On this week’s post, I opted to go for some personal favorites, films that I think a lot more people should check out. This week’s films are:
Jonathan Lynn – Clue (1985)
John Patrick Shanley – Joe Vs The Volcano (1990)
Neither were huge films when they came out, but I don’t know that either is in danger of disappearing from the public consciousness. Both are unique and interesting films in their own way, and I’m excited to talk about them.
Let’s get into it.
A group of strangers are invited to a mansion on a dark and stormy night for dinner. When they arrive they are given pseudonyms for anonymity. They learn that everyone there is being blackmailed, and they have been invited there to confront the man who has their secrets. But when he starts handing out weapons the evening turns deadly. The guests must find out whodunit before the police arrive.
The film is directed by Jonathan Lynn, and stars a group of really talented comedians of the era, a lot of which are still active today. Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Michael McKean, and Christopher Lloyd were all accomplished comedians, and the more serious actors like Eileen Brennan and Lesley Ann Warren proved they could hang with the best. In fact, the only weak member of the cast is Lee Ving, the actor playing Mr. Boddy. It seems like he’s trying to play a tough guy, the villain essentially, but he just doesn’t fit in with everyone else, and scenes with him drag.
The film is of course based on the famous board game from Parker Brothers. The game is in the hallowed company of games like Scrabble, Monopoly and others that are the canon of American board games that never go out of print. And in the modern era, almost every film seems to be based on some recognizable property. Most of these seem completely unnecessary and superfluous, just using a name of something people know and discarding the rest. But this film happened long before that, and used the setting and tropes of the board game in order to create something new and interesting. In that sense, it is truly ‘based on’ the board game. But rather than create a serious murder mystery film, what they created was a screwball comedy, with all the fast talking, and absurd scenarios we came to expect.
The film did something else entirely unique, in that it had multiple endings. In 1985, you were able to go to a theater and see the film with one ending, and then return to the theater later and see a different ending. In some cases, different theaters would play different endings, and some theaters indicated to audiences which ending they had. Others simply left it a surprise. For the home video release, all of the endings are included with some title cards suggesting that things might have ended differently. It’s a really interesting tactic, and we’ll talk more about it as we get to the end.
The film starts slowly, introducing us to all the characters, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet and Miss Peacock. We are also introduced to Wadsworth, the butler, and Yvette the maid, along with the cook, who is never given a name, and Mr. Boddy, who seems to be aware of what is going on, while the other characters are left to guess.
The guests all sit down to dinner, and begin talking, revealing little bits of information about themselves, even while they discuss the need to remain anonymous. They learn that they all work in, or have connections to Washington, D.C. After dinner, they are all called to the study, where Wadsworth tells them he will reveal why they are all there.
The actors do a great job in this section of giving us little hints about secrets they’re trying to keep. For instance, when characters meet, there might be a little hint of recognition, or a glance revealing a connection that’s only revealed as subtext. Yvette, the maid seems to be particularly well-connected.
It turns out they are all being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy, and Wadsworth begins revealing secrets hoping to get the group to act.
Colonel Mustard reveals he visits prostitutes, Mrs. Peacock acts as a go-between to sell secrets for her Senator husband, Professor Plum slept with his psychiatric patients, Mrs. White’s husbands died under suspicious circumstances, Miss Scarlet runs a brothel, and Mr. Green is a homosexual. With the film set in 1954, the last one is a much bigger secret than it seems.
It’s important to keep in mind that this film is incredibly funny. For example, rather than have Wadsworth out him, Mr. Green stands up and announces he is a homosexual. Wadsworth’s reaction is to look over his notes intently, as if he had no idea and was going to reveal something completely different. Meanwhile, when Miss Scarlet reveals she runs a brothel, Professor Plum comes over and asks very seriously and intently where it is, and how to contact them. When Miss White is told her husband disappearing wasn’t strange because he was an illusionist, she deadpans “He wasn’t a very good illusionist.” In addition, the film gets a lot of mileage out of Yvette’s costume, which is needlessly revealing. Her obliviousness to everyone else’s reaction never fails to make me laugh.
