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MAY 18, 1998: 

Woo

In a recent interview with the Village Voice, Spike Lee said, "I don't want to sound like Amiri Baraka or something, like I'm the gatekeeper of black cinema, but c'mon. A lot of these films that are coming out are just bullshit."

Woo is the latest example of the "bullshit" Spike's talking about. Here we have Jada Pinkett Smith as Darlene "Woo" Bates, a sassy New York party girl with a nefarious way of treating men. When a psychic friend tells Darlene that the man of her dreams is about to enter her life, she agrees to go on a blind date with law clerk Tim (Tommy Davidson). The stuffy yuppie clashes with snooty Darlene; she indirectly gets his car stolen, and she certainly doesn't appreciate his effort in treating her to fine Italian cuisine.

Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer, Woo offers endless slapstick gags that are lame and obvious. Boxer shorts catch on fire, characters fall down at the most inopportune times, arguments are spawned by chaste hugs of friendship that are misunderstood by witnesses. Mayer has Pinkett Smith reprising, to no greater avail, Parker Posey's turn in the director's previous film, Party Girl. She's pampered and whiny and utterly annoying. A crass film from first frame to last, Woo leaves one wondering why it's so easy for studios to woo black audiences with crap like this.

-- Danny Lorber


The Horse Whisperer

In nearly three hours of relentless montages of horses roaming the lusciously photographed Montana Big Country in Robert Redford's enervating The Horse Whisperer, there's not one speck of manure to be seen. As one admiring colleague pointed out, this adaptation of the Nicholas Evans's bestseller combines Dances with Wolves with Bridges of Madison County (I'd throw in Redford's own Ordinary People as well) but does so with such ponderous manipulativeness and self-congratulatory good taste that some fine performances and genuine moments of feeling go to waste.

The disturbed teenager in this story is 13-year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson), whose patrician parents -- Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a high-powered Manhattan magazine editor, and Robert (Sam Neill), a tony attorney -- provide her with such accessories as a Kentucky thoroughbred named Pilgrim but not much in the way of familial love. In a shocking accident reminiscent of a shorter and better horse movie, Lonely Are the Brave, both Grace and Pilgrim are severely injured, mentally and physically, and Annie takes them cross-country to the ranch of Tom Booker (Redford), a man blessed with a mystic gift for communicating with horses and other beasts.

It's a film of tiny moments inflated into climaxes, and very gradually does the scarred Pilgrim begin to respond to a human touch, the hobbled Grace cease being snotty and sullen, and the haughty Annie shed her career-woman pretenses and turn into Brandon de Wilde in Shane. Over it all shines the beatific, backlit grin of Redford trying his damnedest to turn this shit into shinola.

-- Peter Keough


Shooting Fish

Director Stefan Schwartz's romp about young swindlers in London unabashedly loots the pop flicks of the '60s. There are herky-jerky chase scenes, crayon-bright hues, and a hip soundtrack that juxtaposes crunchy guitars with Burt Bacharach. Amid all the self-conscious whimsy, the relentlessly smug Dan Futterman (The Birdcage) and puddle-eyed Stuart Townsend star as flim-flammers who rip off the rich so that they can buy a big house (they're orphans, you see).

The buddies are joined by gamine gal pal Kate Beckinsale (Hero in Kenneth Branagh's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Emma in A&E's Emma), and not a moment too soon. Her Audrey Hepburn spunk saves the film from choking on its coyness, even when her character gets involved in some convoluted family affairs. Our heroes tussle for her heart, though Townsend's techno-geek, complete with plastered hair and uni-brow, looks too unshowered to be a truly fetching suitor. Despite the trio's straining to be madcap, the airy and occasionally spirited Shooting Fish inevitably curdles the infectious into the affected.

-- Alicia Potter


Quest for Camelot

An animated adventure/love story set in the realm of King Arthur? With the voices of Gabriel Byrne (Excalibur), Eric Idle (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride)? It even has a feminist slant: young Kayley wants to be a Knight of the Round Table, as her father was, and she vows, with the help of a young, blind hermit, to even the score with his murderer, the evil Ruber (spoken and sung with gruesome perfection by Gary Oldman). Even Sir John Gielgud lends some legitimacy, as the voice of Merlin. Why, this almost sounds worthwhile!

