Clue (1985)

Whenever I meet a fellow lover of film, I’m always interested in finding out which movies had a sizeable impact on them in their youth. You inevitably get some of the same responses, assorted Disney films, The Goonies, Star Wars, etc., and those are all well and good—certainly cinema deserving to be on a list of this nature—but I like hearing about those one or two films that squeak on the list, making theirs exclusive. Now, I don’t pretend to be a unique snowflake in the realm of film buffism, but the two that don’t necessarily fit the bill for childhood favorites for me are Big Trouble in Little China (soon to be reviewed), and the film that I’m sure you have guessed by now that I am posting today, Clue.

I don’t know how I came to view Clue for the first time. It certainly doesn’t seem like a movie I would have picked off the shelves during that time of my life. I suspect that my parents rented it one night due to the amazing cast of character actors and comedians that help bring the film to life in such a vivid manner; whose verbal dexterity and understanding of timing in relation to wordplay help make the dialogue so snappy and the speed in which its bon mots are spat almost dizzying in certain scenes. They have always been fans of Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles), Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap), and Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati), so this is a strong possibility. Or, I could have seen that it stared Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown himself, and pushed for the rental. Either way, from that point on Clue was a mainstay in the Edwards’ household—for a rather long stretch, it was rented every weekend it was available—being watched multiple times a day, multiple times a week, a practice my sister would ultimately see my bet and raise me on when she got old enough, taking it to levels that would make it hard for even me to sit through another viewing.

Under the guidance of screenwriter John Landis (The Blues Brothers) and director Jonathan Lynn—a veteran British sitcom director whose high points in film include both this and My Cousin Vinny, but that’s about it—the story plays out as a deft blend of slapstick and wordplay, a direct descendent of the screwball films of Hawks and Sturges, all the while tinted as a comedy of manners. Every type of humor is employed in its scant 96 minute runtime, even getting in a couple of well-timed (remember, it takes place in 1954) political and topical jabs, making it one of the more well-rounded comedies of the ’80s. Set amid the turmoil that McCarthyism and the Red Scare provided our country, Landis and Lynn’s screenplay brings together 6 seemingly unconnected individuals at a secluded and threatening (it’s even frightening to inanimate objects like motor vehicles) New England mansion, all drawn in due to the mysterious letter all received. Each is met at the door first by two snarling German Shepards, then, more comfortingly by the butler of the residence, Wadsworth (played with vigor by Tim Curry), then finally ushered to drinks and h’orderves served by the housemaid, Yvette. Once all the guests have arrived, small talk ensues over dinner where they begin to learn of the important, connective tissue of their situation: how they all work in Washington, D.C., how they are all seemingly being bribed by their host, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), and how Mrs. Peacock’s (Eileen Brennan) love for monkey’s brains put her in league with the Cantonese. Before too long, the corpses start pilling up along with the laughs, each murdered by the twisted party gifts the emcee sees fit to bestow upon them—a noose, gun, wrench, pipe, and knife—and our flummoxed partygoers must work together to figure out who the killer is, hopefully before they become the next victim.

Now, admittedly, the plot of Clue is razor thin, with the hunt for the murderer allowing Landis and Lynn the opportunity to concoct cuckoo set pieces, string together funny bits of business from each of the characters, and set up the unique box office hook of the film, in which the audience could see different endings at different theaters*. In most cases, this would act as a detriment to the film, but here, it works nicely, allowing the performers to fashion an undeniably effortless repartee and keep the pace quick, not allowing the viewer to get bored with the proceedings. Set-ups and punch lines come at the viewer in rapid-fire succession, with everyone getting in on the action and having a chance for their own particular talents to shine, leaving the audience feeling a bit lightheaded from all their laughter. Clue is a true ensemble in every sense of the word, making it, for all practical purposes, impossible for any fan to pick out their favorite performers. If I had a gun pointed to my head (or a noose around my neck) I would have to pick out 3 in the cast of 9 principle actors to highlight:

