Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Synapse Films to Release Countess Dracula [BD/DVD Combo Pack]

One of my favorite Hammer films is getting the royal treatment from Synapse Films!

COUNTESS DRACULA RISES!

The beautiful Ingrid Pitt (The Wicker Man, Where Eagles Dare) stars as Elisabeth Nádasdy, an aging Hungarian Countess who discovers she can reverse her aging by bathing in the blood of young women. While in her youthful state, the Countess falls for the handsome Lt. Imre Toth (Sandor Elès), and impersonates her own daughter to win his affections. Soon, girls in the village go missing… kidnapped and murdered by the Countess and her steward, Julie (Patience Collier) to satiate her horrifying bloodlust. Can Elisabeth live a life of deception with her grotesque lust for blood to stay eternally young, or will her ghoulish secret finally be revealed? Co-starring Nigel Green (Jason and the Argonauts, Zulu).

Considered “one of the more underrated films from the latter days of the Hammer Films dynasty“ (Don Guarisco, Allmovie.com), Countess Dracula is based on the real-life Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a woman accused of torturing and murdering more than 600 girls.

Special Features:

• Audio commentary with actress Ingrid Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott
• Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt Featurette
• Vintage audio Interview with Ingrid Pitt
• Theatrical Trailer
• Still Gallery
• Reversible Cover Artwork

Disc Info:

Directed by: Peter Sasdy
Starring: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Lesley-Anne Down
Run Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Language: English
Aspect Ratio: Widescreen Anamorphic 1.66:1
Format: Blu-ray / DVD Combo
Region: 1 / A
UPC: 654930316092
SRP: $29.95

Monday, January 13, 2014

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2001)

Immortal Undead
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes
Rated: R

In 1969, I saw F.W. Murnau's silent film masterpiece "Nosferatu" in the basement of the main library in Memphis. The movie ended around 10 PM. I believe I set a world record running the 5 dark city blocks to the safety of my home. This was one 11 year old that the boogie man was not going to get. "Nosferatu" is one of the best vampire movies ever made. It is hard to imagine anyone who has seen it disagreeing with that claim. E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" builds on the clever premise that Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the actor who played Count Orlock in "Nosferatu" was in fact a real vampire. The only one aware of this is director Murnau (John Malkovich). Murnau has struck a deal with the devil in order to direct an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Merhige's film is a smart, funny and insightful look into the world of filmmaking.

If you are looking for a scary movie "Shadow of the Vampire" is not for you, however, if you are a horror movie fan familiar with "Nosferatu" and the mysterious Max Schreck, then this is your cup of tea. That is not to say that those unfamiliar with this movies origins will be disappointed. My wife is as ignorant of film history as a nun is to the ways of carnal love.

"Shadow of the Vampire" draws some interesting analogies between the undead and the artist. Malkovich portrays Murnau as a genius who seeks immortality through celluloid. In one scene, Greta Schroeder (Catherine McCormack), the leading lady of "Nosferatu" argues that she doesn't want to go on location because the theater season in Berlin is about to start. Malkovich responds by stroking her ego. This role will push her talents and make her a star. If she finishes the film she will make sacrifices for her art which will place her above all other actresses. It is Malkovich who is willing to sacrifice all for his art, even if his actions endanger others. No one else could have played this part. Malkovich's Machiavellian Murnau is a wonder to behold as he directs his movie. I especially enjoyed, as he directed Gustav von Wangenheim (Eddie Izzard) and Count Orlock during the dinner scene. As Gustav slowly cuts through a loaf of bread, Murnau suddenly yells, causing Gustav to cut his finger. The sight of blood sends Orlock into a vampiric frenzy. One must make sacrifices for their art. The movie trailer reveals the scene in which Murnau berates Orlock for attacking his cameraman. "Couldn't you have taken the script girl instead?" Murnau asks.

