by Jerry Salisbury
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The recent tragic death of rap pioneer Jam Master Jay of Run DMC has cast a pall over what could potentially be the culmination of rap's mainstream crossover. With 8 Mile, director Curtis Hanson has created a raw, honest and powerful look at the roots of this American music form. Rap music was born in the streets; it wasn't always about money, cars, women, drugs and a general thug lifestyle that now seems to define the genre. It was the voice of the beaten down, the oppressed, the painfully honest rants of those seemingly trapped in a lifestyle but who yearned to get out. The music was their voice, the lyrics were their life and the beat was their emotion, brutal, straightforward, sometimes disorganized, but always real at its core. 8 Mile reflects this by stripping away all of the glamour and showing us it's truest origin via its most unconventional messenger.
The 8-Mile section of Detroit Michigan is apparently known as being a racial dividing line between whites and blacks, and a social division between the have-nots and the really have not's. This is depicted early on as Jimmy (Eminem), the film's main character, rides a bus to work after finding his mother having sex in a trailer with a classmate of his and being given a birthday gift of a car that doesn't work. Just another day in paradise for most of us, I'd say. Jimmy's nickname is Rabbit, the origin of which you can choose between his own definition and his mother's. His life is about as far from perfect as you can get without being a character in a Todd Solondz film. Besides the carefree indiscretions of his mother (Kim Basinger) and her blind faith in a deadbeat boyfriend, Rabbit has choked during an amateur night rap competition, left his girlfriend after she claimed she was pregnant, is being strung along by an unscrupulous entrepreneur, and now is late for work at a job full of those that life has unmercifully spit out. His saving graces are apparently his musical ability, the potential chance at stardom by his friend Future (E.R.'s Mekhi Phifer) and a budding new romance with an aspiring model Alex (Brittany Murphy). The remainder of the movie becomes a journey through desperation to find that sliver of hope. Some slivers pan out, while others are just flashes and in between are brutal and painful reality checks that life seems to throw at us just when we think we have it all figured out. The pending and expected showdown with a rival rap group may seem predictable, but Hanson builds it up and delivers it with a powerful subtlety that puts a cap on the film, which will have even the most staunch opposition of the music nodding in respect.
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, holed up in your leftover Y2K bomb shelter or just never turn your radio or television, then you know the familiar lyrics. "Lose yourself in the music, the moment, you want it, you better never let it go, you only got one shot", these are not just words, but an anthem and mantra for the film itself. I've often said that music is the soundtrack of our lives. It can recall memories, or give sound and rhythm to the events of your life. The soundtrack for 8 Mile is relevant, powerful and definitely sets the tone for the film. From the recognizable appeal of "Lose Yourself," to an applicable (and my favorite) version of "Sweet Home Alabama" to the numerous insult laden rap slams during the contests at Future's club The Shelter, the sound of this film, combined with the gritty desolate look and general desperation of the characters, give this film a unique aspect that sets it apart from other musical rags to riches stories. Hanson isn't asking us to like rap music and its performers, only to understand them. To most of these people, this is their only chance to break out, to escape and become something, and in order to fully succeed and give someone their due; you have to see where they came from. I believe Hanson has created a fitting tribute to the rappers, past and present, who have laid the road on which the Escalade driving, Cristal drinking, thug-life admiring current populace will ascend to greatness along. It's all about respect, education, and knowing where you've come from while understanding where you are.
Most of the pre movie buzz from the film revolves around Eminem, and I will say this much; his performance is effective. Is it award worthy? Probably not, but you may not see a more truthful representation of how things really are, as opposed to society and the media's glorified and criticized perspective. Loosely based around the star's own upbringing in the streets of Detroit, the story never resorts to the expected scenes of violence, lavish parties, carefree lifestyles and a lackadaisical approach to most things in life. Instead, Hanson populates the film with a desolate, desperate nature amidst all its characters. From Jimmy, the steel worker with a talent for lyrically stringing words together, to his mother awaiting that one big Bingo jackpot, to Phifer whose dreams may always be bigger than his successes, to Alex, who is driven by a dream at whatever cost; this is a slice of the other side of Americana, complete with it's own soundtrack in the travails of its characters. As for the supporting cast, Basinger seems to be overacting at points, but is believable as a white trash woman who is in the latter stages of having her hopes and dreams crushed and who is now just riding things out hoping for one more break. Murphy doesn't really have to stretch her acting talents much, but also doesn't overdo a role, which could have been exploited. Finally Phifer, doffing his E.R. coat for dreadlocks, gives a straight on performance as Jimmy's friend who has a lot of good intentions, but few good actualities. Like the movie, the performers have stripped themselves down dramatically and like the mixed beats underneath a song, have given the movie just the right tone and pace to effectively convey its message.