But the saccharine, sappy songs (thanks so much, Celine Dion, Steve Perry, and Carole Bayer Sager) make Quest for Camelot nearly unwatchable (with the sound on, at any rate). Pity, since the musical score by Patrick Doyle (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing) is first rate. Idle and Don Rickles star as the requisite odd couple, a two-headed dragon named Devon and Cornwall -- they're no Timon and Pumbaa, but they do have the one good musical number in the entire film. Bring the kids, buy up the toys from the fast-food chain, but don't expect to be entertained . . . much.

-- Peg Aloi


A Friend of the Deceased

Times are tough in Kiev, where it costs about a million rubles for a bottle of Smirnov and the only jobs that pay cold hard American cash are in the black market or worse. For intellectuals like Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), the prospect of making a living translating business reports or giving English lessons to crass, nouveau capitalists is grim. When wife Katia (Angelika Nevolina) leaves him for a colleague with a flashy red Ford, Anatoli drunkenly takes up an offer from his friend Dima (Eugen Pachin) to hook him up with a contract killer. Instead of targeting his wife or her lover, however, he sets up himself.

Although its premise is almost identical to Aki Kaurismäki's black comic I Hired a Contract Killer and has echoes of Abbas Kiarostami's recent masterpiece Taste of Cherry, Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's film resonates with a haunting melancholy all its own. Unfolding with crystalline spareness, it's given depth and clarity by Lazarev's rueful, laconic performance and is brightened by a tiny, winsome Tatiana Krivitska as the hooker with a heart of US greenbacks who tweaks Anatoli's soul. Her intervention sets him on a path in which he realizes that not only is life worth living, it's worth being responsible for. In a culture where all else has been devalued, A Friend of the Deceased argues that a conscience can still have currency.

-- Peter Keough


Artemisia

Agnès Merlet has promising material in this story of Europe's "first acknowledged female painter" (no mention of Hildegard von Bingen), but she turns it into a French version of Masterpiece Theatre, with bittersweet romantic music and whispered voiceovers. The year is 1610, the city is Rome, and 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi) is, like her artist father, Orazio (Michel Serrault), a disciple of Caravaggio -- but women aren't permitted to study male anatomy or enter the Academy of Arts. Her father allows her to become the pupil of his collaborator, the Florentine painter Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), whereupon Artemisia winds up studying Agostino's anatomy, not to mention techniques that go beyond art. Furious, Orazio drags Agostino into court and charges him with rape; he gets two years in prison and a tearful Artemisia never sees him again, though she does go on to be a famous painter.

Why Orazio Gentileschi risked scandal to take his daughter's seducer to court is a mystery Merlet doesn't penetrate in this combination feminist anthem and tale of sexual awakening that would sit more comfortably in 1910. (Artemisia runs about with a freedom Emily Brontë scarcely dreamed of.) There's no acknowledgment that Artemisia eventually married, and no attempt to explain her passion for depicting Judith's beheading of Holofernes (the one real painting of hers we see, a self-portrait, was actually done in the 1630s). Cervi, Serrault, and Manojlovic do good work, but Merlet lionizes these three worthy painters as if they were Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Artemisia deserves better -- she was a woman and an artist, not a female icon of sexual and personal freedom.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


Level Five

French filmmaker Chris Marker's prolific career has been distinguished by his artful melding of genres, primarily historical documentary, multimedia, and science fiction. In Level Five, he continues his inimitable exploration of the interactions among history, memory, and the visual image. This dense, intricate mosaic traces a woman's obsessive odyssey as she reconstructs a video game left unfinished by her deceased lover. He was a computer artist, she was a writer, and their relationship, once lived away from the computer screen, is now wholly housed within it. The subject of the game: the Battle of Okinawa, in the twilight of World War II. To finish the game, a player must re-create in scrupulous veracity every last detail of the war through cyber-imagery: the newsreels, the bombings, the mass suicides.

As in his acclaimed La jetée (which inspired Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys), Marker here seeks to reinvent the way we experience history. By questioning the reliability of visual memory, and indicting all media as a confluence of lies, confusion, and betrayal, he fashions a provocative cinema of distrust. This film demands every cell of your cerebellum, but its compelling surreality is hard to shake off.

-- Peg Aloi



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