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Peter Greenaway calls 8 1/2 Women “my eighth-and-a-half feature film”—which is not strictly true. If a feature is defined by its running time, then this is the wildly idiosyncratic British director’s 10th. It’s hard to guess which of his previous films he’s not counting, but it’s easy to see why he classifies his latest as a half. This partial homage to Fellini—whose 8 1/2 really was his eighth-and-a-half film—is an uncharacteristically informal affair. Compared with the work of most filmmakers, of course, 8 1/2 Women is overstuffed with images and ideas. By Greenaway’s own standards, however, it’s practically Road Trip.
Indeed, 8 1/2 Women is, in part, a sex comedy, albeit one designed for people with an interest in contemporary Japanese architecture, Renaissance painting, erotic archetypes, parental death, nudity, games, numbers, money—you know, the usual. Yet the film also delivers on the new freedom promised by the handheld, on-the-street Hong Kong scenes of Greenaway’s previous feature, The Pillow Book. Liberated from the sets that imprisoned The Baby of Macon and especially Prospero’s Books, Greenaway shows an unexpected interest in found objects, pop culture, and chance events. When an earthquake shakes the Kyoto apartment of callow young European businessman Storey Emmenthal (Matthew Delamere), he responds by yelling the titles of Nirvana and Mekons songs out the window. (Punk rock in a Greenaway film? Is there anything he doesn’t know?)
In The Pillow Book, Japan exemplified classical formality while Hong Kong represented contemporary pandemonium. Here, Japan is a neon wonderland of kitsch and sex, embodied by the pachinko parlors Storey runs for his father, Philip (John Standing), and the ritualized sex of Kyoto’s geisha district. (Most of the modern Japanese buildings shown in the film are actually in Tokyo or Kiryu.) Philip has no interest in prostitution until his wife dies and the dispassionate Storey takes his distraught father to see 8 1/2. Inspired by the famous fantasy sequence in which Marcello Mastroianni presides over an unruly harem, Philip and Storey decide to fill the father’s mansion in Geneva (Europe’s prostitution capital, says Greenaway) with various erotic icons: sexual libertine Palmira (Polly Walker), uptight businesswoman Kito (Pillow Book star Vivian Wu), sexy nun Griselda (Toni Collette), animal-lover Beryl (Amanda Plummer), pachinko addict Simato (Shizuka Inoh), faithful maid Clothilde (Barbara Sarafian), perennially pregnant Giaconda (Natacha Amal), and Mio (Kirina Mano), a stereotypically delicate Japanese beauty whose own sexual predilection is for onagata, the men (usually gay) who play female roles in Kabuki theater. (The half-woman is the legless Guilietta, a character Greenaway doesn’t feature— which is probably just as well.)
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The director often describes himself as a painter, and he has denounced the notion that cinema needs to follow the storytelling model of novels and plays. Yet 8 1/2 Women has more narrative drive than many of his films. As the women gradually leave the mansion, the film suggests Drowning by Numbers in reverse. (There is in fact a drowning scene, complete with a witty if obvious allusion to Hamlet.) In both films, it is the women (mostly) who survive. If Greenaway can’t see women in any other terms than as aesthetic archetypes—which is, to be fair, how he sees most everything—he doesn’t deny their strength. Father and son may have the power to assemble a harem, but they’re the ones who are most bereft when it disintegrates.
After he finished The Pillow Book, Greenaway announced that his next film would be the eight-hour Tulse Luper’s Suitcase. 8 1/2 Women is clearly a fill-in project, one that was not crafted with the filmmaker’s customary care. The offhand, playful style suits the kinetic Japanese sequences better than the stately Swiss ones, where the classical proportions of the Emmenthal mansion seem to trap Greenaway into formal compositions that recall his stodgier films. (The footage from both countries was shot, often apparently with available light, by longtime collaborator Sacha Vierny.) Although the surprisingly gag-filled script musters the usual array of learned allusions, it also makes some unusually obvious jokes, including some that are outright groaners. (Is this why the principal characters are named for a cheese?)
These weaknesses leave the film vulnerable, and it was widely panned when released in Britain last year, in part to rebuke the director for past excess and general bombast. 8 1/2 Women is a bit of a mess, but that’s not such a bad thing. Although not as satisfying as the director’s best work, it does show him continuing to try—as self-defeating as this may seem—to loosen up. Greenaway’s eternal theme is tension between order and chaos, and here he casts a tentative vote for the latter. Shut up the mansion, and bring on the earthquake!
In the beginning, there was Bond. James Bond, Ian Fleming’s glamorization of the British agents who in real life had been bungling the Cold War throughout Europe and the Middle East. Then American TV took over, creating The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which, despite its singular title, was actually a buddy variation on the solo-spy format, and Mission: Impossible, in which an entire team was arrayed against the forces of darkness. A generation later, Hollywood revived the latter concept and—faced with superstar ego, a force more implacable than the Warsaw Pact—promptly wiped out the team. Now, Tom Cruise is back after several years working on his real mission impossible, Eyes Wide Shut, and he’s not even pretending to be a team player. All that’s left is Hunt. Ethan Hunt.
