The Austin Chronicle


Kenneth Branagh and Julie Christie in Hamlet. Mel who?

December 4, 1998, Screens


D: Daisy Von Scherler Mayer (1998)

with Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tommy Davidson, LL Cool J, Dave Chapelle, Billy Dee Williams

The title itself is fairly stupid (as are many of the scenarios presented within the film), but all is not rotten in the world of Woo. Imagine a cross between Blake Edwards' mediocre Blind Date and Martin Scorsese's clever After Hours. The result is a film that is quite funny at times yet pretty flaccid at others. Jada Pinkett-Smith stars as Woo, a sexy, street-smart babe who's looking for the right man. Enter blind date Tim (Tommy Davidson), a nice guy who's been pussywhipped up and down the block a few times. Together, they embark on a series of nightlife adventures in New York. From a botched dinner at an exclusive bistro to jealous old flames to a stolen car, the evening becomes a date from hell for both parties (although it's apparent that they're right for each other). As Woo, Pinkett-Smith is a natural, using her petite physical assets and sly grin to melt men's wills. Davidson is a perfect complement to her sassiness, never playing Tim as a completely straight man, nor a total buffoon. While their chemistry is cute enough, the film's pacing seems disjointed at times, with awkward supporting characters (save, of course, LL Cool J as Darryl, guru to all players) and an overdose of cornball situations. Despite any imperfections, there is an asinine charm to Woo that makes it watchable. Its tight performances and consistent script are certainly commendable. But above all, this film's unabashed absurdity serves as the ultimate tool in making it rise above otherwise meager expectations. --Mike Emery


D: Russ Meyer (1964)

with Lorna Maitland, Mark Bradley, James Rucker, Hal Hopper, Frank Bolger, James Griffith

"A woman ... too much for one man," said the adbooks for Russ Meyer's Lorna. Meyer's earlier films leaned more toward glaringly un-PC Gothic backwoods bodice-rippers; Lorna is the story of the pulchritudinous, eponymous housewife who is bored with her lot in life and her marriage to her long-on-muscles, short-on-personality husband. When he goes off for a day's toil in the salt mines (yes, literally!), Lorna decides to go for a gratuitous nude swim in the bayou, showing off her improbably voluptuous bod, but when she gets out she's confronted with an escaped convict (Bradley)! He forces himself on her, but rather than fight back, she assents and invites him back to the shack for some more of the same. Meanwhile, husband Jim (Rucker) tolerates the leering, salacious remarks from gross co-worker Luther (Hopper) until he can't take anymore, and the two wind up in a shovel fight with each other. After whuppin' some mutual ass with Jim as the reluctant victor, the co-workers head back to Jim's crib (it's Jim and Lorna's anniversary, so Jim has a half-day off while his wife seduces a total stranger), where they discover Lorna's tryst with the escaped con. Periodically, a bearded hellfire-and-brimstone preacher (James Griffith, who also wrote the screenplay) turns up to rail about their immoral lives and eternal damnation. A Bergman homage of sorts appears when the hooded figure of Death has a cameo, leading critics of the time to call Meyer "the Tennessee Truffaut." Actually, this debased tale is closer to a cut-rate Flannery O'Connor or Faulkner in its narrative, with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek moralizing from the Man of God. Simultaneously entertaining and repugnant, Lorna marked the tail end of Russ Meyer's soggy-melodrama phase, as his films moved toward the increasingly cartoonish and surreal macho fantasies of Ultravixens, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Common Law Cabin, and Cherry, Harry and Raquel later in the Sixties and Seventies. While very much a product of the times, Meyer's early Sixties movies are much different than the usual nudie/roughie/quickie grindhouse fare that was so prevalent then. "Longing ... lust ... love ... life," murmured the adbooks, but Russ Meyer's films have about as little to do with real life as his amazing women have to do with the average gal. --Jerry Renshaw


D: Kenneth Branagh (1996)

with Kenneth Branagh, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, Kate Winslet

I refused to sit through Kenneth Branagh's full-length Hamlet when it played theatrically at the home of the ubiquitous spring-loaded seat, the Village, in late 1996, but eagerly anticipated its recent arrival on videocassette. With four hours of screen time, expect to spend a full day viewing the double-tape film, especially if you opt for intermissions and rewinds. You may also want to have a written copy of the play handy, as following along in the text when the actors' voices reach breakneck speed is a great aid in keeping track of who's who and what's going on. With Branagh the unequivocal modern-day master at adapting Shakespeare and playing his parts (he certainly has a better understanding of the Dane than Mel Gibson did), this is probably the best the Bard has ever been on the silver screen. Cinéastes will enjoy the mountain of cameos, too, some of which succeed better than others. While 99% of the script is faithful to the original, it's the 1% that Branagh has altered that gives the story a little more clarity, passion, and life. In fact, he was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for the film, a move I'm beginning to understand. In any case, high school English students everywhere will rejoice in the fact that they can finally put away those darn textbooks for good in favor of a video rental ... and their parents may find they enjoy the experience as well.--Christopher Null

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