Ultimately, 8 Mile is straightforward, honest look at the basis of an art form that was, is and will always be a route to escape and a reason to dream. Check your opinions of rap music and all its stereotypes at the door, because this film is the most truthful depiction ever put on film about the struggles and pain of the originators that the successful rappers have built their present kingdoms upon. There were several points in the film where the story could have resorted to the typical machinations of its predecessors (such as crime sprees and drive by shootings) but instead, Hanson keeps the story in focus, building sympathy in his characters through their suffering and hardships. In doing so, not only will he have made a household name of Eminem, for the 15 people who are still not aware of him, but also he will have made a landmark film for this musical styling, which should serve as a reminder to those who benefit of what it took for them to be who they have become. In 8 Mile, Curtis Hanson has found the voice of a generation and served it up without pulling punches or exploiting clichés. Those going to see if Eminem can act will not be disappointed and may even be a bit more educated and respectful the next time a car comes bumping down your street. Now you'll know where it came from, and like it or not, it's not going away. Rest in Peace Jam Master Jay, your influences are not forgotten, and now for the first time, they are truthfully depicted and your voice will live on forever with messages like this.
Paul Schrader's Auto Focus is allegedly based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith. I say allegedly because the focus of the film is more on the details of his life than on his unfortunate demise. And the truth is, the details of his life, the sex addiction, the inability to let go of the one true success in his life amidst many failures, just aren't that interesting. Schrader's tale may have worked better as a retrospective retelling rather than a forward progression building to something. Yes, he had an addiction, yes he struggled through 2 marriages and a career that fizzled after his show went off the air, but the reason most of us remember Crane, other than his role as Colonel Hogan, was because of the mysterious, sordid events surrounding his death. Had the film explored this in more than just a closing voice-over, than it might have worked better. As it is, the film is beautifully shot, with the style and textures degrading as Crane's own mental stability did, it is wonderfully cast, especially Greg Kinnear who becomes a spitting image of Crane and Kurt Fuller (finally in a good role) as Werner Klemperer. But the film suffers from being too laborious in its character development, too repetitive in its depictions, and in the end, just too long for its own good.
Auto Focus tells of Crane's early days as a Los Angeles disc jockey, then his ascension to television star with Heroes, through struggles with both his identity and his addiction to sex and to his untimely and mysterious demise. Crane associated himself with John Carpenter (an expectedly creepy Willem Dafoe) who kept Crane on the cutting edge of technology while contributing to his downfall concurrently. As Crane's life spirals out of control, the look of the film follows along, with the style becoming darker and murkier as his life does. Schrader spends long and repetitive sequences showing us how Crane was tortured with his addiction, yet couldn't control it. This could have been a bit more subtly done without beating us over the head repeatedly. Crane was addicted to sex, got it. Crane didn't like himself, got it. Crane couldn't get out from under his image of Hogan, got it. The rest just becomes repetitious and unnecessary filler. Were it not for the performances of Kinnear and Dafoe, this would have been an even less enjoyable experience.
There's no denying the ability of Schrader to create a concurrent sympathy and loathing for his characters, blurring the line between good and bad while showing the natural evil that may lurk around us without our knowledge. His version of Crane, as embodied wonderfully by Kinnear, is one of a tortured and sad soul who is tempted by the seemingly evil Carpenter. Kinnear has definitely matured as an actor, rising from talk show host, to Oscar nominee, to now accomplished and multi-faceted actor. While the role is not completely award worthy, because of Schrader's one note nature of storytelling, it is still noteworthy as a role that makes you almost forget you're watching an actor and think you're watching the actual person. Dafoe's turn is one that is definitely more creepy and scary than his near misfire in Spider-Man. He is a guy who exists around us, that we may not even realize the depths of unless we get to know him. Unfortunately though, these great performances, and the great character turns from Fuller, Rita Wilson and Maria Bello, cannot overcome a story that gets stuck in repetition and in the end, bogged down by its own methodology.
