cribbs & funderburg

Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every blogger seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex.

Look, we love Funny Games (both versions) as much as anybody, but maybe it should be mentioned at some point that The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are equally interesting films. It's possible some people never tire of reading about standbys like The Shining, Breathless and The Godfather, but once a week give your palate over to the Pink Smoke and we'll recommend some films that maybe you didn't even realize were thoroughly, totally, 100% worth your attention. At very least, they're not films you'll have already read about 453 times.

joe dante, 1994.

~ by christopher funderburg ~

If you like:
AIP road movies, Rilo Kiley, Joe Dante splitting the difference between Matinee & The ‘Burbs, drive-in movie theaters, Paul Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer, Joe Flaherty.

As part of Showtime’s Rebel Highway anthology series, Runaway Daughters was one of ten films to remake a “rebel youth” flick from Samuel Arkoff’s American International Pictures back-catalogue (though several of the films ended up using little more than a title.) Robert Rodriguez’s Road Racers was positioned as the breakout hit for the series and anyone who went to a rental store in 1995 would probably still be able to instantly recognize its omnipresent David Arquette & Salma Hayek bedecked video box. Because the series happened to catch many of them at an ebb tide in their career, the roster of filmmakers brought to Rebel Highway is pretty bonkers: Joe Dante, William Friedkin, John Milius, John McNaughton & Ralph Bakshi all made films along with Roger Corman acolytes Jonathan Kaplan (Project X, The Accused) and Allan Arkush (Rock n’ Roll High School.) Unfortunately, the films are of extremely variable quality and many of the directors seem to be unclear if they’re supposed to be delivering winking camp, nostalgia pieces or modernized updates.

Dante’s film is probably the best in the series if only because of his innate talent for all three styles: Runaway Daughters blends the cinephile nostalgia of Matinee with the goofiness of The ‘Burbs with a distinctly modern knowingness. It’s a broad comedy full of deep emotions, the over-riding emotion being a love for old movies, a love for dusty archetypes and faded movie stars, for drive-in movie theaters and sullen teenager greasers, for saddle shoes and headstrong girls. The story follows a trio of teenage girlfriends trying to track down the naive one’s loutish boyfriend after he runs off to join the Navy as a way of avoiding responsibility for getting her pregnant (during her first time, no less!) It’s an episodic road movie that has no problem placing the girls in situations ranging from the silly (paranoid backwoods survivalists!) to the horrifying (ugh - rapist cops), shifting gears moment to moment with each twist of their road-trip in a stolen coup.

Half of the joy of the film is the insanely cameo-packed cast, which has a lot of fun pairing up the teenagers’ parental duos: Dee Wallace Stone & real-life husband Christopher Stone as wealthy supervision-aversion lushes, Dante regulars Robert Picardo & Wendy Schaal as a classic white-collar suburban dad and his put-upon wife, Joe Flaherty & Belinda Balasky as a pair of struggling drive-in proprietors - even Roger Corman & his wife Julie make a brief appearance as the vanished boyfriend’s folks. If you look away from the screen for one second with this film, there will be a great new performer up there when you look back: Dick Miller as a wizened private eye, John Astin & Cathy Moriaty (inexplicably unbilled) as survivalists, The ‘Burbs' Courtney Gains as one of the sleazebag cops, even freakin’ Fabian himself as Paul Rudd’s dad!

And the young cast! Paul Rudd plays a moody greaser with a leather jacket and a motorbike, his performance serving as a dry-run for his delightful turn as a perpetually exasperated, emotionally detached counselor in Wet Hot American Summer – the main difference is that in Runaway Daughters he ultimately shows some heart when his wild girlfriend, played by Modern Family’s Julie Bowen, gets in over her head. Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis (infamously achild actor in crap like the extended Power-Glove commercial The Wizard in her former life) provides the emotional center for the movie as a quirky girl buckling under the conformity of suburbia - titular trio of teenagers (rounded out by Holly Fields) is pretty dynamite, certainly charming enough to make you forgive of some of the lumpier aspects of the narrative.

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Runaway Daughters is a great cult comedy on the order of Matinee or The ‘Burbs just waiting to be discovered, but if Dante’s movie-mad affinity for the weird underbelly of suburbia speaks to you, it’s a must-see – a reasonable comparison in quality, if not precisely tone, might be the Dante-affiliated Eerie, Indiana. There’s a great gag in the film where Lewis, frustrated with her mom and wanting to just go home and cry in bed, storms off the sidewalk in their sprawling subdivision… and marches straight into the wrong house. Because every house on the block looks the same. But rest assured: whatever Dante creates, they’ll be no mistaking it for anything else on the same block, the same street, in the whole damn town.

joe dante, 1997

~ by john cribbs ~

If you like:
smart and eerily prescient political satire, smart and eerily prescient media satire, Joe Dante sans monsters, Ron Perlman sans makeup.

Points of reference:
Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty, Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit and Sweet Smell of Success, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Sidney Lumet's Network, Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, Warren Beatty's Bulworth, Dante's own Small Soldiers.

