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Joe Dante

Review: Small Soldiers

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

About halfway through Small Soldiersit struck me: just who is this film’s audience? On the surface it’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy turned nightmare, a “War Toy Story” with a pair of spunky teenage heroes in the line of fire. But there’s another film here too, a consumer satire crammed with pop culture references and movie quotes aimed at much bigger kids – well, adults actually.

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Review: Gremlins

Zach Galligan and Gizmo

There is a moment early in Joe Dante’s The Howling (’81) when the heroine, a TV reporter on the trail of a mad killer, steps into a phonebooth in a very dark corner of L.A. nighttown. As she checks in with the cops on the periphery of the hunt, she fails to notice that a man has appeared behind her, just outside the booth. He bulks there, sinister, back to her and to the camera, till she finishes her call and prepares to exit. Then she sees him, gasps, draws back. He turns, favors her with a what-the-hell,-lady? look. She edges out of the booth; he steps in. He was just a guy waiting to use the phone.

For the casual viewer, a standard horror-movie tease; for film buffs, something more. The anonymous lurker happens to be none other than schlockmeister-supreme Roger Corman, the producer and studio boss under whom Dante apprenticed in the movie business. OK, an inside joke. But Dante’s jokes have layers and layers. This one’s an in-joke for superbuffs like Joe Dante himself, because it also refers to a specific movie moment. Back in 1968, when Roman Polanski worked a similar phonebooth tease in Rosemary’s Baby, the menacing/innocuous presence behind Mia Farrow turned out to be that film’s producer, former schlockmeister-supreme William Castle.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Howling’

The same year that  An American Werewolf in London opened up the possibilities of the werewolf horror with a mix of black comedy and horrific transformations, Joe Dante went a different direction with The Howling (Shout Factory). Working on lower budget, Dante discarded the usual lone wolf route to frame the drama in terms of the wolf pack. His wolves weren’t mad dogs on the rampage, but a primal force balancing survival with primal urges.

Dee Wallace, just a year before making E.T., stars as an investigative TV reporter recovering from a brush with a serial killer in a retreat called “The Colony,” a mix of new age commune, primal therapy, and red meat culture run by psychiatrist Patrick Macnee. It also happens to be the hub of a werewolf pack that quickly adds her husband (Christopher Stone) to their ranks, transforming the easy-going vegetarian into an aggressive, meat-eating hunter in the process.

It’s more clever than compelling, to be fair, an interesting take with inventive effects (thanks to Rob Bottin), impressive moments of horror, an undercurrent of dark humor, and an earthy, feral sensibility. John Sayles (who previously wrote Piranha for Dante) came with Dante from the Corman movie factory and contributes a clever script (adapted from a novel by Gary Brandner) with some character nice touches in the supporting roles and a modicum of wit in the dialogue.

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Watching with Joe Dante, director of ‘The Hole’

Joe Dante

Joe Dante graduated from the Roger Corman School of Practical Filmmaking, honing his craft on drive-in movies like Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and Piranha (1978) before graduating to such pop-culture genre riffs as Gremlins (1984) and Small Soldiers (1998), not to mention Gremlins 2 (1990), one of the funniest movies of its generation. All of those films are largely defined by his love of movies and offbeat sense of humor, and he’s brought that sensibility to his latest feature, The Hole, a horror film for family audiences that he shot in 3D. With film’s release on Blu-ray and DVD this week (in standard 2D only), we got the chance to chat with Dante by phone to discuss The Hole, his college collage epic The Movie Orgy, which has been playing in special screenings around the country, and his love of movies.

What are you watching?

Between my DVD collection and Turner Classic Movies, I sort of miss the whole… I grew up in an age where you turned on the TV and there was a movie on, and you never knew what it was or you didn’t catch the beginning of it or whatever, and you discovered movies that way. Now I have this huge DVD collection and I can see any movie I want anytime, and somehow it’s still not as exciting as just turning on the TV and seeing what’s one. So let’s see, the last DVD I ran was… Curse of the Demon, actually. I’m involved in a semi-remake of it, so there was a good reason to watch it. Movies that I really love, I find that I can’t watch too often because I get to know them so well that I get too… I’m the kind of guy who, if I haven’t watched a mystery in a long time, I won’t remember who did it and I get to re-experience the whole thing over again. So I don’t like to be too up, seeing things five times a year. I try to try to spread it out.

Do you still  get to the movie theaters?

I do. I’m one of the hold-outs of my generation. I actually go to the movies almost every weekend and I usually see at least two pictures. I miss the old double bills. When I was in college in Philadelphia I would go to double bills and triple bills all day long, and then at the end of the day I’d go home and watch movies on TV. (laughs) One day I saw 15 movies, in the space of one day. Which is pretty hard to do.

So why The Hole and why shoot it in 3D?

The Hole is a picture I made because I was offered a lot of horror movie and generally they were not very good and this one had good characters and didn’t go where I thought is was going to go when I read the script. I’d seen some other movies that were similar to this and I thought, I know what’s going to happen, and I was generally surprised that that’s not what it was about. I liked the characters, I like the argot, I liked the way they talked. And even though it was a very small movie with a cast of six and three locations, I said to the producers, “Why don’t you make this film in 3-D? I think you could use it to pull people in instead of throwing things at them. You could open into the story and open into the basement, essentially.” And they went for it. Did you see it in 3-D?

Sadly no. It has not played theatrically in Seattle at all and I watched it from a DVD.

They’re hoping that an Atlanta opening in four theaters at the end of the month may do well enough to be able to expand it. At least I hope so.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Pandora’s Technicolor Box and More Shameless Knock-offs From Corman: DVDs of the Week

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.

All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.

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Review: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 3]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 2” here.

How do you feel about writing these low-budget films? Do you see advantages in it, or are you hungry for millions of dollars per budget?

If I had millions of dollars I’d probably make millions of small films. Part of it is what I’m good at. I’m not real interested in being a field-marshal. I recently wrote a thing that isn’t going to get made because of budget reasons, that Steven Spielberg was going to produce. And he’s really good at having a huge project and is really a good organizer, and he’d probably be a good administrator—not a great politician but a good administrator of huge programs, because the things get made and things happen. I’m not interested in that or real good at that. The things that I want to do can be done more cheaply, and might as well be done more cheaply. It goes against my grain to see money that should be going on the screen going up in overhead and the cocaine budget.

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