Saturday, June 10, 2017

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (1990) (Blu-ray Review)


Label: Warner Archive

Region Code: A
Rating: PG
Duration: 102 Minutes
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.40:1)
Audio: English DTS HD-Master Surround 5.1 with Optional English SDH
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda, Dan Hedaya, Barry McGovern, Ossie Davis

In 1990 I was 17 years old, head over heels in love (okay, maybe more lust than love in retrospect) with my first serious girlfriend, and we went to the movies A LOT in those days. There were very few major motion pictures in '89 and '90 we didn't catch on the big screen, and I clearly remember seeing Joe Versus the Volcano on it's initial (doomed) run at the cinema. I'd been a Tom Hanks fan from an early age, I loved him on the TV series Bosom Buddies, and loved his early 80's comedies like The Man With One Red Shoe, The 'Burbs and Money Pit, so I was excited to see him in what looked to be a fun romantic comedy with a fairytale sort of aesthetic, and that's exactly what I got. I enjoyed it, it was quirky fun, but the girlfriend thought it was pretty stupid. That relationship failed not long after, not because she hated the movie, though that probably didn't help. What doomed it was that she apparently never quite got over her boyfriend before me, fuckin' Jeffrey Post, ugh, I hated that guy so much, but I've long since gotten over it, but not before properly making a fool of myself, I didn't have much forgiveness or dignity at 17, ha ha.

Anyway, Tom Hanks (Dragnet)stars in the movie as former fireman Joe Banks, so traumatized by the life and death rigors of putting out fires that he took on a thankless clerical job in a dreary factory, the American Panascope Company, "home of the rectal probe", a thankless job working under a tyrant boss, Frank Waturi (Dan Hedaya, Blood Simple), in an office bathed in the unhealthy glow of fluorescent lighting, which gives him a permanent headache. Joe sits at his desk, in charge of sending out company catalogs, on it sits a decorative Polynesian themed novelty lamp, festooned with a images of a tropical paradise which proves to be a fortuitous image. 

Tired of suffering from headaches, depression and fatigue, an obvious hypochondriac, Joe makes an appointment with the eccentric Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack, TV's Unsolved Mysteries), who fter running some tests confirms Joe's worst fear, that it's not all in his mind, he is dying, and not from terminal cancer or some obvious illness, nope, it's something improbably called a "brain cloud". With his worst fear confirmed and not much time left, with little to lose he reports back to work where he quits, giving Mr. Waturi a proper verbal send-off, and asking his now former co-worker, the mousy Dede (Meg Ryan, Innerspace), on a date. During the ensuing night out on the town he impresses her with his new found vim and vigor, before scaring her off just as he's about to get laid by announcing that he's terminal, which she cannot warp her head around. 

The next morning he is visited by a weirdo wealthy industrialist named Samuel Harvey Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges, Airplane!), who has been made aware of Joe's terminal condition, and he comes with a strange proposition. Graynamore needs a rare mineral that can only found in large enough quantities on the Polynesian island of the Waponi Woo, and they won't let him have any of it unless he can provide someone willing to jump into their volcano as a willing human sacrifice before it erupts. It seems no one among the orange-soda slurping Waponis are willing to make the leap for the sake of their people. Bridges is wonderfully loony as the eccentric millionaire, the offer is ludicrous, handing Joe a stack of limitless credit cards offering to make sure he lives his final days in the lap of luxury. Positing that if he's going to die why not do it in style! Joe accepts the nutty offer, and thus his whimsical adventure begins, a twenty-day odyssey leading up to a fateful nosedive straight into the heart of an active volcano, a chance to burnout gloriously rather than fade away slowly. 

