Tuesday, July 19, 2011
A Dual Chip System
There’s no doubt about it, Joe Dante has been responsible for some of the best times I’ve ever had in movie theaters. And I’m not just talking about the films he’s actually directed, though those certainly count. But my first viewing of THE MOVIE ORGY at the New Beverly several years back was a type of ecstasy that still defies description and just recently at the Cinefamily here in L.A. I was privileged to attend a live Trailers From Hell presentation. Trailers From Hell, in case you don’t know, is a site run by Dante among others where various directors and screenwriters of note offer audio commentary over trailers to films ranging from all genres. It’s completely addictive and I’d rave about it even if they didn’t already link to my blog. The site released a DVD some time ago and the Cinefamily event was held to celebrate the recent release of Trailers From Hell Volume Two. Go buy a copy, you’ll be glad you did.
The event was hosted by Dante himself featuring several of the personalities from the site doing live commentary as trailers played, too many to list here but to name a few: legend Roger Corman was there to offer thoughts on his own MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and VON FICHTOFEN AND BROWN, Allison Anders earnestly spoke of her love for the Natalie Wood vehicle PENELOPE, ROBOCOP co-screenwriter Ed Neumeier made a convincing case for the importance of EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE in Clint Eastwood’s career, Allan Arkush revealed how he actually prefers the not-available English language version of Fellini’s 8 ½ (which he’s gotten to see thanks to Dante owning a 16mm print!), ED WOOD co-screenwriter Larry Karaszewski covered, of all things, the Allen-Rossi epic LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS? and made the argument that there has never been a good film with a question mark in the title (I suppose MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? is arguable). Screenwriter Daniel Waters hasn’t appeared on the site yet but he turned up to present a rejected trailer for HEATHERS which he of course wrote, while BATMAN screenwriter Sam Hamm was there to speak of his love for both PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET and SOME CAME RUNNING--anyone who considers Dean Martin removing his hat in that film’s final shot to be one of the reasons cinema exists is ok with me. Incidentally, Daniel Waters of course rewrote Hamm when he took over as screenwriter on BATMAN RETURNS and as it happened this occasion was the very first time the two men had ever met. Honestly, when I realized what I’d just seen I felt like I was witnessing a piece of Hollywood history. Larry Cohen was also there to do commentary for two trailers sprung on him as a surprise (they turned out to be an Orson Welles pairing of TOUCH OF EVIL and LADY FROM SHANGHAI, which as it turns out Cohen actually doesn’t like!) but maybe the rarest sight of the entire evening was when Joe Dante introduced a brief piece of film, a never-before-seen piece of test footage for an unmade CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake from around ’81 showing the Gill Man skulking around Bronson Canyon. Edgar Wright who has also appeared on the site (and is one of the very best commenters--check out what he has to say about THE BLACK HOLE for example) was there in the audience, maybe making him no doubt the one person to attend both this event and the meeting with the visiting Royals in Santa Barbara that weekend. Come to think of it, he may also be the only person to both attend that event and speak with me during those few days although I doubt he finds that very impressive. So I'll be impressed by it--hey, I was talking to Edgar Wright, you think that's not a complete thrill for me?--and as far I’m concerned this event was just a little cooler anyway.
So thanks to Trailers From Hell for getting me into the event and for Joe Dante and Cinefamily for putting together such an amazing evening (site producer Elizabeth Stanley is clearly a key part of it all, so thanks to her as well). And there was also the director’s appearance the previous week at the Egyptian for, of all things, a double bill of JAWS and his own film PIRANHA. He was there to introduce not only his half of the night but also his own personal print and was maybe slightly apologetic about it as well, considering it had to follow JAWS, after all. I enjoy PIRANHA as a late 70s goof and I’m particularly impressed with how Dante handled its multiple locations and sheer amount of elements going on which definitely feels of a larger scale than many other Corman productions from the period. There’s also how hypnotized I get by some of those glares given by evil scientist Barbara Steele as well as how surprising some of the post-Vietnam anti-military slant courtesy of Dante, Corman and screenwriter John Sayles plays today, making me somewhat nostalgic for a time when filmmakers were able to slip such anti-establishment messages into their monster movies because, at that point in time, who was paying attention?
