Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1993)

11. Matinee

It might seem like Joe Dante slowed down in the nineties. One might assume that few of his post-”Gremlins” films replicating that box office success might've tarnished his name a bit. Yet Dante was working hard all throughout the decade to make movies that, ultimately, never got out of Development Hell. He was attached to remakes of “The Sea Wolf” and “The Mummy,” the former with Tom Hanks and the latter with Daniel Day Lewis. He toiled for quite a while on “The Phantom,” before Simon Wincer took over. After “Termite Terrace,” a Chuck Jones biopic, fell apart, Dante decided to make a homage to another thing from his childhood he loved. “Matinee” was another Dante pictures that didn't have much of a reach in its theatrical release but became a cult favorite later on.

The year is 1962 and the place is Key West, Florida. Gene and his family, including little brother Dennis, have recently moved to town. As a Navy brat, Gene has been in many schools and hasn't made many friends. Instead, he immerses himself in monster movies. Among his favorite filmmakers is Lawrence Woolsey, a savvy businessman who sells his monster movies with in-theater gimmicks. Mr. Woolsey comes to Key West to help sell his latest epic, “Mant!,” a big bug thriller that outfits the theater with half-a-dozen gimmicks. At the same time, the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis is rising. Soon, the residents of the town, kids and grown-ups alike, will be tossed into a panic by the encroaching threat of nuclear war.

Once again, Joe Dante dips his toes into boomer nostalgia. Unlike “Gremlins” and “It's a Nice Life,” which were ostensibly set in the modern day while heavily recalling a fifties setting, “Matinee” is explicitly a period piece. As with those Spielberg-adjacent projects, Dante creates a visually lush homage to a bygone day. There's a warmth to “Matinee.” The interior sets are painted in bright, primary colors. Many of the touch stones of the decade – fervent first kisses in the balcony of a movie theater, greasers, big cars and black-and-white TVs – are prominently featured. By making a story about childhood, set during the time when his own childhood would roughly have happened, you can see Dante indulging in some glowy nostalgia.

Yet, as he did with his previous features, Dante also takes a darker approach to the boomer blues. “Matinee” never backs down from the bullshit prominent to the Cold War era either. The girl that catches Gene's eye is Sandra. The daughter of liberal parents, she's all too willing to inform her classmates how useless duck-and-cover drills are. The hypocrisy of America loving its wars but not caring about how that attitude traumatizes kids is always in the background. The moral hypocrisies that came with that attitude arise as well, as we see Woolsey manufacturing outage to his films. Dante also has fun subverting other stereotypes of the time, as that greaser is part juvenile delinquent and part would-be Beat poet.

More than anything else, “Matinee” is a loving homage from a monster kid to the movies that inspired him. Gene is an early film nerd, recognizing the faces and names of actors and directors, reading monster magazines and studying advertisements. Unlike his timid little brother or his peers, he's not scared of these films. Instead, he feels an odd sort of comfort in these adventures. Dante, of course, pairs this genuine love with lots of in-jokes. Lawrence Woolsey is patterned after William Castle, utilizing many of the same gimmicks. (Life insurance in case the movie scares you to death, buzzers in the seat, the monster emerging off the screen.) The immediately recognizable AIP music is heard along with many period accurate posters appearing in the background.

The greatest homage in “Matinee” comes during the “Mant!” sequences. Dante happily devotes long portions of the movie's second half to this film-within-a-film. Plot wise, “Mant” is essentially a mash-up of “The Fly” and “Them!,” involving a man being bitten by a irritated ant and slowly transforming into a monster-sized ant. Specific shots and sound effects from many of these films, that fans will recognize immediately, are recreated. These hyper-specific details function in service of a pitch-perfect period of fifties nuclear panic creature features. Singular moments, like the man-ant freeing his insect brothers or his wife informing the military what to call the monster, produce big laughs. (This is where Dante slots in Kevin McCarthy's role too, a perfect placement.) “Mant!” is not the only spot-on recreation Dante includes, as he also throws in a parody of Disney family films, coining the phrase “shopping cart movie” in the process.