Ultimately, Auto-Focus is a well-intended, well-made but one note unfocused attempt to try and show the excess that can consume and how one can get lost inside themselves. There probably was a good story here to tell, but it would have worked better as a retrospect, exploring the hows and why's afterwards, rather than having it told as a voice-over and afterthought. Hollywood and the entertainment industry has a way of swallowing people up and uncaringly spitting them out without concern for the effects that the roller coaster ride has had on them. Crane was such a causality, just like George Reeves and others who were known for one thing and spent the rest of their lives capitalizing on it. There was a message to be told here, of excess, of addiction, of trying to find yourself again after getting lost. Unfortunately Schrader believes that repetition breeds success, since we are given repeatedly similar incidents, each one being another step down the ladder that Crane ascended so effortlessly. When the result is more interesting than the events, there is a very precarious line to be walked when telling the story. It's a line that Schrader starts nicely on, casts very well, sets the mood and atmosphere for, but fails to expound or deliver on. We are more interested in what killed Crane, rather than what drove him, and in doing so has given us a film that blew a chance to tell a great story and instead may have further blurred a story which has been an enigma since it occurred.
Bowling for Columbine
The title definitely grabs your attention: Bowling for Columbine. It sounds like a telethon or benefit of some kind, or just the tie-in between two seemingly unrelated topics. But upon closer examination, as Michael Moore's films are adept at doing, you find the title is actually rooted in part fact and part educated opinion, also like Moore's films. Fact: The two students responsible for the horrific Columbine massacre tragedy were in a bowling class and actually went bowling the day of the shootings. Opinion: It makes just as much sense to blame bowling for the massacre as it does to blame music, video games or movies. With this film, Moore has made his masterpiece; a stunning piece of societal observance and dissection that pulls no punches and should be required viewing for every American.
In Bowling for Columbine, Moore's incendiary, controversial social commentary on guns, fear, racism and welfare, he has made his boldest movie yet. Moore has become the everyman version of Mike Wallace, using his doughty look, curious nature and brazen persistence to show us a side of society that often gets intentionally neglected. He asks the things we wonder about and yearn to ask. From humorous (such as asking a former Cops director why they can't do Corporate Cops, Enron would have their own miniseries) to frighteningly bold (showing Charlton Heston a picture of a young shooting victim and inquiring why he showed up in two cities that had just suffered tragic shooting episodes) Moore not only has no fear, but he has a way of showing things that doesn't offer answers or solutions but shows all sides of a situation and lets the audience ascertain their own conclusion.
Some would argue that Moore turns the focus on himself too much, inserting himself in every shot and ambushing interviewees, but what he actually does is get the truth, be it awful, hard to swallow or chillingly amusing. Bowling is by far his best film yet, the masterpiece that he has been building towards since he first went in search of GM's president. One moment you will be belly laughing (such as going to a bank that gives you a gun for opening an account) the next moment you will be breathless (security camera footage from Columbine or blaming the CIA for 9/11) but one thing you will definitely be is impressed, awestruck and just a bit smarter.
From the opening riffs of Camper Van Beethoven's alternative classic, "Take The Skinheads Bowling" to Joey Ramone's morbid toned version of "What A Wonderful World," we are captive to Michael Moore for two solid, at times painful but never dull, hours. In a very fluid, relevant and persistent manner, Moore chronicles the horror at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on a morning ironically, that began with the heaviest day of bombing in Kosovo. He begins with the bank that hands out guns to people opening a certain type of account. Only in America, and only Moore would find it. He then loops effortlessly, hauntingly and forcefully through the connections to his home state of Michigan, then to the horror of a young girl being gunned down by another child. In between are exchanges that make us laugh nervously because they are humorous, but dead-on. Many may complain that Moore may make himself the focal point the film, talking over, or appearing in nearly every scene. But as you'll see, there are moments when he simply lets the facts or quotes do the talking for him. He knows when to shut up and what to show to make us silent as well. Needless to say, Moses himself doesn't come out looking very clean in Moore's eyes. By showing excerpts of Charlton Heston's visits to Littleton and Flint (where the little girl was shot), along with some thoughtless and insensitive comments that even the screenwriters of Pauly Shore movies would even edit out, Moore lets Heston's own words seal his fate. The finale of the film plays like a lawyer's cross-examination of a key witness. Moore has laid the groundwork, given us the facts and in doing so, makes the final stanza that much more powerful. I could go on and on about the moments of genius and horror in the film, but I want to save some of the power and revelation for those who really dare to see things as they are through his eyes.