The JAWS/PIRANHA night was actually over Fourth of July weekend, a perfect time for such a double bill, and it was a reminder that once upon a time in 1987 there was in fact a brand new Joe Dante film that was one of the big new releases on that weekend. Of course, that was twenty-four years ago now and maybe Dante himself doesn’t want to be reminded of how that turned out. INNERSPACE might be a better film than Dante’s fondly remembered EXPLORERS from 1985 but one thing the two films unfortunately had in common was a lackluster ad campaign with a poster that, instead of spotlighting the stars of this bright, character-driven sci-fi comedy, featured what seemed to be a thumb and maybe nobody could figure out what else. Coming from the Spielberg factory of Amblin Entertainment it’s a film which feels like it was designed to be a big commercial hit in the BACK TO THE FUTURE vein but it never got there partly due to that faulty ad campaign and partly due to how maybe its director’s style didn’t necessarily translate into mass appeal the way Robert Zemeckis was able to do. Having said that, I probably don’t need to get across how much I wish we lived in a world where the masses loved Dante as much as I do. In some ways it almost pays more attention to story and plot than any other film Dante has ever made and maybe because of this it falls somewhat short of some of his best work. It is still extremely enjoyable through its running time and though it maybe gets a little too busy storywise most of it works extremely well as an example of a genuinely fun summer movie that they made in the eighties and, well, I guess they don’t make anymore. That doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be. And maybe that night of Trailers From Hell was a reminder of that kind of feeling.
Washed up and drunken naval aviator Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is selected to take part in a secret miniaturization experiment, which will involve him getting shrunk down to microscopic size in an experimental pod and injected into the bloodstream of a rabbit. But the ramshackle lab is attacked by a rival lab and when the head scientist’s attempt to escape when the syringe Tuck can be found in goes very wrong he winds up injected into hypochondriac supermarket clerk Jack Putter (Martin Short) who is just about to go on a vacation in a desperate attempt to find some relaxation. But the assault on the lab resulted in the chip needed to reenlarge Tuck was stolen and Tuck uses the technology at his disposal to talk to Jack and enlist him, as well as his own ex Lydia (Meg Ryan) who stormed out on him three months before, to get the chip back from the bad guys headed by the villainous Victor Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy) before his oxygen supply runs out the next morning.
Just as he did with GREMLINS, Dante kicks off the film with the old Max Steiner fanfare over the Warner Bros. shield as if to state right off the back that this is going to be a movie-movie, an entertainment designed to take full advantage of all its possibilities of showing off his own kind of comic anarchy and Dante seems to love placing all of his actors, lead and supporting, right in his camera to take advantage of what they can do like few other directors. What’s interesting is that, at close to two hours, INNERSPACE is not only the longest film Dante has ever made, as it turned out it’s the most plot-intensive of his work as well, with a script by Jeffrey Boam (a very good screenwriter with credits including THE DEAD ZONE and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE who sadly passed away in 2000 at the age of 53) from a story by Boam and Chip Proser which cannily melds all these plot elements turning it into essentially the twisted Joe Dante version of a straight sci-fi/espionage picture. It’s tempting to make the argument that a sort of strict plot structure doesn’t display him at his best yet it’s very clear that he loves assembling these pieces together, dividing between the two distinct tones of Martin Short mayhem and Dennis Quaid observing him within the pod, managing to make it all flow together so it never feels like we’re cutting away to some guy in a soundstage somewhere. Maybe it’s the San Francisco setting or just understandable thoughts of FANTASTIC VOYAGE that spill through the brain while watching it but there’s a vague sixties-movie feel to it all the high-spirited comic funkiness and the way he continually moves his camera around keeps things continually active—if he’s setting a scene in a shopping mall or supermarket he’s going to stuff that location with balloons and whatever else he can find to fill the frame, which includes a STRANGERS ON A TRAIN reference that feels like it absolutely has to be there. And the Oscar-winning special effects—that’s right, a Joe Dante film once won an Oscar! This needs to be remembered—by Dennis Muren and others at ILM are not only remarkable but extremely well-integrated into the non-stop flow of the story (much of this effects work is actually in-camera—this would all of course be handled differently now but it’s hard to imagine it done any better), going perfectly with some of the chase scenes particularly Tuck psyching Jack up to make an escape from the back of a speeding truck. Mention should be made of editor Kent Beyda’s work in relation to all this as well and things never feel like they’re screeching to display the effects at the expense of everything else. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also key to pulling this off and while there isn’t a theme as memorable as his famous GREMLINS rag the yearning nature of its key themes provide much of the emotion and the more evocative moments during Tuck’s journey are just about as important in selling the environment as the effects are. In the middle of this packed-to-the-rafters combination of characters, effects and general Joe Dante tone the overriding goal of INNERSPACE looking at it now seems to be as a somewhat unknowing look at emerging technology with its taser guns, supermarket scanners and computer mechanisms, each of which seem to either never work right or seem to be a little too busy in what they’ve been designed to do. It plays as an uncertainty of what the future will hold and maybe a distrust of it all, though there’s no getting around hearing what Kevin McCarthy’s Victor Scrimshaw has to say in his “Space is a flop” speech which brings a suspicion that no good will ever come of all this. Maybe Dante was right on both points but it’s his suspicion of all this technology combined with the effortless way he combines it with his own style that really shows how good a director he can be.
