02/11/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Directed by Spike Lee
Opens February 13

Self-reflexivity pervades Spike Lee’s remake of Ganja & Hess, including references to the dance opening of Do the Right Thing, a love of the Knicks, and the director’s 40 Acres and a Mule production company. This levity alters Bill Gunn’s poetic, somber original, and it gives Lee’s latest a youthful humor that’s been missing from his work for the last decade. Even after anthropologist Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is turned into a vampiric addict by a cursed, ancient knife, he initially gets most of his daily drama from his white liberal peers, who pepper him with oblivious microaggressions and tokenism and even demand that he add vodka and lemon to this new, red organic drink of his.

Lee’s film largely follows its predecessor in plot, letting Hess grapple with his new nature before introducing the mysterious, erotic Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) into the mix to complicate the blood play. But it diverges mostly sharply in how the director’s aesthetic preoccupations are prioritized. Gunn’s hallucinogenic work used collages of synchronous and contrapuntal imagery to suggest a fractured, unreconciled set of indigenous, forced, and willfully assimilated histories that make up African-American identity. But Lee works in concrete and even flourishes like a double-dolly of Hess floating toward repentance are rooted in crisp shots uncluttered by too much detail. One shot, of Hess slumped in a clinic waiting room corner, the camera placed so high his head barely sits within an angled frame, even recalls the modern master of expressionistic realism, Pedro Costa.

Lee’s more literal approach occasionally grinds the film to a halt, especially in the heightened bourgeois ennui of the second half. Nonetheless, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus recalls the self-financed comeback work of Francis Ford Coppola, in which a drastically reduced budget paradoxically frees its maker to indulge his wildest whims. This can be seen in the numerous small flashes of idiosyncratic visual stamps throughout, as well as in larger narrative transitions like the film’s most revitalizing moment, a lengthy detour at a church service entirely given over to an ecstatic performance by a youth band who appear to be preaching the Gospel According to Michael Jackson.

12/17/14 4:42pm
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Directed by Peter Jackson
Opens December 17

After two interminable films of garish animation, overlit 3D compensation and endless padding, the final Hobbit movie attains some degree of beauty at the beginning of its overdue end. Dispatching Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) before the title credit appears, the film redirects focus onto the ghastly toll the dragon took on the inhabitants of Laketown, as well as the legacy of his accursed treasure as it swiftly corrupts newly triumphant dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage). For a brief moment, Peter Jackson seems to remember the point of Tolkien’s literature.


10/22/14 4:00am

Goodbye to Language
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Opens October 29

The use of 3D in Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature is so singular, so wrapped up in the director’s intellectual concerns with the material nature of cinema, that to call it the best ever application of the technology is almost underselling the achievement. Depth of field limitations are accentuated, then overcome, through extreme distances between people and objects, and items that “protrude” from the screen, like the snout of unofficial star Roxy Miéville (Godard’s dog), are perhaps the first 3D shots that genuinely look as if they have leapt off the screen to speed straight for the audience. Most bewildering of all are shots that send one of the stereoscopic cameras veering off after other action, producing a kind of neo-superimposition that overloads the senses in more ways than one.

Compared to the historical, political and aesthetic density of Godard’s other late-period works, Goodbye to Language is stripped-down, with fragments of half-glimpsed narratives and ideas given more space to breathe than in the usual collages. Yet this reduction in complexity becomes an indictment of reductiveness itself. A woman regularly asks passers-by if “it is possible to produce a concept of Africa,” a challenge so difficult to answer that it is not immediately apparent that to conceptualize Africa as a whole, instead of the continent’s diversity, is itself an oversimplification. Likewise, a debate between a nude woman and her bathroom-occupying lover lets the man pontificate about the differences between the sexes while suggesting that he is literally full of shit.

Godard stages these scenes as admission of the insolubility of ostensibly simple concepts, and he even throws in quotations and recollections of his earlier films to criticize their failure, be they they early genre deconstructions or later essays, to adequately articulate his thoughts. Notorious for his cerebral irascibility, the director humbly ends his film with an imagined conversation between two dogs, suggesting he cannot say anything more profound or true about the property of any idea or object than some mutts scampering around each other.