Bowling is a scathing expose of societal ills, represented in Moore's typical humorous but brutally honest fashion. Some may call him a sensationalist, someone who is capitalizing on tragedy to make money, while exploiting a system that has made him who he is. To those people, I would scoff greatly and state that all Moore does is take advantage of the platform that was laid before him and then points his weapon, a camera, in a direction that others were scared to. He shows things as they happen, he doesn't skew perspective or facts. That frightens a lot of people into thinking that he must be manipulating something, somehow. That fear is at the root of what he shows us in this film. Americans thrive on fear, be it their own or someone else's. Thus explains the popularity of reality television, the intimidation and justification of military action, and the over reactionary events that litter our past. Moore points these out in a chilling montage ironically set to the tune of Louis Armstrong's classic "What a Wonderful World". This fear is also represented in a funny, but painfully honest "Brief History of the United States of America". Only he could mix in a taciturn Marilyn Manson making a lot of sense, the Michigan Militia, South Park, Dick Clark, the Y2K scare, killer bees vs. black people and Chris Rock, and make it all flow together, make sense and convey his message.
Ultimately, Bowling for Columbine is a modern masterpiece of social commentary, through the eyes of one of our own, a common man with no fear, searching for the truth amidst a cloud of confusing contradictions. There are some things in this world that are just too unbelievable to be made up. Moore finds these things and uses them as sarcastic but realistic ammunition in his own personal war that has the majority of America's support. The things he finds slip under our radar screens, covered by the smoke of what the media wants us to see and now. The film is so chilling and seemingly improbable, that you have laugh nervously (Militia Babes calendar, come on!). With this film, Moore has shown that fame and fortune, well what fortune he doesn't donate of course, have not dulled his inimitable knack for discovering and displaying the eccentric flaws in the perceived perfection that we call reality. Bowling for Columbine is relentless, frightening, funny, shameless, fearless and quite possibly the most powerful message ever delivered by an overweight guy in a Michigan State baseball cap. My adjectives and big words cannot do justice to the work of art that this film is, just see it and think twice the next time you pass a K-Mart.
There probably isn't a court in the land that would deny John Dahl's case of plagiarism against Brian DePalma. In Femme Fatale, DePalma has apparently run out of original ideas. After stealing from Hitchcock in the dreadful Snake Eyes, DePalma thieves from Hitchcock yet again, Sliding Doors, the TV show Dallas, and even rehashes his own by borrowing shamelessly from Body Double. The result is a simplistic film, which starts promisingly enough, but once the action subsides and the dialogue takes over, the film loses it. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something more complex or deep to happen. Then when it attempts to, it comes across as forced at best and definitely the act of a desperate film maker.
The story begins with such promise and intrigue. The opening features an extended theft sequence at the Cannes Film Festival involving precious diamonds, precious models and the typical band of thieves. This works because DePalma's skill at camera work and generating a genuinely tense atmosphere with the lens. There is very little dialogue throughout this scene, I'd say maybe 100 words at best, and it encompasses the first 30-40 minutes of the film. I was interested and curious as to where the story would go, and hopeful that it would maintain this style and pace. Unfortunately, it didn't. One of the thieves (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) decides to double cross her partners and takes off with the jewels, so the partners vow revenge. This where the wheels begin to come off. For the sake of the storytellers vision, I will not reveal what transpires next, but I will say it involves a suicide, a congressman, a paparazzi photographer (Antonio Banderas) and one of the most pointless, unnecessary and blatantly stolen twists in recent film history. I guess it is ironic that a film that starts with a theft proceeds to steal the remainder of its ideas and turns. I do have a feeling that the dialogue and some of the sequences were intentionally tongue-in-cheek tacky and bad, but this does not forgive the train wreck of story progression, and the ultimate disaster that results when the dust settles. I am really getting tired of films feeling they need to pull the rug out from under us, just because they can. I can see it when it fits the story (Primal Fear, Sixth Sense, Usual Suspects) but in the case of Femme Fatale, it seems to exist to wake up the audience from the formulaic doldrums that the unoriginal ideas have lulled us into. Basically, I remember this film when it was much better, and when it was called The Last Seduction. See that one, avoid this one.
Ultimately, Femme Fatale is a wasted effort that succeeds at what it tries, but fails when it strays away. Stories about fate, about the lengths one will go to, to get what they want, are not uncommon. DePalma tries to weave this moral into a sly, vengeful female empowerment thriller, but instead turns things inside out and tries to hide it with some fancy camera tricks. As in his previous efforts, the cinematography is great, but as his later efforts are showing, his story telling abilities are slipping. What seems to be building towards something explosive only fizzles into something silly. There is an impending sense that there's more going on here than there actually is. Don't read more into this film than it deserves. It is a nice attempt to twist on a genre, but Dahl did it before and much much better.
