Wednesday, June 10, 2015

THE ATOMO-VISION OF JOE DANTE



By the time I'd arrived in Los Angeles from Southern Oregon in 1987, I was already a card-carrying member of the Joe Dante Fan Club. (Well, I would have carried a card if I’d had one, and if there had actually been a Joe Dante Fan Club, but I didn’t because there wasn’t, but if there had been…) Of course I’d seen Gremlins several times, and though I enjoyed its parodic take on Spielberg-filtered horror and fairy tales, it wasn’t my favorite Dante picture. I remember catching Dante and makeup genius Rob Bottin on NBC’s Tomorrow show with Tom Snyder in 1981 promoting The Howling, their stylish and innovative take on werewolf mythology (and werewolf movies). Shortly thereafter saw the movie on a double bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a local drive-in on the edge of some very deep woods. It was the perfect setting for my first exposure to Dante’s satirically inventive, movie-maniacal sensibility, and I was hooked. Soon after I sought out his first movie, the delightfully inexpensive Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which he co-directed with Allan Arkush, and began to suspect I’d discovered a director whose perspective could reflect my own movie-riddled mania while leaving room for the sort of subtextual contours—political, emotional, sociological-- that, as the previous four years of my college life had encouraged me to see, could make the movies live and breathe on another level.


I loved all those movies, but it was Dante’s maligned, seemingly misunderstood Explorers (1985) that really got its hooks into me. In telling the story of three boys who start receiving mysterious messages, apparently from outer space, and build a spaceship out of an abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl car in order to find out who’s sending them, you could feel Dante wrestling with a life of movie-fed expectations, the beauty and silliness of childhood, the looming responsibilities of adulthood (where not much of that beauty and silliness seems to have survived) and the hope that it might somehow all add up to something more than random chaos and hopeful transmissions winking out in the twilight. The denouement of Explorers, an out-and-out rebuke to the quasi-religious hosannas paying customers had become accustomed to in the wake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, was taken by most audiences as a disappointment at best, a pointless betrayal at worst, and the movie never connected with the summer crowds for which it was marketed. But ultimately it doesn’t feel like a movie that should. It’s one of those movies about which I feel almost unreasonably protective, that feels as if it was made for me. And I know now there are a lot of us who feel that way.
 
Cut back to Los Angeles, 1987. My best friend and I came upon a notice in the newspaper that Joe Dante would be giving some sort of lecture at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the history and legends of horror and science fiction in Hollywood, and of course we had to go. I remember very little of the lecture itself other than it was engaging and full of clips Dante had brought along (perhaps from his personal collection), and that I had mustered up the courage to stand up and ask him a rather generic question about Explorers. And the only specific thing I remember about the appearance is something I’m likely to never forget. At one point Dante veered away from his notes, took a breath and proclaimed that, as great as it had been to see some of the wonderful moments he’d gathered for the presentation on the giant screen of the Academy’s theater, it would be a real shame not to take full advantage of the opportunity to put the screen to really good use. At that point the lights went down and, for no other reason than that he could and that he wanted to see it himself, the director unveiled the ending of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in all of its widescreen glory. This was the first time I’d ever seen Leone’s masterpiece, one of my favorite movies, on any screen other than my TV, and here it was in this majestic setting, just because. Joe Dante was now no longer simply a director whose films I really appreciated. He was now something akin to a personal hero.


By the time I was a kid reading Famous Monsters of Filmland religiously, Dante, not much older than me, was already writing reviews for the revered Castle of Frankenstein magazine and was on his way to a filmmaking career that many dreamed/hoped might also be in waiting for those of us who shared his obsessions. Dante has always seemed like one of us (one of us!), an original talent simpatico to the monster legends emanating from the back lots of Universal Studios and every other budget-deprived genre production facility with only energy and inspiration, and precious little money to spare. And this week, in celebration of the razor-sharp, hyperkinetic cinematic hall-of-mirrors that is the oeuvre of this wonderful filmmaker, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles running a four-day tribute called The Atomo-Vision of Joe Dante, each night hosted by Dante himself, which will be a rare and welcome opportunity to see some of his peak achievements on the big screen.



The festival opens up tonight with a dream double bill of Gremlins (1984) and its certifiably insane sequel, the Godfather II of all sci-fi/horror/comedy mashups, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).



Then tomorrow night, the Cinematheque presents an advance screening of Dante’s newest movie, the zombie-romantic comedy hybrid (or zom-com, for those of you who like rhymes) Burying the Ex, which stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Only Lovers Left Alive) as a young dude with dating problems— after his overbearing type-A girlfriend (Ashley Greene) is killed by a bus, he starts dating a girl more suited to his temperament (Alexandra Daddario), only to find out that his flattened ex isn’t about to let a little thing like being dead excuse him from his previous proclamations of eternal devotion. Dante will introduce this screening as well, and the movie will be followed by a Q&A with Dante, Yelchin and Daddario.
 
