Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. How Ghana’s Gory, Gaudy Movie Posters Became High Art. At their best, movie posters function as advertisements and discrete works of art, demonstrating how the former can often lead to the latter. For The Atlantic, Ryan Lenora Brown writes about Ghanian movie posters in the 80’s and 90’s, and how their luridness became art.
Outside the workshop of the painter Daniel Anum Jasper in the Accra neighborhood of Teshie, a dusty stretch of road is crammed with a shifting band of hawkers roaming the streets with veritable mobile supermarkets balanced on their heads: everything from air fresheners and donuts to toddler-sized blue jeans and inflatable swimming pools. Among their most valuable wares, however, are stacks of bootleg DVDs. To the American eye, the selection is wildly global — there are American rom-coms and Bollywood love stories alongside low-budget Nigerian thrillers and east Asian martial-arts movies. But as Jasper is quick to point out, Ghanaians have long been omnivorous consumers of the world’s cinema. As far back as his childhood in the 1970s, urban Ghanaians were enjoying Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood with equal enthusiasm in the city’s many cinemas. “As a kid, we loved movies,” he says. “We went all the time.” Outside of major cities, films were a far rarer commodity. Many villages lacked electricity, let alone the set up for a movie theater. But it didn’t take long for a few enterprising businesspeople — a population West Africa seems to possess in unusual abundance — to come up with a solution. They bought diesel generators, movie projectors, and VCRs, tossed them in the backs of trucks, and headed out to the hinterlands with their mobile cinemas in tow. And along with Accra cinema owners, they soon began hiring local artists like Jasper — who in the mid 1980s was a young sign painter in Teshie — to paint posters advertising their wares. “Sometimes they showed me the cassette of the movie, other times they would just describe the story,” he says. And from there, he was off, sketching his designs on old flour sacks and supplementing images of the film’s main actors with fires, guns, snakes, hacked-apart limbs, and laser beams. Nothing was too outlandish. “Just something to capture people,” he says. Take the poster for the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Predator.” In the original, a dirt-smeared Schwarzenegger occupies the entire frame, his gun and sullen gaze aimed squarely at an enemy just off-screen. In the Ghanaian version, however, Schwarzenegger is merely a sideshow to a hairy, horned monster, his green talons wrapped around the body of what looks like a naked Playboy model in the throes of ecstasy. Other posters, meanwhile, seem to operate like a game of Pictionary—providing images that would certainly help you guess the title of a movie, if not, perhaps its actual content. There’s the Ghanaian take on Stephen King’s “Cujo the Killer Dog,” for instance — a sheepish suburban spaniel with a trickle of blood running down his snout. And the figure looming most largely in the poster for “Cat Woman” is, well, a cat with a forked tongue of course. For Jasper and others, it was obvious from the start that this wasn’t exactly the most lucrative of jobs. A good poster, he says, one that really made a splash, took at least three days to paint, and the cinema owners could never afford to pay much. For a quick buck, it was far easier to paint road signs or billboards. “That one of the ways you know this was an artistic movement — these posters were always far more beautiful and detailed than they needed to be to fulfill their practical function,” says Wolfe, who has published images of more than 500 of the posters in two coffee table books, “Extreme Canvas” and “Extreme Canvas II.”
2. Ethan Hawke Is Our Greatest Genre Star Because He Commits to the Work. For a while there, Ethan Hawke represented a Gen-X archetype, the long-haired sensitive romantic. Aided by his real life love of literature and theater, Hawke presented himself as an intellectual heartthrob. But over the years, he has become something of a genre star. The A.V. Club’s Alexander Huls examines Hawke as a genre star and how his commitment to every performance makes him one of the best.