As the secrets are revealed, Wadsworth urges everyone to turn on Mr. Boddy, reveal their secrets, and then be free. But Mr. Boddy has a different idea. He offers everyone gift boxes, which include various weapons. A noose, a lead pipe, a wrench, a candlestick, a gun, and a knife. He suggests that if they kill Wadsworth, they can all leave, and none of their secrets will be revealed. He turns off the light to facilitate an anonymous actor. But when the lights finally come back on, it’s Mr. Boddy who’s lying on the carpet.
It might be worth talking about how the board game is played. Clue is a deduction game in which players must figure out who committed a murder, where in the house it was committed, and what weapon was used. The game includes cards representing each character, room and weapon. At the beginning of the game, one card from each stack are placed in an envelope, and by moving around the board and looking at the other cards, players can figure out which ones are missing, and thereby make an accusation.
The film has setup all of these elements early on. We have the various characters, the weapons, the rooms, and now, we have a murder. It’s clear a lot of thought was put into how to weave the elements of the game into an interesting story, and then given a heavy dose of of comedy to give it a twist. To be fair though, it also helps that the themes of the game also fit neatly into a fairly standard film genre, the murder mystery. But still, a film like this will far outlast the cynical cash grabs that attempt to borrow brand awareness from other properties to bootstrap box office numbers.
Once Mr. Boddy dies, the group realizes they need to solve the murder before the police arrive, since Wadsworth has already called them. As the group deals with the shock of Mr. Boddy dying, they hear screaming, finding Yvette listening into the meeting on a tape recorder. They then realize the only person they haven’t seen is the cook, but when they go to check on her, she has already been murdered.
The group begins to panic, trying to figure out what to do. The film does a great job here of leaving certain people out of certain shots, giving them some leeway as to who the audience might be able to accuse as the film goes on. When they return to the study though, they discover that Mr. Boddy has disappeared. He wasn’t dead at all.
But Mrs. Peacock soon finds him, as she goes to the bathroom and his body tumbles out. This time, he is really dead, having been bashed in the head. Complicating matters is when people start coming to the door. A motorist in need of assistance, a police officer who saw the disabled car nearby, and a singing telegram, all of whom end up murdered, along with Yvette, the maid.
The film produces some pretty great comedy bits as it progresses, including a section where the characters split up into pairs to search the house to ensure no one else is there.
But the best part of the movie is at the end, when Wadsworth reveals the solution to the mystery. He begins by recapping the film by essentially re-enacting it, doing impressions of all the characters, and sometimes using the other actors as props. It’s an impressive performance from Curry, who essentially puts the film on his back and carries it to the end.
In general, the acting is great in this film. The actors all came well-prepared and put something great on screen. Lesley Ann Warren is particularly great as Miss Scarlet. It’s clear the character is having a lot of fun in this environment, and it really makes the film better.
And that brings us to the endings of the film. Originally, audiences would have only seen one of these endings, which seems to take up the last 2-3 minutes of screentime. But in this version, each ending plays one after another, with a title card in between stating “But this is what really happened.”
In one ending, Miss Scarlet is revealed as the murderer, and the blackmailer, using Yvette to kill Mr. Boddy and the cook, then killing Yvette herself. In the second ending, Mrs. Peacock is the murderer, and Wadsworth is revealed as an FBI agent. And in the third and final ending, each character save Mr. Green murdered one of the other characters, and Wadsworth is revealed as the blackmailed. In the final ending, Mr. Green is actually an FBI agent undercover, and has everyone arrested.
As far as the quality, I think endings A and C are both good endings, while ending B kind of falls flat. It just feels a little truncated, and doesn’t make as much sense as the other endings for me.
This is one of my personal favorite films. I have already covered several screwball comedies, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of them. They’re just a joy to watch, and this film definitely holds up to some of the best of the genre.
The only real issue of the film is if you’re expecting a legit murder mystery. Trying to follow the clues of the film and figure out whodunit before the end is essentially pointless, because the clues don’t really reveal whodunit. They’re designed so that essentially anyone could be the culprit, and the multiple endings make it even more obvious. This isn’t a mystery to be solved, it’s just a vehicle for the comedy, which works great.
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Joe works in a terrible job at a medical supply company. He works in a dingy room with no windows, his boss treats him like garbage, and he feels terrible all the time. When his doctor tells him he has a mysterious illness called a brain cloud, he is given 6 months to live. He has a sudden burst of independence, quitting his job. When a business man named Graynamore visits him, offering him unlimited money for the next month and the chance to die like a hero, he agrees. Graynamore has made a deal with a superstitious tribe to find them a heroic person to jump into their volcano, quieting their angry gods, in exchange for the mineral rights on their island. But how will Joe fare when he’s out of his comfort zone?