Joe's hires a limo driver, played by Ossie Davis (Bubba Ho-Tep), who chauffeurs Joe around NYC, assisting Banks in dressing a bit snazzier and preparing for the ocean bound adventure, including purchasing a set of airtight steamer trunks, which save his life more than once on the fantastical adventure to come. From New York City Joe catches a flight to L.A., where he is met by Graynamore's vapid daughter Angelica (Meg Ryan again) as a spoiled brat with no identity of her own, siphoning funds off her father, she's a mess of a woman all the way around, and she must have been fun for Ryan to play. After a night out with her Joe is delivered to a boat dock where he meets up with Angelica's half-sister Patricia (Ryan again!), an adventurous free spirit not content to suck on the teet of daddy's wealth, and who only agrees to sail Joe to Waponi Woo in exchange for the title to the beloved boat, the Tweedledee. 

Along the way the boat encounters a fatal storm and Joe and Patricia finds themselves adrift at sea, but the airtight luggage explodes from beneath the waves to save the day, adrift for several days before they happen to wash up on the shores of Waponi Woo, greeted by the tribe, a strange bunch who wouldn't have been out of place on an episode of Gilligan's Island, a weird mix of Polynesian and Hebrew heritage, lead by Chief Tobi, played by Abe Vigoda, who is actually dead now, FYI. The chief's right hand man is played by the usually boisterous Nathan Lane (The Producers). There's a hug celebration, and just when Joe is about to fulfill his obligation and jump into the volcano Patricia confesses her love for him, throwing a wrench into the works. 

The movie was maligned from the get-go, it was savagely reviewed by critics at the time, even in '90 I remember people really hating it, including my own girlfriend. Remind me again why I was with her... oh yeah, nevermind, lust.  Anyway, I didn't get the hate then and I don't get it now, this is a fun romantic comedy loaded whimsy,  a fairytale of sorts not played for realism, it's a bit surreal, and there's a lover's magic about it that I love. The visuals are charming, the leads and supporting characters are wonderful, particularly Hanks and Ryan, whose chemistry is so obvious, it's no wonder they went on to co-star in the mega-hit romantic comedies You've Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle, but for some reason this one has failed to elicit the same love. I think most people were on board for the quirky romantic comedy, but the only slightly more absurd than what came before finale might have put the final nail in it for viewers. Perhaps like Hanks and Ryan's characters they were ejected from the film and left adrift at sea, but unlike the characters, viewers had no airtight luggage to come to their rescue. Hopefully this long-overdue Blu-ray will turn the tide on the disdain this movie has suffered for so long, it deserves another chance to win you over. 

Audio/Video: Joe Versus The Volcano (1990) arrives on Blu-ray from the cinema lovers over at the Warner archive with a fresh new 2017 HD remaster looking crisp and clean, in the original 2.40 widescreen aspect ratio. Grain is tight and nicely managed, colors are rich, and the whimsical visual effects look great. In a time before digital effects we get some inspired visuals, from the depressing industrial German expressionists architecture of the American Panascope Company to the kitschy Waponi people, onto some fine looking matte paintings, there's just a lot to enjoy with this new HD image. The disc has an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround audio mix that supports the visuals well, with a soundtrack featuring Ray Charles, Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66, and The Ink spots among others, plus a fine score from Georges Delerue (Biloxi Blues), with optional English subtitles. 

Onto extras, it does make me a bit sad that we're not getting a new  retrospective  featurette or interviews with the director or stars. This one bombed at the box office but I think it has a bit of a cult-following nowadays, I for one would have appreciated some new extras. They do carry-over the extras from the DVD, we get the trailer, the "Sixteen Tons" music video, and a vintage EPK with stars Hanks, Ryan and director John Patrick Shanley, but it doesn't amount to much at only four minutes.  Thankfully they've restored the original one-sheet movie poster artwork, the old flapper-case DVD artwork was a monstrosity.  

Special Features: 

- Theatrical Trailer (HD)
- Vintage Behind the Scenes Featurette (4 min) 
- Music Video - Sixteen Tons w/ Eric Burdon (4 min) 

Joe Versus The Volcano (1990) is not the awful movie it is often remembered as, it's a romantic comedy loaded with whimsy and quirky humor, and Hanks and Ryan are a wonderful pairing. If you love the movie, like myself, you've been waiting for this HD upgrade for years, if you're not a fan or maybe missed it somehow, this is worth a watch (or a re watch), this is a movie that deserves another chance to win your heart.