Sunday, January 31, 2010

Me versus a film, part rom-com, part oddball

Joe (Hanks) and Patricia (Ryan) try to figure out the film so they can explain it to me. No luck.

Tracy and Hepburn. Bogart and Bacall. Olivier and Leigh. Burton and Taylor. Just to name a few of the greatest Hollywood on-screen (and off-screen) couples of all-time.

But being a nineties kid who religiously watched Saturday night movies on television, I have an incredible soft spot for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. They have great chemistry together. Along with their million dollar smiles and plain and simple cute-as-a-button mentality, with plenty of thanks to writer and director Nora Ephron, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail skyrocketed into modern romantic comedy prominence.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), many people have not witnessed Hanks and Ryan's first cinematic collaboration in 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano. It is as accessible as an obscure foreign film, with the exception that it's in English and it's explosively wacky.

Hanks stars as Joe Banks, a hypochondriac who has a miserable office job, full of dim lights and seemingly unsanitary conditions. When he finds out that he has a "brain cloud" and is going to die in six months, he quits his miserable office job and goes on a date with the office secretary (Ryan). When the secretary finds out Joe's going to die in sixth months, she freaks out and leaves him for the night.

Then this wealthy businessman, Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), somehow heard through the grapevine that Joe is going to die in sixth months. Knowing Joe's courageous past as a firefighter and his current lonely existence, Graynamore gives Joe an offer: He'll let Joe live like a king for several weeks and in the end, Joe will have to jump into the volcano to protect this random island so he can complete some sort of business deal. Joe agrees. "Live like a king, die like a man" as they say.

Joe shops around Manhattan, buying tons of fancy stuff (wine in a violin case, expensive briefcases, umbrella, etc.) that he won't even use since he's going to die in a few weeks, anyway, so I don't really understand the logic to that. But good thing he did because they conveniently become crucial survival items much later in the film!

So Joe goes to Los Angeles (a rest stop before he goes sailing off to the island) and meets Graynamore's dependent, wannabe beatnik? daughter (also played by Ryan) who invests her time painting and writing poetry. Ryan is actually very funny in this particular role (I love the part where she reads her poem once, and then asks if she should read it again), though the plot begins to feel too episodic and weird at this point for me to fully care.

Later, Joe goes on the dock and finds out that he's going to sail to the island with Graynamore's other daughter, Patricia (also played by Ryan). She's the most normal, of course, and the one that Joe falls in love with. There is this awkward monologue Patricia says to Joe on the boat that doesn't really work for the film, though it does establish Patricia as some sort of relatively intelligent and independent young woman at odds with her father. Forced, but it serves its purpose.

Chaos ensues. A terrible storm hits, so Joe and Patricia have to spend days? weeks? floating on Joe's four gigantic briefcases. Joe and Patricia miraculously arrive on the island, only to get the royal treatment from an eager group of natives who are only too ecstatic to meet their hero. And did I mention the natives love orange soda?

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanely, who went on to adapt and direct his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt for the screen (a much better, thought-out film in comparison), Joe Versus the Volcano is an extraordinarily strange experience. It's part romantic comedy, part fantasy, part camp, part oddball. The film treads between the lines of a wicked dark comedy and an awkward screwball comedy.

I never knew what the film was trying to say or do, I just knew what was going to happen in the very end. If it had taken the twisted, unpredictable devil's path and gone with a more unconventional ending, Joe Versus the Volcano would've had a chance to be more different than it already is and at the very least, a little more interesting.

Hanks and Ryan are a likable pair here. Oh, they haven't yet reached the ultraviolet cuteness of their later roles as conventional rom-com soul mates, but they sure know how to shine even in a deep, dark hole. Another likable aspect of the film is its upbeat, mood-setting soundtrack.

Joe Versus the Volcano is supposedly a cult film and I wish it all the potential midnight screenings in the future. If you happen to be in the Joe Versus the Volcano cult, the more power to ya. But it's not my cup of tea. My dad echoed my exact sentiments upon finishing the film: "I don't get it." I'll unapolegetically take the predictable, mainstream Ephron films instead, thank you very much. C

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect...Harry Potter

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect is a series where I will be professing my love to the pop culture wonders that I discovered during this decade, but not specific to this decade.

I like Harry Potter. For the most part, at least.

Like many kids my age, I remember counting down the days until the next Harry Potter book comes out. I would wake up early in the morning and make my mom drive me to the local Costco to pick up a copy. I never bothered with the midnight parties where kids dress up as wizards and pop Bertie Bott's jelly beans. I like to have some sleep to restore my energy before I embark on the journey of spending the entire day and night reading the damn book just to know what happens in the magical world J.K. Rowling has so vividly and masterfully created.

I liked to think I was competing against everyone else. If not everyone else, I wanted to finish before all my friends did. I wanted to finish first so I could annoy them with that particular fact and constantly threaten to spoil the ending.

I jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon a bit later than everyone else. My dad was frustrated that I've never read it, so he demanded that I get a copy so I'd know what's up with the rest of the world. He was concerned that I wasn't culturally informed. My dad is one of those people who always wants me to be in the know, even though he doesn't really care about being in the know himself. That's both a blessing and a curse. Or more like an excuse to feel awesome for remembering useless information.

I was eight when I read the first book. I didn't really understand what the fuss was all about. I don't think I even paid any attention. But my dad bought me the second book, anyway, because I wanted to own it, in case I ever wanted to know what happened. I read the first few pages of the second book and put it down. Didn't get back to it until nearly a year later.

It was one of those nights when I was in the third grade when I had nothing else better to do (Yeah, I wished I were raised on the foundation that reading was considered really fun, too.) I looked over at the bookshelf and saw Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets penetrating deep into my eyes, begging me to read it...well, that's the dramatic version, at least. But anyway, I sat down, read the book, and kept on reading. I eventually finished the book within a week. Thought it was fabulous. Gilderoy Lockhart is a one-of-a-kind personality and Kenneth Branagh does so much justice to the character, since in a way, Branagh is essentially playing a version of himself.

I went back and read the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone...twice. Loved that book too. I don't know why I didn't care for it in the first place. It's a modern rags to riches story, with a magical twist. Forget the boredom of Goodbye, Mr. Chips; there is so much wonder fueled within that British boarding school that most kids wouldn't mind leaving their ordinary public schools and change into those lovely school uniforms. Harry Potter attends to Hogwarts, a school with delectable feasts for every holiday, seemingly comfy dorms, mail delivered by owls, jelly beans with unimaginable flavors, and magic at every corner. Sure, Lord Voldemort is one helluva villain, but Dumbledore always manages to save the day. So there's nothing really to worry about.

I was completely enamored with Hogwarts. It's undeniably another Narnia. I wanted to be in Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. I've always felt kind of pathetic that I was more Hufflepuff material, anyway. But Hogwarts was truly my dream school. Still is.

I had to read the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I borrowed it from my neighbor. Devoured that one within a week as well. I pretended that my milk was butterbear for the next five months. My mom bought me the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for Christmas. It is one of the most captivating novels ever to include a tournament with life-threatening dragons, dreamlike mermaids, and a raging maze. And being a romantic, I wanted to attend the Yule Ball. My cousin finished it before I did and kept threatening to spoil it. I wouldn't let her.

The fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is what I consider fantasy royalty. Although it has the reputation of being the longest (some might say, slow) Harry Potter novel, it is also the most fully-realized. It's not merely escapism anymore; it's a story about these characters that I have gotten to know and love. The scene where Neville Longbottom visits his parents at the hospital is what great, emotional literature is made of. It broke my heart that Rowling never seemed to reach the same height of brilliance.

It all went downhill. Some Harry Potter fanatics might disagree, but to me, the fifth book fueled me with such expectations that the sixth and seventh books were never able to satisfy. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows always felt like, at least to me, a sad mirror image of my childhood obsession. Sure, there are plenty of novels that are much worse, but the most devastating tragedy is to realize that everything could have been better.

Half-Blood Prince reads like above-average fanfiction. The overwhelmingly moronic teen romances, the ridiculous, one-brain subplot, etc. I disliked the book so much that I actually found the film adaptation a rather pleasant surprise. The film was able to cut all the snogging fest and focus on the magic and suspense of Hogwarts. That was what made the film brilliant: it emphasized what Rowling did best.

Deathly Hallows is a hallow disappointment. Sloppy, coincidental, and infinite pages of three bickering teenager camping out in various middle-of-nowheres. I couldn't care less.

Unlike many fans that I personally know, I completely enjoy the films as much as I enjoy the books--even more so, in the case of Half-Blood Prince. The films are better than most children's fare because they are clear-cut epics with the wonderful ability to shut the kids up. I remember watching Half-Blood Prince with a theater full of kids and for those two and a half hours and barely anyone made a squeak.

I am also continually impressed by Alan Rickman, who plays the sinister Severus Snape with such sarcasm, wit, complexity, and presence. Snape is my favorite Harry Potter and always will be. He's extraordinarily complex and conflicted. He has everything that a great literary character should have.

There is also the question on why Hermione would ever choose Ron over Harry. Or why Harry would ever choose little Ginny Weasley over Hermione. It makes no sense to me, whatsoever. Ever since I read the first book, I jumped on the Harry and Hermione bandwagon. They were the first couple I've ever shipped. And, I'm always glad to see how much chemistry Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson have together.

But despite my slight qualms, I like to remember Harry Potter in its full-fledged glory. Rowling has created a world for the ages and no one can ever take that accomplishment away from her.