Thursday, May 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2015) and CUT BANK (2015)

(US - 2015)

Though his influence is still felt in new films like Justin Simien's DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, in recent years, Spike Lee has done his best work on low-profile documentaries and really only makes mainstream news when he's pissed-off at a geriatric white director. After his remake of OLDBOY was taken away from him and recut by producers only to end up being one of the biggest bombs of 2013, Lee wanted to make a small film with total creative control and turned to Kickstarter to crowdfund his unlikely next narrative effort: a remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 cult horror oddity GANJA & HESS. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS follows the 1973 film very closely--so closely, in fact, that Gunn, who died in 1989, shares a screenwriting credit with Lee. Like Lee, Gunn was a maverick with experience playing the Hollywood game--he was a veteran TV actor and wrote Hal Ashby's 1970 film THE LANDLORD. GANJA & HESS was supposed to be a low-budget blaxploitation vampire film but Gunn fashioned it as a gritty and challenging art film. It also existed in a more blaxploitative cut called BLOOD COUPLE that Gunn hated, but GANJA & HESS' cult following remains strong over 40 years later, and has even aired on Turner Classic Movies. Lee obviously loves the film, since DA SWEET BLOOD is an almost scene-for-scene tribute, shot in just 16 days and doing its damnedest to emulate the look and feel of Gunn's seminal contribution to African-American cinema. Wealthy anthropologist Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams, in a role played by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's Duane Jones in the 1973 film) is studying the Ashanti Empire, an ancient African culture for whom the consumption of blood became an addiction. He's stabbed to death with a cursed Ashanti dagger by his suicidal research assistant Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco). Lafayette succeeds in killing himself and when Hess awakens from the dead the next morning, he not only hides the body but has an insatiable thirst for blood, first stealing packets from a blood donation center and eventually picking up a prostitute, slashing her throat, and consuming her blood (there's a brief AIDS scare for Hess in one of Lee's few attempts at updating the story). Eventually, Lafayette's British ex-wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) arrives at Hess' Martha's Vineyard summer home from Amsterdam, and the two quickly begin a passionate fling as Hess initially tries to keep his need for human blood a secret known only by his devoted, Renfield-like manservant Seneschal (Rami Malek). When Hess and Ganja marry, Hess "turns" her as the couple seek out victims--who always "return" much like they did--starting with Hess' bisexual ex-girlfriend Tangier (Nate Bova).

Like Gunn, Lee uses the need for blood as a metaphor for addiction and the way it destroys the lives of the user and those close to them. But it's not enough for Lee to present vampirism (a word never used in either Gunn's or Lee's film) in a metaphorical sense--he actually has to have Hess say "This is like an addiction!" Lee does everything short of stop the film and break the fourth wall himself to say as much. Lee gets really heavy-handed when Hess reaches an existential breaking point late in the film and goes to a black church (where Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Stephen Henderson reprise their respective Bishop and Deacon roles from the endlessly self-referential Lee's 2012 film RED HOOK SUMMER), where a gospel group is singing a hymn with the not-very subtle lyrics "You've got to learn/To let it go/You've got to know/When it's all over." Lee throws in some lines that pay clumsy lip service to inner-city race and poverty issues, but they exist as ham-fisted bullet points and are quickly dropped. DA SWEET BLOOD is overlong and self-indulgent, but it offers a terrifically moody score by Bruce Hornsby (his opening credits piece is among the best things he's ever done), some impressive original songs by unsigned artists from numerous genres, and has its strong moments as Lee mixes the Brooklyn-based, indie-film aesthetic of his youth (it's hard to believe he's pushing 60) with a bizarre fusion of art film and grindhouse trash. Clearly trying to wash away the bitter aftertaste of OLDBOY, Lee made DA SWEET BLOOD for no one but himself. It's the strangest film of his career and one with absolutely zero commercial potential, but there's an overwhelming feeling of dread throughout and some legitimate poignancy amidst the arthouse posturing as Hess barrels down the road to ruin, dragging everyone along with him. For all its flaws, I still prefer DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS over RED HOOK SUMMER, Lee's last attempt at re-establishing his indie cred, a film that offered a great Clarke Peters performance but little else, starting with Lee himself as a graying, paunchy Mookie from DO THE RIGHT THING, still delivering pizzas for Sal's. (Unrated, 124 mins)

(US/Canada - 2015)

The Coen Bros. worship is laid on so thick with CUT BANK that it almost qualifies as fan fiction. Veteran TV director Matt Shakman makes his feature filmmaking debut here and among his many credits over the last decade or so were a few episodes from the first season of the FX series FARGO. CUT BANK features Oliver Platt from the FARGO series, plus other actors from past Coen Bros. films, like John Malkovich (BURN AFTER READING) and Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN), and Billy Bob Thornton has both the FARGO series and a Coen film (THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE) to further cement the connection. CUT BANK centers on a Coen Bros. staple: the kind of stupidly pie-in-the-sky, ostensibly foolproof scheme that's half-assedly planned in maximum Jerry Lundegaard fashion and almost immediately collapses in on itself. In folksy Cut Bank, MT, former high school football star and current townie Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) is sick of his dead-end mechanic job and just wants out. He's tired of being the caregiver to his distant and now-bedridden father, and he wants to run off to California with high-school sweetheart Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) and open a body shop. He's talked mute co-worker Match (David Burke) and disgruntled mailman Georgie Witts (Bruce Dern) into going in on a scam with him: while Dwayne is standing in a field filming Cassandra's Miss Cut Bank audition video, a disguised Match will shoot Georgie in the distant background, be captured on video by Dwayne, and the reporting of the murder of a federal employee will net them a $100,000 reward (it should tell you how doomed the plan is when Dwayne thinks $100,000 is "a lifetime sum" and none of them seem to know how to keep up the ruse of Georgie being dead). While Dwayne keeps Georgie in hiding and waits for his reward money from a postal inspector (Platt), soft-spoken Sheriff Vogel (Malkovich) investigates, and Cassandra's father/Dwayne's asshole boss Big Stan (Thornton) quickly figures out that Dwayne is up to something, local stuttering recluse and--red flag!--taxidermy enthusiast Derby Milton (an unrecognizable Stuhlbarg) eagerly awaits a priority mail package that Georgie was supposed to deliver the day of the murder. With the mail truck gone missing, Derby decides to launch his own obsessive investigation and pursuit of his parcel, and that's when the body count starts climbing.

As far as Coen Bros. ripoffs go, CUT BANK is one of the better examples, thanks largely to a great supporting cast comprised of some of the most solid pros in the business. There's quirky dialogue, shocking violence, dark comedy, and vicious twists of fate, but sometimes Shakman and screenwriter Roberto Patino (SONS OF ANARCHY) are a little shameless, not just in the plot but with some of the quirks. Any fan of the FARGO TV series will recognize Burke's Match as a slight resketching of Russell Harvard's deaf assassin Mr. Wrench. And as great as he is with his screen presence and quotable dialogue ("I just want my p-p-parcel" is this film's "Friendo"), Stuhlbarg's Derby is basically what would happen if NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN's Anton Chigurh was played by Milton from OFFICE SPACE. Make no mistake, Stuhlbarg owns CUT BANK and you almost wish he was the central character, even if Hemsworth is marginally less bland than usual. The wrap-up is a little too neat and clean, with Malkovich getting a speech somewhat similar to Tommy Lee Jones' at the end of NO COUNTRY, but as derivative as it is, it moves quickly and entertains. You're still better off watching BLOOD SIMPLE, FARGO, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN again, but you can do a lot worse than CUT BANK, and it's a must-see if you're a fan of Stuhlbarg. (R, 93 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment