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starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader

by david    January 27, 2003

I'm a big James Spader fan. It's not something a lot of people will say to you. Sadly, it's not like being a big Tom Hanks fan, or a big Russell Crowe fan. There aren't a lot of us, and we don't get to see our object of affection in films very often. Still, there you have it -- I'm a big James Spader fan.

My favorite James Spader movie is still True Colors (which also stars John Cusack -- rent it if you get the chance), but Secretary now comes in a close second. It's a decidedly small film, in the sense that it is just the story of two people, albeit two monumentally fucked-up people.

Maggie Gyllenhall plays Lee Halloway, a young woman recently released from a mental institution, where she'd been placed for a misdiagnosed attempted suicide. In truth, the suicide was an accident -- she's a "cutter," someone who, under stress or anxiety, cuts him or herself, just to break through numbness. After her release, faced with a bleak home life with her dysfunctional mother and father and loser boyfriend, her "cutting" and other personal anxieties resume. In a feeble attempt to escape, Lee gets a certificate from a secretarial school, and applies for, and wins, a job at a small law office. After a short time, it becomes apparent that her boss (Mr. Grey, James Spader) is a closet sadist, and the only thing Lee enjoys more than abusing herself is being abused by him. The job becomes a pivotal turning point in Lee's life, and through it she grows into an adult, and she and Grey find a twisted sort of love.

This is a bizarre little movie, and Spader and Gyllenhall turn in fine, twisted performances. The supporting cast, including Jeremy Davies as Lee's boyfriend, is solid and equally bizarre. The script shows a couple of holes (it's unclear how long Lee was hospitalized, or why no one figured out about her self-abuse), but is otherwise very good, and the moody, lingering direction matches the oddity of the script perfectly.

If you enjoy the odd and off-beat, Secretary is the film for you. I doubt it'll win any awards this year, but it is definitely worth seeing.


8 Mile
starring: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy

by david    January 27, 2003

The song you heard in all of the trailers for 8 Mile is called Lose Yourself. It's a great fucking song. I'm not a huge Eminem fan (I have only one of his albums), but I like a lot of his stuff, and this is just a great motherfucking song. Unfortunately, the movie just can't match up.

8 Mile is a fictional biography of a character whose life is suspiciously close to all reports of Eminem's life. The main plot goes like this: a young, white, wannabe rapper called "Rabbit" (Eminem) is trying to fight his way out of the slums of Detroit (a section called "8 Mile") with the only skill he knows: his rap. Rap skills in this neighborhood are embodied in a sort of local "Rappers Duel," and, as the film opens, Rabbit is humilated in his first duel by another rapper. He decides to give up, despite the fact that he's a genius with rhyme, and his friends try to talk him back onto the stage. The movie, of course, ends with his triumph in the duel. It sounds silly, but, thanks to a dark atmosphere and the numerous subplots (Rabbit's clashes with his abusive mother and her boyfriend, his father-like devotion to his little sister, his search for love, and various others), the flick manages to retain a humanity and sincerity which always keeps it afloat, but sometimes just barely.

Acting in the film is pretty good: Eminem does a great job as Rabbit. He's a magnetic, commanding presence, and he gives a sensitive, real performance. It's hard to tell if he's a real actor, since he's playing himself, but he does a damn good job, especially for his first time out. Kim Basinger is good as his white-trash mother, and Brittany Murphy and Mekhi Phifer pull their weight in their supporting roles. The rest of the cast is equally solid -- there aren't any breakout performances here, but everybody does his or her job, and there are no glaring holes.

But that's just it. This movie isn't bad -- it's fine, but it just never rises to the point of being anything more than simply "fine." The acting is fine, but nobody is spectacular. Though the writing is solid, the plot is completely unoriginal. It works on a basic level, but there's just nothing here that screams "superb," or even "unique." This is a run of the mill movie, with some good acting and a solid script. The best thing you can say about this movie is that it seems utterly sincere. That's a great trait in a film, but that alone can't make a movie good. It's worth seeing, but there were just so many better movies this past year, that nothing in 8 Mile can really stand out.

Except, of course, for the music.

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