(On Cable TV, December 2018) Many movies are entertaining, but far fewer are life-affirming. Joe Versus the Volcano is one of them. From the memorable first few moments, as a crowd of workers trudge toward a nightmarish factory to the sounds of “Sixteen Tons”, this is a special film. Tom Hanks stars as a man who, upon learning of an incurable disease, quits his job and decides to see the world before his death. In the process, he meets a girl, finds himself on a deserted island and (as one does in those circumstances) volunteers to be a sacrifice by throwing himself in a volcano. It’s really not as grim as it sounds, though—it’s charming, optimistic, whimsical and far more expressionistic than you’d expect from a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, fitting with the sometimes-outlandish material. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley manages to create a universe flirting with magical realism (people more familiar with his dour 2008 film Doubt will be shocked at how different it is) and keeps playing in this outlandish slightly fantastic sandbox, all the way up to having Meg Ryan play three different roles. Hanks is in full late-1980s charming young lead mode, while Ryan has seldom looked better with straight hair. While the inconclusive conclusion didn’t sit right with me the first time I saw it (this is the kind of film that deserves a full-fireworks kind of triumphant coda), I like it better a few days later. Joe Versus the Volcano is weird, wild, fun and heartening. Not only has it aged far better than many of its more realistic contemporaries, and it probably plays better today given the expansion of mainstream cinematographic grammar in the past thirty years.
(On Cable TV, May 2017) I’ll give you two good reasons for watching this film: Nicolas Cage and Cher. Never mind that it’s a romantic comedy set against the Italian-American Brooklyn community. Or that it’s from acclaimed writer John Patrick Shanley and veteran director Norman Jewison. Or the unpredictable, gentle nature of the plot. The focus here is on Nicolas Cage’s energetic performance, and Cher’s terrific portrait of a woman contemplating middle age with doubts. Cher looks spectacular here, but so does Cage, and Olympia Dukakis has a strong supporting role. I’m not sure there’s a lot of substance in Moonstruck, but there’s a lot of sympathy and gentle humour—the way the film climaxes, with an unusually reasonable discussion around a dinner table, is the most unusual flourish on an improbable film. But it works, and it’s charming enough even a generation later.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.