He not only knows how to juggle a disparate array of tones in its combination of comedy and sci-fi elements but also an enormous amount of exposition to get through both in terms of Tuck’s mission before things go wrong as well as the specifics of getting the chip back. I wonder if the decision seems to have been made to partly punt and forgo explaining the specifics of Tuck’s mission in favor of telling the story visually so anyone watching the movie cold may not even know what’s going on right away. It may account for a certain distance to the narrative until Short is injected but it displays how much Dante wants to avoid having people just standing there explaining things. As deftly as he combines these elements it also reveals some of his own story limitations in terms of where his interests may have really been, with a few points slightly forgotten as the narrative looks for a place to come to a stop. I always kind of wind up losing track of Vernon Wells’ silent, one-armed Mr. Igoe when he gets shrunk down himself during the climax and it seems a mistake that such a character is given a prominent gimmick (reminiscent of Chuck Connors in 99 AND 44/100% DEAD) which he is then robbed of. It also seems strange that when Jack has to get out of the Vectorscope lab to help Tuck his own—which makes sense in the plot—we’ve just heard a few supporting characters willing to give up Tuck for dead yet when the finale comes they’re smiling just like everyone with all antagonism forgotten--actors Harold Sylvester and Mark L. Taylor are fine in the parts, but Dante never seems all that interested in them beyond serving as plot functions. Tuck Pendleton is also one of those occasional movie alcoholics who (presumably) hasn’t decided to quit drinking when the credits roll so his own predicament which was established at the beginning feels like it doesn’t really pay off. Maybe some of this reveals what Dante is really interested in and it may be what most people care about watching the film as well--when Jack gets confronted with the people in his life who he has to discard it has much more impact than any of the other plot threads involving the chips or whatever—there is something bittersweet in what happens with Short’s Jack Putter but the Chaplinesque nature of him winding up alone feels honest and the triumph in the “Jack Putter to the rescue!” declaration feels totally earned as a result.
On the DVD audio commentary Dante comments how the film was criticized for ending with what seems like a set up for a sequel---he doesn’t specify but I’m guessing the director is referring to what Janet Maslin said in The New York Times, where she basically makes this the centerpiece of her mixed review. Dante and the others on the commentary plead ignorance to this point yet regardless the final beat does in part feel like an attempt coming from studio notes to duplicate the “off onto the next adventure!” ending of BACK TO THE FUTURE a film which, incidentally, Maslin also reviewed on opening day but didn’t seem to have a similar problem with--I guess you could say Tuck helping Jack become a man has a slight resemblance to Marty McFly teaching his own father how to assert himself but whatever. I guess it could be said that storywise Joe Dante isn’t Robert Zemeckis (who is also a screenwriter, so it’s apples and oranges anyway) but since I feel conflicted as to how certain Robert Zemeckis films are aging I would never want him to be. Besides, I’d rather see a Joe Dante movie, one that pays just as much attention to its characters as it does to the groundbreaking effects, than a Robert Zemeckis mo-cap extravaganza made today anyway. Granted, when we get to Tuck somehow reshaping Jack’s face to look like Robert Picardo’s Cowboy in order to fool the bad guys things feel like they’re moving pretty far afield from what the original concept was and you can imagine a technical advisor standing there wondering, “What am I doing here again?” But considering how sharp and well-timed the entire scene that results from it is, containing the bizarre sight of Robert Picardo playing Martin Short playing Robert Picardo, it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker playing this in quite the same way—it really comes off as Joe Dante at his most free as a director as if he’s saying ‘why the hell not?’ to trying to pull off the patently absurd plot development. It gives one of his favorite actors a chance to somehow play the lead in the movie for a few minutes and is maybe one of the very best examples of how he can get finely attuned comic rhythms from actors he clearly loves seeing work together. It’s gives the film a kind of comic madness and while that may not be the sort of thing that summer blockbusters are always made of I wouldn’t want it any other way. At its very best INNERSPACE really is a Joe Dante film. And that’s what it should be.