Willem Dafoe is barely recognizable under the realistic "Max Schreck/Count Orlock" makeup. Writer Steven Katz has created a truly memorable and sympathetic vampire. Max Schreck means "Great Terror" in German. While he evokes great terror on the cast and crew of "Nosferatu," Dafoe's Schreck is a pathetic and damned being who seems to enjoy this rare interaction with living beings. The loneliness of eternal life, shunned by the living has never been portrayed better. There is a wonderful scene between Dafoe, producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and screenwriter Henrick Galeen (Aden Gillet) in which the two drunken filmmakers ask Schreck what he though about Stoker's novel Dracula. Dafoe responds with a wonderful monologue which captures perfectly his characters isolation. I won't ruin it for you by describing it further.

I can't act my way out of a paper bag, but I can imagine what it must be like for trained actors to work with such a wonderful script. The cast is uniformly excellent. Eddie Izzard brings a subdued comic tone to his role of German actor Gustav von Wangenheim. Malkovich tells his cast and crew, that Max Schreck is a method actor who will only appear to them in full makeup and in character. The scene in which Izzard's character first meets the Count is hilarious. Izzard captures the apprehension and terror that all horror movie fans know as he waits for that unexpected bump in the night. I'd like to see more of Izzard on the big screen.

Udo Kier has a nice turn as the film's producer. Kier portrayed Dracula in the infamous "Andy Warhol's Dracula." It was nice to see Kier in a role which didn't play on his reputation for appearing as a kinky pervert.

My only complaint was Cary Elwes' horrible accent. I enjoy him as an actor, but his accent bothered me. I wasn't as bad a Kevin Kostner's English accent in "Robin Hood" but then few things are.

"" takes up many familiar themes and reexamines them with a fresh twist. The duality of the Murnau/Schreck characters could be the subject of a good post movie bull session with other movie buffs. She this one with a fellow movie fan, but "Shadow of the Vampire" should be enjoyed by all.

XXX (2002)

R.I.P. 007
Director: Rob Cohen
Starring: Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas, Eve
Length: 2 hours 3 minutes
Rated: PG-13

In the opening scene of Rob Cohen's XXX, an American secret agent in Prague captures a secret computer chip from a terrorist. As more terrorists pursue him, the agent strips off his black coveralls to reveal a tuxedo. He slips in a nightclub to elude the enemy. Unfortunately for the poor sap, he runs into a Goth club where the band Rammstein is whipping the crowd into frenzy. The elegantly dressed agent sticks out like the hairy wart on grandma's nose. The dapper agent is shot in the back. This scene is Columbia's way of raising their middle finger toward MGM's reliable James Bond franchise. XXX takes the tried-and-true plot devices of the 007 series and injects a Gen X vitality into them. Ian Fleming's novels have been replaced with a "graphic novel" mentality. XXX should have the folks at MGM worried because this film out Bonds Bond with thrilling, non-stop action, great stunts, worldwide locations and some very funny dialogue. While there are certain events that defy the laws of physics and logic, they can be overlooked. XXX reinvigorates the spy film genre with a swift kick in the ass.

XXX should mean big things for star Vin Diesel. Who knew the guy was funny!?! He has proven that he can handle the physical stuff. In The Fast and the Furious he showed some emotional range. He has always had a dangerous edge to him. Never before (on film) has he shown that he had a sense of humor. In XXX, director Rob Cohen, writer Randy Wilkes and executive producer/star Vin Diesel have conspired to create a comic book action hero for the new millennium. If these guys play their cards right, 007 will go the way of the dinosaurs. We might be witnessing the beginning of a new movie franchise!

Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is an extreme sport iconoclast. He savors freedom. He sports a 'Triple X' tattoo on the back of his neck. Cage, or X to his friends, is introduced in a high octane scene in which he poses as a valet parking attendant in order to steal the car of a super conservative California state senator. X speeds off in the corvette. His team of anarchists meets him. They load the 'vette with digital cameras, and X leads the police on a wild chase. X talks into the camera as he drives. He berates "Dick," the state senator, for being a dick. "Dick doesn't like skateboards, video games and sex (unless it is in the missionary position and the woman doesn't enjoy it)." X then drives the 'vette off of a high bridge and parachutes from the convertible mid-air in what has to be the most extreme case of base-jumping ever. X's exploits are broadcast over the Internet by his sexy manager, played by rap singer Eve. X is a hero to disenfranchised youth and rebels worldwide.

