8 Mile is the most artistically successful crowd-pleaser the movies have given us in ages, a hip-hop Rocky that, incredibly, refuses to pander.
A vaguely autobiographical fiction about Eminem's rise from obscurity, the film features the rapper as Jimmy Smith Jr., known as Rabbit, who aches to escape his trailer-trash life in Detroit by conquering the hip-hop scene, while his family, his economic status, and his own fears threaten to keep him down. Change the choice of artistic expression and the gender and you should have, at best, Flashdance for the new millennium, yet director Curtis Hanson and Eminem himself are far too canny to allow that. Hanson has a rare gift for making squalor incredibly vivid; aided by the superb cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Rabbit's world has an olive-green drabness that feels enclosed and soul-crushing, yet the people closest to Rabbit - including his mother (Kim Basinger), his lover (Brittany Murphy), and his best friends (led by the great Mekhi Pfifer) - are so blazingly alive that you simultaneously hope for Rabbit to escape this life and understand his reluctance to do so. And while his bad-boy image has clearly been softened for the masses - he's shown as devoted to his baby sister and uncharacteristically kind to a gay co-worker - Eminem is a transfixing camera subject, and more thoughtful and nuanced than we had any right to expect; his character doesn't require a great deal of range, but I don't think Eminem strikes a false note in the entire picture. What's smartest about 8 Mile is its refusal to give away the goods too early; we only see Eminen in all his rapping, rhyming splendor at the finale, by which point you're so pumped to see Rabbit's breakout performance that the cheers in the theatre feel well-earned. 8 Mile may be a rather simplistic entertainment, but it's an extraordinarily well-crafted one, exciting and funny and surprisingly moving, a triumph-of-the-underdog movie that doesn't treat its audience like saps.
The enthusiasm that Brian De Palma brings to works of profound stupidity is absolutely staggering. Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars - each one is ridiculously convoluted and void of a single original idea, yet try telling that to De Palma; he gives these works kineticism and a hypnotic allure, especially in the sequences without dialogue, and even if you don't believe in his films for a second (and you don't), you can't take your eyes off of them. By all rights, De Palma's latest, Femme Fatale, should be just awful. The plotting is some inanity about a female jewel thief who changes personalities and accents with ease, complete with all sorts of is-she-really-who-we-think-she-is? gobbledygook, and the film features what are, by far, the most embarrassing performances the movies have provided all year; you'd think no one could approach the complete ineptitude of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (who sometimes plays whole scenes opposite herself ... the horror, the horror ... ), but Antonio Banderas and the supporting cast actually match her. Femme Fatale is De Palma's standard T & A & V affair (the "V," naturally, is for "violence"), and it's only his technical acumen that keeps you from throwing things at the screen. His notorious split-screen effects aren't quite as beguiling as they once were, but his swirling, searching camera shots are divine, and he makes expert use of art direction and music throughout; the film is a joke as a thriller, but it has been made by a real director. There's no earthly reason to see Femme Fatale, but at least it shows that De Palma, despite being desperately out-of-touch with acceptable material, isn't to be completely dismissed.
THE SANTA CLAUSE 2
I will forever be in awe of performers who insist on giving their all to treacly projects like The Santa Clause 2. This sequel to the 1994 smash, concerning Santa's attempts at securing a wife before Christmas and the tyranny of Santa's cloned replacement, is nothing but by-the-numbers kiddie fare, and oftentimes even worse than that. It will come as no surprise that the picture is predictable, repetitive, and, for an adult viewer at least, mostly unfunny, but its editing rhythms are also very odd - director Michael Lembeck, who has done some fine work for television, appears to cut numerous sequences about three seconds before their punchlines occur, leaving us a little bewildered about what's going on whenever a new scene begins. Yet amidst the poor filmmaking, the blatant product-placement, the film's almost sickening revelry in the joys of materialism, and Tim Allen doing the same old Tim Allen shtick, several supporting actors manage to shine; best of the lot is Elizabeth Mitchell as the future Mrs. Claus, who, beyond being nicely understated, actually convinces us that she finds Tim Allen irresistible. But she's just one of many who make the movie bearable: David Krumholtz, Judge Reinhold, Spencer Breslin (who has apparently leaned a lot about performance in the two years since his overbearing work as Disney's The Kid), Molly Shannon, and Eric Lloyd are all far better than they need to be, and even Peter Boyle shows up and, delivering a single line, scores his laugh. The cast of The Santa Clause 2 would certainly be forgiven for merely going through the motions; the fact that so many of them don't is the true gift to audiences.
Can a performance be so on-target that it nearly ruins the movie? In Tadpole (at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas through November 14), newcomer Aaron Stanford plays the moneyed 15-year-old Oscar, a Manhattanite with a penchant for quoting Voltaire who engages in oh-so-refined badinage with his elders and harbors an unrequited passion for his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Oscar is precocious, verbal, and erudite, and Stanford plays him so acutely that there wasn't a single scene in which I didn't want to slap the hell out of him. (The character is so brazenly modeled on Holden Caulfield that I can't believe the ever-litigious J.D. Salinger hasn't yet sued.) Tadpole certainly has its charms, almost all of which involve the spectacular Bebe Neuwirth as a chiropractor who, amazingly enough, engages in a dalliance with Oscar; Neuwirth and her mischievous I've-got-a-secret grin easily walk off with the picture. The film also gains some emotional momentum toward the end, once Oscar is knocked down a peg or two, and at roughly 75 minutes, it's all over before you know it. Tadpole is a fine example of movie-as-short-story, pretentious yet brisk, and director Gary Winick maintains a tone of affluent yearning. It's a modestly impressive little piece. But it's also an uncomfortable one, because our protagonist is someone most of us would go miles out of our way to avoid; the problem isn't that Oscar is unlikable - we've seen countless movies in which the leading characters are far more heinous creations - but that he's such a goddamned drip.