As we all contemplate the ramifications of Marvel's Civil War (for which Runaway Daughter's Paul Rudd and his Innerspace-like miniaturization abilities were enlisted), we should be reminded of another armed conflict that escalated due to its powerful instigators' stubborn refusal to simply back down. I speak of course of the standoff between governor Beau Bridges, who makes the decision to close the borders of Idaho to a convoy of pint-sized Pakistani refugees, and Phil Hartman's President of the United States, whose advisors think it would help boost his approval rating to send troops against the Idaho National Guard and force Bridges to accept the wayward immigrants. The situation is shaped into a sensationalized narrative by a CNN-like news center run by Dan Hedaya, who sells the nation on the notion that the tensions are set to erupt into a full-blown war. Events follow the newsroom's projected course as fellow red states supplement Idaho with more soldiers and America tunes in to follow the countdown of the president's 67 1/2 hour deadline (calculated so as not to preempt a popular soap opera and jeopardize the female vote).

Joe Dante's underseen gem, made for HBO as a precursor to his similarly masterful big screen military/media send-up Small Soldiers, was funny if far-fetched back in 1997. These days it just seems pertinent, taking on targets it's hard to believe weren't based on what's happening in the country right now. It's telling, for example, that Huffington Post has run articles referring to the division of Trump supporters and opponents as the "second Civil War," citing his reliance on xenophobic hypernationalism and extremist rallying. Having Bridges, a former liberal who caters to his state's conservative majority, exploit the outrage against illegal aliens for political gain - especially coupled with subplots about a dimwitted president whose cabinet makes all the decisions for him and a terrorist attack on New York City - makes the screenplay by Canadian filmmaker and satirist Martyn Burke all the more prescient. I wouldn't be surprised to hear pundits in the next month or two describe Trump's controversial use of the "orphan card."

It greatly benefitted Dante, who once said "you can't do great satire if you don't love what you satirize," that these issues weren't as prominent in the mid-90's as they are today and could still be afforded the even-handed inquiry of a fabulist (the target for destruction is the Statue of Liberty, a'la Planet of the Apes). After all, it was an angry Dante who helmed the broader and less effective TV-movie satire Homecoming for the Masters of Horror series, allowing personal rage over the Bush administration and its phony war to overwhelm the comedy. There are no bad guys in Civil War, only well-meaning idiots and the irresponsible representatives of said idiots. Having previously worked the absurdity of the Cuban Missile Crisis stand-off into Matinee's world of atomic science fiction, Dante expands that cautionary tale of national panic into a story about the impact of divisive politics in the kind of looney world where a buffoonish mogul from a reality TV show could be the one with the launch codes.

Of course he would have to access political satire through media, having previously featured a less-than-scrupulous news team in The Howling and skewering the confused ethics of mixing news and entertainment with John Glover's character in Gremlins 2, the director's earlier parody of Trump. "If it ain't on the screen, it ain't happening!" insists Hedaya, ignorant of the fact that he's the one deciding what goes on the screen. In that sense, Civil War is just as prescient in its portrayal of how today's media is critiqued, coming a decade before "The Daily Show" starting taking networks to task for their reckless presentation of the world we live in. As one wary reporter puts it: "Thank God for arrogance, lust, and greed or we'd all be doing infomercials."

Beyond its savvy spoofing, Civil War is just an impressively made film, especially considering it was done for television. Dante isn't typically tasked with juggling multiple characters in various locations, but proves to have the deftness of a Renoir or an Altman* interweaving the film's many strands. He gets incredible performances out of people who don't usually ping on my radar: Elizabeth Peña, Denis Leary, James Coburn - even Roger Corman does solid work as a member of the news team. Bridges, who won an Emmy for Supporting Actor, is particularly endearing as he pursues Peña's exasperated reporter, even muting the president's press conference addressing their dispute to try and win her back. We also got a couple of Dante staples on the cabinet (the great Kevin McCarthy and recently-departed legend William Schallert) and Phil Hartman, his version of Bill Clinton (who proved ineffectual against the restrictionist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican-run House and Senate during the mid-1990s) was possibly the finest honed caricature of a major political figure in the history of SNL. His president here doesn't get a name, which makes me wonder: is he supposed to be the same character from Small Soldiers? President Phil Fimple?

Among the movie's timeless quotes: "People vote for the sizzle, not the steak. It's only afterwards they have to bite into it." It's about time we all learn to separate the sizzle from the steak, lest we all end up on the grill.

~ JUNE 2, 2016 ~

* [Editor's note: Sure, this sounds hyperbolic, but there's no question we here at the Pink Smoke believe Dante to be every bit the equal of Renoir and Altman - naturally, they're entirely different kinds of filmmakers but I think even you, skeptical reader, can admit that Dante's most outstanding virtues require a technique and imagination completely beyond either Renoir or Altman's demonstrated capacities. The most talented sushi chef in the world can't make a world-class... I don't know... souffle? And c'mon: you don't want to be one of those people claiming Dr. T. and the Women or Diary of a Chambermaid are actually great, certainly better than Gremlins or Innerspace. Those people are clowns.]