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Weekend Hobby and Crafting Thread | Main | Saturday Overnight Open Thread (12/9/23)
December 09, 2023

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 12/09/2023 [TheJamesMadison]

Joe Dante


There's something Joe Dante says near the beginning of his commentary on the Blu-ray of his movie Innerspace that, I think, perfectly sums up who he is as a filmmaker. He's commenting on the scene where Martin Short's hypochondriac character goes to his doctor for the first time in the film, and Dante points out that the doctor was played by William Schallert who Dante cast in the role of the doctor because Schallert played a doctor in many 50s B-science fiction movies. He also mentions that he expects no one to get the joke but him.

Having watched all of his feature films and some of his television work, I think it's safe to say that that propensity for in-jokes is pretty much one of the best ways to define him as a filmmaker, and I don't say that derisively. He was a big kid who got to make movies, and he made movies that entertained him, filled with references to the media that he had grown up with, and always just trying to be fun. Early on, I was making comparisons in my head with Robert Zemeckis, but there were key differences. Firstly, Zemeckis had an early writing partner in Bob Gale with whom he cowrote most of his 80s output. Dante, never had a regular writing partner, but he was obviously someone who wanted the best talent he could get around him. The second difference was that Zemeckis eventually grew up, making movies like Cast Away and Forrest Gump that allowed him to play with his cinematic playthings in more mature stories.

Dante simply never got to the point where he wanted to tell a grown up story. The closest would probably be Matinee, but that's a celebration of B-movie filmmaking and spectacle in genre more than anything else. It's just that the storytelling has a maturity to it that the rest of his films don't (a lot of credit goes to his writer on that, Charles A. Haas). The financial failure led to him just returning to his roots (though with a much higher budget) in Small Soldiers. Despite the fact that his later career was mostly studio compromised product that deadened his voice to a whisper, he never lost the desire to simply entertain on his own anarchic wavelength.


Roger Corman


One of the most interesting things I found about Dante was his start in the Roger Corman machine. Corman (who is still alive, by the way) was an independent film producer who had a real eye for talent. His machine helped the early starts of people like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Joe Dante. He churned out cheap films on tight schedules and sold them well. Dante was originally hired as a trailer editor but got his first directing job, alongside his working partner Allan Arkush, on a $50,000 experiment called Hollywood Boulevard that is more than half footage from older Roger Corman movies cut around the tale of a young aspiring actress who gets caught up in a Corman-like filmmaking group. It made a million dollars at the box office.

He only lasted a short time under Corman as his producer, only making one more for him, Piranha, before moving on to work on The Howling, most famous for being the other werewolf movie of 1981 that Rick Baker worked on, the more famous one being John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, (he left the production early, handing the special effects reins to Rob Bottin). This caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, and Joe Dante was going up in the world. He'd made three films with few thematic ambitions, but he was getting better at collaborating with his crew to create technically accomplished looking films, although his writing partner, John Sayles, was never too much to write home about (he'd become a director later, making things like Matawan).

Steven Spielberg, producer


It was during Gremlins when the comparison to Robert Zemeckis made itself most obvious to me. The most glaring reason was because both Dante and Zemeckis worked under Spielberg since he produced several of the two's films. The relationship between Zemeckis and Spielberg is closer, though, since they describe their professional relationship as a mentorship while I doubt that either Spielberg or Dante would describe their relationship in such terms. However, it's important because both saw real advantages from working with Spielberg who had a finger on the pulse of the American movie going public and could help refine their approaches. Zemeckis, working with his writing partner Bob Gale, were the anarchists who made Used Cars before Spielberg and Back to the Future after.

With Dante, it was similar. While there are charms to Dante's early work, it's not until Gremlins where things begin to gel a bit more, and I think it was the support system that he was developing around him, his collaborators. After Gremlins came Explorers (not produced by Spielberg), which was undermined by studio interference (I find it quite charming, though it bombed horribly at the box office), and then Innerspace (produced by Spielberg), a conscious effort by Dante to make himself more appealing to the mass audiences (he admits it in the commentary, and I had come to the conclusion before I spun up that audio track), and it worked. It was a mild success at the box office, and he was able to work with Spielberg on one more feature film: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (The 'Burbs was produced by Ron Howard).

Spielberg's name is prominently atop only one of the three films that he worked with Dante: Gremlins. It's interesting that he's only in the list of producers near the end of the beginning titles for the sequel, but it's not exactly unexpected. If there is one film that Joe Dante was the most Joe Dante that he ever Joe Danted, it was on Gremlins 2: The New Batch with a thin excuse of a plot and Rick Baker getting to flex his muscles as a designer, bringing up every idea the creative team could come up with and giving them puppeted life in service of a finale of pure comic chaos in the vein of Looney Tunes. It works on a very specific wavelength, and if you can get into it, you see pretty much the most perfect distillation of Dante's efforts, helped by the fact that Warner Bros. pretty much just threw money at him to make whatever he wanted. Helped in no small part by Charles A. Haas, Dante reached the pinnacle of his powers and, as is a common enough story, the film completely failed at the box office.

The 90s

The next decade was pretty much the end of Dante's ability to command budgets and do what he wanted with a film, and it started with his best film: Matinee. An original film about a B-movie mogul played by John Goodman who comes to Key West on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis to preview his latest creation: Mant, the heart-wrenching story of a normal, ordinary man who is turned into a half-man half-ant creature because his dentist didn't fumigate his office enough. Yes, it's nonsense, and it's the kind of nonsense that Joe Dante grew up on.