In a secret NSA bunker in West Virginia, the powers that be are worried about a group of former Soviet soldiers in Prague. The group calls themselves "Anarchy 99." The unfortunate agent killed in the opening reel was the third spy killed trying to find out what this group is up to. Before his death, the agent was able to send some of the information he uncovered. It seems that Anarchy 99 has the formula to some very nasty biological weapons. Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is a bit of a renegade at NSA. He proposes that the NSA capture a group of American criminals who fit the same profile as the terrorists and see if one can be trained to infiltrate the group. Take a leap of faith if you will and overlook this absurdity. X is one of many athletic, tattooed, risk-taking badguys who are rounded up. X alone passes several dangerous tests that agent Gibbons has in store for him. Once Gibbons is convinced that X is his man, he makes X an offer he can't refuse. Work for NSA or life without parole for his third felony. Either get on the plane to Prague or "three strikes and your out." X makes the right decision.

Once in Prague, X worms his way into the group lead by Yorgi (Marton Csokas). X works his way into the group and discovers their evil plot. He also develops the hots for Yorgi’s girl Yelena (Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento). I'll say no more other than to warn you to strap yourself in for the thrill ride of a lifetime.

Writer Rich Wilkes has obviously studied the Bond films. He also seems to have a feel for the attitudes of those who question authority. Agent Gibbons has a massive scar on one side of his face. X tells him sarcastically that he hopes the Stars and Stripes give him comfort every time he looks in the mirror. Gibbons, a true believer, says it's a "small price to pay for defending the freedoms you enjoy." Wilkes doesn't make X a true believer. X is a reluctant hero. He takes the job because he has no choice and because he loves life on the edge. Only when the enormity of Yorgi's evil plot is revealed does X begin to question his own anarchistic traits. At one point Gibbons tells X to abort the mission. Of course, X continues anyway. Later Gibbons says "I'm the authority figure. I tell you not to do something, you're going to do it!" This thread in Wilkes' script gives XXX the boost needed to become a major hit of the summer… and possibly many summers to follow.

The cast does a fine job bringing the story to life. XXX is smart in that the characters aren't lost amidst the massive explosions, shootouts and avalanches that rock the movie. Vin Diesel puts himself on the A-list with this one. Asia Argento may break out of her status as cult movie goddess and find mainstream, international success. Marton Csokas is dark and sexy. His Yorgi is a compelling megalomaniac. Only Samuel L. Jackson's character seems two-dimensional. Gibbons is a company man, not afraid to break the rules if it helps the team win. He is gung-ho in an Oliver North kind of way. XXX has its own version of Bond gadget guy Q - in this case a nerdy MIT graduate. He delivers a whole slew of goodies to X in Prague. When he finds out that X has only been with the company a week he says "That sucks! I've been stuck in a basement lab with no windows for six years!" He is kind of a Jimmy Olsen with guns instead of a camera.

I remember several episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies in which Jethro wanted to be a "double-aught spy." Compared to the James Bond of that time, Jethro seemed silly and inept. Now that X is in town, the suave Mr. Bond too looks like just another "double-aught" spy.

Monday, January 6, 2014

RED DRAGON (2002)

Re-Enter the Dragon
reviewed: 2002-10-04

"Red Dragon" would seem to be the redheaded stepchild of the "Hannibal Lector" series. It has the stigma of being both a remake and a sequel. The big surprise is that "Red Dragon" turned out to be the second-best film in the series. I find it hard to write these words because I have been an ardent fan of Michael Mann's stylish "Manhunter" from the beginning. Both film versions of Thomas Harris's book "Red Dragon" are far superior to the noxious "Hannibal." "Red Dragon" was directed by Brett Ratner, soon to helm "Superman."

"Red Dragon" remains truer to Thomas Harris's source novel than did "Manhunter." The film's opening and closing provide the biggest treats for fans of the series. This new film version begins with the capture of Dr. Lector (Anthony Hopkins) by agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) of the FBI. This was an element of the novel that was missing from "Manhunter." I'll not spoil the setup, but do watch for Oscar winning composer Lalo Schifrin and John Rubinstein (Zachariah) in small roles during this sequence.