M:I-2, a bloated movie with a stripped-down title, follows the Bond-flick schema faithfully. The action begins when evil turncoat Sean (Dougray Scott) evilly acquires a potentially apocalyptic weapon (biological rather than nuclear, for what that’s worth), requiring our hero to hop continents (Utah to Spain to Australia) to retrieve it. But first he must meet, recruit, and instantly fall in love with bad girl Nyah (Thandie Newton), an upscale thief and Sean’s ex, who will be redeemed by a single night of PG-13 passion with Ethan. Considering how long the Bond franchise has been on life support, replicating it is a particularly bizarre choice for Cruise, the film’s co-producer. At least it presents a likelier opportunity for a string of sequels than, say, the novels of L. Ron Hubbard.
As the Bond brain trust did for Tomorrow Never Dies, Cruise and company turned to the only logical source for help in reinventing the action movie: Hong Kong. They enlisted mayhem maestro John Woo, who provides some nifty juxtapositions and a few new twists on his trademark moves. (The final confrontation turns on a variation of the hidden-gun gambit introduced in Woo’s Better Tomorrow series.) But there’s only so much that the director can do with the tiresome script (credited to Robert Towne, although it plays like a multirewrite hash), and using so much of his patented slo-mo in a movie with such a dawdling pace is a crucial error.
Both Ethan and Sean are masters of disguise—a gimmick that (after Face/Off) has become another Woo cliche. Still, the movie’s many face-peeling scenes are no more predictable than the swooping aerial shots, Hans Zimmer’s world-mess score (techno beats, flamenco guitar, Eastern European women’s chorus), and the profusion of Brits and Celts apparently hired to class up the production. In addition to Afro-Brit Newton and Welshman Scott (inexplicably using a Scottish accent), there are Irishman Brendan Gleeson (as a ruthless pharmaceutical company president) and Anthony Hopkins (as M:I’s unnamed boss, who might as well be called M). Cruise and Ving Rhames (the first film’s two survivors) are virtually the only Americans—if you don’t count all the Kodak product placement as a supporting character.
Perhaps because the vertiginous heights, shattered windows, and exploding cars all look utterly familiar—even a cell infected by a killer virus explodes as if a bazooka shell had just hit its gas tank—the filmmakers seem desperate to add something unexpected. They’ve succeeded, although what they’ve found is not to their credit: misogyny. Ethan and Nyah’s love is supposed to be true—at least until M:I-3—but most of the male leads are allotted at least one male-chauvinist slur, beginning with the M:I bossman’s remark that Nyah needs no training to deceive Sean because “she’s a woman.” (Is this motif the lingering scent of Cruise’s woman-hating role in Magnolia?) The epigrammatic tough-guy dialogue suggests that Towne thinks he’s still writing Chinatown, and the movie’s casual sexism would be more convincing in that milieu. When Sean cracks that women are like monkeys—”they won’t let go of a branch until they get a hold on the next one”—you have to wonder if the jibe doesn’t better describe sequel-clinging Hollywood stars and producers.
Jackie Chan has a problem. The Hong Kong comedy/action star modeled his career on such agile silent-film stars as Harold Lloyd, creating a physical style that—although Americans were slow to pick up on it—needed no translation. Now 46, an age at which most athletes, dancers, and gymnasts have been retired for a decade or two, he’s still better at swinging on ropes than speaking English. So he’s turned to making Hollywood buddy movies, in which his co-star must talk enough for two characters.
In Rush Hour, Chan’s first U.S. team-up, the setting was contemporary and the chatterbox was Chris Tucker; in the new Shanghai Noon, the place is the Old West and the mouth is Owen Wilson. This doesn’t make for as much variation as Chan and first-time director Tom Dey might have imagined. Both movies begin with the kidnapping of a Chinese female (an 11-year-old in that movie, Ally McBeal costar Lucy Liu as a princess in this one) and both present Chan (this time he’s Imperial Guard member Chon Wang; the name is supposed to sound like “John Wayne”) as an outsider who first battles and then allies with another outsider (this time Wilson as train robber Roy O’Bannon). So what’s different? Well, Shanghai Noon has Indians.
Chan whirls through a few good bits, battling attackers with tree branches and a set of decorative antlers and culminating with a showdown on treacherously unfastened floor slats in a church belfry. (The many cuts in these sequences, though, suggest that Chan’s movements are not as seamless as they once were.) As for Wilson, he portrays exactly the same garrulous, narcissistic wannabe-criminal he played in Bottle Rocket, which he co-wrote. (The script is credited to Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, but Wilson surely composed some of his own dialogue.) Chan fans who quickly tire of Wilson’s schtick should expect to be getting their kicks from the video store for a while: Chan and Wilson have already committed to a Shanghai Noon sequel. CP