The Grey Zone
There was a small brouhaha over some comments made by Harry Belafonte towards Chief of Staff Colin Powell. Basically, Belafonte said that Powell was no better than a house slave, kowtowing to his masters in order to gain favor with them. The Grey Zone tells a little-known, to most, story of the Sondderkommandos, internment camp prisoners who gained special benefits and a prolonged life in exchange for performing certain duties such as escorting prisoners and assisting in the disposal of bodies. These people could be considered an equivalent of house slaves, since they had seemingly sold out their own kind in order to prolong their preordained destiny. At least the slaves were not leading their own to slaughter. Adapted from an award-winning Broadway play, the film sometimes shows its origins in its staged delivery and ease of the dialogue. However there is neither dilution nor ignorance of the message and of the performances, especially from David Arquette who shows a new side of his repertoire. The film is not a happy one, nor a cheerful one, but it is one that will stay with you, bother you, and cause you to look inside yourself and consider if you would do the same. If only director Tim Blake Nelson could have shaken the stagy cobwebs from things, and sharpened the delivery of the dialogue more, then this one would have been a disturbingly memorable experience.
There are unknown numbers of horror stories that arise from the atrocities of the Holocaust. Some of these have been captured on film, others told in story, but regardless of the source, they are painful to watch and hear. As an initial introduction to this story, I was disturbed at the subject matter; then again I think I was supposed to be. It's not as if anyone's going to try and come up with a way to sugar coat things. But there are little known stories that come out every so often that are fascinating, if not in shock value, then in sheer morality. This is one of those stories. Set in the crematorium at Auschwitz, Grey Zone refers to the moral state that these people were put into. Sometimes leading their own to death, other times disposing of their bodies, all in exchange for some freedom, luxuries and a bit of an extension to their lives. The Sondderkommando's were prisoners, who were given the special luxuries of single beds, fancy meals, jewelry and such in exchange for performing tasks that the Germans simply didn't want to do. This did not save their lives, as they were given 4-month reprieves, which only prolonged the inevitable. Amongst these prisoners though, a rebellion was arising. A rebellion against what was not the problem, the purpose of it though, seemed a little grey. A prisoner (David Arquette) and company are organizing an uprising, which is deterred slightly by the discovery of a young girl who somehow survived the gas chamber. The prisoners seem to be revived vicariously through the girl. Meanwhile a doctor, whose novel the basics of the story is based upon, is working directly for Josef Mengele is having conflicts about the way his profession and training is being used against his own kind. Mira Sorvino (nearly unrecognizable in a buzzcut) and Natasha Lyonne are women who are just as steadfast in their rebellion, but still seem a bit defeated by it all. The story is a bit hard to follow at times, with things never being totally clarified to a point where I could completely sympathize with them. The actions and speeches were sometimes mechanical, and other times, truly chilling. But shocking images alone do not make a powerful film, and this is where The Grey Zone fails slightly. The film broaches the topic of self-preservation versus morality. This was the conflict that faced the people chosen for this detail. Nelson definitely touches a nerve with this message, but his delivery gets diluted a bit. It doesn't take away from the films power and provocation of thought though, thanks to the dialogue and the performances.
In this year that may yield some great performances from unexpected places, it should come as not surprise that Arquette's dramatic turn is noteworthy. His sarcastic nature and smirk have been toned down to a pained look of someone whose life has been taken away and who is fighting for every last bit of something that he will never have again. His performance reflects that of most of the cast, but he stands out not only because it's atypical, but because it simply just that good. Some of the performers, Harvey Keitel most notably, seem to be trying to overcome the uncomfortable and stiff nature of things, but in the end, that causes the movie to come down a few notches and lessens it's impact.
Ultimately, The Grey Zone is a film that is effective at conveying an emotion, but ineffective in its delivery and translation to the big screen. The survival instinct exists inside each person; the difference is in what brings it out, if anything does, and if we can justify the actions that we take to survive. The Grey Zone poses that moral question which seems to trouble most of the characters in the film. The dialogue is sharp but seems to come too easily and quickly, as if written rather than reaction. This does not take away though from the power of the film. It is disturbing, sad, depressing and powerful. There are scenes that are difficult to watch, then again they should be. This is not a film about happy things, it is about people who know they are going to die, trying to squeeze out every little bit of life that they can while trying to maintain as much of themselves as they can. The Grey Zone is a good film, that should been more memorable than it actually is.
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Also, check out other reviews by Jerry at his own site, The Reel Rambler.