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Joe Dante (#110 of 11)

SXSW 2014: Wild Canaries and That Guy Dick Miller

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SXSW 2014: <em>Wild Canaries</em> and <em>That Guy Dick Miller</em>
SXSW 2014: <em>Wild Canaries</em> and <em>That Guy Dick Miller</em>

Dashiell Hammett meets Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries, the story of a Brooklyn couple’s already troubled relationship thrown for a loop after they engage in some slapstick-y DIY detective work. Upon discovering the body of an elderly woman who lives in the apartment below her, disaffected homebody Barri (Sophia Takal) becomes obsessed with the idea that the woman was killed. Her fiancé, Noah (Levine), finds the idea preposterous yet is unable to placate her delusions, and soon Barri is donning a fisherman’s hat and aviator glasses in order to sniff out the criminal and the motivation for the murder, going so far to involve her roommate and friends in her sleuthing.

Summer of ‘88: Short Circuit 2

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Short Circuit 2</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Short Circuit 2</em>

Hollywood has rightfully made a big show of distancing itself from its blackface legacy, a tradition that stretched from the full-tilt racism of The Birth of a Nation all the way to Laurence Olivier’s 1965 version of Othello, not to mention the grotesque caricatures many black performers were forced to inhabit. But surprisingly little mention is made of brownface, the equally unpleasant practice of having white actors creep a few shades darker than usual, donning bronzer or maybe just getting a serious tan, in order to portray Latin, Native American, or Asian characters. Maybe it’s because it’s still going on to this day (seen recently in The Big Wedding and currently with Johnny Depp’s turn as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, although rarely in as baldly ill-advised fashion as in Short Circuit and it’s 1988 sequel, which finds Fisher Stevens going Sub-Continental as Indian robotics engineer Ben Jahveri, Quik-E-Mart accent, goofy mannerisms, and all. Putting aside the fact that most modern-day portrayals of Indians still haven’t moved very far beyond these rote stereotypical trappings, the film’s cartoon presentation of this character seems alien to an otherwise open-minded, tender movie, its kid-aimed messages on the fragility of life and the importance of acceptance backed up by surprisingly solid filmmaking.

Summer of ’88: Dead Heat - Public Relations Meltdowns and Zombie Cops

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Dead Heat</em> - Public Relations Meltdowns and Zombie Cops
Summer of ‘88: <em>Dead Heat</em> - Public Relations Meltdowns and Zombie Cops

Believe it or not, there’s an interesting idea lurking inside Dead Heat. It arrives too late to save the viewer, but it should have been the pitch that got this film made. Rather than focus on the one-sentence plot description (“It’s a buddy cop picture where one of the buddies is D-E-D-Dead!”), writer Terry Black should have lead with the reason the machine that reanimates corpses exists. During the climax, mad-scientist Vincent Price explains to his rich investors that his machine will reanimate them after death so they can live forever and screw their heirs out of their inheritance. The machine will also perform maintenance on them so they can look their best, while those greedy bastards they sired wither away and die. “That’s a great idea!” I thought. “This is Death Becomes Her before Death Becomes Her became Death Becomes Her!”

Unfortunately, this development comes out of left field and is quickly discarded in the ensuing climactic carnage. Until this point, the machine was being used to create an indestructible race of jewel thieves. Two of these creatures are seen in the opening of the film, appearing just as a snooty rich woman utters, “I was hoping for a little more suspense.” She’s talking about jewelry, but she’s also echoing the audience’s sentiment. Dead Heat bills itself as a horror-comedy, but it’s not gruesome enough to satisfy gorehounds, and it isn’t intentionally funny at all. It keeps the sad promises offered by the familiar red New World Pictures logo that graced similar ’80s output: sober people with little time on their hands need not apply, as this one’s for bored drunks on lonely Saturday nights.

As the zombie robbers smash and grab, detectives Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) appear on the scene…along with half the police department. The criminals are shot 40,000 times but will…not…die. Mortis, Bigelow, and their cop brethren respond to this far too calmly. “Maybe they’re on PCP,” says one cop. Nobody thinks to shoot them in the head, though one is blown up by a grenade. “You have the right to remain…disgusting!” says Bigelow to the exploded corpse.

New York Film Festival 2011: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>
New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>

For a film that reveres the down-and-dirty independent filmmaking ethos that legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman exemplified, it’s ironic that the talking-heads interviews in Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel feel so self-conscious. Where did Stapleton get his ideas about framing shots, The King’s Speech? Interview subjects—including Corman himself—are often pushed to the sides of cinematographer Patrick Simpson’s frames, with lots of negative space to look at; it’s as purposeless and distracting as all those stupidly arty shots cinematographer Danny Cohen pulled off in last year’s very un-Corman-like Oscar-winner (unless Simpson really, genuinely thought he was doing something original and, well, “rebellious”). And what’s up with Stapleton’s decision to go to the French electronic-pop duo Air, of all people, for the film’s odd score?

But I would imagine no one goes to a documentary like Corman’s World expecting cinematic interest. We go expecting, if not necessarily insights into the man himself or his work, at least a good overview of his life and legacy. For the most part, that’s basically what we get here. From his younger days starting out as a script reader at 20th Century Fox, to his frustration at getting no credit for his successful script revisions for 1950’s The Gunfighter, which him to leave Fox to produce and direct films for American International Pictures, to his eventual founding of New World Pictures and its eventual flameout as Jaws and Star Wars changed Hollywood forever, Corman’s World briskly—as briskly as Corman made movies—hits the highlights of his career.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel</em>

Roger Corman has had as much influence over modern Hollywood as Spielberg or Scorsese. And for good reason: Without him there likely wouldn’t even have been a Spielberg or Scorsese. This director/producer of hundreds of low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exploitation films is remembered (rather unfairly) as a B-movie hack, but Corman’s aesthetic sensibilities have come to dominate the franchises we now call “tent poles,” and his protégés number among the most influential people in cinema. He’s enjoyed every minute of it.

