An unsettling homage to Fellini

Films in brief

June 16, 2000

"8 1/2 Women"

Sun score: * 1/2

If Federico Fellini had hated women, rather than found them obsessively fascinating, and if the character played by Marcello Mastroianni had been bisexual, this is the sort of film the Italian master's "8 1/2 " could have been.

Peter Greenaway's "8 1/2 Women" proves Fellini made the right choices.

Greenaway, who applies the "unsettling" label to his films as a matter of pride (see "Prospero's Books" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"), pays homage to Fellini with this story of a father and son reeling from the death of the older man's wife and the younger man's mother.

The two men, drawing inspiration from a Fellini film they attend, bring several women to the elder's country estate and operate it as a sort of private brothel. The women include a prostitute; a hapless gambler who sells her body to pay her debts; a nun (Toni Collette, "The Sixth Sense") who shaves her head and strips; and a horse thief (Amanda Plummer) who makes love to a giant hog.

And these are the sympathetic characters!

"8 1/2 Women" is filled with Felliniesque images. There's an image of the father holding a power drill to his head, and another of a naked woman in traction with pancake makeup on her face. But the film has little of Fellini's spirit. His movie was about inspiration and the creative muse, about what an artist draws on for his art. Greenaway's film is about making people's jaws drop.- Chris Kaltenbach

"Boys and Girls"

Sun score: ** 1/2

Ryan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is an uptight mama's boy who's perfectly content to remain chaste until his girlfriend returns from college. Jennifer (Claire Forlani) is a free spirit whose biggest fear is finding herself in a committed relationship.

They meet as pre-teens, dislike each other instantly, and keep running into each other every few years. The only thing they're good at doing together is getting on each other's nerves.

Of course, they're meant for each other. Didn't you see "When Harry Met Sally?"

Like all formulaic films, the success of "Boys and Girls" rests on how well its stars connect, and this one starts off rough. Prinze simply tries too hard, turning Ryan into a cartoon caricature of meek - sort of like a Clark Kent who was never going to turn into Superman. And Forlani's Jennifer is too irritating for anybody's good.

But soon their edges temper each other a bit, and Andrew Lowery and Andrew Miller's script stops trying so hard to emphasize their differences.

Prinze and Forlani are allowed to play characters a little closer to themselves, and "Boys and Girls" turns into an amusing showcase for two of Hollywood's most appealing young actors- Chris Kaltenbach

"Passion of Mind"

Sun score: *

Quick: You're the Belgian director Alain Berliner, you've just received a wave of justified critical acclaim for the touching and inventive "Ma Vie en Rose" and you're approached by screenwriter Ron Bass (Hollywood product-extruder) to direct a vanity vehicle for Demi Moore (Hollywood product). You say, A) "Get thee behind me, Satan" or B) "Where do I sign?"

Unfortunately for all of us, B) was Berliner's final answer, and the result isn't pretty.

Actually, it is pretty, but that's all it is.

Filmed in burnished luxuriousness in southern France, as well as the slick-looking midtown environs of Manhattan, "Passion of Mind" is all about the look, from Moore's fanciful costumes to the plethora of flickering candles.

Yet one more example of today's obsession with parallel-universe, what-if stories (see "Me Myself I" and "Sliding Doors"), "Passion of Mind" concerns a driven career gal who has dreams of being a mother in Provence.

Or maybe it's the other way around.

Moore's character doesn't know which side of the looking glass she's gazing into, but she doesn't much seem to care, as long as she's looking into it. We don't care, either, and as events take an increasingly cloying turn, the audience desperately tries to wrest itself from catatonia.

Let's hope that Mr. Berliner wakes up as well.-Ann Hornaday

"West Beirut"

Sun score: ***

"West Beirut" recalls such neo-realist wartime chronicles as "Rome, Open City" and "Battle of Algiers," not for its sense of immediacy or intensity, but for remarkably powerful performances from its young, untrained cast.

Rami Doueiri, whose brother Ziad makes his feature directorial debut here, plays Tarek, a Lebanese schoolboy just coming into adolescence at the dawn of that country's civil war.

Tarek, his best friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas) and May (Rola Al Amin) roam the embattled, once-elegant city of Beirut in a bedraggled "Jules et Jim"-like trio.

Their youthful exploits - making Super-8 films, experiencing their first glimmers of sexuality, wearing American blue jeans, listening to Paul Anka - take on a high-stakes edge against the potentially deadly backdrop of factional war.

Chamas, who with his turned-up collars and drooping cigarette resembles a pint-size John Cassavetes performer, makes an especially strong impression as a sly troublemaker trying to make his wily way in peace.

"West Beirut" is a disjointed hodgepodge of images, characters and vignettes, most of them taken from the filmmaker's memories of his own early life in Beirut. But its cumulative effect, personified by Chamas (who in real life lives as an orphan in a Lebanese refugee camp), is the particular, bitter sorrow of a stolen childhood.- Ann Hornaday

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