Eminem, Brittany Murphy

Over rhythms that rapidly rise and fall, hip-hop giant Eminem surfs across a torrent of intricately rhymed lyrics that denounce, mock, bait and—in the grander, philosophical scheme of things—ponder the significance of his enemies, his family, his audience, his country, his life, himself. With his cropped blond hair, he looks like Olivier's Hamlet revving up for a soliloquy, only he lets loose with profanities that would have made Ophelia hail a cab and head for the nunnery.

It's a big letdown, then, to find this smartass provocateur—who donned a beard and turban to ridicule Osama bin Laden in his "Without Me" video—giving a somber, dignified performance in his film debut. The story of 8 Mile isn't far removed from Eminem's own self-mythologized life—a Jerry Springer-style saga out of Detroit (see page 76)—but the unslakable anger is gone. Here we have a fundamentally decent young man who, despite the occasional tryst on the job or torching of a derelict building, adores his little sister and pleads with his boozing, feckless mother (Kim Basinger) to keep her behavior somewhere within the boundaries of bourgeois decency. When he isn't trying to make a name for himself in all-black rap contests, he dutifully—gratefully—works overtime at a bumper-pressing plant to raise money to cut an album. He's the hip-hop Horatio Alger. Maybe this is how Eminem sees himself, but a toned-down Eminem brings nothing special to the screen. You'd have more fun with a riled-up Moby.

The fault possibly lies with Curtis Hanson, a director with impeccable credentials (L.A. Confidential) but not a lot of fire. Except for the rapping contests—Eminem is excellent in those scenes—8 Mile has no dramatic traction. Even the talented Murphy—trying her darnedest to be trashily seductive as Eminem's girl, a Gwen Stefani lookalike dreaming of a modeling career in Manhattan—is left spinning her wheels. She's a mere shadow to an already dimmed Slim Shady. (R)

Bottom Line: Eminem doesn't go the distance

Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid
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Moore gives one of the year's great performances—subtle, lingeringly rich—in director Todd Haynes's peculiar revisionist homage to old Hollywood women's pictures. Moore plays a housewife whose late—'50s suburban life collapses after her businessman husband (Quaid) announces he's a homosexual. Then she falls in love with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Moore creates a fragile outer shell, an archly iconic '50s identity (perfect hair, eager smile), and beneath that fleshes out every gradation of feeling as this woman achieves a self-knowledge shot through with pain and elation. It's not clear what Haynes—who borrows not only plot but set design and camera work from director Douglas Sirk's Technicolor melodrama All That Heaven Allows—accomplishes by making explicit themes Sirk couldn't touch in 1955. Even now, the clueless wife with a closeted spouse isn't an extinct species. But Moore is not to be missed. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: An actress close to perfect

Eddie Murphy, Owen Wilson

Murphy and Wilson replace Bill and Robert Culp in this movie 1960s NBC series, which at the time was both groundbreaking (Cosby was one of the first black performers to have a starring role on network TV) and rather hip. The two spies handled their globetrotting missions with an easygoing cool that seemed a lot fresher than 007's chill British drollery. The movie, directed by the comically sharp Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie), does a nice job keeping the rapport between Murphy and Wilson flip and light as they hunt down a stolen stealth fighter jet in Budapest. And Gary Cole, as a rival agent, is funny doing what seems to be a combined parody of Steven Seagal and Antonio Banderas. But there's no action aside from a long, slack car chase. Someone forgot to pack the adrenaline. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: I doze

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas

In director Brian De Palma's pleasurably nutty thriller, Romijn-Stamos is a cat burglar who, needing an alias, winds up the wife of America's ambassador to France and the zoom-lens prey of a paparazzo (Banderas). The movie—which opens with a dazzling robbery involving French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, a kitten and lesbians in a restroom—is a playful trifle, a chance for De Palma to show off. You could dismiss it as a grab bag but, given the director's visual elegance, it's more like a Louis Vuitton clutch. (R)

Bottom Line: Silly but chic

Frida

Ravishing-looking but ploddingly chronological film about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. In the title role Salma Hayek is impressive, but there's something self-satisfied about her performance—a star doing a star turn. (R)

God Is Great, I'm Not

French import starring Audrey Tautou (below) as a model who converts to Judaism for the sake of a new boyfriend. Tautou is vulnerable, winsome and troubled—not quite so gratingly adorable, thank goodness, as in last year's Amélie—but the film exhausts itself in the affair's ups and downs. (Not rated)

The Santa Clause 2 Yule regret it.(G)