Beyond the plethora of knowing nods at horror/sci-fi history, “Matinee” perfectly understands why movies are important. With few actual friends of his own, Gene finds himself relating to the stars of the horror pictures he sees at theaters. He finds kinship in the screams and creature effects. This means he's especially happy to make friends with Lawrence Woolsey. Though Woolsey is partially a con artist, he's still the movie's central sage. A key sequence has Woolsey leading Gene on a tour of the movie theater. He explains the exact appeal of these movies. How they allow people to forget their troubles, to enter a world where the problems of the world are vanquished in an hour and a half. The filmmakers, speaking through Woolsey, also understand the special power of the movie theater, those grand temples of cinema where a giant screen fills the viewers' eyes and reflects their dreams back to them.

While “Matinee” is most effective as a loving homage to the atomic age of monster movies, it is also a touching coming-of-age story. Gene has his fears and insecurities. Like everyone else, the spectre of nuclear annihilation looms large in his mind. This is seen in an effective nightmare sequence, where his father's arrival home and the bombs dropping coincide. Yet the boy also does his best to interact with kids his own age. He finds a friend in Omri Katz' Stan, another outcast. Soon, he's developing a romance with Sandra. During the last act, through a rather convoluted series of events, he ends up locked in a bomb shelter with Sandra. There, both nerdy kids take their first, delicate steps towards mature romance. It's probably the film's least memorable element but is charmingly deployed never the less.

For the most part, “Matinee” is a movie grounded in reality. Yes, it's a mostly sweet recreation of an earlier period, that is full of comedic throwbacks to classic cinema, yet it's fairly realistic. Except in the last act, where Dante and his co-conspirators maybe push things too far. In a hilarious coincidence, the aforementioned psychotic greaser gets a job as the in-theater monster actor. This sets up a last act where Woolsey's gimmicks are pushed to their limit, causing the theater to tear itself apart. At this point, “Matinee” maybe gets a little too silly for its own good. The story's proper climax – the people in the theater thinking the Cold War just got hot – did not need the added melodramatics of a collapsing balcony and a daring rescue.

Despite this slip-up, “Matinee” still creates a compelling portrayal of adolescence. The cast can deserves a lot of credit for this. Simon Fenton, who has stuck almost exclusively to television throughout the rest of his career, is very good as Gene. He can capture that youthful enthusiasm while hinting at the conflict the boy feels inside. Lisa Jakub, who had a pretty good run in the nineties, is also excellent as Sandra. Her fiery intelligence and refusal to be talked down to by anyone makes it easy to imagine Gene, or any boy, falling for her. Omri Katz, who starred in the Dante-produced “Eerie, Indiana,” has a less meaty part as Stan. Still, to Katz' credit, he's likable as the goofier friend that helps Gene come out of his shell some.

Yet if one performance dominates “Matinee,” it's John Goodman as Lawrence Woolsey. It's easy to imagine that, as scripted, Woolsey came off as a more cynical character. The way he uses manipulative tactics to drum up interest in his monster movies makes him seem like a bit of a shyster. And there's definitely still some of that characterization in the final film. Yet Goodman cuts such a warm, paternal figure that you can't help but love the guy. He has a child-like twinkle in his eye, still enchanted by the magic of movies even as he explains how they're made. In an odd way, he becomes a father figure to Gene, whose actual father remains off-screen during the entire movie. Goodman is also excellent at playing it totally deadpan during Woolsey's melodramatic trailers.

Dante brings along some of his established players. Aside from McCarthy – hilarious in his brief scenes – Dick Miller and Robert Picardo are present. Miller appears as a former tough guy who now runs part of Woolsey's promotional scam. Picardo has a fairly funny bit as the deeply paranoid owner of the theater. (Belinda Dalaski and Archie Hahn are here too, even if their parts are easy to miss.) Cathy Moriarty is also notable as Ruth, Woolsey's long suffering wife and main actress. The way Moriarty can see through her director's bullshit with just a withering glare is fantastic, even if she too can't resist being charmed by him. James Villermaire is also hilarious as Harvey Starkweather, a dangerous kid driven by irrational desires but desperate to be taken seriously.

Enthusiastically received by critics, “Matinee” was largely overlooked elsewhere. A nostalgia-dripping love letter to classic monster movies probably wasn't that interesting to audiences flocking to “Aladdin” at that time. Of course, “Matinee” really isn't a movie made for Joe Movie-Goer. It's a movie made for you and me, the hardcore film lovers, the monster kids. In retrospect, it emerges as one of Dante's smoothest and best films. Unerringly sweet, very funny, and deceptively perceptive, it's an absolutely delightful motion picture that will be especially loved by anyone who understands the magic of seeing a movie. [Grade: A]

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