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02/11/15 9:00am
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02/11/2015 9:00 AM |

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.

02/04/15 2:16pm
02/04/2015 2:16 PM |

joeversusthevolcano

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Directed by John Patrick Shanley

Before Shanley was the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Doubt (but after he was the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck), he wrote and helmed this big-budget comic-fairy-tale curiosity, whose narrative plays out like Woody Allen’s filmmaking evolution in reverse: it starts as smart, existential black comedy and ends in broad, zany caricature. Seemingly so insecure directing the Doubt movie 18 years later, with its attention-seeking camera angles and soaring musical cues, Shanley here is a confident cinematic master; it’s an Allenish film not just in tone but also in its sophisticated, superwidescreen cinematography (by Stephen Goldblatt), as terrible a victim of pan-and-scan as Manhattan. The excellent cast features not just Tom Hanks at his youthful best and classic character actors in bit parts (Dan Hedaya!) but also Meg Ryan, in three roles in three hair colors in three acts as three love interests. Her versatility will impress even a jaded New York cinephile who long ago wrote her off as romcom bullshit. Henry Stewart (Feb 4, 8pm, at IFC Center’s “Celluloid Dreams,” with Shanley in person)