What’s been most surprising about Hawke’s career turn isn’t just the turn itself, but that genre fits him about as snugly as that fatherly gray cardigan does in “Sinister.” Those expressive worming eyebrows, that divot in his forehead that pools worry, the boyish restlessness and mild over-seriousness that tinges his performances? All lend themselves naturally to movies that typically belabor their protagonist with life and (mostly) death. It helps too that there’s no B-movie snobbery in Hawke’s performance — no whiff of ink drying on mortgage checks. When he dutifully explains the rules of time travel, recoils from sunlight as a vampire, wails at masked home invaders threatening his family, or skitters across that hallway floor in “Sinister,” there’s no scene-chewing, winking, or distance. Compare the marital blow-up between Ellison and his wife in “Sinister” to Jesse and Celine’s climactic one in “Before Midnight,” and a distinction between the dedication he gives each performance is hard to see. It seems that to Hawke, genre is a worthy and serious affair. But it’s not just performance and attitude that define the actor’s greatness as a B-movie star. What truly distinguishes him is what he does for the B-movies he’s in as a whole: He makes them work, when often they shouldn’t. One of the immense appeals of genre films are their high-concept premises — those unique (and a little insane) scenarios and what-ifs the movies are built around. Said premises are often more the stars of these films than the actors in them. I don’t watch “Reign Of Fire,” “Dog Soldiers,” or “It Follows” for their casts. I watch them to see apocalyptic dragons, werewolves fighting marines, and sexually transmitted ghosts. I watch them with the enthusiastic and naïve hope that their nutty premises will be half-competently brought to life on screen. That’s not an easy task. Cinema’s graveyards are full of movies with cool ideas that hit theaters D.O.A. While high concepts may be the stars of genre, they depend on actors for a paradoxical task. Performers need to take a back seat to the concept, but dedicate all their energy and talent to ensuring it works. Direction and special effects can visually realize worlds, but to get an audience to buy them, you need an actor like Hawke to sell it. Watching his genre work, I’m continually reminded of something he once said about “Training Day”: “I thought if I did my job right, Denzel [Washington] would get an Oscar.” For Hawke, his role in “Training Day” wasn’t about his own glory, but ensuring the success of something beyond him. The actor does for genre premises what he did for Washington: He dedicates himself to being the moving part that allows the larger machinery to run.
3. What “Barton Fink” and “Hail, Caesar!” Tell Us About The Coen Brothers’ Place in Hollywood. The Coen Brothers’ latest film “Hail, Caesar!” is set in Hollywood’s Golden Age at the height of the studio system; their 1991 film “Barton Fink” is set in Hollywood on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey explores what both films tell us about the Coens’ place in the film industry.
The most important thing to remember when considering Joel and Ethan Coen’s relationship to Hollywood is this: they’re outsiders. Raised in the Midwest and educated on the East Coast, they live in New York, eschewing the Hollywood social scene. They maintain relationships with actors, but rarely with studios; they’ve only worked with a handful of the latter more than once. That distance (and the hesitation it indicates) isn’t hard to sense in 1991’s “Barton Fink” and this week’s “Hail, Caesar!,” their two feature-length explorations of the Dream Factory. But comparing the two films says much about how they’ve become a part of that industry, whether they intended to or not. Both seem to take place within the same alternate Hollywood (a Coen Brothers Cinematic Universe is one I can actually get behind), with the two stories set at Capitol Pictures, roughly a decade apart. (“Hail, Caesar!” has an early in-joke reference to “Barton Fink,” with an offhand mention of the “Wallace Beery Conference Room”; “Fink’s” title character was employed by Capitol to write a wrestling picture for Mr. Beery.) In “Caesar,” the studio is clearly a stand-in for industry standard-bearer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; head of production Eddie Mannix (sharply played by Josh Brolin) is named after the studio’s “fixer” during the golden age, and he explicitly name-checks one Nichols Schenck, the Loew’s exec in charge of MGM through the mid-’50s. The MGM echoes are less clear in “Fink,” though there’s plenty of Louis B. Mayer in studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Learner), who insists, much as Mayer would, “we do not make ‘B’ pictures at Capitol!” But “Fink” — the Coens’ fourth feature — is understandably less interested in the machinations of the film industry, and more in the perspective of the outside artist attempting to penetrate it. Like the brothers, Barton Fink (beautifully played by John Turturro at his nebbish-iest) is a New Yorker who finds Hollywood immediately off-putting and alienating; even his hotel is a puzzle, with an empty lobby, a bell whose single ring won’t stop vibrating, and a bellman who emerges from some bizarre compartment beneath the front desk. And if the blustering, powerful movie magnate is inspired by Mayer and his ilk, also keep in mind that while they were making “Fink,” they were talking to “Lethal Weapon” super-producer Joel Silver about taking on their next picture, “The Hudsucker Proxy.” (He would ultimately produce the film for Warner Brothers; it would become the duo’s most notorious flop.) Yet for all the trappings of its setting, for all of the name-drops and avatars and picture talk, “Barton Fink” is ultimately a writer’s movie. It features grisly murders and a pre-“Seven” head in a box and a Nazi setting a hotel ablaze, but the image with the greatest sense of horror is that of a writer sitting in front of a typewriter, certain he’s sold out, dreading a sophomore slump, terrified that he has nothing left to say and no method of saying it – only to discover, after writing “the most important work I’ve ever done,” that his he’ll be punished for his ambition by never seeing it produced.
4. In Conversation: Cuba Gooding Jr. on “American Crime Story.” FX recently premiered its newest anthology series, “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” which, you guessed it, is about the O.J. Simpson trial. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays O.J. Simpson in the new series, and is poised for something of a comeback after almost twenty years of floundering in middling work post-“Jerry Maguire.” Vulture’s E. Alex Jung sits down with Cuba Gooding Jr. to discuss his new role.