To those not familiar with the novel or earlier film version, the plot of "Red Dragon" centers around the FBI's hunt for a serial killer dubbed 'The Tooth Fairy' by the press. Francis 'The Tooth Fairy' Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) has slaughtered two families. The police are stumped. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) reaches out to Will Graham for help. Will retired after nearly dying during the capture of Hannibal Lector. Will has retreated to the solitude of the Florida Keys with his wife and child. Crawford convinces Will that his help is needed if another family is to be spared as nocturnal visit by the Tooth Fairy. Graham will only be needed behind the scenes; yeah right! Graham had a knack for thinking like his prey. Will eventually returns to visit Dr. Lector for advice on the case. Sound familiar?

Anthony Hopkins success in bringing pure evil to the screen is the reason this film was made. On the face of it, "Red Dragon" seems almost more calculated to make money than the horrendous "Hannibal." That fact makes the film's success all the more amazing. The bulk of the film is quite like "Manhunter" in pacing and tone. Though both film versions of the novel were photographed by Dante Spinotti, they are very different in style. Michael Mann's "Manhunter" was stylish in a "Miami Vice" sort of way. "Red Dragon" has more in common with "The Silence of the Lambs" than the earlier "Manhunter." Director Ratner comports himself well in this film. Though he does rely on the quick-cut shock tactic a few times too many, he created a moody and deliberately paced film.

Edward Norton is excellent as Special Agent Graham. So was William L. Peterson in "Manhunter." Norton has a rugged, sun tanned look that is perfect for the role. He is less brooding than Peterson was in the first film. Those who have not seen "Manhunter" will appreciate his performance even more. The are many scenes that use much of the same dialogue as the earlier film. I had a hard time not comparing performances as I watched.

While Ralph Fiennes is great as the villain, Francis Dolarhyde, I couldn't help thinking how cool it would have been to have Tom Noonan reprise his role from "Manhunter" as the killer. Fiennes is a good actor, but he has the wrong look and build for the part. Francis Dolarhyde was a misshapen giant. His size and facial deformity were important parts of his makeup. Fiennes didn't seem big enough for the part. He is great in the way he captures the emotional distress felt by the psychopath. "Red Dragon" goes into much more detail about Dolarhyde's background. This is a nice touch. Tom Noonan was able to convey the conflict of good and evil within the Dolarhyde character without all of the extra background information. I wonder what he could have done with this script!

Harvey Keitel is flat as Jack Crawford. He doesn't have the cocky, self-assurance of Dennis Farina's Crawford from "Manhunter" or Scott Glen's laconic strength from "The Silence of the Lambs." Emily Watson takes of the role played by Joan Allen in "Manhunter." Watson plays Reba McClane, the blind woman who becomes Dolarhyde's lover. Ms. Watson employs the peculiar mannerism of holding her eyes wide open in almost every frame of film. It is as if she is saying, "Hey, My Eyes Don't Work!" This choice on Ms. Watson's part is distracting to the point it almost sinks her performance. The usually wimpy Mary-Louise Parker gets to play a non-victim role for a change. Parker plays Graham's wife. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the ill-fated tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. The role was played better in "Manhunter" by Stephen Lang.

Brian Cox portrayed Hannibal Lector with great effect in "Manhunter." When I heard that a film version of "The Silence of the Lambs" was being made without Brian Cox, I was disappointed. Then I saw "The Silence of the Lambs." Anthony Hopkins reinvented evil on screen in that 1991-horror classic. In "Red Dragon," Hopkins once again brings a mixture of elan and menace to the screen. At times, his performance comes dangerously close to parody, but a twitch here, and a shadow in his eyes there, soon chills the viewer's blood once more. Hopkins resurrects the Lector of "The Silence of the Lambs" and removes the 'serial-killer-as-superhero' taint raised in the movie "Hannibal."

Ted Tally wrote the scripts for both "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Red Dragon." Hiring Mr. Tally was a wise choice. His additions to Anthony Hopkins' role match the tone of the book. Lector was but a small part of the novel and first film. For obvious reasons, the part had to be enlarged in "Red Dragon." In "Manhunter," Graham visits Lector under the pretense of asking for his help. In fact, Graham has been away from the hunt for a long time. He just wants to get the scent of a psycho back in his nose. In "Red Dragon," Tally builds on that premise, but has Graham also deal with his fears. Graham is seeking some sort of closure with Lector in "Red Dragon."

