Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ebertfest 2012: Opening Night

Film festivals can be a great deal of fun, but in my experience there isn’t a lot of laughing at them, at least during the screenings.  The reason why should be eminently clear to anyone who follows reports from the major international festivals or keeps track of year-end awards chatter.  The best and most important filmmakers, and those aspiring to join their ranks, tend to make serious movies about serious subjects, leaving comedies struggling to be included in the programming.

How nice then that the 14th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival kicked off with some lighter fare.  The opener was JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, a romantic comedy that has apparently been in contention to play Ebertfest for a number of years.  Based on a statement in the post-film Q&A, I wonder if the hold-up has been technological, but more on that later.

I saw JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO when it was released in 1990.  I was on a church youth group retreat at a hotel connected to a mall in Piqua, Ohio.  Rather than spending all that time browsing and shopping, I went to the movies.  In fact, I saw two, which may have been the first time I pulled a self-programmed cinematic double feature.  (The other title I saw:  DRIVING MISS DAISY.  That I did this at 16-years-old probably says something why I’m writing about films all these years later.)

If memory serves, I was the only person in the auditorium to see JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, which would be about right since the film has long been considered a flop.  While I don’t recall seeing John Patrick Shanley’s film in 22 years, I remember liking it.  Seeing it again, I wonder what in the world in it would have spoken to me that age.  This is one weird, ambitious movie that isn’t targeted at someone who wouldn’t have had his driver’s license for long.

Tom Hanks stars as Joe Banks, a chronically ill employee at a gloomy surgical tools company where the workers trudge into the factory like extras in METROPOLIS and the fluorescent lighting sucks the vitality out of the office drones.  At his latest visit to the doctor, Joe is told that his maladies are all in his head.  He’s a hypochondriac.  Well, check that.  There is one exceptionally rare disease that is literally in his head.  Joe has a brain cloud.  He’ll feel fine until this black cranial fog stops his brain function in six months.

Joe quits his job.  Before he can decide what to do with the rest of the brief life he has left, a wealthy superconductor manufacturer named Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) comes knocking on his door with a ridiculous offer.  He’s trying to complete a business transaction with the natives of an obscure and tiny Polynesian island, but the only thing they want is a volunteer to appease their vengeful god by offering himself as a sacrifice and jumping into their big volcano.  Graynamore figures that since Joe’s on borrowed time, why not go out in a blaze of glory, so to speak, and enjoy the luxuries that the titan of industry will give him in exchange for doing him a solid.  Joe needs little persuasion to agree to the deal.

So, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO is a comedy about a nub of a man ground down by years of mindless work, made keenly aware of the precious time he’s wasted, and calmly prepared to commit suicide in what will surely be a horrifically painful death.

Somehow Shanley, who wrote and directed, spots the whimsical tone that allows most of the film not to seem as dire as that summary sounds.  The humor is rooted more in fraternal commiseration about workplace drudgeries than in screams from dark nights of the soul.  JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO doesn’t wallow in self-pity but instead uses the scenario for encouragement about the value in even last-ditch self-improvement.

Much credit goes to Hanks,who quickly gets Joe to the fifth stage of grief and adopts a devil-may-care attitude that lets the audience know he’ll be all right even if he does fling himself into a pit of molten lava.  Meg Ryan’s delightful work in three roles also lightens the load.  Ryan displays admirable range as Joe’s ditzy co-worker straight out of the classic screwball era, a brassy femme fatale whose car sports a GOOD GIRL vanity license plate on the front and BAAD GIRL on the rear, and sweet girl next door type who might give Joe a reason to hold onto his remaining days.

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO features some good laugh lines and the amusing use of deus ex luggage, but the high point is reached when Shanley drives home his message.  The crooked path from the base of the volcano to the mouth rhymes with the one Joe wearily trod to the office for years.  How is going to a job one hates any less harmful than taking the plunge into a volcano?  At least the misery is over faster in the latter scenario.  Joe’s epiphany, that choosing to stay in a longtime rut is no less ruinous than something more actively destructive, provides a lesson of hope, albeit in a strange and mildly unsettling manner.
Pablo Villaca, Christy Lemire, and Joe Versus the Volcano Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt
When I first noticed that Ebertfest would be digitally screening JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, I was a little let down.  That disappointed faded as the film played.  This was an outstanding digital presentation.  According to Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt, Warner Bros. made the DCP from the negative, perhaps for the festival, because no prints remain.  Could that be why it has taken until now for JOE to reach the Virginia Theatre?
Chaz Ebert, Ali Leroi, Raymond C. Lambert, Phunny Business director John Davies, and Kelechi Ezie 

The night’s second session began with the short THE TRUTH ABOUT BEAUTY & BLOGS.  Written by and starring Kelechi Ezie, the piece feels more like a calling card for the actress--she can write, act, sing, and produce!--than a satisfying standalone work.  It doesn’t help that the short is built around overly familiar jokes about social media and technology.

Following the short was the documentary feature PHUNNY BUSINESS: A BLACK COMEDY.  Ebertfest often has films of local interest.  This one definitely fits that slot, although the archival performance footage of a who’s who of African-American comedians who broke in the 1990s broadens its appeal.

PHUNNY BUSINESS tells the story of All Jokes Aside, a black-owned comedy club on Chicago’s south side.  Anyone who became anyone in the black comedy world came through there and likely owed it a substantial amount of credit for helping their careers.  Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, and Dave Chappelle are just a few of the recognizable names who performed at All Jokes Aside.

While the comedians have plenty of stories to share, the business side of the venture gets greater attention.  Club co-founder Raymond C. Lambert saw a niche to be served and achieved spectacular results doing so.  Black comedians might get time to practice their craft when clubs gave them one evening a week, usually with “chocolate” appearing in the name of the showcase, but they had nowhere for regular gigs.  Lambert gave them that stage in a neighborhood where their audience was.  All Jokes Aside was very successful for the better part of the ‘90s, but it didn’t last forever, although the film strongly suggests that it might have and should have survived.

PHUNNY BUSINESS is slickly assembled, at times to its own detriment when it gets off-point, and nicely detailed in explaining what made this particular business different and prosperous.  Lambert’s description of the reports he required, the research he did on potential bookings, and the rules he set for comedians illustrate how much more complicated running a comedy club could be if determined to do it properly.

Lambert is an engaging interview subject bursting with intellect and enthusiasm.  His interviews come off as overly rehearsed, but one senses that the kind of preparation he put into the documentary shoot is also what he poured into his business.  It served him well there.  It feels contrived in the film.

Joe Versus the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990):  B/70
The Truth About Beauty and Blogs (Rosalyn Coleman, 2011): C/48
Phunny Business: A Black Comedy (John Davies, 2010): B-/64


  1. Loved past Ebertfests, love Joe Versus the Volcano. But obviously you (and Mr. Goldblatt) were sitting farther back in the theater than I was. From the second row, it didn't look very good. Digital artifacts galore. On a gigantic screen at a close (but still normal) distance, digital will never look as good as film. I was disappointed. Sat in the balcony for subsequent movies and everything was fine, but it would have been nice to be warned ahead of time that a full digital switchover had taken place, especially after bragging all these years that they were still projecting from film. Opening nights used to feature 70mm, for Pete's sake.

  2. I sat fairly high up in the balcony and didn't notice any artifacts (well, other than the obvious ones on the Warner Bros. logo at the beginning).

    I am a little disappointed that nothing has been shown from a 35mm source, but the writing has been on the wall for celluloid's demise at the last few Ebertfests. Knowing how the studios are making it difficult to get prints, especially for older films, I'm not surprised by this change.