Q: You’ve been doing more TV lately. Is that because more interesting roles are there?
A: I don’t choose parts. I choose filmmakers. I’m done trying to make a statement with a character. What happens is, I craft a performance from the beginning to the end of the character. Then I release it to the director, and he interprets what I gave him. I won’t give a percentage, but I can watch that performance and go, “He fucking didn’t get it.” You’ll watch the performance and go, “Cuba was okay in that.” And I’m going, “That wasn’t what I signed to do.” Instead of worrying about the character, now I choose roles based on who my director’s going to be. If there’s a connection there, I don’t care what the role is.
Q: When did you make that shift?
A: I was in the wilderness of Hollywood for almost ten years. I was off the studio lists. I wasn’t getting the roles offered to actors that hadn’t done a third of the roles I had done, or had the popularity I had. I didn’t have “Steven Soderbergh is looking to work with me” anymore. I was hooked up with a couple of low-budget producers who had foreign financing money and were doing a formula where they would sell the foreign presales coupled with personal, private investors who had a billion dollars, and they green-lit the movies for under $5 million as long as I was in it. [It got to the point] where, if I was with another action star like Dolph Lundgren, they green-lit the movie and I’d have a job. The freedom of that — the great part of that — was I could edit, I could direct, I could write. It was like going back to film school. It was then I was exposed to the fact that the director is the main fucking voice. Nothing else matters. If the director doesn’t get it, you’re dead. I’ll never forget the most frustrating arguments I would have with director[s]. I would say, “This studio doesn’t get it. They changed this scene and it doesn’t work for the story.” He goes, “I know, but I had to compromise.” He didn’t care to make a statement — he just wanted to keep the studio happy. And then, of course, the movie would bomb. It would disappear.
Q: Did you have any trepidation taking on the role of O.J.?
A: It’s so funny — I box. One time I was at the Wild Card gym in Los Angeles. Some of these professional African-American boxers, they come from hard upbringings. A couple of them came up to me and said, “Man, you’re playing O.J., huh? Are you ready for the backlash of playing somebody so dark?” I had never thought about it that way. He was like, “They love you, and you’re going to play this dark guy?” I said, “But I’m not coming from a place of darkness. I’m coming from a blank slate.” It’s the director’s vision that will mold the takes. No, I never had reservations. I never even thought about it until this kid said that.
5. Spike Lee Brought Cultural Taboos to a Theater Near You With “Jungle Fever.” Spike Lee’s latest film “Chi-Raq” is now available to stream on Amazon prime. The film garnered mixed reviews, but like other Lee films, it was shrouded in controversy upon release. For Oscilloscope’s Musings blog, Scott Tobias writes about another Spike Lee film, “Jungle Fever,” that brought cultural taboos to cinemas everywhere.
Toward the middle of Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” a group of black women — a “war counsel,” as Lee’s character, Cyrus, jokingly refers to them — gather together to drink wine and sift through the remains of a broken relationship. Their friend and host, Drew (Lonette McKee), has kicked her husband, Flipper (Wesley Snipes), out of their tony Harlem brownstone for having an affair with Angie (Annabella Sciorra), an Italian temp at his architectural firm. Drew’s friends dutifully decry the evils that men do (“They’re all dogs”), but the conversation gradually shifts and expands, as conversations do, into more unexpected and compelling areas. Among the topics on the table: The finite number of good black men and the “white bitches” who throw themselves at them; the hang-ups men have with professional women; dating proclivities (“I’m not the rainbow-fucking kind”); the twin stigmas of light and dark skin; and the difficulties of sustaining a committed relationship: “You know something, though?” Drew sighs ruefully at the end of it. “It doesn’t matter what color she is. My man is gone.” Let us appreciate, for a moment, that 25 years ago, an American studio paid for this conversation and brought it to theaters nationwide. Having scored a hit with Lee’s galvanizing “Do The Right Thing” two years earlier — and bankrolled the somewhat less sensational “Mo’ Better Blues” the year after that — Universal Pictures recognized the director’s value as a frugal provocateur at a time when studios were more inclined to make small gambles. Lee’s sensibility hasn’t changed much in years since, but the landscape has shifted dramatically: His last two films, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” and “Chi-Raq,” have emerged from Internet pipelines — Kickstarter and Amazon Studios, respectively — that didn’t exist until recently and would have been completely inconceivable in 1991. But along with what could euphemistically be called Lee’s return to his independent roots come the consequences of limited exposure. To varying degrees, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” and “Chi-Raq” got batted around in the press and in big-city arthouses; “Jungle Fever” was now-playing-at-a-theater-near-you. Consider the implications: It’s one thing to bring New Yorkers into Drew’s living room, where moviegoers are keenly aware of the cultural taboos and terrain, but it’s quite another to venture into the multiplexes of Missoula, Montana or Kennesaw, Georgia (where I saw the film) and be confronted by characters and problems of an uncommon complexion. In the suburbs and small towns, white Americans had spent the previous decade imagining the city as a war zone for Charles Bronson to bust up or the scary place the Griswalds drove through on their way to Walley World. With a film like “Jungle Fever,” Lee could upend assumptions simply by virtue of opening his mouth and describing the world as he understands it. A Romeo & Juliet affair between a black man from Harlem and a white woman from Bensonhurst? The varying burdens of skin pigmentation? The magisterial squalor of an inner-city crack den? For many, he was making foreign films without subtitles. “Jungle Fever” doesn’t rank among Lee’s best films, and for good reason: It’s unfocused and undisciplined, applying the slice-of-life looseness of “Do the Right Thing” to a more conventional narrative that doesn’t accommodate it; the soundtrack, by Stevie Wonder, is half-inspired and half-incongruous; and the last shot may be the single worst of his career. But it has the virtue of candor, which is every bit as rare and precious now as it was when Lee’s career was in its infancy. To watch “Jungle Fever” in 2016 is to be aware of how far mainstream movies have retreated from anything remotely controversial, and how audiences, in turn, recoil when confronted with ideas that don’t affirm their own.