Danny Elfman's score is powerful. Look for an Oscar nomination for this one. I was reminded of Bernard Herrmann's great Hitchcock scores as I watched the film.

"Red Dragon" ends differently than "Manhunter." I both appreciated this and found part of it contrived. There is a scene in which Dolarhyde is presumably killed, but you know that he isn't dead. That gimmick is as old as movies themselves. However, the gimmick is used to set up a final confrontation that is one of the best parts of the newer version. Norton delivers a powerful performance during this scene. The movie ends with a nice teaser that is designed to lead right into "The Silence of the Lambs." With "Red Dragon," Hannibal Lector has come full circle to a satisfying conclusion. By returning Hannibal to his origins, the mess that was "Hannibal" becomes just a bad memory.

HELLBOY (2004)

Hell Yes!
reviewed: 2004-03-29

"Hellboy" Rocks! I am usually wary when I go to see a comic book movie. After "Blade 2" I was wary of director Guillermo del Toro. "Hellboy" washed those concerns right down the drain. Based on the Darkhorse comic book, "Hellboy" tells the story of a blue-collar demon who works for the goodguys, kicks ass, loves nachos and just wants to find a girl to love him, horns and all.

This week I watched the great DVD "The Lon Chaney Collection." One of the amazing things about Lon Chaney Sr. was that the humanity of his characters shined through beneath his "1000 Faces." Ron Perlman delivers the best performance of his career under a mountain of makeup and prosthetics. Perlman plays the title character, a demon brought to this world by the Nazis at the end of WWII. The allies, aided by the young Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) disrupt the Nazi black mass before they badguys can unleash a horde of demons on the world. One small demon does enter. It is an infant. However, it is a very important demon. One who holds the key to the apocalypse. Rather than destroy the beast, he is taken to America where he becomes a weapon in the arsenal of the "Office of Paranormal Research and Defense."

Cut to the present time. Hellboy lives a secluded life within the confines of the FBI's secret facility. He likes to sneak out occasionally. He is an oddity who longs to be normal. How is the demon in Hellboy tamed? He shaves his horns off. Like Samson without his hair, Hellboy without his horns is a being with freewill. He was raised by the kind professor. He calls the professor Pop and the professor loves him as a Son. Unfortunately the professor has cancer. He recruits a rookie FBI agent to take his place. Agent John Meyers' (Rupert Evans) only qualification for the job is a pure heart. Hellboy needs someone who can see past the red skin, tail and horn stubs to accept him for the humanity within.

Hellboy was conjured into this realm by a resurrected Rasputin (Karel Roden). Though he died during the allies’ attack, he is once again resurrected. Rasputin wants Hellboy to fulfill his destiny. Hellboy just wants to kill evil orcs and get Liz (Selma Blair) to love him. Liz is human but has powers that brought her in contact with Hellboy. I really don't want to give away anymore of this film.

Mr. del Toro's direction is great. The action sequences have none of the quick-cut, frenetic quality that marred "Blade 2." The action scenes are rousing, fast-paced, but shot in such away that you can relish the entirely of the battles. The suspense scenes are also expertly handled. While the direction is excellent, what makes this film work is Ron Perlman.

Anyone who has ever been on the outside looking in will be able to identify with Perlman's Hellboy. Despite his great strength, Hellboy is a freak. One part "Terminator" one part "Marty." It is a smartly written character, wonderfully portrayed. I can't wait to see it again!

Monday, December 30, 2013

25TH HOUR (2002)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
reviewed: 2002-12-16
STARS THREE
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin
Length: 134 minutes
Rated: R

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has 24 hours before he must surrender himself to Federal authorities and begin serving a 7-year sentence for dealing drugs. Monty spends his last 24-hours of freedom looking back over his past and forward to the 25th hour, the hour which will shape the rest of his life. "25th Hour," Spike Lee's first feature film since "Bamboozled" is a mature change of pace for the always interesting director. "25th Hour" harkens back to the early works of Martin Scoresese, especially "Mean Streets." Lee's film doesn't achieve the classic status of "Mean Streets," but it does have the taste, smell and feel of that earlier film. "25th Hour" also looks back to the films of the 70s with its wonderful ending.