 Friday night brings Dante’s hilarious horror comedy The 'burbs (1989) back to the big screen, in which restless vacationer Tom Hanks becomes increasingly, irrationally obsessed with what’s going on in his mysterious neighbors’ basement. The ‘burbs is paired with Matinee (1993), a brilliant homage to the B-movie huckster spirit of showmen like William Castle. Dante’s Castle is Lawrence Woolsley (John Goodman), who brings his newest Atomo-Vision classic Mant (Half man! Half ant! All terror!”) to a Key West, Florida promotional screening during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly detailed tribute to the spirit and substance of the movies, and the era, which shaped the filmmaker he would one day become, and as such Matinee ranks with Explorers among Dante’s most personal work.
 
Speaking of which, Explorers (1985) screens Sunday night alongside Innerspace (1987), Dante’s delightful, spectacular wrinkle on Fantastic Voyage, in which another sort of explorer, Lt. Tuck Pendelton (Dennis Quaid), volunteers to be shrunk down to microscopic size as part of a scientific experiment, only to be accidentally injected into the body of a hapless grocery clerk (Martin Short). It’s been said a lot, but this time hilarity does, in fact, ensue-- it's probably Short's finest hour in the movies.

These double bills are hard to argue with as prime samples of this director’s very personal movie madness-- a specifically analog and encyclopedic dedication to the art and craft of film and its history born of an age where true movie love had to be sought out on late show spelunking expeditions and dangerous trips to downtown grindhouses. The Atomo-Vision-fueled cinema of Joe Dante is a treasure chest full of unique pop pleasures— I’ll be at the Egyptian Thursday and Friday, and maybe even Sunday too, to dig in along with my daughter, who under her dad’s caring tutelage has learned to love Joe Dante’s movies almost as much as he does. I hope you can be there this weekend to revel in them with us.

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For further reading on Joe Dante, here are links to interviews I conducted with the director, one from 2008 and one from 2009 as well as to my eyewitness account of being in the audience for a rare screening of The Movie Orgy!
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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

THE GIFT OF SATYAJIT RAY'S APU TRILOGY


UPDATE: 6/4/15

 
I really hope you were somewhere near a theater this month that was showing the 4K restoration of Satyajit Ray’s peerlessly lovely APU TRILOGY, comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and The World of Apu (1959). The last time I saw these movies was about 35 years ago, on rickety, well-worn 16mm—seeing them again, having grown-up in the manner (if not the circumstances) of Apu in the interim, makes me feel like I was seeing these luminous treasures for the first time. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in telling the story of Apu, who begins life well after the first film has gotten under way, completely absent any pandering sentiment, through the prism of a world represented for its beauty as well as its unforgiving harshness and indifference, and then expanding the vision of the world’s possibilities so we might understand them in the way Apu does, each tiny revelation absorbed or ignored organically, without the telltale signposts of assigned significance. For every moment of joy along the way, there is also the pain of loss and the struggle of everyday existence, of survival, all of which is rendered with such observational confidence, such almost offhanded grace, that the movies feel more lived in than simply seen.
If you missed the theatrical release (and at this writing they have exactly one day left of their Los Angeles engagement), the upcoming Criterion Collection release becomes even more urgent. Criterion commissioned the salvation of Ray’s films, the negatives of which had been in dire shape for years and nearly lost in a London fire in 1993, with the help of L’Immagine Ritrovata, a Bolognese restoration facility, and their painstaking work was worth every second, every penny. Stephanie Zacharek wrote about the new opportunity to experience Ray’s masterworks last May, and she does a beautiful job of Illuminating the connection of Ray’s work to the emotional and spiritual experience of everyday life. Read her piece and be inspired to seek out THE APU TRILOGY when it bows on Blu-ray later this year.

UPDATE: Looks like Ray's APU TRILOGY will have an extended life in Los Angeles after all. It holds over starting today at both the Landmark Theater in West Los Angeles and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. The trilogy will continue to make its way across the country through September. For a full listing of cities and theaters that will be playing the films over the course of the summer, click on the official Janus Films APU TRILOGY Web site.
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Monday, June 01, 2015