6. “The Expanse” Doesn’t Transcend Its Genre, and That’s Okay. SyFy’s latest new series “The Expanse,” based on the series of books by the same name, is set in the future and focuses on a system-wide conspiracy that threatens peace and survival of humanity. At his blog, Isaac Butler argues that “The Expanse” doesn’t transcend its genre and why that’s okay.
The Syfy network has made some big bets for scripted television this season, and at least one of them, “The Expanse,” has paid off and then some. What started as an unevenly acted show that cared about plot at the expense of all else has evolved over its ten episodes into an unevenly acted but riveting thriller of interplanetary intrigue. Which is why it’s so odd to read a rave review of it based on the idea that it is good because it “really, truly doesn’t feel like sci-fi”: “‘The Expanse’ is the best sort of future-set sci-fi — the kind that you can believe, all too easily, would evolve out of our present. At some point in the 23rd century, the smart phones look fancier but their screens still crack. There are people in straight relationships and gay relationships and group marriages. There are still Mormons, who are preparing for a whole new level of mission. The rich live well. The poor struggle. It’s not ‘Star Trek’ — there’s no grand glorious yet vague cause to which our heroes have devoted themselves. Survival is what matters.” Setting aside that the “cause” in each of Star Trek’s shows is specific and explicitly articulated, there’s two assumptions baked in here that are worth unpacking. The first is that science fiction doesn’t normally involve real-feeling people having the same problems that we would have today. Even ignoring shows like “Almost Human” or “Fringe” or, screw it, even “Alien Nation” or “Quantum Leap” and just focusing on Space Operas, this only really holds for “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” while Gene Rodenberry was still alive. Rodenberry’s utopian vision of the future included a resource abundant universe in which we had transcended most interpersonal problems. That is definitely a creative world-building choice worth unpacking and critiquing, but it’s not a genre rule of science fiction, even on television. The best of Rodenberry-era Trek always found a way around both of these things anyway. After Rodenberry’s death, the possibilities for inter-character conflict opened up, changing the nature of the Trek universes. “Deep Space Nine” often includes drama between a widower and his teen-aged son. “Survival is what matters” could be the logline for “Voyager.” Picard has problems with his brother and family traditions back on Earth. There are love triangles. Ronald D. Moore, who wrote for “The Next Generation” and went on to be the showrunner for “Deep Space Nine” of course later created the remake of “Battlestar: Galactica,” a series where plenty of things “still crack,” (there aren’t even networked computers!) where “on the personal level, things are equally intense” even as killer monotheistic robots from outer space try to exterminate polytheistic humans. That Universe didn’t really feel like ours (it turned out to be our past in the finale), but this gets us to another assumption: that for some reason a science fiction universe that could believably flow from our current present is somehow preferable. Or, in fact, “best.” This is arguable — in fact, a piece arguing that would be way more interesting — but I’d still end up disagreeing. “Battlestar’s” other-dimensional setting allowed it to be the most powerful television contemplation and critique of the war-in-and-occupation-of-Iraq, and it was amongst the most philosophically minded shows ever made. “Firefly’s” universe supposedly flowed from ours, but what made it work was the mashup of Western and Space Opera laced through with Whedon’s trademark wit.
Tweet of the Day:
Nerd alert: Direct Cinema/Observational Cinema/Cinéma vérité venn diagram for your reference. pic.twitter.com/eySNjUgD9T
— Robert Greene (@prewarcinema) February 4, 2016