Monty can't enjoy his last day with his lover Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). Monty suspects she was the one who turned him into the Feds. The cops said she did, and so did his Russian supplier, Kostya (Tony Siragusa). The fact that Monty still lives with Naturelle tells you something about his character. He's basically a nice guy who makes his living off of other people's misery. In the opening sequence, Monty and Kostya are on their way to a drug deal. Monty stops his souped-up Dodge Charger in the middle of a bridge and saves a dog that has been thrown from a car. He names the dog Doyal after Kostya says that Monty brings him (Kostya) bad luck. "You're just like Doyal's Law: It will go wrong." So the dog that should have been named Murphy, ended up being called Doyal. That's the kind of guy Monty is. He is conflicted. He wants to believe he can trust Naturelle, but then again, she was the only one who knew where the drugs were kept. Monty's namesake is Montgomery Cliff. His father James (Brian Cox) wanted to name him James Jr.. Instead, Monty's mother won out. Like the troubled actor, Monty has made a lifetime of bad choices. Those choices are closing in on him.

Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are Monty's best friends. They want to show Monty one last night of fun, Frank is a high powered Wall St. trader who is willing to risk other people's money to insure he never goes back to the old neighborhood. Jakob is a dweebish teacher at a prep school who has the hots for Mary D'Annunzio (Anna Paquin), a pierced, tattooed hottie in his English Lit. class. The sub-plot between Jacob and Mary is Lee's one big misstep in this movie. Jakob's character plays an important role in the movie. It seems that the teacher/student sub-plot was thrown in to give Jakob something to do before he is really needed.

"25th Hour" is episodic. The film doesn't follow the paradigms espoused by the numerous "how to" screenwriting books that crowd bookstore shelves. Lee follows the characters through this all-important day. Flashbacks are used when necessary to show Monty reflecting on what got him where he is. Lee's conservative use of the flashback rivals Sam Peckinpah's use of the same technique in "The Wild Bunch." They are short and to the point.

Edward Norton proves once again, that he is the best young actor working in film. Monty is an introspective character. He is living the most pivotal day of his life. Norton expresses this angst through a number of acting methods. His performance is lean. No fat whatsoever. Norton's Monty realizes he has screwed up. Although he had good motives, Monty took an easy way out. This may sound pat and trite, but Norton is wonderful portraying this conflicted character. It is in this respect that "25th Hour" most resembles "Mean Streets." Norton reminded me of Harvey Keitel's introspective gangster contemplating the fires of hell. Some may say that it's easy to feel sympathy for Monty because he's such a nice guy. The movie only shows one victim of his crime. Monty is confronted by a pathetic junkie in need of a fix. The movie doesn't go into as much detail about how Monty was able to harden his heart to those he preyed on. Maybe less of the student /teacher sub-plot and more of this issue would have made "25th Hour" a better film. Lee doesn't avoid the subject. There is a wonderful scene between Frank and Naturelle, which deals with it head on.

The movie includes a very nice subdued performance by Brian Cox as Monty's dad, James. James blames himself for Monty's troubles. Monty's mom died when Monty was 11 years old, and James turned into a drunk. Brian Cox's wonderful Irish lilt is magical as he does the voice-over Lee's touching and ambiguous ending.

Lee is to be lauded for his New York attitude. The credit sequence will touch even the most jaded heart. Lee is able to show the effects of 9-11 on New Yorkers and Americans in general during the course of the movie. There is a great scene shot from a window over-looking the clean up at ground zero. The scene represents the events of 9-11 as well as choices that Monty will have to make in the future. While "25th Hour" isn't a masterpiece, it is the best film by Spike Lee since "Malcolm X."

8 MILE (2002)

8 Miles High!

STARS: THREE and 1/2
Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer
Length: 1 hour 58 minutes
Rated: R

Controversial Rapper Eminem has pulled off a Howard Sternish cinematic makeover. The adored and reviled singer comes across strong, sympathetic, funny and surprisingly moral in Curtis Hanson's new film "8 Mile." As Stern did in the wonderful "Private Parts," Eminem forces closed-minded critics to give the man another look with "8 Mile" . Eminem plays "Rabbit," a blue-collar, trailer-trash working-stiff who dreams of someway out of his hellish existence. Rabbit sees Rap/Hip Hop music as his ticket out. In "8 Mile," Eminem is a sympathetic hero striving to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The young singer's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Eminem has been quoted as saying he doesn't intend to act again. That would be a shame, as he has a charismatic screen presence. Eminem is asked to carry this movie. For a first time actor his performance is remarkably seasoned. The naysayers might state that Eminem is just playing himself. Even if that is true, he still has charisma. The history of film is full of people just playing themselves. Many of them were never heard from again. Others, like Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart based long and lustrous careers on playing themselves.

Rabbit (Eminem) works at a metal pressing factory in Detroit. "Only ex-cons and welfare moms work there" says Rabbit's former classmate who is now his mother's lover. Rabbit breaks up with his girlfriend when she mentions the word "pregnant." He does leave her the car though. Rabbit is a cipher to those around him. His buddy, 'Future' (Mekhi Phifer) knows that Rabbit has what it takes to break out into the music business. Future hosts Friday night "Rap Battles" at a place called the shelter. A Battle consists of two Rappers facing off for 45 seconds of stylized insults. The crowd decides the winner. The film starts with Rabbit preparing to take part in his first battle. Rabbit chokes. The time isn't right. He has too much inner turmoil to let the beast loose on stage yet.

Rabbit only has one place to go, now that he has broken up with his girlfriend: home to the trailer park. Rabbit walks in on his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger) as she is riding her unemployed lover on the livingroom couch. Ah, the joys of trailer park living. Rabbit's journey to the film's climatic "Rap Battle" is a baptism of fire, which will reveal Rabbit's individuality and inner strength. Eminem is amazing as his character faces temptations and bullshit from every corner. Rabbit doesn't always make the right decision, but like "Old Blue Eyes," he does it his way!

Director Curtis Hanson has an eye for the seedy side of life. "8 Mile" is set in a version of Detroit that is even uglier than the Detroit of "Robo Cop." The only thing that doesn't appear broken down in this city are the spirits of the film's main characters. The city is a Muse for Rabbit and the others. Their poetry from hell encapsulates all of the anger and woe produced by life on the edge of oblivion. In the film's funniest scene, Rabbit works on his mother's broken down car, while Future talks to him. Stephanie's lover sits in the trailer listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Rabbit and Future make up an ad-libbed tribute to Rabbit's predicament to the tune of the Skynyrd song. The song is hilarious and sad at the same time. Rabbit is able to laugh at the cards he has been dealt. Like everyone else in the movie, he wants out. Unlike everyone else in the movie, Rabbit has what it takes to get out.

The performances are uniformly fine. Kim Basinger grows more and more with each smart script she selects. She has that rode-hard, hung-up-wet quality which exists in the world of Jerry Spingerville. Brittany Murphy is hot as Alex, the sexy babe who will do whatever and whomever it takes to get a ticket to New York. The sex scene between Alex and Rabbit captures perfectly the unbridled passion of a spur-of-the-moment-rip-your-cloths-off quickie as any I have ever seen on film. Mekhi Phifer has a young David Keith quality. Phifer provides a rock-strong sidekick performance. Only Evan Jones as the doofy "Cheddar Bob" seems to be a stereotype. Cheddar Bob is there to provide comic relief. Maybe he is based on one of Eminem's friends.

"8 Mile" contains much profanity, however, the film is completely devoid of any of the lyrics which have caused Eminem to incur the wrath of parents and old-farts like myself. Ironically, Rabbit comes to the defense of the film's one gay character. This isn't to say that Rabbit is a saint, he isn't. Thank God for that. Eminem's Rabbit is a fully developed character that is reminiscent of the "angry young men" cycle of films, which came out of England in the early 1960s. Eminem delivers as strong a performance as Albert Finney in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," Richard Harris in "The Sporting Life" or Tom Courtney in "The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner." "8 Mile" melds the fury of those films into the formula plot of "Rocky" to create the story of a hero you can't help but root for.