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The Fearmakers: On Spike Lee’s ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’

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Spike Lee followed 2013’s underwhelming Oldboy with a far more engaging reworking of a cult classic. In Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee updates Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess – an expressionistic vampire feature which uses its horror trappings as a way to reflect on deeper socio-political concerns of black identity, cultural imperialism and the place of religion in 1970s America. This is, then, prime material for Lee, and although Da Sweet Blood of Jesus sticks closely to the plot, characterization, and dialogue of Gunn’s original, the filmmaker finds a way to put his own distinct spin on the source material. The personal stamp is evident from its very first moment, an intoxicating montage comprised of shots of the street dancer Lil Buck Jooks languidly breakdancing across a series of Brooklyn locations to Bruce Hornsby’s soft, melancholy string score. The sequence self-consciously recalls the iconic opening scene of Do the Right Thing, although Rosie Perez’s defiant, exuberant movements have been replaced by a register that is more gentle and resigned. The street dynamic street tableaux form a kind of mini-travelogue which captures, in only 3 minutes, Lee’s New York in microcosm: a Knicks-branded basketball court; a housing project in development; an alleyway marked with graffiti; Red Hook church; and a picturesque riverfront from which the Statue of Liberty can faintly be seen in the far distance. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful scene, simultaneously reflecting on Lee’s artistic legacy, the history of his hometown, and the persistence of racial inequality.

This is, then, clearly a late-period work, then, and, although Lee’s sense of hope for the establishment of a fairer society can never be fully extinguished, a sense of deep melancholy infuses every moment of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. It is difficult to not detect a note of self-implication in Lee’s portrayal of Dr. Hess Green, a moneyed African-American art historian who struggles to balance his desire to remain true to his cultural roots with the pressure to assimilate into the codes of white elitist society which is an integral part of being rich in the United States. To be wealthy, for Hess, means having the cultural position to preserve countless priceless African artifacts, but it also means profiting from the capital of a country built on the systematic exploitation of blacks, and which continues to accrue wealth through the structural marginalization of minorities. In an early scene, Hess warns a black co-worker not to visit him at home unannounced, as he is the only non-white living in Martha’s Vineyard, and their meeting may arouse paranoia in his neighbours. Regrettably, Hess is often put in the position of presenting his collection of artifacts to a white audience who view them as nothing more than decorative consumer objects. America is, as Hess describes it, a “blood society”, in which the privileged parasitically profit from the suffering of those less fortunate. This metaphor is literalized when his unstable co-worker Hightower stabs him with a cursed Ashanti blade, forcing upon Hess an insatiable appetite for blood. At first, Hess tries to satiate this desire through peaceful means – stealing sacks from a blood bank and feeding off the corpses of men who have died in other circumstances – but soon his more predatory drives take over, and he begins to prey on living victims; his targets are predominantly female, black and belonging to a lower economic class.

Da-Sweet-Blood-of-Jesus

In contrast to the formal hysterics of Gunn’s original, the tone of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is eerily placid. It is composed of elegant, wide-screen images which project a consistent sense of grace that is at odds with the often grotesque violence on display; the vibrant, sunlit colour palette – awash with golds, searing reds, and light blues – is a far cry from the murky, under-lit tones of Gunn’s film. This surface calm is expressive of the bubble of privilege that Hess’ wealth has built up around him, allowing him to exploit society’s have-nots while remaining fundamentally alienated from their experience. Lee has also replaced the crumbling Victorian castle of Ganja and Hess with a chintzy beachside villa, a modernist spectacle constructed mostly out of glass walls and faux-marble surfaces. Hess has covered the place with African objet d’art, as if straining to feign off the effects of gentrification and provide a concrete link to his heritage. Lee’s Hess is less a ravenous monster than a pained, aloof, distant man unable to reconcile his personal morality with his vices; be that blood, sex, alcohol, or luxury commodities.

Hess’ hermetic isolation is interrupted when the deceased Hightower’s wife, Ganja, arrives at the mansion looking for her husband, but, instead falls into Hess’ arms. The two begin a passionate love affair which soon sees them both descend into bloodlust, and it is these scenes that Lee demonstrates his often-overlook aptitude for tender eroticism. Lee compliments the rhythm of the images with a remarkably rich aural texture, combining Hornsby’s mesmerizing score with a soundtrack that encompasses minimalist hip-hop, industrial rock and neo-soul. Lee carefully compiled the songs from an online open call for unsigned musicians, part of a wider ambition to produce as much of the movie outside the confines of the studio system as possible, which included a very public Kickstarter campaign to raise the meager $1.4 million budget. The shoestring nature of its production may lend Da Sweet Blood of Jesus the appearance of a minor work, but, under closer inspection, it reveals itself to be one of the richest and most experimental works in the recent filmography of one of our greatest living auteurs. For over two decades, Lee, unfortunately, failed to receive the critical or commercial attention that greeted the release of his earlier canonical masterworks like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Hopefully the phenomenal success of BlackKklansman last year will inspire a wider re-appraisal of unjustly maligned works like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Chi-Raq, and Red Hook Summer.

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1 Comment

  1. Dome

    March 17, 2019 at 3:15 am

    So true, a well written synopsis of the movie. Its not the Spike lee movies its the man people dont like. Their reasons are simply obvious as Spike touches the right nerves, that’s why he is s great director. I love the movie so many stories as brilliantly said in the movie. Most critics also are not true to the job, looking gor for something to criticise,, then the haters being narrow minded seize on this without watching or jusr fail to see what I and others see. Just reminded me need to see it again.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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