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.

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