8 Mile (2002)
Dir: Curtis Hanson
Stars: Marshall Mathers (A.K.A. Eminem), Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer and Kim Basinger
Imagine, if you will, yourself back in late January of 2003: it’s been a long afternoon, so you decide to duck into a movie theater and see what the hubub is with this “8 Mile” movie. You sit down, start munching your popcorn and look around. There are few people in this matinee screening because the film’s been out for nearly three months. But, you do see two ladies sitting down together that don’t exactly seem to match the demographic for this film. What I mean is, they are slightly older than the typical MTV fan – that’s all I mean. You notice they each have a sheet with them. You can’t help but overhear how they’ve now seen this movie and that, so they can “cross it off their list”. So that’s why they’re at “8 Mile” – they are attempting to see ALL of the films nominated for any and every Oscar that year. And just to remind you, “8 Mile” was not only nominated, but won for best song!
We’ll return to these two very particular audience members in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the story behind “8 Mile”. Inspired by Eminem’s real life, it concerns a blue collar machinist named Jimmy (also known as Rabbit) in his early 20s trying to use his talents as a rapper to break into the big time. You wouldn’t know he’s talented at all from the first scene, in which he hops up on stage to “do battle” with another rapper at a Friday night competition in front of hundreds of audience members – and he completely freezes. But, Rabbit is apparently one talented rhymer.
Whether it’s Rocky, Flashdance (there’s that reference again), Rudy, The Express or the very recent Burlesque, this is a story line that lends itself to the three act structure that most Hollywood movies are built from. We have a hero we can root for, we have insurmountable odds against him/her, we have a romantic interest for him/her and a two hour clock – now go!
So, what makes “8 Mile” worth the watch? I found the combination of Hanson’s direction with Eminem’s screen prescence placed in the setting of Detroit made for a very interesting take on this “little guy conquors the bully” type of story. Now, did Eminem have to stretch in this role? No, but here’s the thing with that issue: he wouldn’t have done the job he did of holding my attention without a capable director like Hanson (who you all know from L.A. Confidential, hopefully – that, Dear Reader, will be a very, very long entry) steering him along. Regardless, Hanson wastes no time in establishing Rabbit’s downtrodden existence, which seems to be an endless cycle between work at the machine shop, riding the bus while listening to his influences and writing down potential lyrics, arriving at his Mom’s trailer to argue with her and her slovenly boyfriend (good ol’ character actor Michael Shannon) and hanging out with his knucklehead friends. In one scene, these pals help steer Rabbit’s moving car while he fires a paint gun at a Detroit cop car. To briefly quote the Guiness TV ads, “Brilliant!”
I guess I liked “8 Mile” because it took me to unfamiliar territory in an effective and entertaining way. I have my own hopes and dreams and can identify with what Rabbit was struggling against: why does he have to spend 10 hours a day in a machine shop when he could spend that time writing songs? Well, life intrudes, girlfriends take off, bills must be paid. I’ll put it this way – I can’t play football well at all and didn’t play in high school, but I understand it, which is surely one of the reasons I dug “Rudy” so much. Similarly, I don’t understand nor can I rap at all, but I was still engaged in Rabbit’s desire to be the best at it. After breaking up with his girlfriend, finding his new girlfriend sleeping with someone else, stamping another press at the machine shop and watching his Mom’s boyfriend assaulting her, the film makers did a great job of making me feel for poor Rabbit! And in the end, I wanted this kid to win SOMETHING during the course of this story: I could (and did) root for him.
So, let’s go back to January 2003. You’ve finished “8 Mile”, you liked it, you’re leaving the theater. And you see one of the ladies from before the movie crossing this film off of her lengthy list in the lobby of the theater. Remember, this lady looks like someone’s Mom (hint). You stop short, perhaps open mouthed to observe as her pal joins her after using the restroom and says, “Yo! P-Dog!”, holding out her palm, awaiting “P-Dog’s” grasp. Without skipping a beat, “P-Dog” clasps hands with her pal through the thumb – like they all do in “8 Mile” – and shoulder bumps her pal, saying, “What’s up, G? Let’s bounce out this place!” True story. I kid you not.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – a SKIP
Dir: Jim Sheridan
Stars: Curtis Jackson (A.K.A. 50 Cent), Joy Bryant, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis
So, as the title of this entry suggests, I did not enjoy “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”. Is Marcus (the character whom Jackson plays) a character I wanted to root for? I guess not. I hate to say it, but I guess not. Towards the beginning of this biography/drama, Marcus’ Mom dies for dealing drugs. The poor guy has no strong parental figure in his life, so instead of being steered away from that lifestyle, he just plunges right into it. I was sad that this was the only option he saw for himself. Much of the film establishes his rise to power as a drug dealer, or at least to the level of right hand man to the drug distributor (Bill Duke).
The thing about “Die Tryin'” is that the only reason Jackson ends up rapping at all is because he gets busted, sent to jail – and seems bored as hell. I say this knowing I could have misinterpretted the scene in jail, in which Marcus seems to get serious about rapping, but I don’t think so… Anyway, it turns out there’s not a lot to do in jail when you’re not defending yourself from a knife attack (a terribly violent scene). Yes, it’s been established in earlier scenes that Jackson seemed to enjoy rapping, but it took his getting sent up to see his true desire to express himself through rap. So, you’ve got an unapologetic drug dealer and a girlfriend that knows what he does and sticks with him regardless as the central characters of this film. I just couldn’t hop on board.
And I was excited for this one, particularly after seeing Jim Sheridan’s film, “Brothers” recently. With apologies to all involved in this picture, it just didn’t seem to have the heart of “8 Mile”.