  1. As Wadsworth, Tim Curry has never been better, no small feat in a career that has spanned 218 titles and 6 decades. The breakneck pace in which dialogue is spewed never sounds better than when coming from him, and it’s always a treat to see the actor prance around the set nimbly, becoming more and more flustered as death seems to be closing in on both him and his party guests. Curry also has the most important role in this adventure as he acts as a tour guide of sorts for both the guests and audience, allowing everyone to keep up with the twists and turns of the story. In the clip below (warning: its spoilery), Wadsworth tells Ms. Scarlet (Leslie Ann Warren) exactly why she won’t be able to see her nefarious plot to completion, all the while with a wink of the eye and wonderful sense of energy.
  2. As Mrs. White, the late, great Madeline Kahn simultaneously creates the most oddly sympathetic and hilariously original take on the Black Widow character in comedic history. It’s a performance that isn’t as flashy as some of the others; instead, Kahn makes the correct decision of lying in wait, rearing up and repeatedly striking at just the right time to generate maximum impact with her line readings. Whether it be her off-kilter way of singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or in delivering her now famous, improvised speech about her HATRED for Yvette (see clip below), it’s a powerful achievement in comedy, one that reminds us that she was taken from us much too soon.
  3. Fact: Before he became known to the masses as the Red Roof Inn spokesman, Martin Mull became a legend in his role as Colonel Mustard, a Pentagon worker with a predilection for women of ill repute. Mull plays Mustard as a man who thinks he’s much smarter than he is, nearly always at the loosing end of verbal warfare, sometimes even going as far to disprove himself or his position in the very sentence he hoped would sway others to his way of thinking. He’s also prone to giving instructions on not to do something, oftentimes while doing the thing the instructions categorically prohibit. He also hates chandeliers. None of the clips I had in mind to highlight his character are available online. In fact, there is a surprising dearth in Mustard clips, period. What the hell Internets?!

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Yvette for a minute. Played by veteran character actress Colleen Camp (Apocalypse Now), this French tart becomes the bouncy, buxom maid that everyone wishes to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with. As with most males who watched Clue at a young age, Yvette certainly captured my “thoughtfulness”, holding it without reason or regard whenever she was onscreen. This has nothing to do with the depth of her character, she’s only playing a cipher that’s called on to do two things, make woman hate her, and men pay attention to nothing else when in her orbit. Camp exceeds in this charge with great aplomb.

Sadly, Clue was a box-office failure upon its release, but it has been able to amass a rather copious cult following over the years, recently even sparking remake interest from the likes of director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean). It’s beautiful, painstakingly detailed period set would be shuttered and later bought by the producers of Dynasty and used as the fictional hotel, The Carlton; its props and furnishings would go back into the private collections they were on loan from, including items on loan from the estate of Theodore Roosevelt. So that’s something of a compliment, I guess, having items of a president on set having been entrusted to a film crew. The film was ahead of its time in a more dubious fashion, being the first cinematic adventure to be based on a board game, predating the bomb that was Battleship and the future terribleness of Candy Land by 27 years. What Landis and Lynn understood was that Clue, while based on a Hasboro/Parker Brothers property, had ties to film due to its basic murder mystery plot that had been used for countless movies prior, the pair even going so far as to style their own effort after Murder By Death, Neil Simon’s genre benchmark effort. A movie like Clue couldn’t be made today, the studio would insist of casting a model as Yvette, and some musician making a horrible, eye-rolling acting debut as one of the party guests. The scatological humor would be ratcheted up along with the “football to the groin” style humor we have come to expect from lazy screenwriters. Nope, no need to remake this one Hollywood, why don’t you focus your attention on a comedy that had potential and didn’t cash in on it, and keep your mitts off of Clue. After all, we fans aren’t the stupidly optimistic type and we all know what happens to people who are. If you don’t, just ask Mrs. White.

-David

*In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions that the newspaper ads for the film contained the letters A, B, or C, denoting which ending would be shown in which theaters.

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At The Drive-In: The Avengers (2012) & Battleship (2012)

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There’s a part of of movie history that’s fading out of America very quickly. The drive-in movie theater was once a thriving aspect of film exhibition with over 4000 screens nationwide. Today the number has dwindled to under 350. This is probably due to urban expansion forcing the drive-in business out to rural areas. Showing movies usually requires darkness, a rare thing if you live in a large city where all street lights and storefronts shine brightly all night. Driving up South Blvd. in Charlotte the remnants of the Queen Drive-In still remain. The Seattle Space Needle-like iron tower marquee still stands tall on the corner, rusting in place. The theater closed for good in the late 70s due a very strong wind blowing the screen over during, ironically, a showing of Gone With The Wind. The former site of the theater is still an open space, but it has mostly been taken to make a parking lot for a nearby light-rail station. Up until the late 80s, there were at least 8 drive in theaters in Charlotte city limits. Today all of those screens have gone dark. So to get to a drive-in, we drove an hour from home. Well worth it if you are tired of being crammed into mutli-plexes for big summer releases.