Looked at as a twisted kind of Martin & Lewis movie (and if only those guys had ever gotten a script this good way back then—Dante seems such a kindred spirit to Frank Tashlin that he would have been just as ideal to make that version too) the two leads Dante put together in those roles fit perfectly. Dennis Quaid is perfect movie star casting for the part and makes Tuck Pendelton so vivid that it’s easy to forget he spends most of his screen time by himself. Looking at Martin Short in this film now, in what I guess was a role that was supposed to make him a huge star, it’s kind of a surprise to see him playing a relatively normal guy. As a performer Short seems to love having a tongue depressor placed in his mouth like few others with comic timing that is always impeccable. Clearly he relishes getting to scream in terror as if he was a Looney Tunes character, so he’s perfect for Dante and he totally pulls off the more sincere moments as well. Meg Ryan, not yet a big name and still possessing some of that raw cuteness she also had in the previous year’s ARMED AND DANGEROUS opposite Eugene Levy (like Short, an SCTV alum) pops off the screen with a new kind of energy when she finally gets involved and she seems tailor-made for the role of ‘spunky reporter’ as if she was right out of the 30s (I guess this is where Quaid and Ryan met, right?).
The legendary Kevin McCarthy as Victor Scrimshaw creates a hysterically lunatic blend of white-suited insanity tossed with a hint of genuine danger, clearly relishing the chance to dig into this great part he has. Fiona Lewis of STRANGE BEHAVIOR and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN as Dr. Margaret Canker is the sort of dragon lady who turns up in occasionally Dante films, sort of a middle ground between Barbara Steele in PIRANHA and Haviland Morris in GREMLINS 2, playing each scene as if she’s thinking dirty thoughts every moment of every day and loving it. And while this may not quite be my favorite film of his (what can I say, I have an undying love for GREMLINS 2) it’s possible that on no other occasion did he provide such good roles for those who essentially make up his rep company and an entire piece could be written on just the supporting cast—in addition to McCarthy there’s Henry Gibson as supermarket manager Mr. Wormwood (“You've got a great future in front of you in Retail Food marketing”), Robert Picardo as the Cowboy (and, of course, Jack Putter for a few scenes), Wendy Schaal as supermarket coworker Wendy, William Schallert as Dr. Greenbush (“Demons talk through you, not to you.”) Archie Hahn as a suspicious messenger, Kathleen Freeman as a frightening lady in the supermarket and Kenneth Tobey, given a one line part which is generally acknowledged as getting just about the biggest line in the film (if you’ve seen it, you know what it is. If you haven’t, no point in my spoiling it). John Hora, often Dante’s cinematographer, has a sizable key role as Dr. Ozzie Wexler, Orson Bean is the frazzled newspaper editor and Dick Miller makes his required-by-law Dante film appearance as a cab driver. He gets a laugh too.
The night at Cinefamily wore down with a very bizarre trivia contest involving questions that seemed designed to be impossible for even the most hardened film geek, of which there were quite a few in the crowd. I won twice. I’m not proud. One of the prizes was, of all things, the CD for Jerry Goldsmith’s score to INNERSPACE which I’ve had on quite a bit while writing this and just hearing the crescendo of the final track always makes me smile. Which I guess ties all this together, even though it really doesn’t, but it was nice to be handed that disc by Dante himself. As nice as he always is to me about this blog I still feel a little shy around him maybe because I never quite know how to express all the appreciation I have. I felt that way when I first saw INNERSPACE and now I have it again since thanks to him a bunch of die hard film buffs, some of which happened to be more well-known than others, got to have fun together in Hollywood on a Sunday night because of this website that he created create. Which I guess means that whether I want to admit it or not technological advancements can sometimes be a very good thing.