Thursday, June 23, 2016

IN RETROSPECT: Matinee (1993)

"You think grown-ups have it all figured out? That's just a hustle, kid. Grown-ups are making it up as they go along, just like you. You remember that, and you'll do fine."
-Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) in Matinee

Those partial to famous director names may have already forgotten Joe Dante by now. While the director currently sits in the outskirts of filmmaking, far away from Hollywood's big investments, he spent the 1980s and the 1990s as a well-liked director-for-hire. Dante started as one of many Roger Corman protégés, learning the importance of budget efficiency, which sent him on a path to B-movie horror before he caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and major studios, who set him up with Gremlins and a career in dark family entertainment.

Dante's filmography has so much in common with Tim Burton's, that their work, which takes so much inspiration from classic horror films, could easily be confused. Innerspace was just as funny as its special effects were mesmerizing, his segments in the sketch comedy film Amazon Women on the Moon were among the best parts, Gremlins 2 was an underrated prank of a sequel, The 'Burbs put a brilliant slapstick twist on the paranoid thriller genre, but it was 1993's Matinee that most likely allowed this director to express his love for movies. In my opinion, it's his masterpiece.

Written by Charlie Haas, this comedy revolves around the release of an atomic-mutation-themed B-horror movie due for an early screening in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Told mostly from the perspective of an adolescent movie fan (Simon Fenton) in a Navy family that has recently settled in the Florida town before it goes into panic, the film's nostalgia for bad monster movie escapism and its relationship with real-life anxieties adds so much meaning to the hilarious nonsense of the period.

The opportunistic Hollywood filmmaker (John Goodman) revels in the possibility of a shook-up community being the ideal audience to prove his film's value to a distributor (played by the late Jesse White). 

The film within the film, is called Mant! - about a man transforming into a giant ant after an dental X-ray mishap. Like the showmanship of William Castle films during that time, the movie is filled with corny audience participation gimmicks.

While Matinee's marketing focused on Goodman's star-power, the story focuses on the coming-of-age experiences of the young characters. The main kid has been moving around for most of his life and taking his easily scared younger brother (Jesse Lee Soffer) along to see monster movies has been the only constant in his personal activities.

Strangely, it is the nuclear scare that brings about a social life for this kid when most of the boys at school learn that his father is on one of the blockade ships and regard him as a military insider (even though he's just as in the dark). He also develops a crush on a rebellious liberal schoolmate (Lisa Jakub) who sees in him a boy who just wants his father to return home safely.

The movie also features an array of fun characters, such as the filmmaker's hilariously jaded starlet/girlfriend (Cathy Moriarty). There's also a girl-crazy student (Omri Katz) with a crush on a naive dream-girl (Kellie Martin) but must overcome the threats of her delinquent greaser ex-boyfriend (James Villemaire) who ineptly spouts off his own bad brand of beat poetry with delusions of profundity.

There are also Joe Dante regulars sprinkled throughout the cast, such as Dick Miller, who, along with Dante's former collaborator - director John Sayles, play a couple of demonstrators, seemingly protesting against the amorality of Mant! Belinda Balaski is a melodramatic mother with confidence in the duck-and-cover motto, and Robert Picardo steals as the theater's anxious owner.

Dante's knack for making movies within movies is exercised better in Matinee than any of his other films. The briefly shown, The Shook-Up Shopping Cart stars Dante regular Archie Hahn and a young Naomi Watts in what resembles a 1960s live-action technicolor Disney film. Mant! dominates the final act of Matinee, where events at the movie premier are intercut with the silly black-and-white B-movie being projected on the screen, which features uncredited veteran stars Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert and Kevin McCarthy.

I originally saw Matinee as a kid when it first hit video after an unsuccessful theatrical run. At age 12, I didn't think much of it, but in my early adult years which included a lot of time seeing movies and working a movie theater, I revisited the movie and found that, along with Cinema Paradiso, it is one of the very best movies about people who see movies.