The film stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, in their first pairing, several years before the pairing would be come the ultimate romantic comedy couple in Sleepless in Seattle. It’s written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who is mostly known as a writer, but also wrote and directed Doubt, which was an excellent, critically acclaimed and award winning movie from around 10 years ago. In fact, this film and Doubt are the only two directing credits on his IMDb. Not a bad track record.
While Tom Hanks plays the titular Joe, Meg Ryan actually plays three different roles throughout the film. Initially, she plays DeeDee, a worker in Joe’s office. Then she plays Angelica, one of the daughters of Graynamore, who hosts Joe when he arrives in Los Angeles. Finally, she plays Patricia, who takes Joe on his boat voyage to the island. All three are very different characters, and I think show off what a great actress Meg Ryan is. I think she has a reputation for playing fluff characters without a ton of substance, but I don’t think that’s a reflection on her as an actress. I think it’s more a reflection of the era she came up in. It’s still easy for female actors to get pigeon-holed into a specific type of role, but it’s easier for actresses to branch out and do dramas, comedies, and whatever other kind of film they want without being locked out of certain roles.
I’m not well-versed in the particular tropes of the genre, but I believe that this film fits comfortably into the Magic Realism style. We have characters living their normal lives, but then fantastic elements are introduced. In this film, elements like all the women in Joe’s life looking exactly alike except for some different hairstyles, and personality quirks, or the same crooked line symbol appearing over and over again, or his luggage saving their lives multiple times could all fit into a magic realist film.
The film is also shot beautifully. In the opening credits, we see Joe walking into work. His workplace is a giant factory surrounded by mud. The workforce trudges in without looking at or speaking to each other. The inside of the factory looks grimy and unpleasant. When Joe gets to his desk, it looks straight out of Brazil…the movie, not the country. It’s bureaucratic hell, with Joe shuffling to the miserable coffee and then to his desk, all the while listening to his boss, the wonderful Dan Hedaya having an argument on the phone which consists of two phrases: “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job” and “That’s not what I’m arguing.” Joe’s desk is in the middle of a stark room with no windows, and fluorescent lighting, separated from the other employees in the office. Joe tries to mitigate this by pulling out a kitschy desk lamp with a Carribbean theme, but that’s put to an end by his boss quickly, who yells at him for not having enough catalogs to send out, when it’s his own responsibility to order them, not Joe’s. All the while, Joe complains about how terrible he feels and how certain he is he’s sick.
This section serves to set up what happens when Joe returns from the doctor, played by Robert Stack, and learns that he has a terminal illness. Joe seems almost relieved that he has a terminal illness, feeling like he was right all along. When he returns to the office, he does what everyone who’s been in a terrible job dreams of doing, he tells off his boss, quits, and then asks out the girl he has a crush on before he leaves.
That night, he goes out with DeeDee and impresses her with his new outlook. This character seems like kind of a dullard, but she also seems to be really interested in Joe. But when he finally admits that the reason he’s so different is because he only has 6 months to live, she can’t handle it, and leaves.
The next day Joe gets a visit from Graynamore, played by Lloyd Bridges. One thing this film gets really right is the cameos. Large and small this film is filled to the brim with great cameos from well-known actors like Hedaya, Bridges, Ossie Davis, Carol Kane, and even gets great performances from people who aren’t well-known actors, like we’ll see coming up.
Bridges comes in with wild eyes and really digs into his small amount of screentime. he gives Joe the big sell, and reveals some info we didn’t previously have about him. Joe used to be a firefighter, and a heroic one at that, saving three children from certain death during his career. But he had what I think most people would recognize as anxiety issues related to his close brushes with death and had to quit. This has manifested as an obsession with his health. Graynamore offers him the chance to die on his own terms, asking him to travel to the island Waponi Woo to jump into their volcano. He offers him half a dozen credit cards and promises to make his final days as good as possible.
Joe at this point doesn’t really have much to lose. His apartment is falling apart, he knows he has 6 months to live, and the woman he’s had a crush on has rejected him after learning about his health. It’s easy to see why he’d take Graynamore up on his offer and mean it.
