As time goes on, it becomes clear to a growing number of people that we didn’t appreciate Joe Dante’s films when we had the chance. The writer/director is still working in TV and film, but it almost goes without saying that his best works remain in the 80s and 90s. Some of those movies —Gremlins is one– are iconic, as far as some are concerned. Others found modest-to-depressing levels of success in their heyday, and have only with the benefit of retrospect begun to find their due. The Burbs’ is one example from Dante’s canon. Matinee is another, and it stands in the present as a stellar example of a story about childhood during a period of social and political upheaval. It is still one of the best Joe Dante movies to date. At the time of its release in 1993, it was a summation of Dante’s interests and favorite types of stories to tell. It’s also a bombastic tribute to both of those things, set against nuclear dread during the fall of 1962.
It enhances your enjoyment, if only a little, if you know going in that John Goodman’s tireless, faithless, penniless 1960s indie movie mogul is based on William Castle. Just as Castle hustled around the country, showing off absurd, charming horror movies like The House on Haunted Hill, packed with gimmicks and Castle’s showmanship, John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey is just trying to sell his latest genre masterpiece. It helps to know the nostalgia, in the sense of bringing it together with the singular direction, performances, and energy that mark Matinee. However, if you don’t know the nostalgia, it’s okay. All of those qualities I mentioned will find their way to you regardless.
Cathy Moriarty as his muse/leading lady/girlfriend/co-producer is along for Woosley’s desperation to make it to the next movie, but she’s starting to get tired of the relentless life on the road, combined with compromises and shoddy working conditions. There’s a new movie, Mant! (built from a range of 50s/60s B-movie horror/sci-fi classics), to promote all the same. So they pack up, and head to Key West, Florida. Even in the midst of President Kennedy’s staggering announcement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, Woosley is going to find an audience. That part isn’t a surprise.
The surprise is in the story that follows two young brothers (Simon Fenton as Gene, and Jesse Lee as Dennis), growing up amongst all of this madness in their small Florida town. Matinee is one of many 1990s movies that dealt in the 1950s and/or 1960s to some degree or another. It holds up now for the way it understands that time and place, rather than simply romanticizing it to a rhythm that people can instantly understand and support. Perhaps, that’s one of the reasons why it was a modest-but-underwhelming success at the time of its release. Matinee is nostalgic, but it is much more than mere nostalgia.
As the story focuses more on Gene, who is just starting to understand the world around him, Matinee becomes a childhood narrative that doesn’t insult childhood, or our shared perceptions of it. There were movies like Mant! (which Dante flawlessly creates and splices throughout), and there were warm, sympathetic days that were kind enough to make you believe they could go on forever. There was also class privilege, the very real threat of nuclear annihilation, self-righteous, unintentional fans of de-evolving humanity, racism, and much more. Dante glosses a little over the worst parts of such a story, but you don’t fault him. There just isn’t enough time for everything stories like these can tell, and the movie is ultimately meant to be a warm remembrance of the transition from innocence to something that feels like understanding.
This sounds like a lot for what plays like a light tribute to vintage rock and roll and movie monsters with personality. All of the things I’ve mentioned are unshakable elements of Matinee’s appeal. The retro stuff is great, and Goodman is once again one of the best actors living today, but the movie nonetheless asks the audience to go a little deeper.
I’d like to think the movie’s understated complexities and genius are part of Shout Factory’s motivation to add the movie to their Shout Select line. It doesn’t hurt either that the movie warms us with great acting, and an appealing homage to a bygone time. Regardless of why Shout lavished this movie with such a wonderful collector’s edition, I’m grateful. The disc includes several features. The best ones examine the film from a distance of 25 (holy shit, really?) years. The top of the long list of perks with this disc would have to be the complete version of Matinee’s movie-within-a-movie. Among other things, it gives us the chance to appreciate Joe Dante regular/living legend Dick Miller in an additional role to the one he plays in the movie’s main plot.
To be sure, Dante would have been a king on the 1960s horror landscape.
Brought together with an excellent transfer, which pays fine tribute to the sights and sounds of a movie that appreciates both of those elements in an ideal cinematic experience for a viewer, Matinee is the best Shout Select release to date. Between Criterion, Arrow Video, and Shout Factory, worthwhile, somewhat forgotten films and TV shows are getting the restorative/protective measures they deserve.
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