(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 TV, November 2017) I’m usually a good audience for romantic comedies and science-fiction movies, but Kate & Leopold falls flat in ways that have to do with an incompetent blending of genres. Even as a time-travel romance (a surprisingly robust category), it falls short. It really doesn’t help that Hugh Jackman signed up to play an essentially perfect character, plucked from history to serve as a romantic partner for an incredibly bland heroine played by Meg Ryan back when Meg Ryan was the it-girl for any romantic comedy. While I can understand Jackman’s enthusiasm for a role in which he is flawless, it doesn’t make for good cinema. Kate & Leopold’s romantic aspect seems rote and featureless, while the time-travel elements scarcely make sense. Not only does it have to do with falling through temporal anomalies by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (!), there is something deeply dumb about elevators not running properly because their inventor has travelled to the present. By the time hero and heroine travel back in time for good, we can barely muster up enough energy to formulate a perfunctory “I give them six months … or really I give her a year before she’s dead.” To be fair, little of the film’s flaws have to do with its lead actors: Jackman is charming no matter the situation, while Liev Schreiber gets an oddball role as a nerd matchmaker far removed from the tough-guy persona he has since developed. (Amusingly enough, look closely and you’ll see Kristen Schaal, Viola Davis and Natasha Lyonne in very small roles.) While it’s worth remembering that romantic comedies aren’t really watched for plotting or even logical consistency, Kate & Leopold does very little in more crucial matters of characters, dialogue, comedy or struggles to outweigh its serious narrative issues. As a result, it feels both flat and insubstantial—with very little to make it worthwhile except for Jackman coasting with a flawless character performance.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Back when Meg Ryan reigned supreme as America’s Sweetheart, the idea of pairing her with American Everyman Tom Hanks seemed like a natural fit, and why not? Seeing Sleepless in Seattle, the result speaks for itself. Unusually structured (the two main characters barely meet for much of the movie) but successful thanks to some wit along the way, the film doesn’t revolutionize anything as much as it shows two actors at the top of their game. A lot of it feels like filler, as befits a narrative that holds back reunion for a climax—there’s some back-and-forth about Ryan’s character “settling” for a comfortable life that feels particularly dragged-out. Still, Sleepless in Seattle remains a bit unusual even twenty-five years later. Some of the father/son dialogue is clever, and the way the film moves forward is almost enough to sidestep how contrived it is. Relying on tired clichés about true love, love at first sight and soulmates destined to meet, it’s not a particularly inspiring movie, but the charm of the two lead actors somewhat compensate for a manufactured hollow core. It’s squarely within the confine of the romantic comedy subgenre, but Sleepless in Seattle does play well with familiar elements, and casts them in sufficiently unusual situations that it almost feels fresh again.
(On TV, December 2015) I heard about Addicted to Love long before it showed up on my noteworthy-films-of-1997-that-I’d-missed list. This is, after all, the one where America’s-Sweetheart Meg Ryan ends up playing a short-haired psycho stalker with a fondness for riding motorcycles and making a reference to “a blast of semen”. This is the one where Matthew Broderick turns out to be an equally-obsessed psycho stalker who can’t let an ex-girlfriend go and instead lives into an abandoned building next to her apartment to keep a constant eye on her. This is the film where their characters team up to destroy the life of two rather nice people in the hope that they’ll either suffer or crawl back to them. (I’m sure there’s a fantastic essay somewhere on the web that explains this film’s ludicrousness in excruciating details.) Romantic comedy? So it claims. The bigger problem, though, is that Addicted to Love shows signs that if could have been much edgier, but deliberately holds back. Did Ryan and/or Broderick impose limits on how dark their characters could be? Did the script fall into the hands of a director unwilling or unable to follow the story where it need to go? Did the screenwriter lose his nerve? I’m not sure and while the result on-screen plays considerably better than what you’d expect from the above summary, there’s a sense that it doesn’t go as deep as it needs to. Still, what we get is interesting enough: There’s some inventiveness to the light/voyeurism motif (the protagonist is an astronomer and one of the film’s big gadgets is a camera obscura), some of the scenes are crazy enough to be funny, Tcheky Karyo is good as the nominal antagonist of the piece (yet a more mature character than everyone else) and the film predictably wraps up with a big happy romantic bow. Addicted to Love is not too bad, but it’s not quite what it could have been. For a 1997 film, though, it doe still have some interest, especially considering how it plays off Meg Ryan’s once-unassailable persona as a romantic ingénue.
(On DVD, March 2005) It would be too easy to dismiss City Of Angels as romantic clap-trap about angels, impossible fairytale romance and cheap existential questions. It would be even easier to dismiss the film as a slow-moving morass of fabricated sentiment with an unclear mythology and a script that couldn’t be more obvious if it included subtitles about the screenwriter’s intentions. But to do so would be to ignore, unfairly, the delicious frisson of wonder at some of the film’s visuals: The “angels” watching over Los Angeles like so many dark crows. The idea that angels hang out at libraries (oh, c’mon; even stone-cold atheists would like this one to be true). The handful of scenes that make you go “hey… that’s nice.” Dennis Franz’s performance as a fallen angel who has learnt to appreciate life. Granted, in order to get to these things you have to suffer through love scenes between Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. (Ergh.) And possibly fast-forward through chunks of the film. And certainly try not to giggle at the splat-ending, or the contrived death scenes. But even cynics may find two or three things worth keeping about this film, and that’s almost two or three more than they would expect.