Joe takes the day to buy clothes and supplies for his trip, splurging like he’s never splurged before. This is one of the greatest sections of the film. Joe hires a limo, who happens to be driven by Marshall, played by Ossie Davis. Davis is so good in this section of the film taking Joe under his wing after some initial hesitation. He takes fashion seriously, and when Joe initially asks what kind of clothes he should buy, he tells Joe that he can’t tell him what kind of man he is adding the wonderful line: “I’ve spent my whole life figuring out who I am and I am tired.” But eventually, he decides to help Joe, and uses his knowledge and connections to help Joe get a makeover in a really fun montage. One of the more memorable moments in this section is when Joe meets a luggage salesman who shows him a very fancy trunk, and when Joe tells him he’ll buy 4, the man responds “May you live to be a thousand years old.”
Joe spends the evening alone, really giving us a sense of his isolation. He really doesn’t have anyone in his life. No friends, no family.
When Joe arrives in Los Angeles the next day, he meets Angelica, one of Graynamore’s daughters, and another character played by Meg Ryan. This character is more of a socialite. She seems self-centered, and she informs Joe that she is not allowed to hear what he’s doing because her father doesn’t trust her with that kind of information. She wants Joe to be impressed with her, showing him around town, pointing out her paintings on the walls of restaurants, reciting her poetry for him, even offering to spend the night with him, which he refuses. That night, he spends the entire night sitting on the beach, watching the ocean. Again, the film hits home how isolated Joe is.
The next day, he meets the final form of Meg Ryan, Patricia, who is another daughter of Graynamore, Angelica’s half-sister. Her role is to take Joe to Waponi Woo, sailing on her boat. Patricia is the most realistic character of the three Meg Ryan roles, who initially treats Joe badly, but then explains her situation. She is working for her father for the first time, taking Joe to the island for in exchange for ownership of the boat they’re sailing on. She explains that she hates herself for discovering that she has a price. She reveals all this to Joe in a really nice scene as they get underway. Joe says practically nothing, while she just spills her guts in a way that suggests she’s been wanting to say these things for awhile, and feels some kind of innate trust for Joe. Patricia is portrayed as capable, but aware of her own limitations.
We see their relationship develop in the next scenes, as they fish together, and then have dinner together, where Joe reveals the real reason for his trip to Patricia. The film moves quickly here as the boat is overtaken by a massive storm. When Patricia is knocked off the deck, Joe dives in after her, then watches as the boat is struck by lightning and sinks. The lightning takes the form of the same crooked line which was the logo for the company Joe worked for, and which we see at several moments in the film.
When the storm passes and light breaks, Joe sees his four water tight trunks have floated to the top. He lashes them together as a makeshift raft, and takes care of Patricia, as she is passed out. He uses items in the trunk that seemed ridiculous when he bought them in New York, but now prove useful, like an umbrella, and a violin case bar, which contains a large bottle of Perrier water. Joe gives Patricia a capful at various times, but doesn’t seem to take any for himself. He deteriorates while Patricia heals. And in one of the more visually stunning moments of the film, Joe, delirious, stares at the moon over the ocean, and says a small prayer, thanking God for his life. It’s a major turning point for Joe.
The next day, Joe has passed out, and Patricia has woken up, taking care of him. It seems eventually they will die there, but then somehow, the two managed to float right to Waponi Woo. The Waponis see them and sail out to meet them. Earlier in the film, we learned that the Waponi culture is quite quirky, having come into being when lost Jewish settlers arrived on an already settled Polynesian island. They are known for their love of orange soda, and we can see it, as all of their clothing is made up of crushed soda cans.
Upon reaching the island, Joe and Patricia meet the chief, played by Abe Vigoda, in another memorable cameo, along with Nathan Lane playing another Waponi, long before he was well known. He’s in heavy makeup, but he’s unmistakable once he speaks.
On the island, Joe and Patricia are celebrated with a feast. There’s another funny scene in here where we see how they are prepared for the celebration. Patricia is pampered like a visiting queen. Joe on the other hand is essentially bullied and teased. It’s good natured, and ends up being a funny scene.
