Thursday, October 4, 2012

Afternoon Delight: "Matinee" (1993)

Joe Dante, the evil mastermind behind "Gremlins," makes a nostalgic film that is even more enjoyable than his classic monster flick.

In 1962 Key West, young teen Gene (Simon Fenton) and his brother sit in the dark theater and see previews for Lawrence Woolsey's (John Goodman) new film "Mant," "half man, half ant, all terror!" Gene's father is absent, floating around in the Gulf of Mexico in the Cuban blockade. Everyone is nuclear-paranoid, as Gene's school holds atomic bomb drills. During one of these, cute Sandra (Lisa Jakub) rails against the silliness of the entire procedure, and catches the eye of Gene.

Being a naval base kid, Gene finds it hard to make friends. He does get to know Stan (Omri Katz), who is obsessed with pretty Sherry (Kellie Martin). Sherry has just ended a dangerous relationship with juvenile delinquent/poet Harvey (James Villemaire). With the threat of nuclear annihilation as a back drop, Gene gets involved with Woolsey when he comes to town with his leading lady Ruth (Cathy Moriarty). Woolsey welcomes the missile commotion, hoping to use it to his film's advantage. After Gene recognizes two of Woolsey's actors (Dick Miller and John Sayles) posing as outraged citizens trying to "stop" the film, the duo become friends.

Harvey threatens Stan for seeing Sherry. Harvey is then hired by Woolsey to both play a guy in a Mant suit, and to run all the backstage effects, including rumbling sounds and shock seats. The film wraps up at the premiere of "Mant," as Woolsey and Ruth must deal with a crazed Harvey, who kidnaps Sherry. Gene and Sandra get locked in a bomb shelter by a high strung theater manager (Robert Picardo), but the film must go on (even if the balcony begins to collapse from overcrowding).

The script was written by Charlie Haas, and it is fantastic. Dante makes a great teen comedy that does not resort to any stupid, "American Pie" activities. Although I was not born until six years after this was set, I still felt nostalgic for those halcyon days of youth. Dante captures the life of a military kid very well, I have almost two decades of Air Force brat-dom to back up my expertise. Dante uses special effects sparingly, so when they do pop up (an atomic nightmare, Woolsey's film), they are brilliant.

John Goodman is wonderful as the William Castle-like Woolsey. I have yet to see him turn in a bad performance on the big screen, TV's "Normal, Ohio" is another matter. Cathy Moriarty is a riot as his put-upon love interest. There is a great running gag where she dresses as a nurse as part of the film's publicity stunt, and children come to her with real medical problems.

The young cast all do well. Stan and Sherry, and Gene and Sandra, and poor Harvey are teens like we rarely see onscreen anymore- they seem normal. The teen's parents are also refreshingly smart, and I was surprised by this as well.

"Matinee" is one of those films I did not want to end when it did. I usually do not like TV series based on films, but I would have made an exception with this one. The film bombed (sorry) in the theater, so a sequel is not likely. I will be happy watching this again, however.

It is funny, entertaining, and just plain great. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.