In appreciation for standards that still existed in movies of the '90s Dante's style contains lengthy -but not showy takes with deep focus wide angle cinematography to compliment ensemble acting where every actor hits their beats beautifully. This is even true of the less-experienced kid actors. Jerry Goldsmith's score also reminds me of an era when seasoned composers were turning out great orchestral music for just about anything.

The film's comic nostalgia may take a few easy jabs at ridiculous attitudes of another time, but it serves to remind us that we always have some ill-informed fear of disaster or how to save ourselves from it. We also strangely make movies about these things for our own perverse entertainment. 

Goodman's character is a glorified fear profiteer who believes that a movie can scare an audience with world-ending terror, but when it's over they go through those exit doors back to a world that may be troubled, but it's still standing. I wish I had his job.

Central Intelligence

** out of ****

Central Intelligence doesn’t represent bad taste or mean-spirited entertainment, but it does represent so much of what is wrong with American comedy movies today: It’s so confident in its comic star-power, that it ends up being unfocused and lazy. Many people will see this movie and many will enjoy it, but I cannot ignore its problems in the same way that the filmmakers ignored its potential.

Mediocre crowd-pleasers are the enemy of so many critics because they aim to please people who don’t freely see movies as often as critics are required to. Critics want to speak for the people but can’t conscionably recommend something when its cheap tactics fail to rise above the run-of-the-mill fare of which they’ve seen too much.

As a part-time critic, I often avoid movies starring two popular entertainers, who, when featured on the poster, are against a plain background with a title in some easy-to-read typeface and are possibly holding firearms. It presents the promise of basic-level action and comedy like the picture of a burger and fries on a McDonalds drive-through menu.

It was when I saw that this movie shared creative minds with those behind Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We’re the Millers and The Mindy Project, that I chose to give it a shot. I regard none of these as great works, but they all rose above their expected banality.

The movie begins in a flashback where a pep-rally at one Central High School is taking place. A fat teenager named Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne Johnson –or at least his face during this part) is dancing to En Vogue in the shower of the boy’s locker room while bullies move in on him to pull a prank. Upstairs in the gym, Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is receiving accolades as the most popular guy in school who has been voted “Most Likely To Succeed” by his peers. It is here where the naked Robbie is thrown out onto the gym floor by the bullies and humiliated, only receiving empathetic help from Calvin.

Cut to the present and Calvin is married to his high school sweetheart (Danielle Nicolet) while living in a nice house and working as an accountant. His wife is pressuring him to attend their high school reunion but he doesn’t want to go because he feels like a failure (Although some high school valedictorians have done worse).

Calvin is mysteriously friended on Facebook by Robbie who has changed his name to Bob Stone and insists that the two meet up. Desperate to avoid marriage counseling, Calvin obliges and when the two meet at a suburban sports bar, he is surprised to see the intimidating presence of a lean muscular giant even if Bob has all the same feminine tastes and awkward optimism he did in high school.

Calvin seems a little uncomfortable around Bob, but soon warms up when it’s revealed how much he is idolized by the guy who left high school in embarrassment and went on to be an empowered person who proves his value in a fight later that evening when the two are threatened by thugs.

Things aren’t what they seem, however, when Bob asks Calvin for a favor that results in agents from the C.I.A. (led by Amy Ryan) knocking at Calvin’s door the next day, who reveal that Bob is a rogue agent wanted for treason. From there on, Calvin is trying to maintain the normalcy of his life while the agents and Bob separately shake things up.

That’s not a bad setup for an action/comedy. It’s predictable, yet functional. Central Intelligence is also a rare example of colorblind casting even if it is starring two of the most bankable non-white actors working today. Aside from a couple funny race-related quips from Kevin Hart’s character, he, nor the still critically undervalued Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seem to be written with race in mind.

