets treated badly by women (who are all, as we know, duplicitous ho‘s), and wins his fistfights unless he’s outnumbered. Eminem‘s not so much cleaning out his closet as cleaning it up. (Even his mom gets a moment of redemption.) What saves all this from being purely conventional is the filmmaker’s keen sense of Rabbit‘s essential solitude as an artist, even when surrounded by friends. 8 Mile doesn’t end on the anticipated note of triumph but with the awareness that, to become fully himself, Rabbit must walk Detroit‘s mean streets alone, losing himself -- as his new anthem has it -- in the music, the moment.

Brian De Palma has always tended to lose himself in perverse contradictions, marrying an unabashed enthusiasm for trash -- he loves choreographing violence and undressing women, often in the same scene -- to a highly abstract sense of cinematic high style. It’s for just this reason that Martin Amis memorably remarked that De Palma‘s work appeals to the film-nerd and the hooligan but no one in between. I haven’t admired a De Palma film since Carrie, or even enjoyed one since Scarface, so it must mean something that Femme Fatale gave me one of the best times at the movies I‘ve had this year.

De Palma leaves his calling card in the very first shot, which shows our fatal femme, Laure, played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, reflected in a TV screen as she watches Double Indemnity. Within moments, we’re at a red-carpet screening at Cannes, and she‘s plunged into a byzantine heist involving stun guns, power blackouts, a skimpy outfit made of diamonds, lesbian sex in a toilet and, naturally, a big double cross. A self-described “bad girl, rotten to the core,” Laure spends the rest of the movie in Paris fleeing the repercussions of the robbery, a hallucinatory process that gets her involved with vengeful crooks, an American ambassador to France, a hapless if handsome paparazzo (Antonio Banderas), and a distraught woman who’s more than just Laure‘s body double -- they’re dead ringers.

De Palma has always been enthralled by Vertigo, and just as James Stewart‘s Scotty sought to turn Kim Novak’s Judy into his idealized Madeleine, so De Palma has spent much of his career (most overtly in Obsession) invoking the ghost of Hitchcock‘s masterpiece. He’s at it again in Femme Fatale, whose spiraling plotline feels positively unhinged -- but this time the obsession pays off. His champions used to claim that De Palma‘s films weren’t simply filled with scenes of sex and violence but were self-consciously about such scenes -- a commentary on storytelling -- yet his ostentatious set-pieces and camera moves couldn‘t disguise the unselfconscious seaminess at the core of Dressed To Kill or Body Double. Audiences sensed that the director cared more for his style than for his characters, or worse, that he got turned on watching his female characters being violated or slaughtered. Here, De Palma upends his reflexive penchant for violence against women -- Laure is running the show -- and though he clearly digs stripping off her clothing and showing her in chick-on-chick action, for once the sleaze feels genuinely playful. This movie really is about storytelling, with startling twists and noir-subverting turns, set up with numerous sly clues. (Rather than betray its secrets, I’d simply ask you to imagine Mulholland Drive played as comedy.)

A deliberately disreputable romp, Femme Fatale asks us to lose ourselves in its lighthearted treats, be it the cocky expression on a model‘s face as she slinks near-naked through the Palais at Cannes, or Banderas playing queeny to trick his way into a hotel room (he’s one of our great screen comedians), or even the fillip of having Peter Coyote play a nice guy (perhaps doing those voice-overs for Claritin has clarified his soul). The great revelation is Romijn-Stamos, who until now, most notably as the X-Men‘s Mystique, has been known less as a screen actress than as a hot bod. Here, Romijn-Stamos the actress neatly carries the picture. She’s mean, funny, ingenuously disingenuous and, in a ravishing striptease near the end of the picture, so absurdly sexy that it‘s both punishing and goofy. The girl knows her way around a wisecrack, and Femme Fatale may do for her what Basic Instinct did for Sharon Stone. Which is to say, it’s hard not to love an actress who will gleefully snap, “You don‘t have to lick my ass. Just fuck me.”

I don’t know about you, but put that line on a poster, and I‘m there.

8 MILE | Directed by CURTIS HANSON | Written by SCOTT SILVER | Produced by HANSON, BRIAN GRAZER and JIMMY IOVINE | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide

FEMME FATALE | Written and directed by BRIAN DE PALMA Produced by TARAK BEN AMMAR and MARINA GEFTER Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

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