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Eminem looks back with anger in new flick

TORONTO--A midterm report on the 27th Toronto Film Festival: Whether Eminem can play anyone else is still to be discovered. That he can play himself was convincingly demonstrated Sunday night at a sneak screening of "8 Mile," the quasi-autobiographical film based on his early days as a white hip-hop artist in Detroit, circa 1995.

The movie, directed by Curtis Hanson ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential") sidesteps the ancient puzzle of how to showcase a rock star in his first film role, by taking a semi-documentary approach. That also worked years ago for the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night."

"When I joined the Directors Guild," Hanson told me after the screening, "my signatory was Don Siegel. He directed Elvis in 'Flaming Star' 1960. I took that as an omen."

"8 Mile," with a title that refers to the dividing line between mostly black Detroit and its mostly white suburbs, shows Eminem as an poor, earnest, worried, inward kid whose best friends are members of the local black rap scene. As the film opens, his character has been dropped by his pregnant girlfriend and moves back into the trailer home of his mother (played by Kim Basinger, in a very good performance), who is, as he notes in a lyric, sleeping with a guy he went to school with.

The movie is unflinching in its view of a violent homelife, which is hard on the hero's little sister. He rides with his black friends, engages in the risky practice of tagging police cars with paint fired from a gun, works long shifts as a punch-press operator, gets in fights with rival singers and engages in the weekly competitions between hip-hop artists at a local club.

Eminem emerges from the film as a grungy, sympathetic proletarian, although in his next film he could stand to lighten up a little. The rough cut shown at Toronto was an audience pleaser, and the prospects for his continuing film success seem much more likely than, for example, Britney Spears' after her ill-advised debut, "Crossroads."

BEST MALE PERFORMANCE IN THE FESTIVAL SO FAR: Michael Caine, in Phillip Noyce's "The Quiet American." This may in fact be the best performance of Caine's career and seems certain to win him another Oscar nomination. He is immediately affecting as a weary, cynical London Times correspondent in Vietnam, circa 1952, who meets an earnest young American (Brendan Fraser), who has been sent by the CIA to finance and fake an insurrection that will serve as an excuse for American troop involvement.

Caine and Fraser compete for the love of the same local girl, a taxi dancer (Do Hai Yen) who neither man quite seems to understand, sincerely loves them both, but would love neither without his money. 

BEST FEMALE PERFORMANCE SO FAR: Julianne Moore, in Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven," where she is pitch-perfect in the kind of role Jane Wyman, Lana Turner and Dorothy Malone played in Douglas Sirk's weepy Universal melodramas in the 1950s. It is a performance on two levels. She is convincing as a suburban housewife who begins a risky friendship with the black gardener and discovers her husband is a homosexual. She is also convincing as an actress playing that role in a 1957 movie, which is crucial, since Haynes has essentially made a movie Sirk should have made in the 1950s, but couldn't because of Hollywood restrictions.

Moore starred earlier in Haynes' "Safe" (1995), as a housewife who becomes allergic to her entire world and has retreats to a sheltered existence. The distance between these two roles is a measure of her reach; the conviction in each role is a measure of her depth.

MOST EMOTIONAL ENDING: The final shots of Phillip Noyce's powerful "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which I will not breathe a word about, because they blindside the audience and leave many in tears.

BLUE CRUSH: Sooner or later the festival will have to deal with the crisis affecting the Press and Industry Screenings, held in the Varsity multiplex. Some 2,000 tickets have been sold at $850 each to "industry members," who are entitled to attend all the press screenings and also get early dibbies on public tickets. This is the best deal at the festival, which is why so many "industry members" have signed on.

Add the 750 accredited members of the press at the festival, and you have 2,750 passholders who all think they are entitled to a seat at screenings with 200 to 700 available seats. The screenings for "Talk to Her," "Auto Focus," "Jet Lag," "Far from Heaven" and "Eight Women" were all filled up by passholders who got in line up to an hour in advance; those arriving any later were turned away.

The distributors of "Far from Heaven" looked on impotently as the critics of Variety, the New York Times, Canada's National Post, New York and USA Today, plus festival godfather Norman Jewison, were turned away.

"First come, first served," said the hard-working festival volunteers. Yes, but distributors don't spend money to bring their films here for those who are first in line--they want them to be seen by working critics and buyers, not just movie fans with $850. That's what the public screenings are for.

At Cannes and elsewhere, the press is guaranteed admission by arriving 15 minutes before the start time; after that, the queue is admitted.

A FESTIVAL'S BEST FRIEND: And speaking of director Norman Jewison and his wife, Dixie, does the festival have two better friends? The Jewisons, backers of the fest from its earliest days, turn up faithfully at several screenings a day. Norman, in his inevitable baseball cap, is irrepressibly enthusiastic, seeks out young directors, and is always discovering something wonderful.

And on the fest's first Sunday they host a barbecue for festival guests in the big backyard of the Canadian Center for Advanced Film Study--which, by the way, is also Jewison's baby.

TO CAP IT OFF: And by the way: Does Eminem or anyone else know who started the ubiquitous modern custom of wearing baseball caps while not playing baseball?

It was Norman Jewison who discovered in the late 1950s that the caps kept the sun out of his eyes while he was lining up outdoor shots. Other directors and cinematographers followed, actors copied them, and a fashion fad was born. Fact.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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