Take Two #13: Jaws (1975) & Piranha (1978)

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Take Two #13: Jaws (1975) & Piranha (1978)

Universal Pictures

Take Two #13: Jaws (1975) & Piranha (1978)

This past summer should have belonged to Joe Dante. Matinee, his 1993 masterpiece and his most seemingly personal film, finally made its way to DVD in the spring. Piranha, his shoestring 1978 debut, was then released on DVD on August 3, mere weeks before Miramax released a $20 million nominal remake, Piranha 3D, that did surprisingly good business. And all the while, Dante was sitting on a finished 3D feature of his own, The Hole, which had been positively received at the Venice Film Festival.

But anyone who’s followed Dante’s career could have seen the inevitable disappointments coming. Universal released the Matinee DVD almost silently, with not even a commentary track among its spare special features; Piranha 3D gave no credit to the earlier film’s director, despite his clear creative imprint; and as of this writing, The Hole still languishes without an American distributor. The sole unblemished success of the bunch was the Piranha DVD, which came out as part of Shout! Factory’s lovingly packaged “Corman Classics” series.

New York Film Festival 2010 Joe Dante’s The Hole

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New York Film Festival 2010: The Hole

Big Air Studios

New York Film Festival 2010: The Hole

Joe Dante’s latest film, The Hole, which screened at the New York Film Festival on Saturday night, is no more a breakthrough for the 3D process than James Cameron’s Avatar was (though Dante’s film is, as one might expect, far less self-important); in fact, though Dante expressly conceived the film to be shot in 3D, rather than allowing 3D to be added as an afterthought (as has been the case with many recent Hollywood films, most recently Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take), the truth is, despite a handful of arresting instances of set design and camera perspectives which somewhat gain from that increasingly ubiquitous third dimension, overall The Hole probably didn’t need to be in 3D at all. As it is, seeing this film in 3D never presents any major distractions, but neither does it enhance the film in any special way. And as I’ve come to conclude after the immense hype for Avatar subsided, if you don’t much notice the 3D in a 3D film, why not just make the film in regular 2D in the first place?

Hating the Player, Losing the Game: The Armond White Meta-Review

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Hating the Player, Losing the Game: The Armond White Meta-Review
Hating the Player, Losing the Game: The Armond White Meta-Review

When New York Press critic Armond White panned the universally admired Toy Story 3, the disapproval he expressed and the backlash it inspired were so “predictable” that they were, well, predicted. Bumping TS3 from its briefly “100% Fresh” standing at the critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, White’s piece (entitled “Bored Game”) channeled a steady stream of pissed off Pixar loyalists to the Press website. “Registered just to say I think you are a massive twat and I feel really sorry for you,” user woahreally weighed in. “Whoever ur boss is should be slapped for allowing you to publish this disaster of a review,” opined the inventively pseudonymed usuckballs.

The comments-section calls for White to be fired are occasionally hilarious in their venom and vulgarity, all the more so for being so spectacularly self-defeating—could the Press have mounted a more successful campaign to increase their web traffic and user registrations? And there’s the rub. White’s detractors accuse of him being a “contrarian,” someone who bucks the critical establishment and defies popular taste out of little more than cynical self-promotion and antisocial perversity. (This highly circulated chart of Armond’s pans and praises has been offered as definitive “proof” that his opinions are reflexively reactionary.) But if this is true, any principled stand against White paradoxically rewards and enables him. “Don’t feed the trolls,” as the saying goes.

5 for the Day: Wish List

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5 for the Day: Wish List
5 for the Day: Wish List

Lead illustration by Peet Gelderblom. These films are not in production, except in my imagination.

1. Moby Dick. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Mel Gibson as Ahab, Ben Foster as Ishmael, Rudy Youngblood as Starbuck and Ian Holm as Father Mapple. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Edited by Anne V. Coates. Score by Eliot Goldenthal.

The reclusive director follows up his long-awaited Fountain of Youth project with the ultimate nautical adventure, and does not disappoint. Herman Melville’s supposedly unfilmable novel—which stymied John Huston, among other would-be adapters—gets the cosmic, ruminative treatment in this three-hour CinemaScope epic, which alternates quicksilver, free-associative montages with the most surprisingly conventional and exciting action scenes Malick has ever directed. As Ahab—arguably the role he was born to play—Mel Gibson gives a surprisingly restrained performance, resisting the natural inclination to play the character as Long John Silver on crack. Gibson instead directs his intensity inward, a decision that lends Ahab a lordly detachment and icy, inscrutable anger reminiscent of mid-period Laurence Olivier; the performance is aided immeasurably by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, which often hides Ahab’s eyes in Rembrandt pools of torchlit blackness or, in daylight scenes, in the sliver of shadow cast by the brim of his cap. Throughout there are curious but distinctly Malickian changes—including the casting of Apocalypto star Rudy Youngblood as a Starbuck who’s actually a combination of the characters of Starbuck and Queequeg, with Maori tattoos and a habit of meditating on deck at the same time every day, even during storms.