The movie establishes itself well but isn’t made of parts that fit together naturally because it constantly blends offbeat humor with awkward humor, a common incompatibility that continues to go overlooked in film and TV.

As a story, it misses many grand opportunities to be darker, leaving little character developments that could have gone in interesting directions unattended. The unearned sentimental character arcs in the film are another expected annoyance. 

Through unexpected cameos, slapstick, clever one-liners and some funny chemistry, this movie has its moments but not enough of them.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding Dory

***1/2 out of ****

Whether you see Finding Dory in effective 3D or brighter 2D, you can expect a gorgeous showcase of animation that lovingly renders its version of the Pacific Coast and its wildlife. The same can be said of Pixar’s new opening short, Piper.

Even in the loose family-movie genre, I can feel wary of sequels that aren’t called for. Unsurprisingly, Pixar gives this movie a sense of purpose with emotion and hilarity. The continued theme of the fears, which come with being a parent works its way into Dory quite cleverly as that fish (voice of Ellen DeGeneres) with great instincts challenged by short-term memory starts to get brief recollections of her childhood that lead her to believe she can find the loving parents who were lost long ago.

With the help of fellow clownfish Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his dad Marlin (Albert Brooks) Dory travels across the Pacific and into the coastal aquarium where she was born. The rest is quite a funny journey with wondrous sights - this time concentrating on the beauty of the water's surface - and a running gag involving the aquatic center’s celebrity-endorsed voice of Sigourney Weaver.

Like Finding Nemo, the movie is so often good at being heartfelt that the interruption of comic relief gets a little tiresome at times, but you must bear in mind that these are the gripes of a childless adult who likes cartoons.

After enduring some irritating scores in family films lately, it was such a relief to hear the emotional melodies and tasteful timing of Thomas Newman, who is still one of the best composers working today.

Pixar continues to make good movies, and after last year’s brilliantly original Inside Out was one of their best, Dory manages to be found in the shadow of that great film - even if it is a sequel no one asked for. I still don’t want a Toy Story 4, but I’m sure they’ll make it work.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

** out of ****

I can’t claim that seeing the sequel to 2014’s disappointing reboot of one of my favorite things from childhood (which really wasn’t that good in the first place) had any guarantee in lifting my spirits through a nostalgia high, but characters such as Bebop, Rocksteady and Krang were all due to make their first cinematic appearances and I couldn’t deny whatever remains of a Turtles fan in me, that there might be some dumb gratification in that.

I was right about the dumb part. The newly added characters typically known from the cartoon series resemble their original looks pretty well, but in a pandering way. Bebop and Rocksteady also somehow mutate into their animal forms with an explanation that would have had me calling bullshit when I was a child. Hell, the plot to The Lobster would have worked better! 

The Turtles are still spending a lot of time on the tops of famous well-lit prime real estate skyscrapers, rather than dark alleys in bad neighborhoods. I am among few people from my generation who doesn't mind the way they look in their CGI incarnations, but I still prefer men in suits and animatronic masks.

Still, the special effects and color aesthetics in these new movies continue to be somewhat exciting (even though they are displayed with the kind of physics-defying simulated cinematography that reminds you that what you're seeing can't be real) but the movie continues to get simple things wrong. The epic-sounding orchestral score is, once again, very unfitting for the material.

Making simple characters who don't require much description also continues to be a challenge for the people running the show. First, April O'Neil was downgraded from a professional news woman to Megan Fox's girly Maxim pinup; This time Casey Jones is deprived of his grungy unkempt persona to being... a cop. 

Not kidding, that vigilante known as Casey Jones is now a young cop played by Green Arrow himself: Stephen Ammell. They ought to call him Straight Arrow in this movie. After being put on suspension by an unrealistically demeaning superior played by Laura Linney (yes, she's in this), Jones fights crime his own way but seems eager to be polite to all non-criminals.