THE 2015 WHITE ELEPHANT BLOGATHON: CHARLES BURNETT'S THE GLASS SHIELD



In Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1995), a drama of corruption, racism and sexism within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department which was based on a true story, violence and racial tension is set at a constant simmer from the start—upon arriving for his first day on the job, rookie cop J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), apparently the station’s first and only African-American officer, is assumed by one of the department vets to be a trustee rather than an employee, a mistake Johnson takes in stride as he flashes his badge and makes his way in. Once inside, it’s certainly clear enough to the viewer, if not Johnson, what he’s up against. The office is overwhelmed with big, tough, power-tripping Caucasians, many of whom look like out-of-work porn stars or Tom Selleck wannabes, or both, tossing casual racism about like a football at a tailgater, all overseen by a rogue’s gallery of familiar character actors (when Michael Ironside shows up as a detective, you know it’s not going to go well for Johnson) and the station commander (Richard Anderson), whose resemblance to ex-L.A. police chief Daryl Gates isn’t likely a coincidence.
Johnson believes he can fit in, that there is a place for him among the ranks, and he believes in the system as it applies both to him as an upcoming peace officer and those he is assigned to protect and serve. But soon, in order to become one of the boys, Johnson participates in what he perceives as a routine traffic stop which instead turns out to be a classic case of racial profiling. The driver, Teddy Wood (Ice Cube), gets hauled in on a concealed weapons charge, and the underpinnings of Johnson’s faith begin to crumble. By the time the case goes to trial, Johnson has lied about the circumstances to protect the arresting officer (Don Harvey), and Wood has been plugged into the patsy role in a murder case by a couple of sleazy detectives (M. Emmett Walsh and, yes, Ironside) looking to disguise a trail of corruption that leads much further than the sheriff’s station. He ends up forming an alliance with another outsider, a female deputy (Lori Petty) who has been on the receiving end of another sort of harassment, and the two of them go about discovering just how in over their heads they really are when it comes to finding justice from within.
Its anger having been informed both by the outrage and the aftermath of the Rodney King case in 1992 and the O.J. Simpson trial, which would come to its controversial conclusion a few months after its release, it seems reasonable to presume that, as much as the world hasn’t changed in 20 years, The Glass Shield might be even more potent than it turns out to be. And though that constant simmer of racial tension remains admirably restrained throughout—the movie shines when compared its 2004 corollary, Crash, whose stew of outrage was overheated from frame one— there’s a strangely muted quality about The Glass Shield, almost as if we were seeing the events of the film being played out as a case study under glass. (One could assume the movie occurs in the “present day,” but even in 1995 the notion of an all-white sheriff’s station being forced to accept a black man into their fraternity seemed strangely dated.)
We’re not in David Ayer territory here—the camera setups are reserved, conservative, and Burnett’s screenplay is rather astonishingly profanity-free. The word “nigger” is never spoken, but its unexpected appearance in writing lends the movie a necessary edge of horror and sets the rest of Burnett’s approach apart as comparatively reserved, even tepid. Even so, you can feel the tension between the warmly observational writer-director of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger and the restrictions he’s placed on himself in fashioning a more concisely told drama, one that must, to a certain degree, play by genre rules rather than searching for vital life in the margins.
 
Or perhaps the more accurate word might be melodrama. For all of its fact-based foundations, The Glass Shield has a distinctly prescribed quality to it, which is rooted in its almost complete refusal of the sort of complexity, however fictionalized, that might have lent the movie a desperately needed air of immediacy. The movie hinges on Boatman’s desire for acceptance and willingness to overlook a lot of specious behavior in order to find it, but in reaction to Burnett’s shade-free portrayal of white villainy Boatman’s rookie comes off as curiously na├»ve. Had Boatman been more convincingly seduced by the possibilities of inclusion, if he had been allowed a friendship among the station establishment that might have deepened his own sense of personal conflict, the movie’s didactic strategy might seem a little less hermetically sealed.

As is, The Glass Shield, even as volatile as its subject matter is, carries a patina of Afterschool Special obviousness about it—it’s an absorbing movie which hardly ever strays into trouble areas for which it doesn’t already have a stinger of pointed dialogue at the ready, so ready that even Spike Lee might blush a little upon hearing them. (Few movies could fully recover from its hero intoning, “Like the song says, my skin is my sin,” or a peace officer finally braying his true colors-- “Let the professionals police this jungle!”) There are no earthshaking surprises here—corruption is exposed, justice is served, including the poetic kind-- a title card tells us that Anderson’s lordly, condescending Commander Massey retired from the force unindicted and opened a one-hour photo shop which was robbed twice during its first year of operation. We’re left with the feeling that, the small victories depicted here notwithstanding, professional inroads will be made but to a great degree the putrid business of racism will continue as usual. (Twenty years after the release of The Glass Shield, the fates of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garber and countless others have done little to assuage that uneasy conclusion.)

Burnett is too much of a realist to spare his audience the sight of Johnson having to face up to the consequences of his own role in the Teddy Wood injustice, but the moment is undercut by Boatman’s relative callowness in the part. At one point a character remarks on how Johnson's time in the sheriff’s department has hardened him, made him unrecognizable, and the viewer has to forgive him/herself for thinking that the actor looks as soft as ever. Boatman is an easy, welcoming presence and he plays along, but the deeper reserves, if they exist, go untapped, which in an odd way makes him the perfect lead for Burnett’s righteously fueled but tempered and dramatically incurious approach. The Glass Shield is by no means a cynical movie, and in some ways it’s probably a necessary one, but it lacks the investigative punch and complexity to be an important one.

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This review is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler at his blog Diary of a Country Pickpocket. As Philip explains, “film bloggers the world over have submitted their favorite (or, if they're particularly sinister, least favorite) film oddities to me. Those films have gone into a hat and been randomly assigned back to the members of the film blogletariat.Philip has an ever-increasing list of all the writing that makes up this year’s edition, and I’m excited that two of my favorite film writers are taking on suggestions submitted by me: Glenn Kenny dives into Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, and Roderick Heath answers the question “What ever happened to Bertrand Blier with his essay on the director’s 2005 How Much Do You Love Me? Check out the full list of contributions, which will get longer as the day progresses, at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.
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