Through his filmography, he has people watching the films of his youth on televisions in the background (The Day the Earth Stood Still in Explorers, The Wolf Man in The Howling, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in Gremlins, and a host more), and he cast actors from those films across his filmography in his movies (Schallert was already mentioned, but the most prominent example would be Kevin McCarthy, star of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers). This stuff was important to him, and, I think, Matinee provides an oblique look into his mind. The story isn't based on his youth at all (he grew up in New Jersey, not Florida), but you can see through the main character, a boy of about twelve, this love of crappy monster movies as his only real friend and an escape from a world around him full of concerns he didn't share.

At the end of every picture, we get this sense of thrill at having avoided death, coming out to see that the world was still spinning and life kept going. That thrill was the point, and John Goodman, consummate showman, is there to provide it for you with all the tricks he can come up with for those 80-90 minutes and then release you back into the world. In Goodman's character I think Dante saw himself to some degree. So, while the film overall in terms of tone and effect is less purely Dante as a filmmaker made films, I think it most perfectly encapsulates what he wanted to do.

And Matinee was a miserable failure at the box office. It's wonderful, by the way, and you should check it out. But he largely became a television director after that. He made a handful more features like Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but they were compromised pictures overseen by incompetent studio executives that made his life a living hell. I don't entirely blame the executives, though they were very much a problem, because Small Soldiers in particular has a lot of similar narrative issues as his earlier work, in particular The Howling, telling me that Dante relied heavily on good collaborators to undo some of his worst impulses (characters tend to just sit around and wait for the plot to happen in both films), and he had lost his best (probably Haas as writer and John Hora as cinematographer).

Out of his final two, independently financed, films, I actually had a decently fun little time with Burying My Ex, honestly the first feature film with Alexandra Daddario I've ever seen, though it's not that distinctly Dante (the titular ex ends up having a certain Gremlins feel to her by the end, I suppose). The other, a 3-D horror film titled The Hole isn't terrible, but it's not exactly something special.

Retirement

Dante is one of those filmmakers who has simply lost his ability to fund films. He's in his late-70s, though he is active on the podcast scene and talks like he wants to make another film. I'm honestly surprised that some streaming giant like Netflix or AppleTV+ hasn't picked him up and just thrown money at him (certainly not Scorsese money, but maybe enough to make something small). I also think he's someone that no one in power in Hollywood really understood, not even Spielberg.

I think of Dante as an anarchist at heart, and I always appreciate that when it manifests in relatively undangerous ways like making silly movies. He worked well with others, obviously a skill fostered under Corman when he was working on shoe-string budgets and had little other than the people he was working with to rely upon. When those he worked with were good, it raised his game, and when they were less than good, they lowered it. Dante, though, always tried. I never got the sense that he was phoning it in, even when his films were less than successful.

He just wanted you to have a good time at his movies. He'd put some thought into it along the way, making the best he could, but sometimes it would be self-contradictory (like the series of endings in The 'Burbs) or self-destructive (like the weird extended ending of Explorers), and he was rarely fully successful. And yet, I think he was worthwhile to discover.

Thank you, Mr. Dante, for the good time at the movies to distract me from the real world for 90 minutes at a time.

A Quick Note

I am doing a Goodreads giveaway of my novel The Sharp Kid. If you have a Goodreads account, please enter to win one of one hundred Kindle copies!

My mom says it's pretty good, too!

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Poor Things

The Boy and the Heron

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Killers of the Flower Moon (Rating 3/4) Full Review "I just feel like the focus on Ernest, a stupid character who really just doesn't seem to understand what he's doing, was a mistake that hobbles the film more than it deserves. This is a serious film with strong entertainment in its crime genre, doing everything it can to elevate the genre in the process, but the moral quandary at the center is just not something I'm terribly convinced by." [Theater]

Hollywood Boulevard (Rating 2/4) Full Review "As I said, it was more of an experiment than an actual effort at a narrative film, but that being said, it's surprisingly held together decently while having ideas pop up from time to time and a winning personality along the way. I mean, it's not good, but it's far better than it had any right to be. Plus, Dick Miller is kind of hilarious." [Library]

The Howling (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "If I could just watch the final half hour of The Howling, I'd be very happy, but getting through the tepid, ambling first hour is something of a chore." [Library]

Gremlins (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It really could have used another draft to both cut out some early stuff that got left on the cutting room floor in the edit and to give Billy something more of a specific goal to achieve through the chaos. Either that, or just lean far more into the chaos." [Personal Collection]

Explorers (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Still, it's nice to see the kind of appeal that Dante can bring to the genre, providing real wonder and even some interesting little ideas about connecting with new species through entertainment." [Library]

Innerspace (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "It does solid character work with a great finale for one of the main characters. It has great special effects. It's light and amusing consistently. Joe Dante had a real win here, and it's just too bad that it wasn't more of a success at the box office of the time." [Personal Collection]

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Rating 3/4) Full Review "I essentially wanted this to be Joe Dante's masterpiece, but it ends up being an entertaining but mild enhancement over the original." [Personal Collection]

Matinee (Rating 4/4) Full Review "I find this movie completely infectious. It has this combination of character-based storytelling that it takes its time to establish in the first half, and then it has Dante's trademarked chaos by the end." [Personal Collection]

Small Soldiers (Rating 2/4) Full Review "And the end result, despite fun moments, is a largely disconnected film without much of a point and only limited bits of amusement." [Max]

Contact

Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 12/30, and it will talk about the third quarter century of Best Picture Winners.

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