Joe Dante’s Matinee is a fantastic love letter to golden age schlock cinema, a nostalgic look back at Cuban missile fever, a multiple angle coming of age story all framed by a playful lens and given life from John Goodman’s boisterous, passionate performance as Lawrence Woolsey, the kind of loving, hands on filmmaker you don’t see a lot of these days. Woolsey blows into a small coastal California town with big dreams and aspirations to release his cheesy horror flick ‘Mant’ (about a killer Man/ant hybrid, naturally) for all to see, but faces some obstacles right off the bat. The 1950’s nuclear scare casts a long and chaotic shadow over both the town and his production, as well as local protesters who label his art as junk and just don’t understand the medium. There’s a gaggle of preteens too, in the throes of growing up and chucked in the deep end when I comes to understanding the world around them, as well as adults. Former child star Lisa Jakub (Robin William’s daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire) is a standout as a particularly sassy, wise beyond her years girl who causes a fuss with the bomb drills and is the soul of the youngster element in the film. Goodman is superb, he has an amped up monologue about what it means to visit the cinema and escape that kind of encapsulates the beloved intangibles of the medium and why it has endured for so long. The film has a meandering and unfocused feel at first glance, but it’s a deliberate fly-on-the-wall peek at a very specific time and place, how Film relates to that place and the individuals who lived through it, and it achieves that goal wonderfully. A literal slice of life on film.
I don’t understand how Joe Dante cajoled the Universal brass into completing his love letter to cinema, the 1993 film Matinee, after the film’s original producers went bankrupt, but I am glad he did, because it’s such a wonderful, unique, and all together joyous little gem that it stands to reason that in today’s movie climate, this film just doesn’t get made, let alone contemplated, by the major film companies. Dante’s film is a period piece set in Key West, Florida, centering on a William Castle-esque indie filmmaker played with jovial enthusiasm by a perfectly cast John Goodman, and set against the back drop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Co-starring Cathy Moriarty, filmmaker and Dante collaborator John Sayles, Simon Fenton, then popular Kellie Martin from TV’s Life Goes On, Dick Miller (a longtime Dante buddy and good luck charm), Omri Katz, child star Lisa Jakub, and Robert Picardo (Dante’s other good luck charm!), Matinee is so many things: A wistful coming of age story, an ode to the inherent power of movie magic, and a spirited shout-out to old-school showmanship. Written by Jerico Stone and Charles Haas, the film contains a film-within-the-film called Mant, which is essentially a throwback to the pulpy sci-fi movies of yesteryear featuring a half-man/half-ant with outlandish practical make-up and special effects; it’s oh-so-clear that Dante must’ve been in cinematic heaven with these scenes, as all of the footage from Mant was shot to aesthetically approximate how those movies used to get put together. The acting on the part of the teen leads was decent (if a bit stiff at times), but that doesn’t matter, because this film’s heart is so massive, and it’s wildly evident that it needed to be made by these particular creative entities. Dante is one of those filmmakers who never got his true due as a premiere director of smart and funny and always inventive mid-budgeted studio pictures, a friend of Spielberg’s who also subscribed to the Amblin philosophy of subversive family entertainment; his terrific and continually underrated credits include Explorers, Small Soldiers, Gremlins, Gremlins 2, The ‘Burbs, Innerspace, and The Howling. The film also features a fantastic score from Jerry Goldsmith, splendid cinematography by John Hora, and perfectly timed comedic editing by Marshall Harvey. Seek this one out as my guess is that it’s escaped many, many people who would absolutely love it.
Raging Bull features one of the greatest performances that the screen has ever contained. It also happens to be a definitive American masterpiece, the sort of film that is unimpeachable in terms of overall quality and its standing in the pantheon of great cinema. This is a pulverizing film – emotionally, aesthetically, and narratively – and it leaves bruises, intentionally, while frequently stirring the soul. Martin Scorsese’s showy, studied, and totally commanding direction is a text book example of cinematic showmanship. Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin’s intimate screenplay allowed for any number of moments – both big and small – to become immediate cinematic touchstones. Robert De Niro’s work as Jake La Motta will be rightfully revered until the final days of this planet; it’s a force of nature piece of acting in a film that makes the ground under your feet feel as if it’s moving. The stellar ensemble cast all gracefully dance around the edges of this tremendous motion picture, with Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty providing blistering support, with a stacked roster of faces and character actors coming and going, providing the film with a terrific sense of place and atmosphere. The combination of Michael Chapman’s electrifying black and white cinematography, which was stylistically heightened to suggest the intense speed and ferocity of the bouts in the ring, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s dynamic and propulsive editing, went a long way in providing the movie with such an urgent sense of violence, both during the numerous bloody bouts and the verbally explosive fights between La Motta and all of the people within his personal orbit. What more, at this point, can be said about Raging Bull that hasn’t been said? It’s one of those timeless classics that ages like a fine wine, and a true reminder of the galvanic force that De Niro possessed during his remarkable run in the vintage years.