I had never been to a drive-in movie theater before so I really didn’t know what to expect when my girlfriend and I arrived at the Badin Road Drive-In in Albemarle, NC. This drive-in has 2 screens, we had chosen the double feature of The Avengers & Battleship. It only cost us $12 for the both of us to see two first run movies. Already this has a leg up on conventional theaters just on the price. This was Memorial Day weekend, so expecting a huge turnout we arrived around 6:30pm. There were only a few cars there when we pulled up, but soon there was a line out into the road to get into the theater. While it true that we waited over two hours for the first movie to start, it gave us time to actually talk to each other, read, listen to music and just relax in general in the comfort of my own car. I wonder if all those people who show up for a big movie 10 hours in advance to sit on a theater hallway floor to get good seats know that there is a better way to go? I was expecting some box speakers on posts, but the theater broadcasts the film soundtracks on AM & FM radio stations. So if you have a killer sound system in your car, you may get a better quality presentation that in a conventional theater. The screen we were facing was the bigger of the two, which looked to be at least 50 feet tall. With the theater filling up with cars and the sun going down The Avengers was about to hit the screen.

After Disney’s (that’s right people, get used to it) The Avengers burst open the summer 2012 summer movie season with a jaw-dropping 200+ million dollar opening weekend, I was of course immediately skeptical that the movie was any good at all. I didn’t think that the hype was that huge on Avengers, but I guess people had been waiting for this for a long time. I had seen all of Marvel’s prior movie offerings leading up to The Avengers, so I was well prepared. Some actors shine more than others in The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. continues to bring his signature quick wit to the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man (sorry for spoiling the secret identity there). Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and newcomer Mark Ruffalo, as Captain America, Thor & The Hulk respectively, are serviceable in their superhero persona. Scarlett Johansson does a great job showing off her superpowers as Black Widow, having boobs and shooting guns. The story itself was a good starting point for the franchise, but anyone who has read some of the latest stories to come from House Marvel knows there is the potential for some truly great films in the future. Secret Invasion, anyone?

After a brief intermission, the second half of the double feature started. I had no expectations that Battleship would be any good at all, so it was no letdown when it sucked. Movies that are based on board games automatically have almost no chance of succeeding, though apparently Real Steel (aka Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots) was a decent flick. Battleship suffers from some of the worst non-acting I’ve ever seen in a summer blockbuster. Even worse than Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day. Rhianna was cast in this movie originally just because they wanted her forehead to play the aircraft carrier, but that fell through when she kept getting acne breakouts which caused the planes to crash upon landing. It got messy, so they just gave her a small tough chick role instead. Where are you when I need you, Michelle Rodriguez? I’m sure to get some flak for this one, but the disabled war veteran with replacement metal legs (aka black man angry at the world) has got to be given a cameo instead of a major role. The man delivers lines with zero emphasis. I didn’t actually think that was possible, but he did it. I have respect for all soldiers and veterans, but they should respect us as well and not subject us to the worst acting of the year. I smell a Razzie for for each of them. Liam Neeson shows up to provide a glimmer of hope that this isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s just not enough. Director Peter Berg, who has directed a few movies, all better than this, relied a bit too much on the fact that watching dots appear and disappear on a radar is exciting with the right music behind it. It isn’t. He’s not James Cameron, and this was NOT Aliens. I will give the movie credit for having some great sound. My car shook from the bass, that’s not easy to do with factory speakers.

When the credits rolled on Battleship it was around 2am. Less than 2/3 of the cars that were there when The Avengers started remained. Despite sitting through the waste of time that Battleship was, I still thoroughly enjoyed my experience. It is a unique thing to have a movie screen completely fill your car windshield and look out your sunroof to see a plane fly by overhead. Is it ever too cold in a movie theater? At a drive-in you have climate control on your dashboard. Did I mention that they have a grill at the concession stand with some damn good burgers and milkshakes? I’m all but ready to ditch indoor theaters completely. The only catch? Movie selection is very limited in the drive-in, though some places run triple features(!) for only $6 on select weekends. There are 4 operating drive-in theaters within an hour of Charlotte. I would highly recommend seeing if there is one in your area that still operates. Help keep this part of American movie culture alive!

-Wes