After the feast, it’s time for Joe to go to the volcano. The chief asks again for a hero from his village to jump in the volcano, but they all refuse. Joe, with his newfound courage, stands up, and demands to be taken to the volcano. Patricia chases after him, and upon catching him at the top, begs him not to go, telling him she loves him. He responds that that he loves her too, and it’s amazing. Then he responds that the timing sucks, and then goes to the volcano. Patricia is undaunted, telling Joe she wants to get married to him before he jumps. He objects, and she makes the point that he’ll only have to commit to him for about 30 seconds. The chief agrees to marry them, and then Patricia informs Joe that she won’t let him jump alone. She’s going with him.
This entire section of the movie is wonderful. We get great dialogue from the two main actors, and Vigoda’s deadpan as the chief is the perfect foil for the main characters.
In the end, Joe and Patricia steel themselves up and jump into the volcano. But a blast of air from the volcano hits them and ejects them out into the ocean. The volcano erupts, and the island sinks into the ocean. Again, Patricia and Joe are out in the ocean, when the magic luggage emerges from the ocean. They again lash them together, and Joe laments that he only has six months to live. Patricia finally asks what his illness is, and he tells her it’s a brain cloud. She seems incredulous, and he mutters that maybe he should get a second opinion. For the first time, someone questions Joe’s certainty that he is going to die, and when Joe tells her the name of the doctor, Patricia realizes that the man is her father’s personal doctor. They realize that Graynamore set him up.
Knowing that he isn’t going to die leads Joe not to joy, but to immediately start questioning his health, and discovering new symptoms that weren’t there a moment ago. Patricia talks him down, and shows what a positive influence she can be in his life. Not by being thoughtlessly optimistic, but by being a realistic and generally positive force. While Joe assumes they’re going to die out on the ocean, she says they’ll be fine, ending the film with the line, “It’s always going to be something with you Joe, isn’t it?”
This is one of my favorite films, and I feel like it’s very nearly forgotten. But I have hope, because the last time I saw this film it was the opener at Ebertfest, which is Roger Ebert’s yearly film festival. If someone like Roger Ebert had such a great appreciation for the film, perhaps it can survive into the next generation.
As I was watching the film this time, I started to think about what it all meant. Joe starts the film as a broken man. He’s basically given up, just surviving, a slave to the anxiety he feels about his health, assuming that his life is over. But seeing a literal end date to his life, he is able to free himself of the anxiety and try to live his life. The confirmation of death frees him from the fear of death. This is the story of man who’s world is beginning to open up. He’s able to open a door and move into a much bigger world. And in this new world, as a new person, he finds success. He is consigned to his fate at the volcano, and takes that step, but instead of having his life taken, he is essentially reborn into a new life. In a way, he is reborn twice in this film. Once when he is told he is dying, and the second time when the volcano rejects him.
And we see that at the end of the film, if left to his own devices, he’d simply return to the person that will be looking for reasons to give up. But throughout the film, he has grown and changed, and become the kind of person that Patricia can love. Now that he has her, she will remind him of the person he can be.
It’s a nice message, and a film that I hope everyone sees.
The Double Feature
These are two of my favorite films, and both somewhat obscure, but other than that, they don’t have a ton in common. One of them is a screwball comedy based on a boardgame, and the other is a thoughtful, sometimes absurd look at a man in crisis and how he gets himself out of it.
They’re both funny, but it’s clear that at their core, Clue is there to make people laugh and only make people laugh, and Joe Vs the Volcano is there to seriously examine life and give people something to think about.
I think they both succeed.
Not a ton to reflect on this summer. Just grinding away. The thing I’m most thoughtful about is the journey that Joe went on, and how in some ways it mirrors my own. I never got a terminal illness diagnosis, but a year ago this time, I was living through a really difficult time in my life, and didn’t really know if I’d ever feel better, or even normal again. But it’s a year later, and I’m looking forward to my own future at least, if not the future of the world in general.
For next week’s films, I decided to go back into animation for a week. I’ve covered several Hayao Miyazaki films already, but like the Universal Monster Movie box set I dug into a few weeks ago, I have a beautiful box set of Miyazaki films that I want to get into. So next week, I’ll be covering two Miyazaki films:
Hayao Miyazaki – Castle In the Sky (1986)
Hayao Miyazaki – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
I haven’t watched either of these in awhile, and I’m looking forward to covering them here.
See you next week.