Tyler Perry as Baxter Stockman is an interesting choice, given that his character was black in the original comic before he was whitewashed for the cartoon series. I still prefer his character to be a cowardly scientist forced into crime rather than Perry's portrayal as one filled with glee in his amoral endeavors.

Oddly, Shredder has been recast from Tohoru Masamune in old-age makeup to young-looking Brian Tee with no makeup. I don't know what happened except for the further surrender of the attempted whitewashing of his character in the last movie, which only cast Masamune during reshoots to correct the identity of The Shredder when fans found out what was happening.  

As expected, the story is overstuffed with bad exposition that leads from one major set piece to the next including the now-standard trope of a portal opening up in the sky above a major city and a bunch of jargon about how to stop it. The loud cluttered Michael Bay-approved action storytelling naturally makes the movie longer than it needs to be. The change in directors doesn't make much of a difference either. I'm still thankful that Bay hasn't directed either one.

This franchise’s inability to grow along with its fans is still there, but its new incarnation should still manage to entertain kids in the way that the older version once entertained me as a fourth grade boy.

The lean, green fighting machines deserve a grungier New York, a score with a beat, and a story that comes from a gifted thirty-something writer who wants his -or her childhood heroes to work better from an adult perspective. This is how Batman and so many other icons came to have better incarnations. Sadly, it's not looking like that will happen anytime soon.

Green Room

***1/2 out of ****

I'm originally from Oregon and I have a tendency to idealize its often overcast weather with dark valleys shaded by evergreen trees as a place of peaceful beauty. I couldn't have expected that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier would set his latest dark rural thriller in such a place after the material worked so well in his Virginia-set revenge movie, Blue Ruin, which was closer to my current whereabouts.

There are scary people everywhere and Green Room stages a terrifying face-off between a traveling punk band and Neo-Nazi skinheads at a secluded venue deep in the woods. The all-in-one-night war/western structure is easily reminiscent of John Carpenter films, but with more of a hard-boiled edge and much more gruesome violence.

Along with the relatively unexplored cinematic territory of this film is a villain at the center played with subtle menace by the brilliantly cast Patrick Stewart who plays against type so well, he disappears into his quiet yet ruthless white supremacist leader.

Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, and Saulnier regular, Macon Blair, all enhance their resumes with roles that are unique in their respective bodies of work. The rest of the cast is also amazingly convincing in their roles as the people of this dark underworld.

Like Blue Ruin, the movie is about people unfit in their challenge of going up against people who deal in violence and murder. The movie does a great job at subverting the viewers expectations for who lives and dies. Some characters survive their circumstances unbelievably, considering the film's realism, but believability and predictability are always at odds when you're storytelling. 

Green Room is a thankful detour from the standard action movie and rightfully challenges the comfort of an audience seeking savage violence for escapism. This is one of those movies that is so beautiful at being ugly. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Lobster

* out of ****

The Lobster is a surreal dark-comedy starring Colin Farrell as a single man living in a world where failed relationships require institutional correction at resort centers where you must find a mate within a given amount of time or you will be transformed into an animal of your choosing.

The movie dares to portray its characters without any level of emotional outrage toward their circumstances. Along with Farrell, the talented cast includes John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw and Léa Seydoux –all delivering perfect deadpan.

I was not so turned off by this film’s irreverent weirdness. Movies, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis and Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong managed to entertain me immensely in their abandonment of comprehensible narrative structure. I found the beginning of The Lobster quite funny in its vague plot of people having difficulty following absurd life rules or meeting silly personal expectations. However, at the halfway point, the movie starts over in a completely different setting where people are seeking liberation from society, but ironically finding another harsh dogmatic structure imposed upon them.

After this development, the movie became so unbearably miserable and unfunny for me that I saw almost no merit to the early parts that made me chuckle or the ambition of its maker (Yorgos Lanthimos) who dedicated to such an oddball venture. 

I didn’t care if I was missing something or misinterpreting its subtext; I thought The Lobster was a cinematic suicide note with only a couple of funny jokes.